Curanderismo - Mestizo Ayahuasca
by Alan Shoemaker
for Mariella Noriega Shoemaker
and Dedicated to the Spirits of the Plants
For my sons:
Jesse and Liam Shoemaker
NOTE: numbers in brackets, eg (1), refer to footnotes.
'sidebar' refers to longer notes at the end of the article.
Deep into the Colombian Amazon, on the muddy, rusty colored banks of the Putumayo River, lives an old curandero (1) who has been taking care of this tiny village and its assorted illnesses performing ayahuasca ((2) and sidebar) rituals at least once a week for the past 60 years. It was here I began my studies when I realized I was being called to the healers path and later, it was to the ayahuasquero (3) don Ramon, outside of Iquitos, Peru, that I apprenticed myself for the teachings of the Sacred Power Plant (4), ayahuasca. The signs guiding, affirming, and maintaining my path left no room for doubt of their authenticity.
Ayahuasca and the other Sacred Power Plants heighten our awareness, opening the doors to the spiritual plane of existence. They guide us to our center where within each of us sleeps an internal doctor, i.e. "the healer within", which once activated allows us to heal ourselves. These sacred medicines also invoke a specific healing response, clearing out physical maladies and alleviating psychological duress from the past -- like ingrained habits and response patterns which have long outgrown their usefulness -- allowing us to move on and continue to grow. It is imbibed ceremoniously with the guidance of a skilled curandero who controls the numerous spirits conjured from the incantation of the icaros (5). These icaros are the curanderos' magic melodies, taught to him literally by the "Spirits of the Plants".
The Siona curandero in the village on the banks of the Putumayo river poured my first cup of ayahuasca. We sat, surrounded by the jungle, in a thatched-roof, dirt-floored, open walled tambo(6). Present in the ritual were eight tribesmen in various modes of hand-me-down 1st World clothing: Well worn t-shirts, US imitation bluejeans, overly abused tennis shoes, flip-flops - obviously just a couple of generations out of their traditional attire - and 7 shaman-hunting gringos (7) who were sharing the 15 meter long dug-out canoe with me. We had pooled our money in Quito, Ecuador, and headed for Colombia, in search of the entrance to the Upper Amazon via the Rio Putumayo, the narco-traffic river and the river with the harshest reputation for kidnappings and untimely disappearances. This was our only possible route, as Peru refuses to allow entrance to the Amazon from Ecuador. We traveled by bus northeast, up and over high mountain passes on narrow one-lane dirt roads that looked as if they could cave in at any moment. In three days of breathing dust and exhaust fumes and being stopped by the Colombian police for drug searches every hundred miles, we finally found ourselves in the brawling cowboy town of Puerto Asis, Colombia, headwaters of the Putumayo. Here were dirt streets, motorcycles reined-up outside saloons, and front row seats to street shoot-outs viewed from our hostal balcony. An English speaking, gringo-friendly, out-of-work school teacher, whose son had supposedly represented Colombia in fencing for the Olympic games, even came up with a brilliant way to introduce our innocence to Puerto Asis and the cocaine Mafia by suggesting a recorded welcome to its residents, in English, on the local radio station. I recorded the greeting, simulating as closely as I could, Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam!": "Good morning, Puerto Asis! This is Alan Shoemaker from the United States wishing each and everyone of you a fine and healthy good morning. Buenos Dias!" Which may still be playing now for all I know. It took two weeks of daily searching to find a 15 meter long dug-out canoe and a 40 horsepower motor. We rigged it with curved re-bar roof supports to uphold a black plastic rain tarp and bought enough food to last one month. Four 55 gallon drums of gasoline and a few mechanics tools rounded out our purchases. We motored out of Puerto Asis by a small tributary and onto the Rio Putumayo, maneuvering into what seemed a fast, 11 mph current. It was a shaman hunt, and we were determined to ride this dug-out all the way to La Chorrera, Colombia, a Bora, Witoto, and O'Kaina village nestled around the impassable waterfalls on the banks of the Igara-Parana river.
After solving various engine problems we eventually motored onto the banks of a tinySiona tribal village where we were greeted by some of the natives. We asked to see their curandero.
"Si, senor. He can't see you today. He's drunk."
Drunk? Their healer is drunk. "That's okay, we'd like to see him anyway."
The other gringos followed him to a thatched roof hut, built on 12 foot high stilts for protection from the rising river and wild animals. After arranging for one of the locals to guard our dug-out, I, too, climbed the stairs to his house and, for some strange reason, pushed the door open and paused for a moment before going in. In those few seconds I heard a drunken shout of, "Jaguar!", then abashedly eased into the room like a clumsy house cat after knocking over a flower pot, all the faces anxiously staring at me. An old man, apparently their curandero, was sitting on a small stool near a large screenless window overlooking the village. The hair growing out of his head was silvery, long, and lent a haunting effect to a face of sun-baked, cracked mud. A few seconds looking at him and all my illusions of the serene "holy man" shaman floated away into the wrinkled tributaries of his face. It was early still so he asked us to buy him another half-pint of aguardiente, the potent alcohol made from the distillation of sugar cane. He quickly chugged it, then agreed to brew a pot of ayahuasca and perform a ritual for us that very evening.
"But, don't we have to diet(sidebar) all day?" I asked.
"No, no. Meet me here later. My wife will cook dinner and we go out to the tambo and drink."
"We can eat just before drinking ayahuasca?" I was confused. This was contradictory to the teachings of my San Pedro (8) maestro in the mountains of Ecuador.
"Of course we can. Won't you be hungry? She'll make chicken soup. Don't you like chicken soup?" He asked me.
We arrived at his home at 6pm. I spooned away two bowls; the second one going down with only shadowy thoughts of the possible repercussions from not following what I had been taught was the proper diet before a ritual. It was dark when dinner was over so we grabbed our flashlights, mosquito nets, hammocks, and followed him along a muddy trail deeper into the jungle until we arrived at his ritual hut, a tambo approximately 1 kilometer from his home. The ayahuasca had been cooking since early afternoon and the ashes were still warm.
"Has it been cooking long enough?" I asked.
"More than enough time." He assured me.
I was skeptical, but then this was the jungle and I really didn't know what to expect. From the information I had gathered about ayahuasca, I thought it had to cook at least 8 hours. But what did I know? I decided to go with the flow and take his medicine with an open mind, just as I had eaten two bowls of his wife's chicken soup.
I swallowed my very first cup of still warm ayahusaca kneeling in respect to the maestro and toasted the ritual for all its spiritual qualities. The flavor was so atrocious that after drinking he handed each of us a four inch piece of peeled sugar cane, instructing us to suck on it to take the flavor away. He handed me a piece and I remembered my previous teachers instructions: "No sugar in any form after taking a Sacred Power Plant." I thought this was one of the many rules you were simply not to break. However, he was the curandero, this was his jungle, the flavor was sickening, so as with the 6pm dinner, I gladly followed his instructions.
Then I waited. An hour passed and I was feeling no effect. While the others were obviously under the ayahuascas influence, walking as if the ground were in the throes of a small earthquake, I patiently watched and curiously listened to the various cacophonous purging noises coming from the jungle outside the tambo. The old ayahuasquero slapped the harmonica on his hand, emptying its excess saliva, and rose from his hammock. He had not sung even one icaro, apparently preferring to work with the vibratory sounds of his harmonica. He ambled over to his pot of medicine, squatted down, opened the lid, picked up the coffee cup he used to dose it out and nodded for me to come join him. Immediately I stood and walked over to him. He just sat there behind his pot of still warm ayahuasca, studying me. After a few moments, he tendered another cup and suggested I might have some resistance to the effects of the first one; perhaps I had a block. And again, as with his 6pm dinner and the sugar cane, I refused to allow preconceived notions to guide me. I had to go for this; had to trust in my instincts of this initially-inebriated, codgy, old Siona ayahuasquero. I shot this repulsive fluid past my taste buds, into my throat, and had no problem accepting his offer to suck on more sugar cane. I waited. I watched the stars glistening under a half-moon and my awareness heightened from listening to the symphony of jungle music blending with the extraordinarily mellifluous notes of these icaros, blown by a crusty curandero. An hour and a half had passed since my first cup, half an hour since my second. I started to clear my throat, and a geyser beginning in the deepest pools of my stomach announced itself with such force that I ran out of the tambo with both my hands pressed firmly against my mouth, unstopable spews spraying squirtgun-like from its sides. I stopped just 15 meters outside, and in removing my hand let fly this unyielding liquid, completely awed by its strength and pressure, gushing forth a meter in front of me, over and over again. When it finally finished with me, I slowly raised up and out of the corner of my eye thought I noticed the participants from the ritual. Concerned, they must have followed me out into the jungle and were now standing all around me. I was embarassed and realized that by the time I was to be completely erect again I must gather my wits about me. I continued to raise myself up and realized from the glows that those viewing my magnificient purge must also have come with their flashlights. Then I witnessed the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen: It wasn't the ceremonial participants. All the jungle plants in the semi-circle of my vision had transformed into indigenous spirits and were glowing internally. The very small plants just off to my left appeared as spirits of indigenous children, and in the outside center of this half-circle, the large shrubs were giant 16-feet-tall tribal spirits, resplendent in attire: arm-bands, head-bands, and dressed in a long robe with a checkered pattern of lime green, creams and white. I particularly noticed the collars, cut similar to nehru fashion, which I thought was quite odd. "What was happening to me? Was I hallucinating? Was this a vision?" My mind searched the various possibilities while my body responded with cold chills running up my spine. Just at that moment, the entire group of spirits, eight in all, put their arms out, palms up in a welcoming fashion, and began singing my name. There were the soprano and alto voices of the women and children, and the deep resonant voices of the men, beautifully singing over and over, "Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan." And tears streamed down my cheeks. I restrained myself from bowing down in reverence, nodding my head instead in an honoring gesture of respect as I continued absorbing this Amazonian vision. After 10 minutes in absolute wonderment, I finally spoke, thanking them for what they had shown me, explaining that I must return to the tambo, the ritual, and I promised I would never forget what had been shown me.
Maybe now I was beginning to understand, but I was still unsure. "Is this it? Curanderismo?(9)" Are there literally spirits of plants and, if they so choose, do they heal for you? I had too many things to think about, but they would all have to wait until the morning.
When I had quickly run out of the tambo to purge, I noticed no change in my coordination. Afterward, however, I had trouble determining when my feet were going to hit the ground while the upper portion of my body was in complete control. This drunken effect was only in my feet. Perhaps it was just that my feet were the furthest from my eyes and my eyes were then the actual cause of this? Could it be the further away objects were the more likely you would hallucinate on them? And had I been hallucinating everything? That would help explain what I had just seen. But these spirits sang to me also, didn't they? And they even knew my name. I returned to the ritual and was astonished by completely vivid images of jaguars and boas coming out of nowhere, ferociously presenting themselves just inches away from my face. Although I was unsure exactly what this was or why it was happening, I decided to suspend my disbelief and imagine it a bizarre test of bravery. On each pass of the jaguar, roaring directly into my face, I saw, in full color, each and every tooth, the tongue, and even down into the throat. Instead of allowing myself to become frightened, I literally decided to appreciate the beauty of the images, for, what choice did I have? This was beyond my control. And what if this really were a test of courage? I had learned many years ago to have an of admiration for danger, maintaining fortitude in its wake. For the next three hours I was bombarded with it, finally tapering away as the effects of this ayahuasquero's brew came to a close.
As my thoughts continued whirling and the visuals slowly melted away, we clumsily climbed into the hammocks and fell asleep. I awoke with the first light and as each of us slowly roused, we gathered what gear had been brought and returned to the reality of the curanderos home in the village.
One of my dug-out partners, Thea, and I openly discussed the nights imaginings. She told me about the curanderos son, who had drunk the ayahuasca with us. He had met her down by the stream where she had gone to purge. After splashing some water on her face she began her return to the tambo, but he was standing in the middle of the trail, blocking her way. She thought nothing of it and continued walking toward him. He didn't move. She stopped directly in front of him and he reached out, placing his hands on her breasts. Thea looked at him, calmly and firmly said, "No," and he moved aside. She returned to the ritual, deeply under the influence of the medicine, and he followed, sitting between us on a small platform. I had occasionally looked over at him during the night, especially when he was making deep roaring sounds like a bull. He seemed to be in a deep trance, his eyes closed. Thea explained, "During the night while I was in deep meditation, I sensed he was trying to come to me in a spirit form for sex." She was unsure whether this was real but felt strongly enough to erect an other-dimensional wall, not allowing him entrance; and it was real enough to mention to me; however, because it revolved around sex she wasn't completely convinced of its authenticity. Within this ayahuasca state she believed, on the other hand, had she wanted to allow him into her visions, she could have. I didn't know what was real or imaginary either but thought perhaps this was a gift, from the spirits to her, concerning sexuality.
"The only way you will ever know is to ask him." I suggested, realizing I too had a visionary gift still to process. Thea, however, felt too uncomfortable to approach him. A few days later she told me, "Alan, I wish I had done as you suggested. Because now, I will never know."
I, too, thought I would never know, as for the next year during my apprenticeship in curanderismo I was never absolutely convinced of what I had seen that night. The old Siona curandero had plainly told me his medicine contained only the ayahuasca vine, chacruna(10), and a few leaves of toe(11). I correctly believed him as now I know that the effects of this medicine last only 4 hours and the dry, parched-throat feeling coming from ayahuasca over-laced with toe had not been present.
He met with us in the morning following the ritual and we traded harmonicas: My blues harp for his slightly rusty and well-used Colombian one. It was a gift I treasured. He was the first to explain that according to legend, the new curanderos would be gringos; that a little over 500 years ago the Spanish had come with their disease and instruments of War and decimated them, not interested in being healers. Now the time was here: The beginning of the next 500 year cycle. He can find no one to teach. Even his son, whom he would most like to pass his wisdom on to, isn't interested. We, us gringos, are. Those of us who have seen and understand the idiocy inherent in the cause and effects of the logic systems we have implemented are interested. We have been educated well enough to respect what was left behind and to try and save what parts of it we can before it is lost forever. The missionaries have come with their first world financing and float planes and set up churches in the deepest reaches of the jungle, bringing with them their God, their ethics, and their morals. They have convinced the mestizo and indigenous through gifts of clothing, tennis shoes, penicillin, ...etc. that the traditional medicine from their grandfathers is nothing more than superstitious folklore. Now the children prefer to swallow a pill and worship a God they previously knew nothing of, one following the other, hand in hand.
The old Siona healer disheartenly continued telling me of his various apprentices who had given up. Even his son. Besides the competition from the missionaries, there are the free-clinics floating up and down the Putumayo and stabilized in various pueblos dispensing antibiotics and parasite medications. The apprentices would not return after they began the various difficult diets(12) required in order to master a Sacred Power Plant. Some of the tree Doctors(13) require strict diets of 90 days and more alone in the jungle before you can drink them. He was quite sad that his knowledge wouldn't be passed on through his tribe and bloodline, and so he fully understood the significance of handing me his harmonica, as well as did I. He was passing something very special on to me in the hopes that I might continue the chain: That I might one day become this new curandero; or the "gringo shaman," and therefore a vessel maintaining the ancient knowledge he treasured and hoped would survive the passage into this new age that, from time to time, he saw glimpses of as it floated by on the Putumayo.
