When I was a pink flamingo — an ayahuasca journey

My new shaman friends

The calling

It’s October 2018. Not a good year so far. The “real world” spat in our faces a few times this year so my girlfriend and I decided to take a break. We packed up shop, and bought some flights to Peru. South America here we come. We’re going to live it up, figure things out and live happily ever after. That’s the plan.

Now what better way to work your shit out than by taking some strange amazonian plants and puking your guts out in a dark tent, right?

I first heard about ayahuasca a few years ago, on the Tim Ferriss podcast. Even though it’s the daddy of all hallucinogenics, Tim talked about it more as a healing tool. As a medicine. A way to to figure things out. To learn about yourself. To heal physically and emotionally. To loose your ego. To lift yourself into higher states of consciousness.

Ever since I travelled to Asia, I learned about buddhism, I started meditating regularly and experimenting with silent meditation retreats. I became interested in learning about myself. About the world. About what makes me who I am. And I wanted to dig deep and find out what I was made of rather than just work and drink myself through it in London.

On the surface, I wanted to figure out what to do next. I have free rein. I don’t have any commitments. I have a job that I can do remotely and part time. I can go and do anything. What’s the next chapter going to be all about? What’s important to me? What do I care about? All big questions that felt impossible to answer. The more I thought about it, the more I bumped up against little anxieties, worries and fears that stop me from choosing something, from doing something awesome with my life. It’s exciting, sure, but there are those voices in my head that say I’m not good enough. Or I don’t know what I’m doing. Or debating endlessly how I can make my mark on the world or wether I should just sack it all off, move to Canada to go snowboarding and live like a teenager for the rest of time. I have a lot of those voice. And they’re very active this trip.

But that’s my thing. Or at least one of my things. You have your thing. Everyone has a thing.

Now we were in the land of Ayahuasca. Peru. My girlfriend works in rainforest conservation with indigenous people. If I’m ever going to try this, the time is now.

The decision

My first opportunity came up in the form of a shaman recommended to me by a friend of a friend — deep in the Ecuadorian jungle. At the time I was pumped and up for it, but it turned out to be a logistical nightmare. And a blessing in disguise. I was going into the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle with only a hint of Spanish speaking ability to take the strongest hallucinogen on the planet.

Think Alex, think.

So I did. I started looking into it a bit more seriously. I started searching for more official centres. I read, I researched, I spoke to people and then finally decided to go to a place called the Rainforest Healing Centre. This is based near Iquitos and it turned out to be a great choice, but my aim here is not to promote any one place — there are many others that are great. Instead, I think it’s more useful to share the things I considered in my decision making process for anyone looking to do the same. like I said, if you’re gonna loose your shit, you want to know you’re in good hands.

It’s simple. For me, two things mattered the most:

Reputation — A track record of good reviews and publicity. Who are the people who set it up? What is the general vibe of the place? What’s my gut feeling?

Support — Who are the shamans? What’s their story? Did they learn from their shamanic grandparents when they were little or from howtobeashaman.com 6 months ago? Do they speak english? Are there english speaking facilitators to help me understand and process my experiences and make sure I don’t actually become a pink flamingo?

Those two things got me 80% of the way there. Other things I considered are

Max number of people in ceremony — taking ayahuasca is a personal inward journey — how many other people are going to puke, shit, cry and loose their shit next to you? (for RHC it’s 8 — I’ve seen others with 20+, even as many as 60!)

Location — Ecuador turned out to be a nightmare to get to. This depends on everyone’s situation. If you’re flying out especially for it, probably doesn’t matter that much.

Cost — Obviously. But maybe not so obvious. For me, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice on the first 2 points. It’s the first time I’m doing this, it’s bat shit crazy, so I’d rather pay a bit more and relax than be on edge the whole time. At the same time, you don’t want to get ripped off. And you definitely don’t want to pay $50 to a guy in the street. Trust is the most important thing. If you don’t feel safe or you have doubts, it will ruin your experience. Don’t do it.

So I’m glad I sat down to think about it a little before jumping on a bus to Ecuador to go meet my friend’s uncle’s dad’s shaman. 5 years ago might have been a different story!

And with that I grab my bags and jump on a flight to Iquitos.

The prep

I have 3 days in Iquitos on my own before the retreat starts. Like a prepubescent teen’s first kiss, I feel that right mix of nervous and excited. I’m confident I chose the right place and I’d spoken to the owner, Omar, over Skype. He was a genuinely a nice dude with great intentions and I had a good feeling about it all. I use the time I have before the retreat to relax and get myself into a good mindset. I meditate a lot, walk, journal, chill and watch films like Avatar, which — fun fact — I found out was made because James Cameron drank ayahuasca! True story.

As part of taking ayahuasca, one needs to follow a strict diet before and after the ceremonies. No salt, sugar, fat, oil, red meat, dairy, sex or anything fun basically. I need to keep this up for at least a week before the retreat. It’s preparing my body for the plant to work (RHC have some good info about this here). Ayahuasca has a strong purgative effect, so anything unhealthy you put in your body will come straight out, making the ceremonies more difficult. So I obey, and I slowly make my way through all of the ayahuasca friendly cafes in Iquitos which have special menu options for all the crazy folk.

The science

Why on earth has dieting got to do with taking psychedelics you say?

Glad you asked.

Part of it is to do with the purging effect of ayahuasca. The first thing it’ll do is “clean” you out. Much like meditation quiets the mind before spiritual insights can occur, ayahuasca cleans the mind and the body of toxins before any insightful messages can be delivered. These toxins are anything that’s bad for your body. We tend to have pretty salt and sugar heavy diets in the west, drink a lot and love cheese too much. Of course our body is pretty good at cleaning itself over time, but ayahuasca will give you a forcing hand with that. So the idea is to give your body a helping hand and prepare it for a spiritual experience as much as you can beforehand.

There’s a second, and more important reason for the diet. In simple terms, ayahuasca stops certain chemical processes from working in your body, which means that certain foods can’t be broken down properly and could become hazardous.

For the nerds, this happens as follows.

Ayahuasca is made up of two plants: the caapi vine and chakruna leaves. The later contain the chemical compound called DMT (the active ingredient causes the hallucinations) which is only released when brewed together with the caapi vine. This makes the ayahuasca brew. The caapi vine is an MAO inhibitor, meaning it temporarily stops the activation of the monoamine oxidase enzyme. This is needed to process the amino acid tyramine in the body, which is found in some foods. Hence a big reason for the diet is to avoid foods rich in tyramine to prevent it from reaching dangerous levels.

Mixing the caapi vine with chakruna leaves

If you choose a good centre, they will tell you all about the diet and which foods to avoid. If they don’t, take that as a warning sign.

The Journey

The Maloca!

It begins. Fast forward a couple of days and I’m in the Maloca, a beautiful round wooden structure in the middle of an open clearing. The shamans are sitting on the west side protecting the doors to the east from bad spirits. They puff on their Mapacho, giggling to each other from time to time. Soft, kind smiles contour their faces.

We form a semi circle around them, sitting on a folded up mattress, bucket on one side and tissues at the ready. Everyone is silent but the crackling jungle around us. There is a nervous, but calm atmosphere in the room. I feel the same mixture of excitement, curiosity and nerves as when I first arrived in Iquitos. Times 10. There are 2 sober facilitators in the room so I feel safe and well looked after for in case I end up wanting to dig my eyeballs out with a spoon.

I watch people go and shot ayahuasca one by one. It’s my turn. I walk up and kneel down in front of the shamans. Annie, the facilitator, whispers something to them and they pour me a shot of the good stuff. I take it, hold it with both hands, close my eyes and repeat my intention in my head. And down it goes. It tastes like a muddy tree stump. Really bitter, earthy. Not too bad at the time… but my gag reflex is being tested now as I write this.

I go back to my seat and wait patiently for the party to begin. And by patiently, I mean desperately trying not to think of every blog post I read where people were getting buried alive, shot into space or being devoured by snakes.

The candles went out. It was pitch black. Silent. The calm before the storm. I wait for about 30 minutes and then things start happening.

At first, I just felt like I had a bit of flu. My body was heating up. I could feel my pulse everywhere, especially in my head. I felt a little queasy, but I tried not to focus on it too much. The vine was stretching and pulsating inside me. My body, and the sense of reality that it represented, started to bend and shift and I could feel myself holding on for dear life. “This is nuts! Just focus on your breath” I kept saying to myself. Now I was starting to feel pretty nauseous and my stomach felt like it was on fire. If I didn’t think about it, I didn’t need to throw up just yet so I tried to keep it down as long as possible. “Come on aya, stay down there, do your thing”. And it did for a while. But just when I thought I was still in control, all of my insides seemed to squeeze and tense like a slingshot ready to fire. There was no stopping it. When ayahuasca says you puke, you’re going to puke. I felt like an entire ocean fell out of my mouth, then looked down in the bucket and saw a coupe of bits of saliva. Mind officially lost.

I hear the shamans starting to sing an icarus (shamanic chanting and singing) in the background. It’s hard to say exactly what happened next, I lost all sense of time and my mind raced so much that it’s hard to remember everything. I do remember puking quite horrendously a few times and that felt pretty grim. I was very agitated, trying to anticipate what might happen next, judging the experience and wanting to put a label on everything. “Why or what is this?” or “This is happening because of that” type thoughts. I found myself — or rather a voice in the distance — some higher version of myself perhaps, just tell me to relax from time to time, and I could feel my body start to melt in my seat for a few moments.

I felt a lot of emotion release. I found myself yawning extravagantly and making roaring sounds throughout the ceremony — to the point of almost dislocating my jaw — and not because I was tired. I felt some energy move around my body and then shoot out through my mouth in the form of loud yawns. At one point I found myself wiping a river of tears of my face, even though I wasn’t crying or feeling sad in any way. My internal emotions didn’t seem to match what my body was doing.

Later I found out that this is quite normal, and it’s just ayahuasca working on you at a cellular level, way under the radar of your intellect where you can question or understand what’s going on. It’s releasing emotions that get stored in the body over time. Like a massage releases the tension from a few stressful days, ayahuasca digs up and releases all that stored anger from the guy who stole your sunglasses when you were six which you’ve been carrying around for 30 years. I had no idea what it was, but the lesson was just to accept the experience. Whatever was happening, was happening for a reason. They call it medicine, so it’s probably a good thing. So I just tried to go with it.

I was caressing myself a lot, rubbing my arm, my chest, hugging myself, giving myself a head massage. Apparently I needed to give myself some love. I’m pretty hard on myself usually so this made sense. I had all sorts of conversations with myself — most of which I can’t remember.

I didn’t get any crazy visions, or get shot into space, or talk klingon with little green men — to my slight disappointment. I did have a few moments where I saw — more like felt actually — a ton of spiders around me. At the time, I thought that was a bad thing but apparently that represents a web of communication. Not sure what they were trying to communicate, because everything suddenly turned into a rotting forest and died around me. And that’s when I started freaking out a little bit, thinking it was gonna get ugly. But just as I did that, I found myself drawn to the icarous which seemed to somehow pull me out of it. Olinda and Estoban, the two shamans, came and sat next to me at different points throughout the ceremony and bathed me in song and chant. There’s something magical about the icarus and it seemed to have the power to control my experience in many ways. It’s difficult to explain, but I could just feel the energy shift in and around me with the tonalities and frequency of their voice. And my god they can sing! Olinda is a tiny (5” maybe) quiet, amazonian woman but she can sure give Pavaroti a run for his money.

According to them, their singing comes from the spirits that enter them. When they sit down next to me, they are essentially helping me communicate with the spirits, channeling the energy of the good ones, and driving the bad ones away. It sounds mystical and I haven’t seen any angels or elfs yet to make me believe in spirits, so I’m still a little skeptical. But I started thinking of spirits as energy. There are good energies and bad energies around. When you feel depressed or angry that’s a bad energy. When you feel excited, that’s good energy. But where does that energy come from? It’s not physical energy. It’s conscious energy. It’s created by thoughts and by the environment. It’s why you can feel physically tired but mentally awake. Different energies. So I think spirits are a bit like that.

After about 4 hours, the shamans stop singing and start muttering a few words. Their tone is friendly and generous as always. I pick out a few thank yous, and with that they close the ceremony. I had just survived my first ayahuasca ceremony! Fuck yeah. A sense of relief washes over me. I’m still super disoriented, mind still buzzing, senses still tingling. Standing up is a big no no so I lie down in bed and try my best to get some shut eye.

Kitchen / Dinning room / Hang out space

Second Ceremony

One down, four to go. I was a little more calm and prepared for the second ceremony. I knew what to expect a bit more now. It started with reality collapsing in on itself — kind of like that city bending scene from Inception (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG22TcpjRnY). It’s as though something was saying “forget everything you know and pay attention”. I started seeing loads of spiders and snakes around me. I started feeling a sense of fear, gradually building up. I wasn’t scared of the spiders or the snakes. I had seem them before, I knew they weren’t there to harm me. I still don’t know what I was scared about. It was just a feeling of fear. I stayed with it, watching it and letting it just be there. It got stronger and stronger, to the point that I was physically shaking at one point. But I was detached from it. I was above it somehow, watching everything that was happening to me from above. Then all of a sudden, I felt an instant urge to puke. I grabbed my bucket and unloaded with everything I had. I felt as though a vine had wrapped itself around the fear, around my stomach and my insides and was shooting out of my mouth at gale force. I felt like a screaming, chundering dragon. I felt like someone had just performed an exorcism on me.

After that little number, I felt pretty sober for the rest of the ceremony. It was over in half an hour. At first, I thought ‘Was that it?’ But I woke up the next morning feeling really good about myself, a sense of calm confidence and peace. I felt a sense of clarity and peacefulness that I’ve only felt after intense meditation on retreats.

“Purging”, as it’s called in the ayahuasca circles, is the release of toxins from your body. This generally happens at the start of the journey. It can be physical toxins stored up in your body, maybe because you chow down too many family size KFC buckets every month. Or it could be emotional or mental toxins — negativity, anger, stress, frustration, anxiety, fear. And the way one purges is different for everybody. A lot of people puke. Others yawn, scream, dance, sweat or shit themselves. But that’s shit that needs to come out. It’s ayahuasca pulling out a handful. It takes control, digs deep, finds what you’ve been avoiding and brings it to the surface for it to be faced and released. For me — this time — it was fear. God knows about what, it was just a feeling with no specific images attached to it, that disappeared the moment I unloaded it into that bucket.

After two ceremonies, I had purged a lot, I had some interesting experiences and mild visions, but nothing really life changing or shocking. Nothing close to what I had read in The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide — a great book by James Fadiman that wipes clean the “druggie” label of natural, psychedelic plants and lays out their uses and benefits for human development. In the book, a few people share stories about their experiences on Ayahuasca, and it sounds bat shit crazy compared to what I experienced. Here’s a quote:

“That’s when the scanning began. It was like the medicine plant had a lot of entities working for it, and although I couldn’t see them, my body was being scanned and sliced and diced in every direction as if through a giant cheese grater, Later I realised what I was describing could have been interpreted as an alien abduction. It was not frightening, but it was overwhelming. I certainly hoped they knew what they were doing. My DNA, my entire operating system, was being re-programmed — and fast. Billions of terabytes of information were shuttling through every cell”

That was described by Michael Wiese in the book, and even though I wasn’t looking to replicate his experience, the intensity and scale of it come across much grander than what I experienced. I was starting to doubt this. Sure I puked out some fear and I had a million conversations with myself — but I didn’t feel THAT different. I didn’t have any big epiphanies or realisations or visions. There was no slicing and dicing of my DNA.

I mentioned all of this — some of this — to our facilitator, Annie. Her response was “Next time, you drink from the big cup”.

Third Ceremony

And down the hatch it goes. A double dose of the good stuff. I thank the shamans, give Annie a I-hope-this-doesn’t-kill-me type look and I sit and wait anxiously for what’s about to happen.

What happened next is a bit of a blur but I’ve managed to piece things together from my journal, stories and my vague memories.

As I sat there I started to feel the ayahuasca coursing through my body. Much much stronger this time. My breathing got heavier. Images and thoughts started bending and blending and seemed to fly past me at lightning speed. It got faster and faster.

I started talking to myself at what seemed like a million miles an hour. Out loud. I was trying to work out what was going on, holding on for dear life to some sense of normality. I remember something along the following lines:

“This is fucking nuts. I can’t believe I was doubting this. OH MY GOD. This is fucking crazy. Ok. Calm down. I’m still here. I’m the one saying all these things. So I’m still aware of myself. But if I’m aware of all these things happening to me, who is experiencing them? Who am I really? Am I saying all this out loud? Shit I wonder what everyone else is thinking. Oh my god this is ridiculous….”

I felt totally out of control. I was scared shitless. Every second that went past seemed like an hour. I was calling for Annie every 5 minutes thinking I had lost it. I felt out of control, as though I wasn’t really there. My body was doing it’s own thing, saying what it wanted to say, moving how it wanted to move. I was just watching from afar. I noticed how I was trying to control the experience rather than just let it happen. I was trying to anticipate and explain everything that was happening. That was a lesson for everyday life too. I’ve read a million books on the subject, practiced a lot of meditation, but this seemed to hit home hard. Just let go! Mum would be proud!

The journey continued for about 4 hours in a similar manner. I had some good conversations with myself, puked a bit, cried a bit but mostly just tried to ride out the storm. Here’s an exert from my journal:

“Pretty sure I was playing with my pubes at one point, dribbling all over myself thinking I was a pink flamingo”

Yeah, it got pretty freaky. I had these vivid images of pink flamingos everywhere. I was one of them of course, in both sound and image form. I vaguely remember a pitch perfect animal call just emanating out of me. Apparently I CAN sing in key.

Now here comes the real shocker. After talking to my girlfriend afterwards, it turns out she was on the Galapagos islands looking at pink flamingos at that exact same day and the exact same time. Yes, really. Make of that what you will, but that’s too strange of a coincidence if you ask me. I had never seen a pink flamingo in my life. Maybe a picture when i was a kid. The force is real everyone!

It was a crazy ass ceremony and I was just glad I survived it. I tried to take some lessons from it but it was hard as balls when you’re dodging flamingos flying past you at the speed of light. Nevertheless, I think I got two big things out of it.

I saw how much my brain was trying to anticipate and explain what was happening. How many “why” questions I was asking. I’ve always been curious about how things work and why things are the way they are. Recently, my attention had turned inward and I had started asking those questions about myself. A productive journey in the long run (or so I’m told), but painful and confusing in the short term. I had maybe become a bit obsessed with why I think what I think. In a bid to become more self aware, I turned my mind onto itself — and things got a bit messy. Meditation teaches awareness. Awareness of self, of actions and speech and sensations. And thoughts. And in trying to become more self aware and to resolve some personal issues, I had started thinking about my thoughts more. But with that often came more thoughts and judgement — the opposite of awareness. So I’ve got some back-pedalling to do.

The other big lesson I got was seeing how much I judge myself and how pointless it is. Think about it. We beat ourselves up every day for saying the wrong thing, farting in lifts and not having our shit together. But what’s the point? It just makes you feel embarrassed and hate yourself. It never actually helps with solving or improving the situation. ANY situation. I’ll go so far as saying even a murderer shouldn’t judge himself. It’s not about justifying it. Obviously murder is terrible and he should probably be in prison. He should take responsibility for it, but adding “I’m so fucked up” to it, just causes pain. Just like farting in a packed lift. You can own it and silently giggle to yourself, or you can tighten up into a ball of worry and despair that everyone’s judging your blow hole.

The next day I was recked. I thought I was done. I thought I had experienced the power of ayahuasca. All doubts about it’s ability to shoot my brain out of a canon have been eliminated.

Yet I had 2 more ceremonies left. I didn’t have the energy. I thought about leaving early. I felt like I had a million things to process. But I fought that urge and I decided to stay and see it through to the end.

And I’m glad I did. Throughout my whole time at the retreat, people talked about spirits and as I’ve said before, I was skeptical. I never quite got it. Until now.

Estoban manning the ayahuasca brew

Fourth Ceremony

I took a smaller cup this time and it produced a totally different experience. A sense of calmness came over me shortly after drinking. I did’t puke. I felt a presence around me. Like a loving child giggling and playing around me. I felt a tickling sensation on my feet. First on one, then the other. Like someone was tickling me with a feather. This happened multiple times, and I had to check there was no one there. There wasn’t. I felt something gently stroking my arm, my forehead, my feet and my legs. It was done with the utmost care and love.

All of a sudden I felt a big surge of energy lift up through me, from the base of my spine to the top of my head. It was lifting, positive, loving. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It felt like my soul was lifting out of my body. Whatever that means.

“Holy shit, spirits are real” — I shouted in my head. Was this the spirit of ayahuasca? Was this what people talked about?

I tried to talk to it but I got nothing back. It was working silently. I could feel the energy shift and now I felt this pinching, zapping sensation in my forehead. It felt like someone performing brain surgery on me, reprogramming my brain. This got more and more intense, to the point where the zaps became quite painful, and again I had to check there was nothing or no one there. There wasn’t.

That was another important lesson for me to just let things be and not try to put labels on things. Spirits, consciousness, energy, whatever these things are doesn’t really matter. It’s the experience in the moment that matters, and the lessons you draw from it afterwards.

Fifth ceremony

The last ceremony was pretty chilled. I found it unusually hard to remember what happened — maybe my brain’s had enough medicine for now! There was one key moment where I felt a moment of calmness and peacefulness and I just felt really content with myself and with the world. The phrase “being connected to your higher self” comes to mind. Everything was great, I was the conductor in the orchestra of life. I also thought, since this is my last ceremony, I’d go big and ask “Who am I?”. Here’s a small exert from my journal:

“I felt my consciousness go into the trees, the nature, the other people in the room. I felt a little part of me in everything. Although part of me was directing the experience by asking questions like ‘Am I that tree?’, I tried to feel it and felt a sense of love and oneness with nature.”

And that was a thought I was happy to end on. The purging in the first few ceremonies helped me get rid of whatever I needed to get rid of. The pink flamingoes helped me recognise and appreciate the power of this crazy medicine. But the real value came from the last couple of ceremonies for me, where ironically I drank less ayahuasca. I was less afraid of it, I had learnt how to work with the medicine a bit better. I was gently being guided towards answers to my questions, rather than being thrown into the moshpit. But I needed some tough love to get there. At the end, I was tired and emotional and I didn’t fully appreciate it. I didn’t have a life changing experience. It didn’t feel as profound as people had described it to me. I wasn’t enlightened god dam it!

But after a couple of months, as I reflect and write this, I would do it all over again. I can see the multiple levels at which Ayahuasca worked on me. I care less about things I used to care about before. My body feels amazing, I’ve naturally gravitated towards a more vegan/vegetarian diet and I don’t really crave alcohol any more. I realised that all of the “bad” ceremonies needed to happen in order for me to let go of some things and get to some good insights.

I didn’t leave there with any radical new ideas about what to do with my life or who I need to be, nor did I have any strong desires for spiritual pursuits. I just left with less bags than I entered, a better view of myself and a bunch of crazy stories to share.

That was my experience and everyone’s is different. I wrote this to tell my story, shed some light on what Ayahuasca is and isn’t and hopefully help others looking to go on a journey.

I’ll end by saying a big thanks for everyone at Rainforest Healing Centre for what they’ve built and what they do.

Peace and love!

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Alex Florisca

Alex Florisca

Musings on travel, adventures, life, tech & design

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