SHAMANS, POTIONS AND THE MOTHER OF GOD
Strange Nights in Amazonia
At the Eco-Amazonia Lodge, Madre de Dios River, and at Urabamba, Sacred Valley, Peru, June/July 2012
Leaving Cusco (Peru), Pamela and I (with a busload of Four Winds people) flew to the little township of Puerto Maldonado on the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) River in the Peruvian Amazon in the western corner of the Amazon Basin. At this point, something like 1000 km or more upriver from the Amazon and another 5000 km or so from the Atlantic Ocean, the Madre de Dios River is around a kilometre wide, as it is at the Eco Amazonia Lodge, about an hour and a quarter downstream by long outboard river boat from this rough and ready frontier township.
Outboard river boat
Our visit was to be a ‘shamanic experience’.
As such it was billed as an introduction to the pre-Inka wisdom tradition of the jungle and its shamans, supposedly around ten thousand years old. Among other things, we would ingest the drink known as Ayahuasca, and it would provide us with the information and experience it divined we needed (sic!) after we absorbed the stuff.
The introduction included the experience of drinking Ayahuasca (aya: soul or spirit, while huasca apparently means the rope or vine that connects the three worlds, the lower, middle and upper worlds). The locals know Ayahuasca as both the Teacher and the Doctor. The Ayahuasca drink is prepared by each shaman differently, but apparently involves pounding the ayahuasca/caapi vine, adding a proportion of chacruna leaves, then boiling the mixture down for 2 or 3 days to produce a slightly syrupy, bitter concentrate - the Ayahuasca drink.
On our arrival at Eco-Amazonia around 3 pm, we settled into our cabin, had lunch, and prepared for our first experience with Ayahuasca at about 8 pm - our first Ayahuasca Ceremony. In consideration of this, we took no dinner that evening, There were about 80 people in the Lodge, all from the Four Winds Society (U.S. group under the direction of anthropologist, Dr Alberto Villoldo. They investigate and promote Amazonian and Andean Shamanism) who had organized the trip, and we were split into three groups, each to be under the care and guidance of one of three shamans, Orlando, Javier, and Panduro. We each selected the shaman we preferred (although at that time we had met and knew none of them). Pamela and I chose Orlando. We were told that most likely we would vomit, or have bowel purges, or both. And we would probably have benign, uplifting, or frightening visionary experiences. Apparently the vine would choose.
Our group of about 20 assembled at about in the large Reception area of the Lodge and spaced ourselves out around the room with small mattresses to lie on and at about 8pm the lights were doused and the shaman, Orlando, established his Sacred Space with rituals and invocations. He then led us in ‘opening’ the Sacred Space - calling on the archetypes of the four directions, the condor, the hummingbird, the jaguar and the serpent, and those of the earth and sky. Then, without further ado, he prepared his Ayahuasca. Each of us was brought to him in turn by his helper, and knelt or crouched, in front of him while he poured it out and gave it to us to drink.
I expected it to be foul-tasting, yet it was not nearly as bad as expected. I returned to my mattress and lay there. Time passed and I felt nothing in particular except a slight nausea. After some time various participants began to vomit, groan, moan and call out - none of it happy sounding. Meanwhile I felt very little, apart from the feeling I might possibly need to shit. Pamela, however, was having a terrible time. I could hear her calling out wanting it to stop, groaning and (possibly) vomiting or retching. I wanted to help but felt powerless and knew I would be sick if I moved. In any case to interfere might have produced some adverse effect. And I realised that the shaman, Orlando, was with her and helping her. Fortunately, her mattress was right beside where he was seated, so despite her terrors and extreme nausea, he took good care of her.
My own experience, apart from vaguely wanting to shit, was only nauseous if I tried to move. Nor did I have a visionary experience of any kind. In fact it all seemed rather dull. Finally I had to get up and go to the toilet. But someone beat me to it and I had to wait, shifting from foot to foot, hoping I would not lose control. Finally I got to go and quite quickly passed a big ball(sic!) of shit - a very unusual toilet experience. Still that was all, and I returned to my mattress and lay there. During the evening, Orlando would frequently sing and chant. These melodies and chants are his own, and a part of the shaman’s ability to pitch the notes of his song and chant the vibrations he believes are right for his client or group of people. But I simply lay there waiting for the whole thing to end.
