|Lycaeum > Leda > Documents > Taking Ayahuasca by Peter Gorman|
Peter Gorman's account of an ayahuasca experience in the Amazon
by Peter Gorman
Reprinted from Freakbeat Magazine
#8, April 1993
In July, 1984, I made the first of several trips to Peru, this one with two friends from New York, Chuck Dudell and Larry Lavalle. We spent some weeks hiking in the Andes and had eventually made our way to the jungles of Amazonia where we'd spent several weeks on the Ucayali River searching for a guide to take us off the river and into the jungle on foot. We'd been unsuccessful and had returned to Iquitos, ready to leave the area, when we ran into Moises Vienna, a small tough jungle guide.
He turned out to be a remarkable character. The former head of the Peruvian Jungle Forces Training School, he'd served as an instructor for the US Special Jungle Forces, had mapped out much of the modern border of Peru and assisted in guiding several notable Amazon expeditions, including Cousteau's.
He offered to take us into the jungle and suggested we try the hallucinogen ayahuasca. "It's the fastest way to get to know the jungle", he told us. Though all of us had experience with hallucinogens none of us were familiar with ayahuasca. Moises, who claimed no knowledge of drugs outside the jungle, doubted it would be like anything else we'd taken. "The properties of ayahuasca change from area to area in Amazonia", he said, "but many of the primary effects are the same. You might have heard about it as Yagè. It will make the jungle your friend. Your night vision will be improved and that will make your trip easier. And if the drug is friendly to you, you will be permitted to visit any part of the world you wish to see."
The first brujo Moises brought us to refused to make the ayahuasca for us. She was a beautiful Shipido woman, strong and old, but she told Moises that we were dilettantes who had no business using the drug at all, much less using her as our ayahuasca seer. No amount of pleading on Moises part would' change her mind. She said there were many more worthy candidates for the drug than us.
We travelled by dugout on a small river for two hours, made camp, then walked through the jungle to a second brujo's, sorcerer's house an unwalled platform with a small medicine but built near a clear stream. Alphonses, the brujo, wasn't at home. His two wives were though, along with several of his children. Alphonse's main wife, a surprisingly fat woman for someone living on a jungle diet of game and wild fruits, told Moises that it was too late in the day for preparing the drink. It was nearly noon and Alphonse was gathering manioke and roots and might not return for several hours. Why didn't we return in the morning when Alphonse could start the preparation properly at sun-up? Moises cajoled the woman, joked with her and finally demanded the drink be made. She begrudgingly agreed to pass the message along when her husband returned. In return for his demands he left some presents with her; a bottle of agua diente, a local liquor, black tobacco cigarettes and some shotgun shells.
After hiking for some time through the dense brush while Mosses began our introduction to the jungle interior, we found ourselves back at Alphonse's camp, find this time the brujo was home. A strong, thick bull of a man, Alphonse pat by a great cast-iron pot, tending the fire burning beneath it. He wore raggedy clothing and an old painter's cap. His feet were bare, covered with small scars and thick calluses. Ha had a radiant smile which split his face in half and showed the only full set of teeth in Peru. The ayahuasca was being made, he said, but he was afraid it wouldn't be at full potency owing to the late hour at which it was started. Still, he laughed, it would be more than strong enough for gringos. lie told us to return to his camp at eight that night.
Chuck, Larry and I looked at each other. Our camp was miles from this place. How were we going to walk through the dense jungle at night whet wry found ft nearly impassable during the day' Moises must have read our thoughts: We can make a road of jungle larches from ire sap If you're afraid of the dark". he laughed.
Thai night we set off for Alphonses'. There was no moan and we had no lights except our flashlights. Since none of us was willing to have Moises make his, jungle torches we travelled in near utter darkness. We walked carefully, crossing several single-log bridges flung over deep gorges. We managed to avoid boggy areas and didn't stick ourselves on the several types of spiny trees common in that area.
We arrived at Alphonse's home in less than two hours. He greeted us casualty but spoke exclusively to Mosses. He said the ayahuasca was prepared as best as could be under the circumstances: we walked from his medicine but to his platform house and climbed a ladder to the split bamboo floor. Both of his wives and their children were already asleep, under mosquito netting which covered their hammocks.
