Several years ago when I first sat in an ayahuasca ceremony at Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual with maestra shaman Estela Pangoza, her icaros, the healing ayahuasca songs, felt like scalpels of love penetrating deeply into my heart, spine and psyche. I was captivated by her skill, and by the kindness and dignity with which she conducted ceremony. As she sang, I felt myself elevated, coming more into alignment, a sense of everything being put together in a loving and harmonious way. Over several ceremonies, I discovered that Estela is a shaman of great talent. From that point on, I’ve had great affection and respect for her and for her medicine.
Since that time, I’ve sat with Estela at various ayahuasca healing centers, including Nihue Rao, Dreamglade, and Madre’ Divina, all located outside of Iquitos, Peru. My wife Zoe and I brought a group of women to Dreamglade when Estela was there, and many of those women underwent beautiful transformations over the course of several ceremonies. But now Estela is doing something that separates her from the other women shamans who act mainly as auxiliary shamans to well-known male curanderos. She has started her own center, Aya Madre.’ Located off of Kilometer 22 of the Nauta Road heading south out of Iquitos, Peru, the center is woman owned and operated, a first in the area. And if you listen to the general, uninformed buzz about such a project, the prognosis is gloomy.
Sitting at the Amazon Bistro in Iquitos, I listen to a well-known and respected owner/operator of one of the better ayahuasca healing centers in the general Iquitos area. “The problem with the native people is that they don’t know what the foreign pasajeros want and need. They’re the best at ceremony, no question. But when it comes to running centers, they really haven’t a clue. Everybody knows this. There’s no doubt.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed many times, that only gringos know how to provide for gringos, who are, after all, the people heading to the various ayahuasca healing centers. The centers are not appealing to native people, nor to mestizos, those of mixed native and European heritage. The seemingly endless parade of people who troop to Peru for ayahuasca ceremonies are from the US, Europe, Russia.
“They want showers, toilets that function, food that won’t make them sick,” says my dinner companion. He has been running his center for several years now, and it really does work beautifully well. “If my center were native run,” he tells me, “it would be a mess.” It is a hard condemnation, both generally true, and also unfair.
Apparently he is not familiar with Francisco Montes, a mestizo shaman who runs one of the most extraordinary ayahuasca retreats in the area, with ponds and beautiful cabins, each with its own shower and toilet and sink. A legend in the ayahuasca space, Francisco is considered one of the elders of ayahuasca in the Iquitos area. He cultivates his own vine and leaf, and his ayahuasca, which I have drunk, is beautiful. No gringos running anything there.
But back to Estela, who as a journeyman shaman has worked for extended periods at some of the finer centers including a long stint at the legendary Temple Of The Way Of Light, and has observed exactly what gringos want. With her endeavor at Aya Madre, whose slogan is “healing with love,” she can be seen with a notebook in her hand, directing the crews who are constructing new buildings, writing down items needed at the market, noting how much fish to buy down the road, reminding herself what she needs to post and who she needs to contact when she heads into town for internet. Focused and smart, Estela has paid careful attention at the other centers. And yes, she knows what gringos want. At the top of the list is healing, offered with loving care.
Sitting with Estela in her large ceremonial maloca, she explains her mission to me. “I want people to know that here we are working to heal. People can come to Aya Madre’ with confidence, knowing that we will give them our very best. We have ceremonies, and plant diets, and floral baths. This is a place of healing. We are here to serve the people who want that. Both women and men are welcome here. We welcome everyone.”
Estela makes a compelling case. Tiny in size and seemingly boundless in spirit, she is a woman possessed of a quiet type of drive, determined to offer as much as possible. Already medicinal plants are being cultivated on the 20 hectares of land she owns, but that is just a start. “We will have a real healing garden,” she tells me. “I want people to see the plants, know the plants, diet the plants, and work with the spirits of those plants.”
