Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Tale of Five Vines

God, how time flies when you're a mature student completely out of your depth in a college full of youngsters who think the most important part of college life is getting your hair to look messed up, while secretly spending hours that morning tweaking it to perfection!

I'm going to get my teeth into a 'diary of a mature student caught in the middle' soon - my caught in the middle thing is that I'm not quite old enough to fit in completely with the other mature students, who tend to be mid-30's onwards, and I'm not quite young enough for those school leavers either being, as I am, quite a bit over 18 at this stage... However, today is not the day for beginning that! Before my memory burns out completely and I forget the stories of that beautiful continent of South America altogether, I want to flesh out that tale of ayahuasca in Colombia, since I've now informed my immediate family that I've taken it, and have nothing else to hide!

We had made friends with our hostel owner, Samuel, and talked to him about many things - including the similarities between Ireland and Colombia in so many ways. Samuel was a documentary-maker, who had studied the tribes and ancient customs of Colombia, so was a very knowledgeable person to while away the hours listening to. He explained to us the cultural tribal significance of the ayahuasca, more commonly known as the vine of souls. He believed very strongly in the experience, not just for its power to open you up spiritually, but for its power over your physical well-being. His girlfriend, Paula, was pregnant, and when she was six months, would accompany him to the hills to take the ayahuasca so that their baby would be born with an open mind, spiritual awareness, and full health - for the worriers amongst you, it's worth noting that Paula would only be taking a very small dose, and they have since had their baby, born healthy and strong. The vine of souls is actually seven vines, mixed with almost pure alcohol, and administered by a Shaman, who organises the proceedings into its necessary ritual. It so happened that Samuel, who had taken the vines many times, knew of a Shaman living in the hills above Medallin, who could provide us with the experience we so desired - it sounded so tantalising and mysterious...receiving something so ancient in a ceremony by an actual Shaman. Others in the hostel heard of our plan and decided to come along - a Japanese guy called Hiro, a Canadian man, and two German girls. The cleaning lady also came along, planning to bring her 3-year-old son, who was sick, so that he could take the vine and be cured; however, at the last minute, her father in law protested so vehemently to his grandson taking part in this ancient ritual that the child was left at home. This is quite common amongst the believers in the healing powers of the ayahuasca - children take it, as do elderly and, shown in Paula's case, even pregnant women.

So, on a very cold and rainy day in central Colombia, we set out with Samuel on the local bus up into the hills. We brought gifts for the Shaman - alcohol to mix the vines together, and some plants that Samuel had picked out for us; along with, of course, our payment. About the equivalent of 15 euro, this was not a costly endeavour, and the Shaman only charged us, tourists, so that local people could be administered the ayahuasca for free - none of us argued with this logic; after all, we were rich tourists, by their standards. Our visit to the Shaman would ensure that a homeless man suffering from cancer, due to visit him the next day, would be able to receive the ritual and 'medicine' for free.

The bus journey was uneventful, apart from re-enforcing my belief in the friendliness of Colombian people; I sat next to a young man on the journey, who engaged me in conversation. Though he did not speak any English, we managed to chat away fine about everything from student life in Colombia (he was in university), to his impressions of Ireland as a country, for the hour-long journey, until Samuel called out to us all that our stop was coming up. We got off at the edge of a big motorway, winding through the hills well above the city of Medallin, with the skies still drizzling cold rain on us. It was rather a deserted area, and a small muddy laneway ran off the edge of the road further up into the hills. We set off walking behind Samuel, lugging our sleeping bags and quickly getting pretty damp. It was a very steep climb, and we were glad when we came in sight of the Shaman's home up ahead of us. A very non-descript house, we nonetheless clambered enthusiastically into his living quarters: after all, it's not every day you get to see the home of a real-life Shaman! He was very normal looking, but had a real sense of dignity in his bearing. Younger than I imagined, he soon told us the story of his training (in Spanish - he spoke no English), and that he was very recently qualified - hence he and the also quite young Samuel knowing each other so well. He showed us photos of his 'graduation' (for want of a better word) ceremony, and the old Shaman who trained him. The photos looked wild! Headdresses and ceremonial staffs, fires burning, and something so untamed and tribal about the whole experience! We sat on his dirt floor, while he spoke, and had the opportunity to look around us. On the walls were pictures of Jesus, Buddha, and even some Hindu Gods. Our Shaman - affectionately called 'Shamey' by us Irish (between ourselves of course - we showed him nothing but respect!) - explained that the life of a Shaman does not align itself with one religion, but accepts all religious beliefs into its theory of spirituality, hence the pictures from each religion on his wall. He then began to collect the tools of his art, and told us that he was taking us up to a deserted cabin further up the hills, where another Shaman used to live. Part of the experience of the ayahuasca is to sleep outdoors...something I relished less and less as the rain continued to come down. As we left the house, I spotted peyote (a powerful hallucinogenic cactus we had seen for sale in Bolivia) growing in his front garden...

