The moon shone on the grass, but inside the meloka was pitch black. Everyone had received their ayahuasca. Now we were waiting in silence until the shaman began to feel its effects and would start singing.
I was filled with adrenaline; drumming my fingers on my knees and trying not to think the way the ayahuasca was churning at the top of my stomach. The ayahuasca left a taste of rotten meat in my throat which not only tasted terrible, but stung too. There was no doubt whether or not I was going to throw up, it was just a matter of when.
Beside me, Felix, a gangly, white-haired older gentleman, was burping to hold down the jungle brew.
I worried as to whether or not I should do the same. I’d forgotten to ask Keyo if I should try to keep the ayahuasca in or just let it come up whenever it was ready. If I yakked too early my body might not have time to absorb the active chemicals.
As the minutes passed I grew more anxious to feel something. The darkness was nice and the thousands of insects chirping were something miraculous, but I’d come for the hallucinations.
After thirty minutes, Enrique, the shaman, began whistling. Nearly the moment he began, the ayahuasca came rushing out of me like a toddler had jumped on my stomach. I swung my arm around the bucket beside me and tossed my head into it. Black and orange bile spewed painfully forth.
I heaved until I was left drooling in the bucket. With the ayahuasca out of me I felt better. My stomach was empty and suddenly my head felt empty too. I shifted my head on the bucket so my nose was outside of it, then thought how I was so drained I could keep my head there for another three hours.
It felt strange, as though where my body met open space was being blurred together.
But an hour passed, maybe more, and the ayahuasca failed to escalate. I concentrated on whether or not my consciousness was warping, attempting to pick up any sign that the ayahuasca was having its effect. The only thing I could detect was a craving for a hamburger.
The ceremony went on and I fell asleep; my first ceremony unsuccessful.
The next day I was up before everyone else. I went into the common area but since I was fasting two more days I just sat in a rocking chair and stared through the green bug netting.
Soon some of the Romanians came in. Thinking I’d had my first ayahuasca experience they were excited for me.
“How was your ceremony?” Soren, the youngest and most petit of the Romanians asked.
“I didn’t feel anything.”
“Well, maybe for a minute it felt like I was being blurred at the edges, but after a while I just fell asleep.”
“That happens sometimes with people having it for the first time. Next time will be better for you.”
“I hope so. How was yours?”
Soren brushed her hands over her hair and grinned. “Very, very nice. I was in a bad mood yesterday, I think from having taken ayahuasca for four days in a row. But I was able to do some work and am feeling much better.”
“Four days in a row? That sounds exhausting.”
“I think it was my limit. I’m glad I did it though.”
Breaking the morning calm, Pat burst in. “Tom! Look who lost his ayahuasca virginity last night!” He patted me on the shoulder then took up a place on the sofa, staring at me the whole time. Something about him bother me. It felt as though he had a barrier up, as though he was projecting what he wished to be rather than being what he was.
“Yup,” I said, not desiring to go into my experience further.
“How was it?”
“I didn’t get anything.”
“Not really. I was sober.”
Pat rolled a mapacho cigarette. “That happens sometimes. Next time you’ll break through.” He drew on the cigarette and kept his eyes on me.
The pressure of his gaze was too much.
“I’m gonna walk around a bit.”
Savannah and I ducked outside. We wandered around the camp and found at the far end was an unused meloka with a hammock in it. I returned to my room, grabbed the copy of A Farewell to Arms I’d borrowed from Keyo’s place, then returned to the hammock and read.
As I read Savannah explored. I listened to her footsteps on the leaves outside, then on the creaking wood floor as she popped her head in to make sure I was still in the hammock.
Fasting wasn’t so bad, at least the first day. Some people were planning on fasting for four days. Felix was planning on fasting the entire week. I enjoyed food too much. Two days was enough for me.
Around noon everyone gathered at a makeshift sauna. Two huge pots of water and bark were boiling. A few feet from the pots was a stump and a plastic cover meant to covering a sitting person and the pot. One by one we sat on the stump, had a pot of boiling water and bark slid in front of us, then were shut in by the plastic cover.
