Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part 12)
Interviews with Shamans, Part 4.1
A tall and way too skinny Italian lad showed up at my place, hastily and pointlessly parked his backpack in the way of general traffic, and disappeared to the bathroom for too long; in all pretty much leaving a bad first impression on me as I looked over his collection of hardcover books that had fallen from his pack when he dumped everything on my floor and zipped off to the can. I stepped over a large volume of the wit and wisdom of some generic Hindu yogi, a couple of self-help paperbacks by a popular writer these days, and then I didn't bother to look further at his hardcover book on ayahuasca, it being as well in Italian. The things one travels with. A drug tourist in search of a clean bathroom to mess up and leave to others. I paid no attention to him and he soon enough packed up and left for some place in the jungle to take drugs and hallucinate and find himself and himself as special, a newly minted demigod if only the philistine likes of me could grasp his essential beauty. I thought he was a goof. Now? Well, now I don't know what to think about the lad. He came back a changed fellow.
I've been looking into ayahuasca for months now and I've read and heard and seen some of the outright stupidest crap in my life since I sat stoned in a friend's parent's basement listening to Jimmy Hendrick's playing on the stereo as we all were out of our heads on LSD back then in the late sixties as teenagers. How, I have often wondered, do such people as the imbecilic creatures I sometimes meet find the means to fly to Peru to stay at fancy places paying so much money to take ayahuasca? Life is filled with mysteries. And why, I wonder, do such people spend their money on drugs in the Amazon when if they cared to they could find better drugs at home for nothing like the price they pay in Peru. What is it that draws people to the jungle to take ayahuasca? Is it the semi-legitimacy of drug-taking as a “ceremony” of innocence? Is it the exotica of doing something at home seen as, at least by a fair number of middle class people, basically a dirty and foolish and illegal activity? Or is it simple anomie, the lack of a soul in the Modern world so many cannot cope with emotionally, masochists now lacking the masters of past sadistic life in brutal security under the savage command of privilege and entitlement and raw physical power in a quasi-military social structure? Kick me, kick you, kick him in a round of sensibleness that hurts and shames but is solid and unchangeable and ordained by Power. Cut loose to float freely in the alien oceanic, what is there for the not very bright but determined empty vessel to do to find a mooring in a world otherwise tossed? Like kids on the beer-stinking couch in the basement of a teenager's indulgent parents, adults sit in befuddlement and spout stuff about, and it seems to make sense of a senselessness unexamined in detail. I read, I hear., I see. Slowly, slowly, come to know a bit about.
I know a bit about stuff, and some about ayahuasca. I have yet to meet anyone till now who knows as much as I. Just bad luck. But bad luck is usually the result of not trying hard enough to improve a situation; and so I made my way a few whole blocks to talk to a woman who should know about ayahuasca and its servants of the plane I know and the planes I don't. I went to talk to the head lady of all shamans in Iquitos. It's not just bad luck that I haven't previously met an informed and articulate ayahuasca professional; it's a matter of continued effort. Kick me-- break your legs. The free man is not one who can do as he likes: he is the man who knows that he can think it through and find a better answer till at some point he has as good an answer as one can hope for. It can mean breaking a cycle of ignorance and power by breaking the rules and breaking a man's legs if needs be. Or it can be simply breaking down the barriers of obscurity and idiocy till one finds enough small lights of accumulated knowledge that give one epiphany. Talk, move on, listen, break a tyrant's leg, move on, keep asking. Luck changes.
Comes information. Comes knowledge. Comes understanding when one kicks down doors and breaks legs and listens to quiet sense where once was reckless babble.
Hello, you. Tell me about stuff.
