I arrived at a friend’s home in Barrio Joyita of Puerto Maldonado to meet with a local shaman. Situated between the banks of the giant Madre de Dios and gold-filled Tambopata rivers the town itself seems like a small, smoldering hell rather than a jewel on the edge of pristine Peruvian jungle. Its dusky roads, some of which have only been paved within the last ten years, are crowded with motorbikes and tuk-tuk taxis which often boast three or more people with babies sandwich in between. I jumped on the back of motorbike for two soles and welcomed a cooler breeze as I passed murals depicting tribal colonization, an enormous prison, and dozens of green and gold flags representing Puerto’s natural wealth.
When I arrived at home, I found the room full of brothers and cousins, who in typical Puerto fashion, were visiting my friend’s ill six-month old baby. When I ask what this chubby princess had, I was told she had “mal aire” or bad air. Unsure of the meaning, I asked again believing perhaps that she was suffering from asthma or a respiratory infection. No, it turns out bad air is another way to describe bad energy or a bad spirit that has entered the body. The mother was frustrated as she jostled the little one, telling me she had been at the shaman’s all afternoon, and yet the fussing and vomiting hadn’t stopped. The father indicated that perhaps they needed to use a different shaman and so we all waited for the old, bright-eyed, toothless shaman Paco to arrive.
Paco came and set down his black medicine bag stuffed with plastic bottles full of home-brewed traditional jungle medicine. The first time I met this guy a baby cobra escaped from his bag. As the kids and I screamed and ran frantically through the house, he calmly caught the snake by the tail, drew his hands up to the head and returned it to its bottle of alcohol for future use as a remedy for pains and burns. Snakes in this region are revered and use medicinally. I was told that older generations use to beat pregnant women with a dead snake in order to induce labor.
Besides the various tinctures, snakes preserves, and teas, the main form of purifying medicine for shamans in the area is tobacco. As the mother held her daughter, Paco lit his pipe of pure jungle tobacco and with a prayer began to blew over the baby’s head, heart, and back of neck. He then drank a splash of Agua Florida, a floral perfume, and spit it again on the head, heart, and back of the neck. Immediately the baby threw up and began to cry. The healing session was finished. Agua Florida, tobacco, cacao, incense, San Pedro, crystals, and any sort of mystical, spiritual remedy can be found at shamanic stands throughout Peru. Generally they are marked by a hanging preserved llama fetus. Here Pachamama is fed and worshiped with unborn fetuses. Seen as the sacred mother earth, the womb of all life, things in the process of birth or death belong to her realm and are to be sacrificed to her along with libations of chicha or beer. However, while these shamanic products are widely accessible throughout Peru, who and how they practice is a matter of growing contention and change.
Shamanism has a long tradition that is regionally specific. In Puerto Maldonado and surrounding areas, the power to see and heal, a priesthood, is passed down by a special blessing, only given to those who display a certain sensitivity from a young age. For example, my friend in Puerto’s grandfather was a well-respected shaman. From his grandfather, he learned extensively about medicinal plant, animal spirits, and how to survive in the jungle. As his grandfather was dying, he told my friend that he knew the medicine, the shamanic traditions, but would have a short life so he could decide if he wanted to follow the shamanic path or not. My friend declined, explaining to me that the amount of sacrifice and service the art required was too much for him.
As for Paco, a Brazilian nut worker nearing 80 years old, he has been practicing shamanism for about three years. Once practicing, the cultural ethic is that you are to be of service to the community or whoever asks whenever they ask. Grueling aspects of the work include drinking enough ayahuasca to be prepared to give it as a medicine in ceremony. Paco claims he drank ayahuasca and only ayahuasca for a month straight before he felt he had been taught the wisdom that leading ceremony demands. Revered as one of the few pure shamans left in the community, Paco feels what makes him different is that he watches over those taking the mother medicinal teacher. While some shamans allow students to drink in mass and be alone in a corner, Paco sits and sings throughout the entire private journey. Another famous old shaman working in the Infierno area of Puerto Maldonado jungle is now too affected by a brain tumor to drink. Ending his practice is considered a huge loss to the community, however, it is not the teachings of a specific shaman that one is after. What remains consistent is that the truth revealed in these session is not something that can be expressed in words. A shaman will not tell you what you will see or how you will be healed. The interaction requires an intimate trust in the shaman’s guidance and in the intelligence of the plants.
The conflict that is arising in local communities and in Peru at large now is how to define legitimate shamanism. As plants medicines like ayahuasca and san pedro increase in popularity, there has been an increase in shamanism and shamanistic practices for profit. A conversation can quickly turn into critique and caution towards men who have only drank ayahuasca for a year or so and now crowd dark rooms with tourists for ceremony. Is their shamanism and medicine still considered a healing art if given with the intention of commercial gain? What is a reasonable exchange for healing, especially spiritual healing? While traditionally medicinal ceremonies of ayahuasca were exchanged for food, simple goods, or given as a coming of age rite, now local and foreign communities have to struggle to define what is dark or corrupt shamanism.
Further, as Western medicine continues to be viewed as more legitimate than traditional practices, Peruvians and tourists alike have continually analyze how they view sickness and healing. What are we willing to accept as a medicine, a drug, or societal manipulation. After another restless night, the mother I was staying with bundled up her baby and hopped on the back of a motorbike to take her daughter to a Western doctor. I asked her if she preferred pills to the shaman’s spirit cleansings? She commented, “I don’t really care how it’s comes I just want my baby girl to be better. She is much more sensitive than her brothers.” A mother of three at my same age of 26, I understood her and then proceeded to take her sons to bathe in a nearby jungle spring with Agua de Florida.