Wandering Brooks

in South America

Month: May, 2013

Bad Shaman: An Ayahuasca Misadventure in San Francisco, Peru – Part 2

I hear raised voices coming from my shaman’s hut. Strange noises had worried me on other nights, but this time I can no longer dismiss what I hear as my imagination. My shaman, Edinson, is undeniably fighting with his wife, Amelia. She is crying now, loudly, and screaming. The screaming becomes more piercing, more urgent. I hear a thud. More banging sounds. Is she throwing random objects around in a fit of rage? More likely he is hitting her, but I cannot believe it yet. Until recently, Edinson was a man whom I trusted deeply. I am unable to so radically revise my impression of him from respected shaman to wife-beater in just a few moments.

He makes sharp, purposeful exhalations, a shamanic technique used during ayahuasca ceremonies to manipulate energies and cleanse spirits. She keeps screaming “Eddy!”, and one or two words in Shipibo. They repeat this pattern – him doing the shamanic exhalation, her screaming the same thing over and over – like some sort of perverse ritual. Is she possessed by some demon (it certainly sounds like it) and he is healing her? Or maybe she is screaming “Stop, Eddy! Stop!” I am filled with doubt. Aside from the first thud, there are no more signs of violence. Eventually things become more or less calm, although she has fits of loud crying from time to time.

There was supposed to be an ayahuasca ceremony tonight, my second with Edinson. It has occurred to me as I lay in my hut, mosquitoes buzzing around me, that tonight might not be a good night to take one of the most powerful hallucinogenic drugs on Earth. I decide to go with the flow. I will wait, see what explanation he gives, see how I feel as the ceremony arrives.

I walk to the ceremonial hut. A young family has already arrived, newcomers I have not yet met. Jaime is there with his wife and child. He introduces himself as Edinson’s cousin. They are a handsome family, with warm smiles and glowing eyes. I tell them I am worried. Jaime asks me why. What a question! Has he not heard what I have heard? I tell him I am worried about the screaming and the crying. He merely nods and says “mmhmm”. A few minutes of silence pass, and then he asks me, “So, where are you from?” I am strangely comforted by his incongruously casual attitude.

Edinson comes in the hut. He acknowledges that “there’s a bit of bad energy tonight,” but assures us that everything is fine. Edinson introduces me to his cousin, mixing up our names and saying something vague about how the two of them work together sometimes. The two cousins chat in Shipibo. Again, it sounds fairly casual. Edinson takes his seat and twists the cap off the small, used plastic water bottle containing the ayahuasca.

Unlike my first ceremony in this hut, three days ago, there is no candlelight. Instead there is only the naked white glow of a CFL light bulb above us. Some details I had not noticed before become clearer under this harsh light. Among Edinsons shamanic instruments is a bottle of men’s cologne. I see a half-finished, two-litre bottle of radioactive-orange soda pop off to the side. Everything looks messy and ugly.

Edinson pours me a shot of the thick, brown liquid. He says “fifty?” I am momentarily confused. “What?” I ask. “Fifty millilitres,” he says. Edinson likes to measure his ayahuasca very carefully, an approach I had considered very wise when I learned about it in the first ceremony. I tell him no, better stick with 40ml, like last time. He pours it out, hands it to me, and resumes chatting with his cousin. Jaime is thoroughly lighting an epic heap of tobacco in his pipe.

Normally the offering of ayahuasca is a sacred moment. It feels inappropriately unceremonious this time. It feels not quite right. Hesitating, I look down at the brown liquid in the plastic graduated cylinder in my hands. I consult my intuition.

You may find it hard to believe, but I am a fairly cautious person, highly attuned to danger. On the other hand, I try to differentiate between fear that protects me from harm and fear that keeps me away from the meaningful and the worthwhile. Psychedelics have been a very positive influence in my life. I have had a fair number of experiences now, ranging from the mercilessly horrifying to the exaltedly edifying (often in the same night), so I know I can handle very intense trips. One important lesson I have received from psychedelics is that bad experiences are often not bad, in the end. They are opportunities to grow. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s because it’s true.

Despite many bad omens and the high likelihood that tonight’s ceremony will be very uncomfortable, I decide to drink the medicine and accept whatever harsh teachings come my way. This is new for me. While I have been able, in the past, to accept a bad experience with psychedelics as an opportunity to learn, I have never been so bold as to bring it upon myself willingly. I almost gag on the first drop that hits my tongue, but I manage to choke it down. I lay back and smile, feeling the dreadful relief of a man whose fate is sealed.

Edinson and Jaime drink their shots. Edinson turns on a radio, briefly, scrolling through the frequencies. Why the fuck is there a radio in a ceremonial hut? He shuts it off. Finally the light is turned off too. We await our visions. Edinson begins to snore.

