Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca. (Part 13.3)

Interviews with Shamans, Part Five.


Interview with Ron Wheelock, Part Three.

Wheelock has four tattoos on his arms ….

The plan was to see Ron Wheelock for a wrap-up session, to ask him about shamanism in general, to get an American, a "gringo" perspective of it all, and a man's opinion. That went according to plan till I got to the village where Ron lives, and then the plan went selva, going its own way and leaving me and my companion for the day, Sophie, to make our way as best we could in the rain, the mud, and through thickets of jungle growth one can't hardly see through, let alone walk through. I'd been there before, in the village of sameness and the streets without names. A snap. 'Where is this place again?” And then, like an episode of The Twilight Zone, no one we talked to had ever heard of Wheelock, didn't know no gringos in the village, and couldn't recall ever having seen one. I decided to call him and ask for directions.

On one sun baked and water beaten grey storefront, an open space where on could see a few shelves with tins and packaged plastic wrapped goodies of whatever, the sign with the telephone nailed up and giving me hope of contacting the man we had come to see and were late to meet, the man whom the locals swore they had never heard of and had never seen, the sparkling sign giving up hope of talking from a distance, the telephone! it was decorative. There was no phone there, and had probably never been a phone. It was a nice looking sign and added some class to an otherwise broken down and rotting old shack with a protruding awning of tin and old boards thrown up to keep the wind from blowing everything away and into the grass and the mud. So we walked, looking for stretches of concrete sidewalk that were passable, not the crumbling lengths not worth climbing up that had huge gaps from place to place, grass growing and nails lurking unseen in the ground. We wove our way back and forth over muddy ridges and across wide puddles and through slush we couldn't avoid, stopping occasionally to ask about the gringo shaman, ever unknown, and becoming almost an obsession to find if only to find that the world of common reality existed in the village as well and in my own mind. I knew he was there-- somewhere-- but there were no signs of him. Lost. Lost in a sudden tropical downpour in the Amazon rain forest. We held hands and went ever farther down, down the sloping slick mud track of the village main street with the puddles and the pools of slime of sticky and sometimes creamy wet clay goo that sucked the flip-flops off my feet with every second step, the intermittent steps being slow and careful treads that had me slipping and sliding sideways down into the slop of the road ankle deep in oozing slurp as I held onto Sophie's hand and promised to let her go if I were to fall all the way, giving her the possible impression I'd be some kind of gentleman and wouldn't take her down with me into the mire. Then the actual phone hanging on a real wall just barely out of the rain, and inside the rotting wood shack with the huge flat screen TV blasting out cartoons I could never comprehend, the jumble of images coming at us like jihadis at Omdurman in waves of suicidal exaltation, the tv hanging over the chickens pecking the floor in the dirt by the kids and the sleeping dog, mother and grandmother and flies, we made the call to Wheelock for help. But there was no connection. The number failed. We slumped onto plastic chairs out of the rain, more or less, and watched as the floods poured off the roof in curtains and the rivulets flooding the mud track washed up against the row of buildings where we sheltered, and I said to Sophie, picking up from the day before about learning of Dutch ladies way back when who would wash the sidewalks ever morning because they were so fastidious, that the Amazonians too wash their sidewalks, right off the face of the earth, leaving deep gouges twixt the house and the street, small flooded ravines where soda bottles whip past in torrents of light brown gush and snot thick gobs of the neighbourhood landscape. I stuck out one foot under the water pelting down from the tin roof, hoping to see my sun-browned skin emerge again, but that didn't happen, the mud sticking tight to my legs to the knees. But it was warm water, and I felt good even though the trip otherwise was one of loss and worry. Perdido. I was lost and no one could tell me where to find my hoped-for destination.

My companion for the day, Sophie, is a tall and slender woman of some age older than a girl; and I see her in my mind's eye even when she walks in the mud beside me on a blowing warm and azure blue rainy day in a wreck of a grey and caramel village yellow green in the Amazon, the beautiful dancer on the floor, moving light and graceful as a flickering candle flame, her smile lighting my terrible murderous moods, her thin fingers moving up and down like a Balinese enchantrass as she sways and hops and dances to reggae music, her braided, tangled, matted locks bouncing, and her blue eyes smiling, she grinning and girlish forever, perhaps, and childless and gay in a life of pleasure. I don't have a gun, but I feel all is well with as I hold Sophie's hand while we pick our way through the slime to nowhere in the hope of finding the gringo shaman they say does not exist here.

