13 Moons [Part 1] – Translation
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Before we begin, a warning to our listeners. This episode of Radio Ambulante includes descriptions of sexual situations that may be shocking, and it is suitable for adults only.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CEREMONY)
[Daniel]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. And what you’re hearing is the recording of a shamanic ritual lead by a man named Orlando Gaitán.
[Man]: I loved the guy, and I don’t mind saying it. That man is a shaman. He’s… he’s superhuman. The guy has something that’s more than what’s normal. Everything that happens around him makes you open your mouth and say: “Oh,” “Ah,” “Oh,” “Ooff, how wonderful,” “Oh.” You just make exclamations.
[Woman]: Orlando Gaitán was a friend. He was a father. As selfless as you can imagine. He was a god. Everything revolved around the taita. Everything.
[Daniel]: “Taita” which in Quechua means father, and in some indigenous communities, it’s used to refer to someone with authority. Orlando Gaitán was a Colombian spiritual leader who led the Carare Foundation, a community of followers named in honor of the Carare indigenous people who lived in northeastern Colombia.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CEREMONY)
[Daniel]: This is Gaitan singing a few chants during a ritual.
By that time —in 2003— the Carare Foundation had more than 100 followers, all of them very faithful. And today’s story, in two parts, is about this man and his community. The people who followed him blindly.
[Woman]: That man has a power with words… He can say that it’s night out right now and you see the full light of day and it’s like: “No, but if he says it’s night, it’s night.” I mean the way he speaks, makes you adore him.
[Man]: I see Orlando Gaitán as… as a healer. He’s a healer. He’s someone who knows a lot about medicine, botany, plants, therapies. So I see him essentially as a healer.
[Woman]: He was also a spiritual guide for me. I was absolutely devoted to him. I trusted him fully. Whatever he said, I did. If he said it, that’s how it is, period.
[Daniel]: But Orlando Gaitan’s story, of the community he created, perhaps wasn’t so simple.
Mariana Palau, a Colombian journalist, continues the story.
[Mariana Palau]: This story starts with Andrea.
[Andrea]: I’m 38. I’m a lawyer and political scientist.
[Mariana]: Andrea is her real name, but she asked that we not use her last name for this story, for several reasons, including her safety. We’ll learn why later.
In 2004, when Andrea was 24, she was studying law and political science at college. She was a research assistant for a professor whose office was in a public library in Bogotá, and she spent a lot of time there. Every day she left the university and went to the library to review documents for her research. One day, when she was organizing some books…
[Andrea]: By chance, one of the books from another cubicle belonging to… to another researcher wound up on my… with the books I was reviewing. And that book was about… about yagé. So I started to look over it, and the first thing I read, I remember it perfectly, was that the taita mediated between the worlds, and people starting being healed. And I said: “What a weird thing. What do you mean? This is a healing process.”
[Mariana]: It intrigued her: yagé, taita, mediating between worlds, healing. She wanted to know more. So she approached the person in charge of that room and asked if he knew whose book it was.
[Andrea]: He said, “Two girls who come here often, who have long hair.”
[Mariana]: Just then, when she was talking to the person in charge of the room, the two women they were talking about approached them.
[Andrea]: And they seemed very curious to me because I thought they were like… I said, “They’re from some sect… There’s something about them. They’re evangelicals, Christians, something.” Because they were wearing long skirts, very long, and little shawls like this. And, well, that’s not the clothing people normally wear.
[Mariana]: One of them was a historian. The other one, who was an anthropologist, we’re going to call Lina. They both told her they were doing a research project on yagé in the city. They explained that yagé, or ayahuasca, is a drink with a main ingredient of the same name. Several indigenous communities in the Amazon take it medicinally or in religious ceremonies. It produces hallucinogenic effects for several hours and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. As such, it’s traditionally always used for a ritualistic, healing, or revelatory purpose.
Starting in the middle of the 20th century, texts about yagé started being published and that awakened western curiosity about the drink. Since then, yagé has become very commercial, and that, in part, made it so it was no longer taken exclusively by indigenous communities, but also in urban contexts and in other countries outside of the continent. Lina and the historian, for example, had been taking it for some time. So, Lina told her…
[Andrea]: “No, look, we work with a very beloved taita named Orlando Gaitán. We have a house, we give talks, uh, and we give out yagé every Friday.” And I said, “No, I’m interested.”
[Mariana]: Andrea has always been curious. She’s not very afraid of trying new things.
[Andrea]: I’ve always been very hyperactive. Over the years, I’ve channeled that hyperactivity to do other things, but yes, I’m very intellectually restless, learning, investigating.
[Mariana]: So, she accepted the invitation to take yagé. They told her to bring comfortable clothes, water, and toilet paper. They warned her not to have sex in the days leading up to taking yagé, she couldn’t eat pork or dairy and she couldn’t be on her period either.
There she had to pay 30,000 pesos, or about 10 dollars, and if the taita prescribed her a cure or an elixir it could cost her between 8,000 and 25,000 pesos. That’s between two and eight dollars. Not a lot of money.
It seemed alright to Andrea. Since the process would take the whole night, she told her parents she was going to a party at a friend’s house so they would let her go.
That Friday, she arrived right on time at 6 p.m. at the address they had given her: a house in a neighborhood called San Luis in Bogotá. The place didn’t have anything in particular that made it stand out from the other houses in the neighborhood. Andrea rang the doorbell, and they let her in.