When we left the following morning, the parting was bitter sweet. I informed him I would try and return but he knew, as well as I, the actual possibility of this was slim. However, both of us realized this was also one of the many beginnings of the 500 year legend. I saw and felt real, earthy curanderismo; unadulterated by 1st World concepts and unadorned by all the rules I have sacrificed so much to learn and tried so hard to break.
Amidst the bedlam of the Putumayo exists a key to healing. In a tiny dirty village on the muddy, rust colored banks of this dangerous river lives a sometimes drunken and always sad ayahuasquero who showed me that the worlds rain forests and the ancient practices of healing evolving there are not a sham. There does exist the possibility to discover the cure for the maladies of the world. It just may be it won't come in a pill or a bottle; it might not be something you can even put into your hand. Perhaps it is just that it's an ethereal magic that will never be glimpsed under a microscope. Perhaps the future of healing is in access to and communication with another plane of existence.
That night I realized my methods of healing would also evolve as I hoped I would also learn to direct my energies towards asking questions of my patients following rituals, guiding them through self-inquiries, helping them recognize and work with their own internal healing energies.
For the following 6 months I moved from one healer to another, searching for one I felt could teach me. The quality of the ayahuasca always differed and never was it as potent as the Siona healer's. Skepticism continually gnawed at me, preventing me from completely accepting as visions the many hallucinations I had received within the 50 or 60 healing rituals I had participated and assisted my maestros in that year. I had failed to really secure my beliefs in the spiritual plane of existence as I thought I had seen so vividly on the banks of the Putumayo river. Yes, I was working with, speaking with, and witnessing many spirits, but I had a difficulty completely believing this plane of existence was real. The curanderos I had been working with also never seemed to be the "one" to whom I felt I had been sent to. Their singing of the icaros, in many cases, was too robotic, lacking the sensitivity I felt should naturally be there. Others I tested very obviously just wanted money. Each of the various teachers I came to all told me that they were the only true healer and everyone else I might decide to work with were brujos(15). In many ways I appreciated this egotistical information as it made my decision to move on, continuing my search for a teacher, much easier.
A little over a year later, before another return trip to my initial teacher, my San Pedro maestro in the mountains of Ecuador, I was informed of yet another curandero on the outskirts of Iquitos, Peru. I knew that one of the most precious gifts I could take to my maestro in Ecuador would be a bottle of freshly brewed ayahuasca because the vine doesn't grow in the chill of the Andean high altitude. I wandered through a small village persistently asking directions from the locals for the house of their community curandero. All of the homes in the neighboring villages on the outskirts of Iquitos are built on very small plots of land. They ususally don't have anything in the way of a garden as the land has been so washed with rainwater over the years that growing any sorts of garden plants is out of the question for lack of nutrients in the soil and the houses are plotted very close to each other. I finally rounded a corner at the back edge of a pueblo and came to a small, typically unpainted wooden slated, thatched roof home. I yelled, "hello", and the door was opened by a young Peruvian girl without the slightest register of interest that a gringo was now standing before her. She called for her Father and when he came into the house from the back our eyes met and I felt I had met a kindred soul. He was smiling inwardly and an air of humbleness issued from his body language. He walked me through his house to his back yard which was full of various medicinal plants and four times as large as any other yard in the neighborhood. He even had grass growing in the center which normally is machette-chopped out by the locals who prefer bare clay and daily sweeping to keep it clean. I explained that I would like to take a bottle of ayahuasca to my San Pedro maestro in Ecuador and asked if he could provide me with one.
"Si. I can have it ready for you tomorrow." He took me to his own patch of ayahuasca vine he had planted on the back edges of his property. "You have a San Pedro maestro in Ecuador?"
"Si, don Ramon. I have been working with San Pedro before I began working with ayahuasca."
"And you will be returning here to the jungle again." He knew. He finished chopping the vine and we gathered the pieces and walked back to his home. As I shook his hand we made plans to meet the next day and he told me, "When you return from the mountains you come back here. If you like, you may study here with me." This was the first time an ayahuasquero had asked me to apprentice. In the past I had visited the healers with this question in my mind. This time, it came naturally through him. The following day I returned to his home and paid him for his freshly cooked bottle of medicine. When I arrived in Ecuador I presented the medicine to my teacher and he immediately asked me about the spiritual orientation of the man that cooked it. His concern wasn't that the ingredients were correct or the cooking hadn't been managed properly. Ayahuasca, after all, is a rather simple medicine to make. His interest was geared toward what types of energies the chef would have put into his pot. I could only confess that I didn't know him but that the short time I had been around him the feelings I had were quite soulful.
As I again traveled back to the Peruvian jungles and the Amazon river and the beginnings of my studies with don Ramon, I found myself in nothern Peru, in Chiclayo, with 4 hours until my next bus arrived. I learned of a museum in the neighboring pueblo of Lambayeque. I took a three wheeled motor-rickshaw there and began my very first tour of a South American museum. I traversed the first and second floors, taking in the various layouts of the old cultures and their art and finally cllimbed the stairs to the third and final floor. As I rounded a corner I gasped in amazement: There before me, behind 10 foot tall glass panels, stood a mannequin draped in a full length robe. It was of a checkered pattern in light greens, creams and white. The collar was a nehru style. The sign below read: "INCAN."
Then I knew. Absolutely. The spirits I had seen on the Putumayo and those coming to me during San Pedro and ayahuasca rituals weren't simply abstracts of a vivid imagination manifested by a potent psychotropic. My mind hadn't been playing with me. I had not been hallucinating. They are absolutely real. I realized that had I at any point in my life ever studied South American art or history that the hallucination of the Spirits in the Plants could have been imprinted on me. I hadn't. It was the same feeling I had when I had been guided to the book in the library that was dedicated to my Uncle. Now finally, I felt I could begin my work in complete sincerity.
Continuing on toward Iquitos, Peru, I decided to visit with one of my San Pedro maestro's teachers, ayahuasquero don Jose Fatima of Pulcallpa. My traveling companion, Gina, had a very specific medical problem she hoped he might divine a cure for. She was 34 and without a menstrual cycle for over thirteen years. All possible allopathic tests had been performed in France without arriving at either cause or cure. Explaining this to don Jose, he deferred to his wife, a curandera(16), who was more of an expert with female maladies. She listened to the problem, then asked, "Can you give me a cigarette, Alan?" I handed her one. "I need three." don Jose Fatima closed the wooden window covers allowing for a darkened room. She banded three cigarettes together to resemble a pan flute, and lit them. She watched as the smoke swirled up slowly; she turned them, twisting her wrist first one way, then another. An ash fell off and she studied that also. The cigarettes had burned down more than halfway, and as she looked back and forth to Gina, the ashes, and the smoke, she finally asked, "Do you have a friend named Sasha?" We had been staying in Quito, Ecuador with a man named Sasha and I told her so. "No, Alan. This isn't a man. It's a woman; a black woman from many years ago."
Gina thought for a moment, and finally her face lit up. "Yes! I had a friend named Sasha years ago in France. A woman. Maybe 15 years ago or more." The two women looked at each other in that telepathic way men are so often envious of.
"Si, senorita. This friend you had many years ago, Sasha, used to have the same problem you have now." There was a long pause again as the meaning slowly sank in. "But she doesn't have the problem anymore. You do. This woman has taken your birthing power away. You must get it back. You must go and see her to do this."
"Do you mean that this woman.... has menstruation now... and she didn't before? That she took this from me? On purpose? ...She is some sort of witch?"
don Jose's wife gazed deeply into her soul and repeated, "You must go and see her."
That evening, Gina, the apprentice and I drank ayahuasca sitting strangely quiet on the concrete floor of his house in one of the slums surrounding Pulcalpa, Peru. Don Jose is about 80 and said he didn't drink ayahuasca anymore. It wasn't necessary. He had also recently had a prostrate operation and the forces involved in purging were just too great. Later, during the ritual, I literally saw he could reach the state required to heal by using only his mind.
I sat on the concrete floor with don Jose on a short stool almost on top of me. No patients had come as this was an impromptu ceremony. The apprentice began air whistling(17) icaros and everyone spoke in curiously subdued tones. His wife explained that we dare not risk singing the icaros out loud because of the late night thieves. This could be dangerous if they discovered gringos were in the house. They might want to rob us. don Jose just sat there, staring at me the entire evening, occasionally asking me how I was doing, interrupting my train of thought. There were no locals present for healing so I felt I had an opportunity to explore some of the techniques used in searching for animal spirits. I had skimmed several books on shamanism while visiting the US and one of the subjects getting the majority of attention was "animal spirits". Each time I looked up from this search, don Jose was staring at me. I assumed he was trying to determine how his former student, who was my San Pedro curandero-maestro, was doing by studying me. I thought this rather humorous because I didn't know what I was doing. I had never been taught anything about animal spirits. I thought it interesting that, from one of the books I had read, you could find your animal spirit by closing your eyes and listening to drumming. How absurdly simply. Even thought there was no drumming, I did have an evening free and decided to experiment. Two hours into the ritual I looked up and found myself face to face with a milky-white substance. Containing my initial shock, I looked it over trying not to get cross-eyed. It was in the form of a coyote.
"I see you there." I whispered, and it swooped back, entering the head of don Jose.
We slept on the concrete floor that night with his entire extended family. My mind was too busy with travel logistics for the return to Iquitos to get any sleep and then the baby began crying and crying and crying. I was so tired, and with this noise unable to be abated by its Mother, sleep was next to impossible. I began trying to soothe the baby in my mind and laughed to myself when the child stopped crying. My mind wandered again; scattered energy. The baby started crying. I mentally soothed and, oddly enough, the crying stopped again.
"That's funny," I thought, and I again cruised the various travel possibilities for the next day. The baby cried. I soothed. It stopped. There were now just too many coincidences.
Purposefully, I started thinking discordantly and the baby cried. I soothed and it stopped. To my dismay at having to use the baby this way, I repeated this over and over just to make sure. It was real. This was happening.
We stirred awake in the morning and don Jose said to me,
"Alan, you were very concentrated last night. What were you doing?"
I felt ridiculous as I didn't know what I was doing, or if he had any knowledge of, or interest in, animal spirits. Hesitantly, I told him, "I was looking for my animal spirits", and when he responded with, "And did you find any?", I knew he understood.
"No, I didn't, but I saw one of yours."
As I watched for his reaction, the entire family came around behind him, scrutinizing me. Don Jose just smiled.
"What was it?" He asked.
"A coyote," I said.
And while he gently nodded his head in affirmation, his family was more ecstatic, responding, "Si, si!" and one of the younger children even clapped his hands.
A year later, Gina returned to France and, strangely enough, received a letter from her old friend Sasha the day after her arrival: Sasha wanted to see her. Later, I visited Gina in France and asked her what happened.
"Well," she hesitated, "I haven't been to see her."
After a long, pregnant pause, I asked, "Did you at least write her back?"
"No." She said.
"Gina. I don't think you really want your power back."
After visiting with don Jose Fatima, we continued on down the Amazon river to visit Gina's first maestro, Fernando, who had a camp 5km's into the jungle at Requena, where he ran "ayahuasca tourism"(18) programs. Gina lived here for three months, two years ago, drinking ayahuasca, and hoping, along with the other tourists, for visionary experiences. In all of her rituals with Fernando she had yet to be gifted with anything resembling even an hallucination, let alone a vision. "But profoundly meditative and very cleansing," she told me. While living in Iquitos I had heard he brewed an extremely strong ayahuasca, although a bit heavy on the vine (betacarbolines), so I was looking forward to drinking with him. HeHe had personally invited Gina and I to his camp. Requena is a moderately sized but depressed mestizo(19) community of maybe 700 people, ten hours up the Amazon river from Iquitos by colectivo (slow riverbus). We spent the night with a local Peruvian family and the following afternoon walked with Fernando and his lover the 5km's into the jungle to his camp. During the walk Fernando entertained us with some of the more outlandish visions the tourist had seen in his rituals and explained how he believes it to be unsound to sing icaros memorized from another maestro in his ritual unless specifically asked to do so. He had invited the local Requena villagers to drink with us, and eighteen showed up. In the largest and most centrally located hut in his camp, we drank his brew sitting around the inside perimeter walls, quietly listening to the icaros he quite beautifully blew into a pan flute, then alternating with plucking a one-stringed, guitar-like instrument. He was absolutely an artist, an entertainer, and I was reminded more of theatre than curanderismo. I drank two small glasses of "La Purga"(20) and the evening passed rather humorously as most of the villagers fell asleep around 4am, after having purged with forces ranging from quietly lady-like fortissimo's to manly tubas syncopating a marching beat. That evening I listened to a full symphony of regurgitation in utter psycho-tropic darkness. It was a pleasant experience, with none of the seriousness normally found when people have come to be healed. For this, I appreciated the evening and don Fernando, and so, too, did the villagers who knew him. At daybreak you could hear them joyously laughing and carrying on quite pleasant conversations while they bathed in the nearby stream and collected their belongings preparing for their return trek.
Now we were four: Fernando, his lover, Gina and I. In his open air kitchen we had a heavy, under-cooked, bean-soupy sort of breakfast and exchanged thoughts about last nights show. Gina and Fernando had a chance to catch up as there had been no opportunity to speak with each other since she left his jungle refuge five months earlier. Just before he left, Fernando gave Gina a bottle of "ayahuasca " for our use that evening. He informed us of the two spirits continuously with him and those that guard this camp. This subject for a conversation came as a complete surprise. It seemed he was telling me because he thought I might have perceived it during last nights show, or maybe I had heard some odd things about him while visiting other curanderos. I realized it could also be his way of insuring we treat his camp with respect after he left. He related a heartfelt story of how, on one occasion, he requested these spirits guarding his camp to help him in preventing the loggers from cutting on his property. When the company began chopping close to his land, two of the loggers apparently died in bizarre ways, which he claims were the direct effect of his guardian spirits. He seemed sincerely depressed about this as he had only wanted the logging stopped. He did not fathom the spirits would or could actually cause anyones death. Shortly following the slow death of one logger from a debilitating disease, the cause of which the doctors could never determine, the second logger came uninvited to Fernando's home during a party. The man danced, had a few drinks, and left, without ever actually mentioning anything about the death of his friend. He was attempting to befriend Fernando. The man said, in passing conversation, that he simply worked for the logging company and had no authority as to where they were told to cut. In subtle ways this was either his attempt to ask for safety while not actively and consciously suggesting that a brujo could have had any influence on his friends death, or he was denying the possibility that malevolent spiritual energies could have been responsible.
Fernando explained, "I am not in control of these spirits. They are indeed evil and for some reason incredibly protective of me. There was really nothing I could do to help him, even if these spirits were responsible."
This man also died a few months later in a strange accident involving a bulldozer. Fernando told me he was sad, but these events were out of his control. He seemed completely sincere as he related this story but because it was so totally bizarre I was unsure as to exactly what he was trying to tell me. Was he insinuating he was a brujo? That he had spirits protecting his camp, ...okay..., and two spirits that always remained with him, yes again, as I have mine also, I've felt them, been contacted by them, and my San Pedro maestro has even seen them during rituals. But, that his spirits could kill? I was somewhat skeptical. He then explained how Gina should be careful with whom she drinks. He told us that it is possible for men to come to her in spirit form in an attempt to have sex and that she must recognize this as a real event and prevent it through strong concentration.
