wo years had passed since our first experience with ayahuasca in Peru, and my boyfriend and I were now traveling through Salento, Colombia, when I saw the flier offering an evening with ayahuasca on the bulletin board of our hostel.
I was skeptical: The sign-up sheet below had already collected about 20 names. Too many. After experiencing ayahuasca in a remote, traditional setting, I questioned the authenticity of a casual, largely attended, one night stand. Also, the rational side of my brain asked why I would willingly put myself through that grueling business again. But I knew the worth of the payoff and we added our names to the list.
The hostel van pulled in front of a L-shaped farm house and I waited until the others had unloaded before stepping out into the night were a sizable group was already waiting, sleeping bags spaced in neat, barrack-like rows.
When the white-garbed Shaman made the rounds through our group of mostly Western travelers, he smiled warmly and asked “Have you taken ayahuasca before?”
“Yes.” I said, a little louder than necessary.
I looked at all the poor suckers around me, I’d seen them in the hostel kitchen earlier that day making their usual grub and tried to impress upon them the importance of the diet. Ever since signing up for the ceremony the day before, I’d subsisted strictly on plain rice and raw vegetables. I came wearing a long white, flowing skirt, heeding the advice of the ayahuasca counselor.
One of the shaman’s helpers gave our batch of the group a quick tour of the grounds: There’s the outdoor bathroom—with plumbing—although it’s best to be as quick as possible when it comes to bathrooms, they contain a concentration of negative energy. That concrete walkway with the corrugated metal roof—that’s where we’ll drink the medicine. And beyond, down that makeshift dirt path is a glowing shrine to the Virgin Mary.
When the first call to ceremony came, the line snaked outside the covered area. As each participant came before the shaman, he filled the ceremonial cup from a larger bowl of brackish brew, and passed it to them, saying, “Salud.”
This time I had pondered my intention. I focused on it with closed eyes and an open heart before raising the cup in salute and gulping the ayahuasca down. The bitter taste immediately ignited a sensory recall on my tongue and brain and I quickly moved outside into the open air. Behind me, remembering the importance of solitude, my boyfriend made his way to the fire pit in the opposite direction. The shaman’s five-piece band had already struck up some acoustic tunes marked by a pan flute and tambourine.
Outside in the clean night air, I faced the hills silhouetted in the starlit sky and waited for the vomiting. What I received instead was a visit from the Vine Spirit.
She came before me with a force that knocked me flat on my back. I opened my eyes. She was everywhere, burning my retinas, opening every sensor in my brain. My eyes popped out of my head like a silly cartoon as the secrets of the universe since before the dawn of man danced a morphing, laughing, human, not-human, aurora borealis over my paralyzed frame. The Answer, infinite, profound, and simple filled my head with a pureness of clarity and all I could say was WOW back and forth, lips moving like a fish blowing bubbles,WOWWOWWOW. I lay that way for what could have been a breath or a lifetime, but eventually the vision receded and I sat there with tears running down my face and a heart bursting with gratitude.
The sky was just hinting pink over the hills when the call for the second round of ayahuasca reached me. I shuffled back toward the covered walkway on rubbery sea legs and looked around at a puddle of wild eyes swimming through a thick haze of tobacco smoke. The smell of vomit hung sour in the air. A wobbly line had already formed.
“Breakfast of champions,” I joked to the girl in line behind me. She grimaced and looked dubiously ahead at the ceremonial bowl in the shaman’s hand. Truth be told, I was feeling a little cocky. I had seen eternity in the flutter of an eyelid. I was among the favored ones. When my turn came I lifted the ceramic cup in salute toward the shaman, “Salud,” and he nodded back benignly as I took the foul tasting brew in one expert shot.
I weaved past the others settling into their designated areas, past the burping, farting, puking sounds. I made my way back to the ground I’d sat upon, back when the Everything had been revealed to me a few minutes, an eternity ago. I closed my eyes, waiting for a soft recap. What hit me this time was not kind.
