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