That evening Gina and I drank one large dose from the bottle he left with us and entered the large conference hut, placing a mattress in the center of the room. We made ourselves comfortable, curling up under two blankets. As darkness slowly approached I began chanting, singing the icaros learned from my San Pedro maestro. After an hour or so the medicine was in full affect. Gina, sitting on the mattress to the right of and slightly behind me, began a conversation. I stopped singing, as she must be talking to me -- we were the only people here.
"What is it Gina. What do you want?"
"Just keep singing Alan. I'm not talking with you."
"You're not talking to me? Then who are you talking to?"
"Alan," she said in that 'Oh you silly boy' manner, "to the other people here from the village drinking with us."
"Other people from the village?" I asked. Then to clarify, "How many other people are here, Gina?"
"Oh,... I don't know exactly, but I'd say about 20. Just look around for yourself."
But, ... there were no other people here. I knew what she was seeing and, explained that they were spirits of people, not flesh and blood. She just laughed it off.
"Alan, will you please stop joking with me?"
She started walking about this large open space, going through invisible doors, entering rooms that weren't there, and quite pleasantly carrying on two-and-more sided conversations until, in the far corner, the darkest area of this large open space, she had a very long talk with what, finally I began to see also, were two people, one of which was in a long hooded black cloak. As I began to see him, I glimpsed a milky colored face and became concerned that possibly it was a skeletal head under a black hood. I couldn't help but associate negative forces with black clothing and after I had seen what I thought was a skeletal face, I had no choice but to behave towards this as if it were dangerous; especially after the breakfast conversation I had with Fernando. I told Gina to return to the mattress immediately.
"Sit down here with me please," I suggested.
She rather pleasantly and frankly stated, "I'd like to sit down with you for a while, but you have," and she counted them, "one, two, three, ...... eight other people on the mattress with you, ... there simply is not any room, Alan."
Finally I demanded she sit, and obviously to appease me, she sat down on the mattress. As she made a place for herself next to me I asked about those "friends" she had been speaking with in the corner.
"Yes, there are two of them," as I had seen. When I asked her to describe them to me, she did, but she didn't mention anything about a skeletal face. The clothing, however, was identical to my description. We were seeing the same things. But as to their capacity for evil? Again, I determined that it was better to be safe than sorry especially after having heard the story told to me by Fernando.
"Gina, please listen to me. I see the same people, but you have got to realize these are not of flesh and blood; they are spirits. And those two in the corner you have been speaking with? They are evil. Do you understand? I'm going to tell them to leave and you can not go back over into that corner any more, all right?"
She had such a wide-eyed, innocent expression on her face. Her whole demeanor was childlike, so I spoke to her as if she were a child. She happily said, "Okay."
I rose from the mattress in the center of the room and nervously walked over to the dark corner. I had no idea what I was going to do but as I got closer a natural instinct came over me. With a strong hand gesture and a loud yell of "vaya!"(21) I demanded they leave. I no longer saw them so apparently they got the message. I kept a close eye on Gina and continued singing the icaros.
I watched as she again opened numerous non-existent doors and worked through a maze of rooms that weren't there. Finally she came back to me. Her behavior was strange, like a wild-eyed child's first visit to Disneyland. More and more I felt I was beginning to lose my patience with her.
"Alan, would you like something to eat? They've made some food for us. It's hot."
"There's no food here." I said bluntly.
And just like a silly little girl, she said, "Of course there is, they just made it; it's ready."
"Okay, bring me some." I had hoped her actually trying to deliver food would help jolt her back to reality. She arrived back to the mattress without food, of course, and extremely confounded. She described the kitchen, the very kind woman inside who handed her the tray, the steaming food, ... but as she reached out, her hands when right through it, and now she couldn't grasp what was going on. I explained again that these were spirits, not people, but she was completely incapable of internalizing this. The look on her face was utter confusion, partly scared but mostly sad, as she felt she was somehow being manipulated by her new friends in a cruel joke.
"Alan, there are some more of my friends outside, and it's raining, cold. Can I open the door and let them come in?"
"No. You cannot."
"I have one friend whose Father is on the way to pick her up. Can she at least come in?"
"No. You can not let anyone else in this room."
"Can I go to the bathroom?" Ayahuasca typically purges you from both ends, neither of which we had done yet, so I lit a makeshift oil lamp, the base of which was a small coffee can with a wick coming out through a hole punched in the aluminum lid, and led her outside, down the ramp running over the shallow lake formed by the overflowing creek, and finally to the outdoor john. Then we began the return trip. Upon arrival, I held the door open for Gina to enter and looked back for her but she had disappeared into the absolute darkness of the moonless, overcast night.
"Gina!" I yelled.
"Yes?" She was only 10 yards away but on a ramp at the edge of the deepest pool here.
"What are you doing?"
"This man here wanted me to talk to him for just a moment," she said.
"No, come here ... right now," and she did, instantly. She listened and gave me credence all night instead of the spirits. Had she not, I don't know what would have happened. Perhaps she would have wandered off and drowned or been led deep into the jungle in the middle of the night, a very dangerous place to be at that time.
Around 4AM we decided to go upstairs and try to get some sleep. Just as I climbed inside the mosquito net, she saw something else.
"Alan, I'm sorry to bother you again, but could you tell that man to go away? He scares me and I don't like him."
This was the first time she had mentioned being scared the entire evening. She described him as a very large Indian with a loincloth, armbands, and he had a bow drawn back, aiming his arrow at us. She was scared. And, in many ways, I was too. I knew spirits could be more than just simple hallucinations. Even if these were hallucinations the psychological damage could be long lasting. I vehemently yelled for the spirit to leave, again using the Spanish "vaya!". I didn't know what else to do. I hadn't learned how to deal with this type of situation yet. I had used it as I sometimes do with the beggars in South America that get over zealous; and, it had apparently worked before.
"Is he still there?" I asked.
"No. He's gone." She told me.
The entire night I completely believed, accepted, and responded to what she saw. There was no other way do handle the situation. I witnessed her maneuvering in and out of this maze of rooms all night, watched and listened to her speaking with them, interacting with them. I wanted to protect her but I was unsure I knew enough to be of any real help. I only hoped that during the night, as I kept singing the icaros, we would be protected, and I feared if this wasn't enough we could be lost; we could be way over our heads and in some kind of trouble which, at the time, I really could not fathom.
Crawling back under the mosquito net we half attempted to get some sleep, but it just wasn't possible. We returned downstairs as the dim light of the sun began filtering itself into the space, apparently sending the ghouls away and bringing Gina enough lucidity that she began to understand what happened, but was concerned she wouldn't completely come back. I sat once again on the mattress in the center of the room and she milled about the space taking in the views of the jungle while the sun's light continued to bring her more and more clarity. Then, in full daylight, she walked over to me and, in shock, saw two very old women under the blanket with me. She wasn't as lost as she had been because the brew had worked its way through her system, but there was still enough residual in her system that she continued to have access to this other world, even in full daylight. She was now clear enough to fully comprehend that these were spirits and she was capable of continuing to see into their reality. Slowly and steadily, as the morning progressed, she came around. Somewhere around noon we hiked the five kilometers back into sanity; to the Amazon River and Requena.
I believe were it not for her strength of character she could have suffered irreversible psychological damage from this bizarre experience. We spent the entire day speaking of it, recalling all the events, and in so doing, with her maintaining complete lucidity without paranoia, she became whole again.
Two weeks passed before I was able to ask Fernando about this brew. I questioned him about his use of toe and how much had he put into this batch. He demanded that the strength was due to the type of ayahuasca vine. He said it was negro ayahuasca and chacruna and had no toe in it at all. That's hard to believe. I realize that within the 4,500 curanderos here in this region of Peruvian jungle called Loreto, there are many secrets, especially when it comes to their medicine. This drink, however, was not what I would call a medicine. There was obviously something else stirred into it besides banisteriopsis caapi and psychotria viridis. As far as I know, the addition of a negro ayahuasca, which is suppposedly a much stronger type of ayahuasca vine would only account for the presence of more harmaline and harmala(22), not more DMT(23). The half-life of DMT in your system is, at a maximum, 4 hours. I knew I would never get it out of Fernando exactly what this was. This ritual had begun at 6pm and ended at 6am. Twelve hours. I was reminded of the advice given by my San Pedro maestro when I left for the Putumayo river: "Be careful of who you drink with, and certainly never drink more than they do."
When drinking alone without the presence of a curandero, especially without the presence of the curandero who made the medicine and to whom the ritual space belongs, you must take it upon yourself to prepare the space. In North America, the medicine-men use sage smoke to clean the energies. In South America the typical method is to burn Palo Santo ("Holy Wood"). Mapacho (Nicotiana tabacum)(24) tobacco also works. This not only prepares the space by clearing out whatever spirits may be "nesting" there, but helps to put you in the correct psychological state by virtue of having gone through these steps. I knew these things when we drank Fernando's brew. I simply forgot to implement them. As a Mother cautions the child about speaking with strangers, beware of drinking brews from those you don't know. Sometimes rule-breaking can be dangerous.
Just over five hundred years ago the Western World all but destroyed the great nations of the Americas. They could not have succeeded with the force of arms alone so for some ungodly reason disease and fear spoiled cultures that would have been absolutely magnificent.
And now a new epoch has begun. The desire to reassemble those pieces that may still be found back into the puzzle, that we might somehow catch a glimpse of what was, and what still could be, haunts us. The most mysterious and precious of these pieces is the healer/curandero. Embodied within their ancient form of healing is a knowledge of mysticism and plant spirit medicine that may never be understood by modern medicine.
There exists a wealth of literature available on mysticism, shamanism, sorcery, magic, witchcraft, etc..., dealing generally with personal experiences and even giving rather precise instructions on how to find the various locations, teachers, and even the exact formulas necessary to turn a Sacred Power Plant into an entheogen(25). This ease of access to the mystical through entheogenic formulas is startling and possibly dangerous. Taking any form of mind altering medicine without preliminary rudimentary education and controlled investigation can lead to possible possession of the body by unknown subtle energies, permanent psychotic mental states, and even to a loss of the soul.
When under the influence of Sacred Power Plants you leave yourself open to being possessed, which can be very dangerous, but more importantly, you hope the plant will show itself to you, enabling you to understand its power and apprehend its uses as a medicine, for healing. As their names imply, Sacred Power Plants are to be ingested with the hope of being taught their medicine by energies of Light and the Spirits of the Plants. As fascinating as it may appear when reading accounts in various books and magazines of other-worldly visionary experiences, it is without a doubt something that should not be taken lightly. The negative energies and spirits can attach themselves to you and be extremely difficult to remove, even with the help of a curandero. Simply having memorized the various icaros and singing them during make-shift rituals is not sufficient, and could even create more havoc by giving you a false sense of security. The vibrations set up from these chantings must come from a spiritual center within yourself with such purity of purpose that your essence exudes the Light. I would also suggest that if you choose to play shaman, you do it in the midst of your maestro-shaman: a healer who has learned the majority of his icaros from the plants themselves. Without this the icaros are merely songs, sung for affect. If you memorize an icaro you have recorded from a curandero you are only reciting and its power may also reflect that. It is, however, a beginning and shouldn't prevent you from continuing your studies. Good teachers are difficult to come by, so you must center your energy such that when you recant these icaros the soul you expose is pure, humble, forgiving, gracious, endearing, egoless, and respectful for the icaro and the maestro from whom it came. Ideally your icaros should to be learned from the Spirits of the Plants. However, only they decide when, where, and if you will be granted this gift. This power comes only to those who have been shown the path. The desire to become a healer isn't enough. You must have been granted this gift in order to properly pursue it. However, it is possible that the "granting" can come after the student has already been studying, as the Spirits of the Plants can decide to teach you at any moment. The power to convey the Light through the chantings comes from your soul being its conduit. The"purer you are, spiritually, and the "cleaner" you are, physically, the more powerful are the incantations and their protection, and more the likely-hood of your being used by the energies of goodness.
Let there be no doubt: There are at least two forces of spirits at work here.
At least two.
Glancing over my life, I see that even during my childhood odd events occurred and, at the time, I had no realization they contained any significance. Now, with almost 44 years and a grandfather, I see things a little more clearly. The years brought more to me than just perspective. The Light is better.
Remembering my childhood in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, I see a child onto which much magic was bestowed. At 9 years of age, I was sauntering down Central street when I was rained upon by baby frogs. I looked around, noticing it was only within my 50 foot radius that this was happening. I was completely alone.
A few years later, when my sister was sick, I crept downstairs late at night because something "told me" to go to her. As I neared her bed she opened her eyes:
"Alan, what are you doing?" She quietly asked me.
"I don't know, Carla, but I just feel that if I could put my hands near you, move them over your body for a few minutes, I could make you feel better. Is that okay?"
"Where does it hurt?" I remember asking her.
And, as she placed her hands on her stomach, I began moving my hands lightly over the area and thinking about taking away her "hurt." I remember having the feeling that I was watching myself do this from a distance; seeing a little boy healing her and watching the healing happen in his hands. After only five minutes I asked her, "Do you feel better?"
And in that rich southeastern Kentucky twang accent of hers she said, "Why yes, I do. Thank you Alan. I do feel better now. I do. You made it go away." In the innocence of youth, she wasn't amazed and neither was I.
One day coming home from playing on the mountain, as I stopped to allow my friend to catch up, a strange feeling came over me to look under my left foot. I had to dig it up as only the surface of the rock was exposed. It was a geode. I was awed by the magical way it was delivered to me.
And here's my point: We live in an allopathic world that has slowly and methodically taken away the credibility of our minds belief system in magic and the ability to suspend our disbelief. It isn't that the magic has gone, it's just that we have forgotten how and where to look for it. We have also lost our natural ability to listen for it as we have foolishly allowed information to replace intuition. We have half-wittily allowed ritual to be removed from our lives. In our search for concise, logical communication we have spelled near-death to whatever telepathic abilities we once had. We have forgotten that we must continue to allow ourselves to be mystified; we must remain perceptive to the knowledge not generally known.
Sixteen years ago, in a small town library, my Uncle came to me. I was busy and quiet in the back corner trying to determine what play would be the most appropriate to direct for this Bible Belt community. Other than the librarian at her desk near the front door, I was alone. My Uncle, Albert Thomas Shoemaker, was my Father-Figure, as my Mother divorced when I was three years old.
Just three months after I received a "National Endowment for the Arts" grant with a placement in the Bible-Belt as its "Artist-in-Residence", my Uncle died in a freak car accident in Boston. Two months later, as I was sitting quiet and alone in this county library a sensation came over me to stand up and begin walking past several stacks of books. The feeling is difficult to explain as I was spoken to in a way that negated actual words but gave me a "knowing" or a "clairaudience(26)." I followed this internal voice passing several stacks, turning left walking between the shelves, until I was guided to "stop, reach out and grab a book." Without looking I did so, pulling down a book with my left hand. Opening it up to the first page, it read: Dedicated to Albert Thomas Shoemaker, my Uncle. I had never been to this library and I had never heard of this book.
