In Amazonian Peru, the author traces the source of the powerful Stone Age botanical hallucinogen ayahuasca. He meets crying shamans, drunken shamans, and even a gringo shaman, and learns about the epic quest it inspired in one devotee. Then he takes the ultimate step: drinking it himself. Whoa. . .
Night was falling when I parked, as instructed, at an intersection on a canyon road north of Los Angeles. Carrying a foam pad, water bottle, and blanket, I cautiously approached the house. “Are you here for the ceremony?” asked a woman seated in shadow on the porch. “The shaman’s running late,” she added. After a few minutes of small talk on topics ranging from root chakras to Reiki, she asked me bluntly, “Have you drunk before?”
I had recently traveled to Iquitos, a Peruvian city on the Amazon River, to investigate the use of ayahuasca, a much-storied hallucinogenic tea prepared from botanical ingredients native to the tropical rain forest and used by indigenous tribal peoples for purposes medical, magical, and ritual. Iquitos is quickly becoming one of those mythic places like Jerusalem, Dharamsala, and Rome, where hardy seekers repair in hope of spiritual renewal or ultimate and eternal truths. Many drink ayahuasca at ceremonies conducted by local shamans, often at one of the rapidly proliferating “healing retreats.” In the archive of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew I’d gone through the journals of the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce, who’d first identified and given the ayahuasca vine its scientific name. I read and listened to all I could on the subject—William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Sting, Paul Simon, Oliver Stone, and Tori Amos, among others, have all written or sung about their experiences with ayahuasca. While in Iquitos I’d observed a ceremony—but no, I had to admit, I’d never “drunk before.”
Inside the large front room of the restored farmhouse, the shaman’s advance man deployed ritual paraphernalia: candles, a rattle, a skin drum, mapacho cigarettes rolled from dark jungle tobacco, bottles of Agua de Florida, and one of a darker fluid. The shaman soon arrived and set to work with silent efficiency. He made a circle of the room, stopping to smudge each participant with mapacho-tobacco ash—which helpful spirits dote on—while shaking his shacapa, a traditional Amazonian leaf rattle. After the shaman’s purifying visit to me, I lay back on my mat and watched as he continued his preparations, singing icaros to the ayahuasca, a light-brown liquid, which filled about one-third of a two-quart plastic soda bottle. The shaman’s icaros are sacred songs that can be used to control the ceremony, to reinforce the ayahuasca visions or to take them away. My legs twitched involuntarily, the movement an outward manifestation of an impulse to flee.
My name was called. I rose, crossed to the small altar, and crouched before the shaman. He handed me a small cup. I gulped the contents. The shaman smiled and I returned to my mat. The plant medicine didn’t taste as horrible as most written accounts had suggested, nor smell as bad. My goal was simple: I’d been told I should try not to throw up for as long as possible, in order to derive the maximum benefit from the acrid jungle tea rumbling ominously in my gut. I lay back and waited, hoping for strong visions, if that was the will of the spirits.
Iquitos contained so much human driftwood that there was ever some new freak to be met, with a strange tale to tell and a still stranger outlook on life.
—Fritz Up de Graff, Head Hunters of the Amazon (1926).
I quitos had grown with the rubber boom, a brief but glorious era at the beginning of the 20th century, when exuberant new millionaires were said to have sent their underwear to Paris to be laundered. After the price of latex fell, the Indian workers who’d survived decades of abuse at the hands of the rubber kings began to migrate to the city, where their former torturers were now washing their underwear in the sink. These days, aside from an unmentioned trade in semi-refined cocaine paste, tourism is the economic mainstay of the region. A large and growing number of visitors are drawn by the numerous healing retreats that exist to provide “spiritual tourists” with the opportunity to try ayahuasca in an authentic, traditional setting, while offering non-traditional accommodations, cuisine, and standards of hygiene and safety. If you travel to any place in the world where the Centers for Disease Control suggests four vaccinations and a Malarone pill just to walk down the street, the buddy system has much to recommend it. I was pleased, then, that the artist and photographer Rick Meyerowitz accompanied me.
La Casa Fitzcarraldo is a seedy boutique hotel or a pleasant bed-and-breakfast. The proprietor, Walter Saxer, ushered us through a small door set in the high fence protecting the property from all but the most acrobatic burglars, and on past dense foliage from which drifted a smell of ammonia and rotting meat strong enough to have blown the glass faceplate off a digital stink-meter—had I thought to bring one. The source of the odor was a pair of ocelots, which could be better observed most mornings, usually copulating, from the breakfast room of La Casa Fitz. In opening the door to my room, Saxer discharged the last of what he felt were his duties as host. He wasn’t originally a hotelier but a film producer. Where the city of Iquitos is known to the outside world at all is by way of a 1982 film Walter produced, and for which his hotel is named, Fitzcarraldo. The film’s eponymous lead character is played by Klaus Kinski, whose unruly white hair springs from his head as if from a cotton boll burst by the weevil at work in his brain. Saxer bought La Casa Fitz in order to house director Werner Herzog and the cast. Kinski famously fought with Herzog, frequently threatened to quit, and Herzog promised to shoot him if he did, and then kill himself. Herzog would later claim the threat was no more than a tactic to manage a difficult actor. Saxer, a Swiss, liked the Amazon well enough to remain there for more than 30 years.
