–By Nicholas Saunders and Anja Dashwood
The last ayahuasca ritual we attended in Brazil was the Barquinha, a split off the Santo Daime and the smallest of the three established Brazilian churches who use ‘huasca’, as its called in Brazil. As with the others, the religion incorporates beliefs from Spiritism, Christianity, and the native jungle tribes.
The name implies ‘boat’, and their main church is on a river boat in Amazonia, although the service we attended was in a chapel occupying the lower floor of a city home.
Our hosts welcomed us, settled us into comfortable seats and asked what else we might need. “Something to vomit in” we replied, truthfully if not politely. They assured us that people practically never felt nauseous in the warm and supportive atmosphere of their church; still, I checked out how to get to the loo ‘just in case’.
The service was fairly similar to the Santo Daime with Christian ikons, prayers and hymns, but the atmosphere was more light hearted, even playful, without us having to stand up and sit down on cue. Indeed, their uniforms were like toys straight from a dressing up kit: white sailor outfits with blue trimmings, gold tasseled epaulettes and badges picturing boats; while their sailor hats were embroidered with hearts for the women and stars for the men. They seemed to be making gentle fun out of their military uniform, just like the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Pirates of Penzance. It was all very sweet and had a child like innocence.
Decoration was also taken to extremes. One end of the room was divided off by a stage-type curtain embroidered with a crucifix and bordered with flowers, and in the ‘sanctuary’ behind was the altar, an electric organ, and seating for the elders. On the altar stood over twenty brightly painted statues and gory crucifixes, while every square inch of the wall behind was adorned with gilt framed pictures. It was probably no more ornate than a Greek Orthodox church, but the lack of antiquity left it looking decidedly kitch.
After silent meditation in our seats, we queued up to receive the sacrament. This was served through a window next to the altar and, like the Santo Daime, was consumed immediately. It tasted as bad too, and I had similar a problem swallowing it. We then went outdoors where we were issued with candles and formed a procession back into the chapel led by bearers carrying a heavy statue of a veiled black Madonna. Back in our seats we sang, and with each hymn a sailor-girl pulled a rope to open the curtain a little wider.
I felt little or no effect except mild nausea. It was containable, but I decided that my problem lay in my ability to contain, so I went to the loo to ‘let it all out’. Once there I felt a twinge of diarrhoea and found myself ‘reaching’ and shitting each time I ‘heaved’ as though I was vomiting, and afterwards I felt no more nausea. I had let it all out, but at the other end! Nevertheless, I refused a second glass of the brew ‘just in case’. I found myself staring at the statues and saw Jesus’ compassionate smile change to a worldly grin. The curtains were gradually drawn closed again in step with more hymns, but that was not the end.
After the congregation had relaxed, drums were brought out for the next part of the service which consisted of drumming and dancing outdoors, supposedly an incorporation of the African religion Candomble where people dance into a trance.
Barquinha sounded a nice word to me. A bit like ‘Colombina and Harlequino’: jolly, playful. I was in the mood to see what this one was like; ready to experience whatever.
When we arrived we were led down a stone stair case to the entrance of the house. Phillipe’s wife welcomed us and I was struck by the clarity of her bright blue eyes, something I began to recognise as a feature of all the Madrinias of the different Brazilian ayahuasca churches. I felt like I had entered a party. Outside were decorations of multicoloured plastic ribbons. There was a lot of hussle and bussle. We were seated in what looked like the hallway of the house, staircase on one side with children running up and down. The costumes people were wearing were no less festive: blue ribbons, yellow trestles on white cotton; hats with hearts and star decorations, the whole uniform somewhat military, but too playful to be taken too serious. In front of us hang a curtain. I was intrigued by what was behind it. Some sort of altar? A secret – sacred space like a tabernacle? I wasn’t disappointed when the curtain lifted and revealed an amazing display of what to my mind were totally kitchy statues of Maria and Jesus; crucifixes, the blood nearly dripping off; Christmas lights and multicoloured decorations. I did not know whether to take this seriously or not, but everyone seemed so into the whole atmosphere that I just accepted it. They were singing happily to the sound of the synthesizer, which reminded me of a church organ, but the sound never quite made it. It was all Mary jingles and merry songs…
Time for the drink. This one tasted terrible again and I gulped it down as best as I could. With respect for the sacrament, but at the same time I could not feel too serious about it. Then we went outside, lined up and were given a candle. I loved that bit. In procession with candles alight, we went back in, following a black Madonna. It all reminded me very much of the rituals in the Catholic church, when I was a child: Mary’s Lightmass, the statues, the multiple Christs on the crosses with a variety of melodramatic expressions on their faces. It was a mixture of celebrations, seriousness, good and bad morals, cheap art, good intentions and bad taste.
We sat down and I felt somewhat excited by the spectacle and the memories it evoked. However nothing, absolutely nothing, happened. I observed that I was very tolerant of the whole setting, which would have triggered me into disgust a few years ago. I felt quite OK. in this whole thing, but it was not affecting me; the ayahuasca wasn’t, nor the ceremony, although I did feel nice and light afterwards, like after a nice meditation or even a little catnap in the gentle sunshine of an early summer’s afternoon. Clean and serene, but nothing else. And that is how it stayed, no nausea, no bowel explosions, just a nice clear feeling of calmness. I had been accepting. This was a celebration service dedicated to Maria and whilst I did not feel closer to Maria, it had been a pleasant evening, leaving me light-hearted and content.