A TROPICAL BREW

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.

It takes five hours to fly from Rio de Janeiro to Rio Branco. My destination is an isolated Santo Daime community founded 20 years ago by the priest Padrinho Sebastião, on the banks of the Purus, one of the Amazon’s grand southern tributaries. He named his New Jerusalem Céu do Mapiá (Heaven of Mapiá) and it now has a population of almost a thousand people.

To get there you must pass through Boca do Acre, a 200km taxi ride from Rio Branco along a precarious stretch of reddish, muddy track. On arrival I feel the intense, suffocating heat of the urban Amazon. The brick homes and asphalt streets have turned Boca do Acre into an open stove. The town may have had a purpose during the rubber era, but now it seems only a reminder of the futility of colonising the rainforest. There are no trees (nor, I suspect, jobs) and the only birds you see are vultures. Even the river looks sullen here: a menacing grey-green, mottled with floating logs and dirty with the town’s waste.

The road ends at Boca do Acre. We leave for Mapiá the next morning in a motorised dinghy loaded with eight people and heavy with provisions. There is no shade and the sun scalds my skin. After the Purus’s first meander we are in the wilderness. The river is a corridor about 200 metres wide. The foliage at its margins is a monotonous equatorial green. Only the huge sky changes, a lucid blue turning dirty grey as the sun makes way for a heavy downpour. After an hour and a half we slow down and turn up the Mapiá. It is as if we have come off the motorway and entered a rather precarious B-road. At times the creek is only a few metres wide. The rainforest is so close it assaults our senses. Everything now is a shade of brown—the muddy colour of the water and the trunks, roots and branches that force us to duck as they brush against us. We hear the screech of monkeys; swallows and kingfishers swoop by. The proximity to nature is exhilarating—and exasperating. At one point a tree has fallen across the river and we have to step off the boat and haul it over. During the operation an ant crawls in my ear, and as it fidgets and bites its way down my hearing tube it feels like someone is twisting a nail through my skull. A fellow passenger grabs my head and pours water into my ear hole. It is with some delight that, after a long six hours, our boat finally put-puts into port.

You only need ask the time to realise that Céu do Mapiá is a special place, the smallest community in the world with its own time zone, half an hour in front of Boca do Acre and half an hour behind Pauini, the next town down the Purus. Such whimsy is just the start. As the vegetation disperses, we pass under a high wooden bridge. Then some neatly painted houses come into view. The homes have gardens and I catch sight of undulating grassland between them. I am deeper in the jungle than I have ever been yet Céu do Mapiá has the feel of a European country village.

I jump off the dinghy. There is a smell of cut grass. Since I find myself by the main square I take a stroll. I smile at what I see: A flagpole! A line of grocery stores! A public phone! Quite apart from the peculiarity of seeing such examples of “civilisation” in such a remote outpost there are more basic reasons why the place seems out of character with its location. The defining characteristic of the rural Amazon is extreme poverty—and there is none. The paralysing heat has gone. The climate is deliciously fresh.

The wailing sound of girls singing drifts from many homes. A few people cross my path. I notice they all have a certain zombie stare: eyes wide open, deep set, with an unfocused gaze.

Picture: Patches of rainforest have been cleared to make gardens around the homesteads

My first task on arrival in Céu do Mapiá is to look up Gilda Gonçalves, the sister of a friend in Rio. Gilda is in her 40s, a former award-winning actress with long hair held in a bun. We chat for a little about the sacrifices of leaving Rio to live in such a remote place. I ask her what she misses about urban life. Doesn’t she, for example, yearn for the theatre or cinema?

“I don’t need cinema,” she beams. “I take Daime!”

The first man to use ayahuasca in a Christian context was a 6ft 6in rubber tapper called Raimundo Irineu Serra. A black man, the son of former slaves, Irineu was introduced to the shamanic brew in the 1910s and under its influence had a vision of a beautiful woman—Clara, the Forest Queen—who commanded him to go several days in the jungle without having sex and eating only saltless manioc. He obliged, and during this time he was “channelled” the doctrine of a new religion. He called it Santo Daime because in the trancelike state he repeatedly asked the drug to “daime”, or “give me”, qualities such as strength, love and light. Santo Daime’s literal meaning, therefore, is Saint Gimme.

Mestre Irineu was given a plot of land outside Rio Branco, where he built the first Santo Daime church. It was known as Alto Santo, or High Saint (no pun intended—it was the highest point of the city). He attracted followers, among them a rubber tapper named Sebastião Mota Melo who came seeking a cure for a serious disease. (It worked. After taking Daime he had a vision of three insects leaving his body and was better immediately.) When the Mestre died in 1971 a large faction adopted Sebastião as their new leader.

Sebastião’s first Daime community became a fixture on the 1970s hippie trail and attracted travellers from other parts of Brazil and even abroad. He not only welcomed outsiders, but expanded the religion to accommodate their habits. Cannabis, introduced by middle-class visitors, was incorporated into rituals as the holy herb Santa Maria. Eventually, Sebastião felt the need to live in closer harmony with nature, and in January 1983 he was in the lead canoe that sailed up the Mapiá.

Gilda arrived a few years later, after her son was found to have an irremediable health problem. She treated him with Daime at a church near Rio and, when he was miraculously cured, burnt all her possessions and moved to Mapiá. The community was still in its infancy. Survival was a constant struggle. “The biggest challenge was malaria,” she says. “I caught it nine times.” Even so, remembering the early days fills her with nostalgia. She describes the life as “primitive communist”. It was only after Padrinho Sebastião died and his son, Alfredo, took over that money began to circulate, opening up a thriving commerce. Telephones and television arrived, along with computers and the latest fashions.

Picture: Above: A shrine to the Almighty—and hallucinogenic tea. Top: Mestre Irineu, the 6ft 6in son of former slaves who founded the religion of Santo Daime after having a vision while high on the brew

The following day I wake up to the sound of electronic mood music blaring from the room above. I pull the wooden shutter open. The view is magical—flowers in the garden and morning mist coming over the trees. The beauty pulls me outside. I reach the bridge and stop to take a photo when a hippyish guy passes me and says, hi! He looks a bit like what Jesus would look like in a telemovie—slicked back chestnut hair, a soft V-tipped beard and perfect teeth.

“Are you American?” he asks.

I say I’m English and ask if he lives here.

“No,” he replies. “Actually, I’m trying to get out. This is a cult.”

Marcos is 30, from Wisconsin. He first heard about Mapiá while backpacking through South America. He is spiritual and likes drugs, so it sounded like the perfect destination. During one of his first nights, he was woken up at 2.30am by the sound of a conch shell. He got up and saw the hostel’s owner with a big wooden mallet. Marcos was told that it was for the ceremonial preparation of the Daime.

The concoction of Daime is highly ritualised. The vine is seen as masculine and men are involved in its preparation. The leaf is feminine and women are responsible for cleaning it, which they often do with their legs open. Finally, leaf and vine are layered in large cauldrons and boiled, after which the cauldron is hit three times—one each for the sun, moon and stars.

Marcos was taken to the Daime-making area and sat on a stool as part of two rows of six men facing each other. Ready-made Daime was passed around for all to drink. Once the session started the men would all raise their mallets and then bang them down in unison. This medieval scene continued until the morning. It then happened every day for ten days.

Marcos enjoyed helping out. The Daime he drank gave him pleasant trips and seemed an ideal contemplative aid for mechanical, repetitive chores. But as soon as he veered from the path he encountered resistance. Two nights ago, when he had tried to move to a “chill-out” side room during a service, he was told to go back into the main hall. The more defiant he became the more the duty warden insisted that he return.

Now he wants to leave. But yesterday there were no boats. Today he has been told there are none either. Panic has set in. “Charles Manson had his Family. He got them to commit horrific crimes by feeding them with pot and lsd and persuading them that he was Jesus. Of course, these people aren’t killing anyone…”

The allegation that Céu do Mapiá is a cult is a common one, not helped by a history of scandal that includes allegations of abduction, brain-washing and even castration. The nastiest accusations come from other Santo Daime churches. The line founded by Padrinho Sebastião is resented because it is held that he perverted the Mestre’s original teachings by, in particular, the consecration of cannabis as Santa Maria.

