Books

A Mind-blowing Journey Into the Jungle for the Sacred, Life-Altering Ayahuasca Psychedelic

The rising popularity of psychedelic tourism speaks to a growing Western need for an authentic reconnection to the planet.

The following is an excerpt from Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey by Rak Razam (North Atlantic Books, 2013): 

The clean white walls of the stall are tagged with graffiti: “We who solve mystery, become mystery,” alchemical wisdom handed down through the ages and now in the sterile men’s toilets at the Lima airport departure lounge. Scrawled, no doubt, by one of the tourists waiting out in the food court.

Outside, milling under the ubiquitous gaze of security cameras, are bright splashes of colorful souls wearing crystals, beads, and Native American Indian paraphernalia; middle-aged academics with “Erowid” drug website t-shirts; and passengers that give you that odd conspiratorial smile that says,“yes, we are here for the conference.”And here we are chowing down on McDonalds and Donut King, getting our last hits of civilization before hitting the jungle city of Iquitos and shamanic boot camp.

It feels like some whacked-out reality TV show, a generational snapshot of a new psychedelic wave just before it breaks. Bright-eyed Westerners about to die and be reborn in the humid jungles of Peru, drinking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca . . .

Ayahuasca is a plant medicine that has been used by the indigenous people of South America for millennia to heal physical ailments—and, they claim, to cleanse and purify the spirit. It was discovered by the West in 1851 when the legendary British botanist Richard Spruce explored the Rio Negro Basin and was introduced to the vine by the Tokanoan Indians. Spruce gave the vine its scientific name, Banisteriopsis caapi; in different areas of South America it is also known as yagé or hoasca. For a while in the mid-twentieth-century chemists who isolated the active properties of the vine called their compound “telepathine.”

Research showed it contained various harmala alkaloids, which are boiled up in a brew (also called ayahuasca) with a multitude of other plants, one being the leafy Psychotria viridis, which contains the powerful hallucinogenic chemical Dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT. On its own the vine is only orally active at very high doses, but it also contains potent MAO (mono-amine oxidase) inhibitors that overpower the body’s own enzymes and allow the DMT to potentiate.

Science has made cautious forays into the jungle to study the vine in its native setting or, as with the “Hoasca Project” in the 1990s, to study church members of groups like União doVegetal (UDV) who drink ayahuasca as part of their syncretic Christian-jungle religion. What they found was that regular ayahuasca use flushed the brain clean and improved receptor sites, suggesting the vine could be a medicinal goldmine.

But what science cannot explain is the psychic effect of this “mother of all plants,” the sense of the numinous and the spiritual world it reportedly opens up. Those who drink say that each ayahuasca journey is unique. They say that the spirit of the vine comes alive, it guides and teaches, and on the other side nothing is ever the same. Or so they say.

The native men and women who safeguard the knowledge of the vine and of the spirits it is said to reveal are the curanderos and curanderas—or, as the West would call them, shamans. Their role has been that of healer, priest, and traveler between worlds, acting as intermediaries between the spiritual dimension and this world on behalf of their patients.

Yet the demands of the work and the rise of Western materialism throughout South America have seen a fall in prestige—and customers— for the curanderos. The profession, usually hereditary, was in danger of extinction before an unprecedented wave of Western gringos started coming in search of ayahuasca and the healing it can provide.

Over the last twenty years or so a new gringo trail—this one a journey of the soul—has been blossoming in the jungles of South America. Seekers and thrillseekers alike have been coming from theWest for a reconnection to the deeper reality shamanism connects one to—and bringing back amazing stories of hallucinogenic trips, healing, and enlightenment.

Indigenous shamanism has quickly become the most profitable business in town and numerous jungle lodges and retreats have sprung up across South America to cater to the influx of rich tourists. This has spilled over onto the internet as hundreds of ayahuasca websites, chat rooms, and forums have emerged to crystallize a global subculture engaging with an indigenous spiritual practice and seeding it back into theWestern world.

As well as being used by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of indigenous peoples throughout South America, ayahuasca has also become one of the world’s fastest growing religions, with branches of Brazilian churches like Santo Daime and União doVegetal springing up in Europe, Britain, Australasia, America, Japan, and elsewhere. In January 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New Mexico branch of the UDV, saying they had a constitutional right to be allowed to legally practice their ayahuasca ceremonies under the freedom of religion law. The U.S. government immediately appealed, but the genie was out of the bottle.

