Awake in the Amazon


A quick note about this section

A traveller shares his deep and incomplete reflection on an ayahuasca trip.

Story & Photography by
Nic Tapsell

Nic Tapsell packed four T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, the shirt he was wearing, his camera, and a borrowed guitar on his visit to Toronto to see family. “You don’t need much in life to actually live,” he laughed.

Having recently returning from a spontaneous 20-day trip to Peru, Nic recounted his experience living in a remote Amazonian village and consuming ayahuasca, a traditional hallucinogenic drink offered during shamanic ceremonies. His descriptions were vivid, detailed, at times otherworldly, and even after our countless questions and likely irritating curiosity, he casually added, “I don’t really see it as being that special. It’s just another story, isn’t it?”

Nic had many stories. Growing up as a rebellious kid in the 60s, travelling became his education in many ways. He hitchhiked from an early age, curious to see how people lived and experienced different cultures firsthand. Nic tried the standard nine-to-five lifestyle for a short period, and while he enjoyed the high salary, nice house, expensive holidays, and ridiculous disposable income, over many years he came to realize he preferred his life not be dictated by personal wealth and material value. For the last 20 years, Nic has travelled and lived in many countries. He couch-surfed through Europe, lived out of a Land Rover Defender for six months in Morocco, and spent a year living in a tipi he built himself, all while taking on design jobs to cover living expenses.

Nic shared photographs with us — documentary style captures of the villagers in everyday, ordinary moments. “I’ve always got my camera with me. I’ve taken photos since I was 11 or so.”

Nic also kept extremely detailed notes from his trip, yet was both frank and apologetic that he was not yet ready to share the complete story of the trip — the deeper, intensely personal side that film can’t capture. He wasn’t ready and admitted he might never be. “You won’t believe half of it anyways. Honestly, you wouldn’t,” said Nic. “You’d have to take the drug yourself to know what actually happened.”

In his own words, here’s the incomplete story.

“I was a little bit stuck in Foshan, China. I was thinking, “What am I doing here? Where’s my next destination?” My work is online, so I could more or less be anywhere. I didn’t want to go back to the United Kingdom. I didn’t particularly enjoy European society. I’d done all that.

I ended up chatting with a friend online who I hadn’t spoken to in 40-plus years from my hometown, Scarborough, U.K. I’d lost touch with him and didn’t really know what he was doing. Turns out that he’d been in Asia for the last 30 years, studying Buddhism and looking into different shamanic cultures. He was now living in Australia working as a psychotherapist, but taking off to Peru very soon. I asked what he was going there for. Turns out he’d already been there three or four times to a particular village and knew the chief. It all sounded a bit Indiana Jones, but up my street. He asked what I was up to and I said, “Don’t know.” I looked up flights and six days later I flew to L.A., for what should have been a two-hour stopover before arriving in Peru’s capital, Lima. While going through customs, I found out that I needed a visa to enter the United States, even if just going through for an international connection. After unsuccessfully trying to buy a visa online on my phone using a Chinese SIM card, 12 hours later I finally got a flight.

I’m a little colour blind but I saw colours I didn’t have names for.

From Lima, I took another one hour flight to the town of Pucallpa, before a final four hours downstream to the isolated village of Pao-Yan on the banks of the Ucayali River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. It was bit scary because you go with an armed guard, as we were in the centre of the timber and rubber industries. A lot of tribes are getting wiped out because timber companies are coming in and taking their environment away, positioning the land. People protest and attempt to sabotage operations. Sometimes they end up with a bullet. We didn’t encounter any liveliness.

Stepping off the boat was surreal; it was a stark contrast to the concrete of China. The Shipibo-Conibo people were very welcoming. Formerly two groups — the Shipibo (ape men) and the Conibo (fish men) — they’ve merged through time to become a single tribe. There were big smiles and hugs straight away, even though they didn’t know me yet. Most were dressed in Western clothes, and spoke no English, a little Spanish, and mostly their dialect known as Shipibo. Despite the language barrier, there were no challenges with communication. Many of the shaman’s children followed me when I wandered the village, holding my hand as if I were family.

