I just crawled out of the jungle. Literally. At least part of the way. Then we had a pizza party at an overpriced, ultra touristy spot in Iquitos. We lost three people in our group to who knows what—fear, discomfort, unhappiness, happiness. They each decided to jump on a boat and go home immediately. Like change plane tickets and fly home. What an ordeal!
Our shaman was an ahuascero and a curandero named Gumercindo. A shaman works with plants. An ayahuascero works with ayahuasca, and a curandero knows how to heal people through ayahuasca and other plants. Curanderos are also experts at dispelling negative energy and fighting evil spirits. Dealing with possessions. That sort of thing. A brujo is a shaman who knows how to use the same plants to do evil and chooses to. It’s incredible to step into a society so interwoven with such different spiritual conceptions of what’s going on than we’re used to.
I’m certainly overwhelmed with my visions. With the implications of the visions being possible. With the depth of what is possible. With the amount of people who are exploring being alive this way. With the little old ladies and pregnant ladies and young men and moms taking the same medicine that I took and being so at peace. The set-up was a trip in itself. The boat ride was only three hours, but it took us to a tiny isolated village with thatch roofed houses and communal childrearing. From there, we hiked through clouds of mosquitoes to Elvis’ family’s land.
The land was what you might expect from a low-budget jungle resort: a little hut with individual rooms where we each had our own mosquito net. A group lodge with chairs, an area with a small kitchen and a couple of picnic tables, an outhouse, a pit with well water that we could scoop out and wash ourselves with. Everything was built naturally with ropes instead of nails and no plastic (other than mosquito netting)—super charming and beautiful. There were eight guests, one cook, one cleaning lady, three protectors (who would circle the land with what looked like hand made shotguns while we were in ceremony or sleeping), the shaman and his mom, dad, wife, and brother, and Charity and Elvis. Charity lasted till the third day when she was attacked by evil energy and had to leave with Elvis (high fever and whatnot. We didn’t find out our hosts had left until we woke up in the morning. There wasn’t a phone or electricity, so we were pretty much in the dark with what was going on. She went to a hospital in town that said nothing was wrong with her and then she visited another shaman and was cured by the time we were about to leave.)
Our little “tour group” was an interesting mix of ten people: five from California, two from the jungle, and three of us from Oregon. We would sit around and chat and play chess, all similar enough to have ended up there, still somehow unique. We all pretty much sucked at Spanish except for Zak, who ended up being the translator for all of us and all the Peruvians. It was an incredible Spanish lesson to need to communicate and have to listen to Zak struggle to relate and relay all of our strange questions and Gumercindo’s equally difficult struggle to translate answers. The folks helping us out were all incredibly loving, kind, and attentive, and I shared many awkward moments trying to express myself to them or understand what they were asking.
When we arrived, we were put on a strict dieta. Gumercindo prepared plant bark medicines to take an hour before the ayahuasca ceremony each night. The cleansing potion is made of barks and the ayahuasca, which is a brew of several plants, including chacruna, sanango, and mapacho (pure tobacco), and lots of Gumer’s energy. People drink the medicines in order to cleanse themselves of any physical or mental issues they might have. The idea is that everyone has something that they can deal with, whether it’s from this time around or not. Once the cleansing is done, the plants help guide the individual in the right way to live. The plants provide both complete physical cleansing and the visionary journey to work out what might be causing any physical ailment. Folks in the group were there for help with cancer, herpes, psoriasis, sadness, lack of direction, curiosity, skin issues, feelings of residual India garbage, and no reason at all.
Gumer described the plants as doctors. He said we were making an appointment with each of them and then they would help us cleanse and teach us how to heal ourselves. The ayahuasca is a vine that is a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor (MAO inhibitors are often used to treat depression, as MAO breaks down excess serotonin). MAO is an enzyme in the body that breaks down certain excess neurotransmitters, including DMT, an enzyme that occurs naturally in our brains. Chacruna is a leaf from a tree that contains DMT. DMT is released when we dream, when we are born, when we die, and when we give birth. When the ayahuasca and the chacruna work together, they provide DMT that fits the same receptor sites in our brains that the DMT our pineal glands releases fits into. The ayahuasca makes the DMT stay in our system longer than it naturally would. Lord knows who cut the first vine and boiled it down with the right leaves and then decided to drink it.
Sanango is a powerful cleanser. It cleans the blood of everything. The tobacco is also a cleanser and a serious emetic (and supposedly kills any trace of parasites). We weren’t allowed to use any soap, lotion, toothpaste, bug spray, or any other product. Our food was all prepared for us according to a strict, grounding diet including no sugar, salt, spice (including onions or ginger), caffeine, citrus, oil, or anything else good. That pretty much left us with boiled fish, dry rice, dry potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and platanos platanos platanos! Platanos are maybe the most disgusting thing ever. They are green, chalky bananas that are boiled to taste like a super plastery potato. Everything we ate was a joyless dry pile of white starchy blah. Supposedly, the food was to ground us. It defied everything I know about fasting and cleansing and health and happiness through diet. Gumer explained to us that we had to throw away anything we thought we knew because this was the right food to prepare for the plant medicines.
We all lost a lot of weight. I never want to see a boiled anything again. Without mosquito dope on, it was impossible to go outside without getting millions of bites. We squirreled ourselves away in the lodge and our mosquito nets most of the time and it was truly strange to be so cloistered on our big jungle adventure. The food made us weak and mostly uninspired. The bark medicines were a highlight. They seemed so full of flavor and nourishment and would instantly satisfy whatever the food wasn’t satisfying.
We were on the land for one whole day before the first of seven ceremonies. At 7 pm, just after dark, we sat in chairs around the room and were each given a barf bucket and told not to feel bad if we crapped our pants. We were told we could ask for anything we needed and we could make natural noises (groaning, coughing, crying, wailing), but were not supposed to talk or otherwise express ourselves. We were supposed to be respectful of everyone’s space. Once the ayahuasca is taken, it is the shaman’s job to keep everyone’s energy separate from each other so you don’t have to, say, throw up for someone else (it’s crazy!!! it could happen!!). It is also the shaman’s job to protect the area from negative energy and to expose anything that shouldn’t be there.
Gumer had different songs that he would sing or whistle that would guide the experience and offer protection. He (and any of the experienced partakers) also smoked loads of mapacho (pure tobacco that you puff but don’t inhale or it would take you out) to cleanse the energy. He started by whistling and blowing smoke into the two-liter plastic bottle of brown, sludgy ayahuasca concoction. His voice was beautiful, soothing, and powerful, the tones dissonant and eerie. When he said words, they were in Spanish, but they mostly involved him singing about pure medicine, light, healing, curing, ayahuasca, thanks, following your heart. The songs are called icaros, and each shaman receives his icaros from the ayahuasca and the plants tell the shaman what to sing and when. I guess shamen are super protective of their songs because they don’t want anyone to just be able to use their skills. Gumer was very open and seemed to just want to share the gift of healing he had found.
While Gumer sang, he shook a rattle made of leaves that was surprisingly loud and sounded like hundreds of trees rustling. He poured a drink for each of us and sang a protective icaro over the medicine. We said salud and chugged it. The room was completely dark, and we were left to sit and just hear his songs and see what would happen. Some people ralphed. I didn’t. Mostly it was still and quiet. The songs were other-worldly beautiful. The volume and diversity of the jungle bugs was completely overwhelming. They were a deafening choir of chirps and what sounded like chimes and bells and whatnot (this was true every night, not just after drinking the plants).
When the ceremony was over, Gumer would sing an icaro over each of us, while shaking his leaf rattle. He would blow smoke through his fist onto our heads and then blow smokes down the front of our bodies and our backs. He would have us put our arms and legs straight out and would blow smoke down our arms and up our legs. When he blew the smoke it was a violent puff of air. Like a tarantula was crawling on us and he had one chance to blow it off. (I totally got to see two huge tarantulas—one in the shower.) It was sort of like being bathed in smoke. It honestly felt like he would close the caps on our heads that the ayahuasca had opened and tell our cells to calm down and come back to earth. Very soothing and comforting. And strange.
