Photos, Artwork, & Musings on Life, Spirit, Entheogens, Time, & Travel

Archive for February, 2012

Desert Treat

Ice Cream Rock


Just one of the amazing rock formations in the Bisti Wilderness Area, south of Farmington, New Mexico.

Red Lands


The red wind whispers – calling me

Out to the sharp world, the cold land,

The place of polished stone, the land of keen breath,

The clean and parched country

Where the river of moments slows its crawl,

And the world runs far, far away to the

Uttermost limb of blue and brown.

The blank places beckon and chide, reaching

Long and deep to find my invented corner, to

Lift me up from my comfortable blindness,

To bring me out to my real house.

The hollow lands fill up my eyes

And the empty flank of the world

Supports my soul.


Fountains of the Incas

Fountains at Ollantaytambo Fortress, Peru

Whatever one’s opinion may be about the Incan empire, it is a fact that they were amazing engineers. Before I made my first trip to the Andes, I was not aware of the sophistication, extent, durability, and outright beauty of the Inca’s stone water works and fountains. Their hydraulic engineering was extensive and very impressive, often surpassing what was being done in Europe during those times. Much of it still functions perfectly today, more than 500 years later.

Incan watercourse-Coricancha, Cusco, Peru

To make sluiceways, they hand carved channeled blocks in solid stone using bronze and stone tools, bringing fresh water from sources to wherever it was needed. They surveyed landscapes and slopes, built water tunnels and reservoirs, and designed sophisticated drainage systems and pipeworks.

This beautiful sluice is in the courtyard of the famous Coricancha, or Temple of the Sun, the most important and impressive temple of the Incan Empire. This was the capital or main center of the empire, and before it was destroyed by the Spanish, the temple was covered, walls and floors, with solid gold.

Courtyard: Coricancha, Cusco, Peru

Here in this courtyard, a crop of corn once stood tall, but the corn and the stalks were all made of solid gold. It was a sight that amazed all who saw it, including, of course, the greedy conquistadores. Now, under the Incan stone wall and the Spanish church that replaced the temple, there is only grass and this lovely artistic watercourse made of stone, still pouring water into the Incan fountain today.

Machu Picchu Citadel ________ Photo by David P. Crews

The great citadel of Machu Picchu was a retreat for the Inca himself and he had the site plumbed and drained with great care. A stone canal about a half-mile long brought fresh water from a spring.

Watercourse and Fountain-Machu Picchu

The Inca emperor had the first use of it, then the water made its way down a series of sixteen other fountains for the rest of the city.

His bath water drained off separately to maintain fresh water for all, and the entire city sent its used water off through building walls and other structures into more than 130 drains that nourished their farming terraces.

Fountain at Machu Picchu

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Click on photos for a larger view. More images after the fold. (more…)

The Raimondi Stela and Chavin Shamanism

“The Chavin Stela Raimondi is to some the most profound expression of core sacred plant consciousness in the history of mankind ..” – Otorongo Blanco

These are my photographs of the famous Raimondi Stela (carved stone panel) now located in Lima in the National Museum of the Archaeology, Anthropology, and History of Peru. It is seven feet high and made of highly polished granite. The image is done in a shallow incised form called contour rivalry, where the design is made to be viewed from more than one direction, giving a deeper, multiple meaning to the imagery. This image is from the ancient Chavin civilization of northeastern Peru, specifically from the great Chavin de Huantar temple complex. It depicts an indigenous shaman or deity of this peaceful and wise culture. The Chavin revered and used the sacred cactus we call San Pedro – a vision producing cactus that contains mescaline, similar to the peyote of North America. This amazing entheogenic plant was a central sacrament and highly ritualized by the Chavin peoples going back as far as 3,000 BC and beyond. The stela was not found in situ, but rather fortuitously in a peasant’s hut by the noted Italian historian, archeologist, adventurer, and author, Antonio Raimondi, in 1874. The story is that as Raimondi was searching through the area, he was invited into a peasant’s hut for a meal. He was intrigued by the very strong and long stone table the peasant was using, and when he ran his hand under the bottom surface, noticed that it was carved. He obtained the stela, which now bears his name. The rich shamanic culture of the Chavin has been deeply studied and is being recreated and restored by my friend, don Howard Lawler, in Peru today. Information on Chavin, the sacred sacrament of Huachuma, and more (including authentic Ayahuasca work) can be found at his site:

Chavin Shaman holding San Pedro Cactus

. . . . . . . . . . .

