Friday, November 04, 2011


“Do you all want to try Ayahuasca?”—in Pascual’s proposition there was no sign of taboo. After a week in the jungle we now felt integrated into the family. We knew the character of each and every child. We knew that Manolo was rowdy and daring, and kept hoping for a smile out of MARCELLI who seemed not to have found in her three years of existence a reason to show facial expressions. We had a special connection with Cristian who had confided in us his reservations about studying in the city, and afterwards had taught us how much he knew about the jungle (we, in an unfair trade, taught him how to play chinchon). We had towering vines cut by machete in order to accept the internal wáter that flows through them, swum in their rivers, and tried all their manjar, accompanying them even in the peculiar banquet of sampling ayangos, giant red ants ingested alive after taking off their wings. In this context the invitation was offered.

We haven’t entered the jungle in search of ayahuasca, but we have seen it. According to Pascual the concoction is a vital part of the Shuar culture. The plant communicates a vision to them that can be about the past, present, or future. Not only adult men take it but also women and children. “When one is little it is possible to have a vision that he or she will live 80 or 100 years or have to kill a man or go to war.”

The jungle is that which gives food to the Shuar and provides them with materials for their huts and canoes. It’s logical as well that the jungle, reconfigured behind the mask of ayahuasca, that guides them in that ritual journey of introspection. They have wandered in the jungle for millennia to come across this hidden compass, the heavenly vine, as its etymology suggests. All of this reveals a know-how, a symbolic domestication and practicality of nature.

 The scheduled night we walked barefoot in the mud-as always- to the family kitchen. When we entered we saw Pascual waiting on us with a serene pose next to the ayahuasca that with much love he had worked on all afternoon. First, he had chosen very carefully the vines. He had cut them in equal parts and next, with his machete, had scraped off the mosses that were adhered to the bark. In order to avoid a “bad dream,” he had imitated his ancestors and wrapped very carefully the green residue and returned them to the jungle. With a large stone he grinded each little trunk, adding a dosage of a leaf of yiaji to each crushed up trunk. In the perpetual fire at the center of the hut he had boiled the potion, surrounded by curious little chickens and his dogs until he obtained a dense syrup.

An inoffensive marmalade. It was this that the amber concentrate seemed when Laura and I accepted our cups. She and I were arriving to this common crossroad of destiny from completely different routes. During her pre-trip life Laura had had an attitude of rejection towards any substance that promised to distort in any way her consciousness. Perhaps the double morale of our contradictory society had worked its way into her, a double standard that breaths a relaxed atmosphere of harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco but catalogues as “dangerous” these substances that are less functional for the production line. Honestly, her impermeability towards any type of temptation had always surprised me. However, it seemed to me that she maintained these barriers because of pride for which her curiosity showed.

Mi case was different. I had never traveled for the hunt of “altered states of consciousness,” but I had tried them out with a collector’s intrigue, with the same ritual inquiry I have when I expose myself to new cultures, languages, and places. I had never pilgrimaged to Catamarca in search of San Pedro that whispers the meaning of my life nor had I spent more than an afternoon in the coffee shops of Amsterdam or Christina. I met many travelers on mystical journeys who traveled all of Latin America with expectations to have magical encounters with some mushroom or plant. Aside from a few exceptional cases, these cases seemed to me a marathon-like catharsis with the urban saturation as a point of refuge. They are valid escapes-but escapes in the end-made by a miserable soul used to moving through the subways and the working around schedules. I had abandoned very early in life that world, with two foundational addictions as my first-time gear: poetry and the road. Perhaps because of having this lifestyle that I had always dreamed—constant travel—I never felt any urgency to dig out secret pockets of the soul in search of other senses. I had had mystical experiences with acids in India and I can say I learned from them, but I wasn’t waiting around for them, but better said had stumbled upon them through opportune invitations.

Now the case was the same. I had stumbled upon ayahuasca and I accepted it calmly. Next to me was Laura in a fix. The stories of “enlightenment” and heightened understanding that we had both heard about were striking to her, but the stories recounted to us about travelers vomiting and defecating themselves upon drinking the concoction instilled fear in her. Perhaps what we shared in common about ayahuasca was that we didn’t expect it to be a delivery of clarity given the uncertainty of our lives.

