Embarking on a very personal and spiritual journey, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski shares her ayahuasca experience, after ingesting the hallucinogenic vines of the Amazon Basin.
The ancient Volkswagen Beetle climbs the hairpin bends high into the mountains, the lights of Cusco spread out in the valley beneath us. On a particularly steep bend, it gives up the ghost and stalls. We follow the shaman up through unlit alleyways, accompanied by a howling chorus of the neighbourhood canines.
Behind a steel gate, a stone puma guards the steps down into the ceremonial hut with its thatched roof and skylights, lit by dim reddish bulbs and candles. Inside, there are several berths covered with thick woollen blankets, and an arcane-looking shrine covered with candles, crystals, giant dark feathers, mysterious little bottles and rocks. There are eight of us: Eddie and Katarina from New York, an Eastern European guy, an Aussie couple, a Spanish girl, myself, and an elfin girl with dark eyes who looks like she might be a regular. So what brings us all here?
Associated largely with shamanism, the psychotropic Banisteriopsis caapi jungle vine Ayahuasca – aya (spirit) and waska (vine) in Quechua – has been used as a religious sacrament for centuries by the indigenous tribes of northern South America and Brazil. The use of the brew to gain access to higher spiritual dimensions was described as ‘the work of the devil’ when 16th century Christian missionaries first came across it, but despite attempts to suppress the practice, it still flourishes, particularly in and around the Amazon Basin. Ayahuasca is not for recreational use; it is said that it’s best to approach it with specific spiritual goals or questions in mind, and also with an experienced shaman present – not just one who knows how to brew the vine in the correct proportions, but also to provide spiritual protection. Ayahuasca is not known to cause flashbacks or to have long-term side effects but it’s an intense experience.
Kush certainly seems suitably shaman-like – an aquiline nose, indigenous features, shoulder-length greying hair, outlandish clothes and a powerful presence that inspires confidence. We talk to him about what we’re hoping to get out of this experience: shedding the fear of failure, trying to decide on a career path, finding love… Kush then asks us all whether we’ve ever experimented with any mind-altering substances before, to see how much he should give us to start with. He checks that we all have plenty of water and hands out plastic buckets, since ayahuasca is a powerful “cleanser” it often purges you of your stomach contents.
Kush lights a candle, takes a small bottle of liquid, pours it into a stone receptacle filled with ashes, and sets it on fire. It burns with a strong blue light. He lowers his head and says something that sounds like a prayer, in a language that I don’t understand. He shakes a bottle filled with pinkish liquid and pours different measures for us all.
The liquid has a strong, bitter and organic taste, with grit at the bottom. I gulp it down, wrap myself in blankets, lie down and close my eyes. I wonder if I’d made a mistake by not being able to resist an avocado salad that lunchtime; you’re supposed to avoid meat, sex, alcohol, spices, citrus fruit, sugar and fat for at least a day before ingesting ayahuasca in order to leave the path clear for visions.
Kush begins to chant. Almost immediately, I begin to see kaleidoscopic shapes, psychedelic colours, lime-green snakes moving, changing in time with the chanting. When the chanting changes tempo, so do the shapes. I feel strangely removed from my body; it’s as if something is raising my body up, while another force is pressing down on it. When the feeling gets too intense, I open my eyes for a second and it abates. When I twitch my nose, it feels like my face doesn’t belong to me. My body seems far away. There are shivers down my spine, creeping slowly; I don’t feel them, but rather see them as lines of light, slow and thick like electric molasses. The chanting is replaced by the playing of a reed flute – a repetitive trill that triggers more images, more changing colours.
When I open my eyes, I see a giant dark figure in the middle of room that is half-man, half-wolf. Then the Peruvian wolf moves into the candlelight, shrinks, and turns into Kush again.
Even when the chanting and the music stops, the sounds reverberate inside my head, become voices, and build into a crescendo. When it becomes too much, I open my eyes, see Eddie sitting up, the shaman kneeling in front of him, holding giant feathers in the air, one in each hand, chanting.
I lose all sense of time; I don’t know if minutes have passed, or hours, whether I have been dreaming or hallucinating. More images come: abstract colours, the face of an Andean child, a woman, a wizened old person. Then an undead face covered in cobwebs thrusts itself at me – it’s startling, but not frightening. Everything seems to shake, and I think there’s an earthquake, yet when I open my eyes, all is silent and still.
More voices, more faces – tribesmen from the jungle; the forest green is encroaching on my space, it’s intense, the tribesmen not friendly, nor overly hostile. The sounds in my head turn into a ringing in my ears which builds up and up. A wave of nausea overtakes me. I open my eyes and throw up into the bucket next to me. Everyone else is lying still. My vision is blurred, the room is spinning.
Then it feels as if I’d dreamed it all. Not sure if I had even been sick; only the slight rasping in my throat makes me sit up and check the bucket. Affirmative. The candle above the door seems to be crackling with purple lightning. I feel immediate relief after purging, and sink back down.
More images come, obeying the repetitive chant, the reed flute of the shaman’s assistant, the light drumming. I don’t know at what point the shaman falls silent. I sleep a dreamless sleep until it’s morning, and I can feel the sun through the skylight.
The following morning, as we head back down into central Cusco, we’re all silent, each of us still absorbing the night’s experience. Kush tells us that we’d been under the influence for five hours or so. It has been an intense, uncomfortable ride, but most importantly, we all feel that we got what we came for.
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