Wednesday, April 4, 2012
TRIPS TAKEN IN JENARO HERRERA, PERU
I mentioned last time that we were preparing the ayahuasca. That’s still being brewed, on hold for now. What is ayahuasca? I have just posted a paper I wrote in April, 2000 following my involvement in the First International Ayahuasca Conference. The information here more or less answers that question (while asking more questions than it answers): http://spyoptaelip.blogspot.com/2011/11/shamansim-science-and-spirituality.html
Thursday night we went to a friend of Elvis’s house, another young, supposed shaman, He had invited us to his place for a ceremony and to sample his ayahuasca. We took the tobacco and fragrant water I had bought. Elvis brought his shaman trick-bag of items. Charity (about four months pregnant) came as well. Charity is fairly knowledgeable about plants. She was introduced to plant medicines by her mother. She seems to be respected by other ladies in the village. I’ve seen them engage a bit. Today she’s been asked to cut the imbilical cord of a relative’s baby – a great honor I understand. But to get back to the ceremony…
We arrived at about 8:15 PM. It was of course already dark. We were the first to arrive. Others started strolling in. It ended up that we were eleven in all, eight men and three women, including the head ‘shaman’ and his co-shaman, Elvis. Charity and I were the only gringos, but because she was pregnant she was not drinking any ayahuasca tonight. We were in a large warehouse-like space with a dirt floor. It was the typical gloomy sort of tin shack with a thatched roof. (Note on thatched roofs: they have to be replaced every three – four years, which seems like a lot of work!) A mat was placed on the floor and some items were placed there, things you might expect like various shaped stones etc. Elvis put on a kind of headdress with blue feathers standing straight. The main shaman wore a ball cap I think. They shook rattles and waved fans of banana leaves (I think), while puffing on tobacco (which is supposed to chase away evil spirits). There was some chatter – prayers, I guess – that I didn’t understand at all, and some songs. The ayahuasca was in a two-liter Coke bottle and there was a coffee cup into which it was poured and drunk.
A dose was poured into the cup, about half-a-cup. It was handed to me by the head shaman and I was the first to drink. Gulp! Down the hatch. I had already heard plenty about how bitter and awful it was to drink and to get and keep down. I remembered my line from a play we performed in Bartley Jones’ Latin class at Gonzaga – “Medicamentum est acerbum” (The medicine is bitter.) I had no problem with it really. (It’s actually harder to drink Vitamin C crystals or poppy pod tea.)
Everyone in turn took theirs as well, to the strains of a lot of gibberish and sounds meant to mimic flying saucers (my own in sense of the sound). I think it’s supposed to put in the mind of those hearing it that the shaman is shooing away evil spirits from the gathering, or some such thing.
By the way, before you participate in the ceremony you are supposed to adhere to a diet that excludes salt and sugar, and any oil and pork. Also, you have to abstain from drinking alcohol and having sex for some days before. I forgot to mention that the day before coming here I went downtown (without an appointment) and asked for the usual set of immunizations for the tropics. I was almost turned away, but a nurse came out and agreed to help. I got three shots for yellow fever, diphtheria, and hepatitis A – and a prescription for doxycicline, 100 mg., which I must take each day. Of course I was hesitant to do so, but figured an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Also, by the time I reached Houston my throat was scratchy and I could tell that I was coming down with a chest cold, picked up, I think, from Casey before leaving. So while I was in Lima I went to the pharmacy and, without a prescription, was able to purchase ciproflaxin and another one that the druggist recommended. I felt fully recovered in a few days. So I was a walking pharmacy. Still, I figured these medicines would interfere little, if at all. But I digress…
Like the old Fugs song, I Couldn’t Get High, I waited thirty minutes but I didn’t feel a thing. So Elvis suggested that I take another hit and to go ahead and decide for myself how much to pour. So I poured about two-thirds of a cup more and got it down in a few gulps. The medicine is an emetic and purgative and each of the participants is given a vomit bucket at the beginning. Lots of folks were hurling, spewing, heaving, and wretching away. The head shaman let out a loud and prolonged fart – no class whatsoever. So this aspect of the shindig was as charming as a smelly dishrag, but is all a part of the healing that the medicine imparts. What I’ve read is that it acts to expel certain toxins, and maybe parasites. (That National Geographic article ends with the guy looking into his puke pan and wondering whether he was seeing a little snake that he vomited up.) Back to the hallucinatory details.
