(This article was published recently in Satellite Magazine, Issue #2 — click here for more information)
December, November … octo … ber … sept … tem … ber. I remember being in a neurologist’s office reciting the months backwards … the stress from the mental effort made my hand shake. “You have Parkinson’s disease” I heard him say. That was summer 1993. I was 47 years old at the time.
One day thirteen years later a friend, Jim Decosta with whom I have been friends since kindergarten emailed me a link to a Canadian radio show that was talking about the healing properties of the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca.
I listened to that show and felt an intuitive sense that this could help me. it was a bold thought. Could I even manage to travel to south America let alone go through a psycho-chemical ordeal in the Amazonian jungle? And how would I afford it? Joell Jones an artist friend was kind enough to pay for my trip.
I went to Peru for the powerful healing potential of Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a brew made from two jungle vine plants that when ingested creates an intense hallucinogenic state. Guided by a curindero the experience takes you face to face with your fears long since repressed that are often the source of illness.
Flying is not so easy for me. My ability to walk is subject to my medications and my medications are subject to what I eat. And even if all is well with that stress trumps it all and incapacitates me.
But I made the flight without too many problems.
I land in lima. you know its tropical as soon as the outside air receives you. But it seems that is not the only thing receiving me. . ..what are all these people doing here behind barricades and held back by police? Its a small airport . not that many people are arriving.. . well, from within this sea of shouting and waving dark skinned people I hear my name called out. It’s Pablo sent by Alan to pick me up. He is a strong burly guy that whisked me through the crowd and into his taxi.
As we drive through lima it looks like a normal bustling city except for the occasional building that looks like it was hit by a BOMB.
Spent the night then back to the airport for a short flight to Iquitos.
Same thing at the Iquitos airport except on a smaller scale. and this time Alan was there with his wife to meet me.
Alan and his beautiful Peruvian wife Mariella and two children then took me to a friend’s house on a dirt road with mud puddles and dogs and kids running around. His friend and his wife were also ex-patriots that are part of a community of expatriates in Iquitos. He is a big burly gruff man that is what he seems and has no hidden agenda. For some reason I felt uncomfortable there even though I normally feel comfortable with people like that . I think there was an honest anger that I admired but made me ill at ease.
After visiting Allan’s friend they took me to my hotel which was a deceptively nice place hidden behind a façade out front that blended in with all the other ragged , weathered, gritty collage of businesses and residences that lined the streets and walkways of Iquitos.. . A few blocks away was the town square .
After Alan and his family left I explored the area. I immediately got lost as I did make it to the town square but since all the streets leading to it were indistinguishable I could not recognize which one was the one with my hotel.
Eventually I hoped into one of the many motor cycle surrey-like vehicles and handed the driver a hotel business card I fortunately had with me. These “vehicles” are comprised of a small cc motorcycle rigged with a sort of bench with two wheels like a racing “surrey” except bigger and with a canopy. They are everywhere.
The next day Alan and Mariella took me out to Norma’s compound which is around 40 minutes outside of the town of Iquitos . There are very few markings that indicate were along this main road you are supposed to stop and walk in . . . just a broken down hut not unlike similar structures along the way on the side of the road. But of course Alan knew where to stop.
Norma is a shaman. In Peru they use the term curandero. Her compound is two and a half miles into the jungle off the main road. Alan decided to try driving in with his four wheel drive land rover . There was no trail I could see.. But we chugged along. Soon we encountered the first of many streams which had to be crossed. Alan was amazingly good and fish tailing his way through and up the other side until eventually we encountered one that despite his persistent and I might say brave attempts while Mariella and I watched from a distance … proved to be too much . So we left the car with the keys in it and walked the rest if the way.
The jungle was dense but surprisingly quiet and the only wildlife I encountered was the brilliant deep blue butterflies common to the area.
We finally arrive at Norma’s compound and it is surprisingly quiet. First a shed with old wood stacked then another structure with a raised platform walkway connecting it to a bigger circular structure. the buildings are made of poles, screened openings and pole and thatch roof. strangely most of the doors have no landing. the steps go right up to the door so it is difficult to open the door while you step down to avoid it before proceeding inside. there were dogs, chickens etc. all very quiet. there is no leisure time outdoors due to all the mosquitoes. we went into the main structure. inside there was central pole that supported the roof with radial poles to peak. from this structure were suspended several hammocks with virtually nothing on the floor and one picnic table with benches off to one side.
