Chuck Fisher returns to the Achuar of Ecuador, deep in the Amazon, where he has visited over the past seven years to join in their daily 4 a.m. dream reports and interpretations.
Listen to the remarkable openness about dream life and to Chuck’s gentle manner of pursuing the Achuar’s view of dream predictability, inevitableness and the “oculto,” where dreams continue their dark work.
The pictures are stunning; the video of fishing by hand, unique.
In February, the Peripatetic Psychoanalyst returns to Berkeley. We hope to hear more from him.
N. M. Szajnberg, MD Managing Editor
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
On our current sabbatical, Leah and I spent two weeks in language school in Cuenca, Ecuador to brush up on Spanish; then another week with our rainforest mentor, guide, and friend Daniel Koupermann and his wife Linda. Then I headed into the rainforest in Ecuador for a twelve day trip to learn more about the dream interpreting practices of the Achuar people. Leah, who traveled into the selva (jungle) with me on four previous occasions, sat this one out by spending the time with friends in Guatemala. We’re together again in Mexico, preparing for our return to California on February 1. I’ll be back in my office beginning Monday, February 6. I suppose that that is when I will really discover whether and how I have been changed by our six months of travel.
The Achuar are an indigenous group in Southeastern Ecuador along the Pastaza River. They wake up every morning hours before dawn to discuss their dreams. The elders interpret the dreams, and people then plan their activities for the day based on their dream interpretations. Beth Kalish-Weiss and I have worked together on comparing the dream interpreting practices of the Achuar with those of North American psychoanalysts. We’ve presented at APsaA, the IPA, and a number of other places. Beth and I have each been to the rainforest, together and separately, on multiple occasions.
In many ways, the rainforest of the Amazon basin is more foreign to a Californian than any other place Leah and I have visited on our travels. And at the same time, I may have been better prepared for this journey than for any other destination. After four previous trips to the Pastaza Region, I knew how to get there and where to stay en route. I had a pretty good idea what to take and not to take along. A mosquito net, high rubber boots, camera, digital recorder, and notebook were the essentials. I knew how to drink Achuar chicha and wayusa tea — the specialized beverages of the rainforest. I knew how to enter an Achuar house, and I knew not to make eye contact with women. I knew how to get up in darkness at 4 AM for predawn dream-sharing sessions. And of special importance, I had a pretty good acquaintance with Alejandro Taish Mayaprua, my Achuar and Spanish speaking guide. I knew many of the beliefs and myths of the Achuar people, as well as something of their current endangered situation as a community. With a refresher course on Spanish and some wise coaching from Daniel Koupermann, I was prepared to let go of supports that Leah and I had had on previous trips — especially the backing of an organization and the companionship of an English speaking guide. This experience was to be a much more direct and unmediated contact with Achuar culture. It took me seven years to get ready for it. I didn’t know what new experiences to expect from this more direct contact, and in a way, that was why I wanted to go.
For those who would like to visit the rainforest, an excellent way to go for a first visit is a Rainforest Journey, sponsored by the Pachamama Alliance, www.pachamamajourneys.org
. Daniel Koupermann can also arrange tailor-made expeditions. He can be contacted through his website www.ecuadortravelvacations.com
For my recent journey, Alejandro flew out from his home community of Charapacocha to meet me in Puyo, the town where the road ends at the edge of the rainforest. We visited the office of the Achuar Nation of Ecuador, where I received a document giving me permission to travel in Achuar territory. Since Ecuador recognizes the territorial rights of indigenous groups, this document was a kind of visa for me. The Achuar have never been conquered. After resisting incursions by the Spanish and others for five hundred years, they initiated contact with the outside world in the last three decades in order to obtain allies in their resistance to oil companies who want to drill for oil on their land. Alejandro and I flew to Charapacocha in a single engine plane, a flight of about an hour’s duration over jungle with no roads. I was given the use of a small house in the community, but I had a somewhat rocky first introduction. Leaders in the community had somehow not received word that I was coming. Reactions of the group I met with in the community house seemed to fluctuate rapidly from shock and surprise, to a feeling that I was an important visitor, to suspicion about my visit, to competition among those present to welcome and impress me, to confusion about what to do. Within a day or two, the leaders settled into treating me as a welcome guest.
Alejandro and Achuar 01
Landing on the dirt runway/soccer field
The rainforest from high above
Closer to the trees
Over the course of the following days, I recorded about one hundred dreams and dream interpretations. I heard dreams at early morning dream-sharing sessions — usually at 4 AM (and once beginning at 3:30) — and in individual interviews which Alejandro helped me arrange. I also had the opportunity to hear my own unusually vivid dreams interpreted by Achuar elders. Alejandro and I traveled on foot to a neighboring community and took a canoe down the river to the community of Sharamentsa. We made a few other trips into the jungle. One was a hike to the sacred waterfall, which was carefully concealed from outsiders until about 7 or 8 years ago. Another was a challenging walk into a swamp area to cut Morete palm trees to obtain hearts of palm for food. A third was an elaborate fishing expedition in which crushed leaves of the barbasco plant were put into a small river to sedate fish so they could easily be caught by hand.
