Monday, November 26, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahausca (Part Two)

Iquitos gets “46-150 thousand visitors” [] per year, which is no good guess at all but better than I would do. Tourists are thick on the ground at the Plaza de Armas, and tourism is a major industry in the area, at least rivalling the oil and gas industries and forestry. Tourists generally spend a lot of money, don't dig holes, and don't cut anything up or down. They do have a lasting impact on the city and surrounding area nonetheless, not all of it beneficial. But there are tourists and there are tourists, and the lack of benefit isn't seen in the local population so much as it is taken back home, to America, to Europe, and then spread strangely throughout the world in ways one can't fully explain as yet, though I will attempt a preliminary interpretation at the conclusion of this series. There are three main types of tourists in Iquitos, only one of which is of interest here, those being the drug-taking “New Age” tourist who come to take the locally legal ayahuasca, a class one felony drug most other places. In Iquitos, ayahuasca is a big deal. Most tourists come to Iquitos to see the Amazon for its wildlife and jungle scenery, for a few days or so at an upscale lodge in safe and comfortable surroundings and a day or two floating on a small cruise ship on the Amazon River; but a significant number come specifically to take drugs. I've talked in depth with a hundred of the later, and so far I am really no further ahead. Thus, I decided to be a little more aggressive in finding out about ayahuasca, why people would risk death to take it, and what they think they gain from the experience. Honestly, most of those I have spoken with are so inarticulate as to embarrass the average idiot. But not all of them are stupid. Below is the first installment of what I hope will be at least three accounts of ayahuasca users and shamans. The first is from a young woman from Alaska. I hope to speak with an American expat who conducts ayahuasca “ceremonies” as they are called. And finally I hope to record a talk I will have with a native shaman in the deep jungle.

First, a bit of background.

"Ayahuasca itself means 'vine of the soul'."

" 'Aya' means dead or spirit and 'huasca' means vine."
Ted Mann, “magnificent Visions.” Vanity Fair December 2011.

First, an account from an American woman, followed by some background about ayahuasca.

I don´t mind sharing my story as I have been out here for three years working with ayahuasca and quite a few different healers, and it is important for people to understand what they are getting into when they decide to come to Peru to and work with medicine and healers.

I was born and raised in Alaska. Before I discovered the ¨medicine path,¨ I was working as an intern at the National Congress of American Indians in Washington, DC, the largest advocacy organization in the States. I had planned to go to law school to study Native American law and continue the work, but before doing so, had decided to take a vacation to Mexico and do some travelling for a few months.

Four months after arriving in Mexico (where I spent my time traveling around the different provinces, bar-tending on beaches and having a wild adventure with other world travellers), a friend emailed me to tell me about a gathering in Cusco, Peru. He mentioned that is was a ¨spiritual¨ gathering and that there would be indigenous elders from throughout the Americas (North America, Central America and South America) in attendance; wisdom keepers, mystics and medicine men. He insisted that I attend and offered to pay my fare. I couldn´t say no. A week later, I found myself in Cusco, Peru, shaking hands with the organizers of the gathering.

We spent a week together, discussing issues that were beyond me (as I had never heard of the different prophecies that were being discussed, such as the Mayan 2012 prophecy, the Hopi prophecy or the Incan prophecy of the Eagle/Condor), and visiting different sacred sites in the Sacred Valley. I learned quite a bit about the different philosophies during my time with the group, but could not process their significance at the time as the information I was receiving was new to me.

Three days before the gathering came to an end, the organizers of the conference, whom I had befriended, invited me on a trip they had planned, a trip to Iquitos, to the Amazon, to drink ayahuasca with native healers at a healing center they had found on the Internet. “What's ayahuasca?” I asked. I had never heard of ayahuasca before and to tell you the truth, had no desire to travel to the Amazon as the thought of the heat, humidity and insects disturbed me. But they offered to take care of expenses, the flight and three days at the center... and I couldn´t say no. Three days later, we found ourselves stepping out from the cool interior of an air conditioned airplane into the hot, humid and wet atmosphere of the Amazon jungle. One short boat ride later, and we arrived at Refugio Altiplano, one of the most incredible healing centers in the Peru.