Having tried other hallucinogens back in the 60s and early 70s, I expected certain lurid sensations to rise up, leaving me feeling slightly out-of-control. Those sensations did begin to manifest, including a real primal sense of myself as a physical being, as a flesh and blood animal. The head shaman was a tiresome chatterbox and, I thought, a phony. All of his claptrap and the tobacco smoke was starting to get to me. So I stood up and made my way out the back door, flashlight in hand. Out back is where the bathroom is located and we were welcome to use it of course. I never did find el baño. It was a spacious backyard too. I could hear things fluttering around among the branches of the palm trees. Vampire bats per chance? Boogie men? Armed with the natural voodoo defenses of the bluesman, and with my mojo in overdrive, I relaxed and let my senses wander and commune with the surreal topography. It was fairly dark back there. I wasn’t hallucinating heavily. It was more like standing on the edge of something – not really in one world or the other – but consensual reality and culture trance were in ephemeral abeyance for sure.
My goal is not so much to hang with the planetary participants and ring-ding around with the ding-dongs. Rather, I hoped to gaze out at the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond, and commune with the ETs and celestials out yonder. So I looked skyward. Nothing happened out of the ordinary when I gazed there. So I went back in.
It was dark where we were sitting, except for the occasional flashlight or people lighting up or taking drags on their cigarettes. After a while, lots of people were smoking, taking their cue from the ‘shamans,’ I suppose. I guess the most interesting things happened when I closed my eyes. There were definite ‘things’ there – curly-cue-like, writhing, multi-colored snakes, strange little cartoon-character-like faces. I could concentrate my focus on a face and it would morph into various bizarre permutations. I felt a kind of electricity in the air. Once or twice I thought I sensed a tall, flat, black shadow entity carrying a stick standing next to me and almost looming up over me. I couldn’t tell if it was my peripheral vision or a sixth sense. I tried to sit back and open myself up to the experience, but there was so much chattering from this dipshit sitting next to me that it kind of spoiled things. I was trying to be polite because I was a guest of Elvis and Charity, but I suspected my body language was betraying my general discontent. To make matters worse, there was a young punk across the circle of participants, short and slight and wearing a ball cap too, who seemed to be an aspiring wanna-be ‘shaman.’ Even before he took his ayahuasca he was moving his legs nervously and blurting things out too, trying hard to sound exotic and shaman-like. I really thought he must have some nervous condition of some kind.
So I began wishing I was back in my bed. It was getting on 3:00 AM. I had made a few more trips to the back yard. As I returned from my last trip I felt my mouth watering like crazy and I knew it was my turn to spew. I made a beeline for my puke bucket and let loose with at least three good heaves. I felt a bit more comfortable after that, as you might imagine. But it was evident that things were beginning to break up.
We soon headed out, walking home, our flashlight leading the way. It was maybe a mile along roads and paths, across small bridges, past darkened huts and barking watchdogs. Finally we got back to the ranch. The roosters were beginning to crow, “cocka-doodle-doo!” – their compatriots throughout the land answering back. I heard some large animal outside of my window, chewing and snorting. I looked out and there was a big bull grazing there. I was about to get into my bed when I looked up on the wall of my bedroom and saw a banana spider about the size of my hand when I spread my fingers apart. Even though I understand that they don’t bite, this intruder was disconcerting to say the least. I really didn’t want to kill it, and I couldn’t think of a way to pick up a spider and throw it out the window, so I figured I’d just leave it there and try no to think about it. After all, I was encased within my mosquito netting. So I just went to bed. In the morning it was gone, but a much smaller version was on the outside of my mosquito net, just sitting there. (It was still there when I went to bed the next night, and I think it’s still there.) By the way, one of my goals in being here is to overcome my bug phobia.
