Riverdave's Journal 
December 1998

   The following is the author’s account of events that occurred outside of the town of Tamshiyacu, Peru in December 1998.

          On my knees, I hung my head over the back of the bench, staring into the ground just a couple of feet in front of my face.  I had vomited eight times in the last couple of hours.  I begged for it all to be over.  What came up tasted horrible in my mouth and burned my throat.  After emptying my stomach of all fluids, I still retched but nothing came forth.  Staring into the sand below I saw faces on the ground.  I felt that my life was pure garbage made up of petty concerns, self-serving interests and outright lies.

          “Oh Ayahuasca, provide me with  a beautiful experience!”, I had asked of the vine just hours before the ceremony began. Yea, right ... those sure were famous last words, I now thought to myself.  I had come to the Amazon in search of a cathartic purgative experience that would release me from a chronic psychological dislocation I had expereinced all my life. I was certain it had its roots in the trauma of my infant abandonment and my intuition told me that the Amazonian plant medicine known as Ayahuasca beckoned with hope for a cure.

          I had prepared myself for this moment by working as a naturalist-guide, studying the flora and fauna of both my hometown region in North Carolina and the Amazon Basin. From what I had heard about this jungle medicine, I understood that taking Ayahuasca would be challenging. But I honestly felt that with my preparation I would have a head start on other initiates. I now realized that my pre ceremony confidence, boasting and exuberance was totally unfounded and lay shattered in ruins.  I was caught completely off guard by the intense purgative challenge of this ancient jungle medicine.  Ayahuasca had not answered my request for a “beautiful” experience. I felt devastated.

          Now, just two hours into my first ceremony, I was mired in a nightmarish darkness. I would give anything to exit with haste, but there were no doors for retreat.  I must rally my emotional and physical resources and bravely face this challenge. Still hanging my head and trembling body over the back of the bench, I heard our leader, don Agustine Rivas, stop directly behind me and noisily cough up phlegm into his mouth.  Then I felt a big splat on my back between my shoulder blades and saw juices fly by my head into the forest.  I was appalled!  “So this is the way medicine is imparted here in the Amazon jungle,” I concluded. I began to realize that this whole Ayahuasca ritual seemed to integrate the grosser bodily functions with the healing process in ways that I could have never imagined.  My WASP sensibilities were not respected in the slightest by this presiding peruvian mestizo shaman. Nothing in my graduate degree in cross cultural studies prepared me for this complete debunking of my ego.

          As for my original intention of exploring the circumstances around my unhappy entrance into the world, I seemed to hear the jungle medicine asking me if I sill even wanted to face the reality of my birth and abandonment.  In a complete reversal of my original intent, I pleaded “No, no!”.  I felt totally unable to face my origins.  It was ghastly. It had taken a huge effort and expense to bring me to this place of opportunity for an exotic herbal ritual, and now I wanted to just dismiss my tragic birth experience completely. I wished that I had never brought the issue up in the first place.

          I was suddenly terrified at the thought of my abandonment and sensed that my conception was probably a horrible moment of struggle and debauchery.  I felt no love emanating from that union and sensed that at the moment of my birth my life consisted of naked genes and a bundle of traumatized negative energy.  There was no positive significance to my existence.  My life was zero, and most likely weighed in on the minus side.  I hated myself.  I loathed the way I had dealt with my own significant relationships.  I felt like a coward.  I was worse than the stinking vomit on the ground before me.  I wanted to pack up and flee from it all but I could not.  I worried about my family back in the USA, whether they would ever even see me again. I felt that i actually facing my own death.

          In the midst of my misery I heard a most unusual call to my left somewhere in the darkened forest -”hahahahahaha,”  six descending, sarcastic notes that I felt were a prudent mockery of my life.  But the call momentarily awakened my naturalist sensibilities. I  thought that I might have heard such a bird call somewhere else before, but then perhaps not.  Maybe it was really some sort of forest demon that had finally gotten the best of me.  Being deceived by something masquerading as a benign primitive spirituality, perhaps I had finally succumbed to its hellish payoff. Suddenly something made an abrupt and loud racket in the forest that startled both don Agustine and I, as he momentarily stopped dancing and looked up.  Filtered through my Ayahuasca experience, even familiar and friendly jungle calls had a distorted and frightening feel to them.  I had no idea what had happened.

          Don Agustine’s stringed instrument, known as an arco del duende or spirit bow, was a totally new experience for me.  With its unearthly “twang,” it sent me to the most strange and often uncomfortable inward places.  But other strains of music produced by don Agustine’s flute, drum, harmonica and vocalizations were mildly uplifting and could be at times even cheery.  In fact, music was the only element of the ceremony that helped me trust that don Agustine was a genuine healer and not an agent of tormenting darkness. I actually liked the voices of his two apprentices even more. They were tenors and carried lighter tones than don Agustine’s deep voice.  A couple of hours into the ceremony I discovered how to work with the music to help alleviate some of my personal distress.  The silent interludes in the ceremony, when there was no music, were still as frightening as ever and in them I would begin to get mired in my personal muck again. It became obvious to me that one of the important roles of the shaman in this ceremony, and in the larger framework of everyday community life, is to keep the struggling spirits of the participants from sinking too low.

          But don Agustine's magical music had yet another side to it. I discovered that if I focused on the music too much by tapping my feet or my fingers or humming along, I would start to be drawn into what I feared was a black hole of no return.  The music was strangely energized with a power of its own. I felt that if I allowed it to, the music would literally suck my soul right out of my body!  So I could make use of the music only up to a point when I would then pull back from the brink.  At that last moment I would spontaneously wave my hands from side to side in front of me as a signal of dismissal. Perched precipitously at the brink, I caught no glimpse of what was at the bottom of that black hole and did not care to further investigate.

          During a quiet lull in our ceremony, once again,  the same unsettling bird like call wafted through the damp night jungle air. Seated not far from me was don Agustine’s wife Marlene. I heard her speak in an audible whisper ... “Ayamama.”  Immediately I had a flash of recollection. It was the potoo bird!  I was remotely familiar with this species, having heard it sing its ghostly delusions only once before while drifting at night in a boat on the Tortugero River in Central America.  I had also seen one in daylight hours perched in an erect, bittern like posture atop a dead tree along the banks of the Amazon. But this amazing creature prefers the magical environment of a full moon night to vocalize its eerie wailing call.  I remembered our Peruvian guide pointing out this bird that he identified as “Ayamama.” Nyctibius griseus is its Latin scientific name and nictibio grisaceo in Spanish.

          Marlene’s impromptu identification of the bird at that point in the ceremony entirely changed the tone of the evening for me.  It was as if my soul flew out to join this nocturnal phantom and I discovered a new spirit helper.  I began to feel that this bird’s mocking “hahahahahaha” must hold something both specific and appropriate for me that night.  I knew that Ayahuasca was a Quechua word meaning vine (huasca) of death (aya).  But why would a bird be called a mother of death?  I felt renergized by these fresh ponderings as my mind became distracted and wandered away from my body’s present sufferings.

          After finding an ally in the midst of my ordeal, I began to relax enough to notice some of the visual effects of the medicine.  Waves of liquid blue color appeared in both my open and closed eye vision.  I warmed up to the full moon, an old familiar friend of mine as she began to rise over the forest.  Under the influence of the medicine she seemed many times brighter than I was accustomed to and I could only expose my eyes briefly to her shine. At the beginning of the ceremony I found it disturbing that don Agustine bemoaned the presence of the full moon, as he preferred total darkness when working with Ayahuasca.  But I was thankful for the moon and as an initiate I clung tenaciously to her as yet another ally.  I wanted to try to get up and walk around outside in the moonlight, but I was fearful that my legs would collapse under me and I was too self conscious to ask for help from one of the assistants from Tamshiyacu village at the ceremony.

          Under the influence of the medicine my peripheral vision was blurred and I would briefly see grotesque figures lurking about on the gray edges of the temple where moonlight was filtering in.  When I would then move my face towards these figures they would pop into full view. Were these the legendary “sacha runa,” or spirits of the forest, elemental spirits or shamans of old that don Agustine had promised would join us in this primitive ceremony to help us on our path to healing?  My vague perception of these shadowy figures in our midst added to the nausea of my condition.  But better to see such uncanny sights head on than lurking around the periphery of the sanctuary.

          Odd sounds often entered the arena but I could not discern their source. Disoriented, I ended up looking in the opposite direction from where they seemed to originate.  Throughout the entire ceremony and for hours afterwards an oscillating baseline drone sound resonated through my mind like an Indian tanpura. I wrestled with the fear that this monotonous ringing in my ears would be with me for the rest of my life.  Such a negative consequence would vindicate all the nay sayers back home who tried to talk me out of what they called my “tropical escapade.” I dismissed that unsavory thought by spitting heavily on the earthen floor in front of me. 

          The medicine started to lighten up at three hours, or perhaps I just became more adept at managing its effects on me.  I was then able to surf out the remaining time on don Agustine’s magical music. At five hours he came around with a monstrous, hand carved pipe and blew tobacco smoke on each participant’s head at the fontanel, and then down the front and back of our shirts. I felt his saliva drip down onto my scalp and then gurgle in my hair as he exhaled with force again, trailing off his breath with a whistle.

          Our eyes squinted as a candle was relit and an invitation was given for us all to rise and join in together to perform a snake dance. Ahead of me in this line dance was a typically short local village woman.  It was very difficult to reach down and hold her low waist as we swerved through our dance of concentric circles still woozy with the jungle tea. We were finally dismissed and I said “adios” to the villagers and then stumbled down the quarter mile path from the jungle temple to my awaiting hammock.

          The next morning at 9 AM we all gathered to discuss our previous night’s ceremony.  Don Agustine began by stating that the work we are doing at his camp of Yushintaita is all about rebirthing. With that startling cue, I immediately questioned him about the Ayamama bird that I heard during the ceremony.  He confirmed that it is a well known belief throughout the Amazon region that a local woman once had a lover who told her that he would take her as his wife, if she would first kill her two young children. Only then would she be free to go with him and their new life together as a couple would be unencumbered. She did as he demanded, and her abandoned and sacrificed children promptly became potoos, the birds that call mournfully on moonlit nights and sometimes appear as two children alone in the forest during the day.  I noticed in my field guide to the birds of the Amazon region that their haunting six note call is often remembered as “poor-me-I’m-all-a-lone.”

          I was astounded to learn of this local folkloric tradition. At first I had found the call of the ayamama almost intolerable to listen to.  There was something mocking and almost sardonic about its tone when I heard it through the filter of the jungle medicine.  Could it be that the forces of nature were actually commiserating with me as an abandoned child through the voice of this melancholy bird on that full moon night?  When I hung my head over the back of my bench staring at my own vomit on the ground, perhaps my undisguised feelings were really ”poor-me-I’m-all-a-lone!”  Maybe that was the song of my own wounded spirit that I had habituated myself to sing while lying alone in the Duke Hospital nursery after my birth mother walked out of my life.  Could this be a song of self pity that I have been repeating to myself all these years?  Was I now indeed mocked by a bird who finally sang it back to me in the middle of the Amazon rain forest on a moonlit night through the lens of a dark red jungle tea?

          At noon, still exhausted and low on energy, I straggled up the trail to the now deserted palm thatched temple to meditate for an hour.  In the midday heat bees buzzed about me as they were attracted to our previous nights vomit which lay freshly on the ground around the outside perimeter of the temple.  A large brightly colored hummingbird flew inside the temple and probed an orange plastic vomit bowl that still lay on a bench.  What a bizarre scene - hummingbirds and bees scavenging the remains of our Ayahuasca ceremony! Seating myself upon don Agustine’s maestro “throne,” I reviewed out loud the issues that I had struggled through during the previous night’s ceremony and also added some hopes about the future. I felt revived.

          As I sat rapt in a tropical reverie, amidst large sections of dried Ayahuasca vine that our maestro had hung from the ceiling, my thoughts seemed to center around the word “primal,”  a concept that we had discussed the day before as a group.  I tried to understand how it applied to our setting. Primal: “pertaining to origins as individuals or groups; birth, sex, animal and plant encounters, eating, death, wilderness encounters, night experiences.”  Some of these events like birth, sex and death have always been considered sacraments in the western spiritual tradition that I grew up in.  But it now was more apparent that to have a fully primal experience, one would also need to connect with and embrace the non-human elements of the natural world as well.  

          In the rain forest along the Amazon River, sacred plants and magical animals were acting as mediators to reconnect me and heal my dislocated infant psyche.  It is a spirituality that does not just project and protect the very superficial dreams of a greedily expanding urban human society.  Instead, the shamans of the Amazon are passing on to us a vision for embracing the totality of life.  Ultimately, my healing consists of being fully aligned with the mother of all mothers - planet Earth.

*** photo by Juan Carlos Marin at Guapi Acu Ecological Preserve, Brazil