They might have been the most miserable conditions you’ve ever hitch hiked in… cold, snow, low visibility, then rain, then icy roads.
Runners up: that time at the truck stop in the north of Spain:
You are marooned.
It is raining. Freezing cold (not quite freezing, but with the wind-chill, WORSE). You are somewhere outside San Sebastian, in the north of Spain. The clouds are thick and grey, as is the smoke that hangs heavily in this room packed with approximately 150 men. Mostly Spanish men. Truck drivers. You are in the truck driver hub of northern Spain. All the Spanish and Portugese drivers passing north to south, or east to Madrid hole up here for their 24-48 hours off.
Weekends at the truck stop are a unique type of lonely…you waited at the truck stop of 10 hours.
You checked the weather forecast before heading north, and cringed. Expected temperatures at night were -7 degrees celcius. MINUS 7! How did you survive?! Ha! By the skin of your teeth. By wearing every article of clothing you possess
You and Katie had a plan for the conditions. Wake up early for once and leave your host’s flat in Antwerp by 8:30am. Okay. It isn’t outrageously early, considering you only had to cover a small distance of 125km, But you knew the conditions would be cold and snowy, and you saw on the map that your destination was awkward, out-of-the way, and certainly not very popular. Everyone who asked about your event there would follow up with, “Why would anyone want to go or host and event there?”
Needless to say, you were being cautious.
Even with a rocky start of 90 wasted minutes ambling around the city, failing to find the most obvious road out of town (all of which could have been avoided with a quick internet search beforehand), you had the most seamless hitch hike of your career.
After you found the right waiting point, you scored a lift in 3 minutes. Not a moment too soon, for at that point, the snow began to hammer down, and you stared in awe as the motorway disappeared beneath it. Cars reduced their speeds all the way down to 75 km per hour, and the road reduced to just one and a half lanes. Your driver was an inconspicuous, gay mayonnaise -delivery-guy who insisted on driving out of his way to an optimal spot and buying you both a hot chocolate.
After your little treat, you trudged through the powder to the ramp and waited another four minutes before a confused man decided he could take you to what turned out to be the next most optimal waiting point for the awkward junction ahead.
Ten minutes later, a beautiful young woman decided to drop you directly where you needed to be in the town.
You arrived at 12:30pm. More than five hours early for your ayahuasca event.
Killing five hours isn’t exactly hard during the summer. Just throw your bags down in the grass, open a book, and bask in the sun. But in the winter… in those conditions… well, it was a challenge.
- 5 euros spent on two teas and the worst bread roll of your life–but you obtained 1 hour and 45 minutes of warmth.
- 30 or 40 minutes wandering around aimlessly, window shopping.
- Power nap sitting up in a warm church, only to awaken to the sounds of people congregating for mass. You made a speedy, non-stealthy escape.
- 2 hours tap dancing in the train station, switching between a seat on the basically dysfunctional heater, and a jaunt in the warm neighboring cafe.
You were too cold, and your mind was too numb to do anything but watch the clock tick. Reading a book would have been nice, if every movement and shift of your multi-layer “snow-suit” didn’t send shivers down your spine. You were too uncomfortable, and it was–at the time–more interesting to drill curious holes into people with your eyes, wondering if they were secretly part of your group, looking for you.
Nope. Not a single person arrived earlier than 10 minutes before the meeting time. Katie spotted a hippie in faded blue jeans and a green Peruvian hat, carrying a blanket wrapped in a trash bag.
“That’s our man,” Katie said, and described him.
He came out of the bathroom and quickly exited the building.
“Nahh… that guy looks kind of homeless,” you said. But wait. You never see homeless people in Belgium. At least not in the winter.
You chased after him, gave him a wide-eyed stare for some recognition, and seemed to startle and discomfort him.
But the awkwardness melted away after your intentions were understood, and you hung around together until other members of the group surfaced. You and Katie strapped on your packs and waited outside the station on the curb with a group of guys, and giggled inwardly when an iconic hippie van rolled up.
The woman behind the wheel was all kinds of energy, colors, and enthusiasm, and she whisked you to the house where you would eventually do the deed.
