Thursday, August 16, 2007

25 Years of Shamanism--Part 2

READERS: This is the second section in an ongoing piece called 25 Years of Shamanism, which is based on notes for a talk I was to give at the 3rd Annual Shamanism Conference in Iquitos--a talk that wasn't given due to a surgery I needed on the day I was to give it.

My second extraordinary experience with shamanism occurred just two years later. Before I get to that I should mention that after the trip with Chuck and Larry I really did seem to have the jungle in my blood and so the following year arranged to study jungle survival with Moises Torres Vienna. It was just the two of us.
I’d asked him to take me back to Alphonso’s before we went into the jungle to study, but he said Alphonse had moved away and he didn’t know where. On the other hand, he said, he’d learned of a very good curandero named Julio Jerena that we would visit as he was on the same river we’d use for the survival course. I was disappointed but said okay.
We traveled on a large flat-bottomed riverboat that was wildly over-crowded to a small town called Genero Herrera, just a couple of hours short of Requena. We then spent some hours arranging for a smaller boat—a peque-peque, an oversized canoe with a small motor notable for its long propeller shaft that allowed it to maneuver in very shallow water—that took us up a little river called the Auchyacu. That river would become my jungle home for a quarter of a century.
There was a small town on the Auchyacu, and then individual homes every half-mile or so for perhaps 10 miles. In all, maybe 20 or 30 families lived there. Among them was Julio.
Four things of note occurred on that trip: the first was that Moises sent me out with a young fellow in a canoe on our first night in the jungle. The fellow, Alberto, was to let me listen to the jungle. Instead, he shot a cayman, a money, a large rodent called a mahas, and wounded an ocelot. When we returned I was furious with Moises. I told him I hadn’t paid him to kill endangered species and that if that’s what this trip was about then we should just cancel it. Moises stood his ground and explained that this was simple life in the jungle: Killing was part of living, and that if I wanted to learn about the jungle I’d better damned well get used to killing.
The second thing was meeting Julio and his then-apprentice, Salis Navarro. They did an ayahuasca ceremony that was powerful—they sang together, and the chanting of the two curanderos began to echo in my head, a resounding noise that seemed to pull me apart, as though a wedge were splitting me in half. I grew terrified of what might happen if I allowed the parts of me to separate. It seemed, on one hand, to make sense: I needed to be pulled apart if I was ever going to become whole. At the same time I didn’t know whether I would ever come together again. It was a frightening experience, one I wasn’t prepared for. Louder and louder the chants resounded, deeper and deeper went the wedge, until I finally fled the porch for the safety of the river’s edge. Moises followed and warned me against going into the water. His voice was like an anchor that pulled me back from the edge of some horrific abyss. I turned to thank him. He was still on the porch.
Suddenly more afraid of the voice than of the doctors, I returned to the circle. This time the chanting was no longer frightening. It was soothing and beautiful and I soon fell asleep. When I awoke Moises and I returned to our hut.
After a river wash the next morning I asked Moises what had happened and why I hadn’t been able to fly with the bird again. He said that while I was asleep Julio had explained that I needed to be opened up so that some personal things that were holding me back could be removed. That was what Salis and he had done. Moises also said that the magical effects of ayahuasca that I’d experienced the first time were not to be sought or missed. When I needed to bird the bird would guide me. When I needed to become friendly with the jungle ayahuasca would guide me in a different way. "Ayahuasca gives you what you need," he said, "not what you want."
The third thing of note on the trip was that when we left Julio’s we headed up the Auchyacu by canoe for three days before disembarking and walking nearly three days into the jungle to make camp. By the time we reached our destination Moises had gotten rid of all of our food. Each morning he’d go out and hunt, bringing back a monkey or a macaw, and roast it. I refused to eat the animals and so he’d go and collect edible plants for me. On my fourth day without real food—I think it was my fourth—Moises went out hunting early and by the time I awoke there were a couple of birds on a spit over the fire but Moises was nowhere in sight.
