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PART 1 : SAN AUGUSTIN

In Search of the Shaman

 

In June 2017, Ben, Juan and Dub left on a life-changing journey to the Colombian Amazon.

Prior to that glorious trip another one was taken in order to to setup what was to come, the story starts with the latter.

 

I’ve wanted to tell the story for a while by now and in no way am I a good writer, nor is English my first language, but let’s give it a shot.

Through the years I’ve heard a lot about this hallucinogenic/magical brew named ”Yagé” in Colombia or also known as ”Ayahuasca” in other parts of South America and throughout the World. It’s a brew which people have been drinking in the Amazon for hundreds if not thousands of years. They ingest it in shaman-led contexts and it has mystified me since the day I read about the visions and journey they could catalyse. I first heard of it through the grapevine of the internet but later on, and way more concisely through the Author/Journalist Graham Hancock who wrote about his experiences in his book ” Supernatural”, some time in 2008 while I was living in Shenzhen, China. I was then sharing a loft appartment with my girlfriend on the 7th floor of a big appartment building. I was between two show contracts, teaching English as a tutor to make ends meet and stay by her side. Books such as the one from Graham had to be brought from overseas, books on such topics would be impossible to find in China. In those days, that material really kickstarted in me, a new thirst for reading and learning, wether it was about the origins of mankind or psychedelics and their effects on one’s consciousness and the sort of cracking open of one’s head. I felt like I was getting a fresh outlook on what it meant to be a human … It struck my curiosity, so later on and after a couple years of reading about the topic, I was truly enticed to, one day, experience the so-called cleansing effect and seek out the clarity the brew was so well-known for and live through what the ceremony may bring to me as a person. Especially after the many years of doing 3 or 4  shows a day, 6 days a week, and taking part in multiple competitions without any kind of breakthrough that I was eager for on the pro flatland scene. I was seeking another outlook or a different way of life that may enlighten me and/or set me on a different path or at least create a different understanding of what and why I was doing what I was doing.

In 2015 Juan Niebles, one if not, the best rider to have come out of Colombia, came to Montreal to take part in the second edition of the RealCitySpin competition and stayed over at my house. At that time the thought of heading to Colombia to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony hadn’t crossed my mind yet, but after a couple months/2 years of knowing him and right after the completion of the RealCitySpin trilogy, which had made me extremely tired, the thought popped back into my mind  and I asked him if he knew of anyone or heard of anyone who knew about a shaman or a place to take ayahuasca in the right context. That was early 2017. He didn’t have much information, but he was keen on helping me find someone that may be able to provide that information.

It was now 2017, mid-winter, early February and freezing cold in Canada. It really didn’t take much to motivate me to fly down to Bogota, head over for some sessions and try to find a Shaman in hope of being able to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony. I packed my things and headed to Colombia.

Juan and the wagon for the trip.

On arrival, the everyday pace was a slower one than I usually know of in Canada, the caffeine intake was the same though, but  late breakfast and all day riding sessions in the blazing sun took over and I early forgot the reason I had really come down to Colombia for. To a French Canadian from the suburbs like me, the South American lifestyle has always been of interest, a slower pace dictates a yet hectic running of city life. I’ve previously spent 2 full winters in Chile exploring the ease at which a life was possible riding a bike making money at the red lights, doing tricks and entertaining folks in their cars waiting on the light to switch.  This return to S.A was very sought after. Riding is fun, but this time another goal post was to be reached. I find it extremely challenging and enriching at once to live from riding BMX Flatland, it does facilitate connections throughout the World and when situations like these come together, but also sometimes, I need to get away from Flatland and try other things and live different experiences in life. This was the beginning of one of them…

Turbine undertaker by Dub, Photo by Sebastian Palencia

I had just put together my new yellow frame which I had brought separately in my bike bag and it was a treat to get to ride outside, on a brand new bike, everyday, in the blazing sun, at higher altitudes in Bogota. The lack of oxygen is notable when you ride in that city towering at 2600 meters up in the Andes. A HUGE difference in weather from Canada at that time of the year, yet still fresh enough to wear a vest at night as the air turns crisp.

