Saturday, March 01, 2014

Forward to a Friend's New Book on Ayahuasca

Well, I'm back from Peru. I hope all of you had a fantastic time while I was gone for the month. My boss didn't want me to go because, as she says: "The jungle is trying to kill you." My wife/ex-wife Chepa puts it another way: "Oh, the jungle loves you. The only problem is she loves you to death."
    They both might be right. The list of things I've caught, been bitten by, had invade my system is a list of nearly every ailment one can get in the jungle. Still, this time my bad leg held up, I don't think I've gotten any parasites or new flesh eating bacteria or spider bites, no snakes bit me. Hoping I'm not jinxing myself but I think the jungle was very gentle with me this time out.
     Now there was good news and bad news when I got home: My beautiful Madeleina is going to State, the state of Texas competition, both as a solo flute player and as a member of a 13 piece ensemble, one of only a couple of dozen kids in bands across the state who can boast that. The bad news is that in practicing for the contests she skipped a few days and so she and I got summoned to truancy court for a March 5 appearance. That's gonna cost me several hundred bucks. Damnit!
     Now while I was in Peru, my friend Alan Shoemaker's new book, "Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing," came out. It's published with Inner Traditions, a good house and I hope he sells a million copies. I happened to write the Forward to it. But also while in Peru, another friend, asked me to write the Forward to his upcoming book, "Diary of an Ayahuasca Skeptic". I said okay and today I got down to it. So here it is.
Diary of an Ayahuasca Skeptic

