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The pain and magic of the Yopo drug


Meeting the Shaman
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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And then a genuine big privilege. Invited to join the man, the shaman, a party, a Yanomami party. And stuff called yopo.

And there was the shaman and the elders, and they're the ones who keep the entire community free of evil spirits. Now I didn't know it, but at the time, all the young men in the community were out on a long hunt. So not a lot for old men to do once they really can't hunt anymore. And by old men, I mean late 30s. Now I'm beckoned across the shabono, an oval, open space, which is strange in an entirely enclosing jungle. In fact, it's so odd that above it, there's constant thermals, the heat. So always over you in the shabono, are these beautiful king vultures catching the sun in their white wings, way up. So beneath the king vultures. Of course I go, terribly flattered.

Now I'd wondered, I mean I'd seen this happen before, and I'd always wondered why, when somebody's given a blast of yopo... Well, perhaps I better tell you. I mean, I'd just join a queue. I mean, I'm the absolute... the nothing and the nobody, of course. And indeed the Yanomami, throughout their range, their word for a foreigner is exactly the same as their word for one quarter of a turd. Not even a whole turd. They're the first created people. We can't speak properly anymore. We're degenerate. I'm afraid when you're in their territory, that's exactly what it feels like. So I'm waiting in the queue, and the shaman, the big man, he, his deputy, takes this long tube. Well, about four-feet long, and it has a pierced bean, a legume poddy thing on the end, and tips in their only... they've got one bottle, because glass is sacred. Bottle, you know, sort of spices jar from somewhere, traded up for hundreds of miles, probably. Tips this brown powder in, takes it to his mouth and goes [blowing sound] and the shaman: 'Aaah!' And puts his hands sort of back of his head like that. And then he gets another blast up the other nostril. And then, I now know how special this is, two more. Now, no man can take more than two unless you're Superman and the shaman. And then he sits there and brown snot pouring out of his nose, and then he's horribly sick. And then he gets up and he does this stamping walk. And he's holding, like this, he's holding something really heavy. And I now know he's holding the world, making sure that everything will be alright for everybody on the next day. And then after this wonderful, insanely fit and emphatic dance, he sits down, or rather he crumples.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Yanomami, yopo, drug, shaman, shabono, King Vultures

Duration: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009