Shipibo healer Mateo Arévalo Maynas discusses why most people don't have what it takes to apprentice with ayahuasca.

My name is Mateo Arévalo Maynas. I’m 64 years old, and my Shipibo name is Isayu. For decades I have been performing shamanic healing using traditional plant medicines like ayahuasca.

There are many ways to think about how ayahuasca healing has been changing in the Amazon. Many foreigners are now interested in becoming masters. Please let me share with you some stories I know about this.

Firstly, a big change has come from the foreigners. For some foreigners it’s quite normal to smoke marijuana and take other kinds of substances, or as some people call them, hallucinogens. After having tasted all the others, they come here as if ayahuasca is just another substance they are going to binge on and hallucinate.

And the other thing is that the foreigners learn about which places to drink ayahuasca through what we could call “pseudo-shamans.” They use every kind of communication: messenger, Skype, Facebook and the rest. But these pseudo-shamans are what we also call “suckers,” because they also earn their percentage when they send a foreigner to a shaman.

Maestro of shamanic healing Mateo Arévalo Maynas resting on a giant ayahuasca vine.
Maestro of shamanic healing Mateo Arévalo Maynas resting on a giant ayahuasca vine.

Another issue is when foreigners come to us, be it man or women, and say, “Master, I’m here to learn.” But the foreigner only drinks Piñón Colorado for one month or 15 days, and then he or she leaves to his home country feeling like they are a master. And sometimes they even go and tell people, “Master Mateo or Master Claudio ordered me to be a shaman.” And with the easiness of the language, because most of them speak English, they create a website.

Another trap of those foreigners is that they say to us, “Look at me, friend, I need a liter of ayahuasca.” And we respond, “I’m sorry for telling you this, it’s $300 for one liter.” Then, a maestro prepares it to look pretty and sends it. But then the foreigner charges $300 per glass. Or they charge $500 per person for one ceremony. Sometimes they don’t use ayahuasca only; they add San Pedro; this one called wachuma, the kambó, they add the rapé. I think this can easily lack respect. And it’s dangerous; in extreme cases, it can get them killed. So, before being disrespectful, it’s irresponsible.

For us, the jungle is the pharmacy.

We do things differently here. Generally speaking, whenever a patient comes, we have notebooks where we write down the name of the patient, how long they’re going to stay, and what illness they’re going to have treated. And if it’s, for example, a psychiatric or physical disease, or cancer or a cyst, then we have the medical report from the clinic or hospital of their country that detected the disease. They have to give that to us, and we consult the doctors here and say, “We have this patient and he has this, what do you think?” We also believe the patient can be half treated with Western medicine and half treated with natural medicine. This is very important and it’s also the future of the Shipibo Konibo medicine organization I am helping mobilize called ASOMASHK. We care about bringing together a plurality of health services.

Mateo Arevalo Maynas asmoashk meeting
Mateo Arévalo Maynas at an ASOMASHK meeting in Yarinacocha, Peru.

The other issue is that there are some foreigners that are quite demanding because they think that by paying any amount of money they can control us, sometimes to the point of saying, “I want you to do this because I’m paying you.” It’s a lack of education and a culture clash. As Maestra Elisa Varges has said, it is that moment of conflict when the fake shamans, the pseudo-shamans, and the quacks, take advantage. Because we really mean when we say that from our ancestors, the way they trained us, there’s no training diet of less than three months. It should be from three months to a year. But some foreigners come demanding short diets. There’s a woman who came here recently wanting to diet chuchuwasha, chullachaqui, ayahuasca, and many others, as if it were a restaurant menu. They want ayahuasca, toé, San Pedro, tamango, ajo sacha, camalonga, lady plant, flying plant, and flying log in just 26 days.

When they arrive to the maloca for ceremony, to the reality, it’s a clash. The cultural clash can be too strong.

What I do is when they talk to me, I have to look in their eyes because there’s the truth about who’s honest, right? Is it the patient or oneself? I keep an eye to see how the person is prepared psychologically, spiritually, and mentally. Because he may be coming from his country, full of hope, because he reads on the internet this and that. But when they arrive to the maloca for ceremony, to the reality, it’s a clash. The cultural clash can be too strong. They are used to having a luxury hygienic service. They come here where there is just some boards or a cement floor and that just drops their spirit. Mentally, psychically, psychologically, they can get down. It’s as if you came here and you go inside the chicken coop. Something like that.

I choose the plants for patients to diet as I analyze them. I do a study of their lives, even their parents and their family tree. And I see and ask the plant, the toé, piñón colorado, or the ayahuasca itself. So I tell them, “Just one moment. Let me run a consultation, and I’ll give you the answer in two days, whether I accept you or not.” Recently a North American from Kansas City came, a young man, saying, “Master, the ayahuasca has showed me that you’re the right person to be my master.”  I told him, “The medicine is fooling you, because I’m not your master.” He was unstable. I told him that I wasn’t his master because from the moment he came to my house, he was wearing no shirt, just shorts, no shoes and with a saddlebag, wanting to become a shaman. I always tell the hippies that come here with dreadlocks that they have to cut their hair. I tell them, “This awful lot of trash, you’re not going to meet the medicine like that. Do you want to become a shaman?” Also, those with a big beard, I make them shave. You have to be like this.

preparing-ayahuasca
Ayahuasca being prepared by foreigners. Photo: Paris Tume

A young man told me, “I’m here for six months, Master I’m going to pay you this amount.” I just looked at him, and my wife was there, and she said to me, “This kid is unstable.” But I accepted him. I told him, “Just one month. One month will be your test.” Because for the diets, as we say here, you need to think a thousand times. Because the initiation takes a big sacrifice that most people cannot do. He is just an apprentice, and I accept him, but I’m not going to give him the knowledge yet. I’m going to give him some tests. If he can endure, he is going to get the initiation. But he did not last.  

There was another unstable young man, a German that sold his hotel and his hardware store and told me: “Master, I come here to learn, because the plant also told me that you’re my master. I come here to diet for one year. I don’t need to work. I’m going to give you the money.” And I told him: “Not yet, let’s not talk about money. I haven’t accepted you.” Anyway, both of the apprentices got into some kind of competition. He drank some and the other said, “No, give me a bit more.” The other one then wanted more. If he drank two, the other would drink three. They drank five glasses during a month, and they went crazy.

For all the ones initiating in this world of curanderismo, the rule is no sex. But when a man is dieting, the first thing he sees is a woman; the women are everywhere. When these young men were dieting, two gorgeous Australian women appeared with blue or green eyes. Then they fell in love. It was a disaster. Everybody was fornicating.

A shamanic healing maloca at Maestro Mateo's place.
A shamanic healing maloca at Maestro Mateo’s place.

So, they came and said, “Master, the biggest temptation, everything I’ve talked means nothing. I’m going to get married.” He took the girl to his country. I asked him, “Now what do I do with your money?.” He paid me $5,000 and I asked him, “Please, what do I do with your money? I’ve spent it on this and that, what do I do?” I was worried about how I would pay him the money. But he said: “Look, Master, just like the medicine sent me to you, it also told me to give you that money. Because I broke the rules, I had sex with a girl, drank my beers, ate pizza, so everything’s okay.” I was relieved.

And the other one, also German,  wanted to marry a Shipibo girl; he wanted a residence here. I tell him, in order to get a residence you have to go to immigration. I have some friends in immigration, so they told me that I had to do this and that. So I tell him, I’m going introduce you some young Shipibo girls, grown-ups, divorced, and widows. I was following him like crazy. He’d look at me and say: “Not this one, not this one…” I don’t know what happened to him in the end. I wasn’t a shaman anymore. I was some kind of procurer. I think that because they have a lot of money, they think that curanderismo and shamanism is some kind of game.

The German was leaving, and he told me: “I want you to help me buy a good motorcycle.” I took him to a friend that sells motorcycles. He bought one and said: “Wow, they’re very cheap. In Germany this would cost much more.” Then he says, “I don’t think the medicine has told me to stay here,” and he left with the motorcycle. He asked someone to make him some kind of gadget, took his bag, and left. He had no issues traveling, but they didn’t let him pass with his motorcycle into Ecuador. He sold his motorcycle and now he’s in Colombia. He always sends me pictures. He doesn’t want to know anything about ayahuasca anymore.

So, there are a lot of anecdotes in our life, in a healer’s life, but as I say, there are always things that we have to see, the qualities of the candidate, to decide whether they are fit for curanderismo. And, I should say, there are also a lot of really good people, men and women, who come here to train and initiate.

There are authentic wise people in the communities now.

I want to raise another issue. Most of the lodges are run by foreigners. Here, near Yarinacocha, there are just a few lodges. But in Iquitos there are at least 70 lodges run by foreigners: North American, French, Australian, etc. Things have changed. If we go back to the old times, the main quality to be a wise person, an onanya joni, would be that you’d have to come from the cradle of the healers. Because there wasn’t a native community before, there were just people. A father was the family chief, the doctor, the shaman, the onanya, the fisherman, the hunter.

There are authentic wise people in the communities now. You can ask them how many years of knowledge they have, how many years working, and how many people they’ve healed. How many babies, how many women, how many men, and what diseases have they healed, which plants they use in their diets, and what’s their diet time. They are the qualities of a good healer.

Because, for us, the jungle is the pharmacy. Everything is learned mentally and orally. This is how our ancestors did it, like the Konkiscayo society, the Chualla society, the Tupac Amaru society. Those are societies that existed before the Spaniards. Also, the Remo, the Amobacas, the Güichos, Solopamos. These are the ancient people and civilizations. We are the last of those people.

Translated from Spanish to English by Maria Riega.

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Translated from Spanish to English by Maria Riega.

Maestro Mateo Arévalo Maynas
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