The Way the Medicine Works
[The Ayahuasca Monologues] • “Tranquilo,” the young man hissed back at me over his shoulder, slipping into the shadows. I looked on as he and his knife-wielding accomplice disappeared around the corner, all my belongings in tow. It was good advice, regardless of the source: relax, be cool. Drifting out of the narrow alley, I was instantly afloat in a bustling throng of touts and tourists, all oblivious to the thirty-second drama just played out a few meters away. I'd never been mugged before, and the sudden shock of it left me in a daze. I tottered on my feet and gazed blankly at the now-familiar Cusco skyline of rolling hills adorned with countless tiny houses and softly twinkling yellow lights.
Gradually, my thoughts came back to awareness: I need to cancel my credit cards. Ducking into a nearby Internet café, I began the disheartening procedure of web browsing and phone dialing to protect my distant assets. I was only semi-conscious of my conversation with a blandly empathetic Visa representative. My deeper mind was absorbed by something else, a gray and desperate sadness rising up inside.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Three weeks earlier, I’d boarded a plane from Miami to Lima, Peru, giddy with the recognition of a life-changing journey inexorably underway. The plan (as certain as it was abstractly vague) was fairly simple: travel to the Amazon jungle to drink the ancient shamanic medicine ayahuasca and return with a heightened awareness of the universe. All those hang-ups and ego trips that had piled on and jaded my soul over the past 29 years would melt away, as a matter of course. Pure, real magic.
In fact, I had serious doubts about this, but I was convinced I’d run out of options. I was living in East Atlanta with my girlfriend, a short-lived experiment in cohabitation that, it soon occurred to me, would be our swan song. Over the course of two years together, I found myself slipping by degrees into a debilitating identity crisis. I felt as if I were pinned between stages of my life, the vitality of my old self critically failing while the new struggled fitfully to emerge. Caught in this existential limbo, the daily acting out of my current self had grown insufferable—for the both of us. As the departure date neared, my soul-searching pilgrimage to the Amazon began to seem more like emergency spiritual triage.
I’d been planning the Peru trip for months, but it was a lifetime coming. My first introduction to ayahuasca came in high school after stumbling upon Beat author William Burroughs’ classic experimental novel Naked Lunch. Attached to the text was an article Buroughs had written for the British Journal of Addiction detailing the vast pharmacopeia of substances he had ingested. One of these stood out in particular: Banisteria caapi, a woody Amazonian vine best known by the indigenous names yagé and ayahuasca. When mixed with the leaves of a bush and boiled together, the plant was purported to heal illnesses and induce psychic powers.
On a quest for exotic kicks, Burroughs trekked to South America to search out the fabled “vine of the soul.” His review of the little-known jungle potion was hardly a sales pitch: “[Yagé] is a hallucinating narcotic that produces a profound derangement of the senses. In overdose it is a convulsant poison… Anyone taking Yage for the first time should have a sedative ready in the event of an overdose.”
OK, I thought, scratch that one off my list. Any hallucinogenic drink that deserves a warning label from William Burroughs is probably not my cup of tea. Besides, I was as likely to travel to the Amazon for esoteric Indian rituals as I was to climb Mount Everest. Reading Burroughs’ lurid trip reports was as close as I would ever come to sitting in an ayahuasca ceremony, I imagined.
Yet here I was, fifteen years later, preparing to make the journey myself to explore this mysterious plant medicine. The image I had formed of ayahuasca as a violent and dangerous drug wasn’t entirely accurate, I’d recently discovered. More and more often I came across articles and anecdotes lauding the ayahuasca experience as profoundly positive, despite its very real challenges. Facing your darkest fears and dangling from the precipice of mortality could be an incredibly good thing, it turns out, especially under the guidance of a skillful shaman. Great healing was possible through this work. I felt the calling to know this for myself—to go down to the Amazon, into my own heart of darkness.
