Spirit Tripping In Colombia

Once, while in the little town of Pasto, Colombia, I took part in a yagé ceremony. I drank ayahuasca and documented the experience in a series of posts I called The Yagé Posts, in an homage to William Burroughs. Here is the complete story in one form. 

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 hallucinogenic 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 Lodge in Pasto

The Casa del Tigre y la Boa, in Pasto, Colombia

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.”

“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.”

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, llrging, 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.

***

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.

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.

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?

***

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.)

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.

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.

Balmas the Shaman

Balmas the Shaman

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.

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