Finally, everyone was done around 11.30 pm and we made our way back to our cabins and fell into deep sleeps.
Gerry jumped by a jungle beast
We both felt wrung out the next morning, although not exhausted, and after breakfast decided to take a trip down the river and explore ‘Monkey Island’, an island in the middle of the river, where the EcoAmazonia people had brought traumatized monkeys of various kinds, monkeys who had been kept in cages or sold in the markets, monkeys who were maltreated or destined for appalling fates. Here the island was big enough for them to return to the wild more or less free from most predators. So it was a lovely experience, especially being able to wander freely about in the jungle with its vast varieties of wildlife and trees and plants. Saw lots of monkeys, clearly unafraid of humans, and had great interactions with them.
A stroll in the jungle
We were very tired on our return, so simply rested all day until about 4pm when I had a ‘healing’ session scheduled with Chino, reputedly one of the most powerful healing shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and the Andes. I retired with him to his private salon/room/surgery in a hut at the back of the Lodge buildings. It was empty apart from a mat on the floor for me to lie on and a few shamanic odds and ends - rattles, feathers, his personal mesa, a kind of bag full of sacred objects wrapped in a cloth with bells attached etc. He had me lie on my back on the mat and said (I thought): ‘Open your chakras!’, rather like a dentist might ask you to open your mouth. His English is poor and these were the only words he uttered. Nor did he ask me to tell him anything about myself. Thinking about it later, I think he may well have said: ‘I am going to open your chakras!’ Since that is what he did. I knew enough about chakras and such to understand what he was doing, and he spent some time opening each of my seven chakras. He gave me two of his mesa stones to hold, one in each hand and began a period of invocations, ritual chakra brushings, thumpings, sweepings, blowings etc. I think I went into a sort of trance, during which I had two short, sharp visualizations. First, a motionless, blue feathered eagle, in a position similar to that in which the Austro-Hungarian double eagle is usually portrayed. Second, an image of Pamela helping a woman with dark hair climb down into my body. An image that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Finally, he closed each of my chakras, brushed me again, sweeping away presumably negative energies, and that was that.
He knew nothing about me, and I told him nothing, particularly about the osteoarthritis in my knee, which, after a partially successful treatment of prolotherapy, had nonetheless been getting gradually more painful, or my shoulder, which I feared might also be osteoarthritis.
At the end, I simply got up, paid him for his services, thanked him and went back outside.
Our second Ayahuasca Ceremony began that evening at about 8pm. This time we chose another shaman, Javier. He led us to a beautiful thatched roof building with polished wood floors in a clearing in the jungle some five or ten minutes walk from the Lodge’s other buildings. Again the Sacred Space was opened and the Ayahuasca Ceremony commenced around 8pm. Javier was almost invisible in the candlelight across the other side of the room, where the participants were on small mattresses against the walls of the circular hut. Beside me, quite close on one side, was a portly and affable Afro-American gentleman with a well-trimmed silver beard. Pamela was about five people further along on the same side. As before, we went up to the shaman, Javier, one by one to receive the Ayahuasca drink. Again it didn’t taste too terrible and I retired to my mattress.
And this time it was not long before the effects began to appear, although slowly. I had no nausea or desire to purge, and gradually sank into an alien world of writhing shapes, roiling buildings, twisting trees, all kinds of serpentine, unidentifiable creatures and beings. I was, I thought, fully in control of these visions, and realized that I might be seeing the world through the eyes of my limbic, or reptilian, brain, with everything coiling and swirling in serpent-like fashion. At the same time, the creatures/objects were brightly coloured with extraordinary, mostly geometric Inka/Mayan/Aztec designs. I was not unhappy with this experience, except that the poor guy beside me would intermittently erupt into explosive howls, grunts and violent retching, all at unpredictable moments. The strange thing about this was that each time he did so, all the colours in my dream/vision vanished, as though psychedelic lights had been switched off. It was extremely disconcerting and I inwardly cursed the fellow for interfering so much in my dream. It was only later that I discovered that in his visions he was wrestling with all the terrible experiences of his ancestors and was finding himself being obliged to relive them.
