Ayahuasca in the Amazon: Part II

It wasn’t what I expected

I’d bet there’s a mix of readers here. Some of you have never heard of Ayahuasca before, others have heard the mix of horror and thrill from backpackers who have tried it, and maybe even a few of you experienced it yourselves.

The first time I heard of Ayahuasca was upon arrival to one of my favorite hostels and locations in Colombia. La Serana HScreen Shot 2015-02-03 at 8.23.19 PMostel in Salento, Colombia had a whiteboard tacked onto the wall announcing activities available for guests.

‘Ayahuasca ceremonies’ enclosed in a wiggly line of obscurity peaked my interest so I asked the woman working at the front desk what it was. She responded by reaching into a drawer and handing over a decently thick packet of reading on nearly everything you ever needed to know.

I texted a friend I considered most likely to have heard of this “MEDICINE THAT IS NOT A DRUG” as repeatedly noted throughout my packet.

Me – “Have you ever heard of an Ayahuasca Ceremony?”
Me – “That’s a yes! The hostel offers touristy bus rides every weekend to a shaman’s house to try it and everyones raving about it. I think I’m going to do it.”
Him – “Ha ha, wellll you might want to do a little more research before you consider it. It’s no joke. Just be careful.”

The view from La Serana Hostel
The view from La Serana Hostel

I talked with other travelers who had gone out to the hostel’s ceremony and loved it, “Fridays are for tourists,” one young British woman told me who had returned to La Serana three times now in the past month, “The shaman will decide if you drink a second time in the night, and if you want to, you can go again Saturday when more locals do.”

When Friday came, not enough people signed up, the ceremony was canceled and I kept traveling. I figured that with as much voodoo, window-into-your-soul talk happening around the subject, the opportunity would present itself again if it was meant to.


From where we left off in Ayahuasca in the Amazon: Part I

We followed single file in silence behind Javier, our guide we had by now put entirely too much faith in for doing as we asked of him and bringing us to a shaman in the middle of the Ecuadorean jungle.

Tall plants tickled our arms and faces as we trudged through the mud. Some parts of the path were so thick a boot would stick and send us lurching backward. Thoughts of how the return walk was going to go took over my anxious mind; the main preoccupations naturally those of a DMT-inspired anaconda chasing me into the dense jungle and waiting paws of tigers that – according to Javier – will maul humans without actually killing. At this point, it felt like anything could happen.

With our guide, Javier, in the jungle.
With our guide, Javier, in the jungle.

We arrived to the shaman’s home, a wooden rectangle roughly sitting on tall sticks. If you crossed your eyes and squinted ’til it hurt, you could be walking up to the beach house you grew up with on the Jersey Shore built high and too close to the water. As we walked up the wooden stairs, I started a list of mental notes on the best toilet-routes for desperate times sure to follow.

Now seems like as good a time as any to let the new guys in on a secret about the typical process that accompanies an Ayahuasca experience: Puking until you can puke no more and the equivalent out the other end.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Javier introduced us to our Quechuan-speaking shaman who looked surprisingly fit for an age I wouldn’t try to match wrinkles and a hard life to. I mean it was very surprising that he literally looked like he had just finished a power walk through the jungle. He wore thin, blue running shorts and a white t as he politely nodded hello then went back to moving about his tiny home making final preparations. My friend and I took a close seat to one another on a small wooden bench and while waiting, took in our first invitation inside a shaman’s home.

The entire right half of the all wood, one room home was entirely open to the night air apart for a thatched roof covering. A pot of brown liquid boiled away on a fire built on the far right-hand corner of the floor. Our eyes skimmed left to shelves crammed full of cooking utensils that divided each half of the room. To the far left were the sleeping quarters where his wife had already lain down, paying no mind to the strange young women sitting only a few feet away. Look closely and you could see where the western world had infiltrated this jungle home in the shape of a few weathered baseball caps hanging from the ceiling.

Javier translated the shaman’s Quechuan to Spanish as the ceremonial instruments were placed before us:

One pot of warm, brown Ayahuasca with unknown speckles in it
One small, wooden drinking bowl with…something…in it that mixed with the Ayahuasca
One pom pom of leaves for ‘cleaning’
One jungle tobacco joint
One plastic water bottle filled with Sambuca

Colorful Misahuallí, our port into the jungle.
Colorful Misahuallí, our port into the jungle.

The shaman drank first as we watched his every move. His brought the wooden bowl with a drink’s worth of the Ayahuasca to his lips, paused and mumbled incoherently, made staccato whooshing sounds and bobbled his head in a practiced, blessing-like movement, then drank. Immediately after he picked up the plastic bottle of Sambuca, unscrewed the lid and chugged then spat out the the rest onto his all-purpose floor. He ladled a bit more liquid into the bowl and handed it to me.

I had heard that it is the worst tasting liquid you’ll ever try to stomach. Prepared for the worst, I threw it into the back of my throat, chased it with the Sambuca shaman style and swiftly passed it back to him. He watched waiting for me to spit or maybe spontaneously combust, I don’t know, but seeing I was doing neither he let out a small laugh looking at Javier as he refilled the bowl and handed it to my friend.

She followed suit but echoed the shaman’s floor spat to which he smiled approvingly while she gurgled Sambuca doing all she could to get the thick flavor as far away from her taste buds as possible.

Then, we waited.

And waited.

The shaman and Javier went on chatting in the rapid-fire “sh-sh-shhh” sounds of the Quechua language as maybe an hour went by and nothing seemed to happen. The shaman had us turn our headlamps off as thought the artificial lighting was perhaps the issue. Our eyes adjusted to the surrounding darkness and as I waited for something to start, I looked out on the swaying treetops wondering what inner demons if they existed would reveal themselves.

Exploring Mocoa, Colombia's "Gateway to the Amazon"
Exploring Mocoa, Colombia’s “Gateway to the Amazon”

The travelers I met who tried Ayahuasca told stories of aggressive illness followed by unparalleled glimpses into themselves. One European doctor returned to Mocoa, Colombia every year to drink with the same shaman for weeks at a time. A young man in San Augustín, Colombia swore that it was in a ceremony he realized what foods were making himself sick the doctors hadn’t been able to identify. He claimed his health has been improved and stable every year since. A young Aussie woman who came to be a close friend said that as miserable as the sickness was, it led her to an unforgettable look inward she wouldn’t trade for anything. This year an episode of This is Life with Lisa Ling: Jungle Fix documents veterans trying it in hopes of an escape from PTSD. I’m not suggesting that any of you should try it, only an open mind.

It’s hard to guess how much time went by before the shaman asked if we would like to drink again. We looked at one another and in unspoken agreement said yes. We repeated the cycle and relaxed a bit more on our bench now certain that something would happen.

Another stretch of time went by and finally, we called bullshit.

From my journal:
“The most surreal thing to pass in 2 ½ hours of sitting in darkness, listening to two men gossip in a language I couldn’t understand was to realize I was seated beside a childhood best friend trying drugs medicine from a shaman deep in the Amazon. That in and of itself is at least a trip.”

Well, that’s what I thought and where the mistake was made. We left our shaman. Never leave your shaman.

I had exhaustingly questioned everything I was seeing and hearing. Were the monkeys on the rooftop real or figments of my ancient plant possessed mind? Then Javier would look up and say something about the monkeys.

We felt ripped off and annoyed. I won’t lie, before leaving I spent a few minutes trying to negotiate down the $10 price for his make-believe concoction before we grudgingly paid and followed Javier back to the cabañas. He told us as we walked he believes sometimes the gringo stomachs are stronger and therefore unaffected. We kept close-lipped about our own thoughts on a time and money-thieving shaman.

Finding our wise friend and one of the young girls from the other group still up and sitting around a picnic table, we joined them and explained what had happened. Javier said goodnight and the four of us stayed up talking. Then something started.

