Cosmovision: An Aya Odyssey
"The vine has spread her tendrils across the world and a genuine archaic revival was underway. My bags were packed; South America beckoned, and the ancient mysteries of the rainforest awaited. I wanted in on it..."
Iquitos, Wednesday July 5th., 2006
IQUITOS IS ELECTRIC WITH NOONDAY HUMIDITY as Vance, John and I wade through the horde of locals hustling trinkets outside the Parthenon gates and join the other ayahuasca gringos amassing by the pool. It's Bowman's birthday -- he's twenty-four today -- and drinking with Guillermo is going to be his present.
We're waiting for Alexis, a blond, twenty-ish dude from Washington D.C. who's going to help translate the interview with Guillermo I've lined up. Alexis is a Princeton dropout who's backpacking around on a spiritual path, drinking ayahuasca with shamans and asking critical questions to deepen his own understanding. He's drunk with Guillermo four times now, and calls him "a fucking Jedi." When he turns up an hour late, wearing a Corey Feldman School of the Arts t-shirt, I know he'll fit right in with our media crew.
Vance wants to get out to the Espiritu de Anaconda, Guillermo's ayahuasca retreat to take some shots before we lose the afternoon light, so we pile into two motorcarros and speed away from the front of the Hotel Parthenon before the touristos bus has even arrived. But our motorcarros get bogged down on the dirt road turnoff from Km 14, a long undulating strip of mud from recent rains, and we get out to walk. The local villagers are busy building a concrete footpath to run from the highway past their village and towards the ayahuasca retreat a few miles in, and part of me wonders if this will facilitate t-shirt and refreshment stalls springing up wherever the gringos go, like mushrooms after a fresh rain.
Before I'd left Australia I'd watched a pirated DVD of the hard-to-find psychedelic Western Renegade, which shot Guillermo to fame, and a little of the Hollywood spin had rubbed off. In the Hollywood feature, co-written and directed by French filmmaker Jan Kounen, an ayahuasca drinker himself, Guillermo plays a master shaman who initiates the lead character, Mike Blueberry, a Civil-War cowboy, into the world of ayahuasca and spirits.
It cost US $34 million to make and flopped at the box office, mainly because of bad marketing. The special effects were as accurate a copy of Kounen's own ayahuasca journeys as the digital rendering could replicate, triggering "flashbacks" amongst many of the ayahuasqueros who watched it and unsettling revulsion in others.
When I'd interviewed Kounen last night, after the screening of his documentary Other Worlds, which tells the story of his own apprenticeship to Guillermo in over one hundred ayahuasca drinking sessions, he said that it was vital for him to make films about spiritual reality, and ayahuasca.
"There is... a tremendous knowledge that we cannot imagine in our culture, you have to make a bridge to that to make people consider, just consider. The culture protects itself from these concepts. It's like a philosophical issue but it's also like a keeper that doesn't want you to go outside of your own culture."
Kounen has bright shining blue eyes and the calm and grounded nature of a man in his forties who has found inner peace. This French music video and feature film director has carved out a career specializing in bringing aspects of the spiritual world to the screen. As well as Renegade and Other Worlds, he has also filmed a series of one-hour documentaries for TV called Another Reality, and his latest docu-pic was on Amma, a modern day Hindu saint, who purportedly performs miracles.
"Cinema is a great tool to deal with modified states of consciousness and different perceptions, [just as] shamanism, or meditation, or other ways, help us to understand how the creatures that we are work," Kounen said. "If you start to think of [perception] as separate channels, then you start to know how to work the channels, all relative to the information." And if you shatter the channels, which is what he believes ayahuasca does, it can "reveal information... going to the deep meaning of what it is to be human."
In essence, media itself is an altered state of mind, Kounen said, where the director can close-up on an eye or change the sound, and thereby change the perception. This might explain his transition from Hollywood director to ayahuasca drinker, and also the synchronistic fit with the casting of Guillermo as a master shaman playing the master shaman, art mirroring life.