I become acutely aware of Jaime’s presence. He is sitting, alert, smoking his pipe. The red glow in front of the shadow of his face lends him a powerful air. He is the real shaman, I realize. He stands and begins to walk the length of the hut, slowly, blowing so much tobacco smoke that I can feel it saturating my lungs. He stops in front of my mat, his shadowy frame towering over me. He sucks on his pipe, creating that eerie, powerful, red glow, blowing smoke towards me to cleanse bad energies.

He walks back to his own place. He seems to have sprouted a striped, flowing robe, which waves hello to me in the darkness. Shortly after sitting down, he begins to sing his first icaro of the night.

The ayahuasca is beginning to have effect. This is my tenth ayahuasca ceremony so far, and I have learned that there are gentle ascensions to the spirit world, and then there are blast-offs. This one is gentle. Not that it is pleasant. This will be a wholly unpleasant night, in fact, filled with paranoia, sadness and disgusting, terrifying visions. Jaime helps me through this experience. He sits in front of my mat for much of the night, singing and cleansing.

Paranoia can be common under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Paranoia implies craziness. Delusional fear. Unfounded suspicion. Sometimes, however, a paranoid interpretation of events turns out to fit the facts better than any other version. This is the big lesson that I receive from ayahuasca tonight. In particular, I realize for the first time that William probably received a kickback from my dieta fee. He criticized Mateo only because Mateo does not give kickbacks. He criticized his maestro’s son for the same reason. He brought me to Edinson not because Edinson is one of the few shamans with whom he would drink, but because Edinson paid him. As for Edinson, he did not dream about me dancing with Shipibo women with a pipe in my hands. He received a cut of the price for the pipe and satchel. Nor is he as experienced or knowledgeable a shaman as he pretends. The contrast between his poor shamanic skills and Jaime’s immense power reveal how amateurish Edinson truly is. I have been swindled.

William! I am heartbroken about William. I liked him so much! How could he have fooled me so well? He seemed so sweet and caring. I trusted him, and he abused that trust. What an evil man!

No, I realize, he is not evil. He is sweet and caring, but he is also an alcoholic and desperately poor. He told me about his job. He works as an elementary school teacher, but he just started a few months ago and the government has not yet processed his paperwork (typical of the Peruvian government), so he is not being paid. He literally has no money. He was not obligated to start work, but he loves teaching. He loves kids.

He was able to trick me into trusting him by being his own lovely self. In the ayahuasca state of mind, I intuit that he feels guilty about it, spending part of his kickback on booze to drown the guilt in alcohol.

As for Edinson, I am not so sure. He seems pretty evil to me. The word brujo comes to mind, but the snoring, hungover drunk lying across from me does not fit my image of a powerful, dangerous witch-doctor. He is an incompetent, greedy brujo.

Even with him, I cannot let this harsh judgment go unchallenged. He is more complex than that. I saw the beautiful art created by a previous client of his, a woman from Israel who came to him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having served in the army. She faced her overwhelming fears and overcame them. She left him reborn, as is apparent in her sublime art. He had shown me the paintings she sent him, proud to have helped her heal. I experienced other moments with him that hint at goodness in his heart.

But he may still be dangerous and I should get out of here as quickly as possible, I decide, inspired by the psychedelic paranoia. I wonder if he would hurt me, like he hurt his wife? Tomorrow, I want to ask him for a refund for the rest of my diet, but I should make sure he isn’t holding a machete when I do it. I briefly consider running away right now, in the middle of the night, but I decide to wait until the morning. About six hours after drinking the ayahuasca, I fall asleep.

After waking, I pack up my things and ask for a refund, with Jaime sitting by my side. We had been chatting about things, Jaime and I. Edinson says he lent some of my money to a friend, and he won’t be able to pay me back fully for another week. He will send it to my bank account, he says. I don’t trust him, but I have no choice. I accept half my refund and hope he sends the rest later.

His wife feels bad and gives me two large, beautiful Shipibo textile pieces for free. She says I can sell them in Canada and maybe get some of my money back that way. On my way out of town, another group of women who see me walking by insist that I sit down with them and rest a moment. When they hear my story, they give me a handful of free bracelets and necklaces. Their warmth and generosity redeems the Shipibo people in my eyes, somewhat.

Ayahuasca is good, I have no doubt about that, but some shamans are bad. Many are interested only in money. On one hand, it’s hard to blame them. Life is difficult here. Poverty is rampant, and if there’s a way to make a buck, why not take the opportunity? Lots of tourists are none the wiser, especially those who come just for one ceremony, and those who don’t speak any Spanish.

On the other hand, psychedelics are serious and should not be fucked with. A little bit of bad energy can result in profound trauma, and some people cannot and should not go through a difficult psychedelic experience, especially with a shaman who only has money signs reflected in his eyeballs and who may not able to guide them through it safely.

