|Lycaeum > Leda > Documents > When Ayahuasca Speaks - An Unexpected Venture into Healing by Peter Gorman|
Shamanism and the Healing powers of Ayahuasca
In early July, 1996, my wife and our two sons left New York for a two month trip to Iquitos, Peru, the riverfront city at which the Ucayali river changes it's name to the Amazon, turns due east and heads out to the Atlantic. I would be joining them a week later. For my wife, Chepaóshort for Josefaóand our sons Italo, 10 and Marco, 7, it was a trip home: they'd all grown up in Iquitos, and it was there that we'd met three years earlier. For me it was a working vacation: Iquitos is my second homeóI'd been making annual trips there for 15 yearsóand I had contracts for two stories, one on the use of the sacred San Pedro cactus in Ecuador, the other on the use of ayahuasca, the visionary vine of northeast Amazonia, in the treatment of severe alcoholism and pastaóunrefined coca pasteóaddiction at a clinic in Tarapoto.
We also thought we would take a few weeks to visit our Matses Indian friends on the Rio Jivari, the border between Peru and Brazil and planned on bringing the kids out with us. I was looking forward to Italo and Marco learning a few things about the rainforest from the Matses children who spend most of their lives beneath its canopy.
Unfortunately, life intervened with hard news. During the week before my arrival my mother-in-law Lydia had been crudely diagnosed with early-stage uterine cancer while undergoing a routine pap smear, and I arrived just as my family, mother-in-law in tow, was getting ready to head to Lima for further tests and a possible course of treatment. We were all sick about the possibility that Lydia might have cancer and hoping that the more sophisticated medical facilities in Lima would prove the initial diagnosis wrong.
I decided to stay behind for a few days to give me time to visit my friend Juan, an ayahuasquero who lived on the outskirts of Iquitos, to see if I could learn anything about mom's condition while under the influence of his ayahuasca. I didn't know what that might be, but I had been drinking ayahuasca once or twice a year since my first trip to Peru and had such astounding experiences with it that I thought it worth a chance.
It was only going to be my second time drinking with Juan. I would have preferred to visit Julio Jerena, a curandero with whom I'd had the majority of my ayahuasca experiences, but Julio lived two days up the Ucayali from Iquitos and there was no riverboat leaving in that direction for another three days. So I arranged for the ayahuasca with Juan and went out to his home on the evening of my third night in Iquitos. When I arrived I saw that there were six other people, all locals, there to drink as well. Juan, dark and handsome, greeted me like an old friend and introduced his other patients who were there for a variety of ailments.
It's important to note that to many river people in Peruóand elsewhere in all likllihood, though I don't have personal experienceóphysical illness is frequently seen as the result of a disturbance on another level. And while the illness itself must be dealt with on the physical level, the cause of the illness must be treated by the curandero, who uses ayahuasca to breach what I think of as a sort of dimensional barrier where he does battle with the spiritual cause of the ailment to effect a lasting cure.
Among the patients Juan was seeing that night was a woman whose husband couldn't stop cheating on her despite promising faithfulness. She concluded that he was under a spell from which he couldn't free himself and wanted Juan to see who had cast it and how her husband could escape its shackles. Another patient was having inordinately bad luck in all her endeavors and was certain that the cause was someone's jealousy. If Juan could only see who was jealous of her, she was sure she could placate her enemy. The others suffered from more routine physical ailments and needed Juan to see what had caused them and what plant medicines they should take to effect a cure.
My own experience with ayahuasca was initially driven by much more pedestrian curiosity; it had continued because I'd almost always learned something important about myself and often learned things I simply couldn't learn in ordinary reality.
My first experience with the vine occurred while travelling through Peru with two friends in 1984. Asked by our guide, Moises Torres Vienna if we wanted to try a jungle hallucinogen we readily, though somewhat warily, accepted the invitation. The curandero he brought us to was named Alphonso, and my experience included a remarkably realistic vision of flying with a birdóa vision that included swooping down from the sky and picking a fish from a stream. What made the experience one that seemed visionary, rather than something I was inventing, was the surprising feel of the fish in the bird's (and my) mouth. The bird simply snapped the fish in two with its beak, then swallowed the halves. I'd never imagined how a bird ate a fish beforeómuch less that the halves would still be flopping as they were squeezed down the throat. It was the idea that I was learning and feeling something completely new to me that left me sensing that ayahuasca, at least when made by and taken with the right curandero, was something extraordinary, something that could help one breach dimensional barriers.
When I returned the following year I asked Moises to bring me back to Alphonso but he had moved and Moises didn't know on what river he was living. Instead, as part of a three-week training in jungle survival techniques, he brought me to the home of Julio Jerena, a tiny, ancient man with thick white hair, glistening eyes and a rich laugh. I was expecting another experience like I'd had with Alphonso, but there were no visions that first night with Julio. Instead he and his apprentice sang ayahuasca songsóicarosóon either side of me as I sat on the floor of a little open-walled platform hut. The chanting felt as though it was splitting me in two, opening me up and cleansing me from the inside out. The experience, while different than what I'd expected, was so powerful that I looked forward to drinking with him again.
