By Peter Stromberg
The following morning we were moving a little slower, as people naturally do in the rain. Packing all of our earthly belongings out of the wounded truck and into the taxi. The deluge continued. We made a quick detour to “Home Depot” to buy some black plastic to try and keep our already damp backpacks from being soaked while in transit in the bed of the truck; we formed a luggage burrito. We had missed one day of the actual “vacation” part of our vacation due to our transportation issues. The pace of the crew quickened once we were moving in the right direction. We needed to be at the bridge by 2:00 PM for our rendezvous with the canoe and team. Our guide’s name was Chino, a local from the Siona tribe that calls this region of the flooded Amazon home.
The Siona language is called Tucanoan, and it has a very unique sound and cadence. Although most Siona people now speak Spanish, when they talk amongst themselves it’s usually in their native tongue. I’m not sure why it is so pleasing to the ear, even without understanding the language. It was the sound of adventure and far-off places. According to Wikipedia, “Today, Ecuadorian Siona is spoken by less than 250 people and is critically endangered.” It’s a sound and a rhythm that won’t be around much longer. Replaced by a language that fits better into a smartphone.
The Siona are water people who live with the flow of the river and rains. They locate their communities on the banks of the rivers and their houses are carved out of the forest. They are on the water daily, as there are no roads in this part of the Amazon. All of the transportation, from work to leisure, happens by boat. Before the outboard motor and fiberglass boats, dugout canoes powered by paddles were the means of transport. You can still see the single-tree dugout canoes being used in the early mornings by the more seasoned fishermen. The guides today are known for their ability to pilot the 8-meter-long boats at high speeds through tunnels that they hack open with their machetes. It is exhilarating to travel through the forest on a 25-foot-long canoe with an outboard motor pushing her through the vines and trees at max speed…in the dark.
The Siona people are also known for their deep knowledge of the forest and the medicinal plants only found in the Amazon. Ayahuasca is a plant that has recently sprouted in popularity and exposure in the modern western world and pop culture. From Silicon Valley CEOs to Hollywood types, it seems the secret is making her way out of the jungle. In one of the Siona villages in Cuyabeno lives a family of several shamans by trade. They are four brothers that have been practicing ancient medicine since around the ages of eight or nine. The oldest brother is 78, and the youngest of the brothers is in his early 40s. As a part of “community tourism,” most of the eco-lodges in the area offer their guests a day trip with the Siona’s, learning about their way of life. On the tour, the ladies harvest yuca and make it into delicious yuca bread over an open fire, while the Shaman performs a “limpia,” or cleansing ceremony, on tourists (without the medicine). The shaman sings an “Icaro” while waving a handful of leaves in a circular, repetitive motion around the patient's head. Along with the singing in their language, most of the time some whistling is involved while the shaman looks at your spirit and cleans accordingly.
When community members fall ill, they seek out the shaman for medical advice and counsel. Traditionally, the shaman would drink the prepared mix of ayahuasca and enter a higher state of awareness. This allowed them to diagnose the patient and have a deep sense of what was ailing that particular person. I’ve also heard them speak about walking through the forest in this heightened state and seeing the plants that the patient might need stand out by shining brighter. Some take micro-doses before the hunt. It helps them speak and think like the animals they are tracking, one hunter explained to me. There are a million ailments that ayahuasca is prescribed as remedy for in the Amazon.
The shaman’s thatch-roofed hut, or maloka, is usually kept out of town, or apart from the community, which makes sense for several reasons. The ceremonies last until dawn. There’s singing, and other “noises” that can, and will, happen throughout the evening and into the morning. The shaman also calls all animal spirits and protects you from the ones you might have unknowingly brought, so it makes sense to have the ceremony out of town. Nobody would enjoy being the shaman’s neighbor. He makes the family next door with the 10 roosters look like good neighbors!
The maloka serves a couple of functional purposes, such as providing shelter from the nightly Amazon downpour, having an ample fire pit, and the ability to hold a “town’s worth” of hammocks. Made from strong hardwood beams, the rafters hold at least a dozen hammocks, as the hammock is the preferred craft for time travel by the Siona. I saw some beautiful handmade hammocks with lines made from a fiber that gets spun by a specific type of palm tree. The nicer malokas have some sort of toilet apparatus, and sometimes a grass lawn and some landscaping. I’ve yet to see 5-star AirBnB accommodations when it comes to these types of real authentic experiences in the Amazon. The “spa type” facilities exist in the world, and I think that is an amazing channel to get medicine to the people who need to receive it in that more manicured manner. It comes down to what you’re looking for in the end, and each location has its advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of your choice of setting, the results of drinking the ancient concoction can be life-changing.
