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My Amazonian Anecdote

After I spent a month working in a Peruvian surf hostel, it was time to get back on the road. Next destination was Iquitos, the largest city in the world not connected by road. A three day boat ride upstream was required to reach Iquitos, a steamy metropolis in the depths of the Amazonian Rain Forest.

Once we reached the cargo boat for Iquitos, there was categorically no turning back. There were three floors in the cargo ship so we clambered up to the top. We slung our hammocks up and from there it was fortunately plain sailing.

I sat by the railings and admired the seemingly never-ending green rainforest along the river’s edge. Every part of the day showed the scenery in a different light. The sun at dawn crept up through a smoky, silver hue. Throughout the daytime, the top of the trees cut into the turquoise sky like a jagged horizon. At sunset, the flamboyance of the red sun contrasted to a lilac sky, merely leaving the surrounding trees in a silhouette of darkness. Finally, at nightfall, the sky appeared as a black canvas sprinkled with an array of glittering stars. Three days of gazing out at a relatively identical river and forest gave me a newfound appreciation for the changing colours that the sky paints.

Each day introduced peculiar characters to our boat. A six-year-old girl sauntered on, arms full with bananas and had a monkey sleeping on her head. A suspicious old man sleeping in a nearby hammock did the rounds of handing out smiley-face condoms. The boat stopped at many little villages along the river as it sailed to Iquitos. This was normally to deliver or collect goods. The local women came on when we stopped to sell a random assortment of food, varying from fish, grilled alligator, coconuts, turtles, fried bananas to doughnuts.

Following three tranquil days aboard, we were quickly submerged by the chaos of Iquitos. The majority of travellers that venture to Iquitos is for one reason only: to take ayahuasca, a sacred shamanic medicine made from the ayahuasca vine, that only grows in The Amazon.

Ayahuasca is regarded as nature’s powerful healer for the mind and body, a source of divine inspiration and apparently worth more than a lifetime of counseling. Local men train to make the brew and perform ceremonies for people to consume it. These men, called shaman, are essential to the ceremony in which it is taken as they assist enhancing the effects of ayahuasca and guide people through the experience. This sacred drink unravels thoughts that cloud our subconscious and taps into it, revealing a reel of events, memories, nostalgia, fear, desires and trauma. It cleanses the mind and leaves one mentally replenished. People flock from all over the world to get a taste of this rare and special brew.

After three days of lazing in our hammocks, the ship arrived in Iquitos. We toured around and embraced the city's eccentricity, all the while researching a reputable shaman to stay with. A French expat running a cafe put us in contact with a shaman he has been recommending to tourists for years. A meeting was arranged for us to meet the shaman Emanuel prior to committing to staying at his home. We met him on a Sunday evening, felt sure enough he was somewhat sane and agreed to travel to his home the following morning. We didn’t contemplate the possible consequences of staying in the jungle with a family for five days. Admittedly, I felt apprehensive about this unconventional 'jungle tour'.

At 10am exactly the following morning, Emanuel was waiting at the restaurant as promised. My nervousness subsided immensely when I saw that a quirky Canadian old lady was joining us. Despite the white spiral tattoos on her face, crystals draped around her neck and pigtails, I was glad there was a foreign sixty-year-old woman joining this already peculiar excursion. Emanuel and his brother herded us onto two little moto taxis (what they call tuk-tuks) to the port where a local boat provided a taxi service to the local villages along the river.

A twenty minute boat-taxi ride up the river and a moto taxi later, we reached Emanuel's home. It was a wooden shed-like house, with a barn outside surrounded by tropical trees. I was shown to my room, which I discovered only had a wooden table with a sheet on it. Emanuel lived here with his grandparents, brother, sister-in-law and their four children. Lush green tropical trees surrounding a lagoon served as a jungle front garden. 'Abuelita' (grandmother) cooked our meals and our ayahuasca diet began — no salt, sugar, oil, spices, pork or alcohol. Emanuel's brother arrived in with about four fish on a spear that he had just caught in the local river. They were grilled above the fire and devoured by the family.

