The trip of a lifetime: Experiencing Ayahuasca
(note to my parents: this isn’t as bad or as reckless as it sounds… but – sorry.)
Before I headed to South America last summer, I had no clue what Ayahuasca was… and when my amiga told me about it, it sounded a bit scary. And kind of like a party. Like a big, scary party that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to join.
Ayahuasca is a natural vine that grows only in the Amazon rainforest and, for thousands and thousands of years (quite literally thousands of years), the Amazonian people have been picking it, brewing it, and drinking it. Why? Because Ayahuasca is one of the strongest hallucinogens in the world and, because of such, is used as a medicine, a healing tool, and a general way to tap into the whole complicated complexities of reality, hyperreality, surreality… a mind-fuck journey into the unseen parametres of the world we inhabit and the worlds we don’t know exist.
Riiiiiiight. I can hear the sceptics now. “Yeah, yeah, yeah – it’s just another party drug,” or, “Sounds like an excuse for hardcore hippies to trip balls and call it a natural, spiritual journey – ‘man’.” Meh. I get it. But this just wasn’t it at all…
So having discussed Ayahuasca with the intention to probably try and find it somewhere in Peru, me and my three companions arrived in Iquitos with no real Ayahuasca expectations. Iquitos is the largest town in the world that isn’t accessible by road, nestled deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Flying from Lima and into the jungle was, in itself, an incredible experience – one of those experiences that even when I think about it now it makes me smile and give me goosebumps… so, honestly, Ayahuasca was not the priority.
We arrived at our very shady guest house, sweating from the constant heavy heat, already bitten by the invisible swarms of mosquitoes, and dirty AF from the clouds of fumes and pollution that sadly overwhelm the centre. Almost immediately we were confronted with a guy trying to sell us a jungle tour. After catching about an hours sleep the night before on the surprisingly pristine floor of Lima airport, our patience to listen to any sales ‘MY TOUR IS THE BEST TOUR EVER IN THE WHOLE AMAZON!’ bullshit was pretty non-existent… but persistence is key in these situations apparently, as an hour later we had already paid for a two day jungle tour starting at 8 am the next morning.
Before we got to our little lodge on stilts in the middle of the swampy jungle, our guide told us that there was one other guy at the camp, and he would be taking part in a traditional Ayahuasca ceremony the night of our arrival. We were unprepared both in mind and body, so we collectively decided against it (you’re supposed to fast for at least a few days before you take Ayahuasca: no salt, alcohol, red meat etc. etc. We hadn’t done this. Obviously).
This all changed when the sun went down on day one, and our excited camp-mate had done his best to convince us Ayahuasca was the only thing that should be on our agenda for the night. I’m easily swayed, my willpower is weak, and I wanted to try Ayahuasca without building it up too much in my head beforehand… so I dove into it. We all decided to go for it.
Lazing around in hammocks whilst we waited for the Shaman to arrive from a village in the jungle, we laughed and joked and talked about our expectations. I’ve never felt more relaxed and peaceful, listening to the jungle, talking with my friends, and swinging in my all time favourite mode of seating. The nerves didn’t really kick in until I suddenly found myself sat cross legged in a semi-circle of five, in front of the Shaman, his two apprentices and some very dodgy looking liquid taking up the space of an old Coca Cola bottle (yeah… I expected some traditional, Amazonian container made of like… snakes or something. But it was literally an old, plastic Coca Cola bottle…).
My heart beat faster as the chanting from the Shaman grew louder. He blew fat clouds of thick smoke from the wad of tobacco hanging from his mouth around the wooden shack, and one by one, proceeded to give everyone in the circle their dose of Peru’s oldest and most spiritual medicine.
When it came to me, I almost didn’t want to drink it. I hate downing anything, and this was thick, red, and smelled foul… I threw it to the back of my throat. It tasted as foul as I thought it would, and I had to fight to not throw up immediately.
Suddenly the candles and the only light source in the whole camp were blown out. Plunged into pitch blackness with no prior warning and only the glowing ends of the Shaman’s fat cigarettes sporadically visible, I vividly recall an overwhelming feeling of dread and regret: What. Was. I. Doing.
The chanting continued as my thoughts started to race, and all too quickly Ayahuasca had taken over my mind. There was no fighting the vomit that ensued, and – quite disgustingly upon reflection – everyone in the room was soon retching their guts up. I’d already been told that we’d probably throw up… it’s called purging, getting everything bad out of your body so you can be pure and clean and embrace what Ayahuasca wants to show you. What I wasn’t aware of, however, is that thanks to the antihistamine I’d taken the day before, the vomiting would not end for the 10 hour duration of the trip.
The experience is hard to justify in words. On the moments I wasn’t throwing up, I was scared. I felt like I’d never felt before… my body was heavy and almost out of my control. My thoughts repulsed me, even if they weren’t repulsive, and my head felt so full of words that it would explode. Light was devastating, and even the tiniest glimpses left a mile of light trails in my eyes. Sound didn’t make sense, my voice echoed in my ears and being touched by anyone or anything was detestable. The only constant was the sound of the Shaman’s chanting.
I struggled a lot with the experience. It was truly terrifying, and if it wasn’t for the help of an Amazonian 65 year old man who lived at the lodge guiding me through it, it would have been a helluva lot worse. My only real hallucination came at the end of the experience, hanging over the side of my bedroom walkway, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and not feeling one bite. After this hallucination, I think I began to get what Ayahuasca was all about. For me, it was profound, and, like many aspects of this trip, unexplainable. After this, I felt at peace, and crawled into bed, the walls swirling around me and the sun tainting the sky colours I’d never seen before.
So that was my one and only experience of Ayahuasca. As I said before, I get why people would immediately spring to derogatory assumptions when you talk about what is, effectively, a drug… but Ayahuasca really isn’t like that. It’s not something that needs to be kept out of the hands of the wrong people; it’s not fun – and it’s not taken to have fun. It was terrifying and incomprehensible, a crazy adventure and, yes, even if it is a cliche, enlightening in an enigmatic sense. I feel like whenever I travel, I’m always in doubt of whether or not real adventure really exists. This experience proved me wrong. Recommended, but definitely not for the light hearted.