Shaman: Meeting the Shaman

Continuation of Shaman, by Warren Cullar. Nonfiction.

A tribesman in Amazonia cooking curare, the poison used on blowguns.

A tribesman in Amazonia cooking curare, the poison used on blowguns.

Our contact with the natives was a visit to three different villages. The first village was under government control, with government housing: basic, one-room concrete structures where the natives were wearing western clothing. I was able to buy a bow with three arrows from a young man. The second village was a long drive, then a hike on a path through the tall grass into a village. When we were spotted, all the women disappeared into their square huts, some covering their breasts. With patience we were slowly recognized as calm people bringing gifts. We placed mirrors at the entrance to each hut and gave fishing line and hooks to the men. We walked through the village of thatched huts, observing the people. One man was outside of his hut, sitting in his hammock, stirring an old cast iron pot. His two young sons stood behind him. The hard packed earth was home and necessities were modest:  A hut, a hammock, a blowgun, a cooking pot and a machete. When they needed food, they went into the jungle, found it, and then relaxed until the need to find food again was apparent. The expression on the man’s face making his dart poison was peaceful, relaxed, yet he was somewhat bothered by these white strangers.

The photograph taken by James, hanging in our hallway today, is of me kneeling next to a Piaroa native sitting in his hammock. I asked him in Spanish, “How long will you take to cook the curare (poison for blowgun darts)?” His answer, “Dos dias. (Two days)” This photograph of human beings, hunting with blow guns, fulfilled the goal I had as a young boy reading National Geographic.

Ten feet from the entrance of another hut was a simmering black kettle on a low fire, cooking a monkey whose hand was sticking out above the rim of the pot. Juan, our guide and translator told us we were invited for lunch. I think he was having fun with us. Inside a thatched hut, a man was resting in his hammock and his bare-breasted wife was sitting in her hammock, opening seed pods and removing the seeds they used to color their skin and dye their loin cloths and hammocks. They wove on an eight-inch narrow loom only two items: loin cloths and hammocks. Cotton was growing in a haphazard manner around the outskirts of the village on stalks six and seven feet high.

A couple in their hut in Amazonia. The woman is plucking berries to be used as dye for new cloth (seen in background)

A couple in their hut in Amazonia. The woman is plucking berries to be used as dye for new cloth (seen in background)

My observations were bombarded with their strange culture and I was enjoying the experience, examining, looking. This was the best museum diorama I had ever seen, including trading with the natives, the smell of the monkey cooking, and all the thatched huts. The only familiar items of our civilization were the cast iron pots and machetes. Before we left, I was able to trade the last of my fishing hooks to a small woman wearing only a cloth skirt for strings of glass beads.

Back at camp we met at the river’s edge and carefully climbed into the longest dugout canoe I had ever seen. Eighteen or so people were on board with room for more. Power was supplied by a gasoline motor and we glided upriver with the puft, puft sound of the engine and blue smoke trailing behind us on the smooth Orinoco.

Hours later we arrived at the third village. We were met by curious faces, as eager to see us as we were to see them. Chris had his small guitar and began playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and without any encouragement we all joined in. Our song broke the ice and we climbed the steep red earth-packed river bank. Gibbs had been there before and we were entertained as visiting dignitaries. Three young boys showed off their skill of making fire. They used a smooth, round stick, placing it on a flattened piece of wood with a handful of dry grass. They took turns twisting the stick rapidly between their palms, starting a fire in about the same time as I could find my package of matches and strike.

Two teenage hunters were eager to share their blowgun skills. They placed a small green gourd on a post about thirty feet away, quickly loaded a cotton-wrapped dart, pulled the cane tube into their mouths, aimed and fired the dart, striking the gourd with a thrusting sound. We applauded and began walking about the village as VIP’s. I opened my sketch book and quickly got an audience of young people, shy, but very inquisitive. I was directed to a stump to sit and enjoy the shade. I persuaded three of the young men to draw in my book. I showed them how to hold the pen and did a drawing for them. Finally two boys did a few drawings of animals.

I realized they may have never used a pen or drawn on paper in their entire lives. I reflected on my art history facts, the earliest examples of art are of animals drawn and painted 25,000 years ago.

Shaman of a tribe in Venezuela.

Shaman of a tribe in Venezuela.

When the village Shaman finished meeting with Juan, the young apprentice shaman, our guide, and several of us were invited into the older shaman’s hut for a Yopo ceremony. I entered his hut and was motioned to sit on a miniature stool beside our guide, who was next to our host. He was the shaman for the village, a responsible position he inherited from his cousin. Along with the title, he was given a large piece of quartz crystal about the size of a small apple. He would take the clear rough quartz and hold it to his throat to “read” the signs for his fellow tribesmen. I had brought a finger-size quartz crystal for trading. Instead, I decided to gift it to the shaman. When he was given my crystal gift and I was pointed out as the giver, he expressed deep gratitude which was being translated from his native tongue into Spanish then into English. I felt as if I was at a Sunday morning church service as he began a thirty minute dissertation on the way spiritual matters work, including how, at the moment of death, the silver cord with which we are all connected during our physical existences, is severed at death. We then return to our spiritual world.

