Downing the psychotropic holy grail

By Brett Allan King
San Francisco Examiner, January 4, 2001

I sat there waiting for results
and almost immediately had the
impulse to say, “That wasn’t
enough. I need more.” I have noticed
this inexplicable impulse
on the two occasions when I
got an overdose of junk. Both
times before the shot took effect I
said “This wasn’t enough. I need

–William S. Burroughs, “The
Yage Letters”

Unlike the bodies scattered around me, I need more.

Breaking the semicircle, I crawl through carpeted darkness to kneel before the shaman. I force down a third cup of bitterness. Anointing me with sweet-smelling jungle perfumes and blowing puffs of ayahuasca breath into my hair, he places a hand on my head, holds up a crucifix, and resumes chanting.

The hypnotic drone of Quechua infused with Spanish conquers the traffic outside the Lima apartment. My head starts spinning. The ayahuasca is finally taking effect.

Fluttering eyelids spawn imaginary mosaic tiles. Subtle, kaleidoscopic virtuality yields to the quasi—anthropomorphic. Braced for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, mental floodgates fall to golden monkey invaders, which golden lightning rods quickly vanquish. A fluorescent godhead procession glides in cheerfully on a stream of neurotransmitters.

Golden Inca relics — I’ve seen hundreds since arriving in Peru — flash intermittently. I don’t know we’re supposed to see a boa constrictor — the vine’s mother spirit — and expect the worst (“One ayahuasca session is like two years of psychotherapy. I saw monsters,” one ayahuasca veteran tells me).

Rosana, a fellow passenger, starts sobbing in her own personal nightmare, and — despite warnings not to touch members of the opposite sex — Sandro rushes to comfort her. She vomits into a black plastic trash bag as the rock group Heroes del Silencio blares from the parking lot below.

“She threw up her fear,” explains the shaman.

For indigenous Amazonians, this is a trip to the doctor, a step toward physical and spiritual purification. For the pharmacologically adventurous outsider, it’s a search from something larger than oneself. I am simply seduced by the unknown.

“Ayahuasca” is Quechua for the sacred jagube vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), rampant throughout the Amazon basin. Also called Yage and dozens of other names, this hallucinogenic “vine of the soul” (also translated as “the death vine” and “rope of the dead”) is the exclusive domain of shamans, who for millennia have treated jungle folk seeking its healing, purifying properties.

Ever since William Burroughs published “The Yage Letters” — the 1963 Beat classic chronicling his Anglocentric junkie journey through South America — this backwoods baptismal drink has become the psychotropic holy grail for many a modern-day thrill-seeker.

Lured by the Fountain of Youth and cities of gold, European conquest of the Americas meshed myth with reality to seek out the magical. Five hundred years later, the quest continues. In an age of commodified experience, driven by a “been there, done that” mentality, we continue to crave something “magical,” something meaningful beyond our own experience.

The Amazon is Earth’s “last frontier” and in it we see an opportunity to impose our own mystical expectations on the “vanishing primitive” and its “esoteric” rituals. Just as Spanish conquistadores applied medieval fiction to their New World experience — thus altering it —— so do postmodern psychonauts follow the trail of gringo writers in search of enlightenment.

In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs described going to a “dirt floor thatch ‘shack for my Yage appointment” with an elderly “medicine man” who had “a sly gentleness about him like an old-time junkie.” Backed by “a wood shrine with a picture of the Virgin, a crucifix, wood idol, feathers and little packages tied with ribbons,” the old man “crooned” over a bowl of black liquid and swished a broom “to whisk away evil Spirits” Burroughs drank about an ounce of the “oily and phosphorescent” elixir from “a dirty red plastic cup.” Despite the “bitter foretaste of nausea,” he felt nothing and had the impulse to say, “that wasn’t enough. I need more.”

