“There’s got to be a better way,” I thought to myself as I carried the fifth bucket of water to the raging fire out in the parched yucca fields. The Shipibo locals were hurried but surprisingly relaxed about the situation, accustomed as they were to renegade fires while burning the fields for crop rotation; but I wasn’t. I had my first ayahuasca ceremony in just a few hours’ time and the fire was too close for comfort. As I wasted yet more water on the front of my already soaked T-shirt, I vaguely wondered how I would handle a fire emergency under the influence of a strong psychedelic.
After a 20-hour journey by bus from Tarapoto to Pucallpa, a mototaxi to Yarinacocha, and a 40 minute car ride, I finally arrived in the dusty Shipibo village of San Francisco. In this tiny jungle village, locals mingled with volunteers, foreign answer-seekers, and even a British “renunciant” who came to the independent state of the Shipibo to escape Big Brother. This was where I would have my first and second ayahuasca experiences.
I had heard about the plant through other travelers in South America. We sat huddled in hostel common rooms or along the banks of the Rio Villano exchanging stories and asking questions. Many of the questions were location-based… as in, where can I find some of that?
Although ayahuasca is prevalent on the continent, stories of “fake” shamans are equally as common, so asking where one can find ayahuasca is not so much a search for the plant itself as it is a search for a legitimate shaman. As a solo female traveler, the prospect of coming across a swindler is doubly unnerving. I have heard more than one story of “shamans” asking female travelers to remove their clothing as part of the ceremony, or even being groped while under the influence. Ladies, let me tell you… ayahuasca ceremonies do not require nudity nor groping.
But it’s not like ayahuasca is impossible, or even hard to find… as long as you’re willing to dig into your savings. A quick Google search will turn up a surprising amount of swanky ayahuasca retreats that may run you over a grand for the experience.
However, I am a long-term traveler, and as such, I have to save my money for things like food and shelter. I had to find a happy medium between blowing all my cash on one ayahuasca retreat and risking potential molestation. I turned to my trusted workaway.info account and typed in the magic word: “ayahuasca,” and watched as the search results immediately turned up dozens of volunteer opportunities for projects that worked, in part, with the master plant. Heck, they even came with reviews! Although none of the projects offered volunteer work in exchange for ayahuasca ceremonies, I found free accommodation where I could participate in a genuine ceremony for $30.
On the night of my first ceremony, with the renegade fire safely under control (and my bags packed just in case of an emergency exit) I lay on a mat in a wooden, palm-roofed ceremony house. There were four other people from the Czech Republic, Argentina, and Italy respectively, all there to take a peek under the hood of reality.
The shaman, Don Julio, and his wife called us up one by one to drink the bitter, sour brew of the ayahuasca vine and chacruna. Typically, you can experience hallucinogenic effects from the ayahuasca vine itself, but a “helper” plant that contains DMT is often added to the brew. DMT is normally broken down by enzymes in the gut, but with the use of a mono amine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) such as ayahuasca, the DMT survives the digestive process and reaches your brain intact. This is what causes the long-lasting psychoactive experience.
Before each of us drank our small cup of the brew (me downing it like a shot because… college?) we had a moment to set an intention. Many of the stories I’ve heard from people who have done ayahuasca centered on themes of self-discovery and self-help. One person overcame depression and anxiety with the help of the master plant while another cured themselves of alcoholism and so on. I even know someone who claims that ayahuasca helped heal their lime disease. Setting an intention for Mother Ayahuasca means asking her to help clarify something for you or heal you in some way, and it’s no small thing.
Before I set my intention, I felt like a kid in a candy shop… except the “kid” was a 27-year-old possibly going through a quarter life crisis and the “candy” was a weird array of Pandora’s boxes. I had the embodiment of nature’s wisdom held in a cup, ready to swallow, and the idea of choosing just one question felt impossible and overwhelming. Instead I asked Mother Ayahuasca to show me what she thought I needed to see.
I was half curious, half terrified of what I would see as I lay on the mat in the dark. Some of the stories I had heard were unnerving; people puking out demons and others so in the grip of the powerful psychedelic that they lost control of their bodies. Speaking of puking, it’s not uncommon for people to do so. During an ayahuasca ceremony, people’s innermost fears and insecurities can manifest in physical form where they bodily “purge” themselves of their inner demons. This was definitely one of those moments where I had to question my life choices and wonder how exactly I got to be laying in the dark with strangers, having just swallowed a powerful psychedelic in the middle of the Peruvian jungle.
