Monday, December 31, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part Nine)

Ayahausca (Part Nine)

Interviews with Shamans (Part Three)

The biggest and seemingly most important part of drinking ayahuasca is who one does it with, meaning who is the shaman one gets stoned with, the person who makes and delivers the punch, the person who babysits the drinker, the person who guides the vibes. The wrong shaman, or an outright bad human being, and what one hopes for and probably expects to be an excellent adventure can turn out to be ones worst nightmare come true. It depends, then, on who you hang out with.

Earlier we talked with a local shaman, a Peruvian man living in the Amazon jungle in a tiny village an hour and a half from the world's largest city not connected by roads to the rest of the nation: Iquitos. He is the real deal, a native in a native tradition. But he is just one of many potentially “real deals” in the drug business of ayahuasca drinking. And he is a man and a Spanish speaker who lives and breathes a world most of us will never genuinely enter, as he will never fully grasp what it is to be a Modernist, i.e. one of those incredibly rich persons living in a state of anomie and near nihilistic despair over lack of meaning in the world and ones personal life. People who have it all turned out to find themselves total losers. Gido the Amazon shaman will never get that part. Modernists don't get much else these days. Man or woman, the Modernist is just like us. It means we have to look at ourselves as we are and see others like ourselves as probably better suited to help us deal with problems they, like we, actually can speak to from experience. Like him as much as I do, he's not “one of us” any more than we Modernists can fake being natives in the Amazon. We have to talk to people who speak our emotional and experiential language. Men, though, are men, and they are not, any more than we are Amazonians, women. So, we will talk to a female shaman and to a male to ask more about the Modernist taking ayahuasca in the hope of some better grasp of our situation, whatever it might be.

There are American hippie shamas in the ayahuasca business in Iquitos, one of whom is named Ron Wheeler, or maybe, according to some, Wheelock, or, my personal favourite, Ron Hubbard. Ron, whom I have not met, is reported to have large amounts of cash on hand due to the price of his services, drawing the interest of armed robbers who wish to spread the wealth aroun, feeling that at some point he, like others, has made enough money and should pay his fair share to those who need it more than he, they being exploited and oppressed by the system. So, Ron reportedly has pit bull dogs guarding his place, no doubt better able to bite than the dog that tried successfully enough to eat my right foot, still swollen after three weeks, and Ron also, at least from local rumour, raises fighting cocks, also, I think, to protect his investments, no armed robber daring to confront an angry chicken in the dark. There are other American shamans to talk to, and they are all interesting. I haven't settled on speaking to anyone else yet. It seems somewhat imporant to know what to ask first, and though I had some ideas this morning I spent the afternoon reading a doctoral thesis by an anthropologists to see if I can find things about ayahuasca that I don't know about, which is much. Talking to shamans should be a matter for an informed interviewer. This evening I know more, and once others know this information as well, then reading the interviews will yield insights from them and about my take on this as well so that the reader can see my bias and make a clearer judgment himself. Or not, as the case too often is, so many, like the recent anorexic kid who “has a band” and spent three straight days on the toilet and on his bed sick nearly to death, not from food poisoning as I had assumed, but from ayahuasca and lack of food. He had no idea what he was doing, other than that he was doing something cool, even if it nearly killed him. There are things one can know about ayahuasca, not only pertaining to ones general health, a seeming obsession with the crowd intent on “healing” whatever imaginary ills they might dream up as an excuse to “heal.” And when they walk blindly in a state of ignorance that would shame the average Christian faith-healer selling used cars outside the trailer park, one can only blink. It's not cool to be a deliberate moron, contrary to the crowd of drug-taking naifs who lap up the crap of peer group conformity. Some shamans are outright seriously bad people, and one won't know if one doesn't even understand that such is not only possible but too often likely. And some drug tourists are scum on the ground doing more harm to the locals with their self-absorption and gooey sentimentalities than the worst dictators of the land. The later one could fight, but the free-spending, drug-taking tourist is a menace one embraces. Some shamans are bad. Some tourists are as bad. But not even thinking of thinking about what one gets into before one gets into it is a prescription for catastrophe.

There are problems with ayahuasca. One is the sentimentalisation of Amazonian individuals by Modernists who dismiss the uniqueness of said individuals for the sake of self-indulgence as moralistic poseurs. The following is so well put I might have it tattooed on my arse just because:

[W]esterners who naively perceive the performance of shamans as authentic and the shaman himself who is transformed to a “clown in a New Age circus” (Joralemon 1990:109).
Evgenia Fotiou , “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.” University of Wisconsin, Madison. 2010.

I might be overly fond of using the term philobarbarism, but it is too apt to refuse. It means a “love of barbarians” in contrast to loving ones own more advanced culture. It is an affectation, a falseness played by unintelligent intellectuals as a matter of distancing themselves from the banalities of the norms of their own milieux while creating the illusion among the gullible that the sneering critique of Modernity, in whatever form it might take contemporaneously, is somehow sophisticated, a matter of “slumming” in front of the middleclass by the middleclass, as if they were higher. The usual pretentious pose among “sophisticated” middleclass intellectuals is to be seen with a Black “friend.” Conversely, it is a middleclass Black affectation to be seen among successful Whites (from who he makes his living) while criticising them as racists. The case of ayahuasca tourism brings out the same kind of posing among the truly repulsive who, rather than cry rape and female victimhood, instead have sex with shamans, ayahuasca groupies who wreak havoc on families in small communities with no regard for the chaos they cause. Trophy shamans. To others these shamans suddenly showered with Modernist attentions are husbands and fathers and village doctors. Rock star shamans for the moment, they can leave town in disgrace to take up residence at a yuppie lodge at something financially greater than they could dream of in their own homes among their own community members, being “clowns of the New Age circus.” The price is high for all involved. One generally unnoticed price paid is the creation and sustenance of a parasitic clique of low level intellectuals who then criticise the indigenous alienation created by drug tourism. Modernity creates a class of intellectuals who criticise philobarbarists to find an edge in the competitive market of social reformers and community organisers, another form of philobarbarism, though less obvious.

I've taken issue previously with those Modernists who claim to be in need of “healing” from whatever traumas they might have suffered as children, as if they were still children. These same people are often wealthy beyond my imagination, and they visit men and sometimes women living in grass huts in the jungle to find something new to brag about when they return to Modernity, something exotic to say to their business associates and other “friends” about what they did during their summer vacations. Yes, Modernity, or in this case, post-modernity, harbours a sickness. If it were simply simpering insipidity among the spoiled one would be hard pressed to find reason to care. Unfortunately, the result, not limited to the damage among the locals, is the spread of a real disease, Reaction, the fundamental error, and fatal, of the German Revolution taking place across the Modernist world today. Following is a further example of this fatal attraction to the German Revolution.

The archaic mystique
For many, participating in shamanic ceremonies fulfills a need to connect to an archaic past, or a desire for continuity of consciousness from ancient times. The past is thought to hold what the modern lacks and that is located in cultural others– consumable by moderns in their search for self-fulfillment (Fabian 1983). (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Corruption of selva life is, for me, not particularly important here, the advance of the people into the Modern being, in my opinion, a greater leap and one worth the loss of heimat and gemeinschaft. The serious problem of Modernity is the lack of understanding of such a concept, the acceptance of the sentimentalised construct as if it were authentic; and thus there is a further alienation in the pursuit of the alienation unknown. To put this in English: some people are unthinkingly accepting of the idea of community as if it were valuable over individualism-- to a degree that many have come to destroy unthinkingly and in a state of uncritical conformity to the norms of postmodernism the very foundations of liberal Modernity in the pursuit of a better, a higher, a purer liberty, effectively an illusion most are too unaware of to grasp the futility of such a pursuit, utopian at best, a return to primitive fascism. In short, stupid intellectuals and some outright morons are ruining a freer world by indulging in a phantasy of self-absorption they seem to think is cooler than the boring stuff of ordinary living. Taking ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle with a shaman is far more interesting to them than to stay at home and raise families. A woman in her forties dressing like a 16 year old and having sex with a village shaman who got caught and is banished from his house and family and village because of it is OK for her. She can edit that story to make herself seem far more than the creepy slut she is. Her friends, assuming she has any, will then have to go further to find some experience to top her, so to speak. All the while, Modernity crumbles into ruin because of the pursuit of self-indulgence leading to further alienation, to a further disgust with oneself as a loser without a foundation the shaman and his former family had and cannot legitimately share with those who fly in and fly out in a matter of weeks. The rot spreads. Modernity becomes to be seen by the emergent, proto-Modernists as a disease to be avoided by their own Reaction, as one sees in the Sendero Luminoso terrorists of Peru, for example. Shamans of the jungle do become “Clowns of the New Age circus.” For what? the average person might ask.

