I was chain-smoking cigarettes in a hotel lobby in Iquitos, Peru, at 3 am with an American called Jose.
Jose had the aura of a person who has subsisted on a nothing but kale chips for the past twelve years. Nevertheless, Jose was a veteran of over seventy Ayahuasca ceremonies and I raided his brain for advice on taking the hallucinogenic jungle medicine.
"So let's say you get attacked by a dragon. Most people's reaction is to reach for a sword. Don't do this. You can't beat the dragon with a sword. What I do is send the dragon love. Only love can beat the dragon."
I nod my head to Jose's sound advice. I had been in Iquitos for two days and was already accustomed to talking to kale chip eating westerners about such topics as meeting the mother earth spirit, the insectoid helpers, and, of course, dragon combat.
Ayahuasca is a drink made by boiling the living hell out of a concoction of tree bark and vines. The brew contains massive amounts of the psychoactive drug DMT.
Used as a medicine by natives in the Amazon jungle for thousands of years, the practice has exploded in popularity across the world. And I had joined the ever-growing list of people who have traveled to Peru to partake in an ancient Ayahuasca ceremony.
The following morning after my encounter with Jose, cursing the lack of conveniently located coffee shops in Iquitos, I boarded a boat and set sail down the Amazon river for a tiny village which would be my home for the next week.
I met my Ayahuasca buddies, twenty-one in total. There was an American couple who were homesteaders and grew hemp, a British naturopath, an American naturopath, a group of young Australians who were making an Ayahuasca stop before heading off to live in a hippie commune, more hippies, some woman who could tell your future by looking at your eyeballs, and Andrew, a guy from the Caribbean who owned an office supply store and would, thankfully, be my roommate for the week.
Out of the group, Andrew was the only one who had taken Ayahuasca before so I set about raiding his brain for advice as well.
"Don't fight it."
"Don't fight what?"
"The Ayahuasca. You're going to want to fight it. Don't. You can't fight it, it's going to do what it's going to do. Just let go and let it do its thing."
I nod my head to this advice as well.
Next to the village was the Ayahuasca retreat center, a collection of wooden huts set on top of long stilts to avoid the seasonal flooding. The facilitators, as they were called, gave us a tour of the place which included a lot of clasping hands in the prayer position and repeating the word "namaste" an inordinate amount of times.
There were monkeys, sloths, yoga classes, tarantulas, hippies, and mosquitos - lots of mosquitos. To say I wasn't nervous about the situation as I scratched myself incessantly waiting for my first Ayahuasca ceremony to begin would be a lie.
They hold ayahuasca ceremonies in malocas which are large circular huts. Inside is a ring of mattresses, each equipped with a pillow and a bucket. The bucket is for vomiting.
Sitting inside the maloca on the first night was a surreal experience. Me, four facilitators, three shamans, and twenty tourists, all sitting in a large circle in the silent dark of night.
The facilitators explained that since it was our first night, they would give us a small starter dose. This was so we could see how we reacted to the Ayahuasca. If we couldn't feel any effects after exactly one hour, they told us to flash our torchlights at them and they would bring us another cup. Apparently, trying to correctly dose someone with Ayahuasca is not an exact science.
One by one they called us up to receive our cup. My turn came, and I walked over to the facilitator, completed the customary "namaste" and prayer hand symbol and gulped down a glass of one of the most powerful hallucinogenic drugs known to man.
The next hour was one of killing suspense. Every sound of the wind blowing and every weird shadow caused by the moonlight would make me jump. Is this it?! Am I high?! At one stage I heard a loud buzzing sound which sent my heart racing. This is it! It turned out it was just a boat cruising down the river. After exactly one hour of dread and anticipation, I realized that I was one of the people who needed more than the starter dose, and so I flashed my torch at the closest facilitator.
The facilitator served me a second, larger cup of Ayahuasca. When I swallowed it, I immediately realized I had possibly made the worst mistake of my life.
This was because the moment the second dose entered my stomach a large alien spacecraft had parked itself above the maloca. I couldn't see it because the bamboo roof obscured it, but I knew it was there because it had shot some type of alien scanner laser through the roof and had begun taking an alien scan of my body.
I was horrified because it wasn't that the starter dose wasn't enough - it clearly was. It was that the starter dose had taken a full hour to take effect, and I had just drunk a larger second cup.
How much Ayahuasca I had or hadn't taken quickly tumbled down the list of things I needed to worry about. The aliens were concentrating their laser scanner on my brain. It felt like a virus checker going through my files one by one frighteningly fast. Strange memories I forgot I even had kept popping up only to be forgotten a moment later. It was invasive.
I decided that I didn't like these aliens, and I didn't like Ayahuasca. Then Andrew's voice appeared in my head "Don't fight it."
Bugger that. I fought it with everything I had and it was as hopeless as he had said it would be. Then the shamans started singing.
The Shaman's songs were as pleasant as they were annoying. Now, not only did I have aliens defraging my brain, but also giant technicolor sound waves pulsing out of the shaman's mouths and crashing themselves into my stomach.
The effect was literally gut-wrenching. The aliens must have taken pity on me because they turned off their laser at exactly the moment I grabbed my bucket and began to dry heave into it.
I had heard a few people vomit already. However, there's was a short, wet, civilized affair. Mine sounded like I was about to cross the finish line of my own exorcism.
I knew my attempts to evacuate my lungs and guts through my mouth may have been disturbing the rest of the group, so I went to the toilet to carry on with the horrid affair.
I made it outside, but I never made it to the toilet. I grabbed a railing and rested my entire body weight via my chest on it. From that position, I continued my attempts to vomit. For hours and hours, I tried, but nothing would come out. I tried for so long that it overcame my abdominal muscles and ribs with a piercing pain - but still nothing.
After about six hours of absolute torture, I realized that the drug must be wearing off, and that I had spent the entire ceremony outside. I still felt sick as hell itself.
I looked at my watch. According to the time on my watch, only five minutes had passed since leaving the ceremony. What felt like hours of gut-wrenching purging was, in reality, a mere five minutes. My concept of time was gone. Furthermore, my entire arm, hand, and watch was covered in thousands of tiny mechanical insectoid creatures.
I desperately tried to brush them off but they wouldn't budge. However, they seemed to only appear when I looked at my watch and I wondered what would happen if I took it off. Sure enough, once the watch was gone, so where the insectoids.
I then went back to my mattress in the maloca and accepted my fate.
What happened next was a whirlwind of geometry, the matrix code, things I can never describe with words, and constant visits to the toilet. I eventually evacuated the contents of my stomach several times. I also evacuated my bowels.
On one trip to the toilet, I had to alternate from having my head in the bowl to having my arse on the seat several times. The toilets had become a sanitary nightmare. However, all sense of pride was lost. I knelt in others people's vomit without giving it a second thought.
Then there was the sweat. I felt like I had just stepped out of a pool. I could wipe handfuls of water off my arm and send goblets of water flying to the floor by wiping my hand across my head.
This became a concern. I was vomiting, shitting, and sweating an unnatural amount of fluid. Was it safe for a human body to dehydrate this much? I thought I would die.
That's when she came. The mother earth spirit. I knew I was high as Richard Branson in a hot-air balloon, but she was still the most beautiful and loving thing I have ever experienced. She told me she loved me. She said she was trying to save humanity, that humanity had lost its way, that it had lost its connection to nature and that it needed to find its way back. Even though I thought to myself "what a load of new age hippie crap", I still cried. I was so embarrassed that I had to cover my eyes so the naturopaths and hemp growers wouldn't see me in my emasculated state.
After I wiped the last tears from my eyes, she told me I had to go. I responded "I understand, It's not normal to dehydrate this much" and I laid down on my mat. I stopped fighting it.
I didn't want to die, but I wasn't overly worried about it either. I figured I had taken way too much of the drug and I had just overheated. It never occurred to me to get up and have a glass of water or ask for help or anything sensible like that.
The first thing to happen was my entire body turned green. not green as in the color, green as in a lizard - cold-blooded and scaly. Then plants grew up from the floorboards. They grew all around me and covered my body like a blanket. Then the plants grew through me and out of me. Vines pierced my legs only to come out the other side and wrap themselves around my torso, leafy ferns grew out of my neck and the side of my face, and tree branches grew from underneath me and stabbed their way through my body only to spread out and flower above.
This continued until I was more jungle than human and then suddenly I was gone. There was no me anymore. There were no bitcoins, no crazy ex-girlfriends, no annoying Greek parents, no bills, no taxes, nothing.
One facilitator woke me up by shaking my shoulder and asking me if I was ok. "I survived," I said casually. It was all over. Everyone was hanging around chit-chatting with each other about their experiences, each just as crazy as mine.
I raced to the center of the room where a large jug of water sat surrounded by plastic cups. As I drank cup after cup of water, determined never to die from dehydration again. Andrew approached and asked me how everything went.
"Jesus fucking Christ that was intense!" was my response.
Everyone who came to that jungle that week had come for different reasons. One naturopath, I think the British one, wanted to say goodbye to her dead mother, quite a few of the attendees had horrible childhoods and were wanting emotional healing, and one of the Australian girls had just broken up with her partner and was looking for closure.
I had asked a few of the locals why they took Ayahuasca. Freddy, our boat driver, said he took ayahuasca when he had the flu or a stomach bug. When I asked a local guy back in town who was trying to sell me t-shirts why he took ayahuasca, he said "Oh you know, it's good for when you have been taking too much cocaine or drinking. To clean your body."
A lot of the kale chip eating Ayahuasca fanatics will tell you it's all real. This vomit-inducing drink can connect you to "mother ayahuasca" just like picking up a phone and dialing her number.
I must admit, even though the experience seemed as real as a slap in the face, I'm not so convinced.
I might drink their ancient psychedelic drugs, but I can't drink their cool-aid.
However, since returning from Peru, I haven't been able to lose the gnawing need to travel to the jungle again, just for one more taste of that putrid tea.