Raimondi’s drawing of stela-both directions


Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part IV)

– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru

By David P. Crews

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Read Part III here




Expressions of Normalcy in an Abnormal Realm

The rituals and ceremonies I am describing are those of mestizo shamanism, a mixture of tribal Indian and Hispanic traditions. One of the Hispanic healing influences is that of a “limpia” or cleansing bath. In the Upper Amazon, the flower bath is an important part of the Ayahuasca ritual. This is a literal bathing in water that has been infused with fragrant and beautiful blossoms. These also serve a spiritual purpose to cleanse and ward off negative spirits or energies. This limpia is administered by the shaman (Don Rober, in my case) who also ritualizes the procedure with shacapa and sung or whistled icaros and arcanas of protection.

Howard informed me that the flower bath serves to “close up” the spiritual space around the participants to keep us from being too open and vulnerable to negative magic. Thus, it is the crucial conclusion of the previous night’s ceremony.

Our flower baths were conducted first thing in the morning, with each of us receiving the bath individually at the hand of don Rober.

from my trip journal:

Tuesday – First Flower Bath.
I’m feeling very good this bright morning after a short but good night’s sleep.  I am still bothered by the strong episode I had last night. In all my years of reading about Ayahuasca experiences, I’d never heard of the kind of thing I had just experienced.

Maybe this reaction was something specific to me? If so, it might happen again! I guess I looked worried as don Rober approached me and asked if I was “bien?”  I assured him I was fine and he smiled and patted my back. Other participants also came up to me and gave me their love and encouragement. This is such an affirming and responsive group experience. It is reassuring and powerful.

The Ceremonial Mesa

Later, I talked with Howard about my episode and he assured me that “Ayahuasca can do that!” The type of episode I experienced, where one loses awareness of one’s self as participating in a ceremony, is rare. It is, he promised, something that can turn out to have much deeper meaning later on. He said I was unlikely to encounter that kind of experience or vision again, but if I should do so, “You’ll know how to handle it.”

As we finished our breakfasts, individuals took turns going to a tiny side platform, open to the jungle, to have don Rober administer their flower bath. Under a small thatched roof, a hard chair and a large galvanized bucket of water are the only things here. In the water, lovely purple and blue blooms float about – their fragrance strong and sweet. I took my turn and sat down in the chair.

Don Rober began the bath by dipping the water out and pouring it right over me, covering me head to toe with several waterfalls. This may be the hot jungle, but that river water is very cold – so cold and unexpected that I could not help but squeal loudly as I took huge breaths, my heart racing. Don Rober laughed and began his ministrations with smoking a mapacho of rustic tobacco and blowing the smoke into the crown of my head. He began to whistle his icaro and pat me with the shacapa.

After recovering from the initial cold water shock, the overall effect of the flower bath is one of comfort. I always left the flower baths with a feeling of being grateful and of being at peace.


Today will be a short interlude before diving back in to the strange dimension of Ayahuasca. Howard gave us a couple of days before the first session to become acclimated and let our bodies heal and settle before the first ceremony, but now we will move directly into the second session tonight.

Don Howard and don Rober led all of us on a day trip by long boats up the Rio Momón to search for shacapa leaves and wild Ayahuasca vine. We landed at a tiny rough village and hiked into the jungle about a mile or two to find a chagra or farm that belongs to another shaman.

Here, don Rober showed us the Ayahuasca vines growing naturally and other admixture plants like Chacruna. Shacapa leaves were also gathered and we returned to the boats for a good ride back down the river to our lodge, passing other small boats and several rafts of logs, each with a few people on board, floating them to market.

Today was the first opportunity to share experiences with the others who participated in last night’s ceremony. After visiting individually with most of my new friends, we all gathered at dusk to hold a traditional “talking stick” session to have a more formal interaction. Here, each person holds a ritual staff and in doing so, holds the floor for as long as they want to speak before passing the staff to the next person. It is relaxed and there is no hurry in this, so everyone can give as much detail as they wish or need concerning their experiences in the ceremony.

With as strong and harsh a first session as I had experienced, I expected others to relate similar tales, but to my surprise, most described their own sessions as mellow and pleasurable and even commented on how weak the Ayahuasca mixture seemed! It is one of the mysteries of the brew that it is so unpredictable in how it affects one person as opposed to another, even with the same mixture during the same ceremony. The shamans teach that this is because Ayahuasca is a Spirit being that works in a teaching and healing mode with each person and gives that person exactly what they need at that time. As each of us is different, the manifested effects are also vastly different from one to another participant.

Today’s sharing and story telling has helped me to settle down and not be so concerned about my difficulties in the first ceremony. In a couple of hours, we are going right back in to that other world and I feel more confident now. While waiting for the start of our experience tonight, the Amazon sky quickly turned dark and several of us spent this time star-gazing on this very nice, clear night. I was hoping to spot the Southern Cross, which I’ve never seen before, but it was too far south into the trees. Here in the dark skies of the Amazon, however, the Milky Way shined like a luminous bracelet around the world.

It was 8:30 and time to enter the molloca to begin our second ceremony with Ayahuasca. I had feelings of good camaraderie and joy mixed with a real sense of anticipatory nerves as I found my small chair.


I will refrain from repeating a description of the ceremonial ritual procedures as they are essentially identical at each session, but there is nothing mundane about going into a new ceremony when it happens. I concentrated on my Intentions for the upcoming work, and I modified it somewhat from last night. I decided to make it: “Let me SEE; Let me LEARN without hurting me; and please HEAL me.”

Once again, it was time to take the Tea. For many of the others, it was obvious that the drink was truly disgusting and difficult to get down. For me, however, it was about the same as last night – not really that bad. I think holding my nose helps and just getting it on down quickly, but I had no trouble ingesting it or keeping it down. Just lucky, I think. Others have told me that I should not assume it will always be so easy.

Please read the rest of Part IV here.

The Margins of Paradise

Illusions can be entertaining, but what if, suddenly, you realize you are living right inside one? Driving through the thick, green hills that ruffle up just west of my home, I got a glimpse – hiding in plain view – of just such an illusion, one that has haunted me ever since.

I love to drive and to travel, and deserts and wastelands have long enchanted my soul. Why, I wonder, do they so attract me, these lands of limited life and dangerous conditions? Certainly, there is a unique beauty to the sublime emptiness and harsh terrain, but there seems to be a deeper reason. After my recent startling discovery, I’ve concluded that this has to do with a grand illusion – the illusion of the ubiquity of life.

The illusion that now haunts me was revealed by a simple highway road-cut, sliced cleanly through one of the larger rolling hills near my decidedly non-desert home that made me pause. It was a wide slot, carved by man and his explosives to let the hard road through. I had driven through this rock-cut many times, but this day I noticed something about it and it felt like my view of the world had slipped sideways.

Living upon the dry land of this planet, we take as a given the world of life that surrounds us. Green grasses, great forests, flowers of every description, fields of crops, fresh water coursing over moss – all the very stuff of the world as far as we can see. Surely, all of this combined is what we consider our Earth to be truly made of – what defines it as Earth. On the continents, only the rarified deserts and mountaintops are thinned of this great green and living mass. Those are places with enough scarcity that we tend to think of them as exceptions to the mundane majority – accent pieces to the Green World. All this is true enough from our everyday perspective, but it is still a terrible illusion. The highway cut showed it to me plainly.

I saw the green hill as I approached in my car, then I was inside the cut. The Green World was not here. For a moment, it seemed some alien place had peeked out from behind its mask, giving slip perhaps to a false front that nature has arranged for our naïve comfort. This hill, this tiny lump of land, had risen up long ages past and now we humans had cut a slice right through it revealing it brazenly like some giant stony x-ray. Inside the fully green hill was nothing but stone. Of course, of course, but look how thinly the green grass and trees cling to the outer surface! Life on the skin of this simple hill is a vanishingly thin veneer. Underneath is nothing – nothing but stone.

It looked like a baked potato. The white rock here was skinned with a narrow dark green line that followed its every curve. Inside the hill? Nothing but potato meal. What was left of my green life was the extraordinarily thin “peel.” What if that peel was all that kept me alive, all that any of us can ever depend on for our very lives, forever? It made me shudder.

Then, it began to truly sink in. This is just a hill. It is a molecular protrusion – a mere grain on the side of an immense sphere, and that sphere is made up solely of more hill-stuff. Compared to the size of the hill, that green peel of life is gaspingly thin, but what of the ratio of that same green veil’s same thickness when gauged against the size of the entire planet?

I stopped my car and walked up to the spot where the grass shell’s edge met the face of the cut. This blade of grass at my feet and its roots extend some inches down into the soil. That tree descends perhaps several tens of feet. It all gives way in a breath to crusty dense stone that stretches thousands of non-air miles from here to the far foothills of another land’s evening, and there at the last blink, one more faint and incredibly thin curtain of green life clings to the stone face before the void beyond. In between these green ghosts? Only unbroken and ungodly fathoms of dense, unfeeling minerals twirling through the radiant night of space, viscous and fierce at the deepest heart where its own heady mass sits down. Is there red and glowing light at the very core, where no eye can perceive?

