The Ayahuasca Diaries – Prologue
‘It is an ordeal. It is an endurance event. It is the ‘Tough Mudder’ of the senses. One must undergo the preparation rather than undertake it.’
In September of 2016, over a 12 day period, I drank Ayahuasca 7 times. Apart from the fact that this seemed like a lot of Ayahuasca to drink over a relatively short period (it still does by the way), this simple undertaking may not be of much interest to anyone. Ayahuasca is no longer the great mystery that it once was. Whether it’s the idiosyncratic name, or the fact that, like hand-drawn shopping trolleys, the use of psychedelics seems to be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, mention of the word seems to illicit some form of vague recognition. It has become a phenomenon. A cottage industry. The topic of conversation between hipsters as they shop for vintage clothes. What claim I might have had on Ayahuasca as an original idea has long since passed. Knowledge of what it is and it’s affect has become as firmly embedded in counter-culture as ironic t-shirts and skinny jeans. Whilst an account of my experience drinking Ayahuasca may be as compelling or as tedious as the next one, what may add some spice to my narrative, and incline the faddish reader to take an interest in my tale, is that prior to my drinking Ayahuasca, I had never touched a psychedelic.
Over the course of that 12 day period I kept a diary. In it I recorded what took place while I was there, hunkered down at the Temple of the Way of Light, the small jungle outpost in which all of this took place. The notebook I took with me filled quickly and I was forced to find another. Marked with the jagged afterthoughts of post-ceremony rumination, the notebooks form what I have come to call ‘The Ayahuasca Diaries’; a collection of accounts from each ceremony: what occurred, what I saw, how I felt.
This prologue serves to act as a guide; a handbook, if you will, to the world that I was about to enter when, back in September, with my shirt wet and clinging to me beneath my backpack, I emerged from the jungle and walked across the wooden bridge that served as the entrance to the Temple of the Way of Light. Little did I know that whilst it’s length seemed short; it’s purpose that of providing safe passage over a creek-bed that became turgid and unruly during monsoon season, I was crossing a gateway to another world.
In what follows, I have made reference to aspects of the experience that will provide context to the diary entries to come. I do not, for instance, detail the restrictions that visitors to the Temple were asked to adhere to prior to arriving. Here I will do so. I do not explain what a Tambo is, describe the Maloka, provide background on the shamans. Again, here I will do so. This blog post is part glossary, part crib note.
To the extent that I have been able to suppress those parts of me that curl up and bubble like a salted slug when personal histories are laid bare, the original content of each entry remains untouched. I have a high threshold for vulnerability, finding generally that it helps clear the path for living. I’d much prefer to volunteer my deficiencies than have them discovered unexpectedly. With that said, I do have my limits. Where the entry infringes upon or directly reveals the nature of a relationship that is important to me, I have left out detail. Though my original motivation for maintaining a diary was journalistic, I found that under the influence of Ayahuasca, things became perversely personal. Despite my best efforts to do so, I have been unable to remove the splatter of my life from the entries that follow. I hope you’ll forgive the indulgences where they occur. They are the vapour trails of the psychedelic correspondent in motion.
Where I have deemed it necessary to do so I have added a little spit and polish to the diary entries. I had envisioned taking my notebook to ceremony and popping up on an elbow every so often to record a thought or catch a moment, the way a war photographer clicks away while the bullets are flying, however it became apparent to me, even before the first ceremony, that the action I wanted to record and the means by which I might record it would both take place in the same arena. Later, under the influence of Ayahuasca, I discovered that I could not have tapped my Opal pass against the card reader at a turn-style, much less chased down and captured my thoughts in the way that I had originally planned.
Each entry was made the day after, with me not having slept, hungry, and for the most part, still in shock. In the process of reviewing I found that on occasion they were flat, too factual, and read like a ship’s cargo manifest. Again, brush strokes have been added, but only where it has been utterly necessary to do so and never at the expense of the truth. With that, I give you my glossary of terms and list of useful things to know, to help guide you through the diary entries to come.
If you have followed my story, read my article on ‘Why I drank Ayahuasca’ , or are simply drawn to the oddness of the word, chances are you know what Ayahuasca is. Some call it a drug. I call it a truth serum. It is the means by which one may examine, with bold vivacity, the mechanics of ones life; what is working, what isn’t, what needs repair. It is the space shuttle Discovery, it’s booster tanks drained of rocket fuel and replaced with DMT. Whilst it’s mission still pertains to exploration, this craft is more attuned to the near-miss navigation of inner space than the forgiving latitude of outer, though at times – with things underway and the sails stretched thin and close to perforation – one might be forgiven for confusing one with the other.