One might laugh at some of the criticisms of the drug tourist by low level intellectuals who must make a living at anti-Modern criticism and also gain prestige as “rebel” intellectuals:

Some warn of the impact this “industry” might have on the environment. According to Grunwell (1998) “not only are the people of South America placing demands on the supply of ayahuasca, but also with the influx of tourists, sources could be in danger of complete exhaustion”. Finally, as Proctor (2001) notes this commercialization can have negative effects on health care in Amazonian communities as a lot of shamans are mostly interested in tourism than healing members of the community. She also warns that shamans adapt to the expectations of the tourists, a fact that greatly distorts indigenous shamanism. Ibid. (Fotiou . p.14.)

The last time I checked, ayahuasca and chakruna are plants. They grow when people bother to plant them. These plants grow almost all by themselves. To panic over the disappearance of such plants because too many tourists are demanding them is so stupid only a postmodernist academic could put his or her name to such idiocy without shame. No one will run out of ayahuasca even if they try. It grows wild in the jungle. And if shamans spend all their energies “healing” Modernist losers, that would leave the local population with no alternative but to see Modern medical professionals who actually do some good occasionally. But those pseudo concerns are simply further manifestations of the rot of post-modernism. Any kick at Modernism, no matter how repulsively stupid, finds an audience willing to pay in cash and status for the speaker. I'm in the wrong fucking business!

Dobkin del Rios, as so often, does get it right:

 “As many South Americans realize its money-making potential, they 'come to adopt a New Age vocabulary of shamanic healer/spiritual voyager'.” (Dobkin de Rios 1994:18). (Ibid. Fotiou.)

This is a fine thing, and one can only hope that, like so many pop star gurus of the sixties, they will go to California and buy Rolls Royce limos to sit in the barn while hippies swoon at the authenticity of the former jungle shaman now living in a Beverly Hillbillies mansion. Good. Go. Make a lot of money and be a Hollywood shaman. Pay my student loan. I sure won't be doing it with the money I make.

Most people in the Modern world have far too much stuff, too easy a life. That in itself is not a serious problem, and it's even a problem I might like to have, though I'm not so keen on working at it. Instead I live a bohemian life of genteel poverty. OK, poverty. What separates me from my successful colleagues in the literary business, aside from my use of terms like philobarbarism, is that I don't pose as one who hates people who have a lot of money. Nor do I hate stupid people. I do tend to hate stupid people with too much money who hate middle class people. Thus, I am not cool.

For decades, ayahuasca was the stuff of legend associated with various scientists and literary writers, from the pioneer field ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes to the poet Allen Ginsberg and writer William Burroughs. Today its use has expanded to a global level and has had an enormous impact on religious and neo-shamanic currents in the West. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

I promote the beauty of sewers, McDonald's, and plastic. I am destined to be poor forever. I don't think you are special. I think plastic is special because anyone with a few bucks can have a throne like the Sun King's at Versailles. It might be plastic, but it's a democratic thing. If I were to write about you being the centre of the universe, then perhaps I too could have a bunch of groupies and tonnes of cash floating around me. Unfortunately, I am particularly stupid in my own special way, and I think you, whoever you are, are just you. Your enlightenment is not important. I am a loser, indeed, destined to live as a backpacking loser.

Marcel Mauss (1938) was the first one who discussed cultural variations of the concept of the self throughout Western history asserting that earlier human communities had a more sociocentric conception of the person; in addition, he argued that the notion of the self as a unique individual possessing self-consciousness, the “cult of the self,” is of recent origin. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Well, yes. But no. The problem is the Romantic vision of Self. People have an innate sense of self, a matter of infant individuation. The problem is in the alienation today that drives the ignorant and self-indulgent to think of himself as special and above all communion in spite of hortatory rotomontades of the special people to save the earth from the middle class.


People sometimes think they are special because they say the “right thing” about the latest group think issue, knowing nothing much about the issue at all, in spite of sometimes long study, as worthless as specialising in astrology in the age of String Theory, and because they receive congratulations from their friends they think they are superior to the middle class, of whom they mostly are and hate to admit it, seeking something greater than mediocrity as a self-identifier. Lots of demands of others to be “moral” like the speaker, even though the speaker usually has little to no idea what he's on about. Thus, being an ignorant arsehole with a lot of noise, he finds a niche to live in as a lonely and stupid moralist no one really believes but most are too afraid to say they think he's a fool. And chasing emptiness is a full time occupation, requiring ones dedicated energies forever to fill the emptiness with more emptiness. Today it's ayahuasca, like yesterday it was transcendental meditation with the Beatles, like tomorrow it will be reading my fine books. There is a lack of humility that attempts to fill the vacuum of mediocrity. Almost everyone is mediocre. Those who can't accept that about themselves often turn to persona to mask it for others. It is a basic alienation. More alienation is simply more alienation. More words, more exotic drug-taking in other exotic places is more alienation. People have always felt their own individuality, but recently they have come to think it's not enough to simply be oneself: one must be special.

Alright. I confess that I think you are special. Now, please send me money. Ha.

Mediocre people comprise about 80 percent of the population, and few would chose to be in the remaining division of tens. But few seem to think of the consequence of being mediocrities who are somehow special. An easy, and therefore popular avenue to specialness for the unhappy mediocrity is to be morally superiour to other mediocrities, i.e. people no different from himself. For some, being morally fashionable is better than being well dressed. To be so moral that one can criticise all around him is to reach the heights of mediocrity without having to do much or be much other than to fly off to a remote city and take drugs for a long weekend, at least till it becomes too popular and the working class is doing it too. The the “artist” will have to find some new fashion to distinguish himself from other mediocrities. Artaud. Does anyone seriously read that stuff? He used to be fashionable.

Kehoe (2000) has argued that New Age and neoshamanism appropriation misrepresent or dilute indigenous practices and subtly reinforce racist ideas such as the Noble Savage image. Unfortunately, these stereotypes are still pervasive in popular culture. Early on artists and scholars wrote extensively about them. Artists used them as tools for self-exploration and inspiration. Romantic poets like Coleridge, Poe and Shelley investigated their dreams and trance states also using drugs with the intention to probe the far reaches of the mind (Pinchbeck 2004). Theirs was an act of resistance to modernity and the Industrial revolution. Mind altering substances became one way to explore cultural otherness by making direct contact with “primitive” knowledge. Antonin Artaud, by participating in peyote rituals in Mexico attempted to recover the sense of the sacred that European culture had lost (Artaud 1976). Artists like the Surrealists also explored dream states 100 (Pinchbeck 2004). (Ibid. Fotiou. p. 97.)

Alfred Jarry used to be a vanguard artist. So he should be, given that he was nuts. His acolyte Artaud was nuts. Faking it is nuts; but it's not that kind of nuts. It's a stupid nuts. Poe was genuinely nuts. Want to be like him? Or is it better to fake it? You probably aren't special. Leave it to those who are truly nuts. Stay home. Drink beer in front of the television. Leave nuts to professionals who can't help themselves. Send me money. You are not special. It doesn't matter what the shaman says. You are very likely mediocre. You are not going to be any more special by going to the jungle to take drugs.

How we see shamans has changed, of course. Today among the bored and pathetically pampered it is cool to be a lover of all things not Modern, which only the post-modernist can afford. A rather long excerpt from Fotiou 's doctoral thesis puts this in perspective:

Classical thought emphasized the idyllic state of simplicity and integrity while the Judeo-Christian thought focused thought focused more on bestial and devilish interpretations of the primitive. In both discourses the savage is perceived in opposition to the civilized West and both are equally one-dimensional and static. They view the “other” as frozen in time and are reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices. Within the discourse of the Good Indian we find the stereotype of the Indian as keeper of the earth, a very familiar image in the 20th c. Hamayon (1998) suggests three trends in the history of the approaches to shamanic behavior; devilization, medicalization and idealization. She places the first one historically in the 17th and 18th c. During that time, shamans were seen in opposition to Christianity and as “taken” by the evil spirits.

During the Enlightenment, primitivist ideas were used in order to educate with no intention to encourage people to appropriate savage ways of living (Wernitznig 2003). Their intention was to use them as a commentary on the civilized society’s malaise.

One approach presented them as “charlatans,” “imposters,” and 85 “magicians.” For example Diderot, the first writer to define “shaman” and the chief editor of the Encyclopedie, referred to shamans as Siberian “imposters” who perform “tricks that seem supernatural to an ignorant and superstitious people” (Narby and Huxley 2001:32).