[Andrea]: It was a two-story house: on the first floor there was a living room that wasn’t very big. In a space like a garage, there were a few mats and a kitchen in the back, and some stairs on the right-hand side that lead to the second floor. And I… well I positioned myself beneath the stairs…
[Mariana]: She sat on the floor. More and more people were coming, around 50 people.
The people who were in charge of logistics — opening the door, getting people comfortable — went up to the new arrivals and asked them if they had any health issues to share with the taita.
[Andrea]: And I had had an accident at the university that I had been in physical therapy for on my right foot, and… and it bothered me when I walked. And, well, I said I had that problem with my foot.
[Mariana]: After that, the priest came to give a Catholic Mass. Because this community mixes traditions and rituals from several indigenous cultures with Christian traditions and rituals, and they have no problem with that. It’s a religious mixing that anthropologists explain as the result of the European conquest of the Americas.
When the Mass started, Andrea felt calmer.
[Andrea]: It’s impressive how, uh, because of the Catholic roots you have, before the yagé ceremony, there’s a mass: that lends a lot of confidence. Like they say in sales, that’s the hook, the commercial hook.
[Mariana]: When Mass was over, Orlando Gaitán — the taita that Lina had mentioned, and who was in charge of administering the yagé — sat in the front and started telling them about the drink, its meaning, its healing properties.
[Andrea]: A medium-height man, around 40-some years old. And he had a very imposing figure: at the time, he had short hair.
[Mariana]: He was dressed in white and he had a lot of necklaces. He made Andrea feel very confident.
[Andrea]: He was a very receptive person. A man who was a good listener. A man who had an impressive vocation to help others.
[Mariana]: Gaitán started the yagé ceremony: he blessed the drink with prayers — some Catholic, others in a language Andrea didn’t understand — and he started shaking and a bundle of leaves —which is called a waira— over the yagé.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CEREMONY)
[Mariana]: Everyone was sitting in the same space around the taita, but the men were on one side and the women were on another. He handed everyone a cup with the drink.
Andrea drank and a little later she was called to a healing with Gaitán. She approached the taita, in that space full of people, and he started singing a few chants, massaging her ankle, and rubbing it with branches.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CEREMONY)
[Mariana]: This was supposed to cure the physical pain, but also any emotional harm.
[Andrea]: And while he started to do the healing, I remember it like it was yesterday, I felt something very profound touching the inner fibers of my soul, and I felt like something was happening with that healing and those chants and how they were taking me to another state of my being.
[Mariana]: The yagé’s hallucinogenic effects started to manifest.
[Andrea]: You call a “paint”, like… like that series of colors, of visions you have. I had very lovely paints. I mean, I could even see lives in which I had died, violently, without believing in reincarnation, without really knowing if that was true or if it wasn’t. But I saw them perfectly.
I started speaking Portuguese. I don’t speak Portuguese. A lot of information about life, about life’s purpose, that left me very touched, very impacted. For me, that was a before and after.
[Mariana]: Andrea spent the whole night under the effects of yagé. She experienced nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea while she hallucinated. The next morning she went back home with a strange feeling like she was hung over. Beyond her ankle not bothering her anymore, she felt that yagé had made her look deeper into her mind and made her see things that she took to be true. She saw, for example, that her parents had been her children in past lives, that she had made mistakes as a mother, and that made her understand that her parents, in this life, didn’t have any reason to be perfect.
And she liked that experience, which was so revelatory for her.
[Andrea]: And, uh, I did it a couple more times. But it turns out it wasn’t just the ceremony anymore, but they said: “Well, and how’s your family?”
[Mariana]: Gaitán did that after she took it a few times, when people who more familiar with the subject and trusted him more. His plan was to recruit more and more people.
The yagé had made Andrea want to strengthen her relationship with her parents. So, it occurred to her to invite them to try it themselves, but they didn’t really understand what it was about.
[Andrea]: My parents were a little skeptical, but I was like: “No, let’s go, let’s go. Trust me. He’s a curandero. He’s a healer. Trust me.”
[Mariana]: With so much insistence from Andrea, her dad decided to go, and he only took yagé that one time because he didn’t really like the experience. Her mom never wanted to try it, but both used cures that Gaitán given them.
[Andrea]: So, he was already giving my dad medicine. He was giving my mom medicine, the Mass, us, the therapies for the body, for the back.
[Mariana]: Toward the end of that year, 2004, Andrea went on a several-month trip with some friends. When she returned to Bogotá, she had to get back into the rhythm of college and getting everything in order to graduate. So, since she was concentrated on that, she stopped going to the yagé ceremonies and she lost track of Gaitán for about two years.
The yagé sessions with Gaitán continued with people like these two, who we’ll call Johanna and Juan Carlos. We already heard their voices at the start of the episode.
[Johana]: I’m a psychologist (laughter). I’m 53.
[Juan Carlos]: I’m an architect and I’m 54.
[Mariana]: Johana and Juan Carlos met in college and got married in the late ‘80s. Andrea doesn’t remember them very well from those first yagé ceremonies, but they were almost always there. In fact, they are some of the first people who started following Gaitán.
It all started because after having their first daughter, who we’ll call Cathy, in 1994, they wanted to have another baby.
[Johana]: We started trying to have her little brother. We tried for two years and I wasn’t pregnant. It was odd.
[Mariana]: Odd because she had already had a daughter. So, Johana went to the doctor.
[Johana]: We started doing tests; diagnoses: uterine cancer, adenocarcinoma.
[Mariana]: That diagnosis explained why it was so hard for her to get pregnant and the doctor suggested taking out her uterus. Johana left that appointment not knowing what to do.