Amongst our group, there were some rumblings of trying the mysterious medicine, little whispers here and there, until someone came forward and said to one of our guides that he’d like to try some. This got the wheels turning. The guide approached me and asked if I would go with the “tourist” to the ceremony. That was a big ask. After some thought, I agreed, as I wanted a rematch of my first experience in 2015. Seven years earlier, I had the privilege of spending a night with Izak and three friends, drinking the medicine for the first time. Time travel in a hammock, and visiting long-passed relatives in the spirit world, is a memory I hold dear to my heart. I’d have to admit that I was eager to have another tour of that magical night. As it turned out, the shamans had a different plan for me that evening.
The morning of the day of the ceremony arrived. I was still looking for a push or a sign from the forest that today was a good day. As our group was touring around in the boats to see the pink river dolphins, we came around a wide bend in the river. With my neck strained and looking at the canopy, I caught the moment a harpy eagle left its perch and glided across an opening in the forest formed by the curve of the chocolate river. The harpy is the biggest of the eagles in South America and feeds on big prey, like monkeys and sloths. It was massive, and as I looked at our guide, we both agreed that seeing such a rare creature was a good omen.
The “tourist” who started all the ayahuasca talk was starting to come up with excuses as to why he should not follow through. Cold feet. Something about having to drive the next day was his reason for why he’d have to decline attending the night’s ritual. In moments of truth sometimes one’s curiosity can be overcome by the fear of the unknown. As the commitment had been made and preparations set in motion, our guide and I decided to stick to the plan and go through with the ceremony. We sent word to the shaman in the morning that we were on schedule and only Chino and I would be in attendance. “No tourists on this space shuttle,” I remember thinking.
The day carried on as any day deep in the Amazon. Jaw-dropping beauty with incredible creatures playing around in the trees, eye candy in every direction. Deep and dark green was the signature color of this forest. Parrots and macaws were flapping their way through the sky, as the only real traffic that happens in the Amazon is in the sky. Troops of monkeys swung through the forest in front of us. As we sat down to eat in the early afternoon, I took a look at my plate of food and smiled. I noticed Chino smiling as well. “Buen provecho… y nos vemos pronto.” We both giggled at our plates of food. Most of the time in an ayahuasca ceremony you see your food again; purging is part of the cleanse.
After sunset, we loaded up into the boat. Traveling through the maze of trees at incredible speeds, led by the light of a tiny headlamp and brief flashes from the moon, it was an intricate display of mental mapping. It was dark, and we were going so fast that my hat blew off. We were missing trees by inches, and sometimes not missing them at all, with a gentle graze on the side of the boat from time to time. When we arrived safely at the dock, I glanced back at Chino. He was giggling at my apparent fear while he pushed the limits of what was possible in those boats.
Entering the maloka, I was immediately aware that there was more than one shaman there, two of the four brothers. They were adorned in their full shaman attire. Upon their heads perched an intricate crown of tropical feathers with every color imaginable, in a perfect arrangement like a crisp rainbow. The tiny beaded necklaces draped down in great numbers over their chests, a single feather piercing through each ear lobe. Faces painted red with achiote in designs that tell the stories of their ancestors. Finally, the shamans wore a necklace made from the fangs of the jaguar, the signature attire of any shaman. Over recent years, hunting and deforestation have led to the puma’s shrinking numbers. Because of this, most of the shamans have four to six jaguar fangs, and the rest of the necklace is supplemented by the tusks of the wild boar. These most precious relics are passed down from father to son, from one shaman to the next. The jaguar fangs were as long as my middle finger.
It was completely dark in there, not the usual soft light from a small fire. The lack of vision made getting my hammock set up a little bit trickier. As I fumbled around in the dark tying knots and getting my area sorted, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a tourist ceremony. This was a meeting amongst the men of the Siona tribe. As I set the “perfect” angle on the hammock, one of the brothers approached me with a huge gourd cup full of liquid. It was so big that I thought it was water and declined, saying I had brought my own. After a quick laugh, he said, “No, eso no es agua.” Dread and fear started at the top of my head and ran right through my body. This was a massive dose of medicine. It was hard to tell from holding the cup just how big it was, but once I was on the fourth gulp, I realized that I had been served around three times as much as I had taken on past journeys. Gulp after gulp, the dirt-tasting concoction was reluctantly guided to the pits of my stomach. “Jeez, that was a lot,” I remember the voice in my head saying as the shaman smiled ear to ear, teeth visible in the low light like the cat in Alice in Wonderland.
As I leaned back in my hammock, my mind soberly drifted between fear and excitement. The brothers were talking amongst themselves with Chino in their local dialect. There was no pageantry or singing, no shaking of any rattles, or beating of any drums. This was a meeting to get down to business; cut right to the meat and potatoes of it all. I was f-ing terrified. This dose was big, and sooner or later, I had to punch the ticket and the ride would start, past the point of no return. About 15 minutes after drinking the medicine, I noticed a buzzing sound flying around my head. Ecuador has massive insects and the bees are no exception. Some of them make a buzzing sound that sounds like a small airplane. I wrongly assumed the buzz I heard was an insect. I would later find out from the shaman that it was one of the spirits of the ayahuasca protecting me; warning me maybe of what was about to occur. The buzzing stayed with me for the next eight hours. The familiar buzzing sound changed intensities depending on what was happening to me at the time.
As previously mentioned, purging is a part of the process, to some degree or another, depending on many factors. Factors such as diet preceding the event, size of the dose, and of course, how the medicine is prepared. These all factor into how the body will react to each experience with the plant. Another factor is how often you expose yourself to the plants. The shamans, for example, barely purge, if at all. I heard some uncomfortable spitting, maybe from them, but nothing on the scale that I’ve witnessed happen to myself and other tourists. Generally speaking, the healthier and cleaner you treat your body, the less difficult the purging part of the ride can be. Just like the trepidation and excitement that occurs while waiting for any psychedelic experience to start, ayahuasca is no different, save for one factor. What you’re waiting for generally is to explode as the purging is the signal that the ride has begun and your journey has started.
Twenty minutes had passed. It felt like I had a wild beast in my guts and it was trying to climb out. I noticed some lights and the sound of a motor coming down the river. It was another boat pulling up and docking. I was outside taking a knee in the grass as the two older brothers jumped out of the boat and came walking by in their full shaman garb. It was an awkward greeting. I was literally about to explode as we shook hands. I said my hellos and moved towards the garden to begin the purge.
The next 10 hours were some of the hardest of my life. I had a poison inside me and my body was rejecting it with every cell of my being. My body wanted it out, all of it. As the four shamans and my friend Chino swayed in the hammocks, giggling and carrying on in their native tongue, I was pretty sure it was at my expense. They made fun of me in their own way, and the harder I released, the harder and longer they laughed and cheered. There was no singing of ancient songs, no rattle shaking, or drum beating. This was just the medicine and the man in the forest….good luck.
Having drank medicine over a dozen times, I have had a couple of the magical experiences that you might have heard about coursing through Youtube videos or in a documentary on Netflix. On a previous voyage, I had a very real-feeling conversation with my long-deceased grandma and grandpa. Other spiritual dimensions maybe. This time was not that. This was pain and agony. Pure survival, both mentally and physically. I purged for 10 hours. In the thick of the experience, I couldn’t help but laugh a bit, thinking to myself, “If you can survive this, there’s not much to be scared of in the real world.” The sound of a rhythmic buzzing filled my ears. Laying back in the hammock, waiting for morning to show her much welcome arrival, birds chirping and the blue light were soothing me through the end of the journey. The brothers laughed and told animated stories that I couldn’t come close to understanding, other than what I could pick up through body language and smiles. We talked about the night briefly and said our goodbyes.
Chino and I loaded up in the boat and made our way back through the forest tunnel waterways in silence. Taking left and right turns that come around blind corners, dodging ancient trees that tower out of the water and hold up the canopy. Thinking about making those same moves in the dark, made me realize how memorized or instinctual these routes are. It’s like living in the same neighborhood for your whole life and knowing the back alleys and tiny shortcuts that get you home a bit quicker. Instead of street signs and houses, these navigators use specific trees and turns in the river, and holes in the forest walls. To the layman, these look like the rest of the forest, not the shortcut through the island. Ancient trails and pathways that have been passed down for generations and need constant cleaning by the machete, as the Amazon tries to close the open spaces in the endless competition for the precious sunlight.
As my body was jerked back and forth by the aggressive boat maneuvers I was thinking, “Why do it? What’s the point of putting yourself through all of this amazing discomfort?” Even typing this now and replaying that amazingly difficult night back in my head, I’m wondering what the benefits of the medicine are. They seem to reveal themselves over time and are not always obvious. I think the more profound “trips” I’ve taken had an obvious benefit. I solved a question I was asking or came to terms with the loss of a loved one. There was an intention and a goal, and it was achieved. Although those might be the experiences that you might hear the most about or become more romanticized, I find that I draw the most strength from my harder experiences with the medicine.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d prefer to ride unicorns over rainbows and visit passed loved ones around a psychedelic campfire, only to be given some sage advice as to the meaning of life. Those kinds of journeys do happen with ayahuasca and I’ve had some blissful experiences while under the influence of this ancient poison. However, much like most adventures in life, the ones that I draw on most often, or that I learned the most about myself, were the harder times and the mishaps. Nobody plans on failing, and we go on adventures in the hopes of having fun. Sometimes, however, the car breaks down, it rains the whole time, and you overdose on an ancient medicine from deep in the Amazon jungle. Regardless of mishaps and bad luck, adventure was had; and although not planned, these types of adventures often turn out to be exactly the medicine you need.