The Miraculous, the Bad and the Ugly (mostly the latter two): Despatches from Dieta
Following my last blog, I want to engage you in another thought experiment. The story that will be told below happened to me but I have written it in the second person to encourage you to empathically identify with and live through the events described.
At the end of this tale you will be posed a question.
It is around 2am. You are sitting completely in the dark on a pile of stacked, slatted wood in an elevated, three-quarter constructed, wooden dining-room that is part of a complex of four traditional wooden buildings in an L-shape (see photo above) interlinked by bridges made of wooden planks.
At 9pm the previous evening you drank a full cup of possibly the strongest medicine you have ever experienced. It’s the second ceremony of a five-ceremony, ten-day dieta in the home of your Shipibo Maestro in his community close to deep jungle five hours downriver by fast boat from the Peruvian city of Pucallpa.
The mareación came on very quickly and strongly.
At some point in that long night, you realized you could not stop yourself starting to shit in your pants – just a little at first. You have heard about this happening to other people but this is your first direct experience. No matter how hard you clamp down on your sphincter a little of the shit leaks out.
You decide you have to get to the bathroom. That is when your problems really begin.
You find your flashlight, raise the large mosquito net in which the ceremony is being conducted in an open-walled wooden building, and crawl under it. Your flip-flops are in front of you – carefully positioned before the ceremony to be used to go to the bathroom. You carefully climb down the three wooden stairs that take you to the ground and walk diagonally across the earthy area that leads to the other buildings in the complex and beyond them the bathroom. It is pitch black. There is no moon and the stars are obscured by clouds.
As you walk, holding your flashlight carefully to illuminate the way, the movement results in you being further unable to control the desire to shit and more shit leaks out. It is weird because you feel you have complete control of your sphincter but despite your best efforts to hold it shut you are powerless to prevent the flow of shit. The need to get to the bathroom is becoming urgent.
For some reason, and this is first of a number of critical errors that night, you have decided to go to the bathroom furthest from where you are now. You go there because it’s the bathroom you know best – the nearer ones have at other times of the year been inaccessible because of floods and so – like a shitty, wounded animal – you want to get back to a familiar lair.
That requires walking under the wooden plank bridge that connects the dining room to your Maestro’s daughters house.
But first you have to get some clean clothes to be able to change into them. That means going up the four stairs of the dining room in order to walk through the dining room on your left, cross another wooden plank bridge and find your clothes in the first of the four wooden sleeping cubicles. As you walk up the stairs, trying to concentrate on not shitting more, one of your flip-flops falls off and seems to get dislodged somewhere.
The effort of finding it leads to even more shit irresistibly oozing out of your useless sphincter. The sense of urgency to reach first some trousers and underwear and then the bathroom increases. You decide to leave the flip-flop where it is, take off the other one and continue.
The next part you can’t recall so clearly. The mareación seems to be coming on even stronger rather than easing off as it often does when you have to go to the bathroom.
In retrospect, when you try to retrace your steps the next day, it seems likely you got into the dining room and stopped for a while to try to compose yourself. Your next memory is setting out again towards the sleeping area but you may have headed in the wrong direction. By now confusion is also setting in, shit is still following its unstoppable course, and you decide you have to get to the bathroom without getting the clean clothes first. The situation is more pressing by the moment.
Then, unintentionally, you step off the elevated wooden structure into space. For a few blissful moments, you are weightlessly falling. Then your body, mostly head first, hits the ground with a large thud. Your head has fallen about nine feet – the six feet of your body and then the three feet from the platform to the ground. You have never experienced your body as such a dead weight in the moment that it makes contact with the earth. Its a shocking moment. The next day, your two companions who are doing the ten day dieta with you tell you that the thud was distinctly heard about 50 meters away.
By some miracle, you don’t seem to be seriously injured although your head has suffered a major blow. This is the dry season and the earth is hard and compacted. There does not seem to be blood or swelling though. Also, by some other miracle, you still seem to have your flashlight with you.
