In November I was invited to take place in a ten-day Transformation Retreat in rural South Africa. The retreat was led by a shaman called Fabian Piorkowsky. Using the psychotropics Ayahuasca, Mescaline and Iboga, the retreat aimed to heal addictions, physical pains, disease, various mental health problems, and bring participants back to what you might call, their essence.
Day 1: Bored mostly. We're making friends in a very adult way. Diplomatic, fair, not wanting to hurt the person you're talking to, but you can't help but look over his shoulder at the other people and feel jealous that they're laughing and you'll never get a laugh out of the person you've chosen to speak to. We trade stories around the pool. Alcoholism, drugs, self-harm, depression. CCTV cameras hover above the gates like they do everywhere in South Africa. There are some monkeys in the trees. They begin to flash their pink asses at us. When they come close to pick the low-lying fruit they make a noise with their mouths like this: kahisssstttchzop! We look at each other and make a noise with our mouths like this: oh my!
Day 2: We get high, but we don't get very high. After an afternoon eating vegan food, lounging by the pool, upgrading friends, identifying potential matches, identifying potential dangers. You can't stress the importance of that last process enough until you've been deeply immersed in an ayahuasca session, body numb, mind a fritter, teeth on the shake, only to have the person next to you make strange and appear to want to bite your nose off. But that doesn't happen. Tonight's dose was just a mild dose. Enough to bring a few fractals to life. Mandelbrot's babies. Aztec patterns that repeat and transform as soon as you grasp their integrity. But no great visions quite yet. Ayahuasca apotheosis is an experience known as rebirthing wherein you feel yourself both in and then out of the womb. I had it once and I can confirm it was terrifying, and then light and then wonderful. But there will be no rebirthing tonight. Tonight is just the beginning. An appetizer. A basket of grissini sticks seasoned with rosemary and a half full glass of prosecco.
Day 3: The next morning there are some rumblings. People have paid plenty of money for this trip. Fabian has to defuse their impatience. He does so by promising tonight's show will knock their socks off. That aside, nothing much happens during the day. We're slaves of time. Lying on cut grass, too lazy to read, waiting for 7pm to come so we can go back into the ceremony hall with our mattress and our purge bucket and begin the next session. Last night we took just small cups. Tonight we're allowed double or triple doses. I experience a type of emotional incontinence. I cry and laugh at the same time. It's very pleasant. The sadness is real but the laughter dissolves it. Oh, and there's a fox. A skinny shadow of a fox, a woodcut fox. He keeps reappearing, beckoning me. Hmmm. I decide to call him Kanye out of a deep-seated fear that I'll begin to take this too seriously.
Day 4: In the morning we wake up in the same place we slept and take mescaline. Oh baby let me tell you about mescaline. Mescaline is a goo scraped from the insides of a cactus and it makes you feel like you are a cactus insomuch as you surmise all cacti want is to stretch out under a hot sun. Glorious African daylight floods the room. The birds are singing. Some people start to cry, others begin to puke, I feel like dancing and running around. I feel like stretching out under a hot sun. But this is where you have to be careful on a transformation retreat. The experience is shared but the suffering is personal. In the competitive world of self pity, daddy knocking you off the swing is not the same as daddy knocking the swing out of you. So while a few of us go for a stroll and a chat and a giggle, our arms T-shaped like prickly branches, there are others still in the ceremony room rolling on sweaty sheets and dry heaving. At some point I think about Kanye. Does he have a message for me? I look down at my hand. I guess I've started smoking again.We take more ayahuasca that night. Big glasses. The taste is sour and nickel-ey. I wash it down with a grape. The grape tastes better than life itself. I forgot to mention: we haven't eaten in two days now.
Day 5: After another night of fractals, memories and my woodcut fox appearing then disappearing into the middle distance, we wake up, take mescaline and decide to leave the compound. We pile into cars. I've made friends with a UFC fighter. He has a BMW. Are you okay to drive? I won't take her outta third bru. We head into the hills to a watering hole to swim. The BMW is low to the ground and scrapes the road. Shit bru, the UFC fighter says. He has comic book hero arms. They are bigger than my head. I think about asking him if I could touch them, but straight men don't ask those questions. We round another corner. bru, he says to me, I think I'm too high. I reach over and hold the wheel. We're both driving now. He handles left turns, I'm in charge of the rights. The chassis embraces the hard dirt road. We hear a noise like paper tearing. Fuck bru, he says, maybe we give it some aya later. What will that do? Fix it, he says, like a rebirth. Ja bru, we can rebirth the BMW.
Day 6: I cheated and news is out. The previous night I skipped out on the ayahuasca session. I cleaned my face, pulled the twigs from my hair and left the compound. I hitch-hiked into the nearest town and found a Wimpy. I went in and ordered a mixed grill before I'd even time to realise I don't eat meat. I don't eat dairy either. I called the waitress over. She's adorable and treats me like I'm her only customer in the world. I asked her for a tutti frutti milkshake. And when she came back with that I also asked her for a coffee.
