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What I Learned From Tripping on Chocolate in a Public Park

I'll never be free and comfortable enough to dance in the tall grass, do a handstand or ecstatically climb a tree while bleeding.

av Jeppe Øvig
2016 07 01, 1:15pm

Illustrations by Erik Pontoppidan

This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark

Recently, it was reported that there is a nightclub in Berlin, where clubbers get high on chocolate pills and drinks. Not being a cool, crazy kid myself, I intend to leave that kind of experience to those who can wear it and get myself into something entirely different today. I am about to partake in a spiritual ritual that involves drinking raw cacao imported from Guatemala – in the serene, leafy setting of Copenhagen's Søndermarken Park. The raw cacao is supposed to send you on a trip, heal any suppressed trauma and allow you to communicate with Mayan deities. I've also been told to expect to do some crying. It all sounds very promising, but I'm mostly just hoping for a fun trip.

The experience I've signed up for has been organised by a group called The Heart Space, which worships cacao as a natural remedy. For the honour of letting me take part in their ritual, I have transferred 150 Danish kroner (€18) to their bank account. It's late in the afternoon but still sunny, when I sit down at the entrance of Søndermarken Park.

One by one, my fellow cacao-nauts appear. No one appears already to know each other, but we are encouraged to hug. We follow our spiritual guru, Ida – who normally works in a daycare centre – to a clearing in the park. That's where Ida's colleague Christina awaits us. The sweet smell of cacao is in the air, blankets and pillows are strewn about in a circle big enough for 15 people, and there's a quilt in the centre of it. On the quilt are crystals, jade eggs and flowers, arranged in the shape of a cross. The cross has been topped with a Bluetooth speaker. Some nearby bushes are adorned with colourful flags.

I sit down next to a guy, who I'd started talking to on the way to the clearing. In an unmistakably German accent, he informs me that he has tried cacao once before –in an indoor swimming pool with drum circles. I assume that sitting next to someone with experience will bode well for my first ceremony. He certainly looks like he's a connoisseur: he has a beard, long slicked-back hair and a faraway look in his eyes, while his shoes have toes.

We aren't allowed to drink the cacao until everyone has been passed a cup. While Ida and Christina pour, they tell us about the history of cacao. They explain that cacao was considered divine in ancient Mayan and Aztec mythology – that it was thought to have the power to connect the physical world and the spiritual worlds. It was referred to as "lifeblood" or "food of the gods" and used for everything, from blessing soldiers before a battle to birthing rituals and weddings. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus once had a curious meeting with some Aztec Indians – he thought they had dropped a handful of almonds and was surprised to see the flustered Aztecs scrambling around in the dirt over a couple of almonds. He later learned that the Aztecs used cacao as currency and what they were scrambling for were cocoa beans. Conquistadors raiding the Aztec palaces hoping to find huge caches of gold and silver, were disappointed to find tons of beans instead.

The bitter bean only caught on with Europeans after Dutchman Coenraad Johannes van Houten came up with a method for refining it into a powder that could easily be mixed with milk or water. And sugar, naturally.

The cacao is thick and heavy – it tastes as much like Cadbury as Velcro feels like puppy fur.

As we drink our cacao, we're told that the same refinement process is to blame for filtering out the hundreds of active ingredients that enrich the heart and soul. The cacao we're drinking hasn't been desecrated like that. There are three main types of cacao: there's the delicate Criollo, the regular Forastero, and then there's Trinitario, which is sort of a hybrid of the former two. Forastero and Trinitario are used to make cacao and chocolate for the masses, but we're told it's the Criollo bean you want to use for rituals. In Guatemala, where Ida bought the cacao, a kilo costs around 110 kroner (€13). Purchasing the imported stuff in Copenhagen is about three times as expensive. Which means they've put about 15 kroner (€1.80) worth of cacao in a drink I've paid 150 kroner for.

The cacao is thick and heavy – it tastes as much like Cadbury as Velcro feels like puppy fur. I can feel the individual cacao fibres on my tongue and the drink sticks to my teeth. Forty two grams of cacao (the maximum dosage per cup) has been mixed with mint tea, with cayenne pepper to quicken absorption into the bloodstream, plus a pinch of cinnamon and salt to take the edge off the taste. There's obviously no sugar, but we are offered agave and organic honey to sweeten the mixture. "Naturally, everything is Fairtrade," Christina notes. The circle laughs, but I don't get the joke. I down the mixture, which is pure and bitter.

As I drink, something starts to stir in my body. I feel a warm, tingling sensation spreading through my chest, my head is buzzing and it's as if a hand is lifting my eyes a bit, from the inside of my skull. Ida and Christina sing and whistle as they take turns playing a vast amount of different instruments throughout the four-hour seance. There are massive drums, ornate cymbals, Tibetan bowls that sound like a wet finger on the rim of a wine glass, there are feathers and there is incense. A relentless amount of incense. Incense tends to make me nauseous and uncomfortable – and there's hardly any wind, so a gentle breeze ushers a slow, constant aroma of incense in my direction. Every time one burns out, Ida and Christina light the next. There is no escaping the incense.

