We have a great guest today. Caroline Alethia, author of Plant Teacher, is here to talk about the price of invoking a plant teacher.
What’s the Price of Invoking a Plant Teacher?
By Caroline Alethia
The idea for the novel, Plant Teacher, was born on a lazy evening at a small guest house in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I had arrived in the country several days earlier, and, as so often happens when we travel, I immediately bumped into a colorful character. “Greg” was a retired U.S. army colonel who had come to eastern Bolivia to research a book about the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.
As we lounged in the private patio, sitting under unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere, and enjoying a warm breeze that played across the palm fronds, Greg regaled me with the story of his ayahuasca experience.
Ayahuasca, also known as caapi, is a psychotropic concoction brewed by indigenous people in the Amazonian regions. Under the guidance of a shaman, people imbibe (or sometimes inhale) ayahuasca in order to experience its hallucinogenic effects. The hallucinations caused by ayahuasca, and the plants that cause these hallucinations, are known as “plant teachers” because they supposedly impart spiritual guidance and knowledge.
Greg’s trip had, in his opinion, been a good one. He described to me seeing dozens of snakes and feeling that the snakes were benevolent. He had beckoned them to come and entwine themselves around him, and although this scenario would cause most people to break into a cold sweat, Greg enjoyed this bonding with his serpentine plant teachers. He valued the experience as something which had brought him closer to the natural and spiritual worlds, and he felt that he had attained a degree of enlightenment via the encounter.
I listened to Greg’s story with frank skepticism. I recalled a girlfriend who, years earlier, had also experimented with indigenous drugs while studying anthropology in Latin America. Her drug use had been followed by a manic outbreak and, ultimately, chronic bipolar disorder. While the two events, the drug use and the bipolar disorder, could not be causally correlated, I wondered. I knew that I would never try a hallucinogenic plant unless the infusion was forcefully shoved between my unwilling lips.
As Greg and I left the patio that evening and retired to our respective bungalows, I considered the possibility that an ayahuasca trip might speak to both ends of a spectrum. Suppose the “student” took away both positive and negative experiences from the hallucinogenic episode? Suppose the plant teachers did, indeed, impart wisdom, but there was a price that came with that wisdom?
Two years later, I found myself revisiting these questions as I typed, reflected, and plotted out the actions, choices, and destiny of one of the main characters in Plant Teacher, Martin Banzer. With the omnipotence of the fiction writer, I forced Martin to try ayahuasca, and then I watched where his experimentation took him. Now, I invite the reader to also follow Martin’s journey and, at the same time, to entertain the question, Does wisdom come at a price?
Caroline Alethia is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, on radio and in web outlets. Her words have reached audiences on six continents. She lived in Bolivia and was a witness to many of the events described in Plant Teacher.
About the Book:
Hailed by Huffington Post contributor Joel Hirst as a compelling and powerful story, Plant Teacher begins in 1972 when a hippie in Oakland, California flushes a syringe of LSD down a toilet. Thirty-five years later, the wayward drug paraphernalia has found its final resting place in Los Yungas, Bolivia, the umbilical cord between the Andes and Amazonia.
Enter into this picture two young Americans, Cheryl Lewis, trying to forge her future in La Paz and Martin Banzer, trying to come to terms with his past in the same city. The two form an unlikely friendship against the backdrop of a country teetering at the brink of dictatorship and revolution.
Bolivia sparks the taste for adventure in both young people and Martin finds himself experimenting with indigenous hallucinogenic plants while Cheryl flits from one personal relationship to another. Meanwhile, the syringe buried in the silt in a marsh in Los Yungas will shape their destinies more than either could anticipate or desire.
Plant Teacher takes its readers on a fast-paced tour from the hippie excesses of Oakland, to the great streams of the Pacific Ocean and to the countryside, cities, natural wonders and ancient ruins of Bolivia. It reveals the mundane and the magical, and, along the way, readers glimpse the lives of everyday Bolivians struggling to establish equanimity or merely eke out a living during drastic political crisis.