Ayahuasca: Food for the Soul

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aya I first heard about ayahuasca some 17 years back when reading William Burrough’s “Yage Letters.”  Burroughs sought the vine, which originates from the Amazon rainforest, because it is reputed to be able to cure addiction (he was a lifelong heroin addict.)  The first time I came close to encountering the vine was last year in Salento, Colombia, where a coffee shop owner told me it had changed his life, saving him from a road leading to death.  I finally had the honor of encountering the vine these past two weekends in the desert, and I’d have to say that saying it’s life-changing would be an understatement. Psychedelics are a class among themselves.  Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years for divine healing purposes by inhabitants of the Amazon, and Terrence McKenna posited in Food of the Gods that ingestion of psilocybin mushrooms is what led to human evolution past the animal stage.  An experience with ayahuasca would have you start believing the validity of this theory. The first ceremony took place at midnight in a house in the desert.  Ayahuasca ceremonies are held at night because of the intensity of the visions and the fact that it creates extreme sensitivity to light.  Also, they are usually conducted by a shaman, an experienced sherpa of sorts that guides the process.  About a dozen and a half people attended, most of whom had experienced ayahuasca before. The active ingredient in ayahuasca is N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a compound naturally occurring in the plant kingdom and in humans as a neurotransmitter.  Normally, DMT is inactivated by stomach enzymes, but somewhere along the way in the Amazon they figured out how to brew it with another plant that contains an MAO inhibitor, which neutralizes those enzymes and allows DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier.  (For that reason those on antidepressants like SSRIs can’t take ayahuasca as the SSRI/MAOI combination can lead to serotonin syndrome, which is potentially fatal.)  Some postulate the fortuitous combination of those plants was divinely inspired. After reading multiple accounts about the foul taste of the resultant brew, I was surprised to see that its color and aroma most resembled that of – soy sauce.  In fact, before the vomiting started, I half-suspected that I’d traveled deep into the desert to experience elaborately served Kikkoman. The Peruvians call the ayahuasca experience “la purga” – the purge – because it causes people to violently expel what’s within them.  However, the purge is considered beneficial because it rids you of toxins and purportedly, your demons.  Certainly, this is no ordinary retching.  Your whole body reacts violently to the concoction, and it does indeed feel cathartic.  After the horrific purging, I entered the ayahuasca universe. It is impossible to describe the experience in any way that would do it justice, much like telling someone the definition of wisdom would not make the listener wise.  I’m doing it because reading of others’ journeys helped me prepare, psychically and otherwise, even though no experience is like any others’.  Some that I journeyed with had very visual experiences; mine was emotional and spiritual.  I had specific questions about life and its purpose for me and my goals.  I was not prepared for the battle that awaited me. The ayahuasca ceremony has been described as ten years of psychotherapy completed in one grueling 8-hour sitting.  Sense of time distorts, lending credence to the idea that time is not linear.  Upon emerging from that world, I felt that I had been gone for years, fighting my demons.  I felt exhausted as I had done spiritual warfare. It is like you are placed in a higher plane, given the gift of insight and clarity that your normal quotidian thinking blocks.  I was shown a vision of my own death.  When I asked the Salento coffee shop owner how ayahuasca had saved his life, he told me that he had seen his own grave – and the spirit of ayahuasca had told him that if he continued on his current path, that’s where he would end up soon.  Visions of death with the vine are commonly reported, often as symbolic representations of the ego.  My vision, however, was my literal death- should I continue on my current  path. Then, suddenly, I had the power to write my own adventure.  It was just like those choose-your-own-adventure books of yore – you know, where you were confronted with a choice, and could turn to different pages, like page 44 – “You will die horribly and ignominiously.”  Bad choice.  Then you could go back, and make the other choice – page 131 – “You live out your days in glory and love.”  Better.  If only life were like that.  Ayahuasca, while I was in her world, gave me the power to see what my life would look like down the line, were I to continue some of the self-destructive patterns in which I was engaging – and what life could be, were I to make different choices. More importantly – and more profoundly – I was able to see why indulging in those patterns was not only ludicrous, and destructive, but why I could easily walk away from such traps.  As a fellow voyager said after the experience – ayahuasca helps you resolve the state of conflict.  Oftentimes, your mind wants something that’s good for you – you want to eat healthier, etc. – but another part of you is in conflict (your body craves sugar, you want to indulge in emotional/depressive eating because you feel down, etc.) and so you don’t end up doing what you know is right.  In that universe – I was able to isolate the conflict, and resolve it.  As simple as it sounds – and answers to cognitive problems were as clear in this world as they were intractable in ours – the answer was love.  Love in the original Greek sense of agape, “spiritual love,” and not eros, “sensual love” – although this is a very sensual world, as well.  In fact, it is extremely easy to get distracted with the many visions – some quite erotic – that are presented.  But I had work to do. I felt the love around me, and I saw how those around me cared for me, but how I was blinded by my own barriers, my beefs with the world, and how my attitude and worldview changed the things and people I saw and actually created my own reality.  