A shaman in the Peruvian Amazon is usually called a curandero—healer. We had an appointment to discuss clinical practice with Gilberto Chufandama Tadulla, a vegetalista, a shaman who diagnoses illnesses with the aid of ayahuasca, and treats them with ayahuasca, supplemented when necessary by additional botanical ingredients. A shaman may treat many grave illnesses, though most recognize a role for Western medicine in health care and will refer patients to a hospital for treatment when appropriate. A shaman treats many of the same illnesses and psychological afflictions as his M.D. compeers, but a shaman is also expected to defend clients against magical assaults, treat their curse-caused illnesses, and remedy malicious enchantments.
A colectivo is a bus into which are crammed too many people and far too many mettlesome fighting roosters. When a leaky 10-gallon drum of kerosene was placed on the roof of ours, and with half the passengers inside smoking mapacho tobacco in the humid 90-degree-plus heat, I reminded myself that we hadn’t checked into an air-conditioned ayahuasca retreat because that experience, while perhaps deep, would be narrow; it would have insulated us from the culture of which ayahuasca is an ancient and integral part. I would have reminded Rick, too, if the baby he was holding wasn’t screaming so loudly. By the time we’d reached the shaman’s stop, I knew that any enlightened ones who stressed the importance of the journey over the destination had never traveled by colectivo in the Amazon.
A shaman’s tears are a piteous sight. Ours wept abruptly and unself-consciously. “He says he has no one,” muttered our Peruvian translator Amarath. The thought that his precious store of traditional wisdom, gathered over a lifetime, would be lost forever when he died grieved Gilberto Chufandama Tadulla, who appeared to be in his mid-60s. The shaman had no apprentice to succeed him, added Gemma, our backup translator. Gilberto’s flooding eyes fell on two toddlers who’d trailed our party up the ladder into the shaman’s consulting room—the wall-less loft of a henhouse. The shaman scowled, and the kids retreated, but scrambled down the ladder only after Gilberto slammed a hand on the trestle table where we were seated. As Gilberto seemed to take perverse pleasure in his unhappy situation and looked prepared to go on bemoaning the injustice of his plight, I acted to forestall him by raising a subject on which most shamans will express strong opinions. I asked Gilberto if witches gave him much trouble.
The question propelled our shaman to his feet. He sucked at his fingertips, then spat air—“Phh!”—adding contemptuously, “Bruha!” Gilberto flicked his fingers as if disposing of a witch, the question, and the very idea of witches. Asked to perform one of his icaros, Gilberto agreed enthusiastically and began a shuffling dance, accompanying himself on a shacapa as he sang, mixing percussive breath, whistles, and words in Spanish and indigenous dialects. It was an eerily captivating performance, which lasted until a rotten board broke and Gilberto plunged one leg knee-deep through the floor. Extracted in due course, he placed his healing hands on Rick’s bald head, closed his eyes, and, swaying slightly, deployed his shamanic power. Having done so, he moved on and repeated the performance, laying his experienced hands on Gemma’s head, then mine, and finally on the skull of Amarath. Gilberto may have been holding back with the rest of us, for Amarath’s eyes rolled up and his body slumped sideways on the chair. He later said a tremendous jolt of psychic energy had almost cost him his consciousness. Amarath rose unsteadily as we thanked Gilberto; the shaman accepted a token honorarium for his time and escorted us to the sagging board that bridged the ditch to the road.
Our next appointment necessitated a grueling stroll on a concrete sidewalk that ran, mysteriously, for miles through the jungle, terminating at a Bora Indian village. There the shaman proved unavailable, indeed insensible. He was drunk, according to his wife. Since we did not relish a repetition of the exhausting sidewalk journey, it was a relief to find that $3 would cover the cost of a boat ride back to Iquitos. When it turned out that our translators had opted for both the sidewalk death march and the superheated steaming bus trip in an effort to save $15, there were no recriminations, or relatively few, because the irritating incidents gave rise to a splendid idea, which would spare us much future discomfort.
If the shamans could be persuaded to leave their far-flung jungle fastnesses and gather at a convenient central location, we would save time and money, and get a group photograph. They might break off important business to attend a party in their honor—but it would have to be a first-rate social function. The shamans of Amazonia, who are reputed to be among the most powerful in the world, are not to be coaxed away from their vital work with paper hats, hot dogs, and face painters. Distinguished shamans expect—are entitled to expect—a standard of entertainment commensurate with their professional eminence. The Shamans’ Ball would be black-tie. The finest caterers and the best string quartet to be found in Iquitos would cook and play at the Amazon Golf Course—the nine-hole St. Andrews of the northwest-Amazon jungle.
While preparing for the Shamans’ Ball, I attended an ayahuasca ceremony presided over by Ernesto Garcia, a tabaquero—a shaman who employs mapacho tobacco either alone or, more usually, as an additive to ayahuasca.
It was raining heavily the night of the ceremony. After banging on the shaman’s metal-sheathed door, we were admitted by a Peruvian assistant who led us past assorted household appliances in various states of disassembly to the back room of the two-story cinder-block home Ernesto had built for his family.