The house had been prepped for 30 bodies. 30 people tramping through the house with 30 bags, 30 pairs of shoes, and 30 smoking habits. Every cup in the house was out and filled with tea, and ashtrays were everywhere as people rolled their spirit tobacco and puffed away excitedly.
You and Katie were like kids lost in the mall. You didn’t understand Dutch, and everyone but you seemed to know the business: what to bring, where to install, when to install! Someone finally helped you understand that you were to only bring something comfortable, a vomit bucket, toilet paper, and water upstairs. Everything else should stay downstairs.
The room upstairs was small. The floors were covered in large sheets of card stock, taped together to protect against the boots, ash, leaves, vomit, and all the rest that might scuff the floors. The windows were covered as well. At the head of the room, an altar for your Shaman, Tim, and his bottles of murky black poison, essences, etc.
Every bit of space along the wall was taken. It looked like people had prepared for an all-day parade, with chairs, and blankets, musical instruments, cigarettes, but pads, hats, feathers, fans, and anything else one could possibly need for a hippie jam.
You felt like an asshole. American, first of all. Decked out in North Face and Padagonia gear whist the others donned Peruvian hats, ponchos, tweed, yoga clothes, patchworks, and parts of dead animals.
You and Katie were the only two people wearing synthetic materials.
But everyone was very sweet, and a woman helped you and Katie find your seats, intentionally separate from one another.
You and Katie, along with a tall, lean guy from Brussels, were asked to follow one of the assistants (the woman with the hippie van) into a side room where she briefed you about the medicine. The briefing, she said, was necessary for everyone doing ayahuasca for the first time.
But this wasn’t your first time!
“Well yes. But perhaps your first time with Tim,” she replied.
No. You had done it two years ago, in Ireland.
“Oh yes, in Ireland,” she said. “I was there.”
You reminded her of the girl who had the complete and utter meltdown.
“Oh yes! That was you. I was holding your legs!”
Yup. That’s the girl!
She went on to tell you about the proceedings. Everyone would take a turn to state their intention, Tim would bless the medicine, each person would drink a cup–and please, try not to vomit immediately, for it is foul-tasting stuff. You will get sick and then, most likely, and then the medicine will take its full effect.
There are four possibilities. 1: personal hell, from which there is no relief. 2: personal hell, from which there is later some relief. 3: nothing happens; the medicine is subtle at best, and frustrating for those who have high expectations. 4: heaven, light, insight, healing.
You knew all about hell. You figured there was no way you could ever suffer more than you had the first time, when you were climbing the walls, so terrified of what was inside you, and of the violence with which it came out.
And so it went…
The thing about ayahuasca that can be frustrating for people who have never done it is that it is difficult to describe. It is different every time. The best thing you can say is that it’s nausea mixed with bodily tremors, mixed with lucid dreaming, while awake. And as dreams go… they can be as varied as any dream–with components in them that don’t quite make sense.
You can break the laws of physics in your dreams, you can call a cast of characters, you can experience emotions, you can find clarity, or confusion. Dreams don’t play by the rules.
“My name is Maria. This is my second time drinking. My intention tonight is to stop agonizing over things I cannot control and to learn to just go with the flow. A-ho!”
You took your cup and knew within minutes that vomiting would not be an issue for you this time. Earlier, you had reminded Tim of who you were, and he too remembered the screaming kicking girl from Ireland, and how she’d needed two cups and had over-done it. Tim gave you a more sizable dose of the medicine, and it weighed down your stomach like a a milkshake of murky toilet water.
People were gagging and burping, blowing their noses–filling the room with sounds of revulsion and elimination. You burped quietly, and rolled your guts around to massage the medicine and coax it back up to the surface.
The taste was just foul.
You coughed a bit, dry heaved lightly, and coaxed it up.
You remembered how last time, you had refused to acknowledge its presence in your stomach. How you’d felt no nausea. How you had been arrogant with it. And it had punished you. It came out with violence, force, and complete domination over you. This time, you would gently submit to it. Let it win before a fight was started.
Ahhh… the familiar little fractals. The kaleidoscopic visuals. The spirals. The little blurry, scintillating specs over your field of vision. The room was dark. Tim chanted and danced and blessed the members of the group.
Gag, gag, cough, spit!
