From the tarmac I could see palm trees. Sweat was already forming on my back. Iquitos, surrounded by the Amazon, was the largest outpost in the world unaccessible by road. It was there, a friend, Keyo, was waiting. Keyo had four foot dreads and eyes so blue he’d of been considered otherworldly by the ancient Greeks. For the past year and a half he’d been studying ayahausca, plant medicine, and the Shipibo culture in the Amazon. I was joining him for the week.
He met Savannah and I outside the airport and we embraced in a hug.
“Great to see you, man.”
“You too, brother.”
Savannah was losing herself in happiness, her tail wagging so forcefully her entire body was thrown back and forth.
“Savannah!” Keyo bent down and she pawed at his shoulder feverishly. Savannah was always excited to see people, but rarely as excited as she was with Keyo.
We started our way to his house. Though Keyo and I had only crossed paths during my two week stay at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, it was strangely comfortable being with him. Conversation flowed seamlessly, we both spoke for the same amount of time, allowed the other to speak for the same amount of time, and actually respected and listened to one another’s ideas. We were both of like-mind, willing to leave things behind in order to explore ourselves in braver environments. While I walked, Keyo found himself in the jungle.
“Iquitos just got cars,” Keyo said as we passed the airport’s exit. “When I was first here, four years ago, there weren’t any cars, it was all motorcycles and mototaxis. Now there are actually some dealerships.”
I looked down the asphalt running into the city. It was night so most people were in their houses, but a few mototaxis lingered, breaking the orange streetlights with their shadows and shifting about the road with a sort of determined drunkenness. They chugged along at a frenetic pace, their drivers clearly with their foot to the floor, but the tiny motors running the open-air cabs no faster than an athletic man sprints. Yet in conjunction with the concrete buildings, palm trees, rusted tin roofs, and pressing humidity, the mototaxis were exactly as they were supposed to be. Whereas a luxury car would have been an affront to the scenery, the mototaxi was just another leaf in the Amazon.
Keyo’s house was near the airport. We left our shoes by the front door and sat ourselves in the rocking chairs in the living room. He lived with two beauties. The first was from Portugal. Her tan skin played off her white night gown. The other beauty was from Great Britain, I suspected. She was taller and sadder, a relationship was unfolding for her in the wrong direction.
I thought of all the woman I’d been with all at once, meshed together as one representative woman. She had a sense man doesn’t. She felt each minute shift in her relationships as a spider feels each minute vibration of its gossamer thread. Her sensitivity was heightened, therefore her pain was heightened.
The sadder of the two woman left with tears in her eyes.
The other, tan skin against her white nightgown, spoke English with an accent. She fed Savannah then tugged on Keyo’s arm as he rocked in his chair. “Come,” she said as though more ethereal than physical.
He smiled, resisting her pull on his arm, and after she let go put a hand gently on her belly. She asked him with a look if he still wanted her and he answered with his eyes that he still did, of course. I watched the exchange thinking how separate I was from what they had. There were passing romances, but nothing was allowed enough time to grow. I’d wanted that though. Woman were fun, an adventure in and of themselves, but dangerous enough that one day man could wake to find his legs gone.
Keyo and I stayed up talking. I propped Keyo about what ayahuasca might be like.
“It’s hard to draw a common thread through the ayahuasca experience. Each batch has a different strength and each person reacts to ayahuasca differently. There are certain archetypes that seem to reoccur. For the Sipibo it’s snakes and jaguars because those are the animals they grew up with. They have a cultural history with the jungle so those things appear. For others it’s different though, many people talk about seeing the same woman.”
I pushed up with my toes to roll my seat backward. I kept a glass of water tucked to my chest as I listened to Keyo explain the dimension he’d been exploring nearly every other night for as long as I’d been walking. He spoke about ayahuasca as though it were a person.
“She tells you about yourself, she’s wise, she knows the universe and shares it with you.”
I didn’t understand that. Everything was within the self. Ayahuasca was setting off arrays of neurons and those neurons held memories and thoughts and hope, imbibing ayahuasca wasn’t permitting access to a new dimension, it was enabling a new perspective on old things.
“And does everyone throw up?”
“No, not everyone, almost everyone though. Again, it depends on the batch, it depends on what a person ate, it depends on the person themselves. There are few common threads.”
“Do people ever have bad trips?”
“Everyone does once in a while. I’d like to say having a good mindset going in stops that, and I think it does some of the time, but you can’t really help where it takes you.”
I knew logically that there was little danger in ayahuasca, but nerves were creeping up.
The next morning Keyo and I waited at the airport for his group to land. It was a group of Romanians that I was piggybacking on. Because they paid for a private week, and because I was Keyo’s friend, I was able to slip in for a price I could actually afford.
“This is unusual for me,” Keyo said. “Typically everything is run through the foundation and we don’t do private groups like this. Usually we vet each group and I have no idea what these people are like. I only spoke with one guy.”
