Monday seems an odd day to go on a psychedelic adventure through the metaphysical Universe, but yet there we were. The ceremony was slated to start around 4pm. We had a light breakfast of fresh tropical fruits. The meals at the retreat were specific to the dieta but were flavorful and delicious nonetheless. Today, we would have breakfast and some light broth as an early lunch, and then nothing but water. We were advised to drink as much water as we could, not just to assist with the purge, but also due to the heat and altitude. I lugged my thermos around all day, refilling it with cool water at least 5 times. I worried that it still wouldn’t be enough.

Most of us spent the day lounging, talking, doing yoga, or wandering the compound. I wrote in my journal for a couple of hours, meditating on my Zen thought of the day. My Zen calendar is frighteningly attuned to my personal Universe.

At 3, we started making our way to the temple and arranging our things. We each had a spot with a thin sleeping bag or camping mattress topped with a comforter, a small pillow or towel, our thermoses or canteens, and a large bowl or bucket. I took the spot nearest the front alcove, on the right. Mateo took the spot next to me. He came and sat beside me and hugged me. “Have fun. Don’t be scared.” Was all he said and then he went and sat at the foot of his mat.

Eventually, we were all assembled and waiting on Chuck and his assistant ayahuascero, Cano, to join us. Cano was a tall, young Costa Rican, a Tico, who had been working with the medicine for years. Tonight, he would be assisting Chuck and playing the guitar and singing icaros during the ceremony. By the time Chuck and Cano came in, the sun was beginning to set. We had all gotten quiet and were in a sort of meditative mind space, each contemplating the journey of the next few hours to come.

Chuck and Cano came in and set up their guitars and blankets, laid out the bottles of Ayahuasca, some cups, and other small trinkets and items. I noticed one was a bottle of doTerra essential oil, which made me grin slightly. Even here, capitalism crept in. Chuck lit a smudge stick of herbs and tobacco and began walking between and around us, to purify the space. He was quietly saying a prayer or encantation that I couldn’t understand. Once he reached the entrance to the temple, he pulled the curtained doorway closed.

There was only a handful of candles lighting the space,and the air was thick with the heavy tobacco smoke. I was sitting at the foot of my mat with my eyes closed. My instinct was to breathe through my mouth but I kept forcing myself to deeply inhale the scent of the tobacco and commit it to memory.

Chuck began speaking to us, praying for us, and telling us to focus on our intention or our questions for Madre Ayahuasca. He explained that he would come around and check on each of us from time to time and offer a second or third cup, to anyone who wanted it. Also, he told us that within half an hour or so we would likely begin to feel nauseous, but to try and hold the Ayahuasca in for at least an hour to an hour and a half. I thought to myself, “how will I know if it has been that long? I’m not wearing a watch.” Then shook the thought out of my head and mentally steadied myself. I would just breathe through it for as long as I could. There was no failing at this unless I just didn’t try.

We sat in our places as Chuck began pouring the Aya. Then, one by one, we went to drink. When it was my turn, I tried to focus my eyes in the darkened room to see what was in the cup. It looked like pale yellow syrupy liquid, with flecks of plant matter, floating in it. I took the cup in both hands and held it to my lips, inhaling the scent and then exhaling before I opened my mouth to drink. It was vile. Bitter but sickeningly sweet, and like any other syrupy medicine, but to a much stronger degree, it coated my mouth and throat. I had to swallow three times to get it all down and on the last one my throat constricted and I gasped a little at how quickly it felt like my body was rejecting the Aya. Chuck said his whispered prayer and I shuffled back to my mat and sat down.

No getting off the ride now, I thought. I sat cross legged, with my eyes closed, trying to focus on my questions and intention. Once everyone had drank, some people continued to sit up and meditate and others, like myself laid back on our mats. I felt both hot and uncomfortable, and slightly chilled, like my body couldn’t figure out how to maintain the correct temperature. I knew it had gotten chilly outside, but the temple felt stuffy from the smoke. I didn’t feel queasy at first, other than the kind of queasy you feel when you are really anxious. I knew that wasn’t the ayahuasca yet.

Cano had been almost imperceptibly strumming the guitar and singing, so quietly and gently, I had to think of nothing else to hear him. Chuck joined in and they sang beautiful, unfamiliar melodies and chanted words I couldn’t understand but began to feel that I could innerstand them. I thought of my questions over and over and over, “why am I here? What is my purpose?”

I’m not sure I have the words yet, even 3 years later, to fully describe what happened over the next 8 hours. The short version is that I hallucinated, but was also completely cognizant of being in a temple in Costa Rica, at several points vomiting until I thought I was going to literally die, and coming out of it feeling both completely and utterly destroyed, but also assured of myself in a way I had never been before. When they say it’s a “trip”, they ain’t lying. Most of what is written below is taken directly from my journal entry the next day.

I didn’t feel really nauseous at first, just kind of dizzy or woozy, like I’d had just a little too much to drink, but not enough to actually be sick. It was uncomfortable, until I heard other people start to get sick, either in their buckets beside their mats, or in the toilets. At that point, I wasn’t hallucinating at all. I was also feeling really irritated that I had done this. I drank this nasty shit, now I felt like shit, and I wasn’t even seeing anything. I started getting more nauseated, mostly it seemed from how loud the music had become, and decided that I was absolutely not going to throw up in a bucket in front of a bunch of strangers. I told myself to calm down and focus, focus on why I was here. Curling into the fetal position, I pulled the blanket up to my chin.

I closed my eyes against the dizziness and realized I had been seeing a grid like pattern of peach and pink and yellow, almost like a hologram overlaid on top of everything. I opened my eyes and stared at Cano, who was standing in the middle of the room, golden and pink lines radiated around him, as if the space his body took up distorted the grid and made it warp away from him. I heard someone laughing and someone crying. I looked over to where Mateo was laying, on his back with his forearm over his face. The grid didn’t warp away from him, but boxed him in. I didn’t want to think about the grid or the lights or what they meant. I looked up at the ceiling of the temple and told myself again to focus, remember why I was here, and I asked the universe or god or Ayahuasca to please answer my question, if I was ready to know the answer.

The air felt heavier, like a gust of warm, damp, rain-soaked wind had pushed down into the temple from the jungle outside. Something flickered in my peripheral vision, at the very peak of the ceiling, and a serpent, with a body as thick as a tree trunk, slithered along the crest of the room, like a spine, the supports of the ceiling flexed like ribs moving with breath. Her body was covered in shimmering scales that reflected every color of the rainbow. I wasn’t afraid, but didn’t move, as she stared at Chuck in the front of the temple. He was unaware or unconcerned she was watching him. I knew this was her, this was Madre Aya.

I closed my eyes again and said my questions over and over in my mind, seeing the words tumbling over one another, “What is my purpose? What am I here for? What are you willing to show me?” Then, my mind flooded with thoughts of my children, memories of times spent teaching them and seeing their joy in accomplishment, and memories of times when I had selfishly not been with them, times when I knew they had needed me but I’d left them to be with my husband to prove to him that I was the wife he wanted me to be. Tears began to pool in my eyes, and I turned my face toward the ground, letting them fall across my cheeks to the floor.

“What is my purpose?”, I whispered to myself.

The space in my mind where my thoughts usually live filled up with the image of a video game start screen. I knew this screen, it was a game I played with my children, but instead of “Start” and “Purchase” buttons, it had one button in the middle of the screen labeled “Purpose”. I used my thoughts to move the imagined cursor over the word “Purpose” and clicked it. Two figures popped into view on the screen, my son and daughter, dressed as characters from the game. I heard a voice say, “You know your purpose, why are you fighting to replace it? How dare you ask for anything more.”

Then, the images of my children and the gaming screen changed and I opened my eyes, I was still in the temple. Chuck and Cano had put on recorded music, the mantra “Ohm Mani Palme Ohm” played over and over. The words didn’t make sense and confused me, but I knew where I was and what was happening. The snake was no longer on the ceiling. I let out a breath and relaxed against my mat. I had not realized how tense I’d gotten. When I closed my eyes again, I was in a small room, facing a floor full of slender green and shimmering gold snakes, that slithered in a mass on top of each other. They had faces and teeth like anacondas, but were hooded like cobras, and had rattles on the ends of their tails. They all merged together into one giant serpent, not the one from before, but I knew it was her all the same. She didn’t come towards me, but stared at me, coldly. It was withering. She had said all she was going to say and disappeared.

I became aware of people moving around. I looked over and Mateo was not on his mat, he and others were outside quietly talking. Some were still laying on their mats, like I was, but I could also hear that someone was purging. I realized then how nauseous I was and that the purge was inevitable.

