PERU & AYAHUASCA: BEYOND THE INFINITE

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SOUNDTRACK // LIFTOFF: Thievery Corporation “A Gentle Dissolve”

We get on the plane at JFK. The new Melinda Gray mix kicks in as we take off. We’re off to a good start. Melinda made us a mixtape for the trip. A civilian making a mixtape for a DJ. That takes balls. Like making dinner for a chef. Melinda has balls for days. She’s has been turning me on to music all summer long. I say that like it is still summer. It’s a damn near November.

SOUNDTRACK // SOMEWHERE OVER JERSEY: Radiohead “House of Cards”

“House of Cards” comes on. Love this track. I stood in a clothing store in Soho for an extra five minutes this past Saturday just to listen to this song playing on the store sound system. I think it was G-Star on Lafayette and Prince. Last time I bought jeans there, I took them to the register and the dude was like “Your total comes to $327”
“Just for these jeans?” I gasped “Are you fucking serious?”
He was. “They’re hand stitched in Japan and we only make 500 pairs” (or some kinda bullshit).
“Oh…” I muttered.
I felt like such a jerk. Do I get out of line and sulk back to the jean rack in shame, in front of all these people? Or do I suck it up and buy them?
I bought them. Sucker.

Why am I rambling on about jeans? This is supposed to be about Peru. But I’ve got six more hours to go on this flight before we touch down in Lima; then, on to Cuzco.

INTERLUDE // THIS TRIP´S SELECTED READING MATERIAL
“2012. The return of Quetzalcoatl” by Daniel Pinchbeck

I went to Barnes and Noble on Astor place to buy it. It was in the fucking “new age” section. UGH. Big red flag. I was honestly embarrassed to even be seen near books about crop circles and Indigo children. Double UGH.

I saw this guy Daniel Pinchbeck on The Colbert Report. Seemed a bit kooky, but he’s obsessed with mythology and psychedelic drugs, two worthy subjects of inquiry. Shortly after seeing his interview, my sister Sheelagh tells me she and Richard (Hell) know him personally, and that he is completely out of his mind from too many psychedelic trips in the Amazon. Richard tells me he ran in to Pinchbeck on the street the day he found out Sting had agreed to submit a quote for the back cover of this book. Richard seemed a bit confused at to why anyone would be happy about a douchebag like Sting liking their book.

Sting or no Sting, the subject matter of the book is right in tune with this entire Peru trip of mine, so I bought it, hoping I could ignore the kookier parts and gain a little insight.

REWIND // BACK TO THE CAB

Ben Cruz texted me in the cab on the way t o the airport: Ben“Dude, you still have that nun costume? What are you wearing for Halloween” This mofo is trying to borrow my one and only legit costume. But he’s out of luck. Me “No dice. On my way to the airport. If I get kidnapped by Maoist guerrillas, don´t pay more than $1500″ Ben “$1200 tops”

REWIND // BACKSTORY

This Peru trip has been sort of a lifetime in the making. We always had that Machu Picchu issue of National Geographic sitting on the living room shelf as a kid. Must have looked at it a hundred times. This past year, I come to find out that Anne had the exact same issue in her house. Figures. Must be why we both feel like we’ve been drawn to Peru our whole lives.

We heard about this retreat idea last summer from Alison Novie. Alison is a yoga teacher extraordinaire from Kula Yoga Project on Warren street in Manhattan. Anne and I have grown quite fond of her over the last couple of years; me through her giggle-filled yoga classes – Anne through her intensely spiritual “goddess” yoga retreats in the Catskills. To know Alison is to love her. If she tells you “Come with me to Peru, it’ll seriously change your life”, then that’s what you do, you go to Peru. So here I am. Flight 531. Seat 27J. Peru awaits.

DIA UNO // CUZCO

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We finally land in Cuzco around 9:30 am. I am immediately struck by two things:

1) How arid the landscape is – all beige and brown. A bit like parts of Australia. I even see some eucalyptus trees, but not many. There are almost no trees.

2) How insanely bright the sun is. Like a fucking giant, white, halogen lamp. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Take a full color image in to Photoshop. Crank up the brightness, give everything a 40% brown/orange tint, then reduce the saturation to -30. That’s Cuzco.

We grabbed a cab and headed for a hotel we found in the Lonely Planet guide, “Los Apus”. Los Apus had me at “hello” due to the dual Kwiki-Mart association. It was located in San Blas, a funky little neighborhood up in the Northern hills that overlookCuzco.

The swift cab ride through the narrow cobble-stone streets of the city gave us a thorough impression of our new surroundings. Lots of old Spanish colonial architecture. Mostly two to three story buildings. Some cinder block. Some oldschool mud/straw bricks. Some very old Incan foundations.

Every single building has curved terra cotta roof tiles. A bit like Tuscany in that regard, but broke as hell, and bleached out to a pale brown/orange by the halogen sun.

We saw two llamas on the way to the hotel – AWESOME!

The third thing you notice, as soon as you get out of the car and walk up a measly fifteen steps, is that you can’t breathe and you’re about to faint. I assumed the 11,000 foot elevation would take a few days to get used to, but HOLY SHIT it was brutal. It puts you in check right quick.

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SOUNDTRACK // STREETS OF CUZCO: Eric B and Rakim “Microphone Fiend”

Didn’t listen to the Ipod, but I had “Microphone Fiend” stuck in my head all day. Can’t even remember the last time I played it. 2006 at Frank’s Lounge probably. The God Rakim Allah. “I wrote the rhymes that broke the bull’s back. If that don’t break it up then I carry a full pack” over and over in my head as walk the streets of Cuzco.

Many of the narrow streets are lined with original Incan stonework dating back to the 13th century, Generation upon generation, including the colonial Spaniards, kept the original Incan foundations and simply built up on top of them. Many of the stones are gigantic, and perfectly locked together with stunning precision. Looking at the walls, you can’t comprehend how they all fit together so perfectly. On one street there was a single huge stone (below) that had twelve sides, each one perfectly lining up with an adjoining stone. Amazing. Most are a dark charcoal grey.

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THE LEGEND OF CUZCO

In the 12th century, Inti, The ancestral sun god, commanded Manco Capac, the “first Inca”, to find the navel of the earth and plunge a golden rod in to the ground until it disappeared. When he found such a place, he founded the city of Cuzco.

Below is a scan from my sketchbook of some cool calligraphy from one of the huge paintings inside the Convent of Santo Domingo, a museum of colonial art attached to the cathedral built on the Incan ruins of Qorikancha.

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UPDATE // 2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL

I made it through the first 70 pages on the plane. Interesting so far, and wholly appropriate reading for my anticipated ceremony.

Pinchbeck spent most of part one making a case for the similarities between quantum physics and the space/time fluidity of many ancient religions, particularly those of South America. He is also making a case for the proven existence of psychic phenomena, which he claims has been 100% proven by a myriad of credible scientific studies.

Most notable of these to me was a Princeton University experiment that I think I had actually heard about previously via my psychic friend, Valentine. We had long debates about the validity of his psychic claims. This eventually lead me to break away from my lifelong skepticism just enough to concede that there are unexplainable things currently attributed to psychic phenomena that, in my hallowed opinion, will one day be proven by science. But I know nothing.

Anyway, the Princeton experiment in question supposedly went down like this: Princeton researchers put fifty random number generators in cities around the world and recorded their fluctuations over a long period of time. They chose random number generators because psychic advocates have long claimed that there is substantial proof that random number generators are directly affected by the activity of human consciousness. Or so the legend goes. These random number generators are effected so profoundly, in fact, that these same psychic advocates use them as a means of measuring EEG, a.k.a. brain waves.

So, Princeton researchers set these up all over the planet, to, in effect, record the collective EEG of the entire human race.

According to Pinchbeck, these readings have shown “strong deviations from normal patterns of randomness during major world events and disasters.” The most extreme deviation is reported to have occurred on the morning of September 11th, 2001. And though it peaked several hours after the WTC attack, significant fluctuations began a few hours BEFORE the planes hit the towers.

Roger Nelson, the project’s director, had no explanation, but conceded that the data indicated a “deeper mystery”.

Were I in front of a computer as I write this, I would Google the shit out of this subject in search of a thorough debunking, as is my natural instinct. For now, I’m just going to have to let Pinchbeck’s version stand unchallenged. For now.

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REWIND // BACK TO THE BEGINNING

It occurs to me at this juncture that perhaps I have been remiss in outlining just what this trip is all about, and how the themes in the Pinchbeck book directly relate.

This Peru trip is slightly more than average yoga retreat. It is twelve days staying at the “Hanaq Pacha” retreat center in the Sacred Valley, Peru, under the dual spiritual guidance of our friend and yoga teacher Alison Novie, and a woman named Mama Kia, the founder, reverend mother, and veritable white witch of not only the retreat center, but a Peruvian home for street children called “Casa de Milagros”.

This retreat involves yoga twice daily, two trips to Machu Picchu, daily hikes, and a day or two hanging with the kids at Casa de Milagros. On top of that, we are invited to participate in two “plant medicine” ceremonies, guided by two Peruvian shamans.

The plant medicines in question are San Pedro and Ayahuasca, two psychedelic brews that have been used in South American religious ceremonies since the dawn of man. I have been reading more and more about them over the last year or so, and have been eager to at least dip my toes in what a great many spiritual explorers and/or drug enthusiasts have described as “a life-changing experience”.

Meeting Alison two years ago seemed a lucky twist of fate, as it just so happens she has some direct experience with plant medicine, being an active member of the church of Santo Daime – a hybrid of indigenous Brasilian religion and Catholicism conjured up by some African dude living in Brasil in the 1920s. The church’s founder drank ayahuasca and had a vision of the Virgin Mary as the queen of the rainforest. Shortly thereafter, he founded the church, and chapters have since sprung up all over the world. “Daime” is their version of ayahuasca, and it is their sacrament. Daime congregations get together about every two weeks and drink daime in an elaborate religious ceremony that they call “the work”. The ceremony involves doing a two-step shuffle in place, and singing religious hymns in Portuguese about Jesus and The Virgin Mary for eight hours or more. My psychedelic experiences are relatively recent and relatively limited, but the last thing they would involve would be a church and/or Jesus. Just not my thing.

When I heard about a retreat that also offered an opportunity to sample these forbidden nectars on their original home turf with a real life Amazonian shaman, my curiosity was most definitely piqued. I mean, if you´re gonna do this stuff, why not go to the source, where you are guaranteed something at least resembling an authentic experience.

So here I am, in Peru, thrilled and terrified about the unknown experiences that await me.

Now you understand the relevance of the Pinchbeck book. South American psychedelics are the root of his transformation from cynical New York atheist to modern prophet of ancient Armageddon and psychic rebirth. Uh oh.

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We wrapped up day one in Cuzco with dinner at a local eatery with Alison, her husband Anton, Mama Kia, and a few other newly arrived yogis. Though it had been almost 90 degrees during the day, as soon as the sun went behind the mountain, the temperature dropped 15 degrees. By 9pm it was in the 40s. This was how the weather was to be every single day. We were to meet the rest of the New York entourage at the airport the following morning.


DIA DOS // RENDEZVOUS

We did some shopping in the morning, then met the New Yorkers at the airport as planned. You can always spot a yogi by their over-developed shoulder muscles, so we all quickly found each other in the crowd of heckling taxi drivers outside the terminal exit.

Alison and Mama Kia arrived shortly in a big white bus, and all eighteen of us were swiftly on our way to Hanaq Pacha.

The Sacred Valley is northwest, up over the mountains behind the city and then down down down in to the valley 2000 feet below. The mountains which define the Sacred Valley are truly spectacular. The predominant color scheme is a washed-out olive green. They are quite steep and practically barren – covered in craggy rock formations, low brush, and the occasional smattering of trees.

Small patchworks of yellow and brown earth have been miraculously cultivated by ambitious farmers high above the valley floor. How anyone could climb a 60 degree incline and decide to farm right there is completely beyond me. There are few visible trails and no visible inhabitable structures. Mama Kia tells me the highlanders who live in tiny villages on top of the mountains grow corn and potatoes on the mountain slopes. The mountains are so steep, farming on them seems insane.

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DIA DOS // ARRIVAL

Hanaq Pacha. It means “where heaven and earth meet”. I can hardly imagine a more Eden-like setting for the next ten days.

The retreat center is a small compound of structures scattered about the most lush, fantastic garden landscape imaginable.

The property is nestled in a small tributary canyon, beneath a long, thin waterfall. A high, rock wall defines the perimeter of the property on all sides. There is a main house at the base of the driveway – a one-story building that contains the kitchen, a library, a large dining room, and a small outdoor terrace. The dining room has windows on three sides and it juts out in to the lower terraces of the garden.

Narrow garden footpaths wind through a horticultural odyssey that, at first glance, appears to contain one of every single flower in the known universe.

Large and small boulders are integrated in to the landscaping. Small patches of fresh herbs and vegetables come in and out of view as you follow the path up towards the temple and the tipis.

Seven tipis surround a circular temple. The temple, we are told, is reserved for yoga and religious ceremonies. On the opposite side of the circular temple there is a communal bathroom/shower building with four toilets and four showers.

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The interior to the main house is a sight to behold. Every nook and cranny is occupied by some ancestral/tribal/new age item of some form or another. Beads. Trinkets. Shivas. Buddhas. Ganesh(es?). Crucifixes. Sacred hearts. Dream catchers. Stone carvings. Wooden carvings. Wind chimes. Bird feathers. Animal bones. Clay pots. Glass jars. Beaded wall hangings. Candelabras. Gilded lotus flowers. Peacock feathers. And on and on and on.

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This theme of any and every spiritual item under the sun is repeated in the tipis as well, in the form of painted wall illustrations, rugs, wall hangings, dream catchers, and ceremonial dolls.

The tipis have an eighteen-sided, five-foot tall concrete base. A large piece of canvas wraps eighteen long wooden poles, which come to an apex about twenty feet above the bed. The bed is actually six thin foam mattresses, stacked three-high, pushed together, loaded with incredibly thick wool blankets. The floor is red tile. A small, wood-burning stove sits between the bed and the doorway, with a long, thin chimney escaping through a small hole in the canvas cover.

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The more you walk through the garden, the more you begin to notice the insane detail of every single inch. Not only is it filled with every flower and variation of cactus, but there is always some extra little item thrown in directly in your line of sight. A dancing Shiva on a rock. A pipe-smoking garden gnome. An antique clay pot. A sun dial. Even a filthy, weathered Pillsbury Doughboy doll riding a the arm of a cactus. And all of this is framed on three sides by gigantic, brush-covered mountains that shoot up so high, many of their peaks are obscured by clouds. All in all, a breathtaking setting truly befitting its name.

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DIA DOS // ORIENTATION

We gathered in the main house for a large vegetarian lunch and some basic orientation. We sat on the floor on pillows around a long wooden table. There are no chairs. Morning yoga every day, followed by a big brunch. Some excursion after that. Then a big dinner. Then mellow evening yoga/ meditation.

The excursions on the menu include two days at Machu Picchu, two other Incan ruin sites, a day of shopping in Pisaq, and a day at Mama Kia’s home for her 33 adopted kids, Casa De Milagros.

The psychedelic plant medicine options were as follows: san pedro plant medicine ceremony at Machu Picchu on Tuesday of next week (our second day at the site), and an ayahuasca plant medicine ceremony in the Hanaq Pacha temple on Friday. Both are Peruvian plants used in indigenous Peruvian religious ceremonies.

San pedro, we are told, is a relatively mild hallucinogenic plant medicine in liquid form, derived from a local cactus. Essentially, the peruvian peyote. The shaman of Machu Picchu will lead our ceremony personally, and we will be allowed in to areas of the ruins normally off-limits to tourists. “This shaman, Cucho, is amazing” Alison insists “If we’re lucky…maybe he’ll call in the condors to come visit us”. Sounds pretty fucking cool to me.

Ayahuasca is another liquid plant medicine said to be very, very intense. I have heard the experience described as “ten years of therapy in ten hours”. Supposedly, it conjures up every demon in your psyche and forces you to deal with them. Many who have experienced ayahuasca report being visited by spirits, quite often deceased family members. Many people have reported seeing an entire race of beings living in an alternate reality, often described as little green men or “psychic elves”. Mother fucking ELVES. Count me in.

Most of the group indicate a willingness to participate in the plant medicine ceremonies, though several admit they have never tried any form of psychedelic before. Very brave indeed. We are given the day to relax and begin acclimating to the altitude. We will meet after dinner for some easy intro yoga and to “declare our intention” for the week, in front of the entire group. Guess I have to think of one.

DIA DOS // THE CAST

The group of New Yorkers is pretty much what I expected. Eighteen of us all together. Anne and I already knew a few people from the city: Anton, Alison’s husband, Jaycee, whom Anne knows from Alison’s retreats, and Amy Pete, who used to work the desk at Kula. A few others I recognize from class. There is one couple from Woodstock, where Alison also teaches. Ages range from late 20s to mid 40s. There are a few boyfriends who seem to be here at the behest of their ladies.

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After evening yoga, we sat in a circle and literally passed a big condor feather around the room, declaring our intention for the next ten days. I was chosen to go first. I mumbled something about finally getting a chance to refocus on my yoga practice after being plagued by injuries for the better part of this last year.

As we went around the circle, a lot of people talked about needing to work out some deeply entrenched personal issues. Sickness. Death. Physical and mental abuse. Dysfunctional families. Relationship drama. Some people were almost immediately fighting back tears. Several of the married women spoke of their long-awaited need for some personal time, though they admitted feeling guilty about being away from their kids for the first time ever. All in the group were surprisingly forthcoming.

When it was all said and done, all I could think was “HOLY SHIT…this is a room full of people who should NOT be tripping anytime soon”.

UPDATE // 2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL

The Pinchbeck book is getting a little bit nutty. I am thoroughly enjoying it, but growing more and more skeptical of some of the recurring themes.

His descriptions of various shamanistic, psychedelic rituals are fascinating, though you really begin to consider that all of these mind trips may have driven him slightly crazy. He freely admits that, after awhile, random hallucinations began entering in to his waking life, particularly after smoking DMT.