The opportunity came unexpectedly just a year later. I'd been out with Moises and my brother-in-law Steve visiting some Matses villages near the Jivari River along the Brazilian border. We'd been out nearly a month when a jaguar killed a young boy in a hut we'd been using. The jaguar must have smelled our scent and come looking for prey; in any event the Matses asked us to leave the river immediately. Now our plan included hiking back to the Ucayali by a particular route and we'd arranged to be met and resupplied at a river halfway between the Jivari and the Ucayali by Moises' son, Junior. But with the unexpected death of the Matses boy we took a different route and never ran across him. So when we finally arrived at Julio's home, Moises asked me to drink ayahuasca with the idea of finding his son and telling him that we were already safe and to meet us at Julio's. The request stunned me. I had no idea how to do what Moises asked, but I couldn't refuse trying.
Later that night, under the effects of ayahuasca, I found myself connecting, as I had with the bird, in some sort of strange species merger, with a huge snake in the river in front of Julio's. My eyesight seemed to flatten out and I was surprised to find I was looking at the world from the level of the river. Of course I knew it was impossible, but as had happened with the bird, just when I was sure I was inventing the entire episode, the snake suddenly turned, darted forward and ate a frog, swallowing it whole and squeezing it to death with its powerful throat muscles before passing it on to the stomach. The unexpected and absolutely tactile sensation of feeling the snake's (and my) muscles squeezing the life out of the uncooperative and squirming frog gave me enough confidence to simply ask the snake if it knew where Junior might be. I'd no sooner asked the question-and felt foolish for doing it, since I knew it was all in my head-than the snake began moving upstream, and then into the forest, where I saw the remains of a temporary camp which had recently been abandoned and which I suspectedóto my utter disbelief-had been Junior's. Realizing Junior was no longer there the snake began returning to Julio's; en route we passed what appeared to be a canoe moving in the river. With my snake-flattened eyesight I couldn't be sure, but it looked as though there were two people in it, one paddling at the front, one at the back, and I couldn't make out the features of either. Moments later the snake disappeared and I was once again just sitting on the floor of the platform hut.
Moises asked me what I'd seen: I thought about what part of the river we'd seen the canoe onóI'd been the length of the river and knew it pretty wellóand estimated the time it would take a canoe to reach Julio's if it traveled all night. After some hesitationóbecause I didn't want to get his hopes upóI told Moises about the canoe and said it would reach Julio's at noon the following day. I added that I didn't think it was Junior though, since there seemed to be two people in the canoe.
Let me emphasize that I didn't believe I'd actually found anyone, but at the same time the eating of the frog and the vision of travelling with the snakeówhich might have taken as little as a few seconds or as long as a few minutesóseemed so real that I knew I might have been hallucinating, but I couldn't have been inventing. And when the canoe showed up at Julio's the following day at quarter after noon with Junior and another man on board, no one but me was surprised. Julio just laughed, and Moises simply said that ayahuasca was used because it worked.
On subsequent trips to Peru I always made time to visit Julio and we became good friends of a sort. Each time I drank with him my experiences were unexpected and seemed real. During one I visited foreign worlds; during others I visited friends in distant cities and watched them without them seeing me. I once even visited what I can only explain as the world of the dead, where I talked with my mother, who'd been gone for 15 years. Her first words to meó"Peter, you've got to stop calling to me like this. It's so hard to come together in a form you know as meÖ.îówere not anything I'd have included if someone asked me to make a list of 10,000 possible things my mother might say if I met her 15 years after her death.
And on perhaps the most extraordinary ayahuasca journey of all, a journey in which I was forced to confront my deepest fears and most hidden desires, I encountered a voice which asked me why I kept calling it. Thinking I was going crazy I answered that I had not called it, to which the voice said I certainly had, otherwise why was I drinking ayahuasca. Feeling silly that I was talking to myself, and simultaneously terrified that I was actually in conversation with a being that was way beyond my ken, I timidly told it that I was drinking ayahuasca to visit friends in New York, and to fly with birds. The voice responded that those were parlor tricks meant to entice me to return to ayahuasca; that the real reason I returned was to learn things and that the way to learn them was to allow ayahuasca to enter me. At that, my head seemed to split openóas my whole body and being had when Julio and his apprentice sang years agoóand I watched in horror as a thousand snakes began to enter my brain. I knew that if I didn't get them out I'd be taken over by ayahuasca or whatever evil spirit that was, forever. So I'd fought with my life to pull the snakes out and when I'd won the fight I was exhausted.
I didn't mention the experience to Julio for two years, during which I'd visited him but didn't drink. I simply couldn't face that voice again. When I did finally broach the topic he told me the voice was the voice of ayahuasca, that I could ask it for things, like songs to make me strong, or how to learn what plants were good for healing, or to answer questions that were otherwise unanswerable. He assured me that while it was a real spirit, as were many others I might encounter under the influence of ayahuasca, it was only a spirit and couldn't hurt me unless I let it. He also said I was a fool to have pulled the snakes out of my head, that it was a gift from ayahuasca to get snakes in one's head or belly because anyone who had them would always know who their enemies wereófrom thieves in the city to brujhos, black magic sorcerers, who would try to kill you with invisible arrows.