Bowman, Vance and I feel like media ayahuasqueros ourselves as we walk under the blue sky and marvel at the giant cumulonimbus clouds billowing overhead, and take some panoramic shots with our cameras, capturing everything but the spirit of this place. We're in a funny position here as Western media reporting on these spiritual realms -- no matter how many mediums we record in the essence of the ayahuasca experience can't be replicated, only approximated. And even then just crudely.
It's translinguistic, as Dennis McKenna would call it. The shamans say that nature speaks in signs, in the overlapping coincidences and resonances of the natural world and the beings in it. Walking down the dirt road through the cleared jungles, awash in a sea of grassland, it's speaking to me now.
After a few kilometers we reach a sign, which reads: Espiritu de Anaconda. Walking over wooden bridges we pass the lush cultured rainforest and enter into a sprawling multi-unit complex designed to cater to Western standards. The central maloca is about 30' in diameter with a conical roof that reaches almost as high again and houses over two dozen people.
It's booked full tonight with conference attendees wanting to drink ayahuasca in this Amazonian cathedral, fully mosquito-proofed, leave your shoes at the door, please. Add a dozen smaller malocas, guesthouses, the dining room and toilets with porcelain bowls and doors and this starts to feel like the "Club Med" of ayahuasca. I half expect Elle MacPherson to come out of the jungle clad in a leaf bikini, offering a selection of fruits and nuts.
Guillermo moved here from his native Pucallpa and built the center only two years ago, after money from Renegade gave him the capital to expand. "It's safer here, you know," says Carlos, a native Iquitian who works here and meets and greets us ayahuasca gringos. "We have the army here, and the police -- and there is nowhere to run. Pucallpa has the bus to Lima and many exits -- someone can kill you and never be caught, they could get out of town in any of a dozen ways."
It's an oft-repeated urban wisdom and there may be some truth it, but I imagine Guillermo might have been a target himself down in Pucallpa. Despite being a respected healer his expertise has also brought him fame and fortune that most locals can only dream of, and other curanderos have been targeted and blackmailed before.
We've arrived early but there's no sign of Guillermo himself as we have a look around and Vance sets up his photography equipment. Rama, a tall, beautiful black woman with a large afro introduces herself as an anthropology student from France, who has been studying with Guillermo as part of her work documenting indigenous cultures for her fellowship in neo-shamanism.
She films one of Guillermo's helpers who's boiling up crushed ayahuasca vine and other plants in a giant soot-blackened cauldron in a wall-less hut behind the main maloca. As the flames lick up and spray into the air it resembles a witches pot, with the attendant in his shorts, t-shirt and baseball cap looking like a mestizo Beverly Hills pool-boy.
A plume of thick gray smoke billows out, stinging my eyes, and when they clear I can see the jungle medicine, ayahuasca, brewing, bubbling, writhing with life in the boiling phlegm-like green brew. A giant witches cauldron full of snot, and around the thick, brown vine bark are chakroponga leaves that contain the active DMT.
I get a whiff of the brew and it makes me want to vomit. A surge memory of ayahuasca washes up -- the taste of my last experience catching in my throat. I struggle to force it down. They say it takes a few years for the ayahuasquero's body to get used to the brew and properly acclimatize. But the soul? That takes longer -- sometimes forever...
Ayahuasca is not a drug -- not in the Western sense. It cannot be abused like recreational chemicals because the taste and experience are so demanding, and the hallucinogenic effect is never the same twice. Rather, it develops a relationship with the drinker, sometimes healing the body, other times illuminating the mind, or deeper still, taking the soul on journeys beyond.
But it will do none of this without the participant putting effort in -- it's not just "pop the red pill and escape the Matrix." Serious students have to give up their Western ways and embrace a rigorous diet low in foods containing tyramine, a chemical which can react badly with the MAO -- inhibiting properties of the vine. No red meat, pork, salt, sugar, fat, caffeine, acidic foods, alcohol or sex, all of which affect the body's sensitivity to ayahuasca. But tell that to a bunch of Western thrillseekers looking for some jungle kicks.
The dark clouds that have been gathering on the horizon all afternoon finally break and a late downpour cleans the air as the other conference gringos start to rush in. They take off their coats and shoes and leave them by the door and pass into the main maloca. We all form a concentric circle hugging the wall, a spiderweb crisscross brace of poles supporting the high cone roof above.
We're an eclectic bunch -- I spot Jay, whom I drank with at Percy's, dressed in a one-piece vomit-proof ayahuasca jumpsuit, and Frank the professor and other familiar faces. Dennis McKenna's here holding court, his bald head gleaming in the late afternoon light as he sits on his mattress and puffs away on his pipe, chatting about altered states. "A lot of psychologists are into science fiction," he says, "it's the closest we can legally get in the West to other worlds..."
Next to him is his seventeen-year-old daughter Caitlin, who's going to college in the fall and is taking ayahuasca tonight for the first time. She's reading a fantasy novel in the dim light like she's in an airport departure lounge waiting for take-off. With her hair back in a bow, glasses and soft, mellow energy, she looks like she'd be more into ponies and horses, maybe some Christian rock.
"I haven't done any psychedelics before, I haven't felt it was time," she tells me with the honed nonchalance of someone who's father is one of the planet's most pre-eminent legal psychedelic researchers. "This is my first ayahuasca experience. I have no expectations, y'know. I'm keeping it open."
Everyone waits patiently and swaps ayahuasca stories and travelers tales, letting our collective energies mingle in the flesh before they meet in the spirit. After my previous problems letting go around the energy of a group, I wonder if this many people all in one maloca, on ayahuasca, will turn me into a psychic pressure cooker ready to explode?
"The word on the ayahuasca forums is that Guillermo's brew is one of the strongest in town," Bowman tells me with a wry smile as he sets up his recording gear down by the edge of his mattress. "And the crew who drank with him on Saturday night say he's definitely loaded the brew to kick gringos' butt!"
"I haven't really seen any spirits or anything of that sort," Alexis chips in excitedly beside us. "But it's really ... I've felt it, like, going through every crevasse, on a sub-atomic level of my body and my spirit... And anything it finds that's dead... or not life and movement... it gets rid of, or fixes or makes me vomit. I remember the first time I drank I vomited, and each time I vomited it would show me a picture of all my bad habits and my life that I was vomiting up and getting rid of."
Great. Everyone seems to vomit up easily but me; it's going to another interesting night. And as the rain keeps falling down and the sounds of the jungle come alive, I start to feel the fear. Fear of the real, of the deep ayahuasca experience and the madness it can bring.
When Jan Kounen apprenticed with Guillermo to make his documentary, Other Worlds on Shibipo shamanism, he went mad for a time, temporarily schizophrenic when he failed to respect the diet and ayahuasca. He says the difference between a madman and an ayahuasquero is that the madman can't communicate what he's seen. Trapped in a recursive psychic groove, the hapless psychonaut doesn't have the guidance, or the ability to escape, and sometimes when he does, not all of him returns.
The trained ayahuasquero, on the other hand, can navigate the abyss and integrate it, even bring a bit of it back and ground it in this realm. This, Kounen told the conference audience before the screening of his documentary, is the role of the artist and the magician. I guess that tonight will be the test of my magic.
There's still a while before the ceremony, so I meander out to the main dining room with the thatched roof and meet Kathleen, a fiftyish American woman from Denver with a blond bob, blue eyes and the warm, nurturing appearance of Carol Brady.
She looks like somebody's mum doing ayahuasca -- and in fact, she is, but she's also a clinical psychologist who's here for her own healing. Kat's drunk the brew once before, ten years ago, and the thought of going back into that raging dimensional flux has gotten her all nervy. She gets out her rosary beads and says prayers over the dining table as I fix us a cup of herbal tea.
There's a half dozen other ayahuasqueros milling about, and Guillermo himself walks in casually, followed by Sonia, his wife and Rama, who at six-foot-two towers over the others.
