B i o g r a p h y
    W r i t i n g s
    T o u r s
    E x p e d i t i o n s
    G a l l e r y
    S h o p
    L i n k s
    C o n t a c t

 

RED MAGIC
This story originally appeared in Shaman's Drum, in the Summer, 2000 issue
An Introduction to Ayahuasca Healing
by Peter Gorman


Red magic that moves within our blood,
Green magic that moves beneath the sea and through all the firmament,
White magic that fills the sky,
Black magic that dwells within the earth,
Protect us from all evil spirits,
Guide us to the other realms,
Teach us of the things that live on the other side.

— From an Ayahuasquero’s Song


The dirt floored ceremonial hut was dimly lit by a single small candle. Outside the Amazon sky was thick with cloud cover. If there was a moon it wasn’t visible. Don Ramon, a slight, seventy-year-old mestizo curandero, lit a mapacho, a black tobacco cigarette and by the light of his match Steven K, a 17 year old on his first trip to Amazonia, saw a movement on the ground. He asked me to shine a flash on it. I did, and there, sitting on a slightly raised mound of earth directly in front of the simple ayahuasca altar, was an immense tarantula. It didn’t recoil from the light of my flash, simply looked as though it were staring straight ahead at both Don Ramon and Don Francisco. It didn’t move, in fact, until Francisco brushed it out of the hut with a cedar branch. The seven of us all laughed once it was gone and took it as a good omen.

Some minutes later, Ramon began calling the participants to the altar one by one. With each he sang an icaro, an ayahuasca song, then served the foul tasting ayahuasca. Small portions for most as the group with me had very limited experience with the substance, and a normal three or four ounce serving for me. I was the last to drink aside from the curanderos, and could hardly keep it down, despite, or perhaps because, of my long experience with it. Once I did, I put a bottle of aguar diente infused with garlic and camphor to my nose to settle my stomach, then poured a small amount of Agua Florida into my hands and rubbed it vigorously into my face and scalp, in part to help keep from vomiting, in part as ritual holy water to keep mean spirits from entering me once the ayahuasca had opened me up.

I returned from the altar, sat on the dry earth floor of the hut, closed my eyes, waiting for Francisco and Ramon to drink, after which the candle was extinguished and the hut thrown into complete darkness. Within fifteen or twenty minutes the first of the ayahuasca twinkle-lights appeared behind my eyelids: yellow, green, silver dots of light beginning to connect in their familiar circus-like patterns. Moments later came the reds, and I suddenly felt an enormous fear well up within me: I had been dealing with the red lights, and what they represented and would become, for nearly two years now, and each time was more frightening than the last. I opened my eyes but they didn’t disappear. Instead, as if some power switch had been suddenly turned, on my whole field of vision, eyes open or closed, became filled with rapidly connecting red points of light that quickly formed themselves into a huge, swirling double-helix DNA thread that turned itself on its side and began rolling towards me. My dread increased. The doctors were coming to visit and I wasn’t ready for them. Wasn’t ready to die the little death again. Wasn’t ready to be taken to the red world, the red magic world of veins and blood and the doctors who could teach so much but demanded more than I could ever give. I wanted to stop right then, come down and save it for another night when I was better prepared, or at least less terrified. “Oh god,” I thought, “I can’t do this again. I don’t know how to let go like they want me to.”

It was no use, of course, I knew no antidote to ayahuasca. Worse, I felt my lips beginning to go numb, an indication that one of the admixes that had been included in brewing the ayahuasca was chiric sanango, which meant the experience was not going to last the normal two hours or so, but could well last the entire night or even into the morning.

Suddenly the fear I had became a realization that my group, my charges who had so little experience, were in much deeper than I’d intended. Worse, I was not going to be able to help them. We were going to hell. We were going to see god and be terrified for hours. We’d proably all learn a great deal by the time we came out of it but we were going to pay a terrible price to learn.

I wanted to sit up and shout to everyone that I was sorry. I’d asked Ramon and Francisco to make a stong ayahuasca but I’d never meant this. I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to do but remember to breathe and try not to panic. I was already having a hard time doing both.

I’d been drinking ayahuasca (1), the curative and visionary brew used by indigenous peoples and mestizo healers throughout lowland Amazonia, for fifteen years. It is both ubiquitous and vital to the region, as physical illnesses are thought to be the symptoms of disturbances on a non-physical level, or in a different reality, and curing them requires the ability to bridge the space between normal reality and that other plane, something ayahuasca is thought to facilitate. While medical doctors frequently treat the symptoms, curanderos and ayahuasqueros use their plants to access that other plane and deal with the disturbance there, curing the illness itself. For someone like me who had experimented with hallucinogens during the sixties and seventies, the allure of taking a natural plant that could deliver the user—or allegedly deliver the user—to other levels of reality was natural, and when it was initially offered to me during a jungle hike in 1984, I had no qualms about drinking it. That first experience involved, among other things, a kind of association with a bird, during which I glimpsed the world through what seemed to be the bird’s eyes while soaring over mountainous terrain. It was a view so startling that I knew I would drink ayahuasca again, given the opportunity. And as much of my work as a writer was generated in Amazonia, I was.

I generally drank once or twice a year until the mid-nineties— almost always with Julio Jerena, an old mestizo curandero (2) who lives two days upriver from Iquitos. Only in the past few years, since I moved my family from New York to Iquitos, Peru and began taking occasional groups of tourists into the jungle, in part for the ayahuasca experience, have I ever done it more than that. It was simply too physically and emotionally demanding to make me want to use it more often. The doctors, as I thought of them—though they were not human—and their red magic were fairly new to me, though looking back I could see a progression was in place for years that would lead me to them.

My early ayahuasca journeys, like the first, frequently involved the ability to associate and travel with animals. Not long after my initial experience, I was asked by my jungle guide Moises to drink ayahuasca and go find someone he thought lost in the jungle. To my utter surprise I associated with a snake and travelled up the little river we were on, saw the man he was after and returned to normal conscious state with the information—though I wasn’t sure it was not an hallucination—that the man was travelling with a friend in a canoe and would return by noon the following day. When the two men appeared at 12:15 the next afternoon I was astonished. It was my first exterior validation that what occurred under the effects of ayahuasca, or what I perceived under that influence, were not all hallucinatory but also visionary.

There were also lots of hallucinations, of course: monkeys peeling themselves out of bananas and turning into women beautiful beyond description; huge, glistening snakes whose scales were made by the colorful twinkling lights and so forth, but when I would see a burl on a tree and suddenly find myself going into it to an ant nest I believe I was actually seeing—somehow—a real ant nest at work. Similarly, when I regularly went—or was sent—to the funhouse of desires and fears, I felt I was tapping my real desires and fears, some of them buried so deeply I needed a funhouse atmosphere—complete with roller coasters, mirrors and clowns transforming into horrid twilight zone creatures—to face them.

Perhaps the oddest hallucination or vision event I ever had while under the influence of ayahuasca occurred one night in 1989 when I drank in response to a dream I’d had in which my father—dead twenty years—asked me to go to the world of the dead to find out why he couldn’t be with my mother—dead 12 years— anymore. Several days later and deep in the jungle, I drank ayahuasca with Julio with the intention of visiting the world of the dead. I didn’t know where it was or even whether such a place existed, but sometime during the night I found myself moving through dark, empty space at what seemed like a phenomenal speed, a trip interrupted when I banged into a wall of what seemed to be a thick cottonish gause. Imagining it to be some strange impediment keeping me from continuing to where I was going, I pulled at it, tore at it and finally screamed through it, calling to my mother. To my amazement the gauze in front of me began to take shape until I could see my mother, as I remembered her, standing before me. I looked at her, she looked at me.

“ You’ve got to stop calling me like this,” she said. “It’s so hard to come together in a shape you recognize as me.”

If ever I needed an emotional proof that ayahuasca produced more than hallucinations, that ayahuasca could bridge the gaps between worlds, and that, in fact, there were other worlds accessable to us mortals, it was contained in what she said. If I had made a list of one million things my mother might say to me upon meeting her years after her death, that would not have been among them. The concept of coming together in a shape I could recognize was simply not within the scope of anything I had ever thought, read, imagined or been taught. Her further conversation, explaining that my father certainly knew why they weren’t together now and that what had driven me to search for her was simply an innocent dream of my father, were easy to accept after her opening remarks.

Some time later—perhaps three or six months—another extraordinary experience occurred that I could not have imagined. I was in the early stages of ayahuasca influence, a period I almost always find very sexy, the space filled with very beautiful and alluring women, and one of them seemed to be calling me to her. Normally I avoid the women in this stage of ayahuasca because I assume they will distract me from the real work the plant has for me, but in this case the woman was so beautiful, her buttocks so perfect, that I decided to fuck her to see what that would be like. The moment I made my decision I felt myself flying toward her, but when I reached her, instead of my penis entering her vagina, my whole body slid inside and I found myself moving up inside her dark and moist tunnel. My surprise would normally have been enough to shock me back to my body, sitting on the floor of a jungle hut, but this time it didn’t. I continued to move up the tunnel—it was by now out of my will—and as I did I realized I was getting younger and younger, smaller and smaller and I was forgetting everything I knew, until I couldn’t feel my hands, couldn’t feel my feet, couldn’t feel anything. And then I hit the back wall of the tunnel and it was warm and soft and squishy and then Bang! some kind of gates closed behind me. I wondered what was going on for a little while until it occurred to me that I knew everything! And I did, in a clear way. Before I could think out a question I knew the answer—sort of like they taught us in catholic grammer school when Judgement day arrived and everyone will know everything, every thought and action of every other member of the universe. So that’s where I was and it was a fantastic thing. So fulfulling.

And then the gates opened and I started down the tunnel. And as I did I began to feel my fingers and toes and my body again but at the same time I began to forget what I’d just known. And by the time I came out of the tunnel, out of the womb, all I could remember of what I’d known was the immense sorrow of knowing that I could not remember anything. I was aware only that I had been aware of everything and that I now knew nothing. And of course with that was the birth scream, not of life but of this immense and intense sorrow that I had given up spirit for flesh. What a sense of loss when all I could remember is that I’d forgotten!

Each of these events drew me back to drinking ayahuasca, and because of the care he excercised with me, I continued to drink mostly with Julio. If anyone had asked me at the time I would have said that I felt I had a relationship—of some kind—with ayahuasca, as though the vine and leaves and barks Julio prepared had a life force accessable to those who ingested their essences. And I felt the relationship change over the years: where the first few trips were sometimes frightening but often fun in nature—travelling on the river as a snake and seeing the world through flattened eyes is just plain fun—travelling to the funhouse of fears and desires, meeting your dead mother or being born is simply terrifying. And that is how I described it to people who asked me: Worthwhile but occasionally terrifying, not particularly user-friendly.

Still, nothing prepared me for what occurred one night in 1990, while I sat with my old friends Moises, Larry LaValle and Julio on Julio’s open-wall porch.

Julio began the simple ceremony the way he always did. He’d prepared the bottle of dark brown ayahuasca during the day and by eight or nine at night it had cooled enough to drink. After some small talk about the height of the river for that time of year he had spread out a piece of blue plastic tarpulin on his porch floor, and on that had placed an old book written in Latin, the bottle of ayahuasca, a plastic cup, a bag full of mapachos (3) , his chacapa—a leaf fan used to clean people as well as to keep rhythm in songs and between songs—a bottle of aguar diente infused with camphor and garlic, a bottle of Agua Florida, and a small kerosene lamp. His things assembled he sat on a low bench near them; we sat in a sort of circle on the balsa-bark flooring around him. After a few minutes Julio lit a mapacho, opened the bottle of foul-smelling ayahuasca, chanted an icaro (4) quietly for a moment and blew the black tobacco smoke into the bottle. He repeated the process several times, then recorked the bottle with a dried corn cob, picked up his book and read a passage calling forth the spirits of Saints Cypriano and Sebastion—he’s never explained why and I’ve never asked—then began to chant as he prepared to serve us.

The liquid went down as it always does: with difficulty. The taste (5), something like a warm, thick essense of burnt grapefriut infused with tobacco smoke, is repulsive. I followed it with the smelling of the aguar diente and a good splash of Agua Florida, then sucked on a hard candy to eliminate the awful residue from my mouth. Larry and Moises followed suit and finally Julio served himself. A few minutes later he blew out the kerosene lantern and the hut fell into the darkness of a quiet jungle night. I closed my eyes and waited for the twinkling light show to begin.

A series of hallucinations, beginning with a monkey smiling at me, whose grin enlarged until it became a hideous mouth jabbering obsenities, passing through a visit with some Indian friends I’d been dreaming about and a trip to the funhouse of desires and fears culminated with an unexpected visit from my first wife, Clare. I hadn’t seen her in years—though she’d remarried I still occasionally missed her terribly—and her appearance surprised me. Moreso, her request that I stop holding on to her and simply let her go. When I told her I was trying, she repremanded me and told me that there was no trying, that the very idea of trying to let her go was keeping a part of us from moving on. I was simply to set her free forever.

Clare’s visit was so painful—and at the same time so direct and honest—that I thought it the lesson for the night and imagined that my visions were finished. They weren’t. Shortly thereafter a voice I’d never heard before, and one which did not come from a body of any sorts, said simply, “Hello.”

“ Who are you?” I asked, terrfied.

“ You know who I am,” it answered plainly.

I did. I felt it was the spirit of ayahuasca, or some spirit from some other place. It certainly wasn’t like talking with the spirit of my mother, or my ex-wife. It was nothing I’d come to expect from ayahuasca, a disembodied voice that had a purpose and it scared the heck out of me.