Deeper down the rabbit hole. More visuals. And then waves. Rocking like on an ocean–like in the open waters of the sea, on a sailboat. You hate boats. You hate water. You hate being sea-sick. And car sick. And swing sick. And hammock sick. And sick from just about everything else that shifts uncontrollably beneath you.
You like the land. You like the mountains. You like the feeling of solid earth beneath your feet. You hate being out of control of your rhythms.
Stop trying to control it. Go with the flow. Go wherever she wants to take you. And then her for it.
So you did. You smiled back at the medicine and thought, “So you’re going to try and make me sea sick, huh? Okay. Now’s a good time to get over this.”
She didn’t wait there long. You caught onto her tricks. She spun you in a circle and took you through a worm hole. Through space-time. She showed you gravity, and the universe, and the schematics of both. She showed you mathematics, lines, maps, and symmetry. Beautiful, natural symmetry.
Cough, cough, hack, gag, puke! Spit into the bucket.
Drops of water. Particles and waves. The camera of your mind panned over innumerable things, mostly beautiful, and if not, scary in a comical way. Chinese dragons, dwarves, gnomes…
You remind yourself to sit up. To open your channels. The medicine wants out. You lift your chest and breathe deeply.
Whoa! That was sudden. She was there, hiding in your throat, waiting to spring out. You gagged and heaved, but it felt stifled. She didn’t have the space to pass. Little bits of her would squeeze out, and in return, little bits of beautiful images would pass as well. But it wasn’t enough.
You imagined a long vent inside you, from your tail bone all the way to your throat. You needed to open it. You had to allow the medicine to blow out all the crap–all the smoke–all the spiritual garbage blocking its flow. And then the rest could come as well.
You leaned over your bucket with a wide open mouth–a wide open throat–and let her rip.
Okay, okay… so even when you vomit with an open throat, it still sounds like someone is skinning a cat; perhaps you felt a little self-conscious, since you were one of the first people to vomit violently. But whatever.
You pressed against the sides of the bucket, and immediately remembered alcohol poisoning in Bosnia. The sickest you have ever been.
You launched yourself out of the vehicle onto the pavement, braced your palms against the ground as though you were trying to push it down to China, and you vomited. Splash! The chunks sprayed over your forearms.
But the medicine did not leave you puking as long. You had a few intense, gut-wringing, rib-cracking, panting, breathless heaves, and the black ooze sprung forth cooperatively.
You broke into a sweat and hot flashes swept through your body. For a moment, you were scared. Scared that she would take you back to hell again, where you’d already been. But she didn’t.
A short heave, for there was no air. A lumpy mass, small like a mouse, slipped past your throat, out of your mouth, and splashed into the bucket like a pinched turd.
Did you really just puke up a lump?
You have no idea what it was, or if it happened. You never saw your vomit bucket again.
The journey really began.
Cartoons, mostly. In clay, and in paper cut-outs. Industrial images. Mining. Dragons. Old world. New world. Everything. Not chaos. Just random. Things unrelated, morphing into each other.
Nothing made sense. It wasn’t supposed to. Your intention was to just go with the flow. You let the medicine show you everything and anything it wanted. It didn’t matter. It was totally random. And every time you tried to focus on any one thing…
–it would stop.
She wouldn’t let you see it if you tried to stop her in her tracks and think about what you were seeing.
It doesn’t have to make sense.
For hours you lie there, on your side, hat pulled down over your eyes and mouth, to filter out the cloud of smoke. People stood and sat, danced and rocked, played music and drummed their bodies. You preferred it all on the floor, curled up like you were ready to sleep. Perhaps you were.
The music was beautiful and organic, and you let it guide your meaningless visuals until someone rocked you, told you to sit up, so she could blow smoke in your face and pray for you. Okay… minus the fact that you were dying from smoke inhalation.
The ceremony ended after 2am… about 5 hours in total. Katie stared across the room at your with the visage of someone who’d just seen the world the the first time. You, on the other hand, probably looked tired. All day you’d waited in the cold, you were underfed, dehydrated, under-slept, under-warm, and just exhausted from puking and dreaming random shit. But you were glad to see that she made it out alive–or, errr, at least sane.
You let her scoot over to you, and after you’d made your beds, she told you all about how she’d killed a grizzly bear, and slept atop the snow with three wolves as her blankets.