Chapter 3: The Vacation Litmus Test

The ceremony was her idea.

Two years previously they began saving money for a vacation. Countries were considered and crossed off the list. Individually they’d explored the typical destinations of Europe, Beth as a student and Billy as child in military family, and they dismissed the EFIGS nations as too predictable. Too easy. Too typical.

China, South Africa, Japan, Australia, India and Thailand were all considered - their pros and cons listed and their adventure DNA dissected. China and India were too risky for their first overseas adventure together, they wanted adventure but they also wanted to relax. South Africa and Australia were interesting but English speaking so they were crossed off the list. Japan was expensive and Billy had already lived there for a short period. They needed a destination that was new for both of them. Thailand was cheap, a cuisine country and offered everything from beaches to mountains. It was at the top of list until they hosted a dinner party and Billy told the group what they were planning.

Conversation erupted. An explosion of opinions, insider tips and advice. Billy and Beth listened. They asked questions and took notes. Beth wrote them on her phone Billy filled napkins with a drunken scrawl that wouldn’t be legible in the morning.

For a group of recent graduates they were surprisingly well traveled. Many of Beth’s friends studied abroad as a mandated component of their undergraduate programs and Billy’s friends were a collection of artists, crafters, and medievalists with an expansive, if quirky, worldview.

There were arguments for digging deeper into the European experience: exploring Turkey, the Eastern nations and the Balkans. A case was made that it was their duty to travel through Asia to learn firsthand that there’s more than Mao, the Vietnam War and Pearl Harbor. Brazil and Argentina were piled into bucket lists and it was agreed the Middle East would be overly challenging for their first international trip together.

When the conversation began its taper towards a change of topic their friend Geoff coughed to get attention then leaned forward. He acknowledged the other suggestions as wonderful and the conversation as stimulating but stated there was only one place to go for a truly transformative experience. Peru. Eyebrows were raised and more than a few heads bobbed. It was worth considering.

Geoff’s father was a urologist and in the early 80’s he designed an innovative penile implant that made achieving, then deflating, an erection as easy as cracking your knuckles. By the 90’s the technology had been rendered obsolete but the family still lived well off that initial flood of income. As a single child Geoff had traveled the world with his parents, then as an adult with a generous trust fund he had continued exploring on his own. He flew first class and he stayed exclusively at hotels with fours or more stars but he had a deep personal interest in vice that kept him close to the street. By his mid-twenties he had seen more of the world than most people twice his age.

“Besides Machu Picchu, what’s there to see?” Billy asked. “I’ve seen photos and it looks amazing but sites don’t usually live up to the hype. I’m not sure I want to haul all the way there just for a day hike around an old Incan city.”

“I hear you,” said Geoff, “but here’s thing,” He poked the table. “Machu Picchu is the real deal. It's the one of the only few sites in the world that will meet, and exceed, your expectations. If a walk through Machu Picchu doesn’t transport you to another age you’re some kind of sociopath. How the hell did the Incas build it? People talk about the pyramids in hushed, reverent tones, as if humans couldn’t have built them. It had to be aliens, right? Because humans weren’t advanced enough to engineer a pyramid. Guess what, the Incas built a city on the top of a mountain with sheer cliffs on all sides and they were moving stones the size of the slabs in the pyramids. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Incas conquered Western South America in the span of a hundred years.”

“You want more? How about incredible food, coffee and rainforest? You can be in the mountains one day and the next day you’re canoeing in the Amazon. The freaking Amazon. If there’s a more fertile environment for fueling the imagination I haven’t see it.”

Beth held up a hand. “What kind of food are we talking about? When I think good eating, Peru doesn’t leap to mind.”

“One word,” Geoff held up a finger, “ceviche. The best in the world.”

One of Beth’s friends, a bearded philosopher and dedicated couch surfer name Leonard, scoffed. “It can’t be that fresh if they have to fly in the fish.”

Billy looked at him, “What’re you talking about? Peru is on the coast. The ocean is right there.”

Leonard pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “Really?”

“Yes, really.” said Geoff. “One more thing: if you’re ready for something to change your worldview you need to attend an ayahuasca ceremony. I know a place in Cusco where you can spend a day with a shaman and an interpreter and they’ll take you through the whole ceremony. They take you out to the jungle and everything. I did it there for my first time and it changed my life.”

Beth laughed, “Your first time?”

“Yeah,” Geoff answered. “It was so intense I told myself I’d never do it again but a year later I was in Santa Fe and met a guy, a totally legit Peruvian shaman named Don Raul, who conducts ceremonies here in the States. So, yeah, it was convenient. I did it again and now I figure it’s something I should do once a year. Like a self diagnostic .If you don’t do it in Peru I’m on Don Raul’s email list and he tours all around the States conducting ceremonies. I can let you know if he’s ever in the Michigan.”