Dub’s bike early 2017

After settling in and about a week and a half into the trip, Juan and I started looking more into finding someone to guide me through the astral plane, at first, Juan had no plan to  join me in a ceremony, but he helped scoure the internet with me and asked around to see if anyone knew anyone that could put us in touch with a Taita/ Shaman and as time went by he took the decision to join me on the psychedelic journey. Some days went by unsuccessfully until we found out that Juan’s friend, Esteban, who also rides Flatland and used to run the Flatland shop ”Freeculture shop” or ”tienda flatland” with his brother Sebastian had the info we were looking for.  His uncle had previously  been to a ceremony with a Taita named Julio, a shaman from San Augustin, a town 11 hours drive away.

We had some basic info, and armed with the knowledge that this hotel hostess down in San Augustin was supposed to provide us with the shaman’s info, I rented the most basic of cars and off we went driving down from Bogota into the lower and way hotter land beneath where trones the capital Bogota. As we hit Melgar, the difference in temperature was striking. Up in Bogota it ranges from 20° C in the day and 7° C at night on average and the temparature in Melgar seemed like it was more around the 35° C.  Coming from the cold north I thought the warmer the better and off we went driving through this beautiful country in search of the Shaman.

Juan riding at a belvedere near River Magdalena.

We basically drove all day through beautiful scenery and mountain ranges, we even stopped and took a couple pics at this belvedere overseeing Magdalena river snaking through the landscape and as night hit we were only about half way to San Agustin so we got ourselves a simple place to spend the night and arrived to our destination early afternoon the next day. Right away we asked for our hostess to put us in touch with the shaman, though, he unfortunately wasn’t answering his phone and nobody knew where he lived. At that point I realised we may have driven all the way there for nothing and we might be wasting some beautiful days that could be spent riding our bikes and progressing instead of touring the country…

It was Wednesday, we were aware that ceremonies usually take place on Saturday’s. Since most people work during the week, are tired on Friday’s after work and go back to work on Monday’s, Saturday is the only day where one can get enough proper rest before and after the ceremony, as it usually goes through the night into the next day. Well needed rest. The whole process of an ayahuasca ceremony is no easy task. Actually you spend a fair amount of time puking or thinking you are going to puke and/or #2 all at the same time, but once it’s all out of you, you reach a serenity that can only be described as otherwordly as the trip really starts to kick in.

Arriving at the hotel in San Augustin

At that point since Juan had already decided he would join me , and in preparation of a potential ceremony, we had already been fasting for some 7 days. We had read in multiple places online and in books, that, to get the best experience out of a Yagé session, as in spend less time puking and more time exploring your inner-depths, it was better to kind of pre-cleanse for a couple days, so we went to the full extent of our capacity to fast and eliminated coffee, sugar, meat, bread and basically fueled on mostly fruits and veggies for the ten days preceeding the ceremony to which we still had no invitation to…!…but our hopes were there, the will was powerful, and when there’s a will there’s a way…

So Wednesday went by as we kept searching in vain for a potential shaman, then Thursday came and left as if it hadn’t even happened, though we spent a big part of the day searching the net and trying to call Taito Julio multiple times, we also visited the surroundings, there were some beautiful waterfalls we visited and even a megalithic site situated on the edge of where the Northern Andes meet the Western parts of the Andes, also a place where a once thriving, but mysterious and now vanished civilization once called home.

As we woke up on Friday morning I was getting impatient after spending on a flight ticket, a car rental, 2 hotels and bunch of gaz and restaurants to make it to an all but illusory goal or what it felt like at that moment in our journey. I told Juan I’d rather be back in Bogota riding than wasting time looking for something that probably wasn’t going to happen at that point, though, we both agreed that we should try one last time to call him so Juan dialed him up…

El Estrecho Rio Magdalena

…and he answered !! Juan told him why we were calling him, he told us to meet him  at his place in 15 minutes, which was literally a 2 minute drive from our hotel . Juan hung up…we were electrified ! At the mere instant when we were almost going to give up, finally, some light shined upon us! Off we went to Taita’s house, an anbandoned hotel a couple bends away on the main road upwards of a couple hills.

