An introduction to traditional medicine

yesterday was magical. A tingly experience full of transforming music, mystical andecdotes, age-old wisdom, and hives.

“Abuelo” arrived on Tuesday after a two week visit to Pucallpa to visit his daughter who studies nursing there, and to take care of some business. He is a curandero and he sells his tonics, particularly his ayahuasca, to people he knows there. Bertha´s father, he introduced himself cordially as García (his last name, his first is Diogenes). Although, or maybe due to the fact that he has 9 children ranging in age from 35 to 10, he is youthful in appearance. He looked smart in a buttonup short sleeve collared shirt, jeans, and neatly combed hair. His eyes twinkle, his easy smile greatly displays his teeth (or lack thereof). He is the first person I´ve heard use the subjunctive since we´ve been here.

Chris and I had awaited his arrival with excitement, for his reputation and that of his jardín botánico preceded him.

And we were not disappointed.

Led into his backyard by the sound of flute and drum, we were greeted and offered a seat. Abuela brought us some naranjas and we sat enjoying our fruit, the music and the most beautiful yard we had seen there. Expansive fruit trees abounded (orange, grapefruit, zopilote, pan de arbol), letting only sparce light filter through to the ground.

After “cultivating some happiness” with the music, Abuelo decided it was time to take us on a tour of his jardín, all his precious plants with and through which he makes all his traditional medicines. I had expected to be led down some path into the forest where we would find rows of different plants arranged, so you can imagine my surprise (and I must admit, my initial disappointment), when the tour began two feet from where we were sitting, for Chris and I had noticed no real garden in the large backyard, save some small plants speckling the dirt floor.

However, after 45 minutes of weaving in and out of plants, zigzagging through the entire backyard, any hint of disappointment was long gone. Plants for swollen muscles, for headaches, trees whose sap, bloodred, is used for cuts, another whose sap is put on a piece of cotton and applied to toothaches (and it will never hurt again!), prickly plants to take away pain (he pricked us with that one, we still have the hives), plants to bring luck at jobs (called Bello de Novio), plants mixed with tobacco and placed up young people´s noses to cure laziness, aromatic plants used to make blessings including one called Paloma whose scent Chris particularly loved, plants similar to our basil but with hallucinogenic properties, “quirón” which we think might be ginger used for stomach aches, Hierba Luisa a beautiful full long leaved bush used to make tea for the same purpose (and it really works!), a beautiful red veined green leaf placed over the eyes to teach people how to embroider or paint, another plant whose leaves are placed over the eyes at night to help you find missing belongings in your dreams, other powerful plants for curing cancer…

And then their is the most powerful plant of them all: Ayahuasca. A vine that winds its way up trees, it takes six years to fully develop, at which point its base, now a stalk of 2″ diameter, is cut and stored underground until it is ready to be prepared for the traditional brew.

This brew, along with a special diet free of sugar, salt, oil and sex are what lead people down the path to become a curandero. The ayahuasca is said to actually teach its user all the medicinal properties plants have whent he diet is seriously adhered to (6 months to a year) along with, or due to, its sending its users into hallucinogenic vision trips.

The plant and its ceremonies are higly revered by Abuelo, who has not failed to stress its powers at any given chance. And although he may somewhat seem like the herbally enlightened hippy type, his and the views of his family on ayahuasca are far from that of a stigmatized drug.

In his actions, Chris and I have witnessed what we would consider the purest form of SHipibo culture, a true connection to the nature around them and a respect for the plants that sustain them. Knowledge cherished as it is passed down and continues to be passed down from one generation to the next. Abuelo lovingly told us of the lessons that each plant has to teach us and the power and knowledge that lives within them.

He even went on to explain how each plant has a “dueño”, a protector that watches over it. For example, the dueña of Bello de Novio is a beautiful woman with long long hair (at least 15´) who is kind and helpful. After having learned that many cultures believe that plants and often other creatures like animales, rivers or the moon, have dueños, supernatural beings, that watch over them, protect them, whose permision must be asked before using or hunting desired object, it was an amazing experience to hear Abuelo speak of such a belief. How beautiful it is, this system of checks and balances that exists between humans and nature for some people.

And although we were invited to participate in the ceremony taking place tonight, Chris and I decided that our already strained minds and bodies would be poor participants in an activity where one is said to transcend their being and become one with the plants. (but it does sound nice!)

Instead, Abuelo is making us a baño de florecimiento, a bath made of delicious smelling plants to bring us blessings and luck in all that we do.

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