The first ceremony was held outside under the stars. By 9:00 pm, all participants had assembled and taken their places on straw mats that were arranged under and around a large canvas tarp that provided shade during the day and protection for a bank of electronic equipment in case of rain. My shoulders and head extended beyond the edge of the tarp, so I had a clear view of the sky. The ayahuasqueros took up their positions in the open center of the rectangle formed by group. Don Guillermo and Riccardo sat with their backs to one another. They indicated with a nod of the head for each member of the group to approach and drink the ayahuasca they poured from a plastic bottle into a small cup. When it was my turn, I knelt in the white sand before Riccardo, took the cup he held out to me, and drank. The ayahuasca that had been boiling in a large black kettle all day did not taste as bad as some people reported. In fact, I found it went down smoothly. After swallowing my portion in one gulp, I returned to my mat and sat watching the others get up, drink their cup, and return to their spots. After everyone had drunk, I closed my eyes, cleared my mind of thought, and waited. I felt no anxiety. I was confident in Riccardo and Don Guillermo's ability to hold the space for such a large group.
I started to feel the effects approximately five to ten minutes later. My stomach began to rumble a little and I belched a few times. I sat with my eyes closed and felt the ayahuasca spreading through my system. By the time the ayahuasqueros began singing their icaros, the visions had begun. I could feel the snake energy coursing through my body as though I were traveling on a cosmic subway train through my intestinal tract. I felt as though I had entered a subterranean world of fibrous roots and rich loamy earth. The snakes felt thick and large as they squirmed through my bowels. Riccardo's icaros, sung in a much deeper register than Don Guillermo's, along with the body music my neighbors provided (burps, farts, and vomiting) proved the perfect accompaniment to the serpents' wriggling dance. It was snake music--gititupgititupgititupgititupgititup--and it seemed a strong invitation to puke your guts out, which is exactly what one poor guy did all night long. This is why ayahuasca is referred to as la purga--people were heaving into the plastic buckets we were all instructed to carry with us at all times. Welcome to the vomitorium. The thought made me smile.
There were fuzzy little micro-organisms scurrying down root filaments in my mind's eye. The subway train I was on would slow down when it approached a platform and I could see posters of mandalas hanging in a freize across the walls of the station. Glass sliding doors were stenciled Enter and Exit, but the train only slowed down and then picked up again. It didn't stop for me to disembark and explore the dimly lit spaces beyond the platform. I was growing impatient staring at the billboards and wanted to be shown something a bit more extraordinary--an alien saucer, a crystal palace, the galactic mother--something a little less pedestrian than advertisements, but I was stuck on the train, so I settled in for the ride.
I held healing intentions for the people I know whose bodies have been stricken with disease or whose minds have been afflicted by psychic trauma. I wanted these people healed, all people healed, my own body healed, the planet healed. And the plant obviously understood and shared my intentions. My cousin, the person who first excited my interest in psychedelics while I was just a kid in high school, told me he had been diagnosed with rectal cancer a week before I left for Peru. He had already started chemo and radiation treatments when I boarded the plane. The day I returned, he told me about a dream he had while I was in the jungle. It was more a vision than a dream, and it woke him up. His first thought was that it must be some type of telepathic message from me. I think he's right. He dreamt of a stallion and a mare copulating in a field filled with plants with spiky leaves, like cactus. The plants had eyes and mouths, and they were singing songs in a strange language. Unidentified onlookers were cheering in the scene, as the mare was mounted. Root chakra stuff. Perhaps that's the energy field through which I traveled while riding the underground subway. Anyway, I discovered during the conference that there are plants used to cure cancer, that can draw a tumor out of the body when applied as a poultice, and that the animal spirit associated with one of these plants (pinon blanco, I think) is the horse. An interesting connection.
My guts were really twisting at the peak of this experience. The explosive vomiting coming from all around was amplified. The icaros were weaving together in beautifully intricate, hypnotic, contrapuntal melodies. Don Guillermo's mother Maria added her icaros to the mix, her high pitched voice like the thin whine of a mosquito stitching the songs together. I didn't know how much longer I could last before soiling my pants, so I opened my eyes, grabbed my bucket, and headed down the moonlit path to the toilet. With eyes open, I was totally aware of my physical surroundings, aware of my identity, in control of my body. I felt no queasiness in my stomach, no urge to vomit. The discomfort I felt was centered in my intestinal tract. Since I've been taking medication to control Crohn's disease for more than twenty-five years, this type of discomfort came as no surprise to me. Ayahuasca is medicine. It went to work on what was ailing me, that's for certain. After a few gushes of diarrhea, I felt considerably better, even though my guts were still gurgling. A circle of bright light emanated from the moon in feathery shafts, forming a glowing halo. The moon, like an eye above cheeks of cloud, looked down at me as I looked up. I found my way back to the ceremonial space with no problem, without need of a flashlight. The white sand of the paths that led throughout the conference center was luminescent as though lit by a black light, recalling a few rock clubs I frequented back in the late 60's and early 70's. There were patterns in the trees that surrounded me. Some participants saw spirits in the trees, the shapes of animals. To me the trees seemed to be floating in separate planes, layered one in front of the other, like three nearly transparent sheets of paper: near, middle, and far--kind of like colorform stickers that children paste on a page to make a picture.
When I got back to my mat, the heavy internal body sensations I was experiencing made me woozy. I sat cross-legged for a while, watching Riccardo and Don Guillermo make their rounds, squatting in front of people, blowing mapacho smoke into their crown chakras, and chanting. I lay back on my mat, my head on a small pillow, and covered myself with the small blue airline blanket Delta had kindly supplied. You could tell when one of the curanderos was approaching your position. The song deepened and intensified, as did the energy in that space. I found out later, that curanderos can see the energy patterns of a person's body. They are similar to the patterns found in Shipibo weavings, which are visual representations of the icaros the shamans receive directly from the plant and sing throughout the ceremony. A skilled shaman can redraw those patterns, like an artist with a brush transforming some visual element in a painting, by employing shamanic techniques such as chanting, blowing into the opening of a plactic bottle, as well as laying on of hands. Some of the healing going on is evident in the visions people report. One participant had his body unseamed in a surgical procedure and sewn up again after some vile black substance was removed by spirit hands. So the healing that's going on is happening on various levels--the physical, the psychic, the emotional. How strange to be consciously aware of these states and to be able to navigate through them.
I was told that Don Guillermo had circled the entire group at least four times during the night, blowing smoke and chanting beside each participant in the ceremony. I could see that Riccardo was doing the same, working his side of the street, holding the space, his voice a register lower than Don Guillermo's rich tenor, his pulsing bass rhythms a counterpoint to Maria's delicate, finely-pitched tremulo. I listened to their musical performance until I fell asleep. I was told that I was snoring. I figure my snores were just another added voice in the chorus. At least I wasn't shouting for help, as some of the others had done throughout the night. There was an occasional verbal outbusrst, someone cursing out his mother, another exorcising his own tormenting demon with his cries. Not everyone had a smooth or pleasant ride. A few people chose not to participate in the third ceremony because their experience had been too intense both physically and psychologically for them to continue.
My mindset at the start of the ceremony was to approach it in a sacred manner. It had been my intention to bring a pure heart, an open mind, and no expectations to these ceremonies and to be receptive to whatever happened, no matter how bizarre. I felt no fear or anxiety at all. This posture seemed to serve me well. I felt welcomed into the weirdly beautiful realm of the plants, insects, and snakes.