Vis­i­tors find an elixir worth the trip in Colom­bia

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Chris Kraul re­port­ing from si­bun­doy, colom­bia

Dressed in a par­rot-feath­ered head­dress and a col­lar strung with the teeth of pumas, croc­o­diles and bears, shaman Juan Mu­tum­ba­joy sings in­can­ta­tions over a row of shot glasses filled with a murky in­fu­sion he has made from two Ama­zo­nian vines.

He is about to ad­min­is­ter a con­coc­tion called yage to nine mostly young vis­i­tors hud­dled around a fire un­der his maloka, a barn­like struc­ture in the Si­bun- doy Val­ley, a ver­dant high­el­e­va­tion plateau in south­west­ern Colom­bia.

They have trav­eled from as far as Spain, the United States and Ger­many to take the po­tion, a hal­lu­ci­na­tory drug that some com­pare to LSD or pey­ote.

Six decades af­ter Beat writer Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs came to the re­gion to ex­pe­ri­ence the mind-ex­pand­ing pow­ers of yage (pro­nounced yah-HEY), they’re the lat­est in a grow­ing num­ber of seek­ers who have fu­eled an off­beat tourism boom in this out-of-the-way cor­ner of the coun­try.

Af­ter chant­ing in a singsong cadence and spread­ing

a pun­gent in­cense around the maloka, Mu­tum­ba­joy warns the cel­e­brants about some side ef­fects of the “pu­rifi­ca­tion” rit­ual.

Drink­ing the liq­uid may lead to in­tense nau­sea and di­ar­rhea, he says. Then may come scary vi­sions of snakes, jaguars and in­sects. But if they stay “con­cen­trated and con­fi­dent,” they will be fine, he as­sures them.

“Let go of the com­pli­ca­tions in your mind and in your body,” says Mu­tum­ba­joy, 53, who around th­ese parts is ad­dressed as taita, the word for shaman in his Ka­mentsa in­dige­nous com­mu­nity. “You will know se­crets you have hid­den away but also things you have never heard or spo­ken.”

One by one, the par­tic­i­pants ap­proach a makeshift al­tar cov­ered with the skins of leop­ards and snakes and drink the bit­ter­sweet po­tion. Sev­eral of them will spend the next sev­eral hours al­ter­nately curled up on reed mats or ham­mocks un­der the maloka roof and rush­ing out­side to vomit.

But Pau Amat, a land­scape busi­ness owner from Spain who has trav­eled to Colom­bia to take part in the cer­e­mony, says the gain is worth the pain:

“What yage gives you is a sense of in­ner har­mony,” says the Spa­niard, who calls it an in­creas­ingly popular drug in his cir­cle.

Made from the Ama­zo­nian vine known as ayahuasca (botan­i­cal name: Banis­te­ri­op­sis caapi) in com­bi­na­tion with cha­gropanga or other jun­gle plants, yage’s po­tent hal­lu­ci­na­tory pow­ers were de­scribed in de­tail by Bur­roughs, who vis­ited in 1953, and poet Allen Gins­berg, who in 1960 tried yage in the Ama­zo­nian town of Pu­callpa, Peru.

Some say their book “The Yage Let­ters,” a com­pi­la­tion of the two writ­ers’ let­ters, di­ary en­tries and es­says, has done for yage what the books of Car­los Cas­taneda did in the 1960s and 1970s to pop­u­lar­ize pey­ote. The book’s pop­u­lar­ity has grown along with in­ter­est in the Beat writ­ers and their free­wheel­ing quest to, in Gins­berg’s words, “widen the area of con­scious­ness.”

Bur­roughs de­scribed tak­ing yage as a “time travel” ex­pe­ri­ence also ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing grotesque vi­sions.

“In two min­utes, a wave of dizzi­ness swept over me and the hut be­gan spin­ning. It was like go­ing un­der ether or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins,” Bur­roughs wrote. “The hut took on an ar­chaic far-Pa­cific look with Easter Is­land heads carved in the sup­port posts…. Lar­val be­ings passed be­fore my eyes in a blue haze.”

Stephen Dickey, a se­nior lec­turer in English at UCLA, says yage was an av­enue of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and free­dom for Bur­roughs, who al­ready had be­come ad­dicted to heroin.

“His use of yage was prob­a­bly one more ex­pres­sion of his de­sire to es­cape con­trols, if only tem­po­rar­ily, and to loosen [19th cen­tury poet Wil­liam] Blake’s ‘mind­forg’d man­a­cles’ … an end in it­self for Bur­roughs,” Dickey says.

But Mu­tum­ba­joy in­sists that yage is not meant to be some men­tal magic car­pet ride but rather a sa­cred cure, be it for de­pres­sion, kid­ney stones, high blood pres­sure or sa­tanic pos­ses­sion. He says he reg­u­larly turns away peo­ple who come look­ing to take yage — he charges $25 per cure — strictly for recre­ational use.

“To be treated by me, you must want to be cured,” Mu­tum­ba­joy says.