“Your shaman has an email list?” Billy asked.

“Actually his assistant does all the emailing but, yeah, he has a newsletter. It’s all super discreet and the ceremonies are described as ‘events’ but it’s the real thing.”

Leonard raised his hand, “I’d like to attend a ceremony.”

Geoff raised an eyebrow. “You can’t afford it.”

He looked back at Billy and Beth. “I tell you what, if you go to Peru and it doesn’t live up the hype I’ll personally reimburse you for the airfare.” He brushed his hands through the thick, sculpted mop of his hair and crossed his skinny arms. “I’m that confident.”

Within days of the dinner party Billy and Beth agreed Peru was their destination. They set dates, months away, and booked their flights.

Upon arrival they spent several days exploring the sprawling, dusty bowl of Lima where they struggled with the language, wielding High School Spanish like a club and being told by locals where it was safe or unsafe to walk. When they were confident they could communicate their basic needs then made the trek to Cusco and acclimated to the altitude, relaxing into a lazy schedule of hiking, eating ceviche and sipping strong black coffee.

They considered Geoff’s suggestion of the ayahuasca ceremony and visited a small office above an herb shop to explore the details. It was an address Geoff had given them and Billy had researched the company from an internet cafe near their hostel. The group promised an authentic ayahuasca experience that could be done with a group or semi-privately. There were one-day events and longer, extended, explorations into the plant and culture around the ceremony that involved taking the medicine several times over a week, two weeks or a month. They operated a retreat outside of the city, in the verge where the spare, dirty, tumble of suburbs wrestled with the encroaching forest. Alternatively one could arrange a trip to the Amazon, to experience the ayahuasca in the grandeur of its natural setting, the jungle.

Billy didn’t know what to expect from their office but he was surprised by the clean, white-washed walls and spare decor. The room was empty except for a desk and two chairs. At the desk sat a middle-aged, caucasian woman in a crisp, white nurse’s uniform. Her hair was in a tight, gray bun and her lipstick was cherry red. The color of nightlife and desire. She spoke with a British accent and invited them to sit. Billy wondered if she was actually a nurse or whether she was an expat cast in the role of ‘reassuring medical officer’ to ease the minds of nervous first-timers.

They were slid photocopies of the medical waiver, costs, options and preparation list. Between the required fasting, the dietary adjustments - no alcohol, caffeine or meat - the ceremony and the recovery it was a three to four day event. They spent the next half hour asking questions then retreated to a local bar to discuss their plan. Over a pitcher of Sangria it was decided their time would be better spent exploring, eating and drinking.

After a week in Cusco they took the train to Aguas Calientes, an ugly backpackers mecca at the foot of Machu Picchu. The town abutted the Vinacota, a brown, rolling river that wound through the mountains. The train station was clean and well designed, an effort to make a positive first impression on tourists, but from there the city decayed into a sloppy jumble of cheap hostels, bars and markets that jostled on the banks of the river. Billy and Beth checked into a hostel and spent the night drinking Cusqueña beer, eating bad pizza and playing cards with a group of German backpackers.

They woke early the next morning for sweaty, breathless, two-hour hike up the mountain and when they finally walked through the ticket gate to Machu Picchu the sun was rising over the mountain, bathing the site in a golden, honey light. Tourists swarmed around them while they walked in silence through the passages. Billy traced the walls with his fingers, feeling the vibration that still breathed in the cold stone. He imagined farming the terraces clinging to the sides of the mountain, making love in the shadow of the mountain Huayna Picchu and succumbing to the Spanish. Their guns, smallpox and STDs. A beautiful thing corrupted by the intrusion of an unwelcome visitor.

As Geoff promised, it was transformative.

Billy felt small, a creature of simple motivations. He saw himself clearly for the first time, the wounded animal that he was. His ability to offer love hamstrung by his inability to accept love for himself. He drifted through the ruins and they seemed like a metaphor, a diagram, of his life. A thing of beauty and function worn down and content to observe and not engage. When Billy shared his revelation she had been silent and he felt a pang of dread deep in his belly.

Weeks crawled by until Beth shared the revelations that crystallized for her in the thin mountain air. Life was too short to spend it fighting for his love. She understood his issues but he needed to work through them if they were going to have a future. Anything broken could be fixed if you’re interested in spending the time and energy. She needed to know he was willing to spend the time making repairs.

She suggested therapy, solo or as a couple, and he resisted. There was so much packed away and compartmentalized that he was truly afraid of the shadows that might surface.

For a week they lived in a tense detente when Geoff contacted them to say Don Raul was coming to Michigan.