Photo by Russ Quackenbush
A night of intense psychedelic healing and journeying work in the Peruvian Amazon.
By ten in the evening, the casualties came hard and fast; even seasoned pasajeros were losing their caca in the moonless Amazon night, the buzzing of cicadas like power drills boring holes into our heads. I could hear others heaving and moaning in the dark. The five shamans hadn’t gotten around to singing, though we’d finished drinking by half past eight. You could cut the tension in the maloca with a bush knife.
Yo dudes, where are the icaros? Where are the healing songs that pour the medicine into the ceremonial space and ferry the travelers to parts beyond and back? From my mat I observed a dense crowd of gauzy, spectral forms milling about in the middle of the ceremonial space, a spirit equivalent of Japan’s busy Shibuya crossing. All the duppies, forest spirits, cosmic drop-ins, and head medicine spirits of master plants were in there, waiting for the band to play.
When we first assembled in the maloca for the night’s ayahuasca ceremony, an apocalyptic rain howled out of the jungle, pounding the palm-leaf roof of the building hard, rendering conversation impossible. The rain fell in sheets of bullets, hard and fast, almost shocking in its intensity. Dogs in surrounding villages went completely nuts, howling and barking. The downpour lasted for over an hour, full metal jacket.
Earlier in the day I’d spoken with Gilbert, who makes the ayahuasca at Nihue Rao Centro Espiritual outside of Llamchama, in the Peruvian Amazon. He’s a proud, cheerful, hard-working Shipibo native with a muscular physique and a winning smile. We hung out by a huge bubbling pot over a fire at the medicine shed where he cooks the brew, and chatted. Gilbert pointed at the batch that he was evaporating down to its final molasses consistency. He stirred it with a stick, offered me some fresh hot drops. Muis concentrado.
“It’s strong today, because we have this very fresh chakruna.” Gilbert hands me some pliable green leaves, and I agree with him. Chakruna, or P. viridis, brings DMT to ayahuasca, and promotes visions. In his style, Gilbert densely packed the pot with them, to assure that for the evening’s ceremony, our group would have the el supremo stuff. “Strong visions tonight,” he informs me with a smile. Strong visions, indeed, Gilbert. You have no idea.
Didn’t anybody get the memo? We are supposed to have icaros, the healing songs tonight. Where are you guys? The shamans, five of them, remain silent as stumps, reeling in the medicine, facing the yawning abyss of super-strong ayahuasca, assembling their own strands, bits and pieces into cogent assembly for the night of intense psychedelic healing and journeying work. This maloca, this ceremonial space is their office, but tonight they are starting out with an extended coffee break. We have an inharmonic convergence here, anxiety in the space, no songs, intense ayahuasca, many pasajeros who have drunk especially big, bugs droning ever louder, spirits agitated. Meanwhile I am looking around for that big red wall button, the one that says Man Overboard.
Visions indeed, dark ones. I see, with painful detail, the anguish and suffering caused by my father’s sickness upon our whole family, his depression, alcoholism, psychiatric drug dependence, closet homosexuality, failed psychiatry, Type 1 diabetes, shame, guilt, and suicide. I witness this as a web of a thousand fractures, the way a stone breaks a glass windshield, shattering outward from the point of impact, jagged shards everywhere. The destruction is vast, an entire group of family members devastated when he took his hasty and messy leave.. I have long ago forgiven him, but variations of this come up again and again in ayahuasca. He could never accept the lavish love that was so freely offered by so many. We poured our hearts out to him, but much of that goodness ran off like rain on hard clay. The direct line I share with my father feels corrupt, a bad program. I feel toxic, nauseated. La purga, la purga, the purge. In a flash I am gripping my stupid little plastic puke bucket as though it were a life preserver, and I, adrift on stormy and roiling seas, must hang on tightly to save my life, heaving in baritone.
