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Drawing of the Ayahuasca plant

Ayahuasca Tourism {format} 17:00 John Rieger

Powerful hallucinogens in the Peruvian jungle.

Broadcast: Feb 13 2004 on PRI/MPR Savvy Traveler Subjects: Travel, Health, International, Native

Ayahuasca Tourism

by John Reiger

HOST: The search for spiritual enlightenment is a growing sector of modern travel There's a new spiritual center developing in Iquitos, Peru. There, on the edge of the Peruvian Amazon jungle, a special sort of traveler is seeking out a powerful medicine made by the local shaman there. "Ayahuasca Tea" is a potent psychedelic that you drink under the guidance of a spiritual guide. Reporter John Rieger went in search of Ayahuasca, which is believed to heal broken souls.

Music: the “Unreal” theme…

Sound: Various sounds as appropriate for each bite. Some vomiting heard at low, taste-ful levels…

Shoemaker: He was singing his magic songs and shaking his shakapas, and he looked over at me and he said, “You have a block. Drink another cup…”

Karen S.: It, as you know, is a very thick (laughs) substance. And, um, it took three swal-lows to get it down.

Shoemaker: This volcano erupted from my stomach with such force that I slapped both of my hands on my mouth, and I ran across the ceremony, out into the jungle, and it was spraying like a squirt gun (chuckles).

Karen S.: And then she started singing the icaros, the spiritual songs, and the hieroglyphics of the words was coming out of her mouth! (laughs incredulously)

Shoemaker: I looked around me and all the bushes, they all had spirits in them. They had on robes. They all put their arms out to me, and they started singing my name.

Ado: (Peruvian Indian accent) By drinking the Ayahuasca, you can see, you can ana-lyze your whole life, and you can see what is wrong. The Ayahuasca can show you the way.

Lawler: (Speaking dramatically) Who do you intend to be as a human being? Because that’s where Ayahuasca will take you. (:xx)

Sound: Vomit vigorously (maybe)… perhaps big thunder…then cut to music.


Music: Bachelor Pad Royale, “Playboy’s Theme”

NAR: Suppose you woke up one day and realized… you’re sad? You’re about 50. Your career is OK… and pointless. You’ve got a nice home and a family you love, and all you seem to do is pick on them. At a dark time in his own life, right after he shot his wife, William Burroughs made a fevered trip to the Amazon, to explore the sacred spiritual medicine called “YagŽ,” or “Ayahuasca”—“The Vine of the Dead.”

That would not have been my first choice.

But a friend was researching a scholarly book and needed to make the trip, and we decided to go together. Hey, at least it would be a vacation. Music: Music out

Sound: Iquitos street, crowded with noisy, 3-wheeled taxis, starts very low…

Juan: Ayahuasca, the “Death Vine”…

NAR: Iquitos, Peru—half a million people on the upper Amazon, inaccessible by road, and eager for tourists.

Juan: (Peruvian accent) My name is Juan Maldonado. I’m a jungle guide If you gibba to me you internet, I gibba to you the, ah, jungle survivor course, and if you wanna know is about shamanismo, I can talk to about from my trips, and I talk to the really shaman! (:19)

NAR: Iquitos might be the Jerusalem of Ayahuasca. In this jungle for thousands of years, the native shamans or “curanderos” have used Ayahuasca to cure disease and work magic. Today, the three-wheeled taxis that jam these streets are driven by people who talk to spirits. Our teenage greeter at the airport tells us of becom-ing a giant snake, and having a tearful reunion with his dead grandmother. Aya-huasca is believed to cure asthma, depression, and alcoholism. It’s revered as a pathway to a spiritual life.

And word is spreading. Eco-tourists and adventure tourists are becoming Ayahua-sca tourists. More than a third of recent visitors to the Iquitos tourist office asked for the Vine of the Dead. SCENE III—LOVING LIGHT LODGE

Sound: Jungle, machete zinging as it chops at the foliage…

Ado: One kilogramo Ayahuasca vine, fifty shacruna leaves, five gallons of water… (:09)

NAR: On the muddy banks of the Yanuyacu River, about three hours’ boat ride from Iquitos, stands the Loving Light Lodge, a comfy outpost with plank floors, thatched roofs and mosquito nets. A few days here is like a trip to family camp, with jungle treks, piranha fishing, swimming with the pink river-dolphins (not conducted in the same location), and Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Ado: Ok, I will sing for you… (he begins to sing a shamanic song in Spanish and QuŽ-chua, which goes under and continues) (:08?)

NAR: Adonai—Ado for short—is our guide. He’s a knowledgeable botanist, and an ap-prentice shaman.

Ado: (singing)

NAR: This song, called an icaro, is a love charm, which calls on the spirit of the Stran-glefig. The jungle contains dozens of medicinal plants, each with its own magical spirit, and a shaman’s apprenticeship is spent learning from these spirits.

