The clouds in the Amazon were the biggest surprise, towering edifices of mashed potatoes that when backlit by the sinking golden sun seemed to glow from within like alabaster night lamps. Most formations were vertical, standing like sentinels over the jungle canopy, scraping the underbelly of heaven.
It was during such a sunset that Uciel guided our skiff ashore to a milling crowd of excited children.
The village of San Regis is a flyspeck on Peru's Amazon River that receives few outside visitors, and even fewer come to seek out the Shaman, Carola. As travelers who consider life to be a quest, my wife and I have sought out holy men, brujos, shaman, soothsayers, and all manner of spiritual guides the world over; now we were deep in the jungle once again, this time to find a lady who has spawned myths.
Carola is known far and wide in the rainforest, a young mother of two with a third on the way, leading a normal village life with her wood carver husband, while at the same time acting as spiritual caretaker and healer to literally hundreds of jungle dwellers spread over many roadless miles. Her prestige and position are beyond reproach. The role of shaman is often misunderstood in the west, associated with black magic, spells and the use of drugs. While these things all have their place, the actual practitioners are as varied as in any profession. Carola is known as a "White" shaman, a healer and spiritual guide.
The Difficult Path of Shaman Training
To be a shaman is a life long journey, passed from elder to youth, requiring years of intense learning and dedication, usually, but not always, commencing in childhood when the spirits determine the next candidate. Few can stay the course as the long years require a strict diet and unquestioning obedience to the master's regime that requires vast knowledge of the natural world including the preparation and ingestion of psychotropic plants. In some cases sexual abstinence is required, though going by Carola's case, not here.
Uciel, born and raised in the jungle, was a contemporary of Carola, who had watched many fail in this quest as she continued to advance her metaphysical education, growing closer and closer to the spirit world until she occupied a separate reality. As he guided us down the river, he shared his own stories in a matter-of-fact manner.
After four years of shamanistic study, Uciel's friend was ordered to kill his dog as a sign of loyalty to his teacher, and so he did. Three more years of training passed and again he was ordered to kill his latest dog which he did without hesitation. In his eighth year he was ordered to kill his daughter and refused, terminating his training with great loss of face in his village. That woman was Uciel's wife and the apprentice shaman was her father. Uciel told us he did not know if the shaman would have allowed his father in law to carry out the execution or if it was all a test, but either way, the outcome would have been accepted by all involved. His father in law eventually took his own life, unable to live with his shame. Neither Uciel nor his wife holds the shaman responsible. Such is their culture.
Another story recounted a dark tale that apparently is commonplace in which the shaman carves a chunk from a kapok tree and inserts a personal item from a person they wish to kill. The kapok is a fast, self- healing tree, and within weeks, new growth covers the removed area, imprisoning the enclosed item, during which time the intended victim slowly suffocates to death as though being strangled by the tree itself. But in the jungle where lives are dominated by myth and legend and the spirit world is the same as the waking world, who is to say what is truth or fiction?
To Uciel, both worlds are concurrent but he reiterated time and again that Carola was a "white" shaman, meaning she only used her powers for good. When I asked if a white shaman could perform evil deeds he looked at me as though I were crazy. In shamanism as in all of life, there is a ying and yang that never meet.
Uciel had brought a catfish as offering and as we landed, inquired of the village headman if Carola might see us, and we were not surprised to hear that she was already waiting for us at her "temple" in the forest.
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