Jacs woke me very early the next day excited because a jungle shaman was in the community and he wanted me to meet him. Of course I quickly jumped up and followed Jacs down to the river where he introduced me to a very old man who was getting into a small canoe. He was dressed in a traditional striped rough woven robe which looked about three sizes too big for him. The back of it was quite dirty possibly from sitting on the ground a lot. Jacs wanted to stay with his family but one of his friends Peti who wanted to learn the shaman way offered to go with me to translate the native language of the shaman to Spanish for me. I did not care; I was just so excited to meet the old guy. Before I knew it, we were all in the canoe heading downstream. I asked Peti where we were going and how long would we be gone but he just shrugged his shoulders. Here I once more had to trust what was going on – what other choice did I have? I reminded myself about a favourite quote I had heard somewhere “Be careful what you ask for.” I decided that I should embrace the whole experience and see where it took me; after all, I had five weeks before I had to get my flight home!
We travelled down the river for a few hours in total silence and did not see another person or community. The river passed over many rocky outcrops which caused rough rapids to toss the small canoe around. Peti and the shaman didn’t appear to notice any turbulence so I pretended it did not worry me. I did get used to it and I was confident that if anything happened the men would get us out of trouble.
A small tributary entered the river and I was happy to see we were going to stop for a while. Of course no explanation was given so I played follow the leader and I did what the old guy did, get out of the canoe and walk into the jungle. It was only about fifty meters before we reached a small creek that had been dammed to make a pond of deep water. I noticed steam rising which told me the water was hot, this was a hot spring coming out of the ground. Peti told me that we should all have a wash as he and the old guy began getting undressed. I had a five second panic when I thought, “holy crap, I need to undress too!” But, undress I did and I felt embarrassed but when I realized that they were not the slightest bit interested in having a peek at me I relaxed and enjoyed it.
The hot water was amazingly refreshing and it was so good to feel clean! I tried to get some information about our agenda out of Peti while we were sitting in the hot water but he said he did not know and that I should be patient and follow the guidance of the old man who at this stage did not have a name. Peti assured me that the old man was a very famous local shaman who worked in his own way and would talk to me in good time.
We eventually climbed back into the canoe and continued our journey downstream. The sun was getting very hot and the reflection on the water was extremely bright. I covered my head and face with my constant companion, a sarong given to me by my daughter. It must have been a few hours later that I saw a small community on the river and people slowly come down to the river bank to greet us or maybe just looking out of curiosity. I thought they were coming to look at me but the main attraction was the old man.
Dam! The world doesn’t revolve around me after all!
I joined the crowd and followed the shaman to a large open sided, thatched roof house in the centre of the village. I stayed close to Peti as I must admit that I felt quite vulnerable even though the children were the only ones who showed any interest in me. There was a bit of discussion between the shaman and a few of the community people and they all dispersed and went about their daily business. I went with Peti to sit with the shaman and finally exchanged a few words via Peti’s interpretation. Apparently the local shaman’s were going to join him and give advice to assist anyone who was not feeling well. Yay! I was so excited but contained myself very well. I had learned quickly that I was just tagging along and that the shaman would get to me sooner or later…maybe!
We stayed many hours in the village. I sat with the shaman and watched him with the younger shamans hand out plant medicines to many people. I began to notice that the old shaman was giving the same medicine to everyone while the young shamans handed a mix of many plants. When the procession of patients was gone, I asked the shaman why he gave the same plant medicine to everyone while the young guys did not. He explained that the young guys had been seduced by tourist money and enjoyed the celebrity status they bestowed upon them. They gave the tourists what they wanted which was the mystery of the secret medicine of the jungle. He said it was not like that; it was simple. He explained that the patients healed themselves by coming to visit him with the mindset that he could cure them. He gave them what they wanted; a bag of medicine believing it would cure them. I was a bit gob-smacked by hearing that! I asked him if it was the same for people with serious illnesses which may be killing them. He said it was similar, however he could tell by looking at a person’s complexion, eyes and demeanour if they had a serious illness. In those instances he would invite the person to an Ayahuasca ceremony where he puts the person in contact with the plant spirits for healing and advice on treatment. It was then realized this old shaman was not taking the credit for anything he did. He always acknowledged the plants as the healer in contrast to the young shamans who took all the credit and money for their advice. I was beginning to like this old guy!
