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Grace and Madness

Excerpt from Grace and Madness>


Part Two

Deep down into the Colombian Amazon, on the muddy, rusty colored banks of the Putumayo River, lives an old curandero who has been taking care of this tiny village and its assorted illnesses performing ayahuasca rituals at least once a week for the past 60 years. It was here I began my studies when I realized I was being called to the healers path and later, it was to the ayahuasquero don Ramon, outside of Iquitos, Peru, that I apprenticed myself to the teachings of this Sacred Power Plant, ayahuasca. The signs guiding, affirming, and maintaining my path left no room for doubt of their authenticity.

Ayahuasca and the other Sacred Power Plants heighten our awareness, opening the doors to the spiritual plane of existence. They guide us to our center where within each of us sleeps an internal doctor, i.e. "the healer within", which once activated allows us to heal ourselves. These sacred medicines invoke a specific healing response, clearing out physical maladies and alleviating psychological duress from the past -- like ingrained habits and response patterns which have long outgrown their usefulness -- allowing us to move on and continue to grow. It is imbibed ceremoniously with the guidance of a skilled curandero who controls the numerous spirits conjured from the incantation of the icaros. These icaros are the curanderos' magic melodies, taught to him literally by the "Spirits of the Plants".

The old Siona curandero in the village on the banks of the Putumayo River poured my first cup of ayahuasca. We sat, surrounded by the jungle, in a thatched-roof, dirt-floored, open walled tambo. Present in the ritual were eight tribesmen in various modes of hand-me-down 1st World clothing: Well worn t-shirts, US imitation bluejeans, overly abused tennis shoes, flip-flops - obviously just a couple of generations out of their traditional attire - and 3 shaman-hunting gringos who were sharing the 15 meter long dug-out canoe with me. We had pooled our money in Quito, Ecuador, and headed for Colombia, in search of the entrance to the Upper Amazon via the Rio Putumayo, a narco-traffic river with the harshest reputation for kidnappings and untimely disappearances. We traveled by bus up and over high mountain passes on narrow one-lane dirt roads that looked as if they could cave in at any moment. In three days of breathing dust and exhaust fumes and being stopped by the Colombian police for drug searches, we finally found ourselves in the brawling cowboy town of Puerto Asis, Colombia and the headwaters of the Putumayo. Here were dirt streets, motorcycles reined-up outside saloons, and front row seats to street shoot-outs viewed from our hostel balcony. An English speaking, gringo-friendly, out-of-work school teacher, whose son supposedly represented Colombia in fencing for the Olympic games, even came up with a brilliant way to introduce our innocence to Puerto Asis and the cocaine Mafia. He suggested a recorded welcome to its residents, in English, on the local radio station. I recorded the greeting, simulating as closely as I could, Robin Williams in "Good Morning Vietnam!":

"Good morning, Puerto Asis! This is Alan Shoemaker from the United States wishing each and every one of you a fine and healthy good morning. Buenos Dias!" Which may still be playing now for all I know.

It took two weeks of daily searching to find a 15-meter long dugout canoe and a 40 horsepower motor. We rigged it with curved re-bar roof supports to uphold a black plastic rain tarp and bought enough food to last one month. Four 55 gallon drums of gasoline and a few mechanics tools rounded out our purchases. We motored out of Puerto Asis by a small tributary and onto the Rio Putumayo, maneuvering into what seemed a fast, 11-mph current. It was a shaman hunt, and we were determined to ride this dug-out all the way to La Chorrera, Colombia - a Bora, Witoto, and O'Kaina village nestled around the impassable waterfalls on the banks of the Igara-Parana river.

After solving various engine problems we eventually motored onto the banks of a tiny Siona tribal village where we were greeted by some of the natives. We asked to see their curandero.

"Si, senor. He can't see you today. He's drunk."

Drunk? Their healer is drunk. "That's okay, we'd like to see him anyway."

