My Four-Day Trip To Peru To Try Ayahuasca
The sun was setting over the horizon, which meant the mosquitoes were getting ready for dinner. It was time to get inside. I was way out in the sticks, in a small jungle compound sitting next to a tributary of the river Amazon about a two hour’s boat ride from Iquitos, the nearest town and the world’s largest urban center unreachable by road. Together with my fellow travelers I’d come here to this remote part of the Peruvian Amazon to take part in an ayahuasca ritual. What is ayahuasca? Oh, only one of the most powerful hallucinogens known to man.
There was probably just over a dozen of us altogether, mostly Americans and Canadians but also a few Europeans (all gringos I know, but the locals do it too). Among them were a really nice German couple from Munich and a Canadian rock musician named Bruce. And then there were the support staff, on-hand to make sure we don’t do anything stupid like jump into the river while we were tripping off our balls. They were Isabella, a super-chill Spanish hippy; Tommy, who was basically a Geordie version of Dolph Lundgren; and Sasha, a Russian girl with whom, after nearly 3 months in Latin America, I’d finally have someone to talk to about the motherland.
Some of my fellow participants were experienced trippers, veterans in psychedelics and well-versed in the works of Terrence McKenna. Me, I preferred other alternatives — stuff that lets you have fun but allows you stay in the real world. The only other time I’d done psychedelics was LSD when I was 19, which I bought in a rave at a dingy nightclub from a man dressed as a wizard. Over the course of the next six hours, I witnessed all my thoughts melting together, time going back and forth, the club’s bar stretching to infinity and, having watched the Smurfs earlier that day, only being able to hear “smurfsmurfsmurfsmurfsmurf” coming out of people’s mouths when they talked. It sounds funny now but it’s fucking annoying when you’re trying to work out what they’re actually trying to say.
But ayahuasca was a whole different beast. I’d first heard of it around two years ago when the BBC reported a British student died drinking it in Colombia. Just like any other time someone tells you not to do something because everything fun is bad for you, I felt inexplicably drawn to the idea of drinking hallucinogenic compounds with a wise village shaman in some hut in the jungle.
Ayahuasca is a brew (some call it a tea, but it tastes like an ass smoothie) that’s been prepared by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon for centuries, possibly millennia. Upon drinking it releases the chemical DMT in your brain, which is what takes you to another dimension. And that’s when all bets are off. Some people think they transform into an animal; a powerful beast like a jaguar or an eagle. Others meet “things” — beings that guide them and show them where they’ve been going wrong. In a way, ayahuasca acts as a kind of therapist, giving you space to work out your own personal issues.
It’s not something to be taken lightly. Besides the powerful visions, unlike stuff like acid or shrooms, ayahuasca’s tendency to make you vomit and shit your pants makes it hard to recommend for the normal person. For some reason, I thought my trip would be like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer eats that super-strong chili.
It’s probably worth noting at this point that I’m neither religious nor one of those “spiritual” New-Agey types. I believe that there could be some sort of “higher intelligence” in the same sense that there could be aliens, but at this point in time their true form and intentions are far beyond what our little puny mortal minds can comprehend.
Our ceremony was to be led by three wise men. Well, two men and a woman: Wheeler, Ernesto and Angelina. I know Wheeler was for real because he only had one good eye; the other one he used to see into the spirit world or something.
Before the ceremony began, Isabella and Wheeler took me aside to discuss my “intentions” — what I planned to achieve on my trip. Ayahuasca’s supposed to help you deal with your trauma so they asked me if I had any history of childhood sexual abuse. I told them even I though went to a Catholic school but none of the priests even looked at me. I had however served just under a year in jail and while the soap never slipped from my fingers, it was still a very traumatic experience that fucked my self-esteem and a few of my personal relationships.
In particular there was one girl, who I’m gonna call Rita, who I’d kind of had a crush on and who was always there for me but as a friend, but when you’re sitting in a cell all day every day your thoughts go round and round like a carousel of insanity and I started to obsess, which together with my newly acquired jailhouse paranoia made me do some strange things and push her away. I was still thinking about her, nearly two years on, when I fell asleep on a beach in Colombia and spent the next few days looking like a strawberry.