Granted, it wouldn’t be quite the daring expedition it was for Burroughs in 1953, when few westerners had even heard of yagé. Things had certainly changed since then: the once-obscure shamanic tonic had entered the Internet Age. A Google search for “ayahuasca” calls up an ever-expanding list of South American lodges, retreats and healing centers offering a taste of indigenous shamanism to English-speaking tourists. Almost invariably, gringo ayahuasca devotees operate these outfits in partnership with local “ayahuasqeros,” mestizo and Indian shamans specializing in the use of the potent brew. In the northern Peruvian town of Iquitos alone, some two dozen such camps currently advertise their services online to foreign guests.
The first challenge for the modern day aya seeker, then, is to navigate a dense jungle of rainforest themed websites, detailed tour packages, and blissed-out testimonials singing the praises of a particular shaman over the competition. And then there are the fees to consider, with options ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the length of stay, amenities and number of ceremonies offered. The bizarre process of bargain shopping for a transformative spiritual experience was difficult for me to get past. I was of two minds about it: I wouldn’t want to skimp and wind up bamboozled (or worse) by a charlatan; but by the same token, the prodigious price tags attached to the more popular lodges struck me as a bit unseemly, especially considering the third world locale and ostensibly spirit-driven mission. The possibilities were overwhelming, but I resolved to choose carefully. I wanted to approach this sacred tradition with as much respect and authenticity as possible.
Luckily, I had an inside source: a friend had been making regular trips to a group of shamans based in Iquitos and spoke highly of his experiences. On his recommendation, I booked a nine-day shamanic workshop with Blue Morpho, one of Peru’s most well known ayahuasca lodges. A 2006 feature in National Geographic Adventure Magazine launched Blue Morpho to prominence with its author’s dramatic account of her healing from chronic depression. What a lifetime of therapy and prescription meds had failed to achieve, ayahuasca accomplished in one tumultuous all-night session. The powerful story put Blue Morpho firmly on the radar for all would-be aya drinkers, and they haven’t stopped coming since.
I was the next in line—and, like most first-timers, I was at once excited and scared shitless. Ayahuasca users regularly report trips of remarkable intensity, both transcendent and terrifying. In either case, I felt woefully unprepared for the ride. I knew just enough about what to expect to know entirely too much: cosmic ego obliteration, near-death experiences, and alien abduction scenarios were among the mind-blowing possibilities I was in for. In the days before heading out, I emailed my friend, the ayahuasca veteran, for some advice to quell my mounting anxiety. “You seem to me to have a huge, strong heart,” he replied. “I think that’s all one needs.”
* * *
My friend’s words echoed in my thoughts as my tiny jet touched down at the Iquitos airport, a single stark runway carved into the thick jungle. The door of the cabin opened to a blast of muggy night air and an envoy of mosquitoes. Welcome to the Amazon. As I shuffled down the stairs into the full humid embrace of the evening, a dreamlike state settled over me. A dark-skinned Peruvian man in a ball cap and sandals caught my eye from the baggage turnstile, waving and smiling wide. “Blue Morpho?” he asked, motioning to follow him. “This way!”
He grabbed my backpack and led me outside into the parking lot where a van was waiting. A tall American man stepped out from behind the vehicle, extending his hand.
“Stephen? I’m John—good to meet you!” he said, with a friendly shake. “I’m with Blue Morpho. Come on, we’ll take you to your hotel.”
We piled in and began to roll down the dusty Iquitos streets. Mopeds and four-wheelers roared on all sides of us, dodging ruts in the road and flitting in and out of traffic. I gazed for a few moments at the motorized chaos erupting outside the window before turning toward John. He looked a few shades younger than his 42 years, with neatly trimmed brown hair and a warm and genuine face, tawny from the tropical sun. There was something in his demeanor that put my restive mind at ease; I liked him immediately.
“So, is this your first time coming to Peru?” asked John.
“Yeah, first time,” I nodded. “First time drinking ayahuasca, too.”
His smile edged into a knowing grin. “It’s beautiful medicine,” he said. “The ayahuasca at Blue Morpho is really strong, and don Alberto and Hamilton are powerful shamans.”