I saw the power of attitude in creating my own life and how I co-created my own reality.  I had visions of my own victory and success, and accomplishing the goals and dreams that I had that sometimes seemed so lofty – but were not if I saw my own talents clearly.  But I was also told that these things would not come to pass unless I made the right choices, and now that I knew what they were, I had no excuse to dally any longer.  The world – this universe – could be mine, were I to choose it to be so and to do what it took.  Much like the end of Scarface with the giant globe (“The World Is Yours.”)  Only without as many men with machine guns coming after me, hopefully. I played out so many scenarios I felt as I had lived many different lives at some point during the night – some tragic, some glorious.  I lived the different lives to which various actions lead.  And even though I felt like I’d been in that world for years, some part of me – the one that was in this dreamlike state – knew that time was running out.  I had three questions to answer, and I had to get through them before my time was up in this world. The experience was too dense to unpack right away.  But as the sun came up and that world faded away, I jotted down a couple dozen mantras, things that I had realized in that world – epiphanies that were life-changing.  Realizing, that word, seems to imply a sort of cognitive change.  This however, is more an emotional, a spiritual change.  Your spirit feels different.  You see the interrelatedness of life and beings.  It becomes clear how love is the best way.  You understand that you are rich and loved, and you already have within you the things that you want – if you so choose to accept them.  It can be an emotional journey – some people cry, many laugh – during the excursion. A week passed between my first journey and ayahuasca redux.  During that week, I went back to the normal world of work and profit.  The healing had begun.  I went through everything I owned and purged much of it, preparing my physical space for the fresh new projects I had planned.  In my time in the ayahuasca world, I had this overwhelming urge to just eat better, cleaner, greener.  The toxins had felt so horrible coming up, I just thought – wouldn’t it be easier to never take them in in the first place?  I felt better physically, and because I felt better physically, my emotional and psychological state improved.  I reincorporated working out and lost 7 pounds (maybe some of them were expelled demons – heavy, heavy demons.)  More realizations and epiphanies came as both my conscious and subconscious began to unpack the first experience. But halfway through the week, I grew anxious.  What if, I fretted, I forgot my epiphanies?  What if I didn’t get all my questions answered the first time?  What if I lapsed and forgot all the lessons learned?  I grew ever more anxious.  So I prepared a new list of questions for the vine.  This one was 7 times as long.  That’s right, 21 new questions for the oracle. The second time was in the desert, in the outdoors under the stars.  I promptly abandoned all my questions in the first 30 minutes.  The message that came to me was – my questions were a product of my rational mind.  An inquisitive, searching mind that wants to figure out the how and why of everything.  But the answers that I sought would not come from the rational mind that must compare, contrast, distinguish and label – it would come from consciousness.  I no longer wanted to spend this time with ayahuasca in my own head, fighting my mental demons.  I wanted to glory in the beauty of the universe. I looked in the sky, and I saw multitudes of universes.  Galaxies galore.  I looked within myself and saw whole worlds.  I felt what Walt Whitman meant he wrote “I contain multitudes“- David’s emotions in Psalm 23 when he wrote “my cup runneth over.”  The beauty of the world – the galaxy – overwhelmed me.  I marveled that I had ever felt down or disconnected from this beauty.  I knew there was nothing left to figure out.  There was the journey – which would be just as wondrous as I would allow it to be.  Most people will not allow that.  The mind wants to take over, the ego would like to boss you around and say you don’t deserve to be happy yet – but you are not their slave – unless you choose to be.  I decided I would no longer fight myself, nor the world, and get in the way of wondrous creation.  Another voyager next to me went through a physical battle – I could see that he quite literally was battling himself (his ego.)  Later, he told me he arrived at a wondrous place, where he communicated with beings telepathically, the shaman and his sister were in his vision (and he was in theirs), and it was a beautiful place, better than this world because there was no evil. The thing is, the ayahuasca universe is already here.  Once you’ve opened yourself to it, you can see it if you let it be.  Every culture, every way of being and civilization creates its reality, has its strengths and its blind spots.  For example, as powerful and healing as ayahuasca is, it has been outlawed in many places by a 1971 United Nations treaty, and the U.S. classifies DMT as a Schedule I drug, meaning it supposedly has no medicinal or therapeutic value.  Just for comparison, not even cocaine is considered a Schedule I drug.  Meanwhile, there are medical doctors – in Vancouver, for instance – that have used ayahuasca in Canada to successfully treat lifelong heroin addicts where Western “rehabilitation” and medicine have failed – that is, until one was sent a letter threatening him with imprisonment if he continued to heal people with ayahuasca.  How can a vine that has spontaneously cured depression – and has scientific basis in enhancing serotonin levels – essentially, acting as a natural antidepressant, but without the sexual side effects or weight gain – be highly illegal, while prescription antidepressants with a whole host of greatly undesirable effects – like suicidal ideation – be legal (and highly profitable?)  You signed up to cure depression, then you got suicide.  Maybe Terrence McKenna was on to something. After having experienced ayahuasca, I realize how much I don’t know.  But instead of being a downer, it’s inspiring.  It means there’s a whole new universe out there to explore. huasca