I was listening intently to our guide’s translation of the shaman’s words and remembered years ago, when I was doing book illustrations for a book publisher, I was handed a manuscript titled The Silver Cord. I was asked to read and then illustrate the book cover. The manuscript revealed how we are all connected until the time of death and then the silver cord is disconnected. I traveled thousands of miles from civilization as we know it to a village shaman’s hut in the jungles to have him tell the exact story I read twenty-five years ago. Our host the shaman was about five feet tall, wore shorts, was barefoot, and had a bowl haircut, with no shirt. He was obliviously held in high esteem from the attention being paid to him from the other members of the tribe. The strangest thing about this tiny man: he had a wooden stump for a lower left leg. His calf was cloth wrapped around his carved wooden leg ending with a round knob acting as a foot. We were told he was bitten by a fer-de-lance snake and, knowing he would die soon, pulled out his machete and cut off his leg. I can’t even think about that episode in his life.

The Shaman (right) and his apprentice mix Yopo for the upcoming ceremony.

The Shaman (right) and his apprentice mix Yopo for the upcoming ceremony.

We sat on small wooden benches about five inches off the ground. In the center of our circle of seven, several items were placed, including a wooden palette and pestle, and a turtle shell that emitted low pitched sounds when the hand was moved across the opening. Our one-legged man proceeded to lecture us on the spiritual universe as it was translated twice, until the Yopo ceremony. Several seed pods the size of small marbles was placed into the flat paddle size palette. A wood pestle was used to grind the bean into powder. He took a feather and pushed up a line of the green gray material and handed me a forked hollow bone instrument.  Black tree pitch covered the ends of the two bones to fit up into the nostrils. He showed me how to sniff up only the line he had pulled into the center of the palette.

The shaman's apprentice explains the Yopo ceremony to Warren.

The shaman’s apprentice explains the Yopo ceremony to Warren.

One of our group asked in astonishment whether I would actually inhale the gray-green dust. My reply was, “Of course I would participate in the ceremony.” I had made a decision to come 3,000 miles and experience all that was presented to me. I took a deep breath, relaxed, put the black knobs into my nose, placed the bone tube on the end of the small pile of Yopo, and inhaled deeply.

It felt like two hot ice picks were rammed up my nostrils and burned like liquid fire. I couldn’t get my breath. Then I felt my heartbeat, my vision blur and all of my hair follicles on my body were being pulled out. Then suddenly I was free and floating. My arms floated over my head. An hour passed. Reality became somewhere else and another world became my new reality, difficult to explain and more difficult to remember. Only a few of us participated in the ceremony. James did and afterwards we sat outside of the shaman’s hut with our backs against the thatched wall and slowly our reality, vision, and senses came back.

Regarding the decision to experience the Yopo ceremony, was it worth it? Yes, because for the rest of my life I can remember the drama and know with authority the experience and how it feels. I don’t need to do it again.

Our Titanic-sized dugout glided even more gracefully with the current on our trip back to base camp in the afternoon.

I reflected about my decision to join this expedition. I knew my wanting to go to the jungle when I was a kid had come true and my decision was sound.

My adventure trips were the tantalizing elixir of life I created to leave my comfort zone and experience real life. Some were intellectual, some novel, some enthralling and others purely frightening, but the experiences cannot be obtained without the definite decision to go. I never wanted to miss anything. I am curious and, yes, I have the next one picked out: an expedition to an ice age cave, in the Pyrenees Mountains, excavating clues of Neanderthal Man.

Be Bold

Make the decision to step outside your comfort zone. It will enrich your life.

  • Cultivate Opportunity. Make friends with people who do whatever it is you want to achieve. Watch for opportunities and be ready to take action when they arise.
  • Deliberately Pursue your goals. The more goals you achieve the more doors will open to you and the more opportunities you will receive.
  • Make the Best of Your Opportunity when it arrives. You’ve worked hard and taken risks to achieve your goal. Congratulate yourself for making the decisions that changed your life.

On rainy Sunday afternoons I sit in my library and examine a string of glass beads, a mask, and a shaman’s head band of woven cotton fibers with sharp jaguar claws attached. I traded fishing hooks for these artifacts, long ago, in the jungles of Southern Venezuela. I fondly remember reading the National Geographic magazine, about the people living in the Stone Age and the definite decision to live on the edge for a little while.

“Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader. Don’t fall victim to what I call the ‘ready-aim-aim-aim-aim syndrome’. You must be willing to fire.”
T. Boone Pickens 1928-present


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