Mystic Tourism: Searching for the Yagé in Peru
By Chris Allsop
Mystic tourism, the basis for William Burroughs’ The Yagé Letters, has begun to develop a burgeoning legitimacy among high-end tourist lodges in the Amazon.
Patricia, our usually sober and reserved lodge manager, was getting excited. Attempting to allay any concerns about my forthcoming encounter with the ayahuasca (or yagé, pronounced ya-hey) hallucinogen, she had agreed to share her experiences with the drug.
Watching Patricia struggle to convey the ecstasy and profundity of the experience, demonstrating the wide-eyed inarticulation that is usually cue to get up and move to another part of Coachella, my anxiety began to increase: this stuff sounded strong.
Beating a trail
Yagé was strong enough by reputation to tempt Beat Generation writer and junkie William Burroughs to travel to South America in search of ayahuasca, a journey immortalized in the epistolary novel, ‘The Yagé Letters,’ comprising letters written first from Burroughs to Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, and then vice versa, when Ginsberg retraced Burroughs’ footsteps.
It was this literary trailblazing that had tempted me into my present journey of teen emulation; except I was now 30, had never worn flowers in my hair, and really should’ve known better. But the closing words of Burroughs’ novel, Junky, had hooked my hormonally demented teenage self and left a lasting mark.
The narrator (a thinly disguised Burroughs) is planning a trip to South America, and the novel concludes with the following mythologizing statement, “Maybe I will find in yagé what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yagé may be the final fix.”
In reality, Burroughs made that trip to Colombia in 1953 buoyed up by research completed by Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, and reports that the drug awakened telepathy and the ability of psychic healing in those who partook. A lifelong heroin addict, he also hoped it could provide a cure for opiate addiction.
The precise origins of the practice of imbibing ayahuasca (which translates as “the vine of the soul”) are unknown. There is little doubt, however, that the “mother of all medicines” has played a role in Amerindian shamanistic medicine long before the first Europeans came across it in the early 1700s.
From the perspective of the present-day tourism industry, Burroughs could be classified as a pioneer of woolly-sounding ‘mystic tourism.’ Generally, experiences that fall under this umbrella term include visits to locations seen as ‘spiritual,’ the ingesting of natural highs, or, indeed, both of these things at the same time.
It’s a small, but burgeoning part of the tourism trade quietly promoted by some South American countries where ayahuasca grows wild and is readily available. However, seeking it out no longer has to involve an exhausting five-day jungle trek to an isolated village without decent water pressure.
Some jungle safari lodges located in isolated (but easily accessible) spots among the vegetal turmoil of the Amazon basin are beginning to cash in. Such places now frequently offer program designed specifically for guests looking to tuck into marmalade sandwiches of the mind with Paddington in darkest Peru.
I eventually chose my lodge, The Explorer’s Inn, located in Peru’s famously bio-diverse Tambopata Reserve and 58 km (36 mi) by river from the nearest town (Puerto Maldonado), on the basis that it was a research center as well as a commercial jungle safari destination.
The research aspect added essential gravitas with a suggested PhD in po-faced competence; if something went wrong I felt more confident of a lodge’s ability to keep me sane if solutions were approached from a scientific frame of reference, rather than have any problems exacerbated by the application of Amazonian leeches.
Making the flight from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado, I observe the long fingers of cloud that extend out from the Amazon basin to intertwine with the brown knuckles of the Andes.
The cloud cover eventually clears to expose blanket green below, broken only by thick coils of endless brown river spooling through seemingly stagnant routes. There is terrible turbulence encountered along this journey, and the hilarious irony of my fight or flight response brings me no comfort.
Upon landing I am keen for reassurance and look out for a bespectacled PhD in a safari suit. Instead, I am met by Alan, born and raised in Puerto Maldonado, and my guide for the next five days. He’s friendly, about 20, and dresses like a surfer.
