Iquitos, Peru: Mr. Wonderful Takes Ayahuasca
(The following post stands alone well enough. If you care to make deeper sense of it there is a previous part. If you haven't yet read the first part of this story, please turn to the following link: http://nodhimmitude.blogspot.
I ain't so sick that I need the “medicine” of Mother Ayahuasca to heal my psychic fucking pains. I'm pretty much OK as I am, even if I'm not the greatest guy I know or even attempting to be better than I am and could be if I tried a little bit to improve my evil temper and to get over my seething resentments festering over the decades. I live with who and what I am and I am basically content with myself. I do not need. Mother Ayahuasca? Nope. Had a mother once. I'm fine, thanks.
There I was, seated down at my favourite restaurant in Iquitos, me hungry and pleased with my life of sunshine, warmth, and a good chicken dinner looking tasty on my plate when I felt a rap on my shoulder and I didn't reach for my gun and spin around in a cold panic that someone was touching me and that touch would be a prelude to pain when I don't think about it. I remembered where I am and I turned around and saw a young boy, maybe ten, and with the boy a man, boy and Ron Wheelock sitting down behind me for dinner at a nice restaurant. We sat together and ate our food in the light.
“Ron,” I said, “I am right sick of drinking ayahuasca all this time, and every time-- nothing happens to me. I'm writing a book about ayahuasca, and I can't just end it with: 'Nothing happened'. I'll keep on trying, but I am not going to pay for it any more. If anyone has confidence in their ayahausca, then they can invite me and I'll let the world know how it went. That's the deal I offer.” I don't say more, but I could have added that aside from being totally pissed off by all this bullshit ayahuasca drinking that gets me nowhere, as much as that I am upset by my “performance failure.” I pay for that!? No way.
They say: “The difference between Wheelock's ayahausca and everyone else's is the difference between day and night.”
The weekend is gone and I find myself sitting on a raw log in the hundred-plus degree heat of the Amazon jungle, sitting while Wheelock adds more hand-split hardwood to the two by four foot blaze he has roaring already under the grate that supports half a dozen 25 gallon drums of fetid creek water and machine-ground ayahuasca vines boiling down to coffee-coloured extract that he will keep draining off and refining till he has his right recipe finished for the world, his high-powered “medicine.”
Wheelock is 58 years old. He's stripped down to the waist, covered in sweat and soot and dirt. With one gloved hand he pulls a barrel off the grate and slides it down onto a brick and then rolls the barrel over the jungle floor to a dirt mound and brick stand where he yanks it up and slowly pours off the tea into a cloth-covered tub, the process beginning again when that tub is full. We swap back injury tales. We talk about back home, life in rural America. We don't talk ayahuasca. Ayahuasca can wait. In the heat of the day by the fire in the Amazon jungle it's time for two old guys to talk about more important things. We talk about cars and kids and women and making a living. We talk about the kids we would have had if things had worked out differently between us men and the women we knew. We talk about the girls we date now, the kids we will have if only things work out well this time round. We seek good women, yes, but we seek good mothers more. Mother Ayahuasca is not part of our conversation. Fatherhood. We are men.
We serious seven were seated in a wide circle on the dirt floor under a giant grass circus tent with green mosquito nets stapled over the long, narrow windows, Wheelock to my right at his altar from where he sat making noises with his leaf wrapped rattle, his mapacho puffing, is horking and spitting, is humming and hacking. To my left sat a young man who immediately the evening began stripped off his shirt, he sitting still and silent for the duration but for his gagging. Far, far across the open room sat the others, a pair of house-sitters for el maestro during his recent absence abroad, and beside them, again far removed, two local men, assistants in training to Wheelock.
In the centre of the room between two vertical support beams was a jungle wood frame, a rack inside which hung down a massive brass gong from the 400 year old Zildjian company of Mass, the gong covered in engraved Chinese dragon motifs, the gong being in keeping, I thought, with Wheelock's love of musical things and shiny black plastic stereo equipment. Wheelock finished passing out the ayahuasca cup to the last man. He then blew out the two squat square candles at either end of his altar and we sat.
