I am lying under a thatched roof on the ground, with two banana leaves under me and a small blanket on top. It's dark, and we are immersed in the buzz and hiss of the night jungle. The nearest road is an hour plane ride away. I have accepted the bitter natem brew. There is no going back now.
This is ceremony and there is no rushing. Earlier in the day, we hiked an hour into the bush to visit the Shaman at his house where he is brewing the plants in a caldron on an open fire. It's dangerous being a shaman according to our guide, who is his son. They are blamed if something goes wrong in the community. He is not following in his father's footsteps. Until recently, this was a headhunting culture. Living far from the village down a small dirt path offers some protection.
A small group of villagers, including the elementary school teacher join us for the night ceremony. We are a group of intrepid travellers drawn to this remote place for many reasons. We are about to be brought to our knees.
We each await our turn to drink the brew. It is a brown muddy concoction, measured out in an old teacup. The Shaman spends five minutes whistling over each cupful, invoking the powers of the plants to support the journey. This takes a long time and becomes a meditative anticipation. Finally it is my turn, I sit on a stump in front of him, swallow it down and thank him in my one word of Achuar, "makate".
The effect comes gradually over the next 20 minutes, I feel it entering my cells and brain. It is not subtle and I find a banana leaf and lie down before I lose control of my physical body. The jungle sounds magnify and are accented by the periodic heaving vomit of my comrades. I take little notice as my inner world becomes intensely commanding and the journey begins. My breathing becomes a symphony of huffs and distinct breaths moulding and funnelling the onslaught of plant medicine. I am surrendered yet acutely conscious of everything.
Immediately a snake appears in my vision. It is small with lime sides and a military green back. I am told to follow it exactly and don't veer off the path. I practice following it for a while rather randomly. I think, when can we get to the deeper magic? Instantly, the snake goes down a deep tube. Oh shit. I realize I am being taken to many dark, devilish, wrathful, fearful places. Soon I discover that if I keep completely focused on following the snake, and huffing out my breath, any obstacle is passable. This snake can slide, curve and slither avoiding all these negative forces. He is fearless in an absolute way. When he is faced with a negative being, he goes directly and without hesitation into it's mouth or anus and comes out the other end. I am taken to all levels of negativity, deep in the earth, up in the sky and everywhere in my body. Nothing stops us. When the energies are big I must take charge of my breath in concentrated huffs and blows. He enters my ear and navigates through my body, while I blow out more and more negative forces. This is difficult work and takes all my focus. My confidence is boosted as I understand the implications of following the rules precisely. This process is lengthy and I have not vomited. The trial of a hundred dark forces eventually nears it's end, and the snake pokes it's head into one last place. This is overwhelming and I have no control in this place. I throw up. The godhead is just too much.
With relief I am quiet for a moment, thinking it is done. Not so. A test paper floats into my vision. It is titled "Final Examination". It reads
-1 for entering God
+2 for entering God
I am ecstatic. I am exhausted. The plant medicine is relentless and now I must accept an apprenticeship and gifts that come like a torrent for another two hours. I encounter demons and gargoyles of many forms from every culture and time. Unseen allies spontaneously offer me techniques and tricks to outwit and avoid all these dark forces. I learn blowing, spitting and hissing like an animal. Crazy laughter like a witch is the most powerful, and is an humiliating assault on the biggest bullies of the underworld. By remaining focused on the snake I become immune to the dangers and wrath of the demons I encounter. In fact, they are shadowy and illusory, slinking away like vapour. The shaman overseeing us returns my cackles with his own laughter. He knows exactly what is going on here. I giggle a lot as I realize how effective this is, and I love it. At some point I see a vision of myself with two over stuffed mailbags over my shoulders. They are tightly filled with messages. I pull one out and look to see: Follow the snake and don't veer off the path. Ok, I am getting the message loud and clear.
It get's very late and the background sounds of heaving from the rest of the group are a memory. It is as silent as a jungle at night can be. Finally I feel like it is over. There is still excess plant medicine in my gut and I let it out once I stand up and move. Still shaky and lacking any physical coordination I stumble to bed, easing myself into rest and a slow letting go of the experience.
The following morning, most of the carnage of the previous night has been carried away by the ever industrious army of leaf cutter ants in their endless march of productivity. The big pile of banana leaves has evaporated. Our group is buzzing or scribbling about the past night's affairs while swinging in the hammocks or sitting on stumps. We have a lot to metabolize. Together with the shaman and his helpers we spend the day sharing our experiences, translated in triplicate from English to Spanish to Achaur and back again. The rhythm is sweet and much is said in the tone and cadence. Some people are contemplative and don't say too much, one or two are visibly disappointed and being hard on themselves. My mood is internal and I am feeling a lot of strength which I didn't know was there. The shaman offers us each in turn his interpretation of the ceremony. He says I have been purified and cleansed. Although the Achuar don't have mail delivery, he understands the essence. He translates this to mean I will receive many gifts and support in my work. We have another laugh recounting the crazy laughter of the night before. This is a beautiful experience.
Visiting the dark places and learning how to navigate fear in this way has definitely been worth the effort. Curiosity makes me wonder how this will translate into ordinary reality back home. All I can say is, it's a jungle out there.
Posted by Cathie Grindler at 16:51
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Labels: My experience with plant me