We look like funerary bundles dug out of our graves. There are ten or twelve people sitting on the room’s floor, in a circle and in the dark. The healer is at the center. He is smoking a mapacho—tobacco typically found in the forests of Peru—and exhales the smoke above the rim of a bottle filled with a viscous liquid. He takes a sip, and then calls us one by one. I’m afraid. Those who have taken ayahuasca before say the taste is disgusting and its initial effects—stomach pain, nausea, dizziness, shivers—are hard to bear. Everybody thanks God and drinks without hesitation. I’m last. I sit with my eyes closed, tasting an indefinable bitterness that is drying my mouth out.
Days before, the healer had asked me to follow a preparatory diet: abstain from pork, fats, spicy food, alcohol, other drugs, pills, and sex, all of which, he said, counteract the plant’s effects. But that wasn’t the worst part: I spent the night prior to the session vomiting next to a group of strangers who, like me, were told to ingest an Amazonian concoction and eight liters of water in order to pass all the residues from the Western world from our bodies. The “purge,” as the healers call it, is the step prior to taking ayahuasca, and is almost as important in the regeneration of body and spirit as the latter. The concoction we drank was just an extract of tobacco, flowers, and other plants that are emetic. Every once in a while, and to my absolute outrage, the master would walk up to see the contents of our buckets and diagnose all kinds of ailments: from stress to kidney stones. Back home, and despite the, shall we say, arduous moments, one does indeed feel clean, as if suddenly freed from some great burden I was unaware even existed to begin with.
I arrived early at an address in the La Molina district. How could it be that in this upper-class neighborhood, surrounded by walls and fences, a ritual to summon the invisible forces of nature was about to take place? It had to be a sham. To further ruin my idealistic view of the authentic, magic, selfless shaman, I paid him twenty dollars for something that, by all accounts, is priceless. But I’m here now and there’s no going back. My stomach is just aching a bit and I really feel like leaving instead of going through with the whole farce. I wasn’t seeing anything yet. The stomachache was getting worse. Some people started to vomit. It is said after the vomiting comes the visions. I wasn’t seeing anything yet.
I had heard about ayahuasca in college, always under an aura of mystery. Before trying it, I took it as a big joke. One of my best friends back then had been drinking it since she was a little girl. Her mother is an anthropologist, and a healer would go visit every so often and conduct sessions in their living room. My friend would arrive at, let’s say, our Kantian philosophy class and recount how the night before she had turned into a leopard, flown over medieval Europe, or discovered she could speak Mandarin. I used to ask her to invite me over to participate as if I were asking for something as simple as a joint. I’ll never forget her answer: “I don’t think you’re ready yet,” as if it were something transcendental. According to her, taking it could change your life dramatically. It wasn’t a drug for escapists, but for the brave. Apparently, you don’t just take it to see snakes and glimmering lights.
Later, I found out that many people used it to explore their inner being, to detect their traumas and problems through its visions, as if it were some sort of organic psychotherapist. Apparently, ayahuasca provokes an expansion in one’s conscience equivalent to self-analysis. It was a way to heal the mind and soul, if it is indeed true that they can be healed. There are also people who began to believe in God after their experience with the plant. One woman said that if religion had told her about God, ayahuasca had introduced Him to her in person. A man claimed he took it to fix unresolved matters with the souls of his dead family members. Some saw distant and unknown ancestors. According to several initiates, drinking it allowed them to travel across long distances and through different eras, to cross the universe, both personal and cosmic. There have been those to whom ayahuasca has revealed their mission on earth and the faces of their unborn children. There have also been those who have discovered they could speak another language, resolve trigonometric formulas, or sing well.
All of them had a revelation in common; they had all heard a voice that answered their questions. What revelations were waiting for me? Was I ready? There were at least a few things I was very keen on asking the ayahuasca. Which is why I went all the way to the house in La Molina. On that occasion, though, the plant and I wouldn’t connect. Except for a distant glimmer and nausea, the feeling was similar to that of marijuana. Disappointed, I took off at dawn.
With the Botanical Book in Hand
Ayahuasca is a substance to which many virtues of sharpening the imagination and telepathic powers have been attributed. Indigenous healers use it to look for lost objects, especially, they say, “bodies and souls.” In the Peruvian jungle they call it madrecita ayahuasca (Sweet Mother Ayahuasca) because it is believed to have female wisdom and a maternal quality. In Quechua, ayahuasca means “rope of the dead,” a reference to its power to connect us to another dimension. Its species is Banisteriosus caapi and can be found in the Amazonian strip between Peru, Brazil, and Colombia. It’s not true that it is only a single plant; the concoction brewed as ayahuasca is a mix of two plants: the vine (ayahuasca) and another medicinal plant—which can be chacruna or toé—containing a substance called dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the same substance that produces sleepiness at night. The healers cut fair portions of each and boil them until the mixture becomes a thick drink.