We would all sort of loiter after that. Light a candle. Lots of laughing. Gumer and his family were ridiculous. His mom had a hilarious cackle, and they would all joke and say ridiculous things. Travis played his didge a lot and it was an epic setting to hear what he can do with his instrument. Two of the ladies had beautiful songs and singing voices and it was fully enjoyable laughing about where we had been and enjoying little talent shows. At the end of a particularly intense ceremony, Gumer’s brother came into the ceremony and tossed a dead mahas in the circle. A mahas is a jungle rat the size of a medium dog. He brought it as an excited offering to our energy. Look what I caught! We’ll eat well tomorrow! The cultural translation was lost on a few of our super-sensitive group and might have been part of their cues to go home.
The other part of the diet I forgot to mention is that we can’t have citrus, sugar, or vinegar for eight days after we leave, and we can’t have alcohol, drugs (other than san pedro) or sex (including kissing or anything even remotely like it) for 35 days (or during the whole time we were there. I guess the plants are very jealous and would punish us if we went on the journey and then cheated on it. We sort of laughed about it ’til Charity showed us the white spots on her arm that she developed on the 24th day after her first dieta).
I’m at a loss to describe the visions. The translation seems cheesy and lame. Crazy. Who knows. I made it through four ceremonies before I very clearly was done. No question whatsoever. I sat in on the rest of the ceremonies, but didn’t drink the medicine. I don’t even understand how people keep going. It’s crazy work. The plant is in your system and it is so hard. Physically, mentally. Maybe some of the hardest things I’ve gone through. The term “bad trip” is so far from what goes on. It’s just work. I’ll try to paint a picture.
The first trip, I was excited, confident. I relaxed and felt at peace with who I am physically, spiritually, and mentally. I just wanted to see what the plant was all about. If we really do have a plant in the jungle that can teach us humans how to heal ourselves, how cool is that. I told Gumer that I wanted to meet ayahuasca, and he laughed when he poured my cup and said “un poquito mas, porque ella quiere conocerlo,” and then he laughed. I relaxed and had what could be described as vivid daydreams. It was like there was a movie screen in front of me and I could watch it whether my eyes were open or closed. I mostly knew where I was and was fully aware that I had taken the ayahuasca and was on a visual journey to learn. I watched my body shed like a snakeskin and slough into a pile on my chair. I felt myself turn into a tiny fairy with a dirty brown dress and scraggly dead leaf-like wings. I flew to the top of the sloughed off body’s head and flew out. It felt amazing to fly. It was dreamlike, but I could control what was going on. I flew up a huge flight of cement stairs and there was a huge tree at the top with a door in it. The door was open and it looked so cool. Tons of purples and blues and green iridescent faces and eyes and outlines of animals. I flew toward it and was excited to see. I told the ayahuasca that I wanted to see it. The door slammed shut and there was a clear voice outside of myself that told me that I was selfish and I just wanted things without giving anything. Without working. I considered what the voice said and how it was true and agreed. I was having fun zipping around and enjoying being free of a cumbersome body. The voice told me that I would have to commit to not being selfish forever or it wasn’t going to show me anything.
I sat and considered it for awhile and tried to get around it, to make a deal somehow. I tried to convince the voice that I was fine. I was a mean little thing. I had sharp teeth and ears and a huge grin. I could see every fault of mine clearly and I didn’t want to promise I would let my faults go. It was strange—like I was a little kid pouting on a door stoop and not willing to apologize for kicking someone in the shin. The voice (which I assumed was the ayahuasca) was stubborn and didn’t want to work with me.
I decided I would try to hang out with Travis instead. I could see where he was sitting across the room and I tried to fly over to him. There was suddenly a huge spider web that I got all caught in. The voice told me that I had a lot of work on myself to do before I could expect to hang out with his light. I knew it was true, but it irritated me. I spent the rest of the vision sort of pouting and considering and being shown my life in little snips as I flew between the body and door. Eventually the door completely faded. There was some business about how the ayahuasca vine is like communion. Lots of Christian allegory and awareness of similar threads in spirituality.
