Stalking Pachamama – life-altering CouchSurfing experience

Me and Berit just love love love CouchSurfing. It has brought us to meet so many amazing people and got us into crazy truthful experiences. And naturally, we always have liked the insiders’ view on some faraway culture. We prefer to stay close to the real social reality, with real local people, weather they are some single geniuses or funny families.

In 2007 me and Berit were having our magical journey through South America. It was simply Couchsurfing that brought us together with Alvaro Sarmiento – intriguing young film-maker – and our journey turned into a spiritual exploration, under the flag of something we call Avantourism, in spirit of Pachamama.
Couple of years later me and Berit published a shamanic novel entitled “Seven Worlds”, Alvaro as the leading character.
After five years time, in 2012 I met Alvaro again in Tallinn. When he got here, it seemed that he was already well-known for many people here – from our writings. It’s incredible to think that it was Couchsurfing that brought us together at the first place. We travelled for months along Amazon, and the journey had huge impact on our lives.

This video, which is actually also part of the CouchSurfing video contest, hopefully gives you some idea of the Couchsurfing vibrations and all that might follow. Please spread and ‘like’ if you care so.

When tourism industry goes wild about shamans – interview with a legendary shaman researcher Mihaly Hoppal

Couple of last posts at Avantourists were about the local (mostly transgender) shamans called bissu in South Sulawesi. Although that world around bissu was very far from the tourist beaten track, it seems to be a good time to publish an interview with a legendary and world recognized researcher on shamanhood – Hungarian professor Mihaly Hoppal.

Soon reaching his 70. jubilee, he has done fieldworks in Siberia, Korea, in Manchuria in China since early 1980s. And produced some series of documentaries on shamanhood. Yes, shamanhood is the word he prefers, to refer to the local nature of any form of shamanic belief.

We met couple of months ago when he was a special guest on a festival of visual anthropology (Worldfilm) in Tartu, Estonia. The interview (bit shortened) was published this month in Estonian largest travel magazine Go! in a special issue dedicated on shamanism.

When meeting him on this snowy spring evening, we briefly shared some of our experiences – me about my experiences with ayahuasca-shamanhood in Amazon, he about Siberian shamanhood – and I hadn’t even pressed the record button of my voice recorder, when our conversation had already touched the issues around intersectionality of tourism and shamanism.

I was visiting these shamans near Iquitos in 2007. Their looks in casual T-shirts and a ritual hold in the same room with pigs and ducks might not go for any tourist though. But I don’t want to buy my spirituality either, especially when its nicely served and neatly packed.

During the recent years we can notice more and more phenomenons such as spiritual tourism or travelling (i.e. money-making) shamans. How do you see the state of shamanism in the light of these processes, which we could even see as the commercialization of shamanism?

It’s really a problematic question, especially for me. Because sometimes I feel that what happened is not something that went in a right direction. But immediately I have to admit, that this is not something that depends on us. With the very few, not more than 12 or 20, scholars from the beginning of the 1970s we started to re-study the shamanism. Because some of us realized that most of the scholarly literature was just scratching the surface. For instance, beautiful articles appeared in the scholarly literature without pictures. So how can I really see what they saw?! Why were the pictures missing? Because in most cases they saw nothing! The studies were some kind of fantasy description. I decided to change the course and we established an International Society (The International Society for Shamanistic Research – ISSR, T.T.) for scholars. I decided to personally visit as many places as I can.

Going back to the beginning, then this new type of freedoms that we saw after the 1950s or 1960s also included Russia. And somehow the shamans were allowed to come out. And that was exactly when the tourism industry started. And in the end of the 1980s, the big changes occurred all around the world, especially in the socialist world of Russia. Publicity and television all helped this movement. Television wanted to show something funny and new, and the shamans who had just came out and appeared as singers, writers or dancers on festivals – they got media attention. And they thought: „Oh, this is interesting. Maybe I can ask some money for the performance?” In many places like in Tuva, in Buryatia (in Russia – T.T.) – they got money. That was also at the time when the healing system in the Soviet Union collapsed, there was practically no medical care. Thus people instead went to dungur (shamanic drum in Tuva language) society that had just been established.

So the local people made use of the tourists, and the whole industry started. Thank god, when I was there I was able to make some nice films with old shamans, who were not interested in money. But whenever a Japanese film crew came, they made money. And the film we saw today (“Shaman’s revenge” by Laetitia Merli) – this guy was completely fake, he’s just a lyer.

Of course in some different places, and I’m glad it happened, shamanic practices made the local people more aware of their identity. They just picked up one feature of their own traditional culture and showed it at the festivals, which were organized everywhere. And then UNESCO came.

Or another example – one of my friend went to Iquitos and asked a shaman if he could try to make some drawings out of his (ayahuasca – T.T.) visions. And he did. And it turned out fantastic, colorful, crazy, whatever – sellable! So he made a wonderful big book out of it.

Sometimes I feel myself a little bit guilty, but that was a normal development.

But then again because there is more money moving around shamanism, or shamanhood as you prefer to say, then there is perhaps also more people interested in learning this ancient knowledge, so that in a way these processes can save it.

Yes, it is. I don’t want to say that all these movements are stupid or not reversed to exist. But still you can trace these elements… for instance – these costumes! Some parts of the costumes are ok, but some features are not the imitations from the old ones. That’s why I know that this is for a show. But if they can make good living out of this show – what can I do? I’m just happy that shamanism is still surviving. The important thing is that tradition is saved and followed, even when it’s not completely traditional. The main thing is to do it, acting out, to be within the tradition, to do what they think is their own tradition. So it is not necessarily 100% accurate. That’s why whenever I make some criticism against these fake shamans I’m still happy. Because at least he’s in it, he’s doing something, not just drinking. Anyhow, that’s a complex phenomenon. This is something which I don’t like very much personally, but I know that it can happen everywhere.

By the way, in China somehow they are much more faithful to their own old tradition. During the Maoist time there was persecution, but it was much more against the intellectuals, not so much for poor shamans. But somehow they survived and after the Mao time they just started flourishing. China was a little bit more flexible, so there was not so severe persecution against shamans like in Russia.

Every place is diverse, and we have the only task to go there, make a nice description, collect the material which is available and write a nice dissertation, will you do it?

Yes, but on a slightly different topic. I study transgender in Indonesia. But do you have any idea how many shamans have you met during your life-time? Because you have been studying it already since the 1970s…

Actually from the 1980s, it takes time. Usually you have to go back again when you can really get a possibility to meet a shaman, especially in the East. When you meet first time, it’s ok. For the second time, they say „Oh, you came back! Sit down, welcome!” When you go back third time, you are a friend. But when you go back 4th time or 5th time, then you will be close friend, or even a family member. So I followed this strategy, and it worked. So they got open and I heard more and more background stories. Unfortunately I was not able to stay for a long time.

But do you have any clue how many shamans have you met. I ask because I’m curious – how can you distinguish between the charlatan shaman and a shaman who really has capabilities?

For one trip, I usually met as an average 3-5 shamans. Since I had more than 10 or 15 fieldwork trips, so I have met around 40-50 shamans. I don’t want to say that all of them were real or all of them were charlatans. Some of them want to make money, or just a decent living – they are poor people. One of my old Tuva friend build a big house, but he’s not able to finish it. So he’s living downstairs on the ground floor in a very small room. Even if they are faithful for traditions, they are not so successful. That’s my problem with all these new self-made shamans, because a shaman has to have an initiation from someone or by someone who may lead them or teach them how to behave.

An elder shaman?


One of the grounding principles in interpretive anthropology is that in order to understand something you need to become part of it, you have to get as close as possible. Shamanism – it is a different world. How is your personal experience with crossing these limits?

Theoretically you have to put your feet on the ground, you have to sort out what you really have to do. I was trying to compare different situations, making multi-sited ethnography, which means visiting different places to collect material and at home you make a nice description, comparison, nice films etc. This is what I did. I am a little bit too old for what you mentioned – to be involved with what you study. My daughter always asks me why I never tried ayahuasca. It’s because my best friend told me that you will have a terrible vomiting. And I was thinking why I have to vomit two days just for some visions! I was more interested in the question of identity.

I even realized that some shamans used me to empower themselves, in order to show for the local authorities that they are important – because a great scholar came from Europe. So it was an interesting double-play. But yes, I took shamanism a little bit in a traditional sense, however I’m quite aware of the fact that everything is changing.

You mentioned before that you have some amulets, such as an eagle around your neck to protect you while travelling. So you practice something that is driven from the shamanistic world?

I don’t want to deny that I’m a little bit superstitious. I need to do a lot of flying, so I put a protecting spirit here.

Is it from a shaman?

No, this is an archeological finding. When I was in United States with Michael Harner (well-known American promoter on  neo-shamanism– T.T.) an eagle started flying above me. Downstairs in the shop there was an Indian rattle with an eagle and I decided to buy it. From this sign, I know that eagle is my helping animal, my helping spirit. Whenever I went to the field in Tuva always eagles were  showing up, it was meant for a lucky day.

Do you have a particular shaman with whom you have a very good connection, not only as scholar-informant, but as something more personal, like a mental teacher?

One of the Tuva shaman asked me to stay with him. „You are my son,” he said. But I had a plane ticket that cannot be changed. Besides, I’m not so young anymore. I had my job and family at home. Another Korean lady also told that „Oh, I can give you old knowledge and everything.” Of course, I was completely amazed, because she had three beautiful young Korean women as her disciples. So it was a great temptation to stay, but how can I do when I have my family, I have my wife back home. That’s why it’s good to do fieldwork when you are young, because later you will face difficulties.

Have you ever experienced that the shaman is healing you or using her/his powers on you?

Once in Japan I had a back pain and a female healer shaman was beating my vision instrument thahh-tsahh, and after it was good.

Look, maybe I am a bit skeptical in this sense, because I’ve always tried to be a little bit outside, as I decided not to mix the role of the scholar and to be very much inside of the story. When you are very much in, you can lose your objectivity, which is maybe not true, but that is still my opinion.

Have you ever felt that some shaman is playing tricks on you?

No, no, never. First of all those shamans that I have met belong to the older generation and they simply follow their own way. After some minutes when they are getting more and more involved with their rituals, they just don’t care about me. They are communicating with the spirits. Even when we were making films, they were in another world. I was just there and they didn’t care.

So you have never felt endangered that maybe they can put a spell on you?

No, no. And the second point is that I’m a lovable person. With the first shaman I met, a Manchu, we were not able to exchange a single word. But we were just looking into each other’s eyes, and it was it. We started to trust each other, we started to like each other. It was natural, it was trust.

What is it that keeps you passionate about shamanism? It was been more than thirty years now.

Actually this became my life. I’m the president of the International Society, ten times re-elected. I wrote books, and my books on these shamans are already published in German, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Estonian, Finnish, Turkish, and in Hungarian of course. It’s a great gift for me, to have found this particular theme for myself.

Do you think the knowledge of shamanism has helped you personally?

Yes, it has helped me to be a kind of person, who is self-assured. I can be very nice to you and for everyone, because I got practically everything from life. Shamanistic healing is nothing else than keeping balance. When keeping balance, you are healthy. Healing is prevention in shamanistic sense. They are usually not like us in our highly advanced technical culture, where we are calling the emergency when we are ill.  They go to visit a shaman when they just don’t feel very well.

Once in Tuva we went to make an interview with a shaman and a family came. I asked the stupid question – what is the illness of this young gentleman. The mother said: „Oh, nothing very special, but he felt not very well himself.” So they came for purification.

We can witness a growing interest for shamanism in the West or even worldwide, it’s like a shamanic boom. What do you think lies behind it?

It’s an interesting thing, kind of mystical and there’s a kind of fog around it, which I don’t like personally, but what can we do?! Somehow it is a hot topic! I can admit that I was a little bit behind the whole movement too, because of this International Society. And so was Michael Harner, of course. He was also an anthropologist at the very beginning, he went to the Amazon and tried ayahuasca.

Did he come back? There were plenty of those who never got back.

He did. We immediately got a good contact. I realized that he also liked to be a little bit out of the play, so I liked his approach.  Like the real shamans, he was always making jokes, trying to keep a balance, not to take everything so seriously. This is a shamanistic technique too, and of course, travelling is a shamanic technique.

Many people have got the initial interest into shamanism through the writings of Carlos Castaneda. What is your opinion about him?

I have my opinion, which is quite negative. I once wrote a long article about that. When his first book „The teachings of Don Juan” appeared, I immediately bought it. But when reading it, I became suspicious. I realized that the nature of the conversation was somehow too beautiful to be true. There was too much philosophy in it.

Then very quickly new and new volumes came out, and also his American colleagues got more and more suspicious. And there was a guy who got really angry and went after him to check all the statements. And suddenly Castaneda’s dissertation disappeared from the library! And soon he became a millionaire, because of the selling of his books. And more and more books, more and more philosophical bla-bla. That contributed again why shamanism is a hot topic now.

Now couple of times I realized that younger shamans in Russia also quoted Castaneda. But Castaneda have nothing to do with Altaic shamanism! Unfortunately I’m old enough to know what happened.

Now there are travelling shamans asking loads of money for ayahuasca rituals.

I’m categorically against those things. Without the local context these travelling shamans are nothing. It’s just a misunderstanding. Same for me with ayahuasca. I’m not belonging to ayahuasca culture, ayahuasca mythology, ayahuasca belief-system, so I don’t believe that I have to do it. Probably it’s not meant for me. If I want to go to altered state of consciousness, let’s make love! That’s an altered state of consciousness.

And his lover from Hungary called again. It was already the 3rd time during this interview. He said, it’s a gift to experience love, especially at his age. 

Tartu, March 2012. Shortened version published in Go travel magazine in Estonia, june 2012. 

What can the Holy Spirit tell about my love?

Some experiences in life touch some other unknown realms with such profoundness, that even if they remain so far from our daily lives, they keep on haunting. I gave a visit to couple of bissus to ask about love, but experienced a live broadcast from some other dimension, in a language i yet don’t know.

Bissu Nasir in a state of trance (video-still)

Although vast majority of the bissu consider themselves transgender or locally calabai, actually bissu can be of any other gender too. The important matter here is to be clean. For women, this would mean that bissu can be a girl whose menstruation has not yet started, or a woman who have already reached menopause. As the first is theoretically impossible, then female bissus are generally elderly women. Also, according to the legend, the very first bissu was actually a woman. The rumors around the village also tell that the most powerful bissu now is a woman.

Bissu Ma Temmi is a brilliant woman that radiates warm energy. She creates an impression of a grandmother who is charming and smokes a lot. After approximately one hour-long interview we move on to her the sacred chamber to ask the spirit a question I have in mind. I take the classic step and ask about love.

Ma Temmi puts on her glasses, for a moment she gazes at her palm and then puts her fingers on the siri-leaves lying on the plate.

“Salaam Alaikum,” she begins to have a conversation with the spirit. It feels as if we’re listening over a phone-call in which one side is for us to hear, but the other is not. “Aahaaa, jajajjajaajjaaa …” she nods to agree with the spirit.

Finally, she tells us her interpretation in Bugis language what she has heard from the other side, which is then translated to me into Indonesian language, from which I in turn create my own interpretation. It turns out that this man I can marry, we suit for each other. But the other one is only playing with me and, besides, he has another woman in the heart. Of course, I do not want to believe it, because the reality always seems to be a lot more multilayered, than the information that reaches me through continual re-interpretation, and multiple translations. But you never know!

And just as she said her words, a candle burns down and the curtain falls down over the sacred place. The truth has been proclaimed.

“If you want to speak with the Holy Spirit more, you need to go to another bissu. Spirit was here for a moment and then it moves on to the next bissu,” Ma Temmi was laughing. As the spirit has already fled, so we too take a ride along dark and muddy forest paths to reach another bissu.

Bissu Ma Temmi

Our knocking on the door of this tiny hut woke up bissu Nasir from sleep. Nevertheless, this man (exactly, male bissus are particularly rare) is ready to speak to us, in case of course the dewata accepts us too. We reach out to give him our gifts on the plate and the bissu disappears to the rear chamber, leaving us with just a curious black cat. Just like in a fairy tale.

On the other side of the thin wall we hear a gentle murmuring of the bissu that mixes with loud sounds of tropical night bugs. We are waken up from the dreamy state by a huge rumpus. This is an unconscious bissu who has fallen out from his sacred chamber. I get scared, so that even the hum of the insects hush up. However Ma Temmi’s brother who was accompanying us does not seem to be surprised at all.

Bissu has entered deep trance, followed by a few cramps. Then he crawls himself together and his cheek against the floor he starts speaking with a strange voice. This live broadcast from the Spirit World lasts for next quarter of an hour. Even if I manage to ask something in the meantime, it seems rather, that the spirit guides his talk throughout the connection. The voice that has come alive in his body repeats that the spirit is already old and feeble and the strong dewata works with only a few selected shamans. Until he suddenly caught another strong rage of cramps and he enters into deep sleep again.

When bissu Nasir finally wakes up, it looks as if he’s having a huge hangover after traveling between the worlds. He does not seem to remember anything of the time that has passed. But I remember, I will always remember.  And up until now I am still thinking a lot about it and wondering how it should be interpreted.

“I can’t talk to you on Friday,” said the shaman between mundane and divine, man and woman. Maybe s/he was lying.

Would you give up your gender and sexuality in order to talk to God? This is what came forward to me right at the cross-road of generations, local shamanic belief and Islam in South Sulawesi. 

Although I found many more thrilling aspects here in South Sulawesi, my main interest of visit was the holy personality called the bissu. These local shamans connect not only the divine and the mundane, but also the femininity and masculinity, on a very real grounds. Namely, most probably the bissu is also a calabai, locally, or a waria in Indonesia, which is globally rather known as a transgender. Bissu is seen as the 5th category of gender here in Bugis culture, the para-gender, that somehow accumulates all other genders in the society.

We were driving across the dirty and slippery village roads with Eka to give one old bissu a visit already on the very first day I was around. There were mosques sitting in the bushes every 400m or so as we were driving. The mosques resembled me some cosmic stations, and indeed they were often decorated just as Chistmas trees, bling-bling.

One of these simple Pippi Longstocking’s style of houses a bissu Nani was living. S/he was pulling together her shirt while I entered the house and I noticed hir breasts. But surely s/he was born as a man. On the wall there were some photographs of hir dressed in a bissu’s ritual costume. This was shaded by the huge fake photograph of Mecca in golder frames, which are the very common elements of interior design here around Sulawesi and Kalimantan, somehow less apparent in Java, which I think just has to do with current fashion and market availability.

I was handing hir over a plate covered with necessary gifts for the spirit. There were some betel nuts, special leaves, some cigarettes and a note of 20 000 rp. We also brought a bunch of bananas. You can’t go to meet a shaman without thinking about the hunger of the spirits, you need to bring an offering.

Bissu invited us to hir room of the spirit, which usually most bissus have in their household. The room was fully dedicated to serve the spirit, an altar was in the middle and there were all kinds of little baskets, rocks and candles around, which s/he seemed to know the meaning, and perhaps there wasn’t anything more complicated than the bare fact that these were all to reinforce the communication with the dewata or the world of spirit. But as we started to talk with Nani, and Eka seemed to be really anxious and not too much at the level of transcendence, Nani said that today is not the best day to have further conversation.

“Why not today?” I asked.

“Because today it’s Friday, and this is the holy day in Moslem. Better we talk some other day,” Nani explained.

“Is there a conflict between these worlds?”

“The spirit does not really want to come out on Fridays…”

Eka stood almost immediately up and started to make a move. That is her common way of restlessness. But I was confused.

The curvy dagger called kris is the most important accessory for bissu

I got even more confused when the next day we were visiting another old bissu. This time without the presence of Eka.  She somehow didn’t want to come. The bissu couldn’t believe that there could be any conflict between the world of dewata and the world of Islam.

“There’s no problem with Friday to communicate with the spirit,” s/he said. Apparently s/he was the kind of leader of the bissu community here, not that it would place hir spiritual capabilities anywhere higher, but this respected bissu must know something about the most crucial issues – and the relationship between old local belief and mainstream Islam is definitely one of them.

Here most of the bissus also go to mosques to make their daily prayers. And besides, they can always use their personal tempat dewata (the place of the spirit) in their household to get in touch with the God. Almost all bissus I talked to agreed that these worlds are actually the same, just the way to reach them is different. And I have to admit I agree with it, because I understand it (and this is almost the only reason why I tolerate institutionalized religion – most probably it can get you in touch with the same transcendence). And here the bissu even gives blessings to those going to a pilgrimage to Mecca!

I only later got to realize what might actually be the issue, why bissu Nani didn’t really want to talk to me that day when I went there with Eka. Because this very Eka sometimes likes to write a word bissu behind her name, just as she enjoys the friendship of the local authorities. And yet she’s a busy businesswaria and happily in love with her husband.

Once she was trying to get into the bissu community, she was learning about it, I later hear some rumors around the village. But how couldthe younger generations of the waria possibly dump there daily carefree lifestyle and literally give up of their gender and sexuality in order to talk to God?!

“This is when I was a bissu,” said the young waria and proudly showd me the picture.