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My ayahuasca adventure

| 31 Dec 2018 | 12:30

An exercise in meeting fear

By Cody Rounds

In March I found myself alone in Iquitos, a city nestled in the Amazon rainforest of Peru that can only be reached by river or air. The first stop for jungle tourists, the city is famous for its floating market full of shamanic ritual tools, rolls of cocoa leaves and herbal potions for warding off witchcraft. The air is thick with humidity and the roads are littered with street carts selling fresh coconuts and turtle eggs for a dollar. It was a three-hour journey and hike through the wet jungle to my destination, an off-grid ayahuasca healing center where I’d volunteered as a meditation teacher.

This center takes care not to cater to psychedelic tourists, but to use ayahuasca in its most traditional form: as a medicine. Ayahuasca is an ancient hallucinogenic tea made from jungle plants that has been used by indigenous Amazonian tribes for centuries to cure emotional, mental, and physical maladies. While under the effects of the tea, the drinker experiences intense self-actualizations that can only be described as spiritual. When drunk with a preset intention of working through a specific issue or trauma, the results are enormously positive. Most ayahuasca drinkers’ lives go through positive and profound transformations within months of their ceremonies.

I’d been warned that there was no communication with the outside world, minimal solar electricity slated for emergencies and no anti-venom on hand. The rainforest is dangerous and humbling. You are a guest in a home run by enormous snakes, poisonous dart frogs, venomous spiders and erratic weather patterns. There is little choice but to learn your place within such a powerful ecosystem.

Despite all this, I immediately felt at home in the jungle in a way I had never before. I’ve always been more comfortable outdoors than in, and living in such harmony with nature was a dream come true. I bathed in a river under the moonlight surrounded by sacred flowers and medicinal mushrooms. I slept in a tambo, an indigenous Peruvian hut with a palm-thatched roof and mosquito netting for walls, allowing me to be immersed in the never-ending symphony of frogs, crickets, and rainstorms. My neighbors were monkeys and toucans living in trees bearing exotic fruits I’d never heard of. On my nights off, I would fall asleep to distant sounds of indigenous shaman singing ceremonial prayers to those undertaking their spiritual journeys.

Every ten days, eight to ten guests would arrive at the center from all over the world in hopes that ayahuasca could offer them relief from depression, traumas and addictions that western therapies had not helped. The center offers traditional ayahuasca ceremonies facilitated by Amazonian shamans from the Shipibo tribe who have been working with ayahuasca all their lives. During downtime, the guests process their visionary experiences and realizations in therapy with trained staff members. The hope is that the inner work they are doing will have functional and lasting effects when they return home. Every guest I met left with a profound sense of optimism and gratitude for their newfound outlook.

I was responsible for assisting the shamans and overseeing the well-being of the guests during their six-hour ceremonies. This meant helping them to the outhouses, setting up their beds at the end of the evening and providing a nurturing presence if heavy emotions arose. Since it’s a hallucinogenic, it’s impossible to predict how an ayahuasca experience will go. The ceremonies I witnessed were heavily positive. Occasionally a guest would relive a fear or trauma, supported through the trial by a staff member, then feel permanently freed from its burden after the ceremony.

Even knowing what I knew, I wasn’t nervous the first time I drank. My entire trip had already been an exercise in meeting fear. I had travelled alone to a foreign continent where I didn’t speak the language, been poisoned by frog venom and had endured the 24 hours of excruciating pain that comes from getting bitten by the infamous bullet ant. I was learning that fear doesn’t allow room in life for expansive transformation. It keeps your world small.

I knelt in front of the shaman who was calling out to the ayahuasca spirit to be kind to me on my first journey. He handed me a small cup with a surprisingly small amount of sludgy brown liquid in it. It tasted like bitter burnt coffee mixed with barbecue sauce. I returned to my mat as the shaman blew the candles out and waited for the show to begin.