Flaherty, however, noted that Europe in the 18th century was not entirely preoccupied with rationalism, humanism, and scientific determinism; manifestations of romanticism and the occult were present as well (1992:7).

The second trend was “medicalization” and is associated with the 19th c. and colonialism (Chaumeil 1999). It is the approach that focuses on the psychopathological aspect of shamanic behavior and its therapeutic aspect. This view was influenced by psychoanalysis. This approach has been abandoned and healing is no longer seen as the basis of shamanism. In addition it has been argued that sometimes healing appears to be a mask put on traditional customs in order to be tolerated by colonial and modernizing powers (Hamayon 1998).

According to psychoanalytical approaches shamanic behavior has been characterized as schizophrenia, something, which for many is oversimplifying his condition and role (Krippner 1992, 2000).

Hamayon (1998) calls the third trend in approaches to shamanism, “idealization” of shamanism. This trend can be traced historically to the 19th c. but has reached a peak in the 20th c. We can find traces of this approach in European romanticism, with its attraction to the spiritual and the mysterious, as well as in American transcendentalism and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both of which had a similar “organic approach to nature and spirituality” (Znamenski 2007:24). Echoing this romantic perpetuation of the nature– culture dichotomy and inspired by anti-modernist sentiments, shamanism is viewed as the most archaic religious form and is “praised as representative of a genuinely natural philosophy particularly useful in our modern technocratic world. Primitive is turned into primordial, wild into ecological, magic into mystic, makeshift into artistic” (Hamayon 2001:3). In fact this nostalgia about the past and hopeful idealism about the future seems to be a common theme of modernity. This approach brings to mind what Rosaldo called imperialist nostalgia (1989), the sort of nostalgia that people feel after conquering people. As he pointedly argued, this nostalgia is not innocent.

During the 1980s and later, we see an emphasis on the image of the spiritual noble savage, showing inner harmony (with oneself) and outer harmony (with the environment) (Wernitznig 2003). The stereotype of the wise, prophetic Indian became very popular during that time and is still with us today. The environmentalist movement found in indigenous knowledge the potential remedies for civilization’s problems. … Neoshamanisms claim a strong concern for ecology and everything that is considered to be “natural”.

One of the most recent chapters in this history is the phenomenon of neoshamanism and the appropriation of indigenous spirituality by loosely defined movements such as the New Age. Neoshamanism is defined as “a form of shamanism that has been created at the end of the 20th c. to re-establish a link for modern man to his spiritual roots, to re-introduce shamanic behavior into the lives of westerners in search of spirituality and, thereby, renew contact with nature” (Jakobsen 1999:xi).

Shamanic tourism is not a unique example of appropriation of indigenous knowledge by westerners. Another example that might relate to the case of ayahuasca is the case of Tibetan Buddhism as discussed by Lopez (1998). He discusses the different and sometimes even conflicting images of Tibetan Buddhism, often considered in opposition to Western culture. Some of these highly romanticized portrayals of Tibet still continue to hold sway. Similarly to some of the portrayals of ayahuasca, Tibet is imagined to embody the spiritual and the ancient and to hold wisdom lost to westerners. According to Lopez (1998:10) “Tibet is seen as the cure for an ever-ailing Western civilization, a tonic to restore its spirit”. The same can be argued for ayahuasca as well; not only the plants, but Amazonian peoples themselves are seen as spiritual and wise, and holding the answers to our problems.

(Brosius 1997), outside appropriation of indigenous knowledge can impose meanings on it that may be quite imaginary. Environmentalist discourse tends to present indigenous people as a homogenous group and their knowledge as universal in order to promote conservation. But the politics of this should not be ignored since it is westerners who define concepts such as conservation and who have acquired the role of speaking on behalf of the indigenous people. Several scholars have pointed out that even positive stereotypes perpetuate erroneous and detrimental assumptions about the “other”. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Philobarbarism is a lie, no truer today than when it was applied to the early Taoists or Herodotus. It is also disgusting and often physically harmful to those abused by it. Unless you are truly nuts, stay home.
Gordon Wasson, a former banker, who visited Mexico in the 1950s and tried psilocybin mushrooms with Maria Sabina, later publishing his account in Life magazine (Wasson 1957), is responsible for the waves of Western seekers that flooded Oaxaca in the 1960s. (Ibid Fotiou.)
See here:

“In the 20th c. Aldus Huxley might be the first influential figure who discussed the potential benefits of hallucinogens openly.” (Ibid Fotiou.)

One hears frequently that the ayahuasca user feels that his ego has died under the influence of the drug. That makes no sense at all, the ego being part of a three part construct, according to Freud, a thinker mostly despised today by ayahuasca users, and if the ego dies, there might, though it's nonsense to think so, remain the id and the super ego. But the ego does not die, even according to the uninformed use of the term by ayahuasca users. Rather, they speak of themselves dissolving into a universality of oneness, what Freud's contemporary Roland Romaine describes as “the oceanic.” Huxley, too, discusses this, but he knows, as most others do not seem to know, that the ego doesn't die under the influence of ayahuasca: it becomes greater. In truth, the user becomes the focus of the oceanic, the centre of his own universe, the universe not being all and he an indefinite part, but the user is the ocean around which the universal floats, like an unindividuated infant who conceives of the world, his mother, as part of himself, as is everything else. The ayahuasca user doesn't become anything greater: the greater becomes the self-obsessed user, more focussed on his own self than previously. And the irony is that for most users I have spoken with, they have no curiousity about the drug they take nor the history or the chemistry or the lives of the shamans they idolise for a few days or a week as if they had backstage passes to a rock show and could meet the star of the latest pop tune splendours. But no curiousity about the drug or the culture or the people involved. The banality of the “ego” is stunning to behold, as is the conceit and the self-righteousness of the aggressively ignorant and the painfully lazy. They know that an influencial figure once said, maybe even wrote a book, that such and such is the good, and thus, following the trends wherever they might lead, even into the Amazon jungle, they do what others have done, knowing not why but only because. The reward for all of this is to finally feel a drug-induced euphoria of “loving themselves,” of being cured of traumas, of “healing.” But they are ever the ignorant bastards they began as, though able to cite a time in Iquitos, the name of a favourite shaman, the babble of an idiot drug user. The vanity of such people is staggering to encounter. Such people should, by rights, stay home and pursue their banalities in private; but their vanities will not allow it. Such things should be left to madmen only. If only!

A book that introduced ayahuasca to the Western consciousness at that time is the Yagé Letters. William Burroughs, a known heroin addict, hoped to find in ayahuasca what he did not find in other drugs. He characteristically wrote: “Yagé may be the final fix” (Lee 1953). Burroughs traveled to South America to try ayahuasca and seven years later Allen Ginsberg did the same; the result was the Yagé Letters, their correspondence from that period. However, Burroughs did not find what he was hoping for in ayahuasca or in Peru for that matter. His account is rather negative and unlikely to have attracted people to ayahuasca as much as other first hand accounts. In one instant he reported “...I had been conned by medicine men” (Burroughs and Ginsberg 1963:15). Ginsberg’s account is closer to the stereotypical first person account. Ayahuasca is mentioned in a number of other books written by Burroughs (Lee 1953).
Kristensen found that there were four main reasons that people became ayahuasca tourists: self-exploration and spiritual growth, curiosity, physical and emotional healing, and the desire for a vacation to an exotic location (1998:15). All these motives have been quoted as motives of tourism and pilgrimage as well. The common theme that can be discerned below is the attractiveness of anything that is perceived as the antithesis of Western civilization: pre-industrial, pre-modern, natural, exotic, spiritual, sacred, traditional and timeless. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

This is not attractive. It's a destructive philobarbarism that invades other people's legitimate culture for the sake of dilittantish vanity on the part of self-centred buffoons who are spoiled by affluence and an ego-driven nihilist and the constant despair of Gnostic mediocrity in search of authenticity that cannot come, regardless of the struggles or the credit card bills run up in the pursuit of.

What is to be gained?

In the case of ayahuasca rituals, participants are physically temporarily away from their culture and their social roles; metaphorically they intentionally step outside culture by ingesting a hallucinogen that challenges the very cultural categories that they take for granted. In this context they experience communitas and personal transformation. A viable theory of ritual for this context should account for rituals that capacitate personal transformation through temporary removal from social structure, but also by challenging cultural categories themselves through the ingestion of a powerful hallucinogen. (Ibid. Fotiou.)

Dislocation from ones familiar surroundings can be, often is, “mind-blowing” and sometimes frightening to the inexperienced. To seek out further a mind altering hallucinogen for the sake of making the break with ones norm ever starker is not to say that works, the person remaining essentially the same, and the projections altering the object as much as anything else. The drug tourist affects the local more than the shaman affects the drug user.