In researching my trip, I’d read about Blue Morpho’s founder and proprietor Hamilton Souther, a 28-year-old California native turned jungle medicine man. In 2001, Souther went down to Peru following a prophetic message that he would enter into an apprenticeship with a master shaman in the Amazon, a relationship traditionally kept within an indigenous lineage. The prophecy held true and Souther became one of a very few outsiders to be granted the rank of “maestro”: a bona fide American ayahuasqero. Blue Morpho started up in the midst of his apprenticeship as a business venture with one of his teachers, don Alberto Torres Davila. Six years later, the two maestros continued to preside over the ceremonies there alongside a new crop of eager shamanic apprentices, devout aya-drinking westerners alike.
John hoped to be the next shaman-in-training brought into the fold. He was currently working at Blue Morpho under a trial period for consideration as an apprentice. Only weeks before, he had returned to his hometown of Cleveland after his ninth tour as a Blue Morpho guest. But this time the reentry into the workaday material existence didn’t go so smoothly. An invisible line had been crossed: no longer was it the shamanic world of plant spirits, astral beings and witchcraft that felt so alien and strange. It’s my life here that makes no sense, he concluded. Following an ineluctable impulse, he quit his job, sold everything he owned, and booked the next flight down to Iquitos to devote his life to the medicine.
His story made my stomach shift anxiously. I was oddly terrified by the prospect of having my own life so completely transfigured, even though it was exactly the kind of breakthrough I’d been hoping for. The glaring contradiction spurred my mind to a self-recriminatory debate: What was it I was looking for, then? What was I so afraid of?
I asked John how things had been going on the path to apprenticeship. With a sparkle flashing in his eyes, he recounted a ceremony from a few nights earlier where he’d been invited to play the chacapa for the first time. This is a kind of rattle made from dried leaves used by shamans to deepen the trance state and control the energies experienced by the participants. Ayahuasqeros sing magical songs called icaros, which are taught to them by elder shamans, or by the plant spirits themselves. It is through the icaros that the maestros can heal illnesses, manifest visions, and navigate the spirit realms.
“So, I’m shaking my chacapa and don Alberto starts singing this icaro that brings the energy up really high. I can see it all around me, filling up the room, and I start peeling out.”
“What’s ‘peeling out?’” I asked, half-flinching at the question.
“It’s when the energy starts to get so intense that you hit this energetic ceiling. It keeps building up inside you until you think you can’t take it any more, and you start to peel out. This is what was happening to me, listening to Don Alberto’s icaro. I just focused on it and kept going with my chacapa—” he said excitedly, grinning huge and shaking his imaginary rattle briskly now with the memory.
“—and then everything gives way and I break through—wooosh!—and I am in this whole new place, another level opened up by the icaro, and there’s don Alberto floating in this space with me.” John’s eyes widen with his grin. “And I’m still shaking it, thinking, whoa this is sooo cooool!”
I was enthralled, but it did little to dash away the butterflies swarming in my stomach.
That night I lay awake in my shabby hotel room awash in a cascade of thoughts and memories. I wondered how I would handle myself in a ceremony if the experience became too intense. Though I was hardly a novice to altered states, it wasn’t since high school that I’d embarked on anything more than a mild recreational trip. My fascination with psychedelics never abated, but I kept up a largely academic interest, preferring to appreciate the wonders of these substances from the safe distance of objectivity. Aside from a few dalliances with mushrooms, my daredevil psychonaut days seemed far behind me.
College and adulthood buffed out a lot of the sensuous magic I’d felt during those early exploratory years. The radiant glints of light that my psychedelic revelations let in faded with time. Eventually, I had all but forgotten such mysteries existed. I lapsed into a comfortably routine consciousness dictated by logic and an atheistic worldview. Life passed methodically, and a stale depression seeped into the cracks.
But my perspective began to shift. I became increasingly aware of all the synchronicities around me. Baffling connections between unrelated events poked playfully at my cynicism like divine fingers in the ribs. The message came: there were other worlds not dreamt of in my mundane philosophy—and they wanted in. Seeking clarity into these hidden realms, I read books on shamanism, esoteric thinkers and prophecy. I took up yoga and cut out drinking. Slowly, I started to reconsider the underpinnings of my beliefs. The process was intuitive but far from smooth; out with the old and in with the new is no easy task, especially when it comes to one’s consciousness. My thoughts came back time and again to ayahuasca. All that I’d been hearing and learning about this ancient medicine suggested that it could help guide me through this transition. Finally I decided I had to find out if this was true.