Outside the window black people were waiting for buses. Kids were coming home from school. There was a man with no shoes on his feet rolling a bald tyre along the side of the street. I went to the bathroom in a hurry and did something I haven't done all week. While I'm in there, I closed my eyes and saw Kanye. Go back to the ceremony, Kanye said. I paid and left. While I was walking I felt a strange shape in my pocket. I'd bought cigarettes, somehow. The rest of the retreat participants looked at me with suspicious eyes. They could smell the fried eggs on my breath the traces of civilisation on my clothes, the skip in my step.
Day 7: Mescaline for breakfast. I feel buoyed by the food in my belly. The rest of the group look frazzled, weak, grey around the face, but their pupils are huge and their eyes are sparkly and that's because we're all high again. In between ceremonies Fabian and his wife Nicole talk to us. There are some grumbles. One girl, Jana, says that none of the plants have worked on her so far. Jana complains that the taste is so bad she can't keep the medicine down long enough for it to work. She's in tears. On the first day we spoke she told me she was addicted to weed. Oh, I said. Yes, she said, I really need this trip to transform me. Fabian explain that it's possibly her ego that won't let her swallow the medicine. She looks defeated. After the ceremony I sneak into the kitchen and steal a banana. I find Jana on her own and offer her a piece. She takes it in her hand, rolls it between two fingers then hands it back. I eat it myself. Some people look at me and I feel some hostility or just the paranoia I've been nurturing all week. That night we don't take anymore ayahuasca. We're building up for the grand finale, a plant called Iboga. Iboga can put you into a deep, trance for as long as 48 hours. It's known to be a relatively effective cure for heroin addiction. They call it the grandfather because the visions take the form of a wise, old spirit. Before I go to bed I take a whizz. My pee's the colour of rusty nails. The splash back is tangerine, gold and hot, hot fire.
Day 8: There's a hum of expectation around the breakfast table. Not only because we're allowed to eat again but because tonight we're taking the greatest hallucinogenic on the planet. They don't devour the food, like I expected, instead they pick at it appreciatively like small birds. Having filled my belly the other day, I'm now conversely even hungrier than everyone else. I feel like an imposter. Even the smokers have stopped giving me the nod when they're going for one. I look around the table at people ranging in age from their early twenties to late fifties. Everyone of them is desperate for this psychedelic treatment to work. They want to be transformed. I'm open to transformation, but the real reason I'm here is the real reason I became a journalist and that's because I've not found something that hasn't piqued my curiosity enough to try it at least once. We file into the ceremony hall. The beds are messy and there's a smell of vomit in the air. I tell Fabian that I don't want to go in again but I still want to try the Iboga. That's fine, he says, you can stay out by the pool and I'll bring you some. So I swim laps and wait and then Fabian comes out with a spoonful of powder and I take it. Iboga in small doses is like cocaine. More and you begin to see visions. More again and you vomit and lose physical autonomy like with ketamine. I sit in the pool and watch the trees becoming brighter and the noise of the birds, which I've just noticed I can turn up or down like a stereo. I go eat a banana. I smoke a cigarette. I go to my room and try and masturbate. I can't. I take a shower. The water sings my name. The drops feel like long cat tails swishing over my shoulders. I want to be straight again. I want so much to be straight again.
Day 9: I went to Wimpy for breakfast this morning. Porridge, toast, coffee and another tutti frutti milkshake. When I get back the group are still in the ceremony hall, but some of them have spilled out onto the lawn. The grandfather was asking for you, Jana says. He said you shouldn't be afraid of him. I'm not, I say. Is that you or your ego talking, Jana asks. It's a strange day. A lot of great expectations were riding on Iboga and a lot of the people are feeling cheated. Some say they felt nothing but belly cramps. Fabian explains that the plant keeps working in your system, keeps healing, long after everyone's gone home but that's a cold comfort for those about to take long haul flights north with little more to show for all their work than five kilos less weight, tawny cheeks and grass stains on their white ceremonial clothes.
Day 10: We pack. Two people have hooked up. They're petting each other on bean bags. Puke, hunger, bad breath, shattered nerves, neglected hygienic practice – the human race doesn't know how to stop itself from getting off. I talk to Fabian. He's hard to dislike. I'd wanted, because the best stories contain good and bad, to paint him evil. But he's not. He really believes in what he does. He really wants to transform people and he appears to have the utmost hallmark of human and spiritual integrity: he's broke. Out on the grass by the pool, we're evaluating. One kid from New York is sat in a daze. How's it going? I ask. It's never gone better, he says. I've never felt so good. A German girl is dissappointed in the drugs, that she didn't experience rebirthing, but enjoyed the whole time anyway. Another man came here with a social anxiety so crippling it made it impossible for him to leave his home in daylight. He's now at the centre of a circle and making them laugh. Something has ticked and my take is that these retreats do work. Enduring anything uncomfortable has a transformative effect. Think of needing to pee while stuck in traffic and the release that eventually brings. Even if that release is just committing to going in your pants. But on other broader levels, hallucinogenics do make you feel like you are somehow connected to a greater force. Less atomized. Less alone. We all hug. You could cut the Zwischenmenschlichkeit with a knife. And then I reach into my pocket and pull out cigarettes and pass them around. Ok, I say, I'm going clean.