Think LSD and ecstasy have devoted followings? The next drug sliding down the nirvana pipeline has already spawned three new religions
Javier Arevalo Shehuano did not look like a shaman. He wore a scuffed baseball hat and a T-shirt, and carried a schoolboy’s knapsack. No trace of the beads or braids sported by other urban witch-doctors I had met in Peru. I suppose that’s why I trusted him.
We took a boat up the Rio Momon, a lethargic tributary of the Amazon River. Our plan was to dock at a lodge four hours upstream, sleep all afternoon, then meet after nightfall in a hut at the jungle’s edge. We would sip a tea brewed from the bark of a sacred vine. Then we would spend the night flying together through the spirit world.
Arevalo smiled, revealing a set of chops serrated by rot, and told me I had nothing to fear. He was indeed a shaman, he said, and so was his father, and his father’s father before. He unzipped his knapsack to reveal a potpourri of weeds and murky potions. I took his picture.
I had no idea this adventure would take me to the crest of the psychedelic zeitgeist, not until I returned home and news broke that Jeffrey Bronfman was battling the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for the return of his own hallucinogenic tea. Bronfman — second cousin to Edgar Bronfman Jr. and grandnephew to Seagram’s dynasty founder Samuel Bronfman — had joined an obscure Brazilian religion. The faithful would drink Bronfman’s foul-tasting tea, experience powerful visions, then purify themselves through ritual vomiting. It all took place in the comfort of Bronfman’s Santa Fe, N.M., yurt — at least until the day dozens of armed U.S. Customs officers stormed the place.
You could sense the glee between the lines of the deadpan news stories. Here was an embarrassing skeleton in the closet of one of North America’s most powerful clans. But Bronfman is much more than a New Age black sheep of the family. He is an influential leader of an esoteric movement that is sweeping the world, and it’s all based on that tea.
VINE OF THE SOUL
Indigenous curanderos like Arevalo have been harvesting the vine Banisteriopsis caapi from the shadowy depths of the Amazon rainforest for centuries. They hack away the vine’s bark, then beat the bark strips with a club until they are soft. The resulting mash is boiled with various other herbs, down to the muddy consistency of tomato juice. That potent blend, Arevalo told me, gives users the power to travel beyond their bodies. To see the future. To move through their own veins, hunting and confronting the demons that cause physical and emotional illnesses.
Arevalo called it ayahuasca, which in Quechua, the language of the Incas, means vine of the soul. Or vine of death, depending on your translation.
Ayahuasca is now making waves far beyond the backwaters of the Amazon. It has generated a lucrative “spiritual tourism” industry in Peru. It has spawned three new religions in Brazil. It has been credited with curing thousands of alcoholics and drug addicts, and is being studied by pharmacologists around the world, who, after 20 years of research prohibition, are flinging open the gates of perception and heralding a new era of psychedelic experimentation. And, thanks to believers like Bronfman, it is coming to a yurt near you.
Legendary psychonaut William Burroughs called the teayage. He tramped through the Colombian jungle in search of it in 1953, where he found terrifying tidbits for his psychedelic epic, Naked Lunch. He also reported being attacked by flocks of flying snakes and squawking larvae while under the influence of the tea, and being transformed into a large black woman. Burroughs was eventually followed by his friend Alan Ginsberg, who wrote that he drank yage with a witch-doctor, then peered through the black nostril of God into the mystery of all creation, before being overcome by nausea. “I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe,” Ginsberg wrote. I know exactly how he felt, but more on that later.
While Burroughs and Ginsberg were mind-tripping in Peru, ayahuasca was giving birth to a new kind of spirituality in another neck of the woods. Gabriel de Costa, a Brazilian rubber tapper, was introduced to a particularly powerful blend of ayahuasca by Bolivian Indians. He experienced visions in the forest telling him to establish a new religion, with the tea he called hoasca as its sacrament. Mestre Gabriel, as de Costa came to be known by followers, assembled a new faith from the building blocks of Christianity, shamanism and Afro-Brazilian rituals. He called his church the Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal Roughly translated as “union of the plants,” the name bears homage to a recipe that combines Banisteriopsis caapi and leaves from the plant Psychotria viridis
As it turns out, it was one of at least three new ayahuasca-based religions to emerge from the Amazon this century.
Now speed forward four decades to Jeffrey Bronfman’s arrival in Brazil. It was 1990, and Bronfman was looking for virgin jungle rather than religion. According to court depositions, he wanted to help establish a rainforest sanctuary: an admirable plan, spearheaded by none other than the Uniao do Vegetal church.
By the time Bronfman hit the jungle, the UDV had grown to 7,000 members. Bronfman shared their tea and their ceremonies, and was so inspired he returned to Brazil four times in the next two years. He joined the church and learned Portuguese. In the tea, he felt he had found a liquid manifestation of the divine. “It has the effect,” he later wrote, “of allowing the UDV members a direct, personal, intimate re-connection with the Absolute.” In other words, it was a shortcut to God.