That night, we drank ayahuasca and the experience I had changed my destiny. We stayed for three days and I attended ceremony every night. My friends left after their three day stay had ended, and I stayed for another week and a half, drinking ayahuasca almost every night. The experiences I had during my time at Refugio were intense and surreal, and it was difficult for my logical mind to process what was occurring at the time.

When I left Peru and returned to Alaska, everything had changed. My mind, my perspective, how I saw the world. I no longer had the desire to attend law school and became confused and unsure about my path in life. It was difficult for me, and in order to cope I began to seek out activities to help me to process what I had gone through in Peru. I started meditating at the local Thai Buddhist temple in Anchorage, practicing yoga, and started reading books to learn about the many different religious philosophies that exists in the world. (One of my favorites and the one that helped me to process and comprehend what I had experienced during my time in the jungle of Peru, was the Upanishads). I started working with a local Lakota medicine man, doing sweat lodges at his home, but always felt like I wasn't receiving whatever it was that I needed, and began looking for other healers or ¨shaman¨ to connect with throughout the State. There were none. It was then that I decided to search elsewhere, and ended up moving to Taos, New Mexico, to volunteer at the Cottonwood Research Foundation with Dr. Rick Strassman (DMT: The Spirit Molecule), in order to connect with people whom I thought would understand what I was going through at the time.

While in New Mexico, I started attending ¨meetings¨, peyote healing ceremonies with local indigenous healers. They were amazing; but again, I felt as though something were missing. I was always haunted by Peru and could not stop thinking about ayahuasca. For three years, I felt a strong pull to return and did everything that I could to find my home in the States, a place that would connect me with the world that I had discovered in Peru. That didn't happen, so three years later, I quit my job, gave up my apartment and sold my car, and bought a one-way ticket to Peru. ¨We will just see what happens¨ I thought to myself as I prepared for the journey. ¨One day at a time¨ as my grandpa used to say. Descending over the Amazon into Iquitos, blessed with the most gorgeous areal view of the Amazon, I
felt that I was coming home. I had no idea what was to come but didn't care. I knew that this was where I needed to be.

This was three years ago. I have been here in Peru for over three years, learning about ayahuasca healing and working with many different healers throughout the country. I lived with native Shipibo healers for a year and a half, which helped me to learn about the depths of the world that exists here, the medicine world, a world that is ancient and alive - filled with magic and wisdom. I have worked and volunteered at many different healing centers, which has allowed me to gain much experience in this work. My experience here in Peru, working with ayahuasca and being immersed in this world, has been incredible. It has been difficult, challenging... and many times, it has almost killed me, in the literal sense. But it has a blessing. There are no words to describe how incredible, beautiful, and filled with magic this world is; and the gratitude I feel in my heart, brings me to my knees. I would go through Hell a million times to be here now and exist here now, in this medicine world. We are divine; but to exist with an awareness of that requires a sacrifice. We must sacrifice ourselves to live with an
awareness of the divinity that exists all around us... but there, we are home.

I have learned more about life in these three years than I had living in the States. I have learned how to survive. I have learned how to exist in the wild, which has helped me to discover and embrace the wild aspect within myself. I am still learning and it is still very challenging for me, but I have learned how to suffer with joy in my heart. I feel very blessed to be here, to be doing this work, and to have the opportunity to help others to experience the magic of ayahuasca -- to be there when they are journeying
inward, learning about themselves, their minds, and the world that they exist in. I love helping people to heal. I love when they purge, when they cry in ceremony, and it brings me joy... because I know that although they are suffering, they are healing. They are releasing. They are ridding themselves of the sickness of the world so that they can become who they truly are inside... so that they can shine. This is what medicine is all about. Medicine is the work of God. Medicine is love. And this is why I am here [in Iquitos].

I have a lot of questions about ayahuasca, one of which is where did it all begin?
How in the world did indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon come up with the idea of combining DMT with an MAO inhibitor?
Many shamans will claim, of course, that the plants themselves taught humans how to do this. Other commentators point to some mysterious ecological wisdom found only in indigenous peoples. If we put aside these explanations, then I think the answer may be simple. I think people were looking for a better way to vomit.