Two plants are essential to the Ayahuasca brew: a leafy plant called shacruna, which contains a powerful psychedelic called DMT (similar to the brain chemical serotonin) and the Ayahuasca vine, which has a chemical that allows DMT to be digested. Nei-ther would be effective without the other, and the ancestral shaman who first combined, achieved a feat of pharmacology that still baffles anthropologists.

Ado: (singing, briefly)

NAR: The vine is crushed and boiled with the leaves for several hours, until they form a viscous fluid with the color of a latte and a nasty reputation.

Ado: (JR—How does it taste?) Ooh, uh, doesn’t have any taste. You know, it’s a lit-tle… (JR—You’re a liar! You are a liar!) (general laughter) New people com-ing to drink the Ayahuasca, they feel like it’s horrible, you know? But for people used to drink the Ayahuasca all the time, tastes different, and a little sweet. (:26)

NAR: Tonight will be our first ceremony. Our curandera is Norma Panduro, a compact and dignified woman in her fifties, who produces a disreputable looking plastic bottle half-filled with tan glop. (:13)

Norma: Este es el Ayahuasca. (going under next nar…) El Ayahuasca que vas a tomar esta noche es praparado con sus manos de ella. (:xx)

NAR: This is the Ayahuasca. It was brewed by the hands of her own granddaughter. Jauri, age thirteen, has already drunk Ayahuasca three times. She is Norma’s ap-prentice. (:09)

JR—Y su nieta va a ser curandera?

Exacto. Es su vocaci—n que ella quiere.

Jauri—Si, me gusta, y me gustar’a aprender muchas cosas mas. (:15?)


Sound: Jungle night sounds as the first ceremony is about to get under way. They sound different, denser than the sounds of the previous interview section.

NAR: The ceremony is a disarmingly informal affair. We sit or lounge on thin foam pads in the dark lodge. As the jungle twilight fades, Norma takes a big puff of the fragrant local tobacco, called Mapacho. Tobacco smoke is used abundantly to protect the ceremonial space and beckon the spirits. Marlboros are apparently also acceptable.

We each have a small plastic bucket. Vomiting is intrinsic to the healing power the medicine, which is often called “la purga”—the purge. (:xx) Ado: Don’t try to stop the vomit. Just let it go. After you’re through, you are going to feel so light, your body. And then the visions will come. You can see all over the world, whatever you want. In your mind you must ask what you want to see, and then (swishing sound) is going to transport, spiritually, is going to transport to that place. Ok? (JR, sounding dubious—Ok.) (:24)

Sound: Norma wishes us “Salud!”

NAR: We each drink about three fingers of the stuff, then sit quietly. Norma begins to sing.

Sound: Norma’s beautiful and exotic singing as the ceremony unfolds… (Or maybe her invocation)

NAR: After about 20 minutes my friend starts to vomit profusely. Suddenly, although it must be 80 degrees, I’m shivering uncontrollably. Exhausted from travel and far from home, I’m overcome with longing for my family, and I start to weap. I ask the Ayahuasca to take me to them, to show me my sons in their beds and let me touch their hair. But I’m stuck in the darkness, in the jungle, shaking and nause-ated… and I start to wonder: What if it never stops? What if I have to go home like this? My wife will kill me. (:35)

Sound: Vomit violently… SCENE V—TRUE BELIEVERS

Sound: The jungle slowly fades out. At the appropriate mement, the pediatric clinic fades in…

NAR: When the Conquistadors reached Amazonia, they were impressed by the power of the indigenous medicines. But when the spiritual dimensions of native healing became known to them, they subjected the healers to the Inquisition. But over time, Catholicism in the Amazon has adapted. (:22)

Doctor: Soy Cat—lico. Creo en Dios… (:xx)

NAR: Doctor Jorge RŽbalo is a devout Catholic, who keeps a New Testament on his desk. He’s head of the School of Pediatrics at the National University of the Pe-ruvian Amazon, and director of the largest public health clinic in Iquitos. (:13)

Doctor: …Lo he visto a Dios en el momento del rito. El Papa, Cristo y Dios se me pre-sentaron. Lo vi muy claramente. (:16)

NAR: While drinking Ayahuasca, he’s had visions of God, the Pope, and Jesus. Aya-huasca cured his migraines, he says, and he’s convinced it can treat or cure a wide range of nervous and psychological disorders. He’s helped Norma Panduro get University sponsorship for her own clinic, where she uses Ayahuasca to treat al-coholics and drug addicts. (:20)

Sound: Clinic fades out. Fade in sound of Lawler’s place.

