magic that moves within our blood,
Green magic that moves beneath the sea and through all the firmament,
White magic that fills the sky,
Black magic that dwells within the earth,
Protect us from all evil spirits,
Guide us to the other realms,
Teach us of the things that live on the other side.
— From an Ayahuasquero’s Song
dirt floored ceremonial hut was dimly lit by a single small candle.
Outside the Amazon sky was thick with cloud cover. If there was a moon
it wasn’t visible. Don Ramon, a slight, seventy-year-old mestizo
curandero, lit a mapacho, a black tobacco cigarette and by the light
of his match Steven K, a 17 year old on his first trip to Amazonia,
saw a movement on the ground. He asked me to shine a flash on it. I
did, and there, sitting on a slightly raised mound of earth directly
in front of the simple ayahuasca altar, was an immense tarantula. It
didn’t recoil from the light of my flash, simply looked as though
it were staring straight ahead at both Don Ramon and Don Francisco.
It didn’t move, in fact, until Francisco brushed it out of the
hut with a cedar branch. The seven of us all laughed once it was gone
and took it as a good omen.
Some minutes later, Ramon began calling the participants to the altar
one by one. With each he sang an icaro, an ayahuasca song, then served
the foul tasting ayahuasca. Small portions for most as the group with
me had very limited experience with the substance, and a normal three
or four ounce serving for me. I was the last to drink aside from the
curanderos, and could hardly keep it down, despite, or perhaps because,
of my long experience with it. Once I did, I put a bottle of aguar diente
infused with garlic and camphor to my nose to settle my stomach, then
poured a small amount of Agua Florida into my hands and rubbed it vigorously
into my face and scalp, in part to help keep from vomiting, in part as
ritual holy water to keep mean spirits from entering me once the ayahuasca
had opened me up.
I returned from the altar, sat on the dry earth floor of the hut, closed
my eyes, waiting for Francisco and Ramon to drink, after which the candle
was extinguished and the hut thrown into complete darkness. Within fifteen
or twenty minutes the first of the ayahuasca twinkle-lights appeared
behind my eyelids: yellow, green, silver dots of light beginning to connect
in their familiar circus-like patterns. Moments later came the reds,
and I suddenly felt an enormous fear well up within me: I had been dealing
with the red lights, and what they represented and would become, for
nearly two years now, and each time was more frightening than the last.
I opened my eyes but they didn’t disappear. Instead, as if some
power switch had been suddenly turned, on my whole field of vision, eyes
open or closed, became filled with rapidly connecting red points of light
that quickly formed themselves into a huge, swirling double-helix DNA
thread that turned itself on its side and began rolling towards me. My
dread increased. The doctors were coming to visit and I wasn’t
ready for them. Wasn’t ready to die the little death again. Wasn’t
ready to be taken to the red world, the red magic world of veins and
blood and the doctors who could teach so much but demanded more than
I could ever give. I wanted to stop right then, come down and save it
for another night when I was better prepared, or at least less terrified. “Oh
god,” I thought, “I can’t do this again. I don’t
know how to let go like they want me to.”
It was no use, of course, I knew no antidote to ayahuasca. Worse, I felt
my lips beginning to go numb, an indication that one of the admixes that
had been included in brewing the ayahuasca was chiric sanango, which
meant the experience was not going to last the normal two hours or so,
but could well last the entire night or even into the morning.
Suddenly the fear I had became a realization that my group, my charges
who had so little experience, were in much deeper than I’d intended.
Worse, I was not going to be able to help them. We were going to hell.
We were going to see god and be terrified for hours. We’d proably
all learn a great deal by the time we came out of it but we were going
to pay a terrible price to learn.
I wanted to sit up and shout to everyone that I was sorry. I’d
asked Ramon and Francisco to make a stong ayahuasca but I’d never
meant this. I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to do but remember
to breathe and try not to panic. I was already having a hard time doing
I’d been drinking ayahuasca (1), the curative and visionary brew
used by indigenous peoples and mestizo healers throughout lowland Amazonia,
for fifteen years. It is both ubiquitous and vital to the region, as
physical illnesses are thought to be the symptoms of disturbances on
a non-physical level, or in a different reality, and curing them requires
the ability to bridge the space between normal reality and that other
plane, something ayahuasca is thought to facilitate. While medical doctors
frequently treat the symptoms, curanderos and ayahuasqueros use their
plants to access that other plane and deal with the disturbance there,
curing the illness itself. For someone like me who had experimented with
hallucinogens during the sixties and seventies, the allure of taking
a natural plant that could deliver the user—or allegedly deliver
the user—to other levels of reality was natural, and when it was
initially offered to me during a jungle hike in 1984, I had no qualms
about drinking it. That first experience involved, among other things,
a kind of association with a bird, during which I glimpsed the world
through what seemed to be the bird’s eyes while soaring over mountainous
terrain. It was a view so startling that I knew I would drink ayahuasca
again, given the opportunity. And as much of my work as a writer was
generated in Amazonia, I was.
I generally drank once or twice a year until the mid-nineties— almost
always with Julio Jerena, an old mestizo curandero (2) who lives two
days upriver from Iquitos. Only in the past few years, since I moved
my family from New York to Iquitos, Peru and began taking occasional
groups of tourists into the jungle, in part for the ayahuasca experience,
have I ever done it more than that. It was simply too physically and
emotionally demanding to make me want to use it more often. The doctors,
as I thought of them—though they were not human—and their
red magic were fairly new to me, though looking back I could see a progression
was in place for years that would lead me to them.
My early ayahuasca journeys, like the first, frequently involved the
ability to associate and travel with animals. Not long after my initial
I was asked by my jungle guide Moises to drink ayahuasca and go find someone
he thought lost in the jungle. To my utter surprise I associated with a snake
and travelled up the little river we were on, saw the man he was after and
returned to normal conscious state with the information—though I wasn’t
sure it was not an hallucination—that the man was travelling with a friend
in a canoe and would return by noon the following day. When the two men appeared
at 12:15 the next afternoon I was astonished. It was my first exterior validation
that what occurred under the effects of ayahuasca, or what I perceived under
that influence, were not all hallucinatory but also visionary.
There were also lots of hallucinations, of course: monkeys peeling themselves
out of bananas and turning into women beautiful beyond description; huge, glistening
snakes whose scales were made by the colorful twinkling lights and so forth,
but when I would see a burl on a tree and suddenly find myself going into it
to an ant nest I believe I was actually seeing—somehow—a real ant
nest at work. Similarly, when I regularly went—or was sent—to the
funhouse of desires and fears, I felt I was tapping my real desires and fears,
some of them buried so deeply I needed a funhouse atmosphere—complete
with roller coasters, mirrors and clowns transforming into horrid twilight
zone creatures—to face them.
Perhaps the oddest hallucination or vision event I ever had while under the
influence of ayahuasca occurred one night in 1989 when I drank in response
to a dream I’d had in which my father—dead twenty years—asked
me to go to the world of the dead to find out why he couldn’t be with
my mother—dead 12 years— anymore. Several days later and deep in
the jungle, I drank ayahuasca with Julio with the intention of visiting the
world of the dead. I didn’t know where it was or even whether such a
place existed, but sometime during the night I found myself moving through
dark, empty space at what seemed like a phenomenal speed, a trip interrupted
when I banged into a wall of what seemed to be a thick cottonish gause. Imagining
it to be some strange impediment keeping me from continuing to where I was
going, I pulled at it, tore at it and finally screamed through it, calling
to my mother. To my amazement the gauze in front of me began to take shape
until I could see my mother, as I remembered her, standing before me. I looked
at her, she looked at me.
You’ve got to stop calling me like this,” she said. “It’s
so hard to come together in a shape you recognize as me.”
If ever I needed an emotional proof that ayahuasca produced more than hallucinations,
that ayahuasca could bridge the gaps between worlds, and that, in fact, there
were other worlds accessable to us mortals, it was contained in what she said.
If I had made a list of one million things my mother might say to me upon meeting
her years after her death, that would not have been among them. The concept
of coming together in a shape I could recognize was simply not within the scope
of anything I had ever thought, read, imagined or been taught. Her further
conversation, explaining that my father certainly knew why they weren’t
together now and that what had driven me to search for her was simply an innocent
dream of my father, were easy to accept after her opening remarks.
Some time later—perhaps three or six months—another extraordinary
experience occurred that I could not have imagined. I was in the early stages
of ayahuasca influence, a period I almost always find very sexy, the space
filled with very beautiful and alluring women, and one of them seemed to be
calling me to her. Normally I avoid the women in this stage of ayahuasca because
I assume they will distract me from the real work the plant has for me, but
in this case the woman was so beautiful, her buttocks so perfect, that I decided
to fuck her to see what that would be like. The moment I made my decision I
felt myself flying toward her, but when I reached her, instead of my penis
entering her vagina, my whole body slid inside and I found myself moving up
inside her dark and moist tunnel. My surprise would normally have been enough
to shock me back to my body, sitting on the floor of a jungle hut, but this
time it didn’t. I continued to move up the tunnel—it was by now
out of my will—and as I did I realized I was getting younger and younger,
smaller and smaller and I was forgetting everything I knew, until I couldn’t
feel my hands, couldn’t feel my feet, couldn’t feel anything. And
then I hit the back wall of the tunnel and it was warm and soft and squishy
and then Bang! some kind of gates closed behind me. I wondered what was going
on for a little while until it occurred to me that I knew everything! And I
did, in a clear way. Before I could think out a question I knew the answer—sort
of like they taught us in catholic grammer school when Judgement day arrived
and everyone will know everything, every thought and action of every other
member of the universe. So that’s where I was and it was a fantastic
thing. So fulfulling.
And then the gates opened and I started down the tunnel. And as I did I began
to feel my fingers and toes and my body again but at the same time I began
to forget what I’d just known. And by the time I came out of the tunnel,
out of the womb, all I could remember of what I’d known was the immense
sorrow of knowing that I could not remember anything. I was aware only that
I had been aware of everything and that I now knew nothing. And of course with
that was the birth scream, not of life but of this immense and intense sorrow
that I had given up spirit for flesh. What a sense of loss when all I could
remember is that I’d forgotten!
Each of these events drew me back to drinking ayahuasca, and because of the
care he excercised with me, I continued to drink mostly with Julio. If anyone
had asked me at the time I would have said that I felt I had a relationship—of
some kind—with ayahuasca, as though the vine and leaves and barks Julio
prepared had a life force accessable to those who ingested their essences.
And I felt the relationship change over the years: where the first few trips
were sometimes frightening but often fun in nature—travelling on the
river as a snake and seeing the world through flattened eyes is just plain
fun—travelling to the funhouse of fears and desires, meeting your dead
mother or being born is simply terrifying. And that is how I described it to
people who asked me: Worthwhile but occasionally terrifying, not particularly
Still, nothing prepared me for what occurred one night in 1990, while I sat
with my old friends Moises, Larry LaValle and Julio on Julio’s open-wall
Julio began the simple ceremony the way he always did. He’d prepared
the bottle of dark brown ayahuasca during the day and by eight or nine at night
it had cooled enough to drink. After some small talk about the height of the
river for that time of year he had spread out a piece of blue plastic tarpulin
on his porch floor, and on that had placed an old book written in Latin, the
bottle of ayahuasca, a plastic cup, a bag full of mapachos (3) , his chacapa—a
leaf fan used to clean people as well as to keep rhythm in songs and between
songs—a bottle of aguar diente infused with camphor and garlic, a bottle
of Agua Florida, and a small kerosene lamp. His things assembled he sat on
a low bench near them; we sat in a sort of circle on the balsa-bark flooring
around him. After a few minutes Julio lit a mapacho, opened the bottle of foul-smelling
ayahuasca, chanted an icaro (4) quietly for a moment and blew the black tobacco
smoke into the bottle. He repeated the process several times, then recorked
the bottle with a dried corn cob, picked up his book and read a passage calling
forth the spirits of Saints Cypriano and Sebastion—he’s never explained
why and I’ve never asked—then began to chant as he prepared to
The liquid went down as it always does: with difficulty. The taste (5), something
like a warm, thick essense of burnt grapefriut infused with tobacco smoke,
is repulsive. I followed it with the smelling of the aguar diente and a good
splash of Agua Florida, then sucked on a hard candy to eliminate the awful
residue from my mouth. Larry and Moises followed suit and finally Julio served
himself. A few minutes later he blew out the kerosene lantern and the hut fell
into the darkness of a quiet jungle night. I closed my eyes and waited for
the twinkling light show to begin.
A series of hallucinations, beginning with a monkey smiling at me, whose grin
enlarged until it became a hideous mouth jabbering obsenities, passing through
a visit with some Indian friends I’d been dreaming about and a trip to
the funhouse of desires and fears culminated with an unexpected visit from
my first wife, Clare. I hadn’t seen her in years—though she’d
remarried I still occasionally missed her terribly—and her appearance
surprised me. Moreso, her request that I stop holding on to her and simply
let her go. When I told her I was trying, she repremanded me and told me that
there was no trying, that the very idea of trying to let her go was keeping
a part of us from moving on. I was simply to set her free forever.
Clare’s visit was so painful—and at the same time so direct and
honest—that I thought it the lesson for the night and imagined that my
visions were finished. They weren’t. Shortly thereafter a voice I’d
never heard before, and one which did not come from a body of any sorts, said
Who are you?” I asked, terrfied.
You know who I am,” it answered plainly.
I did. I felt it was the spirit of ayahuasca, or some spirit from some other
place. It certainly wasn’t like talking with the spirit of my mother,
or my ex-wife. It was nothing I’d come to expect from ayahuasca, a disembodied
voice that had a purpose and it scared the heck out of me.
