It was my birthday. I was in Putumayo, in the Upper Amazon of Colombia, sicker than I’d ever been after taking a shot of ayahuasca at a medicine ceremony, praying to Jesus, and my father who’d passed away seven years earlier, to save me. I’d seen both of them in a new light after reaching that critical juncture. Perhaps it was too late for me, however. After there was nothing left in my stomach to purge, I folded my hands across my chest, and lay down on my back on the jungle floor. I knew that I was in my grave. Assistants carrying incense passed by to check on me, and it was like I was six feet below the ground.
Lying there, able to look down on my body, I could suddenly see another side of myself. My whole life I’d felt like a failure. The only chance for me, or so I thought, had been to keep traveling and writing relentlessly. I’d made art my religion, infusing my quest with all the attributes normally associated with a pilgrimage. My life had been a mess, but I’d always treated my work as sacred.
Now I saw that all the journeying I’d done, the entire process, had been my real work of art. The songs and poems were only souvenirs, things that you wake up from a dream and find clutched in the palm of your hand. I could feel how sad people were that I was gone, not because I’d been so successful, but because I’d struggled so hard to keep it real and kept on fighting the fight. Tears began to pour down my cheeks.
After a while, the harmonica began to play. It was calling us back to life. There was another chance for me, but I couldn’t bring myself to rise. The taita began to chant, and I knew that he was the only one with the power to break the spell. It was the same authority my father had earned in the spiritual world. On this black night, any other ability paled in comparison.
Eventually, I made my way to a sitting position. When I walked back through the camp, everyone was cocooned away in their hammocks. The guitar music had begun, and I wondered over to the corner where the musicians were and found an empty seat. It felt like I’d stumbled across a juke-joint in Mississippi, and that the taita was demonstrating the hoodoo power of a true bluesman. The apprentices sat around him, waiting their turn. They would be there, week in and week out, practicing their chops, no matter who was there to witness them. I would have to do the same.
Around dusk I finally made it to my hammock. John got up and puked, which seemed like a late reaction to the medicine. I later learned he’d drank three glasses of it, which was hard to imagine. Miguel was up and wanting to talk. It seemed the yage had had no effect on him. One of the assistants came over and they got into a lengthy discourse. I went to use the bathroom, grateful just to have survived the night, and saw that the clouds had parted and there was a small pod of stars in the sky.
Just as the day was breaking, a small storm broke through. Wind, from out of nowhere, rushed through the camp, sending loose objects flying and empty hammocks spinning. Rain hammered down on the roof like machine gun fire. It seemed like something out of the New Testament, a moving of the spirit across the land. John was awake in the next hammock and we just looked at each other and shook our heads. It only went on for a few minutes before the calm returned, leaving just a light drizzle of rain.
It was my last day in Mocoa and final chance to make it to the End of the World waterfall. When we got back to the hostel, I set out right away. It was still sprinkling, but the attendant said it would be possible to make it to the top. He showed me a map that was nothing like what I ended up encountering. It was all uphill, a steep, muddy trail, sometimes traversing through shallow streams that were raging torrents just the day before. As sweat began to pour from me, the stench of ayahuasca filled my nose, and it started to feel like I was being pulled back into the bad trip. I stumbled up the trail like the survivor of a plane wreck.
At the entrance to the falls, there was still a long way to go. There were two river crossings that required me to take off my shoes. At the second one, I left them there along with my phone, suspecting I was about to get very wet. A guard appeared and tried helping me across. The stink of my T-shirt nearly knocked him off his feet.
Finally, I arrived at the End of the World, from the backside of it. The river plummeted two hundred feet, straight over the edge. I was warned not to get too close, but couldn’t resist hanging from the branch of a tree to get a view. When I returned, I jumped into one of the rock pools with all my clothes on. The smell of my own sweat was making me sick.
On the way back down, I was approached by two blonde dogs I’d seen at the entrance. My father had always loved dogs in the same way he’d loved men, indiscriminately. Some of the dogs that he’d brought home over the years had purely been charity cases. They would never respond to training, and only be loved by him.
The dogs seemed to be waiting for me, and began to accompany me down the trail, walking a few feet ahead, periodically glancing back to see that I was still there. For a moment I wondered if this wasn’t the work of my father, asking God to send down two angels to see me out of the jungle and safely on my way. If I was writing magic realism, perhaps the two dogs would’ve seen me all the way to the road. Instead, as soon as we met a couple on the trail, they turned and started following them, back in the direction of the falls.