Eventually I flew to the body and crawled down an extension ladder into it and the vision completely faded and it was just me sitting in my chair like I was before the drink. I had asked the medicine to help me with Spanish (someone had suggested that while your brain is being cleansed and rewired, it’s a great time to learn). The voices I heard refused to speak or listen to anything other than Spanish. There was some thought that that’s what I had asked for. It was annoying and difficult.
I felt fine. Completely normal. Really good even. Like I just woke up from an intense dream and was snuggled in a cozy bed.
Most people had mild visions or said the plant didn’t work on them that night. After awhile, I went to bed. I laid awake forever, had the shits, and then fell asleep.
The next ceremony, we took twice the amount. And waited. Nothing happened and we took more. I had fleeting images, but stayed very aware. I had a vision of an owl and that I was a mouse. I also saw a volcanic landscape that was dark and unfriendly. There was a sun or moon in the sky covered by an eclipse and a voice told me espero—wait. I asked how long and just saw a body lying on the ground that turned into a skeleton. The image was quick and then I was just sitting there. The ceremony ended and Goume was shocked that no one really felt anything. He said the medicine was very strong and that there was negative energy from a local brujo that he was keeping out all night. The consensus was that he was too busy keeping us safe to let us explore the medicine. Goume says that the amount we take is virtually irrelevant because the journey is in his songs. Who knows. I still had the shits and felt queasy all night.
I was very relaxed going into ceremony three. I felt like the plant was clearly mild and sort of pleasant and interesting. Maybe didn’t even work. Maybe I was just thinking about stuff. That third night we sat in a closer circle and drank four times as much. It was hard to get down. A few people puked instantly. I sat back and sort of thought, Whatever. I didn’t want to ralph in front of people. I started to feel feverish (the sanango brings heat). The room turned into a million tiny shards of light. Like it was raining pulsing blue light. I felt overwhelmingly grateful to be human. To be alive. To be on earth. To be loved. I felt my hands raise into the air and was just pouring out gratitude for all the blessings I’ve ever had. I felt light leaving my hands and then pouring into them. I had been having terrible lung and sinus problems in Oregon (wheezing sneezing phlegm mold who knows), and I put my hands on my chest and breathed deeper than I ever have and felt all the light move into every section of my lungs and open them completely. I put my hands on my sinuses and felt them work like they should. It was for sure the coolest breathing experience I’ve ever had. I felt my body swaying some. Full of energy, a charged battery. And then I was totally and completely gone. I lost connection with my body and was rocketing through eternity.
There was a void bigger than I could ever imagine space being that was made of endlessly intricate geometric patterns of light. There was one beam of concentrated light in the middle that was the source of all things. God seems like a shallow word for it. More than pure good. Just everything. My head was absolutely exploding and I was downloaded with so much information, so much more than I was ready to know. I begged for it to stop. It was good; it was bad; it was too much. It was indescribable. It was just knowing why we are here and where we end up but not having to tools to deal with it. It was like that whole knowing the answer, but not the question. I was sobbing (no clue what my actual body was doing) and begging to be back in my body, to go back to earth. Apologizing for making a mistake and showing up before my time. I was convulsing with energy. And just when it was wayyyyyy too much, I was in a fetal position in my chair completely safe and happy and warm and completely comforted beyond anything I could imagine.
I thought the trip was done and I was back. I couldn’t see the room at all. I just saw a foggy wateriness. I sighed and smiled a lot and then I realized I was in a womb and was a baby.
It wasn’t just like I had an idea that I was: it was all there could be. I couldn’t wake up out of it and all I could think was, “Thank God. I’m safe. I’m on earth. And I am so happy.” I was like that for what felt like a long time. It was like mom was sitting in the chair and I was just floating in her belly. I could hear people puking and I thought it was morning sickness. Maybe we were all in utero and the moms were barfing. I felt sooooooooooooooo grateful for the comfort and the sacrifice that a human would make carrying me around like that ’cause I just couldn’t take it on the outside. (Don’t know if I ever thanked you mom, but there is no end to my gratefulness for being born to you!)
I knew I had taken the ayahuasca. I had total awareness of events leading to where I was, but no ability to step out of the new reality. I had my brain and my thoughts and all I had just seen, but my experience was so real. I started to worry that if I was in utero, it would mean that I would have to be born and that would suck. It would be scary and cold and no one would take care of me and I would be helpless. And then there was this crazy surge of energy and suddenly I became a hugely pregnant woman in labor and it was emotionally and physically so intense and painful. I felt like all the women in the room were in labor.
And then I started puking so violently and loudly. I grabbed my bucket (luckily!!!) and yelled and purged for what felt like forever. I felt like I purged afterbirth. I felt like I was throwing up every negative thing I had ever done, every negative thing ever done to me, and every negative thing I had ever witnessed. I felt like every cell in my body was vomiting and endless darkness and sludge was just emptying. There were times vomit wasn’t even coming out of my mouth, but I could heave out green and black gasses of negativity. It was effortless and exhausting. When I was done, I was this spent, overwhelmed, exhausted thing. I turned into a newborn and made myself very small on the floor. My head was still exploding with too much. It was miserable to be trapped in a small useless thing and just huddle and trust that Gumer’s songs would keep me safe and that I was in a circle of well-intentioned people. I could sort of sense people by then. Mostly, I just lay there and whimpered and had to give in to just being helpless.
I kept reviewing my life—all the strong loving people in it. It was overwhelming that people would choose to be so kind to me. That we’re all just these lost little humans who can give comfort or not give comfort. Who can be cruel or who can make it a little easier on each other down here. Tears were just streaming and streaming as I fully realized all the good in my life, all the beauty. And then I felt every sadness on earth. I sobbed and sobbed forever. All my messages and realizations were such token cheesy things, but it’s different to experience them so completely and vulnerably. So out of my mind, so full of my mind, so helpless.
Gumer’s icaros were incredible. They were like a safety net. They were powerful and intense while I was going through stuff and then when I became a baby lying on the floor in a tiny ball, they became a lullaby. They were nothing but soothing. He sang something about bueno bueno cuerpecito. Puro puro medicino. Good good little body. Pure pure medicine.
I had to just give in to feeling the worst I ever felt and knowing that I just had to accept the comfort I was being given and trust in the protection. I lay in various positions all tiny and curled up. I whined and sniffled and moaned. Eventually, things calmed.
During the whole time I was a baby on the floor, the singing would stop randomly and Zak would check in to see how everyone was. I could answer him. I only wanted to speak Spanish even though I didn’t have many words. I remember them asking me if I wanted more and me saying, no mas. Por favor. No. Nada. Por favor! I could say that I was meriado—which means feeling the vision. And that it was too much, but it just was.
It took a long time to sit up and collect myself. I was sort of shaking for a while. I could talk after awhile and became fully myself again. I sat outside for a long time and swatted bugs. I felt exhausted but well taught. I felt like I had survived. And I felt like I was done forever. I had had my lesson. Oh—and then I had the shits all night. It’s crazy to feel that empty. All this disgusting food made sense: grounding food. I see how the rational mind, what we know about heath and nutrition is so irrelevant when your mind has to go somewhere so beyond that.
And then I debated and debated on our day off. Am I afraid to take the medicine again? Afraid of work, or do I know I shouldn’t? And finally I decided that I was empty now and I would take just a tiny bit and see just once more.
When Goume started shaking his rattle, my heart was quivering. I drank the medicine and instantly panicked. I mean, what is even possible when you let your mind go so far away? I regretted it, but made myself relax. I took deep breaths. I put my palms together and just prayed for safety. I focused on the light I had seen before. I started to leave my body like before and just willed it back in my chair. It took so much energy. I felt the light I had seen before just pour into my head and surround me like a cocoon.
I spent the entire trip with my palms together focusing on goodness and light—on love. I felt connected and safe, and I felt a voice coming from the light asking my why I was there again when I knew better. All I could do was apologize. The voice told me I knew how to pray when I was on the ground. I knew how to show love and be a kind person from the ground, and that was where I needed to work from, not from where I was with the medicine.
