You may have seen pictures of the Death Road or, as others call it, the world’s most Dangerous Road, trucks falling off the side, cars in near misses and such like. Actually it is officially the most dangerous road in the world, and hundreds of people have died travelling along it. Until recently Paceños wouldn’t go to Coroico because the journey was so perilous… It is literally like a knife edge. Apparently you descend some, not sure how many but a few thousand metres, at a speed that you can hardly control, and there is nothing, no barrier, no sloping hill, nada to stop you from plunging into the pit of the valley alone.
Last November they opened a new road, so the most dangerous road isn’t as dangerous as it was. But you still won’t catch me on it in a hurry... I guess I am just not an adrenalin junkie. I like sitting on the bus, watching the view unravel outside. Maybe listening to music; maybe just listening to the sounds of other people’s chatter.
But actually this journey wasn’t quite so romantic. Matthews and I managed to get onto a little white heaving micro bus and aside from it breaking down and me getting bitten by more sand flies, we were sharing a three man seat, made for midgets (and Matthew is over six foot tall) with a man, his weepy eye, his little girl and a chicken.
It was worth it though. The Yungas is a very well kept secret and one of the most beautiful and fascinating places I have visited. We were lazy this time around, but later I came back again for a music festival and to write a travel piece. Something had caught my imagination the first time around; the gaping valley, so lush and green, with beautiful, undeveloped walks, and wild flowers and birds.
When you examine the hills you see coca fields spread out like a patchwork. The locals are quick to tell you that this coca is not used to make cocaine. The Yungas is a traditional coca growing region, since the time of the Incas. So this is not like the Chapare region in Bolivia where there was a mass eradication programme some years ago, which by the way did not achieve any reduction in the amount of cocaine produced but did see many people impoverished and displaced.
Now some of the (US) NGOs working in the area say that over production of coca is damaging the environment. I guess that over production of anything would have that affect, but in general terms, when it comes to coca, I think the world has got it badly wrong.
That’s a pretty big statement. And maybe I am in no position to speak about this, I know I will sound like a hypocrite, but the whole coca issue has really caught me.
I knew very little about the coca leaf before I came to Bolivia. I guess I knew it alleviated altitude sickness if taken in tea or chewed. But the coca leaf is so much more.
This powerful leaf is a friend to Indigenous people in the Andes. It has medicinal, nutritional and spiritual significance.
It relieves hunger and exhaustion and helps the brain absorb oxygen so helping you think more clearly. It has been used to help ease rheumatism, muscular pains, nervousness, asthma, blood pressure, prostate troubles, warts, dandruff… the list goes on. It is currency in business, as means to welcoming people and showing friendship. More than this it is sacred, used in rituals, celebrations and ceremonies. It represents reciprocity and a connection with the pachamama, one woman told me, when you chew coca you are never alone, you are always connected with the mother earth.
There is a legend in Amayra tradition that says the coca leaf was discovered when Khun, g-d of lightening, thunder and snow, angry at people because of their lack of respect, for their home near Lake Titicaca, banished them to a nomadic life, hiding their return route. To survive they ate forest plants and that is how they discovered the coca bush. Chewing on the coca leaf, their hunger and tiredness disappeared and they managed to find their way home.
Coca is definitely not cocaine. No one has ever died from chewing the coca leaf. In its natural form coca makes you strong and for Bolivia’s poor it is a means of survival.
But what do the clever civilised democratic Westerners do? We take it, in huge quantities, extract the alkaloids that make cocaine cocaine, mix it with 41 other chemicals which include things like petrol, and sell it by the gram so it can be snorted off toilet seats or smoked through cans. At best it leaves you smiling inanely, talking shit and staying in bed on Sunday. At worst it robs every bit of nutrition and motivation from your being, leaves you paranoid and lonely.
We turned something that is sacred and gives life into meaningless poison. And I don’t mean to sound like a sanctimonious dick head, this is just what my thinking has come to, I am not judging anyone or anything.
Obviously, most of the coca grown in Bolivia is not for traditional uses. It is mainly for the drugs trade. Bolivia wants coca taken off the UNs list of controlled substances so that they can sell the teas and coca products to other parts of the world. At the moment though that looks unlikely, and Bolivia is likely to be punished for Europe and America’s habit.
Sorry, I got a little caught up in that there. But anyhow, they do grow a lot of coca in the Yungas as well as mandarins, bananas and avocados.
