A trip in the Amazon leads to true love
Night shrouded our motorised canoe as the engine choked then spluttered to an eerie stop. Stranded in the remotest part of the Amazon basin, a full moon beamed from a fading pink sky. There were fifteen of us on that tiny boat, including me and my best friend, Rachel. I had come to the Amazon in search of peace, hoping to be healed from trauma by connecting with the spiritual realm via a hallucinogenic brew.
Crammed together in rows on bare planks, we had already suffered twelve uncomfortable hours across the water, journeying towards uncharted territory in the Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon basin – the sacred land of the Siekopai tribe. The plan was to camp out with the indigenous people who had reclaimed their territory from enemies after warring for hundreds of years. While there, we would be taking strong jungle drugs, ayahuasca – a psychoactive brew from the vine of a plant used for centuries by South American natives. I am not an outdoorsy type and had only been camping once when forced to do Outward Bound at school. I realised I was taking desperate measures to heal, but nothing else had worked.
I tried to calm myself with deep breaths and silent prayers as I watched the boatmen cast anxious looks. They spoke in Secoya and tugged on ropes, attempting to restart the engine. There was no phone signal, no way of calling for help. As the sky darkened to jewel blue, I thought of all the ways we might perish: drowning, starvation, getting eaten by a creature. I turned to Rachel and only half-joking said, “Well, at least we’ll die together!” Ironically, we almost had died together after being spiked at a party in London twenty years before. The longest forty minutes of my life went by – and then – hearing the engine’s joyous growl, I joined the collective cheer of my comrades. This was not the end. The healing hadn’t yet begun, but I was hopeful that travelling to these extreme lengths would start the process.
After the death of my adored first father, followed by an acrimonious ending to a long-term relationship, a series of misfortunes ensued rapidly, including being ignored by my literary agent – my biggest champion for five years – after she sent my novel out to publishers, leaving me in the dark with no explanation. Prior to this, she had hailed my book “a triumph” and assured me there was no chance this “blockbuster” would be rejected. Worst of all, my dog – the love of my life – died. Humphrey had been by my side for fifteen years and in the hideousness of his absence, I had never felt so alone. I spiralled into a severe depression that lasted nine agonising months. It was the most devastating period of my life. The pain was relentless and intolerable, almost driving me to suicide.
One evening in late 2018, I passed a wellness centre while on my way home from an office job I loathed in New York City. I was working as an executive assistant at a real estate company to make ends meet as I waited to hear from my literary agent. I walked in to peruse the bookstore shelves and saw a sign that a shaman was on the upstairs floor, about to give a talk on soul mending. I slipped into an empty seat feeling broken beyond repair. He spoke about a “healing expedition” to Ecuador coming up in January, which involved sacred plant medicine ceremonies facilitated by the shamanic elders of an indigenous tribe. Masking my depression and without giving details of the trip to my supervisor at work, (corporate America has little sympathy for personal issues), I asked if I could take my two weeks of annual vacation for a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to the Amazon. He sneered. “Go if you want, but you won’t have a job waiting for you when you get back.” With no book deal in sight, I could not afford to give up being a wage slave.
More than a year later, in January 2020, I finally made it to Ecuador. I wanted to clear away the heaviness of my past and open myself up to finding healthy love. I had heard that the purging and psychedelic effects of the brew were so powerful, it could transform your life. I had experienced all the highs and lows of recreational drugs in my youth, but this trip was not “doing drugs” for the fun of it. Ayahuasca is work – spiritual work – and as I was repeatedly warned, not for the faint of heart. The preparation was gruelling. For two weeks I was on a dieta that forbade sugar, salt, spice, red meat, pork, dairy, caffeine, alcohol and sex. But that was nothing compared with what was to come. I had brought everything on the packing list, from bug repellant to extra thick socks, yet I was still unprepared.