Aqueous groans filled the interior of the Land Rover. With a trembling finger, Charlie pressed the stop button on the tape deck. The operatics of the Humpbacks ceased. Although whale song was all the rage during the ‘Nu Age’, it wasn’t his preferred listening. He would rather sit in near silence and hear the ghostly hum of airport traffic and planes taking off nearby.
While Charlie fiddled nervously with the patchouli air freshener, his boyfriend George sat in the driver’s seat wondering what to say. Ever the pragmatist, George decided to run through Charlie’s gear list one final time before his flight.
‘Tent, sleeping bag, water filter, mosquito net—‘
‘George! Me going to Peru isn’t going to “save” this relationship.’
George’s brow went full Vulcan like a snickers bar; infuriated by Charlie’s sarcastic air quotes regarding their fragile relationship. Going to Peru was a requirement for Charlie to meet if their relationship was to continue.
Bored bureaucrats are prone to drinking problems. One can only get away with sitting at their desk squirting vodka from a water pistol into their mouths for so long. Charlie ‘Throttlebottom’ Ward shouldn’t have become a public servant. He loathed bureaucracy too much. Finding a different, more fulfilling job was another condition that he’d have to meet for George.
A former alcoholic himself, George couldn’t stand idly by and watch Charlie drown in beer, lest he be pulled into a swirling vortex of it himself. Taking Ayahuasca had worked for him—he’d been sober for twenty years—so he thought it ought to work for Charlie.
In the safe bubble of the Land Rover, Charlie eyed the dashboard clock, worriedly picturing the pat-down he’d receive from airport security. His white outfit would enable him to be recognised by his fellow Ayahuasca-nauts in the airport, but the getup George insisted he wear was pretty outlandish. George had sported it during his own Ayahuasca ceremony. It was a fringed, one piece jumpsuit that he’d ‘borrowed’ from the wardrobe department of TV show, ‘Stars In Their Eyes’. Several sweaty Mick Jagger impersonators had strutted their stuff in it, before it was pilfered and heavily laundered by George.
Charlie was thoroughly convinced of the jumpsuit’s reflective properties and knew he’d be impervious to the Peruvian sun. Of its breathability though, he was not convinced. He’d witnessed the clammy Jagger-wannabes in action; sweating it up. Another problem with the jumpsuit was that it didn’t zip up all the way because of his beer paunch.
Charlie’s parting gift from George was a rousing, compassionate pep talk, which, inadvertently, only added fuel to the fire of his racing mind.
Stop telling me to be less anxious! It makes me more anxious.
What if it interferes with my medication?
I’d really prefer not to go. I’m not exactly Indiana Jonesing for adventure here.
I’d rather stay at home with you, attend some A.A meetings, and finish our Pedro Almodovar movie marathon.
But—pushing those thoughts aside for George’s benefit—Charlie bravely accepted what he must do.
‘The Almodothon…’ George said. ‘We’ll have to finish it when you get back!’
Charlie felt George’s caress on his arm, followed by a warm peck on his cheek. He looked over at the white group in the terminal.
‘Time to get going,’ George said.
And with that, Charlie left the safety of the Land Rover.
As he entered the airport, Charlie struggled to zip his jumpsuit over his paunch. Whatever synthetic material it was made of squeaked as he walked. A surreptitious swig from his hip flask wouldn’t have gone amiss either, but there were no pockets in the Ossie Clark jumpsuit. And no hip flask. George had seen to that.
He squeaked his way over to the group, blinded by the dazzling white, wondering if he’d come upon a washing powder advert audition. It felt very cultish. The group were gathered around a tall woman with long black hair, who wore a red paisley bandana and smoked a filtered cigarette while doling out an unappetising brown liquid into clear plastic cups. Everyone was drinking it.
‘You Charlie?’ She asked. ‘I’m Shamanka.’ She poured some of the brown liquid into a cup. 'Would you care for—’
‘It’s a bit early for chicken stock, isn’t it?’ Charlie said.
The group chuckled, but nipped it in the bud when Shamanka changed her tune.
