shaman

It was almost dusk. The amazon jungle completely surrounded us as we walked precariously on the wooden boards that someone had spent days or possibly years placing in position so that pedestrians wouldn’t fall in the muck. The shaman we were following looked no different than any other Peruvian we had spotted. His clothes were simple, there was no crazy headdress, no over-the-top medallions on his chest. We had been teeter-tottering on these planks for almost an hour and we knew we were getting close. Close to what? Well, that was the real question, wasn’t it?

The first time I ever heard of ayuhuasca was a few months before I had embarked on this trip. A friend of mine had become “enlightened” when a Peruvian shaman came to town and offered a short weekend of the ayuhuasca experience in Texas. She was a big believer in the ceremony and the results of this Indian sacrament. Coincidentally, I was about to visit the birthplace of this “medicine”… the Amazon rain forest. “What is ayuahuasca” you ask? Well, that’s also a long story…. Every culture has it’s hallucinogenic drug of choice. With the American Indians, it’s peyote. In Thailand or Holland or many other places around the world, there’s mushrooms. In South America, it’s ayuhuasca. Ayuhuasca is a psychedelic brew made from the extract of the ayuhuasca vine, mixed with some other secret ingredients. A drink made from a jungle vine seems harmless enough, but the resulting composition has very unique properties. In the US it’s active agent, DMT is considered a controlled substance . In other words, if you have the extract in your possession, you could go to prison. However, since it has native American religious significance, it’s not illegal if taken in a religious ceremony. Strange but true.

I was traveling through Colombia and decided to journey to the bottom tip of the country, a town named Leticia, and see what the Amazon jungle was all about. When I arrived with my traveling partners, we soon  realized this was a place unlike any other in the world. The Amazon river connects the continent from west to east and many places are inaccessible by land. At the southernmost point, the borders of Peru, Brazil and Colombia are all within a few minutes of each other. If you choose, you can hire a boat and go across the river and have a beer in Peru, or walk 10 blocks and go shopping in Brazil. There are no border crossings and no immigration. Colorful stands of exotic fruit line the streets and there’s a very relaxed vibe in the air. The only way to get around in this part of the world is by boat or an organized tour. We decided to book our adventure with a company not far from our hotel. We set up a series of adventures that would truly capture the wonders of the area.For the next three days we hiked through jungles, paddled kayaks, slept in trees, fished for piranhas, held an anaconda, caught alligators, stayed in a river shack and experienced amazing adventures unlike any of my other travels. Our final day of the tour was an ayuhuasca ceremony. We were nervous.
We’d read about the stuff. Some people loved it, some hated it. There were very few I had ever read about who had a neutral opinion. Ryan had second thoughts. In the end he was walking down the planks, through the jungle with us. We were in this madness together. After an hour or so of walking, we arrived in the area where our ceremony was to take place.

When I say ceremony,the partaking of this jungle herb is based on an ancient ritual that’s been performed by locals before written history. It’s not a “let’s get high” sort of thing. It’s considered a medicine by the locals. They say that once you’ve sampled the brew, the ayuhuasca gets into your system and repairs your ills.There are many past partakers who agree with this. People from all over the world participate in this ceremony to cure everything from depression to cancer. The belief is that the vine knows what you need.There are many stories about “guides” that are there to help you. Many people have seen them. Ironically enough, they’re not there before you take ayuhuasca and no one sees them afterwards. Did I see these elusive disappearing guides? Yes, I did.

