I know this because it happened to me. In full sweat and fear, I drank the ayahuasca, and then I laid down. I vomited, I put out my cigarette and had a fake vision, a visitation of a female vine-creature with a neck scarred like a manatee’s back, a facile environmental metaphor that I immediately recognized from my shittier writing habits. I waited and I vomited again and then the sky exploded in bright white light and I felt swamped by deep, limitless love. And with that, the ride was on. I was pulled through the ether and given a look at the menu of what ayahuasca can do for us small-minded humans. I saw the future. I saw, without fear, the violent death of a friend (a death that hasn’t happened yet). I saw my own ancestors, people I have never spared a thought for, line the circular hut and benedict me in warm Yiddish and Dutch and Middle English. I saw a jaguar walk through the room, and when Don Enrique blew smoke on me and sang to me, I surged along with his song and then the vine—the real vine this time—went through me like spiritual endoscopy, and deliberated and diagnosed my gut and the jaguar and a snake had a conversation with Don Enrique about how many leaves of this plant should be mixed with how many leaves of another, and how often I should take the medicine.
I saw these things and believed them, and yet I always knew where the door to the visions was. I felt I could walk back out to reality anytime I wanted. But the anxiety had melted. I feared neither death nor darkness. When I had to get up to go to the outhouse, I practically skipped through the shrieking jungle and high-fived the broad plant leaves that brushed against my face. I turned on the light on my iPhone, not to see, but to shoot video of these beautiful friendly plants as I moved among them. Once back in the lodge, I returned to the visions, tried to test them. I discovered that I had no hate for any part of myself. It was bliss undiluted, and my chest hummed with it, even as the visions tapered down and we turned a lantern on and smoked quietly before turning in for the night.
Footage shot by the author in the middle of an ayahuasca vision.
During an early morning medicinal purge, Don Enrique (left) shows the author (far right) how to vomit like a true shaman.
The next day began just after dawn, with a violent purgative prescribed by Don Enrique, who took the medicine with us. A half-cup of a thick blood-red drink, chased by as much water as we could possibly ingest, scooped from an metal pot in wide plastic pans. And then, with a magical speed and force, came the urge to vomit. This was meant to detoxify, and Don Enrique was a powerful expeller, his focused streams of fizzy white liquid splashing against a felled tree. I was a much more pitiful being, hunched over, half-retching and half-drooling. I was reminded of Tanner’s “dirty water” in his stomach. Neither thing makes biological sense: what could you possibly be ridding yourself of when wringing out an empty stomach? A few tablespoons of bile? This was a mingier plant medicine than ayahuasca, all convulsion and no visions.
We took the rest of the morning easy. Wilma, Don Enrique’s wife and the daughter of a great medicine man herself, painted psychedelic snake patterns on the side of the ceremonial lodge. Some of the students painted flags with similar snake-laced designs and arranged them in a cross, at Don Enrique’s suggestion—Don Enrique is a born-again Christian in addition to a traditional medicine man, and seems deeply pleased at mixing Christ with the leafier gods. Hunters at the camp had shot a majás, a large jungle rodent, on a knoll not far from the camp, and Wilma cooked it for lunch.
There were three students with me at the camp: two South Africans and an American. Since the ceremonies are illegal in their home countries, I’ll just use their initials. K. was from Long Island: a veteran, a systems engineer and a newly-minted MBA who found switching career paths wasn’t enough to answer his questions about life. D. was the youngest, a warm South African who seemed to deeply embrace the health care obligations of ayahuasca. If he hadn’t found his way to Peru, it was easy to see him working in hospice or something similar. The long conversations the students had among themselves revealed a deep frustration with Western medicine. Everybody had a story about a malady misdiagnosed, or a friend or relative who was mistreated in hospitals. When they talked about ayahuasca, the conversation felt intimate, almost gossipy. “Ayahuasca’s not giving me very many visions right now,” said K. He got sympathy from D. “She’s holding out? Yeah, that happens to me to sometimes. It can be frustrating.” If there is one parallel with Western medical students, it would be that they seem a little overmatched by the subject matter. It’s a long path, and they’ve only just begun.
In the case of the other South African, W., it didn’t seem likely that he’ll ever get there.
To explain W., it’s worth looking to William S. Burroughs’ book The Yagé Letters, a collection of missives written to Allen Ginsburg while Burroughs was looking for Yagé (another word for ayahuasca) to help him cure his heroin addiction (and hemorrhoids) not long after he fatally shot his wife in Mexico City. He was not impressed with the shamans he found on his travels. “The most inveterate drunk, liar and loafer in the village is invariably the medicine man,” he wrote. But he was clearly not very close to enlightenment himself. This is the difficulty of finding healers to train: there’s a lot of damage in many who seek out ayahuasca. Sometimes they would seem beyond even the power of the plant. So it was with W., who would spend his weeks at the camp but would head into Iquitos—one of the most dreadful outposts of vice and poverty in all Amazonia—and do cocaine and shag prostitutes all weekend. If ayahuasca was as jealous as Don Enrique said, W. could be due for trouble.
Which, if you cross over with me, is exactly what happened during the second ceremony. W. had angered someone—either Mother Ayahuasca or some malevolent shaman in town—and we all had a price to pay. The chemical compound at the center of the ayahuasca vine’s usefulness, an MAO inhibitor that allows the chacruna’s DMT to get past the brain’s usual defenses, used to be known as telepathine, because of the telepathy the Amazonians said the vine enabled. When all four of us were comparing notes after the second ceremony, we found we had experienced some of that telepathy: the euphoric kaleidoscope of the first night had for all of us been replaced by a ruined, scorched landscape. It wasn’t frightening or even particularly unpleasant, but it felt a lot like a trek through Mordor, with distant bursts of flames where the battle was raging between Don Enrique and dark magic. Don Enrique said this the next morning, that he was exhausted from fighting off W.’s attackers, and that he thought W. needed to get clean before doing another ceremony.