Rolling onto my side, I flicked off the lamp and felt the darkness sink in around me. I’ve put way too much expectation into this, I said to myself. The old cynical hopelessness flared up for a moment, hanging in my throat like a bitter pill. I swallowed hard. But who knows...maybe it is as magical as they say.
I let out a heavy sigh as sleep settled in, pulling me down. At the very least, I needed something to believe in.
* * *
Our caravan of two weather-beaten minibuses rolled to a stop at the end of a dirt road leading to camp. Located an hour’s drive south of Iquitos, the Blue Morpho Center for Shamanic Studies was a gorgeous sight. A cluster of spacious Amazonian-style pavilions, their vaulted roofs thatched with palm fronds, sat amid 180 private acres of old growth trees and twining jungle flora. Brick footpaths snaked throughout the manicured grounds, flanked here and there with ornamental shrubs and giant dayglo flowers. And growing right on-site in well-tended gardens were the two main ingredients in Blue Morpho’s specialty brew: the ayahuasca vine for which the shamanic drink is named and chacruna, an innocuous looking bush containing the molecule DMT, which gives the medicine its visionary wallop.
There were 26 of us participating in the workshop and it looked to be a diverse and amiable group. A solid handful were regular fixtures at Blue Morpho, some of them midway through a full summer of consecutive tours. A couple of them were actually renting apartments in Iquitos and living there indefinitely to be close to the action. Of the rest, more than half were first-timers like myself (apparently a fairly large proportion by the usual standards.) Everyone was in high spirits, sociable and joking around. I welcomed the cheerful banter; it was a nice break from the timorous tape loop in my head.
After getting settled in our bungalows, we ate a quick lunch and set out on the day’s first activity, a hike through the nearby forest to collect admixture plants for the ayahuasca brew. Hamilton led the way, steadily puffing on a mapacho cigar while narrating the medicinal powers of this bark or that leaf. The four apprentices walked closely behind followed by maestro don Alberto, all clutching machetes and exhaling cottony plumes from mapachos of their own. As we came upon certain trees, don Alberto and the apprentices took turns chopping shards of wood from the broad trunks while another blew forceful blasts of mapacho smoke over the freshly carved surface. The plant spirits love tobacco smoke, Hamilton explained; this was a way to pay gratitude to them.
We stopped in a small clearing populated by tiny vines trailing down from the canopy above.
“This is ayahuasca,” announced Hamilton, sweeping his hand to the slender lianas curling from the trees. “It’s very common during the week to get really scared of ayahuasca. Now, what I would recommend about interacting with ayahuasca is this: the plant spirits are already here. Not only are they here in the trees, they’re walking around with us. And not only that, they’re already inside you just by you coming here.”
He scanned our faces for a reaction.
“Now you can think, like, I’m just full of it. But I can promise you—within a few nights, you won’t think that anymore. You’re gonna find out how literal this is. Shamanism is not about thinking about the experience. Shamanism is about having an experience that is so intense, you can’t deny it—and then you have to deal with it. You have to figure out how you feel about it.”
Hamilton paused for a moment, letting his words sink in. I wasn’t sure yet what to make of him. Classically handsome, with blond hair buzzed close to the scalp and sporting a plain white t-shirt, he looked more like a varsity quarterback than a medicine man. At 28, he was almost exactly my age—though certainly wise well beyond his years, considering his line of work. He spoke didactically, with an air of importance offset by a colloquial American wit and a disarming smile.
So, maybe not your traditional shaman—but really, who was I to make that distinction, anyway? I’d been in South America all of three days my entire life and probably couldn’t point out a yagé vine if one were dangling in my face. I was reserving any judgment about anything until after I’d swallowed (and survived) my first cupful of ayahuasca.
