After the North Coast culture dose came the cyber space silence, while I enjoyed the Andes chill of Caraz, got caught up in the Disney Land vibe of Cusco, did some serious hiking in Colca Canyon near Arequipa and attempted to meet deadlines in the sleepy beach town of el Chaco. After the South Coast I headed to Iquitos in search of enlightenment in the jungle. Iquitos is one of Peru’s main cities in the Amazon and can only be reached by air or water ways. After having travelled through the desert-like coastal strip and the mountain regions, arriving in hot and humid Iquitos is like arriving in a different world. There are relatively few cars on the road and traffic is dominated by mopeds, scooters, motors and motor taxis. Most tourists come to Iquitos for action in the jungle, like seeking some insight by means of ayahuasca and that was how I was to find enlightenment.
Ayahuasca, which carries the scientific name banisteriopsis caapi, is considered a medicinal plant which has been used in shamanic practices in the Amazon for thousands of years. The plant has come to the attention of Westerns and hippies-in-denial like me since the early noughties and ayahuasca tourism has really kicked off in the last 5 to 10 years. The plant contains the substance dimethyltryptamine, or DMT for short, which is a psychedelic compound. During an ayahuasca ceremony one consumes a brew made from the ayahuasca vine, which is to give visions, insights and healing on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level.
I’m always keen on gaining some wisdoms on life and the universe, have no objection to tripping in an protected environment and wouldn’t mind some healing on multiple levels either. So, quite a few months ago I signed up for a three week healing retreat true to shamanic Shipibo traditions run by the Ayahuasca Foundation and I have been terribly excited ever since. After all that traveling the day had finally come to enter the jungle and receive some healing and profound wisdoms. After having spent one day in Iquitos, where I met the other members of the group and the facilitators, we travelled to a jungle camp by bus and boat the next day about an hour and a half outside of the city. The camp is located near the small Mishana community at the Nanay river and with the exception of the occasional plane flying over one felt indeed in the middle of nowhere. Having no hot water, limited supply of electricity, no phone reception and no internet connection definitely added to the away- from-(sub)urban-‘civilisation’ vibe.
The jungle is a peculiar place as it’s both full of live and full of decay. It’s wet, lush and green and at the same time, if you look closely organisms are constantly dying and vultures circle the air in search of their next pray. The jungle offers some wonderful medicine and some intense poisons. It is hot and humid and so damp that mold grows on textiles and textures that are just lying idle. In this scenery we were to achieve the objective of purifying one’s system for healing to take place and to achieve one’s intention (meeting god, dancing with the fairies,being healed from a disease, etc.). To help us on our way, we were put on a specific diet. Our food contained no salt, spices, sugar, fats, meat or dairy and we weren’t allowed caffeinated drinks or drugs, legal or otherwise, either. We had an ayahuasca ceremony every other day, nine in total, and had complementary therapies like potions we had to take specific to individual ailments and steam, smoke and water baths.
An ayahuasca ceremony takes place in the dark in a space called a maloka (maahLOka) and is led by a curandero, a shamanic healer. The participants are sitting or lying on mattresses around the curandero and the two facilitators who all sit in the middle. After the curandero has charged the ayahuasca brew, which he has prepared before the ceremony, with prayers, the participants come forward one by one to drink the desired amount of ayahuasca, which tastes absolutely vile. After everyone, including the curandero and the facilitators, has drank ayahuasca it is quiet for a while. Then the curandero starts to sing songs called icaros to make a connection with the spirit world. He protects the maloka against negative vibes and prays for all the participants to receive healing and achieve their intention. As ayahuasca makes you throw up as part of the purifying process every participant has a bucket and after a while you can hear the sounds of purging and slight moaning as people are either suffering or are having visions or both. An hour and a half or so into the ceremony there is the possibility to drink a another cup of ayahuasca. After that the facilitators, who are healers too, start singing icaros and we as participants are invited to sing a song.
As my purge reflex hasn’t been in operation for at least three decades I didn’t use my bucket once. But what must come out must come out, so instead I had the shits in most serious fashion for more than two weeks. The whole process made me feel very weak, which is a peculiar sensation for someone who almost always feels in her physical strength. I didn’t have any clear visions although I did ‘see’ fairies and learnt a thing or two about fearlessness, trust, love and making mistakes. During the seventh ceremony I drank a considerable amount of what was labeled ‘space brew’ and as I can’t throw up I was high for two days without being able to sleep, had a serious case of diarrhea and felt so weak that drinking water or going to toilet felt like climbing Mount Everest. I also had the weirdest teleporting experience. Although there were still two ceremonies to go, I decided that drinking ayahuasca was not my thing so I participated in the last two ceremonies without drinking.
As the loudest voices reporting on ayahuasca talk of great visions and insights I had certain expectations, which weren’t met whatsoever. I thought I would have great vision and gain great insights too. I expected to be ‘reborn’ after the retreat and it to be a watershed moment: life before and after. That has not been the case (yet) and I am surprising myself by not being disappointed. We have been told that ayahuasca can work in more underground ways through dreams or by means of insights weeks or even months after the retreat. It either still has to kick in or I ‘just’ have to do with my insights on feeling safe, unconditional love and a sense of fearlessness. Whatever the process, it is what you make of it.
images by the ayahuasca foundation