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Dispatches from São Paulo: Ayahuasca, Good Work and Santo Daime

El Errante


The man in the white shirt holds out the ceramic cup, I take it and drink. The ayahuasca tea tastes like maple syrup, with some fine grit and an earthy aftertaste. I return to my seat and notice immediately that my lips and tongue have become pleasantly numb. The rest of the ritual participants approach and similarly dose with the brew. The man pours himself a cup, extinguishes the electric light and sits comfortably in his chair. As he settles the flame of a single candle sends shadows dancing and popping around the living room. I burrow into the futon I’m sitting on, waiting for the drug to make its presence known. Finally the man who poured the tea addresses the group in a calm voice, “Bom trabalho” [good work].

Like many anarchists I have tried a host of hallucinogens in a multitude of contexts; LSD while clubbing in NYC in the ’80s, peyote in Native American Church ceremonies, mescaline with Chinese food, and MDMA for the mindblowing sex. So with the move to São Paulo I had hoped that the opportunity to try ayahuasca might happen. And sure enough the therapist I had been seeing recommended, as a treatment, trying a Santo Daime ayahuasca ritual. The coincidence gave me the odd feeling that I didn’t find ayahuasca; ayahuasca found me. I jumped at the chance.

(When invited I resolved to experience the ritual as a participant. While I have neither belief nor disbelief in God I do believe in respecting others’ faith. In so doing I reject Anthropology’s participant/observer academic copout. In such a situation you are either a participant or an observer, never both.)

A week later I found myself in the living room of a professional couple in São Paulo, with five other participants. A low altar stood along one wall adorned with flowers, water, cachaça, a plastic bottle of ayahuasca tea and pictures of Raimundo Irineu Serra (the founder of Santo Daime) and Padrinho Sebastião (Little Father Sebastian—a popularizer of Santo Daime in urban areas). A quick note about the Santo Daime religion—founded in the 1920s by Raimundo Irineu Serra, a rubber tapper in the far western Brazilian state of Acre—the religion is a synthesis of indigenous shamanism, Catholic imagery and African native religions. In this sense it perfectly emulates the syncretic nature of Brazilian society and it is no surprise that urban professionals, mental health providers, agricultural workers and those on spiritual quests are turning more and more to the religion and ayahuasca. What is important in all this is that ayahuasca is considered by practitioners as a healing concoction, it is a medicine for those who suffer mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It illuminates what was darkened by fear, anger, hurt; hence one of its alternate names, Santa Luz, the Saint of Light. It also bears the image of power, of strength—to deal with life, to overcome adversity, to change.

After about twenty minutes of silence, the host turns on the light, a guitar, rattles and hinos (books of chants) are produced and a long session of chanting begins. The chanting is melodic, almost song but not quite. I follow along as best I can. I notice that my Portuguese is beginning to get a whole lot better—the ayahuasca? Maybe. The room also waxes far brighter, glowing in yellows and light greens, and I notice a moment of physical relaxation, almost being tired—a yawn. Blips of color and light have landed on the page of my hino, and are starting to dance and play at leap-frog over the words. I no longer pay attention to the chanting and it fades into the background and I close my eyes where a universe of hues erupts and boils. I yawn again and let the colors in my head have their fun.

Some notes on the physical effects of ayahuasca. The literature and lore of ayahuasca indicates that the brew produces a more introspective, personal experience. I found this to be true, the tea must contain at least one alkaloid that is a depressant. So as opposed the “wide awake” feeling and extroversion of LSD, peyote, or MDMA, one becomes far quieter physically and mentally. Mescaline (the psychoactive in peyote) and MDMA are both analogues of amphetamine and hence their stimulant effect is a given. There is a body chill noticeable with ayahuasca, even on a warm night in São Paulo I felt sudden shivers on occasion. The following day I noticed that I was feeling quite warm and took my temperature, it was elevated—perhaps the reason for the body chills is a mild febrile effect of the drug. There is an increase in blood pressure with the drug. At first I was a bit concerned with the noticeable tightening in my chest, but it rapidly subsided as the drug entered its visual phase. Ayahuasca is also noted as a purgative—and it is. Several participants vomited as a result of drinking the brew—as I had fasted most of the day I was pretty much in the clear. Though I did have some rather unique bowel movements over the course of the evening.

