Caroline Alethia on Plant Teacher, Bolivia and Literature


The normal, the unusual, and the paranormal in Plant Teacher: 4/9/2012

(This blog originally appeared in Cindy's Love of Books.)

People have asked me about the novel Plant Teacher and how I made Bolivia seem so real. I was fortunate to live in this remote South American country from 2007 to 2008 when President Evo Morales was consolidating his grasp on power. I say that I was “fortunate” because even though the country was going through an upheaval, I think it is an honor and a responsibility to witness what we proverbially describe as Chinese “interesting” times.

Imagine a country crippled by hunger strikes. The main city plazas are filled with tents, packed with people patiently waiting in hammocks and slowly sipping nothing but water. They read magazines and newspapers. Television cameras have sprung up at every corner. Ambulances wait at the ends of the streets.

And what do you do? Because you are not Bolivian and you are not a member of the media, you walk through this spectacle, station yourself at your favorite table at your favorite café, and order a cappuccino and read the news. Inside the café, dozens of other people nibble on cakes and sip their drinks and read and carry on their lives as if nothing is going on outside.

In the evenings, you sit with your landlord and the other guests at your pensión (guest house) while the guests drink beers mixed with sodas and casually talk about the possibility of a civil war. At night, demonstrators crowd the streets with banners and torches and they look ominous. Unlike the passive civil disobedience that is taught in this country, protestors let off firecrackers and the streets, at night, sound as if they are filled with gunshots.

In our pensión courtyard, we continue with our drinks and maybe take a brief dip in the pool.

There is one resounding lesson I learned during my time in Bolivia: Human beings need normalcy. When times are not normal, people will go on as if life is normal—visiting their favorite coffee shops, following their regular routines—to the extent that circumstances allow. The prospect of dictatorship and civil war are so big, that many people can only partially grasp these concepts. They sweep their front doorsteps; they do their laundry; they show up at work.

Martin Banzer, in Plant Teacher, has a South American bad adventure of a different kind. After experimenting with an indigenous hallucinogenic drug, caapi, he must contend with the after-effects of his drug experience. He must teach his English classes and chat with his friends and read emails from his family while he is having flashbacks. While experiencing the paranormal, Martin must appear to be normal.

I wrote Martin’s character and I set him in Bolivia because, despite my cappuccinos and my dips in the pool, I realized I had witnessed a story that I was required to tell. As a country slowly loses its freedom with one nondemocratic act followed by another, and as the world abroad simply ignores or doesn’t understand, the country—my host country, Bolivia—cries for you to tell her story.

Plant Teacher is the story of Martin, trying to be normal, and of Bolivia, struggling in times that should never be considered normal. The story of Bolivia continues. People have been arrested. People have died. The machinery of the Morales regime moves steadily forward. I hope that Plant Teacher entertains, but I also hope that this novel about troubled times reminds us in the North of just how precious and precarious democracy can be.

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What’s the Price of Invoking a Plant Teacher?


The idea for the novel, Plant Teacher, was born on a lazy evening at a small guest house in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. I had arrived in the country several days earlier, and, as so often happens when we travel, I immediately bumped into a colorful character. “Greg” was a retired U.S. army colonel who had come to eastern Bolivia to research a book about the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara.

As we lounged in the private patio, sitting under unfamiliar constellations of the southern hemisphere, and enjoying a warm breeze that played across the palm fronds, Greg regaled me with the story of his ayahuasca experience.

Ayahuasca, also known as caapi, is a psychotropic concoction brewed by indigenous people in the Amazonian regions. Under the guidance of a shaman, people imbibe (or sometimes inhale) ayahuasca in order to experience its hallucinogenic effects. The hallucinations caused by ayahuasca, and the plants that cause these hallucinations, are known as “plant teachers” because they supposedly impart spiritual guidance and knowledge.

Greg’s trip had, in his opinion, been a good one. He described to me seeing dozens of snakes and feeling that the snakes were benevolent. He had beckoned them to come and entwine themselves around him, and although this scenario would cause most people to break into a cold sweat, Greg enjoyed this bonding with his serpentine plant teachers. He valued the experience as something which had brought him closer to the natural and spiritual worlds, and he felt that he had attained a degree of enlightenment via the encounter.

I listened to Greg’s story with frank skepticism. I recalled a girlfriend who, years earlier, had also experimented with indigenous drugs while studying anthropology in Latin America. Her drug use had been followed by a manic outbreak and, ultimately, chronic bipolar disorder. While the two events, the drug use and the bipolar disorder, could not be causally correlated, I wondered. I knew that I would never try a hallucinogenic plant unless the infusion was forcefully shoved between my unwilling lips.

As Greg and I left the patio that evening and retired to our respective bungalows, I considered the possibility that an ayahuasca trip might speak to both ends of a spectrum. Suppose the “student” took away both positive and negative experiences from the hallucinogenic episode? Suppose the plant teachers did, indeed, impart wisdom, but there was a price that came with that wisdom?

Two years later, I found myself revisiting these questions as I typed, reflected, and plotted out the actions, choices, and destiny of one of the main characters in Plant Teacher, Martin Banzer. With the omnipotence of the fiction writer, I forced Martin to try ayahuasca, and then I watched where his experimentation took him. Now, I invite the reader to also follow Martin’s journey and, at the same time, to entertain the question, Does wisdom come at a price?

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