One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things ~ Henry Miller
Just four months after my last trip, I was scheduled to visit a friend in China in late March/early April of 2020. That trip never happened and given the date, I doubt I need to explain why. Later that year, I was planning to return to Peru to attend a retreat in the Amazon, which is a location I missed the first time I went to Peru. The retreat I wanted to attend closed temporarily and that trip didn’t happen, either. After that, I decided to just stay put, buckle up, and settle in for a different kind of adventure—one that would be shared globally and that still continues to unfold all across the world.
Having said that, I feel I need to back up just a little more to provide context for where I am now. In 2019, before the global pandemic, I read a book by one of my favorite authors called “How to Change Your Mind,” which is essentially a scientific look at psychedelics. I had been intrigued by psychedelics since I was a teenager, but never had occasion to try them for myself. After reading that book, my interest was rekindled afresh and I was convinced it was something I needed to try. That was the reason for my 2020 plan to visit the Amazon—to attend an ayahuasca retreat. I had friends who had gone before me to the same retreat and all returned with glowing reports about how deeply the experience impacted them, so I wanted to try it for myself.
Then, the pandemic hit and shook me in a way that I didn’t expect. I never realized until then how fragile my own sense of self was, nor how deeply tied it was to a proverbial ‘house of cards’—external factors that could disappear in a moment. So, when the pandemic took away all the things that I do—my ability to travel, do volunteer work, see friends, cycle with my cycling group, etc.—I felt untethered and my house of cards came crashing down. All of the things that I allowed to define me were gone and without them, I barely recognized myself. It spurred an existential crisis in me that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced and made me develop deeper compassion for people who struggle with mental illness every day of their lives. During that struggle, I was flailing for anything to help me reground myself. I dove deeper into meditation and self-help—things that have helped me throughout my adult life—but also more deeply into my burgeoning interest in psychedelics. I learned a great deal more about the latest scientific research and how psychedelics could help depression, addiction, and PTSD. There is a lot of information about this online, so I won’t delve too deeply in that here; however, if you’re interested in lighter reading, here’s a good article.
But I digress. By the end of 2020, I was feeling desperate. I felt strongly that what I needed was a change in perspective—a new way of seeing things from the negative pattern in which I’d been stuck since the start of the pandemic. In seeking those new perspectives, I began experimenting with smallish doses of psychedelics, but I felt intuitively that what I really needed was something stronger and more intense, such as the ayahuasca retreat that I had originally planned to attend. Since that was now out of consideration, I began searching for a group in the US.
At this point, I feel I should mention that unlike many other psychedelics, ayahuasca is typically administered within the context of a ceremony in keeping with its indigenous roots. In South America, it’s given by a shaman or curandero (healer) in a traditional ceremony, whereas in the US it is often administered by facilitators who are trained in the tradition. Though my interest in ayahuasca was more mental than spiritual, I wanted to find a group that followed the shamanic tradition so that my experience would be as authentic as possible. I looked for such a group, found one in another state, and quickly booked a weekend of ceremonies. This particular group was led by a facilitator who was trained by a shaman in Peru and who returned regularly to Peru to continue his training. That first weekend of ceremonies was transformative, but not in the way I expected. I had been regaled by friends with stories of intense purging and “ego dissolution”—stories that, quite frankly, filled me with an anxiety that existed in parallel with my hope that the drug would catapult me in a new mental direction. In the end, after three days of nightly ceremonies, I never purged in the traditional sense, nor did I experience an ego dissolution that felt like falling into an abyss. Instead, the experience was gentle and slow, full of personal insights that served to peel away my protective layers. By the last morning after the third and final night of ceremony, I felt cleansed—psychically lighter, refreshed, at peace, and hopeful for the first time in months. During that weekend, there were no massive overnight changes in my psyche or my personality, but the experience started a process inside of me that pointed in a direction I wanted to go.
That first weekend of ceremonies was in Jan 2021, a year after the “official” start of the pandemic. Throughout that year, I stayed connected to that group and attended a few additional weekends, feeling each time as though layers of myself continued to peel away, revealing a little more of myself. Then, recently, one of the group’s facilitators invited me to accompany him and a few others to a retreat with the group’s mentor in Peru. At long last, the trip that I had originally planned in 2020 was going to happen. Of course, this time with a different retreat than I originally planned, but I felt this was even better because it was with a shaman with whom I had a distant connection and a facilitator I know and trust.
Now, if you’ve been reading my blog for awhile you’ll probably notice that a lot of what you’ve just read is not only more serious in tone, but also more revealing than I usually am. I try to avoid getting too personal in this blog for obvious reasons (I mean, it’s like…public), but I realized that if I was going to blog about this, I would need to provide some context—and that context would naturally reveal something more personal. To be honest, I had a lot of mixed feelings at the idea of blogging about this at all. It was a coin toss. Heads: I worried this was too personal and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to continue blogging, thinking that perhaps that’s a part of my identity that is ready to evolve. Tails: I know I’m going to journal anyway, so writing blog entries is not much of an extra effort (and it’s bloody convenient when it’s time to recount my travels to friends and loved ones). In the end, I decided I would simply let the experience unfold and remain open to whichever side of the coin revealed itself. If I go on this trip and discover I am moved to blog, then I will do so. However, If I don’t feel moved to blog, then I gave myself permission not to.
As you can see, it was tails…but barely just.
So, with all of that (lengthy) context given, here I am*, in Peru for the second time, but this time in Iquitos, the Peruvian gateway to the Amazon. Iquitos is the largest city inaccessible by any roads—you must get here either via boat or plane. Tomorrow, a group of four of us leave on a bus, followed by a boat ride, then followed by a ride on a motocarro, to get to a remote village in the Amazon where we will embark upon a 10-day ayahuasca retreat, after which I will return to Iquitos for several days before I return home.
*Note: Time is a fluid, ephemeral thing—even more so when one is undecided on whether to blog, and even more so when one is on a trip that is mostly off-grid. In a jungle. With no cell phone connection, let alone internet. That said, this whole trip is being posted after-the-fact and by the time you read this, I am safely back home in Portland. Happy time traveling!
Colleen! This is a page turner! Your writing is very inspiring and I am so glad you decided to share your experiences (so far). I can’t wait to read more. I appreciate your willingness to include some of us on your journey; as much as each of us are different, we are more like the same body with different muscles, in my experience. Sending love Anne
Thanks, Anne. I really appreciate your support 🙂 Happy Holidays!