DMT (Nn-dimethyltryptamine) is a naturally occurring chemical found in the human brain and spinal column, as well as some very specific plants. Some believe your body releases DMT just before the moment of your death, and that is the source of the whole “life flashing before your eyes” hallucination widely reported throughout medical history.

Smoking DMT, as Pinchbeck did, is said to produce a seven-minute, overwhelmingly intense “rocket ride to another dimension”. Some freaky scientists have dubbed it “the spirit molecule”, for they believe it holds the key to communication with the spirit world. DMT is also the key ingredient in ayahusaca, which, if this book doesn’t freak me out too much, I will be drinking in ten days time.

Pinchbeck’s main thesis is that there is a psycho-spiritual process taking place on earth that is accelerating us all towards a wholesale transformation of human consciousness. This new age of psychic awareness is going to arrive in the winter of 2012, as was predicted by the ancient Mayan calendar thousands of years ago.

He sets forth to prove this thesis in two ways. The first is to look at new age touchstones like alien abduction, paranormal activity, and crop circles, not necessarily as factual events, but rather as evidence of a growing trend of archetypal myths manifesting in the imaginations of individuals worldwide. The second is to gather an impressive number of philosophers, pseudo-scientists, and psychedelic adventurers who, in one way or another, have long been saying pretty much the same thing Pinchbeck is saying about a global psychic transformation.

Pinchbeck’s extensive psychedelic experimentation opened him up to believing in “a vast psychic domain – a visionary reality – available to us, if we have the courage to explore it”. Once he found some truth and enlightenment in ancient shamanistic rituals, he was no longer able to dismiss ANYTHING that mainstream society had rejected. So, it appears upon reading the book that, even if the philosophers he includes may have been certifiably nuts by modern standards, he will present the portions of their theories that relate to his own, for serious consideration by the reader.

As to what effect his psychedelic experimentation really had on his brain, the most notable side effect in my observation is his newfound eagerness to believe that every single coincidence he encounters in his life has some deeper meaning. People who consider coincidences to be evidence of divine or paranormal intervention are, in my mind, totally bat shit crazy. They seem unable to omprehend why the word was invented in the first place.

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DIA DOS // continued…

After a big dinner, several of us sat out on the terrace of the main house and looked at the clear southern sky in all of its glory. We gazed in wonder at the billions of stars overhead. Showing New Yorkers a sky full of stars is like giving a toddler a bubble machine. New Yorkers rarely have a reason to look up whatsoever.

As we sat outside, the sky would occasionally flash white from over the top of a nearby mountain. Two people postulated that the flash must be the result of an atmospheric anomaly local to Peru only; kind of like their version of the aurora borealis. Huh? The speculation continued for a while before I casually interjected “Um…that’s pretty unlikely”.

“You think?” somebody asked.

“Probably just lightning from the other side of that mountain” I proposed.

“Hmmm” somebody murmured, sounding disappointed.

“You know the light from stars can be as much as two hundred years old” somebody declared. WTF.

“The stars are all vibrating. Does everybody else see that?” another exclaimed, excitedly.

“This sky is magical” somebody said, as if to offer an explanation for the ‘vibration’.

“Stars aren’t vibrating, their twinkling because of their age” yet another offered.

“The big mystery is gravity” one guy declared “Nobody really understands it”.

That was the last straw. I chose my words carefully, this being the first night and all “Um, what makes you say that?”

“It’s just this mysterious force that nobody really understands” he replied. I let it go. Like I said, it was the first day, and way too early for me to reveal my allegiance to science and rational thought. Yet there I was, a heretic among the faithful.

My two years in the church of yoga has been a steady discipline of resisting the urge to be judgmental. Sometimes I do pretty well, other times, not so much.

It was Alison Novie, in fact, that made all of the yogic spiritual gobble-dee-gook tolerable. She weaves it in and out of her class with a lovable, giggling sense of humor that is so endearing, you just don’t bother to question what she’s saying. You either soak it in, or let it roll right off you. No harm done. But who am I kidding? I’m here, in Peru, with Alison, the freakiest of the deekiest. This is her turf, and I knew what I was getting into. Still, at times, I feel like such an impostor.

New age speak, with all of its “healing” and “energies” and whatnot, produces an immediate negative response in me, even now. I feel like I am surrounded by people who simply WANT to believe EVERYTHING. You tell them Peru is a super-spiritual, “magical place”, and they simply accept it. Why is it any more spiritual than any other place on earth? Because people lived here a really long time ago and built some stuff with really big rocks? Gimme a break. People lived EVERYWHERE a really long time ago. Wherever you are sitting at this very moment, somebody was probably pissing there thousands of years ago. Do we need stone ruins to maintain this higher spiritual resonance? This is nonsense.

But these questions don’t seem to get asked. There is no critical discourse in the yoga world. At least I’ve never seen any. In fact, I would almost go so far as to say you need to check all critical thought at the door along with your shoes. This so goes against every fiber of my being. Thanks Dad.

I suppose I do assume a lot about my fellow travelers. I have no idea what they are thinking about all of this. I have no idea how much they truly believe and how much they just go along with. Who can say? If only I could see some evidence that these folks questioned all of this shit before swallowing it all whole.

I guess I’m really talking about FAITH here, and faith has no need for reason.

I need to get over my own criticisms and simply open myself to possibly learning something of value from these half-baked, dream-catchin’ new age wackos.

DIA TRES // OLLANTAYTAMBO

The first night at Hanaq Pacha was very long. Breathing normally in your sleep can be a real challenge at this altitude. All of us are still adjusting, and it’s a slower process than anyone expected. We were told to drink lots of Mate de Coca (Coca leaf tea), which is considered the best remedy for altitude adjustment. It is the staple tea of Peru. It contains no cocaine, in case you’re wondering. Morning yoga was slow but rewarding. Alison is taking it easy on us, for now. After brunch, we got back on our big white bus and headed west for about an hour to the Ollantaytambo ruins.

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Like almost all Incan structures, Ollantaytambo was built on the side of a steep mountain for strategic advantage. Long winding agricultural terraces are carved out of the mountain side. Ruins of houses and temples still remain very high up the mountain side. Ollantaytambo was one of the few Inca city fortresses that successfully defeated the Spanish invaders, albeit temporarily. The village below has been continuously occupied since the 12th century. The irrigation system the Incas built is still in use.

We arrived early enough in the day, beating most of the mid-day crowd of tourists coming in by bus from Cuzco. Anne and I broke off from our group and started hiking the steep terraces on our own.

Once you climb up to the spine of the ridge, the view is truly awesome. You can see the wide, flat valley floor stretching out at least 20 miles in three directions. Massive, steep mountains block out most of the sky. To the West, you can see snowy peaks in the distance, lost in the clouds. The sense of volume you get, meaning: the empty space between the opposing mountains, is impossible to really describe. I’m not sure why this is so different from other mountain ranges. Maybe it’s the contrast of a very flat plain below with the extremely steep, barren slopes. It was beautiful.

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After we saw the main temple, we found a steep dirt trail zig-zagging up much higher on the mountain, to a smaller outpost. When we reached the top we were delighted to be the only people up there. At least until a 12 year old boy appeared out of nowhere. His name was Brando. He asked us where we were from, then quickly scurried further up the mountain, making his way up to the highlands. We were told it was at least three hours to the top. Where he would go from there was anybody’s guess. The highlands are full of ancient villages that aren’t on any maps. It must be freezing up there. He was wearing a Tshirt. And he was 12.

We climbed back down and had a beer with some of the gang before falling asleep on the bus ride home.

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UPDATE // 2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL

The Pinchbeck book talks a lot about The Apocalypse. Here’s a quote from Eugen Weber, Romaninan-born French historian,

“We yearn for some explosive, extraordinary escape from the inescapable and, none forthcoming, we put our faith in an apocalyptic rapture whereby the inevitable is solved by the unbelievable: Grasshoppers, plagues, composite monsters, angels, blood in industrial quantities, and, in the end, salvation and sin, and evil-meaning anxiety, travail, and pain”.

So maybe I’m just afraid of dying. How boring. How embarrassingly pedestrian.

Later that night I had another Apocalyptic dream. I’ve been having them for the last 6 months. Dreams where I die. Dreams where the earth is getting blown up. Dreams where Satan is coming to get me. Dreams where I meet the archangel Gabriel and he tells me the world is going to end and that I’m going to Hell. Fun stuff like that. This is the drawback of having an interest in religious texts. The stuff gets in your head.

In this dream, giant green spaceships were overhead, attacking the earth, blowing it to smithereens. Pandemonium was in full swing. In the middle of it, I recognized the spaceships from a book I owned as a kid. I always thought the illustrations were kinda cheesy.
“No spaceship would actually look THAT gay” my dream self realized.
Eureka! A lucid dream! I NEVER have lucid dreams! With the power of all space, time, and dimension at my fingertips, what do I do? What do I do?

As interplanetary hellfire was raining down upon the earth, I ran down the street and planted passionate kisses on every single female between the ages of 16 and 40. Pathetic.

DIA CUATRO // CASA DE MILAGROS

Day four was the day we were to visit Casa De MIlagros, the home where Mama Kia raises the 33 children she has adopted. The kids range from 8 months to about 14 or so. She told us most of them were orphaned or homeless, taken in by strangers, and often sexually abused. Mixed in with the Peruvian kids are her 3 Grandchildren. Her daughter and son-in-law seem to run the place day to day.

