Tuesday, July 12, 2016
Coconut, Botox and Ayahuasca
For my birthday, Ant (my incredible boyfriend) took me to Vilanculos in Mozambique, and we went with some wonderful friends. It was a decade-long dream come true for me. This particular birthday, my 37th, has been so auspicious that it may as well have been my 40th. It is beautiful there. We walked on powdered white gold beaches alongside the mangroves; that felt like apple crumble crusts beneath my feet when dry, and like sinking into an apple puree once immersed in the azure waters. We visited thatched huts and abandoned ruins and enjoyed happy chats with the locals, always ready to sell us something, from crabs and tomatoes to sunset ‘dhow’ cruises and even the land beneath our feet. I wondered what it must be like to live there. I looked at my bustling life and the chaos that is Joburg from there, and it seemed so ridiculous in comparison. During the day we explored the bustling village market, munched on deliciously charred cashews and de-shagged and sliced coconut and bought a starchy cassava from a lady who had been taking a snooze among her goods, despite the bustle around her stall. We freed octopuses and seahorses from the locals’ fishing nets and returned them to the sea in exchange for handfuls of meticais. Otherwise, we lounged around, snoozed, read and swam and enjoyed one another’s company. I got to spend more time in my skin relaxing, and I felt a renewed sense of wonder at life and appreciation for space I get to occupy in this world. Evenings were mouthfuls of beer or crisp white wine and buttery garlic and lemon zested prawns around luxurious tables of laughter as the sun would sink into poster-kitsch pastel coloured skies. In this incredible location, I felt my first birthday shift. Although poor, these people seemed to live so well. The steady diet of naartjie, nuts, fish and coconut has created a healthy and vibrant community. There was no obesity, and everybody had mouthfuls of radiant teeth. The little girls were adorned with brightly coloured beads in their hair alongside mothers wrapped in fabulously printed fabric around their hips. I saw one man with eyes yellowed by malaria, but everyone else seemed to be the picture of health. The men were athletic and trim, and the women seemed robust and majestic. Even the street dogs, although slim, had coats that shone in the sun. We visited an island where pansy shells (I’ve always believed to be so rare) were plentifully strewn along the beach, where I enjoyed an hour long hike with just my love, a bee-eater and a herd of invisible goats (we only saw their spoor). I also enjoyed meeting the author of 104 Horses, Mandy Retzlaff, who runs a tourist horse safari company in Vilanculos with her husband. Chatting to someone who has answered the call to adventure after losing everything and then having stepped up to “do the right thing” and save the lives of as many abandoned horses as possible, is deeply inspirational. Ant organised a signed copy of the book for me and reading about their ups and downs, triumphs and losses have made me crave a life less ordinary for myself. It forced me to realise how much I also want my life to be a great story, a story of twists and turns and heroism and bravery, a story that will encourage others to follow their hearts to do noble things too. During one of our Vilanculos walks, we came across a mansion that had been built on the beach by a very wealthy man. We met the caretaker of the property and learned about the owner, who had recently hosted a massive birthday party in the monolith. The picture painted of this man was not one that brought about any admiration, but rather conjured a mean and unscrupulous person who would do anything to make a deal. The house, although an architectural marvel, lacks soul and stands like a monument to cold concrete and heartless steel among the otherwise lush, haphazard greens of palm trees, baobabs and simple village life. The man is not very well loved and many of the guests were heard by the caretaker to make it known that they were in attendance for the food and drink and not due to any fondness felt towards the host and his cause for celebration. In light of this information, the house now resembled an overpriced prison that stands in testament to an overinflated ego in sad yet expensive isolation. When the caretaker thought we had all left, she squatted and peed at the doorstep of the mansion, not knowing that we could still see her. An act of defiance that illustrated perfectly what her sentiments truly were towards the place and he who financed it. Mozambique crept into my heart, and I promised to return there when the “ayshes, prayshes and stayshes” of the Portuguese air hostess announced that we had landed safely at O. R. Tambo airport. I swore that I would slow down a bit more and take things easier as I had seen how effectively this seemed to work for the villagers in Vilanculos. Once back in the Jozi smoke, I decided to try a few other things for the first time to celebrate my birthday. I bought a voucher on Groupon and made my very first Botox appointment. I have a frown crease between my eyebrows that becomes pronounced whenever I concentrate or pay extra attention to something that someone may be saying to me, and some people have for some reason found this habitual expression of mine, unnerving. For example, one morning during my copywriting days, I formed part of a small team presenting a new campaign to one of our big FSP clients in Centurion. The one woman kept asking me if I was “okay” because my frowning seemed to indicate to her that I was not happy with what she was saying, or that I did not understand her. One of my colleagues later told me that I also