This story takes place in Cuzco, Peru where the author attended a shamanic ceremony that involved taking San Pedro, a cactus used in certain Peruvian religious rituals and known for its ability to open areasof the mind that are normally unreachable.
The article describes the author’s hallucinogenic experiences during his initiation, and shares the mystical philosophies of the shaman and medicine women who introduced him to San Pedro. They claim to be devils that do good by making people aware of other realities.
This article first appeared as the July 2002 Fate magazine cover story.
I knew that I would never again attend another San Pedro ceremony. As my mind bent to the wills of the cactus reality was placed somewhere in the “dreamtime,” as the Indians call it. The dreamtime, it’s an interesting place, a time to dream while awake.
The night sky split open like a tree struck by lightning to reveal the wonders of another world. Stars flashed across the heavens in chorographical formations — triangles and pyramids. With a gentle breeze dark spirits were pushed from their shadowy hiding place to crawl over dirt, old buildings, and up and down my body in streaks of black as I repressed a shudder.
A flaming staff was in my hands and I joined my two guides in the fire dance with their strange chanting. Fire cut a hole into the ether to form a tunnel within the circumference of my spinning staff.
I was gazing through a window to another dimension where the past, present, and future become one.
The San Pedro cactus in Doris’s home on the outskirts of Cuzco
What the thinker thinks the prover proves.
Robert Anton Wilson
“We are not these bodies, we are energy temporarily inhabiting these bodies. The surest thing in the world is that we all die.”
It was early morning. Doris and I were riding in a taxi from downtown Cuzco to her house, somewhere at the city’s outskirts. Doris is a medicine woman from the Peruvian jungles, in her forties with threads of brown throughout her white hair. In some ways she seemed used up, but in most I got the impression that she is much stronger than me.
My goal was to see the “inner vision” of my mind by attending a shamanic San Pedro ceremony. San Pedro is a cactus that contains mescaline and its hallucinogenic effects are similar to peyote. It is common for Peruvian Indians to use San Pedro in religious rituals, as they believe that San Pedro allows one to access the spirit world. Doris was preparing me for my initiation.
“Remember your breathing. This is very important. Slowly breath in through the nose, down to your stomach, and out again. Also remember that love, intention, and thoughts are the three things that you can control. In the jungles I have never been hurt by an animal because I have love in my heart.”
I was skeptical of Doris’s philosophy and figured that she must read a lot of New Age books.
“I don’t read books,” Doris looked at me casually. “Everything I know I have learned from the plants.”
The taxi stopped at a fairly large house in a neighborhood of dirt roads and buildings that looked like they were about to be condemned. The main room of the house was decorated with candles, cactuses, feathers, a few mirrors, and carpets with complex designs upon the floor and hanging from the walls. A view of the Apu Picol mountain could be seen through the room’s large window.
A young woman of about twenty years was introduced as Doris’s daughter Deborah. “Hi Thomas,” she said with a big smile and a cheerful voice, “are you ready for your initiation?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Let’s get started then.”
Underneath my shirt a sash was wrapped around my waist, covering the “energy spot” just below the navel to “keep the life-force inside. “I was then instructed to take off my shoes and to have a seat on the floor. My initiation glass was brought in with a slice of lemon. The San Pedro cactus had been cut up and boiled into a very thick, green substance that I drank reluctantly. Slime stretched from my mouth to the glass, and I had to chew chunks of the plant before swallowing with water. Its taste made my face contort and I used a few drops of lemon to kill it.
Doris was somewhat amused. “You see, it is impossible to become addicted to San Pedro. It just tastes too terrible.
“Try to keep it down for at least an hour in order for the plant to take effect. After an hour or so throw it up to get rid of emotional pain and all that psychic shit.”
“Hello Thomas,” it was a steady voice with an unusual accent that belonged to a man in his mid twenties wearing loose, patched clothing. “My name is Muhaned and I hope you find what you are looking for.”
“I do too,” I said with a bit of sarcasm.
Deborah flashed a big smile and put her arms around Muhaned. “He has traveled all the way from the deserts of Arabia to be here.”
The next couple of hours involved small talk between massages from Deborah and Doris. Up and down my body feathers were shaken with sprinkles of water to the sounds of chanting and drumbeats. Cigarette smoke was blown into my glass of San Pedro in some kind of prayer, and another man did his best to attend to the women’s desires with a strange grin that never left his face.
“Thomas,” Doris whispered into my ear, “I found Roberto homeless and without a family. He was severely retarded, but after drinking a few glasses of San Pedro he can use more of his mind. He works with us now.”