There had been other experiences in my childhood: More than once I awoke and saw ghosts floating above my Mother's bed. When I asked my sister about it and she said, "Did you see them too?", I assumed this must be normal. I was around nine years old when I had the sudden revelation that other people couldn't read my mind as I was reading theirs. What a relief it was to know that. I felt I had been released from a mental prison. Now, as I look back on things, I realize that those events too were just as important in affirming to me there is not only an accessible spirit world but most certainly, there is a path for each of us if we can only quiet ourselves down long enough to listen.
Various other mysterious events led me down to the Amazon over four years ago. I traveled by land through Mexico and Central America and I was continually reminded that I am being guided. In the Calle, Columbia central park I watched from a distance as a man released a guinea pig that ran down an alley formed by 150 people on each side. The two walls of people forming this 20 foot wide alley allowed the animal only one escape: It must choose one of the 50 tiny doors that had been cut into each of the upside down, plastic dogfood bowls that formed a horseshoe shape connecting the human-alley walls. Money had been placed on top of many of the bowls. They were gambling, and their shadowy faces were intently focused on this pig and which door it would chose to enter. I watched this a couple of times, fascinated, until a now "known" sensation came over me to play also. I reached into my pocket with my left hand and allowed myself to be guided, placing my change on top of one of the bowls. The guinea pig wandered down the alley and walked directly into my bowl. I explained to my traveling companion what had happened, but he tossed it off as coincidence. His reluctance to accept my explanation that the correct bowl had been a divination disturbed me, so, in order to validate my initial experience, I told him I would do it again. Holding my arm out like a divining rod, I, for first time in my life, asked this spirit or sensation to guide me to the correct bowl. I felt foolish. How could I possibly be shown the bowl? This situation stood for everything I had imagined spirits would be against: Gambling, ego, and a reward of money. I waited impatiently, arm extended, but nothing came. I apologized inwardly to the spirit; still nothing came. Quieting myself, I somehow found that silent space where I had so often been when these mysterious events came to me. Then it happened: That sensation. With my left hand stretched out in front of me, I allowed it to lead me, as if it were some sort of divining rod, to placing the change onto the top of one of the 50 bowls. I had called out for the spirit to guide me and I was certain I had been answered. I knew this was the correct bowl.
The man holding the guinea pig at the far end of the alley let it go. It ran down the opposite side of where I had placed the change and poked its head into one of the tiny cut-out doors, then another. I didn't breathe, for it seemed that every bit of concentration I had was in the magic. The animal paused, turned its head in the opposite direction to the other side of the horseshoe, and ran directly across into my bowl.
"Yes!", I yelled, "Yes!"
Having already known the truth, I moved a step nearer to what has now come to be one of my methods of healing: I called, and it came.
In Iquitos, Peru, I began working with don Ramon, the ayahuasquero, and continued my studies with him for over two years. He and his family of 7 lived in a small shack with a dirt floor. It was here that I truly began to understand what curanderismo healing really was. It was also here that I had my first two experiences in healing as well as my own initiation as a curandero-ayahuasquero.
Don Ramon always made himself available to those seeking a cure. As with all ayahuasqueros, he performed his ceremonies on Tuesday and Friday nights, and I was continually amazed by the types of illnesses that would show up. Most often the curing would be based around a sickness that would come into a person through the actions of a brujo. Don Ramon would sing icaros designed specifically to counter the effects of this "brujeria" (black magic). He often would place his right hand on the affected area in order to pull out the magical illness, normally caused by either a virote (other-dimemsional magical dart) shot into its intended victim by a brujo or from an evil incantation. Another means of effectively countering the effects of burjeria is with tobacco smoke and the use of the chacapa. Don Ramon was always careful as to the patients he would accept, for if one of them were to die on his property he would be put in danger with the Peruvian authorities. We, however, did decide to take one patient who later passed on two months after returning to her own home. Her husband had carried her to don Ramon and layed her down on on a bamboo mat in the center of his dirt floored ritual hut.
"Alan, please take a look at this woman and tell me what you think."
He asked me to raise her blouse and look at her stomache. Floating there in her stomache cavity was a large object, quite foreign to the body.
"Place your hand on it Alan," he told me. And laying my hand just above her belly-button directly on top it I felt what seemed more like a petrified object, rock-hard and cratered; the size of a grapefruit.
"Come outside and talk to me," he then asked.
I told don Ramon that, in my opinion, this woman should be sent to the hospital. He quietly informed me that she had been there already and they sent her away, telling her they could see nothing. Her husband told me that the three times he had previously taken her to the hospital the ball in evidence here was hidden and the x-rays also showed no evidence of any abnormality. That was difficult to believe. We decided to try and work with her. Within the first week the ball had disappeared somewhere into her stomach cavity and her left leg, from the top of her thigh to her knee began to swell up like a balloon. Her pain was agonizing and was only somewhat relieved when daily, I would give her a massage on her lower back around her spine. At times it became so intense that I purchased pain medication from the Iquitos pharmacy. Don Ramon continued making various herbal drinks for her and we continued performing ayahuasca ceremonies for four weeks in her presence without any effect. She continued losing weight, the ball never reappeared, and the pain and swelling was increasing. In desperation, we finally determined that perhaps she should drink the medicine also. We held what we hoped would be one last ritual. After the effects of the medicine set in don Ramon asked me to try and "see", using a curanderos x-ray like vision, what was causing the problem. I tried looking into her body but nothing came. He was determined that this was caused by a brujo and that he held enough power to reverse it. Curanderos are careful to accept only those cases of brujeria which they believe were caused from a brujo weaker than them. Finally a message came to me, perhaps more out of my own frustrations with this situation than from any actual vision. Even now I'm not sure. Don Ramon was actively demanding that a healing come forth and the poor woman was also listening to our frustrated conversations. I felt so helpless. I remember thinking that even if I get no clear vision of what this was that perhaps I should fabricate something just for their sake. The power of the mind and of placebo healing came into my thoughts as I told him, "don Ramon, I see a two headed snake that has moved from the lower stomach down into her left leg. It can't manuever past the knee joint and it can't turn around, that's why we have all the swelling. The rock-hard ball that we saw floating in her stomach a month ago is its feces sack which is being pulled along behind it." This was quite a fantastic synopsis I related to don Ramon and this poor woman especially since and I wasn't sure exactly how I came to this conclusion. Intuition is one thing and claire-audience quite distinctly another and to distinguish the difference is very difficult. That ability comes only through years of experience. Don Ramon called me outside the ritual hut to discuss our next move.
"Good. A two-headed snake. Are you absolutely sure?" He asked me.
"Well, I don't know, don Ramon. But that's what I feel." I knew I was giving him the type of information that he needed so he could at least begin working on a specific cure. I also felt that I had fabricated this out of a sense of sympathy for both don Ramon and the old woman. I was confused.
"Listen to me," he said. "I will sing an icaro of a bird that normally eats snakes. With this icaro I hope to entice its spirit into the ritual to eat this snake she has inside of her. This is a difficult thing to do so I must concentrate very deeply. You can help me by watching for the bird. If it comes please tell me." Now I felt that I could have gotten us even deeper into a black hole. In my attempts to allieviate the anxieties of don Ramon and the woman I, unwittedly, may have only heightened their frustrations when no healing comes about. What a mess I had created.
We returned to the ritual and don Ramon began singing this icaro over and over but I saw nothing. Finally he moved over to the woman and began trying to pull the snake out using a cupping motion of his hand on her lower thigh. Again I saw nothing. He kept asking me on each of his attempts to draw the snake out and I continued to tell him, "No. Nada, don Ramon." I realized then that perhaps I had gotten us into this situation with my "seeing" so perhaps it would be best to tell him that I was beginning to see things leaving her leg as he tried so frantically to pull it out. And as I did so I could feel a change in the energy of the room. It was almost as if I could hear an audible sigh of relief not only from don Ramon but also from the woman.
The next morning when I went to her she had noticably changed. She was relieved and there was substantially less pain. In the next few days she decided the time had come to return home to her family. When her husband arrived to get her she was able to walk out on her own accord. We were pleased that she left his home in better condition than when she came to us, but realized that a complete healing did not come about. He sadly informed me that the brujo who had inserted this illness into her was stronger than he. Two months later that her husband came to me in Iquitos, informing me that she had passed away. While I still felt that the snake was pure fabrication I also understood very clearly how, under certain circumstances, it was also important to give the patient (and in this instance the healer) something to believe in, for I also knew that the powers inherent in people, when activated, could absolutely cure anything. Don Ramon feels this too and often works in this way (but told me that my imaging of the two-headed snake was real, regardless of what I thought. I felt that, under the circumstances, he could not have come to any other conclusions.)
A few months later, don Ramon's wife, Reyna, had been bitten by something on the pulse point of her left wrist. She came to me in frustration that this tiny bite was continually itching. It looked like nothing more than a small mosquito bite. After a week's time, this very small bite had become a volcano rising up from her wrist to the height of my small fingernail, with a diameter of a watch face, oozing a creamy white pus. Don Ramon and I were baffled. I asked the military doctors in Iquitos what their opinion was, but they too were nonplused. They suggested powdered penicillin to be poured directly into the open wound. I tried this and the fever subsided for only two days and the wound continued growing and seeping. We watched daily as large knots of cartilage type material began forming, first on her wrist, and then every two inches up her arm, continuing to her shoulder. Reyna's left arm became rock-hard, the volcano growing larger, and her fever was back. When these hard knots disappeared down into her chest, possibly moving towards her heart, I again sought in vain for some relief from the military doctors.
The following morning don Ramon came to me in desperation, suggesting we drink ayahuasca that evening in the hopes of divining a cure.
"Si, don Ramon. Of course." I agreed rather nervously, as when he presented this I felt he was asking me to divine the cause of her illness, a responsibility I felt reluctant and incapable of handling. Immediately we began to prepare the medicine. Don Ramon cut vines from his half-acre piece of property and I searched for chacruna as he had only the very small plants I had presented to him growing on his land. When I returned from having purchased the chacruna from the plant market in Belen, one of the suburbs of Iquitos, he had already cut the vine into small segments, smashed them with his hammer so the boiling water could reach into all the various crevices of the vine, and brought water to a boil. He had been smoking mapacho tobacco and singing icaros over the smashed vines when he looked up and saw me there with a large bag of chacruna. He came over to me, reached into the bag, and pulling out a hand full said, very seriously, "Legitimo?"
"Si, Ramon. Genuine." I lightly pounded the chacruna leaves with a mallet to open them for better extraction, then placed approximately half a kilo of the fresh leaves into the ceramic coated pot. He was one of the luckier curanderos in the jungle. He had been gifted the cooking pot by a Canadian friend. Normally the pots are aluminum. Don Ramon puffed his mapacho cigarette and blew the smoke into the pot, protecting the energies we had given to this medicine and driving away any negative energy that may have been able to conceal itself within its confines. He placed his usual three leaves of toe into the mix and then slowly put the vine into the pot, singing icaro's to bless the medicine and give us vision when we drank. He cooked all day, pouring the essence into another container each time the water had cooked down leaving only 2 inches in the pot. He repeated this process two more times, saving the essence each time, until only a golden brown liquid remained. He pulled some of the wood from the fire and began slowly cooking down this essence with less heat. Following another hour rumbling on a slow boil our medicine was complete. We took a short nap and at 9pm entered the large ritual hut we had recently built beside his home.
That evening we drank the medicine hoping to divine a cure for Reyna. As the ceremony began don Ramon asked me to go into a trance-like state and call the spiritual body of Reyna before me. I had never attempted this before so I followed his instructions as centeredly as possible. Deeply under the influence of the medicine, I called forth the vision of Reyna, concentrating intensely on nothing but "seeing" her. Just over an hour had passed, and finally I had her form before me. Whether this was simply creative visualization or I actually had succeeded in bringing her spirit there in front of me, I wasn't sure. But, I could see Reyna lying in her bed under the mosquito net, asleep, sweating. I looked for her left arm and then to the open wound on her wrist. Don Ramon asked me if I could "see" Reyna, and I responded, "Si", without losing visual contact with her image.
"What is it?" he asked.
Only at that instant did I know, as if the word had been planted in my mind. "An insect, maestro."
"Si, Alan," he said, "but how do you cure it?" His voice was fraught with emotion and frustration as he had been asking me to determine what the remedy for her was and wasn't interested in how it came about. Curanderos have a difficult time treating/seeing members of their own family, and generally call on other curanderos to divine for them. I was embarassed and felt worthless, even though I was stunned that the cause of her illness had so quickly issued forth from my thoughts. In that very instant, as I started to apologize for not having given him what he needed, the word "salt" came out of my mouth of its own volition. I hadn't put it there. Indeed, I had not even attempted to divine a remedy at all.
"Salt?" he asked. "How?"
And then I knew. It was absolutely clear. "Two spoonfuls of salt in your hand and just a little water to make a paste. Put this directly into the open wound."
I did not know what I was saying or where this cure had come from but don Ramon understood, sighed in relief, thanked me and said he would do this at first light.
I was nervous. What had happened here? I explained to don Ramon that I was confused; that this word "salt" had issued from my mouth without my having formed any sort of logical deductions. I pleaded with him not to do this as placing salt into an open wound would be incredibly painful and, again, I was at a loss to explain where this had come from.
"Alan, this is curanderismo. This is the method of healing. Don't worry."
At first light I hurried into Iquitos to visit one last time with the military doctors. I pleaded with him to wait until I returned, as placing salt in an open wound would be incredibly painful and I was at a complete loss as to how this word popped out of my mouth. Again the doctors were no help, and I returned to the shack to see don Ramon standing in the yard with a cocky grin on his face. I told him the doctors were as confused as I was. He just stood there, smiling at me. It was obvious what he had done.
"You did it, didn't you?" I asked.
He had made the salt paste, placing it directly into the wound; holding it there with the pressure of his hand. After a few minutes he removed his hand and the volcano gushed out pure creamy fluid, then a more liquid watery substance. It was finished. One month later you could not even see that she had ever been bitten.
Don Ramon was forever greatful to me for this healing. After working with him for two years he became more and more my friend instead of my teacher. He brought to me the realization that we are our own teachers. He was my guide, initially, through the beautifully strange path of the ayahuasquero until I finally realized where the soul of this healing was: Inside me, just waiting to be activated. Don Ramon built in me a confidence
that has allowed me to continue believing in these strange miraculous events that have so quickly invaded my soul. He kept me from becoming entangled in what could easily have become an endless maze with no soul. I will forever be thankful to him for this.
Spirits and the energy of the life force are around us all the time. The Sacred Power Plants such as ayahuasca, San Pedro, peyote, and mushrooms give us sight, allowing us access to the spiritual dimension by getting our ego out of the way. Perhaps it changes the vibrational pattern of light entering the retina. I don't know, and for me, this isn't the point. It is simply that there is a spiritual world existing side by side with our own waking ego-reality. The spirits come to the curandero as called by the various icaros he sings. Their ability to master the various diets gives control to the type of spirit called in for the many different maladies encountered. The spirits come and imbue the curandero with their power to heal, whether it be physical, psychological or spiritual. It does not make any difference in which realm the illness resides. They come. These supernatural forces work with and through them, healing the sick via miracles, as, by definition, these events are inexplicable by natural laws as we know them.
One of the theories of curanderismo is purging your body of toxins by expelling phlegm. The belief being that excess phlegm settles in different areas of the body and depending on where it takes up residence, will manifest as certain symptoms. This is also one of the reasons for drinking ayahuasca, San Pedro, peyote, or the other psychotropic purgatives: To rid your body not only of the phlegm but of the toxins built up and residing there.
