Cordillera del Cóndor region, in southeastern Ecuador. Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, 2012. All rights reserved.

By Alexander Zaitchik

Freddy the Healer handed me the gourd a few hours after sundown. Around us in every direction watched the eyes of more than a hundred Shuar Indians, aged eight to elderly, faces dimly aglow from the light of candles crowding a small table to my right. We stood in a circle expanded to the edges of a remote forest clearing in southeastern Ecuador, past the sharp eastern lip of the Andes but not yet part of the horizon-wide expanse of the Amazon basin. The Shuar inhabit a lush middle ground called the Cordillera del Condor. Ecologically unique, the sub-Andean mountain range is known for a rich biodiversity comparable to the Galapagos Islands. It also provides much of the water for the vast continental watershed to the east.

The Shuar have dwelled among the Condor’s jungle hill cascades for millennia, a measurement of time that seemed to flicker in the orange faces observing me in silence. We had all come for the stuff in the buckets. Beneath the makeshift candle-lit altar, centered by a ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary in the Latin American style, rested four plastic scuttles holding gallons of a liquid that resembled a frothy green gazpacho. It had been decocted that afternoon from juice strained from a columnar cactus native to the north Andean highlands. Science has named this cactus trichocereus. The pre-Columbian Indians called it huaracha. Those Indians’ descendents, mixed-blood mestizo compatriots, and foreign guests know it as San Pedro.

That Christianized name, San Pedro, dates to the sixteenth-century arrival in the Andes of Spanish Jesuit missionaries, who told the Indians that a man named Saint Peter turned the keys at the gates of heaven. Yes, was the Indians’ reply, we know this fellow. He is green and grows very tall, and when you strip his skin and boil it, he takes you to the spirit world. Several hundred years after the natives renamed their holy cactus to honor, and very possibly to humor, the Conquistador priests, a traveling mestizo healer named Freddy Jimenez slapped me hard on my chest and handed me a brimming bowl of the hallucinogenic green drink.

I was present at the invitation of a Shuar chief named Domingo Ankuash. He was my local guide in southern Ecuador’s El Pangui province, where I lived this summer while reporting a story on the environmental threat posed by the regional mining boom. We had been talking about the arrival of Chinese and Canadian mining companies on Shuar ancestral lands when Domingo mentioned a healing ceremony planned for that evening. I’d assumed the ceremony would involve ayahuasca, the most important hallucinogenic plant in the Amazon. The Shuar’s central ceremonies involve drinking an ayahuasca brew, which they call natema, near the area’s thousands of rivers and waterfalls. In these places, loud with the sound of rushing water, the community drinks to divine the future, prepare for battle, and commune with the spirit world. These rivers and cascades are now threatened by the government’s promotion of large-scale mining. I expectedayahuasca to be a character in the story and hoped to join the Shuar in a traditional ceremony near the water.

“An Ayahuasca ceremony,” I said. “I was going to ask you about that.”

“Not Ayahuasca,” Domingo replied, waving a finger. “San Pedro, the cactus. It is another healing plant.”

The ceremony was scheduled to begin after nightfall. I flagged an open-air bus on the road to El Pangui and returned to my room to shower and rest. It was going to be a very long night.

Shuar of all ages begin to assemble prior to the healing ceremony. Condor region, Ecuador, 2012. Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, all rights reserved.

I arrived back at the ceremony grounds just before dusk. Attendees from nearby villages had begun to gather around a large packed-earth clearing closed on two sides by forest and on two sides by simple wooden houses. A narrow path led through the trees to a paved road a few hundred meters away. The entire community seemed to have assembled. There were young couples and their children, teenagers with their friends, old Indians with wrinkled cheeks. Conversations suggested the gathered were representative of contemporary Shuar, now in their sixth decade of routine contact with the mestizo farmers who began settling the area in the middle of the last century. The Shuar have integrated into the modern Ecuadorean state, though the relationship is increasingly fraught. Some have been baptized and attend Catholic Mass in simple village churches; others do not. Most of them work in small-scale agriculture, the region’s main industry. The Shuar no longer dress traditionally, but prefer soccer jerseys and jeans. Many of their villages, even those located hours downriver into the road-less forest, are electrified. All Shuar speak Spanish.