Ayahuasca itself is a vine. Nothing more, nothing less. As ordinary as a maidenhair. As plain as a pikestaff. What it lacks in adornment it makes up for in chemistry. It speaks to parts of our brain like no other plant can, accessing memories and the long forgotten origins of pain as easily as a hacker armed with the password to our lives.
There were five of them; three women and two men. Diminutive little jockeys who, I was surprised to learn, had travelled three days by boat along the Ucayali River to deliver us their birdsong incantations. These were the Shipibo; the indigenous caretakers of the Amazon, who, having resisted and outlasted the Incans and the Spanish, lived in villages scattered up and down the river that might have appeared from above as the weathered fragments of a wrecked ship.
Marisol, Elena, Orphalina, Julio and Henato, though I know them now more for their songs than their names. Each had their own; arcane little madrigals that were full of warbles and trills and healing. Each of them spoke to me in a different way, without a word uttered, without a look received, carrying me inward to parts unknown to me on the wingtips of their sacred icaros.
I can not explain the mechanics of what they do. They are the descendants of an ancient line; the trustees of a secret that only the jungle knows and can divulge. Whether it is their curse or blessing I can not tell. Whatever it is, it is as real as a deep breath; as livid as a purpled bruise. What happened, what I felt, was as true to me as the touch of my fingers on these keys. There is magic in this world – real magic – and they are its arbiters.
If the plans for Gaudi’s ‘Sagrada Familia’ were suddenly taken up in a gust of wind and transported loose leaf across seas and continents, descending intact and unspoiled through the jig-sawed canopy of the rainforest, settling dry and appropriately ordered in a place where someone might find them and intuit their meaning, the resultant structure, should the discoverer be of a mind to attempt the feat, might look not unlike the Maloka – the great domed cathedral in which the ceremonies took place.
It has a thatched jungle roof that is balanced delicately on a frame formed from the boughs and heavy limbs of felled trees; it’s design as perfect from the outside as it is chaotic from the inside. The polished floor; gritty and most often awash with bugs and crawling things that at night, during ceremony, one feels but is too consumed by madness or light to be concerned by (I would often seek them out and hold them in my hand simply to remind me that I was alive!), is the only concession to any type of aesthetic. That and the fly screen walls stretched tight between it’s posts, which, despite appearing intact, are as easily breached as the shark net is at Bondi.
The Maloka stands in the centre of the village. It brings the ‘Temple’ to the ‘Temple of the Way of Light’. Surrounded by trees, it rises out of the rainforest like a great nubbed bullet, so suddenly that one is almost upon it before it’s gentle curves declare it separate from the jungle. Each night we would file in and take our places, a laminated name tag atop a mattress showing us where to lie. It was always the same mattress. After a while I did not need the name tag. After a while longer I did not need the name.
Ever since that first eukaryote attached itself to another, and together, from a still hot steaming pool, having gathered together billions of their kind, their slick mass slid snail like onto land and transmogrified; hardening and stiffening, first in the shape of a fish, then a bird, and then, with time and nature’s hand filtering out the finest parts – man, that resultant being, that bipedal humanoid whose form you and I at this very moment find ourselves cast in, has been tinkering with it’s state of consciousness.
After all the tinkering, all the trial and error, Dimethyltryptamine, that phalange of psycho-active elements, stands at the top of the pile in terms of being most hallucinogenic. It is to Ayahuasca what paracetamol is to panadol. To list it’s many characteristics here in this post, besides unnecessarily extending my word count, would be a slap in the face to any decent search engine. Suffice to say, it is remarkable, uncanny, and extraordinary, and to consume it – particularly in ceremony and with all the other earthy elements of Ayahuasca mixed in – without the merest consideration of how one should prepare for such an occasion, is tantamount to invoking all the dark devilry of the universe and asking it to come visit you about an hour after you have drunk.