When I arrived, the village had just flooded. That’s one of the problems with the timber industry changing the land. The trees are the backbone, the strength of the forest, the strength of the people. Everything is affected once they’re removed. Many of the trees that grew fruits are gone as a result of extensive droughts and flooding, intensified by the deforestation and erosion. The price of energy, food, and basic needs for the Shipibo nation are worrying. Hunger may not be far off for those in the further reaches of the Shipibo nation.

The Pao-Yan village had about 60 timber huts — all quite large and mostly empty. Some were for sleeping, eating, and others for washing. The windows are opened and they have mesh nets for the mosquitos. Very basic, with a few hammocks. There’s no other furniture. The huts are built upon stilts connected with timber gangplanks and thatched roofs; they’re engineered to survive the intense humidity and long wet season. There’s no power. The government supplied some solar panels, but they didn’t have any lighting connected to them. That’s as far as they’d gotten.

There were about 16 other Westerners there when we arrived, most in their twenties, so all the space in the huts was taken. They were partaking in a shamanic retreat. The chief ended up moving his wife and two of his daughters out of his hut for us, which was extra special.

I ended up joining the tribe on a trek into the jungle looking for the core ingredients — two plants — for the traditional drink. It’s becoming increasingly hard to get the drug itself. We searched for the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called Chakruna (Psychotria viridis). The vine is pounded until it creates rope-like fibres. The leaves of the other contain the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is considered the “spirit molecule.” The ingredients get layered in a pot and cooked over a fire for several hours, evaporating the water until it’s a viscous liquid.

At dusk the village shuts down. As soon as the light goes, everyone’s off to sleep. Ceremonies start at about 9 p.m. We go and sit outside in an open room, covered by a huge mosquito net. You take your own mattress and people get into their sort of space. You smoke jungle tobacco — they roll their own cigarettes; it’s not like processed tobacco here. It’s really harsh but supposed to get you into the mood and evoke the spirits. The shaman will sit quietly and then open up the ayahuasca bottle and whistle into it for quite a while. Then he’ll come around and pour you a small egg-sized cup. In my first ceremony I was given half a cup to see how I reacted to it. By the end of my trip, I was taking two cups each ceremony.

It tastes horrible, terrible. You’re really ingesting two plants that have been fermenting away for weeks. It’s vile, really is. You want to vomit. You force yourself to vomit. You also haven’t had food from midday. You don’t eat anything. You can put water in your mouth and swirl it and spit it out. Everyone has a bowl to vomit into. Some people purge from both ends.

The ayahuasca starts to take effect after 30 to 45 minutes; it all depends on your age and who you are. Then you start to feel a little bit sleepy and drowsy, a bit light-headed with the dehydration and 30-degree heat at night. It’s just a candle, fireflies, some distant lightning; it’s all quite magical. You lie down on your mattress and close your eyes. And you start to see things. You lose sense of time. Quite often geometric shapes are what you see first, or “secret geometry,” as they call it. You see shapes, patterns, and colours, all quite similar to the intricate embroidery and paintings the Shipibo women create. I’m a little colour blind but I saw colours I didn’t have names for.

The shaman will sing for five or six hours. It’s a repeated song, over and over, creating what seems more like a vibration. People will drift off, some go back to their huts, others stay until dawn. The shaman leaves around daybreak. You’re exhausted. You’ve been awake all night; it’s like the feeling at the end of a good party. I couldn’t sleep straightaway. There’s a lot to process. You’re just thinking, “What the hell just happened?” I started to write everything down so I wouldn’t forget.

After taking ayahuasca, you take the next night off to process your thoughts. Only the shaman took it every night, but he lived in a different world, literally. He’d come into this world just briefly to eat and say hello to his wives. Most of the time he was in a different dimension. On the nights after the ceremony, you take a different drink, prepared by the chief, that helps the ayahuasca guide a person through specific transitions. The chief observes your reaction during the first ceremony to identify what each person needs. I was given a drink for healing and interdimensional travel.

Without going too deep into it, I had one particular experience that was very powerful. I was four years old again. I was floating above the world I lived in, experiencing things that happened at the time. I’d never thought about these moments in my entire life, but there I was — I knew straightaway where I was. I was experiencing memories that I didn’t have access to on my own. I had a few similar experiences with time. In our known reality, we wake up each day, go to work at 9 a.m. and finish at 5 p.m. We think time has a start and stop, that we move in one direction. But during this experience, time wasn’t linear. Even my 20 days felt like two or three months.

Through the experience, you realized everything is incredibly clear. It wasn’t about figuring something out; you already seemed to have the answer. I was able to answer a lot of questions. Things I wasn’t even asking from my past, my childhood, things from the future. I remember thinking, “I see now.” It also quickly stripped away your ego. You felt that within the village as well. No one was competing with one another. It’s rare you find yourself in the company of uncomplicated people.

Our search for other dimensions and experiences is not new. It goes back thousands of years. Some of the earliest cave drawings around the world show plants being used as a hallucinogenic drug to make contact with a world that’s within your consciousness. You can see why people keep going back to the village or don’t ever want to leave. They know there’s more than our current reality. We’re in the darkness — this so-called reality is the illusion. There is something more to this; that’s my interpretation. This experience was more of an awakening. Within this state, you can more or less travel the cosmos. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s very much like The Matrix. This illusion that we’re living in — fake realities and fake values. To experience this other world for a moment, you realize it’s the real world.

I’d planned to stay for 10 days, which is recommended. After the first 10 days, a few of us took a boat back to Pucallpa for a few supplies and more fresh water. I’d thought about seeing more of the country. I imagined myself as a tourist going to Machu Picchu with a few thousand people standing on a hill, thinking how great it was to see a Wonder of the World. But I realized how incredibly privileged I was to be in the jungle, living a simple life with the tribe. This was better for me, getting to see and be there, to think, imagine, and dream a little bit. I ended up staying 20 days.

I know ayahuasca is different for everybody. Everyone has their own reason for being there, but I didn’t have a clear reason. I was open to something new. Many of the young people I had met had reasons including drug addictions and childhood abuse. Others were seeking guidance in the right direction — they were a little lost in life. I’d expected older people who’d lived half a life to have problems, yet everyone was quite young, early 20s, late teens as well. Regardless of the reason, there was no negativity; everyone seemed to benefit.

We’re in the darkness — this so-called reality is the illusion.

I know not everyone will agree with me, but I recommend ayahuasca. Years ago I believed that every young adult before they leave school should be given the option to try LSD, as a way to show that the brain is capable of so many things — imagination, creativity. Ayahuasca is more powerful than LSD, but it’s more spiritual than anything. It’s dangerous in a way, but it’s very suggestive of a different way of living, a different world. Can you imagine if everyone had just a taste of this, just for a moment, realizing that we’re living in this illusion and that we can change it for the better tomorrow? Or at the very least, start to understand why it’s so messed up.

Most of my life I’ve only planned two weeks ahead of me. But now I have a goal. Ayahuasca helped me quite a lot in this respect. I plan to go back to England to do a lot of design and photography work over the next two years. After that, I intend to buy a van and travel through Canada, America, and end up in South America. I’ll likely make my way back to Peru then. I’d like to take my kids.

People are conditioned from birth, from our parents, through a bad education system. Some people get to a point in their lives where you have a house, a car, and the dog, and you ask yourself, “How am I supposed to undo all that?” We often feel trapped, but hopefully, people start to realize that you have control over the life you want to live. Time’s running out. You better do something about it. Otherwise, it’s going to be gone.

Nic Tapsell

Nic Tapsell is a digital nomad from Scarborough, England. He works and travels the world as a freelance graphic artist and photographer offering a wide range of creative talent to his clients, who range from large international corporations to entrepreneurial individuals.
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