The gracious shaman Ernesto handed us a wad of toilet tissue, and the assistant drew back a translucent shower curtain to reveal a toilet, with no plumbing, conveniently close and available to clients seated in the bright-colored plastic chairs situated about the periphery of the ground-floor back room. Beside each chair sat a receptacle, a bucket or dishpan, into which participants were expected to vomit their accumulated psychic and material “toxins.”
“So, are you going to drink tonight?,” Gemma asked me. In what I hoped would be understood as a chivalrous gesture of reply, I handed the 28-year-old former art student my toilet tissue and took a step back.
In addition to Gemma, two Westerners—a 34-year-old British Web designer, and a software consultant originally from Tennessee—would be drinking ayahuasca that night.
Ernesto’s ceremony began with a short, traditional Catholic prayer in Spanish, asking God’s protection, after which the shaman consecrated the ayahuasca, singing icaros and blowing mapacho smoke into a re-purposed soda bottle containing a pint of the muddy fluid sacrament. Each celebrant accepted a small cup. Shortly thereafter Ernesto asked that the lights be turned off.
I sat in the dark and listened to the rain, the celebrants’ groans and sighs in response to such visions as they experienced, to their belches, their passing of intestinal gas, their barking retches, interwoven with Ernesto’s oddly beautiful icaros and the papery clatter of his shacapa. After about three hours Ernesto asked that the lights be turned on. The ceremony was over, the visions gone to wherever visions go. The celebrants discussed their experience with a casual reverence, the Tennessee software consultant saying, “For a period of time … my whole body was just resonating with energy. Started flowing very strongly. And I had some good visions.” Gemma too had visions she felt were significant. “In the beginning I saw a lot of faces among people I’d never seen. And in the beginning I saw, like, pink flowers … like a pink garland.” She was disinclined to analyze the experience: “When you start, like, being rational, thinking about it … like, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this, and I don’t want to forget …’ ” Gemma left her thought unfinished. Unlike Gemma, the British Web designer had “not really felt much tonight … but I vomited once.”
The Vine of the Souls
Invitations to the Shamans’ Ball were at the printer. A string quartet had been retained in the hope that music might soothe the professional rivalries certain to exist among those who have long practiced the same profession in a confined geographical area. Such rivalries had evidenced themselves with certain shamanic factions lobbying for the exclusion of others; there had been accusations of witchcraft and counter-accusations of witchcraft and gross sexual misconduct with clients. Hoping that with shamans, unlike with coinage, good would drive out bad, we invited all, without exception, to the Shamans’ Ball. In order to avoid shamanic lobbyists, I largely withdrew to my underground, concrete suite at La Casa Fitz for the few days remaining before the ball, and looked into ayahuasca’s past and into the science that explains some portion of the plant medicine’s impressive array of effects.
Richard Spruce was a self-taught Victorian botanist who spent 14 years crisscrossing the jungles of Amazonia and the Andes Mountains collecting and cataloguing 30,000 plant specimens. During this time Spruce noted the use of a botanical brew known variously (depending on language and location) as yage, pinde, hoasca, nateema, caapi, or ayahuasca. Spruce identified ayahuasca’s principal ingredient as the giant woody vine known to science today as Banisteriopsis caapi, although he never experienced ayahuasca’s effects himself.
After Spruce’s identification in the 19th century, it was Richard Evans Schultes who did much of the excellent taxonomic detective work in the 1940s and early 1950s. Schultes established that, in addition to Banisteriopsis caapi, ayahuasca tea contained admixture plants. Two of those identified by Schultes, Psychotria viridis (Chacruna) and Diplopterys cabrerana (Chaliponga), were found to contain a potent short-acting hallucinogen: N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. As the active alkaloids in the ayahuasca vine—the beta-carbolines harmine, tetrahydroharmine, and harmaline—were known to be only mildly psychoactive on their own, Schultes and his students speculated that ayahuasca’s dramatic effects were the result of a synergistic interaction between the alkaloids in the vine and the DMT in admixture plants. This would prove to be the case.
The beta-carboline alkaloids in ayahuasca were found to be powerful reversible inhibitors of monoamine oxidase, or MAO, an enzyme that normally deactivates DMT. MAO’s being inhibited by beta-carbolines allows DMT to pass the gut, enter the circulatory system, and ultimately cross the blood-brain barrier, where it produces the visions associated with ayahuasca. Unlike his great Victorian predecessor Spruce, Schultes tried ayahuasca many times, though he never allowed such visions as he experienced to carry him to any hyperbolic height. When William Burroughs, a fellow Harvard man, described his ayahuasca visions in florid, apocalyptic terms, Schultes famously replied, “That’s funny, Bill, all I saw was colors.”
The Shamans’ Ball
I had witnessed an ayahuasca ceremony and now hoped this gathering of distinguished shamans of vast experience would further my understanding of the plant medicine. I was still reluctant to drink it. I told myself that it was unnecessary, perhaps unethical, to participate actively in such activity.
