The Old Yage Drinker’s Visions
Miguel Angel Cabodevilla
Miguel Angel Cabodevilla is a Capuchin priest, born in Spain, who spent thirteen years in the rainforest working in education and on the preservation of native cultures. Fernando Payaguaje, the drinker of this narrative’s title, was the last of the shaman-chiefs of the Ecuadorian branch of the Secoya tribe, now known as Siekopai. This story is from Cabodevilla’s 1998 nonfiction book Oro Creciente. The translation into English, by Nathan Horowitz, appeared in Shaman’s Drum Magazine in Autumn, 2003.
I knew I would never see him again, alive or dead. He had yielded me his hammock, with the exquisite courtesy that always characterized him. With a silence so close to grief, I observed all his movements, trying to make of them a photo album in my mind, trying to win over death the illusory victory of memory. The cavernous cough that sounded in his chest was like termites hollowing him out inside.
He shuffled across the dirt floor of his hut and let himself down on a low wooden stool. A silence fell, in which I could hear the rusty bellows of his lungs. The old man squeezed yoco [Paullinia yoco, a vine containing caffeine and theobromine] scrapings in water in a gourd. The water turned dark red, like old blood.
“Drink,” he said to me. “This awakens the mind and cheers the heart.” It was extremely bitter, I drank it slowly. “Listen, it’s the.…” He told me the Secoya name for a bird, which I didn’t retain. I could hear its call near the hut. “It sings every so often. My grandson, who wears a watch, says it sings on the hour. Now it’s singing for the last time before going to sleep. Night is falling.”
Yes, I could see that on his face too. His eyes were dimming, and his movements had the slowness of those whom death has selected. The mind’s light dissolves like mist; darkness is coming. Soon he will rest in the hands of the greedy shadows. If sorrow put light in one’s eyes instead of tears, mine would be glowing like fireflies.
“You know, even my great-grandson Adonis, who’s still so young, wears a watch. I ask myself, what’s the use of that jewelry in the jungle? Why do people try to control time, as if they were gringos? That’s something the Secoyas shouldn’t worry about. Machine time is not our time.”
Again he squeezed the scrapings of the bitter vine over the darkened gourd of liquid. He liked it more concentrated, this stimulant that strummed his nerves like guitar strings and left them humming, so sensitive that he could feel the spirits passing by around him. On another occasion, he had told me, “You know how those things they call radios catch voices out of the air that we humans can’t hear? A good drinker is like that. Even if he only drinks yoco, he can sense the movements of angels.”
In those days I used to smile benevolently when I heard him say things like that. They seemed lovely and absurd, belonging to a quaint superstition that had found its last bastion in this stubborn old man. But in time, I found that the way he expressed himself was no stranger than the way we Catholics do, experts as we are in lost languages. I liked to imagine a flock of our feathered angels flapping their cottony wings above this holy drinker’s head.
“Once a gringo tried to explain to me what a watch is for. He said the mystery of time is contained in there. He told me the first clocks were made with sand enclosed in glass chambers. They turned it upside down, the sand fell: that was time! ‘What kind of game is that? I don’t understand it,’ I told him. What’s the point of measuring that enclosed sand? It must be because those people love numbers. They love to count everything. They see a flock of parrots and they say, ‘How many are there?’ Truth is in numbers for them, it seems.”
Fernando laughs, coughs again.
“The gringo saw I could barely understand him. He was a nice guy, but I didn’t follow his way of thinking; he thought I was a little dense. So he put his hand on my chest and said, ‘Whether you want to wear a machine for measuring time on your wrist or not, you have another one in here anyway: your heart. It ticks like a clock, counting time, and when the time runs out, you die.’ I laughed really hard then, because that surprised me. Maybe he really thought I was an ignorant child. He explained things to me slowly, gesturing a lot, as if to a toddler. It was no use debating with him because we were talking without understanding each other. According to what I’ve learned, life doesn’t depend on the heart, but on the spirits that can cut the heart’s thread. When all is said and done, neither time nor even life ends, as the gringo thought, it’s just that we have to leave things behind, we have to change in order to live somewhere else. We can’t remain motionless in one place.”
