Yaje: An Intro
Yaje, also known as ayahuasca, is a hallucinogenic brew made from Amazon jungle plants. It’s mostly in Peru but also found in Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil. Beatnik writers William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg made ayahuasca famous in The Yage Letters.
Ayahuasca has the chemical compounds of DMT, the drug that fried the brains of one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster groupies in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. But that was a super-concentrated pill made in a lab.
In practice Ayahuasca is a spiritual exercise run by shamans. There are simpler ways to trip than travelling to jungle countries and drinking foul shit that causes vomiting. Aficionados can trip off on LSD, mescaline pills, or mushrooms without the spirtuality charade.
The Mick emphasized the spirituality angle before inviting me. He once took a gringo who annoyed everybody by asking the shaman how much the stuff costs, proposing to run it to NYC, setting up a business in downtown Bogota, etc. He later plugged into his iPod and danced outside. The Mick didn’t want me to be like that.
Aficionados elevate ayahuasca to more than chemicals. One expert is Jimmy Weiskopf, who wrote the book explaining more than you ever wanted to know about ayahuasca. An excerpt:
Most outsiders have assumed their yajé visions were due solely to psychedelic alkaloids in the plants, and they have looked no further. I believe the lack of understanding is due to the fact that anthropologists are bound by scientific ethics to discard supernatural explanations, and most other aficionados, like myself, are too deeply conditioned by their materialistic Occidental upbringing to believe in spiritual realms. Also, relatively few of the non-professionals who experienced yajé have undergone long-term yage apprenticeships, a process which may be essential to understanding yajés full visionary and healing powers.
Watch an ayahuasca documentary on YouTube. Read a National Geographic article on how one contributor cured her depression by taking ayahuasca. Or read how Chilean novelist Isabel Allende broker her writer’s block with ayahuasca.
There is scientific interest in ayahuasca’s anti-depressant properties among Western academia. Specifically Dr. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine, has shown that ayahuasca can cure addictions, depression, and anxiety disorders. He asserts that ayahuasca is more efficient than anti-depressant pharmaceutical drugs in increasing serotonin levels.
The Mick takes yaje in Chia, a half hour outside Bogota. After taking the TransMilenio and an intermunicipal, we walked along a country highway and turned down a dirt road. Passing through a small neighborhood, we came upon the house of the hippies.
Simon opened the door and greeted me in excellent English as a few dogs jumped up and down. We followed him past some crops and a chicken coup into a big yard. There was a ranch-style house to the right and a log cabin to the left. We went in the cabin.
Simon gave me an introductory talk about the “Ceremony.” He first talked about the Plant. The Spirit of Yaje will show us what It feels we need to see. The Yaje will “Relieve” our bodies of toxins. Then he explained the rules for puking and shitting. The bucket for puking is next to the toilet, since many people do both at the same time. He said it’s great and he always feels better afterward. He likes to Relieve.
Simon said this is a religious experience. Yaje is the Key that opens a door for higher enlightenment. We would be one with the Spirits. We would have Visions. He asked about my religious beliefs. I told him the 3rd step in AA is to turn my life over to God as I understand Him, but I don’t really understand Him.
Simon told me Yaje will bring me in touch with all beings. All living things are beings. He doesn’t know how to “speak tree,” but the trees are beings and certainly have their own language too.
Then Simon got back to the Ceremony. He said everybody would be praying and meditating, transcending the body and bonding with the world’s spirits. He said there will be chanting. Toward the end of the Ceremony, our Shaman will administer medicine, natural medicines absorbed by the skin directly into the body. Our Shaman, Miguel, has been “practicing” for almost ten years.
After the Yaje has finished its effect on our bodies, we’ll pray to the Tobacco. He said Tobacco is a sacred plant. We’ll consume it together for health. Then he took me inside the log cabin and showed me a shrine of feathers, stuffed eagles, animals’ teeth, plants in glass bottles, and other indigenous shit.
I met a dozen or so regulars. Like Simon they were all Colombians with good English (upper class). About half were female who wore full-length dresses. The guys all had long hair braided into ponytails. Everybody wore panchos.
One of the guys asked where I was from, and I told him America. Simon noted they take a lot from American culture, Native American culture. I couldn’t help asking, “Not the Irish?” Another guy stifled a smile while Simon shook his head no.
I was a little self-conscious among the indigenous / native / Indian emphasis, being a muscular, shaved-head capitalist wearing Nike cross-trainers, Nike sweatpants, and Nike hoodie. I’m the epitome of everything these people reject.
Miguel the Shaman arrived and introduced himself in perfect English. He was short and stout with strong bones and muscular features. About as white as they make ’em in Colombia, with a braided ponytail that fell halfway down his back.
I told Miguel that Simon already gave me the intro. Miguel told me to keep positive thoughts. The Yaje will show me what I need to see, but I should keep positive energy early on. And I should relax after drinking it to let it settle. He smiled warmly and touched me on the shoulder.
Then Miguel switched to Spanish. It was midnight so the Ceremony was to begin. Miguel ran the show, but he had helpers who turned off the lights and distributed beads. Now the pancho-wearing regulars wore several beaded necklaces – some made out of lions’ teeth – that made them look even more like Indians. We sat in a big circle along the walls of the log cabin. The room was illuminated only by the fireplace.
Miguel the Shaman prepared the Yaje brew, then called the closest person. One by one, people approached the shrine, swilled from the cup, and returned to their seats. Then it was my turn. Miguel scooped a few ounces of thick, brown liquid which I downed in one gulp. It went down a little hard, but not as bad as I’d thought.
After Communion nobody moved or spoke. That’s the big difference between this and the psychedelic culture I knew in high school. In the States the LSD / mushrooms scene is white kids with long hair sitting around giggling at Ren & Stimpy or listening to Phish while smoking cigarettes and weed. Yaje, on the other hand, is a solo trip. Nobody talks.
Some people laid down. Simon set me up with a thin pad along the wall with a pillow and thick blanket. I didn’t buy the Relief spiel. I didn’t want to puke. I thought laying down would help settle things.
Under the big warm blanket I tried to meditate, to think about my Higher Power, God. I remember reaching a meditation phase for a split second before feeling the effects. I saw patterns with my eyes closed: stripes and colors and the suits from playing cards: spades, clubs, diamonds, hearts. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw patterns moving and twisting.
I got the feeling everybody who has ever tripped more than once has had. Just after taking a hallucinogen, there’s a feeling of cognitive dissonance where you say, “Dammit, did I really take this shit? I don’t want to trip now.” But it’s too late. It’s coming.
I closed my eyes and tried to return to meditation. The patterns became more vivid. I felt butterflies in my stomach. I tried to think about God but the effects became more and more difficult to ignore. I couldn’t comfortably lay down with my eyes closed. I felt like I was falling. You know that feeling in your guts when you drive over a steep hillcrest? Or hit a steep decline on a roller coaster? That’s how I felt when I closed my eyes.
So I got up and sat by the fire with a few others, carrying the blanket wrapped around me like a little kid. I was shocked to see their faces – they all looked like Indians! Aside from the panchos and the beads and the braided hair, their features made them look like Indians.
Everybody was just sitting with their eyes closed. I didn’t want to see patterns or feel the falling sensation so I stared at the fire and thought. I didn’t want to be tripping. I wanted to go back to the city and my AA meetings and my coffee and my work and my exercise.
After an hour my hallucinogenic contemplation was shattered by the sound of an unknown language behind me. Miguel the Shaman was chanting. I had been dreading this chanting Simon told me about, but it was mesmerizing. I turned my chair around to watch. Everybody else remained still with their eyes closed.
The chanting was an unintelligible language with rhythm. Non-lyrical, verbal music. He kept his eyes closed. I’d like to film it someday. It was pretty good, definitely worth a listen.
