A trip to the rainforest


A trip to the rainforest

Des Bailey

Des Bailey

Peru - sky
Christchurch pharmacist Des Bailey travels to Peru, ending up in Arequipa, the colonial-era capital of the south

In Peru, Christchurch pharmacist Des Bailey lives vicariously on the wild side after an encounter with a devotee of the psychoactive brew, Ayahuasca

The south of Peru is dry. High passes and deep canyons run like jagged scars through the landscape. The Andes are everywhere – if you aren’t driving through them they loom on every horizon, defining the country – everything to their west is starved of moisture, and to the east lies the green mass of the Amazon rainforest.

We are in Arequipa, the colonial-era capital of the south, framed by three volcanoes and filled with baroque buildings made from the local white volcanic stone. As the sun sets over the city, casting pinks and blues over the courtyards and fountain of the Plaza de Amas, I take in the view from the open roof top of our hotel. I sit back and relax with a Pilsen Callao.

A warm wind blows across my face, when I catch a whiff of something to my right. Sitting across from me is the jittery English Yoga teacher we had met at breakfast. He smiles at me and we slowly get chatting. “Amazonian tobacco, that’s what I’m smoking. I smoke it for three weeks before I go on my Ayahuasca ceremony.”

He doesn’t take much urging to divulge the details of his upcoming trip, for like all zealots, his mind is very focused.

Deep in the rainforest

This was his fourth Ayahuasca ceremony, he explained, and involved a carefully selected Shaman brewing up a batch of hallucinogenic vine and administering the drink to a group of Westerners sitting in a circle deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The hallucinations are so intense they cause the brain to reset itself, with the imbiber thinking the hallucinations are in fact reality, and that what we think of as reality is just a dull, grey landscape.

“I never believed dragons existed, but I have seen them with my own eyes – big and red with fire coming out their mouths.”

But he exercised some caution... “Make sure you are deep in the forest, and let the plants talk to you. These are teacher plants, like magic mushrooms. And don’t take the stuff if you are having a rave.”

He added, “If you look at a lot of religious paintings, in the background you can see little mushrooms – they are everywhere man, it all starts with mushrooms.”

Unravelling the science

Later that night, and back in the safety of my hotel room, my pharmacist brain, with the help of Google, started to cut through the layers of hyperbole that had flown at me. The psychoactive vine banisteriopsis caapi is brewed into a drink and used as a traditional spiritual drink in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. B.caapi contains several monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and is mixed with other shrubs, such as Psychotria viridis, containing the primary psychoactive dimethyltryptamine (DMT) – the MAO required for DMT to become active.

Amazonian tobacco, or mapacho (nicotinia rustica), is a potent variety of tobacco containing up to nine times more nicotine than traditional cigarettes. This would have explained the nervous state of our psychonaut at breakfast.

Context also plays a part in the hallucinogenic experience, as any sound or sight is greatly amplified in the one to three-hour trip – hence the need for the quiet, dark forest.

Long-term effects?

Severe vomiting sets in after a few hours, and partakers describe this as extreme – but explained as therapeutic by participants, with all their “bad energy” leaving the body – leaving only the good energy and a new, transformed person with a fresh outlook on life.

When I asked about the long-term effect on people after an Ayahuasca ceremony, the yoga teacher said he knew of people who had high-powered jobs in London – full of stress and a desire for material things. But after an Ayahuasco journey they returned to quieter, simpler lives, leaving behind the rat race, meditating and sitting in the sunshine.

I recall his final statement “Remember that negative energy is found mainly in the top of your head, because we know energy travels upwards.”

And with that his cellphone rang. It was his girlfriend wondering where he was. “Don’t tell her I am up here” as he ran off to the lift. Where that would stop was anyone’s guess.