On March 16th, 2020, Peru began shutting its borders in preparation for a state of emergency and nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19. President Martín Vizcarra extended the lockdown through June 30th, making it one of the longest periods of mandatory isolation in the world. Tourists scrambled in a mass exodus to return to their native soil. Green Bay Packers star Aaron Rodgers made headlines leaving the Lima airport in his private plane just as they were closing the borders. But what about the travelers without private planes? What about the considerable number of individuals who traveled to the jungles of Peru for their well-known ayahuasca retreats? What about the Peruvians stuck outside of their own country? This is a story about two individuals, one a U.S. citizen and the other a citizen of Peru, both traveling for ayahuasca, both stranded abroad.
Charlie, a 28-year-old California native, was staying at Cayo Shobo, his usual ayahuasca retreat center in Peru. The purpose of his trip was to spend a month working with the sacred medicine. When asked about his relationship to ayahuasca, Charlie replied, “Drinking ayahuasca is the fundamental and core way for me to connect with spirit and the spirit realm in general.” He went on to explain that these ceremonies are his way of refining himself and working on his personal growth. Char has participated in private ceremonies in other parts of the world but says, “It is always stronger in the jungle. I have been drinking the medicine for 6–7 years. I would say 100+ ceremonies, 2 cups per night. The jungle is most definitely where I prefer to sit in ceremony.”
Charlie has attended a handful of other retreat centers in Peru. However, this was his fourth time back to Caya Shobo, “one of the few centers in Peru recognized by the Shipibo people,” he says with pride. A place deep in the jungle outside the city of Iquitos, Caya Shobo feels like home to Charlie. At Caya Shobo, they make their own medicine onsite and host retreats. An individual can stay for up to two or three months doing work trade, although most visit for only a few days, maybe up to a week. Charlies’s longest visit to the jungle was his previous trip, where he stayed three-and-a-half months, the same length as Peru’s lockdown. Charlie is only in his late twenties, but is considered a veteran at the center.
“The news kept coming in trickles. With our poor connection, we would only get every other word from the people on the outside. We finally got the news that Peru was going to lock down on March 13th.”
The Lockdown’s Beginning
When asked about the pandemic lockdown, Char painted the picture. “We were all sitting in the kitchen when this presidential decree comes on the radio.” Although Char’s Spanish is good, he said he could barely translate the broadcast, between the official dialect and the crackle of the radio in the jungle. “There were four other facilitators doing work trade and we had 10 or 11 guests attending the retreat. About four people left the retreat center before the lockdown. They were there in the beginning. They got to sit in ceremonies and leave in time before the country cancelled all commercial flights. But even then, some of them only made it as far as hotels.”
Charlie chose not to panic and rush out. He took the news in stride as the country began enforcing a mandatory lockdown, effective immediately. “There were strict rules, especially with buying supplies. Men could go on Mondays, women on Tuesdays. They had guards on every corner. It was a strict military quarantine.” Char explained that they had a designated driver that would go into the city and stock up. “Our driver needed authorization to enter or leave the city. He stocked up on a mountain of toilet paper. Being a place where people come to purge, the T.P. was essential.” The retreat center was also protected by armed guards. I had to ask about the relationship between the armed guards and the ceremonies. “The guards have also participated in ceremony. The staff is always welcome and encouraged,” Charlie assured me.
Ayahuasca Ceremony During a Pandemic
I asked Charlie about the level of panic after receiving the news. “You realize that the pandemic can bring up a lot of fears for people. However, if the world is going to end I felt this is where I wanted to be. Good food and good medicine, no panic. I was on a diet the whole time. When you get there you open a diet or relationship with a handful of plants.” Charlie’s diet was strictly Bobinsana—”It’s a plant that lives by the river, little starburst of pink and white filaments.” For Charlie, it was no coincidence he was there. “The plants called me to be there at this time. Everyone there was ultimately sheltering in place where there is the most potent practice of internal medicine.” Charlie and the others drank ayahuasca four times per week, every week. But every so often, reality would sink back in.
Fear and Loathing in the Jungle
“When drinking medicine it makes you very raw and emotional. Your channels are wide open. Those in the group, other facilitators, other guests, that spent a lot more time on their phones started to buy into the fear that was going around.” Char went on, “Some thought we could be stuck there for years or we would not make it back. There was some serious fear going around. It is a weird feeling being told you can’t go home. Even if you are super-rich, etc., the government doesn’t care. There is a comfort in knowing we can always go home if things get weird in the jungle. We think we are in control, but this was an exercise in (showing) ultimately we are not in control. Call it a cosmic flow or whatever. But this was a very clear and in-your-face demonstration that you’re not in control.”
Char clarified that for some people, there was a lot of external fear to work through. “They would drink it (ayahuasca) for the night and then get on their cell phones and see the death toll in Europe was up 10%, etc., and get caught back into a fear loop. I made a conscious decision to not look at the media and disconnect.”
Char said he spoke to his family but nobody else. He realized that “you have the choice to be in the negativity or surround yourself in love. I am here. And I am forced to be present. The world was forced to drink this medicine (the pandemic) to go home and spend time with our families and reevaluate our lives. Ultimately, everyone had glimpses and moments that it was going to be all good. It all boils down to love or chi and vitality. Its not Hallmark Valentine’s Day love. It’s the fact the ecosystem cares for itself.” Charlie had found some deep metaphors in the current reality of our situation. Some idea of a silver lining shared by many others, most of whom I would assume have not yet tried ayahuasca.
“With Every Sickness, There is a Plant That Can Heal it.”
As a coping mechanism, Char decided to write a play that was based on their situation. He told me that they did their best to keep it playful and joyful. “Because of the unknown of it all it can be very brutal for Westerners to deal with. Coming to peace with the unknown,” Char chuckled. “Almost like a sick ironic joke that people were there to work on their trauma and not get more trauma. But it is all self-inflicted and it was a weird time. The facilitators did a good job helping people feel more comfortable. There was not much communication from the embassy, but the center did its best to stay professional and compassionate. Some people needed to get to the hotel in Iquitos to wait out the last week.”
Visitors often frequent ayahuasca retreat centers with the intention of confronting, working on, and healing trauma. Char explained that for many, these traumas are connected to the feeling of being boxed in or controlled. “This was intensifying the trauma in many ways. I think that it can be productive to have to really rip out that raw trauma and face it. But some folks really had a very hard time.”
“On April 15th, the embassy reached out and said you have 24 hours to catch your flight home.”
It was take it or leave it; otherwise, the embassy could not guarantee the next flight. “You could be here for the unforeseeable future,” they informed Charlie and his group. “When it was time to leave, for some people they were very ready to leave.” But for Char, it was hard ending his plant diet and, ultimately, his partnership with the plants. Back home, his job—working on a sizable cannabis farm—was waiting for him. He needed to start preparations for the upcoming grow season back in California—”back in Babylon, where we pretend to be in control all the time. I was sad to leave the center and sad to leave the diet.” It was his most powerful visit at the center by far, he recounted. “It was a really potent time to be there.”
At the Iquitos airport, Charlie and a group of Americans were brought to a military hangar and held for 4–6 hours. They had their temperatures taken and were eventually put on a small plane out of Iquitos to Lima. In Lima, they were put on a plane headed to Washington, D.C. From D.C., Char flew back to San Francisco. He was asked to sign a promissory note to pay back his flight, but Char has not received anything yet in regard to collecting the money.
Aya to the Rescue
Charlie passionately told me how he could really see and feel the interconnectedness of all the beings on earth. He could feel how it would make sense that a species that destroys its own home could get sick (coronavirus). “We are being put in check and balanced by our ecology right now. Siberia and Australia, global warming, and then we get a respiratory disorder. Skies in Shanghai were clear for the first time in 50 years. Our reduction of our massive carbon footprint for the time being felt almost like a divine logic, divine justice, or divine balance,. When you zoom out on it, it makes total sense.”
Around the same time Charlie was headed to his retreat center in Peru, Raimutsa, a Peruvian ayahuascaro, arrived in Los Angeles. He thought he was making a quick stop in the U.S. on his way back to Peru from a trip visiting family in Australia. Rai had three ceremonies planned in California that month. All were planned last-minute toward the end of his Australia visit.
I had plans to attend one of these ceremonies. Rai’s trip to L.A. was difficult from the beginning, with the discovery that his friend’s place, where he planned on staying, was unexpectedly occupied. Luckily, being a resourceful man and an important figure to many people, Raimutsa scored a house in the Hollywood Hills. It belonged to some of his students, film producers that shared it as a secondary home for conducting business in Hollywood. With the global pandemic afoot, nobody was occupying the space, so Rai had it to himself. “I was established very nicely,” Raimutsa said.
Raimutsa made it to the first session he had scheduled. He recalled it being a challenging ceremony all around. “There was a lot of trauma being sorted, a lot of crying.” After that session, he went back to his temporary home in the hills. He had planned on staying a few more days before traveling to Santa Cruz for the next two sessions.
Riding the Wave
His return flight home was booked for the end of the month. “I could sense a storm brewing,” Raimutsa told me. However, he recalled a conversation in which he and I had spoken prior to the shelter-in-place order. “Hey, if you’re still in for drinking the medicine, I will stay. If you don’t want to do it anymore, I will change my flight and go.” Needless to say, I was still in for the ceremony. “The storm was coming, and we are riders of the storm. When the storm comes you can run from it or you can ride it and embrace it. You surf it. Because after a storm comes the waves, and they came. We surfed them,” Raimutsa reminisced. He believes it was no coincidence he was here during the pandemic—a trend in both Charlie and Raimutsa’s experiences.
“There can be comfort in uncertainty.”—Raimutsa
With the spread of the virus, participants of the approaching Santa Cruz retreat began to cancel. I, on the other hand, needed it more than ever, and had no intention of canceling. Peru announced the borders shutting down as I drove five hours in a post-apocalyptic fantasy. A lot was going through my head. Was this crazy? The medicine would soon sort it all out. I was all in. It was just me and my shaman. What came out of our session would be something that Raimutsa would remember for the rest of his life.
“At the beginning, nobody knew how long the quarantine would last. One, two, maybe three weeks. With the guidance of the plants we managed to adapt to the uncertainty.” It is true, the few nights I drank ayahuasca the weekend before the worldwide shelter-in-place, I was able to properly process the sudden change. This plant medicine held a gift, and we knew we needed to somehow share it with the others who did not make it to the ceremony. It was a matter of mental health. “So why not call on the plant spirits to join in with whatever means we use to connect? It is about finding a situation and making it an opportunity to grow. We lowered the frequency of fear. We merged with something more creative.” Raimutsa was referring in this case to the internet. Like a global meditation, he performed his next ceremony over the internet.
Rai’s time in isolation had its challenges. He explained that it was easy to fall into unhealthy habits, especially during quarantine. He had stress from his own family issues and was still processing the end of his 10-year relationship. In isolation, it is easy to let these emotions weigh you down. Although he has spent plenty of time alone, he said it can be very tricky. Raimutsa leaned heavily on his meditation and discipline to eat healthfully and stay mentally well. But by the second month, he admitted to smoking a lot of cigarettes. “Anxiety of the unknown. How long will it last?”
Go Big and Stay Home
Raimutsa had set the intention of being in one place for a couple of years. “The last 5–7 years I have been traveling like a drug dealer. I am tired of that.” He told me that when he left Peru, he had a feeling he didn’t know when he would be back. A last-minute fight with his ex had put him in a bad head space for travel. The quarantine provided a copious amount of time to reflect on his life. He learned to adapt to his reality. He started holding online ceremonies regularly for people still confined to their homes. “It is far better than alcohol or any other means of self-medicating during the isolation.” Raimutsa also began participating in other projects during his time alone that have benefited himself and others tremendously.
Raimutsa’s existing friendships in California are much tighter now—”being there surfing it together. These times let you know who is there when the ship is sinking, or when you have to be there for others.” The cyber sessions, as he called the online ceremonies, were a tool that kept a lot of people healthy during quarantine. The participation in the cyber sessions included individuals from all around the world, including folks from Argentina, Brazil and even his hometown in Lima.
“When The Surfing Started, Everything Changed.”
Raimutsa had $800 left and there still had not been any updates from the embassy on when he could return home. So he spent $500 on a surfboard, $200 on a rental car, and saved $100 for food. By now, he had acquired a new roommate at the house. Luckily, his new roommate worked for a cannabis company, which provided plenty of weed. So he was able to make the $100 work for food. Raimutsa told me he has never surfed the SoCal waters before. “It demanded a commitment to drive 45 minutes each way in the morning alone. Ultimately, the experience was therapeutic. With COVID, there wasn’t that much traffic to get from Studio City to Malibu or Manhattan beach.”
I asked Raimutsa if he would have ever imagined doing ayahuasca cyber sessions over the internet, without the mandatory lockdown having lasted such a long time. He replied that he is honestly not sure if he would have done it otherwise—although 15 years ago, he had held a few dial-in ceremonies over the phone which he had named the “ayahuasca lounge.” “The connections were fuzzy but we made it work. In a sense, I always had that memory in the back of my mind. It helped contribute to this reality now. The transmissions were much clearer, the cosmic serpent flowed freely through the mycelium of internet waves transmitting themselves through vibrations and music. We had to adapt, and this was one of the ways we adapted. We had a plan of doing a session with people that month. I had sense of commitment.”
Escape from L.A.
Like Charlie, Raimutsa also received a call from the embassy—out of the blue—letting him know he had 48 hours to prepare for his one shot at getting home. Raimutsa had waited four months for that call, four months away from his country, stranded in Los Angeles, of all places. Rai described his flight home. “No empty seats, there was no social distancing either. It was an 8-hour flight.”
When it landed, he was quarantined in a hotel in Lima with about 100 other people, courtesy of the Peruvian government. The authorities wanted everybody in communal rooms and Raimutsa told me they had an argument over it when he arrived. But luckily, he was able to get a room to himself. He was not allowed to leave the room at all and he said the food they provided was terrible. Raimutsa is now back at his home and has been surfing again and performing small ayahuasca ceremonies. Raimutsa will continue the cyber sessions in his practice, and believes this will continue indefinitely.