Yet the reality is more complicated. Brazil’s Federal Narcotics Council spent years investigating Santo Daime and the country’s two other ayahuasca religions: Barquinha, Little Boat, and the União do Vegetal, Herb Union. (The three have an estimated combined membership of 10,000.) It found not “a single case, scientifically confirmed, of mental problems effectively caused by or generated by” ayahuasca use, and recommended its legalisation for religious purposes.

Speaking to Marcos has made me apprehensive about taking Daime again. Yet I can also understand why the church has such heavy-handed discipline. The drug is very strong. What would happen if you took too much Daime and walked into the rainforest? You might not come back. In any case, I have come here to do it. (And the community has made it a condition of my visit.)

Pictures: the preparation of Daime is an important part of the ceremony. Men pound vines (top), which are then boiled to make the brew (above)

At Mapiá taking Daime starts young. A drop is placed on babies’ tongues the moment they are born—although it will be in the bloodstream anyway, since mothers take Daime instead of anaesthetic when giving birth. Daime is a panacea, say followers, because every illness is the reflection of a spiritual problem. No disease is beyond treatment. Cancer is regularly cured here, they say. Alejandro, the most desired gardener in Mapiá, I am told  “used to have AIDS”.

Daime is taken often—at fortnightly services, at cure sessions, during the Daime preparation and, most abundantly, during the major festivals. I have timed my visit to Mapiá so I can take part in the Easter ceremony, which happens on Maundy Thursday.

Santo Daime’s religious garb makes no concessions to the climate. On Thursday afternoon the villagers of Mapiá retire to iron their shirts. For major ceremonial occasions the men wear the “white uniform”: pressed white shirts and white tuxedos, while the women pay homage to Clara, the Forest Queen, by dressing up in green sashes and sparkling tiaras.

I arrive at the church at sundown. Before I am allowed in I am asked to sign a registration book and told that one side is for men and the other for women. There are so many rules that the church employs wardens to enforce them. Today’s duty warden is an Argentine called Rafael. With short hair, smart shirt and a friendly yet stern manner he has as much latent spirituality as a mortgage adviser.

“Here we have a rule that says you cannot cross your legs or your arms,” he says without looking at me. I uncross my arms and apologise for my unintentional disrespect.

When I feel ready Rafael leads me to the corridor where the Daime is taken. Men are queuing in an orderly line. They shake each other’s hands and say bom trabalho—have a good workout! We are each given a small glass. The man who serves it could be a barman in a gentleman’s club. Behind him I see gallons of brownish Daime, stacked on shelves; the only other time I’ve seen such quantities of drugs has been in photographs of customs seizures.

The taste is as abhorrent as I remember it. I return to the hexagonal main hall. At its centre musicians are sitting around a small star-shaped table. Concentric hexagons are painted on the floor, like the markings for some minority sport. Rafael tells me that the male half is divided into three segments: one for boys, one for men and one for the newly married and visitors like me. In the female half, one-third is for virgins and the other two-thirds for non-virgins. Everyone faces inwards, so by the time the hall is full—there are about 300 people tonight—the congregation forms a ring.

Virgins play a big role in the ceremony by leading the singing. They sing the first few words of each hymn in shrill, yowling voices before the musicians join in. Once they’ve got going, the rest of us pick up the tune and the dancing begins.

One, two, three, four. We all move left. Then right. I recognise the steps. They are exactly those taught at salsa classes. Once I get over the unusual setting, the ritual has a distinct beauty. The congregation sways back and forth.

I am not feeling the Daime kick in. But I am enjoying myself. And my Jewishness is not a problem. The hymns are as often about faith or Daime as they are about Jesus. After an hour I spot Padrinho Alfredo for the first time. He goes to the front of the married men, picks up an acoustic guitar and starts strumming.

The dancing is making me tired so I repair to the side room, where there are half a dozen zonked-out guys and one person is throwing up. Rafael is busy waving a fumigator. I am urged to have more Daime. I remember what happened the last time I had two cups, but I overcome my fear. The Daime tastes more acidic than before and I almost vomit. I walk back into the main hall. I feel a little bit spaced out, a little drunk, more sensitive to the intense energy that the service is creating. The feeling of belonging is great. You feel part of a giant wheel. The rules and the hierarchies seem to make sense. The circle is a protective shape.

At 11.30pm the music stops for an interval. I look around. Some children are asleep in hammocks in a side room, others running around. The break is for people to go back to their homes for a shower and some food. I return to my guesthouse and lie on my bed waiting for a pizza. I fall fast asleep.

At 7am the sound of voices wakes me. I get up and meet a group who have just arrived back from the church with their ties slack, top buttons undone like City workers on a Friday night. The service restarted at 3am and has just finished. My first thoughts are of frustration that I missed out on the second half, mixed with a relief that at least I didn’t have another bad trip. In fact, I feel physically invigorated.

Picture: Virgins play a special role in ceremonial occasions by leading the singing. In church, they are separated from the non-virgins

On my final day Alfredo’s sidekick is at my guesthouse at sunrise. He informs me that the boss will see me now. I am led up the path to his house, and we wait on the veranda. Cocks are crowing and the moon looks perfect in the dawn sky.

Santo Daime’s high priest arrives and sits next to me. He is tall and thin, dressed in a Tommy Bahama T-shirt, chinos and a bum-bag with the image of a cannabis leaf. His wizened face is graduated in decreasing shades—tufty, jet-black hair, a thick grey moustache and white stubble. His eyes and eyebrows are set wide apart, separated by a large, softly shaped nose.

Alfredo is the Pope of Daime. I go straight to the point: can Daime really cure every illness? “If a person is able to achieve a high spiritual contact he can have all the cures he desires,” he replies. “If there’s no cure—because sometimes there’s just no way—then that person has an illumination, a self-understanding of what is going on with themselves.”

Almost everyone I have spoken to in Mapiá has arrived there as the result of a cure. Talking to Alfredo I understand why spiritual salvation is so linked to physical wellbeing. In the reassuring surroundings of Mapiá it is easy to forget that for most forest dwellers life is arduous, impoverished and unrelenting. What they pray for most is physical health.

Alfredo exudes a tranquillity and easy wisdom. He was brought up in the rainforest and seems to possess its secrets. Soon I feel comfortable enough to bring up more controversial issues. Why, I ask him, is cannabis included in the doctrine? It has brought so many problems—with the law and with the other ayahuasca churches. He answers softly: “My father said, ‘I use this medicine because I had a vision in which an angel came down with a stem of it in his hand and told me “this herb will serve as a cure for humanity”.’ ”

The other tricky issue is his marital status. He has two wives and 14 children. How does bigamy tally with his spirituality? “It’s not from the doctrine,” he replies. “It is something that almost everyone does.”

Alfredo has guided Santo Daime’s modernisation. He authorised the introduction of TV into Céu do Mapiá. “There are things about today’s age that I don’t try and prohibit, because even though they bring wrong things they also bring a lot of knowledge.”

But development brings its own problems. I wonder how long Mapiá can sustain the pace of change. The community’s much sought-after peacefulness is already disrupted by a generator. Internet access means that professionals—I met a writer and a computer programmer—are moving there, swelling the population and the economy. If Céu do Mapiá gets any bigger it will begin to destroy its surroundings.

As we speak the veranda fills up. I take advantage of my own audience with the Padrinho to ask for some personal guidance. I mention my bad trip. What happened spiritually? “It was, how shall I put it, too much water for your creek.” He chuckles. “It was too much spiritual information for your material formation. But you did your workout. Some spiritual work happened unconsciously. In some way, all that messiness gave you something in your astral plane…it wasn’t a wasted experience.” It’s a comforting, although ultimately unrevealing, answer. A catchphrase here is “Daime is for everyone. But not everyone is for Daime.” Perhaps Daime is not for me.

I ask Alfredo what he thinks is the rainforest’s spiritual charm. “It’s the life force. The harmony of all these lives together,” he says. “Sometimes you can get terrified by all the force that the rainforest has…its mysteries are so great that there are people who can’t bear it.” The dimensions of the Amazon are humbling: the abundance of nature, the enormousness, the isolation. As I sit on Alfredo’s balcony, looking at the rainforest canopy, I can see what he means. 

Alex Bellos is the author of "Alex's Adventures in Numberland" and "Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life", and co-author of Pele's autobiography

Photographs by Gunther Kleinhans