Earlier when I had gone up to drink, Joe Tafur, medical doctor turned shaman poured the brew. Joe and I first drank together around 2007 back in the heady days of another center. He has been training with shaman Ricardo Amaringo for several years now. We discussed the merits of the evening’s dose, arriving at the mutual conclusion that a big, healthy gulp was the ticket.
“You may have a caramelo in there,” he said with some excitement, an eyebrow raised, pointing to the glass. Caramelos, globular balls of especially concentrated ayahuasca, sometimes occur in Gilbert’s brew. With a consistency of phlegm balls, they hide submerged in the dark brown medicine. They go down like slippery agar, and they go off like depth charges in the body, sending concussive waves of energy and a Doppler effect of visions and phenomena as they explode. I admit a fondness for caramelos, though there wasn’t one in my dose after all. Still, I drank big, wanting a strong night.
My wife Zoe lies to my left, her own hi-energy suffering broadcasts from the still space around her, a palpable field of dense, psychedelic intensity. She is curled up, blanket tight against the scirocco blowing off the deserts of the spirit landscape.
Up front in the orchestra section, the maestros remain mute – when will they start? From my left to right we have an all-Shipibo lineup. First there is Matilde’ along with her husband Pancho-Francisco. They are talented and sweet, and snuggle on the same mat prior to ceremonies. Next there is Miguel, trained by his son in law Ricardo Amaringo. Ricardo, the main shaman of Nihue Rao, occupies a couple of mats in the center of the lineup. To his right, the bear-like Rolando, Ricardo’s first teacher twenty-seven years ago. These are all-stars, highly talented, veterans of thousands of ayahuasca ceremonies performed along the Ucayali river corridor in the Peruvian Amazon.
People are caving in, falling by the wayside. I can feel psychic fractures all around. The immensity of the medicine hangs over us, an impenetrable slate sky, churning and roiling with black clouds. Plaintiff calls for help break the eerie, charged atmosphere of the maloca. “I need help…” The spirits continue to mill about in a fidgety, expectant manner. Where’s the singing? Joe, Cvita, Martina, and other gringo helpers assist the devastated, blowing gusts of strong Amazonian mapacho tobacco smoke at them, useless in the face of the mounting psychic storm, still no sign of the cavalry. Time to put on the flak helmets.
My nervous system is hot and frayed like burned electrical wiring, carbonized strands of DNA smoking in my cells. I am in the psychedelic dark land, deep grave of dreams and memories, embodied in exquisite discomfort, ragged and hyper-amplified. My yogic discipline holds up well, enabling me to navigate the surges of the medicine, breathe out the unwanted, pay attention to the present, let go of the endless tensions. But still the medicine is wholly overwhelming. All around the mysterium tremendum yawns in infinite indifference, an all-devouring vacuum into which entire galaxies are swallowed. Around me I hear moans and sobbing, vomiting and expressions of alarm, more calls for help in the moonless night.
Pasajeros troop and stagger out to the banos and back. They appear as ghosts as they drift in and out. One woman is singing a disembodied opera in a stall for the long haul, trapped in the toilet vortex. She will remain here for hours. I can hear tremendous heaving out there, and loud groans.
And just when the vast forest concert in its buggy cacophony had driven our group of pasajeros to the last fingernail’s grip on the edge of the howling abyss ….. Ricardo began to sing. Slow, evocative, serpentine in his sinewy sounds. Classic Ricardo, whose exceptional songs I have enjoyed for nine years now, on some intense ayahuasca nights. That is the sweet relief of the medicine, the spirit of the ayahuasca pouring into the space, flowing in through the song, gathering and filling the entire area. The icaros carry healing energy, washing through every cell. Muchas gracias Ricardo, and seriously it’s about time, for this entire Titanic of nauseous travelers. And all the milling crowd of anxious spirits evaporates into diaphanous air and away, leaving the shiny dark wooden floor of the malocca open and cool in the night.
