Journeys with an Amazonian Shaman

By Johnny Motley

Men’s Travel Gold Winner in the Sixteenth Annual Solas Awards

Further proof that lives can change in an instant.

On the sixth day aboard an Amazonian cargo ship, I spied the faint outline of São Gabriel da Cachoeira from the aft deck. Located deep in the Upper Amazon, São Gabriel held the title of “Most Indigenous City in Brazil,” although “city” was a misnomer: São Gabriel was little more than a village that had sprung up around a Brazilian military base, an outpost intended to secure the nebulous borders between Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Peering into the corroded mirror in the ship’s bathroom, I beheld a sun-burned, skinny, gaunt face. I had been in Amazonia for a month and the jungle had exacted a toll on my body. Implacable diarrhea, nights of broken sleep, and the merciless equatorial sun (not to mention the relentless debauchery of Manaus, the Brazilian Amazon’s raucous, Wild West-like capital) had left me looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and a crackhead. But I was in my mid-twenties, full of pluck, and intoxicated with the thrill of adventure. Fatigue and bodily discomfort were mere afterthoughts.

As the port drew closer, I rolled up my hammock—my mobile bed while in the jungle—and bid farewell to the soldiers who were returning to base. They had kept me company playing guitar, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes for the past week. Armed with credentials from an anthropology program in the U.S, I was on the brink of fulfilling a long-held dream of visiting an isolated Indigenous community in the Amazon.

***

After disembarking, I went directly to the Brazilian government’s Office of Indigenous Affairs in São Gabriel and submitted the carefully crafted letter I had written, my health records, and a processing fee to apply for permission to visit a reservation in the Upper Amazon. A grumpy official snatched the application out of my hands and told me to return in a couple of days for his response. His formal response to my petition was the following: I was absolutely forbidden to visit any protected community; should I attempt otherwise, I would be summarily arrested and imprisoned.

My disappointment was crushing, and I turned to glasses of beer in a dusty bar on the banks of the Rio Negro. I had spent enough time in Brazil to understand that there was almost always a jeitinho—Portuguese for “little way,” but implying an ad-hoc, behind-closed-doors solution—to bureaucratic quandaries. I talked to the fishermen and soldiers at the bar and told them about my thwarted plans. Eventually, an Indigenous man summoned my attention through the bar’s dim light and cigarette smoke haze. He explained to me, in a Portuguese inflected with an Indigenous lilt, that there was, in fact, a fail-proof way to gain the authorization I so sought: I would simply have to bribe that pissed-off official.

The next day, I resubmitted my application, along with a little extra grease. Later, the same official who had practically laughed me out of his office summoned me again. This time he was willing to authorize me to stay one week in Comunidade São Jorge, a protected reservation belonging to the Tukano, the most populous tribe in the Upper Amazon. No chummier than the last time we had met, he slammed his door in my face before I could even ask him how to get to Comunidade São Jorge.

Knowing that most of the reservations lay on the small tributaries of the Rio Negro, I hitchhiked to the ferry terminal where the cargo ship had dropped me off a few days before. The port was where Indigenous families came from their reservations to buy supplies in São Gabriel, and my half-baked plan was to just ask around if anyone knew the way to São Jorge. As I looked around the port, an Indigenous man with long hair approached me, flashing an ear-to-ear smile full of broken teeth. He looked to be in his late thirties and his face, a cranberry-colored mask of rough-hewn bone, was bespeckled with tiny scars. There was something strangely familiar about him.

“So, they granted you permission after all?” he asked, looking pleased. I realized that he was the same man from the bar who had counseled me to suborn the official at the Office of Indigenous Affairs. Through the fog of alcohol-clouded memory, I recalled his name was Elizio.

I told him I was going to São Jorge but hadn’t the slightest clue where it was. “Well, I just might be able to help you a second time. I live in São Jorge, and if you can cover the cost of diesel,” he gestured to his motorized canoe, “I’ll take you there.” As I expected, the amount he requested to fill up his rivercraft sounded inflated, but not terribly so. I fished some reais out of my pocket and handed him the bills.

He was about to leave with his petrol container, but he turned back around. “Say, do you have another ten? You know, for a little something to keep us lively on the river…” Trying not to think about the warnings I had heard about the river’s treacherous rapids, I handed him another sawbuck for booze.

Elizio navigated the white-knuckle rapids and cataracts of the open Rio Negro—the broad, tea-colored river that converges with the dense, muddy Solimões to form the Amazon River—in his small, motorized canoe. As he gunned the engine and wove around rapids and exposed rock, I crouched down lower and practically hugged the wooden cross-staves. Sensing my trepidation, he laughed from the other side of the boat.

