Our first visit to Takiwasi, the center for the treatment of addiction that utilizes the methods of Amazonian shamanism along with Western psychotherapy, and its host town, Tarapoto, was many years ago, in a quieter age.
Susana had arrived long before me, and developed a strong affinity with the work of the center – its compassionate approach to treating addicts, its commitment to the study of the native, traditional medicine of the rainforest, and the unique character of its founders, the doctors Jacques Mabit and Rosa Giove. When I had joined her there some years after her first visit, she was working as a therapist in the ample, tree shaded grounds of the center, doing her dissertation research, and soaking up the accumulated knowledge of traditional plant medicines and shamanic techniques utilized at Takiwasi to heal.
Back then, we rented a rustic, but very cargado (i.e., spirit-filled), house, around the corner from Takiwasi for a hundred bucks a month, and slept on borrowed mattresses, cooked on a borrowed stovetop, and invested in a few pots and spoons. We were on pilgrimage, then. When we left the center to continue on to Mayantuyacu, we simply put all our accumulated possessions in the back of a pickup truck and drove into the entrance at Takiwasi, where we gave them away to the staff.
Yet even then, Tarapoto could be loud. Even very loud, both with the chainsaw grind of the constant motorcars (rickshaws drawn by motorcycles) and the blasting of the rhythms of Peruvian dance music late into the night.
Peruvians, like aggressive teenagers, seemed to live by the motto, “I make noise, therefore, I am.” But no taste for silence appeared to develop in them with age (We have observed this conditioning to extreme noise begins very early in this culture, and have the theory Peruvians in the jungle towns are, if not physically, psychologically deaf.).
Yet all these factors, and a hundred other details which we had thought we knew about the mestizo (“mixed blood,” i.e. European/indigenous) culture of Tarapoto, were sadly out of date upon our arrival. On the economic front alone, the Peruvian economy had gone through a boom since our last stay in 2004. Prices are far higher, and the dollar now trades for substantially less.
I had also not fully factored in our own change in status. By virtue of arriving with a three year old girl with the intention of staying in one place for an extended time – involving schooling, decent housing, local community and friends, language issues, reckoning with local diseases such as parasites, etc. – we were no longer pilgrims, skimming lightly over the landscape. We had become immigrants, putting down roots.
Our cultural honeymoon ended upon our return from our annual pilgrimage to Mayantuyacu, which had been an exquisite immersion into the rainforest, with all the dropping of the defenses of the body and mind such work brings. We were open, and vulnerable, and deeply challenged immediately upon stepping out of the rainforest: Susana was required to make an emergency trip to Chile to care for her family, and Maitreya and I had to solo it in Tarapoto, shifting from one hotel to another.
The timing could not have been better to experience the extremes of culture shock. Tarapoto was celebrating its anniversary. Like an earth-shaking bombardment, a week of beer-sodden, music blasting parties began, lasting into the early hours of the morning. Maitreya and I, living in a tiny bungalow on the edge of the town, passed evening after evening in a surreal cacophony. A war against the air. As well, Maitreya had been mauled by insects during our time in the rainforest, and tossed and turned scratching all night as I applied lotions and battled with maddeningly unreliable internet service to attempt to keep up with my many online classes. Finally, there was the dengue epidemic. One day we watched a parade of school children following a slow ambulance, mourning the death of their school mates. It was scary. We were vulnerable.
Finally, a knocking on my door came one evening just as I had laid Maitreya down to sleep with her bottle. “They are here to spray against the spread of dengue,” I was told by the worried owner of the hostal. Men with backpacks full of chemical pesticides were roaming the streets and entering homes with blowers, filling the night with toxins against the mosquito population. There had been no advance notice, no opportunity to plan to escape from the fumes. It was an invasion. Without even a chance to dress Maitreya, I rushed her into the crowded streets like a refugee.