Tak­ing yage is not with­out risks. In April 2014, a 19-year-old Bri­tish tourist died af­ter tak­ing yage in Mo­coa, a town that is a 50-mile drive east of Si­bun­doy. Bur­roughs noted in a 1953 let­ter to Gins­berg that some­one had died of an ap­par­ent yage over­dose shortly be­fore his ar­rival.

J. Richard Stepp, an eth­nob­otanist and an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Florida, ac­knowl­edges that yage is a pow­er­ful drug but says it poses no risk if ad­min­is­tered prop­erly.

“There is no real tox­i­c­ity with the plants them­selves … but a pre­ex­ist­ing con­di­tion could play a role, or some­one adds things to the mix­ture that shouldn’t be there,” Stepp says.

Mu­tum­ba­joy says that deaths hap­pen only when yage is ad­min­is­tered im­prop­erly or by “char­la­tans” try­ing to get in on a growth in­dus­try.

Lo­cals say that in­creas­ing num­bers of peo­ple, in­spired by tales of mirac­u­lous cures and self-en­light­en­ment, want to take the liq­uid and are will­ing to travel great dis­tances to do so.

About 2,000 tourists came to Si­bun­doy last year — twice the num­ber in 2010 — to take yage from one of a dozen taitas in the Ka­mentsa com­mu­nity, says Henry Mav­i­soy, who is chief of the Ka­mentsa in­dige­nous coun­cil rep­re­sent­ing 7,500 res­i­dents.

He notes the many web­sites ad­ver­tis­ing yage or ayahuasca tourism, one of which touts “tran­scen­dence and trans­for­ma­tion,” and at­tributes the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity to the fact that in­dige­nous shamans now rou­tinely travel to the U.S. and Europe.

“The bar­ri­ers have fallen. The fig­ure of the taita has be­gun to travel around the world, and so yage be­gan to be known as some­thing that can be of ben­e­fit to all hu­man­ity,” Mav­i­soy says.

A Ka­mentsa shaman named Juan Bautista was ar­rested at Hous­ton in­ter­na­tional air­port in 2010 and spent 27 days in jail for pos­ses­sion of DMT, yage’s psy­choac­tive el­e­ment, which un­der U.S. law is con­sid­ered a nar­cotic. The charges were later dropped.

Yage’s il­le­gal sta­tus was chal­lenged suc­cess­fully in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 by a church with roots in Brazil whose cer­e­monies cen­ter on the vine. The court’s de­ci­sion in ef­fect gave the church an ex­emp­tion from the law pro­hibit­ing DMT.

Yage is pro­duced and ad­min­is­tered not only in Colom­bia but also by many other in­dige­nous groups in the west­ern Ama­zon basin from Colom­bia south to Bo­livia, Stepp says, speak­ing by phone from Florida.

“The vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in­volved in pre­par­ing it be­lieve it has heal­ing pow­ers and re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance,” Stepp says. Yage helps shamans in their role of “me­di­at­ing be­tween the su­per­nat­u­ral and nat­u­ral worlds,” he says.

Amat, the Span­ish tourist, says he first tried yage in Barcelona, Spain, where it was ad­min­is­tered by a vis­it­ing shaman from Colom­bia, and he has taken it 11 times since.

“Na­ture takes on a life of its own and you feel full of light, more at equi­lib­rium,” Amat says, de­scrib­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mu­tum­ba­joy’s clien­tele, which he says av­er­ages 25 “pa­tients” a month, in­cludes many re­turn cus­tomers, mainly from the re­gion. One is 36-year-old com­puter pro­gram­mer Alma Pue­nayan from the nearby city of Pasto. She says she takes yage to treat the de­pres­sion she con­tin­ues to suf­fer over her brother’s slay­ing in a 2008 rob­bery.

“It’s given me a rea­son to live, be­cause through yage I found the an­swer to the pain I was feel­ing,” Pue­nayan says.

Like all taitas in the Ka­mentsa com­mu­nity, Mu­tum­ba­joy was anointed a shaman while still an in­fant by his taita grand­fa­ther, just as his grand­son Jorge al­ready has been so des­ig­nated as “one who will fol­low.”

“It’s born to you,” Mu­tum­ba­joy says. “My fa­ther was a wood­cut­ter who knew ev­ery plant in the for­est. He in­tro­duced me to all the taitas here, and they taught me and gave me reme­dies at an early age. That’s part of the train­ing, to take all of them so that we know the plants well.”

Jorge, 13, is al­ready help­ing him to pre­pare the cures.

“Yage de­serves a lot of re­spect,” Mu­tum­ba­joy says. “You don’t take it just for the sake of tak­ing it.”

Aldo Brando

SHAMAN Juan Mu­tum­ba­joy said he was taught about plants and given reme­dies at an early age.

Aldo Brando For The Times

AT HIS heal­ing cen­ter in Colom­bia, shaman Juan Mu­tum­ba­joy ad­min­is­ters yage, a drink made from Ama­zo­nian vines, and other plant con­coc­tions to vis­i­tors.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.