Taking the top off the saucepan was like lifting the lid on the last four years. That was the last time I’d smelt this abominable odour, the last time I’d attempted to drink cactus juice. I screwed my face up in anticipation. I knew what was coming but I had to remind myself it was a short-term sacrifice (the pollution of my tastebuds) for a long-term gain (up to sixteen hours of orbiting the stratosphere). It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
Ivan and I had driven an hour-and-a-half out of Melbourne, to the Wombat State Forest, to recreate our first cactus experience of four years ago. The vibrations of the car meant that our gut-busting juice now had a layer of thick green froth on top. It looked like we were going to have to shave it before we drank what was effectively a foot of cactus each, condensed into slimy green goo.
There are several ways to munch down the mescaline: if you’re completely mad you can peel it and eat it as it is. Some people make powder out of it but probably the easiest method is to chop it up and boil it down to drink. This is what Ivan and I did first time round. The house stank for days afterwards, and after five hours of boiling, draining and then re-boiling, we mused that if the stuff tasted as bad as it smelt we were in trouble. As it happens, it tasted much worse.
The result of all this boiling had been two steaming mugs each of dark green slime. It tastes earthy as you’d imagine, but there was a punch I wasn’t expecting – something that made you question why you were drinking cactus juice. An oily liquid slithered down my throat and as it reached my stomach it gurgled in disapproval. I’d taken a bite of a chocolate digestive to nullify what was happening inside my mouth. But it was going to take more than that to distract my tastebuds – perhaps the oily film that clung to my lips. I couldn’t stop thinking about that because no matter how many times I wiped my mouth I just couldn’t get rid of it.
Words can never do justice to describe what drinking this stuff is like. After a mug and three-quarters I was done, unable to drink any more for the fear of bringing it all back up. If the gates opened in the first hour then there’d be no surfing the cosmos. Ivan was dry retching. I continued to nibble.
The noise and smell attracted our friend Lee, and so we gave him half a mug and went out for a walk along a local creek. It was night time and the moon guided us along. As we were walking I felt something stirring inside my temples. It mimicked the low buzz of the power lines above and was slowly taking over my brain, shifting it to another gear.
I took a moment to stand still and gaze at the stars. I felt like a blade of grass being blown in an imaginary breeze. I followed the sway of wherever I was pushed, in harmony with my surroundings. The stirring in my temples became more pronounced and then the first wave hit me. My head was expanding and the top of my skull felt as if it were as large as the sky. The waves kept on coming, each one stronger and longer than the previous one.
The creek had come alive. Power lines hummed with electricity; I could see it passing through the wires, pulsating like electric snakes. I gazed into a bush. It was thriving; the leaves chattered among themselves in little communities. I looked down at my hand and was amazed by what I saw: I could see through the skin, able to examine every sinew and muscle. I looked at the bone structure and stood in awe, opening and closing my hand and watching the muscles interact with each other.
I turned to show Ivan but he was busy sucking the leaves on a nearby tree. It looked like he was giving head to a branch but he said they tasted amazing. Lee, the third member of our tripping trio, insisted he wasn’t feeling anything and wanted to go to the pub. There was no way I could handle being indoors and Lee’s pupils were the size of the tree stump he was sitting on.
We’d stopped at a children’s playground. Ivan was on the swing and I was down on my knees playing with the shaved bark and letting it fall through my fingers. It felt so good and I couldn’t stop doing it. Although my body felt lethargic, my mind was sharp. It had taken us half an hour to walk the twenty metres to the playground. We kept stopping because we were seeing things that fascinated us. Everyday, mundane objects were mesmerising; it was like I was a baby again and seeing everything for the first time.
Chronology meant nothing and events of the past seemed irrelevant, as did anything that could happen in the future. My memories had been shuffled, shaken as if inside a tombola. They were called into my head at random; their place in time of no consequence. I was immersed in the present moment for the first time in my life. But just as I was about to surf the largest wave into the outer reaches of the cosmos, Lee finally got his way and we were back at the flat.
