Honey, the Shaman Shrunk My Head
Credit: Illustration by Steve Brodner
What had started as a fairly straightforward search for the ayahuasca experience was becoming more complex, crowding my head with images: the oil squirting from bandaged pipes running alongside the road, the faces of the prostitutes – young fearful girls, old resentful women, the devilish faces of their customers – and the grinning tiger skulls, the spiders as big as my fist, the heat, the dust.

And terrorism: Joaquin had told me that the previous night on the bridge into Colombia, just about 10 miles away, some guerrilla soldiers of the FARC had stopped 20 cars. At gunpoint they had given the drivers cans of gasoline and said, "Douse your car and burn it, or we'll shoot you."

Twenty flaming cars blocked the San Miguel Bridge to Colombia, at La Punta, the frontier, that day.

"It is to discourage visitors," Joaquin said, with Ecuadoran understatement.

Leaving Joaquin, I rejoined the ecotourists. We took a bus to the muddy settlement of Chiritéa on the banks of the Aguarico. In Lago Agrio, on the roadsides, in Chiritéa, and along the riverbanks were mud-spattered signs, all bearing the same message: prohibido el paso. Keep out. We then boarded a dugout canoe and crouched inside this enormous hollowed-out tree trunk and set off downstream, powered by a farting outboard motor.

The river narrowed from a hundred yards or more to 50, then to 30, in less than an hour, the jungle overhanging it like thatch – drooping bamboo and trailing vines and big-leaved trees. The nervous chatter of the passengers in the dugout drowned the cries of flitting birds.

Such a river, deep brown from the silt of the runoff of the rains, and such a fragile-seeming boat, in such a distant place, created a sense of uncertainty among the gringos. The anxiety of traveling slowly down the gullet of the jungle suggested that a place so hard to get to would be equally hard to get out of. We were in the hands of the monosyllabic guides and the taciturn boatmen. I did not like the feeling of being in the same boat with these others. I need a degree of control over my coming and going. I am not happy in a herd, especially a herd of debutantes.

Daylight drained from the sky, the jungle darkened, the river gurgled at the hull of the dugout; yet the river, amazingly, was still visible, holding the last of the light, as though the day glowed undissolved in its muddy current.

"Remolino," a boatman said. "Whirlpool."

Beyond that swirl, and a long reach of the river, was the village: men in orange smocks, one or two wearing coronets of feathers and vines, boys snatching at the bowline and helping the visitors ashore.

We were directed to a communal platform, where we would all sleep on mats or in hammocks. I resisted this, partly because furry knuckle-size insects were bumping and batting the glaring lanterns, but mainly because I wished to sleep alone. I had brought my small tent, a Moss Starlet – packed, it was the size of a football – and my Marmot down-filled sleeping bag, much smaller in its bag than the tent. I set up camp in a clearing at the edge of the village.

For the following two days the creepy feeling I'd had at the outset deepened. I felt an uncertainty awaiting me back home, a sense of misfortune and dread; and also a disarray, a greater uncertainty here. The awareness of killing time wore on me in the sadness and decrepitude of the Secoya village.

I sat on a fallen log with Don Pablo, making notes, while spiders and ants crept across the pages of my notebook, and the river sucked at the muddy bank. I told him about the trouble with my novel. He spoke to me about the Eye of Understanding.

"This eye can see things that can't be seen physically," he said. "Some people have this Third Eye already developed. And for others the Eye of Understanding can be acquired through ayahuasca or some other certain jungle plants."

Each morning the same question. "Tonight?"

"Not tonight."

Not auspicious, or was it that a certain shaman had not arrived as planned, or that signals had been crossed? A great sleepy uncertainty dank with the moss and mildew of the forest settled over us.

If someone seemed at a loss for something to do, he or she was told, "You can weed Juana's garden."

Or we could paint pictures, or help build one of the structures, or consult the healers on botanical strategies. Most were happy to pitch in, but impatience was growing; a sense of discomfort, disorganization. The gringos who had seemed so tidy in Quito were looking grubby, sweaty, careworn. The Frenchman ridiculed America, the young writer objected to his casual abuse; a woman described her life as a series of sorry episodes and began to cry. A low level of bickering began as a barely audible hum in the jungle clearing.

"Where have you been?" people began asking me.

"Looking around," I said, annoyed that my absence had been noticed. In fact, I was spending time on the riverbank at the edge of the village making notes, or in my tent, away from the spiders, listening to my shortwave radio.

One morning Enrique, an Ecuadoran man, was denounced for his drunkenness the night before. As he was being humiliated and asked to apologize before the gringos, I smiled at his accusers' sanctimony.

When they were done, I pointed out that all this man's persecutors were chain-smokers and drug users. What was the problem with alcohol?

"Alcohol has taken a terrible toll on the indigenous people here," one of the American guides said.

And I was also thinking: Where's the ayahuasca? Don Pablo went on explaining it to me. Ayahuasca was like death, he said. "When you drink it, you die. The soul leaves the body. But this soul is an eye to show you the future. You will see your grandchildren. When the trance is over, the soul is returned."

One day, bored and restless in the village, I found a Secoya man to take me deeper into the rain forest.

He said, "We can see flowers. Birds. Big trees."

Preceding me, he slashed with a machete; a small Secoya boy followed. This was like Burroughs's trip, just as aimless and improvisational. People went on such drug tours in a mental quandary, it seemed. They were unused to being at close quarters in a simple village, and they were growing impatient waiting, as I was, for the shaman to summon us to the ayahuasca ceremony. I was happy to be away from their agitated laughter.

We walked for three hours in the humid heat on a muddy track under the high rain forest canopy. The flowers I saw growing wild were flowers I associated with Hawaii: brilliant heliconias, beaky strelitzias, wild-eyed blossoms, pink torches of wild ginger, and the attenuated Datura brugmansia, angel's trumpet, that gave people visions and made them blind. Ayahuasca, too: The vine was unprepossessing and serpentine on the tree trunks.

Only the dimmest daylight penetrated to the bottom of the forest. The greenish air was littered with gnats and filtered sunlight, and here and there a large woolly wheel of a spider's web, the spider crouched at the edge like a small dusty plum with legs.

Just as I was thinking it was possible to believe that, though humans had passed nearby, none had interfered with it, nor had ever bent a stem, nor plucked a flower, that this was a little Eden of the Secoya people, the small boy called out, "Escucha," tilting his head to listen.

There came a far-off chugging, like a motorboat plowing invisibly through the sky, and when it drew closer it became a more distinct yak-yak-yak.

"Mira! Helicoptero," the boy said, his hair in his eyes.

A shadow like a big brown cloud passed overhead, a gigantic Russian helicopter.

The forest dome, with its branches and leaves, prevented us from seeing the progress of the helicopter, yet we still heard it and were able to follow the airship's percussive sound, the drumbeat of its engine burps in the distance.

We were off the path now and chest high in ferns and big leaves as we saw ahead a brightness, perhaps a clearing, and then the descending shadow of the helicopter settling to earth.

We were stopped by a head-high chain-link fence that ran through the forest, razor wire coiled along the top edge, and skull-and-bones signs lettered in red, prohibido el paso, every 20 feet or so. Sunlight scorched the clearing within the fence – sunlight and steel towers and boxlike prefab structures and oil drums, and the huge sputtering helicopter, its twin rotors slowing, as men in yellow hard hats rushed back and forth from its open cargo bay, unloading cardboard boxes.

The encampment was entirely encircled by the fence and the forest. No road led here. And there was no break in the fence – no opening, not even a gate. When the sound of the helicopter died down we could hear the softer but regular pulsing of an engine and could see a steel cylinder moving up and down in the center of the clearing, pounding the earth, with gasping and swallowing noises, and the lurch of unmistakable grunts that sounded like squirts of satisfaction, pumping oil.

Near the entrance to one of the new bright boxy buildings, an Ecuadoran all in white – white shirt, white apron, tall white chef's hat – was conferring with another swarthy man in a short black jacket and striped trousers and a bow tie. This second man, obviously a waiter or a wine steward, held a tray on his fingertips, and on the tray a pair of thin-stemmed wine glasses and a wine bottle in an ice bucket.

Gringos were climbing out of the cockpit of the helicopter – clearly Americans.

"Petroleros," the Secoya man said, and added that we must leave at once.

It was one of the ugliest things I had ever seen in my life.

"This is Secoya land," I said. "How can they be drilling for oil?"

"We own what is on top," he said. "The government owns what is under the ground."

Later, I learned that the local people had been paid a pittance by an American oil company so that the fence could be erected, but no profits would accrue to them, and it was only a matter of time before this part of the rain forest would have the shops and brothels and bars and oil-spattered roads of Lago Agrio.

The vision of this oil well in the virgin forest added to my sense of derangement and demoralized me. I consulted Don Pablo.

"You are not calm," he said, and held my hands.

This was an understatement. I crawled into my tent that night, listening to the chatter of the gringos on the sleeping platform, wondering whether I had the stomach for this. My search for the final fix was turning into a muddle of procrastination. That night I had a nightmare: my wife very ill and calling out for me. In the morning I put this down to ambiguous guilt, my unconscious mind justifying my confusion and apportioning blame.

Sitting on the riverbank pondering what to do, I saw three gringo women from our group dressed in shirts and shorts begin swimming across the river from the far bank. They were chirpy, gargling water as they clumsily paddled in the swift brown stream. One cried out, "I lost my ring! It just dropped off my finger!"

The two others hesitated, and as they stopped swimming they were pulled downstream. The woman who lost the ring said, "Never mind. It was meant to be," but the river was too much for her, too. I kicked off my sandals and dived in, reached her after a few strokes, and brought her to shore. One of the others was thrashing, and didn't need much help, so I went after the third, who was heading toward Brazil in the churning current.

She was blowing and gasping as I got to her. Her clothes were dragging her down, she could barely lift her arms, but her shirt gave me something to hang onto and so, slowly – cautioning her not to grab me: I feared her panicky grip – I tugged her to shore.

Perhaps she was in shock. She whinnied a bit, mirthless laughter. She didn't thank me. She said, "I think I could have made it on my own."

In that moment of ingratitude, near-tragedy, and plain foolishness, I decided to bail out. My bad feeling about this group and this place seemed justified. What was I doing here? I had come for the drug, and I had seen the horror of Lago Agrio – whores and drugs and stories of burned cars and the Toxic Tour. Looking for the purity of the jungle I had found the violation by the oil people. These reckless women who had almost drowned themselves seemed proof that worse might be in store. And besides my wife was ill.

I rolled up my sleeping bag, folded my tent, and found a Secoya man who said he had a boat with an outboard motor. I paid him the $100 he asked for – pretty steep, I thought – and he took me upriver to Shushufindi, where I found my way back to Lago Agrio.