I was starving. I could smell the roasting birds. I tried to ignore them but finally walked over to the fire, pulled one off the spit and began to eat it. Just then Moises stepped out from where he’d apparently been hiding and announced: "That’s the first right thing you’ve done in the jungle! If you don’t eat you will die here. That’s the most important lesson."
I was embarrassed but never again complained about hunting for food.
The fourth important thing that happened during that month occurred perhaps a day or two after my stealing-the-bird event. It was mid-morning. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a young man walked into our little camp. He was dark and wiry. His hair was black. He was barefoot, wore a pair of old shorts and had two strips of what looked like bark-strips wrapped around his chest and stomach. Most unusual though was his face: He had a hash-mark tatoo that circled his mouth and ran across his cheeks nearly to his ears. He also had thin, six-inch splints, like whiskers, in his upper lip. And his forehead was painted a ruddy red. He looked very much like a jaguar. I was scared to death.
Moises, however, simply said some words in a language I didn’t know—"Biram-bo! Biram-bo, bu-chi!"—and the young man smiled and returned the greeting. The man then pointed to our shotgun, which was standing against a nearby tree. Moises nodded and made a hand gesture that indicated that it was to be returned. The man nodded and picked up the gun. Moises reached into his pocket and pulled out three shells. The man took them and walked into the forest.
When he was gone Moises explained that the man was a Matses Indian, though they were often called the Mayoruna. While in the military he had led a jungle unit in a ground war against them in the early 1970s in retaliation for a raid they’d made on Genero Herrera.
"They stole machetes, shotguns, ax heads. They also took several women captive. Among those taken were two young Franciscan friars, who wore long brown robes and kept their hair long. The friars were later found with their genitals crudely cut off—probably when the Matses discovered they weren’t women."
The conflict lasted four days. The Peruvian military won. In its aftermath, the Peruvian military built a small base at the confluence of the Javari and Galvez rivers on which most of the Matses camps were built, effectively preventing further raids.
Twenty minutes into Moises’ story, we heard a shotgun blast, and a few minutes later, another. Twenty minutes after the last the young man walked back into our camp. He carried two large monkeys he’d shot in sacks fashioned from leaves that hung from templines around his forehead. On his head, clinging to his hair, was a baby monkey. He replaced our shotgun against the tree, and then put one of the sacks next to it. Then he turned and started walking in the direction from which he’d originally come.
Moises picked up the gun and a machete and said we should follow. He’d heard a rumor that there was a new Matses camp nearby but had never seen it. We walked quickly through the jungle for perhaps an hour, before coming on a clearing.
The clearing was demarked by posts, on each of which was the skull of a wild boar. At the rear of it a large hut was being built; closer to the near side there were three or four very low temporary shelters. There were more than a dozen children milling around as well as several women, two of whom were tending an open fire. The young man handed the sack he had to one of them. The woman quickly unwrapped the monkey and she and the other woman stretched it over the fire and began burning off its hair. To my horror, the monkey began to scream and thrash about, trying to get out of the flames. The women didn’t seem to notice.
While the large monkey screamed, the young man walked over to a young woman who was nursing and handed her the baby monkey. Without hesitation she put it on her free nipple.
In ten seconds I had witnessed both the cruelest and kindest acts I’d ever seen.
Moments later, an elderly man I later knew as Papa Viejo—old papa—came running at us. He held a shotgun and pointed it at Moises and began shouting. Moises raised his shotgun and began shouting back. I felt like I was watching two silverbacks in a dominance challenge. The shouting and threatening continued for perhaps 30-seconds and then, abruptly, both men put down their weapons and began to talk. Some of it was in Spanish, a little was in Matses, much was in hand signals. A few minutes later Moises said it was time to go and we left.
On the way back to camp he explained that the Matses, like most indigenous Amazon groups, always challenged visitors. If you buckled, they’d have everything you owned. If you didn’t you were generally welcomed. He said he was proud I had stood my ground with him, but that in this case there was not much to fear: "He had no shells for the gun," he laughed. "If he did his son wouldn’t have borrowed ours."
The incident marked me. If ayahuasca had put the jungle in my blood, then seeing the Matses gave me a destination: I would return to spend time with them.

