My connection to the Amazon and the vibrant contemporary shamanic culture there started almost accidentally. Prior to the late 1990’s, I was familiar with the term ‘shaman’ but my interest was primarily of North American indigenous spiritual and cultural practices and my own tenuous connections to them. My own spiritual practices were developing organically and I wasn’t looking too far beyond those connections for inspiration.
I had learned to make hand drums and had made a few for myself, friends and family, including some men who I held a regular weekly sweat lodge with. At one point, one of these friends mentioned that a man named Michael Harner would be giving a drumming workshop and that it might be fun for the sweat lodge group to go up to Boston together to check it out. We did. It was … and then some!
Instead of learning new rhythms as I was originally expecting, Dr. Harner presented us with our first taste of contemporary shamanism, or the resurgence of core shamanic practices adapted for modern, Western culture. I won’t go into the body of his work in great detail here but I will state that I developed tremendous respect for the man and his work, and consider him one of my most influential teachers.
This experience tipped the trajectory of my spiritual pursuits in several meaningful ways. Michael Harner had been an anthropologist doing fieldwork in the upper Amazon with the Jivarro, or Shuar people; an indigenous group who had had little contact with outsiders. It was here that Dr. Harner gained a deep understanding of shamanic culture and the use of visionary medicines including Ayahuasca. Although in time he favoured the use of drums and rattles to produce the sonic driving necessary to attain the shamanic state of consciousness or trance, where shamanic work is done, this early experience remained the genesis of his later work.
One of my friends, Rob, was inspired enough to read more widely on the subject of Ayahuasca and came upon a book written by another academic-turned-shaman, Alberto Villoldo, called Dance of the Four Winds. It recounted his experiences in another part of the Amazon, with an ayahuascuero there, don Ramone Sanchez. An ayahuascuero is a shaman who works primarily with the great teaching medicine Ayahuasca. In addition to its own healing qualities, Ayahuasca will inform the ayahuascuero which plants or other medicines are needed to treat their clients. Working with Ayahuasca at this level though, is no easy task. An ayahuascuero must endure fasting and a strict dieta for many years to be fully recognised as such.
By the time Rob had followed the trail of don Ramone, he found that he had retired from active practice, being well into his nineties. One of his other students however, don Agustine Rivas Vasquez, did maintain a shaman camp near Iquitos. Rob joined a group that planned to visit don Agustine and spent two weeks there. When he got home, he set about convincing us to return with him. There was no argument or hesitation from us, so the planning began.
A group was gathered together that included most of the members of our sweat lodge group, several others from Nantucket (the island where we lived) and a half dozen other Americans gathered by Ron, who Rob had met on his first trip. We all met at Miami International Airport for the flight to Iquitos. It was a red-eye that arrived in the early morning after a sobering pre-dawn flight over the long orange lines of burning forest in Columbia and Brazil. After landing, when the aircraft doors opened, I took my first breath of the rich, moist, slightly aromatic air of the jungle … and I have never been the same.
At the height of the rubber trade in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, European investment led to a building and culture boom in the city of Iquitos that included installations of public art by the likes of Eiffel and Rodin, even including a grand opera house. In the 1990’s, barely more than a century later, it had fallen into poverty and decay. Somewhat improved today, it is still not for your average tourist.
We were met at the airport by don Agustine, then in his sixties but aside from gnarled hands from a tragic accident, he was very active and the picture of health itself. Now spending much of his time in the Iquitos area, most of his adult life had been spent in Pucallpa, another jungle city, which was also the home of don Ramone.
Agustine had earned an international reputation as a sculptor; working in a traditional, naturalistic style that held the spirit of the jungle and for a time his work was all the rage in Austria and Germany. His work was also admired by don Ramone, who recognised Agustine’s potential early on and encouraged him to become a curanderos (healer). At what was arguably the height of Agustine’s career as a sculptor, as he was climbing a tree to retrieve a branch that he wanted to carve, he lost his hold and fell. Instinctively, he tried to grab hold of the trunk on the way down but like many of the trees in the jungle the trunk was studded with spines, which tore at the tendons of his forearms, leaving him with a crippling injury that ended his career as a sculptor. It was then that don Ramone finally convinced Agustine to become his student and immerse himself in the ways of an ayahuascuero.
In time, don Agustine returned to his childhood home of Tamshiyacu, a village on the banks of the Amazon thirty kilometers upstream from Iquitos. There he established an encampment, or chakra called Yushintaita, which means ‘Spirit Father’ in Quechua, the language of the Inca. It was here that our group set out for the next day.
Our group joined a few students and patients who were already in the camp and we were later joined by some others who arrived on their own. Over the course of our stay, villagers would also come for treatment or to join a ceremony. A few days in, don Agustine’s son, Cesar Agustine, also known as Viejo, came to stay with us as well; an event that would become very important to me over time.
During the course of the next two weeks, we were introduced to an aggressive course of instruction. On the first evening after settling in we were welcomed with a huito ceremony. Huito, (pronounced ‘whee’-tow’), is a small, hard fruit which is grated into a pulp and mixed sparingly with water. The resulting clear juice is then applied to the face and hands. Over the course of several hours, this juice dyes the skin a deep blue-black. So by morning our outward appearance was rather striking. The effects last for several days. The purpose of this, explained don Agustine, was to concentrate the energies of the jungle toward our five primary senses, which are located in the head and hands. It also served as an outward sign identifying us as a group or tribe. The next day we were permitted to dye the rest of our bodies if we were so inclined.
On our second day in camp, the real work began. With the help of Rosa, our interpreter, don Agustine briefly interviewed each of us and determined our individual dieta (special diet). Although we were all expected to observe the ‘no-s’ diet (no salt, no spice, no sugar, no sex) many of us were given stricter guidelines and a special tea to drink. My dieta was simply rice, plantains, water and Wairacaspi tea, made from a specific tree bark. Dietas varied according to the individual. Envy was not allowed.
Later that morning we began our purge. Oje (pronounced ‘O-hay’), is a foul tasting, caustic drink prepared from the sap of a tree that induces vomiting and diarrhea a short time after ingesting it. Copious amounts of tepid water must be drunk at regular intervals during the purging process in order to avoid injury to the digestive tract. No one looks forward to this ceremony, except perhaps don Agustine, who learns a great deal about his students by observing them throughout the process. Though the experience can be very difficult for some, it passes within a few hours and leaves the participant feeling purified, if a bit weak. Don Agustine assured us that not only would the oje rid us of any parasites we may have had but new ones would avoid us for some time.
Once purged and on our new dietas, we were ready for a series of Ayahuasca and other ceremonies over the remainder of our stay. For those who are unfamiliar with Ayahuasca, I will go into a little more detail.
The medicinal brew, Ayahuasca, is prepared by combining the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), with the leaves of a companion plant, chacruna (Psychotria viridis). The psychoactive agent in this preparation is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), sometimes referred to as the God molecule. The DMT is found mainly in the chacruna but we cannot metabolise it in our digestive tract without the alkaloids harmine and harmaline, which are found in the ayahuasca vine. This combination allows the DMT to enter the bloodstream but, like many jungle medicines, it comes at the cost of some stomach distress and nausea. When I refer to this medicinal brew, I capitalize the word Ayahuasca as a proper noun, out of respect.
A typical Ayahuasca ceremony in this part of the jungle would proceed as follows. None of the participants would eat after the noontime meal. Only water would be drunk. As evening approached, everyone would dress in white, both as a symbol of purity and to be more visible in the darkness during the ceremony. As the sun set we would listen for the call of the owl, which would signal the time to begin. We would then enter the ‘temple’, which was sometimes indoors and sometimes outside. The ‘altar’ would be on the easterly side, with the seating for the participants around the other three sides. Once settled in, don Agustine would bless the decanter of Ayahuasca and pour out a small cup for each person; the amount varying according to his estimation of the proper dose for each individual. When done, he would call the group forward, hand each their glass and when all had been served would signal all to drink at his declaration, “Salude!”
