The day before I left San Gil I sat in the bustling, indoor morning market, a place where one can buy their weekly fruit and veg, stock up on their flour and spice supplies, or simply sit and watch the Santander social scene flow by. Sipping a delicious, freshly whizzed banana and papaya juice, accompanied by one of the many beautiful souls I had had the blessing to be connected to over my past six weeks in town, a misbalance of emotions settled over me. On the one side, the lightness inspired in me since my arrival still pervaded my heart, leaving me feeling a little heady, on the other, the multitude of incredible experiences and lessons felt heavy; a weight created through worry of leaving too soon and forgetting it all in the busy-ness of life, outside of this place that had enraptured me. Was I yet strong enough to remember, and more to the point enact, everything I had learnt, in fullness? The bubble of bountiful love that is San Gil was about to burst around me, and this reality allowed my old friends instability and doubt to sneak back around. The heaviness won, and in the middle of the market, I had a little weep. But, the sweetness of tears is sometimes enough to wash away the bitterness of negativity. Crying is cathartic, especially in public. The release of a silent tear can liberate a multitude of anxieties; to be still in the moment as the drop turns cold and dries on your cheek. The realness of this second removes the pain from the former, and the consciousness arises; I’m OK. It is one of the times we are closest to our selves. Allowing our selves to be this naked in company shows comfort with vulnerability. Another lesson; feel everything without judgement or punishment. It made me smile. I had already internalised one of the big lessons this journey was teaching me: self-love and acceptance.
My first 10 days in San Gil were spent in the peace of La Pacha, a tranquil eco-hostel created by a fellow Brit and his Colombian wife, and their two beautiful kids. I knew I was in the right place when, emerging from my heavenly yurt to breakfast with them on the first morning, I was lovingly presented with a plateful of scrambled eggs and heart-shaped arepas, pancakes made from corn flour, the staple carb of Colombia. A lazy morning was spent enjoying the company of my first friends in Santander, regaling me with tales as to why they had chosen this small Santandereano town as their haven, where they have renovated an old finca into yurt and bio-dome, composting toilet, solar shower, kitchen garden, bus library paradise. In fact, explanations were not necessary, as the emerald green, sun-spattered landscape, dramatically curtained by wiry tree beards, told me all I needed to know. I had left Bogota knowing that I was leaving the city for the right reasons; I hadn’t realised that San Gil was it. The town has an aura of self-assuredness and peace that immediately took me captive. One day became the next as I and my Chilean travel buddy explored the surrounding areas, tripping from one golden, corn-flecked field to the next, breathing in the stunning, mountainous vistas, walking the 2 hour Camino Real from the gorgeous local village of Barichara to sup locally produced coffee and soak up the goings and goings of the terracotta town square of Guane. Our time passed lazing in hammocks, turning past and future travels over to one another, cooking comida rica with beautiful, locally grown fruit and veggies, feeling the freedom that having no boss, no fixed abode, and no time demands allow to settle upon a person. Alongside my blissful geographical, social and culinary ramblings I had also experienced something very profound that had effectively flipped on a spiritual switch: my first Yagé ceremony.