When I asked what it wanted, the voice responded that it was I who called it,
that it was I who was always calling it. I told it that I didn’t mean
to, that I was drinking ayahuasca just to be able to function better out in
the jungle, to visit friends in distant places.... The voice cut me off and
told me I was lying, that astral travel and visiting friends were simply parlor
tricks it used to discover who really wanted to work. And since I kept returning
it was for somethig more than parlor tricks. That I was really calling it because
I needed to confront my desires and fears, and my immense sorrow.
I knew what the voice said was true, but it didn’t stop there. It asked
if it could come into me, and I instantly had a vision of a snake wrapping
itself around my head, and then my head opening, as if my brain had been cut
in half. It looked like the honeycombs of a beehive and dozens of snakes appeared
and began sliding into the tunels of my brain. At first it felt wonderful,
as if an immense power were entering me, but in moments I began to grow afraid,
not sure whether the snakes were good spirits or not. My fear mounted and I
thought that if I allowed those snakes to disappear in my brain I would never
get them out again. The thought was horrifying and I began pulling them out
by their tails. I was somehow convinced that the voice wasn’t the voice
of ayahuasca at all but of a malevolent spirit that wanted to take me over
for some reason I couldn’t fathom. The more I fought the harder they
were to dislodge. The harder they were to dislodge the more I was convinced
that I would never be the same if I didn’t win the battle.
And then, the moment I got the last snake out I began to doubt my decision:
I wondered whether or not I’d failed some grand test and began to feel
small and ashamed. I asked the voice why it seemed to be testing me and it
answered that it had already given me so many gifts that I should have some
faith and trust. The voice didn’t sound angry or disappointed. It just
said I shouldn’t ask for so much without giving anything in return. Then
The rest of the evening I felt smaller and smaller, as though my failure to
accept the snakes were a reflection on my whole life, representative of all
my failures. My ego was shattered mercilessly, and in trying to put it back
together I had the awful realization that it was not only I who knew how small
I was, but that Julio and Larry and Moises could see me for the pathetic and
weak human being I was as well. And dwelling on that brought on the thought
that the only way to keep them from telling everyone else, the only way to
keep from being found out for who I was, was to kill them. And in that state
it seemed quite normal that if I killed them with a machete and threw their
bodies into the river, I could make my way back to Iquitos and claim there
had been a late night fishing accident in which a cayman had knocked over our
canoe. Of course by the time anyone could get to Julio’s to check on
the others the river scavengers, from piranhas to vultures and cayman would
have taken care of the bodies and left no trace of how I’d killed them.
Part of me told myself not to do anything like that. Part of me couldn’t
imagine living with the knowledge that the others would see me for the small
and pathetic human I was.
Just then I felt warm smoke on my face and opened my eyes. Julio was standing
over me, a mapacho in his hand. “You don’t have to do everything
you see in an ayahuasca vision, Pedrito,” he said. “Still, I think
I will take the machetes and put them away.”
Instantly I felt better. I felt horrible, actually, because I realized that
on a very human plane he had seen me at my smallest, but better because of
the simple way in which he had brought me back from a terrible brink.
It wasn’t until sometime later that I told Julio of the voice
and the vision of the snakes. When I did he told me I’d probably
missed a great opportunity, that it was rare that ayahuasca was so generous,
and that if ever another snake wanted to come in I should by all means
welcome it and make my body its home. An ayahuasca snake dwelling within
me, he said, would not only serve to protect me from bad spirits, but
on the physical level I would know who bad people were the minute I met
them—sometimes even when I just saw them on the street—and
so could avoid bad or troublesome confrontations.
Naturally I began looking for snakes from that moment on, and of course,
even when I saw them—quite common under the influence of ayahuasca
when taken out in the jungle—none had the least interest in entering
me. It wasn’t until early 1993, in fact, that a snake came into
me, and by that time I had stopped looking for one.
I’d been commissioned to do some medicinal plant collecting on
the Yavari river, the border between Peru and Brazil, a political and
geographical no man’s land. I’d been on the river before,
but this trip was going to be different because I would be captaining
my own boat, a trip I estimated would take a month, most of that in territory
where small villages or military outposts would be at least one boat-day
I’d rented a small Brazilian riverboat, the Rey David, a wooden-hulled
40 foot beauty with a 26 horsepower inboard deisel engine. My crew included
the owner’s son, who would act as motorist, taking care of the
engine, a driver who would share the driving duties with me, and a woman
named Gilma Aguilar Chavez, who had grown up on the river—her family
ran riverboats—and was one of the few people in Iquitos who knew
the river and it’s treacherous currents well enough to keep us
out of trouble.
But while the scenario was something out of Indiana Jones, the reality
terrified me: I’d never had my own boat before, didn’t know
if my estimates on time, fuel and food would be accurate, and I’d
be carrying a beautiful woman to the Yavari—where pirates, terrorists,
smugglers and boat hijackers were part and parcel of daily life. I decided
to visit Julio and see if I couldn’t glimpse anything I should
avoid while on the river.
While most of the evening’s experience didn’t seem noteworthy—most
of the river imagery seemed calm—there was one point in the journey
when I felt I was being attacked by dozens of goulish faces and didn’t
know how to deflect them. I already knew—Julio had already taught
me—that the spirits from the other side couldn’t physically
cross the boundary into our world to hurt me, but I was still frightened
by them. They were colorful, demonic images that weren’t in my
sphere of sight as much as they were physically intimidating me. And
then suddenly, unexpectedly, a large, thick boa appeared and began to
consume and dispel them with a terrible ferocity, a bellowing, wild,
uncontrolled fierceness that surprised me. The goulish visions, those
the snake didn’t consume, scattered instantly, and in another instant
the snake slithered quickly into my mouth, and down into my belly. l
didn’t fight it. I don’t know that I could have. It was just
suddenly there. And I knew, though it seemed strange to me, that I would
have an ally for my trip.
Once we left Iquitos, perhaps a week after my trip to Julio’s,
I didn’t give much thought—other than occasional amazement—to
the idea that a spirit snake was living in my belly. The first four days
on the river—the time it took to reach the Yavari—were so
exhilerating that I didn’t give much thought to anything except
the sheer excitement of having my own boat and being out on the Amazon.
On the fifth day, the day we turned up the Yavari, I meditated on the
idea of what an ally, if I really had such a thing, could do, but it
wasn’t until the eighth night that I realized its power.
We were four days from nowhere, and hadn’t even collected our first
plant yet, as the intention was to collect from local Indians and we
still hadn’t reached the first Indian village. It was near midnight
and we’d been warned at the last military outpost we’d passed
that there was a pirate boat working the river. Because of that potential
danger we kept going several hours after we normally would have tied
up to a tree at riverside in an effort to reach the Brazilian military
post of Peleton. But shortly before we estimated arrival, a single spotlight
from a boat appeared just after the last bend in the river behind us,
probably a mile back. We didn’t think anything of it until the
light began gaining, and didn’t begin to panic until it wouldn’t
respond to our signals to it.
The boat, one similar to ours but with much more powerful engine, took
less than an hour to cut the distance between us. And, being weaponless
except for machetes and knives, there was little we could do to keep
it from approaching. When it reached us it pulled up directly alongside
us. There were probably a dozen men on board, all of them drunk. They
shouted at us to stop, and I asked my motorman what we should do.
They are probably going to kill us,” he said, “then steal
our motor and sink the boat.”
So what should we do David?” I fairly shouted, absolutely scared
and feeling utterly helpless.
I am going to go over to their boat and drink with them. I don’t
know what you are going to do.”
“ And if I go too?”
“ They will probably still kill you.”
And with that he and my driver jumped onto the other boat. The men began
to laugh at us, their faces almost cartoonish, almost goulish to me.
And it suddenly occurred to me that those were the faces I’d seen
when I’d been at Julio’s, and in that moment I silently called
on the snake to help me if it were possible.
There was no real time to think. The men were about to come aboard and
I knew I couldn’t let that happen. I told Gilma to get below deck
to the crawl space—I didn’t think having a beautiful woman
in full view would be in our best interests in the face of a dozen drunks
without women—grabbed a machete and a knife, and with fear as my
guide began to shout to the men in English that the first one to step
on my boat would lose his hand. I said it out of complete terror, but
it came out of me with a ferocity that surprised them enough to make
them hesitate. So I said it again. I knew they didn’t understand
my English but they seemed to be getting the point. Just then Glima appeared
What the fuck are you doing here?” I screamed. “I told you
What do you have?” she said, indicating my weaponry.
“ A machete and a knife.”
Well,” she said, brandishing a machete, “now we have two
And with that we both began shouting at them, daring them to step across.
Thank god they didn’t, but for the next hour it seemed as if they
would, until they either grew tired of listening to us or the alcohol
exhausted them. In any event none of them boarded us and the scene finally
became almost comical, with us—in an effort to get them to leave
and knowing that they needed to save face in order to do that—explaining
that they were indeed dangrous and could have killed us, but were intelligent
enough to know that as a gringo I would have a paper trail and that killing
me would certainly lead to their capture and subsequent demise.
They finally seemed satisfied that they’d frightened us sufficiently
and had regained enough face to leave, and just before dawn they started
their engines and moved off in the direction they’d come from.
My two men rejoined us just before they pulled off—I couldn’t
run the boat without them—congratulating us on the way Gilma and
I had handled things, but I knew their congratulations belonged more
with the snake than me: I do not believe my initial comments would have
made the men hesitate, would have been powerful enough to make the pirates
physically hesitate, if that ally had not given my voice an extra dimention
that masked my fear with fearlessness.
The remainder of the trip, which lasted 31 days and covered more than
1,500 river miles, produced no similar experiences and in the end proved
very successful: we collected a number of interesting medicinal plants,
including a new species, and I ended up marrying Gilma shortly afterwards.
Even before my marriage, Iquitos felt like a second home to me: I’d
spent two or three months a year there—or working in the jungle
out of Iquitos—for ten years, but after my marriage there was no
doubt about it. I adopted Gilma’s two young boys from a previous
marriage, Italo and Marco, and looked more than ever for work there.
I collected plants, I collected artifacts for the American Museum of
Natural History, I wrote about the city and surrounding jungle and its
peoples as often as I could, and my time increased to four or five months
a year there.
Another American who had actually moved there in 1993 or early 1994 was
Alan Shoemaker. Forty years old, bright, good looking and much more a
student of ayahuasca—someone actually studying it rather than simply
using it—than I, we quickly became friends. Alan had spent some
time studying both ayahuasca and San Pedro, a desert cactus and one of
the major Power Plants (7) used for curing in the Peruvian and Equadorian
highlands, in Ecuador before moving to Pulcallpa in Peru to study ayahuasca
there, an apprenticeship that eventually led him to Iquitos. There he
studied and drank with different curandero’s than I did, though
on occasion he had invited me to drink with him at the home of a young
ayahuasquero named Juan who lived in a shanty town just outside Iquitos’ airport.
On one of those occasions, probably in 1995, I got my first glimpse of
Alan had received the terrible news that his mother had been diagnosed
with liver cancer. Her prognosis was not good, and he asked whether I
would be willing to drink ayahuasca with him at Juan’s to try to
take a look at her ailment to see just how severe it was, and, if we
were lucky, to see a cure.
It was a rediculous proposition on the face of it. I knew nothing about
the human anatomy, certainly not enough to recognize a liver, and moreover
one that was cancerous, during a visionary state, and I had never looked
for a cure for anything while under the influence of ayahuasca. Still,
it was my friend’s mother and he was worried, so I agreed. It was
Alan’s idea, though I didn’t know it till afterward, that
we would both look for his mother’s ailment, and, if we both happened
to see something similar, he would have confidence in what he would later
tell her. It was a desperate plan.
The evening we were to drink war clear but moonless. We arrived at Juan’s,
a two-storey plank house that Alan had built for him, just before nine.
Juan and his wife and children came out to greet us, along with two neighbors
who were going to drink as well. As Juan, who’s ceremony was different
but as simple as Julio’s, was not ready to serve us as yet, I spent
a half-hour in his back yard—overgrown second growth jungle with
a small stream running through it—thinking about what I’d
been asked to do and asking my snake for any help it might be able to
When it was time, Juan called me in, then began the ceremony. He offered
his prayers and lit his mapachos, served us, then blew out the lights.
Within a few minutes the twinkling light show had begun, and half-an-hour
later I stepped outside to vomit—that glorious ayahuasca retch
(6) that brinks up and eliminates some of the bile in our lives, then
returned and began to concentrate on the work at hand. I couldn’t.
Every time I thought I was on the brink of letting go I had the feeling
that I was being watched. But I saw nothing—with my eyes closed—that
intimidated or frightened me. No hallucinations, no visions. Still, I
found it impossible to get comfortable and finally decided to open my
eyes and reorient myself to the real world.
The moment I did I saw a movement in front of me to my left. I thought
it might be Juan—I’d heard him leave to go vomit—but
it wasn’t. It was more a shadowy, red-brown object that seemed
to be moving toward me in stealthy, almost aikido-like slide steps. I
was afraid but decided not to look away. The object came closer. I kept
looking. Closer by another foot. Then another. And then I could make
out that it was a crouched man, sliding across the floor to me. I thought
my recognition of the spirit would make it disappear, but it kept coming,
setalthily, moving side to side, about a foot at a time. I grew terrified.
If Juan had been there I would have asked him to get rid of it, but Juan
hadn’t returned. And the man kept coming. I had no idea what he
wanted, so I silently asked. The answer was a simple and clear, “You.”
There was something horrible in the way that simple word was said. And
at the same time my fear grew so did my anger at Juan. He was the one
who’d made the ayahuasca, after all, he was the one who invited
the spirits. He should have been there to insure that no malevolent spirits
entered. He should have been singing his icaros and shaking his leaf
rattle to keep them out. But he was nowhere in the room. There was nothing
to do but confront this being, though I had no idea what that meant.
“ What do you want from me?”