After lunch Emanuel brought the ayahuasca vine and leaves for us to prepare our own brew. The vine looked like a plain brown, windy bark, one inch in circumference. Emanuel cut the vine into pieces with a machete, then smashed those pieces with a boulder to loosen the bark. I took it from there and pulled the strands apart and added them to the leaves in a large saucepan. During the preparation, Emanuel blew smoke from his gigantic rollie flopping at the side of his mouth into the saucepan and around us. Tobacco is regarded as being sacred and the shaman is required to blow smoke before and during the ceremony. The concoction was left to brew for ten hours. Meanwhile, his nephew and nieces brought us down to their swimming pool.

The time had arrived for us to drink this sought after jungle juice. The guests for the ayahuasca ceremony were as follows, Jack, Crystal Lady, Hippy Latino couple, Emanuel, and myself. We sat on the ground of Emanuel's 'sitting room' and began the ceremony. Emanuel sat on a log, wearing his red and black bandana, infamously puffing on a rollie. One by one we sat in front of our shaman and he poured ayahuasca into what looked like a scooped-out coconut. I was second to go up.

I drank the concoction which tasted like a gloopy bark and earth smoothie. Vile is an understatement. He gave each of us water to gargle and spit to alleviate the horrid taste. After the four of us consumed the ayahuasca, Emanuel took his share of it. We silently sat in a circle on the floor in the dark. Roughly twenty minutes later Emanuel began his duty as a shaman and began singing and chanting. He shook a bouquet of dried leaves which were used as a rustling instrument. From what I can decipher he chanted ‘aye-ayahuasca its the medicina' and the rest I couldn’t possibly guess. At this point I looked around and thought Christ what am I doing here.

The next four hours consisted of intense visuals. The effect allows you to remove yourself from your body and view your entire life as if it was crammed into a movie. The ability to see yourself as an outside spectator was the most remarkable benefit of the ayahuasca. Throughout the entirety of the ceremony, Emanuel chanted, shook his leaves and blew tobacco in our faces. Vomiting is a pivotal part of the ceremony as apparently it expels all badness from your body but if you are realistic or perhaps cynical, you will gather this may be caused by drinking a cup of bark.

After the ceremony ended we sat outside trying to think somewhat normally. It was rather surreal to look around at the towering tropical trees looking completely black with a starry sky above. The clicking and rustling of the abundance of species around us almost created a vibration. The assortment of noises generated a sense of energy. After this bizarre evening I crept onto my table/bed, fighting off the mosquito net over me that seemed to engulf me.

The following day I felt mentally drained and exhausted. We all spent the day trekking through the jungle to source various plants to make Crystal Lady's medicine. Emanuel led the way, topless and slashing the intruding plants with his machete. Along the route he chopped off bananas and various other fruits that are only sold in Peru. He cut one vine which we drank from and tasted like frosties sweets. Our surroundings looked exactly like you would have always imagined The Amazon jungle to look like. Weaving through the jungle with this local man felt nothing less than surreal. After our walk he prepared medicine for the lady to drink to help her aches and pains. Emanuel also performed a ceremony on her which is to eradicate pain in various joints. Firstly, he applied a homemade ointment and then used a prickly stalk to tap her ankle with and of course blew tobacco smoke on it. During the following days, I witnessed Emanuel performing the same ritual on his grandmother and brother to ease pain.

Seeing his grandparents who were both over ninety years living happily and healthy confirmed the power of these natural medicines. Even the young children between the ages of four and nine have taken ayahuasca. The family lived a simple but happy life. The children raced down to the lagoon after school and splashed around in the water for hours. They even climbed up trees surrounding the lagoon to knock down fruit with a stick. They sat around together laughing and gobbling up the fresh papaya they sourced from the trees above. The family used a generator to provide a couple of hours of electricity at night which more or less just provided a light in the sitting room and kitchen. It was peaceful there and admirable if even envious to see how they lived in such harmony with nature. They rose and set with the sun.

Our final evening arrived and it was time for the last ceremony. This time the ayahuasca ceremony was far more relaxed. The old lady brought her crystals to the ceremony and the hippy girl brought her rock collection to create positive energy. At this stage anything went. The ceremony was the same as the initial one except that I felt a sense of completion as it resolved any issues that were unravelled from my past in the first session. Feeling fulfilled and care-free after this ceremony, I slept on the table for one last time. The fifth day arrived and we felt satisfied to leave. We bade farewell to our family as they called themselves and we hopped on a moto taxi back to eventually get a five-day boat to take us to a foreign place called civilisation. Have I found divine inspiration? Perhaps. The ayahuasca experience was incredible and I’m pretty sure classifies as life-changing in some way!

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