He looked me in the eyes and I knew he was talking about himself, about his next voyage. It was a leave-taking. Seated very low, his legs were dark, gnarled vines, like those of yage [ayahuasca] emerging from his faded blue tunic.
“The gringos are always in a hurry, just like the heart that beats endlessly. I told that gringo something I’d thought of, and he laughed a little, it seemed funny to him, though I’m not sure he understood. Many of those songs I hear on my grandsons’ radios talk about love. According to the songs, whites love with that heart that beats fast and changes. Every so often they love different things or people. The gringo laughed when I told him this: the Quichuas [a more numerous indigenous group] say that people love with the liver. It’s calmer, without bursts of speed like the heart. Maybe that’s why Indian love lasts longer, because we don’t believe in that time machine. Well, I realized I was speaking a language different from his, it was hard for us to understand each other. But from time to time I remember that conversation. I don’t think there’s any reason to count all the sand on the beach—why bother?—or the minutes either. Could I possibly add one more to my life by counting them? We Secoyas say: Tomorrow is another day; every day the sun rises; we’ll have time to live if the spirits don’t finish us off.”
A whole world populated by spirits is going to disappear with this old man. Few will know about it beyond the obsessive frontier of the jungle, within the brilliant and destructive current of Western civilization; perhaps it will be considered a minor loss, the weeding out of superstitions. Fernando is leaving as if on tiptoe. Perhaps we can perceive in him the solitude of the last tree of its kind in the middle of the jungle, feeling the impossibility of any resistance because progress has decreed its extermination without even stopping to include it in the file of extinct rainforest species.
Our civilization is less the accumulation of all forms of knowledge than their simplification. Fernando Payaguaje is the last healer of an innumerable dynasty of past centuries, but where does his wisdom fit among us now? His people numbered in the thousands at the time of the Spanish conquest, and now finds itself reduced to not many dozens. Fernando is erudite in three languages—Secoya, Spanish, and Quichua—and illiterate in all of them. He never learned to read or write. He had only the power of his mind and his words. Now his age has decreed his last days, which he accepts with the greatest dignity. With his death, an immense library of knowledge is going to be consumed in the fire of oblivion.
“I’ve told my daughter Maruja many times how I want to be buried. She’s gone over to the preachers, the Evangelicals, and she doesn’t remember our traditions. You have to prepare a drinker well at his death. Dress him in a new tunic, tie fragrant nuni [Piper sp., a sacred plant] leaves to his arms, paint his face with the sacred designs. He’s going on the great voyage and he has to look his best. Dig a nice deep hole beneath his house. Drive a wooden post into the ground at each end and hang his hammock between them. Lay his body there, and put some clothing and personal articles to one side. I’ve told her this many times, but I’d like it if you’d tell her as well, because she respects you too. Don’t ever put my body in a box of nailed boards like a white man!”
“I’ll tell her, Fernando. Your family will bury you like you told them.”
“The roof over the hole should be of split bamboo, and over it, they should put some old blankets so dirt doesn’t get in. This should all be done carefully, because a drinker with power is inside, a chief. I’m not just anybody, like those people who die and then linger on as ghosts. It’s very important that the hole be as deep as I am tall, because I’m going to get to my feet and leave on my own. That’s why they must put only a little dirt over the blankets, just enough to cover them.”
The gentle rocking of my hammock symbolizes my vacillation. I’m afraid to ask the question that he might be expecting.
“Fernando, you’ve spoken to me on several occasions about death. You’ve told me how you want to be buried, but, are you afraid of the last moment?”