“And they’re from Romania?”
“The guy I spoke with is, at least.”
We sat on a bench by the only arrival exit of the airport. When the Romanians arrived they appeared much the same as I would have imagined, with a tough, Eastern European exterior. While we waited for a bus I spoke with the only non-Romanian in the group, a thirty-one year old filmmaker from Libya, Khaled. He was smiley, pleasant, and spoke flawless English.
Khaled told me the group’s history thinking I was one of the guides. “This is our third week in Perú. We spent the last week at another ayahuasca retreat. We had ceremony every night for four days, so tonight will be our fifth. I think we are all very tired. How many times will we be doing ayahuasca here?”
“Three or four times I think. Every other day.”
A bus arrived, we loaded our gear then headed away from Iquitos and deeper into the jungle. The city fell quickly away, replaced by manmade lakes and grass-roof huts.
Two hours later we arrived at a dirt road. Two mini-trucks took our bags down the road then we followed on foot. From recent rain the path was muddy. People were constantly scraping off inches of mud from their shoe to pieces of wood stuck in the ground. I listened to conversations in Romanian, unsure of who I’d be able to speak with through the week and not wanting to be isolated by language.
Soon we arrived. The camp was a collection of wooden huts with bug-netted windows. It was nicer than I was expecting for the middle of nowhere.
We ate at a long table in the enclosed common area. The meal of sweet potatoes, boiled eggs, and vegetables was made without spices – the equivalent of a sleeping pill. But I was hungry, as I always was, so had two helpings. The Romanians spoke amongst themselves.
But Keyo addressed everyone in English and I saw everyone understood him. My prospects for conversation rose dramatically.
“Since you’re all dieting, this will be your last meal for two days. One week is really too brief a time to build a strong connection with the plant, but fasting for the first two days will help. After lunch we’ll gather in the meloka then tonight we’ll meet there again for the ceremony.”
The Romanians were nodding, all eyes on Keyo.
“We’ll be dieting on the Noya Rou tree. It’s a sacred tree for the Sipibo, literally called The Tree of Light. We’ll visit one later in the week so you can strengthen your connection further.”
After lunch we grabbed our things and were shown our rooms. Once settled we met in the meloka. With a tall, conical grass roof the meloka towered over the bedrooms and situated itself as the spiritual center of the camp. Inside, around the circular wall, were pads with pillows and blankets. Everyone sat. The place smelled faintly of vomit.
Keyo sat cross-legged at the center of the meloka. Then Enrique, a local Shipibo and our shaman for the week, stood beside Keyo and addressed us in Spanish. As Enrique spoke, Keyo scribbled his translations in a notebook.
Enrique wore khaki pants with a polo shirt tucked in, he could have been off to his job at the office. But as he spoke his voice boomed through the meloka and he moved lithely, treading on his toes, energized by the envelope of cash the Romanians had passed him a minute before.
“There is more to ayahuasca than the ceremony. Ayahuasca exists as one part. The diet is just as, if not more, important than the ceremonies. The diets build your connection with the plant and the ceremonies act as a way to further that connection. But normally the diet goes on for much longer than you can do it, two weeks is good, six weeks is better, a local shaman has been dieting for five decades and only recently broke his diet. By yourself you will not be able to gain a great connection with the plant in one week however, I will give all of you thirty percent of my diet. I will give this to you and your bond will grow stronger.
“We will drink the plant then tonight during the ceremony I will use ayahuasca to diagnose each person.” Enrique pointed strongly at each newcomer. “I will read your aura. Maybe you are weak, maybe you are very weak, maybe he is strong. I will ingest ayahuasca and diagnose what needs to be resolved then we’ll work on that throughout the week.
Enrique paused, then stared vacantly out the window with his hands behind his back.
“Oh, okay.” Keyo cleared his throat and flipped back a page in his notebook. He repeated in English what Enrique had just said in Spanish, and using his own accumulated knowledge translated the ideas from Sipibo to Western as well. “The Sipibo use ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ differently, it refers more to a person’s connection to the plant than some mental or physical fortitude. Some people will connect immediately with the plant they’re dieting on while others may not connect for weeks.”
I slid down on my pad. It was tough to pay attention twice to the same speech, especially when I didn’t understand the way Enrique and Keyo spoke about the plants. I was suppose to build a connection? What did that mean? I was suppose to feel the plant running through my system from drinking what amounted to a cup of tea each day? Where was the statistical significance? The scientific rigor? The active compounds? People built connections with drugs because they were refined, but something as diluted as a tea…how did I know I’d feel anything?
My doubts tampered any transcendental expectations I had about the diet. I’d fast then go without spices, but I didn’t expect any revelations.
After Enrique spoke again and Keyo translated once more, the group broke apart. The ayahuasca ceremony was at 7:30, but until then there was nothing to do. So after a little while I wandered into the common area to find some of the Romanians gathered around Pat, an older Asian-American who’d just finished a six-week course.
