The adventure got underway as soon as I left San Agustin for Mocoa. I got up early and returned to the station where earlier a woman had tried to sell me a tour to the archaeological park. She’d said there were buses leaving every seven minutes, which didn’t seem possible, but now I saw that what she was referring to was covered pickup trucks, with benches in the back instead of seats.
As soon as I walked up, someone grabbed my suitcase and began tying it to the roof. I got in the back across from an old man, and we were off. Along the way we stopped to pick up a woman, and then another woman and her teenage daughter. Outside of that, there was probably no time when we were going less than sixty miles an hour, mostly downhill, zigzagging back and forth, passing slower cars and trucks, as if it were a race.
In Pitolito, I had to catch a bus the rest of the way. The minibus I got on had tinted windows, which made the landscape look reddish-brown, when, in fact, no place on earth could be greener. It already felt like I was moving through a dream. Giant ferns grew from the mountains, like survivors of a prehistoric age. When we got to Mocoa, the bus just pulled over by the side of the road. There was no sign of a town center. I asked a taxi driver if he knew the hostel I was staying at, and he said it would be seven dollars to take me there. When I had him drop me off at a bank first, he raised the price to eight.
We set off down a road, surrounded by mountains and dense jungle. There were a few restaurants beside the road, but not much of anything else. We arrived at the hostel. On the front gate there was painting of a jaguar and two hands offering up a bowl. The young guy who met me inside was very gentle. He asked what had brought me to Mocoa. There was a small poster on the desk that mentioned ayahuasca. I just picked it up and showed it to him. He told me they went to meet with a shaman, or taita, twice a week, Tuesday, and Friday. As it turned out, today was Tuesday, and Friday was my birthday. He told me they were getting ready to leave in an hour. I told him to count me in.
The hostel was as basic as could be. My dorm was a large room with five beds in it. When I went up to put my stuff away, there was a woman lying in one of the beds, and a young guy in another bed on his phone. I’d been told to bring water and toilet paper, so I walked up to one of the restaurants, in a state of disbelief. When I got back, a stout man with bushy hair was getting out of a taxi.
There were four of us going. Angelica, who’d been in bed, was a small woman with large glasses who worked as a computer programmer in Houston. She’d recently gotten on a spiritual path and completed a ten-day meditation retreat. Her grown kids knew she was doing this, but were apprehensive, for good reason. Another guy, Rolf, from Germany, had done ayahuasca a number of times and was in the area for a few months. The guy with the bushy hair was from Spain, and almost impossible to understand. I only knew him as the Spaniard.
Jose and Jen, the couple who owned the hostel, had their own car but were picking up a few other people along the way, so had arranged for a taxi to take Rolf, the Spaniard, and myself to the ceremony site. The place where we were going was beyond another town called Villagarzon, and took a half hour to get to. Just being in the back of the taxi, knowing where I was heading, made me feel like I was already tripping.
Just outside of Villagarzon, we turned down a little dirt road. At this point, the driver wasn’t sure which house it was. We pulled into one, but no one was home. At the next house we came to, a couple were sitting out front. They waved that this was the right place, and the driver pulled over. Jose had given us each a hammock and blanket. We retrieved those from the trunk, and then followed a path that started beside the house and passed a few fish ponds. In a small stand of trees was a large structure with open sides, a tin roof, and dirt floor. We were instructed to hang our hammocks from the beams.
A few minutes later, Jose was along to help us with the hammocks. He and Jen had brought Angelica, as well as a free-lance mystic named Don Diego, and a large dark man with a baseball hat who I was never introduced to. Don Diego had his own magic kit that he set up in the corner, with candles, his own incense, and a drum.
There was a fire pit with a thatched roof and benches about twenty yards away, and a bathroom at the end of a long stone path. In one corner of the main structure was the taita’s office, so to speak, a small wooden hut with a jaguar on one side of it, and a pyramid, with a window to receive the medicine, on the other. There were pictures of both him and his mentor on either side of the jaguar.
After we were all set up, we still had hours to wait. A few other people showed up during that time. There were also assistants to the taita who would play a role in the ceremony. It was hard to know who was who or what their function was, especially after it got dark. We waited on the benches, attempting to get to know each other, but really only thinking about what was ahead of us.
Jen came over and gave us instructions, first in Spanish, then in English. We were going to get sick. That was a given. We were asked to pick a tree that was far away from camp. If we had to use the toilet, there was no running water. There was a barrel of water with a plastic bucket in it. We were asked to clean up after ourselves. If we got into a bad place and needed help, that’s what they were there for. Were there any questions?
There were probably a million questions, but nobody asked any. Everyone there seemed to accept that this was their fate, and was determined to see it through. If this was the calm before the storm, it wouldn’t last. In a few hours, no one there would ever look at things the same way again. Some of us were lucky just to survive.