After I drank the foul ayahuasca from the wooden red wine style short stemmed glass with the wide, deep bowl, I returned to my too tight plastic seat, my legs stretched out, my bare feet invisible to me in the darkness. I sat still, my head tilted back, and I waited, nauseous, for others to barf around me, their sick sounds signal to me that I could then puke as well, it being for me a matter of pride that I am stronger than the others and I don't puke so easy. I sat.
I was aware of others in the vast dark shelter around me in the jungle, particularly aware of the crude sounds of puking. But those others weren't close to me in any sense at all, just others out there, which suited me extra-fine. I'm not one for huggy instant friendships. I sat alone in the dark and wondered if I might lose my mind.
I sat alone in the dark and wondered if I might lose my mind, selah. What if my mind is already cracked and ayahuasca is the hammer blow that shatters me mentals into splinters across the endless empty skies and I am nevermore me? Is there no hand to gather me?
I rested my chin on my chest and felt a surge of sadness that this was the end of a long and sometimes tortured quest for a life of meaning in what is for me a meaningless universe, a meaningless existence, a life that cannot mean anything at all but nothing. I had hoped for more. I had struggled for all of my life in a state of faith that the meaninglessness was my mistake and I could somehow, someday, finally figure it out if only I tried, if only I held this faith. Thus I confronted the end of it all, here and now, no hope of rescue, no hand to hold to pull me back from this horrible catastrophic mistake I'd made, my final end, and I am helpless now to stop it that my mind is coming apart in pieces and I am no longer integral me. My mind is lost. I am madness the man. I did this to myself. There is no going back. It's just... too... fucking... late.
Then the drug hit me.
The transformation seemed to be immediate. I was one moment sitting in my chair wondering what would happen to me, how I would behave among others, concerned that I might be a danger to them. I was worried that my mind might break apart and never recover. Then there was a change. I didn't feel different from one moment to the next, didn't feel it coming on, wasn't are that I was being flooded with this drug. I was, as it were, me in a different state of mind. My mind didn't splinter into myriad shards of crazed reflections of my former coherent self. I wasn't terrified by visions of monsters out to harm me. I didn't, like so many I have listened to, confront my own death. Nor did I see snakes devouring me. Instead, I encountered the strangest kind of me I could imagine, one wholly out of character. That was real. It was so real that now, some time after the fact and long enough ago to dispassionately consider it all, I can't tell how much of my drug experience reflects the real me and how much was sheer drug-induced weirdness.
Me? Not-me? The effect of a jungle drug? Or maybe it was the effect of a jungle drug on me while under the influence of the machinations of a master manipulator of my moods, my curandero. I'm left to wonder, as ever in this kaleidoscopic life of travel and adventure, 'Who is the real me?'
Twenty minutes after getting it down the gaggy goo, thick and slimy ayahuasca this time the exotic taste of dog shit flavoured cherry cough syrup I found myself sitting back nice and easy in a bulk-bought-from-Walmart, white stackable plastic patio chair, my fingers laced behind my head, me grinning big as I realised that Jack Paar, the earlier host of The Tonight Show before Johnny Carson took over, which is to say that Paar is essentially the coolest guy ever to do late night TV, is not even close to being as excellent a guy as I am. I didn't even want to waste my time talking to Jack Paar. I wanted to chat, but I demanded someone worthy of me. That could only be one other person: I wanted to talk to myself for the sake of good company. Leaning back in my plastic chair and feeling better than I have ever felt before, I called into the aether for myself, conjuring Other-me from my mind so I had me to talk to. I like Other-me. He likes me, too. I am, however, more excellent than he. Being with myself was such a happy pleasure that I found myself, both of us, laughing out loud, which shot hot stabbing pain though my gut and hurled me out of my plastic chair like a cat snagged on a passing pant leg and dumped in the damp dirt like a sack full of smelly laundry. I laid on the dirt floor of the ayahuasca centre, settling in on my side and I was flooded with a sense of my heavenly greatness and a tsunami as well of nausea. I pulled my Inca-motif cloth day-bag under my head and covered my nose with my fingers and my mouth with the palm of my hand to muffle as well as I could the bubbling-porridge sound of my laughter that I suspected was pissing off the half dozen pukers seated around me. But my snickers, giggles, guffaws, and outright howls of laughter escaped me anyway till I shook, laughing in the dirt. I liked myself so much I was overwhelmed by myself, which is no wonder, given that I was lying in the dirt talking to myself, i.e Other-me. I laughed so hard I shot a zucchini size walloping gob of quivering candy-coated slime into the round plastic basin I fumbled my fingers to find. I laughed at that and all the night till the earthquake hit the aeroport as the jet plane was landing just in time to crash headlong into the on-coming steam locomotive freight train. All that massive monster noise and all that crashing cascade of crazy-colour swirling in endless manic rainbows all around me, it was all just for me 'cause I am, now I know-- Yeah! I am Mister Wonderful.
