I was nervous long before my boat docked on the muddy shores of Santa Clara outside of Iquitos, Peru. How could I not be? In my research, I watched documentaries about tourists dying during ayahuasca ceremonies. I read bloggers recounting horrible psychedelic trips that sent them into nightmare dimensions. Despite this, I pushed myself to go in the hopes of finding peace following the death of a loved one.
“I don’t know what will happen,” I said to the old shaman. “Ayahuasca makes me nervous.”
“You will purge,” he said in Spanish, “but the medicine will heal you. It will take care of you.”
“Will I have complete control of my body?”
“Of course, the medicine doesn’t paralyze you. You’re free to walk if you wish.”
“I’ve heard about bad visions. Should I be worried?”
“No, ayahuasca will only show you what you’re ready to see.”
Feeling calm and confident about a positive experience, I agreed to a private ceremony with the shaman. I placed my things in my hut, washed up, and rested for an hour. When I awoke and stepped outside into the sweet-smelling jungle rain, there was a chorus of insects, many of which I had never heard before. To get to the ceremony lodge, I passed giant cacao and papaya trees, and I crossed a candlelit bridge over a piranha-filled lake.
Thick, uneven boards made up the outside of the ceremony lodge. Windows were covered with holey mosquito netting. I walked in to find an arrangement of bed mats forming a large square in the center of the floor with a candle at each of the four corners. Two empty buckets were placed at the front of the mats.
The shaman sat in a chair at the head of the lodge, and his assistant sat on the floor beside him. Both were rolling natural tobacco into papers. I sat in a half lotus position on the mats near the empty buckets, knowing I’d need them later. I waited as the shaman lit the freshly-rolled cigarette.
“First, we will clear our minds with meditation,” said the shaman. “You will be purified with tobacco. Then you will drink. I will call on Mother Ayahuasca. Once you purge, listen to what she says.”
I nodded my head to let him know I understood.
“Think. Why are you here? What do you want Mother Ayahuasca to help you with? You must think about this during the ceremony. Do you understand?”
I nodded my head again.
The shaman shut the door to the lodge. The room darkened save for the light of the candles and a few stubborn stars.
The ceremony began with taking quarter-sized portions of pure alcohol and wiping it over my face, neck, chest, legs, and hands. Afterward, we started meditation where I focused on my breathing and the reason I had come seeking answers.
The shaman lit another cigarette and began a tobacco purifying ritual. He blew the tobacco smoke on my hands and chanted, following the rhythm of the song by patting my hands with a homemade bamboo fan. He repeated this for my head and feet.
Once the shaman deemed me ready, he held out a cup. I couldn’t see what was inside, but the smell was earthy, and it reminded me of the green superfood smoothies I made every morning. I took a drink. It was bitter but not bad. Once I finished drinking, the shaman passed me one of the rolled cigarettes. While I’m not a smoker, I had to finish the entire thing, which was supposedly another way to cleanse the body.
Another cup of ayahuasca down, another cigarette smoked, I waited. All the while, the shaman chanted. The song he sang was gentle and referenced several sacred animals of the jungle, including the puma and the anaconda. Most importantly, the song asked for the guidance of Mother Ayahuasca. I focused on my question, asking in both English and Spanish, wondering if she spoke either.
Waiting for Enlightenment
Time passed. Nothing happened. The shaman told his assistant to pick up where he left off with the chanting. They switched again. And again. I knew something was off. The shaman told me the following day that the average person will take about fifteen to twenty minutes to purge; my body held strong for two hours.
Eventually my body relinquished its hold and let the ayahuasca do its thing. There was a slight pain in the deepest part of my stomach. It felt like the ayahuasca was scooping something out. Knowing it was time, I grabbed the bucket in front of me. I began to vomit, which surprisingly was not painful. After about four or five upheaves, I closed my eyes again and waited for what Mother Ayahuasca had to show me.
Reflections on What I Saw
Maybe it was because I was anticipating some profound psychedelic experience that nothing happened until I stopped caring whether it happened or not.
Like someone was turning up the color and brightness on a television, what I was seeing became intense. My mind was more monkey-like than usual, rapidly swinging from memories to ideas to thoughts.
Then she arrived.
Like someone sticking their head inside a window from outside, I saw a woman’s face push into view, shattering any other thought. I opened my eyes but she remained. She had a soft face with a strong jaw line. Her skin and hair were electric blue but the outlines of her features – her big lips, her bushy eyebrows, and the bridge of her nose – were white. She had eyes that were solid white and absent of pupils. Her face was so radiant that I can only describe it as being made from light.
She spoke in a language I couldn’t understand, but it seemed familiar. It reminded me of my time hiking the Salkantay and listening to the locals speaking Quechua. But I was not able to hold any of the words in my memory. I listened to her for some time and when she looked at me as if to confirm I understood, I asked her who she was. It was then that she disappeared, leaving as she had arrived.
When You’re Ready
I asked the shaman about this woman the next day. He believed that it was Mother Ayahuasca and she had something to tell me, something important about myself.
“Did you understand what she said?” he asked.
“No, I couldn’t understand the language.” I said.
He thought about this for a few moments.
“I believe you will understand those words when you are ready.”
Initially, it was tough not to feel disappointed, especially after hearing about other people’s life-changing experiences during their first encounter with ayahuasca. Taking a moment to consider the shaman’s words, I nodded my head, accepting what he said.
I understand that it is only a matter of time before I will able to decipher what Mother Ayahuasca, the electric-blue woman, said. But I will need the help of the jungle medicine once again.
Have You Ever Had an Experience with Ayahuasca?
How was your ayahuasca experience? Did the jungle medicine help you in any way? Did you see visions? If so, what did you see? Curious about trying ayahuasca? What are some of your fears? Let me know in the comments below.