The Temple of the Way of Light in Peru. Photo: The Temple of the Way of Light
I was 41 and in constant pain. In 2012 I decided to travel to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew used by shamans for hundreds of years. I had read about it, researched it and decided I had to do it. People drank it for physical and emotional well being. I had resisted medication to ease the symptoms of my autoimmune disease; Sjogren’s syndrome complicated by vasculitis. Sjogren’s meant I had very little saliva, my eyes were dry and scratchy, my joints ached and fatigue was constant. Vasculitis in my legs meant my veins and arteries were being destroyed by inflammation; when it flared up, I couldn’t walk and the pain was excruciating. To make matters worse, I was also diagnosed with Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction brought on by jaw clenching in my sleep. It caused debilitating pain in my head.
My partner and I quit our jobs, gave up our rental and packed our bags. Friends and family were supportive although some were concerned; ‘Didn’t you hear about the guy who died from drinking that?’ Yes, I had read about it but the cause wasn’t determined. Besides, the place I had chosen, The Temple of the Way of Light, had a good reputation. The Ayahuasca ceremonies were presided over by the indigenous Shipibo. There were strict guidelines and a pre and post-Ayahuasca diet to follow. I was reassured but as the time drew near, my fear grew and I began to think, ‘what if I die?’ ‘What if I lose my mind and never come out of it?’
We were met in Iquitos, Peru by Temple staff, loaded onto a bus, then a boat, then a long, hard walk to reach the Temple. It was hot. I struggled to keep up, regret already gnawing away.
Ayahuasca being prepared. Photo: The Temple of the Way of Light
The first of seven ceremonies over twelve days; I was wracked with fear and anxiety. There were twenty two of us, all ages, and all walks of life. We sat in a circle on thin mattresses; the anticipation palpable, as the doses were poured out in shot glasses, a reddish, brown liquid. I had never tasted anything so vile, like rotting, sour grapes.
The shamans began to sing their icaros; songs imbued with the healing vibration of plants; sometimes they soothed, other times they were like daggers. I couldn’t see my partner in the darkness of the hut. Frogs and insects chattered incessantly. Something crawled past my leg. My arms were so heavy, I couldn’t lift them. I wanted to sit up but couldn’t work it out. My stomach heaved violently and I feared my bowels would betray me. I was so nauseous, so sick. Burning pain shot through my legs. I whimpered, moaned and cried. I tasted the brew again as vomit filled my mouth. I suffered long and hard for seven hours, I wasn’t the only one. It became harder and harder to drink as doses were increased over the days. The mere sight of it made me start to gag and dry retch.
The effects lingered into the next day. I felt tired, dazed, battered, fragile yet strangely calm. Along with the Ayahuasca, there were daily treatments and plant medicines to drink, some people were prescribed two, I got eight. All treatments were designed to work on whatever issues or ailments were present.
Where the Ayahuasca ceremonies are held.
The last ceremony was the hardest. My body was jerking with mild convulsions. I felt like I was leaving my body, my tether with the world was breaking and soon I would float away, I couldn’t hold on. But then, out of the darkness, a hand was placed gently on my head, a beautiful icaro poured over me. I was safe and still. Tears of joy slid quietly down my face. He chuckled quietly and stroked my hair, ‘okay, child’ he whispered in Spanish, ‘okay now’.
My time at the Temple was up. It was the hardest but most rewarding time of my life. Strangers became friends. I had the unconditional love and support of my partner, the shamans, the volunteers and staff. I knew I would be back as this was only the beginning. I realised I was stronger and braver than I knew and that sometimes it isn’t only the physical that needs healing. I had cried a river. But as I walked back through the jungle, my legs felt strong, my mouth was moist, my body felt good. I smiled at my partner and absentmindedly rubbed my temple, a habit I had developed because of the pain in my head. I laughed and cried; there was no pain, only beads of sweat that glistened in the sun.
The experience of Ayahuasca is different for everyone. This website does not endorse the treatment described above. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently issued a travel warning about South America's ayahuasca tourism trade.