INTRODUCTION: SEEKERS of the MYSTERY

LIMA AIRPORT, PERU
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 28th, 2006

THE CLEAN WHITE WALLS OF THE CUBICLE ARE TAGGED WITH grafiti: “We who solve mystery, become mystery,” alchemical wisdom handed down through the ages and now in the sterile men’s toilets at the Lima airport departure lounge. Scrawled, no doubt, by one of the tourists waiting out in the food court.

Outside, milling under the ubiquitous gaze of security cameras are bright splashes of colorful souls wearing crystals, beads and native American Indian paraphernalia, middle-aged academics with “Erowid” drug website t-shirts, and passengers that give you that odd conspiratorial smile that says: yes, we are here for the conference. And here we are chowing down on McDonalds and Donut King, getting our last hits of civilization before hitting the jungle city of Iquitos and shamanic boot camp.

It feels like some whacked out reality TV show, a generational snapshot of a new psychedelic wave just before it breaks. Bright-eyed Westerners about to die and be reborn in the humid jungles of Peru, drinking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca…

Ayahuasca is a plant medicine that has been used by the indigenous people of South America for millennia to heal physical ailments and, they claim, to cleanse and purify the spirit. It was discovered by the West in 1851 when the legendary British botanist Richard Spruce explored the Rio Negro Basin and was introduced to the vine by the Tokanoan Indians. Spruce gave the vine its scientific name Banisteriopsis caapi; in different areas of South America it is also known as yagè or hoasca. For a while in the mid-20th century chemists who isolated the active properties of the vine called their compound “telepathine.”

Research showed it contained various harmala alkaloids which are then boiled up in a brew (also called ayahuasca) with a multitude of other plants, one being the leafy Psychotria viridis, which contains the powerful hallucinogenic chemical Dimethyltryptamine, also known as DMT. On its own the vine is not orally active but it does contain potent MAO (mono-amine oxidase) inhibitors that overpower the body’s own enzymes and allow the DMT to potentiate.

Science has made cautious forays into the jungle to study the vine in its native setting or, as with the “Hoasca Project” in the 1990s, to study church members of groups like União do Vegetal (UDV) who drink ayahuasca as part of their syncretic Christian-jungle religion. What they found was that regular ayahuasca use flushed the brain clean and improved receptor sites, suggesting the vine could be a medicinal goldmine.

But what science cannot explain is the psychic effect of this “mother of all plants”, the sense of the numinous and the spiritual world it reportedly opens up. Those who drink say that each ayahuasca journey is unique. They say that the spirit of the vine comes alive, it guides and teaches and on the other side nothing is ever the same. Or so they say.

The native men and women who safeguard the knowledge of the vine and of the spirits it is said to reveal are the curanderos and curanderas—or as the West would call them—shamans. Their role has been that of healer, priest and traveler between worlds, acting as intermediaries between the spiritual dimension and this world on behalf of their patients.

Yet the demands of the work and the rise of Western materialism throughout South America have seen a fall in prestige—and customers—for the curanderos. The profession, usually hereditary, was in danger of extinction before an unprecedented wave of Western gringos started coming in search of ayahuasca and the healing it can provide.

Over the last twenty years or so a new gringo trail—this one a journey of the soul—has been blossoming in the jungles of South America. Seekers and thrillseekers alike have been coming from the West for a reconnection to the deeper reality shamanism connects one to—and bringing back amazing stories of hallucinogenic trips, healing and enlightenment.

Indigenous shamanism has quickly become the most profitable business in town and numerous jungle lodges and retreats have sprung up across South America to cater to the influx of rich tourists. This has spilled over onto the internet as hundreds of ayahuasca websites, chat rooms and forums have emerged to crystallize a global subculture engaging with an indigenous spiritual practice and seeding it back into the Western world.

As well as being used by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of indigenous peoples throughout South America, ayahuasca has also become one of the world’s fastest growing religions, with branches of Brazilian churches like Santo Daime and União do Vegetal springing up in Europe, Britain, Australasia, America, Japan and elsewhere. In January 2006 the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New Mexico branch of the UDV, saying they had a constitutional right to be allowed to legally practise their ayahuasca ceremonies under the freedom of religion law. The US government immediately appealed, but the genie was out of the bottle.

The mystery of ayahuasca had left the jungle and entered the cities, via religion, media and the web. And here I was, a thirty-six-year-old freelance journalist, a gonzo reporter in the time-honored Hunter S. Thomson and Tom Wolfe style, freelancing for Australian Penthouse on an academic-style conference with a pronounced twist: it was all about Amazonian shamanism, with a hands-on component.

Strange, to think that in the first decade of the 21st century I would be heading to the Peruvian jungles in search of a connection to the primal consciousness that indigenous wisdom revealed. Yet in a world of global warming and environmental collapse it seemed all the more urgent to reconnect with the planet in a visceral way. And in this age of reality television, blogging and urban surveillance, being an embedded journalist was par for the course. Nowadays we’re all part of the story—and getting down-and-dirty in the far crevasses of consciousness was a prospect I was relishing.

Despite cultural diffidence back in the baseline world of war, mortgages and climate change, Australian Penthouse was willing to have a peek under the covers of reality and embrace the story I was chasing—to understand the mythic pull of shamanism—one of the last global archetypes that connects to a numinous “Other.” Yet at the same time it’s also one of the most appropriated, glorified and repackaged brands embedded in the global consciousness. So much so that it now attracts thousands of Westerners each year back to the disappearing jungles and the plant medicines they provide.

But what was the business of spirituality doing to all these backpacking ayahuasca tourists that dared to journey into the mysteries of creation? And what did it say about the growing Western need for an authentic reconnection to the planet?

‘Margaret… Shane?’ I spot a couple of familiar faces sitting at a table in the McDonalds food court, surrounded by their luggage and that homogenized glaze that global travelers give off when they’ve been in airport departure lounges for too long and their internal body clocks have gone haywire. Margaret’s furiously loading digital photos from their camera onto an iBook while Shane pauses over the keyboard and looks up with a smile. With his stocky broad shoulders and close-shaven head he looks like a cop, but nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Dr Razam, I presume,’ Shane jokes, shaking my hand and grinning broadly. ‘I’m glad you could make it.’ ‘Drinking hallucinogenic brews with the shamans of the Amazon? I wouldn’t miss this for the world.’ ‘Rak? How are you darling?’ Margaret cries, standing up and giving me a hug full of unconditional love.

She’s a strong, confident woman with big brown eyes and shoulder-length brown hair, an earth mother from way back. They both stare at me with a good-natured energy, like somebody’s parents that also happen to be psychedelic trippers. I’d drunk ayahuasca with them in Australia a few months previously and wasn’t surprised to see them here now, smack dab in the Lima airport food court, along with all the other ayahuasca tourists waiting for the early morning flight to Iquitos.

The first time I’d had “the medicine”, as ayahuasca is called, was back in Australia at an outdoor electronic music festival in northern New South Wales, a few hours west of the hippie mecca of Byron Bay. A rogue psychonaut chemist had brewed up an ayahuasca analogue—often called “pharmauasca,” or “Aussiehuasca”—using extracts from Acacia maidenii and Syrian rue for thirty participants to be initiated into the ways of the spirit world. But after downing the bitter brown liquid and chasing it with a hit of DMT crystal wrapped in tissue paper, I’d had no real psychedelic effect.

The same had been true for my other three encounters with the vine, leaving me to wonder at the reports of otherworldly contact, overwhelming beauty and a deep connection to the spirit that runs through all living things. Ayahuasca was a mystery to me, and despite some people returning from last year’s shaman conference, I got the feeling that many of the ayahuasca tourists here in the food court were in the same boat. We were all chasing the root of the vine, eager for the secrets she might provide but like children in the ways of the spirit.

In the hours before the plane leaves the ayahuasca seekers magnetize together, gently feeling each other out and swapping stories. Two big ladies from the States in native American-inspired tribal wear come over and introduce themselves, as does a bald-headed guy from LA and a young backpacker from Europe wearing a “Treehugger” t-shirt.

And as we finally board the early morning flight to Iquitos, filing down the departure gate aisle, it strikes me how different we all are. A few obvious “new agers” for sure, but the vast majority of seekers here are remarkable for only one thing: their conformity.

The ayahuasca network appears to cut across race, social class and gender, a secret society of plant worshippers all united by the common experience of this potent hallucinogenic. And through them the ayahuasca vine was spreading her tendrils across the world, and a genuine “archaic revival” was underway.

My bags were packed, the jungle beckoned and the ancient mystery of the rainforest awaited…

I wanted in on it.

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