I was a little apprehensive to join the few other people at my hostal on their ayahuasca journeys. I had always been curious about the sacred drink. After all, Richard Shultes, the “father of ethnobotany,” has always been one of my personal heroes. I have read about his experiences in the Amazon. I thought I could never find an authentic experience outside of living with a tribe deep within the rainforest.
For a good recent article on Ayahuasca, click here....
A girl who organized the event at the hostal assured me that this was not a “tour” like so many other companies offer to curious foreigners who are just looking to get as high as possible on one of the worlds most potent hallucinogens.. The owner of the hostal had been the first gringo to participate in this community event, and after gaining respect from the shaman, he was allowed to bring a select few other participants to join in. To the Putumayo culture, this was a sacred and religious event and they were generally happy to invite others to participate.
I talked to another guy who was living in Salento. He participated in the weekly ceremony as often as possible. He had been seriously injured, dislocated hip, back injuries and shoulder problems. Western doctors had informed him that he would never run, bike or play sports again. (hmmm, sounds like my doctors... and the reason why I refuse to see them anymore.) After two ceremonies with the shaman, he no longer experienced any pain. He now plays rugby every week and runs on a daily basis. His story sold me. If I could find any way to relieve my back pain that did not involve a daily does of horrible, chemical-ridden pain killers, I was willing to try it. The entire day before the event, my stomach was in knots. I was nervous for my upcoming healing journey.
A small bus came to pick us up, I opted to go early as possible to get comfortable with the setting. After about an hour down some dark, winding roads, we arrived at the Shaman's house. I walked down some stairs and found the tall rounded structure with an intricately designed beam roof and open walls. Chairs were set up in a half circle around the center of the building with mattresses and mats layed out on the floor for comfort. Against one wall was a tall chair for the shaman and a few others next to him, for his wife and what I am assuming is a few other high status healers or medicine woman. The women were sent to one side and men to the other. A separate structure was set near the stairs with a fire pit and benches surrounding it. A short set of dirt stairs was lit up by candles, leading to a couple of bathrooms opposite the fire pit.
I found a comfortable place to set my things and watched as healers, helpers and the shaman began setting up for the ceremony. Everything was done with ritual and care. As soon as I met the Shaman, I immediately felt as if I had met him before and my nerves completely calmed. I trusted him. Now, I was just excited to get started.
Prepping for the ceremony took well over two hours. The shaman placed a small table in front of his chair and started bringing items out. He had a bundle of leaves which he would shake. For each item he brought onto the table, he would drink out of a leather-wrapped bottle and spit into the leaves, shaking them rapidly over the item while chanting. He brought the Ayahuasca out and placed it into two pitchers. In one he added something, I am not entirely sure what it was, but it was clear that the two pitchers had different strengths of the drink. He then brought out several hand-carved wooden cups and a ladle which he washed thoroughly in the scented mystery water.
The Shaman and all of the helpers, medicine women and healers were dressed in white. They all wore intricately designed beaded necklaces and bracelets with various patterns and animals on them. Some of the woman bore woven head pieces which they wrapped around their foreheads. One lady had a feather standing up out of the back of her headpiece, reminiscent of how I picture native Americans dressing.
To the left of the Shamans seat, a band of about 10 members began to play traditional Icaros music. They had drums, guitars, mandolins, and various flutes carved out of bamboo. One man played two flutes at once, a short, high-pitched one and a longer, deeper sounding one. Approximately 50 people had arrived and were finding their places under the wooden roof. The energy in the room indicated that the ceremony was about to start. One of the helpers walked around and passed out plastic bags to everyone. Vomiting is a common reaction to Ayahuasca, and they wanted all to be prepared in case they were unable to move from their spot.
