Peru doesn’t have a monopoly on zealous taxistas - there are drivers in Marrakech, Bolivia and Costa Rica who’d coldly dispatch a dozen of their Peruvian brethren within the drag of a cigarette. But the exit from Iquitos’ airport is still a bloodbath, and no place to bring a Panamanian rum-hangover.
"¿Backpackers, my friend?"
I fell queasily on the brassiest spruiker of the pack, a paunchy knight whose chariot was the ubiquitous motocarro, the 125cc Honda rickshaw that screams round Iquitos’ central grid. He wiped sweat off his face and asked whether I liked dolphins and sloths and the idea of canoeing down tributaries to stalk caimans. He was the Amazonian Santa Claus, holding the key to every white bourgeois traveller’s fantasies. "Did I want to drink ayahuasca with a Shipibo Curandero?" he asked. My lobes sparked. The ancient vine, the door to Ginsberg’s "House of Joy" - touted in the same breath as sloth-hugging along a stretch of heaving jungle tarmac. It was like watching a priest hawk confessions at a K-mart checkout.
Not that ayahuasca tourism is anything new. Serious international interest started penetrating the millennia-old aya culture around the fifties, when smacked-out Bill Burroughs made the classic pilgrimage for orientalist salvation. He got to Pucallpa and wrote about plant-induced "space time travel" to a young Ginsberg, who followed, drinking in Pucallpa and Iquitos. Ginsberg documented his experiences in poetry that exudes a qualitatively distinct impression from that of his LSD or nitrous oxide writings. Despite said distinctness, ayahuasca’s unique character was lost in the fervour of the sixties. Contemporary works tended to blur all altered states into one; The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test moves seamlessly between acid-visions and DMT-paranoia, and Fear and Loathing is such a hellbent hodgepodge of brain-addlers that it’s impossible to distinguish the contents of the protagonist’s bloodstream as tryptamine, phenethylamine or amphetamine from one moment to the next. The reputedly spiritual uniqueness of the Amazonian brew got lost in a "galaxy of uppers, downers, screamers, laughers", and unlike Tangier or Goa, Iquitos never quite ascended to the state of a Hippie Mecca.
Then, with the busting of Harvard guru Timothy Leary and the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, foreign interest in mind-altering Amazonian medicines settled into a quiet subculture. The second wave wind of gringo tourism didn’t really pick up til the end of the century. Dr Rick Strassman’s investigations into the effects of pharmaceutical-grade DMT (the principal alkaloid in Chacruna leaves) renewed interest in the compound among alternatively-bent scientists. Californian research institute MAPS published a preliminary study on the use of ayahuasca as a treatment for addiction and stress. And in the past decade, syncretistic ayahuasca practices like União do Vegetal and Santo Daime have won court rulings, allowing them to drink the sacramental brew in the States.
Back to Iquitos, and the taxista, who after protracted digressions dropped me at the malecón. I walked past the cluster of riverfront restaurants seeking seekers, down the boardwark where mystical conversation is as plentiful as the necklaces of itinerant artisans. The state of the tourist scene was a beguiling mixture of all its twentieth century precendents, and each conversation surprised me. Twenty-somethings from Belgium with bottled brews from the Belén markets planning solo expeditions across the astral plane later that evening; a boy from Colorado with space-wide eyes holding forth on earth chakras for as long as they’d keep serving him passionfruit juice. There were other travellers more well-spoken, well-paid and middle-aged, politely and cautiously seeking emancipation from the highest rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy. Later, in a seven-sole hammock den where the Itaya lapped against wooden boards, a group of Colombian travellers swapped folk music and listened with Zenlike patience to my naive questions - "I’m waiting for it to find me," said a kind-faced Colombian girl, while her boyfriend nodded a million miles away. In the background an Argentinian girl washed out of a plastic pipe amid a cluster of bamboo poles. "Ciao, chicito," she said dreamily, as I walked off to the Museo Etnográfico. The museum’s guide told me all about his 'maestro', who served him regular brews to sort out his bad back.
Everyone seemed in on the secret. There were curious initiates, would-be intellectuals in Huxley's gentleman-scholar vein, and cracked-out hippies flitting around the blissful nowhere. Shadows, too, creeping over the bustling mechanism. Andy Metcalfe mentioned in the Iquitos Times that one local ‘shaman’ is known for sexually abusing female clients. In April a young British boy on a gap-year died following a ceremony in Colombia. And then, the inevitable mark on Iquitos’ cultural landscape. For good or ill, there are a number of foreign-owned ayahuasca lodges. Sometimes, well-paid indigenous shamans are hired to work with tourists, but no regulations currently exist to ensure proper payment and treatment. The long-term effects of the current pilgrimage-wave are yet to be seen; parallels have been drawn to Rubber-Boom era indigenous exploitation, with corresponding counterarguments citing regional economic benefits and an outspreading of spiritual and cultural knowledge.
And I couldn't decide either way. A week or so after my encounters with the Knight of Taxistas and the Colombian artisans, I sat in a haze of mosquitoes at the stilted house of a friend somewhere along the route to Nauta. There was an aging indigenous shaman just over the hill if I was interested, he said, and if not, a garden full of half the sacred psychoactive plants known to man. A cooking pot and ceremonial maraca lay nearby. "I'll pass, this time," I said. "It seems like something that requires a lot of thought." "Not a bad idea," he mused in a cloud of ganja-smoke. "I've always thought I'm my own best shaman anyhow."
Note: This is one perspective of many - for a deeper look at the impact of current tourist wave, try Evgenia Fotiou’s PhD dissertation (http://www.neip.info/downloads/Fotiou_Ayahuasca_2010.pdf). Various scholarly sources and first-hand accounts are also available at erowid.org
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