The 1st Ceremony
After Gulliermo’s call I pulled on some clothes, gave Sophie a hug, wished her the best for the ceremony and, more to reassure myself, told her that everything will be OK. It would just be the two of us with the three residents for the ceremony that night. As I was approaching the temple I could see the others inside, the fire in the centre was already burning and sufficient firewood for the evening stacked beside. As I arrived, Guillermo, now dressed all in white for the ceremony, was waking Carlos up by means of prodding him. Carlos was still tired from the ceremony and ‘after-party’ the night before. Guillermo told us where we’d each be for the ceremony and I went over to put my things down – I had my head light, sleeping bag, some toilet paper and water.
Guillermo carried a shovel with incense and some herbs burning on it around the temple; I believe this is a rite to protect from malevolent spirits. As I went for a nervous pee Guillermo and Carlos tuned their guitars, and shortly after at around 1:30am with us all around the fire, Guillermo announced ‘vamos a comenzar’ – we’re going to start. He gave us some guidelines – no talking during the ceremony, go outside the temple to throw up, anywhere outside in nature is fine – and also try not to throw up on yourself (the thought drew a childish smile from myself), you are free to leave the temple for periods but always try to return , and try to drink all the cups which are offered – if you don’t want more then tell him and he will only pour you out a small symbolic cup.
The ceremony started and it was pretty ceremonial. It was indeed a service; it reminded me of church. With Santo Daime being Brasilian in origin, the service was conducted in Portugese. We stood around the fire and the Lord’s prayer was spoken in unison by Guillermo, Augustino and Carlos. This shouldn’t have been surprising considering I knew our shaman was of the Santo Daime tradition (a syncretic religion which amongst various other spiritual and religious traditions such as African animism and traditional South American shamanism, draws influence from Folk Catholicism), but it did feel solemn, a far cry from my first, and majority of, psychedelic experiences – taken with some friends in a private apartment with music pumping, surrounded by novelties with which to amuse ourselves and a choice of other drugs on hand to select from through the trip at our leisure. But there, in a rustic temple around a campfire in the Amazon rainforest, no talking permitted; quite different.
Taking a cup from the altar, a table with a Wiphala pattern tablecloth, a cross in the centre and adorned with various precious stones, a couple of black and white photos of old men (whom I assume are masters/originators of Santo Daime) and some other curious items, Guillermo filled it with ayahuasaca from a glass jug. Augustino walked over, took the cup, held it to his forehead and drank. Carlos followed and with the next cup full Guillermo glanced at me, my turn.
I paused with the cup in my hands and thought of my intention before drinking. Fairly disgusting, an earthy taste with an offensively sour punch, but, like a nasty medicine, can be drunk without much problem with the will to do so. After drinking his cup, Guillermo returned from the altar to the other side of the fire and broke the eerie silence with song. He sang acapella, the only accompaniment being the cabasa in his hands which he used to mark the rhythm – shake:shake: turn, shake:shake:turn. Some songs he sang from a hymn book, lit by a small candle, others from memory. As he sang there dressed all in white there was a priestly and holy manner about him. I could hear and see the care with which he sang.
After a while the songs stopped and Guillermo returned to the altar, picking up a small bell and ringing it; this signified the second round of ayahuasca. Again, one after another, we returned to the altar and drank the brew. After his turn Carlos left the temple and I heard him vomiting violently somewhere nearby in the surrounding darkness. On his return the songs started up again and at some point the guitars and a shaker were introduced, the trio of them playing the icaros together. The scene was somehow enchanting; the temple lit up by the crackling fire the five of us surrounded, beyond our backs the encompassing darkness of the night in the rainforest, the ceaseless hum of nocturnal life the murmuring backdrop to the holy songs and hymns ringing out to be lost amongst unseen life. The peaceful scene had a strange intensity; I could feel the power of the ancient rite and imagined all the thousands of people before me, stretching back over hundreds and thousands of years, participating in this very same ceremony.
The songs stopped and the bell rang again: 3rd cup. After everyone had drunk Guillermo announced concentration practice and that each was free to do their own meditation. I did a breath meditation, struggling to maintain my focus, and after about 15 minutes in silence the icaros started up again. My mind was scattered and messy with thoughts flying by. I’d began to feel woozy and nauseous but yet to perceive or feel anything out of the ordinary. I laid back with my sleeping bag wrapped around me and drifted in and out of the music.
At the 4th cup, Sophie didn’t wake to the ringing bell. After everyone else had drunk, Guillermo rang the bell a few more times in an attempt to rouse her but to no avail. She seemed to be somewhere else. I drank in smaller gulps this time round – a mistake which I didn’t repeat; the taste was more apparent and about 3 quarters through I felt the contents of my stomach bubbling up. I was caught wondering whether to try and suppress it long enough to finish the cup or to head out of the temple to throw up. Cup in hand, standing indecisively, Guillermo saw it coming and took the cup from me. I darted out into the darkness and puked up pure liquid for about 20 seconds. Still kinda dazy but with a relieving lack of nausea I returned to the temple and drifted in and out of the edge of sleep, rousing at the last bell for the 5th cup.
