Live Video of my Audiobook Recording at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap, Cambodia

DSC_4059At first I wasn’t sure whether to have my book narrated by a professional or record the audiobook for my true story Five Weeks in the Amazon on my own. With the encouragement, and support of Brennan McClay (my good friend and co-owner of my book’s publisher, I decided to narrate it myself.

Steve editing

For the past few weeks I have been recording the audiobook for Five Weeks in the Amazon at 60 Road Studios in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There have been two major challenges I face every time I enter the studio. First is having to relive and re-enact the same five weeks I have spent the better part of the last two years living in.  Second, it’s hard to read aloud and with emotion and not screw up! Check out the video for a live example of one of my recording sessions (mistakes and all).

I could only record for about two hours at a time before my voice and brain would get too exhausted to continue, and so far I have 10 hours recorded. Which, in terms of completion, is about halfway done. Although, I think I may be able to read the second half without making as many mistakes, which would shorten the amount of time it would take.

Recording shot #2

Stay tuned, and sign up here for my next update from the road…Which will be the other side of the world, one week from now.

If you haven’t checked out Five Weeks in the Amazon, you can order it here. But, if you just want to read the chapter I was reciting from it is called:

Five Weeks in the Amazon - Ebook Cover

Making Medicine


8:30pm, my tambo

When I woke up this morning, I was sore again. The sun was just coming up and I listened to the birds warm up their voices and find their harmony. Steam rose from the plants where the sun’s warmth melted the night’s wetness. And what started out dark lightened and the sad, painful, parts in me seemed to evaporate with it.

The sunlight becoming more intense and the day already heating up, I went and rinsed off in the watering hole, then came back to my room to write and find some shade.

I was lying in my hammock when I heard the crack of an axe echo through the jungle clearing. I threw on a T-shirt, brushed my hammock aside, and walked out of my tambo to see what was happening. There was a man standing with  his back to me under the open-roomed building at the top edge of the property. I hadn’t walked up to it yet because it was still being built.

When I walked up, I saw the man’s coal gray T-shirt had a stripe of sweat running down the spine of it. Under the raised building, he had two small fires smoldering underneath two massive stainless-steel pots. From my online research, I knew he was preparing a batch of Ayahuasca, which meant it was going to be brewing for up to 24 more hours.

He was standing next to what looked like long branches and using the axe to split them into smaller, two-foot sections. When he was done, he piled the pieces on the ground next to a small blue tarp that had a rock holding down each corner. He sat down on a log next to one of the edges of the tarp and motioned for me to sit down on a log opposite him.

I hesitated to get closer, unsure if I was disrupting the Ayahuasca-making ritual. I wondered whether I was an impure gringo. Do I have to be “cleansed” before sitting down (like when I have a plant bath before a ceremony)? Will the batch be tainted from my dirty presence?

I thought about it for a second and then thought, fuck it. With a smile and an outstretched hand, I approached him the same way I approach every stranger.

Hola,” I said.

Buenos dias,” he responded.

Mi nombre es Sean.”

Hola John, mucho gusto.” He reached out his hand and introduced himself as Nino.

I sat down across from him on the log and watched him bash a two-foot section of thick vine with a stronger thick branch. His grin was filled with such perfect white teeth, you’d think he was raised by a dentist in the city, not a shaman in the jungle. After he’d smashed the section of branch about 20 times, its internals were torn open. Then he threw it on top of the blue tarp and the plant’s nectar oozed from its tender meat.

“Ayahuasca,” he said pointing to the chopped pile next to him.

Si.” I nodded at him, the purpose of this mysterious activity now confirmed.

A flashback from last night popped into my head. After the ceremony, I had been walking up the hill and seen a fire flickering right where we’re sitting now. There were the sounds of a man singing in Spanish, and it was gently wafting through the thick night air. He must have been making more than one batch and been here all night tending to the fires.

I wondered what would happen if you didn’t brew it properly. Maybe a bad trip? One thing’s for sure, Ayahuasca couldn’t taste any worse no matter how you brewed it.

I gestured and half-asked in Spanish if he wanted me to help him smash up the pile of vine pieces. Smiling back at me, he reached behind his seat and passed me a hard stick for me to use. I leaned forward and grabbed a meaty piece of vine. I noticed it was wet where it had been cut at the ends and was about three to four inches in circumference.

Imitating Nino, I started hitting the piece of vine against the log I was sitting on with another big stick and before long, we had the whole pile laying smashed to bits on the tarp between us. The emulsified pieces of vine had stringy pieces of bark hanging that looked fresh and juicy.

When we sat down for a minute to take a break, he wiped the sweat from his golden brow with his dirty sleeve and motioned for me to follow him. Standing, he bent down and split the pile in half. We transferred the two halves by the armfuls into the boiling cauldrons, the water instantly turning a slimy green. When we were done, he led me down the hill to where a small mound of shrubbery was growing beside Otillia’s house.

