My husband and I had the privilege to vacation in Peru over this past holiday season. The experience was mesmerizing and thrilling. After taking a flight from Lima to the remote village of Puerto Maldanado, we caught a motor boat that took us up the Madre del Dios (Mother of God) River to the Reserve Ecologia de Amazonia, deep within the rainforest of the Amazon. Not only was there no cell phone service, there were very few other guests, as this is the rainy season in Peru and many guests had cancelled their tour due to the worsening Peruvian political crisis.
Being in the jungle, one is surrounded by an overwhelming explosion of life. There are tropical birds such as parakeets, macaws, parrots, and the prehistoric Hoatzin Bird, as well as bursts of colorful plants, flowers, tropical fruit trees, and a myriad of mushroom and insect life. On our first night, sleeping in wooden bungalows, we enjoyed a tropical rainstorm followed by the morning music of birds and the fragrance of the fresh rain among the flowers. Then our guide Victor (who has led personal tours at the Ecolodge for over 30 years), wielding a machete, led us up river again, for a seven kilometer walk through the jungle.
We were side by side with all of the life to which he introduced us, such as wild birds, various medicinal plants (including red vines that are used to treat heart disease, a tree whose bark is used to for diabetes, and a flowering shrub that helps sweat out fevers). We also encountered a multitude of plants, insects, and animal life that are present and also very deadly. As we rowed through the lagoon area, Victor warned us not to touch the overhanging palms as they had hooks that tore the skin, or to fall off the rickety bridge into the water, where the Caiman, which is a type of alligator, and YacuMama, the indigenous name for Anaconda, lay in waiting. Later, he showed us holes that were home to the Tarantula, whose bite, he explained, stings like a bee, but whose hair is actually more toxic, especially to the eyes. Next, he introduced us to the Justice Tree, whose unassuming presence was identifiable because its high level of tannin prevented an undergrowth of other plants beneath it. This tree, he explained, was called the Justice Tree by the local Indigenous people because it has a symbiotic relationship with fire ants. It provides them with a home and a sweet nectar to drink, and they protect it from any animal or human approach. To demonstrate, he knocked on the tree and the fire ants quickly appeared. He said the indigenous people strap adulterous and "lazy people" to the tree naked, as a form of punishment; the resultant pain from the ants' sting is excruciating. "Don't touch and don't wander off," was his repeated refrain, which we gladly respected.
The next day, we visited a tribe of monkeys on an island preserve made especially for them. There were four types: Howler monkeys, the white capuchin, the brown capuchin, and the spider monkey. The founder of the preserve rescued and brought them to the island, where they were doing well and reproducing. In the wild, brown and white capuchins don't usually breed, but on the island they have. We fed the mothers carrying their tiny babies swinging freely in the trees. The babies hold tightly onto their mothers' backs for a year until they became independent.
On our way out of the forest and back to the lodge, we passed the Casa de los Misterios, which is used for the ceremonies of Ayuhuasca. Ayahuasca is a psychoactive plant mixture typically composed of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the hallucinogenic plant Psychotria viridis. Victor told us that many Americans and Europeans come, sometimes in large groups, and pay expensive sums to partake in the shamanic ceremonies conducted at the lodge. While today, there is compelling research that partaking in an entheogenic experience can help certain people (especially those who suffer from debilitating mental illnesses like anxiety and depression that have been resistant to medication), a problem arises for those who come purely out of curiosity or seeking pleasure. Often, these people have the expectation that they will absolutely receive a vision and peak experience, and this is something that cannot be guaranteed. Sometimes, a person only vomits repeatedly, which is actually the body purging itself. For those knowledgeable of the ceremony, this itself can be considered effective as it represents a cleaning out of negative energy and or sickness. The visionary experience can be life-changing, but it is not something that can be forced or is always repeated.
Before we flew to the Amazon, we spent some days exploring the museums, art installations, and archaeological remains of the Moche and Lambayeque cultures, ancestral people of the northern coast of ancient Peru. The Moche were famed for having an advanced culture with developed agriculture, fishing, weaving, and metallurgy. We visited the remains of the adobe Huacas, flat-topped pyramids built by this pre-Incan people in the desert near the city of Chiclayo. Our guide, Misty, introduced us to the shamanic plant found and used in this area in shamanic tradition, a cactus known as San Pedro, or Saint Peter.