Mid-ceremony most participants, including myself, dosed again, usually with only half the initial amount, and then a short ceremony was held for Santa Maria (marijuana). A joint is passed from participant to participant and chants about Santa Maria are voiced. Then once again a return to chanting, singing, and hallucinating. This time I really feel the effect of the drug, and can sense just how close to disassociation (a full psychic break with reality) I am. Ayahuasca is easily the most potent hallucinogen I have ever tried yet its effects are muted due to the short half-life of the drug. The intensity lasts no more than a half hour and then subsides into a pleasant background hum. The room continues to glow slightly and I return to the chanting. I look out under my lids at my companions, some have their eyes closed, some smile beatifically, and one sleeps comfortably on the floor. At last everyone rises, the chanting ends, a few “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” are recited, the participants hug each other and inquire about their respective experiences. It was a beautiful moment—I was lucky to be there.

There is a communality to the ritual, water is shared, ayahuasca is shared, and after the ceremony the participants have a meal and talk. Not surprisingly there was an unvoiced political undercurrent to the ceremony I attended. As I walked around the house acclimatizing myself before the ceremony I noticed an antifa and “Refugees Welcome” sticker on the kitchen wall. I queried my host about them and he said that a previous roommate of his had been an anarchist and then asked, “Do you know about anarchism?”

So it goes….

Dispatches from Brazil Two: The Pot comes to a Boil, Many Demos, and Is there any Right left?

El Errante

(São Paulo, Brazil) The orange halogen glow of the lamps in the courtyard at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC) makes the air seem denser and more humid than it really is. I had been asked by an anarchist group (Nu-Sol) to present on my experiences in Rojava and was about halfway through the evening…

“So the YPG has a 45 day training protocol…” Then a series of deafening, wrenching explosions tore through the courtyard like thunder. I stopped for an instant, regrouped and continued.
“Jeeezus…” I said, “I felt safer in Rojava than in the US; I guess I can add Brazil to that list.” As my friend completed the translation of the sentence there was a ripple of laughter and I returned to business.
It was supposed to be easy. A few weeks in Brazil, some presentations, some beach, and then back to the US. And right up to the talk in Salvador that’s the way it had gone.

Then on Sunday, March 13th, a friend and I had decided to stroll down to the beach. As we walked we were passed by one or two folks decked out in yellow and green shirts. Then a few more. And a few more. I turned to my friend and asked, “What the fuck?”SP318

“A soccer game maybe. No, a protest against Dilma and the government. That’s what this is.”

When we turned the corner onto the beach area the entire street was a waving sea of yellow, green and blue, the colors of the Brazilian flag. Many people carried homemade signs denouncing the government and corruption. Sure enough, a protest demanding that Lula, the previous President of Brazil, be sent to jail for corruption and that Dilma, the current President of Brazil, be impeached. We picked our way through the rolling waves of yellow and green shirts, my friend translating the signs and the chants, then whispering the English into my ear. Finally I went into journalist mode and started asking questions. I spoke to two older looking gentlemen who each carried signs denouncing corruption. The men, both in their 70s, were a dentist and a filmmaker respectively. The message from each was exactly the same and simple, Lula is a crook, so is Dilma. They must both leave public life.
The current tale of political upheaval in Brazil is of Byzantine complexity. It includes a centre-left party (The Worker’s Party, PT) that was once respected (or feared), and it’s slow slide into corruption and decay. Recently criminal investigations and judicial proceedings were initiated against Lula for taking kickbacks while running the country’s lucrative oil concession, Petrobras. At the same time Dilma, the once popular female President, has had her hands full with charges of bribery in the legislature, payoffs to move legislation forward, and an incoming bill for impeachment that has a better than average chance of approval. Issues of race and class are also prominent as the PT has traditionally been the party of the poor, of black folks, and, as the name implies, of workers. The opposition is made up of electoral parties and large media firms that seek to represent the rich, the finance sector, and they have proven to be social media savvy, and increasingly bold. Finally over the past year, the economic situatiuon in Brazil has become sufficiently grim that the media refer to it as “The Crisis.” And to add one last ingredient to this already volatile mix — memories of the decades of dictatorship (1964 – 1980), the repression and military rule, simmer darkly in the minds of Brasilieros, old and young.