Meanwhile the usual retching and groans, howls, vomiting and grunts went on around the room - although nothing like the extraordinary drama of my neighbor - and this time I was quite unaware of what was happening with Pamela. Meanwhile, being, as I thought, in control of the visionary process, I decided it was time to leave the reptilian world and move up the scale to the mammalian world, which occurred as soon as I thought it. Here I felt perfectly at home with more congenial creatures, wolves, rabbits, trees, rocks, lions, combinations of all of them and various others to the extent that I began to find them rather boring, despite the fact that they were also brightly coloured - again with sharp geometric designs - as in my serpent world. Again, as my neighbour erupted into another outburst, all the colours instantly switched to black and white, before gradually returning. During the evening, Javier moved quietly about the room chanting and singing. He has a most beautiful voice and his songs were entrancing, providing an uplifting soundtrack to the Ayahuasca visions. After a while I became tired of the mammalian world and decided to move along to the frontal neo-cortex land of the spirit. At once I was transported to a grand toyshop with portentous, red-nosed clowns, toy trains and the like. Apart from the clowns’ red noses, however, the bright colours were much less dominant. Humph! I thought. Nothing too spiritual about this world - until I came to realize that the world of the child is that world of infinite possibilities we spend the rest of our lives hoping to re-capture. I had no nausea and no need for the toilet, so all in all it was a benign experience as I drifted out of it and back to ordinary reality.
Just about this time Pamela came looking for me, wanting to go back to our room. She had not had a good experience and had asked Javier to make it stop. Somehow he was able to do this and, although shaken, she was able to make her way back with me through the jungle to our room.
Dawn on the Rio Madre de Dios
The next day, with the effects of Chino’s healing session and the Ayahuasca night, neither of us could do anything but rest and sleep. However, I realised that, during the night, I had not needed any pain relieving tablets for my knee to help me sleep. That was the first time for months.
That evening, we had a communal get together, as we’d done on the other two nights, in which Marcella, Alberto’s wife and our group leader, discussed the Inka and pre-Inka traditions along with the ancient traditions of the jungle. She called on the shaman, Panduro, Maestro Panduro, as he was known - to tell us something about the training of shamans. She translated as he went along and the following is an outline, as best I can remember, of what he said. He was, of course, as in all traditions, under the guidance of a human teacher, but in this case also under the teachings of Ayahuasca. He was required to prepare a large amount of Ayahuasca and, and, fasting for twenty days and smoking occasional pipefuls of tobacco, go deep into the jungle. After twenty days, when he had arrived at his chosen place, he consumed the first Ayahuasca potion. During his vision he was instructed to cut seven paths in seven different directions radiating away from his jungle base, each long enough to allow him to walk for a day. He then took Ayahuasca regularly and each day walked the seven trails, during which he said he received instruction from Doctor/ Teacher Ayahuasca, and his own spirit guardians. All in all, he lived alone in the jungle for nine months. I am not sure whether he then went back to civilization, but he was also required to spend a further nine months alone in the jungle the following year. A very long dark night of the soul, it seemed to me.
All this reminded me of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of a monk shutting himself in a cave and meditating alone for three years, three months, three weeks and three days. And in the same tradition, one of the practices of chod, where the monk/participant spends a night alone in a desolate place, perhaps a remote valley high in the mountains, and offers his body as a kind of tantric feast to be consumed by the demons of the night - all the imaginary, or not so imaginary, powers of the mind and forces of destruction which could destroy him at any time. An exercise, you might say, in fearlessness.
Somehow, during the discussion around these matters, Marcella began talking about Gautama, the Buddha, or Prince Siddhartha, as she called him. She asked if anyone knew the story of the Buddha. A few people put their hands up, as I did, and then she asked if one of us could relate the story for everyone else. Pamela decided I was the one for the job I was handed the microphone. To my surprise, I found I was able to recount the tale without hesitation and with most of the detail correct, despite it being years since I’d even thought of it. I must also have used a rather sonorous voice because I received a gracious round of applause when I was done - although one fellow came up to me later and told me to read Herman Hesse’s book, ‘Siddhartha’, so that I could see where I’d gone wrong.