When I asked what it wanted, the voice responded that it was I who called it, that it was I who was always calling it. I told it that I didn’t mean to, that I was drinking ayahuasca just to be able to function better out in the jungle, to visit friends in distant places.... The voice cut me off and told me I was lying, that astral travel and visiting friends were simply parlor tricks it used to discover who really wanted to work. And since I kept returning it was for somethig more than parlor tricks. That I was really calling it because I needed to confront my desires and fears, and my immense sorrow.

I knew what the voice said was true, but it didn’t stop there. It asked if it could come into me, and I instantly had a vision of a snake wrapping itself around my head, and then my head opening, as if my brain had been cut in half. It looked like the honeycombs of a beehive and dozens of snakes appeared and began sliding into the tunels of my brain. At first it felt wonderful, as if an immense power were entering me, but in moments I began to grow afraid, not sure whether the snakes were good spirits or not. My fear mounted and I thought that if I allowed those snakes to disappear in my brain I would never get them out again. The thought was horrifying and I began pulling them out by their tails. I was somehow convinced that the voice wasn’t the voice of ayahuasca at all but of a malevolent spirit that wanted to take me over for some reason I couldn’t fathom. The more I fought the harder they were to dislodge. The harder they were to dislodge the more I was convinced that I would never be the same if I didn’t win the battle.

And then, the moment I got the last snake out I began to doubt my decision: I wondered whether or not I’d failed some grand test and began to feel small and ashamed. I asked the voice why it seemed to be testing me and it answered that it had already given me so many gifts that I should have some faith and trust. The voice didn’t sound angry or disappointed. It just said I shouldn’t ask for so much without giving anything in return. Then it disappeared.

The rest of the evening I felt smaller and smaller, as though my failure to accept the snakes were a reflection on my whole life, representative of all my failures. My ego was shattered mercilessly, and in trying to put it back together I had the awful realization that it was not only I who knew how small I was, but that Julio and Larry and Moises could see me for the pathetic and weak human being I was as well. And dwelling on that brought on the thought that the only way to keep them from telling everyone else, the only way to keep from being found out for who I was, was to kill them. And in that state it seemed quite normal that if I killed them with a machete and threw their bodies into the river, I could make my way back to Iquitos and claim there had been a late night fishing accident in which a cayman had knocked over our canoe. Of course by the time anyone could get to Julio’s to check on the others the river scavengers, from piranhas to vultures and cayman would have taken care of the bodies and left no trace of how I’d killed them.

Part of me told myself not to do anything like that. Part of me couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that the others would see me for the small and pathetic human I was.

Just then I felt warm smoke on my face and opened my eyes. Julio was standing over me, a mapacho in his hand. “You don’t have to do everything you see in an ayahuasca vision, Pedrito,” he said. “Still, I think I will take the machetes and put them away.”

Instantly I felt better. I felt horrible, actually, because I realized that on a very human plane he had seen me at my smallest, but better because of the simple way in which he had brought me back from a terrible brink.

It wasn’t until sometime later that I told Julio of the voice and the vision of the snakes. When I did he told me I’d probably missed a great opportunity, that it was rare that ayahuasca was so generous, and that if ever another snake wanted to come in I should by all means welcome it and make my body its home. An ayahuasca snake dwelling within me, he said, would not only serve to protect me from bad spirits, but on the physical level I would know who bad people were the minute I met them—sometimes even when I just saw them on the street—and so could avoid bad or troublesome confrontations.

Naturally I began looking for snakes from that moment on, and of course, even when I saw them—quite common under the influence of ayahuasca when taken out in the jungle—none had the least interest in entering me. It wasn’t until early 1993, in fact, that a snake came into me, and by that time I had stopped looking for one.

I’d been commissioned to do some medicinal plant collecting on the Yavari river, the border between Peru and Brazil, a political and geographical no man’s land. I’d been on the river before, but this trip was going to be different because I would be captaining my own boat, a trip I estimated would take a month, most of that in territory where small villages or military outposts would be at least one boat-day apart.

I’d rented a small Brazilian riverboat, the Rey David, a wooden-hulled 40 foot beauty with a 26 horsepower inboard deisel engine. My crew included the owner’s son, who would act as motorist, taking care of the engine, a driver who would share the driving duties with me, and a woman named Gilma Aguilar Chavez, who had grown up on the river—her family ran riverboats—and was one of the few people in Iquitos who knew the river and it’s treacherous currents well enough to keep us out of trouble.

But while the scenario was something out of Indiana Jones, the reality terrified me: I’d never had my own boat before, didn’t know if my estimates on time, fuel and food would be accurate, and I’d be carrying a beautiful woman to the Yavari—where pirates, terrorists, smugglers and boat hijackers were part and parcel of daily life. I decided to visit Julio and see if I couldn’t glimpse anything I should avoid while on the river.

While most of the evening’s experience didn’t seem noteworthy—most of the river imagery seemed calm—there was one point in the journey when I felt I was being attacked by dozens of goulish faces and didn’t know how to deflect them. I already knew—Julio had already taught me—that the spirits from the other side couldn’t physically cross the boundary into our world to hurt me, but I was still frightened by them. They were colorful, demonic images that weren’t in my sphere of sight as much as they were physically intimidating me. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, a large, thick boa appeared and began to consume and dispel them with a terrible ferocity, a bellowing, wild, uncontrolled fierceness that surprised me. The goulish visions, those the snake didn’t consume, scattered instantly, and in another instant the snake slithered quickly into my mouth, and down into my belly. l didn’t fight it. I don’t know that I could have. It was just suddenly there. And I knew, though it seemed strange to me, that I would have an ally for my trip.

Once we left Iquitos, perhaps a week after my trip to Julio’s, I didn’t give much thought—other than occasional amazement—to the idea that a spirit snake was living in my belly. The first four days on the river—the time it took to reach the Yavari—were so exhilerating that I didn’t give much thought to anything except the sheer excitement of having my own boat and being out on the Amazon. On the fifth day, the day we turned up the Yavari, I meditated on the idea of what an ally, if I really had such a thing, could do, but it wasn’t until the eighth night that I realized its power.

We were four days from nowhere, and hadn’t even collected our first plant yet, as the intention was to collect from local Indians and we still hadn’t reached the first Indian village. It was near midnight and we’d been warned at the last military outpost we’d passed that there was a pirate boat working the river. Because of that potential danger we kept going several hours after we normally would have tied up to a tree at riverside in an effort to reach the Brazilian military post of Peleton. But shortly before we estimated arrival, a single spotlight from a boat appeared just after the last bend in the river behind us, probably a mile back. We didn’t think anything of it until the light began gaining, and didn’t begin to panic until it wouldn’t respond to our signals to it.

The boat, one similar to ours but with much more powerful engine, took less than an hour to cut the distance between us. And, being weaponless except for machetes and knives, there was little we could do to keep it from approaching. When it reached us it pulled up directly alongside us. There were probably a dozen men on board, all of them drunk. They shouted at us to stop, and I asked my motorman what we should do.

“ They are probably going to kill us,” he said, “then steal our motor and sink the boat.”

“ So what should we do David?” I fairly shouted, absolutely scared and feeling utterly helpless.

“ I am going to go over to their boat and drink with them. I don’t know what you are going to do.”

“ And if I go too?”

“ They will probably still kill you.”

And with that he and my driver jumped onto the other boat. The men began to laugh at us, their faces almost cartoonish, almost goulish to me. And it suddenly occurred to me that those were the faces I’d seen when I’d been at Julio’s, and in that moment I silently called on the snake to help me if it were possible.

There was no real time to think. The men were about to come aboard and I knew I couldn’t let that happen. I told Gilma to get below deck to the crawl space—I didn’t think having a beautiful woman in full view would be in our best interests in the face of a dozen drunks without women—grabbed a machete and a knife, and with fear as my guide began to shout to the men in English that the first one to step on my boat would lose his hand. I said it out of complete terror, but it came out of me with a ferocity that surprised them enough to make them hesitate. So I said it again. I knew they didn’t understand my English but they seemed to be getting the point. Just then Glima appeared beside me.

“ What the fuck are you doing here?” I screamed. “I told you to hide.”

“ What do you have?” she said, indicating my weaponry.

“ A machete and a knife.”

“ Well,” she said, brandishing a machete, “now we have two machetes.”

And with that we both began shouting at them, daring them to step across. Thank god they didn’t, but for the next hour it seemed as if they would, until they either grew tired of listening to us or the alcohol exhausted them. In any event none of them boarded us and the scene finally became almost comical, with us—in an effort to get them to leave and knowing that they needed to save face in order to do that—explaining that they were indeed dangrous and could have killed us, but were intelligent enough to know that as a gringo I would have a paper trail and that killing me would certainly lead to their capture and subsequent demise.

They finally seemed satisfied that they’d frightened us sufficiently and had regained enough face to leave, and just before dawn they started their engines and moved off in the direction they’d come from. My two men rejoined us just before they pulled off—I couldn’t run the boat without them—congratulating us on the way Gilma and I had handled things, but I knew their congratulations belonged more with the snake than me: I do not believe my initial comments would have made the men hesitate, would have been powerful enough to make the pirates physically hesitate, if that ally had not given my voice an extra dimention that masked my fear with fearlessness.

The remainder of the trip, which lasted 31 days and covered more than 1,500 river miles, produced no similar experiences and in the end proved very successful: we collected a number of interesting medicinal plants, including a new species, and I ended up marrying Gilma shortly afterwards.

Even before my marriage, Iquitos felt like a second home to me: I’d spent two or three months a year there—or working in the jungle out of Iquitos—for ten years, but after my marriage there was no doubt about it. I adopted Gilma’s two young boys from a previous marriage, Italo and Marco, and looked more than ever for work there. I collected plants, I collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History, I wrote about the city and surrounding jungle and its peoples as often as I could, and my time increased to four or five months a year there.

Another American who had actually moved there in 1993 or early 1994 was Alan Shoemaker. Forty years old, bright, good looking and much more a student of ayahuasca—someone actually studying it rather than simply using it—than I, we quickly became friends. Alan had spent some time studying both ayahuasca and San Pedro, a desert cactus and one of the major Power Plants (7) used for curing in the Peruvian and Equadorian highlands, in Ecuador before moving to Pulcallpa in Peru to study ayahuasca there, an apprenticeship that eventually led him to Iquitos. There he studied and drank with different curandero’s than I did, though on occasion he had invited me to drink with him at the home of a young ayahuasquero named Juan who lived in a shanty town just outside Iquitos’ airport. On one of those occasions, probably in 1995, I got my first glimpse of healing magic.

Alan had received the terrible news that his mother had been diagnosed with liver cancer. Her prognosis was not good, and he asked whether I would be willing to drink ayahuasca with him at Juan’s to try to take a look at her ailment to see just how severe it was, and, if we were lucky, to see a cure.

It was a rediculous proposition on the face of it. I knew nothing about the human anatomy, certainly not enough to recognize a liver, and moreover one that was cancerous, during a visionary state, and I had never looked for a cure for anything while under the influence of ayahuasca. Still, it was my friend’s mother and he was worried, so I agreed. It was Alan’s idea, though I didn’t know it till afterward, that we would both look for his mother’s ailment, and, if we both happened to see something similar, he would have confidence in what he would later tell her. It was a desperate plan.

The evening we were to drink war clear but moonless. We arrived at Juan’s, a two-storey plank house that Alan had built for him, just before nine. Juan and his wife and children came out to greet us, along with two neighbors who were going to drink as well. As Juan, who’s ceremony was different but as simple as Julio’s, was not ready to serve us as yet, I spent a half-hour in his back yard—overgrown second growth jungle with a small stream running through it—thinking about what I’d been asked to do and asking my snake for any help it might be able to give me.

When it was time, Juan called me in, then began the ceremony. He offered his prayers and lit his mapachos, served us, then blew out the lights. Within a few minutes the twinkling light show had begun, and half-an-hour later I stepped outside to vomit—that glorious ayahuasca retch (6) that brinks up and eliminates some of the bile in our lives, then returned and began to concentrate on the work at hand. I couldn’t. Every time I thought I was on the brink of letting go I had the feeling that I was being watched. But I saw nothing—with my eyes closed—that intimidated or frightened me. No hallucinations, no visions. Still, I found it impossible to get comfortable and finally decided to open my eyes and reorient myself to the real world.

The moment I did I saw a movement in front of me to my left. I thought it might be Juan—I’d heard him leave to go vomit—but it wasn’t. It was more a shadowy, red-brown object that seemed to be moving toward me in stealthy, almost aikido-like slide steps. I was afraid but decided not to look away. The object came closer. I kept looking. Closer by another foot. Then another. And then I could make out that it was a crouched man, sliding across the floor to me. I thought my recognition of the spirit would make it disappear, but it kept coming, setalthily, moving side to side, about a foot at a time. I grew terrified. If Juan had been there I would have asked him to get rid of it, but Juan hadn’t returned. And the man kept coming. I had no idea what he wanted, so I silently asked. The answer was a simple and clear, “You.”

There was something horrible in the way that simple word was said. And at the same time my fear grew so did my anger at Juan. He was the one who’d made the ayahuasca, after all, he was the one who invited the spirits. He should have been there to insure that no malevolent spirits entered. He should have been singing his icaros and shaking his leaf rattle to keep them out. But he was nowhere in the room. There was nothing to do but confront this being, though I had no idea what that meant.

“ What do you want from me?”

There was no answer, just another slide step and suddenly the being was closer. And then, without asking for help, I felt my mouth open and out came the snake. It’s mouth opened wide and in a moment it had consumed the spirit and reentered my body. I relaxed almost instantly, and just as I did I remembered something that Alan had told me: if you see a spirit you should ask if it is your teacher. If it is, it will say so. If it is not it will go away. I had never seen a spirit with my eyes open before and don’t know that that would have worked but was angry at myself for having forgotten the lesson.

I remembered it a few minutes later when two women, a young girl and a woman old enough to be her mother, began walking across the room—Juan still hadn’t returned—snickering at me. This time I was still fearful but less so, confident that my snake was watching out for me. The women walked slowly in an arc, never coming closer than maybe ten feet, but there was something ominous about them. And as they reached the center of my vision they bent down and began to pick up stones, laughing with each other that they were going to kill me with them. I suddenly blurted out, silently, “Are you my teachers?” and just as I mentally uttered it their faces contorted to rage and they hurled their stones at me. But the stones turned to tissue as they flew from their hands and fell harmlessley to the floor of the hut. The women, still enraged, stepped away from the arc they had been making and disappeared into the darkness of the room. I said a silent thank you to Alan.

Juan reentered and began to sing. Sure nothing else was going to happen—I felt the lesson was to remember the lesson Alan had taught me—I relaxed and closed my eyes again. There was nothing but deep silence and the far away sound of Juan’s beautiful voice. And then I remembered Alan’s mother. The moment I did I felt the snake coming out and asked whether it could take me to her. I had no idea of where she lived except that it was somewhere in Kentucky, but that didn’t seem to matter. In moments I felt as though I was zooming through dark space on the back of the snake, and moments later, though I hadn’t seen the street or the house or even his mother, I was looking at the insides of a human, particularly at what looked like a brown over-stuffed, double-wide hero sandwich. I wasn’t sure but took it to be the liver. And on top of it, almost coming out of it, there was something that looked like a sausage, or several feet of sausage, all red and white and twisted badly. Some part of me, I won’t even begin to imagine how to explain it, picked up the sausage and saw that it wasn’t really growing on the liver, but rather was a tube into the liver and the sensation I had was that something was blocking the sausage from cleaning itself out. It looked to me—how, I don’t know, but I just sensed it—that if she could simply unblock that tube there would be no more cancer. I tried to imagine how she might do that and very simply the idea of Una de Gato(8) tea, with something else I didn’t recognize, came to me.

And then I was back in Juan’s home and I heard Alan moving across the floor and leaving by the side entrance. In a moment I heard him begin to shit and Juan laughed and said it was good that Alan was cleaning himself out because he often didn’t and so was missing one of the good physical things about ayahuasca. I laughed too and said I was glad that Alan had made it outside, he might have really stunk up the place if he hadn’t.

And then Juan asked me to sing an icaro. It was a surprising question, one no one had ever asked me before. I told him I didn’t know any. He sighed.

“ How many years have you been drinking ayahuasca and you still don’t know any icaros?” he sighed.

“ Ayahuasca just never gave me any,” I answered.

“ I don’t believe you,” he said. “You’re just embarassed to sing.”

“ I just don’t have a song.”

And then, completely unexpectedly, I found myself sitting up and a few, weak notes coming out of my mouth. Na na na na nana na, na nana na na nana. I sang them again. There weren’t any words, and it wasn’t like the beautiful icaros Juan sang; the notes didn’t resonate like the gentle thunder from Julio’s songs, but it was a song. A real song I’d never heard before, and simple as it was I kept repeating it until I felt certain I wouldn’t forget it.

“ I thought you had a song,” Juan laughed when I finally stopped.

“ I didn’t until now.”

“ Yes you did, you just didn’t know it.”

I felt at once touched and certain that I’d cribbed it from something Julio sang just to please Juan. But I couldn’t place it, and it was so simple that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a gift.

An hour later the sun was beginning to rise and Alan and I thanked Juan and headed for town. When we got to the main square we sat at a local place for a glass of water with lemon and garlic—good for a post-ayahuasca cleansing.

Over coffee Alan asked me if I’d seen his mother. I told him what I’d seen and showed him a picture I’d drawn while making notes before we left Juan’s. I also told him about the Una de Gato and the unrecognizeable plant mixed into a tea that I’d seen, but was quick to add that I might have only thought of that because Una de Gato was such a good basic medicine.

“ That’s the same thing I saw,” he said, cutting me off. “And do you know what else I saw? I also saw that if she drinks Una de Gato with Sacha Gergon (9) she won’t even have any cancer in a month.”

I didn’t believe him, of course, but he believed what we both saw, called his mother and told her the good news. She went ahead with her Western medicine treatments anyway but included the medicine Alan sent her in her regimen. On getting ready to start her second round of western treatment, however, it was apparent that what Alan had prescribed had had an effect: his mother’s doctors were amazed to find that they could find no trace of cancer. So clean was her liver that a second set of doctors was brought in and they decided that there must have been an error in not only the first biopsys but that her X-Rays had been confused with those of someone else. Her initial doctors had no explaination but knew that they would not have begun treatment if she hadn’t had cancer. Even Alan’s mother was at a loss. But Alan and I weren’t.

“ The spirits came through that night,” Alan said.

“ I know,” I answered. “Scary, isn’t it?”

And it was, to me at least. I had been raised a Catholic, though it had been years since I’d practiced, and so the ideas of spirits and helping guardian angels was something I’d been taught to accept at an early age. And having done a fair amount of hallucinogenic experimentation I knew the world was not nearly as solid as I’d once thought. Experiences like speaking with my mother, travelling to friends, being born, while I couldn’t grasp their real meaning in this world and on this plane, I could still accept. But the act of seeing a disorder in a human I’d never met and coming up with a cure for it—or even a partial cure—while under the influence of ayahuasca was intimidating as hell because I still couldn’t see the whole picture, and didn’t even know there was a whole picture to see.

I got a glimpse of that picture a year later. My wife and kids and I had accompanied my mother-in-law to Lima for the initiation of her radiotherapy for uterine cancer. Before the therapy could begin, however, our plans changed. We hadn’t been down a week before our seven-year old, Marco, gave us a scare when he took a tremendous fall and really lambasted his head on a pile of stone being used for street construction. We ran him to the doctor but there was nothing apparently wrong other than a large bruise and some bloody hair. No stitches, nothing. Satisfied that it was just a kid’s fall, I forgot about it. The next day his eyes were puffy, nearly closed, but I thought that just the residue of the fall and ignored it.

But two days later, when his eyes were still swollen, my wife insisted on taking him back to the doctor. I assured her that it was only the reaction to a spider bite or a bee sting but she wouldn’t hear of it. When she returned a half an hour later she said the doctor thought it was an allergic reaction to something he’d had to eat in Lima and would soon pass.

Two hours or so later, Marco went to take a pee while my wife was putting on makeup. A few moments later I heard my wife scream. I asked her what was up and she told me to take a look at Marco’s scrotum. I did: it was the size of a large grapefruit, the skin stretched so taught you could see through it. His penis was engorged as well, perhaps eight or ten inches long, filled with fluid.

We rushed him to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where, after several hours of tests the doctors told us Marco’s kidneys were failing—which was why he was regtaining so much water in his soft tissue—and as they didn’t know why, the best they could do was try to stabilize him for the short term but we’d be smart to call a priest since he was in a very dangerous position.

It is impossible to even begin to explain the overwhelming feelings of fear, helplessness, hopelessness, anger and grief that overcome a parent at a moment like that. You cry, shout at the doctors and curse whatever god you believe in all at the same time. You want to run away, set back the clock, trade places with your kid. You demand new doctors, new tests, a new hospital, anything that might produce something different than what you’ve just been told.

The doctors assured us they would do everything they could, including bringing in Lima’s child-kidney specialist, who had already been called. There was nothing we could do but sit with Marco, who didn’t feel sick a bit and thought his gargantuan penis was teriffic.

The specialist, Dr. Rivas, arrived shortly and gave Marco a battery of new tests. When he finished he said our best bet was to try to stabilize Marco with steroids, which he’d already begun.

Then he asked a peculiar question. “Do you believe in black magic?”

“ Why?” I asked.

“ Because you keep asking me to tell you what went wrong and the answer is nothing. The equivelant of holes have appeared, and are continuing to appear on Marco’s kidneys even as we take new X-Rays. There is no known bug that does that. His problem is not caused by allergies, bacteria, virus, germs, hereditary ailment, or any other logical or biological explaination. In Peru, the next question is: Do you believe in black magic, because it’s a very real thing here. Don’t worry, I’m not crazy. I studied medicine in the States. We just don’t rule it out here, and if you know anyone who might be trying to get at either you or your son, it might be well to see a curandero. Because if it was brought on by some spiritual action, it would be considerably easier to remedy by the same type of action.”

It was the craziest speech I’d ever heard from a doctor and I thought about it all night as we sat next to Marco while he slept. It turned out we didn’t need a priest, he made it through the night, and within a couple of days his condition stabilized. He was on 100 milligrams of Prednisone a day, of course, and to combat its water retaining properties he was also being given a Lasix drip every couple of days. It was a sad, horrible and wretched time, and I pestered Dr. Rivas continually, until, after about 10 days he simply insisted I leave not only the hospital but Lima. My wife agreed and, thinking Marco stabilized enough to return to Iquitos enroute to a New York doctor in a couple of days, I returned to Iquitos with the thought of going to see Julio to see what he might be able to see about Marco’s condition.

Three days later I disembarked from the small boat I’d rented onto the riverbank and walked to Julio’s home. He agreed to make a ceremony for me the following evening.

Julio started the ceremony about 9 PM. There was a quarter moon smiling down and partially starry sky. Clouds would later spread a blanket over them.

As always, Julio spread a sheet of blue plastic on the raised floor of his platform house on which he placed a kerosene lamp, the bottle of ayahuasca, a botle of aguar diente infused with garlic and camphor, a small bottle of rosewater perfume, a chacapa, mapacho cigarettes, matches, his special stone and his old religious text.

He sat and cleared the air with tobacco smoke. He spoke of saints and demons. He invoked them all to come and visit us tonight; to come with calm and good intent into the little circle we made—I sat on the floor opposite him—to come and teach us red magic, come green magic, white macic and black magic. He read from the text and called on Saint Sebastian and St. Cypriano.

He blew smoke to them all to both invite them and to keep the air calm should any of the spirits he invoked come with bad intentions. Then he said a quiet incantation for me and when he was finished asked me how much I wanted to drink. I asked if it was strong. He misunderstood and poured less than an ounce into a little cup and began to pass it to me. I said more and more again until the cup was half full with the thick brown liquid. He blew smoke into the cup, told me which point to drink from and handed it to me.

I drank. It was thick, warm and wretched. I nearly vomited getting it down. Six gulps and on the last, I felt my stomach clench and had to fight to keep it from coming up. I managed only by smelling the bottle of aguar diente and lighting one of the foul mapachos.

Julio then incanted for himself and drank just a little, wiped himself with his medicaments and then we waited.

I had seen him making the ayahuasca and thought it would be strong, but with Julio there I felt confident that I would be able to handle whatever happened. I just tried to remind myself not to fight the dissolution of my ego when it occurred.

Within about 20 minutes, Julio chanting beautifully, I began to get mariada, a little drunk, and Julio put out the lamp. I closed my eyes and waited.

In another 20 minutes or so I could feel a sudden rush to my head. Something thick and fast and a little scary. A sort of lift off of immese and sudden certainty was occurring. I got frightened and reminded myself that it was only a few hours, wouldn’t kill me, I was with Julio, doing what I’d come to do and should rely on thinking about Marco rather than my evaporating ego.

In front of me, eyes open or closed, patterns appeared; moving geometric shapes, cathedral ceilings, lots of green crystals—beautiful.

The DMT show, the first stage of the experience, was amazing; everything moving slowly, rhythmically, twisting. I was really high and lay down to center myself, enjoying the rhythms of the color and motion and thinking that something strong could happen. That I might very well breach the dimentional barrier which seemed to be dissolving before my eyes.

And then the voice, gone for several years, suddenly asked in a very clear voice: “What’s the matter? Are you afraid to sit up and face what you’ve got coming?”

And I thought, No, so I sat up. In front of Julio’s house, just on the other side of the platform where we sat, the trees had become huge mantices ready to march. They were emerald green and glistening despite the absolute pitch of the night, and normally would have frightened my pants off, but I was with Julio and being in the presence of a man of immense power, or a spirit of immense power, coupled with his soothing singing of his ayahuasca songs, I didn’t get trapped in the idea of the trees as mantices. I was also able to see them as trees, emerald and glistening and full of spirit, not malice.

Besides, I sensed that they weren’t what the voice meant when it asked if I was afraid to see what I had coming.

The colors and motion and patterns which normally dissipate after a few minutes, didn’t. Rather, they intensified.

I saw lines of light, thin as lasers and individual, connect my fingers, connect boards in the floor, connect ceiling beams. I tried to shake them off—they were like spider webs and slightly terrifying—but they were sticky and wouldn’t shake free. Then I realized they were coming from on top of my head—not the top, but from above my head, as if there were a tube coming out of my head eight or 12 inches high and these lines of light were coming from that—zing! zing! And I knew they weren’t bad, they were great. I didn’t have control over how to shoot them out of me but I knew they came from me, like I was seeing the lines of energy around me in a way that was clearer than I’d ever seen them before.