Forward by Peter Gorman

I first met D.L.Walker in early June, 2013. It wasn’t a pleasant meeting. I had just flown into Iquitos, Peru—the Amazonian city which can only be reached by plane or boat—to take a couple of groups out into the deep jungle where they would have the opportunity to learn about the Amazon river, Her people and medicines over the course of a couple of weeks. Among those medicines they’d get a chance to utilize was ayahuasca, an extraordinary elixir that can give the user the chance to get through the equivalent of five years of psychotherapy in three or four hours. More on that later.
     My team of workers met me at the airport when I came in and we’d gone directly to the Belen market—the sprawling heart of the heart of Western Amazonia—to begin supplying for the first of the two trips. That done, my team retrieved the dozen or so large plastic containers that held my basic jungle stuff out of storage, brought them to my room, and we’d spent several hours going through hammocks, mosquito nets, blankets, towels, boots, rope, medicines and a host of other necessities for taking groups into the jungle. By the time that was done I was exhausted and went to the Boulevard, a touristy park lined with expensive restaurants, to have a drink.
    Several people I know were having an animated political discussion at the next table. If I wasn’t so tired I might have joined them; instead, I said my hellos then sat and ordered an aguar diente—cane liquor—with lime and a side of water. I was wrapped up in what I needed to repair and replace and needed to be alone for that.
    Suddenly I heard the discussion turn to President Obama and the tone was pretty negative, I thought. Actually, I thought it was fucking outrageous and I told the lout who was making the comments, a big fellow I didn’t know who had his back to me and who wore a hat and had a salt and pepper pony tail, that in my presence Obama would be referred to as Mr. President and treated with respect—whether the guy liked him or not. Well, the guy—who turned out to be Dag Walker, took umbrage at my outrage and told me to go fuck myself. I responded in kind and after a few moments he stormed off, pissed off.
    I asked the others at the table—guys I’d known for years—who the guy was: They said his name was Dag Walker and he’d been in Iquitos for months while I was not there, was a writer, and a good one, and that I should have kept my mouth shut.
    I was probably on my third drink by then and said I didn’t give a hoot whether I’d pissed Mr. Walker off or not.
    Next time I saw Dag—who doesn’t drink alcohol—I was again tired and slightly in my cups. He sat and we introduced ourselves and he explained that he’d read—or tried to read my book “Ayahuasca in My Blood—25 Years of Medicine Dreaming” but that while it was well written he couldn’t get through it. Thought I was full of shit, basically, and had made up a whole lot of nonsense to sell tourists on coming on my trips. That set me off: I loudly explained that for the first 15 years of coming to the Amazon I’d been a collector of indigenous artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, a collector of medicinal plants for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and whatever other credits I might have. Then I began to tout my national writing awards and so forth. Dag Walker wasn’t impressed a bit. In fact, he was so appalled that I needed to justify myself that way that he would shortly write—and publish in the local Iquitos English language newspaper—that shortly after my outburst I fell off my chair in a drunken stupor and lay with a stray dog on the sidewalk, blissfully asleep. I still hate him for that exaggeration.
    But while we still sat at the same table, he with a Fanta and me with an aguar diente and water, he announced that in his opinion the whole tourist trade centered on ayahuasca in Iquitos—which is huge these days—was hype, phony, a complete lie because, in his opinion, ayahuasca did nothing for anyone except help river people puke to eliminate stomach parasites and worms. He was so sure of it that he himself was writing a book about ayahuasca in Iquitos and to that end he’d interviewed more than 100 people who’d used the stuff. He said he’d heard nothing of interest other than some stories of people who claimed to see demons or gods or both—things he was certain they’d conjured to justify having spent all that money to come to Iquitos to drink ayahuasca and see those things.
    The next time I saw Dag was after my group came out of the jungle. He asked them what had happened and while most of them loved the overall jungle experience, only a few claimed life-changing events occurred with ayahuasca—and those he later dismissed. But we didn’t argue that night, which was good. And the next day when my group had returned to their homes in the States and Europe, and I was reading an Elmore Leonard novel, he paused at my table to say that at least I had good taste in writers, as he was a Leonard fan. I offered to give him the book once I’d finished. That made him happy. It also eased the tension between us.
    He soon told me that after talking with all those people about ayahuasca, he’d realized that he would have to try it himself to give his book legitimacy. By that time I was ready to take the second group out. Unfortunately, I’d developed a bacterial infection on my lower right calf that was eating my flesh—I was on intravenous antibiotics—which was getting nasty. And by the time I got the second group out of the jungle, my leg was pretty awful and Dag said he’d drank ayahuasca a couple of times. He didn’t like the look of my leg, and he didn’t like ayahuasca. “Nothing. I got absolutely nothing from the experience except to confirm that there is nothing to it. Complete sham invented by people trying to make a buck off suckers,” he said, or something quite like that.
     I disagreed. I didn’t disagree that many of the folks building lodges where their guests could drink the medicine without ever getting a single mosquito bite had no business doing that because they lacked sufficient experience. I also didn’t disagree that with so many ayahuasca lodges having recently opened in Iquitos and environs that many if not most of the curanderos, the healers, actually serving the medicine were complete fakers, who’d never actually had the medicine but had none the less hired themselves out as curanderos to those naive lodge owners without the experience to know the difference between a legitimate healer and someone who’d learned to sing a few songs and fake a ceremony.
    What I disagreed with was Dag’s insistence that ayahuasca had little value other than in cleaning out parasites. I explained that in Northwest Amazonia, the general belief system among locals regarding illness and bad luck is that illness, bad luck and so forth are seen as the symptoms of a disturbance on another plane of reality. That was what my mother-and-father-in-law believed, as did their friends and lots of locals I’d met over the years. But my mother-in-law and the others could not access those other levels of reality, so they went to the curandero, told him or her their problem, and the curandero would then drink ayahuasca and access those other levels of reality. Up there, he or she could talk with plants, animals, spirits and they would help him or her to see what the disturbance was that was creating the illness or bad luck on this level of reality for the patient. The curandero would then ask those spirits what the patient needed to do to quell the disturbance, which would lead to a disappearance of the symptom. Armed with all that information, the curandero returned to this level of reality and told the patient—or patients, as many times curanderos will see a dozen people at a time on the traditional Tuesday and Friday ceremony nights.
    The example I gave Dag was this: Years ago while I was visiting my friend and teacher Julio, the curandero or local healer on the Aucayacu River a man came up in a dugout canoe. He said he’d heard that Julio was a powerful curandero. Julio chuckled at the complement. The man said that someone was giving him the evil eye. Julio asked how the man knew that. The man explained that every time he sold his yucca or chickens or anything else the man fell down and got hurt. It was often his knees but sometimes his elbow or head as well. “You need to see who’s jealous of me and tell me and I’ll stop them,” the man said, or something like that. Julio said he’d try, and that evening he drank ayahuasca. When he came out of his dream, he was chuckling and the man wanted to know what he’d seen that was so funny. Julio looked at the man and said that no one was giving him the evil eye of jealousy. He said that he’d seen that every time the man went to town to sell his yucca or chickens and had gotten his money, he went to drink at a little cantina with a broken step he fell on when he was drunk. “So you have two choices,” Julio said. “You can either stop drinking at that cantina, or you can fix the broken step.”
    To me, that’s classic ayahuasca healing. Julio really “saw” the man falling and the broken step in his dream and came back to explain how the disturbance could be fixed to eliminate the symptom of falling and getting hurt.
    The problem, I said to Dag, was that when Westerners got wind of ayahuasca, they demanded that they drink it, rather than just the curandero drinking it. So we’ve stood the paradigm on its head, and as a result, some people have such vital experiences that they become instant true believers and feel the absolute calling to open lodges to serve other potential true believers. Which can really water down the whole thing after a while because there are not very many good curanderos out there—certainly not nearly as many as there are lodges.
    Dag was unconvinced but said he’d determined to keep drinking until he either “got it” or felt he’d proven it nonsense—at least the way Western tourists were doing it.
    I went home shortly after that—after giving Dag a second Elmore Leonard book—had several operations to save my leg, and didn’t see Dag again until six or seven months had gone by and my doc gave me permission to return to the jungle.
    When I did see him again, he asked if I’d read his ayahuasca manuscript, which I reluctantly agreed to do. While I read, I began to edit a bit. I edited because Dag’s storytelling was very compelling but he kept feeling the need to quote academics to the point where I wanted to shoot him. By the second section of the book I was eliminating whole pages of quotes that seemed to me to interfere with a wonderful, surprisingly wonderful and insightful take on the ayahuasca phenomenon. The less he quoted others, the better the read and the pages began flying.
     There was just one hitch: He’d decided that to complete the manuscript he’d need to drink ayahuasca with me. That was a terrifying proposition—firstly because I prefer other people run the ceremonies, and secondly because as he already described me as an obese drunk who lay on the ground and cuddled with flea-bitten mangy dogs, I didn’t want to open myself up to what he might write if I served him ayahuasca and it had no effect. “Gorman proven phony! World’s biggest liar! Tourist money thief!” Except that he’d be much more colorful in his negativity toward me than I could ever be.
     Nonetheless, I agreed to serve him after my tour group had finished. By chance, the curandero I work with had come to Iquitos with the rest of my team—they’re all one family—and I asked him to run the ceremony, which we were going to do in my large room in the middle of the city.
     On ceremony night, the curandero sang for about an hour and then I took over—if I was going to get blasted it might as well be me doing at least some of the ceremony—before turning things over to the curandero to finish up.

