For a couple of years, I’d been noticing that a bunch of my forty- and fiftysomething middle-class friends were raving, sotto voce, about the transformative and even spiritual aspects of a South American drug called ayahuasca, the plant known in more disinterested circles as Banisteriopsis caapi. It was the Toronto filmmaker Richard Meech, whose documentary Vine of the Soul: Encounters with Ayahuasca is to be broadcast on VisionTV in November, who first brought the drug to my attention, but it was a musician friend who found a place for me at a ceremony that was to take place in a small lakeshore village, now more or less a suburb, an hour north of Toronto.
“For sure, you’ll meet the snake,” said my friend Deborah, an art critic whose curly black locks bring Medusa to mind, when I let slip my plans to try it on the weekend. “No matter your culture, or language, everyone meets the snake.”
“Quetzalcoatl, the Meso-American vision serpent known to the Mayans as Kulkulcan. Kings and queens would sacrifice their blood through perforations in their tongue and penis and drip their blood onto paper that would then be burned and Quetzalcoatl would appear in the smoke to advise them.”
“They say it’s like 30 years of psychoanalysis in one night,” said Anne, a broadcasting executive who, with shorter black locks, appeared a gentler Medusa.
“What else?” I asked.
“Vomit,” said Deborah. “You may have diarrhea, too.”
“It’s a cleansing,” said Anne, as if to soothe. “They say ayahuasca is very good if you have parasites.”
“But you’ll feel great afterwards,” said Deborah, grinning.
The next day I was the first of a dozen participants to arrive in the bucolic countryside and Philip, our shaman for the night, took me for a walk past the field where, a couple of months before, he’d led a ceremony in the open air. He explained that the separate parts of ayahuasca, a vine that grows in the wild mostly in Peru, are legal but become a Schedule III hallucinogen (i.e. not legal at all) when the stem and leaf are brewed together and put their trippy mischief into play. Mind you, ayahuasca being a controlled substance hasn’t stopped the Montreal branch of the Brazilian Santo Daime Church from wanting to import it as their own choice bit of eucharist, a Bronfman in the United States from trying to legalize it, and an entrepreneurial American, Loren Miller, making efforts to patent a variety. The use of the “medicine” was exploding, said Philip. He’d brought his own ayahuasca in from a farm in Hawaii, he said, because “a lot of bad things were going on in the camps in Peru” and this way he could monitor what was done to it.
At the vacant house where the ceremony was to take place, Philip set up an altar in the middle of an otherwise empty room, with bird feathers and musical instruments and totems of various sorts. “This is a good space,” he said.
Others drifted in and laid out yoga mats and blankets. My musician pal arrived and said, “You didn’t eat today, right?”
“Best not to,” he said.
“What about the snake? Have you met the snake?”
“You know, the vision serpent. Quetzalcoatl.”
“Relax. It’s a nice group. You’re not the only first-timer.”
Immediately I felt gauche, because the bucket I’d brought for purging was three times the size of anyone else’s. Philip replaced it with a yogourt pot. “Best to have a lid,” he said. A woman in her twenties took her sleeping bag into the garden to shake it out. “Playa dust,” she said, apologetically. “From Burning Man.” The bright-eyed blond woman sitting next to her, a student at a shamanic school, talked about hanging around the Fifth Gateway. “You’ve taken the medicine?” she asked a young man who said he’d taken it maybe 30 times but still he was spooked. “I know what you mean,” she said. “If you visit the house, you have to go through all the rooms.”
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