The first time round we were pretty lazy, just doing a couple of treks and sitting and readying by the pool, which looked out onto this amazing view. Second time around I was alone so ended up doing much more. I visited a animal refuge where a very alpha cappuccino monkey had gotten free and was terrorising the other animals. There was also a poor macaw there, with no mate and few feathers owing to anxiety. Bless. I ate in kitchens and large dining halls with the rabble, plates of tender chicken and rice with banana in place of bread and a passion fruit juice to wash it down. Those set lunches tend to cost less than fifty pence, and so far I have had no complaints whatsoever in terms of things repeating… and all that after being warned not to eat salad here because it is cultivated in human…. Err need I say more? I doubt that’s true. Everyone I have spoken to says they were warned about Bolivian food and haven’t had a bad meal yet.
When we got back to La Paz from Coroico I went to meet lovely Dave Ford who happened to be in town. You have to give this bundle of love credit. He is all American and completely breaking the mould, a much bigger feat for an American than a European, only 16 per cent of US citizens have passports I think.
We had an intense couple of beers in which he almost convinced me to take part in, as oppose to just writing about the ayahuasca ceremony he was going to in a couple of days.
Still undecided I went back to meet Matthews and head to Tewanku for the Aymara New Year. We wrapped up warm (woolly tights and three jumpers warm), brought whiskey and got on the bus.
When we arrived the village streets were full of people and fires burning. We danced and drunk under the stars and I kissed an Italian who looked a bit like Che Guevara. Or at least he had the same hat. Then we watched people lift their hands to the sun as it rose and dance to welcome the New Year in. We ate spicy sausages from the street and came home smelling of smoke and booze.
We had it must be said, drank a lot. And for a moment that was a good enough reason for us to decide not to take part in the Ayahuasca ceremony, but that didn’t last long.
Having been a cynical old cow, something was pulling me into this Ayahuasca ceremony. Partly it was Dave Ford telling me all about it, someone I really like and respect you know. Partly it was because I wanted to write about it and partly it was my own curiosity and an inexplicable urge to get closer to Ayahuasca.
I will never forget the journey to the Alkamari retreat. We really didn’t know where we were going; just that it was somewhere near the mountains just out of La Paz. And then fairly suddenly I just absolutely knew I was taking part. I turned to Matthews and said; ‘I am going to do it. I’m going to do the ceremony’. He looked at me, fear pulling the colour from his face and said, ‘OK’. It was a slow OK, the kind that means ‘I guess I am too, and I am petrified but I’m with you.’
The taxi got lost on the way to Alkamari, and I was impatient. I just wanted to get there. And then we were there, looking out on these arched buildings, almost in the middle of nowhere, with the backdrop of Illimaini, the mountain that I later found out symbolises strength.
Inside there were sweet wooden bunk beds and coloured blankets over neatly made beds. Big tall welcoming Dave Ford greeted us and introduced us to other people. All the same I spotted Matthews and his angst; All coiled up, standing outside and smoking, like a tormented film star. I think I have said it before, but he has a habit of looking like he has been plucked out of a magazine, even when he is shitting himself.
Tim, the Shaman or rather healer as he prefers to be described (you only get to be a shaman when you are super wise and experienced and about a hundred and ten) was preoccupied organising things, and he looked delighted and unsurprised at my decision.
I thought I would have more time to suss the whole thing out but before I could really get my bearings we were being told to dress warm and bring blankets and pillows. Some were typical backpacker types from Australia, others were Bolivians. There was a lot of deep breathing. Everyone was a little tense.
We trudged out of the main retreat over the grass, wrapped in our blankets and carrying our torches towards the hut like building where the ceremony was taking place.
The hut was dark and felt kind of remote and mystical, a bit like a cave. Inside the bench curved around the walls of the room and a fire burnt, making it smoky. I sat down and looked around, cynical preconceptions darting through my mind. It looked like a cult with these strange ornaments and objects and instruments in the middle of the room. And the candles. All these candles. Take it all in, I thought to myself. You don’t know what you are going to write but I am sure it is all good material.
And then I turned to the man sitting next to me, a tall well built alpha type. He had just had a massage. When I asked why, he said he had been at work all day and needed to relax. Where had he been working? Oh the embassy. ‘The em-ba-ssy is here’ I repeated in an I would raise my eyebrow if I could kind of way. To which he responded, I am here as a person. And that was my turning point; I was there as a person really too.
There were things I deeply wanted to understand, things I wanted to get through. If Dave Ford rated this guy, and so did all of these other nice looking people, maybe I should too. So I put my faith in Tim and in Ayahuasca and prayed that I ayahuasca would be good to me.
Below our feet there were plastic bowls or half bottles, intended for us to be sick in. Tim explained that some people would have an elated ecstatic experience, others might have quite a hard time both physically and mentally, they might reach a sort of hell and either come through to a better experience or not. And some would feel nothing. He said the medicine, ayahuasca, would decide.