Guillermo's got a very down-to-earth air about him, and as heads turn and everyone looks he doesn't react, just sits down at the table. With his broad face, graying hair and mellow vibe, he looks like a Peruvian version of Lorne Green on the Ponderosa, tucking into his dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables. Apparently he's not worried about a strict diet before drinking, but I guess he writes the rules. Only the Timex watch hints at his affluence, and there's still no hint of the mystic who will lead the ceremony tonight.
One of the gringos asks about the mix of the ayahuasca brew, and Rama translates Guillermo's explanation that the DMT-containing chacruna that he usually uses still hasn't reached maturity in the new gardens. Instead he's using another plant analogue -- chacropanga, which is native to the Iquitos area, but is just as powerful, he promises. This worries Kat, who doesn't want an overwhelming experience.
"Will you help us, Guillermo, if it's too strong for us? Will you look after us?" she pleads with her big blue eyes. "Francisco said he would at Sachamama, but when I cried out for him he was overwhelmed helping others, and he wasn't there for me."
Guillermo assures her he will look after everyone, and because of the big size of the group tonight his wife Sonia, who has also been trained as a shamana, as well as another apprentice shaman, will be brought in to help facilitate the circle. In today's tourist market with different sizes and physiologies, the curanderos control undue effects by measuring the dose of the brew they give their customers, and they also claim to be able to psychically tune in and help control the journey while it's happening. Nobody wants to see Carol Brady freaking out on ayahuasca, nobody.
"I drank three times, then no more," Rama says as she tells me more about her own ayahuasca experiences. "The brain has the memory of the plants so I am still connected to the visions. After [ayahuasca] I had flashbacks in my dreams and when awake."
She's known Guillermo since she worked as a translator on Kounen's Renegade film, and tonight she will also help facilitate the ceremony. She's not the only French speaker here at the center -- probably because of the fame of Kounen's movie and documentary in his native France, there is a disproportionate number of French seekers here, and French Canadians. Perhaps to stave off the rapidly spreading interest by French front-runners, in 2005 France became one of the first countries in the world to ban ayahuasca usage outright, regardless of religious considerations.
Back in the ceremonial maloca, Tobin from Denmark is tending the altar with a small Swiss/Peruvian boy with a bowl haircut who's in his pyjamas, while his mother rests nearby on a mattress near the door. The boy has a sweet, confident spirit as he melts the bottom of one candle and joins it on top of another, like he's at an adults' pyjama party and he knows the drill.
"Will you be drinking tonight?" I ask him, and he shakes his head calmly from side to side.
"No. Tonight I just watch," he says, and I wonder how old he is -- seven? Nine? It seems natural and right that he is here with his mother and family, participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, witnessing the healing that the medicine brings. It makes it feel more real, like the way native South Americans have been taking ayahuasca for millennia as part of their village life, no War on Drugs or war on consciousness, just plant medicines connecting to a greater spiritual whole. How can you hide this from your children, this secret from the jungle that unlocks the world?
At sunset, we drink. Yet again I learn that when you spend the night in pitch darkness with a large group of people and take ayahuasca, purging, sweating, dying and rebirthing together, you get to know each other pretty well. You might not remember their names, but afterwards you remember their face and the sound of their suffering, and they yours, and there is a special bond between you.
To my left, Bowman darts forward and crouches by the round plastic bowl placed at the end of his mattress. Gripping it with both hands he makes a swift, sharp gurgling sound and vomits quickly into the bowl. I can see his shape and the outline of his back in the diffuse moon light as it shines through the thick mosquito nets that surround the maloca, heaving over and over.
Around the circumference of the room another drinker scrabbles for their bucket, as if set off by Bowman's vomiting. Dry wracking heaves and the choking of dry bile reverberate through the dark as the drinker gets caught with nothing to bring up. The vomiting goes on in successive waves across the room and through the night, for three, four, six hours or more, and just when you think you've kept it down, or purged as much as you could, the spirit of ayahuasca finds another dark crevasse and helps bring it to the light.
