PASTO, Colombia — As the night progressed, I spent a lot of time waiting for the dawn, thinking and staring into the fires. I was freezing because the poncho I had borrowed was too small, having been designed for a child, so I huddled as close to the embers as I could. When you’re physically and mentally exhausted, there are few things so soothing as watching a fire, feeling its heat and settling into the warmth of other human beings doing the same thing. The coals in the heart of the blaze glowed like quartz crystals lit from within, and the occasional crack of a log sent sparks spiraling into the black sky, rivaling the fireworks from earlier.
Given the shamanistic trappings of the ceremony, it was impossible not to chew over the nature of religion. And as I soaked up the warmth and the dim glow of the fire, which pushed back the night, I thought, wasn’t all religion just an overly ornamented evolution of fire worship? For it was fire that first gave our species comfort against the cold, light against the darkness, a giver of both life and death. It was capricious and cruel in how it could burn us and yet it was also our salvation against the savagery of raw nature. Listening to Taita Morales’ Cofán growls, I drew my poncho around me as best I could and turned away from the darkness.
For wasn’t a faith in God, or spirits or what have you, the spiritual version of the physical comfort we humans receive from fire? Fire is often a symbol for divinity — holy fire, fire in the sky, burning bushes — but what if, I thought, it was the other way around? What if it was the divine being who was a symbol for the original object of worship, the flame itself? And wasn’t fire the first step in civilizing ourselves? The divine spark (there’s that fire again) that many believe makes us human is also what powered many of our most artistic inspirations (a word that literally means “to breathe into”). And what do we do to kindle fire? We blow into the coals. It was all, like, a cosmic circle, man.
Such internal conversations are probably had in college dorm rooms every night, in a haze of pot smoke. And I had more thoughts like that, for hours after I thought the effects of yagé had worn off. But one valuable bit of insight I did take away from the chat with the vine was a narrative structure for my book. For months, I’ve been agonizing over how to tell the story that I wanted to tell. And after a conversation with Victoria, plus some pretty intense staring into a campfire, it finally clicked. I know what the story is and how to tell it. (And no, I won’t reveal it all here just yet.)
While I was thinking these Very Deep Thoughts, the soft retching of my fellow spirit-trippers continued. Many people rocked back and forth and moaned softly. One young woman in a heavy metal t-shirt moaned and huffed and puffed, while her friend gently stroked her arm in an attempt to comfort her. I can’t even guess what visions were tormenting the poor woman.
As dawned crept over the eastern hills, Taita Morales and the other shamans called us inside. It was time for the cleansing part of the ceremony and Victoria and I, along with half of the crowd lined up on facing benches. Most were told to take off our shirts and jackets down to their bare chests. (The ladies got to keep their bras on, and I noticed most of the women asked to strip down were young and pretty.) Victoria and I were spared that, at least, but we were down to t-shirts and thin blouses. Morales said something and crossed himself.
“He said to think of God,” Victoria said, as we shivered in the early chill.
“God, I’m cold,” I answered, goose pimples already rising on my arms.
From there, it was a musical fiesta, with the two shamans on guitar, another banging a drum with a jaunty syncopation and Morales and one other beating us with leaves while the final shaman moved behind each celebrant, filled his mouth with water and then spritzed everyone with the sound of a breaching whale. Victoria’s glasses were soon misted over, and I tried to keep from giggling. Victoria didn’t much bother trying to stifle hers.
Several of the young people were given special attention by Morales and the spritzing shaman. The idea behind this part of the ceremony was to cleanse remaining negative energy generated by doing “bad things” as Manolo told me before all this started. Given that most of the people receiving the extra cleansing were young, I can imagine the “bad things” they were allegedly doing were probably what young people everywhere did: sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. In other words, probably your run-of-the-mill youthful rebellion.
Once again, my thoughts turned not to the validity of religion and ceremony, but its utility. Shamanism isn’t about saving your immortal soul so much as it is about getting results. Have a child who you suspect is running with the wrong crowd? Let a shaman obviously wave vine leaves over her and enforce a little semi-public shaming. If the kid thinks no one knows what they’re up to — maybe a secret boyfriend or sneaking cigarettes and booze — so much the better. Oh, shit, the shaman communes with spirits; he knows! While there’s no specific wrongdoing called out, village elders still command respect here and if they wag a finger at youthful transgressions, that might be enough to get the kid to tone it down a bit.
In closing, I don’t think ayahuasca would work outside of its shamanistic context. Recreationally downing a medicine cup of the stuff in your apartment or a nightclub would be, I think, a miserable experience. But in this environment, the theatrics of the drums, the singing, the lodge, the spooky lighting all contributed to the feeling of being in another world. But that means I don’t really know how much of this night and its insights — useful and otherwise — were from the yagé or simply having time to contemplate a lot of things while huddled around a fire. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The insights came; that’s what’s important.
Before we left, Balmas, a shaman with the doleful expression of a basset hound and the tonsure of a saint, took Victoria and me aside and explained that this particular mixture of ayahuasca didn’t usually produce visions on the first trip, that it was a gentler, more reflective spirit that urged you to think on your life, your family and your relationships. As Victoria translated, I stared at him, surprised because that’s exactly what had happened to me all night.
As we were leaving, spears of sunlight painted the top of the volcano Galeras golden. Dawn had finally come.