Interrupting the conversation I turned to my friend, “Do you feel anything?” Talking stopped and everyone stared at me, excitement and the beginning signs of concern on their faces.

“No”, she answered back. Looking at one another we were both still sure that the whole thing was bogus. But what was this undeniable tingling going on in my forehead? Our wise friend let out a slightly worried laugh and asked that we keep her updated on any other changes going on, real or imagined. We started talking again until I turned once more to my friend, “Are you sure you’re not feeling anything?” The tingling was not going away, in fact, it was getting incrementally harder to ignore.

The poor girl from the other group who had chosen to stay up in hopes of seeing some excitement looked like she might pass out. She was visiting Ecuador with an organized science-related group from the States and this was her first time breaking away for a solo adventure before heading home. She had told us how worried her parents were as she smiled with pride and pushed her thick glasses up higher on the ridge of her nose. Now those same glasses magnified not only her ginger freckles, but panic.

A few more minutes passed and my friend finally says, “Yeah I might throw up.”

Freckles and Wise Friend started a hushed discussion of whether or not to wake up Javier and find the shaman. We waved off the idea calling it unnecessary as my partner in crime stood  up from the picnic table, and excused herself politely as though addressing a table full of formal dinner guests. We looked on as she walked towards the riverbank, onto the sand volleyball court, and proceeded to double over into full-puke mode.

Oh no. “Are you oh-,” the ‘k’ never made it out of my throat as my own bile suddenly and vehemently tried to finish the sentence. I sprinted the same way and as the abandoned girls looked on in stricken silence; I felt a little bad for trying to renegotiate that $10.

Our sober friends were at a loss having understandably no experience with this kind of scenario and without Google to tell them what to do. A short distance away from one another, we were running out of items to empty from our emptier stomachs.

What would they have Googled, anyway? I thought between heaves, ‘Dumbass friends + Ayahuasca – Shaman + Help?’

I couldn’t help it, I started to laugh. And when my body wasn’t trying to projectile more tea and Sambuca, I kept laughing. By this point, Freckles and Wise Friend had each appointed themselves to standing watch over one of us, headlamps on high beam. At one point, Wise asked me how I was and I said her blinding light in my eyes wasn’t helping. I believe her response was a loving series of four letter words letting me know I would deal with it.

South America's endlessly beautiful views. Baños, Ecuador.
South America’s endlessly beautiful views. Baños, Ecuador.

Looking back on that night, it’s hard to shape the experience into words. Somehow I had found myself in an entirely surreal and otherworldly scene, all happening in a place called the Amazon beside someone I know from a very different life back home. I laughed because it was a moment that made me pause. It was ridiculous, it was all wrong, and it was something that no one else would or could ever really understand outside of us.

How legitimate that shaman or Ayahuasca was I’ll never know, but shapes started to cross into my vision of snakes and a white ferret I can remember distinctly. It was strange and it was honestly pretty scary. We felt exposed outside of the shaman’s small home. You can’t block out the word “demon” from echoing in your head after hearing so much about its ties to Ayahuasca. So, we did the only thing we knew to do and went to our bunks trying our best to block it out and sleep.

I have to say quick thanks as I remember Wise voluntarily taking top bunk and checking on us every half hour to be certain we were alright. Thankfully she had friendship bracelets to weave and keep her company through the night as we stayed curled in our fetal positions. Also, I’d like to shoot one small apology out to the universe for young Freckles. I hope the trauma wore off and she’s laughing now, too.

Talk to any backpacker who has tried it and our experience is pretty far from the traditional. I hate to focus on the stories gone wrong, but there absolutely are people who use this trending practice to very easily take advantage of travelers. It’s unknown territory to start with, and if you don’t go through a trusted source then who’s to say what it will end up costing you. Luckily for us, it wasn’t more than a couple rolls of toilet paper…Hey! I promised to tell the true stories – not the pretty ones.

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