PASTO, Colombia — As I gazed into the little white plastic cup of dark chocolate-colored, viscous liquid, I felt the familiar grip of terror in my gut. This was yagé, also known as ayahuasca, the Amazonian root used in shamanistic ceremonies and brought to the world’s attention by that great drug hound, William Burroughs in his book with Allen Ginsburg, “The Yage Letters“.
As the Cofán shaman blew strongly over the cup, I took those few seconds to contemplate how I had managed to find myself here. And it had been a long, strange trip, indeed. After more than a year on the road, from Bangkok to Bogotá, my friend Victoria Fontan, whom I had met in Iraq almost a decade ago, was in Colombia and asked me over Facebook if I wanted to take part in a yagé ceremony.
Victoria: Hola! Did you do the Yaje yet? I am doing it on saturday evening in Pasto... you are welcome to join Don't listen to urban people scared of their own shadow, it will be fantastic, and with a Taita [shaman].
Me: I don't even know what that is! What is it? I've been a very bad traveler in Colombia. Just been sitting in Bogotá.
Victoria: A cosmic journey in the "other world" with a shaman... it is to open doors within you, as an indigenous ceremony. It happens during a whole night, you drink a hallocenogenic potion, and you go on a "journey"
Sounded good! I told her I was up for it. I prepared by abstaining from alcohol, coffee, red meat, sex for two days prior to the ceremony. I ate lightly so as not to burden by G-I tract with material for the yagé to work with (Throwing up is an integral part of the experience.) I then took a 22 hour bus ride to the south of Colombia.
Like buses everywhere, it was a fairly miserable trip. The seats were comfortable enough, but South American bus drivers keep the interior cold and noisy — in order to keep themselves awake, I suppose. Violent, loud movies play continuously on the in-bus entertainment/torture system. And despite Bolivariano being one of the best and most reputable bus companies in Colombia, the driver still drove like he was being chased by an ex-wife, throwing we poor passengers around the cabin as he whipped through hairpin mountain curves at 8,000 feet. By the time I arrived in Pasto, a cool and pleasant little burg just two hours north of the Ecuadorian border, I was weak, dehydrated and starving. In short, I was ready for a spiritual journey.
Victoria was joined by Juan-Daniel, a colleague of hers at her university. He had an interesting background as a former Jesuit. It was like the beginning of a bad joke: “A jaded journalist, an idealistic academic and a defrocked Jesuit walk into a yagé ceremony…”
So it was, just a few hours after de-busing, I found myself standing before a makeshift bar being handed this powerful narcotic with the consistency and appearance of light sweet crude oil. We were joined by about 40 adults, teenagers and even a few small children from the surrounding area. This was a religious ceremony for the people of the area, and it was a jarring mix of pre-Spanish indigenous beliefs and practices, and Catholicism.
The ceremony took place in the Casa del Tigre y la Boa (“The House of the Tiger and the Snake”), a shamanic lodge set in the hills outside Pasto. The building itself was a long, low wood structure, with several rows of cheap plastic chairs and two fire pits set up at either end inside. A picture of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by thorns, or rays of divinity, adorned one wall, while photographs of older shamans hung on others. Burlap covered the ceiling, hanging down in great fluid curves, evoking a mirror image of the interiors of cathedral domes.
Casa del Tigre y la Boa is “home” to a troupe of six shamans who perform the yagé ritual. The shaman/bartender before me wore jeans and work boots underneath a sparkling white tunic lined with elaborate beadwork. Colorful feathers erupted from a headband while a string of teeth and claws jangled around his neck. The Cofán shamans run these ceremonies for the locals and, yes, tourists. Yagé trips have become popular with a certain breed of travelers seeking inspiration, spiritual catharsis or just a really strong head trip. Burroughs may have been one of the first outsiders to come seeking the effects of this mysterious root, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
Before zero hour, I spent three hours or so huddled around one fire pit — its coals burning dimly, but hotly — chatting with Manolo, a kind of apprentice shaman who helped me with Spanish and tried to prepare me for my conversation with yagé.
“The yagé will show you what is wrong in your life,” he said. “But it won’t lecture you. It won’t be angry with you. If you are doing bad things — drugs, drinking, smoking — it will just show you the bad things you are doing.”[pullquote align=”left” color=”” class=””]”The yagé will show you what is wrong in your life,” he said. “But it won’t lecture you. It won’t be angry with you. If you are doing bad things — drugs, drinking, smoking — it will just show you the bad things you are doing.”[/pullquote]Many indigenous people believe consuming yagé opens up pathways to the spirit world, and allows conversations with these spirits. The physical root and leaves themselves are just the physical manifestation of the spirit. Consuming yagé is believed to be a general cure-all for almost anything: cancer, depression, alcoholism, etc.
Manolo told me how when he was 18, he “talked” with the spirit of yagé for the first time and it showed him — gently, like a concerned older brother — that his excessive drinking and smoking was harmful to him and his family. He says he hasn’t smoked or drank alcohol since. And he did seem to have a sublime countenance. His smile was gentle and wise. He made me feel comfortable with my own apprehensions.
“You will see,” he said.
That’s what I was concerned about. While Burroughs may have popularized yagé for the Beat Generation, the Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio was probably the first non-indigenous person to describe it:
This beverage is narcotic, as one might suppose, and in a few moments it begins to produce the most rare phenomena. Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken; they feel vertigo and spinning in the head, then a sensation of being lifted into the air and beginning an aerial journey; the possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge: the savages (apparently the Zaparo of eastern Ecuador) say that they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear, and other beautiful things relating to their savage life. When this instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors out to devour them, their first flight ceases and they descend to earth to combat the terrors who communicate to them all adversities and misfortunes awaiting them.
Finally, it was time. Like it was a hot tea, the shaman behind the bar blew twice over the rim of the cup — it was just like the ones used to dispense pills in hospitals — crossed himself and handed it to me. A film of the stuff dripped down the side, and I could see its gritty texture. It was dark and shiny, and had a faint chocolate smell. I held it up to my face and thought, this was it.
I was no stranger to drugs (sorry, Mom.) Nothing like heroin or anything that required piercing the skin, and after a year or so, I gave it up because I found it exhausting and a little boring. I had stuff to do on the weekends! But I never forgot a valuable piece of wisdom given to me by a good friend of mine: Do the drug, don’t let the drug do you. I had even read Carlos Castañeda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge“. In short, I knew how to navigate a head trip.
But this, this was something else. I had been warned by accounts on the Internet that drinking this would mean a long night of vomiting, purging, and possibly terrifying hallucinations. Taita Lorenzo Morales, who appeared to be the most respected of the shamans in the group, in a prayer before the ceremony had instructed us all to think on God. Victoria said it would save me 10 years of therapy. Håkon, a Norwegian psychiatrist psychologist friend, said I would need therapy afterwards.
Finally, after an eternity — lasting maybe two seconds — I did what I usually do when faced with fear squatting in my stomach. “Fuck it,” I said, and drank down the tiny cup as deeply as I could.