I first heard about Ayahuasca from a girl I met in a hostel in Chile. I never knew her name. She told me Ayahuasca is a vine from the Amazon, brewed and consumed in spiritual ceremonies. That it causes revelations and visions, and sometimes people lose complete control of their bodies. She told me it has great potential. I thought she was wild.
Some say you'll know when you're ready for the medicine, for mother Ayahuasca, and I felt certain I was.
The jungle hits thick, beats thick.
Myself and seven men travel up the Amazon river in a narrow boat. You are here because you got here. The river is not as I expected, it is not pristine, it is littered with plastic bags and bottles. Just dawn, daylight: the overcast suspense fills with the waking song of a thousand birds. I diffuse. My hand trailing in the passing water becoming one with what awaits.
We are welcomed to the land by women and children dancing in circles on a basketball court. A boy takes me by the hand and we dance while everyone watches around us. I sweat. A woman ties a bracelet laced with dried Ayahuasca seeds around my right wrist. I kiss her cheek. Thank you.
Mud on everything. The rich maculate smell of the earth, damp, fruit. Passing fields of cacao, banana trees, papaya, and coconut too. We hike for an hour before we reach The Kapitari Center, home for the next eight days.
Kapitari feels sacred. Is sacred. The shaman Luis Culquiton, also known as Don Lucho, and his family welcome us.
Don Lucho comes from a long line of natural healers. He drank ayahuasca for the first time at age 16, and in 1980, at age 30, he was an established, self-educated shaman. The spirit of ayahuasca asked him to work and to help.
“It was like a calling… The legacy of my ancestors. I said, ‘how can I save the world? I have no education, I don’t know anything.’ But I started to learn from the plants. I was told by the plant spirits what their qualities were, whether it was for food, medicine, or even as fertilizer to add nutrients to the soil,” he tells us.
Early afternoon, Don Lucho leads us on a walk. He has planted hundreds of different plant species at Kapitari, mirroring the ecological balance found in the rainforest. He employs many people from the local community, and in doing so, provides education, prevents malnutrition, and restores biodiversity.
He explains the potency of the plants which surround us, gesturing. Waiting as what he speaks is translated, he holds a small beetle between two fingers then places it tenderly upon a leaf. The Ayahuasca vine winds snake-like around a tree: “death vine.”
Each member of our group of eight meets with Don Lucho. This is an opportunity to tell our story, bring up any traumas, medical conditions, or anxieties. In response to this, a piece of paper is marked and noted upon. This is passed on to the onsite nurse, who prescribes plant medicine accordingly. The medicine is a green concoction of what surrounds us. It is to be taken daily before breakfast.
We are each given a tambo; a small hut with a roof made of leaves. In my tambo I have a bed draped in green mosquito netting, a desk and chair, a hammock, a toilet, and a yellow butterfly. Yellow butterfly and I sit after lunch, and we sit after dinner too.
At 7 p.m. it's dark. I walk to the Maloka, a round wooden structure, cathedral like, circling to the sky. All our ceremonies are held here. Our facilitator, who translates and oversees our group during the retreat, wears a headlight on his head. He places green mats in a circle on the floor. Holding his lighter to the base of a candle, he softens the wax, and stands it on a rock. In unison we sound out “om”, reverberating into the hour, meditating. Are we in each other's chests? Are we in everything? We walk back to our tambos and exchange goodnights. Goodnight.
At 6 a.m. the next morning we meet in the Maloka for our first ceremony. Piñon Colorado is given in a small glass cup, swallowed, and followed by litres and litres of warm water. It tastes like the smell of mud. This is the initial purge, an abrupt surrender into the morning, still half asleep. A bucket beside me fills with the contents of my stomach. The purpose of this purge is to release toxins both physically and emotionally manifested.
We share mango, watermelon and coconut water, and after a brief rest of palms in prayer, we meet in the Maloka again. This meeting happens every morning at nine. Here we lay, sit, stretch, and listen on the usual green mats, while we take turns sharing our ceremony experiences. The shaman and the facilitator sit in the middle, offering guidance in response. We hug as a group, a circle of sweat.
A poet and artist, Humberto, who lives behind us, behind the banana trees, sets up raw canvas and paints on the dining tables. He has made the paints using different plants and fruits collected from the land. There are browns and reds, reflecting the jungle season. Humberto says sometimes he paints with vibrant greens. We work upon our canvases. Humberto's daughter and I have painted our arms with one of the red fruits on the table. He leaves and wishes us well on our Ayahuasca journey.
As the morning becomes afternoon, everything is a choir of well wishes.
Don Lucho has prepared a flower bath in a blue plastic tub. I stand in the tub, pour three jugs of the petal water over my head, and lay out by the river while it dries. We all sit together while it dries. A thunderstorm rolls in. Sudden violet clouding of the earth. The dogs are barking, the dogs have been fighting all day, and there's blood in the dirt.
It's not long until our first Ayahuasca ceremony. We're in the suspense of the storm. Birds flee, wind blowing, lightning strikes. Surrender. I've started talking to the lizards, the butterflies, insects, and birds. Come closer come closer we'll be alright.
