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The Jaguar that Roams the Mind: An Amazonian Plant Spirit Odyssey
by Robert Tindall
Park Street Press 
Reviewed by David Arnson, 3/26/2010

“A growl rumbled low in my throat. My body strained and buckled like a chrysalis from which a new form was emerging. Suddenly, a roar was torn from my throat—a roar that devoured worlds, immaculate in its rage…My physiognomy had changed. My skull was a jaguar’s. I was a cat. Oh shit, I thought. Now I’ve really done it. I’ve gone and transformed into a cat in a city where nobody knows me. I had an image of myself living on the streets of Rio, my feral eyes gleaming out from within the darkness of a cardboard box…I saw Philippe’s feet before me. ‘¿Roberto, estás bien?’ ‘¡Soy un gato!’ I replied in utter bewilderment. ‘I’m a cat!’ Oh, Philippe shrugged, is that all? He turned around and went back to the drums.”

There are plenty of books written on the subject of ayahuasca out there, but this is definitely one of the best and most fascinating. Author Robert Tindall takes you on a literal hero’s journey (see ethnobotanist Mark J. Plotkin’s fine introduction) through South America’s ayahuasca traditions and his own personal battles for wholeness after a life influenced by a broken home and addiction. Tindall is an excellent and well-read writer, quoting from and referring to various literary sources, from Shakespeare to Thoreau, to wonderful effect. His ongoing candid observations of his own condition throughout the book allow the reader to be wholly empathetic to his story and make for a great read.

Beginning in Northern Africa, we find the author retracing the steps of the Children’s Crusade of the Middle Ages, an obsession of his. When things don’t quite go as planned, he retreats to the Americas, and finds himself on the trail of the healing powers of the ayahuasca vine. Tindall has some great accounts of experiencing assorted spiritual organizations in Brazil that use “the medicine”. He writes of new-age based centers, and of congregations that have incorporated African deities into their worship. He drinks the sacrament in corners of the jungle where blissed-out participants run laps around their church. He describes religious gatherings where suits are worn and any prayerful improvisation is frowned upon.

Tracing the roots of ayahuasca even further leads Tindall and his new partner Susana deep into the jungles of Peru, where they spend time at Takiwasi, a center for the treatment of addictions that utilizes indigenous healing practices. While Susana researches icaros, the songs that shamans use to guide plant spirits, Robert settles into the roles of patient, researcher, and counselor. Here he begins to practice the dieta, which entails the intensive drinking of certain plant juices for their desired curative effects. He learns that one of the local healing techniques is to imbibe all kinds of plants for a purgative effect. There is also a classic passage where he describes drinking “yawar panga”, which mercilessly pounds him into “yogic postures of abject surrender”!

In their quest to follow the ayahuasca path to its purest forms, Robert and Susana make their way to the remote settlement of Mayantuyacu, presided over by the powerful shaman Don Juan Flores Salazar. This place, with its steaming juncture of two rivers, is a veritable rainforest wonderland. The couple embarks upon a journey deep into shamanism: an unprecedented exploration of their psyches, incorporating an extreme dieta with an immersive study of the physical and spiritual lore of plants.

Don Juan has his students draw various jungle plants, some of which they also consume as part of their diets. Their dreamwork and ayahuasca sessions increase in intensity, and their relation to the plants become so involved that the author describes “descending to the shores of the river and stroking the muscular limbs of the came renaco vine. Wholly absorbed in its tenacious strength, feeling its power running through my body, I began crooning to it like a lover.” Reading this book is akin to being shrunk into one of Pablo Amaringo’s paintings, where every square inch is a fractal segment of shamanic jungle lore and imagery. In fact, the book’s cover was painted by the late, great Don Pablo, whom Robert and Susana meet mid-story. The author undergoes a number of personal breakthroughs at this retreat, not the least of which is witnessing a visiting young woman being cured of a brain tumor through the holistic approaches used at Mayantuyacu.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and Tindall describes in gut-wrenching detail an oil company’s encroachment right up to the border of the settlement. And after such a long time spent in pristine jungle, the author cannily relates his difficulties in reintegrating into a “straight” life back in the United States. Nevertheless, his experiences ultimately enable him to shed his addict persona and reconcile with his family. Setting aside my inherent interest in the topic of this book, Tindall’s writing style is so engaging that I look forward to reading any future books he may produce, to catch another glimpse of the jaguar that roams his mind…

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