You are hereKill or Cure: a session with el Brujo

Kill or Cure: a session with el Brujo


I enjoyed reading  Josh Gerak’s recent story in I-O , of his meeting with a ‘Curandero in Guatemala’ and it brought to mind the time I visited an Ecuadorian witchdoctor and I wasn’t even sick.

We had been out for a drive up the Pan-Am highway, to the north of Quito and had stopped at  Iluman, a small  off- the-road Ecuadorian village. We, being myself, the young lady I was seriously courting and her two female friends who were unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally?)acting as chaperons.

One of the girls, who had studied anthropology and spoke Quechua, had heard that there was a Brujo (male witch) of some renown, living in the village and our curiosity had been aroused. El Brujo’s oficina – which is how a local had described it when we had asked directions - was the last house at the far limits of the village and occupied the ground floor of an unfinished, two storey, adobe house.

Finding  the oficina without difficulty we were intercepted at the entrance by an ancient, gnome- like figure, wearing a heavy, midnight blue poncho and sporting the traditional pigtail of the indigenous folk of that region. He informed us that he was el Brujo’s Ajudante (assistant), and that his master was busy with a customer. Peering through the open door into the smoke filled interior, I made out the figure of a rather large woman, squatting on a wooden bench, being spat-upon by a man with a bottle in one hand and a bunch of green twigs clasped in the other.

The witchdoctor’s assistant ushered us away from the entrance, explaining that if we required a consultation we should return in one hour, bringing with us a bottle of Pico (truly horrible local sugarcane alcohol) and an egg each, which he informed us, could be bought in the village shop and he would be delighted to guide us there and, no doubt - I thought - to secure his commission on our purchases.

The shop was a primitive affair offering tins of sardines, a woven basket full of eggs, balls of white cheese, tied with hemp, bunches of mysterious herbs  and two open cases of Pico, all displayed on a wooden plank, balanced on two stacks of adobe bricks.  Ampara, our anthropologist, having inside information on the alcohol and egg procedure said we should ensure that the eggs were not hardboiled. I chose two at random and dropped them on the floor - much to the consternation of el Ajudante – to confirm their freshness.  We paid for a further four and at Ampara’s suggestion we took an extra bottle of the booze - one for the consultation and one for el Brujo as part payment.

We returned just as the large woman, who I had observed being spat-upon, was happily thrusting a bundle of dirty bank notes into the very man’s hand who I had seen abusing her. Quite prepared to answer our questions, she told us that she visited Iluman regularly, to cure her acne and any other ailments currently afflicting her. On that particular occasion she was there for a two-for-the-price-of-one cure; for her acne and a broken heart. The acne was still very much in evidence but, by the way she began ogling me,  the broken heart had certainly been mended.

El Brujo was an Andean Indian of undetermined age, dressed in the white, three quarter length trousers and cloth sandals of the Otavalo  Indians,  a white collarless shirt and a decrepit red, sleeveless, woollen sweater. He was not in the least bit concerned to see three well-dressed city girls and Gringo (foreigner) on his doorstep. He had a bottle of Pico in his hand and appeared to me to be under its influence.

We crammed into  the mud floored room, which stank of smoke, bad eggs and sour, cheap alcohol. As there was nothing ailing any of us, the girls decided that I should play the sick man with a strained back muscle. He accepted our bottles and chose only one egg,  which he passed to el Ajudante. The girls sat squashed together on the one wood bench available and I remained standing in the middle of the room. In Quechua and comical sign language, Ampara invented a story explaining how my back problem had occurred. He listened patiently while continuing to sip from the bottle. Being a bit sceptic about the miraculous healing powers of so-called healers, I was finding the whole thing rather amusing – that was until el Brujo ordered me I had to take off all my clothes.

 Now this was not at all what I had been expecting and I flatly refused. Through Ampara, he  explained that the cure would not work unless I was naked. But there was no way I was going strip naked in front of four females, who, in my opinion were beginning to take the procedure seriously. Their waiting outside was out of the question as I could not understand a word of what was being said. Following a rapid exchange of Quechan between the two, Ampara said the treatment could still work if I wore just my underpants.

Rather than appear the killjoy I reluctantly agreed, but insisted in keeping my boots on as el Brujo and el Ajudante had a nasty habit of continuously  gobbing on the already filthy mud floor. In retrospect, I would have looked better stark naked, as it was only as I was getting undressed I realized  that in my hurry to get ready that morning  I had jumped into the only fresh underwear I could find. There I was standing in front of the girl I was desperate to impress and her two mates, in a pair of  battered, calf-length, brown boots and a pair of Union Jack, polyester ‘ Y ‘ fronts, which I had recently won in a raffle and had meant to throw away.

As If I was not already red in the face from embarrassment, the next thing the witchdoctor did, after taking a full mouthful of the Pico, was to spit it out all over me. I was about to get indignant but Ampara informed me this was probably part of the treatment. If you have ever had the misfortune to visit a tannery, you will know how bad I then smelt. As if that was not unpleasant enough, he then commenced to whip me with a bunch of twigs and nettles el Ajudante had handed him. It was not only my face which was now crimson –  the whole of my body was burning and then came my throat, as el Brujo insisted I also took frequent swigs of his Pico. I would have fled the room half naked, if it was not for the girls who were now totally engrossed in the proceedings and seemingly oblivious to my suffering.

When the castigation was finished, el Ajudante took the now limp bunch of nettles from his boss and placed it on the floor. When he  handed el Brujo the egg I decided that enough was enough and there was no way I was going to let him break it over my head  but that was not the intention. Instead, muttering incomprehensible jargon to himself he danced slowly around me, at the same time passing the egg up and down my body, without it actually touching me.

This ritual like dance went on for least five minutes, after which he placed the egg on the twigs,  poured the remains of the Pico bottle over the  small pile and set them alight. The alcohol burnt for a few seconds and el Adjudante, using a shovel, ceremoniously took the remains outside. The girls, curious to know the outcome, followed el Brujo, and I joined them as quickly as I could get my cloths back on over my now very smelly and sticky body.

While I was paying for the privilege of having been beaten and spat upon, el Brujo passed around the second bottle of Pico, insisting we share it with him. He had no objection to us breaking the egg and did not even smile when we cracked the shell to be overcome by the dreadful stench it released. The girls were convinced that this was the evil spirit he had released me from and he just took it for granted that I was cured,  and in fact I was – but from what?  The alcohol I had consumed may have played its part but at that moment and indeed, for the next couple of days, my body and my mind were on an incredible high. I felt so fit and healthy that I could have ran two simultaneous marathons and my mind remained  uncannily alert.

One thing I did regret from the experience was that - unlike the large woman with acne - I did not take advantage of a two-for-the-price-of-one deal and gotten a love potion from  el Brujo because I never did succeed in completely impressing the young lady - but that could also have been something to do with those Union Jack, polyester ‘Y’ fronts.

    Tags - Fly at a Smile-Price