A guest post by Dag Walker
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Francis Thompson, The Hound Of Heaven (1893/1917)
Nearly 60, and on the road for over 40 years all over the place, learning as much as I can in the hope of knowing something that will wrap it all up as sense in the end. Life’s all a mystery. So, there I was, six days and nights on a rusty cargo boat in the back end of Peru going downstream on the Ucayali River from Pucallpa through the Amazon jungle, and during that voyage and after all these years I had never heard of such a thing as ayahuasca. The word didn’t mean a thing to me till I arrived at gringo headquarters in Iquitos, Ari’s Burgers at the corner across from the Plaza de Armas. Then, within minutes of sitting down in a cheap molded plastic chair for my first cup of coffee in close to a week, I heard of ayahuasca and suddenly became curious about this jungle drug the tourist crowd were so keen on talking about. From zero to sixty in a matter of minutes.
Within an hour I was committed to taking ayahuasca. I’ve been finding out about it for close to a year since, and I am not ready even now for the actual experience. I don’t have any fear of the drug and its effects on my mind or body. I don’t think I’m going to have a “bad trip” like so many I’ve read about and some I’ve spoken to. Nor do I sentimentalise this drug. I don’t have any great romantic notions about the Grand Divine and how I have to approach such as a cringing supplicant wailing about my physical impurity and spiritual worthlessness that only proper pretentious attention of silly dietas and cloying humility in the face of “The Great Mother Ayahuasca” can absolve me of if I wish to have some authentic revelatory experience. I know now that the hippie costumes and the New Age spiritual mumbo-jumbo is for the benefit of visitors who want to exoticise their drug-taking and make it into something dramatic befitting spoiled and striving Drama Queens in search of talking status among their peers. Hyping the trip is a big and essential part of the ayahuasca-drinking experience for some. I don’t need it. I’ve seen naked ayahuasca. I’ve seen stark naked and rum drunk hippies take ayahuasca with as good effect as the most spiritually affected middle aged American New Age poseur. The trappings don’t mean anything, objectively. The affectations are solely for the benefit of the affected.
Now that I know enough to see ayahuasca/chakruna as a jungle hallucinogen I can take it seriously and consider it for what it is. I don’t need the fake smiles and the accompanying idiot babble and the phony preparatory dietas and the baggy clown costumes and the top-end yuppy jungle lodges to take ayahuasca. Many people do need the veneers to make their drug-taking acceptable to themselves and more importantly to those they will tell the story to later. The setting has to be perfect, the purpose more than noble, it being spiritual and for the sake of “healing” of whatever nonsense one cares to pretend to whinge about; and the ‘shah-Mahn’ master of the “ceremony” must be close to God to make the narrative attractive to those who will listen in envy as one speaks meaningfully of time in the Amazon jungle with a special guide to the spiritual realms so much deeper than boring old Christianity or Judaism and other banal dogmas handed down by ordinary people, not authentic and oh so special like a 5,000 year old ceremony like taking ayahuasca, like the special person taking it. I can see ayahausca for what it is. I see myself as what I am: Ordinary. I’m pushing 60 and I’ve been around. Soon I will take ayahuasca. But I won’t be taking any bullshit with it. I’m here to find out the real stuff as well as I’m able.
Locals take ayahuasca to get rid of worms. The local witch doctor takes ayahuasca mixed with chakruna, wambasso, toh-ay, and who know what else, as an aid to contacting the higher animist metaphysic he lives in. Modernists take the drugs (ayahausca being incidental to that) for the sake of having something cool and unique to talk about it later to impress their friends back home. They dress it up as a ‘ceremony’ but it is no such thing. It’s getting stoned and hallucinating. If it costs $1,500.00 per week, all the better for those who want to spend the money on luxury living and bragging rights. They flock to the lodges like gallinosas to the dump. They come to Iquitos for “healing” the same way they say they go to Vegas to watch Mitzi Gaynor and Wayne Newton do a floor show at Caesar’s Palace. No Vegas-style lodge for me. Ain’t no tourists where I’m going. It’s off the strip. No kerosene lanterns hanging in the Vegas night, no gold plated plumbing fixtures in spotless casino bathrooms. Roulette for life. For me, it’s Jungle Land, the mind tossed across the empty aether and left to fall where it may. Ayahausca.
I might by now have stripped all the fun out of ayahuasca in my puritanical pursuit of what I could call truth. I might have taken Santa out of Christmas, chucked the tree, the rolled up lights, the plucked off the tinsel, returned out the presents, silenced the carolers, burnt the turkey, and made what could have been a fun and entertaining time a grim-faced ordeal in trying circumstances for no great reward.
