Despite the nearly unbearable muggy weather, I put on a long-sleeve shirt and long trousers in an attempt to avoid mosquito attack as I walk to the long house. Transformed since the afternoon, it’s bare of table, chairs and hammocks. In their place, three mattresses lie on the wood-slatted floor. Beside each is a cup of water, toilet paper and plastic bowl (lovingly referred to as a “puke bucket”). In front of the mattresses are two rocking chairs surrounded by numerous bottles of exotic potions. Seated in those chairs calmly smoking mapacho, jungle tobacco that bears more of a resemblance to cigars than cigarettes, are the two men in whose hands we’re about to trust our lives. As if it were any other evening spent among good friends, Alberto and Hamilton joke together in the jungle dialect that my reasonable amount of Spanish cannot decipher.
Two kerosene lamps give off a golden, smoky glow, heightening the eerie atmosphere and the electric tension in the air. I choose the mattress on the far right. I smile nervously at Hamilton who chuckles like an expectant child. He gives us a final few words of advice:
“Focus on positive thoughts, relax and let go of all expectations. If it gets tough, just laugh and be thankful.”
The shamans cover their bodies with the various bottled mixtures, Hamilton explaining each contains a different plant to protect their bodies spiritually. One of these is camalonga, a plant that teaches through one’s dreams. Another is “vampire juice” a mixture of male garlic and camphor in a sugarcane liquor.
“Hollywood got that part right,” Hamilton tells us, smiling as he rubs it on his arms and on top of his head. “They really don’t like garlic.”
Turning to Alberto on his left he asks, “¿Listo maestro? ¿Le doy?” Are you ready, maestro? Shall I begin? It’s as though my whole life has been in preparation for this moment.
The three of us watch intently as Hamilton blows smoke from his mapacho into the bottle of ayahuasca, then sings icaros into it. Although they sound like songs, they are in fact commands to the medicine spirits, taught during apprenticeship by the spirits themselves. Alberto follows suit, adding his own force and energy to the brew.
Before I know it, I’m holding a small metal cup. My scepticism will not allow me to believe that this thick brown sludge actually contains spirits willing to help me heal physically and emotionally. But, on the off chance that they do exist and can hear my thoughts, I tell them how scared I am and ask them to be gentle with me. Searching for a space free of thought, free of doubt, I down the concoction in one gulp.
Once everybody, including the shamans, has drunk, the kerosene lamps are extinguished. The shrill calls of the crickets and frogs in the distance intensify as we sink into darkness so thick I can’t tell if my eyes are open or closed.
It’s not long before the hypnotic beat of the shacapas, the leaf rattles used by the shamans to direct and move energy, coupled with the enchanting sounds of the icaros, send me into a trance. As I drift away, my body is compressed into the mattress, as though an elephant were sitting on my chest…
I start to writhe on the mat, fighting desperately to gain control over my body. Soon I’m kicking my legs and flailing my arms, thrashing on the unyielding floor and screaming at the top of my lungs:
“Get it out of me, get it out of me, I don’t want it anymore! Help me, help me!”
Then the mattress disappears. No more house. No more icaros. No more ceremony. Only complete and utter chaos and terror. Unable to process a thought, I spiral through a web of madness.
There is a sound, a voice, somewhere nearby. It’s telling me to calm down, that everything is okay. Hamilton is by my side, reminding me that I’m in an ayahuasca ceremony. Now I remember. Okay, breathe, focus, this is a good thing Mark. You’re purging negative energies. I relax, aware momentarily of my surroundings, but the dark spirit is not done with me. From a prone position I suddenly flip up onto the top of my head—without using my arms or legs. I hold the inverted pose like a freeze-frame break-dancer, balancing in mid-air for several seconds, before somebody pulls me back down onto the mattress.