Bronfman was named the UDV’s “Representative Mestre,” or leader, for the U.S., where he has guided the church to a membership of 130 faithful in five congregations. Over three years, Bronfman imported more than 1,000 litres of tea into the U.S., all of it passing Customs and FDA inspection. That all ended on May 21, 1999, when two dozen armed Customs officers and a crowd of police raided Bronfman’s Santa Fe office. They took church records. They got the tea, too, then dropped in on other UDV congregations around the country. You could hardly blame them. After all, the tea is a veritable psychoactive broth, with traces of endogenous dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmaline.
DMT has been called the most powerful hallucinogen known to man, and is classified in the U.S. as a Schedule 1 substance, a designation reserved for drugs the DEA considers dangerously open to abuse, and having no medical value. (Both DMT and harmaline are prohibited under Canada’s Controlled Drugs and Substances Act).
A CURE FOR BROKEN MINDS
Then again, the Brazilian government had its own suspicions about the spread of ayahuasca use back in the ’80s. Leaders of Santo Daime, another ayahuasca-based religion, had established several utopian retreats in the jungle. Suburban parents were complaining their children had been seduced into the church by drug use and ritual brainwashing. One young man tried to immolate himself on a campfire while under the influence.
The Brazilian Federal Narcotics Council (Confen) temporarily banned the mysterious tea in 1985, then investigated the churches involved. The Confen team was shocked to find that ayahuasca exerted an overwhelmingly positive influence on the lives of users, particularly when taken in a religious setting. They documented hundreds of cases where drug addicts, alcoholics and the wayward were somehow transformed into healthy, upstanding citizens by their involvement in the UDV. Team members went so far as to down a few cups of tea themselves. Ayahuasca has been perfectly legal in Brazil since 1992.
Regulators in North America have not been following Confen’s tea-sipping lead. We, of course, have had our own rocky relationship with hallucinogens. In the late `60s, psychiatrists hoped that LSD could be used to cure all kinds of psychological illnesses, from addiction to depression. But the drug was also heartily embraced by the free-loving, war-hating, hair-growing counter culture of the day. Not surprisingly, LSD was blamed for contributing to the upheaval and havoc that seemed to be spreading across North America. It didn’t help when Timothy Leary taunted the establishment with predictions that “the effect of consciousness-expanding drugs will be to transform our concepts of human nature, of human potential, of existence. The game is about to be changed, ladies and gentlemen.”
It was indeed. In the late ’60s, increasingly stringent restrictions were placed on research using hallucinogens. Finally they were classed as Schedule 1 drugs, and research all but ground to a halt.
After nearly a quarter of a century, that’s changing — partly because of hallucinogens’ potential for treating addiction, according to Charles Grob, a UCLA professor of psychiatry. In the last decade, a half-dozen studies have explored the pharmacology and sociology of ayahuasca. In 1993, Grob led a research project to study the effects of the tea on UDV members in Brazil.
The study found that church members who drank ayahuasca regularly were more open, optimistic, energetic, without stress, without inhibitions, and had more self-esteem than members of a control group who never drank the tea. What’s more, two-thirds of the UDV members studied had histories of alcoholism and psychological problems, which ended when they joined the UDV.
Grob’s team found that the tea wasn’t addictive and it didn’t physically harm users, as long as they weren’t taking certain types of antidepressant drugs at the same time. As for the vomiting and diarrhea the tea frequently triggers, well that actually acts as a check against abuse, Grob told me cheerily.
Gastrointestinal distress aside, ayahuasca is now all the rage among the alternative health and spirituality set. A conference on the tea in San Francisco last March drew more than 500 scientists, consciousness researchers, indigenous healers and “shamanic explorers.” A recent issue of the unwaveringly sincere and occasionally breathless journal Shaman’s Drumwas devoted to healing with ayahuasca.
Tea activists abhor the words psychedelic and hallucinogenic, and the recreational drug culture they imply. Ayahuasca, they say, is not about fun. It is an entheogenic, or `god-generating,” sacrament, providing an “ecstatic doorway into cosmic consciousness and taping into the wisdom of a benevolent transpersonal spirit,” according to Shaman’s Drum editor Timothy White.
Contributors to Shaman’s Drum have described being transformed into birds, jungle cats and snakes after drinking the tea with shamans in the Peruvian jungle. One American, desperate to save his son from what seemed to be acute kidney failure, reported travelling through a terrible void in order to wrap strands of light around his son, thereby protecting him. (The boy, he wrote, was released from hospital the following week.)
Ayahuasca journeys are shaped by the philosophy and environment in which the tea is taken. For generations of Amazon shamans, ayahuasca provided guidance on how to prepare herbal remedies and gave hunters clues as to where to find game. For New Age searchers, it offers metaphorical tours of their own psyches. And for the syncretic faiths now spreading around the world, it offers one-on-one sessions with God.
That’s the thing I like best about this tea. For hundreds of years we — mainstream Christians, at least — have been expected to communicate with God through intermediaries of our churches. Our God, it seemed, stopped addressing us personally 2,000 years ago. Well, the ayahuasca-based churches cut out the middlemen.