Very young waitresses, as bright as macaws in the heavy makeup they felt suitable for the unprecedented celebration, brought pitchers of a mildly alcoholic beer, made from masticated yucca fermented in saliva, to the happy shamans, their families, and their apprentices. I had a chance to speak with each of the shamans individually, and to thank them for coming, for being so generous with their time where we were parsimonious with ours. Many I spoke to that day raised the topic of witchcraft, wanting their position on the matter noted. Shamans told me that, though witchcraft was easier and more lucrative than curing illness, they preferred to sleep easy at night, and anyone who said otherwise was a liar, most likely a witch himself. Some shamans in attendance I’d met before. Others I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time. Among the latter was Ronald Joe Wheelock, originally from Kansas, also known as the Gringo Shaman, whose ayahuasca is celebrated for its potency. Wheelock avoided the topic of witches as far as possible, remarking darkly only that “you’re entitled to defend yourself.” He had been a mechanic, a machinist, a carpenter, and a butcher before finding his vocation as a shaman. To the inevitable question, “How do you get to be the Gringo Shaman?,” he has a ready answer: “First, you have to be a gringo.” When I mentioned I’d heard his ayahuasca praised for its strength, he told me proudly that his brew had been chosen to be drunk in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid in Egypt by the man who had built an enormous floating pyramid on the Amazon a few years earlier. A four-story, thatched tower on a sandbar that you can see from downtown Iquitos was all that remained of the pyramid; its builder, Julian Haynes, Wheelock said, was back in England. As the musicians packed up their instruments, the shamans made their way, one after another, to the microphone. The first shaman looked out at his colleagues and then stated meaningfully, “Now we know who the real shamans are.”
A Higher Calling
It’s in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped. Choose now. Choose well.
—Anthony “Tony” Robbins
I’d managed to locate Julian Haynes, the Englishman who’d built the massive floating pyramid on the Amazon, who agreed to give me the details of his ayahuasca experiences on the condition I come to London. He wasn’t comfortable using the telephone, as he believed body language would play a vital part in our communication.
Haynes was born on January 9, 1968, near Rugby, in Britain’s Midlands. His father was an engineer employed by a hospital, his mother an artist who also managed the household. Haynes, now 43, bearded, with green eyes, a high broad forehead, and a shock of auburn hair swept back from his face, shared with his mother a love of drawing. “Leonardo da Vinci,” Haynes tells me. “You know, the man inside the circle? The square and the circle? I copied that. I always said I wanted to be like Leonardo da Vinci.” Like Leonardo, Haynes did not accept commonly held beliefs as true; he sought to test them himself. Having heard stories of the miraculous powers of pyramids, Haynes built models of them to see if they would preserve the corpses of dead mice or keep razorblades sharp as they were widely held to do.
Haynes attended grammar school, learning Latin and calculus in anticipation of a university education. That possibility vanished; the endocrine chaos of adolescence, a Mohawk haircut, booze, tobacco, experiments with marijuana, and the Sex Pistols inclined him to choose training in computer science at Portsmouth Polytechnic, now the University of Portsmouth. To meet his minimal expenses, Haynes took a temporary job with a local business, where, on his lunch breaks, he played with the company’s computer, an early mainframe. He soon found he was able to make small improvements in the software and dropped out of school to accept a full-time job at the company.
Systems analysts were scarce in those days, and Haynes’s experience and ability grew apace with demand for his skills. He changed jobs several times, and with each new position his pay increased. By 2002 he was living in Maidenhead, in Berkshire, with his partner, Linda, and their two children, Emily and Jacob. There, Haynes described how one morning he awoke to find that he “felt very scared for my future.” Crying, he dreaded the pain he would feel if he continued to lead the same life, which included “working this job,” as well as smoking and “going to McDonald’s every day.”
Haynes began cycling to his job and he started to work out. One day, leaving the gym, he found “somebody lying on the path—he had a suit on, blood on his face, vomit around him. Finally an ambulance came. They couldn’t bring him back. He was a year younger than me.” The incident added an exclamation point to what Haynes already felt so strongly—life was short and fragile—and he responded by exercising more fanatically, obsessive behavior he concedes contributed to his breakup with Linda. When the couple separated, they sold the house, dividing the proceeds. But more trouble lay in store for him. “I wasn’t clued in on nutrition, still eating Big Macs at lunch,” he says, “though I was really, really working out. Eating all this toxicity and working off the calories, it was a recipe for disaster. The toxicity just builds and the prostate is the first organ hit by that.” Health problems, on top of separation, proved too much for him to handle. “I just couldn’t work anymore,” he remembers. “My prostate was getting bigger and bigger.”
During these desperate days Haynes got a call from a friend who had a spare ticket to a three-day seminar titled “Unleash the Power Within.” Haynes had little interest in subjecting himself to three days of exhortation by a man he’d never heard of, Tony Robbins. But with no job, no family, and nothing better to do, he agreed to accompany his friend. “It’s his flagship seminar. It completely blew my mind,” Haynes says.