I thought Julio was wonderful; sitting in utter darkness, a shape, a mass of sorts, in utter black. I knew where he was sitting but couldn’t make him out. I knew the singing in the air was his voice but it didn’t come from him in any way I could identify. It was just sort of everywhere. Not loud, but thick, like a blanket that covered everything, or protected everything in our little circle like a webbing.

I started thinking about Marco, was aware that I was in touch with the voice but wasn’t in control at all, or calm enough to get past the images and patterns, the extraordinary lines of light.

And then, out of the blue, I felt my stomach clench. I leaned forward and crawled the two meters to the edge of the kitchen floor to throw up. The vomit came out of me like cannon fire, thick and hot, and blew into the night. Then again. And again, like repeating cannon fire, four times, five times, 10 times until I was empty and tearing and snot was pouring out of my nose and I was exhausted and spent and it was all I could do to lean against one of the house pillars while on my knees and stare at my vomit down below the house. I thought I might see things in it, like a mirror, but all I saw was the dark, shimmering fan-like shape the liquid made on the ground below.

I gathered myself up and returned to my seat, my head empty except for laughing at myself for getting so beat up by a little puking session.

I began to think about Marco again, about what made him ill and how to ake him better. The snake in my stomach writhed a little and I said hello to it.

And then a strange thing happened, unanticipated, like all good ayahuasca experiences.

I saw that all around me the patterns had converged and lost much of their color. It seemed that I was looking at, and being in, a sort of rolling mud slide, only the mud wasn’t sliding, it was just swirling slowly, everywhere I looked, in all directions.

I realixed it was the motion of the muscles of a snake, a huge snake I couldn’t dream of seeing in entirety, it was like the snake mother, the same snake prayed to by the Hindus and the pre-Dravidians, the naga, or one of them. Or if not a naga, still the spirit of ayahuasca. Julio had once told me that if you see it you can ask it anything, so I asked, from within the muscles of the beast, to tell me what was wrong with Marco and how to cure him.

Almost instantly I saw Marco in the writing muscles of the snake, in the folds of the muscles and the voice told me to get him, to take him out of where he was.

I asked what that meant and was told I had to save him, that time was running out. I called to Marco and he answered. I saw where he was and went to get him; the folds of the snake’s muscles shifted and he wasn’t where I saw him anymore.

The voice said to take this all very seriously, that I was to save Marco or lose him.

I said I didn’t know how, that spiritual battles were for Julio, who knows those things, not me. But I was told just to do it or lose Marco. He was, I somehow knew, though it was a new idea for me, in someone’s power, whatever that means. I told the voice that I didn’t know how to save Marco, and it answered that I should use everything I had.

I said I didn’t have anything for this sort of fight. It said it had given me everything I needed.

Suddenly, I remembered my song and my snake and I thought about those thin white lines of light coming from my head and fingers and knew I had those things at least and it seemed reasonable that they might be powerful in this setting for this fight.

So I called to Marco again in the shifting muscles—the place he was was clearly a snake’s sort of muscles, twisting and shifting like a Chinese puzzle that opens all sorts of different ways but rarely like you expect.

He answered and I went for him; when I got to where I thought he’d be he was gone again, in a flash. I heard him and pushed through the folds to reach him. The thing we were in moved again and he was gone. He was being moved and held. He had his voice but not the strength to come to me.

I wondered whether I wasn’t deluding myself, that it wasn’t Marco at all but just my arrogance leading me to believe I was in some sort of battle for his soul that was manifesting in his desease.

Marco called to me in English suddenly, asking me something. I forget the phrase now, but it was something like “Hurry dad, I don’t like it here.”

Then I knew that it was all fairly real, or real on some level. His voice was so unexpected, so chilling, something I didn’t and couldn’t have expected him to say. So I went after him again. Each time I did the great snake writhed. It was so huge that a slight shift would move Marco disappear. I couldn’t even see the bottom or top of the snake’s insides. It was bigger than my field of vision.

I opened my mouth and sent my own snake out—not like I gave an order, just asked if it could help, but it seemed to know what to do before I even thought anything—I just opened my mouth it flew out to help find Marco and I sang: Na na na na nana na, na na na nana nana na...the singing seemed to open the coils so I could see Marco clearly, finally.

But whatever was holding him was strong. It would rather let him die than come to me. I had to fight hard, to will him to come. For five minutes or two years I searched for him, found him 50 times and 50 times he disappeared.

Once I almost reached him, in a fold to my left, and he said something like, “C’mon, dad” and then when I almost had him he was gone again and I couldn’t hear him or see him for a long time and the voice told me to keep looking, to take this seriously, and I did and he was far away again when I found him, and when I got within earshot I heard him crying for me to help him, that he didn’t like it and couldn’t move. And then I remembered the lines of light. I tried to make a lot of them to shoot to him but I couldn’t. But a few did come out and must have grabbed him because he was suddenly near and I reached for him and was able to grab his hand.

But as I did and was pulling him across some line, or out of the snake’s coils or out of the grip of whatever had him, a kind of chasm opened up and I wasn’t holding him tight enough and he slipped and began to fall.

And the voice said not to lose him now, so I sent my snake, or my snake went, and I sang Na na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na na na... and some light lines reached out for him and we all grabbed him but something wasn’t letting us just take him. Something was keeping him from me.

I opened my eyes.

The voice told me Marco would die if I didn’t get him now. So I went back to the battle and told him to reach for me, to grab the snake and the lines, to get free.

And each time I sang the void, or chasm, not moving like the snake all around it, seemed to give him up a little and so I sang and sang and reached with the lines until finally I had him in my arms. And I held him tight. Not really him, but like the sirit of him and I knew he was free and I had somehow won, though I didn’t know how I’d known what to do.

But then the voice told me I hadn’t done anything yet, that I had to protect him or they would take him back. So I tried to make light lines to weap him up, lines that would act as a barrier against anything trying to grab him. I was hopelessly inadequate. I didn’t have the power to spin such a web. I tried but couldn’t. Still, sudenly a web began to spin around him while he was in my arms, fine, thin, strong coils of light. Bright light wrapping him like a mummy.

And I thought, good, now he’s protected.

But the voice said no, I didn’t have the power to protect him. Only Julio could do that and I better have Julio do it because the other people, the other force, was about to attack, about to take Marco away in a rush.

I knew I better have Julio sing a song to protect him, so I spoke out loud and asked Julio “Can you sing a song to protect my son?”

I interrupted him, I think, and Julio asked me “What?”

I don’t know if I spoke in English or Spanish, my own voice sounded strange, broken.

But I knew I needed protection for Marco, and Julio asked how could he sing for my son? I said “Just sing a song to protect him.”

He asked me his name. I said Marco. He asked me his age, I said seven. I told Julio that I’d been told to ask him to sing and then he did. A beautiful song. And I could feel Marco getting protected and when he finished I felt like Marco was saved.

I opened my eyes. I was exhausted and sweating and I felt stone-cold normal, like I’d used everything I had up and was empty.

And then I closed my eyes and the voice said I had been good.

I wondered how I’d won the fight. I don’t have any power. But I knew it wasn’t me, it was ayahuasca, or the god of ayahuasca, or the good spirits working through me that had done the work and I had no right to arrogance.

I opened my mouth to let the snake back in and a snake started to come, but I realized it wasn’t my snake and so I grabbed it. I realized I was very vulnerable now and bad spirits were willing to take advantage of my state of mind or exhaustion.

All sorts of snakes tried to come in. My own snake was still outside, until finally I could see, or sense it coming and it came in and slid down my belly easily. And I thanked it for helping and it sort of smiled.

I was proud and thankful and absolutely bewildered over the idea that I’d been in such a spiritual fight. It was like I now had a glimpse of what ayahuasca really was and how it cured. I felt I’d been taught a great lession.

Then I wondered who it was that might have put a spell on Marco and I thought of his birth father. I didn’t think so. I thought past him to his mother, Marco’s grandmother, though i didn’t know her, and thought maybe she was angry that we hadn’t brought Marco to see her all this year and maybe it wasn’t brujheria at all but sort of misguided love that became like long fingernails clutching him until they’d somehow torn those holes in his kidneys.

Julio interrupted my thoughts to ask me if Marco had fallen before he got sick. I said yes. He said people were often most vulnerable to brujheria when they’d fallen and were disoriented. If something had grabbed Marco that might have been the time. He also said I’d better see a doctor about it.

And then I had the image of Marco’s head when he’d fallen and without thinking I bent down to it and sucked out a red, wet, fleshy lump. It came out easily. The sucking out was so simple and clean that it was amazing. The sensations were real, the fleshiness an absolute surprise. I was going to spit it out, but I remembered something I’d once heard an elderly Native American medicine woman say about such things: “You can’t just suck out bad things and throw them away or they will land on someone else—negative things have a life of their own” So instead I imagined putting it in a rock and sending it to space and burying it in a barren place where such things were put.

The next morning I bathed in the river—a standard ritual after ayahuasca to close yourself after the plant has opened you up—thanked Julio for his generosity and started back to Iquitos. My mind filled with wonder and curiousity: Had anything really happened? Had any of it been more than an hallucination? It all certainly felt real, but I’d have no way of knowing. I certainly didn’t expect Marco to be better because of what had apparently happened: Dr. Rivas had already warned us that it would take months to wean Marco off the steroids, and the side effects of those would make him appear ill even if his kidneys were improving.

Still, the voice, the battle, the tools I’d been given—or lent—to work with, all if it was so unexpected that even outside of the jungle on a crowded river boat it still felt real.

My family arrived back in Iquitos two days after I did: Marco all puffed up like an overstuffed water balloon but otherwise okay. He’d been put on a special diet, was taking several medicines and needed constant monitoring for his condition, but six months later he was finally free of the Prednisone and is still doing well. I still don’t know for sure whether anything happened to help him that night or not.

Two years later my family and I decided it was time to move to Iquitos for a while. Gilma and I had, by that time, had a baby girl, Madeleina Lydia, so we were quite a group. Never having had to support us there for more than a few months at a time, I rented a building near the port and we opened The Cold Beer Blues Bar/Restaurant Madeleina, which quickly became a hangout for ex-pats. I also had agreed with an agency that set up tours to take occasional groups into the jungle for two weeks on what I called an Amazon Jaunt. Though I’d never done anything like that before I made up an itinerary of things I would enjoy sharing with people: Using Iquitos and our bar as the trip’s hub, we would go out into the jungle three times, each of those ending with an ayahuasca experience. The first leg we’d travel to Julio, the second would involve a visit with Don Jose, an old curandero on a small crystal clear, black-water river, and the third leg would be a two day stay at the botanical reserve of Sachamama—a short distance past Iquitos’ airport—where we’d drink with Don Ramon and Francisco.

The trip would be difficult, with lots of hiking and travelling on overcrowded riverboats; my guests would have to help carry the gear, and we’d be sleeping either in the jungle itself or on the floors of platform huts. I didn’t know how many people would want that kind of tour—absolute Amazon reality you might call it—but I was hoping enough would to feed my family.

My first group was arranaged to arrive just a month-and-a-half after we did, and I spent a good deal of that time running around Iquitos with Larry—whom I’d talked into coming down to help me with my first group—buying hammocks, mosquito nets, boots, pots and pans and the thousand and one other things the trip would require. As the day of my small group’s arrival approached I grew more and more nervous: what if the trip stunk? What if they hated me? What if nobody got the ayahuasca experience to the full extent? What if all they got was bitten by insects?

Larry worked at keeping me calm and focused as much as helping me compile and execute my shopping lists. And Alan, over coffee one day, reminded me to stay calm about the ayahuasca end of things.

“ Listen, Pete, nobody’s going to die. You’ll handle it just fine. Just remember to tell them that if they see anything they don’t like they should just use their breath and blow it away, change the television channel.”

“ Does that work?” I asked, surprised.

“ You don’t know that? Of course it works. Just blow it away.”

“ I never heard that before.”

“ My god, Pete, you mean all this time you’ve been stuck looking at the bad stuff?”

“ I guess so. I mean, I had no idea you could get rid of a bad vision that way.”

“ That’s one of the problems you have with refusing to read about other people’s ayahuasca experiences. You miss a lot.”

“ I guess so. On the other hand, whatever I see I know wasn’t put there by someone else.”

“ That’s the tradeoff. But don’t forget the breath. Use it just the same way Julio and the other ayahuasqueros use it when they’re breath-whistling their icaros. Purse your lips and direct a small stream.”

I knew breathing was important, and the control of breath vital for some of the healing I’d seen curanderos do, but I’d honestly never heard that you could change what you were seeing with it. I determined to try it as soon as I had the chance.

A few days later my group arrived, two men, two women. The younger man and woman, Mike and Rochelle, were a former couple, it turned out, trying to work through some things; the other man, Addison, was a Texas lawyer going through a mid-life crisis, and the other woman, Jane, was heir to a sizeable working farm in the midwest who was an adventure buff.

Over beers at one of my favorite bars, a wooden shack built on an overhang overlooking Iquito’s floating raft slum—fifty foot pole stilts kept it from falling into the river—we got to know each other a little. And for the first time I found myself explaining the ayahuasca experience to people who had never had it but were looking forward to it. I’d never thought of it that way: other than my wife and kids (who only got a taste) I’d never been the one to introduce someone to it. The reality was that despite the number of times I’d done it, I really knew very little about it. I explained how it was made, that it was used by almost everyone in Iquitos periodically, that ayahuasqueros saw illness—physical, emotional and spiritual—as the symptoms of disturbances on some other level, and so tried to access those other levels in order to effect a cure there which would alleviate the symptoms here. How that was done I had no idea. I told them a little about my experience with Marco, but added that I didn’t know I wasn’t just hallucinating, and suggested that on the first time out—which I told them would not be a full dose—they might try to record anything they saw in a notebook immediately after the experience so that they could check it later. At the same time I didn’t want to tell them what I saw under its influence so as not to get them looking for something that would prevent them from experiencing their own visions.

