“Dona Lucy wants to read your coca leaves,” Sergio informs me. Inside the building at Chakarunas, shaman Dona Lucy sits in a chair with a bag of coca leaves. She is short, cheerful, red-faced and terrifically friendly. I ask her questions. Previously I paid little attention to the coca leaf readings, but then dona Lucy nailed a piece of improbable and very specific information, and I have listened more carefully since. Will a medicine hunter TV show happen this year? What about the maca business? What else does she see? She studies leaves lying in her lap. “Yes, the TV show will happen soon,” she tells me. Dona Lucy brandishes a handful of green coca leaves. “See this? You will have lots of money.” She laughs and squints at the leaves and tosses them again onto the lap of her skirt. She looks at Sergio and me. “And you two will walk many miles together.”
I look at her and laugh loudly, giving a dismissive wave. “Hell, I know that!” She throws me a crooked, affectionate grin.
In Lima we split up for a few days. I am off to Espiritu de Anaconda, outside the Peruvian Amazon city of Iquitos. I go there from time to time to participate in ceremonies with a well regarded Shipibo shaman named Guillermo Arevalo, who is a maestro of ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogenic brew known as “la medicina,” the medicine. I go there because of Guillermo’s fine skills as a shaman, and because of the profound healing and regenerative effects of la medicina.
At the little Iquitos airport I jump into a mototaxi and go south to the Nauta Road, which could easily be renamed the shaman highway. Along its north to south route various people who either are shamans or at least claim to be offer travelers the chance to experience la medicina, ayahuasca. Among places to stay you’ve got highly publicized Blue Morpho, which was featured in National Geographic Adventure, and you have Espiritu de Anaconda, esteemed among the global psychoactive plant cognoscenti. I call it Camp Ayahuasca. One thing is for certain, ayahuasca tourism is in full bloom up and down the Nauta Road. But not all shamans and ayahuasca are worthy. It’s Caveat emptor on the shaman highway.
Once at Camp Ayahuasca, I’m directed to bungalow eleven. I’ve stayed in that cabin a few times, and in a pleasing way it feels a little like home. Zoe and I camped here in July. Bungalow eleven is right next door to where the ayahuasca is made, using the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaf Psychotria viridis. A huge pot of vine and leaves and water is cooked down to a thick, bitter brown brew that looks like gravy. Ayahuasca is the greatest of enigmas. How, in a forest of at least eighty-thousand plants, did anybody figure out to use one particular species of vine and one leaf, cooked down into a concentrated psychoactive potion? The very notion of trial and error falls apart. Shamans uniformly insist that the plants communicate their uses directly.
Among the three nights of ceremonies I participate in, the first is far and away the most powerful. Sitting in the round ceremonial malocca, a building with high screens and a peaked palm roof, Ricardo, one of the shamans there, calls me to him and pours a half glass of the stygian brew, more than the usual dose. I am surprised by the amount, but knock it back quickly. The flavor gets worse every time! I return to my mat, settle in the darkness and wait. The ayahuasca hits my stomach like a Claymore mine. Within two minutes I vomit into a provided plastic bucket. The skin on the back of my neck prickles, and my lower abdomen spasms.
Rapidly visions appear, way too many, way too fast. I see creatures of fantastic shapes and colors, huge rotating translucent neon billboards operated by cyber-robotic alien beings. Serpents, luminous and multi-colored slither, their scales pulsating gold, purple, orange. I have the sense of falling apart in all directions.
I struggle, even though resisting is futile with ayahuasca. La medicina works on every part of the human being, and it treats all resistance the same; it drives right through it. True healing balances the body, mind and spirit with the past, present and future. La medicina will do what it must. The visions intensify; I am reeling. My teeth and gums are humming, my body elongating, dissolving.
I had asked the ayahuasca to help me to open up more to the reserves of vitality and strength within me, and to do it kindly. My visions are never dark or scary, but I feel lost and alone in the tremedum. Ricardo begins to sing the icaros, the healing songs. Like a life preserver to a man overboard the sweet icaros bring me back. Every vowel, every consonant, every shift in the shape of Ricardo’s mouth I hear and feel throughout my entire being. The song is the healing. The icaros are everything in ceremony. They can carry you far out past the shipping lanes, and they can bring you back. In ceremony, you crave the icaros.
Over the course of four rough, ego-shattering hours, the ayahuasca shows me that opening myself to love of Zoe and all others is the sure way to tap my deepest and most vital energetic reserves. The lesson is vivid, technicolor, indelibly imprinted on my psyche. The next two nights are not so hairy, and I am grateful for the power of La medicina, always opening the heart and mind, soothing the body, dissolving burdensome accretions from daily life. Ayahuasca is not for everybody. But for those to whom it calls, its healing powers are magnificent.