As the music played, a man wandered around with a lantern, swinging it back and forth with a fire ball of incense; the structure filled with sweet smelling smoke. I was taken up to the shaman to discuss my reason for coming. He asked me several questions to determine what type of dose I would be given. He asked when the last time I drank was, if I smoked marijuana, and most importantly, if I was on my period. (Woman are not allowed to be in the ceremony area during their menses as it affects everyone and it is already a sacred time for them). I told him of my back injury. He looked so deep within my eyes, I felt he could see my thoughts. I could immediately tell he was a powerful man. After our discussion, he said I would be first given a lighter dose to focus on healing and then a second very strong dose to rid any remaining negative energy.
I took my seat. The ceremony was starting. The music intensified and the shaman began to chant and circle around the table. He started to dress. Before he put each item on, he would drink from the brown jug and spit on it. He did this with two teeth-baring necklaces, a colorful poncho (for warmth) and finally a beautiful feather headpiece. The feathers were bright blue and standing vertically all the way around with one larger feather in the front center. The band of the headpiece was a hand woven golden fabric. Finally he held a cup of the sacred drink above his head, collapsed to his knees and drank the first cup. The music stopped. Everyone was asked to come up and wash their faces, neck, stomach, back and legs with some scented water from a single bucket.
Then everyone from the inner circle was invited to come up two at a time to the table for their dose. For each individual, he personally mixed a dose from each of the two pitchers. Each person would hold the drink up, and most would say “Salud con todos” (Cheers to all), and the room would respond, “Salud” as the drink was shot back. A light was located in the center of the table. This created a surreal effect as each persons shadow was expanded at an awkward angle onto the ceiling above. They leaned precariously towards the light and then you could watch each individual lean back and consume their drink by watching the ceiling.
After the helpers were seated. The shaman called my name. I was the first gringo to be asked to come up. Several other names were called and lined up behind me as we were all getting a special mix. I was surprised to be called up first. I walked up towards him and he ladled back and forth between the pitchers and handed me the drink. His look gave me confidence and I gave my cheers, tilted my head and let the thick drink slide down my throat. “No turning back now,” I thought. The drink was awful. It was pinkish brown and tasted like barky pepto bismol. I was thankful that one of the helpers immediately handed me a water to wash it down with. I could feel the fluid gurgle around in my stomach.
After I sat, the rest of the crowd created two lines, woman on one side, men on the other and each was given their special mix. Men and women of all ages participated, from 13 to 80, it was a diverse crowd. No one was allowed to attend the ceremony without partaking in the drink, including the helpers and the band.
Within 10 minutes, people started vomiting and purging. I felt ill to my stomach, but did not feel the need to purge. I found it a bit disgusting but was also intrigued to see how different people reacted to the sacred drink. I was told that each person has a unique experience. One girl from my hostal could not stop coughing and puking, so she was swept into the center of the inner circle. All of the helpers, dressed in white began shaking sticks with beans on them and the band worked into a frenzy. She was massaged while the shaman spit on her out of the brown jug and several people made Reiki like movements, pulling out her sickness. It was a very intense moment. I found myself feeling a little jealous that she got to be in the center of the circle during such a magical moment, but I was not at all jealous of her circumstances that brought her there.
The first cup did not affect me too strongly. I did have some mild visions, but was mostly ill to my stomach and very tired. My senses were heightened and I watched some blue lights appear and disappear, playing with the music and the fire. The music died down and I somehow drifted off to sleep.
I awoke around 4 am to a helper tapping me on the foot and music playing. I felt awful and my back was throbbing. She informed me it was time for my second drink. I was beginning to think I had made a bad choice and that my back was not going to heal. Why was it hurting so bad? There were spots that were tender to the touch on my spine. My stomach was in knots and I hoped that the next drink would make me vomit to get rid of some of the ill feeling.
