By the time I got to Peru, I hadn’t smoked a cigarette in over two years. My brother, Chris, hadn’t smoked in six. He bought a pack the moment he landed. A new country was too crazy for him, and he needed to calm down.
It was incredibly inefficient. I had to stand with him behind whatever bus we were on while he puffed away, squinting at the landscape and waving the smoke away from my face. Or before we walked into anyplace, anywhere, always. We fought about it.
You can’t just start smoking and stop, I told him.
Travel was the first mind-altering medicine I ever tried. The west of Ireland practiced patience with me, Paris threw glitter on my creative mind, Uganda shook my joy loose, and London danced with me. Travel fosters presence, and people everywhere were accepting and generous with their time and humor. Every moment presented a chance to expand my worldview.
I had been back from Uganda a week when I read an article about the psychedelic medicinal brew, ayahuasca. Until then, I’d never considered actual mind-altering medicine.
“Ayahuasca” translates to “soul vine,” or “vine of death.” It’s been used in the Amazon as a teacher and healer for thousands of years. It’s made of a certain vine and a certain leaf, the leaves contain DMT, which is activated by the vine, and this can bring about strong visions and experiences.
In her essay, Unraveling the Mystery of the Origin of Ayahuasca, Gayle Highpine writes, “the leaves were Ayahuasca’s “helpers,” …and their purpose was to “brighten and clarify” the visions. The vine is like a cave, and the leaf is like a torch you use to see what is inside the cave. The vine is like a book, and the leaf is like the candle you use to read the book. The vine is like a snowy television set, and the leaf helps to tune in the picture. There was a subtle attitude that the need for strong leaf was the sign of a beginner: An experienced ayahuasquero could see the visions even in low light.”
It’s the vine and the leaf, and the two call forth something else, the spirit of ayahuasca, sometimes referred to as Mother Aya. The knowledge is passed down through generations of healers, and the healers study as apprentices for many years before conducting their own ceremonies. They learn the songs of the plants, ikaros, and they call the spirit of the plants to help heal the drinker. They say we have tapestries inside of us, and if they are damaged or frayed, the plants, the ikaros, and the healers work together to put you right.
Drinking ayahuasca is a cleansing of the body as well as the mind, which is why it is also referred to as “La Purga,” or “The Purge.” Many people experience vomiting and diarrhea. You have to prepare to take ayahuasca. There’s a strict diet and strong suggestions, like regular yoga and meditation. This makes “the purge” smoother.
I was in the jungle a year later.
I went in search of something, but I never considered ayahuasca a cure-all. I was already on a spiritual journey; I practiced yoga and meditation, I prayed, sought mentors, kept house plants.
Survival is small-minded. When you inhabit survival mode too long, it tends to become your only mode. And if you walk 10,000 miles into a forest, you have to walk 10,000 miles out—I figured ayahuasca could act like one of those moving walkways at the airport.
A plane, a bus, a boat, and a hell of a hike later, I was in a bath of flowers. Well, I was doused with flower water by spiritual supernovas, better known as the maestras. They lined us up near the pond, where three stools were set up next to basins full of flower water.
We did these baths every day. The water was cold, but the sun dried us off while we sat on benches and talked. Our view was of the pond, sparkling with fish kisses and debris from overhanging branches. The monkeys rustled in the trees with strange birds, and throaty bugs. And we could see the octagonal-shaped structure where ceremonies were held, the maloka. The roof was thatched and sloped upwards to a point; the open layout protected by mosquito nets. Inside, hammocks are stored in the beams for lazy afternoons.
During ceremony, the healers and facilitators sit on mattresses in the middle of the room surrounded by the group, all facing towards them. Everyone has a bucket, a roll of toilet paper, a flashlight, a bottle of pusanga (flower water), and mapacho (tobacco used during ceremonies).
When Chris and I got to our hotel after a 3 day, 4-night trek to Machu Picchu, it was nice, but we were beyond tired. I barely noticed the open courtyard and the flowers as we tried to find our room (cruelly themed ‘Machu Picchu,’ so we had to climb more stairs.)
He was going home the next day, and I was going to hop on a flight north for the last leg of my adventure. I’d had my big brother with me for 3 weeks, and even though we almost strangled each other a few hundred times, he always had my back. Following my strict diet, we had dinner at a vegan restaurant, and talked about everything. I was afraid I would come back a spiritual vegetable; a freckled eggplant that drooled, but also talked a lot about energy and chakras. I was afraid I was going to encounter something that would shatter me beyond repair. Like my insides were mirrors, and the wrong ghost of a memory, the wrong reflection, would look back at me, and I’d crack forever and for good.
The next morning, he kissed the top of my head, and I listened as he dropped his bags down the stairs, until I couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore.
I asked him the other day what he was thinking that morning. He said he was wondering if he would ever see his little sister again. And if he did, would I still be me?
I was wondering the same thing.
I fell asleep after drinking. When I woke up I was wrapped in a cocoon of smoke. The moonlight in the mosquito net, the inside of my eyelids, everything was geometric—triangles pointing, rectangles sliding, circles rolling, squares flexing.
Confused, I began to panic. That upon-awakening, where am I? feeling, plus DMT.
“Go with it,” I heard in my head, I said out loud. It was my mom’s advice when I called the morning I left for the jungle, all tears and second guesses. I caught myself smiling, fuck it.
Just then, from the far side of the maloka, first small and searching, then stronger, melodic, reverberating, the ikaros.
