A rickshaw picked me up from the hot and sweaty airport in
Iquitos, Peru; A moto-rickshaw to be exact.
We buzzed through the chaos of the city and through little villages
where families kept cool and squealed in joy while playing in river waters
browner than they were. I was giddy with
the thrill of travel and being in a land so totally unfamiliar. I hung off the side of the rickshaw taking
photos saying aloud, ‘This is SO FUCKING AWESOME!’ again and again.
The shamanic center of Nihue Rao is on a big plot of sandy land
in the middle of the jungle where mosquitoes fight for supremacy with termites and
spread malaria with force. The center
itself is a scattering of Smurfs-Meet-Tarzan huts futily wrapped in mosquito
netting. There is a cafeteria hut, a
living room hut, one hut for ceremonies called the Miloka, and many private
bedroom huts each with it’s own sweet hammock and bed enclosed in yet another
layer of netting.
I found Nihue Rao through my dear friend, Flora, who has
turned the pages of my life story in many ways.
Her soul mate, Cvita, is one of the owners here and without one second
of research or even a second thought, I was signing up for a week in the jungle
The first order of business when someone arrives at NR is to
take a vomitivo which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a liter of a room temperature liquid
that smells and tastes like fermented onion though it’s made from boiling down
some plant I’ve never heard of. I was
told to drink it as fast as I could and then wait for 15 minutes until I
cleared my system. This apparently makes for an easier time for the ayahuasca
to work. I drank it, I gagged, I puked,
I puked again, I had diarrhea, I was glad it was over.
I slept more in my first two days at NR than I have since I
was a newborn baby. Eleven hour slumbers
followed by two daily naps in my hammock totaled somewhere around 15 hours of
sleep a day. The rest of my first days, when my eyes were actually open, were
spent doing yoga, sweating to death, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, struggling
with WiF, taking delicious cold outdoor showers, eating bland white food,
dreaming about salt, and talking with the other handful of folks at the center.
People from all over the world come to NR to find insight
from ayahuasca. There were many countries represented, many languages spoken,
and without exception everyone was an extremely nice person. There was, however, a noticeable lack of
laughter which was sorely missed after my time on the Inca Trail. I spent the first few days trying to remember
why I even came and I wanted to be back with people who laughed easily and didn’t
take life too seriously. I was later
reminded that it wasn’t a hotel and that we all came there for a reason. People came to Nihue Rao to heal.
Ceremonies are held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday
nights so I was there for almost two days before I went into ceremony. Monday night’s ceremony was a bit of a
disaster and the ayahuasca didn’t work on me. I just sat in the miloka and waited.
I listened to other people either puke or freak out for three hours, and
the only sign of ayahuasca in my body was the fact that I threw up in the
bushes outside which is as miserable as it sounds.
An 18 year old girl arrived the day after I got there who
looked like she was 13 and seemed terribly depressed, shy, and anxious. When I
first saw her I think I audibly gasped.
She told me that she was there with her own money and her parents
blessing to find a way out of the depression she has been suffering with since
she was 13. She claimed she had tried everything else and ayahuasca was her
last resort. She seemed quirky and
sweet, naïve and scared, and way out of her comfort zone. That evening’s ceremony, her first time ever
with ayahuasca, she got up off her mat around 10pm, ran outside and was either
auditioning for Exorcist II or was seriously being possessed. We all listened to blood curdling screams from
a little girl running back and forth, back and forth, through the jungle. It was not unlike a living hell and/or the
worst possible scenario I could imagine.
That was before she came back inside to remind us all that ‘WE’RE ALL
DOOMED! EVERYBODY IS DOOOOOMED!!” and when the shaman sang she yelled, ‘MAKE
THE DEMON STOP!!” That was while the
girl next to me writhed in agony for an hour whispering fuckkkk fuckkkk fuckkk
over and over.
And all this could be yours for the low, low price of $100 a
I endured the pleasantries of the miloka until 11pm when I
went back to my hut and went to sleep just as the soft rain started to fall. I was happy to be in peace and quiet again
and there’s nothing quite like the sound of the rain on a thatched roof deep in
Jurrassic Park. Sure beats overhearing a
The rest of my time at Nihue Rao was a trip in every sense
of the word. The ayahuasca ended up
working in so far as I hallucinated somewhere between ‘Well, this is cool!’ to
‘Holy shit, I’m starring in Avatar.’
What it never brought me was the kind of clarity or insight that ayahuasca
gets it’s medicinal reputation for and what I experienced in LA two years ago. I still believe that I was a bit freaked out
by the utter exorcism of a teenager, and I think I tried hard to keep my wits
about me. Every time any of my visuals
became dark I stared at them in my mind and willed them to change; A valuable
lesson in the power of the mind, no doubt. The
only intentions I ever set for ceremony were ‘show me whatever I need to see’
and other vague cop-outs. For whatever
it’s worth, the staff at Nihue Rao never let the teenager drink ayahusaca
again. She stayed for a week and left a
week earlier than she originally planned. Zoloft to the rescue!
My deepest questions may not have been answered, or even
asked to be honest, but the next three ceremonies provided some of the coolest
visuals I have ever imagined. Whether my eyes were open or closed I saw layers
upon waves upon tides of swirling patterns, fluorescent pink and orange drippy
castles, pinwheel lollipop amusement parks, deep blue galaxies, fields of
bulbous white flowers that blossomed into heart balloons, mask upon mask upon
mask of gods and monkeys and wolves and serpents, topsy-turvey tunnels with brightly
colored stalagmites, and whole worlds I could never find words for. I did see all my best friends and their
daughters and I scooped them up for a group hug and burst into tears of love.
Every night in ceremony each one of us is called up from our
mats to sit in front of one of the shamans to be sung to directly. I find this a particularly special experience
and one night I was truly overcome by the beauty of life. There I was sitting in a hut in the middle of
the jungle in a town in Peru that neither me nor anyone I know has ever even
heard of. A song was being sung to me
that has been learned not from books, but from the wisdom of plants. This very song has been sung millions of
times across hundreds of years with the intention of healing people. And now this song was being sung to me so
that I might find peace in my heart. I sat
there cross-legged with my hands in prayer at my forehead bawling my eyes
out. With tears streaming down my face I
whispered thank you over and over and over again.
Friday night’s ceremony provided one of those cliché
hallucinations where I swore I would be lost forever in a strange mix of
Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and the most nauseating carnival ride Tim
Burton could imagine. I worked hard to
soothe myself, but the freaky
upside-down, round and round nature of my experience had me hurling my guts
out. Throwing up is a very common side
effect of ayahuasca and it happens to me every single time I drink it. However, once the vomiting is over the fun
visuals usually start so it’s not a highlight, but a necessary evil.
After an hour or so of me barely hanging on to my shit on
Friday night, the last twenty minutes of my final ceremony was spent sitting
knee to knee with Cvita as she sang to me on my mat. She sang the most beautiful prayers for my
life and cleaned up some bad juju she saw floating around me. Then she wrapped me tight in an energetic bubble
made up of some kind of shamanic Care Bear Stare to keep me safe and
happy. As she sung to me, nose to nose, Flora
showed up like a little fairy looking down on her two friends in such a
beautiful moment together. She poured
glitter all over us and then wrapped us up tight in a saran wrap-like cocoon
made up of many shades of green. The only
smile bigger than mine in that moment was Flora’s.
All that I learned during the ceremonies was practically
eclipsed by what I learned from my time outside of ceremony with the other
people at Nihue Rao.
In each one of those soulful people I saw reflections of
myself: the parts I don’t like, the parts I’m terrified of, and the parts I do like.
Every person there was trying to be a better version of themselves, this I know
In the end, as I rode a wooden boat across a swampy river
away from the center and onto my next journey, I felt like a new chapter had
been started. I sit here writing this
story and I feel happy and light, open and safe. I feel free and excited. I feel alive.