The City for Machines, the Jungle for Healing

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 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. It is also a traditional site for his people — there is record of “wild Indians” gathering at the locale in the 1800’s.

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 inside and outside.

Inwardly, traditional curanderos are not immune to the seduction of “progress,” and their families often ratchet up the pressure upon them to pay the bills, educate their children, and leave a concrete inheritance once they, and their traditional knowledge, pass away. Comfort and convenience creep into precedence over reverence for ancestral ways. Some curanderos entirely abandon the idea of transmitting their cultural heritage to their video game playing, TV watching, internet surfing children.

Outwardly, Mayantuyacu squats upon land controlled by a Houston-based oil company, which has thus far cast a tolerant, even mildly benevolent, eye upon Flores. Should some other 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 more than a modicum of comfort.

Mayantuyacu, therefore, presents a fascinating challenge, perhaps 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 vocations that require immersion in the embrace of sentient Nature, especially among traditional healers?

This strikes me as a battle now being fought on innumerable fronts, in innumerable ways, in every moment of our lives.