Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey by Rak Razam
Originally published in 2009 ‘Aya: A Shamanic Odyssey’ by Rak Razam is a fine addition to the burgeoning genre of ayahuasca literature. Rak Razam is a journalist and editor of ‘The Journeybook: Travels on the Frontiers of Consciousness’. This book charts the author’s own journey in South America and the Amazon, as he has a series of intense encounters with ayahuasca, against the backdrop of a rapidly changing cultural landscape.
The book opens with Razam, a self-styled Gonzo journalist, waiting for a connection at Lima airport, Peru. He is on his way to Iquitos, in order to attend the second Amazonian Shaman Conference, to write an article for Australian Penthouse. An experienced tripper, he has nevertheless had three failed ayahuasca sessions (with an analogue known as “pharmauasca”) in his native home of Australia. Therefore, on arrival, the brew, along with the new surroundings of South America, are a mystery to him. The book is his revelation of culture and experience, an unfolding of many interconnected threads that make up the booming industry of ayahuasca tourism; the text is enriched by the sights, sounds and smells of the brew and, of course, the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon. The result is an engaging textual playing field for ideas and beliefs.
In reading the book, as with all good New Journalism, you become the author and take on the veil of the narrator as your read. In the first section you are whisked through meetings with a vast array of people and shamans; the whirlwind of faces leap out through the text just as they must have done for Razam. The conference itself, which dominates the opening section, comes across as a sort of sales pitch for shamans. After it finishes, when people have been deciding which of the speakers they would like to drink with, a bus winds its way down passed all their places of sacrament, dropping people off, like a tour holiday at hotels. Over a period of time Razam visits a number of the individuals in order to take ayahuasca, but rather than compartmentalising their approaches, the effect of reading through Razam’s eyes is to create rather a multiplicity of methods, simultaneously interconnected through Razam and his ayahuasca experiences. One quote from a shaman named Ron Wheelock really struck a chord in regard to this mesh of ideas:
“What I have seen with ayahuasca—we’re all doing exactly what we need to, subconsciously. We’re not aware that we’re doing these things, [like] sucking all the petroleum out of the earth. The earth needs us to do that to bring forward all the earth changes. She can’t do these things on her own. To bring this toxic thing over here and mix it over there—she can’t do that. She needs us” (Razam 173).
The on-going tension of Aya revolves around ayahuasca tourism, which has changed both the environment and the social dynamic of the area. For example, the formerly lowly-regarded Indian shaman is now suddenly in demand and has been catapulted to the top of what Razam calls an unofficial caste-system. After seeing the plight of two, poor, young children asleep under cardboard, he poses an interesting question: “Can shamanism help them?” (Razam 42). Razam points out that although ayahuasca tourism may seem culturally destroying, the experience these individuals have, can over-ride this negativity, which is to say that the meanings they take away, can have a far-reaching and positive effect. Central to this is the idea of cultural merging, exemplified by the increase in Western ayahuasqueros, filling the gap left by the indigenous youth who have fallen foul of Western materialism. Rather than being a simple good-bad debate, Razam astutely points out, both explicitly and subtlety through the narrative, that it is rather a cultural melting-pot.
A device I particularly enjoyed in reading Aya is the incorporation of the ideas of other thinkers, like Rupert Sheldrake, Jeremy Narby, or Julian Jaynes and other drug writers, like Carlos Castaneda or William Burroughs. They briefly become part of the flow of the text before melting away, but never completely for they have become part of the soup of the book; its multiplicity. Sometimes this is slightly to the detriment of the text, for example Carl Jung is returned to repeatedly but is perhaps arguably misused in many places, but at other times, it is to the absolute joy of the text’s dance. There is an amazing interview with Dennis McKenna, who discusses the “the experiment at la Chorrera”; then later Razam describes a DMT trip in the chapter entitled “Surfing”, which as well as being pretty intense (as one would expect,) is named the “experiment at La Rosacita” – a returning nod at the McKenna’s. As the reader, one is being constantly referred back on themselves through an unfolding of ideas and this has the effect of rejuvenating one’s engagement and relationship with the text.
Indeed ‘relationships’ is a reoccurring theme throughout. In one instance, Razam will refer to ayahuasca as a “fickle mistress”, underlining the relationship aspect of the experience: “My relationship with ayahuasca is like snakes and ladders, three steps up, two steps back. After that first breakthrough night drinking with Juan I’ve not managed to get through to the same degree, one cup or two, dieta or non-dieta, clear headspace or fear-ridden. She is like a fickle lover and I can’t get the groove of her, that target window of ayahuasca rivers, the great circuitry pattern that leads on to the universe within” (Razam 223). And then, in the next, he will be describing relationships on a physical level; how, for example, many of the shamans say sexual abstinence was part of the ayahuasca dieta; this frustration then hangs in the air of the text. There is even one experience that is very erotically charged, some participants even wondering if it would end up in some tripped-out-orgy (which it doesn’t), but which is soaked in touch and massage – the physicality and the sensuality of any relationship.
The book is filled with intricate and subtle detail. Whereas ayahuasca books often have a large over-arching, often strangling, theme or dogma that the author wishes to reiterate in every sentence, Razam’s book bubbles around in the aforementioned multiplicity. Usually the problem is terribly explained psychiatric models, planted uneasily atop ayahuasca, but while there is this element in Aya, it sits well within the flow. If one were to pluck any one detail from a page, it would be lost without the whole, and this is the book’s beauty, for in being lost, it can be cast anew. The details are open-ended – in a textual or free-roaming state – and can lead you on thought tangents, and draw you into the visual (visionary?) world, rather than suck you back into a rigid agenda at every turn. Saying this, however, the different threads are well grounded as one by the narrative itself: “In the still of the night we fall asleep, enveloped by the dark and the spirits, safe in their embrace. And we dream of them and they of us, as the two worlds become one (Razam 339). Only, in the end it seems, the book draws together many more than simply two worlds and it does so with care and reverence. An excellent book and well worth a read.