One-on-one with a shaman at an intimate Ayahuasca ceremony deep in the Peruvian Amazon, a traveler frees himself from undue psychological suffering. He uncovers truths about love, ego death, consciousness and spirituality. This is for those interested in the subjective human experience of psychedelics: it's an intense, immersive first-person recounting of a true story. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to join a wonderful community of travelers and definitely get a call from host Will Conway. Text MEMBER to that same number for more on how to keep Baggage Claim ad-free (or click here).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- For two weeks in a row, I need to give a huge credit 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 woman whose spoken voice appears as Ayahuasca, Fanny and myself in this episode is, in fact, Fanny.
- The person getting sick at the end is really me. That was, by far, the weirdest thing I've recorded into a microphone.
- 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
- The incredible Dona Cotrina doing her thing
- A nighthawk outside Manaus
- The cacophony of the Amazonian night
- An old fan-powered slide projector
- A woman laughing
- A clap of thunder
- Another clap of thunder
- Rolling thunder
- More rolling thunder
- A high pitch ring
- A crying baby
- A heartbeat
[Sounds of the Amazon Rainforest]
It’s just the two of us: Carlos the Shaman and I in this little hut in the Amazon Rainforest.
Well, us and thousands of little insects flirting with a kerosene lantern, flapping in and out of the lanter’s amber glow or resting on the makeshift table.
Ayahuasca is supposed to be an experience of healing. You’re supposed to set an intention, a goal, and then follow through on that goal to the end. The locals call it medicine. Shamans are doctors in a spiritual sense.
But in my first ceremony, I felt like I got strapped to a rocket of insane pyrotechnics, and I was like a kid in a candy store. I was obsessed with that moon and the jaguars and the trapezoids extending outward into infinity. I felt like I lost myself in it.
People’s first experience, I’ve read everywhere, is almost always one of cleansing. Cleaning out the garbage so a person can enter the next experience with a clean slate.
The cleansing isn’t usually fun. The internet and what I’ve heard from fellow travelers are all littered with tales of nightmares. People being devoured by snakes and chased by their own ghosts.
Carlos sits next to me now. He’s mixing potions in the old liter jug of Coca Cola in his lap.
As far as baggage clearing goes, my first ceremony wasn’t a nightmare. Not like what I’ve heard, anyway. It wasn’t terrible. I did learn that my yearning; my obsessive quest for knowledge was misguided. Maybe that’s broadly applicable to my life, and maybe to yours, too.
I do know that standing atop a speeding train, surrounded on all sides by endless expanse and little fluorescent orbs and wondering “where are we going” and not “where am I” is just the wrong question to ask in life.
“Listo,” Carlos says. He dims the kerosene lantern. It flickers for a moment and fades to nothing. I slide down from the bench onto the floor before me and sit opposite Carlos. It’s just the two of us now and he’s close, so close I smell stale cigar smoke and musk on his green and white soccer jersey.
I hear the familiar glugs of the bottle, the thick splash of soupy roots and mulch.
The glugs cease and I sense the mug before my face.
“Más,” I say, confident.
“¿Más?” he asks.
“Sí, mucho más. Porfa.”
He chuckles to himself and I hear the bottle gasp again. He returns it before me, fuller now. He blows smoke and I pinch my nose and take it down in a single gulp.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
Today, ego death, the loving embrace of everyone you’ve ever met, and a fresh start.
If you’re new here, welcome.
Make sure you subscribe. Tell your friends if you enjoy it. And if you really like it, text POD to (332) 877-9540. All that stuff is in the description below.
Let’s get to it.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of the jungle; icaros singing softly in the background]
I slide onto my back.
I close my eyes and listen to the sound of my breathing, of Carlos singing.
I feel my chest rise and fall, my stomach grind and boil and simmer. And, once again, I search the dust stars behind my closed eyelids for signs of life. For signs of her. For any indication my quest for knowledge - for just the briefest conversation with this ethereal phantom - is worthy of a second attempt.
