Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca (Part Four)

If you are like me, (and who isn't these days?) you have always wondered just what is or what are icaros? I finally couldn't stand the tension any longer and I looked it up. This is what I found. I feel that I am now a better person for it. OK, so it takes very little to improve me.

Among the Shipibo, Brabec de Mori points out, all songs are sung in the Shipibo language, with one exception—the ikaros, the songs used at ayahuasca sessions, the one song category that does not sound like other Shipibo songs, and the only songs that are sung in Quechua, or in vocables that, while not Quechua, are intended to sound like Quechua (Brabec de Mori, 2011, p. 36; SaĆ©z, 2011, p. 140; Roe, 1982, p. 89).


It's a question for a specialist, I think, to ask why if Iquitos in the deep Amazon is about 1,000 miles from Pucallpa by river, where the folks are Shipibo, and if Pucallpa is 600 or so miles from the Andes where they speak Quechua, why are ayahuasca songs sung in such a distant language? It's a question I would ask in conversation with an expert. I have a lot of questions about ayahuasca. Mostly I get babble in response. So, I turned to professional writers who have published accounts of their ayahuasca experiences. I am not really further ahead with information, but now I have better questions.

One question I have is why did the writer for Vanity Fair run away from Iquitos and do the ayahuasca story he was assigned to not about ayahuasca at all but about a loser living in London? The magazine paid a lot of money for the writer to produce a story about ayahuasca, and the writer did not deliver. He seems ot have run away. The deepest question I have here is, “Why?”

Is ayahuasca so scary that professional journalists can't bear to face the challenge of it? It might be so. The second writer here will describe her nightmare hallucinations in which she was covered in snakes and confronted the Devil. My question is why don't sophisticated people have hallucinations more upscale than the usual comic book scenario? The worst the mind can throw up is snakes and devils?! I must be living wrong. I have fears, for what it's worth. I fear that after two failed long-term relationships I am now too old and too worthless to be of any interest to the one girl who seems to be the ultimate girl for me. I fear I will lose her without ever having had a chance. I'm not afraid of being alone for the rest of my life: I'm afraid of not being able to love this girl for the rest of my life. Snakes? WTF? But that's just me. I will leave it to readers to decide for themselves what is to be feared and what is to be brushed off as the petty worries of an old man in the jungle.

When I first came to Iquitos by cargo boat many months ago now I was travelling with a young Russian girl who had zero interest in being polite. When I began hearing tales of ayahuasca, which I suspect I had never before heard of till I came here, I told her I might try it. She said, “Why?All you will do is find out about yourself; and if you don't know yourself at your age you have nothing to learn.” That's been my opinion, more or less, from the start. But still, I find it impossible to pass up a test of just how stupid can I get. Mostly I want to know about the stuff, because I'm curious, and if the only way I can find out for sure is by taking it myself, then so be it. I guess it's like sex. I asked about it for a long time, and then figured that even though it's dangerous and I might lose my mind from doing it I might try it anyway. No, it didn't work out the way I thought it would, but life is for learning, and that's what I will do here and beyond as we continue this look into ayahausca in Iquitos, Peru.

Here's some account by a writer at Vanity Fair.

I had recently traveled to Iquitos, a Peruvian city on the Amazon River, to investigate the use of ayahuasca, a much-storied hallucinogenic tea prepared from botanical ingredients native to the tropical rain forest and used by indigenous tribal peoples for purposes medical, magical, and ritual.

Inside the large front room of the restored farmhouse, the shaman’s advance man deployed ritual paraphernalia: candles, a rattle, a skin drum, mapacho cigarettes rolled from dark jungle tobacco, bottles of Agua de Florida, and one of a darker fluid. The shaman soon arrived and set to work with silent efficiency. He made a circle of the room, stopping to smudge each participant with mapacho-tobacco ash—which helpful spirits dote on—while shaking his shacapa, a traditional Amazonian leaf rattle. After the shaman’s purifying visit to me, I lay back on my mat and watched as he continued his preparations, singing icaros to the ayahuasca, a light-brown liquid, which filled about one-third of a two-quart plastic soda bottle. The shaman’s icaros are sacred songs that can be used to control the ceremony, to reinforce the ayahuasca visions or to take them away. My legs twitched involuntarily, the movement an outward manifestation of an impulse to flee.

The author did flee, in fact, and went to London to cover a stupid story about a failed project on the river started by a man he heard of while supposedly writing about ayahuasca. The stuff can be frightening, especially if one is a well established professional in the word business. Losing ones mind is bad, but losing ones ability to express how bad that is would be, for the writer, a fear unbearable. I'm not slagging the man at all. Ayahuasca can kill people. He took it anyway, much later.

My name was called. I rose, crossed to the small altar, and crouched before the shaman. He handed me a small cup. I gulped the contents. The shaman smiled and I returned to my mat. The plant medicine didn’t taste as horrible as most written accounts had suggested, nor smell as bad. My goal was simple: I’d been told I should try not to throw up for as long as possible, in order to derive the maximum benefit from the acrid jungle tea rumbling ominously in my gut. I lay back and waited, hoping for strong visions, if that was the will of the spirits.

I sat in the dark and listened to the rain, the celebrants’ groans and sighs in response to such visions as they experienced, to their belches, their passing of intestinal gas, their barking retches,.... Gemma too had visions she felt were significant. “In the beginning I saw a lot of faces among people I’d never seen. And in the beginning I saw, like, pink flowers … like a pink garland.” She was disinclined to analyze the experience: “When you start, like, being rational, thinking about it … like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this, and I don’t want to forget …’ ” Gemma left her thought unfinished.

