I see and hear in my travels into the world of ayahuasca that most locals in the city don't take ayahuasca. My buddy Juan took it once, he said, and it tasted bad. He didn't get high, didn't see God, didn't think of himself as God. It made him sick and he didn't like it. Juan is about as low on the status ladder as one is going to get except perhaps for Juan Carlos, another buddy of mine. He said, about ayahuasca. I asked a number of locals of all classes and levels of education. I asked at Belen Market, and there I found it is thought of and used as a purgative, not a vision-quest tool. It's one of many herbal remedies not significantly different from rose water or other tonics meant to cure a range of problems, most psychosomatic. A physiotherapist said “Andeans and coastal people seldom if ever use ayahuasca” because it's for selva people rather than montana people or Limaneros. As well, he said, he was under the impression that one must be invited to use ayahuasca with locals in Iquitos, and that no one had ever asked him. If they had he would be nervous about saying yes because shamans have a bad reputation as thieves and rapists, which is certainly true of some in Iquitos, many tales of bad character surfacing with little prompting. Lima had some shamans from the jungle but they were apparently so bad that now all are shunned generally. Ayahuasca, then, is seen by most as a superstition that those striving for a live in the Modern world forgo.
What I see and hear is that Modernists come to Iquitos to take ayahuasca to “heal” themselves of traumatic experiences as a rule, and secondly to heal their bodies. The only people in the city who do that, other than Modernists with a lot of money to spare, are those few who come from the jungle, and they do it to facilitate medical treatments. They puke on purpose, not to see themselves as Gods at one with the universe. That is left to affluent Modernists and backpackers on a limited budget, i.e. those who are not members of a church, who are not members of a club or group, who have no children, who are alone- more or less-- in the universe itself and have no one and nothing in the way of responsibility toward anyone other than themselves, if that. Ayahuasca is a self-indulgence, from what I see, among those who are, to dip into the Dag-bag of difficult technical terms, “fucking losers.” I should be loving the stuff. I'm qualified.
Ayahuasca is Amazonian, and yet the word/s are Quechua, coming from the mountains, Incan in origin. This suggests to me that the Incas, being the superior power in the area are those whose register, i.e. whose dialect, sets the overall authoritative tone for all others, like Castillian Spanish, for example.
The term Ayahuasca is Quechua, the language of the Inca Empire, today spoken in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Argentina. Naranjo (1983) speculates that the term spread through pre-Colombian contact between Andean and Amazonian populations. The fact that the most widely used name for the plant brew happens to be Quechua might indicate knowledge of the plant by the Incas (Naranjo 1983). Evidence of the wide use of the term can be traced back to the 18th century (Naranjo 1983). According to the bulk of the literature ayahuasca means “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul” and it refers to the freeing of the spirit from the body that it induces, as well as contact with the spirit world (Schultes and Hofman 1992) and dead ancestors (Naranjo 1983). In Quechua the first half of the word aya means dead person as well as spirit or soul (Whitten 1976), while the word huasca means vine (Naranjo 1983). Whitten (1976:61) discusses that in Jungle Quichua there is no correlation of the word with the dead and he prefers the English translation “soul vine”. However, some scholars argue that the actual Quechua meaning comes from the words jayac huasca, which means “bitter vine” (Oberem 1958, Frank Salomon, 2002, personal communication). … Ayahuasca has varied names among the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, including caapi, dapa, mihi, kahi, natema, pinde, yagé, nishí, nape, camorampi, mii, pitujiracu, and tucondi (Naranjo 1983, Schultes and Hofman 1992).
Evgenia Fotiou , “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.” University of Wisconsin, Madison. 2010. [Doctoral thesis.]
“[T]he translation “vine of the soul” prevails, a fact that might have to do with a strong tendency to sensationalize and romanticize. (Fotiou, p. 9.)
If we search for the facts about ayahuasca, then we stand a better chance of grasping some fundamental truths about it later. “Bitter vine” seems at the intuitive level at least to be far superiour to “vine of death/spirit.” In searching for the plain and ordinary facts about ayahuasca we might then, having started well, do the same with shamans, looking at them and what they do as it objectively is rather than as a projection of the miserablist counter-Modernist reactionary.
In an earlier interview with a shaman I spoke with Gido, a plain and decent fellow who lived until recently with his family in the jungle where he was the village doctor. His work involved plants.
