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 with her.

 

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 day.

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 psychotic break.

 

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 for sure.

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. 

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Alan Hunton says:

Tara;
I "stumbled" upon your blog while enjoying photos of my son, Schuyler Hunton who,in some incredible coincidence, shared your Inca Trail/Machu Picchu adventure. I traveled "vicariously" with you during your "journal" of your recent travels in South America. I especially enjoyed the ayahuasca experience...what a hoot! You are clearly a brave and spontaneous soul and it read like something from Hunter Thompson (minus the fear and loathing). Thanks so much for "sharing". My other shared connection with you is Max Gordon, who is the nephew of my closest friend since childhood, his Uncle, Steve Leonard. May you be blessed with the "bubblewrap" of positivity forever and share it with all you meet. I know Sky had a blast with you & all his fellow travelers. Dad is just a little jealous he's outdoing my "bucket list".
-Al Hunton

(03.04.14 @ 08:15 PM)