As I gazed into the little white plastic cup of dark chocolate-colored, viscous liquid, I felt the familiar grip of terror in my gut. This was yagé, also known as ayahuasca, the Amazonian root used in shamanistic ceremonies and brought to the world’s attention by that great drug hound, William Burroughs, in his book with Allen Ginsburg, “The Yage Letters.”
As the Cofán shaman blew strongly over the cup, I took those few seconds to contemplate how I had managed to find myself here. In June 2013, after more than a year on the road, from Bangkok to Bogotá, I received a Facebook message from my friend Victoria, whom I had met in Iraq almost a decade ago. She was in Colombia and asked me if I wanted to take part in a yagé ceremony.
Victoria: Hola! Did you do the Yaje (sic) yet? I am doing it on saturday evening in Pasto... you are welcome to join. Don't listen to urban people scared of their own shadow, it will be fantastic, and with a Taita [shaman]. … you drink a hallocenogenic (sic) potion, and you go on a "journey"
Sounded good! I told her I was up for it and prepared by abstaining from alcohol, coffee, red meat, and sex for two days prior to the ceremony. I ate lightly so as not to burden my G-I tract with material for the yagé to work with (throwing up is an integral part of the experience). I then took a 22-hour bus ride from Bogotá to the south of Colombia.
Like most bus rides, and especially 22-hour bus rides, it was a miserable trip. By the time I arrived in Pasto, a cool and pleasant little burg just two hours north of the Ecuadorian border, I was weak, dehydrated and starving. In short, I was ready for a spiritual journey.
A few hours after de-busing I found myself standing before a makeshift bar being handed this powerful narcotic with the consistency and appearance of light, sweet crude oil. About 40 adults, teenagers, and even a few small children from the surrounding area joined us. This was a religious ceremony for the people of the area, and it was a jarring mix of pre-Spanish indigenous beliefs and practices, and Catholicism.
The ceremony took place in the Casa del Tigre y la Boa (“The House of the Tiger and the Snake”), a shamanic lodge set in the hills outside Pasto, in a long, low wooden structure, with several rows of cheap plastic chairs and two fire pits set up at either end inside. It was dark and somewhat stuffy, and it was “home” to a troupe of six. The Cofán shamans run these ceremonies for the locals and, yes, tourists. Yagé trips have become popular with a certain breed of travelers seeking inspiration, spiritual catharsis, or just a really strong head trip. Burroughs may have been one of the first outsiders to come seeking the effects of this mysterious root, but he certainly wasn’t the last.
While Burroughs may have popularized yagé for the Beat Generation, the 19th-century Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio was probably the first non-indigenous person to describe it:
Its action appears to excite the nervous system; all the senses liven up and all faculties awaken; they feel vertigo and spinning in the head, then a sensation of being lifted into the air and beginning an aerial journey; the possessed begins in the first moments to see the most delicious apparitions, in conformity with his ideas and knowledge: the savages (apparently the Zaparo of eastern Ecuador) say that they see gorgeous lakes, forests covered with fruit, the prettiest birds who communicate to them the nicest and the most favorable things they want to hear, and other beautiful things relating to their savage life. When this instant passes they begin to see terrible horrors out to devour them, their first flight ceases and they descend to earth to combat the terrors who communicate to them all adversities and misfortunes awaiting them.
Many indigenous people believe consuming yagé opens up pathways to the spirit world, and allows conversations with these spirits. The physical root and leaves themselves are just the physical manifestation of the spirit. Consuming yagé is believed to be a general cure-all for almost anything: cancer, depression, alcoholism, etc.
I learned this while I spent three hours or so huddled around one fire pit—its coals burning dimly, but hotly—chatting with Manolo, a kind of apprentice shaman who helped me with Spanish and tried to prepare me for my conversation with yagé.
“The yagé will show you what is wrong in your life,” he said. “But it won’t lecture you. It won’t be angry with you. If you are doing bad things—drugs, drinking, smoking—it will just show you the bad things you are doing.”
