The first time an Ashaninca man told me that he had learned the
medicinal properties of plants by drinking a hallucinogenic brew.
thought he was joking. We were in the forest squatting next to a
bush whose leaves, he claimed, could cure the bite of a deadly
"One learns these things by drinking ayahuasca," he said.
he was not smiling.
It was early 1985. in the community of Quirishari in the Peruvian
Amazon's Pichis Valley. I was twenty-five years old and starting a
two-year period of fieldwork to obtain a doctorate in anthropology
from Stanford University. Me training had led me to expect that
people would tell tall stories. I thought my job as an
anthropologist was to discover what they really thought, like some
kind of private detective.
During my research on Ashaninca ecology, people in Quirishari
regularly mentioned the hallucinatory world of ayahuasqueros, or
shamans. In conversations about plants, animals, land, or the
forest, they would refer to ayahuasqueros as the source of
knowledge. Each time, I would ask myself what they really meant when
they said this.
I had read and enjoyed several books by
Carlos Castaneda on the uses
of hallucinogenic plants by a "Yaqui sorcerer." But I knew that the
anthropological profession had largely discredited Castaneda.
accusing him of implausibility, plagiarism, and fabrication.1
no one explicitly blamed him for getting too close to his subject
matter, it seemed clear that a subjective consideration of
indigenous hallucinogens could lead to problems within the
profession. For me, in 1985, the ayahuasqueros' world represented a
gray area that was taboo for the research I was conducting.
Furthermore, my investigation on Ashaninca resource use was not
neutral. In the early 1980s, international development agencies were
pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the "development" of
the Peruvian Amazon. This consisted of confiscating indigenous
territories and turning them over to market-oriented individuals,
who would then develop the "jungle" by replacing it with cow
Experts justified these colonization and deforestation
projects by saving that Indians didn't know how to use their lands
I wanted to argue the contrary by doing an economic,
cultural, and political analysis showing the rational nature of Ashaninca resource use. To emphasize the hallucinatory origin of
Ashaninca ecological knowledge would have been counterproductive to
the main argument underlying my research.
After two months in the field, I experienced an unexpected setback.
I had left Quirishari for ten days to renew my visa in Lima. On
returning to the community I was met with indifference. The
following day. during an informal meeting in front of the house I
was staving in. people asked whether it was true that I was going to
return to my country to become a doctor. The question surprised me,
as I usually described my future profession as "anthropologist,"
rather than "doctor."
To avoid any confusion
with "'medical practitioner."
It turned out that several employees
of the governments development project, the Pichis-Palcazu Special
Project, had come to Quirishari in my absence and Inquired about my
activities. In answer the people showed them my file containing
samples of medicinal plants. The project employees then scolded the
inhabitants of Quirishari for being naive Indians - did they not
realize that I was going to become a doctor and make a fortune with
In fact I had been classifying these plants to show that the
forest, which seemed "unused" to the experts flying over it in
airplanes, represented a pharmacy for the Ashaninca, among other
things. I had explained this to the inhabitants of Quirishari at
the beginning of my stay. However, I knew that any further
explanation would only confirm their suspicions, as I was truly
going to become a "doctor."
I therefore proposed to put an immediate
stop to the collection of medicinal plants and to entrust the
contentious file to the community's primary school. This settled the
matter and dissipated the tension in the air - but it also removed one
of the empirical bases on which I had been hoping to build a thesis
demonstrating the rational nature of Ashaninca resource use.
After four months of fieldwork I left Quirishari to visit the
neighboring community of Cajonari, a seven-mile walk through the
forest. The inhabitants of Cajonari had let it be known that it was
not fair for Quirishari to have the exclusive monopoly on the
anthropologist who was giving "accounting" classes. These were
actually informal arithmetic lessons that I had started to teach at
the community's request.
People in Cajonari gave me a warm welcome. We spent several evenings
telling stories, singing for my tape recorder, and drinking manioc
beer, a milk)- liquid that tastes like cold, fermented potato soup. During the day we did arithmetic, worked in the
gardens, or listened to the songs taped the previous evening.
