As you browse through your trusty Telegraph recently you may have seen that Prince Harry, while promoting his autobiography, Replacement, revealed that to ease his passage through troubled and youthful years – and he has been through a lot – he consumed various substances, and among these was a potion loved by some indigenous South American communities, a concoction known as ayahuasca.
Reading this I found myself transported back 30 years to the humid forests of the Peruvian Amazon, where I studied with various sorcerers, or curanderos and i met the stuff for the first time. After a passenger boat trip up the Ucayali tributary, swinging all night in my hammock among the river folk, I took a pirogue up a creek and finally arrived at the hut of a famous shaman – let’s call him Alfonso. Here, I was introduced to the cosmic world of him and an unenviable diet of spiritually purifying nuts.
“Señor, are you ready for the ayahuasca,” he intoned gravely one evening. “Gate of the Gods”.
“Oh good,” I gasped weakly – because I’d been following her spiritually purifying nutty diet for what felt like weeks now. Alfonso cut some leaves and some vines. He put them in an old, battered kettle. He added a splash of ditch water.
A fire was lit in a clearing and in due time, with growing excitement, I sipped what Alfonso was offering me: a cloudy, acrid-smelling infusion. “Many vomit terribly,” observed Alfonso, nodding sagely as I vomited. All night I waited for something to happen, all the while enjoying the fireflies, fruit bats and other fluttering creatures of the tropical night. At dawn I was still waiting.
The next occasion with Alfonso was equally unsuccessful but quite different, if only because I was accompanied by an Irishman named Paddy. No seriously.
“Did I drink it all?” Paddy asked impatiently, as a determined Alfonso now offered a whole bucketful of noxious stuff. And then it struck me how vulnerable innocent and perhaps desperate Westerners were at the hands of unlicensed practitioners like Alfonso. I had been in the Amazon for months, but Paddy didn’t speak a word of Spanish and everything had just arrived fresh from the Emerald Isle.
Thankfully, no harm has been done and Paddy’s bout with ayahuasca I’m sure will stay with him. (“Benedict, what’s happening to the trees?” he yelled. “Trees have HANDS!”) And during my years with Indigenous communities, I, too, have been taken from my own world into another.
With the Huichols of Mexico, for example, I took part in a demanding three-week pilgrimage to the arid and ancestral lands of Wirakuta, where their gods reside. As we walked, we had to confess out loud the names of everyone we’d ever slept with – embarrassing! – and finally, after much fasting, having given up all other concerns of the flesh, and being judged ready, we ate the peyote cactus.
Soon the stones began chirping; everything slowed down, as if the shrubs around me were under water.
Rarely for me, have I felt at one with our world. And, writing this, I wonder if Harry felt that sense of peace too.
Well, maybe I’d reached the realm of the immortals or maybe I was just freaking out, but wherever I’ve ingested a consciousness-altering brew, the occasion has invariably been marked by a prescribed ritual, a deep understanding of an indigenous culture.
And there’s the problem: where our Paddy has led, many equally unknowing backpackers have followed these days. These days, a trip to a jungle shaman has become quite a bourgeois affair, not least because of a string of lost celebrities seeking enlightenment, and that BBC TV series from a few years ago called Tribe in which the presenter Bruce Parry is briefly immersed in this and that exotic looking ritual. Sold to us as “soft anthropology,” I suspect the show was more commonly referred to by real anthropologists as “anthro-porn.”
Many psychotherapists claim that ayahuasca can actually help mental disorders. I guess that’s true. Harry, for example, seems to believe it. But I’m afraid the boring truth is that these “other realities” that the participants so casually try to experience are derived from powerful chemicals – mescaline in the case of peyote. Without the accompanying cultural restrictions, or at least a minimal understanding of “tribe” in the cosmology of questions, you’re just getting another party drug.
Personally, I would prescribe a “trip” not with the ayahuasca but into the forest itself. Spend adequate time there and it’s a reality as good as you need – those fireflies, those fluttering fruit bats – and frankly enough cure for most of this world’s ills.