I'll say one thing about Mother Ayahuasca: she's got long fingers who can reach so deep she can touch my deeply buried pleasure centre and make me laugh till I puke. That alone doesn't impress me. Any fool can get the giggles by drinking jungle dope, as I found out eventually. But I was laughing so hard as an expression of my utter delight at being in company of myself, the most amazingly interesting, amusing, charismatic man I have ever encountered. That was me. Mr. Wonderful.
Ayahuasca? Couldn't care less. Give me more of me. A little more of this and I might fall in love. All this time I thought I was one of the nastiest guys I've ever dreamed of. Turns out I was wrong. I'm wonderful. Who would have known? Who'd a thought? I am Mister Wonderful.
As I laid in the dirt grooving with myself, an absolutely fun way to live by any reasonable measure, as I know now, I happened to look across the room to see a six foot tall and slender Paraguayan beauty goddess sitting dainty on a stool, one of her long, slender legs crossed over the other, a fetishist's foot dream dangling in the darkness, the girl aswirl in floor length silk, black and lightning luster that must have been her hair, her electric eyes blindingly blue gazing unseeing into the night, she sat statue still and never moved for hours, a yoga girl as still as cold white marble, her face a radiant moon glow. I scratched myself as I laid in the dirt and laughed as I thought of clever things to say to her. I shifted my hip from a hump of dirt to a dip. “Hi, I'm Dag. Many people say I look like Brad Pitt.” In Spanish it sounded like “Broad Pete.” I ain't so fat.
I realised (Hey, didn't phase me,) that the girl had a boyfriend. I saw him squatting on a stool beside her, his heels on the rim of the seat, his long gangly legs drawn up to his huge bulging chin, his little arms resting on his knobby knees. I might be a bit colour blind but he looked particularly spotty green to me. He had a wide, flat head that sloped down to his neckless back, his flabby belly was a dirty off-white leatherette. I've seen beautiful girls with butt-ugly guys before, but this guy was repulsive. He saw me looking at him and he looked back at me with huge bulging eyes and smiled with the widest mouth I have ever seen. I snapped back when he stuck his tongue out at me. Jesus! I looked away and saw that his feet were even uglier than his face, way too long, and he had, like, webs between his toes, like a duck. I might not be Broad Pete, but that guy was fuckin' ugly.
I didn't exactly lose interest in the beauty goddess. Instead, my attention was diverted by a strong sense of nausea spreading through the pit of my lower gut, and the nausea spread till I was awash in it, filled with sickness weighing me down like an infusion of weakness-inducing mud. I was sucked from the lights of my life into a murky darkness of terrible draining slumber, pulling me down, down, down. “No!” I cried. “Nooo....” I called out feebly. Then I fell asleep.
It's hardly surprising that I fell asleep. I'd woken at 6:00 a.m. and had gotten to Wheelock's centre by 7:30 p.m., shortly thereafter hallucinating heavily and puking intensely, so intensely that I had secretly hoped I not only would get away with such behaviour in the presence of strangers but that my manly, macho barfing would impress the beauty goddess with my masculine force. Regardless of how others might critique it, I was definitely impressed. So impressed I had to laugh. I woke off and on, expecting any time soon to see the sun illuminate the world and me.
