The Amazon Bites Back

Photo by Martin Goodman

The news was troubling: a malaria epidemic in the Amazon. Because we’d be working with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew drawn from a jungle vine, I’d been cautioned against taking malaria pills. They’d clash with the "plant medicine" of the ayahuasca. But the Peruvian shaman who was to escort six of us into the jungle insisted we’d be safe. "We’ll be in a clearing next to a waterfall. I’ve never seen a mosquito there yet."

I entrusted myself to the shaman. Our party was soon on a lake in Pucallpa, eastern Peru, with freshwater dolphins scudding across the surface next to our boat. Our shaman spoke of his first ayahuasca experiences by the shores of the lake.

"I was naive then. Now I’ve learned better. There’s not a single shaman I would entrust myself to. They’re all on one power trip or another." I should have listened.

The journey took most of the day: two hours on a jarring dirt road, three speeding in a longboat down the Ucayali River, another hour in smaller craft down a shallower tributary. Finally, we stepped into the brown water, and the boats pulled away. They would collect us two weeks later. Sometimes the river curled around our ankles, sometimes it lunged against our chests as we followed its course to our camp. The tangle of jungle was dense to either side, and toucans laughed and flashed among the high branches. It was beautiful but for the personalized clouds of mosquitoes engulfing each of our heads.

From the shelter of our screen tents we watched the rains fall, and the mosquitoes coated the exterior of the tent’s fabric, pushing razor-sharp sucking mouth parts inside to pierce us should we lean too close.

And then the "plant medicine." Ayahuas ca does not tolerate rival amusements. No sex, no alcohol, no comforts of any kind, our shaman instructed. But if you lock yourself into her jungle habitat, she will treat you kindly, will serve as a teacher, breaking through normal barriers of perception to arouse you to a conscious role in the flow of nature. My own sessions with ayahuasca varied. At their most intense it was a battle with demons. At their most beautiful it was sitting up to watch inch-high beings of light rush out of the jungle to build around my companion a canopy of light, which was entered in turn by a 7-foot-long bee and beetle formed of energy cells. Inside the canopy, they held him down with their forelegs and injected what I took to be ambrosial nectar into him before moving on to me.

At first there were no experiences or hallucinations of any kind. Simply hours of lying in the darkness, listening to shrieking monkeys, the rhythm of tree frogs, the roar of the waterfall, the songs of the shaman and the buzz of mosquitoes. These creatures were as active by day as by night. They sucked through insect repellents like appetizers before feasting on me, carpeting my flesh with the pimples of their bites. "I was angry when I got here," I confessed to the shaman before leaving. "Antagonistic toward the whole setup. Perhaps that’s why the ayahuasca had no effect at first."

"You were right to be on guard," he said. "Everything is harmonious in the jungle. But everything is predatory, too. Everything lives off something else."


Two different levels of parasites took their chance to live off me. First, female mosquitoes sucked up my blood and used its protein to manufacture their eggs. So that the blood did not congeal, they injected their saliva into my bloodstream. It was down these channels of saliva that the malarial parasites swarmed, streaming from one host into the next. As the jungle was to me, I became an entire ecosystem for these microscopic beings.

Back home in the deserts of New Mexico they made their presence felt. After nine weeks, an ache started in my shoulder that would soon cripple me with pain. Hours later, malarial parasites stormed out of their incubation in my liver and annexed my bloodstream, gobbling up red cells and sending my body into its first spell of tremors. It was easy to diagnose, since I’d already watched my companion from the trip go through four weeks of suffering with the disease. My symptoms ranged from chills, accompanied by almost spasmodic shaking, to high fever. And then there were the more delicate symptoms, like hypersensitivity to smell — I could detect tea leaves on their way to the pot from across the room.

Medicine countered the malaria, but a secondary streptococcus infection of my blood raged unchecked till I’d spent days on a hospital’s IV drip. I didn’t need ayahuasca anymore. Close to death, I could shut my eyes and trip off on out-of-body experiences whenever I wanted to. I later heard the shaman ascribe the illness to a shamanic attack on himself that he had diverted to enter me.

Maybe so. Or maybe that’s as much nonsense as his malarial advice.

The malaria parasite came with me to New Mexico and died there. My visit to the Amazon nearly extinguished me. That’s the wonder of travel. It teaches us the beauty and safety of home.


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