Honey, the Shaman Shrunk My Head
Credit: Illustration by Steve Brodner

When I first read The Yage Letters, William S. Burroughs' cackling account of his drug search in Peru and down Colombia's Río Putumayo to locate what he referred to in Junky as the grail of psychotropics ("Yage may be the final fix") – a trip in which he was rolled, robbed, starved, diverted, and endlessly bullshitted in his quest to find a high that towered way beyond your average stoner's dreams of doobage – I closed the book and thought: I really must repeat his trip sometime.

Yage is yajé, Banisteriopsis caapi: vine of the soul, secret nectar of the Amaéon, the shaman's holy drink, the ultimate poison, a miracle cure. More generally known as ayahuasca, a word I found bewitching, it was said to make its users prescient, if not telepathic. Rocket fuel is another active ingredient: In an ayahuasca trance, many users have testified, you travel to distant planets, you meet extraterrestrials and moon goddesses. "Yage is space time travel," Burroughs said. A singular proof of this is the collection of trance-state paintings by one of ayahuasca's greatest proponents, the shaman and vegetalista Don Pablo Amaringo. Ayahuasca Visions, Don Pablo's book (written with Professor Luis Eduardo Luna), is a meticulous pictorial record of his many ayahuasca sessions. But there are risks in the drug too, not the least of which are convulsive fits and ghastly spells of vomiting. Many of Don Pablo's paintings include an image of someone engaged in picturesque puking.

Years passed. Then I was in the middle of a novel, and stuck for an idea, and in this period of Work in Stoppage I remembered "The Aleph," the great story of visions, by Jorge Luis Borges, where a man finds the inch-wide stone, the Aleph, that allows him to see to the heart of himself and the world. I realized the moment had arrived for me to find the insight and telepathy of ayahuasca, which would be my Aleph.

Some friends, former amigos of the old gringo and self-exiled writer Moritz Thomsen, told me they knew of ayahuasqueros among the river people in eastern Ecuador. I was given the name of an outfit that shepherded aliens into the tributaries of the upper Amazon, where traditional healers abounded. I made the arrangements, and soon found myself in a cheap hotel in Quito, awaiting the arrival of the other travelers on this drug tour.

"Drug tour" was my name for it. "Ethnobotanical experience" was the prettified official name for it, and some others spoke of it as a quest, a chance to visit a colorful Indian village, a clearing in the selva tropical, where just a few decades ago American missionaries sought early martyrdoms among the blowguns and the poison-tipped arrows of indignant animists resisting forcible conversion to Christianity.

The people who organized this drug junket characterized it as a high-minded field trip, eight days in the rain forest, for eco-awareness and spiritual solidarity, to learn the names and uses of beneficial plants. One of those plants was ayahuasca. There was no promise of a ritual, yet heavy hints were dropped about a "healing." We would be living in a traditional village of indigenous Secoya people, deep in Ecuador's Oriente province, near the Colombian border, on a narrow branch of Burroughs's Putumayo, where the ayahuasca vine clinging to the trunks of rain forest trees grows as thick as a baby's arm.