Honey, the Shaman Shrunk My Head
Credit: Illustration by Steve Brodner
As soon as I was alone I could think straight. Instead of eco-chic, ethnobotany, the rain forest experience, shamanism, or visions, I had encountered child prostitutes, gunrunners, oil people, blighted jungle, the place surrounded by guerrillas of the FARC; and the diminishing number of Secoyas seemed doomed. That village would soon be swallowed by the encroachment of oil people who were only half a day's march through the forest.

Perhaps this was meant to be my adventure, though I had not known it at the outset. The whole point of adventure is that it is unplanned; a leap in the dark, verging on the unfortunate, offering glimpses of danger; and what separates adventure from disaster is that you live to tell the tale.

In Lago Agrio I found Joaquin. He made the swigging motion with his hand and arm and gave me an inquiring smile.

In Spanish, I said, "No. It's a Chinese story."

Meaning, as the idiom has it, long and preposterous.

"Maybe I can help you," he said.

The others downriver were perhaps preparing for their ceremony. I had come all this way, and yet sitting there in that dreadful town I felt calm, even happy. I was on my own, I called my wife – yes, she had been ill, but with worry because she hadn't heard from me; so I had a reprieve – and now I had no sense of urgency.

My ayahuasca ceremony was private, one-on-one, in a large, open-sided shed inside the walled compound – prohibido el paso – of a large house at the edge of Lago Agrio. Don Pablo had briefed me and so I was prepared – though I would have preferred him to be my shaman. After all I had seen, I feared this ceremony would be an anticlimax. This was not a Secoya village, yet the shaman was real enough, and as for the ayahuasca, my barfing convinced me of its potency, the way poison can be medicinal.

Crouched and retching, I slipped into a time warp, twisting in a hammock to an auditory gust, a cataract of sound, of tinkling song, and matching images – torrents, and a waterfall of snakes, the serpents slithering in lakes of oil, the bleeding trees and spiders, helicopters that could have been spaceships, the scaly greasy river, which bunched and swelled, like an anaconda. The rasping hum in my belly might have been the chanting of the shaman. My whole body was vibrant with a syncopation of grunts and murmurs, but the colors I saw were subdued, like enlarged pixels.

The visions, though disturbing – the sticky oil flow, the twisted snakes – did not strike fear into me, but rather seemed to be part of something whole and coherent, fitting into a harmonious world of creation and destruction. The harmony was both the sound of the chanting and the glitter of the foliage and flitting birds and, as in a poem by Rimbaud, monstrous mouthlike blossoms.

I woke drooling and gasping, somehow on the floor of an open-air pavilion, my face stuck to a raffia mat.

Back home, I was reassured that my wife was fine now. For the whole of my time downriver she had felt short of breath, almost asthmatic with the anxiety that I was in danger. Some time later I talked to some people from the tour, who had joined the ayahuasca ceremony in the Secoya village. On one or two of them the drug had had no effect; others had experienced the moon shot. And there was a visitor – me, in my panama hat and Hawaiian shirt.

"Two people saw you," one of the ayahuasqueros told me. "You were there, in our visions, watching us."

That ghostly visitation was like a metaphor for being a novelist. Not long afterward I threw away what I had begun of my novel and started the real thing. Having experienced the blinding light of this drug tour, I felt I understood my subject. My novel went well, and in the several years of my writing it I often thought: Sometimes there's a spider in your cup that you don't see. You drink and move on, never knowing the creature is lurking in the liquid. But I had guzzled the whole cup and had a glimpse of the poisonous insect. I was resolute, with one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare murmuring in my mind: "I have drunk and seen the spider."

Truly, I had not known what I was in for before I went. I now knew where, and what it had done to me. "A place where the unknown past and the emergent future meet in a vibrating soundless hum," Burroughs wrote of his ayahuasca experience in The Yage Letters. "Larval entities waiting for a live one."

That was a lyrical way of putting it. And I had been the "live one." Ayahuasca was the formal reason for my journey, but the whole point of a leap in the dark is that you cannot foretell your fate. Many things I had seen on this trip had mattered much more than the ayahuasca. A few gringos dabbling in psychotropic drug potions was just a charade compared with everything else that was going on beyond the village.

In a sense the effect was like that of datura, the plant that makes you blind. The systematic oil search and the frantic drilling amounted to a conspiracy by American oil interests as they connived with the Ecuadoran government to take the oil and change the face of the rain forest forever. The result was – what? Enough oil to run Los Angeles for a week or so, vast profits for a few people, and more hookers, gunrunners, guerrillas, and homeless people in a bigger sprawling Lago Agrio. It was a terrible vision to take home, but one I went on living with. As in "The Aleph," I also saw the circulation of my own dark blood. Adventure is the unexpected experience of discovery, of course; but it is also a kind of death, an end of innocence.