ould you choose to unlock the secrets of the universe if you knew it might cause you to shit your pants?
The question hung real and imminent for the duration of our eight-hour hike into the high jungle in the Amazon region of Tarapoto, Peru for an ayahuasca retreat. Ahead of me on the trail, my boyfriend’s white cotton shirt was see-through with sweat beneath his backpack. Keeping steady pace in front of him, a 70-plus-year-old Quechua woman guide nimbly led the expedition. Weaving barefoot through trails of fire ants, she emitted a steady, sonar-like hum. The woman had insisted I take her sandals when my own foolish footwear snapped within an hour of the trek. Behind me, the woman’s husband carried our bedroll with a surefooted ease, leaning on it patiently each time we gasped out for a break.
With the shrill cacophony of insects screeching in the searing sun, we progressed along an unmarked route that involved seven river crossings and steep inclines, grasping at vines to steady ourselves. Despite my aching joints and the wet, dizzy heat, part of me dreaded the prospect of reaching our destination where a strange shaman waited to take us on a journey of different kind.
One of the seven river crossings. Photo Credit: Will Sweet
“Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug.” The shaman’s American wife had said that, probing me with wide, unblinking, perma-shocked eyes from her modest living room in a rundown section of Tarapoto. “It can cause intense physical reactions including explosive diarrhea, uncontrollable vomiting and sobbing.”
The ancient plant brew, used for centuries by shamans and healers in the Amazon region of the world, is known by many names including the Spirit Vine and the Vine of Death. Although ayahuasca has powerful hallucinogenic properties, it is used for medicinal purposes as well as psychic, psychological, spiritual, social and transformative.
“You will want to think about intention,” the shaman’s wife said. “Focus on something you would like to bring out of the experience.”
She explained the quality of the experience would depend greatly on adherence to a strict diet. The idea, she said, is to purge your body and mind, enabling the spirit of the vine to do her work. Somberly, she led us through a litany of Thou Shalt Nots: no electricity, no sex, no unnatural products (such as toothpaste or deodorant), no meat (especially pork), no salt, no sugar, no oil—the list went on.
Shortly after arriving in Peru for an extended backpacking trip, our interest in ayahuasca had been piqued by a clause in our travel guide. It was only as we made our way toward the cloud forest city of Tarapoto—listening to testimonials and second-hand accounts along the way—that the gravity of the venture began to sink in.
The sun sets of the city of Tarapoto far below. Photo Credit: Will Sweet
When the phone number listed in the travel guide proved expired, I was secretly relieved. Still, we searched the internet and found another listing, leading us to where we sat now—across the kitchen table from the shaman’s wife.
While having a detailed consultation in English prepared us with information, it also filled me with apprehension. The shaman’s wife armed us with a stack of ayahuasca magazines as soul food for the four-day, five-night retreat, and made arrangements for the morning’s trek.
Later that evening as I pondered intention, another warning from a bartender in Mancora knocked around in my head: “Some people never come back from ayahuasca.” Basically, I decided, my objective would be to get through this in one piece. My boyfriend and I spent the night before the retreat wide-awake, clinging to each other like it might be for the last time.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at our destination high in the cloud-swept hills. Only a set of basic wooden and palm-frond structures marked the spot as a human habitat amid the dense, saturated foliage. The shaman, wearing a loose-fitting white cotton shirt and pants, met us with arms extended and a calm smile that soothed some of my apprehension. Using hand gestures and speaking in slow, carefully enunciated Spanish, he led us down a slimy, moss-covered series of stones to where a hollowed out tree branch diverted water from the mountains above, announcing, “Agua.” Another slope to the left of the running water stood a tiny outhouse gleefully rubbing its hands.
The boyfriend, the shaman, and I. Photo Credit: Will Sweet
“That,” said the cacao-skinned shaman in Spanish, pointing to an open-air structure set on a hill above it all, “is where we do the ceremony.”
The darkness was dense around us when the shaman put a gentle hand on each of our shoulders and whispered that it was time. We followed him silently up a steep incline, slick from the settled humidity of the day. The raised platform had a thatched roof cover held up by a post in each corner. Two shamans-in-training leant against the posts. Earlier we had been introduced to one of them, a thin, easy-going French man on his third month of apprenticeship who asked eagerly after the state of pizza. The other disciple was going through a month-long commitment to silence; we had caught a glimpse of her earlier watching the sun settle into the valley below from the high branch of a tree.
The shaman gestured with his hands and my boyfriend and I bid each other “happy travels” and made our way to our respective posts on opposite sides of the spacious platform. Due to the intensely personal nature of the medicine, we were to remain separated for the duration of the ceremony.
