HIGHLAND HALLUCINATIONS: A HUMBLE TEA IN ECUADOR

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The following short story recounts an experience with the hallucinogenic flower commonly known as Angel’s trumpet and sometimes Devil’s trumpet.  Whether the flowers ingested were actually Brugmansia or Datura I am unsure.  The flowers are common throughout much of the Americas.  While I don’t regret the experience it is not one that I would recommend and perhaps if I knew as much about the plant then as I do now I wouldn’t have ingested them.

I was roaming the cobbled streets of Cuenca, Ecuador with no particular purpose other than to soak in the grandiose ambience of the marble city. Peered down upon by cupolas upon grander domes of imposing cathedrals that could take their place amongst the great domes of Russian houses of worship dotting the soviet skies in Saint Petersburg with no loss of face.  Then, unexpectedly -lanky and unshaven- wandered by a French friend, Didier, whom I met in Peru.  He was wholly consumed by the music pumped into his ears by those all too big headphones preferred by folks who are supposedly real music lovers and the sound has to be just right or by those who have abnormally shaped ear holes that the little plugs just won’t fit into.

I tapped him on the shoulder and awakened one quintet of his sensory being – the auditory – to the outside world and after salutations we put ourselves in accord for beers afterward: ‘seven thirty in la plaza‘.

I kept rambling around the streets and was on my way down to the river when our paths crossed again. This time Didier opened up his backpack and showed me some flowers that he had found and collected.  ‘I’ve got five, gonna brew up a tea, whaddya think?‘

That night over big litre beers, riverbank smoked spliffs and a side order of potatoes oiled into fries we decided that the following day would be tea day, but not in Cuenca. Instead we’d travel to a small town in the Ecuadorian Andean highlands, somewhere tranquilo to drink our humble tea and seek to trip off journeying into another realm.

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Tomorrow came and we travelled most of the day.  On a bus, off, then another one.  Beautiful Andean vistas rushed by.  Jagged mountains carved out of the very foundations of heaven itself.  We talked of cheese in France, of eating roasted guinea pigs (we had the night before, too many bones), of Ecuadorian señoritas, camp stoves and, of flowers.  We snacked on fried bananas, killed time waiting for another bus walking around the streets of another town – see the plaza, see the cathedral- then back on another bus, on the way to our final stop – Zumbahua.

The bus dropped us not quite in town and after a big concrete staircase and a winding road we made it down to the cold and dead centre of that town and started knocking on doors (no receptions to walk into).  Didier over there, me here, knocking and waiting to ask for prices (competition of two), looking for the best deal, looking less for comfort and more for economy.  We would roll out a mat anywhere.  Eventually mine came down, his didn’t.  I haggled some and we got a room – big with a few bunks for a few bucks.  It overlooked the yolk church with warm and colourful Quechuan covers on the beds.  It was just what we needed.

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It was already dark when we had installed ourselves in that sprawling room and we were ready so I pulled out the canister of propane I was carrying and onto it screwed the shiny, metal stove piece so that we could boil some water and brew the tea.  All five of the flowers went into the pot and soon enough little bubbles started shooting to the surface like little jellied spawn of frogs and the water changed colour too – became yellowish, infused.  We threw in some sugar to sweeten and some indigenous Bolivian cloves bought in the witches market of La Paz to complete the concotion.  Then, we left it to rest.  The tea sat there in that pot for some time more with the idea to draw out the potence of the plant; let it permeate, let it pervade.

We sat down at a little table in the room and drank our tea up, first one cup and then there was enough for another half a cup each so we drank that too.  Then Didier said – ‘you either do it all or you don’t do it at all, got to do it properly, gotta eat a flower each’.  So, we ate one each, stem and all – astringent in its bitterness. I pulled out a deck of cards and we played at them for a while and we waited.

It wasn’t long before the cards started swimming before my eyes. I lost my focus -absorbed by the brew I’d imbibed.  I found that I had to go to my bed.  I sat down first and then lay back.  Shortly after I must have lost consciousness but sometime after I was back sitting on the edge of the bed and Didier and I talked, casually chatted away. I don’t know about what but I was there looking at my friend and looking at the walls in that room.

I became aware that the patterns on the walls had changed dimensionality – into the third.  Floral images on the wallpaper twisted, turned, contorted and bent before my eyes -viscous, fluid, malleable and then Didier transmogrified into a circus clown.