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Mama Kia is truly an exceptional human being. She grew up in the States in Florida, Louisiana, and on the Cherokee reservation. She is a quarter Cherokee. The story I have pieced together so far is that she left Florida around 1980, fleeing an abusive husband and looking for an alternative way of life for her and her six kids, one of whom was severely schizophrenic.

She and the kids fled to the Peninsula de Osa in Costa Rica, one of the most remote parts of the country. At the time, there weren’t even roads, just horse trails. She had very little money, spoke no Spanish, and had no idea how to live in a rain forest with a family of six. She bought a horse, built a hut on the beach, and started growing her own food. From what I gather, it was an intensely difficult experience that greatly strained her relationship with her kids. With her bare hands, she eventually built a thriving business, the Tierra de Milagros yoga retreat center.

Around 1993, she visited Peru and was moved by the plight of homeless Peruvian kids in The Sacred Valley. She sold most of the business in Costa Rica, then picked up and moved to Peru to found a home for abused children. She has since adopted about 33 kids. She opened the Hanaq Pacha retreat center as a means to support Casa de Milagros.

She is an incredibly warm and welcoming host, with a laid back, congenial charm that immediately puts you at ease in her presence. It was day four and we were all already falling in love with her.

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Casa de Milagros is a glorious, old, Spanish Colonial farmhouse. As you approach, it really reminds you of the cover of the Eagles’ album “Hotel California”. It is set far back from the highway, at the base of a dramatically steep, dark orange, rocky cliff.

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The grounds are surrounded by wide corn fields on all sides. You can see small clusters of locals hunched over in the hot sun, working the soil with some hand-held tools. It might as well be the year 1700. From what we’ve seen so far, there is no evidence of modern farming equipment anywhere in this country. All the fields seem to be worked by hand, with the occasional ox helping out.

The transport system is made up of old women and men, who carry giant bushels of various crops on their backs in bundles twice their size. Sometimes we see them coming down the mountain trail behind Hanaq Pacha, hunched over beneath their giant burden. Mama Kia told me it was an 8-hour hike to the first plateau village. I am amazed at the hardships Peruvians in the Sacred Valley endure. In so many ways, time has stood still here. Though they have roads, few people have cars. The highway is completely empty except for tour busses and the occasional taxi. Private cars are few and far between. Cellphones seem to be the only ubiquitous sign of the modern age.

The day at Casa de Milagros was a lot of fun. We played with the kids. jaycee taught the girls belly dancing. She’s one sexy woman. Hubba hubba.

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We took a slow horseback ride through the valley with Cindy and Dana. Cindy told me the harrowing story of the loft apartment she and her family had moved in to three years ago, that had slowly driven them all sick and crazy from mercury poisoning. What a nightmare.

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SOUNDTRACK // CASA DE MILAGROS: Radiohead “Weird Fishes”

This song, my favorite from their new album, has been in my head since I woke up.

By the end of the day I was feeling like crap. Despite putting both 30 and 45 sun block on my neck and arms, the slow horse ride through the valley had fried me like bacon. I was felling a bit heat strokey. The cold I had brought from New York was also getting worse. The combination of the two was knocking me out. I skipped that evening’s yoga sessions and went straight to bed after dinner.

I was starting to worry about my health and my stamina. Mama Kia had warned us the first day that the altitude could really do a number on us. Catching pneumonia was common at this altitude. Even a regular cold may be impossible to get rid of for us sensitive sea-level suckers. I just had to hold on until we got through Machu Picchu. I had come too far to be bed-ridden and miserable.

DIA CINCO // PISAQ

I keep waking up at the crack of dawn to write this journal. With this stupid cold I have, I should probably be sleeping, trying to get better. I keep thinking of that line from the beginning of “Apocalypse Now” – “every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger.” Every minute I wake up at the crack of dawn to write this dumb journal, I get weaker.

Day five was reserved for shopping in the bustling market of Pisaq, the largest nearby town. We voted to get dropped off at the ruins high above Pisaq, then hike down the mountain to finish the rest of the afternoon in a shopping frenzy. A few ambitious souls chose to hike UP the mountain, then catch a taxi back down to the market.

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The hike through the Pisaq ruins was, again, breathtaking. As we carefully negotiated the narrow dirt paths that wind around the mountain, grand vistas awaited us around almost every corner. One wrong step and you would tumble down a 70 degree cactus infested incline to certain death, or at the very least, a very very bad day.

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The Incan ruins were much like those of Ollantaytambo. Huge dark granite stones that fit together perfectly. Buildings with low doorways. Niches set in to many of the walls. Almost everything Incan seems to be built on particularly considered axis. They were very in tune with both the cosmos and the surrounding mountains. The stepped terraces are my favorite. Long sections of grass that follow every contour of the mountain. There is something oddly satisfying about walking on a stone-encased slab of earth that has been there for almost a thousand years.

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All these ancient ruins have got me thinking about how we interpret them and experience them. I am really not sure why we interpret ruins as being, for lack of a better word, “magical”. That is unquestionably the prevailing sentiment.

Earlier in this journal, I mocked my fellow New Yorkers for declaring Peru to be a magical place, yet I now must admit I can find no better word to describe it. Must be social conditioning by myths and legends and fairy tales that creates this association with abandoned structures. I remember feeling the same way in Angkor Wat. There’s just something about being in a location of grand antiquity that enchants the mind. Maybe the difference between myself and my fellow travelers is that I recognize the impression of magic without actually believing in the supernatural. But maybe (probably) I’m just being an asshole, and at the end of the day, there really is on difference.

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By the time we reached the bottom of the mountain, I was weak and feeling like I should have stayed home. My head was starting to pound and I was blowing my nose about every five minutes. No rest for the sick in Peru. Millions of presents to buy and only four or five hours to do so. I couldn’t leave it all to Anne. I kept thinking of the time my Dad took met o Hawaii as a kid. He caught some tropical bug and was as sick as I had ever seen anyone, yet he dragged me all over the island to every volcano and black sand beach. If he could do it for his punk-ass kid, I can do it for my punk-ass wife, so I trudged onward in tothe dizzying tourist vortex that is the Pisaq market.

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A tarp covered alley of craft-filled tables begins at the very base of the mountain trail, at the outskirts of town. This corridor of commerce slowly sucks you in, blanket after blanket, scarf after scarf, until you reach the belly of the beast: the town square. An alpaca-mirrored funhouse from which there is no escape. Row after colorful row of THE EXACT SAME STUFF: Blankets. Scarves. Hats. Jewelry. bags. Dream catchers. Inka Cola T shirts. Machu Pichu hats. And on and on and on. After a while you have no idea where you are or what you’ve already seen. You have no sense of direction because every row looks exactly the same.

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By the day’s end, I felt like death warmed over. I passed out on the bus and went straight to bed as soon as we got back. My head was pounding so hard, the only thing I could do was lay perfectly still for as long as possible. I imagined taking a giant razor sharp ice-cream scoop and gouging out the area over my left eye that was throbbing without mercy.

Tomorrow was the first day at Machu Picchu and things weren’t looking so hot for me.

UPDATE // 2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL

The Pinchbeck book continues to hold my interest. Part of me wishes he had focused solely on his psychedelic experiences, since that may be the most relevant info in my present situation. However, the bits and pieces of other people’s crazy theories that he does give you make for an interesting read, albeit a bit redundant at times.

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) is one such character. He was an Austrian born thinker best known for creating Waldorf schools and bio-dynamic agriculture, the forerunner of organic farming. He was an editor and philosopher heavily influenced by Goethe. In his later years, he began promoting his own philosophy of “a ‘spiritual science’ as rigorously grounded as any of the natural or behavioral sciences, but based upon ‘supersensible perceptions’ attained through an evolution of our cognitive
capacities.”

Steiner, like Pinchbeck, believed the modern world had cut itself off from the realm of spiritual knowledge. He also made a case for thinking itself being just as real as physical matter. Pinchbeck states this clearer than I can:

“To separate thoughts from the ‘things in themselves, to alienate matter from mind, is already, always, and only, a thought – therefore it lacks intrinsic validity. Thinking is an aspect of reality – as much a part of the world as any physical object or process – and cannot be amputated from it.”

This notion intrigues me. as it directly contradicts my perception of reality. However warped and simplistic, there is a somewhat undeniable logic to it.

DIA SIES // MACHU PICCHU

Monday morning. The previous night’s skull-splitting headache is mostly gone, and I convince myself that I feel well enough to travel.

We have an early breakfast and leave on the bus by 7am. We drove back to Ollantaytambo, where we were to catch the train to Agua Calientes, the one and only town that provides access to the site. Oddly enough, there are no roads leading there, just one railroad line. Unless you want to hike up and over the mountains for three or four days on the Inca trail, all visitors must take this hour and half train ride, following the Urubamba river down a canyon towards Machu Picchu.