The night bugs were awful and our repellents were worthless. Alphonse laughed and promised that the ayahuasca would eliminate the bothersome insects. Mosses reiterated what he's said earlier in the day, that we would be able to see whatever we wanted if the drug was friendly to us, arid added that we shouldn't be afraid if we got ill at some point during the ceremony. Alphonse suggested an hour of silence and we sat quietly, listening to the occasional rustle of night animals in the brush and cries of ocelots deeper in the jungle.
When the hour was up Alponse retreated to a corner of the house and returned with a small pot of dark liquid. He also brought a serving gourd, the ague diente we'd given his wife, a bottle of campor and another of gasoline, the black tobacco cigarettes and a fan made of leaves which had a percussive quality when shaken. He placed the objects in a cleared area of the platform and began chanting; we formed a circle around the things while Mosses extinguished the candles which had lit the platform.
Mosses didn't join the circle, "Someone has to watch out for you guys", he joked. It was unsettling to realise that we were on our own but he reassured us that this was how it was always done.
Alphonse lit a candle and from it a black tobacco cigarette. He continued to chant, intermittently blowing cigarette smoke into the little pot. He filled the gourd with a thick yellow-brown liquid and passed the gourd to Chuck Chuck drank' he made a face as he did, as though he had just bitten into sour fruit, then passed the gourd back to Alphonse. 1 suddenly found myself anxious What did I know of these people anyway? What if they meant us harm? It wouldn't be difficult to make a few gringos disappear in the Amazon it probably happened all the time. Or, short of that, how were we to handle it if the hallucinogen produced a negative effect?
Of course, when it was my turn I ignored my fears and drank: l raised the gourd to my friends, to a good experience and put it to my rips. The ayhuasca was not a good tasting drink: sour, like burned grapefruit juice infused with dark, dank smoke. I almost choked.
Alphonse drank when the three of us had finished, then passed the bottle of ague diente, then gasoline. In the jungle gasoline is thought of as a powerful potion and often sipped during ceremonies. Afterwards, the cigarettes were passed. I was wondering what would happen next when suddenly, without warning, Alphonse leaned over the edge of the platform and began to vomit: I had never heard a sound like the sound he made. Instead of dry heaving, his vomiting sounded like a rushing river washing through the jungle. Louder and louder until it had the clarity of a mad spring. It drowned out all other jungle sounds, moving, powerful and thrilling; long after he could conceivably have anything left in his stomach his sounds echoed off the jungle walls.
And then suddenly I realised that I too was beginning to heave. 1 lunged for the side of the platform: my own sickness was much more ordinary, as though I'd eaten bad food. When I finished however, Alphonse was still not through. His rushing river was calming, the boiling in his stomach settling. I looked to Moises to confirm what I had been hearing. "He's a man of great power. He doesn't do anything in a small way", he laughed. Chuck and Larry were as wide-eyed as I.
Through with being sick. Alphonse began chain-smoking the awful cigarettes and had us do the same. We were instructed to make ourselves comfortable and took positions near one another on the platform. Only Moises stayed alert, assuring us he would maintain watch over our external world; "Just relax and don't try to see or do anything. Enjoy the night."
Alphonse began shaking his maroella fan, setting up a rhythm he followed with an eerie chant full of obscure Spanish and Latin phrases, Indian dialect and local words. It was somehow a clear and beautiful song, repetitious, thrilling, powerful.
The night grew peaceful. The mosquitos stopped bothering me. And then, suddenly, an image appeared before me, within me: a bird flying over snow-crested mountains, a huge brown bird with dense wings tipped in white. I was looking at the bird from a great distance one moment: the next I felt as though I was merging with it. I began to see from the bird's persepective: my sharp eyes picked out the most minute details from the landscape. I flew over a range of mountains, searching for something - I had no idea what. I only knew that we were travelling with such speed, such airlessness that in moments we had travelled halfway around the world. Oceans passed beneath us, islands were inspected and passed and great stretches of land appeared and disappeared behind us in what seemed an instant.
I found us slowing, peering into a stream: I could see blue and green scaled fish in the shallow water moving slowly from our perspective. We were thousands of feet above a mountain stream and I could look into the stream and pick out fish scales: the colours were unimaginably rich! And then, suddenly we, the bird and I, seemed to tip off the face of the earth. Down we raced! Nearly visionless we plummeted toward the stream! I don't remember any feelings of fear: I knew we were hungry and wanted a fish; we split the water with the tiniest of splashes and in an instant were headed skyward again, the fish in our beak split in half, unchewed, the pieces sliding into my stomach whole.