I know a good shaman near Iquitos. If anyone reading this is going to Peru with the intention of doing ayahuasca and is worried about the difficulty of finding a trustworthy shaman, feel free to send me a message. I also feel very good about Jaime, who lives in another Shipibo town about five hours downriver from Pucallpa. From what I have heard, San Francisco is almost entirely corrupted by the money brought in by ayahuasca tourism. However, Jaime told me that in his town, Santa Rosa de Dinamarca, they do not charge for ayahuasca ceremonies and diets. They suggest that you make a voluntary contribution according to your means and how valuable you find the experience. Most likely, the farther you go from a big city like Pucallpa, the more likely you are to find something more genuine and traditional.

As for me, I am fine. I was upset by this experience, as you can imagine, but I have moved on. I appreciate for what it was, an opportunity to learn, and an experience that has only added to the richness of my time in South America.

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Bad Shaman: An Ayahuasca Misadventure in San Francisco, Peru – Part 1

I scraped my shin on the boat ride from Pucallpa to the Shipibo town of San Fransisco. A minor injury, normally, but within an hour I could see white sores forming in the cut, signs of an alarmingly rapid growth of infection.

Just a week earlier I had given away the antibiotic cream Kinga and I had used to treat our staph infection back in January. An Argentinian boy I met in Iquitos had a bad case of staph, and I decided to be generous and cross my fingers that I wouldn’t need it again. Crossing your fingers ain’t worth shit, I tell ya. There was no pharmacy in San Francisco, so I would have to go back to the city to treat my infection.

The jungle is the Shipibo pharmacy, I learned. I made a friend, William, who offered to heal my wound with plants. I was skeptical. One of Kinga’s friends, Santiago (whom I wrote about in a previous post), had offered to heal her staph with plant medicine, but he only made it worse. My infection was not yet serious, however, so I decided to keep an open mind and give it a try.

William brought me some leaves he had collected. “Natural iodine,” he told me, and sure enough, when he crushed the leaves in his palm, they released a brown liquid that smelled like iodine. I eagerly applied it to my infected wound. He grabbed his machete and told me to follow him. He took me through town to find a tree called sangre de grado. When we found it, I could see that it was scarred with dozens of machete cuts. He hacked at the tree, and when he took the blade away, I was amazed to see thick, dark red sap leaking from the cut bark, just like blood. He took a wad of cotton, removed the seed from the centre of it (they don’t even need to buy cotton balls here), and collected some of the thick red liquid to apply to my wound.

When I saw how knowledgeable William was about plant medicine, I asked him if he was a shaman. First he said no, but later in our conversation he changed his answer. Yes, he was a shaman, but he didn’t have a retreat centre to host foreigners, he told me. Sad, I thought, that to him the word “shaman” refered only to the business of ayahuasca tourism (this was my first clue as to his real motives). He said he only learned shamanism so he wouldn’t have to take his kids to the hospital every time they got sick – he could heal them himself.

At this point, I had no intention of doing ayahuasca again. After a disconcerting and enlightening conversation I had with an ex-shaman in Pucallpa about the increasing commercialization of ayahuasca, I was more interested in learning about it through conversation, not through any more direct experience. I had already done a 15-day dieta (traditionally, ayahuasca is done several times over many days, which involves taking other plant medicines and eating a restricted diet), including six ceremonies with a shaman near Iquitos, which was a wonderful experience. After that, I did one more ceremony at a Rainbow community, also near Iquitos, which was both a hellish, infinite apocalypse, and, later in the evening, an endless, heavenly revelation. I had decided that that was enough psychedelics for a while.

William told me that he sometimes does ceremonies with foreigners, but he never charges any money. His reward will come later, he said. One time, three years after doing a ceremony together, a friend he made from Chile invited William to a big conference on indigenous shamanism in Santiago. He told me about the awe he experienced seeing skyscrapers for the first time. Imagine, a man who has lived his whole life in a thatch-roofed hut suddenly finding himself staying in a five-star hotel in a big, modern city. The delight he showed in telling this story endeared him to me warmly.

The next day, wandering around San Francisco on my own, I met an interesting shaman, Mateo, who piqued my interest in doing another ayahuasca diet, but I decided to wait and see what William might say before deciding. In the short time I had spent with William, I had come to trust him very much. Unfortunately this proved to be a mistake.

When I told him about Mateo, hinting that I might want to do another diet, he didn’t say much, but I could tell from his reaction that he did not approve of this shaman. Eventually he told me that Mateo does not allow other shamans to drink ayahuasca with him, because he is afraid they will steal his secrets. Aside from sounding like a bad character trait, this also bothered me because I was wanting to do a ceremony with my friend, William, which would not be possible with Mateo.

