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The Journey Begins
Chapter 1: The powerful echo of my heartbeat pounded in my ears. Three strange men stared at me without expression...
The powerful echo of my heartbeat pounded in my ears. Three strange men stared at me without expression, the river shore behind them slowly receding, taking with it everything familiar to me. I had called to them from the river bank a few minutes ago, pleading with frantic arm gestures for them to return to shore and bring me with them. To my delight, they had turned around and let me onto their boat. Now I was with them in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, on a small aluminum canoe headed up a river whose name I didn’t know, with no clue where we were going.
I sat in the front of the canoe on a metal bar shifting my weight, but no matter how I shifted, I couldn’t get comfortable. With each passing minute we floated further away from cell reception, from civilization, from the life I’d known, from anything familiar to me. I sat in silence with a growing sense of isolation wrapping around me, and my body began to tremble. Could these men sense that I was panicking? I tried to read their faces, but couldn’t tell. Composing myself, I ventured a smile. They stared at me and then looked away, saying nothing. I didn’t speak their language, and they didn’t speak mine. The trees of the Amazon towered over the river, closing around us. Layer upon layer of greenery enveloped the boat, like waves of forest crashing overhead, each one taking us deeper and deeper into the jungle. The hum of the engine was blanketed by birdsong and vibrations of insects, the calls of animals I didn’t recognize and couldn’t see, the sounds of the jungle.
I reminded myself that I was here by choice—and providence. I had put myself in this situation. For two days I had been following only a vague notion of where I was going, remembering an echo in my mind, a vision I once had and then tucked away in memory. Where would that vision lead me? I didn’t know, but I trusted the memory. And now, sitting on this boat with these stoic Indians, traveling deeper into the rainforest and towards an unknown destination, my only choice was to surrender.
Surrender to that trust, and to the thousands of choices, small and large, that had brought me here.
In foreign places I usually traveled this way, following my intuition, trusting the path opening before me. I had always landed on my feet. But this trip felt different, and motoring deeper into the vast Amazon jungle on this barren skiff with these stocky strangers felt more foreign and unfamiliar than anything I could remember. My body trembled again, taken with excitement and apprehension, an anticipation of strangeness and the unknown. I took a deep breath as we puttered slowly, inexorably up the river.
I felt strange and awkward next to these strong, compact Indian men—I, a gangly, scrawny, two-meter-tall Dutchman sitting uncomfortably at the front of their boat. How strange and out of place I must look to them, I thought. I had only an empty water bottle, a small backpack with a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and a piece of soap. I began to feel terribly unprepared for such a trip into the Amazon. What the hell was I doing there? With no food or water, I was entirely dependent on these men, and whomever I would meet where they were taking me—which I could not even ask them because I did not speak their language. I began to feel thirsty. I realized I was baking in the sun. I turned to the Indians and gestured, asking if they had something to drink. One of them pulled a cup from his bag, dipped it in the river, and handed it to me. I stared at the cup in my hands, looking into the murky river water, considering all the tiny life forms teeming within it. I looked at the man in apprehension, and he nodded in approval, indicating that I should drink. I hesitated, but what other choice did I have? I was parched. Besides, there wouldn't be any filters or plumbing where we were going. Slowly I realized that the moment I stepped onto the boat, I had chosen to drink this cup. The river would be my only water source for a while, so I might as well start drinking it. Another surrender. Holding the cup of muddy brown water to the sky, I made a toast, saying out loud: “Welcome to the Amazon!” I took a huge gulp, swallowed, and then laughed. Relief poured over me, as welcome as the water quenching my thirst. Just let go, just let go. I laughed again, and dipped the cup into the river to take another huge gulp. The Indians smiled, seeing that I was starting to relax.
The gentle, low hum of the engine soothed me as we skimmed along the dark waters. The stress of the last few months began slipping from my shoulders, as though the life I had come from was being carried away downstream. Our small skiff continued up the river, angling between mighty, breathtaking trees. The surrounding jungle felt pregnant with possibility, full of an unknown and undiscovered depth. Colorful birds flew high against the blue sky overhead, and flitted between the trees as we passed by. A symphony of insects and birdsong echoed through the trees and across the river, washing layers of sounds and pulsing vibrations over me. Leaves in a million different shapes and sizes surrounded the river, revealing themselves in more shades of green than I had known possible.
The trees, plants and leaves slid past me, wrapping me in a vibrant and energizing cacophony of colors and sounds. My skin felt burnished and new and my senses seemed restored to a vividness long forgotten. New feelings began to surface from within: freedom, gratitude, joy, and a visceral appreciation for life. My words came back to me: it felt like the Amazon was welcoming me indeed.
I had been staying with a friend in Rio Branco, a city in the Amazon in Brazil a few hours from the shoreline where I stepped onto the boat. The previous year had been rough, a difficult and challenging year that had unraveled my life in ways I never anticipated. I could feel the weight of those months inside of me.
