Photo from Benjy Hansen Bundy
Live-blog: Ayahuasca Trip in Ecuador
The Nowhere blog showcases a monthly feature from a selection of exclusive stories that provide a glimpse of far-flung locales or local backyards. This month’s feature comes to us from the Amazon rainforest in northeast Ecuador, near the Colombian border.
The word Ayahuasca means “vine of the souls.” It is considered by many to be the queen of all hallucinogens. The substance, which is imbibed as a tea, is an infusion of an MAO inhibitor and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound produced naturally by most living plants and mammals, including humans, whose brains are flooded with it during REM sleep and in high stress situations like when they are dying. It has been consumed for divinatory and healing purposes for millennia in the Amazon region of South America. In the 16th century when Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal first encountered indigenous peoples using the drug, they thought the locals were possessed by devils.
13:00 – The shaman comes into the hut like something out of a dream. His body is covered by a black tunic. Fanning out from his face, erect, with iridescent colors, is a plume of scarlet macaw feathers. A long cape of green feathers hangs across his back and a blue parrot feather pierces horizontally through his nostril. Some ten pounds of glass beads and charms and lavalieres and bones and jaguar teeth swing from his neck all tinkling and chinking as he approaches with the whishing scratch of his leaf bracelets. He sits down in front of me. His face is tattooed, his pupils black. They revealed nothing, betray nothing, are emotionless.
“His dress mimics the spirit of the Ayahuasca,” Louis, my guide, says from behind me.
13:05 – This place seems unreal. The moist rotten stench of the jungle wafts in through the open windows. On the walls hang apotropaic charms and esoteric symbols. Toads are croaking under the wooden floor planks.
13:12 – “Could you tell him I would like to buy a dose of Ayahuasca?” I ask Louie.
“He has some freshly brewed,” Louis says.
“Could you ask him why people drink it?”
The shaman looks into me as he speaks, never blinking.
“For divine guidance,” Louis says, translating. “To enter contact with the Gods.”
Drinking Ayahuasca throws him into a trance state, Louis says, a state where he can communicate and intertwine with the plant’s spirit, drawing on its power to diagnose and cure his clients’ illnesses.
“It is a doorway into the spirit world,” he says.
13:35 – I have bought a dosage for ten dollars. A woman brought it out in a wooden goblet and handed it to me. The liquid is black and thick as sludge. It pour it into an empty water bottle and lift it to the sun. It is opaque.
14:15 – As we got up to leave the shaman suggested I stay with him to drink the Ayahuasca, as he does not advise taking it alone. I told him that was impossible. It took two days in a canoe to reach this place. Louis says if I stay it may be weeks before another boat comes through. The shaman says he understands and has wished me a pleasant journey.
14:32 – We are back in the canoe and have begun the five-hour journey back to the lodge.
18:40 – The sun has sunk behind the trees. The forest is utterly dark. We’ve had to slow the motor to navigate through the logs and dark bends of the river with only a weak flashlight. Occasionally Louis sweeps the light over the bank and the beady red eyes of caimans sheen back at us.
21:03 – This camping lodge is nestled in a forest of tall Kapoks and consists of two thatch-roofed platforms linked by boardwalks. A few soggy mattresses tented in mosquito net make up the sleeping quarters. There is only jungle for nearly fifty miles in every direction.
21:15 – The others are eating dinner. The shaman told me to eat nothing the rest of the day so I have come down to the dock to play harmonica and clear my brain.
21:33 – Because of what I’m about to do the fact that the nearest hospital is six hours upstream by motorized canoe, followed by a five-hour bus ride, is kind of disturbing. The vine-swaddled trees that lurch above me swoon against a backdrop of stars. Millions of insects are chirruping in the surrounding darkness. Overhead a monkey just whooped.
21:40 – An entire uprooted tree that was drifting by has snagged on a shallow tombolo.
21:55 – The tree has drifted on.
22:16 – I have strung up a hammock and lathered myself in mosquito repellent. I have arranged my utensils within close reach: water, flashlight, knife, journal, pen. It feels like am about to undergo surgery.
22:23 – The color of the Ayahuasca appears to have changed. It is now the color of burnt umber and smells ghastly, like rotten wood and formaldehyde.
22:26 – I just poured a little in my mouth and swallowed and immediately needed to vomit. I have never tasted something so foul.
22:28 – I took another drink. The nausea is making me quiver. I am trying to focus my attention on a candle flame because if I acknowledge the taste I will vomit. I take another drink. The Ayahuasca slides warmly into my stomach, where it is beginning to crink and bubble.
22:30 – I have finished the bottle. My eyes are closed and I am rocking back and forth in the hammock with the pungent herb smell exhuming from my mouth.
22:50 – The Ayahuasca is beginning to churn and wrench into knots down in my stomach. I feel the vomit climbing up my throat and I am cringing to keep it down. I want it to be down there for as long as possible, to absorb into my bloodstream.
22:54 – A moment ago a little bubble rose into my brain and popped in a gooey burst of color.
23:03 – The vomit just came out over my shirt. I had to scramble out of the hammock to the platform edge to puke the rest out into the darkness. The vomit sprayed from my mouth and nostrils like three converging waterfalls.
23:18 – My brain is jolting and twitching with each thump of my heart. I have taken off my shirt to wipe the vomit from my mouth and crawled back in the hammock. I am beginning to sweat profusely.
23:29 – With every psychotropic drug there is a moment when control begins to slip away and an arrow of unthinking panic strikes into the heart. That moment is approaching fast.
23:34 – It has been an hour since I swallowed the Ayahuasca and my body is beginning to dissolve. With each heart thump it feels another layer busts free and liqueses into air.
23:45 – A moment ago it felt like a knot of hot energy moved up my spinal cord, throbbing until it busted out of the top of my head.
23:50 – I have fallen out of the hammock. The hallucinations are becoming intense.
00:09 – Everything is shattering into particles and geometric forms. My hand feels like it no longer belongs to me. It looks like a concentration of rebellious energy condensed in space.
00:26 – The world is beginning to elongate and whirl off in little prismatic eddies. I close my eyes to make it stop but my vision is the same, eyes open or shut.
00:37 – Time is folding in on itself. Each moment feels like an eternity. Each eternity passes in a warping spurt of speed. Time seems to have lost its meaning.
00:48 – I am no longer fixed to a stable viewpoint. It feels I can melt into perspective of the forest at will, like I can open my eyes in the trees and lurch over my body to look down at me looking up at me.
01:13 – The bliss and euphoria are indescribable.
01:16 – White clouds, wormholes.
01:27 – Just experienced an intense hallucination. I was just lying here when suddenly I came up through the surface of a swamp with slimy eyes on top of my head. I could feel the creamy water slide over me as I jerked my hind legs. There were dragonflies. My tongue flew out and snatched them. I mashed them around in my mouth and winked and dropped my eyeballs through my skull to push them down my throat. After that I vomited my entire stomach out of my mouth. For a long time I didn’t do anything, I was just aware.
01:29 – It feels as though I also vomited in real life but there is no evidence of this.
01:40 – I am losing the capacity to write.
02:19 – Holy holy holy holy holy holy holy holy holy shit.
02:34 – I hear it dragging towards me snarling and dripping with slobber.
02:58 – The trees are shaking. Shadows morph into creatures that moan. The syrupy murmur washes over me in slow lethargic waves.
03:04 – I am drowning.
03:07 – I cannot distinguish between myself and things around me.
03:22 – Everything is made of sound vibrations. Electrical clacks.
03:31 – Humans are snarling monkeys who’ve forgotten.
04:45 – I have been unable to record for the past few hours and am just now regaining the ability.
After the frog hallucination I began to think everyone in the lodge was out to murder me. This paranoia seemed to go on for a long time but in truth lasted only minutes. Time makes no sense on this stuff.
After that I found myself in another dimension. Reality seemed to spread out before me in pristine clarity, unfiltered through language. In the surrounding atmosphere I could hear insects rasping their claws and rubbing their wings together, the gurgling bank of the river, fish flapping and wiggling through water, beetles exploding into flight. These sound vibrations seemed to lobe all together and lengthen, magnify and curve back like a wave that toppled over me again and again, vacuuming everything into it.
A strange creature then began to visit me. It was huge, the size of three humans, with gleaming black reptile skin and five tongue-like appendages. It would drop from the sky, thwap on the boardwalk, unfolds its wet limbs and scramble towards me snarling. I could feel its weight through the boards beneath me, its trail dragging over each successive plank of wood. As it came closer I would repeat over and over, “It’s not real, it’s not real,” trying to flood my brain with other thoughts until it disappeared. It would reappear about every half hour and this scenario would repeat itself. I sense the creature is emblematic of something but I’m not sure what.
At some point a Canadian staying at this lodge wandered over the my platform and asked if I wanted a cigarette. Somehow it found its way into my mouth and the smoke tasted beautiful. I smoked as the man talked. His voice sounded as if far down a tunnel. I couldn’t understand anything that he was saying. In the distance I heard drums, thundering louder and louder. The mallets pounded with the beat of my heart. A warm, intoxicating euphoria oozed over my body. My vision became as though kaleidoscopes were being twisted over my eyes. I have no idea at what point the man left or even if he was real.