‘I ask politely, but it is a requirement.’
She passed Charlie the hot brown broth.
‘Okay then. Chicken stock it is.’
Her eastern European twang gave her an unquestionable air of authority. Charlie sat down next to an older man and sipped the earthy brew without making a fuss. His arm hairs stood on end and he tried to hide his gagging. There was something disgusting but electrifying about this brew.
‘It’s mushroom tea,’ the older man who introduced himself as Brian said. ‘I dig the jumpsuit, man.’
Most of the group were incredibly laid back—Brian especially so—and Charlie clung on to him. He’d recently read about mirroring and decided to take a sip of tea every time Brian did.
Brian was a seasoned (a polite way of saying old) tripper on his first voyage helmed by Shamanka. His wife had discovered her site on Netscape Navigator and thought that she looked ‘Lovely’. Apparently, Brian was laid back enough to think Shamanka being lovely qualified her to lead potentially dangerous psychotropic excursions.
However worthy Shamanka’s credentials, Charlie was glad to have Brian to hold onto if his trip went south, and they decided to sit next to one another on the plane. Charlie had plenty of questions for Brian about ego death and avoiding bad trips.
A stewardess warbled something over the P.A, but in the echoey terminal, all Charlie caught was ‘Lima’. That reminded him. Where were the tickets? George had sent Shamanka the money for his flight.
‘Shouldn’t we be departing now?’
‘Relax,’ She said, sipping from her cup filled with clear liquid. She tipped the brown dregs from her flask into Charlie’s cup.
‘Drink up,’ she said.
There were only ten minutes left to board; a fact that the increasingly gregarious group were oblivious to.
‘Okay, everyone,’ Shamanka said. ‘Thees way.’
She beckoned the group to the terminal entrance. When Charlie stood up, the stained floor tiles rippled like a yellow lake. He lifted his feet and they left syrupy trails behind.
Shamanka’s stern voice echoed through the terminal. ‘Come on, Charlie.’
Now the inside of the airport sounded like a riot of cacophony. Was that an army of belt sanders battling it out with a gaggle of opera divas? Or was it just people milling around the luggage carousel, chatting? He covered his ears while traversing the sticky floor and arrived outside, at Shamanka’s mini-bus.
The bus seated five intrepid Ayahuasca-nauts and one recalcitrant Charlie. Shamanka belted up each tranquillised passenger before takeoff, then took to the wheel. She drove like jehu out of the terminal and bolted into the countryside.
Charlie’s bum kept sliding down the plastic seat covers, causing him to hallucinate a French water park he’d visited during his childhood. He mumbled phrases in broken French. Revisiting the waterpark could have been a pleasant experience, if not for Shamanka’s erratic, jerky driving.
‘Thees is your captain speaking,’ she announced. ‘If you look to your right, you’ll see thee forest of Gnar. Should you feel need to vomit, please use thee sick bags provided.’
Along with Charlie’s palpitations came a rush of euphoria. Then a wave of nausea. He grabbed a sick bag, but was caught short. In fact, nobody’s stomach held out for the entire journey. That’s why the plastic seat covers were there. Shamanka’s strategy seemed to be to get the voyagers to their destination as fast as possible to minimise van vomiting; but the speed seemed to be working counter-productively.
And speaking of their destination—what happened to Peru?
Having entered the forest of Gnar via a dirt track, Shamanka’s bus was considerably more puke-laden than before. She spotted a flowery dell just off the track and broke harshly, jolting every passenger forward. The seatbelt’s jolt protection caught Charlie just before his head slammed against the seat in front.
Brian was the only passenger who managed to unbuckle himself and leave the van. He got into a tussle with Shamanka as she began hurling everyone’s luggage into a ditch, along with a vat of earthy coloured liquid. Then she impatiently herded the passengers out of the van and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Spinning her wheels in the gravel, she blasted off in angry cloud of grey dust.
Brian spotted several ratty tents collapsed around an old fire pit down in the dell and without a word, the group hauled their cases down the slope, clinging tightly to their sanity as well as their luggage.
