The tap in the first-floor bathroom, the one used by both the customers and myself, squeaked.
It was only a short sound, in the instant between turning the tap on and water coming out, but it was loud and shrill and caught me off guard. To me, it seemed to encapsulate the spirit of the house itself – something not quite right in a place which was otherwise beautiful.
The Shaman [name left out to protect privacy] is the reason I write this, and I feel guilty and terrible for doing so because he is a good man and a good shaman. Bad habits do not make a person bad. But they do filter into the energy of a place. The Shaman has so many talents and so much love to give but it all gets lost in a mixture of drink, coca leaves, cigarettes and apathy. And denial. Or at least stubbornness.
He was a family man, doting on his baby granddaughter, driving his daughters all over the city whenever and wherever they wanted, and throwing his money into the vegetarian restaurant he keep running in the ground floor of his own home.
I met him after my first shift at the restaurant. My hands were paper dry from the soap suds and frozen from the altitude and I felt self-conscious as I shook his. They were warm and big and enveloped mine. That evening, I ran into him in the kitchen as I went to make myself some tea. He had a beer bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and immediately began to defend his actions, despite me saying nothing judgemental in the slightest.
“This is who I am,” he said, “I drink and I smoke in the evenings.”
“It’s your house,” I replied, “you can do what you like.” He thanked me and I could hear the relief in his voice. At the time I didn’t think twice about whether it was me he was trying to convince, or himself.
The next day, he asked if I wanted to come for a drive while he ran some errands in town. I said yes, hoping I would get a chance to see more of the city I had come to by chance. Instead, in the mountainous and labyrinthine maze of the La Paz streets, sitting behind a car heater always blasting on full, he explained to me some of the mysticisms of the energy he worked with and the beliefs he held.
That same night, as we drove through the darkness, he offered me some coca leaves. I had no alarm bells at that point; chewing coca leaves is very common all over the Andes. Despite being the original ingredient of cocaine, the plant itself is so far removed from its chemical counterpart that it is actually considered holy. I said yes despite the bitter taste because they help with the altitude and continued to listen to him talk.
That night, we were visited by a stranger, a man with long hair and dark shadows under his eyes, who was there to share his knowledge of San Pedro, another sacred plant. As the night drew on, The Shaman seemed to get more and more agitated and as he and the stranger began to toke on some weed, the shaman suddenly seemed to connect into the spiritual realm. He sat up straighter in his chair and began to hum, eyes closed. Before I or the stranger knew what was happening, he started blessing the man in the chair next to me, hands crossing the air in front of him in patterns I tried and failed to follow with my eyes. It seemed that the marijuana enabled him to access the spiritual realm on a deeper level than when he was sober, something he confirmed to me at a later point. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I could see that the drug was helping him and so I accepted its use and continued to watch him work.
So that was two free passes I had given him.
It transpired that the stranger who had come to visit was filled with darkness. The shaman spent over an hour trying to cleanse him, whilst I sat and watched and tried to keep out the way. I could see how the substances the shaman used were helping him; the marijuana helped him to connect to the spiritual realm and the coca leaves kept him grounded. The work he was doing, to my mind, looked beautiful. I could feel the air in the room vibrating as he cleared the negative energies from the man who had come to visit.
I was then asked to pass him a handful of the coca leaves he kept in his bag. I went to do as I was told and it was then that I decided I could no longer make excuses for him. In his bag, atop the bags of coca leaves, the packets of cigarettes and a marijuana pipe, was a half-drunk bottle of whisky.
I thought the story would end there.
I thought that I would leave him behind in La Paz, a sad man with a dependence on coca, marijuana and alcohol, who could stare into dimensions most people didn’t even knew existed, but needed substances to cope with what he saw there.
We went on a weekend trip to one of the hotels he managed, and he offered to cleanse my energies in a ceremony on one of the evenings we had there. I agreed, but as soon as we began I could tell his mind was elsewhere. I suggested that perhaps he needed to work on his own energies instead. It’s difficult to explain but I could somehow see or sense his darkness invading on our ceremony and I knew I needed to leave.
I spent the evening wandering around the grounds in the darkness. I was lucky enough to witness the most magnificent thunderstorm I have ever seen and was filled with love and appreciation for the planet and for nature. I checked on The Shaman periodically but couldn’t stay in the same room as him for more than a few moments. I could feel the darkness pouring off him, and I could tell he had a lot of work to do.
We met up later on in the night to chat about what had happened. He told me that he had experienced a battle between his two sides, good and evil. I asked him if he had been scared and he replied that he had seen all of his darkness, and that he now knew how big it was and what it looked like. I realised he hadn’t answered the question. I didn’t ask again. We spent the rest of the evening chatting about other things, laughing, relaxing.
It was then that he announced it would be the first night in more than ten years that he would be going to bed without chewing coca leaves. He said it was because he felt so loved.
Suddenly, it seemed like my whole time in La Paz had been leading up to this moment. Having been so confused and lost as a result of moving from the jungle to the middle of a massive city, I suddenly felt like I had found and achieved my purpose of being there. In many ways, it felt like I had become the shaman, taking on some of his own darkness in order to help him release it.
It didn’t matter whether it was just for one night. I felt like I had made a difference.