That Friday was my birthday, and Jose and Jen had another yage session planned with the taita. As far as I was concerned, I’d had enough and thought I probably understood the gist of the experience. At the same time, there wasn’t much going on in Mocoa, so I considered returning, just because I’d enjoyed the ambience and the music. Angelica told me she’d been to hell, but even she was thinking about going back. Her son urged her not to, telling her she’d had a bad trip. Rolf had remained in his hammock the whole night. I’d almost forgotten he was there. As far as the Spaniard was concerned, he was through with yage, but felt like he’d gotten something out of the experience.
There was an Irishman named John who was in the bed next to me. He’d been there when I arrived, and was in the middle of a cleanse, so hadn’t joined us, but planned on going out on Friday. He’d done it before, and for those of us who’d been through it, it was all we wanted to talk about.
You might’ve heard about the Japanese soldier who’d refused to surrender at the end of World War 2, and had spent the next 29 years hiding on an island in the Philippines. It had been like that for me. I’d been out there fighting in the jungle of my mind for years, refusing to admit that the war was over. I would never surrender either, but instead dreamed of one day breaking through a clearing and finding a whole platoon of soldiers, fighting the same fight as me. That’s how it felt with the group of travelers I met in Mococa. We grew instantly close, not just because of the ayahuasca, but also because we’d been out defying the odds in our own way most of our lives.
The day of the second ceremony, my plan had been to hike to a waterfall called End of the World, but when I woke up it was pouring rain and the attendant at the front gate told me the river was too high to cross. I gave it a few for more hours, until after the rain had tapered off a little, but he said there was still a group that had been waiting two hours for the river to go down. He suggested I visit a nearby animal park instead.
On paper it sounded like a good idea, since it featured animals native to the Amazon; tapirs, capybaras, monkeys, crocodiles, parrots, and even a black jaguar. It ended up being the last week of school, however, so the park was packed with kids and their teachers. The only way to get in was to take a tour with a guide. By late afternoon we were only half-way through the tour and I was practically convulsing with impatience. That state of mind was not going to be conducive to a good ayahuasca experience, and I knew it, yet I’d determined to take the medicine once more.
When I got back, after walking briskly two miles, mostly uphill, afraid that I was going to miss my ride to the ceremony, I found the others still in bed, resting up. Only John and Angelica were going, as well as a young guy, Miguel who’d just shown up from Cali. Jose and Jen were picking up people again, so Angelica went with them, and John, Miguel, and I took the taxi.
The energy was totally different from the first night. It was darker. The clouds were smothering the sky. The energy felt tense and somber. I saw that Don Diego was back, laying out his magic kit and drum, making strange sounds, smelling like a putrid sea. We sat around the fire, but no one talked. Angelica looked worried.
It was well after nine when the taita finally got around to his chanting. There were many assistants there that night, apprentices of the well-respected shaman. It seemed they made up a majority of the people in line for the medicine, yet it was so dark it was hard to tell who was there or what was going on. I drank my shot and went and sat beside the fire. It was so quiet. A long time passed and I only heard one person get up to vomit. I wondered if they were serving a less potent brew. Jose and Jen had conceded that the last batch had been very strong. Almost everyone had had an extreme reaction.
I was just starting to think the medicine wasn’t working, when my stomach suddenly turned, not wildly, but enough to make me get up and walk over to a tree. I puked a few times, then took hold of the tree, and puked a little more. I started rocking back and forth and realized I was about to get really sick. My goal was to make it to the bathroom, which by now looked miles away, lit only by a small, dim candle. I wouldn’t make it that far. All of a sudden, I was tripping harder than I’d ever tripped before. I was back in the pixelated world of beckoning women and didn’t want to be there. The buzzing of all the insects in the jungle took on a frightening intensity.
I staggered from tree to tree, falling to my knees, savagely retching. At the base of each tree, demonic green women were motioning to me, needing to feed on my vomit, wanting me to come and stay with them forever. I didn’t want to go with them. They were from a world I didn’t belong to. If I went with them, I could never return. I knew that I was on the brink of losing my mind.
When I got up, the green women stood between the trees, blocking the way to the bathroom. I tried to start back to the camp, but fell on all fours, puking so hard, it was like I was being turned inside out. A woman with a long green tongue lapped up every drop of it. I flipped over, and started crab-walking in the direction of the camp, only reaching the perimeter of it, before I had to sit up and puke between my knees. What a memorable birthday. I was sure that I would never recover. One of the assistants came over, looking like a black angel, asking if I was OK. I wanted to cry out, but found I couldn’t speak.
After he left, I began to pray. I prayed to Jesus Christ, the son of God, with all my heart and soul and might. I’d been raised to worship Jesus, been baptized twice, and given my heart to him at least half a dozen times, always taking it back eventually. Usually when I uttered his name, I was taking it in vain. Now I cried out loud and prayed that he would save me, forgive me, and deliver me from the hell I was in.
I also prayed to my father, the preacher, who’d passed away seven years earlier in a sudden and unexpected way. I prayed to him to intercede for me, to speak up on my behalf. Why did I think he might have any sway? Because my father loved Jesus and had followed him through thick and thin. For much my life I’d considered him the biggest wet blanket in the world, but in this fateful hour, saw clearly that he’d been doing the most important job there is, standing at the crossroads between life and death, helping those about to cross over prepare for the transition.
Three weeks earlier, on All Saint’s Day, in Santa Marta, I’d had a strange experience, where I’d momentarily felt possessed by my father. He’d had a difficult, often disappointing ministry, but had stayed the course. I now saw that he’d been a saint in his own way, caring about others, particularly the homeless, until his dying day. If he’d been trying to get my attention, now he had it in full. I sat with my head between my legs, unable to stop puking, knowing that I’d lost my mind, begging him to save me.