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We went to Peru in August to try Ayahuasca: this amazing traditional (DMT-containing) plant brew that the shamans of the Amazon have been using for thousands of years to heal people and to communicate with the spirits. It has been getting some reputation in the West, too and there's quite some Ayahuasca tourism in Iquitos; every taxi driver and their dog will know of a "shaman" who offers Ayahuasca ceremonies for a few Soles (or souls). Apparently there are also some "Brujos" around — sorcerers with bad intentions; I even found an article about them in an otherwise very dry and political looking Spanish magazine. Unfortunately my Spanish wasn't good enough to understand much of it other than that they are practicing strange cults with scary ingredients. As if the local markets of Iquitos ("Belen markets") with their hacked off monkey parts, reddish slime on the ground and empty turtle shells rolling around on the ground weren't scary enough.
After foggy, cold Lima when I was pretty much over cities I did enjoy Iquitos a lot; crumbling but colourful colonial buildings right next to the Amazon river and sunsets almost as good as Darwin's. We had found an Ayahuasca retreat that felt good to both of us and after two days they picked us up from the hostel. To get to the retreat we took moto taxis to the port, a place full of life, trash, shaggy dogs, a dodgy market, mouldered wooden shacks and more trash. We changed into a slim swaying boat that brought us down the Rio Nanay to Padre Cocha, a surprisingly big village on the riverbanks. From there we took another moto taxi for a rough ride through the jungle to the retreat. The jungle wasn't as mighty as I had hoped; there were no big trees anymore and tracks and farmed fields were everywhere in between the woods. But it still felt very nice to be out of the cities and back in nature. The traditional wooden huts (fortified by modern mosquito nets and sporting proper ceramic toilets even though without plumbing or seats) had just the right feeling to them: close to nature and comfortable enough without too much luxury that would just feel ridiculous in the middle of the jungle.
On the evening of the same day we had our first ceremony. Everyone gathered in anticipation in the kitchen hut and we were listening to their stories and getting really excited. "Noche merengue?" they asked us and explained that that basically meant full cup, crazy night. I sure loved the atmosphere. Then the shaman came in a white robe, feathers on his head and huge talismans dangling on his chest. I stared and realised that he was the guy who had picked us up from the hostel. And I had thought he was just staff. Oops.
We followed Don Lucho and his flashlight through the nocturnal jungle when he suddenly stopped and pointed at two shiny discs in the distance, whispering that that was a jaguar! We stared really hard but couldn't see any more details around those shiny discs and finally moved on to the maloca, the traditional round temple hut. For those who haven't read it yet, here is the report of our first trip.
I had a full cup and was still tripping well into the next day. Not as intense as during the night, but walking still required some focus and I found it hard to concentrate on anything. I didn't feel very social either but neither did the others and so we sat in companionable silence or just slept a lot in our huts. I started dreaming intensely and not very pleasant dreams. When I was awake and stayed still, I could see colourful dots in my field of view and feel my fingertips tingling.
The next ceremony wasn't until three days later but it was Black Ayahuasca which Philippe explained to us to be a lot stronger than the Cielo Ayahuasca we had the first night. According to him it is good to get out deep sitting issues. When the time came I sat on my mattress in the dark Maloca, nervously staring into half a cup of Black Ayahuasca. After two days of pondering I had decided that it would be a good idea to ask Black Ayahuasca to help me face my fears. The trip came on a lot quicker and stronger this time. The colours behind my eyes weren't intricate patterns but more like two wheels of flashes, spinning faster and faster. I heard strange sounds this time and everything started to speed up and feel more and more frantic until I panicked about having asked to face my fears. I asked Mother Ayahuasca to please be gentle with me. I saw a quick flash of a beautiful tropical lagoon with a waterfall and a butterfly. I thought I was being heard and relaxed a little bit. But I was still afraid of what was going on; I had the feeling that something was charging up and about to be shot off into god-knows-where and I wasn't sure if I'd be on that trip. Red thoughts about horrors that only my subconscious knows were racing through my head. Finally the two spinning wheels where launching a red beam upwards. And I was just observing; I wasn't on the rocket. I felt a mix of relief, regret and disappointment that I hadn't been more brave. On the other hand it was good to know that contrary to what Philippe had told us I did seem to have a choice, even on Black Ayahuasca.
The rest of the trip wasn't pleasant. My heart was racing out of my chest (or so I thought) and it felt like all I could do to stay sane was breathe. I didn't see much this trip, it was more of a panicky body feeling the whole time. I was glad when that trip was over and really nervous about the next trip which would be Black again and only two days later.
We all talked a lot about our experiences and the whole group spirit felt really good. We figured that everyone usually sent everyone else in the circle positive energy at some point, especially when we heard someone having a hard time, like the Corey the first night. It's hard to describe how profoundly connected the group felt to me at this point. There wasn't much to do but it was good this way. We were all going through some intense experiences. It was after this second ceremony that I started to feel pretty negative most of the time, despite the amazing group. I turned up crying in the kitchen hut one night, lucky to find three guys there to keep me company while I just sat there sipping tea and had no idea what was going on with me. After that trip, I really didn't look forward to the next one.
But just two days later I sat there, the wooden cup more than half full again. The smell of smoke and Ayahuasca was absolutely repelling at this point and I had a hard time keeping it down. Somehow I managed though and this trip wasn't as frantic as the second one. But it wasn't pleasant either, my heart felt like it was racing again and I resorted to telling myself that I am strong without pause. As soon my thoughts drifted away from my mantra the trip felt worse. At least it was far from being as bad as the second one. I started recognising patterns, scenes and recurring thoughts. I often switched to thinking in German and was aware of it. As soon as I recognised a scene or pattern I had seen on the previous trips, the thought "recurring thoughts" would echo in my mind, both in English and German. At times this echoing and recurring would drive me nuts, as if I was running around in circles. One of the recurring thoughts on all the trips was that nothing matters and how ironic it was that it was called "to matter" because matter didn't exist. Then I had the thought that I was pure energy and felt like my body was vibrating like crazy. The tribal scenes that felt so full of spirits were there again and some sort of a round gateway in the middle of a jungle with a puddle and a thin dry way in front of it. Standing there the trip would always start to feel worse and I had to focus on my mantra. I felt like I was tripping really hard but I didn't see any visions that I clearly remember. This time I really couldn't stand up or walk alone and it took me a very long time to find my torch that for some reason I had been sitting on. I just couldn't focus on the task of searching it for more than a few seconds at a time. Luckily Corey had got a lot less Ayahuasca than I did and was aware enough to help me up. I was clinging on to him the whole way back, really grateful that I didn't have to walk alone and that the trip hadn't been as scary as the second one. Back in the hut we didn't sleep straight away. I was still ridiculously high and aware of making moaning sounds all the time. I managed to tell Corey that my heart was racing but when he felt my pulse he meant it was slow and steady. I tried to feel it myself but could have sworn that it was still beating out of my chest. But even though I couldn't feel it myself it was very reassuring to know that it was just a hallucination.
Again I was tripping well into the next day and so were many of the others. Whenever anyone talked about the taste of Ayahuasca I could actually taste it and almost started gagging. I felt pretty negative and insecure as to why I would feel so bad in an amazing group like this. In the evening I fell deep into the rabbit hole. I started getting really afraid of staying that negative because there was only one ceremony left. I wanted help and didn't know where to get it. I had the feeling that I couldn't make it alone, that I wasn't strong enough. I was wondering why others seemed to get really clear guidance from Mother Ayahuasca, heard her voice or even saw her while I didn't. It felt like someone was screaming at me that I just wasn't good enough in my own voice. I was afraid that this dark, weak, negative thing was a part of me, something I had to accept. Or even worse, that all that I thought I was was just a fraud. That the real me was this hopelessly negative thing. That nobody could love me like that and everybody just liked the mask of positivity I had been wearing.
When I talked about it others told me to "just punch that thing in the face" and at some point I actually managed to do that in my thoughts but it came up with an image of a little girl (my ego that just wanted to be loved) that I was hitting and it felt like I was hitting myself. I really lost it that evening. I was crying and screaming on top of my lungs, terrified of myself, until Corey brought me to Philippe who was shocked to see me like that. He immediately took me in and did a healing, chanting and pouring fragrant holy water over me. It calmed me down immediately and I went to bed exhausted but grateful.
Shipibo art is inspired by the patterns one sees on Ayahuasca
I wasn't sure if I could do the last ceremony. I did an exercise from "The Path To Love" from Deepak Chopra and wrote down everything love is meant to do and held on tight to that piece of paper for the rest of the day and during the ceremony. Luckily Philippe had talked to Don Lucho about me and they were planning a personal healing so I was hopeful to not stay that negative. This time the cup was only two mouthfuls but it was harder than ever to keep it down. And then I could feel everyone feeling with me as I sat there choking and managed. This trip I didn't need a mantra. I held on to my piece of paper and remembered what was on there. Everytime I remembered, I sank into a quiet place within myself, where no negativity could reach me. Where nothing outside mattered because I was safe and sound at this place (and nothing "mattered" anyway). And it was always there right within me, I just had to remember. Relax and remember, it seemed so easy on that trip. At the end we all got a personal healing from the shamans and I noticed that I didn't mind the smell of the smoke as much. It wasn't pleasant but I wasn't recoiling from it anymore and thought that was a good sign, since the smoke is meant to cleanse.
Before we knew our ten day retreat was over but Don Lucho told us that we'd still be processing stuff for three weeks. And I sure did. Coming back to Iquitos was almost unbearable. Suddenly I could feel how dense the energy there was and had trouble sleeping the first night. All the light and noise seemed so much more intense than before. I was still having a lot of intense dreams and the rabbit hole seemed to wait just around the corner. At times I did fall, too. After a bit over a week we both had enough of Iquitos and flew to Cusco. The vibes here felt better immediately, more calm, down to earth. People seem to smile a lot more and I didn't get greasy cat calls from dubious groups of guys or even kids.
By now I think I'm through the processing phase. My dreams aren't as intense anymore. I've learned a lot and we have integrated meditation into our daily routine; what that once seemed boring is now something I look forward to. Looking back I'm sure that Ayahuasca did teach me a lot after all, even though I didn't see it clearly at the time. All this negative stuff had to come up before I could release it. Don't get me wrong, the ego still gets to me every now and again, but now it sounds different (I'm pretty sure I haven't had the not-good-enough issue since) and it's easier to recognise and stay aware. It was tough work and I felt like I was running around in circles, afraid that I'd never get anywhere and stay stuck with these recurring periods of negativity. I'm sure I'm not done yet but my outlook has changed along with a lot of my thinking patterns that used to drive me nuts regularly. It's hard to put the finger on it but it sure did something good.