We were told it was an idea to have a question in mind for ayahuasca, and I had a couple. Whatever happened, he said, there was no leaving. You just had to sit through it. If you needed the toilet you should go quickly and come back and try not to disturb people. He said it was important that we tried not to make too much noise as others would be very conscious of it but that at certain points people might want to laugh or cry or sing, and we should just get that over with naturally. He said we were here to work. Ayahuasca he told us is a powerful medicine, made from a vine and plants. But no one had ever died from taking it and he would guide us with music and tobacco and perfume.
His voice was so strange and yet so soft. He rolled his rs and sounded like a pigeon cooing. There was the tiniest hint of fear too, as if he was somehow humble in front of this powerful medicine. There was only a faint sound of the wind and outside and our quiet apprehension.
As I went up to drink a first cup my mind was still in overdrive; there was still a little voice saying ‘mate this is weird! Mate, basically you are going to sit here with a bunch of strangers, throwing up and tripping your nuts off.
Ayahuasca tasted acidic, like wine that had been fermented with herbal tea and gravel. Tim had said that some people would be affected within fifteen minutes, and that for others it would take longer. I think I started to feel the effects within the first few minutes. It almost makes me tingle just thinking about it.
As it began to affect me I could feel the fear in me swelling. This, I now understand is normal. My head felt heavy and I closed my eyes. All I saw was swirling colours in black and pushes of red and a rush of happiness.
Part of me was terrified, that feeling of becoming out of control and wanting it to stop. Normally it makes me take some clothes off and crash in a corner somewhere. Here too I was physically uncomfortable, hot and then shivering, sighing and then breathless. I couldn’t get comfortable because I was fighting it.
I saw swirling colours and heard music in the background, strange enchanting alien music. To put it bluntly I was completely out of it, and I was well aware of it. But I was still battling to keep control; and part of that related to my bladder. I needed the toilet badly. The room was dark with music and the sound of some people retching others moaning. Could I make it outside? Maybe the fresh air would do me goof. But the whole experience was far more difficult than I had expected.
Outside everything was alive; the grass, the wind, don’t even talk to me about the stars. I started to move towards the toilets and every step was a thousand layers of echo. I couldn’t make out where the toilet was and outside I felt, like the enormity of everything, like never before. There was to be no peeing for Kika. It just was not something I was able to accommodate.
I headed back to the hut, stumbling and accidentally flashing the light at people as I went. I honestly do not think I would have found my seat had it not been for the Embassy man next to me, let’s call him H, who was for some reason up and was able to gently guide me back to my seat like a friendly bear. At that point, I had no doubt who was in charge. It was not me, it was clearly ayahuasca.
Ever the geek, I sat back, my head flopping to one side and said in a little voice in my head, ‘Ok Ayahuasca, I get it. You call the shots here. But I really can not manage to go to the toilet and I do not want to piss myself. So please can we make a deal, I will go all out tomorrow, and as much as I can tonight, but please let me keep control of my bladder.’ You will be pleased to hear that Ayahuasca seemed to honour our agreement.
What happened next was simply exquisite. First, I was a little sick, which came as a massive relief. After that I was in some sort of a coma, just letting whatever thoughts and images come into my mind come and go. I saw a lot of patterns and shapes. And I saw faces. In particular I saw the face of a person I had wanted to get over for a long time. And I kept hearing, it doesn’t matter and the voice of my Abuelita, so clear it was as if she was there soothing me.
What I experienced is really hard to explain. All I know is that it felt like I went deep into the core of my being, right to the truth and to the part of me that knows but is so often quiet in the face of uncertainty and insecurity. And I made sense of a whole lot of things. As the experience came to an end what I remember most is this beautiful sense of being well and happy in myself.
I treasured the music; it was so helpful to me. Tim played all sorts of instruments, some sort of a harp, a flute, drums I think. And he sang, each note feeling like a precious gift. He moved around us, singing and blowing tobacco and perfume at us through his mouth and hands I think, so that it felt like rain. With ayahuasca you become ultra sensitive and so the scent of lavender or the warmth of tobacco (also a very mystical plant) can be very powerful. I sighed a lot. I know that much because H told me later that, at one point he had to check himself and then decided the sound effects were quite pleasant really!
The other thing I remember is feeling very grateful towards Tim. He felt like a shepherd, making us safe, guiding us, and working like a bastard. It is hard work all that blowing and singing, it made him a bit sick at times… imagine perfume in your mouth and tobacco… There were twenty of us too, all very different ranging from the embassy man to someone that worked for Microsoft, to a healer and a student and three guys who had just left the navy. I felt huge admiration, respect and affection for Tim.
