As ayahuasca tourism explodes into a frenzy of expensive retreats, gringo-shamanism, one-night love-ins, and do-it-yourself thrill-seeking across the planet – a shaman from the Amazon sends a postcard on which he writes, only this….
beware the kiss
of the vine of death.
If you were sick, I mean really – and abandoned on a sandbank in the Amazon -would you trust a chain-smoking motorbike mechanic with a fetish for vomit and a blunt machete who turns up out of nowhere, stinking of cigarettes, and says…
“I can be help you if you be come, come with me
I will be show you how to love de medicina.”
Deep in the ancient forests of the Amazon, where healing arts have been honed for thousands of years under strict and secret lineage, a shaman of an unknown tribe blows heavy plumes of Marlboro Red from a rickety stool under a banana tree.
His practice is a jungle garden. His ‘consulting room’ is air conditioned by plants, and his library is living all around him; in blossoms, cloud, roots, shoots, animal visitors and continual dialogues with nature who informs his powers of diagnosis and prescription.
The currandero was five days late for our appointment.
This was a meeting I was forced into, really – having had no intention of ever ending up on the ayahuasca scene, let alone in a shaman’s wretched camp.
I came to the jungle assisting a team of American medical volunteers for the CNN-awarded outreach project, Amazon Promise.
It was in deep jungle, far away from Iquitos, that a recurring undiagnosed health problem struck me down again with its presentation of angry circular welts, allergies to everything – fatigue, fever and painful, deforming joints and nightmares. After two years’ under care of Sydney specialists I knew the pathology: disorders of the white cell count, acute and unattributed inflammation factors, evidence of infection, progressive decline with no known cause, and no known cure.
At the peak of the illness in Australia my feet and hands were reduced to livid claws too fragile to bear the weight of even a sheet. I had been placed on large doses of steroids and their related chemical cousins. I was warned I was unlikely to walk again, and told to ‘toughen up’.
My questions of experts from rheumatology, infectious diseases and oncology had not been welcome and I spent long, expensive years in a state of chemical dependency and shame.
So ending up here, on a splintery bench in the rainforest for one more shot at a happy ending did not seem intimidating at all: I was used to feeling confused and cranky.
I was also well ware that here in the jungle, shaman give a medicine so powerful for its effects it is known as the vine of death. That didn’t bother me much. Most of the drugs I’d been taking the last few years were likely to kill me in the end.
What did bother me was that I was here at all.
I had been ‘miraculously’ cured of my symptoms a year ago after a juice-fast my brother recommended from a book. 10 days of beetroot and miso soup brought on a hell of nightmares and weird thinking at the end of which I was pain, welt and arthritis-free enough to climb Kilimanjaro and five other of the world’s highest ranges for charity.
But here in deepest, darkest Amazonia, I had plunged back into a hell much worse than the first. It was an ER doctor, a veteran from a Boston hospital, who pleaded with me to find a jungle healer.
“What Western medicine knows about what you have is the equivalent of a bucket’s worth of ocean,” he said.
“Get yourself to a shaman. Bring back something useful.”
So I set out to find a shaman. In Iquitos. Which is a bit like looking for a raindrop in a river.
They call it zombie-fever. Bleary-eyed ayahuasca tourists; the sick, the lame, the lost and confused who have descended on Iquitos these last ten years in search of healing or of a new career in shamanism.
Most locals shy away, but hordes of gringo healers, jungle side-winders and scouts prey on the tide of incoming, just like most of them were preyed upon when they first set out to taste the medicine.
It’s an ugly scene. There are deaths and rapes, fakes and all manner of weirdness in the circus that has been conjured up around the promise of ayahuasca.
I hunted for a healer in this city of dealers for more than a month and come across every breed of charlatan, con man, gringo wannabe and naysayer as I got sicker and sicker and weaker and more desperate to believe that the legends of great cures and wisdom in the jungle were not a hoax.
The greatest name around Iquitos is Rivas. The Banco.
He is one of the Grandfathers of plant medicine and a very wealthy man, by all accounts. It was exactly due to his Big Reputation that I had struck Rivas off my list. I wasn’t interested in anybody famous, I wanted the real thing. Somebody genuine, authentic,remote and exotic. As a result, I ended up with Rosa, who had a lot of stuffed toys, some fascinating stories, and no idea at all what to do with me.
She had plied me with the toxic juice of a rubber plant to help cure me of parasites and was taking me to her jungle camp for further ‘healing’ when, an hour down the Amazon, she apparently had a sudden change of heart. She made a pretty loop in the speedboat, pulled up beside a muddy verge, and shoved me out with no instructions, food or even a goodbye. Then she fled into the jungle steam.
