About Us Peruvian Amazon Partners Kelsey's Blog News Take Action Donate Photo Gallery Contact



Ayahuasca Session 1
by Kelsey

June 20, 2009

I awoke this morning to a familiar sound. It was the wind blowing through the buildings in my San Francisco apartment. And then reality kicked in, I was not in San Francisco anymore, I was deep in the heart of Manu Park, and my hut was the only one around. I listened to try and get a grip on what was happening. After a few minutes I realized I was bearing witness to the majestic call of what the Machiguenga call Yaniri, or red howler monkey. I checked my watch, 7a.m., breakfast time. I laughed to myself as I thought, “How wild, a perfect jungle alarm clock.” At breakfast Satu told me we were going to the nearby lake called Cocha Salvador to look for animals. Cocha Salvador is an oxbow lake, which means it used to be a bend in the river but strong currents forged a new path and cut it off from the source. This lake and others like it are home to some of the most rare and interesting creatures in the Amazon like Anacondas, Black Caiman, and Giant River Otters.

We trekked through dense forest for forty five minutes until we reached the lake. On the way we saw an emperor tamarind monkey, the rarest species of monkey in Manu. They have these funny little white moustaches that make them look like little hairy children. At the lake we boarded a catamaran and set off in search of aquatic wildlife. About five minutes into our voyage I spotted a large wake in the center of the lake. I fixed my gaze on the vicinity of the wake and waited patiently. A few moments later I saw a sleek black head poke out of the water and quickly dive back under. “Otter! Otter!” I alerted the group. As we sat quietly in anticipation of the next sighting, a group of four or five more otters joined the first one I spotted; diving and swimming through the waters. They were hunting for sardines, their preferred food. Apparently they always hunt in groups like wolves, hence their nickname “lobos del rio (wolves of the river).” I snapped a few great photos before the pack departed and felt satisfied.

We were cruising along peacefully, hoping to see a black caiman, when all of the sudden I began to hear what sounded like quick bursts of heavy breathing. I decided one of the other group members must have been having breathing trouble and shrugged it off. However, I became confused when the noise persisted and I realized it wasn’t coming from our boat but from somewhere on the shores of the lake. “The noise you are hearing is the call of the hoatzin (chompari),” Satu explained. He pointed to a nearby banana leaf tree and as I lifted my gaze I saw 4 dark colored birds lounging in the branches. They were magnificent. The hoatzin is probably my favorite Amazonian bird (save the brilliantly colored macaws that, to me, are the quintessential representatives of Amazonian fauna). When they are young, hoatzin look like a cross between a dinosaur and a bird and resemble the prehistoric archaeopteryx because they have claws on their wings. On top of that they have blue faces, red eyes, and a very punk rock hairdo (see photos).

As I was finishing a successful photo session with the hoatzin, the Amazon lived up to its name (rainforest) and it began to pour. Amazonian rains are strange and not altogether unpleasant. It usually stays warm throughout the downpours and as long as you have a good poncho there is nothing to fear. Plus they never last long. I was actually happy for the rain and started to sing the Blind Melon song “No Rain” to the others. They all joined in for an impromptu round of karaoke as we rowed back to the shelter of the dock and returned to camp.

At this point, I hadn’t really seen or spoken to the Machiguengas since my arrival and it was giving me anxiety. Did they really want me here? What did they expect from me? Was it going to be difficult to communicate? There was only one way to find out. I headed to the office where I had seen them hanging out the day before. As I climbed the crooked stairs and opened the door I saw Samuel’s wife, Marta, breastfeeding her baby. Shock! Terror! Was I supposed to be seeing this? I played it cool and offered a casual “Hola.” She seemed unfazed by my entrance and calmly answered back. Jose Luis and Miguel were relaxing in the second room eating apples as I began small talk to break the ice. “Como estan? (how are you?) El partido de futbol ayer fue muy divertido (the soccer game yesterday was fun). After a few more gems like these even I was annoying myself. I knew I had to tackle the important issues sooner or later so I went for it, “Que  me quieres hacer cuando estoy aqui? (what do you want me to do when I’m here?).” Jose Luis smiled and we proceeded to hash out the details of my stay at Casa Machiguenga. My goals would be: 1. Help build new paths through the camp 2. teach them some English and learn some Machiguenga 3. Help establish some service standards 4. Document my stay here in photos and writings to help boost tourism. After our talk a sense of relief rushed in to replace my uneasy anxiety. Jose Luis was totally friendly and easy to understand. In fact, he spoke excellent Spanish and helped me feel confident about my stay with the Machiguengas.