“I’ve said this before: why is it called the last moment? That’s how the whites talk. I say, is the snake afraid to shed his skin? I don’t think so. He just comes out more brilliant.” Fernando smiles at me. “I understand. You’re white. You believe in God like I do, but your people’s anxiety has got you down.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’ve always been a wanderer. Our people are like that. We lived free in the endless jungle. The Secoya didn’t like to live tied to any one place, like a parrot tied by one foot in its owner’s house. He was never able to be a prisoner in a village—those cages where they put men like domesticated animals. For us, the earth was never a prison. It wasn’t just to cultivate, but to live on, too. If a man doesn’t fly, if he doesn’t walk, he doesn’t know anything. Secoyas never liked to go around with their wings clipped. We’re not whites, who live as prisoners of a field, of a village, of authority. They live like trees, planted, immobile. We walk around. They spend their days defending themselves from everything, so they’re full of fear. We used to go around naked, and we could build our house anywhere we liked. They say ‘This is mine,’ and there they stay, planted, defending it, but in the end, they’re prisoners. People who spend their lives imprisoned by something so small, how could they not fear death? All my life I’ve wandered the jungle. Now I’ll travel beyond.”
“You have no doubt of that?” I expected the old man’s laugh before I finished the question. I’d asked it before and he’d always found it funny. This time, though, his cough cut it like scissors and I heard the rasp of his lungs.
“You doubt because you haven’t seen. The preachers only talk about what they read in a book. They say God wrote it. I don’t know, maybe that’s how their God is. The one I know doesn’t write. I’ve spent my life trying to get to know the truth, what there is behind this appearance we live in, because we’re little figures moved by the hidden threads of the spirits.”
“How did you learn?”
“I studied with the greatest wizards when I was young. I followed all the rules for the apprenticeship. I suffered a lot, but worse than the suffering was the fear of going insane or dying from drinking those plant potions. Little by little I got to know the hidden side of life, of this fabric woven by spirits. But the truth was not even there, but beyond; there was a God beyond there. That’s why I drank a lot. I drank the strongest and most dangerous drugs to be able to reach the place of the dead, the land of God.”
“You wanted to be a great healer.”
“If I had the courage to suffer through it, it wasn’t only to have the power to heal the sick. I also wanted to find the most direct path to that ultimate world. It makes me laugh when you ask if I’m afraid to die. How could I be afraid, when I’ve already been there so many times? I’ve had conversations with my dead relatives and ridden canoes with them along the infinite body of water on whose bank they live. To die is to travel, and I know the way.”
Could this be called superstition? Certainly, if we admit that it has a definite resemblance to all other mental constructions with which people of all cultures laboriously try to close the black hole of nothingness. More than once, I’ve seen some tourist smile at one of Fernando’s sayings. The passerby considers him as belonging to an ancient stage in the evolution of thought, precivilized, when people were content to elaborate their ignorance and erect absurd idols to it. This old man, who talks like a true mystic, and has made of his life such a marvelous exercise in equilibrium and logic, was reviled years ago by my fellow priests as a stupid, demented madman. “How is a drunk like you going to see God? You don’t even know the true God exists! Get out of here, go home. When you’re sober you’ll talk like a human being,” they said to him—that’s written in the mission chronicles. I shudder again to think how close fanaticism is to religious searching.
“I think I have a strong enough spirit to leave the grave after death. That hole will be left empty, while I go off to meet the powerful spirits who live in the real world, the ones who never get tired or die.”
Fernando is looking at me with a peace in his eyes that leaves me stupefied.
The night falls like a youth falling asleep: improvisatorily, and into a deep abyss. Some bats urgently weave the first shadows around the hut. Fernando silently bakes plantains on the embers of the fire. His wife Lucrecia does not arrive. Perhaps hers is one of the voices that drift through the air like a prayer of impassioned birds expressing fear, supplication, or fragility. It’s the sound of the culto, the evangelical prayer meeting, to which most of the Secoyas of San Pablo de Cantesiaya are devoted. The songs are in their language, in their words, but for Fernando, they have none of the Secoya spirit. They sing, “Oh Lord, you are our refuge and our rock, you sustain our life!” The melody is from the United States, as are the concepts behind the words. Later it will be time for personal testimonies, then more hypnotic hymns with the hands held high in the air, then preaching by the pastor, Elias, the drinker’s nephew. The songs resound among the shadows: “Hallelujah! You bring us to the fountain of life!”
