Riverdave’s Journal
November 1999

Another cactus spine shot through my shoes.  I looked down and there were so many spines, both large and small, that I didn’t even bother to pull them out.  I was exhausted in the hot, high altitude sun.  This was my first lesson in medicinal plant gathering in the Andean Mountains of Bolivia and it seemed that I was on the verge of dropping out.

My teacher Manuel, a local curandero, was a hard driver.  We had been out all morning cutting down large columns of San Pedro cactus along the slopes above the Rio Achocallo. The cactus has been used in traditional Andean medicine and traditional veterinary medicine for millennia.  Currently it is widely known for its use in the treatment of nervous disorders, joint problems, cardiac disease and high blood pressure. The juice of San Pedro is served as a drink to participants in traditional Andean divination ceremonies.

Our harvest took place on a beautiful mountain slope amidst a forest of  thorny acacia trees and cacti. Field birds were singing and giant Andean hummingbirds the size of robins were zooming about seeking nectar. But I had forgotten to bring along any water bottle on this excursion and was now feeling dehydrated at mid day. 

Our task consisted of cutting down several columns of San Pedro, each a dozen feet high, and hauling them several hundred yards back to Manuel’s truck which was parked along the highway. To begin, Manuel pulled out a large machete-like knife and chanted a brief incantation to the spirits of the cactus patch. 

And quite naturally, our work turned out to be a thorny affair.  Not only were we dealing with the thorns of the San Pedro, but the pricklers of many other species of cacti as well that grew closer to the ground around our feet.  Even the sheltering acacia trees, under which we caught brief moments of shade, were armed with spines. 

At that moment, the combination of desert sun, dehydration, spines in my shoes, thin air at an altitude of 12,000 feet, the tremendous weight of these plants and Manuel’s driving spirit were weighing heavily upon me.  I couldn’t remember ever facing such an arduous task.  I kept at it the best I could, trying not to reveal my desperate state of weakness and disappoint my teacher.

Worried about my constitution. I recalled how twenty years before I had become dehydrated in the Middle East working under stressful conditions while sharing a month of  Ramadan fasting with Muslim neighbors in August.  From that ordeal I ended up in the hospital with kidney stones distress.  

At one point Manuel got a cactus spine lodged deep into the base of his right index finger.  I had a pocket knife on me that included a small pair of tweezers. I handed the tweezers to Manuel, but he couldn’t use his left hand with finesse enough to remove the thorn.  I  also tried, but the small tweezers were not strong enough to budge this large spine and I only drove the spear deeper into his hand. “Ay, caramba!”  Manuel hollered in agony.

We were in a real predicament.  Manuel could not continue our work with the spine in his hand.  I suggested that we just leave the cacti on the ground, and come back in a couple of days so he can take care of his hand.  He surprised me by saying that we should not leave the large columnar trunks lying around, as authorities might spot them and we could end up in trouble.

This was disturbing news to me.  Manuel further stated that no one really cared about the status of the plants on that property and that there were no modern laws prohibiting their harvest.  But if we were found, the police might hassle us for lots of money based on old colonial laws.  My already fatigued spirit sank another level or two.  This was turning into a huge ordeal. Discarding my tweezers, Manuel dug around his wound with his knife and was able to pry the cactus spine out of his hand with his teeth.

We then rolled the columns onto a blanket and Manuel and I then toted these huge, water-logged cacti by gripping opposite sides of the blanket.  One by one we hauled the harvested cacti wrapped in blankets uphill in blazing sun back to his truck.  When first cutting the cactus we were hidden by the tall cacti columns and surrounding acacia trees. But on our march back up the hill we were completely exposed and in plain view. My eyes were fixed on the road in the distance, desperately hoping not to find an awaiting police car.

I nervously helped Manuel lay the cacti in the back of his truck.  We covered them with a tarp and then drove off.  As we made our way up the winding mountain road to the city, the cool air blowing in my face from the open window began to reverse my overheated and tense condition.  Perhaps, I said to myself, it was all worth the extraordinary effort. 

As we whizzed around another bend in the road, to my horror we were suddenly confronted with two army vehicles blocking our way.  I think I might have even ceased to breath.  We slowed to a stop, and on each side of our car a soldier approached us, looked in and asked us for an ID.  I fumbled around in my wallet and came up with only a photocopy of my passport and a driver’s license. The young fellow in fatigues glanced into my eyes and then walked around to the back of the truck as I had spontaneous visions of the inside of a dark and dank Bolivian jail cell.