It was not a great start to my ayahuasa healing adventure.But it was no worse really than things had been in general. So I sat there, sweating and inflaming, listening to the water lapping on the bank and the howl of far off monkeys.
About an hour later a tall, slim man and with remarkably white tennis socks turned up in a rickety dinghy. He was an ambassador for the Maestro, the said.
“The Maestro. Vamos!”
And so it was that I found my wretched self before none other than the Banco. Himself.
It was his cigarette smoke that hootchy kootched around me as his sweat wilted the flowers on his Hawaiian shirt.
The Maestro, I knew, was a legend in Peru. He was feared and adored in his region and quietly famous around the world for his power with the plants. He guarded the dignity of the medicina with a ferocious respect, and had openly declared that we are in a time of great war on Earth – over nature, over power, over everything.
He was on the side of the plants. And an enemy of those who either destroyed their habitat or offended their honour.
The Maestro was credited with cures for aches, pains, indigestion, infertility, snakebite, depression, cancer, arthritis, warts and every complaint of the soul. He was to be admired for his drumming, respected for his temper, and the only man to go to in Iquitos for advice on how to fix both motorbikes and photo copiers.
His patients came from simple villages along the chocolate-coloured jungle rivers and all the wealthy continents. And occasionally, apparently, stumbled in as orphans – like me.
I was in no condition, really, to be meeting a legend. I could fairly be described at that time as scruffy and irritable.
I offered a scowl and a floppy, swollen handful of hideously deformed fingers by way of introduction. He shoved my hand aside to crush me in a wet and fragrant embrace.
“Now! How are you?” he asked in melodic jungle Spanish, pulling up his wooden stool. “Come! Sit here. Relax, smoke de cigarette?
I want to know de ev-e-ry-theeng!
How you in de heart?
How you in de feelings?
How you in de self?”
And so began a journey you will likely never take either in classic Western medicine, or in the circles hosted by gringo entrepreneurs who have recently got hold of the medicine and market ayahuasca tourism.
You cannot sell this sort of a thing. And you cannot buy it in a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all ‘retreat’ setting. It does not bless any one night stand flirtation which might involve a ‘dose’ of so-called ayahuasca, and cannot abide even the slightest sniff of hippy thinking, according to the Maestro.
To know ayahuasca – or any other plant – requires that sort of wisdom you cannot serve in a cup.
What true ayahuascaroes cultivate is an ancient process of diagnosis, treatment, care and insight strongly based on relationship – primarily to nature. Many died in keeping this alive during the persecutions of the Conquistadors. Many were exiled as they kept the covenants of their lineage through the carnage of the rubber boom.
Those who were passed the rites cultivate their intimacy with the plants through long, solo pilgrimages in the jungle dieting specific species, meeting with the blessings and terrors they keep, to earn the right to give ceremony.
Many are declaring, now the fad has hit the mainstream, that appropriation or abuse of the ‘medicines’ are acts of war to be avenged.
It takes a lot more than knowledge of the recipes, a few icaros and a splattering of shipibo artwork here and there to suppose the role of currandaro – let alone of shaman.
A true ayahuasca journey is conceived by a sort of fate, conducted down a river deeper than it appears, in a craft made of fear and trust.
When you active the bonds of chemistry that cause ayahuasca to appear before you, you have conjured a genie even the most powerful healers do well to treat with awe.
“She is the wise one,” says Viejo, adoring the little leaves of stems we are going to cook with.
“She be the beautiful one.
The empress of all the plants, of de everything.
But Ooooo, she be the terrible, terrible jealous one.
The vengeful one.
She be not be liking to be fucked with.
Not de one de little tiny bit.
For my recovery I was apparently to live in Viejo’s camp for as long as it was going to take. “You be live here, in my paradise,” he beamed. “Maybe two weeks, maybe three months.. we be see what the plants, she’s saying”
The camp, far from what you may be ‘shopping’ for now, if you are considering buying a pre-paid, web-marketed, $2000-a-week ‘authentic shaman experience’ in the Amazon – was slightly lacking in mmm… charm.
It was a sort of ramshackle jungle squat with hungry-looking chickens, a dubious-coloured bog and a slightly worse than average rat issue. My home would be wooden yurt with a moldy single bed and an even more moldy pillow, which were to become my heaven as the healing journey began.
On the second day he told me, after a long diagnostic massage in his plywood temple, examination of my rash and conduct, evocations of deities from the jungle university and lots of poking about;
“You have de poison in de blood and de heart-ache long time.
You have de blockages in de love, and de many hurting not go away.
You must have take out de metals here – in de teeth.
