The Shamans tell you time and again, that your experience with Ayahuasca will not be what you want, but what you need. It will be nothing like what you expect and quite possibly nothing like what you had hoped. I came in expecting a nightmare. I came out cleansed of my enormous guilt, relieved of my life sentence of regret. Yet, strangely, I cannot explain how it happened. It just did. All of the horrible feelings I had harbored for so many years, every minute of every day, were just gone, disappeared into thin air.
The trolley drove us an hour and a half outside of Iquitos, Peru to the Blue Morpho Shaman Camp. The look on everyone’s face was exactly the same – excitement mixed with scared senseless. A few people chatted to one another, getting to know the person sitting next to them, not realizing how their acquaintance with that person was going to multiply exponentially over the next nine days. The guy standing next to me asked me why I came to Peru and I told him. I won’t even dare say it here, yet I spoke, without hesitation, of my hope to obtain a long sought reprieve by participating in an ancient Ayahuasca ceremony. Or five ceremonies to be precise.
The camp was breathtaking, lush vegetation, butterflies fluttering everywhere; brick laid paths leading to each bungalow displaying its beautifully hand-thatched roof. No locks on any doors and no windows, only mosquito netting protecting us from the elements. Each bungalow would sleep 6 people, one shower, sans hot water, one toilet and one sink, no doors; a curtain our only form of privacy. After settling in, 28 strangers gathered for dinner. Along with supper came the continuing curiosity of every person who had found their way to this tour. Everything I’d heard before coming here was repeated in conversation after next as we sat behind checkered tablecloths, trying desperately to predict what tomorrow was really going to be like. “I heard that Ayahuasca doesn’t just make you puke, you poop too!” “I heard that you sometimes can’t even make it to the bathroom.” “Seriously? You shit your pants?” “That’s what I heard.” “What’s your name again? Oh, hi, nice to meet you.” This was our ‘get acquainted’ dinner conversation. If any of us were apprehensive or nervous or downright petrified before, it is only fair to say our fear grew to a horrifying climax by the time our meal had ended.
Before long the light of day began to vanish into the surrounding jungle. Lanterns were lit, one by one, in each room, in every bungalow. Along with no hot water…no electricity. The nightlife began to crescendo into existence. The sounds that came out of the darkness were unreal. Insects zinging like jumping jacks on the Fourth of July. An over-exaggerated sound like drops of water into a sink full of water, they came from some bird, I think. One sound was likened to that which a Furby would make or a cartoon cat purring — mixed with a zipper. It was my favorite sound; it seemed so lovable and innocent. Turns out the owner of that call was a tarantula. Another favorite was the frogs that sounded like cackling witches. At the time of night when they would begin to laugh, a quiet room full of humans would start to giggle and then eventually laugh hysterically from these contagious little amphibians. They were a welcomed distraction from the fact that we were still pretty nervous about tomorrow evening, our first ceremony.
I fell asleep to the jungle concerto, never once having to remind myself that this was the real deal, not a nature sounds CD. I awoke fairly early, but continued to lie in bed for a few more minutes, staring at the ceiling of my heavy-duty mosquito tent. I instinctively checked my appendages for bumps, bites, fang marks, do tarantulas have fangs? I don’t know. I seemed to have survived my first night in the jungle. I unzipped myself from my canvas house and made my way toward my group, already hard at work pounding some sort of bark with wooden mallets. As they broke apart the outer bark of the vine, its orangey pulp began to show. This was the main ingredient for our medicinal concoction. Ayahuasca – the sacred vine. I grabbed a mallet and got to work. Four large pots (we’re talking witch’s cauldron size) sat off to the side, waiting for the Shaman to begin their ritual of offering blessings with mapacho (tobacco) and carefully layering the ayahuasca and numerous other plants, barks and leaves. A large brick stove was then lit, the pots were set in place and there the Ayahuasca would eventually begin to boil. This would continue throughout most of the day. When the mixture was done, our first ceremony would begin. Many of us took turns sitting on surrounding tree stumps, staring at the bubbling pots. No one spoke much, but when they did, it was pretty much the same thing everyone else was thinking. “Am I really going to drink this stuff?”
The Shaman tended to the mixture, stirring it, watching its consistency. They strained it and then boiled it some more. They maintained hours of this painstaking process. Anywhere we walked in the camp, our line of vision somehow always directed us right to these ominous pots. Every time I looked at them, my stomach wrenched, every time I tried not to look, my stomach said, ‘Nice try’. Late in the day, as I made my way passed the brick stove once more, I noticed the pots were gone.
The early evening quickly began to descend into the canopy of the jungle and the critters once again took their positions in the ever and over-growing amphitheater they call home. The travelers began to take shorter, quicker breaths as the realization of this day became inescapable. The round house was lit with just two lanterns. This room typically displayed a bouquet of hammocks for lounging; tonight they were swung up over the beams from which they hung in order to make way for the mattresses that now graced the entire span of the floor. Each mattress came with a pillow, a blanket, a cup of water, a roll of tissue, and a big, plastic puke bucket.
As I looked around the room, I wondered if I would be the first person in Ayahuasca history to throw up before the ceremony had actually begun. I moved the puke bucket closer to me.
Our master Shaman quietly walked in, scanning the room, acutely aware of every last person’s every last thought. His face appeared sympathetic and humored at the same time, by the palpable anxiety in the air. He’s been here before, many, many times. The smirk he wore was because he knew some of our uneasiness was insuppressibly magnified by our naïveté. His compassion shown because he knew some of our uneasiness was about to be horribly, painfully justified. As everyone shifted positions on their mattress, attempting to get comfortable, the Shaman and their apprentices initiated the ritualistic commencement of the ceremony. The lanterns still lit, we watched as they poured each cup, singing into each one individually, a personal Icaro, for the person to which the cup was intended. I watched as each person near me received his or her prescribed amount, I counted how many there were before me. And then I counted again. Before long, an apprentice was standing in front of me with a white mug, containing about as much liquid as one measuring cup. I closed my eyes and prayed like I’ve never prayed before. I opened my eyes, held my breath and then closed my eyes again. I tried to get it down in one big gulp. I almost succeeded. Ayahuasca’s taste has been described in countless ways. None of them, in my opinion, came close to describing it accurately. I’m not certain there is a way to describe it accurately. I do know, however, that I quiver even now as I write this. While trying to get the taste out of my throat, I thought to myself, ‘It’s no wonder people puke from this stuff.
In about a half an hour’s time the entire room had been served. The Shaman lowered the wicks into the lanterns and the light excused itself from the room in a similar manner. They began to shake their leaf rattles, called Shacapas, a sound that could soothe even the most tortured of souls. Simultaneously, they began to sing. The Icaros would continue for an unspecified amount of time, growing louder at times and sometimes waning into a simple whistle by one or two Shaman. They made their way around the room, dedicating time to any person who appeared to need their attention. It wasn’t long before the first person started to throw up. It wasn’t long after that that pretty much everyone took their turn in front of their bucket. The indescribable taste of the Ayahuasca the second time around can only be described as worse.
My legs, my arms, my head, everything felt very heavy, as though I had melted and had become adhered to my mat. I seemed to have stepped outside of myself, took a look around and then decided to swan dive inside my own mind. Although the Shaman were still sitting at the front of the room, I could hear them singing and whistling so close to me, as though they had abandoned their physical form and were my very own personal headphones, inside my head. At first geometric shapes, like when you press your eyeballs a little too hard, were floating behind my eyelids. Then colorful landscapes, referred to as vistas, began to take shape. Waterfalls and rainbows, flowers, millions of them, would cascade over a constantly moving scene. I could think about anything and everything at once, without feeling confused or overwhelmed. My thoughts were complete and it was impossible to get distracted by uncertainty or insecurity. An unbelievable sense of gratefulness came over me. At one point, it was as though I was able to account for every single person in my life and know that they had crossed paths with mine for a reason. I could understand the issues in my life that just a few hours ago were undeniably problematic. I was in a place free from fear or judgment. A sense of contentment came over me that was truly authentic.
At times throughout the ceremony, I was aware of others in the room, sometimes it was impossible to avoid being aware. Some wailed and cried and moaned to a heartbreaking degree, others purged relentlessly. Others yet would call out to our Shaman for help, and he would go, be it physically or spiritually, to help them through their difficult moments. Linear time and space are typically lost during these sessions, Shaman are believed to be in multiple places at once, because they are needed in multiple places at once. On one occasion, I knew I heard him standing next to me, when I mustered up the energy to open my eyes, his shadowy figure was sitting in his chair, right where he had probably been sitting for quite some time, or perhaps not.
At one point I decided to try to focus on one very specific event in my life. The real reason I came to the Shaman in the first place. Although I was aware of the situation in my mind, I could not feel about it the way I have felt for the last 8 years, not to mention, the way I had intended to feel about it this night. I wanted to cry and scream to get it all out, once and for all. It simply was not possible. The Shamans tell you time and again, that your experience with Ayahuasca will not be what you want, but what you need. It will be nothing like what you expect and quite possibly nothing like what you had hoped. I came in expecting a nightmare. I came out cleansed of my enormous guilt, relieved of my life sentence of regret. Yet, strangely, I cannot explain how it happened. It just did. All of the horrible feelings I had harbored for so many years, every minute of every day, were just gone, disappeared into thin air.