When Pascual put the cup before me I drank it with respect, following the practiced taught to me by the Russians in order to chug any given drink: exhale all the air and drink the liquid with the instinct of breathing demanded by the lungs. When the cup reached Laura, she was about to reject it. I suppose that Jimena’s, Pascual’s fourteen year old daughter, presence encouraged Laura to drink. In the middle of the Amazon, the brave Laura was putting her consciousness into the hands of a vine.

For a half an hour, both of us felt a certain abdominal discomfort. Pascual watched us quietly as if he were a stone guardian with peace ambushed on his face, almost abstract. Around the light bulb night butterflies fluttered in a fury. Then came the moment that Pascual suggested we return to the house we were staying at in the village. On the way wack, the mud felt morbid, immaterial. Laura vomited on the way. Next to each other inside our tent set up inside the cabin, we both let ourselves go with the plant. I’m not going to talk here about Laura’s visions (see her blog), and I’m afraid that my own are of little inspiration and not so exciting.

As always, I kept my pen and notebook at hand (once in Laos, an involuntary combination of antimalarial medicine and marijuana made me write a kilometric poem). The colors and geometric patterns began to parade around my closed eyelids. In addition, in the old Indochina, an experienced Frenchman swore to me that ayahuasca submerged itself into a person without piety in the depths of miseries. I believed I maintained a level of acceptable coherence in my life and I left the plant to be the judge. Think about my mistakes, I supposed I could be judged based on my exaggerated love of the road, for having left behind my studies, for being almost a stranger to my nieces and nephews (whose birthdays I sometimes remember), for taking my stories and the social journey as sacred.

But such a judgment never came. Geometric figures, snakes, masks that seemed to be molded in African ebony appeared and dissolved. Fractal outlines, multiples of themselves. Among all this picturesque carnival I managed to see cursive letters drawn in the void. Later, I saw the cover of my own book, Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil. Suddenly, a map of South America appeared next to it, and it was being filled with cursive writing that was now more intense and fierce. In those days I had certain minor dilemmas about how to fit all the realities and challenges of such an extensive continent. Latin America, for me, was infinite, and we were too curious for our own good wandering around this region. I felt then that the plant was advising me to limit the next book to South America in order to give more protagonism to each story and each struggle.

Speaking of struggles, soon after surged a sequence that both Laura and I shared. In a painting, the Shuar were coming out of the bushes of the jungle waving their spears and blowpipes, closing in files against the threat of mining companies. Their faces looked painted as if in signal of war and they adorned themselves with feathers. Among them, to my greatest surprise, was I, also holding a spear (then I remembered that Florentino, another Shuar, had given me the nickname Nanki, or “spear”). In the background the phrase “You’ll never convince us” resonated.

Those two visions were the clearest. During the four hours that the effect lasted, neither of us lost lucidity. At most we were slightly dazed. In the morning I asked Pascual if maybe I had had a lower dosage than Laura. He responded to me what I had already suspected: the plant chooses, if there were no more visions it was because I didn’t need them.

The human mind is like an onion with different levels of consciousness, an infinity of internal folds. For a system that values the dog-like attention of the individual to the orders of a boss, substances like ayahuasca or marijuana can implicate a threat to this system´s foundation. The alteration of consciousness is produced, and at much more embarrassing and pernicious levels, during the excess of alcohol, a venerated and promoted state from the age of fifteen and up. But it is accepted because it permits a letting-go of tension and anxiety generated by consumerism and because of that contributes to its continuity. When the alteration of consciousness, in turn, is accompanied by dangerous learning that may challenge or contest the established order, then we work for the imposition of discredited labels. It doesn’t matter what the manuals of the efficient contributor to society say, the plant has earned itself a spot in the world. It has been officially declared Cultural Patrimony of Peru, and it is used by some psychiatrists to treat phobias. I interpret the disinterested offering of the Shuar and a petition for alliance given their problems (thus the vision of the spear).

If you, the unknown reader, are considering the option of going off to the jungle in search of the wisdom of this plant, don’t forget that you will be using for your benefit an element of its culture. Your ethic will tell you until what point you deserve to indulge in these fruits without knowing the strength of the roots. The Amazon is, to use chess terms, in check, and it is much more than ayahuasca: it is depredation, mining companies, and multinational oil companies. You can see here our humble attempt of giving back to our Shuar friends. Happy travels!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been following your adventures for a bit now. I love how respectful you are of everything, and how wonderful the writing is. It was really interesting to read about your hallucinogenic trip and how it wasn't necessarily what you expected. I liked how it was explained to you, that it chose to only show you what you needed. Fantastic. Best of luck in your adventures!