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 it was greased and barely clearing the water, but gliding smoothly once you relaxed into it. Our respected Tabaquero (and former Peruvian kung-fu champion) Ernesto followed me and then a girl who worked at the Amaru spirit centre on the other side of the river. This retreat centre was owned by an American artist and apprenticed shaman named Slocum who was busy brewing up our ayahuasca. 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”, designed and built by Slocum in elegant variations on the traditional style to provide simple, comfortable, quiet space for people undergoing initiatory “dietas” with certain powerful plants. Many of those under Ernesto’s supervision would be involved in deep-cleansing tobacco diets, consuming large doses of native, black 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, with vivid, illuminating dreams and a lasting feeling of vitality to follow. There are 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. I couldn’t 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 within the traditional native paradigm, though there are a good number of centres run by western doctors using these plant medicines to treat serious addiction and illnesses. Amaru Spirit operated from the native perspective and brought the additional aspect of nutritional supplementation during the fasts; they served up super-food fruit smoothies three times a day, rather than the typical, purifying diet of unsalted rice and bananas. Twelve people would turn up for the session that night, all friends of the house or people finishing dietas. I was the only psychonaut tourist, which was good, creating a congenial atmosphere. We hung out all afternoon; various warm-hearted, energised souls. Slocum´s local wife and their little daughter were there. The child was about one and must have been very popular. The only physical contact permissible during a serious dieta is with the top of a babies head, where pure, angelic energy comes out. There were some Aussies with us including Gregg the proud occupant of the new house, who was there for cancer treatment, two lads from Manchester, former warehouse rave party guerillas working toward completion of all the dietas, two friendly Spaniards just finished two weeks imbibing tobacco to treat cocaine addiction, a Hungarian girl, Slocum, Ernesto and his female patient and myself. A pretty gringo group altogether but with most everybody 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” (Diplopterys Cabrena) which I was told contains both DMT and 5-MEO-DMT and a little “bobenzana”, another dieta plant added for its heart-opening, spirit-cleansing properties. This brew was unusual in that it did not contain the more common admixture of chakruna (Psychotria Viridis) was produces purely DMT. I lunched on bananas then fell asleep on a wooden bench seat for two or three hours and awoke feeling 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 we sat facing inwards. Gregg lit palo santo incense wood in a central brassier and we gave the new space a good 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 are said to learn these songs from the medicine. They use them 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 as I sat back down. I followed suit after about ten minutes and had a solid wretch. This apparently did not interfere too much with the absorption process. Shortly, 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. Soon 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 and it was over. “This should do it”, he said, which soon proved correct. I returned to my seat to savour the sickly, 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 further colourful, surrealist visuals. I tried to sit through it, back straight, like a Zen practitioner. It was stronger this time. Numerous headless, softly glowing coloured snakes were flowing through the hallucinatory matrix in an endless procession. It is a very common vision with ayahuasca to see huge and often terrifying anacondas or intertwined serpents similar in form to the Caduceus of Greek mythology and the medical profession which, according to anthropologist Jeremy Narby, may be a subconscious precognition of the form DNA. I was content with these almost innocuous little serpents that were sliding around me. Now the turbulent flow seemed to have penetrated my innards and I had to go to the toilet. The air itself seemed to be all a-flutter. As I made my way to the door every movement in my visual field was describing some sort of sentient form, morphing humanoids and wispy, whispering phantasms. The men’s compost toilet was outside on the wide, elevated balcony at the back of the house, facing pitch black forest. Outside, the stars shone like the fiery orbs of a Van Gogh painting. I was awkwardly positioned in the corner, simultaneously venting liquid diarrhoea into the bowl and projectile vomit overboard into the darkness, when, rather paradoxically, I became infused with a profound but gentle ecstacy, a preternatural lightness. It was strangely familiar. The kind of feeling that you can’t quite define but that is patently pregnant with potency and meaning. A veil had parted and quite suddenly it was apparent that I was surrounding by a host of half-visible beings, something like a cocktail party for spirits. They distinctly appeared to be hobnobbing. I sensed the variety of them with different dress and colour, as if they had distinguishable roles. Some were high-browed, dressed in white gowns and adorned with golden torcs like some Elvish royalty from Tolkien. Astonished yet serene in this ethereal company, it took a couple of minutes for me to remember how to use toilet paper, after which I stood up, trying to contain my excitement in case such offhand emotions were to dispel the ephemeral, translucent scene. Some male beings were next to me, and one passed a firm, retaining, black-gloved hand before me. I thought he must be some kind of security guard and it occured to me that I wasnt pure or deserving enough to be there. Anyhow, I realised I had stood up prematurely and returned to the toilet. Then the river boat “arrived”. It was invisible amongst the black trees but I “knew” it was there, as if it was made of the darkness. It was one of those stylish, triple-tiered, turn of the century models and I sensed some of the entities were waiting for it as if our balcony was the pier and the gathering was to be continued on board. My “perceptions” regarding the boat were some kind of gnosis for which I cant provide any palpaple evidence to the reader, except the apparent clinking of glasses and cheerful repartee which I could “hear” coming from below. Now, back on my feet, a four-foot tall “conductor” was standing in front of me, clearly dressed in an old school hotel porter uniform, black blazer and round, brimless hat. He moved like a marionette and beckoned me to come along but I was still too much in the physical world to figure out how to board an invisible steamboat, 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 dimly 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 beings, from fantastical beasts to angels and aliens. I was overwhelmed by what appeared to be a fully integrated and separate ecosystem of “spirits” existing in a kind of parallel world into which I was now halfway infused. But why a river boat with a bellhop?! After all, this ayahuasca stuff is thousands of years old. I had no sense that I was mentally fomenting this vision; it arrived self-evident, but any sensible reader would assign the experience to projection of a subconscious memory. However, any review of the literature on ayahuasca and DMT clearly indicates an amazing consistency of experience across subjects. With ayahuasca the snakes are virtually ubiquitous to the visions and the plant spirits reliably appear like identifiable species during dietas.

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 state. I mentioned the boat and he told me he had seen it once, on a brew augmented with the more common 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 space 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 recently 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, apart from patting me down with a herbal fan, but it was profoundly relaxing. I returned to my place and was feeling super-chilled out when my neighbour Nick finally heaved. He had finished two dietas and being consequently 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, grateful that the ayahuasca had treated me gently, showing me just as much as I could handle, as often is its way, so it tells me.

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 or maybe it is my overactive imagination. It is a commonly recurring experience for novice drinkers I met in Iquitos and elsewhere 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. However for me, a final small confirmation of the paranormal mystery which is ayahuasca occured a few days later in a small Iquitos cafe. Glancing up, there on the wall next to me was a painting by Robert Venosa called “Ayahuasca vision”. Set against a trippy morphing backdrop, he had portrayed a congress of angelic beings, translucent or golden and white gowned. It was a dead ringer for my little vision and as far as I could possibly tell I had never seen that painting before.