Mornings, after watching Maitreya bravely walk in her Catholic school uniform into her kindergarten class, dogged in her determination to learn Spanish, I would run errands through the sordid and ugly streets in the center of town. I kept repeating, like a mantra, W.B. Yeats’ lines from one of his final poems:
Those masterful images because complete,
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of the streets,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can
Old iron, old bones, old rags,
that raving slut who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start.
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
It was my way of keeping heart.
After the purity of the rainforest, in the midst of a total recalibration of my senses to a mestizo culture of Tarapoto, I hit bottom. Choking on pollution and noise and plastic and scattered beer bottle caps littering the streets, I knew where I was on the anthropologist’s map. After all, I had just taught that very subject at the Academy of Arts University. I was moving though the phase of acculturation where the honeymoon of fresh, new impressions ends, and the trapdoor of undisclosed, nasty reality opens beneath your feet. The question was – was it worth making it to the other side?
When Susana returned a week later with her own saga, she found me badly frazzled and Maitreya distressed. We had lost ground.
Then the hardest of the blues began to pass. We found a house, on the outskirts of town (what the motorcar drivers call “la jungla,”) which came through to our rescue at the ultimate moment, and moved into its cavernous spaciousness and began luxuriating in the sound of authentic quiet – the chirping of birds in trees. Monkeys even clambered through the open grounds.
We bought a refrigerator. A double sized mattress. A set of dishes, pots and pans. We began decorating the house and giving it a spirit of home. We had some furniture made of bamboo. Around the corner, we found the Hotel Rio Shilcayo, to whose lovely pool, by a stroke of luck, we were given free access, and Maitreya’s swimming skills accelerated rapidly. That is along with her Spanish skills. Although still balanced towards English, Maitreya is actively assembling the components of Spanish. Sometimes she wakes up speaking in Spanish, or fires off complex grammatical constructions that I have yet to master. She even now occasionally corrects my pronunciation – “It’s Perú, Dad, not Péru.”
Susana’s work at Takiwasi has also flowed into a productive channel. She is back in her “salsa,” engaged in individual therapy with patients, and supervising the therapeutic team. She comes home energized after a good day, with the air of someone doing work they love. As well, she has begun digging into her second motivation in coming to Takiwasi – to continue her research into the vegetalista tradition, especially to look more closely at the psychodynamic effects of other plants used in dietas and purgas here. It still goes generally unacknowledged that ayahuasca is only one medicinal plant among many here. Each plant in the vegetalista tradition has its own character, or signature, and works on the human psyche/body in a unique way. The healing effects on the psychic structure of plants such as chiric sanango, azucena, rosa sisa, tobacco, tamamuri, came renaco, and many others remain largely unknown to Westerners. I began teaching meditation in the exquisite Zen Buddhist dojo that Takiwasi, in a gesture of true ecumenicism, built some time ago. The patients have taken to the practice with gusto, and have been actively requesting more focused instruction! I’ve also been doing another kind of sitting along with patients — purgas and ceremonies with ayahuasca. More on the unique work of Takiwasi in a future post.
Even as I write, Susana is back at Mayantuyacu for a graduation ceremony of Juan Flores’ senior students, where, among other things, she is conducting interviews and documenting the event.
And I made a discovery some days ago: free time. As I spent a morning assisting Susana in a holotropic breathwork session with a client at Takiwasi, I was struck that for the first time in memory, I did not feel pressured to get something done so I could begin on something else. Time had gone from a narrow corridor to an open chamber, and I could breathe more deeply. My stress level had dropped, and each thing was beginning to resolve itself into having its own natural rhythm. The fact is, I now believe we made the right decision to return to Peru. There are still factors that await resolution, which we are praying upon, but we have arrived in this land and begun to thrive.
Thank you, friends, for reading this. I should mention that, like expectant parents, we are looking forward to the birth of our new book, The Shamanic Odyssey: Homer, Tolkien, and the Visionary Experience. It is due out in December! We hope you will enjoy it.