There was no answer, just another slide step and suddenly the being was
closer. And then, without asking for help, I felt my mouth open and out
came the snake. It’s mouth opened wide and in a moment it had consumed
the spirit and reentered my body. I relaxed almost instantly, and just
as I did I remembered something that Alan had told me: if you see a spirit
you should ask if it is your teacher. If it is, it will say so. If it
is not it will go away. I had never seen a spirit with my eyes open before
and don’t know that that would have worked but was angry at myself
for having forgotten the lesson.
I remembered it a few minutes later when two women, a young girl and
a woman old enough to be her mother, began walking across the room—Juan
still hadn’t returned—snickering at me. This time I was still
fearful but less so, confident that my snake was watching out for me.
The women walked slowly in an arc, never coming closer than maybe ten
feet, but there was something ominous about them. And as they reached
the center of my vision they bent down and began to pick up stones, laughing
with each other that they were going to kill me with them. I suddenly
blurted out, silently, “Are you my teachers?” and just as
I mentally uttered it their faces contorted to rage and they hurled their
stones at me. But the stones turned to tissue as they flew from their
hands and fell harmlessley to the floor of the hut. The women, still
enraged, stepped away from the arc they had been making and disappeared
into the darkness of the room. I said a silent thank you to Alan.
Juan reentered and began to sing. Sure nothing else was going to happen—I
felt the lesson was to remember the lesson Alan had taught me—I
relaxed and closed my eyes again. There was nothing but deep silence
and the far away sound of Juan’s beautiful voice. And then I remembered
Alan’s mother. The moment I did I felt the snake coming out and
asked whether it could take me to her. I had no idea of where she lived
except that it was somewhere in Kentucky, but that didn’t seem
to matter. In moments I felt as though I was zooming through dark space
on the back of the snake, and moments later, though I hadn’t seen
the street or the house or even his mother, I was looking at the insides
of a human, particularly at what looked like a brown over-stuffed, double-wide
hero sandwich. I wasn’t sure but took it to be the liver. And on
top of it, almost coming out of it, there was something that looked like
a sausage, or several feet of sausage, all red and white and twisted
badly. Some part of me, I won’t even begin to imagine how to explain
it, picked up the sausage and saw that it wasn’t really growing
on the liver, but rather was a tube into the liver and the sensation
I had was that something was blocking the sausage from cleaning itself
out. It looked to me—how, I don’t know, but I just sensed
it—that if she could simply unblock that tube there would be no
more cancer. I tried to imagine how she might do that and very simply
the idea of Una de Gato(8) tea, with something else I didn’t recognize,
came to me.
And then I was back in Juan’s home and I heard Alan moving across
the floor and leaving by the side entrance. In a moment I heard him begin
to shit and Juan laughed and said it was good that Alan was cleaning
himself out because he often didn’t and so was missing one of the
good physical things about ayahuasca. I laughed too and said I was glad
that Alan had made it outside, he might have really stunk up the place
if he hadn’t.
And then Juan asked me to sing an icaro. It was a surprising question,
one no one had ever asked me before. I told him I didn’t know any.
How many years have you been drinking ayahuasca and you still don’t
know any icaros?” he sighed.
Ayahuasca just never gave me any,” I answered.
I don’t believe you,” he said. “You’re just embarassed
I just don’t have a song.”
And then, completely unexpectedly, I found myself sitting up and a few,
weak notes coming out of my mouth. Na na na na nana na, na nana na na
nana. I sang them again. There weren’t any words, and it wasn’t
like the beautiful icaros Juan sang; the notes didn’t resonate
like the gentle thunder from Julio’s songs, but it was a song.
A real song I’d never heard before, and simple as it was I kept
repeating it until I felt certain I wouldn’t forget it.
I thought you had a song,” Juan laughed when I finally stopped.
I didn’t until now.”
Yes you did, you just didn’t know it.”
I felt at once touched and certain that I’d cribbed it from something
Julio sang just to please Juan. But I couldn’t place it, and it
was so simple that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a gift.
An hour later the sun was beginning to rise and Alan and I thanked Juan
and headed for town. When we got to the main square we sat at a local
place for a glass of water with lemon and garlic—good for a post-ayahuasca
Over coffee Alan asked me if I’d seen his mother. I told him what
I’d seen and showed him a picture I’d drawn while making
notes before we left Juan’s. I also told him about the Una de Gato
and the unrecognizeable plant mixed into a tea that I’d seen, but
was quick to add that I might have only thought of that because Una de
Gato was such a good basic medicine.
That’s the same thing I saw,” he said, cutting me off. “And
do you know what else I saw? I also saw that if she drinks Una de Gato
with Sacha Gergon (9) she won’t even have any cancer in a month.”
I didn’t believe him, of course, but he believed what we both saw,
called his mother and told her the good news. She went ahead with her
Western medicine treatments anyway but included the medicine Alan sent
her in her regimen. On getting ready to start her second round of western
treatment, however, it was apparent that what Alan had prescribed had
had an effect: his mother’s doctors were amazed to find that they
could find no trace of cancer. So clean was her liver that a second set
of doctors was brought in and they decided that there must have been
an error in not only the first biopsys but that her X-Rays had been confused
with those of someone else. Her initial doctors had no explaination but
knew that they would not have begun treatment if she hadn’t had
cancer. Even Alan’s mother was at a loss. But Alan and I weren’t.
The spirits came through that night,” Alan said.
I know,” I answered. “Scary, isn’t it?”
And it was, to me at least. I had been raised a Catholic, though it had
been years since I’d practiced, and so the ideas of spirits and
helping guardian angels was something I’d been taught to accept
at an early age. And having done a fair amount of hallucinogenic experimentation
I knew the world was not nearly as solid as I’d once thought. Experiences
like speaking with my mother, travelling to friends, being born, while
I couldn’t grasp their real meaning in this world and on this plane,
I could still accept. But the act of seeing a disorder in a human I’d
never met and coming up with a cure for it—or even a partial cure—while
under the influence of ayahuasca was intimidating as hell because I still
couldn’t see the whole picture, and didn’t even know there
was a whole picture to see.
I got a glimpse of that picture a year later. My wife and kids and I
had accompanied my mother-in-law to Lima for the initiation of her radiotherapy
for uterine cancer. Before the therapy could begin, however, our plans
changed. We hadn’t been down a week before our seven-year old,
Marco, gave us a scare when he took a tremendous fall and really lambasted
his head on a pile of stone being used for street construction. We ran
him to the doctor but there was nothing apparently wrong other than a
large bruise and some bloody hair. No stitches, nothing. Satisfied that
it was just a kid’s fall, I forgot about it. The next day his eyes
were puffy, nearly closed, but I thought that just the residue of the
fall and ignored it.
But two days later, when his eyes were still swollen, my wife insisted
on taking him back to the doctor. I assured her that it was only the
reaction to a spider bite or a bee sting but she wouldn’t hear
of it. When she returned a half an hour later she said the doctor thought
it was an allergic reaction to something he’d had to eat in Lima
and would soon pass.
Two hours or so later, Marco went to take a pee while my wife was putting
on makeup. A few moments later I heard my wife scream. I asked her what
was up and she told me to take a look at Marco’s scrotum. I did:
it was the size of a large grapefruit, the skin stretched so taught you
could see through it. His penis was engorged as well, perhaps eight or
ten inches long, filled with fluid.
We rushed him to the emergency room at a nearby hospital where, after
several hours of tests the doctors told us Marco’s kidneys were
failing—which was why he was regtaining so much water in his soft
tissue—and as they didn’t know why, the best they could do
was try to stabilize him for the short term but we’d be smart to
call a priest since he was in a very dangerous position.
It is impossible to even begin to explain the overwhelming feelings of
fear, helplessness, hopelessness, anger and grief that overcome a parent
at a moment like that. You cry, shout at the doctors and curse whatever
god you believe in all at the same time. You want to run away, set back
the clock, trade places with your kid. You demand new doctors, new tests,
a new hospital, anything that might produce something different than
what you’ve just been told.
The doctors assured us they would do everything they could, including
bringing in Lima’s child-kidney specialist, who had already been
called. There was nothing we could do but sit with Marco, who didn’t
feel sick a bit and thought his gargantuan penis was teriffic.
The specialist, Dr. Rivas, arrived shortly and gave Marco a battery of
new tests. When he finished he said our best bet was to try to stabilize
Marco with steroids, which he’d already begun.
Then he asked a peculiar question. “Do you believe in black magic?”
Why?” I asked.
Because you keep asking me to tell you what went wrong and the answer
is nothing. The equivelant of holes have appeared, and are continuing
to appear on Marco’s kidneys even as we take new X-Rays. There
is no known bug that does that. His problem is not caused by allergies,
bacteria, virus, germs, hereditary ailment, or any other logical or biological
explaination. In Peru, the next question is: Do you believe in black
magic, because it’s a very real thing here. Don’t worry,
I’m not crazy. I studied medicine in the States. We just don’t
rule it out here, and if you know anyone who might be trying to get at
either you or your son, it might be well to see a curandero. Because
if it was brought on by some spiritual action, it would be considerably
easier to remedy by the same type of action.”
It was the craziest speech I’d ever heard from a doctor and I thought
about it all night as we sat next to Marco while he slept. It turned
out we didn’t need a priest, he made it through the night, and
within a couple of days his condition stabilized. He was on 100 milligrams
of Prednisone a day, of course, and to combat its water retaining properties
he was also being given a Lasix drip every couple of days. It was a sad,
horrible and wretched time, and I pestered Dr. Rivas continually, until,
after about 10 days he simply insisted I leave not only the hospital
but Lima. My wife agreed and, thinking Marco stabilized enough to return
to Iquitos enroute to a New York doctor in a couple of days, I returned
to Iquitos with the thought of going to see Julio to see what he might
be able to see about Marco’s condition.
Three days later I disembarked from the small boat I’d rented onto
the riverbank and walked to Julio’s home. He agreed to make a ceremony
for me the following evening.
Julio started the ceremony about 9 PM. There was a quarter moon smiling
down and partially starry sky. Clouds would later spread a blanket over
As always, Julio spread a sheet of blue plastic on the raised floor of
his platform house on which he placed a kerosene lamp, the bottle of
ayahuasca, a botle of aguar diente infused with garlic and camphor, a
small bottle of rosewater perfume, a chacapa, mapacho cigarettes, matches,
his special stone and his old religious text.
He sat and cleared the air with tobacco smoke. He spoke of saints and
demons. He invoked them all to come and visit us tonight; to come with
calm and good intent into the little circle we made—I sat on the
floor opposite him—to come and teach us red magic, come green magic,
white macic and black magic. He read from the text and called on Saint
Sebastian and St. Cypriano.
He blew smoke to them all to both invite them and to keep the air calm
should any of the spirits he invoked come with bad intentions. Then he
said a quiet incantation for me and when he was finished asked me how
much I wanted to drink. I asked if it was strong. He misunderstood and
poured less than an ounce into a little cup and began to pass it to me.
I said more and more again until the cup was half full with the thick
brown liquid. He blew smoke into the cup, told me which point to drink
from and handed it to me.
I drank. It was thick, warm and wretched. I nearly vomited getting it
down. Six gulps and on the last, I felt my stomach clench and had to
fight to keep it from coming up. I managed only by smelling the bottle
of aguar diente and lighting one of the foul mapachos.
Julio then incanted for himself and drank just a little, wiped himself
with his medicaments and then we waited.
I had seen him making the ayahuasca and thought it would be strong, but
with Julio there I felt confident that I would be able to handle whatever
happened. I just tried to remind myself not to fight the dissolution
of my ego when it occurred.
Within about 20 minutes, Julio chanting beautifully, I began to get mariada,
a little drunk, and Julio put out the lamp. I closed my eyes and waited.
In another 20 minutes or so I could feel a sudden rush to my head. Something
thick and fast and a little scary. A sort of lift off of immese and sudden
certainty was occurring. I got frightened and reminded myself that it
was only a few hours, wouldn’t kill me, I was with Julio, doing
what I’d come to do and should rely on thinking about Marco rather
than my evaporating ego.
In front of me, eyes open or closed, patterns appeared; moving geometric
shapes, cathedral ceilings, lots of green crystals—beautiful.
The DMT show, the first stage of the experience, was amazing; everything
moving slowly, rhythmically, twisting. I was really high and lay down
to center myself, enjoying the rhythms of the color and motion and thinking
that something strong could happen. That I might very well breach the
dimentional barrier which seemed to be dissolving before my eyes.
And then the voice, gone for several years, suddenly asked in a very
clear voice: “What’s the matter? Are you afraid to sit up
and face what you’ve got coming?”
And I thought, No, so I sat up. In front of Julio’s house, just
on the other side of the platform where we sat, the trees had become
huge mantices ready to march. They were emerald green and glistening
despite the absolute pitch of the night, and normally would have frightened
my pants off, but I was with Julio and being in the presence of a man
of immense power, or a spirit of immense power, coupled with his soothing
singing of his ayahuasca songs, I didn’t get trapped in the idea
of the trees as mantices. I was also able to see them as trees, emerald
and glistening and full of spirit, not malice.
Besides, I sensed that they weren’t what the voice meant when it
asked if I was afraid to see what I had coming.
The colors and motion and patterns which normally dissipate after a few
minutes, didn’t. Rather, they intensified.
I saw lines of light, thin as lasers and individual, connect my fingers,
connect boards in the floor, connect ceiling beams. I tried to shake
them off—they were like spider webs and slightly terrifying—but
they were sticky and wouldn’t shake free. Then I realized they
were coming from on top of my head—not the top, but from above
my head, as if there were a tube coming out of my head eight or 12 inches
high and these lines of light were coming from that—zing! zing!
And I knew they weren’t bad, they were great. I didn’t have
control over how to shoot them out of me but I knew they came from me,
like I was seeing the lines of energy around me in a way that was clearer
than I’d ever seen them before.
I thought Julio was wonderful; sitting in utter darkness, a shape, a
mass of sorts, in utter black. I knew where he was sitting but couldn’t
make him out. I knew the singing in the air was his voice but it didn’t
come from him in any way I could identify. It was just sort of everywhere.