Haynes was convinced his swollen prostate was cancerous; yet, when Britain’s National Health Service offered to biopsy the gland, Haynes declined, fearful of being subjected to dangerous procedures such as radiation and chemotherapy. It was Haynes’s respect for the traditional wisdom of indigenous tribal peoples that commended ayahuasca to his attention. The story rang true. Western science discounted indigenous peoples’ age-old knowledge and therefore overlooked effective treatments for all kinds of diseases. If what Haynes had read was true, the sacred plant medicine of the Amazon would cure his prostate—and would help him find the meaning and higher purpose of his life, too.
Multiple Tony Robbins courses, taken around the world, prepared Haynes to make the momentous decision to travel to the Amazon Basin, in 2006. It was painful saying good-bye to his family, particularly to Emily and Jacob, who were just 11 and 8, respectively. The children didn’t understand why he was leaving for the jungle. Haynes told himself that, after the plant medicine restored his health and he located the higher purpose of his existence, Emily and Jacob would understand; his new vitality would be incontrovertible proof he’d done what was best—for himself, and for all of them.
Haynes got his own place in Iquitos and began sampling ayahuasca prepared by a number of local shamans. Sometimes he would retreat into the jungle, alone, to take it. Haynes says he can’t be sure now, but he believes he was alone when his breakthrough vision came. In this vision, Haynes was transported to the center of the universe, to an alien assembly where outlandish life-forms, delegates of civilizations far in advance of our own, made speeches on topics of vital importance. Since no simultaneous translation was provided, his inability to understand what was said made Haynes uncomfortable. He’d have to understand, and soon, because he also knew that without wishing it, being qualified for it, or being offered a chance to refuse it he’d been appointed to be humanity’s delegate to the alien deliberative body.
In one of the many ayahuasca ceremonies following that first big one, Haynes was also given to understand he must build a seven-story floating pyramid on the Amazon River. This structure, by way of esoteric properties inherent in its sacred geometry, would allow communication with the alien Higher Intelligences. Haynes would then understand what was being said in the alien assembly and he could prepare for the coming day when he would stand before the advanced life-forms and make the best case he could for human survival. On that day his words would determine the future of mankind. But before that could happen, he had to understand the aliens, and he couldn’t do that until he built the floating pyramid.
Haynes started a planning document on his laptop. Over time, guided by the Higher Intelligences available in ayahuasca visions, Haynes’s idea took on concrete form. The floating pyramid would be one-sixth the size of Cheops’s Great Pyramid of Giza. It would be no empty monument; the floating structure was to be fully functional in ways beneficial to the local community. It would house a vegetarian restaurant, two juice bars, an Internet café, a gym, an indoor swimming pool, and 37 hotel rooms on seven levels, as well as a matrimonial suite and two large dormitories. The final cost, Haynes estimated, might run as high as two or perhaps three million dollars.
Haynes had about $80,000 left from the sale of his house; he was prepared to use it all. He knew the money wouldn’t see the project to completion, but plans called for the incomplete structure to help pay for itself by offering limited services to guests well before it was finished. The restaurant might open, ayahuasca ceremonies could be held in the structure, and adventurous travelers could camp out overnight. It was a way for the pyramid to demonstrate both its star power and its economic potential. Once the virtuous circle was complete, donations from spiritual people and investments from New Age visionaries could begin to manifest themselves.
By the time six months had passed, Haynes had solved a great many problems. One that remained concerned the long-gone stone sheathing that formerly covered the surface of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Without knowing the measurements of this, it was impossible to calculate the original dimensions of Cheops’s pyramid, and to build the floating pyramid exactly to scale.
One day, while wrestling with the sheathing problem, he fell into conversation with an amiable stranger. This tourist had no experience with ayahuasca but knew that “aya” means dead or spirit and “huasca” means vine. Haynes knew this, too. Yet somehow he’d never thought of what the stranger suggested, using ayahuasca to communicate with the dead. Specifically, in this case, the dead pharaoh Cheops. Haynes wasted no time arranging an ayahuasca ceremony for the purpose of contacting Cheops, enlisting his help, and securing his blessing.
This was not to be. When the pharaoh Cheops appeared, he was in a foul mood. “I was like, ‘O.K., Cheops, you built the Great Pyramid—I’d like some advice,’ ” Haynes told me. “Pharaoh’s response was brusque: ‘Why not go have a look for yourself?’ ” Haynes was taken aback, but says that after consideration “I was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ ” Whatever it cost to fly to Egypt was a small price compared with what the pyramid would cost.
On the last leg of his flight to Cairo, Haynes “put out a spiritual request to meet a young woman around 25.” A few seats away, he noticed a young woman “sitting there in a nice, upright position…. She looked like she was into yoga or something.”
In the queue for customs, Haynes made her acquaintance, asking her name (Katie), where she was from (upstate New York)—enough to recognize her as a kindred spirit, a woman walking a spiritual path. Haynes had no intention of confiding that he was carrying a highly illegal psychotropic substance. It was the shock of seeing ayahuasca dripping from his bag—the bottle having burst in his luggage—that forced the issue. Katie wasn’t alarmed; she even encouraged him not to view the purpose of his trip as irretrievably lost. When they discovered neither had a hotel reservation, he took this as a sign that they were meant to look for lodgings together.
They found a hotel, and Haynes recruited an employee to help him boil his socks and shorts. When the simmering pot of underwear came off the hot plate some hours later, enough ayahuasca had been reconstituted to salvage the situation.
