Saturday, August 18, 2007

25 Years of Shamanism--Part 3

Readers: This is Pert 3 of 25 Years of Shamanism, a talk I was to have given at the 3rd Annual Shamanism Conference in Iquitos in July, 2007. I didn't give it because I had had emergency surgery just a couple of hours before I was to speak. And thank god, because it would have taken several hours to say all this and the audience would have gone to sleep before I was through it.

In 1988, I had another extraordinary shamanic experience. I spent another month with Moises, this time walking across a good section of the jungle from the Tamischaku River to the Rio Midi, which emptied into the Jivari about 100 bird-flight miles north of where the Galvez did. We’d made our way down to Letecia—the point where the Jivari joins the Amazon—by raft and small motor boat (which we’d commandeered at gunpoint and later returned to the owner with many thanks, but that’s another story), then took a riverboat back to Iquitos. On board was a fellow named Roberto whom I’d know for a couple of years in Iquitos, As his game was bilking tourists for phony environmental causes we weren’t close. Still, we talked occasionally.
"Hello, Peter," he said when we both found ourselves at the ferry’s refreshment stand. "Have you done any ayahuasca lately?"
"There’s a fantastic curandero now living in Pevas you should see. I’ve taken lots of tourists. What visions they have! Much better than that old man you see. Maybe I’ll take you."
"Thanks, Roberto. No need."
"Well, then, have you heard about the ayahuasquero fight?"
"You probably don’t know anything about them."
I told him I didn’t, and he explained that many ayahuasqueros used their spirit connections to accumulate personal power or wealth, frequently by making bad things happen to people at the behest of their enemies—what is called brujeria. The brujeria needed to be countered by a curandero working for the good, which supposedly led to great battles between good and evil ayahuasqueros. Those battles were said to be fought with invisible darts called virotes, which could inflict great physical harm or even death. I’d heard something about those battles somewhere but had never believed they were taken seriously.
"Well," Roberto said, drinking a beer I’d bought him in exchange for his story. "One ayahuasquero in Santa Clara has been slowly poisoning another in Iquitos. Very well done. By the time the man in Iquitos realized his illness came from virotes it was almost too late.
Fortunately, one of his sons has been studying with him and now he too is in the fight. Everyone says that all three of them will be dead before long."
While I acted skeptical at the time, when we reached Iquitos I decided to see Julio to ask him about this aspect of the medicine. I had no real intention of asking him to make ayahuasca for me, but while I was still in Iquitos I had a dream which changed my mind. It was about my father, who had been dead for nearly 16-years at that time. In the dream he told me that he could no longer see my mother—also dead several years—and asked me to find her and find out why. It was an eerie dream and I decided to use ayahuasca to try to discover what it meant. I don’t know what I expected, or whether it was just an excuse to use ayahuasca again, but it made sense to me that that was what I should do.
I brought along a friend from Iquitos who had never been to the Auchyako, and at the last minute discovered that Moises had found four tourists who would also be going. But Junior and Mauro—the second man in the canoe the night I associated with the snake—a would be accompanying them—Moises did not come—which made our party enormous. Worse, when Moises learned that my friend, Jarli, and I were planning to use ayahasca he immediately sold the idea to his group.
Despite the size of our party the time we spent on the little river was glorious. Mauro and Junior took care of Moises’ gang, while Jarli and I were left to our own devices. I was saddened to learn that Salis Navarro, Julio’s apprentice, had been killed by Antonio, one of Papa Vieho’s sons. It seems that Salis had been recruited by one of the big tour companies operating out of Iquitos to offer ayahuasca once a week to large groups at a camp just outside the city. It had evidently gone to his head that he was important and when back on the little Auchyako he took advantage of his position and money to seduce some of the women there. Among them was the main wife of Antonio, who, like Salis, had been my friend for a couple of years. The seduction evidently occurred while Antonio was out in the jungle hunting for a few days: When he returned and was told of it Antonio put a shotgun to Salis’ belly and fired, then headed off with his other wives and children to Brazil.
When I raised the subject of virotes with Julio he was at first reluctant to discuss it. And even when he finally agreed he prefaced his remarks with the comment that I wouldn’t really understand what he was talking about.
"This is not something for people to talk about," he said, "so I won’t say too much. You ask if there are spirit arrows. Of course. When I was younger and still in Pulcallpa there was a brujo there who hated me. At first he used them on my house and chickens. I would come home from fishing and find everything in disarray, or some chickens dead. Healthy chickens he killed with his invisible arrows.
