ELLE (Canada) - - Story Board -

A (trippy) road

to en­light­en­ment in the

South Amer­i­can jun­gle.

By El­iz­a­beth Ren­zetti



IN A BRIL­LIANT SHOWER OF LIGHT. Each month, we ask a Cana­dian writer to share a story about a sig­nif­i­cant “first”

in his or her life. This es­say is from El­iz­a­beth Ren­zetti,

whose de­but novel, Based on a True Story, was re­leased in June.

All I heard was the fire crack­ling, the shaman chant­ing and, close by, des­per­ate retch­ing. It was Klaus, the kindly and aged Ger­man bat ex­pert I’d re­cently met, heav­ing the con­tents of his stomach into the ferns. I’d done this to him. To both of us. I had brought us to the hal­lu­cino­genic drug ayahuasca, and at that mo­ment it felt as if there were no way back.

A week ear­lier I’d never heard of ayahuasca. It was spring 1996 and the be­gin­ning of a four-month trip across South Amer­ica with three friends. In the dark ages, be­fore the In­ter­net’s to­tal dom­i­nance, it was still pos­si­ble to re­tain pock­ets of ig­no­rance— say, about a mind-blow­ing drug that would throw open “the doors of per­cep­tion,” as Al­dous Hux­ley once said about mesca­line, but might also cause you to poop your pants and weep bit­ter tears about the fu­til­ity of your life.

But I’m get­ting ahead of my­self. At that time, ayahuasca was not the party starter it later be­came in fash­ion­able homes and yurts across North Amer­ica. St­ing had not spo­ken about how the trippy brew con­nected him “to the god­head,” and men’s mag­a­zines had not yet sent their boy re­porters to the Ama­zon to get their freak on.

And Neal, our Cana­dian guide in Quito, was so per­sua­sive. A friend of a friend, he had taken ayahuasca and had seen things, man. There had been some kind of ec­static en­counter with a white dol­phin. Neal knew a fam­ily of Quechuan heal­ers who—with the in­cen­tive of green­backs and the fact that we were do­ing a short film on the ex­pe­ri­ence for the CBC show Big Life— might be per­suaded to take us on a drug-in­duced jour­ney.

We sat in an apart­ment in Quito—four Cana­dian women with noth­ing on the agenda but ad­ven­ture— and lis­tened as Neal leaned in close: “A cru­cial part of the rit­ual in­volves the shaman suck­ing your head.”

Head suck­ing and hal­lu­cino­gens: Show me a woman who would turn down that ad­ven­ture and I’ll show you a woman who is only half alive—or very wise. Three days later, we drove six hours south of Quito, left Neal’s Jeep where the road ended h

and then hiked an hour into the jun­gle. There, we were greeted by three gen­er­a­tions of the shaman’s fam­ily. The women of­fered us silent smiles and tended to happy, shriek­ing chil­dren while the shaman sat, tiny and un­in­ter­ested, as his el­dest son talked about the spirit an­i­mals from his ayahuasca vi­sions: an ana­conda and a jaguar. Why, I won­dered, does no one have a rat or potato bug for a spirit an­i­mal?

The next day, we set off with the shaman’s son to search the jun­gle for the plants that would be com­bined to make the ayahuasca tea. As we passed one vine, whose sci­en­tific name is Banis­te­ri­op­sis caapi, he stopped to tug it free. “It’s called ‘the vine of life,’” Neal said help­fully. “Or pos­si­bly ‘vine of death.’” As we con­tin­ued our search, the shaman’s son ex­plained ayahuasca’s role in his cul­ture. “It’s used to com­mu­ni­cate with our spirit ad­vis­ers, to find hunt­ing grounds and to bet­ter un­der­stand the for­est,” he said. Later, I would read about Western sup­pli­cants who took ayahuasca to heal their pain: de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety and the mod­ern malaise that has no name—hav­ing too much and feel­ing like it’s never enough.

The tea brewed. The four of us stewed. In­creas­ingly, it seemed like a bad idea. The night be­fore, while we were all dancing un­der the stars, the shaman had brazenly tried to grope each of us in turn. I slapped his hand away, like a vir­gin in a Vic­to­rian melo­drama. Now, we would spend the evening hav­ing our minds blown and heads sucked by the lit­tle man who’d been sit­ting un­der a tree all day, pound­ing back the bot­tle of rum we’d brought as a gift. It seemed less than spir­i­tual.

We de­cided to en­list Klaus as our pro­tec­tor. A re­tired Ger­man Air Force of­fi­cer, Klaus spent his days crawl­ing naked through caves in search of some ob­scure Ecuadorean bat. It was his bad for­tune to end up stay­ing in the same jun­gle hut as us. “Take ayahuasca with us tonight, Klaus,” we begged. He re­fused. Did I men­tion he was Ger­man? He liked his head the way it was. Fi­nally, af­ter much bad­ger­ing, he re­lented.

As night fell, we walked to the hut where the cer­e­mony would be held. My three friends and I had stuffed the breast pock­ets of our jean jack­ets with flash­lights, to pre­vent fur­ther grop­ing. As I sat by the fire, I felt in­creas­ingly claus­tro­pho­bic: What if the trip went out of con­trol? Tak­ing hal­lu­cino­genic drugs reluc­tantly is al­ways a bad idea. It’s like try­ing to drive with the park­ing brake on.

The jun­gle pressed in on all sides. The shaman handed me the cup. If you’ve had cof­fee made with kitty lit­ter, you have a good idea of what ayahuasca tastes like. I washed it back with a swig of rum. The cup went around the cir­cle. The shaman, clad only in a pair of jog­ging shorts and a feath­ered head­dress, be­gan to chant and moan. In one hand, he held a gi­ant palm frond.

He beck­oned me over, shak­ing the frond over my head while reach­ing for my breasts with the other hand. I smacked him away again, but my hand seemed 40 feet from my body. It took only a few min­utes for my head to feel like it was rid­ing an el­e­va­tor to the stars. The dark hut was sud­denly as large as a foot­ball sta­dium. I felt the shaman’s mouth on the top of my head—this must be the head suck­ing, I thought. The last ra­tio­nal part of my brain wor­ried about the abun­dance of toxic DEET in my hair. He might be a groper, but I didn’t want him dead.

Some­how, I crawled back to my seat near the fire and some­one else took my place at the shaman’s feet. Time com­pressed and ex­panded and ceased to have mean­ing. I could hear poor Klaus retch­ing and an­other friend throw­ing up the mini Snick­ers bar I’d given her...when? That day? The week be­fore? Time moved in all di­rec­tions, like a fog.

Guilt, how­ever, had a form. This was the shape my trip took. (Later, read­ing about ayahuasca ex­pe­ri­ences, I would re­al­ize that this ab­ject plumb­ing of depths wasn’t un­com­mon.) All of my char­ac­ter flaws were spread be­fore me, like build­ings on a sky­line, each one dis­tinct and glow­ing. I was self­ish, thought­less, a coward. Hadn’t I dragged poor Klaus into this mess? Hadn’t I run away to South Amer­ica rather than face the ru­ins of a crum­bling re­la­tion­ship? I was par­a­lyzed with hor­ror at all the things I’d failed to do. In Canada, I’d left be­hind a dearly loved aunt who was liv­ing with cancer. Though I squeezed my eyes shut against the vi­sion, I could h

see the cancer try­ing to con­sume her. Why had I left her be­hind? The vi­sions rolled on, claw­ing and re­lent­less. I re­solved to see a shrink if I ever es­caped this god­for­saken jun­gle.

Now, this was not my first time at the psy­che­delic rodeo. I’d taken acid and mush­rooms, but noth­ing pre­pared me for the in­ten­sity of the vi­sions I had that night. Just when it seemed like I could take no more, the land­scape shifted from a nightmare to a dream, and the pale horses gal­loped past. I was on a moun­tain­top with them, fly­ing through the night sky as I clutched their icy tails, and ev­ery­thing seemed pos­si­ble.

Hours later, we fi­nally stag­gered from the hut. I avoided Klaus’ eyes, sure that he wanted to kill me, but his gaze was fixed in­ward—dream­ily, it seemed. Per­haps he had com­muned with his bats.

“When used prop­erly, drugs are a gift of ex­pan­sion.” Who said that? Oh, it was me. That’s a line from my up­com­ing de­but novel, Based on a True Story, in which the main char­ac­ter, Au­gusta Price, has an ayahuasca ex­pe­ri­ence sim­i­lar to mine. (Al­though some­thing un­set­tling hap­pens to her that night, and noth­ing per­ma­nently hor­ri­ble hap­pened to me—apart from the vile af­ter­taste of the drug it­self.) Au­gusta isn’t ready for the ex­pe­ri­ence, and it rocks her to the core. The drug al­lows her to lift her ar­mour, for once, and see the un­men­tion­able un­der­neath. For me, the ayahuasca of­fered a glimpse of the elab­o­rate de­fences I’d con­structed to guard my­self against fail­ure and a sense of how flimsy, how mean­ing­less, they were.

The morn­ing af­ter her ayahuasca ex­pe­ri­ence, Au­gusta finds her­self drink­ing cof­fee with two Cor­si­can gang­sters. My friends and I sprawled on the grass, still dizzy, while the shaman’s son in­ter­preted the vi­sions his fa­ther had seen for all of us. But as I sat there, watch­ing the elec­tric-blue but­ter­flies dart through the air, I re­al­ized that the only in­ter­pre­ta­tion that mat­tered was mine. Why was I so afraid of fail­ure? Why had I con­structed this wall of false bravura—the sky­line I’d seen—around my­self? Why was I so hard on my­self? (Al­most 20 years later, I’m still strug­gling with that one.)

The shaman’s son stood up. It was time to hike out of the jun­gle. We would re­turn, he said, and take ayahuasca again and learn more about our­selves. But I never went back, and I never took an­other trip, ex­cept in fic­tion. It was safer that way. ■

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