You must be cleaning de liver and de whole body.
You live here.
We play de bongos
and talk with de nature.
And so it was.
Every day for 8 weeks I slouched about camp in bare feet, listening to Viejo on his bongo, or vomiting in buckets, or preparing to vomit in buckets, and running a constant dialogue of wonder and irritability that my life had come to this.
There was Viejo, greeting the dawn with a Marboro dangling from his lips and a bongo on his belly, singing like mad to the quivering garden.
There was Viejo, preparing me another concoction of leaf medicine, ordering me wrapped in honey, buried up to my neck in dirt, asking me to sing to the plants, drawing me a picture of the 13 chakras, holding my hand as a jungle dentist drilled the amalgam from my teeth and watching me puke my miserable guts up about three times a week due to one ‘medicine’ or another.
There was no ‘between’ the medicine. There was only the medicine.
And I don’t mean ayahuasca. I mean everything. Everything was medicine: the screaming whistle of the jungle bugs, the twisting heat, the soggy bed, the starlight, dripping off banana leaves, the hideous shit and puke and spit we lovingly poured into Pacha Mumma, who would know what to do with it.
And Viejo… singing as he tenderly stripped down his Yamaha. Viejo, caught in rapture at the tinkling of motorbike parts as they sun-dried on the washing line. Viejo, offering me a litre of pure tobacco juice, saying only ‘Drink. All. Vamos!‘.
And there were my own miserable thoughts as I wrestled with an inner dialogue that was variously unhappy with my body, my life, my circumstances, my pain, the heat or my diet of salt-less rice, fish guts, steamed plantain and vile or psychotropic juices.
I was prepared fresh medicines from turmeric, passionfruit leaves, resins and slimy things served in recycled jam jars by the doctor himself, and or by his friendly staff who sat with me while I drank tinctures, hideous goop and poisons that did things unmentionable by a lady.
The mechanic held my hand when their effects were diabolical.
He enthusiastically inspected buckets-full of my vomit, searching for signs and clues and bubbles which would lead him to either frown deeply or throw out his arms in joyful rapture when he found de something that he was looking to get out of my body.
These triumphs were usually a puddle of froth or an asymmetrical slime blob that I had troweled the depths of my being to wring out in misery over a bucket. They were sometimes fragments of dreams.
The maestro played the harp when his plants were ruthless.I often begged him to stop because his presence seemed to amplify the agony of the process.
Then he would sit close by, gently de-greasing bits of motor bike.
He never once left me alone. He never once refused my questions. He called me Princessa, and was as concerned with my psychological journey as he was with my physical ones.
When he thought he had squeezed a good puddle of de bad out of me, he had me scrubbed raw with a laundry brush and commercial bleach, then wrapped in mud for a full afternoon before we drank the ayahuasca – which seemed mild in comparison to the other plants.
In the Western model this would all, I know, be considered quite ridiculous. Such a level of personal involvement with a patient would be frowned upon for sure, and if one were to be so indulged – just imagine the cost!
In the tourist model, there’s nobody can give you even half the actual experience.
But in the larger part of the world, and in the oldest medical traditions – the Chinese, Tibetan, the curranderos of the Amazon, the Australian Aborigine – from whom the pharmaceutical industry still takes it cues for synthesising medicines – what’s being offered by doctors and ‘healers’ would be equally unthinkable.
In fact, any treatment or remedy that has not been made and blessed by the healer is considered next to useless.
Which is why I warn you -
beware who you drink with, where your plants come from, and how much faith you give to the new gringo market in ayahuasca.
The power of the bond between healer and patient is equal to the power of the cure – without trust and confidence, says the maestro, an illness can only be cut at the stem, it cannot be removed at the root.
A cure cannot come from a person who is ‘dabbling’ with the medicines. “Ayahuasca, she is dangersousssss. Oh, very she be danger. When you play with her, like with any strong woman, she can seduce you, she can be suck you into a very very bad world of delusions.”
Likewise, he says, a cure cannot come from a bottle, but only from a living dialogue between the patient and the healer, the healer and the Mother. He spent hours of his day caressing, listening, adoring his gardens, the clouds, birdsong and moonlight.
Since this adventure I have been free of my illness and interested in the doctor/patient relationship which in indigenous medicine is not without its challenges.
When a shaman asks you to drink his deadly medicines he is well aware he causes fear – and it is this he wants to work with. The disorientation and surrender in a patient who is put in a threatening curing situation is the very means by which a shaman finds a gap in the ego wide enough for him to create change.
But not all shamans are equal. And many you will find are not shamans at all – despite their feathers and their pretty websites. So tread this path with care…