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.

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:

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