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Ronny Wheelock prepares the Brew

Rumble in The Jungle: Is Blog Repartee’ a Blood Sport?
Dawn on the Amazon Captain's Blog
by Chris Kilham
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My wife Zoe Helene and I were, as the shopworn saying goes, minding our own business, which in this case meant passing a rather listless train ride in an Amtrak car with too many people and too little oxygen, headed from New York to Massachusetts, where we live. The odd concrescence of circumstances is that we had just left Hamilton Souther, gringo shaman and founder of Blue Morpho Ayahuasca Retreat Center, and his wife Wendy, who were in Manhattan kicking off his latest venture, Modern Shamanism. But let’s not get distracted here. This is just the set-up.

Tired of reading a recent book authored by a friend, I switched on my iPhone to discover a message from the redoubtable Bill Grimes of Dawn On The Amazon repute, who passed along a ponderous string of blog comments ensuing from my article Another Iquitos Evening. In his email Bill asked me what I thought of the comments, and would I like to weigh in? Whoa, what a deep can of wriggling psychedelic worms! While I certainly cannot take any credit for the verbal mixed martial arts mortal combat that my simple little article catalyzed, I can throw my pen into the fray in any case.

Much as yoga and its parade of gurus spilled out of the Indian Himalaya and flowed down the Ganges and out into modern culture in all directions in the 1960’s and 70’s, so too South American Shamanism, with its rattles, ponderous mapacho tobacco and ayahuasca, is rocketing across continental borders at a rapid rate. In the midst of this exuberant bursting forth of jungle and mountain mysticism, the river city of Iquitos, for many good reasons, has become an epicenter of ayahuasca shamanism specifically, and home to dozens of shamans and would-be shamans, who ply their psychedelic wares to a hungry parade of seekers. This is a replay of pilgrimages to the ashrams and temples of India and Nepal, but with different methods and trappings.

In the chaotic and carnival-like mix of personalities who populate the shamanic scene in Iquitos, there are colorful characters, talented individuals, creeps, fakes, cheaters, healers, liars, superbly adept shamans, and a full panoply of individuals who in various ways are out to meet the needs of the thousands of travelers, who, like pilgrims to the Hajj, seek healing, exploration and spiritual revelation through the ceremonial use of ayahuasca, the famed and fabled psychoactive Amazonian brew, La Medicina.

My mention of gringo shaman Ron Wheelock precipitated a shit-rain of bellicose commentary. I found all the statements, opinions, positions and accusations highly amusing. To date, I have enjoyed exactly two conversations with Ron. One was outside of Ari’s, where, I assume, everybody who passes through Iquitos meets everybody else who passes through Iquitos sooner or later. The other was at Ron’s home, where I spent about two hours in his company. Virtually everybody I have met who has participated in one of Ron’s ceremonies has spoken very favorably about their experience with him. In my company, I found Ron open, thoughtful, humble and a total character.

Ron freely shared with me that he raised cocks for fighting, and I found that unfortunate, because the animals don’t have a choice, and the practice has always impressed me as inhumane. So let me be clear that I don’t condone cock-fighting, and am equally sorry to read the linguistic cock-fighting that ensued from my article. But this does not make Ron a bad ceremonial leader. If you are expecting Mahatma Gandhi, you are looking for love in all the wrong places. One could even argue that it is equally inconsistent to stridently defend animal welfare (laudable) and simultaneously express vigorous hostility toward another person. In fact, we are, as a species, walking contradictions, all of us. I fly all over the world to work on environmental sustainability. The irony is not lost on me. One of my favorite shamans is also a cattle rancher. PETA would want him behind bars. You get the problem.

As far as using a chipper to prepare ayahuasca, why not? It’s the way you approach the preparation that matters. Is your manner sacred or profane? Should I only walk to a ceremony? Or is it okay to take a smog-producing moto-taxi to get there? Aiyeeeee, the conundrums!!

With regard to the fretful skirmish over whether ayauhuasca is merely a DMT-laden brain drug working by purely chemical means, or a portal to the sacred that is spirit-guided, I would suggest that it depends largely on who you are. If you are adamant that the experience is purely chemical, then that is the experience you will have. If you enter into ceremony as a way of accessing the sacred, that is what will likely occur. Many people live their entire lives convinced that we are nothing more than clever meat bags. Many others experience human being as spirit in flesh. My question is, which life would you prefer?

Ayahuasca shamanism is on the loose, there is no doubt about it. Iquitos has indeed become the most popular destination for exploring ayahuasca shamanism, like it or not. On top of this, everybody has an opinion. One thing is certain- we all can play a role in shaping how this ride goes. If it were up to me, I would like to see the “shamans” who beat their wives and kids put out of business. Even more, I would like to see any known pedophiles hunted down and removed, one way or another, from the Iquitos landscape.

As a regular visitor to Iquitos, I enjoy the funky, friendly, hot, sticky, welcoming, and very diverse community on offer. Almost every time I go there, I take the opportunity to sit in ceremony with one shaman or another. My experiences thus far have all been good. I would be happy to sit and talk with any of you at Dawn On The Amazon, the next time I cruise through town.

By Chris Kilham

NOTE: Read the blog comments mentioned above on Dawn on the Amazon, or read Another Iquitos Evening on the Amazon, on medicinehunter.com. See also: Mareado on The Nauta Road, or read more about Ayahuasca.

November 2011