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Monday, 22 March 2010

Surviving a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony

Written by Katie O'Hara
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Staring at the dark outline of the thatched roof against the night sky, my eyes begin to glaze over.  Lightning flashes—illuminating the faces of the three men on the floor next to me.  The chanting of the shaman begins to blend with the sounds of the insects and nocturnal beasts prowling outside the shack, deep in the Amazon jungle.  My body feels cool and tingly.  I melt into the wall.  My eyelids feel like they are shutting from the bottom up.  Another dramatic bolt of lightning rips across the starlit sky, sending me back to my present circumstances.

Surviving a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony,  Ayahuasca, travel peru, Iquitos, Peruvian shaman, South American shaman, travel South America, Katie O'HaraI become nervous.  I don’t want to be sick and certainly don’t want to have diarrhea in these close quarters along with three men—my guide, the shaman, and two other men native to the area, near Iquitos, Peru.

Now, I can only think about the toilet looming behind the wall.  I scoot away from the wall behind me and lay my body flat on the floor amongst the insects that I had seen crawling about earlier, now invisible in the darkness.  Coiling my braid as a pillow, I try to relax, but another man is being helped to the toilet.  He wretches repeatedly and loses control of his bowels.  Why did I drink this awful potion?

Jhonny, my guide and I had followed the shaman through the darkened jungle.  His “clinic” was not much more than a shack raised five feet over the ground on stilts.

“Look at the stars,” Jhonny motioned toward the sky while we waited for the shaman to gather his medicinal equipment—a branch of dried leaves, a glass bottle of what looked like white roots in a clear Surviving a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony,  Ayahuasca, travel peru, Iquitos, Peruvian shaman, South American shaman, travel South America, Katie O'Haraliquid, a half-full bottle of dark thick liquid—the ayahuasca, which he had brewed up that day, a plethora of freshly rolled tobacco cigarettes and toilet paper.

Malo, the shaman placed his two forefingers on my wrist. He seemed to be listening intently to my pulse.

“You have problems with love,” he concluded sagely.

I was about to disagree with him vehemently. Problems with love? Me?

The last time someone diagnosed me through the throb of my pulse; it was a Chinese doctor who told me I had problems with my bowels. Mortified, I lied, even though I hadn’t had a bowel movement in a week.

“Yes, I suppose,” I said reluctantly to the shaman, and he brightened considerably.

“Place rose quartz in water,” he instructed. “When you have stress, put the water on you forehead and temples.”



Malo dumped some of the clear liquid into his hands and spread it on his body, face and neck, like an aftershave.  The liquid had a strong menthol odor.  After filling the room with thick tobacco smoke, Malo whistled a sweet melody into the ayahuasca bottle for about five minutes.  He said a prayer for all of us in the room, individually connecting with everyone.  He smoked again and blew smoke into the bottle of ayahuasca, closed it, and rolled it between his hands.  While the liquid marinated in smoke, he chanted and rhythmically shook the branch.  Finally, he filled a metal cup, blew more smoke onto it, and handed it to me—an oozing dark brown liquid, billowing with thick smoke.

Ayahuasca” is a Quechan word that means “the rope that links the world of the dead with the world of the living.”  It also is known as “Santo Daime” which means “to give sanity.”  I believe the name would be better suited if it translated as “to take sanity.”  The drink is a mixture of the liana vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and other plants.  The vine contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors that activate the hallucinogenic effect when boiled with other plants that contain DMT.

In other parts of the world ayahausca is illegal, but if traditionally prepared by a shaman, it can still be legally used in many parts of South America, where it is considered sacred and healing.  The drink is used in religious ceremonies, cleansings, and therapeutic workshops.  It induces visions, revelations, and deepened sensory perceptions.

Prepared to intensify my awareness, I took a breath, glanced at the shaman and gulped down the cup of, quite possibly, the vilest drink I have ever tasted.  I resisted the urge to gag on the acrid sludge sliding down my throat.  I did not, however, resist from making an awful face, inducing laughter from the shaman.

Now I lay on the floor, helpless against the mass of surrounding cockroaches and spiders.  My limbs are heavy.  I try to wiggle my toes but the signal my brain sends to my feet is blocked somewhere along the way.  I feel as if I am not a part of my own body until it reminds me that it is still attached my brain by filling my mouth with water.  I sit up and realize I will have to throw up with the man in the “bathroom,” which is just a toilet and sink behind a wall.

Standing up is not an easy task.  I wobble toward what was once a white hammock—now vibrating harder and harder, until it transforms into a flock of white gulls and seems to take off in front of me in a confusion of beating vibrations. Seeing that I am stuck, Jhonny appears and helps me to the bathroom where I repeatedly dispose of the pungent liquid into the overused toilet.  The foul taste is my mouth has returned, and is not significantly different than the flavor of the initial drink even though it is now mixed with bile and stomach acids (that’s how bad the stuff tastes).  With frantically shaking hands, I rinse my mouth and sweat-drenched face.



Dizzy and sick, I pad out of the bathroom, barefoot, and resume my position.  I sit in agony while my stomach practices acrobatics.  An imperceptible amount of time later, I am heading back to the ominous toilet, but this time I have to ask Jhonny to remove the other guy from the bathroom.  I vomit again but I’m not comfortable enough to relax and empty my turning bowels in the communal area.