I took a seat and listened to Pat expound. He had a very serious intensity about him. His sentences steam-rolled one after the other as though the first word he spoke set in motion an unbreakable series of events. His eyes were always huge and unwavering.
“You know…” he said softly with a sort of feigned wisdom. “I didn’t want to come down here. I was making two-hundred thousand dollars a year. I had a three-thousand square foot house, a pool, Harleys. But the first time I took ayahuasca, at the end of the ceremony, the shaman said, ‘You’re a guardian.’ Do you believe that? The first time I took ayahuasca. ‘A guardian?’ I answered. ‘I don’t want to be a guardian.’ But after I returned from that trip ayahuasca took care of everything. It had a plan for me. The IRS confiscated my house and everything I had for back taxes, so I sold everything else then flew down here. I never wanted it this. I never wanted it. But ayahuasca needed me here.”
“That’s incredible,” said a petit Romanian girl with the bottom half of her brown hair dyed red.
“Imagine that,” continued Pat, now locking eyes with me. “I used to bill a hundred dollars an hour for computer work at the biggest companies in the world; Hewlitt-Packer, Sony, Microsoft. Then ayahuasca says, nope, I need you down here, and what happens? Ayahuasca takes care of everything, forces me to sell my house and start a new life.”
“A guardian.” Pat leaned back in his chair and lit a mapacho cigarette.
Khaled leaned forward, filling the space Pat had left. “Ayahuasca has incredible power.”
Pat looked to Khaled, then taking what Khaled had said and discarding it continued with his story. “You know I’ve lived a few lives, but my goal now is to become enlightened.” Pat’s eyes once again locked with mine, his intensity made it impossible for me to connect with him. I couldn’t match that energy. Everyone else though appeared to be in rapture.
“Seriously.” He continued to stare at me. “I want to become enlightened.”
I inwardly rolled my eyes. Not at Pat, but at the idea of enlightenment. How arrogant? To think you can escape your humanity.
Once eye contact was broken I left the circle and found Keyo outside.
“What’s up, my man?”
I could still hear Pat preaching on enlightenment. “Ah nothing. Getting excited for this ceremony.”
“It’ll be good, I’m really glad you came out here to try this. Savannah should be able to stay with us during the ceremony. I really want her to.”
“That’d be awesome. Totally up to you though. You’re the expert. I just don’t want her bothering anyone or ruining their trip.”
“Nah, she’ll be good. I’ve been in ceremonies with dogs before and they’re always a nice energy to have in the room.”
A few hours later the ceremony was close to beginning. I was sitting in the moonlit meloka listening to Savannah’s paws patting the wood floor as she went from person to person.
“Yo dude, Enrique asked if you could put her in your room,” Keyo said in the darkness.
“Of course.” I jumped up and led Savannah to our room. Our room was pitch black and small. I hated leaving Savannah alone, but I had no idea what to expect with ayahuasca. If the shaman thought it a good idea for Savannah to be separate, than it was probably a good idea.
Back in the meloka I could hear Savannah whining. Nervous energy was pumping through me. I needed to dance or do push ups.
Ayahuasca was almost upon me. It seemed such a massive incomprehensible thing, beyond mushrooms or acid, an entrance into some alternate reality. I didn’t know what to expect there. I was afraid of losing myself.
Before I made it to the jungle, people had most commonly described ayahuasca to me as life-changing. But I didn’t want my life changed. I didn’t want to be permanently altered. I was happy already. Ayahuasca was just a trip for me, an exploration of the mind.
“It’s important,” Keyo started. “That when you come up to receive the ayahuasca, that you tell it your intentions. Feel free to spend some time with the cup before ingesting it. Enrique will shine his flashlight on you, when he does you can come up.”
The flashlight was shone on me first.
I went over, listening to Savannah whine and doing my best to walk quietly on the squeaky floor. I wished she’d of been allowed in, but knew she was fine and that she’d fall asleep soon enough.
Enrique tipped a plastic bottle to pour ayahuasca into a wooden cup. The stream of hallucinogenic poured in thick, glistening black and orange. The orange flecks seemed pieces of gold. Once the cup was full Enrique handed it to me.
I held the cup with both hands and gazed down at the black liquid gradually shifting bronze.
Okay, ayahuasca. This is my first time. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing so take care of me. I only want to think good thoughts and enjoy myself.
I cleared my throat, brought the cup to my lips, then chugged the ayahuasca. It was awful. It was thick, burnt on the way down, and tasted like rotten beef and ginger. I could feel the liquid lining my throat as I returned the cup to Enrique.
Any hallucinogenic effects of ayahuasca wouldn’t be noticeable for another thirty minutes, but already it felt as though alcoholic vapors were swirling around my head.
I dropped onto my spot in the meloka and watched the next person go to Enrique to receive. Nervous energy had me drumming my fingers on my knees. Any minute now I’d be down the rabbit hole looking up.