17th August, 2012, Iquitos Peru.
The little dugout canoe took us one at a time over the muddy red river. It was rather dodgy vehicle, rolling like greased butter and barely clearing the water, but gliding smoothly once you relaxed and got going. Ernesto, our respected Tabaquero followed me and then a girl who worked at Amaru spirit on the other side. The retreat was owned by an American artist and apprenticed shaman named Slocum who was brewing our ayahuasca. Well-sheltered in the secondary forest just outside Iquitos, we were there to inaugurate a new house on the property, amongst other things. There were many open-walled and well-screened malocas there, providing comfortable, quiet space for people undergoing special initiatory diets with certain powerful plants. Many of those under Ernesto’s supervision would be involved in deep-cleansing tobacco diets, consuming large doses of tobacco juice to induce purging and a realignment of the spirit. The people I had talked to said it was a profound experience, one or two weeks in retreat like that, with vivid, illuminating dreams and a lasting feeling of vitality to follow. There were at least twelve plants traditionally used in the initiatory process and usually each one would be dieted separately as part of the course for aspiring “vegetalistas”. And then there were the various plants used in conjunction with the ayahuasca vine itself. Ayahuasca is a complicated business. How could I hope to hone down an explanation better than the ultimate honers, Wikipedia:
Ayahuasca (ayawaska…) is any of various psychoactive infusions or decoctions prepared from the Banisteriopsis spp. vine, usually mixed with the leaves of dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria. The brew, first described academically in the early 1950s by Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who found it employed for divinatory and healing purposes by the native peoples of Amazonian Colombia, is known by a number of different names (see below). It has been reported that some effects can be had from consuming the caapi vine alone, but that DMT-containing plants (such as Psychotria) remain inactive when drunk as a brew without a source of monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as B. caapi. How indigenous peoples discovered the synergistic properties of the plants used in the ayahuasca brew remains unclear. While many indigenous Amazonian people say they received the instructions directly from plants and plant spirits, researchers have devised a number of alternative theories to explain its discovery.
Amazonian medicine and magical practice takes place in a world full of spirits. Every plant has its own and the spirits can communicate with us. In a world where these spirits are absent, analysis of such practices might be rendered nonsense. Most practitioners operate well within the traditional paradigm, though there are a good number of centres run by western doctors using these medicines to treat serious addiction and illnesses. Amaru Spirit operates from the native perspective and brings the additional aspect of nutritional supplementation during the fasts; they serve up super-food fruit smoothies three times a day during diets, rather than the typical, ascetic, unsalted rice and bananas. Twelve people would turn up for the session that night, all friends of the house or people finishing diets. No random psychonaut tourists except me, which was cool, creating a congenial atmosphere. We hung out all afternoon; various warm, tranquil, energised souls. Slocum´s local wife and their little daughter were there. The wee girl was about one and must have been very popular. The only physical contact permissible during a serious diet is with the top of a babies head, where pure, angelic energy comes out. There were some Aussies including Gregg the proud owner of the new house, two English guys on extended stay, two friendly Spaniards just finished two week tobacco diets to treat cocaine addiction, a Hungarian girl, Slocum, Ernesto and his female patient and myself; a rather gringo group but with most everybody fairly experienced and of open, unpretentious mindset. In the kitchen, Slocum and his native wife filtered the thick, brown ayahuasca from a big cooking pot into bottles. In the bottom, stuck like bay leaves in a saucepan of spaghetti sauce, were small oval leaves of “huambisa” which I was told contains both DMT and 5-MEO-DMT and a little “bobenzana”, another dietary plant added for its heart-opening properties. I lunched on bananas then fell asleep on the wooden bench seat for two or three hours and felt ready for anything.
Around dusk we moved to the new house. Upstairs was one very big open room with surround screened-windows. Mattresses were arranged around the walls so you could sit up facing inwards. Gregg lit “palo santo” incense wood in a central brassier and we gave the new space a good, informal smudging. The wood smelled really rich, like copal, palpably animating the air. This would be a simple ritual conducted mostly in silence and darkness but began with Ernesto singing an “icaro” over the bottles of brew. Many ayahuasqueros learn these songs from the medicine that they use to influence energy and healing. Ernesto’s song bore an unusual melody and the words seemed flow from Spanish to some native tongue to glossolalia. We each went up to Slocum to receive a small cup. I was almost last. It tasted bad in a unique way, though not abominable. To the stomach, however, it came as a shock and a couple of people threw up into their buckets right after I sat back down. I followed suit about ten minutes later and had a solid wretch. This apparently did not interfere too much with the absorption process. A few minutes later the outline of the starlit windows darkened and shimmering patterns spread across my visual field. Soon these were presenting as vague apparitions, then with increasing force as visual/tactile forms, simultaneously external and internal. There was a distinct circus vibe. Shortly thereafter I was enmeshed in a matrix of effervescent, living sculpture that was flowing out of the darkness and into my body as if both were part of the same fabric. Quite a lot of it seemed to insist it was a pastiche of women’s bodies or parts thereof, rather confused and Picassoesque with mouths in the knees and such. Serpentine forms protruded randomly and machine-like structures connected it together at the seams. I felt entrapped but not terribly threatened. Just stuck in this crazy morphing corpus and a little nervous that something bad was going to happen. With eyes closed it became almost overwhelming so I tended to keep them open, not feeling the urge to dissolve entirely, perhaps because of the weirdness of the imagery for which I was presumably responsible. I threw up some more which seemed perfectly natural at that point, though the regurgitated flavour was bad. I was thinking of my ex-wife Koko in California, with her serious illness that maybe we could find a way to assist, but I could not really focus on that completely with so much psychic push and pull going on. I was content when the vision began to recede. After an hour and a half I was sitting quietly with a swimming head; still altered but operating normally.
A short time later, about two hours after the first, Slocum offered us a second, smaller cup. I told him I had purged but it was over. “This should do it”, he said. That was correct. I returned to my seat to savour the weird, earthy flavour. Then Slocum was in front of me playing his singing bowl. The circular vibration set me off into a huge wracking purge immediately. I was embarrassed for being so noisy as much as anything and thought I had thrown up the entire dose but again I was quickly immersed in a colourful, surrealist theatre. I tried to sit with it, back straight, and see if I could pass through. It was even stronger this time. Numerous headless, softly glowing coloured snakes were flowing through the matrix in an endless procession. It is a very common vision with ayahuasca to see huge, intertwined and generally terrifying anacondas similar in form to the Caduceus of Greek mythology and the medical profession which, according to writer Jeremy Narby, may by a subconscious precognition of the form DNA. I was content with the innocuous little serpents that were flowing around me. Now I had to go to the toilet. As I made my way to the door and onto the wide landing, every movement in my visual field was defining some sort of sentient form, morphing humanoids and wispy phantasms. The male participants had their toilet outside on the landing next to the bamboo balustrade. The stars above shone like the fiery orbs of a Van Gogh painting. I was sitting there venting simultaneous liquid diarrhoea into the bowl and projectile vomit overboard into the darkness as it became apparent that I was surrounding by a host of half-visible beings, something like a large cocktail party for spirits. I sensed there were a variety of types with different dress and colour, as if they had defined roles. Some were high browed and adorned in gold torcs and such, like some Elvish royalty from Tolkien. There was a feeling of serenity there, of familiarity, but it was also unearthly and ethereal. Being rather flabbergasted, it took a couple of minutes to figure out how to use the toilet paper, then I stood up. Some male forms were next to me, and one passed a hard, retaining, black gloved hand before me. I thought they were of some kind of security guards. I realised I had stood up prematurely and returned to the toilet. Then the river boat arrived. It was invisible against the black trees but I “knew” it was there, as if it was made of darkness; one of those stylish old triple-tiered models. It seemed some of the entities were waiting for it as if our balcony was the pier and the gathering continued on board. All of my perceptions were coming as a gnosis. Now the four-foot conductor was standing in front of me wearing a 1930’s bellhop outfit and beckoning me to come along. I was completely indisposed on the bowl, and still too much in the physical world to figure out how to board an invisible boat, and I started giggling at this ludicrous scenario. I envisioned in a flash that I was, in effect, inside a Pablo Amaringo painting and I recalled reading of the spirit river-boat in his book of paintings and commentaries that had introduced me to the Amazonian mythologies in the late 1990´s. I realised why his paintings are so packed with a myriad of diverse figures. I had no sense that I was projecting this information. It arrived self-sufficiently apparent. There appeared to be a whole separately existing society and ecosystem of spirits in a kind of parallel world into which I was now halfway infused. But why a river boat with a 1930’s conductor?! After all, this stuff is thousands of years old. I made it back to my mattress. Coming down slightly, I tried to stay alert but I was very drowsy and lazy and happy with the vision that had come to me. I was also grateful that the ayahuasca had treated me gently, showing me just as much as I could handle, as often is its way apparently.
I was lying down almost back to normal, when Slocum called me up for a limpieza, a spiritual cleaning. He asked me if I had been “illuminated”. I responded that there were “so many people”. I found out later he had a more Satori-like experience in mind, popping out into an egoless mind state. I mentioned the boat and he told me he had seen it once too, on a brew augmented with the more common “chacruna” (psychotria viridis). Slocum offered up an unintelligible prayer for me and for Koko. I had never sensed such potential efficacy in a prayer, given that I had just emerged from a room full of spirits. He put some flower essence under my nostrils which I recognised as the surprisingly unexotic scent of rose. “Highest vibrating plant essence on the planet”, he said. I thought of my deceased mother who used to raise beautiful roses. My eyes were closed during the limpieza and I am not sure exactly what Slocum was doing, patting me down with a herbal fan, but it was very relaxing. I returned to my place and was feeling super-chilled out when my neighbour Nick finally heaved. He had finished two diets and being consequently much purer than I, had kept it down all night through three cups, but at last it came up in a frothing fury. I couldn’t help but have a chortle. Soon thereafter, I fell comfortably asleep.
I awoke to bright green light streaming into the maloca. It was about 9am and I felt great. Not a trace of hangover or strangeness. Only the Hungarian girl was there and we compared notes. She had had a very intense, visual experience too, but it seemed to have been mostly introspective. We joined the others back at the main house for a super-food breakfast. Most of the post voyage comments were things like, “I saw some beautiful lights after I drank the second cup”. I was quite surprised given the otherwordly and specific nature of my experience. I suspect I am sensitive with these things, especially visually. Maybe it is just my overactive imagination. It is a commonly recurring experience for novice drinkers I have met in Iquitos to see nothing at all and to just go through a lot of purging. Ayahuasca is a very subjective and variable thing; a lot depends on who is brewing and the energy around too but clearly it contains a vast world of exotic information. Especially in an indigenous context, the visionary part is often secondary. Half the fun is clearing out your intestinal parasites, for which ayahuasca is also eminently effective.