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[Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 1]  .  [Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 2]

Part 3

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Bolivian Amazon -home for the week

Camp life

The day after the 1st ceremony I had a classic post-trip day feeling: a lethargic slumber but mentally light and with a bright outlook. I reflected on my visions from the night before, if they had any meaning it was about the impermanence of thoughts and how they create our reality. Something was lacking though; I only reflected on this theoretically and without the feeling where you truly realise something and know it in your bones.

At the kitchen the French couple Mabelle and Jean were saying their goodbyes. Jean was leaving that day, he had to drive a van back to Chile to sell. Mabelle was different again, she was floating and smiley, she seemed to have processed some of what had passed in the last ceremony. She’d decided to stay at the camp to do one more ceremony, she felt she had something unfinished and incomplete with ayahuasaca and felt that staying for her 3rd ceremony would be for the best. She hadn’t been apart from Jean in 10 months but they didn’t seem to have any doubts about their decision. Jean wished us ‘buenas ceremonias’ and left for Chile. I smoked a fat joint with Augustino after breakfast and headed out to the river.

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River chilling

It was decided that our last two ceremonies would be on consecutive nights, my last two nights staying in the jungle. This meant the next 3 days and 2 nights would be free to settle in to life in the jungle and relax. I passed time reading and meditating and went with Sophie out to the river everyday to cool down from the baking sun and escape the bugs. We went out for walks in the surrounding rainforest and really started to bond as we got to know each other more deeply.

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During these days I shared many conversations with Augustino and learnt more about the people and the project there, and got a sense of their life in the rainforest. Augustino, now in his thirties, was from Ushuaia, a resort town in Patagonia on the southernmost tip of South America; ‘the bottom of the world’. He’d left home in his late teens, travelling South America working as an artisan, as many do, making crafts to sell on the street and juggling at traffic lights for money. He’d met Maria on the Isla Del Sol, a beautiful place on Lake Titicaca popular with hippies and artisans. He’d first took Ayahuasca with Guillermo years before, and later Guillermo took him on to work at the site. Later, he had invited his nephew Carlos who’d also followed the same artisan/juggler route, to come and work at the site too.

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Inside the temple, a palapa

I also learnt of their process of making ayahuasca, how they go on an ‘excursion’ of a couple of days up to the nearby mountain to bring the necessary plants back to create the brew of ayahuasca, and how after they spend days grinding the vine, boiling it and making the brew, all the while drinking ayahuasca and singing tributary ayahuasca songs day and night. Just your typical working routine then.

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Where the ayahuasca is made

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Boiling spot for aya

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Preparation process

The Shaman’s Story

Augustino also told me of the years of training that Guillermo had done to become a shaman, drinking ayahuasca almost daily and learning from the elders. Guillermo had started his psychedelic journey at the extreme end – with Datura, AKA Jimson weed, at the age of 14 (seriously), before going on to take and learn about San Pedro, temazcal ceremonies, and ayahuasca. He had an instant affinity for ayahuasca and drank it many times eventually joining the Santiago de Chile branch of the Santo Daime church. There he received ayahuasca and teachings from the fathers of the church and began to start conducting ceremonies himself. Amongst other traditional medicines he went on to learn about kambo, the frog poison cleanse, before receiving a message from ayahuasca to go to Bolivia. He and his family sold all their things, came to Bolivia, bought land, set up the project, and a few months later, I was there.

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The shaman, Guillermo, playing icaros in the temple

Final ceremonies

Ahead of the final ceremonies Augustino offered us some more advice. Intentions should never be something material – ‘to get a better car’, but always something relating to the spirit – ‘to be a better person’, ‘to be healed’. One should stay with their intention in mind during the ceremony, and not lie down too soon in order to stave off feelings of sleepiness and drowsiness. At the next ceremony there would be an offering of rapé (snuff tobacco shot up the nostrils for cleansing), and apparently this would aid us in staying alert and awake. Going in to the 2nd ceremony I had a strong determination to stay focused on my intention and relaxed. On the day, after a light early brunch, we drank chicha de yucca- yucca smashed into a juice-like pulp, with Augustino advising that it would help with the body’s processing of the ayahuasca.

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The altar w/ bottled ayahuasca

The 2nd ceremony – 4 Cups and a Side of Rapé

Aswell as the resident trio, this time all three of them in white shirts for the ceremony, Mabelle, Maria, and Guillermo’s wife were present. As we arrived to the temple that evening there was also a new face by the fire, a young Frenchman who would be beside me for the ceremony. He drank before me each round and quite clearly had trouble doing so, taking a good minute to finish the cup, raising his arm to cover his mouth as he gagged between every gulp. Typical French hamming it up.