Not loud, but thick, like a blanket that covered everything, or protected
everything in our little circle like a webbing.
I started thinking about Marco, was aware that I was in touch with the
voice but wasn’t in control at all, or calm enough to get past
the images and patterns, the extraordinary lines of light.
And then, out of the blue, I felt my stomach clench. I leaned forward
and crawled the two meters to the edge of the kitchen floor to throw
up. The vomit came out of me like cannon fire, thick and hot, and blew
into the night. Then again. And again, like repeating cannon fire, four
times, five times, 10 times until I was empty and tearing and snot was
pouring out of my nose and I was exhausted and spent and it was all I
could do to lean against one of the house pillars while on my knees and
stare at my vomit down below the house. I thought I might see things
in it, like a mirror, but all I saw was the dark, shimmering fan-like
shape the liquid made on the ground below.
I gathered myself up and returned to my seat, my head empty except for
laughing at myself for getting so beat up by a little puking session.
I began to think about Marco again, about what made him ill and how to
ake him better. The snake in my stomach writhed a little and I said hello
And then a strange thing happened, unanticipated, like all good ayahuasca
I saw that all around me the patterns had converged and lost much of
their color. It seemed that I was looking at, and being in, a sort of
rolling mud slide, only the mud wasn’t sliding, it was just swirling
slowly, everywhere I looked, in all directions.
I realixed it was the motion of the muscles of a snake, a huge snake
I couldn’t dream of seeing in entirety, it was like the snake mother,
the same snake prayed to by the Hindus and the pre-Dravidians, the naga,
or one of them. Or if not a naga, still the spirit of ayahuasca. Julio
had once told me that if you see it you can ask it anything, so I asked,
from within the muscles of the beast, to tell me what was wrong with
Marco and how to cure him.
Almost instantly I saw Marco in the writing muscles of the snake, in
the folds of the muscles and the voice told me to get him, to take him
out of where he was.
I asked what that meant and was told I had to save him, that time was
running out. I called to Marco and he answered. I saw where he was and
went to get him; the folds of the snake’s muscles shifted and he
wasn’t where I saw him anymore.
The voice said to take this all very seriously, that I was to save Marco
or lose him.
I said I didn’t know how, that spiritual battles were for Julio,
who knows those things, not me. But I was told just to do it or lose
Marco. He was, I somehow knew, though it was a new idea for me, in someone’s
power, whatever that means. I told the voice that I didn’t know
how to save Marco, and it answered that I should use everything I had.
I said I didn’t have anything for this sort of fight. It said it
had given me everything I needed.
Suddenly, I remembered my song and my snake and I thought about those
thin white lines of light coming from my head and fingers and knew I
had those things at least and it seemed reasonable that they might be
powerful in this setting for this fight.
So I called to Marco again in the shifting muscles—the place he
was was clearly a snake’s sort of muscles, twisting and shifting
like a Chinese puzzle that opens all sorts of different ways but rarely
like you expect.
He answered and I went for him; when I got to where I thought he’d
be he was gone again, in a flash. I heard him and pushed through the
folds to reach him. The thing we were in moved again and he was gone.
He was being moved and held. He had his voice but not the strength to
come to me.
I wondered whether I wasn’t deluding myself, that it wasn’t
Marco at all but just my arrogance leading me to believe I was in some
sort of battle for his soul that was manifesting in his desease.
Marco called to me in English suddenly, asking me something. I forget
the phrase now, but it was something like “Hurry dad, I don’t
like it here.”
Then I knew that it was all fairly real, or real on some level. His voice
was so unexpected, so chilling, something I didn’t and couldn’t
have expected him to say. So I went after him again. Each time I did
the great snake writhed. It was so huge that a slight shift would move
Marco disappear. I couldn’t even see the bottom or top of the snake’s
insides. It was bigger than my field of vision.
I opened my mouth and sent my own snake out—not like I gave an
order, just asked if it could help, but it seemed to know what to do
before I even thought anything—I just opened my mouth it flew out
to help find Marco and I sang: Na na na na nana na, na na na nana nana
na...the singing seemed to open the coils so I could see Marco clearly,
But whatever was holding him was strong. It would rather let him die
than come to me. I had to fight hard, to will him to come. For five minutes
or two years I searched for him, found him 50 times and 50 times he disappeared.
Once I almost reached him, in a fold to my left, and he said something
like, “C’mon, dad” and then when I almost had him he
was gone again and I couldn’t hear him or see him for a long time
and the voice told me to keep looking, to take this seriously, and I
did and he was far away again when I found him, and when I got within
earshot I heard him crying for me to help him, that he didn’t like
it and couldn’t move. And then I remembered the lines of light.
I tried to make a lot of them to shoot to him but I couldn’t. But
a few did come out and must have grabbed him because he was suddenly
near and I reached for him and was able to grab his hand.
But as I did and was pulling him across some line, or out of the snake’s
coils or out of the grip of whatever had him, a kind of chasm opened
up and I wasn’t holding him tight enough and he slipped and began
And the voice said not to lose him now, so I sent my snake, or my snake
went, and I sang Na na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na na na...
and some light lines reached out for him and we all grabbed him but something
wasn’t letting us just take him. Something was keeping him from
I opened my eyes.
The voice told me Marco would die if I didn’t get him now. So I
went back to the battle and told him to reach for me, to grab the snake
and the lines, to get free.
And each time I sang the void, or chasm, not moving like the snake all
around it, seemed to give him up a little and so I sang and sang and
reached with the lines until finally I had him in my arms. And I held
him tight. Not really him, but like the sirit of him and I knew he was
free and I had somehow won, though I didn’t know how I’d
known what to do.
But then the voice told me I hadn’t done anything yet, that I had
to protect him or they would take him back. So I tried to make light
lines to weap him up, lines that would act as a barrier against anything
trying to grab him. I was hopelessly inadequate. I didn’t have
the power to spin such a web. I tried but couldn’t. Still, sudenly
a web began to spin around him while he was in my arms, fine, thin, strong
coils of light. Bright light wrapping him like a mummy.
And I thought, good, now he’s protected.
But the voice said no, I didn’t have the power to protect him.
Only Julio could do that and I better have Julio do it because the other
people, the other force, was about to attack, about to take Marco away
in a rush.
I knew I better have Julio sing a song to protect him, so I spoke out
loud and asked Julio “Can you sing a song to protect my son?”
I interrupted him, I think, and Julio asked me “What?”
I don’t know if I spoke in English or Spanish, my own voice sounded
But I knew I needed protection for Marco, and Julio asked how could he
sing for my son? I said “Just sing a song to protect him.”
He asked me his name. I said Marco. He asked me his age, I said seven.
I told Julio that I’d been told to ask him to sing and then he
did. A beautiful song. And I could feel Marco getting protected and when
he finished I felt like Marco was saved.
I opened my eyes. I was exhausted and sweating and I felt stone-cold
normal, like I’d used everything I had up and was empty.
And then I closed my eyes and the voice said I had been good.
I wondered how I’d won the fight. I don’t have any power.
But I knew it wasn’t me, it was ayahuasca, or the god of ayahuasca,
or the good spirits working through me that had done the work and I had
no right to arrogance.
I opened my mouth to let the snake back in and a snake started to come,
but I realized it wasn’t my snake and so I grabbed it. I realized
I was very vulnerable now and bad spirits were willing to take advantage
of my state of mind or exhaustion.
All sorts of snakes tried to come in. My own snake was still outside,
until finally I could see, or sense it coming and it came in and slid
down my belly easily. And I thanked it for helping and it sort of smiled.
I was proud and thankful and absolutely bewildered over the idea that
I’d been in such a spiritual fight. It was like I now had a glimpse
of what ayahuasca really was and how it cured. I felt I’d been
taught a great lession.
Then I wondered who it was that might have put a spell on Marco and I
thought of his birth father. I didn’t think so. I thought past
him to his mother, Marco’s grandmother, though i didn’t know
her, and thought maybe she was angry that we hadn’t brought Marco
to see her all this year and maybe it wasn’t brujheria at all but
sort of misguided love that became like long fingernails clutching him
until they’d somehow torn those holes in his kidneys.
Julio interrupted my thoughts to ask me if Marco had fallen before he
got sick. I said yes. He said people were often most vulnerable to brujheria
when they’d fallen and were disoriented. If something had grabbed
Marco that might have been the time. He also said I’d better see
a doctor about it.
And then I had the image of Marco’s head when he’d fallen
and without thinking I bent down to it and sucked out a red, wet, fleshy
lump. It came out easily. The sucking out was so simple and clean that
it was amazing. The sensations were real, the fleshiness an absolute
surprise. I was going to spit it out, but I remembered something I’d
once heard an elderly Native American medicine woman say about such things: “You
can’t just suck out bad things and throw them away or they will
land on someone else—negative things have a life of their own” So
instead I imagined putting it in a rock and sending it to space and burying
it in a barren place where such things were put.
The next morning I bathed in the river—a standard ritual after
ayahuasca to close yourself after the plant has opened you up—thanked
Julio for his generosity and started back to Iquitos. My mind filled
with wonder and curiousity: Had anything really happened? Had any of
it been more than an hallucination? It all certainly felt real, but I’d
have no way of knowing. I certainly didn’t expect Marco to be better
because of what had apparently happened: Dr. Rivas had already warned
us that it would take months to wean Marco off the steroids, and the
side effects of those would make him appear ill even if his kidneys were
Still, the voice, the battle, the tools I’d been given—or
lent—to work with, all if it was so unexpected that even outside
of the jungle on a crowded river boat it still felt real.
My family arrived back in Iquitos two days after I did: Marco all puffed
up like an overstuffed water balloon but otherwise okay. He’d been
put on a special diet, was taking several medicines and needed constant
monitoring for his condition, but six months later he was finally free
of the Prednisone and is still doing well. I still don’t know for
sure whether anything happened to help him that night or not.
later my family and I decided it was time to move to Iquitos for a
and I had, by that time, had a baby girl, Madeleina
Lydia, so we were quite a group. Never having had to support us there
for more than a few months at a time, I rented a building near the port
and we opened The Cold Beer Blues Bar/Restaurant Madeleina, which quickly
became a hangout for ex-pats. I also had agreed with an agency that set
up tours to take occasional groups into the jungle for two weeks on what
I called an Amazon Jaunt. Though I’d never done anything like that
before I made up an itinerary of things I would enjoy sharing with people:
Using Iquitos and our bar as the trip’s hub, we would go out into
the jungle three times, each of those ending with an ayahuasca experience.
The first leg we’d travel to Julio, the second would involve a
visit with Don Jose, an old curandero on a small crystal clear, black-water
river, and the third leg would be a two day stay at the botanical reserve
of Sachamama—a short distance past Iquitos’ airport—where
we’d drink with Don Ramon and Francisco.
The trip would be difficult, with lots of hiking and travelling on overcrowded
riverboats; my guests would have to help carry the gear, and we’d
be sleeping either in the jungle itself or on the floors of platform
huts. I didn’t know how many people would want that kind of tour—absolute
Amazon reality you might call it—but I was hoping enough would
to feed my family.
My first group was arranaged to arrive just a month-and-a-half after
we did, and I spent a good deal of that time running around Iquitos with
Larry—whom I’d talked into coming down to help me with my
first group—buying hammocks, mosquito nets, boots, pots and pans
and the thousand and one other things the trip would require. As the
day of my small group’s arrival approached I grew more and more
nervous: what if the trip stunk? What if they hated me? What if nobody
got the ayahuasca experience to the full extent? What if all they got
was bitten by insects?
Larry worked at keeping me calm and focused as much as helping me compile
and execute my shopping lists. And Alan, over coffee one day, reminded
me to stay calm about the ayahuasca end of things.
Listen, Pete, nobody’s going to die. You’ll handle it just
fine. Just remember to tell them that if they see anything they don’t
like they should just use their breath and blow it away, change the television
Does that work?” I asked, surprised.
You don’t know that? Of course it works. Just blow it away.”
“ I never heard that before.”
My god, Pete, you mean all this time you’ve been stuck looking
at the bad stuff?”
“ I guess so. I mean, I had no idea you could get rid of a bad vision that
That’s one of the problems you have with refusing to read about
other people’s ayahuasca experiences. You miss a lot.”
I guess so. On the other hand, whatever I see I know wasn’t put
there by someone else.”
That’s the tradeoff. But don’t forget the breath. Use it
just the same way Julio and the other ayahuasqueros use it when they’re
breath-whistling their icaros. Purse your lips and direct a small stream.”
I knew breathing was important, and the control of breath vital for some
of the healing I’d seen curanderos do, but I’d honestly never
heard that you could change what you were seeing with it. I determined
to try it as soon as I had the chance.
A few days later my group arrived, two men, two women. The younger man
and woman, Mike and Rochelle, were a former couple, it turned out, trying
to work through some things; the other man, Addison, was a Texas lawyer
going through a mid-life crisis, and the other woman, Jane, was heir
to a sizeable working farm in the midwest who was an adventure buff.
Over beers at one of my favorite bars, a wooden shack built on an overhang
overlooking Iquito’s floating raft slum—fifty foot pole stilts
kept it from falling into the river—we got to know each other a
little. And for the first time I found myself explaining the ayahuasca
experience to people who had never had it but were looking forward to
it. I’d never thought of it that way: other than my wife and kids
(who only got a taste) I’d never been the one to introduce someone
to it. The reality was that despite the number of times I’d done
it, I really knew very little about it. I explained how it was made,
that it was used by almost everyone in Iquitos periodically, that ayahuasqueros
saw illness—physical, emotional and spiritual—as the symptoms
of disturbances on some other level, and so tried to access those other
levels in order to effect a cure there which would alleviate the symptoms
here. How that was done I had no idea. I told them a little about my
experience with Marco, but added that I didn’t know I wasn’t
just hallucinating, and suggested that on the first time out—which
I told them would not be a full dose—they might try to record anything
they saw in a notebook immediately after the experience so that they
could check it later. At the same time I didn’t want to tell them
what I saw under its influence so as not to get them looking for something
that would prevent them from experiencing their own visions.