     Dag has not said anything to me about his experience that night. And he has not shown me the chapter he was going to write about it. So I’m writing this Forward having read most of this book. And I will tell you that it’s a damned good read. How it ends, I have no idea. I’ll only say this: If it ends with me sleeping on the street, he’s making it up. But the rest of the book? He’s done his homework, been his own guinea pig and written something pretty special. Enjoy it.

1 comment:

starr brite said...

So interesting to hear your take on Dag, instead of the other way around. I was lucky enough to meet Dag when I came to Iquitos September 2013. We had an immediate bond and I had already read his blog in the UK before coming to Peru.

I was in Iquitos to research and write about the shaman and the ayahuasca industry. Dag talked about you, about your tense relationship, your ability to sell lots of books and how he had upset you by writing some scathing insults about you. Yet I sensed a grudging admiration for each other despite your differences, as he told me you still communicated and had agreed to write the preface for one of his books.He really wanted me to meet you.But although I was in Iquitos for 5 months, I think you returned to Peru just as I had left.
I was there when Dag would return from yet another ayahuasca session having fallen asleep or had no experience or felt any effects.
I told him he needed to try staying awake next time he took it.
I was also there to see him the day after he'd been with one renowned Shaman. He couldn't stop smiling. But you'd have to read his book to find out why.

I was really hoping to meet you Peter, but I had already heard online about the Shaman who had taken so many evil spirits from others, they had manifested into a flesh eating virus which was eating his leg away.

I never read this particular man had got a scratch while in the jungle on his leg, left it and as it became septic ignored it, prioritising alcohol over his health until the infection really took hold.

Not sure who told me that version of events....

Anyway, I'm just buying online the book you have written this preface for, and it has made me smile and reminded me of fond memories, Dag's tall, yet wonderful tales and the man who comes across as harsh and cynical in his writing at times, despite in reality having a heart of gold and a soul so free and true, I couldn't fail to fall in love with him.

My time in Iquitos was marred by the company I had invited to join me. No doubt, you will hear all about 'Escotia' the crazy Scottish man who lived with the blonde writer at Dawn on the Amazon.
I think they even get a mention in one of Dag's books....

Anyway, great preface to what I know will be a great book. Dag deserves some recognition and to make some cash from his writing. He lived with so little, the epitome of the poor writer who never made a penny,but never complained or asked for help, unlike many others who hang out on the boulevard. He never gave up on writing, because it is his birthright, his calling, his reason to be here.

Thanks for reading,my many bad times in Iquitos which damaged my heart and mind, have just moved aside and reminded me of the things and people who got me through the worst moments.
Dag Walker being one of them.