HALLUCINATE, PUKE, REPEAT

No Epiphany in the Amazon After Ayahuasca Ceremony

  • Joceline hanging out with locals. Photo Mattha Busby

Ayahuasca’s ancient qualities are the stuff of legend. For centuries, indigenous Amazonian people have drunk this hallucinogenic sludge derived from the bark of ayahuasca for spiritual and physical betterment.

Today, it’s also a typical jungle rite of passage for tourists, in addition to piranha eating and camping in organic tents. Speak to most of those who’ve indulged and you’ll receive a variation of an exasperated, “Yeah mate, its amazing,” response which will then probably branch into vivid descriptions of the visions they had.

There have been many cases, however, of naïve westerners paying over the odds to be fleeced or tormented by a renegade shaman.

As it became forebodingly apparent that our jungle tour was a mere front for a get-rich-quick scheme I began to worry that our ayahuasca experience might be a similar deal. We wanted to do some soul searching—not searching for our possessions afterward.

My travel companion Joceline and I came to Iquitos, Peru—the world’s largest city unconnected elsewhere by road—in search of something estranged from South America’s Gringo Trail.

After spending a few days in this insular, almost anarchic city where you can buy ayahuasca by the cup at the market, we were sold a tour—plus a dream by a slick-talking, military, wannabe shyster named Percy. We also inquired with him as to whether he’d be able to arrange some ayahuasca ceremonies for us.

He assured us that he knew a trustworthy shaman who wouldn’t be prone to rob us, which was a relief to hear. We would be able to see three types of jungle and make our own spears, too.

The ceremonies were planned for the second and third evenings of our jungle expedition. We’d both paid 100 soles ($41) each per ceremony plus 600 soles (about $250) for the five-day trip.

After spending the morning hiking in the rainforest we returned to be greeted immediately by what would be our last meal for about 24 hours, after which we were ordered to rest. Apparently you’re supposed to fast for some time before and after ingesting the aforementioned potion to purify your body. Some degree of nausea and vomiting is inevitable (and beneficial) too.

Waiting for a shamanic ceremony is almost like waiting for Kanye West to take the stage. Will he provide his audience with an expensive rant or will he wow us with his repertoire? Or, I wondered, would it in fact be more like Kate Bush leading a vomit-ridden séance?

Our massive wooden teepee, deep in the Amazon and miles away from the nearest city, oozed eeriness as our introverted tour guide swung in his hammock and the custodian of our lodgings sat staring at a radio for what seemed like hours.

Not long after taking refuge under our mosquito net, two headlighted figures emerged from the wilderness. The ceremony began almost instantly afterwards.

We smoked Mapacho cigarillos while our shaman blew her smoke into the giant, yet not very full, bottle of ayahuasca.

Large buckets were placed in front of us to prepare for our vomit, which was bound to surface.

I had been plunged into uncharted territory. Grappling with some alternate gravity, I squirmed and spasmed as if under the Cruciatus curse, all while my torso was somewhat paralyzed in some sort of extreme nausea.

She poured Joceline a small pot’s worth and instructed her to drink it all. Then came my turn. It was something like a Bloody Mary but with an added je ne sais quoi of disgust.

Soon after the shaman extinguished the only candle which had illuminated our entire scene. Reality, distance, space and perception became entirely warped as the DMT began to swarm around my body like a pack of wolves.

The total darkness, save for the odd cigarillo tokes, accentuated both my fears and the sinister mysticism of our scene.

Initially I was petrified. Irrational fears flitted through my mind, such as the farfetched idea that this was a front to kidnap people into prostitution for the Shining Path guerrillas. I must stop reading the international news.

I came relatively close to tripping out as visions from the few bad trips in my life flooded back to me. Their leitmotifs recurred as I simultaneously entertained thoughts about my family, my personal failings and my poor health, which I’ve neglected recently. It was around this time I resolved never to take such drugs again.

I had been plunged into uncharted territory. Grappling with some alternate gravity, I squirmed and spasmed as if under the Cruciatus curse, all while my torso was somewhat paralyzed in some sort of extreme nausea.

I could see spirits urging me to come over to their side as I continued to hallucinate. A demon beckoned me away from repentance but I wasn’t interested in making a Faustian pact despite my vulnerability.

Once I had laughed it off, psychologically, the visions got slightly more lighthearted. It was all much more Austin Powers than The Shining. Although it was slightly groovier than before, it was still pretty terrifying.

Joceline began vomiting. I felt like it would help to get something out, so I attempted to force it for some time afterwards, to no avail. The shaman periodically restarted her chanting and waving of leaves.

I laid on the mattress that had been prepared and Joceline played with my hair to remind me of our humanity. Soon enough it was all over and we immediately retired to our mosquito net. It didn’t wear off entirely; my head spun for some time more as I contemplated contemplating.

We slept late the next day before a short trip to an empty beach where we searched for iguanas. We found one iguana egg, but that was all. We returned and had a lunch of red onion omelette, rice and potatoes: not the lightest meal one could eat after a 24 hour fast.

The wait for the shaman’s arrival on the second day was not wrought with the same trepidation. I figured that this ceremony could be a far more constructive experience in that, less bound by fear, I could explore some aspects of the effects I had been too busy running away from the time before. We were told the second time would be much stronger, and that we’d have more visions too.

The shaman arrived at 7 p.m. on the dot with her male companion, greeted us with “Buenas noches” and sat down on a hammock on the other side of the teepee, swinging enthusiastically and joking in Quechua with our guide.

The potion was even grizzlier than before and I had to labour to swallow it. Once we’d emptied our cups the lights were again extinguished and the shaman began her ritual.

It took a lot longer to affect me this time. Perhaps the first go had killed off my most sensitive enzymes. Once it begun to take hold it was a mere fraction of the effect I had had the night before.

The shaman was belching pretty incessantly that day, though, which made for an interesting spectacle as her song became increasingly punctuated by her burps.

There was no fear this time; however, there wasn’t any sort of epiphany. The visions I had far more resembled a morbid rendition of Punch & Judy than anything akin to enlightenment.

We left the jungle for Leticia the next day exhausted, hungry and profoundly affected by our time.

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