That thought the next day gives you shivers similar to the time thirty years back when you got drunk at a training event for your first major client in the private sector, stepped onto the table in the fancy private room where the last night dinner was being held and tried to swing gently on the chandelier.
As you swung, the chandelier slightly dislodged from the ceiling, but – thank God, and thanks to all the angels and other spiritual beings who protect you (whose patience you think you must be wearing thin by now) – it did not come completely away from the ceiling.
The next thing you recall is two Shipibo men who were at the ceremony and who were on their way home calling your name. They get you to your feet. You, embarrassed and thinking you must smell badly of shit, tell them you are OK and are going to the bathroom, a raised wooden hut now about twenty meters away.
As you stagger off in that direction, one of them tells you that you are heading to the chicken coop. Even more embarrassed now (amazing that in all this, these social processes still hold some sway) you change tack. One of them takes your arm and guides you to the bathroom. Now you have three more wooden stairs to climb before you can pull your trousers and underwear down, and sink onto the crudely carved wooden toilet seat. Finally full release.
After you have met your immediate needs, the gravity of the situation starts to sink in. You touch your head to make sure it’s OK. A sharp pain is gathering in your upper left rib cage. The following day that will be diagnosed as three cracked ribs.
Your shitty pants and underwear are gathered around your ankles. You can’t for the moment get them off as you have tucked your socks into your trouser legs. This problem seems insuperable. All you can do is sit on the toilet for what seems an eternity. Later, you think that you were probably suffering from concussion.
After who knows how long you hear your Maestro’s voice outside. He has come to check on you and is asking if you are OK. You say that you are, genuinely believing yourself to be, and that you are just resting before making what seems like the impossibly long trek back to find clean clothes, wash yourself, change into the clean clothes and take your place back at the ceremony.
You stay sat on the toilet for what seems like another eternity. Once again, as if from another world, you hear your Maestro’s voice asking you if you are OK.
His voice the second time spurs you to action. You manage to solve the problem of freeing your trousers from your socks and take them off together with your very shitty pants. You clean yourself with toilet paper as best you can.
Now half-naked wearing only your Virgin of Guadalupe T-shirt and socks, and clutching a dirty bundle of clothes in one hand and your flashlight in the other, you very carefully make your way down the toilet steps and walk back to the complex of buildings, ducking your head to walk under the wooden plank bridge you fell off, turn right and climb the steps back into the dining room.
At some point in this you let go of the dirty clothes you are holding.
Back in the dining room, disoriented, you stop to think where your clean clothes are. With the help of the flashlight, you find the exit to the separate sleeping area, cross another shorter wooden plank bridge, and miraculously there are clean trousers and underwear hanging on the line outside your cubicle. You grab these, put them on, retrace your steps, and recross the shorter wooden plank bridge.
By now you feel exhausted and the pain in your ribs is making itself increasingly felt. At least though you have no more desire to shit. But feeling so tired you sit down. Your Mr Bean-like antics have on other occasions amused people but you have taken it to a whole new level this time.
Again it seems like you sit for an eternity in the dark. You probably are concussed. You seem to come round and realize you no longer have shoes and don’t know where you have left your shitty clothes. Also you no longer remember where you are sitting. You put your hand down to pick up your flashlight to start to look for your clothes but grubbing around in the dark, it is nowhere to be found.
What do you do?
PS As my friend Ian once wrote, if anyone thinks that drinking ayahuasca is a recreational drug or escapism, please put them in contact with me and ask them to read this article.
PSS A few days after this experience, I remembered what I had written on Facebook five days before going away to do my dieta.
“Back on the medicine horse after a seven week break. Beautiful ride – exhilarating galloping, sublime cantering, good steady trotting and comfortable walking. Not yet ready though for the steeplechase. Important to remember too the old English proverb that “pride comes before a fall””