When I was 7, I was stung by a honeybee while floating in the pool in the backyard. My grandmother, ever resourceful, put a poultice on my back to draw out the venom. She had a home cure for everything, which seemed quaint at the time before I appreciated just how much she knew: honey tea for sore throats, orange juice for a cold.
Before we took the knowledge away from people and sequestered it behind white coats and books, everyone knew how to minister to their health. Here in the river communities along the Amazon where medical care is intermittent at best, medicine remains as it ever was: knowledge passed down from generation to generation, under the guidance of the most knowledgable of all: the medicine man.
On our very first day in the Amazonian rainforest, we got to meet the local shaman. His name is Julio, and when he’s not out tending the medicinal garden or giving presentations to the gringo tourists, he’s at home tending to the local Indian tribes.
For someone like me, who has made healing their life, this is as awe inspiring a place as any I could imagine. From the hand of the local shaman, a periwinkle plant: this helps the little children when they fall very ill. From this plant, the chemotherapeutic agent vincristine, which has reduced childhood mortality from leukemia by a staggering amount.
About 25% of the prescriptions we use on a daily basis in our world are derived from the plants of the rainforest. Last week we were fortunate enough to listen to a lecture from a local biologist about the medicinal plants of the region, and now we were getting the actual demonstration. Just walking under the canopy of the vines and into the thatched roof of the gazebo of the medicinal garden gave me a sense of awe: here is the origin of healing.
In his hand is the fer-de-lance plant, which can be used when one is bitten by the fer de lance snake as a sort of antivenin. The most amazing part is that the stalk actually resembles a fer de lance snake, as if to advertise its services. Then you have the dragon’s blood tree, which oozes bloody red sap when the bark is pierced. When applied to your own bloody mosquito bites, it takes away the sting and inflammation. The list goes on and on: this for parasites, this for headache, that for prostatitis, this one for seizures. It was a marvel, a thing of beauty, and an honor to get to see.
Then Julio offered to perform a cleansing ceremony on us. I offered up my dark and blackened soul, hoping the job wasn’t too much for the poor shaman to handle. As you can see, I instantly had misgivings:
I don’t know exactly what I was thinking here, but it was something along the lines of “I can’t see behind me and it smells like he’s lighting a Marlboro on my hair.” Or maybe it was the terror of having a shaman peer into my soul and seeing what was within before throwing his fan down in disgust and declaring me uncleanable. Next to me is Kat from the UK, already streaked with orange war paint from earlier in the demonstration, and Dr. Mahaney, who as always is taking it all in stride.
As it turns out Julio was lighting a ritual smoke that only looked like a Marlboro. As he performed the ceremony, it wasn’t until later that I realized every single one of us closed our eyes in unison, unbidden. I have no idea what he was chanting- it could have been the local soccer scores for all I knew- though I think it was something a bit more sincere. It was nice and strangely emotional. We all agreed it was a singular experience.
None of us were brave enough to seek out his services for a vision quest involving the hallucinogenic soul vine- there’s only so much introspection one can take after all- but that was enough.