One thing I’d wanted to do for a long time was attend an ayahuasca ceremony in the Amazon. That had been my plan in 2019 when I’d traveled all the way up the Amazon River, from the mouth of it at Belem, Brazil, to Iquitos, Peru, which is the go-to place for such things. Just getting up the river, on four separate boats, had taken so long that I’d arrived in Iquitos at the exact time my plane was supposed to be taking off, however, and had only made the flight because it had been delayed five hours. It was disappointing, but I’d had to let it go. One thing they say about ayahuasca is that it calls to you, so if it doesn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to be.
Ayahuasca had been the furthest thing from my mind when I’d spontaneously booked a flight from Miami to Colombia three weeks earlier, but I’d happened across an ad on the internet for a retreat that was taking place just outside of Medellin, and had looked into it. It was twelve hundred dollars, so that automatically meant no, but had gotten me researching once more.
I thought that I might have to fly to Leticia in the far corner of the country to find it. I’d just been to the neighboring city of Tabatinga, in Brazil, on my Amazon trip, and didn’t feel like going all the way back, and had also heard from someone that I may need to have a yellow fever vaccination to be allowed on any flight to that region. It seemed like a big hassle, but I still mentioned it to the manager of the hostel, and she’d promised to look into it for me.
My anxiety and depression had been at torturous levels for some time, and that was the main reason I was interested in ayahuasca, hearing that some people had been healed of these afflictions after attending a ceremony. I’d tried everything, changing my diet, exercise, yoga, meditation, prayer, even taking antidepressants, which kept me awake for five days and raised my blood pressure to fatal heights, but nothing had stuck. My feeling was always that if my situation wasn’t so bad, I’d probably feel better. Undoubtedly, I would, but if there was a magic cure out there, I was ready to take a chance on it.
The hostel was not far from Monserrate, a mountain with a famous shrine on top of it, that of The Fallen Lord, that can be reached by both cable car and funicular, which is something like an uphill train. I’d been there years earlier and thought it would be a good place to get oriented. Just as I’d gotten sick traveling from the heights of Medellin down to Cartagena, now I was sick in reverse after traveling from Mompox to Bogota. It was almost impossible to separate the headache from the depression. My room was perpetually flooded with light, thanks to the large curtainless window that faced the stairs, so there was no way of resting during the day. I decided to hike up to the base of the mountain.
There was so much street art lining Carrera 3 and surrounding Parque Germania, it felt like swimming through a dream. I’d spotted many beautiful pieces from the back of the taxi and had hoped to return to them, but now I could see that the city was full of art. I’d have my work cut out for me just keeping track of what was in front of me. Following the signs and continuing uphill, I came to the ticket office for the Teleferico, or cable car. There weren’t many visitors in line, as the sky was threatening rain. I cursed myself for not bringing my umbrella, as I’d gotten in the habit of bringing it everywhere I went. Rain can appear out of nowhere during the rainy season in Colombia.
When the cable car arrived, I got crammed against the back wall of it, looking down through blurry glass at the station we were leaving behind. As soon as we got to the top, black clouds came over the mountain and it started to rain, not a warm, tropical shower, but giant cold drops of it, that hit you like hailstones, and left you drenched. I had to dash to get to the church before it really cut loose.
Passing though the side door of the church, I reached an outdoor market, where the rain continued to pound on the tin roof like rifle shots. Lightning flashed across the sky and the roar of the thunder was like that of an erupting volcano. I was sorry not to have an umbrella, but not sorry to be up there in the middle of the storm. The whole mountain shook.
Where were all my troubles now? What had happened to my splitting headache? For those few moments I was free. You don’t need a church to have a religious experience, but in this case, having the Basilica of the Fallen Lord there, amidst the tempest, with its shrine to the battered and bloody Jesus, certainly didn’t hurt. The suffering of all mankind was illuminated between the great rolling ocean waves of thunder. Everyone suffers. That was the message. If I didn’t like what I was going though, I wasn’t alone.