It’s very tough to work through what I experienced on Saturday night. I went to a Santo Daime ceremony. As I begin typing, I’ve not slept for 36 hours, and I’m still feeling the comedown effects of the Daime beverage that is a part of the ceremony. If you wish to know more facts, there’s plenty of websites, so I’ll not go into it here. I just want to put down what I saw and experienced. But a tiny bit of an introduction. It’s a Brazilian Amazonian practice. It has elements of native South American religious stuff. It’s got a splash of Shamanism. But the over-riding thing seems to be a healthy dollop of Christianity. It’s been around since the thirties.
I didn’t really know a huge amount about it. What you’ve just read above is about all I knew. So maybe it was a mistake to go into it while not really knowing what to expect. I did know about the Daime drink, though. I knew about the effects it could have. I’m probably using the wrong words, but it is supposed to open the mind, bring visions, and can help purge emotional impurities. It’s also called Ayahuasca (after the vine that it’s made from, in a mix with other leaves and stuff), and for these religious purposes, it is legal in Brazil.
As I’ve mentioned quite recently, I’m an atheist. Why did I choose to go to something that is supposedly attempting to get energy from above? Well, I was intrigued. Curious. And, from what I was told about the drink, it sounded like something that would be good for me. I could do with a bit of emotional purging. Plus, y’know, I’m willing to be proved wrong. A good-sized proportion of me, before I went, was looking forward to writing this blog piece admitting that my atheism was no longer such a solid belief.
It was fairly overwhelming. My mind is still whizzing around thinking about it. And that’s not the drink talking. Halfway through the ceremony when we had a break, Renata asked that I try not to judge it too much until it was all over. And now that I’m coming down, I can see that she had a point.
We arrived as the sun was just about set. We’d driven to the north of the island, up a dirt track that was more like a dried out river-bed than a road. Up and up until we were high on the side of a hill. I’d spent most of the day feeling equally excited and apprehensive. It’s easy to hear the words “twelve hour ceremony” without actually understand what that would mean. But that’s what I was setting out on. We parked up, walked up a bit further, and there in the middle of the forest were a few buildings. Some homes for the community, an office, male and female bathrooms, and the church itself.
They have different types of ceremonies. Some shorter than others. The one I went to was me being thrown in at the deep end. The full-on twelve hour job. But before that could begin, there was a wedding. The details were different, but it was like any other wedding, really. Children not being quiet, cellphones going off during the vows, that kinda stuff. Because of this, and because it was this particular church’s 21st anniversary, the general vibe was apparently more celebratory that usual. There was no booze, buffet or “Hi Ho Silver Lining,” though.
The church is a hexagonal wooden place with windows all around, with a pointed roof and a skylight at the roof’s peak. In the centre is some sort of altar with their cross on it. The cross is like the Christian one, just with two horizontal bars instead of one. I didn’t ask if their vision of Jesus had four arms. Around the alter were six painted paths on the floor going out to the corners of the hexagon; between the paths were rows of stars on the floor, which seemed to be orientation points for each person to stand behind.
All the men were on one side of the room; the women, unsurprisingly, on the other. There was probably about 130 or so people. All of the regulars wore special costumes. The men in white suits with dark blue ties. The trousers had two green stripes down the side like knock-off Adidas gear. And they had golden badges of a star on the lapels. These sheriffs were the guys who’ve graduated (for want of a better word) and have vowed to take this all very seriously. It was like a convention of fancy wine waiters and cricket umpires. The women wore white dresses with green sashes and waistbands. From one shoulder hung thin, multi-coloured ribbons. and they all wore sparkly diamante crowns. It looked a bit twee; kind of a Polyphonic Spree version of the Girl Guides. A lot of them had a maraca, too. The less devout, the beginners, and the small handful of first-timers like me, wore our normal clothes. I felt a bit out of place having a black hooded-top, cos virtually no other person was wearing black. Not a cool colour for these guys, black. Still, I had a green t-shirt underneath, so it wasn’t all bad.
We all lined up around the hexagon, facing the altar. There were some guys who didn’t take part in the lining up, as it was their job to help keep the energy channeled, and move people around for this effect. The height of the people on a row was important. The tallest should stand next the second tallest, etc. So, if someone went to the toilet or had a rest on one of the chairs, the helpers would come and move us around so the energy still flowed. Lots of people had hymn books. I bought one at the office before it began. I hadn’t expected that the hymn book would be the sort of thing that would be gone through from the beginning right to the end. But that’s what happened. The singing began with the first hymn. And the dance steps began, too.