It was only four hours into the trip but being back inside totally killed it for me. The walls and ceiling pressed against my head and I felt claustrophobic. To stop the walls inching forward I closed my eyes and wandered off into a psychedelic trance, swearing that the next time I did San Pedro I would be doing it with the right people, ones who were prepared to go let the effects of the trip wash over them rather than resist. For some reason, Lee’s logical mind was in denial.
People are one of the two key elements, in my opinion, that make for a perfect San Pedro trip. Lee’s energy detracted from my experience and it’s a long time to trip if somebody’s not on your wavelength or if they’re freaking out. It’s also a good idea to allocate a couple of days for the whole experience. This is right down to the ritual of preparing it, to the last mini-buzz sixteen hours after you first ingest the cactus.
The following day after my first San Pedro mission I had to board a flight to India. With no time to recover or catch up on any sleep, I arrived in Delhi mega-spaced and with a brain still flying as high as the plane. In a place where you need your wits about you, it wasn’t an ideal situation to enjoy the comedown.
The second crucial element is the environment. It’s best to take San Pedro away from the humdrum of the city because mescaline is a drug that brings you closer to nature, so therefore it makes sense to do it in a comfortable, picturesque and human-free environment. Four years on, Ivan and I had learnt from the mistakes of our first experiment and we were both determined to derive the full affects this time round.
After painstakingly de-spinning, peeling, coring and chopping the cactus up, we didn’t have time to boil it, so we ground it in a food blender. Our mixture was full of lumps and it looked like it was stripping the enamel off the saucepan.
Our campsite was located down an old and bumpy logging track, in a small clearing surrounded by trees and bushes. In an effort to make our frothy green goo more palatable we’d added grapefruit and orange juice. This made it taste worse and meant we had more to drink. On top of that, the chunks that the food blender didn’t make mush were impossible to swallow. We both had froth moustaches and over four cups each before throwing them to the ground. No more – or it was going to be chunder time.
The sun was setting and we went for a walk, mostly to distract Ivan from the incredible nausea he was feeling. I’d gagged while drinking the juice, but now I was fine. I just hoped Ivan could keep his down, otherwise I’d be spending the next umpteen hours tripping alone.
The walk did Ivan good and we arrived back at the campsite. He lit a small fire and the full moon peeked through the trees. Once the nausea stage has passed, a messy hour or two followed – the normal kind of scattered brain felt with acid and mushrooms, except more prolonged. I couldn’t work out the concept of fire or why Ivan had lit it. Ivan couldn’t sit still and he fidgeted, moving about the fire and prodding it every so often. After this messy stage, the real trip began and the waves got higher and higher.
Ivan had brought a guitar along and I tried to play a song. None of the strings meant anything and all of the tunes in my head were jumbled chords. My fingers suddenly had no idea how to play. Instead I plucked the top E, and it was the best sound I’ve ever made on guitar. I plucked it again and again and listened to the sound waves resonate. After a while I could see the note moving through the air, snaking in between the particles to make the sound. Ivan suggested plucking two notes – why he needed to do that when I was having so much fun playing one I didn’t know but I did it anyway. All of a sudden there were two notes moving through the air, harmonising, their frequencies wrapping around each other like a DNA helix.
I was so mesmerised that I fell backwards in my chair,my legs in the air. Our laughter dispersed the musical notes. I couldn’t stop and was content to be lying on my back, watching the smoke of the bonfire drift slowly between the trees. Moonbeams penetrated the smoke and gave the forest a spooky appearance. I couldn’t stop smiling. Utter serenity had taken over and I felt like I was sinking into the forest floor, becoming part of the leaves, the mud and the undergrowth.
After an indeterminate amount of time I found the energy to stand up. I felt light and suddenly motivated to go for a walk. After a couple of footsteps I lost the urge, fascinated by a swampy section of forest and watching the bushes slowly move and interact. The sounds of the forest were inside my head and I watched the stars move across the sky, lying in the middle of a logging track and watching Scorpio and Jupiter glisten.