30-second #Morning #Beach #Meditation (la #luz, el #amor, el #renacimiento (al #amanecer)

“El me ha puesto a prueba, y he brillado como el oro”

When I have trouble discerning truth from lies, love from hate, I go to the beach before dawn for a run and meditate on the dawn rising from the ocean or the mountains.  Clarity never fails to come in this present moment. Now, this may be difficult for those of you trapped in your personal version of Office Space; that was me circa one month ago.  In those situations, remember of course to follow the TSP memo.  Your corporate overlords demand obeisance. I offer you 30 seconds on the beach, starting with the ocean and concluding with the dawn over the montanas, to bring clarity whenever it is needed.  This is always available, even when you are living on the 33rd floor of a high-rise Office Space.  My personal example:

Yesterday, I found love.  This morning, she left – but she hasn’t left me. She disarmed me, took away all my defenses.  I tried – I erected defenses, barriers, arguments, counterarguments, hostile takeover attempts and attacks. I pulled out all the stops.  I did what I do best – I litigated, I attempted to litigate my way out of love.  All she said was: “But I love you.”  In response to my counter: “For me, there is only you.”  To my defenses: “I just want to be with you.”  For my attacks: “You’re the first and the last.”  And to my skepticism: “I love you.” Y después de todo, después de todas las tácticas que utilizo para sabotear el amor cuando lo encuentro, me rendí, y lloré.  Ella me dijo: no llores.  Le dije, pero son lágrimas de alegría.  Ella sonrió y dijo, bueno.  Ahora podemos estar juntos.  Para siempre. Someone once said, we are afraid to be happy.  We are afraid to soar and be everything.  Sun Tzu said, victory is like soaring on the winds like an eagle.  It is not like an sparrow flapping frantically.  U2 put it like so: “No man is my enemy.  My own hands imprison me.  [Love rescue me]” Rumi said, “The door opens from within.”  I once wrote on my blog, Cabo to Rio (now offline), “Victory is within.”  Far be it from me to preach.  The thing, the people I’ve been most intolerant of, most ironically I believe, are judgmental people that push their values on others.  You have to decide things for yourself.  Once it was quoted to me: “It is your Father’s pleasure to give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” You only have to ask. Scary, isn’t it? [omnia vincit amor]

Alea Iacta Est: Harvard Gringo Country Guide, Thailand

Harvard Gringo Country Guide: Thailand

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Thailand in a word: fun.

After all, 22.3 million people can’t be wrong.  Well, they can, but in this case they’re not.  It is going to take some work to get off the gringo trail though.  If you just hang out on Khao San Road and Soi Ram Buttri – its perpendicular counterpart – you may get the impression that Thailand’s population is 50% grungy European, Israeli and Chinese backpackers, and 50% aggressive Thai hawkers.  It’s best if you get out of the cluster#### that is Bangkok ASAP to see the natural beauties of Thailand.  I’m going to operate on the same assumption behind the Harvard Gringo Country Guide to Colombia: that you travel to see natural destinations, not huge sprawling chaotic metropolises (watch Hangover 2 if you need to get a taste.)

harvard gringo thailand

Top Pick: Koh Chang (the easterly one, not the southern one)

How confusing is it to have two islands with the same exact name in the same country?  Well, the Thais don’t want you to have life too easy.  I had heard that the islands in the south were: 1) really far (overnight trains, 12+ hours of travel if not flying from Bangkok) and 2) super-expensive, overpopulated and jammed with tourists.  In fairness, I’ve never been, but I’ve seen places ruined with sheer numbers of visitors, and Lonely Planet talks about various cartels of taxi-drivers on Phuket (some incidents of violence have been perpetrated against German travelers for refusing to pay extortionate fees.)  So I searched for an alternative, and heard about Koh Chang.