Earlier scholarly work has presented the indigenous peoples of the area as culturally intact, like Lewis and Lewis, who see traditional Shuar medicine as a static body of knowledge stating that “they use plants now as they have for perhaps thousands of years” (1994:61). Similar comments were made by most of my consultants, who were under the impression that the ceremonies that they participated in were identical to the ceremonies that indigenous peoples did “for thousands of years”. This point of view denies the obvious influence of the West on these cultures, as well as the cultures’ response to that influence. In the context of this discourse the figure of the shaman becomes mythologized and is presented as the preserver of ancient tradition. This perspective is not particularly interested in the reality of the present but more likely is looking for traces of the primordial in present shamanic practices. Shamanism is therefore essentialized and removed from its historical and cultural context. (Ibid. Fotiou)

One result of the sentimentalisation of ayahuasca drinking by suburban mediocrities from Modernity is that people like my friend Alemia can make a living of sorts dressing up in a “traditional Shipibo” costume while walking up and down Prospero street selling ayahuasca-themed embroidery to support herself and four young children. I dated the lady for months without ever knowing the squiggles on the blankets she sells tell a narrative of an ayahuasca vision. She never mentioned it, and I never had any interest in that part of her life. I would like very much to club to jelly many of the tourists who ooh and ahh at her and her work. They don't know her, don't care to, and sentimentalise her life and pity her for having left the “authentic” life of the jungle. They often times tell Amelia about their spirtiual awakening under the influence of ayahuasca, not knowing or caring to know that Amelia's father is an ancient and highly respected curandero from Pucalpa, ayahuasca shamans' version of Harvard.

Often people project the experiences they have in ceremonies to the shaman. If they have good experiences, then they consider the shaman to be very powerful and a great healer. I found that very few shamans will actually point out that it is not them that does the healing but the plants, the spirits and the patients themselves. Most will enjoy the respect they receive and probably exaggerate their abilities. (Ibid Fotiou. P.213)

Thus, it is seldom about the actual shaman, almost never about the city of Iquitos, nor about the nation of Peru that inspires the tourist to take ayahuasca. It is generally about the tourist exciting himself. Truth, even basic facts, are unloved in this crowd. For the average drug tourist, it's about the average drug tourist alone.

For some, it is a political act, rejecting organized religion and seeking out a more democratic way. They feel that traditionally religious authorities of every form claimed to monopolize the access to the divine agency and priests became the mediators between the people and the divine. They became necessary for the function of society because they regulate important activities. These new alternative spirituality movements find these mediators unnecessary and look for ways for every individual to tap into the divine. (Ibid,. Fotiou.)

It is indeed political, and that, in the last analysis, is why this look at ayahuasca use among Modernists is important. We will see more about the sentimentalising of “primitives” later, but next we'll look closely at the realities of shamans, not so much the phoniness of the picture presented by the typical drug tourist. Real shamans, real lives, real people.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Christmas Girl with Machete

I never say no to a girl with a machete.

And I'm always happy to see Santa. 

I might be away for a few days, but when I return I will continue this chronicle of Iquitos, Peru.

Till then, my best,

Dag Walker

Deep in the Amazon jungle.

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Friday, December 21, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Christmas Fire in Belen

Just days before Christmas in the poorest section of the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru, a gas cannister exploded and set the district of Belen (Spanish: Bethlehem) on fire. Many of those who had little in life now have nothing. Approximately 150 houses burned to the ground. A thousand people are homeless. A dozen or so are in hospital. Immigrants from the jungle to the city are set back a decade now as they will have to start again to build their inventories of simple provisions and goods from nothing. Many will return to the jungle from which they came to escape that life of poverty, there being nothing left for them in the city. Belen burned badly on 20 Dec. 2012.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Curse of the Naipe Card Readers (Part Two)

The Maestro is the man at hand, and so it is that I hiked over to Belen Market to Pasaje Pauquito to get my cards read. I'm not at all impressed with conformity hippie bullshit in the Groniad, and I couldn't care less about bashing Christianity just because it's hip to be Gnostic. I'm not a believer in pomo orthodoxy. But Naipe cards, well, that's a whole nother story!

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: El Shoppe de Cure-all Winstonisms

[T]he best medicine for me-- the best part of my day-- is to stop and chat up folks I know in the market; and Winston is fun to chat up, for sure.

Winston is in the cure-all medicines business at Pasaje Paquito in Belen Market....

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dag Walker, American Writer, Goes to Prison, Iquitos, Peru

"Welcome to the penal colony at Devil's Island, whose prisoners you are, and from which there is no escape."
Papillon, (1973)

That's what I heard when we approached the gates to Iquitos' regional jungle prison.

The penitentiary of Iquitos, Establecimiento Penal para Sentenciados e Inculpados de Maynas (Epsim)- Penitentiary establishment for Sentenced and Accused of Maynas, has been categorized by various organizations as unsafe; roofs about to collapse, stairs missing for guards to get up onto the watch towers and exposed electrical circuits are among the main problems. Currently, the jail holds 644 people, 55 of those being women....
Iquitos penitentiary posses danger to inhabitants.” 17 Feb. 2006

I didn't do it, man. It wasn't my fault. But I went to prison in Iquitos, Peru anyway. Some people will be surprised not that I went but that they let me out.In fact, they kept me out.

INPE. Max. Sec.
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Friday, December 14, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part Eight)

Interviews with Shamans, Part Two.

Interview with Doctore Gido, Part Two

When Paula and I arrive in the thick of the jungle over the foot bridge and into the trees we enter Gido's house, him balancing of a pole as he uses a home-made hammer to pound some new nails into the palm frond roof that leaks pretty badly in the daily torrential rains. I look around for the ladder to take to him so he can climb down, but there isn't one in sight, and I wonder how he got up there 20 feet or more and got to the pole he's standing on. It looks acrobatic, and it looks dangerous, the fall to the wood planks being pretty hard even for a man in good shape and twenty years old, which Gido is not. He's light and agile, though, and he easily finds footholds on the tops of windows and doors and comes down to shake hands, smiling as always, a nice guy to be with, happy and friendly and seemingly glad to see me, though I don't know that he has any idea why I showed up again at his place. Paula tells him I want to talk to him about ayahuasca and his role in the village as shaman. He says yes, happy to talk about it all. One might think he had a premonition of my visit, we entering the shaman's office, as it were, the huge bare room in the next building that is his workplace. We sit and chat for a moment, hardly more than a minute, before I launch into what I hope will be questions impossible for him to answer, questions that will reveal ayahuasca use as a trivial and perhaps dangerous pursuit of spoiled and self-indulgent hippies from afar. But Gido's wife come in with a tray of lemonade and I like Gido and he's anxious to talk about his work and what he calls his “vocation” as a shaman from Pucallpa, Peru, the city six days down river where I first met the Shipibo people I have come so often to associate with in Iquitos. Gido is not Shipibo but from the Andes, Quechuan, a mountain man like me, though he's a very relaxed and happy guy. We sip lemonade and Paula turns on her dictaphone to make sure that if and when my Spanish fails me I will have a back-up to save the story. She sits back and holds out the machine, but soon she's leaning forward, interested in the conversation, learning about Gido's work and his grasp of ayahuasca for the first time, even though she has taken ayahuasca with Gido a few times already, but not having asked about it in this detail. Probably she doesn't know that Gido is an alta mesayoc, a “knowledgable Andean shaman,” not a local Amazonian shaman one might expect, like my friend Amelia's ancient father from Pucallpa, the centre for shaman training in Peru, he being unquestionably the meraya, or 'high priest' of the area. With 18 children he must have something going for him.

We take our spots at the back of the office in the corner, a six foot high medicine cabinet, the arte, of rough planks with shelves but no door between Paula and me and Gido on the other side, all of us sitting around a small rectangular table Gido banged together with that funny looking hammer. Looking around the room I see wood everywhere, and outside through the plastic screens I see more wood, but plants and trees, a giant palm tree so huge that I don't for a long moment even recognise it as such, it being so huge that the palm leaves look like pale green bedsheets dipping and bobbing gently in the breeze, and the occasional giant electric blue and black butterfly or huge glossy black beetle passing by. There some thing, a wasp perhaps,of a huge bee of some sort, that is shiny and brilliant gold. We sit and sip our lemonade and Gido lights a giant mapacho cigarette, possibly to ward off obnoxious questions I might ask him. I ask for a few minutes to inventory the collection of bottles on the table in front of us, and Gido and Paula chat about the kids and life around the house and village. My interest is focussed on plastic bottles of stuff in front of us. I count ten bottles. This is the working stuff of an Amazonian shaman, though the real thing is not bottled at all, as I think I come to understand as we speak later. But the bottled stuff is important, and I look at it in some close detail to ask about it as it might come up in our conversation. Gido can't see any of this coming because no one has ever dropped in from Modernity to ask him trick questions and to challenge him and make him unhappy about his life. I want to know if what I hear and see is bullshit, even if I like Gido and hope he will keep on liking me when I finish with him.