I just barely recognized the brewing shit storm before it erupted volcano-like up my esophagus and out of my mouth in unstoppable heaving, clenching fury. Somewhere in what remained of my dangling consciousness I tried to divert the flow from my white skirt, but I was like a briny fountain. At this point I completely relinquished all dignity; any shred of ego was now a chunky yellow-green stain on my white flowing skirt.
I stood up to walk, but all around me was wire fence, grid-like and throbbing. I lifted my leg high to step over it but it pulsated and writhed. Down the way, the Virgin Mary shrine flickered in candlelight, but that path held no allure for me. Back in the easy-up, the band was engaged in a church-like melody. Strange vibrations, the Colombian sons and daughters of ancient wisdom singing praise to a western God, “Hallelujah.”
I took big, exaggerated steps, entangled in a pulsating, patterned maze. I was suddenly struck by a forceful urge to use the bathroom. I focused all my intention willing my legs to move and stumbled awkwardly toward the outhouse. Squatting in the candle lit cubicle now, I heard an ominous, dissonant hum around me. Shadows cast by the single flame evoked strange but familiar fears. Just when I began to get deep into the dark, I remembered the shaman’s helper’s warning about bathrooms and took myself back into the early morning air.
The sky was silver now; the shadows dispelled by an ever-spreading blush of light. I made my way to my bed station in the sardine-like row outside. Surrounded by other people in different stages of the medicine. I burrowed into my designated blanket and tried to rest but random and startling thoughts made unannounced appearances like a slideshow inserted straight into the brain and manned by a masochistic lunatic.
My boyfriend was lying at his station beside me, I snuggled against him, but he folded deeper into a fetal position saying, “I need to be alone right now.”
A scraggly kitten appeared in my blanket. A tiny, adorable thing with wiry grey fur. But when I reached out to pet it, it looked up at me with wicked ice-colored demon eyes and grimaced with such a strange and human like expression, my heart lurched into my throat.
The sun had risen higher now and the long shadows developed into palm trees and jungle vines under a copper-crimson sky. The new day was marked by human movements. Not the jerky, creeping motions of bodies under the throes of ayahuasca, but those of ordinary activity, maids opening doors and carrying water pails.
I sat up to the sound of a sudden commotion as a large, brown chicken came flapping over past my bedroll shrieking, it’s large wings frantically fanning my face. Three girls—the housekeepers, apparently—were all looking down at me, laughing and pointing at the chicken. They made grabbing motions with their hands. “Grab it, grab it,” they said in Spanish, but I sat there paralyzed with horror. The chicken must have known I’d been turned on to the interconnectedness of all living beings. It stood confident in its sanctuary beside me until one of the girls strutted over and scooped it up, the poor creature shrieking all the way to the outdoor kitchen.
Before long I made my way back to the outhouse—which looked less intimidating now in the early light of day. But the natural light now illuminated what I had failed to see before: a large vulture chained just outside the outhouse, its bald, knobby head turning in 180 degree rotations. When I moved to pass it, it flapped viciously and snapped at my flowing, once-white skirt. A tall Scandinavian fellow stood by, keenly observing the great bird. His posture suggested he’d been there for awhile.
As the dawn turned into full-fledged morning there in the Colombian countryside, the sharp edge of the medicine turned into a peaceful glow. One of the Shaman’s helpers brought around a tray of warm tea. When I looked at it suspiciously, she smiled, “Don’t worry. It’s not ayahuasca.” So I wrapped my hands around the regenerating warmth of the cup, sat in a hammock, looked around me, and listened to the stories from the previous night.
“What a crock. Nothing happened, I just slept.” I heard a one man say, and another said the only difference was that he’d puked first. A third fellow, apparently from the same group, just sat there grinning. I recognized the look in his eyes. He looked at me and nodded slowly, eyes glowing and wide. Later at the hostel he would tell me his consciousness had been expanded into a thousand suns, but there in the fresh new morning there was no need for words.
My boyfriend emerged from his blanket and hugged me tight. I thought of the two of us those years before in Peru, wishing each other happy travels before heading off to our separate posts. I observed all the brave seekers around us now, willing to flay their egos and hang them up in public for the sake of understanding and personal growth. How foolish I had been to believe the size of the group would make a difference. No matter what the circumstances, the journey is always made alone.