Tasting the Vine of Souls


It was that cavernous, growling sob of insanity that nearly tipped me over the edge. The howler, wrapped in layers of white linen, bawled with such regularity he could easily have carried the Summer Stage. When I met Bill an hour earlier, he told me taking ayahuasca was a horrifying experience.

"It catapults you into misery," he said, gritting his teeth. "I screamed all night."

I instantly decided that whatever happened I wasn't going to sit next to Bill. But soon, it wouldn't matter where I sat – his feral cries filled the room. It wasn't until my neighbor, a square-jawed, hearty-looking Southwesterner later started to giggle that I began to relax.

There were 23 of us – strangers, mostly – in the darkened room, all tenuously linked by what Baudelaire centuries earlier would have dubbed a "thirst for the infinite." While the French poet had quenched his visions with a heady cocktail of opium, hashish and absinthe, ayahuasca was an earthier brew.

Coined by Amazonian shamans as the "vine of souls," yage, as it was also known, lead you straight down the path to Higher Truth. Of course, Hell sometimes proved a convenient detour. When Beatnik-cum-heroin junkie William Burroughs took the drug he became violently nauseous, transfixed by the "larval beings (that) passed before my eyes, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk." His compatriot Allen Ginsberg, juiced up in giddy reverie, fared no better. "The whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me," he wrote to Burroughs from Peru. "I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe."

So there I sat, in a rented dance studio in Manhattan's Chinatown, keyed up and yet oddly sober, anticipating all hell breaking loose. I found some reassurance we were all dressed in white – giving the room the innocuous feel of a Heavenly Baggage Claim – when to my left, a young woman suddenly began writhing gracefully on a yoga mat. For her, the drug was working like an express train to Nirvana. I felt nothing and sat impatiently. I was eager to tune in, turn on, and drop down, preferably onto my back.

My first ayahuasca ritual introduced me to an unexpected, thriving urban subculture. Used traditionally for visionary experiences, the drug – relatively new to the city but not city-goers – has resurfaced in recent years, becoming the chosen cocktail of contemporary seekers. Some take it to trip out, others to find God. But whether they are hoping for revelation or simply chasing the next high, more urban folk are opting for vine tasting parties, where soul-searching has replaced small talk.

In South America, ayahuasca is known as "the great medicine," and it is used for healing much as peyote is used by North American tribes. Its use dates back eons. More than 42 indigenous names exist for the vine and roughly 72 different Amazonian tribes have detailed knowledge of its preparation. In 1851, British schoolteacher Richard Spruce first observed the plant and its effects, but it wasn't until 1923 that word arrived in the States – when the American Pharmaceutical Association viewed a film about yage ceremonies at its annual meeting. When Burroughs experimented with the potion in Lima, Peru, awareness of the drug's potency was propelled further, albeit underground.

In Brazil, ayahusaca is considered a legal sacrament in the Santo Daime (literally, "St. Gimme") Church, but in the U.S., the drug's legal status remains fuzzy. The actual plant is legal, although its active chemical, N-dimethyltryptamine, is a Schedule 1 substance according to DEA guidelines. Of course, the age-old draw of illicit substances could be part of its current popularity. According to Daniel Pinchbeck, author of "Breaking Open the Head," which trails the New York native's global psychedelic exploits, there's "definitely a growing current of interest in ayahuasca" on both coasts.

"I think people's antennae are picking up because the substance is still semi-legal and illegitimate," says Pinchbeck, whose book covers a cultural history of shamanism and psychedelic use. "It has been percolating away for a number of years because it has a very subtle and somewhat secret history. If it was legal," he adds, "I'd want to take it every week."

Such prohibited allure has pushed jungle journeying straight to the metropolis, where demand is being met by an influx of traveling shamans. Our host for the evening was just that – a Cajun shaman who demanded utmost secrecy and a $150 cash payment for the ride.

He ladled a dose, roughly one-third a cup, into a small glass which rested on an altar and instructed us to drink sequentially around the studio's periphery. The juice was a concentrated blend prepared from the woody stem of banisteriopsis kaapis and the leaves of psychotria viridis, which is mixed with water to produce a potent, gritty tea. To me, the brew tasted like fermented, organic prune juice – or, depending on who I asked, spirulina-laced molasses or chocolate licorice. The aftertaste was foul. I struggled to finish even half a dose although a few participants knocked it back like a thick whiskey chaser.

Days before the ritual, we were told to follow a strict dietary regimen of no salt, sugar, oil, fat, sex or alcohol, which could heavily color the experience by triggering intense nausea, headaches, or worse, hellish visions. Retching, though, seemed to be intertwined with the experience. My neighbor repeatedly threw up and burped, emptying his stomach into the white plastic trashcan sandwiched between his feet.

"Vomit was generally a good thing," Conrad, the dotcom researcher next to me, told me later. "There was that purging feeling that went beyond physical and mental. It felt spiritually cleansing somehow."

I was lucky and avoided vomiting, but did experience a first wave of nausea that lingered with the tea's aftertaste. The effects crept up silently. I felt that IT (for it felt more like an entity than a substance) sensed what I had been thinking, trying to incorporate itself into my mindset. I expected the elation associated with hallucinogens, but instead felt an intense calm stir under my skin as awareness began registering in my gray matter. Nothing really kicked in until I drank the second glass.

For hours I hovered between absolute contentment and discomfort. There was no conversation, just the steady stream of tribal, shamanic music vibrating across the wooden floors. The room was alive with noise. Just as Bill began to quiet down to a whimper, a woman to his left began wailing like a wounded animal with its foot trapped in an iron grate. A woman closer to me moaned lowly as if building toward a tremendous orgasm; another shrieked in delight. It was like a human zoo, a cacophony of sounds, gargles, yaps and groans, where one cry would solicit the next.

I grew highly irritated with the theatrics, although it was clear most people weren't mentally in the room. One participant told me after the ceremony that he had witnessed God, a triangular-shaped, vibrating form at the center of the universe. I had no such luck; my head was firmly stuck in the studio.

While I didn't have visions, the buzz felt like a jolt of espresso laced with ecstasy. This made the room look extraordinary to me, as if even the air had been scrubbed clean and each breath was pristine. Conrad would tell me that it felt as if a monkey had been set loose inside his brain, tearing through it like an apartment and taking things off the shelves, then jumping onto the next thing. But he later experienced sublime hallucinations, observing a cast of characters as they paraded through ornately decorated Renaissance ballrooms.

By the early morning hours, everyone was relatively sober and I caught a taxi with a couple back to Brooklyn. We couldn't really speak – small talk seemed banal at that point, and after all the vomiting, we weren't exactly strangers. For a moment, the city's grit felt out of step with the drug's organic nature and I longed to stare at the dawn seated on a banana leaf rather than fishing for loose bills to pay for cab fare. I was somewhat disappointed with my first venture, having wanted to reach a weighty Ginsbergian crescendo, but I realized that the event had evolved as first times often do. Next time, perhaps, would be the true initiation.

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