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I held the little bamboo cup with both hands and quickly gulped down the thick, dark liquid. The bitter taste in my mouth was repellent, and I tried to wash it down with some water as soon as I sat back down on the wooden floor of the ceremonial hut in the Colombian Amazon.
“You should be feeling the effect of the ayahuasca in about twenty minutes,” the shaman named William told us in Spanish. “If you don’t feel anything then, I’ll give you some more.”
He then pointed to my left, where on one side of the hut, the wooden wall was only chest high, above that it was open until the ceiling, like a window, but without glass.
“You’re very likely to throw up when the ‘medicine’ begins to work. If you feel it coming, throw up out the window.”
He then turned his headlamp off, the only source of light in the hut, and the four of us were suddenly sitting in the pitch black dark, cross-legged, waiting for the ‘medicine’, as William called it, to work.Ayahuasca. A plant that grows only in the Amazon and which, brewed into a tea, is famous for its ability to open a door to another reality, to access a part of your brain that is normally not used. In the countries where ayahuasca can be found – Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia – the plant has been used for centuries by shamans to cure sicknesses and to open your mind to another dimension.
The brew, for which the ayahuasca vine is combined with the DMT-containing chacruna leaves, is a very strong hallucinogenic. Because it contains DMT (a psychedelic tryptamine compound found in around 60 plants on the planet, and which is illegal in the U.S.) and is highly visionary for some people, ayahuasca has become somewhat of a cool way to ‘go on a trip’ over the past few years.
Now you don’t need to fly all the way to the Amazon to attend an ayahuasca ceremony – you can also experience it in an apartment in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Berlin. Indigenous people, however, regard the calling of ayahuasca as a drug derogatory.I was not looking for some sort of hallucinogenic trip, having never experimented with DMT-containing drugs in my life and apart from a couple of times in my early 20s, I have never felt the urge to try drugs in general. When my friend asked me if I wanted to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony, I was equally as intrigued as terrified. But the fact that I was intrigued and even considering it made me realize that something inside of me had shifted.
The first time I had heard about ayahuasca was when I had traveled in Peru in 2014, and back then, I found the whole thing just frightening. Never in my life would I do something like that, I thought to myself back then after reading a few first-hand experiences of other travelers and the short rundown of ayahuasca in my guidebook. Peru in particular is famous for its ayahuasca ceremonies, with people flying down from the States for weeklong ayahuasca cleanses. Because that’s what the brew, also called Yage, is supposed to do: cleanse you. Not your body, but your mind. From all the emotional baggage you are carrying, from traumatic experiences you can’t let go off, even from mental illnesses like depression.
I am certainly not suffering from depression, but as most of us, I’ve got a fair amount of emotional baggage. Several of the articles I read about ayahuasca ceremonies mentioned that one night of ayahuasca would equal ten years of therapy – how could I not be intrigued? Other articles called ayahuasca a life changing experience, a way to overcome fears you believe impossible to overcome, a way to face your biggest demons.In one of the best articles on ayahuasca I’ve read, Kira Salek writes: ‘All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced – literally – to face his or her demons’.
While I was reading about it (I must have read every article on ayahuasca ceremonies on the internet, and watched every documentary I could find on YouTube), I came across the statement that you shouldn’t be looking for ayahuasca, but that the medicine will find you when you are ready for it.
And that’s when I decided I would take part in the ceremony. I hadn’t been looking for it, but the opportunity presented itself to me. I was willing to do it, no matter how bad the demons were that I would be facing, no matter how deeply upsetting the experience could be.
Because you simply don’t know what the plant will reveal.
Some people said they were reliving moments from their childhood they had long forgotten about, some even said they were experiencing their own birth from the perspective of an onlooker. Where would my ayahuasca journey lead me?The first place it led me to was William’s hut in the middle of the jungle, somewhere outside of the small town of Leticia in the Colombian Amazon. My friend and I had taken a local bus for half an hour, asked to be dropped off on the side of the road where a small dirt path led into the jungle.We followed the muddy jungle path until the last houses disappeared out of our rear view, walking deeper and deeper into the jungle, the path narrowing more and more, and getting muddier the further we went. After nearly an hour, we finally reached William’s jungle home: a couple of wooden huts, a large circular structure with a thatched roof where the family cooks and works – like is common in this part of Colombia – and a covered area with a few hammocks where we would be sleeping after the ceremony.
William introduced himself, wearing regular clothes, including big rubber boots, and I couldn’t help but think: That’s not how I pictured a shaman. He told us to rest until he would come and get us for the ceremony later that night. There were four of us: a German (me), a Spaniard, an Italian and a French person. An international group, two girls and two boys, all four of us from different backgrounds and walks of life. The only thing we had in common was that we were looking for answers, and we were hoping that this ayahuasca ceremony would give them to us.