Mestizo shamanism involving ayahuasca as it is practiced in urban centers like Iquitos, is known as vegetalismo and its practitioners as vegetalistas, specialists in plant medicine (Luna 1986). Luna introduced the concept of the “plants as teachers”, explaining that plant spirits teach the vegetalistas directly how to diagnose and cure illnesses (Luna 1984). This is different from an herbalist who knows how to utilize a variety of plants but does not necessarily communicate with them. This approach of plants as living sentient beings and the communication of the curandero with their spirits, as well as other non-human persons, for a successful healing was central in my observations in the field. (Ibid. Fotiou.)Earlier I have mentioned my friend Amelia, a Shipibo lady from Pucallpa, whose father is a curandero of high standing. She upset at least two young men when I introduced her and had her explain to them what is involved in taking ayahuasca: She said that one must live in a Shipibo village in the jungle for at least three months so one is accustomed to the place and its life, i.e. vegetation, and one must eat, drink, think, live with people for whom that life is life. Then, if there's some urgent requirement, one consults a man such as her father for a remedy, and he might or might not take ayahuasca to find a path to wellness of the sufferer of X. Needless to say, Amelia's discussion was not what the young men wanted to hear. Amelia told the truth about native use of ayahuasca, which doesn't address the needs or wants of most Modernists. The difference is significant and legitimate. One need not decide to abandon all of Modernity to “go native” for the sake of an authentic experience as an ayahuasca user. But one might address honestly ones actual desires and accept them for what they are rather than lie.
Going to a luxury resort to take drugs with locals and see oneself as God is as good a way to spend money as anything I've ever heard of. But it is what it is. To go to Iquitos to take drugs with a shaman is to take drugs, not with local shamans, but more than likely with someone who has come to Iquitos to get in on the tourist trade, there being “not many sights or activities in Pucallpa for tourists,” as my disappointed friend Jose used to say when searching for work daily in the city. Shipibo shamans and others from Pucallpa take the six day cargo boat ride to Iquitos to make a living.
The Shipibo communities are not geographically close to Iquitos and any Shipibo living there are actually migrants from the Ucayali River. They belong to the Pano linguistic group and their population is estimated to be up to 30,000 (Behrens 1994). They are considered to have among the most powerful ayahuasqueros. (Ibid. Fotiou.)But they all look the same, don't they?
Fotiou points out other misconceptions and outright nonsense spouted by drug tourists. They use too often, as I do because I don't care, the term shaman to describe the curanderos locally.
Shaman ... is not the traditional word for this type of practitioner in the area. However, it is the word that almost everyone would use in Iquitos within the context of shamanic tourism, even though some older shamans would find it very funny when tourists called them “shamans”. The most appropriate term would be ayahuasquero, which denotes a healer who specializes in ayahuasca ceremonies.
Another word often used is curandero, which literally means a healer, but implies utilizing a wider range of healing techniques. In Iquitos the word curandero is used to denote someone who can heal using plants or other methods. It is not necessarily someone who leads ayahuasca ceremonies even though sometimes they do. In several discussions with locals they stressed the fact that a certain person who did ceremonies was not a curandero and that a curandero is someone who can heal a wide range of conditions, using a variety of plants. (Ibid. Fotiou.)I often don't distinguish only because I don't really care. Ne would assume that those who do would pay some attention. Seldom done, in my experience of drug tourists.
There are different types of ayahuasqueros in the area, such as paleros, who specialize in working with tree barks as well as ayahuasca. Ayahuasqueros are considered the weakest practitioners by the other specialists. All other specialists require a much more rigorous training and thus are harder to find. (Ibid. Fotiou.)Any idiot can give a tourist a cupful of ayahuasca and call it shamanism. Giving out a bucketful of ayahuasca to romanticizing Moderists in search of ecstacy and self-awareness is a cheap and easy way to make $75.00 per head. That term shaman is not related, by the way, to the English term shame.
The word shaman comes from the Tunguz word saman (Eliade 1964). The word entered the European vocabulary in the 18th century from travelers and 80 explorers in Siberia who were mostly Dutch or German native speakers (Laufer 1917, Flaherty 1992). Even though shamans are not the only religious figures in their societies according to Eliade the shaman alone is the “great master of ecstasy” (1964). In fact, because of Eliade’s work shamanism even today is closely associated with Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) even though some have challenged the usefulness of terms like trance and ecstasy as analytical tools when it comes to discussing shamanism (Hamayon 1993, 1998). According to Casanowicz (1926) the Tunguz word means one who is ‘excited’, ‘moved’, or ‘raised’. Hoppál (1987) adds that another translation of the word shaman is “inner heat” and it comes from the Sanskrit word saman that means song. The word has been widely discussed and contested as being an inappropriate word for defining such a wide spectrum of traditional healing practitioners to the point that most anthropologists today prefer to speak of shamanisms (Atkinson 1992) and others argue that because the use of the term has changed so much over time it is impossible to arrive at an agreed upon operational definition (Jones 2006). Most definitions are either general and universal or context specific. In indigenous languages there is a specific word assigned to healers usually related to some important aspect of that culture’s healing complex. Atkinson has brought attention to the diverse approaches and theories on shamanism and warns of generalizing theories that might lead to “unwarranted reductionism and romantic exoticizing of a homogeneous non-Western “other”” (1992:309). (Ibid. Fotiou.)Such it part of the ugliness of philobarbarism, the 'unwarranted reductionism and romantic exoticizing of a homogeneous non-Western “other” '.” Get the terms wrong, skip the immersion in the local culture because it's time consuming and one has a real life back home, and then lump Amelia with jorge as “brown people” as one of my stalkers has done in accusing me of “hating brown people” and one ends up as a full-blown idiot racist spouting cliches and evil stupidities that get people killed. However, if one is clear about ones interest in taking drugs for the sake of self-awareness or even self-indulgence, there is possibly some value in it for individuals. Lying can't benefit many other than those who would steal from them, rape them, or otherwise harm them. Such things happen frequently to the foolish. How is the false person to protect him or herself from a strange reality when one lies about ones ordinary reality?
Earlier we noted that Gido doesn't need ayahuasca to do his work. If he doesn't need,it, why would the consultee? Clearly it is not for the drug tourist to have any concerns other than for himself. That would have nothing to do with me, and thus is not a criticism of drug tourists.
In Amazonian shamanism the special power of the hallucinogenic plants is not attributed to alkaloids but to the spirit believed to inhabit every plant, something which is encountered in other cultures as well (Furst 1993; Whitten 1976). Plants are believed to be the teachers of shamans (Luna 1984, 1986), even though learning from the plants does not imply that the person will become a healer. For some, this process is more a philosophical quest, the desire to learn, to understand; learning how to heal is part of the knowledge acquired during initiation, not the primary goal. (Ibid. Fotiou: p. 159.)
Gido spoke of his “X-ray vision.”
[I]n the practice of ayahuasca healing, the ayahuasca is said to enable the healer to see the inner parts of his patient and thus establish a diagnosis. some of the shamans I interviewed reported that the brew literally enables them to see the inside of their patients’ bodies. One shaman after a ceremony described to me what he had seen in my body as wounds (heridas) on particular organs. (Ibid. Fotiou.)Gido went further, though it wasn't clear to me at the time what he meant. Fotiou clarifies it.
Ayahuasca shamanism is perceived as ancient and representing a time when people lived in harmony with nature and each other. This romantic approach to shamanism has not been there from the beginning. Even though there is evidence of ayahuasca used in ancient times it is unlikely that it was used in the same way that it is used today even by indigenous people. Gow (1992) has argued that ayahuasca shamanism with a focus on healing, is a result of colonialism and a response to the brutal history that I describe in the introduction. I argue that it is not only possible that colonialism has played an important role in the development of ayahuasca shamanism as we know it, but that tourism continues to do so. This is particularly important when dealing with the more ambivalent aspects of shamanism such as sorcery and the possibility of tourism increasing sorcery attacks between curanderos. (Ibid. Fotiou, p. 304.)With that we can look further to see how Gido did a serious pantomime that called to my mind a scene from Milton's Paradise Lost, better summed up below by Fitiou.
One of the biggest misconceptions about shamanism in the West is that shamanism revolves around spirituality and love. A Western shaman in his attempt to differentiate himself from New Age, says that scholars have erroneously argued that shamanism is about a magic journey “but neglected the dimensions of love and spirituality that are in its core” (Kottler and Carlson 2004:44). This viewpoint seems to ignore the political dimensions of shamanism as well as its role in conflict (witchcraft etc.). One reason that this belief is so pervasive might be the disbelief of westerners for the effectiveness of witchcraft and their automatic dismissal of it. On the other hand it could very well be a conscious effort on the part of the practitioners; if the people who have made a career out of shamanism in the West dwell on the negative side of shamanism then it would not be so attractive to their audience. They have an idea of what their audience craves and they reckon it is not battles with evil spirits and shamans. (Ibid. Fotiou.) [My emphasis.]To sentimentalise Gido's battle of the spirits is to deny him his legitimate reality as a man and a member of a unique culture. Philobarbarism is exactly a denial of the reality of others, as is drug tourism that pretends to laud its anti-Modernist mode of production and to claim some superiourity for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of those who lack, for example, the rudiments of Modernity such as sewerage. People, and often whole villages of people, die because of a lack of simple Modernist infrastructure that the post-Modernist claims is evil, i.e. the works of Modernity in the form of, again for example, sewerage systems. Or we can look at vaccinations. Or any number of other aspects of Modernists public health. Instead, the sentimentalising drug tourist can lump all “brown people” into one lump and claim that if only it were possible the post-modernist would live such life, but alas.... Missing from all this drivel is the violence of communal life in the jungle, not restricted to spirits, and not assumed by the locals as pathological. Drug tourists do not, in my experience, look at the real violence of ayahuasca culture. They don't know, they don't care, and they probably would dismiss it if they had to think about it. It's not part of the tourist package to see reality beyond the pay-off of self-awareness and a great summer vacation story to tell back home later.
Recent scholarly work on the subject of shamanism in Amazonia stresses that “Amazonian shamanism is not a loving shamanism” (Fausto 2004). The concept of energy is a key metaphor in Amazonian worldview and is related to the soul, power, desire and intention. Power resides in the human body and is affected by the ingestion or expulsion of substances. Just as in North American shamanism object intrusion is considered a common cause of illness. It is considered to be the consequence of malevolent intent and ascribed to sorcery and witchcraft. The healing shaman sucks the foreign object from the patient’s body and spits it out. In this worldview, good and evil are not fixed categories but are relational and highly contextual. (Fitiou: p. 209.) [My emphasis.]There is only so much ones colleagues will tolerate from another, and that usually ends at expressing a belief in witchcraft. Thus, the drug tourist must dismiss an essential aspect of Amazonian reality, wiping out the whole of Pasaje Paquito, for example, at Belen Market, the very embodiment of selva life and the efforts of curanderos in the lives of the people. No one in the office is going to take seriously the drug tourist who returns to work speaking about witchcraft as legitimate. That would be embarassing, and one often goes on a drug tour to gain prestige among ones group rather than to be laughed at. So one must ignore the prevalent reality of Amazonian life when it messes with ones epistemological hair-do. Gido explained it all to me quite clearly in our earlier interview, and I had no idea what he meant. Now that I have some clue I find I like him even more.
I wrote elsewhere and perhaps mean-spiritedly about an alcoholic t.v. repairman who makes a few dollars on the side by reading fortunes at Pasaje Paquito. He's a decent fellow in all, and yet he too discussed the battle with evil spirits he engages in. His violence is limited to knocking off beer by the dozen, but it is there and fundamental to his life. So too with Gido, a friendly fellow, also a violence obsessed curandero. This is important in that such men face death, as I noted in the first part of my discussion on the curanderos missing at Yurimaguas, presumed dead by murder. For drug tourists ayahuasca is not a culture and it is not a life to be taken seriously: it is a game for them. For the rest, it's a matter of life and death.
Warfare between shamans is very common and can take many forms. While combating sorcery in order to heal patients during the ceremony, the shaman is vulnerable to attacks by other shamans. Shamans find different ways to attack their rivals. For example, if a client has drunk ayahuasca with a malevolent shaman and that person drinks with someone else afterwards, the malevolent shaman tries to interfere in the ceremony of the rival shaman through the person that was previously their patient. They might manifest through the body of the patient making noises that are distracting for the rest of the participants or direct negative energy to the rival shaman. They can also place dangers and threats for the rival shaman in the astral realm so that he or she will have to fight them off as soon as he or she enters it under ayahuasca inebriation. This means that for a shamanic fight to take place, both shamans do not need to be in ceremony at the same time because time in the astral realm is not linear; merely placing something there guarantees that it will be there whenever the rival shaman enters the spiritual dimension. I was told that these attacks are not as powerful as when both shamans are having ceremony at the same time, and they are easy to defeat. (Ibid. Fotiou: p. 222.)To the average office worker at home, this account of reality is nonsense that he would be embarrassed to mention in his account of how he achieved spiritual specialness with a loving and altogether groovy shaman in the Amazon jungle at a beautiful retreat in the rain forest. Reality, which is what the drug tourist is so adamantly against, is a lot dirtier. Yes, one might say it's all true, but then coffee time ends and one must return to ones desk to complete the effort of looking at actuarial tables to determine how much it will cost the government, i.e. the taxpayer, to pay for medical insurance for Mr. Eyks who doesn't have a job. But no, one would be as embarrassed by this as is the average Peruvian living and working and raising a family in a state of cleanliness and modern medicine that allows his children to survive their first five years at an average of greater than 50 percent.
In warfare, shamans need to have weapons. One of my consultants has a protective spirit suit and boots that one of his teachers gave him. In fact one of the ceremony participants said that she felt the boots with her hands while he was standing over her. The weapon of choice that shamans use in Amazonia is the magic dart or virote. Much like the medicine substance, virotes are stored in the phlegm that resides in the shaman’s body and he can retrieve them as necessary. Shamans project virotes to make someone sick or to attack another shaman. They can be removed from the body of the victim by sucking. For the most part, this type of attack is used against other shamans but the darts can hit participants in the ceremony by accident. One of the shamans said that he never got the physical phlegm but it was given to him in a dream. The spirits gave him a cup with a white substance and he had to drink it. Then he felt it settling across his chest. He also said that his whistling was given to him in a vision. In order to keep its power, in his icaros he sometimes sings the word mariri; that is because if something is not used it loses its power. (Ibid. Fotiou, p. 223)To deny such realities of others is to dismiss their authenticity as human beings; and to suggest that one actually believes in such superstition is to invite ridicule from ones more honest fellows. The sentimenalising philobarbarist thus remains ignorant at best and deliberately ignorant at worst.
Who is going to return to modenity to say to ones peers the wonderful shaman one took ayahuasca with prevented grievous harm from a jealous shaman rival spirit? Christians seldom if ever refer to Paradise Lost as equivalent to the local newspaper. How would one feel about saying something like this:
[H]e cannot attack a shaman unless he is attacked by him first. Even if he is healing a patient of witchcraft, if the shaman who caused the witchcraft does not fight he cannot attack him. He said that battles at this level look like some of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies. (Ibid. Fotiou.)The point of drug tourism is not to return to ones familiar places to be laughed at but to be lauded. Thus, one must claim that ones shaman is otherworldly in a sensible fashion, somehow legitimate and eternal in the sense of practicing a ritual, a “ceremony” unchanged over 5,000 years, and one few at the office have heard of, let alone done themselves, thought they might have had colourful cocktails at a resort in the Caribbean. To talk of ones shaman in glowing terms is to bask in the reflected glory of. Reality? Sometimes not so romantic. There is the dirtiness of reality always intruding, such as:
[T]he existence of alcoholism among many shamans. This is a common phenomenon in Iquitos and many shamans are known for their bad temper and excessive drinking. This is usually known among locals but it is easy to conceal from tourists that are only in town for a few days. For example, locals would say about a shaman that she was considered to have been very powerful until she started drinking. The same shaman told the tourists that she never drank alcohol and never ate Chinese food because it was unhealthy. (Ibid. Fotiou.)The things one never hears about. Thieves, rapists, terrorists, and general outright arseholes, some shamans are nothing but drunks on the make who find idiot tourists wanting piss away vast amounts of money to brag later about how grand they are in comparison to those mediocre fellows they must share office space with.
Some shamans are unlike the stereotypical cliched maunderings of post-menopausal ladies with rich but now dead husbands, or metrosexual kids who can't get laid going on about how cool it is to see themselves as one with God instead. Lots of babble. I try to skip them. But there are some shamans worth actually talking to. I won't be asking any locals about this guy, they not seeming to be into ayahuasca as much as Modernists, and they not being so much into American hillbilly shamans at that if they were.
[A] fraud like Ron Wheelock. This man claims to be a shaman, but in reality is nothing but a greedy charlatan. He uses a woodchipper to produce large quantities of ayahuasca, which apparently he sells to buyers abroad, thus raping the local culture and the spiritual essence of ayahuasca. Apart from that, this fool organizes cock fights -which are illegal in his own country for very good reasons!- and breeds pitbull terriers (god only knows for what purpose). In my humble opinion, people like Ron should be tarred, feathered and run into the Amazon River.
Gart van Gennip February 16, 2011
This is a long story. I'll come back to it as soon as I can.
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: