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

by Brooks

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…)