In the morning following a ritual we continue purging the body of toxins by taking 8 cc's of mapacho juice up each nostril, followed by drinking tall glasses of a warm purgative tea called Huayusa. At times, this tea isn't available and I've found that a substitution of just about any dark tea works as long as it is slightly hot. The mapacho tobacco juice rinses the sinus cavities of excess phlegm. The effect isn't nearly as dreadful as it sounds. When the mapacho juice is slowly plunged into each nostril you get just an instant of a drowning sensation followed by a slight burning as the juice drops down into the sinus cavities. Rinse your nostrils with water, drink another large glass of warm tea and walk over somewhere private to purge. Purging has quite an art. Squating down and shaking the stomach in and out seems to be the most effective method in assisting the process. Repeat the entire even three or four times. When finished, you feel as if your sinuses have been completely stripped of all material; the air taken through the nose fills the lungs as if you were breathing through your mouth, and because the sinuses are so clean your voice is probably clearer than it has been your entire life. The next step is to rinse your entire body with water followed with an astringent (rubbing alcohol or Florida water) and allow your skin to be lightly lashed with tiny nettles, again purging the toxins that have built up between the top two layers of skin. The nettles produce a slight stinging sensation and within a couple of minutes small red welts raise up but fade away within half an hour. A warm herbal bath that has been steeping the entire night finishes the purging. As this is an extension of the past nights ritual, you feel completely cleansed and refreshed: Physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Curanderismo is also about activating what is known as "the healer within," freeing blocked energy patterns and strengthening the immune system. This concept of the "healer within" is another example of bringing the knowledge of the present to the practices of the past. Medicine is an enabler, allowing the body to heal, but it is the life force in the body that actually does the healing. Medicines may kick off the body's own doctor a little sooner simply because we've been trained to believe in this. It's a conditioned response our mind will readily accept, then deliver the message to the body that the "healing" can now begin because we've taken the "medicine." That's why placebos can work. We need to go back to the natural healing methods of the past when we weren't so dependent on artificial outside forces to make us well. We need an updated belief system that is primarily composed of the traditional healing methods of the past but with the modern "new age" healing philosophies of the present. The "healer or Doctor within" needs to be understood and activated. This can only happen if the belief system is activated. The most effective medicine is the medicine we can fabricate inside our bodies. To get to that it is essential that we contact our own internal doctor. It is here that the ability to cure ourselves resides, for our bodies will actually fabricate whatever is necessary to effect a cure. Therefore we must cultivate the method to activate this "healer within." This is made much easier by the ingestion of the Sacred Power Plants. Not only do they free the mind but in doing so allow the possibilities of the healing powers of curanderismo to exist. Inside each of us exists this curandero, the ultimate healer. Getting past all the barriers we have been burdened with from our educational, religious, and social systems and put upon as we are from the reality handed to us makes the activation all the more difficult. The modern healer must access what is useful within the allopathic system of medicine along with the principles of curanderismo. We must work with the concept of the "healer within" and also its connection to the spiritual planes of existence. We must absolutely recognize that what is sacred and divine is within each of us. We are all Gods. When we leave this physical body we most definitely continue on in the Spirit. What we make of this very short time continues on with us after the death of the physical. It is through the use of Sacred Power Plants that these concepts are more easily percieved and assimilated. Once we have activated the divine, this "healer within", we begin to cure ourselves and, in some instances, we may then begin to heal others.
These notes have primarily been focused on those subtle energies continually present but normally just outside our everyday field of perceptions. We call them Spirits. With the aid of the Sacred Power Plants and a true love for and from them it is possible to access the Spirit World and the Spirit Doctors that reside there. By the use of the word Spirits, I am not speaking of those wispy, translucent forms so often stereotyped and misrepresented. I am not trying to find a way to say that we, as imperfect humans, perceive subtle energies and intellectually alter these into the form of a Spirit because we lack the necessary brain capacity to comprehend the energy as it is. Quite simply, Spirits were at one time corporeal. They either died, leaving their bodies, or perhaps found that magical, multi-dimensional door and walked into another plane of existence, most likely guided by their curandero. They are usually fully clothed, have had no odor, and contrary to intellectual opinions, they hear us, speak to us and we communicate with them. Many speak only the language they died with. Others, more powerful and perhaps more advanced, speak whatever language you need to hear that you may understand their message. And yes, they do walk through walls. Some also desire to use your body. In most instances, this is not to be allowed. They can sometimes be difficult to remove. This is the reason for maintaining conscious energy while under the influence of a Sacred Power Plant. This is why you shouldn't fall asleep.
From time to time, other dimensional energies, both malicious and benevolent, also find their way into the rituals, as well as your dreams. One month following my initiation as an ayahuasquero don Ramon and I performed an ritual to determine the reason for a babies listlessness. He worked on the various possibilities for the entire night, questioning the parents thoroughly about their love life and economic situation. He finally determined that he must go and visit the house to see what type of energies might be present there that have so frightened this baby. I retired under my mosquito net to sleep. The dreams you have after a ritual are usually more telling than when in your ordinary sleeping state because your mind is relaxed; in a quiet meditative state. In this dream, I was being chased by a horrible giant in an armored suit. The terrain was barren so there was no place I could find to hide. Running, I quickly discovered, was of no use as this monster was just too quick. When this ugly armored beast approached me for the kill I was at the point of complete desperation and exhaustion, almost beyond hope. Just then I turned away from it and saw a small elf-like person standing just a few feet away from me and presenting me with a beautiful stainless steel, brightly gleaming sword. It was unadorned of precious stones. I felt such exhilaration at that moment as I knew that this sword had magical properties and in one fluid motion I withdrew it from the scabbard my elf friend was holding and pivoted around, slicing this shiny blade through the air and decapitating my nemesis. The head bounced off its armored chest and rolled onto the ground. It was finished, I thought. But the beast was still alive and lurching around blindly for its head. I ended it by slicing the head into many pieces. Then I awoke. That morning, while having my post-ayahuasca glass of water with lemon juice and crushed garlic I told don Ramon of my dream.
"Alan," he told me, "you have been presented with a very powerful and dangerous gift."
"Powerful and dangerous? Please explain this to me."
"This gift comes to you from the spiritual plane and will forever be yours to use as you wish. Right now you have been apprenticing for only a short period of time and it remains to be seen what you will ultimately become: a curandero or a brujo. That's why this sword is dangerous. Yes, you now have a weapon to be used in any way that you desire. However, if you ever use this sword for destruction, whatever powers you are yet to recieve or now have as a healer will have been compromised. You may carry your weapon with you when you enter into the magic of the ayahuasca if you like, or you may simply take note of it, see that it is there from time to time. But you may not use it in destructive ways to bring power to yourself. Its manner of protection for you is in its presence only: That those brujos who might harm you should see it there with you in the spiritual planes and fear to attack. I remind you again, you should not use it as a weapon. This is your first gift, and many are to follow. If you remain on this path, hopefully you will one day be given a jeweled crown. When this happens I will tell you of its significance."
While this explanation was quite beautiful, I was left with the thought that perhaps I had already compromised myself from having used the sword in my dream. Was I now, unbeknownst to me, on a darker path because of this? Or was the dream used as a method of gifting me the sword and demonstrating its power?
Six days later we held another healing ritual and several poor mestizos came for cures. Sitting on the right hand side of don Ramon, the position held for apprentices, I began feeling the effects of the medicine within my usual 40 minutes. As I went deeper under its influence I haphazardly glanced over to my left and there it was: My sword, hovering there.
The Sacred Power Plants open your third eye of perception, allowing you to see, but the Spirits encountered are not always there for healing. Some come simply for curiosities sake or perhaps they're bored. As a matter of fact, the predominant Spirits engaged will not be those called via icaros for healing. I call them wandering Spirits, and very often they present themselves in the rituals. At times they can be a nuisance because I'm a gringo and this keeps them lingering around to watch a fair-haired stranger. If they interfere with my concentration I usually warn them first, then I tell them to leave if they persist. They seem to be neutral Spirits, without power. There are others, however, that you may question about various illnesses and their answers are enlightening. These are called via icaros. I have had much more success calling in these healing Spirits when I give them notice that they will be needed. In difficult healing situations I will begin asking for their presence a week before the healing is to take place. It would seem that they, too, have a life and to expect that they would simply be there everytime I performed an ayahuasca ritual would be rather presumptuous. And then there are those that come, un-asked, to the rituals hoping to cause harm. These can be dangerous. They may even present themselves in the guise of what our mind might perceive as Spirits within the energies of Light. They may use our misperceptions against us by showing up in elegantly flowing white robes and ask us how they may be of service. How can you tell when you are being tricked? Any Spirit that will perform something for you that is unethical or immoral is evil. In the shamanistic field of vision, there is good, and most certainly there is evil. They exist in the spiritual plane just as they exist here, in this reality. One month after arriving in Iquitos, Peru, following my canoe trip down the Putumayo, I met a gringo who had been studying curanderismo upriver near Pulcalpa, Peru with don Benito and Guillermo Arevalo, two very powerful, tribal Shipibo-Conibo curanderos. This gringo was handsome, charming, had a command of the language, and money: All the ingredients necessary to "bed" just about any young, indigent Peruvian lady he desired. And he had been doing just that. Because of this, however, he had also developed a reputation as a womanizer and, to their credit, many of the beautiful young Peruvians would have nothing to do with him. This, of course, only increased his desire for them. During the ayahuasca rituals with his maestros, Spirits began coming to him, asking how they may be of service.
"Well, there's this young Peruvian virgin that I'd like to have but she'll have nothing to do with me." He told the Spirit.
"What is her name?", questioned the Spirit.
The gringo gave the name and the Spirit told him, "Don't worry. I will arrange this. The next time you encounter this girl she will respond positively to your advances. However, there is something you must do for me in return."
The gringo relating this story refused to tell me what he had done in return for the spirits and he was full of guilt, embarrassed that he had successfully gone through with the exercise, more than once, and now was frightened of drinking ayahuasca again. After several instances of this during ayahuasca rituals, he told his maestros about it. They were shocked - not only that he had not come to them earlier but that he had followed through with his end of the bargains. He left Pulcalpa for Iquitos for this reason, and hoped the evil wouldn't follow or find him. When they first came to him he thought nothing of it and played along. When these visions came through as promised he completely accepted the fact of it. However, even at this point, he did not go to his maestro for consultation. He had proverbially "sold out" and now was frightened. He had his secret and it was serving him, as he had afterward served them.
After studying with don Ramon for a year and a half he decided it was time to present me with my initiation as a curandero. At the time I really didn't understand the significance of this. He explained that the ceremony would be under my control as well as the medicine. I would be entirely responsible for procuring the vine, chacruna, toe, blessing the plants with the appropriate icaros, cooking the medicine, and determining dosage for each person. To undergo this initiation I had to absolutely follow the diet: no salt, no sugar, no oils, and abstain from sex. This wouldn't be that difficult for me as I hadn't added salt or sugar to my food for over 20 years. Oil was a rarity also so I wouldn't miss this. And sex? I usually found this to be the most difficult, but as this was part of the standard diet for learning ayahuasca anyway I had been somewhat maintaining this since I began my studies, although not in the strictest since I should have.. I followed this diet for a period of 30 days and we prepared for the evening of my initiation.
I blessed the mapacho cigarettes used to soplar(27) the vine and the ayahuasca as it is cooking and chopped the vine don Ramon himself had planted several years ago on the small plot of land behind his house. I sang the icaros he used when he cut his vine, hoping that even though they were songs taught to me by don Ramon there would be some power within them for me. As I pounded the vine in preparation for its cooking, I also sang the icaro don Ramon suggested, giving it a blessing that the energies released and would be of the "Light".
Don Ramon explained, "This cooking is a very important event in the life of a curandero. It is the time to determine what sort of strength you will have as a healer. The stronger the medicine, the more powerful will be the curandero." As I placed the ayahuasca vine, chacruna and toe into the pot, I prayed for the possibility of activating a strong medicine and that the spirits of the plants would come through. The anticipation of the medicines effects for this night was constantly on my mind. If I cooked all day and we drank with little effect, I would feel my studies had been in vain. But I had added what I had thought to be the correct amount of chacruna to an amount of ayahuasca vine needed to make 10 doses. I had sung the icaros with the correct intent: From my soul. And even as I continued to stir the pot and hum various icaros I maintained a state of mind conducive to a beautiful and powerful experience upon the drinking. I invited two friends in Iquitos to join me as this was a special night and I had a very positive feeling the ayahuasca was going to be as I wanted. This was the first ritual where I would be in control. Everyone knew it and all were hoping it would be a success.
Don Ramon and I entered the ritual with small white cloths on top of our heads. We seldom use these but this night there was only a sliver of moon. The white cloths help the spirits called to understand who they will be working with. Initially I sat on don Ramon's right hand side, the space reserved for me, the apprentice. Even though the ritual was under my control, it was still don Ramon who held the position of ultimate authority. I handed the cup of ayahuasca to each person, determining what quantity to give them. This is mostly an intuitive process, watching closely as each person rises from their chair and walks up before me. I also use the body weight factor as this plays an important role in the effects of the ayahuasca. In general, the more a person weighs the larger the dose. There are those, however, that have a type of spirit that is much more affected by the medicine. All of these factors must be taken into account but, as I said, the intuitive process holds the most weight. Jim and Marilyn, the visitors, were the last two to drink. don Ramon and I had previously blessed the medicine and I had sopla'ed the cup with mapacho smoke. I continued blowing smoke under my shirt and into my hands, floating the smoke up onto my face and over my head, another method taught me for giving myself protection and blessing. I informed the guests the ayahuasca needed to remain in their system a minimum of 20 minutes and the longer you could avoid throwing up the more the medicine would get into your system. I explained, "When you need to go outside for purging it would be best to take a mapacho cigarette, regardless if you smoke or not as the smoke will act as a veil of protection for you. Evil spirits do not like tobacco smoke. Besides, it's dark and they make good flashlights when you puff on them. If you have, at any time, questions about things you see, please ask me. If any spirits present themselves to you don't be afraid. Ask the spirits what their names are and why they are here."
After we began to feel the effects of the ayahuasca I blew out the candles and began air whistling icaros used to enhance the medicines effects. As I began feel more comfortable I sang other icaros but not those used to call in the doctors for specific healing. I sang the icaros of blessing and good fortune. The ayahuasca began moving from my feet upwards through my legs and into my chest. I could feel it cruising through my body, working towards my head. As it neared my ears the rushing sounds became so loud I could hear nothing else externally for perhaps 5 minutes. When this passed, I began to "see".
don Ramon called each of the invites to present their self, one at a time, in front of him for a blessing after returning from purging outside. I watched as each had a difficult time walking to him. The ayahuasca was quite strong. He was going to do a blessing on each of them so I moved across the room to sit near the door, preventing any unwanted spirits from entering into our space. Don Ramon sang a specific icaro for each, sweeping the chacapa(28) over their body and head; "dusting off" their spirit; cleaning their aura, removing negative energies that may have attached theirselves there from living in an industrialized 1st World. He called for Marilyn but she had difficulty walking over to him because of the strength of the ayahuasca. I rose and helped place her on the small stool in front of him, then returned to my guardian position near the door. While he was singing an icaro for her a spirit walked through the wall beside him and continued across the room to stand directly in front of me. I looked it over but most of my concentration and concern was on Marilyn. I looked again at the spirit. It was a man about 6 feet tall, long dark charcoal robe, with a curly black beard interlaced with streaks of silver.