At that time, in 2008, Johana was working in the Ministry of Health, and one day, amid her sadness, she told one of her co-workers what was going on. The woman was moved and told her that she knew someone who could maybe help her. She told her that there was a taita who healed people using yagé, and that the person who helped in the process, his pupil, served as an advisor to the Ministry on indigenous issues. If she was interested, they could go to the ceremony the following Friday. Johana accepted since she didn’t have anything to lose. And it turned out that Orlando Gaitán was the pupil to that taita, who was named Antonio Jacanamijoy.
At that ceremony, Johana had a hallucination.
[Johana]: I saw a birth, but my birth, the one I saw, well, it was men… think of Emergency Room, something from TV: doctors in their green lab coats, three doctors and one person in labor, someone giving birth. That’s what I saw.
[Mariana]: She threw up a little, but nothing serious, and didn’t feel anything else.
[Johana]: The following Monday I went to take a pregnancy test, it was positive, and I was… (breathes) so happy. And I said, “Are you sure?” to the woman, because, well, I couldn’t believe it. Well, in those circumstances with uterine cancer.
[Mariana]: At the time, Johana hadn’t started any treatment, so to be totally sure she took a blood test and she was in fact pregnant. It was like a miracle. She attributed it to the yagé and taita Jacanamijoy and Gaitán. From then on, Johana kept going to the community but without drinking yagé so as not to affect her pregnancy.
Since taita Jacanimijoy only traveled to Bogotá every so often, the person in charge of the ceremonies most of the time was Gaitán, so Johana became closer and closer to him. They talked about projects with indigenous communities, work at the Ministry, and, of course, her pregnancy.
The doctor had insisted that the best option for her health and for avoiding complications was to remove her uterus, but Gaitán told her that he would accompany her in the process and that everything was going to be alright. So, Johana decided to go through with her pregnancy.
Not long before the baby would be born, Gaitán told her that when she went into labor, he would be helping her from a distance. And he did: that day when Johana arrived at the clinic with contractions, she told Juan Carlos, her husband, to call the taita.
[Johana]: And I didn’t even talk to him, and he said “Put a glass of water”, like let’s say, “Here”. If the birth is happening here, next to it, on the floor here, somewhere there. He put the water down and the water disappeared.
[Mariana]: The water disappeared. The glass didn’t spill. No one drank it. The water simply disappeared.
In the end, Johana had a healthy son by natural birth, which they had told her would be very difficult.
Juan Carlos was very skeptical about religious topics and alternative medicine. He respected that his wife went to the yagé ceremonies, but he didn’t go with her. Honestly, he didn’t believe in that. But what happened with the glass of water before the birth convinced him.
[Juan Carlos]: I became an absolute believer in all those coincidences and all those details that make you say, “God sent this to me. This is from God. This is the spirit. This is yagé.” And you end up blindly involved, believing blindly in a person. But blind, blind. I don’t deny it.
[Mariana]: The friendship between the couple and Gaitán was getting stronger and stronger. Johana became his right hand: she helped him organize the ceremonies, she put together the agenda, she scheduled appointments for people to visit him outside of the yagé ceremonies. It was a job like any other, but without getting paid. Still, Johana didn’t mind.
[Johana]: Coming to yagé and Orlando Gaitán was about health. Staying there, continuing on that path was a way of saying thank you. And if someone has a set of circumstances that are as particular as what I experienced and everything turns out OK, all you can do is say thank you.
[Mariana]: Juan Carlos became the taita’s student along with two others.
[Juan Carlos]: So, he starts teaching us how to heal… how to give a massage, how to heal a broken bone, and then he gives us… He teaches us therapies. He teaches us things. So… and in the eyes of the community we started to be his closest disciples.
[Mariana]: He and his wife, who after the birth started taking yagé again, were already believers in the benefits of the drink, though, of course, they had different experiences. Because that depends a lot on each person, the space they’re in, their emotional state. While Johana never had hallucinations again, Juan Carlos has some very nice ones. For example, he remembers once, not long after drinking…
[Juan Carlos]: As soon as I leaned back, I start having a vision and I start to walk through spectacular places, with impressive colors, everything looked golden. Then it wasn’t a feeling of discomfort anymore, but an orgasmic feeling, of pleasure, of absolute delight, of… a celestial feeling, that’s what I call it.
[Mariana]: But he also remembers some rather unpleasant even traumatic hallucinations.
[Juan Carlos]: Being alone in a well of… of… of thick, putrid water, that smelled like something nasty. And that’s something absolutely awful, awful.
[Mariana]: The world spins. There’s a feeling of desperation. There’s a feeling of stress.
[Juan Carlos]: Sometimes it feels like drowning. Your heart starts racing and then that’s when sometimes you forget about your body physically and start vomiting on yourself and you have no… your head’s in another world. Sometimes you’re thinking at that moment about failure, about… like sin, like the time you messed up, the time you yelled at your mom, the time you were unfair, the time… like all those moral problems you have come to the surface. And you feel guilty. You feel like everyone knows and everyone realizes how bad you are.
[Mariana]: The explanation that the taita gave for these unpleasant experiences was that the yagé was taking out all of the bad things —physical and psychological— from the deepest part of yourself. Something like purging.
So, Johana and Juan Carlos started inviting more people to experience yagé, to meet Orlando Gaitán and learn about his indigenous medicine. People were curious, they wanted to meet this taita who healed people. By 2003, Gaitán had a whole team.
