Shamanism Conference in Peru

Percy's ceremonial tambo

Across the Andes from Lima and now flying low into Iquitos, my view out the airplane window fell upon vast expanses of the Amazon jungle and the legendary Rio Amazona winding its serpentine pathway through the dense forest— la selva. Iquitos, a rambling, noisy ‘town’ of about 300,000, appeared suddenly out of the surrounding jungle.

I was there for the Fourth International Amazonian Shamanism Conference, held on the grounds of the El Parthenon Hotel, ten minutes by mototaxi from the central Plaza de Armas in downtown Iquitos. The conference is hosted and organized by Alan Shoemaker, an American expat who’s been living in Iquitos for about fifteen years, and his gracious wife Mariella Noriega, who, among her many tasks, saved a lot of people a lot of hassles with travel and lodging arrangements.

The nine-day conference was divided into three repeated sections—two days of presentations followed by a day for going to ceremonies, times three. I should make clear that although ayahuasca was by far the predominant medicine being employed and discussed, there were also opportunities to do ceremonies with other medicines, particularly the cactus San Pedro, described to me by those who did do ceremonies with it as a gentle and very clear plant medicine.

On Day One, about fifteen of the area’s shamans—or curanderos and curanderas as some prefer to be called—introduced themselves to us from the makeshift stage set up in the large open tent on the hotel grounds. The presentations were generally of high quality and great interest, with leading figures in various aspects of work related to entheogens and curanderismo. Among the two dozen or more presenters were Dr. Dennis McKenna (brother of Terence), Dr. Robert Forté, Dr. Frank Eschenhoffer, visionary artists Pablo Amaringo, Robert Venosa, Martina Hoffmann, and well-known journalist and adventurer Peter Gorman. Some of the curanderos were also given longer slots to speak to us. One of these was the legendary Don Agustin Rivas, now in his seventies, whose life story is told in the book Amazon Magic by Jaya Bear.

I’ve been around a fair number of spiritual teachers and practitioners over the long years and I can usually feel a sense of people—how natural they are, how humble they are, how open their hearts are. For me, the benefits of the plant medicine path were confirmed by the energy of many of the presenters like those just mentioned. Dennis McKenna raised the bar and maybe the hair on the backs of some necks with a powerful, unscripted opening address. He pointed out that many scientists now agree we’re dangerously close to a tipping point on the planet. If we don’t undertake some radical, far-reaching inner and outer changes, Earth may soon spiral through a set of unstoppable events. Another stunning assertion made by Dr. McKenna was that the plants are actually the true mediators of consciousness on this planet, the authentic voices of information and wisdom, and everything else is essentially living through the generosity of the plants. In stark terms, all life forms that don’t photosynthesize are parasites. Hmm. One statement in particular from that talk has bounced back at me repeatedly. Dr. McKenna told us that he works for the plants. Sounds like a worthy intention and aspiration.

On Day Two of each three-day section we were invited to sign up for ceremonies with one of the various curanderos who were stationed around the back of the room. There was a lot of “Who are you going to go with?” and “What do you know about_____?” going around among the one hundred and thirty or so conference participants. Alan, an experienced ayahuasca drinker and curandero himself, had personally recommended Percy Garcia to me, describing him as “without ego” and saying that when he drinks with someone else, he drinks with Percy. Now approaching his thirty-fifth birthday, Percy began his studies with his grandfather at age ten, drank ayahuasca for the first time at age fourteen (“It was confusing” he later told us with a grin), and has led many ceremonies since he was eighteen.

I had already felt a heart connection with another curandero, Luis, so I held off on Percy until the second session. Those of us who had signed up to do a ceremony with Luis met around midday in front of the conference hotel to be picked up and squeezed into a rickety old van. We were driven down to a muddy shore at the end of a block of rugged houses on stilts with friendly children buzzing around us. A short boat ride took us to a nearby island from where we began a hot, sweaty march for about half and hour into semi-jungle and Luis’ encampment.

