Friday, January 11, 2008

A Question on Ayahuasca Apprenticeships

I was recently contacted by someone in Europe who has been drinking ayahuasca, the visionary vine of the Amazon, for a year. The person is now ready to embark on an ayahuasca apprenticeship and wrote me to say they were nervous about simply landing in a place like Iquitos, Peru and looking for a curandero to study with because there seems to be a sort of "shaman supermarket" in places like that, and this person would prefer something more authentic. They would, in fact, be willing to go live in a village somewhere and study with the local curandero there.
Which is admirable, but not necessarily a genuine possibility. Anyway, here was my answer to the person and I hope it makes sense to a few of you as well.

Dear XXX: Thanks for writing. I'm not really sure what to tell you though. In my experience with Julio, there really wasn't anything like an apprenticeship. He did have an apprentice in Salis Navarro, but Salis died. And he did have several students, called alumni, of which I am considered by the others to be one--though perhaps the most novice of the group.
And in my experience with other curanderos I'd say pretty much the same thing: There really were not apprentices.
What there was were fathers who taught their children, mothers who taught their children or neices, friends who lived on the same river who became interested in the healing plants and ayahuasca and who then hung around the curandero--just like friends--until something or other occurred to make them needed in the ceremony, to assist in some way, and I guess at that point they were considered apprentices. And people who work at it long enough learn how to make the ayahuasca and learn some admixture plant spirits that are friendly to them and learn how to make an arcana that will keep out the "lookie lou" spirits that always come around when it's ceremony time, and learn how to sing people to different places and how to see where those people are and whether they need to be sung home or sung further out than they are. And of course, they have to learn how to get the spirit of ayahuasca on their side, and how to tame--though that's a pretty arrogant word--spirit helpers and so forth.
And when those sons of curanderos, or friends of curanderos finally learn a lot of that, well, then luck will put them in a position to utilize that knowledge--either by helping the curandero or being needed to heal or being needed to retrieve a soul or whatnot.
But I personally don't know of any curanderos who had a sort of regular apprenticeship available to anyone until white guys/gals began askng for that. And I believe it seemed odd to curanderos when people did. I mean, how do you even explain an apprenticeship to someone who has no idea what that means? How would someone have told Julio that they wanted to build a little house near his and become a fisherman like him, and have a little field like his and learn to find lost souls or eliminate a baby's earache pain? I believe Julio would have just laughed and said: There's not enough fish in this river for another fisherman. And if you want to learn plants, just go in the forest and sleep with them. Ask them to let their spirits come to you and tell you about them, how to use them and how to prepare them to heal things.
Heck, even if someone had volunteered to do all of Julio's work in exchange for him teaching them what he knew I doubt he would have accepted. I mean, then what would Julio do all day? Can't just sit around in the jungle. It gets quite boring. And how would he teach someone when the art of learning what needs learning is to simply be around before during and after ceremony to see and feel what goes on. When the art of learning is different for each person? When the genuinely recommended method of learning is to go sit in the forest, or walk around the forest, and sleep in the forest and ask the plants to reveal their spirits to you. If they don't what good would knowing the icaro's, the songs curandero's sing, be? You would just be copying someone else's songs.
But how do you teach someone to be open to learning their own songs? Not to making up songs, but to be open to trust what when a generous spirit says one day: When you need a song, open your mouth. Don't be afraid. There will always be a song there when you need one?
How quiet do you have to be to even hear that spirit or how crazy to you have to be to believe it?
With all of that, if I were you, I wouldn't be afraid of the "shaman supermarket" that you mention. There are many good curanderos in both Iquitos and Pulcalpa. Their camps are a modification of their former river lives. But while on the river they might do one ayahuasca ceremony a month, or two, along with a dozen cures for everything from a foot infection to the evil eye, the contact with gringos has them doing ceremonies much more frequently than that. And to accomodate those requests for ceremonies, these curanderos have opened little places in the jungle where that can be done. There is really nothing more sinister to it than that, I don't believe. And while some of the curanderos have probably lost their way a bit with the extra money and acclaim they now have, most will re-center themselves because at heart they are generous people and good healers.
I know some places where there are not many tourists and you probably could, after you've gotten acclimated to living near and in the jungle for a few weeks, you could probably go to these towns and be allowed to pitch a tent, so to speak, or help build yourself a little hut. But what would you do all day? The curandero, your teacher, would be out fishing or hunting, or tending his fields or off with the other men on the river cleaning the village's footpath of brush nearly every day. He or she wouldn't be there to sit and teach you. You would just have to become part of the community and what could you--no offence here, just reality--offer that community? To canoe to town weekly to pick up the supplies they need? They can already do that. To help with their fields? What help could a newcomer be to something they've been doing for generations.
So I don't have much in the way of recommendation. I can say that the conference on Shamanism really does bring together a dozen or more curanderos, some of whom don't live in ayahuasca camps but simply out on the river, and if you were there you might meet one or three who might present an opening for you to go live in their villages. But even then, remember that there is not much to do in the jungle. The days are very long for an outsider. It takes a while to slow down enough that it won't seem very dull.
Or you could just go to Iquitos or Pulcalpa and talk to others who have similar interests to yourself. Perhaps you would meet someone who has done a long dieta or two who might be able to get you to a good place to work for a while. You needn't spend a lot doing that, but I don't think I should make any particular recommendations as I've never done that so would just be repeating what I've been told.
I'm sorry that for all these words you don't yet have your answer. This is really one of those: Dive in and see for yourself sort of quests.
And I'll be surprised if you don't find something pretty good on the journey.
Peter G


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Peter Gorman said...

Hey: Richie: You can't post the same article four times to make the same point. I'm guessing you own a lodge in Ecaudor. good for you. But unless you've been out with me into deep jungle, you don't know anything. I forgive your naivete.

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