[Juan Carlos]: The guy surrounds himself with a doctor, his wife, a cardiologist, his friend, an architect, a psychologist, an anthropologist… I mean he has a staff of eight or ten very high-status people, from such a high intellectual level that after that, we draw in anyone who passes by. In other words, he finds in us a way of attracting people, of attracting people to him.
[Mariana]: They formalized the community and registered it with the authorities as a non-profit organization which they called the Carare Foundation. The name was from the indigenous ethnicity that Gaitán said he was descended from: the Carare.
It wasn’t just the yagé ceremonies on Friday anymore. They also gave talks on other days about different topics, and they even planned meetings with taitas from other indigenous communities to learn about their cultures. Johana was happy.
[Johana]: It was a community of light, of love, of support, of… of things… all very nice values. And it was like an honor to be there in those nice things in… helping people. And I was, well, fulfilling my mission of gratitude for… for the life of my son, well, what more can you ask for in life?
[Mariana]: At first, they did the yagé ceremonies in houses or apartments belonging to people who offered them voluntarily. They were at one of the women in the community’s house in the San Luis neighborhood in Bogotá — which was where Andrea, who we heard a while ago, visited.
They also ended up in a warehouse that Juan Carlos had for keeping construction materials. Each time there were more people. A lot of times, the yagé made people shout or sob and so neighbors started to get scared and call the police.
So, starting in late 2006, they started looking for their own place, which would be spacious and far from the city. A place where they could do the ceremony without anyone bothering them.
[Juan Carlos]: We see the need to buy a place near Bogotá so people can go take yagé. And a farm turned up, near to… to… to… in La Vega.
[Mariana]: In the rural area of La Vega, a town an hour away from Bogotá.
[Juan Carlos]: The farm was called El sol naciente, The Rising Sun. Again, I said, “That’s the spirit. That must be God who has sent us that farm.” So, we all took out loans.
[Mariana]: The five people closest to the taita, including Johana and Juan Carlos.
[Juan Carlos]: And we paid for the farm in cash. We bought that farm for 135 million pesos.
[Mariana]: Meaning, more than 57,000 dollars at the exchange rate at the time. According to Juan Carlos, Gaitán didn’t give a single peso to buy it, and he didn’t even sign the contract. These five people took care of everything.
When they got the farm, they decided to build a maloca. A sacred place in which indigenous cultures of the Amazon normally conduct ceremonies like partaking in yagé. The plan was for it to be the community’s sacred temple.
Since Juan Carlos is an architect, he was in charge of designing it.
[Juan Carlos]: We started the project of building the maloca, and it’s just a matter of opening your mouth and saying, “Men, we need to build our temple.” And obviously no one said no, and everyone started putting in money, and everyone put in and put in and the money appeared.
[Mariana]: At that moment there were more than 100 people in the community, and many of them contributed with money or with labor to build the maloca. They also asked for material donations from friends who weren’t in the community, and the sold food to raise money.
Gaitán decided that the maloca would be round, made out of wood, and have a roof made of dried leaves. Aside from that, since he tended to mix several cultures, he asked Juan Carlos to base its construction in the Maya tradition: since the Maya calendar has 13 moons — or 13 months — the maloca should be held up by 12 columns, and Orlando Gaitán would represent the 13th column.
That made a lot of sense to Juan Carlos.
[Juan Carlos]: Everything is coldly planned out by the great spirit, by the spirit of God and we are chosen to save this world. And starting then, we started planning life a thousand years in advance.
[Mariana]: And publicizing what the Carare Foundation was doing. Among other things, they started their own website, and defined themselves as, and this is part of the text:
[Voice]: #We are a community that lives within ancestral Amerindian thought. Through cultural and spiritual meditation, we are a community that heals others and itself, committed to safeguarding life and paying homage to ancestral memory.”
[Mariana]: The idea of the foundation was to heal but also share that indigenous thought with others, and even offer their knowledge to different government organizations. So, Gaitán decided to establish an IPS in Bogotá, or, an instituto prestador de salud [health care institute] which was basically a clinic where he treated patients —from the community or not— using traditional indigenous medicine.
Let’s get back to Andrea, who we started the story with. When we left her, she had decided to take a long trip with some friends, and because of that and responsibilities that came up afterward in order to be able to graduate college, she stopped taking yagé for two and a half years.
In 2007, she started working with a professor in a research project on indigenous communities. One day, her professor invited her to a talk by a speaker he knew.
[Andrea]: When I saw Orlando Gaitán, I said, “This is a wild coincidence!” because it had been like… like almost two and a half years.
[Mariana]: Gaitán was different.
[Andrea]: His physical appearance had changed drastically. He looked a lot bigger to me. He had long hair. He had more necklaces. He was fatter. But at the time, he seemed like a very imposing figure, who expressed respect.
[Mariana]: And when she had met him, that night in 2004, Andrea didn’t really know who he was. Now, she found out. She learned, for example, that he had received the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize in 1990. It was confusing because he received it on behalf of an organization called Asociación de Trabajadores Campesinos del Carare [the Carare Farm Worker’s Association], but not himself personally, but they would often introduce him as if he were the winner.
After the award, in the mid-’90s, they started calling him to work at the ministry of health as an advisor on indigenous issues, and this whole trajectory was interesting to Andrea. And since she remembered having good experiences with yagé, she went up to Gaitán to say hello and talk about what he was doing.
[Andrea]: And I said, “I took yagé with you in San Luis.” “Ah, yes. That was a long time ago,” and something else. “We have a farm near La Vega called El sol naciente. You’re invited to take yagé whenever you like.”