We headed up to the deserted cabin, whose porch provided welcome shelter from the rain - though we couldn't enter. It was painted in bright colours, with a mural on the front of a stereotypical Shaman, headdress and all. Shamey told us that part of the experience included us collecting firewood to build a fire that would last the night; he would have to perform ceremonies to burn our demons for us while we went on our own spiritual journeys throughout the night. So, we headed off, the mystical spell of it all somewhat broken by first our annoyance at heading out into the rain again, and then our excitement as darkness fell and we stumbled through woods trying to carry, a little competitively, as much branches as we could, before dragging them all back up the hill to our mystical spiritual commander.

If you spot a note of slight cynicism underlying some of my memories, then it is only because it echoes how I was feeling at the wasn't the first time that my cynical inclinations impeded me feeling the full effects of a spiritual excursion, let me tell you!

Anyway, it was decided that the rain was too settled to attempt to sleep in the VERY wide open, so we set up base in the porch of the cabin - which sheltered us only from the rain. From the biting cold we were, at that moment, still unprotected. So, the experience itself began. Any giggles were soon stifled as the Shaman got into his full regalia: headdress made from the plumage of various birds - which he named for us, showing each of their feathers; dried nuts of some kind wrapped around his legs so that every dancing movement sounded like rain trickling down a dry straw roof; white almost robe-like clothing decorated with beautifully woven reds and blues and greens; and a stick with feathers and dried nuts or fruit attached which swished and rattled when shaken. He really did look like the dictionary definition of a Shaman! We got the fire going, also in the shelter of the porch, and drew around it in a circle while he began the ritual. He told stories of the ancient tribes, and how they discovered the uses of the separate vines, he told us of each of the vines used in the mixture and where they can be collected. He even began to tell tales of Jesus, Jehovah and Buddha - all interspersed as though they were one and the same prophet of spirituality. Our understanding of exactly what he said was minimal, as he spoke only Spanish, but the Canadian man translated some of his stories. However, it was not necessary to understand fully, because you were pretty much just transfixed by his voice as he spoke, framed as he was by the flames of the fire in his feathered headdress.

As he spoke, he began laying out the different bottles containing crushed be honest, I can actually feel myself beginning to gag even describing this bit!...and mixing them together for the first person. Out of the darkness, we began to form a queue to receive this drink which would open our minds, show us the way, answer questions, lead us on the path of spirituality and, for the first while at least, make us very sick! I should point out for anyone not familiar with the process of the ayahuasca or, indeed, peyote: when you take it first, you get suddenly and violently ill...either vomiting or diarrhoea or, for some lucky feckers, both. This is then followed by the opening of the spirit world...or hallucinations, as some of us refer to it!