I couldn’t join in with the signing; it was all in Portuguese, of course. But once the repetitive melodies became clear, I hummed along a bit. The dance steps, for the most part were exactly the same. We moved laterally, making three steps: left-right-left to the left, right-left-right to the right. It was an exhaustingly unnatural thing to do. It felt jerky. And after a couple of songs, my hips were feeling it. It was tough to keep the rhythm. Every few songs, one of two other dance moves would be done. The first was one that I couldn’t help but grin to myself when doing. One two three, turn to the left; one two three, turn to the right. 180° turns for the whole song. The other was a nice relief every time it came around, just a simple swaying from side to side. I enjoyed that one a lot. And it was the only dance move that I could do and really stay focussed and allow myself to feel a bit calm and relaxed; not concentrating on the moves.
But for the most part, it was the jerky three lateral steps dance. Like the brain-ravaged tigers in their cages at Berlin’s Tierpark zoo. Side to side. Again and again and again and again. Looking over the heads of the men, the move looked effortless on the women’s side. On my side, though, it was just a forest of shuffling legs. Maybe it was the same for the women, though; they also would just be seeing the upper-body part of the dance. It was exhausting. I didn’t feel comfortable. I was getting hot. I was sweating. My hair was soaked within the first hour. This place is not where I wanted to be. I walked along the line, as I’d been told to do when I wanted a break, and left the ceremony via one of the six paths, talked to one of the helpers and told him I was hot and wanted some air. He smiled at me and ushered me to the door. I went outside. It was raining. It was wonderful. Beautiful rain cooling me down. Then one of the helpers, stationed outside to check that people on the way to the toilet were okay, asked how I was. I told him I was very hot and wanted to cool down. He said it was normal to be hot, and that I should cool down inside so I didn’t remove myself from the ceremony. I bit my tongue and accepted what he told me, even though cooling down in a warm room with a couple of windows open would in no way compare to cooling down in the rain.
Back inside, I stood by a
window for a few minutes, and then re-took my place. Part of the problem with the three step dance was that I was next to two other new-ish guys. I assume they were new-ish, anyway. One of them couldn’t keep the rhythm, so we kept bumping shoulders, which knocked my rhythm out. The other guy was a bit too enthusiastic; frequently coming too far to my side. I was being knocked from pillar to post. Plus the enthusiastic guy was a terrible singer. He couldn’t carry a tune if it had a handle.
To the side of the room, a guy had a big medicinal-looking bottle (about the size of a water cooler bottle) full of a brown-ish liquid. It was the Ayahuasca, the Daime. Suddenly, when it seemed to be ready to be served, a bunch of the men and women filed to queue next to him. He served the people alternately: man, woman, man, woman. The helper guys took care to make sure us newbies made our way over there. I stood and watched as each person took their drink, held it up to toast whoever is Upstairs, and then, more often than not, did some sort of crossing themselves thingy like the Catholics do. I shuffled closer and closer. And then, soon enough, I was at the front of the queue. In my head, the guy serving the drink looked a bit like Augusto Pinochet. (I double-checked on Google when I got home, and he didn’t really look much like him – more like Peter Sellers playing Pinochet – but it didn’t stop me wondering if there were mountains of dead Chileans out the back somewhere.) He served the woman who stood on the opposite side of the table, then he turned to me, looked into my eyes, then poured a double-whiskey’s worth of the liquid into a glass. I smiled, put the glass to my mouth, and downed it in one.
Never in my life have I tasted anything so foul. It’s very very difficult to describe without using pointlessly outlandish claims. So I’ll use a pointlessly outlandish claim: it tasted like diarrhoea mixed with aspirin. It was just so revolting. And I’d left my Tic Tacs at home. Bugger. But, what did it actually taste like? I really want to describe it properly. It had a very slight sweetness, but only in the same sense that dog poo has a slight sweet smell to it. It was quite obviously the mashed-up juicy stuff of a plant. And it made me feel like retching it up. My face scrunched up, and I went back to my place between the Disco Twins and kept on with the dancing.
Another hour passed. More dancing. More songs. One song ends, a slight pause for a few seconds, then the next song begins. All accompanied by a couple of guitarists and a flautist sat next to the altar. The songs had very beautiful melodies. And they were sung with great passion. Looking across at the women singing was highly enjoyable. They seemed to be so there. The melodies were very repetitive, not just within one song, but there seemed to be many songs with similar melodies. At the end of the night I felt like I only listened to four or five songs over and over again, each one of them subtly changed from the last time I think I heard that song. It was the choral equivalent of listening to a Spacemen 3 or Richie Hawtin song that lasted twelve hours.