All of which comforted me, even if it felt silly. The thing is this: writing this from a New York City apartment, all of it seems silly. But out in the jungle, surrounded by the ancient forest and its denizens, listening to Julio, it all made sense. The jungle simply throbs with life and it takes no effort to feel oneself a thread in a huge skein in which many things that are not possible in New York are part and parcel of everyday life there.
On the night I drank ayahuasca subsequent to Julio's having told me that snakes entering the brain or stomach are good I begged all night or one to enter, and for the voice to return. Neither event happened. And they didn't happen the next time either. A snake finally zoomed into my mouth and settled in my stomach on a later occasion when I wasn't expecting it, and the voice returnedómuch less threatening, though still terrifyingósome time after that.
It was with those experiences in mindóand they were all considerably more involved than I'm noting hereóthat I was hoping I might see something about Momma Lydia's condition if I drank ayahuasca with Juan.
As always, the experience was not what I expected: I spent most of the evening in deep meditation about the first fifteen months of fatherhood I'd just been through, questioning the choices I'd made for and with Italo and Marco and alternately feeling good and awful about the job I'd done.
When Lydia and her cancer finally took over my thoughts I went up through a sort of tunnel toóI know this sounds crazy, but ayahuasca meditations don't follow normal rulesóa place called Joe's Cafe, a nondescript 1950's-style soda shop I've frequently visited on ayahuasca where the proprietor, Joe, serves unusual fare. When I entered the cafe it was unusually quiet and Joe told me to think carefully about what seat to take at the counter. After I did he said to deliberate well about what to order.
I ordered chocolate cake from a plastic-covered silver stand and he served a piece on a platter. Then he heated it with something like a blowtorch and the icing melted into a large, thin square that filled the tray. I looked into the now reflective icing and saw Momma Lydia. I tried to look into her uterus and saw what looked like a small red spot: the cancer. It wasn't very big at all, but it was there. And then I saw Lydia dead. I saw a death mask and skull. I didn't want that to be the answer to the question about whether she was going to be alright. Then suddenly the death mask smiled and she was alive. And I realized that whether she lived or died, both were possible. But to live she must choose to live and then fight for it.
I looked for her in the vision within the vision and told her what I saw. She was non-committal. I said a mental "sorry, mom" to her and then started to slap her. Not really her but the air around her head, hoping the concussion of the wind I caused would wake her up and she'd realize we all love her and didn't want her to die but that it was in her hands.
She didn't respond, so I tried to really slap her but my hands passed right through her head. I got so angry that I pushed her into a large green garbage container. At that she came out swinging. So I told her that since she showed that she didn't want to die in a container of trash, she should not be cancered to death either. But the choice was hers, she had to do it herself. She said she'd fight.
To insure the message got through I put one hand on her forehead and one hand behind her head and tried to push the message deep inside her-deep inside that part of her spirit I seemed to have contacted, provided I hadn't invented the whole vision.
Joe's Cafe. The food's not much but I always seem to get what I need there.
One other unusual event occurred that evening at Juan's. At the end of the night, probably 3 AM, Juan, who sings his icaros beautifully, asked me to sing one. I'd never been asked to sing during ayahuasca before and told him I didn't know how. He said, "Pedro, how long have you been drinking ayahuasca? And you say you don't know how to sing?" I told him I had some icaros in my head but that they weren't my own.
And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, I sat up and began to sing. I thought I was copying Juan maybe, or Julio, but later realized the simple notes that came out of me were my own. It wasn't a beautiful ayahuasca song, or very completeóthere were only two lines of eight notes each, and no wordsóbut they came out of me with power and the strange vibration which marks many icaros. It was amazing to hear myself.
I left Iquitos for Lima two days later. Chepa, the kids and Momma Lydia were staying at Chepa's sister Amelia's house and I joined them there. Lydia had been to Lima's renowned cancer clinic for a biopsy and was awaiting results. She looked fine and joked that I shouldn't slap her so hard in her dreams. I was surprised, as always, that she was aware that I'd tried to visit her spirit while under the influenceóor better, with the helpóof ayahuasca.
The only thing that seemed amiss was that Marco's eyes were puffy. Chepa thought it might be a result of a bad fall he'd taken on some rocks a day earlier while he was playing with Italo. "He really whacked the back of his head," she said, but since there was no blood and the swelling on his head was already almost gone, we didn't think much of it.
But the following day, when his eyes were little slits and his cheeks were a little puffy as well, we began to take notice. By the third day, when nothing changed and the swelling didn't go down, Chepa decided to take him to a doctor.
When she returned she reported that the doctor had said he was fine, just a little enchado, swollen, probably from a parasite or spider bite, but it was nothing to worry about. But an hour later my wife was in tears and tearing out of the house, headed back to the doctor's with Marco.
"What's wrong, Chepa?" I asked.
"Look at this!" she said, pulling down Marco's pants: his scrotum had swelled to the size of a grapefruit. It looked like a water balloon ready to burst. "He came into the bathroom to pee when I was brushing my hair and showed it to me," she said through her tears.
"Go, Chepa," I said, "but don't get too frantic. The doctor's probably right. It's just a reaction to a spider bite..." She was gone before I could finish.
When she returned she was distraught. The doctor had told her to get to the emergency room of a nearby hospital right away.
