Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Forward to Shoemaker's Book on Ayahuasca

Well, my friend Alan Shoemaker asked me to write a forward to his new book, Grace and Madness, to be published probably next year by Bear and Company or one of their affiliates. I took a few weeks to do it because I knew it would be a pain in the ass. It was. But it got it done. Might be some changes when I look it over, but  here is what I wrote, for better or worse.


Alan Shoemaker first arrived in Iquitos, Peru, in 1993. And he arrived with a bang, coming down the Putumayo with several friends in an outsized canoe with a 15 Hp motor. He’d come from Washington State via Ecuador, where he studied with Dr. Valentin Hampejs, the noted medical doctor and curandero, who was as familiar around San Pedro cactus and ayahuasca as he was around antibiotics.
    I didn’t intend to spend a lot of time thinking about Alan Shoemaker when he first arrived in Iquitos. I’d been using the waterbound city for nine years as a staging point for work in the jungle before he’d ever set foot there, after all, and I’d met two dozen Shoemakers already who always showed up in town, thought it was an easy place to get by and then discovered, three months later, that they were calling family and friends for money to get home.
    But this gringo turned out to be different from most of the other dreamers I’d met: It turned out, as he explained to me, that while wondering where to go for a break from his teacher Valentin, he’d found a copy of Shaman’s Drum magazine—a wonderful magazine produced by Timothy White that dealt with all things Shamanistic—in which there was an article written by me on Ayahuasca. And that led the good Mr. Shoemaker to decide to visit Iquitos, my haunts.
   Now for better or worse, I’d written the first national article about ayahuasca for High Times magazine in 1986. Yes, Burroughs and Ginsberg had written about it previously in the San Francisco-based City Light’s Books as The Yage Letters, but that had not captured the national attention. But the High Times article resounded in pre-internet times, being passed around from person to person until probably more than a million had read it and from those, more than several thousand decided to seek out the medicine.
   The article Shoemaker read was written several years later but still had influence. And so he showed up in my second home. But that is an understatement. He showed up and within a month or two had begun to publish the first modern English language newspaper in Iquitos. Months later he was making large batches of ayahuasca in the street in front of his residence, to the delight of the locals.
   He worked with several curanderos, but seemed to focus on Juan Tangoa, whom we affectionately call Airport Juan, because his home is on a block in a barrio very close to the Iquitos airport.
   But Alan didn’t just work with Juan: he became the first gringo to publicly take a Peruvian curandero on a multi-continent tour to the U.S. and Europe. While others might have done that previously, Alan did it with flair, introducing the concept of traveling curanderos to the world.
   And just as with Airport Juan, everything Alan did was with flair, and everything you might know about Iquitos and Ayahuasca has been influenced—some say for better, others for worse, but still, the influence is not disputed—by Alan.
  Within a couple of years of landing in Iquitos, Alan had set up a small souvenir shop just off what is now the “boulevard”, and not long after that a young woman came to town looking to drink ayahuasca. She wound up going with Alan to drink the medicine with Francisco Montes, at a place his family had bought him out on the then-uncompleted road to Nauta at kilometer 18. The young woman had such a transformative experience that she tried to give Alan a $500 bonus for his work. Alan refused, suggesting instead that she give the money as seed funds to Don Francisco (Poncho to those who know him) to spend on identifying and marking all the plants on his property to create the first botanical garden in Iquitos. She did, and from that first $500, Sachamama, the first Ayahuasca center was born. Every other center there owes a debt of gratitude not only to Sachamama but Alan as well.
   For me, the first hint of something extraordinary occurred probably in 1995. During the late 1980s, whenever I flew into Iquitos from Miami on the now-defunct Faucett Airlines, there were always two, three or four wheelchair-bound end-stage AIDS patients aboard. And when we reached Iquitos they were whisked off the plane and into cars and quickly disappeared into the night.
   After the third time, perhaps, my curiosity was so peaked that I managed to slip off the plane with a group of them, got a taxi and drove after them. They wound up at river’s edge and were loaded onto a fairly small boat. They then took off and disappeared.
   Something was up. These were end-stage patients. There was no going home unless there was a miracle. So I began asking around town about them. I got a word here or there about some strange near-blind bear of a doctor who was doing experimental work on them. But I could never pin it down. I just could not find out what was what, though I knew that something was up.
   And by maybe 1995—give or take—when I came down to Iquitos for a few months, Alan had taken what I’d said and actually located the doctor doing the work. His name was Dr. Inchaustegui and he was treating those dying people with a mixture of una de gato—cat’s claw—essence, sacha jergon—a jungle tuber—and other things. And while most of those people still died, some had survived and a few had thrived. It was Alan who found the man I could not find.
   A year or so later, it was Alan who introduced me to the idea of ayahuasca healing in a way I’d never considered. Remember, there were few books on it, no internet existed to refer questions to; there was just experiential knowledge. He came to me one day and told me his mother was dying and asked me to drink ayahuasca with him at Airport Juan’s house to see of we might not see what was killing his mom and what might help her to stay alive.
   I reluctantly agreed, sure I could not help.
   But that night, during ceremony, I saw her issue, up close and personal, and “saw” that una de gato would help. I wrote a note when I saw that, and the next morning I showed my note to Alan, sure that I was crazy. Alan had a note as well, which also said “una de gato” but added “sacha jergon”.
   He sent or brought the medicines to his mom—I forget which—and some months later, the woman who was supposed to die within weeks, was told by her doctors that they could not find any cancer and that they might have misdiagnosed to begin with. Alan and I knew better.
   Several years later, Alan would come with me and my mother-in-law, Lydia Cahuaza, a Peruvian woman two generations out of jungle tribal life to Airport Juan's to help heal Lydia's cancer. They did. She got another several good years, just like Alan’s mom.
   At the same time, Alan’s drawback was that he loved being the tallest rose in the garden. And he often was. He was the first public gringo to set up an official plant export company from Iquitos. Large companies had done it earlier, but no one had done it on a personal level. To do it, he had to learn how to set up Peruvian corporations, what papers and permits were needed, how to satisfy both U.S. and United Nations’ bureaucracy. It took years of painstaking work. It was done in part with the help of my family’s “paper” man, Jorge “Flaco” Panduro Perea, the best man at moving papers in all of Iquitos. He never missed or misses a trick. And he set Alan and his then-wife Mariella up as a unique company, capable of moving plant material legally from Peru to anywhere in the world.
   Life, somehow, seems to intervene at the most ackward moments. I had a bar in Iquitos, The Cold Beer Blues Bar, across the street from the Puerto Mastranza on the toughest block in town. Tourists were terrified of going there, so my clients included ex-patriots, locals, U.S. Special Forces and every CIA/DEA/NSA personnel in Iquitos at a given time. Plus drug dealers, arms dealers and every other person the DEA/CIA/NSA had an interest in following.
   Well, as luck would have it, some of those young bucks from the U.S.A. would get drunk and cry into their beer to the bartender—who was often me. Now everybody knew I was a journalist, and I told everybody that whatever they told me at the bar was likely to be published if I thought it worthy, so we didn’t do any sneak attacks. Still, over the course of the couple of years I had the place at least two or three black-ops were stopped in their tracks when I published stories about them with Al Giordano’s seminal NarcoNews.com website.
    And, as luck would have it, a couple of former Navy Seals who were then Spooks working for the CIA as merceneries, were at my bar one night. They were there at a party we had for some guests I was taking to the jungle. Well, one of the guests took a photo of me behind the bar. One of the ex-Seals thought she might have captured his image via the mirrors behind the bar, walked over to her, ripped her camera from her neck and stepped on it, breaking it. His lieutenant called him on the infraction, and the drunk mercenary then ate a bar glass. Simply ate an entire 6 ounces of glass out of shame and anger.
    But before he’d done that, he had told me what he and the other former Seals were in town to do: They were in place to head to the Putumayo River to slaughter any and all people trying to escape a pincer movement planned by the U.S. and U.S. trained Colombian forces for the following month. There would be bonuses of $1,000 for every confirmed kill, whether combatant, civilian man, woman or child.
   I wrote the story and the op was cancelled.
   A couple of days later I was in my friend Jim’s Gringo Bar. At one table was the lieutenant with a local girl. I sat with them, while Alan stayed at the bar. The fellow told me I was in serious trouble for mucking up the operation. I told him I respected the military, but not the idea of trying to force civilians to flee a U.S. paid for onslaught to the Colombian rebels in a 30-year-old civil war that would result in either he or his fellows making money by killing fleeing children. Then, for some reason that seemed to make sense to me at the time, I decided to “sopla” the fellow. Sopla is a blessing where you take magic liquid into your mouth and spray a fine spray over someone’s head and body to cleanse their aura. I didn’t have any sacred liquid, so I used beer. The lieutenant didn’t see it as a blessing: He thought I spit at him and in an instant had his finger around my thorax and told me he might kill me. I told Alan to explain that I was blessing him to not kill non-combatants, not spitting at him. Alan, the tallest rose in the garden, seized the moment and hurled a hailstorm of shit on the fellow’s head, making it clear that not only was his position finished, but that he would likely wind up doing hard time for attacking a journalist such as Peter Gorman.
