This is a journal I kept during my most recent stay at the SpiritQuest shamanic sanctuary in the Peruvian Amazon. It tells a tale of being confronted by inner and external demons in the throes of Ayahuasca, undergoing full sensory acuity through ancient rites of sacred cacti and finally dying by the hand of a fellow human who’s been dead for three millennia. All entries were written the day after each ceremony; since returning home, I have proof-read and edited for clarification.
I have re-used and updated the glossary and cast of characters from last year’s journal.
SpiritQuest– a retreat located on the banks of the Río Momón in the Amazon jungle. In order to get there one must first travel to Iquitos, further on to a coastal village and then proceed by motor boat down the river for half an hour. Neither words nor photos can do this Eden-like sanctuary justice – simply a stunning setting surrounded by vast rainforests in all directions. The centre’s proprietor is also its architect: don Howard was shown the construction and placement of SpiritQuest in an Ayahuasca ceremony and went on to bring his vision to life.
Don Howard – Owner and founder of SpiritQuest. With over 50 years of experience in traditional sacred plant shamanism, coupled with a wide acumen in western academia, he has conducted Ayahuasca and Huachuma SpiritQuest retreats in Peru every month since 1995.
Don Rober – The shaman leading the Ayahuasca ceremonies: small and unassuming in stature but with giant presence. A true banco ayahuasquero, a maestro curandero (master healer) who has mastered the art and science of Ayahuasca healing at the highest level. He has practiced vegetalista curanderismo (traditional plant healing) for over 50 years, beginning as an apprentice at age eleven with his father, uncle and grandfather – all renowned curanderos.
Doña Eliana – Don Rober’s wife and a master vegetalista curandera in her own right. They have worked together for more than 40 years and are as adorably umbilical as I’ve ever seen a couple. When don Rober sings his icaros she does so with him – almost eerily synchronized from decades of mutual work, which gives another layer of depth to them.
Maloca – A maloca is a longhouse. The one most commonly referred to is the ceremonial maloca in which the Ayahuasca is consumed. On the SpiritQuest grounds there’s also a dining maloca and a recreational maloca.
Icaro + chakapa – The icaros are songs the shaman chants during the ceremony. They have a number of different practical applications: among other uses they can heighten or diminish the medicine’s intensity; call upon spirits; or be used to protect, or in other ways handle the ceremony. They are not composed in the manner of traditional music: a true icaro is not written by the curandero, but given to him or her from the plants. The word itself derives from the Quechua language and means “to blow smoke in order to heal”. The singing is accompanied by the chakapa, a bundle of dried leaves that is used to carry the rhythm of the song.
Mapacho – South American black tobacco – considered sacred by Amazonian shamans who use it in healing practices. One does not inhale the smoke: it’s held in the mouth until forcibly exhaled. During a ceremony one will continuously hear the shamans using it in various procedures. There are also specific mapacho ceremonies, which are powerful in and of themselves.
Ayahuasca ceremonial timeline – Congregating in the ceremonial maloca at 9:30 pm, participants are first blessed with a protective sealing called an arkana. Don Rober will then give an introductory talk, translated by don Howard. After taking turns to drink the Ayahuasca, the participants sit silently as the remaining candles are gradually snuffed out until it is pitch black, around the 40 minute mark. The first icaro usually starts shortly thereafter and lasts for 20 minutes. From then on, icaros will come and go in a random order, selected on the fly by don Rober (who if I recall correctly has about 60 of them in his arsenal). Towards the end the shamans close the ceremony by making the rounds to everyone and performing the second, final sealing. A candle is lit, which means people can come and go at their behest as long as it’s done discreetly. This is usually around 1 am, give or take half an hour. Socialising is discouraged until breakfast the following morning. From 7 am and onwards the shaman couple give flower baths, which is the official closing of the ceremony and is meant to bring you fully back into ‘normal’ frequency. As the scented water splashes over you, they sing an icaro while using chakapas and mapacho.
The Ayahuasca retreat lasted eight days with ceremonies on day two, four, six and seven. Huachuma was seven days, with mesadas on the second, fourth and sixth.
My partner and I attended separately this time, agreeing that it would be more beneficial to be able to focus exclusively on ourselves without distractions. As she did just a month prior, I would stay at SpiritQuest for a week of Huachuma following the series of Ayahuasca ceremonies. Huachuma is the ancient name for what is now more commonly known as the San Pedro cactus – its Post-Columbian name referring to the warden of the Pearly gates, he who holds the keys to the gateways of heaven.
‘Fortunately, I’m being picked up from the airport. I’d rather not try to navigate Iquitos on my own, least of all in one of those ghastly mototaxis.’
Racing down the streets of Iquitos – clinging to the mototaxi for dear life, I couldn’t suppress a tinge of bittersweet irony when reflecting on what I’d told my father a mere 36 hours earlier. For reasons beyond my control, I was arriving one day behind the rest of the group and had as a result missed the shuttle bus from the airport. When the front wheel tyre blew on the crowded streets though, there was not a semblance of sweetness blended with the bitter. After trailing behind the driver pushing his now defunct motokar down a small street into what was increasingly giving the impression of being an unsavoury area to a nearby workshop, I stood outside in the scorching equatorial sun for half an hour while the taxi was being mended. I couldn’t help but notice that my kamikaze chauffeur had decorated the tripod terror with various stickers: Red Bull, ‘Adrenaline’ and the Ferrari logo – which might explain his predilection for death-defying driving, as if every vehicle ahead of him was a mortal insult. To pass the time, he felt obliged to entertain me with witty conversation (judging from the constant sniggering at his own remarks). My lack of even basic comprehension of the Spanish language didn’t deter him in the slightest, as he would just repeat the same thing louder and slower a few times until I pretended to understand by nodding and forcing out a chuckle.
‘Muchas chicas’, he said with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, pointing at a passing young lass in a short skirt – I got that one at least.
Once the wheel was operational again and after an additional 45 minutes of zig-zagging in and out of traffic, a renewed spike in blood pressure and litanies to most known deities, we reached the docks where the SpiritQuest boat awaited to bring me to the safety of the sanctuary.