We took off in a taxióMarco, myself, Chepa and her older sister Ameliaófor
the hospital. There, Chepa insisted on Marco being seen quickly, and the
doctors, after drawing blood and urine, told us
I asked them what was wrong. They didn't know, except that his urine had an usually high amount of protein in it.
I'd never known either Marco or Italo to be sick. And so to suddenly hear a doctor talking about one of my kids and saying "He might not live tonight," was devastating. I started to cry.
The doctor's had me carry him to the children's ward, then told me to leave. Only mothers were permitted to stay. I pushed until they threatened to call the police and then finally left. He was being monitored by several doctors and a kidney specialist had been called. There was nothing I could do to help.
Marco survived the night and early the next morning we discussed taking him to the states for treatment but decided against it both because we had the number one children's kidney specialist in Lima working on his diagnosis and because I was afraid that if the illness were brought on by a parasite from Iquitos, stateside doctors would have less of a chance of knowing how to handle it than physicians in Peru.
We met the specialist, Dr. Rivas, a young man who'd been trained in the states, at 10 AM. He diagnosed the condition as nephrosis of the kidney, explaining that the kidney was eliminating all of the protein in the blood along with the toxins it was meant to eliminate. He reassuringly told us that children generally grew out of it after prolonged treatment with prednisone, a steroid, and a diet that excluded salt, sugar, fat and gas. No soda, chocolate, cheese, nuts, sweets, fried food; the list was long and needed to be constantly checked.
Dr. Rivas took personal charge of Marco's case, and began him on prednisone on the morning of the second day in the hospital. Marco responded by immediately blowing up like a beachball in his stomach, chest and face. But our concern was less with his looks than with his original swelling. When it didn't immediately respond to the medicationóin fact his scrotum and penis continued to swell until we could see all the way through the taut skinóDr. Rivas shot him up with lasix, what you give race horses to make them piss their weight off to get an illegal edge. Within a day his scrotum and penis swelling subsided considerably.
According to Rivas, about 90 percent of the kids got better in six months. The others? He begrudgingly told us they needed new kidneys because if the kidney didn't repair itself the nephrotic condition would become a necrotic one: the kidney would simply begin to die. But he tried to reassure us that even in that event we'd have a wide window of opportunity to get a transplant, if necessary.
As to what caused the illness, he didn't know. He said it appeared most often in two and three year olds, only rarely in kids of seven or eight. Marco was seven. When we pushed him to come up with an explanation for why our healthy, baseball playing boy had come down with renal failure he shrugged and asked if we believed in black magic. I said that while in Peru, where black magic is taken as something real, I did. In the States, where we don't believe in it, I didn't. He said not to take him literally, all he meant was that there was no parasite, no insect or spider bite, no bacteria, no virus, no infection that caused the body to start throwing off its protein. It was not yet figured out.
His assurances of probable future health didn't prevent us from crying ourselves to sleep for several days, even while Marco began to stabilize. I pestered Dr. Rivas day and night and visited Marco with Momma Lydia daily for hours. Chepa slept in the hospital most nights. Finally, after nine days, Dr. Rivas announced that things were proceeding apace and Marco would be released within a couple of days. He pleaded with me-for his sanity as well as mine-to return to Iquitos and let Marco alone. Chepa concurred, saying she could no longer bear to see me feeling so helpless. "Don't worry, baby," she said. "Marco is getting better and you still have your stories to write. It will be better if you get back and begin to make your arrangements." I waited another two days, and then, confidant that Marco was indeed on the mend I finally agreed to leave.
I thought I would go to Tarapoto, where I had the of ayahuasca-as- addiction-therapy story to do, the day following my return. But when I called Chepa and she said that as soon as I had gone Dr. Rivas had decided to keep Marco another couple of days, I simply couldn't leave. So I hung around Iquitos, waiting impatiently for them. They finally returned a week later. Marco had spent 17 nights and 16 days in the hospital.
I met them at the airport: We ran into each other's arms, but the boys were cold to me. As they saw it, I'd abandoned Marco in a hospital and Italo in Lima without his brother to hang around with. I explained as best I could but it took a little while to get things squared away with them.
Marco looked bleached of color except for his bright red cheeks, and he was enormous. Beyond the prednisone swelling, he still wasn't pissing regularly, but Dr. Rivas had said that would subside in time. The only really good news was that Lydia's biopsy had come back indicating a small tumor that looked as though it could be removed with a hysterectomy.
I wasn't convinced at all that Marco was enroute to getting better and
so decided to catch a river boat up the Ucayali to go to see Julio Jerena.
I thought that if I drank ayahuasca with him maybe he could
Chepa encouraged the trip, though she was not joining me; she was afraid that something might happen while we were out there and we'd have no way to get Marco to a hospital quickly. Italo decided to stay as well, as being in the jungle wasn't fun if Marco wasn't with him.
So on Monday evening I caught the Madre de Selva, a huge old riverboat
packed with jungle cargo and passengers headed to Pulcallpa, and booked
overnight passage Genero Herrera. In preparation for the trip I'd bought
food, batteries, matches and machetes, gifts for my friends on the Auchyaco.
I also carried a good supply of mapachos, black tobacco cigarettes, and
We arrived in Genero Herrera at noon the following day. I met my friend Fernando, who owns one of the town's three peque-peques- oversized canoes with a small motor that sound just like they're named-and he agreed to take me to Julio's.
A couple of hours later we shoved off and began moving up the broad Ucayali. An hour later we'd reached the mouth of the Supay river and turned into it: pairs of gold and blue macaws flew overhead, the sun blazed. I saw again the color green in a thousand shads and hues, each more beautiful than the last.
In an hour we'd reached Supay lake where pink and grey river dolphins play. Just as we entered the lake it started to pour, a thunderous, monstrous jungle rain that soaked us through and didn't let up until we'd crossed the lake and began to make our way up the Auchyaco, a narrow river whose steep banks are lined with lush trees bound together with thick vines and orchids.
Because it was low-water time of the year, Don Fernando's boat could only make it up the narrow river as far as Auchyaco pueblo, a tiny river community of mestizos and Matses Indians who've migrated from the Brazilian border during the last 10 years. I climbed the steep muddy bank to the village, said hello to several friends, asked for help to carry my things the 30 minutes through the jungle to Julio's house and arranged with Fernando to pick me up in two days.
By luck Julio was home when I arrived-rather than off on another river
somewhere-and we greeted each other warmly. After we'd visited a while
I explained the purpose of my visit and asked if he had time to make ayahuasca
for me. As a rule he would explain that he didn't have time, that he was
mending his roof or needed to tend his crops. I would then volunteer to
help with his work for a couple of days, after which he would make time
for me. But this time, when
Over a dinner of boiled river fish and plantains I asked Julio about the use of ayahuasca in the treatment of cancer. He shook his head and said ayahuasca didn't cure cancer because it is hot, and cancer is cold. "Cancer needs to be cured by something frio, cold, like it is," he said.
I later asked him about the voice again and he repeated what he'd told me years earlier: that I could ask it things. "That's why it comes. Ask for medicines or a song. Ask anything you need to ask."
That night I had a horrible dream in which Marco's scrotum had begun to swell up again. I woke afraid.
The following morning we both got up early. While I went to the river to get the cooking water, Julio walked into the jungle alone to cut the ayahuasca. He returned within an hour with two dozen foot- long lengths of the vine, and a white two-pronged stick from which he'd cleaned the bark to use as a stirrer. Then he grabbed a machete and cleared a small patch of ground about 30 yards from his home. When I asked why he wasn't going to use the spot he normally used for cooking ayahuasca, he said he thought it would rain later and the area was well-shielded by fruit trees.
The area cleared, he walked off a short way into the jungle and cut a tall, perfectly straight sapling with a nine inch diameter that he called pumasacha, a cat-like tree. From it's trunk he cut two one- meter lengths which we placed in the center of the cleared area for the fire pit.
It was only 7 AM when we began splitting the remainder of the trunk into firewood. While I did that he took the banisteriopsis caapi vine he'd cut earlier and with a stout stick he pounded it against a fallen tree trunk, smashing the vine into pieces so that its liquids would be more easily extracted in the cooking.
He collected the pieces of the vine on an old burlap bag, and when he was done he brought them over to the clearing. He deftly started a fire, then began to clean his five-gallon aluminum ayahuasea cooking pot with smoke from the black tobacco mapacho cigarettes I'd brought. While he did he chanted softly. The process of blowing smoke while chanting is called soplar.
The pot clean, he put a layer of the chacruna leaves I'd brought from Iquitos on its bottom, then put a layer of the crushed vine on top of them. He repeated the process until he had eight layers of each, vine and leaves-about half of what he had all told-then filled the pot with the water I'd brought and put the pot on the fire that blazed between the two long sections of trunk. The only admixture plant he added was a small section of the bark of a tree called the lipuna negra, which is frequently utilized by curanderos when black magic is suspected as a cause of illness. It is supposed to help the curandero pinpoint the source of the magic.
When the liquid began to simmer he removed some of the burning coals to prevent it from reaching a boiling point; thereafter he monitored the fire for several hours, occasionally adding more water as the ayahuasca cooked down. He chain smoked the mapachos all morning, blowing the tobacco smoke into the liquid, and occasionally crushing an entire cigarette and tossing it-without the paper-into the pot. He chanted quietly as he worked, gently stirring the ayahuasca with one hand while he swatted the ever-present jungle mosquitos with the other.
By noon the rain he'd promised arrived, a jungle wall of rain that sounded like thunder as it approached, rolling thunder growing louder and louder until it was suddenly on us. I thought perhaps we were done for but Julio laughed and said we'd just move the fire and finish the ayahuasca in his kitchen if it didn't abate.
When it didn't, he carried the steaming pot onto his open-walled, platform kitchen floor. I followed after with the firelogs and he carefully arranged them on his tushpa, a raised cooking area about one meter square made of a deep wooden shell filled with packed earth which sat on sections of tree trunk-a traditional jungle stove. He brought the liquid to just below boiling point again, constantly stirring as it slowly evaporated. In another hour, when it had been reduced to about a quart of thick, foul-smelling brown juice, he poured it off into a plastic bucket through an old tee-shirt he used as a strainer and set it aside. The spent vine and leaves he carried from his kitchen to an ayahuasca compost-pile behind a chicken shed.
When he returned to the house, he soplared the empty pot, then repeated the process of layering the pot with fresh chacruna and banisteriopsis caapi vine, filled it with water and began to cook the second batch down as he had the first. By six in the evening what remained of the second potful of ayahuasca was strained into what remained from the first. The spent vine and leaves were discarded, and Julio wiped the the pot clean with an old rag. Then he cleansed it with mapacho smoke and began to cook the two quarts of ayahuasca that remained. By seven, only a pint remained from the initial 15-20 gallons of cooking liquid, and he poured that into an old bottle he'd also cleansed with the mapacho smoke, capped it with a corn-cob stopper and set it aside. We wouldn't drink until Julio felt it was sufficiently settled.
Julio started his simple ayahuasca ceremony at about 9 PM. There was a quarter moon smiling down and partially starry sky that was later blanketed with clouds.
As always, Julio spread a sheet of blue plastic on the raised floor of his platform house on which he placed a kerosene lamp, the bottle of ayahuasea, a bottle of aguar diente-cane liquor-infused with garlic and camphor, a small bottle of rosewater perfume, a fan of maroella leaves that he used like a rattle, mapacho cigarettes, matches, a special stone and an old religious text.
He sat and cleared the air with tobacco smoke. Then he spoke of saints and demons, angels and Lucifer. He invoked them all to come and visit us tonight; to come with calm and good intent into the little circle we made-I sat on the floor opposite him-to come and teach us red magic, come green magic, white magic and black magic. "We call on you to come oh Saint Sebastian, St. Cypriano..."
He blew smoke to them all to both invite them and to keep the air calm should any of the spirits he invoked come with bad intentions. Then he said a quiet incantation for me and when he was finished he half filled the cup with the wretched brown liquid and handed it to me.
I drank. It was warm and thick and tasted like burned grapefruit infused with tobacco. I nearly retched. Six culps and on the last I felt my stomach clench and had to fight to keep it down. I managed only by smelling the bottle of aguar diente with garlic and camphor and lighting one of the foul mapachos.
Julio then incanted for himself and drank just a little, wiped himself with his medicaments and then we waited.
Having watched him make the ayahuasca I knew it would be strong, but with Julio there I felt confident that I would be able to handle whatever happened. I just tried to remind myself not to fight the dissolution of my ego when it occurred.
Within about 20 minutes, Julio chanting beautifully and shaking his leaf rattle, I began to get mariada, a little drunk, and Julio put out the lamp. I closed my eyes and waited.
In another 20 minutes or so I could feel a sudden rush to my head. Something thick and fast and a little scary. A sort of lift off of immense and sudden certainty was occurring. I got frightened and reminded myself that it was only a few hours. wouldn't kill me, I was with Julio, doing what I'd come to do and should rely on thinking about Marco rather than my evaporating eco.
In front of me, eyes open or closed, patterns appeared; moving geometric shapes, cathedral ceilings, lots of green crystals; beautiful.
The DMT show, the first stage of the ayahuasca experience, was amazing; everything moving slowly, rhythmically, twisting. I knew I was in the presence of ayahuasca and was watching the writhing motion of the great snake mother, or at least a little section of her I could fathom.
I was really high and lay down on the bark floor of the hut to center myself, enjoying the rhythms of the color and motion and thinking that something strong could happen. That I might very well cross the barrier which seemed to be dissolving before my eyes.
And then a voice, or what seemed to be a voice, very clearly asked: "What's the matter? Are you afraid to sit up and face what you've got coming?"
And I thought, No, so I sat up. In front of Julio's house, just on the other side of the platform where we sat, the trees had become huge mantises ready to march. They were emerald green and glistening despite the absolute pitch of the night, and normally would have frightened my pants off, but with Julio's soothing singing of his ayahuasca songs and the rhythmic rattling of his leaves, I didn't get trapped in the idea of the trees as mantises. I was also able to see them as trees, emerald and glistening and full of spirit, not malice. Besides, I sensed that they weren't what the voice meant when it asked if I was afraid to see what I had coming.
The colors and motion and patterns which normally dissipate after a few minutes, didn't. Rather, they intensified.
I saw lines of light, thin as lasers and individual, connect my fingers, connect the bark boarding in the floor, connect ceiling beams.
I tried to shake them off-they were like spider webs and slightly terrifying-but they were sticky and wouldn't shake free. Then I realized they were coming from on top of my head-not the top, but from above my head, as if there were a tube coming out of my head eight or 12 inches high and these lines of light were coming from that-zing! zing! And I knew they weren't bad, they were great. I didn't have control over how to shoot them out of me but I knew they came from me, like I was seeing the lines of energy around me in a way that was clearer than I'd ever seen them before.
I thought Julio was wonderful; sitting in utter darkness, a shape, a mass of sorts. I knew where he was sitting but couldn't make him out. I knew the singing in the air was his voice but it didn't come from him in any way I could identify. It was just sort of everywhere. Not loud, but thick, like a blanket that covered everything, or protected everything in our little kitchen circle.
I started thinking about Marco, was aware that I was in touch with the voice but wasn't in control at all, or calm enough to get past the images and patterns, the extraordinary lines of light.
And then, out of the blue, I felt my stomach clench. I leaned forward and crawled the two meters to the edge of the kitchen floor to throw up. The vomit came out of me like cannon fire, thick and hot, and blew into the night.
Then again. And again, like repeating cannon fire, four times, five times, 10 times until I was empty and tearing and snot was pouring out of my nose and I was exhausted and spent and it was all I could do to lean against one of the house pillars while on my knees and stare at my vomit down below the house. I thought I might see things in it, like a mirror, but all I saw was the dark, shimmering fan-like shape the liquid made on the ground below.
I gathered myself up and returned to my seat, my head empty except for laughing at myself for getting so beat up by a little puking session.
I began to think about Marco again, about what made him ill and how
to make him better. The snake in my stomach writhed a little and I said
hello to it.
I realized it was the motion of the muscles of a snake, a huge snake I couldn't dream of seeing in entirety, it was like the snake mother, the same snake prayed to by the Hindus and the pre-Dravidians, the naga, or one of them. Or if not a naga, still the spirit of ayahuasca. Julio had once told me that if you see it you can ask it anything, so I asked, from within the muscles of the beast, to help tell me what was wrong with Marco and how to cure him.
Almost instantly I saw Marco in the writing muscles of the snake, in the folds of the muscles and a voice told me to get him, to take him out of where he was.
I asked what that meant and was told I had to save him, that time was running out. I called to Marco and he answered. I saw where he was and went to get him; the folds of the snake's muscles shifted and he wasn't where I saw him anymore.
The voice said to take this all very seriously, that I was to save Marco
or lose him.
But I was told just to do it or lose Marco. He was, I somehow new, though it was a new idea for me, in someone's power, whatever that means. I told the voice that I didn't know how to save Marco, and it answered that I should use everything I had.
I said I didn't have anything for this sort of fight. It said it had given me everything I needed.
Suddenly, I remembered my song and my snake and I thought about those thin white lines of light coming from my head and fingers and knew I had those things at least and it seemed reasonable that they might be powerful in this setting for this fight.
So I called to Marco again in the shifting mud or muscles-the place he was was clearly a snake's sort of muscles. twisting and shifting like a Chinese puzzle that opens all sorts of different ways but rarely like you expect.
Marco answered and I went for him; when I got to where I thought he'd be he was gone again, in a flash. I heard him and pushed through the folds to reach him. The thing were in moved again and he was gone. He was being moved and held. He had his voice but not the strength to come to me.
I wondered whether I wasn't deluding mvself, that it wasn't Marco at all but just my arrogance leading me to believe I was in some sort of battle for his soul that was manifesting in his disease.
Marco called to me in English suddenly, asking me something. I forget the phrase now, but it was something like "Hurry dad, I don't like it here."
And then I knew that it was all fairly real. or real on some level.
His voice was so unexpected, so chilling, something I didn't and couldn't have expected him to say. So I went after him again. Each time I did the great snake writhed. It was so huge that a slight shift would move Marco. I mean I couldn't even see the bottom or top of the snake. It was bigger than my field of vision.
I opened my mouth and sent my own snake out-not like I cive orders, just asked if it could help, but it seemed to know what to do before I even thought anything, and just when I opened my mouth it flew out to help find Marco and I sang: Na na na na na na na na, na na na nana nana na ... and singing seemed to open the coils so I could see Marco clearly, finally.
But whatever was holding Marco was strong. It would rather let him die than come to me.
I had to fight hard, to will him to come. For five minutes or two years I searched for him, found him 50 times and 50 times he disappeared.
Once I almost reached him, in a fold to my left, and he said something like, "C'mon, dad" and then when I almost had him he was gone again and I couldn't hear him or see him for a long time and the voice told me to keep looking, to take this seriously, and I did and he was far away again when I found him, and when I got within earshot I heard him crying for me to help him, that he didn't like it and couldn't move. And then the lines, the lines of light. I tried to make a lot of them to shoot to him but I couldn't. But a few did come out and must have grabbed him because he was suddenly near and I reached for him and was able to grab his hand.
But then, as I did and was pulling him across some line, or out of the snake's coils or out of the grip of whatever had him, a kind of chasm opened up and I wasn't holding him tight enough and he slipped and began to fall.
And the voice said not to lose him now, so I sent my snake, or my snake went, and I sang Na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na ... and some light lines reached out for him and we all grabbed him but something wasn't letting us just take him. Something was keeping him from me.
I opened my eyes.
The voice told me Marco would die if I didn't get him now. So I went back to the battle and told him to reach for me. To grab the snake and the lines, to get free.
And each time I sang the void, or chasm, not moving like the snake all around it, seemed to give him up a little and so I sang and sang and reached with the lines until finally I had him in my arms. And I held him tight. Not really him, but like the spirit of him and I knew he was free and I had somehow won, though I didn't know how I'd known what to do.
But then the voice told me I hadn't done anything yet, that I had to protect him or they would take him back. So I tried to make light lines to wrap him up, lines that would act as a barrier against anything trying to grab him. And I was hopelessly inadequate. I didn't have the power to spin such a web. I tried but couldn't. And then, unexpectedly, a new song came into me. I opened my mouth and notes started coming out, strong and vibrating and rolling up and down the scale like notes on a roller coaster. And then suddenly a web began to spin around Marco while he was in my arms: Fine, thin, strong coils of light. Bright light wrapping him like a mummy. I sang and I sang and the lines coiled tighter until he was glowing.
