Featured writer: David Hughes
In a small, dark, windowless room sits three men on wooden stools low to the floor. Two of the men are elderly and look to be in poor health, but they welcome me with warm smiles and each of them offers their hand. The man in the middle is Jauriman, he is tall and heavy-set, dressed in an immaculate white gown, he is the shaman. Beside him is a small table, an alter of sorts adorned in various flowers, a beautifully carved lizard shaped pipe, an orange glass, a single lit candle and a bottle of liquid, deep maroon in colour which the shaman presents to me as the ayahuasca. Across from the three men, directly in front of the shaman is a rug with a bucket just in front of it. I sit on the rug, crossed legged, facing the shaman with my back to the cold concrete wall. He tells me the bucket is for me to vomit into. The vomit is the cleansing of bad energies he says. Then he begins the ceremony. I don’t know it yet, but he’s about to show me what hell looks like.
He lights the lizard shaped pipe and explains that it contains roots grown deep in the jungle. He inhales, opens the lid of the ayahuasca and melodically whistles the smoke into the bottle, repeating this several times before replacing the lid. He tells me to relax and concentrate on what I want to see, that if I allow my concentration to break I may not see anything at all. Then he blows the smoke into the cup, pours the ayahuasca and hands it to me.
I should explain at this point that I am not a spiritual person by any means, nor am I religious. I also have never experienced any intoxicating drug in my life, with the exception of alcohol. Up until now, the closest I have ever been to getting high was when I stood up in a hot bath too quickly and got a head rush. The ayahuasca, the ceremony, for me is about one thing and one thing only; intrigue. This ritual is a massive part of the culture here and has been for as long as anyone can recall. For some reason, I can separate this from drug use but I can’t quite explain why. Maybe because it’s a drink and not a pill or some powder going up my nose. I don’t know.
I take the glass from the shaman and, as instructed, I hold it in my hands for two minutes whilst I concentrate on what I want to see. I think of my friends, my travels, my home, my sister. Then I drink. No words can describe how foul it tastes and I grimace as I hand the shaman the empty glass. The others drink too, then the shaman blows out the candle and begins softly chanting. Nothing happens for the longest time and the sceptic in me expects this to continue. But, as the strongest and most potent hallucinogenic on Earth courses through my body, there is nothing left to do but start tripping balls.
Without warning, the wall disappears from behind me and I sink into the floor. My heart races as I sweat profusely. I’m scared, petrified even and I scramble back to my sitting position, relieved when I feel the wall against my back again. The darkness turns a brilliant white and I feel my stomach start to churn. After a few moments the darkness returns and with it, so too does the music. A few more minutes pass but the nausea persists. Vomiting is inevitable. I welcome it.
When the visions start, they are not of my thoughts before I drank from the glass. They are of people running and crawling in fear, brushing past me as they look over their shoulders. They disappear and in front of me is a woman, dancing as the shaman continues to sing, partially covering her face with her hands. At first I can just see her eyes, they are yellow with black pupils, like a snake. Her whole body contorts and she screams as she leans closer toward me, showing her whole face, her mouth full of jagged, decaying teeth. She tells me that she is my devil, that she is my mother.
She continues to dance, morphing further into the snake and then reappearing as before. I use all my strength to turn away from her, where I see a man in blue jeans standing to my left. He is tall and I can’t raise my head to see the rest of him but his shoes are familiar; black running shoes. New Balance. He stays there until it’s over.
Despite the room being in complete darkness, the visions vanish whenever I close my eyes and after a while, it’s all I can do to escape the nightmare so I put my head in my hands and weep as I wait for the ayahuasca to wear off. My stomach clenches and I reach for the bucket. My vomit smells of nothing but the ayahuasca, the fumes force me to continue until there is nothing left to come out. Hours pass, she just dances and calls out to me. Soy tu diablo. Soy tu madre. Pretty sure my mother doesn’t speak Spanish.
Evidently, the depths of the subconscious is a very scary place. I have spent most of my adult life, and a significant portion of my childhood pining for a woman whose face I can barely remember, so it’s no surprise really that she appeared in my vision. It’s also no surprise that the pillar of support was John, or that he was wearing New Balance. (Apparently they go with everything.)
Finally, the shaman lights the candle, his face flickers in the lights and he announces that the ceremony is over. I thank him and struggle to my feet before stepping outside and hailing a rickshaw. As we speed through the streets of Iquitos, I try to reflect on what had just happened but all I can concentrate on is not covering the poor driver in sick. It’s after midnight when I arrive back at my hotel and I collapse onto the bed, drained and starving, still drenched in sweat. Kevin is not long in behind me and assuming I am asleep or still off my face, he climbs into his bed after quietly kicking off his shoes. Not quite New Balance, but close enough.
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