On the table I see ten bottles that look like they could have come from senile grandma's kitchen, a litre coke bottle filled with black stuff that looks like thin india ink, about the last thing on the table I'd consider drinking. Actually, it's Seven Roots, a popular cure all available at Belen market's Pasaje Paquito. This is the first time I've seen it in liquid form, the other times it being in plastic sacks one makes up at home. The Cointreau bottle looks better, but who knows what's inside? I don't. I never did get a proper answer to that. There's a small bottle of Agua de Florida, again a popular item at Belen Market, used to calm vomitting when the ayahuasca kicks in. It smells like hair tonic, and sure enough, Gido splashes some on his head and rubs it in his long black hair. Gido can surely find some cure for baldness, but since I would never have hair as nice as his I decide to remain a contented bald guy rather than an envious hairy guy. I see two Tabasco sauce bottles, one filled with clear violet, which turns out to be rose water, and very nice indeed, though I wonder where it comes from, roses not seeming to be around much in the jungle, itself almost devoid of flowers. I don't want to ask if it comes from a chemical compound at Walmart via Fedex; the second bottle filled with Key-Lime green stuff, Sangre de Gato, a cure for scars and ulcers. I come quickly to realise the bottles on the table are all ordinary things one finds at the extraordinary Pasaje Paquito at Belen Market. The two “energy drink” plastic bottles filled with what looks like onions and Chinese noodles turn out to be onions, garlic, camphor and other vegetables, camalonga, for example, some of which look like Chinese noodles. It smells to me like paint thinner, but it's vegetables soaked in rum. The rest of the bottles are much the same, ordinary stuff of vegetation, even the timolina, a Chinese remedy for that common if miserable ailment, now, thanks to modern marketing, too many ads on television, and people who don't understand English very well, known as “acid reflux syndrome.” It's heartburn. Gido has a remedy for it in a plastic bottle on the table. A whiff of the rum and garlic gave me a day-long headache, but I didn't realize it at the time or I might have asked Gido to cure me. There are a few other things on the shelves in the case behind us but I've seen enough to see the general thrust of the operation. It's about vegetables and other plants. The pile of mapacho cigarettes are vegetable, too, cigar sized smokes each the equivalent of 15 normal cigarettes all at once; but that the smokes are three times the normal size it would be like smoking three packs of cigarettes in five minutes. It's medicine here. The last thing I ask about is the soda bottle full of yellow-green pancake sludge with black bits and dirt in it. That would be your main item on the evening's menu, ayahuasca. 

Gido's medical stuff.

Set apart from the vegetation in bottles on the table is a stick wrapped in blue string, a bunch of dried, broad leaves attached, this being a rattle to scare off demons, a chakapa. It's all perfectly clear from the first moment that people who live in the jungle would see reality as being about plants. It took me a while to recognise this, my world being about concrete, steel, glass, and plastic, my gods being electricity and gasoline and silent, waiting warriors who live in dark, stone vaults and who delight in slaughter. Plants? I don't know so much about plants. Gido takes a huge huff of mapacho and blows it hard into the breeze in the room, dispelling spirits that could harm us or make our conversation unpleasant. The chakapa rattle, which Gido demonstrates for us, is meant to cleanse the body, curing colon problems, for example, protecting the eyes, (a bit late for me) and is used mostly to summon spirits good and bad. One uses it in conjunction with the icaros, the songs one sings to the plants.

The shaman accompanies himself with a shacapa as he sings icaros, magical songs meant to please the spirits he will encounter in his session to heal the ill, whether they have the usual parasites or are cursed by some evil spirit brought about by a bruha, or evil shaman often hired by a nasty neighbour or relative to cast a spell. The shaman sometimes literally blows smoke up ones arse, smoke from the sticky black tobacco from the Amazon, mapacho, as he takes on the role of tabaquero during the ayahuasca “ceremony,”* as bashful drug-using yuppies are so intent on calling it. From thereon, it's a mighty hour or two or more of puking and shitting and hallucinating. To a large extent, the city of Iquitos lives from this attempt by the alienated if not simply bored Modernist tourist looking for a better life of the mind. The city locals seldom touch the stuff, thinking of it as jungle behaviour they hold not in favour. Hippies love it. And they pay big bucks for it, too. But Gido, he's not making any money at this business. As far as shamans go, Gido is nowhere. Gido is about the last shaman the average drug tourist is going to consult about his psychic pain. Gido isn't in it for the money and not in it for the visions. He's about something entirely different. He's in it for the plants.

I don't have a lot of time for plants, so I demand some answers about ayahuasca. It takes 300 yahe leaves, 30 six inch long chunks of ayahuasca vine, 30 litres of water, and then, because I'm not a mathematician, the numbers about chakruna and mapacho turn into vivid butterflies flitting around and my mind wanders after them and I gaze into space and don't know nothing. I skip all that even though I could check it out on Paula's tape. Then the numbers come back to me, bringing me back to the world of accounting and quarterly reports and statistical tables of production and year end net earnings: 12 hours of cooking to make a litre of ayahausca enough for 20 people, stuff that lasts for eight days in a bottle before it ferments and becomes poisonous. I don't have a lot of time for numbers.

OK, I do have time for whatever pleases me. I ask about Gido how on earth he came to be a shaman in the Amazon jungle. “It's a calling,” he says. I get into a discussion with Paula about the word, saying a calling is the same as vocation, voca being the Spanish word we want here. I go off on some linguistic diatribe that leaves everyone confused. I want to know about Gido being a shaman and I want to know about ayahuasca. I want to know about the words.

Chakruna in Gido's Garden

Maybe I didn't get where I wanted to go with this, but Gido glides over my rough questions about words and talks about the essence of what I want. For him, it's not about words, it's about plants. He heard them calling him and he went to Pucallpa, a centre for shaman training, a town so many tourists avoid that I never met even one the time I spent there teaching English and learning more Spanish with my teary-eyed friend Jose, the lovely Yaneth, and the blushing Maria. I never even heard of ayahuasca there, but Pucallpa is the Harvard of hallucinations. Or healing, if you must. Pucallpa is not a tourist destination, those few who land there saying they got out as soon as they could for Iquitos to take ayahuasca. I might easily have stayed but for the call of the Amazon river at Iquitos up river six days by cargo boat. I didn't know at the time that in the city and all around is the grand collection of locals who are straight from the jungle, those who live in the city, cholos who have little idea what it means, like gringo me there, only different, called to plants. Gido was called to Pucallpa, and there he became a shaman. It took about 20 years; no sex, he says. I was married for a long time, and I can relate, so I don't pursue it. He's speaking and I want to know about words. I want to know about songs, icaros, about singing to plants.

Gido sings to plants sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in Quechua, it depends on the person who has come to him for medicine, for healing, sometimes in Shipibo. Gido has to sing in a native tongue so the plants can find the person and the person can be open to finding for Gido to do his magic. Gido's voice is not his own, though, but that of his grandparents sometimes, and other times that of a woman he can't identify further, knowing only that her voice works well in chasing away demons, the source of all ills. Gido sings to spirits, plants, for the person, against demons who bring ills, and he blows mapacho smoke at the bad spirits, banishing them from the person and the room, blowing away an array of demons that he describes in such a way that I think of Milton's war in heaven in which Satan's forces use a cannon to shoot at other angels, the iron balls passing through the heavenly bodies without effect. Gido stands up and acts out the fight between himself and devils, the latter firing guns and shooting arrows and darts and firing pistols. It's a full-blown war in Gido's office, and he wins by blowing smoke and communing with plants to banish the bad from the person suffering and the house itself. I can relate to that, too, the house being so calm as we sit that I am only disturbed slightly when Gido sits with his arms crossed and his legs moved away from me and his head turned as he says “Good” to almost every question I ask in rapid fire, taking notes and staring at him to look for lies.

Chakapa for chasing away obnoxious spirits

Gido blows some smoke to clear the air and tells us that plants are slow. I know they don't grow quickly, but when I see them in front of me there is no plant time in my mind. They are there, often dinosaur huge, and they have some power. But that takes time far beyond my experience of seeing them as they are, often full-grown, real and there in my moments. Gido says plants are slow, and I finally get it. One cannot just approach a plant, even as a shaman, and demand answers to rapid fire questions, expecting rapid fire answers from plants who have their own rhythms and time and who have to grow to know a person. Plants need time to receive respect. They need time to want to help a person and to become integrated with him or her. Gido says he can't “see” a person in three days. It takes time, and that is plant time. For the tourist with three days between aeroports, it's not going to work for Gido and his plants. It takes time.

