Continued from The Yagé Posts, Part I
PASTO, Colombia — … 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 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.
It was possibly the most vile stuff I’ve ever consumed. Not only did it look like and have the texture of crude oil, it tasted like it had been recently drilled from the Athabasca Oil Sands of Canada. I gagged and immediately reached for the tin cup of water to the side, trying desperately to either wash the taste out of my mouth or at least down my throat where I couldn’t taste it anymore. And then, I waited.
Ayahuasca/yagé is a psychoactive brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. There are many different ways to prepare it, but the ayahuasca vine is usually pounded into a mush by the shamans with stones and then boiled with the leaves of other plants for several hours. The other plants vary, but they often include dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-containing leaves of the chacruna (Psychotria viridis) shrub. Alone, neither plant alone has the psychedelic effects of the brew that results, and it’s unclear how indigenous people discovered the mixture. Local tribes often say they received instructions directly from the plant, which is why taking the stuff is often called “talking with yagé” or with the spirits of yagé.
The vine and the ceremony are deeply entwined with South American indigenous religions of the Amazon. Area shamans have used it for centuries to communicate with the spirit world to gain guidance in governance, warfare, artistic inspiration and healing. I was told it was useful for curing almost any illness, from depression to gout to cancer. But at its heart, yagé is a tool to gain information from unseen realms, whether they exist in a separate reality or within yourself.
I was thinking of none of this, however. After the initial, gag-inducing swallows, I waited for the purge. Throwing up or otherwise voiding your G-I tract is an integral part of the ceremony, and shamans encourage it. Outside the lodge, running along its perimeter, was a small ditch lined by posts topped by a chest-high wooden beam. When we felt the need to vomit, the shamans told us, that bar-and-ditch set-up was for us.
I wrapped my poncho around me for warmth and waited in the quiet darkness. Prior to our consumption, the lights in the lodge were turned off and we were asked to turn off any cell phones. Anyone wishing to chat should go outside, but for the moment, the only sounds in the lodge were the shuffling and sniffling of people waiting to puke. The fire pit’s coals glowed dimly, barely illuminating the cheeks and lips of the men people huddled around it and a single candle at the bar cast dancing shadows on the curved, canvas ceiling. The shaman behind the bar was puttering around, filling small miso soup-sized bowls with the tar-like brew for himself and his colleagues. In the darkness and the silence, I watched the six shamans gulp down these bowls of the stuff and was amazed that they could stomach it. I could only guess at the trip they were about to begin.
Every now and then someone, quietly and with purpose, would rise and exit the lodge. The soft sounds of retching, as if they were trying to avoid disturbing anyone, would then filter back into the black stillness. It was the sound of purging and cleansing.
Soon enough, I felt my guts churning and rebelling. I quietly excused myself and stepped out into the crystalline Andean night. Pasto is almost 8,300 feet (2,527 m) up in the mountains, so it was cold and crisp, with a blaze of stars across the sky. The Milky Way arched across the southern sky before dipping behind some of the mountains circling the town. I leaned back against the wooden barf-bar and gazed up in the sky. A shooting star flickered above me and vanished in an instant. I then turned around and, in an ecstatic convulsion, puked.
Like my ayahuasca-swilling compatriots, I tried to be quiet about it. There’s nothing like the sound of someone vomiting to produce sympathetic upchucks in others. Thankfully, my preparations and segregations in my diet served me well. Mine was a gentle and (relatively) quiet barf. It was over quickly, and I felt the familiar feeling of relief that comes when you expel something from your gut that had been giving you trouble. But this time, I felt it wasn’t the ayahuasca (or even the light salad) that I had purged, but something deeper and more profound.
At this point, I should clarify something. I’m an atheist. I don’t put much stock in spiritual explanations for things. I like the idea of some ethereal connecting tissue that ties us together and to the natural world, but I’ve never much felt these silver strands of an astral spiderweb. And stories about ghosts and spirits and God and whatnot I feel are pretty much just tall-tales left over from a less scientifically minded past and which also happened to be useful in enforcing social order.
But there is no questioning that the atmosphere that was developing in the lodge as more and more people began their trip was something … different. The air felt more solid, almost vibrating gently against my eyes and eardrums. After about an hour of this, the shamans began chanting and stamping around. Taita Morales, the chief shaman, danced in circles and chanted in Cofán, emitting a nasal drone that veered between the sounds of mountain thunder against rocky cliffs and ZZ Top’s “La Grange“. From outside, and through the frosted windows of the lodge, I thought I heard rumbles and bright flashes. And then I realized I wasn’t imagining it. I really was seeing and hearing these things, as if a color storm was trying to break in and sweep us away.
I walked out and looked up at the Colombian night. Fireworks. Fireworks! Ours was not the only religious ceremony going on that night. The local churches were celebrating The Feast of Corpus Christi by launching brilliantly exploding rockets into the night. I was soon joined by about 10 other spirit-trippers and we watched the boom and flash from the celebrants from the hills below us. At first, we were silent, soaking in this glorious accompaniment to our own internal light shows. But soon enough, we began uttering the universal “ooh”s and “ahhh”s in appreciation of a particularly brilliant bloom.
You would think that watching fireworks while tripping would make for some pretty excellent visions, no? For me, however, nothing. I thought I caught of glimpse of color that shouldn’t be there, perhaps a flash of octarine, which usually exists beyond the visible spectrum. (Nerd joke, there.) And that lack of vision would continue through the night. While others around me huffed and puffed in their internal journey, sweated and moaned, and gazed, wild-eyed, into the fires we built to stay warm, I felt … calm. It’s true that I was beyond exhaustion after two days without any real sleep (there was nowhere to lie down at the lodge, and my poncho was too small to blanket me.) Perhaps it was the vine, but I felt like I was having a dream in which I could not sleep.
As the night wore on, I grew reflective amid a cozy serenity, and relaxed into the larger community. Taita Morales stamped and murmured, and the other shamans banged drums or strummed guitars. One woman sang along in Cofán angelically and mysteriously, her voice rising from a dark corner to weave itself between the instruments’ strings.
I belonged. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak the language; I was a part of a one-night family where I knew nothing really bad would happen to me. For the first time in a long time, I felt comforted.
Had I finally found the spiritual connecting tissue that for years had eluded me?