So, I sat there with a big beam of light pouring into my head, with my head bowed and my palms together, apologizing and praising. I could feel endless darkness around my little cocoon.
I stayed present to what everyone was going through. People were doing serious cleansing. When the music would stop, I could see where I was clearly and felt ok.
Goume ended the ceremony early because one woman was having an intense time cleansing. She was exhausted and needed it to stop. She never said she did, but he knew. When the candle was lit, my head was spinning and I was relieved that it was over. I feel like I know my place. I had my kick in the ass. I just kept thinking, there’s so much work to do on earth.
I feel like I went on a huge journey and learned what I already knew, but maybe wasn’t so proactive in admitting to myself. I’m glad I took the plant medicine. I feel like it did scrub me out—for whatever that’s worth.
I spent the next three days after that ceremony puking constantly and with severe vertigo. The ground was so wavy. I threw up all the water in my body. I threw up bright yellow bile. There’s no way in heck any parasites from my previous trip to India are still in me. The people on the farm who were working there were so kind. Meirla found me lying on the ground and crying and came over and rubbed my head. Elena kept trying to cook me something I could eat and would hold my arm and walk me to the table while she swatted mosquitoes off me with a scarf. I alternated between being strong and feeling bad for myself and feeling so weak and malnourished. I fell in the shower and in the bathroom—not bad, but it’s hard when it feels like invisible hands are pushing you every which direction. My vision just couldn’t focus. Travis helped a lot. He stopped taking the ayahuasca cause he was worried about me. I felt like an idiot for messing up my brain and I wondered if maybe the plants were cleaning something really bad out and the vertigo was a small price to pay. Anything seems possible.
I finally had an epic bout of puking and Goume came over and had someone douse me with water and then had me break the diet with a spoon full of salt.
The salt was amazing. It’s crazy to go that long without salt. All of your water reserves are emptied and you get to refill them. The salt was pure joy and energy. I puked three more times after that and then suddenly my stomach was better. My walking improved some. Goume sang icaros for me and cleansed me with smoke a few times. I spent most of the time on my back on the lodge floor, in and out of sleep. I missed the big field trip to see Goume’s crazy farm of medicinal plants. Everyone else felt like a million bucks.
On the last day, the vertigo was still horrible, but I figured out some tricks to walking when you can’t look down without falling—like holding out your arms to walk, like looking at the sky and stepping high so you don’t trip. Really humbling.
And just today, when we were almost back in town, I was telling Zak that they should warn people that they might debilitate them forever by giving them these drugs. I told him I was mad at myself and really sad that I couldn’t walk normal anymore. He made a bunch of calls to the ayahuasca community and then came over to me and said he figured it out. He said that my crown chakra was floating over my head and my third eye was open, so I couldn’t focus. That sounded about right. Zak looks and sounds like a gameshow host. He used to be a stockbroker. He put his hand on my forehead for a bit and then took his thumb and forefinger and pinched my third eye shut. For the first time in days, the crazy ball of energy, achy feeling in the top of my head settled to a peaceful feeling right under my eyes. I walked and could focus on the ground.
I feel way more normal. Things aren’t really spinning. It’s not quite normal, but it’s so close. What the heck. Travis says I just got better on my own. I don’t know or care. This shit is too crazy to question.
My conclusion: don’t do ayahuasca unless you really need to get over something huge or you want to be a crazy healer. Or you have parasites. I write my friends and family after it’s all over, hoping my sharing doesn’t freak them out or make them think I’m an unfit aunt. Don’t worry, I tell them, I’m not going to turn into a super new-agey planetary-talking-to-angel-guides hippie.
Alli is a middle-aged vegetarian burnout ex-paramedic ex-shepherdess college dropout firedancing costume-maker who is useless at the Spanish language and a target for robbers. She likes to read good books. She's not so much homeless as she is a rich spoiled American with lots of family and friends who is just too much of a tightwad to pay rent on a house.