15 May, 2016 | Jerusa Pozo
Liquid Enlightenment in Valle de las Animas
Photo: Jerusa Pozo
I once heard that if you want to move forward, occasionally you have to exorcise your demons, give yourself a spiritual jolt. One ‘huasca’, they say.
Just 45 minutes outside of Cota Cota, in La Paz’s Zona Sur, is the Valle de las Animas, a place where even Bolivians can feel like a gringo in their own home. Here everything is different. It’s like entering another world.
Allkamari is a spa resort in the valley. Most of its customers are foreigners. The place offers relaxation exercises, spa and cleansing rituals, but its real highlight is the spiritual healing therapies: from San Pedro to the famous ayahuasca, ‘the mother who shows you the way’.
How is this place different than the city? Is it what they eat? Are they happier here (a myth that we buy about country people)? Are they more hospitable? Do they have more values than we do in the city? Do they age better? When I think about things that don’t belong to the city, I immediately imagine ‘pachamamic’ entities, things or people that are connected with nature, like yatiris.
It seems we flip a switch when we leave the city. Not when we're on vacation, but when we barely make it out of La Paz to the countryside that surrounds it. When we go to that place, outside of the city, we become other people. Different laws are at play when you live or experience rural life. There are no status symbols, no occidental codes.
In recent times it has become fashionable to visit rural places in South America to take ayahuasca. People like Sting have gone to the Amazon in Peru to try the precious drink. Although it has been openly marketed in Cusco, where you can find it in pills, in La Paz, ayahuasca is still a taboo subject for many Bolivians. It seems that foreigners are more informed of the sacred plant than the locals.
Tupak Wayra is the shaman at Allkamari. He and his partner, Wara, are leading the ceremony. It's easy to tell who is going to the ceremony for the very first time because newcomers are the most restless. Don is 67 years old. That same morning his plane arrived from California and he will fly back the next day. He wants to take ayahuasca before he dies, a goal that inspires a certain respect among all of us.
One by one, we (the two friendly girls from Iceland; a son of a Bolivian congressman who wants to make everybody believe he is from Germany; four friends from England who think they're going to try something like LSD and have the greatest time of their lives; and me) enter the chullpa. Inside, there are objects you can find in La Paz’s famous Witches Market: llama fetuses, incense, palo santo.
Wayra tell us to introduce ourselves and say why we are there. While we are doing that, we have to hit a stick to the ground, shouting ‘Jallalla!’ The most unimaginable reasons bring people to the valley. Once we introduced ourselves, Wayra offers us the Ayahuasca that Wara was preparing while we were talking.
I am fifth in line to try it. When it's my turn, my hands are sweaty. I'm thinking as if my life will change forever; as if I’m going to jump off a cliff. The drink has a nauseating bitter taste that welcomes you to a world where your traumas, dreams and aspirations are presented to you one by one.
What happened from that time until four hours later I can only describe as a moral shock. Each one of us had a different experience. Mine was something like Dumbo, the scene where he gets drunk for the very first time. I proceeded to dig through a lot of junk in my subconscious. Physically, I think we all vomited in the chamber pot at least once.
The next day we gathered in the chullpa and everyone shared their experiences. The guys from England did not look so happy. One of them began to cry as he recounted what he saw in his journey. One by one, we shared some of what we saw in our personal trips. The man from California had to take a flight in the following hours. He looked pleased.
After the stories, we were asked to take the containers with our vomit and empty them outside of the hut, after which we washed our chamber pots.