I woke the next morning, Friday, a little groggy but no worse for the wear and tear. We worked again on the bedroom, this time building and installing a door.
The lesson I learned from this first ceremony is the critical importance that the ayahuasca be sufficiently potent (it was a bit weak I later learned) and that the shaman is an authentic and mature man of wisdom. So be it. There will be more ceremonies to come.
SIDE TRIP: ELECTRICLADYLAND
About a week later, late in the afternoon at his jungle outpost, Elvis asked me to come with him on a short walk into the jungle. He pointed out a jungle garlic plant that we would need for our ceremony that night. He gave me a cigarette rolled with the black Amazon tobacco and said to first blow the smoke over the plant and then to state your intention before you pulled it up. I went through the motions.
That night we were to take part in the jungle garlic and tobacco ceremony. Elvis took the jungle garlic and skinned the stem with a knife into tiny pieces. Then he took a huge roll of tobacco and sliced off some sections. These he chopped up and all of this was put into a cup into which he had poured some cane alcohol. He let this stand for about ten minutes, and then strained it into another cup. This concoction was (also) supposed to clean your body of parasites and toxins. How does it do this? You guessed it – you vomit it out. So he handed me a cup of this gruel and I drank it down. He did some and so did Hector’s young cousin, Kevvy. They threw up pretty quickly. But in my case I waited and waited and my mouth hardly even watered. Finally, Elvis told me to just go to bed; that sometimes people will throw up later, so I should take my vomit bucket with me.
Sure enough, I lay under my mosquito net feeling kind of uncomfortable and nauseous. I wanted very badly to throw up. Just the thought of that noxious brew in my belly was troubling. Suddenly, something made me sit up and duck from under the netting. Out it came – all of that odious swamp-soup.
Elvis had not told me, but the tobacco acts as a dream enhancer. Pretty soon I found myself participating in the most lucid dream I’ve ever had. It was so fantastic I can hardly even describe it. There were two protagonists, and as I watched their antics I became one of them. They were incredibly smug and witty, but not in a nasty way. They were more like gremlin geniuses of mirth and creativity, going along doing all sorts of practical joke-sorts-of-things that also brought joy all around. Soon the law was on our trail and out to get us. But this did not diminish our witty ways. We easily out-smarted them at every turn. There’s more. If I were to continue writing more it would sound sort of stupid. You had to ‘be there.’ I found myself laughing and smiling throughout the whole Technicolor production, mostly in a vivid yellow. When I suddenly woke up to the sounds of the jungle I was dumbfounded that such complexity and color was to be found here.
In October, 1968, Jimi Hendrix released his third album, a double album entitled Electric LadyLand. The first track, …And the Gods Made Love, is followed by Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland). Well, deep in the Peruvian Amazon, in a lucid dream I did go to Electric LadyLand. I have been to Electric LadyLand and I can tell you that it is every bit as beautiful and phantasmagoric as Hendrix tried to convey. And I understand now why he first speaks of Gods making love, because in Electric Ladyland it’s all about divine states of sexual coupling – electro-copulation. It happened in my little shack after a jungle garlic (Scorodocarpus borneensis) and tobacco ceremony, and in many ways exceeded the ayahuasca trips in its technicolor wonder and jubilation.
The next evening, a candle was burning in the ceremonial lodge. Elvis put on his small headdress, lit up a cigarette, and said his shaman prayers, blessing everything with smoke, etc. Finally, he poured out a sizable cupful and handed it to me. I drank it down, dribbling some onto my white undershirt. The other two drank theirs down. Elvis proceeded to rhythmically shake his banana leaves and sing his shaman songs. He blew out the candle. It was quite dark. We waited simultaneously for visions and readied ourselves to puke our guts out once again, It didn’t take as long for me to puke this time as it did the last time. And I was feeling myself getting off.