Hours had passed and yet nothing had happened. Although the theatrics were a nice touch, I had the feeling that the whole setup was designed to fool “believers” into thinking that something mystical and invisible happens. I was getting ready to leave, however my third large glass of San Pedro sat before me half-full. I gazed into the green substance. Small bubbles formed and broke, creating streaky movements. I did not want to finish it, the looks alone were enough to make me sick, but it taunted me and laughed at me. I wasn’t about to be beaten by some plant, so I drank it all in one fell swoop.
My stomach churned. I began to sweat and my breathing became faster. Vision wained as something inside me pounded frantically to be released. I could take no more. Slowly I went to the bathroom and shut the door. Immediately yellow and green bile spat from my mouth.
Pain! Something is being ripped from my body. Oh God! What is wrong with me? There is nothing more to vomit, but my body continues to wrench. Is that music coming from the other room or from inside my head? I fall to the floor still wrenching and lurching painfully. Get a grip Thomas, get the hell out of here. I stand up to wash my face. Where is the mirror? Are these tears green?
BOOM; BOOM; BOOM! — Thomas! Thomas! Are you all right? — Muhaned. — Come out here Thomas.
Be cool. Everything is in your head. Remember your breathing. I open the door. Women are laughing in another area. I follow the sounds to find Deborah and Doris sitting on the floor in a dark red room with black shadows lining the walls. They look at me and the laughter stops.
Come here Thomas and sit down.
Is the room moving or am I? I sit near Deborah and Doris to be joined by Muhaned. Darkness is moving across the ceiling, blotting out the light from the window. I look at the mountain and it moves! It opens! Broken lines are connecting inside the mountain as if they are keys to the mountain’s timeless secrets. What are the keys that open human minds? San Pedro must be one of those keys, but I fear that it is a key to a forbidden door.
Something small and black scurries underneath me. A cockroach? I look down – thousands of them! They are coming from my veins to run in lines across the floor, over the candles, feathers, and into the San Pedro.
Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. From the corner of my eye I see something deformed standing over my right shoulder. I am covered by its shadow. Sweat runs down my forehead and my palms are clammy. What is that behind me? My breathing quickens, faster… faster. faster… faster…
Thomas no! — Deborah jumps forward — Thomas control your breathing! Slower… slower… slower… slower…
Doris looks over my right shoulder. Her face shows fear? — When he first came to me I had doubts about his strength. But now I can see that I underestimated him. He is going on a warrior’s journey.
This will take some time. — She stands up, — what you see in others is what you see in yourself, — and leaves.
Things are crawling, shadows are moving, the mountain is open, something deformed is behind me. I can’t move.
Thomas, let’s go to the mountain, — a steady voice with a request and a touch of command.
I can’t move.
Thomas, let’s go to the mountain, — a cheerful voice with a request and a touch of command.
Hands pull me to my feet. Let’s go to the mountain.
If you don’t know where you’re going you’ll probably end up somewhere else. Lawrence Peter
My hat shelters me from the blistering sun as I follow my two guides along a dirt road leading upwards toward the mountain, where perhaps there is a plan, or an ambush awaiting me.
I come to four roads and stop. Which way do I go? Down looks easy, but it will be harder to come up again as there is more hill to climb. To the right a dog looks at me curiously, welcoming my approach. This way is no good, it lacks excitement. How about up towards the mountain with the witches? No. To the left I go.
There are two dogs chained to a post blocking my path. They snarl and scream at me, faces bulging as they desperately try to break free of the bonds that hold them. Bring it on puppies! I’ll get past you bastards! I walk closer to them. With each step they seem to become more intent upon destroying me. I’ll settle this, and I reach for the guns at my hips. Shit! Where are my guns? The witches must have stolen them! I should have known that they can’t be trusted. I glance at Deborah and she gives me another big smile before beginning another chant.
Thomas where are you going? — Muhaned tries to hide his irritation.– Thomas let’s go to the mountain. — He looks funny in that pointed hat of his.
I’ll show you! and reach for my guns. Goddamnit! The witches stole my guns! Now what do I do?
A car full of Peruvians passes by. Each has a different look on his face as they watch the crazy gringo walk around in circles. I tip my hat to them with a grin. Damn I wish I had my guns! I’m not going anywhere.
OK Thomas, let’s go back to the house. Is that what you want? — I nod yes to Muhaned as he puts his arm on my shoulders and we walk side by side.
Our shadows guide the way along the ground. Muhaned’s shadow is loose and fumbly, almost as if he has no bones and he looks funny in that pointed hat of his, like a scarecrow. My shadow moves in stiff, rigid motions like something made from metal or tin. There is a white hole through the shadow’s chest.
Where is my heart?
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all it’s contents. H.P. Lovecraft
I sit on the floor in the main room of the house. It is dark here, with patches of black even darker still. The falling sun shoots streams of light through the window and I have trouble seeing. I put my sunglasses on. There, I can see much better now. I do not see with my eyes, but with my mind, or more accurately my awareness.
