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:

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.

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: