April 12, 2011

The Return of the Secret Shaman: An Amazonian healer resists persecution

Baltazar laughs, his laughter ringing as always halfway between a guffaw and a cackle.  His eyes are almost imperceptibly crossed, as if drawn by the magnetic pull of his fine aquiline nose.  His face is deeply ridged and brown but somehow ageless, his hair black and wiry and disheveled.  His grin, wide and irresistible, subsides quickly.
I have known Baltazar for twenty years:  in fact, he was the first Matsigenka native I ever met on my first trip to the Peruvian Amazon.  But I had never spent much time with him, since I usually only stop off in his village for a few days on my way to more remote settlements in the headwaters.  Still, no matter how short my stay, he always comes to visit me soon after my arrival. I often reciprocate by paying him a visit to bring him salt, flashlight batteries, and fresh coca leaves.  
He usually insists on starting conversations in broken Spanish, as if to remind me that he still remembers the day when I was just learning to speak the Matsigenka language.  He often reflects (with a remarkable, almost photographic memory) on my comings and goings, and reminisces about those who have died since my last visit.  Sometimes I tell him about my research: whom have I interviewed, what plants they have taught me, what insights into folklore, myth, and shamanism I have gleaned.  He responds, as always, with his pidgin Spanish, his aloof curiosity, his trademark cackle.
But today, as I pay him my habitual visit in the early afternoon, he asks me with an uncommon earnestness to sit beside him on a crisp cane mat.  He sits alone and speaks to me in his native tongue.
“Do you remember that story you told me about the shaman whose soul was burned by the missionary’s flashlight?”