Yuri arrives at the ayahuasca camp preceded by mystery. Vague hints of witchcraft during the afternoon have presaged his portentous entrance. Yuri is doughy, quiet, innocuous in appearance for a guy under a black cloud. Slightly under six feet in height and with a linebacker’s girth, this is a Ukrainian raised on potatoes, vodka, and pelmeni, little meat-filled dumplings. He moves at a moderate pace, no hurry, fingers slightly curled, a full head of short black hair atop a round Eurasian face, a Trojan horse of restrained spirits just itching to bust loose. He is a long way from Odessa, broiling under a harsh Amazon sun in faded camo pants and a black t-shirt. He had apparently spent time in the military, seen some bloody awful things nobody should ever have to see.
By contrast, Rolland his eastern bloc companion looks like a mischievous Mister Clean. He is lean and quick, with a shiny shaved head and an infectious, cock-eyed smile. He raises an eyebrow and grins, leaning in to share a confidence, revealing nicotine-stained teeth. “Black magic,” he whispers in a graveled smoker’s tone. “Very bad things, cannot be spoken of now. Tonight will be a very, very big night. You will see. It is going to be a very interesting ceremony.” He leans back, apparently satisfied by the mysterious message he has conveyed, and lets out an eerie little laugh. Then he lights up a cigarette, and after a couple of practice puffs, blows a Hollywood-perfect smoke ring. Svengali.
From appearances, there seem to be no evil spirits about. Insects buzz in the searing mid-day sun, little invisible chain saws in the nearby trees. Butterflies flit about in their greens and blues, apparently unaware of the enormous pressure that has built up inside of Yuri, and Rolland’s expectations of an intense ayahuasca ceremony in a few hours. Blooming heliconia and birds of paradise accent the intense green of the camp. I hear splashes from the nearby pond, where tonight’s passajeros are swimming. A few vultures fly lazy circles high overhead. A nearby aguaje’ palm stands laden with ripe orange fruits. In one of the cabins, somebody strums a guitar.
After the sun sets, about two dozen of us gather in the ceremonial malocca. The frogs are warming up their a cappella chorus, tuning up for a long night of chirping and throaty croaks. The air feels heavy with expectation, a sense of something big on the way. It’s probably all the talk about witchcraft. I glance at Yuri a few mats over from me. He appears relaxed, not a job for Constantine. Rolland squats beside him and speaks to him in a low voice. Yuri nods affirmatively. He appears to be taking direction from Mister Clean.
We all drink ayahuasca, one after another, going up to the shaman and requesting the amount we wish to consume. In the case of those who haven’t drunk before, they are given about a quarter of a glass. This is strong medicine. Just a short snort is enough for a rocket ride into the spirit-laden stratosphere. When Yuri’s turn comes, Rolland accompanies him and sits with the shaman. I think I hear Rolland say “Let’s get this done,” after which Yuri is poured a half glass. He is now the Enola Gay. It is just a matter of time before he drops his atomic payload.
To be outdone by absolutely nobody, Rolland follows Yuri and asks for a full glass. He tosses it back with just a touch of swagger, and appears pleased. He sits down with a knowing smile, and fires up a mapacho cigarette, no smoke ring tricks this time.
After everybody has drunk and the one candle is blown out, we sit. The shaman, one of the most highly skilled in all of Amazonia, starts to shake a chakapa, a leaf fan. The shooshing sound creates a hypnotic rhythm. The shaman blows mapacho smoke at the passajeros while shaking the chakapa. The malocca is filling with the medicine.
And that is when quiet, placid Yuri blows. It is only minutes after drinking, but the urgency with which Yuri erupts shocks us all. His outcry is fierce, extremely loud, filled with ardent rage. “Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! he shouts, fast and hard, as though by yelling god’s name he can expunge whatever has him in its thrall. Yuri thrashes wildly, yelling Allah! over and over, gulping hysterical breaths and yelling some more. A couple of the helpers try to soothe him, but he will have none of it. He gets to his feet abruptly, surprisingly fast for his size, fully screaming now. Dangerous man on the move. No good.
Rolland gets up and moves toward Yuri to help. But Yuri, all rage and distress and mad shouting, does not recognize his friend, and delivers a surprisingly quick right hook, connecting with Rolland’s jaw, dropping him like a sack of hammers. Apparently this guy can fight. Game on, passajero in trouble. We are all on high alert now. Nobody is blissing out. It is now ayahuasca as Fists Of Fury.
In an instant, six guys are on Yuri, who still takes a couple of minutes to go to ground. Under his exterior padding lies a mass of powerful muscle. The men struggle, and Yuri fights like a maniac now, screaming and wailing and flailing. One of the men trying to subdue him is reputedly an accomplished martial artist, but nearly gets his face kicked in by one of Yuri’s flying bull legs. It is mixed martial arts in the malocca. Eventually Yuri is taken down with a man fiercely attached to each limb, and two gripping his torso, and tied tightly to a medical rescue board, still screaming his head off unabated. The shaman coolly continues to shake the chakapa, blow mapacho smoke. For the brand new drinkers, the first-time passajeros, this is jolting, disturbing, unnerving. For the shaman, this is one of five thousand or so ceremonies. He has seen his fair share of gringos go nuts at night.
Yuri is nothing if not inexhaustible. He does not run out of steam in a few minutes, nor in an hour. He bellows furiously, thrashing as water is poured on him steadily to calm him down. Fully enraged, gassed up on potent ayahuasca, gone mad in the jungle night, he struggles and screams, spits and hisses, erupts continually. It takes three hours before he calms down, and more time before he can be safely untied. Once he stops yelling, there is this audible release, more than a breath struggling out, as though something has escaped from deep within Yuri’s body. The sound is like a loud, anguished sigh. The shaman, singing and shaking the chakapa, does not waver.
As ceremonies go, it is one of the stranger ones, a night of ferocity, shrieking, madness, gallons of water splashed all over the place, exhausted helpers having performed yeoman’s duty, the rest of us relieved when Yuri’s screams have subsided and the storm around him has died down. When the ceremony is concluded, Rolland, who nurses a blue egg on the side of his head, and one of the shamans’ helpers, sit with Yuri and speak with him, calm now.
By Yuri’s account the next day when we all share our ceremonial experiences, something huge and evil and dark, with hooks and fangs and saw-like arms and demonic eyes and an overpowering stink, came out of his body when the shaman sang a particular icaro, a healing song. The terrible thing did not go easily, clung inside tenaciously to Yuri’s guts, and tried to strangle him. Sheepish in his account, Yuri looks terribly embarrassed, like a man who has crapped his pants while giving a Toastmaster’s speech. The best that Yuri can describe is that a demonic figure, inside him since he served in the Ukraine military, had been driven out of him. We are all happy to hear it, partly for his healing and partly because it suggests more quiet ceremonies for the next few nights. I point a friendly finger at Yuri, telling him no more going bananas in ceremony, and he gives me a shy smile.
If Yuri arrived enshrouded in mystery, Maya enters the scene seemingly on a light breeze. She too has traveled from far overseas, northern Africa, and carries an airy aura. Petite, lithe and fluid in movement, she offers a wide smile, and appears dressed from the Free People catalog, classic festival-wear. Maya is quick to converse and to laugh, and gives no appearance whatsoever of struggling with imponderable dark forces. She fits into the group seamlessly, a welcome spirit. About her lingers the aroma of vanilla and spices. When asked why she is at the center, she says that she has some things to work on. Don’t we all. She chats amicably, fits in easily with the group, makes herself at home. Maya appears to be good company, and likely a lovely addition to the ceremonial space.
Night time ushers us all back into the large malocca, each of us on a mat with our pillow, blanket and puke bucket, each armed with a flashlight, and tissues for cleaning up after any barfing. Like the Boy Scouts, we are prepared. Helpers stand ready to change used buckets, lend a guiding hand to the toilet, pour a bit of water on someone’s forehead if they get too far out, and generally assist if things get too hairy. There is support if someone goes off the rails.
We all drink, including Yuri, who will remain quiet and unobtrusive for the evening. I take my usual quarter of a cup of ayahuasca. Some others drink less, some more. Rolland goes for the Big Gulp again, an unstoppable ayahuasca-drinking force. After drinking, the shaman starts shaking the chakapa, blowing mapacho smoke, setting up the space. Eventually he begins to sing, his low, mysterious voice taking us out, out into the spirit landscape. The night unravels, the fetters that bind us to this dimension loosening, as we expand and visions come. At once several of us see the room filled with snakes, and we mutter to one another “Hey, what’s with all the snakes?” The serpents are not ominous, just everywhere, packed by the dozens into the dark malocca, slithering and undulating. It is classic of the shared visions that can and do occur during ceremony.
Maya is apparently very mareado, feeling the effects of the ayahuasca so intensely that she softly calls out for help to get to the toilet. A helper assists her, guiding Maya to the toilets at the back end of the malocca. So far so good. But on the way back to her mat, Maya goes off. She shrieks a high keening wail, and as she does, something that looks like a wraith rises from her body, tearing out from the top of her head. Wrapped in a sinewy flutter of dark smoke, the wraith soars upward toward the ceiling, streaking through the palm roof. We all “see” it, in the way that you see with inner and outer vision simultaneously. The wail is so loud and so dramatic, we all turn to little Maya, somewhat in disbelief that a sound so immense is coming from this tiny woman. Unlike Yuri, whose eruptions filled the night for hours, Maya’s comes and goes at once. When the wraith has flown, she is silenced. Yet her odyssey is not over.
As Maya is aided back to her mat, she drops in a heap, rag-doll loose and gone baby gone. The mat is a distant shore, and Maya is out cold someplace past the shipping lanes, lost in the deep psychedelic sea, unresponsive. Water on the forehead produces no reaction. Light shaking of her arm does nothing. A couple of the male helpers decide to lift her up from under the armpits and try to bring her back to waking consciousness. This does not work. Then they decide to walk her around, which also does not work. They are way out of their depth. Maya is limp and out of it, and no amount of dragging about will bring her back. The scene gets weird. People in the malocca become uneasy, as we watch a couple of big guys drag around this unconscious little woman. I suggest to my wife Zoe that she and some other women take over immediately, since the men are making a pathetic hash of the scene.
The suggestion requires only a second to take root. Four women march on Maya and the draggers, and demand her release, right now. It is not quite a showdown, but it can be if the men don’t get out of the way. The women are riled up, alright. The men reluctantly lower Maya gently to the ground, and the women shoo them away, sitting down around her, taking her hands, stroking her feet, speaking to her softly. Where brute force has failed, tenderness and the sweet touch of four women prevails. In just minutes Maya is conscious, exhausted, definitely spent, and grateful for the sisterly assist. She vaguely recalls being hauled around, toes barely touching the ground, by some guys.
Eventually Maya is gently returned to her mat, conscious now, and the evening continues on with more chakapa, more mapacho, more icaros. There is the usual symphonic puking, bowel eruptions in the toilet, the random call for assistance. Buckets are exchanged, passajeros laughing or trembling at their own visions, frogs croaking loudly, groaning farts in the night, strange insect noises from the surrounding Amazon forest, the occasional soft crying someplace in the room. There are gasps, sighs, chuckles. The shaman shakes his chakapa, blows mapacho smoke, sings eerie and compelling icaros in the dark.
The next morning when we share our experiences, Maya describes with great surprise her unexpected experience with the wraith. According to Maya, the thing was deep inside her, firmly entrenched, and she only saw it for the first time ever, or had an inkling of its presence, when she emerged from the toilet. “I had no idea it was in me,” she retells. “But when it started to come out, I felt as though this thing had been living inside of me for a long time.” Its emergence was painful, thus the scream.
Several of us comment on the experience, noting that we all saw the same thing, the same shape, the wraith in gauzy smoke, swirling and soaring up through the ceiling of the malocca. The shaman cannily comments “When bad spirits are in the ceremonial space, we send them away. For good. They have no other option.”
As for the dragging scene, the men helpers get a good talking-to by the women who brought Maya back, telling them plainly that instead of being clumsy and forceful, they should be more attentive and gentle. The men don’t dare argue back, because the women are right, 100%. We are all eager to put the incident behind us.
Demons? Really? It all sounds so melodramatic, delusional, reminiscent of superstitious Medieval times when witches were burned at the stake. Yet however we wish to grapple with the notion, the accounts of demons or wraiths or bad spirits coming out of people during ayahuasca ceremonies are too numerous to ignore. What happens inside us? Is it that ideas or thoughts or feelings, perhaps resulting from injuries, insults and traumas, eventually become so repetitive that they assume form? Everything is energy, so perhaps at a certain point negative forces, including memories and traumas, become so energetically charged that they turn into demons of some sort, seemingly separate forms with shape and personality, that dog us and harm us and gray our days.
And what of the fact that sometimes many people see these supposed demons? How did so many of us see the exact same thing when Maya wailed? I am not especially concerned with the why or how of it. What I do know is that people often experience some sort of negative force inside them. And often many people see the same thing at once. This is not uncommon with ayahuasca, and is one reason that the alkaloid harmine in the vine used to make this potent brew was originally named “telepathine.”
In the ayahuasca space, people have unusual and extraordinary experiences of all kinds. Some feel great sadness. Some are swept away in ecstatic joy. Some resolve tenacious health disorders. And some battle demons. And when the demons are vanquished, then people experience a great lifting of long-held burdens. Sadness, depression, grief, and other soul-constricting forces are released, replaced by a greater sense of wholeness and relief.
This is why ayahuasca is referred to as La Medicina, the medicine. In a multitude of ways, some simple and some abjectly strange, ayahuasca helps to restore balance to body, mind and spirit. The ways seem infinite, often hard to fathom. But the effects are generally very, very good. People are relieved of pain and suffering, and their lives become more satisfying and fulfilled. So demons be damned. Whatever they are, and however they come about, the medicine works, and that is its great purpose.