Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca. (Part 13.4)

Interviews with Shamans, Part Six.

Interview with Ron Wheelock, Part Four.

Wheelock, shirtless and barefoot, led the way into the house through the back door, through the kitchen, and into the cavernous living room, almost bare of signs of personality, no great signs of himself as a man dominating the space, no photos of family or events, no posters of rock stars or movie stars, no glowering Che decals stuck on the inside corners of mirrors, and in fact, no mirrors at all in the place. Unlike so many successful self-made men, Wheelock is diffident, not so thrilled with his own success in life that he must pause frequently to gaze in wonder at the reflection of the man he is. On the mantel above the giant flat screen TV playing music befitting a man of his age, i.e. something pleasant and bland, is an absolutely massive alligator skull he cannot discuss the pedigree of, and on the floor are two upright electric guitars, either unmoved since my last visit, or, because everything is spotless and dustless, meticulously replaced after wiping and cleaning and polishing. Wheelock, in contrast, is coated in soot, a black swath across his face that the sweat magnifies as he turns his head to speak, the light catching and accenting his unshaven face and large mustache. Wheelock is short by today's standards of young men well over six feet tall. He's not skinny, which is surprising given his constant use of ayahuasca, a weight shedder of maximum power, a diet aid that must be heaven to anorexics and bulimics across the wasteland of Modernity today. He works hard enough to stay trim at 57 years old, though he is a middle aged man, not a young Adonis. He pads across the sparkling tile floors and sits comfortably in a leatherette sofa, joined by a medium sized green parrot that perches on the towel over the sofa, that takes half an apple in its claws, that bites hard and sprays apple bits around, Wheelock sitting back and playing absently with a new pit bull puppy he has yet to name, wanting to wait till a name is revealed, till the dog shows some signs of personality, I would venture. The puppy is rambunctious, and Wheelock pets it and pushes it away when the dog becomes over-excited, stopping a couple of times to tap the dog on the nose when it becomes too aggressive. A large woman, Wheelock's longtime love interest, joins him on the sofa, curls up, and falls asleep as our conversation continues solely in English, of which she understands not a word. At some point I realise she is no longer there, and she doesn't return for the duration. She doesn't live with Wheelock, only coming and going as things go. Wheelock says he built the house for her, but she hasn't yet committed to living in it. Wheelock lives alone, aside from the dogs, the parrot, the chickens, and the ayahuasca. There is a steady flow of visitors, and one has come from England to take ayahuasca with the Gringo Shaman. The young man is covered with tattoos, many of them elaborate and polychrome and expensive, some even attractive for tattoos, one being a romanticised portrait of a Turkish dancing girl, a few others Celtic geometric, and some so elaborate I can't find the right visual distance to make them out. He sits and listens as we talk, being taken with the mystique of the master in the jungle. He asks if I will take his picture with a machine I have never seen the likes of, something so fancy I have to ask him how to make it work. He and Wheelock stand side by side, the lad smiling and proud to be in this epic show of student and master, in the master's home, a showcase of the lad's coolness when he returns to his own place and is among his envious friends. Wheelock is accustomed to this, and he poses with complete unconcern, smiling but seemingly unaware of the moment beyond its significance as one of millions in a day. He's made the lad's day for years to come, and maybe for all of the lad's life. Wheelock is standing in his own living room with a visitor. He sits back in his black leatherette sofa and we talk again, about what it is to be a shaman. Perhaps some will expect Wheelock to transform hereforth into a dynamo of a Las Vegas showroom impresario, a towering Tony Robbins, a Titan of Wealth and Healing and “Feel the Power!” energy that will permeate the room and leave us all gasping at our previously unfelt greatness as we later leave the auditorium in a herd, minds awhirl, stumbling and amazed by the performance that turns us however momentarily into little gods of great feeling and joy at our own tremendousness. But no.

Wheelock is, in spite of his shy demeanour, the most famous, the most Tony Robbins ayahuascaro-proper of our time, though others, not shamans themselves, are probably better known in the ayahuasca business, men who appear at sterilised scientific conferences, and mystic middle class hippie symposia, and the high life cocktail party circuit of New Age dilettantes of Modernity's wealthy and bored inner core. Wheelock is a middle aged guy in a lovley big wooden house at the edge of a rotting Third World dump of a poverty-stricken village in the Amazon jungle. People go to see him. One drops in without need of an appointment if one doesn't care about missing him and about the lost time and the dirt one accumulates on the walk through the muck to get to his place. Being 90 minutes late? No problem. It's the Amazon jungle, not Beverly Hills. He's Ron Wheelock, not one of the McKennas. He's a guy at home. So there we sat and chatted about him being a shaman.

Ones expectations about this dope-dealing ex-con who packs a gun and has killer chickens and pit bulls running around his jungle compound while he ships high-powered drugs world-wide to happy customers and makes a name for himself as the best ayahuascaro in the area due to the potency of his brew is a man who bears a striking resemblance to my grandfather. The likeness for me is disconcerting. They could well be twins. Yes, Wheelock and I could be brothers, not only in appearance. But there are differences, and they are extreme.

He says, and others look in bewilderment, “I'm not ['ain't,' he said,] a full-time shaman.”

"Shaman." Wheelock is the only other man I have yet to meet outside home who accents the first syllable of the word, careful enough to use a short vowel, but speaking naturally otherwise. I've had this conversation earlier in the mud with Sophie who asked why I don't accent the latter syllable like every other person one meets who bothers to use the term at all. She's not familiar with the word pedantic, so I explain that the word is Russian/Mongolian, and to emphasis the last syllable is to avoid the sound of “shame” from it. Me, I don't care. Wheelock is a bit more careful, but not pretentious. “Shamm'n.” I couldn't say it's better for others.

“I'm only a shaman when I'm working.”

This was followed by silence from the audience. The question unasked is how one can be an occasional shaman when it is the vegetable gods who call one from the multitude to bless them with the illimitable spirit of the Arcane. One must be special, no?

Wheelock is an American dope dealer from rural southern Kansas. He makes a good living selling ayahuasca to drug tourists and others abroad. He has a small business and employs a few people and provides a welcome service. He sells snake oil. It's what he does, not who he is. Diabetics beware: he loads his foul-tasting ayahuasca with litre after litre of cane sugar. He makes his ayahuasca so potent that his is the number one best in the business. “As a shaman when I'm working I'm an empty vessel. 'A hollow bone,' as the Shipibo say. A clear glass.”

People pay roughly $65.00 for a glass of ayahuasca, a mat to lie down on, a plastic bucket to puke ones guts into, and access to a toilet. Often enough even Wheelock's cielo brand ayahuasca doesn't give the geometric patterns, the creepy-crawly hallucinations, and the grand inner-Tony Robbins-that-one-truly-is cosmic exultation of self that most long for and pay for. Many's the time folks just get sick. Even with Wheelock's super-cielo ayahuasca life is not special beyond what one is. Those who spend so much and come away without the expected transformation often confess to me that they feel there is something wrong with them. Their chakras are blocked. They are too closed to life itself and are now in ever deeper need of healing. Far away in a muddy village where the streets are all the same and everyone else is poor. Where the streets have no name and children do not expect anything. Sophie and I were lost, but then we found Wheelock's house and chatted while he boiled shredded vines in tubs in the scorching heat of flaming hardwood trees. Being a shaman? This is what Wheelock told us.

Years ago Wheelock married a local woman and she and he had a child, though Wheelock had had a vasectomy in his early 20s. She left. The woman and her family, he says, were bad, and even evil, resorting to witchcraft at times to destroy him in his attempts to regain custody of his son when the wife deserted and later returned and took the boy away. Lawyers repeatedly cheated Wheelock, who didn't understand the court system. Of his own accord he demanded a paternity test, which conclusively showed the child was not his own, and Wheelock then said the child would bear the Wheelock name because it is so. Literal fideism. When once we had dinner together, I met the boy and he hugged me and laughed and was good. I had brought Sophie for hours on a trip that ended us lost in the mud so we could meet this shaman and find out about the Mystik. This is what Wheelock told us.

That his wife had poisoned his son's mind against Wheelock to the point Wheelock was and remains still convinced the wife and her family used witchcraft, not a bad supposition here in the Amazon. But Wheelock continued his attempt to regain custody of the boy from the mother and her family whose resistance was beyond reason, as it were. "My life was like the movie The Exorcist," he said. On the face of it, the mother had kidnapped the son, and Wheelock should have retained custody of the boy. Wheelock said he was so angry and frustrated that he had visions of killing the woman and all of her family, other than, of course, the boy; but then what of the boy himself? The wife and mother-in-law are evil, Wheelock told us.

Wheelock has another child many years ago, and he is a grandfather, the story private now and tragic. There is nothing about that story that Wheelock can do. That is a story Wheelock told me.

Long, long before, the fat lady on the couch has disappeared. That is the Wheelock story I saw with mine own eyes.

Wheelock, sitting alone on his black leatherette sofa, the parrot gone to eat its apple elsewhere and the dog out of sight peeing on the sparkling tile floor behind us, told us this, that: He raises and trains and puts his chickens in the arena to fight and die.

Thus, that: He gains respect.

Four people sat in Wheelock's living room and Wheelock told us. He told us this:

That he is a Christian, and he asks God for permission to take ayahuasca.

That he is a shaman and he asks the plants for permission to take ayahuasca.

Wheelock did not tell; and now I know.

Sophie noted that it was coming dark, and thus we said our goodbyes and Sophie and I walked back to the road. I sat beside Sophie inside the wooden bus after we had walked to the pond sized mud hole where the buses assemble for the long ride back to the city. I looked closely at Sophie's tangled blond hair in mats and knots and frayed tiny braids, and I thought of her life of travel and adventure and her grey hair hidden in the yellow, the fine lines around her lovely sky blue eyes, the small white marks on her golden tanned skin. Sometimes I looked out the window, and eventually I looked out the window in alarm due to the realisation that we were utterly lost in a city half a million strong and I knew not wherein we were. The bus driver accelerated pointlessly on crowded and narrow streets, honking at mototaxis, crashing through deep pot holes till we we all flung around like rag dolls, and we were lost. I considered killing this evil driver, but then, what of Sophie? How would she get home again?

Later by some days I asked Sophie something unrelated to all of this, and she laughed. She told me this: “We have no home to go to.”

That, in short, is what I learned about shamanism from Ron Wheelock: That a man is a man and has a home wherein he lives alone and is alone. That we are lost and there is no home to return to. That one lives and loves and is left alone at home with chickens who kill each other and die so that when the day is done and others have had their day and the bills are paid, one is an empty vessel and the dog pisses on the tiles out of sight because though one wants to kill evil people one encounters, what then does one do with the child left behind alone. We are alone. We will die like chickens, though some might die like roosters, for all it ever matters. Our driver is insane and dangerous and we are lost, and there is nowhere to go. This is what I know now about shamans.

Now I know all I care to know about shamans and ayahuasca. All that remains is that I know it ayahuasca.

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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