I begin writing this narrative on a bouncy bus climbing from the sacred valley of Andean, Peru to Cusco after a day visiting an orphanage outside the town of Calca. So much has transpired in these couple of weeks that I have to still my mind to go back and recall my fourth journey to Peru.
The Journey Begins
It feels like quite a while ago that my mother dropped me off at Dulles International Airport. From there I caught a flight to Miami and then an overnight flight to Lima. I arrived around 4:00 am and found a place to lay my head down until the morning light.
I checked in my luggage for my afternoon flight to the jungle town of Iquitos and caught a collectivo (group taxi) into the center of Lima. It all felt very familiar as I walked about the Plaza de Armas and visited the Centro Mercado for some fresh juice drinks. Then I walked through the busy streets across town to a set of gardens I had visited a number of times—De Botanica Jardin de San Fernando, first planted in 1787. I walked about recording the names of these elder plants. The lack of sleep and general malaise I felt from the very polluted environment was taking their toll on my psyche. Even the plants reflected this to me as they stood dust-covered and seemingly stooped from the pollution and neglect. I wondered why I had come back this time to Peru. I realized it was not for me so much, but to hold space for an amazing group of people who had agreed to come together and explore the plants, healing ways and sacred places that existed in this diverse country beneath it this modern Babylon veneer.
Off to the Amazon
Later that day I rode the plane over the beautiful Andean peaks (the second highest mountain range in the world) and down into the jungle world along the Amazon River. Young locals welcomed us with a rousing courting dance and when I had gotten my bags I was wonderfully greeted by my assistant Christina, who had come a week earlier, and by a slew of the shaman’s children.
We walked en masse back to the house and there in living color was the venerable 77-year-old Dr. James Duke. He had made nearly 60 trips to this diverse region and had agreed to spend the week with our circle and share his intimate knowledge of the jungle plants.
Though a lot of construction and changes had come to Don Juan Tangoa Paima’s house, I felt right at home. The next day our circle began to form. In the morning some of us went to the spectacular, huge Belen Mercado to continue gathering supplies. That afternoon we went with Jim to the Botanical Gardens at Quistococha outside Iquitos to warm up our brains to what the jungle had in store.
The Circle Forms
By the next morning our whole circle had gathered—13 in all—with the support of many others. We represented a wide range of backgrounds and ages spanning 58 years. People came from across the US as well as three from Costa Rica who had hosted my journey there last December.
We did an informative plant walk around Don Juan’s compound reaffirming that what you need most grows out your back door (especially if you plant it!). We saw a wide variety of tropical fruits, medicines and sacraments. Then we visited the Belen market again to get more provisions for our five-day trip to a jungle camp. Jim joined us and we had the pleasure of seeing his reunion with an old friend, Julia, who ran an herbal booth there. Afterwards Jim and I accompanied Manu, a world shaman from Cusco who had trained in the jungle , and the filmmaker, Ryan, who is making a documentary series, to Manu’s teacher’s office for treatments that involved card readings, acupressure, sacred mapacho (tobacco) smoke, dowsing in scented waters, and physiological analysis. Quite interesting.
Into the Jungle
We arose at daybreak the next morning and road a bus to a boat launch across town and took an hour ride up the Nanay River (a tributary to the Amazon). We landed and began a several hour hike into the jungle to the same camp I had been to a year and a half before. We saw all sorts of amazing plants, insects, birds and mushrooms along the way. We harvested one of the edible mushrooms, a species of tree ears, and ate themthat afternoon with our meal. There is something reassuring about carrying your needs on your back out away from the comforts of society (though we did have help from half a dozen village men).
There was a wonderful sense of familiarity returning to this jungle camp. We set up our mosquito nets and bedding and settled in. Our first of many affinity circles centered around what each person had brought in their health kits. Once again (as in earlier trips) I was impressed with our group apothecary. I find myself bringing less and less each time relying more and more on my local environment.
After dinner we had a discussion group around the upcoming ayahuasca experience. A majority of the circle had taken the healing, visionary medicine at least once, but only few of us had taken it many times.
1st Ayahuasca Ceremony
The next morning some people did yoga with Tenasi and later most of us walked a ways to an older ayahuasca vine and harvested the amount we needed, leaving offerings and sharing stories about this amazing plant. Near the kitchen a fire had been set up and preparation of the medicine began. This process went on for seven hours and the fire keepers showed their prowess not being deterred by the coming of rain by building a makeshift palm roof over the area. Two additions were added to the cooking vine—Chakruna leaves and mapacho. While this went on we ate lunch and then were led by Jim through a review of common tropical plant families with samples gathered of each. Then we rested and shared stories and music in preparation for that night’s ceremony.
After dark all of us made our way to the ayahuasca hut to be joined by Don Juan, his assistant Carlos, and six Peruvians. The hut was filled to capacity, at least by western standards. The medicine was passed around in glass of varying amounts depending on Don Juan’s sense of what each person needed.
An amazing thing about this medicine is that it interacts with each person differently. There are certain themes that are frequently expressed, but the condition of the person greatly affects its expression in their body.
Over the next five hours each person experienced their own healings and insights. There are many published accounts of people’s experiences you can look into. The first one I remember reading was in the latter 1980’s; a book called “The Way of the Shaman” by Michael Harner. The Ayahuascaro (the shaman who serves ayahuasca) sings Icaros (sacred songs) throughout the ceremony and does individual healings on people with the aide of mapacho and a shakapa (a bundle of special reeds).
