I returned to the Amaru Spirit centre not knowing quite what I was getting into but willing to give it a go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as some great author of truisms once said. Excepting the quixotic romance of travel, or perhaps because of it, factors in my life were not adding up to a great sense of well-being. My mind was scattered and my heart was still dragging around a ball from the guilt county penitentiary. I was sad and indecisive, excessively sensitive to circumstance. Commitment filled me with anxiety. Same old shit. Having failed to resolve these background tendencies over the years, I had reached a place where extreme measures once more seemed fitting (the previous year in India I had found 10-day Vippassana an effective extremity), so here I was crossing the muddy river once more to put myself in the hands of Ernesto, our tabaquero, who would administer a daily dose of Tobacco rustica juice with the express intention of burning through my energetic blocks, vomiting up my emotional baggage and reconnecting me to my earth centre. I needed to move inwardly and this would be a massive lube for the process. He came highly recommended and after my previous ayahuasca experience I had some degree of faith in these people. Ernesto was a man of few words. He wasn’t trying to prove anything but he had a naturally engaging manner and smiled enough to create a sense of camaraderie. He had a rather ageless face, passing for younger than his forty odd years. I would spend a week in retreat in my maloca with just forest animals and memories for company most of the time, adhering to a liquid only diet. Slocum, our American ayahuasquero and nutritionist had developed wicked superfood smoothies to be consumed in conjunction with the vegetalista plant “dietas” which people practiced at Amaru. The smoothies came once a day, and other meals consisted of vegetable juices and as much water a possible.

Throughout the native cultures of the Americas, tobacco is held in very high regard. In Amazonia it is considered the “master” plant. While ayahuasca, datura and san pedro cactus may provide dramatic visions and glimpses of other worlds, tobacco is the most effective of the medicinal plants for initiating real personal transformation. Wild Tobacco rustica really packs a punch too, with up to twenty times the nicotine content of commercial tobaccos. It goes right to the problem like a heat-seeking missile and attacks the blockage, functioning simultaneously on spiritual, energetic and physical levels. Like all plant medicines (as opposed to pharmaceuticals) the action is extremely complex and requires full participation of the patient. It is a form of alchemy. At night dreams speak to the processes in play, and meditation around the issues that come up is an important part of the treatment. Ernesto came daily with a bottle of black tobacco juice and filled me a drinking bowl of the stuff. I sat on the wooden the floor like an acolyte as he intoned his icaro and prayers on the tobacco, blowing copious mapacho tobacco smoke on the bowl. It had to go down quick. The taste of the tobacco, with the added protection of garlic and aguaflorida (Amazonian cologne) is nothing if not repulsive.

The first two days were not too bad. I kept the medicine down for a couple of hours but inevitably it heaved its way back out later. I could feel it surging through my system and it had a fairly strong narcotic effect, putting me in a sort of spatially compressed, dreamy space with flickering lights. A few times I thought I was looking at the room when I realised my eyes were shut. I lost my appetite and took much of the day to get through the jug of smoothie. Later, I found that the concoction, which consisted of blended tropical fruits, coconut water, chlorela and maca for protein, and a topping of bee pollen and raw cacao chips served all my dietary needs and I seldom felt hungry. Initially, I was sick and weak and just lay in bed most of the day. The tobacco heats up the body a great deal but sometimes I didn’t even want to move to take the recommended cooling shower. Having lots of time to think, I reflected usefully on the difficulties in my life, the complexes and reactions, and soon began to see through them. As advertised, my dreams were extremely vivid. I hardly recall them usually. I dreamed of facing an oncoming herd of wild boars, talking to a miniature gorilla in my hand like an inverted King Kong and Beck (the musician) transformed into a muscular centaur that went thundering down the street. It was all very animalistic. I was visited by a cute frog one evening which climbed on top of my bag and sat and stared at me curiously for ages like I was Dr Doolittle. Weaver birds, considered the most intelligent bird of the forest and said to have as many as 150 calls imitating people and other animals, whooped at dusk like some crazy synthesised sound effect for a Warner Bros cartoon. The sounds of birds, monkeys and insects filled the night and my imagination. I was not alone.