After an hour, Elizio turned into a narrow, calm rivulet framed by towering trees. He reduced his speed to a gentle cruise, and the canopy above us rendered the light soft and green. The sun on the open water had turned my skin the hue of boiled crawfish, and the cool shade provided the sweetest relief imaginable. As we plied the winding tributary, the buzz and chirps of monkeys, birds, and insects blended into a pleasant white noise.

Elizio tossed me a beer from the six-pack he had purchased at the petrol station and took out his tobacco pouch and a small sheet of newspaper. Amazonian tobacco contains a staggering fifteen times more nicotine than the variety used in industrial cigarettes. I practically collapsed in the canoe after a drag from Elizio’s smoldering newspaper blunt. Once again, he had a good laugh at my expense.

The conversation flowed easily as we gradually picked off the six aluminum soldiers in the pack. We exchanged off-color jokes and bawdy stories, my own store limited by my weaker command of Portuguese. He told me that he was originally from Colombia, and I replied that I had spent some time there, mostly in Medellin. His almond-shaped eyes lit up at the mention of the City of Eternal Spring. “I had a grande amor—a great romance—in Medellin when I was younger,” he said, the nostalgia in his voice palpable.

Violence and instability had pushed Elizio out of Colombia and into Brazil. Even though he lived in a Tukano reservation, he was not ethnically Tukano, but instead from a tribe that resided much farther up the Rio Negro. While in his twenties, he and his family were employed in a clandestine coca refinery in the Colombian Amazon. About this line of work, he recounted: “I met another man from your country when I worked with the narcos.” Elizio used the term gringo, which in Brazil refers to any non-Brazilian. “He used to arrive in the jungle with a helicopter and pick up kilos.”

“He was from the U.S.?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow. “Well, I think so. He had blonde hair like you and spoke funny. He must have been from your land.”

The cocaine trade claimed the lives of several of Elizio’s family members, and he fled from Colombia to Brazil with his wife, a woman from yet another Rio Negro tribe, and their children. He found refuge among the Tukano, employing his formidable skills as a hunter, outdoorsman, and healer in his adopted community. By the time of our meeting, he had lived in São Jorge for about ten years. He was an amazing polyglot, speaking his own native language, Tukano, Spanish, Portuguese, and his wife’s native language.

As Elizio and I talked and drifted, I eventually spied a clearing in the foliage on the riverbank; we had arrived at Comunidade São Jorge. Elizio tied the canoe to a tree trunk close to the water while a pair of young Tukano women bathed nearby, their naked bodies only partially concealed by soap suds. As I ascended the earthen steps to the entrance of the village, a group of children gathered, gaping at the strange, blonde-haired, pale creature who had arrived in their village. After the discovery that I had a large bag of chocolates in my backpack, the herd of children attached themselves to me as firmly as my own shadow.

Elizio introduced me to the community leader, a stolid, strongly built man in his forties. The Office of Indigenous affairs had radioed the villagers about my arrival, and they had arranged for me to stay in their community building, an edifice constructed of palm fronds and wood. I found out the following morning at 6 a.m. that the building in which I slept also housed the bell that summoned the villagers to a daily community meeting.

About fifteen families lived in São Jorge, each in a hut of wood and thatch. The Brazilian government had constructed a rudimentary power station in the community, but electricity was spotty at best. The residents obtained drinking and cooking water from rainwater harvested from a large plastic basin, another government donation.

As with all Amazonian Indigenous tribes, the Tukano subsisted primarily on the manioc root, a large, fibrous tuber that is poisonous in its unprocessed form. The women of the village spent several hours each day engaged in the laborious chore of peeling and grating the rugged root and siphoning out the toxic juice through a hanging filter made of dried palm fronds.

The Tukano had turned a grassy patch of land at the edge of the forest into a crude soccer field. Elizio’s home was located past the soccer field in the forest itself. I surmised that the reason he lived so far from the village was either that he was not Tukano or because he was the village medicine man, a role that traditionally necessitated partial isolation from the larger community.

Elizio’s dwelling could be best described as a lean-to, a tarp draped over wooden poles and anchored to a tree trunk. Inside, bunched-up hammocks hung from hooks in the wooden poles, and a ring of cinders and stones with a blackened aluminum pot marked the cooking area. The floor was entirely dirt. Outside, interspersed among the jungle’s vegetation, Elizio grew chili peppers and an assortment of herbs, including the two used to make ayahuasca—a shamanic brew used in the Amazon for millennia and reported to be the world’s most potent hallucinogen.

