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The ayahuasca looked like sludge. I was afraid to smell it. I’d never done any kind of mind-altering drugs, and I knew ayahuasca would be an intense initiation into hallucinogenics. I felt somewhat comforted by the shaman’s presence. He was experienced with this and there to guide me. In Ecuador, despite the government’s harsh stance on drugs (ask any of the foreigners stuck in jail for a few years for possession of pot), ayahuasca is legal when taken with a shaman.
Don Alfonso scooped a larger bowl for himself. “Be careful that you dream the right dream, or your dream may become a nightmare,” he said. He studied me then began to laugh. “Do you know why you’re here?”
I started to suspect that he, like myself, was a little drunk. “Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“You are searching for something. It was not chance that your aunt brought the picture of the Cayramashi. Tonight, I’m going to find it. We’ll find it together,” he said. “The Cayramashi carries the wisdom of a hundred great shamans’ minds. I always dreamed a visitor from far away would lead me to it.” He drank his bowl.
Being alone with the shaman underneath his cabin amidst a chorus of a million singing insects inspired a faith in the mystical journey that’s hard to describe. Perhaps it’s kind of like how listening to Mozart’s Mass in C minor in a Renaissance cathedral can draw spirituality out of the most hardened atheist. I closed my eyes and gulped it as fast as I could, spilling some onto my Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt.
“Ask the yaje a question.”
The only question I had at the moment was when am I going to vomit. I knew that ayahuasca could be dangerous and that vomiting was necessary to clear the worst toxins from your system. Immediately, the drink felt indigestible. I slumped over. Across from me, the shaman closed his eyes and leaned back, satisfied as if savoring a fine Cabernet. I tried to stand and pace the room, but my legs felt wobbly. I sat back down and waited. After about fifteen minutes, the shaman strolled over to a bush, and vomited in fiery heaves. But his bowl had been bigger than mine, so perhaps the sickness had come more quickly for him. He returned to his seated position across from me and fixed his eyes on mine.
I relaxed and took in the sounds of the jungle and concentrated on controlling my breathing. I wanted to be calm. Upon closing my eyes, the blackness in my mind was filled with brilliant colors shooting off like fireworks. Each sound blossomed into shapes of varying animals. I saw the vibrant outlines of monkeys, snakes, insects, birds, and jaguars. They would vanish almost as quickly as they appeared. At times it was so overwhelming I grew dizzy and opened my eyes. In the visible world outside my mind, the shadows around me came alive, nothing creepy or psychedelic, just alive. When I closed my eyes again, the shapes reappeared, but I discovered if I narrowed my focus to just one sound in the jungle, everything would go black.
“Why have I not gotten sick?” I asked.
“Don’t fight it. Let the ayahuasca escape your body.”
“You can’t make it happen. Let it happen.”
I returned to my images and let a lazy smile curl onto my face. Everything was going to be okay if I surrendered myself to the jungle, to the ayahuasca, and to the world. Soon after, the toxins began their flight from my body; I walked to a bush and vomited. When I returned, the shaman was aglow, not literally, but aglow is the best way I can describe it. It was as if I could see his emotions, his kindness, his curiosity. It was an amazing feeling, being that connected.
“Fly with me,” Don Alfonso said when I returned.
Truth be told, I didn’t see the images the shaman saw when he departed on his journey, though I wanted to. Besides the fireworks display in my mind, there was nothing else. “Where are we going?” I asked, still playing along.
“Follow me down the river,” he said. The shaman described the terrain on our travels, but I could only imagine navigating over the brown river and soaring over kapok trees.
I don’t remember when he put out the fire underneath the pot. I don’t remember when I lay on my back. The world’s transformation before my eyes was so gradual and seamless that I never suspected the departure from my former universe of precision and reality to the shaman’s world of spiritual fantasy. Concentrating on his voice made the crude but colorful outlines of animals disappear. But when he asked, “Do you see the great red tree below?” I opened my eyes and saw it below me.