This is something that Estela knows a lot about. When Estela Pangoza was only three months old, her maternal grandparents, both Shipibo native shamans, began to give her plant medicines of various kinds. This is part of the Shipibo native tradition of training healers. Throughout her childhood, she dieted many plants, becoming familiar with the spirits of those plant allies. And as an ayahuasca shaman, she is one of the best around. Not long ago, a famous and highly popular male maestro shaman became very sick. “He was in very bad condition,” she explained. “I went to him, and cared for him, and he regained his health.” I knew the story ahead of time. It’s somewhat the stuff of legend, that this tiny woman with long raven hair basically brought this celebrity shaman back from the brink. “He was very sick with dark energy. All of that had to be fixed.”
When Estela dieted toe’ (brugmansia), she gained one of her signature attributes, hummingbird medicine. “The hummingbirds love the nectar of toe’,” she tells me. “So that’s how I got hummingbird medicine.” This medicine is immediately apparent in her singing, a sweet and brilliant vibrato that has the capacity to usher a pasajero off into the spirit landscape. When Estela turns on the hummingbird medicine, well, your soul takes flight. And while I have drunk ayahuasca over time with around sixty shamans, I have never ever heard any one of them sing like Estela.
Getting to Aya Madre’s is a bit of a yatra, a pilgrimage. Arriving at Km 22 is just the beginning, really. From there you can take a moto for a good long way. But at a certain point, if the rain has been too hard, you get out and walk. Forget about bringing that immense Samsonite luggage with six pairs of shoes. Travel lightly. It makes the journey infinitely easier. Estela, and a young man named Chris who was there when I visited recently, insist that Victor, their most reliable moto driver, can make it all the way to Aya Madre’. But as is the case with Temple Of The Way Of Light, Nihue Rao and several other centers, there is often some walking involved.
Once at Aya Madre’ Estela introduces me to her cousin Clementina, also a trained shaman, who is preparing food. Clementina has a heart-melting smile. I already know that I am going to like her food. Estela’s two children Emerita and Reniwa rush to say hi. We have spent time together previously, and they are among the happiest children I have ever met. Estela’s sister Nancy is there, as is another daughter Mia who has arrived from Lima with her boyfriend. “Tonight we will all have ceremony together, Estela tells me. Reniwa and Emerita will drink too.”
Clementina’s food is simple, tasty, beautiful. We enjoy fish, rice, some vegetables, fruit. Estela is keen to know if it is alright. Definitely, I tell her. I laugh, and am reminded of my grandmother, who cared for me a lot when I was a child, and who always wanted to be sure that I was enjoying her food.
A stroll around the grounds of Aya Madre’ reveals several new cabins built for guests, the large ceremonial maloca, newly planted herbs, and a few more buildings under construction. “Where will the soccer field be located?” I ask. Estela points to the very center of the cleared grounds. “Right there,” she says. If there are universal truths, one is that any center must have a soccer field, not for the pasajeros, but for the staff. No matter what, unless rain is pelting from the sky like ball-bearings, staff members will play soccer in the afternoon. You can bet your ayahuasca on that.
About an hour before ceremony, all of us head into the maloca. Big and round, the building has screens from floor to ceiling, allowing for plenty of fresh Amazon air. Estela wants to be sure that both Chris (the other Chris) and I are comfortable. We are, very much so. Estela looks happy, surrounded by family in a beautiful and serene ceremonial space, readying to work her ceremonial magic.
When ceremony stars at 8:00 p.m, Estela unscrews the cap of a bottle of ayahuasca. “Where does this ayahuasca come from?” I ask her. “Francisco Montes,” she tells me. It is a blend of Vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and wambisa, which contains a bit more naturally-occurring DMT than chakruna. Knowing that Francisco, whose center is only 3 Kms away, has made the ayahuasca, lets me know that the brew is good. After all, he’s a legend.
Estela pours for me, and then for everyone else. Her children Reniwa and Emerita get small amounts. For nine year old Reniwa, it is his third time drinking, and he is quite excited about the whole thing. Eventually we have all slugged down our brew, and we sit and wait, but not for very long. Both Estela and Clementina start to sing. I am familiar with Estela’s icaros, and am so happy to be back in ceremony with her. But Clementina is a surprise, with a sure and clear voice, and beautiful songs of her own.