Stripping and pulping the San Pedro cactus, Condor region, Ecuador, 2012. Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, all rights reserved.

A line had begun to form inside the unoccupied structure. I entered and followed the smell of incense to a small room where a team of five was busy preparing the night’s menu. Dozens of unshorn cactus stalks leaned against a wall. One man stripped them, slicing an inch under the surface. Another worked the snake-pit pile of epidermis into a hand grinder. The nectar dripped into a container on the floor. The process moved with factory efficiency. If cartels operated psychedelic product labs, I thought, they would look like this. A woman in the corner blew upon a bowl containing orange embers of the most sweet-scented wood.

The line outside the laboratory door stretched the length of the building to a closed door at the other end of a dark hallway. I joined the queue and asked a teenage boy what everyone was waiting for. “That is where we talk about the reason we’re here,” he said. His friend volunteered that he was thinking about his life after he finished school. Shuar are beginning to have what you might call “life options”, and he thought he might like to travel, maybe work in Peru. “I want to ask some questions and see what guidance I can get in the visions.” In western terms, the idea was to establish one’s “mental set” prior to the ceremony. When I suggested the green goop might also be for them a fun adventure, a sort of weekend diversión, they smiled. There has always been an entertainment aspect to hallucinogenic rituals in the forest. The visions are the ultimate light show. Visions plus community—the original Burning Man.

When I entered the room I found a sort of “confession room,” where, instead of confessing sin, participants expressed their intentions and described their physical or spiritual ailments. Two women sat glumly on a small cot. They barely registered the badly timed entrance of a gringo holding a camera. Something in their faces told me they were there seeking healing from a serious illness. I felt ashamed for intruding and excused myself. But not before arranging an interview with the evening’s main healer.

The San Pedro cactus, when pulped and mixed with water, is a powerful hallucinogen. Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, Ecuador, 2012. All rights reserved.

I tried to camouflage my disappointment when a squat burly man in his late 20s approached me wearing dirty designer jeans and a sweatshirt featuring the word FERRARI. This was a holy man? It was Freddy Jimenez, my Saturday Night shaman. With the name, build, and wardrobe of a middle reliever for the Miami Marlins, Freddy was unlike any healer I had ever met. This filled me with apprehension. The potioning of hallucinogenic plants is serious business—some of them contain toxins that need to be removed in the preparation. And Westerners can have unpredictable reactions to different compounds in hallucinogenic plants, possibly due to the presence in our systems of common Euro-American pharmaceutical products. Though the science hasn’t been studied at all, there’s anecdotally a small but real risk of severe reactions. Not long after my night with Freddy, a California kid named Kyle Nolan was found dead at an ayahuasca retreat in Peru. Since the rise of the psychedelic tourism boom, the region is newly awash with fly-by-night “healers.”

Speaking with Freddy allayed my concerns. He had studied for seven years in Peru with a well-known healer specializing in San Pedro, known as a Huachumero. He explained that he runs ceremonies every two weeks in the region for both Indians and mestizos, but never for tourists. Tonight we were deep in Shuar country. When I referred to his work as shamanic, he quickly corrected me. “Shamans perform magic, including black magic. They can kill as well as heal,” he said. “I facilitate the contemplation of god. I do not work with evil. I help people feel the spirit and to heal. Communicating with the Virgin and communicating with nature are not in conflict. I’m a Catholic healer.”

I asked how long the Shuar have used this cactus that grows in the Andes, which is distinct from their spiritual connection to the waterfalls and rivers facilitated by ayahuasca. He said that there’s always been contact and trading between the highland Indians and those of the lowland rainforest. “Probably for eons they have been using each other’s medicines,” he said. “Though each group usually sticks to its ‘home-grown’ medicine. Natema (ayahuasca) does not grow in the highlands and San Pedro hardly grows in the rainforest. But the two medicines share a common goal, which is to cure people…It is impossible to compare them. Used in the right situation, each medicine has its power.”

Then Freddy got up and excused himself. The line outside the “confession room” had spilled out of the building. Night was falling. He had work to do.

