I arrived at the Way Inn after nine hours of flying, seven hours on a bus and a 40-minute taxi ride. The setting was magnificent; at 12,000 feet, the inn sat in the bosom of the Andes, the section called the Cordillera Blanca, just outside Peru’s famous Huscaran National Park. I could feel the altitude instantly. The lodge was a haven for backpackers, trekkers and adventurer travelers, and offered a mix of accommodations ranging from dorm beds in the “cave” to rustic but charming upscale private rooms. Its primary function, however, was to host retreats for the non-profit organization Ayahuasca Satsangha, and that was why I had come, along with 12 other travelers from the US, Canada, England, Australia and France.
Eric, the Way Inn’s Peruvian general manager, settled us each into our rooms and told us we would have an orientation in the yurt with Ryan, the assistant shaman, in an hour. I unpacked and took a few pictures of my room and the grounds, delighted by the ducks swimming in the lagoon in front of the lodge.
In the yurt we each took a plastic chair and sat in a circle. Ryan, a young man from California whose beard, shoulder-length hair and gentle demeanor gave him a disconcerting resemblance to Jesus, sat in at the head of the circle and asked us each to introduce ourselves and say a few words about why we were here. Most of the other participants were in their 20s and 30s, although there were at least two or three who looked 40-ish. I suspected I was the oldest, and I also seemed the fuzziest on the subject of why I was here. The others had well thought-out reasons—they wanted to deepen their meditation practice, they wanted to learn more about themselves, they wanted to become more spiritual or reach a higher plane. In some cases they wanted to deal with an emotional issue. A couple of them just wanted to have a new adventure. Ryan went through a laundry list of some of the do’s and don’ts for the week, including restrictions for the dieta (diet) we would be on for six days, and then he told us to stop drinking water at 4:30 and report to the yurt at 5:30. We had about an hour and a half to relax before that, and I spent most of it in a state of nervousness.
The evening began with the drinking of medicinal tree bark teas, the pivotal piece of the dieta. We sat in a circle again, some of us in plastic chairs and others on floor mats according to our preference. One by one we got up to kneel in front of Ryan and he handed us a cup. We were to focus on our intention, and then toast the group: “Salud!” Ryan said the tree bark would help the ayahuasca with the cleansing process, and that this particular dieta was called Puro Palo. The teas were Chullachagui Caspi, Capirona and Pishay Caspi.
Afterwards he led us in a one-hour meditation. Inwardly, I groaned. I can’t meditate and never could. I can’t seem to leave behind an obsessive focus on the discomforts of my body, never mind my wandering mind. I spent a challenging hour thinking about how much my nose itched, sitting upright in a chair because I know the lotus position would make me spend the hour thinking about how much my back hurt. I tried to follow some of Ryan’s techniques—focus on the breathing, observe your intruding thoughts and then let them go, all the stuff I’ve heard before. Nothing worked. I hoped perhaps after the ayahuasca ceremonies I would be better able to quiet my mind.
Gume, the shaman, came into the yurt after the meditation. He was a small, wiry Peruvian man with a boyish face, and he wore jeans and a t-shirt. He sat in a chair front of the “mesa,” a ceremonial collection of statues, crystals, eagle feathers and rocks, and he carried a big plastic pitcher of something dark and green. Two of the retreat’s volunteers came in, Jamal and Sherdoc, and one of them lit a fire in the woodstove while the other handed us each a plastic vomit bucket and a roll of toilet paper. We sat on the floor on mats with blankets for extra padding. Jamal came to each of us and painted patterns on our foreheads with Agua Florida, water scented with 27 flower essences. It felt like three crosses and three circles. Ryan gave us a few guidelines for the ceremony: Don’t sing while the maestro is singing icaros. Don’t have any expectations. Keep your head and not your feet pointed toward the middle of the circle. Take your headlamp with you if you go out to the bathroom, and use the bathrooms by the yurt because if you go back to your room you’ll leave the protective circle. Never trust an ayahuasca fart. I sat next to the door, thinking it would facilitate a quick escape to the bathroom.
We went to the head of the circle one by one, just as we did for the tea. We had been instructed to bow our heads and silently express our intentions before drinking. When it was my turn, I bowed my head and whispered to the cup, “Mother Ayahuasca, let me have an experience tonight but not too much of an experience. I need to take baby steps.”
It seemed like hours before anything happened. I lay on my mat, waiting. Gume began to sing icaros, poetry in Spanish, interspersed with whistling and a loud “zzzzz!” that sounded like he was blowing tobacco through clenched teeth. He shook a schacapa leaf rattle as he circulated the room; Ryan had told us it was to banish the evil spirits that plagued us. After a while I began to think I wasn’t going to feel anything. Ryan had warned us that sometimes ayahuasca doesn’t affect a person the first couple of times, because they have so many blockages. I still wasn’t sure what a blockage really was but I was quite sure I had lots of them. I began to hear sounds from the other mats around the room; deep breathing, humming, burping, and finally I began to hear the vomiting, some of it violent. Still I waited.