“Look, the reason I’m here is I want to do an ayahuasca ceremony in the Great Pyramid,” he admitted to Katie. She pointed out that if they could get inside early the next day, by 7 A.M., the ceremony could be at 7:07 on 7/7/07. Haynes was stunned to have overlooked this, but recognized it at once as “an overwhelmingly fantastic thing to do.”
The next day Haynes and Katie rented horses and rode along a fence, circling, to approach the Great Pyramid from the desert. Judging that the time was right, Haynes drank the ayahuasca while riding on his white horse as Katie watched from her brown one. “We had to keep bribing people, because you aren’t actually allowed to go in that way,” he says.
Haynes and Katie made their way down the passage to the King’s Chamber and sat opposite the sarcophagus. Haynes produced a plastic bag brought for the purpose and expeditiously and copiously vomited. Once he’d purged himself, Haynes set the bag aside and got to the business at hand, gaining the goodwill of the pyramid’s presiding spiritual powers. He and Katie were in the King’s Chamber for about two and a half hours. Sometimes they got up and walked around, touching various things. Haynes saw a rough surface opposite the entrance where the rock had been blasted away long ago, possibly by Napoleon’s treasure-hunting troops. Excited, he thought he could see a figure. “Bear!” he exclaimed. “It’s a picture of a bear and the bear is protecting the room!” Haynes pointed out the bear’s nose to Katie. Happy, still pondering the significance of this sign, Haynes accidentally sat down on the untied bag of vomit, emptying it, soaking his trousers, and sending the reeking fluid across the floor of the pharaoh’s tomb just as two black-clad pyramid police entered. To avoid some intense questioning, Haynes and Katie fled.
Back at the hotel, Haynes worried that the pyramid police, with whom they had had a previous run-in and who had noted the couple’s passport numbers, had their hotel address. It was possible, he thought, they’d be arrested at their hotel. There was only one thing he could do: drink more ayahuasca and contact the spirit police. Haynes believes his appeal to the spirit police was successful—the pyramid police did not arrive at the hotel, and he and Katie were not arrested. To be on the safe side, the couple did change hotels the next day.
Haynes had gone to Egypt to reach an understanding with the spirits. After the ceremony, he says, “the message was: Well, if you keep your body really clean, that’s your temple.” If he maintained his temple, he thought, he’d have the support and protection of the gods and spirits of old Egypt. On account of the date and because of the sacred location, he was certain he’d caught the attention of the Higher Intelligences as well. After a brief visit with his family in England, Haynes headed back to the Amazon.
New Age Cheops
[You’re] someone who knows that somewhere inside there’s a hunger to not settle for less than you know you’re capable of.
Back in Iquitos, Haynes discovered that a local contractor, who was supposed to be buying wood for the pyramid, had instead robbed him of $10,000. “I kept getting ripped off all the time,” he remembers. When a new supplier was found, Haynes and his employees began to build the first rafts. Plans called for the pyramid to float, initially, on 100 balsa rafts. These would later be replaced by a permanent flotation system. Haynes calculated that 850,000 empty soft-drink bottles inflated with pressurized air would provide adequate buoyancy.
Progress was difficult to judge in the early stages. Whether the building had moved two steps forward or one back was often unclear. Haynes’s state of mind may be inferred from philosophical musings he posted on the pyramid’s Web site in early November 2007: “ ‘Faith is the antidote of Fear,’ says Tony Robbins in his flagship seminar called ‘Unleash the Power Within’ (UPW). Faith is a powerful ally and if you don’t believe in God then it can be just the faith that you made it this far OK, so take assurance that you’ll carry on going.”
On November 29, 2007, under the heading “Investment Received,” Haynes jubilantly announced, “100,000 dollars was received by the project today.” The investor, a woman of about 50, was a serious student of plant medicine. With her $100,000, Haynes calculated, he could cover costs of construction through November 2008.
When a sufficient number of rafts had been built, work started on the pyramid’s superstructure. Haynes celebrated his 40th birthday on January 9, 2008, as the first shipments of 60-foot massaranduba beams began to arrive from the jungle logging operation.
But at the end of the month the river was rising rapidly, and with raft building far behind schedule, due to delays in the delivery of the wood, Haynes was afraid the waters of the Amazon would soon submerge the raft-assembly shed he’d built. More time and money would be lost. But he reminded himself that Tony Robbins advised “we should ‘dance with our fears.’ ”
Despite delays and incorrect quantities, enough lumber was delivered so that by February the temporary central structure was raised several stories high on the still-incomplete raft. At this time Haynes attended what he describes as a “very powerful ayahuasca ceremony.” During this ceremony he was warned that the central structure was in danger of flipping over into the water. The next day, despite cold and rain, Haynes had the carpenters get into the river to place more balsa logs under the unstable structure for added buoyancy.
With about 30 men working on the floating pyramid and nearly another 30 at work logging in the jungle, Haynes had time for nothing else. He decided to move out of his apartment, to save rent and travel time by living in a room at the top of the pyramid’s temporary central structure.
