Night shrouded our motorised canoe as the engine choked then spluttered to an eerie stop. Stranded in the remotest part of the Amazon basin, a full moon beamed from a fading pink sky. There were fifteen of us on that tiny boat, including me and my best friend, Rachel. I had come to the Amazon in search of peace, hoping to be healed from trauma by connecting with the spiritual realm via a hallucinogenic brew.

Crammed together in rows on bare planks, we had already suffered twelve uncomfortable hours across the water, journeying towards uncharted territory in the Oriente, Ecuador’s Amazon basin – the sacred land of the Siekopai tribe. The plan was to camp out with the indigenous people who had reclaimed their territory from enemies after warring for hundreds of years. While there, we would be taking strong jungle drugs, ayahuasca – a psychoactive brew from the vine of a plant used for centuries by South American natives. I am not an outdoorsy type and had only been camping once when forced to do Outward Bound at school. I realised I was taking desperate measures to heal, but nothing else had worked.

I tried to calm myself with deep breaths and silent prayers as I watched the boatmen cast anxious looks. They spoke in Secoya and tugged on ropes, attempting to restart the engine. There was no phone signal, no way of calling for help. As the sky darkened to jewel blue, I thought of all the ways we might perish: drowning, starvation, getting eaten by a creature. I turned to Rachel and only half-joking said, “Well, at least we’ll die together!” Ironically, we almost had died together after being spiked at a party in London twenty years before. The longest forty minutes of my life went by – and then – hearing the engine’s joyous growl, I joined the collective cheer of my comrades. This was not the end. The healing hadn’t yet begun, but I was hopeful that travelling to these extreme lengths would start the process.

After the death of my adored first father, followed by an acrimonious ending to a long-term relationship, a series of misfortunes ensued rapidly, including being ignored by my literary agent – my biggest champion for five years – after she sent my novel out to publishers, leaving me in the dark with no explanation. Prior to this, she had hailed my book “a triumph” and assured me there was no chance this “blockbuster” would be rejected. Worst of all, my dog – the love of my life – died. Humphrey had been by my side for fifteen years and in the hideousness of his absence, I had never felt so alone. I spiralled into a severe depression that lasted nine agonising months. It was the most devastating period of my life. The pain was relentless and intolerable, almost driving me to suicide.

One evening in late 2018, I passed a wellness centre while on my way home from an office job I loathed in New York City. I was working as an executive assistant at a real estate company to make ends meet as I waited to hear from my literary agent. I walked in to peruse the bookstore shelves and saw a sign that a shaman was on the upstairs floor, about to give a talk on soul mending. I slipped into an empty seat feeling broken beyond repair. He spoke about a “healing expedition” to Ecuador coming up in January, which involved sacred plant medicine ceremonies facilitated by the shamanic elders of an indigenous tribe. Masking my depression and without giving details of the trip to my supervisor at work, (corporate America has little sympathy for personal issues), I asked if I could take my two weeks of annual vacation for a once-in-a-lifetime expedition to the Amazon. He sneered. “Go if you want, but you won’t have a job waiting for you when you get back.” With no book deal in sight, I could not afford to give up being a wage slave.

More than a year later, in January 2020, I finally made it to Ecuador. I wanted to clear away the heaviness of my past and open myself up to finding healthy love. I had heard that the purging and psychedelic effects of the brew were so powerful, it could transform your life. I had experienced all the highs and lows of recreational drugs in my youth, but this trip was not “doing drugs” for the fun of it. Ayahuasca is work – spiritual work – and as I was repeatedly warned, not for the faint of heart. The preparation was gruelling. For two weeks I was on a dieta that forbade sugar, salt, spice, red meat, pork, dairy, caffeine, alcohol and sex. But that was nothing compared with what was to come. I had brought everything on the packing list, from bug repellant to extra thick socks, yet I was still unprepared.

Arriving on dry land after the hellish canoe ride, we set up our flimsy tents – four people in each. I was shocked by how primitive the conditions were. The “bathrooms” were two man-made huts with insect-infested holes in the ground to squat over, and no showers. I thought the mosquitoes would be problematic, but the ants – big, fast and thirsty for blood – were out of control. Sweating from the humidity on air mattresses with no sheets or pillows, ants running all over us, Rachel and I hardly slept. My mood improved the next morning as I woke to the symphony of rainforest birds. It was like listening to God’s concert.

One of the tribesmen, wielding a machete, took us on a tour. Tropical trees towered above us; below we encountered termite mounds and armies of leafcutter ants, benign little workers going about their business. We took the canoe out for our first “bath”, sighting pink dolphins, toucans, macaws, and a variety of monkeys. Jumping off the canoe to tread water and soap ourselves in the middle of the river was a challenge. For our last meal we ate rice and broth, prepared for us by the indigenous community. We had to fast all of the next day before the first ceremony, which would commence at sunset the following night.

We were instructed to dress in white and the tribeswomen painted our faces. Before we entered the sacred space, the trip leader told us that nobody could leave until the ceremony ended at sunrise. Hammocks had been set up for each of us under a canopy with buckets laid on the ground to vomit into, all part of the purging process. One by one, we approached the head shaman and leader of the Siekopai tribe to imbibe our first cup of potent brew, so bitter we had to rinse our mouths with water. I lay in my hammock, enjoying the nocturnal sounds of nature during a period of silence before the icaros began, traditional Amazonian songs whistled and sung by shamans with drums, gongs and flutes. I started to hear others vomiting and leaves rustled as participants were escorted to and from the “bathrooms” by the spiritual carers, Mitzy and Josep. I peeked across the line of hammocks at the eleven-year-old German boy who had been brought by his father, wondering how he was coping, but it was too dark to see clearly. I was in awe of his bravery.

We had been told to drink a second, or even third cup, depending on how deep a journey we wanted to go. An hour after the first cup I felt nothing, so I jumped up when they called us for a second round. On my way back, I saw Mitzy helping Rachel out of her hammock. My petrified best friend was in the midst of a “never ending nightmare” and could not even stand up. Mitzy and I shared her weight and carried her to the bathroom. I comforted her every step of the way, letting her know I was there for her. Rachel was feeling the full force of the drug, while I felt alarmingly lucid. Perhaps I needed to be so that I could help the person who has always been there for me, more than even a sister.

Later, I needed to use the bathroom myself. Holding a flashlight, I stifled my screams while giant, bloodsucking ants bit my bare bum as I tried to pee over a black hole. Back in my hammock, I burst into tears of frustration. I did not feel any hallucinatory effects, only a deluge of sadness. I saw my seven-year-old self at boarding school and wept for the frightened little girl who yearned for her mother and wondered if anybody loved her. Shattered relationships within my family and the faces of those I had loved and lost resurfaced as I tried to understand where it had all gone wrong and what I could do to make it right. Mitzy came to my side to soothe me – I was like a baby, and she was Mamacita. Empathy transcended my pain, and having cried enough tears to swim in, I drifted into a peaceful slumber until sunrise.

During the second ceremony, I had a completely different experience. Almost immediately after the first cup, the medicine started working. The word surrender echoed through my mind as vivid shapes and patterns formed into snakes resembling the vines the brew is made from. I writhed around in my hammock, feeling like I had been yanked out of my body as “Mother Ayahuasca” took me on the wildest ride. In a terrifying turn, I felt so far removed from my body I thought I had left this life and crossed over, at which point my brother Khalid, with whom I share a deep spiritual connection, appeared in a vision to reassure me I was not alone and had nothing to fear.

As I made my way back to the hammock after the second cup, I noticed a vulnerable member of our group staggering and swaying in the darkness. I looked around for Mitzy or Josep but they were nowhere to be seen. Even though we had been told not to talk to anyone during the ceremony, it was clear that this frail and elderly lady needed help. I rushed to her side and she collapsed into my arms like deadweight. Panicking and still tripping, I held her until Josep appeared (or was it Jesus Christ?) None of us were doctors, we were hundreds of miles from civilisation, and I now realise she could easily have died.

Hours into the ceremony, I was startled by a feral shriek. I thought it might be a jaguar in the bushes, but a participant had broken the rule, escaping the sacred space to howl at the moon by the river’s edge surrounded by caimans with incandescent eyes. She risked her life by doing that; I suppose we all did just by being there. Before the sun rose, the rain came down in divine harmony with the icaros. I lolled in my hammock, laughing and crying at the same time. I had never heard anything so beautiful as I soared to a state of utter liberation and peace. The vision of an angel appeared. I looked closer and saw the face of my brother Nikolai, smiling at me.

We spent eight days and nights in the jungle. As I washed my clothes in muddy river water, I considered that perhaps I had lost my mind. Why had I come all this way to torture myself when I could have just taken ayahuasca in a yoga studio? On our last night, huddled around a table with the group sipping on plantain juice, a cockroach landed on my face. Past the point of reacting, I barely flinched. I was like someone out of Lord of the Flies – a savage. Either I had become immune to the grubbiness of it all, or the medicine had made me hardcore. This “real McCoy” experience was so rough, I wondered if it had defeated the whole purpose.

During our integration circles, disappointment was expressed – some participants had expected a magical transformation, others had been derailed by the diverse personalities in our group. One woman, who had never had a drug experience before, looked shell-shocked. The young boy did not like how sick the brew had made him. For Rachel, the medicine allowed her to truly come out of her “self” and see all the personality traits she did not like, laughing at how ridiculous they were. She had never been able to do this through conventional therapy. For me, it felt inconclusive; I had not found peace, only fleeting euphoria, and I did not feel any more spiritual. None of us had felt safe. Before embarking on the canoe back to Quito, I asked the shaman to bless a bracelet I wore during the ceremonies, made of tiger’s eye with a gold sun charm.

Settling back to reality in New York, the trip felt more like an endurance test than a healing expedition. Trying to make sense of it all, I was assured it can take up to six months to process and understand the medicine’s messages and revelations. Weeks later, the world went into lockdown, which I would have spent with Rachel had she not been struck down with Covid. Bedridden for three months, she believes that as a result of the medicine purifying her body, it made her system more susceptible for the virus to attack her esophagus and lungs, which remain permanently damaged.

During my lockdown solitude, I attempted to rebuild bridges with family members, possibly a salutary effect of the medicine. Some doors remain closed of which I am certain no amount of ayahuasca can open. Among many random reconnections, an old friend contacted me. Once Covid restrictions were lifted, and exactly six months after returning from the jungle, we arranged to meet up. We had not seen each other in fifteen years and our reunion quickly turned into Love in the time of Corona.

Two years on, that old friend, who wears the blessed gold sun charm from my tiger’s eye bracelet around his neck, is now my fiancé. I cannot say if Mother Ayahuasca healed me, but I like to think the great lengths I went to meet her, and the journey she took me on, led me to the healing power of true love.

Petra Khashoggi is a New York-based author, journalist and screenwriter. Her articles have appeared in The Mail on Sunday, Vogue Italia, Elle, Tatler, Imagista, and The Lady. She won “Best Romantic Comedy” at the New York Film & TV Festival for “Keep the Chocolates”, a short film she wrote, produced and acted in

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • This article was fantastic – beautifully written – I really felt like I was in the Jungle – mentally and physically- great job Petra

  • Avatar
    Writer Vivien Cooper
    19 July 2022 9:07 PM

    Petra’s article is so alive and rich, I felt like I was in the Amazon with her! What a wonderful way to experience that journey from the comfort of my own home. Best of all, it beautifully illustrates the circuitous path we often find ourselves on when we are seeking, and the miraculous and alchemical gifts we can find in the most unexpected places. Loved it!

  • Avatar
    Katrina Pavlos
    22 July 2022 9:50 AM

    Beautifully written Petra.

  • Loved this testimony. You could experience the truth in it
    Thank you


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