The more I ask about ayahuasca the more I encounter and continuously encounter what I now call the “Heavy Thesis.” In the late Sixties the word “heavy” became a favoured term among the inarticulate for expressing something as profoundly positive. “Wow, man, that was heavy.” One sees the origins of the term in a popular piece of music by a group called Iron Butterfly, an impossibly heavy thing. Due to the nature of the music, one sees from it the genre called Heavy Metal. Heavy was therefore an ominous and attractive experience. Though the words change over the decades and few would use the word heavy today to describe their ayahuasca experiences, really, “heavy” is about as good as it could get. On the other side of the ledger there are those who are more articulate-- after a fashion: the academically trained who write books about their drug experiments. Strassman, per above, is one such. Strassman is a scientist, though one might doubt his commitment to (previous) societal standards.

Societies change, and often not for the better, merely one bad thing is swapped out for a different. The “spirituality of today is not significantly different from that of Central Europe in the 1920s, a long and ugly experience that most seem to have learned nothing positive from. The quest for Gnostic perfectioin remains. It is not, I think, a hedonist quest on the part of most, but a societal failing. People turn away form the normative and the possibly better for the sake of the assumed perfect. Those such as Strassamn, having learned nothing from history, keep trying the same, if forgotten, paths to enlightenment. It's something of an intellectual pursuit. Neither Strassman nor anyone else drinks ayahuasca to get psychotic. It doesn't work that way. One can buy plastic sacks of ayahuasca by the kilogram at Belen Market in Iquitos, Peru, and it costs next to nothing. One could mix up gallons of the stuff, or just buy a two litre soda bottle of it and drink it on the spot while standing in the muck amid the vultures all around in the heat and stink of the day. One gets no thrill. It's not the ayahuasca. It's the other thing, far less exotic sounding, not at all mysterious, and actually banal; it's that thing, that thing that gives off no aura of spirituality or a sense of “seeking.” The magic stuff has all hip pizazz of a new four door sedan Honda: DMT. Otherwise, it's known locally as chakruna, and one can buy it too by the kilo for 50 soles, or about $20.00 U.S. But it won't get you high. It takes the mix of ayahuasca and chakruna to reach the lift off. That takes some knowledge and skill, and that is where the shaman come in. He stays in because of the powerful effect such a potion has on the mind of most, though not all.

DMT, when taken orally, is inactivated by peripheral monoamine oxidase-A, an enzyme found in the lining of the stomach, whose function is precisely to oxidize molecules containing an NH2 amine group, such as DMT.

There are thus two ways to ingest DMT or plants containing DMT. The first is by parenteral ingestion—using a route other than the digestive tract, such as smoking, injection, or inhalation—which bypasses the MAO in the stomach lining. For example, a number of indigenous peoples around the Orinoco Basin in Venezuela inhale a snuff called epená, made from the resinous fluid in the inner bark of several trees in the genus Virola that contain large amounts of DMT (Schultes 1954; Seit, 1967; Schultes & Swain, 1976). Similarly, the Guahibo Indians of the Orinoco Basin use a snuff called yopo—also called cohoba, vilca, and huilca—made from the DMT-rich beans of the plant Anadenanthera peregrina (De Budowski, Marini-Bettòlo, Delle Monache, & Ferrari, 1974; Mckenna & Towers, 1985; Ott, 1996, p. 164-165).

Here is some more for those overachieving science nerds among us.

But it is also possible to mix the DMT with an MAO inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of DMT in the digestive tract. And that is just what the ayahuasca vine contains—the beta-carbolines harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, which are potent inhibitors of MAO-A. Combining the ingredients of the ayahuasca drink allows the DMT to produce its hallucinogenic effect when ingested orally—a unique solution that apparently developed only in the Upper Amazon. The gastrointestinal effects of the beta-carboline MAO inhibitors additionally make the ayahuasca drink a powerful emetic and purgative.

