Plants, Powders and Spirit Voices
“I’m definitely going to shit myself,” I told my friend, as I stuffed a pair of pants into my rucksack. We were in her apartment in Bogotá, readying ourselves for an overnight stay in Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental mountains, where we were to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony. The pants sat nestled among my carefully chosen stash of essentials: three packets of Ritz crackers, a jumbo bag of ketchup-flavoured crisps, two bottles of water, baby wipes and a sad-looking apple. Packing them helped me feel marginally more prepared for the physical pummelling that lay ahead – the vomiting and diarrhoea which drinking the plant-based ceremonial tea would induce; the bodily price for mental and spiritual enlightenment.
A holistic medicine, ayahuasca has been used to achieve spiritual clarity, personal insight and emotional and physical healing by shamans and their followers for centuries. But my mind kept flitting between scenes from Bruce Parry’s Tribe, The Exorcist and Renton’s toilet dive in Trainspotting. I was aware that taking a psychoactive compound such as yagé, as ayahuasca is also known, unleashes a wildly subjective half-reality that is, by nature, impossible to predict and that searching for answers on the internet would only elicit more confusion. I knew that it was best to glean the fundamentals then step away. But I couldn’t stop clicking.
“This one says I could have a stroke!” I shouted. “And this other one says I could have a brain haemorrhage!”
“Stop reading those fucking forums!” my increasingly pissed-off friend, Carly, shouted back. “Look, either you do it or you don’t – you just need to make a decision.”
And she was right. I had been scouring the internet for two days solid and had come across multiple tragic deaths and psychological freak-outs. There were also warnings about potential hypertension and neurosis, and something terrifying – and potentially fatal – called serotonin syndrome. But for every horror story or cautionary tale, there was a gushing attestation to yagé's power and healing potential. There was a reported 75% recovery rate amongst heroin addicts who had taken part in the ceremony (compared to western medicine’s meagre 30%), testimonies from alcoholics who promptly put down the bottle and sexual abuse victims who turned to the medicine for solace amid compounded layers of pain and trauma. And then there were the depressives and the worriers, who said that they felt instantly lighter.
In previous decades, numerous artists, writers and musicians have also reached out to the psychotropic vine: William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, whose correspondence was collated in The Yagé Letters, following Burroughs’s experience of the medicine; Paul Simon, who wrote his song Spirit Voices about ayahuasca in 1990; and Tori Amos, who began taking it in the ’80s. More recently, even perma-troubled Lindsay Lohan declared that it had helped her deal with the “wreckage of her past life”. Could a purging or massaging of all those hard-to-reach cerebral bits really unlock the door to spiritual clarity? Would it imbue me with the sense of peace I had been seeking?
Having wrestled with anxiety and addiction for many years, during which I had attended an NA meeting, taken anti-depressants, had cognitive behavioural therapy and even paid for hypnotherapy (which had no positive effect, but inflicted serious damage on my bank balance) I was, by this stage, pretty much open to anything.
“What are you going to ask the yagé?” Carly had asked me a few days before we began our detox as we sheltered from the rain near Bogotá’s national art museum. “I want to try and find some inner calm,” I said. “And quit taking cocaine.”
Over the past few years, I had developed a disgusting habit, which I was desperate to rid myself of. Like a lot of people I knew, I regularly took recreational drugs, but coke had become a scourge. My use of the stuff had rocketed from a party powder to something I would take every time I had a drink. I had become reliant on it to give me confidence I didn't have and to temporarily lift me from my depression by distracting me from darker thoughts. But of course, it only made everything so much worse. After I had paid rent, bills and other essentials, any leftover cash went on cocaine. It had led to some serious lows such as spending £400 in one weekend using money my housemate had lent me, losing friends and even doing it on my own in room. I had notched up a litany of regrets and left destruction in my wake. I had developed chronic acid reflux, which I swore was down to using coke, and always had a cold. I was just over the stuff, but as much as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get it out of my life.
I closed my laptop and picked up my rucksack. Soon, Carly and I were snaking through the afternoon crowds in Bogotá’s Chapinero district on our way to meet our shaman, or curandera, Mama Patricia. A steady influx of backpackers to the country had bred an economy of fake shamans and pseudo-psychics, so we had been cautious in our search. Mama Patricia lived with a friend of Carly’s, a British guy who suffered from PTSD, and he had helped to arrange a meeting with her, assuring us that, “Once you meet her, you will feel instantly at ease.” Thankfully, he wasn’t wrong.
Carly was also hoping to find inner calm. She had been advised to come off her anti-depressants at least five days before the ceremony, because ayahuasca doesn’t mix well with pharmaceutical drugs. We had read lots of advice about how best to prepare our bodies for the ritual. These ranged from undertaking a six-week detox that omitted meat, sex, alcohol, drugs, caffeine and even spices, to the more manageable three-day one that we had opted for. The detox was necessary both for the ayahuasca to work and in order to prevent adverse reactions. Then, just two days before we left for the mountains, in the middle of our three-day cleansing period, I lapsed and took cocaine. And now, I was panicking. Chilli powder was one thing, but this horrible chemical would still be coursing through my blood come Friday; how would it react with the natural plant medicine? Carly’s friend messaged the shaman for me: “People take ayahuasca for addiction, so they will more often than not have chemicals in their system. You will be fine. All you have to do is believe,” she wrote. And I did.