It felt strange, being back in the ceremonial maloca approximately one year later.
Bearing in mind the first ceremony of last time, with regards to intensity of both purge and effects, I felt a bit apprehensive in light of the medicine’s seemingly boundless power. I chose the same spot from my previous visit. My intentions for this evening were of guidance and enlightenment; I’m currently at the biggest crossroad of my life, at which I’m going to have to make some thoroughly difficult decisions. I wanted to know which path would be the most beneficial for myself, my partner and our future life together. When it was my turn to drink, I marched towards the cup in trepidation. Returning to my mat again was with a confident strut – the foul tasting sludge burning in my throat and melting away all fear and anxiety. Sitting down again, I somehow knew I was going to be treated gently. By the end of the first icaro – perhaps an hour later, I was surprised at not having a semblance of nausea but instead felt excellent both physically and mentally. These past months, almost all of my spare time has been dedicated to a writing project that I finished up just before coming here – I’ve therefore had scant opportunity to simply dwell in silent contemplation, which is something I usually engage in quite often. Sitting cross-legged I took the opportunity to do just that, alternating between meditating to the icaros and a general pondering in the silent stretches between them.
Having arrived earlier the same day, I hadn’t really managed to tune-in to the vibe of the sanctuary yet. Now, I felt that ceremonial and sacred mind-set I cherished so during my last stay, making this reflective foray rather pleasant. At the time I didn’t even realise the Ayahuasca had taken effect – albeit rather subtly, as enjoyment is not what I’ve come to expect from it. It was only once the candle had been lit that I realised that during the course of the ceremony I’d made a few important alterations to the intention structure I’d set for this cycle. I’d also got the impression that the evening’s objectives were not at all what the medicine thought I needed, probably because I’d more or less made up my mind already. The more unpleasant matters I’d planned to deal with but didn’t want to bring to the first ceremony would have to be next. Upon reaching these conclusions, I was flooded with an ethereal sense of bliss. I scanned the dimly lit maloca until I found the white Ayahuasca mandala tapestry and was immediately greeted by the same vision as last year: a hooded female figure in a white robe. Walking back to my room the darkness had a beautiful luminescent quality, the air illuminated by my flashlight glistening as if sprinkled with diamond dust. This is written in my quarters the following morning: having just had the flower bath and eaten breakfast I’m in a terrific mood, and don’t think this venture could have started off any better.
Waiting for lunch, I detected the presence of a winged monstrosity hovering around my head and instinctively waved it away. Suddenly, intense pain shot through my left ring finger as the Amazonian wasp stung me. A month earlier, my partner was bitten on the lip whilst holding a baby anaconda that a local tribe had caught and in the succeeding ceremony went on to have powerful visions of the aquatic serpent as a spirit animal. I couldn’t help but wonder if this meant I’d be having revelations in celestial kinship of my own, though admittedly there are more flattering selections than paraphyletic insects to project as your feral archetype. Given the choice, I imagine most would have hoped for something along the lines of the wolf, an eagle or perhaps a noble feline such as the lion; howling in windswept valleys, soaring over vast plains or prowling the savanna – not an airborne annoyance.
As I type this, the time is now 06:02 and I have officially given up on sleep.
Cup filled to the brim, this evening’s ceremony was meant to ‘turn up the volume’, as don Howard put it. I was hoping to expel superfluous negative and destructive energy, believing myself still burdened by residue from a time when I was a different person. My hopes were that this would be helpful in preparing me for even harder work I feel the need to put myself through. This kind of emotional cleansing is expedited by “the purge”, an activity anyone familiar with the cup knows is as much a mental catharsis as a physical one. Perhaps 20 minutes after drinking, a surge of energy rippled through body and being with equal power; eyes closed, I focused on stilling my mind. Subtle patterns spun around the blackness and a jolt shuddered from my root chakra up my spine. The past year I’ve been practicing meditation regularly and it was as if I, in a mere instant, awakened the kundalini energy that usually washes over me gradually during extended introspective sessions. I felt ready.
Just as I was on the cusp of parting the veil, the effects fizzled out and I tumbled down to baseline in an undignified plunge. Surprised but still trying to maintain my headspace, I felt a dark mood creep on as my sudden sobriety flooded me with erratic thoughts and wallowing disappointment. I used the same defensive technique that I employ when meditating; all distracting impulses are to be acknowledged, noted and then sent on their way. I’m pleased to report that none of them gained a foothold. I experienced some nausea this time and even produced a laughable discharge more akin to dribbling than spewing. Despite forcibly visualising redundant vitriol while kneeling before the purge bucket, as if praying for it to receive my innermost bile, I got little more than acid reflux. This, as well as clinging on to my meditative state while fending off silly sentiments, is essentially what took my sole focus for the duration of the ceremony. I slowly realised that what at the time seemed like diminishing effects was in fact when this evening’s trial began, the frustration and chagrin likely drawn forth to test my resilience. When this happened last year I succumbed wholeheartedly to disenchantment and sulking. Not allowing it to bother me this time around and instead making the best of the situation filled me with a fortified conviction in Ayahuasca’s superb ability to provide tools for self-improvement; it also told me that I had implemented and retained lessons from past lectures. I‘ve always had a restless and impatient nature, which can be creatively advantageous in some regards, but hindering in others if I struggle to rein it in. Just like how people with anger issues are bound to experience feelings of rage while working with Ayahuasca, it is to be expected that I would be confronted with feelings like this.
Candle lit on the altar, I’d been staring at the usual tapestry while pondering the riddles of the brew for about 45 minutes when I decided to close the evening by smoking some mapacho. Why, I have not a clue – at the time a sturdy kick to the scrotum would have sounded more appealing than the harsh black tobacco; I’d had quite enough of vile tastes in my mouth, yet something compelled me to light up the cigarro. Some 20 minutes later I felt a rekindled wave of nausea, and to my complete surprise it was accompanied by a strong Ayahuasca effect – far more overwhelming than before! Battling vertigo, I visualised the undesirable baggage I wanted scourged as I resumed my arched bucket vigil. Like a reverse root lock, I inhaled resolve to cast out the old, sweating profusely as a tsunami of revolting mucus sprung forth from my mouth. Without resorting to details and as most that have worked with Ayahuasca can tell you, it’s astounding what a flood of unpleasantness your innards can produce despite fasting the preceding eight to nine hours. It’s as if negative spiritual residue assumes physical manifestation.
