How gonzo journalist Rak Razam met his maker in the Peruvian Amazon—and lived to tell about it
In the summer of 2006, an Australian journalist named Rak Razam ventured to South America to put together a story on Amazonian shamanism for Australian Penthouse. In the thick of the Peruvian jungle, he repeatedly drank ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic tea made from a vine called Banisteriopsis caapi and plant leaves containing the hallucinogenic compound DMT. Legally recognized by the Peruvian government as a sacred medicine and a national treasure, ayahuasca is said to detoxify the body and mind and imbue its drinkers with a sense of connection to the Divine.
Night after night, Razam sat in darkened ceremonial malocas (communal dwellings), letting the icaros (healing songs) of the local shamans wash over him. All the while, Madre Ayahuasca covered the canvas of his psyche with visions of jaguars, ancestor spirits, twisting serpents and other entities less easily named.
A little more than a week into the journey, Razam found himself on the second floor of a rustic shack known as La Rosacita (The Rosy Cross), where he inhaled the smoke of the psychoactive compound 5-MeO-DMT. In the presence of a western shaman, an astonished film crew and a scientist who monitored Razam’s brainwaves by way of an EEG machine, the reporter had the ultimate mystical experience: union with Godhead, Brahman, Ultimate Reality, the Absolute, the Overmind or whatever your pet name might be for the Supreme Intelligence. In reference to this, he would later write, “The meat body-shell [is] left behind while the soul rejoins the Source and the drop returns to the ocean and remembers that all is One.”
Razam’s uncanny experiences in the Amazon are chronicled in his stunning documentary movie Aya: Awakenings, a companion piece to the book of the same name. Hailed by many viewers as the definitive film on the subject of ayahuasca, Aya employs an impressive array of visual and audio effects to convey the essence of the trans-dimensional experience. The footage of Razam’s unmistakably authentic epiphany at La Rosacita is presented in all its mind-scorching intensity, offering an unprecedented fly-on-the-wall view of a shamanic initiate going all the way with God.
In partnership with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Razam brings Aya: Awakenings to the Pacific Cultural Center on Saturday, Feb. 8. The film screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Razam, various staff members of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and practitioners, local psychedelic spokesman David Jay Brown and Dr. Juan Acosta Urquidi, the scientist who read Razam’s brainwaves during the experiment at La Rosacita.
Along with being a top-notch journalist, an articulate authority on ayahuasca and a genuinely good-natured guy, Razam deserves credit for having nerves of steel. Like a true gonzo messenger on assignment for the ultimate Editor-in-Chief, he has laid his very consciousness on the line in pursuit of the truth, and he has returned with some very good news to report to the global tribe.
Good Times: In one scene from your book, someone commented that you were hitting the ayahuasca a little harder than might be necessary. What made you decide to really go for it in the way that you did?
Rak Razam: Well, I had no idea what I was getting into! [Laughs] I basically went over [to Peru] to write a 3,000-word article, which became a 500-page book and now a film, but so many [serendipitous] things happened in the weeks preceding the trip that miraculously, one step after another, the path revealed itself, and I was supported on the journey. And now I understand why: It’s like the journalism was a cover story for me to go on a spiritual pilgrimage that I never would have been able to either afford or to convince myself to go on if I hadn’t been working. The journey I went on—drinking with over 24 different curanderos (healer-shamans), and the DMT experiences—it was just the path. Every day, I would wake up and say [to my film and audio crew], “Right. Where’s the next curandero that we should drink with?” It felt like our duty as media makers to keep going. On that path, it was very exciting to keep learning. It was fresh, virgin territory, so there was an excitement around the next ayahuasca session.
How do the indigenous people you’ve spoken with feel about the use of ayahuasca among westerners? Do they generally feel that westerners are approaching this with a proper level of respect and sacred intent?
There is a real clash of cultures between westerners and indigenous peoples of South America when it comes to ayahuasca. Many people are really approaching it with respect and integrity, but there’s also an industry that’s been built up over the last 20 years or so, and it’s become very fast-moving and dynamic in the last five to 10 years. My shorthand for this is: Peru has seen many booms, and, on some level, there’s a sort of cultural imperialism going on, where at the turn of the 20th century, they had a rubber boom, and then in the mid-20th century they had [another] rubber boom, and now they’ve got an ayahuasca boom. In each case, there’s a valuable commodity that is native to the land, and westerners are coming to engage with it—some might say exploit it.
