“Like Prince Harry, I tried ayahuasca – I found this”

Ayahuasca Lost Celebrities – Getty

As you scroll through your trust telegraph Recently you may have seen Prince Harry promoting his autobiography spare part, revealed he consumed various substances to ease his way through troubled younger years — and he’s been through a lot — including a potion loved by certain South American indigenous communities, a concoction known as ayahuasca.

Reading this took me back 30 years to the steamy forests of the Peruvian Amazon, studying with various medicine men, or curanderos and came across the stuff for the first time. After a passenger boat ride up the Ucayali tributary, where I swayed all night in my hammock among the people by the river, I took a dugout canoe up a stream and finally reached the hut of a well-known 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 ayahuasca,” he said earnestly one evening. “Gateway to the gods.”

“Oh good,” I gasped softly – having been on his spiritually cleansing nut diet for weeks now. Alfonso cut some leaves and some wine. He stuck her in a battered old cauldron. He added a splash of ditch water.

A fire was lit in a forest clearing, and in due course, with growing excitement, I sipped what Alfonso offered: a cloudy, acrid brew. “Many vomit horribly,” Alfonso remarked, nodding sagely as I gagged. All night I waited for something to happen while enjoying the fireflies, fruit bats and other creatures of the tropical night scampering about. At daybreak I was still waiting.

The next event with Alfonso was just as unsuccessful, but very different – if only because I was accompanied by an Irishman named Paddy. No seriously.

“I swallow the whole lot?” Paddy asked eagerly when a determined Alfonso now offered a whole bucket of the poisonous stuff. And that’s when I realized how vulnerable innocent and perhaps desperate Westerners were at the hands of unlicensed practitioners like Alfonso. I had been in the Amazon for months, but Paddy didn’t speak a word of Spanish and had just arrived from the Emerald Isle.

Luckily, no harm was done and Paddy’s encounter with ayahuasca is sure to be remembered. (“Benedict, what is happening to the trees?” he yelled. “The trees have HANDS!”) And through my years with indigenous communities, I, too, was transported from my world to another.

With the Huichols of Mexico, for example, I took part in an arduous three-week pilgrimage to the arid ancestral lands of Wirakuta, where their gods dwell. Along the way we had to say out loud the names of everyone we had ever slept with – embarrassing! – and finally, after a long fast, having given up all other concerns of the flesh and having been judged ready, we ate the cactus peyote.

Benedict Allen Hallucinogenic Cactus Peyote Mexican Desert - Benedict Allen

Benedict Allen Hallucinogenic Cactus Peyote Mexican Desert – Benedict Allen

Soon the stones began to chirp; everything slowed down – as if the bush land around me was under water.

Rarely have I felt one with our world. And as I write this, I wonder if Harry felt that sense of peace too.

Well, maybe I had reached the realm of the immortals, or maybe I was just crazy, but wherever else I’ve consumed a mind-altering drink, the occasion has always been one of prescribed ritual, a deep understanding of an indigenous culture.

And there’s the rub: where our paddy led, many equally ignorant backpackers have followed these days. These days, a journey to become a jungle shaman has become a middle-class thing – not least because of a string of vanished celebrities seeking enlightenment and the BBC TV series Tribe from a few years ago, in which presenter Bruce Parry did a brief dip in this and that exotic seeming ritual. Sold to us as “soft anthropology,” I suspect the show was more likely to be labeled “anthropo-porn” by actual anthropologists.

Many psychotherapists claim that ayahuasca can actually help with mental ailments. I assume that’s true. Harry, for example, seems to think so. But I’m afraid the boring truth is that these “other realities” that participants so casually want to experience come from powerful chemicals – mescaline in the case of peyote. Without the accompanying cultural limitations, or at least a minimal understanding of “tribe” in the cosmology of questions, you’re just taking another party drug.

Forest Benedict Allen

Forest Benedict Allen

Personally, I wouldn’t prescribe a “trip” with ayahuasca, but into the forest itself. Spend the right amount of time there and it’s as pretty as you need it to be – those fireflies, those flying foxes – and frankly, cure enough for most of the world’s ailments.

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