Standing up, the world tipped sideways and I staggered to the pillar in the middle of the room to catch myself. Chuck was then at my side and helped me walk to the small bathroom.

“I’ll be ok. I can manage from here,” I tried to tell him, not wanting him to hover outside the door and hear me get sick, but I found I could not speak. I waved him away. The bathroom had two candles on the floor, one just behind the toilet and one near the sink, so it was even darker in here, but the pure white porcelain of the toilet seemed to glow. I gagged several times before finally vomiting up the same bittersweet liquid I’d drank a few hours earlier. Bits of root and leaves stuck to the inside of my mouth. I slowly stood up and leaned heavily against the sink, cupping a handful of water to rinse my mouth. I was extremely dizzy and suffocatingly hot but chilled to the bone and shivering.

When I opened the lavatory door, I looked to my right and the curtain to go outside fluttered open a bit. I turned towards it and opened it to peer out. The world seemed too expansive, and loud, and alive, and I let the curtain fall closed again. I needed to lay back down. Mateo came in a few moments later and gave me a ginger candy to chew on to help settle my stomach and I sipped my water. “Please don’t leave me alone,” I said. “I’m just outside having a smoke. I’ll come back to check on you,” he assured me.

Shortly after I made it back to my mat, my stomach and intestines were starting to cramp and I knew I’d have to spend some more time in the bathroom. The whole time I’d been laying down I’d been counting my breaths, breathe in for 4 counts, hold, breathe out for 4 counts, hold, breathing deeply to get my body to calm down and regulate my temperature. I wasn’t laying down long before I sat up and motioned to Chuck that I needed help walking again. Luckily, the bathroom was equipped with extra buckets, for guests like myself, who Aya decides to evacuate from both ends. It felt like I was in that bathroom for an eternity, clenching the small plastic bucket in my lap and trying to breathe through wave after wave after wave of nausea. Just writing this, I can taste the acid and bile and ayahuasca.

I looked over the edge of the bucket, at the candle on the floor. I have astigmatism so when I look at lights or candles in the darkness, they create a bit of a starburst. This candle wasn’t just a small starburst of light, it was as dazzling as fireworks. But I knew, at the same time, this is just a candle. I realized my consciousness was doing some sort of back and forth between reality, which was very unpleasant at the moment, and mild visual hallucinations that were completely mesmerizing, and distracting me from the physical discomfort for brief seconds.

I threw up until there was nothing left in me but continued to dry heave, feeling tremendous amounts of negative energy leaving the core of my body. It was both the most wretched and also most relieved feeling I have experienced to this day. I laid with my arms cradling my head over the toilet, and sobbed.

Once I was able to wipe my tears away and steady myself, Cano came to the door and helped me to my mat. I laid down and he rubbed some oil on my forehead and spoke softly to me about how I was doing so much work, and it was very good to let go this way. Tears flowed from my eyes like a river, soaking into my hair, as he rubbed my forehead to close my third eye. He had me drink a few sips of water and then I fell asleep, lulled by the chanting coming from the sound system.

“Ohm Mani Padme Ohm” was playing when I woke up. The temple was otherwise still and quiet. Most of the mats were empty, as people went to their beds after their journeys were over. I looked beside me at Mateo’s empty spot and felt completely alone in the Universe. Chuck saw me stir and came to me with a cup of water and had me drink. He brushed my hair from my face and hugged me. My throat was raw as I said, “that was much harder than I expected it would be” and felt tears immediately well up in my eyes remembering all the deep pain I’d let go of. I felt lighter inside, not physically, but like a shackle had been removed from my soul that I’d worn so long I’d forgotten what it felt like to be without it. He said it isn’t always this hard but sometimes it is and sometimes even more difficult. He helped me walk outside and I breathed in the cool air from the mountains. I was trembling and as we approached the stairs said, “I don’t know if I can do this again. Does anyone ever not do a second ceremony?” And he said a lot of people feel like they can’t do it again after their first ceremony, but that’s why you rest in between.

It was 4 am. The hacienda was dark and quiet. Someone was snoring in one of the adjacent rooms. As I tucked into the bed, Mateo turned and wrapped his arms around me. I whimpered and my body shook as I started crying, there was such an ache inside of me. “Shhh, shh. You’re alright. I’m here. You aren’t alone,” he said into my hair, pulling me tighter to him. “Don’t cry, I didn’t leave you, I’m right here.” But I knew, I was alone.