The only light, which I can’t see directly because of the thatched roof above, comes from the stars, which haze the atmosphere blue-black against the Kapok silhouettes. Forms are still materializing in this darkness.
At one point I was startled by the sudden blast of a firefly. It looked like a UFO with a spotlight. In brief intermittent ignitions it swam and twinkled through the air, opening a long yellow-green pyramid of light from its ass. The way I experienced this light was totally alien. It felt as though I could feel every individual photon zipping out across space, ricocheting off the dew and absorbing into puddles of water.
The trip just got deeper and deeper. My body began to feel like a bag of meat. My bones felt like they were ringing and squirming within the oily fat and muscle. My fingers grew like vines and flowered off into the darkness and it felt like I had slipped into some primordial plant consciousness. I had the impression that many centuries went by. I saw animals rise out of the ground, give birth, die, sink back into the ground.
I then got the feeling that the forest was a unified creature with a vast amount of wisdom, like a mother cradling me in her arms, her voice spilling over me like perfume as she tried to bump a green nipple into my mouth.
I went deeper and deeper and deeper until I found myself in a place of absolute darkness. When I tried to speak but my mouth was a tangle of veins. My eyeballs fell out of my skull like jellyfish. A vast, ringing plain rose up around me, dust blowing everywhere. I saw myself starve to death. A bird speared my eyeball with its beak and whooshed off.
I was a passive spectator to all of this, watching these visions bloom above me. Then I was dragged into my own individual past, where every moment of my life seemed to became open and examinable. I had a vision of myself gushing out of my mother’s uterus into the blinding lights of a delivery room. I felt my limbs sprout like branches, saw again for the first time the sea’s horizon, relived the loss of my virginity, flushed with fever and illness, suffered my mother’s pain as she watched me age, watched my grandparents die, my sisters being born. Every decision that brought me to now seemed to shine like a node in vast web. I lived my entire life over, it seemed, experienced each heartache, each moment of ecstasy. After that a profound sadness came over me and I began to cry. I tried to stop but I couldn’t. I don’t understand why the memories were so sad.
The Ayahuasca has done something to me, burned me with something. It feels like every negative emotion inside me has been emptied.
05:20 – I’ve lain here twitching for the past hour as more hallucinations blossom and die off. My bones are beginning to relax, my muscles loosen. I feel aglow. It is a warm and consoling glow. All the knots in my mind feel untied, like there is nothing left, no sense of separation, no I, no other, only peace.
05:53 – The Ayahuasca has basically worn off but I’m still a little dazed. I am now on a motorized canoe with some tourists whom I don’t know heading upriver to watch the sun rise. One of the girls had to guide me through the dark holding my arm to ensure I didn’t fall off the boardwalk. It feels like I am using my body for the first time. I nearly fell into the river as I crawled into the canoe.
06:01 – The world seems like it’s dripping with wet paint. Tranquil, fresh, green. The wind is warm on my face and the dank smell of the river feels good in my nostrils. I am still glowing.
06:15 – “So, how did it go?” Louis asks me.
The other tourists are staring at me, seemingly concerned, as though I just woke up from an exorcism. I tell him it went well, that I felt I could see things very clearly now. The tourists relax. Louis smiles and nods his head.
“There was a lot of knots inside of me,” I tell him. “It seemed to untie them.”
Louis just continues nodding and smiling. He’s been down this rabbit hole. He knows there is no use trying to communicate it. It’s not something you can talk about or explain.
06:20 – We’ve pulled into a vast flooded lagoon, cut the engine, and are now drifting in silence. The water is absolutely motionless, like a sheet of burnished chrome, reflecting the changing sky above. Spiders occasionally scurry across the surface. The sun is rising behind a hilly archipelago to the east. The silhouettes of pony-tail palms rise black and sharp against the tangerine sky.
“The world will come alive now,” Louis is saying.
06:25 – The sky is brightening. Birds are beginning to cackle in the trees. Clouds are burning off the horizon in whorls of pink vapor.
06:32 – The water near the boat just gargled and smooth, driving ripples emerged. When I looked closer I saw the ripples were actually bufeos, the sweet-water dolphins of the Amazon.
06:33 – The dolphin’s skin is slick and oily and pink, like an infant’s belly. It plashes the surface with its flipper and dives below, only to re-emerge on the opposite side of the boat, plashing the surface again, as though waving to us. Such intelligent animals. Three others have risen and are sluicing across the surface in a ring around the canoe.
06:35 – The first pricks of sunlight throw over the hill to the east and the birds have increased their cackling. The dolphins are swimming off, driving a wedge of leaping silver fish before them. The light is pouring in rich profusion down into the lagoon. Birds and insects take to the air. A new day has come.