Swimming into darkness

Note: According to our pony-tailed Shaman cameras would have disrupted the ceremony and, thus, detracted from the experience. So hopefully these words are enough to spark your imagination! But if not, check out the outstanding documentary at the end of this article.

For centuries, Amazonian Shamans have used Ayahuasca as a natural medicine; a potent drug with the power to cure any illness and open a window to the soul. I take part in this spiritual ritual in the Amazonian jungle of Peru’s Puerto Maldonaldo, while discovering a terrifying world of enlightenment.

I sit in the jungle of Peru’s renowned Amazonia; famous for its abundance of wildlife, natural beauty and a plethora of adventure offerings. However, slightly less known outside the backpacker circuit is the region’s infamous jungle concoction, Ayahuasca.

Sought after among travellers and spiritualists alike this jungle ‘drug’ is a potent mix of vines and traditional natural remedies, and is utilized by the Peruvian people as both a natural medicine to cleanse the body and as a spiritual guide to enlightenment. Now, whether vivid hallucinations count as a spiritual guide is under hot debate. However, despite much controversy, Ayahuasca has been attracting worldwide attention for years and as many unfortunate hedonists have found, this is not a drug to be taken lightly. Many Western asses have been severely kicked over the years due to approaching a strong traditional medicine as they would a party drug or hallucinogenic at home.

I will put this as simply as possible: This was no party.

In a nutshell, Ayahuasca consists of a combination of vines and leaves named with the usual protracted, tongue twisting scientific mumbo jumbo that the medicine world has grown accustomed to-try the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Diplopterys cabrerana leaves on for size. However, perhaps the most important active component in the drink-as far as its hallucinogenic qualities are concerned-is a substance called DMT (dimethyltryptamine). DMT has a powerful effect on a person’s consciousness, resulting in a plethora of bright and lucid visions which differ from person to person.

The Indigenous believe that when consuming Ayahuasca your soul and your body is in the hands of your spiritual shaman-or in my case a pony tailed man with a guitar and some feather shakers-and the drug itself. You may see visions of your past, present or even future and your soul will be cleansed as you become a new person.

All of this may sound somewhat confronting. It is. However, there is a reason why popularity for Ayahuasca has skyrocketed in recent years and has acquired a cult-like following with numerous ‘Ayahuasca clinics’ in Peru, Colombia and Brazil opening their doors to eager customers; all of whom are searching for their very own spiritual awakening. The medicine itself has been proclaimed as a natural cure for a variety of illnesses such as HIV, depression and even cancer.

Now, like many natural medicines the accuracy of these statements is largely unsubstantiated and it is not advised to seek out Ayahuasca as a cure for a potentially life threatening illness. However, while travelling through infamous Ayahuascan territories such as Peru and Colombia it is not unusual to hear stories of people who have cured their depression with the medicine. Interpret this as you wish, though the swiftly growing popularity of Ayahuasca cannot be denied.

So, as popularity for Ayahuasca reaches an unprecedented high and millions of people worldwide reportedly fly great distances, and often pay exorbitant amounts of money to be treated in specialist clinics, I ask myself, “What attracted me to Ayahuasca?”

I’m fortunate to not have any serious illnesses and I usually fail to see the allure of drugs. In fact, at home I am somewhat of a recluse to the drug scene and, as of late, rarely consume alcohol. While many get a high and lose their inhibitions I ultimately find myself spending my hard earned cash to fall asleep. Thanks for the genetics Dad. However, as a result of my frugality, I have been able to save enough money to see the world on a student’s income (which makes me wonder if my once cursed gene pool can be seen a positive?)

Anyway, my point here is that to take on a drug such as Ayahuasca is not natural for me. I like to be in control, and when consuming Ayahuasca control is something you really must sacrifice.

In fact, before I began my endeavour through South America I told very few people about my plans to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. Why burden my family with worry? Why attempt to explain the difference between Ayahuasca and your stock standard party hallucinogenic to my friends? They wouldn’t understand. Heck, I hardly understand it myself. Ultimately, I would be left in a negative head space while reconsidering my plans to dive head on into a possibly life changing experience. No, I would do my research and I would look forward to the uncertainty of what lay ahead of me.

So why did I choose to take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony? I will address this shortly. Though in order to effectively explain my reasoning I must first describe my experience.

This is, from what I can best recall, my virgin Ayahuascan journey.

At 9:00pm my good friend Jamie-a recently graduated physiotherapist and reluctant participant in the ceremony-and I are met at our lodge by the Shaman 90 minutes later than expected. Now, in Australia this would seem highly unprofessional, but in Peru this is actually early. The Shaman, who we came to know as Alfonso, would conduct our Ayahuasca ceremony and lead us through our journey of enlightenment; which we later learned would consist of 5 hours of hallucinating, vomiting and evacuating our bowels into the nearest bush. My Spanish is broken at best, and our Shaman’s English not much better, so with a spiritual guide we could scarcely understand we are led into the middle of the Amazon armed with a flickering torch (I knew I should have bought more batteries), a can of overly potent bug spray (we would need it), and no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

A short walk into the jungle leads us to a clearing where we are told to take a seat. In front of us are three chairs, stark white, spread an even three metres apart in a triangle creating a poignant marker in the jungle’s moonlit interior. Placed neatly next to each chair is a fresh roll of toilet paper-a welcome addition for which we would grow a fond appreciation. It turns out that vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects of the medicine. Lucky us.

After twenty minutes of pleasantries Alfonso begins to pay homage to the Ayahuascan spirits, speaking in a native tongue and entrusting them to guide us through our journey of enlightenment. After a moment of eerie silence he begins to pour our ‘drinks’ into a tiny ceramic cup, which we later learn is a traditional flask utilized for Aayahuasca ceremonies. Without this flask the ceremony would be unsuccessful and we, the participants, may be unable to heal.

So as we sit silently in the ominous, lamp-lit jungle swatting torrents of excited mosquitoes from our hopelessly exposed faces, we grasp our tiny flask, lift it hesitantly to our mouths, and with a hasty gulp consume the foul liquid inside. Perhaps the worst thing about consuming Ayahuasca is the taste. It is, for lack of a better explanation, a brown, gritty sludge with a metallic after taste that would haunt me for days. I could best compare it to a glass of expired milk with a double shot of vodka.

Suddenly, the lamp light begins to fade as Alfonso gives us our first simple instructions.

“We must now be silent”.

Minutes pass as we sit silently, disturbed only by the persistent humming of mosquitoes, the screeching of monkeys and the soft cracking of twigs as unknown jungle inhabitants examine our intentions in their home. We are intruders and we know it. After what feels like an eternity of silence, we are offered our second serving of Ayahuasca. Now, I was told that the more ayahuasca a person needs the more healing that needs to be done. In essence, if you need more than one cup you have some grave internal issues. I must need some serious fixing. However, my spirits are slightly heightened when I realise that Jamie is also offered a second serving. At least I’m not the only one who’s messed up.

So, with mixed feelings of reluctance and excitement, we both accept and wait expectantly for the medicine to take effect.

And it does.

Shortly after our second serving the surrounding jungle begins to spin as every noise, and every damn mosquito, becomes a deafening soundtrack that would last the next five hours. The kerosene lamp which was fired up as we coughed and spluttered through our second serving-as horrible as the first-is put out and darkness engulfs us once again. Suddenly, a rhythmic percussion of chakapas, or leaf shakers, and soft acoustic guitar commences as our Shaman begins leading us through the ceremony. As the rhythm of the guitar gains momentum a soothing voice rises over a myriad of jungle symphonies and the pendulum like pounding of my heart.

“My guitar will lead you. When I play fast you will be at the peak of your journey, and your visions will slow down with the music.”

It is Alfonso sharing with us some valuable words of wisdom before we become a slave to the jungle; a slave to this powerful Peruvian medicine.

Suddenly, I can feel it. I feel it grabbing hold of me, pulling me upwards so forcefully that no matter how hard I try, how hard I struggle, I will leave my body on the ground – limp like a lifeless rag doll. I feel myself rising. I look down momentarily to see the silhouette of a young man; a dark grey hood draped loosely over his closely shaven head, eyes closed and head lolled back as if gazing to the heavens. Looking for help? Or perhaps a way out?