A few weeks ago I had moved from Amsterdam to Peru, from one of Europe’s most affluent cities to a third-world country full of untamed jungle and indigenous people practicing ancient traditions and living off the land without power or running water. It was a stark change from the luxurious urban existence I was accustomed to, and the high society circles that surrounded my professional music career.
By the time I was thirty years old, I had played in some of Europe’s most acclaimed orchestras and with some of the finest classical music conductors. My girlfriend, a gorgeous and accomplished violinist, lived with me in a beautiful apartment in Amsterdam, the capital of my homeland. We were surrounded by friends and family, and orchestra life had brought me to the leading cultural cities of the world, to their most beautiful concert halls and their circles of wealth and power. Touring with orchestras meant all-expense-paid trips to the best hotels and the richest enclaves all over the world, and all to play music for the cultured class, and to bask in the afterglow of stardom and admiration at the cocktail parties and receptions that followed. Friends of mine, reflecting on my home in Amsterdam and my professional career touring the world, had said that it seemed I had a perfect life.
But there was something missing. I had always sensed that. Touring with the orchestras did not satisfy a deeper thirst and curiosity for a different kind of travel, and for years I had spent my long summer breaks backpacking in parts of the world that many of my musician colleagues would never visit and could scarcely imagine. I had toured through Cambodia, visited the backlands of Laos, traveled again and again through remote parts of India, and explored Tibet with a Buddhist nun on the backseat of a motorbike.
And then my first trip to South America two years ago had planted the seeds of change that transformed my life in the most unexpected of ways. In the previous six months I had ended my relationship, closed my professional music career, abandoned my life in Amsterdam, and moved to the Sacred Valley of Peru to open a center for healing. And now, just a few weeks after having arrived in Peru, still in the midst of setting up my healing center, I was on a boat in Brazil in the middle of the Amazon with a bunch of Indians.
It grew dark. The Indians steered the boat toward the shore, pulling up to a tiny village made up of eight or so simple wooden houses with palm roofs. The sun was setting, painting the sky a fiery red. Helping me out of the boat, the Indians led me toward one of the houses. I watched their every move, observing them closely. I did not know what would happen next. They invited me to sit and rest after the long boat ride. Sitting on the porch of that house, I watched them gather sticks from the shore, and then quickly make a fire and begin to prepare some food. It all happened naturally and seemed effortless. When food was ready, they motioned for me to sit next to them and handed me a plate.
As I ate the simple meal they served me, I remembered the woman in Tibet, perhaps the first indigenous person I ever met, who introduced me to a seemingly effortless and intuitive way of being. It happened at the beginning of my trip to Tibet, and I was running through the streets of Lhasa carrying a heavy backpack with no clue where I was going, and with a stranger I had barely spoken to. I smiled to myself; my current situation in the jungles of Brazil was not so different.
The Tibetan woman had appeared out of nowhere, motioning for us to come in off the streets. She escorted us into a back room behind her kitchen, where we set down our bags and began catching our breath. We were full of adrenalin. We had just run away from our group tour, sprinting from the hotel and breaking the rules of our tightly-controlled visas. We knew what we had done was illegal, and that our tour guide and the Chinese authorities would be searching for us. The Chinese government had been jailing and punishing tourists who broke the rules by traveling outside of the licensed tour groups.
She must have known this too. The Tibetan people had endured horrors since the Chinese invasion of their country, and yet this woman radiated a calm peacefulness. She gestured for us to sit down on the sofas, and then went to the kitchen. I couldn’t believe what had just happened and sat silently, my heart pounding and my breath slowly calming. After a while she came back, and with the same deliberate calmness and silence, served us two bowls of delicious, hot soup.
We stayed with the woman, out of sight and gauging our situation. Over those few days I grew to love her presence, her calmness, her gentleness and hospitality. Although we didn’t share a language and could not speak to each other, our communication happened in the silence. We used simple gestures and a focused attention that communicated a mutual respect and a way of honoring the other person, even in the simplest of exchanges. She seemed to have a deep wisdom inside, and a strong, confident connection to her intuition. She lived simply, without many of the comforts of the Western world, and yet I felt she was ahead of modern life in many ways. That time in her home planted a desire inside of me to learn more about the kind of intuition and way of communication she had shown me.
And here, on the shore of a river on the other side of the world, these Indians were showing me a similar kind of effortless and intuitive communication. They radiated a calmness and open generosity that seemed to rise up from a deep well of wisdom and a strong, confident connection to self.
When dinner was finished, the women cleaned up the dishes and the men stayed around the fire, talking and laughing. We could not communicate with words, but I started to laugh along with them, feeling their energies. The tension I had felt all day on the boat and when first arriving to this small riverside village had transformed into an evening of laughter and enjoyment. The Indians were open and generous, helping me with simple things I was unfamiliar with, and sharing their food and their company with me. My anxiety melted away, and I began to trust my strange new situation more and more.