You know as the experience is coming to an end. You know because you start to wake up from your coma, as if from a magical dream in which you were really alive. It felt warm and as though we had all come through. I am aware that all this sounds hippie dippie but you know me… first one to be cynical about something like this, but it really was something else.
There were some hugs and some exchanges about what people had been through and we headed back to the lodge. A couple of people had felt absolutely nothing despite taking three cups. Others had had really intense experiences, having as Tim said, done the mental work of years in just a few hours.
I felt truly happy and relaxed and most of all I felt the relief of something, or someone having left me. Quite amazing but the whole truth is that that person, whose heart I broke, who hurt me back, who made me sad and angry and obsessive, with whom I made a mess, was gone. The hurt that was so painful and addictive and hard to let go of had disappeared, like a switch being turned off. And it has not been turned on again since.
Still hallucinating, I could not sleep. In the morning another new experience, the sweat lodge at dawn.
In bikinis and towels we headed towards where the hut was and stripped by a fire. I had no idea what would happen next. We entered a sort of tent with hot rocks in the middle, like a sort of outdoor sauna. All twenty of us were squashed in there, sweaty leg against sweaty arm. Oils, at least I think they were oils, were used, and I smelt banana and coconut and aruda. The rocks kept coming and the steam grew thicker. Tim recited thanks to the pachamama and we all gave thanks… I know it sounds cultish now but really it wasn’t and what I liked was that whatever Tim said seemed to go along with the basic philosophy of being a good human being. So it didn’t matter that there was someone there who was Christian and me Jewish and someone else who was atheist and a Bolivian healer and so on… it was all just very human.
When we came out we lay on the grass, the sun now having come up, and I felt cleansed. Cold water was tipped on us and there was hot cinnamon tea and then breakfast.
I had not slept and had eaten and drunk very little, but I wasn’t finished. Having been unsure of whether I would even stay for one ceremony I was now getting ready to go on a six hour hike and had agreed with Matthews that we would stay for the whole four day retreat, and do a second ceremony.
Some people left after breakfast and before the hike. The remainders were the people I would get to know well and who, without exception, I have a lot of love for. There was of course Dave Ford, Maz, H and me, who you already know, plus Diego, the lovely American dred lock jungle guide and fairly devout Christian (I say that only because I love all those contradictions and they are what make Diego Diego… as well as the way he says exact -tly), and then Mel the lovely smily American flower child, and Julian the Brit from Torquee, who had helped and sung beautifully in the ceremony and is on the way to being a Shaman or healer as well.
I know ayahuasca is not a drug because somehow I had the energy and the clarity to do that hike, and believe me it was tough going. We were climbing all the time at high altitude, and I felt unsteady with Julian helping me along. We were going to a very spiritual part of the mountain, from where you could see all of La Paz, to make an offering. When we got there I sat at the top for a while. I do not know what made me stay there, as the rest went a little way down and sat on a flat rock. But I stayed there for a few minutes and just let the tears roll down my cheeks; once more, just so glad to be alive.
At the start of the second ceremony, I still felt scared, though less uncomfortable. H was extremely sick and at one point I had to break the rules and just pat him on the back. I don’t know why but it just felt like he needed it.
I remember the so many colours at first and then frustration. Come on I kept saying to myself, I want to have another intenmazing experience. It was only when I stopped fighting and trying to control it that things really started to happen.
This time it was less hard work. Pure loveliness. I saw Che Guevara’s face and a lion. I felt my tummy and how warm it was and had a sense of how I need to take better care of myself. Best of all I saw my friends. What I wanted to know this time related to all the ‘am I doing the right thing? Will I be ok? Can I make it? Questions. What I saw was the belief in my friend’s eyes, Rachel and Sian and Amy and Claire and Sarah and all sorts of people smiling with me or laughing and saying of course you will be OK. And I saw my dad showing off about me in the pub with his friends, and admitting he worried, but being happy and proud that his daughter was and is living life. And I saw my mum with her lovely warm wise eyes saying ‘you know I think you’re the bolocks Lo’. Lots of things… things I will not bore you with and that I can not do justice to. All I know is that Ayahuasca brings you to your subconscious truth and makes you feel that truth in all of its profundity, at that moment and beyond.
People’s experiences were very different. On the first night one girl had spent the whole time riding on the dog from the never ending story and playing in a Nintendo game. Someone else had seen a winged angel towering over him, someone else had seen G-d.
I still feel so grateful to Tim for the two ceremonies and for what he taught me and showed me, maybe without realising it. He is by the way coming to England, looking for people who are interested in the work he does and for places to stay while he is visiting. So if you want to meet this wonderful man… you now have the chance.
All this happened just days before my birthday, so it was doubly fantastic; I felt very happy and sorted and also had met a whole bunch of people I was really happy to be around on the big day.