And then it began. Colors and geometric patterns began to swirl in front of me, just like the LSD trips I remembered from my youth. The patterns moved very rapidly. There were millions of little white light dots, swirling in the background, with three-dimensional pink and purple rectangles and quadrangles gyrating in front of them. When I opened my eyes I saw the dim shadows of the yurt and they were moving in strange ways too, but when I closed my eyes it was a brilliant light show. After watching for a while, I began to think that if I could just let go a little more I could leave my body and travel up into the light, the way I’d read participants in a DMT research study once did. I thought perhaps if I raised my arms it would help me go up.
And then my obsession with the body and the others in the room intruded. I began to worry that if I raised my arms others would notice and think something was wrong with me. And then my stomach began to churn and I worried that I would have to get up and go to the bathroom; I didn’t think I was steady enough on my feet to walk. My whole body shook, and I yawned repeatedly, as if to release tension. Ryan had said that yawning and shaking were part of the purge, but I couldn’t stop focusing on how uncomfortable it was. Then my back began to hurt, and someone opened the door to air the tobacco smoke and I was cold.
My mind began to loop around in the same thought pattern, like a record playing over and over, and I felt trapped in myself. I thought about how I was overly attached to the physical body and the rational mind, and that was one of the reasons I was here. And that I wanted the ayahuasca to help me overcome that attachment, but the attachment was keeping me from letting myself go to the ayahuasca. And then I thought, if only someone would shut the door I wouldn’t be cold. If only I could go to the bathroom my stomach wouldn’t hurt. If only I’d brought my pillow my back wouldn’t hurt. I considered whether I should ask Ryan to shut the door. But maybe this would make me look selfish because others needed the air. Then I told myself, you have to stop being so attached to what others think of you, that’s part of the ego attachment you’re trying to transcend. And then I realized I had gone in a loop and was right back where I started—trapped.
Then the nausea began. It brought me back to what my job for the night was: to figure out my main focus. Why was I here, what did I want to work on? Earlier in our briefing session, when Ryan asked us each talk about this, I had kept it to myself. I told the group I had many reasons to be here and needed to narrow it down to just one, and I didn’t know what that was yet. It was true, I did have many reasons. The need to find a new perspective on what I should be doing to make money. The need to feel adventurous again. The need to find a new passion in my life. The need to stop drinking so much. The need to overcome ego and impatience and intolerance. But when I sat up and began vomiting into my bucket, it suddenly became clear. There was one focus: to stop being such an angry person. If I could do that, it would take care of all the other things. The impatience and intolerance came from the anger. I drank too much because it made me feel less angry. The drinking clouded my vision and made it harder to find a new passion or indulge my adventurous nature or find a new perspective on my career. And so I let myself go into the sickness, hoping that the thick green bile I brought up was the purging of my anger.
Gume came and stood over me after I was finished purging. He said something I didn’t understand. “No hablo Espanol,” I sputtered stupidly. Ryan came over and whispered, “Are you mariado?” I responded, “No, I’m Anna.” Then I realized what he was asking me; “mariado” means under the influence of the ayahuasca. As he started to explain this to me I nodded and giggled. Gume motioned for me to lie down for a “ventiada,” a healing. I closed my eyes and he began to sing an icaro to me. He put his hands on my head and blew tobacco smoke into the top of my skull, my crown chakra, and I tried to focus on the healing I knew he was sending to me. Ryan had told us there were three kinds of medicine: the ayahuasca, the shaman, and yourself. If you didn’t put your own healing power into the equation, neither the ayahuasca nor the shaman could do anything for you.
I was peaceful for a little while and watched the colors, but once again, my body dragged me down. I began to feel a terrible thirst, in addition to the awful taste of ayahuasca that had never left my mouth. We’d been told not to drink any water, although we had our water bottles with us for rinsing our mouths. My mind went in circles again—why couldn’t we drink water? What would happen if I did? I thought I would ask Ryan if it was OK, and then I thought I would look rebellious and he would think badly of me. Then I realized I was trapped in my ego attachment again. And then I went back to thinking about how thirsty I was. Over and over, my mind looped. As I was finally getting ready to ask Ryan if I could drink, he said to the room, “If you’d like to drink your water now, you can. Just be careful not to chug too much at once.” I sat up and said gratefully, “I think you just read my mind.”
The ceremony began to wind down. Gume stopped singing the icaros and Ryan put on a recording of beautiful meditation mantras. He lit a candle, and told us the ceremony was officially over but we could stay as long as we wanted, even all night. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was only 10:30. It felt like nearly morning. Ryan and Jamal served tea and brought around a tray of melon slices and carrot sticks, and I ate a carrot. Slowly, I stood up and gathered my things to leave. I was unsteady on my feet and was still seeing hallucinogenic trails, but the intensity was over.