Everyone wanted to listen to their own performance.
One evening in front of a house half a dozen men and I were drinking
manioc beer and chatting in the twilight The conversation veered to
the question of "development," a daily subject in the valley since
the arrival of the Pichis-Palcazu Special Project and its $86
million budget. In general the Ashaninca expressed frustration,
because they were continually being told that they did not know how
to produce for a market, whereas their gardens were full of
potential products and everyone dreamed of making a little money.
We were discussing the differences between Ashaninca agriculture and
I already understood that, despite their
apparent disorderliness, indigenous gardens were polycultural
masterpieces containing up to seventy different plant species that
were mixed chaotically. but never innocently. During the
conversation I praised their practices and ended up expressing my
astonishment at their botanical mastery, asking,
"So how did you
learn all this?"
A man named Ruperto Gomez replied.
"You know, brother Jeremy, to
understand what interests you, you must drink ayahuasca."
I pricked up my ears. I knew that ayahuasca was the main
hallucinogen used by the indigenous peoples of Western Amazonia.
Ruperto, who was not turning down the calabashes of beer, continued
in a confident tone:
"Some say it is occult, which is true, but it
is not evil. In truth, ayahuasca is the television of the forest.
You can see images and learn things."
He laughed as he said this,
but no one else smiled.
"If you like, I can show you
I replied that I would indeed be interested.
Ruperto then launched
into a comparison between my "accounting" science and his "occult"
science. He had lived with the Shipibo. the northern neighbors
reputed for their powerful medicine. He had followed a complete
ayahuasquero apprenticeship, spending long months in the forest
eating only bananas, manioc, and palm hearts and ingesting huge
quantities of hallucinogens under the watchful eye of a Shipibo
He had just spent eight years away from Cajonari, over
the course of which he had also served in the Permian army - a source
of personal pride.
On my part, I had certain prejudices about shamanism. I imagined the
"veritable" shaman to be an old wise person, traditional and
detached - somewhat like Don Juan in the Castaneda books. Ruperto the
wanderer, who had learned the techniques of another tribe, did not
correspond to my expectations. However, no old wise person had
stepped up to initiate me, and I was not going to be choosy.
had made his proposal spontaneously, publicly, and as part of a
bargain. In return I was to give him a special "advanced" accounting
course. So I accepted his offer, especially since it seemed that it
might not materialize once the effects of the beer had worn off.
Two weeks later I was back in Quirishari, when Ruperto appeared for
his first private lesson.
He told me before leaving,
"I will return
next Saturday. Prepare yourself the day before, eat neither salt nor
fat, just a little boiled or roasted manioc."
He returned on the appointed day with a bottle full of a reddish
liquid that was corked with an old corncob.
I had not followed his
instructions, because, deep down, I did not really take the matter
seriously. The idea of not eating certain foods before an event
seemed to me a superstition. For lunch I had nibbled a bit of smoked
deer meat and some fried manioc.
Two other people had agreed to take ayahuasca under Rupert's
direction. At nightfall, the four of us were sitting on the platform
of a quiet house.
Ruperto lit a cigarette that he had rolled in
notebook paper and said.
"This is toé."
He passed it around.
known at that point that toé is a kind of
datura. I would perhaps
not have inhaled the smoke, because datura plants are powerful and
dangerous hallucinogens that are widely recognized for their
toxicity. The toé tasted sweet, though the cigarette paper could
have been finer.
Then we each swallowed a cup of ayahuasca. It is extremely bitter
and tastes like acrid grapefruit juice. Thirty seconds after
swallowing it. I felt nauseated.
I did not take notes or keep time during the experience. The
description that follows is based on notes taken the next evening.
First Ruperto sprayed us with perfumed water (agita florkla) and
tobacco smoke. Then he sat down and started to whistle a strikingly
I began seeing kaleidoscopic images behind my closed eyes, but I was
not feeling well. Despite Ruperto's melody, I stood up to go outside
and vomit. I laving disposed of the deer meat and fried manioc
remnants. I returned feeling relieved.