The following year I did, taking a seaplane with my brother-in-law Steve Flores and Moises out to the military post of Angamos on the Galvez river where we rented two peque-peques and bought fuel, then headed up the river to the Matses camps. At one of them there was a unique and amazing headman named Pablo—who later became a great friend and teacher—who introduced me to the two primary Matses medicines: sapo and nu-nu, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
We’d been on the Galvez nearly three weeks when we decided to take a hike with two Matses men from their village of Remoyako to a village called Buenas Lomas. It was to be a two-day hike, but by the end of the first day Moises decided to abort. There was something about the behavior of the Matses men that he found threatening and he didn’t think they’d actually get us to where we were going. So we returned to Remoyako village the following afternoon and left not long after that, heading in our peque-peque downstream to Pablo’s village.
The next morning a man from Remoyako arrived just before dawn to say that a jaguar had attacked a young man who had been rummaging through the hut we’d used there, probably looking for things we might have left behind. The jaguar must have smelled our scent and come looking for prey. The man wanted our peque-peque to return to Remoyako and transport the young man to the infirmary at the military post of Angamos. We let him have it and he left.
Late that evening he returned with news that the boy had died. The Matses at Remoyako and its sister village of Buen Peru were out hunting the animal, and when they found it they would burn it and the two villages as well, then make balsa rafts and float down the Galvez looking for a good place to build new villages.
Moises said that we’d have to leave, that it was "going to get very Indian on the river" for a while and we wouldn’t be welcome.
Our plan had been to hike back across the jungle from the Galvez to the Auchyacu but not from Pablo’s village. As it was we had to change plans, and as Moises didn’t know the route from that spot on the river, Pablo had one of his young sons accompany us.
The son didn’t know the route either, it turned out, and after four days the boy simply disappeared one morning after we’d reached a small river called the Rio Lobo. With supplies running very low, Moises said the best plan would be that he’d return to Pablo’s, secure us a boat or peque-peque, and return for us. He left with only his machete and a canteen of river water, leaving Steve and I to make a camp while we waited for him. He returned the following afternoon—he said we’d basically walked in circles for four days—and we took off down the Lobo. That night, as we neared the confluence of the Lobo and the Galvez we passed a small flotilla of Matses balsa rafts lit by jungle copal torches and crowded with people and goods. They were the people of Remoyako and Buen Peru, searching for a place to build their new villages.
We continued down the Galvez to Angamos, where we were lucky enough to get seats in a small military plane headed out the next morning to Iquitos.
From there we caught an afternoon boat back to Genero Herrera and arrived at Julio’s home the following day. We arranged to drink ayahuasca that night, but before we did, Moises asked me to drink ayahuasca with the idea of finding his son Junior, whom he said was in the jungle, waiting for us with new supplies at the Rio Matanza. We were to have met up with him but because we’d left by a different route, hadn’t, and now Moises wanted me to somehow find Junior and tell him that we were already safe and to meet us at Julio’s. The request stunned me. I had no idea how to do what Moises asked, but I couldn’t refuse trying.
That night, during the ceremony, I tried to do what Moises asked but failed. In fact, I felt nothing the whole time, except for the beautiful calm that came from listening to Julio sing his icaros, and finally went to my hammock. No sooner did I lie down than I found myself feeling as though I were in the river, near some brush. But there was something odd about my eyesight: It was flattened out and very near the water, as though I was submerged up to my eyes. I could make out shapes in a logical way but not the particulars of things. It was very disorienting, until I realized that I felt tremendously strong and fantastically limber. I looked around at myself and realized I had somehow connected, as I had with the bird, with a huge snake. Of course I knew it was impossible, but as had happened with the bird, just when I was sure I was inventing the entire episode, I felt my mouth opening and my tongue shot out and grabbed a large frog. I, we, ate, swallowing it whole and quickly squeezing it to death with our powerful throat muscles before passing it on to the stomach.
The event was wholly unexpected. The absolutely tactile sensation of feeling the snake’s (and my) muscles squeezing the life out of the uncooperative and squirming frog gave me enough confidence to simply ask the snake if it knew where Junior might be. I’d no sooner asked the question—and felt foolish for doing it, since I knew it was all in my head—than the snake began moving upstream. We moved quickly and it was a thrill to feel myself able to move my muscles in that serpentine manner that propelled us forward. We moved through the water for some time and then finally turned off the river and into the forest. I began to shout "Junior! Junior!" but no one responded. We moved deeper until we came to another riverbank where there appeared to have been a recent camp. I didn’t actually see any camp, just the shapes of trees around a small clearing and then an opening took to be a river, but sensed that there was acrid smoke in the air. But it felt lifeless, as though it had been abandoned.
With that realization the snake and I returned to the Auchyacu and began heading downstream back toward Julio’s. We were moving very quickly, but slowed when we neared what appeared to be a long object with a mound at either end. The mounds were moving, and I realized it was probably a canoe with a person paddling at both the bow and the stern. Moments later the snake disappeared and I was once again just lying in my hammock.
I woke Steve, in the next hammock, and told him about the extraordinary experience, then asked him if I should tell Moises. I was hesitant because I had no idea if I’d seen what I seemed to have seen, or if I’d made it up. Too, the canoe I’d seen, if that’s what it was, had two people in it, not one, and we were looking for Junior, so it probably wasn’t him.
Steve said that he’d asked me to look for Junior, and so I should simply tell him what I’d seen.
So I got out of the hammock and did. To my surprise, Moises asked me if I could remember what part of the river I’d seen the canoe on. I couldn’t exactly, but I was able to say that I thought it was just downstream of the small river camp we’d made a year earlier before heading off into the forest, and he estimated that the canoe would reach Julio’s by noon.
Let me emphasize that I didn’t believe I’d actually found anyone, but at the same time the eating of the frog and the vision of travelling with the snake—which might have taken as little as a few seconds or as long as a few minutes—seemed so real that I knew I might have been hallucinating but I couldn’t have been inventing.
The canoe showed up at Julio’s the following day at quarter past noon with Junior and another man on board. Moises berated them for being late. Julio just laughed.
Steve and I were the only ones surprised.
Moises explained that he’d known I’d seen Junior in the river when I told him that I’d seen two mounds, not one. "I only told you about one, Junior, because I didn’t want you to make anything up."
I was simply dumbfounded.
Moises said that ayahuasca was used in the jungle because it worked.


