The Most Complete Derangement: William S. Burroughs and Ayahuasca

Sunset Photograph by Elizabeth Lous

Sunset Photograph by Elizabeth LousWords By Jana DeBusk, artwork by Elizabeth Lous.

“This is the most powerful drug I have ever experienced. Yage is not like anything else. It produces the most complete derangement of the senses.” – William Burroughs, The Yage Letters

In the beginning, it is quiet. The only sound is rain falling on the great, green savage land. Then the birds start to coo and call in hearty anticipation. “Are you ready?” they seem to say. “Are you ready for the change? Are you ready to look at yourself from the inside?” A chorus of Chicharras shakes and sings as nature’s symphony swells to a deafening hum.

“Are you ready?”

“Are you ready?”

“Are you ready?”

Then there is silence. The ceremony is about to begin. A hush rides in on the breeze and the ten participants (including a four-year-old girl) settle onto their mats; the men are on one side, the women on the other. It is important that the separate sexual energies do not mix during the ritual in order to have a purely introspective and spiritual experience.

Our shaman is an old Colombian woman. Her skin is wrinkled with experience and her eyes are soft and wise. Her yellowed teeth are spattered with remnants of green coca leaves that she chews and sucks with constant conviction. She will act as our spiritual guide and communicator for the next several hours. She shakes the Chakapa, an instrument of bound leaves used to direct energy, as she spews a thin stream of Yage and tobacco over the drinking gourds. She clucks and sings to the Spirit of the Vine with ancient Icaros, sounds and melodies connected to the spirits of nature.

My anticipation and excitement for the unknown powers-that-will-be quickly subside into an unexplainable calmness. I have not yet tasted the yage, and already my senses are changing. The energy is palpable, but soothing. This might not be so bad, I think.

Meester… I think I thought wrong.

William S. Burroughs left Mexico in 1952 shortly after accidentally killing his wife. A known drug abuser and heroin junkie, he went on a journey through South America on a quest to find his “final fix”. In The Yage Letters, he recounts his experiences through letters to author Allen Ginsberg. His descriptions of Yage (more commonly called Ayahuasca) are vivid and guttural, much like the experience itself, but I want to experience a different Yage. There is a Yage in Colombia that guides you through your darkest demons, only to bring you to your brightest light. This is the Yage I search for.

I watch as the old woman brings a pot to the center of the tent. She stops singing and people become quiet. One by one, she ladles out a portion of the precious vine into a small gourd cup. She quietly calls the name of the individual who will drink next. The little girl next to me is called before me and bravely accepts her small drink.

She skips and twists to center stage as any normal girl might do, but little Palomita is different than other girls her age. She has been participating in Yage ceremonies all her life and exudes a certain knowledge and clarity that I have rarely seen in adults. She is beautiful and wickedly intelligent. As she returns to her place on the mat, she points out a spider that has landed between us and I gasp. “Noooo,” she says, her voice sweet and light. “Do not have fear of Spider! He is my brother. This is my Brother Spider. All animals are my brothers, so do not have fear.” She beams a brilliant smile in my direction and then continues to listen to the names being called.Photograph by Elizabeth Lous

I am the last to be called, as I am the newest member. A gnawing fear crawls up my throat like an amoeba that went the wrong way. Have I gone too far to turn around? Would they mock me if I refused? Is this going to hurt? I slowly rise from my mat and stand, realizing there is no turning back. She hands me my cup and I drink it in. The texture is a grainy sludge, thicker than tea but thinner than mud. The smell is bitter and the taste is rough, but down it goes chasing that amoeba of fear back into the darkness of my belly.

I return to my mat and wait for what seems like hours for something to happen. People around me are quiet, but some have started shuffling, shifting, and sitting in a restless anticipation. Suddenly I feel a heaviness in my body, but it’s pleasant, like gravity is pushing me back into the earth from which we all come. My feet are covered in dry dirt and I’m sinking, growing roots and wrapping around rocks, slipping around earthworms. My legs are bound in my new ground. My mind, however, begins to rise. I’m on a large green leaf, and I’m spinning into the heavens. The wind sweeps through me like a breeze through a white curtain. The colors are brilliant. Red zooms by chasing green, then blue. I am rising, rising into the heavens. I see God, but he looks like Jesus and I say “Hello, it’s been a while!” He just smiles and reaches out his hand. I start to explain that it’s not that I don’t like Him, it’s just very hard to talk these days with all my… unbelief in Him.

Then something lands on me (one of those blood-sucking jungle mosquitoes, I’m sure) and I open my eyes. My world looks different now. I’m back on the mat, God is gone, and the outlines of things and people are illuminated with electric blue. The lines are shaking violently, and I suddenly have the urge to vomit. Here, I feel like Burroughs at the moment of his first true experience.

