DON JUAN TANGOA, AYAHUASQUERO
Don Juan’s wife, Leonore, had been bitten by something on the pulse point of her left wrist. She came to me in frustration. The tiny bite was continually itching. It looked like nothing more than a small mosquito bite. After a week’s time, this small bite had transformed into a volcano rising out of her wrist, the height of my small fingernail, with a diameter of about one inch, oozing creamy white pus. Don Juan and I were baffled. I asked the military doctors in Iquitos what their opinion was, but they too were perplexed.
We watched helplessly as large knots of some sort of cartilage-type material began forming, starting first on her wrist around the bite, and then moving up her arm about two inches every day until it reached her shoulder. Her left arm was hard like a rock and the volcano continued growing in size; her fever returned full force. When these hard knots began moving down into her chest, possibly moving toward her heart, Don Juan came to me in desperation, suggesting we drink ayahuasca that evening in the hopes of divining a cure.
“Si, Don Juan. Of course,” I agreed rather nervously. It had seemed, when he presented this, that he was asking me to divine the cause of her illness, a responsibility I felt both reluctant and incapable of handling. Immediately we began to prepare the medicine.
Don Juan cut vines that he had grown on his half-acre piece of property, and I searched for chacruna. When I returned from purchasing the chacruna from the local Iquitos plant market in Belen, he had already cut the vine into small segments, smashed them with his hammer (so the boiling water could reach into all the various crevices of the vine), and brought water to a boil. He had been smoking mapacho tobacco and singing icaros over the smashed vines when he looked up and saw me there with a large bag of chacruna. He came over to me, reached into the bag, and pulling out a handful said, very seriously, “Legitimo?”
“Si, Juan.” And I flipped a leaf over onto its back side and pointed out the tiny darts protruding from the spine. “Genuine.”
I lightly pounded the chacruna leaves with a mallet for better extraction, then placed approximately half a kilo of the fresh leaves into the ceramic-coated pot. Don Juan puffed his cigarette and blew the smoke into the pot, protecting the energies we had given to this medicine and driving away any negative energy that may have concealed itself within its confines. He placed his usual three leaves of datura into the mix and then slowly added the vine and leaves, singing icaros to bless the medicine and give us vision.
That evening we drank the medicine hoping to divine a cure for Leonore. As the ceremony began Don Juan asked me to go into a trancelike state and call the spiritual body of his wife before me. I had never attempted this, so I followed his instructions with as much focus as possible. Deeply under the influence of the medicine, I called forth a vision of Leonore, concentrating intensely on nothing but “seeing” her. Just over an hour had passed, and finally I had her form before me. Whether this was simply creative visualization or I actually had succeeded in bringing her spirit there in front of me, I wasn’t sure. But, I could see her lying in her bed asleep under the mosquito net. I looked for her left arm and then to the open wound on her wrist. Don Juan asked me if I could see Leonore, and I responded, “Si,” without losing visual contact with her image.
“What is it?” he asked.
At that instant I knew, as if the word had been planted in my mind. “An insect, maestro.”
“Si, Alan,” he said, “but how do you cure it?” His voice was fraught with emotion and frustration. Curanderos have a difficult time seeing and treating members of their own family, and generally call on other curanderos to divine for them.
In that very instant, as I started to apologize for not having given him what he needed, the word “salt” came out of my mouth of its own volition. “Two spoonfuls of salt in your hand and just a little water to make a paste. Put this directly into the open wound, cover it with your palm and hold it there for a few minutes.”
I had no idea what I was saying or where this cure had come from, but Don Juan understood, sighed in relief, thanked me and said he would do this at first light.
I was nervous. What had happened here? I explained to Don Juan that this word “salt” had issued from my mouth without my having formed any sort of logical deductions. I pleaded with him not to do this as placing salt into an open wound would be incredibly painful and, again, I was at a loss to explain where this had come from.
“Alan, this is curanderismo. This is the method of healing. Don’t worry.”
At first light, I hurried into Iquitos to make one last visit to the military doctors. I pleaded with him to wait until I returned. Again the doctors were no help, and I returned to the shack to see Don Juan standing in his yard with a cocky grin on his face. I told him the doctors were as confused as I was. He just stood there, smiling. It was obvious what he had done.
“You did it, didn’t you?” I asked.
He had made the salt paste, placing it directly into the wound and held it there. After a few minutes he removed his hand and a geyser gushed out a pure white creamy fluid, then a liquid watery substance. It was finished. One month later you could not even see that Leonore had ever been bitten.