On the night of June 2, 2016, I set out into the forests north of Huautla de Jiménez, a town in the State of Oaxaca, looking for Salvia divinorum. I wore a poncho with a vaquero (cowboy) sombrero and kept my left hand thrust inside a ceremonial conch. My path crossed through private land, and dogs barked, loudly and continuously, from small houses obscured by trees. I climbed a hill and saw the plants, first a few scattered across the damp soil surrounding a brook, and then, as I climbed higher, several dozen more growing in a massive stand.
When cultivated indoors from cuttings, Salvia divinorum tends to have a sickly appearance; the leaves fall frequently and without warning, and the quadrangular stem has a habit of breaking when the plant grows more than a few feet in height. But what I saw in Huautla was different; they were almost as tall as me, with thick stems and large old leaves riddled with holes from insect predation. Following instructions laid out by an elderly curandera (healer and shaman) who'd sent me into the forest in traditional Mazatec dress, I pinched each leaf from the stem with my right hand (my left hand was still in a conch) until I had collected 30 leaves.
Holding the leaves, I walked back to the shaman's home in Huautla and entered her ceremonial room, a small cement box adorned with Catholic icons. The shaman sat me in a small wooden chair and began to chant in Mazatec while washing the leaves in a bowl of water. She then rolled them into tight tubes containing either one or two leaves, depending on their size. She handed me the tubes, and I ate them intently without speaking. The leaves were bitter, but not overwhelmingly so, and I chewed them slowly and thoroughly before swallowing to ensure they stayed in prolonged contact with my oral mucosa.
Twelve minutes after I had placed the first leaf in my mouth, I felt the effects: I had begun to sweat, and a rhythm moved through my body, causing me to rock back-and-forth in the wooden chair. But the shaman continued to roll and offer the leaves, and I continued to eat them. Over the course of 21 minutes, I chewed and swallowed eight leaf rolls, which each contained ten leaves, and then the shaman felt I had eaten enough. She stopped preparing them. My teeth and lips were deeply stained with chlorophyll, and I very much wanted to drink water but didn't ask because I felt uncomfortable interrupting her incantations.
For two and a half hours, I sat and listened to the shaman's velada (vigil), not understanding the meaning of her words, but feeling moved by the serious attentiveness of her ritual and her reverence for the plant. My hearing remained completely undistorted, even enhanced in its acuity, but I was overcome by strange vestibular hallucinations, like a force emanating from the whorls of the conch still on my hand. The pink and blue ribbons of the shaman's huipil (a traditional garment) glowed brightly, and when my eyes were closed, I saw visions of Salvia divinorum growing, each node seeming to emerge from the previous node like a series of pharyngeal jaws telescoping infinitely from the mouth of a moray eel.
The shaman massaged me and rubbed green tobacco on my body, and we danced together under the moonlight. Three hours after I had begun chewing the leaves, I still wasn't sober, though I was well enough aware to be confused by the duration of the drug's effect. Usually, the experience only lasts about an hour. At 4 AM, I felt it was time to go regardless of my state, and as I left the shaman's ceremonial room, she produced a photograph of Salvia divinorum growing in the sun. Her husband asked to trade ponchos with me, and I returned their conch and sombrero. Four hours and ten minutes after I'd first felt the effects, I remained in an altered state, but was able to go to bed. The shaman's husband assured me that I would have vivid dreams that night, but my sleep was black and dreamless.
Here are some photos and select translations from the ceremony.—HAMILTON MORRIS
Hamilton Morris is the host of Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, a TV show that takes its audience on a journey through the history, chemistry, and societal impacts of the world's most extraordinary drugs. Watch it now on VICELAND.