She doesn’t make me wait long.
[Icaros pans; woman laughs]
Trees rocket skyward from my periphery. Their colors are inverted this time, their trunks blue, pulsating, and their spiny needs twinkling red like nerve endings. The moon shines bright overhead, the silhouette of her head and torso matted within it, as though she lives in the world of the moon.
She doesn’t move. Nothing does.
Her face brightens in yellows and blues, but she stays still, gazing into me.
“Let’s talk,” I say, discursive and a little too informal.
Everything shatters but her. The trees disappear and I am in the world of tile mosaics spreading outward to infinity. Black where they don’t exist. Speckled blues and golds in their centers.
“I don’t want to play this game again,” I insist to myself. But still, I nose around mosaics, ornate and real.
Time passes and I fall into the same trap as last time: chasing, yearning, questing after the experience and hoping that there will be some revelation - some life-transforming realization - around the next hallucinatory corner.
Eventually I decide that this is my mind. Ayahuasca isn’t going to happen to me. I have to happen. I have to do, I have to act. I can’t chase around a hallucination.
And so I open my eyes.
The mosaics fade. Fireflies dart about the cabin. Distant katydids strum violins and chickens cluck below me. Carlos is still sitting on his bench, drumming his leg and humming. Out in the treeline, I see her face. She’s smiling and kind. Patient and waiting.
The mosaics and the trees buzzing blue and red and red and blue and the moon and the speeding train and the light at the end of the tunnel? They can’t help me. The puzzle isn’t meant to be played. I know I have to do it myself.
Three women appear before me, hazy dreamstate outlines of their true selves. Her: Cleopatra or Nefertiti or Fanny or the jaguar, my ex-fiance, the one who left me for another, and my mother.
My mother is as I see her in my memory at first, cloudy and hazy and not entirely shaped. But she becomes firm and vivid; real and blemished with her true imperfection, yet beautiful as she is, sleeping in her bed thousands of miles from where I lay.
“Mom,” I say, and she groans.
She sighs and her eyes blink open. Her arms stretch beside her, folded inward at the elbow.
“Hey sweetie,” she says, as she would.
I decide to talk and find the words as I go. They feel contrived at first. Useless and silly and selfish.
Her tired eyes pinch at the corners as I speak. I speak for a long while, finding new upset and empty, only to find more.
The words don’t seem to come from within any longer. Or, well, I suppose they do, but I am no longer within the mind of the speaker.
The words exist as a kind of transfer of energy from the entity of me to the entity of my mother, with my locus of consciousness positioned above them both, observing.
The entity of me continues on and on, citing examples of perceived injustices from his youth of every variety. He snarls and hisses as he speaks, emotive and frustrated, furious and enraged and frothing. I observe, dispassionate and calculating, from above.
But then, all at once, he calms. His tone shifts.
“I love you. I’m sorry.”
He sinks into her, hugging and weeping and she does, too. My consciousness returns to my body but also to hers and I feel both sets of humanities within myself, both sets of emotions and both loving embraces, comforting and empathetic and, with the knowledge of both, a deep compassion for the other and knowledge of a deep compassion from the other.
I feel empathy for myself. I’ve never felt that before.
Forgiveness for my own sins and the sins of her, and I feel both humanities as though forever possessed by myself. I feel true oneness with her, and in it, I feel love. Forgiveness. Humanity, with all its imperfections, and knowledge that it is simply perfect to be flawed.
I find my mother’s eyes and she finds mine, and we stare into each other, through each other. She fades and I sit content in the knowledge of her experience; of her warmth, of her love and my love for her. I sit content in forgiveness while katydids crescendo and fireflies buzz about the ceiling.
I lay for a while, eyes open and not so sure I have anything left to experience. But I see hues of gold radiating from some central point in the ceiling above me and I smell lilacs. I’ve only just begun.
