“In the spring of 2003, I spent a month on a little island in a lake not far from Pucallpa, Peru to drink ayahuasca with the Shipibo curandero, Mateo Arevalo. I had gone down there to investigate a story of a man who, by drinking ayahuasca every other day for two months, had been cured of a melanoma that western oncologists said would kill him within the year. I brought with me two people who also had cancer. They of course hoped that the ayahuasca would cure them, as well.”by Robert Forte
In the spring of 2003 I spent a month on a little island in a lake not far from Pucallpa, Peru to drink ayahuasca with the Shipibo curandero, Mateo Arevalo. I had gone down there to investigate a story of a man who, by drinking ayahuasca every other day for two months, had been cured of a melanoma that western oncologists said would kill him within the year. In our party were two people with cancer. They of course hoped that the ayahuasca would cure them, as well.
I had been there about three weeks, drinking ayahuasca three nights, then one night rest, then three more nights, and so on.
One morning, at the crack of dawn, following a night of drinking, I walked down to the lake to take a swim. At the shore was the usual scene: the girls and women washing clothes, boys readying their nets to catch our breakfast. I paused to reflect on this primeval happiness. It made me think how much more civilized the Shipibo (the people of the lake) are compared to our so-called modern culture, and how much I love them and their place. I remembered the sublime mystery I was treated to just a few hours before when my body filled with a divine light. We are so smug in our western science, yet these simple people hold the key to profound religious and scientific mysteries that dwarf our knowledge. In this pristine moment, I savored that wonderful blend of the sacred and the simple and ordinary.
I dropped my towel to the ground. A very large, brownish-red ant quickly darted into it. It was more than an inch long. Very gently I reached down to shake the ant out. The moment I touched the towel, as quickly as it darted in, the little fucker darted out and bit me in between my fingers. I have never felt such intense and sharp pain. I had no idea if it was poisonous but I feared the worst. My friend Emilio, Mateo’s son in law and apprentice, was down by the lake helping the young boys fish. “Emilio! Help! Pronto!”
Emilio came running. My hand was already starting to swell. It was already as big as a golf ball where it was bitten.
Emilio arrived. I pointed to the vicious ant that was poised to strike again, its pincers throbbing. Emilio looked aghast, and with the heel of his bare foot stomped it into its next life.
“Es toxic?,” I ask.
He looks at me blankly.
I went paranoid, thinking I was about to become a statistic. Another dumb gringo dies of some insect bite while looking for God in the jungle. Well, at least I found it. I think I can feel my face begin to sag on one side. I was becoming paralyzed. I put pressure on my wrist to stop the flow of blood, thinking that will help. “Es toxic?”
We head to the village, a hundred yards away. I start to run but then I remember that that will just make my heart beat faster and speed my death. When we finally reach the village Emilio gets some mapacho (tobacco) and chews it. He put the gooey mess on my swollen hand and warms it over the fire. To the Shipibo mapacho is the mother of ayahuasca and can cure anything. I am in tremendous pain. I’m not sure if its the ant bite or the vice grip I have on my circulation, or if I am just burning myself in the fire. I love Emilio like a brother, but I want the real shaman. “Donde esta Mateo?,” I ask. Emilio, who speaks Shipibo, Spanish, and very little English, makes a gesture to tell me he is still sleeping.
Mateo is all curled up with his lovely wife Adelia under the mosquito net hanging from the thatched roof. Emilio explains what happened. By now the entire village, really an extended family that of which I had become an honorary member, is awake. This is a big event. Everyone is gathered around, wanting to know what happened to hermano Roberto. Word was I had been bitten by a snake.
When Adelia learns I was bitten by just an ant, she smiles her big gold toothed smile, and says something in Shipibo. All the women and girls run away squealing with laughter. Emilio looks at me, smiles, and pats my back. I am slightly relieved but I still don’t know if I’m going to die or just be paralyzed. “Que significa?,” I ask Adelia and Emilio. They just shake their heads.
Emilio forces a little laugh, ““Only woman help.”
Mateo stirs. I ask him, “Is this poisonous?”
“No,” he says smiling from the moment he opens his eyes. “Not too bad.” He said something to Emilio in Shipibo that sent him running off into the trees. Mateo came to this place because of the master plants that grow here.
“Mateo,” I said, not satisfied with his answer. “This really hurts. Look.” He didn’t seem that interested.
“Don’t worry,” he said yawning, “I was sleeping in a tree and got bit by sixty of them at one time.”
“Sixty of them! What happened?”
“I laughed,” he said. “It made me happy. Made me stronger.”
“That’s you,” I said still putting so much pressure on my wrist that my hand turned blue. “What is one of them going to do to me?”
We already had an episode with the lovely chiggers, darling little bugs that enter your body through the pores of your skin down by your ankles, and begin to colonize your body, marching upward, reproducing every step of the way, hundreds, thousands of times, until your body breaks out in blistered sores oozing puss and itching like all hell. I and another member of our party got them the first day here. The Shipibo just pick a lime off a tree and a rub a little juice mixed with mapacho on the first sign of itchy ankles, which stops the problem. But Mateo recommended alcohol mixed with mapacho for us. The other member of our party thought he was a native and opted for the lime juice cure, which didn’t work. I went straight for the alcohol-mapacho blend which worked so well I carried a bottle of it around at all times, pouring it liberally on me whenever I felt the slightest itch.
I wanted to be sure I was getting gringo therapeutics for the ant bite. The “asula” they called it.
But before Mateo could answer Emilo came back from the forest with a branch of a bush, as thick as my finger, about two feet long, that he was sharpening to a fine point like an arrow with his machete.
Mateo quickly jumps up and very firmly grabs my wrist. He looks at my wound. Emilio approaches with the pointy stick. I am not happy, about to undergo my first jungle surgery. I thought of how my father, a dentist, would hide the needle from the patient’s view so not to scare them, acting nonchalant as he stabbed them in the gum. The thought of that sharp stick piercing my hand nearly makes me faint. But okay, if it will save my life. I put my head between my legs to stay conscious. I try to find some trust. I miss Karen, and my son, and wondered where is that divine light when you really need it.
But instead of piercing me with the sharp stick, a pearl sized drop of white sap oozes from it onto my wound, instantly relieving me of the pain. Within twenty minutes the swelling was gone. I could hardly tell where I had been bitten.
But why did the girls and women all run away, abandoning me in my moment of real need, when they had the cure all along? What kind of karma is this? Finally our translator wakes up. I take her to Adelia and ask her to repeat what Adelia said about the cure. She laughs. Emilio’s translation lacked a certain detail. She said, “Only the juices flowing from a women’s vagina can heal the pain of the asula.”
It works for everything else.
Robert Forte studied the history and psychology of religion at the Divinity school of the University of Chicago and has taught at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He served on the board of directors of the Albert Hofmann Foundation and is the editor of Entheogens and the Future of Religion and Timothy Leary: Outside Looking In.