The Fellowship of the River

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Excerpt continued...

Once all of the guests had been served their ayahuasca, the shamans prepared to serve themselves, but before they drank, they sang into their ayahuasca. Kind of a shush-shushing whistle, a rhythmic enchantment. In Spanish this chanting is described as “soplando la ayahuasca,” “blowing” into it to infuse it with intentions for the ceremonial healing. These soplos are a modest form of icaro, the mystical healing chant of the ayahuasca shamans.

According to the Shipibo, the indigenous people native to this part of the Peruvian Upper Amazon, icaros are taught to the shamans by the plants themselves. Each ayahuasquero has his or her own icaros, which they learn by dieting with master plants. The melody is directed by the plant, and the words are sung in Shipibo to address what the ayahuasqueros see in their visions.

Later in the night, as the ayahuasca took effect, we would hear the ayahuasqueros sing full-throated icaros, the spirits of the plants singing through them with mystical intonation and vibration. These icaros would guide our journeys into the world of the ayahuasca and its visions.

After singing their soplos, the shamans drank their brew. Guests do not need to drink the brew to participate in ayahuasca ceremony, but the ayahuasquero always drinks in order to make contact with the plant spirits and channel their medicine.

There were probably a dozen foreigners in ceremony that night, surrounded by the vibrant rainforest night. Somewhere in the distance, the guards turned off the power and the rumbling gasoline generator rocked, rolled and then purred to a halt.

We were in the jungle, la selva. As the lone candle was blown out, the darkness enveloped us, and the air began to fill with jungle song, the chirping, the buzzing, the croaking and the whistling that watch over the jungle night. My eyes surrendered to the darkness, and I explored my mind and body for signs of la mareación, the effects of the ayahuasca (marear in Spanish means to make sick, nauseous, dizzy or confused). After about 30 minutes or so, I began to feel wavelike energies flowing from my head and throughout my body. I felt an expansion in my mind and in my chest, a disturbance in my vision. My breathing seemed to slow. My thoughts passed into feelings that pulsed through me, through my guts and beyond my body. Before long, a strange heaviness overwhelmed me and I lay down.

At some point, I could see colors illuminating the dark. As the doors of perception opened wider and wider, the shamans broke the dark silence with their song, quietly at first and then more fully. The ceremony increased in intensity as two or three of them sang together. I had never heard anything quite like that chanting, its impact no doubt amplified under the influence of the ayahuasca. The energies they were creating seemed to flow right into and through me. I thought I heard someone vomit, but it did not disturb me.

The icaros filled the maloka and merged with the sounds of the forest night. They filled my senses. It felt as if I was connecting to a new realm of consciousness, the world of the plants, alien and yet strangely familiar.

As the songs continued, rhythmic, mystical, foreign and beautiful, things got deeper and stranger. The chants felt like they were pulsing right through my soul, the icaros inspiring visions of geometric patterns and jungle scenery, like an intense dream. In the midst of all these wild sensations, I did not feel inebriated. My mind was clear. I knew I was in the maloka and I also knew that I was under the influence of the ayahuasca…and…it was also clear to me that I was being visited by a spiritual entity.

There were reverberating sounds and strobe-like visual ripples. A female spirit came to greet me amidst rapidly changing images of rainforest scenery and phantasmagoric bats and growling faces. This spirit was both frightening and beautiful, friendly and seductive, sweet and severe. Her face changed rapidly, portraying varied countenances that were all at once terrifying, loving, inspiring and sexy. Her hair and body were composed of wildly flowing vines, covered in leaves, with green and orange tones. Dancing light surrounded her.

I was completely mesmerized by her. She reached her hand down to me and invited me to join her. She could see that I was a bit lonely and she flirted with me, she pulled me into the dream and took me on a journey. We left the maloka, and we left the night. She gently guided me on a stroll to a lakeside beach and we stepped into the sunshine. There was a translucent haze in some moments, other moments were illuminated from below. There was a very clear landscape, sunlight glimmering off the lake, the rich green forest surrounding us, and a lovely blue sky. We found a peaceful place to lie down, grassy and sandy, and there we were. I spent the afternoon with her, lying on the beach, enjoying her lovely company.

I knew who she was. La madre Ayahuasca. I could not be sure, but I was sure. I had heard about her--spirit of nature, a plant spirit, a living extension of earth and Divine light. She drew me into a magical realm that seemed to be in continuum with my consciousness. And after our very pleasant and otherworldly afternoon in a place beyond time, she guided me back into the night, to my spot in the maloka. She looked at me one last time, intensely, and left me with these parting words: “If you help me, I will help you.” It was as if she blew them straight into my consciousness where they just reverberated, unforgettable.

If you help me, I will help you.

After a while, I could feel the most intense effects wearing off. The ceremony quieted and seemed to move into a second phase. The assistant shaman broke the silence by asking if we wanted a second round. The second dose took me on more of a profound internal journey. I lay there in the darkness feeling peaceful and reviewing my life and perceived problems. As the effect calmed a bit, I came out of my reverie and found myself wondering where the beautiful spirit woman had gone. Just then I saw her slipping out the door … I had just missed her. I didn’t care whether the vision was “real,” I knew she was with me.

Still feeling the effects in my head and body, I was then visited in the dark by the giggling shaman. His icaro blasted me with a brilliant light that revved up the ayahuasca throughout my entire body. Every cell within me felt lit up and buzzing. Then his leg brushed against mine. It felt like smooth snakeskin with the muscular girth of a large constrictor. A vision of snakeskin patterns flashed across my mind.

When I told him that I had felt his leg become a snake, he laughed and whispered, “That’s the ayahuasca.” He blew some mapacho smoke on me from his pipe and then quietly moved on.

I did not sleep a wink that night and yet I greeted the sunrise feeling totally clear and refreshed.

If you help me, I will help you. The words lingered in my mind.

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