Manolo told me how when he was 18, he “talked” with the spirit of yagé for the first time and it showed him—gently, like a concerned older brother—that his excessive drinking and smoking was harmful to him and his family. He says he hadn’t smoked or drunk alcohol since. And he did seem to have a sublime countenance. His smile was gentle and wise. He made me feel comfortable with my own apprehensions.
“You will see,” he said.
That’s what I was concerned about.
Finally, it was time. Like it was a hot tea, the shaman behind the bar blew twice over the rim of the cup—it was just like the ones used to dispense pills in hospitals—crossed himself and handed it to me. A film of the stuff dripped down the side, and I could see its gritty texture. It was dark and shiny, and had a faint chocolate smell. I held it up to my face and thought, this is it.
I had been warned by accounts on the Internet that drinking this would mean a long night of vomiting, purging, and possibly terrifying hallucinations. Taita Lorenzo Morales, who appeared to be the most respected of the shamans in the group, in a prayer before the ceremony had instructed us all to think on God. Victoria said it would save me 10 years of therapy. Håkon, a Norwegian psychologist friend, said I would need therapy afterwards.
Finally, after an eternity—lasting maybe two seconds—I did what I usually do when faced with fear squatting in my stomach. “Fuck it,” I said, and drank down the tiny cup as deeply as I could.
It was possibly the vilest stuff I’ve ever consumed. Not only did it look like and have the texture of crude oil, it tasted like it had been recently drilled. I gagged and immediately reached for the tin cup of water to the side, trying desperately to either wash the taste out of my mouth or at least down my throat where I couldn’t taste it anymore. And then, I waited.
Ayahuasca/yagé is a psychoactive brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. There are many different ways to prepare it, but shamans usually pound the ayahuasca vine into a mush with stones and then boil it with the leaves of other plants for several hours. It’s unclear how indigenous people discovered the mixture, but local tribes often say they received instructions directly from the plant, which is why taking the stuff is often called “talking with yagé” or with the spirits of yagé. The vine and the ceremony are deeply entwined with South American indigenous religions of the Amazon. Area shamans have used it for centuries to communicate with the spirit world.
I was thinking of none of this, however. After the initial, gag-inducing swallows, I waited for the purge. Throwing up is an integral part of the ceremony, and shamans encourage it. Outside the lodge, running along its perimeter, was a small ditch lined by posts topped by a chest-high wooden beam. When we felt the need to vomit, the shamans told us, that bar-and-ditch set-up was for us.
I wrapped my poncho around me for warmth and waited in the quiet darkness. Prior to our consumption, the lights in the lodge were turned off and we were asked to turn off any cellphones. Anyone wishing to chat should go outside, but for the moment, the only sounds in the lodge were the shuffling and sniffling of people waiting to puke. The fire pit’s coals glowed dimly, barely illuminating the cheeks and lips of the men huddled around it and a single candle at the bar cast dancing shadows on the curved, canvas ceiling.
Every now and then someone, quietly and with purpose, would rise and exit the lodge. The soft sounds of retching filtered back into the black stillness.
Soon enough, I felt my own guts rebelling and stepped out into the crystalline Andean night. Pasto is almost 8,300 feet up in the mountains, so it was cold and crisp, with a blaze of stars across the sky. I leaned back against the wooden barf-bar and gazed up. A shooting star flickered above me and vanished in an instant. I then turned around and, in an ecstatic convulsion, puked.
My preparations served me well. Mine was a gentle and (relatively) quiet barf. It was over quickly, and I felt the familiar feeling of relief that comes when you expel something from your gut. But this time, I felt it wasn’t the ayahuasca (or even the light salad) that I had purged, but something deeper and more profound.
At this point, I should clarify something. I’m an atheist. I don’t put much stock in spiritual explanations for things. I like the idea of some ethereal connecting tissue that ties us together and to the natural world, but I’ve never much felt anything like that.
But as more and more people began their trip, there was no question that the atmosphere developing in the lodge was … different. The air felt more solid, almost vibrating gently against my eyes and eardrums. After about an hour of this, the shamans began chanting and stamping around. Taita Morales, the chief shaman, danced in circles and chanted in Cofán, emitting a nasal drone that veered between the sounds of mountain thunder against rocky cliffs and ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” From outside, and through the frosted windows of the lodge, I thought I heard rumbles and bright flashes. Then I realized I wasn’t imagining it; I really was seeing and hearing these things.