[Mariana]: On top of that, he offered his help in her research on indigenous peoples and Andrea was charmed. She decided to go that weekend.
[Daniel]: Andrea would take yagé again, and would see how this community had grown and changed around Orlando Gaitán. What she would find was going to have a big impact on her.
We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
The last time Andrea had taken yagé, it was in a house in a neighborhood in Bogotá, a house that hadn’t really stood out to her. This time she couldn’t have been more surprised.
[Andrea]: There was now a much bigger infrastructure. There were a lot more people: 200, 300 people.
[Daniel]: There was a whole organization behind him. People who took people’s names at the door. Doctors who…
[Andrea]: Looked at your clinical histories, with some very defined roles. A place… a farm with a ton of people who were going to take yagé. Well, with rather organized logistics.
[Daniel]: The people who were at the farm wanted to be as close as possible to Orlando, who was like a wise man. It was a level of idolatry that Andrea had never imagined.
Mariana continues the story.
[Mariana]: Andrea was also surprised by Gaitán.
[Andrea]: There were a lot of people around him, asking him questions, paying attention to him, listening to him speak, sitting around him. It seemed to me that he was someone who had something important to communicate for him to have those people around him. And, he really did have a very adept way of communicating.
[Mariana]: Andrea liked the community and decided to keep going to the farm every weekend. Besides taking yagé, she was motivated by being around the others.
[Andrea]: I felt a kind of… kind of brotherhood. Well, they were very lovely, affable people. They they… they picked up at home. They would take me. They didn’t charge me anything. They invited me breakfast. They wanted to talk to me. Well no, I said: “A community of very nice people, very nice.”
[Mariana]: She started having good friends there.
The process of taking yagé was a little different then. It was still on weekends but now for two days: Friday and Saturday. The members of the community came to the farm in the afternoon and washed with herbs in the shower to clean their bodies of the bad energy they brought with them from the city. Then they dressed in white clothes that they brought themselves, and entered the maloca, always walking backwards because that was a way of showing respect for the place. Then they sat around the taita.
[Andrea]: He would start by giving a talk. He always separated the men on the left and the women on the right.
[Mariana]: The talk consisted of Gaitán speaking on many topics: family, the conquest of the Americas, peace, understanding, or forgiveness. While the taita spoke, people took different plant-based mixtures, like ambil which is tobacco, or coca mambe for men and maize mambe for women.
[Andrea]: Then you would sing an Our Father, uh, they would cure the yagé.
[Mariana]: Cure the yagé, in other words, they blessed it with chants, prayers, and shaking wairas.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CEREMONY)
[Andrea]: Men formed a barrier.
[Mariana]: Around seven, more or less. They formed a circle around the yagé which was in a large clay vessel and they joined Gaitán, in prayer and chanting.
[Andrea]: Then there was the fire in the middle of the maloca.
[Mariana]: A bonfire.
[Andrea]: Then the women came next. We would dance.
[Mariana]: And they played maracas or waved wairas. Then, farther back, there were people playing drums and flutes.
[Andrea]: And you started dancing and singing, and singing and dancing, and dancing.
[Mariana]: And then after blessing the yagé, the music stopped.
[Andrea]: They would turn out the lights and start giving out the yagé. And you stayed in your little spot, wherever it was, where you would roll out your sleeping bag. You would stay very still until it was time for you to take the yagé. If you heard people were getting very sick, well, you would get up, go, and help the people vomit, go to the bathroom.
[Mariana]: After that first cup, the healing process would begin. Whenever someone new came to the community there would open a clinical history for them and Gaitán’s assistants would fill it out depending on the treatment and evolution, like with a patient and their doctor.
During the ceremonies, Gaitán would decide who he would heal, depending on the clinical histories and the patient’s urgency. Obviously, it wasn’t everyone who was there, but the ones he considered.
[Andrea]: So they would get into a semi-circle, they would call up the people they were going to heal ahead of time. The healing was done with the lights out.
[Mariana]: The healing could be physical —neck pain, for example— and the taita would give massages or rub them with plants. He would also blow tobacco smoke on them and spit a liquid. But the healings were also spiritual. Supposedly Orlando was freeing people of emotional baggage or traumas using prayers and songs that guided the yagé journey.
He took his time with each person and in total the healing process could take about two hours. After midnight, they would take yagé a second time.
Then they kept going with more chants and dances that Gaitán joined in. No one would sleep that night. The next day, with everyone worn out, some left, others stayed at the farm and spent time together: eating, talking, resting. The next week the whole process was repeated.
Starting in 2008, the mayor’s office in Bogotá started hiring the Carare Foundation to do projects with various cultural, educational, and health organizations. Andrea worked at the Secretary of Social Integration’s office, and there the foundation had a project aimed at people with disabilities. Andrea started getting more involved with that initiative.
[Andrea]: And Orlando Gaitán, uh, started to be very close to me. And I started having a very close relationship with Orlando Gaitán’s wife. And being very close. Inviting me to the movies. Inviting me to their house for dinner on weekends, to do projects with them, picking me up in their truck.
[Mariana]: Andrea felt that her place was at the Carare Foundation and being there was her mission in life.
[Andrea]: I stopped going out with my friends. I didn’t even go to family lunches anymore. I started sort of isolating myself a little. I was already in a state of, well, let’s say, emotional catharsis then. So, I didn’t have anything wrong; I didn’t even have any bad thoughts. I told my boyfriend at the time: “No, since you don’t take yagé, then, I’m not… I’m not interested in you.” So my world started to gravitate around them, around Orlando.