Ciaran went first, and I went second. By that stage, the foul smell of the stuff had reached my nostrils, and I figured if I didn't get it out of the way first, then I'd balk when it came to my turn. Before anyone took any, it was pointed out that people should try make it down to the end of the porch to get sick, so that nobody was forced to step in anyone elses' vomit. Yes, even in a Shamanic experience, practicalities are not overlooked! Anyway, we stood round the fire, waiting our turn. Ciaran kneeled in front of the Shaman, who chanted something in Spanish, and waved his feathered rattling stick around Ciaran's head and shoulders, before leaning forward with a brown bowl. Ciaran got up and moved off into the darkness, as I took my place. Kneeling down in front of him, I noticed that he was pouring the very strong alcohol in with the different mixtures in the earthen bowl, and that some of the concoction was being poured from an old 7-up bottle. This little vision of modernity snapped me out of the mysticism of it all somewhat, but how-and-ever, I committed myself to the moment, and gazed up as he swished his feathered stick around my head, the sound of the nuts rattling like rain around my ears. Then he leaned forward with the bowl and thrust it into my mouth, immediately tilting it so that I had to gulp the mixture very quickly. God, I really am feeling my stomach knot just thinking about it! A more foul-smelling concoction you'd be hard pushed to find, but if the smell was bad, the taste was even worse! Bits of leaf and bark floated in a murky mix of alcohol and organic matter, and it was all I could do not to spit it back in his serene bloody face when it hit the back of my throat and burned its way down into my stomach! But I got through it, and stood up so that Alan could kneel down behind me. I looked over at Ciaran when I got up, expecting to share a bit of a grimace and wry smile with a fellow-cynic, but his face was pointed downwards, and he seemed to be having some kind of internal struggle going on. As I took my own seat, I realised that his internal struggle was not actually psychological, but purely physical. It immediately felt like my stomach was trying to eject this mixture by every means possible: cramps and battles were waging, and it was all I could do to stop the vomit from coming up straight away! Alan took his place, as did the rest, and we all struggled against the sickness as the Shaman began to sing and dance around the fire, banging his drum and chanting in a measured and rhythmic melody. We were told that the longer we could hold the ayahuasca down without getting sick, the better our experience would be. Having the constitution of an elephant, I held mine far longer than anyone else, and having listened to the strangely uncommented-upon sound of people vomiting in the background for almost an hour, I finally succumbed to the sickness.

Or rather, the sickness finally overtook me, because at a certain point I became blindingly aware that there was no way I could hold it in any longer: it was the most physical thing I've ever felt. Literally, my stomach was ejecting this mixture, and there was NOTHING I could do about it! I barely made it to the end of the porch before I was doubled over and vomiting like I never have, and hopefully never will, ever again! It's hard to describe the feeling unless you've gone through it yourself, but as I ran towards the end of the porch, with the sickness rising, I didn't feel any sense of panic or embarrassment - after all, everyone else had already done it. But it wasn't just that - the vine seems to work on you straight away in making you incredibly calm and accepting about it all...or maybe that was just me. I vomited for about 5 minutes straight, from what I can tell, and it was a strange kind of sickness: it felt as though it was being drawn from my toes right up through my body, and was clearing out my whole system. I could see why people felt that it had healing properties, for I literally felt like every bad thing in my body - both physical and psychological - was being FLUNG out of my system by this wonderful vine of souls. I was doubled over for the whole retching experience, but when I straightened up the world flattened out into 2D, and the rustling of the trees and long grass around seemed like a language I could finally understand. For others, the effect had been more instantaneous and powerful - they had immediately wandered off into hallucinogenic fogs of altered perception. For me, unfortunately, the hallucinations ended there, and I made my way back to the fireside with an only slightly altered state of mind. From talking to Samuel beforehand, I knew that this often happened on some people’s first experience – that they would only feel the true effects of the ayahuasca after taking it a few times. His first ‘real’ experience on the vine of souls had been his third, and he had never looked back.