Despite first impressions, Alan turns out to be a modern Mogwai; raised in and around the jungle he has powers of animal identification and detection that appear, to those new to his abilities, so preternaturally keen that he surely must lying.
With my ayahuasca experience booked in for the final day of my lodge safari itinerary, I have ample opportunity during numerous pedestrian safaris to question Alan about his own experiences with the drug. He’s taken it three times, whenever he’s been at a crossroads in his life and felt like he could benefit from a little otherworldly assistance.
Unfortunately for me, Alan is also the Inn’s resident joker, and usually laughs off my queries, sometimes asking me if I’m scared. To this I answer “yes,” he laughs, so it goes. The only intelligible information gleaned is that the ayahuasca experience, for him, was like, “flying through the jungle”.
The afternoon before my session Alan suggests that I skip the scheduled night walk (eschewing a final chance to glimpse the elusive Night Monkey) and instead, “prepare myself.” Not entirely sure what to do with this advice, I sit on the deck chair outside my room, sip water and become increasingly anxious.
Evening falls, and the jungle surrounding the camp becomes a blackboard over which fireflies chalk slow, short sine waves in ectoplasm green. I go inside, check my hair as if I’m about to go on a date, and head over to the dining room plagued by old college memories of marijuana-induced panic attacks.
Patricia and ‘the purge’
My talk with Patricia comes at dinnertime, about an hour ahead of my appointment with the shaman. Those about to take yagé are required to fast, as there’s a vomiting element to the imbibing process.
‘The purge’ (as the vomiting is usually known) is the part I am looking forward to the least, and hoping to avoid if at all possible (brew strengths can vary, as can the results they produce).
Over dinner, Patricia’s conversation switches between scientific pronouncements on how the hallucinogenic effects derive from the ayahuasca’s alkaloids acting upon the brain, to exulting that at its zenith the drug’s effects take you to “heaven.”
Her final piece of advice is to undergo the experience with a question firmly fixed in your mind, whether about your life, career or something else of similar importance. “And concentrate,” she says.
Alan arrives and gives me the nod: it’s time. He’ll be there for the whole experience, a familiar face to turn to in case I’m upset by the dancing crocodiles, or if I simply need assistance to get up and use the toilet. “Usually the latter,” he laughs, slapping me on the back.
We walk to a large, barn-like building on the outskirts of the compound. Inside it’s bare besides twenty or so empty beds arranged in the style of a hospital ward. The only light comes from a candelabra perched on a small circular table.
Also on the table are two tumblers and a jug. Bent over the jug is a small man in an oversized, dirty anorak who Alan introduces as the shaman. His personal appearance is, quite frankly, a big disappointment; a kind of modern mystical vagrant chic rather than the traditional headdress with ceremonial tree branch Burroughs encountered.
The shaman takes off his anorak and pours out the yagé. He knocks back a shot while I get a tumbler full. Alan explains that this shot is all that is needed for the shaman to act telepathically as a guide during my “journey.” Lucky old shaman, since thick, red yagé has the consistency of clay and tastes like soil.
Following the imbibing, we relax. I lie down in the middle bed, the shaman on the bed to my left. Alan places a bucket beside me, and reclines on the bed to my right. Silence descends as we wait for the drug to take effect. My stomach begins to feel very warm.
Over the next four hours, I am definite on only the following few points: that Alan falls asleep and begins to snore; that, at the time of the drug kicking in (after about half an hour) the shaman begins to whistle, which seems to be the extent of his (corporeal) role; that I manage to go to the toilet unaided, and successfully; that I don’t throw up; and that my career question, strapped to a mental mast while the psychedelic sirens of irresponsible drug use sing their persuasive songs, is answered.
This ‘answering’ happens subtly, in and around the visceral light show projected against the backs of my eyeballs, and comprised of old memories that drift up into my consciousness to take on new and unexpected significance.
By the time things are starting to calm down, and I’m ready to wake Alan and return to my room to sleep it off, I am absolutely one hundred percent convinced that I should never, under any circumstances, appear on a reality TV show.
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