LIANA DE MUERTE
"He had a patience without pause. " The Autumn Of The Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
It descends infinitely slowly, commencing at the crown, moving inexorably toward the feet, and Earth. Unstoppable, a feeling of immense force descending overwhelmingly with heaviness and nausea.
I remember a time, many winters past, during the time of college studies and discovery, before responsibility.
It was the time when I used to careen down boulevards on the two-wheeled chariots. I remember one in particular. That one did not have the lightning quickness of a Kawasaki, or the rolling smoothness that Honda had then.
I rode a Harley-Davidson Sportster. A Great Heavy Hog. Low to the ground, bulky with a ton of iron, yet like no bike I'd ever ridden. I'd open the throttle and that Hog felt unstoppable. Like the Great God-A-Mighty Hand of The Lord was right in back, pushing.
I felt the power of Ayahuasca for the first time like that.
Arrived at Don Emilio's Casa by the banks of the Rio Puyo, on the afternoon of the day following my initial Ceremonia De Limpia. After paying the 'taxi' driver, I proceed with some hesitancy up the gangplank to the Curandero's porch.
Meeting me at the old wooden door held in place by a log, smiling, Emilio's arms are wide open in a joyful embrace. Although we have met only recently I feel a warmth that flows between us and a strange connection with this man who is a virtual stranger yet at another level quite intimate.
He is wearing a tank-top, jogging shorts, hair in a braid, a kind of bouffant at the crown held in place by a woman's comb.
Eagerly, Emilio ushers me in and drags me near the fire to show me what he has gathered. By a stand of fire-burnt smoky black pots lie three bundles of moist plants.
The first is a thick liana, a vine, cut in one-foot lengths, between one and two inches in diameter, ropy texture, and at the cut-points, small dark circles within the vine. Banisteriopsis.
The next bundle, a stack of medium-sized, green-veined leaves on thin branches. This Emilio calls Yaje, or Yajeponga. It is added to the Ayahuasca concoction to increase the power of the visions.
The last batch, larger leaves, bushy and flat, silky smooth, is Huayusa, a blood purifier. He instructs me on how to make a tea with these leaves to drink for the next several days.
Don Emilio takes out a pot, about eighteen inches in diameter, a foot deep, and taking a length of vine in his hand, twists it to separate the wood. He shows me how to open up the roots for cooking and how to place them in the pot. Layers of vine, then layers of Yaje, one on top of the other.
I do this while he goes to prepare a large cauldron of Yucca tubers over a fire. These will be used for making Chicha, a local fermented beer.
While both pots are cooking, Emilio leaves for long periods to visit neighbors. The Ayahuasca is ready after two hours. Removing the roots and leaves, he covers the pot and sets it aside to cool. In the early evening, the Yucca tubers are cooked. Emilio brings out a large flat wooden wheelbarrow-shaped thing without the wheel, kind of like a trough. He sets it in the middle of the porch and we sit facing each other across the empty vessel.
Dumping the hot tubers in the trough, every once in a while eating a few and grasping a large wooden pestle, we take turns mashing the white steaming tubers to a pulp.
Now and then the Shaman takes a mouthful, chews, then spits the liquid back in the pile. I do likewise knowing I'll be drinking some of this later, hoping nobody has hoof-and-mouth disease around here.
Smiling proudly, he exclaims that his Chicha is muy dulce, very sweet, and people come from as far as Guayaquil, in southern Ecuador, just to drink it!
Time and again, neighbors and family stop by the shack for conversation, company and to drink from a vat of already fermented Chicha. Many children just come by to sit and watch. The community feels close, casually social and intimate.
At first feeling shy and a little nervous, their simple hospitality relaxes me and I feel welcomed and accepted.
The men tell me that the Ayahuasca is only to be taken late at night. They like to speak of their experiences.
An old grizzle-bearded man describes how the vine taught him the ways for stalking the jaguar and how to hunt other animals for food. He says the spirits of the animals appear to him and speak as he laughs with remembrance of his midnight madness.
Another younger native, inbetween sips of Chicha, chuckles as he recounts growing up drinking the jungle juice, learning how to grow certain vegetables and how to find helpful plants in the selva, and more about the shared craziness of dark visions, and howling at the moon.
As they each eventually wander away to their bungalows and families they all wish me Buen viajes, "Good journey!"
Peter Mathiesson writes in his novel, At Play In The Fields Of The Lord, that, in small South American villages, when a new radio is purchased, it's turned on the moment it's plugged in. The radio then never stops untill it dies. Then the artifact is left in place as a sign of respect, or honor.
I have a similar impression this evening at Don Emilio's.
There seems a kind of social contract. Emilio puts on a tape, a loud and crackling sound that passes for Indigenous music, for all the neighbors to hear. When that tape finishes, another tape starts immediately at another hut. Then another.
This insanity continues until 3, 4, 5 in the morning. While trying to rest someone would keep playing music for the whole community. Merde!
