Before I traveled to the Amazon, I’d been told ayahuasca was used as a ceremonial drug, but never looked up what it entailed: if I was going to participate in any rituals, I’d rather do it without knowing too much about them. I had no clue that ayahuasca is apparently all the rage in Europe—people pay a great deal of money to participate in these rites. Supposedly, it makes you vomit and understand your place in the universe. But here in Acre, I have no idea what’s ahead of me.
A group of Nukini is gathered around a sunset bonfire, singing. There’s a chill in the air and I’ve crept as close to the fire as I can. Paulo, the leader of tonight’s ritual, pours a swampy liquid from a worn plastic bottle. From the moment I arrived, the Nukini looked out for me, cared for me, and fed me: I feel as safe as would with my own mother. So when Paulo hands me a cup, I down the dark, bitter liquid without thinking twice.
A young man wearing a big feather headdress takes a piece of tree resin, lights it on fire and brings it up to my face. Fragrant smoke billows between us, and I hum along to the music and stare into the fire. I know the ayahuasca is taking effect when the fire starts to glow vibrantly. My eyes get hazy with tears; my chest swells with loneliness. I start crying, and it doesn’t stop. With each passing minute, I feel more disconnected from the people around me—an outsider invading their ritual. My experience is clouded by every book, movie, and photograph I’ve ever seen about native cultures that have all been lumped together into one big noble savage mess. This experience feels second-hand and unreal.
I over-analyze my presence; I become uncontrollably frustrated by my over-analyzing. I'm simultaneously pitying myself and seething with rage. I can’t believe that even while tripping on drugs, I am unable to relax and let go. Behind me, a woman singing in a shrill voice acknowledges my blubbering by pressing a cloth into my hand.
I can’t and don’t particularly care to recount all the ways I feel terrible, but while I'm trying to get a handle on this spectrum of emotions, something even more painful presents itself: a crystal clear view of everything that is wrong in my life. I realize that I am leading my life in a way that is not tenable, unable to feel, to let go, to enjoy. I see my life hovering in front of me in the form of a black, cast-iron mechanism, completely rusted shut. There is a tension inside me and I know, as certainly as I’ve ever known anything, I will never be able to resolve it. I stare down the abyss of my problems, and see no way to repair them.
Paulo, who’s leading the ritual, comes up to me and asks how I'm doing, and I cry in his arms until he talks me back out of this black hole with words of peace, love, and being on this journey together. My wailing is reduced to a whimper. All of a sudden, a beautiful young mother in long robes, a perfect Madonna, sits down next to me. She lays her baby in a hammock by the fire, and starts to sing.
I lie down and sing along. This calms me down until the inevitable strikes: my stomach starts to cramp. At some point, the Madonna asks me if I have to go to the bathroom. I am puzzled, trying to figure out how she knows. I mull it over and chalk it up to a mother’s instinct. I am too embarrassed to say yes, because I know it’s something of an emergency—and I’ve run out of tissues. The bathroom is a small outhouse two fields over. At night, even when sober, the banana trees turn into an indecipherable monochrome mass in the beam of my head torch—there is no way I could navigate that by myself. I can’t take it anymore, and I ask her to guide me.
As we walk through the woods, I ask her if she has any paper. In the sweetest voice she asks “Você precisa fazer cocô?” It means “do you have to poop,” and she says it in the exact same words my grandmother used when I was a little kid. Shame melts away, I nod and let her take by the hand like a five-year-old.
The Madonna leads me back to the fire, where we sing for hours more. As I lay on the ground, geometrical patterns erupt in front of my eyes and I start to think of the people I love. As long as we keep singing, rhythmically, repetitively, droning, a warmth remains inside me.
After the effects wear off, someone takes back to my hammock, and after a long, cold, and very lonely night, I wake up with Isaac’s inquisitive face hovering over me. “Bom dia!” He’s a dark silhouette against the bright morning light, but I can hear from his voice that he’s smiling. For a moment, warmth rushes back into me.
Joana goes for a walk around the village and I follow her without question, glad to be occupied in some way. I lag behind the others, keep to myself, and barely speak a word: the Nukini custom of being around each other without talking suits me perfectly. People either don’t speak to me at all, or exchange tall tales of their most powerful ayahuasca experiences. By comparison, what I experienced was unimpressive, and I suppose that comforts me. I try to wrap my head around the fact that they do this every week, and if that’s not enough, a nine-year-old tells me quite matter-of-factly about the first time she took it—two years ago.
Then, out of nowhere, a crowd gathers in full feather dress—a dancing ceremony is at hand. I don’t want to feel left out, so I visit a girl who, I’m told, sells feather earrings. The girl is putting the finishing touches on her daughter’s face paint and little grass dress. When she looks up at me, I realize she is last night’s Madonna, and my cheeks flush with a wave of shame and gratitude. She assures me “you’re welcome,” in the high-pitched whisper I remember so well, and I melt where I stand. Adorned and painted, feathers in place, we join the others in the communal area, where everyone grabs hold of each other, forming a circle. The first dance ensues, followed by another, and another, and a couple more for good measure. And then, just like all their parties, the celebration comes to an abrupt, unceremonious end, and everyone goes back to life as usual.