Deep in the Brazilian rainforest there is a town built around a church where worshippers drink hallucinogenic tea. Alex Bellos took a trip up the Amazon to sample the high life in Céu do Mapiá...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012
Rio Branco is the capital of Acre, Brazil’s most westerly state and its most Wild West one too. A congressman was jailed there in the late 1990s, accused of slicing off an enemy’s arms and legs with a chainsaw. I visited the city shortly after. I had recently arrived in Brazil, a freelance writer from the other side of the globe, and when an acquaintance invited me to a church service at which psychoactive drugs would be consumed, I jumped at the chance.
Ayahuasca—or Daime as it is known locally—is a muddy-looking concoction made from boiling the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the Psychotria viridis leaf. Across the Amazon, indigenous people drink it as a part of their rituals. In Brazil a century ago, however, the hallucinogen led to the birth of a new Christian movement, the religion known as Santo Daime.
Daime services require worshippers to take the sacrament. At the church entrance I was served a cup of the brew. I swigged it down straight away, grimacing at its rank bitterness. After 20 minutes, feeling that it wasn’t working, I drank another cup.
Seconds later, I was overwhelmed with tiredness. My eyes shut and a sea of swirling, luminescent colours filled my head. I collapsed in the fetal position by the exit, cuddling a stool like a pillow. Urged by my acquaintance to return into the church—since outside the Devil’s spirits would get me and inside Jesus would protect me—I started to panic. Before taking the drug I had considered my Jewishness as irrelevant. Worrying what Jesus might do sent me into a total freak-out.
So I stayed outside, reasoning that it was better the Devil I knew. I felt sick and vomited. My jaw started moving uncontrollably. I tried to focus on a woman, since I remembered that sexual impulses can lessen the effect. Unable to summon desire I asked myself why—and it occurred to me that I could not remember if I was straight or gay. The more I thought about myself the less I could be sure of. Was I a man or a woman? British or Brazilian? Was I thinking in Portuguese or English? I did not know.
I frantically pieced myself together, and an hour or so later found a taxi and returned to my hotel room. I switched on all the lights and sat up for another hour until I felt the urge to pee and, on relieving myself, the trip ended as abruptly as it began.
The experience did not feel at all spiritual. It was the most tormented five hours of my life. When I returned to Rio de Janeiro I was left with a respect for ayahuasca and a faint embarrassment for not having deduced a priori that it is inadvisable for Jews to take hallucinogenic drugs in bizarre jungle churches.
Several years later, I tried again.