For me, this would not be an experience filled with images and visions. They were there struggling to manifest on the screen of my mind. But what seemed to be happening was an intense and very personal exploration of my personality as it was dismantled and laid bare. I felt like I was under the microscope of some ET examiners. I also sensed the fragility of my persona and it was disturbing. It seemed like they wanted to show me all of the defects in my psychological self, as if to say, “You’re OK, buddy, but you need to fix a few things, ya know?” It wasn’t pleasant. In fact, soon I was wishing for it all to end so I could just go to bed. What’s more, I hadn’t had my usual bowel movement that morning. Suddenly I felt, after puking and wretching, that I should go take a dump. So I stood up, picked up my flashlight, and announced that I must go to the toilet. It was hard to walk. Hector followed me at a distance as I made my way, still hurling and spewing vomit at intervals. Try taking a dump sometime in a funky jungle toilet when you’re tripping your brains out. As awkward as the whole enterprise was, it was most gratifying, as completing this task always is. I then returned to the ceremony, as Hector chaperoned my swaying and staggering strides.
The rest of the ceremony was more of the same for me. I was starting to come down and was looking forward to hitting the sack.
Elvis woke me the next morning and told me to bathe myself three times in jungle garlic leaves. I went down to the bathing area and found a big tub prepared with the leaves cut-up and floating in the water.
A few days later I was invited to Familia Medicina, an ayahuasca outpost about a half hour upriver from Jenaro Herrera. This center is run by a fellow from Oregon named Zach. The shaman there is a local in his 30s named Gumes.
Zach emphasizes “la dieta.” Gumes utilizes four different barks that he infuses in water, and that you drink to help clean out your system. These barks are supposed to catalyze the purification process, helping your system to return to a more natural state in which you become more open to the healing properties of plants. But the dieta is required as a concomitant to ingesting the bark medicines. The diet, as I understand it, is quite strict: no salt, sugar, oils, pork, sex (with another or with yourself), and no use of any sort of soap or toothpaste or creams. I think even most vegetables and even fruits, especially anything citric, are excluded. There’s more to it than that, and I may have some things wrong, but it is supposed to really clean you out of all toxins and bio-energetic blocks of every kind, and of course make your system more conducive and more responsive to the ayahuasca medicine. (Of course this is a convenient way to make the food prep and cooking a whole lot easier and cheaper too! There’s the cynic in me.) Needless-to-say, all of the participants (except me, a temporary interloper) agreed to go on the dieta.
Night was falling. We were assembled in a circle in the lodge. Here each has a very cool rocking chair. I’ve never seen this type of design. Zach said you can only buy them on certain street corners in Iquitos. I’ll save the description for another time, but suffice it to say they are very simple, sturdy and, most of all, quite comfortable. Sitting with Gumes were his father, also a shaman, his mother, and wife. I think their baby was asleep in a hammock. Zach started by laying out a sheet with a mandala-like design on the floor inside the circle in front of where Gumes was sitting. On this he arranged various sacred objects – crystals, stones, images of spiritual masters. There was a talk by Gumes, translated by Zach and others, and a chance to ask questions. Most had never drunk before and there was a feeling of great anticipation slightly tinged with fear. Finally, Gumes started shaking his plant sheath rattle and blessing himself and the implements around him with tobacco smoke. He chanted his special shaman plant songs. Then he poured about half a coffee cup dose and with each one he sang and blessed it with smoke before handing it to each person in the circle. Each drank in turn from the same cup. When it came to me, I noticed he seemed to do a little extra chanting and singing and blessing (at least I thought so), and when he handed me the medicine I noticed it was close to a full cup. They were obviously intent upon getting me to the other side. I drank it down in a couple of gulps and returned to my seat. I was generally experiencing a feeling of well-being, of feeling my innate power, of standing tall, a sense of strength and vigor – my mojo was definitely working overtime.
As with the others, I sat back and waited for the medicine to transform me. As the drinking concluded, Gumes and his folks sang their special healing songs, honoring the plants, the goodness of life and the light. Referring to me he said in Spanish (translated by the guy next to me) that “Tonight I will meet everyone I had ever drank ayahuasca with” – and also that, “Tonight you will meet your master.” That was encouraging. He later said that he had totally cleaned me out, which I understood to mean that he purified me of the recent dark forces that were dogging me around. OK. So far so good.