 It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes…The assistant was outside lurking there with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door hitting my shoulder against the door post. I felt the shock but no pain. I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood.*

The calm returns for a moment as I locate my shoes and exit the tent. The “bathroom” consists of a shovel and a small side path of dirt and thorny branches. But it’s private, I think. As I step onto the path trying to steady myself with the large wooden handle, I lose my footing and crumble to the ground. The earth is shaking and screaming at me. “What did I do?” my brain shouts as my words find no breath, “I’m just here with everyone else… trying to find God!”

Some strength hidden in the deepest part of my core brings to me feet, just as a violent purge takes me back down to my knees. The vomit is violent, acidic, and relentless. Just when I think I can wipe the rank-smelling liquid from my lips an invisible hand reaches into my mouth, through my stomach and pulls out my insides once again. So this is The Purge. It feels like an exorcism, though I don’t know what kind of devil is inside me. Have I really sinned so much in my life? Is it the chemicals I’ve been feeding my body? Perhaps I’m just making room for God to enter? “Well that just sounds crazy!” I say out loud. This time the vomit brings me all the way to the ground and I am left crawling to escape the rancid smell of death and darkness that I have created.

Suddenly a figure in white offers me a small tin cup of water. She asks how I am and I valiantly reply, “I’m ok. Just a little sick.” I am cleansing my blood, and my soul with these purges, she says. You’re not sick, you’re cleaning. She is smiling, bits of coca leaves in her teeth. The angel takes my hand and leads me away from the darkness and back to the light.

“Yage is space time travel. The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion. The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian – new races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized passes through your body.”

I am unable to move once returning to my mat, but notice everything. The little girl is dancing and drawing symbols on people’s foreheads. People are laughing and there is music. There are chants, prayers, songs and dances that grow from people’s hearts to their mouths and bring them to their feet. I am in awe. The others seem to have been unaffected by this powerful vine, while I am nearly incapacitated. I pull the blanket over my head and listen, trying to control the ravenous demons in my belly from escaping again. Stay in, I say. Why are you even there? Why can’t you leave me alone?

My shaman stands over me and quietly reassures me that I will feel better again. But for now try to listen, she says. I am brought to the epilogue of The Yage Letters, but this is not my ending.

‘I am dying, Meester?’ Flashes in front of my eyes naked and sullen -Rotten dawn wind in sleep – Death rot on Panama photo where the awning flaps.

The sickness leaves after about 6 hours, and I am empty. Now, I am a vessel; clean and pure. My body is weak, but my brain is sharp. I follow the others back to the cabin and sit down to the most delicious arepa and vegetable soup I have ever brought to my undeserving tongue. We discuss images and imagery, visions and prophecies. Our shaman explains certain relevance given to the colors and animals we may have experienced. She assures me that my journey was positive and I listen. For the first time in my stubborn life, I am listening.

Perhaps it was the sheer power of Die versus Survive that shook my consciousness into action. Perhaps I only realized what was important when faced with raucous violent and physical pain. Or perhaps, God actually stopped by for a visit to show me who’s boss.

Although this experience is not for everyone, it certainly is healing; a complete catharsis of physical and emotional baggage. It is not for the weak of heart nor the weak of stomach, but if you take this journey perhaps you’ll find that you are stronger than you once believed. You are calmer than you ever imagined. You are capable of the greatest love there is. You are life and light and brilliance. You are human.


San Francisco
August 28, 1963  
To whom it may concern: Self deciphers this correspondence thus: the vision of ministering angels my fellow man and woman first wholly glimpsed while the Curandero gently crooned human in Ayahuasca trance-state 1960 was prophetic of transfiguration of self consciousness from homeless mind sensation of eternal fright to incarnate body feeling present bliss now actualized 1963.  
Old love, as ever
Allen Ginsberg

*All quotes with this mark are taken from “The Yage Letters” by William S. Burroughs and Adam Ginsberg. The book was first issued by City Lights Books in 1963 and covers nearly a decade of letter exchanges between the two beat poets in their South American search for Ayahuasca.


Jana DeBusk is a musician, educator, and world-wanderer. She enjoys strong coffee and  red wine. Her travels have inspired two albums that you can find on Spotify, Amazon, and iTunes. Check out her music and follow her travel stories at She is a also a guest writer for Dig Travel Magazine. A native of Kendallville, Indiana, Jana currently resides in Manizales, Colombia.

Previously by Jana DeBusk:
The Magic, The Music, and the Men: Cartagena Delivers for Solo Female Travelers 

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