The divine — be it God, forest spirits or Ginsberg’s God-nostril black hole — is waiting to present itself to us within that murky brew. No wonder thousands of pilgrims now follow Burroughs’ footsteps to Peru, eager to be transformed by the ayahuasca experience. I certainly was — but discovered that ayahuasca shamanism has put on a decidedly industrial face in the Andes.
CONFRONTING THE JAGUAR
Cuzco, one-time heart of the Inca empire, is evolving into Peru’s own Kathmandu: a mecca for lovers of mountains, mysticism and T-shirts. It pays to be — or at least to resemble — a holy man here. Hotels warn tourists about the con artists who, armed with feathers and beads, become instant ayahuasca “healers.” Some shamans have agents in North America and Europe who charge as much as $10,000 for three-week “mystical tours.’”
Vulnerable foreigners are regularly duped. One middle-aged American woman told me she had paid $500 to take part in ayahuasca ceremonies. She was certain a shaman had cast a spell on her in order to lighten her wallet. The only true ayahuasceros, she said, were deep in the Amazon Basin, where the vine twists its way through shady forests, and where shamans still tend to the health of their villages.
By the time I arrived, the flood of spiritual tourism has washed right to Iquitos, the capital of Peru’s vast jungle state, Loreto. One jungle lodge owner told me that tourist demand for ayahuasca was so high he had built a hut at the edge of his compound for shamans to use.
Javier Arevalo Shehuano was one of his regulars. Word around Iquitos was that Arevalo mixed a kick-ass ayahuasca, but he was still a gentle guide to the spirit world. So we took a boat into the jungle: me, Arevalo and his knapsack of medicine, a couple of English spiritual tour operators and the two young women they had picked up in Iquitos.
As we sat by the cracked pool of the Amazon Rainforest Lodge, Arevalo told me that city doctors had never visited Nuevo Progresso, his home village on another lonely tributary of the Amazon. He and his father had used forest plants — including ayahuasca — to cure neighbours’ stomach aches, skin rashes and arthritis. But the nature of his work had changed since he had moved in with his wife’s family in Iquitos. The spiritual tourists had found him.
“The foreigners don’t come for physical problems,” he said. “They have illness in their heads and in their hearts — psychological problems.”
For those maladies, he added, ayahuasca was a strong medicine.
We met after nightfall in the grass hut at the edge of the forest. One Brit had obviously done this before: he wore pajamas, and carried a blanket and pillow. “Go easy on me tonight, Javier,” he said. “I am bloody stressed out.”
Arevalo had changed. Baseball cap and shorts were replaced by a grass crown and a floral frock. He took long drags from hand-rolled cigarettes and began to chant, shaking a bouquet of dry leaves in the air. “Good evening sirs, spirits of the forest” he sang in Spanish with his eyes closed, “We are waiting for you to join us.”
From a mineral water bottle, he poured a brackish liquid into a wooden cup and turned to me. “My friend, whatever your questions are, you should give them to the ayahuasca now.”
I poured the tea into my mouth and swallowed hard. It went down like a puree of cigarette butts, grapefruit juice and day-old coffee. The shaman chanted, and gradually the lights of the fireflies began to blur. When I closed my eyes, I found myself immersed in an ocean of paisley swirls. They all moved to the rhythm of Arevalo’s chanting.
Now bear with me here. I did have a few questions for the ayahuasca, and they are none of your business. But over the next few hours, they were all answered in a series of Technicolor metaphors, writhing monster squids and fantastic cities of Lego. Vomiting? Um, yes, in fact I saw the face of all my doubts etched like an Aztec sun into a pool of my bile. And later there was a church, a soaring cathedral, constructed entirely of giant Hallmark greeting cards in pink, blue and pearl. Each card was inscribed with floral letters declaring: “I love you.” So much for objectivity.
I opened my eyes to see the pajama-clad Brit, crawling into the Amazon night.
“Javier, help me,” he begged. “I am turning into a dog.”
And then he growled.
The local girls giggled. So did Arevalo.
I’m not certain I conversed with the divine that night, or with anything other than the scrambled signals of my own neurotransmitters. But the experience had the same effect of reading a stack of self-help books. Memories, dreams, anxieties and my own suspicions of the supernatural were somehow transformed into instructive metaphors.
I returned to my home in Vancouver, determined to learn more about the tea’s travels around the world–and, perhaps, to find a northern version of my Amazon shaman. But ayahuasca activists have gone underground since authorities began investigating UDV and Santo Daime branches across the U.S., Holland and Spain. I get strange phone calls from Washington, New Mexico or Hawaii, from people who say the truth must be told — but they can’t tell it, or tell me where ayahuasca might be found. I called Jeffrey Bronfman, but he hasn’t had a drop of tea since the Santa Fe bust, and still isn’t speaking to the press or strangers.
The magic tea is still crossing borders — just not in the hands of church members. The morning after our jungle session, the English spiritual tour operators told me they were flying home to London with two pop bottles full of Arevalo’s blend.
“But what about the rituals, the spirits of the forest?” I asked.
“No problem,” said the pajama man. “This summer we’re flying Javier over too. He’ll be leading ayahuasca rituals at our yurt in Wales.”