The next morning I had breakfast with some of the others in the main lodge. We were served bowls of fruit, a cup of oatmeal and scrambled eggs. Despite the blandness of the salt-less dieta everything was delicious—I hadn’t eaten a thing the day before, except for the carrot stick. We compared our experiences. AJ, a big Canadian who talked a lot, said he hadn’t really felt anything. Brock and Drew, bartenders from Austin who were traveling together, said they both had really intense experiences with many visions. Aaron, a loud cockney Londoner, was very focused on what had happened to his body, just as I had been—he described his projectile vomiting in painful detail. The one I listened to most was Alan, an Alaskan nurse who was here for the second time. He said he had a gentle experience, but a good one, and he’d had a moment of feeling great love and acceptance for others. It started with those of us in the room and spread to everyone in Peru, and finally everyone in the world. He said it was a fleeting moment, but I recognized it as the feeling many of us were searching for. And then I remembered I had thought about my mother a great deal the night before, about how I needed to stop being angry or annoyed at the things she did and just accept her habits and love her. She would not be with me forever; in fact, at 79 years old, she might not be with me much longer.
After breakfast we had our first group circle back in the yurt. We described our experience of the first ceremony, and Ryan commented on many of the stories, suggesting what we might learn. I was amazed at the broad range of experiences people had had, from the Canadian who felt nothing to people who had traveled out of their bodies or carried on conversations with inanimate objects. Drew’s story was my favorite. He said aloe plants had talked to him, and some tried to bring him up into the light and others tried to drag him down and out of the ceremony. Every time the evil plants tried to steal him away he focused on the singing of the shaman and that brought him back up. Ryan said the aloe plants were very spiritual, and they were planted around the yurt to protect us from the spirits we were trying to expel. I listened to all the insights and advice Ryan gave each person and tried to make a better strategy for the next ceremony. I would keep my eyes closed, let go of my body’s resistance to the ayahuasca, and try not to think too hard. Or perhaps not think at all.
Lunch was wholesome and good—trout freshly caught from the duck ponds in front of my room, with yucca root and fresh vegetables and a simple salad. Alan told me the lodge was working seriously on sustainability, and he had toured me through the gardens behind the Way Inn when we first arrived. I decided I liked the dieta food, despite its blandness, because it felt so healthy.
The Ayurvedic practitioner, Mike, led our pre-ceremony meditation that night. He talked a little bit about the Ayurvedic body types: earth, fire and air. I thought the description of fire fit me best because they had high energy and tended to be athletic and competitive. Mike led us in a breathing exercise in which we would inhale from one nostril and exhale from the other in order to balance left brain and right brain thought processes, and I found my left nostril was so blocked I couldn’t breathe from it. That was interesting because if anything, I am overly left-brained. We did a guided meditation focused on feeling energy traveling up and out of our spines, and it seemed to me that although I was distracted as usual, my mind felt slightly quieter than the night before.
When it was my turn to drink the ayahuasca, Ryan asked me if I wanted more or less than the half cup I’d had the previous night. I told him I thought I needed a little more, but not too much. I asked Mother Ayahausca to let me leave my body this time, but continue to purge my anger. Ryan gave me about three quarters of a cup, and I gulped it down, dreading the taste, which was far worse the second time.
I had switched my spot in the room so I’d be next to the woodstove and I was warm this time. I lay quietly and waited. When it first hit, it was very physical. I felt as if the ayahuasca was saying, “So you can’t stop focusing on your body? Fine, let’s focus on your body!” Every visual I saw was accompanied by a corresponding sensation in my body. I would see a beam of light and it would travel down one side of me to my foot; I’d see a spray of little dots of light and they would flood my skull. At one point I felt an intense focus on my blocked left nostril, as if the ayahuasca was clearing it.
Then the movies began. I told myself just to let go and watch. It wasn’t like the geometric shapes and colors from the night before, it was more like stories playing out on a screen in my mind. After each movie ended I opened my eyes and paid attention to what was happening in the room, and then I’d close my eyes and a new movie would start. Sometimes I was in the movie but mostly I was just watching. I can’t remember now what the movies were about, but many of them were completely unfamiliar and had characters I’d never met. Some of the movies ended with a message for me, and the message was always about my family and how I needed to love them more and be mad at them less. I thought about my mom again, and how I should cherish her in the last years of her life. I thought about my brothers Larry and Toby, and how I should forgive them for everything I perceived as an injustice and just be glad I would still have some family in this world when my mother was gone. I even pictured myself calling Larry after the trip to tell him all about it; I knew he would appreciate the experience after his recent visit to a meditation retreat in Thailand.
After a while my bowels began to twist and turn and I negotiated with it, even though Ryan said you couldn’t negotiate with the ayahuasca. “Please, let the purge come up the other way because I can’t walk to the bathroom,” I pleaded. Then I sat up and vomited—the negotiation worked! I listened to the room for a little while. Aaron was gone and I realized he’d been gone a long time; I wondered if anyone should be worried about him. And I heard Anuk, a quiet French woman who had been volunteering for the Way Inn for the last couple weeks; she was sobbing. I’d heard her pleading with Ryan earlier, telling him she wasn’t sure she wanted to drink tonight, and he had talked her into it. I wondered what terrible experience she was having and wished I could reach out to her, but it would break the rules. We were supposed to focus on ourselves during the ceremony and leave the concern for others to Gume and Ryan. A few minutes later I heard Ryan say, “Anuk, lie down. Gume is going to give you a treatment.”