We thought this might be a life changing evening and the three of us, Ryan, Tyler and I were a little nervous. We were seated in a large palapa, a grass hut with walls and it was starting to get really dark both inside and out. The shaman had shown us our hammocks and invited us to relax while he changed into his ceremonial garb. There was a giant log in the middle of the hut, some sort of tribal sofa I suppose, and of course no electricity for miles. The candlelight made things seem even eerier than normal. The sound of the jungle outside was also a little unsettling as thousands of creatures burst into their evening melodies. After twenty minutes, our shaman returned in full Peruvian costume. He was not much of an English speaker, but we soon realized that he was giving us a history of the use of Ayuhuasca. “Enough small talk, let’s get on with it” was the mutual feeling. After a somewhat confusing history lesson, we were ushered into the next room. This was the room where the actual ceremony would be taking place. It had a wooden floor, a bench and a giant open window that was more like a balcony than a window. It was explained to us that if we felt sick, we were to walk to this window, lean over the side and purge our bodies of toxins. I don’t recall if the word “vomit” was ever used, but we all knew what they were talking about. As the ceremony began, the shaman began by taking a little “coca powder” in his mouth. It’s a mixture of coca leaves and ashes and seems to be used by everyone we met in the Amazon. This powder, at my best guess, is the equivalent of an energy drink in the jungle and everyone’s doing it. A pinch between the cheek and gum kicks everything up a bit. After our shaman had his fix, he explained that the brew we were about to ingest had been specially prepared by him the day before. The recipe takes an entire day of cooking the vine, mixing in the ingredients and making sure that the potency is right. I suppose that’s what separates a shaman from a non-shaman. He’s the witch doctor, the chemist, and the scientist of the village. People trust him so he has to know what he’s doing.

ayahuasca-w

At the beginning of the ceremony, there was some singing and chanting, then some waving of a leafy branch in the air. Somehow baby powder was involved as well. I’m pretty sure that baby powder wasn’t in the original ceremony, but things change. It had been explained to me that ayuhuasca makes man one with nature. One is able to communicate with the animals and become more in tune with the natural world. A week earlier I had been visiting a museum in Bogota and was surprised at all the half human/ half animal sculptures and pictures. Never had I seen so much art connecting man to beast. I started thinking that ayuhuasca might be responsible for this unlikely union. The shaman ladled out a portion of the liquid into a bowl and handed it to Tyler. Tyler drank it and I could tell that he didn’t really like the taste. Ryan followed and then the bowl was handed to me. As I gulped the brown liquid I thought that I had never tasted anything so disgusting. It was so bad that I had to think of something else so that I wouldn’t immediately vomit. If you’ve ever drank real absinthe straight out of the bottle and felt the nausea that follows, imagine this being twice as bad. We were asked to sit on the bench and wait for the drink to do its work. I vowed that I would control my thoughts to fight the nausea and keep my mind from going too far in the wrong direction. The shaman started singing his song again and as I sat on the wooden bench I started to think that I might not feel anything at all. That feeling continued for about fifteen minutes and that’s when suddenly things started to change.

I should point out that ayuhuasca differs from alcohol or a lot of other drugs that impair your judgment. One is completely cognizant with memories and psyche intact after drinking the concoction. So, when you start seeing things and your mind is clear enough to realize that you really shouldn’t be seeing things, it’s a little trippy; I take that back, it’s a lot trippy. The first thing I noticed was a sudden feeling of cold through my veins. It was kind of like going to an anesthesiologist without passing out after the injection. Next, the air seemed to be full of little black particles like a giant cloud of gnats or ashes in the air. It was dark except for the shaman’s candle and the moonlight out the window, but I could still see this strange transformation of the air. It was at this moment that Ryan stumbled to the window and started throwing up. You might ask why someone would be willing to drink this potion if they knew they were going to throw up, but that is one of the “benefits” of this jungle juice. The natives claim that it takes the bad things in your system, bonds to them and expels them out of your body. There’s many stories of people vomiting balls of gelatinous gunk that came from who knows where? As the ayuhuasca was “curing” Ryan’s ills, the sounds of it were starting to have their effect on Tyler and I. Tyler ran to the window next and started purging everything he’d eaten in the last 5 years or so it seemed. I was determined to keep my dinner down. Of course, we hadn’t had dinner.It’s recommended that you don’t eat before you do ayuhuasca. I closed my eyes.

When I closed my eyes, I started seeing things. Although I was completely aware of what was going on, I could see these brightly colored images and vibrant pictures constantly changing and evolving. The best description I can think of was a tattoo movie. It was like I was looking at a wall created by Ed Hardy. I saw women, tattoo style women, trying to tell me something,cards, winding patterns and twisting shapes of color and heaven knows what else. I opened my eyes and realized that my visions were just as strange with eyes open. I knew I was going to be sick. There was no more control over my body. I ran to the window and joined my friends. I prefer not to dwell on the vomiting part of this drug or even the other part which required about 3 hours in a jungle outhouse, but that is kind of what ayuhuasca is about. Your body has nothing left in it by the time morning rolls around. It’s a radiator flush, an engine flush, a steam clean, an acid wash. It’s not pleasant and if that’s all there was to it, I’m sure that no one would do it. However, there’s a lot more than that. As I threw up my guts until there was nothing left and then some more, and even more than that, I looked out into the woods. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the most unusual scene I had ever witnessed. The jungle had a glow about it, like a tree from Avatar and the ground looked like it was carpeted. As I looked into the forest, I thought it looked more like a Disney cartoon than anything real. I noticed a small clock on one of the trees and saw a mouse come out with a waistcoat on. Yes. I really saw that. Ryan and Tyler were next to me on each side and as I turned to speak with them, I realized that they were not next to me at all! I was sure that there had been 2 men standing right next to me and then they were gone. To both sides I could see swirling lighted objects. Every time I tried to get a closer look at them, they disappeared. I saw Tyler walking on his hands. What? I could barely walk. How could he walk on his hands? I spoke to him and then he wasn’t there anymore. He was sitting down. Or was that Ryan? Tyler had stumbled outside to the bathroom. I was right behind him. I didn’t know what was real and what was imaginary.

For what must have been hours, I stayed in the outhouse. It was pitch black dark, I couldn’t walk and I just didn’t trust myself to go anywhere. I saw all kinds of things that didn’t exist. There were lights and walls that weren’t there and I’ll admit it was a little overwhelming. Tyler was in his jungle cubicle too, 20 feet away in another dimension. Ryan was out somewhere in the woods. The shaman’s helper told us that we needed to come back to the ceremony room. I couldn’t walk. I had to lean on the helper because my equilibrium was nonexistent and I kept seeing these crazy swirling lights. My mind was crystal clear but I was trapped in an imaginary world where the rules seemed to be completely different. Once back in the ceremony room, I laid down on the floor to try to get my bearings. Suddenly I smelled baby powder as the shaman was now over me shaking his leafy branch and dousing me with Johnson and Johnson’s. I thought I was tripping before, but this was really whack. I asked if I could go to my hammock in the next building. The guide helped steer me to the log next to my hammock and I knew  it would take a little more effort to get into the mosquito net covered hammock. However,no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make it. I was still nauseated and disoriented and then suddenly paranoid knowing that all my valuables might have been stolen. It took me hours to finally get into my hanging bed. Tyler and Ryan had already made it into theirs. I was much more affected by the ayuhuasca than either of them. I later figured out that it had been in my system for twice as long and consequently my body took a bigger dose. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw strange visions of things that seemed to make no sense.

They told us the night before that we could sleep as late as we wanted and to relax,but then again they always say that. When morning came, the Shaman was in a hurry to get back to town. We were almost back to normal but I had a horrible hangover mixed with fatigue and hunger from having nothing in my stomach. The hour walk back was a nightmare with Ryan falling off a log into the muck and me just wanting to sit down and be carried. We finally reached the jeep which took us back to the tour office/hostel to grab our belongings that we had left behind. I laid down on one of the dorm beds for an hour before I could go any further. By evening everything was back to normal and I felt really good. We got some fruit and ice cream and stared into space.

The natives say that ayuhuasca cures all kinds of illnesses. Some people spend a month in the jungle doing smaller portions of the brew on a regular schedule until their sickness goes away. Many people swear it’s cured them where conventional medicines failed. I had a very bad skin rash when I arrived that had been very bad on my arms and face for over 2 years. After my one session of ayuhuasca I noticed that it was a lot less than before. It wasn’t completely gone, but a noticeable difference occurred after drinking the miracle punch. Was it my imagination?I don’t think so. I asked myself if I would ever do it again. The bathroom and vomiting thing I could have definitely done without, but the experience of this ancient ceremony, the strange things I saw and felt, and the partial cure for my eczema…. I suppose it was worth it.

Should you try it next time you’re in the Peruvian jungle? There’s only one way to find out if it works for you. Follow the shaman into the jungle and fasten your seat belt.