Koh Chang is to the east – the one you want is quite large and near the border with Cambodia.  It’s a shorter trip from Bangkok, and because it’s not quite as well-known as the islands to the south – made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s “the Beach” – it’s more tranquil and economical (so they say.)  And along the way out of Bangkok, you get to stop in-

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Pattaya!  It’s not just for sex tourists anymore!   …..although it mostly is.  The first real beach outside of Bangkok proper, it takes about 2.5 hours to get there – maybe an hour and a half just to get to the city outskirts, and an actual hour of driving after that.  Minibuses leave from Khao San Road hourly for about 300 baht (less than $10 USD.)

Pattaya is – 100 km southeast of Bangkok, 100,000 people on a crowded, dirty beach that looks and smells of oil, reviled by residents of Bangkok, and THE place to spot slovenly expatriates from the West with massive guts and BMIs well into the obese range hand-in-hand with attractive petite Thai girls (and kathoeys.)

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Pattaya is also a massively fun place, with incredible street eats ranging from fresh pad thai, noodle soups, grilled chicken, squid, beef, fresh fruits, milkshakes, fruit blends, etc. for 30-60 baht ($1-2 USD), a melting pot of Russians, Arabs, Indians, Kiwis and Brits with TV channels targeting all audiences – including a 24-hour channel of Mecca with a hypnotic a cappella male voice singing in Arabic (the subtitles say – “It is repulsive to Allah the things that you do”) – crazy cheap massages if you get away from the center (those aren’t really massage places, by the way) like 100 baht ($3.33) for an hour foot massage, and 200-250 baht ($6.66-$8.33) for hour-long Thai body massages probably 10 times better than the crappy ones you paid ten times as much for in the West – an endless party on Walking Street and anywhere along Beach Road or Pattaya 2 or Pattaya 3 among an estimated 5,000 bars and pool halls with some excellent live music featuring Pilipino singers and musicians.

When the sensory overload gets to be too much, Koh Chang is a mere day’s travel away – 600 baht ($20 US) and 8 hours by combined minibus and ferry (the same bus continues on to Sihanoukville, the first beach town in Cambodia.)

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Koh Chang – Coming here after Pattaya is like moving from the Lower East Side in Manhattan to Inwood.  The island is huge, so you’re pretty much at the mercy of the colectivos – the blue trucks that wait at the pier.  If you have enough people, though, it should be a flat 100 baht to the 3 major beaches – White Sand, Kai Bae, and Lonely Beach (in order of proximity to the pier.)  White Sand is the most developed, where Thailand’s sex industry continues in full force, and has the broadest range of dining options.  Kai Bae is smaller and nice for couples.  Lonely Beach is the backpacker outpost, and home of all-night raves with excellent electronic music and the types that accompany that – if that’s your scene.

If not, it’s a blast to rent a motorbike (100 baht – or $3.33/day – and 30-40 baht [$1-1.33] to fill up) and tool around the island – great fun as long as you don’t end up one of the many motorbike casualties (most ugly scrapes and bruises).  The beach, though a bit of a walk (10-15 minutes) to the north of civilization on Lonely Beach, is a welcome respite – and much cleaner than Pattaya’s.

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Logistics:

Thailand’s transportation infrastructure is clean, well-run and relatively inexpensive (an hour-long private taxi from Pattaya to Bangkok Airport  on clean, fast motorways can be had for 900 baht – $30 – for an hour-and-a-half ride!  Try that in London.)  The only drawback: depending on where you’re trying to get to, price-gouging is a major problem.

Fares for set routes tend to be fixed and competition keeps prices very competitive (as stated, 900 baht for private transport from Bangkok to Pattaya – or 290 baht for minibus), then 600 baht ($20) for minibus and ferry to Koh Chang (9 hours of travel!)  However, taxis and tuk-tuks in Bangkok are completely negotiable, and will depend on how much of a rube they think you are, the time of day, whether it’s pouring, etc.  To be fair, they barely make a living wage, and the first 1,000 baht or so goes to pay the taxi company for the lease, and the taxi fares set by the government are starvation-low, so expect to haggle and get ripped off the first few days as you learn what you should really pay (and what they’ll take.)

