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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Have You Ever Taken Ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon? By Alexander Zaitchik

The magic molecule animating Ayahuasca is the fearsome and revered tryptamine known as DMT. Aside from its strength, DMT in both its natural and synthetic forms is unique for the similar sensations and visions shared by its supplicants. Unlike other man-made psychedelics like LSD, synthetic DMT takes many users to the same "place," where they report meeting elfish, clown-like, and insectoid beings who frequently extend the same warm and welcoming message: "We've been expecting you." This phenomenon is documented in Dr. Rick Strassman's book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which describes his remarkable findings over the course of the first FDA-approved psychedelic study in more than 20 years, conducted at the University of New Mexico Medical School in the mid- '90s.

The natural DMT experience of Ayahuasca is likewise known for taking users to a common destination, where they are greeted by the dead, as well as assorted vine goddesses and jungle spirits, chief among them the serpentine "Ayahuasca madre."

I finally got my chance to meet the Madre in March, when an English rainforest preservation non-profit called Cool Earth invited me to join a press trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The last-minute invite allowed just a few days to round up jungle gear and malaria pills, but there was never any question of accepting the offer. It was the juiciest of junkets: starting in coastal Lima, we would venture deep into primary rainforest, roughly midway between the Andes and the Brazilian border. Our final destination was the Ashaninka village of Tinkerini, a place so remote that the locals have seen only a small handful of whites in their lives, including the anthropologist who would be our guide. Tinkerini was no forest-edge Potemkin village full of trinket-hawking nativos. It was the real thing. Not far from Tinkerini dwell some of the world's last uncontacted tribes, the kind who want nothing to do with the modern world, shoot arrows at passing helicopters, and have zero immunity to foreign germs.


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