Fernando seems not to be listening. He’s sitting on his haunches, immobile, chewing slowly. I can barely see his silhouette before the low glow of the embers. “Lord, our shield in danger, honor and glory to you, hallelujah!” What solitude, that of the old drinker besieged simultaneously by civilization and the God of the whites, isolated in this decrepit hut by the Aguarico River. This hunched ruin is all that seems to remain of a spiritual edifice raised carefully over the course of centuries by a numerous people who occupied the fertile lowlands of the Napo, Aguarico and Putumayo Rivers. I feel an enormous sadness for this figure of a man in repose, in defeat; fragility so stubborn and lordly. When tourists and scientists approach him, they are usually solicitous, and they display the impenetrable armor of Western thought. They observe the old man, they study him, they photograph him, with the polite deference that entomologists employ before a fragile, unknown insect; perhaps with the fascination felt in the presence of a mummified culture, valuable above all for its rarity, as precious as it is absurd. He talks of life and wisdom, and they tape-record his sayings for the collection of a museum.
“Hey, Fernando,” I say. “What do you think about those prayers?”
“The Secoyas are in the hands of the preachers now.”
“Could that be a good thing?”
“Yes, maybe so. But people should know their own spirit, and the world of spirits, instead of living so ignorant of everything. Our people had a knowledge they’ve forgotten today. The kids even joke about it. Will they be able to get it back somehow? I wonder about that. My nephew Elias is a preacher. But his father was the yage cook when we all lived in the Cuyabeno lagoons. He’d cook all day. At dusk the clay trumpet would sound. That meant it was time for purification. Neither the body nor the spirit is always clean; then it was time for yage, the Secoyas’ ceremony. Everyone bathed and painted himself, then brought his hammock to my home or to the yage lodge in the forest. We drank, we vomited: that’s how you purify, that’s how you improve yourself.”
“Do you think this is the same thing?”
“No, because it’s just words. They hear, but what do they see? Where do they voyage to? They talk and they talk, but they can’t heal. They don’t have the power because they haven’t been to the dwellings of the demons that send sicknesses. The preachers talk pretty, but they’ve seen nothing and they don’t have the power to transform anything.”
“Do you argue with them?”
“Never. A healer doesn’t fight. Plus, they haven’t even been initiated. Which one of them has seen God? They only repeat what a book says. I, on the other hand, spoke about what I had seen with my own eyes. I didn’t tell stories, I brought people with me on my voyages, learning, perceiving God. It can’t be the same thing. But the Secoyas have chosen another path. Even my cook became an Evangelical. That’s why I haven’t drunk yage for twenty years.”
Fernando observes me. Despite the darkness, I can feel the intensity of his eyes trained to look through bodies as if they were glass, that perception his enemies feared years ago because they felt it sometimes in their dreams with the murderous gleam of a predatory beast.
“Does the change make you sad?”
“I’m only sorry I have no one to teach. Sometimes that makes me sad. What I’ve learned could have saved the people from a lot of pain. I suffered a lot to get all that knowledge! I would have liked to teach one of my children or grandchildren, but they haven’t wanted to learn.”
The old drinker listens to the evangelical songs rivaling the croaking of the frogs, the chirping of crickets. Most of the village is over there. He is as solitary as one of those jaguars in which he could incarnate when he was a powerful drinker.
“Will they survive? I don’t know. My old teachers used to tell me a lot about the Secoyas’ God, before I was able to travel to his home, sit in his hammock, talk with him. It’s not easy to find the way there, not even drinking yage. Your body has to be fit and ready. People who don’t watch what they eat, or are gluttonous or lazy, never have good visions or travel far. The drinker’s body should be used to suffering. I stayed away from my wife for many nights, observed strict dietary taboos and fasted for days before the ceremony. If your body’s not prepared, you vomit up everything you’ve drunk and the visions aren’t strong or sustained, just confused fragments. You lose the true path and the demons appear. That’s why you have to suffer, drink a lot, courageously follow that long path that ends at God’s door. Only then do you have real visions, sing the words of the living beings, converse with the dead, talk with the spirits of the animals and plants. We Secoyas used to drink a lot to learn the secrets of everything. Will they get it now just with words? I feel sorry for them.”