I sat down at the picnic table. Daniel was lying in a hammock and seemed like every movement was a struggle for him. when he spoke I immediately recognized the affected gentleness and speech mannerism of the new agers where every statement is spoken as if a question to avoid the aggression of a statement as if fact.
Also silently busy around the outer regions of the structure was a beautiful young Peruvian woman who I estimated to be around 18 years old. Alan and mariella came in with Norma and introduced me to her. she was extremely calm and exuded a sense of strength. her piercing dark eyes felt like they were looking through me instead of at me. at 72 years old she seemed very agile and vibrant.
Alan took me on a tour of the compound which consisted of additional melocas as they are called which are basic living quarters out of view of each other with a simple bathroom and outdoor shower. the water comes from a stream pumped into a raised tank and gravity fed to the melocas using plastic pipe.
Down some distance from the main structure was the ceremonial structure with only a distinctive small rocking chair and a number of pads to lay or sit on.
So they were long days in my meloca hut where I stayed . .. couldn’t go outside except when necessary. mosquitoes. collectively the mosquitoes were like an almost invisible jungle bully. they owned the day. if one got in your meloca you would automatically become a warrior in a long search and destroy episode with that nasty blood sucker.
The melocas were about 14 ft by 18 ft. rose up of the ground about 4 ft. they were all screened in and had a thatched roof and wood floor. the small bathroom had a toilet and small sink. water came from a raised tank filled with water pumped in from the small river with a gas powered pump. in the meloca was a bed and a hammock.
One of the things I did a lot was listening to all the strange sounds. the birds were especially entertaining. Much more so at night but the days brought out some characters. one time I was lying on the bed and I heard someone down by the river yell, ” hey marc!.” I wasn’t sure I heard right so I listened and waited . again I heard, “hey marc!.” so I yelled back, “yes. what ?” then is heard again, “hey, marc!” then I figured it out.
My favorite is some crazy bird that sounds like a forceful sustained witch cackle. HEHHHH. HEH . . .HEH. .. HEH . HEH …HEH HEH HEA.
Oh yeah. then there are the snakes. Jose one of the tireless workers there who has bad teeth, leathery dark skin and deep black eyes came in to visit me holding a two foot long snake he said he just killed right outside my meloca.
It was dangling from his hand as he held it up to show me. he then proceeded to pantomime the effects of being bitten by one of these. he gestured as if being bitten then pretended to collapse on the floor . .. .shaking and convulsing . .. then going limp with the word, “muerte.” this means dead in Spanish.
At night everyone wears heavy rubber boots to walk outside . .they are very high almost to your knees. why? bushmasters. the only snake that will chase after you. very aggressive and very deadly.
A few of the other guests visited me as well. there was Daniel a grad student from Oregon who as I mentioned was very new aguish. slender and pale but warm and bright I soon began to like him very much. it is good feeling when you have some sort of bias against someone and it turns out that the bias is unfounded. well it is not a good feeling to be biased in the first place but it happens.
Daniel was apprenticing with Norma. he came to her with every joint in body aching and almost unable to do anything. he was getting better and while I was there the last thing I remember him doing was helping to build the road to come in on. he told me a story about going into town with Norma and having a beer with her. she insisted that he open his bottle of beer with his teeth. at first he tried and told her he just couldn’t do it . . .she insisted so he tried very carefully to get the little cap edges an folds positioned relative to his teeth in a way that gave him a good solid grip on the cap. when he did it came right off easily. I loved that story about him and Norma immediately. she saw his presence as I did . . meek, passive, frail etc. . .opening the bottle with his teeth was the perfect thing to do to balance people’s perception of him.
Then there was Florian from Germany who confided in me that he had a girlfriend in argentine that he was unable t o love in spite of all the reasons why he should love her. that was why he was there . . . to open his heart.