The subsequent cerebral chaos was confusing, smothering and even frightening. I was so bewildered that I kept hoping for the icaros to resume soon, only to have to remind myself that don Rober and doña Eliana had long since departed, and were as such unlikely to return for a spontaneous encore. This must have gone on for at least an hour, during which I sat hunched up against the wall with my head over the bucket. When the lone candle started burning out I took it as a sign to return to my lodging. With the nausea and resulting visceral yield now under control, the psychoactive effects felt even stronger, but I was simultaneously so drained and exhausted that I thought it prudent to head back in case I fell asleep. Attempting to get to my feet, only then did I notice the body load. I couldn’t walk properly and had to lean onto beams, walls and railings the entire way – all the while struggling to see through my flickering vision. When I finally made it to my room, the enterprise of brushing my teeth seemed overwhelming so I crashed straight into bed. Despite physical and mental fatigue it was immediately obvious that there was going to be no sleep to be had; mind racing, ravaged by emotional and visual confusion. Seemingly out of nowhere, I came to the realisation and acknowledgement for the first time in my life that my parents will die one day – undoubtedly a revelation that will surprise very few people, but I don’t think I’d ever admitted it to myself before. This was dreadfully painful and sent tears streaming down my face into the pillow. I decided that I would be sure to convey my sincere gratitude for all their hard work to provide me with the best and most secure upbringing they could muster. I remained there, riding out the maelstrom until I felt composed enough to get up and start writing this journal entry.
I’m still not sure what the ultimate lesson of this final torrent was but it’s curious to note that it would have been improbable to happen, had I not lit up the mapacho. Smoked during the onset, it has potentiating qualities; but I had no idea that it could do what it did several hours after drinking. It doubtlessly served some purpose since the idea to do so was most assuredly not mine. If nothing else, weathering that gale will definitely have fortified my confidence in maintaining calm in the midst of heavy turbulence.
Despite the lack of sleep I was expecting to feel more elated and rekindled, having purged so much dark energy. Instead, I felt depleted and sombre. We had a Bobinsana ceremony in the evening: drinking an infusion of wild honey and essence of the Calliandra angustifolia tree, it has heart opening qualities and induces visions through dreams. After participating in one last year I had, over the following two months, the most insanely vivid and lucid dreams of my life. Immediately after consuming the beverage it renders a mild but pleasant and relaxing euphoria. Leaning back in my chair, eyes shut – I tapped my hand over my heart in beat to the chakapa while immersing myself in the icaros and could literally feel myself being rejuvenated. It was only then that it occurred to me that the emotions which were subjected to violent expulsion had to be replaced with something, making the timing of the dream tree sap absolutely perfect.
‘Be careful what you wish for’.
Don Howard’s caution came to mind at multiple occasions as the evening unfolded, the first time being when I choked down the second cup. Today’s batch was a new one and tasted even worse, adding an acrid and sour aftertaste to the rot and mould – for the next 20 minutes I kept shuddering with revulsion while fighting to keep it down. Most people rinse their mouths immediately after drinking but I wait until I’m deep in the medicine and have purged; fresh water cleansing your mouth at that point is a near divine sensation and well worth the wait.
Usually, I try to sit upright during ceremonies, but after the first icaro I felt the urge to lie down. I assumed the Savasana position, corpse pose. Shortly thereafter don Rober and doña Eliana rustled their chakapas to a strange beat, then began chanting an icaro I’d never heard before. Starting off almost disharmonically, it evolved into the most breathtakingly beautiful melody – both voices in perfect unison and with matching passion. This is truly one of the finest music compositions I have ever heard – incredible. Later, I asked don Howard about it and he told me it was the icaro of San Cipriano, a sorcerer who became a saint and was posthumously proclaimed patron of redemption and transformation. This dirge from the netherworld stirred something in the depths of my soul. In the past I haven’t had many real Ayahuasca visions, the brew opting to work mostly through emotions, thoughts and occasional mental images. Now, the visuals were full on: beastly feline and serpentine creatures with a hundred blistering eyes, mushrooms as alien spacecrafts, and vast jungles. A recurring element of distraction when I commune with visionary agents, likely because I’m a writer, is my perpetual propensity to transcribe what I see into words. Subconsciously envisaging how I’m to describe it in writing – narrating the present for the future rather than experiencing it in the now. This time, my linguistic proclivity manifested in a glimpse into my own mind; I saw an endless night sky with every star appearing as a letter of the alphabet, drifting into constellations of words before dispersing again. I then had a vision of don Howard making his way off the beaten path through the jungle thicket in his distinct walking style – an unhurried and almost floating stride. Following his lead through the wilderness ignited an additional pull, drawing me further down into the cauldron. Between icaros there was whispered chanting all around, as well as ritualistic drumming out from the jungle darkness. I also caught a slightly more unexpected sound as I knelt over the purge bucket and heard the gentleman on the mat next to mine laughing. He told me during breakfast this morning that he’d looked my way and seen me turn into an iguana, drinking from a water bowl. I’m not quite sure what to make of this to be honest; I don’t ever recall thinking about this animal before.
Visiting the toilet, I had a brief slapstick performance after the aide who assisted me led me into my room. I had left my flashlight on the windowsill next to the door and as I was fumbling for it, she thought I was looking for the light switch, prompting her to assist me with switching it on. Ayahuasca makes one incredibly light sensitive so the ceiling lamp shone like a star going nova, making me cry out in a fairly emasculating manner and covering my eyes in shock horror. The poor aide was mortified and spent our walk back apologising emphatically.
