“You revere scientists and shamans alike, providing them with what they need to do their good work for the enhancement of the realm."
And here we are. Walking this fine line between action and insight. The litany of ayahuasca ceremonies offered by beautiful white women from Sweden paint the scene of needed spiritual connection along the streets of Cusco. As if they’ve found it.
The horticulturist and research scientist leading our herb walk smiles as he casually explains the medicinal actions of the main plant used in such regards. “Our shamans use it for when people are stuck.” He laughs assuredly; but he’s never taken it himself. He seems grounded enough. Perhaps he’s never been lost and confused in life, like the hoards of white travelers coming to Cusco for just that. His mother was the midwife in town. His knowledge of female conditions and herbs is on point. Infertility to the left, heavy bleeding to the right. This one is for cramps that come from deep uterine pain. He is large, masculine, and wastes no time in his explanations or his walk. Yet his presence is gentle and yielding. I wonder what it means to be stuck. Have I ever been unstuck?
The jungle is clammy and unruly. By midday the sun has created a hot box of steam, sweat, and stale air even under the canopy of large pothos vining around ancient ferns and cinchona trees (known for the quinine content in their bark; one of the first remedies for malaria). We’d dive into the murky waters nearby, but there’s a mild hesitancy of piranhas. Apparently there are two types. The small ones are more aggressive. It wasn’t entirely clear which variety were in this lake…
Lost in translation was a common theme. The cultural intricacies of communication are not always so black and white; thus the beauty of ethnobotany. It’s not about the actions of the plants and what to do with them. It’s how the story is told. It’s the generations of grandmotherly use, knowing exactly what that fever looks like in a small child and the relation to the growth of the plant.
Deeper into the jungle we go. The Brazil-Bolivia Amazon fires are ablaze. There’s chatter about the lack of aid from the government and the corrupt nature of drug trafficking. We want what we want, when we want it. Even spiritual experiences are being sold as commodities now. We are cut off a piece of vine that is thicker than some trees. It’s first aroma is peppermint. White cat’s claw. I’ve heard of it before and studied it some in school. You’ll see it being marketed on crazy cancer websites and in witches brews from far regions of the world. The miracle cures always seem to come from the Amazon. With its vast biodiversity I can’t say I’m unsold on the idea. But maybe it’s something more than that. The sword will bring glory and success but you just might have to be the right person to pull it from the stone. There just might be something about the delivery.
We try to take a deep breath, but we’re back in Cusco at 12,000ft elevation and it just doesn’t seem possible for the next week. Guinea pigs roasted on sticks are being waved on street corners as we make our way to the San Pedro market. A cacophony of colors, smells, and sounds are packed tightly into rows of vendors. This isle houses cheese. That one is for fruit and bread. Somewhere in between the trinkets section and dried herbs is the shamanic prepackaged goods, where you can buy your complete set of offerings in one bundle. They have various forms of aqua flora (flower water) used for cleansing and grounding. The concept is one we have in western herbalism, often seen with hydrosols and incense.
I recognized the bottle the next day when at the crack of dawn we were hiking up to the highest point on Earth I’ve ever been. Rainbow Mountain seemed like forever away and it obviously showed on my face and demeanor. The hiking guide; fit, awake, and chatty pulled out the bottle and offered me a sniff. “It helps with altitude sickness”. He doused my hands and I inhaled, burning most of my nostril hairs in the process. I don’t know about altitude, but it definitely did something. Just believe, I tell myself, angry at my skepticism, disheartened by my lack of understanding of all the wealth of herbal wisdom housed within these jungles. Will I ever truly understand? Will I ever truly experience?