Although he had never left his native Peru before last week, Antonio Montero Pisco says he has visited the United States many times in visions and has toured other countries and flown over many cities.
Montero is a shaman, a religious leader and herbalist who has communed with the spirits of flowers, trees and other plants in the Amazonian rain forest for most of his 56 years. He also interprets life through "spiritual guides" who accompany him on his virtual and physical journeys.
The shaman induces visions by drinking a potion made from the twisted stem of the plant ayahuasca, or devil's rope. Montero said his spirit takes the form of an eagle as he roams the globe. Before he boarded a commercial airliner for his 10-day U.S. tour, he said, his spirit already had seen such cities as San Francisco, New York and Washington--and he has been surprised at how accurately his visions portrayed Americans.
"There's no love for nature [in this country]," the shaman said Tuesday while strolling in the garden of renowned medicinal plant specialist Jim Duke, who lives near Columbia and makes frequent trips to the Amazon. "It makes me sad. Money is very important, but there is no respect for nature."
The spiritual reality is not much better in Peru, where traditional beliefs are rapidly giving way to modern technology, Montero said. Most modern-day Peruvians, especially those in urban areas, reject the 15,000-year-old tradition of shamanism, dismissing it as witchcraft or quackery.
"They say I'm loco! loco! because I talk to plants," he said. Montero, who spoke through an interpreter, was dressed in a black T-shirt with the image of a tigre, an ocelot, the king of the Amazonian spirits, and a hardened resin amulet in the shape of a large cat's tooth. He was here to visit with his compatriots at www.Allherb.com, the year-old, Maryland-based Web site--an educational and supply source for medicinal plants--for which he is a consultant.
Montero earns his living as curator of a medicinal garden operated by the Amazonian Center for Environmental Education and Research. The private, nonprofit conservancy is based in Iquitos, a city of about 400,000, but the garden is located in the jungle about two hours away.
While he enjoys his curator's job, Montero said he prefers working as a shaman. Whenever possible, he hops into a boat to visit villages along the Amazon River where the inhabitants still revere the ancient customs. There, he uses his medicinal art to treat various illnesses and ailments--without charge--using freshly gathered herbs, roots and leaves.
Montero said a new generation of herbalists has emerged in the last 20 years who call themselves shamans, but he contends they are "false prophets" because they do not base their medicinal practices in the spirit world.
Like other old-school shamans, Montero prescribes medicine only after consulting the spirits. He communicates with them by taking ayahuasca, which contains three hallucinogenic chemicals, and often mixes in tobacco or other plants for specific effects. The potions produce an experience like "watching a big TV screen."
To prepare for the visions, many of which come during sleep, Montero said he must conserve as much energy as possible. That means abstaining from sex for more than a month before taking the potion. That requirement, plus lengthy trips from home into the rain forest, creates relationship problems, said Montero, who has been married three times.
Shamans also call on what Montero described as a "database" of knowledge each has developed since childhood. He said he had his first experience with the spirit world at age 7, when his grandfather, also a shaman, left him in the forest for a month to survive on his own. Out of fear and the need to survive, Montero ate bits of different plants and began tuning in to plant spirits, which told him of their uses as food and medicine.
While walking through the Columbia garden, Montero demonstrated his knowledge of plants, picking up turmeric root and scratching away the skin to reveal a yellowish substance. The root, he said, is used in rice curry but also can be used to control diabetes and to cure jaundice and other liver problems.
He stopped at pokeweed, a nemesis of many area gardeners, and rubbed purple berry juice on his hands. He said he uses a related plant in Peru to make a tonic to combat colic and stop excessive menstrual bleeding.
An increasing number of people are searching health stores and Web sites for natural cures, and it is possible, he said, for individuals to prescribe their own natural medicines after extensive study of medicinal plants. But it's always best, he added, to consult a doctor, shaman or herbalist.
Above all, Montero said, practitioners need to understand that medicine by itself does not cure. People heal themselves by having faith in the spirits and the healing power of plants. And only a person with a "good heart" can be made well through the use of herbal medicines.
The spirits do not punish people for sinful actions. But to be cured, patients under the influence of evil must "meditate deep within themselves and find out how to become a better person," the shaman said.
At home, Montero said he and about 20 others meet at his house each Saturday to worship the "higher being responsible for creating the world." As always, he said, he acts as a bridge between the spirits who guide him and the world at large.
Montero's dream is to buy 40 acres of pristine rain forest so he can grow his own plants and create a learning center where he can educate Peruvians about the spiritual and practical aspects of traditional shamanism. Part of the reason for his trip is to receive an award, including a $2,000 cash prize, from Allherb.com for his contributions to herbal medicine.
On the Web site, Montero is pictured with a laptop computer and a promo for his "Ask the Shaman" column. "In all honesty, he is not fluent on the computer, and there is no electricity where he works," said Web site owner Ken Hakuta. Allherb.com sends e-mail to the conservancy, where someone prints out the questions, takes them by canoe to Montero and records his answers on tape.
The shaman's guiding spirits supported his first trip out of the Amazon for another reason, he said. These counselors want him to spread the message about the need for people to "reconnect" with nature, with one another and with their communities.
"People need to talk, to feel things" to solve problems and bring happiness back into their lives, he said.