The ceremony followed the same rhythm – opening prayers, icaros, bell, drinking in silence, vomiting, icaros, bell, drinking and so on. Guillermo’s wife joined in with many of the icaros, her voice soothing and beautiful. This time I sat up straight in meditation posture with my eyes closed for nearly all of the ceremony and continually returned to my intention, using it like a mantra. There was no meditation this time round but the rapé after the 2nd cup.

The Rapé

After the round of ayahuasca Guillermo walked over to a knee height cross, faintly illuminated by a small candle at its base, just outside the temple. He explained that anyone was free to come and take the rapé, a mix of pulverised tobacco and other plants shot into one’s nostrils for mental and physical cleansing. A sacred shamanic medicine that’s been used by healers of the Amazon basin for thousands of years, I’d wanted to try rapé for a while and after a couple of the others I made my way over to the cross.

Using a thin wooden pipe with a bend in the middle, Guillermo loaded the tobacco mix into one end, pointed the other end to my right nostril, placed the pipe to his lips and gave a short sharp blast of air. The mix shot up to somewhere behind my eyes and landed with an explosion of ridiculously intense stinging. I reeled back instantaneously, shaking my head in an instinctive attempt to somehow lessen the burning sensation permeating the area below my frontal lobe. After spitting and managing to open my eyes again through the subsiding pain I stepped back to receive the rapé in my left nostril. The burning was reignited and spread further than the first. As I paced around I spat and blew my nose. My sinuses felt clearer and Augustino was right; I was wide awake.

After myself the Frenchman went up for his rapé. Augustino administered his and, true to form, the Frenchman gave a show. After receiving his first shot he jerked about feverishly as if he were being tortured, continually shifting his head to face a new direction as if he would find the magic spot which would relieve him from his agony. His hands and arms followed the jerky dance as Augustino called him back for the second nostril, but he was oblivious to the calls. After repeated calls and as the agitations died down, Augustino was able to get him back for the second nostril; the queer dance received a new lease of life and he was off again, I couldn’t help but be amused.

After the rapé the icaros started up again and the ceremony continued as per usual. Again, my experience throughout was one of normal waking consciousness accompanied by feelings of wooziness. Nothing notable passed, with the exception of one occurrence.

Déjà vu

Somewhere between the 3rd and 4th cup, whilst laying back I experienced a strong and clear déjà vu. I had experienced that moment before; by the fire, the icaros sounding out, in the jungle, on that night. Normally with deja vu there is the sense that we’ve absolutely experienced it before but we’re not sure when. This was different in that I remembered exactly when I’d experienced it before. I had experienced that moment before in a dream, two years prior, on a 10-day silent meditation course. During the course I’d had the most vivid and intense dreams of my life, extremely clear and emotionally heavy, many of which I still remember to this day.

Whether this was a some trick of the mind or there was something more mystical at work -some kind of premonition piercing linear time- I know that the feeling was real. I knew that was where I had experienced it before. The déjà vu moment lasted a few seconds, was followed by my realisation of where I had experienced it before, and then passed. My experience continued as before until the closing of the ceremony; hazy, woozy and unclear.

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Post-ceremony

As the ceremony ended and the silence was broken the Frenchman turned his head to me, ‘good travel’ he smiled. I stood up and as everyone exchanged hugs and well wishes, Augustino came over to me.

‘La chicha uh?!’ he said pointing to me with a massive grin on his face, expecting me to report on a wondrous journey and credit the chicha de yuca I’d drank in preparation. I reluctantly smiled, I so wanted to be able to share in that, to give the response he was expecting: to crack a huge smile and reply ‘the motherfucking chicha!’ – but I couldn’t, nothing had happened.

‘Mañana, mañana’ he reassured me. There was still the last ceremony to come and apparently the medicine worked more strongly on a second consecutive night.
I looked over and saw the faces of Sophie and the French boy flickering orange from the fire. They were sat together talking and I could tell by their expressions and the tone of their voices that they were speaking of something magical, something hitherto unseen – they were sharing their experiences. Mabelle was still and smiling as she stood gazing into the fire, she looked as though she had seen something so beautiful she wanted to cry.

I knew that something special was happening there. Again I could sense the magic, it was present in the people all around me and it filled the fibres of the jungle air, yet it remained out of my reach. I understood and accepted; you can choose to take ayahuasca, but it also has to choose you. You can make the decision to drink it, travel to far flung lands and take cup after cup in the jungle, but you’re not necessarily going to experience anything. I’d heard that ayahuasca will give you what you need rather than what you want, and perhaps this was true in my case but I doubted it; I didn’t feel like I’d got either.

5 Final Cups – Last Ceremony, Last Chance?

The next night, for the 3rd and final ceremony, I had no expectations. I went to the temple totally relaxed and calm that night. It was the same story – varying levels of wooziness within a pervading normal waking state of consciousness. Instead of meditating or keeping an intention in mind I passed the ceremony admiring the rite: the quirkiness of the rituals, the tones of the icaros and the ambience of the night around the fire. And that was it, the last ceremony.

Where Next?

As the ceremony closed I reflected on my week in the jungle. The setting, the ceremonies, our shaman, the people there; all were as good as I could’ve hoped for. The ceremonies were beautiful and I could see how everyone involved in the project there deeply cared about their work and their mission. I felt grateful for the opportunity to take ayahuasca in a safe and beautiful setting with support from everyone there. But, I was still short of what I really came for; something otherworldly, induced deep psychological introspection, perhaps illumination. Drinking ayahuasca in the amazon was the decisive reason why I came to South America and I’d hoped would be a massive revelation of my trip. After all, it felt incomplete. It’d now been 5 times that I’d drunk ayahuasca, and despite my unwavering sobriety I could see that it was having serious effects on the others who drank with me. I’d drank 14 cups in the last week and still had barely broken out of normal consciousness nor had an ayahuasca experience. I felt at a cross roads.

Do I accept that ayahuasca may never give me what I’m looking for, move on with my life and leave it behind? Or defy the messages that nothing’s coming, and keep searching?

The answer was simple: I accept it and the search continues. I accepted that the week in the rainforest wasn’t what I was looking for. I accepted that I’d had no grand experience and undergone no serious change. I was in total acceptance of all my unsatisfied expectations and felt at peace. I accepted it all but I knew in my heart that the search wasn’t over. The mystery of ayahuasca and my curiosity about the brew had only been heightened and I would be back to traverse these terrains another day. I was at peace and ready to leave this chapter open for the time being. I came to the jungle, partook in the ceremonies, witnessed the beauty of the age old ritual around the fire and felt the magic in the place and people – and that was enough, for now. The final chapter on ayahuasca awaits – maybe I’ll find out that ayahuasca just doesn’t work with me physiologically, or perhaps this is just my story, that my aya path is to be a long and winding one with an epic finish. Time will tell, the journey goes on.

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The road out

Time To Move On

I woke up the next day excited to continue my travels, a week ahead I needed to be in Peru to meet a friend before heading on up to Mexico. I’d already decided that I’d head south from Mexico and venture through Central America before returning to South America and once again the amazon where the mystery of aya will still be waiting.

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The village passed through leaving the jungle

I left in the afternoon with Sophie, we were going to end our time together on the Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicaca, ‘the most beautiful place in Bolivia’ according to Augustino. Now that sounded like a good place for a trip

If you would like to learn more about Guillermo and his project and go on retreat there, visit the website Casa Buen Retiro

[Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 1 is online here]

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Temple by day

Elusive Ayahuasca: Part 2

The 1st Ceremony

After Gulliermo’s call I pulled on some clothes, gave Sophie a hug, wished her the best for the ceremony and, more to reassure myself, told her that everything will be OK. It would just be the two of us with the three residents for the ceremony that night. As I was approaching the temple I could see the others inside, the fire in the centre was already burning and sufficient firewood for the evening stacked beside. As I arrived, Guillermo, now dressed all in white for the ceremony, was waking Carlos up by means of prodding him. Carlos was still tired from the ceremony and ‘after-party’ the night before. Guillermo told us where we’d each be for the ceremony and I went over to put my things (head light, sleeping bag, bog paper and water) down.

Guillermo carried a shovel with incense and some herbs burning on it around the temple; I believe this is a rite to protect from malevolent spirits. As I went for a nervous pee Guillermo and Carlos tuned their guitars, and shortly after at around 1:30am with us all around the fire, Guillermo announced ‘vamos a comenzar’ – we’re going to start. He gave us some guidelines – no talking during the ceremony, go outside the temple to throw up, anywhere outside in nature is fine – and also try not to throw up on yourself (the thought drew a childish smile from myself), you are free to leave the temple for periods but always try to return, and try to drink all the cups which are offered – if you don’t want more then tell him and he will only pour you out a small symbolic cup.

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The ceremony started and it was pretty ceremonial. It was indeed a service; it reminded me of church. With Santo Daime being Brasilian in origin, the service was conducted in Portugese. We stood around the fire and the Lord’s prayer was spoken in unison by Guillermo, Augustino and Carlos. This shouldn’t have been surprising considering I knew our shaman apprenticed in the Santo Daime tradition (a syncretic religion which amongst various other spiritual and religious traditions such as African animism and traditional South American shamanism, draws influence from Folk Catholicism), but it did feel solemn, a far cry from my first, and majority of, psychedelic experiences – taken with some friends in a private apartment with music pumping, surrounded by novelties with which to amuse ourselves and a choice of other drugs on hand to select from throughout the trip at our leisure. But there, in a rustic temple around a campfire in the Amazon rainforest, no talking permitted; quite different.

Taking a cup from the altar, a table with a Wiphala pattern tablecloth, a cross in the centre and adorned with various precious stones, a couple of black and white photos of old men (whom I assume are masters/originators of Santo Daime) and some other curious items, Guillermo filled it with ayahuasaca from a glass jug. Augustino walked over, took the cup, held it to his forehead and drank. Carlos followed and with the next cup full Guillermo glanced at me, my turn.

I paused with the cup in my hands and thought of my intention before drinking. Fairly disgusting, an earthy taste with an offensively sour punch, but like a nasty medicine, could be drunk without much problem with the will to do so. After drinking his cup, Guillermo returned from the altar to the other side of the fire and broke the eerie silence with song. He sang acapella, the only accompaniment being the cabasa in his hands which he used to mark the rhythm – shake:shake: turn, shake:shake:turn. Some songs he sang from a hymn book, lit by a small candle, others from memory. As he sang there dressed all in white there was a priestly and holy manner about him. I could hear and see the care with which he sang.

After a while the songs stopped and Guillermo returned to the altar, picking up a small bell and ringing it; this signified the second round of ayahuasca. Again, one after another, we returned to the altar and drank the brew. After his turn Carlos left the temple and I heard him vomiting violently somewhere nearby in the surrounding darkness. On his return the songs started up again and at some point the guitars and a shaker were introduced, the trio of them playing the icaros together. The scene was somehow enchanting; the temple lit up by the crackling fire the five of us surrounded, beyond our backs the encompassing darkness of the night in the rainforest, the ceaseless hum of nocturnal life the murmuring backdrop to the holy songs and hymns ringing out to be lost amongst unseen life. The peaceful scene had a strange intensity; I could feel the power of the ancient rite and imagined all the thousands of people before me, stretching back over hundreds and thousands of years, participating in this very same ceremony.

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Night in the rainforest

The songs stopped and the bell rang again: 3rd cup. After everyone had drunk Guillermo announced concentration practice and that each was free to do their own meditation. I did a breath meditation, struggling to maintain my focus, and after about 15 minutes in silence the icaros started up again. My mind was scattered and messy with thoughts flying by. I’d began to feel woozy and nauseous but yet to perceive or feel anything out of the ordinary. I laid back with my sleeping bag wrapped around me and drifted in and out of the music.

At the 4th cup, Sophie didn’t wake to the ringing bell. After everyone else had drunk, Guillermo rang the bell a few more times in an attempt to rouse her but to no avail. She seemed to be somewhere else. I drank in smaller gulps this time round – a mistake which I didn’t repeat; the taste was more apparent and about 3 quarters through I felt the contents of my stomach bubbling up. I was caught wondering whether to try and suppress it long enough to finish the cup or to head out of the temple to throw up. Cup in hand, standing indecisively, Guillermo saw it coming and took the cup from me. I darted out into the darkness and puked up pure liquid for about 20 seconds. Still kinda dazy but with a relieving lack of nausea I returned to the temple and drifted in and out of the edge of sleep, rousing at the last bell for the 5th cup.

At the 5th, Guillermo announces that it’s the last cup and that we can drink ‘a little, or more’. Still yet to feel anything from the medicine, I opted for more and made sure I drank every last drop. Sophie awoke at the bell this time round, apparently back from her travels, and drank a symbolic cup. The songs continued, as did my daze in day-dreams and messy thoughts, but unfortunately nothing else. I hadn’t had any visions, hallucinations, emotional swellings or any real change in perception of thoughts.

As beguiling as the ceremony was I felt a slight disappointment. I had come to travel a deeply personal journey as part of an ancient rite but it felt more like I’d been a spectator to the occasion. This theme would develop during my week stay, and I was starting to get an inkling for the mystery of ayahuasca. Finally the ceremony was closed; the icaros paused, some finals prayers said and Carlos played one last song.

After the Ceremony – Change, Presence and Thought Visions

As the last note rang out the transition was immediate and tangible. It was like a bubble of tension was burst; smiles replaced somber looks and were accompanied by a kind of ‘we made it’ relief. The solemn atmosphere had vanished and everyone exchanged hugs – it was unifying and quite a beautiful thing. As conversations began to start up amongst us Augustino asked me if my experience was strong. I told him not really and he flapped his hand as if already pushing it into the past, ‘la proxima’ – the next one, he reassured me. I still had two more ceremonies to come. Guillermo advised me that whatever happened during the ceremony, to keep my intention in mind in the following days to see if the medicine had any effect.

With the atmosphere light and relaxed, the guys settled down and began chatting amongst themselves. I asked Guillermo if it was OK for me to smoke a joint, unsure as many shamans advise to abstain from smoking weed for up to weeks before taking ayahuasaca.

‘Yes, it’s medicine too’ he smiled.

‘Well if the shaman says its OK then why not?’ I indulged in a smoke and passed the joint on. As I watched the trio chatting and joking with each other, I smiled to myself. It reminded me of my friends back home. Even here, 6,000 miles away in the rainforest, friends liked to close a psychedelic adventure by hanging out and having a joke over chats of their travels. I could sense their bond and felt bittersweet – I felt a fresh connection to my friends back home and missed them dearly.

I walked over to Sophie and asked her about her experience – ‘pretty heavy’ apparently. She’d had visions, images and scenes- a deceased family member in a rocking chair, people dancing in the jungle – visible and discernible for a short while before shapeshifting and morphing to form the next. While she was having them she realised that she had no control over what she was seeing, just an observer, and in her disbelief couldn’t help but smile. As we talked I could see the magic of a first psychedelic experience in her eyes; the disbelief, the experience of something truly magical – the discovery of a new world and unfathomable possibilities; I could see in her the lingering excitement of an adventurer who has recently returned. For that I felt joyous. I felt contented to have been an influence on her path there and reflected that if I didn’t gain anything but she had a positive experience – something to take away to help her on her journey – then perhaps that’s just my role in this chapter. That was enough for me.

Her head was still way up in the clouds. She would say that she wanted to go to the tents to sleep and then seconds after the decision was made would be off again with the fairies, remaining stationary and gazing absently into the distance. By the time we’d got back to the tents and were ready to sleep the sun was coming up and the birds starting their morning call. The joint seemed to have triggered something; I began to feel incredibly present and tuned in to the surroundings. I was really there in the Amazon! The sounds of the forest were intensely magnified, I heard the flutter of the birds’ wings with a crystalline quality as they flew overhead, their weird and exotic calls took on the significance of life irrepressibly living itself out. They sounded more alien than ever, more like a power up sound on a computer game than an animal. I lay awake with mouth and eyes open, listening intently and marvelling in the moment.

As I closed my eyes and began to drift off to sleep, thoughts turning over in my mind, I started to have accompanying visions. I was seeing the growth and construction of my thoughts in the same moment that I was having them, as a kind of 3D image. I would see a bright polychrome construction built up, the form mutating rapidly in time and rhythm with my thought as it progressed. Then, as my thought reached its conclusion and developed no more, the accompanying object of my vision would simultaneously mirror, stopping movement and ceasing its metamorphosis in a moment of completion, before crumbling into tiny fragments and falling away, dissipating as if turning to dust, the canvas of my mind becoming blank once more. As my mind commenced the next thought, a new accompanying vision would sprout from the nothingness and the process would repeat itself. The metamorphosis of the visual thoughts was extremely rapid, the object entirely transforming itself with every passing second, a fusion of something that seemed mechanistic and with man-made forms, but organic in nature, and always synchronised to the movement of my thought. The show continued for about half an hour before melding into my dreams as I passed through to sleep.

Continue the story – the final part … Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 3

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Rurrenabaque

4 months into what would be 13 travelling through Latin America, I spent a week in the Bolivian rainforest. This is an account of that week long stay on the edge of the Amazon rainforest and the 3 ayahuasca ceremonies I took part in. The site was across the river from Rurrenabaque, near to San Buenaventura, Bolivia. Read more