After returning to the hotel I sat and wrote some notes and then it occurred to me — I asked my traveling companion, “Did you see any black folks in the demonstration?”

She thought a moment and replied, “One or two.”

“Yeah, damned few.”sp318b

On March 18th after my return to São Paulo I attended the next installment of the ongoing political melodrama, a protest by supporters of Lula, Dilma, and the PT. By now the discourse had become more shrill, including a small occupation by anti-Dilma forces of a sidewalk on the Avenida Paulista, the main thoroughfare in that behemoth of urban sprawl. Anti-PT forces were also sporting signs with a hand print that included a missing finger, a clear reference to Lula, who as an auto worker had had his little finger sheared off in an industrial accident. A number of folks I had met had decided to check out the demo and so we went. The Avenida Paulista was the site for this demo and prior to the arrival of the PT faithful the police had cleared out the anti-Dilma occupiers in order to avoid an inevitable collision. My first impression was one of the overwhelming force that the Military Police had assembled to keep the demonstrators in check. As I stepped out of the subway I saw two immense armored vehicles painted in grey and dark blue camouflage, with rocket launchers for tear gas and concussion grenades parked in the center of the Avenida. One of my hosts turned to me, pointed at the vehicles and said, “Those they bought from Israel. They were initially designed for the rioting in Gaza and elsewhere.”

Huge crowds again, most dressed in the red of the PT, some communists and socialists, perhaps as many as 100,000 attended the Sao Paulo demo, and there were dozens of other pro-Lula gatherings across the country. As we walked through the crowd my companions saw a number of other area anarchists, and a group of anarcho-communists waving a huge black and red flag. This prompted me to ask, “Are the anarchists here supporting Dilma and Lula?”

“Yes and no. At this time the issue is not pro- or anti-Dilma, it’s a coup. That’s why many anarchists are here.”

As it turned out that’s the reason that a number of other people were also there. I spoke to one gentleman, a salesman, who replied to my question as to why he was at the rally with one word, “1964.” The year that the military seized power.

There was a sense of urgency at this demonstration absent at the anti-PT rally, and part of the discourse, present in the signs and speeches, demanded the maintenance of democracy and democratic structures. My final impression was the impressive size of the demo and how different it felt from similar gatherings I had attended in the US. The Brasilieros were certain, clear in their attendance and proud of their views. In the US, there is a certain sense of anxiety and from some participants also shame at events like this. As if having the freedom to speak was sufficient and actually exercising that right was some kind of weakness or insult to their communities.

As I concluded my talk at PUC and packed my laptop into my bag several students entered the courtyard. Speaking rapidly they seemed frightened, unsure. I asked someone to translate and was told that there had been a scuffle between pro- and anti- PT forces. Evidently the students of the faculties of Law, Economics, and Business Administration had rented a large truck with loudspeakers, parked it in front of PUC and commenced to conduct a rally in support of jailing Lula and impeaching Dilma. This brought out the (mostly) lefty student body who then proceeded to harass and torment their peers. In the final scuffle the left students had demanded to have access to the mic so they could present their case. More pushing on both sides and the truck was driven off. Then the Military Police moved in shooting concussion grenades and tear gas, including firing one tear gas canister into the third floor window of a classroom building.

students1By the time I had walked out to the street the remaining group of left wing students were listening to impromptu speeches from folks who climbed onto a set of stairs. Most of what was said was less about the actual issues, and addressed more generally fascism, and warned of a possible coup. In the morning a few news feeds had video of the action and one was truly unique. It showed the Business, Law and Economics students denouncing the possibility of a left-wing coup and revolution. They chanted the exact same words that I heard on the Avenida Paulista just a few days earlier, “No to the coup!”

As a final observation, it’s incredible how much of the discourse and dialogue of the anti-Lula crowd was grounded in the language of the Left. As if the Brazilian elites, bereft of any real political ideas, had settled on parroting the word “corruption” in place of a real programme. It seemed they were following several steps behind the PT and its allies. I never conjecture. In this instance though it seems that the political tension in Brazilian society is leading to some sort of denouement, a potential collision. The outcome of which, whether played out in the chambers of the judiciary, or in the streets, no one can guess.