I drank a cup of herbal brew
Then the sweetness of the air
Combined with the lightness in my head
And I heard the jungle breathing in the bamboo
— Lyrics from the song Spirit Voices by Paul Simon
By John Otis
IQUITOS, PERU — The first time he drank ayahuasca, an infusion of psychoactive plants considered sacred by Amazonian Indians, Hamilton Souther felt himself falling into a spinning vortex of total insanity.
The California native was deep in the Peruvian Amazon and the dark visions were coming hard and fast. He saw hummingbirds with 30-foot wingspans. A bush turned into a wild boar and began screaming obscenities at him. He puked. He pooped. He prepared to die.
As he tells his story, Souther's audience of two dozen mostly American tourists sitting in a thatched hut in the rain forest remains silent. They're not sure whether to laugh or cry.
They each have paid $1,680 to spend nine days at Souther's Blue Morpho lodge in the Peruvian jungle and to sample the plant potion for themselves.
But this is not some Amazonian Kool-Aid Acid Test and these are not Merry Pranksters.
LSD and other recreational drugs are not for them, and many shun alcohol. Ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s, they work as university professors, marketing executives and environmental activists. Then there's Heather, a tall, muscular woman who competes in Ironman races.
With the help of ayahuasca, they hope to address persistent emotional, physical or psychological afflictions that Western medicine has failed to alleviate. Others seek more spirituality in their lives.
Their guide is Souther, a blond 29-year-old who seems wise beyond his years. Feeling frustrated and lost after studying anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he abruptly moved to Peru in 2001 to learn about medicinal plants alongside Indian curanderos, or medicine men.
A quick study, Souther received the title of master shaman after just 20 months. He then set up Blue Morpho to offer shamanic workshops and ayahuasca ceremonies to outsiders. He has hosted more than 600 tourists in the past two years.
As they listen to Souther's narrative, some of his guests wonder what they've gotten themselves into. His description of ayahuasca coursing through the brain and bloodstream sounds like a kaleidoscopic torture chamber, like Abu Ghraib on angel dust.
But then Souther turns the corner. After hours of sheer terror, he recalls, an Indian shaman blew tobacco smoke over his body and he vomited a gelatinous mass the size of a lemon. From then on, the demons disappeared and he felt enveloped by divine light, in touch with the spirits of every person he had ever known.
"It doesn't have to be hell," Souther assures his guests."These are plants that positively transform people's lives. There is no way to get ayahuasca wrong. Just ask it to help you, and it will."
For centuries, Indians in Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have sought the assistance of the plant they call "the sacred vine of the soul." With the guidance of a shaman, they drink a concoction of ayahuasca vine and other plants to communicate with spirits, travel through time, cleanse their bodies, and relieve a broad range of ailments.
Many Indians view ayahuasca as a continuous vine that stretches back to the beginning of time, an umbilical cord connecting them to their ancestors. A handful of religious sects, like Brazil's União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, consider the plant a sacrament.
Those simply looking to get high have rarely felt the pull of the vine. For one thing, taking ayahuasca usually involves a violent purge from both ends of the body. Then, there's the acrid smell and taste which is like "the entire jungle ground up and mixed with bile," ethnobotanist Wade Davis writes in his book One River.
Mixed with certain foods or recreational drugs, ayahuasca can be toxic, even fatal.
Yet within New Age circles in the United States, the buzz about ayahuasca is growing. About a dozen lodges catering to American pilgrims have sprung up in and around Iquitos, a city of 400,000 that is Peru's main jumping-off point for Amazon River tours.
The business is becoming so popular that, at the Iquitos airport, locals trying to drum up clients for freelance medicine men shout "Ayahuasca! Ayahuasca!" to the tourists exiting the terminal.
The standard Blue Morpho tour involves five ayahuasca ceremonies over nine days. They take place on a 180-acre spread where Souther has put up a series of gorgeous wood-and-thatch buildings, including a massive ceremonial roundhouse.
The furnishings are sparse: mattresses covered with mosquito nets, cold-water showers and kerosene lamps. But outward austerity promotes more focus on the inner journey that's about to begin.
Among the current group of guests, a man from Seattle suffers from depression and wants to kick his prescription drugs. A woman from Chicago wants to communicate with the spirit of her teenaged son who was killed in a car accident. A woman from San Diego talks of revisiting her childhood.
At Blue Morpho, visitors go through the entire process, from gathering the plants to making the infusion.
After fasting most of the day, the guests gather in the roundhouse where they sit on mattresses equipped with toilet paper and plastic buckets in case they need to vomit. Each steps forward to drink a few ounces from a metal cup. Then, the lights go out and Souther and veteran Peruvian shaman Alberto Torres Davila shake leaf rattles and chant icaros, songs to communicate with the spirits and guide people through their mental expeditions.
Soon, the roundhouse fills with the sounds of people burping and retching. Some wail as if possessed by the devil. When they need help, Souther and Torres come forward with soothing advice. No one sees giant hummingbirds, but many guests struggle with nightmarish visions and are exhausted at daybreak.
"Doing ayahuasca is like years of psychotherapy," says Laura Elvins, 40, of Boston, who is back at Blue Morpho for a repeat session. "My friends still think it's kind of nutty, but the changes to my life have been just huge."