We debated how the Peruvians had first discovered San Pedro and the marvels it performs on the mind. Does it show the earth how it really is and were all of the things we were seeing there anyway, or merely a by-product of ingesting mescaline? One thing for sure was that the first person ever to take it must’ve regretted it at first. The stomach cramps and nausea probably convinced them they were going to die.
The Ancient Peruvians discovered the goodness of San Pedro many years ago. The earliest depictions of the cactus are from around 1,300BC when carvings were found in a temple in the northern highlands of the Andes. Back then, shamans used its psychoactive properties to conduct spiritual ceremonies. They believed San Pedro was associated with healing and getting in tune with ones supernatural power, and that users of the cactus received guidance from the spirits while remaining balanced within the natural world.
The European missionaries that visited Peru in the time of the Conquistadors, however, were scathing of San Pedro. One said: ‘It is a plant with whose aid is the devil.’ They were all too afraid to try it. But that’s okay, because San Pedro's not for everyone. People diagnosed with chemical imbalances should stay away.It's funny then that one of mescaline’s first uses in the Western world was among the psychiatric community. The hallucinogenic alkaloid was the first psychedelic compound to be extracted and isolated way back at the end of the nineteenth century. Two decades later it was being used to treat patients with psychiatric problems. Some people today would say it causes psychiatric problems, while others believe that it puts you in touch with supernatural and divinatory powers.
Whatever the case, eating San Pedro certainly didn’t make the Ancient Peruvians stand around twiddling their thumbs. They invented a system of writing using knots in ropes to document events, and they built nearly 20,000 miles of roadway across the Andes – no mean feat considering the harshness of the terrain. And their architecture and stone-masonry were second to none. They built natural wonders like Machu Picchu, an ancient citadel carved 7,000 feet up in the mountains. They also built landmarks that mirrored the sky to map out the solar system.
I would certainly argue that the San Pedro experience can be life-changing, in terms of altering your perception of the world and the way in which you view time. Since I’ve taken it I am far more in the present moment. San Pedro reinforces (and sometimes reveals) that everything around us is interminably connected, and that everything is made up of different manifestations of what is essentially the same energy. It can be a valuable tool in appreciation and understanding of a world some people choose to neglect.
It sharpens your mind and opens channels in your brain that never fully close afterwards. You come back to a normal state eventually, but for eight or so hours you’re at the peak, orbiting with the moon, observing and questioning the conventions of a world where the possibilities grow with each moment. San Pedro picks you up and puts you in its lap, strokes you, and then places you gently back in reality. The come down is pleasant – like walking gradually down a gentle slope.
Back in Peru, taking San Pedro is a highly sociable event, like a Sunday roast or a barbecue. If you tell somebody you’re off to eat a cactus in Australia, chances are they’ll look at you strangely. But shamans believe the cactus is ‘like a removal of one’s thought to a distant dimension’. And what a dimension!
As dawn broke Ivan and I crawled into the tent, satisfied that our mission had been accomplished. It seemed strange to us, then, that Western society could be so keen to tolerate drugs such as alcohol and nicotine that cause violence and heart disease, and so happy to shun drugs that widen one's perspective and heighten appreciation of the world around us.
In the end it is not about creating boundaries or classifying San Pedro as ‘evil’ or ‘anti-social’. It’s about acceptance of what nature has given us and having a mind that’s open enough to try it. Imagine world leaders sitting round a conference table tripping on San Pedro. You can bet something would be done about global warming then! Maybe if there was a little cactus juice in their water their minds would open to what they're doing to our planet, and their heightened appreciation of this wonderful world would stimulate an environmental consciousness that would benefit everybody.
I know, it didn't work with acid in the water supply in the 60s. But as fresh water supplies start to run low around the globe, cactii are thriving in the dry, hot climate. And the Gates of San Pedro are opening, one way or another...