There was an eerie feeling driving up to the entrance of that hotel, it seemed quite dilapidated as if the place hadn’t been occupied in a while. Some white walls, litered with broken concrete, bushes growing in place of missing tiles, an almost damning feeling of a forgotten place where once thrived a resort with troves of tourists…anyways… you get the vibe… Dogs barked as we passed the main gate, Juan and I looked at eachother sort of cautiously giggling our way in…we got out of the car, beeped the alarm system which echoed around the empty place and started walking towards what seemed to be the entrance, a hallway that led to the backside of the compound and we howled a ”hola” to see if anyone was around. Some time went by and we called again… One young man appeared, probably in his early 20’s came out from the back and right away Juan without hesitation saluted him granting he was the shaman, but he said he wasn’t, we introduced ourselves and he just stood there. That added to the ever increasing suspense of reaching our goal. Another person, a bit older looking young man came out some seconds later and Juan had the same reaction calling him out as the Taita( Taita is used to express Shaman in this story, but also means ”Uncle”.), but no, it wasn’t him either and he also just stood there next to the other man. Yet another person came out from the back, and this time it was without a doubt the man we were looking for. No point in asking who he was, standing at a mere 5 foot tall, though tiny in size, emanated a sort of obvious spiritual authority that someone like Juan or me would come to sense in a moment like this one. His left eye was kind of lazy and with a cataract, machete hanging by his side wrapped in a leather pouch, skin darkened by decades spent outdoors in the sun, here we found who we were looking for… We introduced ourselves to Taita Julio and so did he and his sons and then looking at me straight in the eye and with the scruffiest voice he said, ”Sientate mijo, cuentame ” asking me to sit down and to explain why we were there.

Google streetview screenshot of the abandoned hotel.

I sat down next to him though my Spanish skills too weak to articulate our intentions clearly in the febrility of the moment , Juan took over and explained why I, for one, came from so far to meet with him, but also Juan whom had travelled from Bogota with me to take part in a ceremony with him through the recommendation of the uncle of Esteban… He told us right away that a ceremony was scheduled for the next day,  4 hours drive away, in a village calle Rivera Huila bordering the bigger town of Neiva. He invited us to join him. Juan, without hesitation, accepted and right away asked how they were going to make their way there. They said they were going to take the bus around 1 pm and Juan, knowing I would agree right away, asked them if they needed a ride with us since we had space in our car and were heading in that direction anyways. They agreed to hop on with us and told us to come back and pick them up at 1pm, him and his two sons.

Dub and Juan at a session before leaving Bogota

On our drive back to our hotel the vibe was ecstatic, things were lining up for us, so we went back, rested a bit then packed the car and at 1pm, as arranged, we went back to pick them up.

Julio was carrying some big, seemingly heavy buckets with him and we asked him what he was bringing with him. He said it was the brew, a fresh batch he had prepared over the course of the last few days! We took our bikes appart so everything and everyone could fit in the car… So next thing you know, after weeks of wondering and searching, we were on the highway with an actual reputable shaman named Taita Julio sitting right behind me with his two sons and a trunk full of Ayahuasca!!!!

Who would’ve thought ?! What a turn of events!!

The drive was quite eventless with Julio sleeping most of the way. We exchanged with his sons, one of which was younger, more playful i would say in his late teens and the other son was older, more serious looking, whom was studying to learn the family trade/skillset of being/becoming an experienced shaman. He looked like he was in his mid twenties.

The ceremony was to take place the next day starting at 8pm. We took a room for the night and we endured the worst of our hunger, even as we continually ate fruits, we just didn’t get the same satisfaction as a more varied meal would offer. Yet we endured and looked forwards to our experience and felt a sense of pride in having accomplished some 10 days of fasting on the most basic of foods.

The next day was the day ! Time stretched out so much in those last couple hours before everything was meant to start, we didn’t really know what to expect, we both felt quite new to all of this and the nerves were starting to kick in , we had rested well through the night and we felt ready to face whatever was going to come our way on that day. The location of the ceremony was in the backyard of a fellow which grew all types of fruit around the property. In the furthest corner in the back of his yard was a cone shaped hut looking building resting on a dozen of 6 to 8 inch bamboo poles ( ”The Maloca”) and open to the surrounding ambient air. That was where we would hang our hammocks and  take part in the ceremony. We spent most of the day roaming the small village and eating fruits, it’s crazy how much fruit you can eat when thats the only input you are taking. Your sweat starts to smell different, you feel light, almost light headed and we lost a lot of weight and strength.