Later that evening we gathered for an orientation chat in the largest of the pavilions, a combination mess hall and common space. I took a seat in one of a small army of blue-and-white loungers slung about the expansive room and tried to relax. After some housekeeping notes, an apprentice and former nurse named Mimi launched into an extensive pep talk for all the aya virgins. As we all rightly knew, there would be five ayahuasca ceremonies during our stay at Blue Morpho. It was extremely likely, she explained, that at some point in the week we would either vomit or get diarrhea from drinking ayahuasca. This was known as the “purge,” a central component to the medicine’s healing work. By purging we were cleansing the body of deleterious muck both physical and energetic. All of this sounded perfectly fine by me. It was losing my mind—not my lunch—that I was dreading.
The meeting dispersed, and we were left to our own devices for the night. I lingered in the main house for a bit, chatting by lantern light with some of my fellow first-timers about the initiation ahead. The collective vibe was a sort of wary enthusiasm, not unlike a group of greenhorn skydivers making small talk on the plane before their first jump. As we compared notes on our hopes and anxieties for the week to come, it was a comfort to know that I wasn’t alone. But the analogy held true here as well: once you leap, you’re on your own.
After a while, I said goodnight to everyone and retreated to my bungalow. The next morning we would rise early to prepare the ayahuasca and set it to boil throughout the day. Just after dark, the first ceremony would begin.
* * *
“Good evening,” Hamilton greeted us as he entered the ceremony house. “Is everybody ready to drink some ayahuasca?”
We answered with our silence. He took a seat next to don Alberto along the perimeter of the room. A lantern burned on the floor beside them, illuminating an assortment of totems and crystals that made up the mesa, or ceremonial altar. In the pool of light between the two maestros stood a pair of tall plastic bottles filled with a murky brown liquid. Leaning forward, Hamilton picked up one of the bottles, unscrewed the cap, and held it with both hands beneath his lips. He began to whistle and sing into it: a special icaro preparing the brew for ceremony.
Slowly, one by one, people rose from their places on the floor to kneel before the shamans and receive their cup of ayahuasca. I sat up on my mattress pad and took a deep, meditative breath. It was my turn. Moving as if in a dream, I accepted the cup from don Alberto and tipped it to my lips, draining the vile-tasting contents in two forceful swallows. Returning to my pad, I lay back and closed my eyes.
The soft rustling of chacapas filled the room, a beautiful and pulsing rhythm like a thousand birds taking to the skies. Hamilton and don Alberto began to sing the opening icaro. I lay still, breathing deeply and listening to their voices warble and lilt in strange harmonies. Gradually, a gentle rocking sensation came over my body, like the sway of a canoe drifting on a placid lake. The motion grew faster—deeper—and a sudden dizziness crept in. Something was coming on; I felt the beginnings of panic hit me. With a start, I folded forward over my vomit bucket and heaved a violent surge of energy out of my body, through my mouth.
This is how it begins, I said to myself, bracing for an onslaught of who knows what. After a few more spasms into the bucket, the energy subsided leaving me gasping and drenched with sweat. I fell back onto my mat, half-relieved and half-coiled in anticipation for another round. Several minutes passed, but nothing more came. The sensation had faded; I was back to normal. Throughout the remaining hours of the ceremony I lay there, safely cocooned in my ordinary consciousness.
The next morning began with a gathering to discuss our journeys. One after another, the first-timers chimed in with fantastic stories: transpersonal voyages through the cosmos, deep psychic revelations, and mystical visions. A few people admitted to relatively mild effects, but impressive nonetheless. I kept quiet, seeing little point in sharing my lackluster experience. We had four more of these to go; I was sure I’d have plenty to say before long.
But the other ceremonies ran much like the first. I went in with the same degree of trepidation, drank my cup, and spent the entire night waiting for something momentous that never came. That’s not to say I felt nothing; some nights were markedly stronger than others, and I was often kept awake by the effects long into the morning hours. But I received no rousing visions or insights. Whatever the reason, biochemistry or dumb luck, the medicine was surprisingly—and disappointingly—gentle for me. After months of anticipation, such an anticlimax came with a painful irony. A difficult question hung in my mind: with no paradigm-shattering lesson to take home, how could I possibly return?
Hamilton had said: Shamanism is not about thinking about the experience—it’s about having an experience that’s so intense, you can’t deny it.
