After a long while, there was finally some light coming out of the taita’s headquarters, and soon after that, chanting began to fill the air. It sounded like there were many voices coming out of the one man. I thought I heard elements of Tibetan throat-singing weaving through it.
When he was done blessing the medicine, we were called over to stand in line and wait for our turn to receive it. The ayahuasca, or yage, was served in a cup not bigger than a shot glass. Before handing it over, he blew hard across the surface of it.
I’d heard it would be bitter, almost impossible to swallow, but it wasn’t much worse than a shot of strong liquor. Once I drank it and handed back the cup, I didn’t know what to do next. Jose told us to return to our hammocks and wait for it to kick in. I did, but for a long time it seemed like there was nothing happening. Some people claimed that there’d been no effect after taking it. On the flipside, others spoke of doing permanent damage to their psyche. I shut my eyes and wondered if the faint geometric shapes beginning to appear were just figments of my imagination. After a while, I was seeing a candy land of pastel colors, where women sat in candy houses, with signs out, like invitations. I still felt OK, and thought, at that point, that I probably wouldn’t get sick.
Things began to change when the Spaniard, two hammocks away, gave a frightened shout and fell out of his hammock. He grabbed it with both hands and used it to pull himself to his feet. His face had changed into that of an old man with a white beard. He walked stiffly to the edge of the camp and began to violently puke. Someone had to help him into the trees where he remained, bellowing like a beast, and crying for help. At the same time the large, dark man in the hammock next to me, sat up with a groan, like a mountain gorilla, and then dropped to the dirt floor and began writhing around, evidently in the full-throes of some kind of demon possession. He was to remain there half the night, shouting, cursing, crying, asking over and over, Are you Serious?
I closed my eyes and when I opened them, the bad dream had invaded the world. I heard Angelica fall to the ground, desperately sick, moaning like she was dying, begging for someone to come and help her. Just then, I got sick myself. I jumped up and barely made it to the edge of camp. Jose came over and helped me to a tree. I clung to it and retched up everything in my stomach. Even when it was empty, I couldn’t stop puking.
Now the woods we were in had become an enchanted forest. The bathrooms, now lit up by a red candle, had become a witch’s hut. I had to shit, so went back and sat on the toilet, now seeing the faces of women, like an intricate, throbbing mosaic. They wanted to take me into their world and I didn’t want to go. The bitter smell of the ayahuasca in my nose was nauseating. There was a vomit bucket next to me that I couldn’t stop reaching for.
When I finally felt well enough to return to the camp I went over to the fire. I couldn’t go back to my hammock as the dark man on the ground was still wrestling for his soul and wouldn’t stop shouting. At the fire, I met Don Diego, tightening the head of his drum over the fire. He was wearing some sort of ceremonial clothing, but resembled a large clown, and was making the sort of sounds usually reserved for the sea.
After, about a half hour a harmonica started playing, calling us back, and I realized that the worst of it was over. There’d been a brief period where it had gotten so intense, I’d sworn never to do ayahuasca again. Then someone started playing the guitar and singing. There was some Spanish influence to it, but I’d never heard songs like that before. The Spaniard was back in his hammock by now. The dark man was still struggling in the dirt, but his cries were becoming fewer and further between. Somewhere in the darkness, Angelica was moaning. I was really afraid she wasn’t going to be OK.
The guitar music was coming from one corner of the camp. I went over and found the taita presiding over it with his wife. In addition to being a powerful medicine man, he was also a master musician. He sang songs that I could barely understand, but the themes seemed to be of victory and redemption. Every once in a while, he sang the name of Jesus Christ, and I realized they were spirituals in their own way. The assistants accompanied him on rattles, and then took turns playing their own versions of his repertoire. Someone asked me if I wanted another shot, and emboldened by my recovery and the validation of the music, I asked for a small one.
Immediately, I was terribly sick again, and had to run towards the bathroom. On the way a wet fart went streaking down my leg. I collapsed on the toilet, as sick as I’d ever been in my life, and sat there for hours. Mostly, I just stared out at the darkness and vomited. Then I saw some small lights flickering in the trees, and realized it was fireflies. I got up, cleaned myself off, and walked to a clearing, where every star was pulsating in the sky, just as the fireflies continued to flicker in the trees. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life.
In the morning, the camp looked like a battlefield, but it appeared everyone had survived. At one point the dark man next to me had climbed back into his hammock, but didn’t get up as the rest of us were taking ours down. There was one last rite the tatia performed to wrap up the ceremony, having us take off our shirts and then whipping our backs with a thorny, medicinal plant. I saw him later talking to the Spaniard, who sat there, his back covered with red welts, looking as if he’d barely survived the Inquisition.
Strangely enough, everyone reported having a positive experience. The allure of ayahuasca is that it is supposed to help you solve problems you are having in your life. I have to admit that in my darkest hour, I’d done some soul-searching, and realized I was doing the right thing to go back to California for Christmas and reconnect with my family. I’d also received a strong affirmation that I was a folk artist, not a pop artist or entertainer, and that the path I’d taken in life was the right one for me, even if I hadn’t attracted much attention or support.
Once the taxi arrived and we were driving back to the hostel, I recounted to the Spaniard how he’d fallen out of his hammock and gone bellowing into the forest like an ox driven mad by terror. This made him laugh out loud. He began to rattle on about his experience, but I only understood one thing he said. He claimed that he’d been in another world.