The train ride was beautiful. The valley descends Northwest, with staggeringly steep mountains on both sides. By the time you reach the town of Agua Calientes, you are about another 2000 feet lower than where you started. The climate is also radically different. The barren, desert mountains of the sacred valley are now replaced with lush, thickly forested peaks that look more like giant, sharp, green teeth turned upside down. Everything is very very green, and a canopy of white and grey clouds hang over the entire region, obscuring the tops of the mountains and giving the impression that it might rain at a moment’s notice.

Agua Calientes is a tiny village created solely for the tourist trade that has grown exponentially since the site was first opened in the latter half of the 20th century. The town is ugly and bland, and looks more like a movie set than a real town. Nevertheless, there is a real advantage to staying here, as over half the visitors to Machu Picchu are day-trippers from Cuzco. The day-trippers don’t get there until about noon, and they leave by about 3pm to make it back to Cuzco for dinner, so the site is relatively empty in the morning and late afternoon.

Our plan was to check in to a hotel for two nights. See the site for the remainder of the first day, then get up at the crack of dawn on day two to really get a full day in.

We arrived in Agua Calientes about 10:30. After settling in and getting a little food, we met up at the bus station for the ascent.

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Cucho, the local shaman, met us at the busses with Mama Kia. He was to be our spiritual tour guide for the next two days. I had no idea what a real shaman wold look like, though I think somewhere in my head I was picturing something grotesquely cartoonish out of Scooby Doo.

Cucho is small, stocky man with a weathered face the color of deep chocolate. He carries an old walking stick. He radiates a calm serenity that exudes wisdom and gives you the impression he has been simply roaming the earth for the last thousand years. He has a warm, controlled smile. Very soft eyes. Just about everything about this mutha fucka’s demeanor reminds you of Yoda.

When I say he was to be our spiritual tour guide, I mean just that. Not only was he there to administer day two’s San Pedro plant medicine ceremony, but he was also going to act as our tour guide, showing us the ruins of Machu Picchu from a spiritual, personal perspective. Spiritual guide and tour guide. There would be no separating the two.

We took the bus up the zig-zagging mountain road and arrived at the site around noon. Cucho lead us up the entrance path, but asked us to stop short of the clearing where Machi Picchu first comes in to view. We stood in single file and listened to Cucho as he gave us instructions for the day. He told to respect not only the stones and the ground, but also the spirits who dwell within the mountain. He asked us to be as silent as possible throughout the day.

He poured a little flowery, alcoholic tonic on our hands as a cleansing ritual. We then closed our eyes as we slowly shuffled our way up the rest of the path to the entrance. The urge to peek was hard to resist, but I decided to trust this little Peruvian Yoda.

Walking up there with eyes closed, as groups of chattering tourists passed us on our right, was quite a sensory experience. I was keenly aware of each stone under my feet and the accent of each passing tourist. It was exciting.

The path eventually leveled out. Cucho told us to stop, face to our right, and slowly open our eyes. The view was so staggering, I basically burst in to tears for a few seconds. Words cannot describe the shock and awe of the view before us. We were not even facing the ruins of Machu Picchu. We were standing on the edge of a cliff, facing the GIGANTIC chasm below. It was as if you blinked, and all of a sudden you found yourself thrust straight up in to the clouds, thousands of feet in the air. We were facing Northeast, looking out over the giant valley we had just ascended from. You really felt like you were at the top of the world. It was astonishing. What a way to begin.

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Cucho lead us forward to the first of seven giant boulders that the Incas left in place when they built the site. It was a large, flat, sloping stone big enough for all 20 of us to sit on. We sat in complete silence and took in the full view of Machu Picchu. I don’t know exactly what it is about an ancient lost city at the top of the Andes, but I can say with utmost certainty that was one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen.

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Cucho talked a lot about “the energy vortex” created by the positioning of the city directly between two opposing mountain tops, Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. Viewing it from above, you can really see what he’s talking about. The buildings and terraces wrap around the oval-shaped mountain plateau, swirling inward.

After we had soaked in the view and taken a few group photos, Cucho lead us to a remote high terrace on the Southwestern side, far away from any other tourists. Again, we sat in total silence, gazing at the ruins for a long time.

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I must admit, prior to our arrival I had some reservations about seeing Machu Picchu with such a large group. Yet everyone was so quiet and respectful, it was no issue whatsoever. In fact, it was strangely comforting.

Before we could begin, Los Apus, the mountain spirits, needed an offering. Cucho lit a large hand rolled tobacco cigarette, and went down the line, blowing a big cloud of smoke on to each person’s head one by one. Then we all stood up and received a small bundle of Coca leaves, stuck together with a little smudge of what looked like animal fat of some sort. Cucho said a long prayer in Quechua, the Andean dialect, then told us to turn around and face the mountain. He instructed us to make our own personal prayer to the mountain spirits, asking for permission to be there, asking for their spiritual guidance in our own lives, or to help someone we loved. Having not prayed since I was about six years old, I had no idea what to ask for. Determined to put my skepticism aside and give myself to the experience fully, I made a silent prayer for my sister Sheelagh, who had an intensely hard year.

Once the ritual was complete, we stepped forward one by one and pushed our bundle of coca leaves into the side of the terrace between the rocks and moss. I must admit, pushing my fingers into the dirt of Machu Picchu had a profoundly connective effect.

Quechua has been spoken in this part of the world for as long as anyone can remember. Most highland people throughout Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia speak a variation of Quechua, as well as spanish. The Inca actually chose Quechua as their native language in order to more easily expand their empire throughout the region. It definitely bears a resemblance to the Navajo language, Diné.

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Once given permission from the spirits, we set out into the ruins. The stonework is impressive wherever you look. The water irrigation system was especially cool, with little canals and run-offs directing streams of mountain water throughout the site. Many of the doorways were situated to align with one or both of the mountain peaks. Many of the windows are situated so the sun only shines directly through on a particular solstice.

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Cucho brought us in to the Temple of the Condors to, as promised, call in the condors. I had envisioned this event to be Cucho standing on the highest peak, reciting and incantation in Quechua that would summon giant condors from the four corners of the earth, all gliding in with marvelous majesty to come to rest at Cucho’s feet in allegiance to their shaman master. Instead, we crouched down in the dirt inside a small cave.

We softly chanted “cccoooooooooonnnnnnnnnddddddddoooooorrrrrrrrrrrrr”.

four times. This was most disappointing. No condors bothered to heed our pathetic call. Oh well.

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It was a beautifully hot and sunny day. The view of the mountains in any direction was impressive. We covered about two thirds of the site before the guards kicked us out at around 5:30pm. By the time we left, we were some of the last people there. The entire day was nothing short of enchanting. I’m pretty confident everyone else in our group felt the same way.

By the day’s end, I was feeling pretty run down by my cold, but my headache was under control. I think the 2000 foot drop in elevation exiting Machu Picchu really helped my head.

We had a great meal that evening at a French Peruvian joint called La Feliz Indio. We were instructed by Alison to steer clear of meat, sugar, citrus, caffeine, and alcohol in preparation for Tuesday’s san pedro plant medicine ceremony. We spent most of dinner getting to know some of the people in our group.

DIA SIETE // MACHU PICCHU // SAN PEDRO

We caught the very first round of busses at 6am the next morning. The plan was to see the remainder of the site before finding a secluded spot for the san pedro ceremony. I was a bit wary of ingesting a psychedelic plant while under the dark cloud of my ever-worsening cold, but I simply had to seize the day. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and being with experienced practitioners of plant medicine felt about as safe of circumstances as one could hope for.

When we got up to the site it was raining pretty hard, and the ruins were enshrouded in a thick fog. The fog added drama. It was very cool.

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By about 9:30 we began searching the southern upper terraces for a good spot. Cucho knew many of the guards personally, and was planning on bribing one of them to secure a safe spot for us, but it was not to be. None of his friends were on duty in that area on this particular day. Plan B was to climb up Machu Picchu, the mountain, and find a spot way up high somewhere.

The stone staircase was incredibly steep, and flanked by thick jungle slopes on both sides. It was so steep that, at times, the stairs were more like a stone ladder. It felt like the stairway to Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Even on this, day seven in Peru, breathing was exhausting. The group was on the brink of collapse and it was still morning. Just when we could go no further, Cucho found a tiny, rocky plateau in a clearing to the left of the stairway.

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The view of Machu Picchu and the entire valley below was spectacular. We quickly settled in and let Cucho get to work preparing the ceremony. By this time, the rain had stopped and the low clouds were dissipating, allowing the halogen sun to break through and start slowly baking all of us.

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Cucho kneeled on the ground and set out the tools of his trade, sketched poorly below.

Cucho kneeled over his instruments and prayed in Quechua. He lit another hand-rolled tobacco cigarette and blew smoke on all of his items. He put coca leaves to his mouth and blew through them loudly, outstretching his arm in a dramatic swinging gesture towards the mountain. He beat out a rhythm on his drum and began to chant. We all sat silent on the ground during the ritual. After about a half hour, he announced he was ready. I was chosen to drink first since I was sitting closest to him. Yikes.

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Cucho handed me a heavy dark brown ceramic cup filled with the bright-olive-green liquid. I gave Alison one last look as if to say “are you SURE I should go first?” She just stared back at me and smiled. I held my breath and drank the whole thing in one long gulp. It was extremely bitter, but I kept it down. Everyone was staring at me with fixed anxiety to see how I would react. This was the perfect opportunity for a comedic goof of some sort, but I resisted, as this was a sacred religious ceremony, after all, and maybe not the best time for gags.

Cucho filled the cup nineteen times and all nineteen of us drank; even Mama Kia, who must be at least 60. Then we waited. We sat in silence, gazing down at tiny Machu PIcchu below, and we waited. Waited for the arrival of the unknown.

After about an hour, Cucho started slowly shaking his rattle. “Ch ch ch ch ch ch ch”. The medicine was slowly taking hold, one by one. Grins were getting wider. Eyes were closing.

Still, most of us still felt nothing. The men, in particular. Edward, a giant of a man in a heavy, blue, hooded sweatshirt, made his way over to Cucho. “Mas?” he asked. Cucho smiled and nodded his head. He prepared another cup and offered more to each of us, if we wanted.

Psychedelics are a slippery slope. Once taken, you cannot un-take them. A bad experience can feel like an eternity. Still, I may never be here again. I looked around the group for some silent advice in the eyes of compatriots. I locked eyes with sexy-ass Liz Penta. “Do it, Julian!” she lip-synched, seductively. a beautiful woman whispering “do it” was all the encouragement I needed.

Two hours in, the girls were in full swing, giggling uncontrollably to each other about whatever came out of their mouths. It was also getting really HOT. Something was going on in my head, but it was very subtle. Colors did seem a bit more vivid, and occasionally my vision would go a bit strange, slight shift in depth perception or something, but no big deal. Edward drank a third cup. I was tempted to join him, but I decided to wait.

Mama Kia, out of nowhere, blurts out “Look! There’s a rainbow around the sun!”

Everybody looked up and, sure enough, there was a big, fat rainbow in a perfect circle around the blazing sun. This was a sign. Cucho picked up his drum and started slowly chanting to a simple rhythm. Mama Kia began singing Cherokee songs her grandmother had taught her. Others picked up on the lyrics and joined in. I was really bored and really not feeling the white girl summer camp music.

Three hours in, all but a few were clearly under the spell of the medicine. Rather than a solemn religious ceremony, we had all broken up in to little clusters of giggling women all up and down the stone stairs. Pretty much identical to any other group psychedelic experience I’ve ever had. Jaycee and Shawn seemed locked in an intense telepathic conversation. Anne and Alison laid on the rocks, staring out at Machu Picchu, playing with each other’s hair. I laid in the dirt next to Cucho’s ceremonial blanket and watched ants crawl along the edge of a black condor feather. I was again reminded of “Apocalypse Now” – Marlon Brando’s cryptic radio message: “I watched a snail crawling along the edge… of a straight… razor. This is my dream…”.

Paying attention to the tiniest details in nature is a sure-fire sign that you are in some kind of altered state. But you feel less like an observer, and more like you yourself are part of this greater whole. It was clear my San Pedro trip had begun, but it was so slight, to the point that I could disengage from it at will. I was hoping for something more profound.

I decided to go for a little walk. I slipped past the various groups of women on the stairs and made my way up the mountain path a bit. I reached another plateau that wound around the other side of the ridge, revealing an entirely new grand Southeastern vista to admire. Edward soon joined me.

“I don’t know about you” I said “but this stuff does almost nothing for me. How’s three cups treating you?”
“It’s subtle” he replied “you have to really pay attention, or you might miss it”.
We both agreed we had been expecting more.

We sat on the ground in a small patch of shade and talked about our lives back home. Edward was 44 and had grown up in the Bronx and White Plains. He was a social worker helping runaway teenagers in Woodstock. He said there was kind of a shortage of runaways up there, so we wasn’t necessarily too busy.

During our 45-minute conversation, I picked up a single leaf and dissected the entire thing, vein by vein. The intricacy of its structure was extremely impressive. I talked openly about my lack of faith and reservations about much of the spiritual mumbo jumbo of the last seven days. Edward told me his two brothers were physicists and they shared my skepticism. He told me he too was on the fence about some of what we had been hearing back at Hanaq Pacha, but it didn’t seem to really concern him. He wasn’t really that in to yoga, but Qi Gong had really changed his life and helped him overcome a lot of obstacles.

A large, sweaty Australian man came slowly lumbering down the stairs, grunting loudly and breathing heavily with each painful, precarious step. He looked like he was WAY out of his element, and that he might keel over dead at any moment. He told us he was a world-renowned orchid expert and he had spent the morning on the top of Machu Picchu photographing a rare red orchid that only grew on this one particular mountain. Next he would be traveling to Lima to judge an orchid competition. He chatted to us for a bit too long and then continued his painful descent down the path.

We ran in to Shawn, Jaycee, and a few others further down the mountain. This was Shawn’s first psychedelic experience of any kind. He was holding a large white Calla Lilly and telling anybody that would listen “This is My Mom. I’d like you to meet my Mom”.
“How do you do, Sean’s Mom” we all replied
“You’re looking lovely today” I added, which she was.

Then, out of nowhere, the san pedro made a surprising and dramatic entrance inside my head.

My vision started to vibrate, and everything went weird. I looked out over the valley. The opposing mountains lurched forward, within an inch of my face. “WHOA!” I exclaimed, doing my best Keanu Reaves.

It was very much like that camera aperture effect they do in movies, where the foreground gets nearer while the backgrounds stretches far away in the other direction. It was like that, but at a million miles per second. No matter where I looked, this was happening. My eyes had switched to some extreme close-up mode, leaping great distances in an instant. Another “WHOA!” was all I could muster.

My whole body was surging and my head was reeling. “Drink some water, lie back down, and ride this out” I thought. There was no turning back.

I could do nothing but look up at the clouds. Closing my eyes seemed like a bad idea, so that was out. The sky was incredibly active. Multiple layers of clouds moving at different speeds. Moving in different directions. I gasped in amazement as dark black clouds formed right in front of me in what I was certain was some kind of magical time-lapsed acceleration.

When I could remember where my hand was, I would slide my sunglasses down off my nose to check and make sure I wasn’t hallucinating the whole cloud thing. I was not, but my sense of time and space was acutely warped, to say the least, but I was not scared.

Every time I looked down at the Machu Picchu ruins, the opposing mountain, Wayna Picchu, looked either much closer or much further away than the last time I checked. This phenomenon became quite amusing, and I kept looking back to catch the mountain in mid-shift. I was never fast enough. Cucho and Mama Kia began singing some more songs. I couldn’t deal. I decided that, if I could stand, I would go for another walk.

My balance was a bit off, but I decided I could handle it. I staggered up the stairs, past Cindy and Edward’s girlfriend, Rachel.
“See if you can find Edward” Cindy Said “He’s MIA”.
“I’m not worried” Rachel interjected “He’s around. I can feel him”.

When I reached the upper plateau, there was no trace of Edward. He was on three cups of this stuff.
“Crazy bastard must have climbed to the top” I thought, immediately followed by “That would be AWESOME! I should do that!”
Then I remembered I could barely walk and I had no water.
“Don’t be an idiot. You can barely walk and you have no water.” I scolded myself.
I went back down towards the lower plateau to sit down.

The peak had passed. My vision was still funky and highly entertaining, but nothing alarming. When I got back, there was a new person, a stranger, lying on his back, sunning himself in silence. He looked slightly sunburnt and his lips were dry and cracked.
“Meet our French friend!” Alison said casually as she walked past me.
He looked up and nodded. He was very petite and elf-like.
“He just appeared out of nowhere” Liz Said “Somebody told him it was only twenty minutes to the top. He’s also has no water”.
She seemed to be watching over him.
I sat next to him for a few minutes, but he was really weirding me out. He had these strange blue metallic earings that reminded me of a devil’s tail. I couldn’t deal. I had to move. I went back upstairs and joined a cluster of gigglers. I asked everybody what the deal was with the Frenchman.
“I don’t know” Alison replied “But he’s got a real ‘drug energy’ about him, and it’s just weird”.

An interesting choice of words given that we were all in the throes of a san pedro trip, yet it illustrates how differently Alison and most plant medicine enthusiasts view this stuff. This is not a drug to them in any way. It is a gift from nature. A gift from God. A 50-thousand year old spiritual sacrament that has nothing whatsoever to do with recreational drugs. The Peruvian authorities would agree. Both san pedro and ayahuasca are legal in Peru. The only country in the world where this is so. Alison doesn’t even drink alcohol, much less smoke weed. Virtually everybody whom I have ever met who consumes plant medicine feels the same way. I was still on the fence.

In truth, the effect the medicine had on us was to make us laugh a lot, communicate openly and freely, feel intensely in tune with nature, and feel a strong kinship for one another. This is really no different than many other drugs. I was hoping for something deeper, but I was over-thinking it. I too felt wonderfully in tune with nature, the mountain spirits, and Machu Picchu herself. This was a wonderful feeling, and a magical day, and it was best not to fight it.

Around 3pm, the decision was made to pack up and move back down the mountain for one last look at the ruins. Two members of the group were now missing: Edward and Shawn. Three people agreed to wait behind until they return from the summit.