The spirit said, "You wanted to talk to me?"
I had not called this spirit; had not even been thinking about asking questions of a spirit. My focus was on the present and whether the guests were comfortable as the ayahuasca was stronger than usual. I looked from Marilyn being enchantedly blessed by don Ramon and then back to this spirit dressed in a long black robe and I did what I had previously told my friends absolutely not to do. I did not ask for the name or why the spirit had come. I naively looked at this uninvited black image and whispered, "Vaya."
The spirit nodded, then said, "Okay." It turned around and disappeared, walking through the wall on the opposite side of the room. No other spirits appeared to me that evening and I spent the rest of the night helping those needing assistance as they went outside of the ritual for air, to purge, or finally, retire into their tent to sleep. The ayahuasca had been very powerful and the ritual had been a success. I, too, retired to my mattress and mosquito net and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning those that had come to drink with us returned to their homes and to the cities hostals and I sat with don Ramon drinking our morning glass of water/lemon juice and garlic, our customary diet following an ayahuasca ritual. It washes your liver and kidney of any grainy residues left there by the medicine. Nothing else is to be consumed until 12 Noon. Not eating before noon was to allow the full medicinal effects of the ayahuasca to take hold in your body, getting the full amount of healing possible from the medicine. As I sat there with don Ramon he asked me how I thought it went last night.
"The ayahuasca was quite strong." I told him, pleased that it was so.
"Did you experience anything unusual?" He asked me.
"No don Ramon. I saw only one spirit the entire night." I explained how the spirit looked and how it had presented itself to me.
"With a long black beard and streaks of silver?"
"Yes, don Ramon. And a long dark charcoal robe."
"Alan! That was the king. The ayahuasca king! He came to you on the night of your initiation and you sent him away?" He was incredulous. "Didn't I tell you how to respond when a spirit presents itself?"
"Yes don Ramon. Sorry. Do you think he'll ever come back?" I felt like a complete idiot.
"Of course he will." He assured me, but I didn't feel very secure with that thought.
The following night I decided to drink again in the hopes that this spirit hadn't gone "too far away." While I knew the concept of time and space was completely out of place in the spirit world I still felt the sooner I could drink the more likely I would have the opportunity to speak with "the king."
The following night, in a quite clandestine fashion, I sneaked into the ritual hut and drank a large dose of the very same ayahuasca I had prepared for my initiation. I sat there in the center of the room all alone. When I felt the effects I started singing not only the icaros I had learned from don Ramon but also those from my San Pedro maestro. About an hour into the ceremony don Ramon came out of his house and entered the hut.
"Alan! What are you doing in here?" He wasn't happy.
"No problem, don Ramon. I'm drinking ayahuasca." I told him, calmly.
"Then sing. Sing the entire time to bring only the spirits you want. If you don't, other undesirables will come." He then began singing his icaros and demanded I sing along with him. I sang maybe 5 icaros with him. When he felt comfortable I would continue singing he started to walk out of the room and got a few feet out when he stuck his head back in the door and said, "You remember the woman from Lima who has been staying here with us?
We had been taking care of a woman who had been deserted by her husband. She had come to have her broken heart mended. Daily don Ramon would sing specific icaros that her hurt would be healed more sooner than later.
"Si, don Ramon."
"Every night she goes out and returns the next day. I want to know where she is. You go and find her."
"But don Ramon," I protested, "I'm in the middle of a ritual, drinking ayahuasca. I can't leave here now."
He gave me his best "you're not as clever as you think you are" face, and said, "No Alan. I don't want you to physically go and look for her, I want your spirit to find her. Tomorrow you tell me where she was."
"And how am I going to do this?" I asked.
He shot his look at me again. "So, your other maestro hasn't taught you how to fly yet?" (He enjoyed kidding me about things I had and had not learned from my other maestro. As much as possible, I too played with him by not mentioning any of the things I had. One of the rules of being an apprentice is that you must completely accept and abide by the philosophy of your teacher, regardless of what you believe. Those things gleaned from previous teachers must be shelved until you have finished the apprenticeship with the current maestro. When you are ready to begin your own practice you may use those things learned from your various teachers as you will, thus developing your own style as you also integrate those concepts that you, personally, have discovered and that work for you.)
don Ramon continued, "Listen to me. Place the name of the woman on your forehead. Think of nothing else, and go!" He told me. "Think of nothing else, and go."
"Gracias, don Ramon." I told him, and he left again. My mind raced. Was this possible? Was this the way to fly? Why hadn't he explained this sooner? As often as I have discovered myself zooming out through space seemingly out of control I also realized I had never simply asked him if there was a rhyme or reason to it. Now he had given me something concrete, as strange as it sounds using "concrete" in this context. I was excited. I sat down in the chair and did as he said. I knew her complete name and placed it into my thoughts, on the very center of my forehead. I found I could maintain this only a minute or so and my mind began wandering. It would come back after wandering off to many other things and I had to begin again. Each time I began anew I held it longer. Finally, after doing this for what seemed a hundred times, I was quite suddenly in the air and moving over the ground at a tremendous speed. I saw from above the tree tops down to the Plaza 28th of July, which was three miles away from don Ramon's ritual hut. I could see the crowds of people and the tiles that made up the walkways. I was hovering above all of this. I didn't get excited; just looked around, somehow knowing that this, of all the many places this woman could be in Iquitos, was the location I was seeking. I can't tell you with complete certainty exactly what sort of bird or insect it was that I was traveling with, but on looking back, I think it must have been a hummingbird because of the manner in which I was moving, the ability I had to simply hang in mid-air, and the way I seemed to be wafting back and forth with the breeze. I was looking down into this crowd when a man and a woman turned and walked directly toward me, seemingly presenting themselves. I realized I couldn't actually be seen. They walked over to be just underneath me, and in controlling my excitement that this must be who I had asked to see, I first looked down at the shoes of the woman and man, then the tear in the knees of the bluejeans on the man, to the skirt on the woman. I knew that as soon as I saw her face I wouldn't be able to maintain my attentiveness, so I continued slowly up her body until I reached her face. When I saw her face and realized it was her, my exhilaration was so high it jolted me back into my body in less than an instant. I couldn't believe it. It was real. You not only could leave your body but it seemed you could even control when and where it happened; and possibly for even how long you could stay out!
I was too excited by this discovery to get anything else accomplished for the next hour, so I crawled into my bed to sleep. I couldn't wait to tell don Ramon. I slept through the morning and rose around 11am, drank my lemon-juice/garlic water and sat down with don Ramon and the family at noon for lunch.
"don Ramon, I saw her last night."
He looked up from his bowl of soup. "And?"
"She was in 28th of Julio Plaza. She was with a man who had a tear in his jeans. They weren't touching. It seemed more they were just friends."
He just shrugged his shoulders and continued eating. About half an hour later the woman arrived and sat down to eat. I remember so clearly don Ramon asking her, "Where did you go last night?"
"28th of Julio. I met a friend there."
I didn't even look up from my soup.
There's such magic here, in the jungle. So many things to understand, so many rules to break. And this is only a beginning. The way is full of traps and it only takes one to fall off your path. The "light at the end of this tunnel" comes from maintaining balance in the midst of adversity. I understand that my mission is not in playing with these tools as a child does a new toy, but in using these gifts of the Sacred Power Plants and the ageless tradition of shamanism for healing. It is here that the real magic resides.
I hope to write more of my experiences in the hopes that people might understand this phenomenon called curanderismo, that the troubled missionaries I have bumped into so often might finally understand that this type of work has nothing to do with evil, and that the travelers who so often come down here realize that they too have a healer within them. It may not be that they are on the path of becoming a curandero, which is fine. It may just be that they need to understand that they can come to the center of things without trying to become the "shaman." As don Juan once explained to me in the beginnings of my apprenticeship, he drew a spiral in the dusty clay at our feet and with his twig he began by pointing to the outside perimeter of the spiral, and said, "Alan. This is the beginning of your studies in curanderismo. As we journey together I will guide you around this outside path and into its inner chambers." As he said this he moved the pointer to the inner swirls of this vortex. He then stuck the pointer into the center of the vortex. He said, "This is the heart of curandersimo and the center that you will have to discover on your own. I cannot and will not show you what lies here. It is for you to discover. When you reach this point you will have learned how to heal yourself, and, if the spirits desire, you then will begin to heal others. You will become a curandero with your own methods of curing and a particular group of spirits that you will have begun to work with. While the path of self-healing is for everyone, the ability to heal others is something that will not be granted to all. Perhaps, when you reach the heart, you will find that you have learned to heal yourself. Perhaps you will see that this is enough. If the spirits of the plants are willing you will then be allowed to heal others. This we will watch and see."
Traditional healing has been here for thousands of years, and will remain. Somehow during the "Age of Reason", we moved away from believing in things we could not see, that we could not place in our hands and feel its weight. This contrived reality found its way to the Americas a little over 500 years ago, and through force of arms and unknown viruses, ravaged a culture and humiliated the medicine men by taking away their Gods and forcing them into submission. There remained, however a few daring souls who continued to practice their magic, hidden away from the death threats of the conquistadors.
In Iquitos, Peru, can be found a scientist hard at work in his test tube laden lab processing one of the Sacred Power Plants, ayahuasca, into powder form. He and five French scientists have been hard at work trying to decipher the secrets of this ancient medicine for years now with few results. Their efforts in determining its chemical derivatives necessarily present to produce visions or hallucinations were easily accomplished but, as the professor says to me, "We still can not figure out how a group of five all drinking the same ayahuasca at the same time can have the same hallucination at the same instant." Such is the pity in being a scientist.
"What you are trying to measure or weigh cannot be done." I said. "Whatever intricacies of this medicine you are trying to intellectually discover will always leave you one short. No matter what you do, how many tests you make, or how numerous the compounds you find, your scientific method will never get you to the bottom of this mystery. Why? Because you can not measure God. You can not weigh the Divine."
"Yes, I know that. But I am a scientist. This is what I must search for, what I have to do." He said.
What a thankless task, looking for the Light in a test tube. Maybe he'll find it one day. They say Einstein did and joined the Church. How do you factor the Divine into a scientific formula?
One "miracle" the scientists have determined, from Quantum physics: The outcome of an event can be influenced by its viewers. It has taken them hundreds of years to discover what the shamans have known forever. The shaman, the "maker of myths", classically keeps one foot in this world and the other with the spirits, and is not to be confused with the brujo, dancing with evil. Both are powerful. Throughout the world they deal in the philosophy of dualism: Of good and evil or positive and negative. A shaman "holds hands with the Divine" working as a medium between this World's reality and the spiritual realm. He charms the necessary divine spirits into his rituals by song and prayer and his world is one not of hallucinations but one of visions, one of Grace and Bliss, and Ecstasy.
In Tarapoto, Peru, Dr. Jacque Mabit, from France, began his vision quest seeking out curanderismo and ayahuasca rituals. He was looking for a teacher. At one point in his search a voice spoke to him announcing his future. Jacque now runs a clinic in Tarapoto (one of the primary cities in Peru for the manufacture and distribution of cocaine) for curing drug addicts by using the Sacred Power Plant ayahuasca in a ritualistic setting with a curandero as a guide. The patients drink the medicine three times a week.
With a curandero as your guide within the Sacred Power Plant rituals your thirst for the Light, your hunger for the "Divine within Yourself," and your sense of spontaneity is greatly illuminated.
In these days there is an incredible need to keep your immune system high. It has been confirmed by allopathic medicine that ayahuasca and the other Sacred Power Plants are doing just that and according to some of the healers from Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru, the Sacred Power Plants could also affect a cure for AIDS.
Within the mythologies handed down from the mountains of the Andes to the jungles of the Amazon is the same prognostication: The circle has come round; the time is here. In this next 500 years we will, all of us, witness a move back to the magic and etherealness of our ancestors, and the rebirth of the shaman. It is here that we shall ultimately heal all our wounds, for it is here that the soul, the body, and the mind are one and can be cured as a whole, rather than in parts.
Perhaps in our past five hundred years the focus of our world, on technology and progress, has moved too fast. As for me, I am determined to take that "giant step" back, together with the knowledge of the present, to the medicine forgotten, to the curative powers of the plants and their spirits, to the healers who work through nature cleansing the body and who, through the all-encompassing divination's of the spirits and the Gods, purify the soul. For in that place we heal not only our physical selves, but we continually connect with the universal life force carried within each one of us, shared by all. The more each and every one of us throughout the World understands this principle, and the sooner we realize that a sickness of the body, mind or spirit is within the ether, that we all share, the more likely that we, as a whole, will begin to live in health, peace and harmony.
Just a few months ago I received a call from my Mother, in Tenessee. I hadn't spent any time with her for the last 7 years and only occasionally had written of my experiences in curanderismo. She asked me to come home right away.
"What's wrong?" I asked her.
"Can you buy thalidomide down there in Peru?" Thalidomide is the medicine that deformed numerous babies in Europe in the 50's. "I saw a documentary on television the other night praising thalidomide for it's curative properties against cancer and AIDS."
"Who has cancer?" I nervously ask her.
"I do." She explained that three fourths of her liver was cancerous and she needed to have an operation.
I tried to purchase the thalidomide in Peru but was informed that it had been banned here also. I returned to my teacher, described the situation, and asked if we could perform a ritual to divine the cause and treatment of the cancer. The following night we drank ayahusaca and I saw my Mother taking medicine to lower her cholesterol, clearly the reason for her cancer. A few nights later we drank again and determined that a bottle of Una de Gato (Uncaria tomentosa) mixed with Sacha Jergon (Dracontium loretense), two quite powerful plants from the jungle, anti-cancerous, blood purifiers, and boosters of the immune systems, would be her medicine. It was to be cooked in a water base to extract the alcaloids as using aguardiente would choke her liver. Don Ramon suggested she should drink a glass of room temperature water first thing in the mornings with the juice of half a lemon, followed by a small cup of the Una de Gato /Sacha Jergon blend. I followed this up with confirmation from the herbalists in the plant market of Iquitos. Feeling comfortable that this was the correct choice, the medicine was prepared and I flew out of the jungle to Miami and on to her home in Tennessee.
"Mother, are you taking any medication to lower your cholesterol?" I asked.
"Yes. I have been taking 'Mevacor' for years now. Why?"
"This 'Mevacor' is the reason for the cancer."
"No, no!", she demanded, "this medicine is okay, I already asked the doctors; it doesn't cause cancer!"
I let it go, but only after she told me that since her diagnosis she hadn't been taking it anymore. She accepted the medicine I brought her and every morning for the three weeks prior to her operation she drank a glass of water with lemon juice followed by the Una del Gato/Sacha Jergon tea.
While in the hospital for her surgery, the Doctor, a surgeon from Ecuador, advised us that she may not make it through the operation. I had done some research on this type of cancer, hepatucelluar, discovering that the possibility of surviving even past one year was quite slim. The liver is amazing in that it is the only organ we have that will actually regenerate, but when such a large portion is cut away the shock to the body alone is enough to kill.
