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

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.

The last candle was extinguished and I will admit to some trepidation as I sat in the darkness for the half-hour before onset. Would I be launched into hyperspace again? Would I find myself embarrassingly on the floor once more? When it came, it was immediate and strong. There was no mistaking the effects of entering the vision space, but I did not lose myself this time. This felt very different and I felt much more in control of myself. It was going to be OK! I could let go a little more now and enjoy the experience. With my awareness intact, I was determined to use this great opportunity to see and learn as much as possible.

Once more, my fingers and toes, arms and legs, and my face began that high-voltage buzzing like last night. It came up very quickly and strongly, but not overwhelming me, and I did not break out into a full sweat as before. This was much more comfortable! As I grew accustomed to the buzz, it seemed that my face was encased in a kind of neon blue mask. It seemed right that I should call it my “monkey face.” This all settled in quite nicely and I perceived that nothing else was going to drastically change to take me away somewhere, so I decided this must be what most people come to as a kind of normal or expected base effect environment in most Ayahuasca sessions. My first experience had been so drastic that I never got a chance then to feel what “normal” was within the vision space (and I use the word normal advisedly in this context.)

I relaxed and waited for what was next. Don Rober began to sing his icaros and this always seems to trigger and even guide visions. I drifted into the vision space. The first thing that came was a simple matrix of white dots, evenly spaced.

This eventually faded and became a series of photographically realistic images of architectural details. These were presented to me as if I were a camera with a rather close lens, panning or gliding by the surfaces in beautiful slow motion. I saw a very detailed exterior wall with part of a window frame – then a very pretty kitchen wall of tiles – then a porch floor of nice wooden slats – then another section of some other wall or floor and so on.

It is difficult to describe what these images were to me except to say that they each had an overlain quality of strong emotion connected to them. I can only express this emotional quality as a combination of poignancy, melancholy, and perhaps regret or sublime sadness. Nothing in the images themselves had any visual cues or elements of these emotions, but the emotions were there and strongly connected regardless.

I learned later that these kinds of architectural details are fairly uncommon but not an unknown phenomena in Ayahuasca visions. I did not find them disturbing or upsetting, but curious and worth thinking about and worth just feeling them directly as they occurred. I was, however, hoping this would develop on into something more interesting and dramatic.

Other visions came and went; I drifted in and out of them for some time. I could not recall them very well and I sensed that the “real” visions were somewhere just beyond a veil, some threshold I had yet to cross. The other participants seemed to be fully into that space now. Everyone was sighing or gently laughing throughout the night – everyone except me. My experience overall was pleasant and relaxing, and the energy was much better, but to be honest, nothing much happened. I enjoyed the icaros and drifted in and out some more, and then about an hour in, something did happen. I suddenly purged.

This is a normal part of Ayahuasca work, and I had been surprised that during the first session I did not vomit at all. Everyone else certainly did, throughout that and the other nights, and that was expected. Tonight, I did – just this once, and it was very clean and good and long. It felt so very clarifying and it made me more comfortable for the rest of the long session. It was the first time I had ever purged like that as a healthy and cleansing process and not as a bodily reaction to being ill. It felt wonderful.

Often, purging causes the onset of a transition into a more powerful vision space, but this was not to be for me tonight. Apparently, the physical cleansing and the “normalcy” were enough for this lesson. Toward the end of the session, I leaned back into my chair and pillow and tried to concentrate on the visions that were left to me, but they were not strong and I could not recall them afterwards. The session seemed mundane and I admit I was somewhat disappointed. I knew, however, that visions are not the only value of an Ayahuasca experience and that sometimes they simply do not come.

We ended the session at about 2 in the morning and I went back to my room to sleep very well through the remainder of the starry night.


from my trip journal:

Wednesday – the day in between.
Everyone is glowing, peaceful, and happy today. I had my breakfast omelet with toast and honey and some pineapple. Don Rober came in and gave me a hug. He asked with a nod and, “Los noches? (last night?)” if I had a good experience this time. I said, “Bien,” and he smiled and patted me on the back. Then it was time for my flower bath. I said I was ready for my “baño FRIO” (cold bath), and he laughed.

We visited the neighbors today. The Yahua and Bora tribes have villages nearby and our group walked over to visit, dance, and trade for handicrafts. It struck me that what many tourists come to the Amazon to see, we experienced as an everyday friendship with the people who lived next door and who came to work with Ayahuasca along side of us. The real Amazon is found in the vital and powerful Ayahuasca tradition – a major human experience that most general tourists are not even aware of and that they entirely miss.

During this afternoon’s talking stick session, most of my friends reported that unlike my mundane session, they had, indeed, experienced greatly enjoyable and strong visions during last night’s ceremony. Many had seen the wondrous visions I had hoped for and asked to see, but which I did not see. It was time to take stock of my vision experiences so far and see if I could make sense of it.


I’ve mentioned before that Ayahuasca is specifically interactive with each person and that it seems to give us exactly the experience or thing we need to see to heal and teach us. Some have said that Ayahuasca is like some kind of school that one enters. When a person takes the brew for the first time, it is like the first day of school with an initiation and the first course, titled “WHAT YOU NEED TO LEARN.”

Such a course in such a school can be quite intimidating, since we often do not know what we need to learn, and whatever that is, it may not be easy or pleasant to learn! In my case, I had asked specifically within my Intentions to be shown what I need to learn, and I now think this is exactly what the spirit of the plant is doing.

Like many people, I endeavor to keep my emotional life within a comfortable range: not too negative and not overly extreme in the positive either. I stay somewhere in the middle where things are safer and less threatening – less likely to upset me or disappoint me. This works, but it can lead one to miss out on some important currents in life by being too conservative. I’ve come to believe that my first difficult vision session had a purpose: to break me out of that protective stance and wake me up to a life with more emotional depth. It was as if Ayahuasca were telling me, “You’ve been asleep. Wake up. Now. Here is Fear. You must feel it fully.” Then, in the second session, I was given a respite from this, but also a point of reference of normalcy and peace. I had been shaken by the scruff of my neck, but then shown that this was not what my schooling experience was to be like going forward. The fear episode was not random and meaningless, but an important first step in an arc of experience. Here, in the second session, I was shown the other end of intensity in emotions, and allowed an opportunity to become situated within Ayahuasca’s dimensions.

I felt I was being led through a lesson of emotional contrasts. My first one could be titled: ‘Terror and Extreme Discomfort,’ and ‘Losing Who I Am in the Lower World.’ This second one could be: ‘Normalcy and Perspective.’ I have one more ceremony tomorrow night. Will I experience a full array of experience and be led into higher visions in the upper realms? It seemed a logical expectation, but I knew better than to assume it.

I told the group that I did not expect this result, but would remain observant and open. Howard nodded in agreement. One should always keep in mind, however, that it is wise to be careful what we ask for, for we may truly receive it, and the gift of the genii is never what it seems.

“She is, don Roberto tells me later, ayahuasca, the goddess, speaking to me. She has come to me before when I have drunk ayahuasca, in the form of a teenage Indian girl, in shorts and a white T-shirt, with long straight black hair and the most dazzling smile I have ever seen. I do not know why, but the spirits of the plants come to me as women.”
– Stephan V. Beyer, Singing To The Plants (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2009) 23-24.


Next in Part VThe Third Ceremony – A Vision of the Spirit and Heart


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part V – Conclusion) « DavidCrews

  2. Pingback: Ancient Songs and Green Magic (Part III) « DavidCrews

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