Hallucinogenic Healing with the Witch Doctor

Video highlights from The Witch Doctor Will See You Now

Piers Gibbon discusses his experience while filming in Peru.

halluncinogenic healing

By Piers Gibbon

This was my second filming expedition to Peru, so I had the luxury of knowing a little bit about what to expect. My two intrepid volunteers were Mark and Judith and they had no idea what they had let themselves in for - fish guts, caimans, stinging nettles and insects. Lots and lots of insects, most of which seemed to want to bite Judith or at least get up her nose. These insects can carry malaria and other deadly diseases so it's no joke.

The fun started with a long canoe journey up the Ucayali river and then into one of its tributaries. The river was higher than it had been for many years so it was harder going than any of us expected. There was a young boy sitting in the prow and he had two jobs - directing the boat and throwing stones at the birds - for fun.

There was a spectacular welcome to the village when we finally arrived - traditional rhythmic Shipibo dancing and singing. It was also my first glimpse of the traditional patterns on their clothing - these would come back to me in visions late one night under the influence of the hallucinogen ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca turned out to be a key to unlock the secrets of Shipibo medicine. Jorge and Luzmilla were our two shamans - they use ayahuasca as a diagnostic tool and they also say it somehow tells them which remedies to use with which patients. They are highly respected for their skills in diagnosis and then using these various plants (and animal products) to heal their patients. People travel from miles around to come and see them - after just a few days with them we could see why.

In order to "see" us clearly in the ayahuasca ceremony Jorge and Luzmilla wanted us to first vomit and then get cleansed in a flower bath. Judith was happy to join in with the flower bath but less keen on the vomiting. That became a bit of a pattern - Michael was up for anything and everything whilst Judith was much more cautious.

We came face to face with the source of many of the Shipibo remedies on a jungle trek. But to get to the primary untouched rainforest we had to walk through some tough terrain that was basically the village's agricultural area. They had to cut down the trees to cultivate their crops (and to use as firewood) and as a result there was no shelter from the sun. It was shatteringly hot and we had to make sure we had enough water. Judith found it too tough and she turned back even before we had left the village boundaries.

But the rewards for hanging on were great - not only on this trek but also through the whole Peru experience. For me personally the absolute highlight was an experience with the hallucinogenic ayahuasca brew. I have drunk it before and suffered fear, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea but this night with Jorge and Luzmilla was wonderful - peaceful, healing and insightful. I'm not sure if I was able to convey what I learned under its influence but I do remember stumbling into the camera crews hut in the early hours of the morning - I really needed a camera to talk to - I had learned secrets and I might forget them by the morning.

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