As luck has it, I met someone who knows more about ayahuasca than I know. I met at last a true expert who lives the life of plants and knows what it's about in terms I can understand. I met an intelligent and articulate shaman. My devious plan had been to take an hours long ride by mototaxi, a three wheel contraption of half a motorcycle pulling a covered two wheeled passenger carriage on the back so I could find myself in the middle of nowhere outside of Iquitos from where I would then start a long hike through the flood swollen jungle of high grass and deep mud and millions of mosquitoes till I came to a resort where I might encounter an American shaman who carries a revolver, lives surrounded by pit bulls with genuine teeth, (unlike the beast that tried to eat my foot a few months ago,) and who, when he isn't using an industrial wood chipper to grind ayahuasca to sell overseas, illegally, of course, would probably hate me if he knew what I think of him raising fighting chickens and living like a Medieval baron in the midst of rich and fawning tourists corrupting the local culture with his rip-off of Amazonian people's ethos about hallucinogenic drugs. He's in it for the money, definitely, and probably for any number of creepy things I can't begin to assess till I meet him in his cocoon of Modernist living in the Peruvian jungle. As luck would have it, I didn't meet anyone like that at all. I didn't even leave town. In fact, I walked across the street from the Plaza de Armas and found myself jostled by a crowd of locals assembling for a concert at the intersection, a bandstand covered against the incipient rain storm in yards of black plastic tarps flapping in the gentle breeze, piles of boxy black acoustic wares piled high on the platform tangles like snake balls and hanging from metal branches overhead, intense musicians tuning electric guitars, and a man pounding a drum set in a frenzy till my head was bursting, a smple cacaphony of warm up for the real thing. I was at the commercial centre of Iquitos on a very busy late afternoon during a celebration of an anniversary of colonialism and exploitation of native people and the destruction of native culture. Folks around me were loving it, and I forgot about the evils of Modernity so fast I now wonder if they even crossed my mind as I searched for the address of my contact, the shaman who would tell me stuff about shamans generally and about ayahuasca. Being a hard-driving intellectual, I stopped at the corner for an ice cream cone so I could think deep thoughts about important things. I wondered why is it that if chocolate is the favourite flavour, then why the girl tells me nearly every time there isn't any chocolate left because so many people like it that she always runs out and I have to settle for strawberry rather than she gets a lot of chocolate so people can always get what they want? I wanted to be thinking about tough guy shamans, but I was on my way this time to meet a lady, the generic female shaman on my list. As luck would have it, I didn't get what I was hoping for. I got strawberry ice cream. Sometimes I am sure the gods love me. It was good.
I was standing then, at past 4:00 on the sidewalk among a thousand or more revellers happy to celebrate their horrid history and this day in the warm that melted my ice cream so fast that I got long streaks of sticky pink on my shin bones as the ice cream dripped down on me unknowing, and I was pissed off that my appointment had bombed, there being no answer at the upstairs metal door I had been rapping on with a large coin till I was ready to rip the chain off and take down the gringo alcoholic recently around who is going to get a major wail-on if he antagonises me again. I'd been back to the IPeru office to get a call in to the lady I was supposed to meet; and sure enough she said to come up and see her. But I did that, pounded on the door till I was nearly deaf and my fingertips hurt from the rapping and I couldn't evern hear the drummer outside any longer. Still no response from the open stairway above where the lady was. And there was me at half four fuming, my ice cream melting, and I saw the bum, the histrionic gringo drunk, abusive with the embarrassed locals, the police gently moving him on by standing by him and slowly moving him out of the crowd without ever looking at him or touching him. I'm not that kind. I got the security guard at the office building I was trying to gain entry to to accompany me upstairs and had him pound the lady' door; and miracle of miracles, she appeared. Not what I expected of a lady shaman: She didn't look like a shaman much at all, nor even like much of a lady. I wasn't happy; but still, being an easy-going-laid-back-West-Coast-kind-of-guy I didn't remark on her taking out three keys and taking four attempts to unlock the chain around the grate, and then five attempts to unlock the metal cage door that swung out and made me step down into the dark stairwell as she sullenly looked me over and seemed not too impressed with the old guy who hasn't had a haircut recently in a few years, a guy she didn't know about, and who didn't seem that friendly. I went up the stairs to her office as she slowly made her way across the room to a desk and chairs where we sat to chat, me with her, about shamans and ayahuasca, leaving her place five hours later in serious need of a toilet to take the piss of my life.