[Mariana]: She also started dressing differently.
[Andrea]: I started buying long white dresses. Then you have your certain distinctive touches from the community: the necklace, the bracelet on your head, the community shirt. You start to be part of it. And you’re getting involved and getting involved until you’re completely imbued with that dynamic and that role. And no one told me: “Wear white.” No one told me anything. I did it on my own. I did it on my own.
[Mariana]: During the ceremonies, some people put on cusmas, a kind of long shirt that goes almost to the knee and is worn my several indigenous communities. Even though the color changed a little depending on the person’s role in the community, the ones the women wore were light blue and the men’s were dark blue.
Gaitán decided who could wear a cusma, and that was definitely a symbol of status: the encusmados, which is what they called these people, were those closest to him. It represented their commitment to the community, to the taita, and to the spiritual path the yagé showed them.
And, of course, Andrea belonged to that group. She was an encusmada.
But who got a cusma wasn’t the only thing the taita decided, of course. In fact, nothing happened in that community without his consent. Nothing. People asked him permission to speak at the talks.
Remember Juan Carlos? The architect who designed the maloca, Johana’s husband? Well, he explains it like this:
[Juan Carlos]: Ask… You ask God and him for permission to speak. If you spoke 20 times, every time you stand up: “I ask for permission from the spirit, from the taita to place my words.” He’s the … he’s the taita, the shaman, he’s the… the wise man, the spiritual guide. In other words, without the guide, you… you don’t move. You don’t do anything.
[Mariana]: They also asked him for permission to do things that didn’t have anything to do with the community, with personal decisions. Like what happened with Juan Carlos…
[Juan Carlos]: I absolutely gave him complete, complete, complete authority so he would choose the colors of my cars. If I was going to buy a car, I would tell him, and he would tell me yes or no.
[Mariana]: He did it out of real fear because he was convinced that there could be bad consequences. Like one time he bought a car and thought he didn’t need to consult Gaitán.
[Juan Carlos]: And he didn’t like that very much, and unfortunately, the car had problems, it was defective. So, he told me, “That’s because you didn’t ask me.” Obviously, I felt guilty, and I sold that car.
[Mariana]: It seemed like there was no other option. Gaitán was the taita, the wise man, he had a special connection with God, and he was the one who knew what was right and what wasn’t. That’s why people in the community told him everything.
[Andrea]: They told him what their finances were like, what money they had, what businesses they had. They told him everything. Everything. How much they had in the bank, how much they owed, if they were unfaithful, with whom, all their thoughts. Everything you could imagine, that man had all of everyone in the community’s information.
[Mariana]: And that information was very valuable to Gaitán. With it, he had control over the community, and he didn’t necessarily keep it private.
[Andrea]: People’s intimate business he would air out in the middle of talks: “Ah, yes, how you like to pick your nose, or how you masturbate.” Eh, he made fun of women who didn’t have boyfriends because they could be lesbians. So, he made jokes about that. He made misogynist jokes. There was a lot of intense bullying in that community, and you thought that was normal.
[Mariana]: But misogyny as strong as that, which, according to Andrea, Gaitán himself instigated, couldn’t be normal. Deep down, she and other women in the community noticed it. But their devotion to the taita was stronger and they would quickly force themselves to stop thinking about it. They didn’t talk about it either with other people: what the taita said or did simply wasn’t questioned.
But the truth is that men and women ate on different plates. They didn’t take the same medicinal plants before the ceremonies and were even located in different spaces during the yagé ceremonies. But that wasn’t all: the women told the taita if they were on their period and when that was happening, they were excluded and were called “encuchadas.”
[Andrea]: “Encuchadas” is a derogatory way of calling someone who was menstruating and who couldn’t be around. You had to be over there and no one would bring you food. You’re rejected. You’re isolated. You’re belittled: “Oh, since you’re menstruating you don’t have the qualities to be a part of the group.” It was a strong cause of exclusion.
[Mariana]: So, many women in the community who didn’t have very regular periods decided to take contraceptive pills so they wouldn’t be marginalized during the activities. Because, they couldn’t even get close to Gaitán because, according to him, they could make him really sick and even kill him.
No one dared to contradict him because if someone argued with him, did something he considered bad or strayed from the path they were supposed to follow, he held a sort of public trial in the maloca, and the rest of the community would go off on that person.
[Juan Carlos]: “You’re a snob, you’re a despot, you’re a this and that.” And people would sit there and feel piled on. They feel naked because their entire social world is taking them and judging them. People are afraid that someday they’ll go through that kind of expiation, you know? Well, people just try to keep their noses clean and say yes to everything.
[Mariana]: Yes to whatever Gaitán says or asks of them.
[Andrea]: So, you didn’t want to bother him. Just a look was enough for him to give you his approval or disapproval. That’s what he was like: that reverential fear that his presence infused you with.
[Mariana]: Of course, not everyone could handle that pressure, and some people withdrew from the community without much explanation. They just stopped going to the farm. And when the rest of the community asked the taita why they had left, he would say…
[Andrea]: “No, she’s a lesbian. No, he’s gay. No, they started to bring out a lot of trauma. No, he was negative and disruptive, he’s envious, blablabla, he’s a thief, he stole some money.” Those were ways of brushing off the people who were leaving the community, and the ones who stayed, we were the chosen ones, the ones who were in the process of helping humanity, saving it and blablabla.
[Mariana]: And they didn’t ask anymore.