Francisco falls in next, working a rapid sequence of rhythmic and hypnotic Shipibo phrases. He is a trance master, summoning endlessly varied notes and tones and percussive consonants to weave a spell. Matilde’ adds sweet, uplifting texture with penetrating background notes that rise and fall in waves. Miguel sings softly, a light and enticing chant of melodic phrases, bringing in the medicine. Joe starts moving about the maloca, tending to the wounded one at a time, singing and blowing smoke. He is our Clooney in this ayahuasca ER.
* * *
We had set our hiking boots in the direction of Peru from various parts of North America, from LA to North Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, various ports of call, thirteen of us. Our ad hoc group The Ayahuasca Test Pilots re-constitutes about twice yearly, heading down to Peru to engage in ayahuasca ceremonies. You drink ayahuasca with me, and you get an ATP patch, all terribly unofficial. My wife Zoe’s Cosmic Sister grant funds women to write and otherwise share about their experiences with ayahuasca, the master Amazon rainforest medicine. Six of the women in our group were on Cosmic Sister grants. Our small tribe of pasajeros included a couple of photographers, two journalists, a nurse practitioner, a farmer, an elder care expert, a beverage and real estate entrepreneur, a superfood entrepreneur, a fashion model, a car dealer, an artist and wildlife advocate, a medicine hunter. Many were first-timers in the land of ayahuasca.
And boom, we arrive in funky, caustic, diesel-smogged Iquitos, with its ten thousand loud moto-taxis, estimated 370,000 people, equal numbers of road dogs, and provocative ass ads for everything from beer to car wax. We are sizzling on a searing Amazonian grille, and roar our way deep into the interior of the city, broiling in asphalt shimmer and taking road grit up the nose, zooming through gusting clouds of black exhaust smoke, to a recondite spot only a few blocks away from Plaza de Armas, Nativa Apartments, for our first phase of entry, involving conversation with Monica the lively proprietor, and scratching her love-hungry dogs.
Following a relaxed time on Monica’s patio with man’s best friends, we made de rigeur appearances at the Amazon Explorer’s Club where I said hello to Carlos Tanner of Ayahuasca Foundation, and sat for a long and leisurely lunch at Dawn On The Amazon Café’, catching up on fresh Iquitos gossip with the endlessly gracious Captain Bill Grimes, who knows everything. Two women on a scooter had been accosted at night by two men trying to rob them at gunpoint. Unbeknown to them all, two plain-clothes police officers were close at hand. One of the perps was shot dead. Hot off the press, only a couple of days old. Lemonades all around delivered enthusiastically by petite Lucero, plus tacu tacu with fried egg, Dorado fish sandwiches, and an Amazon Explorer’s Club special devil hot sauce that I ate in large, fiery blobs under the poaching sun, shaded by an awning on the promenade along the Rio Itaya and its grassy coast.
Locals drift by, some expats gone to seed, drifting in the languid local current, making the daily rounds, to Ari’s, Karma Café’, Amazon Bistro, Mad Mike’s, along with preferred watering holes, and the occasional buggy outing to the snake-infested Amazon Golf Club, for a round of golf that will be a news feature in The Iquitos Times for a year. A whole parade of pasajeros comes in and out of ayahuasca centers. Stacey from Dreamglade sits nearby with his partner and child. A group of ten just finished up a twelve day stint at Temple Of The Way Of Light, and are levitating a few tables down. Another group just freshly polished and shiny is coming from a tour at Blue Morpho. I need sunglasses just to look at them.
While we are downtown people stop me on the sidewalk to say they’ve read my book The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, or watched my ayahuasca monologues on YouTube. They come from everywhere, Croatia, Sweden, the UK, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, all over the US, Russia, Asia, broad and diverse places, converging in this most unlikely and least prepared of all crappy little tropical cities, where once verdant forests teemed with life and wild jaguars roamed the majestic woods as kings.
And yet here is the strange and curious rub. Thanks entirely to an influx of non-native pasajeros who troop to the Amazon to participate in various types of ceremonies involving medicinal and psychoactive plants, shamanism, a once fading cultural practice of immense importance to indigenous people, is now thriving instead of declining. And yes, the times are totally different, globalization means that the good old pre-colonial days really are vanished forever, and many aspects of traditional tribal shamanism will fade completely into the mists of time. But all traditions change and mutate. Current demand for ceremonies, many of them with ayahuasca, means that a shaman can earn a living carrying on a proud ancestral healing tradition. There’s plenty to criticize, but a lot of good healing is taking place in these ceremonies, and that is intrinsically worthwhile and good.
* * *
In the maloca, we have ratcheted cautiously back from DEFCON 2 to 3. But still I am suffering. The raw feeling throughout my nervous system is getting to me. La purga, La purga, the purge… I drift through a filamentous infinity tunnel out of the ceremonial space, across an expanse of sand to the banos, for ferocious evacuation ayahuasca style. If it were in a movie, you’d think it was overplayed. In the little toilet stalls it’s the Thunderdome, a place where violent intestinal events take place. I emerge drained, and drift twelve feet tall back to the maloca and my mat. I see that Zoe has changed position. Her head is now at the foot of her mat. She grips the plastic puke pail as if she is holding a vigil. Sitting down again it is all the same thing, the nasty raw feeling inside, a grimy sadness. I cover myself with a blanket, settle in for more foul weather.
The shamans fall silent as they sometimes do, allowing the effects of the icaros to settle with the group, smoke a few mapachos. The room hums with settling energy. And then amidst the quiet, Rollando starts to sing alone. There is a massive depth there, a huge energy and force of medicine. Rollando is immense in the ceremonial space. As he sings, I witness a stream issuing from him, flowing slow and steady. The stream widens and becomes a running river of medicine. It pools in the center of the ceremonial space and fills it. I seek refuge in the medicine, and dive in, swimming upstream toward the fountainhead. Earlier that day in conversation, Rollando said “If you can’t be the pencil that writes somebody’s happiness, be the eraser that wipes away their pain.” And here he is doing that, his icaro filling the maloca, kind and soulful, healing and tender.
Rollando’s song soothes me, washes over me. The frying sensation in my nervous system subsides. Oh, yeah. Aahhhh, that’s how it works, the sweet and life-enhancing medicine easing suffering. In the brooding dark I see the head of a giant anaconda, recessed in shadows, staring at me with keen, coal-dark eyes. The anaconda watches dispassionately as I ride through the energetic currents. My mind is relieved, my heart less weary and sick. Steadily this is all smoothing out. But still very mareado, gobsmacked by ayahuasca, swimming in rogue waves deep at sea. Tripping my ass off.
These burdensome realizations, states, aggregations of feelings, lead somewhere. The medicine acts as spiritual WD-40, uncracking the seals of the bolts in the heart and mind. I see so very clearly the life-engendering difference between my father and me. He could not accept the lavish love given to him. I can, and I give love freely and openly. This is my way. I love Zoe, my family, my friends, so many of my work mates. This is a reminder that I am always happy to re-visit, that love alone is the only worthy path forward, and that all else is shabby and insubstantial. I seek refuge in love.
We are burning up the night. It is past one in the morning, and the shamans have not yet called people up to be sung to individually. I glide out to the banos again, and encounter Rollando along the way, who stands barefoot in the sand, smoking a glowing mapacho.
“Hola amigo Chris,” he says in the still night. “Como esta la ceremonia para usted?”
“Fuerte’, Rollando. Intensa.” I put my hand to my heart. “Su icaro son como un rio de paz.” He nods, puffs the mapacho and offers a toothsome smile.