As the night goes on, Estela and Clementina each sing to everyone else. When she sings to me, Estela turns on the hummingbird medicine, sending me into flight. She finishes with rose water, applied to my hands and head. Clementina also moves the energy marvelously well. She follows up with Agua de Florida, and when she is done I smell like I have been surrounded by church ladies wearing lots of cologne. But it is all so sweet. The medicine works on me, harmonizing and smoothing everything.
Before Estela sang to me, I had the sense of energetic congestion in my upper chest area. I was convinced that she would sing to that, though I had mentioned nothing about it. When she sang, that feeling of stuck energy loosened, opened up, smoothed out. All in all, it was a happy and uplifting ceremony.
We all sleep in the maloca, not because there aren’t cabins, but just because we already have mats, blankets, pillows. Who needs to go anywhere? And in the morning, after everyone is awake and all the yawns are gone, we sit and talk. “I saw some dark energy around your chest,” Estela tells me. “And when I sang to you, it cleared right up.” I tell her about my experience, and my assuredness that she would sing to that, and how the energy changed. She seems to like that a lot.
After hanging out for a while, and almost as an afterthought, Estela tells me “You have a Shipibo name now.”
“I do?” I poke fun at her. “And you’re just telling me about it now? ” We laugh a bit and I press for details.
“Well, I was sitting, and turned my attention on you, and I got a message that you needed a Shipibo name. Then there was this long scrolling list of names, many many names. The list was at least a couple of meters long, and I thought that there were so many of them. How would I possibly know which one was yours? But then a doctor showed up, wearing white.”
“Like a lab coat that doctors wear, that kind of white?”
“Yes, exactly that. And he pointed to one name on the long, long list, and said ‘this is his name’. Niten Rao, that is the name he pointed to.”
I press again for more details. “Niten Rao means light of the medicine. When the doctor pointed out that name, I saw you with a very big beam of white light going from your entire body up to the heavens. You carry the medicine with you everywhere. It is your job to be the light of the medicine.”
Later when I recount the whole scenario to my wife Zoe on the phone, she says to me “Wow, she certainly knows what to say to you!” We laugh at all that.
“Yeah,” I remark. “She definitely knows what to say to me.” We laugh some more. Who wouldn’t want a name that means light of the medicine?
Zoe understands that I have tremendous love for Estela, and that Estela has always treated me with a bit of extra care and affection. I feel admiration for Estela, and I want her to succeed in her mission.
When it is time for me to depart Aya Madre’ I take a good long look over the whole place, at the buildings already completed, the large maloca, the plants growing, the future soccer field, and the workers constructing a new two story building for more guests and an office. Without a large donor, completing Aya Madre’ will take longer than some other centers to finish. But it is already up and running. The medicine is fine, and the space is serene.
“Please tell people about us,” Estela says to me. I promise to do that. There are hugs all around. I give Ayahuasca Test Pilot sow-on patches to everyone who was in ceremony. Reniwa is almost delirious at that, and clutches the patch with obvious pride. He likes the idea of being a pilot. Emerita gives me a happy smile that could slay a dragon. Clementina puts one immediately to her chest, showing exactly where she will wear it. Everyone is happy for the little gift.
In general, I would agree with my friend about many native people not understanding what the pasajeros want and need. But Estela knows. She has been to the best centers, seen the facilities, spoken with hundreds of pasajeros, and has it figured out. She observes, inquires, takes notes. And she already has a center. She owns it, and every day it is improving. She also seems indefatigable, undeterred by the nay-sayers. She has a mission, and people are showing up to help. At a time when women’s empowerment is finally getting the recognition that has been so long in coming and is so very well deserved, here is this careful, patient woman showing what empowerment looks like up close and personal.
I am reminded of a quote from the great German philosopher Goethe “the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
Sometimes you witness someone overcome endless obstacles, defy odds, swim strongly against the current, and succeed where others have predicted failure. Estela Pangoza is doing exactly that. Determination and tremendous talent play big parts in all of it, but the secret sauce is healing with love.
You can find Estela Pangoza and Aya Madre Healing Center on Facebook.