" We’ve now trekked out to a remote jungle camp in the Amazon Basin to partake in a proper guided ayahuasca ceremony. "
I’m no spiritual seeker. Frankly, I find the idea of trying to ‘find oneself’ a little bit sad. So as I, er, find myself in the depths of the Ecuadorian jungle preparing to take ayahuasca, I admit I probably look like a bit of a hypocrite. Now we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll get on with the story.
For centuries, shamans have used this plant-based hallucinogen to sort themselves out, both physically and spiritually. I’d been hearing a lot of chatter about ayahuasca on the Gringo Trail, and, figuring it will at least make a good story, I’m keen to try this ‘spirit vine’ for myself. After much convincing, my two travelling companions agree to join me.
Having spawned somewhat of a holistic tourism boom, ayahuasca retreats are popping up all over Peru, especially in Iquitos, which is fast becoming known as the world's ayahuasca HQ. But it smelled a bit commercial to me, so I moved on in the hope that a more organic opportunity would present itself. I eventually met a really stand-up Ecuadorian guy who agreed to facilitate a meeting with a shaman he knew, and we’ve now trekked out to a remote jungle camp in the Amazon Basin to partake in a proper ayahuasca ceremony, whereby a shaman prepares the brew and 'guides' users through their journey by chanting lcaros (shamanic songs). After boiling down a few choice Amazonian plants, he passes around glasses of the muddy brew, and we chug it down.
Designed to bring enlightenment by way of some intense hallucinations, ayahuasca has some pretty violent side effects. In short, it ain't no party drug – most users ‘release negativity’ by throwing up and crapping themselves, often at the same time. Within 20 minutes, one of my mates tumbles out of his hammock, moaning in ecstasy between each chunder. But I’ve become impatient – I’m supposed to be tripping with my eyes closed, but nothing is happening. Though I am a little confused why I am the only person who can hear a helicopter trying to land in our camp.
Suddenly, coloured lights begin to appear – like a dream, but I’m totally lucid. The kaleidoscopic flashes soon morph into animals, people. A wise-looking black man appears (Morgan Freeman? Is that you?), and I follow his gaze towards a colourful zoo of exotic animals cruising around in my periphery. The helicopter seems to have gone now, but the jungle noises are deafening – like a family of cicadas are swinging from my eardrums. Chir-chirr-CHIRRR.
Suddenly, I’m on my knees.
Bleurrrrrrgh! Oh gu-gawwwd – bleeeuuuurrrrrrrg-g-gh!
Wiping my mouth, the visions come harder and faster. And it’s all getting a bit serious – I find myself throwing out a few questions to the universe and someone, somewhere is giving me some pretty intuitive life advice.
At around midnight, my friends come back to earth – following my other mate’s violent, multi-orifice explosion (there’s something so gratifying about witnessing a grown man shit his pants). But my dose took a while to kick in, and I effectively feel like Pocahontas on acid until dawn.
The next morning, I’m shattered, but oddly calm. I’d almost say cleansed – there’s no anxious, shaky comedown. It’s at this point that our guide admits he’s glad we had such a “positive experience,” because the dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a naturally occurring psychedelic compound in ayahuasca, can make some people see some pretty scary shit.
After my enlightening little adventure, it makes more sense why scientists are fascinated by the therapeutic potential of psychotropic drugs. I can’t help but wonder, though, what the shaman makes of this emerging tourism trend. Does he resent having to share his traditional healing techniques with a bunch of curious backpackers because he needs the money (I paid USD30 for the privilege - which is roughly triple the average daily Ecuadorean wage)? Or is he happy to impart his expertise with those eager to learn from his ancient wisdom? I feel a bit uneasy about it all, but I'm also deeply appreciative. Ayahuasca didn't reveal the meaning of life, but it certainly armed me with a great deal of insight.