People around me are getting into a trance. I'm not sure yet what it is that the drink is doing to me exactly, but have done my homework. Before I went, I talked to nutritionist Randi Tobberub, who told me that the cacao contains substances that kickstart an explosion of dopamine and serotonin in the cerebral cortex. At the same time the heart rate slows down and the blood vessels expand. She also assured me that the high content of magnesium is good for the heart, and that cacao is supposed to counteract infections in the body, but that not much conclusive scientific study has been done in this field yet.

In my reading, I found that raw cacao is not advised in large dosages if you are pregnant or on anti-depressants, and if you do eat beforehand, it should be a light meal. I've sworn off coffee for the day, and listened to songs about death and alienation the whole day before the trip – just to see how that might impact my journey. I'm not sure if my body is going through all of the aforementioned goodness, but I have to say: I most definitely feel alienated.

As the ritual progresses, it feels more and more like I'm the only one in the circle who has no idea what he's doing. Some people are doing handstands, others are walking around flinging their legs. A woman with a self-administered haircut is rolling around under a heap of soft blankets, moaning softly. She gets up and jumps around in the tall grass, wrapping a colourful scarf around her head and dancing in the sunlight that peeps through the foliage. When I get back from having a wee in the shrubbery, I see my German friend sitting barefoot on a tree, huffing and puffing – one of his big toes bleeding. The branches creak as he jumps down.

As for me, I alternate between sitting cross-legged on a pillow and lying under a blanket – don't judge, I'm cold and the blankets make me feel cozy. I do feel I'm in a state of trance, one that makes me feel like I'm looking at the whole scene from the outside. The idea of the ritual is that Mother Cacao will make all the cells in my body smile, but she doesn't. My face seems transfixed in one state – for some reason, it's the same facial expression I remember having as a child growing up in rural Southern Jutland, when my parents asked me to collect all the biggest rocks in the field so our plough wouldn't break.

The whole scene must have looked like a bit of a freak show to the joggers and dog-walkers passing by our clearing. Sadly, I shared their point of view. Before the seance, we were all allowed time to speak without interruption about why we were doing the ceremony. One woman cried, while telling the story of a particularly tough break-up. A man had recently lost his grandfather, who he had been close with, while another man spoke of the intense loneliness he'd luckily managed to distance himself from since his last cacao trip the week before.

I'll never be free and comfortable enough to dance in the tall grass, do a handstand or ecstatically climb a tree while bleeding.

Four hours and a lot of prancing and rolling around later, everyone seems to genuinely feel a lot better. The once-lonely guy is the last to wake from the trance. His legs shaking, he sighs, smiles and says "Thank you".

It's a painful realisation: I'll never be free and comfortable enough to dance in the tall grass, do a handstand or ecstatically climb a tree while bleeding. I'll never enjoy the sounds of Buddhist monks chanting from an iPhone connected to a Bluetooth speaker, or having a circle buddy's dusty feet shoved in my face. I find it highly unlikely that I'll ever feel connected to Mother Earth, Mother Cacao, Father Time or my circle buddies on some higher astral level. I find some fundamental contradictions in imitating Mayan rituals in a public park in Denmark by singing in English and playing Tibetan instruments. It's all there, I feel no different about these things. But while I'd normally have relentlessly mocked this scene, I now feel there's no point in being sarcastic about it. Why would I? It's my loss that I'm not feeling it, that I don't understand it.

It's not necessarily bad that I can't get over myself: the hippies in my circle are all fighting personal battles. Christina and Ida claim they want to get closer to nature, but no one partaking in the ritual is actually there to strengthen their connection to the grass they're sitting on. We're all there because we are missing something in ourselves. And I feel that I'm missing something in me that's able to be as happy as my cacao circle buddies.

After the seance, Ida and Christina relate that this has been the biggest and one of the most giving ceremonies they have held. We share some snacks – somebody brought Oreo cookies and there are wholewheat crisps and liquorice-coated prunes, too. I eat some, but leave the circle and the park as soon as I can. Outside, I see an elderly couple stumble out of a nearby beer garden, a blonde girl speeding by on her pink Vespa, overtaking a full-bearded guy dressed in neon green on a bike. I'm back.

The day after my trip, I feel significantly more comfortable in my own skin, but I'm not sure if I have the cacao to thank for that, or the fact that I allowed myself four hours to just sit and ponder things. I still feel a tightening sensation in my chest, for which the incense is no doubt to blame. And I've earned myself six mosquito bites, too.

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