In our talks previous to the ceremony, as we were just hanging out near the ”Maloca” Julio told us  about how the Yagé already works on you, as you are working on yourself, from the moment you decide you want to take the brew. It’s as if the will and need for change in one’s life leading to the decision of taking Ayahuasca acts as the catalyst that starts building your new self the moment you take that decision. In short, just the idea of wanting to take the Yagé initiates the process of getting better, as in, for example, fasting.

Hanging out with Taita Julio outside the Maloca

Julio told us you definitely don’t want to be drinking alcohol just before taking Yagé, he even told us about this one time when a really big dude, a guy that felt invincible had gotten super drunk on Whisky I think is what he told us, drank a whole bottle and then went to take the brew and he ended up being one of the very rare casualties in a ceremony, he started convulsing during the ceremony and was driven to the hospital and died that same day.

Way to get us excited about that night right ?……he kept going also telling us how some people for example:, bad people with bad intentions like murderers, or people that have done really bad things in their lifes can barely keep the brew in their stomachs but a couple moments, he went as far as saying that some people puke the moment the brew touches their lips, as if they had so much to purge that they had to suffer a lot to mentally and physically digest all the wrongs they had imposed upon others in their lifetimes in the means of a Yagé session.

Another thing related to keeping clear and fasting before the Yagé, he said, was that Ayahuasca wants your full attention, and he talks about it sort of as a female conscious being with a program.

As 8pm approached, we were joined by a couple other people, from memory I can remember there being at least 10 or 12 people under the hut that night, I am recalling events that took place almost 4 years ago, so please bare with me as some details may have gotten mixed up, but the core of the story is clearly layed out in my mind. One of those peolpe was a former singer, an older man in his late 70’s, he told us he had taken Ayahusaca more than 100 times. His name was Fernando.

As the sun was setting we were called to install our hammocks inside the Maloca, I chose a spot right next to Julio, I think he had specifically placed me there,not sure anymore if it was by choice or his suggestion, Juan was right next to me, the hammocks sort of formed a circle around the place as they were tied  to every pole holding the structure together. Mosquitoes were zipping around, but not too feverishly, we layed in our hammocks as we waited for the ceremony to start.

It started later than expected, some people were late, we waited almost until 9 and once everyone was there he signaled us to get up and welcomed everyone quite religiously as he also praised the ancestors that came before him and his father’s fathers that were making this possible in this moment and that they were watching over us and would help and guide our visions from the other side. At this point Julio was dressed in a white gown and was also wearing a blue rectangle around the neck, sort of like a priest. Multiple long necklaces made of all types of seashells adorned his neck and a crown composed of colorful feathers gloriously stood straight up on his head.

Taita Julio dressed in his attire, Photo from Healingroots.at

Everyone stated an intention for being there and solemnly thanked Julio for having us. I was a bit suprised when he also prayed to Mary and Jesus, but I think that was a small influence leftover by colonial catholicism incorporated into indigeneous rituals and added at the beginning of the ceremonies.

We all said ”Amen” , everyone hugged everybody else, even strangers. The time came to return to our hammocks and let the calm of the night take over the Maloca, these moments are kind of like the calm before the storm type of moment. Buckets were distributed around the Maloca in case you had to evacuate. Some people already seemed sound asleep when the time for the first cup of Yagé was distributed. Every person received a dosage equivalent to what the shaman perceives the person as being able to handle, also he takes into account if the person was a first timer or not, they are the drivers of the experience and we are but passengers on a their boat heading into the ocean of our inner universes.

I can’t remember the order in which everyone took it, but I remember Juan getting his cup just ahead of me. I stared in curiosity from the side of my hammock. The hammock is like a safe-haven in these ceremonies, kind of the cradle for your body and thoughts. The safety net that catches when you fall back from the peaks of your highness.

My name was called, I stood up, went to Julio, he poured the ayahuasca from a red gallon into my designated cup.  I thanked him, drank it swiftly, then thanked him again. The taste was one of fermented plant, somehow it reminded me of something I had in the past, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The aftertaste was quite putrid. There was something delicious and something entirely nasty about the taste. It’s hard to describe, I guess you have to try it to know it.