After the business talk I asked what he planned to do that day. He told me he was going to prepare some ayahuasca (kamarampi), a psychedelic medicine, for a ceremony later that night and asked if I would like to join. I quickly answered, “Si por favor!” I had read countless books about ayahuasca prior to arriving at Casa Machiguenga. The experiences that people described were out of this world and I was ready to take flight. He told me the ceremony would commence at 7 in the empty room next to mine. I spent the rest of the day relaxing, drinking lots of water, and wondering about the coming experience in nervous anticipation. Not the bad, terror stricken type of nervous, but the healthy, excited kind. It’s the type of feeling you get before any important event like the first day of a new school or losing your virginity. I’ve always believed that the slight tinge of nervous anticipation helps to imprint these types of experiences even deeper on one’s soul. Dinner time came but I didn’t eat because I wanted to receive the full effect of ayahuasca and the less you have in your stomach the better the results.

When the group had finished eating and the last rays of sunlight had left the sky (inkeetay) Cristiano, Darwin, Satu and I headed to the empty cabin where we were met by Jose Luis, Miguel, and Samuel. They were decked out in their cushmas holding a black iron pot which I presumed to be the medicinal brew. I opened the door and we filed slowly into the room. “Is everybody in? Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin.” –Jim Morrison. We placed two mattresses on the ground to sit comfortably; one for the Machiguengas and one for the rest of us. When the seating arrangements had been made and everyone was set to go we extinguished the candles and the room was pitch black. One by one, Jose Luis called us up to drink the sacred kamarampi from the cup they had fashioned from the “pamoco” tree. First Satu, then Darwin, Cristiano, and lastly me. I fumbled slighty as I made my way through the darkness over to where Jose Luis was sitting. As I sat down I felt a hand blindly searching for mine to deliver the cup. I stretched out my arm and placed my hand palm up. When I received the pamoco cup I exhaled and lifted it to my lips. The kamarampi was cold and bitter with the consistency of water. Two cups later I returned to my seat and sat quiet and still. I heard the Machiguengas drink their cups and then nothing. No words, no movement.

I was in a bit of disbelief. Since my teenage years it had been my dream to come to the Amazon and take ayahuasca with an indigenous group and I was there about to embark on my long awaited journey. I had the feeling of being at the top of a roller coaster about to descend into the wild sensations of the awaiting twists and loops. Out of the thick, heavy darkness came a faint tune. Jose Luis was playing his violin. Miguel chimed in on the wooden flute and the combination of the two was epic. The music had a calming effect on me because it gave my mind something to focus on instead of when the medicine would kick in. In regard to taking psychedelics, I’ve always thought Tom Petty put it best, “The waiting is the hardest part.” You can drive yourself crazy with a million questions in anticipation of a psychedelic journey. Am I feeling it yet? Am I seeing something or is my mind playing tricks on me? How long has it been since I consumed? Jose Luis explained that the music would help guide us through the experience and drive away any serpents we might see. I wasn’t scared of serpents. In fact, I was hoping to see them after reading Jeremy Narby’s book about ayahuasca called “The Cosmic Serpent.” At that point, Satu asked to drink another cup and I thought, “Why not?” So I consumed another cup as well.

Ten more minutes passed and the others began to feel it. I heard Satu say, “Jose Luis, estoy volando. Mi cuerpo esta visitando otros lugares (I’m flying, my body is visiting other places).” Darwin and Cristiano were laughing and enjoying themselves. They kept saying, “Que chevere (how cool).” Or “Muchos colores! (many colors).” Every few minutes Jose Luis would call us out by name and check to see that we were doing alright. I think that gave everyone a feeling of unity and confidence. I still wasn’t feeling anything. I figured since I had a good amount of previous psychedelic experience I needed more than the others and proceeded to drink two more cups. Five more minutes and I got the familiar feeling of the psychedelic state. My body was heavy and so were my eyelids so I closed them and tried to sink into my personal journey. Darwin and Cristiano kept asking me, “ves algo? (do you see something?)” Every time I replied “no” they would laugh and retort, “El es loco (he’s crazy!)” Unfortunately, my experience never went past the heavy feeling in my body. I was bummed out. Cristiano and Darwin were laughing it up having a great time, Satu was journeying to other worlds and I was sitting on a mattress in a dark room, waiting for something to happen. Even so, I was happy to have participated in and observed one of the Machiguengas sacred ceremonies. We sat in the room for a few more hours conversing and eventually went to bed. “Next time,” I quietly said to myself, “next time.”

To Read More Visit Kelsey's Blog