Ayahuasca Part II: Randy, The Serpent, and The Underworld

The recounting of my Ayahuasca journey would be incomplete without full coverage of my main man Randy. I needed a ride to the ceremony, so I asked the Curandero and he connected me with Randy. Initially, we’d all be riding together, but the Curandero and his partner (also a Curandera) ended up riding separately, so that left me and Randy to figure things out on our own. In total, we communicated through 18 emails, 5 phone calls, and 6 text messages over the course of the three days leading up to the event. As a retired software engineer, he’s the first to admit that he isn’t “the best at people,” but he’s very thorough with his communications, specifying routes of travel, time of travel, and one or two alternatives. He even clarified if I’d be using Siri or Google Maps on my phone to navigate after he picked me up from the train station (he had a phobia of driving in the city, so I needed to make my way to the suburbs to meet him).

When he picked me up, he said, “I was lucky enough to grab a free parking spot right over there. It was free for 3 or 4 hours, so I went to the coffee shop to answer some emails. It’s a really nice coffee shop. They have free WiFi and the coffee is pretty good.” It went on like that for a while.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting him to look like after our extensive electronic communication, but it was different than what I got. He was a tall man in his seventies (best guess), slightly hunched from years of being too tall and sitting in front of a computer. He wore a plaid button down short-sleeve shirt tucked into khaki cargo shorts held up by a belt. Long, spindly legs reached from the shorts to the top of his white socks that filled his large white running sneakers. He wore glasses, and his phone and glasses case were clipped to his belt. He was a kind, gentle human, and based on his appearance, he would’ve been the last person I picked out of a lineup to go on a psychedelic ‘trip’ (he kept using that word and correcting it to ‘journey’).

We stopped at Costco so he could fill up his gas tank, then we stopped at LA Fitness so he could check out the facility and brush his teeth, then we stopped at a few other shops for groceries and some other random shit. Finally, we were on our way to the property in Wauconda, IL where our trip – or journey – was to take place.

The property was motherfuckin’ gorgeous. It was tucked back away from the road and surrounded by tall, beautiful trees. There was a rolling meadow that lead down to a large pond, and everything was a vivid green even before the hallucinogens. You could hear occasional cars drive by on the road and there was construction on the adjacent property, but when the sun started to set, Mother Nature was the only one making noise. Daytime cicadas gave way to nighttime crickets and frogs. Coyotes and owls punctured the continuous hum of the amphibians and bugs every once in a while, and the leaves rustled in response. Mother. Fuckin’. Gorgeous.

The ceremony would be taking place on a covered patio, which was fine by me because I got like 7 mosquito bites in the first five minutes after I got out of the car. We removed most of the furniture from the room, then when the Curanderos got there, we removed the rest and set up the alter and our respective mats, pillows, and blankets. Also, we each got our own “purge bucket” in case we couldn’t make it to the one bathroom to vomit. Mine was a porcelain dog dish, and I was concerned that it wouldn’t be large enough.

We moved pretty quickly through setup, and all sat down to begin the ceremony after some of us meditated for a bit. First, the Curandero gave a summative, “Here’s what to expect out of tonight” talk. Then we had a brief water prayer circle where we presented each other with the life-nourishing water that we’d later all be expelling violently from our bodies.

Then we had a round of “Rapé,” a powdered tobacco similar to snuff, but mixed with tree ash. The Spirit of Tobacco was described as a grandfather spirit – social, calming, and providing focus. It was poured into two small piles on the Curandero’s hand, then scooped up in a small, wooden pipe. Then you helped guide the pipe to your nostril, and it was blown forcefully up your nose on both sides. It burned, made your mouth water, and if you let it hit the back of your throat (or heaven forbid swallowed any) it made you gag.

Then we all went up one by one to the alter to receive “the medicine.” The Ayahuasca root is mashed and boiled along with Chacruna, and the end result is a thick, dark brown tea of sorts. Based on my experience with mushrooms, I figured it would taste awful, but I was delightfully surprised by its sweetness and palatability. After we sat back down, a condor and eagle feather – symbolizing the spirits of the North and the South – were passed around, we summoned one or both of the spirits and shared our intentions for the evening.

I can’t recall each of my intentions, but I can say with certainty that I had the longest list. As the Rapé took hold, my nervousness turned to excitement. As evening darkness settled in around us, we fell silent. The Shaman eventually started chanting lightly, and I could feel the edges of a drug state creeping up on me. I went prone and closed my eyes just in time to catch a flood of images rushing past my eyelids. They came too fast for me to make heads or tails of them. I opened my eyes and was surprised that my vision wasn’t really affected with my eyes open. There were still little hints of hallucinogen here and there, but compared to the technicolor world inside my head, the outside world was muted.