One of the reasons I didn’t stay at the compound long enough to drink ayahausca more then once had to do with a visitor that just showed up one day unexpectedly. he was in the central or community meloca sitting at the picnic table as I came in and so he started talking to me. “yeah. .. I hope she can help me . . .weird stuff is happening. . . I can’t tell if my dreams are dreams or waking is waking. I do stuff that I have no idea I did. .. people say I do these things but I don’t know man. . .I mean somebody’s doing it .. .might be me . .I don’t know. what kind of work do you do, I asked. ” now ? now I am out of work .. I am hoping to work here . .. I was a card dealer in las Vegas. .. .I’m thinking, “do I even want to be in the same city with this guy?” I excused myself and walked out of there two and a half miles to the main road. fortunately I was feeling pretty strong and though I huffed and puffed a bit I made it ok. so there I am on the side of this stretch of road with a little shack for shade . I waited about fifteen minutes and an old vw bus comes by and I got on it. The bus had been retro fitted with more than twice as many benches seats. this is possible because the seats are half size. this is because the people are about half the size of a typical American. at least a lot of them are.
So I worm my way to the back and wedge myself in at an angle with my knees jammed against the back of the seat in front of me. a woman and her three kids gets on at the next stop and sits next to me. other people were pressing against her so she pressed against me.
And it kept getting crazier. the driver kept stopping and picking people up. I decided to count. .. at one point before the end of my ride I counted the passengers. including me, I am not joking . ..there were 36 people.
Well the upshot is that Alan darted out to Norma’s place and took the crazy guy back into town.
So I would spend another night in Iquitos. another night to remember or maybe forget. . . as I look back it looks like an adventure. when it was happening it was more like that wild dream I had. but this time I was awake.
I got back to my hotel and had a few bottles of beer. I seldom drink so two beers is a lot for me. I was bored sitting at the hotel so I went to the town center which is a one square block area with a fountain in the center . . . nice landscaping, walkways that meandered though lawns and gardens with benches along the way. this central area is then framed by the streets that define the square shape of the area and enclosed by the shops, businesses, etc. across the street on all sides.
It was damp and starting to drizzle. no one was in the park at that time which was around 10 or 11 at night. I walked into the center and sat down on a bench I was sitting there for no more than three minutes and two women appear and approach me. they were very friendly and I quickly figured out they were prostitutes. I was in a playful mood so started talking with them as best I could. but I did not what they were offering so I said , “yo no quiero sex.” and they persisted to reach and touch me . . I felt like a teen age girl at a fraternity party blocking and defending more and more advances. it was getting less playful fast. next thing I know there were five more. then about ten more! it was a CROWD of prostitutes surrounding me. and they were scary, unlike the first two who otherwise looked like average Peruvian women they ladies made me very nervous . . .all had thick make-up that made them look artificial and cadaver like… not one of them smiled. they were closing in tighter so got up and pushed through them and swiftly got into one of those crazy motorcycle and bench surrey thingies and took off. fheeeeu! that was intense. I told the driver to take me to my hotel.
We are flying down the road . ..it is still damp weather with a light drizzle. but warm. I heard another vehicle behind us beeping. my driver looked back and just kept driving . .. next I hear beeping and yelling next to us. I looked over and it was the prostitutes ! about five of them in one vehicle like mine…
I motioned to the driver to go past my hotel and keep going . .. he sped up. I motioned to him to turn . .he turned. ..they turned. I could see he was getting nervous and I knew he was definitely confused.
He sped up and they sped up . … then I see him point ahead and I heard him say, “policia” and as he drove towards the police car the horror hookers made a u-turn and disappeared.
Now we are stopped next to a small sub-compact car with about five policemen in it. the driver said something to them and one of those policemen gets out of the car and comes over and sits next to me in my taxi thingy. he is like a caricature of a south American policeman. ..hugely over weight. a gaudy uniform and a serious manner and a look of suspicion .
It didn’t help that was so nervous that I was shaking and moving all around. maybe neurologists would like to try this technique instead of the months backwards thing . ..
Now I know this is serious when the cop asks me if I have been drinking . . . I didn’t understand the sentences but I understood “Cervesa.” he is thinking I am drunk or on drugs .
As we get closer to my hotel I play my best game of charades trying to get him to understand that I have a neurological condition and that I take medication for it . .. I don’t know what the driver told him about the hookers.
We arrived at my hotel. I thanked both the driver and the cop . . I paid the driver and walked into the hotel. .
That was the beginning of what was to be a long night.
No one but the clerk was in the hotel lobby as I walked through with a sense of relief as it was certainly possible that what just happened could have mushroomed into a very bad situation.
The hotel interior was long and open and at the very back end were the rooms encircling the rounded pool. the acoustics were such that you could hear talking in the lobby from inside my room.
As soon as I got into my room I heard a stern mans voice . he had just come in and I could tell he was speaking to the clerk. what I heard was, “senor de estados unitos….. ” and felt confident they were talking about me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but it sounded argumentative.
It felt like . . . my sense was that the policeman when back or called in and was told to investigate further. so he or someone else was trying to get the hotel owner to go to my room and get me and he was refusing.
So I turned the lights out to make it seem like I was asleep. .. what difference that would make I don’t know but I did it.
Then I thought about it and decided I needed to prepare for the worst . . . I had to get my medications, my passport, money, etc. . .all ready to take with me if they came to the door . I crawled around on the floor gathering this stuff together in the dark.
After I was prepared I laid down on the bed. I could still hear them arguing . that went on until 7 am . at 8 am I decided I had to venture out sometime . so I walked to the lobby and. .. nothing. nothing was going on.
That morning I went back to Norma’s compound. I stopped my medications on the advice of Dennis McKenna who is a well known bio-chemist who happened to be staying in Iquitos at the time working on the foundations of a cure for schizophrenia.. His brother Terrance who is no longer living is even more well known for his visionary writings on hallucinogens. Dennis told me to be very careful as the chemicals in ayahausca work on the same areas of the brain as my medications . . . . there was a chance I could get serotonin syndrome .. an excess of serotonin.
The food was very unusual and I loved it. sometimes I did not know what it was partially because it was different and partially because dinner was sometime late enough to require a candle for light.
There was usually a sort of orange juice but it was much more subtle in flavor and pale in color . .it was very refreshing . sometimes there would be chicken or fish over rice . at least that is what I thought it was .. .it was cooked quite a lot so it was dry and sort of salty. ..both of which I like.. . the presentation was always colorful and it smelled wonderful.
At night I laid awake for long periods listening to the very loud hum of the insects punctuated by calls of birds and other animals. a few times something brushed against my hut and I could hear it going underneath me but I had no idea what it was and didn’t want to look to see.
After two days Walter told me that Norma said the next night I would drink ayahuasca.
That night I had an unforgettable dream. in my dream the sun was going down and I was at something like a county fair grounds. not where the rides and carnival are but where the livestock is shown . except there was no one there. just the big industrial structures that house the cows, horses, bulls etc. I remember thinking I should not be here with her. I didn’t even know her name.
I first saw her the night in the city I was walking around with a shotgun. the police had already stopped me and asked me why I had the shotgun .. . it was not loaded . . and I explained to them I was taking it to get repaired. they said it was not a good idea to walk around with a shotgun even though it was not loaded.
After they left I walked a bit further noticing that no one was around and the roads and freeway overpasses where also quiet. and everything was wet.
I went into a building just on a hunch and was met by Udo. I knew Udo who worked as the head machinist at ILM. he spoke with a rusty Scandinavian accent. I told him I was looking for a place to get my shotgun repaired. he said, go up the street to the middle of the next block and go into the door with the handle on the wall instead of the door.
I found it and went in. it was a large cavernous busy space. a lot of people were working on erecting a huge sculpture made of pipes and tubes about 30 ft tall. it was for a talent show.
That is where I met her. I climbed up the structure and she greeted me. . . she did not introduce herself and I did not ask her name but said to her I was looking for a place that could repair my shotgun. she explained about the preparations for the talent show and said that I was close but this was not the place. she said she would have to take me there and so I just followed her. as I followed the woman to the gunsmith I was amazed by the strange and elaborate series of doorways, passages, etc that required lowering your head and climbing up.