While we were waiting for the sun to set, I turned into a bundle of nerves. I tried to ignore my rumbling tummy, because you are not supposed to eat anything 24 hours before drinking the brew, to ensure the ‘medicine’ would have its full effect. In addition, you are not supposed to have caffeine, dairy, gluten, sugar, meat, spicy food, alcohol and sex for a week before taking ayahuasca.I tried to calm myself: The plant had found me. I was supposed to be here. When I started my travels through Colombia I had no desire and no plans to visit the Amazon, and yet here I was, with someone I trusted, and I felt like we were supposed to cross paths just so that I would have this experience. I know how hokey pokey this must sound, because I am admittedly not a very spiritual person, but I really felt that the only reason I had boarded that plane to the Amazon – a spontaneous decision – was to participate in this ceremony.
These were also the thoughts that were running through my mind as I was sitting on the floor of William’s jungle hut later that night, waiting for the yage to kick in. ‘I am supposed to be here’, I kept telling myself, wondering what the plant would reveal for me. Would this be a life changing experience for me?
While we were all lost in our thoughts, William, who had changed into a more shamanic outfit with white pants and a white shirt before the ceremony, had started to sing shamanic chants accompanied by shaman rattles, mixed with shamanic drumming. These chants call upon healing spiritual powers, some of them are supposed to render the mind susceptible for visions, others are calling the plant spirits for healing, and others are calling the spirit animals for protection.The music started to get louder and louder inside my head, and it now sounded as if there was was an entire village population playing instruments, and not just one person. I opened my eyes to see if there were other musicians in the room, but it was pitch black, I couldn’t see anything. I turned my head towards the open window, where I could make out the silhouettes of the trees and jungle plants, vaguely lit up by the moon.
A million things ran through my mind, and with every new thought I had I asked myself if I was thinking about this particular thing because of the ayahuasca or simply because I was sitting around waiting for something to happen.
All of a sudden, I felt sick to my stomach. At first, my hands were trembling, my lips were shaking, and then quickly, my entire body was shivering. I was freezing cold. This feeling was anything but pleasant. I was hoping that it would pass, but I couldn’t stop shivering. And then there it was: the urgent need to throw up. When it overcame me, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it over to the window, that’s how weak I felt. But somehow I stumbled over to the big hole in the wall, my hands reaching the ledge just in time before what can be described best as projectile vomiting began.I threw up vigorously, emptying my stomach out into the darkness of the jungle. I threw up over and over again, until there was nothing left inside of me.
The vomiting, politely referred to as purging in the world of ayahuasca, was part of the ceremony. I had read that this is supposed to clean your body completely, clean it from all the evil and bad and the toxins that has accumulated inside of it over the years. The thought of this being a cleanse was what kept me going through every puke spell, with tears running down my face, because that’s how fierce the throwing up was. There is only one thing in the world that tasted worse than ayahuasca, and that is ayahuasca thrown up.
I slowly made my way back to the middle of the room, but I was staggering so much that I decided I should instead lean on the back wall of the hut, giving my body additional support. I sat down, still shivering, still tasting the bitter taste of the ayahuasca in the back of my mouth. I was waiting for visions to start, to have some revelations, to take a journey into my sub-consciousness, or maybe re-live a traumatic childhood memory I had buried deep in the back of my mind.
But nothing happened.Instead, I kept feeling dead sick, and I started to wonder if I’d survive the long way back to the closest hospital, which was in Leticia. There were no rescue helicopters here that could get me there quickly. Nobody even knew where exactly I was. I pictured myself crawling on all fours through the jungle back to the main road, trying to get to a doctor. For a moment I was convinced I would not survive the night, and started to spend a lot of time thinking about my family and all of the things I felt I should have told them before leaving them behind.
All of a sudden, I heard the familiar sound of someone throwing up. It was now the Italian girl who was puking, but she seemed fine and sat back down quickly. After her, the French guy headed to the window. William asked the Italian boy if he was okay, since he was the only one who hadn’t thrown up yet. The shaman offered him another cup of the brew, but he declined. Nobody wanted a re-fill of this disgusting tasting drink.
William continued to chant and drum, and I continued to sit there and try to distract myself from feeling like I was dying. The feeling reminded me of how I felt when I was 21 and lived in Ibiza, and my friend fed me half an ecstasy pill on an empty stomach. That had been such a horrible trip that I had vowed to never take ecstasy again – something I’ve stuck to until this very day.A little bit later, the Spaniard announced that he needed some air and that he would step outside for a bit. I remembered reading about a boy who had stripped off of his clothes during an ayahuasca ceremony and ran out into the jungle, completely naked, and gotten lost. We’ll probably never see the Italian again, I thought to myself, there are probably jaguars out there in the jungle, and poisonous snakes and spiders.
