With a smile so bright it could illuminate a continent, female shaman Adela Navas de Garcia is a vibrant healer from Iquitos, Peru. Mother to 8 children, she has treated patients throughout her local community for more than 50 years, and more recently she sometimes treats Westerners interested in ayahuasca too. Her speciality is “arkanas” or spells for healing and for protection against the black arts of brujeria. She is also an ayahuasquera trained in different plant medicines. In 2006 I interviewed Adela in Iquitos. She was 69 years of age at the time. We spoke about ayahuasca and her long career as a shaman, the difficulties of being a female shaman and why there needs to be more female healers.
RAK: Adela, you’ve been a shaman for a long time, haven’t you? Could you tell us a little bit about how you started, and what it’s been like to be a woman curandera (healer) in Iquitos?
ADELA: My parent’s ancestors were from Portugal and Colombia and healing is in my blood. I was born here in Iquitos. When I was young I had an illness, but it wasn’t a normal illness, it was caused by brujeria, from witches. I had a disease for many years, since I was 13 years old. My mother went to many doctors, different types of doctors around Iquitos but nobody could prescribe the right medicine for me because they couldn’t tell what type of disease I had. I almost died.The doctors said I had a cancer – lung cancer – but it wasn’t. They were wrong. My mother finally took me to a medicine man – a shaman – on the Ucayali river down from Iquitos. It was there that I took ayahuasca for the first time. The next day after taking the ayahuasca, I didn’t have any fever or pain.
RAK: Was it just the one ayahuasca ceremony that cured you, or was there more medicine and spirit healing involved?
ADELA: I was dizzy for seven hours and I threw up many times. I had many visions and I had to be still and rest for three months after the ayahuasca ceremony. I was on a strict healing diet – no meat, salt, sugar, oils or fatty foods, nothing, just vegetables and rest for three months in the house of the shaman. The whole time I spent in silence. Before my mother came to take me back to Iquitos I took ayahuasca a final time, to be happy and in good health. The shaman made my mother drink it, too, and I saw many lizards, many snake totems, and they whispered to me that I had a song to sing, an encantada. So I asked the shaman if I could sing the lizard song. “I want to learn,” I said, and he agreed. He was an admired healer in the area but even he was impressed with the songs that I sang – seven songs came out of me from the lizards, seven icaros.
RAK: And so that was your initiation as a shaman, the illness and healing and receiving the icaros?
ADELA: Yes. But after that I was surprised because ayahuasca didn’t affect me in that way again. I never saw the lizards again. After the second time drinking ayahuasca and receiving the lizard songs I started to see the healing effects of the medicine. And since then I learned to work with the spirit doctors, the plants themselves. I dieted with many plants, the leaves and roots and learned the ways of the plant medicine. And then I returned to Iquitos. I was really skinny, but in good health.
RAK: And did you feel a call to do spirit work or did you try and return to your everyday life?
ADELA: I had a relatively normal life. But I had a calling in my blood to help cure people, I’ve had it since I was born but after my illness was cured the feeling was even stronger…
RAK: So could you explain the type of healing you do and when you started to practice that in the community?
ADELA: I’ve been curing people that need help for over 50 years now. I use many plant medicines to heal, including many types of ayahuasca. I use Cielo ayahuasca (Heaven or sky ayahuasca) and another kind called in Quechua Yana ayahuasca (black ayahuasca), Rayo ayahuasca (lightning ayahuasca), Huata ayahuasca (rope ayahuasca), Boa ayahuasca, (named after the snake) and others. I have a farm outside Iquitos where it’s grown and I do ceremonies. Then there’s the sticks, I cure with the stick medicine. You have to know how to use it, and I know. And other plants and trees like Warmicaspi (Quechua word meaning “woman tree” in English) and La Punga (a grandmother tree that connects with the water world).
RAK: How did your shaman feel about training a woman in the ways of ayahuasca and the plants? Often the science is handed down to men, so were there any gender problems learning so-called ‘man’s magic’?
ADELA: My shaman teacher has passed away now, but he used to have many people go to his house for healing and he was a good curandero. He didn’t have any problems with me learning the science; he knew what he was doing curing people and listening to the spirit of ayahuasca which wanted me to heal, too. In that area at that time it was prohibited to give ayahuasca to women, but my teacher listened to the spirit of the plant, not the people. He made sure nobody saw me drink ayahuasca when he healed me – it was in the jungle – and we had to be careful.
RAK: So was it hard to train as a female shaman when it was prohibited to take ayahuasca? Did you encounter any difficulties from other people being a woman and learning the science?