Just as we were all packed up, Edward appeared. He was clearly deep in to his trip. The san pedro must have struck him late in the day like it did me. He looked extremely blissed out.
“Edward, how far is it to the top” someone asked.
Edward peered out from underneath his hooded sweatshirt, and paused before speaking very softly.
“In steps…………..or in time?” he asked with a mysterious grin on his face. “don’t ask me……..” he continued “I have no concept of either”.

Though still heavily engaged by the san pedro myself, I was now quite capable of walking down. When Anne and I reached the upper terraces at the foot of the stairs, we found Mama Kia, Cucho, and the rest of the group laying flat on their backs laughing hysterically. Something about llama pooh. Anne joined them in the grass.

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I spent my last half hour in the ruins alone, running around the terraces, doing these crazy ninja leaps from upper to lower terraces. I was in no danger of falling off the mountain, I made sure of that. I was ecstatic. It was insanely fun. In addition, after a whole day at Machu Picchu, under the influence of san pedro, I felt very much like Machu Picchu was a dear old friend of mine. This feeling was nothing short of pure love. I also had Led Zeppelin‘s “Ramble On” stuck in my head, which kicked ass, and was the perfect soundtrack for my ninja moves.

We caught a bus back down the mountain around 4:30. The san pedro didn’t wear off until well after I had gone to sleep, clocking in at over twelve hours.

DIA OCHO // NEWS FROM HOME

Before we caught the train home, we received some awful news. Amy Pete’s mother had passed the previous night. Amy was distraught, but holding it together rather well, considering. This cast a somber mood over the group, as we had all been heavily bonding over the last eight days. The san pedro day had really sealed the deal. Those who knew Amy the best did what they could to console her as we headed for the train station.

We spent the next three days back at Hanaq Pacha doing as little as possible. Massages from Anton and Coca tea leaf readings from a local woman, whose psychic abilities Mama Kia absolutely swore by. I wrote heavily in my journal, trying to record all of this while it is still fresh.

Thursday night we had heart-wrenching memorial service for Amy’s mother. We did a silent hike up to the waterfall at sunset. We stood in a circle holding hands. The compassion displayed by everybody was almost overwhelming. Amy and her partner Jay caught a 4:30am taxi to the airport that night.

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DIA DIEZ // WE’RE GOING IN

This was the ayahuasca day. I was growing more and more anxious as the day progressed. I tried to glean some guidance from Alison and Mama Kia during the afternoon, but I found their words to be of little comfort.

“Your bucket will be your best friend” Mama Kia told me (in all seriousness). She was referring to the bucket each participant is given to vomit in, since purging is part of the process most go through. Vomiting, as it so happens, was my biggest fear. I thought it would give me a pounding headache, which would, in turn, ensure me and incredibly bad trip.

“Just ask the medicine for guidance” Alison told me (in all seriousness). “Ask it for a peaceful journey and it might just grant you one”.
“But what if I bug out?” I asked anxiously. “What if I just need to get the fuck out of there?”
“You just don’t” she instructed. “You go back in there, and you sit down, and you deal with the underlying reasons in your nature that make you unable to sit still. It’s all about confronting your own issues. But again, ask it questions, and it will guide you.”

The concept of conversing with an Amazonian vine/leaf synthesis was difficult to wrap my head around. I also knew worrying about it all day would only increase the likelihood of a bad experience. I resigned myself to trust in Alison’s infinite wisdom and follow her advice to the letter,skeptical brain be damned. After all, she knew a lot more about this than me, and she hadn’t steered me wrong yet. At this point, I fully trusted this kooky hippy.

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AYAHUASCA // BEYOND THE INFINITE

Ayahuasca has two components: The Banisteriopsis Caapi vine, containing beta-carbolines, and the Chacruna leaf, loaded with DMT. The vine is thick and brown. It is often made up of two twisting strands. Many believers insist the similarity to the double-helix of a human DNA strand is far from coincidence. The vine is scraped and pounded in to a pulp, then brewed with the leaves in a 15-hour reduction process that yields a thick green liquid. The experience of drinking ayahuasca was once described thusly:

Load universe in to cannon.

Aim at brain.

Fire.

How the two work together is truly fascinating to me. The human body contains an enzyme, Monoamine oxidase type A, that specifically blocks the body from absorbing certain tryptamines (aka hallucinogens) like DMT. It would seem that this is a defense mechanism to prevent you from going crazy from an accidental dosage of DMT. The caapi vine contains a beta-carboline which blocks the MAO enzyme, allowing the DMT to become active through ingestion. How some Amazonian shamans in loin cloths 50,000 years ago figured this out, is beyond me. I kept imagining that Reese’s peanut butter cup commercial. Two guys walking through the village. They run in to each other.
Amazonian villager #1: “HEY! you got your stupid caapi vine pulp in my chacruna leaf soup!”
Amazonian villager #2: “HEY! You got your chacruna leaf soup all over my caapi vine pulp!”
And so forth.

Peruvians believe it was no such accident, but rather divine intervention. They believe it is the doorway to the spirit world, given to them as a gift by God. Which begs the question: why would God give you both the enzyme to block DMT, and the means to circumvent it? What exactly was he thinking?

Just after sunset our shaman arrived. We assembled in the main house for him to instruct us, and for us to ask him any questions about the ceremony. He came in with his wife, their 4-year old son, and his entourage – a grow p of psychedelic tourists participating in ayahuasaca ceremonies every other night in an intense four- ceremony cycle. We gathered around the table by candle light and waited for Diego the shaman to speak.

Diego cast a spell on us from the minute he entered the room. He was intensely handsome. At six foot three, undoubtedly the tallest Peruvian I have ever seen. His head was shaved. He wore loose fitting robe-like clothes. A large strand of beads hung around his neck. His demeanor was utterly serene, & he had a presence about him that unquestionably whispered “holy man”.

In a gentle, soothing voice, Diego gave us our instructions for the ceremony. It was to last five hours and take place in complete darkness. We were to sit in a circle and remain upright so as to keep the integrity of the ceremony. We were to observe “a noble silence”, and refrain from making any noise whatsoever (other than puking, of course). He explained that the purging was simply the medicine expelling fear and negative energy, and that it was a good thing. He urged us to abandon our previous associations with sickness and pain. He assured us that nobody had ever died from drinking ayahuasca, nor had anybody ever gone crazy (I guess he never read the Pinchbeck book). He told us that God had put these plants on the earth for us to learn from them. To enlighten us and connect us to the spirit world. He told us there would be music, and singing along was permitted. He advised that we listen to the music and let it lift us up and guide our journey. He encouraged us to focus on our breathing. Most importantly, we must surrender to to the medicine.

Surrender. This is a notion I had never truly embraced in my life.

The temple had been carefully prepared by all of us during the day. Thin mattresses, pillows, and thick wool blankets were all placed around the perimeter. A simple altar of a blanket, flowers, two different Buddha statues, and 2 candles was placed in the center of the room. Each person had a bottle of water and their new best friend, their puke bucket. Most of our group sat on one side of the room, opposite Diego and the newcomers. Diego kneeled and laid out his own ceremonial work station as we took our seats. It looked something like this:

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When everyone was seated and ready, Diego began a complex blessing of the space, speaking in Quechua. He was acknowledging mother earth, the sun, the moon, the sky, the jungle, and all the ancestral spirits. He also used coca leaves, blowing in them dramatically, the same way Cucho had done at Machu Picchu. Once the blessing was complete, he poured the first cup of ayahuasca from a clear plastic bottle and drank. One by one, each person walked over and knelt before him silently. We each held the heavy stone cup, made a silent prayer, then drank. As per Alison’s instructions, I asked for a peaceful and enlightening journey.

Diego blew out the candles. We sat in the dark, closed our eyes, and waited.

Within twenty minutes, I began to sense a subtle surge in my body. I began meditating on a mantra.
“I WANT A PEACEFUL AND ENLIGHTENING JOURNEY…I WANT A PEACEFUL AND ENLIGHTENING JOURNEY”
I was inhaling on the words “peaceful and enlightening” and exhaling on “journey. I want a…”.
I was addressing both my subconscious and the medicine. For some reason, I was fairly confident this two-pronged strategy was going to work.

Within two minutes, the subtle surge quickly progressed to rolling waves moving from my heart outwards. Each wave was rapidly disintegrating any sense of a physical body. It came on like a force so powerful and overwhelming, that I was utterly dumbfounded. It was an all-consuming, 360 degree assault of any and all reality. I had no point of reference for what was happening to me. I did know one thing: there was no fighting it. There was only complete and utter SURRENDER.
It was terrifying.
It was incredible.
It was wonderful.

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I had no physical being. I just WAS. The darkness in my mind filled with a million tiny colored dots. Like a black light poster of the entire universe. These dots soon took the form of long thin vines made up of thousands of points of light. Like neon glass beadwork of infinite detail and dimension. They zig-zagged in all directions, eventually becoming more like tentacles than vines. Yet I was not frightened in any way. I was simply in awe. Complete mind-blowing astonishment.

These neon fluorescent beaded tentacles soon re-formed as a cocoon all around me. It was almost as if I was inside a black light faberge egg of the most intricate spiral detail. All of a sudden I could sense a body again. Meaning: I had one. I could not, however, feel the floor or feel physically connected to the physical world. I could feel myself lifted off the ground, suspended in invisible liquid, floating on my back in sort of a fetal position. In writing all this down, it sounds pretty distinctly like a womb. Like rebirth. At the moment, however, such a finite concept was completely beyond my comprehension. Coherent thoughts and self-examination were out of the question. There was no ME. I was the medicine. I was liquid consciousness.

The fluorescent faberge egg womb felt safe. I believed the medicine was enveloping me for a reason. It was carrying me through this incredibly powerful mindfuck, protecting me.

How long this initial onslaught lasted, I have no idea. Maybe twenty minutes. Maybe an hour. Time was too abstract. However long it was, it was certainly the most intense period of time I have ever experienced.

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All of a sudden, a woman let out a load moan. My eyes ripped open. I was still in the temple. I still had a body. I was not floating in cosmic embryonic fluid. It was very dark, but I could make out subtle silhouettes with the little bit of ambient light coming through the windows.

Everyone was breathing very intensely. Several of the women on the opposite side of the room were now moaning. The medicine was overwhelming all of us. I was shocked that I could even be present in the moment at all. This was comforting.

The moans from the women were growing louder and extremely sexually arousing. I began feeling like the entire temple was involved in some ritualistic orgy. I immediately felt guilty for these thoughts. Diego would sense my impure thoughts. He would cast me out.

We were about an hour in. I closed my eyes and was instantly back in the fluorescent beaded tentacle universe.

The fluorescent tentacles swirled all around me. I heard the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The tentacles reformed as tree branches covered in leaves. My sexual depravity vanished, and I was instantly being cradled in jungle treetops. An infinite number of layers of fluorescent branches above and below. We were swaying in the wind, the trees and I. It was wonderful.

EDIT: When the movie Avatar came out several years later, I was astonished. The black light avatar jungle looked exactly like my ayahuasca jungle.

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Diego began singing a song. The clarity of his voice and the beauty of his playing was incredibly soothing. He was singing in quechua. I heard many in the room let out a sigh of relief. The silence that had lasted an eternity, was now broken.

I suddenly felt an up-swell in my stomach. I lurched forward and vomited in to my bucket. It caught me by total surprise. Thankfully, not much came out, as we were all instructed to fast after breakfast for the remainder of the day. I ran another mantra through my head:
EXPEL FEAR
EXPEL DOUBT
EXPEL FEAR
EXPEL DOUBT
The puking was instantly painless. It was cathartic. I felt great. I rinsed my mouth out with water, sat back against the wall, and resumed the journey inward.

Diego kept playing and singing. His voice was angelic. I floated through the trees in complete rapture. I cannot describe what a lifesaver the music now was. Not only did it give structure to the chaos, but it was also, quite simply, the sound of pure love.

I excused myself from the temple for a brief moment. The night air felt magnificent. I was curious to see if my waking self would manifest the tentacles in the real world. Everything was, however, quite normal. I gazed up at the Southern sky. Crystal clear. Millions of bright stars. I laughed to myself. Something about being in complete oneness with the universe was hilarious.

When I came back in, Diego was singing another song with his wife. This was in Spanish. Diego sang song after song. In Quechua, in English, in Spanish, in Hebrew, in Sanskrit. Each song, more beautiful than the next. I followed his instructions. I let the music lift me up, and so it did.

I stared down in to the darkness of my lap. To my surprise, the tentacles re-appeared. It didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed. As long as there was pitch blackness, I could resume the visions.

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The visions came swiftly and transformed often. Abstract shapes formed tribal illustrations that became faces that became elephants that became Ganesh. Other times the tentacles just stayed completely abstract.

For the remainder of the ceremony, I simply drifted in and out. Lost in the dreamtime one minute, eyes open and listening to the music the next. Sitting in treetops with Tron-like neon Panda Bears one minute, struggling to catch up with Diego’s spanish lyrics the next.

Diego’s voice was the rock, We all clung to it. Occasionally he would take a break from the music - staying silent or reciting prayers in various languages. I was truly in awe of him. He was playing the guitar, singing, praying, doling out medicine. He was not mortal.

We were now deep in to the ceremony. There was no telling how long it had been. A lot of the women were openly sobbing in their own trips, eyes closed. This was not at all disconcerting.

Liz Penta, who had left us early that morning, appeared to me as a snake. A big brown snake swimming in slow motion in the temple. Later she was back to her mortal self, standing outside looking through the temple window. Watching and smiling. Some visions, like that one, were now mini-dreams, rendered in full color and not necessarily constructed from fluorescent beaded black light tentacles.

From time to time, Mama Kia would join Diego and his wife in the singing. The lyrics to all of this music, no matter what the language, was all on the same message. Love. God. Brotherhood. Spirits. Ayahuasca. One world. One people. One with the universe. Normally, New York cynical atheist Julian has a low tolerance for such simplistic suckerdom. As you might guess, while floating through the neon rain forest communing with the spirits of the mountains, it was a wonderfully uplifting message that seemed intuitively obvious.

A few other shadowy figures drank more ayahuasca. Edward drank a third cup. Occasionally Diego would flash a match while serving someone a cup. I would catch a split second glimpse of Edward in full bug out – rocking back and forth furiously. Once he was raising his arms overhead, sort of cheering in slow motion. Like everything else, it made me smile.

And so it went. On and on. For hours. For me, almost any thought that appeared in my head could be manifested as a full blown vision. I didn’t necessarily have control of exactly how it appeared or for exactly how long it stuck around, but it didn’t matter. It was all so damn fascinating. Roger dean album covers. A black light vertical canyon of colored lightning. I was transported to the desert by Cherokee hymns. I was sucked back to the temple. I saw a black light Virgin Mary. My knees became Wayna Picchu. My torso, Machu Picchu. The vortex of the ruins swirled in my lap.

As the ceremony wore on, the intensity of the medicine wore off. I started to be able to form cohesive thoughts. I tried to mentally record what I had seen in the darkness. I wondered just how impossible it would be to accurately describe. Especially that first wave. Man, that was something else.

Just when I thought to myself “This needs to end soon”, Diego lit a single candle and announced that we had completed our journey. He recited a series of long, complex prayers in Quechua, Spanish and English. He smoked tobacco from a large pipe and blew the smoke on the center altar. The candlelight was such a relief. We had actually made it. The feeling was incredible.

I was absolutely thrilled. There was so much to process, words just seemed pointless. For a brief moment I laughed and cried a bit, simultaneously.

Most people stood up to stretch their legs and use the bathroom. Some scurried across the room to snuggle with friends. Several of the newcomers, who had brought their own sleeping bags, rolled over and went right to sleep.

I ran in to Edward out by the bathrooms. The stars were marvelous. We embraced like brothers. He was surprisingly coherent.
“If you don’t believe in God after that, I will kick your ass!” he joked (referring to our discussion about god and science at Machu Picchu).
“Yeah…um…not quite sure I guess” I replied. “It sure does present some interesting possibilities”.
This was all I could muster. It was too much to process.

I asked him about the three cups. He told me that as soon as Diego’s wife started singing a song about ayahuasca, he took that as a message from the medicine that he was meant to drink more. He was clearly still far more under it’s spell than the rest of us.

Diego, who was so intimidating and stoic before the ceremony, was now very relaxed and totally friendly. Anne, Edward, and I sat with him for awhile and asked him how he chose this path as shaman and intergalactic guru. He talked about his reverence for the medicine. He was clearly in awe of it. “So many thousands of years ago, how could the have known that, of all the plants in the jungle, these two would be such a powerful force?” he asked.

We got back to our tent around 3am. Still in a slightly altered state, but definitely ready for bed. I checked our watch and counted back the hours to figure out how long the ceremony had actually been. It clocked in at just over five hours. Five hours in complete darkness, on a journey inside your own brain. A textbook “out of body experience” – something I had always assumed was simply a myth.

Amazing.

I slept like a rock that night.

No apocalyptic dreams. No dreams at all. I think my mind was pretty much on empty.


The following morning was our last six hours at Hanaq Pacha. The group traded ayahuasca journey stories over a long breakfast and took one last walk around the garden.

Anne’s journey had been altogether different. She asked the medicine for guidance in her ever-changing, increasingly daunting professional life. The medicine took her on a journey where she visited every teacher who had ever impacted her life. She understood how these people had made her stronger and given her the tools to overcome the obstacles she faces. She came out of it more confident in her own abilities and intensely thankful for her teachers.

Anne honestly felt like there was a spiritual component to the experience that transcended the medicine. I felt like the DMT basically accessed the depths of my psyche and cracked it wide open, running a cosmic short film festival of every weird image buried in my head. We both agreed, whether mortal or immortal, the experience was wonderful.

In retrospect, I realized just asking for peace and enlightenment and been rather general and cautious. If there is ever a next time, I think I’d try to get into a more specific conversation with my subconscious. However, being so fucking powerful and all-consuming, I don’t really know if I would ever take that leap again.

We one more night in Cuzco before flying back to NYC.

The whole trip had really done a number on me. Not only the ayahuasca thing, but just being forced to confront my own prejudices and assumptions and self-absorbed hang-ups. If I can get all that from a 10-day vacation, I know I did something right. If you’re keeping a list of things to do before you die, Machu Picchu and ayahuasca might just need to make the cut. I bid you goodnight from the Sacred Valley.

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