* *

The San Pedro cactus, Trichocerus pachanoi. Source: Flickr. Photo by Micah MacAllen, 2005. Some rights reserved.

If ayahuasca is the healing and divination plant of the jungle, and peyote of the desert scrub, San Pedro is the New World’s high mountain medicine. The cactus grows throughout the Andes at an altitudinal sweet spot between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. Its columns, covered in spikes, hairs, and flowers, can grow to a towering 20 feet. Its arms sprout star-shaped, several to a plant, in candelabra form. The use of San Pedro appears to track to the hazy origins of plant-based ritual in the western hemisphere. Gourds dating to 2,000 B.C. have been found in the Peruvian Andes bearing images of figures holding the cactus as a staff, a motif still found through the region. The oldest clear reference to San Pedro’s ritual use is a graven image on the subterranean temple walls of the Chavin de Huantar ruins of northern Peru.

The Indians had been using San Pedro for as long as they could remember when the Spanish showed up in the 16th centurywith their Bible stories. The missionaries viewed the indigenous population’s use of hallucinogens as devil-worship and tried with varying levels of success to stamp out the practice. This encounter set in motion a mixing that continues to this day. An eighteenth-century church wall in the southern Ecuadorian city of Cuenca features an image of the baby Jesus emerging from a San Pedro flower. The collision of indigenous plant-based spirituality and Catholicism has in recent years produced more formal hybrid religions. In southeastern Ecuador, the mash-up of pre-Christian Andean plant healing, Catholic ritual and Shuar animism is not easily untangled, and it seems beside the point to try.

What is clear is that the spread of Catholicism among the Shuar has created a space not just for missionaries and priests, but also for entrepreneurial traveling Catholic healers like Freddy. Each Indian gathering in the clearing was expected to pay a small amount on a sliding scale. At, say, two dollars a participant, this would mean more than $300 for Freddy and his crew, an enormous amount by local standards for a night’s work. Among Shuar healers who self-identify as “traditional,” one can sometimes detect a purist undertone of resentment against the use of the cactus in the Amazon. “San Pedro is the sacred medicine of the Andes people,” said one Shuar healer who works only with ayahuasca. “Traditional Shuar healers don’t use it and it does not play a role in Shuar culture.”

But the meaning of “Shuar culture” has been in flux for decades. As darkness fell, Indians continued to arrive at the clearing.

* *

A Shuar woman blows on a bowl of incense embers, inside the brewing room. Condor region, Ecuador, 2012. Photo by Alexander Zaitchik, all rights reserved.

The stars were bright and the jungle awake when the assistants emerged with the buckets. A hush fell as Freddy approached the front of the table. As the circle of people tightened, the men began to remove their shirts, and I followed. The assistants fanned out with conches filled with some kind of natural Vaseline and bottles of red liquid. The latter was an admixture made by soaking tobacco leaves in honey and then in alcohol. Tobacco is used in many shamanic contexts and is considered a healing plant in its own right. In South American cultures, tobacco is chewed, snuffed, licked, smoked, drunk, and absorbed as enema. In ayahuasca ceremonies, I’ve had tobacco smoke blown on my head, followed by a small mouth spray of alcohol. This was something else. One of Freddy’s men smeared the Vaseline-like substance on my naked chest and back. Another took a mouthful of the tobacco juice and sprayed it the length of my torso, back and front. The sensation burned deep and sharp and settled into a clean, purifying cold. I felt translucent.

After about 20 minutes of this, Freddy again took up position at the table. He then did something I had feared he might do. He scanned the crowd and settled his eyes on me. Standing a foot taller than most Shuar, I wasn’t hard to spot. He motioned me toward him, placed one hand on my shoulder and slapped my chest with the other. Then he grabbed the largest gourd on the table, dipped it, and brought it up full, capped with an uneven head of light green foam. I brought the bowl to my lips with both hands and tipped it back. I tried to pretend it was mildly refreshing. It was like drinking room-temperature celery juice with a hint of sour aloe out of a soapy bowl. I managed to drain most of the gourd before gagging. There would be no single heroic draught. As I finished the bowl in small sips, Freddy began serving the others with notably smaller doses.