“… In two minutes a wave of
dizziness swept over me and the
hut began swimming. It was like
going under ether, or, when you
are drunk and lie down and the
bed spins. Blue flashes passed-in
front of my eyes. The hut took on –
an archaic far-Pacific look with
Easter Island heads: carved in the
support posts. The assistant was
outside lurking there with the ob-
vious intent to kill me …”

Yage meister

Neo—beat shoppers for the Outer Limits Club Med may find my own ayahuasca trip a walk on the mild side …

Three days of fasting, celibacy and sobriety have prepared me for purification. Far from the lush green of the Amazon, I sit in a dimly lit Lima living room with a half-dozen urban Peruvians — twentysomethings who in many respects are as far from indigenous jungle culture as from Sydney or San Francisco. José Campos — a moon-faced young shaman from Peru’s Madre de Dios forest — arrives in sky-blue jeans and a polyknit V—neck. Trips to Lima mean money: at twenty bucks a head, he can earn in one night what many Peruvians make in a month.

Spreading his arsenal of refilled 7-Up bottles and cologne flasks on the floor before him, our dial—a—shaman issues a warning: “A lot of people take ayahuasca for the visions. Forget the hallucinations, they’re irrelevant,” he says, “Think about what it’s doing to your body.”

If great medicine tastes awful, ayahuasca is The Cure-all. Few can easily down a drink reminiscent of vomit and smoky tree bark, lawn clippings and chewing tobacco. In the Peruvian Amazon, shamans grind the bark of the ayahuasca vine with a pestle and boil it for several hours, usually with chacruna leaves (Psychotria viridis). Mapacho (Nicotania rustica) and To (Brugmansia suaveolens) are common admixtures, though a laundry list of other jungle plants can be thrown in at the discretion of the individual practitioner.

An addict who measured life in doses, Burroughs appeared content to have a “crate of Yage” and “know more or less how it is prepared” so he could get his fix — with or without a shaman. Yet it is precisely shaman-supervised “music therapy” that steers the ayahuasca journey. As Latin was to Catholics and Classical Arabic is to Muslims, Quechua is the lingua franca of Peruvian shamans, who use intermittent Quechua chants to create a biological rhythm and encourage trance.

Thanks to Jose’s psychotropical punch, I am Linda Blair on a bad demon day. Altered minds aside, ayahuasca or yage means instant physical detox. Duplicating its effects might require intense fasting, overdosing on a diuretic Ex-Lax-ipecac cocktail and dropping acid at a Turkish bath. Heavy religious imagery, crucifixes and “evil spirit” expulsion aside, one ayahuasca session can leave one feeling physically reborn, free of toxins and a lifetime of sins against the flesh.

Salvation wears a bikini

Where some see God, others see chemistry. The enemy of indigenous peoples sports an American passport. When Loren Miller, director of the California-based International Plant Medicine Corp., took out a U.S. patent on one variety of ayahuasca, he sparked the wrath of indigenous leaders, who likened the sacrilege to patenting the eucharist host so sacred to Catholics.

With rampant pseudo-mysticism endangering the integrity of time-honored shamanism, healers have found a champion in Susy Díaz, the flamboyant exotic dancer-turned-independent parliamentarian.

When the health committee shelved her proposal to form a traditional medicine training academy and register practitioners (“to weed out the quacks”) the woman who campaigned in a teeny bikini protested by riding a donkey into Congress, followed by a parade of disgruntled shamans and healers.

Like Burroughs, I am a voluntary hitchhiker on a road others are required to take. The trip no doubt looks different to more than 30 percent of Peruvians whose health depends exclusively on traditional healing. As an ayahuasca convert raised by the pharmaceutical-industrial complex, I recall the words of Dr. Fernando Cabieses, the neuro-psychiatrist who directs Peru’s National Institute of Traditional Medicine:

“We live in a country where the biggest economic and political problem is what we call biculturalism, where one groups wants to impose its culture and worldview on the other … where academic medicine fights to impose all of its ideas on traditional medicine … Medicinal plants are regaining their old prestige in the area of health, and it’s necessary to find harmony between academic and rural medicine in bicultural countries like Peru.”

Copyright by Brett Allan King and/or publication in which story first appeared
Do not reprint without permission

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