I return to the floor and Malo asks me to move closer.  I scoot toward him and lay down; sweat is rolling off my face.  He anoints my head with some of the smelly menthol liquid, placing his thumb on the middle of my forehead and two fingers in my hair, above each temple.  While grasping my head like a bowling ball, he says a prayer.  The tension in my head subsides a bit and I immediately become cool.  Too cool—my body is quivering in my damp t-shirt and thin cotton pants.  Shaking the dried leaves over my body, Malo blows more dense smoke toward my face, reminding me of the stale tobacco flavor in the ayahuasca, inducing water to rise again from the depths of my insides.  I turn my head away and Malo’s chanting soothes me into relaxation again.

My gaze softens.  It is very dark; a zipper opens a slat in the darkness.  Millions of insects pour out of the opening zipper, but they don’t frighten me.

My mind races; cockroaches, cicadas and ants crawl onto my body.  Then they begin to segregate—the ants line up and march in a line, the cockroaches scurry aimlessly on swift legs—so fast they seem to hover over the ground, and crickets feel with their feelers—their powerful sound echoing in my ears like little weather forecasters.  The ants work for their queen.  They gather food in an orderly fashion.  Then they have sex with her.  That’s what they live for.  They don’t know anything else.  Why don’t cockroaches line up like ants?  They run about scavenging for food—usually alone.  Does that make the ants better?  How could they be better?  That’s what the cockroaches know.  That’s what they learned when they were little baby cockroaches.  Just like the bees.  That learned to make honey.  The mosquitoes learned to drink blood, and the spiders make webs.  They are all bugs.  They are different.  Some we consider to be good, some bad.  But how can we judge the ones we think are bad?  That’s how they survive.  That’s the only thing they know.  They do what they do best.

Why do I hate cockroaches?  Fear.  Cockroaches don’t bite.  They are ugly, but they probably aren’t ugly to one another.  I’m not afraid of ants.  Some ants bite.  Yet cockroaches are a symbol of a dirty place.  Ants like picnics.

I am glad that Jhonny, despite having also drunk the liquid, is perceptive enough to notice my chattering teeth and covers me with a jacket.

I am still cold, and wish to be back in the jungle lodge, where I can strip from the sweaty clothing and lay under covers.  My lower back begins to cramp up, aching with tightness.  I realize that nothing will relieve me of the agony, so I just sit through it.  I do, until finally, after it seems I have been sleeping without actually falling asleep, Jhonny appears over me with my jungle boots in hand.  It is time to go home.

After I am helped into my boots, I thank the shaman, who seems to be in another world.  We set out into the jungle to walk back to the lodge with only the light of the new moon and Jhonny’s headlamp.  Another man is walking in front.  I am not sure if he was one of the men that drank ayahuasca with us or someone from the lodge that came to help us back.



Surviving a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony,  Ayahuasca, travel peru, Iquitos, Peruvian shaman, South American shaman, travel South America, Katie O'HaraA small incline has me doubled over in sickness, and I would have vomited again if Jhonny was not holding onto me, helping me walk.  I tell myself I will not throw up here as we are walking past the shaman’s house, where his children are sleeping.  Once past this point, I know I can make it home.  I concentrate on lifting one boot in front of the other.  The contorted roots are playing games with my noncompliant feet.  Gnarled branches, dripping with scorpions and spiders, grasp at my hair, pulling it from its smooth braid.  I’m sure my eyes are as wild as the nocturnal creatures’—hiding in the thick foliage, watching us with amusement as we parade by, sloshing through mud puddles. I am too delirious to make my way around them, unless I am physically led by the arm.  I don’t care that I am spraying mud all over myself.  Nothing matters but getting back to a place where I can be still.  The darkened jungle is playing tricks on the man in front of us too, because he seems to have taken a couple wrong turns where we have to backtrack.

Finally, we come to a clearing and there is one more hill before I arrive at my room.  Jhonny unlocks it, and as soon as the door contacts the frame, I am vomiting again in the toilet.  After emptying my system of the awful stuff, I believe I have poisoned myself with; I rinse in a cold shower and hobble to the bed.

I remained in bed until 4:00 the next day, suffering from what felt like the worst hangover I had ever had.  I skipped an invitation to breakfast, but eat lunch, hoping it would give me some energy.  Other than that, I spent the entire day between the bathroom and my bed where I laid and listened to the impressive rain outside.  In between showers, the birds and insects sang their songs.

Surviving a Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony,  Ayahuasca, travel peru, Iquitos, Peruvian shaman, South American shaman, travel South America, Katie O'Hara

The one sound I will never forget was the deafening roar of an insect that sounded like the rain stick I have in my house—a gift from one of my parents’ friends.  It is a wooden rod, full of seed that produces the sound of rain when flipped over.  Both the bug and the stick start out slow and soft like a drizzle, increase to roar, and then mellow again to a hum before pausing, as if taking a breath before the next trumpeting.  All day long—buzzzzzzZZZZZZ, ROOOAAAARRR,  BBBUUUZZZZzzzzzzzzz, hummmmm, silence..… buzzzzzzZZZZZZ, ROOOAAAARRR,  BBBUUUZZZZzzzzzzzzz, hummmmm, silence…

Two weeks later, looking back—I wonder if the traditional ayahuasca ceremony changed my life or perspective.

Over a year later, I realize there has been one habit that has changed as a result of the ceremony.  I keep a small glass bowl of water on my windowsill.  A rose quartz rests in the water and every morning I dip my fingers in and spread a little on my forehead and my temples.  Then I call my fiancé, whom I’m madly in love with.

© Katie O'Hara


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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