And for those living in mom's basement who haven't blown up the place yet, here some science stuff I don't even want to read at all.

Ayahuasca is consumed in the form of a brew, which is prepared from the stems of Banisteriopsis caapi or B. inebrians combined with other plants in order to induce a hallucinogenic experience. The most common of these plants is Psychotria viridis or chacruna (Schultes and Hofmann 1992). A number of other admixture plants discussed in the literature (Schultes and Hofmann 1992, McKenna et al. 1995) p.8 as well as in chapter 7 are also often added to the brew. The active hallucinogenic substance in the ayahuasca brew is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is actually present in a number of plants–such as Psychotria viridis and the widely distributed Peganum harmala (Syrian rue)–as well as the human brain (Strassman 2001). DMT by itself is not orally active, due to inactivation by peripheral Monoamine Oxidase (MAO) in the human gut and liver (Shulgin 1976, McKenna 1984). Therefore, to render DMT orally active it needs to be administered with an MAO inhibitor; B. caapi contains harmine and other ß-carboline alkaloids, which are potent MAO inhibitors (Rivier and Lindgren 1972, McKenna 1984, Callaway et al. 1994: 295, Callaway et al. 1999).

Evgenia Fotiou , “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.” University of Wisconsin, Madison. 2010.

Chemistry. Flunked it in high 'school cause I was dropping too much acid. That would be ingesting LSD, whatever that stands for.

Ayahuasca has been around for a long time. If it predates Christianity and ones conservative parents, then it must be more “authentic” than some dusty old prejudices that bore one to tears with petty restrictions about living a humble if constructive life. If a religious practice is older than all things we know of that we call the Modern, then such a practice must be untouched by our Modern failings of imperfection, and thus might be “perfect.” To find some religious ritual that includes mind-altering drugs in the jungle with “indigenous” people adds to the mystique. Or maybe we just bring our own bullshit to the jungle and see what we want to see.

Writers on ayahuasca have often proposed that the use of the drink is very ancient; the date of about 5000 years BP recurs frequently.

The claim that the ayahuasca drink has been used for 5000 years has become formulaic. A quick search of ayahuasca tourist and related websites reveals virtually identical statements of this claim: “The use of Ayahuasca has been recorded over 5000 years ago by the natives of Amazon and surrounding areas,” “Ayahuasca has been known to people for over 5000 years,” “This plant medicine has been used for over 5000 years throughout the Amazonian basin,” “Ayahuasca has been used for over 5000 years.” These examples could be multiplied.
And this claim is, in fact, remarkable. Just for perspective, the date of 3000 BC would make the origins of the ayahuasca drink as old as the founding of the first Egyptian dynasty, five centuries older than the reign of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, and almost ten centuries older than the earliest South American devices yet discovered for the ingestion of DMT-containing plants—two pipes found in association with Anadenanthera seeds in northwest Argentina, which have been radiocarbon dated to 2130 BC, and which had residues that tested positive for DMT (Torres, 1995, p. 312-314).

Why such extraordinary claims for which support is so thin? I think there are two reasons. The first is that, in an attempt to legitimate ayahuasca use, its proponents invoke the culturally resonant trope of a millennia-old indigenous wisdom. The second is the odd affectation of European colonialism that indigenous people are without history—that, unlike Europeans, they are unchanging in their isolation and innocence. It then follows that the practices of present-day indigenous peoples must reproduce the practices of thousands of years ago.