Finally we entered a room with a counter and a man behind it and a seated audience in front. she went to the far end of the counter and curled up in a shallow box of wet gray clay.
I explained that I was there to get my shotgun repaired. the man behind the counter took my shotgun and told me it would take about a week. he didn’t ask me what was wrong with it.
As I stood there someone stood up and said that I would make a good scout. that made me feel good even though I had no idea what he was talking about. the next thing I know I was kissing the woman in the clay.
She was very sleepy at the abandoned fairgrounds and so I lifted her over my head and walked to what seemed to be a football field. as we made it onto the football field it was getting pretty dark. but not so dark that I could not see the group of people that I somehow knew were intent on killing me. they all carried sharp elephant tusk like weapons only much thinner. and as they approached I put the woman down and moved away . … they came towards me and ignored her. I yelled as load as I could three times: . ..AAAAAAAAAAH! AAAAAAAAAAAH!! AAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!! they also had vicious dogs with them. I ran towards some houses where I encounter a big powerful dog that dispersed the pack that was after me. I frantically knocked on a sliding glass door and a Japanese man about 35 years old upon seeing my distress let me in. I explained what was happening and he went into another room and brought out a long case and opened it . there were two samurai swords except the blades were different. they were long razor blades. thin.
He handed one to me. indeed it was floppy. he then went outside to talk with that mob, floppy sword in hand.
When he came back inside he informed me I would have to fight in another building with little time to prepare.
I entered the packed room that seemed to be a cheaply converted garage. my friend Eben was there in the corner yelling encouragement and support. the samurai man was behind me. I jumped up on what I assumed was the tiny arena surface with my limp razor sword in hand and shouted ,”come on fuckers!!”
Next I heard, marc . .. marc.. I felt my toes being wiggled and a light in my face. “are you ok?” everyone from the compound was crowded at the door of my malice. Daniel, said, “gees, man ….I shook your foot three times and you didn’t move. we were worried after hearing the screams.”
They left. I stared into the darkness listening to the cacophony of Amazonian jungle sounds stunned by my dream and carefully recalling it.
This was the night BEFORE I was to drink ayahuasca. the experience was not only unlike anything I have ever experienced it was totally unimaginable .
The following day passed quickly as busied myself however I could to take my mind off the inevitable. I even instructed a couple of workers on how to construct a shelf for the outdoor shower for me to put shampoo and soap on . .. I did it through the screened but open area separating the inside from the outside . .. my Spanish is so poor that it was a comical sort of pantomime affair, “this cut angle here . .. no there . .. other way . . flip it . ..yes now put it there .. .no over. ..other way ” finally it was done and worked great.
Late afternoon and time to go. ..Walter and Daniel helped me walk down the trail to the ceremonial meloca. it is really just getting started that is my problem . ..once in motion I can walk pretty good.
Inside the structure nestled under trees and with a stream running under it there is a spacious feeling . neatly arranged I could see several lounge pads or small mattresses on the floor. a bucket by each one. the bucket is for vomiting . everybody vomits. at the front of this arrangement is a rocking chair that Norma will use as she guides and looks after us.
Its dark now. Daniel is beside me and will refrain from drinking ayahuasca so that he can attend to me
Norma comes in. every one is there. Norma’s two strong helpers. also Daniel, Maria, the guy from Germany, the guy from France, another person and myself.
Maria will also refrain.
Norma drinks her potion.
I am told something extra is being put in mine.
Walter comes over to me with what appears to be a small wooden cup. “Uno gulpa” he says . . .Daniel clarifies, “he means one swallow.” I comply and feel myself shudder as this vile substance slides down my throat. he does the same with the others.
Walter then proceeds to puff on a cigar and blow smoke at us . .. followed by a sharp swishing sound as if launching little jet planes as he moves along.
Norma begins to whistle a bouncy rhythmic up beat song. .. and than all of a sudden….. OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE! I am no stranger to psychedelic drugs . .. but I am a stranger to this one! gees . .. my mind has exploded with visions of multi colored shimmering rope-like sinews forming rivers of intense colors streaming through my field of vision. the room is dark and I open my eyes but nothing changes.