But help from what?

I look closely at the inert figure, draped hopelessly over a tattered white chair below, and a horrifying wave of recognition surges through me. I recognise that pointed nose; I recognise that mouth; I recognise the small blue stud reflecting in the dim torch light from his left ear, and I recognise the nine o’clock shadow framing the man’s slender face.

I ask myself, “Can this be real? Is that me?”

A thick darkness begins to roll over me as I surge upwards, away from my lifeless body and into the seemingly impenetrable canopy of trees above. The stars have disappeared, and the sky is replaced by a narrow dark blue tunnel. I kick my feet and suddenly realise that I am no longer floating but swimming; I gaze to the surface to see a lone figure treading water above me. I cannot see a face, but I can faintly make out a voice.

“Help me. Help me or you will never make it out of here.”

I hesitate momentarily before shouting in reply, “I’m coming”.

I begin to swim to the surface-a seemingly impossible distance-however, in what seems like the blink of an eye I have penetrated the water’s crisp exterior, disorientated by the all encompassing blackness that surrounds me. I look around in search of somebody, anybody.

I struggle momentarily with the hard truth that I am trapped. I am a prisoner of my own doing and no matter how vigorously I fight this remorseless situation, there exists only one truth: I will never leave this miserable world.

Suddenly a light begins to flicker and the scene in front of me is illuminated by a blinding white light. The faint silhouette of a face can be faintly seen moving closer, ever so slowly, before coming to a stop in front of me. I look closer, closer, and am greeted with the smiling face of my girlfriend, Caitlin.

She tilts her mouth next to my ear and softly whispers, “You made it. I knew you would.”

I reach out to embrace her, to be comforted by a familiar face in this outlandish world I have been thrust into. I reach, determined to feel her warm breath against my face, and suddenly the scene around me begins to flicker; a sporadic transition of suffocating blackness and blinding light. I close my eyes. I breathe deeply, in and out, in an attempt to regain my composure.

Suddenly, I feel my calmness return. I open my eyes to the flickering light of a lamp as a familiar man softly sings a gentle, comforting tune.

“Welcome back to earth my friend,” he says with a mischievous little grin on his face.
“You are now ready to live.”

As my eyes sheepishly open and the guitar fades away, I find myself back in the dim campsite. The lamp has been re-lit as I re-acquaint myself with my surroundings, though in my mind I am still swimming. I needlessly worry that Caitlin is okay. Jamie remains lifeless on the seat next to me, gazing at the ground: It seems that he too has struggled with the darkness of his imagination. I wonder what he has seen, what inner conflicts he has conquered.

It takes all the energy I can muster, but I stand, as if waking from an eternity of sleep. Perhaps I am still asleep? What if this is the finale? A splendid hallucination designed to throw me into a deeper, darker hell? In the real world I could determine what was right and wrong, what was dream and reality. But now, I’m not so sure.

If nothing else, Ayahuasca exposes the philosopher in us all.

However, despite my reluctance to accept my world for what it is I am certain of one thing: I am ready for bed. I help Jamie from his seat and we slowly follow Alfonso back to our lodge. I am still unable to determine with certainty what my visions meant. Why did I have to save my girlfriend from drowning, and why was I ripped from my body? Granted, the soothing sounds of singing monkeys, chirping birds and soft footsteps may have never existed, and I will also never know what point of my journey was reality, and what point was part of my overly energised imagination.

So, why did I take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony? To experience? To learn? To catch a moment? Well, perhaps all three. However, the confronting truth that I present to myself is that perhaps I participated in order to suffer. One cannot learn, cannot experience the reality of life and cannot truly embrace the spirit of travelling without first suffering (at least a little bit). I feel like I have entered a never ending tunnel and somehow made it out the other side. The only challenge that remains now is getting Jamie back to our lodge.

Anyone for thirds?

Due to the complete lack of imagery in this post, have a look at this great documentary on Ayahuasca (if you have a spare 83 minutes).