Haynes continued to believe Phase Two of construction would be complete by the end of May 2008, at which time he planned to move the floating pyramid to a deeper-water anchorage across the river. Its current location, steps from downtown Iquitos, was convenient, but when the river dropped, Pevas Bay would turn into a lake, and the pyramid would be trapped, and if the water level fell more than expected, it could ground. Haynes knew that grounding was dangerous: although the pyramid was strong, it could be destroyed by stresses and strains it was never designed to tolerate.
In the middle of April 2008, Haynes decided to visit the jungle logging operation to see if he could discover what was behind repeated production delays. He set out on a Sunday morning, accompanied by a guide and two pyramid workers. On the journey up the narrow, winding Rio Mamon to the tiny jungle village of Puento Alegre, one of those workers, Modesto, spotted wild boar swimming in the river. Assuming that a swimming swine was an easy kill, Modesto leapt into the river and attempted to lay hold of the creature. The pig bit him savagely, before making his escape. While Modesto was being bandaged up at the tiny infirmary in Puento Alegre, which the pyramid project had paid for, Haynes was discovering that the delivery delays were the result of the workers’ wages’ not being paid—or, rather, not reaching them: they had been stolen by an intermediary.
With the water level dropping, Haynes located a suitable anchorage across the river and sought and received permission from the Peruvian Navy to move the structure there.
On June 6, Haynes jubilantly reported, “Move Successful! It took around 7 hours to move the pyramid. 5 boats were used … The pyramid is now safely stationed on the other side of the river.”
The riverbed beneath the pyramid’s new anchorage was a bowl-shaped declivity. When the Amazon’s water level appeared likely to drop further than Haynes had expected, he became concerned that the pyramid might come to rest on a slope of 5 degrees or more. Because the structure was not designed to support the added strain imposed by a sloping foundation, it might well collapse.
On August 17, with the river water continuing to drop, Haynes believed he had no choice but to move the pyramid again. He chose a new anchorage upriver, where the water was never less than six feet deep. To save time and fuel, Haynes decided to take just 2 of the pyramid’s 21 anchors (each consisting of 15 bags of rocks tied to a thick rope) to the new location. Nineteen were left behind, to be moved at a more convenient time.
The pyramid had been towed no more than a mile upstream when the slow-moving flotilla encountered an unexpectedly strong current. The towboats were running perilously low on gasoline. Haynes decided to anchor for the night and resume the move the next day, with the boats refueled.
The next morning Haynes instructed his men to retrieve the 19 anchors abandoned at the old mooring site. They were unable to do so. During the night, someone—possibly a local fisherman, they said—had stolen the thick floating anchor lines. There was no hope of recovering the 285 bags of rocks. Haynes had no time to evaluate the truthfulness of his men’s story—the pyramid had begun dragging its two remaining anchors on a course that would soon take it directly into the main Iquitos shipping lane.
Haynes thought his best option was to move the pyramid south, with the current, to a spot where the geography of the riverbank would allow him to temporarily attach the pyramid’s mooring lines to some large trees. Haynes cut the lines to the dragging anchors; the towboats’ engines strained as they tried to keep the massive barge on a safe heading, even as it was swept downstream by the river’s powerful current. Then, no more than five minutes after the anchors had been cut, out of a clear sky, a violent seasonal storm, a Santa Rosa, struck. Driven by powerful, gusting winds, yawing and plunging, the pyramid was out of control.
Haynes climbed the spinning, rocking structure to a perilous and precarious perch high on the scaffolding. From there he shouted instructions to the boats’ crews, inaudible over the storm and the roar of the engines, whose combined 300 horsepower was useless against the Santa Rosa. The pyramid plunged on, lashed by wind and rain, and would have capsized or broken up had it not first run aground on the riverbank about two miles south.
Desperate, Haynes managed to raise just enough money the next day to hire a few more men and an additional boat. By dint of their herculean effort, and thanks to favorable river conditions, they managed to pull the huge structure free. Refloated, but with the extent of its structural damage as yet unknown, the pyramid was secured by an iron cable to large trees on the riverbank.
Without warning, a few hours later, another Santa Rosa struck. Haynes recorded, “Tying iron cable is quite an art and unfortunately the men who did this job were insufficiently experienced.” The pyramid broke free and ran a short, wild course downstream to be smashed again on the riverbank. This time it grounded so hard that it was impossible to move.
Haynes wasn’t prepared for the suddenness and finality of the disaster that had overtaken him. Unable, though, to concede that his dream was dead, he wrote, “As you can imagine it has been hard to come to terms with what is happening I have been robbed and cheated many times My upbringing did not prepare me for this. With no money left in the project, what next? Perhaps I should throw in the towel and return home to England—I’d love to see my children but what would they think if I went home a failure?”
In the end there was nothing left but the thatched central structure, stranded on a sandbar. When a representative of the egalitarian alternative-living community known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light—the Rainbow People—offered Haynes a few hundred dollars, he accepted. A year later Haynes and his now healthy prostate (thanks to a change in diet) moved back to the United Kingdom, where he is again working in the information-technology field. He hopes to raise money to rebuild the pyramid.