My intention for this ceremony was to bring clarification and closure to a past trauma, an unfortunate debacle that transpired in early 2014. At the time, I was greatly influenced by the late ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna and thought shamanism was about constantly pushing boundaries and testing yourself – and as such consumed adventurous dosages of teonanácatl mushrooms, Salvia Divinorum, edible cannabis and so forth. I never used these plant sacraments in any kind of flippant fashion though, always with a consecrated approach and rarely more often than once every two or three months. I don’t regret any of this as it gifted me with the most profound and life-changing events of my life, instances I still think about almost daily. The crescendo came when I thought it would be a marvellous idea to inhale the Diviner’s Sage in the climax of a heavy teonanácatl ceremony. I reckoned myself having forayed just about as deep as you can into both worlds and figured the next logical step would be investigating where synergy would take me. To make a long story short, I was catapulted into the Salvia dimension; a nightmarish cenobite version of it and domains where no man should ever tread ground. Even worse: when I returned something had come back with me, inside my head. I realise this must sound like utter nonsense to many reading this but that’s what happened, which I’m sure my terrified friends who witnessed this would attest to. It was so awful that I was begging them to kill me, as the thought of living for another second was intolerable. A few months later I forced myself to set sail back into the Salvia mists, in order to grovel for forgiveness from the green lady that presides over them. I still visit occasionally and have since brought back nothing but positive experiences. Even though I wouldn’t go through that ordeal again for all the riches in the world, by no means would I wish it undone. It made me stronger and wiser – a costly reward, admittedly. My first ever Ayahuasca ceremony last year healed the mental wounds it inflicted and helped me process it – by bringing me right back to that place and making me re-live it. Since then it hasn’t really bothered me but I still had some questions pertaining to it, mostly if the uninvited guest left anything but scars behind. I knew this was going to be intense work, which is why I asked for that second cup.
Thus when I found myself at purgatory’s doorstep, on the verge of sinking back into that wretched abyss, I was at least spared the surprise. I recognised the horrible cold, clammy and foreboding feeling – sweating copiously with my heart pounding and mind in disarray – every indication of an imminent panic attack. Unlike last year, I didn’t submit to dread but heard don Howard’s voice in my head, something he’d said the previous day: ‘if you fear something, dig a little deeper and lean right into it’. Instead of trying to shield myself with stillness of mind, I stepped away from the shelter to face the storm. Grimacing, I implored the medicine to put me through whatever she deemed necessary – as long as it wouldn’t disturb anyone else’s experience with me making noise. As the ensuing tide rolled in, I had to summon every available grain of willpower to stay afloat – this lasted until about 90 minutes after the candle had been lit and most had left the maloca. Once I was poised enough to sit up, I gathered my belongings and staggered off to my room. I stopped at one of the massive Ayahuasca vines that grow all around our wooden shrine, gripped it in my hand and closed my eyes as a wave of reverence coursed through my veins. I also halted for a moment to gaze out into the Amazon forest – the most mysterious place on earth. Back in my bed I felt a medicament resurgence and was soon writhing in a dreamlike but waking trance – it wasn’t until three hours later that I finally managed to fall into a restless slumber. I woke up two hours later at 8am and went out to the flower bath. Covered in petals and the cool, scented water, I almost started weeping as my whole body shook and spasmed uncontrollably while don Rober and doña Eliana performed the closing icaro. It may be too early and untested to determine but I get the feeling that the night’s conquered tribulations finally sealed away the remaining bothering aspects from my interdimensional distress. A chunk of it will, however, always remain firmly ingrained within me; and will serve as a cautionary monument and reminder to never again get careless when working with teacher plants.
I’m writing this at noon the following day and feel delighted to be alive and moderately sane, a common reaction to emerging unbroken from a stare-down with the eye of the storm. One thing I might as well point out – I fear people reading this might get a distorted view of Ayahuasca as many of the ceremonies I’ve documented have to various degrees been moderately unpleasant. The vast majority of my fellow travellers seem to have had significantly more uplifting and spiritual experiences. I ask for and embrace mine as precisely what I need; overcoming adversity and challenging myself is how I grow and develop character. Ultimately it’s about the destination, not the journey leading to it, so if the path is fraught with peril then so be it. As don Howard pointed out, shamanism is result-oriented – not geared towards experience. In order to feel genuine hope, one should also know despair.
Final and second consecutive audience with the vine of souls.
With only two hours of sleep on the back of a pair of rather difficult ceremonies, I felt wrecked. I tried to take a nap beforehand but was too restless. For this ceremony I refrained from setting a specific intent, electing to approach the medicine as an empty chalice waiting to be filled. I did however make it known that I wouldn´t be devastated if I was spared unspeakable horrors this time.
For the first 40 or so minutes after drinking, I sat upright and cross-legged. Starting from the gut, I could feel the tonic spread through my body. When the first icaro started I lay down on my back and soon drifted off into a deep visionary state. My departure can best be described as if my head was gently lifted off the mat and carried straight up in the air, detaching from my body and unrestricted by flesh and bone. Ascending, I saw myself from the outside; first over the sanctuary and then through the sky straight into orbit. Spirits hovered all around, many waving to me. Two of them pointed behind me with some urgency so I turned my attention in that direction. I didn’t notice at the time but I physically rolled over to my side and turned my head towards the wall behind me. A gigantic sandal-clad foot the size of a small truck crashed down in front of me – it looked like the limb of a Greek god, shining with a golden hue. I tried to get a glimpse of the owner but was blinded by radiance. I have no idea what it was but at no point was I ever in the least bit afraid, if anything I felt sheer veneration. The next thing I knew I was soaring again – passing through surroundings reminiscent of Pablo Amaringo’s Ayahuasca art but mostly in greyscale. Suddenly, I took a steep but gentle descent. Out of all the ridiculously weird things I’ve experienced with Ayahuasca, what happened next pretty much takes the cake; out in the void my consciousness suddenly merged with an animal. It wasn’t necessarily possession of an external entity, rather as if I had shape-shifted. Even with the immersion absolute, I still had the subliminal presence of human mind to recall what my mat neighbour had witnessed the night before.
‘Oh, come on’, I thought, ‘really? An iguana?’