The ikaros and the medicine work together like an orchestra and a conductor. Your body becomes an instrument made up of your feelings, your sorrows, your fears, your dreams, your joys, and the ikaros become a movement inside of you, like you’re being sung, and you’re singing.
My tambo is a small, wooden house with a porch and a few stairs that lead to a path cut in the jungle. Great reeds hang off the roof like a green/brown waterfall, but tall, red plants with kite-sized leaves add color. I’ve got a bed, a desk, a small bathroom, and every kind of bug known to man.
We started plant remedies this morning. I’ve been given a shot’s worth of three different plants, and a water bottle to drink throughout the day. I didn’t see anyone else with a bottle, so I asked what is was for. The maestra answered, “susto y triste.” The guy in line behind me said, “the fuck?
Shock and sadness, she said.
Ayahuasca is brown, thick, and sludgy. The taste is truly terrible, a bitter, watery ashtray that coats your mouth and returns unexpectedly over the course of several hours. By the 4th or 5th ceremony, I couldn’t even commiserate with the rest of the group anymore. The mere thought of the taste generated doubts I could ever drink it again, and it seemed to get worse every time.
I sat in front of the healers as our facilitator poured the brew from a 2-liter bottle into a small cup.
“Do you want to go deeper tonight?”
“A little, or a lot?”
“A lot,” I said.
I went back to my mat. A low hum had already started to buzz in my ears. The medicine was coming on strong and fast; I heard, do you want to see yourself as a child?
“Yes,” I said. I wanted the ikaros to start, but I tried to focus on my breathing. It felt like I was galloping headlong into the past; I felt ready. Do you want to see yourself as a child?
It was just there, around the corner, when someone in the room began to call out—it was a mad bull, a slow, guttural moan moving across the darkness like a nightmare. The man responsible stood suddenly, leapt forward, and tripped into the middle of the maloka. Someone lit a mapacho, and the flame erupted in a fan of slow motion, like a stop motion picture with a beginning, middle, and end
I’ve never been more frightened in my life. I folded into myself, I tumbled into the void.
My tears were on fire. My nose had drained so much, I wondered if a fire hydrant had been freed under the bridge. I felt because I couldn’t see. In the darkness, I did *see* in a way; I saw, and I felt, a series of images from my life and the lives of the people I love, like Polaroids hung on a line, blowing in the wind, alive with the sound of music. The ikaros weaved and bloomed inside of me, moving the medicine through my body and out in tears. I felt profound sadness for the women in my life, for the women before me, for what we had endured, and for what we had lost; it was deep, flowing, and I knew it was a power that connected us all.
A maestra shuffled in front of me. She exhaled, swooooosh. Her voice was high and tender, and she brought another melody in to complete the song playing in me, a song of strength and joy.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Romans 5:3-4
The first thought in my head this morning was “what the fuck did I do last night?”
You did not know how powerful we were, but that doesn’t matter now. We’re inside of you, and we’re working.
We? The plant medicines I’d been taking twice a day were going off like sparklers in my gut.
“Tres cantos, tres medicinas,” she said.
No one had ever spoken to me during ceremony. But when Maricela finished her song, she started talking to me in Spanish.
I only caught the gist, but it was about peace, my family, and she repeated one word over and over, “alegre.”
She squeezed my shoulders with a -you’ve got everything you need- squeeze. I put my hands in hers—she smelled like an orange grove—half-crying, half-laughing, I kissed them, and thanked her.
I was eager to understand the full message, so the next day I found a translator, and we went to see the maestra. She explained she had felt the three plant medicines working very strongly within me, so she sang three songs to help me connect.
I grabbed my Spanish/English dictionary as soon as I walked into my tambo.
We met in the dining hall for a farewell dinner, and to share our experiences. The feeling was of love, acceptance, and absolute gratitude. We had the best group in the world.
We smoked mapacho and played guitar late into the night.
A young man who had worked with ayahuasca before said he had come back the last time with a demon. Some negative energy had weaved its way inside of him, and he was back to exercise it. He couldn’t tell if it was gone.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with myself in the Amazon, surrounded by strangers. I didn’t expect to throw off my coat of fear, and to listen to myself, to hear my song. The sound that’s been with me long before I suffered shock or sadness.
I expected a broken mirror, but I found no cracks. I found there are only roads to choose, roads to journey, and some lead to peace, and others, like fear, lead nowhere at all.
And I learned to access my compassion and creativity through presence, and to access presence through the ancient rhythm of breath.
I learned breath is the most precious gift we have. I didn’t understand I was losing mine.
The last ceremony, my poet soul’s dreams came to life. I was a violin, all warm strings, vibration, sweet music. I was a compass, balanced, pointing my way, feeling direction. I was a fish in the river, water rushing in and through my body, always striving forward.
During orientation, the facilitator talked about the use of mapacho. Tobacco is essential to the ceremony, and the healers and workers smoke it throughout the day. Of course, no one actually inhales.
“We don’t want anyone to leave here a smoker that didn’t come here one.”
Pfft, I thought. That’s the least of my fears.
I sat next to a man from Florida on the flight home. He had also been working with ayahuasca, and we swapped stories. He couldn’t believe I had taken it 7 times.
I opened my bag, and he caught sight of my pouch of mapacho; something was on my back that hadn’t been there in a long time. Clearly, it wasn’t on his.
“Aw, man,” he said, “I would never touch that stuff.”