I found a seat on the wooden bench running the length of the house. The night was cool in my t-shirt and I was holding my knees when a woman who lived in the house bordering the clearing appeared with a blanket and the warm, wide-open smile of Shuar women. Domingo had introduced us earlier that afternoon. She told me that the medicine would help me with my problems. The year before, she had been quarreling badly with her husband. They went to a series of ceremonies together. “He makes me cakes on my birthday now,” she said. “We understand that the time we have to love each other is short.”

I yawned deeply and she gave a knowing laugh. Lassitude means early onset. She left me alone with the blanket in darkness. I began to feel lightheaded, a tingle in the belly, a gentle wooziness. Somewhere in the darkness I heard the first of the night’s retching noises. Then, like a pool of bullfrogs at dusk, they multiplied until it seemed everyone was puking, and puking hard. Others had begun mumbling to themselves. I was dizzy and languid, but felt no nausea. I began to worry that the plant had chosen not to requite. Sometimes this happens on the first try. Since I was twice the size of most Shuar, maybe even the massive dose Freddy had given me was not enough and —

Somewhere in the middle of this thought, I was forcibly corrected.

What happened cannot be described as vomiting as I have known it. There was no nausea, zero warning of any kind. I was simply propelled off the bench as if struck on the back of the neck with a baseball bat. I hit the dirt stomach first as what felt like my entire viscera turned inside-out and stayed there, suspended, for a long extra beat, as if the cactus had my head above a water barrel and wanted me to know it was in charge. My guts eventually dropped back into place, with a message that seemed to say, “No hard feelings, baby, but this is an advanced class.” That first blast was followed by a series of rapid-fire dry bursts (“heaves” does them an injustice) that constituted the night’s first lesson: there are muscles in my lungs, throat and face that I did not know I had. Even my teeth seemed in some way to have flexed and strained. I recalled reading about the effects of peyote, the atom bomb of emetics. This must be what they were talking about.

The first retching attack was the threshold. I resumed my seat on the bench, but things were not the same. There was a breaking up and a floating away. The candles in the distance crystallized into geometric patterns that detached from their source and floated off like dandelion seeds. I closed my eyes and was welcomed with darting, impossibly neon patterns of pink, yellow and blue.At some point it occurred to me to look at the phone in my pocket. The screen, unusually sharp and softly undulating, had transformed into a skin of some sort, divided into a mathematically perfect scale pattern, like the belly of an alligator. I shut my eyes again and had the first of the night’s representational visions: A woman in a white robe wearing donut-sized bangles of pure gold appeared and vanished.

The retching noises around me grew into a cacophony at turns humorous and frightening. The auditory hallucinations were magnificent, and I longed for the sound of music. I could see the dull outlines of people wandering throughout the clearing. Some knelt or crouched, weeping and muttering. Some sat with hands folded in prayer, rocking back and forth. Into the second hour I found myself obliterated by a feeling of submission, a desire to curl up into myself and disappear into this strange presence. Another retching fit. I fell to the ground and stayed there, my face against and my fists grabbing the cool earth. I remember repeating the words: Gracias, thank you, si si si si si si, gracias, yes yes I understand. I was speaking to whatever force had brought me here and reminded me with beautiful absolute authority of my place. The arrogance required of my little New York life was the funniest joke I had ever heard, the punch line the slime in which I writhed like a halved worm. I only wanted to apologize to the presence, to convince it that I understood. Si si si siok ok ok yes yes yes. Someone tried to pick me up, thinking maybe I needed help, but I resisted. I wanted no place but the ground, no thing but to merge with it. I suffered another puke spasm, a painful full-face tension followed by the most exquisite expansive release. This, I thought, is what animals feel when they are slaughtered. Yes, this is decapitation as it has been known by billions of creatures throughout history, from the chicken in the soup to Danton. I had been beheaded and survived!