That evening, Pammie and I were to have our third full Ayahuasca Ceremony, and we had chosen the third shaman, Maestro Panduro. I learned that he was called Maestro because of his renowned ability to conduct and harmonise the orchestra of Ayahuasca for his participants, achieving for each person the result he believed was required or necessary. He also describes himself as a ‘Medico Vegetalista’ who does ‘Curaciones con Medicinas Naturales’. He lives in Puerto Maldonado.
Now the Maestro preferred to conduct his Ayahuasca Ceremony out of doors on a beach across the river, ringed by the jungle. So at about 7.30 pm we all climbed into one of the river boats and outboarded our way from the Lodge across the Madre de Dios River, which, possibly a kilometre wide at that point, is some seven metres deep. We pulled in to a wide sandy beach and made our way in the moonlight about 200 metres to the chosen place on the sand under the wide Amazonian sky, with the jungle behind and the river swirling its wavelets on the beach.
Maestro Panduro’s beach across the river
It did not take long for the helpers to set up the mattresses for about twenty-five people in a broad circle maybe fifty metres across, so each person had plenty of room. Maestro Panduro proceeded with the ceremony of opening the Sacred Space and began to prepare the Ayahuasca, which, when it was ready, he brought around to each of us. It was particularly foul tasting. Shortly afterwards, he also brought around his pipe of local/special tobacco, asking each of us if we would like some. Having been a pipe smoker in my youth, I thought I would try a puff or two. It was far from unpleasant, but only afterwards did he mention that it acted to potentiate the Ayahuasca. And as I had not had a particularly bad experience so far, that seemed OK with me. Lying there on the beach, the wide Amazonian night sky was a vast dome above us, and the stars brilliant, although I must say, not as dazzling as at my home in Blackheath, where the higher altitude gives a special clarity and intensity.
This time, however, my Ayahuasca experience was far from pleasant. It took a little while for the effect to take hold, and when it did I found myself becoming quite undone. Gradually, I was becoming horribly nauseated, with my stomach heaving and roiling, and at the same time, I found myself visually assaulted by thousands of tiny, brightly-coloured creatures, all plucking at me and demanding my attention. ‘Me! Me! Me! Look at me! Look at me!’ they each seemed to be screaming. As these tiny creatures crowded my consciousness, I felt a powerful urge coming on to vomit and shit and piss, all at the same time. I tried to crawl away across the sand, but it had taken on strange and disconcerting patterns, like tightly spaced tiles that seemed almost impossible to traverse. Still, I did manage to move some ten feet from my mattress, desperately needing to piss and shit and vomit all at once. I managed to drop my trousers around my ankles and simply lay there with my bottom sticking up in the air, not knowing what would come first while the little creatures danced, plucked at me and screamed for my attention.
I could hear the Maestro approaching as he went around the circle chanting and singing his Ayahuasca songs. There was nothing I could do. I simply had to lie there, bare bottom high in the air, unable to move and feeling deeply humiliated. At the same time, I could almost hear the Ayahuasca chortling, ‘You control freaks are all the same. You think you can control what’s going on, but the reality is You Control Nothing!’ The Maestro, singing quietly, passed by without any comment. I’m sure he had seen everything before, and an out-of-control bare bottom was of no particular interest.
Then mercifully, after what seemed an age, the effects began to lessen. After another age, I managed to hitch up my pants and crawl back to my mattress, where I simply lay, exhausted. And gradually I came back to my (more or less normal) senses. And now the other people were also coming back to the local reality and getting ready to return to the lodge by boat. I found Pammie and she was in much the same state as I was. Together we gathered our belongings and lurching and stumbling, made our way back to the boat, which was extraordinarily difficult to climb on to. Still, we managed, and eventually cruised back across the river to the lodge.
Stumbling into bed, we slept like zombies until late the next morning, fortunately a rest day.
The result of my Ayahuasca experiences seems to be small at the moment and may well remain so, but I got the essence that to follow the shamans’ Ayahuasca path would require extraordinary fortitude and commitment and be an exacting and powerful discipline, and that probably only while undergoing that process would the vine reveal its deeper potential. At the same time, I formed the impression that perhaps the various vivid geometric artworks of the Inka, Maya and Aztec civilizations derived from the widespread use of Ayahuasca. After all, nothing in my own background could possibly have produced the colours and designs I saw during those sessions.