Ruperto told me that I had
probably eliminated the ayahuasca also and that, if I wanted. I
could have some more. He checked my pulse and declared me strong
enough for a "regular" dose, which I swallowed.
Ruperto started whistling again as I sat down in the darkness of the
platform. Images started pouring into my head. In my notes I
describe them as,
"unusual or scary: an agouti [forest rodent) with
bared teeth and a bloody mouth; very brilliant, shiny, and
multicolored snakes; a policeman giving me problems; my father
Deep hallucinations submerged me. I suddenly found myself
surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet
I was terrified.
"These enormous snakes are there, my eyes are
closed and I see a spectacular world of brilliant lights, and in the
middle of these hazy thoughts, the snakes start talking to me
without words. They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my
mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of
It is profoundly true that I am just a human
being, and. most of the time. I have the impression of understanding
even-thing, whereas here I find myself in a more powerful reality
that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not
even suspect existed. I feel like crying in view of the enormity of
Then it dawns on me that this self-pity is a
part of my arrogance. I feel so ashamed that I no longer dare feel
ashamed. Nevertheless, I have to throw up again."
I stood up feeling totally lost, stepped over the fluorescent snakes
like a drunken tightrope walker, and, begging their forgiveness,
headed toward a tree next to the house.
I relate this experience with words on paper. But at the time,
language itself seemed inadequate. I tried to name what I was
seeing, but mostly the words would not stick to the images. This was
distressing, as if my last link to "reality" had been severed.
Reality itself seemed to be no more than a distant and
I managed nonetheless to understand my
feelings, such as,
"poor little human being who has lost his language
and feels sorry for himself."
I have never felt so completely humble as I did at that moment.
Leaning against the tree, I started throwing up again. In Ashaninca,
the word for ayahuasca is kamarampi, from the verb ka ma rank, "to
I closed my eves, and all I could see was red. I could see
the insides of my body, red.
"I regurgitate not a
liquid, hut colors, electric red. like blood. My throat hurts. I
open my eyes and feel presences next to me. a dark one to my left,
about a yard away from my head, and a light one to my right, also a
yard away. As I am turned to my left. I am not bothered by the dark
presence, because I am aware of it.
But I jump when I become aware
of the light presence to my right, and I turn to look at it. I can't
really see it with my eyes; I feel so bad. and control my reason so
little, that I do not really want to see it. I remain lucid enough
to understand that I am not truly vomiting blood. After a while I
start wondering what to do.
I have so little control that I abandon
myself to the instructions that seem to be coming from outside me:
now it is time to stop vomiting, now it is time to spit, to blow
nose, to rinse mouth with water, not to drink water.
I am thirsty,
but my body stops me from drinking."
I looked up and saw an Ashaninca woman dressed in a traditional long
She was standing about seven yards away from me, and
she seemed to be levitating above the ground. I could see her in the
darkness, which had become clear. The qualify of the light reminded
me of those night scenes in movies which are filmed by day with a
dark filter: somehow, not really dark, because glowing.
As I looked
at this woman, who was staring at me in silent clear darkness, I was
once again staggered by this people's familiarity with a reality
that turned me upside down and of which I was totally ignorant.
"Still very confused, I reckon I have done everything, including
rinse my face, and I feel amazed that I have been able to do all
this by myself. I leave the tree, the two presences and the
levitating woman, and I return to the group.
tell you not to drink water?'
I answer. 'Yes.'
'Are you drunk (mareado)?'
I sit down and he resumes his song.
I have never heard more
beautiful music, these slender staccatos that are so high-pitched
they verge on humming. I follow his song, and take flight. I fly in
the air. thousands of feet above the earth, and looking down. I see
an all-white planet.
Suddenly, the song stops, and I find myself on
the ground, thinking: he can't stop now.
All I can see are
confused images, some of which have an erotic content, like a woman
with twenty breasts. He starts singing again, and I see a green
leaf, with its veins, then a human hand, with its veins, and so on
relentlessly. It is impossible to remember everything."
Gradually, the images faded. I was exhausted.
I fell asleep shortly
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