When talking about it, it is preferable to use the term visionary or entheogenic (generating the divine within) substance, instead of describing it as simply hallucinogenic or psychedelic. Its ingestion doesn’t alter the senses, but rather produces states of ecstasy and a strong intuition for the profound and transcendental. As a matter of fact, there are three syncretic religions in Brazil that use ayahuasca regularly in their liturgies as a means to access the divine. In the indigenous communities of the Peruvian jungle, shamans drink ayahuasca to spot diseases and heal them. They assert that the causes, as well as the cures, show up in their visions. For hundreds of years and without having read a single botanical book, the natives have known the properties of different plants and their infinite combinations.
Ayahuasca has also been tried as an addiction treatment. In Peru, there is a therapeutic community where dependence on cocaine and Ecstasy is treated with ayahuasca. It is also used with great results to fight acute fear, anxiety, and depression; as a supplement to therapy for cancer patients; and lately for HIV patients, since, as is already known, the immune system is closely linked to a person’s emotions and spirituality.
How can these telepathic phenomena, communication with ancestors, the feeling of bonding with the universe be explained? Jeremy Narby, a Swedish anthropologist, found that the double helix structure of the vine happened to be the same as that of DNA, so he hypothesized that ayahuasca allowed us to observe the DNA particles containing all of the genetic information about our origin, and, as it would seem, about our destiny.
The Yagé Letters
Around the same time as my first dose, I read The Yagé Letters, the letters William Burroughs had sent in 1953 to his disciple Allen Ginsberg from Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru, in which he narrates his trip through the Amazon jungle searching for ayahuasca, known in Colombia as yagé. Burroughs said he was looking for “the ultimate fix” in yagé, after failing to find it in heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. The same book contains Ginsberg’s answer, written seven years later from Peru, the author of “Howl” telling of his own visions and terrors under the influence of the same plant, as well as asking for advice.
Ginsberg writes his vision of the “Great Being”: “I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe—or a Jivaro in headdress with fangs vomiting up in realization of the Murder of the Universe—my death to come—everyone’s death to come—all unready—I unready. ( . . .) The whole hut seemed rayed with spectral presences all suffering transfiguration with contact with a single mysterious Thing that was our fate and was sooner or later going to kill us.” Ginsberg broke into tears remembering his mother, who died far away, perhaps suffering, and decided to have children, a revolutionary act in his life.
“Too horrible for me, still, to accept the fact of total communication with say everyone an eternal seraph male and female at once, and me a lost soul seeking help,” wrote the beatnik. His experience, apparently, was filled with dread. I know people who have been teased or have been told great jokes by the voice of ayahuasca, but in the same session have been shown their children dead. As the shaman says to Ginsberg, “the more you saturate yourself with ayahuasca, the deeper you go, visit the moon, see the dead, see God, see tree spirits, etc.”
I also wanted to dig deep. I wasn’t going to give up after the first try. According to experts, I could only reach that in the forest. To ingest the plant in the city is to take it out of its ritual context, and to do it without the protection and the knowledge of a shaman is madness. A friend of mine, a young poet, was burned alive. He closed himself in a room, tied himself to the bed, and poured gasoline all over himself; he then lit himself on fire. They say in one of his sessions he had seen the end of his life, which entailed a mission: the plant had ordered him to light himself on fire on December twentieth, during the summer solstice, a time of change and rebirth. The truth is my friend had been taking it alone for some time, without the guidance of a healer. During his last days, he wore a strange expression that we all thought was of happiness.
But the white man going into the remote thicket of the South American jungle in search of the powerful psychotropic plant has already been transformed into a romantic idea. More and more, shamans are moving to the big city, they are paid in dollars or euros and arrive by plane with a bottle of ayahuasca under their arm to treat illnesses, almost always summoned by rich people who have already tried everything else. Had Burroughs been a beatnik in the new millennium, he would have never needed to move his rear end from the seedy sofa of his junkie’s apartment.
Bad Shamans and Witch Doctors
Ayahuasca had arrived in the city, but I went into the jungle, at least for a few days, as Burroughs and Ginsberg had. For me, though, this is easier. I live in Peru. A one-and-a-half-hour flight lands me straight in Pucallpa, the paradise of the ayahuasqueros. The only thing I was worried about were the warnings concerning certain shamans. It’s known that the shaman is the ceremonious middleman between us and the plant, someone to stir up the mystical trance that will provide cure and presage. In contrast to doctors in white coats, the traditional doctor takes into account the internal drama of each individual. He is the one who travels into the kingdom of the unseen, makes up symbolic stories to explain the world, organizes the rituals to access a superhuman plane, and invokes the energies that are ailing us.
Perhaps due to the discourse of comparative religions, we forget shamans are people just like us. Somebody told me that the most famous shamans have been absorbed by the system and administer ayahuasca in luxurious European hotels. Many leave their wives upon moving to the city; they get drunk and have a life contrary to that of ayahuasca. Their spirits have become contaminated and can no longer be of help to anyone.
But what is really distressing is the figure of the malero, a type of healer who has fallen into darkness. An evil sorcerer, basically. You could be taken for a ride out of complete ignorance, and you don’t want a demon driving. Obviously not all shamans are like this. To be a shaman, most of them undergo a mystic transmutation by going into the forest for months at a time and taking on extremely tough diets to learn about the potencies of each plant. During these curative sessions they make sacrifices, and feel pain, and let themselves be devoured by the spirits of ferocious animals while they are in trance. I have been told to look for Rosendo Marín, an unknown healer in those circles, whose spirit is virginal and radiates kindness. Will Rosendo be that character from the Amazonian legends, will he be my green wizard?
On Red Earth
My bags are ready, my fare is purchased, and I just got my period. I have been told that ayahuasca cannot be taken during menstruation. According to the healers, they are clashing energies. This “contaminating waste” perturbs the plant. And here I thought ayahuasca’s gender was female. In the end, I decide to go anyway. I have reached Pucallpa today, Friday afternoon. Pucallpa is three hundred miles northeast of Lima and is the capital of the Ucayali department. Its name means “Red Land” in Shipibo, the area’s dialect. I pretty much have to agree with all the people who told me it was the ugliest city in Peru: a sort of giant market in which a person has to travel several miles before seeing the typical Amazonian horizons filled with forests and rivers. The air is still wild: hot, invasive, and sticky. I check in at a simple hostel and head out for the port of Yarina. I hope to find Rosendo that same day in the native community of San Francisco de Yarinacocha, where the majority of shamans live, interview him, and propose we do a session tomorrow night. I try to call Rosendo on the only communal telephone in the village, but the line is down. It’s almost six o’clock in the afternoon when I learn that no more boats are going out to San Francisco. I hear somebody say, “Take the highway!” but at the bus station all I see are drivers sleeping like logs. Nobody wants to take me. The reason for their indifference becomes clear only a few feet away: the desolate image of a giant animal made of tin critically wounded in the middle of the road. The bridge connecting Yarina and San Francisco collapsed a few days ago, due to the rain. I can’t ignore the symbolism: the idea of a bridge defines ayahuasca, a rope, a connection to the other side. And the bridge was broken!
Resigned and ready to go back to the hostel, I looked one last time down at the docks where the boats were coming in from San Francisco. A man shouted, “Boat rides through ecological areas,” and, surprisingly, the next thing he said was, “Consultations with shamans.” In front of me was the last stop-off for the drug tourist, selling the perfect “trip,” which included taking ayahuasca with a native shaman. The man knows all of them (except, of course, Rosendo). He says the famous shaman Guillermo Arévalo lives in Yarina. I take a motorcycle that served as a cab. It may end up being a night without ayahuasca, but with several interviews with famous shamans. The taxi driver knew perfectly well where they all lived. I rang the doorbell a few times without luck and was about to leave when I walked into the path of a Jeep Cherokee just pulling up in front of the door. A beautiful mixed-race woman got out, and the taxi driver informed me she was Guillermo’s wife. She had stopped there by chance to pick some things up, as they weren’t living there at the moment, but were staying at their lodge in Soi Pasto. This already seems to be more than just good luck. A power (The ayuahuasca? A witch doctor?) is attracting me. The woman welcomes me, but warns that I will only have one hour to interview him since at nine the maestro is starting a session. Tonight will be a rough night, he has to cure a family member who has cancer, she told us. The same taxi driver took us the six miles from the road to the lodge. The taxi driver’s remarks revolve around the Jeep Cherokee that a gringo had given to the shaman as a gift, and about the road built exclusively to reach the lodge, which must have “surely cost him a fortune.” Once we got there, we encountered the light from a paraffin lamp. The shaman lets me in with a smile, without asking any questions. There’s no doubt: either a spirit has announced my arrival or his wife has by cell phone. It’s a question of faith.
Visions from Hell
Guillermo is a dazzling being: he studied in Brazil, he is a shaman who travels the world giving lectures, and he has even played himself in several Swedish and Dutch movies. At the end of the conversation, he invites me to participate in the ceremony. Not following my original plan fills me with fear. I try to listen to my heart to see if it tells me if this is the place, and this is the shaman, but nothing seems clear. I end up accepting. I enter a cabin that, according to Guillermo, was built on a site that had been struck by lightning. On one side of the room is the sick woman, hanging in a large cot suspended in the air by ropes and completely covered by sheets.
I’m not sure if I should tell the shaman about my menstrual state. And at this point I’m worried about whether a woman insisting on doing the ritual while on her period might harm the shaman’s powers and attract negative energies. It’s said that a shaman can tell if a girl hasn’t had the decency to warn him about it. Being at fault and in distress, but already standing around the ritual table, I approached Guillermo and whispered: maestro, I’m on my period, is it OK to go on? He scowled, nodded, and then let me decide. I sat down and readied myself for the trip. I had no idea of what was to come.
That night, I watched in horror a spectacle of dead animals, decomposed fetuses, and dramatic rapes. The sick woman poked her head out of the white sheets and I thought I saw in her face the face of someone I love, looking at me cruelly and with reproach. Is this because I’m on my period? Someone next to me can’t stop crying wildly and it’s so close that I think these are the sobs of an aborted infant. They are following me through a devastated city; I try to escape by jumping over puddles filled with crushed and bloody bodies. The Cashinaguas believe fear is good to throw out negative things and to cure oneself, but I couldn’t understand how there could be anything positive in this. I don’t know if I’ve been conditioned by everything I’ve heard, but this could very well be an evil sorcerer. I have been drawn in by darkness.
I am looking for the shaman, but he’s disappeared. I believe I’ll never leave this place. Hours go by and the day isn’t breaking. I can only think of black magic. I imagine the cabin as a coffin. They’ve walled us in, I’m sure of it. We’re dead and death is an exasperating insomnia in an even more exasperating black eternity. It’s a bad trip, no doubt, like flirting with madness. All of a sudden, some white, shiny figures, moving among the trees, make me think I’m still dreaming, but I’m not, my eyes are open, and those must be the holy spirits of the forest, the heralds of dawn. As soon as it’s light enough, I plunge toward the door. Obsessed by the idea of the cabin-coffin, I am scared almost to death by a giant black dog that appears behind the door, barking aggressively and blocking the exit.
The Forest’s Television
This new dawn, I’m the last to wake up. Rosendo Marín’s wife is making tableware out of clay, his daughters are nursing the grandchildren, and the kids are chasing lizards. I exit the mosquito net as if from a white uterus. I am exhausted but happy. At Rosendo’s place, nestled among his family, I have awakened from my last ayahuasca trip. The third time taking the sacred plant I’ve changed the lavish shelter for the most modest shack in San Francisco, a mountain without electricity and sown with visionary plants. I came all the way out here running away from the sorcerer and looking for the healer. I had the feeling Rosendo held the medicine for my imaginary ailments. The second trip had left me farther out there. It’s said ayahuasca is the television of the forest. And I needed to change the channel before turning it off. At the very least, to fall asleep with some trivial image.
When I disembarked in San Francisco, I was warned not to waste my time searching for him, that Rosendo was drunk somewhere on the island. I remembered the collapsed bridge, the blocked phone lines, and the six-mile detour. Now my good shaman was a drunk! Some strange energy had kept me away from here by all means possible. It may seem far-fetched, but this happens a lot among shamans: they steal clients from each other in supernatural power struggles. Rosendo calls them “damages.” But he wasn’t drunk. Instead, he was rocking his small daughter on a hammock. Clearly, the image on TV was finally taking shape, a fleeting sign of irreverence toward death. I thought about the situations that lie ahead, without us—mere mortals devoid of magic powers—being able to foresee them or prepare for them. I believed this peace was in store for me since the beginning. I received my serving of ayahuasca. I closed my eyes without fear.
It’s finally happening: I have the exact impression that my arteries and veins are stretching almost to the point of breaking, branching out and meandering like vines, the luminous highway along which I’m about to glide. I can see my body, the fragile but constant beating of my internal organs, music as primitive as the first nursery rhyme. It’s as if I were facing a computer that is showing me the connection between my most hidden parts, now bathed in a green-gold liquid, by a new energy that runs through me from one side to the other. Such a degree of self-awareness makes me feel warm and joyful and, immediately afterward, guilty for having doubted the healer. I scold myself for always being like this, for doubting everything and everyone, for having little faith, my lack of hope, my pedantic sarcasm, my loads of cynicism. I cry over the ugly trait that is pride, the illusion of having everything under control. While I’m scolding myself destructively and hating myself, something inside me says: what an ugly trait self-pity is, how paralyzing, and I decide to forgive myself and, even better, I decide to laugh at myself out loud.
I go from seeing myself as a superwoman to seeing myself as a seed, so modest that I almost disappear. I have never felt so whole, without suppression, without disapproving of myself at every step. Also, this liberation is accompanied by a feeling of physical well-being. It’s suddenly clear why some people say taking ayahuasca is like an instantaneous and accelerated session of psychoanalysis. A feeling of peace takes over me, the peace, I guess, that this knowledge brings, because in this instant I believe I understand a sort of mystery. I can recognize something greater than me, and I’m part of this something. I’m awake: I’m still listening to the birds, the singing of the shaman, and the sounds my companions are making next to me. It’s the closest there is to dreaming awake. Everything turns blue. It’s said that blue indicates the arrival of the spirits. I talk to my family and friends, dead and alive. I ask all the people I betrayed or those I didn’t like enough for forgiveness. While I meditate on that, I hear for the first time a very ancient voice, which seems to have been ignored for years. Is it the voice of the ayahuasca or is it my own? A voice that answers questions, strong but at the same time soft and comforting like that of a mother. I can ask it about my present, my past, and my future, and it answers, to my bewilderment, with all sorts of incredible news. I start to feel light, weightless. My mind, or perhaps my soul, can float until it’s above my body, like in ghost movies. I’m certain it can leave forever, let go of the hindrance of the body, still now writhing strangely and coldly. I can see Rosendo singing beautiful songs of solace, blowing protective tobacco smoke on my skull, a great green wizard cutting through each one of my demons.
I respect people on TV telling me about how God saved their ruined marriages or freed them of an incurable disease, but I always felt skeptical of those who claimed to have seen the light. And the so-called trip reports by consumers of hallucinogenic plants generally have that stench of truths found in revelation and self-help book assessments. Instead of moving me, they usually only make me numb. That’s why I didn’t want to tell anyone after drinking ayahuasca. Only now can I say it: it’s true.
The most incredible thing is the conviction, which nobody will be able to take away from me, of having been a witness to what is absolute, to the lost mystery of nature, perhaps the mystery of our origin. That’s why there are those who say that ayahuasca’s trance is like a rehearsal of one’s own death. But unlike European Rationalism, which sees death as a horrible end, the culture of the ayahuasqueros suggests we see it as a beginning, as a change of energy. Death is good news about the world that awaits us beyond life. Ayahuasca seems to prepare us for that trip. At this point I’m not afraid anymore, and I hope Ginsberg, wherever he may be now, isn’t either.
When the narrator of Jorge Luis Borges’s story “The Aleph” goes down into a house’s basement and Everything appears before him, absolutely everything that exists in the world, all of the places from every angle, he says: “I saw tigers, pistons, bisons, tides, and armies, I saw all the ants on earth ( . . .). I saw the circulation of my own dark blood.” I was brooding over those lines, trying to explain to myself what had happened the days after my experience. I thought: “Borges must have tried it. There is no way he could have written ‘The Aleph’ without trying it.” Although it is possible to think he could have gotten to that vision through his own imagination. Some writers don’t need to live through it in order to describe it. Especially if over the centuries, the Totality, with a capital letter, has not only been a recurring literary fantasy, but also a philosophical, a mystical, and, in short, a human one. Literature, like Borges’s basement, is for some people the place for revelations, the door toward the unfathomable. For others it is Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Deepak Chopra, the Internet, or ayahuasca.
A daughter of Marxists, I was never baptized, I was called a “heretic” at age six by my own grandmother, I was an unwanted guest at funeral masses, but here I found an unknown dimension that had lived inside me since forever. How did someone who couldn’t see anything suddenly believe they could see everything?
“Viaje a través de la ayahuasca” © Gabriela Wiener. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lucas Aznar Miles. All rights reserved.