I walked out and looked up at the Colombian night. Fireworks. Fireworks! Ours was not the only religious ceremony going on that night. The local churches were celebrating The Feast of Corpus Christi by launching brilliantly exploding rockets into the night. I was soon joined by about 10 other spirit-trippers and we watched the boom and flash from the celebrants from the hills below us.
You would think that watching fireworks while tripping would make for some pretty excellent visions, no? For me, however: nothing. While others around me huffed and puffed in their internal journey, sweated and moaned, and gazed, wild-eyed, into the fires we built to stay warm, I felt … calm, like I was having a dream in which I could not sleep.
As the night wore on, I grew reflective amid a cozy serenity, and relaxed into the larger community. I belonged. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t speak the language; I was a part of a one-night family. Had I finally found that spiritual connecting tissue that for years had eluded me?
That night, I spent a lot of time waiting for the dawn, thinking and staring into the fires. I huddled as close to the embers as I could. When you’re physically and mentally exhausted, there are few things so soothing as watching a fire, feeling its heat and settling into the warmth of other human beings doing the same thing. The coals in the heart of the blaze glowed like quartz crystals lit from within, and the occasional crack of a log sent sparks spiraling into the black sky, rivaling the fireworks from earlier.
As I soaked up the warmth and the dim glow of the fire, which pushed back the night, I thought, wasn’t all religion just an overly ornamented evolution of fire worship? Fire first gave us comfort against the cold, light against the darkness, a giver of both life and death. It was capricious and cruel in how it could burn us and yet it was also our salvation against the savagery of raw nature.
Fire is often a symbol for divinity—holy fire, fire in the sky, burning bushes—but what if, I thought, it was the other way around? What if it was the divine being who was a symbol for the original object of worship: the flame? And wasn’t fire the first step in civilizing ourselves? The divine spark (there’s that fire again) that many believe makes us human is also what powered many of our most artistic inspirations (a word that literally means “to breathe into”). And what do we do to kindle fire? We blow into the coals.
As dawned crept over the eastern hills, Taita Morales and the other shamans called us inside. It was time for the cleansing part of the ceremony and Victoria and I, along with half of the crowd, lined up on facing benches. Most were told to take off our shirts and jackets down to their bare chests. (The ladies got to keep their bras on, and I noticed most of the women asked to strip down were young and pretty.) Victoria and I were spared that, at least, but we were down to T-shirts and thin blouses. Morales said something and crossed himself.
“He said to think of God,” Victoria said, as we shivered in the early chill.
“God, I’m cold,” I answered, goose pimples already rising on my arms.
From there, it was a musical fiesta, with the two shamans on guitar, another banging a drum with a jaunty syncopation, and Morales and one other beating us with leaves while the final shaman moved behind each celebrant, filled his mouth with water and then spritzed everyone with the sound of a breaching whale.
Several of the young people were given special attention by Morales and the spritzing shaman. The idea behind this part of the ceremony was to cleanse negative energy generated by doing “bad things” as Manolo told me before all this started.
Shamanism isn’t about saving your immortal soul so much as it is about getting results. Have a child who you suspect is running with the wrong crowd? Let a shaman wave vine leaves over her and enforce a little semi-public shaming. If the kid thinks no one knows what they’re up to—maybe a secret boyfriend or sneaking cigarettes and booze—they’ll probably think, Oh, shit, the shaman communes with spirits; he knows! While no specific wrongdoing is called out, village elders still command respect here and if they wag a finger at youthful transgressions, that might be enough to get the kid to tone it down a bit.
Before we left, Balmas, a shaman with the doleful expression of a basset hound and the tonsure of a saint, took Victoria and me aside and explained that this particular mixture of ayahuasca didn’t usually produce visions on the first trip, that it was a gentler, more reflective spirit that urged you to think on your life, your family, and your relationships. As Victoria translated, I stared at him, surprised because that’s exactly what had happened to me all night.
And as we left, spears of sunlight painted the top of the nearby volcano Galeras. Dawn had finally come.