I first heard of Ayahuasca during a visit to Pucallpa in the Peruvian Amazon fifteen years ago when my husband and I were traveling around Peru.
While looking for a place to chill and have a cold beer, we happened upon a fourth-generation shaman who told us about his Ayahuasca retreats. Over a couple of bottles of Cristal, the shaman explained how the Master Plant medicine is harvested, and how—during a ceremony—it shows you the good and bad in yourself. A few months later, I went to an Ayahuasca talk in New York City, somewhere west of Chelsea, during a raging blizzard, where some gringos spoke about their experience with this sacred plant medicine.
I was intrigued and decided to do Ayahuasca the next time an opportunity presented itself.
But even though I lived in Peru a couple of years later, it took many years before the time was right. Mama Ayahuasca knows when you’re ready, and then she comes calling. For me, it wasn’t until my (definitely not hippie) sister expressed interest and suggested we check out a retreat in—gasp!— Europe.
When you're ready, Mama Ayahuasca comes calling.
I’m a snob, I admit it. Or perhaps I’ve just met too many fake “shamans” in Peru and the United States who spend their days in an office or as tour guides, and don feather headdresses and tribal costumes for the weekend retreats with gullible tourists.
To me, a true shaman is someone who comes from a long lineage of shamans, or at least has studied with a Master Shaman and has awoken to an all-consuming calling. You can’t be a part-time shaman. You either spend your life in the service of the great spirit, or you're a layman who offers shamanic ceremonies in their free time for extra cash.
What is Ayahuasca?
It’s a many-thousand-year-old sacred plant medicine indigenous to Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. The hallucinogenic brew is made from two components: a vine with woody stems that only grows in the Amazon jungle, and a leafy shrub (this varies somewhat between the different countries). Mama Ayahuasca, as it is called, is known to heal, cleanse and purify the blood. It teaches, transmits protection, and provides guidance and sacred knowledge to those who take it.
The Ayahuasca ceremonies usually take place at night in a sacred space prepared by the shaman. The participants dress in light colors and lie down (or sit) in a circle. The medicine is taken in shots, and after the first dose, it takes about half an hour for the effect to kick in. Each trip is different. Mama Ayahuasca will provide each person the experience they need and will provide guidance on how many doses are needed. Most will see psychedelic patterns when their eyes are closed. Some will experience auditory hallucinations or go on mind-altering journeys into the unknown. Others will face their greatest fears or endure anxiety, panic, and paranoia. Purging (vomiting, or sometimes diarrhea) is considered a normal and necessary part of the cleansing experience.
“Is this all you’ve got?”
When Mama Ayahuasca came calling, she didn’t provide me with what I wanted. In fact, I was so disappointed the first night, I almost cursed her. “Is this all you’ve got?” I asked. I wanted more. I wanted to see the good and evil in myself, instead of just pretty geometrical shapes. I wanted to go deeper. Instead, I felt awake, as if in a profound meditation. I fought the purging, wanting to show my strength. I compared the Spanish shaman and the “gringo” experience to what I thought I would experience had I been in Peru. But Mama Ayahuasca was kind. She whispered into my subconscious the lessons I had come to learn.
I didn’t get what I wanted that first night, but I did get what I needed.
NOTE: It’s strongly recommended that Ayahuasca only be taken when supervised by an experienced shaman and in a safe environment with support staff. An Ayahuasca trip leads to an altered state of consciousness that lasts for many hours.