Gelio Cubicaje is the Ocaina ‘sabio’ and traditional medical specialist who invited me to Puerto Isango. He was brought up there but has lived in Iquitos for 4 years. I met him last year over a period of a few months, in the maloca of Curuinsi, an association of indigenous students from the Huitoto-Murui & Bora tribes (the other People of the Centre tribes) who are trying to salvage their cultural knowledge, working with sabios including Gelio to learn and write it down.
Gelio’s story there is as follows: His adoptive grandfather, who brought him up along with his father and aunt, was a traditional chief and wisdom-keeper and passed on all his knowledge to Gelio over a period of 8 years from age 12 – 20. The sabios-by-inheritance teach much of what they know to everyone, but also have a core of knowledge which they
Gelio putting a spell on me in the Curuinsi maloca last year
will only pass on to their inheritor and only when they are nearing the end of their life. This spiritual knowledge, which was directly gifted by God to their ancestors, is also highly personal, a part of their being, and once they teach it to someone they lose some of it (‘they feel dried out’), almost as if it were physical. Hence the translation wisdom-keeper seems most appropriate – they are the custodians of this knowledge for the course of their lives.
Gelio has a quiet, serious manner and a powerful presence that does give you the sense of his having some immense internal peace and control. As he was not the head of the maloca in Iquitos, he did not lead the teaching, but appeared to already know everything he heard, cured small aches and pains whenever needed, prepared the coca and tobacco and had a role as a kind of spiritual consultant. He also had various stories from his youth about how his grandfather had chosen him and trials he had gone through.
In the meantime, he has a day job as a witchdoctor. He has a constant stream of patients and once nearly went to Lima to cure a sick man who had heard of his reputation. Last year, he lived in a small wooden house with an old wife; when I returned in June, he was living in a large concrete house, designed to include 2 additional floors in future, with a younger wife. He got the money for the house as a kickback from a distant cousin because he used his mental powers to ensure Nestor got a government building contract – and I have seen him helping the same cousin prepare for important meetings for the next part of the contract. By all accounts, he is a successful witchdoctor.
All in all, there seemed no reason at all not to believe he was a genuine wisdom-keeper; perhaps most compellingly, all the other indigenous people from the same cultural group, including some from his own river basin, believe him to be such.
After knowing him for a few months, and having been on my first 3 month trip to the jungle to live with a different tribe, Gelio invited me to his community to start learning his knowledge. At the time I had to return to England but was already planning to return in future; I applied for the RGS Neville Shulman Challenge Award on the premise of studying with Gelio.
I arrived back in Iquitos in June and over a few evenings discussed and organised with Gelio our plans for starting my apprenticeship. Once this was all agreed, we got ready, during which time he also taught me a basic love enchantment, the standard entry-level spell, and explained some basic points of their logic to help my learning. He also backed himself up with various stories. Some of these seemed highly improbable: after teaching me the love spell he told me some stories of his own successful seductions which flew flagrantly in the face of the personal history I had previously heard; and he came out with a detailed but extremely far-fetched story about how his grandfather had never been enslaved and had defeated the Peruvian slave-master by calling down a plague of Isango (the nasty bug after which the village is named) on his cattle herd. Due to what I had previously heard I took these with a gigantic pinch of salt, but still got a bit caught up in the excitement – they rolled off Gelio’s tongue with complete ease and he used belief-creating story-telling techniques I have previously learnt from none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Both these stories, and a few others that Gelio told, had obvious motives of building my confidence in certain things. In fact, through these I learnt about how Gelio builds faith in patients and creates an appearance of certainty. This is an essential part of his trade in traditional medicine, which by his own description is in large part mind manipulation and faith medicine. Creating false appearances is an essential tool for anyone involved in magic, from Derren Brown to Merlin, and I realised that through these fictions Gelio was teaching me more than the simple truth – just like good fiction.
Then we arrived in Puerto Isango. Within a few days it became clear that Gelio knew much less of the cultural knowledge than he made out. He seemed to know little of the festival songs, a crucial part of the culture, and by retelling rehashed stories he had heard in Curuinsi to Fermin, the old and genuinely knowledgeable patriarch of Puerto Isango, he learned them better because Fermin corrected him. The story of his grandfather’s plague of isango was shamelessly and blatantly forgotten.
Gelio with nephews and niece in Puerto Isango
Then, about a week into my stay, Fermin unwittingly dropped a bombshell: rather than apprenticing to his grandfather at age 12, Gelio had moved to Iquitos!
Fermin claimed that although his grandfather had wanted to teach Gelio, Gelio was still a small child (ie 5 or 6) while his grandfather was getting too old; so instead he had taught Fermin and asked him to teach Gelio later. Gelio had gone off with a botanist to work in Iquitos for 4 years, after which Fermin had taught him a little bit.
Wow. That was pretty serious. But all I had to go on were their different words: who to believe?
I chatted to Gelio, who now said he had gone to Iquitos from ages 16 – 20 but his grandfather had already taught him.
His older sister had another story: ‘Gelio was a right little rebel when he was a kid, he didn’t want to do any school work, so when he was 12 he got sent to Iquitos with a butterfly-catcher. He came back when he was 20.’
‘So how did he learn his medical knowledge?’
‘Oh, he always used to sit with our Dad and grandfather when they were in the mambeadero so he learnt it there.’
3 people, 4 different stories. What was clear was that Gelio had spent a few years of his adolescence in the city, and knows much less than he claims. As you can probably imagine, I was pretty pissed off.
I was also confused as to his motives. At the same time as I was making these enquiries – which I did in an incidental manner and about which I did not confront Gelio directly, although I let him know I was picking through the fictions – he not only continued to spin blatant yarns about his past but also helped me enter into the community with the explicit aim of understanding everyone’s point of view. He himself suggested that later on I needed to have in-depth discussions with each resident individually about their lives and hopes for themselves and Puerto Isango. I asked him if it was fine for me to write what I learned about him for the people in my land, even his fictions. ‘Of course, everything,’ he replied without skipping a beat.
So what was going on? I could see no real motive for what he was doing – both opening up his home reality and continuing with this charade of being a true wisdom-keeper when I could see through his lies the moment they came out of his mouth. I had also worded our agreement such that money could not be the motive.
For a few days I lost all faith in anything Gelio said or did and was wondering whether my report to the RGS would basically be telling them he is a monumental fraudster.
Fortunately, I won’t have to do that. I have found that Gelio really does have traditional medical knowledge and is both teaching me icarus and helping me understand the logic behind their cultural knowledge, as well as how to enter into the world of the spirits; he has also given me a personal and solid proof of his powers, which I will explain in the next post. In the meantime, Fermin, the truly knowledgeable patriarch, has accepted me as his apprentice.
But what was Gelio’s motive for the continued falseness while allowing me to understand the truth? I think I have worked it out, and Gelio has tacitly agreed with my analysis. The goal of his stories and self-misrepresentation is to build confidence – without which his medical powers are less effective. He has a great skill in creating stories on the spot and making them believable and has used this to great effect in Iquitos for a few years; they only start to fall down when one person learns enough to see that they cannot be true; probably no one has bothered to investigate them in the past, or cared as they have gradually discovered the holes. In bringing me to Puerto Isango, he really is opening his world up to me in a way he has never done before. He just didn’t realise at first that that also means he has to change strategy in order to keep my confidence – in this situation the fiction tactic backfires massively – and that in opening up his world he is of necessity opening up himself, including his frailties and weaknesses – something he has never before done with an outsider.