“Sure,” I answered. I was soaring high above the trees and darkness had turned to daylight. I didn’t see my wings; I was more like a particle of air floating through space. The shaman was a man yet a bird with his colorful feathers. All of this seemed absolutely normal. And I did see the red tree. It seemed as if it had been transported from a New England autumn to the jungle.
He swooped down to the earth and I followed, but when I reached the ground, I had difficulty moving. I found myself inching towards the red tree. Now, the shaman was a leaping from tree to tree. Without speaking, he urged me to follow him.
“Why can’t I move?” I asked. “Why can’t I fly anymore?” An incredible weight was stopping me.
“Hey!” a voice called out.
I looked to my side and saw a turtle next to me—not at my feet, but next to me. His head seemed enormous.
“You can’t go that way,” it said.
“Because you don’t belong in there. Our home is outside the jungle. Besides, the anaconda blocks the only path.”
A giant anaconda was rolled up in a coil, apparently sleeping. A swarm of vicious flies hovered over its muscular body. I looked around for the shaman, but he was gone.
“Then I’ll go over it,” I said.
The turtle laughed. “You can’t get over it.”
I crept up to the snake. Just as I prepared to crawl over him, he whipped out his tongue and flicked it rapidly. Then, with amazing quickness, he uncoiled his head and came at me with his fangs. I pulled back and suddenly found myself in a cave. I could hear the anaconda’s voice.
“You shouldn’t have gone down this path. Why are you so foolish?” He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to give away my hiding spot by speaking. So I remained silent. The anaconda laughed. “You think you can hide safely under that shell? I can flip you over, pull you out, and devour you.”
I felt his head start to burrow beside me. I quickly dug myself into a hole making it impossible for him to get under me to flip me over.
“He laughed again. “What a hole you’re in now! You can’t stay there forever. Eventually you’ll have to come out.”
A flash of light swept briefly before my eyes. And then again. First it was a flash of red. Then a flash of green. The colors were iridescent and beautiful. Finally darkness was lifted completely and I was again face to face with the anaconda. His gaze, however, was skyward. I looked up at the brilliant colors blazing through the sky. It was the Cayramashi. My spirits were lifted and I wanted to be with its beauty. My shell was in its talons. It flew on into the jungle. I had a surge of energy. I rose to my feet and leapt over the anaconda before he could react. I raced through the forest with amazing speed. I was a jaguar. I jumped over fallen trees and burst through dense foliage as easily as a bird flies through a cloud. The Cayramashi was overhead, appearing and disappearing behind the leaves of the trees.
Finally, the Cayramashi came to a stop and perched itself high on a hill. I tried to follow but the hill was slippery and steep. I couldn’t gain enough traction to climb. High above, the shaman sat next to the Cayramashi, but neither he nor the bird offered any help. “Patience,” he said.
Then an explosion blasted through the forest.
“What was that?” I asked.
I heard another shot. Closer. I panicked. “What are they hunting?”
I looked for a place to run. Another shot rang out, this one closer. My eyes opened. “What was that?”
The shaman was sitting across from me. A candle lay burning between us. “Hunters. Don’t worry. They’re on the other side of the river.”
“What are they hunting?”
“Did I already ask you that?”
“Don’t worry about it. Sleep.”
I put my hands on my head and felt my hair, and my forehead, and my nose, and my ears. I lay back down on the ground and closed my eyes. The jungle noise once again filled my ears and fading glitters of light poked through the blackness in my mind until I fell asleep.
(A sensical poem inspired by Jabberwocky)
‘Twas bleak and my slimy foes
Did gain throughout the game
So flimsy were my teammates’ throws
At last, only I remained.
“Beware the dodgeballs and run!
Don’t lose your fight and make the catch!
Watch out for Eric Anderson—
He’ll try to finish out the match!”
I took the red ball in hand
One against five I fought.
And while my ousted teammates cheered
One—two—three balls I caught.
One against two is how it stood
And Anderson with eyes of flame
Came charging over the shiny wood
And snarled, hissed, and aimed.
One-two, one-two I ducked and threw—
My red ball made a smack.
I had hit his head so hard and firm
He landed squarely on his back.
Finally, it was one on one
And my teammates cheered with joy:
“Way to play! Hooray Hooray!
You’re the miracle dodgeball boy”
‘Twas bleak yet my slimy foes
Did fall before my aim.
But so flimsy was my final throw
It was caught —I’d lost the game.
What I write next is what I remember to be true although the truth may be significantly blurred due to the combined effects of mefloquine, agaurdiente, and ayahuasca. Mefloquine is an inexpensive antimalarial drug, which I later learned can cause hair loss and hallucinations (at least I still have my hair). The bottle of Colombian aguardiente, or firewater, is an especially potent alcoholic beverage that can quickly knock you on your ass if you don’t pace yourself. Omar had brought a bottle in his bag and we shared it among ourselves and the shaman’s teenage son. The ayahuasca…well, I knew what I was getting into there.
I was pleased with our efforts. In very little time, we had arranged for my aunt to see a shaman, I had gotten to see the jungle, and Colin would be able to take care of some business with the community the next morning. We’d all go home satisfied the next day, I thought. The shaman was happy with the fee we paid and said once the rain stopped he could begin his treatment. He offered to let us sleep in his cabin-on-stilts overnight before we returned home the next morning.
The thing about the jungle is that there’s very little after-hour activity…and after hours is anything after nightfall. The absence of electricity beyond battery-powered flashlights pretty much ensures that.
After our drinks, Omar returned to the room, pulled a pillow from his pack, and curled into a ball. Colin began spraying himself with a mosquito repellant with a DEET level so high it literally burned through your clothes. It smelled like rotten lemons. I sprayed myself and as an added precaution, I lay down still wearing a long-sleeve shirt, my hiking boots, and pants tucked into my socks.
With my head resting on my backpack, I drifted to sleep. When I opened my eyes again I saw a faint glow, but not the glow of the morning or a candle. At the smell of smoke, I sprang up and hurried across the wooden floor to the lone window opening and looked outside.
My aunt, naked, was tied to a horizontal wooden pole propped up by cross-shaped braces as the shaman’s son rotated her about five feet over a fire like a rotisserie chicken. Little bursts of yellow flames shot out into Belén’s skin, but she didn’t scream or cry in anguish. The smoke’s stench was intense. I turned away for a second with a vivid image forming in my mind of my aunt’s melting flesh dripping like wax from her bones. I leaned out the window opening and yelled something obscene to the boy. I caught a glimpse of the bewildered expression on my aunt’s face, like that of a lost puppy’s. It was surreal. I couldn’t tell if I was buzzing, tripping, or witnessing something supernaturally sinister. I yelled again, louder this time, but the boy held out his hand as if both testing the heat and pushing me away.
I stumbled into the shaman’s back room where I found him sitting cross-legged on the floor, his eyes locked in a trance. At his feet, a ball of something burned like incense (I later learned it was an emptied termite’s nest).
“What’s going on?” I demanded to know.
Awakened, he studied me quizzically. “Such a large question,” he said.
“My aunt is burning!”
“Traniquilo, tranquilo. Come. Follow me.” Don Alfonso’s calmness was completely disarming. He led me down the crude staircase to the open, unfloored area underneath the cabin that served as his kitchen and utility area.
A pot simmered over a small fire. A gas can lay nearby. I knew my aunt was behind me, but I couldn’t bring myself to look. The shaman sensed I was resisting the urge.
“You feel her heat? That’s good. We are clearing her soul. Everything is fine.”
“How’s this helping her?”
He answered with his biography. He wasn’t the archaic medicine man I had anticipated. In his life spanning nine decades (or so he claimed), he had traveled outside the sticky tentacles of the jungle and visited cities like Bogota and Quito. He had flown in airplanes, ridden in cars, and experienced the subways of New York City.
The ambient glow began to diminish and the odor steaming from the pot replaced the heavy scent of smoke. When I finally turned around, the flames were gone as was my aunt. I got up to check on her but Don Alfonso stopped me. “Tranquilo. In your hospitals, would you expect the doctors to allow you into the operating room? Let go. Have trust in me. She needs rest now.”
“What makes your treatment better than modern medicine?” I asked a short time later, after I had calmed down.
“Do you mean the medicine from where you are from? In the plants and the trees I have everything I need.” He pointed out that recently doctors from famous universities had come to consider the medicine of the shamans as “new medicine.” Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear him offer praise for some aspects of Western health care. He dreamed of the day when ideas would be shared openly and judged fairly. The shaman looked into the pot and stirred it with a stick. “Yaje,” he said as he raised his eyebrows and quivered with excitement.
“Not everything modern is good,” he continued. “Not everything modern is bad. Electricity. Airplanes. Cars. Some of these things are very good and useful, and some of them, we are learning, are harmful to our earth and to ourselves. And some modern values go against the flow of earth. We have become destroyers. We have destroyed our forests. We destroy ideas. We destroy dreams. We have to remember our connection to the earth.”
“I don’t see that happening,” I said.
He lifted his finger to my face and I went cross-eyed as I half-expected him to tap my nose…but he didn’t. “And yet you are here. Every year more and more people like you visit me asking questions similar to yours. People are beginning to explore new answers.” He dipped a bowl into the pot and handed it to me. Yaje. Ayahuasca. “If you can dream it, you can make it real.”
Imagination freed is illumination achieved.
As we neared the shaman’s cabin on stilts, a teenage, cherub-shaped boy emerged from the door and led us up a set of exterior stairs into the main room with a long wooden bench against the back wall and a tiny stool in the center. Without a word, the boy disappeared, so we sat on the bench and waited. When at last Don Alfonso entered, I couldn’t help but stare. I knew what to expect, but seeing him in person was surreal. His crown and his arms were adorned with colorful macaw feathers. Several layers of beaded necklaces hung around his neck as well as more impressive necklaces made from the teeth of jaguars and shells of river creatures. Bright streaks of red dye from achiote seeds marked his weathered face. He sat on the stool, lit a cigarette, and waited for us to initiate an exchange.
Aunt Belén’s movement was so slight that at first I didn’t detect it. From her backpack, she slid out Uncle Enrique’s leather journal. It had been almost twenty years since I’d seen that book but I recognized it and the drawing she pulled out of it. She rose to her feet and approached the shaman. His eyes grew wide as she handed the drawing to him, and I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “The Cayramashi.” His voice was higher and wavered more than I expected. “The Cayramashi contains the wisdom of the greatest shamans.” He called out to his son who quickly came. He gave the drawing to the boy who, handling the paper carefully, disappeared into the back room. The shaman guided Belén to sit. He sang, his voice interrupted by periodic coughs, and waved a branch of dried leaves over her head. This, Colin later explained, was a limpia, and the shaman, despite the cigarette in his mouth, was not a chain smoker. The smoke served to cleanse the patient’s body of evil spirits. When he had finished, he took Belén by the hand to the back room. There was more singing, then silence. We waited for hours, filling our time by wandering around the cabin as Omar identified the plants and wildlife.
It was late in the evening before Don Alfonso emerged. “She has cancer,” he said.
We had traveled for sixteen total hours for the shaman to tell us what we already knew. But perhaps that’s what many great journeys do, confirm what we already know to be true.
I am fated to meet her one day
and as she awaits me
weaving her stories as great authors do
and preserving evidence of her existence
on the flax paper of a burgeoning scrapbook,
I do my best to avoid her as
I craft my own story that
at the moment seems to be going nowhere.
Nothing I can invent rivals
the vast arcs and clever ironies,
the sadness and the humor,
the suspense and the tranquility
of her epic creation.
I sense her omnipresence as she follows me
through my mundane tasks and mindless activities,
through my successes and failures,
which seem minuscule in the grand scheme.
What stories could this character inspire?
I cannot evade her pursuit
because she is one step ahead
always knowing where I’m going.
I am fated to meet her one day.
Whether I greet her at the front door
or let her sneak in through a pried window
Fate will find her way in
and we’ll sit together
reminiscing on our story replete with pivotal moments and plot twists
All the clues
as in a perfectly unfolding novel
that I didn’t quite get
until the very end.