by Ben Cohen
The Snuff From Hell, and a Journey to the Afterlife
The ceremony the end of the second Mesada was one the most physically challenging of my life. Don Howard told us that we would be pouring liquid tobacco name ‘Singado’ up our noses to clear out mucus for the final ceremony when we would be snorting ‘Vilca’, the most potent psychedelic substance known to man -- a substance so powerful that those who took it reported going directly to the afterlife (Vilca means ‘The Sacred’ in Quetchua). He joked that a Singado ceremony was ‘Andean waterboarding’ -- an analogy that was woefully inadequate. If I had the choice of being waterboarded for a week or a single Singado ceremony, I’d take the waterboarding every single time.
Still deeply plugged in to Huachuma, we gathered round the Mesa as don Howard poured the pink looking liquid into a small sea shell. One of the aides had placed purge buckets on the floor and was armed with hundreds of napkins. I tilted my head back and poured the antiseptic smelling liquid up my left nostril, planning on saving enough to put up the right. Alas, the effect was so powerful that I began coughing and spluttering instantaneously. It felt as if someone had placed rocket fuel into my sinuses and whatever was in there was coming out - and fast. For 15-20 minutes I sneezed, coughed and sputtered uncontrollably, watching in horror as an unGodly amount of mucus came out of my nostrils. After the intense pain had calmed down I took my seat and began testing out my newly cleared sinuses. I have to say, for all the pain and misery that I had just gone through, it was definitely worth it. I could smell and breathe better than I had done in years and I felt a great sense of mental clarity. The others had recovered from their ordeal and we settled in for the closing of the ceremony. It had begun to gently rain, and as we sat in the candlelit Maloka I had the overwhelming sensation of coming into complete harmony with our surroundings. It was as if Pachamam was gently watering herself, nourishing life in her belly and providing sustenance for all of her children. I looked around the room and notice Tina beaming from ear to ear, a heartwarming sight and a sign that I had finally ‘tuned in’ to the rest of the group. I had been judgmental upon my arrival, but now I saw Tina for what she was -- a marvelous spirit who wanted to laugh her way through life and enjoy every moment of it. Who was I to judge the way others practiced their own spirituality?
I went to bed happy and content, looking forward to my day off but eager to go deeper into the mysteries of Huachuma and the awesome yet terrifying Vilca. I was less afraid than ever before and felt ready to conquer my fears and go towards my own death -- an experience Vilca promised to deliver. “It’s very convincing” don Howard told us at dinner. “This is the ultimate journey and a direct passage to the afterlife. You won’t be the same afterwards.” I studied his face intently. He wasn't joking.
The Air Mesada
Knowing that you are going to die has an odd effect on one’s behavior. There is a solemnity and a sense of foreboding that is difficult to describe. Life seems to slow down to an almost unbearable pace, and every moment is laced with profound meaning. What you talk about, look at, think about and feel are magnified to momentous proportions and it takes a great deal of nerve to function normally. We drank Huachuma in the afternoon and spent the day walking around the grounds of the retreat. The effects of the cactus came on quickly and all of us were deeply plugged in after a couple of hours. Trying to describe the feeling of almost complete synchronicity with my surroundings is difficult to put into words, but it was as if someone had placed the most expensive surround sound speakers inside my head and started playing the rhythms and sounds of the jungle at maximum volume. It was so mesmerizing that I had to catch myself repeatedly, reminding myself that I was still me and at least somewhat separate from my surroundings. Knowing that we would be taking Vilca later that night had the effect of grounding me -- as far out as I was with Huachuma, I knew I would have to go much, much farther later on.
As the sun went down and the stars began to pierce the crystal clear night, we walked with don Howard up to the star deck, a purpose built platform that overlooked the retreat and the river. I was so awestruck by the experience that I had a hard time focusing on what don Howard was saying. As I lay on my mat, I could feel my heart beating in perfect synchronicity with the birds, frogs and insects that now sounded like a finely tuned orchestra. As I came in and out of what felt like different realms of consciousness, I heard a shushing sound in my ear. It was don Howard gently pulling me back, grounding me as I floated further and further into the ether. I looked up and saw him on the other side of the deck, at least 25 feet away. How had he done that? I have no idea, but it is an experience I won’t forget.
Moments later as I regained my senses, I notice that everyone was circling the Lanson, a stone monument built in the middle of the deck (pictured above). There was a bright red light shooting out of don Howard up into the night sky -- a shocking spectacle that had me reeling for several moments. Had don Howard just created a hole in the universe? What was this piercing red light, and where was it coming from? It then dawned on me that of course he hadn’t shot star beams out of his hands, he was using a laser pen! I couldn’t help but feel silly about it, and it had the effect of pulling me out of the experience for a few minutes. “This is your journey into the third Shamanic world,” don Howard said gently, his voice floating over the warm night time air. “We offer prayers to the creator without dogma, without religious affiliation and with great love and affection.” As the medicine coursed through me I began sinking deeper and deeper into the experience and allowed myself to let go of prejudice and send my prayers to whoever or whatever was ‘up there’. I prayed for my family, my friends and my then fiancee (now my wife). I wished them happiness and peace, hoping that they could experience at least a little of what I was now going through.
After what seemed like an eternity, it was then time to go back to the Maloka and take part in the final ceremony of the Huachuma Mesada -- the journey into the Afterlife, and hopefully rebirth. “Remember, there are no guarantees,” don Howard reminded us again. “We haven’t lost one yet, but if it’s your time, it’s your time.”
While pangs of fear shot through my stomach, I became filled with a deep sense of purpose. If it was my time to die, it was my time to die. I had made it this far, and I wanted to know what -- if anything -- was on the other side. “You have to go in with no fear,” said don Howard gently. “Accept what is and don’t try to control it. When it gets difficult, stay calm and do your best to relax.”
As we gathered around the Mesa in the Maloka, I felt completely in sync with all my fellow travelers who were also nervous, but committed to seeing this through. We stared intently at don Howard as he took his place by the front of the Malok. He was now dressed in dark blue and wore a different ceremonial scarf around his head, signifying his new role for the night -- the gatekeeper to the Afterlife.
“You have come here in search of something,” don Howard said quietly, his serene voice carrying through the sea of consciousness we were all immersed in. He seemed to be talking to me directly, but to everyone else at the same time -- another experience my rational mind still can't quite comprehend . “Your whole life has led up to this point, and now it is time to take your final test. We all want to know what happens when we die, and now is your chance to find out. Our fear tells us that death is the end, but our hearts tells us it is only the beginning.”
In descending room number order, don Howard then called us one by one up to the Mesa to take inhale the Vilca. He spoke softly to each pilgrim as they readied themselves to journey into the realm of the dead. Tina went up to the Mesa, and I marveled at her complete willingness to surrender to the experience. Human bravery comes in all shapes and sizes, and dainty middle aged women were apparently the fiercest warriors of our species. Then Michael went up, a fellow Martial Artist and all round incredible person whom I had bonded with over the week. As he went to take the Vilca, I caught his eye and thumped my chest with my fist. “I’m here with you my friend,” I signaled to him. Michael smiled and put his fist to his chest in solidarity, then snorted the Vilca before heading off to his room.
“Room number 9”, don Howard called out. That was me.
My heart was racing, but I steadied myself and made my way towards the Mesa, which was now quite literally pulsating with energy.
“Welcome, brother,” said don Howard smiling. “Try to lead with your heart, and not your head,” he continued, embracing me with a huge hug. He held me for a moment, his heart pounding so strongly through this chest that I could feel it on mine. At 69 years old don Howard wasn’t getting any younger, but his heart was strong and proud like a warrior who still had fight left in him.
He then instructed me how to take the Vilca, directing me to inhale the black powdery substance through a 3,500 year old hollowed out human knuckle bone. I inserted the bone up my left nostril, then hoovered the sooty powder up from the tray holding the Vilca. It was unpleasant, but nothing like the Singado, so I was able to do both sides fairly comfortably.
“You better go to your room now,” said don Howard.
And with that, I moved as quickly and quietly as I could out of the Maloka, accross the hall and into my bedroom that I had set up earlier as a tomb for me to die in.
Next: Dying Slowly and a New Beginning