William took me for another walk, ostensibly to find more natural iodine and sangre de grado. We found my medicine (it was working wonders, by the way), and along the way he introduced me to some other shamans. First, we went to his own teacher, an old maestro who has worked with ayahuasca for many decades (no one knows how old he is, exactly. Like some other indigenous peoples I have met, the Shipibo did not count age in years before their culture began to be corrupted by Spanish influence). The maestro’s son, who was there as well, was also a shaman and would be leading the ceremonies. William didn’t realize he would be there. When we walked away, he told me he didn’t like the old shaman’s son, saying that he was selfish. So he took me to meet another one.

And that’s how I met Edinson, the best dressed shaman in all of Peru. He was wearing neatly ironed dress pants, a stiff dress shirt, and polished black shoes. He was a little stiff and business-like for my tastes. I did not have a good impression of him at first, but William assured me that Edinson was one of the few shamans with whom he would drink ayahuasca (there are about 60 shamans in San Francisco, a town of 2000 people, so there are a lot to choose from). I asked William as we walked away “does he have a different energy during the ceremony?” “Yes,” he assured me, “he’s a completely different person.”

Trusting William, I decided to do a 25-day diet with Edinson. My impression of him improved in the first few days. One thing I liked was that instead of having a dream or ayahuasca vision in which he saw which medicinal plant to offer me during the diet, like other shamans do, he merely asked me “what is it you want to learn?” I found this a refreshingly sensible approach. I told him my intention, which was to learn to be more patient and loving, to be able to accept things as they are without struggling to change the unchangeable, as well as to have success in my life’s projects and to be able to choose those projects wisely. In sum, I wanted to learn how to live a good life. He said to me “I have a plant for that.”

The plant I took was called tantirao, which means “tranquility” or “peace” in Shipibo. I drank a thick, strong preparation of tantirao for the first three nights. It had a unique taste, something like a mixture of grass and coffee. After draining about half the cup, the liquid started to feel like little razors cutting the inside of my throat, and I could immediately feel my body strongly reacting. Armies of mucus took up arms against the invasion, and my stomach began to churn. I became somewhat drunk, with the muscles in my body turning to soggy noodles, and my thinking becoming distorted. A goofy smile came to my face, and I felt very, very happy. I would vomit between an hour and three hours later, smiling and laughing all the while. You may find it hard to believe, but I found this state of mind ideal for meditating on my intention of learning to live a good life. I did a lot of deep thinking and writing during those first three days. On the fourth day, I took a more gentle tea version of tantirao in the morning. In the evening, I would drink ayahuasca for my first ceremony of the diet.

That morning, Edinson told me he had a dream about me. In his dream, I was dancing joyfully with two Shipibo women on either side of me. He said that I had a traditional crown on my head with a feather in it. I held a tobacco pipe in my hands and I wore a traditional Shipibo satchel around my shoulder. He said that the message he received from this dream was that I should have a traditional Shipibo pipe and satchel. I felt a flicker of suspicion about his motives for saying this, thinking that perhaps he was just trying to make me spend more money, but I had no reason not to trust him at this point. I felt somewhat guilty for being suspicious. He drew me a picture of the pipe that he saw, explaining to me its importance and utility for those who wish to follow the shamanic path. He said he would go out into town and see if he could find it for me.

He returned with the pipe and satchel about an hour later. The pipe was exactly as he had drawn it. Isn’t that amazing? I hesitated, but agreed to buy them. After all, they would make pretty cool souvenirs, and perhaps I would begin to learn first-hand why tobacco was such an important plant in Amazonian shamanism.

The first ceremony went well. I had some left-over terror remaining from my experience at the Rainbow community near Iquitos, but this ayahuasca was not quite as strong. It gave me a chance to process that fear in a more manageable psychedelic experience. I had many interesting visions, including a visit from the spirit of tantirao who taught me about living well. I also came up with a new idea for a novel I might want to write.

Scientists who study psychedelics say one of the distinguishing characteristics of the experience is its “ineffability.” At some point I would like to try to eff the ineffable in my writing, but for this story I have left the description of the actual experiences to a minimum.

Two days later I went to Pucallpa to go to the bank. I needed to take out money to pay for the rest of my diet and to pay for the pipe. On my way back into town, I ran into William, whom I hadn’t seen in several days. He had offered to take me piranha fishing a few days earlier, but he had never shown up. He was in a very good mood when I saw him. In fact, as he uncharacteristically gave me a big, sloppy hug, I realized he was drunk. I was surprised and a bit unsettled by this interaction.

I paid Edinson the rest of the money for the diet. After that, his attitude seemed to change. I hardly noticed it on a conscious level, but something felt different. He seemed more aloof, maybe. The day of the second ceremony, I noticed his eyes were bloodshot. I wasn’t sure if he was just tired, or… maybe he was drunk too? It all went downhill from there.

(to be continued…)