Wednesday, October 12, 2011

In search of a medicine man: Journeys through Peru

This past winter I created a scholarship to encourage students to do some non-academic related travel. With the help of reader donations, I gave the money to a California student named Chanaye, who'd hoped to find  a medicine man in Peru, so she could help her ailing mother. Like any good adventure, hers, in ways, was a misadventure, but one that, I think she'd argue, was valuable in its own way.

Here's the first part of her story, which she sent to me from Peru. The second part is below.

I made my way to the Amazon jungle by hitching a 23-hour truck ride from the coast to Moyobamba. From Moyobamba I went to Tarapoto, there I looked around for herbalists and anyone who could connect me with a healer, with whom I could learn about medicinal plants. Ideas and words were exchanged but the wait continued. My time in Peru was significantly shorter than I had initially planned for this endeavor of learning a bit about medicinal plants—about 10 months shorter—so there was pressure to make the most of my time until I could return to Peru again. While walking one day in Tarapoto, I noticed a small native herb shop, run by a woman and her two sons. I walked in and ended up speaking with the woman for almost an hour about various things, including healers and my search for one. She told me that one of the men who harvested medicinal herbs—who sold them to her—was a healer and could possibly be the one to teach me a bit while I was there. The healer's name was Pedro, and after an hour ride to the end of the road, we would have to walk four hours further into the jungle together, and up the mountain to find his house, crossing the river thirteen times. Two days later, Pedro met me and my buddy from Peru at the woman's herb shop, and the journey to Pedro's land began.

From the very start I had the vague impression that Pedro might not completely understand my intentions. After all, I wasn't present when the woman spoke with him and explained the situation. After a forty-minute motorbike ride to the end of the road, the three of us began the four-hour trek up to his land. Half-way up the mountain Pedro mentioned ayahuasca a few times; a very sacred psychoactive vine in the Amazon, and it seemed as though he thought my intention was to drink ayahuaca, like most of the foreign people who wonder into the jungle looking for a healer. I, however, had no plans of drinking ayahuasca, I was only trying to learn about the most used medicinal plants, including but not specifically the sacred hallucinogens of the native peoples. It was clear that Pedro had become so accustomed to foreigners, or gringos, searching for some kind of new-age spiritual enlightenment through ayahuasca, and willing to pay, that he could not understand, nor value, my desire to learn about the medicinal properties of Andean plants.

Pedro was one of few people on the entire mountain, and once we arrived at his land, it became clear that he wasn´t going to teach us much at all, or even make sure that we ate. My buddy and I had to search his land and gather beans, and had only beans and bananas to eat (a perfectly fine diet for those preparing to drink ayahuasca), which we prepared and cooked ourselves while Pedro slept or chopped down branches. After the first three days we had spent about 20 minutes learning about plants, and significantly more time explaining that we did not want to drink ayuhuasca with him and explaining once again what we were there for. The woman from the herb shop never told us that Spanish wasn't Pedro's native language, but instead one of the much older languages of the Andes. Pedro didn't offer many words unless he was addressed, so my friend and I weren't sure if Pedro's Spanish was weak, or if he was simply unconcerned about the agreement. One thing seemed clear; as long as he got paid he could care less about what we learned while we were with him. After Pedro prepared a sacred cactus for us to drink, which was prepared incorrectly and gave no medicinal benefit, my friend and I gave up on him.

My friend was from Peru, and I had been there three times before this one. Peru had already become a second home in my life, after California, and over time I had become very critical and rather disgusted with the overwhelming presence and effects of tourists in Peru, and I thought about the issue often. It was clear to me that the experience with Pedro was a product of that presence.

After a few days we left. Less than half way down the mountain we paid Pedro less than he expected, after explaining why we were doing so, and ditched him for two Peruvian guys who had a tiny animal protection project and living space set up on the river. My friend and I had run into these two guys on the way up the mountain, and we decided to stay with them for two nights. It was with them, after accusing Pedro of not being a healer, that we were told he was indeed a healer who knew much about the jungle's plants, but he was a man concerned with money and uninterested in teaching anybody what he knew. Pedro had healed one of the guys we ditched him for, and the two came to know, and dislike each other over the years.

Last year, for a college newspaper, I wrote an article entitled Don’t go to Peru. I discussed how Peru, its people, its culture and its land were being spat upon by the inundation of tourists, or gringos. One of the issues I spoke about was the tourist's search (certain kinds of tourists) for spiritual enlightenment through shamanic ceremonies; searching for a healer and the ceremony of drinking ayahuasca. Ayahuasca, and the ceremony that accompanies it, belong to the indigenous peoples of the Andes. It is one of the most powerful psychoactive medicines that our earth offers and it has been used by peoples whose connection, knowledge and respect for the earth surpasses that of most of who inhabit the earth today. But change has come.

After the jungle is blessed, time and time again with the presence of tourists, a shaman, who possesses old knowledge, wisdom, experience and remarkable healing power, comes to realize that his/her practice is no longer serving those who are part of his tribe, community or village (those who live with the earth, with relative simplicity, and have grown within the context of spiritual healing through plants) but instead, also to an entirely new people, made up of foreigners, from cities, with money and without the language of the land: A market. Many shamans have taken in these tourists, and the financial gain that comes with them, and other shamans have not. What happens to the sacred history, tradition, and power of ceremony when it becomes exploited? And exploited from both sides? People without any healing knowledge or power claim to be a shaman, or healer, and offer their services and prices. Struggling people in the jungle, aware of the tourists and their money, seek out the opportunity to attack and rob. A sacred ceremony, the sincerity and power of the shaman, the healing...all shape shift into a business, and with the business comes a more dangerous environment, a corruption of tradition, the degradation of a healer, the poisoning of culture, and the commercialization of what was once sacred. And perhaps, with the potential to reshape the value of the ceremony, even in the mind of the shaman, if not only the intention. For reasons not worth stating, I have never been a tourist, I have always been a traveler (some recognize the difference, others don't), and have paid close attention to my presence in the lands I travel to. Nevertheless, as I left the jungle, I asked myself, how can the difference between me and tourists be evident and valuable as I search for a healer? How does one demonstrate their genuineness and intention to be greater than that of another? And what responsibility do I have as a foreigner, when I return to the Amazon?

Anyway, I ran out of money and left the Jungle, but not the Amazon. I took a five-hour bus to Chachapoyas, a very magical place in my history, where I spent around three weeks making and selling jewelry in the plaza every night, to pay for my room and food. I talked to old acquaintances and strangers and explored the ways I could continue looking for a healer. I almost got connected with one, but it didn't work out. The search is pretty tough and the culture distorted, at least for what I was looking for. Anyway, the jungle is such wonderfully indescribable place. The magic and power found in the Amazon surpass even our ability to comprehend it. The earth, la Pachamama, is where all potential waits, where all wisdom walks.

May all who have the privilege of traveling recognize the immense value and necessity of knowing the social, political and cultural conflicts, struggles and shifts of the people and land they wish to admire so closely. As well as the impact of their presence, culture, and money.


Grace said...

This is a very thought-provoking post.

I have mixed feelings about it, though. On the one hand, the author's insights into the effects of tourism (in particular, "cultural tourism") are interesting and, I think, correct. She certainly seems like an adventurous and unusual person.

On the other hand, the author is not really any different from other tourists (as she alludes to). What does she have to offer Pedro (or any other healer she might find) that is to their benefit, besides money? It is a great trouble to teach anyone anything, especially if they don't speak your language. And what's in it for Pedro? After troubling himself considerably to share his hard earned knowledge, she was just planning to take off in a short while, never to see him again most likely. (Also, from an economics perspective he is right not to share his knowledge, as that is how he makes his living. If many people know what he knows, then he is out of a job.)

I also feel that the author is incredibly unrealistic. I would imagine learning about medicinal plants is a time-consuming and complex study (after all, becoming a Western doctor takes up to 10 years). If you really want to learn anything worthwhile, then you must work very hard for a long period of time. She is like a random Peruvian showing up at a biomedical lab and demanding to be trained in how to cure cancer over the next week or two. No real researcher would ever take her seriously or have anything to do with her (only the greedy or charlatans would be willing).

If she is really serious about learning more about traditional medicine, she is going to have to put in the time. This means committing to a long stay, thinking hard about what she could offer to her teachers that would be of value to them, and learning the appropriate language and surrounding cultural practices (including what the normal procedure is for those wanting training: I would imagine it involves some sort of extended personal apprenticeship, perhaps with tests to pass first).

Right now she strikes me as a dilettante, enamored of the "magic" of the Amazon, rather than genuinely interested in learning about medicinal lore (which like all skills, is based on hard work and study, not mysticism). But she also seems intelligent and interested in the world, so perhaps with some application she could indeed become a true learner.

Anonymous said...

Grace gets a thunbs up.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to be a Witch Doctor, but I failed shrinking skull head 101 class.

So i became a shrink, but too many people with head problems to shrink - joke.

Diane said...

I admit I was surprised at her selection way back when. Nice (but not really) to know my gut feeling proved true. I'd say more, but Grace did so most eloquently.
Nonetheless, I salute you Ken. You made a difference in someone's life, even if what she did with the cash wasn't all you'd hoped. Please don't let it discourage you from trying again.

Anonymous said...

I know you told me stuff it before when i remarked on your choice. But i would still like to hear what your mom thinks about how this girl spent the $1000 she gave you to help you out.. Take care, i always look forward to your new posts. Stay warm :)

Anonymous said...

Here here, grace.

That young woman should try to feed herself and cloth herself and bathe herself without her parent's money or a scolarship and then, after a couple years of such, come back and speak her mind. Silly jibberish from an entitled child.

Robot Killer said...

I hope you got some man, she looks hot. The woman, not the horse.

Just joking dude, well not really,
just make sure it's a real woman.
You never know these days.


Ken said...

Manners, anyone?

Anonymous said...

Hope she does or does not find what she is looking for. The outcome remains the same for us all.

jlcollinsnh said...

interesting post and comment by Grace. Shamans are surely burned out on tourist decades ago.

Still, as a contributor to the scholarship, I've no regrets.

looking forward to hearing more.


perhaps you might gather these scholarship related posts into one category for easy tracking?

jlcollinsnh said...

Hi Ken....

I also provided a couple of links from my latest post over here:

good luck on your book deal!

jlcollinsnh said...

Hi Ken....

I also provided a couple of links from my latest post over here:

good luck on your book deal!