I first met Mario in the year 1999, when he was eighteen, in the lakeside town of Panajachel. I had moved there that same year, between homes, ostensibly on my way to Oaxaca to live. Something about Panajachel said “Stop your traveling: this is where you belong.” So I did.
I don’t remember our first meeting, but it may have been at the Wachoch, a bar run by one of the first friends I made in Guatemala, Pablo Robledo. Back in those days, although I didn’t drink alcohol, I spent quite a bit of time hanging out at bars, dancing and talking and meeting people. Most of the people I hung out with were at least ten years younger than me, and Mario was no exception. Pana is a small town and a traveler meeting point, and over time a loose, informal “tribe” formed around Pablo, the Wachoch, myself, Xibalba (a second hand bookshop I ran), and various houses I rented during the period (from the summer of 1999 to the summer of 2001). This was also the time I met Mitch Fraas, an ex-junky musician from Boise Idaho who had unexpectedly turned “Mayan” shaman. While I was learning the shaman trade in Santiago (a mostly indigenous town across the lake) with Mitch, I was living in Panajachel and “shamanizing” under guise of partying (or vice versa) with the younger crew. You could say I had the best of both worlds, being the sorcerer’s apprentice on one side of the lake, the sorcerer on the other. But as in the movie, things eventually got out of hand.
My shaman-apprenticeship centered around the rituals of the Copre Dia (the Mayan brotherhood in Santiago) and their deity Maximon. Here’s what I wrote about Maximon in my journal at the time:
“San Simon” or Maximon is represented by a dummy dressed in a hat, and ceremonies involve giving the dummy cigarettes and rum to smoke and drink. My first impression was that Maximon served a dual purpose as both saint and sinner, god and devil, in that his worshippers perceived him as a sort of King of Sin who would gladly take all their vices and peccadilloes on his own broad shoulders. Hence the symbolic gesture of giving him cigarettes and alcohol, which represent poison, or sin.
Maximon is the Mayans’ very own saint/deity who has been partially and begrudgingly accepted by the Catholic Church, though not without a great deal of unpleasantness on both sides. . . . Maximon is equated by some with Judas, the “betrayer” of Christ (and even with Saint Peter, guardian of the Other World), [though] he might best be identified with the Fallen Angel himself: Lucifer. Legend has it that Maximon was a perfectly mortal man who lived not long ago (around the turn of this present century, I believe) who was murdered, scapegoated, and martyred, all at the same time. The story goes that he was the most revered and powerful medicine man in the community, and that he was given the task of guarding the women and keeping an eye out for some horny devil who was meddling with them. As it turned out, the horny devil was Maximon, and the husbands had given him ample freedom to continue his polymorphous seductions under guise of protecting the women! When the husbands found out, they beat Maximon and broke his legs (in some stories his arms). After this, though lamed by the experience, Maximon became a greater medicine man than ever and, over time, the patron saint of sin.
Rather like a reverse Jesus, Maximon doesn’t redeem us with his excess goodness, he absolves us with his excess corruption. He out-sins us and makes us seem like newborn babes by comparison.
Mario was, and is, half Latin, half American, short, dark, pale, with a rounded, Pooh-bear, over-sized-baby quality. When I knew him he was also a charmer, and not just with the ladies, light, warm, mischievous, devil-may-care, a promiscuous lover of fun. He was also unusually bright, and especially savvy with computers, though I didn’t find this latter out till later, when he was helping me create a website in London in 2002. When Mario was younger (probably no more than fourteen), he created a program that hacked into thousands of bank accounts and moved very small (unnoticeable) amounts to a specially created account. I think he’d passed the million dollar mark when the FBI or the CIA crashed through his door, confiscated his computer, and put a ban on him against ever touching one again. Mario was something of a prodigy, and knew it. He was also a wildly irresponsible partier and drug-user. And as much as I vocally discouraged such behavior in all of my friends at that time, I also unwittingly encouraged it with my own drug-fueled “shamantics.”
Like everyone else, Mario was much impressed by the sorcerous aspects of what I was up to, and looked to me as something special. I wouldn’t ever say he was an “apprentice,” but there was definitely that aspect with pretty much all the guys–and girls–that hung out with me during this period. I did nothing to discourage it, either – I believed I was special. This was one of several periods in my life during which I became a charismatic shaman-leader-teacher guy (ceremony master?) within a small group. It was also far and away the wildest, most psychedelic and volatile period.
While I only ever imbibed marijuana and psychedelics (and the occasional beer and cigarette), Mario and many of those in our circle would take any drug they could get their hands on, in copious amounts. In fact my strongest and clearest memories of Mario are of him in varying states of inebriation, including to a life-threatening degree, such as the time Mario overdosed on heroin. I don’t remember if someone called me for help or if I showed up there by chance, but I found him naked and unconscious in his apartment in Yucanyan (a barrio of Panajachel). I remember putting him in a cold shower and walking him up and down the apartment. I think I lit some candles, probably did some ceremonial stuff, and within an hour or so he was fully conscious and out of danger.
If memory serves, it was soon after this–within a few days even–that I gave Mario salvia divinorum for the first time. It would almost certainly have been Mario’s idea, but I agreed, no doubt thinking it would help him in some way. I was ostensibly using the drug at that time for healing purposes, or so I believed. I performed a brief ceremony in front of the Maximon effigy, filled a pipe, handed it to Mario, and lit it. I then proceeded to watch as Mario collapsed, both internally and externally, back into the comatose state I’d found him in a few days earlier. My impression at the time was that he had been hurled by the salvia into that netherworld between life and death so he could do consciously what I’d done for him on the previous occasion. That he was learning to move between the worlds.
After a few minutes talking to him, I was able to draw him back to full consciousness. He gazed at me with shining eyes and said something about how I’d been there on “the other side.” Maximon and I “were like that!” he said–putting his fingers together to signal a close alliance.
From an unfinished memoir about this time:
My most audacious shamanic undertaking was undoubtedly a communal smoking ceremony which took place, somewhat spontaneously, on May Day of 2001. My idea was simply to have a small gathering, and shortly before the party started, I smoked alone in my room, while the three witches [Ame, Silvia, and Lulu, who I was living with at that time] hung out downstairs. As I found myself traveling through hyperspace one more time, I came upon three many-colored fields of consciousness which I knew to be living beings. I recognized the first two easily enough, but the third was somehow outside my range of vision, as if off to one side, preventing me from getting a reading on it. For a period, suspended in a non-spacial space and non-temporal time, I struggled to connect to the being. Suddenly I “knew” who it was. I cried out her name, and at that point I slowly became aware of the three girls singing downstairs. Apparently they had been singing throughout my experience, just as if they had started up the moment I smoked. They were clapping their hands (they later told me they’d been sitting in the dark) and I had a powerful visual of them sitting in a circle with candles, calling me to them. I felt like a fish on their line, being reeled in by the song. Realizing where I was and what was happening, I let out a series of exultant shouts. I was naked and sweating. I got to my feet and found my clothes, pulled them on and dashed down the stairs, carried by a momentum I could neither contain nor resist. Had it not been for that momentum, I would certainly have waited a few minutes to orientate myself. Instead, I came bounding into the front room like a genii flying out his bottle. By the time I arrived, the girls were no longer singing, but were sitting or standing around as if nothing was happening. They showed no surprise at my dramatic appearance.
I became suspicious at once and asked what they had been doing. I “knew” beyond any doubt that they were witches, operating at a totally different, infinitely higher level than I had suspected. Yet at the same time, I was the one who was constantly telling them they were witches! Now that I had confirmed it, I was left feeling like I had egg all over my face. The witches only half knew what was going on. They showed no surprise at my bemusement or at my questions, which bordered on accusations. The singing was spontaneous, and as far as I could determine, the girls made no conscious decision so far as invoking or summoning anything. And yet at the same time, they did. I felt like I was struggling between two worlds. Mostly I found myself sparring with Lulu, who really didn’t know what I was talking about. I said to Ame that apparently I was just a puppet in their hands; she assured me that they saw me as “un gran maestro,” and not a puppet. Yet she clearly knew what I was talking about. I told Silvia that it was a profoundly humbling, if not humiliating, experience to discover something that I had always known: that the future of the world was in the hands of women. I later described the incident, in my journal, as “the most ego-crushing experience of my life,” while admitting that it “felt right on time, some major league Humility to balance out all this Power.” What was clear to me was that we were all existing on two entirely different levels, and that the deeper/higher level was only dimly accessible to any of us. The salvia allowed temporary access to that level, but the time there was so brief, and the amount of information received so vast and unfamiliar, that it was almost impossible to make sense of it.
You would think that, after such a disorientating experience, I would have had enough of the salvia for a day or two. But that was only the warm-up. The May Day ceremony involved myself, the three witches, and two of the guys (Mario and Pancho, who was only fifteen). It took me a long time to recover from the disorientation (and realignment) of the experience with the witches, and even by the time Mario and Pancho showed up, I was still having a hard time assuming a carefree demeanor. The witches managed to lighten the mood by getting the men to perform, and began seductively peeling off our clothes to the music. They successfully got Pancho and Mario down to their boxer shorts, but I ran from their attempts to get my jeans off. The reason was that I wasn’t wearing anything underneath my jeans, and I was fairly sure they didn’t suspect as much. The next day, I somewhat regretted my fear-reaction; but at the time, I wasn’t ready for such complete exposure, and I didn’t think anyone else was either. Lulu called me a pussy for fighting them and since I couldn’t be bothered to explain, I told her that, if she could get the other guys’ shorts off, my jeans would follow. That never happened, but I changed into some shorts to keep the girls happy.
Presently, someone (probably Mario) suggested smoking the salvia. I didn’t reject the idea, and since I knew I was the only one who could bring it off, I took over at that point, though with great trepidation. I had already smoked with everyone present on my own, and with three of them together, so it felt like we were all prepared. I picked a Tarot card and got the Ace of Swords, which I interpreted as “One Mind,” and at that point, I decided to take the plunge. It took a long time to get to the smoking, however, because I was trying to get up the confidence to play the MC -shaman, as well as waiting for people to get ready. I assured everyone present that we were taking as great a risk as they could imagine, and added for extra emphasis that a sudden death was not out of the realms of possibility. (My excess gravitas was an attempt to compensate for the total lack of seriousness on everyone else’s part.) I lit the candles and had everyone sit in a circle. In order to keep everyone quiet and create the space and momentum to make a worthy invocation, I had to fake it to begin with; once my confidence had come I was able to tell people to shut up and let me do all the talking. At someone’s suggestion, we all held hands. I invoked Christ and Eternal Bliss, after which everyone seemed to be in the right frame of mind and we proceeded.
I had decided not to smoke for the good of all, and so I could concentrate on filling the pipe and keeping it moving. Mario, who could barely speak by then, asked for some more but I ignored him (fortunately, since he lost it entirely shortly after). The pipe then wound up in my hand and I realized that there was still a good size dose in it, and that no one needed or wanted anymore. I got to my feet without knowing quite why and smoked what was in the pipe. As soon as it hit, the whole room exploded. It wasn’t only from my point of view: it was obvious to me at the time that everyone else felt it when I smoked. Until then, the circle remained in place; after I smoked, the circle exploded. At this point, though I was not aware of it at the time, everyone started kissing, except for one girl who stood watching with cool ironic interest, and myself, who was running around the house like a lunatic and (according to Pancho) yelling and hooting. The short version of what happened is that the house filled up with sexual energy and everyone went temporarily insane. I was aware of all of us existing at another level, a level at which we were fused into a single, vaguely insect-like entity. I approached each of them on the ordinary level, as separate individuals, and observed how I was, to varying degrees, on edge with all of them (because they were all wary of me). The exception was Mario, with whom for whatever reason I felt entirely comfortable. I hugged him and we laughed like children and I said something about how we had “made it.”
The whole experience lasted no more than ten or fifteen minutes. To this day, I am unsure of what exactly happened that night. At the time I had no doubt, however—it was a visceral experience—that we had successfully connected to our “other selves” and moved, as a group, to the next level, entering into “the second attention.” [These were terms I had lifted from Carlos Castaneda.]
I left Guatemala in July of 2001, on a wave of local controversy, when rumors I was dealing heroin to school kids proved just how powerful “Chinese whispers” can be in a small community.
(End of Part One. To be continued.)