“Paty! Paty is your girlfriend!” the kids badger me in Spanish.
At least, that’s the assumption amongst the spreaders of romantic gossip in Shipibo tribe. Paty and I were platonic, but the kids were on the right track. I liked Paty. She was different.
Paty had lived in France, spoke English fluently, and could weave a motorcycle through the jungle’s dirt roads like a pro on the dirt bike circuit. She was also a student of ayahuasca shamanism, a distinct culture and the reason I came to the Amazon.
And, she owned the only internet café in that particular stretch of the Amazon jungle, which is how we met.
Four concrete walls housed six computers that clocked internet speeds reminiscent of dial-up’s garbling tone war. Black wires intertwined with the undergrowth of the jungle floor like ayahuasca vineyards.
I visited every day. Paty and I conversed about travel, life, love – everything. I hung out in one of her hammocks and savored mangoes from her trees. “Tranquilo,” my surrogate jungle father Enrique always said.
With Paty, I could finally speak with someone who had experienced the planet outside of this jungle. During the day, my Spanish deficiency rendered me mute, but at night Paty listened as I unfolded.
Just before dinner, I would return home to the village where I was staying. My jungle mother, Magda, would be squatting over a campfire and a pot of boiling catfish.
“I don’t like you going over there,” she said one night, stirring the pot.
“Where?” I replied.
“Paty’s.” Her eyes were serious.
I learned that there was a feud between my host parents and Paty’s; a real jungle Hatfield/McCoy animosity between the families, who were both prominent shamans with some long-standing grudges.
Even though Magda offered me a hut to sleep, taught me to scrub my clothes and scale a fish, I brushed her concerns aside. Besides, Paty’s family had welcomed me with similar hospitality.
A few nights later, Magda fastened a bracelet to my wrist – a defensive amulet. An evil wizard, she said, could be casting spells upon me. It was obvious whose black magic she was safeguarding me against. I rolled my eyes like a child who doesn’t want to fasten his seatbelt.
Paty and I continued our discourse, though less frequently out of respect. We ventured deeper into the truth about her tribe’s spirit world.
My new life amid ancient folklore and generations of spiritual explorers was like listening to an alien abductee story and then having a NASA scientist say, “Yeah, all of that is true.” Paty understood and helped translate.
I learned that I was right to ask questions. Some mystic notions proved to be mere superstitions, but others, though intangible, seemed to me to be exceptionally real. Just as I understood an atomic world and the bits of data that powered Paty’s internet cafe, the shamans knew a world that I did not.
For example, there was the case of pishtacos, a group of western men with long white hair that supposedly flew in on helicopters and sea planes to abduct natives for their organs. Magda wouldn’t even let me leave the village at night because she deemed it too dangerous. (Paty cracked a smile at this.)
More believable were the plants used to cure body, mind, and spirit ailments. Some plants could enhance lucid dreaming, cure a stomachache, or clear a room of bad energy.
The plants spoke to the shaman, Enrique taught me, and revealed their curative properties. Through ayahuasca ceremony, a determined shaman could discover new plant cures that might even go as far as curing cancer.
Paty assured me this visionary access was real, and that ayahuasca helped in the revelation, but it was not always required. Incredibly, many of these remedies accessed via psychedelic ceremony and used by the shamans for generations are used in western medicine for identical issues. This was a valuable empirical link – the link I needed to help me believe that the shaman are not all folklore, and that their spiritual knowledge might be just as valuable as their medical knowledge.
Truth and reality became more relative. I had to accept that their reality was independent of mine, and that both realities co-existed in a world of infinite realities.
The spirit world would remain a mystery, however. I could only take Paty’s word that it existed as their plant world did. If I wanted to understand it, I thought, I would have to return to the Amazon many times and dedicate myself to studying under a shaman. But after three months, it was time for me to leave.
On my last day, Paty gave me a handwoven adornment decorated with florescent ayahuasca snakes, my mother bestowed more defensive armlets, and the tribe’s leader gathered a plant potion for health, luck, and love.
The potion has survived dozens of flights since then and I apply it under special circumstances because I believe in its power. I pass it along to others who require it, and if they believe in it, it works.
I still receive occasional Facebook messages from Paty, and Magda, and other members of the tribe, sent from a wired internet cafe deep inside the jungle, reaching out to speak from the other side.
Editor's note: Be aware, if you're on drugs (natural or not), you could put yourself in danger.
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Vincent Roazzi Jr. is a photographer from New York City with a passion for photographing people and culture around the world.
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