I leave my tambo at 6:45 p.m. with my phone on the flash light setting. In front of me I see the silhouettes of two others walking. I hear the chickens settling into the dark, and leave my shoes at the door to climb the maloka stairs. A candle is lit. Palo Santo burns in an old pot. I take my place on a green mat and watch everyone else do the same.
We have all arrived. Don Lucho begins by saying a prayer. He is assisted by his son, who is also a shaman. I am second to drink. The facilitators headlight comes to me and guides me to kneel in front of Don Lucho. Don Lucho prepares the Ayahuasca, pours it into a cup, and blows tobacco smoke fast twice in the air, then once slow into the cup. I hold the cup. Meditate on its power, pray, pausing. Storm says I'll be powerful too. Then let it down my throat.
I lay back on the mat. In 10 minutes everyone has had their drink and we're all lying in silence. Don Lucho puts the candle out.
The silence is broken, the person beside me clutches their knees and vomits. The birds turn their heads. In the dark those retchings echo. Something imperfect, malformed, pulled from the heart of being. Don Lucho begins to sing. He uses his voice and a palm leaf fan. Icaro. His voice is haunting, deep, croaked, it encapsulates all joy and sorrow. It sounds like he is beneath water, and the fan a flock of birds.
My body begins to vibrate, and my eyes want to close. I see myself as a blue-white butterfly, beating big wings coming through me, same colour as blue car headlights. God is everything oh my God I am everything.
We all react differently to the Ayahuasca. Some are weeping, battling painful visions, reliving traumas, understanding relationships. Some laugh aloud like children, whisper in conversation, experience euphoria, humor, and connection. Some in silence. Others are seeing nothing but physically feeling everything—vibrating, vomiting, nausea, cold sweats, and constant trips to the bathroom.
In our group meeting the next morning, a gentle boy from Alabama sits cross legged, says that we all experienced everything for everyone. It was as much a collective experience as it was individual. All pain and all joy was everyone's. He had felt me crying, and he had felt another laughing, as if it was his. The dancers to the fan on their separate and adjoining paths.
Being with the people in our group during the day, by the river, smelling of mud, sharing, is just as healing as the ceremonies. We come to one another, we're always listening.
Late afternoon, we have a fruit bath. Don Lucho pours sticky water upon our heads. We try to let it dry on our skin, but the rain persists. After, we have another flower bath. It is still raining. Everything smells damp. Feet are always bare and muddy. The clothes I washed in a bucket yesterday will probably never dry.
Again it is night. I write with a candle and the yellow butterfly, smoking. At 6:45 p.m. I turn my phone on the flash light setting, and walk to the Maloka.
The second ceremony is less daunting than the first. We all enter with slightly more confidence. I find immense support in this ceremony from two people who lay beside me. One, who comes every year for five weeks, has served in Afghanistan, and attempted suicide many times. He is ancient, holds the strength of thousands, and he speaks to me with this behind him. He tells me to let go, to trust, to know I am brave.
The sun tries to press through the clouds. Myself and a few others have been fasting on fruit and water since we arrived. We feel weak, defeated. The thought of drinking Ayahuasca, the taste in particular, is repulsive and nauseating. A fire burns nearby, and the smoke makes me feel sick. The damp smell of my tambo, and wafting tobacco too.
On a wooden bench, Don Lucho smears yellow clay over my body, beginning with a mark between my eyes. He does this to all of us. We look alien, golden, we belong to one another and nothing else. Like small deities we stand upon a rotting raft and push off into the river. We dive into the water when the clay is dry. Yellow bleeds into the reeds, and we have our skin again.
At sundown a troubled light. The third ceremony is the hardest for myself. It takes great courage to turn the flash light setting on, to walk, and to open the maloka door.
My apprehension plays out in this ceremony. What I feel is mostly physical. I stay up until 3 a.m. vomiting, nauseous, and lying with a knife stabbing my abdomen and head. Why. I cannot hold my body up, I cannot walk. You need this. The stars are a miracle when I'm looking up at them in pain. I sleep in the Maloka with three others.
The group hug in the morning feels victorious. We are all in a state of processing. The sun finally comes out. We taste cacao from the fields around us. The best cacao I have ever tasted.
On the last night we have a bonfire by the river. Four men from the village have come to play music. Don Lucho's family sit around the fire with us. We dance together. I take the hand of Don Lucho’s grand daughter, spin her around, pick her up, we spin around together. She keeps pointing at the stars “la estrellas.” Muy hermosa mi amor muy hermosa. The fire is hot and someone goes for a swim in the river to cool off. We are the stars.
Stepping beyond the grounds of Kapitari to leave on the same mud path is strange and sad. This was our entire world, this was where we all changed forever.
Naively, I expected Ayahuasca to solve it all for me. But what faced me was more profound and required work. More work. Hard work.
I know I will return, that this isn't the last time I'll see the cacao fruit, or hear the birds which sound like water drops. Yellow butterfly knows. Ayahuasca knows. Something woke up.
I look down the river.
The Shaman's Last Apprentice | A film Alexander George Ward