I closed my eyes again and found myself in a rainforest. I saw a large serpent descending from a tree in front of me. She (I intuitively knew it was a female) lowered herself until we were staring at one another eye-to-eye. “Hey there, Snake.” I said. She said nothing, but she then phased through my face and slithered down into my torso. I had vivid images of her writhing around in there continuously, and they were accompanied by my stomach feeling unsettled. I was never scared, though. Somehow this all seemed very natural.

My eyes shot open as a very clear and present need to expel my stomach’s contents from both ends took hold. I made my way to the bathroom and locked myself in, grateful for its presence and for the moments of quiet that punctuated my purging. Per the “what to expect” conversation, we were to have a second round of medicine, and while I sat on the toilet I thought, “Well there’s no way I’m doing that!”

When I got back to my mat, the Curandero said, “Alright, we will now open up the circle to the second round of medicine.” So of course I did it. This time, the Rapé was administered via a large, hollowed out bone that allowed for much more of it to be given much faster. I gulped down the second helping of tea and got back to my mat just in time to take advantage of my dog dish. After expelling a plethora of dark, brown matter from my person, I laid back down.

This time I had visions of my skin being charred from head to toe. Then I started to see demonic faces – some with horns, some without skin, some with red, glowing eyes, some made of lava. I saw one of them run his hand along the entirety of an animal (it was either a warthog or a possum, couldn’t tell) and with the passing of his hand, all of the living tissue was stripped from the bone. Again, none of this scared me – it just was. Finally, I was surrounded with these creatures in their world – a post-apocalyptic wasteland filled with burnt, crumbling buildings and swirls of ash. Honestly, I felt very at home.

Then vomiting. Much more vomiting. As I started to come to, I realized that the two Curanderos had stopped their rhythmic chanting and drum beats, and the circle was coming to a close for the night. The two feathers were being passed around again so we could share the gift of our voices. I was still hunched over my bowl when I heard Randy say, “I’ll wait for Brother Sean to feel a little better before I pass him the feathers.”

“No… Skip me…” I muttered as saliva dripped from my lips.

But he didn’t. He waited. Then he said, “Hold the feathers – they have healing powers.”

“Ugh.” I said. But I took the feathers, and thought, “I’ll be damned. I feel better.” I explained my violent transition from one world to another and the serpent and probably a host of other things that I just can’t recall right now.

“You were in the underworld,” the Curandero said in a calm, “well duh” kind of way.

I remember thinking, “I wasn’t just in the underworld – I was a fucking king there.” and I had a vision of me with a gold crown on a delapidated throne, then I passed the fuck out. 

Catching Up With Friends

Considering that I used to see this particular friend on a daily basis, it’d been quite a while since we got the chance to hang out. She was a “traveling kid,” meaning that she hopped trains and hitchhiked her way up, down, and across the country. She also happens to be around my age, intelligent, and particularly attractive, so of course, our closeness was suspect to my girlfriend at the time.

She and I were standing in the kitchen, beers in hand, and I was ritualistically chiding her for wasting her biology degree from UC Berkeley when Girlfriend said, “I’m going out for a smoke if you want one.” It was less of an invitation, and more of a demand.

She puffed impatiently at the cigarette while she told me that she didn’t like how close we were standing. “I feel like you two are doing your own little thing and I’m not allowed in the conversation at all!”

She was right – we were blocking her out for the sake of expedience. When you’re friends with someone for years and you see each other every day, you develop a kind of conversational shorthand that can be exclusive. That, and Girlfriend’s attitude wasn’t exactly making either of us thrilled about having her jump in.

At some point while we were outside, my friend got a call from a fellow traveling kid, informing her that their mutual acquaintance had died. I can’t recall from what exactly – the traveling lifestyle is wrought with dangerous activities like jumping onto fast-moving metal death boxes, riding those death boxes through harsh climates, catching rides with total strangers, and frequent meth and heroin use.

I’m not sure how close they were, either, but my friend was clearly rocked by the news. I did my best to console her, but my expressions of loving sympathy were too much for Girlfriend to handle. She went off the rails (pun intended), and started screaming at my friend. “Don’t think you can just come in here and take MY! BOYFRIEND! with me sitting right fucking here!”

My friend choked back tears and tried to explain that she wanted none of this sweet, sweet lovin’, but there was no getting through the wall of rage and jealousy Girlfriend had quietly been erecting the whole night. All she saw was red.

Finally my friend had had enough of being screamed at while simultaneously mourning the loss of her companion, and she ran out my front door, face in her hands. Girlfriend started after her, and in an attempt to stop the situation from continuing its downward spiral, I grabbed her in a bear hug. She flailed for a second, then reached around and grabbed the underside of my bicep and pinched as hard as she could until I let go. Then she ran out the door after her grieving target.