He falls silent. The evangelical song surrounds us again, a strange musical aura that surrounds the drinker like a halo of isolation and exile.
“When the gringo preacher came to Cuyabeno he told us yage was poison, the devil’s drink. He frightened people, and he gave away huge numbers of gifts to attract them to his teaching. He swore the drink caused death and put devils inside people who drank it. But, look, after having drunk whole gardens of yage, I’m the oldest one around. I’ve lived so long my hair’s turned gray. I’ve witnessed the burials of many of those evangelical singers, including Cecilio, my old cook. And I cured many people before the foreigners’ pills came in. Why would the preacher lie like that? I never said he was the devil’s friend. I don’t see anything wrong with our youth learning other customs, but they should learn ours first or they’ll be dominated by the others. Then there will come a moment when they ask themselves, Who am I? And they’ll suffer a great confusion.”
“Maybe they already do.”
“When I came here to San Pablo I missed yage. But since the Evangelicals came in, there’s no one who can cook it well for me. I’ve drunk so much and liked it so much! Not for the sake of drinking it, as it’s very bitter, but for the visions, for the knowledge. Sometimes these days I get to thinking, Why am I doing this? Am I just living for the sake of living, not knowing how to find the truth? Then I feel an exhaustion of the body, not wanting to endure any more. It’s the need for yage.”
Fernando gets to his feet, walks haltingly toward his sleeping place. On that hardened ground he places two soft pieces of llanchama, a bark that becomes a spongy fabric when pounded. He takes off his tunic, lies down on his back, and covers himself with a frayed blanket. “Do you want to talk, or are you going to bed?”
“Are you going to sleep?”
“Not yet. The older I get, the less I sleep. As in the old days of my apprenticeship as a drinker isolated in the forest, I witness all the moments of the night. When I drift off, my sleep is so thin that any sound can break the layer that covers me and wake me up again. I lie in bed or walk around the house while others sleep, always thinking. I bet my wife won’t come home tonight, she’ll sleep at her daughter’s after that meeting they call ‘culto.’ What do you want to talk about?”
“Tell me one more time about your life, don Fernando.”
The drinker makes a gesture of assent. The evangelical canticles have vanished from the suddenly timeless night. An enormous yellow moon is born over the Aguarico River like in the beginning of the world. Perhaps it’s Nyanyuh, the Secoya divinity. The old man turns his face to the river, seeming to listen to what its ancient murmur says. The light of his primitive deity tenuously illuminates the hut. At last, very slowly, with a laborious distillation of the memory, he gives free rein to his favorite memories: the visions.
“I’m old. I know that because I’ve seen many people die, including some with gray hair whom I knew as youths when I was already an adult. Yes, I’ve walked down the whole long path I used to see in my dreams. By my side, the jungle and the people have been changing. It seems now that none of the Secoyas want to remember the time before, when life and death passed without hurry. Why do young Secoyas run around so much? What are they searching for so crazily? Why do they always think outside the knowledge of our people? I don’t know, but nobody escapes his own shadow. Young people are always kind of crazy. Youth is the time for that. It’s good for them to see other places, meet other people, but then they should return to their own river bed or the water of their lives will spill out any which way, getting lost in a meaningless forest.
“I’m an old man, but human life is always short, the body can’t endure. Not even those who are well-defended from the demons and witches live long. Only the world God created does.
“I was born when my family lived at the mouth of the Aguarico, where it flows into the Napo. But my ancestors were nomads of the deep forest. They lived on the banks of the streams that flow into the Wahoya River, which the whites call Santa Maria. In old times we called it Sotoya, River of Clay. That was accurate because its bed had a lot of white clay, but we changed it to Wahoya, River of War, after the confrontations with the white invaders. The land I’m talking about is the first on Earth, where God the creator lived before conflicts with the humans made him depart for the real world. Near Wahoya, in its high part, my ancestors knew of the place called Hupo. Dominated by a waterfall, this was where God lived. When some humans felled the great tree he had made, all the rivers were born from its limbs, and all the fish that populate them were born from its leaves.