After the operation the Doctor informed us that the surgery had been successful and he thought they "got it all." Mother was in ICU and recovering very well. I asked if he was going to have her diet changed.
"Diet? Why would you want to change her diet? Are you a doctor?"
I explained that a diet of fresh vegetables and fruits with little cooked food would be easier for her system to manage right now as well as provide her with the nutrients she needed. He disagreed. I then told him in one great big mouthful that I had been studying curanderismo in Ecuador and Peru and the cholesterol medication she had been taking was the cause of the cancer and she had been drinking lemon water followed by the Una de Gato/Sacha Jergon mix every morning for the last three weeks.
"Mevacor does not cause cancer." He said. And, "I know of Una de Gato. That's folkloric medicine and of little value."
There was little point in arguing with him. I stayed in Tennessee to make sure my Mother was recovering well enough and then continued on my speaking tour of curandersimo, finally returning two months later to Flagstaff. I spent a day researching Mevacor on the Internet and discovered something very interesting: Mevacor lowers your cholesterol by combating it in the liver, transmuting it into something else (supposedly more desirable). I phoned my Mother to make sure she had not begun taking the medicine again and to re-implant the necessity of continuing to drink the Una de Gato/Sacha Jergon mix. She agreed. About 35 days later when I was again in Flagstaff I received the message to call her.
"Alan, there's something I have to tell you." In those few seconds before she began explaining to me, I considered so many possible ramifications that I a sweat broke on my forehead.
"What is it Mother?"
"Remember the surgeon from Ecuador? He just told me there must have been some error in the radiographs and the sonograms. He apologized, said there was obviously some kind of mistake. When he operated on me the cancer had shrunk down to a very small size and was completely encapsulated. He can't understand what happened."
"Hmmm. But you know what happened, don't you." I suggested.
"I don't know Alan. None of this makes any sense. I'm as confused as the Doctor is."
"You will continue to take the medicine?" I asked.
"Of course I will. By the way, I'm almost out. Can you get me some more?"
And with tears streaming down my cheeks, I said, "Of course. I love you Mother."
"I love you too, son."
In 1994, after a year and a half in South America, studying curanderismo with various maestros, I returned to the United States for a month, stopping in San Francisco to book a return passage with my travel agent. She asked me what shamanism and ayahuasca were all about, and I explained as best as I could. She then asked me if it could help her friend who had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer and given only three months to live.
"Absolutely", I told her. "Cancers are one of the diseases that respond best to shamanic healing and ayahuasca. Unfortunately, many people wait until the last gasp to try, making healing all the more difficult." I explained how curanderismo worked, which is a rather unusual subject to speak of in a manner acceptable to those who have no knowledge of it. I have been apprenticed four years, I have participated in approximately 200 healing rituals involving either ayahusaca or San Pedro. People come to my maestros for a variety of reasons and they're coming every day, not simply on the evening of a ritual. However, it is the ceremony with the spirit of the Sacred Power Plant and the curandero that is the most powerful. There is a synergistic magic here. As with the ayahuasca vine itself requiring the presence of another plant, chacruna, to produce the medicine, so too does the spirit of the medicine require the curandero to effect the cure.
I gave the travel agent my address and returned to the jungle. For the next year I apprenticed with my maestros in Ecuador and Peru and returned to the US once again, stopping to see my agent in San Francisco.
"Alan! I have a letter for you," she told me.
"A letter for me? Who would write me a letter and send it to you?"
"Remember the woman I told you about, my friend with the incurable cancer? I have her letter here. It isn't to you directly, but it's about you and what you told me the last time you were here."
She pulled the letter out of her desk drawer and read it to me. The woman had traveled to Iquitos, Peru, looking for me at the address I had given my travel agent. She couldn't find me, as I was in Ecuador at the time. She found a guide who took her to a healer where she participated in an ayahuasca ritual, going into a coma-like state for 36 hours. Upon awakening, she felt extraordinary. Back in the US, her doctors performed a battery of tests, finding no signs of cancer. They called it spontaneous remission. She called it a miracle. We call it curanderismo.
Icaro - "The word icaro seems to be a loan word from the Quechua verb ikaray which means "to blow smoke" in order to heal. This term is used in various parts of the Peruvian Amazon, among the mestizo as well as among ethnic groups of the Ucayali. The vegetalistas of Iquitos and other areas of the Peruvian Amazon also use the verb icarar, which means to sing or whistle an icaro over a person, an object or a preparation to give them power." - Luis Eduardo Luna, "Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon". Mr. Luna has written a scholarly treatise on mestizo curanderismo in Peru. I strongly urge those of you interested in detailed information to read this.
These magic melodies are usually taught to the curanderos while they are under the influence of one of the many entheogenic Sacred Power Plants. The spirits of the plants literally present themselves to the curandero and teach him healing and blessing songs, the melody and the words. The spirits also inform them as to the particular purpose of the song, whether it is to be used for luck, love, soul loss, physical healing, or even to control and enhance the visions being received. There are thousands of icaros and there seems to be a competition among the curanderos as to who has memorized the most. Some even believe that the more songs they know the more power they have, even when most of their songs have come from their apprenticeships with various maestros. I have even seen them visit another healers ritual undercover just for the reason of stealing icaros. They can also come to you in your dream state as well as during a ritual, as in many cases when in the dream state your vision is unblurred by events in your waking reality, your mind is more at ease and ego is out of the way. Whether you are gifted from the spirits with an icaro when you are in your waking state or in your dreams, one thing seems to remain constant: You remember it without it having to be repeated over and over. The languages that come with an icaro can be incredibly complicated and contain more than one tongue. When the old Siona ayahuasquero on the Putumayo gave me his harmonica I immediately began playing the icaro I had heard him performing during the ritual. He listened intently as I repeatedly played it until he realized I had the basic tune. Then he stopped me, explaining that the secret was more in the vibratory pattern than in the melody itself. I played it again and again until he assured me I was getting the concept. Don Ramon has often told me not to overly concern myself with trying to memorize the words, as being able to sing the icaros from the heart with the correct resonance and vibration was more important. The icaros of the maestro-curanderos are quite difficult to learn because in most instances there is a mixture of more than one language within the same song. It might contain Quechua, Spanish, and any of a variety of indigenous tongues. One of my teachers even informed me that he had purposefully made some of his icaros almost impossible to memorize because he had numerous icaros stolen by hungry curanderos visiting his ritual in disguise. It is out of respect to your maestro that you learn his icaros and eventually cant them for him. During an apprenticeship you are usually required to air whistle the melodies of your maestro as he is singing. This shows him not only that you are paying attention but that you are giving him the proper respect when he is working. You may also softly sing the icaros with him but never so loud that you overpower. Remember, being able to mechanically recite the maestros icaros does not a Mozart make. But, how else are you to be taught? There may come a time when you begin receiving access to the Spirits of the Plants and given your own icaros. These hold a stronger power, and its force is only for you. Many tribal healers call forth the young men when they reach 12 or so years of age to drink ayahuasca (or another Sacred Power Plant). The following morning the curandero questions each boy about his visions the night before. It is the child who tells of having seen the Spirits of the Plants that the curandero keeps and teaches to heal, and it is very few of these students who can withstand the sacrifices involved in the years of apprenticeship that ultimately become a curandero. Many fall to the ways of the brujo, a much easier path. Again, your true icaros come directly from the Spirits of the Plants. These are the basis for your healing power. You must, however, suffice yourself with the icaros of your teacher until such time as the Spirits of the Plants decide it is time to teach you, for ultimately, your real teacher is not the curandero, it is the Spirits of the Plants. When they decide they like you they will be by your side forever. They will never let you down.
Here are two icaros given to me from don Pedro Culqui Vela of Iquitos, Peru. Don Pedro is a curandero mestizo who also works with ayahuasca, as opposed to a curandero who primarily works with ayahuasca (an ayahuasquero). He occasionally drinks in the small healing room attached to the back of his house and gave me permission to give his address: Bolivar #864. I would suggest that those wishing to visit don Pedro and join in an ayahuasca ritual go there at least three days ahead of time, pay him up front so that he can purchase enough chacruna (about $5.00 per person) and in order to avoid speaking about money and having to hear how difficult it is to survive, economically, as a curandero, pay him for drinking ayahuasca before the ritual begins. A suggested payment is $20.00 (that's 50 soles, which is a nice payment for a curandero, especially since you have already given him money to buy the chacruna). I would suggest this advice with any curandero I came in contact with, but for one exception: 90% of the curanderos will thank you for the initial $5.00 payment for the chacruna, accepting the money, and at the same time tell you that it isn't necessary to purchase more chacruna because they are quite efficient at making very powerful ayahuasca. Don't believe them. They will make their typical mestizo ayahuasca which has, for a litre, not even $5.00 of chacruna in it while pocketing your money. Therefore, you must purchase the chacruna and personally place it into the brew being cooked. This is the only assurance that the medicine will contain a sufficient supply (see the mestizo ayahuasca sidebar). Don Pedro is an exception.
The first of the two icaros is untranslatable. Mostly it is sung with the right vibrations using the vocalized sounds I have attempted to transcribe below, with some words from the Quecha language mixed with Spanish.
ha na na nai.................
ha na na nai...............roi
ta na na nai..................
ta na na nai................roi
Espiritista murayari........espiritista murayari............
Arnulfo Achi de feregros
cargadito ade (he is coming carring many things)
llegar..... el legitimo (He's here...the genuine one.)
Mediguito (The sweet Doctor)
Nunca Nunca ya (Never nevermore)
ande poder a quebrantar mis (The healing power of the icaros cannot be broken)
Icaros........ Icaros......... Icaros
The following icaro is used for calling in the "Doctor":
Dentro la cueva (Inside the cave)
nasidito (He is born)
sobre la pena (under the rock)
eresidito (he is growing up a little)
De piedra blanca (of the white rock)
tu cashimbito (is your little tobacco pipe)
De tomay penda (Drinking and holding)
tu tabaquito (your little tobacco)
Desde las jaleas (from the honeybees)
a de venir (He will be coming)
cargadito ade (Carring many things)
llegar, el legitimo (He's here, the legitimate one)
mediquito (The sweet little doctor)
de Chachapoyas (From Chachapoyas)
ade venir (He's here)
cargadito ade (Carrying many things)
llegar... el legitimo (He's here... the real one)
Mediquito (The dear little doctor)
Nunca Nunca ya (Never nevermore)
Nunca Nunca ya (Never nevermore)
ande poder aquebrantar mis (The healing power of the icaros cannot be broken)
Icaros...... Icaros....... Icaros.......
Ayahuasca is the entheogenic purgative preferred by most of the healers in the jungle to alleviate psychological duress, recall the frightened wandering spirits back into the body, and divine and transmute physical maladies. "La Purga," they call it, as the combination of the ayahuasca vine when cooked with chacruna produces a reaction in the stomach, that within 40 minutes gives rise to vomiting, usually followed by diarrhea, and sometimes issuing forth from both ends at the same time. The ultimate bodily effect is one of total cleansing.
The ayahuasca vine (banisteropsis caapi) contains betacarbolines which deactivate or inhibit an enzyme (monoamine oxidase - MAO) that occurs naturally in the viseral, or stomach and lower intestines. Once the enzymes have been neutralized, the alkaloid (dimethyl-tryptamines-DMT) from the charcuna (psychotria viridis) is allowed passage into your system. Certainly it is possible to extract the necessary alkaloids from given plants and, once ingested, create an effect. The plethora of literature out there and the many accessible extraction formulas make this a rather simple operation. For example, from the numerous articles available, I have come to understand that the active alkaloid, mescaline, in the San Pedro cactus, resides only one eight of and inch inward from its skin and to efficiently produce an entheogenic you simply discard the remainder as it does not contain any psychoactive alkaloids. And, an ayahuasca can be made from the extraction of DMT from a variety of plants (or synthetic) and blended with syrian rue (Peganum harmala) seeds to supply the beta-carbolines. When I read these articles I come to the understanding of how to prepare a drug, not a medicine. It is the life force contained in the entire plant that activates its healing energies and it is the manner in which the plant is harvested and prepared and ceremoniously consumed that allows the synergism between us, the plants spirit, and life force energy to affect a cure. When we extract only the alkaloid we take the plant out of balance. We turn these Sacred Power Plants into something they were never meant to be and in the majority of instances create a substance more closely resembling drugs than medicine. It is commonly believed that when you use only the alkaloid containing bark of the Una de Gato vine you are recieving the medicine from the plant in its best form. However, aren't we also creating a situation where our own cellular structure more quickly builds a resistence to this? If the entire plant were used it would be in balance and keep us also in balance. Curanderismo is about healing the whole body: Spiritually, physically, and psychologically. In order to accomplish this it is essential that the plants and their energies are allowed to do their work, which cannot happen if only the psychotropic essence of the plant is extracted. Certainly you can achieve a visionary experience; cathartic even. As don Ramon has told me numerous times, "Alan, this is then like a drug. It has no medicinal value."
"Si, don Ramon. It takes the magic away."
MESTIZO AYAHUASCA SIDEBAR
The various mestizo curanderos are city dwellers and into the "cash and carry" barter system. I found very few who actually had their own gardens of ayahuasca vine and only two that actually maintained a chacruna bush. What became apparent to me in the numerous rituals with the various healers was one over-riding fact: The ayahuasca lacked enough psychotria viridis (DMT)(21) to move you through time and space. I did see many different spirits coming into the rituals but unless I cooked my own medicine, using at least 50 leaves of chacruna per dose, I never reached the plateau of a full-on entheogenic state. Even when purchasing and cooking my own medicine I am never guaranteed of its quality because the psychotria viridis plants are always varying in percentages of DMT because they all are coming from different growing conditions.
The mestizo curanderos usually have to purchase the psychotria viridis from the market or from someone who maintains this bush. This portion of the formula is the most expensive and the most difficult to come by. Because they don't get paid very well by their patients, they have become accustomed to purchasing only very small amounts to cook with their ayahuasca vine. Five soles (two dollars) will get them a small bag containing about 60 leaves. With this they cook a litre of medicine, or enough to serve 12 people. The correct amount of chacruna per entheogenic dose is, more or less, 50 leaves, depending on the percentage of the DMT contained in the leaves. The mestizo curanderos have been cooking their ayahuasca with such a small portion of chacruna for such a long period of time they actually believe their formula to be correct and have even forgotten why they began to cook with such a small amount in the first place: Economic. Most likely they never knew the formula as they were taught by other older curanderos who, out of economic necessity, cooked with very little psychotria viridis.
There are specific diets for each of the Sacred Power Plants as well as diets for the Doctors (see footnote #14). Depending on which curandero you are working with, the diet will vary. Typically I have found the mestizo curanderos have developed an easier diet in order to drink ayahuasca because they has chosen to live in the city and following the traditional diet from the indigenous is difficult, if not out of the question. Some of the mestizo curanderos do leave the city from time to time, specifically to diet in the jungle, alone. You are usually required to maintain a diet of no salt, sugar, oil, or sex all day before the ceremony and until noon the day after. If you desire to "learn" the ayahuasca and chacruna plants (or a plant that has been added to the ayahuasca medicine) you must diet for a minimum of a week following the same prescription of no salt, oil, sugar, or sex. The curanderos I have worked with have all maintained that it is dangerous to break the diet as you will break out in red splotches all over your body, which tells you that the medicine you have in your system has "turned" against you. The red splotches are an outward manifestation of more serious internal damage. With over four years experience of working with curanderos, I have, from time to time, purposefully broken the diet every way possible and have seen no effect. I did this purposefully to determine fact from fiction. There were no red splotches and I didn't get sick. I've questioned the curanderos about abstinence from sex and I get a no clear answer. I have asked whether this pertains specifically to sex with a partner or if this also includes masturbation. The answer I received was that you should not "stir" this chacra in any manner, which rules out even exciting this chacra center. Another answer I received was that it was okay to have sex or to excite the chacra as long as you didn't have an orgasm. The theory being that with an orgasm you have nothing to "channel up" when you drink the medicine.