I woke off and on, Wheelock's icaro singing in an alto tenor with a lingering Kansas drawl bringing me back to awareness. Wheelock sat on a stool behind a hand-made wooden table, his altar, his back against the wall, a mosquito net covering the narrow window above him. Wheelock sang icaros, and I was surprised by the variety and range of his songs, many of them to my mind quite funny, sing-song parodies of cartoon Chinese, some ending with a pause and then a funny cartoon witch's cackle that trailed off into silence. I suspect it was Wheelock's icaros that account for the episodic nature of my hallucinations, broken visions of colour and wind, odd thoughts about issues of my time, (i.e the nature of museum curatorship and conservation,) and the continuous theme of my own wonderfulness, that laughter that kept me hurting from the strain on my belly. I dozed off and on throughout the night. It was the icaros.
I laid on my side in the dirt, the floor having contracted into sections like giant jungle water lillies of dried mud floating on the aether below, not uncomfortable, given that the dirt was moist, soft from the ever-present humidity of the Amazon. Wheelock sang, and once, strangely, I found myself in great discomfort, the repetitive sibilants annoying, the high nasal tones irritating, driving me to my feet to seek relief from the whinge of the tune. I had to get up, and it was difficult, to say the least, because the ayahuasca not only causes vomiting and hallucinations, it also creates a feeling of physical drunkenness, making standing and walking all the harder. I marshaled my strength and finally I was able to stand. Wheelock's icaro ended, and it was then I understood the whole thing, the situation, the meaning of it all. I really had to take a piss.
I made my way across the centre floor and out the door to the jungle path that laid out before me like the tracings of a delicate finger drawing a line through deep green velvet to the two hole outhouse where I stood and peed. I have peed before, of course, but never with such accuracy or beauty or such a deep sense of serenity. I was overcome, in fact, by the lovely arc of golden doves with silver filigree wings as they flew in perfect formation into the black hole of eternity. I stood when I was done and pondered it all. I didn't say much. I could have said more. All I did say was: “Wow.”
The walk down the path and back was tiring, and when I returned to my chair in the centre I laid my chin again on my chest and dozed, the long hours of hallucinating and vomiting and the lack of sleep during the long night having caught up to me. I was aware of Wheelock puffing noisily on his mapacho pipe, he puffing in all directions the harsh smoke that devils are afraid of. Wheelock is a non-smoker, so the taste of tobacco makes him spit and the smoke makes him hack and choke. Each and every noise was amplified in the darkness, each bit of spit zinging through the air like a dart poking a hole in the solid walls of the sound of vomiting. In comparison to the others I hardly puked at all. Some went full-out barfo.
At times Wheelock's assistants would begin an icaro only to give in to hurling bouts of puking. Wheelock would wait for them to finish so they could resume their icaro singing, but mostly they could not and Wheelock would continue in their place, no two icaros alike, some loud and boisterous and filled with comic tones that would have amused me straight simply for the Dada effect alone, like Kurt Schwitters' poetry or Hugo Ball at Cabaret Voltaire. I found most of it charming and often delightful, and I noticed too that if I concentrated, I could with effort control my hallucinations, if not totally, at least in theme, my lucid dreaming.
The hours dragged on and still the sun had not risen. Other-me was too tired to remain and so he gathered himself into a storm of bedazzling colours and made a dramatic exit, both of us laughing in wonder at our wonderfulness. Again someone puked, and I could not control my laughter. I laid back down in the dirt, too tired to care anymore, and I laughed till I dozed off.
Drug effects or not it was clear to me as it happened that Wheelock's performance, his huffing and puffing on the mapacho pipe, his broad-leafed rattle shaking out crisp and soothing sounds, all his various icaro songs, his various tones, his comic tone contrasts to the solemnity of Quechua icaros, his sudden insertion of an English language commercial for Mother Ayahuasca in the midst of a Quechua song, his comic aside cartoon laughs, his whistles and pings and pops, all of this and the rest was well-considered, highly polished professional entertainment by a grand performer. It's a business, as those honest enough to admit will admit. Wheelock grosses about $100,000.00 per year. Clearly, the man is extremely good at what he does.