Three days later we were at Julio’s, ready to drink. The circle
included my four guests, Larry, Gilma, Julio and myself. A friend of
Larry’s, Drake—who was very familiar with ayahuasca—had
come along as well but wasn’t drinking as he’d agreed to
act as guide for anyone who needed to vomit or shit, a very generous
The ceremony began as usual, with the laying out of Julio’s blue
plastic and other necessities, after which he called to the spirits,
and began to serve: half portions for those who’d never had it,
and full portions for Gilma, Larry and I. The ayahuasca was thick and
awful, the familiar taste of burnt grapefruit infused with black tobacco
both comforting and appalling. As I swallowed I imagined it might be
strong, considering how light the doses he’d given the newcomers
were. When all were served Julio blew out the kerosene lamps. It couldn’t
have been thirty seconds later when I felt myself begin to pulse and
the little dots of green light, sharp, precise, exhilerating, began to
twinkle in the darkness. Moments later they began to multiply and form
connecting beams that soon became the fantistic green-domed cathedral
ceiling of the universe that marks the initial stages of ayahuasca reverie.
The speed with which the pulsing irridescent green geometric pattern
formed surprised me, and I opened my eyes to see if I wasn’t dreaming.
To my left, one of my guests, Addison, had broken into a green geometic
energy pattern. To my right Larry was cracking into shards of green crystal
and everywhere else the pattern was invading all shapes until the world,
what little I could make out in the darkness, was breaking into the fine
green crystaline shapes.
The voice of Julio in the background, his simple icaros coupled with
the chic-chic-chic of his leaf fan was a reassuring heartbeat. I turned
to Larry and whispered, as best I could: “Julio can really cook!” then
took one more look at Addison to my left, who had dissolved into pieces
of green glass and asked if he was alright. He said he was fine and I
closed my eyes again and let the ride begin.
Or rather, I should say I was blown onto my back by an awareness that
I’d better ground myself while I had time. The moment I lay down
the patterns of the green cathedral ceiling gave way to more solid green
colors: green air and shapes that quicly became a glorious ride in the
funhouse, replete with roller coaster ups and downs, faces out of nowhere,
images of funny and scary faces coming at me like I was in the dark part
of the funhouse at Coney Island. It was a glorious funhouse that soon
brought me to the place of funny mirrors, me in each one, sometimes long
and skinny, sometimes short and fat, sometimes impossibly stupid, sometimes
intelligent. And sometimes the mirrors reflected parts of my soul, both
good and bad: The frightened, small person, the arrogant ass, the phony,
the bad father, the drinker, all of my bad things magnified in the mirror
veritas. I managed to let them pass, apppreciating them but not letting
them terrify me into catatonia.
After the moments or years it took to ride the funhouse attractions the
world began to turn into a vast array of DNA code lines. They glistened
and held the secrets of the universe, They were vertical at first, then
went horizontal. Thousands combined to become just a few, They began
to join and turn slowly, becoming the true twisted strand of DNA. And
then the back wall of the universe opened and I realized they weren’t
just twisted strands of DNA, they were the spinnings wings of a bicycle
bi-plane being ridden by a laughing and joyeus Julio. A Julio as he is
on the other side, old but huge, a force capable of riding the bicycle
that propels the universe, rocking back and forth in time to his earthly
icaros, wearing an open and generous grin, his eyes sparkling and shooting
out lines of warm and comforting light.
I found myself laughing in awe and admiration. All of the motion of that
world was being powered at that moment by Julio pedaling the pedals that
spun the wheels that moved the wings of the green fractal bi-plane. It
was the first time I’d seen him on the other side and with the
image my confidence elevated enormously and I felt I were in the arms
of warmth and tickled by a kind of love I’d never felt before.
Julio disappeared and a huge vase filled with thin deep red, almost purple
flower stems appeared. The tulip shaped flowers were dripping with the
same deep red juice of the stems and a voice asked if I wanted to drink.
It was the sort of thing I’ve said no to in the past but with Julio
running the universe I couldn’t resist, despite my fears, and a
stem was given to me. I took a few drops of the nectar and wondered what
would happen or what I was being invited to be a part of. In moments
a terrible wind began to blow. A wind that started at the beginning or
end of the universe and the world blew away and suddenly I was alone
in a in a sort of void, ungrounded, feeling that I was at the place where
all things are born and all things die. Wind rushed through me and I
felt as though I were going to be blown away by them. The only thing
I saw to clutch onto was the bottom of a piece of material—so large
I couldn’t see what it was—that was flapping in the ferocious
wind. I reached for it and grabbed hold as the wind became the Four Winds
of creation and rushed through me in all directions. I might have been
holding onto the sail that directs the universe or the bag that holds
it or the coattail of the spirit that holds the coattail of creation.
The winds almost tore me apart and I was small, so small that I couldn’t
even be afraid. I was in the land of awe, the place where my mother is
and which she said she couldn’t explain to me. I knew now why:
It was incomprehensible. It was beginning and end and beginning again
of all things. It was the place of places and I knew it was a place where
all I had to do was ask and I would know. But even as I thought that
I knew I couldn’t ask anything of those terrible winds or of the
place or its beings: I could do nothing be in absolute still awe. It
was not somewhere I’ve seen in a dream or vision. It was the isness,
the being I was in the presense of and it was terrible and brilliant
and cold. I laughed quietly and heard Julio singing in the background.
It was almost more than I could bear.
A howler monkey began to wail in the jungle outside the hut, adding it’s
ferocious howl to the noise of the wind. And then a wind that I will
hear coming for me when it is time to go to that place for real began
to scream. The message was clear and simple: when that wind blows it
will be time.The rapture was broken when an enormous man appeared in
the crack between the universes. He berated me for calling on him when
I was drunk and I instantly remembered two occasions when I drank ayahuasca
while drunk in my apartment in New York.
You dare to call me when drunk?” he bellowed. “You dare to
call me when drunk?” Over and over he shouted at me, his voice
becoming the wind around me, through me.
I couldn’t have voiced an apology if I tried. I had no voice. I
was being permitted to witness something extraordinary, something I could
not and cannot amply describe, a place beyond human description because
it is not a place where humans go. It was a glimpse, a tiny glimpse that
can only be said to be a tiny portion of the sole of one of the sandals
of one of god or the great spirit’s assistants, but still so large
it was of unimaginable fury and beauty and strength and horror, the first
and last, the word, the wind.
I don’t know when the portals closed. I have no recollection of
things stopping except that at some point Julio sang a deep, deep pitched
song, notes that cut through all things and grabbed me back to the floor
of the hut where we sat. I laughed again and I was calm, exhausted, rich.
Then I stood, walked outside and threw up the bile.
When I returned to the hut I checked on everyone—they all seemed
to be doing well, then lay back down to try to recapture just a glimpse
of the glimpse of that place that I’d been.
Almost immediately the giant vase with red-purple flowers appeared again
and one of the flowers bent forward and asked me if I’d like to
drink. I reached out to it and took a sip of its nectar: this time the
winds did not begin to howl. This time the world began to change color—everything
began to be infused with reds. Light reds, dark reds, purple reds, irridescent
reds. I opened my eyes and looked to my right: Larry, who’d been
crystalline green earlier in the night was now deep deep red. To my left
Addison, who was now standing and slowly dancing in rhythm to Julio’s
voice, was a mountain of reds. The roof of the hut, the jungle outside,
the moon and even the air itself was infused with red. I closed my eyes
again and one of the flowers was high above me, dripping its purplish
nectar down over me; it was sticky and sickly sweet, like thick blood.
The moment I thought of the word ‘blood’ I found myself in
a tube of red liquid. It was moving very quickly, pulsing, and I found
myself moving in it, not swimming, but being carried along at an amazing
pace. As we moved the pulsing intensified, like a drumbeat, but rather
than a sound it was the feel of a drum beat, rythmic, throbbing, boom,
boom, boom and I suddenly realized I was in my body. Somehow I was in
my bloodstream and racing toward my heart. I began to look around, taking
notice of the bloodstream I was in: It wasn’t really all liquid
at all, more like millions of little balloons filled with red liquid
travelling in a gelatenous goup. They were soft to the touch and eerie
when they burst.
And then suddenly the throbbing intensified a thousand times and I passed
through a fleshy portal that nearly closed on my legs and I was spun
around and around, as though I were in a whirlpool, bouncing off the
fleshy walls of the place and it occurred to me that I had entered my
heart, that I was in the place where the beating began. There was nothing
to see except the balloons and the gelataneous goup, but the throbbing
seemed as though it would split me in two.
Just as suddenly I found myself back at Julio’s and he was shaking
his chacapa at me and chuckling.
Ah, Pedrito,” he said, “todo bien?” Everything good?
“ Todo bien, Julio.”
I looked around at the others: everyone was coming out of their reverie
to some degree. I asked if all were alright and was assurred it had been
a good night.
several sessions, with that first group and the next, were each infused
red. The green cathedral ceiling was now a red cathedral
ceiling. The DNA strands became part of each experience as well, and
going into the bloodstream became commonplace. I didn’t know what
to make of it: some nights I spent nearly the entire experience being
flat on my back while the purplish flowers dripped their thick nectar
all over me; others I spent as if in any other ayahuasca experience—part
visionary, part hallucinogenic—with the exception that the world
was always red. It didn’t bother me, I just didn’t know what
it meant or if it meant anything at all.
On the homefront things were not going well. The stress of opening a
bar/restaurant and the long hours necessary to build a clientele were
wearing on me. I was drinking too much, too regularly—except for
when I had a group—and my wife got tired of it and began working
less. I, in response, became something of a bully when I was drunk, letting
my rage at having to work so hard, and so often alone, surface, which
in turn pushed her further away. None of it was good for our kids, who
saw a perfectly rational and good man in the morning and afternoon and
either a funny or howlingly angry drunk at night. Our family was falling
It was a side of me the tourists were probably aware of but didn’t
actually get to see. With them I was a workhorse, and a surprisingly
large number of them got unexpected healings through the ayahuasca.
I began to joke to my regular clients at the bar, all of whom were friends,
that while my tourists were all getting healed, it was I who needed to
be worked on. Part of me was serious.
A week or two after I began to make my joke I had a private tour of just
two people, who had asked that I arrange for them to be introduced to
several of the different kinds of curing done in Peru. The client arrived
sick with what appeared to be the flu, and spent two days being worked
on by an egg-healer (10), a curandero who uses an egg as an absorbtive
to remove physical ailments. But after the second day the curandero told
my client that his illness was deeper than he was capable of working
on, that he could alleviate symptoms—he already had—but that
he didn’t have enough power to effect a cure. I had also arranged
for a San Pedro curandero (11) whom I trusted to fly from the high Andes
to Iquitos for a San Pedro ceremony. The curandero, Victor E., arrived
within a day or so of my clients, and when the egg-healer said he couldn’t
continue the work, Victor suggested that he would focus on it during
I knew Victor as a capable healer, a man filled with deep love and committment
to his work, but during the ceremony—another story in itself—I
was amazed and priveleged to witness a psychic healing that effected
a cure for a condition that had been with my client since childhood.
Essentially, Victor spent about 10 hours doing what looked like rubbing
a rounded stone on the man’s face. But under the influence of San
Pedro, what I saw him actually doing was using not the stone but a scalpel,
and cutting the man’s sinus cavity’s open, then cleaning
them out, replacing them and stitching him up. It was replete with blood
and guts, though an outsider wouldn’t have seen it. Though the
operation had been extremely painful my client was thrilled to have been
cured of his affliction.
Watching the curing reminded me of a story a man told me about Julio
nearly 15 years earlier. It was my second visit to Julio, and there were
several local riverfolk there, one of whom told me that Julio had operated
on his stomach just a night earlier, and pulled up his shirt to show
me the proof. But there was no scar, and I mentioned that. The man just
laughed and told me that Julio was a good doctor, that his scars healed
quickly. I didn’t realize then what the man was talking about,
and had never witnessed such an operation until I saw Victor work.
A few days later I was with my two clients at Julio’s, and the
man commented to me early in the ceremony that Julio was just sitting
on a low stool, not making any effort to work with his body as the first
two curanderos had. I told him that each curandero worked differently,
and that he couldn’t really compare styles. Later that night, after
another visit to the red world—during which the voice, in answer
to my question of how to heal my family had simply told me “You
know that. Drink less.”—I asked my client how his experience
Well,” he said, “after the egg healer and Victor I was very
disappointed that Julio wasn’t going to actually work with me physically.
So I was just lying down at one point early on feeling that this would
be an interesting but nonconsequential evening. My legs were crossed
on the ground in front of me. And then I heard Julio say to the man next
to him in clear English—although I know he doesn’t speak
any: ‘You know, I’m not going to be able to work on him with
his legs in that position.’ And then suddenly I felt Julio waving
his fan towards me and my legs simply uncrossed without me doing it,
and I heard Julio say, ‘That’s better.’ After that
I decided not to question his methods anymore. Let’s just say it
was an amazing evening, and Julio is a remarkable healer.”
A few days later I was taking the same two clients to Sachamama, the
botanical reserve outside of Iquitos. Set in high, canopied second-growth
jungle the space is emotionally tranquil and physically beautiful. After
the rigors of the trip to Julio’s and the difficult jungle hiking
I put my tourists through I enjoyed taking them to a place that was not
physically demanding. Moreover, apart from the ayahuasca session with
Don Ramon, Francisco, who’d been trained in another part of Peru’s
Amazon, performed an aura cleansing flower bath (12) that’s remarkably
My son Italo asked if he could tag along, and said he was thinking it
might be good for him to drink ayahuasca. With permission from my clients,
I said okay both to his coming and drinking if he liked. He was nearly
14, and though he’d never been given a full dose, had had a sip
of ayahuasca on several occasions with me.
