Where to begin? My amazing freelance genealogist cousin Nancy proposed a trip to Costa Rica to meet a whole branch of our family who we had never met, much less hugged. Her wonderful friend, Sandra, went with us and if not for her bilingual skills, we would still be at the airport trying to tell a cab driver where we wanted to go, but I will save that part of the trip for another blog.
After the girls got off to the airport, I took about an hour cab ride from our hotel in Alehuela to a town named Cartago. Per my instructions, I called Howard, the guy who I spoke to when I originally reserved my spot at the retreat and left a message that he could pick me up at the La Basilica de la Virgen de Los Angeles. After a little while, a small car pulled up in front of me and the driver said “You look like you don’t belong here. You must be Walter.” I said, “You must be Howard” and he replied, “Throw your crap in the back seat, jump up front and put your seat belt on”. Soon we had escaped the noisy traffic congestion of the city and began to ascend up winding roads through densely vegetated rain forest to a place they called simply The Ranch.
As we pulled up to the main house, I was greeted by a lovely young woman with the blondest dreadlocks I had ever seen whose name is Zoe and an exotic looking bearded young man. Although he spoke very little English, he proceeded to entertain Zoe and me by rolling a small crystal ball along every extremity of his body without ever letting it hit the ground. I soon learned that this man was Harold the Shaman. I turned to Zoe and said, “This must be the place.” She just laughed and asked, “I’m taking the couple that arrived before you for a tour of the grounds in a little bit. Would you like to join us?” I said sure, and she pointed in the direction of my room so I could drop off my stuff.
As the afternoon progressed, one by one, the other members of our soon to be little tribe began to arrive. We were a pretty diverse group and for the first time in a long time, I wasn’t the oldest guy at the retreat. That first night, we all had dinner together and had a chance to swap our stories of who we think we are and what brought us to this moment together. That’s when I started to notice a common thread in the stories. Each one of us felt as if we had been called by someone or something to come to this place. If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably recognized that I have a tendency to sometimes use magical thinking in place of common sense, but here were six other individuals from all over the world that heard that same voice in their head.
After dinner, we all met up in the temple to receive the Shaman’s blessing for our upcoming experience and to be informed about what to expect in the following days. We were introduced to a couple of additional staff members named Silvia and Eric and then we were each given a small cup brewed from just the ayahuasca vine itself.
What’s interesting is that the vine that the ayahuasca brew is named for doesn’t actually have any psychoactive properties of its own. It’s when you add a second plant that contains the DMT molecule that the tea takes on its hallucinogenic qualities. Without the addition of the ayahuasca vine, the DMT would be unable to metabolize into the bloodstream through your digestive system. The vine quite literally is the transport vehicle that delivers you to the experience and that is why she is referred to as “Plant Teacher” or “Plant Mother”, but I just call her Goddess for short.
We all went to sleep that evening with the belief that although we still felt some apprehension, we were prepared for the ceremony to come. We had no idea and I think that’s a good thing. Otherwise, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. Day two started off with a light breakfast and more discussion about the upcoming ceremony. At that point, we were informed that our last meal of the day would be served at 11am and were told not to drink any additional fluids after 2pm. Later that day, after much anticipation and quite a bit of soul searching, the time for our first ceremony had arrived.
We all gathered in the temple and picked out our spots. Each of us was given a yoga mat, a comforter, a small pillow and a large plastic bowl. Since we were a predominantly English speaking group, Eric did most of the speaking to the group, while Shaman Harold and Silvia tended to the more spiritual side of the ceremony. They went around to each participant and performed an individual blessing ritual that included chanting and a cleansing with a tobacco smoke they called Mapacho. After the blessings, Harold returned to the front of the temple; where he sat down to prepare each individual dose of the Ayahuasca. He then called us up one by one to receive the sacrament. He spoke some more words over the cup and then blew some Mapacho smoke into it. We were told to try to take the whole cup of brew in one swallow, try our best to hold it down and then we would be given a second cup in about 20 minutes. The taste was pretty harsh (I’m actually getting chills and feeling a little nausea just writing this) and as I got down to the bottom of the cup, the plant matter got thicker and thicker until it became very difficult to swallow. We were given a little honey to help mask the flavor, but honestly I don’t think I’ll ever forget that taste. Soon, Harold came over to my yoga mat to give me my second dose and as weird as this may seem, that one went down a bit smoother. I have to admit that I was quite proud of myself for keeping this nasty stuff down, so I decided to lie back, close my eyes and wait for the beautiful hallucinations to come.
