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Of cleanses, ceremonies, and icaros…

Sleeping/rec room building

November 23, 2002

After a night of deep slumber, I awake around 5am to the sound of buzzing, as though someone turned on an electric appliance. It was incredibly annoying and I thought: “who would use a gardening tool at this hour?” However, after some time it became clear that the buzzing was  coming from some jungle creature, most likely in insect form. There are a lot of cicadas here—noisy little bastards—but this is far louder. I don’t want to see what’s making the noise.

Maria, Eladio’s sister and resident prankster, is our resident chef on this trip. After she makes us a delicious breakfast of rice and both mashed and puréed plantains, we take a stroll around the grounds with PW, who shows us the various plants and fruits, including a Banisteriopsis Caapi shrub just outside our building (this is the shrub from which ayahuasca vines are harvested). Afterward, we all retire to the rec room where there are four hammocks hanging, one for each of us. We lounge in the hammocks and Maria enters the room to plop a massive, dead locust-like creature on the floor. I’ve never seen a locust this large—the black body alone is about 6 inches long (not including the length of its long, spindly legs). Everything seems super-sized here, with insects and spiders taking on exaggerated proportions: huge brown spiders with 4-inch leg spans, moths the size of hummingbirds that bump into you as they desperately search for the sun…you name it. It both intrigues me and utterly freaks me out. 

Later in the morning, we “officially” begin the retreat with a tobacco cleanse, which Jefferson (Eladio’s son) has been preparing. We enter the maloca and sit on thin mats that have been laid upon the floor, each mat with a bucket at its end. The colors of the buckets are impossibly cheery considering what they’re used for. Jefferson says a few words and explains the purpose of the cleanse, which is to purify our bodies to help the ayahuasca work within us and also help us retain what we learn from it. The cleanse consists of drinking a brew of boiled tobacco leaves, coffee, and sugar “for taste.” This latter is laughable as I discover that no amount of sugar could sweeten the foulness of boiled tobacco leaves. Nevertheless, I drank my entire cup, noting its bitterness and the way it burned slightly as it went down, as though it was a cup of liquid black pepper. Two of our party immediately purged into their buckets: they were the lucky ones. I waited to see if I would purge and nothing happened. Because I didn’t purge, I was offered more (dear god)—a smaller cup this time. I had to work up the motivation to drink it and eventually succeeded…but after I drank it down, still nothing happened. I was told the purging could happen later, so I relaxed and decided to wait. 

Resting in our hammocks

As I stood to leave the maloca, the nausea that followed came and went in deep, gut-wrenching waves. By lunchtime, it had become constant and intense, but I still couldn’t purge it from my system. I kept trying to get up and make my way to the dining hall, but then not quite make it. I knelt in the grass with my vomit bucket in hand, silently willing myself to vomit so I could be free of the torture. After a while of this, PW suggested I force a purge. Jesus, why hadn’t I thought of that? I immediately perked up and headed to the showers to wash my hands (all the while wondering whether I could catch a water-borne bug this way, but desperate enough not to care). I barely had a chance to stick my fingers into my mouth before an impossible amount of liquid came gushing out in waves, burning ever so slightly coming up just as it did going down. After several rounds of this, my stomach had emptied itself and the relief I felt was immediate. I wandered back to the dining room at last. My hunger hadn’t fully returned, but I had a banana to nourish me. Eladio came into the dining room and, after learning I had finally purged, instructed me to shower and cleanse myself. I took another shower, feeling better under the spray of cold water that cleaned it all away. I was able to eat just a little more after that. 

For the remainder of the afternoon, we relaxed in our hammocks, talked, and listened to music. This would become a theme on this trip, with an extraordinary amount of lounge time punctuated by meals, classes, and ceremonies of various kinds.

One of the things that I love about these ceremonies is the contemplative space it puts me in. When one comes to a ceremony, it is (or should be) with intention – intention to deal with a particular problem or health issue, or simply just intention to open yourself to change and push yourself to your limits to experience something more. Surrounded by others like yourself, ensconced in an environment that is conducive to transformation, and accompanied by the ceremony itself, the mind shifts deeper inward. I begin to think about the world and my place in it, become more deeply moved by my surroundings, by the earth, and by the people who fill my life. I think upon all these things as I swing slowly in my hammock.

8:00 pm. Ceremony 1. Tonight is our first ayahuasca ceremony. We entered the maloca and each took our place on a mat on the floor. As I sat, I noted that there were two mats on top of each other, yet the cushioning it provided was so spare that I felt like I was sitting directly on the floor. My mat was flanked by a red vomit bucket and a roll of toilet paper. Eladio’s room is directly behind the maloca. He emerges through his door dressed in ceremonial garb—a white shirt and pants, both embroidered in traditional patterns—looking more like the shaman of my imagination and less like a random hiker. Upon his head was a tall crown of blue and red feather plumes. The overall effect reminded me of the character of Max in “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The inside of the maloca

He began the ceremony with a few invocations in his native language, calling in the plant spirits and the spirit of ayahuasca in particular. Then, he offered the first drink of ayahuasca. I went up to the altar and took the drink in both hands, downing it quickly so the taste wouldn’t linger too long in my mouth. The taste of ayahuasca is unparalleled and difficult to describe. Suffice it to say that it’s acrid, bitter, and foul tasting, such that I have an immediate physical reaction: my face contorts in disgust and shivers run down my spine (even just writing this and merely thinking about it results in the same physical reaction). After drinking it, I hurry back to my mat to swish water in my mouth and spit it out in hopes of getting some of the taste out. After we each take our drink, we all sit or lie on our mats. The lights go out, plunging the maloca into complete darkness, with only the red, burning ends of the mosquito coils in sight. In the darkness, Eladio begins the evening’s icaros, which are songs sung to call the spirits to the maloca to join us in the evening’s journey. I expected Eladio’s icaros’ to be very different from the ones I’ve heard before, but I found myself soothed when I recognized many of the songs from the ceremonies I attended in the US. It makes sense: he’s their teacher. 

About 40 min later, Eladio is still singing and I begin to feel the familiar effects of the ayahuasca. For me, this typically manifests itself in a number of ways. I begin to see a few visuals and feel a warmth and heaviness in my chest as my breathing shifts. Sometimes the bodily sensations trigger anxiety for me, so I breathe deeply to ease into it. Tonight, my visuals are different, appearing far away as though viewed on a movie screen, rather than directly in my mind’s eye. On that movie screen, I see shooting stars, colorful fractals, and patterns that appear, then collapse upon themselves as they morph into other images. 

The visual component begins to transform and soon I am experiencing thoughts and images from my life, which are mostly composed of the people I love the most. I feel a sense of deep gratitude for them and feel a tremendous sense of peace and satisfaction that I get to share my life with them. This delightful reverie is interrupted by a bat diving so close to my head that I can feel a wind against my face from its flapping wings. I stick out my arm and wave it around, hoping it would sense my presence and avoid me. I drop back into my pleasant reverie only to be interrupted again, this time by my back protesting the flimsy mats and hard floor. The bat swoops at my head again, distracting me from my discomfort. Jesus, can’t these things echolocate? The evening goes on like this, cycling between feelings of peace and gratitude, back pain, and fighting off a new nemesis—The Bat. At one point, overcome with nausea, I sat up to purge and when I laid back upon my pillow, I felt The Bat flailing beneath my head in its struggle to be free of my hair. Ugh.

The icaros’ continue, though at this point the torch has been passed to PW and PC, both wonderful musicians. PW masterfully plays his drums and the sound elevates the energy in the room, alternately pulling you out of any reverie you might be in and pushing you back in. I love this aspect of the ceremony—the icaros are a beautiful and powerful part of the evening, woven into the experience, seemingly attached to the ayahuasca itself. If ayahuasca is magic, the icaros are the spells and the singer the sorcerer. The songs work like a snake charmer, calling to the ayahuasca within you, working its way in, stirring it up, pulling it out, pouring it back. The music can conjure up images within you and make you go deeper. Sometimes just the sound of a powerful icaros can make you purge. 

Approximately 3-4 hours after the ceremony began, it concluded (The Bat swooping and diving intermittently throughout, such that I eventually became used to him). I was surprised at how much shorter Eladio’s ceremony is compared to what I’m used to in the US—there, the ceremony begins later but continues until dawn. Eladio turns on a light and sits next to the altar to share some words about the ceremony and the collective energy in the maloca. He seems pleased. The first ceremony was intentionally gentle so we could all ease into it, but also so Eladio could psychically evaluate us to determine what our needs are and what our regimen should be for the retreat. As we all sat there, still more than a little drunk from the ayahuasca, he prescribed for us our dieta for the next 6 days, which is a special diet and plant medicine regimen that is intended to purify, detoxify, and cleanse the body, connect us to the master plants, and further enhance our connection to the ayahuasca. He explains to us our regimen of plant baths, plant medicine, and diet, then tells us to cleanse ourselves in the lagoon the next morning. 

Eladio retires, leaving us to continue resting on our mats. We lie there, talking amongst ourselves to compare notes about our experiences. After a while, I feel stable enough to stumble back to my room in hopes of getting some sleep. 


About colleen finn

Colleen Finn is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.


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