I first encountered the Ashaninkan shaman Juan Flores within the Cinema de Indio, one of the magical* practices of the rainforest facilitated by the psychoactive brew ayahuasca. Even many years after that heady initial immersion in the vegetalista tradition of the Peruvian Amazon, I still contemplate Flores’ invitation to join him in the rainforest with wonder, and ambivalence.
It came in my final ayahuasca ceremony at Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction in Tarapoto, Peru, which utilizes shamanic medicine along with Western psychotherapy. My partner at the time, Susana Bustos, was doing her dissertation research there into the healing powers of icaros, magic melodies sung during ayahuasca ceremonies, and we were preparing to leave for another jungle town, Pucallpa. One of the curanderos there was expecting us: Juan Flores, who I had already seen in a photo, wearing a crown of brilliant feathers, half-smile on his lips, and an innate regality in his bearing, mounted on a wall along with images of other curanderos who had worked at Takiwasi.
If things had gone better with the introduction of Catholicism in Peru, many of the churches there might look like the maloca at Takiwasi. The essential shelter of the jungle, a maloca is a large, rounded structure with a thatched roof, whose open walls allow for the easy circulation of air while containing its inhabitants like a friendly spider’s web from the buzzing and humming of the jungle outside.
As an architectural synthesis of the traditional ways of the rainforest and Catholicism, the front of Takiwasi’s maloca is a chapel, where hang images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, El Senor de los Milagros (Peru’s cherished icon of the Crucifixion, executed in an Expressionistic style), and a gaudy, baroque St. Michael slaying a dragon. Yet instead of orderly pews, cushions on reed mats line the walls, a bucket beside each of them, and in place of an altar for Mass, there is a mesa where the psychoactive medicine of the rainforest, ayahuasca, is poured.
That evening, the patients of Takiwasi gathered, dressed in white. They were all men, from teenagers to old, gnarled campesinos. The leaders, Rosa Giove and Jaime Torres, took their places at the head of the room, bottles of ayahuasca, Agua de Florida, and tobacco before them, along with other ritual implements such as the shacapa, which would beat in our ears like the sound of wings in the night.
One by one, the patients and I went forward. Salud con todos, “Health with all,” we salute before drinking, the rest echoing back as a choir.
Raising a cup of ayahuasca to the lips is a practice of transubstantiation. Within the thick, bitter fluid, capable of provoking instant vomiting, is the taste of the salvific power of the jungle, of evolution itself. That night I drank as if I were thirsty, the liquid flowing down my throat like honey. I regarded the cup in wonder. Continue reading “You Get Told Exactly What You Need to Hear: A Visionary Summons to the Deep Rainforest”