I’ve heard many accounts by now of ayahuasca trips, recently from a teenage Swedish girl who said her friend took it and masturbated for five hours. I can only go for a couple of hours before I feel guilty and have to get out and mow the lawn and paint the fence. I’m a working class guy, when all is said and done. I’ve heard as well about dark visions and unspeakable horrors welling up in the minds of some who shudder and say no more under intense questioning. I met a starry-eye young French woman all bubbles and smiles who returned early from her date at a lodge, she packing silently and leaving without a word. There is the Italian lad who stayed awake for days from fear of being attacked by a curandero out to steal his mind and soul. I can’t begin to anticipate my experience.
I had early on hoped to take ayahuasca alone in a dark room where I could be alone and at peace with myself and no threat to others should things go badly wrong. If I were threatened by monsters, I fear I would fight back and prevail, perhaps like Ajax victorious over sheeps and goats in the daylight hours. “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad.” I have no intention of harming anyone, nor goats. But after repeated warnings from everyone I have mentioned my solitary hopes to I have resigned myself to a communal experience. I trust that I have the presence and discipline to behave even under duress like a decent man. I come to ayahausca alone and without deep expectations. For that, I want only a place to lie down in some peace and quiet. I might have stripped that setting and damped my expectations to the barest of bones. Maybe I’ve gone too far in my rejection of the philistine. My place of choice is one of extreme urban poverty, a setting devoid of aesthetics, a place of squalor and ignorance of those things I like in life, e.g. art and literature and fineness in taste. When I don’t live in the muck I prefer to live life like a prince. My ayahuasca setting is that of a dry pig sty. To me, that is preferable to the ersatz glamor of Vegas, itself an offensive and aesthetically poverty-stricken imitation of Versailles. All or nothing. In this case, for me, it is the latter.
But. But I do have some lingering hopes in mind. I don’t come to this with absolutely nothing. I do hope, though hope is faint, to stop, to turn. Then, perhaps, I to see.
At 6:00 it is daytime. At 6:00 it is nighttime. In the dark hours I take a three-wheeled mototaxi to low town, three soles fare across the city, my usual fare being seldom more than two, rarely two and a half. I grab the metal frame bar that holds the blue plastic canopy over the half-motorcycle with plastic bench on wheels, a funny-looking contraption like a down-scale Model T Ford. There are about 25,000 of these little toy vehicles in Iquitos, and they dodge and dart like go-carts at the county fair. Mine takes me well past the football stadium, the high concrete walls hiding the bright white kleig lights of the astroturf playing field and the empty stands of the hometown’s perennial losing team. Mototaxi traffic is heavy in the evening as is motorcycle traffic itself, but in this area there are no standard motor cars, those reserved for the genuinely affluent in this isolated city in the jungle. Motoscooters, motorcycles, and mototaxis, the occasional foot traffic of dad and mom and six kids families leaving a birthday party to walk home down the narrow sidewalk, often enough three or four feet above the street, the street often enough a wide sand trough littered with construction debris, shattered concrete breeze blocks, bent and rusty rebar, grey and cracked rubber tyres left to age forever in the rising sand as the old folks sit fat and tired and hot outdoors drinking pint bottles of local Cuscena beer and sweating, shirts pulled up over bugling brown bellies, while squealing children play tag barefoot in the dirt among bony dogs and plastic garbage yet to be buried under sand dunes. My mototaxi flies off a concrete slab of street and crashes into a mound of sand that is the rest of the side street, my destination. I am a long way from home.
There are a few two-story buildings on commercial or residential streets in this far away area of Iquitos, most buildings only one story, horizontal apartment blocks, they being side-by-side from street corner to street corner, each sharing a wall with its neighbour, each building extending as far back from the sidewalk as the next building allows, some going so far into the block as straight through to the other sidewalk, 100 meter interiour pathways with plywood cubicles on either side of the concrete walkway, a bare lightbulb shared by every two rooms, a room a matter of some plywood walls, a plywood door on cheap brass hinges, and a communal toilet, often a solitary piece of chipped and outright smashed porcelain semi-hidden in a plywood room at the far end of the complex and stocked with a 50 gallon plastic drum half-filled with water for showering, for flushing the unattached toilet, washing clothes and dishes. Roofs, yes, to keep off the sun and the rain, sheets of corrugated tin nailed to long poles and beams salvaged from the jungle, twisted and dried out, they stand above the tops of cubicles and allow for entry of light, ventilation, and bugs. Home to many, for me such is a place to take ayahuasca.