Part of the village
A typical, though small, house
Preparing to put barbasco into the stream
Alejandro's mother and sister cleaning fish
To see a video of Alejandro’s mother catching a fish in her hand, go to: Click Here
In this account, I’ll tell only two dreams. Most Achuar dream interpretations involve the use of dreams to predict the future. Beth and I have talked about this feature in our presentations, emphasizing the dream as reflecting the dreamer’s unconscious intentions and the anticipated responses of others. Here’s a somewhat uncanny one:
As we set out to hike to a neighboring community, Alejandro tells me a dream he has just remembered from the night before. “It’s a bad dream,” he says, “but not bad in the sense of a danger. It’s bad luck.” In the dream, Alejandro was fishing. A large collared peccary – a game animal for the Achuar – comes by. Alejandro asks his wife to hand him his rifle. He shoots, but there is no cartridge in the gun. Then, a number of smaller peccaries come by. Now he asks his wife for ammunition, but she can’t remember where she put it. She looks in her pack, but she can’t find it. Alejandro interprets the dream to mean that when we visit Muitsentsa, the other community, today, we might not succeed in our purpose. It is possible that all of the community members will be gone.
Despite this warning, we hike two hours through the forest to Muitsentsa. When we get there, sure enough, the place is like a ghost town. All of the men we had hoped to interview have gone hunting. To our good luck, one man, whose first wife is sick, has delayed his departure. We arrive just in time to talk with him, and he graciously stays to talk. For psychoanalysts, Alejandro’s interpretation that “we might not succeed in our purpose,” has the sound of an upward interpretation of what sounds like a very sexual dream. For the Achuar, sexuality is private (and often dangerous). Implications for our walk in the jungle are urgent and essential.
Allejandro remembers his dream
Crossing a stream
Here’s another dream: Alejandro’s mother, Ernestina, had a dream predicting that she would become a widow. It is an Achuar custom that when a woman is widowed, she shaves her head. To dream of a calabash, a smooth gourd, symbolically means to dream of a shaved head, and hence of widowhood.
Alejandro became very serious as we talked about his mother’s dream and his father’s death. I felt a great sadness, which I connected with Alejandro’s obvious feeling and with the restrained and reserved sentiments expressed by Ernestina. Despite my sadness, I ventured to inquire further, feeling that I might be pushing the limits a bit. I asked Alejandro if it was OK to ask more, and he said that it was.
He told me that after his mother’s calabash dream, his father did not die right away. Sometimes it takes months for such a dream “to be completed” – i.e. fulfilled or carried out. I asked what it is like to live with such knowledge. Alejandro said that after a while, one “forgets” the prediction.
I asked what one does after such a dream. Does life change? Does one do something differently? Alejandro answered, translating into Spanish for his mother who speaks only Achuar, that it is not possible for the dreamer to do anything to change the “completion” of the dream.
There was no question that in my emotional experience of the moment, I was fully within the Achuar world view in which a woman who dreams of a calabash knows that her husband will die. Briefly, we digressed to talk in a more distant way about when and how such a dream might be fulfilled. Almost suddenly I remembered what we had been talking about and brought the conversation back. Then, the conversation took on an even more serious tone. Alejandro told me that when one “forgets” a dream such as the calabash dream, it continues to operate “en oculto” – in a hidden way – inside oneself. It is necessary and important for the dreamer “to accept” the dream. “We do not have a God who can change our fate, our destiny,” Alejandro said. “And of course I know that I too will die one day.” I was filled with a sense of tragedy. I recognized two things for the first time — that the Achuar have a tragic view of existence, and that they have a concept (the dream that operates “en oculto”) that corresponds to unconscious mental life.
Ernestina, just before telling her dream
Manuel Vargas, who was about to go hunting
lI earned other things about Achuar dreaming on this trip, but assimilating what I have learned will occupy me for quite some time. I’ll close this account with a brief mention of an important dilemma for the Achuar. In order to resist damaging incursions by oil companies and other corporations, the Achuar need to communicate with allies in the outside world. But what will this communication do to their culture? Can they change in ways that protect their way of life without dramatically altering their way of life? Consider the pictures below, which I took in the community of Sharamentsa — a place much more in contact with the outside world than is Alejandro’s community.
Navigating in the worldCatching a signal from satellites
Catching a signal from satellites
The electricity is solar. I haven’t shown a picture of the computer shack. It looks very familiar.
Explore posts in the same categories: Papers
Best wishes to all. I’ll look forward to seeing you after February 1.