Wheelock at home, the man, is my age, my size. He looks like my grandfather. He could be my brother from the look of him. At home, Wheelock is Ron, a guy who works hard out in the backyard jungle boiling multiple 25 gallon barrels of wood chips in brackish creek water with a furnace blast of blazing hardwood, a shirtless, soot-covered middle-aged man who lives in the jungle and is a working class guy who does OK and has a fair amount of personal difficulty like any other guy. But comes the “ceremony” and Wheelock is transformed into a persona that rises to dramatic and exciting heights. Wheelock: Shaman Performer. I slept through at least some of that, totally exhausted.
Then the earthquake hit us.
Earthquakes are frequent in the Andes and on the Peruvian coast, but they are unheard of in the Amazon. Thus it was a major calamity of cosmic proportions that we experienced an earthquake while I was lying on the floor at Wheelock's centre while under the influence of ayahuasca. Beyond cosmic, though, is that at the same time a jet plane was making a crash landing and doing so directly into an on-coming steam locomotive freight train. That kind of disaster makes the history books.
I curled up in the dirt and covered my ears in a futile attempt to dampen the sound as I waited for smashing death and burning. But the plane pulled up in time and the train passed and the temblors subsided and soon all was well again. I sat up in a state of complete bewilderment and saw with the aid of Wheelock's glowing mapacho pipe that he'd been banging the enormous Zildjian gong suspended from the rack in the centre of the room. Time up. The ceremony was over. I searched in the dark for my lantern to check my watch. It read: one, two, colon, zero, zero. It was, by my watch, exactly midnight.
Wheelock lit candles, he huffed smoke, he rose and came to me as I sat back in my stackable plastic Walmart chair. Wheelock stood behind me and blew smoke on the top of my head, his lips pressed against my bald pate. He pulled my shirt collar open and blew smoke down my back, and reached into my shirt and ran his hand down my spine and back up and again and drew out evil spirits and tossed them away with a grand flourish. He did similar with my chest. He put my hands together and blew smoke on them and withdrew whatever daemons were living in this writer's fingers. He tried to hug me, but I'm a reticent kind of guy, and Wheelock immediately withdrew, sensitive to the last, moving on to the stone still and silent German weight lifter who had not twitched an over-developed muscle other than to puke continuously and loudly throughout the entire evening. Around the room went Wheelock, and I gathered my strength and made my way to the door, by which point the others had all gone away, leaving me alone with my host.
As we walked up the jungle path to the small clearing where Wheelock's four wheel drive Toyota was parked nose first in a thicket, tyres resting deep in the mud and grass brushing the windows, my head cleared, my body settled, and we sat in the cab and drove through a rough trough to the highway back to Wheelock's house, chatting on the way, the soothing road bringing back memories to me of countless nights riding across the world going nowhere. We arrived finally at the house, Wheelock making a five point approach to the gate to enter the fenced-in yard in which the sickly-looking toe bush is still hanging on to life in front of the door. Wheelock doesn't use toe to make his medicine, but he keeps the bush to scare away evil spirits and other trespassers who know the significance of an ayahuasca maker who has such a poison so close to hand. The pit bulls were sleeping, their eyes barely open as we made our way inside the house where I promptly made myself a pest by asking for anything at all sweet to drink to kill the taste of the evening's ayahuasca. Orange power drink. For all the puking of the evening I wasn't at all thirsty. We chatted some about the evening, of how impressed I was by his performance, for such it was. But I was tired, as too was my host. He led me upstairs and showed me the spare bedroom. I thanked him and returned to the ground floor to look over early notes and to make note of the new in case sleep drove out all memory of the evening's events. I sat and made notes and considered my ayahuasca lillies. I dragged myself upstairs and slept till 4:30 when the fighting cocks' screeching woke me and I couldn't get back to sleep.
The sun actually did rise eventually, and with it's revelations of the real so too did Wheelock rise, joined by his long-time Peruvian girlfriend. They beckoned me to the dining room table for breakfast, a lovely mixed vegetable omelet and strong black coffee. For hours then Wheelock and I talked more about back home, a place to both of us far stranger now than any ayahuasca vision. Two middle aged men sat in a large western style house set in the surround of towering palm trees in the Peruvian jungle and we reminisced about rural America. Reality is too bizarre.