When the ceremony began to wind down, Ryan put on some beautiful music that made me cry a little bit. I wasn’t sad, I just felt overwhelmed by the depth of the music and my feeling of love for my family. I gathered up my things and went back to my room, where I slept solidly through the night.
At breakfast the next morning I saw Aaron and asked him if he was OK. He said he’d had a terrible night and gone back to his room to try and shake some of his terror and physical discomfort. We all laughed as he told the story of unruly toilet paper flying all over his room and a comforter that wouldn’t lie still on the bed, but I could tell it hadn’t been the least bit funny at the time. He was truly freaking out at the loss of control over his senses. AJ said he hadn’t had any effect again, even though he drank a full cup. And Anuk said that her crying had not been a bad thing; she had purged some sadness over past events and she felt good.
Holly and I talked about her plans for after the retreat. Holly was a young, out-of-work architect from England who had decided to travel when she lost her job. She was on a six-month trip and had been volunteering on a construction project in Cusco since November; she wasn’t due home until May, but wasn’t sure she even wanted to go home then. She said her boyfriend was coming over after the retreat and she wondered how that was going to go because we were prohibited from having sex for two weeks after the retreat. We talked about the odd restrictions of the dieta; some of them made intuitive sense, like eliminating salt, sugar, alcohol, processed foods and unclean meats such as pork and piranha. But others seemed to be just a matter of tradition, or were explained as facilitating the clearing of energy blockages, like not being able to use soap, shampoo or toothpaste. My dirty hair was really starting to bother me by day three and I hadn’t brought a hat. We weren’t allowed to touch each other or any of the staff until after the dieta, not even to shake hands or hug someone who was suffering. The strangest one of all was that we were prohibited from eating duck for six months after the retreat, and Drew said he heard it was because the shaman believed ducks are magic. Perhaps that explained all the ducks that lived in the lagoon.
After breakfast I had an Ayurvedic consultation with Mike. I told him about my two ceremony experiences so far and said I felt like I’d been getting exactly what I asked for each night. He said that was great, but I should be careful not to get too cocky. He looked at my tongue, throat and hands and asked me a few questions about my temperament, and confirmed that I was indeed more fire than anything else. He even gave me percentages: 45% fire, 30% earth and 25% air. We talked about anger, annoyance and impatience being typical challenges for the fire type, and that being balanced meant figuring out how to keep the motivation that comes with having a “fire in the belly” to get things done but at the same time losing the perfectionism and the tendency to judge others quickly that often comes with that fire. He wrote down some diet suggestions for me, including doing a liver cleanse in the spring, eating more cooling foods like greens, and adding some fermented foods to help my digestion. Perhaps the most interesting thing he said was that my constant need to drink water was due to a need to purge excess fire, and because I drank too much water with no electrolytes in it, the water was running straight through me and not doing me any good, perhaps even stressing my kidneys. He said I should add salt and lemon or lime to the water after the dieta was over.
Ryan led our first Qi Gong session in the yurt before lunch. Qi Gong is similar to Tai Chi, and consists mostly of making small hand and body movements to help direct the flow of energy in our bodies. We massaged various pressure points and focused on clearing blockages. I noticed that I went into the yurt with a slight headache and it was gone afterwards, even though it didn’t really seem to me like I was accomplishing anything during the session.
During the group circle in the afternoon, the stories were as wild and varied as the day before. Some people who’d had intense experiences the first night hadn’t felt anything the second night. Drew’s story was once again the best. He said a beautiful woman came to him and opened a door in his chest, withdrawing a curved, green object that looked like a giant lima bean. He asked her, “Hey, don’t I need that?” Then a little dwarf he couldn’t see attached itself to his back and began tattooing something there. He felt a thousand little needle pricks and heard the dwarf calling someone over to see his artwork, which disturbed him because it meant the tattooing was for the dwarf and not for Drew. He got up and went to the bathroom, hoping to lose the tattooing dwarf, but he ended up trapped in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet with his eyes closed, thinking he was in a hellish tattoo parlor. Finally he opened his eyes and forced himself to stagger back in, where he asked Ryan to help him get the dwarf off his back. Ryan gave him a ventiada and the dwarf was gone.
Drew’s story made us all laugh hard. Jordan’s story made us laugh too—he said he asked the ayahuasca to tell him what love really was, and she replied that it was a Japanese robot Santa. Ryan pointed out that the message was clear: love cannot be defined.
Perhaps the most touching moment came when AJ talked about not having felt anything again. For the first time since I met him, he dropped his “I must tell you everything I know” conversational style and confessed that he was here to work on a compulsive suppression of emotion, which had put his marriage in jeopardy. He said he’d always been proud of being a man of rational conviction, a man who could keep emotions under control, but he had finally come to realize it was crippling him. This was why the ayahuasca wasn’t speaking to him yet, and he knew it. Ryan assured him he would have a breakthrough by his third or fourth ceremony.
We drank tree bark tea at 5:30 again, but after that we had the night off. I read a book about ayahuasca from the lodge’s library for a while, and then met everyone for a light supper of vegetable soup, quinoa patties and hard boiled eggs.
I was glad I had my own room and bathroom for my night off; in fact, I was glad of that every night, especially the nights when I was sick. We were supposed to choose accommodations that were appropriate for the amount we intended to donate, so I had chosen a private room with a shared bathroom but apparently the inn was not full so they upgraded some of us. I ended up in the nicest room at the inn, with windows on two sides overlooking the lagoon. I had a king-sized bed with a fluffy duvet, a woodstove, and a garden tub. I tried to get the woodstove lit that night but failed as usual. It was warm enough under the duvet so I gave up and went to bed early.
The next morning was bright and sunny for the first time since we arrived, and I was so excited that I jumped out of bed and threw open the door to take some photos of the mountain peaks towering above us, which had been obscured by the clouds before. It wasn’t until people started talking about their dreams at breakfast that I remembered some of mine. There was a dream about flying, and my mother was in it; I was helping her learn to fly by flapping her arms and believing she could do it. But the most striking dream was about my anger. I was in a group of four people – a man named Mike and a couple whose names I didn’t remember. I didn’t know any of them, but in the dream I did. I was really angry with Mike for some reason and I shot gas on him from a hose and lit him on fire. Then I got in a car and ran away to hide from the police. The next morning I came back and pretended I didn’t know what happened; the couple told me Mike had been badly burned and they questioned me gently. I could tell from their faces they thought I might have done it and they were afraid of me, but they weren’t sure and didn’t want to accuse me. There was a terrible moment when I asked if my dog had survived the fire and they said no; but I wasn’t sure if it was my current dog Jave or my dearly departed Tango, and so the moment passed. Then Mike came from another room and gave me a hug from behind and whispered, “I forgive you.” I knew he was hugging me from behind because he didn’t want me to see how badly his face was burned.
I knew where the images of lighting someone on fire came from. The day before during group circle, Alan had told us that in previous ceremonies he had visuals of Gume coming after him with a can of gas and a lighter, and he had run away in fear. But in the second ceremony this week, he decided to let Gume light him up because he knew it was for his own good, it was a purging. For me, I know the dream’s message was that I needed to learn to forgive.
After breakfast I went for a hike. Ryan had said we could hike while on the dieta as long as we kept the lodge in sight, and I figured I could stretch that a little by climbing above the inn so I could still see it. Aaron tagged along with me for a while but I told him I would like it if we could be quiet, so he soon dropped back. I went up the road from the lodge and then across cow pastures toward the towering peaks, Churup and Churupita. I climbed the grassy face of Churupita for about an hour and a half, and it was very steep. I tried to make the top of the first peak, but it kept getting steeper and I was feeling the altitude, which my altimeter said was 13,000 feet. I also thought I shouldn’t lose too much salt while we were still on the dieta because I couldn’t replace it. I turned around when I was about 200 feet below the first peak.
Later that afternoon I was sorry I’d exerted myself quite so much. I had a splitting headache, and the Qi Gong session did nothing to dispel it this time. Back in my room after lunch, I debated endlessly whether I should take an advil. There was nothing in the literature specifically prohibiting the use of headache medicines but I knew it went against the general concept of the dieta, which is to put nothing unnatural in or on your body. What if it mixed badly with the ayahuasca and made me sick? On the other hand, if I drank ayahuasca with this headache I was bound to have a miserable night anyway. Finally, despite misgivings, I took the advil.
A thunderstorm started just before we met that night. Mike talked to us more about Ayurveda after we drank the tree bark tea. He talked in particular about the earth type, and how they should eat for their body type. He also explained the chakras, and how meditation is meant to open each of them. We did the nostril-breathing meditation again, and another silent meditation. Then it was time to drink.
I asked for a full cup this time, and gave my intention: “Mother Ayahuasca, let me learn more tonight, let me go deeper. Why am I so angry? And how do I stop feeling the anger? I know I need to behave differently, but I want to feel differently too. How?” The ayahuasca taste was unbearable this time and I wondered how I would manage to drink it two more times after this.
I lay on my back and waited. When the visuals started they were not as beautiful or intense as they had been before, but I kept my eyes closed and watched. Then I felt my mind going into circular arguments with itself, the way I’d done the first night. Why was I only seeing meaningless visuals and not having any insights about the questions I’d asked? Perhaps Mother Ayuhuasca was telling me there is no answer as to why I’m angry, that it doesn’t matter why I’m angry, I just need to stop. But then I went right back to the frustration again, asking questions and getting no answers and raging against the experience. There was one point when my father appeared to me, briefly, and I had the fleeting thought that he was waiting for me in some sort of afterlife. But then his face turned into a skull and crossbones and I opened my eyes to make it go away.
The sounds of people throwing up began, and I couldn’t tune them out. Then my visuals turned to dark, oozing, disgusting green images that were linked with the taste of the ayahuasca and I couldn’t make that stop either. And then the vomiting began.
I don’t remember much more about the night except that I was terribly sick, all night long. I must have thrown up 12 or 15 times, and I had two bouts of diarrhea. My throat burned and the taste of the ayahuasca wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t focus on anything except how bad I felt. As the ceremony was winding down, I decided to go back to my room and use my own bathroom, and while I was there I made the mistake of turning on the light and discovered that everything coming out of me was red. I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything red all day. My first thought was that I was throwing up blood. Then I thought maybe ayahuasca was teaching me a lesson for taking the advil; or perhaps just that the advil had mixed badly with the ayahuasca and needed to be purged. I went back to the yurt and drank some tea, hoping it would make me feel better, but three sips into the cup I knew I wouldn’t hold it down. I walked back to my room with my vomit bucket in one hand, throwing up into it as I walked. I couldn’t resist turning on the light again just to see if I had imagined the color, but I hadn’t. I was barely mariado anymore, so I wasn’t just hallucinating colors. Everything coming out of me was red, and that’s when I realized it was probably the anger, the excess fire, that I was purging. I fell into bed exhausted.
The next day, day five, was silent day. We were not to speak unless it was absolutely necessary, even while we were eating meals together. We would also have the night off from ceremony again, for which I was grateful. Breakfast went down with difficulty since my stomach was still uneasy.
It was sunny again, and I basked in it. I sat in a swinging canvas chair in front of my room and read my ayahuasca book. After lunch I took a short hike, which ended prematurely because of a thunderstorm. I finished my book and started another one, Carlos Castanada’s first book about the teachings of the Mexican shaman don Juan. It was supposed to be a day of spiritual reflection and meditation, but I noticed my thoughts kept creeping toward “real life”—I thought about work, about the problems I was having before I left, and what I should do when I got home. Much of it was positive, however. I thought about changing my diet, and trying to get out in the New Hampshire community I was currently living in to make some new friends and find some new things to do. I also tried to convince myself that my business problems were not really a big deal. I tested my feelings of anger and annoyance toward some of the people I had been in conflict with before I left and found that the anger was still there, but I seemed to be better equipped to put it in perspective. I thought perhaps it would not be possible to stop being an angry person, but only to control my expression of anger more constructively, and to better judge what was worth being angry about and what was trivial and should be dismissed. In the evening I managed to get a fire lit in my woodstove and curled up in bed with my book. I slept well and dreamed about being back in the mountains of Colorado with my old friends.
Day six was the day we were to break the dieta. I jumped out of bed at 6:00 am to take a shower with soap and shampoo and the feeling of being clean again was glorious. Out in front of the lodge before breakfast, Ryan sat with each of us in turn, singing icaros to a teaspoon of salt, and passed the salt to us to rinse our mouths. He explained that the lack of salt during the dieta was meant to weaken the body so we could leave it during our ceremonies, and now this taking of salt was supposed to return us to bodily strength. I did notice I felt a bit stronger that day.
We had a group circle after breakfast and it lasted for nearly three hours. Everyone was eager to talk about their experiences during the third ceremony and the silent day. AJ’s story was particularly notable; after two nights of having no effect on him, the ayahuasca had finally taken him on a journey of love and forgiveness. It was the breakthrough he’d been looking for, and we were all happy for him. He said he had planned to travel in Peru for another week after our retreat, but now all he wanted was to go home and be with his family as soon as possible.
Ryan also talked a great deal, in particular about a spiritual teacher named David Hawkins. The late Hawkins was a psychotherapist in New York who discovered muscle testing as a way of assessing vibrational energy. He found that he could measure where a person or object was on the vibrational scale by using muscle testing to check the “truth” of that being or object. There were high vibrational objects and low ones, and our goal now was to seek the high vibrations and avoid the low so that we might keep our own vibrational energy high. With food, for example, the meats we weren’t supposed to eat for six months were considered low vibrational foods. I took this opportunity to ask Ryan about ducks being magic. He laughed.
“Where did you hear that?” he asked. “Someone told me Gume said it,” I replied sheepishly. “Don’t believe everything you hear,” he advised us. He and Jamal exchanged whispered comments about someone named Adam, a previous guest who had apparently taken a mischievous delight in playing practical jokes on people.
Ryan continued on the topic of Hawkins. He recommended several of his books, and said to start with Eye of the I, his first book. “Shamanism is the transformation of energy,” he said. “Everything we’re doing here is about transforming your energy. We purge the low vibrational spirits from your body during the ceremony, and we infuse higher vibrational spirits into your body from the plants. But when you leave here, it’s up to you to do the hard work of holding onto this energy transformation.”
Lunch was absolutely delicious; a sweet squash soup, followed by a sandwich of homemade whole wheat bread, pesto, egg, lettuce, cucumber and carrot. I made a mental note to try making the same sandwich when I got home, and I looked forward to all the things I’d decided to add back into my diet, like fruit and grains and whole wheat bread.
I took another hike after lunch, this time following the path along the ridge and down into the Cojo River valley below. The trail followed an aqueduct and was cool and shadowy and tree-lined, with expansive mountain views. It eventually dropped all the way down to the river and into a canyon, coming out on the road just in front of the entrance to Huscaran National Park. I’d read a little bit about the park and knew it was the largest in Peru, with more than 50 peaks over 5700 meters and 300 lakes. The guide books compared its beauty to the Annapurna region in Nepal. By the time I reached the entrance, however, it was too late to go much further so I walked back along the road.
During Mike’s Ayurveda talk and meditation that evening, a thunderstorm broke directly overhead and the rain poured so hard it drowned Mike out and the skylight in the middle of the yurt leaked. We opened the door after the meditation and found the grounds completely flooded; waterfalls ran from the aqueduct and the duck lagoon, and the rising waters threatened to invade the yurt. Jamal went out to see if Eric needed help damming the aqueduct, and when he came back he said none of the lodge staff had ever seen it rain that hard before.
When the ceremony began I asked for three quarters of a cup, fearing to drink a full one again. I asked Mother Ayahuasca to give me whatever she thought I needed. But I couldn’t resist adding that I hoped she thought I needed another dose of love and light.
Once it started I had a few moments of hating it. The visuals and the accompanying sensations in my body were too intense, and I felt I couldn’t bear to do this one more time and might have to refuse to attend the last ceremony. There was some of the “cycling” again, the feeling that I was stuck in a pattern of thinking and doing the same thing over and over. But then it began to feel OK; it felt like a déjà vu instead of like being trapped. I settled down and began to notice the sounds. This was the night for sound. Every visual had a sound, and the sound traveled through space and connected to something else, revealing the truth of how all things were interconnected. My body quivered and shook, and I recognized it as vibrational energy this time rather than purging, because the quivering merged with the sound.
I had about a half hour of painful purging, but when it was over it was truly over this time. I was able to lie back down and trust that there would be no more vomiting. I saw some sort of forms surrounding me while I was sick, on the edges of my peripheral vision, and I thought they were plant spirits sent by Gume to help me get through the purging. I felt a great sense of peace come over me, and an appreciation for my life. I thought more about sound, and how I needed to savor it by playing beautiful music at my desk during the work day. I thought about food, and how I needed eat better and savor the tastes. I drifted through the mundane details of my life, picturing how I would make small tweaks to bring my vibrational energy up, and how this would help me to enjoy life more. I decided I didn’t really need a big change in my life after all; I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing, living with my mother, persisting with my two businesses and trying to get out of debt so I could be free again and go back to Colorado. I just needed to do these things in a better way, with a different attitude. A higher vibrational attitude, with more love and forgiveness and less anger and hate. In with the good spirits and out with the bad.
When Ryan put on the mantras toward the end of the ceremony, he played some ambient music that was so gorgeous it made me want to wrap myself up in it, roll around in it, eat it or be eaten by it. I went happily to bed right after the ceremony, hoping for a peaceful night’s sleep after my revelations but for some reason it was not to be. I was still mariado and I drifted in a confused half-sleep for most of the night.
Despite not getting enough sleep I had a great morning. I felt peaceful and happy, and I didn’t even have the urge to go hiking and get some exercise for a change. I just wanted to sit on the porch and talk to the others, so I did, for hours, sharing stories about the night and about our travels and adventures elsewhere. Jonathan was one of my favorite people to talk to; he was a young musician with a gentle personality from a religious family in Alabama, and he talked about how much he missed his folks and was ready to go home. He was studying to become a history teacher. I also enjoyed talking to Jordan, the Australian, who was only 21 years old but had maturity beyond his years. He was taking a one-year trip before starting medical school, and had been to many interesting places in South America over the past couple of months. He made me think about how important it was to stay my current course and get out of debt so I could be free to travel again someday.
Ryan and his girlfriend Ashleigh were leaving for a visit to California that morning, and they came through the lodge during breakfast and hugged each of us goodbye; hugging was allowed now that the dieta was over. I felt myself choke up; what would a ceremony without Ryan be like? He was our protector. But he said that Jamal would be in charge while he was gone and would assist Gume with our last ceremony, and we knew Jamal would take good care of us too.
Drew told me he’d been sitting up and paying attention last night, and had witnessed the exorcism of Anuk. I’d forgotten until then that I’d heard it happening too. Anuk was crying again, and Ryan asked her to come up and lie in front of the mesa. Drew said Gume stood at one end of her and Ryan at the other, both of them shaking their schacapa rattles and chanting and blowing smoke on her. She rolled and writhed on the floor, moaning and crying. I wondered if she would talk about it at group circle today; so far she had been very quiet this morning and said she wasn’t feeling well.