As an outsider, the ceremony seemed rigid but slightly hippy at the same time. There were plenty of rules in play. The helpers constantly altering the position of the people and making sure we behaved correctly. On three occasions when I was sat at the edge having a break, I was told not to cross my legs. Another time, leant against a window frame, I was asked to put both my feet flat on the floor so the energy flowed better. It would be easy to feel a tad bullied had these things not all been done with the sort of kind-faced smile that showed that the helper actually wanted me to have a better experience as well as doing things correctly.
Even when, after three and half hours of the dance steps and two glasses of Daime, I went and asked the guy by the door if I could go outside for a smoke, he smiled nicely and suggested that I didn’t do it. It wasn’t forbidden, but it’d be better for me if I refrained. Pesky do-gooder. More dancing. More singing and more humming along for me. By this point, the cynical sarcastic Craig began to take over. I knew we’d be having a break at some point, but it was 12.30am. We’d been doing this since 9pm. My hips were really feeling the pain from the steps; this minimal, boot-scootin’-less, line dancing. Then the lights were turned off. And the only light was from the candles on the altar. Suddenly, I felt cooler without the hot electric lights. Suddenly, the dance steps felt more natural. I put a bit more swing in the hips at the extreme points of the lateral movement and that eased the aching a bit. And when the swaying songs were being sung, I felt very very relaxed, like I would finally be getting somewhere with the Daime. It was the best moment of the evening for me. And after about five or six songs, the lights went back on. Cynical, sarcastic, annoyed, slightly angry Craig appeared.
I felt like something was happening and it was snatched away by a light switch. (I didn’t know at the time, but the lights going off was because of the rain; it wasn’t intentional.) I surveyed the room, looking at all these freaks, these oddballs with their nice, clean haircuts and stupid white culty clothes and wondered if any of them has ever enjoyed the thrills of Grand Theft Auto or a Whopper. Weirdos. The negativity continued until we took the break. At 2am, after five exhausting hours, the singing stopped, and everyone began hugging each other. I skulked off and sucked down a cigarette outside on a wet bench. Angry and irritable, I put on my black hooded-top. Fuck ’em and their dumb colour rules. If they wanna see me as a bad vibration, so be it. Good. See if I give a flying fuck.
One of my worst character traits is a nasty sarcasm when I’m not in a good mood. Renata came out, and a couple of other dudes who I’d spoke to came and sat down. They all seemed happy with their experience. All I could say was, “I wish there was a bar here, I could murder a beer.” I retreated underneath my hood and let the others discuss proceedings while I stewed in my own juices. One of Renata’s friends, on a bench behind us, asked, jokingly, if I was a Scotland Yard spy. I was angry, and now getting gyp from some funny cunt; in my paranoid mind, he thought that because I was wearing black and hunched over chomping down cigarette after cigarette. I had a little walk around. Then I pulled Renata to one side and asked for the car keys. I would sit out the remaining five hours after the 90 minute break by having a good kip in a Fiat.
She was annoyed with me. And, in retrospect, with good reason. She’d explained beforehand that there was to be no bailing out at half-time. It was against the rules. Certain things were prohibited to protect Santo Daime from getting hassle from the government. It kinda makes sense, really. If you have the privilege of having your Ayahuasca being legal, the last thing you want is someone walking off on their own and having a bad time or an accident. So, we talked animatedly in hushed tones. She asking me to not be closed-minded and judgmental; me calling it hocus-pocus bullshit.
All too soon, a bell was rung. We were heading back in. It was one of those moments where I just couldn’t fathom the possibility that it would ever end. The thought of five more hours of this… man, how the hell will I get through it? I stood on my spot, and the song began, and I moved. Left-right-left. Right-left-right. It was gonna be a battle of attrition. Soon enough, there was more Daime to drink. By this time, I was finding it tough to actually keep it down. The smell alone, by this point, was making me nauseous. But I drank it anyway.
Nothing much was happening, though. While all around there seemed to be people who were clearly off exploring other worlds in their mind, I was stuck here. The only reason I knew I’d ingested something psychoactive was I had a fuzziness akin to the comedown off acid or ecstacy.
Except I’d not had any high to go with that comedown feeling. Which was a bit of a bummer. By this point, though, I was well aware that my state of mind wasn’t right for having any sort of positive experience. My mind focussed on what I would write here about the event.
I would write about how thinking about Eric Cartman got me through some of the more tedious moments. Imagining his incessant laughing at the people in funny costumes. I would write about the guy stood on my row playing the flute with an average amount of talent. I’d write about the small handful of hippy chicks who looked quite foxy in their uniforms. I’d write about the guy stood next to me, with rags in his hair and scrunched-up eyes, who was so utterly off his box that the left-right-left was barely one step. I’d write about how much of a nightmare this place would be if you’d just had a hip replacement operation. I would write about the incessant mosquitoes and the stupid amount of bites I have.
John, one of the guys I’d talked to previously, was stood near me. He’s from Cologne; kinda having a good time, but like me, wasn’t getting the full effects of the Daime. He also seemed tired. And, like kids at school, the odd look or eye-roll set me off with the shoulder-shudder giggling. All the while, the songs went on and on. The left-right-left went on and on. A few 180° turns now and again. Aaaah, some nice swaying. Each swaying song was such a relief, that even when I was sat down taking a break, I got up and danced so as not to waste the swaying opportunities.
As the night wore on, and the daylight began to come along, I was getting very tired. The left-right-left got a bit freer, though, a bit more relaxed with the tired feet. I’d achieved a kind of calm blankness to the repetitiveness of the movement. And with the daylight arriving, I could also see the end in sight. I went outside to use the bathroom, and had a sneaky fag behind the toilet building. Back inside, we were nearing the end of the book. Hymn number 160. “Meu Deus, Meu São João.” It was over.
Except it wasn’t. That was the end of the main bit. We still had the encore, the bit of the hymn book called Nova Era. Flicking through, I saw that there were 27 further songs. Please please please, the-God-that-I-don’t-believe-in, make these hymns as short as Napalm Death songs. But, of course, they were normal length songs, between three and five minutes each. And the calm blankness reappeared. I shuffled some more. I sat down a lot, too. I nodded off to sleep for a few minutes until one of the helpers woke me up. My head began to slump again, and the guy playing the flute caught my eye and motioned with the end of his flute for me to stand up, like it’d help me. I half-heartedly smiled and stood up. Then he left his position in the row and came and stood right next to me. When I’m feeling sleepy, there are plenty of things that I don’t want to happen to me. Having some guy who looks like Francis Rossi from Status Quo playing a flute badly, and smiling with eyebrows at me, inches from my head is, I have discovered, now in the top five.
I went off again to stand in the bathroom and pretend to urinate just to get away. By the time I returned, Francis was back in the row so I went and sat down again. Then another fellow motioned at me to stand up. He held up three fingers, like, “just three songs left.” Excellent. Like sleepy folks who hear the aeroplane captain saying, “We’ll be landing in New York in twenty minutes,” I kinda shook the sleepiness away and got up and had a good ol’ boogie. Left-right-left. Right-left-right. (I later found out that it’s not allowed to be sitting down as the ceremony ends.)
The three songs came and went. One hundred and eighty seven songs in total. One hundred and eighty fucking seven. The book was over. But not the songs. Oh no! They are going off-piste. Aaargh! Where’s this gonna end? Is there someone out back writing lyrics to new songs that are being added as we go along? John and I exchanged withering-but-amused glances after every song. Six or seven songs later, the music was over. They all chanted a prayer for what seemed like five minutes. Then the lead guy gave a speech. My oh my, he banged on. We were tantilisingly close to the end, but he kept on and on. Of course, it came to an end eventually.
Cigarette. Let’s go. Renata said goodbye to her friends, and we came home. Scrambled eggs and coffee have never tasted so good after that night of having my mouth taste only of Daime and cigarettes. I’d been awake for over 24 hours. I had a shower. Felt good. Wearing a clean t-shirt and shorts, I felt the actual comedown beginning to take hold. And with it came something I’d not expected: a feeling that I’d been at something good.
I look at the email I sent a friend just an hour after I got home, and it’s so much more full of anger than this blog piece (which I’m writing at 11pm on Sunday, even though it’ll probably won’t be online until Monday morning). But as my Sunday wore on, I even begun to think that maybe I need to go again. There was something there. Beneath all that cynicism, I can’t help but admit that something good was happening in that room. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an energy. I didn’t feel anything like that. There was a lot of love in the room, that was obvious. The people all loved each other. And when they interacted with me, they did so with love. And, even though I’m not sure I could do the whole twelve hour thing again in a hurry; I am tempted at some point in the future to do one of the shorter sessions. It’s tough to process everything that’s happened. But I feel that there’s loose ends. Which is difficult to grasp, because I still don’t believe in God. And maybe that’s the key. Maybe I can’t go any further with Daime if I don’t believe in that most core of elements to the ceremony.
I get the feeling it will be a very long time before I really know what happened to me there on Saturday night. There was one point, just after the break in the ceremony, when I was dumbstruck with the thought of five more hours, and I remembered that the alternative Saturday-night plan we had was to go to a nightclub. I began fantasizing about Brazilian girls, dressed to the nines, all dancing around. Hair and perfume all over the place. I fantasized about a few cold beers. Some doof-doof-doof housey music. Now, though, I’m really glad I went to Santo Daime. This has taken me four hours to write. I’ve not re-read it or done any changes yet. It was just a mammoth thing to go over in my mind. I will never ever forget it.