Outside on the street I look at the place I will go to take ayahuasca. I cannot anticipate this entry either, having been too often to such shabby fronts of peeling paint on cracked adobe and oozing concrete mortar only to find myself inside some lost mansion with a sky blue swimming pool inches from the doorway, the lap of indoor urban luxury, tasteful paintings on spotless walls, music for middle age secretaries playing discretely on superiour sound systems, comfortable furniture beckoning the weary. But not this time. Instead, a ten by ten room of concrete with a tin roof, a metal frame rocking chair with all the plastic weave gone long ago, a flickering colour television on a bare wooden table, technicolour posters of Virgin Mary nailed on the wall, a couple of gaudy plaster of paris statues of unidentified saints gazing into dead air, and a fat lady eating a bowlful of rice with her fingers as she watches a half dozen adults on a television set doing something slapstick to entertain the world of Peru’s poor. I knod and greet her and make my way down the corridor to the very back of the complex where I find at last, by the fence that separates this building from the one that begins in the same way at the other side of the block, a separate wooden shack, a place set apart from the rest, this alone with space around it, space filled with a towering toe bush in bloom, on the concrete pad that passes for a lawn, piles of discarded household stuff, wire rabbit cages, stacks of one gallon plastic paint buckets, lengths of wood stacked neatly against a wooden fence, a dark, leafless tree with black branches glistening in the full moon light, the silhouette of a cat sitting high up on a thick limb. I have arrived, my lodge a six by 20 foot shack of peeling wood, a door space, a window with a slab of thick black plastic nailed over it to block out the light. Sitting tight together on a wooden bench are six or so old men, each clutching a white plastic paint bucket, legs wide apart, heads down, puking, a scene from a San Francisco Mission District clinic for dying alcoholics. I enter the main room in a state of hope.
I am so deep into the bowels of the block that I cannot hear the roar and bang of mototaxis any longer, just the retching sound of men sick and the splashing thud of gushing slime hitting the liquid in their plastic pots.
I enter the candle lit centre itself to find it a plain box of adobe brick and hardened drooling concrete mortar all top to bottom painted in bright lavender, the Singer sewing machine table at which the shirtless curandero sits bright lavender, the creaky wooden chair, bright lavender, and his sandals, specked with bright lavender paint. There are two plaster saints on the lavender table top, and they are lavender. The curandero, decades younger than I, rises and shakes my hand, his grip weak, his legs bandy, his smile toothless, his breath a mere wheeze as he says hello and welcomes me to his healing practice. I look closely at the wall around the curandero’s shrine, seeing there some sepia tone photos of his family, a long lost brother, a newpaper clipping framed, the glass so yellowed now it is impossible to read the print, a small animal skull hanging of a nail in the wall next to a soaring dime store plastic eagle dangling from a string and finally, taped up, a large piece of paper with a crayon drawing of a looping anaconda.
The curandero holds up a 1.5 litre plastic Coca Cola bottle ayahuasca, and he pours a glass, which he sets on the shaky lavender table. He draws deeply on a cigar-sized mapacho cigarette and blows into the glass with the sound of an opening steam valve. Seated with hiso back resting on the lavender wall, he begins a high-pitched icaro, an irritating noise I try to ignore, a mix of words from Shipibo and much going on about Jesus and the saints, a pagan Catholic monotonous mishmash of noise to my ears. I see that there are two camp cots in the room and two hammocks strung across the place, otherwise empty. This is not Kansas anymore. This is not Vegas. I might be the only one within a square mile who speaks English. There are many people all around me, but I am alone at last. The curandero pours a glass of ayahuasca and I raise it high. I am a guest in this man’s home, in this land among these people. I don’t believe as they do in the vegetable gods of the green aether. But I too am a believer. And I am polite. I raise my glass and– I find myself wondering. To say grace? To salute my hosts? It’s really up to me.
I stand and say with a smile, my steel teeth flashing in the flame light, “Death to our enemies.”
To be continued…
Iquitos Peru, Ayahuasca, What Happened To Me, Part One
A guest post by Dag Walker
This piece is an excerpt from my up-coming book, “Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close,” a popular account of Iquitos, its history and people.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
If you would like to read more about Iquitos Peru, click this link to my blog, No Dhimmitude;
Hi Bill Grimes here. While we stay tuned for Ayahuasca Part Two, Three, and Four, I recommend these articles by Dag Walker posted here in the Captain’s Blog;