Three days later we were at Julio’s, ready to drink. The circle included my four guests, Larry, Gilma, Julio and myself. A friend of Larry’s, Drake—who was very familiar with ayahuasca—had come along as well but wasn’t drinking as he’d agreed to act as guide for anyone who needed to vomit or shit, a very generous gesture.

The ceremony began as usual, with the laying out of Julio’s blue plastic and other necessities, after which he called to the spirits, and began to serve: half portions for those who’d never had it, and full portions for Gilma, Larry and I. The ayahuasca was thick and awful, the familiar taste of burnt grapefruit infused with black tobacco both comforting and appalling. As I swallowed I imagined it might be strong, considering how light the doses he’d given the newcomers were. When all were served Julio blew out the kerosene lamps. It couldn’t have been thirty seconds later when I felt myself begin to pulse and the little dots of green light, sharp, precise, exhilerating, began to twinkle in the darkness. Moments later they began to multiply and form connecting beams that soon became the fantistic green-domed cathedral ceiling of the universe that marks the initial stages of ayahuasca reverie.

The speed with which the pulsing irridescent green geometric pattern formed surprised me, and I opened my eyes to see if I wasn’t dreaming.

To my left, one of my guests, Addison, had broken into a green geometic energy pattern. To my right Larry was cracking into shards of green crystal and everywhere else the pattern was invading all shapes until the world, what little I could make out in the darkness, was breaking into the fine green crystaline shapes.

The voice of Julio in the background, his simple icaros coupled with the chic-chic-chic of his leaf fan was a reassuring heartbeat. I turned to Larry and whispered, as best I could: “Julio can really cook!” then took one more look at Addison to my left, who had dissolved into pieces of green glass and asked if he was alright. He said he was fine and I closed my eyes again and let the ride begin.

Or rather, I should say I was blown onto my back by an awareness that I’d better ground myself while I had time. The moment I lay down the patterns of the green cathedral ceiling gave way to more solid green colors: green air and shapes that quicly became a glorious ride in the funhouse, replete with roller coaster ups and downs, faces out of nowhere, images of funny and scary faces coming at me like I was in the dark part of the funhouse at Coney Island. It was a glorious funhouse that soon brought me to the place of funny mirrors, me in each one, sometimes long and skinny, sometimes short and fat, sometimes impossibly stupid, sometimes intelligent. And sometimes the mirrors reflected parts of my soul, both good and bad: The frightened, small person, the arrogant ass, the phony, the bad father, the drinker, all of my bad things magnified in the mirror veritas. I managed to let them pass, apppreciating them but not letting them terrify me into catatonia.

After the moments or years it took to ride the funhouse attractions the world began to turn into a vast array of DNA code lines. They glistened and held the secrets of the universe, They were vertical at first, then went horizontal. Thousands combined to become just a few, They began to join and turn slowly, becoming the true twisted strand of DNA. And then the back wall of the universe opened and I realized they weren’t just twisted strands of DNA, they were the spinnings wings of a bicycle bi-plane being ridden by a laughing and joyeus Julio. A Julio as he is on the other side, old but huge, a force capable of riding the bicycle that propels the universe, rocking back and forth in time to his earthly icaros, wearing an open and generous grin, his eyes sparkling and shooting out lines of warm and comforting light.

I found myself laughing in awe and admiration. All of the motion of that world was being powered at that moment by Julio pedaling the pedals that spun the wheels that moved the wings of the green fractal bi-plane. It was the first time I’d seen him on the other side and with the image my confidence elevated enormously and I felt I were in the arms of warmth and tickled by a kind of love I’d never felt before.

Julio disappeared and a huge vase filled with thin deep red, almost purple flower stems appeared. The tulip shaped flowers were dripping with the same deep red juice of the stems and a voice asked if I wanted to drink. It was the sort of thing I’ve said no to in the past but with Julio running the universe I couldn’t resist, despite my fears, and a stem was given to me. I took a few drops of the nectar and wondered what would happen or what I was being invited to be a part of. In moments a terrible wind began to blow. A wind that started at the beginning or end of the universe and the world blew away and suddenly I was alone in a in a sort of void, ungrounded, feeling that I was at the place where all things are born and all things die. Wind rushed through me and I felt as though I were going to be blown away by them. The only thing I saw to clutch onto was the bottom of a piece of material—so large I couldn’t see what it was—that was flapping in the ferocious wind. I reached for it and grabbed hold as the wind became the Four Winds of creation and rushed through me in all directions. I might have been holding onto the sail that directs the universe or the bag that holds it or the coattail of the spirit that holds the coattail of creation. The winds almost tore me apart and I was small, so small that I couldn’t even be afraid. I was in the land of awe, the place where my mother is and which she said she couldn’t explain to me. I knew now why: It was incomprehensible. It was beginning and end and beginning again of all things. It was the place of places and I knew it was a place where all I had to do was ask and I would know. But even as I thought that I knew I couldn’t ask anything of those terrible winds or of the place or its beings: I could do nothing be in absolute still awe. It was not somewhere I’ve seen in a dream or vision. It was the isness, the being I was in the presense of and it was terrible and brilliant and cold. I laughed quietly and heard Julio singing in the background. It was almost more than I could bear.

A howler monkey began to wail in the jungle outside the hut, adding it’s ferocious howl to the noise of the wind. And then a wind that I will hear coming for me when it is time to go to that place for real began to scream. The message was clear and simple: when that wind blows it will be time.The rapture was broken when an enormous man appeared in the crack between the universes. He berated me for calling on him when I was drunk and I instantly remembered two occasions when I drank ayahuasca while drunk in my apartment in New York.

“ You dare to call me when drunk?” he bellowed. “You dare to call me when drunk?” Over and over he shouted at me, his voice becoming the wind around me, through me.

I couldn’t have voiced an apology if I tried. I had no voice. I was being permitted to witness something extraordinary, something I could not and cannot amply describe, a place beyond human description because it is not a place where humans go. It was a glimpse, a tiny glimpse that can only be said to be a tiny portion of the sole of one of the sandals of one of god or the great spirit’s assistants, but still so large it was of unimaginable fury and beauty and strength and horror, the first and last, the word, the wind.

I don’t know when the portals closed. I have no recollection of things stopping except that at some point Julio sang a deep, deep pitched song, notes that cut through all things and grabbed me back to the floor of the hut where we sat. I laughed again and I was calm, exhausted, rich. Then I stood, walked outside and threw up the bile.

When I returned to the hut I checked on everyone—they all seemed to be doing well, then lay back down to try to recapture just a glimpse of the glimpse of that place that I’d been.

Almost immediately the giant vase with red-purple flowers appeared again and one of the flowers bent forward and asked me if I’d like to drink. I reached out to it and took a sip of its nectar: this time the winds did not begin to howl. This time the world began to change color—everything began to be infused with reds. Light reds, dark reds, purple reds, irridescent reds. I opened my eyes and looked to my right: Larry, who’d been crystalline green earlier in the night was now deep deep red. To my left Addison, who was now standing and slowly dancing in rhythm to Julio’s voice, was a mountain of reds. The roof of the hut, the jungle outside, the moon and even the air itself was infused with red. I closed my eyes again and one of the flowers was high above me, dripping its purplish nectar down over me; it was sticky and sickly sweet, like thick blood.

The moment I thought of the word ‘blood’ I found myself in a tube of red liquid. It was moving very quickly, pulsing, and I found myself moving in it, not swimming, but being carried along at an amazing pace. As we moved the pulsing intensified, like a drumbeat, but rather than a sound it was the feel of a drum beat, rythmic, throbbing, boom, boom, boom and I suddenly realized I was in my body. Somehow I was in my bloodstream and racing toward my heart. I began to look around, taking notice of the bloodstream I was in: It wasn’t really all liquid at all, more like millions of little balloons filled with red liquid travelling in a gelatenous goup. They were soft to the touch and eerie when they burst.

And then suddenly the throbbing intensified a thousand times and I passed through a fleshy portal that nearly closed on my legs and I was spun around and around, as though I were in a whirlpool, bouncing off the fleshy walls of the place and it occurred to me that I had entered my heart, that I was in the place where the beating began. There was nothing to see except the balloons and the gelataneous goup, but the throbbing seemed as though it would split me in two.

Just as suddenly I found myself back at Julio’s and he was shaking his chacapa at me and chuckling.

“ Ah, Pedrito,” he said, “todo bien?” Everything good?

“ Todo bien, Julio.”

I looked around at the others: everyone was coming out of their reverie to some degree. I asked if all were alright and was assurred it had been a good night.

The next several sessions, with that first group and the next, were each infused with red. The green cathedral ceiling was now a red cathedral ceiling. The DNA strands became part of each experience as well, and going into the bloodstream became commonplace. I didn’t know what to make of it: some nights I spent nearly the entire experience being flat on my back while the purplish flowers dripped their thick nectar all over me; others I spent as if in any other ayahuasca experience—part visionary, part hallucinogenic—with the exception that the world was always red. It didn’t bother me, I just didn’t know what it meant or if it meant anything at all.

On the homefront things were not going well. The stress of opening a bar/restaurant and the long hours necessary to build a clientele were wearing on me. I was drinking too much, too regularly—except for when I had a group—and my wife got tired of it and began working less. I, in response, became something of a bully when I was drunk, letting my rage at having to work so hard, and so often alone, surface, which in turn pushed her further away. None of it was good for our kids, who saw a perfectly rational and good man in the morning and afternoon and either a funny or howlingly angry drunk at night. Our family was falling apart.

It was a side of me the tourists were probably aware of but didn’t actually get to see. With them I was a workhorse, and a surprisingly large number of them got unexpected healings through the ayahuasca.

I began to joke to my regular clients at the bar, all of whom were friends, that while my tourists were all getting healed, it was I who needed to be worked on. Part of me was serious.

A week or two after I began to make my joke I had a private tour of just two people, who had asked that I arrange for them to be introduced to several of the different kinds of curing done in Peru. The client arrived sick with what appeared to be the flu, and spent two days being worked on by an egg-healer (10), a curandero who uses an egg as an absorbtive to remove physical ailments. But after the second day the curandero told my client that his illness was deeper than he was capable of working on, that he could alleviate symptoms—he already had—but that he didn’t have enough power to effect a cure. I had also arranged for a San Pedro curandero (11) whom I trusted to fly from the high Andes to Iquitos for a San Pedro ceremony. The curandero, Victor E., arrived within a day or so of my clients, and when the egg-healer said he couldn’t continue the work, Victor suggested that he would focus on it during the ceremony.

I knew Victor as a capable healer, a man filled with deep love and committment to his work, but during the ceremony—another story in itself—I was amazed and priveleged to witness a psychic healing that effected a cure for a condition that had been with my client since childhood. Essentially, Victor spent about 10 hours doing what looked like rubbing a rounded stone on the man’s face. But under the influence of San Pedro, what I saw him actually doing was using not the stone but a scalpel, and cutting the man’s sinus cavity’s open, then cleaning them out, replacing them and stitching him up. It was replete with blood and guts, though an outsider wouldn’t have seen it. Though the operation had been extremely painful my client was thrilled to have been cured of his affliction.

Watching the curing reminded me of a story a man told me about Julio nearly 15 years earlier. It was my second visit to Julio, and there were several local riverfolk there, one of whom told me that Julio had operated on his stomach just a night earlier, and pulled up his shirt to show me the proof. But there was no scar, and I mentioned that. The man just laughed and told me that Julio was a good doctor, that his scars healed quickly. I didn’t realize then what the man was talking about, and had never witnessed such an operation until I saw Victor work.

A few days later I was with my two clients at Julio’s, and the man commented to me early in the ceremony that Julio was just sitting on a low stool, not making any effort to work with his body as the first two curanderos had. I told him that each curandero worked differently, and that he couldn’t really compare styles. Later that night, after another visit to the red world—during which the voice, in answer to my question of how to heal my family had simply told me “You know that. Drink less.”—I asked my client how his experience had been.

“ Well,” he said, “after the egg healer and Victor I was very disappointed that Julio wasn’t going to actually work with me physically. So I was just lying down at one point early on feeling that this would be an interesting but nonconsequential evening. My legs were crossed on the ground in front of me. And then I heard Julio say to the man next to him in clear English—although I know he doesn’t speak any: ‘You know, I’m not going to be able to work on him with his legs in that position.’ And then suddenly I felt Julio waving his fan towards me and my legs simply uncrossed without me doing it, and I heard Julio say, ‘That’s better.’ After that I decided not to question his methods anymore. Let’s just say it was an amazing evening, and Julio is a remarkable healer.”

A few days later I was taking the same two clients to Sachamama, the botanical reserve outside of Iquitos. Set in high, canopied second-growth jungle the space is emotionally tranquil and physically beautiful. After the rigors of the trip to Julio’s and the difficult jungle hiking I put my tourists through I enjoyed taking them to a place that was not physically demanding. Moreover, apart from the ayahuasca session with Don Ramon, Francisco, who’d been trained in another part of Peru’s Amazon, performed an aura cleansing flower bath (12) that’s remarkably refreshing.

My son Italo asked if he could tag along, and said he was thinking it might be good for him to drink ayahuasca. With permission from my clients, I said okay both to his coming and drinking if he liked. He was nearly 14, and though he’d never been given a full dose, had had a sip of ayahuasca on several occasions with me.

