We found the following story about one man's encounter with a shaman deep in the Amazon River Basin fascinating. Although not near as "off the grid" as this man's singular journey, day 6 of our own Amazon River trip includes a visit to a well-respected Amazon village shaman, and is always considered a highlight by guests.
Illuminated by a single candle, the shaman's weathered face appeared kindly, like that of a sympathetic doctor, with painted red marks also suggesting a calm, fierce authority -- both qualities that I would rely on during the dark and uncertain hours ahead. He sat on a wooden stool carved into a tortoise, and wore turquoise beads around his neck and a crown of crimson feathers. A table beside him displayed the modest tools of the ceremony: a fan of leaves, jungle tobacco, a gourd bowl and a clear plastic soda bottle containing an opaque, brown liquid.
"You will start to feel a reaction in about half an hour," the shaman, Tsumpa, said, as my guide translated. "When the effects come, you must concentrate on what the medicine is trying to communicate."
The open air of the hut, animated with night sounds, grew still with expectation. Tsumpa grimaced as he drank the brew. After pouring a bowl for me, he cupped the gourd in his hands and for several minutes whistled a sweet melody into it -- the high key of a tin whistle or courting bird, seducing the plant spirits to aid me.
The potion tasted acrid and bitter. I rinsed my mouth with water before rolling tobacco into a plantain leaf cigarette.
And then I waited.
It was the final night of my weeklong trip to explore the Ecuadorean rain forest and an indigenous people, the Achuar, who, for more than a decade, have been using limited tourism as a means to preserve and protect their land and way of life. I had traveled by car, plane, boat and foot -- more than 100 miles from conventional civilization -- to reach a place where the old ways have not been forgotten, where local people interpret the world through their dreams and the forest spirit known as arutam is said to inhabit the mighty kapok tree, and where healing and insight is sought from a hallucinogenic plant brew the Achuar call natem, known elsewhere as ayahuasca, or "vine of the soul."
The shaman's two-floor yellow cement home was modest but the stateliest around. A square altar to Jesus, crammed with crosses and tiny portraits, stood in the waiting room. The shaman, named Don Esteban, emerged wearing a knit V-neck sweater and slacks, beaded necklaces and a yellow-feathered headdress. He beckoned us into the adjacent treatment room, which was sparse and dim and smelled of burnt sugar cane alcohol. I was directed to sit in the corner beside a desk cluttered with melted wax, glass balls, brown eggs and various other mystical paraphernalia.
"Andres espiritu, Andres espiritu," the shaman incanted. "Your spirit is not tranquil. It is sad, and longs for a new energy and path. It is struggling to balance your health, work and body."
I told him that my father had died two months earlier. "That is why there is sadness and disequilibrium," he said. "This ceremony, and spending time in the mountains with Pachamama" -- Mother Earth -- "will help make your spirit whole."