Eighteen year old American Kyle Nolan died in the jungle at Puerto Maldonado, Peru at an ayahuasca lodge in August 2012. His corpse wasn't found for two weeks after it was dragged off into the bushes and buried. The shaman involved and two of his assistants were arrested. Unfortunately, that doesn't make much difference. The lad is still dead. Experts in the field tend to agree that he will remain in that condition permanently. The shaman supervising Nolan's ayahuasca drinking at the “lodge” has other claims to make, far more interesting if true, than to suggest that death is eternal. Otherwise, all that remains is a dead teenager.

Clark Mason, The Press Democrat. Santa Rosa, CA. 3 November 2012.
Maestro Mancoluto claimed to be descended from Martians by way of Atlantis and Lemuria. And he further claimed to be able to monitor from his scaffold tower the ayahuasca participants in their tents, or as they wandered in the jungle, using extra sensory perception and telepathy.
[Nolan's father] quoted a member of Toronto Ayahuasca Facebook Community familiar with the shaman:

After sending all of the ceremony participants into the jungle, he climbed into his room and would watch Peruvian soap operas while sitting on a bank of batteries.”

If I had known my son would wander into the jungle alone and the shaman said he used ESP to control jaguars and scorpions, I would never have let my son go there,” Nolan said.

Initially, the shaman told police that Nolan had left the center and he didn’t know where he had gone, according to Peruvian news accounts.

But he later said the teenager died during the ritual and he buried the body to avoid adverse publicity for the center.

Death is for a long time, I think. It could well be eternal. I would never know.

The Flames
Sophie soothes me with her good nature and cheer. We stop to get out of the rain, a shack where Sophie buys little packets of gum to give out to the children standing nearby, they staring at the tall blond woman so strange in a land of short dark haired people, Sophie looking striking no matter where among whomever. As she hands out a pack to a child the child smiles in delight, amazed at the gift, the eyes widening and smiles of happiness spreading as the shy child holds her gum, the ones beside standing silent. Then Sophie gives out another pack, and the child receiving it is filled with wonder that she too is granted such a gift, as if there is doubt that this would happen, that there would be some left out and that there will be nothing for them. But one by one, each gets a gum, and one by one each in turn is utterly surprised that this good gift has come, no expectation at all, even as Sophie hands out one packet after another and knows, as I know, as we know, that each child will get his own. They don't know. We are lost.

[Ron Wheelock] was a pot grower in the States before he picked up a copy of Shaman's Drum, then going on one of the tours it advertised, and later apprenticing himself with two healers, Don Augustin Rivas Vasquez and Don Jose Coral Mori. He's been living just outside of Iquitos, Peru since 2000.
Photo credit.

Ron did seven months in a state prison in Arkansas, a 22 thousand acre plantation, reminiscent of the slave era.

I don't have a gun, and if I did I probably wouldn't shoot anyone anyway, there being no one who threatens me, there being no castle or kingdom I care to take by force. I have enough, and Sophie's good nature calms me even in my moodiness in the mud. She has enough within herself. We walk and slip in the rain. We are lost in the mud.

    'Tis time! 'tis time!
    Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble*

Sophie is tall and objectively beautiful, and no matter how she might scrunch up her face to make a theatrical emotional point she remains beautiful. I hunch, frowning, staring with deep concentration at the mud, standing in the middle of the track as I ponder our lost condition; and as I frown those who see me silently close their doors and blow out the candles and draw blankets over the windows while Sophie hails a mototaxi and negotiates our passage with a young man much taken with her. He attempts to wipe dry her half of the bench by using his shirt sleeve. He starts the motor and off we go as I begin to climb in beside her. Maybe the impassible ponds in the bottom sections of the track are truly impassible, the track disappearing at our end and emerging way over there at the slope, or maybe the boy wants to keep glancing as long as he can in rearview mirror at Sophie; so we jolt as he misses, but doesn't at all miss, the giant craters in our path, though one suspects that they being three abreast it might not matter which we deep holes we crash and splash though at full speed so as not to sink and be stranded, but we take the longest possible route to where we hope to find the path in the jungle that will lead to our meeting with the Gringo Shaman. Though I feel like a toad next to Sophie she is somehow more aquatic than I, and she seems to glide across the mire, the mud building up between the plastic sole of my shoes and the shrivelled sole of my foot, the effect making for awkward discomfort for me and intensifying my hobble. I am, however, graceful in the mind as I sort through my questions lined up for Wheelock, all about shamanism and the horror of his war against the plant daemons of evil that haunt the hurt of Modernity to the point they must venture, as we have ventured, into the Amazon jungle in search of the man who heals with ayahuasca.