The mystery of ayahuasca had left the jungle and entered the cities, via religion, media, and the web. And here I was, a thirty-six-year-old freelance journalist, a gonzo reporter in the time-honored Hunter S. Thomson and Tom Wolfe style, freelancing for Australian Penthouse on an academic-style conference with a pronounced twist: it was all about Amazonian shamanism, with a hands-on component.

Strange, to think that in the first decade of the twenty-first century I would be heading to the Peruvian jungles in search of a connection to the primal consciousness that indigenous wisdom revealed.Yet in a world of global warming and environmental collapse it seemed all the more urgent to reconnect with the planet in a visceral way. And in this age of reality television, blogging, and urban surveillance, being an embedded journalist was par for the course. Nowadays we’re all part of the story—and getting down-and-dirty in the far crevasses of consciousness was a prospect I was relishing.

Despite cultural diffidence back in the baseline world of war, mortgages, and climate change, Australian Penthouse was willing to have a peek under the covers of reality and embrace the story I was chasing—to understand the mythic pull of shamanism, one of the last global archetypesthatconnectstoanuminous“Other.” Yetatthesametime it’s also one of the most appropriated, glorified, and repackaged brands embedded in the global consciousness. So much so that it now attracts thousands of Westerners each year back to the disappearing jungles and the plant medicines they provide.

But what was the business of spirituality doing to all these backpacking ayahuasca tourists that dared to journey into the mysteries of creation? And what did it say about the growing Western need for an authentic reconnection to the planet?

[...]

In the hours before the plane leaves the ayahuasca seekers magnetize together, gently feeling each other out and swapping stories. Two big ladies from the States in Native American–inspired tribal wear come over and introduce themselves, as does a bald-headed guy from L.A. and a young backpacker from Europe wearing a “Treehugger” t-shirt.

As we finally board the early morning flight to Iquitos, filing down the departure gate aisle, it strikes me how different we all are. A few obvious “New Agers” for sure, but the vast majority of seekers here are remarkable for only one thing: their conformity.

The ayahuasca network appears to cut across race, social class, and gender, a secret society of plant worshippers all united by the common experience of this potent hallucinogenic. And through them, the ayahuasca vine was spreading her tendrils across the world and a genuine “archaic revival” was underway.

My bags were packed, the jungle beckoned, and the ancient mystery of the rainforest awaited . . .

I wanted in on it.

***

A plume of thick gray smoke billows out, stinging my eyes, and when they clear I can see the jungle medicine, ayahuasca, brewing, bubbling, writhing with life in the boiling phlegm-like green brew. A giant witches cauldron full of snot, and around the thick, brown vine bark are green admixture leaves that contain the active DMT.

I get a whiff of the brew and it makes me want to vomit. A surge memory of ayahuasca washes up—the taste of my last experience catching in my throat. I struggle to force it down.They say it takes a few years for the ayahuasca drinker’s body to get used to the brew and properly acclimatize. But the soul? That takes longer—sometimes forever . . .

Ayahuasca is not a drug—not in the Western sense. It cannot be abused like recreational chemicals because the taste and experience are so demanding and the hallucinogenic effect is never the same twice. Rather, it develops a relationship with the drinker, sometimes healing the body, other times illuminating the mind, or deeper still, taking the soul on journeys beyond.

But it will do none of this without the participant putting effort in—it’s not just “pop the red pill and escape the Matrix.” Serious students have to give up their Western ways and embrace a rigorous diet low in foods containing tyramine, a chemical which can react badly with the MAO-inhibiting properties of the vine. No red meat, pork, salt, sugar, fat, caffeine, acidic foods, alcohol, or sex, all of which affect the body’s sensitivity to ayahuasca. But tell that to a bunch of Western thrillseekers looking for some jungle kicks.

The dark clouds gathering on the horizon all afternoon finally break and a late downpour cleans the air as the other conference gringos start to rush in.They take off their coats and shoes and leave them by the door and pass into the main maloca. We all form a concentric circle hugging the wall while far above a spider-web criss-cross brace of poles supports the high cone roof.

We’re an eclectic bunch—I spot Jay, whom I drank with at Percy’s, dressed in a one-piece vomit-proof ayahuasca jumpsuit, Frank the professor, and other familiar faces. Dennis McKenna’s here holding court, his bald head gleaming in the late afternoon light as he sits on his mattress and puffs away on his pipe, chatting about altered states. “A lot of psychologists are into science fiction,” he says. “It’s the closest we can legally get in the West to other worlds . . .”

