A guest post by Chris Kilham, Medicine Hunter
After four days of sourcing Sangre de grado in Puerto Maldonado, and my work there satisfactorily completed, I acted on default impulse and caught a LAN flight to Iquitos, Amazon river city of sweat and water, baking asphalt, blistering days and charming humid nights, Shipibo women hawking exquisite ayahuasca geometry textiles on the sidewalks, and that guy in the wheelchair who always begs at the same spot two blocks down from Plaza de Armas.
Fortune and repeat visits have conspired such that I have many acquaintances in Iquitos, and even a few actual friends. The day after my night time arrival, I made the rounds to Dawn on the Amazon for camu camu and good conversation with Bill Grimes and the drifters, ayahuasceros, writers, musicians, travelers and expats who gather there. Later In Witches Alley in the sweltering Belen Mercado I acquired some palo santo, mapacho, San Pedro and a few other items, and did my best to avoid the pools of body fluids, septic water, fish guts and excrescences that sit like Afghani land mines in the narrow and crowded walkways there.
My first day back in Iquitos felt comfortable the way an old friend’s house is welcoming, and I remarked to myself more than a few times during the humid hours how much I enjoy this relic of the rubber boom, whose modernity has attracted tens of thousands of extra inhabitants, caravans of eco tourists and argonautic explorers, and perhaps more Chinese motorcycles than any spot outside of Hangzhou. Caroming around the smoggy roadways eating grit in various motocaros, I took in the chipped paint, the scrawny dogs, the women in hopelessly tight jeans, the black-clad police, the street vendors selling everything from sunglasses to peeled oranges and empanadas, and it all made me smile, except perhaps for the respiratory challenge.
The next day at Ari’s over a tall acai I wound up locked deep in conversation about various nefarious conspiracies with Jim Sax, who is opening a Middle Eastern themed eatery, and with Bill Gleeson. Both paused from their tales of ominous FEMA camps and satellite spying on civilians to wax effusive about the ayahuasca ceremonies at Ron Wheelock’s place, and encouraged me to attend ceremony that evening. I had already met and spent some very enjoyable time with the area’s well known “gringo shaman,” and decided, after much promotion on their part, to catch the 49 bus to Ron’s and find out about his apparently majestic ceremonies for myself.
Around 5:00 p.m. as I left the Victoria Regia to meet up with Bill for the bus ride, I was dogged by a prickly nagging, a persistent cooing from deep in the mottled chambers of my psyche, encouraging me to go instead and with haste to Espiritu de Anaconda, where I have participated in ceremony many times with maestro shaman Guillermo Arevalo. The persistent call bewildered me somewhat. I had run into Guillermo earlier the day before, exactly by the same means, when a prickly nagging told me in the ways that prickly naggings do, to proceed at once to Plaza de Armas, where I would run into Guillermo. I had followed that quixotic instruction, encountered Guillermo exactly as was intimated, and found out that he would not be conducting ceremony the next night. Yet there it was, the prickly sense urging me to abandon my plan for Ron’s, and to head to kilometer 14 on the Nauta road, to Espiritu de Anaconda.
The moto ride was the usual travesty, and I was part passenger and part mot-pusher, as we struggled valiantly through deep sand on the way to Guillermo’s place. The moto driver demanded more money for having been dragged out into the Iquitos outback, but it all ended well, as we cruised into the sprawling compound that is Espiritu de Anaconda. On my prior visit five weeks before, I had found a mostly empty, sleepy retreat. his time, the place was hopping, filled to capacity with Americans, Europeans, and a group of Russians who would, as it turns out, provide some evening entertainment.
Stephane, one of Guillermo’s reliable and bilingual apprentices, helped me to get situated, and informed me that Guillermo was expecting me, and was doing a small special ceremony for just a few of us. See how those prickly naggings work?
After settling in to a small bungalow, I headed to the large ceremonial malocca to claim a spot and a comfortable mat or two, for the evening. A few of Guillermo’s apprentices arrived and settled in, and we waited for the man himself to show up. Fortune conspired to throw a spanner in the works, when five of the Russians arrived, and took up position as one unit. Feigning an inability to understand what they were kindly told, that the ceremony was just for a few others that evening, they obstinately set up camp and refused to budge. Okay, detente.
The three male and two female Russians were archetypal-fleshy, thickly muscled, and pale-skinned, with pink rubbery lips, their bodies arising from decades of potatoes, fatty meats, vodka and harsh cigarettes. They clung to each other as if sharing the same foxhole on the front lines. One actually looked like Leonid Brezhnev.
When Guillermo arrived, he greeted each person warmly with a smile, handshake, and kind words. Then he reclined on his mat, and the pouring began. Two of his assistants brought out the dark brown ayahuasca. One by one we walked up and specified how much we wished to drink, and were given that amount. When the Russians came up, they all asked for tall ones, as if to say hey, I didn’t come all the way from Novosibirsk to drink half a glass!
We sat in the dark for a while, until the ayahuasca kicked in, with it’s luminous geometry, it’s feelings of tremulous body shimmer, it’s mystic undulations. The Russians, gripped by large doses, began to have their own experiences, heaving their guts out in such operatic full throttle, it was as though their innards were being removed with rakes. I have heard many people vomit, some quite loudly. But neither Caruso nor Pavaroti could sing with volume comparable to the epic puking of the Russians. They were forces of nature, peristaltic superheroes crying out with their heads in plastic buckets, heaving with alarming, almost deafening force. And it did not stop. They vomited for hours.
The best, though, was yet to come. Amidst the solemnity of the ayahuasca ceremony, even as Guillermo sang beautiful and finely mysterious icaros to spur us to new mystic heights, one of the Russian men stripped to his underpants and began to wander the malocca, pausing to embrace two wooden statues as if they were fond lovers, and striking military poses in one spot after another. Tall, strong and defiant, he could not be stopped. He was the Charles Atlas of ayahuasca, a paragon of fierce and proud Russian power, strident in his poses, erect and mighty, lost in some parallel universe to which the rest of us did not have access. Guillermo and a couple of his apprentices attempted to steer the man back to his mat, but he would not go for it. And so for hours he shifted from one spot to another, even attempting at one point to lie down on a Frenchman who took it poorly.
You cannot ever say that an ayahuasca ceremony will go this way or that. The permutations of the human psyche, and the caprices of the spirits, often conspire to produce hilarity, strange behaviors, and even unexpected eructations, from violent farts to full-throated yells. It is impossible to predict what will happen out there in the dark. At about 2:00 a.m., after the icaros were but a memory, after the Russian barfings had quieted, after the standing man had retreated at last to his mat, I departed to my bungalow, where I caught a few hours of sleep. By half past six I was showering under a drizzle of cold water, and half an hour later I was walking the sandy route back to the Nauta road, to catch a moto, to go back into the city with a breeze in my face, as dawn rose in humid warmth and another Iquitos day began.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter and author. His web site is www.medicinehunter.com.
Captain Bill Grimes is the publisher of this Captain’s Blog and president of the Amazon Explorers Club and is happy to have Chris Kilham for a friend. Thanks for contributing this enjoyable account of your recent visit to Iquitos. It caused me to laugh and smile. Laughing and smiling is as good for my health as a tablespoon of maca…
If you got a kick out of this article, be sure to check out Chris’s web site. He is the author of over a dozen books and has many fantastic photos from his travels as the Medicine Hunter.