Saturday, 10 December 2011

Experiencing the force of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca

As those of you who know me personally know, I am always up for trying out new things from other cultures.  Well my visit to the Peruvian Amazon was no exception, and whilst I was there I took the opportunity to try the substance that is known as ayahuasca, made from a jungle vine.  Ayahuasca is more than just a hallucinogenic drug to the local people though.  Taking ayahuasca for them is a religious sacrement and it is also widely used in their traditional medicine.  They take advantage of the fact that it induces intense vomiting and diarrhoea to clean the body of worms, parasites and toxins.

Originally I did not think that I would get the opportunity to try ayahuasca, as our tour was already prebooked and did not include any ayahuasca ceremony in the itinerary.  As part of our tour though we got to meet a couple of young healers to talk about the medicinal properties of various plants that you can encounter in the jungle.  At the end of the talk I asked them if there would be any possibility to try ayahuasca later in the evening, and it seems I was in luck as another tourist was already taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony later that evening, and they said it would be possible to join him.

Anny holding the vine from which ayahuasca is extracted

Someone came to our lodge to pick up me and the other guy at around eight thirty in the evening.  The other guy told me that he had tried ayahuasca twice before in the US, despite it being illegal there, and that he had travelled to the Peruvian Amazon for the sole purpose of taking part in a week long series of ayahuasca ceremonies.  He had already taken it the two preceding nights, and told me to expect a lot of vomiting taking it for the first time.  I asked him if he had had any hallucinations but he said that he had not, although he had seen many other people having hallucinations throughout the various ceremonies he had attended.  I was not sure what to expect and I felt it best to just enter the whole experience with an open mind and see what happened.

The shamens normally have their hut outside the main part of the village so that there are no distractions for the participants and so that they can focus on the ceremony itself.  When we arrived at the hut the shamen himself was busy with a villager and we (the Japanese guy and myself) sat in the darkened room with a younger healer who started to prepare the ayahuasca.  The preparation consisted of a series of rituals combining smoke (which is very important in their traditional medicine and is blown into the bottle containing the ayahuasca) and songs (which are whistled throughout the whole process) and some words (almost like a prayer to the ayahuasca that it would treat us well).  The shamen then entered the room and repeated the process that the young healer had started, but for a shorter period of time, and the ayahuasca was now ready for our use.

First to take the ayahuasca was the Japanese guy.  He swallowed down the liquid quickly and then handed the cup back to the shamen.  Some more smoke was blown and songs whistled, and then next was my turn.  I checked with the shamen that I should drink the whole cup and not just part, as I didn't want to take more than was necessary.  He reassured me that it was fine to drink the whole cup and I started to swallow it down.  The liquid was very bitter and I tried to drink it as quickly as possible.  It was not a drink that you would want to sip and savour the flavour.  Next the young healer and the shamen took the ayahuasca and then we all sat down in silence waiting for the drug to take effect.

Half an hour passed and I still felt nothing, other than the occasional eruption of gas and rumble of my stomach.  The young healer left the building and went into the forest outside and I assumed that he had gone to be sick.  He came back shortly afterwards and then it was the turn of the Japanese guy.  I could hear him vomiting outside and I wondered whether I would be out there alongside him shortly afterwards.  The Japanese guy returned and then suddenly the drug started to take effect.

At first I felt just slightly dizzy, but then as time went on I started to see fuzzy multicolored patterns infront of my eyes.  Next I started to feel as if I was a snake and I was moving my hands in a kind of wave motion.  I realised now that I was really starting to get into the twilight zone and that strange things would start to happen.  I would close my eyes and then when I looked up suddenly there would be a person standing there infront of me, but in fact there was noone and it was just my imagination.  The urge to vomit came and I went outside ready for the cleanising of my body to commence.  As I was stood outside strange things started to appear at the edge of the garden where the forest began.  I would see people that suddenly would disappear and then animals started to appear.  At first the animals were scary like big black dogs and a wild boar or big and a dead badger on top of the compost heap in the corner of the garden.  Then later the animals became more exciting and less scary.  I saw a polar bear and a white horse and I didn't feel scared of them.  I just remember thinking how beautiful they were.  Inside the hut the shamen and the younger healer began to whistle the ayahuasca song and start to shake their rattles.  My perception of sound was heightened and everything around me began to vibrate.  The sound of a mosquito buzzing about me was driving me insane.

Inbetween the bouts of vomiting I returned to the hut and sat with the group.  Inside the hut with the whistling and the rattles being shaken vigorously I felt waves of euphoria rushing through my body.  The sounds, the dizziness, the visions - I had control of myself enough that I knew what was happening, but at the same time the drug was running its course inside me, and I felt its power.  The shamens believe that in this state they can communicate with their ancestors, and I am not sure whether I believe in that kind of thing or not, but I can see how it takes them away from their normal state of mind where everyday distractions can take over.

After two hours or so the effects of the ayahuasca began to fade, but it was another hour of vomiting and diarrhoea before I started to feel that I was back to my usual self.  Three hours after the ceremony began we were all more or less okay again, and the young healer did a quick healing ceremony on me and explained the things that I should and should not do in the coming days.  For instance he explained that you should not have sex for at least a day, and that you should not eat pork for at least fifteen days afterwards.  He also told me that my aura was very positive and that I would lead a good life.  He then took the Japense guy and me back to the lodge and I took a well deserved sleep.

In the morning the young healer came to the lodge to deliver some traditional medicines to our fellow tourists, and Anny asked him what my visions had meant.  He explained that the polar bear and white horse are very positive signs, and good things will happen.  The black pig or wild boar that I saw on the other hand is a very bad sign, and he says this was my body and mind ridding itself of something very negative.  Once again I am not sure whether I believe in this kind of thing or not, but around the time I saw the black pig or wild boar I recalled one of my ex girlfriends who treated me very badly.  So that does kind of fit with what he was saying.

I cannot say that I feel the need to try ayahuasca again, despite the fact that you are normally meant to do it three consecutive times, as it has a kind of learning curve associated with it, and each time the visions lead you a little further down the path to enlightenment they say.  I can say however that I felt pretty good the following day, except for being a little tired, and I am glad that I got the chance to try it at least once.  When I am old and grey I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I tried all the weird and wonderful things that exist out there, and not to always have to wonder what something would have been like.

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