I went back to my hammock and waited, after about 10 minutes Juan got up and ran outside and started puking, he puked so loudly it was quite frightning. He stayed out there puking for a long time. After about 30 or 40 minutes of drinking the brew my stomach started bubbling and I started feeling uneasy, nausea took over the best part of the next half hour until I had to run outside and it was my turn to vomit. It came out of me like a projectile. Right after puking I realised some weird kind of drunkness had taken over me. Distances were lightly distorted and it took me  a while to feel better after emptying the little that was in my stomach, I was so hungry as the ceremony started that I basically had nothing but bile to evacuate.

Feeling weak, I slowly headed back to my hammock and a feeling of great calm and serenity took over me. Julio started chanting, dancing, humming , singing , playing his harmonica, jumping up and down and within that chaos the brew really started having it’s effect on me. What  I saw in my mind’s eye was hypnotising to say the least, it was like a huge drawing of a shaman sitting crosslegged, colored in tones of Purple, Yellow, White and  Blue on a backdrop of darkness, in 2D yet 3D in some depths  of which the details were going in and out of, sort of like let’s say a moving psychedelic oil painting dripping but the drips not falling to the ground, instead orbiting around its own parts in a very organic pattern, and to the rhythm of the sound being played by Julio, fabulous !…and then I think it was Julio’s cousin who was laying next to Julio puked so loud it snapped me out of the trance hahaha, it jolted me out of my hammock, big WTf moment for me! :/// I went right back to my hammock and another vision that came to me was that of staring into the vastness of the cosmos above me with my eyes closed and giant crystalline like figures or beings, kind of transparent  and emmanating light, there must’ve been 5 or 6 of them and they were hanging above me as true giants elongated into space and looking down on me as one would on an ant and they seemed like the bearers of important information, they were transparent but luminescent at the same time as covered in a transluscent gaz colored / multicolored layer  , very angelic looking, nothing like i’d ever seen before…and then the same guy puked again and I jolted out of the hypnotic state again, I had a harder time going back to the higher level of trance after that jolt. That same guy kept puking extremely loudly throughout the night and never stepped out of the Maloca so he was in there with us sounding sick as hell. The thought came to me, this guy hadn’d paid too much attention to what he ate before the ceremony, and it was showing. Juan was outside somewhere and I hadn’t thought of it much but he told me afterwards that he had puked his guts out for what seemed like an eternity.

Comes a time during an ayahuasca session when one by one the members of the ceremony are called forwards to sit in front of the Shaman and a cleansing ritual is performed on them. When came my turn I remember going and sitting in front of him and his hostel looking little table that house all of his accessories he was using for the different processes he engaged in during the night or other things he would use to cleanse one’s body. During a cleansing, the shaman seems to go into many different processes such as chanting, saying incantations, calling out the ancestors, placing metal beads on your back in different places, spraying holy water on you, even spitting out violently that same water on the top of your head, playing harmonica and many others, a true spectacle and not for the faint of heart or anyone with an easy feeling of disdain. Also I forgot to mention he always has a dry bunch of Sage leaves in one of his hands and shakes them during most of the ceremoney and they create this kind of white noise which also sends your visions into all kinds of directions. Between me and him on the floor rested a big metallic bowl. I hadn’t really noticed it, until, towards the end of my cleansing he wrapped his hands around my head, he did what sounded like sucking the air out of his hands, what felt like he was extracting bad energy/darkness out of me and right after he absorbed it all as in inhaling expressively, he puked it all out( I’m guessing the bad vibes and toxicity of my body) into the bowl behind me and it splashed all over my back !!! Eww I was totally disgusted… yet, weirdly amused at the sight of all these machinations , I remember at the same time as this was going on, I had thought of my opponents in the sport wich I wished to beat, I think I was holding the thought very hard and wanting to go and do good on the Flatland scene at that moment. I didn’t have a particular intention going into the ceremony, but I know I was seeking clarity and didn’t think it had anything to do with riding, but seemigly so and I kept feeling like there was some sort of curse that was put on me and it was being lifted in that moment. weird huh ? Very weird. It’s like the uncontrollable flow of thoughts is such as can be so very harmful or beneficial for you depending what way you decide to send it towards. So much insight was gained that night, but I can’t even start to describe any of it, I guess I found what I was loooking for… The setting of the experience was a big part of how I was affected by the brew, Julio’s son went around spreading the smoke of Frankincense in a thurible, that metal container sphere looking thing at the end of a chain they wave around just like they did in church when I was a kid at my 1st communion or confirmation. The smoke combined with the gloomy bit of lights and candles surrounding the shaman really make a hell of an impression once you can distinguish the shapes such as the sight of his crown of feathers hopping up and and down to the sound of his chanting and harmonica fiddling.