Gido, to my surprise, says he doesn't use a lot of ayahuasca, and he seldom gives it to others, pretty much wrecking any chance he might have had to get rich. Tourists would avoid Gido like snakes. He's as slow as plants in the jungle. But that is fine for the people in the village, those whom he lives with, those who are part of the jungle, attuned to plants already. Gido does take ayahuasca himself when he deals with the ills the locals call to complain of, and sometimes he gives the locals ayahuasca, too; but mostly, Gido says, his work is about healing problems people have, and ayahuasca is not the answer to that as often as tourists would have themselves believe. Tourists see what they want to see when they take ayahuasca, they see demons and snakes and bad things and sometimes thereafter they see themselves as glorious and enlightened beings, all thanks to ayahuasca and their favoured shaman. For Gido's villagers, they see helpful and healing plants.

Medicinas, ayahausca hiding in the background.

Most of the locals who consult with Gido the shaman do not take ayahuasca, and Gido himself doesn't use it often. It grows outside his doorway, along side the leafy chakruna that coats the ayahuasca, allowing the ayahuasca to go to the brain before being nullified by the stomach otherwise. He usually has a bottle of it ready. He is more like a bartender than a drunk, though, not using it himself unless he wants to for some reason. That reason is medicine, he being a doctore, a healer rather than a drug tourist. Many a night have I stayed up sweating over the life of Lazarus, wondering what the man did when Jesus brought him back to life; wondering if, now that Lazarus had a chance to live a life he should not have had at all, a second chance and a chance to do it right, Lazarus went back to being a butt-grinding perv. on subway ride to work as a file clerk at the insurance company, or did he do something great and grand with this life he should not have had but for a direct and incredible personal gift from God. What, I wondered, would a man do with such a life? I think, I hope, I pray, that Lazarus went about his life much the same as before, more thankful this time round, thanking God for the chance to be small, to see his wife and kids after work each day, to be thankful he is just a guy in the village. Gido is just a guy in the village, a medical guy who has chickens in the wilds around the house. Gido is not a demi-god enlightened beyond the average guy; he is just a man who understands plants that can help others sort of get through life till they die. Not many men can do what Gido does, he having been called by the plants, but that doesn't make him special, just called for his work. Ayahuasca sometimes helps him at his job, a man living in the jungle taking to plants so he can be a better doctor. His job as a doctor includes giving advice about jobs, diets, marriage counseling, and the usual details of a medical man in a prescience world. He doesn't need ayahuasca for much of what he does, his pills and scalpels being wads of tobacco and broad leaves of many types. Ayahuasca is one plant among many, and when Gido uses it it is specifically for a patient's good, not for Gido to expand with the plant universe.

Gido talks to chakruna

Gido doesn't need ayahuasca to talk to plants. He can summon them with his chakapa, he can banish demons with his mapacho, he can float above the world and communicate telepathically with those he chooses to contact. He's been doing this work for a long time, and the plants know him. He might or might not know about chakras, but I definitely do not, and thus I cut here all reference to it, leaving that to those with at least a basic grasp of an otherwise unintelligible subject. Gido is about plants, first and foremost, and in the jungle one can sense why immediately. The stuff picked up from tourists I leave where I find it. For me it is enough that Gido claims he can summon plants and ask them for help in his work. His patients do not need ayahuasca, they not being able to see what Gido sees, not knowing what he knows, not understanding what he understands about the healing nature of the spirit of plants. Ayahuasca for Gido isn't self-help therapy with the most insightful facilitator in the universe; it is a cleansing potion that allows him to increase his powers of observation and diagnosis of the ills and ailments of others. With ayahuasca he can see like an X-ray machine, but only if an X-ray is called for. Ayahuasca gives Gido power, and that power is to do good for others. That, I think, is the difference between Gido taking ayahuasca and the others. Yes, I like Gido, he being a very cool guy. I'd love to get stoned with him. He sits without too much upset that I keep pounding him with questions he shouldn't have to answer, the nature of material, the meaning of the divine in a changing world of appearance, the point of an earthly life in a city of alienated beings rich beyond measure, questions meant only for myself that I hit Gido with till his legs draw under his bench and he turns his head and can't look at me directly as he answers my questions to the best of his ability. He's a village medicine man, not a Doctor of Philosophy. I finally get sick of myself and stop talking, taking time to think about Gido's life and work, home and family, the meaning of his life and time. But then my anger about drug tourists rises and I ask why they see snakes all the time.

The culebra, especially the boa, the anaconda, is the mother of the spirit of ayahuasca. I'm lost. The snake eats the ayahuasca user and they become one, good if the person can deal with the change, physical and mental that ayahuasca creates in a person. The snake Gido sees is a probe for problems, a way to see inside and know. Ayahuasca becomes the snake. The snake is the man. Gido knows the snake, and thus he can know the man if he has had time to know the snake the man becomes. It's not instant out of a bottle, not some quick fix tourist grab and run. The spirit of ayahuasca might come and it might reveal much to the man, but it's not what Gido sees as a shaman. Gido might not see more than a tourist hallucinating, though he might see the tourist's hallucinations as well. But what would that mean to anyone? It might mean attention at a cocktail party till someone else, somewhere else, goes on even better in the raconteur business. When the next new thing comes along, Gido will still be talking to plants and dispensing advice about plant spirits and doing odd chores around the house in the jungle. He ain't never going to get rich. You might find him high, somewhere up there at the ceiling fixing a leaky roof with a weird looking hammer, secure on that little pole that keeps him from falling to certain death.

I took a slow boat alone back to Iquitos to my daily life of dodging mototaxis and pounding it out on the Internet. The streets are recently paved, and I like crossing them because they're black and clean and sort of smooth. I went for ice cream at the corner, stopping in the park to watch families walking.  Ayahuasca? I have no idea. I don't talk to plants.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: A General Introduction

What on earth is interesting in Iquitos, Peru? Well, just about everything one could never imagine. From the city centre at the Plaza de Armas where one finds the Iron House, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1860, shown at the Paris International Exhibition in 1878, and bought and shipped in pieces down the Amazon River to be a Rubber Baron's mansion till the boat got stuck in Iquitos and the building was sold and erected in two parts, one at the corner of the Plaza de Armas where it stands today; to Eiffel's metal bandstand in the world famous Belen Market area of 75,000 people; to the seeming million mototaxis, (officially only 25,000) whizzing past without regard to lanes and stop signs; to the city's architectural heritage of Italian and Portuguese hand painted-tile buildings, and the rough wood-plank houses either floating or built on stilts to escape-- sometimes and somewhat-- the annual rise of the Amazon; to the cemetery filled with the Lost Jews of Iquitos and the dead rubber tappers of German; and the nightlife of the Malecon Tarapaca by the riverside; the city, isolated from the world other than by flights in or out or by sometimes week long journeys by cargo boat, the largest city in the world not a connected to a nation by road, the city of Iquitos is planted firmly and happily in the jungle on the left bank of the river where life goes by peacefully and quietly and happily for those who come to visit, perhaps to drink ayahuasca in a mind- and even life-altering time of high hallucinations and vomiting in the pursuit of spiritual salvation. One can venture from the city to the innumerable lodges set in the deep jungle where one can see wildlife only to be seen in the Amazon, or one can go to town and eat the very animals one would see in the jungle, f.i., fried alligator tails or wild pig legs, baked beetle caterpillars and black and yellow turtles, and one can wash it down with camu-camu, a citrus drink with 50 times more vitamin C than the equivalent amount of orange juice. Charm, "Charapa culture," history, adventure, excitement, the great outdoors, Iquitos has it all in abundance. Yes, it is hot and sticky and sometimes it can rain, with an “average relative humidity of 85%.” The river is low from June to November and rises in 'the wet season' from November to May. It's just as hot and just as sticky whatever the relative humidity might mean. It's better than snow. I came for a few days on my way elsewhere, and I don't know now if I will ever leave. What a great place to be. Iquitos, Peru. Who would have thought!?