After a while the men and women started hanging hammocks in a big open space inside one of the houses. Gesturing, they asked if I had a hammock to sleep in. I had nothing but my backpack. A woman walked out of the house and returned a few minutes later with a hammock for me. With help, I hung it across the room and climbed in. As I settled into the hammock and toward sleep, I started to think back on how this all had begun.
With all of the activity leading up to my move to Peru, I hadn’t prepared for my trip to Brazil beyond visiting a friend in Rio Branco. That completed, I had no plan—no guidebook, no maps, nothing. Rio Branco is a big, filthy city and one of the doorways into the Amazon, and so I decided to just walk in no particular direction, and began wandering through the town. Then I came upon a road sign: CRUZEIRO DO SUL – 650 KM.
I stopped in my tracks. My heart skipped a beat. I had forgotten about that name, Cruzeiro do Sul. I first heard it while deeply immersed in one of my Ayahuasca ceremonies. The memory of the ceremony in the Netherlands, not far outside Amsterdam, came rushing back. A few months before leaving the Netherlands, lying under a cozy blanket, deep under the influence of the Medicine, I had received three clear messages. It was not a conversation: it was as if Madre Ayahuasca started by just repeating a word:
“Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá, Yawanawá…”
She whispered that word into my ear for about half an hour, very calmly, very gently, and at the same time crystal clear. I asked her what that word meant, but she just kept whispering the word, repeating it over and over. When she finally stopped, I had a vision of a man with one arm. He looked down on me from above, watching me. I saw him in my vision, almost like being in a dream. He didn’t say anything or make any sign or gesture. He just stood and watched me. In that space, it seemed clear that inside he held a lot of knowledge and wisdom.
After a while Madre Ayahuasca had started to whisper in my ear again:
“Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul, Cruzeiro do Sul…”
She repeated that phrase into my ear over and over.
When she finished, there was a pause. Then I heard one word. I didn’t understand it as well as the others, and it was voiced just one time:
The word was pronounced deeply, strongly, unlike the gentle whispers that had preceded it. It carried a force, a vibration, that I couldn’t remember feeling before in my life. The strength of the word, in a language I didn’t know, shook me up a bit.
After the ceremony I talked with the man who had led it, and learned that Cruzeiro do Sul was a city in Brazil. The Ayahuasca we had drunk that night had been prepared there. As for the rest, it didn’t leave a strong impression inside of me, and the memory faded to the back of my mind. I had no clue what Yawanawá was, and despite being initially shook up by hearing “Muka” I forgot about that word.
And then my life went on. With all of the changes and preparations around my move to Peru, I had mostly forgotten about those messages. And now here, six months later, walking randomly through an unknown Brazilian city, I saw one of them printed on a road sign right in front of me.
I stood still. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had to collect myself for a moment. My life had been busy and full with moving from one continent to another, and for months my mind had been preoccupied with planning and communications. Seeing that sign brought me immediately out of my mind into the present, into my body. I took a deep breath. There were no questions. I knew that I had to go to Cruzeiro do Sul.
The next morning I boarded a small plane from Rio Branco to Cruzeiro do Sul. I gazed down from the plane onto the mighty Amazon Rainforest, a carpet of green covering the earth. Rivers curved through the trees, winding snakelike through the forest. I felt like a little boy, my nose pressed up against the airplane's window. This place was called the lungs of the planet. Here there was said to exist a remedy for every disease—the Earth’s own pharmacy. From above, it seemed pristine, untouched by industry and Westernization. My body vibrated with excitement. I didn't know what my arrival in Cruzeiro do Sul would bring me, but I felt a deep confidence and trust that I was headed in the right direction. I was in the home of the great Madre Ayahuasca.
I faced my first test when I walked out of the airport in Cruzeiro do Sul. What was I doing here? I asked myself. I didn’t speak a word of Portuguese and had no clue what to do next. I wandered around the airport for a while, hoping for a kind of sign. Soon I saw a man, the only Western person in sight. I approached him cautiously and struck up a conversation. I told him I had come to Cruzeiro do Sul very unexpectedly and that I didn’t know anything about the area. I hoped he could give me some guidance on what to do and where to go. He told me he worked at the local university and knew the area quite well. What a relief it was to hear those words! He asked me if I wanted to visit a Santo Daime religious community. I thought about it, but then felt strongly that I was not there to visit the Santo Daime. I had already visited several other Santo Daime communities in Rio Branco and other parts of Brazil. I loved my time with them, and I felt I was in Cruzeiro do Sul for something else.
I told him as much, and he replied, “Okay, would you like to visit some indigenous communities?” When he said that, my heart leaped inside of me. I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.
“Yes! That would be great!” I answered, excitement coursing through me.
He called over another man, a Brazilian, spoke to him briefly in Portuguese, then said to me: “Go with this guy. He will take you in his car for a few hours and drop you off in a small harbor village. There, take any boat going upstream. There are several indigenous communities upriver. All of them are safe and will be good to visit. If you are up for a little adventure, go with him and see where you end up.”
