Jessie Akin shares a unique and memorable experience in the Peruvian Amazon… I found myself sitting in a bare, symmetrical room just off the only road out of Iquitos, only two years old and cut straight through this part of the Peruvian Amazon Basin. It was ten o’clock at night on a Wednesday in February, and I had to get up for work in the morning. I’d arrived on the back of a scooter, down the dirt track which led round the back of the small airport, and into the trees which marked the outskirts of the jungle, gradually encasing its sounds and binding its hot black air. We’d pitched up late and I was quickly introduced to Juan, the owner of the house and the evening’s ‘shaman’ or ‘ayahuascero’. I looked round and nodded shyly at the only other face I recognized in the room, trying to remember his name.
I sat down on one of the hard plastic chairs and looked around barely thinking; I felt neither nervous nor at ease. Two Buddhists dressed in white and already in a state of meditation were beside me to my left, and Angel sat to my right, listening intently to Juan’s slow careful speech. I’m not really the spiritual type, but I was curious and as it was late already, I thought, I might as well stick it out for a few hours; at least then I’d be able to talk about it.
Soon, the electric bulb which swung from the grey ceiling was switched off and, in total darkness, we were in turn asked to come forward and sit before him. He pronounced my name slowly and precisely, thick with the accent I had by now grown accustomed to. I closed my eyes as he shook large palm leaves loudly and unevenly above my head, air forcing shivers across my skin. He carried on for too long, and I was relieved when he finally handed me the small cup of brown liquid and a stub of sugar cane.
I was not intimidated by the thought of a mouth-full of foul taste. This only reminded me of nights spent in my local club holding illuminous cups of tequila in one hand and clasping wedges of lemon in the other and, while others groaned, squirmed and took to the outside hut with wrenching disgust, for me the bitter shot went down pretty painlessly, and I sucked on the cane only because I thought I should. There was no fire running down my throat and over my chest, no vile traces which doubled back when I swallowed, no retching, no gagging. ‘Are you ok?’ whispered Angel anxiously, touching my arm in the darkness. He was one of only two who had chosen not to drink, and I barely knew him but he was there, I only realized afterwards, because I would need him to be. I nodded somberly, conscious of the need to respect the atmosphere of this ancient and spiritual occasion, and not wanting to reveal my well contained cynicism. I felt fine.
I stared wide-eyed into the black space around me, listening to the Juan’s icaro. His voice rose and fell through the strange Indian lexis of which I only understood a few single words. One stood out over the rest, repeated over and over, stretched out, pulled in, sung and whispered with his wailing, soothing song: Ayahuasca. Ay ya hua ssss ca. I’d heard it spoken a thousand times before, discussed in Conversation II’s ‘Traditions & Customs’, hailed by loud North American tourists who’d had it change their lives, called out in the Belén market by the strong wrinkled lady who stood among herbs and plants and multi-coloured syrups and strictly condemned alongside drugs and alcohol by the evangelists on the corner of my street. I’d got used to the way it sounded over the months and had began to wonder how it felt.
As the music distanced, the room came alive with little tiny spots of colour which crawled and danced towards me in the darkness. Soon they were pulling me in, quickly surrounding me. My skin began to feel tender and slowly I became aware of every nerve in my body as though it were shivering with life. My back straightened and I sat completely still. I tried wiggling my fingers, almost believing them paralysed, but any slight movement sent every atom chasing around my body so a weight of nausea lifted in my chest. I tried to close my eyes, thinking I might sleep it off, but instead it pulled me in further, losing me in the chaotic depths of the darkness.
With my eyes wide open and dilated in the pitch black I saw myself under streams of running water. Time disappeared in the same way it does in dreams and, similar to the way that dreams intensify feelings and experiences that you’ve had in real life, all at once as I was confronted with everything I’d ever felt, and forgotten. I was overcome with grief, guilt and happiness all at once, and a simple, clear understanding of why.
Every now and again it all became too much for me, and violent waves of nausea ran through me. Determined to gain control, I stepped outside, where the air clung and pulled at my body and the darkness spilled out of my mouth in a thick tar, letting out an alien groan which vibrated through my chest. I’d heard it would make you sick. Sometimes my body jerked but nothing came out and it took all my strength to accept that I had to go back in and confront what I’d seen before my body could reject it.
I recognized almost all the people who approached me, their faces vivid and clear in the darkness. Some stayed and watched, quivering with the complexities of our relationship, making me laugh or cry silently. Others made my chest swell as though it would burst under my ribs, clutching on to me as I pushed them back, just as unable here as in my normal life, to understand what they meant to me.
When, six hours later, I finally began to feel the effects wear off, I was relieved, weak and exhausted. I was alert and happy, calm and content in my surroundings and alive to the wind as it rushed through my body on the long motorbike ride home. The sun was beginning to show its first rays and I was excited by the fact that in just a few hours I’d be collecting up my papers and making my way to my little office in the centre of town.
I was pleased that my trauma was over. It had undoubtedly been one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do, and it would be a long time before I’d even be able to consider whether or not I’d like to try again. But, as I looked at the faces around me, and I thought about the weeks, months and years ahead, I knew that it had helped me understand this place which had been so strange to me at first, it had helped me trust what my own self had always known. The pain was quickly beginning to fade but I knew that I’d experienced something which I’d never forget, which I’d think about years on when I’d would feel like I was losing control, and that I’d survived something which, for a few hours, I’d really thought I wouldn’t. Jessie Akin