As we walked through the grass, some of the deeper sections were still wet, and I felt the blades sliding through my toes as I followed him. He had been carrying two buckets and handed me one. The bush was big and leafy, to me indiscernible from any of the other big, leafy plants, but he said this plant was special, and tore off one of the leaves putting it in his bucket.

Chacruna, es especial plantas para Ayahuasca,” he said.

Que nombre?” I asked. “Chacruna?” I used my limited vocabulary mix with mimicking what he said to ask if that was the name of the plant.

Si, Chaaaa-kkkkkkrrrrrruuuu-naahh,” he said slowly so I could understand.

I repeated the word, and imitating what he’d done, I ripped a leaf from the bush and dropped it in my bucket.

Tres cientos,” he said, picking another leaf.

I didn’t understand, so Nino picked up more of the leaves, counting them out as he went along, “Uno, dos, tres…es importante para tres cientos.” He put down his bucket to clarify with his hands that he was saying three, three fingers and then two zeroes. Ok, so we each pick 300 leaves, I thought, but why 300? 

At times I got lost on the specifics of our conversations. I tried my best to ask him about what we were doing now to prepare the mystical Ayahuasca brew.

Chacruna y Ayahuasca es para Ayahuasca medicina, y visionnes? Si o No?” I posed the simple question, asking if it was the second plant that I knew must be added when making Ayahuasca. It was confusing because the vine had the same name as the finished product and that threw me off at first.

Chacruna es luz,” he pointed at the sun, “Ayahuasca los plantas, esta curador, es para curacion y es professor de vida.” He pointed up the hill to where we had sat and smashed up the vine. Turning back to the bush he continued, “Chacruna es para visionnes: mas Chacruna, mas visionnes.”

I thought about what he said thoughtfully. More Chacruna equals more visions, so no wonder some of the gringo shamans all offered “strong brews.” It was easy: all you had to do was throw in some extra leaves. I was learning the name gringo shaman was synonymous with anyone who wasn’t a local and makes these intense brews. Fittingly, there is an influx of tourists that want to find someone to follow as they hallucinate and trip out, and more of these shamans are showing up around here. God bless America…

In town, Raul told me that Otillia prepares Ayahuasca for more of a teaching/healing experience. Which makes sense, and I’m guessing that’s part of the reason I haven’t been gripped by intense visions. She must use a relatively small amount of Chacruna and more Ayahuasca.

Some of the other gringos I’ve met in town told me about some shamans, most of them white guys from America or Europe, who make crazy mixtures of Ayahuasca. They mix in things like mushrooms, cocaine, peyote, san pedro, or any number of other wild plants. They add this to their brew to make the trip more intense. Of course it gives a person extreme visions, but it isn’t balanced and these shamans don’t seem to give a fuck what the outcome is.

To me it seems irresponsible and unnecessary. As a drug, I’ve already learned how unique Ayahuasca is, and that it’ll do what it wants, when it wants. That is why I believe it’s important to have a shaman who you trust lead the ceremony.

I have faith in Otillia, and the way she prepares, and administers Ayahuasca. I believe it’s more aligned with how indigenous people meant for it to be used thousands of years ago when they learned how to make it. I thought I’d need the strongest Ayahuasca I could find when I first got here so that I could have intense visions.

It made sense; strong trip equals more growth, right? However, I’m beginning to think that’s not true at all. If I trust nature’s medicine, and I trust Otillia, then I should use it in the way it was meant to be used. For some reason us gringos (foreigners) just love pushing boundaries. In a way, I feel like my entire soul is in the hands of the plant medicine, for that reason I respect its power.

Nino finished picking the 300 leaves before me and walked back up the hill. When I joined him, he motioned for me to dump my bucket of leaves into the second pot. It was bubbling and boiling with a green, frothy layer of foam on top. It looked like magic potion being brewed in a witch’s cauldron.

We sat back down on the logs. It was cooler now that we were in the shade, and we took a break to cool down. When I offered Nino one of my last American Spirits, he exposed his bright smile once again and accepted my offer. I watched him light it and take a slow drag. He looked down at the burning tip of the foreign cigarette and took a second pull. It was a new kind of tobacco for him, from a different part of the world, and he’d never tasted one like it before.

Muy suave,” he commented and rolled the cigarette between his fingers, looking at the American Spirit logo stamped onto the filter.

I smiled back and said, “Si, muy suave.” Suave?

The indigo smoke from our cigarettes drifted past our heads and blew away with the smoke coming from the fires under the pots. Watching it drift across the property, I felt happy. I hadn’t been planning to help Nino prepare the Ayahuasca, but I’m glad I did. There was something about the process that brought us together.

As I sat there, I remembered seeing that the bottle Otillia poured our shots of Ayahuasca from last night was getting low. That must mean we’ll be using the batch we just made soon.