I thought it an unusual way to eat: the moment I did, the minute I thought of myself apart from the bird I was back in Alphonses's house, sitting on a platform with my friends. How sad I was! that my flight was over. I tried to bring the image back, tried to fight my loss, but nothing except blackness filled my mind. No images, nothing. I wanted desperately to see with my new perspective!
Only when I let my desire go did the image return: suddenly I would be flying again, with the bird or some moments just below it, admiring the arrangement of feathers and realizing that each feather moved independently of the others; each hair on each feather seemed to be controlled by an act of will, by separate muscle. I'd never thought of a bird as so complex before; and then, of course, the moment I thought that way I was back at Alphonse's home with that incredible longing in my stomach.
Twice during the night I was able to direct the flight of the beautiful bird: the first was to see my wife, who was at that time in California. Instantly on thinking of her I was in her room, hovering on her ceiling. I watched her making love with someone new and nausea flooded me - there was a saving grace in the jealous rage - my ego brought me back to the jungle cap, away from the unexpected sight.
The second image was of our apartment in New York and of our friends who were staying there: there was a comforting quality in the scene, two friends sitting in my living room, reading. I noted the clothing they wore and a new arrangement of furniture in my notebook; I wondered whether I would be able to verify the vision at another time; it was so improbable, of course, that what I was seeing was really a vision and not a hallucination, but later, from Iquitos, the verification over the phone was frighteningly accurate.
At one point, when 1 thought the vision of my bird was returning something happened, and instead of soaring, I found myself instead reduced in size and moving about a birch tree. The start of the image was like looking through a camera lens or a pan binoculars: I saw the birch at the end of darkened cone, opening up onto it, and then, I travelled through the tunnel. The vision zoomed in on one of the birch's burls and saw thousands of ants moving around. But I didn't just see ants. I saw ants in such detail that I could study the way they worked, how their bodies moved one section at a time could see them holographically red and black ants moving on the same burl, working vide by side on two different tasks. I was so close to them that I could count the hairs on their I was unimaginably small; so tiny that the rings on the burl seemed like vast plains before me.
There were other images too, but they were less clear. Some of them appeared and disappeared with such speed that I simply hadn't time to focus on them.
And then suddenly I heard talking,; the others were saying they weren't having much effect from the drink and all they were feeling was ill. I protested but was overuled and in a few minutes we prepared to leave.
I threw up once more, this time effortly, after I'd stepped from the platform. We thanked Alphonse and left his clearing and started back to our camp. The others grumbled that it had been an effectless night; I laughed quietly. Moises laughed too, and pointed out that none of us were using our flashlights, even over the dangerous log crossings above the river beds; it was true for all of us that night vision was fantastic.
Later that night while I slept I flew with my bird, all over the world, seeing cities and mountains; pulling fish from the idea and resting on small ocean rocks; crossing vast dunes and peering into thunder clouds. For my friends it had not been a vision drug; I felt differently.
In the morning Moises had us take a cold river wash, saying it was necessary after ayahuasca. I did as told and immersed myself in the freezing water and wholeness washed over me.
The following year, in early August, f returned alone to Peru for a longer stay in the jungle This time Moises didn't offer me a chance as ayahuasca; he simply told me we would do it We were going deep into the green and would need night vision and would reed ;he things in the jungle to be friendly to me in the jungle everyone treats things as though the, r have an animas or spirit,. Nothing is dead m the jungle; better, nothing is lifeless, though things are dying all the time. But all things arc treated as though conscious, as though capable of hurting man, the most vulnerable of prey in the environment. unless man has sublet connection with those things, and ayahuasca is one of these connectors.
Moises, two assistants and myself took a motor launch onto the huge Ucayali two days south of Iquitos. At the river town of Herrara we veered off onto a seasonal stream, the Auchyako, and past a small jungle settlement there. Moises told me we would stay in the settlement for a few days to practice canoeing and other things and to take ayahuasca. "There is a good doctor here. Very powerful. He's even got an apprentice."
We stayed on the doctors land in a small hut and Moises made arrangements for going ayahuasca the following night.