“You know that my people have no books like you whites. We write with words on our memory. In the multi-family houses where we used to live, when the curassow sang, about three in the morning, the women got up, drank yoco with their husbands, and set about twining chambira [palm fiber]. Little by little they all woke up. The chief of the house organized the day’s activities. He and the other old men told stories. Ever since I was a little child I liked to listen to the elders’ tales. Why? Maybe because of the many things I wondered about. I was happier listening than playing with the other kids on the patio of the house. Those stories responded to many of my inquietudes. They taught me to search for the truth behind appearances.
“‘Don’t you like the pulp of the fruit more than the peel?’ my teacher Salmo used to say. ‘Everything is like that. Peel it and you’ll find the truth.’
“I heard that a long time ago the Piaguaje clan was migrating when one day they reached a stream on the upper Wahoya called Black Waters. They were looking for a place to build their house when they encountered an unknown species of rainbow-striped bamboo. Bluebirds were being born out of its flowers and flying away. Some people wearing multicolored tunics approached.
“‘Who are you?’ my ancestors asked.
“‘We’re a tribe of beings who never die,’ they responded.
“‘Can we stay near you?’
“But they planted their gardens too close, and, worse, the smell of the women’s menstruation bothered those other women who didn’t suffer from it. Soon the rainbow people disappeared. The bamboo for making multicolored flutes and spears died off, as did the multicolored corn and sugarcane. There was no trace of the people; everyone figured they had gone to the world in the sky. That’s why my relatives changed the stream’s name to Siecoya, Multicolor River, and that’s where the name you whites call us comes from, Secoya. We come from a holy land.
“When I was a kid we moved around a lot. I got to know many places because the land was large and there were no whites. My family drank a lot of yage and included great shaman-chiefs who defended us from rival witches. They knew the spirits of the animals, so we always had food. One night I kept my father company. I lay quietly in the hammock while he drank and drank for hours. Right before dawn he transformed himself into a tapir. I saw him eating leaves and whistling like those animals do. Another day, in his visions, he summoned a tapir. When the ceremony was over, he sent his family out to look for it. Near the house a dog picked up the trail, and they killed the tapir quickly when it ran into a stream. They went back to tell the shaman, and the whole family went out to see it. The tapir had paint on its forehead, because when the healer called it in his vision, he was painted like that and the animal passed before him. Well, they cut it up and shared it out. They gave my father the biggest, fattest piece because he had summoned it. Those were happy times.
“It was a hard day for me when my father died. Three witches shot the witchcraft at him, but he was stronger than they were. He counterattacked and they died first. I had gone to one’s house to spear him, but he had already fled. I tracked him a long way through the forest, but his son hid him. He died soon after, killed by the same spirit that killed my father. I’ve been an orphan for a long time. Siona witches murdered my mother in Cuyabeno. Few days of life are left to me. I recall many deaths since my early childhood. There were witches in a state of constant warfare. When someone was bewitched, his relatives took revenge. There used to be a lot of us Secoyas, but internal warfare was killing us off. Well, this is not a world for long lives. Death comes to us all.”
The drinker speaks in a very soft, slow voice. At any moment in a tale—in the middle of a hunt, or a visit to relatives—he’ll stop on some circumstance that seems trivial. It’s not. In his tale he’ll reveal, next, the hidden side, the intervention of the spirits. This is what happened when he fled across the magical lagoons of Lagartococha:
“One night I had to sleep in the jungle, near a tomb. Before dawn, I heard a sound like a door opening. The ghost had gotten up, and went and bathed in the lagoon. I listened to it washing itself. Later it shook its tunic out and went back to the grave.”
These are the aspects of his discourse that disconcert me most. It’s easy to reject them as simple superstition. For Fernando, however, as for all Amazonian Indians, they have maximum importance. As humans, they don’t feel any different from any other manifestation of life such as plants, animals, stars, or even minerals. Life soaks through everything like the fertile fluid of a God. Then there are spirits, lurking, attacking or protecting. People are made of the same substance as breath, as life, as dreams, as old trees; until a short time ago they shared with all these a common language, though understanding of that has been lost. The wizards die off, every day the visions are less abundant, and the spirits fade away.