Lawler: There were days, when…when I seriously contemplated checking out, simply be-cause I couldn’t see beyond… beyond that day. I saw no hope anywhere in sight. (:11)

NAR: Howard Lawler grew up in a Christian household in rural Kentucky. For fifteen years he was curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, until he was struck by crippling depression. Ayahuasca cured him, he says, and today he runs tours for other spiritual seekers, called “Ayahua-sca SpiritQuest, Listening to the Plants.” (:25)

Lawler: (polished Kentucky accent) It’s important to recognize that Ayahuasca is intrinsi-cally a medicine. Unfortunately, because it bears with it the dreaded adjective “hallucinogenic,” people often place it into a category of substances that are util-ized primarily for frivolous or recreational purposes. (:25)

NAR: Alan Shoemaker, another expatriat American, has spent twelve years exploring the healing and spiritual powers of Ayahuasca. He briefly spent time in jail in the States on charges of importing the vine. The case never came to trial. (:12)

Shoemaker: (another Kentucky accent) The churches that we have in the United States have become such institutions that they don’t allow you to stay in touch with your soul, or speak to God anymore. It’s “go to church, and pay your ten percent, and say your prayers.” This medicine, called Ayahuasca, is something that opens you up to your soul as well as to the spirit world… as well as an incredible purge for your body, which you’re not going to get in the normal church environment. (:31)


Sound: We hear the blows of a big stick in the clearing outside the lodge, where Norma is pounding a batch of Ayahuasca vine. As I approach, “Buenos d’as, Norma.” “Buenos d’as, John.”

NAR: The morning after our ceremony, Norma is sitting by an open fire, methodically pounding chunks of vine with a big stick, and adding them to a steaming alumi-num cauldron. I’ve spent an exhausting night, sleepless in my cot, the bucket close at hand. I really don’t want to be poisoned again. But Norma is adamant….

Norma: Te sientes cobarde. (begins fading under next nar…) Dices, “Ya no voy a tomar mas, no, no, no, no, no.” Entonces, la medicina te prueba. (JR—So, hay que ser valiente…)

NAR: When you’re cowardly, she says, the medicine tests you. One must be valient. (:04)

Norma: …Valiente! Por eso cualquiero no es Ayahuasquero ni Ayahuasquera. (:15)

NAR: And I have another problem. I’m here on assignment, and I don’t have a story. The spirits never appeared. When I asked the Ayahuasca to take away my sad-ness, there was no reply. (:11)

Actuality: Norma—John tiene un brillante exito en su carrera profesional, pero le falta estar mas cerca de Dios.

Ado—She say, you are brilliant in the job you are doing, but you need to be a lit-tle bit close to God, close to God…

Norma—Voy a ayudar a John. Te voy a ayudar, John. (:25)

NAR: Norma says she’s going to help me… (:02)


Sound: Sounds of the jungle again. A hint of thunder.

NAR: That night the sky is unsettled. As we drink, the horizon is flickering with distant lightning. As the nausea steals over me again, Norma commands me to pray in whatever way I know. Only, I don’t know. I don’t pray. But if I’m serious about the ceremony, how can I refuse? So I pray, to… whomever. I pray for the sad-ness in my life to be taken away. I want to see visions. I want to purge the sad-ness, to step into the light and know the meaning of my life. And a thought comes to me from…well…I guess from me:

Music: “Unreal” theme…

(Interior) If you want to see the light, you have to agree to serve God, in whatever way He may require.

But suppose He wants me to go to become a missionary and convert the hea-thens? I won’t do that.

If you can’t make that promise, then there will be no light.

Well, maybe I could I just get a hint of what God has in mind, so I’ll know if I can afford to sign up!

NAR: And then I see this big question mark.

That’s your question mark, pal. That’s what you’re asking for. What is the pur-pose of your life? You can’t reason with revelation. You have to accept what’s re-vealed. (:38)

NAR: And then, all of a sudden, I have a vision. A spirit appears. And it’s… a televi-sion! (:08)

Sound: (My visitation by the television spirit) Some kind of inane, frenetic game-show music goes along with this montage, which needs to be realized in a woman’s voice.

It’s new!
It’s the latest!
A photo shoot!
A cover story!
It’s done!
It’s a hit!
Change the channel!

NAR: It won’t go away. And I can’t turn it off, because each TV is just a picture on an even bigger TV. (:06)

What’s on?
It’s the latest!
It’s a hit!
Change the channel!
So, like, this is supposed to be my job!? (:06)

Sound: Vomit mightily, followed by thunder… fade to jungle sounds, as if dollying back from the venu…


NAR: In short… it was a complete vacation…

…a whirlwind trip to the Peruvian Amazon, two nights of convulsive therapy, and a religious experience in the jungle.

In my youthful experiments with psychedelics, every journey left me wanting to return to that beautiful place. But that was thirty years ago. I’m older and (rye tone) stiffer now. Ayahuasca is hard work. Maybe I’m just fine the way I am. And yet, I’m curious what’s behind that question mark.

I’m John Rieger, for the Savvy Traveler.