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In The Land Of Yage

Tlie Valley of Sibundoy is a strange and beautiful wodd. Because of its natural isolation by rugged mountains, the Indian villages within ¡1 have developed unique customs, particularly in regard to the use of plants. In fact, some of the plants themselves are uniqne. as we shall see. and one Colombian botanist I know says a man cannot really call himself, a botanist until. he has worked in Sibundoy.

One of the first things I did on settling down in the town of Sibundoy was to call on Salvador, a Kamsa witch doctor who specializes in the preparation of yage*. Before I describe that meeting, I should explain that the term "witch doctor" really lias no equivalent in Spanish.

"Witch" is brujo. and while this term is commonly used by white scientists for men like Salvador it is usually not used to their faces, for it has the same dark connotations as its English equivalent. . The Spanish lemi ¡For "medical" doctor is medico, and some native practitioners insist on being addressed by iL A third term is curandero. or "healer," perhaps a more accurate designation for someone who has the power to cute by unorthodox methods.

Salvador, however, asks to be called a medico and has a certificate from a botanist at the National University in Bogata announcing to whom it may concern that he is a skilled practitioner of herbal medicine, and. especially, an expert on the preparation and administration of yage' (pronounced yah-HAY). Now.yage,' isa nativeofiliehotcountry; it does not grow anywhere near the Valley of Sibundoy. Consequently, the Ingas and Kamsas who have learned its use have had to cross the mountains to the east and descend into the Amazon basin to study with men of tribes who live in lite area where the vine grows. And, when they want to use yage, they must make the same long trip to get a supply and bring it back to their valley.

No drug plant excijes more interest than yage, A jungle vine, whose ceremonial use by Indians was noted by easly explorers of the Amazon basin, yag^ is a powerful "remedy" among those tribes that still consume it ritually. It is also a pharmacological problem, imperfectly studied, and an exotjc high sought out by drug users from all parts of the wosld.

In different areas of South America this same drug is known by other names: ayahuasca, for instance, and caapi. To the botanist it is Banisteriopsis caapi, a vigorous and curious liana ofthe-Amazon forests, of relatively rate occurrence even in its home areas.

Tlie drug is prepared from the woody stem or trunk-what Colombian Indians call the bejuco. It is cut into manageable lengths, mashed by pounding with rocks and boiled in water, usually along with one or more additives that vary from region to region. Then the plant material is discard ed and the liquid is cooked-to a concentrated extract..

Years ago. as a student in the Harvard Botanical Museum, I first saw pictures of Banisteriopsis and read much of life older literatw:e about it. I knew that extracts of it commonly produce vomiting, diarrhea and visions. "Witch doctors credit it with the ability to confer telepathic ^ powers, so that a yage-intoxicated brujo can communicate with people in oilier pails of the forest, if not the worjd, and also with the spirits of animals and plants. Telepathic powers are often attributed to the influence of magic plants by their users. North American Indians say the same tiling about peyote, for example.

But the association with yage is especially strong, so much so that when German scientists first isolated the main alkaloid from the plant, they called it telepathiiie. It is now known, less in-. lerestingly. as Iiarmalioe. This alkaloid and others in Banisteriopsis belong to a family of drugs related chemically to such known hallucinogens as the tryp-tamines (including DMT) and LSD. But the pharmacological literature on the liarmalines is far less extensive ilian iliat on other psychoactive drugs.

If scientific writings on yage are inadequate, there is no lack of popular ■ lil-eralure on the subject.. In fact, in the United States, at least, a considerable mythology of yage lias accrued since the early 1950s. A major contributor to this body offolklore was WilliamBurroughs, whose slim book. The YagcLeiiers. described his wanderings through the Putumayo Territory of southwest Colombia in search of the drug. The book is distinguished by a uniformly negative tone and. according to experts on the region, considerable misinfonnation; nevertheless, it lias become an underground classic and has drawn thousands of young Americans to the Putumayo.

In a much more recent book. Wizard of ihe Upper Amazon. Manuel Cordova-Rios, a Peruvian healer, recounted his experiences as a child when he was kidnapped by Amahuaca Indians and trained to be a future chief.. His training consisted of frequent sessions with yage' during which the natures offoresl plants and ani mals were revealed to hi m In visions.

In addition to popular books, there exists an oral tradition of yage' tales, not all of them very accurate, in the American drug subculture. During a stay in the Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in 1967 I was offered yage by a vendor of unusual drugs. He called it the "tiger drug" because it was supposed to induce visions of jungle animals, especially big cats, in all who look it. 1 thought this unlikely, but lie assured me that "when Eskimos are given yage' in a laboratory, they see visions of huge house cats si nee they have never seen tigers." 1 pointed out (to no avai)) that with the paucity of research on yage' it was extremely improbable that any-

"Wff drank nixi pae. Before starting to ehujit, we talked a bit. The brew began to mtive rrw and I drank some mora. Soon I began to shake all over. The earth shook. The wind blew and (ho trees swayed.. -. The alxi pae people began to appear. They had bows and imows and wanted to shoot me. I was afraid but they told me their arrows would not kill me, only make mt more drunk. Snakes, large brightly colored makes were crawling on tiw ground. They began lo crawl all over me. On» J org« famafo sncks tried t« swallow ate, but since I was chanting she couldn't succeed---- 1 heard armadillo tall trumpets and then many /cogs and toads si nglng. A muzonion Co*h 1 naltua Indian reporting yaw fntoxfection inj'Dnig Depcuvtanfe,' October 197«

one had done such an experiment And I declined to buy any of his wares because it seemed to me that yage" could not be very fresh by the lime it got to San Francisco.