In the light, I couldn’t see past Miguel’s white skin. But with only the light from the fire, and his chanting, I could see his features – that huge nose and forehead. He looked like a North American Indian. The Andean and Amazon indigenous looks are distinctly different. I don’t know how the lineage works out, but Miguel looked Cherokee or Sioux or the people from Dances With Wolves. After chanting Miguel came over to stir the fire. Then he offered me another drink of Yaje, which I refused. He returned to his seat and closed his eyes.
Every half hour someone started chanting or playing instruments – some Indian instrument that sounds like a cross between a harmonica and accordion. After each performance, the regulars would all say “Ooooon.”
I stared at the fire and contemplated. About my businesses, this blog, my life, my friends and family, my direction, my attitude. On hallucinogens people always have these great epiphanies and clarity of thought. One epiphany I had is that maybe I’m just not a spiritual dude. I’m a cold gringo devoted to Reason. Reason and logic – that‘s my religion.
I couldn’t help viewing this exercise with cynicism. This chanting is just their form of entertainment – it’s their Ren & Stimpy or Pink Floyd. This is just another drug group and any attempts to make it more than that is bullshit. Instead of mushroom t-shirts and Grateful Dead, it’s panchos, beads, and chanting.
I was in a hyper-alert state. Every time the door behind me would creak open, I snapped around in an instant. I did this every time one of these hippies would stand up, causing their beads to rattle. It happened a lot as people went outside to Relieve. The night’s silence was regularly interrupted by the sound of someone throwing their lungs up.
I didn’t puke, but I also didn’t take a second serving. Still, I experienced increasing stomach discomfort. Rumbling and soreness. Finally, I went outside for a super-solid poop, which was heavenly.
The Mick took a second serving. He sat in a chair a few seats away from me. Sometimes he sat up straight with his eyes closed, but most of the time he clutched his head between his knees, shaking. He seemed to be having a nightmare. He says Yaje’s always a nightmare for him. He gets visions of all the terrible things he’s done. He comes in every two weeks for a fresh round of nightmares to keep him on the straight and narrow.
After a few hours it was time for Medicine. Everybody took their shirts off and sat around the fire. I’d been hoping to see some titties, but the girls only went down to their bras. We sat around the fire while Miguel the Shaman paced behind us, chanting. He wore a feather head-dress, which made him look even more like an Indian. Chief Yaje Shaman. His helpers played instruments.
Miguel took a break from chanting to drink from a bottle. After drinking, he spit it out on the first person seated around the fire. He didn’t spit it out per se, but blew it out in a way that created a light spray. He did this to everybody. Then he continued chanting, carrying some kind of whip-tassle that he touched to our shoulders and did rings above our heads. Next, he rubbed an herbal-smelling liquid on our backs and arms.
I got pretty bored sitting for this part of the Ceremony. My one serving of Yaje had run its course and I wanted to go home. I went back to my pad and pillow as the sun was coming up. I tried to sleep, and may have barely dozed off by the time people started walking around and talking. I got up and hinted to The Mick that we should leave. Then they started the Tobacco part of the ceremony. To my horror, they expected us to sniff powdered Tobacco – snuff.
Each person sat on a short stool in front of Miguel, who would load the powder into what looked like a pipe. He put the fat, wooden end of the pipe into one nostril of the victim, then blow the other end to shoot the powder up the victim’s nose. Both nostrils. My turn came and Miguel blew the shit up my left nostril. Tears instantly ran down my eyes as a shooting pain hit my brain. I got up and said “No más.”
I found tissue paper and started blowing my nose, trying to get all that shit out. I blew snot mixed with brown particles. I kept blowing my nose until there were no more brown grains in my snot. I didn’t give a shit if I was offending the Tobacco session of the Ceremony. Tobacco’s not sacred, it’s poison.
Around 7 am, the hippie chicks served food. Strawberries, sliced pineapple and oranges with organic, homemade bread. They sold loaves for 5000 pesos. After all, this is a business and they are capitalists.