"And then he began to use them on me. One day I could no longer walk. I stood at my table and just fell over."
"What happened?" I asked.
"I took them out. And when I could walk again I went into the woods to talk with the plants. I didn’t know what else to do. I really thought he was going to kill me. There I found this." He took out a small stone ax-head. It was very old and perfectly crafted. I’d seen it once before but didn’t know anything about it. "This from the Incas, the ancients," he said. "It has a lot of power. It saved me from that brujo."
He stared at me to see if I understood. I didn’t.
"I said you wouldn’t understand. Look: Ayahuasca is a strong medicine. That is why we call the four colors in our song: Red, green, white and black. Each represents a different kind of magic. Some people practice only one or two of them. But if your know four and concentrate only on one there is no balance and the magic can take you over. Some people fall in love with money, or power or women. All different things. But they do not control the magic that brings those things, the magic controls them. Entiendas? Understand?"
Again I shook my head.
"Everything has a spirit. This house, these trees, the river, the fish in the river. You might say that ayahuasca helps you reach those spirits. But when people learn to work with those spirits there is a temptation to forget that they are only the doctor, not the medicine, and they lose their balance. They are they ones to watch out for. Muy peligroso. Very Dangerous. They are drunk with power."
I’d never heard Julio speak so much and though I knew I’d missed a great deal of detail with my weak translation, I was thrilled. I still didn’t really understand the concept of invisible arrows, but I didn’t press him further.
I did ask if he would make ayahuasca the following night. He asked for how many and then why. I told him about my dream.
"You’ll have to go to the world of the dead," he said. "Muy lejos. Very far. I’ll make it strong." He said it plainly, as though it wasn’t much different than taking the ferry to Iquitos.
By dawn we could hear the sound of Julio chopping wood for the ayahuasca fire and that evening at eight our whole group set off on the short walk from the small house where we were staying to Julio’s. All but Junior and Mauro sat in the circle around blue plastic sheeting on the porch on which Julio had put his mapachos, his perfume, his Florida Water and some other things. We sat quietly for an hour before Julio brought out the ayahuasca, began to chant, then passed the gourd.
I had spoken to the others about what they might expect but as they drank they were on their own. When the gourd reached me I almost choked getting the ayahuasca down. It was thick and still warm, burnt grapefruit and dank smoke, and I knew I would vomit easily and soon.
Julio’s chanting was clear and strong, the tunes something I always forgot, until the moment I heard the first notes again. I suddenly leaned for the edge of the platform to retch: Violent empty bursts swelled and pulled deeply from within me. In the back of my head I could hear the words Julio sand: "Limpia, limpia, cualpamine, cualpamine…" urging my body to cleanse itself. Over and over my stomach contracted tumultuously. The sounds seemed to come from a far place, echoing from across the river, water cascading onto stone. I’d never felt that kind of power course through my body and though I was utterly helpless I felt fantastically strong.
When my stomach settled I closed my eyes. All around me were insects, visions of marching insects crawling over me, alternately tickling and annoying. Like a movie the insect wings became the scales on a boa so broad and long I could only see a small portion of it at one time. It was undulating gently, slowly. In the black pitch of its scales glinted a hundred hues of red and blue. I was mesmerized. It turned its head to me and flicked its tongue. Its eyes, almost s large as the scope of my vision, were a fine black and yellow. Its underbelly was strong and white.
In an instant it changed its size to normal dimensions and we moved underwater. Eels and boas swam gracefully amid rocks. I followed their motion and tried to swim with them. I was awkward and ungainly and they ignored me.
The sound of vomiting brought me back to the porch. One of the others, a British fellow named Mark, was leaning over the platform’s edge and retching violently. He tried to stand and I reached to calm him. He told me he was about to shit; I tried to help him but could hardly find my own footing and called to Junior to lend a hand. One of the others was beginning to get ill as well.
