If you were sick, I mean really, and happened to be 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 helping you if you drink thess!
Deep in the ancient forests of the Amazon, where healing arts have been honed and practiced for hundreds of 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 that inform his powers of diagnosis and prescription.
The currandero ,Don Agustin Rivas, was five days late for our appointment.
It was a wait I was forced in to. Having had no intentions at all of ever ending up in the shaman’s slightly wretched camp. I had set out into the deep Amazon with another healer. A witch, apparently. But she had given up on me, or lost her nerve, and shoved me out of her hi-speed dinghy on a muddy bank deep in the jungle with no instructions, food or even a goodbye as 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 in Iquitos. I had been hunting for a healer in this city of healers for more than a month and come across every charlatan, sidewinder, gringo faker 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 Don Agustin Rivas. The Banco. 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 of people to go to for help. 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 Rossa, who had a lot of stuffed toys, some fascinating stories, and no idea at all what to do with me.
So she left me in the jungle. And about an hour later, who should turn up?
The man who ‘saved’ me was tall, slim and with remarkably white tennis socks, given the terrain. He was an ambassador for the Maestro, the said.
“The Maestro. Vamos!”
How does one greet one of the great masters of his profession?
How does one show proper respect for a legend among his peers in Peru and around the world, a man credited with cures for aches, pains, indigestion, infertility, snakebite, depression, cancer, arthritis, warts and complaints of the soul? What is the proper show of humility to a man whose patients come from simple villages on the banks of chocolate-coloured jungle rivers and all the wealthy continents and who is standing before me in hibiscus patterned board shorts?
In my condition, which could fairly be described at that time as scruffy and irritable, the best I could do was stand in my wilting sarong and flip-flops to offer a floppy, swollen wrist with hideously deformed and twisted fingers to Don Viejo Rivas, heir to the first shaman millionaire, the legendary Agustin Rivas, who promptly ignored my outstretch hand and held me in a tight embrace.
“Now, how are you?” he asks in melodic jungle Spanish. “Come! Sit here, relax, smoke cigarette? I want to know the ev-e-ry-theeng! Precisely! How you in de heart? How you in de feelings? How you in de self?”
I had come to the jungle leading a team of medical volunteers for the CNN-awarded jungle outreach project, Amazon Promise when a recurring undiagnosed health problem had struck me down with its typical presentation of angry circular welts, allergies, fatigue, fever and painful swelling joints. After three years’ under care of Sydney specialists I knew the pathology: disorders of the white cell count, acute and unattributed inflammation factors, evidence of infection – no known cause and no known cure. I had been placed on large doses of steroids and told to ‘toughen up’.
My questions had not been welcome and I spent two long years in a state of chemical dependency and shame.
In my search for help or even understanding I had seen many of the best Sydney physicians. I had sat in their vinyl patients’ chairs, in their strict and cheerless consulting rooms while having parts of me removed and siphoned out for tests that bore no fruit, and so ending up here, on a splintery bench in the rainforest for one more shot at a solution had not seemed intimidating at all: I was used to feeling out of my depth, confused and even alienated.
I knew only too well, from my acquaintance with Western doctors, that besides the fear and distress of my illness, I was likely to feel the additional discomfort of the game of time and status that can create a sense of disempowerment, of loss of control and separation that is the classic doctor/ patient relationship in our culture. I also knew that here in the jungle shaman give a medicine so powerful for its effects it is known as the vine of death.
In every ancient healing practice, diagnosing and treating illness is strongly based on relationship. For my treatment I was moved into Viejo’s camp. This was not the kind of thing you might expect to see on TV. And it was not the kind of thing you will find if you book into a pre-paid, web-marketed, $2000-a-week ‘authentic shaman experience’ in the Amazon or anywhere else where gringo entrepreneurs have got hold of the medicine and market ayahuasca tourism.
It was a ramshackle jungle squat with hungry-looking chickens, a dubious-coloured bog and a slightly worse than average rat issue. My home was a wooden yurt with a moldy single bed and an even more moldy pillow, which were to become my heaven as the healing journey began.
Every day for 8 weeks I slouched about camp in bare feet, listening to Viejo on his bongo, or Viejo singing as he stripped down the Yamaha tenderly, or the tinkling of motorbike parts as they sun-dried on the washing line, or 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 saltless rice, fish guts, steamed plantain and vile or psychotropic juices. I was prepared fresh medicines from turmeric, passionfruit leaves and other plants which were served in recycled jam jars by the doctor himself, and or by his friendly staff who sat with me while I drank tinctures, slimes and poisons that did things unmentionable by a lady.
I was often afraid and the treatments were mostly more terrifying than the worst a surgeon could describe. The doctor 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 – usually a puddle of froth or an asymmetrical slime that I had trowelled the depths of my being to wring out in misery over a bucket. He played the harp when his plants were ruthless. He never once left me alone and afraid. 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 with a laundry brush and commercial bleach, then wrapped in mud and honey for a full afternoon.