I approached the shaman, he asked if I had any visions. After I told him I had slept, he scooped another ladleful into my cup. I slurped down the second drink. The effects came almost immediately. Maybe it was the combination of the two drinks, or just that he had made me a much stronger dose. I heard people vomiting and laughed instead of being disgusted, so that was my first indication that I was feeling the effects. Some blue lines and lights returned. I felt so ill that I curled up into a little ball on my pad. My back hurt. My stomach hurt. I was feeling miserable. I wanted to puke but had no way to make it happen. I was told that if I ever felt this way, to approach a healer for help. I could not force my body up. I could not force a sound out of my mouth. I was completely disconnected from my body. I felt myself drift farther and farther away from my body. I had to keep reminding myself to breath, as I could not tell if I was actually getting air in my lungs or not.
As I curled into my little ball, having a moment of self-pity, I saw the shaman chanting around several people who helpers had placed the center. He was occupied, shaking his leaves and spitting on them. Then, something strange thing occurred. His face melted and it then he looked at me and I saw an old friend in his place. Back and forth, he was turning into my friend and back into himself. Then my friend was circling the shaman and I saw a small blue light with squares connecting them as he spun around. I was caught completely off guard and the shaman looked over at me from across the room. Time stopped for a moment, The shaman smiled a huge grin, looking at me with a face indicating he knew exactly what I was seeing and thinking. I knew immediately why I had felt I knew him from the beginning. He and my friend were somehow connected, I was sure of it. I heard my friends voice tell me to let go. I did.
Every moment seemed fleeting and at the same time lasted an eternity. I closed my eyes, or maybe not, I cannot be sure. The hallucinations were in full effect now. They were strange, it was not that I “saw” things per se, but I felt them. I felt everything very strongly. I was connected to everyone and completely alone at the same time.
I watched, or felt, my body become part of a landscape. From far away, my body appeared to me as slumped over and then slowly turned into rocks and dirt, and looked like a watercolor painting. Then the rain came. The sound of raindrops increased my visions. Everything around me turned into techni-color droplets. Was I looking around? I can't be sure. I felt as if I was looking around, but my body was composed of nothing more then dirt and rocks. It was not listening to me anymore. My mind said I was breathing, but I could not feel anything expand in my chest. I felt out of breath. The rainbow of water drops expanded over each other, thousands of raindrops expanding like they do when they hit a lake.
Slowly, the rain began to wash my body away. My dirt and rock body became worn by the rain and I watched helplessly as it washed away into nothingness. Again, I heard my friend instruct me, Let go, Go deeper. I begged the ayahuasca to heal my back. As soon as the last speck of dirt washed away and my mountain of a body had disappeared into nothingness, I blacked out. I remember feeling ill the entire time, but my visions during that time are fleeting. I know I was a part of the earth and could feel myself drift further away from my body. There was nothing I could do about my pain anymore. I had to accept it.
I awoke about 3 hours later, feeling even more sick then before. The sun was up now. Finally, I had to purge. I struggled, forcing my body to make it's way to the bathroom. Immediately after the bathroom, I ran towards the fence. I looked around and I was completely alone. I bent over and began to vomit.
As liquid poured out of my mouth, out of nowhere, a medicine woman appeared behind me. She began massaging my back and stomach. I looked back at her and was surprised to see a strong resemblance to my mother. It felt as if my mom had come to save me. As she rubbed my stomach, she also made a series of clicks and hisses as she wiped energy away from my body. I was amazed. I could feel each sweep of her hand remove my bad energy, thoughts and illness. I was healing instantaneously. She asked my name. I forced my mouth to move and spat it out. As the sickness left my stomach, she focused on my head. She placed two fingers on my forehead and pressed hard on the back of my neck. She made some odd sounds “Shhhhhhhoooooop, Shhhhhhhwwweeeep”. I felt every all of my misery release into her palms. My mind returned to my body and I started to regain control again. I felt my lungs fill and empty again with each breath.
She then cupped her hands and held them above my head. Our eyes connected and she looked deep within me. She asked, “Are you OK?” I felt like I was flying. I was on top of the world. Everything was clear. I replied easily this time, “Yes.” She then flung her hands up into the air, releasing my suffering into the sky. At the exact moment her hands parted, tears streamed down my face. I cried tears of joy, uncontrollably. I looked up and watched as my energy shot towards the sky. A bird flew out of the tree above me, carrying my burden far away. It was one of the most magical moments in my entire life.