Afterwards we each made our way back to our beds to sleep and integrate. In the morning I spent a long time reflecting on my experience. Many of us joined James in a universal peace prayer then some of us walked about with Jim and looked at plants.
2nd Ayahuasca Ceremony
After lunch Jim reviewed more plant families. That afternoon we all shared our experiences on the ayahuasca. That night nine of us returned to the hut for another round of medicine. In addition to Don Juan, Carlos and Manu shared icaros with us. For me it was a night of much suffering but I was blessed with some powerful healing moments with Don Juan and many from our circle. An intense thunderstorm co-incided perfectly with the ceremony blessing us with cleansing, power, and a light show.
The next morning after everyone took time to recuperate, we headed on a jungle walk—18 of us including guides—moving about the jungle marveling at the diversity of even this secondary growth. Then we came back for a feast and afternoon relaxing and interviews with Jim about his history and views of plants and the politics of healthcare. After dinner that night we reviewed our second ayahuasca experience together.
Back in Iquitos
At sunrise the next day our group headed back toward town. As often seems to be the case, the journey back was easier and faster. Everyone seemed lighter and healthier from our jungle time. The boat took us to town and we road a bus back to Don Juan’s. Some of us went to town to absorb more of the market.
Flying to Lima
The next morning we toured the Artisan Market outside Iquitos and shared a picnic at Quistococha Park. We watched pictures from our first week and viewed a short film by Ryan. Late that afternoon we flew off to Lima saying goodbye to two of our companions who had further work to do in the jungle. We parted feeling lots of appreciation for Don Juan and his extended family for welcoming us into their home.
In Lima we tried to send Jim off gracefully to his home in MD, but tropical storms in Miami caused them to cancel his flight. For some us that night in the airport was a night in purgatory trying to line up Jim with another flight. Our group of ten left the next morning at sunrise for Cusco, the ancient capitol of the Incas. It was hard to leave Jim there still uncertain of his flight plans. Thankfully I heard the next day that all had gone well and he made it home safely. Praise to that elder!
Cusco and the Sacred Valley
We were all travel weary but were also high on the early morning arrival into the Andes. We spent the morning in the markets of Cusco. So much can be said of the Centro Mercado, but that will have to wait for another day. It provided all our needs and wants.
Around one o’clock we took a van ride over the mountains to the Sacred Valley. In the valley we were taken to a retreat center owned by the family of our jungle companion, Manu. We stayed a couple of days being well fed and cared for. Annie facilitated a circle that worked to get us all present and Simone smudged us all. The second day we participated in a sacred San Pedro cactus ceremony and enjoyed some outside time with the heavens on this ancient land. Several of us worked on a plant survey of the land as a gift for the caretakers.
The next morning we caught the train to Aguas Calientas near the base of Machu Picchu. We soaked that night in the natural warm springs and awoke early for the walk up to Machu Picchu. Along the way we held a memorable circle bringing in our relations and sharing in magico hongo, coca, and other sacraments and then climbed up to the mystical village of the Incas. Once inside I was again struck by its design and energy. This time I ventured to a new place full of portent—the Temple de Luna—on the backside of Huanapicchu. The time seemed to go by quickly but I enjoyed my time there and felt fulfilled. I was continually intrigued by the unique communities of plants that grow there.
This was doubly enforced when we went the next morning to the newly opened Machu Picchu Jardin Botanica and Mueseo at the base of Machu Picchu by the river. To me it seemed a dream come true. I enjoyed my time seeing many new genera—of the 80 orchids they had there I had only seen a few on the mountain including the very tall showy Epidendron with its rosy-pink flowers. We caught the afternoon train back to the retreat center and recuperated. That night after dinner we held a group sharing called divine reflections.
Back to Cusco
The next morning Patrick facilitated a circle called eco-milling. These two circles offered us fruits from the experiences we had together. By late morning we headed out traveling up the sacred valley to Pisac. Here we shopped and some of us drank chichi (a naturally fermented corn beer) and generally took in this ancient town. Then back up the mountain to Cusco with a driving tour through some of the Incan ruins. We settled in at a hostel at the center of town then went out to a local restaurant for dinner and a closing circle with pictures from our journey. After that we gathered about a fire at the hostel and had a sharing circle around intimate relationships.
The next day we split off into groups to visit Cusco. Some of us went to the Coca Confectionary Shop—a business that not only has a bunch of tasty treats made with coca leaves but also has an educational directive to inform people about the nutritional and health benefits of the coca leaf. We also visited the Casa de Ecologica which provides the cutting edge of foods and indigenous crafts including pure peanut butter, miso, tahini, umeboshi plums as well as whole foods like quinoa and dehydrated oca; plus a diverse selection of educational materials. Next door we went to a Shaman’s Shop that presented a thoroughoverview of the ritual goods, herbs, knowledge of the healing ways of the Inca people as well as opportunities to participate in ceremonies.
A number of us went out to a vegetarian restaurant for their set lunch of salad bar, main entrée, pan, and tea for under a dollar. A wonderful meal made by people wanting to raise awareness about our food choices. Their sign is “Vegetarian Food: Good Food, Good Life”. It was enjoyable to share with people some of what I believe are the highlights of Cusco life.
The Circle Opens
That afternoon several from our circle flew back to the US. The Costa Rica crew left the next day to visit an orphanage in the sacred valley and are now on a trek by horseback up into the Andes. It will be Jonathan’s first time in snow. Christina and I have been making the most of our time. I have been taking daily excursions around the area and working on getting various projects done like updating the plant list from my Peru book and writing you all this report.