I made a weird movement with my scaled neck and a lizard tongue shot out before my face, as clear as the tablet I’m typing this on. As ludicrous and likely comical as this might sound, it was an incredibly profound experience. I was so enthralled by it that while writing this, I had to connect my tablet to the internet for the first time since arriving in order to read up on my draconic brethren. Imagine my surprise to discover that they reside here in the Peruvian Amazon and that the species has a light-sensitive third eye on their foreheads!
I’m not sure how long I remained reptilian myself but my next memory is of an anaconda swimming in water through a grating that appeared in my mat. Following more visions I can’t recall in detail, I suddenly stood before a huge, ferocious werewolf demon; it approached menacingly as if about to devour me but I knew it couldn’t harm me. The canine abomination vanished as soon as I announced my refusal to be intimidated and echoing out of the gloom, an icaro led me back to my body. I have no idea how long I was adrift but the second sealing started not long after so it must have been well over two hours. Huddled against the wall with my head over the purge bucket, I gasped with astonishment from my sojourn into the spirit world. Since I had not yet purged, I was feeling mightily queasy by now. When the candle was lit I sank down on the mat, desperately hoping for relief from nausea so I could go to bed. I suppose I could have sped up the process by drinking some water and making myself burp but after this stellar voyage I thought it would be disrespectful to interfere with its facilitator. The purge is an essential aspect of the Ayahuasca entirety, far transcending simple physical liberation. Alas, the concoction refused to leave my body and I lay like that for over an hour, occasionally kneeling over the bucket when my rumbling belly felt ready to erupt – but nothing. Still somewhat entranced – this descending phase primarily cerebral, I contemplated all that had happened the past week, what it meant and how to incorporate it upon returning. The actual ceremonial challenges are the easy part – it’s one thing to feel confident when you’re still in a milieu like the SpiritQuest sanctuary – the real test lies in the implementation process once back to mundane everyday routines. I eventually decided to simply leave the jungle juices in my stomach until my body had absorbed them, in hopes of further cementing its influence. Shortly thereafter, the nausea began to dissipate.
After paying my respects to the vine outside the maloca, I stumbled back to my room absolutely exhausted. I lay there thinking about the strange blend that was still pulsating through me. This was the first time I’d been privy to the most spoken-about effects of Ayahuasca in such a vivid fashion. I must admit that I’m glad to finally know what all the fuss is about and that not every single ceremony has to be a hard-earned lesson. I thought about the brew’s various peculiar vegetation content. Besides the DMT-containing companion plants, there are additional natural compounds that each contribute their unique assets; one being the fascinating toé – known in the western world as datura. This is a plant family that no person in their right mind would ingest on its own as it´s far more powerful than regular humans are fit to handle; it’s primary use in shamanism is potentiating other medicinal florae. I’ve long been fascinated by datura and envisioning its often beautiful flowers with their nectar still in my belly sent tremors rumbling through my chest, as if they stirred awake in response. Don Rober has a toé icaro, which means he has undergone a dieta for it – I shudder at the very thought, though he’s as far from a regular person as I’ve ever come across. The plant dieta is part of the rigorous shamanic training, in which he or she lives in isolation under primitive conditions with no external stimuli such as human or animal companionship, books, music or other distractions. Strictly adhering to a bland and tasteless diet consisting largely of rice and boiled river fish, the plant is regularly ingested through ceremony. The dieta is complete when the shaman has been in enough communion with the shrubbery of choice as to receive its song and an amalgamation of consciousness. I decided that I will one day select a suitable plant to undergo this with. Not that I plan on becoming a shaman anytime soon, it’s said that regular mortals can also benefit from adding them to their repertoire. To my great relief, as well as surprise, I was able to sleep not long after crawling into bed. I woke up some four hours later at 8am, same time as the previous morning.
I’m finishing up this journal entry at 7:20pm the following day; I’m about to join my fellow travellers in the dining maloca for our last dinner together. Some of them will leave tomorrow morning, as I did after the concluding Ayahuasca ceremony last year. The rest of us will remain for an additional seven days, to venture forth on the previously unexplored paths of Huachuma.
Mesada of Water – Domain of the Anaconda
Having had no prior interaction with any of its kind, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the fabled cacti.
My partner was ecstatic when she got back but mentioned no details as to avoid giving me expectations or preconceived notions. To the same purpose, I refrained from reading much about it but knew that Huachuma was instrumental to the spirituality of the Chavin, Peru’s pre-Incan civilisation. I was also aware that don Howard, through research of both academic and empirical nature, has mastered the art of preparing and administering the sacrament in accordance to the same protocols that were at play in the Chavin temple thousands of years ago.
The mesada began in the ceremonial maloca, which since the Ayahuasca sequence had undergone a transformation: the small table altar the shamans had initially been sitting around was replaced with a massive cross-shaped one. This is the mesa – a power construct much like an altar, whereas the mesada is an event that revolves around it. It was adorned with various artwork, statues and ornaments as well as skulls and bones of both human and animal origin. The focal point was the Raimondi Stele tapestry, a full scale copy of the original carving from the Chavin temple. Female energies (and craniums) had been placed on the left side of the mesa and male to the right while all participants sat in a half-circle around it. Don Howard told us how the first mesada was a celebration of Yacumama, the mother spirit of water. The mesadas strive to integrate the three worlds of archaic Peruvian shamanism; water, earth and air – all personified by named deities and respectively represented by the anaconda, jaguar and eagle. In the spirit of Saint Peter himself, don Howard gives you an appraising look before opening heaven’s gate – I presume to determine how much to pour. I am not a particularly lofty person, I’m usually rather pragmatic and cynical but when don Howard fixed his steely blue eyes on mine it felt as if he was scrutinising my very being and an odd warmth spread from my chest to my head and beyond. Note that I hadn’t ingested anything remotely mind-altering for three days at this point. After filling the goblet with the dark syrupy potion, the maestro spoke my name. I stood up and positioned myself facing the Raimondi Stele – two fingers of each hand touching the mesa as if grounding myself to the plus and minus poles of a battery. As I tried to attune my heart to my intentions, don Howard used mapacho and a pair of ceremonial chimes that seemed to increase and decrease the internal heat depending on the intensity of his ringing them. Emptying the goblet I had no idea what to expect in regards to flavour, it was very bitter but an absolute aromatic enchantment compared to Ayahuasca. Immediately after drinking I was given a glass of lemon water by a nearby aide, intended to counter the Huachuma’s alkaline pH with acidity.