While my clients were perfectly at ease after the several curanderos they’d visited in the previous two weeks as well as the afternoon flower bath, I was edgy. I didn’t know whether it was the presence of Italo or that I was never as comfortable drinking as I was with Julio, but all day I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was in the air. There were low rain clouds gathering as well, and the static electricity from the impending storm was palpable.

The evening began calmly enough, with Ramon offering prayers and mapacho smoke, then calling each of us in turn to drink. My clients went first and second, I was third, and Italo was last. I was surprised when he was given a full portion, but thought he could handle it. Minutes later, after Ramon and Francisco drank, the kerosene lamps were blown out and the ceremonial space became utterly dark.

A few minutes later the twinkling of lights began, the greens and yellows quickly giving way to the reds, and the red lights quickly forming strands that in turn joined to make a huge double helix DNA. I watched with wonder as the light show progressed, then apprehension as I found myself face to face with a grotesquely grinning clown’s face that had appeared quite suddenly. There was something wretched about it, and I dediced to try Alan’s trick of using my breath to change the screen: to my surprise the clown face simply dissolved the moment I blew on it, and in it’s place the steep metal tracks of a rollercoaster hill that I was about to fly down appeared. Woooooosh! And down I went, down an impossibly long and steep hill that was thrilling. At the bottom the car I was in made a sharp right around a hairpin turn then began a long slow climb to the top of another hill. Halfway up the car slipped and began sliding backward. Faster and faster until we were moving much too fast to make the turn in reverse; it didn’t matter, the car just jumped the tracks and began tumbling into the pitchblack of an abyss. I blew my breath again and the abyss dissolved and I found myself staring at my wife Gilma.

Grief passed through every part of me. How sad I had not been able to keep such love from fading! How lost I felt without her! I started to cry, deep deep sobs.

I heard Italo call out, “Dad? Dad? Are you there?” and I was pulled from my altered state back to the reality of the ceremonial hut. “Italo?” I called softly, and when he answered I slid across the few feet of dirt floor that separated us and put my hand on his arm. “Scared?”

“ It’s really wierd, Dad.”

“ I know. It’s strong. But it can’t hurt you, and I’m right here. Just remember to breath if you see something you don’t like and it will go away. Are you okay?”

“ Yeah. But don’t go away.”

“ I won’t. I’m right here.”

I lay back down and closed my eyes again. In moments I was engulfed in my sadness again, and glad for the human contact with my son.

“ You keep trying to do things that make her happy,” a voice suddenly said.

“ I know,” I answered to the bodiless presence, thinking that yes, I did always try to make Gilma happy. I was good. A good man.

“ It doesn’t make her happy.”

“ Why not?” I asked, another wave of grief washing over me.

“ Because you’re trying to make her happy by doing things you think will make her happy.”

“ What else can I do? What does she want?”

“ She doesn’t know. You thought you were making her happy all those years, just like you think you’re loving your baby now, but your baby isn’t happy either.”

Telling me my baby Madeleina wasn’t happy just added to my sadness.

“ How can I fix things?”

“ You will never make them happy until you can be them. You have to learn how to be them to see how they feel and what they want.”

“ Can’t she just tell me?”

“ No. But she’s been trying. She doesn’t know how to say it. She is not being you either. But you’re the one who has to fix it now. You have to become them to understand what they need from you. Giving them what you want to make them happy just doesn’t work. You are losing them.”

“ How can I become them?”

There was a pause and in the silence I could hear Ramon and Francisco chanting somewhere in the distance. I squeezed Italo’s arm and tried to imagine being Gilma and Madeleina. I could see them, I could see me trying to enter them, but I didn’t feel at all as if I was them. I understood, on some level, what the voice told me, and knew it was true, but didn’t know how to do what it asked.

I began to hear a rushing sound, like wind blowing through reeds. It came closer and closer and began to frighten me. I decided to blow it away but blowing didn’t work. The rushing began to change and I could hear a kind of gibberish, as though several people, as though several small people were all around me talking very quickly in a language I’d never heard. The gibberish and the rushing grew to a fever pitch and then suddenly stopped.

“ We heard you,” said a voice that was new to me. “We heard you say you were the one who needed healing. We’ve decided it’s your turn to be healed.”

“ Who are you?” I asked, suddenly very intimidated.

“ We are the doctors you called to heal you. We’re going to fix your heart.”

“ Wait a minute. I was only kidding....”

“ Don’t be silly. And don’t be afraid. It will hurt but we need to fix your heart.”

I was very afraid. I could feel someone or something grabbing at my heart—not my human heart, but my soul heart. “Wait a minute. What are you going to do?” I fairly shouted.

“ We’re going to work with your heart. We have to get rid of some things in here and we have to open some things where you’re stuck. we have to change you.”

I could feel a dozen of what might have been hands begin to pull at my heart. Every time they touched it I was given a kind of electroschock of memory and pain: images of my mother, my father, fights I’d chickened out of as a boy, pointless arguments with my first wife, drunken screaming at Gilma—a thousand bolts of electricity and anguish were running through me.

“ Wait!” I shouted. “Wait a minute! I’m not ready!”

“ Of course you are. You’re just afraid you’re going to die.”

I was more than afraid, I was terrified. I was frantic. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. I just wanted no part of this.

“ You have to trust us. We can’t do the work unless you let us.”

I tried to catch my breath. I felt for the reassurance of Italo, then said, “Okay, I’m ready.”

But the minute they began to work I panicked. “No wait!”

“ You have to trust us. You can’t fix the things you want to fix until we work on you. Just let us work.”

I knew they were right. I knew I needed fixing but I wasn’t prepared for this. I had no perspective. I had no idea if they meant me good or evil. I just knew that when they touched me I was deathly afraid of changing forever and I was desperately clinging to what I already was. The dissolution of the ego during ayahuasca was difficult enough to handle; this was the death of me as I knew me, perhaps even real death, and I could not bear it, did hot have the courage to face such an unknown.

“ Can’t you work without me letting go as much as you are asking me to let go?”

“ No. You have to let yourself go into forever to get healed. You have to trust us.”

The battle within myself waged for eternity. My fear reached depths I have never encountered. Over and over the doctors cajoled me to let them work. They jeered me, they laughed at my gutlessness. They ordered me to let them do their job. They threatened me with not helping me if I wouldn’t let them. They told me I could not be Gilma or Madeleina if I didn’t let them heal me. I tried to let them work, but each time I was more frightened than the last, until, finally, in desperation, I asked them again if they couldn’t work on me without me having to let go and fall into the abyss. The voice repeated that they couldn’t, that they needed my approval, and when finally I said, out of exhaution as much as anything else, “Okay,” one last time, they said they didn’t believe me. That I would have to shout, “Please heal me,” to give them the freedom to access the depths they needed to access. I couldn’t do it. I knew I was gutless, pathetic, and knew they knew it too, but I simply could not let go the way they said they needed me to, even though part of me thought that I might very well come out much better on the other side of my fear. If only I had the courage to make that leap.

“ We’ll try it next time,” the voice said at some point, and just as he did the rushing of the wind through the reeds began again, this time moving away from me.

“ Wait, come back! I want you to heal me!” I called after them, but they and I both knew I couldn’t do it that night, and they didn’t return.

Exhausted, I got to my feet, explained to Italo that I was going outside to vomit and left the hut. Outside the trees in the light of my flash were irridescent, the leaves dripping with new rain. I hadn’t noticed the rain. I vomited the bile of my courageouslessness, then made my way back inside to Italo, who was rolling restlessly on the dirt floor. “It’s hard, dad,” he said. “There’s ghosts here.”

I gave him a piece of hard candy then put my arms around him. “It will be over soon. It’s very powerful tonight.”

“ Just don’t go anywhere again.”

“ Okay.”

I looked over to where I thought my tourists should be and in a few moments my eyes adjusted to the darkness enough to make out the shapes of Don Ramon and Francisco kneeling near them, working on them. A few minutes later, confident that Italo was calming down, I lay down next to him and closed my eyes.

I began to fall. A long, long fall, but I wasn’t afraid without the doctors around. I said an silent apology to them for my own failure and promised to be more brave next time, hoping they would come back. It’s just that they had been so unexpected, so demanding and so utterly real, even though, thinking about it, I realized I’d never seen them.

I landed with a thud on what felt like soft earth, bounced high in the air and fell again. When I caught my breath I looked around and realized I was in a huge red cavern. A monstrously large reddish cavernous space with hills of reddish dirt, or goup, scattered all around it. It wasn’t dirt, though, or goup, it was as if the material were the tangible element of pain and suffering, and the entire place was filled with it. The whole place was infused with anguish and there was activity everywhere, though there weren’t any people. Movement was more like it, and thunderous booming sounds, violent vomiting sounds. And smells of something putrid, not a dead smell, but living, putrid, wretched smells that nearly choked me. I didn’t understand what was happening, what the motion was, or where the smells came from: everything seemed to come from everywhere. Near me, though I couldn’t see him, I felt Italo’s presence in the same cavern.

I heard the vomiting again from somewhere far away and turned my eyes in the direction of the sound. On a hill to my right shapeless globs of red material fell in time with the vomiting. In that same moment I realized I was hearing the sounds of hundreds, thousands of people vomiting, and thousands of others crying and wailing and I wondered for a moment if I wasn’t in some sort of hell, so filled was the place with human suffering. But even as the piles grew, hands I couldn’t see were scooping the goop and fashioning things out of it, and it dawned on me—or rather, a radiant awareness shot through me in an instant the way ayahuasca awareness often does—where we were.

“ Italo!” I called out, though I don’t know if I used my voice or not. “This is the place where the healing happens! This is the place where everything we throw up on ayahuasca comes!”

I was laughing. “This is the room where all the rotten stuff comes and the healing is done with that stuff!”

Suddenly all of the color red I’d been seeing for the past two years, and the trips up my bloodstream and the DNA all made sense to me. This was the place of red magic! This was the healing magic. It was in Julio’s song all along: “Red magic that moves within our blood.” I’d heard it a hundred times, I’d just never seen it before, but now, in that room, sharing that space with Italo I was in awe as much as I’d been when I felt the winds rush through me. I just laughed and laughed and grabbed Italo tight. Why we were being shown this place I didn’t question. Just being there was enormously healing. I felt I was being shown something very special. The realization of the pain and suffering that was being retched by all those unseen humans into that space, and the knowledge that that same bile could be used by healers to heal struck me as almost impossible to comprehend. There was an enormity to it I couldn’t fathom.

In a few minutes or a year I was brought back to the floor of the hut by Italo’s voice. “Dad, you’re squeezing my arm too tight.” I lostened my grip.

“ Did you see it, Italo?”

“ What was that place, dad?”

“ The place where the healing happens,” I said grinning, thrilled to find he’d been there as well.

“ What was all that stuff?”

“ Pain and suffering.”

“ It stunk.”

“ It always does,” I laughed, hugging him.

The next day while I was back at the bar waiting for my tourists to arrive for lunch I couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night. I felt awful that I’d been unable to let the doctors work on me, and kicked myself for not remembering to ask them the simple: “Are you my teachers?” question. If they’d said yes, my fear might have diminished enough to allow them to do what they wanted. If they had meant me ill they would have just disappeared. But I already knew they—if they existed at all—didn’t mean me harm. That was why they’d shown me the cavern and let me glimpse what red magic was. I wondered if they would ever come back and if they did whether I would have the courage to let go.

About a month later I had another small group, most of whom had been with me a year earlier, on a trip to Machu Picchu, during which they’d done San Pedro with Victor in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside of Cuzco. This time around the group leader, Maryanne C, or Mac as she preferred, had asked to spend a week in the jungle before heading to Machu Picchu and then Lake Titicacca in Southern Peru.

We’d intended to travel to Julio’s, but after a day or two acclimating in Iquitos, the group opted to do a few smaller trips rather than one big one. We took day trips on the Amazon, spent time at Iquitos’ markets and ports, and finally took two days at Sachamama.

Of the group of seven, all but two had experienced San Pedro the previous year, and most had tried ayahuasca back in the states, so I had no hesitation in sending word a couple of days before the ceremony asking Don Ramon to make a strong brew.

On the day we arrived, Don Francisco was waiting for us, having spent the morning preparing the flower bath. After bathing, the group spent the afternoon walking the intricate jungle trails of the botanical garden, and when night fell, all were anticipating the commencement of the ceremony.

By eight o’clock or so Francisco led us to the simple framed doorway of the ceremonial hut, then soplad each of us with mapacho smoke to clean us of unnecessary emotional baggage before we entered. The hut, a leaf-roof on posts, had crude benches along the outside walls, an open dirt floor in the center, and a simple makeshift altar at the far end. On the altar were the things Don Ramon and Francisco considered necessary for the ceremony: candles and kerosene lanterns, the bottle of ayahuasca, chacapas, bottles of Agua Florida and aguar diente infused with garlic and camphor, a few talismans, a good supply of mapachos and matches, and a book similar to Julio’s. Most of my crew, in their late forties and fifties, took seats along the benches, while I opted for a space on the floor.

When everyone was settled Don Francisco blew out all the kerosene lamps, leaving the room lit by a single candle on the altar near Don Ramon. Outside the sky was thick with cloud cover. If there was a moon it wasn’t visible. Don Ramon, lit a mapacho, and by the light of his match Steven K, a 17-year-old who’d been with the group during the previous year’s trip to Machu Picchu, saw a movement on the ground. He asked me to shine a flash on it. I did, and there, sitting on a slightly raised mound of earth directly in front of the simple altar, was a very real, full grown tarantula. It didn’t recoil from the light, simply looked as though it were staring straight ahead at both Don Ramon and Don Francisco. It didn’t move, in fact, until Francisco brushed it out of the hut with a cedar branch. The seven of us all laughed once it was gone and took it as a good omen.

Some minutes later, Ramon began calling the participants to the altar. All but Steven’s mother planned on drinking, and as each appeoached he sang an icaro then served the foul tasting ayahuasca. When it was Steven’s turn he found he could not keep the liquid down. He tried several times but could not do it. As he came back to his seat, head down, he asked if I was disappointed in him. I was surprised at his question and told him no, that power plants were like that—they made themselves so odious that you had to be really sure you wanted to injest them in order to physically do it, and this was not the right time for him.

I was the last to drink aside from the curanderos, and could hardly keep it down myself, despite, or perhaps because, of my long experience with it. Once I did, I put the bottle of aguar diente to my nose, then poured a small amount of Agua Florida into my hands and rubbed it vigorously into my face and scalp.

I returned from the altar, sat on the dry earth floor of the hut, closed my eyes, waiting for Francisco and Ramon to drink, after which the candle was extinguished and the hut thrown into complete darkness. Within fifteen or twenty minutes the first of the ayahuasca twinkle-lights appeared behind my eyelids: yellow, green, silver dots of light beginning to connect in their familiar circus-like patterns. Moments later came the reds, and I suddenly felt an enormous fear well up within me. I opened my eyes but they didn’t disappear. Instead, my whole field of vision, eyes open or closed, became filled with rapidly connecting red points of light that quickly formed themselves into the huge, swirling double-helix DNA thread that turned itself on its side and began rolling towards me. My dread increased. The doctors were coming to visit and I wasn’t ready for them. Wasn’t ready to die the little death again. Wasn’t ready to be worked on again. I wanted to stop right then, come down and save it for another night when I was better prepared. “Oh god,” I thought, “I can’t do this again. I don’t know how to let go like they want me to.”

It was no use, of course, I knew no antidote to ayahuasca. Worse, I felt my lips beginning to go numb, an indication that one of the admixes that had been included in making the ayahuasca was chiric sanango, which meant the experience was not going to last the normal two hours or so, but could well last the entire night or even into the morning.

I realized my group was in much deeper than I’d intended and that I was not going to be able to help them. We were going to hell. We were going to see god and be terrified for hours. We’d proably all learn a great deal by the time we came out of it but we were going to pay a terrible price to learn.

I wanted to sit up and shout to everyone that I was sorry. I’d asked Ramon and Francisco to make a stong ayahuasca but I’d never meant this. I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to do but remember to breathe and try not to panic. I was already having a hard time doing both.

I knew what was coming and couldn’t get away. I sat and tried to light a cigarette, but the chiric sanango numbness in my lips had spread to my fingers and toes and it took me several tries; even then I couldn’t keep the thing in my hands very well. I knew I was just panicking and reminded myself to breath deeply. I did, and in a few minutes I was calmed enough to try to lie down.

The moment I did the world started crumbling in on me again. The DNA was no longer coming at me, it had me in its spirals. I was dizzy and disoriented and terribly afraid.

“ Is everybody okay?” I managed to blurt out, though I felt my voice sounded broken and unsure.

“ Fine over here,” someone answered. “How are you doing?”

“ Not great,” I said, praying that someone would come over and help me, somehow. No one did. I sat back up and began rocking, thinking I had to get myself together. No more outbursts. I was the one supposed to show the way with my behavior, and if everyone knew I was panicked I could cause some of my guests, if they were anywhere on a similarly thin rope, to fall over to the panic side as well. I tried to maintain. I tried to tell myself that no one ever died of ayahuasca, no one ever came out visibly different on the other side of the ceremony, but each time I thought I had reached a point where I could relax enough to let the experience take hold I panicked again. It must have been terribly disturbing to the other guests to have me sitting up then lying down, then shifting into a fetal position, then sitting up and trying to light a cigarette, then unwrapping a candy. I was palpably freaking out.

“ We’re here,” came the voice I’d been terrified of hearing. It was the doctors, and this time they didn’t come with the rush of air, they were simply there. “We’re going to work on you tonight and you are going to let us. You need healing.”

“ I can’t breath. Can’t we do it another night?”

“ You called us and we’ve come. It’s time to work.”

I felt the clutching at my heart and the immensity of the barbs of sorrow race through me painfully as images of all of my failures flashed in my innermost being. “Stop! I can’t do it!” I fairly screamed.

“ We don’t care. This time we don’t care if you don’t want us to. It’s time to work.”

I sat bolt upright and tried to light another cigarette. It fell from my numbed fingers; I grabbed another, then another, until I my whole fresh pack was empty. I ran my fingers on the floor trying to find one but couldn’t.

“ Hey Pete, you want a smoke?” It was Stephen.

“ Yeah.”

“ You’re having a hard time.”

“ Can you light it?”

He did. “Can I do anything?”

“ Just watch the others. I’m in no shape.” I clutched at the cigarette and took long pulls, then lay back down, hoping that maybe the doctors would have gone away during my cigarette break. They hadn’t. Instantly as I lay down the work began anew and with it my unimaginable terror. It was a terror as deep as the rapture of being at the place where the four winds start was great. I was helpless in the face of it. But then I remembered what I had forgotten last time the doctors visited and asked them: “Are you my teachers?”

“ We are doctors.”

“ But are you my teachers?”

“ We are past teachers. We are the doctors.”

I didn’t know what to do: I thought that the rule was simply to ask if a spirit was a teacher and if it was it would announce itself, and if it wasn’t it would go away. This was something I hadn’t anticipated.

“ So you’re not my teachers?” I asked.

“ We already told you who we are. If we meant you ill we would have disappeared.”

And they began to work again. They were merciless and there was little I could do to stop them. A lifetime’s pain was dredged up and relived in moments or minutes; I never knew I had felt so much pain in my life. Then, suddenly, they said they had done enough for now but would be back soon because there was so much more to do. And then they were gone. I was alone on the ground and the red world was spinning around me, frightening me, but no longer with the sheer sense of abject horror of being hurled into the unknowable abyss that it had been a moment earlier. I opened my eyes and sat up.

The hut was a scene from a Fellini movie: a couple of my guests were draped over the back of the benches, vomiting violently onto the jungle floor. A couple of others were clutching one another, looking, as best I could make out, as though they felt if they let go they would fly off into space. Nearest me, Mac was fully streched out on a bench, moaning to Stephen not to go away. Don Ramon and Francisco were tending someone on the dirt floor near the altar. I was still in no position to help anyone, so I just asked if everyone was okay. Those who could speak said they were in hell and hated me for bringing them there. I assured them it would be over soon, and prayed I wasn’t lying.

One of my guests, Susan, was having a particularly hard time, and I decided I better try to make my way to her to see if there was anything I could do. I stood on very shaky legs, and took a couple of staggering steps in her direction. I didn’t get very far when I thought better of it. But Harry, the man who’d been holding on to her, had seen my attempt, and on his own shaky legs stood and told me to come to him.

“ I’m going to try to ground you,” he said, reaching for my hand. I reached for him and he told me just to breath into him, to let myself ground through him into the earth floor. We stood stone still for a few moments, then he let go and turned his attention back to Susan, who was beginning to vomit violently again.

I sat down where I was and shimmied back to the place I’d been. I felt awful for everyone that I’d brought them this far and couldn’t do anything to help them. But I was still in the full throes of ayahuasca myself and thought it better if I just let it happen. I lay down and closed my eyes again.

Hundreds of spirits appeared before me. I was no longer afraid, and asked each if they were my teachers. One by one they disappeared until there was nothing but an empty red world.

And then suddenly I thought of my snake, and it occurred to me that I’d never asked him—I don’t know why I thought of it as a him rather than her—if he was my teacher. I found him in the pit of my stomach. “Are you my teacher?” I asked.

“ Of course I am,” he answered.

I felt ridiculous. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“ You never asked.”

“ What are you hear to teach me?”

He indicated a mirror lying near him. “Take that mirror and hold it high. Look into it.”

To my surprise I was able to somehow reach into my belly and take hold of the simple oval mirror. I looked into it and saw my reflection.

“ You can use that to see the answer to all your questions.”

I immediately thought of Gilma and looking into the mirror for a solution to our problems.

“ You’re on your own there. You can’t look for anything selfish or it won’t work. Besides, you already know the answer. Stop drinking is the first step.”

I chuckled at myself. Bad enough I was in conversation with a snake that lived in my stomach, but he’d just busted me.

“ Now climb through the mirror to get to the other side. That’s where you will find help for things.”

I tried to watch my spirit body climb through the mirror but nothing happened. I tried again. Same result.

“ Stop trying to see yourself, let go and just climb through it.”

I did as he asked and surprisingly, found myself climbing through. But my feet didn’t touch any ground on the other side, a pitch black space that felt like a chamber. Instead, it felt as though I were floating. I reached out my arms and they made contact with what felt like smooth stone.

“ Feel along the ceiling,” the snake instructed.

I reached up and did as asked, pulling myself along. I hadn’t gone more than a few feet when I realized there was a sort of recessed light in the ceiling. I pulled myself toward it: It wasn’t an ordinary light, more like an eight or ten inch cylindrical tube about an inch and a half in diameter from which light emanated.

“ Take the light stone,” the snake said with a touch of impatience when I didn’t move to touch it, “bring it to this side of the mirror, bring the mirror back to me, then wrap yourself in the light.”

At the time it made sense to me, so again I did as the snake said. The stone was neutral to the touch, though I thought it would be warm. I took it, made my way back to the mirror, crossed over, put the mirror away, and suddenly found myself on the dirt floor of the hut, wrapping my physical body in a stream of white light that came from the stone. No one else could see the light, I’m sure, though they probably could see me slowly waving my left hand in a circle around my head. As I did I felt the comfort of the light around me.

“ Now take the mirror,” said the snake, “climb through it and put the light back. Never forget to replace the things you take from the other side.”

I did, then thanked the snake for teaching me.

Francisco’s voice brought me back to physical reality. “Pedro, if it’s alright with you, it’s late, so tell your friends to sit up and we will say a closing word for the ceremony.” He lit a candle and suddenly the room was filled with the shadows of my guests, none of whom looked ready to have the ceremony end. One or two were still moaning, and another couple were still vomiting.

“ What did he say?” Mac asked weakly from her prone position on the bed.

I translated from the Spanish.

“ Tell him it’s not over by a longshot.”

Everyone agreed. I told Francisco what Mac said and he reluctantly blew out the candle, while Ramon began to sing again. Ten or fifteen minutes later I could hear people beginning to move in the darkness, and Francisco once again lit a candle. I was still feeling under the influence of ayahuasca, but by now I felt I could function in ordinary reality and turned my attention to the others. Harry was telling Susan that she might be better off in her bunk, sleeping under a mosquito net. Susan agreed and I could hear her gathering her things.

I asked Susan and Harry if they’d be alright, and Stephen surprised me by suggesting that he would walk them back to the sleeping hut, about 100 yards away on a narrow jungle trail. Stephen’s mom, Barbara, said she’d accompany them as well. Stephen borrowed my flash to lead the way. A few minutes later Stephen returned and walked a man named Jahn, who said he’d had a wonderful and enlightening experience but was still wobbly legged, back. With only Mac, Jean and myself left in the hut, Francisco said that he and Ramon were going as well. Mac looked as though she were still deep in the throes of her experience and I said I wished they would stay. “You know what to do, Peter,” Francisco said, and when I objected he simply smiled and said, “Sing.” I didn’t like being put in that position but Ramon was looking very old and exhausted so I told them to go ahead.

A few minutes later Stephen came back and asked Jean and Mac if they were ready to leave: Jean said she was still under the influence but thought she’d be better off in bed than in the hut; Mac said that she was in no condition to move and I volunteered to stay with her. She did ask Stephen to bring her blankets, as she was feeling very cold, and he said he would once the others were all settled.

I sat on the floor near Mac and gathered up all of the cigarettes I’d lost during the night. I thought she just needed a few more minutes, but when I asked how she was feeling she said there were spirits pulling her to the other side and she didn’t know if she was strong enough to fight them. I felt her heart and pulse: both were fine, though slightly erratic, and her breathing was labored. I thought she’d be better off sitting up but she was unable to move, and being a big woman, I couldn’t simply lift her to a sitting position.

“ They’re pulling me, Peter. I don’t know that I can fight them.” Her voice had an element of deep fear in it, one I couldn’t take lightly. Of all her group, she was the most experienced with hallucinogens and visionary plants, and short of truly being frightened she could have handled anything.

“ Just remember to breathe, Mac,” I said, but when she continued to breathe unevenly I started to sing my simple icaro to give her a rhythm to follow.

Stephen returned with two blankets and we put them over her. “I’m freezing. I’m freezing,” she repeated over and over, so Stephen went to get more.

“ I’ve never met spirits like this. I don’t know how to get rid of them.”

“ Just don’t forget to breathe.”

And again I sang, and didn’t stop singing when Stephen brought more blankets, and then water to cool down her forehead, which was burning up.

If there were a way back to town other than walking out of the jungle and trying to hitch a ride on a dead end road in the middle of the night I might have tried it, but there wasn’t. There wouldn’t have been anything anyone in town could have done anyway: either Mac was in a delerium paranoid state induced by the ayahuasca, or the ayahuasca had allowed her to access a place inhabited by spirits she could not escape, and neither of those states were something doctors were equipped to handle while she remained under the influence. There was nothing to do but sing.

