Can drug tourists save the Peruvian rainforest? I went to try ayahuasca for myself.
Fifty years ago, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published The Yage Letters, a book largely consisting of the correspondence between the two on their separate treks through the Peruvian rainforest. Although their travels were a decade apart, both went in search of yagé – an entheogenic drug better known as ayahuasca. Burroughs’ quest for what he would wind up calling the “space-time drug” was motivated, in part, by the promise of a cure for his heroin addiction. But both beat writers were also lured by rumours that the drug provided answers to the mysteries of god, the universe, everything.
Not me, though. Even though I explored the drug tourism scene in Peru this year, I can’t say I’m really looking for metaphysical answers. At least not very hard. By this, I mean that, if they came my direction, I wouldn’t look away. But these aren’t really the things that keep me up at night.
I am, however, completely fascinated by drug tourism. My work on the history of alcohol got me interested in border towns and how America’s prohibition on alcohol from 1920-1933 ushered in the first mass wave of drug tourism with the advent of booze cruises, road trips and, even commercial flights, to destinations like Bimini, Baja and Havana. Even after Prohibition, drug tourism continued, as people headed for places like North Africa and Southeast Asia where certain prohibitions either didn’t exist or weren’t enforced.
But booze is one thing. When the ayahuasca package crossed my radar, I remembered the drug from a here’s-a-truly-bizarre-thing story. The only detail I could remember was that its users were so oblivious to the external world that they were unaware of the long strings of mucus hanging out their noses. No mention of that in the brochure. Nor did that seem to happen to Jennifer Aniston in the movie Wanderlust, where she drinks ayahuasca during her stay at a commune.
The drug’s inclusion in a mainstream summer comedy is testimony to the fact that it is starting to register on the public consciousness, thanks, largely, to DMT: The Spirit Molecule, a documentary narrated by ayahuasca advocate and former Fear Factor host, Joe Rogan. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew, a compound that, some claim, can cure illness and addiction, help people gain insight into primary relationships and, for others, offer glimpses into the origin of life. Much of the contemporary thinking on DMT is based on Dr. Rick Strassman’s research, which represents the first sanctioned clinical study on the effects of entheogenic drugs (preferred over terms like psychedelic and hallucinogenic for reasons of accuracy and previous negative connotations) performed in a university setting in over 20 years. People’s interest in the drug stems, at least partially, from the suggestion that most people who try DMT experience the same set of visions, leading some to conclude that DMT triggers a primordial memory of the origin of our species. It’s sort of like a modern day key to all mythologies.
The DMT Strassman used on his research subjects was made in a lab. Although DMT is commonly found in a wide range of plant leaves, it’s not entirely easy to turn into a drug because our stomach acids destroy its entheogenic properties. In the rainforest, our guide, Oscar Salazar, showed us the plants his uncle and father (both shamans) use to make the ayahuasca concoction, drawing on centuries of traditional medicine. The ayahuasca vine is crucial to the process but, despite the name of the drug, is not the main active ingredient. The DMT is actually contained in the leaves of another plant, chacruna, which is activated by the ayahuasca’s monoamine oxidase inhibitors. We are hardly the first to wonder how this potent and complex chemical combination was ever discovered, but it seems a way bigger mystery than who ate the first lobster.
My husband and I spent six days with Oscar learning about the plants and animals of the region through Rainforest Expeditions, a soon-to-be entirely native-owned cultural and eco-tourism venture. It’s a phenomenal facility, with several (frankly, given constraints, luxurious) lodges located in various stops along about 75 miles of the Tambopata River that caters to families, bird-watchers, adventurers and a small clutch of drug enthusiasts. If that mix sounds eclectic, well … it did to us, too. Which is why we asked various people if they were worried about people coming for “the wrong reasons.”
The question didn’t really make sense to Oscar, possibly because the question doesn’t really make any sense. We’re thinking in terms of party towns like, say, Amsterdam, where hordes of tourists come to Drink, Get High, Screw. A trip to the rainforest – while still consumerism – turns the standard model of drug tourism on its head (at least as it stands at present). The customer in the rainforest is not always right. In fact, we are almost never right. We are shushed when we are too loud, told when to get up (before dawn, usually), when we can use the limited electricity to charge our batteries and what to eat. That’s because the sole purpose of letting tourists in is to help preserve what’s there. In order to survive, every square foot of rainforest must become more valuable as a resource to rent to tourist patrons than it is to gold prospectors, potential agriculturalists or poachers. Tough thing to pull off, given the price of gold.
Drug tourism is a part of that – a risky strategy, given the controversial effects vice tourism has had in Havana, Amsterdam and South East Asia, but one that many in Peru hope to preserve, given an intrinsic connection between the region’s plants, drugs, culture and religion. Peru has resisted pressure to criminalize coca and other drugs, and there is even a Museum of Sacred, Magical and Medicinal Plants in Cusco, in which the history of religious and medicinal drug-taking is celebrated and defended. As Oscar explained to us, in the Andes, people worship coca; in the desert, San Pedro (mescaline) is sacred; in the rainforest, ayahuasca is the drug of choice. These are the “Master Plants.”
This helps to explain why, when we finally drink the ayahuasca, we are asked to sit outside, facing the jungle, and concentrate on the spirit of the plants. It was about nine o’clock at night. We had already met Oscar’s uncle, the alien t-shirt wearing, kind-looking, middle-aged Don Honorato, and now we would meet his brother, Don Jose, a second shaman. We drank with them and sat, looking at the shapes made by the tree silhouette against the cloudy, moonlit sky. I felt pretty good, considering that I had spent a good bit of the day trying to come up with reasons to duck out of the ceremony. I was scared of any number of things, including mosquitoes (malaria or not) and leishmaniasis-carrying sandflies. I had asked Oscar if it was because it was past dusk and the mosquito feeding frenzy hour that the ceremony was scheduled so late. He responded: “No. It is because that is the correct time to perform the ayahuasca ceremony.”
I was also aware of the fact that we were an hour up a river from the nearest dock and, from there, another hour’s drive to the nearest hospital. I also fretted – only slightly, though, about the drug itself, which was said to be one of the world’s worst taste experiences. Although undoubtedly bitter, the thick, reddish-brown ayahuasca didn’t taste nearly as bad as I’d feared. (Then again, I willingly drink Fernet Branca – an Italian after-dinner drink that my husband describes as tasting like dirt.)
And then, there were the drug’s effects to be afraid of. Some refer to them as “purgatory,” for both the hellish visions that some users experience and also, for the powerful need most people have to violently purge. When it kicked in, I knew what they meant. On both levels.
Save for a general anaesthetic, I have never felt anything hit me so powerfully as the first wave of the ayahuasca. It felt as if dense and heavy pieces of fabric were pushing me down in successive waves. I could see the fabric – they were like rivers of brown paisley patterned carpets that kept coming, each one knocking me back a little deeper than the one before. The next short while wasn’t pleasant. I was getting cold, but not the kind of cold you can fix with a blanket. I checked my pulse and couldn’t find it, deciding I had in fact been given a little too much poison and was going to fade away. Strangely, I would only panic for brief flashes, since they were interspersed with remarkably lucid moments in which I would remember that I had read of other people who thought they were dying. And, besides, I thought, this wasn’t the worst place to die. Although it’d be a bitch for my husband to get my body back home.
Still, it seemed prudent to try to head the 30 or so feet to the cabin’s bathroom to purge what I could of the drug. I attempted to stand and then heard myself say: “Well, that’s not going to happen.” I didn’t seem able to make myself throw up, either. Don Jose and Don Honorato’s chants were getting louder and faster and faster and louder, until the very rhythms were starting to make me feel sick.
That’s when it happened. I threw up. It wasn’t even unpleasant. I just got rid of a little ayahuasca – and it sincerely did feel as though the shaman’s songs helped me get rid of it. I know. That sounds crazy.
For the next two hours, I felt better than I have – maybe in my whole life. It was like my body had never experienced stress – ever. Gravity was about half as strong as usual. My spine straightened. I listened to the songs and watched shapes form in the trees. I saw friends, Day of the Dead-like images, and, I’m pretty sure, President Taft. I thought thoughts – the kind you don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about in everyday life. Nothing profound. Mostly platitudes about how to have a better life and be a better person. But I felt those platitudes profoundly.
This will be disappointing to those who want to hear about aliens and divine beings, I’m sure. I think I saw a third eye image at one point, but I’m also pretty sure I saw Donald Duck. My husband saw a geisha. He, incidentally, took a second dose, and never felt nearly the range of highs and lows I did.
I did feel two things that are more on the esoteric side that I was genuinely surprised about. First, I felt, viscerally, for the first time in my life, that stress was a choice and that I might be able to eliminate it. Call it mind-body stuff or, as I prefer, stoicism, I could finally see a path wherein I could exercise some more power over my reactions to things.
Finally, I felt, also for the first time, a sense that the rainforest was a living, breathing thing. That’s obvious, I realize. But I felt the power of the place and even the plants in a non-intellectual way. I can’t explain it perfectly, but I felt I had honestly drunk the spirit of the vine. I didn’t come home with a new plant-based religion or anything. But I feel more like I understand how important it might be to save this sacred, pre-modern place, by patronizing it – or however we can.
Burroughs obviously didn’t find the cure for addiction he was looking for. He remained a heroin addict. And his ayahuasca-induced feeling of “serene wisdom” was probably short-lived. But he left Peru with a new mental landscape, one that he translated into Naked Lunch, his most critically-acclaimed and enduring literary text. And maybe, just maybe, this pioneering drug tourist, Burroughs, helped discover something far more valuable – namely, a piece of the puzzle that might help the indigenous people entice western patrons to visit the rainforest to learn why they should help preserve it. And not on an intellectual level.
Will this drug tourism destination be more successful than others? We can only hope. • 17 February 2014
Christine Sismondo is the author of America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (Oxford University Press) and Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History, a discursive history of cocktails and spirits. She lives in Toronto, which used to be a pretty respectable place.