by Ben Cohen
The Water Mesada
On the first day, we went into the ceremonial tent and lined up by the Mesa -- a table filled with ancient artifacts from the Chavin empire -- a pre Mayan civilization in Peru that used Huachuma as a sacred sacrament. Don Howard had explained the purpose of the Mesa and it’s importance in ceremony with Huachuma, but it was a somewhat daunting sight and so far removed from any concept of spirituality that I had ever experienced that I felt a little nervous and unsure of what I was getting myself into. The Mesa supposedly comes alive during ceremony, and its a kind of conduit for the energy of Huachuma. A little far fetched for a Western mind deeply embedded in scientific materialism, but I was doing my best to let go of any preconceptions. Plus, my overriding desire to connect back into nature was so strong that I forced myself to “go with it” and I waited my turn to be called up to drink from don Howard’s cup.
The Huachuma concoction is not pleasant to say the least. It’s not quite as disgusting as Ayahuasca, but still extremely difficult to ingest. If you’ve ever had raw Aloe Vera juice, think of the sourness multiplied by a hundred, and with the consistency of phlegm. I managed to get the whole cup down, and immediately gulped limonada to help balance my stomach (Huachuma is alkaline, so an acidic lemon drink helps balance your stomach). After drinking and walking around the mesa (part of ceremonial ritual), don Howard told us all to gather our belongings and head to his boat for an excursion to a tribe that had been displaced in Ecuador and granted land by the Peruvian government. He recommended we listen to relaxing music for the journey to drown out the sounds of the motor and to try and enjoy the 45 minute trip.
Feeling a little queasy, I made my way down to the boat and got ready for the journey. Although it was raining, it was nice to experience the light breeze and I sat back for a pleasant ride along the Río Momón, a secondary tributary of the Amazon River. Howard told us that we would be visiting an Ecuadorian tribe who had been relocated to Peru after they had lost their land to an oil company. “This is your introduction to Huachuma,” Howard had told me on the way to the boat. “You’ll feel quite pleasant. But in the second Mesa, you go to school!”
The medicine had kicked in by the time we reached the docking area near to where the tribe lived, and I felt completely zoned in and connected to my surroundings. My vision appeared to be greatly enhanced along with my hearing, and it felt like I was in an ultra high definition version of reality. A small child had come to the dock to meet us and we disembarked and followed him along a wet, muddy path towards the village. While gazing in amazement at the effervescent looking plant life near the water, don Howard turned to me and said “it’s pretty cool isn’t it?”, as if intuitively understanding what I was processing. “This is where I live” he said, smiling. ‘This is my reality”.
The night before, don Howard had talked about the respect one needed to have for the plant medicines. “The medicines should only ever be used to heal and increase one’s consciousness and connection to the earth,” he said. It dawned on me in the thick of the rainforest that Shamans (or ‘Curanderos’ as they are known in Peru) quite literally live in these altered states pretty much all of the time and are in direct communication with their environment in a way normal people access through these plant medicines. Don Howard had told us that he didn’t need to use much of the medicine himself much any more. “That’s the level we’re at here at Spirit Quest,” he said. Before we had set out, don Howard had actually drunk a health dose of Huachuma. “For me, this is like fine tuning the screen on a computer,” he told me when I asked why he was drinking. “I’m just adjusting the settings a little.”
After about 10 minutes of walking through thick forest, it suddenly occurred to me that there was no way the small boy happily walking us through the foliage could have known we were coming. We were too far from the river for him to have heard the boat, and we were in such a remote area that there was no cell phone access (and the boy, dressed in tribal clothing, most certainly didn’t have one). I turned to don Howard and asked him. “How did he know what time we were arriving?"
“Telepathy” he said plainly, then smiled at me.
Whether or not this is true, I have no idea. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something to it. In the jungle, that type of talk is common and accepted — my Western mind obviously told me otherwise, but under the spell of Huachuma, I wasn’t so sure. It was as if the real world was being unveiled to me, one hidden by our senses, particularly ones dulled by Western life removed from nature and devoid of any sense of connection to it.
As we reached the tribe, I was fully under the influence and allowed the medicine to course through my body without questioning it. There were no visual effects, no nausea, or real tell-tell signs I was under the influence of any mind altering substance. The interaction with the tribe was great fun and we spent several hours playing with the kids, buying their artwork and listening to their chief tell us about the challenges they had gone through. I felt truly honored to be invited to their village and although we couldn’t communicate, it was an incredibly human experience. I took my shoes and socks off at one point as I got the sudden urge to feel the mud with my feet — an amazingly rewarding decision that seemed to plug me in even deeper to my surroundings. The earth itself was just as sensitive as the nerves in my feet, and it felt like a gentle, nurturing connection between myself and Pachamama.
We left the tribe on a real high, laughing and joking as we made our way back to the boat for the night time ceremony back at the sanctuary. The journey home was absolutely stunning, and I sat back with my earphones plugged in listening to relaxing music while watching the moon’s reflection shimmering daintily on the river. It was an incredibly clear evening, and the stars were beginning to appear brightly in the sky. Life couldn’t be more perfect, I thought, marveling at the raw beauty of the Amazon rainforest and savoring the experience I had just had.
We returned back to the sanctuary where we held another night time ceremony around the candlelit Mesa. It was a peaceful affair and my nervousness around ceremonial table filled with ancient artefacts (including human skulls!) had quietened considerably. As we walked around the Mesa, familiarizing ourselves with the layout as don Howard directed us to do, I couldn’t help but think that compared to Ayahuasca, it was a complete cake walk, and I felt confident about the next few days.
That confidence wouldn’t last long, though.