Ayahuasca is similar the ceremony I participated in when I visited the Kallawaya Medicine men in Bolivia. I was surprised to hear a jungle shaman use the same ceremony as the mountain medicine men. Surprisingly, he asked me if I wanted to attend a ceremony if the occasion arose in our travels down the river. Of course, I said yes maybe a bit too loud as he actually looked at me with some amusement on his face. Peti was surprised but happy because he would be allowed to attend with me.
Fortunately for us, an Ayahuasca ceremony was planned for the following evening for two people in the village. One was a man who had serious stomach problems and the other was a young man who was causing big problems with his bad behaviour in the village. Both of these men had totally different problems which were exciting for me because there was going to be only one ceremony which was expected to help with the healing process for both of them. As the evening approached, we were all given soup and allocated a hammock in an open, thatch covered area. I still couldn’t believe I was there and I woke many times during the night to strange sounds coming from the jungle and to look at my surroundings through the holes in the woven hammock. A few small monkeys were roaming through the area and of course a tarantula was climbing up a pole towards the thatched roof.
Very early next morning, the old shaman woke us to accompany him on an expedition into the jungle to gather fresh plants for the ceremony. I can’t explain how excited I was. I was indeed very fortunate to be here at this time. An opportunity to experience a tradition handed down from father to child from generation to generation and this was what I came to the Amazon Basin for; to see firsthand how the traditional people used the plants to heal. Peti advised me to keep my mouth shut and not be a nuisance with my questions. After all, ‘the shaman would get to me sooner or later’.
It was an amazing day for me just to follow and watch especially when I realized that the gathering of the plants was a huge part of the ceremony. The shaman knew exactly where to look for the plant he needed and always sat next to it and asked permission to use it. He would consult with the plant, telling it what it was needed for. He then very carefully took what he needed while blowing tobacco over it and always backed away expressing gratitude to the remaining part of the part. He did this for many plants and each time he expressed sincere gratitude and love. I was quite overwhelmed and felt breathless with emotion for the whole process which was not entertainment for me.
I recognized a few plants such as ‘the vine with a soul’ Banistriopsis caapi, Chacruna, Toe Blanco and Mapachois. Peti told me that there was also Mimosa Hostilis and Chagropanga. I knew from my reading about the Ayahuasca that Caapi was the main plant and the others supplemented it but Toe was a very dangerous plant to use. I was very curious to see how the shaman was going to prepare it.
After arriving back in the community, the shaman laid all the plants on the ground and began chopping them into smaller pieces and dropping them into a large pot of boiling water sitting on red coals. He was quite generous with the Caapi and left the Toe for last. He sang as he closed his eyes and blew tobacco over the brew and finished by putting a very small amount of the Toe leaf into the pot. We sat for many hours stirring the pot of plants as the shaman continued with the singing and smoke blowing and then he left it to bubble on a very low heat. He told us to go and rest before the ceremony and not to eat anything if we wanted to participate in the ceremony. Now, I was totally blown away; I was going to drink some of the Ayahuasca! Of course I did not rest because I was too excited about the ceremony which was taking place that night.
I showed up early and asked if I could help in any way and was told to find four dishes, bags or containers suitable to hold vomit. OK, so I wandered around the area and found pieces of a large bamboo each with a solid section across the bottom. I took them to the river to check if they would hold water without leaking which they did. When I returned to the shaman with them he indicated to me to place one each on the four mats which were scattered around the boiling pot sitting on hot coals. This was totally different to the Bolivian ceremony so far mainly because four of us would be participating in part or the full ceremony. I suspected that I would not be doing the full ceremony.
After sunset, the two people requiring healing came and sat on a mat with Peti and me sitting on the remaining mats. The shaman filled a small metal cup with liquid from the pot and offered a full cup to each of us. As we swallowed it in one action, he blew tobacco smoke in our faces and whistled before moving to the other person. He then walked around the fire stopping in front of each of us and began singing while fanning smoke towards our faces. He continued this for about half an hour and then told us to lie down and relax.
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