It was on days three and four that the shit really hit the fan. I was taking the one week program (as opposed to two) and so the doses were rather high. In addition to a large cup I had to snort fresh tobacco soak nine times up my nose. I vomited and went into mild convulsions after they left causing me some anxiety. I had trouble breathing for an hour and my bones ached. The medicine was burning through the block in my solar plexus (which I identified during Vipassana two years ago) like a firebrand. I was out for several hours but awoke strangely refreshed. Next day a large oral dose alone had similar effect. It burned like hell going down and within ten seconds my hands went numb and I couldn’t hold my mapacho. The absorption rate was incredible. I lost all motor control and again I couldn’t breath normally, gasping three times to inhale enough air. Slocum was telling me to breathe deeply but it was impossible for me. He wanted me to induce vomiting with my fingers but I couldn’t get that together either and  I just writhed around cursing. Ernesto soaked my head in aguaflorida which seemed to help. Drinking aguaflorida seems contraindicated. I once saw him drink the stuff too. It is for protection in the air. He doesn’t touch anything else with alcohol in it! Later I felt like I had absorbed enough nicotine for a lifetime and didn’t want to smoke. I felt like I had flu coming on but they assured me it was just part of the cleansing, which proved correct. Now my body was getting used to it. On day five Ernesto gave me a break with just a small amount but day six saw another huge dose. This time it went down easy and I had hardly any adverse reaction! There was no change in the concentration of the medicine, the only change was in me. My dreams moved into the spiritual realm culminating in one in which my beautiful friend was playing guitar when suddenly the instrument became colossal and was embedded in the sky like the ultimate Hard Rock Cafe sign. A little girl of about seven years was with us. A sphere of silver light enveloped her and she similarly ascended to heaven. When I told Ernesto of this the next day he smiled knowingly and said that my spirit was returning to God. I felt like it too, getting quite transcendental in the quiet solitude, though fears and shadows still would pass in the stormy, moonless night. I wasn’t clear yet but I was getting closer to that most basic facility; being able to accept and handle my own existence. I didn’t want to leave my little maloca.

I socialised a little with my friends from town, Mehrav and Carolina. Mehrav, a very savvy, centered lady in my opinion, was near the end of her fourth or fifth dieta, now working with a plant that caused her to have strong waking visions. It was matted in her hair – she bathed in it too. She told me she had recently seen small, brown, pointy-eared people (!) off which she knew nothing, but that Ernesto had confirmed them, from their appearance, as the spirit of the plant in question. She related various tales of brujeria (witchcraft) that she had seen or heard. Unfortunately, the whole landscape of Amazonian medicine is deeply infused with brujeria. Curses are common and so is perfumeria, in which practitioners are hired to manipulate the feelings of others with scents and potions. This stuff is all taken for granted in the region and is widespread. Mehrav had seen Ernesto cure a woman who had a swollen stomach for ten years which the doctors were at a loss to explain and which turned out to be from a curse. A former boyfriend had hired a powerful brujo to put it on her out of spite. This kind of information is all very compelling when you are involved in a dieta, calming the reactionary western mind and adding to the faith (some may say placebo) based aspects of the healing. A similar effect was also had when I later heard that Ernesto was a former Peruvian Kung Fu champion. Many ayahuasqueros that hapless tourists may encounter have spiritual power but little or no moral scruples. The more negative aspects of the ayahuasca tourist culture such as sexual molestation and, very rarely, deaths (almost certainly from mixing drugs such as cocaine or maybe people overdosing on datura or something) have resulted in a government push to regulate the business. It would be very easy to do this in a very stupid way. How could a bureaucrat from Lima adjudicate the worthiness of an indigenous shaman working in the spirit realm?! Luckily for the people at Amaru, Ernesto already has some kind of official curandero ID from the United Nations and they shouldn’t have too much trouble.

The last night I felt somewhat disturbed, running around the mind mill without resolution, particularly in relation to my own mortality. I mentioned to Slocum that I couldn’t find an answer to the age old question of life and death. He said, “life and death is the answer”. I liked that a lot. It rang a big bell. Why spend your life fearing, obscuring and attempting to evade the inevitable? One final dream came as a cautionary tale. I was swimming at a luxury resort full of beautiful women and party people when I noticed a huge pile of skulls and bones behind them like something from the killing fields museum in Cambodia. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to maintain my serenity once I left this secure place. On the seventh morning I drank a token dose of tobacco and broke my fast with salt and chili which was pretty intense in itself, before dining on hummus and guacamole. My stomach had shrunk. I spent a peaceful day eating and talking with my fellows at the main house. I was almost ready to stay on another week to do a liver/gall bladder cleanse but the road was also beckoning. Two guys, one French and one Japanese turned up to do ayahuasca. I liked them and later decided to join them. Perhaps it was to soon after the dieta. My system was fragile.

We drank at the small maloca in the forest behind my house. Slocum gave me only a half cup as it was expected I would be very sensitive after the dieta. I felt unsettled beforehand and when it started I didn’t like the way it was pulling me in. After a while, rather out of nowhere, I was facing the reality of Auschwitz and other great horrors. The historical legacy of human violence engulfed me and I tried to pray for the victims. I was overwhelmed and shaky. Then I flashed on a sense of the reality of Christs crucifixion, which was short but intense. It stood in stark contrast to my first frolicsome trip three weeks before. I went to the bathroom and had a huge bowl movement. It felt like I shat out the whole twentieth century which came as rather a relief as I didn’t want it in me at all. The total volume I crapped out that night seemed far more than the small amount I had eaten; an odd phenomenon that Slocum similarly observed in his own toilet excursions. I asked him for a limpieza. It took a lot of work to set me right. As he patted me down with his herbal fan he started throwing up copiously. He hadn’t vomited at all up to that point. I asked if it was me he was vomiting up. He said he was just picking up something; it was normal. I figured it was actually quite a public service he was performing, taking other peoples toxins and processing them out through his own body. He was pressing down on me with his singing bowl and vomiting a lot, as if he was working some kind of bilge pump. “You still got a lot in there”, he said. I agreed, only too aware. He reckoned the dieta had cleaned out a lot though, and I certainly felt that. Afterward, I sat out on the stoop staring into the magical forest while he worked on the others. Interestingly, while my innards had been calm, the exact moment that Slocum vigorously blew off the negative energy he was cleansing from Tanaka, I churned and had to rush to the bathroom, as if something had flown out the front door and landed on me! Sitting there I entered a sad but beautiful labyrinth of difficult memories. I forgave myself and my father for the way he had passed on and thought much on my loved ones whom I missed, especially my exwife Koko, whom I was there in part to help with her illness. Quite unusually for me, I felt myself beckoning the presence of Jesus, who I thought might be around. It was one of those times when you suddenly feel compelled to tell all your friends and family how much you love them, in case you die the next day and miss the chance. My overall feeling was later encapsulated by some writers analogy which said that if your spirit is like an antique stained-glass window, chipped and a bit dirty, you really don’t need to fix it. It is still beautiful just as it is.

Back inside we talked about everything under the moon until 5am. Invading oil companies and Nicolai Tesla’s perpetual energy machines, strange family histories, indigenous traditions and Burning Man. Slocum related an experience he had of verified out of body travel. Strangely, our Japanese friend who said he had felt nothing from three cups (!), drank a fourth and promptly fell asleep, which gives some idea of the subjective nature of the experience, or of what hard-heads the Japanese can be.  I felt very good now, vital but but humble and much more conscientious than is my usual careless manner. For ten subsequent days I had to follow the post-diet too (no alcohol, pork, sex or ice), which helped maintain focus. I generally kept my calm, positive feeling until much later I ran out of mapacho tobacco and its protective influence, and blowing it a little with a crazy hot Bolivian girl I met at Tiwanaku, suddenly spiraled back down into the usual fractured reality. But that’s another story.