Ayahuasca: jungle medicine’s reality-check

My stomach cramped with nausea. I was sweating and trembling. It was pitch black other than the pulsing glow of fireflies. For all the open windows, the hut was unbearably muggy. My hands clambered about for the “vomit bucket”. Only toilet roll. “Find it!” I willed myself. The otherworldly song of one of the shamans seemed to curl around me – each note compounding my discomfort. My mind couldn’t focus, the melody like a sonic wing leading me deeper into chaos. As I grabbed the bucket, not a second too soon, my body gave in, throwing up repeatedly; a hell from which I couldn’t escape.

I had bought my first ticket to the jungle after hearing about the life-changing potential of a psychotropic brew, ayahuasca. The vine is held as sacred in Amazonian culture. A strong purgative, it’s used as medicine to heal a range of illnesses and imbalances, restoring well-being on all levels. Ayahuasca is also known to open up the most buried depths of the psyche – and become increasingly popular with disenchanted westerners.

I’d ended up at a shamanic centre outside Iquitos, the biggest city in the Peruvian jungle. The sultry climate promised all the sensuousness and charge of fatal attraction. The jungle’s natural contrasts are unending; bursts of colour among sullen, earthy hues, dragonflies and butterflies of every pattern and size, flocks of squawking birds commuting over the canopy each morning, returning at dusk. Being close to the equator, day and night swing equally, twelve hours apart. Such vitality is an expression of the vine’s vibrant home, as well as death; predator and prey battling on a stage of growth and decay.

I was there to explore my inward landscape – having devoted my energies in recent years to roaming about the earth’s surface: the remoter and wilder the better. Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, the Alps and Pyrenees, the Himalaya, Andes and New Zealand’s Alps next to the Southern Ocean.

I had even dismantled my thriving sea-level career for one at heights – driven by an insatiable restlessness to climb mountains. My passion for summits and expeditions had grown over many years – until I quit my BBC job, pension, and rented out my London flat to fund my alpine adventures. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking: giving up my attic pad on the thoroughfare of Westbourne Grove, for hostels and canvas shelter. I was single, thirty-three, with my life in front of me. As my friends met the demands of mortgages and parenthood, I only had my sights on the next high. Settling down could wait.

Chasing my dream and the seasons from one hemisphere to the next, I’d discovered there was no such thing as a neat finishing line. Life doesn’t neatly wrap up, “happily ever after.” During my quest, I ran out of steam, experiencing the same stress of the rat-race from which I’d escaped. Moving around and climbing took a labour of effort: the planning, exertion, the goal-driven slog to the top. There was always the ‘down’ – not only the descent to safety – but the slump in spirits, followed by, “what next?” And I had become terrified of heights. (My last ice climb and battle with exhaustion walking out of Mount Cook National Park is described in my new book The Upside Down Mountain.)

I turned my sights on the inner mountain instead. I had to find out what lurked behind my drive to do more, be more, try more. That’s what intrigued me about the transformative stories of shamanic ceremonies and the counsel of “sacred plant teachers” like the vine. They have a reputation for fierce love, holding up the mirror to whatever needs to be faced: unflattering reflections included. Once the visionary effects of the medicine take hold, regret won’t slow them down. Delusion or avoidance will be exposed – if a participant’s ready to own it.

After my first visit to the Amazon, I was back for a two-month stay.

Three months after that, I moved there. Like the snap of an elastic band, my enthusiasm faced a prolonged engagement with a teacher of equal intensity: ayahuasca. My life’s direction, it then seemed, was a one-way ticket to the jungle, to explore its inexhaustible medicine bag.

Another night of lurid visions, insights and relentless purging, I could no longer avoid the truth that had to be faced: I had been running away from myself. Exploration has always been my instinct. My curiosity has inspired a well-stamped passport to a diversity of places and people. It has also masked my restlessness. When things got challenging or dull, I could escape – and lose myself in the next story, or culture, or airport.

For all of it, I remained the same me – whatever the context – holding out for the time when I could land. The forward-motion kept me captive to a future – an imagined summit promising nirvana. It never came. That moment of arrival would always be somewhere else – other than where I happened to be: here, now. This moment.

After nine months in the jungle, learning about Ayahuasca and other tree medicines, I was ready to return to the UK. My instinct was screaming out for a gentler, kinder way. I headed to the wild region of Huaraz to recharge before heading home. It is lesser known as a tourist destination than the Sacred Valley. After my gritty Amazon immersion, and brush with the jungle’s potent primal power, I felt the inspiration of the high Mountains, known as ‘Apus’. Their medicine is as distinctive as the swamplands.

In the weeks that followed, I felt my spirit soar again – and realised how I was longing, at a deep level, to “come to earth.” In a sense this meant returning to ordinary life. A vibrant life, as I had lived, of changing landscapes and cultures came at a cost. I never had the chance to grow up (at whatever age, surely ‘adulthood’ is a continual evolution?) among my fellow-kind. I knew I had to LAND on the soil of my ancestors. Community, foundations, physical home, responsibility and contribution started to feel important.

I faced a cross-roads: to recognise when adventure is escape, and when it meets life fully. There was only one way to know where I was in that: to return ‘home’, to my everyday life and culture. I had to find out if I could live adventurously in a concrete jungle.

I now live in the thriving city of Bristol. Walking my dog in the many green spaces and relishing my community has slowed my urge for travel. Each ordinary day has the promise of adventure when I’m open and awake enough to notice. I hold workshops supporting others to dive into their creativity – often masquerading (as it did for me) as discontent or frustration.

I believe we can all rewrite our personal stories to lead full rich lives, as the storytellers we are, making sense of the grit and gift of our human experience. I don’t necessarily need to climb a mountain or head to somewhere far-flung to remember that. I don’t need to chase success, or the dream of tomorrow either. There is more than enough around me to be enjoyed here, now – in this beautiful world, for all its challenge.