The Black Smoke of Ayahuasca: A Cancer Patient Finds a Cure and Love in Ecuador
A battle with cancer led Margaret De Wys to Ecuador for traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies. After miraculous healings Margaret started an apprenticeship and began a life-altering romantic relationship with the shaman who healed her.
I interviewed author Margaret De Wys about her memoir, Black Smoke.
What led you to Ecuador to work with Ayahuasca medicine healing?
Ayahusaca brought me to South America. Pulled me down there. If I'd had a real choice, I might never have made it to Ecuador. I had no knowledge of ayahuasca in the beginning. I didn't choose it. Ayahuasca chose me. The pretext was cancer, and I believed I was dying. Carlos a Shuar uwishin (healer) came into my life in Guatemala. He'd seen the cancer inside me and said he could cure me. I followed him into the jungles of the High Upper Amazon. I had some crazy faith that what I was doing was right. Fear threw me out of the nest. It was like a big fireball, this big explosion yelled at me. Move.
Describe your first experience with Ayahusaca.
At the time I didn't know where the journey was going to take me. I was going into the unknown, into the jungle, into the soul, into the center of the earth, and my journey became much more than just about me getting healed. Healing included arduous, intense purifications, difficult initiations, and drinking plant medicines. Carlos told me I was choosing my path, my destiny to live.
The first ceremony took place in the jungle outside Puyo, Ecuador. Deep in the forest I sat quietly among the Shuar and the Quechua waiting for the affects of the medicine. It felt funereal. The only light came from the fire burning in the center of the room. The floor was pounded dirt, the overhead palm thatch, the sides of the longhouse open to the elements. Some of the locals began vomiting, others passing out. I hoped the medicine wouldn't have an affect on me. When it hit, a cold tingling rose from my feet through my core, and the floodgates in my brain opened wide flushing out images and sounds. Time expanded and receded as my pupils dilated in order to see more. The cells in my ears could hear a twig crack hundreds of yards away. My nasal cavity vibrated and I began to shake violently.
During healing Carlos drew black smoke from my flesh, where the cancer was. I looked inside. My cells were alive, pulsing, beating the rhythm of the cosmos. Some were spontaneously regenerating, sending live signals to others beside them. The dark spots in my breast were black holes sucking energy into another sphere, one in which living things were doomed. Carlos pressed hard swirling his fingertips deep into fleshy parts of me where the black smoke lay. I cried in pain as I watched his hand magnetized the black smoke. It spread like army ants in file and followed his motion away from my body.
Did you know after your first ceremony that it was possible to heal yourself with Ayahuasca?
During the ceremony I could feel the sickness being sucked out and something seemed to shift on a cellular level. The ayahuasca brought spirit doctors, and I could see inside my body. I could see the cancer moving out. I knew I would continue drinking the medicine. It or Carlos or both were curing me.
The book is about healing and also about love. When did you and Carlos start to fall in love?
I don't know. For me it just sort of naturally came into being. But later in our relationship Carlos told me Nunqui (Mother Earth) formed a pact with us, marrying us in Guatemala. He said he thought it strange because we didn't know each other. "But I knew we should be together. Now I understand why. The sickness of the earth, the sickness of the tribes, and the sickness in our bodies is linked. Nunqui wants you to help me in my work. She wants you to heal the people and the land with me," he said.
What are some of the challenges of falling in love with a shaman?
After living in the jungle for some time I suddenly realized I felt extremely alive, like I hadn't felt before. Maybe that had a great deal to do with my healing. Carlos was loving, demanding, creative, at times manipulative and stubborn. The romance, the love was compelling, so present, so real, so exciting. The experience, tactile; what took place in the jungle was riveting -- in horror, in sensuality and beauty, in the moment. Rituals, prayers, selecting medicines, placement of a person -- everything was carefully orchestrated. Carlos was/is a brilliant healer. When he heals a patient it is with great love. The spirit that flows into him is love from the heavens, from the Great Spirit.
As a lover and apprentice I was "up in there," learning during healing rituals. And that was great. I spoke with another person recently who'd apprenticed under a healer. He said there should be a support group for shaman's apprentices!
Throughout eleven trips you went back and forth to Ecuador to the United States and Canada. Was healing slowed by having to come home, or were these integration periods necessary?
No, the healing wasn't slowed. After my first trip I'd found out from doctors in New York that the cancer had disappeared. But I had a lot of integration to do. I was making judgments in my dreams and rearranging my feelings while I slept. I'd dropped my composing career, and my marriage fell apart. I lost my home. Everything flipped. And ayahuasca came to me in the States. First I'd smell it as it swirled down -- the revoltingly sweet, rotten smell. I'd have just enough time to grab on to something before I was in the spirit world. I'd be taken for as long as eight hours. Ayahuasca -- we're married now. And I don't every want to get divorced from la medicina.
Aside from writing a thoughtful book, how do you explain your experiences? What's the right way to talk about the Ayahuasca healing cosmology here at home?
I had no thought of writing this memoir. I am a composer who couldn't put two sentences together before this whole thing began. I didn't think of writing a book until three or four years after things had settled down. Then, I was forced into it. The medicine wanted me to write from a personal point of view, naturally, and in the form of a healing story.
The right way to talk about ayahuasca is with reverence. I know plant spirits and energy heal the body. I know there is a vast, inexplicable universe and there's inherent power in that knowledge. I want people to know that ayahuasca embodies the holy sacred, natural living, respect, and love for Mother Earth. The medicine reveals to a person that they know what life is. To know how to live. To know its great value. As an apprentice, to know one has helped people heal is the happiest feeling. Carlos showed me remarkable treatments that were both death-defying and life-affirming. Black Smoke reveals the process of deep risk, trust, and the female voice establishing psychic and physical authority.
The book chronicles your journey through the jungle, but it also takes you back to the Hudson Valley and puts Carlos in your world. Did the relationship change and how did he deal with your culture?
People were crowding us to be healed. I was talking to cancer patients daily. Carlos's work was very effective here. But Black Smoke is a cautionary tale. Crossing cultures can be dangerous, and in the book the reader will see how dangerous it was for Carlos, and for me.
What is the role of the vision quest today? Can it still serve a purpose in western, post-modern culture?
Absolutely. Vision quests strip away the false, the pretentious, the negative, and open one to a world of life, possibility. Both are gateways beyond fear. The roots of disease (spiritual, emotional, physical) are fear, repression, the calcification of love and the life force within a person. Ayahusaca and vision quests unleash artificial trappings and burdens. This kind of healing is the holiest work in the world.
Any new projects in the works? What are you up to these days? What do you want to learn more about yet?
I've recently returned from Nigeria where I live very simply in an Igbo village. No electricity, running water, bathrooms, refrigeration. But Ah! The people and the land. Palm wine. Kola nuts. Hot peppers. Pounded yam. Music. Holy Spirit. Spirit Masks. Tradition. Ancient ways of curing. Herbal medicine people. Traveling has allowed me to work with healers in Brazil, Egypt, Sub Sahara Africa and Indonesia. There seems to be another book coming about spirit possession, I think.