Everybody paid the owner of the house 40,000 pesos. He didn’t have change for The Mick’s 50,000 note so we sat around waiting for somebody to go to the store. I’d been wanting to go home for hours at this point. Mere minutes before the change came, Javier asked if I wanted to learn about the Mayan Calendar. I should have said “NO!” But I agreed. So he kidnapped my attention for a half hour, subjecting me to the intricacies of a defunct calendar system. If The Mick’s change had only come a little sooner …
While Javier had me cornered, Simon kept The Mick captive audience for some other type of indigenous lesson. Finally, around 9am, The Mick and I hugged all these Indian-wannabes goodbye and left the commune. We ate black folks’ fish back in the city.
I expected to sleep since I hadn’t slept all night. However, I wasn’t even tired. I even ran 5 miles that evening without sleeping.
The hallucinogen trip stimulates the senses to a state I’d almost call hyper-sober. I’ve always had a soft spot for epiphanies and clarity of thought. I got some that night, but it takes time to sink in and develop in the mind.
UPDATE: The Mick’s memoir is published. See madouttamehead.com.
A timelessly universal tale, beautifully told.
Yes, that cognitive dissonance moment of near-fear as the roller coaster crests the hill where you realize that the ride is beyond your control. I know! You just focus and hope for positive outcomes.
Then, the taste of fruits and carbohydrates post-trip. Enormous relief.
Pre and post, wonderfully described, Expat.
It’s always spiritual.
Dude I’ve tried to follow plenty of blogs but lost interest…..but you certainly keep it interesting.
Nice work mate.
thats a pretty crazy story
Always love this blog – another classic story.
That truly is a great story, you told it well.
I see an appearance on Oprah in your future =)
“Reason and logic – that’s my religion”…. couldn’t have said it better myself. I’ve been planning a trip to Peru and Bolivia for early next year and typed “how to get weed in Machu Picchu” and somehow you came up in my search…. haven’t stopped reading since (fuck work!!!).
Being from Tijuana (the stereotype for all Latin America cities) I get where you’re coming from as I detest the whole “limosnero con garrote” approach (beggar with a bat) and a whole mess of other stuff (religion, crime, drugs, etc).
Hope to hear from you soon… I hope the pencil and paper I’m taking on my trip come up with things have as interesting as your blog. Keep it up!
I’d greatly greatly appreciate any information you may have on yaje ceremonies in or within a few hours of Bogota?
I would greatly appreciate any information you have on ceremonies in Columbia?
Incorrect information: Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksers and the book Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test is about LSD. Ayahuasca contains DMT, and not LSD.
Yes, the book is largely about LSD. But they also got a hold of pure DMT in pill form – seemingly stronger than Ayahuasca. One of the guys got permanently flipped out.
how to meet a shaman for taking ayahuasca, im in bogota ?right now and for 3 more weeks i will in colombia!
Great description, I can relate to everything you said, I was lucky enough to do it in Peru among some incan runes, and it was absolutely incredible! As I am currently living in bogota, and would love the opportunity to repeat the experience, could you give me the contact details of the place in Chia? Or any others you have heard of, I’m struggling to find any here…
Great story, I had what I would call a more spiritual and clear experience going on a retreat in Peru. Don’t think you were supposed to get up while ur tripping, laying down and taking it all in for hours was the best part.
Could you also send me contact info for shamans around bogota? Going there next week n I can’t find any online. Thanks a lot
Really enjoy reading your blog. Always wondered what Holden Caufield would be like as a carousing young adult backpacker. Thanks for not boring us with any of that David Copperfield shit. And, I don’t think you are immitating anyone. My comparison is a compliment. This is fresh! Hope you get yourself together and write a blockbuster. Getting ready to head to Medellin in a couple of days. Love to buy you lunch, if you are there.
Well, I am colombian, live and work in America, speak perfect english and don’t come from the colombian “upper class”, not only rich people learn english. I find some of your comments and your way to describe my hometown and my people little offensive, but you probably don’t give a shit, as you obviously don’t give a shit about anything.