The mesada lasted approximately nine hours but its properties could be felt for the remainder of the evening. Since this is more like an excursion of collected minds than an individual experience in the sense that drinking Ayahuasca is, I won’t go into much detail. For those planning on doing this themselves, which I would absolutely recommend if you feel the calling, it would be more rewarding not knowing precisely what lies ahead. The effects when consumed in this manner are hard to describe – Huachuma doesn’t really impose impressions on you the way many teacher plants do, instead it leaves you highly susceptible to exterior currents. Rather than having visions, you see things more clearly. The nature of the cactus actually reminds me a bit of don Howard – while he will tackle virtually any philosophical or mystical question you throw at him, he rarely spells out the answer and instead tends to gently point you in the right direction. Showing, not portraying. In this state, walking jungle trails or riding boats down narrow rivers surrounded by rainforests and its wildlife is a near religious experience. Watching the sun set over the Amazon horizon on the way back – equally incredible, colour perception heightened to the point where the sky glows as if filled with burning embers. Come nightfall, entering the ceremonial maloca and beholding the mesa illuminated only by candlelight is likely to be one of the most profound instances of your life. Appropriately, seeing as this was the mesada of water, the element in question made itself available in abundance with the closing phase accompanied by torrential rainfall.
Mesada of the Earth Mother – Realm of the Jaguar
Before decanting the flagon, don Howard explained that this ceremony was as much a celebration of the earth mother as an exercise in reciprocity. While we can never repay what she’s given us, we can at least pledge to aid in preserving and enriching the natural world in which we reside. In the Andes, which gave rise to the Chavin culture, the name for mother earth is Pachamama – which is the planet as a whole. The Amazonian nomenclature uses the term Sachamama, “sacha” refers to the forest itself and means something wild and natural. Since we were conducting a Chavin ceremony in the Amazon, this was the union of Pachamama and Sachamama.
With me firmly cast in his evaluating gaze, don Howard did something he didn’t do when assessing other participants. He pointed to the left side of his chest, asking if I really was in my heart and not in my mind. I nodded but he shook his head to imply that I was not being truthful, which was actually an accurate assessment. Prior to the mesada I had received a text message from my partner stating that she’d come down with a hellish flu and since she’d been here in the Amazon only weeks prior, I was worried sick that she’d caught malaria. This made it difficult for me to still my mind but how don Howard managed to pick up on this is completely beyond me. He adamantly refutes any allegations of telepathy, claiming it to be an art of the mind whereas his work is based on a ‘heart to heart’ frequency. The itinerary for today’s outing was similar to the previous mesada – with the addition of a farther boat ride, longer jungle hike and a significantly stronger Huachuma effect. Interestingly, several people in both boats and independently of each other spotted a jaguar-shaped cloud in the sky; I was unfortunately so mesmerised by the passing scenery that I missed it.
‘I suggest you remain silent while walking through the forest’ don Howard said as we disembarked the boats, ‘if you’re talking, you’re not listening.’
Despite the added intensity, Huachuma doesn’t appear to impair your motor skills. The heightened sensitivity did however make traversing the jungle trek occasionally overwhelming, though I’m not one to complain when flabbergasted by woodland splendour. Once we reached our destination there was a cool lake to swim in, which in our present condition from both cactus cocktail and forest promenade in oppressive heat felt spectacular.
8pm – back in the ceremonial maloca we partook in a ritual within the ceremony; Singado, which is a rite of cleansing intended to induce a trance state and promote clarity. A liquid consisting of perfume, a tobacco extraction and Huachuma is poured into a sea shell; it’s then tipped into one’s nostrils and briskly inhaled followed by touching the mesa and focusing on nothing but the Raimondi Stele. Don Howard jokingly refers to this as ‘Andean waterboarding’, adding that it has an element of some ‘brief discomfort’. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I was one of six volunteers to go first – at the sound of a gong, everyone commenced together. I don’t know if the dark fluid encouraged clarity so much as the sensation that an incendiary grenade had just detonated in my nasal cavity. Nevertheless, the trance aspect certainly worked; as I fixed my stare on the Chavin tapestry before me everything besides the mesa ceased to exist. Complete tunnel vision; I haven’t been so thoroughly “in the now” than during those minutes since I arrived. Judging by the accompanying silence my fellow volunteers appeared to have entered a similar state since as soon as the gong rang again everyone started sneezing, coughing, spitting and blowing their noses. The feeling that my sinuses were ridden with napalm-laden snot passed in an hour or so.
At 10pm the mesada was over and we ate a late dinner; not having eaten anything besides a few bananas since breakfast made for an amazing culinary treat. I’m writing this around noon the following day, mentally preparing for tomorrow´s third and final mesada as well as the sacred Vilca – the visionary bridge between life and death. I feel especially ready now that my iguana transformation is nearing completion; following another quarrel with the local wasp populace I have been stung right in the middle of the forehead. This regrettable affair literally gave me a sightless third eye, much to the merriment of my fellow travellers.
Mesada of the Air – Kingdom of the Eagle
It was strange, waking up knowing that I would die that day.
Up until this point, I’d put my utmost efforts into trying to avoid brooding over this evening’s trial; the Chavin technology of ingesting Vilca during the apex of a mesada. But first we had the third and final Huachuma ceremony to get through; the mesada of air. What better setting than the rainforest – the proverbial lungs of our planet, to celebrate the energies of air and wind. In his typical inimitable way of speaking, don Howard opened the ceremony by explaining how it was a commemoration of Wayramama – mother of the air, the maternal wind. The purpose being to discover the essence of whom and what we are, to disengage from the encumbrance of our corporeal vessels.