We would then return to our seats, the light would be extinguished and for a time we would sit in silence. After an indefinite interval, don Agustine would begin to sing his icaros and miriris, special ceremonial songs interspersed with drumming, rattling and other musical instruments. There would also be occasional breaks of complete silence, broken only by the sounds of someone vomiting. From time to time another ayahuascuero would assist and contribute songs as well. At each transition, I found that the visions would change abruptly. At about an hour or so in, don Agustine would ask, “Mas Ayahuasca?” and if you wished, you could come up for another glass. On a number of occasions he said, “Crow, mas Ayahuasca.” Not a question but a direction. My friend Rick was also singled out in this way.
The Ayahuasca experience may vary for each individual. Though many experience visual impressions resembling the patterns and colours of the artwork of the Shipibo and Conibo natives of the region, others may experience vivid dreamlike visions. Sometimes these will be full of spiritual and emotional importance, sometimes they may be chaotic, even disturbing. The presence of don Agustine was palpable throughout though, lending a sense of safety and support. If he sensed that someone was in distress or too deep into a vision, he would stand before them and support them with mapacho smoke and breathwork or some other healing technique. His energy and level of attention, even while with the medicine himself, was astounding.
Usually, these ceremonies would last from five to seven hours. By then the effects of the medicine would have subsided substantially. Once the candles were relit there would be some light conversation, then bed. Dreams would often follow but sometimes, particularly after a busy night of visions, one would fall into a deep restful sleep. Most people wake feeling restored and energetic. I have never known of anyone to report a hangover of any kind and appetites are usually good the next morning in spite of the often meagre fare.
Breakfast would be followed by a morning meeting. Don Agustine would open the discussion with a teaching or observations from the previous night’s ceremony. When he finished he would pass his staff to the next person who, when in possession of the staff, had the floor to speak and share their experience of the night before. The staff was then passed on until everyone had the chance to speak and after each person shared, don Agustin may or may not respond.
Other ceremonies and instruction also filled our days, including walks through the jungle where don Agustine would point out medicinal plants and tell us of their uses. The other ceremonies ranged from community building, by having us join in traditional dance or taking mud baths, to the serious business of taking part in a death and resurrection ceremony. This involved a selected number of us being buried in shallow graves in the jungle overnight and included a mock funeral for us where the mourners would keen and cry as we were being buried.
This was the process of don Agustine’s Ayahuasca and related ceremonies; which are similar, more or less, to other ceremonies in the Amazon that I have attended over the years. These experiences, both intense and subtle, changed me for the better in fundamental and long lasting ways. This sense of change was shared by most of those we traveled with. It was also difficult not to be impressed with the physical healings we witnessed while there.
The intimacy the group developed over this relatively short time led us to feel we had known one another for much longer than we actually did, with some of those relationships enduring for many years. Not the least of which was the deep and special connection I made with Viejo, don Agustin’s son, now an ayahuascuero himself. Viejos’ friendship and don Agustines’ encouragement to continue with the work led me back to Peru a number of times, including a long stay in Pucallpa where I had the privilege of meeting don Ramone himself! But that is another story…
Crow, (John MacKinnon), manages Shamanic Voyages, a non profit educational travel organization and has been involved in shamanism to varying degrees since the mid 1970’s. He has worked with shamans and medicine people from North, South and Central America as well as Asia. He includes sweat lodges, drumming workshops and healing services in his shamanic practice. He also produces tools such as natural hide hand drums, smudge fans and rattles. He is a long time member and supporter of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and has completed their advanced study programs including Harner Shamanic Counseling.
This article featured in Issue 51 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in January 2022.
Alberto Villoldo (Author), Erik Jendresen (Author), Dance of the Four Winds: Secrets of the Inca Medicine Wheel. Destiny Books; Original ed. edition (1 Dec. 1994)