resembled someone holding in a fart when I had that expression. I decided to Botox just this crease and saw what it would be like. The entire thing took less than 15 minutes and was relatively painless, so as new experiences go, it barely registered as a blip on the remarkable radar. A bit of an anticlimax. I put a toxin into my skin to stop it creasing, and it was mostly underwhelming. What I planned to do next was going to have to pack more oomph. So, I planned a trip away on a retreat to drink Ayahuasca and San Pedro in the mountains with a shaman and a whole bunch of other people I had never met before in my life. I wanted to connect to divinity and get some answers from the universe. I had heard that these “plant medicines” could help me to stretch my consciousness and heal parts of myself in an unconscious way, and I was ready to give it a bash. I arrived the Thursday night before along with the others to get to know one another a bit better before the ceremonies that would take place over the following two days. The drinking of Ayahuasca or San Pedro often causes “purging”, which can be vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as spontaneous laughter, crying and experiencing visions. So, getting to know one another first before seeing one another in such intimate or strange situations only made sense. There was about thirty of us, and most of us had never taken the medicines before, so the air was static with nerves that night. We had all heard mixed stories about the experiences of other people, some good, others horrific and we were all trying to soothe ourselves as the minutes passed towards our first ceremony together. Friday morning at eight AM we all convened in a yoga hall. Each of us was given a mattress, and we fetched pillows and blankets to make our snuggly beds. It was cold, so I filled my furry puppy hot water bottle and felt my heart rate spike as I watched the little cups of crystallised cactus being prepared. I only started to feel any effects after my second tot. It was like a warm drunken haze that seemed to cast itself over me as I lay propped on cushions looking out of the huge glass windows at the beautiful natural surroundings outside the yoga hall. The light began to take on an ethereal quality, and everyone seemed to be beaming with a radiant expression. A few people seemed to go into their own world’s, and I saw one woman lift her blanket over her head and begin to tremble gently as she wept for an unknowable list of sorrows. I started to think of my pain and was suddenly struck by the sadness and the absurdity of the recent bombings in Istanbul and then stone-skipped to the senseless atrocity that was the Orlando massacre. I felt hot syrupy tears streaming down my face as I lay among these strangers, crying for the dislocated soul that could have done such a terrible thing. How alone he must have been. How broken. Soon I felt myself begin to resurface as the effects of the mescaline began to wear off. That afternoon I ate some fruit and sat on a couch on the porch under a blanket, watching hornbills playing in the trees. We were to meet in the yoga hall again at 6 pm for the first Ayahuasca ceremony. My first impression of the San Pedro had been very pleasant and mild, and I hoped that the Ayahuasca would be more potent, and provide a bigger experience, although I had heard that there’s a very real possibility that I wouldn’t feel anything at all, as the medicine can decide to work on you in a subtle way during ceremony and give you no sensation, other than nausea. That night amidst the chanting and sage smoke I was beginning to think that this would be my fate as I had already taken the second dose and could hardly feel anything. One of the facilitators asked me if I wanted to try rapé (pronounced Ha – Peh) to see if that would help the experience along. He placed a wooden straw in my nostril and instructed me to close the back of my throat with my tongue. He then blew a mixture of ash and ground tobacco into my nose and then repeated the process into my other nostril. My sinuses felt as though they had been set on fire and hot tears blurred my vision as I breathed through my mouth due to my now blocked and stinging nostrils. I was completely helpless and realised that my arms were in the air above my head, my eyes still blinded with tears. Then it began to hit me. As I lowered my arms and tilted my head back, my minds eye was flooded with a multitude of patterns as an unknown energy seemed to spout from my solar plexus through to the top of my head. Before the ceremony, I had asked to connect with some kind of divinity, and suddenly I was surrounded by images of various deities all around me as if I had been enfolded in a sheet of kinetic gold-detailed wallpaper. They shifted and twirled into one another, Ganesha morphing into Shiva and then Jesus into Mary and her Sacred Heart and then the star of David, and so on. Everyone was there. Every God I had ever seen or heard of, Kabbalistic symbols and burning bushes. There were crosses and all manner of symbols of divinity, and they were all doing the same thing. They were all looking directly at me. They could see me, and they wanted me to know that I could rest assured because they were indeed watching over me. At one point I also so the blue-green face of a pleiedianesque alien looking down on me. Its expression was neutral and betrayed no emotion whatsoever. It just wanted me to know that it was there, and it could see me. At that moment I wondered if I had summoned it or if my imagination merely created it. I still can’t be sure. When I fully returned to consciousness, it was six o clock in the morning, and almost everyone had left the hall to return to their