I had been aware of the Yagé plant, more commonly called Ayahuasca, for a long time, and was also aware of its use in this part of Colombia. Although a dear friend had told me that ceremonies were conducted in San Gil, I came with an open mind, not wanting to chase, but leaving my door open to her if she felt it be the right time to enter. And she decided that I was ready. Yagé is not simply a plant; she has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples, cooked in ceremonies conducted by a Shaman to produce a drink one takes in order to open one’s heart and spirit to the Mother, which in my understanding is nature, the greater consciousness, the energy of the planet, shared by every sentient thing. I arrived tentatively at my first ceremony, with a few expectations, hopes and worries buzzing in my mind. As a medicinal plant, Yagé not only teaches you the lessons you need, and demonstrates through visions, but also cleanses through purging. I had been told that I would probably be violently sick, or end up on the toilet, or both. As I nervously sat under the straw hut, or Maloka, watching the other people mill about, wandering if they were feeling as I, the Shaman peacefully sat next to me and we exchanged a few words. He asked me a little about myself, my past, and what had brought me to the ceremony. He asked me to think about my intentions, explaining that the medicine is to be taken as a guide, and that all who receive it need to be open-minded and hearted in order to understand what they are being taught. For this, one needs to begin a ceremony with an intent. Looking back, I think I was typically complicating and confusing the experience. Rather than being mindful and looking into myself for my own questions, I was focusing on what was going on around me: what I had been told, other people’s experiences. The ceremony began with a sharp blow of hozca, or tobacco powder, up both nostrils, immediately leading to nausea and making me puke. Once my shakes had subsided we partook in the drinking of the medicine, a small cup of thick, dark liquid with a bitter taste all of its own. A journey into the depths, or heights, of Ayahuasca is an intricately personal experience, and so I went to lie down and waited for the medicine to start talking, with the slippery sound of windpipes and the ancient smells of the sacred palo santo wood, pegote and copal incenses burning around me. The night passed and as I lay in my sleeping bag I was lulled by the curious, ethereal sound of a fellow journeyer’s Mbira, played by the fireside to the company of guitar-strumming, rhythmic drums and the voices of Yagé songs softly delivered. As the moon went quiet and the sun rose I observed the visions I had been shown, without really delving in to understand. I had begun the ceremony with interest rather than pure intent, and now understand that I had gone in confused by the veil of anticipation and ‘knowledge’, something we do in everyday life that ultimately obscures many vital lessons. However, it was not until my subsequent ceremonies that I began to fully internalise and work with this. The ceremony had taken place on a Saturday night, and by the Tuesday I was ready to leave on the night bus up to Santa Marta to drink in a bit of Caribbean Colombia. I left the love of La Pacha and checked into the hostel run by the community that also live on the finca where the Yagé ceremonies take place. However, rather than leaving the following day for the balmy North, I ended up taking my bags out to the finca and staying there with the community, now my Colombian family, for a month. I am sure this was one of the best decisions I have ever made. On booking my bus ticket and contemplating my onward journey, I had a feeling, a pulsation, that I had not seen and done what I had been led to San Gil to do. I took this intuition to my next ceremony, knowing that I had taken the first too light-heartedly, and that what I needed to do was submit myself fully to her. I did, and it was the most intense night I have had so far in my 29 years. It was a sharp punch to the face; I was pulled through the shadows of the past that echoed in my heart, into my present, and presented with everything I had internalised that had turned my little corazón in on itself. It was like a Tarantino slideshow. An Ayahuasca journey is an intensely personal journey, and the things I have been shown, and now understand, I will not attempt to explain.The fact that she is helping me to understand myself, the outside, and how we connect is enough. The fact I now feel equipped to love myself, others and begin to be at peace is an ability I am grateful for moment to moment, and I hope that I can continue to grow in humility and strength. Living at the finca is not just about ceremonial lessons. I spent my time there working in the beautiful garden, swimming in the river flowing past the bottom of it, connecting to myself through yoga and meditation, and to others through talking and not talking, learning that peace can sometimes bring more light than intellectual stimulation. But when the family do all get together it’s a light-hearted, beautiful time full of feasting, cuddles, music and ease.
Something else was niggling at me that last morning in the market, tapping at my tranquility. It was the desire to create a piece of writing as beautiful and complex as my 6 weeks in San Gil. How were words going to suffice in relaying what I had experienced? It felt like a glow inside me that was refusing to be coaxed out. And then I realised why: because language will never be enough to represent the beauty of the human journey. In San Gil I had encountered what I had needed for a long time; the tools to work with myself, not to change myself, but to recognise what is already there, in me and everyone. This is something intricately personal, and the beauty of it should be respected. Trying to remember and enact, I suppose make sense of, all the lessons and realisations during the complexity of everyday is the test, but also the point. Seeing the ‘good’ as beautiful, being grateful, welcoming it and loving it. But also seeing the ‘bad’ as a gift, to challenge us, to ultimately allow us to grow and learn. I try to remind myself that at no time in the history of this world has there been a being with nothing in their heart; we just need to learn to ride with our own rhythm.