I find I'm a bit lighter than the first time, but I still have blockages. I'm sitting cross-legged on my jaguar-spotted blanket with the heels of my feet tucked under me, spine straight, chakras aligned and my crown pointing up to the stars.
Ayahuasca is a fickle mistress -- she likes it when you put out for her, make a show of it and put some effort in. Ayahuasca is also a plant medicine, and as such she reads you and what you need, and that changes every time, both as you progress on the path and as new issues come to light. Like a high maintenance girlfriend, the relationship with 'aya' can be hard work, but the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices.
I'm starting to come on slow, a warm billowing headspace enlarging to take in the whole maloca and the spirit zones phasing in. My head is awash with the psychic detritus of my own mind: Past loves, mistakes, issues from my life all flash before my eyes, but I'm not sure if my brain's just hyperactive or if there's something deeper going on...
Like last time, there appears to be some subtle interspecies relationship in this fugue where ayahuasca is reading me as I re-experience my issues and my head pours out my subconscious into my conscious mind. The vision/ dreams don't stop, they plague me all night long in wave after wave of emotional torment, little things blown out of all proportion. Maybe this is part of the healing, that as I remember I also let go, for la purga, she is coming, I can feel her building...
In the Amazonian "cosmovision" everything on the earth has a spirit animating it and the bridge between the earth and the spirit world is us, the living things. Guillermo says that there is a unity between everyone and everything, an "ecological bridge between the living systems." And this extends beyond the material plane to a multi-dimensional universe, he believes, where the shaman has to work on a superior level to accomplish his will.
Working with the plants is the first level, he says, and the second is to "control the occult elements of the spiritual world." The third is a purely spiritual level that affects the physical, for example: The knowledge of how to become invisible, or how to travel in the innerworlds, the sub-aquatic world or the cosmic world. The other dimensions you go to depend on the person drinking ayahuasca and how they want to work, he says. Spoken like a true Jedi.
The candle goes out and it's pitch black. A heavy stillness hangs in the air like a burlap curtain -- maybe it's the spirits. Everyone is quiet, moving around slightly, the silence of the moment punctuated by the inevitable promeathean heave of another drinker vomiting. And as they vomit up come all their hurts, their pains, their suppressions and ills.
There's no point of focus in this darkness, no sense of time progressing. To the unprepared this could be hell. Possessed by a strange spirit, your body wracked by wave after wave of nausea, vomiting up green bile in crushing waves.
And in the darkness my mind is up to its old tricks, trying to imprint form on the primal chaos. I want to see the snakes, the alligators, the jaguar totem spirits, and I want it so much my mind is doing its best, grabbing at the shadows and seeing eyes, slithering obsidian dream snakes. It's as if the world of spirits is playing itself out as shadows on a black canvas, tantalisingly beyond reach. It must be the chacropanga Guillermo's using in this brew, it's less full-on visual than the chacruna after all.
The flash of mental thoughts continues and at times it's impossible to tell which bits are me thinking, which bits the ayahuasca speaking and which bits the ayahuasca making me think I'm speaking. The voice of aya is soft, subtle, and yet again it has the emotional nuances of a relationship. She speaks in concept-images, in that post-McCluhan symbology where you become what you see, and in the overlapping you know it, message/medium as one.
On the dark of my vision I see a flash of a seed snaking through the void of space, coming from beyond. The funny thing is, as I see it another bit of me is sifting through the mental dialogue and saying: "that's not one of your thoughts."
"Whoo hoo hoo" Guillermo's staccato breaths punctuate the dark, short, pitched breaths that strike like compressed air darts and cut through the heavy atmosphere around us. It is one of the most eclectic sounds I have ever heard. Distinctly sentient, with an intelligence behind it, but at the same time insect-like, alien and just beyond the reach of the conscious mind. The sound is his icaro, the first wave of his bag of tricks to piece the veils that separate the worlds.