Some moments when the chanting, singing and pounding the ground, harmonica playing, necklace and sage shaking by the shaman would become so intense and chaotic where you forget what sound is coming from where and what, and amidst that confusion he often would stop everything he was doing abruptly… and the effect of that abrupt stop would shoot me out into the universe so far away from where my body was seemingly resting. As if propulsed by deafening silence into the infinite expanse of nothingness.

All types of feelings I had never felt.

Towards the end of the night, after everyone had their turns at receiving a cleansing from Julio, I remember Fernando pulled out his guitare and sang for us in the scruffiest of voices, you could tell he was an experienced singer, but his voice wasn’t what it used to be, his struggle to put out the notes he wanted to as he strung this amazing lullaby on his guitar I will never forget. He gave us 2 or 3 songs that night, I travelled in my mind with the sounds he produced and tasted the notes and saw a diferent color for each note as I closed my eyes and let the sound of his strumming and singing carry me into more colorful visions and sink into the roots of where that music seemed to come from. I think he was singing some kind of Argentinian style of music. I think it’s called Musica Revolutionaria…not sure.

The ayahuasca’s effect seemed to fade away as the sun came up, Juan and I both tried to sleep for a while just laying there unsuccessfully, while others also slept or gathered towards a fire outside the hut and talked about what they experienced that night.

Later that morning, Fernando came to speak to Juan and I, he told us the yagé was telling him not to join in ceremonies anymore, that he was getting too old and it was getting dangerous for him, that he didn’t need it anymore. He even sang one more song for us and the sheer beauty of what came out of this song made me fall in tears, like sobbing tears, I don’t know where all this emotion was coming from, but in that moment is when it all came out of me, his singing was blissfull, you could hear the pain and suffering in his voice and the will to live in his strumming even at his older age, he told us of how he had once sang at some really impotant meetings of the states if I remember correctly,that part is quite blurry to me now, I’m not sure if it was at the UN or  the senate or some kind of meeting of this sort in his prime time. We exchanged contacts.

It seemed like beauty lies in the most simple of moments, the shared moments, the unforced and natural moments in time when new people meet eachother and get along. Sort of like what Flatland always felt to me like. Yes. Sort of like that. Sort of like those easy sessions where everyone gets along, where everybody laughs and nothing is too serious.

Part of the group that was present at the ceremony

I saw beauty in most of every moment I experienced that night, looking back on it from the perspective of being locked at home in Canada with curfew in times of  covid sanitary measures, I feel totally blessed to have been able to have such an experience. These memories I cherish, moments that take on a life of their own.

So much happened that night, so much lifting of the vail and revealing of the processes of the universe and of the conduct of a ceremony, a ceremony of taking the time to look within, painfully navigating the labyrinth of your emotions in your best and worst of past and present chapters. I truly felt like I was taking part in something ancestral that night, something timeless and beyond the linear movement of time. I wouldn’t say it helped me know WHY we are here, but it helped me COPE with not knowing WHY and understand a little more of what we are made of…

Everyone who took part in the ceremony that night left one by one that morning, some of them we didn’t even get a chance to salute.

We thanked  Julio and his sons infinitely and dropped them off at the nearest bus station later that day, but before letting us go he mentioned we should head over to this nature reserve called la Paya, in the south of Colombia , near the Amazon city of Puerto Leguizamo, close to which he has a house and where we could go and spend time and do a couple ayahuasca sessions. He said the medicine or  ” El Remedio” is way stronger out there.

To Juan and I it sounded like a plan and in the coming weeks we pondered over that idea and started planning another trip, but this time we would travel to the AMAZON !

 

 

To be continued in PART 2 :  PUERO LEGUIZAMO

 

 

Written by Dub

JAMSADO VIDEO

Oh and on the same trip Juan and I organised the JAMSADO and gave away a couple parts and shoes from FADE footwear, below is the video of that jam that took place in Bogota !

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