Andrea stayed in the community. She couldn’t see any reason to leave because she felt fine with everyone, learning from the taita. But one day, in early 2010, at a healing, during a ceremony, something happened.
Three years earlier, when she met Gaitán again and joined the community, they recorded in her clinical history that she had an intrauterine device. Then, at a yagé ceremony, after she drank it, Gaitán called her to the front to do a healing on her. Andrea hadn’t asked for it, but he normally called people who he thought needed to be cured at that time. And that was a great opportunity and even an honor.
Gaitán did a healing on her and then told her to go the examination room they had on the farm to be examined after the second cup of yagé. According to what he told her, for some supernatural reason, he had realized that the device was poorly implanted and that could cause problems for her.
That seemed a little odd to Andrea. But, well, if the taita was saying so, it was for a reason. Before going into the examining room, one of the women who helped them told her…
[Andrea]: “The taita is going to do the healing on the gurney, you have to take off your clothes.” I lay down on the hospital bed, and he tells me: “I’m going to examine your intrauterine device,” like any doctor who was going to do a… an examination, so I didn’t see any problem. He had already done healings on me, but in my healings he had never made vaginal contact with me or anything like that.
Well, he put his fingers in my vagina and started masturbating me. And I said, “Taita, I don’t feel comfortable.” He said, “This is to dilate the walls of the vagina, uh, and to be able to check the device because it’s in the cervix.”
[Mariana]: Andrea insisted that she didn’t feel ok, but Gaitán didn’t care and kept touching her.
[Andrea]: He starts touching my clitoris, and he starts touching my breasts, and I say to him: “No, taita, I feel uncomfortable.”
[Mariana]: And he kept going, despite the fact that Andrea had been explicit about how she didn’t like what he was doing.
[Andrea]: He sees how I’m not turned on or anything like that and he says: “No, no, you’d better get dressed and… and we’ll do another kind of healing.” And I said, “Alright, ok, taita.”
[Mariana]: Andrea got off the hospital bed, got dressed, and left the examining room. She was uncomfortable about what had happened, but she joined the dances and the chants the community was doing. And she didn’t tell anyone anything because Gaitán had repeated to them several times: you can’t tell others what happens in a healing. The taita’s word is sacred and is not to be shared with anyone else. If they disobeyed, there could be negative consequences.
[Andrea]: Because something could happen to the family, because it was very private, because people could get jealous, blablabla.
[Mariana]: But she couldn’t get it out of her head. She was sure that what happened to her was far from being a healing.
[Andrea]: A few days go by, and I’m feeling very uncomfortable. I’m feeling very uncomfortable. I say, “No, but, why is that?” Something wasn’t right. Something about how I felt wasn’t right.
[Mariana]: A few months later, Gaitán invited more than 30 people from the community, including Andrea, on a trip near Cartagena to visit indigenous communities. The plan was to have a yagé ceremony there. It seemed alright to her: she packed her bags and went.
The night they arrived, they did the normal ceremony.
[Andrea]: We drank yagé, a very strong yagé, I felt very very bad, physically, and I asked them to take me to speak with the taita because I wasn’t alright physically.
[Mariana]: Physically and psychologically, because she couldn’t get what had happened months earlier out of her head.
[Andrea]: And I said, “Taita, that healing that you did to me has made me feel very bad. I don’t feel alright.” And he comes and tells me: “Ah, my child.” He takes me by the shoulder and gives me three pats and tells me: “Ah, my child, stop being so judgmental. Calm down.” And I was like plop. I’m the one who has a problem. I’m the one who’s judging. I’m the one who’s got the wrong idea. I felt very upset with myself, very uncomfortable. No… it was an endless night. And then, that’s how it went. After that he never touched me abusively again, nothing.
[Mariana]: Andrea didn’t leave the community then. She thought about what Gaitán had said, and yes, maybe he was right: she had misinterpreted the healing. The taita wanted what was best for everyone and would never hurt her. But as much as she tried, it wasn’t easy to leave it all behind, because she still felt uncomfortable. And not just because of the abuse.
One of the reasons was because the Carare community had a clear hierarchy. On one side, were Gaitán’s closets followers, his disciples, who learned the rituals and kept his schedule, who took care of him and prepared the drinks. There were also those in the middle, who weren’t so close to the taita, but whose socioeconomic position allowed them to donate money to the community. He treated them well, he counseled them personally. And finally, there were those who were rejected. Those who, according to the community’s rules, made mistakes or strayed from the path.
Andrea says that those last ones, in addition to being bullied, were made to do a humiliating task.
[Andrea]: A role almost everyone avoided.
[Mariana]: Cleaning the bathrooms.
[Andrea]: Because, well, cleaning bathrooms is unpleasant for anyone.
[Mariana]: But Gaitán said they shouldn’t feel bad about doing that.
[Andrea]: The tale he told you was that cleaning the bathrooms was part of the healing process you had.
[Mariana]: But clearly not everyone in the community had to go through this healing.
[Andrea]: The bathrooms weren’t cleaned by those close to Orlando, or by Orlando’s wife, or by the parents of Orlando’s wife, or the sister, or the boyfriend. The ones who cleaned the bathrooms were, well, the people who were, like, on the fringes of the community.
[Mariana]: It was already 2011, a year after the abuse, and Andrea hadn’t broached the subject again with Gaitán. Since she’s a lawyer and a political scientist, she didn’t see a problem continuing to help the Carare Foundation to create projects and make them more visible. Around that time, they won a prize for one of those projects and Gaitán told her:
[Andrea]: “Andrea: Why don’t you present this prize on the maloca, because you were the one who came up with this idea and so on”. And I presented it, and immediately after I present this prize, Orlando’s wife started to segregate me. Something happened, something rubbed her the wrong way. Because I came over to say hello: “Hi, how are you?” And she says: “Stay away from me.”