In general, [the ayahuasceros of the Amazon] find there’s two types of westerners: westerners coming in search of healing for a direct issue or problem, whether physical, mental or spiritual, and basically seekers, who I think are the majority, who are coming because they have some undefined unease, some disconnection with the western material world, and are really seeking a connection through ayahuasca and through shamanism to the planet and to the web of life, to this anchoring of spirituality and the material world, and of getting back to the earth. I feel that the whole green movement—the whole permaculture movement and sustainability movement—has been directly influenced by the change in consciousness of the ’60s, and now we’re coming full circle to the deep green movement, which is: Through shamanism and through modalities like ayahuasca, when you connect to the planet, and when you feel the planet and the web of life as a visceral entity, as something you can tangibly feel in your heart, you don’t want to make war with the planet anymore. We can’t convert people to a green meme, but people can feel the planet, and once they do, you’re never the same. So, I feel the planet Herself is secreting these substances as exopheromones for humans to engage with, to bring us back to the garden.
What’s your take on your experience at La Rosacita when you look back on it now?
OK, basically, I met God, right? But I wouldn’t personally use the word God, even though I do come from a Catholic background. There was just this overwhelming entity that didn’t fill the space; it was the space. I fully understand and resonate with all these mystical touchings upon these things based throughout time of the white light void tunnel that we go through as we die—it’s not just a tunnel; it’s like a womb. It’s like a space that goes to this central core of the Godhead, and it just went deeper and deeper and on and on forever and ever, amen! It was something that was reading my vibrational atomic structure, and it was opening my structure as I was merging into its wavefront and it was merging into me, and we were realizing we were both one. It was beautiful, and it was awe-inspiring, and there was no fear, which is why I think I had the momentum I had: because I was just a drop rejoining the ocean. And I do not fear death, because I feel I have gone as far as I can go and bungee-jumped back. It was my most sacred experience ever, so by sharing that with the viewers, I’m not trying to say, “This is God. You must believe my God.” It’s not about The Big G. It’s about what I believe is a valid hyperspatial geography which has an intelligence attached to it. I really don’t want to project my isms on anyone, but I want to encourage people to watch the film and to take their own learnings and reactions to it.
When you’ve had an experience that’s common to some of the great mystics of all time, is there any danger of ego inflation or getting a messianic complex?
Well, that seems to be what usually happens with a lot of the mystic-prophets: They run to the hills and shout from the top of them. I guess I was lucky that [when I had the experience at La Rosacita] I was at the beginning, in a way, of my longer shamanic journey in Peru, and I had to get back to work! I was still on the trail, and I felt a duty of care to integrate not just my experience, but to get it down [in words]: to try to make it concrete and anchor the experience, to transmit it to the tribe. I guess I’m lucky that I haven’t gone off and founded a religion, and I’m not looking to do that. I’m just looking to share my experiences, and also to point out that what I’ve gleaned from my experiences is that they’re not unique to me or to mystics of history—that these potentials lie within us. What I’m really interested in and commenting on is the fact that there’s a shamanic generation in the west, and it’s not necessarily about these depth experiences; it’s about finding the value in them and how to integrate these experiences to be of value to our communities: how to do healing; how to help with illness; how to uncover the western psyche’s illnesses. That doesn’t always mean the deep 5-MeO journeys; it usually means using the ability to journey, in a shamanic sense, to engage with our own unconscious, to engage with the tribe and to try to help make the world a better place. When I had the 5-MeO-DMT experience, it’s as deep as you can go. If I had kept going, it would have been fine, because it’s just all fine, right? But it’s not something you want to do all the time. If I never did it again, [the same experience] would be there for me at the end [of life], and that’s OK. So I’m not encouraging 5-MeO-DMT use. I guess, as you pointed out, like other mystics, I’m just another signpost on the historical trail saying, “It exists.”
In the book, I quote this academic called Roy Ascott: “There’s validated reality, there’s virtual reality and there’s vegetal reality.” It’s a very good little phrase to help understand that what we’re describing here isn’t necessarily mystic or even shamanic, or something that is so out there that we cannot comprehend or isn’t relevant to the average person. I’m not saying these shamanic realms are for everyone, but what I am saying through this analogy is that as we’ve entered the 21st century, and we’re seeing more and more augmented reality and data overlays, and the human species is changing so rapidly now through our relationship with technology, and on a very broad scale, the bigger waves of technology, computing, the Internet and communication technology are basically recreating the neural networks and the distributed consciousness. We’re becoming a hive mind. And so what that shows to me is that we’re recreating on the outside what nature does on the inside. There’s something happening very dynamically as a species, and for me, these realms in the vegetal reality that I’m talking about are directly connected to the technological reality. So, I feel that everyone is basically embracing altered states, and that’s the shockwave for integration of this natural, vegetal reality which has always been there and is coming full circle.
This Q&A is excerpted from an interview that can be heard in full at in-a-perfect-world.podomatic.com. Aya: Awakenings shows at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 at Pacific Cultural Center, 1307 Seabright Ave., Santa Cruz; 426-8893, pacificcultural.org. Tickets are $15. For more information about the film, go to aya-awakenings.com. To learn more about Rak Razam, go to rakrazam.com.