I went to Peru motivated to see Machu Picchu, and a close friend, Alex. As I learnt more about the Incan culture, ayahuasca came up. A medicinal plant known for its psychotropic properties used for spiritual growth by shamans for centuries. Now, that’s something I could use, I thought. On our last day in Cusco, Alex and I went to the reception at Milhouse Hostel and asked about the Ayahuasca, telling them we wanted an epiphany.
They sent us to Caisae, approved by the Ministry of Culture, and 10 minutes by foot. If something went wrong, it would be on the government. But they were professional and kind and offered two packages—the ayahuasca ceremony cost $180 while the six-ritual package was $300. They asked us if we had consumed red meat, alcohol, or drugs in the past two days. Sex was also a big no. The rituals would take us the whole day and they would take us to the airport.
The first step is to cleanse. We are instructed to drink eight massive glasses of volcano water. It isn’t pleasant. We have five minutes to drink each glass, and must be walking as we drink. ‘Mind over body’, we chant together. Three-and-a-half glasses later, I throw up into the green plastic bucket in the centre of the wooden floor. Alex laughs, drinking the maximum of ten with ease while Iris, who will later guide my ayahuasca experience, soothes me.
We go eat our lunch of quinoa soup, green juice, and a bread roll each at a shamanic vegan restaurant, our only meal for the day.
We pack and go back for our second ritual—the coca leaf reading. While waiting to hear our futures, we sip on coca leaf tea (it helps with the altitude sickness). Three mugs later, the shaman calls me. He only speaks Quechua, the language of the Andean people. The translator doesn’t speak very good English or Spanish. The shaman has kind eyes, we greet each other. Maestro has been doing this for 40 years. He grabs my hands, connects my breath with the coca leaf and begins. The translator emphasises my need for emotional healing and meditation. I’m suspicious it’s a tourist pitch till they tell me, one day, I might come back to learn about the practice. Write a book about spirituality perhaps!
Next, we have the cleansing of negative energies. The Maestro and his apprentice sit with their herbs. Another gentleman, Nico, joins my friend and I. Again, the three whistling breaths that sound like the wind warm our faces. We are told to focus on our memories and let them go. One by one, as I lie in meditative sleep, I can see the filth leaving my body like droplets of water sliding off me. In my meditative state, I hear the words ‘open your heart to me, Manvi’, a prelude to my ayahuasca experience. ‘Vamos’, the door opens, we are to leave, Miguel, one of our guides tell us. Everything happens fast then. We get into a red car, and drive to a temple outside Cusco where another Maestro is waiting for us with the ayahuasca.
In 30 minutes we find ourselves in a room with the Maestro, three mattresses, blankets, a pillow, and a bucket. Accompanying us are Miguel and Iris, who will guide us through the ritual. Maestro has a playful smile. Before we start they ask if we’ve taken cocaine in the past few days. We haven’t. Ingest the ayahuasca with cocaine in your system and your heart will burst, they say.
Then it begins. An experience I don’t know how to describe in words. We are told that we may see things that will overwhelm us, and we may puke, pee or poop, part of the purging of body and mind. We are told to take a few moments to concentrate on the questions we most need answers to before we ingest the black gooey liquid. They present to us what looks like barely two fingers of liquid in a glass. Alex and I have not had much spiritual experience and receive a lower dose. 1.75ml for me, the 5’ 1” Indian, 2 for the 6-feet-tall Peruvian, and 2.5 for the man with the most spiritual experience.
Then it hits our throats. We lie down, cover ourselves with our blankets, settling in. A few moments in, as I make myself comfortable, I think nothing’s happening. Five minutes later, my visions start. I can’t comprehend at first that they have. Neon, fluorescent colours, pink, green, blue, yellow. I see them all, Inca-like figures glowing, dancing before my eyes, speaking to me, moving like a live video game. They’re all speaking to me, all at once. Telling me things that overwhelm me. Nothing at all to do with the questions I asked. It’s confusing, and I’m disoriented. Later, the Maestro tells me the figures are actually the plant offering me protection. When I open my eyes, I see abstract faces glowing. Iris calms me down, tells me the Maestro will explain in the morning and that she’s here.
After that, I calm down. Relatively. I can see energy whishing in motion as Alex on my right sits up and lies down. I concentrate; praying the plant tells me what I need to know, praying it connects me with my spiritual self so I can gain a deeper understanding. Then, I feel my heart open. I feel I’m better than okay, and everything is as it should be. Zen. There are convulsions, confusions. I see my family, close and then far. I am on the right path, I’m told. This is a new spiritual door opening, I am to come back, I am to learn. I am to write, travel and connect with people by writing their stories, by giving the voiceless a voice. All these things, I later learn are not messages from the divine but rather reflections of my own thoughts. The plant wasn’t telling me to do one thing or the other, the lesson here was to open my heart to love, and listen and receive.
The Maestro sings every now and then. Under the layers of blankets, my eyes closed, I move to the music, to songs known as Icaros. These songs are revealed to the Maestro through the plant, they say. I’m the last one to finish. I shake, expel, move violently to his song, shifting from emotion to emotion, feeling in my heart something opening, over and over. There is no word that can encompass the layers of love I feel.
I sleep in a daze. Waking up at dawn, I feel different, lighter—open. At breakfast, they say you travelled far, didn’t you? They say in Spanish to each other that my face looks different that morning.
Later, after gaining our clarifications with the Maestro, we perform two final rituals. An offering of herbs and symbolic trinkets to represent the different aspects of our lives to the Pachamama and Pachatata, Mother Earth and Father Mountain, respectively. We make our wishes. Our last ritual is the flower bath. Maestro bathes us in flowers, purifying us with florida water. It smells minty, clearing our breath, our minds, calming us.
This is an experience that will always stay with me. Perhaps I’ll be back. Until then, I have what I need. It is something I recommend to those with the desire to face themselves, and connect with their spiritual being. There is no escaping what I saw, or felt—I had hacked into my own mind. But it led to an understanding I am humbled by and grateful for.