You’d have thought I’d learnt some lessons by then, after years of roaming round the New Age scene of three countries. Like: you don’t know people until you’re on the road with them. My excuse is the circumstances.
While seeing my parents was the point of my annual Christmas visit to Delray Beach, it invariably turned into a test of inner resources. The pool, public library and malls would only take me so far and then filial affection acknowledged its losing war against the boredom of a retirement village. Hence, my excitement about Dan and María, strangers who, having read my piece on yajé, motored all the way from Orlando to meet me.
Around 45 and the offspring of Adventists, he was the sober, practical one, adept at computers when they were a mysterious novelty and with a scientific approach to stuff like pyramid power and Mayan prophecies, while she, in her early 30’s was a bouncy, bushy-haired Nuyorican who supplied the “soul” that made them seem like the beau ideal of the alternative society.
Parched for those on the same wavelength, as I was, our rapport was instant: they stayed overnight and then, ignoring my parents’ protests, my wife and I spent the following weekend with them.
Dan, a licensed osteopath, cured my chronic ear ache and taught me to send my first e-mail. María adjusted our auras, showed us the aromatherapy stand Dan had bought for her and cooked a great tabouli. The result was a rounder picture. He, apparently out of American Gothic, had actually done time, while she had an edgy, nagging side, was barely educated and too fanatic about her ideals. A whiff of a cigarette a mile away would make her livid. But all this deepened our friendship and after a lengthy reading of María’s angel cards, they decided to do yajé with my taita.
Before we headed for Sibundoy, they stayed at our apartment in Bogotá. Dan needed a minor surgery that would have cost him much more at home and never have included the daily home post-op visits from the surgeon, a friend whom he treated like a dago. She was messy, popped pills from the health food store non-stop and seethed when I had a smoke now and then. But not even their tremendous row about whether a yoghurt would or would not ruin his recovery rang any warning bells, given Dan’s help with my first computer and their eager talk about getting back to nature, absorbing indigenous wisdom and drinking ayahuasca.
Don Rosero’s modern house an hour by road from Pasto was hardly the wilds, but it was sufficiently rustic to highlight their contrasting characters. Dan addressed the uncomprehending natives in English and brandished the first digital camera ever seen there like the badge of a superior culture. For María, the setup was too close to her own roots for comfort and she bitched about the lack of hot water, meaty meals and muddy walks we did along the canals and also the measly few bucks charged for their room and board. Understandable for both, I thought again, though I sympathized much more with Dan, who was fascinated by Rosero’s remedies, whereas one sight of the dried plants, murky flasks and animal skulls in the “consultancy” where he held the ceremonies was enough to drive her back to her pills with a vengeance until, horror of horror, she ran out of some.
Finding more in Pasto was unlikely, I warned her, but it was either that or a nervous breakdown, so she went on her own and her purse was stolen. Out of noblesse oblige, I immediately repaired the loss (which in any case would be petty cash for her back in Orlando).
As the session approached, she became even more sullen but cheered up after I got her to admit it was nerves and explained it was normal. When Rosero eventually summoned us, however, she backed out. After reading my article, seeking me out and spending so much money on the plane fare, she now objected to the price! All at once, an intuition I´d had since Orlando (which had sharpened since her arrival) became crystal clear: what she really feared was the medicine’s definitive exposure of the gap between her fantasies and the real thing.
Impatient to begin, I yielded to Dan’s gesture that reasoning with her would be futile and with the inner earthquake that followed, its significance was forgotten by the time it dawned.
By Dan too, who, exalted as I was, exclaimed that yajé was even more astonishing than I’d made out as we trooped down to breakfast. There she sat, silent and accusing, with the bottles arrayed round her like a shield. I don’t know what it is about the trance which impels me to shock therapy at such times (and likewise to die for a cigarette). All I can say is that I drew near, took a deep drag and forcefully blew smoke in her face.
She choked, whitened, broke into a hysterical fit and ran out of the kitchen.
The screaming in the adjoining room went on for hours, so I braced myself for a rebuke when Dan finally knocked on my door. Instead, his warm embrace and compassionate smile suggested he’d risen to self-realization for a time.
“What you wrote was right. The power of yajé to get rid of the emotional garbage festering inside us is amazing”.
“Between you and María, you mean?”
“Well, it’s complicated. For one thing, my name isn’t Daniel Baker”.
Seeing me speechless, he explained that the trouble he’d told me about was only half the story.
“After I got out, I became a real bad ass and the only way to avoid a much stiffer sentence the next time was to fake my death, change my identity, hide out in Florida and go straight. There, I found I had a talent for computers that landed me a job in a state hospital, where I got interested in healing. The rest you know, but for one thing. Just as I’m on my way to the rich doctor life she was pestering me about, karma catches up. Back then, when they hired me, the state administration didn’t even understand what a computer was. Now, with the right-wing nuts, they know more about you than anywhere else and it won’t be long before they discover there’s a warrant out on me.
So, some months ago, I checked out Hawaii, even took the state exam. It’s still cool, and I reckon I can keep legal for five years at least and since it’s also wide open, by then I’ll have enough money to buy a big spread in the mountains and run an underground practice for the freaks.
The last part Mary won’t like, and as I couldn’t tell her the reason, I figured I’d sell her on the laidback lifestyle and once we’d settled in, things would take care of themselves. That’s what doing yajé here was mostly about.
Last night, the spirits were telling me it wouldn’t work, but it was only when your show freaked her out that I finally owned up and told her the truth. So, while it didn’t happen the way I’d expected, the medicine solved the problem, alright. Thanks to you, pal, and don Rosero of course.”
What happened after that, I surmised from his cutting all ties and the address in Queens on the clunky parcel that arrived a year later. I threw the typewriter María posted to pay back the debt into the trash: it was worthless, now that millions were switching to computers like myself.
Whatever his name and flaws, I sincerely wish him luck on the slopes of Haleakela. Her, I don’t want to think about anymore. But for years afterward that damned angel decal she stuck on our computer – and we were foolishly grateful for – remained as a bitter reminder of another lesson I’d failed to learn: that trying to help those who don’t want it is worse than no help at all.