Down the Monkey Hole
Credit: Wade Davis / Getty Images

During the first ayahuasca ceremony, while I was puking, I'd told myself: Okay, now you've tried it. Never again. But I'd recognized even then that it was just a survival mechanism. When you're nauseated you'll tell yourself that you'll never again imbibe whatever made you sick. It is the whole point of nausea. It didn't mean you couldn't change your mind. And I had. By the time we'd gathered again in the cocina, with the second ceremony only moments away, I was just as excited as I'd been the first time, only maybe more nervous. A little more respectful and reverent, even. Peter told us that each time could be different, that if you'd had a lot of purging and suffering the first time, the next time could be all light and beautiful visions. I was really hoping for that.

We took our places again on the cushions, veterans now of Hairo's brew. Christine, who was on my left, gave me a hug, and we wished each other luck. Jonathan was on my right. We clapped each other on the back: "Good luck, man."

We drank, and Hairo sang, shook the shacapas. The eerie shhh-shhh-shhh sound jumped into my head. It was like the first trip on fast-forward. Everything rushing, twitching. The air was thick with spirits – or something – buzzing, muttering. I staggered out and fell to my knees in the vomitorium and prayed.

"I accept!" I said.

Like I had any choice. Accepting didn't do any good. I was going down the monkey hole anyway. My pulse rate soared, and the panting became life-and-death desperate, as if I were sprinting just steps ahead of a locomotive. Yet even then there was a part of my mind that was coldly alert, watching. That rational voice said, Okay, dude, maybe it's time to go ahead and panic. I think you're about to have a heart attack. I was going to die, and in the morning they'd find me, cold and stiff and ridiculous.

No, don't panic! I told myself.

Idiot! You are panicking. This is what panic feels like.

That seemed somehow to calm me a little. I seemed to catch my breath for a moment. It was possible I might hold on a little longer. Second by second.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I looked up out of my delirium. Trickster George. "Malo," he said.

What? Evil? "Malo," he said again, squatting beside me. He brushed his hand across the dirt. "Hormigas," he said. Ants.

Oh fucking great. But all right. Hanging onto George, I clumped back to my cushion. Jonathan, I saw, hadn't moved all night. Christine was already sitting up, coming out of it. I flopped over onto my side and assumed the fetal position. I seemed to be wrestling with the spirit of my long-dead grandfather and his multigenerational legacy of woe. Compassion! That was the only help. Meanwhile, my bowels were bubbling and squeaking. I was in imminent danger of shitting myself and latched onto the goal of not doing so.

"Cómo están la gente," I heard Ruber say to Hairo some minutes later. "La gente son tranquila."

Not really. The medicine held me for another couple of hours of rushes and panting spells, and then at last seemed to come to some conclusion, a final vision of a desolate windswept crag. A Golgotha. Place of the skull. The world without me. Dear me. When I could finally sit up, everyone was long gone. Even Hairo was asleep on his mat nearby under mosquito netting. My efforts to stand up roused him and he was quickly at my side. "Baño?" he asked.