While my clients were perfectly at ease after the several curanderos
they’d visited in the previous two weeks as well as the afternoon
flower bath, I was edgy. I didn’t know whether it was the presence
of Italo or that I was never as comfortable drinking as I was with Julio,
but all day I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was in
the air. There were low rain clouds gathering as well, and the static
electricity from the impending storm was palpable.
The evening began calmly enough, with Ramon offering prayers and mapacho
smoke, then calling each of us in turn to drink. My clients went first
and second, I was third, and Italo was last. I was surprised when he
was given a full portion, but thought he could handle it. Minutes later,
after Ramon and Francisco drank, the kerosene lamps were blown out and
the ceremonial space became utterly dark.
A few minutes later the twinkling of lights began, the greens and yellows
quickly giving way to the reds, and the red lights quickly forming strands
that in turn joined to make a huge double helix DNA. I watched with wonder
as the light show progressed, then apprehension as I found myself face
to face with a grotesquely grinning clown’s face that had appeared
quite suddenly. There was something wretched about it, and I dediced
to try Alan’s trick of using my breath to change the screen: to
my surprise the clown face simply dissolved the moment I blew on it,
and in it’s place the steep metal tracks of a rollercoaster hill
that I was about to fly down appeared. Woooooosh! And down I went, down
an impossibly long and steep hill that was thrilling. At the bottom the
car I was in made a sharp right around a hairpin turn then began a long
slow climb to the top of another hill. Halfway up the car slipped and
began sliding backward. Faster and faster until we were moving much too
fast to make the turn in reverse; it didn’t matter, the car just
jumped the tracks and began tumbling into the pitchblack of an abyss.
I blew my breath again and the abyss dissolved and I found myself staring
at my wife Gilma.
Grief passed through every part of me. How sad I had not been able to
keep such love from fading! How lost I felt without her! I started to
cry, deep deep sobs.
I heard Italo call out, “Dad? Dad? Are you there?” and I
was pulled from my altered state back to the reality of the ceremonial
hut. “Italo?” I called softly, and when he answered I slid
across the few feet of dirt floor that separated us and put my hand on
his arm. “Scared?”
It’s really wierd, Dad.”
I know. It’s strong. But it can’t hurt you, and I’m
right here. Just remember to breath if you see something you don’t
like and it will go away. Are you okay?”
Yeah. But don’t go away.”
I won’t. I’m right here.”
I lay back down and closed my eyes again. In moments I was engulfed in
my sadness again, and glad for the human contact with my son.
You keep trying to do things that make her happy,” a voice suddenly
I know,” I answered to the bodiless presence, thinking that yes,
I did always try to make Gilma happy. I was good. A good man.
It doesn’t make her happy.”
Why not?” I asked, another wave of grief washing over me.
Because you’re trying to make her happy by doing things you think
will make her happy.”
“ What else can I do? What does she want?”
She doesn’t know. You thought you were making her happy all those
years, just like you think you’re loving your baby now, but your
baby isn’t happy either.”
Telling me my baby Madeleina wasn’t happy just added to my sadness.
“ How can I fix things?”
“ You will never make them happy until you can be them. You have to learn
how to be them to see how they feel and what they want.”
Can’t she just tell me?”
No. But she’s been trying. She doesn’t know how to say it.
She is not being you either. But you’re the one who has to fix
it now. You have to become them to understand what they need from you.
Giving them what you want to make them happy just doesn’t work.
You are losing them.”
“ How can I become them?”
There was a pause and in the silence I could hear Ramon and Francisco
chanting somewhere in the distance. I squeezed Italo’s arm and
tried to imagine being Gilma and Madeleina. I could see them, I could
see me trying to enter them, but I didn’t feel at all as if I was
them. I understood, on some level, what the voice told me, and knew it
was true, but didn’t know how to do what it asked.
I began to hear a rushing sound, like wind blowing through reeds. It
came closer and closer and began to frighten me. I decided to blow it
away but blowing didn’t work. The rushing began to change and I
could hear a kind of gibberish, as though several people, as though several
small people were all around me talking very quickly in a language I’d
never heard. The gibberish and the rushing grew to a fever pitch and
then suddenly stopped.
We heard you,” said a voice that was new to me. “We heard
you say you were the one who needed healing. We’ve decided it’s
your turn to be healed.”
Who are you?” I asked, suddenly very intimidated.
We are the doctors you called to heal you. We’re going to fix your
“ Wait a minute. I was only kidding....”
Don’t be silly. And don’t be afraid. It will hurt but we
need to fix your heart.”
I was very afraid. I could feel someone or something grabbing at my heart—not
my human heart, but my soul heart. “Wait a minute. What are you
going to do?” I fairly shouted.
We’re going to work with your heart. We have to get rid of some
things in here and we have to open some things where you’re stuck.
we have to change you.”
I could feel a dozen of what might have been hands begin to pull at my
heart. Every time they touched it I was given a kind of electroschock
of memory and pain: images of my mother, my father, fights I’d
chickened out of as a boy, pointless arguments with my first wife, drunken
screaming at Gilma—a thousand bolts of electricity and anguish
were running through me.
Wait!” I shouted. “Wait a minute! I’m not ready!”
Of course you are. You’re just afraid you’re going to die.”
I was more than afraid, I was terrified. I was frantic. I couldn’t
breathe, I couldn’t think. I just wanted no part of this.
You have to trust us. We can’t do the work unless you let us.”
I tried to catch my breath. I felt for the reassurance of Italo, then
said, “Okay, I’m ready.”
But the minute they began to work I panicked. “No wait!”
You have to trust us. You can’t fix the things you want to fix
until we work on you. Just let us work.”
I knew they were right. I knew I needed fixing but I wasn’t prepared
for this. I had no perspective. I had no idea if they meant me good or
evil. I just knew that when they touched me I was deathly afraid of changing
forever and I was desperately clinging to what I already was. The dissolution
of the ego during ayahuasca was difficult enough to handle; this was
the death of me as I knew me, perhaps even real death, and I could not
bear it, did hot have the courage to face such an unknown.
Can’t you work without me letting go as much as you are asking
me to let go?”
“ No. You have to let yourself go into forever to get healed. You have
to trust us.”
The battle within myself waged for eternity. My fear reached depths I
have never encountered. Over and over the doctors cajoled me to let them
work. They jeered me, they laughed at my gutlessness. They ordered me
to let them do their job. They threatened me with not helping me if I
wouldn’t let them. They told me I could not be Gilma or Madeleina
if I didn’t let them heal me. I tried to let them work, but each
time I was more frightened than the last, until, finally, in desperation,
I asked them again if they couldn’t work on me without me having
to let go and fall into the abyss. The voice repeated that they couldn’t,
that they needed my approval, and when finally I said, out of exhaution
as much as anything else, “Okay,” one last time, they said
they didn’t believe me. That I would have to shout, “Please
heal me,” to give them the freedom to access the depths they needed
to access. I couldn’t do it. I knew I was gutless, pathetic, and
knew they knew it too, but I simply could not let go the way they said
they needed me to, even though part of me thought that I might very well
come out much better on the other side of my fear. If only I had the
courage to make that leap.
We’ll try it next time,” the voice said at some point, and
just as he did the rushing of the wind through the reeds began again,
this time moving away from me.
Wait, come back! I want you to heal me!” I called after them, but
they and I both knew I couldn’t do it that night, and they didn’t
Exhausted, I got to my feet, explained to Italo that I was going outside
to vomit and left the hut. Outside the trees in the light of my flash
were irridescent, the leaves dripping with new rain. I hadn’t noticed
the rain. I vomited the bile of my courageouslessness, then made my way
back inside to Italo, who was rolling restlessly on the dirt floor. “It’s
hard, dad,” he said. “There’s ghosts here.”
I gave him a piece of hard candy then put my arms around him. “It
will be over soon. It’s very powerful tonight.”
Just don’t go anywhere again.”
I looked over to where I thought my tourists should be and in a few moments
my eyes adjusted to the darkness enough to make out the shapes of Don
Ramon and Francisco kneeling near them, working on them. A few minutes
later, confident that Italo was calming down, I lay down next to him
and closed my eyes.
I began to fall. A long, long fall, but I wasn’t afraid without
the doctors around. I said an silent apology to them for my own failure
and promised to be more brave next time, hoping they would come back.
It’s just that they had been so unexpected, so demanding and so
utterly real, even though, thinking about it, I realized I’d never
I landed with a thud on what felt like soft earth, bounced high in the
air and fell again. When I caught my breath I looked around and realized
I was in a huge red cavern. A monstrously large reddish cavernous space
with hills of reddish dirt, or goup, scattered all around it. It wasn’t
dirt, though, or goup, it was as if the material were the tangible element
of pain and suffering, and the entire place was filled with it. The whole
place was infused with anguish and there was activity everywhere, though
there weren’t any people. Movement was more like it, and thunderous
booming sounds, violent vomiting sounds. And smells of something putrid,
not a dead smell, but living, putrid, wretched smells that nearly choked
me. I didn’t understand what was happening, what the motion was,
or where the smells came from: everything seemed to come from everywhere.
Near me, though I couldn’t see him, I felt Italo’s presence
in the same cavern.
I heard the vomiting again from somewhere far away and turned my eyes
in the direction of the sound. On a hill to my right shapeless globs
of red material fell in time with the vomiting. In that same moment I
realized I was hearing the sounds of hundreds, thousands of people vomiting,
and thousands of others crying and wailing and I wondered for a moment
if I wasn’t in some sort of hell, so filled was the place with
human suffering. But even as the piles grew, hands I couldn’t see
were scooping the goop and fashioning things out of it, and it dawned
on me—or rather, a radiant awareness shot through me in an instant
the way ayahuasca awareness often does—where we were.
Italo!” I called out, though I don’t know if I used my voice
or not. “This is the place where the healing happens! This is the
place where everything we throw up on ayahuasca comes!”
I was laughing. “This is the room where all the rotten stuff comes
and the healing is done with that stuff!”
Suddenly all of the color red I’d been seeing for the past two
years, and the trips up my bloodstream and the DNA all made sense to
me. This was the place of red magic! This was the healing magic. It was
in Julio’s song all along: “Red magic that moves within our
blood.” I’d heard it a hundred times, I’d just never
seen it before, but now, in that room, sharing that space with Italo
I was in awe as much as I’d been when I felt the winds rush through
me. I just laughed and laughed and grabbed Italo tight. Why we were being
shown this place I didn’t question. Just being there was enormously
healing. I felt I was being shown something very special. The realization
of the pain and suffering that was being retched by all those unseen
humans into that space, and the knowledge that that same bile could be
used by healers to heal struck me as almost impossible to comprehend.
There was an enormity to it I couldn’t fathom.
In a few minutes or a year I was brought back to the floor of the hut
by Italo’s voice. “Dad, you’re squeezing my arm too
tight.” I lostened my grip.
“ Did you see it, Italo?”
“ What was that place, dad?”
The place where the healing happens,” I said grinning, thrilled
to find he’d been there as well.
“ What was all that stuff?”
“ Pain and suffering.”
“ It stunk.”
It always does,” I laughed, hugging him.
The next day while I was back at the bar waiting for my tourists to arrive
for lunch I couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night. I
felt awful that I’d been unable to let the doctors work on me,
and kicked myself for not remembering to ask them the simple: “Are
you my teachers?” question. If they’d said yes, my fear might
have diminished enough to allow them to do what they wanted. If they
had meant me ill they would have just disappeared. But I already knew
they—if they existed at all—didn’t mean me harm. That
was why they’d shown me the cavern and let me glimpse what red
magic was. I wondered if they would ever come back and if they did whether
I would have the courage to let go.
month later I had another small group, most of whom had been with me
a year earlier,
on a trip to Machu Picchu, during which they’d
done San Pedro with Victor in the ruins of Sacsayhuaman outside of Cuzco.
This time around the group leader, Maryanne C, or Mac as she preferred,
had asked to spend a week in the jungle before heading to Machu Picchu
and then Lake Titicacca in Southern Peru.
We’d intended to travel to Julio’s, but after a day or two
acclimating in Iquitos, the group opted to do a few smaller trips rather
than one big one. We took day trips on the Amazon, spent time at Iquitos’ markets
and ports, and finally took two days at Sachamama.
Of the group of seven, all but two had experienced San Pedro the previous
year, and most had tried ayahuasca back in the states, so I had no hesitation
in sending word a couple of days before the ceremony asking Don Ramon
to make a strong brew.
On the day we arrived, Don Francisco was waiting for us, having spent
the morning preparing the flower bath. After bathing, the group spent
the afternoon walking the intricate jungle trails of the botanical garden,
and when night fell, all were anticipating the commencement of the ceremony.
By eight o’clock or so Francisco led us to the simple framed doorway
of the ceremonial hut, then soplad each of us with mapacho smoke to clean
us of unnecessary emotional baggage before we entered. The hut, a leaf-roof
on posts, had crude benches along the outside walls, an open dirt floor
in the center, and a simple makeshift altar at the far end. On the altar
were the things Don Ramon and Francisco considered necessary for the
ceremony: candles and kerosene lanterns, the bottle of ayahuasca, chacapas,
bottles of Agua Florida and aguar diente infused with garlic and camphor,
a few talismans, a good supply of mapachos and matches, and a book similar
to Julio’s. Most of my crew, in their late forties and fifties,
took seats along the benches, while I opted for a space on the floor.
When everyone was settled Don Francisco blew out all the kerosene lamps,
leaving the room lit by a single candle on the altar near Don Ramon.