Hummingbird said...

A fascinating read-- thank you, Peter!

mags said...

What an adventure. I'm not sure if I could eat a monkey or drink something with the consistency of warm spit, so your writing is a mitzvah.

The Grudge said...

Great story! It's amazing how the abilities of Ayahuasca are so versatile.

bamboo said...

The shotgun dominance dance was riviting. Glad to hear the boy was ok. Perhaps I missed it but may I ask how old he was at the time?


Peter Gorman said...

Bamboo: The boy bitten by the Jaguar died. He was 14 at the time. The jaguar was very old: Only an old jaguar, unable to catch swamp deer and wild boar any longer would wander near a human camp. In this case we were pretty certain that the jaguar had followed our (steve and my) scents, which would be quite different from those of the Matses, to the hut. The Matses were pretty certain we were to blame as well and when I tried to return to the river some months later I was shunned. It took nearly a year before I was welcomed back to the Galvez.

bamboo said...

I actually meant the son that you saw in your ayahuasca travels.
However, hearing that the young man of 14 was killed by the jaguar has left me with a shock. This follow up really does drive home the life and death of the natural world and those living in harmony with it.
Thank you

Jorge Villacorta Santamato said...

Terrific storytelling!

And everything actually happened!

I wonder, who is using ayahuasca in the cities these days? Would it be helpful, too?

If the ayahuasca ACTUALLY works, (and it works), someone must be using it for particular purposes among the different contemporary social institutions...

Unknown said...

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