September 4, 2013

Dream Tobacco: For "Apa" Mariano

It was a brilliant September afternoon on the upper Manu river, at the end of the dry season when strong breezes and gathering clouds announce the coming of the long season of rains. I had walked an hour along a well-used path through the forest connecting the central Matsigenka village of Yomybato to the outlying residence and gardens of Mariano and his family. Mariano, one of my key informants during many months of ethnographic and ethnobotanical research, was sitting in a rustic, open-sided construction thatched with palm leaves, the unfinished kitchen area of his new house.

We talked for a few minutes, and then he got a mischievous look in his eye, and said, “I’ve got something for you.”

He reached between the panels of palm thatch on the underside of the low roof and removed a short bamboo tube plugged with corn husks. He uncapped the tube and dug in with a pointed stick, extracting a few wads of a sticky black substance.

“What is that?” I asked.

Opatsa seri,” he replied.

He put a pinch into his mouth and chewed, grimacing at the taste.

"Opatsa seri was the philosopher's stone, the stuff of legend":
Mariano preparing dream tobacco in 1992.

I was surprised. I had heard about opatsa seri, ‘tobacco paste,’ during some twelve prior months of fieldwork among the Matsigenka. Mariano and other storytellers had described this magical substance in legends about ancient times. Opatsa seri, a highly concentrated paste made of tobacco and Banisteriopsis ["ayahuasca"] was the substance that first gave ‘Blowing Spirit,’ Tasorintsi, the transformative powers needed to create the world and all its creatures. It was also used by ancient shamans to change themselves into animals or fly to distant realms. But until that afternoon, none had hinted to me that this mythical substance was still manufactured and consumed. 

Opatsa seri was the philosopher’s stone, the stuff of legend.

“Open your mouth,” said Mariano.

He removed the masticated black quid -- about the size of a pencil eraser -- from his own tongue and placed it on mine.


The little piece of opatsa seri was perhaps the most bitter thing I had ever put in my mouth, tasting like a mixture of unsweetened coffee powder, coal tar and Vegemite. A dry, burning sensation slid down the back of my throat.

“Is it bitter?” Mariano asked.

“Very,” I shook my head and winced.

“Swallow,” he said.

I hiccuped a few times as the bitter quid descended, settling uneasily in my stomach. Mariano explained the use of opatsa seri to me in this way: 

"You take opatsa seri in the afternoon. Not too late, or you won’t be able to sleep, but like now, when the sun is over there [about 4 PM]. It makes you dream. Only good things. People, lots of people. Come back tomorrow and tell me if what I say is not true."

"...beautiful Matsigenka tunics decorated with geometric designs...":
Mariano as he appeared in the 1994 film "The Spirit Hunters"
That night, my dreams were nothing short of fantastic. I had returned to Yomybato a decade in the future, and found the village transformed. Matsigenka ethnobotany had become the focus of international medical research. Doctors, chemists and botanists from around the world came and went from vast research facilities, fashioned as neo-Mayan pyramids of gleaming white stone. All the foreign visitors wore beautiful Matsigenka tunics decorated with geometric designs. Matsigenka had become a required language in medical schools around the world. I felt a sharp pang of jealousy when I met a team of Yankee doctors who spoke Matsigenka better than I, notwithstanding their distinct New York accent.

I was given a tour of a labyrinthine museum of exquisite pre-Columbian artifacts and Matsigenka objets d’art. Then I was taken through endless rows of greenhouses and orchards, where hundreds of medicinal plants were being cultivated for cutting-edge medical research: aromatic herbs, fantastic fruit trees, beautiful flowers, succulent vines. Young Matsigenka botanists, fluent in English, explained the names and uses of different plants and showed me laboratories and clinics where researchers tested new drugs on human and animal subjects.

The images were lucid and vivid, in full color, with clear sounds and smells. The dream seemed to last for many hours, and when I woke up it was dark. I wondered whether I had slept an entire day. But when I checked my watch, it was still very early in the morning: only a few hours had passed since I had fallen asleep.

I took notes on the dream, amused by the more absurd parts but nonetheless intrigued by the powerful images, apparently induced by Mariano’s ‘dream tobacco.’

I went excitedly to Mariano’s the next morning to tell him of my extraordinary dreams.

He laughed, not surprised, and responded: 

"I told you so. Tobacco paste is kepigari, ‘intoxicating’. It is very strong. It was calling to you, it wanted you. It took you to visit the Sangariite, the guardian spirits. They are very wise and good, like doctors and teachers. They can show you many things." 

 -- In Memoriam, Mariano Vicente Kicha, 1930?-2013 --

"They are very wise and good, like doctors and teachers":
Mariano in 2012 (photo courtesy of Nancy Santullo)
This text first appeared independently as “An ethnobotanist dreams of scientists and shamans collaborating.” In: J. Narby & F. Huxley (Eds.) Shamans through Time. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 298-300 (2001), as excerpted from "Psychoactive plants and ethnopsychiatric medicines of the Matsigenka." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4): 321-332 (1998).