Next to him is his seventeen-year-old daughter Caitlin, who’s going to college in the fall and is taking ayahuasca tonight for the first time. She’s reading a fantasy novel in the dim light like she’s in an airport departure lounge waiting for take-off.With her hair back in a bow, glasses, and soft, mellow energy, she looks like she’d be more into ponies and horses, maybe some Christian rock.

“I haven’t done any psychedelics before, I haven’t felt it was time,” she tells me with the honed nonchalance of someone whose father is one of the planet’s most pre-eminent legal psychedelic researchers. “This is my first ayahuasca experience. I have no expectations, y’know. I’m keeping it open.”

Everyone waits patiently and swaps ayahuasca stories and travelers’ tales, letting our collective energies mingle in the flesh before they meet in the spirit. After my previous problems letting go around the energy of a group, I wonder if this many people all in one maloca on ayahuasca will turn me into a psychic pressure cooker ready to explode.

“The word on the ayahuasca forums is that Guillermo’s brew is one of the strongest in town,” Bowman tells me with a wry smile as he sets up his recording gear down by the edge of his mattress.“The crew who drank with him on Saturday night say he’s definitely loaded the brew to kick gringos’ butt!”

“I haven’t really seen any spirits or anything of that sort,”Alexis chips in excitedly beside us. “But it’s really . . . I’ve felt it, like, going through every crevasse, on a subatomic level of my body and my spirit . . . And anything it finds that’s dead . . . or not life and movement . . . it gets rid of, or fixes or makes me vomit. I remember the first time I drank I vomited, and each time I vomited it would show me a picture of all my bad habits and my life that I was vomiting up and getting rid of.”

Great. Everyone seems to vomit up easily but me; it’s going to be another interesting night. As the rain keeps falling down and the sounds of the jungle come alive, I start to feel the fear. Fear of the real, of the deep ayahuasca experience and the madness it can bring.

When Jan Kounen apprenticed with Guillermo to make his documentary, Other Worlds, on Shipibo shamanism, he went mad for a time, temporarily schizophrenic when he failed to respect the diet and ayahuasca. He says the difference between a madman and an ayahuasquero is that the madman can’t communicate what he’s seen.Trapped in a recursive psychic groove, the hapless psychonaut doesn’t have the guidance, or the ability to escape, and sometimes when he does, not all of him returns.

The trained ayahuasquero, on the other hand, can navigate the abyss and integrate it, even bring a bit of it back and ground it in this realm. This, Kounen told the conference audience before the screening of his documentary, is the role of the artist and the magician. I guess that tonight will be the test of my magic.

There’s still a while before the ceremony, so I meander out to the main dining room with the thatched roof and meet Kathleen, a fiftyish American woman from Denver with a blond bob, blue eyes, and the warm, nurturing appearance of Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch.

She looks like somebody’s mom doing ayahuasca—and in fact, she is—but she’s also a clinical psychologist who’s here for her own healing. Kat’s drunk the brew once before, ten years ago, and the thought of going back into that raging dimensional flux has gotten her all nervy. She gets out her rosary beads and says prayers over the dining table as I fix us a cup of herbal tea.

There’s a half dozen other ayahuasca seekers milling about as Guillermo himself walks in casually, followed by Sonia, his wife, and Rama, who at six foot two towers over the others.

Guillermo’s got a very down-to-earth air about him, and as heads turn and everyone looks he doesn’t react, just sits down at the table. With his broad face, graying hair, and mellow vibe, he looks like a Peruvian version of Lorne Green on the Ponderosa, tucking into his dinner of chicken, rice, and vegetables. Apparently he’s not worried about a strict diet before drinking ayahuasca, but I guess he writes the rules. Only the Timex watch hints at his affluence, and there’s still no hint of the mystic who will lead the ceremony tonight.

One of the gringos asks about the mix of the ayahuasca brew, and Rama translates Guillermo’s explanation that the DMT-containing chacruna (Psychotria viridis) that he usually uses still hasn’t reached maturity in the new gardens. Instead he’s using another plant analogue—chagraponga, which is native to the Iquitos area, but is just as powerful, he promises. This worries Kat, who doesn’t want an overwhelming experience.