About 20 minutes in, the shaman started singing the ayahuasca songs. It took me about another 10 minutes before I started seeing my first sparks of psychedelic light appear out of the darkness. Those sparks spun themselves out like they were made of silken threads, forming the delicate limbs of a daddy long legs over and over again.
I thought it would be wise at this point to go pee outside one last time before the medicine really kicked in and I couldn’t move. I stood up on wobbly legs and headed toward the door, feeling all the while that the floor had somehow shifted to a 30 degree angle and attempting to adjust my steps to this new tilted world. Once outside I gazed up at the stars and stood stunned as the stars bled into one another, forming constellations that don’t exist.
People say you can have out of body experiences on ayahuasca and this was definitely the case for me. There was a moment when I was breathing rapidly because of my fear that I would have to speak. I was sure that if I spoke, it would sound distorted, like I was being recorded talking through a tube and that the recording was being played back in slow motion. Suddenly that thought was unbearably funny and the quick transition from fear to hilarity filled me with rapidly moving air molecules until my body was dissolving into the air and the room itself was being pulled into the vacuum that was left in its absence. I couldn’t tell where my body ended and the space around me began. Whatever was left of my corporeal body was being lifted up off the mat. And then it was over as quickly as it had begun, leaving my body feeling heavy and clumsy compared to that ethereal quality I had experienced only moments before. And yet it also felt more whole somehow, as if the space that had rushed into the vacuum where my body had been had become a solid part of me.
When round two arrived two nights later, I took my cup with less trepidation, having some idea of what I was in for already. However, I had also heard that all subsequent ayahuasca sessions after the initial one are more intense because the first session allows the plant to get to know your body and mind before it can start doing the real work. In fact, many people don’t feel anything at all for their first ayahuasca ceremony.
The second time was certainly more intense for me, visually and mentally. One major motif was growth. I saw continuous cycles of plants growing and dying and starting over again. I saw whole life cycles in the span of seconds.
For periods, I saw nothing but pure color transforming itself into shapes, figures, and faces, as if color alone were the substance upon which all things are formed. It was here where I felt I was really starting to look under the hood. Ayahuasca laid out for me, like we were at a Sunday picnic, everything I want to work on within myself. Selfish bread, anxious butter, narcissistic watermelon, a whole roasted turkey of ego, and a fresh salad of entitlement. I found I had lost my appetite.
Ayahuasca laid this feast out for me and then asked me to choose something. I felt intuitively that as soon as I made my selection, it would plunge me so deep into that undulating world of color and angst that it would be a long time before I resurfaced. I wasn’t ready, and ayahuasca understood. It left me suspended over the engine of my own ego.
I followed the course of my own thoughts to beautiful paradises and nightmarish landscapes alike. If ever I became too lost, the shaman’s ayahuasca songs turned themselves into bread crumbs, leading me back to the solidity of the ceremony house. I also noticed that Mother Ayahuasca had built a safe place for me in my own mind. It was a forest at night, silent and peaceful but for the chirping of crickets. This was my safe place whenever I strayed too far, and I could find myself there again, curled up in the warm soil, comfortably entangled in the roots of the trees.
Eventually I found that Mother Ayahuasca, in her infinite wisdom, wouldn’t let me be idle forever. Listening to my own inner thoughts, it chose a path for me that night. At some point, my anxiety level rose. My body sounded sirens as I fought to employ long-established coping mechanisms, but they seemed to have deserted me then. Eventually I began to plead with ayahuasca to make it stop, until I asked the question: why?
I found myself drifting slowly through a crack in my consciousness like a feather floating down to Earth, and I settled into the body belonging to my 17-year-old self. This was an age, I was reminded, when the depression and anxiety were new and therefore the strongest because I hadn’t yet had the time to seek answers and find ways to cope. As I settled in, letting her skin bind me in like cling-wrap, I had a revelation: I hadn’t felt this awful for years. It had been so long, the feeling was nearly foreign to me. I felt liberated.
I didn’t have to do any of this. I still don’t. To get through this life, it is not required to go excavating your own psyche. And why should we? It’s not always very pleasant, after all.
But after these and other such experiences, I find myself feeling, as a human, privileged that the Earth, or nature, or Pacha Mama, or God, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whatever you want to call the force that is greater than us, would share with us this knowledge and this opportunity to know ourselves and the nature of reality better. It is a very generous gift.
As an introspective person, I think that I have a particularly narcissistic and masochistic streak that makes me want to understand myself better, indulge in my angst, and do it at the risk of terrible pain. But I also do believe that, as humans, it is in our best interest to understand ourselves better, and, through the use of master plants, see the connections that bind us to everything, even each other. Otherwise, we are only taking the gift for granted.