A golden figure emerges from the stardust above me. It’s the woman who, not so long ago, I thought was my life partner. She, too, sits on her bed, but she is awake, shivering, with tears in her eyes. I place a hand on her back and she melts into my arms like she once did long ago, sobbing in hiccups and whimpers. Her hair is warm and her breath is heavy and she smells of springtime lilacs the way she always did.
I feel her flaws, I feel her imperfection. And I feel the seat of her consciousness knocking on the door of my own. I hesitate.
I can forgive, but do I want to? Do I want to relieve myself of the duty of regret and animosity? Am I prepared to fire myself from the position of protagonist in my own narrative, to create a world in which even I am not aligned with myself? If no one is advocating for me, isn’t it required that I do?
I sit on the bed beside her, stroking her back and toying with her hair as she sobs and her consciousness pleads for entry and I refuse to answer. Because it truly does feel good to be the devil. It feels good to punish and roil in the anger of injustice.
But I recall the feeling of my mother - the deepest empathy and the deepest love. I recall feeling her within myself, and feeling myself through her. And so I relax. Let her in.
She startles and her eyes go wide as I let her in.
I know in that moment with absolute confidence that she - the person tethered to reality by flesh and blood and geography, not this figment in my brain - I know she can sense my presence. She is so many miles away but tonight she is here, and she knows it.
She sits in the same position but she is no longer crying and terrified. She’s relieved. I feel her fear within me, offloaded onto my dock like freight from a ship. I feel the terror of our relationship, the agonizing pain of my disappearance, the utter helplessness of my departure. I feel my own feelings in corresponding moments and realize with clarity that our sensations were nearly identical, though functioning at cross-purposes.
I feel her joy in new love sprouting from the withering soil of our expiration. I feel her world - gray and dreary before - come alive in a vibrant rainbow of color and feeling.
She regains her confidence, her ambition, her self. She comes alive again in the ashes of the memory of me. I feel joy. I feel empathy and compassion for her trauma, for her lived experience. And I am so very overjoyed to recognize that she is truly where she is meant to be.
The moon has found its place in the sky once more, and with it, Nefertiti, the blue and gold woman, staring at me from afar, her foot tapping with impatience. But I see others now, lining up for their own reckoning. I see high school girlfriends and friends long overdue for reconnection. I see the beautiful souls of departed family and those I just forgot existed.
They all move as they do, with their little quirks and idiosyncrasies, more detailed than my memory could ever be expected to recall. The woman in gold and blue stands on, looking impatient, and I wave her off.
“I need more time.”
There are more. There’s my brother on a blanket in a Brooklyn park with his guitar. There’s Steve with his mustache and that old yellowing copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s a German woman in the airport and a Colombian man in a bar in Cartagena. There’s Julia laughing about that time we nearly drowned in a lagoon and Geoff sipping an Aguila at a hostel in Medellin. There’s an Englishman from the park bench and Sister Pat McTeague from those days in Ecuador, and there’s me becoming her and her becoming me.
There are lovers and friends and people I only barely knew but who had some lasting impact of this sort or that. I make amends where I need to. I forgive where I need to. Each conversation sheds ounces from the weight that has plagued my chest for years. Each one relieves me of the weight of the sack I have carried as long as I can remember as I absorb them into myself, as I hold them closer than I ever could. As they become me, and I become them.
I take the time I need. My weight feels nearly lifted.
I turn back the woman in gold and blue, but she’s no longer in the moon. She’s at the end of the tunnel. And her presence isn’t anonymous anymore. She’s no longer a flawless, cliche Egyptian goddess, but she’s embodied fully human, as Fanny, the woman I met in Rio two weeks prior.
She points behind me. I turn to find Yudis, smiling bright and beautiful and so loving, so able to be loved.
“Hola Will,” Yudis says with a smile.
“Hola Yudis,” I say. “I know I’m holding onto you.”