A crimson nose grew, thick on his face – bulbous, his lips widened, a visual treat.  Make-up was anonymously applied, a costume miraculously fitted and with this ersatz perception I was transfixed. I tried to raise myself from the bed to get closer to this clownish metamorphosis but I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t work.  Later I learnt that paralysis can be a severe effect of the plant.  At the time, not particularly concerned I must have blacked out again.

When I came to, it seemed that, a state of normalcy had resumed and thankfully I was able to walk again.  Later it was made aware to me that what I now relate was, in fact, false but at the time it was indubitable (to my mind) that Didier had scouted the town and recruited a motley enough crew to engage in incongruous banter.  The five or six of us that I perceived to be present did so and all through the night it continued only interrupted by my intermittent dalliances into drugged slumber.

Each time that I awoke, all through the night, I observed a cross-legged girl sitting in one corner of the room reading a broadsheet newspaper.  Her presence and the arduousness of her reading focus never wavered.  The only movements that she made were to turn the large pages – her gaze did not deviate from scanning the printed news.  Judging by the elongated elapse of time she was carefully reading every word, contemplating every nuance of every article- totally and thoroughly absorbed.

As the need arose, determined not to disturb her lection, I decided not to use the bathroom by which she sat but instead swaggered and swayed down the external corridor, veering from one side to the other in a druggy wobble.  In the bathroom I stared into the sharp reflection of the mirror, glimmering in the artificial light and peered deep into my pupils to be reciprocally stared back at by enlarged and black pupillary passionfruit seeds almost flooding the iris and flowing over into the milky sclera.

At one point in the night I woke with a sudden and instantaneous urge to vomit and the best (only thing) I could do was to open wide and let it all flow out right there on the carpet next to my bed.  The power and toxicity of the plant was evidently too much for my body. It was probably a good thing to have a lot of that tea and toxin rush out of me.

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After the strangest night of my life dawn finally came in that little indigenous town. I awoke and whilst I still felt funny I felt fine enough so whilst Didier still slept I wandered up to the village in the newly dawned day and at seven in the morning I bought myself a big litre bottle of ale and then I went back to that warped room and sat by the window, drank and watched the village come to life.

From a bleak, damp sky a bashful sun hiding behind clouds slowly emerged to exude warmth on to the town plaza and on to the Quechuan villagers streaming in to set up for market day; plump women in long skirts and bowler hats, wily gents looking for that first sly grog, aguardiente, hit of the day.  Frames of market stalls popped up and covered themselves with tarpaulins and all manner of merchandise was rolled or carried in; more eggs than I’ve ever seen in one place, tightly packed piles of vivid fabrics, fruits aplenty and sacks of grain, bundles of chickens tied at the feet and flapping away in vain and everything else you can think of.  Mangy dogs surveyed the scene and that place was metamorphosed and all this unfolded itself before my eyes. It was a visual feast and a visual treat again.  The colours swirled and I felt happy.

I emptied the ale and Didier still slept so I went back up to the same señora in the little store, bottle in hand, and I exchanged it and gave her the amount and I went back again and I drank another litre and I watched life itself unfurl again. I could have done it all day.  Finally Didier woke and half an hour later we were riding on the back of a pickup, wind whistling through our hair, past the jagged and rugged Andes again to the spectacular crater lake Lago Verde Quilotoa.  With a wild night and a liquid morning behind me I was feeling fine.

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What a beauty that thing is!  That water sparkled and shined, shimmered, glistened and gleamed.  Before our eyes the crater lake was an emerald and a sapphire and it was all ours for the day.  We would hike around it, sans guide, because we didn’t want to pay one, for one, and we wouldn’t, couldn‘t get lost like they said we could or would in the foggy mists that obscure the way because how could we get lost hiking around the crater rim of a circular lake?

We started off fine, admiring and in awe, stopping here and there. Didier smoked joints (beer rolled around my belly and for me with the fresh, clean air it was enough) but then we lost sight of that shining, translucent gem. Old man (señor) fog had  swallowed it up, the path as well, but we kept walking and before long we were lost, hopelessly. We began to walk around in circles and then the hallucinations, the very real ones, the kind that you don’t identify as such, came back and at first I thought they were our saviour but it didn’t turn out that way.

I saw, actually I should say, my brain perceived, two señoras, in their traditional Quechuan dress passing on a path below and going the opposite way on the same path were two Quechuan children, a boy and a girl, in ripped and ragged clothes with dirt on their faces.  The impoverished offspring of toiling campesinos with a sow and piglets and scraggy, scabrous dog in tow and after briefly consulting Didier (‘I don’t see anything’) I ran down there, almost falling down the steep descent and I called out. When I got down there they should have been there but they weren’t.  Like Didier had said from above, there was nobody and nothing, not even a path.

With a sense of dejection and despondency  I ambled back up, cursing the trick of the eyes and the undue energy spent.  We had no choice but to keep on seeking a way back to the path and somehow, in the end, we did – aided by, finally, the lifting of the fog that had duped us into meandering down the deceitful path.

We still had a good amount of ground to cover to complete the circumferential odyssey and a combination of a rapidly dropping sun accompanied by thermometer mercury, a dwindling water supply, a dry bubbling of phlegm in the throat and the lingering effects of the flowers and breakfast imbibing left me with a feeling of deflation shaded with fear.  The only conceivable option though was to muster up the last dregs of stoicism and determination within and soldier on.  I closed my eyes at regular intervals to envisage my sole longing – an interminable fall of water cascading down my throat.

Somehow we managed to lose the path again but in the absence of a shroud of fog we decided to hack out our own. Agreeing on a distant point that we felt represented near enough to the exhaustion of the three hundred and sixty degree circumnavigation we set out to reach it via a steep diagonal ascent.  Didier streaked in front of me as I verged closer and closer to the brink of being both broken and defeated.

I pushed aside shrubs with a minimal futility of strength  but somehow I managed to heave my weary bones and wheezed my way up to the point we had decided on and where Didier was waiting.  I cursed and abused the way of the world but there was only a short distance to go and that gave my spirits some hope and just a hint of a lift.   Finally we made it.

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After waiting a good while for a lift into town we finally arrived back to our room where the day had begun amidst so much alegria.  My only desire was to retire into my warm bunk and pull the covers high and tight over me so that‘s what I did.  I remained there for a restorative twenty minutes despite Didier’s mocking and laughter and lay in warmth until the wafting spirals of cannabis smoke lured me out to partake.

Upon cerebral reception of the cannabis alkaloids the hallucinations immediately resumed but this time I was aware of their falseness.  Smiley, chubby faces of infants morphed out of the carpet, bulbous and bulging before my eyes and luckily I could smile too.  I had survived the day.

Smoking, coupled with the long and arduous hike brought hunger and we sidled in next door to sit amongst the indigenous folk in the town comedor.  Two, tall white westerners, the sorest of thumbs, ragged by flowers and foggy paths, we sat down to our two dollar set meals of soup and rice and little scaly fishes and reflected upon and discussed the wackiness of the past twenty four hours and thought and talked of our next destination, Quito, mañana.  That night I slept well.

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A week on from the whole experience I left South America after a year and a week and flew to Panama City.  Stinking humidity greeted me in the city and after battling through the crowded streets -accosted by a towering transvestite who wouldn’t heed my Spanish and who I had to physically rid myself of with a push and fuck off- and seeking shelter while plump raindrops exploded on the pavement to bring some relief to that damn heat I finally found a place to rest for the night.

The afternoon brought my usual ritual; I oriented myself walking around the contrasting streets of decay and dilapidation and grandeur and stateliness of the casco viejo – the historic centre of Panama City.  I injected a few cans of local brew into the system as a much needed coolant and kept my stomach down with some grilled chicken and frijoles which were being served up right on the pavement to the hungry folk on the street.

Later that night as I roughly slumbered my way through a night thick with moisture my mind traversed into a night terror.  Upon earth a fixed and finite number of breaths of oxygen remained for inhalation, and thus every breath I took was bringing me closer and closer to suffocation.  As I drew each breath, drawing nearer to impending death, the gravity of the situation dawned and an intense fear filled me.  As I drew what was to be my final breath on this mortal crust of dirt I suddenly awoke, still in fear and perspiring profusely, in limbo between dream world  and reality.  I went to splash my face and look into my pupils as I’d done exactly a week before and as I studied my reflected self  there was absolutely no doubt in my mind  that the source of the nightmare was the devil’s trumpet.  It had raised itself in my body and my mind again, a cameo, one week on to play with me again, deceive me and demonstrate its power.

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