However, I can also state that when you follow the diet the spirit world is more accessible. Could it be that partaking salt, sugar, and oils are the ingredients that weigh us down, that separate us from the spirit world? That perhaps these are even a venom to the spirits and when they recognize our forms laden with these ingredients they literally stay away from us? It has also been my experience that the spirits come more readily after purging either by vomiting or releasing of the bowels. It was once suggested to me that the diet came about because the curanderos wanted people to respect the spirit of the ayahuasca and chacruna plant so they informed those partaking to forgo those items to show their respect, placing them in the proper mind set to partake. From hundreds of years ago the most valued items would have been salt, sugar, oil, and sex. I find this an interesting theory but, again, from my experience I have noticed that strictly following the diet is directly related to access to the spiritual realm.
It is my opinion that the salt, sugar, and oil work as a venom to the spirits. Perhaps causing something akin to pain if they come near those too heavily laden with these substances. I also believe that the restriction of sex has come about because this is one of the energies that the spiritual body has had to do without. The more sexual energy you possess the more likely the spirits will come nearer to and even into you. They desire the sensation, long for it, and this is the closest they can come to it.
Sometimes a plant that has been added to the basic drink of ayahuasca and chacruna requires an even more strict and time-consuming diet. The possibility of learning another plant comes only after you have established a strong relationship with the ayahuasca medicine. You may then add the plant you wish "to learn" to the basic ayahuasca/chacruna potion as it is cooking. When you drink the resulting medicine you can feel in your body where the additive plant goes or, put another way, where it has chosen to do its work, thus enabling you to use it for remedies involving this portion of the body.
"THINGS TO BE AWARE OF" SIDEBAR
I would also hope for those of you who desire to have a similar experience that you also accept that this comes with a price, which may be difficult to take:
As with any third world experience, there are always the words that can be said about how you have been mislead, mistreated, lied to, and manipulated. I have no doubt these are true. And even with the shamanic experience and the teachers it brings you, this too is simply an ugly fact of the culture you have allowed yourself to literally buy into. When I visit with the many curanderos one fact is always blatantly clear: They perform a service and they need to be paid. If there isn't an open verbal exchange of a price for the opportunity to study or drink with them then, one way or another, you will find yourself feeling you have been taken advantage of, that you have been used. And when you can finally get away from it all and are able to sit back and look at what has happened, you'll hopefully see that your idea of curanderismo, that very holy and spiritual place that you so wanted to call home, was not what you had in mind at all. These curanderos are doing a service and because of this they need to be paid for their work. They are, fortunately or unfortunately as it may be, "professionals". Very few of them actually have a gift for or were called to do this work. They will, everyone of them, invariably tell you incredible stories of how they used to live with the Indians or any of thousands of other miraculous imaginary happenings. After all, isn't that what you want to hear? How many preachers or priests have had a "Bliss" experience? Very few. They would all hope for one whether they tell you this or not. They would all desire to absolutely know that the profession they are working in is one they were guided to by a higher authority. Rarely is this the case. It's the same situation with the +/- 4,500 curanderos here in the jungles of Loreto. Many become curanderos because they like the idea. Others because there isn't any other work. Cooking ayahuasca isn't a difficult task, and certainly memorizing enough icaros to get you through a ritual is simple enough. And the healing that sometimes comes from their mechanically performing as a curandero? How is this explained? Ayahuasca itself is a very strong medicine and it alone can provide a cure for many ailments. It is especially good for parasites, one of the most common problems of the rain forest. It's also a very good malaria preventative. It's the classic question: How much of the magic is in the medicine and how much is in the curandero? Would the healing have come had the patient drank the medicine without the presence of the ayahuasquero? This is the point where I discern between the curandero and the shaman. The shaman was and remains guided to his work. He is on a completely spiritual path of healing. The ayahuasquero is a mechanic. They have learned their trade as one would learn to become, literally, a car mechanic. And this too has power. They do heal and they are quite knowledgeable of medicinal plants. As a modern medical doctor would notice a symptom and mechanically prescribe a medicine so too do the curanderos offer plants and herbs for curation. Many are superb psychologists also, as most of the daily problems coming to them revolve around psychological issues and without which they would not be financially able to maintain a practice. They understand also that the majority of physical ailments seen also on a daily basis are diet related. I have great respect for the curanderos I have worked with. Most sincerely desire to heal and most are trying their best to be the most complete curandero possible. There is now even a licensing school for curanderos in the North of Peru. You too may enroll there if you speak Spanish.
We come down here with the impression that this sort of work, in this quite spiritual realm, shouldn't be something that should be paid for; that the healers would understand you are on a path and have been guided to them so they should teach you their methods of curations for nothing; for how can you be charged for such a sacrifice? And it is exactly that. It is in the sacrifice of something, whether it be money or a chicken, that allows the teaching to take hold, that enables the healer to heal, the patient to be cured, and the student to be receptive from having given something that they may receive. I have never outright paid my teachers for anything, as I too had the initial impression that, because I knew I was being guided to these apprenticeships, I shouldn't have to pay. But I did. It just wasn't in the direct exchange of money. For example, I built, along with an initial investment made by Gina, a two-story house on my maestro property over a period of two years. I lived in it too. On Dec. 31st, 1995, at 11:55pm, I gave it to him. Had I not, he most likely would have sold it when he caught me out of the country for a couple of months and moved his family to Brazil. This is simply the way it is, and the sooner you open your eyes and accept it the quicker you may get down to your real work.
1: Curandero: - Luis Eduardo Luna, a very well respected researcher in mestizo curanderismo, feels it is justified to refer to the various types of curanderos as shaman. I have reservations. Mr. Luna has written by far the most comprehensive reference work on mestizo curanderos: "Vegetalismo: Shamanism among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon", Stockholm 1986. His work deserves to be reprinted by a publisher so that it is more accessible to the general public. In this work Mr. Luna credits Hultkrantz "with the following definition of shamanism: The central idea of shamanism is to establish means of contact with the supernatural world by the ecstatic experience of a professional and inspired intermediary, the shaman. There are thus four important constituents of shamanism: the ideological premise, or the supernatural world and the contacts with it; the shaman as the actor on behalf of a human group; the inspiration granted him by his helping spirits; and the extraordinary, ecstatic experiences of the shaman." I do agree that this definition is adequate to cover the mechanics, but it does not address the spiritual qualities necessary within the healer to raise him to the level of shaman. I have yet to meet a curandero who has moved beyond monetary and sexual manipulations, not to mention the problems most of them have with their egos. While the curanderos understand that any type of adulteration in their life restricts their power, few, if any, can maintain such a lifestyle that would give them the identity of what I perceive to be a shaman. A shaman, first of all, is a very humble person. A shaman is well beyond petty manipulatory games played to extract money or sexual favors. A shaman maintains the powers given him by the Gods and the spirits of the plants by maintaining the diet, thoughts, and, in general conducting himself in an absolutely spiritual manner. I have not encountered this in 4 years of study with different curanderos. The curanderos would even refer to themselves now as shaman, as they have begun to understand the significance we place on this word and they see how we put this shaman on a pedestal. My suggestion to those visiting curanderos? If you meet any curandero who refers to himself as a shaman, you should realize that a true shaman would never refer to himself in this manner. Behave accordingly.
There are several different types of curanderos: A healer that is a specialist in the uses of ayahuasca is called an ayahuasquero; another type of curandero is called a palero and is skilled in drinking tree resins. Sometimes ayahuasqueros are jokingly referred to as sogueros as the word soga means vine and ayahuasca is made from a vine. Refer to the above referenced work by Luis Eduardo Luna for more detailed information.
2: Ayahuasca - from the Quecha language, "vine of the dead (or soul)." Ayahuasca is the name used to describe both the medicine made from the combination of the vine (banisteriopsis caapi - or ayahuasca) and chacruna (psychotria viridis) and the name given to the vine itself. It contains harmala and harmaline, or collectively known as MAO (mono-amine oxidase) inhibitors. It can be found as far north as Panama and is both in the Upper Amazon and through-out the lower basin where almost every indigenous tribe understands that the vine must be cooked with another plant containing DMT (dimethyl-tryptamine) for the medicine to be effective. One of the popular theories among mestizo curanderos is that the vine was planted here by visitors from outer space/other planets. Because it rarely ever flowers and produces seed, when you find it growing in the jungle this usually means it has been planted by a healer, is owned by him, and is not to be touched without his permission. I have been lucky enough to see the vine in flower only once in 4 and one half years.
3: Ayahuasquero - a curandero skilled in the cooking and uses of ayahuasca.
4: Sacred Power Plants are those plants that when ingested produce extasis. They are sacred by virtue of their being entheogenic. They all possess a healing spirit or entity within them that can possibly become your teacher if it chooses to show itself to you.
5: Icaro - see "Icaro" sidebar.
6: Tambo - a thatched roof, open-walled hut.
7: Gringo- During the War with Mexico, the US. soldiers were continually on foreign ground wearing the standard military issue clothing which was green in color. Thus you have it: Green - Go! From my travels by land down into the Amazon I have found that gringo refers not only to US. citizens visiting here but to any stranger visiting any area. It does not have the derogatory significance that it may still have in Mexico. Perhaps it never did.
8: San Pedro - Trichocereus pachanoi. This is perhaps the fastest growing catsus in the world and has not been declared illegal, yet. It contains mescaline, is a Sacred Power Plant used in the Andes of Ecuador and Peru.
9: Curanderismo - the word comes from the Spanish, "curandero". It pertains to all those things revolving around the healing arts of the curandero.
10: Chacruna - local name given to the plant, Psychotria viridis. It is used along with the vine called ayahuasca to brew the medicine called ayahuasca. It contains DMT (n,n,-dimethyltryptamine).
11: Toe - pronounced, "toe-ay". The Latin name is Brugmansia suaveolens. Typically no more than three leaves of this plant are added to the curanderos ayahausca. More than this and you can sense the dryness in your throat. It is a dangerously powerful psychotropic that is not to be taken lightly. Preferred by brujos as access to the spirit realm is easier and doesn't require the strict diets necessary for working with the plant teachers.
12: Diets - see the "Diet" sidebar.
13: Doctors - The spirits of the trees are called Doctors.
14: Vegetalista - A vegetalista cures using the "vegetals" or plants and usually is a curandero who has also mastered one of the tree resins.
15: Brujo - the "other side of the coin" of a curandero. Brujos are also healers and they are also in the business of doing danger to people when hired to do so. Usually they have become brujos because they cannot maintain the diets necessary to gain the power inherent in becoming a curandero. Here in the jungle they prefer to work with the toe plant. Brujos have no scruples and will virtually do anything for money. They can be quite powerful and once they have done danger to someone it requires a curandero who is stronger than the brujo to remove it.
16: Curandera - the female version of a curandero. In some of the tribal cultures and even within various subgroups of mestizo's, curanderas are not apprenticed until after menopause.
17: Air whistling - Literally carrying the tune of an icaro by whistling without actually bring forth the notes to full fruition. The melody can still be heard but it doesn't carry outside of the ritual space. Usually this is done when the cup used to drink the ayahuasca is being sopla'ed, or the mapacho cigarettes to be used during the evening get their blessing. I have also seen an entire evenings icaros performed in this manner in order to hide the ritual from the prying eyes and ears of the outside world, thus keeping the ritual secretive and safe.
18: Ayahuasca Tourism: There seems to be a movement to convince gringos not to visit with the curanderos of the Amazon of Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia as doing so "leads inexorably to additional ecological and cultural disruption of affected areas, brings disease to unimmunized Indians, and attracts the wrong kind of attention to ayahuasca." (J.Ott, Pharmacotheon) I have no idea what he is trying to say here. I am not aware of any ayahuasca tours that actually take clients so deep into the jungle that they would come in contact with Indians who would otherwise be inaccessible. The Indians he is apparently referring to are so far away from civilization as to make it impossible to interfere with their culture or disturb their immune system during a one or two week "ayahuasca tourism" program. You simply can't get to them without expeditionary planning. Indeed, the programs I am familiar with here in Peru and Ecuador deal primarily with mestizo curanderos and/or tribal cultures that have, as of many years ago, come out of the deep jungle to the commerce areas of the Amazon river and its tributaries. They have chosen to make themselves accessible. They have decided to participate in the economic system and share in the diseases. And, fortunately for us, they have also brought with them their knowledge of plant medicine. If, from time to time, various ayahuasca tourists visit them here, they are more than pleased to share with you their knowledge. Indeed they're happy to do it. Their children certainly show no interest in learning it. They're more concerned with "keeping up with the Jones" by having clean t-shirts and name brand tennis shoes. The missionaries have made absolutely sure of that. I would suggest that those coming here bring with them the things cherished the most: pencils and pens, t-shirts (size small and medium), tennis shoes (used ones are fine, size 33 through 37), and shorts. They can be used as trade items for their arts and crafts or you may gift them. There are sensitive areas that are quite accessible, such as the Mayoruna (Matses), but it would require three weeks of boat travel just to get to them. Float planes are available but their cost is exorbitant and they hold only a limited number of passengers. The Indians who have made themselves accessible have done so for economic reasons. Obviously their culture and their immune systems have already been compromised and they have clearly adjusted. While I completely agree that expeditions into the far reaches of the jungle to the tribes refusing acculturation is incorrect, I know of no programs that offer this sort of expedition. Perhaps the phrase came about because of the report from Wasson that after he participated in a "Velada" with Maria Sabina and ultimately other gringos also came without the prerequisite of respect for the ceremony that the spirits stopped speaking to her. From the gringos I have encountered on their own search of ayahuasca I have to report that the reverse would be true: The sacredness of what is involved around curanderismo has very much been maintained and respected.
19: Mestizo - This is the race that has been created by the mixture of indigenous and Spanish genes.
20: La Purga - Ecuadorian and Peruvian term used to denote the ayahuasca drink. In English it means "the purgative."
21: Vaya - Spanish for "go away".
22: Harmala and harmaline - MAO inhibitors. See "Ayahuasca" sidebar.
23: DMT - N,N-dimethyl-tryptamine. A neurotransmitter found in humans, plants, and animals. The US government has declared it illegal. DMT is the active alkaloid in psychotria viridis (chacruna).
24: Mapacho - Nicotiana tabacum. A richly flavored jungle tobacco grown upriver from Iquitos, Peru. The leaves are rolled into small 10 inch long - 2 inch-thick sticks after they have been dipped in the local moonshine made from distillation of sugarcane (aguardiente) to prevent molding.
25: Entheogen - realizing the divine within. The word, entheogen(ic) has apparently gained "most favored status" when describing what previously had been referred to as "psychotropic" or "psychedelic".
©Alan Shoemaker 1997