Perhaps this is the underlying reason I am attracted to deserts. The wonderful deserts! Where the green skin is worn away like a threadbare dress, revealing the true physical nature of rocky planets like ours, lurking beneath the living skin. Not that I disdain life – not at all! Rather, that it is here that the illusion thins enough to sense the reality of our situation. It is seeing through the illusion that gives me perspective. Life is thin and precious. We live by the benefits of an environment that is truly a soap-bubble skin – one atom thick and easily punctured, even by road workers with dynamite. Does our life-filled world of greenness seem so thick and full to us because we never really look below its broad, but incredibly thin face? Or is it because we ourselves are so amazingly tiny, lost within it? In the desert lands, one can feel the sizes.

The illusion revealed by the highway cut was as if someone had taken life’s movie camera and tilted it down, clean off the green set, revealing the stage hardware and support beams below. This camera, I found, can be tilted up, also.

We’ve all watched a blue sky full of unreachable white clouds and imagined shapes in their fractal forms. To me, as a young child, this cloudsky was a vision into a deep, vast land full of unknown ethereal beings and golden cities that no earthbound human could ever reach. The sky was endless – deeper than any ocean. Surely none of our activities, even flying, could truly penetrate its awesome mysteries. When the first rockets rose to space, I watched in rapt pleasure, sensing even as a small boy that a completely new perspective on things was to be had. I was always intrigued to see pictures of the earth from the high vantage of orbit. One of the most curious views to me was that of the limb of the planet with the sun rising. Curving above the dark planet below was a narrow bright band of light. It was our atmosphere illuminated from behind.

But wait! This couldn’t be the sky I know! This skin of air was so very thin – so thin it looked like a mere hand swipe would splash it all off and make it float away into hard black space. It could not be the true nature of that deep and unknowable sky world that had always fascinated me! Yet, this was our atmosphere – our sky, our clouds, our sunsets, our fresh air after a storm, the very pulsing breaths we consume and that sustain us. So thin?

So, the vast sky above my head was another illusion. The camera had been craned up this time, out of the set, and was looking back down with a cold, real eye.

I once had a pet fish. It swam around in its round bowl, eating its fish food and thinking its fish thoughts. Did it know that the water in which it swam extended only a very short way out from the center? Did it presume, as perhaps I did of the sky, that it must extend great and grand distances because it appears to do so? If I removed it from its bowl, say in a small water-filled plastic bag spaceship, would it have looked back upon its bowl world home and exclaimed, “So small?”

Now, we have extended ourselves out of our bowl and into the hard, waterless universe beyond. We can look back and see that the illusion of the ubiquity of our life-giving environment is comforting but also dangerous. Now, we begin to see how our actions are affecting this incredibly crucial and fragile resource.

We truly live within a thin margin. To see it as limitless and beyond our ability to alter or even to destroy, is to succumb to the illusion – something we can no longer afford.

The stars in space do not twinkle from our high orbital platforms. They shine crisp and cold for we see them there from outside our potato skin of air. As we walk across our gossamer greenswards, we might pause and think of the illusions revealed by a road-cut. As those cold stars call to us, we might also look up and gaze into the forever night, wondering what new worlds might exist in, or perhaps even outside of, our visible universe.

It seems so big.


Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part III)

– A Search for What Is Real in the Amazon Jungle of Peru

By David P. Crews

Read Part I here

Read Part II here 




“It is said in the Amazon that Ayahuasca has a jealous spirit.  This is a culture-bound concept which often seems strange to the western mind.  How could a plant considered sacred also be jealous?  One has to step outside the usual human concept of jealousy to understand what is meant by this.  It simply means that the conscious spirit of Ayahuasca desires our undivided attention when in Her presence.”
– Howard Lawler, aka Otorongo Blanco, from the SpiritQuest website:


from my trip journal:

“Monday – Preparing for our first Ayahuasca Ceremony

It rained softly through the night.  The jungle emerged from a misty sunrise. I met don Rober coming from the kitchen tambo – short, wiry, muscled. He looks very normal, even nondescript as he comes and goes around the camp, but I know he is a master shaman and will be in full control in tonight’s first ceremony.

We had a good breakfast of eggs and fruit and potato fries (unsalted, of course). This meal is larger and more protein oriented than lunch, which will be light – fruit only. No dinner tonight as we head into the sessions around 8 pm. Ayahuasca is a strong purgative and any excess food in our systems can be problematic during the sessions.