beds. I got up to shower and drink some water because the next ceremony, San Pedro again, would happen at 8 am – in less than two hours. I walked out of the hall stepping high with white lines flashing in the periphery of every place I landed my eyes. I still felt slightly high when we all reconvened for the third ceremony at 8 am, the hot water renewed and deliciously toasty in the puppy-shaped water bottle I cradled on my lap. I took another two doses of the San Pedro that morning and soon felt swept up in the collective trancelike state that the entire group began to fall under. One by one we found ourselves overcome by intense emotional sensations that would leave us crying uncontrollably and then be laughing unbridled. One small Indian woman began to hyperventilate and then thrust back against the wall behind her, her eyes rolling up into her head as she began to bleat a steady haunting chant of: “Love…Love…Love…Love…Love…” and we all writhed and rocked in rhythm with her chanting. It was exquisitely beautiful. Some of us wept while others chanted “Love..” in unison with her. One guy began to purge into his bucket and laugh with maniacal abandon as he did so. He demonstrated a lunatic liberty that we all seemed to be feeling. I felt so connected to all these strangers, so free, so much Love! The grinning young shaman’s apprentice entered the hall with a tray of the most delicious looking fruit, and we were warned that the fructose in the fruit could have a dramatic effect on the medicine, so we should not leave the hall if we decided to have some. I had some crisp moons of apple and a mushy handful of papaya that tasted like heaven and then lay back down on my bed. Moments later my hips and pelvis began to tremble and then shake uncontrollably, and I could do nothing to stop it. I looked out over the blankets through the window across the yoga hall and then saw everything in my line of vision fill with an intricate pattern of flashing specks. The specks began to shift and drift across my vision in an intelligent formation and then I felt my mind began to crack open like an egg. My mind started collapsing like a Jenga tower, and my consciousness began to stretch, stress and then break into itself as I left my body and everything that I have every known behind. I tried to stay calm and release and open my palms as I felt my mind slip out of what I had come to know as the world. Here we go… I was gone. I was now part of a massive black vortex that fell within the travelling loops of an infinity sign. I was looking into and fusing with the black void of infinite potential and knew that I was all things, all things that have ever been and have ever been. I was no longer the fragmented issue-ridden person that was living a certain life with specific challenges; I was all of the perfection, everything that was and ever will be possible. Gradually, my vision began to return to me, but the epiphany remained: Life is a joke. There is the only perfection. None of us is in truth anything resembling the fears and shortcomings that we use as currency in the illusion that is our perceived realities. There is nothing to fix because there is nothing broken and there is nothing missing or gone because there is nothing lost. I was laughing again. I got it. I got the joke. It’s ALL a joke. As I began to squeeze my mind back into my tiny little body again as the San Pedro wore off, I understood that all my fears and all the pain I have ever harbored is so insignificant and infinitesimal in the greater scope of the infinite potential that I had caught a glimpse of, because this is and always will be who and what I really am. I had died to myself and had been gripped with a very real fear that I would never be able to return, that I had properly, as the expression goes, lost my mind. It was already 4 pm when I could stand and walk myself to the toilet to pee. Everyone else was sitting outside in the sun chatting and sharing their experiences, but I couldn’t get my body to fit properly just yet. I felt like everything I was doing was in slow motion but all around me, time was moving at a crazy pace because the next thing I knew it was 6 pm and we were all in the yoga hall again, about to take our final dose of medicine, Ayahuasca again. That night I felt the medicine in my gut surging through my veins, and I even braved the second dose again, but decided not to have another go of the rapé, because I needed to integrate everything I had seen and felt during the San Pedro and took the opportunity to rest and shift my mind into more comfortable places over the next 8 hours. I’m still not 100% sure what happened to me during those ceremonies. I know that I had at least one “activation” during my second San Pedro experience and I “journeyed” into another frame of consciousness beyond the frames I have come to know before. I believe that a lot of the medicine that the plants implement does so at a subconscious level, so I am looking forward to seeing which other ways healing may still manifest in my life as a result of these experiences. One thing I know for sure is that the image of the black vortex of unlimited potential that I can still see behind my closed eyes does wonders to make me realise how insignificant so many of my fears and insecurities are. I can’t let myself get stressed or too worked up about anything when I have infinite potential just behind my eyelids. There is so much more to working hard and stressing harder. There are many other ways to be, and I have a choice – we all do. I am so blessed and so grateful for the last 37 years and exposing myself to these different realities was an incredibly powerful gift to bestow upon myself. A very happy birthday it was indeed.