I took a breath, assessing how much I cared about continuing my involvement. I stared at the recently-slammed door thinking, “If I just lock it…” I sighed, in part because I was out of breath from the struggle, and in part because I knew I had to do something; I needed to help my friend at a minimum. I ran out the door, and found my friend sitting on the grass around the corner, still crying, with my girlfriend knife-handing and yelling in her face.

“Go back inside!” I yelled. I’m not sure why I thought that would work, but it did. She ran back to the apartment. I got about three sentences into trying to make my friend feel better when Girlfriend rounded the corner, steaming back in our direction. There was murder in her eyes, so I apologized to my friend then ran to intercept her.

We went back to the apartment to consume vastly more alcohol, and puff away at countless more cigarettes. My friend took the opportunity to find respite elsewhere, Girlfriend took the opportunity to continue belittling me as best she could for being a philanderer, and I took the opportunity to daydream alternatively about being single and being dead on a train track in the middle of nowhere – both sounded pretty awesome in that moment.

I eventually chose the former, but not before proving Girlfriend right. “If I’m constantly being accused of cheating no matter what I do, then I might as well be enjoying the thing I’m in trouble for,” I thought. Or I could have been an adult and just broken it off, but that’s just not my MO.

In the Name of Art – Part III

I called my friend (the one I briefly fell in love with) to lament the nonsensical position I was in. After venting, I approached a number of vehicles coated in dust, and while everyone was very kind and said they’d drive me if they could, most had no room for a full-grown man without any luggage. I was on the phone with a friend from LA who was begrudgingly willing to drive the 6 hours to pick me up, when the artist called.

“I hope you’re happy!” she screamed at me.

“It’s pretty safe to say that I’m not.”

“I just got off the phone with [camp leader], who you know I view as a father figure! He yelled at me and told me I had to go back and get you!”

Unbeknownst to me, my fleeting love interest got off the phone and immediately contacted [camp leader], and explained the situation.

“You and your friend think you can come into MY camp – MY burner family,” she continued, “and get everybody to like you just because you build everything or whatever! And now I’m getting yelled at!”

“Well, at some point you’re going to have to acknowledge that their opinion of you is influenced by your actions.” Reasoning was maybe not the right choice in this situation, but how long could I keep that sentence in?

I got back on the phone with the friend who made the call and she told me, “Just keep your fucking mouth shut! I know how you feel right now, but you still need to get home!”

It was by-and-large, a quiet six hour ride back to her place, sprinkled with outbursts here and there, but not too many that I couldn’t weather them until we landed. Also, with frequent stops it was more like eight hours. We got there around 1am, and she implored me to stay the night. That didn’t sound ideal to me, so I got one of my bags out of the truck, and assured her I’d be back the next day to help her unload the rest into a storage space.

As it happened, my first day back at work was “Front Desk Appreciation Day” at the animal hospital. This meant we were all getting off early, and getting spa treatments at the Four Seasons. If I ever return to Burning Man (a likelihood), spa treatment will forever be a part of my decompression process immediately after.

I got a wonderful one hour massage, spent 30 minutes in the hot tub, another 30 in a hot shower, then went to the common area in only my robe to enjoy a glass of champagne with strawberries in it. I sat looking at the pool, and contemplating just how much I gave a shit about the $400 worth of camping gear that sat in the back of that truck.

I left my phone in my pants in the locker, as was the rule there (no electronic distractions allowed), and it was dead when I got back to it. I got to my car charger and once it was on, I was greeted by seven missed calls from the artist, and a text that read, “You’re a waste of a human being. All of your shit is in the trash!” There was more to the text, but I couldn’t tell you what it said. I was flooded with a feeling of relief when I saw it. “Oh good,” I thought, “now I definitely don’t have to help her unpack that truck.”

Was I in the wrong for not going back to help? Yes, absolutely. Do I wish I had left the most relaxing experience I had had in years earlier to be berated while getting dusty doing manual labor? No. No, I do not. We haven’t spoken since – and all I can think is, “Sometimes being wrong can feel so right.”

In the Name of Art – Part I

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I got a response from a young, attractive artist lady in need of a volunteer to assist with her large-scale art piece. The piece was impressively intricate and beautiful in both concept and design – each of the many moving parts was colorful, shiny, and functional. I was excited to contribute to the actuation of her idea, and at the prospect of working with someone who I really got along with right from the beginning.

Over the coming months, I spent much of my free time at her house. The goal was always to put checks in boxes on a long list of to-do’s (very few of which actually got done as the smoking breaks were so frequent), and I quickly agreed to help her take the piece out to the desert for Burning Man that year. The money she raised would be paying for my ticket, so in my mind, I was an employee, and I was still having a fair amount of fun helping out.

As time wore on, it became more obvious why the previous assistant wasn’t on the project this year. She was largely very fun to be around, but if you decided to have your own ideas about the project or life in general, it was easier to just keep them to yourself. It was around the time this started dawning on me that we learned her friend – my predecessor – was shot and killed by the police in Northern California. He had been uncharacteristically violent, and it was alleged that he stabbed the two officers arriving on the scene of a break in, and they shot him in self defense.

Understandably, she was torn apart by the news. The already-glacial pace of our work together slowed to a near standstill as the smoking breaks doubled in length and frequency, and long talks peppered with crying and hugs became the norm. Given how long I had been acquainted with her and her friends, I had a hard time committing to caring about everything on an emotional level. I was able to reason that it was terrible, and I could see the obvious impact it had on the community, but as a brand new member of that community, it just didn’t hit me the same.

I found myself withdrawing both emotionally and physically from the project as the looming deadline of the actual event approached, which didn’t help with her anxiety, which didn’t help me reengage. I thought about quitting every day, but I had promised I would help, and for whatever reason I decided that meant something.

My friend and aunt came to help me assemble to piece for a trial run and final fundraiser before the trip to the desert. Everything came together, she only snapped at me once, and my aunt, friend, and I excused ourselves for dinner.

“Good Lord… she’s a lot, huh?” my aunt said as we sat down. My friend and I laughed. I explained all that she was going through and why it made sense, but we all ultimately agreed that volunteers should be thanked more than scolded. We let the beer and barbecue sauce wash away the bad taste she left in each of our mouths that day.

I was able to put off quitting long enough to make it to August. Luckily, I had another person to sidelong glance at when she said nonsensical shit, and to help me actually get the piece and our sundry camping gear packed. Per usual, we were rushing her and doing everything wrong, but we got the shit in the truck, so “whatever” was very much how we both felt about it. At this point, I was also in trouble for not having an unrestricted license. I figured that the stipulations of my driving were clear, but if you weren’t familiar with the way restricted licenses work, that could be a sticking point (especially because she chose to rent the truck through her company – a contractor for the military, which was probably illegal enough already without adding my license/insurance situation to the whole thing).

She was pissed, but it all swirled together into the general haze of her second-hand smoke, anger and frustration that I had been surrounded by for the better part of two months, so it was hard to make out my hand in front of my face, no less discern what it was I had done wrong this time. We got on the road much later than we planned to, and argued about everything from how we don’t understand her vision, to what music to play, hoping silently that the dust would wash away the animosity.

 

We’re Not Together

What better way to celebrate senior year of high school than an unexpected pregnancy between my best friend and his lady? Both of them had aspirations for the future that did not include any children with any immediacy, so they decided that an abortion was their best choice. Knowing both of them as well as I did, I agreed.

He made up some bullshit about not being able to get out of work, so I cleared my day and took her to the clinic. The waiting room was filled with people there for similar procedures, and people who were just there to receive any of the other low-cost medical services the office provided. It was not a lively bunch, and there was a hush that was noteworthy even by comparison to other doctors’ offices. Her name was called, and I went with her to the counter because what else was I supposed to do?

“Can you sit back down?” she asked me.

“Why? I’m not doing anything over there. I don’t mind standing here with you.”

“No, it’s just that… I don’t want everyone to think we’re together.”

I turned to the quiet room and said, “Hey – I just want everybody to know we’re not together!” My voice carries. I did not need to shout. I did anyway. She promptly punched me in the arm, blushed, laughed, and told me to sit down again. I listened this time.

She sat back down after checking in and filling out the necessary paperwork. I continued making shitty jokes about the people around us to try and ease some of her tension. It was marginally successful, her name was called, I squeezed her hand and watched her disappear into the treatment area.

“I’ll be right outside waiting in my car, so just call me when she’s ready to go,” I told the staff behind the counter.

“The procedure lasts a couple hours. If you have any errands you want to run, you should have time,” the nurse told me.

“No, I’d rather be here just in case.” I sat in my car reading Men’s Health and GQ magazines with the air conditioner blasting, and a Tenacious D album playing loudly through my crappy sound system. It was a hot summer day in the San Fernando Valley, and it was untenable to me that she get out of the procedure and into the heat and discomfort of the valley in the summertime.

They were pretty spot-on with their time estimate. She stammered back into the waiting room, significantly more pale, drowsy, and sans baby. I helped her into my car, and she didn’t want to go home in the state she was in, so I sat with her for another couple hours while she napped. I got her a couple Gatorades to down on the way back to her parents’ house, where she presumably avoided the topic of where she had been all day.