For years I'd been curious about ayahuasca, the mother of all hallucinogens. Its origins may reach back to the Stone Age, to the primitive mind already astute at whipping up a bit of entertainment from unpromising elements. Ethnobotanists consider the ayahuasca brew a miracle of trial and error on par with those chimpanzees typing Shakespeare. It's a combination of two basically inert plants, a giant vine and an innocuous-looking shrub, whose commingling creates a compound remarkably similar to serotonin, the wonder of indigenous pharmacology. It is said to be a doorway to another realm, of things suprareal, needing only to be met halfway to wholly exist. Reality with a capital R, in a word, with the blinders ripped off.
At any rate, no one who has tried it – in the literature I've read – has been unimpressed. No one has said it was fun, either. Indeed, many a scribe in my little trove of ayahuasca books has warned against thrill-seeking. The vine of the soul must be taken with reverence and respect for its entheogenic (god-ingesting) and its therapeutic virtues. I was down with that. But it seemed to me – grumpy, complacent, and lately a strain on the natural high spirits of my wife – that a serious metaphysical thrill was exactly the therapy I needed.
It wasn't hard to find a source. Ayahuasca has spread through the Web like kudzu. And so, late one night – like everyone else in the group, it turned out – I started double-clicking and signed up for a three-ceremony tour in Peru. Soon there we all were, a pack of psychotropic tourists converging at a cafe in the heart of Iquitos. It was early Saturday morning, and the town center was filling up with characters, not the least colorful of whom was our tour leader Peter Gorman, recovering from a rough Friday night that had ended in barroom fisticuffs. Peter assured us, in his Queens-accented smoker's growl, that we were already absorbing information pertinent to our quest. As if on cue, wild-looking hombres stepped forward out of the passing crowd offering jaguar-teeth necklaces and snakeskin fetishes, while old Indian women with impenetrable eyes held up brilliantly colored cloths hand-embroidered with phantasmal patterns. "Ayahuasca," they murmured.
In a cloud of cigarette smoke the epically garrulous Gorman, a former editor in chief of High Times and artifact hunter for the American Museum of Natural History, told stories from three decades of knocking around Iquitos, striking out deeper and deeper into the jungle and into the weird inner worlds of ayahuasca. About 20 years ago he'd met his mentor, Don Julio, one of Peru's more prominent shamans, or curanderos. Before his death at 96, Julio saved many lives as a healer; whether by medicine or magic, it didn't matter. And as an Ayahuasquero, Julio was an artist; he played the ceremony as if it were a vast church organ, bringing this participant to the heights, bringing that one back down to earth. For the gringos Peter takes into the jungle (he's led about 20 shamanic tours since 1998), "el remedio" offers a kind of quick, intensive form of psychotherapy. "Like 10 years on the couch compressed into a couple of hours," Peter told us, smiling a Bogart grimace. "Pow! Zoom! To the moon!"
We were off to the Belén market for further information. Certainly it was an initiation to the gastric organ of the Iquitos body politic, the market entrance guarded by a human Cerberus – a spry break-dancing triple-amputee leper, his stumps wrapped in dirty bandages. On we filed past caiman tails glistening on the slab, snake heads impaled on stakes, and prehistoric sucker fish semi-alive in woven laundry baskets. On past cauldrons of steaming grubs, which most of us sampled; the texture was like chicken skin with a creamy filling. On past dozens of booths of homeopathic cures, like the herbal Levante Lazaro (Lazarus raiser), the original Viagra. Always with something underfoot not to step in, the frenetic press of humanity all around, and in the air above a thousand vultures in silent peristalsis. Climbing to the roof of a derelict-but-occupied two-story dwelling for an overview of the market, we learned from the señora that the buzzards roosting there were useful birds. Sí, sí, los zopilotes. You could cut their throats and drink their blood as a treatment for epilepsy. Rough medicine for a tough place.
In all we had three days to become acclimated, and we were getting to know one another, bonding as a team. There was little Cassandra, a shade over five feet tall and just 19, taking a semester off from her New York City college, expanding her horizons radically. Ashley, 25, superfit and flat-out gorgeous, had suffered a concussion playing college basketball that still gave her migraines and was hoping for a cure. Mike from Ohio had a real job writing computer programs. Ras, 59, the irascible Rastafarian, dreads dangling to his waist, voiced alternative theories of everything – the Egyptians were the original inhabitants of Ireland, and so forth – which made conversation challenging. Christine (not her real name), 35, smart, sweet, and quiet, was a yoga instructor who thought the medicine might help her overcome a lifetime of shyness. Little John – "Joven" – had the angelic demeanor of a devout Presbyterian minister, though in fact he'd been a commercial real estate attorney in South Florida. Divorced and semiretired from a straitlaced workaholic lifestyle, he was on a quest to reconnect with himself. Jonathan, 44, handsome and outgoing, an actor/writer/producer who was traveling on an open ticket and believed the "medicine" would help him prepare for his next project. Jerry, also mid-40s, seemed to know everything, revealed nothing (his name wasn't really Jerry), and found it all hilarious. I thought of him as Genius Jerry.
By the time we arrived at the rough-and-tumble Iquitos docks to catch the 5 pm riverboat that would take us up the Amazon, we were all pretty comfortable with one another. Joining the jostling throng crossing the gangplank, we boarded the teeming triple-decker Don Jose lugging supplies for a week. From the deck the waterfront looked like the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all the buildings tilted crazily, losing the battle against gravity. The whistle blew, the engines rumbled to life, and the crowd ashore opened fire with a barrage of water balloons, a Peruvian passion. We were under way.
"I can't think of a better adventure than this," Genius Jerry said, and I had to agree. Where we were going might not be unexplored territory anymore, the threat of jaguars and poisoned darts a thing of the past, but we were headed to a Heart of Darkness of another sort. Here be dragons, as the ancient maps used to say. I was counting on seeing a few.