The mighty Amazon River holds many mysteries and secrets but you wouldn't think of it as a place where Western visitors go to transform their lives. Along with countless natural herbal remedies, there's the apparently magical potion known as Ayahuasca. This mind-bending drug draws people from all over the world, including Australia. Dateline's Giovana Vitola travelled far up river to meet those searching for blissful happiness.
REPORTER: Giovana Vitola
In the markets of Iquitos, Westerners come looking for a magical potion.
MALCOLM ROSSITER, FORMER NUTRITIONIST: We nickname it "Witch's Alley", because it's just where all the medicinal plants are sold within the market.
Malcolm Rossiter is a former nutritionist who moved here from Melbourne. He guides me through the market in search of the region's speciality.
VENDOR (Translation): This is a very hallucinogenic liquor from the jungle, you drink Ayahuasca with a shaman.
MALCOLM ROSSITER: The Ayahuasca brew is a mixture made primarily of Chacruna, which contains the DMT, Dimethyltriptaphine, which gives the visions. This is the Ayahuasca vine and when they're combined together we have the Ayahuasca brew or tea.
Locals use Ayahuasca as a laxative. But Westerners are seeking it out to transform their lives.
MALCOLM ROSSITER: In one aspect he could really say Ayahuasca saved my life. I left Australia nearly six years ago now after being fed up with society, fed up with business and just not happy with myself. I really hated myself.
For Malcolm, that all changed when he discovered Ayahuasca.
MALCOLM ROSSITER: It helped me get over the depression which I'd been suffering before, the anxiety. The more I drank Ayahuasca, the more I found I could connect and really learn to love myself again.
To see an Ayahuascan ceremony taking place, I'm going to have to travel further up the Amazon River. Ayahuasca centres are dotted through the jungle surrounding Iquitos. They service the thousands of foreigners looking for a healing experience.
Scott Petersen has been living in the jungle for over 15 years. He has trained as a shaman and people come to his Ayahuasca centre from all over the world.
ELLA: It really interests me, like, the more I read about it, the more I wanted to actually experience it myself.
Ella is an accountant from Canada. She became curious after reading about Ayahuasca but she isn't sure what to expect.
ELLA: I'm not religious. I'm not spiritual. I've never done any drugs. I've never done anything like that in my life and for some reason I got very interested in this.
Some of the visitors have more specific expectations.
DONNY: I had an Ayahuasca experience in Sweden, like, six months ago when I was having quite serious alcohol problems. And, then, after that, I could stop drinking and it really took away all my willingness of drinking alcohol.
THEL: Some people come here for healing on other levels, psychological, addictions, other things.
Thel came here from America to improve her practice of what she calls "spiritual healing".
THEL: Some of us come here if you're a healer and looking for... You know, just to confirm that what you're doing is the right thing, how you're doing it, if there's more information that we need to know.
Scott the shaman takes some of his visitors to see firsthand where Ayahuasca's ingredients come from.
SCOTT PETERSEN, SHAMAN: You can see that all of these bushes have leaves like this. This is where the DMT is in the formula and so we put about 3,000 of these leaves in our brew when we drink. This is Ayahuasca right here - it's 12 years old. So it's definitely a very, very powerful part of the ecosystem.
Back at camp, a new batch of Ayahuasca is being brewed with leaves and roots from the rainforest.
SCOTT PETERSEN: So now this Ayahuasca will cook for 12 hours, boiling at a very high temperature.
The result is a highly concentrated liquid, which commonly causes diarrhoea and vomiting as side effects. But according to Scott, it also allows people to access their higher selves.
SCOTT PETERSEN: That's what the Ayahuasca can do, is it can bring us in touch with that intuition and with senses that have been put to sleep by disuse or by perhaps antidepressant drugs or by high stress, a lot of anxiety.
Apparently, the shaman plays a vital role in the Ayahuasca ceremony, even though he says very little.
SCOTT PETERSEN: You're communicating with the patient telepathically and you're seeing their energy field and you're seeing what's going on.
ELLA: Well, I'll let you know, if it doesn't happen tomorrow!
Ella is getting worried about the Ayahuasca experience.
THEL: I say it is worth it 100% and I wouldn't have changed it for anything. And I hope that you get to feel some, even if you feel a quarter of what I come here for, you're going to be amazed when you go home. I swear.
ELLA: I hope so too. I hope so too.
The Ayahuasca ceremony is held in a special temple called a Maloca. As night falls, the guests start to arrive.
DONNY: So here we are preparing for the ceremony. So we lie down. Sometimes it gets a bit cold in the night. It's nice to have the... A blanket.
THEL: Scott will bring you water if you need.
SCOTT PETERSEN: Yeah. And this is a glass of water. So what the people use this for is to clean out their throat and to wash the Ayahuasca down into the stomach and the function of that is to avoid a premature purge.
Scott calculates each patient's dose according to their previous experience and needs.
SCOTT PETERSEN: So just let me know how you're feeling when you come up to get your cup and we'll dial it in perfectly.
He blows on the Ayahuasca to infuse it with his spirit and then one by one, they drink. When everyone is lying comfortably, Scott blows out the candles and their night of hallucination, telepathic communication and vomiting begins.
Everyone is inside the temple now in complete darkness, as it should be. It has been just over one hour since they had the Ayahuasca potion. The effects are coming out now and what I saw was uneasy people saying nonsense and the shamans will keep singing until everyone has settled down. It will take maybe two hours. It's pretty intense up there.
The next morning, Thel is still feeling unwell, so she's given some sap to soothe her stomach. Despite the side effects, she's absolutely ecstatic about last night's experience.
THEL: The way it was, it was just so intense, and the more and more - come, come, come, come, come, and up and up and up and up and bringing it all up and then bringing everyone, all the sadness into the light so there's more people that will be happy. I really wish that was something that someone can see because if everyone can do that, just do the same thing, just wish that for the world, you know, just bring everything. Everybody, everybody! Come on, let's all be happy! You know, like, it's going to be OK, you know, and bring it all up and bring it and send it into the light and it's just amazing.
Thel decides to check on her Canadian friend, Ella, who was also unwell.
THEL: Hey. How are you feeling this morning?
ELLA: I feel good. Everything is good now. Yeah. So, um, OK, nothing happened. There was no vision, no nothing. I was just sick, violently sick. Maybe I'm immune to the...
THEL: No, like I was telling you, Ayahuasca works that, you know, it's taking up all the bad, everything from, you know, your past and, you know, everything that's ever made you sad. Like I said, you're going to see, before you leave here, you're going to feel so light, like, like a free bird.
PROFESSOR BENJAMIN, UNIVERSITY OF LIMA (Translation): The effects depend on how much faith and credence you give it.
Professor Benjamin and his team at the University of Lima have been studying Peruvian medicinal plants for the past 20 years. He's dubious about Ayahuasca's psychological benefits.
PROFESSOR BENJAMIN (Translation): The perception of those who drink Ayahuasca, is similar to the visions observed in patients suffering from pathologies like schizophrenia - with changes in personality or in patients who experience; delirium - such as delirium tremens in alchoholics.
So far, Western medicine has only a limited understanding of Ayahuasca's effects on the mind. But the professor has big concerns about Ayahuasca's impact on the body.
PROFESSOR BENJAMIN (Translation): So it has several effects such as tachycardia, raised blood pressure, and so on, which could develop into something harmful. It can definitely be dangerous, especially for those with a history of cardio-vascular disease, or heart surgery, etc.
There may be dangers, but for some people, Ayahuasca's benefits are life-changing. This healing centre near Iquitos is run by a brother and sister from Orange in NSW.
TRACIE THORNBERRY, HUMMINGBIRD CENTRE: It's turned out to be beneficial for people with all sorts of, um, illnesses.
Tracie Thornberry tells me many of her visitors are suffering from depression.
TRACIE THORNBERRY: I had one man here not long ago who's been severely depressed since his early 20s. He was in his 40 when he came. After he'd been here for two weeks, he was much lighter, much clearer, and when he went home, his doctor chose not to put him back on the medication and said that he was at a place in his life where the doctor had been trying to get him to for 10 years.
MARK THORNBERRY, HUMMINGBIRD CENTRE: It doesn't work 100% with everybody, but it certainly has wonderful results. It seems to have much better results than some of the older techniques we've been using in Western medication.
Tracie's brother Mark certainly knows. He's one of the centre's biggest success stories.
MARK THORNBERRY: I've got a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. It's put an end to that. It's given me a reason to look forward to the rest of my life. I can honestly say that after many years. It's something I repeat over and over again to people that, at 52, I'm looking forward to the rest of my life thanks to the Ayahuasca.
Back at Scott's Ayahuasca centre, Donny, the recovering alcoholic, has had a revelation about his own behaviour.
DONNY: I haven't felt worth it, to be loved and I felt so sorry for it, because I have seen at the same time I am missing something because I don't take it, I am also denying them the feeling of giving love. So it becomes two losers in this.
With their treatment over, it's time for Donny and Ella to head home. While Ella hasn't felt any benefits from Ayahuasca, Donny is returning to Sweden ready for a new life.
DONNY: When I come back now I'm really going to get in touch with some of my friends and I... Really am going to explain how sorry I am, but I'm also going to say whatever much love you have, I'm ready. Just give it to me. I'm going to take it. And just give it to me. Pour it over me. I'm here now.
YALDA HAKIM: Although tempted, our correspondent decided not to try some of the ayahuasca brew to make sure she could actually finish that story. So are people who are using ayahuasca being helped or exploited? You can check out the reporter's views on our website.
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6th March 2011