The first thing I noticed was what sounded to me like a woman’s voice giggling somewhere off in the distance. As the voice seemed to get closer and closer, I could start to make out the words “El Stupido” between the laughter. It was then that I saw my first vision. Pop Pop, Pop, three identical cartoon characters appeared before me. I later named them “Tres Amigos”. Each one was wearing all white with a red sash around their bulging waist, sandals on their feet and a gigantic sombrero on their head. Each one had the same huge smile underneath a pencil thin mustache that curled at the end. The images were completely static except the right hand which had the index finger pointing up and then in unison they would all point down. Just then, I felt a sharp pain in the pit of my stomach that felt as if someone had stabbed me with a knife and that’s when the purging began. I quickly opened my eyes, sat up, grabbed my bowl and proceeded to violently dry heave for about the next 15 minutes or so. There were sounds coming out of my mouth that I swear to you were not my own. Eventually, I was able to bring up a small amount of the plant matter and felt at this point that the worst was over. I was covered in sweat and physically exhausted, so I decided to lie back down and wait for the good stuff to begin. That is when the unbearable assault on my senses commenced. It started off with the awful taste in my mouth that was much worse when combined with what had come out of my mouth. Then there were the smells of the burning incense and the Mapacho smoke that kept reaffirming my nausea with every whiff. Every sound I heard, from the relentless music and shamanic chanting to the wretches of my fellow compadres purging themselves, felt like needles piercing my brain. Even the sound of raindrops striking the tin roof seemed like an organized attack. When I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the laughing returned, followed by another appearance of the Tres Amigos and then the whole process started all over again. After about eight hours of this, I had counted some thirteen separate purging sessions. At the end of the night, I was completely physically and emotionally exhausted, but somehow I mustered the strength to drag myself up the long steep set of steps leading to my sleeping quarters. The last thing I remember thinking before I passed out that early morning is “No matter what, I will never do that again.”
The next morning, I awoke with a profound revelation that the previous night of torture was all just some sort of test. You see, in all the turmoil, I had almost forgotten that I had set a firm intention prior to the ceremony to “face my fears” and that’s exactly what she put in front of me. I knew right then and there that no matter how much my ego wanted to pack up my crap and get the hell out of that crazy place that this process wasn’t quite over yet and I needed to stay the course in order to truly understand the lesson I was there to learn. We all sat down to a light breakfast and tried to make sense of the prior evenings events. Even though each individual’s story was very different, everyone seemed to agree that although what they experienced was not what they expected, they all got what they asked for. After breakfast, we all piled into a small van and headed for the hot springs. I’ve been to several different natural hot springs in California, but this was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a small pool located on the edge of a raging river. The river was ice cold, but the pool was somewhere around 90 degrees. We laughed and talked, but strangely not another word was spoken about the previous night’s goings on.
By the time the second ceremony came around, I had decided to set the more gentle intention to “open my heart”, but unlike the night before, I didn’t seem to be experiencing any fear. I found myself sitting next to a new couple (they hadn’t been there for my first ceremony) who kept giggling and making jokes about the ceremony, so I decided I would just roll over, close my eyes and try to block them out. That’s when it all started. First, I just saw flowing colors that sort of resembled the Northern Lights. Then the colors turned into geometric shapes and then into flower and animal shapes sort of like cave drawings. To my delight, this beautiful light show seemed to go on for hours and then suddenly, everything went black. Out of the darkness, I started to see small dots of light flying towards me. They appeared to be endless strings of rope lights dancing all around me. I then realized that these rope lights were forming a cage around me and as soon as the cage was complete, it started moving in a downward direction. The cage (with me in it) kept plunging faster and faster. Soon, I started to notice that as the cage plummeted deeper, the blackness was becoming lighter. It started out an amber color, but soon turned to flame red. I decided that I must be headed for hell, but the strange part is that I still didn’t feel afraid. It was as if I had been there before and was happy to be going back. Suddenly the cage began to slow and as it gently touched down, the rope lights broke apart and flew into the sky above me. When I looked back down, I was surrounded by literally thousands of what I can only describe as elongated entity faces. Again I felt absolutely no fear. What I did feel was love and acceptance. As if all they wanted was to be as close as possible in order to share my energy. Just then, I was abruptly pulled back into the present moment by the familiar sound of the new couple realizing the joys of purging. I have to say I did take a certain satisfaction in the fact that they were no longer giggling and telling jokes.
After I arrived back home, I was still trying to make some sort of sense out of what had happened to me, so I decided to share my experience with my friend Kirk. Now Kirk is a man of few words, but when he does say something it tends to be pretty profound. After telling him my story, he said “You weren’t in hell.” to which I asked, “Then where the hell was I?” He said, “You were here on the deck”. With those six little words everything became crystal clear to me. You see our deck is located three stories directly below my house, the ceiling is encircled with rope lighting and it’s one of the few places I can go to share the energy of some of my favorite entities, my friends and neighbors.
The lesson I take away from all this is that I can stop searching for someone else’s idea of success. All I need do is to continue following my own bliss because I already have everything I need. Listen dude, if you’re considering finding out what lessons the Plant Mother has in store for you; I have a couple pieces of advice. First, I highly recommend strictly following the Shaman’s Diet for at least two weeks prior to your first ceremony (I would have saved myself a lot of grief in the purging department and lost a few pounds while I was at it), but most importantly, choose the intention you plan to set very carefully as I discovered that the Plant Goddess is a quite literal dudette. I am reminded of the old Rolling Stones song, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find You Get What You Need”.