On the day of the drink I was instructed not to eat past noon. I passed the day on the river always within earshot of the doctor and his apprentice as they cut wood for the fire to cook the ayahuasca vines. Above the trees wisps of smoke rose. Each time I saw it my anticipation rose: even without allies I knew this would be special.
When it was time to move to the doctors home I nearly flew through the jungle. The ceremony was taking place at his primary home and there was a well beaten path to follow from our hut. The doctor was Julio Jerena, a practitioner from Pulcallpa, and his apprentice was Salis Navarro, a strong bright young man with black eyes and a well-muscled physique, Julio was lithe and strong, probably nearing seventy. With him lived three wives, one of them old, one middle aged and the third probably no more than fifteen. Some of the children from each lived with him, so there were women of all ages moving around the platform hut, though they disappeared before we began. I'm told that women sometimes take ayahuasca, but haven't seen it myself.
There were seven of us for the ceremony: the two doctors, myself and Julio's patient. The patient told us the story of his wound: he'd been bitten by a lorro machaco, a very poisonous snake, and originally treated in Iquitos in a hospital there. The infection had gotten very bad and the hospital suggested amputation of the infected le, the man had refused and made his way instead to Dr. Jerena's home, where he had been living for some weeks. His leg, in my flashlight, was a mass of purple and blue scar, but he seemed able to walk about comfortably enough and thought he would be completely healed in a few weeks.
An old man joined us from the jungle night. He claimed to be a patient of the doctors as well. He told how the doctor had performed an operation on his stomach recently: the doctor had cut him open with a knife, removed his stomach, washed it in the river, replaced it and sewn up the wound. I said that I saw no scar and asked how long ago the operation had taken place. He answered that is had been two days ago. He said the doctor's scars always healed quickly.
Everyone laughed when I looked at him skeptically: they said my believing or not believing didn't change the facts.
The night had grown pitch. A sliver of moon hung askew in the Southern hemisphere, smiled down at us over the canopy of trees to our left. I was told to just make myself comfortable on the platform while Salis and Julio began to collect their things.
A green sheet of plastic was placed on the split bamboo floor. The maroella leaf fan was brought from the hut; Moises provided a bottle of agua diente and black tobacco cigarettes. A book of Latin incantations - a coveted item from the way it was handled - was produced by Salis and a candle and a small brown bottle filled with ayahuasca by Dr. Jerena.
Salis was the primary performer of the ceremony. He permitted photographs prior to the drinking and allowed me to tape the ceremony as it progressed.
The chanting was begun: the four of our drinking made a small circle on the plastic sheet while the others formed a larger circle around us, in the shadows. We drank, passed the cigarettes, sipped the agua diente and a little gasoline and waited. Vomiting came easily though I was disappointed that neither doctor regurgitated with the style and quality which Alphonse had.
Latin words mixed with mountain Quechua, obsolete Spanish and modern Castilano. Some of the chant , in fact the only part I've been able to translate went like this:
There were no visions this time, no birds to fly with. There was instead a great pulling apart of my spirit, as though the chanting of my doctors, different but not incompatible, was a wedge being used to split me in half. Part of me made sense of the splitting in a was I cannot describe; another part of me was terrified that should I be allowed to split to render me in halves I would not be able to seal myself back up. Forces pulled at me and jokes were later made that I was occasionally delirious, though I can't find and evidence of that on my tapes. I did walk to the river, fifty yards, at one point, and listened to the music of the night, unmolested by mosquitoes and unaided by flashlight. the water of the river had a rhythm similar to the chanting but I dared no to go in - though I wanted to - too many caymen with golden eyes stared at me from across the bank.
The morning after the ayahuasca Moises sent me out to bathe, to make myself whole again. Afterward we spoke about the experience: he explained that I wasn't to be disappointed that the experience was different this second time: when I needed the sight of the bird I would have it. When I needed to become intimate with the jungle the ayahuasca would guide me that way. What I needed I received, that he was sure of.
Funny, but for the next few weeks I didn't need my flashlight except to read; I could sense the dangers of the jungle at night without seeing them. I could spot animals in the brush as though I had lived in the jungle all my life. And at night sometimes, when I needed to discover something, I could fly with my bird.
I've used ayahuasca since, for a number of reasons; I've had different effects each time, some seemingly more potent trips than others; I suspect Moises is right when he said it gives you what you need.
by Peter Gorman.
This document Copyright Peter Gorman