For a couple of years, I’d been noticing that a bunch of my forty- and fiftysomething middle-class friends were raving, sotto voce, about the transformative and even spiritual aspects of a South American drug called ayahuasca, the plant known in more disinterested circles as Banisteriopsis caapi. It was the Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca is to be broadcast on VisionTV in November, who first brought the drug to my attention, but it was a musician friend who found a place for me at a ceremony that was to take place in a small lakeshore village, now more or less a suburb, an hour north of Toronto.
“For sure, you’ll meet the snake,” said my friend Deborah, an art critic whose curly black locks bring Medusa to mind, when I let slip my plans to try it on the weekend. “No matter your culture, or language, everyone meets the snake.”
“Quetzalcoatl, the Meso-American vision serpent known to the Mayans as Kulkulcan. Kings and queens would sacrifice their blood through perforations in their tongue and penis and drip their blood onto paper that would then be burned and Quetzalcoatl would appear in the smoke to advise them.”
“They say it’s like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night,” said Anne, a broadcasting executive who, with shorter black locks, appeared a gentler Medusa.
“What else?” I asked.
“Vomit,” said Deborah. “You may have diarrhea, too.”
“It’s a cleansing,” said Anne, as if to soothe. “They say ayahuasca is very good if you have parasites.”
“But you’ll feel great afterwards,” said Deborah, grinning.
The next day I was the first of a dozen participants to arrive in the bucolic countryside and Philip, our shaman for the night, took me for a walk past the field where, a couple of months before, he’d led a ceremony in the open air. He explained that the separate parts of ayahuasca, a vine that grows in the wild mostly in Peru, are legal but become a Schedule III hallucinogen (i.e. not legal at all) when the stem and leaf are brewed together and put their trippy mischief into play. Mind you, ayahuasca being a controlled substance hasn’t stopped the Montreal branch of the Brazilian Santo Daime Church from wanting to import it as their own choice bit of eucharist, a Bronfman in the United States from trying to legalize it, and an entrepreneurial American, Loren Miller, making efforts to patent a variety. The use of the “medicine” was exploding, said Philip. He’d brought his own ayahuasca in from a farm in Hawaii, he said, because “a lot of bad things were going on in the camps in Peru” and this way he could monitor what was done to it.
At the vacant house where the ceremony was to take place, Philip set up an altar in the middle of an otherwise empty room, with bird feathers and musical instruments and totems of various sorts. “This is a good space,” he said.
Others drifted in and laid out yoga mats and blankets. My musician pal arrived and said, “You didn’t eat today, right?”
“Best not to,” he said.
“What about the snake? Have you met the snake?”
“You know, the vision serpent. Quetzalcoatl.”
“Relax. It’s a nice group. You’re not the only first-timer.”
Immediately I felt gauche, because the bucket I’d brought for purging was three times the size of anyone else’s. Philip replaced it with a yogourt pot. “Best to have a lid,” he said. A woman in her twenties took her sleeping bag into the garden to shake it out. “Playa dust,” she said, apologetically. “From Burning Man.” The bright-eyed blond woman sitting next to her, a student at a shamanic school, talked about hanging around the Fifth Gateway. “You’ve taken the medicine?” she asked a young man who said he’d taken it maybe 30 times but still he was spooked. “I know what you mean,” she said. “If you visit the house, you have to go through all the rooms.”
We chatted until dusk, and then in the soft darkness Philip sang a prayer and invited the participants, one by one, to imbibe from the couple of bottles of ayahuasca that he’d prepared, drawing from a pipe and then blowing smoke over the rim of the small shooter glass of chocolate brown liquid. It tasted of burnt raisins and had the muddy texture of leftover Turkish coffee. “You may not feel it immediately if this is your first time,” said Philip, “but soon it will kick in.”
And then, on cue, a few people started to hork and wretch and the couple next to me, Pilates instructors without an ounce of fat on their identical androgynous bodies, started to go through the paces. She moaned and groaned and he launched himself into what turned out to be hours of mounting physical histrionics. As if in insurmountable grief, he would sit upright and rub his eyes before suddenly launching himself forward and on all fours before bolting upright again—all the time, wailing and bucking his slender body. And yet, like Ronaldo’s football game, there was an unconvincing and solipsistic quality to whatever were his agonies that seemed rife with narcissism and the knowledge of just how beautiful his body was.
My observation pleased me, imbued as it was with uncharacteristic charity, even sympathy, before Philip came over and puffed smoke my way. Then he poked at me repeatedly with a bird wing, surely to keep the snake of my conceit at bay.
Through the window, the branches of a catalpa tree shook in the gathering wind but, no, I couldn’t claim that they looked like the serpent, though my left arm, clenching the right in its fist, was beginning to resemble one. That was exciting for the first few minutes of a long night in which more and more I felt like I’d shacked up with a bunch of loonies in lotus land, sleep enticingly around the corner until Philip would come around again to blow more smoke at me or thump my chest with rocks in what felt, for a moment, like an admonishment. Get with the program, man.
And then he was off to tend to someone else living through a nasty childhood or who, having forgotten to visit all the rooms, was barred from the Sixth Gateway—or, as happened at 3 a.m., decided in his joy to stand up and play the trumpet over the whole spasmodic bunch. Now, I said to myself, what with the neighbouring houses being alarmingly close, how are we going to explain this to cops about to burst through the door in their zealous preparations for the following week’s G20 assignment, bicycles and riot gear and all expenses paid?
This dour but astute assessment I took to be my cue for perhaps taking more of the drug. I’d yet to purge at either end; the evening, now halfway done, had been disappointingly short of life-altering revelations, and when the Burning Man woman came over to give me a hug, my first thought was still an old-fashioned, “Hold on, lady, you’re not my wife.” But all I could think about were the tomatoes and the strawberries I’d bought and how each of my colleagues’ bodies finally lapsing into slumber were stations marking the road to my eventual sleep.
Come 6 a.m., the lot was snoozing and, as in that moment before the movie credits on a long transatlantic flight, I saw an opportunity to use the loo first and get out of a room that smelled, by then, like a dirty sock. All I wanted was a hot breakfast and the morning paper and to watch a World Cup football game.
Which is what I did. An hour later I was back at the house and the participants were eating fruit and sitting about in a circle. “I had a lot of clarity about the agreements we make,” said one. “It helped me to see what is important with my life,” said the spooked kid in the corner who, truth be told, looked like he was still a couple of revelations short of equilibrium. “I purged,” said the bright-eyed blond woman. “For the first time!” I felt like a spoiler as I reported that I actually felt remarkably sound. Like a steadying anchor, I said. And maybe that was the revelation. No snake. No purging. I wrote my cheque for $175 and got out of there.