Now around nine o'clock. I have brought three things Don Emilio requested the day before: First, packages of tobacco. The Indigenous call them, 'Full Blanco', the trade name, 'Full Speed'! A pure, unadulterated, organically-grown tobacco preferred for ritual use.
Interestingly enough I have encountered Native North Americans who prefer 'Bull Durham', a similar variety when they haven't used home-grown.
The next item, a bottle of Jockey Club Cologne. The Curandero was very specific on this, 'Regular' only. The 'Extra Strength' variety was mas fuerte, too strong, for ceremonial use. It had to be Jockey Club Regular. God! What Madison Avenue has done to foreign culture!
At any rate, this is the brand preferred by the majority of Shamans throughout this part of the selva.
The final item, a bottle of Traigo (Aguardiente). I brought a bottle of the mass-produced variety purchased at a local liquor store, and found out later that Don Emilio has much baser tastes and prefers the homegrown Traigo! That is called Puro, and is nearly 100% alcohol!
With all the condiments in hand he repaired to his room and set about preparing the Ceremonia de Limpia for me.
We start around 9:30 p.m. Similar to the day before, and different. I get wetter. And more objects rubbed over my body.
Don Emilio explained that the two jaw bones, the thigh bone and cranium were ancient Incan, and had great power. The larger one, jutting jaw and sloped cranium, looked to be simian. He assures me that it was gente, people.
The dark brown, thick liquid is in the cooking pot. All the vines and leaves have been removed. Floating pieces of vine and stem remain. It smells sour, and I marvel that so much water has produced so little liquid.
Emilio stirs the brew with a wooden ladle and simply mentions that it is more than enough as he pours about a quarter cup and, blowing smoke into it, offers it to me.
This is it. Afterward, no turning back. Commitment. I prayed; "Tunkashala Wakantaka, be gentle with me! Ho!"
Around eleven at night I drink the liquid. Sour, disgusting, vile, noxious; I gag. He pours a cup of aguardiente, hands it over to clear my throat. Then pours out another dose for my companeiro Journeyer, a young 13-year-old Indian boy.
Then another smaller portion a half-hour later. Nausea coming in waves, swirling through my guts.
It may be only the disgusting taste and fear in my mouth from the strangeness of it all, not only the medicine, the whole scene. Being here in foreign territory, no familiar environment and no salvation except trust. I feel like retching, my body in revolt.
Andrew Weil, a well known Vision Quester, states that this beverage is one of the strongest purgatives he has ever encountered.
Later that evening, through the early morning hours I suffer, am purged, explode. God, what a relief. Puking, crying, shitting. Afterward, an incredible sensation of rebirth, alive with vitality and energy. It all comes out in the wash.
As the heaviness sinks in I can barely move.
One thing I've found using various psychedelics is they seem to have individual characteristics. What I think of as roadmaps of the territory. I was totally unfamiliar with this one, this time. Another thing I have a tendency toward is to monitor and observe the effects even as I am experiencing them.
I am very aware of my body, and the turmoil and suffering. Aware of expectations I hold concerning visions, all the stories and tales related around this fabled beverage. Eventually must drop those expectations.
Feeling that I needed more, I ask the Shaman for another cup. Don Emilio sitting straight up in his chair, eyes casually alert, just smiles and simply replies, 'No'.
Chanting, he leans over and shakes leaves around my head.
The world slows down.
An intense, immense silent clarity spreads across my inner horizon. The moon and stars stand out in the midst of a lucid crystal vase. I feel composed, more clear in my thinking than I had ever been or ever imagined.
It's the kind of pure mental awareness that is like a slow snail crawling, no direction, no hurry, not going anywhere and doesn't need to arrive. There's perception for sure, and an unusual ability to discriminate, but along with that is a kind of tranquillity.
Tranquillity that begins on a Friday afternoon and before you can finish that two-scoop chocolate ripple ice-cream cone it's Monday morning.
I cannot tell if I have slipped into a trance state. Yet, there are things happening. I lie down, and hear an occasional cry or a shout from the young Indian boy.
Don Emilio is taking care of me, wrapping me in a blanket, whispering something in my ear. I am lurching for the door, wobbling down that wooden plank for the earth, and throwing up, my body in complete turmoil.
Finally, blissful sleep, at least in intervals, interrupted by the music continually booming from those damned radios all during the night.
Toward dawn, lying in a state of semi-consciousness, I reflect on how I, as a foreigner, a blanco, alone, knowing minimal Spanish, sat with two natives speaking a mixture of Shuar and Quechua with each other, feeling a little out of place, yet accepting the experience for what it is.
Feeling that congratulatory emotion that against so many odds, all the warnings of difficulty and danger, I had done it, entered this small village alone, found the shaman I was looking for, and found a way to begin working with this Amazon Ayahuascero.
Somewhere deep inside, I have this intuition that there is more to come. This is only the beginning. Where will this journey lead me next?
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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