To my utter disbelief, the tarp was not lifted and we were motioned to proceed through the barricade. Manuel had remained cool and seemed to act as if getting through such obstacles was a routine process.  He claimed that we were under the care of the spirit of the cactus and had little to worry about.  It was all new to me. I hadn’t felt the “care” of the cactus back on the mountain side, but now I was thankful to simply enjoy the intense relief of the moment.

We unloaded the cacti in Manuel’s backyard.  As I sat down in a chair to catch my breath, I realized that my left foot was completely numb from cactus spine punctures.  Taking off my shoes and socks was an extremely delicate task.

I soaked my foot in a bucket of herbs for a while, realizing that my first Andean medicinal plant gathering expedition had not been much of a meditative experience.  Perhaps, I thought, that benefit might come in tonight’s dreams.  I slept that night with a huge stack of san pedro columns just outside my window.

But relief did not come.  I tossed and turned all night.  I ached all along my spine and my left shoulder was stiff and hurt when I moved it.  Manuel was also in pain with his hand.  I heard him moaning in the middle of the night.  At some point someone got up and burned something on the kitchen stove that left a horribly unpleasant odor in the air.  What the hell were we REALLY struggling with in that cactus patch?
The next morning I set up a chair in Manuel’s backyard in front of our pile of San Pedro.  Using a pair of pliers, Manuel showed me how to carefully remove the small spines along the ridges of the cactus.  They had to be done one by one.   I spent four hours that morning at the task. I chewed some of the bitter cactus as I worked.  As all curanderos do, I spoke to the plant, asking for wisdom on how to correctly and respectfully work with it. 

After sitting still as long as my aching body would allow, I took a bus into the city and paid a visit to the Instituto de Ecologia. I showed a resident naturalist a small cross section of our cactus and asked if he would be so kind to identify it for me. With a brief visual examination, he narrowed it down to two species of Trichocereus.  I later learned that the various species of that genus of plants have since been moved to the genus Echinopsis.

By mid afternoon my journey into the city was wearing me down.  The pollution and dirt from city traffic trapped in that narrow valley was making me nauseous and my aches from the previous night were returning. I became too weary and impatient to deal with the miserably slow local bus, so I caught a taxi back to Manuel’s home.

With renewed dedication, I again threw myself into another several hours of despining. I ignored a growing blister on my right hand from my repeated twisting of the pliers. By dark I had finished my task and lay down for a nap. Manuel and his family were out late that evening so eventually the housekeeper came and woke me up and coaxed me into the kitchen for a bowl of hot soup. By that time I was so nauseated I could eat very little so I returned to bed and crashed. I thought to myself that perhaps I should not have chewed the cactus while I worked.

What a night!  I went to bed sick as can be, cold to my bones and then soon woke up hot.  I ached all over, especially in my back. I was plagued by dreams in the middle of the night that we had disturbed aliens that lived in the San Pedro patch and this was the reason Manuel and I were having such a difficult time with the harvest. While I tossed and turned I heard things go bump in the room around my bed. It felt creepy.  Had unknown entities followed us home from the cactus patch?  I even heard several beats on a drum that I knew hung on a wall next to me in the room!
At 2 A.M. it all lifted.  My nausea and body pain disappeared. By 7 A.M. I  was up and feeling almost normal!  Whatever had been so adversely affecting me had simply packed up and departed. It was an amazing sensation.  I had a new sense that our harvest was a success.

Our next and third step of this harvest process would be to carefully remove with a knife the outer green layers of our despined cacti in long strips. It is in this outer layer that the medicinal constituents are concentrated  The fourth step would be to lay these moist cacti strips in the sun several days for drying.  In the fifth and final step, the dried strips would be ground up with a mortar and pestle into a powder and stored in jars for later use. 

I had a strong sense of satisfaction that I had not dropped out of my first lesson in Traditional Andean Medicine when the going was rough back in the thorn forest.  And I had wrestled with the spirits in the night and prevailed. I wondered if I would ever have the chance to pass this tradition on to someone else ...

Photo by Riverdave: San Pedro cactus in Bolivian thorn forest