I became aware of Indians standing around me in a circle. I looked up and saw Freddy’s squat outline in the shadows. As I struggled to my feet, he grabbed and straightened my shoulders. Then he grabbed my hands, cupped them together and filled them with a small pool of tobacco juice. He motioned for me to inhale. “Seven times,” he said. I put my hands to my face and breathed, triggering a synesthesic blast wave of bright crimson, the color of the juice as it appears against daylight. As the breath entered my body, I felt illuminated with iridescent clarity from within, and a rolling awareness of every cell tasked with absorbing oxygen. I thought of Alex Grey’s painting Cardiovascular System. Back in Brooklyn, I read Grey’s accompanying text with a new appreciation, having felt and actually seen my own “capillarial webwork carrying the breath through our lifeblood… returning like a prodigal cell … pulsing into another round of hidden rivers beneath the skin.”

I eventually found myself standing around the sacramental table with a group of Indians. We were mumbling and touching the head of the Virgin Mary statuette, without delicacy. We rubbed her cheeks and stroked her crown and told her we loved her. I do not believe in the Virgin Mary, but it felt good to join them.

In the last hour before dawn a line began forming outside the brewing/confession house. One of Freddy’s helpers motioned me inside. I stumbled into the pitch-dark hallway. I sensed people were reaching out to me, and soon they were pushing me along. But there were too many people in the narrow space and I was crushed on all sides. Hands pawed at my face the way I had just been pawing the Virgin. Eventually I was shoved through a door and into a candle-lit room heavy with incense smoke. Freddy sat at a small wooden table, three of his men around him. I looked at them wild-eyed, covered in dirt and vomit. “Good night? Everything okay?” Freddy asked. I stared at him in confusion until I noticed the pile of coins and grimy dollar bills on the table. It was time to pay my tithe. I was standing in the jungle backroom of a rave promoter whose professional lineage stretched back beyond the Spanish, beyond the Incas. Freddy suddenly appeared to me as someone not to mess with. I took out my wallet and placed a few $20 bills on the table. When one of the men took a mouthful of tobacco juice, I removed my shirt. He sprayed me back and front and motioned me to leave. The way out was another haunted-house nightmare crush. Outside, the air felt a purple cool as the Shuar shuffled down the forest path, alone and in small groups to the rivers and roads, paved and not, that would take them home.

* *

San Pedro has a long tail that whips deep into the next day. When I arrived back in El Pangui, the shrieks of the roosters ricocheted with echoes I hadn’t been able to hear the morning before. Things moved by themselves. In this state, sitting in my grimy seven-dollar hotel room with the cucarachas was not an option. I took a cold shower and wandered Pangui’s dusty streets, full of shops that sell fresh bread, rubber snake boots, assorted animal feet, Nestle cookies, and a selection of quality machetes. The world was at turns wondrous and full of little horrors.

Over the next few days I reassembled myself. In a way, San Pedro had been an indulgent diversion. I needed two days before I could get back to reporting my story. San Pedro was by many accounts not a “traditional” Shuar plant, not obviously connected to their battle to protect their sacred waterfalls and ancestral lands. San Pedro was, like me, a bit of an interloper. But its lessons about humility and the shortness of our time to understand and love applied well to the environmental battle I’d come to Ecuador to investigate. The governments of the region have committed to opening up what remains of their pristine forests to oil and mineral development. The Amazon River system, protected by tribes like the Shuar for thousands of years, could be contaminated beyond fix within a generation. These are the earth’s lungs, the planetary version of the cardiovascular system illuminated by San Pedro and seven snuffs of tobacco juice.

A few days after the ceremony, I was talking with a Shuar healer who runs a small ayahuasca retreat. He believes western youth’s increasing interest in healing plants could play a role in saving the forest. He mentioned a Shuar prophecy about an Eagle and a Condor, in which the science of the occident and the ecological conscience of the indigenous would be joined to save the world. But, he said, time was running out. The ongoing destruction of the forest was fast reducing the possibility of such an awakening. “Industrial mining in the Amazon is having a spiritual and energetic impact on the area and the planet,” he said. “Without nature there will be no nature spirits; without nature spirits there is no healing.”

Many westerners would laugh at talk like this. But even militant rationalists will discover at the bottom of a bowl of these brews that plants and their spirits also laugh. It is the confounding laughter of an intelligence that is concerned with but not dependent on the question of whether our civilization lives or dies. The tribes are right to believe it can help us choose.

 

Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in Brooklyn.