The Great Chain of Being has myriad links, but when it reaches the ground the point is that there are two classes of people in the world: Those that got and them that ain't. There are the peasants and there are the privileged, the later being born into their right stations whereby they get because they are born, and those born poor are destined to remain so. All of the universe makes perfect, if miserable sense. One is poor, by the odds, but one is secure in the perfect knowledge that the universe makes sense. Miserable, yes; but it is a secure and reassuring misery that when one dies there is heaven awaiting the patient. Modernity, on the other hand, is destructive of all class impositions, and it drives some men to rise to heights unimaginable to most, rich or poor. In an orderly univers, the poor peasant will always be poor, and thus like all other poor people. To see suddenly a poor man become rich is to disrupt the natural order of the universe. Why him and not me? Why him at all when one knows the rich are few and anyone else with anything must have stolen it from its rightful owner? Poverty is equality, and wealth is theft. In a right universe the thieves are aristocrats and priests, given their privileges by the ruler of the universe. For a peasant to rise is a crime on its face. Even for the peasant today in midtown Manhattan, to be rich is to be guilty. Thus, so often, one finds the relatively wealthy Modernist peasant in a suit at the office longing for the world of Order in which one knows ones miserable place and accepts it, seeing all others as like him, the exceptional man being given his place by God. The alienated and resentful peasant in the suburbs working for the government might even hate the successful man who rises of his own accord, breaking the intuitive Great Chain. Back, then, to the real, to the jungle, where money is less important than social skill. Where money is not the defining currency but where spirituality counts and one can be poor and righteous. Often this affliction of Modernity is a flight of the spoiled Modernist into the idiocy of philobarbarism and the hatred of ones own successful society of inequality and wealth, the ugly and stupid as rich as the beautiful and privileged of yore. Talent, ability, luck, skill, energy, all of it is an affront to the man who has to look at another just like himself and wonder how that man did so well without being a good man at all. There is no justice in it. There is justice in the simple life of poverty and spirituality. Back to the jungle.
Europeans had begun to explore the Amazon as early as 1541, and the ritual use of psychoactive snuffs was known to the Spaniards from the early days of their arrival in the New World. Along with the conquistadors there came chroniclers and explorers, often curious about the nature and practical uses of New World plants. For example, the Spanish chronicler Polo de Ondegardo, writing in 1571, records the use of vilca by what he called sorcerers, hechiceros; in 1582, the Relaciones Geográficas de la Provincia De Xauxa describes vilca as a bean used in conjunction with tobacco snuff (Torres, 1995, p. 297; Torres & Repke, 2006, p. 26). There are no corresponding descriptions of the use of either the ayahuasca vine or drink.
Similarly, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish missionary priests wrote vivid and horrified descriptions of the effects of snuffed DMT-containing Anadenanthera, as well as the snuffing and drinking of tobacco, but no similar accounts of ayahuasca. Written descriptions of ayahuasca use do not appear until the eighteenth century, apparently first by the Jesuit Pablo Maroni, published in 1737, and then by the Jesuit Franz Xavier Veigl, published in 1768, who writes of “the so-called ayahuasca, which is a bitter reed, or more specifically, a liana. It serves for mystification and bewitchment” (Brabec de Mori, 2011, p. 32).

The evidence seems to show that drinking ayahuasca as a pathway to enlightenment is relatively recent among natives of the Amazon, not that it detracts from the effects of drinking it now. It is what it is. But being what it is is unsatisfying to many who hate the disorder of Modernity, its frightening challenges to the equality of oppression, ignorance, and poverty. To be worthy of the affectations of the philogarbarist, drinking ayahuasca must be old beyond reckoning. It seemingly isn't.

The evidence seems to point to ayahuasca drinking with DMT to be relatively recent, not the millenias old ritual Modernists so long for. But if one doesn't know and doesn't care to know, one can repeat the accepted cliches and idiocies of the age as if. Those who seek the Perfect might start with the plain facts.

The first ethnobotanical account of ayahuasca dates from 1851, although not published until 1873, when the English botanist Richard Spruce encountered the vine among the Tukano of the Rio Uapes in Brazil, who called it caapi. Two years later, Spruce again encountered the same vine in use among the Guahibo on the upper Orinoco, and, in 1857, among the Záparo in the area of the Pastaza river on the border of Ecuador and Peru, who cultivated the vine and from whom he first learned the name ayahuasca (Riba, 2003, p. 3-4).