Outside the sky was thick with cloud cover. If there was a moon it wasn’t
visible. Don Ramon, lit a mapacho, and by the light of his match Steven
K, a 17-year-old who’d been with the group during the previous
year’s trip to Machu Picchu, saw a movement on the ground. He asked
me to shine a flash on it. I did, and there, sitting on a slightly raised
mound of earth directly in front of the simple altar, was a very real,
full grown tarantula. It didn’t recoil from the light, simply looked
as though it were staring straight ahead at both Don Ramon and Don Francisco.
It didn’t move, in fact, until Francisco brushed it out of the
hut with a cedar branch. The seven of us all laughed once it was gone
and took it as a good omen.
Some minutes later, Ramon began calling the participants to the altar.
All but Steven’s mother planned on drinking, and as each appeoached
he sang an icaro then served the foul tasting ayahuasca. When it was
Steven’s turn he found he could not keep the liquid down. He tried
several times but could not do it. As he came back to his seat, head
down, he asked if I was disappointed in him. I was surprised at his question
and told him no, that power plants were like that—they made themselves
so odious that you had to be really sure you wanted to injest them in
order to physically do it, and this was not the right time for him.
I was the last to drink aside from the curanderos, and could hardly keep
it down myself, despite, or perhaps because, of my long experience with
it. Once I did, I put the bottle of aguar diente to my nose, then poured
a small amount of Agua Florida into my hands and rubbed it vigorously
into my face and scalp.
I returned from the altar, sat on the dry earth floor of the hut, closed
my eyes, waiting for Francisco and Ramon to drink, after which the candle
was extinguished and the hut thrown into complete darkness. Within fifteen
or twenty minutes the first of the ayahuasca twinkle-lights appeared
behind my eyelids: yellow, green, silver dots of light beginning to connect
in their familiar circus-like patterns. Moments later came the reds,
and I suddenly felt an enormous fear well up within me. I opened my eyes
but they didn’t disappear. Instead, my whole field of vision, eyes
open or closed, became filled with rapidly connecting red points of light
that quickly formed themselves into the huge, swirling double-helix DNA
thread that turned itself on its side and began rolling towards me. My
dread increased. The doctors were coming to visit and I wasn’t
ready for them. Wasn’t ready to die the little death again. Wasn’t
ready to be worked on again. I wanted to stop right then, come down and
save it for another night when I was better prepared. “Oh god,” I
thought, “I can’t do this again. I don’t know how to
let go like they want me to.”
It was no use, of course, I knew no antidote to ayahuasca. Worse, I felt
my lips beginning to go numb, an indication that one of the admixes that
had been included in making the ayahuasca was chiric sanango, which meant
the experience was not going to last the normal two hours or so, but
could well last the entire night or even into the morning.
I realized my group was in much deeper than I’d intended and that
I was not going to be able to help them. We were going to hell. We were
going to see god and be terrified for hours. We’d proably all learn
a great deal by the time we came out of it but we were going to pay a
terrible price to learn.
I wanted to sit up and shout to everyone that I was sorry. I’d
asked Ramon and Francisco to make a stong ayahuasca but I’d never
meant this. I didn’t, of course. There was nothing to do but remember
to breathe and try not to panic. I was already having a hard time doing
I knew what was coming and couldn’t get away. I sat and tried to
light a cigarette, but the chiric sanango numbness in my lips had spread
to my fingers and toes and it took me several tries; even then I couldn’t
keep the thing in my hands very well. I knew I was just panicking and
reminded myself to breath deeply. I did, and in a few minutes I was calmed
enough to try to lie down.
The moment I did the world started crumbling in on me again. The DNA
was no longer coming at me, it had me in its spirals. I was dizzy and
disoriented and terribly afraid.
Is everybody okay?” I managed to blurt out, though I felt my voice
sounded broken and unsure.
Fine over here,” someone answered. “How are you doing?”
Not great,” I said, praying that someone would come over and help
me, somehow. No one did. I sat back up and began rocking, thinking I
had to get myself together. No more outbursts. I was the one supposed
to show the way with my behavior, and if everyone knew I was panicked
I could cause some of my guests, if they were anywhere on a similarly
thin rope, to fall over to the panic side as well. I tried to maintain.
I tried to tell myself that no one ever died of ayahuasca, no one ever
came out visibly different on the other side of the ceremony, but each
time I thought I had reached a point where I could relax enough to let
the experience take hold I panicked again. It must have been terribly
disturbing to the other guests to have me sitting up then lying down,
then shifting into a fetal position, then sitting up and trying to light
a cigarette, then unwrapping a candy. I was palpably freaking out.
We’re here,” came the voice I’d been terrified of hearing.
It was the doctors, and this time they didn’t come with the rush
of air, they were simply there. “We’re going to work on you
tonight and you are going to let us. You need healing.”
I can’t breath. Can’t we do it another night?”
You called us and we’ve come. It’s time to work.”
I felt the clutching at my heart and the immensity of the barbs of sorrow
race through me painfully as images of all of my failures flashed in
my innermost being. “Stop! I can’t do it!” I fairly
We don’t care. This time we don’t care if you don’t
want us to. It’s time to work.”
I sat bolt upright and tried to light another cigarette. It fell from
my numbed fingers; I grabbed another, then another, until I my whole
fresh pack was empty. I ran my fingers on the floor trying to find one
Hey Pete, you want a smoke?” It was Stephen.
You’re having a hard time.”
“ Can you light it?”
He did. “Can I do anything?”
Just watch the others. I’m in no shape.” I clutched at the
cigarette and took long pulls, then lay back down, hoping that maybe
the doctors would have gone away during my cigarette break. They hadn’t.
Instantly as I lay down the work began anew and with it my unimaginable
terror. It was a terror as deep as the rapture of being at the place
where the four winds start was great. I was helpless in the face of it.
But then I remembered what I had forgotten last time the doctors visited
and asked them: “Are you my teachers?”
“ We are doctors.”
“ But are you my teachers?”
“ We are past teachers. We are the doctors.”
I didn’t know what to do: I thought that the rule was simply to
ask if a spirit was a teacher and if it was it would announce itself,
and if it wasn’t it would go away. This was something I hadn’t
So you’re not my teachers?” I asked.
“ We already told you who we are. If we meant you ill we would have disappeared.”
And they began to work again. They were merciless and there was little
I could do to stop them. A lifetime’s pain was dredged up and relived
in moments or minutes; I never knew I had felt so much pain in my life.
Then, suddenly, they said they had done enough for now but would be back
soon because there was so much more to do. And then they were gone. I
was alone on the ground and the red world was spinning around me, frightening
me, but no longer with the sheer sense of abject horror of being hurled
into the unknowable abyss that it had been a moment earlier. I opened
my eyes and sat up.
The hut was a scene from a Fellini movie: a couple of my guests were
draped over the back of the benches, vomiting violently onto the jungle
floor. A couple of others were clutching one another, looking, as best
I could make out, as though they felt if they let go they would fly off
into space. Nearest me, Mac was fully streched out on a bench, moaning
to Stephen not to go away. Don Ramon and Francisco were tending someone
on the dirt floor near the altar. I was still in no position to help
anyone, so I just asked if everyone was okay. Those who could speak said
they were in hell and hated me for bringing them there. I assured them
it would be over soon, and prayed I wasn’t lying.
One of my guests, Susan, was having a particularly hard time, and I decided
I better try to make my way to her to see if there was anything I could
do. I stood on very shaky legs, and took a couple of staggering steps
in her direction. I didn’t get very far when I thought better of
it. But Harry, the man who’d been holding on to her, had seen my
attempt, and on his own shaky legs stood and told me to come to him.
I’m going to try to ground you,” he said, reaching for my
hand. I reached for him and he told me just to breath into him, to let
myself ground through him into the earth floor. We stood stone still
for a few moments, then he let go and turned his attention back to Susan,
who was beginning to vomit violently again.
I sat down where I was and shimmied back to the place I’d been.
I felt awful for everyone that I’d brought them this far and couldn’t
do anything to help them. But I was still in the full throes of ayahuasca
myself and thought it better if I just let it happen. I lay down and
closed my eyes again.
Hundreds of spirits appeared before me. I was no longer afraid, and asked
each if they were my teachers. One by one they disappeared until there
was nothing but an empty red world.
And then suddenly I thought of my snake, and it occurred to me that I’d
never asked him—I don’t know why I thought of it as a him
rather than her—if he was my teacher. I found him in the pit of
my stomach. “Are you my teacher?” I asked.
Of course I am,” he answered.
I felt ridiculous. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“ You never asked.”
“ What are you hear to teach me?”
He indicated a mirror lying near him. “Take that mirror and hold
it high. Look into it.”
To my surprise I was able to somehow reach into my belly and take hold
of the simple oval mirror. I looked into it and saw my reflection.
“ You can use that to see the answer to all your questions.”
I immediately thought of Gilma and looking into the mirror for a solution
to our problems.
You’re on your own there. You can’t look for anything selfish
or it won’t work. Besides, you already know the answer. Stop drinking
is the first step.”
I chuckled at myself. Bad enough I was in conversation with a snake that
lived in my stomach, but he’d just busted me.
Now climb through the mirror to get to the other side. That’s where
you will find help for things.”
I tried to watch my spirit body climb through the mirror but nothing
happened. I tried again. Same result.
“ Stop trying to see yourself, let go and just climb through it.”
I did as he asked and surprisingly, found myself climbing through. But
my feet didn’t touch any ground on the other side, a pitch black
space that felt like a chamber. Instead, it felt as though I were floating.
I reached out my arms and they made contact with what felt like smooth
Feel along the ceiling,” the snake instructed.
I reached up and did as asked, pulling myself along. I hadn’t gone
more than a few feet when I realized there was a sort of recessed light
in the ceiling. I pulled myself toward it: It wasn’t an ordinary
light, more like an eight or ten inch cylindrical tube about an inch
and a half in diameter from which light emanated.
Take the light stone,” the snake said with a touch of impatience
when I didn’t move to touch it, “bring it to this side of
the mirror, bring the mirror back to me, then wrap yourself in the light.”
At the time it made sense to me, so again I did as the snake said. The
stone was neutral to the touch, though I thought it would be warm. I
took it, made my way back to the mirror, crossed over, put the mirror
away, and suddenly found myself on the dirt floor of the hut, wrapping
my physical body in a stream of white light that came from the stone.
No one else could see the light, I’m sure, though they probably
could see me slowly waving my left hand in a circle around my head. As
I did I felt the comfort of the light around me.
Now take the mirror,” said the snake, “climb through it and
put the light back. Never forget to replace the things you take from
the other side.”
I did, then thanked the snake for teaching me.
Francisco’s voice brought me back to physical reality. “Pedro,
if it’s alright with you, it’s late, so tell your friends
to sit up and we will say a closing word for the ceremony.” He
lit a candle and suddenly the room was filled with the shadows of my
guests, none of whom looked ready to have the ceremony end. One or two
were still moaning, and another couple were still vomiting.
What did he say?” Mac asked weakly from her prone position on the
I translated from the Spanish.
Tell him it’s not over by a longshot.”
Everyone agreed. I told Francisco what Mac said and he reluctantly blew
out the candle, while Ramon began to sing again. Ten or fifteen minutes
later I could hear people beginning to move in the darkness, and Francisco
once again lit a candle. I was still feeling under the influence of ayahuasca,
but by now I felt I could function in ordinary reality and turned my
attention to the others. Harry was telling Susan that she might be better
off in her bunk, sleeping under a mosquito net. Susan agreed and I could
hear her gathering her things.
I asked Susan and Harry if they’d be alright, and Stephen surprised
me by suggesting that he would walk them back to the sleeping hut, about
100 yards away on a narrow jungle trail. Stephen’s mom, Barbara,
said she’d accompany them as well. Stephen borrowed my flash to
lead the way. A few minutes later Stephen returned and walked a man named
Jahn, who said he’d had a wonderful and enlightening experience
but was still wobbly legged, back. With only Mac, Jean and myself left
in the hut, Francisco said that he and Ramon were going as well. Mac
looked as though she were still deep in the throes of her experience
and I said I wished they would stay. “You know what to do, Peter,” Francisco
said, and when I objected he simply smiled and said, “Sing.” I
didn’t like being put in that position but Ramon was looking very
old and exhausted so I told them to go ahead.
A few minutes later Stephen came back and asked Jean and Mac if they
were ready to leave: Jean said she was still under the influence but
thought she’d be better off in bed than in the hut; Mac said that
she was in no condition to move and I volunteered to stay with her. She
did ask Stephen to bring her blankets, as she was feeling very cold,
and he said he would once the others were all settled.
I sat on the floor near Mac and gathered up all of the cigarettes I’d
lost during the night. I thought she just needed a few more minutes,
but when I asked how she was feeling she said there were spirits pulling
her to the other side and she didn’t know if she was strong enough
to fight them. I felt her heart and pulse: both were fine, though slightly
erratic, and her breathing was labored. I thought she’d be better
off sitting up but she was unable to move, and being a big woman, I couldn’t
simply lift her to a sitting position.
They’re pulling me, Peter. I don’t know that I can fight
them.” Her voice had an element of deep fear in it, one I couldn’t
take lightly. Of all her group, she was the most experienced with hallucinogens
and visionary plants, and short of truly being frightened she could have
Just remember to breathe, Mac,” I said, but when she continued
to breathe unevenly I started to sing my simple icaro to give her a rhythm
Stephen returned with two blankets and we put them over her. “I’m
freezing. I’m freezing,” she repeated over and over, so Stephen
went to get more.
I’ve never met spirits like this. I don’t know how to get
rid of them.”
Just don’t forget to breathe.”
And again I sang, and didn’t stop singing when Stephen brought
more blankets, and then water to cool down her forehead, which was burning
If there were a way back to town other than walking out of the jungle
and trying to hitch a ride on a dead end road in the middle of the night
I might have tried it, but there wasn’t. There wouldn’t have
been anything anyone in town could have done anyway: either Mac was in
a delerium paranoid state induced by the ayahuasca, or the ayahuasca
had allowed her to access a place inhabited by spirits she could not
escape, and neither of those states were something doctors were equipped
to handle while she remained under the influence. There was nothing to
do but sing.
An hour passed and she was still not well. By then Stephen had picked
up a chacapa and was shaking it in time with my singing. If it had been
anyone else I might have thought they were milking it for the attention,
but I knew that I was still under the influence, albeit not the intensity
of the first few hours, and thought she must be as well.
As I sang I tried to look at her. Not at her body, but at her spirit
body, to see if I could see anything wrong. At first I couldn’t
see anything, and I began to feel silly for even trying, but just as
I was about to stop it seemed to me that there was a sort of black hole
in Mac’s upper back and what I can only describe as a kind of energy—it
wasn’t solid or liquid, or anything I could see with my regular
eyes—was leaking out of it. And then I thought I saw another in
her lower back, and then another. It was as if they had always been there,
but only in my not trying to see them did they become apparent. But seeing
them only made me feel helpless, as I had no idea whether they were really
there, and if they were, what I was could do about it.
Suddenly the voice told me I’d better do something. It was the
same voice with the same intensity it had used when I was fighting for
Marco years earlier, and I knew to take it seriously. I thought of the
light and closed my eyes. With an effortlesness that surprised me I made
my way to my belly, got the mirror, placed it high and climbed through
it. I pulled myself along the ceiling of the other side until I got to
the stone light. I took it and reversed my steps, and found myself back
at Mac’s side, singing. In my left hand I held the invisible stone
light. Feeling slightly silly, I began to move the light up and down
the length of Mac’s body, stopping at the black holes I sensed
or saw. Suddenly a different voice, or a group of voices told me just
to touch the stone to the holes; there was something familiar and frightening
about the new voices. I realized it was the doctors, but before I had
time to panic, they continued.
Just do what we say. We’re here to work on her, not you this time.”
Relieved, I did as they said, and the first hole seemed to close a little.
I waited for instruction but none was forthcoming, so I moved the stone
light to another hole. It too seemed to close a little, though I wasn’t
sure I was just playing curandero and making the whole thing up.
I’m not winning this battle,” Mac, who’d been silent
for nearly an hour, said suddenly. “I think I am going to die.”
You’re not going to die, Mac,” I said. “Nobody dies
I don’t think I can keep going.”
I didn’t know what to say and didn’t think shouting that
she was being a baby—which is what I was feeling—was going
to help. At the same time I knew she was in that terror zone and unable
to let go for fear of falling into the abyss, which would be a sort of
Don’t stop singing. It’s the only thing I have to hold me
here,” Mac said, and I realized I had stopped. I began my simple
icaro again, and sang it with every variation that came to my mind and
hundreds I had never imagined. And when I could no longer mouth the notes
I began to sing regular songs. I sang the old blues songs Alberta, and
Who Do You Love; I sang I’m Gonna Be Down At Your Burial and anything
else I could remember, all the while moving the light stone from black
hole to black hole, and silently begging the doctors to tell me what
to do next.
Stephen kept an eye on Mac’s breath, and kept her covered when
the blankets would shift. He fed her water through a straw which she
kept vomiting weakly the instant she took it in, but vomiting meant she
was breathing, so we took it as a good sign.
Still, by the time three hours or three years had gone by—there
was still no sign of false dawn but it seemed like forever—Mac
didn’t seem to be getting better. Her breathing remained labored,
she was running a fever and at the same time was deeply chilled, and
when she spoke it was either incoherently about the spirits trying to
get her to join them on the other side or a request that we tell her
son Josh that she was sorry she couldn’t make it but he should
never forget how much she loved him. Whenever she spoke there was terror
in her voice.
I wondered why the stone light treatment wasn’t working. It seemed
to me that the black holes had all shrunk considerably, and many had
disappeared together. If they were a sign of the battle she was waging
she should have been improving.
Breathe through the holes to clean them.” It was the doctors, returned
after an eternity.
I didn’t hesitate: I began by switching from singing the notes
of my icaro to breath-whistling them over Mac’s whole body, trying
to clean off whatever ether was clutching at her. After a few minutes
I began to breathe deeply and focus a single stream of breath at the
first hole I could see, trying to aim it through it. Nothing happened,
but to my surprise I was able to breathe out for a much longer period
that I thought. I took a deep breath and tried again: this time my breath
seemed almost solid, and as it passed through the hole the blackness
disappeared with it, and when I finally stopped breathing, what had been
a black hole of sorts now looked to me like a fast-healing, clean sore,
as if the hole had somehow really been cleaned out and was sealing itself.
I breathed into the second hole, and then a third: each time my breath
seemed to be coming from a place deeper within me, until it seemed as
though it weren’t my breath at all but an inkling of the four winds
that started somewhere in the vast distance and passed through me on
the way to passing into and through Mac. The sound was deafening to me,
though I don’t think Stephen heard a difference. It felt as though
I were the conduit for blowing the wind at the beginning and end of the
world and each time I blew I felt myself growing larger and larger, until
it seemed like I no longer fit beneath the high roof of the hut. I might
have been blowing the wind of the universe and each breath seemed to
clean and close a dozen holes until I couldn’t find anymore. I
still didn’t stop; I blew the air around her, beneath her, through
her hair, until exhausted, I could breath no more. Instantly I shrank
to my normal size and was once again sitting on the floor next to Mac
and near Stephen.
Call Francisco and Ramon,” I told Stephen, telling him which hut
they were staying in. “Tell them we need them here.”
I began chanting quietly again, silently thanked the doctors, then visited
my snake to get the mirror to put the light stone away. I felt utterly
Are you there, Peter?” Mac asked softly.
“ Still here, girl. How are you?”
I’m weak and I still feel stoned. I’m still scared but I
don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
“ He went to get Francisco.”
It was better than she’d sounded for several hours.
Francisco and Ramon came in shortly, carrying several toronga, a large
citrus fruit, a knife and a bowl with ice in it. Francisco cut and juiced
the fruit while Ramon felt Mac’s pulse and heartbeat. Then he hut
his hands on her head.
She’s very hot,” he told Francisco.
Francisco handed him the bowl of juice, and Ramon began applying it to
Mac’s temples. She objected vehemently to the cold liquid, but
was told to simply bear it because her brain was still very hot. I thought
that the silliest thing I’d ever heard and touched her head myself:
though she had no fever anymore—her forehead and glands were cool—her
temples were on fire. The cold juice gradually brought the temperature
She was in quite a battle tonight,” Francisco announced, as though
it was news.
Why didn’t you stay?” I asked. “You knew she was in
It was your turn tonight,” Don Ramon answered simply.
In a few minutes they left, leaving Stephen, Mac and I alone again. A
few minutes later the first light of dawn began to arch across the eastern
I was really going to die, guys,” Mac said. “I’ve never
been that close before.”
In another hour Mac had regained enough strength to make it to the sleeping
hut, and after a couple of hours of rest managed to make the hike to
the road, where a bus I’d arranged for picked us up for the ride
back to Iquitos.
don’t really know what went on that night. When it was
happening it seemed real, but whether or not I got a true glimpse of
one of the ways healing is done by curanderos, I’m not sure. That
elements from so many different ceremonies came together—seeing
without looking, the song, the snake, the doctors, the light and the
wind—still amazes me, though when I later related the story to
Julio he just shrugged and said, “Ah, Pedrito. This is red magic,” as
if everyone knew what it was and how to use it when necessary.
I do know the doctors are not finished their work with me. About a month
after the ceremony at Sachamama I was with four friends at Julio’s.
We drank, and almost instantly my world turned red and the DNA began
rolling toward me. It had hardly reached me when I heard the doctors. “It’s
your turn again. We’ve still got work to do.”
Knowing I was about to have a full fledged panic attack, I excused myself
and stepped outside. I’d lit a kerosene lamp to show the others
the way to the out house, and I could do nothing but sit beside it, staring
at the flame and waiting for the night to end. Even the soothing sound
of Julio’s voice couldn’t save me from my fear. I simply
sat it out, and though the voices stayed near, I just told them to go
ahead and work if they could, but I was in no shape to cooperate.
The night eventually did end, and I havn’t taken the opportunity
to drink since. I will, I think, still have to deal with the doctors
again sooner or later.
1) AYAHUASCA—A Quechua word meaning “vine of the soul” or “vine
of the dead,” ayahuasca is often colloquially referred to as “vine
of the little death” because the user feels as though his ego has
dissolved, or died. Ayahuasca is also known as caapi, natema, pinde,
or yage’ in various languages by the indigenous groups that employ
The standard preparation of ayahuasca involves the simmering of cracked
sections of Banisteriopsis caapi vine with chacruna (Psychotria viridis)
leaves over a period of several hours, during which black tobacco smoke,
(Nicotiana rustica), is continually blown into the mixture. In Ecuador,
leaves of the Diplopteris caberena are frequently used instead of psychotria
Various additional plant products are frequently added to the brewing
of ayahuasca, most frequently the scraped inner bark of the capirona
(Calycophyllum spruceanum) and the lipuna negro (Trichilia tocachana)
trees. Bark scraped from the roots of the bush known as chiric sanango
(Brunfelsia grandiflora) are also commonly added.
Most ayahuasqueros select the additives they will use based on their
medicinal properties and the needs of their clients.
In addition to its curative and visionary uses, ayahuasca is used as
a sacrament by a number of small religious groups, including the Union
de Vegetal and the Santo Daime church.
2) CURANDERO—The colloquial Spanish name for all local healers
who work with plants, including ayahuasqueros.
3) MAPACHO—the name for both the various wild black tobacco Nicotiana
species—most often Nicotiana rustica—growing in the Peruvian
lowlands as well as the cigarettes made with that tobacco.
4) ICARO—The name of the songs sung by ayahuasqueros during their
ceremonies. Most ayahuasqueros in northwest Amazonia say that they learned
their songs directly from the ayahuasca or other plants during ceremonies,
and view them as gifts from the spirits of the plants. In southwest Amazonia,
particularly the area around Pulcallpa, there is more of a tradition
of ayahuasqueros passing their icaros on to their apprentices, though
apprentices are still expected to be ‘gifted’ with their
own songs as well.
5)TASTE—One of the curious things about nearly all the plants used
worldwide for visionary purposes is that their taste is very difficult
to deal with. Practitioners from Siberia to peyoteists in the North American
southwest, to ayahuasqueros in South America generally agree that this
is purposfully done by the spirit of the plants to keep people from accidently
ingesting them, or from ingesting them without some proper intent.
6)POWER PLANTS—Among those who heal with the help of plant medicine,
there are generally seven plants that are considered the Grandfather
Medicine plants, or power plants. Among them are the West African Iboga
tamarinth, the Siberian mushroom Amanita muscaria, the South American
lowland ayahuasca and Brugmansia grandiflora (of the Datura family, from
which To-e is made); the South American highland desert San Pedro cactus
(also found throughout Central America, Mexico and the Southwest US,
though it is not as strong a species in these regions); the tiny southwest
US and Northern Mexico Peyote cactus, and several species of Psilocybe
cubensis mushrooms found worldwide.
Among users, these plants are thought to be capable of transporting those
partaking in them to non-physical realities and imparting wisdom.
7) AYAHUASCA RETCH—Ayahuasca is also called La Purga, the purge,
by those who use it, as one of it’s side-effects is generally a
prolonged purging session that occurs roughly 30 minutes to an hour after
ingestion. But since those partaking in ayahuasca generally fast for
at least 12 hours prior to ingestion, the purge is less a food elimination
than it is an elimination of bad things, the bile, in our lives. Some
curanderos say that after you purge you may look at what you let go and
use it as a sort of mirror through which your spirit may pass to travel
to any part of the real or spirit universe that you wish.
8) UNA DE GATO—Uncaria tomentosa is a woody shrub that grows along
the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries throughout lowland Peru.
It gets its colloquial name, una de gato, cat’s claw, because of
the sharp, claw-like appendages that grow on its branches. Extracts from
the plant, both liquid and powder, have long been used in Peru as a general
tonic and for relief from rheumatism, arthritis and bursitis. It has
been used as an adjunct therapy for AIDS treatment throughout Peru for
several years as one of it’s beneficial qualities is to sharply
increase T-cell levels. Most recently it has been used as an adjunct
medicine in the treatment of cancers by such high profile clinics as
New York Hospital and the Mayo Clinic.
9) SACHA JERGON—A tuber whose Latin name I do not know, it has
long been used throughout the Peruvian lowlands in conjunction with una
de gato as a general tonic, and in the past two or three years has begun
to be used as an adjunct therapy with una de gato in the treatment of
both AIDS and cancers.
10)EGG-HEALER—One of the oddest, and no doubt oldest healing methods
in Peru, egg-healing involves a curandero who passes a raw egg over his
(or her) patient’s body while chanting and blowing black tobacco
smoke. A good egg-healer is said to be in communication with the unborn
spirit of the chicken within the egg, and requests that that spirit absorbs
the illness of the patient into its unformed body. While ridiculous to
Westerners on the face of it, egg-healings are considered a vital, though
dying medical practice by Peruvians.
11) SAN PEDRO CURANDERO—While ayahuasca is vital to the health
and well being of the people of lowland Amazonia, curanderos in the highlands
favor the use of the San Pedro cactus, where it’s colloquial name
is “Window to the Four Winds.” Though their ceremonies and
the plants they use differ, San Pedro curanderos are quite similar to
ayahuasqueros in that their villages frequently depend on them to treat
a variety of physical and spiritual ailments.
12) FLOWER BATH—Among lowland healers it is thought that negativity,
whether it be physical or spiritual in nature, has a presence that affixes
itself to people, like a black splotch of ether. In the tradition of
ayahuasca use in the region of Pulcallpa, several hundred miles south
of Iquitos, ayahuasqueros are trained to make baths with a variety of
flowers which can eliminate the splotches of negativity which have affixed
themselves to their patients.