Ayahuasca is a brew of various plants traditionally found in the Amazon region where it is used by people there for ritual, cleansing and spiritual practice. Generally one of the ingredients is a plant that contains DMT, a hallucinogenic drug that is illegal all over the world although in Peru the preparation and consumption of ayahuasca is permitted. Consequently a great many foreigners come here to take part in a ceremony and have the trip of their lives. And if this earthcircuit is anything like an act of global exploration, we thought we’d better take this psychic detour too.
The Pros and Cons
In our time looking after the Bed & Breakfast in Lima, we had quite a few guests who were on their way to or from some kind of shamanic retreat in the jungle. None of them seemed particularly “woo-woo” kind of people on the way there and, equally, they seemed quite sane and unfrazzled on the way back. We tried to understand as much as we could, thinking that maybe it was dangerous or took about two weeks to recover or something that could seriously jeopardise our plan to exit Peru for Bolivia in good time. I was worried about my tinnitus and whether an unpicking of my neural pathways would somehow make it worse. And then, of course, there were reports of dodgy shamans mixing more powerful substances into the brew or taking advantage of the intoxicated, psychic travellers.
To be honest the biggest worry was having to sit down with a group of extremist hippies and listen to spiritual this and spiritual that until my chakras exploded or something. Or equally being fleeced for $100 by a shaman, who a year previously was working in a call-centre in small town England, in the company of a dozen gap year kids. We wanted some kind of authenticity while, to be sure, we were here as visitors, as tourists, as people passing through. But, on the other hand, the earthcircuit crew are no strangers to stupificants or euphoriants, hallucinatory or otherwise – we just had never tried ayahuasca before, and wanted to experience this most powerful of plant medicine in the company of someone who knew what they were doing.
To be sure, there was another little issue. We had quit smoking (again!) a few weeks previously and, feeling as grouchy and disjointed, we were especially interested by both personal reports and medical research of the power of ayahuasca to help with drug addiction.
The Path to the Detour…
So having travelled overland from Lima to Cuzco, a journey from the modern world to the ancient capital of an ancient people, we ventured further into the Sacred Valley of the Incas, beyond Urubamba, the flat land of spiders, turning off the road towards the snow-capped Ch’iqun, parking up and walking a kilometre or so down a track past stone and adobe houses, between high walls and along trickling streams, until we arrived at the home of a good friend who has spent a good while living in this mystical land.
Our friend had invited a shaman from Iquitos to come and perform a ceremony in which five of us would undergo the ayahuasca ceremony. Iquitos, a town so deep in the jungle that it is unconnected by road, is the home for ayahuasca tourism and this shaman was a very experienced practitioner who took his job very seriously, growing up with the traditional beliefs of the Amazonas.
The ayahuasca ritual is commonly believed to be a cleansing ritual, in that the medicine helps to “detox” the mind by enabling powerful visions and experiences. In spiritual terms, the consumer often reports having revelations regarding their own purpose in life or the true nature of the universe, encouraging them to undergo a rebirth after which they try to be a better person. In keeping with this powerful feeling, people often vomit or have diarrhea – a physical detox. With this principle in mind, we were advised to abstain from protein-rich and heavy foods, caffeine and alcohol for three days to clean the body – and fast completely for twelve hours before the beginning of the ceremony.
The special diet was not difficult but the fasting was surprisingly tough and I found myself feeling sick and vomiting hours before the ceremony – it seemed that a couple of weeks of hard traveling, climbing from sea level to the Sacred Valley’s high altitude and the sudden lack of food had combined to weaken my immune system and I had succumbed to the usual, various local pathogens.
The shaman came over to me, to ascertain whether I was strong enough for all this. I thought I was. I was lying outside on grass in the cool air listening to birds. I felt weak but relaxed. He asked whether I had taken anything like a hallucinogenic before. I replied I had – sure, I was venturing into the unknown but I wasn’t nervous or worried. I had people around me who I trusted in a place that was safe.
We all moved into the main room of the house that had been cleared of furniture and laid out with mattresses and cushions. We sat cross-legged and in silence as the shaman spoke a few words about what would happen. He began an intonation and the smell of smoldering herbs and roots permeated the air. In front of him there was a plastic bottle of black liquid and I couldn’t take my eyes from it. This was the stuff, the ayahuasca, the spiritual brew itself – made from exotic plants that knew no home except in the Amazon jungle, a world away from my homeland and the natural substances available there.
The lights were turned off and a solitary candle lit – one by one, we were offered an egg-cup of the liquid and we took it down in one gulp. It tasted as foul as we’d been told it would but, to my mind, not much more than most natural concoctions. Possibly like very thick, bitter Valerian tea. Once we had all sipped the stuff, the candle was extinguished, the room now pitch black and, for me without my hearing aids in, there was an external silence masked by my internal tinnitus. Earthcircuit’s psychic detour had begun…