While flicking through your trusty Telegraph recently you might have seen that Prince Harry, while promoting his autobiography, Spare, divulged that to ease his passage through troubled, younger years – and he’s been through a lot – he consumed various substances, and among these was a potion beloved of certain South American indigenous communities, a concoction known as ayahuasca.
Reading this I found myself transported back 30 years to the steamy forests of the Peruvian Amazon, where I was studying with various medicine-men, or curanderos and first encountered the stuff. After a journey by passenger boat up the Ucayali tributary, swinging all night in my hammock among the riverside folk, I took a dugout canoe up a creek and finally arrived at the hut of a renown shaman – let’s call him Alfonso. Here, I was introduced to his cosmic world – and an unenviable diet of spiritually cleansing nuts.
“Señor, you are ready for the ayahuasca,” he intoned gravely one evening. “Gateway to the gods.”
“Oh good,” I gasped faintly – for I’d been on his spiritually cleansing nut diet for what felt like weeks now. Alfonso chopped off some leaves and a bit of vine. He popped them into a dented old kettle. He added a splosh of ditch water.
In a forest clearing a fire was lit and in due course, with growing excitement now, I sipped what Alfonso proffered: a murky, acrid-smelling brew. “Many vomit terribly,” observed Alfonso, nodding sagely as I gagged. Through the night I waited for something to happen, meanwhile enjoying the fireflies, fruit bats and other flitting creatures of the tropical night. Come daybreak I was still waiting.
The next occasion with Alfonso was equally unsuccessful but quite different – if only because I was accompanied by an Irishman called Paddy. No, seriously.
“I swig the whole lot?” asked Paddy eagerly, as a determined Alfonso now proffered a whole bucket of the noxious stuff. And it struck me then just how vulnerable were innocent and perhaps desperate Westerners, in the hands of unlicensed practitioners like Alfonso. I’d been in the Amazon for months, but Paddy spoke not a word of Spanish and had just arrived all fresh from the Emerald Isle.
Thankfully, no harm was done, and Paddy’s encounter with ayahuasca I’m sure will stay with him. (“Benedict, what’s happening to the trees?” he shrieked. “The trees have HANDS!”) And through my years with indigenous communities, I too have been taken from my world into another.
With the Huichols of Mexico, for example, I took part in an exacting three-week pilgrimage into the parched, ancestral lands of Wirakuta, where reside their gods. As we trekked, we had to confess aloud the names of all those with whom we’d ever slept – embarrassing! – and finally, after much fasting, having renounced all other concerns of the flesh and been judged ready, we partook of the cactus peyote.
Soon, the stones began chirruping; everything slowed – as if the shrublands around me were underwater.
Rarely for me, I felt at one with our world. And, writing this, I wonder if Harry felt that sense of peace too.
Well, maybe I’d reached the realm of the immortals or maybe I was just off my head, but wherever else I’ve ingested a consciousness-altering beverage the occasion has invariably been marked by prescribed ritual, an indigenous culture’s profound understanding.
And there’s the rub: where our Paddy led, many equally unknowing backpackers have these days followed. These days, a trip to a jungle shaman has become quite the middle-class thing – not least because of a string of lost celebrities seeking enlightenment, and that BBC TV series of a few years ago called Tribe in which presenter Bruce Parry is briefly immersed in this and that exotic-looking ritual. Sold to us as “soft anthropology”, I suspect the show was more usually referred to by actual anthropologists as “anthro-porn”.
Many psychotherapists claim that ayahuasca can indeed assist mental ailments. I expect that’s true. Harry, for one, appears to believe so. But I’m afraid the boring truth is that these “other realities” that partakers so casually seek to experience stem from powerful chemicals – mescaline in the case of peyote. Without the accompanying cultural strictures, or at least a minimal understanding of the “tribe” in questions’ cosmology, you’re just taking another party drug.
Personally, I’d prescribe a “trip” not with ayahuasca but into the forest itself. Spend proper time there and it’s as beautiful a reality as you need – those fireflies, those flitting fruit bats – and frankly a cure enough for most of this world’s ills.