The rainforest is a physical assault on the senses; heat, mosquitos and stickiness wrestle for attention with azure flashes of butterflies and exotic bird calls. After three days in the Amazon we returned to the small riverside village of Lagunas with our guide, Andres, who intimated he was going to the village shaman that night “because of the forest”; he regularly drinks water straight from the river, with a twist of lime, and suffers stomach cramps as a result. Would we like to join him?
We had avoided the ‘Shaman Shops’ of Cusco, which trade on tourists’ willingness to get high in the name of ‘culture’, but this was the equivalent of a family doctor and I too had drunk from the river, convincing myself that I was chronically thirsty. We followed Andres into a wooden hut and were ushered through a kitchen with a dead tortoise in the corner and a woman tending a cooking pot, into a room with a packed earth floor, a poster of the Virgin Mary and the diminutive figure of a man in a red Adidas tracksuit - Don Francesco, our shaman.
We quietly took our places amongst the other patients – mainly villagers, but also an Italian GP who wanted to learn about alternative medicine and a Dutch guy who had left university in his 3rd year studying Physics because he had recurring dreams telling him to travel to Peru and train as a shaman. Don Francesco handed around a small rugged pot in which was a foul tasting liquid made from a particular vine well regarded for its spiritual connections – ayahuasca.
The shaman smoked a special kind of herb (no, not that kind); he chanted and sang the whole night, even whilst inhaling the pungent smoke. All the while his quiet presence directed the session with the skill and poise of a conductor managing the rhythm of an orchestra. Whilst our heads were filled with a multitude of colourful visions – that seemed to morph and progress with the Quechuan chanting, the shaman travelled around the group and blew smoke on the heads and faces of particular people. Hours later the visions started to diminish. Don Francesco sat quietly smoking cheap cigarettes whilst patients started to talk with their neighbours in hushed tones, some took their leave whilst others sat in meditative silence. I blinked through the fading colourful gauze that seemed to screen my eyes from reality, reluctant to return to a world where the trees weren't heart shaped. This was one trip to the doctor I would never forget.