I see the green wood roof of the house through a gap in the leaves of the trees in the breeze blowing and I know we have come home, though not to our home, nor Sophie's home now sold so she can continue to wander indefinitely forever, and me going to see the man to talk. We are not lost. I even feel secure now that the path is so narrow that the razor grass is close enough to reach out for if I should slip in the slime and need to grasp it to keep from falling. I stride almost confidently toward the Wheelock house shrouded in cloud and thin wisps of scentless smoke, the air thicker with the trumpet calls of a dozen caged killer chickens waiting like ignorant gladiators for death at the Coleseo del Gallinos arena five days coming. We pass around the chained pit bulls and I knock on Wheelock's balsa wood framed screen door. He is not home. I look in and call to him. There is no answer. We are only 90 minutes late.

From around the side of the house comes a short and thick fellow who brings to mind the dull-minded thug who kills for the counterfeiter in the movie To Live and Die in L.A., the man who shoots a snooping retired policeman, dumps the body in the trash bin, and spits a gob of chewing tobacco on the corpse before dropping the lid on the man's eternity. I look for our man's shotgun as I feel sick at the lack of a pistol at my side. He smiles and beckons up to the side of the house where we see down back Wheelock at the oven with blackened half-drums steaming in the blaze atop the grate of hardwood burning. “Hi, Ron, sorry I'm late. I brought a companion, Sophie.” I can hardly see, my glasses broken recently, and the steam from six half size barrels boiling misty under the palm frond malocca roof in the shade making all things dark for me and hazy. I walk on and shake Wheelock's hand, seeing his sallow face smudged with soot and ash from the cooking fire that burns so hot we all step back to exchange our further greetings. Tis time, tis time. I will speak again with Wheelock and try to find out the depths of the shaman's art of ayauasca.

 For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
 Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble*

Our hellos said, I beg off to tour the outside grounds with Juan, assistant, and, leaving Sophie to charm our host, I see, turning the corner of the house, the wood chipper that sends so many into frenzies as they dream of the sacred vine ground to mulch between two parallel spiked steel cylinders that grab and grind and spew out mangled bits of shredded Mystery. Any man at home would have such a machine were he living on a woody lot. But for those who sentimentalise, it is a sin to treat ayahuasca in such a Walmart way, ayahuasca, She being so sacred and all. Ground.
Under a thick black plastic sheet I see cords and cords of split wood and I ask if this is ayahuasca cut. No, it's fire wood. 'Ah,' I say, 'How interesting.'

Hardwood burning so hot there is no smoke and little ash
I have seen the wild vine, and I have seen strong young men return from the brew, lads laid low for weeks in bed with bronchitis, leading me to my usual prayer, “Pater noster, post hoc ergo propter hoc.” I wanted to see for myself the vines, being a cautious and careful man. And there they were, growing like vines, thin vines growing.

Ayahuasa vines

I demanded ever more. I demanded chunks; and chunks I saw. Sacred chunks to some.

Wheelock employee holding ayahuasca chunks
More. More. I wanted to see it all so I could know the Mystery. I saw more and chickens.

Ayahuasca growing wild as fighting cocks strut in the background unaware of  upcoming challenges

Between a small shock of wild ayahuasca and chained pit bulls silently eyeing my food stuff stood the chicken coop, bright red roosters crowing and pacing, as oblivious to fate as vines. And there the chickens lose me, they being incapable of bravery, not able to know the terror of violence they must overcome to fight and die like men. Uh, yes, they are chickens. They know no Latin.

Wheelock doesn't use chakruna

It is the dualist who comes to Wheelock for the experience of ayahuasca. He comes with expectations. He comes with anticipation, perhaps some nervousness, even a bit of fear. He comes with the certainty that he will leave as a better man, healed and whole and free from inner torments, disease of body and mind then long gone. His challenge is to drink and vomit and see another reality better than this we share, a world of his own expectations fulfilled. He comes to conquer and to heal. He is no chicken. Audentes fortuna iuvat. “Is this chakruna?” I ask my guide beside me, and he says no, it is..., I can't retain the term, something else, but not chakruna. It is the content of the ayahuasca capsule. It is what they come for and call ayahuasca. But the name of the leaf that flies intrepid voyageurs shitting across the astral planes, I cannot recall it.

Morituri te salutant.... Well, whatever, buddy. “Kikiriki,” the cocks crow loudly.