If this was the case, I wondered what it was I’d been doing out here in the jungle. I struggled to keep an open and optimistic perspective, despite my frustrations. But as the week went on, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something was amiss at Blue Morpho. For one thing, Hamilton had a penchant for rather comedic sing-a-long icaros that seemed more like sports arena chants than holy incantations. I imagined these interludes were intended to lighten up an otherwise solemn ordeal, but the levity felt out of place to me. Several participants also showed a disconcerting lack of restraint during ceremonies, which neither the maestros nor the apprentices did much to correct. On one occasion, a heavily dosed young man was allowed to whoop and rant absurdly for nearly an hour, egged on by a snickering group beside him. I couldn’t fault them much; good-natured flippancy seemed to be part of the show. Still, it wasn’t what I’d signed up for.
I knew that people received life-changing healings here. I’d heard enough stories and seen enough things firsthand to believe this. But I began to sense that this was the “Blue Morpho experience”—an acculturated twist on ayahuasca shamanism—rather than the genuine Amazonian ritual I was after. I’d expected a reverent affair befitting an ancient, sacred tradition. Instead, light-hearted humor and frivolity all too often took center stage. While riffing on his practice of ayahuasca medicine one evening, Hamilton let slide a comment that spoke directly to my unease: “What I’m doing here isn’t exactly Amazonian shamanism. I’m not really sure what it is.”
Of course, I had no frame of reference for any of this, aside from my own romantic ideals and preconceptions, which were crumbling fast. Perhaps the “authenticity” I sought was impossible; I was, after all, an outsider looking in—an American tourist trying to engage with indigenous wisdom. Then again, here was Hamilton Souther, a gringo like me who had done just that, having trained under traditional ayahuasqueros to attain the exalted title of “maestro.” Now he was doing things his own way, and who was I to say it didn’t work? It just wasn't working for me.
If anyone else shared my qualms, they were equally keen on keeping things to themselves. Many were having dramatic experiences night after night and needed little convincing of the medicine’s powers. A few remained quietly reflective and introverted (or perhaps shell-shocked, and mum as a result). All the while, the Blue Morpho regulars kept up the convivial atmosphere. In the end, I decided to let go and enjoy myself, to quash the jumble of confused disappointment shuffling around in my head.
On our final morning, the apprentices held a closing talk. There were several dietary and behavioral restrictions to be followed in the coming days: no sex, alcohol, pork or sweets, as per the traditional practice of ayahuasca healing. Mimi then offered some insight into the transformation process currently underway within us. “By a year’s time, your life will have changed noticeably for the better,” she said. “The plant spirits are inside you, and they will continue to work in your life after you leave Blue Morpho.”
I wanted to believe this—and to an extent, I did. But there was a voice in my mind that called it out as an empty conceit. With the way things had been going before I left for Peru, there was no question my life was about to change drastically (though it was hard to say for better or worse). How much this week in the jungle could be held responsible for it seemed impossible to know.
Before heading back to Iquitos, we said our goodbyes to the Blue Morpho staff. I approached John first and thanked him sincerely with a warm hug. Though we’d spoken very little, the initial connection I’d felt to him had strengthened during my stay. Everyone I’d met had been friendly and kind, but I appreciated his presence most of all.
I thanked Hamilton, shaking his hand. Despite my reservations, I respected him as a healer and devout seeker of knowledge. It took something extraordinary to have accomplished what he had, as a westerner fully immersed in an archaic world of nature and spirit. There were still countless things not dreamt of in my philosophy, I realized, realms of existence that I could hardly imagine. I had come here hoping for a glimpse into these other worlds through ayahuasca, to better understand myself. But for some reason, that hadn’t happened. Now I had to figure out how I felt about it.
* * *
I hopped on a flight back to Lima from Iquitos, but my journey was far from over. A friend from the States was waiting for me at a hostel, and we would be traveling together in Peru over the next week and a half. I was in no way prepared to rush back to my interrupted life of uncertainties and loose ends. Backpacking through a strange country was the perfect distraction.