The encampment consisted of a number of sleeping and retreat huts, a larger, screened hut for group meals, a covered cooking area, and an even larger hut, called a tambo or maloca, for ceremonies. The ceremony began sharp at 7 o’clock that evening. Luis’ medicine, at least that night, turned out to be very mild. No one in the group of 8 or 9 reported any strong effects and a couple said they felt nothing. I felt disappointed and so did several of the others. Luis invited questions at the end of the ceremony and I asked him about this. His reply was that his whole focus was on healing and that the medicine didn’t need to be strong for that. He said that even if we experienced no noticeable effects, la medicina was still doing its work. Don Luis is an exceptionally kind and gentle man and I had the feeling that these personal qualities and his attitude to working with people were reflected in his approach to the medicine.

After the second round of ceremonies a couple of days later, I spoke with two young men who had been to Don Luis’ ceremony with me. It was their first experience with ayahuasca and they actually liked the “enter me in gently” approach, so much so, apparently, that they decided to go with Luis for the second ceremony. I was a little surprised to hear that the effects were noticeably stronger for them that time. I wondered if Luis had taken the group’s feedback to heart.

On the appointed day, we were told to gather in front of the hotel at 12:45. Nearly twenty of us were then shoehorned into a rattling Econoline type van for the sweaty, hour-long drive out toward Nauta. Dropped off by a school in mixed farm and forest lands, we then hiked for a hot half-hour in the early afternoon sun until we arrived at Percy’s jungle encampment. The compound was well laid-out with a few small cabins for the two or three staff who lived there and for those who want to come for “dietas” or to recuperate from illnesses or addictions. The beautiful maloca, where the ceremonies are held, is built on stilts above a quebrada—a jungle creek. The photo at the top of this article is Percy’s maloca.

After relaxing for a couple of hours we were invited to don our bathing suits and go over to the creek, where each of us would bathe briefly in the cool, murky water, then step back out to receive the “agua florida,” the floral bath. Each in turn stood before Percy, who blew tobacco smoke on us and on the water he scooped out of a tub of herb and flower scented water. He then poured four scoops of the water over each person while blowing more of the healing and purifying tobacco smoke.

After allowing the agua florida to dry naturally on our skin, we dressed again and were directed to our spots around the perimeter inside the maloca with a mattress and a bucket for the purging which inevitably happens to many drinkers. At about seven o’clock Percy came in and took his seat on a kind of throne chair. There was a small table in front of him with about a dozen bottles of various dark, murky liquids and his ceremonial materials—a leaf shaker called a shacapa, a Tibetan bowl and mallet, a small jaw harp, and a loose pile of cigarettes made from local tobaccos.

The shacapa is a particularly fascinating tool employed by curanderos in the Amazon. According to Alan Shoemaker, tribes widely scattered throughout the jungle have independently come upon this very same leaf used to form the bundle. Alan said that when the energy in the ceremony is strong and clear, people can sometimes see beams of light extend from the points of the leaves. And on some occasions one can see that after it’s been shaken around a person, usually accompanied by the singing of an ícaro (the healing songs that curanderos say are taught to them by the ayahuasca itself), there will be small, black balls attached to the light beams where the shacapa has cleaned out emotional and physical toxins in the recipient.

After speaking briefly about his way of working and answering any questions we had, Percy invited each of us to come up one at a time to receive a cup of the ayahuasca brew. As he describes in the interview, the spirits indicate to him how much is appropriate for each person. Once we’d all drank our portion of la medicina and returned to our mattresses, the small candle that had been burning in the middle of the floor was snuffed out and we found ourselves in total darkness. (It gets dark early four degrees south of the equator). With the jungle canopy hovering over the maloca and the moon not yet above the horizon, I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.

We’d been instructed to relax, breathe, set our intentions, and prepare to speak directly to the spirit of ayahuasca— “Mother Ayahuasca”— as Percy and others refer to it. We were also asked to do our best to avoid disturbing others by remaining silent and being very considerate about the use of flashlights on the way to the bathroom. (Later in the ceremony Percy actually turned to his interpreter and had him ask us not to use the flashlights at all if we could help it, since the sudden flashing of light coming into the maloca could disrupt the concentrated connection he had with his spirit helpers.)

About twenty minutes after serving us, Percy began to gently and steadily shake the shacapa. For the next fifteen minutes or so that was the only sound in the room. And then the medicine began to take over. At age 59, I’ve been around a lot of ceremonies from different traditions and I’m a musician myself. In the space of the oncoming ayahuasca I can say that Percy’s music was some of the most beautiful and sensitive I have ever heard. In the interview he speaks a little about how his spirit allies guide the music and I distinctly felt that living, breathing quality. The sound of the shacapa in the peaceful near-silence of the jungle compound was like the soft brushing of birds’ wings. Then he began to sing softly with the shacapa and at various points play spare notes on the jaw harp and create both bell-like ringing and sustained harmonics on the Tibetan bowl.

