Inside the clapboard temple, the gnostic Shamanists had all their bases covered. Glittering posters of the Hindu deity Krishna hung next to paintings of Jesus Christ and drawings of creaturesque statues from a pre-Incan civilization. A candle was placed on a rug in the center of the room along with a makeshift altar and a cross made of sticks. "This is what Christmas is truly about," Manque Runa (spirit name) began.
"Not new clothes or Reggaeton, but about connecting with the Mother Earth and to God."
With that, he dipped a wooden cup into the pot of hallucinogenic yagé tea and passed it to me.
Manque Runa spent three years studying the preparation of this tea, a mixture of its namesake plant and a few others of the psychotria variety that are found in the Amazon. These mixing plants contain the psychotropic compound N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which can trigger sounds and images in the brain that many perceive as manifestations of past lives, ethereal truths, and voices of supreme beings. The yagé itself protects and activates the DMT-carrying plants as they enter the body, where our guts are wired to identify them as toxic and to get rid of them. For indigenous groups of the Amazon, the plants are medicine for the body and the spirit. South of the Putumayo region, yagé is called ayahuasca. For the gnostic Shamanists who call themselves the Arrayanes after a local tree species, they are also a sort of eucharist — their way of consuming something in order to physically and spiritually connect with the deities hanging from their walls.
"The plants are the base of everything for us," Manque Runa said.
Like most of the 40 or so Arrayanes living between the community's two farms, Manque Runa didn't grow up in an indigenous community. Like most Colombians, he was raised in a Catholic home and found gnostic shamanism in an effort to overcome addictions and find deeper meaning in his life. The spiritual following, or vocation as some described it to me, was established 25 years ago by a group of men who grew up in Caldas, a department in the primary coffee growing region of Colombia. The founders married a belief in gnostic Christianity, indigenous plant worship, and Vedic philosophies from India with permaculture farming and communal living. They spent time with indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon before some spread their teachings to England and others to Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
My first few days with the Arrayanes were spent planting lettuce and preparing garden beds. They took me around to see their sacred plants from all over the world. We collected and ate tubers and leaves I had seen in Colombia but hadn't known I could eat. Plants were everywhere, hidden behind other plants, growing from car tires, and sprouting next to the paths. The Arrayanes grow about 70 percent of what they consume, packaging and selling bean sprouts to pay for the rest. Though they are trying to grow the plants necessary to making yagé, they've only successfully grown a few of the psychotrias, so they receive their plants from an indigenous community in the Putumayo. The yagé itself needs a very tropical climate, and the Arrayanes' farms are in a sub-tropical mountain range.
In the mornings, I helped make bread and learned how to make soymilk during long-winded conversations about their spirituality and a myriad of conspiracy theories involving the United States government and aliens. I was reminded many times that if I was on my period I could not participate in the yagé ceremony. During this time, the women go to a separate house where they craft or paint because, as several men told me, "Women's bodies are going through purification and it is a time of very distinct energy." They sang "Hare Krishna Hare Rama" while working throughout the day and recommended books by Samael Aun Weor (spirit name), the founder of gnostic Christianity in Colombia and their "Avatar of Aquarius," the leader of our current astrological age.
On Christmas Eve, we sat in the temple and passed around a joint that came from a jar labeled "Santa Flauta," and they asked me what I thought about God. I started off on a yarn about how I was not at all religious, that I'd never needed a divine figure to assign meaning to my life and I didn't believe I was on some preordained path. I told them I am here, now, energy just like everything else, and that I am content spending the rest of my life asking questions that I may never have answers to.
A few nodding heads and silence ensued.
"Alejandra," Manque Runa said to me with the group's characteristically soft tones and piercing eye contact, "you have to believe." Then everyone grabbed an instrument from a pile in the corner and we sang "Hare Krishna Hare Rama."
The next day was Christmas, and as we were washing the dishes from breakfast, Paula (spirit name unknown) confronted me with the stare. "You know Alejandra, there's a world inside of you, and it's the most important world to explore." She handed me a machete and we went off to hack at weeds in order to connect with Mother Earth before the ceremony. "Pray, Alejandra. Meditate."
In the evening we gathered in the temple, women on one side of the room, men on the other. We were all dressed in white tunics and the men paired these with loose white pants and the women with long white skirts. Practi (spirit name) wore a necklace of jaguar teeth and Puncha (spirit name) wore a feather headdress. We sat on cushions facing one another and a curtain had been drawn to cover the area where Manque Runa prepared the tea.
Everything around me was vibrating. A voice distinctly feminine and not mine introduced itself as the plant and told me it was a friend.
I took down the lukewarm liquid in four big gulps. It was rusty-brown and had the taste of bitter coffee and stomach acid. I returned to sit on the floor while everyone pulled out fans of dried Huayra leaves and shook them around their heads like tambourines. They chanted in indiscernible languages in which I could only make out "Kriiiissshhhnaaaaa" and "yaaaaagéééé." Then, silence. After about 40 minutes, I took off running from the temple in my socks with the intense urge to heave. When I had finished, everything around me was vibrating. Inside the temple, I looked at the ceiling, the men on the other side of the room, and the candle, which was shooting off colorful prisms of light in every direction. A voice distinctly feminine and not mine introduced itself as the plant and told me it was a friend.
As I write this, I realize how ridiculous it may sound, but it was a joyful experience. Manque Runa asked if anyone would like more and, thinking the plant and I were in cahoots, I went to take down another cup of the tea. I was mistaken. This time, I curled up in a ball on my mat, lightly shaking. My stomach was ready to be rid of the last of its contents and I took off again from the temple, wandering around in the darkness on wobbly legs, trying to balance with shaking arms. A chorus of heaves echoed in the background and I joined them, ridding myself of more liquids than I thought I had in me. I wrapped myself in blankets and closed my eyes, going in and out of sleep while they played wooden flutes and sang "Hare Krishna Hare Rama" until the early morning.
At breakfast we all talked about our experiences. Some had seen Mapuches, indigenous peoples from the south of Chile, with us in the room. Others had seen the room expanding around us, turning into jungle. "It was really good that you drank twice, Alejandra," Manque Runa said, "and you threw up a lot, that's really good." I felt a little clearer, a little calmer than I had in awhile. I told them about the plant voice I heard in my head and they didn't look at me like I was crazy at all. We returned to working on the farm where everything continued to bloom more colorful and untamed like the Shamanists who tried to keep up with it all.
"The growth we have each day here is tremendous," Manque Runa said, "It's on a whole other level."