Honey, the Shaman Shrunk My Head
Credit: Illustration by Steve Brodner
But I had a bad feeling from the beginning. I am not used to traveling in groups, and this was a nervous and ill-assorted bunch, eight or 10 people, a larger number than I had expected. The great attraction for me – it was the reason I had signed up – was that Don Pablo Amaringo would be our vegetalista. But even Don Pablo, in his stirring lecture in Quito before we set out, spoke of the conflicting vibrations he felt among the people in our group.

Don Pablo's gentle manner, his shy Amazonian smile, his wide knowledge of jungle plants, made him instantly persuasive. He was golden-skinned and slight of build, and his expressions were so animated and responsive it was impossible to tell his age. He had as a master painter been able to capture the ayahuasca experience in his pictures. He is a respected shaman, though he seldom used the word. Shaman is a term from the Siberian Evenki people that has gained wide acceptance. In Quechua the word for shaman is pajé, "the man who embodies all experience."

Don Pablo was also a teacher; he ran an art school in Pucallpa, Peru. In 1953 Burroughs had found ayahuasca in Pucallpa. I trusted Don Pablo from the moment I met him. He remains one of the most gifted, insightful, and charismatic people I have met in my life. Don Pablo correctly diagnosed that I had unfinished business back home – my wife unwell, my affairs in a muddle; he seemed to know I was stuck in my book. His shrewdness reminded me that a substance named telepathine had been isolated from ayahuasca.

"Your mind is partly here and partly at home," he told me.

The others disturbed me. Except for a psychiatrist-poet and a young man who was on the trip to add a chapter to his book about his drug experiences (not long before, he had been roistering at the Burning Man festival), these people were not travelers. Even in Quito they looked out of their depth, and later, as we penetrated the Ecuadoran interior, they seemed to wilt. One woman cried easily, one man proclaimed militant Judaism, another woman her spirit search; a man confided to me that he was on a quest for spiritual fulfillment, another man sobbed, "I need a healing." One lovely girl was beset by a chronic case of the squitters.

They thought of themselves as searchers. They seemed to have a touching faith in the efficacy of this trip, yet they seemed abysmally ill-prepared for its rigors. The sobbing woman did not bother me much; I was more concerned by the anxious screeching facetiousness of some of the others. They seemed to me innocents, they were easily spooked, yet looking to repair their lives. Most had never been in a jungle before, or slept rough. They looked muddled, giggling desperately in sweaty clothes, as though expecting to be ambushed. The organizers did their best to soothe the nerves of these people; yet I remained querulous and discontented, unused to so much apprehension. One woman was menstruating: The ceremony was forbidden to her.

Finally assembled, we left Quito late; we procrastinated at the Papallacta hot springs. Idling there at the edge of the forest, Don Pablo showed me a blossom called angel's trumpet, of the brugmansia family. There are many varieties, but this one was especially potent. "They call it datura – toé in Guarani. It can give you visions. In some ways this is more powerful than ayahuasca."

"In what way?"

"Great visions," he said, rubbing a leaf the way a Chinese connoisseur evaluates a piece of silk, "but it can make you blind."

Night fell as we traveled east, going slowly on bad roads. We arrived in darkness at Lago Agrio, a boomtown that had grown to accommodate the sprawl of the American oil companies, which were exploiting the rain forest and displacing the Indians. At the hotel we took pains to hide our bus ("Or it will be stolen"). We went to sleep in the stinking town of furtive shadows and sharp clicking heels; we awoke in a hot, bright place, a confusion of traffic and the sour creamy stink of spilled oil and the toxic-saturated earth.

Lago Agrio was a blight in the harsh equatorial sun. Because of a delay in our departure for the river, I lingered over coffee and fell into conversation with Joaquin, a local resident and volunteer guide who claimed to be a vegetalista. He was a young man, not more than 30, with the look of an ascetic – long hair, faded shirt, sandals – that was also the look of a risk-taker. He told me that the noises I had heard all night were the scurryings of prostitutes. It was, he said, a town of whores, drugs, gunrunning, rebels, and oil prospectors. You could buy anything here, at any time of the day. Even the whorehouses never closed. It was then 8:30 in the morning.

"The burdeles are open even now!" Joaquin said.

I challenged this, so he took me on a 10-minute taxi ride to a low building on a dirt road. Inside, women old and young, all of them in bathing suits, sat primly on folding chairs in front of little cubicles that surrounded a large dance floor. No one was dancing, though the music was loud. Two men were fighting, knocking over chairs. Eight or 10 other men were drinking beer. The morning sun slanted through the building's small windows.

"They work all night in the oil fields and come here in the morning to get drunk and find a woman."

Joaquin led me through the backstreets of the ramshackle town, where in little shops merchants whispered and handed me bones. "Endangered species!" The polished skulls of jaguars – called tigres – were for sale. There were also hunks of tortoiseshell, stuffed bats, mounted lizards, dead spiders transfixed by needles, and weapons of all sorts – blowguns, poison darts, machetes, wicked-looking shivs, bows and arrows.

"This was once rain forest. Just Indians and animals." Joaquin asked me what I wanted. I could have anything – a monkey skull, a tiger skin, drugs, guns, a 14-year-old girl. He could even arrange what he called a Toxic Tour, a survey of the local blight he said was caused by Halliburton and Occidental Petroleum.

I told him I was going down the Río Aguarico with my group of gringos, to a village of the Secoyas. He recogniéed this as shorthand for a drug tour, and he made an elbow-bending motion and a drinker's gesture.

 "Ayahuasca," I said.

"You could drink it near here. I know people," he said. And he showed me in another shop bags of medicinal herbs and plants, and fat, dusty lengths of cut-off ayahuasca bulging in gunnysacks.

"No, I want to see the village."