I was disappointed: despite my cynicism and slight mockery of the whole thing, I had really wanted a spiritual epiphany – something to truly shake me up and make me feel changed and new, and I had thought that this wondrous vine of souls might do it. As I sat round the fire, I realised that Alan was – as always – very much on my wavelength, and neither of us were experiencing anything close to some of the others. The two German girls, who I felt were a little young and possibly a bit silly to begin with, were giggling in their sleeping bags, curled up together under the porch. Samuel had retired to his sleeping bag away from the main group straight after taking the ayahuasca, as he had said he would, and was groaning to himself in obvious struggle with something deep inside. Hiro was in the bushes talking to the trees, and Ed and some of the others were wandering out in the darkness, silently in discussion with their own consciousness. Myself, Ciaran, Daragh and Alan, however, were circled round the fire, listening to the Shaman continue his singing and talking, and gazing into the flames. Once or twice I felt slight hallucinations cloud my vision, but I jumped on them so quickly – with my bloody rationality – that they disappeared instantaneously. I tried a different tactic of allowing the ‘visions’ to materialise without trying to focus on them, but they remained as insubstantial as smoke.

Hours passed this way, and the Shaman noticed that the four of us were not feeling the effects of the vines as much as the others, and offered us a second mixture, which we accepted. I thought, I might as well be hung for the sheep as the lamb, and tried not to remember how vile the mixture had been all those hours ago... So, we queued up again, and my stomach cramped in horror at the disgust of that murky mess we had to swallow. The other lads, as before, got sick very soon afterwards, and faded away into their own personal experiences, and myself and Alan – by prior arrangement – settled into our sleeping bags in front of the cabin under the shelter of the porch. As before, I held onto the sickness longer than the others, and it was later that I finally succumbed again to the horrifically physical retching of the vine, straightening up again in the hopes of some kind of spiritual vision but, again, being disappointed. I retired to my sleeping bag, feeling a bit pissed off that after all my effort – drinking the damn stuff two times, for Christ sake, and vomiting what felt like all my internal organs into a wet Colombian night – I still was feeling nothing stronger than a slightly vague feeling of dissimilarity, but so insubstantial that it was as close to nothing as seemed to make little difference.

As I lay there, on the hard ground, feeling cold and cross, I began to really and truly be annoyed by how sick I felt, and how bloody freezing it was, and when would that bloody Shaman stop banging his bloody drum, and shut up so that we could go to sleep and get the hell out of here! I’m sure my state of mind had something to do with no spiritual epiphany forthcoming, but the sickness in my stomach certainly played a part in my temper. After the last vomiting party, I had felt immediately better, and no nausea remained behind, but this time I was left with stomach still churning, so that I couldn’t sleep with the cramps and pain of it. More than once I got up to the end of the porch, and tried to force myself to get sick, thinking this would make me feel better, but I couldn’t. As the night wore on, people began to quiet down – some to sleep, some to simply think. But I couldn’t sleep with the nausea, and lay there seething at the stupidity of the whole situation. As the night wore into early morning, I felt new stirrings in my body...was this the spiritual epiphany I had hoped for? Something seemed to be happening! But it only took me moments to realise that this was nothing spiritual, and another couple of seconds to figure out that if I didn’t get out of that sleeping bag, I was in severe danger of soiling myself...

I struggled out of the zips, and stumbled like a drunkard with no real sense of my footing to the end of the porch – I had never stepped off it, having only vomited off the edge, but these were desperate times, and I jumped straight into the darkness, misjudging the height and landing heavily into the grass. Not stopping to think of the vomit I might have just fell into (luckily the rain had washed everything away, so it was clean-ish in that area!), I staggered forward into the darkness, my prudishness and wish not to be heard or seen by anyone forcing me to push onwards to distance myself from the cabin, despite the PRESSING need of my bowels. One definite altering effect that the vine had had was on my walking, as I now had severe trouble staying in a straight line, and couldn’t really control my direction. In the darkness, I fell into a muddy hole up to my knees, water and muck drenching my trousers and entering my shoes and socks...and this was the catalyst my body needed, for I barely managed to drop my trousers before I lost control completely! It was horrific...and if you think READING about it is bad, you should try bloody experiencing it! God, it was the most undignified, horrible diarrhoea of my life, and I felt like my body would least Harry had a toilet under him in ‘Dumb and Dumber’, I had rain on my head, grass at my feet, darkness all around me, and moderate hallucinations beginning to fly past my eyes!