And I thought, good, now he's protected.
But the voice said no, I didn't have the power to protect him. Only Julio could do that and I better have Julio do it because the other people, the other force, was about to take Marco away in a rush, was about to attack.
And I knew I better have Julio sing a son2 to protect him, so I spoke out loud and asked Julio "Can you sina a song to protect my son?"
I interrupted him, I think and Julio asked me "What?"
But I knew I needed protection for Marco. and Julio said how could he sing for my son? And I said "Just sing a song to protect him."
He asked me his name. I said Marco. He asked me his age, I said seven. I told Julio that I'd been told to ask him to sing and then he did. A beautiful song. And I could feel Marco getting protected and when he finished I felt like Marco was saved.
I opened my eyes. I was exhausted and sweating and I felt stone- cold normal, like I'd used everything I had up and was empty.
And then I closed my eyes and the voice said I had been good.
I wondered how I'd won the fight. I don't have any power. But I knew it wasn't me, it was ayahuasca, or the cod of ayahuasca, or the good spirits working through me that had done the work and I had no right to arrogance.
Suddenly Joe of Joe's cafe appeared, or almost did and said, "You did -ood, kid" with a sort of wink, and my snake came back into my mouth, or actually I opened my mouth to let the snake back in and a snake started to come, but I realized it wasn't my snake and so I grabbed it. I realized I was very vulnerable now and spent and some bad spirits were willing to take advantage of my state of mind or exhaustion.
All sorts of snakes tried to come in. My own snake was still outside, until finally I could see, or sense it coming and it came in and slid down my belly easily. And I thanked it for helping and it sort of smiled.
I was proud a thankful and absolutely bewildered over the idea that I'd been in such a spiritual fight. It was like I now knew what the ayahuasca was and how it cured, like I'd been taught a great lesson.
But of course there'd be a price to pay. Now that I knew I might have to help people who needed it. I didn't mind the idea, it seemed a responsibility I was willing to assume, if called on. It's just that I had, and have, no idea if I can do it or if I'm just another jerk who think he's glimpsed something special.
Then I wondered who it was that might have put a spell on Marco. Just as I began to think the question, the image of his father, Lorenzo, sprung to mind. But why? He and Chepa had separated amicably shortly after Marco was born. Too. he and I were friends; he was happy that I'd been willing to be the father he hadn't been able to be.
And then almost as suddenly as he'd come to mind, he was gone and I was thinking past Lorenzo to his mother, Marco's grandmother. I didn't even know if she was still alive-I'd never met her, but I seemed to sense that maybe she was angry that we hadn't brought Marco to see her all this year and maybe it wasn't brujheria but sort of misguided love and longing that became like long nails clutching him until they'd grabbed part of his soul in the moment of his fall.
Just then Julio interrupted my inner vision and asked me if Marco had fallen before he got sick. I said yes. He said I'd better see a doctor about it.
And I saw Marco's head and without thinking I bent down and sucked out a red, wet, fleshy lump. It came out easily and I was going to spit it out. But I remembered something I'd once heard an elderly Native American medicine woman say : ìYou can't just suck out bad things and throw them away or they will land on someone else-negative things have a life of their own"-so instead I imagined putting it in a rock and sending it to space and burying it in a barren place where such things were put.
The sucking out was so simple and clean that it was amazing. The sensations were real, the fleshiness an absolute surprise. And I felt I'd done something good. Not with arrogance, just that I knew how to do it now and again I was exhausted.
I kept reminding myself that I shouldn't be prideful; that whatever was -oing on was happening with the help of benevolent spirits. I tried to realize my position honestly: That Julio was a good teacher. Strong and kind and that he had helped me access helping spirits.
I thanked the spirits and tried to see Marco. I saw him in bed with Chepa and Momma Lydia and he'd gotten better and Momma Lydia was laughing and she covered her face with her hands and Chepa was crying and Marco was saying: "I'm better, okay? I'm not sick anymore."
And I was happy. Exhausted but happy. What an extraordinary night.
There was just one more thing. I'm not sure when it occurred, but it was sometime after the battle and before I went to steep. I was thinking about Marco and how he was saved and how Chepa and momma Lydia were happy he was better, and then the voice said: "You've saved him. But that doesn't mean he's physically better. The physical effects of the misguided love that clutched him are real.
He'll still have to get better from those." Something like that. A bringer back to earth if ever there was one.
The following morning I returned with Fernando to Genero Herrera. When
I reached Iquitos the next day I raced to our little house, hoping that
the last thing the voice had told me was something I'd invented. It wasn't.
Marco looked the same as he had: all swollen from the steroids. So while
I felt he was better, that the battle had been real on some level, I had
no way of knowing for sure. I did gain a measure of confidence when Marco
asked me, later on during the day of my return, whether that was me who'd
come to him in his dream, and was wrapping him up in light. I told him
We returned to New York two weeks later. The doctors at the Cornell Medical facility continued his treatment of prednisone but like Dr. Rivas, had no explanation for the condition. Six months later Marco was finally able to get off the steroid without his kidney throwing off protein. And with the exception of a one month relapse he's been fine ever since.
This document Copyright Peter Gorman