Through the Looking Glass of Yagé
Is the indigenous medicine for you? An honest and brutal telling of what it’s like
“Each day the fisherman sets out at dawn,” says Carlos Chindoy Chindoy, a shaman, or taita as he is actually titled, as we chat a few hours before the medicine ceremony begins. He is dressed in a long white robe with a necklace made of bear and jaguar teeth.
“He goes to the sea to harvest. The sea gives him life and provides for his family. For the fish it means death, but everything is a cycle,” he continues.
“One day the fisherman too will harvest death. He carries that fear in his heart, and it poisons him. The fear that he carries of that unavoidable day grows as he ages. He fears the next stage of the cycle,” he pauses, deeply inhaling smoke from one of the cigars he brings everywhere he goes, a semi-green mixture of raw tobacco from the amazon and various herbs.
“The irony, is that without that fear he would live longer. He would treat his family better. He would be more respected in his village. And when the time for that reaping comes, he would be grateful,” he pauses again.
“That’s what we try to give people. A way to not fear the next stage in the cycle — that means many things to many people. But we purge the fear and we treat the wounds every man carries.”
I am on the Northern Colombia coast to observe and photograph a yagé (pronounced Yah-hay) ceremony hosted by a taita and his team from the Amazon region in the Southeast.
Yagé is the name of the mixture of plants they use, made from the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis).
We have spent the afternoon together in an attempt for me to understand what that represents.
Yagé as medicine
Yagé has been administered by indigenous people in South America for thousands of years as a cure for psychic and physical ills — to purge darkness, both physical and mental.
Chindoy is a third generation shaman from the Amazonia region of Colombia. Everything he teaches and every aspect of the ceremony has been passed down orally through generations and generations, he tells me. His great-grandfather was a peasant. His grandfather decided to become a taita.
The uses of yagé have varied dramatically by tribe and over time, but nowadays most employ it as a combination of therapy for both physical and mental ailments and to re-connect to traditions ignored by an increasingly westernized world.
Chindoy says his team has been trained to guide people through the experience, caring for both their physical and emotional well-being as they “leave the earth”.
“Everything has to be aligned,” he says. “Everyone here knows the journey. They know when someone is headed towards darkness and how to guide them back.”
He is worried that this ceremony is taking place near the beach, so he has stationed two sentries to watch for anyone who wanders off.
“The sea calls.” he tells me. “And when they are in the other world, the call is felt more strongly.”
He doesn’t want anyone in an inebriated state deciding they should go for a swim.
His team numbers four people; two sentries with harmonicas and rattles, a fire-tender, and his assistant in conducting the ceremony Luis Gabriel Osorio, who also plays guitar, violin, flute and drums.
Music is an important part of the ceremony, with both modern and ancient songs and chants used to comfort those taking part — or to “chase away bad energy and spirits who may try to take one from the path” as Chindoy says.
There are about 40 people gathered for the ceremony and I am the only foreigner. Many of them have brought their children, which gives the environment a safer feel somehow. Many of the people know one other.
These ceremonies takes place six times a year, bi-monthly and always on the night of a full moon.
I watch the children play and neighbors greet one another. I am comforted by the display — the night ahead seems less dangerous.
It begins with a speech as Chindoy tells those preparing to take yagé what to expect. He guides them through the stages of what will happen.
Vomiting and diarrhea are virtually universal side-effects of the drug. He describes it as part of the “purge”. Attendees have been told to avoid rich foods and meat for the three days leading up to the ceremony to mitigate the effects.
“It may start with chills,” he says, “but that will pass. Then come the early visions. You may see images of darkness but do not fear.”
“Those will pass as well.”
He tells us that when the drug kicks in, we will be on our own voyage. He cannot tell us what to expect, but he will be beside us, guiding our journey.
He opens the ceremony with a prayer in his native tongue. He is accompanied by Osorio who at times chants along, other times making the guttural and breathy wordless expressions that have accompanied the ceremonies of yagé for thousands of years.
When the blessing is completed, he holds forth a long curved tube. He explains that before taking the medicine, we will be given a bit of rapé, a tobacco similar to snuff from the Amazon.