The spirit-guided music created a sacred space of peace, stillness, and healing in the maloca. Each time Percy began to sing, my visions changed and became stronger. A request I had for myself from the ayahuasca spirits was for healing a tightness and heaviness I’d been carrying in my chest for some time. At one point, three indigenous women appeared before me and each in turn blew energetically in the direction of my heart. With visions and exchanges it went like that for the next three or four hours until Percy announced that the ceremony was over and he was leaving. He told us that the ícaros would continue reverberating in the nature surrounding us and said goodnight.

One of my intentions for the trip to Iquitos was to interview a curandero for a magazine article. During the ceremony with Percy I got the clear message that he was the person I was looking for—clear, gentle, humble, and as Alan had said, without apparent ego. Through his assistant I asked if I could come back for the final ceremony on Sunday and interview him. He cheerfully agreed and three days later, around four o’clock, I sat down in a small cabin with Percy and a young man named Martín acting as interpreter for a forty-five minute question and answer session.

Could you tell me a little about your family background and how you came to do this work?

My name is Percy Garcia Lozano. I became a shaman because of my grandparents. There were generations before them also. I started this study of curanderismo when I was ten years old. My grandfather Enrique Garcia Mozombite taught me everything in this way. First of all he taught me all the names of the plants. Then he told me the properties of each plant.

How did he teach you?

I am from Aucayo. It is two hours from Iquitos. Every time my grandfather came from town to do his work as a shaman, he was teaching me.

When you were young like that were you doing the “dietas” with individual plants?

First of all you watch the plants and then you get to know their names.

At what point do students like yourself begin doing diets to develop a relationship with the spirit of each plant?

I started to do the diets when I was twelve. My requirement at that time was to do light diets of three or four days. After a few years my diets became harder, stronger, where I had to abstain from many things, many foods.

Can you explain to those unfamiliar with these things what actually happens? Does the spirit of the plant you’re dieting with appear to you and do you communicate with it?

We have to be careful with what we eat. We have to say, no peppers, no condiments. I could still eat all the fruits, all the plants.

I understand, but what I’m asking is a little more than that I think. On Thursday [just before the ayahuasca ceremony] you mentioned that you use eight different plants in your ayahuasca brew and that you have a relationship with the spirit of each of those plants and that they work with you. So I’m asking, how did that relationship come about?

I’m not only working with ayahuasca [the banisteriopsis caapi vine] and chacruna. I’m mixing eight different plants. It’s not only to make you see some visions or to make you feel good spiritually. I concentrate on physical health. That’s why I mix eight plants.

And the spirits of those plants? You have a relationship with them?

Claro. Completamente. Yes, this is because I prepared myself long years ago when I dieted with these plants. I know them very well so I am very connected with them.

I want to make sure I understood this properly from Thursday night. So, at the beginning of the ceremony, you call upon the spirits of those plants and they come and work with you for the whole ceremony?

Claro que si [Yes of course.] because when I prepare the medicine, I’m keeping in touch with the spirits. I’m receiving information so that at the moment when I give you ayahuasca I receive information about the quantity you must drink. Then later, when I begin the ceremony, singing the ícaros, I start calling to God, to the cosmos, to the stars, to nature, to mother ayahuasca. I am invoking protection for myself and for all the participants. Then I call the curative part. Then I say thank you for all the healing that I’m able to do. At the end I also thank the spirits for the healing I’ve done. [Note: In the question and answer session with the ceremony participants Percy had also said, “I don’t do the healing, it is ayahuasca who does the healing.”]

During the ceremony, do the spirits help you see what’s going on with the individuals in the ceremony?

Claro, because the transmissions I’m giving you are due to the icaros. the words I’m expressing with the icaros are what they are telling me, what the spirits are saying to me and singing. With all this singing, the spirits are working in each person. There can be a lot of illnesses but I use only one ícaro to cure different illnesses.

Is it important for the participants to give a lot of attention to the icaros during the ceremony, rather than keeping them more or less in the background as they go through their personal experiences with the ayahuasca?

Yes, this allows the intention of each person to be made stronger. In that way the person can connect with the spirit of the plant easily.