Putting all of this together, it becomes a plausible hypothesis that the ayahuasca drink—the combination of the ayahuasca vine with a DMT-containing companion plant—originated, not 5000 years ago, but rather much more recently, perhaps in the seventeenth century. There is certainly considerable evidence for the much earlier use of DMT-containing plants by snuffing, and perhaps some small evidence as well for the use of the ayahuasca vine by itself, perhaps without companion plants, either for its emetic and purgative properties or perhaps for its own independent visionary effects, along with other sacred plants such as tobacco, the San Pedro cactus, and perhaps any of several Brugmansia [toe, prn. "tow-ay"] species. But, before the eighteenth century, with regard to the ayahuasca drink, there is silence.

Spruce writes about ayahuasca:
One of the earliest Western encounters with ayahuasca was recorded in 1853. The author was Richard Spruce, a former British schoolteacher, who was a botanist looking for new plants to collect and classify in the Vaupés area in Colombia. In 1851, while exploring the upper Rio Negro of the Brazilian Amazon, he observed the use of ayahuasca. In 1853, he encountered it twice in Peru. He published his observations in “Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes” (Spruce 1908) and as William Emboden (1979:101) indicates, “a more eloquent ethnobotanical chronicle has yet to appear”. Spruce became one of botany’s greatest collectors. He had heard of B. caapi before but while staying at the Ipanoré Falls, a group of Tucano Indians invited him to a feast and offered him a cup of the “nauseous beverage”. This is how he described what he witnessed that night: In two minutes or less after drinking it, the effects begin to be apparent. The Indian turns deadly pale, trembles in every limb, and horror is in his aspect. Suddenly contrary symptoms succeed; he bursts into perspiration, and seems possessed with reckless fury, seizes whatever arms are at hand, his murucú, bow and arrows, or cutlass, and rushes to the doorway, while he inflicts violent blows on the ground and the doorposts, calling out all the while: “Thus would I do to mine enemy (naming him by name) were this he!” In about ten minutes the excitement has passed off, and the Indian grows calm, but appears exhausted. [Spruce 1908:419-420] Spruce himself had a cup of the brew but did not participate in the ritual and retired to his hammock after having a cup of coffee. He also reported the experience as described to him by other white men who had partaken in the ritual. He says that these participants felt alternations of cold and heat as well as fear and boldness. They also reported distortions in their sight and rapid visions that alternate between the magnificent and the horrific (Spruce 1908). Spruce suspected that additives were responsible for the psychoactivity of the beverage, although he noted that B. caapi by itself was considered psychoactive. The samples he sent to England for chemical analysis were located and assayed in 1966, when it was determined that they were still psychoactive. 1957). These accounts were also republished in popular periodicals and spread knowledge about ayahuasca and its use for divinatory purposes. (Fotiou: p.110)

In her doctoral thesis, Fotiou writes that:

misconceptions about shamanism abound. They[drug tourists]  believe that this form of shamanism has been practiced exactly this way for thousands of years. They overlook the historical and cultural context of shamanism; for example Amazonian cosmology is ignored, because it does not fit life in the West. They also overlook the ambiguous aspects of shamanism, which will be discussed in chapter 4, such as sorcery, even though now they are starting to take them into account, as more and more have been involved in cases of sorcery. In addition, tourists have unrealistic perceptions of indigenous and local people. They romanticize them only to be disappointed in their first few days in Peru. Dobkin de Rios also addresses this issue when she argues that drug tourists “...see the Noble Savage in the visage of the urban poor carpenter, tradesman, or day laborer. They see exotic people of color untouched by civilization, who are close to nature... drug tourists perceive the natives as timeless and ahistoric” (1994:17). Fotiou, P. 136
Evgenia Fotiou , “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru.” University of Wisconsin, Madison. 2010.

The evidence seems to show that drinking ayahuasca as a pathway to enlightenment is relatively recent among natives of the Amazon, not that it detracts from the effects of drinking it now. It is what it is. But being what it is is unsatisfying to many who hate the disorder of Modernity, its frightening challenges to the equality of oppression, ignorance, and poverty. To be worthy of the affectations of the philogarbarist, drinking ayahuasca must be old beyond reckoning. It seemingly isn't. But what is it? Drinking hallucinogenic ayahuasca is definitely something, and something, for most, very big. It is, to many, cosmic. It's even heavy, man.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

No comments: