We followed the trail away from the village to a thatched roof palapa where a hunched figure sat in deep shadow. Entering silently my wife and I both felt a palpable yet indescribable presence. We sat on a low wooden bench as Carola looked up with deep black eyes that told me she was returning from another place. She was small except for her baby bump, with raven hair cascading down like flowing water.
Uciel spoke to her in Spanish and she answered in her native Kukama Kukamiria, a dying tongue once used universally throughout this river basin before white contact, then quickly switched to Spanish. Her voice was soft and flowing with a soothing quality of assurance. She greeted us as pilgrims and said had we been tourists she would not have met with us, then proceeded to pass around a bottle of ayahuasca, the hallucinogenic beverage distilled from indigenous plants that is used as a vehicle to visions within the spirit world. It was not for our consumption, only offered as information; indeed, without training, it might have killed us; but its odor alone revealed its power.
The Essence of All Things
She spoke of her early training that came from her grandfather, whose wooden likeness stared at us from a mask on the wall. She allowed us to question her for some time but her answers seemed to emanate from a source outside of her. She spoke of the need to enter the other world in order to access the power to heal and how the granting of such power by the spirits was due to the purity of her own life. She spoke of the "essence" of the jungle present in all things, living and inanimate, that I would equate to the belief in a soul, but when I inquired as to the extent of her powers her voice suddenly became masculine and told me that was an area left unspoken. I was surprised how forthcoming she was but she said it was because she had "seen" us and knew us to be seekers of truth.
She went on to tell us of numerous people she had healed, including those with broken bones and snake bites, and I had no cause to doubt her claims. In a land without medical doctors the power of belief is supreme, and in fact, most of the medicines of my own western world originated in this very same rainforest. How ironic that the modern world is slowly destroying this ancient pharmacy by over-logging and clear-cutting to build cities for more people while destroying the medicines to keep them alive.
At the time I had many questions but remember none of them now. I only remember being mesmerized by her eyes as though she had insight to my very being and I felt with absolute certainty that I would meet her again. Since then I have wondered if she had altered my personal memory in some unknown way.
Our visit ended with her rolling an enormous spliff of tobacco dipped in ayahuasca and passing the smoke over us in a purification ceremony. I left with a wooden mask carved by her husband, the face of a shaman in the spirit world inlaid with coca seeds, the dominant indigenous plant that is the source of most potions. As we walked down the trail I looked back and Carola was already in another place.
In the western world most of us rely on modern medicine to perpetuate our lives and that medical world for the most part dismisses people like Carola, but we tend to forget that long ago it was the shamans who first introduced their ways to the outside world, and that was the beginning of the evolution of that very same modern medicine we rely on today. But unlike western medical doctors, the shaman also tends to the soul.
About a month after returning home I had a vivid dream in which Carola simply smiled at me and then disappeared and I awoke feeling better than I had in a very long time. Then I wondered if it was a dream or real, but it did not matter.
In the world of shamans, all realities are the same.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
Sobering Shamanism from Peru's Visionary Tea by Bruce Northam
Life in the Past Tense: Chile's Atacama Desert by Shelley Seale
Dancing With the Dead in Benin by James Michael Dorsey
Humble in the Jungle: Exploring Guyana's Rainforest by Laurie Gough
See other South America travel stories from the archives
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Fly to Peru with Avianca