ADELA: The men were surprised when they found out I was drinking ayahuasca. I was the only woman doing it in the area and I was skinny and I think they thought I didn’t have the power to heal. My teacher, too, was doubtful as when I came to him I was so skinny and sick, he wasn’t sure that I would survive. But he trusted the ayahuasca, and it realized I could do it and allowed him to cure me. My teacher had done a good job of healing me but he couldn’t do any more because I was in good health. He didn’t give it to me again because twice was enough. But I worked with him for many years learning the secrets of the vine. And when I was 23 years old, I started to heal properly with ayahuasca on my own. I started to drink it again with the patients to diagnose their afflictions and I have been practicing this healing now for many years.
RAK: And do your patients then trust a woman doctor – a curandera – to be able to heal them?
ADELA: Yes, yes they do. There are many types of curanderas, but if a shaman sticks to the diet process to cleanse and purify then they can be great healers. One type of healer is an encantada, someone who heals through singing power songs. But I believe more in the diet process in becoming a shaman and working with the plants. The diet means you purify your body – you don’t have sex, meat, salt, sugar – all that, this is the path of the dieting shaman.
RAK: So you advise your patients on the proper diet to follow but you also sing icaros during the ceremony?
ADELA: Yes, I do, but it’s not just singing a normal song, that’s not enough to heal, the songs come from the spirits themselves.
RAK: And your other speciality is arkanas, is that right? Could you explain a bit about them?
ADELA: Arkanas are songs that have different properties and functions as needed by a patient or a shamana. Some arkanas defend the body from spiritual attack, from the bad shamans or brujeria that might be sending their energy towards you. Other arkanas control dizziness and nausea during a ceremony when you receive the mareacions (visions). The arkanas can control the visions, but they can do much more besides. When I sing the arkanas the disease shows itself to me and the sound I make controls the patient during the healing. Other songs are used to raise energy and make people feel better.
RAK: Has it been hard to raise a family in the normal world and still be a curandera? To manage the two worlds?
ADELA: (laughs) Well, I’ve had eight children and I’ve been married for 56 years. I’m 69 years old (she winks) – it’s the medicine which keeps me so youthful (laughs). I learned the medicine of ayahuasca before I got pregnant, when I was very young. It has always been part of my life, so I never saw any difficulty in raising a family and being a curandera at the same time. It was like I was learning more about the ayahuasca while I was learning how to raise a family, the two just went together.
My family were Methodist Catholics but they understood the old ways, so I never had a problem with them. I got married when I was 24 to a man from Spain, a dentist, that’s why I’m here in Iquitos, because of his work and my family that I loved. Otherwise I would be in the jungle. My husband passed away a year and a half ago and crossed to the other side, and sometimes in ceremonies I can feel him there.
RAK: Did your husband have issues with you being a curandera?
ADELA: He was a good man and he understood me and what I did. He collaborated with me and with the medicine and never gave me any trouble. When I was on the diet he never pressed me for sex and he knew I had to eat the correct foods. He understood me. Which is good because I was constantly on the diet, and the ayahuasca has continually been teaching me, all the way up to now. My knowledge of the science is advancing but I do not know if I will ever know all it has to teach.
RAK: What about the authorities, have you ever had any problems with them and being a woman practising ayahuasca?
ADELA: Maybe not being a woman, but there have been problems being a curandera. Once the military came in during a ceremony I was doing in the night with American tourists. The army came with shotguns to the ceremony and they accused me of being a terrorist! They said I was a bad woman, a witch, and it is not true. I just want to be clear on that, I do not practise brujeria. There is no terrorism in Iquitos or in the Amazon, it is a total lie. I am just doing my job – I am a healer.
RAK: A lot of the younger generation of Peruvians aren’t interested in shamanism. Do you think it’s a dying art? Do you have an apprentice to pass on your knowledge to?
ADELA: Yes, some young people are still learning, although it’s not as widespread as it used to be. I don’t have an apprentice but it would be great for the new generation to practise the science of ayahuasca because it can cure many illnesses without Western, chemical medicine. It cures with only natural medicine. I would like to see more young people become professional at this and become curanderos.
RAK: Do you think more young women should become curanderas?
ADELA: Yes! If more women became curanderas there would be more respect for them in general and the medicine plants. Because shaman men always have an attraction to women, but if women start using and knowing about the medicine themselves then they will have to respect them more. And shaman women can be better healers.
In 2006, when freelance journalist Rak Razam smoked his first hit of 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful and similarly hallucinogenic cousin of DMT, he had it documented. He had colleagues hold him down onto a chair, blindfolded himself to muffle out any extraneous sensory inputs, and by the five minute mark he was hooting and hollering as the chemicals transported him to, as he tells me, an ineffable spiritual ocean of white lights....