Smoking the last of my cigarette, I thought back to last night’s ceremony. It had been a progressive step in the direction I want to go, and a positive experience overall. It led me to the conclusion I’m not just to here to pursue a psychedelic journey; I’m here for much more than that. Ayahuasca is one of the means which will bring the true end I am here for, but there is a lot for me to accomplish before then. My purpose in the jungle is to find answers and heal myself. Already those are being given to me.

My purpose is to heal my body from years of eating a shitty American diet.

To heal the physical injuries I’ve accumulated from a decade and a half of skateboarding.

To heal my mental wounds from failed goals and deserted dreams.

And to heal the emotional wounds from my shattered relationships and loves lost.

Most people probably come here to do Ayahuasca because they’re lost in their life and have no connection to their spirit. Contrary to what I thought before I got here, the healing I need isn’t so much spiritual—for the most part my spirit is fine—it’s all the other shit in my life that’s the problem. In a way I already knew that.

Normally, the effects of a substance are relatable to the amount, or purity, which one consumes. However, Ayahuasca works differently than anything else I’ve tried. My second ceremony was a completely different experience from my first time even though I drank the same amount of Ayahuasca.

What makes it different from alcohol, pot, mushrooms, caffeine, cocaine, cigarettes, or any other drug is this: even though both times I had the same dose of Ayahuasca, from the same bottle, it was a totally different experience. It was so different, if I didn’t know better, I would say it was a different drug.

I feel like a good person, but for God’s sake, isn’t everyone more or less a “good” person? I think we are, but the problem is that most of us are wrapped in cloaks of vice, and are ignorant about who we truly are. Maybe beneath those dark robes we are all filled with goodness, but I don’t know.

The spirit I’ve been referring to is the essence of who I am. It is my character, my personality, my soul if you want to call it that, but most importantly it is who I am. I could lose an arm and still be me; I could win the lottery and still be me. It really doesn’t matter because this part of me, my spirit, is unchanging. It is the intangible, an immaterial part of me, and this is what I will call, for lack of a better word, my spirit or soul.

Part of the reason I wasn’t scared the first time I took Ayahuasca was because I already knew this. I want to continue to learn about myself. I don’t know myself as well as I could, but I know that who I am is nothing to be scared of.

The intangible: it’s what ties all humans, plants, animals, and binds the entire universe together. It is the reason things work out the way they do in life. Everything is connected and we are all one. The body is just hunks of meat and bone but the brain is like a computer. With an incredibly elegant design, it controls our operations. But who is the individual, who is the “I” and where does the essence of who I am come from? I really can’t say, but I know it’s the part of me that is my true self.

If there is any spiritual guidance I need, it’s how to be more confident when facing the anguish and despair that overcomes me as a single individual cast out into the world.

If I think about the first ceremony, all I remember is how painful it was, like getting run over by a truck. The second ceremony hurt my body less and I didn’t get a fever or the chills like the first time, but it still hurt.

When I walked into the main room and sat down, I started heating up again. I started sweating profusely for no real reason and my skin felt like it was on fire. It went away after 20 minutes or so, but I was left wondering why I had such weird heat flashes at the beginning of both ceremonies. Am I nervous and I don’t know it? I thought.

I sat there in the dark room in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of the night, listening to the shaman sing for hours on end. My mind wandered and I thought about all kinds of crazy things, but it seemed more like I was daydreaming than tripping out. I felt like at any point in the ceremony, my sober mind could interject.

I felt like I was about to fall asleep. Lying there, my mind slipped into a state somewhere between waking and sleeping. Immersed in my thoughts, it was like half of my brain was creating thoughts and the other half was observing them.

Whether or not these were “visions” I don’t know, but I remember thinking Otillia is here to help me heal and make my time here less difficult.

—There was a point later on during the ceremony when I knew I was going to purge. I felt like I was being guided outside and went to the edge of the clearing where it met the jungle and puked. Drenched in moonlight and bright stars, I saw the vomit as part of the darkness that lived within me. I was purging the darkness that was stuck and needed to be released—although that could have been just a borrowed notion, like the geometric patterns. I went back inside and lay down again.

I was on my back, arms by my side, when I imagined a medicine lady with buckets of plants coming out of the jungle. My body was opened up, split down the middle with my ribs pulled back and my chest cavity spread apart. She kept filling me up with buckets of plant medicines.

Later, as I lay on my side in the fetal position, my back sore, I imagined pain and darkness pouring, oozing, and shooting out of my back. An unfathomable amount of darkness rushed out from each of my lungs, and out onto the floor behind me. For a long time it kept pouring out of my back, and as it did the liquid coming out became cleaner, and my back began to hurt less.

I am here to break some of my old habits, some of my bad faith as Jean-Paul Sartre called it. As an adult I have never felt as clean as I am right now. The nagging voices that speak on behalf of my vices are less obtrusive than usual.

“Would you like a cigarette?” my mind asks.

“Yes, but not right now, I’ll have one later…”

Maybe it’s the organic fruit and veggie diet combined with the fresh rain forest air. Or, it could be the plant medicines. Whatever it is, I feel a sense of somatic tranquility.

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