By Alexander Zaitchik
May 22, 2009.
My account of a night high on the "Ayahuasca madre" with the
Ashaninka tribe deep in the Amazon rainforest.
Ever since I first began playing with psychedelics as a teenager, I
have wanted to do them in the jungle. It took only one or two bad
trips in the city before I started imagining the experience away from
the car alarms and ambulance sirens, and closer to its millennia-deep
origins in ceremony and sacrament.
If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. Amazonian psychedelic
tourism predates today's better-known trends in eco and cultural
Through word of mouth, High Times features, Discovery Channel
specials, the books of Terrance McKenna and the "Yage Letters" of
Burroughs and Ginsberg, northern-hemispheric drug culture has over
the last half-century become steadily more hip to and enthralled by
the living Amazonian tradition of ingesting Ayahuasca, a potent
psychedelic brew used throughout the region as a healing tool and
portal through which to communicate with the jungle spirits and the dead.
The magic molecule animating Ayahuasca is the fearsome and revered
tryptamine known as DMT. Aside from its strength, DMT in both its
natural and synthetic forms is unique for the similar sensations and
visions shared by its supplicants. Unlike other man-made psychedelics
such as LSD, synthetic DMT takes many users to the same "place,"
where they report meeting elfish, clown-like, and insectoid beings
who frequently extend the same warm and welcoming message: "We've
been expecting you." This phenomenon is documented in Dr. Rick
Strassman's book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which describes his
remarkable findings over the course of the first FDA-approved
psychedelic study in more than 20 years, conducted at the University
of New Mexico Medical School in the mid-'90s.
The natural DMT experience of Ayahuasca is likewise known for taking
users to a common destination, where they are greeted by the dead, as
well as assorted vine goddesses and jungle spirits, chief among them
the serpentine "Ayahuasca madre."
I finally got my chance to meet the Madre in March, when an English
rainforest preservation non-profit called Cool Earth invited me to
join a press trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The last-minute invite
allowed just a few days to round up jungle gear and malaria pills,
but there was never any question of accepting the offer. It was the
juiciest of junkets: starting in coastal Lima, we would venture deep
into primary rainforest, roughly midway between the Andes and the
Brazilian border. Our final destination was the Ashaninka village of
Tinkerini, a place so remote that the locals have seen only a small
handful of whites in their lives, including the anthropologist who
would be our guide. Tinkerini was no forest-edge Potemkin village
full of trinket-hawking nativos. It was the real thing. Not far from
Tinkerini dwell some of the world's last uncontacted tribes, the kind
who want nothing to do with the modern world, shoot arrows at passing
helicopters, and have zero immunity to foreign germs.
The group consisted of myself, a few journalists from the States and
the UK, a Cool Earth rep, and a Welsh anthropologist named Dilwyn
Jenkins, who has been studying the Ashaninka since his undergraduate
years at Cambridge in the late 1970s. It was a good-humored crew, and
on the bus out of Lima we even managed to laugh at the fact that not
one of us had a snake bite kit, despite the fact that the Peruvian
Amazon hosts the world's densest and most varied collection of
poisonous snakes. More than 200 killer breeds live in the area where
we were headed. The tarantulas, while not as lethal, are the diameter
of microwave pizzas.
The trip got off to a rocky start, literally. Our first attempt to
cross the Andes by bus was stymied by a rockslide on the sole
cliff-hugging road that winds east out of Lima. After losing a day of
travel, we backtracked and chartered a small prop plane over the
mountains to the jungle frontier city of Satipo, where we landed on a
military airstrip built during the government's war with the Shining
Path guerillas. From Satipo, we crawled into a battered six-seat
Cessna and flew further east over endless broccoli bunches of Amazon
canopy. An hour later, we made a bumpy landing on a riverside
airstrip of pressed grass, cheered on by Ashaninka children in face
paint and traditional robes. From there, we hiked several hours
further northeast into the jungle, fording two rivers along the way.
We arrived at the village of Tinkerini at dusk. Surveying the scene
of straw huts and shy Indians huddled around small fires, my first
thought was of the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. My second
thought was Ayahuasca. During that night's meal of rice and chicken,
held under the thickest band of Milky Way I have ever seen, I
approached Dilwyn about my interest in the Vine of Souls. To my
delight, he agreed to speak to the village shaman the following
morning. "She's like my second mother," he said. "It shouldn't be a
problem to arrange a ceremony."
The shaman, Noemi Vagus, was like no octogenarian I had ever met. Her
jet black hair, nimble barefoot stride, and straight-backed squat
reminded me more of a teenage gymnast than her elderly counterparts
in American cities, with their four-legged walkers, slouching
postures, and debilitating arthritis. Then there is the fact that she
habitually consumes more elite psychedelics than every parking lot
'shroom dealer at Burning Man put together.
Noemi's health and vigor are not uncommon among the elders of the
Ashaninka tribe, whose population of 45,000 sprawls across the
national borders of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil. When asked
about this vitality, the Ashaninka will point to Ayahuasca, known as
"Kamarampi" in the tribal language. As do most Amazon tribes, the
Ashaninka consider the vine to be the ultimate healing plant. For
millennia it has been imbibed and smoked as a way to cure a range of
mental and physical illnesses. Since it often induces violent
vomiting and diarrhea, it is also used to purge vicious jungle
parasites. Judging by the fit state of Ashaninka tribal elders,
regular use is also something like drinking from a fountain of youth,
or chewing on the branch of immortality.
Like most psychedelic aficionados I have known, Noemi did not need to
be pressed very hard before agreeing to hold a ceremony that night.
She immediately led us into the jungle and over to a thick-barked
vine the width of a baseball bat. "Here," she said, touching it
reverently. Then she led us a little deeper into the forest and
pointed to the nondescript green leaves of a plant known as Chakruna,
which contains natural DMT. When boiled together with the Ayahuasca
vine, which contains a class of alkaloids known as beta-carbolines,
the Chakruna leaves' DMT is activated for oral ingestion. Botanists
have estimated that the chances of randomly mixing the two plants
together is around one in five billion. When I asked Noemi how the
Ashaninka knew to mix the two plants in such a way as to unlock their
power, she pointed to the sky. "The thunder and the lightning told
us," she said, matter-of-factly.
The process of making the Ayahuasca brew began that afternoon, after
Noemi had hacked down a vine and collected the leaves. The cooking is
simple but takes all day: First the vine is stripped of its bark and
hacked into strips. It is then soaked and bundled together with
Chakruna and placed in a pot, where it is tended to and stirred for
several hours. Slowly, the water becomes dark as it absorbs the
divine plant matter. The resultant broth is left to cool and strained
into another pot.
At sundown we gathered at Noemi's hut, where she had placed a thin
black blanket on the packed earth. She instructed us to lie down and
wait, then disappeared. She returned half an hour later carrying the
pot in both hands. By then the stars were out and the jungle's
nightlife was in full swing. Nobody spoke. One by one, she called the
four of us participating in the ceremony up to the pot, where she
ladled out the psychedelic soup into a grapefruit-sized gourd. The
lukewarm liquid was bitter, but I didn't gag on it, as I sometimes do
when chewing psilocybin fungi. North American magic mushrooms taste
like sour shit; this tasted like moist soil, like drinking the forest
itself. I wiped my chin, mumbled thank you, and returned to the blanket.
We lay quiet for some time, listening to the rushing river to our
left and the teeming jungle to our right. Then, gently but swiftly,
the Madre spirit announced her arrival and mine. She did this with a
sound as natural to the jungle as the taste of the vine. The noise of
the river rushing over rocks began to merge with that of the buzzing
rainforest to form a warm insectoid hum. It was as if waves of bugs
as big as rodents were swarming from every direction; as if the river
was full of prehistoric flying insects. Yet somehow this wasn't
frightening or even creepy. The enveloping sound did not threaten us;
the forest and its many creatures were our protectors.
I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. The jungle drug was taking hold.
Then, as if on cue, the singing began. The strangest and most
beautiful singing I have ever heard. Noemi and two other Ashaninka
elders who also drank the broth began to intone the first of the
night's many sacred chants, or icaros. The men sang in a lower
register, with Noemi singing lead high-pitched melodies that flitted
through the air like snakes. Visions of serpents as small dancing
squiggles filled my head, whether my eyes were open or not. They
would grow in size, disappear, then reappear, according to the music.
The snakes were always moving with the melody. They were the melody.
This serpentine vision is the most common one in the Ashaninka
Ayahuasca ceremony, and the music is meant to facilitate it. The
chants' tones and rhythms were designed to influence and homogenize
Ayahuasca visions among the group. "The roots of these songs go back
at least 4,000 years, possibly even in close to their modern form,"
Dilwyn explained the next morning. "Visions of snakes are interpreted
as visions of 'madre Ayahuasca,' the genie or spirit of the sacred
plant, a conscious being you can talk to and learn things from."
I won't attempt the futile task of attempting to relay what I learned
from the Madre. I don't know if it's even possible to bring such
insights into the light of the next day. But very broadly, the Madre
took me through the usual psychedelic funhouse tunnel of failed
relationships, insecurities, fears, regrets, and finally into a place
where all of those things are reconciled and then cease to exist.
This place was green and fresh and wrapped in vines and watercress.
It felt feminine and moist.
The brew was potent, but it was not overwhelming. During the
four-hour trip I never experienced complete ego loss (i.e. a sense of
having died) and did not meet with the spirits of the dead, as I had
hoped to. But I did think about an old girlfriend in a way that I had
not allowed myself to for years, and the visions were dominated by a
totalizing jungle motif--swaying trees looked like tarantulas, audio
hallucinations were all of living creatures, insects mostly, and the
snakes kept reappearing, slithering through the air to the melodies
of the icaros.
The next morning, over a breakfast of bland mantioc root, fresh
grapefruit and instant coffee, we talked.
"When I first came here in 1978, the entire village took Ayahuasca on
average three or four times a week," says Dilwyn. "Children
participated in those days, even babies being given it from their
Noemi says she is saddened by the fact that the ceremony is not as
popular as it once was, especially among the young. "Now the children
take [Ayahuasca] and get scared, they don't like the jungle visions
sometimes," she says. "They didn't used to get scared."
Jaime, a young male Ashaninka, attributes the change to the state
teachers that are beginning to appear deeper in the jungle to teach
the young. They preach Christianity and mock the traditional
religion. "They make the children think that the jungle spirits are
not real and are something to be feared," he says. "The new
generation is pulling away from the old rituals." He also mentions
that the Shining Path killed a lot of the old villagers and
especially sought out shamans in an attempt to stamp out local
traditions and convert the Indians to Maoism.
"The last of the real shamans in the area lives six hours away, alone
in the jungle," adds Noemi.
When I ask her what separates her from a "real" shaman, she smiles
and looks right into my eyes, as if to say, in her kindhearted
Ashaninka way, "If you have to ask, you'll never know."