[Mariana]: They referred to Gaitán’s wife by her last name, Panche, and she and Andrea had always gotten along, that’s why she didn’t understand what was happening. She decided to ask Gaitán and he told her that Panche was a very jealous person and that lately she didn’t like that Andrea was so close to him. So the best thing, according to him, was that they didn’t talk when she was around.
Andrea thought it was a little strange. But, again, if the taita was saying this, it had to be for a reason. So, she followed his recommendation.
[Andrea]: And, meanwhile, the woman was making my life impossible. Making my life impossible. And the whole entourage of women around Panche, the mother of the community, well, they stopped talking to me and started being mean to me.
[Mariana]: This all coincided with Andrea being out of a job around that time and, plus, they started to charge her for things she had never paid for: the yagé ceremonies, the healings, the medicines Gaitan prescribed. Since she couldn’t pay, and since Panche’s rejection towards her was clearer each day, they tasked her with cleaning the bathrooms.
[Andrea]: It was a complex issue because…. because you felt like you were being segregated. I mean, like… like you were in the fringes now. Well, of course, I felt awful because I didn’t have a cool role anymore. I was now part of, like, the pariahs, right?
[Mariana]: She wasn’t the only one inconvenienced in the community. Some people close to her started to leave and the reasons Gaitán gave were the same as always: that they had strayed from the path and they couldn’t continue in the community.
Andrea gradually started to feel more uncomfortable. So, when in 2012 she received a job offer far from Bogotá, she didn’t hesitate and left.
Once she was away from the community, as the months passed by, little by little she started to detach from anything that had to do with the Carare foundation.
[Andrea]: Since I was, like, a little resentful, then I started to think about all the ugly things that had happened to me in the community.
[Mariana]: The segregation, the sexism, the homophobia, the way in which Gaitán controlled people. Being away allowed her to see everything in perspective and all those memories didn’t seem as normal as before. There was something there that wasn’t OK. But, undoubtedly, the heaviest thing of all that, the most recurring image she had was what happened that night when the taita touched her in an abusive way.
Then, Andrea was no longer afraid of Gaitán and felt like she needed to get it out of her chest. She called a friend, the only person in the community with whom she still spoke at the time and who had also left a while ago.
[Andrea]: I asked her if he’d ever touched her, because that occurred to me, and she says “Yes, he’s performed several vaginal examinations on me”.
[Andrea]: Andrea was in shock. She told her that the same thing had happened to her and they agreed that it had been abuse. But, they also started to connect the dots: if Gaitán had abused two women and those who were closest to him, his disciples, knew everything that happened in the community, then it was very likely that they also knew about the abuses.
So, Andrea thought about Lina.
As we heard before, Andrea had met Lina at the Bogotá public library years before, and it was that same Lina who took her to her first yagé ceremony. Lina is an anthropologist and for 12 years she had been one of the people closest to Gaitán, until she left without giving any explanations in 2012.
Andrea had a lot questions she wanted to ask her about the taita, but she was somewhat afraid of her reaction. Lina had been there for many years and, according to her, the taita and yagé had pulled her out of a very strong deppression years before, which had almost lead her to coommit suicide. That’s why she completely gave herself over to the community; she even gave her salary to Gaitán. This is Lina.
[Lina]: It was faith, it was trust, it was the love toward a father, it was the father I had supposedly never had. I was part of his circle of angels and if I would have had to give my life for him, I would have.
[Mariana]: But it was also true that her exit from the community had been very sudden, and that generated a lot of doubts in Andrea. Lina had to have known something to have made such a difficult choice for her. So, Andrea called her and asked her to meet.
[Lina]: So, we met in a cafeteria, I think, and she tells me: “Orlando abused me”.
[Mariana]: She told her all the details: Gaitán’s reaction, the reasons why she had never told anyone this before.
[Lina]: I listened to her. I listened to her right ten. So, that was… I said: “No, my God.” I mean… Right then I deeply sympathize with her because I already know what she’s talking about.
[Mariana]: And yes, Lina knew what she was talking about because other women had told her similar things.
[Lina]: Sexual abuses during Ayahuasca ceremonies, during therapy, on teenage girls. I mean, that to me… I almost can’t believe that happens. I lose my vision. I didn’t want to fall into the hopelessness that… which I had left a while back. I had to fight so hard. Right then and there, I understand that this man is an abuser.
[Mariana]: That is why Lina got away from Gaitán and everything that had to do with him. It wasn’t just Andrea and her friend who had been abused, it was a lot more women in the community.
[Daniel]: In the next episode…
[Woman]: The only thing I do is stay still, petrified, trying to understand what is happening, that it’s wrong, but if he’s done it before, but if it’s been during healings, this isn’t a healing, the previous times weren’t healing…. My mind is a complete chaos.
So, she started remembering all these women she has met and who have left the community in silence, and she starts to connect the dots. So, right then is when my mom starts saying, like: “I need to contact these women and ask if this has happened to them, because if it has, this is bigger than we think. This isn’t just a mistake that happened with my daughter and that’s that.”
[Daniel]: Mariana Palau is a journalist. She co-produced this story with David Trujillo, a producer with Radio Ambulante. They both live in Bogotá.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas, and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Remy Lozano, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas and Joseph Zárate. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.