Other than the sleeping bag and headlamp which we had laid out earlier in preparation, there was a vomit receptacle and a roll of toilet paper waiting ominously at my station. In the strange, pregnant night, the sound of unfamiliar animal calls kept tune with my heart beating in my ears as we waited for the ceremony to begin.
The shaman donned his headdress, transforming his previously slight silhouette into something of power. He sat cross legged in the center of the platform and produced a thick Mapacho cigar. He blew repeatedly into the air, until it swirled thick with the smell of the sacred tobacco. He whistled black smoke over the chalice he held reverently between his hands and lifted it to his lips. I don’t remember in which order my name was called, only that when I heard it, whispered from the shamans mouth like a powerful command, I knew there was no backing out.
The brew was dark, thick and far bitterer than anything I had previously imagined, like the liquid heart of the earth. I returned to my post as previously instructed and waited as the shaman made increasingly forceful whistling calls, chanted incantations, shook his leaf rattles and hummed. I could feel the brew roiling around in my belly. I felt it reaching through my intestines and gathering up every non-essential thing like a great tidal wave that rolled back up my esophagus and past the feeble protest of my barred lips, erupting, volcano-like into the puke bowl. In response, the shaman’s chanting came louder, the smoke nearer, filling my nostrils and my swirling head. Across the way, I heard someone else losing the contents of their stomach, belching, farting—noises that would normally cause awkward giggles blowing forceful into the open air.
The path to the outhouse. Photo Credit: Will Sweet
The shaman’s chanting merged with heavy drum beats. Visions passed before my closed eyelids in a fast-flowing succession of images at once random, warming and jarring. The Shaman sang Icaros, to call upon the spirit of ayahuasca and to protect us from unwanted spirits now that our bodies and minds were open and vulnerable. The wind-like sound of a pan flute beckoned the faces of family, loved ones, and long forgotten acquaintances into my consciousness. They made unannounced appearances and then morphed into inexplicable primordial scenes in a churning, unstoppable slideshow. Birth, death and decay in a time lapse, all seen through the lens of the jungle, great vines slithering over everything.
The deep, earthy vibrations of a didgeridoo sucked me into the roots. As though I now inhabited the mind of all life, thoughts foreign and ancient flooded my brain. Each impression came highlighted with a force of clarity, the great, blinding white light of inescapable truth. And I lay there prostrate before the tide of knowledge facing a sudden pressing physical urge like a distant call from another plane—to poop.
I fought the call for what may have been hours, unwilling to exit the powerful bubble of the ceremonial stage. The great unstoppable tide of a new purge was welling up again despite my will. “Don’t try to lead the experience, it will be futile.” The shaman’s wife had said something to that effect.
With a great effort, I lifted myself to my feet. They moved beneath me like clumsy wooden blocks, my knees buckled with every step. At the edge of the platform, I found my shoes like two strange animals I had to wear. Down the wooden steps, off the platform, the darkness grabbed at me like so many fingers, the earth undulated beneath my wooden feet. My headlamp was thoughtfully waiting in the pocket of my jacket, but when I turned it on, it created even deeper shadows. Now, away from the protective space, the shadows became encroaching, sinister. The breeze whispered cruel things in my ear: “Foolish, disgusting, shameful girl.” A great, terrifying fear squeezed my heart.
Inside the outhouse, I bashed against the walls, unable to find control of my body. The hole in the ground writhed like a living thing.
Shaman and disciple taking a stroll. Credit: Will Sweet
Back outside, I faced the all-consuming need for running water. I could hear it trickling in the distance. I walked toward it like a desert oasis, the urgency overwhelming every cell at a molecular level. While my brain tried to direct my legs, they had turned to plasticine. The stones guarded their precious water jealously. They threw me off my feet every few steps so that I was a walking, vomiting, groveling mess. When I did reach the makeshift branch running with clear liquid life, I cupped my hands beneath and felt the triumph of a victor.
It was only as I clawed my way back from the watering hole that I looked at my hands teeming with live mud and became overwhelmed with the dilemma of needing to retread the treacherous path back to the running water in a never ending cycle of filth and cleansing. The shaman’s chanting pierced my senses like a mother’s call to dinner. I focused on his shimmering voice, pushed back up the hill past the chilling murmurs of the darkness. I nestled back into my spot by the post and let his singing carry me into yet another realm.
The following day, I had the feeling that some great cosmic hand had picked up my consciousness and shaken it around mercilessly. But when they put it down, the pieces settled exactly as they were originally meant to be, and my being was filled with all-healing peace. The spirit of the ayahuasca had granted my intention: like life itself, I was one perfect whole.