Salvador lives with his family and animals in a thatched house not far from ihe town of Sibundoy. To get to it, one must tramp through fields that are quite wet in the rainy season and cross several mildly ticklish log bridges over small ravines. Eventually one reaches a sod of dense thicket of strange planes, in (he middle of which is Salvador's house.

Il is said that the inhabitants of the Valley of Sibundoy use a greater variety of intoxicating plants than any other people. And most of those plants grow right in Salvador's garden. The first tune I entered the house, Salvador's wife was attempt-ing to get a fire going in the middle of the earthen floor. A huge fire-blackened pot rested on some stones, and she was blowing on some glowing wood underneath it, trying to produce flames. The house was filled with smoke.

It was mid^aftemoon, but Salvador: was cucled up in bed, looking under the weather. Widi some effort he got up, explaining that he had taken yag£ the previous evening with some visitors and was now tired. He says he is between 60 and 70. but his face is youthful and of indeterminate age. He has an engaging smUe. He speaks perfect Spanish with visitors but converses among his family in the Kamsa dialect..

Salvador told me that he was a medico and a famous one, since people from all over came to see him, principally to take yag£, He showed me a book in which all of these visitors had recorded their names and addresses. Then he asked me if 1 would gel him a document from the United States certifying him to be a medico and an expert on medicinal plants. It would have to have an official seal,, he added. I said I would see. His request rubbed me the wrong way; after all. I hardly knew him, and if a medicine man is really a medicine man, why should lie need certificates from the United Stales to prove il?

We drank several cups of chicha, a mildly alcoholic fermented mash of commeal, water and raw sugar. 1 told Salvador 1 was interested in seeing him prepare yage' and asked him what he made it from besides ihe bejitco. He said the only ihing he added was the leaves of chagrapanga Chug-rapanga, 1 knew from my reading, is a related species, Banisteriopsis rus-byana, whose leaves contain DMT (dimethyllryptamine) but none of the harmalines that are in B. caapi. „

Synthetic DMT. when available on the U.S. black market, is usually smoked (mixed with marijuana or mint leaves) and rarely injected. It cannot be taken by month because an enzyme in the human digestive tract inactivates it. But. as Indians have long known and pharmacologists have recently discovered« it is effective orally if mixed with yage, because yage' contains substances that inhibit -the enzyme. Consequently, chagra-panga is never taken by itself but is always mixed with yage; and it is one of the commonest additives to the potion. When I asked him why he added the chagrapanga, Salvador, replied; "To make the visions brighter" ("Para briilar la pinta").

We decided that I should come back the next day to make and drink yagel Salvador explained that the potion is prepared in the afternoon and drunk only at night.. Women may not be present duiing the preparation but may consume the finished drink. He told me I should not eat on the day of taking yag£ and. particularly. should avoid milk. He then requested that 1 buy him some meat, coffee, salt, sugar, candles and, most important of all aguaidienle for the ceremony. Aguardiente is an unaged whisky distilled from sugar cane, sweetened and flavored with anise; it is the local fire water of South America Since I like neither alcohol nor anise, I was not much looking forward to drinking it and wondered just how much of it we were going to use in this "ceremony."

I went back to the little town of Sibundoy to shop. It was a cold, gray afternoon. As usual the streets were full of people doing nothing, mostly Indians but a fair number of hippies as well. This latter group was international: Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, all with little or no money and yage' uppermost in their minds.

Sibundoy. because il is the closest yage center to the Pan-Amerkan Highway, has been visiled increasingly by freaks, many of whom have not the tune or means to continue over the eastern. mountains to the Amazon basin. Salvador's address book testifies that they have been coming for several years now, and one effect has been dial yage' lias become good business for ihe brujos and medicos of the valley. For a fee, they wilL put on a yage' ceremony for you.

One of the surest ways to debase the ritual use of a drug is to begin selling the drug lo strangers. Evidently, this process had been going on in the Sibundoy for some time, and what I was going to see would be a fa inly debased ritual.. I decided that a good way to gauge ihe degree of debasement would be to pay attention to the preparation of the drug.

Most people who come to the valley pay their money and drink their yagei, 1 was glad I had asked Salvador to let me in on the making, and I supposed his requests for groceries were the additional fee for this privijege. I assumed he would wanl a few dollars cash for the actual ceremony. As a standard of comparison 1 had in mind a description of a yage' preparation thai look place many years ago in the remote forests of Peru among a group of Amahuaca Indians as yet untouched by Western ways. These Indians made their drink from the be-juco of yage' and from the leaves of another plant, probably also chag-rapanga.

When 1 went back to Salvador's house, it was raining steadily, and by the time lgot there, I was soaked. This time Salvador's son was present, Juan Pedro, a young man in his late twenties. I handed over the groceries, and Salvador, immediately extracted the aguardiente, saying it would be good for all of us to drink some. He poured oul shot glasses of the stuff, and we all gulped it down in turn; it was even worse than I had remembered from my previous encounter wiili it a number of years ago. Salvador was not satisfied with one round. He continued passing oul ihe booze, usually serving himself.' two shots for eveiyone given away, while Juan Pedroj served up bowl after bowl of chicjia. Outside,the rain kept up a steady patter, inside, chickens ran around on the floor, and ihe fire went out, causing clouds of smoke-apparently „ a chronic problem in ihe wet season.

In a shod time I was feeling pretty drunk, but the drinking went on with no signs of our doing anything about ihe yage' Then Juan Pedto asked me if I had any marijuana on me. I told him 1 did not,, which disappointed him, because he said many people who came told him how great marijuana was, but he had only smoked it once and had not gotten high on it-

I managed lo turn, ihe conversation to yagei and Salvador launched into a

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