You like the dark, don’t you Thomas? — Unable to speak I nod the affirmative to Muhaned.
I am in a fascinating dimension with endless wonders. The human mind is so complex and mysterious that one needs to ask the right questions to unlock the doors guarding the right answers. I wonder what questions I am asking.
I light a cigarette and watch the smoke twist and turn without form as it rises to disappear. Smoke exists like the spirits, floating freely without a body, without intention. I am in awe of them. When in need of good company I find myself meditating with the spirits, as the dead are often more alive than the living.
There are eyes watching me from the walls – hundreds of them. Their words form like a whirlwind, making it impossible to distinguish one from the other. The entire room is breathing as an animal does while suffering for it’s last breath. There are moans and screams of pain as most of the eyes are pulled back into the walls. The others free themselves to become shadows gliding along the floor until they encircle me. The feminine forms raise themselves and move smoothly, slowly, softly. The dancing shadows make music with their words:
Dance with us. Dance with us and be with us forever. You might not dance, but do not forget us. You must always remember us.
A devil in human form steps forward with a smirk on his face and a staff in his hand. His whore is at his side. I rub my hand across the staff, it is covered in snake skin, and I watch transfixed as the skin responds to my touch, ignoring it’s owner as he speaks something about the jungles and coincidences.
Let me tell you a joke! — Muhaned bends down — Do you want to hear my joke Thomas? — I nod and Deborah smiles.
There were three men stranded on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, and suddenly a genie appeared to them. It said that it would grant three wishes, one for each of the men. The first man said,
I want to be rich. — It is done! said the genie and the first man disappeared. The second man said, I want to travel the world. — It is done! said the genie and the second man disappeared. The third man looked around to find himself alone. Then he said, I want my friends back.
Thomas! — Deborah is pretending to fly on a broomstick. — Look! — She runs into the window.
That was a good one! — Muhaned half-laughs. — Thomas do you want to fly? I can show you how. Sit on this carpet over here with me.
I sit cross-legged on the carpet and watch it’s designs move and connect as if unlocking a secret code. Now close your eyes…
My face stings of cold as the carpet cuts through the wind above Cuzco. I am riding the surf of thoughts to destinations unknown. I open my eyes.
Deborah points my direction to a circular “target” with with a large, black dot at it’s center, surrounded by rings of different colors and sizes.
Look at this Thomas and you can go to other worlds in your mind! — Deborah, always the cheerful one.
Transfixing my attention to the black spot the outer circles begin to spin. Slowly at first, then increasing in speed until the friction’ heat melts a long, dark tunnel into the wall and I can see something on the other side, something undefined. Is this real or imagined? All experience is real in some form or fashion, subjective to the observer’s belief or faith. Reality is more religion than science.
What is their religion? They are leading me to believe in their view of reality, hypnotizing me while I am in the dreamtime to convince me that the dream IS reality while I am fully awake. If I can control the dreamtime, may I control “reality?” Am I the dreamer of the dream, or the dream of the dreamer?
I shake my head, with eyes closed, to come out of the tunnel.
Thomas do you want to come down now? — its Muhaned.
I shake my head.
This guy’s going to write a fucking book — Muhaned says to Deborah, and then to me, — Thomas are you sure? Everything is in your mind Thomas, you can control what you see. What do you want to see? You can do anything here, you only need to want it. Do you want to come down?
I shake my head.
Come with us.
-Fire and Night-
Death begins when a person accepts that he has died. the Patagonians
Only for you Thomas! — Muhaned shouts, spinning his staff of fire. Deborah joins the fire dance with a chant and her flaming ball and chain. Roberto stands nearby with that damned pasted grin on his face, anxiously awaiting to be of assistance to his two colleges.
I stand in the night watching the stars flash across the sky, and glance at shadows slithering from darker places. Everything is attached by cobwebs; the tree to the rock, the rock to me, and me to my guides. A small fire is started by Roberto which Muhaned uses to lite a staff for me. As I spin it a tunnel is cut into the ether and I see things, strange things. Creatures and humans merge to become one, then separate. Time does not seem to exist here, things die to be born again, as I watch – fascinated.
During our break from the fire dance Muhaned takes my right hand and puts it into the fire. I have no fear, and feel no pain, as I am beyond the point of caring. My hand remains in the fire for ten or fifteen seconds until pulled from the flames completely black, but not burned.
Perfect — says Muhaned, and we return to the house.
When you look at me Thomas what do you see? Do you see a young man walking like this? — Muhaned stirs up the mist on the floor as he walks smoothly and easily. — But in reality Thomas I walk like this, — Muhaned walks feebly and with difficulty, hunched over, in need of a cane. — I use magic to create the illusion that I am young, when really I am 65 years old; no, I am 165 years old.