After lunch we had a medicine-making class with Sherdoc. He showed us how to make a tincture of eucalyptus leaves, and talked about how we could apply the same process to making any kind of herbal tincture. Then we went to group circle, where my favorite story came from Holly this time. She said she was gathering the various people in her life into her heart and asking them to sit there, as if it were a living room, and at one point a really annoying co-worker appeared. She dreaded inviting him into her heart too, but she thought she should try to love everyone equally so she did. He came into her heart but sat in a corner, sulking. She didn’t want him to spoil the mood so she decided to tickle him, and as soon as she did, he turned into a little yellow monkey and began laughing and singing and dancing. She said from now on when people annoyed her by being negative or abrasive, she would try tickling them. I wasn’t sure if she meant literally or figuratively, but it was a brilliant idea either way.
The talk after group circle was all about who was going to attend the last ceremony and who wasn’t. Several people felt they had gotten all they needed and didn’t want to drink again—Jordan, Alan, and Jonathan. AJ and Anuk said they were too sick to drink. AJ in particular looked terrible and hadn’t been able to eat his lunch. I felt sorry we wouldn’t all be together that night, and for a moment I even considered whether I should skip the last ceremony too. It would be hard to top the experience from last night, and I thought perhaps I should make sure the week ended on a high note. But then I considered that I might never have a chance to do this again and I could miss something important, so I decided to participate.
The remaining eight of us tightened up our circle that night so we were closer to the mesa. We had our meditation with Mike, and then Jamal told us Gume would give each of us a ventiada in which he would put some protective spirits on us to take home. When he came to each of us, we were to repeat our names out loud three times. Drew made me laugh by whispering, “Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!”
Alas, it was not a good night for me. It wasn’t as bad as the third ceremony when I was sick all night, but I was sick a lot, and some of the vomit plugged up my nose and forced me to breathe uncomfortably through my mouth. It was hard to concentrate on anything else. I saw images of dark, oozing liquid that turned my stomach, and demonic faces with glowing eyes. I opened my eyes and ordered the darkness to vanish several times but it always came back. When Gume gave me my ventiada I felt my nose clear and my spirits lift momentarily, but it didn’t last long. The only high point in the evening was when Jamal delivered a cup of tea to Drew and scared him out of a trance so violently that he jumped several inches off his matt. Then he started laughing hysterically and didn’t stop for 20 minutes. Holly started laughing too, and I considered asking her if she had tickled him.
It was a disappointing evening but I wasn’t sorry I had participated. If I hadn’t, I would forever have wondered what I missed. Now I knew that I had gotten everything there was to get from this week, and it was plenty.
The next morning was our last. Several people left in taxis after breakfast, after hugs and promises to keep in touch. Six of us had decided to spend the day hiking, and then all but me would take late afternoon taxis down to Huaraz. I was staying another night because I hadn’t been able to get a reservation at my guest house in Huaraz, and my flight wasn’t until the following night. The kitchen gave us packed lunches and we set off for a highly recommended hike to Laguna (lake) Chirrup. The day was foggy and it rained at times, but the hike was gorgeous; the trail followed a ridge up into Huscaran National Park, then ascended to a high alpine lake just below the glaciers. There was a tricky scramble near the top but there were cables bolted into the rock to hold onto. We ate lunch by the clear green lake, met a few other travelers, and headed down just in time to beat a thunderstorm.
Saying goodbye to the last of the group was emotional. I’ve had intense experiences with groups of people many times before—races, rescues, mountain climbs, adventure trips—but this was an intensity of an entirely different sort. We had shared a great deal in eight days. We’d talked to each other about deep-rooted psychological and relationship problems, we’d vomited in front of each other, we’d discussed bodily functions you wouldn’t normally talk about even to your close friends. We exchanged email addresses and I hoped everyone would keep their promises to stay in touch. Alan and I talked about doing a six-month virtual group circle to check in with each other and see how well we were holding on to what we’d learned.
My last night at the lodge was peaceful. There were no new guests checking in until the next day, and I had dinner with Mike, Jamal and the other staff members and listened to them talk about their plans to go to the jungle for a dieta during the two weeks they had off before the next retreat. I felt I made a real connection with Mike, who was from Massachusetts and would be visiting home in April. I promised to try and connect him with a shaman group in New York that I had recently been introduced to, and he gave me a few more recommendations for changing my diet and reading up on Ayurveda. In the morning I had breakfast and said my goodbyes, taking a taxi down to the bus station in Huaraz.
On the seven-hour bus ride back to Lima, I gazed out the window at the peaks of the Andes as we descended to the valley floor. It occurred to me that my insights during the silent day had been the truest. I had come here wanting a magic bullet, something that would instantly suck the anger and impatience right out of my temperament, but there was no such magic bullet. It was going to take hard work to be the person I wanted to be, a constant and consistent effort to remain aware of the impact I wanted to have on myself and the people I loved, and a strong will to behave accordingly. But I knew that with the love and light I felt during the ceremonies, it was more possible than it had ever been before. And so I would go home and begin again, right where I left off.