But before long, my mind found plenty of opportunities to wrestle its demons. A stomach bug laid me up in a hotel room for the better part of an afternoon, swaddled in bed sheets with my thoughts turning in feverish circles. The same inner monologue kept me company over a grueling 12-hour bus ride from Arequipa to Cusco. I thought about the signs and messages that impelled to come down here, thousands of miles away, in search of mysteries I never encountered. I wondered what awaited me at home and how I would face all the problems I’d left hanging in mid-air. And like a mantra, one question kept returning: Why hadn’t ayahuasca worked for me?
Looking back, there was something special about the day that I was robbed. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but everything had a certain effortless flow from one chance circumstance to the next. Perhaps for this same reason, it was also the happiest I’d felt the entire trip—that is, right up to the final act. I’d parted ways with my travel companion the night before. He was headed on to Bolivia, and I had only a few days left in Peru before flying home. This was my first solo day of exploring since we’d joined forces, and as any backpacker worth his Tevas will tell you, it’s a remarkably different experience going it alone. With only your intuition as a guide, synchronicity kicks into high gear.
I spent the day touring the spectacular Inca ruins at Pisac, a market village nearby in the Sacred Valley. On my way back into town I shared a taxi with a young British woman who’d been living in Cusco for several months. She was a researcher studying the effects of tourism on the native Quechua people. Her insights into Peruvian culture were fascinating; I offered to accompany her to her apartment to continue our chat. As we passed a police precinct, the subject of crime against tourists came up.
“You know, it does happen here,” she admitted. “But you just have to be aware. Don’t go wandering around at night out of the busy parts of town. Leave your valuables in your room. It’s just like any other city, really.”
We came to her building and parted ways. Before going inside, she handed me a red slip of paper. “If you’re looking for something to do tonight, this is a flyer for a bar in San Blas with live Quechua blues music. It’s worth checking out.”
I thanked her and made my way to the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s picturesque main square. Evening had settled in, and the antique iron streetlamps bathed the town in an amber glow. After visiting for four days, this place had cast its spell on me. The following afternoon I would embark on a 22-hour bus ride back to Lima, and from there, a return flight to Miami. This was my final night in Cusco, and one of my last in Peru; I decided to make it a memorable one. Pulling the flyer from my pocket, I made my way up one of the steep avenues toward the lively arts district of San Blas.
The narrow sidewalks were flooded with locals and tourists alike milling about the shops and stalls. An artisan market caught my eye, and I stopped by to pick up some gifts for my family. The buzzing serenity I’d felt earlier in the day rose up again inside, energizing my pace. I jogged around the more leisurely pedestrians, moving lithely despite the weight of my now overstuffed daypack. The bar was definitely close, but I wasn’t sure exactly where. I glanced down at the flyer to recall the address.
“What’re you looking for?” A young Peruvian man asked as I passed by.
I flashed him the flyer, eager for a point in the right direction. “It’s a bar around here. I haven’t been there before, but it’s nearby.”
He looked over the slip of paper. “This is next to my hostel,” he said, walking ahead of me. “I will show you—I’m going that way.”
Without breaking stride, I followed him up the sloping cobblestone lane. The impulse struck me to practice my conversational Spanish with him. “De dónde eres?” I asked, affecting a crude accent.
“I’m from Nazca.” He shot me a slight smile and kept walking. “The bar is just up here.”
“Eres un estudiante?”
He didn’t answer; he had stopped walking. We were standing in a dimly lit side street, with no bars or people in sight. My stomach dropped with the realization. In the next instant, I spun around to see a second man coming up behind me, holding a knife in my face.
“Dinero!” the first man shouted. “Your money!”
They stripped off my daypack and shoulder bag, all that I had with me. The full significance of what was going on took a few moments to sink in. Tucked away inside one of the bags were all of my cash and both credit cards. I had no way to access my accounts, and nothing left on my person save for a bit of pocket change. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.
* * *
The following day was July 27th—a weekend and, incidentally, the eve of Peru’s Independence Day. All banks and money transfer offices were closed in honor of the national anniversary. I spent the festive occasion roaming the streets aimlessly, weighing my sorry predicament. With less than four dollars jingling in my pocket, I couldn’t afford to eat. Every cent that remained had to be saved for emails and phone calls. There were few options, as I saw it. Outside of groveling to American tourists for a handout, I had no clue how I would manage to get back home.
It was a profound feeling to be so totally at the mercy of fate, destitute and alone in a foreign country. I had little choice but to resign myself to it. My bus for Lima was scheduled to leave by six that evening; the ticket was already purchased. I still needed money to pay my accommodations, to cover expenses to the airport, and for everything else along the way. I resolved to make it back to Lima and sort things out there.
Ambling through the crowds along Cusco’s timeworn promenades, I felt like a ghost—unseen and unheard, abandoned to my own haunted reveries. I wondered what the message was I was supposed to take away from all of this, what the universe was trying to tell me. From what I could make of it, there wasn’t much to write home about. Here I was, at the end of my last-ditch quest for illumination, and in many ways more bitter and broken than when I’d started. After dropping thousands of dollars on a spiritual awakening gone bust, getting rolled for all the rest of my cash seemed a fitting finale. It was almost too much to bear. A familiar voice surfaced in my mind, despite my best efforts to hold it at bay: Never mind the divine…this is all there is…
With a few hours left before my departure, I was struck by an odd compulsion. I wanted to go to San Blas under the safety of daylight, back to where I was mugged. Maybe the robbers had left something behind, I thought, knowing full well this was a delusional hope. But what could it hurt? I made sure I had nothing to lose, stashing my precious remaining money at the hostel alongside my passport and bus ticket, and began to retrace my steps to the scene of the crime.
The narrow alley looked perfectly harmless in the afternoon sun. I leaned against a brick wall, scanning the cobblestones for any trace of my misfortune the previous night. Finding nothing, I decided to follow the path a bit further to where my assailants had slunk off. Just around the bend, the passage opened up to a clutter of clotheslines strung between tiny adobe houses: a neighborhood, devoid of tourists. The perfect getaway route.
What am I doing out here? I asked myself sullenly. This was pointless; I should just go wait for the bus. Weary with despair, I tromped down the hill toward my hostel. After a few minutes of walking I felt my exhausted mind going numb, shutting down. I stopped for a moment to get my bearings. My gaze fell on an unremarkable avenue to the right, curving uphill and into the shadows. Looks like the kind of place to avoid at night, I mused. The next thought came: So why not check it out now?
Shrugging at my own suggestion, I broke off the main road and started up the winding path. It was perfectly quiet with no cars or people, save for myself. I strode in silence, my mind falling peacefully still. The avenue crested a slight rise and leveled off in the distance where sunlight filtered in between the buildings. Suddenly a lone figure appeared up ahead—a man walking slowly toward me. As his features came into view, I was gripped by a powerful sense of awe. It was John from Blue Morpho, hundreds of miles from the jungles of Iquitos. I called out his name; it took him a few moments to recognize me.
“Hey, man! How’ve you been?” he exclaimed as he approached, grinning broadly.
With little pretense, I explained my situation. John listened quietly to my story. As I concluded, his hand went to his wallet and pulled out a few bills. He handed me the money. It was just enough to get home, with a little extra for meals along the way.
As we stood there together in the empty avenue, the events of the past few weeks reeled through my mind like a cinematic flashback. In an instant, I understood: what they told us at Blue Morpho was true. From the moment I set foot in Peru, the plant spirits were guiding my path every step of the way. There were no accidents. My intuitive urges to search for the Quechua bar, to return to where I was robbed, and now, to wander inexplicably up this lonely street—all had been part of a grand narrative, an otherworldly trial to inspire my soul.
The heavy gloom crushing my chest faded away, replaced by a radiant and beaming gratitude. I had not been forsaken. Ayahuasca had given me my life-changing lesson, as profound as any psychedelic vision. Finally, my doubts were put to rest. There were wise and benevolent forces operating behind the veil of reality, just as I'd long suspected but never fully perceived. In this moment it was all laid bare before me.
Still rapt with wonder, I turned to John for confirmation. “I just—I can’t believe I ran into you like this,” I stammered. “It’s amazing.”
“This is the way the medicine works,” he replied softly, without a hint of surprise.
Image by Dave_b_, used courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet