At an Ayahuasca ceremony deep in the Amazon Rainforest, a traveler comes face-to-face with serpents and jaguars and a mythical woman, but nothing quite as intimidating as the inside of his own mind. This is a psychedelic first-person recounting of a true story. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to join a wonderful community of travelers. You can also text MEMBER to the same number to keep Baggage Claim ad-free (or click here). Outside the US and Canada?
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- My huge credit today goes to Dona Cotrina, a Peruvian Shaman whose beautiful icaro provides much of the charm for this episode. More about her can be found here. Many of her icaros can be found on Spotify here. You can also find many of the samples I used from her work uploaded to Spotify here. A YouTube link (for which I'm unclear if she receives financial compensation) is the actual source of the audio used in this episode. That link is in the credits below.
- The Peruvian Amazon is a fascinating place. I spoke with Chris Christensen about the city (and the Amazon) on the Amateur Traveler podcast not so long ago. Cllick here to check it out.
I hear with my little ear
- A nighthawk outside Manaus
- The cacophony of the Amazonian night
- A woman laughing
- Another woman laughing
- The incredible Dona Cotrina doing her thing
[Sounds of crickets and Amazonian nature - birds and frogs]
Deep in the Amazon Rainforest, I sit on a knotted, rotting, wood plank floor, my legs folded before me, my back scratching against a splintering bench. Geoff sits to my left and, on the far side of him, two Europeans we met in this place. A German, I believe, and a Spaniard.
Carlos looms high on a bench above us, only the puff of his cigar visible in the darkness. He’s a tiny little man but he looks like a king now; he’s giant before us, the silhouette of smoke swirling around his head, backlit by the moonlit sky.
The sun is down. The stars and the moon flicker and katydids strum their violins.
This is not a house. Not in the classic sense, anyway. It’s not really a cabin, either. Cabins and houses, well... they have walls. This has wooden support beams every eight feet or so, their knots rotting, their crevices deepening. On the right sits a firepit with a cast-iron cooking grid overtop. It is rusted, and the remnants of dinner embers still smolder. Smoke dances above it, and I smell overcooked chicken, blackened and burnt.
The floor hovers on stilts six feet above the ground, muddy and marshy. Carlos tells me that in March, when the Amazon River overflows, the water rises to just inches below the floor. I can imagine our little hut in those times, a mirage of humanity hovering just above the tide pool of reality. But, for now, it’s dry. It’is home only to mud and marsh and a dozen chickens, clucking mournfully.
Carlos docks his cigar in his lips and lights his flashlight, illuminating an old liter jug of Coca Cola, its label torn and long-faded to light pink. Inside is jungle excrement - a mulchy slush, woodland green.
Carlos’s eyes find mine and I realize they’re piercing and brown. Penetrating. I look to my leg, still quivering, and back into the eyes of the man before me. He brings the bottle of Coke to the lip of the mug, its tattered label flapping and falling and shifting. Sludge finds the spout and all motion stops and the katydids cease their song. All is still except that woodland green mulch pouring from the spout of an old bottle of Coca Cola for an eternity. All is quiet except the sound of spills and glugs tormenting a mug.
Carlos extends the mug, chipped and grizzled now before my eyes.
I take it from his hands and I swig.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway. Today…
...well, you’ll just have to wait for it.
If you’re new here and you’re getting down with this type of weirdness, make sure you subscribe. And if you’re really liking it, I’d appreciate you sending it to a friend or two, or share it online.
Let’s get to it.
[Theme Music Ends]
My stomach churns, my breath returns.
I can still taste dirt on my tongue as Carlos begins to sing.
[Sounds of crickets return, a man performs an icaro]
I slide myself away from the bench where I’m leaning. Find open floor. I lay on my back.
I close my eyes and begin a search for… well, anything, really. Anything resembling an experience of any kind.
I can feel my eyebrows, my cheeks and my face where they are. I can sense heat in my hands, in my thighs. But I reassure myself that this is nothing but the experience of laying perfectly still and choosing to pay attention.
My vision blurs in grainy television static behind closed lids, but it’s normal static; the static of the moment before dreamstate. The highly ordinary acknowledgement that my perception of reality is imperfect and ever-changing.
I’m falling in love with his voice, his stability, his presence. I’m recognizing how impressive his existence is altogether; how noble and exhausting the task of singing, without pause, must be.
I’m sensing a change in my emotional state and maybe I’m beginning to experience something, but then Geoff coughs, and I remember that nothing of any real interest is happening but that I am sitting in a hut in the Amazon Rainforest with four perfect strangers waiting for... something.
The difference between hallucination and my mind’s eye is far murkier than I had previously perceived. I see a jaguar, but I see it in much the same way I’ve always seen jaguars when I call them to attention. It’s a foggy blur of a jaguar - a memory - and its falseness makes it far from intimidating. I saw this jaguar in a 1998 Animal Planet documentary and my mind is recalling it here, now, because I’m supposed to be seeing jaguars. I chuckle aloud at my own contrivance, and it evaporates into the raw ordinariness of staticky eyestars.
One particular flicker behind my eyelids seems brighter than the rest. It seems to wax into a new dimension; it morphs and becomes real. It’s no longer a shimmering star in a faraway galaxy but a firefly hovering in my atmosphere, cyan and effervescent.
There is a bush, leafy and green. It’s foggy and false at first but then it warps, like the flicker before it. I sense a single eye in its shadows, peering at me, judgemental and external. The eye is yellow and black and feline and the being shifts and I recognize it as a jaguar. I laugh to myself again, but this is not a jaguar of my memory. This is not a jaguar of my creation. No, it’s too detailed for that. This is a jaguar of its own origin, of its own presence. It is slim and muscular and wise, and I am the object of its curiosity.
[Icaro continues and becomes more airy and ethereal]
I sense footsteps and realize Geoff is stepping over me. I open my eyes as he moves past. His shadow finds open floorspace and lays beside me.
I close my eyes again.
The jaguar hasn’t moved. It’s still peering. Leering. Judging. But I’m not scared. I crave its wisdom, its insight. I try to engage. I call out to it, but it looks away and meanders through the brush, disinterested.
I see the eyes of a woman.
[Playful, ethereal female giggle]
She is yellow and dressed in blue. Exotic and noble, like an Egyptian goddess. She is Cleopatra. Or Nefertiti. She is ornate and regal, but spellbinding and beautiful. Her eyes are flirtatious, but her cheeks are bunched around her squinted eyes and I know I’ve heard that voice before, seen that face.
I call after her. She blows a kiss and vanishes, her giggle echoing and fading.
[Playful, ethereal female giggle]
Grass tickles my shoulder blades. Trees rocket skyward from my periphery. They grow before me; they age one hundred years in seconds. They’re redwoods, but they aren’t. Their trunks are red and glowing. Their spiny, coniferous needles are deep blue, buzzing and pulsating though just barely visible against the shadows of midnight forest behind them.
The moon appears, bright above me, glowing pale against a matted sky. I leap from my field as high as I can. I climb the trees, still pulsating in red and blue. I suppose I don’t climb so much as I run upward. I reach out for branches and use them to propel myself a dozen feet at a time. I experience no earthly setbacks; no tree sap stains my hands, no prickly splinters scratch my arms. But the moon is no closer. The trees are no shorter. They grow to accommodate my progress. They stay perfectly tall above me.
I leap upward again and again and again and again, but the moon only shines brighter and smaller. Further away, taunting me. I fall to the ground, my back once more in the grass and the trees looming high in my periphery.
[Icaro becomes more ethereal, pans]
The trees vanish. The moon stays where it’s been. Around me, perfectly straight lines - much like lasers, of every shade of every color, ascend upward toward the moon. I realize I am in motion, speeding forward, and I realize the moon is not a moon at all, but a light. The lasers solidify into something more than light - they become steel.
And I am standing on the roof of a speeding train, roaring angrily, mightily, but somehow perfectly smooth, through a tunnel. And the light is the radical contrast of brightness at the tunnel’s mouth.
But then I realize - and not as some grand announcement, not as some profound realization but almost too casually, I realize that I am rushing to the light at the end of the tunnel.
But I’m not afraid. I am curious.
[Icaro turns to whistle and grows louder]
Around me, blackness, with bubbling fibers of brilliance - little effervescent bubbles of light. They’re all pale yellows and blues and dull reds, and they float outward in every direction. The vastness of it all is too much to acknowledge, so I return my gaze to the light.
I rush forward atop my speeding train, but the light never grows larger. Never brighter. It remains as it was, permanently fixed at a distance. For a moment, I trick myself into believing maybe it’s grown larger and come nearer and that progress has been made. But then all returns as it was. And so I am atop a speeding train through a landscape of infinite translucence and effervescence and mystery, and I am miserably bored.
“Where are we going?”
[Icaro rises, playful ethereal giggles fade behind it]
I sense I am being watched. Judged without judgement. I see the eyes of the jaguar again, inquisitive. I see the form of the woman, playful yet calculating. It’s like she’s waiting for me. She’s testing me, but I don’t know what the test is.
[Playful, ethereal female giggle]
“Please,” I say. “Let me talk to you. Let me learn from you.”
She grows large and almighty. She becomes a golden statue, perched on a throne atop an infinite marble staircase, grand and ornate.
I drop to my knees and I climb her steps.
“Let me talk to you,” I say.
“You’re not ready.”
[All sound stops]
Her words are in my ears. In my real ears. In the world where Geoff coughs and Carlos sings and the katydids strum violins.
She is outside me, outside my mind. She occupies the same plane that I do. She is larger and grander than that contained within myself.
[Narrating vocals begin to fuzz and drift away.
And I know in this moment that she exists whether I perceive her or not. She is bigger than me. She is grander than the world. She is the container of all that ever was and all that ever will be.
[Icaro plays in reverse. Ethereal voices drift about, babbling nonsense.
You are everything. Please, I’ll do anything. Just talk to me. Heh. I see you laughing. Delighting in my mortality, my smallness, the finity that defines who I am. Or doesn’t it? Because I don’t know and you do.Yeah, I see that marble staircase. I’ll climb forever if you ask me to. I’ll climb and climb and I’ll make no progress, and you stay right there where you are. I’ll come to you! Yeah, you and your jaguar over there. What is that, your pet? Why do I have to chase? Why do I have to yearn? Why must it be so convoluted? Am I that difficult a project to figure out?
I just want to do. I want to stop spending so much time thinking.
But you just sit there and stare at me! What is that fucking bullshit? Just talk to me! Why don’t you fucking talk to me je-
[Voice is cut off by the rising return of the icaro].
They shatter into a tile mosaic, colored in the same golds and blues as the woman. They reform into morphing patterns, diamonds and trapezoids, all noble and complex. Their patterns layer behind one another, out in endless directions and beyond my periphery. And I float among them all.
I decide it must be a puzzle. I look for knowledge among them - I quest to find something worth finding. I stay transfixed in their beauty, but I seek backdoors and hidden passageways in their darker spaces.
I search for hours, sweating and incapable, and I find nothing.
“There is nothing here.”
And I am on the grass once more, buzzing redwoods of red and blue, and the moon high above, taunting me in my failure.
I decide that’s enough, and I open my eyes. Carlos sings softly on the bench and katydids hum and chickens cluck, less remorseful now, less pathetic. Fireflies buzz above me, frantic and busy and frightful.
I rise to my feet, content in my failure.
In time, the others join me, silhouettes rising from the splintered floorboards, black vacuums in space of nothing but possibility. Carlos ceases to sing.
[Icaro fades out]
He rises after some time. I feel his gaze upon me, his eyes on mine and mine on his, and he smiles.
“Visiones?” he asks.
“Heh, si. Muchas visiones,” I say.
The German and the Spaniard and Geoff and I stumble back to our beds.
“How was it for you?” asks Geoff.
“Uh, I failed,” I say.
He has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, but he pats me on the shoulder anyway. I look out to the Amazonian tree line and see her, a sly smile tucked in the shadows.
“I think I’m going to stay here a little longer,” I say.
[Playful, ethereal female giggle]
[Theme Music Begins]
Well, I’ll say this: the podcast better work out, because I’m not sure I’m getting hired after that one.
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells. I’m Will Conway.
Hey for everyone thinking about a membership that would keep Baggage Claim ad-free: as we start rolling out the interviews, there’s going to be bonus content exclusive for members from those interviews.
So if you’re interested, text MEMBER to (332) 877-9540 [or click here from the website].
I have a huge credit to give for this episode. I spent an insane amount of time trying to find the right icaro for today’s episode. That’s the music that goes along with an Ayahuasca ceremony. I eventually stumbled on the one we used today. That icaro is performed by a woman named Dona Cotrina. She’s not the shaman I worked with but she’s in the same community as Carlos from this episode.
The songs you heard today exist in various places so if you want to hear them again, they’re in the show notes (above).
Alright friends, see you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]