Thankfully, when Samuel had explained that some people suffer THIS instead of vomiting, I had assumed the worse – that I would be the one to get that instead of sickness – and stuffed toilet roll in every pocket of my coat and trousers. Never has my pessimism worked so well to my least I could return to my sleeping bag without the added indignity of a dirty bum!!!

As I stumbled back through the darkness trying to avoid the bloody hole again, I was frightened by the sudden appearance of Hiro out of the darkness; stumbling like a young startled deer into my eye line, he glanced at me fleetingly, before galloping off into the darkness again. Strange times.

I passed the rest of the night/early morning in my now slightly damp sleeping bag – lying awake, listening to the Shaman’s moans and occasional rattles by the fire, Samuel’s groans from his sleeping bag, and the odd cry from the wilderness, where I could only assume Hiro was still stumbling. However, I felt perfectly at peace. The sickness had mostly passed, and I felt no embarrassment about all the bodily expulsions, and was feeling quite bright and cheerful as I lay in my sleeping bag, gazing at the slowly brightening sky and listening to the soft and almost comprehendible language of the swaying trees. I felt at that moment that it was not necessary to fully understand the entirety of nature around me, but simply to be a part of it, and to relax in its comfort. So maybe that was my spiritual epiphany: to simply relax in my life, slow down, and accept that something at simple as a tree blowing in the wind can be the most beautiful thing on earth.

By about 8am, everyone was up and about, and talking about their night of ayahuasca. Hiro had been welcomed by the trees and plants into their world, and they had leaned towards him and spoken to him – however, things had turned nasty when he stumbled through the forest and accidently trampled some plants in his path...the trees and flowers had turned on him and began to hold him back, and he was forced to fight his way through back to the safety of the cabin. The German girls had spoken to God...apparently. On their way up to the cabin the day before, they had said that this was the thing they wanted to do in their experience, so I can’t help but feel that the whole thing was self-induced in their case. However, they had enjoyed their night, and laughed the whole way to the bus about it all. Alan had experienced a similar night to me, minus the bowel excursion of course, while Ed, Daragh and Bones had more positive personal experiences, and some even felt a profound change. As this is a document of my time with ayahuasca, it’s not my place to detail their journey – but suffice to say, I was impressed by their experience, and of course, slightly jealous that I hadn’t had something stronger happen.

The Shaman had one last piece of ceremony to perform, and the lads took off their shirts to be blessed by him after their dance with the ayahuasca – he shook his rattling stick about their heads, and filled his mouth with the alcohol, before spraying their bodies and faces with it. I decided that I had been blessed enough without doing this, and politely declined the added chill of cold alcohol being spat at me! So, we packed up our gear and headed down the mountain, chattering about the night, and telling our stories. It turned out that the Shaman had also suffered the same problem as me, but his was due to his battling the demons escaping from all of us, and trying to fight them into the fire. Poor guy.

As we headed back to the hostel on the bus, all I could think about was how tired I was, and how dirty I felt. By the time we got back, the euphoric feeling I had experienced while lying in my sleeping bag and gazing at the trees had long since subsided, and all I wanted to do was get into my bed and sleep, which I did without further talk, ignoring everyone in favour of a good rest. When I awoke, I had a long shower, and cleaned out my sleeping bag, as well as sending my clothes out for a wash. At this point, I felt more myself, and realised that ‘myself’ is someone who is open to new experiences, but also someone who quite likes being clean, dry, well-rested and well-fed! Which isn’t such a bad thing...

Despite the sickness and diarrhoea, the nausea and rain, the cold and the muck, I genuinely am glad that I took part in the ceremony. I was disappointed that I had no spiritual awakening, or faced any of my demons, or even had some hallucinations to liven the time. But at the end of the day, this is not something that’s purely a tourist attraction, and I’m glad we had the experience of a real Shaman and a real medicine being administered by somebody who believes strongly in its power. It was an honour to have been a part of something so ancient and mysterious, and despite the sickness, I feel that I pushed my boundaries and extended my comfort zone enough for it to truly count as a unique and amazing experience.

I would probably pack more toilet-roll the next time I take it, though...