I loved the sauna. It smelled like the insides of a tree. I stayed in as long as I could. A few punctures in the plastic let in beams of light and cool air.
Once I said, “Ready!” Keyo and a local worker lifted the cover. Keyo had his dreads twisted into a bun atop his head.
I stood in the sun with Soren to dry out. She looked very good wearing a black and orange bikini. Her hip bones at the bikini line protruded slightly, leaving a small curve to her flat stomach.
“Are you going to drink a full cup tomorrow?” she asked.
“I don’t think so. I couldn’t keep the full cup down.”
“Just do a half cup. I took half a cup last night and it was more than enough.”
Felix, donning only blue briefs, walked past Soren and I with such thoughtfulness that I wondered momentarily if he was a Buddhist and attempting not to crush any ants.
“How are you, Felix?”
Felix turned gradually – tall, white chest hair, sharp facial features – he was a cartoon character. In a whisper he answered. “Good,” he said, then continued to a bench to wait for his turn in the sauna.
“He’s amazing,” I said.
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. With no electricity, no food, and no board games, there was nothing to move the hours. By eight o’clock everyone was in bed out of boredom.
The next day was much of the same, but with less energy than the day before. I laid in the hammock for hours and daydreamed about hamburgers. I counted the hours until I could eat again.
I noticed how weak I was. I was a professional walker, but even walking from the common area to the old meloka was a task.
I took my sauna at midday. Once my sweat dried I could smell myself. I wanted to shower, but we weren’t supposed to bathe for two hours after the sauna. So I laid on my pad in the meloka stinking and unable to doing anything but stare at the ceiling. I tried to read but could only make out a few words before my concentration lapsed. At some point I fell asleep. When I woke I thought two hours had passed but it had only been thirty minutes.
No one did much talking.
At seven-thirty everyone took their place in the meloka for the second ceremony. Savannah was allowed to stay, Keyo had spoken with Enrique. She padded around, said hello to everyone, then laid down on the cool concrete floor of the bathroom. It put me at ease knowing she wouldn’t be cooped up in our room, but remembering the taste of ayahuasca I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep the Shipibo medicine down again.
I was called first. Enrique shone his light on me then I walked over to receive. I only drank half a cup, maybe less, intent on keeping it down as long as possible.
After everyone had received I listened to Felix drawing in long breathes. I did the same. I burped and breathed slowly. My body shifted between not noticing the ayahuasca to being on the verge of vomiting.
I was determined to keep the ayahuasca down. If I didn’t experience ayahuasca the fasting and dieting was for nothing. I might only pass through Perú once in my lifetime. If I didn’t have an ayahuasca experience now it was doubtful I ever would.
Enrique’s singing cracked the silence and grew in volume. The incomprehensible language was soothing, but every minute was a fight to keep the ayahuasca down. To an extend I succeeded, I held it longer than before, still I was the first vomit.
Vomiting seemed to act as an activation. The edges of my body blurred. When I sat up I couldn’t look straight ahead without wanting to lay down from dizziness. I felt punch drunk. I closed my eyes and kept my head down. Everything was wobbly, as though I’d suddenly realized I was walking a tightrope twenty stories above the street.
My frontal cortex pulsed. An outward pressure pushed and released my head. Briefly there was a pattern, but it came too quickly to recognize. Then there was another.
If I didn’t concentrate the whole experience would be unrecordable.
First there was M.C. Escher’s Relativity – the classic stairway optical illusion. It overlaid a memory of me sitting in a high-chair at two years old. Somehow they made sense together. Then Relativity faded out to be replaced by the hound’s tooth pattern. Another memory was intertwined with the pattern but I couldn’t hold onto what it was.
The whole experience was immensely delicate, barely existing at all. Trying to remember what was happening was like trying to snatch a gossamer’s thread out of the air.
Enrique bent pitches and warped the Sipibo tongue into something otherworldly.
The ceremony continued but once again the ayahuasca failed to escalate for me. I went deeper than the first time, but was still only dipping my toes.
After a while when I was more or less sober I laid down.
“Well…” Keyo said. “Ceremony over.”