Elizio introduced me to his wife, a pretty, shy woman several years his junior. She hardly spoke Portuguese and, from the way she stared at me, I suspected I was one of the first non-Indigenous people she had ever encountered. Elizio’s four small children shrieked and laughed with delight at my strange presence. Three of the children were from his current marriage, and one from a previous relationship in Colombia.

Seated on the dirt floor of his home, Elizio poured cachaça—warm from lack of refrigeration—and rolled his ubiquitous newspaper cigarettes. His wife prepared a soup of manioc, fish, and jungle chilis—ferociously hot, tiny peppers that looked like red and green Christmas lights. The children ran through the house and climbed on Elizio as we sat on the ground eating and drinking.

Familial joy radiated from the tiny home like the aroma of fish stew from the cooking fire. As his children climbed on him, Elizio’s countenance was a picture of contentment and peace. I thought of how the level of luxury I enjoyed back home—modest for U.S. standards—would have been unimaginable for this family. Yet, they were happy—maybe even more so than the average family in the U.S. With so few possessions and sans smartphones, they seemed more present and less distracted. Maybe modernity, for all its conveniences, thrills, and luxuries, was misguided; perhaps true joy was to be found living like our ancestors did, close to nature, family members, and simplicity.

As if reading my mind, Elizio offered an observation: “Some people say the Indios are lazy; that we just wait for handouts; that we hate work. The truth is that we work only as much as needed. Brancos” —he used the Portuguese word for “white,” but the term referred to all non-Indigenous people— “are always chasing money and more things. The Indio prefers spending time with his family.” The family life I had observed in São Jorge supported Elizio’s evaluation: fathers lounging in hammocks in the shade with small children napping on their chests; the laughter and carefree attitude that animated the mothers, daughters, and neighbors while they grated manioc together; and the wholesome sense of tranquility in the villagers’ simple homes.

Although skeptical of the modern man’s rat race, Elizio worked hard when there was work to be done. During my stay, we constructed an irrigation ditch, digging and hauling away clay along the perimeter of the village. Elizio—somehow immune to the hangovers that destroyed me from our nights of cachaça consumption—arrived with his shovel and wheelbarrow early in the morning and toiled tirelessly, without pausing for food, well into the afternoon. As we dug and carted away clay, he poured shots of the fiery, crudely processed rum every hour or so from a bottle stored in the shade of a palm tree.

In the late afternoon, he brought out a sealed bucket that had been buried in the ground. The lid came off with a pop and a whiff of rotten fruit. Dipping into the bucket with wooden bowls, he doled out caxiri, a fermented, fizzy brew. The concoction, made from bright red and purple Amazonian fruits, was mildly effervescent like kombucha and tasted as rank as it smelled. Elizio topped off the bowls of caxiri with the remaining cachaca. In spite of the pronounced buzz wrought by the strange cocktail quaffed on an empty stomach, we finished the work just before nightfall.

Toward the end of my week-long sojourn in São Jorge, Elizio invited me to hunt monkeys with him. He grabbed an ancient-looking rifle and a gunny sack, and we set off in his canoe through the dark, flooded swamps bordering the Rio Negro. The engine was too loud for hunting, and Elizio cut it off and handed me an oar. He imitated monkey chirps and calls with uncanny accuracy, to which small primates hidden in the trees responded in turn.

We managed to kill a small monkey, and later that night Elizio quartered and roasted it. As its hair singed off, the monkey’s severed body parts looked disturbingly human. I tried not to think of the tame monkey—caught and domesticated by an adolescent in the village—I had played with earlier in the week.

The Tukano treated Elizio with deep respect and admiration, even though he, like me, was essentially a guest in their village. When a villager suffered illness or injury, Elizio was the first line of defense. His herbs and prayers were solicited long before ailing residents undertook the arduous and long journey to the military-run hospital in São Gabriel. In serious medical emergencies, as I would tragically learn, often there were no means to quickly reach life-saving medical facilities.

Despite his drinking and devil-may-care attitude, Elizio was a man of great spiritual sensitivity. Possessing a proclivity for solitary communion with the forest and tremendous physical stamina, he was identified early in his boyhood as suitable to become a shaman. When he was a teenager, elder shamans from his village in Colombia had tested his mettle by leaving him deep in the forest for days on end, forcing him to learn how to survive in the inhospitable belly of the ‘green inferno.’  Later, they taught him how to use plants for curing ailments and chants to summon blessings—or curses.

Once while we were smoking, Elizio explained the sacred role of tobacco, a stimulant originally from the Amazon. Tobacco, in his tribe’s cosmology, was “the grandfather,” while ayahuasca was “the grandmother.” Both plants were sources of sacred knowledge, tools for communing with the masculine and feminine aspects of the cosmos. He smoked not just for pleasure, but because “the sacred tobacco works like a microphone for your thoughts and prayers. The smoke brings your intentions—pure or corrupted—directly to the ears of God.”

Before I left São Jorge, Elizio performed a ritual to summon good luck and protection to follow me. Wielding a smoldering cigar of tobacco from his garden, he chanted and sang in his native tongue while spreading smoke around my body with his mouth and hands. The Tukano and other Amazonian tribes performed a similar apotropaic ritual on newborn babies, considering the shaman’s chants, touch, and prayers capable of “sealing off” the baby from evil influences.

The day of my departure from São Jorge arrived, and Elizio offered to ferry me back to São Gabriel. I felt grateful for the kindness he had shown me the past week: making sure I was fed, had company, and was able to learn and see as much as possible. After disembarking, we embraced and bid each other farewell. The week in São Jorge revealed that I had a kindred spirit in São Jorge’s medicine man. I admired Elizio’s indefatigable spirit, zest for life, and enormous heart; I sincerely hoped we would cross paths again.

***

I had a few days in São Gabriel before commencing the long journey—by cargo ship and airplane—out of the Amazon. After the spartan diet of bony river fish and manioc from São Jorge, I relished the beer, fresh bread, and fried chicken from São Gabriel’s small grocery store. I met a young woman visiting from Manaus, and she kept me company for my remaining days in town.

The day before the cargo ship that would take me back to Manaus arrived, I ran into a villager from São Jorge on the street. He was a shy young kid, but we had played soccer together and he had helped with the construction of the irrigation ditch. He looked uncharacteristically forlorn. Something terrible had happened in the village right after my departure, he told me. Elizio’s daughter, the two-year-old, had died. She had tipped a large pot of boiling water onto her tiny body and had died from her burns after a couple of days.

When the accident occurred, all the community’s precious few boats, including Elizio’s, were in São Gabriel, and a motorboat from the hospital didn’t arrive for several hours. It was late at night and had been difficult to contact the medics in São Gabriel via the village radio. The little girl finally made it to the hospital in São Gabriel and fought for her life for two days, but the burns were severe. She died this morning, the young man said, unable to look at me.

Shortly afterward, I saw Elizio and his wife leaving the hospital. The mirth that seemed to permanently live on Elizio’s countenance was replaced with an expression of pure agony. He looked skinnier than the last time I had seen him and reeked of cachaça and tobacco. I doubted that he had eaten or slept since the accident. I tried to say something consoling but the words failed me. He was too drunk and traumatized to mumble more than a few words when he saw me. I silently prayed that he had not been drunk when the accident occurred.

I was haunted by the knowledge that medical attention was so slow to succor Elizio’s daughter, that she might have survived if she had reached the hospital more quickly. In collaboration with Brazilian friends in Manaus, I launched an online campaign to raise money for a reliable, multi-passenger motorboat for Comunidade São Jorge. Even before the tragic accident, the elders in São Jorge had told me that such a boat would make the residents’ lives easier and safer. On the fundraising page, I wrote about Elizio’s daughter and the delay in medical attention that may well have cost her life.

To my surprise, donations came pouring in—from both friends and strangers. Brazil’s largest newspaper picked up the story and posted a link to my fundraising page. One year after setting up the fundraiser, I returned to Manaus, purchased a motorboat, and sailed it upriver to the Upper Amazon. In gratitude, São Jorge threw a party, complete with speeches, plenty of caixiri, and traditional Tukano dance.

Elizio met me in São Gabriel and once again ferried me to São Jorge, this time in the new, state-of-the-art motorboat for his community. Even though only a year had passed, he looked older than that first time we had made the trip; but once again we drank, smoked Amazonian tobacco rolled in newspaper, told stories, and laughed. I never brought up the tragedy from the year prior; I didn’t know what I could possibly say to him. His years had been defined by poverty, loss, and struggle, yet he was one of the most life-affirming people I had ever encountered, a man with a keen sense of the sublime, the unspeakable beauty of life that exists side by side with—or perhaps even deepened by—pain and heartbreak.
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Johnny Motley is a wanderer, eternal student, and seeker. After completing a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Harvard, he sold his possessions, grabbed a backpack, and moved to a breezy surf town in the tropics of Brazil, earning his bread working in restaurants and teaching English. Unquenchable curiosity has since taken him to some of the planet’s most isolated regions: the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon rainforest, and the ancient cities of the Silk Road, to name a few.

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