Near the toilets, one of our pasajeros stands barefoot wearing a sarong around his waste, and nothing else. He is glistening from a shower, the clothes he wore into ceremony are nowhere to be seen. He is animated, shaking with excitement and energy, a ball of psychedelic fire in the jungle night. Ian, one of the center’s helpers, and another member of our little flock stand nearby shaking, staggered by the medicine. We are still just in the middle of this thing. We exchange brief words about how overwhelmingly strong it is tonight. Ian offers a perfect “Ooh Rah,” and we crack up. Semper Fi.
By two in the morning the shamans started to sing to people individually. And because of the intensity of the medicine, everyone was still good and mareado when they were sung to. The ceremony is an endurance course at this point, Tough Mudder on ayahuasca. Even though it’s very late, a few people are still heaving their guts out. There is steady whimpering from one of the women in our group just a few mats away. If you could capture the energy in the room, you could power a small town.
Near three in the morning I was called up to be sing to by Matilde’. She sang a sweet, beautiful song that penetrated my heart, relieved me, gave me great comfort, made me feel more cohesive and in balance. Her lilting tones, perfectly articulated, worked directly into my heart. Way to go Matilde’, and thank you for that.
Back on my mat, I understand that I have everything I need. What do I lack? Nothing at all. I have a loving wife, a lovely family, friends, work that I enjoy, comfort, enough means. The big payoff is love. If I remember to set love as my pole star on life’s path, I can never go too far astray. And if I pay even keener attention in ceremony, I can make this time, this strange and unusual time steeped in non-ordinary reality, an even better healing experience. I reach over and give Zoe’s hand a squeeze. She is way out there someplace, untethered in the ayahuasca bardo.
After three, Ricardo launches off on one final epic icaro campaign. This is a very fine shaman, with meticulous skills honed over thousands of ceremonies. When Ricardo sings, he is precise, alert, focused. He exaggerates his sounds, moves his mouth in strange ways, alternates rhythms, goes fast, slow, high, low, covering a broad audio landscape. Ricardo sings half a dozen icaros in a row, channeling the medicine. My atoms seem to re-arrange in a more comfortable and harmonious way. The energy in my spine flows free and fast. The space in the malocca becomes more peaceful and clean. Ricardo pulls out all the stops, digging into his vast shamanic trick bag, going this way and that, fluid and magical. It is a spectacular demonstration of craft and skill. I want to cheer loudly and wave my Bic in the air.
Somewhere around quarter past four we finish up. There is little post-ceremony conversation. We look as though we have survived a savage foreign legion campaign. The pasajeros stream out into the night, flashlights piercing the gloomy dark, to their cabins and beds. Ooh Rah.
* * *
Not every ayahuasca ceremony offers a breezy ride. But the medicine always does offer insight and healing, if you can stay aware and navigate the strong currents in the ceremonial space. Our night was prodigious, a legendary event, branded into our psyches and loaded fully into our nervous systems. The medicine penetrated into the most sensitive, painful parts of almost everybody in the room. It’s not always elfin kingdoms, talking jaguars and the chakras in shimmering, anodized pastels. Sometimes, you get your face rubbed hard in the dirt. La Medicina. The Medicine.
Early in the afternoon the next day I relaxed on the veranda connecting the lounge area with the dining room, talking with Joe and Russ, a photographer and one of our group. Puppies prowled about our feet, pausing now and again to gnaw on sandal straps. A cloudy sky grew ominously darker, until with a great shattering crack of lightning, marble-sized rain began to drive down hard. Instantly a nearby downspout off the veranda roof became the hardest, fastest shower in the area. I tore off my shirt and stepped out under the flow, my skin alive with the cold water and the intense freshness of it all. I heard Russ say “I’ve got to shoot this.” The water pounded my head and back. I stayed under the downspout for a good five minutes, invigorated and happy, thoroughly alive.
When I finished with the torrential shower of Amazonian rainwater, I walked dripping wet over to Joe. “You really going to stand here?”
He looked at the fresh, rushing water and at me. “No man, I’m going in.” He did.
Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies. His latest book is The Ayahuasca Test Pilot's Handbook.