I am at Wheelock's house to see into the mysteries, to learn a little more, to find out about stuff. But really, my mind is elsewhere than on the intricacies of ayahuasca and imbibers in the jungle. There is a war, so they say, between demons in the outer gloom of other planes, spirits who harm if properly summoned and controlled by masters of arcane cunning. “Why should I have this psychic pain?” they ask at the bank booth as they examine their accounts and ponder where to vacation this season, thinking of ayahuasca and the Amazon at a lodge of luxury and ease and the curative powers of jungle vines. Perhaps those paying $500.00 per week want more than a dormitory in the jungle and a bland diet of mush and gruel for their money while they puke and hallucinate as a man sings in Shipibo they can't begin to understand. They might leave their desks at corporate headquarters to spend a week or two with a shaman who tells them of devils in the trees and how such things come bidden by the bad to harm them, how he, the shaman can give them medicine to heal their hurts and make them happy with themselves as he battles their demons on their behalves, they sitting in to feel the glory of their inner peace arising from visions of their perfection revealed. There is a war, and the spirits fight it out for lost souls, the shaman setting the scene, attending the wounded so they might make a victory of defeat. Five hundred a week for rough bunks, it's not for everyone in the jungle. It's possible too that they don't really believe in the spirit world of war. Maybe they want a bit of fun instead. I'm there for a look at the war. Not the war Wheelock fights, but that other one we all fight now, however poorly. I'm there to see The Mystery. “Ah, what's this?” I ask my guide, knowing I see white flowers growing on a green and reedy bush. “Muy malo, senor,” he says, passing on and leaving me to steal three leaves unseen. I have seen The Mystery and I have held it in my hand.

Boiling down the ayahuasca

I return to the side of the house where Wheelock has cut down 50 gallon drums to half and in which he boils shredded ayahuasca, adding five gallon white plastic bucketfuls of sick green water from the still creek hidden in the bush back of the house till the drums boil down to contain little more than a few gallons of coffee black and motor oily liquid that he drains and strains as he strains to pull the pots from the blazing grate and across the dust to the place he puts them upended for dripping through the cloth covered pots into other pots to boil again. I stand watching as the heat threatens to melt the camera in my pants pocket, that seems hot enough to singe the hair off my bare legs. The heat is unbearable as I stand six feet away trying to chat with Wheelock as he works pulling off a pot and wrestling it to the ground to go round again with draining and straining and dumping anew the brew. I give up and sit down on a stump to wait. If I had gloves I'd pitch in to help, but then Wheelock would have to know he could trust my strength, lest I dropped my end and his ayahuasca would go into the ground and be wasted with his labour and money and time. I sit and survey. Wheelock, shirtless and dirty, sweats. He smears soot and sweat and dirt all over his nose and cheek and sits.

Wheelock Strains Ayahuasca

There's too little smoke, too little ash, so I have to ask. “It's hard wood,” Wheelock says, “and if anyone wants to save the trees, they can't. I thought about using gas for the cooking, but I didn't do it.” I couldn't seem to follow the explanations that followed, though they must have made some sense. “Hickory is hard wood. But if you try heating your house with it you'll freeze your ass off. No heat from it. Splitting it means you use wedge after wedge and it still won't split.” Wheelock lived for years in the Ozarks, and I come from “the South of the North.” We know stuff about trees. Wheelock, though, is a master of growing, having been in the marijuana business for close to 20 years before he was sent to prison for it. And now, foregoing that, he is a master of ayahuasca.

Filtering the potion

Wheelock uses 150 kilograms of ayahuasca vines per brewing, close to 350 pounds. He puts in 20 to 25 leaves of some sort, and he adds ingredients I didn't inquire about. His ayahuasca is cielo, sky, though he has used other kinds, naming a dozen varieties, claiming each has a special effect, even if blended the ayahuasca experience changing according to the influence of varieties coming to the fore. It makes a difference, he says, when the harvest comes, just before sunrise of a full moon being better, though he buys in bulk from the locals who come with it unbidden to the point he had to stop them. Surplus goes missing, so it seems.

Wheelock shuffled barrel off the fire and onto the ground, pulling them across the dusty earth to a slab to dump the contents through a seive and into a pot he then drained into another, back and forth till there was nothing to do but watch the fire. Ayahuasca was in the making, but there was little more to say about that. We retired to the inside of the house to discuss shamanism. Inside Wheelock's home I saw the man as he is and learned about ayahuasca in a new way, and about shamans, too. And about chickens fighting to the death.

The heat is unbearable

 For a charm of powerful trouble,
    Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
 Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble*

For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Double, double toil and trouble;
    Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
    Then the charm is firm and good*

Next, the conclusion of Interviews with Shamans.

*The Weird quotations are from William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

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