Our plant-based odyssey began with three bus rides and a five-hour trek along perilous roads into the mountains. We arrived drained. But a roaring campfire soon helped revive us. We sat around it, drinking herbal tea and absorbing its glow as the shaman smoked her ceremonial cigar. It was a perfect evening with nothing but a light breeze stirring the lush, tropical vegetation. I thought about the imminent ceremony and decided on the mantra I would repeat throughout – “please make me calm” – and something about the peaceful setting and kindness of the Colombian strangers surrounding me, made me have faith. Not something I had ever felt before. By 10pm, the remaining group members had arrived and we all moved inside.
This room, with its modest decor and functional furniture, was soon to bear witness to harrowing aberrations of my psyche. At one end, stood a long table stacked with wooden cups, a teapot and the bottle of yagé. Behind it, a colourful backdrop depicted The Virgin Mary. We sat facing each other on white plastic chairs as Mama Patricia told us that our batch of ayahuasca had been brewing for five days. “We will take the tobacco first, in order to focus your mind,” she said. The rapé (tobacco) was blown into our nostrils with a two-pronged bamboo pipe – and it stung like hell.
Soon, we were politely queuing up to be administered the medicine as Mama Patricia wished for our individual intentions under her breath. I sat back down and waited. And waited. Nothing was happening. All around me, people were dashing off to spew their guts up on the grass. I asked the shaman why I wasn’t vomiting. “Your problem may prevent the yagé having a strong effect,” she said, in hushed tones. The room was dark, lit only by weak candlelight, and no one was talking.
Then, almost as soon as she had spoken, it began. I closed my eyes and was rushing through a tunnel at impossible speed, swept along by a powerful force as thunderous drones and brain-melting reverb pulverised my ears. I felt nauseous, but couldn’t muster any vomit. I clenched my teeth. My limbs felt like molten wax as I tried to process the kaleidoscopic stream of shapes scurrying past my mind’s eye. Sensory overload. I opened my eyes. Directly in front of me, an image of Jesus – awash with varying shades of neon – leapt off its canvas. I closed them again.
The next three hours were peppered with intense hallucinogenic visitations, hot and cold sweats and torrents of diarrhoea. Yet throughout all of this, I was continuously posing questions to the yagé, and always getting answers. These took the form of symbolic visions. “Why do I love sick horror films so much?” I whispered, without speaking. Hardly a life-changing question, but something that always puzzled me. I had assumed my interest was borne from a place of anger, but the yagé told me otherwise. It took me by the hand and led me to a shadowy corner. It showed me that that’s where my melancholy lives.
Am I doing the right job? Does my boyfriend understand me? Am I crazy? Each time, a guiding light answered my questions with crystalline clarity, as if the yagé knew me better than I knew myself. I experienced the most profound vision towards the end of my trip. By this point, I had consumed two cups of the medicine at Mama Patricia’s suggestion. Physically, I seemed to be dealing with the effects pretty well. I still hadn’t vomited.
The vision was set in a forest clearing with The Presence standing over me. I felt anxious. It was encouraging me to hand something over, something that felt heavy and cumbersome, but whatever it was, I just didn’t want to give it away. I was pouring all my strength into keeping this thing firmly in my grip. Tears streamed down my cheeks. But I did give it up. And, when I eventually handed it over, I became aglow with the most intense serenity I had ever felt. I was melting into myself, beaming from every corner of my body. Calm washed over me like warm sunshine. And then the tears returned. Not long after, I joined the others on the floor where I fell into a deep sleep, lulled by the sound of celebratory Colombian music being played quietly on the CD player.
The next morning, pellets of rain lashed down on the thin wooden roof as people lay scattered around me, cocooned like silkworms in their patterned blankets, a pentatonic scale of snores ringing out from beneath their fuzzy shells. Unable to lift my head off the makeshift pillow, I could see little of the outside world, except for the steaming rain and waxy leaves framed by the open door. I began lucid dreaming about the trek to Bogotá that lay ahead, conceiving those treacherous roads in my freshly opened mind’s eye. But instead of the temperature-raising anxiety that I was used to, I remained awash with an alien zen.
Before departing, I spoke to the shaman and she confirmed my understanding of what had taken place: “That thing you didn’t want to hand over was the cocaine,” she said, as I passed around snacks from my stash. “At first, I didn’t think it was going to work and then I saw you crying. You were crying so much; that’s when I knew the yagé was with you.” She told me that although the yagé had helped lay the foundations for my recovery, I still had lots of work left to do. I thanked her for all that she had done.
It’s been five weeks since the ceremony, too early to tell if the experience has had any long-lasting effect. But I certainly feel more comfortable being alone with my own thoughts and I would credit the medicine with increasing my general level of calmness, yet sadly the daily worries and insecurities are still there. However, my cocaine habit has yet to rear its ugly head. I’m aware it’s up to me to continue the process, to put in the real leg work – and that ayahuasca is by no means a miracle cure – but for now, something appears to have shifted inside me. Gracias, yagé, whatever you are.
Photograph by Anonymous