Instead of pitching his own tent, Charlie crawled inside a collapsed one and made it his poncho. The next few hours were filled with intense introspection.
Brian watched over Charlie, who tried to follow his advice of refusing to entertain any notion that the experience was unpleasant or the dose too strong. This allowed him to divert his bad trip.
‘She’ll come back,’ Brian said, cajoling Charlie. He was perched on a log, poking the cold ashes in the fire pit with a stick.
‘Yeah, she’s probably just getting supplies,’ a woman in a flowing frock said. ‘I mean, her website looks legitimate.’
After Charlie had lain on the warm ground for a while, appreciating the complex effluvium of Elderflower, a man in overalls appeared on the brow of the hill yelling something about Samantha.
‘Shamanka? Is one of you Shamanka?’ He shouted.
Charlie curled up tighter in his polyester chrysalis, squinting at the Ridgeline where the mechanic stood. ‘What’s he saying?’
‘I dunno,’ said Brian.
‘Shamanka?’ The mechanic shouted, before dismissively waving his hand at the group and jogging down the track.
Seeing the man in overalls running off had piqued Charlie’s interest. Now that the nausea had subsided, he decided to unfurl his poncho and scramble up the bank after him.
In the throes of fungal narcosis, Shamanka’s abandonment of the group had been a blurry scene. He looked down the track and saw a van plastered in flower decals nose down in a drainage ditch due to a catastrophic understeer. He led the group down to the crash site and found a differently dressed Shamanka. Her red bandana and white get-up had turned into jeans and a T-shirt. She was crouched on the mossy verge with her head in her hands while the mechanic rigged up his winch.
When confronted by Brian, Shamanka rolled her eyes and denied any knowledge of these ‘white ghost people’ to the mechanic. And she did it in a bad English accent.
‘Ha! Do I know them? No! They’re just a bunch of pill-poppers looking for a woodland rave or something. . .’
After the mechanic had towed the van out of the ditch, he was on his way.
Avoiding any eye contact with the group, Shamanka took to the wheel again. Flanking the front and rear of her van was a white picket fence made of humans that demanded karmic retribution. Shamanka tauntingly revved her engine. Brian demanded that she surrender to the forest as they had.
‘Come and join us,’ Brian said.
‘We’ll forgive you,’ Charlie said.
‘The forest forgives you,’ the lady in the frock chanted.
Shamanka slumped onto the steering wheel, accidentally honking the van’s horn. She began to sob. Charlie opened the driver’s door and patted her head gently.
‘Get off!’ She said. ‘Thees whole thing—it’s not even my idea.’
She slammed the van door shut and immediately regretted encasing herself in a vomit ridden vehicle. She wound the window down quickly.
‘It is boyfriend. Whole thing is boyfriend’s scheme. I call him to come tow me out and he tell me he busy. He tell me to call mechanic.’
She slumped further onto the dashboard and turned to look Charlie in the eye.
‘I exhausted shuttling you druggies around and taking you money. I SICK OF IT.’
Everyone was at a loss for words, except Brian.
‘Shamanka,’ he said calmly. ‘Why don’t you camp with us and sup some of your incredible brew?’
Shamanka nodded with watery eyes and a pinched-in smile. She stepped out of the van and changed back into her white clothes to join the voyagers in earnest.
Because of the foul odour emanating from the van, Charlie had had to breathe through his mouth. The van window magnified the sunlight and sped up the putrefaction of the vomit. Lucky for everyone else, the woman in the frock cleaned the van up, and drove it down to the camp.
As Shamanka would later admit; the brown brew wasn’t Ayahuasca at all. Brian remarked that his seasoned palate had detected this in the airport. It was of course, psilocybin mushroom tea.
Shamanka admitted that she’d never been anywhere near Peru or taken psychedelics. She routinely performed the machinations of her domineering Polish boyfriend, Attila; namely pocketing people’s flight money then tranquillising them at the airport before dumping them in the forest.