The mystery healer disappeared as quickly as she had came, and I stood for an indefinite amount of time staring into the sky feeling amazing. I realized that my suffering through the night was just a build up of everything that needed to be released during that one moment. It had to build up before it could be released. It was as if the whole community knew what I needed and the exact moment to give it.
Once my tears had finished. I walked back to the ceremony structure. I was stable, but my head was still foggy. People were beginning to become more active, and morning rituals were beginning. I looked for my healer to thank her again, but I never saw her again.
The first ritual I decided to try was painful, for a moment. I walked up to a man, decorated with beads, an image of a tiger adorning his chest. He dipped the end of a long bamboo pipe into some dried tobacco and then stuck it into my nostril. He blew hard. I started to tear up and cough. He rubbed my head and told me to relax. He gave me a moment before doing the same to the other nostril. A lady handed me a tissue and I went and coughed, sneezed and blew everything out of my head. I felt myself coming back even more. The tobacco cleared me right up and got rid of any remaining gunk in my body.
After gaining my composure, I decided to try the tobacco tar. They place a smudge on your hand and you lick it with the bottom of your tongue. I held it in my mouth for as long as possible, but it was pretty disgusting. It also helped clear things out.
They also had a liquid form of tobacco that they shot up your nose, but I opted out of that option. After watching one experienced guy take the shots and seeing the pain in his face, I could not bring myself to do it.
Next, I sat down in a line as one of the male healers performed another ritual: being beaten with nettles. We were instructed to sit with our eyes closed, arms and legs open (your not supposed to cross them, it shows disrespect) He worked down the line from left to right. The first round, he gently brushed my legs, arms, stomach, neck and back with the nettle. I could feel the stings and my body start to swell. As he made the next round, his chanting increased, and he hit me very hard with the nettles. I sat as patient as I could, but I wont lie, I snuck a peak a couple of times. Then he went down the line to spit on all of us. (I know it sounds horrible, but I was starting to enjoy the sweet smell of the magic brown jug water being spit everywhere). On the final sweep, he had a hand-rolled cigar and he blew smoke all over our welts to encourage any remaining negative energy to pull out of our bodies.
The morning was pretty much over at that point, with many people leaving. However, my back still hurt. I went to a girl and asked if it would be appropriate for me to ask for a final healing focused on my back. She grabbed the shamans mother for me and I was led up the stairs to a private room.
The shamans mother was almost 80 and had been up all night, but she was much spryer then I. She did a little prayer, wiped me down with more scented water (no spitting this time, yay!) and began to massage my back. She pointed to the spots in my back that were broken. She was that powerful that she could tell exactly where they were, I was in awe of her. After about 30 minutes she also gave me a couple of exercises to perform to continue working on my spine.
A few hours later, we all hoped on the bus and drove back to Salento. I did not feel as if my back had been healed, but I did feel a change.
Then, something amazing happened. The next morning, I awoke with no pain. It was the first time in months that this had happened. Gleaming, I tried to bend over, legs straight, and my flexibility had at least doubled before I reached my pain threshold. (I can touch the floor again, yoga I am coming back to you!) I showed off my new skill to the entire hostal, and I got hugs and kisses from many as they could see how ecstatic I was completing the simple task.
I know you are curious: Was my back injury “cured”? Well, no, not completely. I did have some pain after sitting on a bus for 8 hours, and sitting for long periods can still be uncomfortable. But, something was healed. I do not have pain in the morning and I feel the effects go on each day. I am a true believer. One night with a shaman has done more then any doctor, chiropractor, acupuncturist or masseuse has ever done for me. I have spent thousands of dollars trying to “fix” my back.
In the end, all it took was an open mind, a sacred drink and an entire community coming together to heal each other. I should have known.
I would like to return someday for another session to heal even further, and next time, I am taking my mother with me.
Thanks to all who read this for taking the journey with me.