During the approach on the runway, I could see the landing strip backed up to people's yards. There were people hanging laundry not more than 50 yards away. I saw a dog running along side the runway like he was chasing down a giant car. The airport was the size of an average sized American grocery store. There was a single gate and in the distance derelict airplanes rusted while the jungle was growing up and slowly eating them. The Blue Morpho center had someone there to meet us. They were holding a sign and I laughed out loud at the absurdity of having someone meet me at the airport holding a sign like I was important in some way.
There were about ten of us on the plane. I stared into the faces of the other people trying to see if the impetus to fly into the middle of the Amazon to take ancient jungle medicine was written on their expressions. There was a mother and daughter and a big guy with expansive tattoos and a slightly older woman from South Africa. We climbed into a shuttle and rode to our respective hotels.
The first thing I noticed about Iquitos is that there are practically no cars. Including the hotel shuttle I rode in, I saw a total of four cars while I was there. I attributed this to the trouble and expense of getting a car there by plane or boat. Everywhere else were mototaxis. If you have never seen one, it is a motorcycle with a two wheel chassis and a surrey on the back. In between the driver and the passengers, the mototaxi owners had all taken time and effort to weave elaborate designs using colorful plastic tubing. There were spiderwebs and herringbone and checkerboard patterns. Oddly with all this decorative weaving going on there was no strapping mechanism at all for the shelf that holds your cargo, so the passengers must dangle their arms behind them to hang onto their luggage so it doesn't bounce off.
A lot of the drivers had clearly decorated their taxis themselves with various designs. Paul and I were entirely puzzled as to why the Transformers symbol was spray painted onto so many until Paul had noticed that the symbol taken out of context looks very much like Incan art.
Our hotel was nice, the nicest one on the plaza. We got into our room opened the curtains that faced the square and realized we have 24 hours to think about what the hell we were doing here.
We wandered down to the boardwalk that looks over the Amazon. The locals immediately pegged us for Westerners coming to take the Aya, as it is now Iquitos's main source of tourism. We were inundated with offers to sell us jewelry made from the root. One man approached us with a large jacket as if in a movie from the forties, I expected him to open it and see dozens of watches he wanted to sell me, instead he had framed mounted insects and butterflies, one more stunning than the next. I wanted about half of them but knew I wouldn't be able to get them through customs. I held my hand up,"No, gracias, buonas tardes." He ran after me, "Lady! Lady! wait I have this good one." He pulled a frame from a bag that was in the shrubs and there was a mounted rhinoceros beetle with wings spread as big as my entire hand. I was entranced; Paul was horrified.
We ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant curiously called the "Yellow Rose of Texas." Apparently a Texan came down and decided to spread the joy that is Texas here in South America. The walls are impossible to see due to the excess of standard fare Southwestern decor covering them, except it was dark and moldering like an Appleby's in hell. There was a jackelope and worn saddles and cowhide chaps and according to the wait staff, the world's largest armadillo skin. I can't say if it was truly the largest skin, or the fact it appeared to have been run over so many times it had just flattened way out. There was a "Keep Austin weird" bumper sticker over the door which cracked me up. All of the staff were sporting orange University of Texas t-shirts. We ordered the Ayahuasca meal which was advertised on a piece of metal hanging from the ceiling:
"We also serve ayahuasca diet
no spicy food
This of course made me wonder which item on the extensive menu included sex.
We walked back to our hotel and there was a huge crowd in the square with two different bands playing. There were street vendors and men with knock-off toys and balloons. What caught my eye was the guy wandering around in the home-made Predator costume. His use of modified aluminum cans and duct tape impressed me, however at 5'1" he was less than menacing. I asked if I could take a picture with him and gave him a sol for it. We asked at the desk if there was a special event going on and found out that this happens every night in downtown Iquitos.
The next morning we took a mototaxi to the Blue Morpho offices. I saw at least three instances of babies being passengers on motorcycles with no special equipment holding them in. This was the exquisite diversion of culture that I had longed to see traveling outside the US, these people had to get from one place to another and had to take their babies with them, it was a little shocking to see at first, but I appreciated the practicality of it.
The office was nice, there were probably about twenty five of us. We sat on bamboo furniture and made polite conversation with each other. I had to beat back my Aspergers-like tendency of being too honest with strangers. Nobody here needed to know how depressed Paul had been or how impossibly broken I am and how in desperation we flew to another hemisphere hoping for a Goddamned miracle. There was a young guy, handsome and friendly who was back for his third trip. He was generous with his information. The first time he had done this, he had no experience with hallucinogens either. He compared the first time to going out on a surfboard for the first time and just getting pounded with waves. "Don't fight it" he said "and also be prepared to have the words 'I am NEVER doing this again' come out of your mouth. I think I said it a dozen times." he smiled reassuringly. The lot of us piled into two buses to drive to the lodge an hour and half out town.
The first thing I noticed driving deep into the Amazon is that I felt like I could breathe all of the way for the first time in my life. My head grew sharper as the flow of oxygen increased in my system. I made a comment to that effect out loud to the rest of the bus to which someone replied, "Welcome to the lungs of the world!"
Most of the bus was built out of wood which seemed bizarre to me and the windows were hidden behind hinged mullions that served as armrests. A young woman from Australia sat with me. She reminded me of Claire from "Lost." I began to wonder if Australia just churns woman out this way, blond, pretty and charming. This was her third trip here, she gave me some decent advice and made me less nervous. I snapped pictures of the brilliant green forests and hung my head out the window like a dog on a car trip.
About an hour after driving down the Iquitos-Nauta road we passed a yellow house with broken mirrors glued to the outside and the sign outside read, "100% natural disco." Shortly after we took a left onto a packed mud road that led to the camp.
The buildings were large huts on timber legs with thick grass thatched roofs. It seemed there were brilliant tropical flowers dripping from every branch and vine. Butterflies as large as pancakes sailed by my head. Everything smelled fresh and sweet and clean, I suddenly became weirdly angry at companies trying to market a fake version of this smell with products that were sickly sweet and over arching;like a flowery scent sprayed over a corpse. Fuck you Glade, you are a charlatan and you can shove your "Tropical Mist" up your ass.
Paul and I unloaded our things into our room which was a small living space with a mosquito net enclosure. Two single sized mats lay side by side on the floor.
We walked over for lunch and orientation in the main lodge.
Hamilton spoke to us about what to expect. Hamilton owns the place and is one of the residing Shamans. He is every bit a Southern California boy, his speech patterns give him away if his blond boyish good looks didn't do it first. You can tell by looking into his face however he has Shamanic qualities, as I have perceived them anyway as this was my very first Shaman. He exudes a unshakable calm that comes from knowledge and power, but there is something else... a coldness. He was impossible to read. I wasn't sure I could trust him, although to be fair I don't really trust anyone. It was difficult for me to wrap around all these different facets of Hamilton since I kept waiting for him to say "dude" while he was talking. He mercifully did not.
I decided to stop dissecting him and just listen for once in my life.
Hamilton said we didn't have to relive anything horrible. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief. I could take the possibility of demons and devils and dark writhing snakes but having to relive my late teenage years seemed insufferable.
We had a few hours until it was time for the ceremony so we walked up to the swimming pond. There was a sweet black and white dog who ran out of the woods to us. It was hard to look at her distended ribs. I upended a large bag of beef jerky that I had brought with me for the plane ride. She consumed it quickly and followed us dutifully to the small lake.
Paul doesn't care for water that you can't see through so he dangled his feet in at the dock, while I swam for a bit. The pretty Australian had told me that the water here did something fabulous to your hair. The water was weirdly cold and then would shift dramatically as you moved through it. I tried to feel for the bottom but couldn't. I could hear the birds in the trees but I couldn't see them. The place was stunningly beautiful, but I felt edgy and isolated.
The ceremony started at 6:00PM but out of a sincere wish on my part to get the thing going already, we went over around 5:15.
The ceremony hut was a round building, built like a yurt but a more permanent structure with large timbers crossing overhead into the tall cone of the grass roof. There were two large chairs were the shamans sat and in the middle was a collection of what I assumed to be tools of the trade: dozens of large quartz crystals, polished mineral spheres, beads, bottles with unknown liquids all lined carefully up in rows.
In the middle was a large statue of Yoda.
I silently thanked the universe for having a fucking sense of humor.
Rocking chairs lined the sides for those who had been here before. The new people got mats in the center and every one got a stainless steel cup full of water you weren't allowed to drink, a roll of toilet paper and a mauve colored plastic bin. I had read time and time again about how the "purge" with ayahuasca was about throwing up the poison in your system, whether it be a physical poison like alcohol or drugs or a emotional poison like rage or betrayal or sadness. I decided if I was going to be throwing up ALL my rage and frustration and pain perhaps I should get a bigger and cheerier receptacle, something more like a baby pool with smiling frolicking dolphins.
Behind a curtain at the back of the room were several toilets, a couple of sinks and a shower. They had suggested that we practice walking to the bathroom back and forth a couple of times because once you are in the "mareacion" your motor skills will be effected and Malcolm mentioned that if you practice walking, your feet will know the way.
People filed in one at a time. Some of them did yoga poses, most of them were stretching. I couldn't understand why they were stretching, was there going to be calisthenics later? Paul was to my left and a brooding young Latino guy to my right. To his right was a guy a little younger than me: thin & quiet with a good face. None of the four of us had done this before and while everyone else moved about with purpose, we all sat still on our mats.
Hamilton came in and sat in his chair. Some of the people who had done this before(the repeaters) sat at his feet and talked casually. The second Shaman Don Alberto entered the room. He had a white plastic grocery bag and a baseball cap. He seemed purposeful and somber. They both set up their areas with old two-liter bottles holding the murky jungle drink. They each set palm leaf rattles to the side called chacapas. Don Alberto lit his mapacho, which is a sacred tabacco rolled into a fat cigar. One by one they called people up to get served.
They called my name and I kneeled down nervously in front of Hamilton. He has piecing blue eyes and stared me down while he whistled the blessing into the small metal cup. He handed it over and I smelled it, it smelled like the jungle, wet and earthy like a freshly dug hole. Just like everyone before me I raised the cup and said "SALUD!" and everyone responded in kind "SALUD." I swallowed it down with little effort. I was surprised that the taste wasn't as bad as I feared. Although it is not something I would recommend as an after dinner appertif, the best description I can give is unsweetened chocolate mixed with battery acid. The taste it left in your mouth was actually worse than the liquid itself. I swished some water around in my mouth and spit it out into the bucket. There was no going back now. Don Alberto began to softly shake his chacapa and sing an Icaros of protección.
Then we waited.