Almost all of us have heard of ayahuasca by now. The hallucinogenic medicinal plant used by indigenous communities in central America is said to be a potent healer, and/or a herb that makes you freak out and vomit a lot. Now that thousands of outsiders have cottoned on, the old tradition has turned into a bit of a cottage industry filled with chancers.
While in Peru, I met with Victor Cauper Gonzales, a 55-year-old shaman from Pucallpa who is well-known locally for treating complicated illnesses. He has an impeccable work ethic and won't treat you unless you actually have a health issue. We talked about the seven years he spent roaming the jungle before becoming a shaman, the dangers of fakes and how the ayahuasca tourism boom has impacted his hometown.
VICE: Hi Victor, can you tell me how you got into shamanism?
Victor Cauper Gonzales: I decided to do become a shaman 36 years ago, when I was at university studying to be a primary school teacher. I come from a family with a very strong tradition of shamanism: my grandfather was a renowned shaman and he taught me a lot of things. He'd take ayahuasca and travel to different places and planets. He used to share his insights from those places with me.
So you followed in your granddad's footsteps?
Despite that upbringing, I initially chose an educational path and went to university. But I wasn't too happy with it and I knew my calling was to continue our family tradition, so I dropped out and went into the jungle by myself, living there alone for seven years. I had no money, no nothing. I just survived in the jungle like our ancestors, eating the plants and fishing. After seven years, I knew that I was ready to become a shaman and heal others.
Was there anyone to train you?
No. Having a good maestro to direct you is important, but being a shaman also requires intuition and patience. You need to be able to get in touch with plants. It's something you have to learn yourself. It comes gradually. But if you don't have this within you, a maestro cannot help.
What was your first ayahuasca experience like?
I followed a very strict diet during my time in the jungle, getting to know all the medicinal plants and surviving by myself. An ayahuasca diet dictates you to not consume sugar, salt, or alcohol and avoid sex so I completely devoted myself to the ancient wisdom passed to me by my ancestors. But those seven years were my preparation process – I didn't take any ayahuasca then.
When I finally felt ready to take it, the long wait proved to be worth it. It was amazing. Because I'd trained both my body and mind so well for such a long time, I was immediately able to travel in different times and dimensions during that first ayahuasca experience. I connected to the spirit of my grandfather and talked to the spirit of plants too. Since then, ayahuasca has been a very important part of my life.
There are now loads of foreigners coming to Peru on "ayahuasca holidays", sometimes taking it without any preparation. How do you feel about that?
It's very dangerous. There are serious travellers who understand the health benefits of this medicine, but there are also a lot of foreigners who see ayahuasca as an interesting way of getting high or drunk. But if you're not prepared, if you don't follow the diet and don't know what you're doing, you cannot benefit from taking ayahuasca anyway. This way, a lot of people end up having bad experiences too.
There's a very common misunderstanding among many people: ayahuasca isn't a drug – it's a very strong medicine that needs to be taken responsibly. It can fix or relieve so many illnesses. That said, it's not a quick fix either. It has to be a slow, gradual and deliberate process. Most people I treated took ayahuasca dozens of times over a period of time to heal. But many don't have patience for that. They want to go on a holiday and be fixed. But patience is the very core of ayahuasca.
How do things compare now to when you first started practising shamanism?
It's an industry now. Westerners realised there's money to be made. A lot of the retreat centres are western-run. This is in a way similar to illegal mining. They come and steal our ancient wisdom and sell it for profit.
When I first started, ayahuasca was all about healing people. It used to be about diagnosing the illness and helping people to improve. But now there are companies commercialising this and completely contaminating the culture of ayahuasca.
Even worse, there are shaman training programs. People come, sign up to a course, take a few workshops, maybe get a certificate and call themselves a shaman. Then they go on to treat people. This is extremely dangerous. You cannot be a shaman in two weeks. Can you imagine a doctor operating on someone without any knowledge and proper equipment?
That's fair. What motivates you to keep going, despite these changes?
It's very rewarding to heal people. Sometimes I have patients who've lost all hope. Modern medicine can't help them anymore, so they come to me. I've helped people with cancer, AIDS, diabetes, tumours, stomach problems, you name it. Most of them keep in touch with me and update me about their progress. Their families call me to thank me; it's an amazing feeling.
What kinds of people come to you for treatment?
I used to have only local patients. But in the last three years, foreigners have started to visit me as well. I don't have a website or anything so I have no idea how these people from China to the Czech Republic find me. It must be the word of mouth.
Are there any people to whom you'd deny treatment?
I only treat people with serious physical ailments. I don't treat people who just come to seek adventure. I can distinguish that easily. When I consult my plants, they tell me who needs ayahuasca and who doesn't.
For example, I wouldn't treat you. Spirits of the plants tell me that you don't have any problems in your body. You are just a bit confused and have some emotional problems – but nothing big. You don't need ayahuasca.
Ha, well, which 20-something isn't confused and doesn't have emotional problems?
Exactly. You cannot force a flower to blossom. It will blossom, but on its own time. Ayahuasca won't add you ten years of maturity. You just need to experience and learn certain things in life by yourself.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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