A Disclaimer: If you are in this story and would like to be removed, or edited in some way, please let me know and know that I mean no offense by including you. You were a part of my life and I want to be as true to this experience as I can. If we are still in touch after all this time, it is because I think you are truly special and I feel honored knowing you.

My first full day in Costa Rica was a Sunday. Most of the retreat participants had arrived Saturday, but the last guest came in around noon Sunday. We sat in the dining area, around a small metal table, drinking herbal tea. God, we drank so much herbal tea, without honey or sugar. Some of us were already getting acquainted and had chatted last night at dinner.

“Mateo” came and sat down next to me, and ever the preacher, rubbed his hands together and said “Hey everyone, good to meet you all! Why don’t we get to know each other better, I’ll start.” Then he went into his spiel about being a badass Green Beret, the military elite, but struggling with PTSD, suicide attempts, and drugs and alcohol, and how he came and sought out Mama Aya to heal himself with the help of the medicine. Maybe it wasn’t a spiel, but I’d heard it so many times, and lived it, that I could feel my eyes start to roll as the men in the group started asking him about combat and killing. He always had to be the center of attention. When we were younger, I was drawn to that. I loved listening to his stories and seeing how he could pull people in. But now, his blatant narcissism was grating. I could hear the insincerity in his voice as he talked about his “struggles” like they were part of a glorified fact sheet, not things that had nearly destroyed us both.

The rest of the group started to identify themselves. There was Taylor, a wiry guy from up North, who was a psychedelic tourist in every sense of the word. He’d been to Peru and he’d brewed mimosa hostilis in his apartment back home, a worldly and experienced psychonaut. Next was Bodhi, a Cali boy and part time weed farmer. He was young and there was something gentle in his voice when he said he was looking for answers, something that alerted the momma bear in me that he was hurting and felt lost. Suni, tall and regal looking, came from Quebec and had been a school friend of Chuck’s. She was a teacher of music and seemed vibrant, even against the lively Costa Rican jungle. Valeri and Daiya were a Russian couple, traveling the world to get away from the frigid winter. Valeri was the more experienced of the two with psychedelics and we had several long talks about mushrooms and MDMA. Daiya was quiet but very kind. Ger English seemed sufficient but she mostly spoke to Valeri in Russian and let him do the talking for them. Peter was another early twenty something, the youngest of the group, from Colorado. He worked with fish and reptiles and had a naturally sweet spirit and kind eyes. He talked about wanting to connect with Mother Earth and Cosmic Love the most. BB was the last to arrive, from NYC. He said the least but everything he said was sharp and witty. He kept his hat low over his eyes and seemed the the most relaxed about the upcoming ceremonies.

Besides Chuck, the retreat staff was a family of 3 who handled the grounds keeping and gardening outside the house and all the cooking and cleaning of the hacienda and outer buildings. The compound all together was made up of the main hacienda, which had the staff housing in one half, including the large kitchen, 6 small bedrooms and a large bathroom for everyone to share. From the main house, the pathway went to the right out the door and down a slight slope into a green house made of plastic sheeting. The Ayahuasca vines, as well as vegetables for the kitchen, were grown here. The walkway went straight through to a balcony and three more rooms with a small shared bathroom. At the end of the balcony was the open air kitchen/dining area. We spent most of our time congregated around the tables there, drinking tea and talking.

The temple, where the ceremonies would be performed, was past the greenhouse. The path split just before it and went down steep and narrow concrete steps. The temple had a patio with an outdoor fireplace on one end. The patio had railing on the far side, because it was on the edge of the hillside, or mountainside really, and you could stand and look out into the cloud forest and up or down the mountain. The temple itself was very basic; a single room, with support posts running down the middle. Wooden floor and plaster walls. At the far end was an alcove with some shelves and seating areas. Near the door were two water closets with a single toilet and sink in each. I became well acquainted with those toilets, maybe more than anywhere else on the compound.

The day was hot and everyone was full of nervous energy so we went hiking. I was not in great shape anymore and trailed behind everyone. I didn’t mind, as I generally like to live at my own pace and hike at my own pace. My husband was embarrassed though, that I was slower and weaker than everyone else. While I was content to take pictures of the bromeliads growing off the trees and watching for toucans and other tropical birds, he was hissing at me about how I should have been working out more. Eventually, he left me alone to go higher up the mountain and off trail. I had neither the desire or ability to do either, and walked a bit by myself, listening to the sounds of the forest and taking photos.

A cloud forest is like a rainforest in that it is humid and very moist. The difference is primarily in elevation and temperature. Because the air is cooler in the mountains, but the sun is so bright, the humidity creates and almost constant mist under the canopy. The trees are bent and twisted every which way and covered in parasitic bromeliads, mushrooms, lichens, and moss. Life piled on top of life. The earth is damp and fragrant with the mildly sweet smell of decaying foliage. Vines criss cross from tree to tree to ground. Howler monkeys made their presence known with their shrieks as the group got close to where they were foraging.

Mateo called to me from a ledge above the path I was on. He and Peter had found another small trail and were straddling a tree that was jutting out over where I stood. They wanted their picture taken so I obliged. Shortly after, the rest of the group reconvened, after they neared the summit and an aggressive dog had barked at them to go no further. We walked back to the hacienda where I decided to take a nap and write a bit. At the time, I was thinking of writing a book, this book that I’m writing now, but for a different reason. I’m still writing the book, obviously, but my reasons were vastly expanded.

That night, we stayed up late talking about our previous psychedelic experiences, discussing what we were searching for in Ayahuasca, and those who were inexperienced were sharing our anxieties. Everyone seemed so much more prepared or unconcerned than I was. I was terrified but committed to following through. I wanted to ask my questions and see what the Universe would say back to me. After leaving Christianity, I had constantly wondered whether “god” was some part of my subconscious mind telling me the things I knew were right and true, or if it was a collective consciousness of all living things. I hoped to find out this way, and begin making sense of who I was and what I was doing with my life.