Unless you have a Hollywood-type of cinematic trip, it is not easy to describe being tripped out on ayahuasca. There is a very organic aspect to it in which your whole body tunes into strange vibrations. You close your eyes and await images and visions, true. And you sense colors and designs and symbols and various things, and these were beginning to percolate. But you also feel your body pulsating to the rhythm of the jungle sounds, the sounds of the rattles and singing, other peoples’ voices – sounds too take on an other-worldly quality. You definitely feel your animal or physical mortality. My experience this time around was much more soothing and beautiful, not frightening or uncomfortable at all. My hope was to have a vision of the cosmos. And for a brief moment I had my vision of stars and planets out in space somewhere where worlds were in a state of being created. It was a lovely sight, made real in the same sense that a lucid dream ‘takes you there.’ I could focus upon a person or place or an idea and watch as a knowing of whatever it was unfolded or opened to me.
People were beginning to vomit. There was a stout fellow there, Michael, who vomited and wretched his guts out almost non-stop. I pictured him as some kind of lizard laying on the floor puking and spewing. He had a very tough time. To my right was a very cute and kind of perky little South African girl of Indian descent. She had wrapped herself in her fleece and a blanket and was exceedingly quiet. To my left was Jonathan, a young bearded American from Miami who spoke fluent Spanish and had been traveling all over South America for some months. He too remained rather retired in his own space, as did I, as did most of us, except Señor Vomito and maybe a few other, more vocal types. We were asked to keep talking to a minimum during the ceremony. Quite candidly, I couldn’t imagine who would want to talk during such an experience. It’s weird even listening to yourself say something. Mario, an accomplished artist and totally bi-lingual Peruvian from Lima, opted for a mattress instead of a rocking chair. When asked, he kept saying that he was dying. Maybe there is a false part of us that does die and it takes a dark night of the soul to do so. How both Zach and the shaman managed to sing and chant and oversee everything while all tripped out is a mystery to me. I finally had my puke and then felt like I was coming down. I felt quite tranquil. To mark the end of the ceremony each was handed a freshly peeled coconut with a hole. I drank the sweet milk.
The bottom line was this: I felt that I was now more oriented to this medicine and was doing better with it now. I believed that Gumes was a real maestro shaman and felt comfortable under his tutelage. They say it takes a two or three times before you are able to truly experience the full effects of the ayahuasca, but also that each experience can be quite different. I remember learning in Stan Groff’s class on holotropic breathwork at CIIS that the soul or psyche has its own method of communicating to you, and its method is conventionally through images. My experiences to date were not as visual as I had hoped they might be. But I think with more experience and more purity of body and intention, the more you will learn about yourself as the false self unravels. So perhaps I will have more opportunities to explore this notion in the future.
The ceremony slowly broke up. Some stayed and slept in the lodge, others went back to their bedrooms. As for myself, with my drained coconut in hand, I went back to crawl under my mosquito net and sure enough. I started hearing things skittering around my little room – water bugs? a rat? But I was getting used to that. Thank God for whomever invented the mosquito net. They work very, very well, and I feel that as long I am under it nothing will buzz in my ears, or creep or crawl onto me. Still, I didn’t sleep all that well, maybe hardly at all. I just kind of laid there waiting for the sun. Ah yes, The Sun Also Rises – my philosophy in a nutshell.
I am an old guy, 57, even though I don’t look that old or feel that old. Generally, men of my age experience a decline in their sex drive. Whether it was being married and faithful for thirteen years, or whether I was just getting old, I suppose my sex drive had been deteriorating. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you tend to get stodgy, sexually. Maybe it goes hand-in-hand with getting that middle-age paunch.
It is hard to say, but after doing some ayahuasca ceremonies my sexuality started to surge like kerosene through my veins. It was as if some sex neuro-receptor had been turned on, causing hormones to flood throughout my system. It was actually pretty cool, though suppressing it was kind of drag.