After seven years of residence in the California Bay Area, Susana and I have pulled up stakes and moved back to Peru, where we have been acclimatizing and settling down for about a month now. Our intention is to stay for a year, perhaps longer, to immerse ourselves anew in the traditional medicinal practices of the rainforest. Susana has accepted a position at Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction in the town of Tarapoto, and intends to conduct further investigations into the therapeutic uses of plant medicines. For myself, I hope to find time to begin a new book, a work of fantasy set in the Middle Ages that explores shamanism from the Northern European tradition.
Culture shock, accompanied by a deep conviction of the rightness of our move, has characterized our experience since our arrival. It’s not that we were unfamiliar with the culture of the small towns of the rainforest, yet it takes some additional hard thinking when arriving, not as a tourist, but as a resident with our three year old daughter, Maitreya. Our days have been spent searching for a school that will not alienate Maitreya with values of “obedience” and “discipline,” or bore her with cognitive pedagogical approaches, as well as a home where we can have some peace from the constant buzz saw screech of moto-cars and the blaring stereos so loved of the folk in Peruvian frontier towns. Although one of our goals is that Maitreya grow up multi-culturally, able to speak more than one language, her entry into this strange new world fills her parents with care and apprehension.
In fact, Maitreya seems to be adapting better than either of us. She flows like water, adapting happily to one circumstance after another, and has been blossoming in her language and social skills. Watching monkeys scrambling up her back, or her exploring the torrents of the Shilcayo river, inspecting the plants and insects, and mustering herself to learn Spanish, is a joy.
Returning to the culture of vegetalista shamanism has also had its challenges. We have grown since our early days of apprenticeship and research within the tradition, and the world we knew has gone in its various directions as well, not always in accord with our hopes. For example, now that we arrived at our second site of pilgrimage, Mayantuyacu, we are reckoning with changes to the landscape that we had not expected.
Back in 2004, when I was documenting the shamanistic practices of the Ashaninkan curandero Juan Flores for my book, The Jaguar that Roams the Mind, Flores had a saying that captured the nature of his healing work.
Returning from the riotous din of the nearby frontier town of Pucallpa, he would turn to us with a smile and say, “The city for machines. The jungle for healing.” At such moments, speaking of his beloved rainforest sanctuary of Mayantuyacu, Flores’ face would light up from within, and he was capable of shedding bitter tears at the cutting of precious old growth medicinal trees on lands bordering his center for traditional medicine.
At that time, it was clear where Flores’ allegiance lay: the old ways. The traditions of the Amazonian peoples who lived in intimacy and conscious symbiosis with the mysterious lifeways of the rainforest.
One night, early on in my bewildered stage of adaptation to Mayantuyacu, Flores approached me after a ceremony with the visionary plant medicine, ayahuasca. Sitting with me on the floor, he described how his grandfather had taught him to make fire with the natural products of the rainforest. In Flores’ words, I heard that corridor open, the one that can very rarely be found nowadays, that leads directly back to our ancestors – those who knew not merely the utility, but the magic, of fire.
It was a good moment.
That was Mayantuyacu’s gift to the world: memory of the old ways, of the healing power and rapturous beauty of wild nature, just as it is. Mayantuyacu had the power to recall one to his or her aboriginal senses.
At that time, Mayantuyacu floated delicately upon a sea of foliage and jungle cries. The animals, snakes, and birds were populous. The insects voracious. With no electricity, Mayantuyacu gleamed with kerosene lamps and candles, suspended in a matrix of silence, so deep your bones relaxed in its embrace.
This was in keeping with another of Flores’ beliefs: the spirits don’t like noise, which is why they make their residence in the most tranquil, undisturbed places of the wild. If you want to get to know them, Flores said, you had to seek them out there. Which is why Flores built Mayantuyacu at a place of unique geological power and beauty: the geothermally super-heated river that flows beneath his center. The spirit boat, so well known in the Amazonian cosmology, filled with doctors and other supernatural beings, traveled up that river.
Mayantuyacu now presents something of a contrast to those early days. Seen from the ridge above, it no longer appears like an organic part of the landscape. At night, electrical light blazes in the main structures, and the sound of an electric generator reverberates in the night. Technology is making its creeping way into the settlement. We observed during our hike in that the shaman’s apprentice, Brunswick, is now addicted to fiddling with his cell phone. Ominously, a worker assured us, Mayantuyacu is “catching up with the times.”
Viewed in that light, Mayantuyacu is beginning to resemble just another frontier town, aggressively pursuing its growth at the cost of the surrounding landscape.
This is the perpetual question: will Mayantuyacu lose its original vision under pressure from the world outside? Will it become just another hub for the spiritual tourism market?
As the concrete continues to pour and the infrastructure develop to provide more comfort to visitors from afar, we watch carefully if the “mythic line,” that place of tending to the ancestors and traditional ways, has been frayed or broken. Put bluntly, is Flores still holding it together? Has the container of Mayantuyacu been broken?
Yet it’s all too easy to fall under the delusion of naive realism — that we must hew to some primitive standard in order to have a true culture of shamanism intact. As in so many places in the world, Flores is in a race of adaptation to mounting pressures from outside. Mayantuyacu borders an oil company’s holdings, and should the corporate eye fall too hard upon the sentient river that flows through his lands, the sacred waters could be diverted, and the music of the spheres end in mere noise. Thus the scientists and film crews visiting Flores’ center, seeking to document and save it, all of whom require electricity to power their equipment. As well, as Flores’ reputation spreads, groups of physicians and medical students will come seeking education in indigenous ways — and they cannot be expected to adapt to raw jungle living in the brief time they will have to immerse themselves at Mayantuyacu. They will need a modicum of comfort.
Mayantuyacu, therefore, presents a fascinating challenge -ou- an identical one faced by all beings who wish to live in communion with the original mind. Can we keep a balance between our necessity to adapt to the impersonal demands of the world economic system, and our original calling to immerse ourselves in the embrace of sentient Nature?
This strikes me as a battle now being fought on innumerable fronts, in innumerable ways, in every moment of our lives.
May the river be protected at Mayantuyacu. May maestro Juan’s work continue to flourish and spread in the world.