On Thursday night you said that although people often come wanting to see visions, the most important aspect of the experience is about healing. I was then surprised when strong, clear visions appeared before my closed eyes almost right away. Is there a reason for that?There are always some visions, but not necessarily visual visions. There are different types of visions for different people. The important thing is that if we want to know, if we want to see, we must concentrate on it. [In the pre-ceremony discussion Percy had put somewhat more stress on this point, saying in effect that although people often come to his ceremonies seeking visions, it is not primarily about that at all, it is about the healing. That is the essence of his work and the work of the ayahuasca spirits.]

And we can actually ask ayahuasca direct questions to help ourselves and our intentions?

Claro que si. That’s why I say, connect with your intention. For example, the person doesn’t necessarily have to connect deeply with his intention. In all ways he will receive the healing. This is because, due to the ícaros, I am transmitting to you the healing power. When I’m preparing the medicine, I blow tobacco to make it ready to help you out.

Can the medicine help if someone in the ceremony asks for assistance for a person who is unable to be present? For example, I have a friend back home in Canada with a serious chronic, physical infirmity. She can’t travel at all. Can the medicine help with situations like that?

Claro que si. As I said, we must concentrate in our visions on what we want. If you concentrate on what you want, your wish will be able to be made real. As an example, I recently worked with a man who was unable to walk at all. After the healing work I did with him the man could walk again. Ayahuasca is completely capable of having these kinds of effects.

Changing focus now, how do you feel about so many foreigners coming here for ayahausca?

I wouldn’t say that I feel good about everyone who comes to me, but I feel very happy for all the help that I can give them, the healing part.

At the conference there’s been a lot of discussion about the potential role ayahuasca may have in the future as its spreads beyond South America to other parts of the world. Have you had any visions about the possible role of ayahuasca in this way?

From my personal experience I’m not thinking of what I want to see in the future or everywhere around. I’m just thinking what I can do to help those people. When I finish the ceremony with all the people, that’s the time when I begin to investigate personally every different kind of plant and different healings so I can work to make the healings more effective.

Another central topic at the conference is the concern that the planet is in grave danger at this time from environmental degradation. It is thought by many that we really need healing, visionary plants like ayahuasca at this time to help change the direction of the planet. Are you aware of that? Do you have a sense of where the planet is now in that regard?

My work is not only with the ayahuasca. As I said before, I work with eight different kinds of plants to help people who need to be healed. And it can help people far away. As for the planet altogether, what can I say? If we want to save the world, people must change their way of thinking completely. Otherwise, due to the processes of contamination, it is very possible that if we do nothing the world will be completely destroyed.

Has the ayahuasca shown you anything about the possible destruction of the planet?

Claro. We have to teach all the children of the planet to protect the environment and not contaminate the air, the land, the water.

Do you have any advice for those planning to come from afar to work with ayahuasca, what they should think about, how they should approach it, and what they should watch out for, such as people of wrong intention or little knowledge offering to run ceremonies?

For my part, I’m not only healing people, I’m taking care of them. It’s better not to work with shamans you don’t know anything about. We don’t know what will happen in those situations. It’s important to work with people you know, such as those who have been recommended by others who know that shaman’s work.

Are there very many of those kinds of shamans around this area who either don’t know the medicine well or who have dubious motives, like just to make money off the foreigners?

Yes, there are many of them. As there is day so there is night. There are good people and some bad people also.

Is there any final thing you would like to share with people who may read this interview that I didn’t think of asking you. Did we miss anything important?

Bueno. First, all people have to become conscious about the world, to take care of it and to protect it. Don’t create contamination or conflict. This will make us more human, more conscious. And to value all nature, and traditions. That is the best way to live.

One last question please. A little while after you left the ceremony on Thursday [around midnight], a bird came to sit just outside the maloca and for nearly an hour made a pattern of sounds that to my ear sounded similar to the shacapa [the bundled leaf shaker I described earlier that’s used to accompany the singing of the icaros]. I had the distinct impression that this bird was singing to us. Could that be so?

Claro. I can say goodbye and thank you to all my spiritual doctors and teachers and I can leave you, but the icaros go out to the surroundings and mother nature is still working in every participant even when the ceremony is over. That’s why you heard that bird. The healing continues.

Es muy hermoso. Muchas gracias.

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