After what seemed like an eternity, the Italian guy still not having returned, the shaman announced he’d step outside as well to check in on the Italian. The drumming and chanting stopped and the three of us were sitting in absolute silence. The sound of the jungle – crickets, birds, frogs and other animals – seemed to multiply ten-fold, just as the instruments and chanting had seemed to me earlier.
William returned after a while and announced that he had drunk a little too much of the medicine, asking if we could spare some water for him. That is exactly what you don’t want to hear while you’re on ayahuasca: that the person who is in charge of the ceremony is unwell. The shamans drink the brew as well in order to open their minds to a third dimension and to guide us on our spiritual journey, but their role is also to help us in case we encounter a particularly bad evil spirit, that we are unable to handle by ourselves.William checked in on us occasionally, calling us by our names and asking if we were okay. The Spaniard returned to the hut, assuring the shaman he was fine. The Italian girl and the French boy were both quiet, I had no idea if they were experiencing any visions or felt the effect of the ‘medicine’.
I thought to myself that we had to be about halfway through the four-hour ceremony and decided to lay down on the floor, since I still felt terribly sick, almost like I was on a boat that was swaying from side to side. Instead of facing my inner demons or having a grand spiritual awakening, I was just lying on the dirty wooden floor, waiting for this misery to be over. This was not how I had pictured my encounter with ayahuasca.
Finally William announced it was time to conclude the ceremony. He came to each one of us individually, chanting and giving us blessings, thanking Mama ayahuasca for leading us through this journey.All four of us walked over to the hammocks, none of us talking. I tried to swallow my disappointment about the experience that had been so not what I had been expecting. I thought for sure that I would have a life-changing experience, battling demons, facing a long forgotten childhood trauma and coming out of it as a new, better, grown person.
As I was continuing my journey through the Colombian Amazon a few days later, I tried to get over the sadness about the non-occurring revelations and realizations by reminding myself that many people don’t have any visions during their first ayahuasca experience.
A few weeks later though, it suddenly hit me: Something that had weight heavily on my heart for a long time had disappeared. Before the ceremony, I regularly found myself thinking about a certain thing that gave me grief, but that I couldn’t do anything about it. But that day I noticed that I hadn’t thought about it for weeks. Maybe William had been right when he told me the morning after the ceremony: “Dani, you threw up so much, you had many demons inside your body. But you cleansed yourself entirely of them.”
You want to try ayahuasca? Here are a few things you should know:
1 Do your research
Ayahuasca has become so trendy in recent years that it has caused a growing number of fake shamans who try to benefit from the increased interest in ayahuasca ceremonies. If you visit Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, you’ll see posters and announcements for ayahuasca retreats throughout town. Make sure to research the shaman or retreat provider, ask other travelers for recommendations. There have been several incidents, including deaths, during ayahuasca ceremonies in the past few years – see below.
2 The dark side of ayahuasca
Be aware that an ayahuasca ceremony shouldn’t be treated lightly. It can be a deeply disturbing experience, but there are also many reports of sexual harassment by female solo travelers, so if anything feels off, get out of there as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t have done the ceremony by myself, I only did it because I was with someone who I trusted.
3 Further reading
Read up on ayahuasca before simply signing up for a ceremony, only because you can now do them in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. This is NOT some sort of drug trip but is supposed to be a spiritual, cleansing, and sometimes cathartic experience.
I recommend reading:
- Hell and back (originally published in National Geographic Adventure) by Kira Salak – the best, well-researched and informative piece on ayahuasca I’ve found.
- Ayahuasca: The Drug Of Choice In The Age Of Kale – to give you an idea what an ayahuasca experience in the U.S. is like
(There are plenty of other good articles in publications like the New York Times, The Guardian, Elle, Vice, Cosmopolitan, LA Weekly – read as much as you can.)
4 The Amazon vs. the U.S.
No matter if you live in Brooklyn, Berlin or San Francisco, chances are that you can experience an ayahuasca ceremony there instead of having to travel thousands of miles into the Amazonian jungle to find a shaman. However, after reading a couple of articles by people who partook in ceremonies in the U.S. (see above), I cannot imagine the experience in somebody’s apartment or a yoga studio would have the same impact as a ceremony at the source of the vine: in the Amazon. I personally think that if you are looking for a possibly life-changing, healing experience, you should look into ayahuasca retreats in the Amazon, ideally retreats over several days with various ceremonies, in case the ayahuasca doesn’t reveal its full effect immediately, like in my case.
5 Keep your expectations low
Since my ceremony, I’ve met several people who didn’t have revelationary experiences like Kira Salak had during her retreats (see article Hell and Back). But since I had read about her incredibly powerful ayahuasca journey, as well as several other, similarly cathartic experiences, my expectations for the night were very high, and weren’t necessarily met. I recommend keeping your expectations low in order to avoid disappointment.
*** Side note: I took most of the photos on the morning after the ceremony and they turned out completely blurry, which perfectly sums up how I experienced my first ayahuasca ceremony: in a blurry haze.