I speak in English but she hears me in Spanish. We speak in tongues, sorta the way we always have.
“You’ve already lost me, mi amor,” she says. “Look.”
She wraps my arms around her and we lay in the field, tall grass tickling our necks and redwoods buzzing blue and red.
[Slide projector fades in]
An old projector clicks and clacks and grainy images from my memory of her splash on a screen before us. Her smile. Her heart. Her love. I feel them all, sharper than I did when I was with her, but still somehow grainy and blurred.
I can’t watch. I nuzzle her neck, but she pinches me by the jaw and turns my face back to the screen with a giggle
“Mira,” she says. “Look.”
Images flash on the projection before me. Our future together. The life we lead if I return to her.
The images are pristine and vivid and more real than those of my memory. They’re specific and real. We live in Colombia for a time with her son but we move to New York. She is unhappy there, but we move again to California and she falls in love with the United States. We’re so deeply happy, so passionately for each other. Quintessential images of love before me: wedding day, playing in a field with her son. Golden hues and Pacific sunsets. Satisfaction and happiness.
She’s pregnant now. Beautiful and radiant and round.
“Look at us,” I say. She smiles but tears tickle her cheeks.
Her son is there, and another now. Ours. A young one. A baby girl.
“She’s so cute.”
I watch myself on the screen as I play with two children, but my eyes are dark and weary. And Yudis no longer appears in the images.
[Rolling thunder; high pitched ringing. Thunder crescendos, heartbeat begins and accelerates. Heartbeat stops and a baby cries]
“She’s so beautiful,” I say.
“Te amo,” she says.
Yudis retches, blood trickling from the corners of her mouth. She trembles and I hold her, sobbing, and her eyes dance here and there and she is shaking, dying. Her body fades and I lay in the field alone, weeping, light stretching to infinity around me. I sit silent, mourning the loss of a person still of this world.
[Narration floats away; ethereal female voice mumbles gibberish]
The woman in gold and blue is still standing, silent but closer now, her arms folded across her chest. I run to her and the space shrinks easily. She is before me in a moment and we stand before each other for a long while.
Rising female voice mirrors male narration:
She puts her arms around my head and pulls me to her. And she pulls me through her. Into her. And I become her and she becomes me and I always was her. There’s nothing else.
He puts his arms around my head and pulls me to him. And he pulls me through him. Into him. And I become him and he becomes me and I always was him. There’s nothing else.
There’s nothing else.
[Fingers snap; all sounds fade except the icaro and jungle noises. In time, the sounds of a sick man retching]
My chest is heavy and now it’s heaving and I crawl with everything I have to the edge of the floor, six feet above muddy ground and chickens murmuring below and pecking at nothing.
I retch and retch and gasp and wipe my mouth and retch again and I realize Carlos has stopped his singing and he’s giggling now and offering affirmation. But it keeps coming, it keeps flowing out of me until there is nothing left but my kidneys and my stomach and my lungs but I keep heaving, and I worry my organs will soon follow.
And I curl up in a ball and heave and heave as Carlos kneels beside me and then the desire to lose my organs is gone, and the world has quit its shaking and Carlos is laughing and I’m a person again, laughing too.
[Coughing and retching turns to laughing]
And he offers me a hand and I stand and he walks me to bed, and I feel about as pure and base and pleasant as I’ve ever felt. And I tuck myself beneath my mosquito net and everything feels perfect, the wind tickles my arms and my cheeks and Carlos says “good night” in English.
And I fall asleep.
[Theme Music Begins]
Well that was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
If you’re digging Baggage Claim, three steps:
- Share it with a friend. For this episode when you share it, I ask that you tell your friend to wear headphones and close their eyes. If you got this far, that’s probably what you were doing.
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There’s a huge credit for this episode: Dona Cotrina. You heard her voice a hell of a lot today. Links for her work is above.
As always, thanks for listening. You’re the best.
See you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]