"Whoo hoo hoo ooo" his icaros cut through the dark, tuning in my consciousness as something cracks along the back of my skull, some slight tweak as the muscles tighten and now I'm feeling lighter, different, but it's hard to place. Guillermo's tuning us in, sinking us into a shared phase space and voila: the curtain is pulled back and we're smeared across the invisible canvas. We've arrived.
Outside the maloca a wave of insect consciousness is resonating back a whoo hoo hoo pitch that matches Guillermo's icaros, and as the two meet and cancel each other out I feel as if I'm breathing in a dreaming universe...
By the moonlight I can see the wooden beams of the roof shimmering like a vast spiderweb, the central pole flashing with mythic resonance like the World Tree of Norse myth, connecting the axis mundi with the worlds above.
And suddenly around the circumference of the roof a billion, billion eyes come into view like a shimmering peacock tail, all veiled behind a dark lens. They drink me in, blink and stare again with a reptilian coolness, images warping one into another rapidly. I feel like I'm looking into some sort of hyper-dimensional mirror and that the thing on the other side is experiencing what it is to be human through my eyes, all our eyes...
Sometime in the dream Guillermo comes round and blows mapacho smoke down our necks and backs. He beckons me to lower my head, not out of respect, but to cleanse my crown chakra, and his touch has a gentleness and a collected strength. Then quite suddenly the darkness erupts with a thundering growl, bigger than us all, big enough to hold the world in its jaws. Snakes, crocodiles, writhing anaconda spirits and jaguar eyes imprint from my subconscious onto the canvas of the night, all my fears spewing forth with them.
The ayahuasca makes urgent rumbles in my belly and as a wave of nausea washes over me I muster the fortitude to stand and grope my way through the dark to the door. Mercifully, it opens as I push it and stumble out into the night, punch-drunk with the spirit of the vine in me and threatening to come up quick.
The silhouetted jungle is bathed in a silver spectral light as Peruvian helpers stationed outside the door point me towards the toilets, a shimmering ball of light only twenty metres away that seems to skip in my field of vision. My whole body feels like it's underwater, that the consciousness trying to drive it is doing so from very far away and under challenging circumstances.
After an eternity on the path, lost in the trees, I finally find my way to the toilets and an empty cubicle. The porcelain bowl and seat is a miracle, as is the fresh toilet paper, and as I am bathed in the bright artificial light the ayahuasca in me judges all is ready. With some secret psychic trigger I'm not in control of, a violent rush of vomit erupts from me and into the basin next to the toilet, then another and another, my whole body gripped with peristalsis and squeezing out sickness.
The lightness of my body post-vomit feels wonderful. As I cough and splutter over the sink and try to hang on to the shifting space-time coordinates around me, a trick of light draws my attention to the warm sick backed up in the sink.
It's still bubbling like a fizzy drink, this ayahuasca-cola, but it has a curious opalescent film to it, like oil rainbows on water, or the eyes from the other side of the mirror. A magic mirror, perhaps, created from my ayahuasca vomit. As I look into the magic mirror the eyes become spots, and the spots move with the shape of a large cat, a jaguar stalking the jungle.
He stops in front of a grandfather tree with thick snakes of flowering ayahuasca vine twining around its frame and looks back, as if he can see me. Suddenly he pounces, muscles rippling and claws extended, and shreds the thick vine into shards and starts nibbling on the leaves. Then he starts tripping out, rolling around with glazed eyes, and then he's vomiting too, and I realize it's me, me in the jaguar skin, and it's me who's vomiting once again into the sink.
I meet my fears and they devour me, and with another roar of the jaguar-god melts the realization -- it's the thunder of a jumbo jet overhead -- the 10:00pm flight back to Lima, back to civilization. And as the hallucinogenic jungle envelops me I start to wonder if I can ever come back from this, ever return to civilization as I left it, or if something inside me has now changed forever, and the jaguar is the one who stalks the world in my skin...
But there's no turning back now, no off switch, just me alone with the universe and the jaguar in the forest, two crazy cross-species trippers sharing a cosmovision that says we are both one.
Photo by John Bowman
Teaser image by Ayahuasca in San Francisco, used courtesty of a Creative Commons license.