Norma’s whistling is right in time with the visuals . .. a strong sign that this is familiar to those initiated and reassuring since they all lived to tell about it. nevertheless my next thought was I WILL NEVER DO THIIS AGAIN.
I was very frightened. I asked Daniel how long it lasts . .. he said the intense visuals last for an hour or so and the whole thing lasts about 4 hours.
It is not like something you have never experienced it is like something you could not imagine. exquisitely beautiful, extremely intense, you feel both incredibly small and incredibly large at the same time. my mind had no boundaries and felt like it was open to anyone and anything to enter.
And then they started coming.
The first ones were wild creatures that looked like playful dragons with big eyes and big mouths. ..big smiles and friendly manner. only to be displaced by sinister, terrifying dangerous, vicious looking demons.
But I would not be intimidated by these entities. meanwhile the whole space around these guys was teaming with life . ..what seemed to be plant life but mobile plant life . ..lots of little Pillsbury dough boy kind of creatures the size of hamsters but walking upright … all shades of green.
My fear was that one of these entities would become part of me . . .a kind of possession. so sort willed them into dissolution. the friendly ones I didn’t worry about. . .as if being possessed by a friendly demon is ok.
After a while Norma asked me,” Marcos, esta bien?” I replied “I am ok so far.” Daniel translated. then Norma responded with a long drawn out comment in very solemn tones. She must have spoken for ten minutes. when she was finished Daniel waited for about a minute before translating. I figured something was wrong and Daniel was trying to figure out what to tell me so I don’t freak out.
He spoke, “Norma says you are doing just fine.” “is that it ?” I asked adding that she spoke for a long time. Daniel repeated that I was doing just fine.
The demons persisted… friendly, sinister, friendly, sinister. finally I started to seek comfort and thought about Maria. maybe she would sit with me and hold my hand.
I mention this to Daniel and I could tell he didn’t like the idea. he said this is usually done alone but he would ask Norma if I wanted .. I said yes I could use some comfort. . . I was freaking out. it had been about an hour.
Norma quickly spoke to Maria and she got up and came over to me.
Also I should mention that everyone by now had thrown up except me.. .and I had not the slightest urge to do so. the medicine was going full potency into my system.
In the darkness I could feel Maria kneel down next to me and she took my hand.
This angel was right there. we entwined our arms, hands, legs around each other.
This was intense enough in itself to distract me from the assault of the demons and visual wildlife that were putting on the worlds most beautiful and scary show imaginable.
All of a sudden my mind was a printed circuit board .. of sorts . .. but it was damaged. I thought to myself they are showing me what is wrong with me. I’ll see if I can repair it. although I am an accomplished builder I know next to nothing about electronics. but why let that stop me? so I start connecting this to that and that to this . . . after a while it dawns on me,”you don’t have the slightest idea what you are doing!”
The circuit board went away and my attention returned to Maria. as we were entwined I could sense her comfort and affection for me. I was worried that either something in me that was bad, my PD, would flow into her . .. or something bad from her , something responsible for the emotional trauma that brought her here, would flow into me. what was stopping it? after all, the reality is that we are open to the world and stuff of all sorts goes out and comes in. ..
So now I had more fears to add to the ones associated with this crazy parade of characters in my mind. I wrestled with these new fears in the same persistent and vigilant manner as that of the threatening characters. I stood firm and didn’t come apart. Afterwards Norma would say of me , “He was very valiant.”
The imagery continued as Norma stopped her beautiful singing and whistling. Maria had been sitting entwined with me for four hours and asked to go lie down. she brought her sleeping pad over and placed it between Daniel and me.
What I saw as still very strong but much less intense. everything was subdued greenish, dark deep greens, earth tones, seemingly in light from the moon or stars. . .
I tried to sleep but rested comfortably till dawn…
When the others got up I had help getting started and then went to my meloca to sleep. I slept for about three hours.. when I awoke I felt something I had not felt for many years. I felt normal and healthy. I got up and walked around. if was as if I was cured. no symptoms of any sort.
A part of me knew it wouldn’t last. it lasted three hours.