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!
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 – our modern form of treatment would be equally unthinkable.
Listening, connecting, sharing the experience are as much a part of the cure as the treatments. In fact, any treatment or remedy that has not been made and blessed by the healer is considered next to useless. The power of the bond between healer and patient is equal to the power of the cure – without trust and confidence, says Viejo, an illness can only be cut at the stem, it cannot be removed at the roots. 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. Viejo spent hours of his day caressing, listening, adoring his gardens, the clouds, birdsong and moonlight.
With only a few hundred years of science behind us we have created in modern medicine incredible knowledge and unprecedented excellence in many areas. However, the healing arts are driven, for the first time in history, by shrinking timelines, industry drivers and profit/cost ratios.
It’s interesting to note that in the history of humanity on Earth, science accounts for .002% of the accumulated knowledge. Modern western medicine is still largely based on chemical mimics of the compounds found in plants to create what we call ‘drugs’, and what our ancestors know as the gifts of a vast living medicine chest provided for us for free by nature are today in Western nations seen as a hocus pokery of snake oil, smoke and mirrors.
It’s also interesting to note that never before in history has healer/ doctor/ nurse been so completely separated from she whom he would heal.
Nor have medicine men been so divided from each other. In a recent assignment about dermatologists for a medical journal I discovered doctors in this profession feel a stigma because they are (wrongly) not perceived by other specialists to actually save lives. Within Western medicine there are divides between the specialities which cause status anxiety and lead to displays of arrogance. One American medical doctor I interviewed was amazed I hadn’t realized by now that Medicine is a cult, with clear hierarchies of control and influence, not only between doctors, nurses and patients, but between the specialties.
Divides caused by status, power, prestige, lack of time and other pressures mean doctors in the same street may never even meet each other. They mean doctors disempower one another, let alone their charges, in a matrix enforced by their own industry.
It took two full months for Viejo and me to work on my condition together. By 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 the amalgam in your teeth. You must cleaning de liver and de whole body. You live here with me; we play de bongos and talk with de nature.”
This was the most sensible thing I had heard from anybody regarding my sickness for quite some years.
After two weeks of talking, many doses of evil-tasting jungle medicines, flower baths and journeys with the mystical queen of jungle vines, ayahuasca, under Viejo’s meticulous and loving guidance I had not only unburdened myself of a swag of the grief, fear, losses and wounds, but was completely cured. The blood tests in Sydney can prove it.
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. Be warned!!
Western medicine is not without fear – as any dentist knows. The clinical setting and speed of turnover are partly a means to overcome all this bothersome ‘emotion’. Dentists, in particular, are concerned to limit anxiety because it reduces visitation (and not usually for actual health reasons) – but most doctors plough on regardless.
They tend to push on through their patients’ natural anxieties leaving stress control to synthetic drugs or technology. But shock and fear do not evaporate under soft lights and photographs of dolphins on LED screens.
Oncology and medical counselling team Dr and Gerard Manion who practice with cancer patients and founded the leading but quietly natured palliative care project Home Hospice call the effects of health trauma and stress in consulting rooms The Stunned Mullet Syndrome.
A perceived imbalance of power between doctor and sufferer, the shock of diagnosis in patients with difficult health conditions, sudden invasive treatment can lead to disorientation, shock and an inability to comprehend information in the patient. It can also create resistance to care, separation and cognitive dissonance.
It’s a an effect compounded by the Western medical model, which is designed and operated to demand respect from patients, slice up medical time into carefully limited and jealously costed fragments of quarter hours, sell pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures, to aim for efficiency –sometimes ruthlessly so, and to limit emotional exchange in favour of the cold, hard facts.
It’s an effect which, more recently, I experienced all over again in a surgical practice in Kogarah, Sydney, when a decorated surgeon took all of 5 minutes to tell me I had cancer and no choice but for the knife.
The next 10 minutes of my $500 appointment we spent merrily bantering while sketches were drawn, biopsies ordered and I, I guess, held up my side of the dialogue by some survival reflex while the entire fabric of my universe was warping, spinning, collapsing and curdling.
I never let that show – it was clearly Not Allowed. I smiled politely, straightened out my skirt, paid by credit card and stumbled into the too bright daylight to perform the suddenly weird and clumsy task of driving myself home.
When I later thought to ask about my prognosis, and called to ask if I could die of this, the doctor wrote back on email saying I presume you’re being hysterical?
“Oh!” I thought, “but isn’t cancer…” The only question I have thus far been allowed is when to book the $10,000 surgery.
I was told not to bother with the plethora of herbs that might help, or diet changes, or yoga and relaxation. “Getting your knees behind your ears will do nothing for you,” he wrote. “You don’t need plants, you need a cold knife.”