Was a time when I would meet my uptown friends on Sunday mid-day to have brunch and chat at an upscale diner filled with folk who took out a few hours from work at the home/office where they caught up on whatever it is that pays for the twin Porsches they take out of the double garage daily and park on the driveway while they drive the Toyota to work in the city, returning to the house late in the evening to repark the Porshes covered, the the maid-boinking delivery men and the gardeners and low level job folks rather than career types having had a chance to ooh and ahh the lives of the rich during the working class day. Frequently would be a middle aged bone-rack woman standing with bangles on her saggy skinned wrinkled wrist waving and jerking like she had St. Vitus' dance, she proclaiming to her fat, bald, middle aged and infatuated boyfriend that it is so terrible what America does to the poor people of the world, and imagine how they must feel when they look up at the sky to see bombs falling down to kill everyone and destroy the pretty little grass hut village they live in so peacefully. The horror of anticipating death as they watched helplessly the bombs coming from big shiny steel American planes to kill them and their children. “The horror!” she would cry, and then start crying.
I was riding my bike once through a canyon in the far north of Scotland on some barren and nearly deserted island, me the only person around for a hundred miles, the whole place to myself on a rare sunny day, and me singing at the top of my lungs, exultant in my freedom, fair howling the words of my favourite song:
Hey, hey, I am a Monkey
I'm just fooling around
I'm too busy singing
To put anybody down.
Hey, hey, I am a Monkey
I am the new generation
And I got something to say.
I was going to go back into that dark place of my mind where I settle and brood over just what the hell is it that I have something to say about, but as I was singing I saw a tiny speck in the sky above and far beyond me, a bird, a plane...
I was rocked on the road to the point I thought I'd crash in the rubble of stones shaken loose by the training fighter jet that had just passed and brought with it a sonic boom that causes houses in the Hebrides to crash down and kill their residents. Watch the bombs falling? One really must not know a lot to not know about the life of people in a village in the world as it is in Peru, for example. Crying publicly for all to see at an upscale diner during a break from amassing yet a larger fortune is some kind of creepy ignorance of reality and emotion that only the filthy wealthy and coldly aggressive can indulge in. To a degree, sometimes greater, such is the kind of person I meet when I meet those who come to Iquitos to take ayahuasca with the local shaman. What do I know? I'm a monkey. I'm too busy singing to put anybody down.
I took a seat in the lady shaman's office and made myself sort of comfortable when I removed the stuffed animals and assorted stuff piled up on my chair. Made a clear space on the corner of her desk and laid out my notebook and pens and asked if she minded if I took notes while we talked. I don't have any notes regarding what she said because unless people are telling me something important I would rather respect their privacy. I asked what her name is, though I am a clever guy and I knew already! Her name is Rossana, the spelling of which I got from my secret source of good information about the city and things related, Edwin at IPeru. She said her name is Rossana, which I took to be a good sign, that she wasn't lying to me right off. I asked her if she is the head of the association of shamans in and around Iquitos, the go-to person for information about shamans, the person who mediates disputes between rivals, who is the liaison between government and corporations and shamans in this part of the Amazon. I knew all this to be true because I am very clever and I listened when Edwin Villacorta, the local supervisor at Iperu, told me. The bulky lady in the sort of whitish track pants sitting across from me said yes, she is the one the elders of villages in the area have picked to represent them to various officials and to take care of internal affairs among the people and the shamans. Pen in one hand, choking a stuffed and fuzzy yellow teddy bear with the other in my high excitement at the trick question I had ready, I asked her why the village elders and mass of shamans had picked her. She said she was nominated by the group of shamans who meet once every year of so to find a person to help them deal with the Modern world, and they chose her, and keep choosing her (for ten years now) because she speaks English and gets along well with people. Ah ha! I thought. So that's what's behind all this shamanism and jungle drug-taking among tourist philistines who don't know what their miserable lives are about. But that thought is too deep for the world as it is, and I left it there to die a lonely death unloved. I hurled another zinger at her: “Do they elect you?” She said yes, though she often shows up late at the meetings and is already elected by the time she comes around and doesn't actually do much to get elected. Her community work seems to be sufficient for that. I looked around for a revolver, for some vicious pit bulls, for the torn and bloody remains of fighting chickens. Not nothing to see. No signs of heaps of hidden cash or an industrial wood chipper to make ayahuasca for the international underground drug market. She had a jungleful of stuffed animals laying around the room. The wild man violence of doing battle with the forces of cosmic evil on the astral plane, not so much of it in view. I found myself speaking to a middle aged fat lady in a tight sweat pants seated among kids' toys. Not so scary. I kind of liked her; and as I looked at her I saw she's a pretty girl indeed. We started chatting. That went on for five hours.
Far from the vision some have of Noble Savages in Iquitos and the Amazon jungle, happy-go-lucky people living a kind of Disneyland dream life of easy fruit-picking and lazy fishing in the sun and non-committed sex all the time until greed-crazed imperialists came to destroy everything good and sacred, Rossana told me that life for the jungle people, of whom she is one to a fair extent, was, and to a degree still is, a hard life of war and violence and hatreds. Ever it has been so among the 64 ethnic groups in the area, they speaking 70 dialects, they being jealous of others' successes, fearful of the resentments of those who would destroy their small victories. And there is the war that comes with raping children and murdering those men and women strong enough to resist. Life with sticks and stones is more brutal indeed than the imaginary life of American bombers dropping death from the sky on the innocents of the world. No war for Rossana. Rossana isn't a tough-guy battling demons in the aether. She's got some demons to fight, but that's not the story she was willing to tell me. Rather, she spoke for hours about shamanism and ayahuasca in and around Iquitos. No shapakas, no shrunken heads, no mood music icaros playing on the stereo system, no incense burning in an oily ashtray, no misty sentimentality about jungle life. As luck would have it, a pretty lady at a wooden table in a room full of office writing boards and water-based pens used to write about administrative things of use to village elders and feuding shamans and skeptical and cynical government lawyers from the Andes and corporate oil company or mining interest p.r. flacks from Modernity explained things to me. I got lucky. I sat in a classroom and learned a bit about. No guns, no dogs, no dead chickens or bullshit. She told me about stuff.
Sometimes I want to gag and sometimes I want to punch people when I hear such as “I have this friend, a really great shaman who helped me heal and ya ya.”
Rossana's mother was a shaman, as were her mother's grandparents. Rossana's daughter is a shaman. Rossana herself is a shaman, but it wasn't supposed to be that way. Rossana was deliberately left out of the shaman succession. As a woman it would be hard enough, especially until recently, to become shaman, but back then in Rossana's youth very difficult in the macho male world of shamanism. And worse, the world of the village and the shaman world in the village is not the happy idiot place so many sentimentalists from Modernity would like to pretend it is. It's often violent and deadly; and then there is the spirit world to cope with. But first, one has to live to live in the world, and Rossan nearly didn't make it at all, coming to the earth too soon, saved to live because her mother knew about plants. But Rossana's life was not to be that of a shaman. Her mother refused to teach her. Rossana was lucky, and she became a shaman anyway. One could call that determination. Now she is the representative of all shamans organised in the area. Her daughter, raised from birth to be a shaman, is a medical student in Germany, the girl wanting to be expert in both ways of healing.
Rossana knows both sides of the medical world, if not as a Western educated doctor, then as a German doctor's wife and as a shaman, she moving freely across the frontiers and arbitrating disputes as well as one can in such polar areas as that of full-blown Cartesian science in the 21st Century and the world of jungle plants that have spirits that can both heal and kill. She knows, too, the men involved in such cosmic battles in and around Iquitos. When a European tourist is wandering naked down the road in the middle of the night high on ayahuasca, the police bring her to Rossana who deals with that and the shaman who let it happen. When one shaman follows an ayahuasca taker to the next shaman and uses the tourist as a conduit to attack a shamanic rival, Rossana is there as well to prevent further conflict by talking. And when French biologists come in search of plant medicine and find that the shaman they want to speak to is deaf, Rossana is there to tell the shaman that a blue-eyed girl is not exactly evil and won't cast spells on him, even if he can't stand the sight of her eyes. Rossana knows stuff. She learned from living in the shamanic world of her mother, and she learns still from paddling a canoe to villages isolated by the seasonal floods to speak with people who would otherwise not speak were she not so trusted. Because in spite of the instant friendships Europeans develop with the locals, in spite of the embraces on the sidewalks and the cheek kissing and the handshaking and gushing professions of love and eternal care, the village life is one closed tight, against outsiders of all sorts, and even against ones own family if one senses rivalry and potential ill will. Suspicion and even outright paranoia is the norm in many places ruled by spirits who can and do come unbidden to cause harm. The plants have minds, as it were, and not all of them are kind and compassionate. Some are demonic. Some are murderous. Rossana knows both worlds: of Rationality in which nothing of this sort exists; and she knows the world where a look can mean death by evil eye. Rossana's is likely the last generation of the area where such a life is possible. The end is coming for the shamans in the jungle, they being harvested and “clear-cut” as surely as are the hardwood forests, the shamans being cleared from the selva and transplanted in “lodges” for tourists to adore and take ayahuasca with. I've seen it happen, and I don't need anymore that ayahuasca to make me vomit. Good or bad, the Modernist has come to wipe out the forest magic.