When I talk to Wheelock I find myself talking with the man who lives down the road, I talk with my grandfather, I talk with the neighbour, I talk with myself. Talking with Wheelock I find I am not Mr. Wonderful. I'm me, an ordinary guy from a working class background of rural America. He and I talk about making money, about having girlfriends, about building houses, about paying taxes. Talking with Wheelock I find I talk to Other-me, a man much like myself, neither of us, removed now from the drug-induced euphoria of ayahuasca and the theatre of the mind in the deep selva, particularly special. Mr. Guy talks with Mr. Buddy. I don't laugh uncontrollably even at Wheelock's best jokes. I just laugh. I don't lie down on the floor exhausted by the intensity of wonder as I am elevated to supernatural heights of ego grandeur. Instead, we sit at the dining room table and have coffee with breakfast and converse like mature adults and the wonder returns, not through vines and leaves entangling lives and minds on foreign soil but through invisible webs of common memories of home and time and supra-nation of our shared past. I find the experience wonderful in itself. I'm not out of control happy at all. I'm content to live an ordinary life with ordinary folks.
I left Wheelock's house surrounded by palm trees so big I could never hug all around them, sunlight shining through the tissue and the pulp of giant fanning fronds, air turned yellow, little speckled flies darting through the clearings, brittle grass grown high and swaying, six foot long red tailed iguanas scaling up a tree, wispy birds flitting away to safety. I walk a narrow grassy path still soggy from last night's rain. Beside me a thin rail fence sags and rots and is eaten by ants till it's merely a dark grey crust of skin and powder. At the clearing to the village I see collapsing shacks unpainted standing behind crumbling concrete sidewalks too dangerous to traverse, holes and gaping chasms threatening far falls to the rutted road below. I glance inside an uncurtained glassless window to see a big screen TV and a sleeping dog on a bare dirt floor. I carry on walking up the washed-out road to the village centre where the wooden buses turn around in the dust or the mud for the return journey to Iquitos, the big city. In the scorching heat and the fine dust of a blazing day that holds on tight to uniformed school kids and slows them down to a shuffle as they walk in small groups back home for lunch I stop under a leaf woven roof on thin wooden poles that shade a plastic chair at the broken wooden table, and I sit and order a bottle of warm soda to sip as I wait for my trip back to town. The old wrinkled lady with the foggy eyeglasses shows her brass bracketed teeth in a brilliant smile, her creases smoothing over her face with the effort, she being a hundred years old and very pretty, her long yellow grey hair tied back in a bun. She's short and it's not far to fall for the bits of corn she scatters under the next table for the chickens there in the dirt. A couple of school kids see me from across the street and they recognise me and they wave. I smile and wave back at them. I'm not in any rush to get away from this. I sip my soda and stretch out my legs and ponder stuff. A windowless wooden chicken bus crawls by, rocking and swaying from dips in the giant pot holes in the dirt road, the ride so rough the passengers are wrenched from their seats, hands grabbing madly for a hold, the lurch shaking riders right off their seats. I let it all go. I'll catch another bus later. A old brown dog wanders past and lies down beside me and falls asleep against my foot. I'm OK.
Back at my place I swing open the heavy iron rail door. I enter the courtyard and say hello to folks lingering there in hammocks in the shade on a warm afternoon and I go upstairs in the old Rubber Boom mansion, the place I call my home, and I trod the bare concrete walkway past the thick malocca roof that covers the courtyard below. I head to the dusty little bare brick bake house room where I live and I rush to see my kitten boys, to grab them up with both hands, to kiss them and rub their ears and coo at them. “Hey, kitten babies, daddy's home!”
There in the middle of my room sits the German on my bed. She's holding my boys against her breasts and she's smiling and she's lovely. Dare I say? “She is Miss Wonderful.”
We can close the door now on this scene and begin again with whatever the next ayahuasca adventure reveals. Who needs to drink ayahuasca when I can sit along in the dark with the girl and hope?
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here: