Down the Monkey Hole
Credit: Wade Davis / Getty Images

We all gathered in the cocina just after dark for a final briefing. Peter was in a festive mood. He could already feel the spirits gathering. "It's gonna be a party!" he roared. "Chullachaqui's coming." (He meant something like an Amazonian imp.) He told us that sometimes the spirits acted up like poltergeists and made cigarette lighters explode. We listened, rapt, glancing at one another in the candlelight.

"We're going to tear down the curtain to another world," Peter said. "We're like thieves, peeking into windows. Things are gonna be looking back." He had plenty of advice for dealing with imaginary monsters: "So it's 1,500 feet tall. Become 2,000 feet tall! If you don't like the looks of something, just blow it away – poof! But don't be too quick to judge. You might ask, 'Are you my teacher?' Maybe it is. Above all, don't be afraid to let it get weird. It's what you came here for. Trust that the medicine was well made in a good place with women and laughing children."

I thought Peter might end his lecture on that happy thought, but he had one more thing to add: "Sometimes, though, like Julio used to say, you just gotta grab your balls, 'cause you're going down the monkey hole!"

We trooped to the ceremonial palapa, a big thatched-roof hut, open on the sides, with plank floors. Hairo the shaman, illuminated by copal torch light, was already seated in his wooden chair, his magical implements at hand – a bundle of mapacho cigarettes, his shacapa leaf rattle, and the ayahuasca itself, a turbid brown sludge in a plastic Inca Kola bottle. While we settled into place on cushions, Peter, George, and Ruber carried out some further hocus-pocus, marching around the hut, Peter muttering incantations, spraying mouthfuls of agua florida, puffing a mapacho, closing the arkana, the sacred circle, against unwanted demonios.

Then, like a young surgeon choosing a scalpel, Hairo scrutinized his mapachos, lit one up, puffed, and began praying. In his late 20s, Hairo was just starting out in the magic business. He was no Julio yet. Peter compared him to a young black belt. He still had a lot to learn, but he had "great powers of concentration, a good heart, and a beautiful singing voice." I know I was rooting for his powers as he lifted the bottle of medicine and blew smoke into it.

Peter stood at his elbow and named the first communicant: "Jerry." Hairo mulled over the name and poured out a portion into a tin coffee cup. Ruber brought the draft to Jerry, along with a bottle of agua florida, for anointing one's body, and another bottle of mixed essences to be sniffed, and a flask of Tabu perfume – the goddess's favorite – to be dabbed on the wrists. Jerry held his nose. Bottoms up! So it went, solemnly, laboriously, all around the circle. I didn't hold my nose. I thought I ought to taste it, the first time at least. It was like a lukewarm smoothie made from the scrapings of the under­side of an old, old lawn mower. Like a cow's cud, maybe, like the whole jungle, chewed and regurgitated. Vile enough. When we'd all drunk, the torches were doused, and we sat in darkness, waiting for the shit to kick in.

Hairo began to sing his icaro, the sacred song the plants had taught him. "Ayahuasca, ayahuasca, cuida monge, ayahuasca." The words were either Spanish, Quechua, or of Hairo's own invention, but the melody was universal. It was the saddest song I'd ever heard, a song of bittersweet reconciliation with pitiless nature. There was no mercy here. None needed. Laugh or weep, it didn't matter. And all the while he shook the shacapa, a sound like a rattlesnake – the shhh-shhh-shhh sound of a slasher-film soundtrack. At first, for a long while, the sound was localized around Hairo. Then it seemed to jump all around the hut. When it moved inside your head, you knew the trip was starting.

One by one those who had drunk first staggered to their feet and were escorted from the platform. Those who remained, seated or sprawled on the cushions, could hear the violent retching. I couldn't help chortling – not as funny as farting, but funny still. But it was like a contagion and I was swept up, onto my feet, which felt far away, my legs like rubber. "Sometimes if she wants to teach you a lot she'll take your whole body away," Peter had said. I put my arm around George's shoulders and staggered off to the vomitorium, a gentle slope of sparse grass and dirt. "Here?" I asked. "Sí. Aquí." I knelt down before an ornate little altar of sepia-colored ceramic tiles, a personal apparition that was wherever I wanted it to be.

I couldn't believe the heroic retching going on all around me. Whoever was nearby sounded like a sick bullfrog the size of a gorilla. Brrargh! Mrrargh! She was Queen of the Frogs, Ayahuasca, and I was on my knees, croaking with the best of them. When the first wave of nausea passed and I opened my eyes again, I saw a two-foot dwarf and his even shorter sister standing by my elbow regarding me dispassionately. "I don't know if you guys are real or not, but do you have any toilet paper?" I said, cracking myself up. They apparently didn't. I closed my eyes again. Against a vivid egg yolk–yellow background, images began to pop like firecrackers, coming into view to the beat of the shacapas. Strutting imps. Clowns. Banal logos for nonexistent products. The head of an Indian with the body of a grub in the form of a bus, trucking down a highway. Beautiful mouths. Mouths with too many teeth. A giraffe with bandaged shins – from banging into coffee tables! The Belén market. Those grubs again. Insects. An infestation. No, no. Poof! Beat it! I wanted beautiful things.

The question was: Were the images coming from me or from Ayahuasca? Damn but I was too excited to tell. I was being turned inside out as fast as the outside was rushing in. There was no person except the one in solution, as it were, with the air and the earth. Though I might be nothing much, a bit of rag buffeted by the cosmos and pierced at every threadbare point, experience accrued, like bugs on a grill. I had history. I had problems. God help me!

I could hear Hairo singing a particularly lilting melody that sounded soft and wet and all about sex. The pussy passage, I called it, and it held somehow my personal history of love – a tone poem of ecstatic triumphs and cruel abandonments, the wake of hurt feelings and tears an ordinary man leaves in his career as a prick. And it was within that field of eroticism and responsibility that Ayahuasca began to instruct me. Bummer. But that's where my head was. I'd had a fight with my wife the morning I'd left for Peru and I had it coming.

I saw them then, the lovely lovelies, as I called them, redundantly. Girls and youths on sunny hills of daffodils, flirting. They were the jewels of the earth. As for me, I would never be young again. Ah, no, never. But I saw my wife, radiantly beautiful, opening her arms to me. We had chosen each other as lovely lovelies, she, me, despite the disastrous distance – from everything! – that was the curse and the gift I was born with. We'd hit a rough patch, as they say, over the holidays. I'd let the breach get too wide, my chilly distance, and she'd hardened against that absence in defense, causing me to retreat farther. I understood, under the duress of the medicine, that it was all my fault. It was my responsibility. Reverse the cycle. Okay. I would. Yes! A quadrillion times yes! Just let me live, Ayahuasca, and I'll do whatever you say.

So there and then, in the darkness of the vomitorium, I married my wife all over again.

Corny. I know! I know! But that wasn't all. There was still something hard in me that had to be broken down. I had to be completely humbled. I also really, really had to take a crap. I opened my eyes and good old Trickster George was standing by, an amused look on his face. "No puedo caminar," I said – I can't walk – and cracked up again. "Baño?" he said, chuckling in turn. "Sí, baño."

Eventually I made it to the safety of the ceremonial platform and my long-abandoned cushion. Hairo was still singing, still shaking his shacapa. I sang along quietly for awhile, watching the last images fade, feeling the medicine leaving me. The singing stopped at last. Ruber approached Hairo and asked, "Cómo están la gente?" How are the people? "La gente son tranquila," Hairo answered. The people are calm.