Psychedelic tourism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is nowhere on Earth where so many shaman serve such magical brews as they do in Peru. The typical setting for a session with an ayahuasquero or jungle shaman, is to meet him at a rainforest lodge on the edge of an Amazon tributory. After giving each guest a bitter, small gourd-full of psychotropic hallucinogen, the shaman begins to rattle, chant or drum. The effects can be challenging – the drug’s purging qualities mean many people vomit, while the colourful visions may be spiritual, sexual or just plain terrifying – but most people, helped by the shaman’s guiding songs and vision, make it beyond this to a healing and ecstatic session.
The town of Ouidah hosts a voodoo festival each January and various ceremonies are held throughout the year, when costumed dancers and those “fortunate” enough to be temporarily possessed by spirits sway to the beat of drums, summoning the gods. If you’re really lucky, you might get invited in for an audience with the Supreme Chief himself, regally perched on an imitation La-Z-Boy and sipping Fanta.
There’s no better place to seek help from the potent East African spirits than verdant Pemba island. The place quietly reeks of the supernatural and is home to the area’s djinn: form changing spirits. Popo Bawa – half bat and half man but without any Hollywood blockbusters to his name – is an infamous resident. He flies into homes late at night and does dastardly things to men as they slumber in their beds. A charm placed at the base of a fig tree or the sacrifice of a goat is usually enough to keep Popo Bawa away. Respect the culture and tradition and, if lucky, an invitation to a sacrificial ceremony might just come your way.
Take a closer look among the stalls at the Mercado de Hechiceria in La Paz and among the everyday items you’ll see shrivelled llama foetuses, dried frogs and armadillos, remedies and potions, smouldering multicoloured candles and collections of amulets, charms and talismans. The stallholders, or “witches”, generally Aymara women, claim to cure almost any malady, and the methods they use have barely changed in hundreds of years. For those with more complicated problems, or just a healthy sense of curiosity, there are even yatiris (spiritual healers) to be consulted.
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