That evening there was another talk, about which I remember nothing, followed by a dance performance from one of the local tribes which was very convivial.
Local Amazon tribe dance
URABAMBA AND THE SACRED VALLEY
Next morning we made our way back upriver to Puerto Maldonado to catch the plane back to Cusco with its altitude of about 3000 metres, from where we travelled an hour or so further on to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley and our hotel. From here we were to spend the next ten days having various Ceremonies in different places. These Ceremonies were largely unintelligible to me and were with a number of different shamans at a variety of Inka ruins scattered around this and other valleys, including a visit to that most remarkable site, Macchu Piccu.
I must add that these various shamans, who included a couple of women, proved to be very personable, sharp folk, always ready for a laugh.
Fortunately, none of these tours and Ceremonies involved Ayahuasca Ceremonies, so although physically tiring, the daily tours put no strain on my psyche, for which I was grateful. And every evening during our stay in the Sacred Valley, Alberto gave a talk on his researches and shamanism generally, along with his take on the 2012 prophecies of the various Amerindian civilizations. Basically, in my absurdly brief interpretation, the concept seems to be that this time, which is one of great upheaval (financial chaos, climate change, energy and water crises, food insecurity, insurrections of various kinds etc. even the possibility of a polar shift or geomagnetic reversal), is regarded by the shamans as a great Awakening. That is, that mankind is about to make a substantial leap forward. One of the interpretations seems to be that on 21st December 2012, the ‘first human being’ will walk on the earth. According to this view, up until now we have all been merely prototypes, and we are about to produce the ‘first human being’.
So there it is. What does it all mean? Who knows …..?
Is this just another millennial fantasy, or do these folks know something the rest of us don’t?
Don Juan, one of the shamans and his female helper
Still, interesting as all these conjectures are, my own reason for making this trip to Peru was more personal: to follow Pamela in another of her various ‘consciousness & healing adventures’ that she has undertaken over the years. At the same time she is/was to have surgery on her back in August 2012 and was in a great deal of pain before we left Australia. This came from the constriction of her spinal canal due to the movement of one her vertebrae, which had the effect of pressing forward and restrictng the space available for the spinal cord and was likely before too long to cause paralysis of her legs and of her urinary function. She was quite prepared to have the surgery, but was hoping for some sort of ‘shamanic healing’, so that it would not be necessary. I was worried about whether she could make the journey without collapsing. But in the event, she made it without much trouble, and eventually was able to have a healing session with Chino, the same shaman who gave me the ‘healing’, described above. She relates that during this session, she felt her back ‘open up’ and a ball of heat move into the centre of her open back. This lasted for some time until Chino completed his ministrations. As with me, she had no discussion with Chino about her problem or anything else. The result of it, however, from some four weeks ago as I write this, is that the pain in her back has changed dramatically, being pretty well non-existent for most of that time, and sometimes manifesting at a much lower level than before. It remains to be seen of course if this is a permanent change, or whether the pain will return. Only an MRI or X-Ray will show whether there has been any actual change in the structure of her spinal column. I might add, however, that, since my own session with Chino (above), the osteo-arthritis pain in my knee has very much lessened, to the extent that I have not needed to take pain killers for sleep for more than three weeks now. And of course it also remains to be seen whether this effect will last. Still, it has to be said that whatever actually happened, the result in both cases is rather astonishing.
Shaman Don Juan
PS. Several weeks after returning home, Pamela had a second MRI. To her great disappointment, this showed that there had been no structural change in her back, and, as though on cue, the pain returned. Biting the bullet, she, with a little encouragement, especially from daughters Lindy and Jaki, decided to go ahead with the planned surgery.
Happily, this went off well, the surgeon telling us that he had been able to achieve all he set out to do in the five hours’ surgery, and that he believed she would be able to regain full mobility. As of early September 2012, she is in rehab, beginning the slow and painful process of recovering from surgery and regaining her mobility.
Curiously, the osteoarthritis in my left knee no longer causes me any significant discomfort, and for the last several months I have needed no painkillers.