“Will you help us, Guillermo, if it’s too strong for us? Will you look after us?” she pleads with her big blue eyes.“Francisco said he would at Sachamama, but when I cried out for him he was overwhelmed helping others, and he wasn’t there for me.”

Guillermo assures her he will look after everyone and because of the big size of the group tonight his wife Sonia, who has also been trained as a shamana, as well as another apprentice shaman, will be brought in to help facilitate the circle. In today’s tourist market with different sizes and physiologies, the curanderos control undue effects by measuring the dose of the brew they give their customers, and they also claim to be able to psychically tune in and help control the journey while it’s hap- pening. Nobody wants to see Carol Brady freaking out on ayahuasca, nobody.

“I drank three times, then no more,” Rama says as she tells me more about her own ayahuasca experiences.“The brain has the memory of the plants so I am still connected to the visions. After [ayahuasca] I had flashbacks in my dreams and when awake.”

She’s known Guillermo since she worked as a translator on Kounen’s Renegade film, and tonight she will also help facilitate the ceremony. She’s not the only French speaker here at the center—probably because of the fame of Kounen’s movie and documentary in his native France, there is a disproportionate number of French seekers here, and French-Canadians. Perhaps to stave off the rapidly spreading interest by French front-runners, in 2005 France became one of the first countries in the world to ban ayahuasca usage outright, regardless of religious considerations.

Back in the ceremonial maloca, Tobin from Denmark is tending the altar with a small Swiss-Peruvian boy with a bowl haircut who is in his pajamas, while his mother rests close by on a mattress near the door.The boy has a sweet, confident spirit as he melts the bottom of one candle and joins it on top of another, like he’s at an adults’ pajama party and he knows the drill.

“Will you be drinking tonight?” I ask him, and he shakes his head calmly from side to side.

“No.Tonight I just watch,” he says, and I wonder how old he is— seven? Nine? It seems natural that he is here with his mother and family, participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, witnessing the healing that the medicine brings. It makes it feel more real, like the way native South Americans have been taking ayahuasca for millennia as part of their village life, no War on Drugs or war on consciousness, just plant medicines connecting to a greater spiritual whole. How can you hide this from your children, this secret from the jungle that unlocks the universe?

At sunset, we drink. I learn that when you spend the night in pitch darkness with a large group of people and take ayahuasca, purging, sweating, dying, and rebirthing together, you get to know each other pretty well.You might not remember their names, but afterwards you remember their faces and the sound of their suffering, and they yours, and there is a special bond between you.

To my left, Bowman darts forward and crouches by the round plastic bowl placed at the end of his mattress. Gripping it with both hands he makes a swift, sharp gurgling sound and vomits quickly. I can see his shape and the outline of his back in the diffuse moonlight as it shines through the thick mosquito nets that surround the maloca, heaving over and over.

Around the circumference of the room another drinker scrabbles for their bucket, as if set off by Bowman’s vomiting. Dry wracking heaves and the choking of dry bile reverberate through the dark as the drinker gets caught with nothing to bring up.The vomiting goes on in successive waves across the room and through the night, for three, four, six hours or more, and just when you think you’ve kept it down, or purged as much as you could, the spirit of ayahuasca finds another dark crevasse and helps bring it to the light.

I find I’m a bit lighter than the first time, but I still have blockages. I’m sitting cross-legged on my jaguar-spotted blanket with the heels of my feet tucked under me, spine straight, chakras aligned and my crown pointing up to the stars.

Ayahuasca is a fickle mistress—she likes it when you put out for her, make a show of it, and put some effort in. But ayahuasca is also a plant medicine, and as such she reads you and what you need, and that changes every time, both as you progress on the path and as new issues come to light. Like a high maintenance girlfriend, the relationship with “aya” can be hard work, but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.

I’m starting to come on slow, a warm billowing headspace enlarging to take in the whole maloca and the spirit zone phasing in. My head is awash with the psychic detritus of my own mind: past loves, mistakes, issues from my life all flash before my eyes, but I’m not sure if my brain’s just hyperactive or if there’s something deeper going on . . .

Like last time, there appears to be some subtle inter-species relationship in this fugue where ayahuasca is reading me as I reexperience my issues and my head pours out my subconscious into my conscious mind. The vision dreams don’t stop, they plague me all night long in wave after wave of emotional torment, little things blown out of all proportion. Maybe this is part of the healing, that as I remember I also let go, for la purga, she is coming, I can feel her building . . .