There are no walls. We’re lying on the ground in the middle of the goddamned Amazon without walls.
I feel a shudder creep up my spine, momentarily stunted by the late stages of intense psychedelic onset. My body senses the danger before my conscious mind is able to perceive it. A primal swell of base electric energy I had not felt in this life painstakingly uncoils itself for the first time, sending electric pins to the ends of my extremities, reminding me exactly where my limbs lie and what tools lay in my immediate possession (nothing).
The idealistic and blissful dream-like state I’d hoped for and created in my mind as an Ayahuasca trip for the past six years was resolutely shattered by the gravity of a psychedelically-enhanced comprehension that we were lying on the ground in the middle of the Amazon without any walls. I’m tripping. She’s tripping. The shaman is tripping. She’s 100 pounds. He’s 90 years old. So if a jaguar decides to play God and go for the jugular it largely falls on me to miraculously obtain a nearby machete and remedy that, however slim my chances may be.
I get up to test my motor skills and am thoroughly disappointed at my ability to stand up. This is not the hug from Pacha Mama I had hoped for.
I feel like prey. Ancient pathways in the brain left largely unused are set on fire for the next five hours as I lay listening to the sounds of the jungle, shrouded in the shadows of the unforgiving Amazon rainforest, hoping my time had not come.
H o w D o W e D o T h i s ?
Puerto Maldonado, the far southern region of Peru’s Amazon.
We’re trying to find a shaman and up until now are coming up empty. Maybe they’re all where the money goes, at these extravagant Ayahuasca retreats where you get chocolates on your pillow and morning coffees with latte art.
Actually that’s incorrect; you don’t get coffee. But we’ll talk about that.
Still, no shamans. In our hostel we found an old and obscure map with “Infierno Indigenous Community” pointing to a community not far from us. We take off on a sturdy 250cc bike riding blind down dirt roads and navigating 8-inch deep mud slicks, not knowing where to go or what to do once we got there.
So it’s not like asking for a beer. What’s Ayahuasca etiquette? How do you approach a spiritual black belt to take you along for the ride? Do you say, “So….how much does this life-changing experience cost”? Is cost a silly thing to discuss when dealing with Source? Will the shaman be insulted by this?
Meeting The Legend
After stopping briefly for ice cream, that is cream frozen in a plastic bag of which you bite off the tip to suck the juice out like the jungle vampire you really are, we ask if the shop owners if they know any nearby shamans.
Shaman? You hippie scum. We don’t call them shamans here. “Ayahuasceros” is the correct terminology, and you can take your ritualistic drug-crazed idealism down the road and find him that way.
They point vaguely down the road.
This was all the data we could gather from them, but a young boy saw what was happening and kindly offered to lead us to the local ayauascero, Don Ignacio.
Don Ignacio is sitting on his rocking chair with this grin full of three teeth listening to cumbia; Latin America’s ode to lazy days spent in a hammock and to the wistful, romantic idealism that anchors the culture.
Me: “Are you Don Ignacio”?
Don Igancio: (Grinning) “Si”.
Me:”Oh man, nice to meet you. Do you…make Ayahuasca”?
Don Ignacio: (Grinning more madly now)”…Si”.
Me: (Wringing hands, urgently seeking pebbles on the ground to kick in attempts to assuage my apprehension):”Oh that’s, I mean that’s fantastic. Do you think we could…drink it with you”?
Don Ignacio: (His grin had morphed into a fire behind his eyes that seemed to look past all the lies that betray and defer my resolute fears of mortality and cosmic insignificance, of which I believe we all share in this life)…Si”.
Me: “Ok…so we…come back Saturday”?
Don Ignacio: (sitting back in his rocking chair, gazing off into the distance as if I was already gone)”….Si”.
Just then Don Ignacio’s beautiful and incredibly maternal granddaughter, Paulina, walks out. She claims to be 22, but her eyes are decidedly more experienced. She’s training to be an ayahuascero, and I arrange the cost and logistics with her.
The thing felt like a dream. It was too easy. There must be a catch. But for the next 3 days Jennifer and I went on the “dieta” in preparation for the trip. It is a diet to cleanse the body so that the medicine can do its job. Ideally you’d diet for at least two weeks, but as token Millennials Jennifer and I sought more of a zip file approach to this transcendental experience.
Three days of no coffee, no booze, nothing cooked in oil, no meat, no fun. White rice, water and mangoes.
Time To Go
The day had arrived. We packed nothing, hopped on the bike and headed back to Don Ignacio’s. When we arrived I saw what nerves had hidden from my eyes during my first visit; Don Ignacio had a bungalow specifically built to facilitate Ayahuasca experiences. With walls. It had walls!
But lucky us.
It was Carnivale that weekend, and it was a full moon. This violent collision of manmade and natural forces left the people of this small village poised to turn bloodthirsty en masse, and that was deemed too static for an Ayahuasca experience.
So we hopped in the back of a modified tuk-tuk pickup (essentially a small truck bed put on the back of a three-wheeled motorcycle) with Don Ignacio’s grandaughter Paulina, her husband and their baby son.
The small child in tow eased my latent worries that we were being shuttled out to the Amazon as part of ritualistic sacrifice killings.