An hour passed and she was still not well. By then Stephen had picked up a chacapa and was shaking it in time with my singing. If it had been anyone else I might have thought they were milking it for the attention, but I knew that I was still under the influence, albeit not the intensity of the first few hours, and thought she must be as well.

As I sang I tried to look at her. Not at her body, but at her spirit body, to see if I could see anything wrong. At first I couldn’t see anything, and I began to feel silly for even trying, but just as I was about to stop it seemed to me that there was a sort of black hole in Mac’s upper back and what I can only describe as a kind of energy—it wasn’t solid or liquid, or anything I could see with my regular eyes—was leaking out of it. And then I thought I saw another in her lower back, and then another. It was as if they had always been there, but only in my not trying to see them did they become apparent. But seeing them only made me feel helpless, as I had no idea whether they were really there, and if they were, what I was could do about it.

Suddenly the voice told me I’d better do something. It was the same voice with the same intensity it had used when I was fighting for Marco years earlier, and I knew to take it seriously. I thought of the light and closed my eyes. With an effortlesness that surprised me I made my way to my belly, got the mirror, placed it high and climbed through it. I pulled myself along the ceiling of the other side until I got to the stone light. I took it and reversed my steps, and found myself back at Mac’s side, singing. In my left hand I held the invisible stone light. Feeling slightly silly, I began to move the light up and down the length of Mac’s body, stopping at the black holes I sensed or saw. Suddenly a different voice, or a group of voices told me just to touch the stone to the holes; there was something familiar and frightening about the new voices. I realized it was the doctors, but before I had time to panic, they continued.

“ Just do what we say. We’re here to work on her, not you this time.”

Relieved, I did as they said, and the first hole seemed to close a little. I waited for instruction but none was forthcoming, so I moved the stone light to another hole. It too seemed to close a little, though I wasn’t sure I was just playing curandero and making the whole thing up.

“ I’m not winning this battle,” Mac, who’d been silent for nearly an hour, said suddenly. “I think I am going to die.”

“ You’re not going to die, Mac,” I said. “Nobody dies from ayahuasca.”

“ I don’t think I can keep going.”

I didn’t know what to say and didn’t think shouting that she was being a baby—which is what I was feeling—was going to help. At the same time I knew she was in that terror zone and unable to let go for fear of falling into the abyss, which would be a sort of dying.

“ Don’t stop singing. It’s the only thing I have to hold me here,” Mac said, and I realized I had stopped. I began my simple icaro again, and sang it with every variation that came to my mind and hundreds I had never imagined. And when I could no longer mouth the notes I began to sing regular songs. I sang the old blues songs Alberta, and Who Do You Love; I sang I’m Gonna Be Down At Your Burial and anything else I could remember, all the while moving the light stone from black hole to black hole, and silently begging the doctors to tell me what to do next.

Stephen kept an eye on Mac’s breath, and kept her covered when the blankets would shift. He fed her water through a straw which she kept vomiting weakly the instant she took it in, but vomiting meant she was breathing, so we took it as a good sign.

Still, by the time three hours or three years had gone by—there was still no sign of false dawn but it seemed like forever—Mac didn’t seem to be getting better. Her breathing remained labored, she was running a fever and at the same time was deeply chilled, and when she spoke it was either incoherently about the spirits trying to get her to join them on the other side or a request that we tell her son Josh that she was sorry she couldn’t make it but he should never forget how much she loved him. Whenever she spoke there was terror in her voice.

I wondered why the stone light treatment wasn’t working. It seemed to me that the black holes had all shrunk considerably, and many had disappeared together. If they were a sign of the battle she was waging she should have been improving.

“ Breathe through the holes to clean them.” It was the doctors, returned after an eternity.

I didn’t hesitate: I began by switching from singing the notes of my icaro to breath-whistling them over Mac’s whole body, trying to clean off whatever ether was clutching at her. After a few minutes I began to breathe deeply and focus a single stream of breath at the first hole I could see, trying to aim it through it. Nothing happened, but to my surprise I was able to breathe out for a much longer period that I thought. I took a deep breath and tried again: this time my breath seemed almost solid, and as it passed through the hole the blackness disappeared with it, and when I finally stopped breathing, what had been a black hole of sorts now looked to me like a fast-healing, clean sore, as if the hole had somehow really been cleaned out and was sealing itself.

I breathed into the second hole, and then a third: each time my breath seemed to be coming from a place deeper within me, until it seemed as though it weren’t my breath at all but an inkling of the four winds that started somewhere in the vast distance and passed through me on the way to passing into and through Mac. The sound was deafening to me, though I don’t think Stephen heard a difference. It felt as though I were the conduit for blowing the wind at the beginning and end of the world and each time I blew I felt myself growing larger and larger, until it seemed like I no longer fit beneath the high roof of the hut. I might have been blowing the wind of the universe and each breath seemed to clean and close a dozen holes until I couldn’t find anymore. I still didn’t stop; I blew the air around her, beneath her, through her hair, until exhausted, I could breath no more. Instantly I shrank to my normal size and was once again sitting on the floor next to Mac and near Stephen.

“ Call Francisco and Ramon,” I told Stephen, telling him which hut they were staying in. “Tell them we need them here.”

I began chanting quietly again, silently thanked the doctors, then visited my snake to get the mirror to put the light stone away. I felt utterly spent.

“ Are you there, Peter?” Mac asked softly.

“ Still here, girl. How are you?”

“ I’m weak and I still feel stoned. I’m still scared but I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”

“ Good.”

“ Where’s Stephen?”

“ He went to get Francisco.”

It was better than she’d sounded for several hours.

Francisco and Ramon came in shortly, carrying several toronga, a large citrus fruit, a knife and a bowl with ice in it. Francisco cut and juiced the fruit while Ramon felt Mac’s pulse and heartbeat. Then he hut his hands on her head.

“ She’s very hot,” he told Francisco.

Francisco handed him the bowl of juice, and Ramon began applying it to Mac’s temples. She objected vehemently to the cold liquid, but was told to simply bear it because her brain was still very hot. I thought that the silliest thing I’d ever heard and touched her head myself: though she had no fever anymore—her forehead and glands were cool—her temples were on fire. The cold juice gradually brought the temperature down.

“ She was in quite a battle tonight,” Francisco announced, as though it was news.

“ Why didn’t you stay?” I asked. “You knew she was in trouble.”

“ It was your turn tonight,” Don Ramon answered simply.

In a few minutes they left, leaving Stephen, Mac and I alone again. A few minutes later the first light of dawn began to arch across the eastern sky.

“ I was really going to die, guys,” Mac said. “I’ve never been that close before.”

In another hour Mac had regained enough strength to make it to the sleeping hut, and after a couple of hours of rest managed to make the hike to the road, where a bus I’d arranged for picked us up for the ride back to Iquitos.

I still don’t really know what went on that night. When it was happening it seemed real, but whether or not I got a true glimpse of one of the ways healing is done by curanderos, I’m not sure. That elements from so many different ceremonies came together—seeing without looking, the song, the snake, the doctors, the light and the wind—still amazes me, though when I later related the story to Julio he just shrugged and said, “Ah, Pedrito. This is red magic,” as if everyone knew what it was and how to use it when necessary.

I do know the doctors are not finished their work with me. About a month after the ceremony at Sachamama I was with four friends at Julio’s. We drank, and almost instantly my world turned red and the DNA began rolling toward me. It had hardly reached me when I heard the doctors. “It’s your turn again. We’ve still got work to do.”

Knowing I was about to have a full fledged panic attack, I excused myself and stepped outside. I’d lit a kerosene lamp to show the others the way to the out house, and I could do nothing but sit beside it, staring at the flame and waiting for the night to end. Even the soothing sound of Julio’s voice couldn’t save me from my fear. I simply sat it out, and though the voices stayed near, I just told them to go ahead and work if they could, but I was in no shape to cooperate.

The night eventually did end, and I havn’t taken the opportunity to drink since. I will, I think, still have to deal with the doctors again sooner or later.



NOTES

1) AYAHUASCA—A Quechua word meaning “vine of the soul” or “vine of the dead,” ayahuasca is often colloquially referred to as “vine of the little death” because the user feels as though his ego has dissolved, or died. Ayahuasca is also known as caapi, natema, pinde, or yage’ in various languages by the indigenous groups that employ the beverage.

The standard preparation of ayahuasca involves the simmering of cracked sections of Banisteriopsis caapi vine with chacruna (Psychotria viridis) leaves over a period of several hours, during which black tobacco smoke, (Nicotiana rustica), is continually blown into the mixture. In Ecuador, leaves of the Diplopteris caberena are frequently used instead of psychotria viridis.

Various additional plant products are frequently added to the brewing of ayahuasca, most frequently the scraped inner bark of the capirona (Calycophyllum spruceanum) and the lipuna negro (Trichilia tocachana) trees. Bark scraped from the roots of the bush known as chiric sanango (Brunfelsia grandiflora) are also commonly added.

Most ayahuasqueros select the additives they will use based on their medicinal properties and the needs of their clients.

In addition to its curative and visionary uses, ayahuasca is used as a sacrament by a number of small religious groups, including the Union de Vegetal and the Santo Daime church.

2) CURANDERO—The colloquial Spanish name for all local healers who work with plants, including ayahuasqueros.

3) MAPACHO—the name for both the various wild black tobacco Nicotiana species—most often Nicotiana rustica—growing in the Peruvian lowlands as well as the cigarettes made with that tobacco.

4) ICARO—The name of the songs sung by ayahuasqueros during their ceremonies. Most ayahuasqueros in northwest Amazonia say that they learned their songs directly from the ayahuasca or other plants during ceremonies, and view them as gifts from the spirits of the plants. In southwest Amazonia, particularly the area around Pulcallpa, there is more of a tradition of ayahuasqueros passing their icaros on to their apprentices, though apprentices are still expected to be ‘gifted’ with their own songs as well.

5)TASTE—One of the curious things about nearly all the plants used worldwide for visionary purposes is that their taste is very difficult to deal with. Practitioners from Siberia to peyoteists in the North American southwest, to ayahuasqueros in South America generally agree that this is purposfully done by the spirit of the plants to keep people from accidently ingesting them, or from ingesting them without some proper intent.

6)POWER PLANTS—Among those who heal with the help of plant medicine, there are generally seven plants that are considered the Grandfather Medicine plants, or power plants. Among them are the West African Iboga tamarinth, the Siberian mushroom Amanita muscaria, the South American lowland ayahuasca and Brugmansia grandiflora (of the Datura family, from which To-e is made); the South American highland desert San Pedro cactus (also found throughout Central America, Mexico and the Southwest US, though it is not as strong a species in these regions); the tiny southwest US and Northern Mexico Peyote cactus, and several species of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms found worldwide.

Among users, these plants are thought to be capable of transporting those partaking in them to non-physical realities and imparting wisdom.

7) AYAHUASCA RETCH—Ayahuasca is also called La Purga, the purge, by those who use it, as one of it’s side-effects is generally a prolonged purging session that occurs roughly 30 minutes to an hour after ingestion. But since those partaking in ayahuasca generally fast for at least 12 hours prior to ingestion, the purge is less a food elimination than it is an elimination of bad things, the bile, in our lives. Some curanderos say that after you purge you may look at what you let go and use it as a sort of mirror through which your spirit may pass to travel to any part of the real or spirit universe that you wish.

8) UNA DE GATO—Uncaria tomentosa is a woody shrub that grows along the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries throughout lowland Peru. It gets its colloquial name, una de gato, cat’s claw, because of the sharp, claw-like appendages that grow on its branches. Extracts from the plant, both liquid and powder, have long been used in Peru as a general tonic and for relief from rheumatism, arthritis and bursitis. It has been used as an adjunct therapy for AIDS treatment throughout Peru for several years as one of it’s beneficial qualities is to sharply increase T-cell levels. Most recently it has been used as an adjunct medicine in the treatment of cancers by such high profile clinics as New York Hospital and the Mayo Clinic.

9) SACHA JERGON—A tuber whose Latin name I do not know, it has long been used throughout the Peruvian lowlands in conjunction with una de gato as a general tonic, and in the past two or three years has begun to be used as an adjunct therapy with una de gato in the treatment of both AIDS and cancers.

10)EGG-HEALER—One of the oddest, and no doubt oldest healing methods in Peru, egg-healing involves a curandero who passes a raw egg over his (or her) patient’s body while chanting and blowing black tobacco smoke. A good egg-healer is said to be in communication with the unborn spirit of the chicken within the egg, and requests that that spirit absorbs the illness of the patient into its unformed body. While ridiculous to Westerners on the face of it, egg-healings are considered a vital, though dying medical practice by Peruvians.

11) SAN PEDRO CURANDERO—While ayahuasca is vital to the health and well being of the people of lowland Amazonia, curanderos in the highlands favor the use of the San Pedro cactus, where it’s colloquial name is “Window to the Four Winds.” Though their ceremonies and the plants they use differ, San Pedro curanderos are quite similar to ayahuasqueros in that their villages frequently depend on them to treat a variety of physical and spiritual ailments.

12) FLOWER BATH—Among lowland healers it is thought that negativity, whether it be physical or spiritual in nature, has a presence that affixes itself to people, like a black splotch of ether. In the tradition of ayahuasca use in the region of Pulcallpa, several hundred miles south of Iquitos, ayahuasqueros are trained to make baths with a variety of flowers which can eliminate the splotches of negativity which have affixed themselves to their patients.


© by Peter Gorman, 1983-2007
Photographs Copyright information