Howard called in each of us one at a time to formally meet and speak with don Rober and express our intentions and needs for healing during tonight’s session. The formulation and stating of authentic intentions is crucial to the work with Ayahuasca. It can strongly affect the way the plant works with you to heal and to teach.

My emotional self is apprehensive about the intensity of what is to come, but I am in Peaceful Warrior mode, using my power to choose and to Do in order to gain information and power. Not power over others, but power over my own self-limitations and self-deceptions. The sacred space of this place and the ritual of the pacing, activities, and food have been very helpful to calm me and let me focus on the work. This will not be easy. It may be very difficult at times. This is part of the medicine and the work that is to be done.”


Those who come to work seriously with Ayahuasca over a long period of time will engage in several different special diet sessions lasting days to a week or more. In each of these sessions, they will work with and ingest only one specific plant to learn its spirit and to internalize (literally and figuratively) its powers and effects in their body and person. These diets can be difficult and are not for everyone, but they are enlightening and useful for those who take them. Those who wish to become shamans work with these diets literally for years before becoming adept at their healing and visionary work.

For those who come to work with Ayahuasca for the first time or for occasional ceremonies, diet is still an important part of the experience, but it is not such an imposing trial as the dedicated diets are. There are differing opinions, usually based in long standing traditional views of the tribal and mestizo shamans, about the specifics of the required diet and its duration, but I have come to understand certain things about it.

There are two fundamental concerns in dieting prior to an Ayahuasca ceremony. First is the necessity of avoiding any chemicals in one’s system that might interfere with the chemical reactions of the medicine. Physically, Ayahuasca is a very safe substance. However, it is a mild MAO inhibitor and serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, and the partaker must avoid anything that will over-potentiate the medicine, which can cause a hypertensive reaction. Certain foods are problematic in this way and must be avoided for at least two to three days before ceremony and for as long after the last ceremony. These include pork, salt, sugars, spices and hot chilis, alcohol, and oil. Pork and lard, in particular, are problematic and many advise avoiding all pork products for as much as two weeks prior to and after working with Ayahuasca.

During an Ayahuasca retreat, food is actually plentiful and attractive, including fish, some chicken, grains, vegetables, eggs, honey, and lots of wonderful jungle fruit! All this food is taken from the bounty of the great forest and is fresh and very good for you!

Also a part of the “diet” is abstinence from sexual stimulation, which conserves one’s vital energy and heightens receptivity to the profound spiritual dimensions of the medicine.

Certainly, any MAOI medicines (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) being taken must be carefully (with a doctor’s guidance) discontinued for some weeks prior to working with Ayahuasca.


All shamans I have worked with or whom I have read about, without exception, emphasize the importance of intent in working with Ayahuasca. Howard Lawler refers to it as “the most important personal factor in work with Ayahuasca.”

The Spirit that lives in Ayahuasca is itself intent on working with and teaching humans who come to her. That means that she will respond to how we approach her. If we come to the medicine without physical preparation (diet), we will have to deal with difficult purging to cleanse our bodies before any other work can be done. If we come with flippant or disrespectful mental intentions, like wanting merely to have a recreational “trip” or assuming the experience is going to be some kind of primitive show, then the medicine will likely present the patient with difficulties they did not anticipate. It may take them very deep into their own psyche when they were expecting shallowness. It may find their true fears and weaknesses and force them to face them fully and right now – a spiritual purging.

If we understand this, we can prepare for it by following the diet and coming into ceremony with well thought-through intentions for the night. These are simply things we wish to work on, or information or experiences we wish to gain from the medicine. Ayahuasca is essentially unpredictable. One never really knows what will likely happen in any particular ceremony. Ayahuasca never acquiesces to our demands, but if we come to it with strong and valid intentions, very powerful results can and often do occur.


So called “trip reports” can be interesting and useful, but are by nature factors of intensity lower for the reader than for the reporter. I present my three such reports here for several reasons. First, to give some idea of a real Ayahuasca vision session as it happened to someone who came to it for the first time. Second, to illustrate the dynamic range and variety of experience, from sheer terror to great wonder and bliss, and third, because I happened to have received what I now understand to have been a very fortunate arc of experiences over the three ceremonies I partook of. Though brief, it was a range of experience that seems to encapsulate the essence of what it means to engage with this great plant medicine and spirit.


from my trip journal:

“Darkness fell, and we convened in the ceremonial room. We had arranged our small rocking chairs and brought our pillows and blankets. It is best to sit during the ceremony so that one does not become tempted to sleep or otherwise become lost in the vision space.
Please read the rest of Part III here.