Lonely Planet advises you just get in a cab and say, “Meter please.”  That’s funny and the best joke in the guidebook.  It’s like saying, “Go to Egypt and just tell people, “No negotiation please.”  Or, the best way not to spend 50% of your income on your rent the way most New Yorkers do is to go to that Hell’s Kitchen landlord and say, “I will pay no more than $1000/month for your one-bedroom.”  After you wake up, realize that transport between any two neighborhoods in Bangkok takes minimum 45 minutes – 2 hours and 100-500 baht, unless you speak Thai (and look it.)  Ask fellow travelers for current advice and avoid blatant price-gougers.

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Money:

Unlike Colombia – which seemed allergic to dollars (32.1149 THB: 1 USD as of time of writing)- Thailand is set up to take your greenbacks, Euros, Swedish krone, whatever you’re ready to part with.  Heck, you could probably change Mexican pesos.  ATMs are everywhere, as are casas de cambios.  You tend to get the best rate out of an ATM – before you factor in the ATM fee, unless you have a bank like Schwab that reimburses you.  Be aware that bringing large bills – $50 or $100 US – gets a better rate than smaller bills ($10 or $20 US) which is a better rate than $1 or $5 bills. Walk around.  You’ll be surprised at how you get a better rate just checking 2-3 places on a block – and that seemingly small differential is a few delicious street meals in Thailand!

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Budget:

Reading backpacker travel blogs may give you the impression Thailand is dirt-cheap (“How I Lived for 100 baht/year in Chiang Mai and had the time of my life!”)  Maybe it was, back when the Wheelers backpacked around in the 1970s and then went home and used the Gutenberg press to put together the first Lonely Planet.  You’d have to go to Cambodia or Vietnam now to get those kinds of prices.

Prices will be a function of three variables: when you go, how much luxury you want to live in, and how savvy you are.

Ripoffs abound, especially in Bangkok if you don’t know what you’re doing and they smell you’re fresh off the plane.  I would say US $66/day (2,000 baht) is a comfortable budget for semi-luxury traveling, allowing for private rooms, meals out and frequent transportation to new cities.

Transportation is fairly cheap, but lodging prices depend on where you are and whether you are in high season (November-April), when prices just about double to take advantage of travelers fleeing freezing Europe and North America.  In Bangkok, in September, I paid 800 baht ($26) for a tiny room in a nice hotel off of Soi Ram Buttri (Khao San Road area.)  In Pattaya, I paid 500 baht ($16) for a 5th-floor walkup on Soi Post Office (13/2) right in the heart of things – a much larger room with sunlight, A/C and wifi – 600 baht ($20) for a 2nd-floor walkup – and 1575 baht ($52.50) for a straight-up luxury hotel on Soi 2 (further north, near north Pattaya) with beach view, quality hardwood, and modern everything (less than 800 baht split with a friend.)  The same room is 2400 baht in high season.

Prices on Koh Chang are extremely variable.  For 300 baht – $10 – you can get a ratty mosquito-infested place or a very clean room sans malaria (it pays to walk around to have a look.)  A luxury bungalow overlooking the sea in Lonely Beach is a mere 600 baht in low season ($20) but twice that starting in November.  Thus, it pays to have a location-independent lifestyle, for sure.

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Enfin:

The Thai language is difficult for those trained in Latin / Western languages – and is significantly different from other Asian languages, as well.  Sometimes this makes it quite difficult to get around (at our luxury hotel in Pattaya, we had cold water for three days because the hotel clerk those three days didn’t understand the words “cold”, “water,” “not working,” etc.)  What this means is that sometimes it’s really hard to get around – and most of your interactions with the Thai, although they are friendly, will be mercenary in nature.  Some will be fair, and others view you as a walking pocketbook (and fool) and will try to charge you 1,000-2,000% of what a Thai would pay.  And some will be more than fair.  I cracked my laptop screen and had to go to Pan-tip – the computer city in Bangkok – where they replaced and fixed it in 45 minutes for a fraction of the time and cost of what I would have paid in the United States (and did pay in Mexico.)

The Thais place a huge emphasis on (outward) friendliness – the “Land of Smiles.”  I was told repeatedly – “You are so much more handsome when you smile!  Smile, smile, smile!”  Just remember there’s a hard edge behind those smiles, if you violate their culture or beliefs.  I heard multiple stories of Westerners – usually sloshed Brits, Australians, or Kiwis – that ended up on the bloody receiving end of muay thai techniques when they mistook kindness for weakness.  Granted, they were usually pretty stupid moves – insulting some Thai man’s masculinity, or hitting a Thai woman street vendor on the back of the head (hitting a woman is already obviously a faux pas, but the head is the most important/respected part of the body to the Thais, and that dude learned his lesson.)

In sum, be observant, be firm and polite, learn the prices, be courteous – and you will have a blast in the Land of Smiles.

harvard gringo thailand