This seemed surprisingly casual and vague, and my excitement now felt mixed with anxiety. But looking into the eyes of this man, I felt that I could trust him. I nodded my head in approval. An hour or so later, I was sitting in a car next to someone I didn’t know and couldn’t speak with, as he knew no English. We drove in silence. I spent the hours in the car much in the same way I had on the plane: nose pressed against the window, eyes glued to the incredible Amazon forest, taking it all in. I had heard so much about the mighty Amazon in my childhood, the place with countless undiscovered species of plants and animals, one of the most biodiverse places on this planet. I wanted to ask a million questions, about every plant and animal, every turn in the road, but I had no words to communicate with my traveling companion. It was a special lesson in patience. I just had to wait and see where he would take me.
Four hours later we arrived in a small, dirty town next to a mighty river. There were street dogs running around, trash strewn everywhere, vultures circling. A group of people sat together under a big tree. I got out of the car and walked immediately to the river. It was wide, with a powerful current, and full of dead trees. A boat was just leaving the muddy shoreline headed upstream, with three Indians on it. I shouted to them to come back, and they returned to shore. There was no easy way for us to communicate. I motioned with my hands to ask if I could go with them. They asked me a question in a language I didn’t understand, and in full trust and without a clue what question I was answering, I said, “Sim!” Yes! I just wanted to get on that boat, no matter what. I ran back to the car, put some money in the driver's hand and said my goodbyes, speaking in a fast and excited English; the poor guy had no clue what I was saying to him. I stepped into the boat and waved goodbye to my driver as we disappeared around the river bend.
I replayed all this as I fell asleep in my hammock, in that tiny simple jungle hut, awestruck by where my path had taken me. What could possibly be in store, I wondered, as I drifted off to sleep, a thousand animals singing in the background.
Early the next morning the Indians woke me up. After a simple breakfast we continued on, motoring our boat up the river into the vastness of the Amazon. The jungle grew more and more beautiful. A few hours later we arrived in another small, jungle village. The boat landed on the shore. We all got out. Again, the Indians were kind and helpful, placing my bag on the shore and helping me to get out of the boat. I walked up the shore seeing a few wooden structures with palm roofs, much like the house we had slept in the night before. I could also see a bigger, open structure that seemed to be some kind of temple.
As I inched closer, I saw that there were hundreds of people walking around. The men wore feather crowns and skirts made from dried leaves, and some were holding hands and dancing in a circle together with women whose breasts were bare and painted red. Many of their faces were painted black and red with artful designs. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. It looked like a scene straight from a Discovery Channel documentary. I sat down, mesmerized. There was a big fire burning brightly, a group of Indians sitting around talking and laughing. I saw some of them using small pipes and blowing something into each other’s noses.
One of the Indians from the boat put my bag next to me; I had completely forgotten about it. I looked at it, then closed my eyes for a second. These people had been so generous and welcoming to me, I thought. I stood up, giving him a big hug of gratitude. When we let go I gave all my attention to him, put my right hand on my heart, and bowed my head gently. He looked steadily at me, receiving my attention and gratitude without moving an inch. No words were needed. In that moment, we understood all that we wanted to communicate.
I sat down again and continued watching everything happening right in front of me. At one point one of the Indians with a feather headdress walked up and asked me in plain English: “Who are you? What are you doing here?” I was blown away to hear somebody speak English, and took a deep breath. It took me a while to respond.
“So glad to speak to you. I haven’t spoken English for days. I am Dennis,” I answered him. “To be honest I have no clue what I am doing here.”
The guy looked at me in disbelief: “What do you mean you have no clue what you are doing here? How did you get here?”
“How I got here is quite the story, but I would love for you to tell me where I am?”
“You don’t know where you are?”
I nodded my head from side to side: “I have no clue where I am.”
“You are in Mutum, one of the villages of the Yawanawá Indians.”
Upon hearing that word — Yawanawá, one of the words from my vision—a huge wave of warmth rushed through my body. I closed my eyes, tears welling in my eyes and running down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe my ears. Here I was, in the middle of the Amazon, as far away from my world as I could get, in a place that I didn’t know, yet somehow I had been guided here. I felt that finally, I understood the message that had come to me in the Ayahuasca ceremony in the Netherlands. It, and all the synchronicities since, had led me here, to the Yawanawá, an indigenous tribe in the Amazon. It was miraculous, unbelievable. Energy was rushing through my body.
I sat there for a long time, overwhelmed with gratitude. Tears continued running down my face. I could barely grasp what just had happened, and what was happening right there and then. The path I had been on for months, which had seemed so uncertain and risky at times, now seemed fated, and guided by a pearl of masterful and unfathomable wisdom. Madre Ayahuasca had been leading me down this path. My trust in the Medicine suddenly seemed immense, boundless. Could I compare the level of trust I now felt for the Medicine with anything else in my life? Having been led by a vision, and now arriving at the Yawanawá in this way, I felt propelled by a higher purpose beyond anything I had imagined.
With my emotions running so high, it took me a while to get up and join the festivities. When I did, I learned that I had arrived in the middle of the first Mariri Festival in Mutum. There, all the Yawanawá got together to dance, sing, and perform their ceremonies with their sacred Medicines. It was an amazing sight. The women danced in circles, sang songs, and painted each other’s bodies. The children were running around in their skirts, full of joy, playing and laughing. The men were sturdy and strong, most of them with short, muscular bodies. I thought I must look bizarrely strange to them, a skinny, white Dutch man, nearly twice as tall as some of them. But they welcomed me into their celebration with smiles, singing, and an open, gracious joy.
Next to the temple, a big fire burned, and closer to the fire, men were playing music. It was high-energy and full of celebration. Some of the women danced in rows in front of the musicians. I got up from my seat and joined in the celebration, dancing to the powerful music of the Amazon.
For two days I celebrated with the Yawanawá, learning about their customs and enjoying the company of these beautiful, open people. At certain times during the celebrations, the Yawanawá held their sacred ceremonies with Ayahuasca. On those days I watched, but I did not drink their Ayahuasca, what they call Uni. Although I had started to lead Ayahuasca ceremonies in the Netherlands before my move, and I would be leading ceremonies at my new healing center in Peru, I had decided to take a little break from Ayahuasca for a few weeks. This abstinence was part of re-centering myself following the enormous changes and shifts I had been undergoing as I relocated from Amsterdam to Peru and prepared to embark on my new path of running a center for healing. I had not expected to have the opportunity to drink medicine with the Yawanawá, with an indigenous tribe during one of their own festivals deep in the Amazon itself, where the medicine originated. But I kept my commitment to myself, and observed their Uni ceremonies without participating.
After two days of celebrations, I decided to leave the crowd and spend some time in the forest. I had not come for a festival. As much as I had been enjoying myself, I felt I had come for something else. I felt I had been led there, and had to find out why.
Being in the jungle helped bring me back into myself. After all the novelty and spectacle of the Yawanawá celebrations, being alone in the majestic wildness of the jungle was starkly different, another kind of intense novelty and spectacle: layer upon layer of greenery and abundant life, the fullness of insect symphonies, the arias of birds. I wandered through the jungle, following the paths I found in the forest, retracing my steps so as not to get lost, enchanted at every turn by the magic of the jungle.
After an hour of walking through the thick flora, I came to a center where people were doing dietas. A dieta is an ancient way to work with very powerful plants—master plants. A dieta can last from a couple days to a year and requires the person to follow a strict diet, spend time mostly in solitude, be completely celibate, and ingest one of the master plants. Dietas provide many benefits, including very deep, intense, spiritual experiences.
I had just heard a little about dietas and wanted to know more about them and how they were conducted by the Yawanawá. As my trust in the Medicine grew, I felt more and more interested in learning how to tap deeply into its wisdom. Dietas are a primary path for such deep work, I had learned. And as Ayahuasca slowly became more known outside the jungles of the Amazon, and to Western people such as myself, it seemed that these ancient practices were opening up to the world. Some people I knew from the Santo Daime had said that this opening is because the plants are beginning to reveal themselves to the world, to help us heal and awaken, and to prepare us to take the next step as a human family.
I walked around the center and talked with some people. I was the only visitor there, and I felt a bit strange, like a tourist. There was one guy on his fifteenth dieta—according to him his last one before becoming a master shaman, or what the Yawanawá call a pajé. I looked at him, my head abuzz with questions, but decided to leave him in peace.
I continued walking deeper into the jungle, breathing in the energy of the plants and relishing my solitude. It felt amazing to be alone in the forest, walking and listening to its many sounds. I was feeling restored, replenished by such abundance and the energetic life all around me.
I began making my way back toward the village. I followed a narrow, winding path, and then I turned a corner and saw the man I didn’t even know I had been looking for. I stopped abruptly and looked at him. I could hardly believe my eyes. There was the man I had seen in my vision during that Netherlands ceremony. He was missing his left arm. He stood perfectly still, in the middle of the forest. I took a deep breath. He watched me in silence. I felt a rush of energy going up my spine. The energy of his presence left me feeling humbled; I could feel his connection to the plants, to spirit, to the Creator. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Finally, I approached and spoke to him. Using a strange combination of my half-Spanish and his Portuguese, we tried to communicate. I asked if we could walk back to the village and find a translator. He looked me in the eyes and nodded. We walked side by side, in silence, back to the village. Just walking next to him was a marvelous experience. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Sometimes he would stop and point something out to me: a bird, a plant, a tree. No more words were exchanged during our walk back to the village.
When we arrived back in Mutum, I found someone willing to translate. We sat down and started to talk. His name was Luis. He asked who I was, and I explained that I came from the Netherlands and had just moved to Peru to open a healing center. I told him that in the center, I would work with the plants, with nutrition, and with natural medicines, all with the intention of healing. All the while he just listened and nodded. When I finished, he asked if I worked with the sacred Medicines. I told him that I had just started to hold ceremonies with Ayahuasca. I explained the way I worked: in small groups, with the intention of healing inside the ceremony, particularly using music as a modality.
I also told him that I was not personally drinking Ayahuasca at that time. I said I saw Madre Ayahuasca as a great teacher and that, as with every good teacher in my life, I hoped to eventually be independent. I felt I had learned a lot from this teacher, and it felt good to take a small break.
After I talked for a little while, I asked him who he was. He started by telling me that his father, Antonio Luis, had been a highly respected medicine man of the tribe, and Luis had learned all about the plants and their properties from his father. Now, Luis said, he spent his life serving his people, the plants, and God. Like me, Luis was not drinking the medicine at this time; in fact, he hadn’t drunk Uni for fifteen years. Hearing those words gave me confidence that it was possible not to become dependent on Medicine. I hoped to be able to use it as a teacher, a guide, that could be visited when truly needed. I breathed a sigh of relief, amazed at the providence that had brought us together.
We came to a pause in the conversation, and Luis looked deep into my eyes for a while in silence. Then he asked if I wanted to go to his house. I looked steadily back at him and calmly nodded my head. There was nothing I would like better. No more words were needed. The next morning we left Mutum by boat and were back on the river.
Luis was not from Mutum; like most of the Yawanawá tribe, he had been visiting for the Mariri Festival. When we arrived at his village, Sete Estrellas, I was welcomed with all the generosity and openness I had been shown since arriving in the Amazon. I was flying on waves of energy, full of joy and gratitude.
I spent the next few days hanging out with the young boys, hunting, fishing, and playing soccer. Sete Estrellas is smaller than Mutum, with only about sixty people living there at that time. The children are always running, playing, and laughing with each other. Most of my days were spent with the children, who had more patience with my non-existent Portuguese.
Luis put up a hammock in his living room, and that became my bed. Apart from the living room, his house had two bedrooms. Attached to the house was an open kitchen, which was often full of people. His house was a gathering place for the village, a place where people would congregate to talk and eat. I felt very welcome there, and enjoyed getting to know the people who were always stopping by. Luis’s wife, Louisa, took care of me and welcomed me into their home as a guest. From the moment I met her, I felt an outpouring of love for her. She cooked simple but delicious food, usually rice and beans. When the boys brought back fish from their fishing excursions, she prepared what they caught, cooking the catch over an open flame.
For the Yawanawá, the jungle is their supermarket. They trust that the jungle will provide whatever they need. The men go hunting and fishing almost every day. One time, while we were out fishing on the boat, a small boy jumped overboard and caught a big lizard with his bare hands. He came to me and proudly showed his catch. I admired the beautiful animal: it was over a meter long, with a rainbow of colors, green, blue, yellow, and red. It was truly amazing to see such an animal at close range. I suspected that the boy caught the lizard just to show off for me. But after a few minutes of admiration and keeping the animal firmly in his hands, a big stick in the hands of another man landed on the lizard’s head, sending the creature straight to heaven. That evening, we had lizard for dinner.
Over the days I began to pick up some words and phrases in Portuguese, patching things together between my very poor Spanish and our attempts at sign language. Everyone was supportive when it came to communication; it is easy to learn when everyone is helping you, and also when it is your only option. The children learned to speak slowly to me, in simple phrases, and I often pointed at things and asked, “Como é chamo?”
Those days Luis observed me, mostly in silence, sometimes pitching in with a joke that I didn’t understand but that made the others laugh. On the fourth day, he asked me to come for a walk into the jungle. It felt like an important request after not spending much time together for a few days. We left the house, crossed the river, and walked. Again, he walked in complete silence. I followed.
After we had walked for about fifteen minutes, he stopped and pointed to a plant, asking me if I knew it. I gestured that I didn’t, so he asked me to sit down and tell him what the plant was telling me. I sat down and focused on the plant, meditating on it. I opened myself to whatever it had to teach me. After about five minutes of meditation, I still was not feeling anything. I was nervous. Should I feel something? If I don’t feel something, will I fail this test? Should I just make something up to tell Luis? My mind was full of questions, trying to find the best solution for this situation. After a while I put my nervousness aside. I told Luis honestly, and a little embarrassed, that I didn’t feel much from this plant.
Luis looked at me, and said: “That is good; this is not a special plant.”
I didn't know whether to laugh or be angry. He was testing me! I decided to laugh. It was a beautiful moment. Luis smiled at me. I had passed, this time.
We walked on, and he started to point out different plants. There was one for preventing mosquito bites, another for treating burns. He showed me a plant that helped to attract women; I asked for detailed explanations about that one! Again, we laughed a lot. I realized that he was teaching and sharing his gifts with me.
We continued these walks for a few days, and each day he showed me more plants. I was learning that the Amazon is indeed the pharmacy of our world. He showed me a big tree, the bark of which could be used as a remedy for rheumatoid arthritis and back pain. He explained that, after the bark is prepared, the medicine should be consumed for twenty-eight days, increasing blood circulation and giving heat, which heals the infections and releases the pain. Luis told me that, in the Western world, people used that tree to make a pill that gives a man an erection. Again, we laughed.
One evening we sat in Luis’s house and several people from the tribe had joined us. The house was not very big, and with all the people sitting in a circle in the living room, it was quite crowded. On the floor were simple gasoline lamps made from empty jars, lighting the room with a warm glow. There was no electricity in the village. The energy in the room felt so good, and I was full of gratitude to be among those simple, beautiful, genuine people.
After a while, Luis started telling stories in the Yawanawá language. All my life I have loved stories, and that night, even without understanding a word of what he was saying, I enjoyed his stories immensely. I loved watching Luis speak and loved seeing all the Yawanawá packed into his living room, staring at him intently as he regaled them with his tales. Who needs a TV, when there are people sitting in a circle telling stories? A little later, a boat stopped at the shore. Almost everyone in the room stood up and went to look through the windows at who had arrived.
A man whom I had not seen before pulled his boat onto the shore and entered the house with a guitar in his hand. He went around the room giving everyone big hugs, and Louisa prepared him a plate of food. The room was abuzz with talking and laughter. The man greeted me, and we exchanged a hug. I was struck, as I had been every time when I hugged one of the Yawanawá men, by his strong, muscular back.
After a while, he sat down, took his guitar in his hands, and started playing some Yawanawá songs. There was so much joy in the music. I sat back and closed my eyes. I breathed deeply, feeling the power of the energy and music that surrounded me. I could still hardly believe where I was finding myself. Here, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, with an indigenous tribe, the Yawanawá Indians, sitting in a circle, listening to songs in a language I had never heard before. What a dream! I was soaking it all in.
The Yawanawá did not know I was a musician, but after a while, they asked if I could sing. I nodded in silence and was handed the guitar. Music had always been the universal language for me to communicate with others, without words, without the barrier of words. I tried to tune the guitar, but when I rolled the strings onto the tuning pegs, I saw they had been knotted a few times together. It was impossible to tune this guitar correctly. I had to laugh when I saw that, and the whole living room laughed with me. I sat for a moment in silence, holding the awkwardly tuned guitar, contemplating what to sing.
I felt this was a special moment: I had hardly been able to communicate since arriving in the tribe, and here was my opportunity to speak to them in the purest language I knew. The gift of music, which I had been cherishing and nurturing for many years, could now be used for a greater purpose than to fill concert halls. I felt as though all my experience in the classical music world had been preparing me for this moment: to share a song with the Yawanawá. I felt into which songs I was going to sing, which story I was going to tell them with my music.
Then it came clearly to me, with the jungle sounds in the background, I began gently plucking the guitar, singing one of my favorite mantras:
Guru Guru wahe Guru
Guru Ram Das Guru
When I started to play, Luis rose and came to sit next to me, listening in full concentration. Although I had played in front of audiences of many thousands of people, I felt a bit nervous in that small, intimate room. I kept my eyes closed and sang straight from my heart. I sang in gratitude for the whole journey that had led me there. I sang in gratitude for all that had happened, gratitude for all the endings and all the beginnings. Gratitude for that moment. Gratitude poured through me, coursing through my song, through my music.
When I finished singing, there was a beautiful silence in the room. Luis patted me on the shoulder: “Muito bom!” I felt a humbleness inside of me; the room was glowing from the gasoline lamps. Some people were holding their thumbs up in the air. He asked me what the song was about. I explained, in my best half-Spanish and non-existent Portuguese, that it was a song in an ancient language from India, a country far in the East, where there are great mountains. Guru meant “nome de Deus,” or the name of God, and for wahe, I put my hands in the air in a gesture of praise. He nodded, and then rose and went back to his place. We spent the rest of the evening passing around the guitar, singing and laughing. It was such a beautiful night.
When I woke up the next morning in my hammock, I felt that the energy in the house had changed. It felt serious, like something was about to happen. I stayed in my hammock for a moment, trying to figure out what was going on. Normally in the early mornings, Luis’s house was full of people drinking coffee, talking, laughing, and planning their day together. But nobody was around. There was no breakfast. The house was quiet, and nobody spoke.
Luis appeared and commanded me to follow him. Not a question, a command. I got up out of my hammock and gestured, asking if there would be some breakfast. Luis said firmly that there would be no breakfast that morning. Surprised, I took my towel to prepare to walk to the river to shower. Luis stopped me with a movement with his one hand, making clear that I was to get dressed and follow him. No breakfast, no shower. Something was happening indeed.
I put on my trousers, a sweater, and my rubber boots and walked outside. Luis stood a few meters from the house, waiting for me. As soon as I came out, he gestured for me to follow him, then turned and started to walk. I followed at a distance as he walked into the forest. Everything felt different. He walked in front of me, not next to me—silently, and at a steady pace. Not like our other walks, where he would explain about plants, pointing to a monkey or a bird high up in the trees. This time he was not pointing out anything at all.
After more than an hour of walking in silence, we arrived at a clearing in the jungle. He instructed me to sit down. I sat down on a fallen log that lay on the ground and he told me that he wanted to speak to me. He was pacing a bit around the clearing, looking into the jungle as if he was expecting something or somebody. I felt nervous. The seriousness of his energy was so different from what I was accustomed to. My thoughts started to wander. I was an hour from a tiny village in the middle of the jungle, more than two days from the civilized world and any method of communication. Was I in danger? What had I gotten myself into?
I brought myself back, breathing deeply. That kind of thinking would get me nowhere. I focused my mind on the present and waited patiently for Luis to begin. After a long silence, he did. When he started to speak, his tone matched the seriousness that I had felt all morning.
Luis began by saying that he was grateful for the creator, grateful for his tribe. I had to really focus to understand his Portuguese. He was grateful for all the knowledge that had been guarded for such a long time through his ancestors. He was grateful for his father, who had taught him everything. This place, he pointed to the place in the jungle we were sitting in, was the place where his father had told him everything he knew about the plants. He was very grateful for his father and for all that he had learned through him. One of the important things he had learned in his life, from the old traditions and in his own experiences, was that dreams are very important; they can carry important messages that can be taken into this reality. Those dreams could show a potential of a future yet to come, or give more clarity about the past. In dreams, time does not exist as it does in daily reality. “Dreams are very important,” he repeated. “We have laws and rules and leaders in the tribe, and those are very important as well. But dreams,” he continued, “can be the most important guides of all.”
After those words he stayed silent for a few minutes. When he started to speak again, he described a dream he had a few weeks earlier. In that dream, God had come to him. “When God visits you in a dream, you should listen,” he told me. “Those dreams are very important.” In that dream, God had told him that a white man would come, that this man would not be drinking Uni (Ayahuasca), and that he would sing the name of God in Luis’s house. In the dream, God told Luis that he should teach this man everything he knew.
Hearing those words, a wave of emotions rushed through my body. I was covered with goosebumps, and tears were rolling down my cheeks. We looked each other straight in the eyes, sitting together on that fallen log in the middle of the Amazon.
After a while he continued. He said that the night before, he had another dream. God had come to him again. In the dream He told Luis that I was that white man. We sat there in silence for a long time, so many feelings rushing through my body, so many thoughts racing through my mind.
“You can be a true pajé, a shaman,” Luis said. “I can see that clearly. I am here to help you in any way I can.” He paused for a moment. “You have left your blood family,” he continued. “You left your people and your country. But now you have come to the Amazon to find your spiritual family. My house is your house, and you are welcome here whenever you want. If you want, I will teach you.”
At that moment, all the choices I had agonized over the prior months now seemed cleared of further doubt. I knew I made the right choice in leaving the Netherlands. I had chosen the right path. The pieces of my life I had been puzzling over were now coming together. What a beautiful confirmation Luis’s words were for me. We looked into each other’s eyes in understanding and confirmation; no more words were needed.
Then Luis announced, “The first step in your education will be a dieta with our most sacred plant: Muká.”
Hearing that word, my body shivered. My vision in the Netherlands, where I had heard that single word spoken so deeply and powerfully, came back to me. I closed my eyes and remembered that moment. After a while, using my half-Spanish, my non-existent Portuguese, and my hands, I told Luis about that vision. He smiled, nodded, and told me that in the ancient tradition, the dieta of Muká would only be open to a person where Muká appears in a dream of that person. We smiled at each other: it was all unfolding naturally.
“But,” he cautioned, “it will not be an easy journey; you must be ready. If you are not ready, you will not return.” I looked him in the eyes and understood what he was saying. “You can die?” I asked. He looked straight at me, seriously and calmly, and nodded.
Looking into his eyes, I felt confident that I was ready. We smiled at each other and exchanged a big hug. I felt exhilarated: the dream was unfolding. I told him that I would love to do the dieta of Muká with him and that I would first go to Peru to open my healing center, and after that, I would come back to the jungle. “In three months I will be back,” I told him boldly.
A few days later, I said my goodbyes to my new friends and travelled on a boat out of the jungle and into urban Brazil, and then to Sacred Valley in Peru. There, in October 2013, I opened the doors of the healing center, in a beautiful, yellow house in a little town called Pisac.
It was far more than three months before I returned to Luis and the Amazon. I was distracted by another dream, my dream of a center for healing in Peru, but I never forgot about Luis and the Yawanawá.