I closed my eyes again and thought about the dream I’d had. Suddenly I felt myself moving. I wasn’t with the snake and I wasn’t flying. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that perhaps I was still and the world was rushing past me. In moments I was surrounded by darkness. More than that I was hurtling through a kind of vacuum with no body, no sensations. I don’t know how long I continued but I suddenly found myself stopping abruptly at a sort of white wall. It wasn’t a solid wall, but it wasn’t passable either, like a wall of gauze or clouds. I sensed that it was the wall to the world of the dead. Even as I admitted that thought it seemed preposterous and I began to scratch at it. It fell away like fog in my hands, but however much I tore at it I didn’t get through and suspected that I would never get through no matter how long I tore at it.
I began to cal out to my mother while I worked: After some time had passed a figure began to appear on the other side of the wall, just out of reach. Not really on the other side of the wall, but coming together from the stuff of the wall itself, recognizable but as flimsy as the ether. It was my mother. I watched her for a long time, then said hello and told her why I’d come. I expected her to smile but she didn’t.
"Hello, Peter," she said, finally. "It’s good to see you but you have to stop calling me like this. It’s so hard to come together in a shape you can recognize as me."
"Where are you?" I asked. "What are you doing?"
"It’s not something you could understand. Things are different here. I’m not your mother anymore, but you won’t understand until you get to this place."
A feeling of abandonment like I’d never known washed through me. "What place? What do you mean you’re not my mother anymore?"
"I’m doing something else now."
"But what about Tom?" I asked, referring to my father, whom we always called by his first name. "Why can’t he see you anymore?"
"Don’t worry about Tom. That was just a dream you had. When it’s time for us to be together we will be but you needn’t worry about him. Or me either. Things are good here. Trust me." Her voice began to grow heavy, as if talking was a strain. "Just know that I love you and the gang and I always will. But don’t call me. It’s just too difficult and I’m doing something else now. If you really need me I’ll come, but you can’t just call me like this or in your dreams anymore. I love you, kiddo."
She began to disappear back into the gauze and I was back on the porch, crying, wondering whether I’d really seen what I’d seen. In all the reaches of my imagination I couldn’t have imagined her saying what she’d said, but I knew it was crazy to think I’d gone to the world of the dead, if such a place even existed.
I sat on the porch, confused, angry, abandoned, unable to distinguish one reality from another, the dreams from the visions. And then Julio’s song caught me again and I was a snake. I was not traveling with a snake. I didn’t see a snake. I simply knew I was a snake, or that the snakeness in me had come out for a time. It was fun, sensual. I invited the mosquitoes and other insects to land on my arms and hands, watched them with flat eyes, then ate them. Mark began to trip up the notched ladder back to the porch, reeling in a spooky windmill motion, his great scarecrow arms and legs nearly disconnected form his body. I had to stop myself from grinning at him like easy prey.
Suddenly everyone was vomiting at once and there was moaning and groaning. It was not good vomiting, it was sick vomiting and I found out later that nearly everyone had ignored my request that they not eat past breakfast. One of the tourists kept saying he couldn’t breathe and was going to die. I pulled free of my snake-fiction to calm him down, to breathe with him. Two of us had to carry him back to the small house and sit up with him all night.
The next day I washed in the river early, and though I was weak and still upset from my encounter the night before, I knew I was well. I noted that I couldn’t find any bites from the insects, though I know I felt them all over me. Either I was just hallucinating them or I ate more than I remembered.
Later, that evening’s encounter became my bell-weather for distinguishing between hallucinations and genuine visions. I realized that if I’d had an endless supply of paper and pens and all the time in the world, and I made a list of 10,000 things my mother might say to me if I met her after she’d been dead 20 years, what she actually said—"…you have to stop calling me like this. It’s so hard to come together in a shape you can recognize as me."—would not have been on it. When I realized that I realized I knew the difference between a vision and an hallucination. I had a workable way to think about it, anyway. If something wasn’t on a list of 10.000 possibilities, it was probably a vision.
So seeing my mother was a vision. So was eating the fish with the bird and eating the frog with the snake. Picking at the insects in reptilian mode might have been but might just as well have been a simple hallucination.


The Grudge said...

Wonder how many darts I got sticking in me? In some cultures that brujeria is no joke. Great story.

Jin said...

Peter, Enjoyed Part 3. Hope you feel better, take it easy - Jin.

bamboo said...

The darts are freaking scary when you see them, especially if they have thread attached that can lead to control. Brujo scare the crap out of me.

Unknown said...

You have fully used the energy of language. Fantastic article. SHAMANISM