The other gringos followed him to a thatched roof hut, built on 12-foot high stilts for protection from the rising river and wild animals. After arranging for one of the locals to guard our dugout, I, too, climbed the stairs to his house and, for some strange reason, pushed the door open and paused for a moment before going in. I heard a drunken shout of, "Jaguar!", then abashedly eased into the room like a clumsy house cat knocking over a flowerpot, the faces anxiously staring at me. An old man, apparently their curandero, was sitting on a small stool near a large screen less window overlooking the village. The hair growing out of his head was silvery, long, and lent a haunting effect to a face of sun-baked, cracked mud. A few seconds looking at him and all my illusions of the serene "holy man" shaman floated away into the wrinkled tributaries of his face. It was early still so he asked us to buy him another half-pint of aguardiente, the potent alcohol made from the distillation of sugar cane. He quickly chugged it, then agreed to brew a pot of ayahuasca and perform a ritual for us that very evening.

"But, don't we have to diet all day?" I asked.

"No, no. Meet me here later. My wife will cook dinner and we go out to the tambo and drink."

"We can eat just before drinking ayahuasca?" I was confused. This was contradictory to the teachings of Valentin.

"Of course we can. Won't you be hungry? She'll make chicken soup. Don't you like chicken soup?" He asked me.

We arrived at his home at 6pm. I spooned away two bowls; the second one going down with only shadowy thoughts of the possible repercussions from not following what I had been taught was the proper diet before a ritual. It was dark when dinner was over so we grabbed our flashlights, mosquito nets and hammocks, then followed him along a muddy trail deeper into the jungle until we arrived at his ritual hut, a tambo approximately 1 kilometer from his home. The ayahuasca had been cooking since early afternoon and the ashes were still warm.

"Has it been cooking long enough?" I asked.

"More than enough time." He assured me.

I was skeptical, but then this was the jungle and I really didn't know what to expect. From the information I had gathered about ayahuasca, I thought it had to cook at least 8 hours. But what did I know? I decided to go with the flow and take his medicine with an open mind, just as I had eaten two bowls of his wife's chicken soup.

I swallowed my very first cup of still warm ayahuasca kneeling in respect to the maestro and toasted the ritual for all its spiritual qualities. The flavor was so atrocious. He handed us a four-inch piece of peeled sugar cane, instructing us to suck on it to take the flavor away. When he gave me a piece and I remembered Valentin's instructions: "No sugar in any form after taking a Sacred Power Plant." I thought this was one of the many rules you were simply not to break. However, he was the curandero, this was his jungle, and the flavor was sickening. So, as with the 6pm dinner, I gladly followed his instructions.

Then I waited. An hour passed and I was feeling no effect. While the others were obviously under the ayahuascas influence, walking as if the ground were in the throes of a small earthquake, I listened to the various cacophonous purging noises coming from the jungle outside the tambo. The old ayahuasquero slapped the harmonica on his hand, emptying its excess saliva, and rose from his hammock. He had not sung even one icaro, apparently preferring to work with the vibratory sounds of his harmonica. He ambled over to his pot of medicine, squatted down, opened the lid, picked up the coffee cup he used to dose it out and nodded for me to come join him. Immediately I stood and walked over to him. He just sat there behind his pot of still warm ayahuasca, studying me. After a few moments, he tendered another cup, and suggested that I might have some resistance to the effects of the first one; that perhaps I had a block. And again, as with his 6pm dinner and the sugar cane, I refused to allow preconceived notions to guide me. I had to go for this; had to trust in my instincts of this initially inebriated, codgy, old Siona ayahuasquero. I shot this repulsive fluid past my taste buds into my throat, and had no problem accepting his offer to suck on more sugar cane. I waited. I watched the stars glistening under a half-moon. My awareness heightened from listening to the symphony of jungle music blending with the extraordinarily mellifluous notes of these icaros, blown into the harmonica by a crusty curandero. An hour and a half had passed since my first cup, half an hour since my second. When I started to clear my throat, a geyser beginning in the deepest pools of my stomach announced itself with such force that I ran out of the tambo with both my hands slapped firmly against my mouth, unstoppable spews spraying squirt gun like from its sides. I stopped running about 30 meters outside, and in removing my hand let fly this unyielding liquid, completely awed by its strength and pressure, gushing forth a meter in front of me, over and over again. When it finally finished with me, I slowly raised up. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I noticed light. The ceremonial participants, obviously concerned, surely must have followed me out into the jungle and were now standing all around me because I noticed what must be the glimmers of their flashlights. I was embarrassed. I realized that by the time I was to be standing again I must gather my wits about me and present them with a proper mask. When I raised myself up, I witnessed the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen: All the jungle plants in the semi-circle of my vision were inhabitated by spirits. They were glowing from the inside out! Within the very small plants just off to my left were the spirits of indigenous children, and directly in front of me, at twelve o'clock, the large shrubs contained giant 20-foot tall tribal spirits, resplendent in attire: Arm-bands, below the shoulder length hair with head-bands, and dressed in long robes with a checkered pattern of lime green, cream and white. I knew that this medicine was a powerful hallucinatory and thought it particularly interesting that my mind would be so detailed as to fabricate their collars in a Nehru fashion.