It was getting dark and we are hurdling through the forest; I can vaguely make out a path from the light of the headlight. After about 45 minutes of this, it appears we’d arrived.
Under a 20×15 foot palm-frond roof, we begin the set up. For Jennifer and I, this involves playing with the adorable, they-wouldn’t-bring-this-if-they-were-going-to-murder-us child, sitting on the mats we carted in and ensuring our large, complimentary vomit bowls are properly positioned for quick and immediate access.
For Don Ignacio, it involves lighting incense and rolling cigarettes with sacred tobacco and another herb on whose identity I’m unclear on; quietly whispering, as if talking to the plant, as he does so.
Paulina and her husband strategically lay two mats along with incense throughout the perimeter of the area, and as Don Ignacio begins smoking his sacred tobacco chanting softly, Jennifer and I watch as the red tailights on the tuk-tuk grow fainter.
Paulina, her husband and their baby will be back in eight hours.
So here we sit, the three of us perched under a 20×15 foot palm-frond thatched overhang somewhere about one hour from town, in the woods behind a maze of overgrown and complicated pathways that took us here. Don Ignacio begins burning incense, singing ícaros (hypnotic shamanic songs designed to facilitate interface with Source) and shaking one of five special palm fronds at any given time.
Then he pulls it out.
A bottle of jet black Ayahuasca with a sludge-like consistency in an old three-liter soda bottle! Hell yes. It seemed like a celestial mix of Buddha and Trailer Park Boys.
It is important to note that Ayahuasca tea is an oral form of dimethyltriptamine (DMT). DMT occurs everywhere in nature, but most mammals have enzymes that perform monoamine oxidase (MAO), which effectively breaks DMT down before they can experience any of its psychedelic effects.
Ayahusca is the combination of a vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), which provides the MAO inhibiting effects, and DMT-rich roots or plants. DMT’s primary function, as far as I know, is to find a tiny crease in the space-time continuum and to tear through that crease with violence and blind faith.
On The Experience…
The tea is vile. Smooth, viscous, black, horrid, violent, all at once. The sort of thing that would punch a hole in the ozone and stick around to make sure the job was done right.
I choke the 10 ounces down, wait momentarily to ensure I didn’t spew the sacred substance out like a frat pledge and immediately ask for another.
Don Ignacio chuckles. Knowingly, like he’s denying a child.
I have a feeling he knows that second round is liable to send the uninitiated over The Edge…and even a fleeting glimpse of Source is too much to bear for the spiritually unprepared.
And so Jennifer and I sit back and wait, not quite sure to do with this dead air during the in between. We quietly defer to the shaman, our spiritual guide and the rock we’d lean on for this experience.
Then he takes a cup for himself.
I didn’t expect that.
As I understand it, shamans exist to facilitate the transaction of incomprehensible experience and teachings between Source and mortal beings. But they are careful to delineate their role; the plants are the teachers. Ayahuasceros believe you are so spiritually vulnerable under the effects of the medicine that shamans who practice black magic in nearby locales can commandeer your free will.
Ayahuasca can be made in the jungle, in the desert, in the forest, by the ocean; all by using local plants. All of these locales have good shamans and bad shamans, and each shaman harnesses the power of the elements around them, for good or ill, to initiate participants or to annex them to darker places.
It is up to your shaman to protect your fetal spirit from being pulled to The Black.
It starts with a wrenching pain in your gut. Think Alien.
It’s like your mouth reaches into the bottom of your gut to haul out anything and everything that is down there. Because I did not observe the dieta for as long nor as astutely as recommended, I only dry-heave with severe violence. Jennifer does the same. The shaman is quick to follow.
It’s a brutal, painful and entirely necessary part of the experience; it is the medicine stripping all the unnecessary pieces and parts from the machine before igniting the engine. I have no doubt the experience is only intensified when the proper physical purging is allowed to occur.
It’s dusk now. About 45 minutes in, slight pattern vibrations, as if I’m seeing the world through an endlessly moving set of open vertical, nearly translucent window blinds.
We sit entranced, listening, calm. A light, ethereal peace seems to be holed up nearby, as if observing us on when we would collectively be able to meet it and welcome it in this place.
Then, against the twilight, I see a large, brown, fat rat fall from the palm frond overhang onto my bed and believe it to be languishing somewhere between my shins and knees. With a violence that shatters any tense calm that had settled on the three of us, I aggressively shake out the sheet and search for the varmint using eyes that try in vain to harness any remnants of light.
Alas, no rat. We all share a good laugh and I take a seat.
I believe it has begun.
As I settle back in, I’m cognizant of a creeping shudder, carefully and meticulously working its way up my spine. It took a couple more moments for my conscious mind to comprehend what my unconscious mind was already guarding against.
We’re plopped helplessly in the middle of the jungle and if this goddamned imaginary rat can so easily intrude, how will I distinguish between a jaguar that is Love Incarnate, come to teach me a powerful lesson, and a jaguar that inhabits this physical realm.
As I grapple with and try to understand this new paralyzing feeling, I was gifted slight psychedelic insight into my present circumstances.
It was not Ayahuasca that prompted this fear.
This fear came from deep in the caverns of my brain, dormant for what felt like generations.
It felt in this moment like I peeled back the layers of my brain responsible for higher function; logic, speech, reasoning, worrying about future events or what vocation I would choose. Dissecting all my earlier interactions that day and what I wanted to improve on. Contemplating my own cosmic insignificance and who or what great force gives meaning, if any, to any of this seeming chaos.
All of it melted.
I got to the amygdala where it was held to the fire. I felt stripped down into prey, strung up in hopes that the scent would attract more predators. A base animal instinct that I’d never felt, and that I only vaguely recognized as human.
I was entirely physically unable to defend myself or anyone there.
Or more aptly, we were three physically incapacitated brain-heavy monkeys the middle of the jungle crawling with by anacondas, leopards, demonic spiders and potentially other, more militaristic monkeys.
For the next 5 hours, every sound that punctuated the thick blackness of the Amazonian night was Death. I lay paralyzed with fear as these sounds held a flame to the most ancient parts of my brain, hoping that an adrenaline dump would help me overcome my momentary loss of coordination enough to fight off a jaguar.
A feat that certainly falls within the scope of my normal, un-incapacitated daily functioning ability…
The Trip is largely a solitary affair. Other than the occasional groaning or chatting with ethereal beings from your neighbors, you generally shouldn’t break the experience with your voice directed at another there.
I made that mistake and I don’t recommend it.
Much of my experience involved lying on the ground and utilizing a singular bed sheet to shield myself from the battalions of mosquitos conducting full-on assaults.
You’re mostly in your own head. You talk to yourself, you talk to the cosmos.
Occasionally you’ll get up to have a wee. It’s important to remember Ayahuasca distorts your perception of space-time and not to freak out if the shaman goes off to pee is and gone for what seems like three life-spans of the earth. There was a point in time that I was very worried about the shaman.
So many people that embrace an Ayahuasca experience say they get to talk to a being. Some call it Mother Earth (“Pachamama”, meaning “World Mother” in the native Quechua tongue), some just Source.
And I did get to briefly chat with Pachamama. Or Mother Earth, Source, Infinity, God, Buddha, Allah, Tao, Brahma, or whatever you, the reader, choose to call that whole thing.
As with any experience, there are some things you keep to yourself. If you go around babbling about your sacred experiences offhandedly it erodes a bit of that special moment in time that was given to you. Without any real reason, you’re able to unconsciously distinguish what is ok to shout and what you should keep close to the chest after something like this.
So here’s what I learned is ok to shout.
1. We Are Not Separate From Nature.
“That Fear which has sunk its teeth into your jugular for the past 5 hours. The Fear that your mortality could be decided by something entirely your control, impartial to any feelings you have on the topic.
You are no stranger to this Fear. Your DNA is built on it; you come from those who chose to embrace this terror and adapt to it.
This Fear lives in every creature; it is a consequence of life sustaining other life, and every creature you presently fear and that lives in this jungle feels this Fear on some level, every moment of every day.
It isn’t good or bad, just the Way.
But why does this feeling seem new to you?
It is because you’ve built walls to keep me out; you build them out of glass and steel and into the sky. They take you over roads and through the air; they keep you warm and in them, you hide from Me.
But you are tied to Me through your mere existence. Original Sin. For everything you’ve done and still do, you do through Me. You eat food whose seeds I’ve worked countless years to perfect. You’re driven daily by instincts you built around me; violence, altruism, sex, greed, cooperation, adaptation.
If these walls are knocked down, you see the real nature of your relationship to Me. It is, as it always will be, the same as My relationship with every creature that lives in this jungle.
You are not separate from Me. You’ve simply, temporarily, separated yourselves from Me.”
2. Discomfort Is An Ally
For most of us the human default is to interpret discomfort as bad and comfort as good. Not sure what ignited this fad, but Pachamama gave me an ear-full on this topic.
The story I got is that discomfort exists in large part to show us where most others quit or turn around. We’re free to challenge our default interpretation of discomfort, and to see it as a guide instead of a wall. It’s there as a marker, to shepherd us along so that we know that we’re making progress on the thing.
So if we want to excel, to get better, to be great, we push towards discomfort. It is there to signal that we are on the right path. When we no longer feel discomfort, we know we’ve strayed from The Path.
Comfort is the wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is there to eat away at us slowly, without our conscious recognition that it is doing so and even under the illusion that it is our friend. We follow it like junkies, and it rewards us accordingly.
After about six intense hours, I began to come back to the waking world. Paulina and her husband came to pick us up, and we take the same route back through the jungle behind the ire of the motorbike’s headlight. The trees now appear to be woven together and the passing forest looks like a giant, continuous three-dimensional canvas moving before me.
Which I guess it kind of is.
We arrive back at Don Ignacio’s and a meal of unsalted potatoes lays before us. They say it’s important to keep your system clean even on the comedown, and we absent-mindedly pick at our primordial unsalted Lays.
I went to bed thinking I would wake up this ethereal being capable of astral travel, no longer concerned with the happenings of this physical realm.
Then came the cumbia at 6am.