You need some sleep Thomas, — Deborah shows me to a bed, — get some rest.
Alone I lie in the dark. The window to my left gives a view of Apu Picol, and the strangely colored walls seem to blend in with the floating mist. Deborah and Muhaned are laughing in the other room, which seems to coincide perfectly with the shadows on the walls – a male figure over a female figure. Muhaned’s -Aladdin’s?- shadow turns to look at me, letting out a long, deep-throated sound.
The room is replaced by a diamond shape with others inside of it, like looking at a pyramid from above. The diamond turns to break into several half-circles, and in the middle of these circles appears a face. How similar that gray face looks to a human skull.
I will give you a gift. To see what you want to see. — A deep voice, but soft.
I want to see the spirits.
The face is gone. I am standing on endless plains covered by bones. There is no sun, but a dim light can be seen in the distance. Spirits as black as coal walk without sound over human skulls. Some speak foolishness like madmen, others cry out as they try to grab bones, wishing that the skeletons would resurrect in the flesh. Am I dreaming? Has one ever paused to consider where the voices of dreams come from? Perhaps they are the thoughts of the subconscious mind, or life events recreated into symbolic images for better understanding. Or maybe, just maybe, dreams are a medium of communication from another world where the spirits of the dead and the unborn roam. Am I dreaming?
Perhaps I have already died and gone to Hell!
Oh God, what have I done? I have followed devils – or myself – into worlds of my mind that were not meant to be explored! Supernatural surgeons are operating on my mind, and I allowed them to do it, just like Roberto did. Roberto isn’t retarded, he can’t come out of his San Pedro trip! I want to live! Maybe I am not dead yet, I may still be on my journey. How may I leave this place? I can control the dreamtime by controlling my thoughts. I am stronger than the plant, the tricks, and the hypnosis! I only need to have faith that someday I will find an escape from my mind…
-The Other side-
These entities seem to come from another dimension or “spirit world, ” or perhaps from our subconscious minds — which, in fact, may hold other dimensions.
Laughter. Incessant laughter. — Oh, wake up Thomas!
I awoke to a view of Apu Picol and the sun shinning in my face. I wondered what was at the mountain, and why Deborah and Muhaned wanted me to go there so intently.
The door opened and Doris walked in. “How are you feeling?” she asked quietly.
“I still haven’t come completely down yet, but I can function.” I rose slowly, half expecting the room to move. It stayed firmly in place to tell me that I had somewhat returned to my normal reality.
“You will come completely down in time,” Doris looked at the loor. “You were on the other side. I don’t know how you were ready for it, but you were. No one I know has ever gone that far on their first
San Pedro trip.”
Doris glanced up at me, “Do you read a lot of horror stories?”
“I used to.”
“That is why you saw what you saw. You need love in you heart to see other things. It’s all in your heart Thomas, open up,” she took a deep breath and sighed. “Did you see the threads of the life-force during your trip?”
I tried to imagine what this would look like, “I saw spider webs.”
“That was the life-force and you perceived it to be spider webs because of the way you think. You need to detach yourself from the negative threads that are doing you harm.
“I have never seen anyone drink so much San Pedro at one time. You must drink alcohol a lot in order to stomach it. You are looking for something there.”
The genie in the bottle…
I took a taxi back to my hotel in downtown Cuzco and slept for several hours. When I awoke I could see streams of energy coming from my fingertips as I waved my hands in the air, but the energy was fading. I took a walk outside where everything seemed to be vibrantly alive. I recognized the clouds in the blue sky with much more clarity, and observed the people on the street in detail.
Walking down a quiet ally I noticed an old man sitting slumped over on the curbside with a stick in his hand. At my approach he raised his head — it was Muhaned.
“Hello Thomas!” He stood up to greet me cheerfully. “How are you feeling?”
“That is to be expected,” he grinned. “Tell me about what you saw on your San Pedro trip. It must be very interesting as you were gone for a long time – almost a full twenty-four hours.”
“I saw shadows dancing, the mountain opened up to show symbols…”
“Was everything crawling?” Muhaned interrupted.
“What else did you see?”
“I saw a face. It said that it would give me a gift, to see what I want to see. I said that I wanted to see the spirits.”
“Do you know who that was? That was Mescalito. Mescalito is mentioned in the Carlos Castenada books. Tell me something more Thomas, did you see us as devils?”
“We are devils,” he said straightforward, casually, “devils that do good.”
The human psyche has infinite regions still waiting to be explored, and at that moment I knew that I would soon attend another San Pedro ceremony.
Thomas Carroll shows you how to get paid to travel the world with travel and adventure jobs, how to travel on $25 a day, and how to travel for free. Subscribe to his free newsletter at: www.lonewolfadventure.com