People shifted. Lighters flashed and headlamps turned on. Shadows of people were cast on the high ceiling.
I walked over to Keyo at the center. Savannah came out of the bathroom and over to us. It was great to see her. She did well during the ceremony, barely making a sound, perhaps sensing the ceremony wasn’t a time for socializing.
“How was it?” Keyo asked.
“Good. Good. I got a little something. I didn’t hallucinate or have any revelations, but it was a start.”
“That’s good, man.” Keyo held his lighter to a mapacho cigarette. “I heard you really trying to keep the ayahuasca down.”
“Yea man. I was doing my best, but when it wants to come up there’s no stopping it.”
“I’m surprised you’re throwing up so early. I would have thought with how much your stomach can handle that ayahuasca wouldn’t be anything.”
“Me too. I was drinking Peruvian tap water for two weeks and didn’t feel a thing.”
Savannah pushed her head into Keyo. “She came over to me during the ceremony. It was so perfect. There was such good energy that I started crying.”
“I’m so glad she was allowed to stay.”
“Yea man, she was great. I’ve been with dogs in ceremony before and they can sense what’s happening. When to relax and what not.”
I stretched out on the wood floor, suddenly noticing how even my minor ayahuasca experience had drained me. Nearly every person was smoking, the tips of their cigarettes floating in black space. They’d come to build a subtle connection with a plant then burnt through mapacho cigarettes. A few months before the hypocrisy would have infuriated me. Now I only thought it funny. There were no pure men, every culture was surfeit with irony.
The next morning was the first meal in two and a half days. I waited at the dining table an hour before the cook stepped into the kitchen. When the food was laid out – eggs, sweet potatoes, and quinoa salad – I shoveled down two helpings. From all the walking my body retained the physiological memory to pound as much food whenever possible.
Instantly my mood rose. The world brightened. I walked to the unused meloka without losing my breath and could actually concentrate on what I was reading. Hemingway had blisters on his hands as he rowed through the night to Switzerland.
Again, at noon, everyone gathered for their sauna. After my turn I stood in the sun with Soren. She was at the point in her life where possibilities spread out from her like a web. She could go to the States, return to Germany, she wanted to start a music festival, she wanted to learn more about ayahuasca. Each thread shot into the distance then forked a thousand times before continuing on unseen beyond the horizon. She was paralyzed from options and hoped ayahuasca would point the way.
Behind her, Felix once again made his way down the gradually sloping hill. He was still fasting. Each step lasted thirty to forty seconds. Sometimes he stopped to stared at the dirt. He was only wearing his blue briefs. His ribs showed.
“Hello Felix,” Soren said pleasantly as he paused beside us.
Felix looked in our general direction, but making eye contact required too many calories. He almost smiled, then took another step.
“I have never seen anyone move so slowly.”
“He moved slowly to begin with. Now that he’s fasting he’s like a sloth.”
“I think yesterday was the longest day of my life. There’s nothing to do, and even if there were I didn’t have the energy to do it.”
“I know. And the humidity is so tiring.”
“Keyo said this isn’t bad all.”
“Do you think your next ceremony will be better?”
“I don’t know. I got a little bit last night, but it definitely wasn’t all in. There was about a half hour where things got really strange, but nothing like you or Khaled talk about. Just patterns and memories.”
“I think next time will be great for you. Will you drink more?”
“I can’t even keep down a half-cup, I’m going to try that again.”
“A half cup is good. I get a lot out of a half cup.”
I saw Savannah running down the hill towards us. She sprinted past us and into the shade of a palm tree. She panted and looked back at me.
The third ceremony was on Friday and a fourth was scheduled for Saturday so I had two more chances.
Again we sat in the dark and again I was the first called. Unlike the first and second attempts, I drank my third cup of ayahuasca without expectations.
The ayahuasca sat in my stomach like a lead weight. After drinking it I sipped water to remove the taste in my throat. That helped. The flavor was most of what caused me to throw up so early before.
By the time Enrique started singing other people were already throwing up. Yet this time I held down the ayahuasca easily.
After an hour I started to get something. My edges were blurring, my balance was becoming unsteady. The meloka was looking less like a hut and more like a spaceship.
The vomit came up suddenly and after throwing up the ayahuasca had me. I didn’t feel sick like the first two times. My body felt hollowed out.
I could keep my eyes open if I wanted to, but when I closed my eyes there were sharp patterns; staircases, hound’s tooth, checkers, weaves and waves on top of memories. There was me in Mexico and Savannah as a puppy, then I was in a possible future, strangely enough on the Ellen show, seeing myself from the outside, walking on set with my cart – so that’s what I look like.
Then I was talking with Pat. Had I been mean? Uncouth? The interaction broke down into different strands like rope coming undone. I followed a single strand to the moment when I rejected Pat’s premise of enlightenment. My goal is to become enlightened, he said. Yea? I answered, not believing in the mere existence of enlightenment.
My goal is to become enlightened.
Is to become enlightened.
I could hear the rejection laced in my voice. Did he hear it too? Was it mean?
No. No. It wasn’t mean. It was my belief. I was having a complex interaction which couldn’t be distilled into a single moment. I was extrapolating too much from too small an event. There was more to it than whether or not what I said was mean. Was it true? Was it appropriate? Did I believe it? Did it engage? Did it disengage?
And what of the words I used? There was more to them as well. As though I were on a rollercoaster I could see the complex connection of neurons tying memories and social norms to come up with a single appropriate response. From Pat’s question an host of microscopic events occurred.
My goal is to become enlightened.
The spark began. I saw the neurons as greens sparks setting one another off. It wasn’t until the very end, after the neurons had fired through the unconscious, that a word was attached.
Such a crude thing – one syllable attempting to convey an infinitely complex array of experiences, ideas, and symbols formed in the unconscious.
Yea? was perfectly appropriate, but a word was a poor tool.
My thoughts left the self and drifted to a spaceship-like perspective. I thought of the new camera I’d bought then of the Mauna Kea observatory in Maui. What if it were knocked down to build a new observatory eight times in size. What a lens they’d need!
From space I saw a factory in Switzerland as a team of people crafted an enormous, perfectly concave lens. From the alien’s perspective there was no individual. The group took from the earth and produced the lens as one unified being.
That thought left but there were more thoughts from outside myself. There were macro and micro thoughts, but no thoughts from the usual human perspective. They were all either zoomed in or zoomed out.
Patterns were constant. Even clear visions like the massive lens being constructed were beneath geometric designs.
What occurred to me as the trip lessened was that I’d misunderstood ayahuasca, or perhaps expected too much from it. It didn’t push me down the rabbit hole. Through all the visions I retained myself. I was having the same thoughts I always had, but instead of being limited to words, there were visions tied to them.
The thing was too, I didn’t have any problems to resolve. Walking had done that for me already. Somewhere back in Mexico I became content. I was at ease with who I was. Every memory had been turned over a thousand times, inspected from every angle and shone against every light. I was who I was. As far as I was concerned I’d already lived the entirety of my life and was only now acting it out.
The following day I was lethargic and had a splitting headache. I couldn’t think clearly.
Everyone but myself took part in the final ceremony on Saturday. I just wasn’t up for it. It was as though previously unused connections in my brain were hastily being tied together.
Saturday night I slept ten hours. When I awoke Sunday it was as though the world’s vibrance had been turned up. I couldn’t remember feeling so lucid in a long time. My thoughts were clear. Connections were made easily. The trees were greener and the wind sharper.
I thought of the conversation I had with Keyo back when I first arrived in Iquitos.
“They say ayahuasca lubricates the neurons, allowing the brain to make connections that it normally wouldn’t.”
I went into the common area and sat with the Romanians. After five days together we’d started to gel and I was enjoying their company.
Khaled was as happy as ever. He had a great outlook and loved his ceremonies.
“How was it?” I asked him.
“Oh, very good. I did a lot of work. She taught me a lot about myself.”
Seven days before I would have thought Khaled a madman for referring to ayahuasca as ‘she.’ Now however, it made sense. Things were less concrete.