    The fellow took it seriously. He let me go but told Alan that he would pay for the incident.
    And pay he did. A few months later, Alan, with all the proper paperwork in the world, sent a huge shipment of banisteriopsis caapi—ayahuasca vine, maybe 700 pounds of it—and chacruna and huambisa—the admixture plants used to make ayahuasca, along with black tobacco native to Peru and some other things to his ex-wife’s address in Atlanta.
   Now what Alan did was perfectly legal. And if the U.S. had not wanted to receive the shipment, Customs had the option to say the plant material was not wanted in the U.S. and they could offer either to destroy it or return it to sender on the sender’s dime. Of course, if the material had been mislabeled, it would have been smuggling. But as the material was all labeled properly in both English and Spanish, with local and Latin names, that was not the case.
   Nonetheless the U.S. permitted the shipment to go through Customs and then arrested Alan’s grown son for picking it up off the front lawn.
   Despite the outlandishly illegal move by the U.S. Attorney’s office—which was brought on by the former Seal’s complaint to “Get Shoemaker and Gorman”, and which was confirmed by the DEA on tape to me—when Alan tried to go through Atlanta to see his mom before she finally died, Alan was picked up, put on a bus for 30 days and then delivered to a prison. He was given house arrest, not able to leave the U.S. or even go further than a block or two from the home of his deceased mom. That lasted just under one year, the limit the U.S. Federal prosecutors had to either prosecute him for a crime or let him go. Well, they had no crime to prosecute him for: The only crime committed was done by U.S. Customs in allowing legal plants to go through and then arresting Alan’s son and finally Alan.
   So after 360 days, and I might be off by one or two, but just shy of the limit, the U.S. Attorney sent Alan’s passport to his Attorney and sent me a letter saying Alan was free to leave the country. Alan came to my home in Texas. He stayed here for a couple of weeks. Then I called the judge, U.S. attorney and everyone else and got it confirmed that he was free to travel where he wanted, so long as he’d be available should they ever decide to prosecute.
   Alan, who had not seen his wife or kids for a year, bought a ticket to Lima and on to Iquitos. I double-checked with the judge and prosecutor. And finally, knowing I had everyone on tape saying he could leave, I drove my friend to the DFW airport and sent him on his way.
    Less than a week later the prosecuting attorney in Atlanta charged Alan with Flight to Avoid Prosecution—a ridiculous lie considering she was on tape suggesting he should visit his wife in Peru. Unfortunately for Alan, if he ever returns to the U.S., he’ll have to answer to that charge before there are any “ayahuasca” charges, which means that unless he’s got a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees put away, he’s sunk.
    But none of that sunk him.
    He went back to Iquitos to discover that his family had had a hard time without him. He countered by coming up with the idea of a Shamanic Conference in 2003 or 2004. He brought in some inspiring people to talk, collected several good curanderos to offer medicine to the participants, and began what has become an annual staple for the last several years. And out of those conferences has blossomed the thriving business of ayahuasca tourism in Iquitos and Pucallpa. 
   So Alan's fingerprints have been on all things ayahuasca in Iquitos more than anyone else's. Even the beautiful mantas, weavings, done by the indigenous Shipibo that are sold Iquitos and Pulcallpa, bear his influence: At the very first Shaman Conference the weavers began to incorporate the conference logo, a stylized cross-section of an ayahuasca vine--designed by Johan Fremin--into their weavings, and now depictions of ayahuasca appear on nearly all of the mantas the Shipibo sell.
    Alan is loved by many. He’s also been called every name in the book by people of all stripes. But few of those people have ever walked a day in his shoes. Few of those people have had the courage he has shown. I am not always his biggest fan. I wish he had not set Sachamama and all of the subsequent Ayahuasca Retreats in motion. I wish it could all have been kept secret and slowly let out over the next 50 years, rather than just taking it to the streets. But that doesn’t mean I am right. History will let us know.
   What needs to be known is this: that he’s my brother, good, bad or in between. I fight for his right to be the tallest rose in the garden.
    Enjoy his story. Enjoy the book.
Peter Gorman, December 5, 2012


Christi and Bill said...

Lovely, Peter. I look forward to reading the book.

Give Alan my best when you see him.


Kuchinta said...

Very well-written, as always, Peter. Can't wait to get a copy of Alan's book.
Thank you!