Cali, Colombia - I had just finished a remarkable year enrolled in British Columbia's University College of the Cariboo's challenging adventure guide diploma program when I found myself in Toronto surrounded by concrete and unsure of what to do next. I had decided that guiding wasn't a profession I wished to pursue.
And so, taking inspiration from Wade Davis's One River - in which the celebrated ethnobotanist takes readers to the territories of secluded tribes - I find myself in Cali on my 21st birthday, in a pickup on my way up Pichinde to meet the shaman and drink the jaguar's nectar.
High up on a ridge stands a huge, lit-up statue of Christ. As we get closer to the clouds, pedestrians suddenly emerge out of the darkness, making it clear why there are so many small, white crosses along the winding mountain road.
Concrete roads give way to dirt and rocks and then to mud when we pass El Faro. Twenty minutes later, the road ends at a house high above the city. The terrain behind the house dips to a flat area in which the soft glow of a fire reveals three Siona shamans in white tunics that reach their knees. Large, heavy necklaces of beads and jaguar teeth rattle every time they move.
The Siona were once the main authorities on yagé or jaguar's nectar - or "el remedio," as they call it. They were able to master the visions induced by the medicine. Near the fire, on a small table, sits a bowl containing the thick, dark liquid and a fan of dried huaira leaves. El remedio is made with leaves cooked for many days. One or two types of leaves and/or flowers - depending on what type of visions you want - are added to the concoction. El serpientito, for example, will conjure visions of snakes.
We gather around, and pails are distributed. Two holes were also dug in the forest to be used as makeshift latrines. "If it doesn't come out through regurgitation, it will come out the other end," we're told.
The master shaman kneels over the bowl containing el remedio and begins praying in the Siona ritual language, Wixa. He closes his eyes and, while chanting, shakes his fan of leaves over the potion. He blows over the surface of the liquid several times.
I look at the brown liquid in a small wooden bowl handed to me, exhale and take it all down in a few gulps. It tastes absolutely awful. It's as if the flavour of the entire jungle floor, with all its biological decomposition, has been concentrated into the brew.
I walk toward some tall grass and sit with my back against a shower stall that's been built, quite oddly, in the middle of the meadow. The trees tower over me. No one speaks. I smoke a cigarette and sit for about half an hour before the sudden sound of someone vomiting rises up behind me.
I hear more people down in the meadow throwing up. It sounds painful. The Siona say the negative energy is leaving your body when you vomit. As such, el remedio is a cleansing and purifying ritual. I shut my eyes and try to relax. Millions of tiny dots in front of me turn into streams of colour that gradually begin to turn into senseless visions of people dressed in costumes, their facial features exaggerated and constantly changing. Then, abruptly, there are animals, leaves, flowers and snakes. At first they're small and colourful. Then they get larger.
It's with great effort that I get to my feet and start to make my way back to the fire, staggering from side to side. The soft sound of bamboo flutes comes from the shadows, and there's a slithering sound of snakes around my feet. Is it my imagination?
I walk to a tree at the edge of a ravine, hold onto the trunk firmly and vomit. The shaman has told us to empty our pails of vomit at the base of a tree, so the tree can absorb and neutralize the negative energy. I do so and return to sit among the bushes.
My body starts to quiver, and my muscles tighten. They get so hard that they begin to hurt. The visions intensify. At times, I'm gripped by waves of abdominal pain. After six hours, I'm finally able to sleep. The sound of people throwing up continues until early morning. When I wake, I feel neither hunger nor thirst. I'm told not to shower until later in the day, because "el remedio es como fuego," like fire.
Others didn't have my luck. Some were extremely sick and uncomfortable. The shaman hits them with nettles, which is supposed give an appeasing sensation of water flowing throughout the body.
A few tell of visions they can draw meaning from. One man tells of a friend who had testicular cancer and took yagé. This man travelled toward the heavens, where he encountered three angels, he says, who cured him.
Castaneda once wrote, "Our mistake is to believe that the only perception worthy of acknowledgement is what goes through our reason."
Here, the shamans have a relationship with this planet and beyond that we cannot begin to comprehend.