She said it is called this because as Saint Peter in Catholic tradition was said to open the gates of heaven; this plant, when brewed and administered in ceremony, opens the gates of perception. However, as with ayahuasca, many Westerners come with the expectation of a guaranteed vision, and this also does not happen for everyone. And even when people do, they often return seeking to automatically repeat the mystical experience, often leaving sickened instead and disappointed. The mystic can not be forced, she said. What I learned in Peru about native "medicinas tradicionales" had me reflecting on my own personal research and practice and training received by various teachers of plant magic and medicine, which I discuss further in my book Relighting the Cauldron: Embracing Nature Spirituality for the Modern World. That is, while it is exceedingly important for anyone interested in working with herbs, plants, and mushroom life for medicine or magical purposes to be sure they can properly identify them, it is equally important to create ongoing relationship. Humans may be may be "what we eat," but a plant or mushroom is "where it lives." We should explore questions such as: What relationship do we have to that location? What does it live with? Is it a desert species or a jungle species? Does it grow easily in city or garden, or does it live deep in the woods? How does that relate to the person—you—who wishes to work with it? Whom does it live with? What eats it, who lives in it? What relationship does it have to its neighbors? Is it a parasite or a helper plant? What does it look like—does it resemble a body part or give off a certain energy? What is its medicine for? Taking the time to understand all of this before taking a plant for medicine or spiritual journey is extremely important. As is introducing ourselves to the spirit of the plants, and even making some kind of offering to it, before consuming anything.
When I was 19 years old, I attended the Wiccan Shamanism Training week at Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin, with Selena Fox. I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey just outside of New York City, and this experience, at a remote farm in Wisconsin with people who believed in magic, was exciting and new to me. During this initiatory experience, we were prepared for a vision quest with my first Sweat Lodge ceremony. We also collected herbs from the woods around the sanctuary and from their magical garden there to use to brew into a potion of fortitude to help us during our overnight ordeal. Selena introduced us to each of the herbs that went into the brew, which included mugwort and lemon balm (none of the herbs were traditional hallucinogens). At one point, before we entered our chosen sacred area alone for the night, we blessed and charmed this potion, asking our guides to help bring us a revelation or vision.
When it was my turn to go alone into the full-moonlit night, I was very frightened, but as instructed, I drank my potion. Surprisingly to me, I did experience visions. These included witnessing tiny spirit people on the land, and the feeling of leaving my body and changing my shape. Before dawn, I received a vision of animal spirit helpers: a golden owl, a white wolf, and a white horse galloping down a hill. This vision is something that has guided my life for over forty years, and I still have relationship to those animal spirits. I have never had another vision quest experience. The knowledge I took away from this experience is that despite not containing hallucinogenic plants, the potion worked as it was intended to. I did receive a life-altering mystical experience. I share this story, as it illustrates that one does not necessarily need to take a potion made with exotic entheogens. Ceremony itself and psychic preparation are equally important. Done correctly, one may also be able to receive an experience using plants closer to home.
Our trip to Peru, which was supposed to continue on towards Cusco and Puno to see the wonders of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, was cut short due to the political unrest ongoing there. Some tourists were trapped there and had to be rescued as protestors were closing down and blockading airports, buses, and roads. Our tour company canceled that portion of the journey and we felt it would be unsafe, not to mention disrespectful and arrogant, to continue. After witnessing the humble homes outside of the cities, we were profoundly and uncomfortably aware of our own personal wealth and privilege. This was a vacation to me, but to the people of Peru, this is their country. I was also struck by the notion that as we are all interconnected, the land itself is suffering as are the people from too many years of failed government.
I did bring back two mementoes from our journey: a round stone from Madre de Dios River, as a gift for Oshun, my mother in Ocha; and a red seed, the bright, bead-like huayruro seed, which Victor explained is used to bring good luck. We hope we will be able to continue our visit sometime when things have improved politically in the near future. Nonetheless, we are very grateful for our experience in the Amazon and among the ruins of the desert in Peru. It made us deeply appreciative of our own home, the trees and garden that share our land, and the rivers near our home in the Hudson Valley of New York. It also made me realize how important it is to continue developing my relationship to the plants and living things, including people, in my horizon. This is a vital aspect of living a Nature-centered life. Above all, we should always proceed with respect.