He says it is to prepare us for the journey ahead, to jolt us awake and clear our thoughts. The attendees approach one by one, and after a short prayer he blows a shot of the powder into our noses.
The rapé is strong. It burns like fire, spreading throughout one’s entire sinus system. It’s physical effects are instantaneous: a powerful nicotine jolt, a burst of energy and euphoria as well as an intense feeling of alertness.
My eyes water profusely as I move away from the altar where the ceremony is being performed.
After everyone has been given rapé a cleansing ceremony begins. The taitas chant and shake leaves doused in water they have brought from the Amazonia in bottles stuffed with coca leaves.
Each of us is attended to, blessed. Chonday explains that the ceremony is to prepare us for the journey, to wash away any negativity we may be carrying.
We file up to the altar one by one to be given the medicine. I am handed a cup with a thick, viscous, black liquid. I have been told the taste is foul so I prepare to take it as a shot, hoping to minimize the unpleasantness.
The stories were not exaggerated. It is earthy and deeply bitter; so thick it is barely a liquid. I force it down and return to a spot near the fire. I feel nauseous. Some people run off into the bushes to immediately vomit. I have that urge as well, but I force it down.
I am determined to not show any weakness. I don’t know if that’s because of my own stubbornness or out of a sense of self-consciousness at being the only gringo present.
My stomach churns and my mouth waters with the distinct tang that presages an inevitable and involuntary stomach purging.
But I fight it down. Eventually the sensation passes.
I sit on a blanket I have brought, staring into the fire. Once everyone has taken the medicine, the shamans walk amongst us speaking a tongue I do not understand. I wait.
Twenty minutes later I feel the effect of the medicine at the periphery of my vision and in my head — a lightness. I am not inebriated, but it is beginning.
Shadows dance in the corners, movement I cannot make out, but when I focus my eyes on their shifting images they caper away into nothingness.
One of the assistants walks by playing harmonica. Most of the people are lying down, eyes closed or staring silently off into nothingness.
I sit indian-style with my legs crossed, staring into the fire.
The musician/sentry stops before me. “Are you alright, brother?” he asks me.
I assure him I am.
“Are you travelling?” he asks me
I tell him I’m still waiting for the train, but it seems to be leaving very soon.
He smiles at me. “Have a good voyage,” he says, returning to his patrol and his harmonica.
Chills. I am suddenly intensely cold despite my proximity to the fire. I was expecting this so I contain my fear. Just like the nausea, it’s only my body reacting to a foreign substance. It will pass.
When I was young I experimented with a lot of drugs, especially psychedelics. The key is to remain calm. Our mind can be our worst enemy on a normal day. In the throes of hallucinogenic intoxication it is capable of inducing raw terror, panic attacks and a vortex of paranoia.
The key is to remain calm.
I shiver intensely. My thoughts are becoming disjointed. A thousand scarabs race out of the fire. They swarm towards me. As they approach they scatter, forming a fascinating pattern, an ancient, alien, tiny Egyptian army of beauty and destructive chaos, wisdom and pestilence.
I see the firelight reflect off of their insectoid carapaces, a million tiny prisms scuttering in perfect geometric otherwordly patterns.
Ok. I’m officially tripping balls.
I smile. A euphoria washes over me. I am sole person in the room not lying down, but with every moment that passes the details of the mundane material world grow less distinct.
The world is melting away.
The taitas begin a song, chanting in a mixture of Spanish and their native tongue. I don’t understand a word. I wouldn’t have understood a word if it had been in English. Logic is no longer a part of my personal universe.
But I understand this music is the bridge to another galaxy. They are guiding the way.
I no longer have a sensation of time. Everything is happening, and nothing is happening.
I realize my eyes are closed and I am curled up in a fetal position on my blanket. I hear the music. Someone is screaming something, but I barely register it.
I am too busy focusing on the swirling fluorescent dragons surrounded by perfectly placed geometrical glowing shapes that dance around one another in my head.
I am no longer on the earth. I am no longer in this dimension. I am no longer in my body.
I won’t dwell on every detail, but for hours I was simply…gone. Not present.
When logic and rationality start to return just a little I find myself in a void. Well, I find two of my selves in a void, we look one another in the face. I wasn’t sure which me my conscience resided in. Both…but also neither.
I have a brutally honest conversation with myself, we trade insults in the void as my point-of-view bounces back and forth between the two of us, I am a conscience separated from body that ricochets back and forth as if it were no more than an insignificant little ball in some cosmic pinball game.
I won’t relate the conversation, but it was brutal. No one can insult you like you can insult yourself. No one else knows all your secrets and hidden motivation. No one knows so well exactly how to hurt you most.
It was painful and horrifying shedding of my ego, our ego — a truly black mirror of intensely painful honesty.
And then it is over. My sight returns. A few people are playing songs near the fire; guitar, flute and harmonica. Some are singing.
I have no idea how much time has passed, two hours? Three? Four? Perhaps it was only five minutes?
I’m still hallucinating, but it’s back to the peripherals. It’s back in the shadows. And…my stomach.
I rush to bathroom, where I spend the next twenty minutes “purging”. I have never defecated like this in my life. After 10 minutes I wonder how there can still possibly be anything in my digestive tract. But apparently there is.
Even in the darkest moments of food poisoning I have never experienced such a flow of fluvia.
The rustic simple bathroom is lit by a candle and the doorway is a plastic curtain. I watch the shadows dance on the semi-transparent curtain-as-doorway in between bouts of involuntary stomach spasms. I won’t dwell on how the spasms felt with a head full of yagé.
But eventually I am able to leave the bathroom.
I pass the rest of the evening drifting, listening to the truly amazing musicianship of the assistant taita — he is unequivocally a master musician.
The music unites the group of people whom are all once again becoming aware of each other’s existence. We have left our private travels to rejoin the community.
The taitas are good at what they do, from timing, to monitoring to encouraging an environment of positivity and trust.
My rationality starts to slowly return. I am back among the living. I am living. When the sun breaks, I have never seen a sunrise so glorious. I feel as though I have rested, although it has now been more than 24 hours since I slept.
The sun rains glorious warmth and energy down upon us. I eat strawberries, looking at the ocean, grateful to be alive. Grateful to have new insight into my ego and my weaknesses.
I hope you will forgive me for my departure from the norms of prose and storytelling in the above account. Journalistic objectivity and detached style do not suffice to tell the tale properly so I took some liberties.
There existed no more honest method to bring you along for the journey. I now return to the realm of fact, plain writing and simplicity.
Was it fun?
No. It really wasn’t. Yagé is not a recreational drug. It was difficult and scary and not something anyone would ever use to “party”.
It was beautiful, and even as a painfully skeptical atheist, there was a sense of sacredness. It is powerful. I still think about a lot on the lessons I learned cutting myself to ribbons.
It was also painful, confusing and terrifying. But it is always that way to face our ego, no? Our egos are ugly, nasty, bad-intentioned things.
Was it necessary?
It was a tool. There are many paths to self-knowledge and life lessons. It was very useful in the sense that it forced a confrontation over some things I had been avoiding. I feel I could have learned the same lessons in another manner. Although it wouldn’t have been as otherwordly or dramatic, and there is an appeal to that.
Confronting the darkness and walking away from the experience is a powerful and appealing idea. I believe I could have spent some time really meditating on my life and I could have gathered the same result, or read an amazingly well-written book. There are infinite tools to gain self-knowledge.
Would I do it again?
I would. I would go back into the fire again with a bit more knowledge about what to expect, and looking for more specific lessons.
A lot of people I talked to here in Colombia say they have defeated serious addictions, dealt with depression, centered themselves before making life-changing decisions or overcome physical illnesses using the tool that is yagé.
If you are looking for something that forces you to take a deep introspective look at your real motivations, yagé can be that. It is also useful to keep in mind that it is one tool among many.
It’s power cannot be denied, but there are many paths to enlightenment.
Carlos Chindoy Chindoy tells me after the ceremony “Knowledge, love and valor are a journey. It’s like walking up an infinite staircase. No matter how high you climb, you never reach perfection.”
“But the higher you climb, the more beautiful the view.”
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter based in Bogota Colombia. For more stories you can follow him on twitter