‘The air mesa is a little like going home’, he said, ‘ascension to the upper world from whence you came. Home is where the heart is and the only way of finding your way is through the course of consciousness of your heart. You can’t think yourself there, the more you try to do that the further away you’ll get – only by following the guide that dwells within will you find your way. Make certain it’s your heart and not your mind speaking and remember that the voice telling you what you want to hear is likely to be the least reliable.’
We had sought our Chavin initiation, wandered far on a long road and today signified the final chapter with the chance of catching a glimpse of the promised land – a hint of what lies before us all in the twilight of mortality.
With my partner noting some improvement in her condition, making it unlikely that she has malaria, there were no interferences as I returned to the unblinking blue stare. Given what lay in wait, this outing was more laid back than the previous ones – we embarked on an expedition to observe dolphins on the Amazon River. Once back at SpiritQuest we congregated on the ceremonial star deck for a ritual of reciprocity. Keeping in mind that the water mesada brought a rainstorm and the earth mesada a jaguar, I was half-expecting a hurricane for this one. The wind settled for merely clearing the clouds from the sky, revealing a full moon surrounded by beaming stars. I glanced up at Orion’s Belt as don Howard led the ceremonial proceedings. There was a brief commotion when a giant tarantula was spotted taking a leisurely stroll across the star deck right in front of where people were sitting, prompting one of the aides to escort the arachnoid intruder back to the safety of the jungle.
At approximately 8pm, those who were about to die gathered in the ceremonial maloca. The means of our voluntary transit was the Vilca, a sacrament with at least 4 500 years of documented entheogenic use. It contains three different psychoactive substances – the first one being the most known; N,N-Dimethyltryptamine – DMT, the component that gives Ayahuasca the gift of sight. The remaining two are 5-MEO-DMT (described by don Howard as an ‘astral flight propellant’) and bufotenine, which has the power of death simulation. The Vilca is made from seeds of the Anadenanthera colubrina tree – roasted until they pop, the husk’s content is blended with a source of calcium and ground to a fine powder. How they figured this out several thousand years ago is anyone’s guess but the preparation has the capacity to show us what lies beyond the portal of our mortal coil. Vilca actually means ‘sacred’ in the Andean language of Quechua, hinting at how much it was revered in olden times.
‘To many’, don Howard said softly, ‘the subject of death is a bit morbid and oft avoided as people don’t know what to think about it. Everybody does though. At some point in our lives we all reflect on our mortality and wonder what happens when we pass on. Contemplating the true nature of death; it’s not a game or something to take lightly – neither is it something to fear. We might have some apprehensions of how we’re going to die but less so that we will one day leave our human containers and enter another phase of our spiritual journey. As you will soon discover, navigating hyperspace is much easier without the encumbrance of a body. The nature of this is highly selective, it’s very individual. Not all of you are likely to have the same experience, not all of you will have the same take on whatever happens nor are there any guarantees that anything will – though that’s unlikely. Once you partake in the Vilca – if you’re ready and the process begins there’s no off-switch, no way to stop it.’
The ritual of Vilca – kernels of the mythical tree of knowledge and the key to experiencing human death; to see what lies yonder and be granted the privilege and weapon of rebirth, is perhaps the quintessential rite of passage. Like many who undertake it discover, being gifted a greater understanding about the nature of life and death has an inherent tendency to influence what people do with their lives.
‘So when we talk about death’ don Howard continued, ‘to be part of the process of what the spiritual really is about – is life. It’s about living it to the absolute fullest, to get the most out of it and try to do so without hurting yourself or others and do as much good as you can in the passing. Consciousness is a double-edged sword; if you become more conscious, you’ll be made increasingly aware of things that can’t be ignored. You can’t turn your head thinking it’s not there, neither in your own life nor in the lives of others. Most people look for ways to step up to that and don the warrior’s mantle, if you will; to be a warrior and messenger of peace and good will for all – demonstrate by example how to live in harmony with the earth, taking what we need and giving back just a little bit of what we get. If you come to this with that in mind and in your heart, you may struggle and resist a bit on the way out but when you get there you will receive a special blessing – because you cared. But you have to be sincere.’
Vilca is prepared as a snuff and consumed through devices known as inhalers. The inhaler that most of us used is approximately 3 500 years old and was discovered from excavating the Chavin temple. This inhaler is a human finger bone – we were to seek knowledge of the afterlife through remnants of the deceased, literally. A timeless relic of an archaic ritual from ages immemorial, employed by an ancient people going through the same emotions for the same purposes we were at that precise moment.
‘It’s been used before’, as don Howard summarised before providing some final advice on how to facilitate an expedient demise.
‘Lay down in your comfortable coffin. Be still, quiet – if you hear external sounds just try to ignore them. Don’t be in a hurry, patience. In about eight to ten minutes things will begin to happen. This will at first onset very likely be somewhat alarming, feelings that automatically tend to raise a yellow flag. The flag may even turn red before you get past this stage – in which case you simply lie real still, don’t panic and don’t be afraid. You must be fearless to do this; it requires great courage and trust. As I said, there are no guarantees – there’s no guarantee that anything will happen and if something really big does happen there are no guarantees that you will come back. In life, there are no guarantees of anything.’
The queue system in our funerary procession went by declining room numbers, placing me second-in-line. I was as nervous at the prospect of bereavement as I was of an inhaling malfunction, having friends that botched the latter part and leaving them with a non-experience.
‘Death before dysfunction’, I thought.
Don Howard mentioned that a successful ingestion would be immediately noticeable, hallmarked by one’s nose ‘burning rather ferociously’. Seeing how the previous mesada’s rite of snout fire was described as a ‘brief discomfort’, I braced for the worst. Nevertheless – having sent no powder of any kind up my nose before I thought I’d compensate for my lack of erstwhile nasal ingestion by sniffing with reckless abandon. With my sinuses now more open than ever before, Singado’s promised clarity had become most apparent. Finger bone inserted; I inhaled sharply through my first nostril – the snuff beset my nose like a fiery sandstorm and then poured down my throat. A cough slipped out before I could react, fortunately missing the Vilca bowl. Had my involuntary exhalation sent the remaining snuff spreading across the maloca I wouldn’t have needed any death-mimicking vegetation as the great leveller would have claimed me on the spot from sheer embarrassment. Searing pain aside, I made myself repeat the process through my second nostril – minus the coughing. Adenoidal agony. My vision dimmed for a second and once it returned, a grinning don Howard informed me that I might want to go lie down right about now.