Was this old man aware of his power in relation to those around him? Without a doubt. He had in his hands the power over sickness and life; authority over food animals; the ability to stop enemies’ curses, and to predict the perfect moment to attack them. On top of that he was an authority on sacred traditions. All this gave him a power that was almost absolute, and therefore extremely dangerous. There were always people who would blame him for their misfortunes, or try to nip them in the bud by eliminating him. Shamanism was a high-risk profession, despite the attractions of power that made the arduous apprenticeship bearable.
“With yage, you need a good teacher who can guide you along the path of visions. In the beginning, the mind opens like a bright day dawning and you see colors shining with great intensity. Then you see fantastic butterflies dancing in the colorful air and you hear wonderful sounds. But you can’t stay there. The guide makes you keep going until you reach the place of the spirits. You pass the dwellings of the animals, where their chieftains also live. You visit the underworld and its beings, and the animals that live under the waters. Back on earth you see spirits reclining in hammocks strung between big trees, because they have no fixed location or home. They can be inside a stick on the ground or a hollow tree trunk. They eat the fungus that grows on fallen logs and they are innumerable.
“You have to drink yage at least fifteen times, after which you’ll be able to cure illnesses. The moon before August is the best time for graduation. It’s the dry season. The spirits are over the trees, nearby, moving across the face of the earth. When you drink yage you can see them clearly in the fireflies and the other insects of that season. The drink shows them as they really are, celestial spirits, though some are also instructors or conductors of witchcraft. Other spirits—the winiawai, or angels—look like tiny humans, like children or like dolls.
“You’re reclining in the hammock, but at the same time, you’re in another world, seeing the truth of everything that exists. Only the body stays behind. The winiawai come and give you a flute to play. Or you sing. It’s not the healer who teaches you, it’s the winiawai themselves who make you sing when you drink. It’s beautiful to see all the animals, even the ones that live under the water! How could it not be lovely to perceive even the people who live inside the earth! You can see everything. That’s why it’s so wonderful to drink yage.
“But it’s not easy. When I drank thick yage, the strong stuff, I was able to see not only the earth but also the great houses of the air, above the rainbow, near God’s land. That vision ended and I felt my heart was as hot as a newly fired clay pot. I felt the heat inside, burning me, and although I wasn’t working, I sweated all day. Visions continuously assaulted me. From time to time I bathed. I felt myself capable of bewitching and killing people, though I never did it, because my father’s advice restrained me. ‘If you use that power now,’ he said, ‘you can kill people, but you’ll never get beyond being a witch.’
“In those days I was devoting myself to drinking yage. My idea was to become chief of a great clan, ten or twenty families, able to take care of and heal all of them.
“‘When you feel a little drunk,’ my father warned me, ‘you should suppress the anger that comes to you. Then you won’t become violent or hurt anyone.’
“I could have been a witch, but I wanted to be more than that. You need a very superior effort or ability to reach the highest level. For days I endured this heat inside. I felt like I was drowning in my own sweat. It’s a dangerous time, you have to prepare for it. You can’t even look directly at people, because you can hurt them.
“‘Now I’ll bring a different kind of yage,’ my father said.
“We brewed it very thick. When we drank it, he extracted those magical darts I had inside. I stopped sweating and became like an innocent child. That’s how my father drew the violence out of me so I could heal and not harm. At that point I went up a level.”
I listen, balancing silently in the palm fiber hammock swaying like a canoe in the lukewarm night air. The paths humans have explored to gain knowledge—that paradisiacal and impossible fruit of good and evil—may be innumerable. We spend our lives among shadows, groping as if blind toward truth, beauty, happiness. This old man speaking to me from his bed has been a seeker. Those eyes that shine very softly near the embers of the fire are a visionary’s eyes. Who could deny him the finding of that intimate harmony in which he has lived? Master of his acts, owner of the arcane languages used by the spirits that fill the forest with awareness, he had in his hands magic powers which he explains with simple elegance, without affectation.
“After meeting all the spirits of yage, you drink thick pehi [Brugmansia] to perceive the innermost aspects of reality and fine-tune your voice to sing well in the ceremony. The fact is, it’s frightening to drink pehi that thick. It smells terrible and tastes worse. It’s so bad that you immediately throw it up. That, you have to do right back in the gourd you drank it from so you can drink it again. This makes you disgusted, ashamed, and afraid.
“When I drank it for the first time as a young man I was immediately struck blind. The three men who were taking care of me sat me down in my hammock and gave me some water to rinse my mouth out. I felt a terrible drunkenness and continued not to be able to see. They lit me a tobacco but I couldn’t smoke it and I threw it away.
“When you drink like that, you feel burns all over your body like you’re being hit with burning logs. Then the body catches on fire and is reduced to ashes. When the flesh is destroyed, only then does the soul emerge and begin to see. At that moment the most fantastic visions begin. The first time, I was drunk for a night and a day, during which time I was able to see all the demons and all the jaguars in existence. Although I was breathing, I lost consciousness. For that reason I didn’t see things as I see them now, as I’m talking to you, but instead I contemplated them after having died. Yes, you die after drinking so much to be able to know everything. The body is reduced to dust and the spirit is freed to attain the greatest wisdom.
“The hardest thing is to travel in the astral regions. Another time I went up to the sky. I saw the sun, which looked like a man, and I saw his house; I saw the rainbow’s house too. Further along is a truly beautiful place where certain sky people live. Those people go fishing and traveling in metal canoes whose motors are very quiet. From there the winiawai brought me to God’s house. He greets everyone in their own language. He lives with his wife; half the house is his, the other half is hers. He is Nyanyuh, the God who fought the thunder, and there can be no other. His wife is Repao, the tapir’s daughter, whom he brought up from the earth.
“Suddenly the winiawai said, ‘Look, son. Look at God.’ But I didn’t look.
“And God said, ‘You’re going to be a healer, you’ll have that power. And for that reason, you must love people and do good to them, never evil. Take this and you’ll be able to cure any illness.’
“He sent me a little packet of salt, the symbol of healing. The winiawai brought it to me. Then they took me by the hand and brought me closer, and I saw God seated on a throne. His clothes were brilliant white. How can I explain this? The house was totally illuminated, but not like white people’s houses; everything shone by itself. God stood up, touched my arm, and said, ‘Spit!’
“I spat and the saliva sounded on the floor like music. His footsteps were also marvelous sounds. He said, ‘Walk!’
“I took some steps, which sounded like the ringing of bells. Then I heard God’s blessing. ‘You graduated because you were brave. Now you have to follow my laws. I only show myself to people of good conduct, giving them instructions for increasing their wisdom.’
“He came near again and rinsed my mouth with salt. My saliva rang on the ground again like music and transformed into shining gold. Then he said, ‘I’m in my house. It’s time you returned to yours.’
“I achieved all this through hard work. That kind of suffering is good for the heart. But what has happened now? My people have become Evangelicals. They have words but no visions, no power to work with. Well, I don’t know who their God is. Mine has red shoes and lives in his own house. He said to me as I was leaving, ‘Son, now you, too, are God.’“
It has begun to rain, Fernando’s soft voice blending with the sound of water pouring off the palm-thatched roof. His tale ends and only the melancholy of the dark rain remains. The moon has disappeared in the clouded sky. The drinker tiredly passes the palm of his hand over his face, closing his eyes. “Goodbye,” he murmurs.
All his knowledge dissolves in the drowsiness of dream, so similar to a definitive departure. Death is a solitary business for us all, but in this case the drinker has suffered many years of neglect from those around him. But that doesn’t seem to upset him. The voyages with yage were a personal risk which he confronted innumerable times with great courage, and he, tireless wanderer that he is, will not walk blindly now, because he knows very well the way to the real world.
When he is gone, though, none of his people will follow his path. The rain will wash away his footprints, just as it made the moon disappear from the sky like the face of a vanishing God.
San Pablo de Cantesiaya, Ecuador, January 1994
(Published as “The Old Yage Drinker’s Visions”
Shaman’s Drum, Autumn, 2003)