"What was happening to me? Was I hallucinating? Was this a vision?" My mind searched the various possibilities while my body responded with cold chills running up my spine. Just at that moment, the entire group of spirits, eight in all, put their arms out, palms up in a welcoming fashion, and began singing my name. There were the soprano and alto voices of the women and children, and the deep resonant voices of the men, beautifully singing over and over, "Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan, Alan." And tears streamed down my cheeks. I restrained myself from bowing down in reverence, nodding my head instead in an honoring gesture of respect as I continued absorbing this Amazonian vision. After 10 minutes in absolute wonderment, I finally spoke, thanking them for what they had shown me, explaining that I must return to the tambo and the ritual. And I promised them, finally, that I would never forget what they had shown me.

Maybe now I was beginning to understand, but I was still unsure. "Is this it? Curanderismo?" Are there literally spirits of plants and, if they so choose, do they heal for you? I had too many things to think about, but they would all have to wait until the morning.

When I had quickly run out of the tambo to purge, I noticed no change in my coordination. After purging I had trouble determining when my feet were going to hit the ground. The upper portion of my body, however, was in complete control. The drunken effect was only in my feet. Perhaps it was just that my feet were the furthest from my eyes and my eyes were then the actual cause of this? Could it be the further away objects were the more likely you would hallucinate on them? And had I been hallucinating everything? That would help explain what I had just seen. But these spirits sang to me also, didn't they? And they even knew my name. I returned to the ritual and was astonished by completely vivid images of jaguars and boas coming out of nowhere, ferociously presenting their- selves just inches away from my face. Although I was unsure exactly what this was or why it was happening, I decided to suspend my disbelief and imagine it a bizarre test of bravery. On each pass of the jaguar, roaring directly into my face, I saw, in full color, each and every tooth, the tongue, and even down into the throat. Instead of allowing myself to become frightened, I literally decided to appreciate the beauty of the images, for, what choice did I have? This was beyond my control. And what if this really was a test of courage? I had learned many years ago to have an admiration for danger, maintaining fortitude in its wake. For the next three hours I was bombarded with it, finally tapering away as the effects of this ayahuasquero's brew came to a close.

As my thoughts continued whirling and the visuals slowly melted away, we clumsily climbed into our hammocks and fell asleep. I awoke with the first light and as each of us slowly roused, we gathered what gear had been brought and returned to the reality of the curanderos home in the village.

About the author:
Alan lives in the Upper Amazon in Iquitos, Peru and has been there for 17 years studying Shamanism. He hosts the annual International Amazonian Shamanism Conference held in Iquitos, Peru for the last 5 years in July. The next Conference is July 2010.


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