I barged into my room and immediately headed for the bathroom mirror to apply my earplugs. Catching my reflection I noticed that my eyes were redder than ever, almost the colour of blood. Fumbling with the earplugs, I could feel the Vilca wash over me – this can’t have been more than two minutes after ingestion. I quickly killed the remaining light, applied my eye-mask and lay down on my back in bed. As soon as I blinded myself, the blackness was shattered by flashing lights and geometrical patterns and my entire body started tingling with increasing intensity, a sensation I’ve never felt before. An odd buzzing started, quickly gaining in volume – one that I in retrospect recognise from Dr Rick Strassman’s book, “DMT: The Spirit Molecule”. The deluge of impressions flooded all sensory inputs; visual, auditory and physical – increasing steadily as time went by. For how long, I have no idea. As the intensity picked up, I was flying at break-neck speed through a tunnel of light which from my current recollection I would best describe as when spaceships go into warp-speed or through a wormhole in science fiction films. The best comparison would however be the countless testimonies of people whose hearts have stopped but were subsequently resuscitated before fully raising anchor, the so-called near-death experience. The physical tingling got so overwhelming that it actually hurt; I felt as if engulfed in flames, though luckily lost touch with my body shortly afterwards. The sonic cacophony was deafening. Just as we’d been warned, this was indeed fairly unnerving but I clung to the concepts of trust and courage. My grip over my sense of self became progressively more slippery and soon I had not the faintest idea that my impending doom was due to having recently stuffed my nose with toasted tree seeds. Finally, I reached the end of the tunnel and was flung head-first into infinite obscurity.
Profusely confused and drenched in sweat, I initially asked myself why I was in foetal position in pitch darkness – followed by considerations of where I was and what in damnation was going on. I was also mildly curious as to who had seen fit to subject my nose and throat to a barrage of artillery shelling. After a few minutes perplexion, I slowly began to assemble the puzzle. After breaking through the tunnel of light I must have blacked out completely, as I have zero recollection of what awaited me on the other side of the scythe. Speaking to fellow necronauts later in the evening, it seemed a few others had similar experiences – all of them having inhaled a substantial amount of the Vilca. Judging by how fast and strong it came on, this is a possible explanation but I really don’t know. I was initially a bit dismayed at having forgotten such a vast part but this yielded to stunned astonishment as I silently made my way back to the mesa. I had died, I had been reborn – the entire essence of the practice. Approximately one hour and 15 minutes had passed since take-off when I arrived at the ceremonial maloca, only to find it empty save for two people who declined to partake, two aides and don Howard – the latter clearly in the throes of Vilca himself. Still dazed, I sat down on my chair and gazed at the candle-lit altar. Shortly thereafter, another participant entered and gave me a look that told me he had also just emerged from deep within the rabbit hole.
Suddenly a loud crashing thump sounded from a nearby room and a few minutes later a third participant entered the maloca. Up until this instant we’d known him to be the calmest, most mild-mannered and least animated individual in the entire group, possibly in the greater Iquitos region. He now stood before us in his underwear. Staring with eyes bespeaking a mind bereft of human presence he snapped his fingers, burst into a mischievous grin and proceeded to dance jauntily across the maloca. I doubt I would have been more surprised if a mob of iguana hatchlings had burst before my eyes demanding a paternity test. I exchanged glances with the second to arrive; he seemed to be as uncertain as I was that we were really witnessing this. The prancing corpse flopped to the ground and assumed a swift series of yogic positions while flailing his limbs. His little performance came to an end after he crawled across the floor and came to a stop underneath the mesa, fully hidden by the cloth that covered it. He remained there for about 45 minutes until he’d regained his normal senses, later telling us that the racket we initially heard was him falling out of bed and bringing with him the mounted mosquito net that surrounded it. He explained that having just emerged from a truly unimaginable experience – one he says that his entire life up until that moment in time had been leading up to, he was so ecstatic that the consequent theatrics felt justifiable. I for one applaud them, I was mercilessly rattled prior to this and his antics greatly lifted my spirits.
Taking advantage of the relative solitude in the maloca, I connected to the mesa by two fingers of each hand. I locked gazes with the face on the Raimondi Stele and immediately felt a rekindling of celestial energy. A few minutes later, the sizzling from a candle burning out snapped me out of it. I made my way over to the dining maloca, joining additional participants for a late dinner and an exchange of experiences. A few were still crying – some out of joy and others from shock. Not everyone had died but all seemed to have had some kind of journey. Many recounted stunning and epic tales, others difficult ones but no one expressed the slightest regret of going forward with it. I´d like to think that don Howard would be satisfied with this, despite (in his own words) ‘striving for a one hundred percent mortality rate’. I returned to my accommodation around 1am but before going to bed I had to spend a few minutes chasing a cockroach around the room. Swatting the little bugger would have been easy but I wanted to evict it unscathed, believing there to have been quite enough death in there for one night. Finishing this entry up during the afternoon on the following day, I still feel as if I have barely scratched the surface in processing my transition. I can however state that my views on my mortality have been shaken to their very core.
This final entry is written on a home-bound flight, it’s now been more than 24 hours since I left SpiritQuest. One facet to all of this that I haven’t touched upon but bears mentioning is the social interaction. It’s been a privilege to share this venture with such an amazing group of people from different walks of life – to hear everyone’s backstory and then witnessing their progression from working with the plants. I feel all the richer for it. If you think my journey was eventful, keep in mind that there were twenty-something parallel storylines playing out simultaneously. I’m glad I was disciplined enough to record all journal entries immediately following each ceremony, as I would never have been able to describe them in such detail otherwise. It was invaluable to study my journal from the previous visit before I dove into this one – something I look forward to doing once again with what you’re reading now at a later, as of yet undecided time.