Iquitos in the "Dry Season"

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Curse of the Naipa Card Readers

Some of the things I believe would make the average man laugh out loud. I can't think of even one example of the stupid that I take as real because I take it as real, not stupid at all, though my experience shows different people have crazed reactions to some of my beliefs. One thing I take as real and good that others go into frenzies over is that wishy-washy middle-class American Protestantism is more good than bad; and more or less, if I may be so bold, not so bad at all. This, of course, makes me a fascist. Everyone knows. 
I never read the Guardian unless it's by mistake in the pursuit of something else. I wrote, until recently corrected, to my high embarrassment, about the “Manchester Guardian” newspaper. I knew it wasn't really a newspaper, but now I know it's not a paper at all, being on the Internet, and that it is simply “The Guardian.” I am old, which makes me a fascist.

And though I know and like some of the local witch doctors in the area, this being the jungle and the Amazon and thus the Amazon jungle, I don't take them as seriously as I would a doctor trained in America at a recognized medical school. Yes, dear reader, I am a racist. I am also a fascist. Everybody knows.

So, it will come as no surprise when I fascistically read a piece in The Guardian about the murder of 14 shamans in the Amazon close to where I currently live, and in reading the story, which appears nowhere else on earth but on the Net via The Groniad, that I racistically became skeptical of the whole thing, my anti-science capitalism showing through clearly. I am, after all, a “right wing religious bigot,” which I find that hard to believe, but what do I know, me being a sexist and all.

Dan Collyns in The Guardian, 6 Oct. 2011, “Peru shaman murders investigated,” reports that 14 Shawi shamans (curanderos) have been murdered in the Amazonian rain forests of Peru around Balsapuerto, near the city of Yurimagaus, one of the closer ports from Iquitos. The killers are reputed to be the mayor of the town and his brother, Alfredo and Augusto Torres. The two men were named in a report from the public prosecutor's office. The Peruvian government sent team to remote Amazon region to look into killing of 14 shamans. No arrests have been made."

That is not the important part of the story. Shamans are as competitive in their fields as are medical doctors who poison each other at the slightest provocation and are notorious for having sex with all the nurses on TV. It's worse in the jungle than on TV because in the jungle, in small and isolated villages where most shamans practice their arts in exchange for carinos,* e.g. chickens and rice and such payment in kind, people get on each others nerves badly and sometime violently. It might look pretty on the surface, thatched roof huts and doorless dwellings where no one would think of stealing anything; happy and smiling people silently spitting into bottles as they twist sugar cane juice into bowls and chat amiably about others in the area; children running naked in the tall grass playing innocently in the warm fresh air under the clear blue skies; bananas ripening in the sun waiting to be plucked by the pleasantly hungry passer-by... but no. This is not Mexico, and it's not Somalia, but it is still planet earth, regardless of what some would have us believe. Petty quarrels are as nasty and vicious as anywhere else, and they are common in tiny villages isolated. If shamans end up dead, this is not surprising, any more than battered women and abused children and bloated dogs and sewage running everywhere in the wet season, everyone sick from the yacuruna devils that live in the water , and most running to the shaman for a cure for the dano or evil eye placed because a envious neighbour bought a cochinada, an evil hex from the brujo around the corner and causes all this misery. If the shaman knows the way through the realms hidden to most of us and uses his ayahuasca properly to consult with the entidades, the spirit entities that reveal the nature of the illness in question as the shaman is hallucinating, he might learn how to cure the problem at hand. Or not, and he will lose the respect of the villagers if not; or worse, he will succeed and be the most hated man on the equivalent of the rainforest golf course because he's making the other shamans look like fakirs. No, the important part of the story is the Christians. Don't believe me. I'm a fascist. Believe The Groniad. They know.

Roger Rumrrill, an expert on Peruvian Amazon cultures and a government adviser [and co-author of A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced with Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States], alleges that the mayor, who is an evangelical Christian, ordered the killings on hearing that the shamans planned to form an association. He said the mayor's brother was known in the area as a matabrujos or witch killer.

I find that of all the 19th century “scientists” from Mesmer to de Gobineau to Marx are either debunked, defunked, or kerpluked, and yet somehow Darwin is a sort of a god, like Obama, beyond reproof, and I, being homophobic and evil, don't see Darwin as the final word on much of anything. Experts are not so important to me. This is part of my fascist make-up. When an expert places the dano, “evangelical Christian” on someone, only an evil brujo would counter-attack with one of his own. Consider that done here. But Rumrrill knows his brujeria, and he goes full-out vicious:

"For Protestant sects, the shamans are possessed by the devil; a totally sectarian, primitive and racist concept," he said.

And he keeps pounding away:

"Until now the death of 14 curanderos who are the depositaries of Amazon knowledge wasn't worth the attention of the press," Rumrrill said. "That's an expression of how fragmented and racist this country [Peru] is.

I think we can take it that Rumrrill is a Darwinist. He's too sophisticated to believe that God created the world in six days and then took off on the seventh to caddy for Obama. But he believes, one must assume, in the healing powers of shamans. So long as the belief is in the ugliness of Modernity and the beauty of the primitive, then the belief is pure and noble. What is orthodox belief in the postmodern world of scientistic religion? Let's turn to Gregor MacLennan, Peru programme coordinator for the NGO Amazon Watch. 
"The death of these shamans represents not just a tragic loss of life, but the loss of a huge body of knowledge about rainforest plants and the crucial role shamans play in traditional medicine and spiritual guidance in indigenous communities."

This leaves me confused, in part because I am a fascist, but mostly because I can't put together the fragmented presention of pagan wishfulness in the postmodern and the scientism of the same people who go out of their ways to hate the traditional religions of Christianity and Judaism, ie. totally sectarian, primitive and racist concepts. Big Bang + Darwin + Amazonian shamanism = Enlightenment and Truth. It's not religion, of course, but the idiocy of the day mouthed by conformity hippies who have no ideas of their own. But what do I know. Well, I don't know that the whole story above is bullshit. I do know that there is no story beyond the original based on a complaint by an anonymous someone somewhere that goes nowhere and is only referenced by those who want to believe in the purity of the primitive and who want to pose as enlightened neo-pagans. The story is solely for believers, that is to say, those who believe their own conformity hippie bullshit while dumping on the beliefs of the sanctioned Other/hate figure. Or, as one commenter puts it:

I am a shaman and well I cannot kill a person using witch craft will that even work in a court these days in another country ..... who knows
Ayahuasca is used as a cure all so it should be safe with other hidden health problems complications like the woman who died in Canada had or med reactions etc.....
I was guessing at the reason for the children dieing so if it wasnt that there is another reason for the deaths they need to research, because you cannot kill someone with witch craft alone nor would a shaman do it at all they have a calling to heal that is so strong they would rather die than kill the other person .... it's a calling a healing process not the other way around period.

"Shamans in the Peruvian Amazon use psychoactive plants such as the jungle vine ayahuasca for spiritual ceremonies. As early as the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries described its use by native people in the Amazon as the work of the devil."

This is why I have mentioned it they are hinting at the brew being the devils work ....
The land is also being fought over for logging and planting and the native people dont want to give up their homes their life the water ways the fishing the food .... why try to take the lungs of the world away[?]

In all fairness, the comment above is typical. The painfully obvious point is that some people, even intellectuals, are often morons and even more often moral cowards who will spin in the wind in any direction at all, making whatever whistling noises required to remain hanging on the line with their fellows. Anything, no matter how evil, is OK with them. It argues in favor of rational religion, e.g. Christianity or Judaism or just plain shutting up and going bowling with friends. But people want to, and probably need, religion. Thus we find idiots demanding the deaths of men they do not know over a serial murder case that very likely never happened, all because it is the norm to say one is too sophisticated to believe in the ordinary religions of our culture. Not no fundie Christianity for us because we are too special. For me, sorry to say, I don't believe the pomo bullshit. Well, it's 'cause I'm a fascist. Yes, you can read it for yourself many times in the Guardian and other-- many other-- sites on the Web. It must be true.

We see then that many sophisticated postmodernists believe a story about fundamentalist Christian serial killers in the Amazon preying on shamans, which is a bullshit story in fact. That, as we know, is not important; the important part being the moral outrage against the acceptable other; the group bonding over the hated scapegoat; and the reaffirmation of solidarity with Romanicised pagans. Very few people will honestly believe in their beliefs in paganism, but it's part of the intellectual uniform one must wear in public. I'm a rebel. It means I'm a fascist.

Interestingly, at least for those rebel left brain linear type fascists, one finds the academic/hippie/druggie Marlene Dobkin de Rios on this track:

Turning to culture, her book goes on to discuss how these hypersuggestible states were utilised by indigenous groups in initiations, socialising young people into their proper roles as emerging adults, and thereby contributing to the long-term survival of a group. Such transitional initiation rituals were usually managed by elders, within a socially sanctioned and often revered framework.

If only they knew, and if this were true, which seems possible, the above should set off alarms in the conspiracy theory chambers of young drug abusers and enlightenment types of all ages, but particularly those young enough to be suseptible to the charge. Most will not know and will not consider the implications of Dobkin's thesis. I wonder....
Being a fascist hardly slows me down in my pursuit of things to learn about the world, most of which is so painfully stupid I often wish I had stayed in bed—even if I had to stay in bed alone.One thing I got out of bed for was a trip to see Maestro Curandero Naturista y Advino sr. Ronel G.R.  We can skip the 20 things he can do as listed on his business card, that being the piece of photocopied paper with a smudgy graphic of a pentagram inside a circle with balls around it and other spooky magical stuff, and get right to the meat of the matter: he tells fortunes. He is so good at this divination business that he not only can tell the future, he can also tell the present! I'm a believer. Anyone who can charge $8.00 for that and actually get it is someone I want to hear from. He knows something I don't know, even if all it is is how to get money out of people for telling them the present.But there is more, far more, to it than that. The Maestro is a follower of none other than Shirky Gama. 

The things one learns.
In 1968 Claudio Cedeno Araujo, also referred to as Shirky Gama, founded the Sacred Mystical Order of Septrionism. Dobkins de Rios describes Septrionism as "a contemporary mystical approach to self-knowledge and self-development, with emphasis on change. Personal knowledge of the spiritual world is primary. The goal is to control our instincts and passions. It sees as its role to provide a new view of the world and to delineate universal laws of causality. The doctrine questions the mission of human beings in society and their relationship to eternal forces. The primary focus of the doctrine is helping humankind to achieve spiritual peace and to overcome afflictions and tribulations."

The Maestro is not the first of most well-known of the Belen Market Naipe Card readers, she being instead Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Ph.D. "who grew up in a Russian Jewish household in New York and studied anthropology in a field that could be labelled 'psychedelic anthropology' – the cross-cultural study of consciousness-modifying drugs and the non-ordinary states they facilitate."

One might well be skeptical of many things in this world, but the evil eye? That and other problems are better addressed by a maestro who knows the full story, and who can find it from a consultation with the magic of the cards. Dobkin de Rios is an American expert worth consulting before going straight to the man himself, Maestro Ronal.

Marlene Dobkin de Rios “The History and Structure of the Naipes”

The naipes are used often by folk healers who cure with herbs or psychedelic plants in a society in which witchcraft beliefs exist and people often expect that illness is caused by the evil will of others.

The cards become a psychological adjunct to a healer's therapy, a sort of intake procedure to learn more about a client so that the healer can appear to be omnipotent and replete with knowledge and power. We
cannot talk about the naipes as a divination technique without understanding the context in which these cards are used, particularly among the urban poor of Belen, who live in abject poverty in their shantytown. Healers are able to manipulate situations of misfortune that dog the steps of the urban poor as the healers diagnose illness and misfortune, appearing all-powerful and worthy of their fees.

Napoleon's spiritual adviser, Madame LeNormand, was born in a small village in France in 1773 and arrived in Paris when she was twenty-one years old. She opened a salon and read the fortunes of a number of highly placed ­individuals who were politically active in the French Revolution, including Robespierre. Apparently, Josephine de Beauharnais, later married to Napoleon Bonaparte, was one of her clients, and Madame Marie was reputed to have regularly read the naipes for Napoleon.

The naipes help healers to tap in to the causality of illness while, at the same time, allowing them to present themselves as all-powerful. This cannot help but dispel fear, anxiety, and self-doubts in their patients and provide a high expectation of cure. This personal influence of healers increases their manipulation of the patients' anxieties and provides a path toward eventual cure.

Witchcraft Beliefs and Illness

The residents of Belen recognize and openly discuss illness they believe to be caused by the malice of others. This becomes important in understanding the motivation of Beleños to seek out their fortune and often to discover who has caused them to be bewitched. Informants speak of malice everywhere-for instance, the evil will of neighbors and relatives who frequently seek out a witch to cause harm.

Healers who use the hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca receive visits from patients who not only want to be healed from an illness but also may want to bewitch someone in particular for purposes of revenge. Some curanderos reject the proposition to do evil, but others specialize in the use of these hallucinogens for that purpose -- the brujo (witch) is socially shunned and secretive. Many ayahuasca healers themselves read the naipes at an initial interview of a client who is readying to take the hallucinogenic purge. This is done in order to get an idea of the stress facing the client.

Regarding witches, this class of individuals was known to harm others. Unlike African societies, in which witchcraft was suspected but never proved, in the Amazon, these witches are ready to take hard cash in advance to harm a client's enemy. They keep a little book in which they write down the details of the psychic "hit." Listed below are the main illnesses suffered by the Beleños, which often propelled them to seek help, first by a curioso, who reads the naipes, and subsequently by an ayahuasca healer to reverse the magical spell and return it to the perpetrator.

Daño This is an illness that is believed to be due to a witchcraft hex. Daño has various symptoms and chronic development. It can be caused by motives of vengeance or envy. In the Amazon, it is believed that daño is caused by a powerful medicine thrown on the threshold of a house in the early hours of the dawn. It can cause a period of bad luck, called saladera. Witches use ayahuasca, the plant hallucinogen, to cause this illness. The ayahuasquero claims to fly through the air and cause incurable illnesses and horrible misfortunes to his client's enemies. Some believe that witches control a series of spirits, whom they call upon to cause the evil. Still others believe that a thorn can be sent through the air, like a lance, toward an enemy. The witch is paid in advance on behalf of the vengeful client.

Mal de Ojo This syndrome is found throughout the Peruvian Amazon and all of Latin America, and is known in English as the evil eye. It includes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, weight loss, insomnia, and depression. It is motivated by envy and afflicts children and adults whose personal beauty has caused them to be victims of the evil eye. Beleños believe that their neighbors or relatives envy whatever good fortune they may have. Anything can attract envy -- a light-skinned complexion, appearance of good health, indications that a person is eating well, and so forth. A person can provoke the malice of others if he has an amorous spouse or if his house is free from rancor. The naipes reading functions as a diagnostic tool as much for the client as for the ayahuasquero.

Historical Data on the Naipes Printed playing cards have been traced by Alfred Kroeber, one of the important founders of anthropology, to tenth-century China, and they appear four centuries later, almost simultaneously, in several European countries such as Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. Kroeber suggested that either the Mongols or the Muslims might have transmitted such cards from China to Christian nations, despite the fact that Islam forbids all gambling. Another theory, mentioned already, is that Hindustani-speaking Gypsies, according to Papus and Levi, brought the cards from India to Europe. A game of French playing cards called tarot, used in divination and popular during the Middle Ages, was believed to have resulted from an adaptation of a card game called naibi (also referred to as nayb and known in Italy in the fourteenth century), to which was added a series of point cards. There are many theories about the origin of the naipes, some linking the cards to the minor arcana of the tarot or the esoteric Jewish kabbalah traditions. In the naipes deck, there are three picture cards in each of four suites: the King, the Caballo (Horse), and the Sota (Page). The Pages are used to represent women, and the Caballo and King represent men with different traits and characteristics. The Jack in Western card decks is replaced by the Sota (Page). The twenty-two major tarot cards are said to be related to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

If we turn to the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, the term naipes is etymologically derived from the Arab word naib, "he who represents," or laib, "he who plays." Mention of the cards occurs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and may have been introduced into Europe by the Crusaders. The game of naipes was said to symbolize the feudal structure of society. By 1377, the naipes were in wide use. The Gypsies were the first to use the cards for divination. If playing cards used in divination were known in fourteenth-century Spain, it would not be at all difficult, despite the lack of historical documentation, to trace the movement of such divinatory aids to Spanish America. Certainly, the Conquest period was a time in which men seeking adventure and wealth in unknown lands might be expected to take gaming cards along with them. A deck of forty or forty-eight cards, small and easily portable, without doubt found its way into the Hispanic world at the time of the sixteenth-century Conquest.

What is clear is that the naipes are not simple amusement for the clients but rather are used by them and healers as a diagnostic technique, especially when most clients believe that illness is caused by evil willing or witchcraft machinations on the part of "others." The healers manipulate a category that I call misfortune cards to plumb the depths of interpersonal conflicts, material loss, and sickness or death of loved ones to make their diagnosis.

But the Maestro is the man at hand, and so it is that I hiked over to Belen Market to Pasaje Pauquito to get my cards read. I'm not at all impressed with conformity hippie bullshit in the Groniad, and I couldn't care less about bashing Christianity just because it's hip to be Gnostic. I'm not a believer in pomo orthodoxy. But Naipe cards, well that's a whole nother story!

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book: