October 11, 2004

Ayahuasca Ceremony In The Amazon

Our Amazonian Shaman. The Ayahuasca is in the bottle.
Photography By David Shiel

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Amazon, in Peru. It is an extraordinary place, where beauty veils the hidden dangers that lurk everywhere. Wherever you tread, a sharp awareness is always required, so that unnecessary mishaps do not occur. This requires careful consideration where one steps or places one's hands. For a city-dweller, the adjustment takes some getting used to.

Of course, snakes remain a priority of concern, requiring the jungle trekker to take precautionary measures, such as stepping on to, rather than over fallen trees. However, the flora can also present risks. There are trees that have piercing spines and poisons; some even having intriguing symbiotic relationships with dangerous fire and bullet ants, that go into fierce battle against any intruder that touches the tree they inhabit.

Yet, for all the dangers that exist in the rainforest, the concentration of life and the rich green canopy, instantly engages the visitor's spirit. Here, a closeness to nature can be achieved like nowhere else.

The native people of the forest have developed an ancient religious path that embraces, respects and understands the environment in which they inhabit. Each village has a shaman, who communicates with the spirits of the forest. This is achieved through the use of hallucinogenic elixirs made from various plants. Perhaps, the most well known of these is Ayahuasca, which is made from the Banesteriopsis vine and the Psychotria Viridis shrub's leaves.

As someone who is fascinated by religious practices and rituals, I very much wanted to partake in the Ayahuasca ceremony. At university, I became aware of the ritual whilst researching for my thesis on mystical experiences.

Through my Native American guide, we arranged an opportunity with a local shaman, who would meet us in the evening. In preparation, I was not allowed to eat anything for the entire day.

The sun finally disappeared behind the dense canopy, and the carcophony of insects and frogs once again filled the night air. At around eight o'clock, the shaman appeared in his dugout canoe, ready to take us to the site where the ceremony would be held. Accompanied by my friend, Jason, our guide, and an American biologist, David Shiel, we headed out into the pitch darkness, covered in 100% DEET to ward of the persistent mosquitos that remained forever present. Finally, after struggling through the dense vegetation that was floating on the river, we reached a bank, with a small open hut nearby.

Apart from the odd flashes of light that came from the shaman's matches, as he lit the wild tobacco in his pipe, we remained in total darkness, with only the slight outline of the trees visible against the starlit sky.

The ceremony began with the shaman purifying the Ayahuasca contained in a plastic bottle, with puffs of smoke from his pipe. From what I could see, when we were permitted to use our flashlights, the liquid was a horrible muddy-brown solution. The pipe then was passed to each of us to smoke. Neither my friend or I are smokers, so it was difficult to inhale the very rough tobacco. Again, this was an integral part of the purification process, and a bonding ritual between the shaman and us.

Next, the shaman started to sing and whistle the most gentle, soothing sounds, whilst shaking a bunch of leaves like a magical wand. He passed me the dirty looking solution in a plastic cup, which I had to raise above me, and give respect to the Ayahuasca spirit. After doing this, I then gulped the liquid down, and tried my best not to regurgitate, as it was the most disgustingly bitter thing I have ever consumed. My friend, then repeated the same process.

The shaman continued to sing and whistle. There was something so calming and peaceful about this man, that any fear I may have had about Ayahuasca or the jungle, just seemed to evaporate away. He instilled a sense of trust.

Slowly, the effects of the foul-tasting liquid began to take hold. The outline of the jungle started to become more defined and crisper, as did the sounds emanating from it. I started to have clear mental images of a lily floating on very still, crystal clear water. Even now, the image remains with me.

Jason seemed to be having a different experience, in which his hands became very heavy and felt like rocks. This was interesting, because others have spoken of a similar sensation.

The pipe was continually passed around, and my throat felt hoarser everytime I puffed on it. After some time, the shaman offered me another unexpected cup of Ayahuasca. I accepted graciously, but truly dreaded gulping more of the bitter liquid. Again, I swallowed it down, fighting the temptation to regurgitate. Jason followed, but the taste overwhelmed him, and it was immediately expelled.

The effects became more apparent, and I found myself feeling very unsteady, with the jungle seeming far more clear. Jason on the other hand, became convinced that he was going to die. Again, a common reaction.

Finally, after a few hours, the shaman closed the ceremony, by blowing smoke over our heads and shaking those enigmatic leaves, in the belief that it would cleanse our souls of any negativities that may be present. We puffed on the pipe one more time, and headed back to the dugout canoe. I needed to be assisted, as I was unable to walk by myself.

The shaman was perturbed, as I had yet to vomit, which is part of the process. As soon as I reached the canoe, however, the brown fluid exited my body into the river, and reminded me once again, of how bad it tasted.

Back at the place we were staying, we thanked the shaman for his kindness, and immediately headed to our sleeping bags. The effects of the elixir became more apparent at this point, and I began having incredible visuals of being lost in the jungle. Whilst this was occurring, Jason continued to suffer in his own reality.

The next morning, there was no hangover at all. In fact, I felt very fresh, alive and enthused by the whole experience. Both of us appreciated the chance to be privy to this beautiful ritual, and would definitely do it all over again, if an opportunity should arise in the future.

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