In a shack perched on a swamp-edge just outside of town, our shaman, Adele, pours out a cup of muddy liquid between puffs of mapacho smoke. I drink it, lie back, and wait.
An hour or two later, the room is vibrating with Adele’s guttural warbling. Geometric patterns unfold from behind her head, which is obscured by a short staff decorated with feathers and dead leaves.
Ayahuasca, a psychedelic tea brewed from a South American jungle vine and, often, a plant containing the psychoactive compound DMT, is a part of many South American shamanic traditions.
Recently, the popularity of Peru’s ayahuasca ‘retreats’ among travellers has compelled the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to issue a travel warning, partly in response to reports of fraud, theft and sexual assault at the hands of opportunistic shamans.
Many, however, experience intense, transcendental hallucinations and transformative soul-searching. Amongst the online ayahuasca community are innumerable testaments to its ‘spiritual’ or ‘healing’ properties, typically ranging from healthy respect to cult-like reverence.
But is ayahuasca really that different from other trippy drugs, besides its potency and associated rituals?
When I first decided to take a cargo boat to Iquitos, a huge, grimy metropolis on the fringe of the Peruvian Amazon, it wasn’t with the sole intention of trying it. Regardless, I eventually found myself in a café surrounded by a mix of Western expats, united only in their unshakable conviction that ayahuasca was The Answer.
Often you could hear students and war vets alike launching into vague, yet passionate tirades about the ‘sensationalist media’ and other social ills over their pre-ayahuasca smoothies and tepid mocha lattes. Before long, I was given the contacts of a reputable but low-key shaman.
Which brings us back to Adele’s humble cottage. Some time after my second cup, I feel something well up inside me, and barely make it to my bucket before vomiting a seemingly endless cascade of black sludge. There’s so little resistance it seems to come through rather than from my physical self.
“Yeah,” laughed a North American drinker when I described it to him later. “We call that Soul Puke.”
I collapse into a praying position, palms on the floor, mumbling nonsense while Adele’s singing grows louder. I’m sucked in and out of winding tunnels, unable to focus on my physical surroundings long after the chanting stops and the ceremony ends.
But that’s as far as it ever goes. I leave the next morning happy, if slightly underwhelmed.
A 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey showed psychedelic use in Australia has risen since 2004, in what the ABC’s 7.30 program earlier this year characterised as a revival of the ‘flower power era’. While the analogy was overly simplistic, it was a reminder that the reverence with which ayahuasca is approached by an enthusiastic generation of travelers – convinced they can reach enlightenment for a few thousand Peruvian soles and a plane ticket – has parallels in the countercultures of decades passed.
My experience was unusually tame. For many, drinking ayahuasca will remain a sacred ritual that channels something greater than one’s self. Whether that something is actually ‘soul’ and not just ‘puke’, however, remains a matter of perspective.