There is a loss of jungle life in that people are suspicious there, locked in a universe unending of devils and harmful magic and powerful enemies. The shaman who feared blue eyes is the man who claimed deafness, caught out when he was found listening to the football game on the radio, his embarrassment due to his lie and too for being found to be so deeply involved in a city person's sport. Plants? Kids don't care about their parents' and grandparents' ways of life. They want football and radios and motorcycles and life in the city. For many that will mean a start in the slum of Belen. There the traces of jungle life linger, but the lure of Modernity is too strong to keep the young in step with the world of plants. The jungle's call falls on the unhearing.
The jungle life rejected by the young is not so pretty as one might come to think if one listens solely to the tourist who loves the wise old shaman who cured him of this and that terrible traumatic wound suffered from since one was too young to recall. The shamanic life is one of competition against other shamans, some of whom might not stop at simply stealing ones power but might if they can cast harmful spells that ruin and kill. Not my lovely shaman, of course, he being wise and kind and loving. But the others? Well....
There are selva communities on the surface one might see that one cannot enter. Likely one would not know. How could one know that some watch the ash of a mapacho cigar and see ones being and accept or reject on the basis of it? Or it might be so simple as the outright rejection of mestizos, let alone the blue-eyed tourist demon. And further, it might mean the general rejection of a family member who does not have a turn in the atavism of shamanic lore. A girl. There is no saying. Into this world of shamans and villagers and warfare in the jungles and in the forest aether one moves in fear and one dies. What life is, good or bad, well or ill, depends on the evils of others and the spirits and the power of the shamans to do battle on ones behalf. It is a world of deep suspicion of others, even ones own. In this world Rossana makes her way to heal, as it were, conflicts between the State and the people, between numerous interests ranging from oil companies to plant demons and men with hatreds deep and dark between. And often enough, no one wants to listen to the old folks talking about plants anyway. Tourists, yes, for an uncomfortable hour, perhaps for a tedious weekend while waiting for ones lift-off dose of ayahuasca, the point of plants for the drug tourist who has that special shaman wrapped around her finger, who has that special shaman in his pocket. Going and going, and the more there is lost the more shamans abound. One has never seen so many shamans as now. All thanks to the sixties. There are shamans like raindrops; shamans everywhere. One might never really know because the selva life is secretive and closed to outsiders. Those who do not know are prone to speak aloud volumes.
Rossana let me into her place and I sat and listened to her talk about shamans and ayahuasca and people she knows and knows about because she knows them. I don't know stuff so I listened and she spoke. Now I still don't know stuff but I know more than I did. I know that one must think about stuff one hears and sees and cannot trust as replicated in this world from our own. I don't know because I don't know. Others don't know because they don't want to learn; and some don't know because the knowledge is guarded and taken to the tomb. But don't fret it about that: there is no shortage of shamans.
One from the selva knows the topos and the avatars of plants. By “knowing” I mean one has a knowledge of the spirit of the plant and is able to enter into the realm as shaman rather than as victim. One with knowledge has power to protect oneself from the spirit of the plants and the power to make the plants work for the entrant being. Woe to the fool who thinks he knows the spirits of plants and does not. So with shamans among shamans. As each place is specific and has its avatars in plants, so too does each village have its garden, as it were, of elders, some grown wise with the age and some simply twisted, hard, and bitter. None of such men are necessarily shamans. Nor is the doctore, the man who knows plant lore but is not a shaman at all. One knows oneself; one knows ones place. The shaman knows his spirits and they live in his selva as spirits of the wood aether. This is not a place for tourists. It's a combat zone.
My plan was to talk to a woman shaman to see for myself what it's like for females in the kick-ass world of macho spirit masters. Hearing Rossana I heard “prudence.” You don't understand what goes on here. No, I didn't know. Now I know a bit more, and next time we'll look a little deeper, learn a little more, and find out we don't really get it no matter how special we are for having seen the snake. That will be next time as Rossana continues to tell about stuff.