I had frequently heard, and as often read, that the ayahuasca experience is impossible to put into words.

Ted Mann, “Magnificent Visions.” Vanity Fair December 2011.

The “ayahuasca experience is impossible to put into words.” I think it's very likely true that if one is stupid enough everything is impossible to put into words. Ya just sit and drool and stare into space. I know we can do better, and here it comes.

A woman writing for National Geographic gets to the concrete and illustrates some harrowing emotional suffering under the influence of ayahuasca. Here is a severely abbreviated version of a very nice piece of work:

I will never forget what it was like. The overwhelming misery. The certainty of never-ending suffering. No one to help you, no way to escape. Everywhere I looked: darkness so thick that the idea of light seemed inconceivable. Suddenly, I swirled down a tunnel of fire, wailing figures calling out to me in agony, begging me to save them. Others tried to terrorize me. "You will never leave here," they said. "Never. Never."

I found myself laughing at them. "I'm not scared of you," I said. But the darkness became even thicker; the emotional charge of suffering nearly unbearable. I felt as if I would burst from heartbreak—everywhere, I felt the agony of humankind, its tragedies, its hatreds, its sorrows. I reached the bottom of the tunnel and saw three thrones in a black chamber. Three shadowy figures sat in the chairs; in the middle was what I took to be the devil himself.

"The darkness will never end," he said. "It will never end. You can never escape this place."

"I can," I replied.

All at once, I willed myself to rise. I sailed up through the tunnel of fire, higher and higher until I broke through to a white light. All darkness immediately vanished. My body felt light, at peace. I floated among a beautiful spread of colors and patterns. Slowly my ayahuasca vision faded. I returned to my body, to where I lay in the hut, insects calling from the jungle.

"Welcome back," the shaman said.

The next morning, I discovered the impossible: The severe depression that had ruled my life since childhood had miraculously vanished.

Kira Salak, “Peru: Hell and Back,” National Geographic. March 2006.

“When you start, like, being rational, thinking about it … like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this, and I don’t want to forget …’ ” Gemma left her thought unfinished.

To people like Gemma, and she is one of a growing crowd of aggressive morons pouring out of our universities with degrees in idiocies, it is a bad thing to think rationally. Salak gives a clear account of her experiences. But going further we find that professionals are often little better than chatting with Gemma.

Salak continues:

At the vanguard of this [ayahuasca] research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA's School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project,

According to Grob, ayahuasca provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that can lead to temporary "ego disintegration," as he calls it, allowing people to move beyond their defense mechanisms into the depths of their unconscious minds—a unique opportunity, he says, that cannot be duplicated by any nondrug therapy methods. "You come back with images, messages, even communications," he explains. "You're learning about yourself, reconceptualizing prior experiences. Having had a profound psycho-spiritual epiphany, you're not the same person you were before."

To my untrained-in-psychiatry mind that statement seems little better than Gemma above. More words, polysyllabic, but still nonsense.

Salak continues again:

Fantastical scenes glide by, composed of ever-shifting geometric forms and textures. Colors seem to be the nature of these views; a dazzling and dizzying display of every conceivable hue blending and parting in kaleidoscopic brilliance. But then the colors vanish all at once as if a curtain has been pulled down. Blackness. Everywhere.

Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space—where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply—four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it's hard to breathe.

I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming.

And now they appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. I've read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya, a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.

My entire body hurts. My head throbs.

Kira Salak, “Peru: Hell and Back,” National Geographic. March 2006.

Salak's account ends on an upbeat. This is from National Geographic, after all. But the price she pays for her trip is higher than the average well-adjusted person would ever consider. There, though, is likely the key to the story as seen by so many who rage against Modernity. At the bottom of the following account I have highlighted the last sentence to draw attention to what I see as the neo-Puritan collectivist anger of so many so enraged by the success of those they feel deserve only pain. There is sadism, and it is accompanied by masochism. It is often mixed equally in the same person. The Puritan hatred of the quiet and happy private life of others seems to be for them, for the Gnostic, for the fascist, the worst thing to happen to him. To paraphrase about the Puritan, he is someone who fears that someone, somewhere, is having a nice time.”

The end of the rubber boom brought decay to Iquitos, leaving once-opulent mansions in disrepair. The city's resurrection has partly come from tour operators offering fishing and sightseeing deep in the forest. Now, the ayahuasca devotees are flowing in, searching for insight into their lives from a growing flock of local and foreign shamans, or medicine men. Tour operators say the potion -- and the ceremonies in which it is consumed -- has become a cornerstone of the local tourism industry.

William Grimes, a former soybean farmer from Indiana who has spent much of the past 12 years here... said that some of those who initially came for the ayahuasca were drug users looking for an LSD-like high. But that quickly ended, Grimes said, and most who now come are seeking ayahuasca's medicinal properties and the experience of indigenous rituals.

Some users go on a terrifying journey replete with nightmarish visions. Ayahuasca also induces a severe gastrointestinal reaction, leaving users retching and discharging from both ends. The physical and mental pounding from ayahuasca weeds out those looking for a quick trip.

"There is no way somebody would take ayahuasca as a recreational drug and then go out and party," said Malcolm Rossiter, an Australian who works at Blue Morpho. "This is what separates ayahuasca from hallucinogenic drugs. You don't just take it to have fun.”

Juan Forero, 21 August 2010.

In the next installment of this series I will talk to shaman in Iquitos and the area to ask what they think of ayahuasca. Eventually I'm goiong to take it myself and see if I can do better than Gemma. I ain't making no promises, but I certainly have some secret hopes.Maybe I can get my Shipibo girlfriend Amelia to help me write a song about it in Quechua so I can post it as an icaro/s.
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:


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