‘What is this preparation of which you speak? A little mental strength training perhaps? Push-ups for the brain. A daily joust with a Sudoku puzzle followed by the black-run on Lumosity? Nothing of the sort I’m afraid. The preparation that the Temple of the Way of Light insists you undertake is far more taxing. It involves constraint. Not in the form of curtailment, or a cutting back, or a scaling down, but in an outright cessation. They ask for termination. A discontinuation. A full stop to everything that is good and right with the world. Sex, coffee, ice-cream, marijuana, pork, alcohol, Cadbury’s Diary Milk Chocolate, spicy food, sex, dairy, red-meat, salt, oils and yes, sex. All of this piled high on a Viking’s funeral pyre and set alight two weeks prior to arriving, and left to smoulder for two weeks after leaving.
It is an ordeal. It is an endurance event. It is the ‘Tough Mudder’ of the senses. One must undergo the preparation rather than undertake it. It was hard. Really hard. I cried when I had my first coffee 6 weeks later. No really I did. Don’t think ill of me. I was raw and tender and I drank it in Italy.
I was in number 15. How I came to be in number 15 I don’t know. Pieces of paper balled up and drawn out of a hat, perhaps. A series of shorter and shorter straws, the shortest of which consigning it’s drawer to lodgings on the very edges of the temple grounds? The shacks, for to call them huts might incline the reader to conjure up an image of one of those quaint little Alpine jobs (you know the ones – well kept, clean, and with the previous occupant having left a fresh pile of logs all uniformly cut and roughly of the same length for the next inhabitant), were the most tumble down ramshackle bolt-holes I had ever seen. They were called Tambos, a word that in Spanish means ‘dairy farm’, and in Peruvian ‘wayside in’, but in truth should translate to ‘vessel for holding spiders’. Palm fronds, aligned uniformly from one end to the next and with the leaves interwoven patiently by some long bosomed native, would have provided better shelter than my Tambo.
I should say that there were better Tambos than mine. Often, on my way to or back from breakfast or lunch or some other gathering, I would spy out better lodgings than mine, stopping to eye them off with envy; their rooves showy and intact, their walls free of dry rot and jungle ooze, their timber supports set in concrete – elevating the structure high up above the constantly moving jungle floor.
Mine was a wet casket set in shadow that refused to let it’s occupant or any of it’s occupants belongings dry. A bed, a sheet, a pillow, a wonky writing table, a green garden chair, and an oil lamp with a wick that would only show itself during daylight hours, were my only companions. Them and the spiders, an army of which watched me with their multifarious eyes from every corner of my shack, silently weighing up the mosquito net. Looking for it’s weak points.
Walking back from ceremony in the dark, with the jungle come alive and me still under Ayahuasca’s spell, was – apart from the ceremony itself – the most terrifying thing I have ever had to do. It was as if the jungle was one big mouth, and me it’s morsel. Having run the gauntlet back to number 15 after the first two ceremonies, I determined to sleep in the Maloka for the remainder of the affair.
This prologue would not be complete without some reference to the taste. I had read about it’s foulness prior to my journey – a series of reddit posts decrying it’s gritty, bitter after taste; it’s oesophageal sting. Ayahuasca, at least the brand that I was served, is thick and brown and tawny. It has the viscosity of engine oil and the soft sweet smell of a Florida swamp. I imagine it to be the perfect liquid for mosquito larvae to hatch in.
My first two or three encounters seemed to pass without any special effort. Drinking it wasn’t fun but I managed it. However, something altogether evil seemed to happen to it’s taste half-way through. Whether it was that I had had enough of it or that it had had enough of me, I can’t be sure, but suddenly – seemingly overnight – I couldn’t stomach it.
It became the foulest thing that I have ever tasted. Even now, as I sit here writing about it, my mouth begins to water from the discomfort it’s memory brings. I fear it has poisoned a part of my olfactory sense; rendered it useless and unusable like the abandoned suburbs that surround Chernobyl. It’s smell and taste have blurred into one, and I can forget neither.
I could devote an entire blog post to the taste of Ayahuasca. Maybe one day I will. But until then you should know that it is frightful. It is hateful. It has the most villainous flavour that I have ever had the misfortune to sample. It’s wickedness stays with you long after the hallucinations have worn off. It’s scent permeates one’s clothes. Attaches to one’s skin. Soaps and lathers will not wear it away.
Whatever insight one is able to take away from the experience of drinking Ayahuasca is made that much more sacred by having had to drink the stuff. It has the taste of dirt gathered from under a thousand finger-nails; the after smell of a recently flatulated ass. If a stool was rung dry and free of the liquid that gives it body, this liquid – collected and served up in a shot glass – would be a handy substitute should the real thing suddenly be hard to come by.
And with that….I give you the Ayahuasca diaries.