The Farmhouse Floor
I had frequently heard, and as often read, that the ayahuasca experience is impossible to put into words. I wonder—as a peculiar sensation, a tickling tenderness develops in my arms and legs; nothing is indescribable. Nothing is indescribable, but everything else is. Drawing, pictures, can be economical, but when invisible components, sounds, and smells accompany conceptual content, and it all turns to interactive animation, full-color, three-dimensional, then a drawing is hardly worth a thousand words.
It happened quickly, the premonitory tickle, a roll on my mat to relieve abdominal discomfort, then, without losing a sense of self, or feeling my capacities distorted as by the flattery of alcohol or opiates, there I am, very definitely, in non-ordinary reality, so called, and this overlays, without occluding, the ordinary reality of the canyon farmhouse’s darkened front room. I hear my fellow seekers after self-knowledge shifting, breathing, alive, distributed about the floor on their mats. The ayahuasca experience has dropped suddenly, like a gorilla net in a jungle movie, and I do not bother to struggle against it. There is no escape. I can sense the jungle medicine’s formidable power, and I’m aware it has a considerable ways to grow as yet. How that power might express itself at its fullest extent is not a profitable or comfortable speculation. It will, like the 900-pound gorilla in the joke, do whatever it wants, and I will let it.
Common counsel and common sense argue for giving myself unresisting to the ayahuasca—as resistance prolongs our lessons, whether the teacher is experience, Miss Lucas for arithmetic, or the visions associated with consumption of a Stone Age botanical hallucinogen. I hear the shaman start to sing; I hear his rattle; the words of his icaros form chains which are incorporated into delicate symbolic arabesques in visions that evolve like life-forms in a world where film with resolution indistinguishable from reality is shot at a speed of one frame a century. Every detail of a vast cliff face, an open-pit mine, composed of copulating salamanders, is presented and recognized and responsive to sound continuously evolving, by what seems like a logical progression, into the detailed hues of the internal organs—this makes me vomit. The visions recede, briefly, and as I pant and drool over a convenient plastic bucket, I feel better. The visions resume with newcomers, self-dissecting aliens presenting themselves, and their internal anatomy, in the turning pages of an abnormal-physiology textbook, published on sheets of fundamental matter, quarks and gluons, massless constituents of the infinitesimal, actually becoming the things they appear to represent. An errant thought, “At least I haven’t seen any snakes,” flickers in my mind, and can’t be taken back, and now is, of course, no longer true. I am invested with intertwined squirming serpents, some slithering kraits, a club-bodied Gaboon viper, a mass of obscenely active serpents in primary colors, some jokers that mimic a barber pole, another brown and lumpy like an old Mars bar, and a mustache cup of albino worms that invade my nostrils, making for the brain. I resolve to believe they are conducting overdue repairs, and I wish them well as I sense them at their business throughout my body. Bless the distraction of an explosive retch to my right, amplified enormously into one ear—it was my floor neighbor (the owner of a celebrity rehab center in Malibu). I wish his suffering ameliorated, and, as if the thought would do so, I congratulate myself on my charitable instincts. I find a moment of quiet, like the eye of a hurricane, where I’m untroubled by overlaid sounds and visions and multiple layers of meaning all attempting to impose themselves on an unequal consciousness. I’m content to lie still, and to listen to what might be one of those new symphonic compositions—I mean new in the 1920s, with cowbells and porkchops smacked together—only this time the instrumentation is created by men and women of different ages and sizes being sick. In the dress circle, older music-lovers leap to their feet and shout “Shame!” while in the balconies and at the back of the house the composer’s faction shouts back “Ignoramus!”
I wonder idly, given the strong prohibition against sexual activity before and after the ayahuasca experience—not to say during—whether it is possible to manage the act at all. I attempt to imagine a situation, circumstances, favorable to arousal. I get no help from the visions, but have the sense, though I’ve no hard evidence to back it, that sexual activity is possible, if challenging, given adequate quantities of mouthwash.
I am punished for the triviality of such thoughts. The visions resume with considerable force. I am made intensely conscious of the suffering of those around me, not only those now writhing on the floor nearby but also those in my domestic and social life, among those dear to me. This message presents itself in a fashion that lends it considerable power: I am often less conscious of the suffering of others than I ought to be. This is noetic; it feels true. It is true. It might also easily be the moral freight of a sitcom, but I feel tears on my face, though I am not conscious of having wept. I recognize that this is no astonishing insight. I acknowledge the possibility that the ayahuasca is throwing me a softball, and I’m grateful.
My visions continue for several hours, and I await with trepidation further instruction, a formal conclusion, or some apocalyptic visionary summation. I am not disappointed when, instead, I realize it’s over. The ayahuasca has gone, vanished as suddenly and surprisingly as it came.
When I feel I can stand up, I do, and I go outside to piss on a shrub and to sit on the farmhouse porch and to wait there until the dawn replaces the dark.
By Ted Mann
December 2011 Edition
Photo Caption: MAGICAL DRINKING The skeleton of the seven-story pyramid on the Amazon River near Iquitos, Peru, built by Julian Haynes, an Englishman guided by ayahuasca visions. A bottle of ayahuasca. A Shipibo Indian artisan in Iquitos.
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