That, said Isabella, is what we are gonna work on.
A few hours later and it was after dark. We were all sat in a circle in the maloca while Tommy blew smoke around the hut like an Orthodox priest. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of this was, but it added to the ambience. Anyways, we all sit there while Isabella and Wheeler call us over one by one. When it’s my turn to receive the medicine, as it is called here, I get up and walk over to the shamans. Angelina pours me a mixture of reddish-brown sludge into a shot glass from an old Cola bottle.
Do I really wanna go through with this? Since my acid trip ended up with me curled up in the fetal position and speaking in tongues, I can’t really say it was a fun night. Then again, I paid good money to be here and to pussy out now would be kind of lame. Fuck it, time to drink the Kool-Aid.
The shot tastes terrible but I still manage to get the whole thing down my throat. I was the last to go, so once I took my seat, out went the candles. We were now in complete darkness. Silence. Then the sounds of the jungle fill my ears. Frogs, snakes, birds, monkeys . . .
Nothing yet. Oh wait, here it is. I can make something out through the little light that gets through the windows. It’s a spider, a giant spider. The window frames on the maloca have become its legs and it’s crawling around, just minding its own business. I look up and there’s some kinda frog or lizard hanging from the ceiling, staring down at me. Heh, I’m tripping, and it’s kind of funny. I look back to where the spider used to be and there’s another huge frog. It’s beckoning me to come with it as it gets on a raft and starts paddling down the river. What I see next can only be described as an infinite, never-ending kaleidoscope of impossible shapes and colors, before plunging back into total darkness.
I start to panic. My heart’s racing and I’m sweating like a priest in a maternity ward. While ayahuasca’s not usually dangerous by itself, it can be with a heart condition or in combination with antidepressants or with something called toé, which can make your trip even more insane. I flash my flashlight to signal to Sasha.
“What’s going on, where am I?”
“It doesn’t matter where you are. Let go, surrender to it.”
“I don’t feel so good.”
“Do you wanna take a shower? It might help.”
“Yes. Shower . . . ”
Sasha takes my hand and leads me to the shower, which bathes me in rainbow as I bounce between the walls. This trip has the dubious distinction of having the weirdest shower I’ve ever taken, and I’ve showered in prison.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in the shower!”
“Yes! I’m in the shower. What’s going on?”
“You drank some ayahuasca, remember?”
“Have I been here for a long time?”
“About five minutes.”
It seemed like I’d always been in the shower, like Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel. Good thing I wore trunks.
“Is it gonna be like this for long?” I ask Sasha.
“It’s just beginning!” she laughs.
On some level I understood I was in the shower, but in which plane of existence? It seemed like I was in two minds. One was conscious and understood things like how to wash my hands after the toilet, and the other was somewhere in Kermit land. By the time we get back the ceremony is in full swing. The shamans are singing icaros, songs to dispel evil spirits. I fall into a trance, rocking back and forth until someone comes up and sprays me with water. Lava pours down my face and fills my eyes. A hand reaches out of the darkness and gives me a towel. It feels so good to wipe myself down, like stroking the furry wall. In the background, a girl in a long, white dress drifts across the room, leaving a ghostly trail behind her.
I am completely fucked. All sense of space and time have disappeared. Meanwhile, something awful is rising up from my stomach. I guess I can hold it in but it’s easier not to. As I reach for the bucket, who is holding it but none other than old Rafiki, the wise baboon from The Lion King. He looks at me knowingly. I acknowledge his presence before emptying my insides into the container, which is filled with a million jaguar faces rotating in a kaleidoscope. They are not impressed.
It’s time for my own, personal icaro. I move towards the shamans and the chanting gets really loud. As Wheeler and Ernesto start spitting some mad bars, I feel really lost. Where the fuck am I? I can just about make out two people sitting either side of me, and I grab one of them by the leg. Oops, better not, they might accuse me of sexual harassment, although if they’re as fucked as I am it’s not likely they know their ass from their elbow. As Sasha takes me by the hand and leads me back, I notice a shadowy silhouette which disappears into a puff of smoke as we go past. I can tell he was looking at me.
Wheeler and the band sing one final icaro and the session is finished. Freakin’ finally. I feel exhausted and can barely move.
“Right, that’s enough weird shit for one night,” I say before stumbling off to bed.
The first time was way too intense so for the second ceremony I ask for a baby dose. There was thunder and lightning in the distance — they don’t call it the rainforest for nothing — and as I sat in the maloca I hoped it wouldn’t make its way over here or we’d be in for a really wild night.
After taking the shot I braced myself for the upcoming by breathing deeply and focusing on my breathing. But nothing happened. I’d drank too little, although as I sat in the darkness for some reason I began to reminisce: about my childhood, my time at university, everything. Even the pattern on the curtains in my old bedroom, which is a strange thing to remember as they were nothing special.
What did it all mean? Who knows, maybe my brain is just randomly replaying its “Greatest Hits” because I’m just sitting there in pitch black with no other input other than the icaros singing. Actually there’s a thought: what’s everyone else doing? I listened in and heard laughing, crying, throwing up and farting. It might have been stormy that night but the only thunder was coming out of Bruce’s ass. One guy randomly started making Star Wars noises: Pew! Pew!
By the time it came to being serenaded by Wheeler I was well and truly bored, but it was too late to ask for a top-up. After returning to my seat I thought about how it would be a good idea to watch a movie on ayahuasca — something fantastical like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings — and getting so into it you’d actually think you were in the movie. Now, some might say that’s an abuse of this great gift we have from Mother Ayahuasca, but to me, religion’s just a set of stories used to illustrate a point. Whether something’s supposed to have happened in 1st century Judea or a galaxy far, far away, it doesn’t matter to me. I wanna take my spiritual experiences with Boba Fett.
For the third ceremony I once again had a very mild dose, but unlike the second night I could actually feel it. Nothing was happening for a while and I was starting to get bored again so thought about asking them for another dose. But as soon as I got up to use the toilet, I realized everything had taken on this strange, dream-like quality. It felt funny.
When I lay back down I was still on Planet Earth but everything felt kind of surreal and distant. Sometimes it felt like my limbs and my body weren’t my own, or like I was outside my body. Other times I felt dizzy or nauseous but didn’t throw up because goddamnit, Russians didn’t surrender in WWII and we’re sure as shit not gonna surrender now. Instead, I focused on my breathing, breathing in and out. As I did that it felt like the whole maloca, the whole hut, was breathing with me.
After the nausea passed I felt a sudden clarity. Maybe the pointlessness of last night wasn’t so pointless. You know, I’d been thinking a lot about how shitty my life had been: how I ended up in prison, how I’m useless with girls, how I can’t get a fucking job . . . that all sucks, but has it been that bad, really?
I mean, looking back growing up, I might have been kind of a brat but think how fucking amazing it has been to go to countries like France, Italy and South Africa, and have toys to play with, and how fortunate I’d been to get a degree and learn so much about the world. And how I’m here now in Peru and how I’d traveled across South America and been to the carnival in Rio, Club Tropicana in Havana and see the waterfalls in Argentina.
Shit, I’m living the dream. Some people never leave their hometowns their entire lives. I just hadn’t given it much thought to appreciating it, and none of it would have been possible without my parents. They’d paid for everything the last 26 years of their lives, if not with money then with their precious time, and everything they’d ever fucking done over this period was for me and my sister.
And what had I done for them? My relationship with my parents had been all “take” and not enough “give.” They’re humans, not gods, and they deserve to get something back. And Rita was only human as well. But she’s not like my parents; she’s not biologically programmed to deal with this shit. Her letting me go might not be the right thing to do, but thinking about how my behavior must have looked she doesn’t need that shit in her life. And you know, that’s perfectly fine.
Just as I had this revelation Stewie Griffin appeared before me, telling me to return the map.
There were some colors and movement, especially when someone would light up their flashlight or a cigarette, but for the most part, nothing major, definitely not in creepy Kermit land. If I had returned to the lizard kingdom, I’d been too absorbed in my own thoughts to notice. The girl next to me was crying because she’d seen something beautiful.
It’s always funny to see people right after their trips after they’ve had their deep revelations from the universe. “I’m so happy to be alive!” yelled Bruce as he skipped across the maloca before attacking the fruit basket in the middle of the room with the ferocity of a man who’d never been fed and giving absolutely no fucks as juices and bits of mango dribbled to the floor, only stopping the onslaught to play with a little kitty that found its way into the hut.
The following morning Isabella & Co. held a group session where we could all talk about our experiences. Karl, the German architect, claimed he was approached by a spirit which offered him the chance to be a god, but he turned down the opportunity for a promotion. Bruce was still riding the roller coaster of euphoria from last night and began rolling on the floor as he described his adventures with Mother Ayahuasca who appeared to him in the form of a wisecracking cosmic toilet. Bruce seemed like me, like he didn’t really fit into society, but here he looked right in his element.
For some reason, I really wanted a beer.
Isabella you sneaky bitch. I told her just before we started that I wanted more than the last time, but not as much as the first time. But whatever it was that I’d drank last night, it was definitely not “half a glass.” I can’t say I’m complaining though, this is amazing. While this time I don’t see any beloved animated characters, I’ve got a heightened sense of awareness and an incredible sensitivity to light and sound. We’re sitting in total darkness yet I can still see my mat, the shape of the hut and everyone around me as clearly as if it were broad daylight. Occasionally Ernesto or Wheeler would light up a traditional mapacho cigarette and I’d see them, briefly illuminated, as the mighty Norse gods Thor and Odin sitting atop their thrones.
It feels as though someone is touching me, gently putting their hands on my face and moving their finger across my lips. I look around closely but there’s no one there, yet it feels like everyone is. Everyone, everything, everywhere. It all seems to make sense somehow, like we all have our place in the universe. We’re all the same: you, me, Rita, my parents, white people, black people, people who’ve left us behind, favela kids, refugees, even little bugs and creepy-crawlies. We all fit in there somewhere in the structure of the cosmos and I couldn’t tell you if it’s a “God” that’s responsible for it all but there’s something there in the natural order of it all that seems very fucking important.
Upon realizing this and how I’m a part of this system all my stresses and worries disappear as the universe wraps me in its loving arms. Now that I know the purpose for my existence I can just sit back and enjoy being bathed in bliss.
I wonder what the shamans are chanting. Since it’s all in Quechua and Shipibo, the native languages of Peru, it could be their grocery list for all we know. Occasionally I can make out the words “medicina,” and possibly, “Yoda.” Since the songs guide our ceremony, I wonder what would happen to our visions if instead of the traditional Shipibo icaros someone stuck on some Rick Ross?
As proceedings draw to a close, so does my feeling of Zen. Wheeler thanks us for our time and retires to his chambers. I’m still a little wavy as I make my way for a much-needed bathroom visit.
“I think you took some drugs, man,” someone says as he passes me in the corridor.
Although I’ve been on an incredible journey, I know it’s all in my mind. It’s all psychological. There’s no deeper meaning other than what’s already in my head, and ayahuasca’s merely a tool to access it. Stewie, Kermit and Rafiki were not wise forest spirits nor was I “really” communicating with anything other than my own subconscious.
That doesn’t make it any less interesting or profound, since I and my fellow travelers have discovered things about ourselves and our lives that we never knew. Perhaps in a sense we are all our own personal gods.
When the ceremony was over I went outside. As I looked up at the sky, the stars twinkled.
Born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Niko’s family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain where he went from behind the Iron Curtain to behind bars, serving a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. Writing letters to the outside gave him the inspiration to take this hobby up further and he now works as a freelance writer, mainly helping students cheat on their homework but also putting out pieces for sites like Salon and the Influence based on his experiences of crime and drugs.