Down the Monkey Hole
Credit: Wade Davis / Getty Images
The birds were already twittering in the gray light by the time I made it to my bed. I lay awake waiting for everyone to get up. For some reason, I was eager to tell my tale. Dude, I've been down the monkey hole! I'd been down it and was never going back. I was like a new convert to AA or NA or any A you wanted. I told Jerry the whole story in as much detail as I could muster. He listened patiently, pushed his glasses up, and smiled. "It sounds like you experienced the 'little death.' It's a commonly reported phenomenon with ayahuasca."

The little death, eh. Commonly reported. That was somehow oddly deflating. It was also the first chink in my resolve to never touch the medicine again. After all, we still had one more ceremony on our schedule, back in Iquitos.

That night, our last at the camp, Peter threw a party for the whole bush neighborhood, anybody who could paddle round the bend or peque-peque from miles away. He gave away all the food we hadn't eaten and poured the aguardiente with a liberal hand. There was even a band that knew maybe three songs for pennywhistle and drums – catchy tunes all, and perfect for the local style of dancing, which was almost like marching. We were a long way from home, and many of the locals were soon quite intoxicated. Whenever the music stopped you could hear a strange wind blowing through the trees, but the leaves weren't moving and in fact there was no breeze. Peter said it must be spirits.

After a night on the riverboat we were back in Iquitos in a fleabag hotel. I ran into Hairo in the lobby that afternoon, and with help from Ohio Mike, who was pretty fluent, I asked the shaman if he'd seen anything, you know, malo hovering around me at the last ceremony. He said, Mike said, that he hadn't seen anything, but had been aware of my struggle – mi lucha. Lucha was right. I arranged for a quickie "cleansing," a sort of exorcism – one icaro's worth, for 20 soles, about seven bucks. Hairo sat me down and broke out his mapachos, his shacapas, and he sang that sad song that I loved. He blew smoke at me and made a sound like buhbuhbuh as he sucked at the top of my head. Get 'em all, man, I thought.

The next day we traveled out of town by van for the final ceremony, hiking in about a mile from the highway to the botanical reserve and shamanic retreat called Sachamama ("the mother spirit"). It was a pretty place in a patch of upland jungle, quite rustic, with lots of very skinny cats and even skinnier Europeans dressed as if they were in Rishikesh. There was nothing to eat, since everyone was fasting for the ceremony, and nothing to drink but a flavorless tea. I couldn't help wondering if there was some sort of bulimia cult thing going on here.

The Sachamama brew was supposed to be dynamite, Peter said. Less vine and more shrub. (Hairo tended to go heavy on vine, he told us now.) So if we hadn't gotten it yet, we were sure to "get it" tonight. It seemed we were all more than a little afraid of that, everybody tiptoeing around and whispering, except Ras. Like me, Ras had gone monkey hole last time, but unlike me, he'd prudently stayed behind in Iquitos.

At last it was full dark and time to head to the ceremony. Our group filed in with half a dozen other pilgrims, those staying in the isolated jungle bungalows and doing the Dieta, the monthlong fasting retreat, and we all took seats on long high-backed benches. These were a great innovation. Instead of staggering to the vomitorium, all you had to do was twist around and puke. The shaman Francisco Montes and his assistant Rachel approached the communicants, blessing each, anointing each, and checking their pulses for, I think, potential cardiac cases. Smart. Then we were called in turn to the altar to drink from a gourd cup. I tried to quaff my portion in a gulp, but had to gulp again, and barely kept it down.

The two shamans sang beautifully. They shook their shacapas and the darkness began to bustle and shimmer. I heard Ohio Mike, who was sitting next to me, whimper, then groan. Peter was right there, asking, "You okay, Mike? You okay?" But no, Mike was not okay. He was just getting started. Across the room Christine squeaked, "I don't want to do this." And Peter rushed to comfort her, his murmured voice, the ur-parental voice every child hears in his bedroom late at night: It'll all be all right. Then Mike was heaving over the back of the bench, crying, "Oh God! Help me!"

I was just eyes and ears. I wouldn't go anywhere in my head that I'd been before. I couldn't prevent the Tourette's when a wave broke through me, but it was more a cringing politeness, like "Thank you! No more for me. That'll be fine." I tried to watch the stirring darkness, the twittering microbial lights. It really was alive, a fairyland, but I couldn't bear those fairies. The seductive suction of them. I was way too high. All my fingers were palsied, twitching. My right arm felt hot and stiff, as if encased in horn. Beside me, Mike was now thrashing, sounding as if he were dying.

Then Christine piped up, in a high beautiful voice like birdsong. "I get it!" she said. "It's so beautiful! I love my life! I love it! Thank you! Thank you!"

Everybody came out of wherever they were and clapped. We loved Christine. I loved Christine. I loved her. I loved poor Mike. And beautiful Ashley. And Peter and Jerry and Jonathan and Joven and Cassandra and Ras. I loved the whole group like family. But –

– I was over the back of the bench, roaring to the jungle. This was the big one, the real thing, the Purge. There was something in me that had no name, that was beyond good and evil, nature and the supernatural. To know it was to puke it, and to puke it was to puke again.

Out!

Out!

Out!

I was done.

Thank you!