Whereas Charlie’s first mushroom symphony had started rather egregiously, the second one took flight like a swan from a glassy lake. He likened the puking to different classical pieces and their movements. Each had its own variation in consistency, content and speed; presto, allegro and moderato. His pitch perfect ear identified the monophonic notes and polyphonic chords of every wet heave.
The camp became one of purging and cleansing, as each member unabashedly evacuated the contents of their stomachs. Unlike Brian, who only experienced the dry heaves because he’d fasted for a day, Charlie barfed up a veritable buffet that could be pieced back together like a jigsaw by a gastroenterologist.
When the moment took him, Charlie introspectively slunk off into the shady woods. As far as he was concerned, this was the Peruvian jungle. On his ramble, he stopped to press his cheek against the cool bark of a Beech tree, and slid into a reverie of comfort.
Wrapping his arms around it, he tuned into the tree’s higher vibrations and funnelled the music of the forest into his soul; fusing scatting streams with yodelling branches, crooning boulders with doo-wopping moss. Then he battled with the creek for the title of world scatting champions and won.
Epiphanies like deciding to leave pencil pushing behind for good are rare in the lives of bureaucrats; but Charlie became convinced that that was what he had to do. If not for himself, then for George.
Determined to recreate the wild sounds of the forest, Charlie rushed back to camp to find instruments. At dusk, his fellow voyagers were already sat around a lit fire, playing bongos, guitars, koala bear castanets, kalimbas, and voice boxes.
The beauty of the forest’s music was hard to recreate. As conductor, Charlie balked at everyone’s musical ramblings. It was hopeless trying to mesh rhythm with melody in a pleasing way. The resulting noise didn’t hold a candle to the sublimity of the forest, even when he graced them with his highly coveted scatting.
Craving another arboreal embrace, Charlie left the group and wrapped his arms around a beautiful brown specimen. He wept for five minutes; though his five minutes were equivalent to one hundred and twenty of a sober man.
By this time, symphony number two was winding down. As Charlie withdrew his embrace from the trunk, he noticed the letters ‘B’ and ’T’ carved into it.
He was so enamoured with the forest that even its utilities had received some love. An English telegraph pole had morphed into a Peruvian Lupuna tree.
When Charlie arrived back at camp, he saw a different Shamanka; one who’d opened her own doors of perception. She’d been blessed with insights that righted her psychic imbalances, and she offered to refund the participants the cost of their flights to Peru.
The group, upon hearing of her emigration from Nazi occupied Poland to England, aged twelve, with her hun-like boyfriend, Attila, offered to let her keep their flight money so she could start a better life without him.
‘Thee irony is,’ Shamanka said, ‘I needed thees ‘trip’ more than all of you. Thank you.’
To be shuttled lovingly back to the airport by Shamanka—the lady shaman—with her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel, was pure luxury.
At the terminal, Charlie jumped out of the van looking gaunt and purified. After a prolonged and gooey emotional embrace (featuring many back pats) with Shamanka, Charlie strode proudly over to George, who was waiting by the Land Rover.
‘Missed you, Charlie boy,’ he said, beckoning for a hug.
Charlie withheld his affections for a moment, standing at arms length from George.
‘There was a lot more. . . vomiting than I expected,’ he said.
George smiled and grabbed Charlie with impatient affection, remarking on the immaculately white Ossie Clark jumpsuit.
‘No barf stains. You’ve done me proud!’
George seemed impressed. Not just with the jumpsuit, but with the man inside it. Even Charlie’s paunch had gone down, for obvious reasons.
‘Where did all this go?’ George said, patting Charlie’s stomach.
‘Some of it in a van. Most of it in a forest.’
‘Isn’t it gorgeous over there? How about those Lupuna trees?’
‘I hugged one for five minutes.’
On the drive home (sans whale song) Charlie tugged at the fringes of his jumpsuit, proud to have worn it. But he struggled to verbally articulate his experience.
‘So,’ George said. ‘Tell me more. Was it good to get away?’
‘You know—in a way—it feels like I never left.’