At the 5th, Guillermo announces that it’s the last cup and that we can drink ‘a little, or more’. Still yet to feel anything from the medicine, I opt for more and make sure I drink every last drop. Sophie awakes at the bell this time round, apparently back from her travels, and drinks a symbolic cup. The songs continued, as did my daze in day-dreams and messy thoughts, but unfortunately nothing else. I hadn’t had any visions, hallucinations, emotional swellings or any real change in perception of thoughts.
As beguiling as the ceremony was I felt a slight disappointment. I had come to travel a deeply personal journey as part of an ancient rite but it felt more like I’d been a spectator to the occasion. This theme would develop during my week stay, and I was starting to get an inkling for the mystery of ayahuasca. Finally the ceremony was closed; the icaros paused, some finals prayers said and Carlos played one last song.
After the Ceremony – Change, Presence and Thought Visions
As the last note rang out the transition was immediate and tangible. It was like a bubble of tension was burst; smiles replaced somber looks and were accompanied by a kind of ‘we made it’ relief. The solemn atmosphere had vanished and everyone exchanged hugs – it was unifying and quite a beautiful thing. As conversations began to start up amongst us Augustino asked me if my experience was strong. I told him not really and he flapped his hand as if already pushing it into the past, ‘la proxima’ – the next one, he reassured me. I still had two more ceremonies to come. Guillermo advised me that whatever happened during the ceremony, to keep my intention in mind in the following days to see if the medicine had any effect.
With the atmosphere light and relaxed, the guys settled down and began chatting amongst themselves in Spanish as they lit up a joint. Guillermo offered it to me and hesitantly I asked if it was OK, unsure as many shamans advise to abstain from smoking weed for up to weeks before taking ayahuasaca.
‘Yes, it’s medicine too’ he smiled.
‘Well if the shaman himself says its OK and is smoking himself then why not?’ I thought and indulged with the guys. As I watched the trio chatting and joking with each other, the joint being passed round, I smiled to myself. It reminded me of my friends back home. Even here, 6,000 miles away in the rainforest, friends liked to close a psychedelic adventure by hanging out and chatting about their travels over a smoke. From the interaction I could sense their bond and felt bittersweet; I felt a fresh connection to my friends back home but in turn missed them dearly.
I walked over to Sophie and asked her how her experience was – ‘pretty heavy’ apparently. She’d had visions, images and scenes- a deceased family member in a rocking chair, people dancing in the jungle – visible and discernible for a short while before shapeshifting and morphing to form the next. While she was having them she’d realised that she had no control over what she was seeing, merely an observer, and in her disbelief couldn’t help but smile. As we talked I could see in her eyes the magic of a first psychedelic experience; the disbelief, the experience of something truly magical – the discovery of a new world and unfathomable possibilities; I could see in her the lingering excitement of an adventurer who has recently returned, and for that I felt joyous. I felt contented to have been an influence on her path there and reflected that even if I didn’t gain anything but she had a positive experience, something to take away to help her on her journey, then perhaps that was to be my role in this chapter. That was enough for me.
Her head was still way up in the clouds. She would say that she wanted to go to the tents to sleep and then seconds after the decision was made would be off again with the fairies, remaining stationary and gazing absently into the distance. By the time we’d got back to the tents and were ready to sleep the sun was coming up and the birds starting their morning call. The joint seemed to have triggered something; I began to feel incredibly present and tuned in to the surroundings. I was really there in the Amazon! The sounds of the forest were intensely magnified, I heard the flutter of the birds’ wings with a crystalline quality as they flew overhead, their weird and exotic calls took on the significance of life irrepressibly living itself out. They sounded more alien than ever, more like a power up sound on a computer game than an animal. I lay awake with mouth and eyes open, listening intently and marvelling in the moment.
As I closed my eyes and began to drift off to sleep, thoughts turning over in my mind, I started to have accompanying visions. I was seeing the growth and construction of my thoughts in the same moment that I was having them, as a kind of 3D image. I would see a bright polychrome construction built up, the form mutating rapidly in time and rhythm with my thought as it progressed. Then, as my thought reached its conclusion and developed no more, the accompanying object of my vision would simultaneously mirror, stopping movement and ceasing its metamorphosis in a moment of completion, before crumbling into tiny fragments and falling away, dissipating as if turning to dust, the canvas of my mind becoming blank once more. As my mind commenced the next thought, a new accompanying vision would sprout from the nothingness and the process would repeat itself. The metamorphosis of the visual thoughts was extremely rapid, the object entirely transforming itself with every passing second, a fusion of something that seemed mechanistic and with man-made forms, but organic in nature, and always synchronised to the movement of my thought. The show continued for about half an hour before melding into my dreams as I passed through to sleep.