Volunteering at the Living Library: Cactus, Frogs, and Ayahuasca

If you know me at all you will not be surprised to learn that in my first few weeks in Costa Rica I fell into a gig taking care of plants at a medicinal plant farm. And yes, if you hadn’t already gathered from the title of this post, that involved cultivating and caring for Peyote, San Pedro, and plants used to create Ayahuasca…

Pretty crazy right!?

If you are feeling judgy at this point, go ahead and drop your preconceived ideas and agree to read this post through to the end.

I will start at the beginning:

My first week in Costa Rica.

I was living in a beautiful and rustic hostel is located 15 minutes outside of a small town called Tinamaste in the Diamante Valley of Costa Rica. The house and it’s surrounding areas are isolated and dripping with jungle magic. I chose a mosquito-net-adorned bed next to a bookcase on the deck where I fell asleep each night to the flicker of lightning bugs and sonatas of frogs, and rose each day to a symphony of birds and the territorial roar of howler monkeys. Scott had started his first two week shift and I was spending my days walking the hour and a half route to the nearest store, taking photos, and doing yoga.

I realized several things during this time including:

1: Internet sucks in the jungle. This makes posting blogs very difficult.

2: I am not the kind of person that can lay around in the sun everyday with nothing to do.

Most of the other residents were content to relax their days away, and that lifestyle was driving me nuts. During the first few days I feel like I really let go… I let myself do nothing. Spent time meditating. Sang and played ukulele loudly by waterfalls. But slowly and stealthily relaxed jungle vibes started to fall away to my familiar anxiety.

The other guests had all been there for months. They were younger than me and in a different place in their lives. I tried my best to be open and fit in, but I was having a hard time.

Enter Chris and Vanessa: the badass neighbors and my new friends.

Vanessa is a spunky world traveler with long blonde hair and big excited eyes. She stops in to do “sound journeys” and have “do whatever you want days”… I adore her. She is the perfect combination of spiritual and down to earth. Though we only shared a few weeks together I still consider her a great friend. She was in the Diamante Valley practicing sound therapy and Kambo. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. A quick internet search will reveal detailed information on the practice- but here is a quick summary.

Kambo

Kambo is frog medicine. And no, this is not the “lick a toad and hallucinate” type of frog medicine. Kambo refers to the medicine derived from giant tree frogs (Phyllomedusa bicolor). The frogs are collected and agitated to induce the secretion of the kambo. After the medicine is scraped from the frog’s head the frogs are released back to their homes. Next the shaman heats a piece of vine and makes several light burns on your arm. The kambo is then quickly applied to the burns and the medicine is absorbed into the bloodstream. You are encouraged to relax and emotionally supported as you purge over the next 30 minutes to an hour. The kambo cleanses your lymphatic system and boosts your immune system. It is also known to be emotionally cleansing.

New Opportunity

One fortuitous day I met a neighboring farmer and we hit it off really well. His name is Chris and he is unlike any other person I have ever met. He has been cultivating a living library filled with rare and common medicinal plants for the past few years. I told Chris I was interested in helping and learning more from him, and he offered me a volunteer position at his farm in exchange for lodging and meals. I graciously accepted, elated at the prospect of a change of scenery and a new experience.

The Living Library

After a quick roadtrip North to dry out my bags and clear my mind I happily returned to my new home at the Living Library. I had never been to the place and had no idea what to expect…my mind was about to be blown. Chris gave me the tour, starting with the volunteer quarters; three second-story bedrooms tied together by a beautiful open common area with dazzling jungle views. I threw down my backpack and followed Chris down the stairs and around the house to the seedling and cultivation area where he rattled off the names and uses of 20-30 medicinal plants. And then he took me to the greenhouse. A glowing, softly lit room full of hundreds of pots of Peyote and San pedro cacti.

Chris took me into the kitchen of the main house and poured some coffee. He then told me his story, the story of how this all came to be. And what a story it was. I could fill the pages of an entire book with these tales, but for this blog post I will focus on the discovery of his passion for plant medicine

Painting by: Matt Hens

Roots

It started with a near death experience. Months in the hospital and a recovery that included the over-prescription of many pharmaceutical drugs which only worked to mask the trauma and pain. When it came time to look for emotional and spiritual recovery he turned to nature and plant medicine. After finding personal success through nature therapy and the use of Ayahuasca in ceremony he felt a calling. “I had an epiphany,” He told me as he redirected his gaze from his coffee to my eyes, “I needed to go to Brazil, I needed to see where this medicine came from”.

“Thoughts become things. If you see it in your mind you will hold it in your hand.” -Bob Proctor

As things often go once you put your energy into them, an opportunity to visit a religious group that utilizes Ayhuasca in the Amazon was soon presented to him. Once in country, Chris described a 10 hour bus ride through the Amazon with views of cow fields, deforestation, and smoldering slash and burn. He arrived at his destination and was welcomed by members of the religious group; not to a primitive village like one might imagine, but to a commecial hub of a city. The next day they took him on a journey through many miles of heartbreaking deforestation surrounding their home to find one large vine needed for the Ayahuasca. “They took everything, roots and all” he said, shaking his head. “No propagation; the vine was just gone from this place.”

The harsh reality of the plant’s future use was clear to Chris at this point. Similar experiences throughout the years in different locations and with different people drove this point home. Though Ayahuasca is an incredible and powerful healing medicine, Ayahuasca ceremonies have become a fad in many ways and the process of creating Ayahuasca can be very unsustainable.

“I see a need for the preservation of these types of plants” Chris says, now standing in his doorway with a backdrop of his biodiverse garden and the mountainous jungle behind him. “These plants have intrinsic and cultural value and little is being done to protect them.”

Sprouts

And protect them he does, adding new varietals all the time to his living library. After learning from Chris, I now know that the green house is not just a room full of peyote, but a room full of Lophophora williamsii and several different members of the genus Echinopsis including , Trichocereus pachanoi, Trichocereus bridgesii, and Trichocereus peruvianus.

I learned the subtle differences between traditional recipes for Ayahuasca, and that Ayahuasca is not a plant, but a combination of plants high in DMT and an MAOI inhibiting plant (Banisteriopsis caapi). I learned that Tabernanthe iboga, a vision inducing plant native to central Africa, is now being studied for its potential for the treatment of addiction disorders. A couple of these rare seeds had just began to sprout. “It takes 4-5 months for the seeds to germinate and 10-20 years for the roots of this tree to be ready to harvest, but it will hopefully never be harvested. The value is in the preservation of this species.”

When Chris is able to propagate extra seedlings, vines, or pups he arranges trips to share these resources with indigenous tribes throughout South and Central America. He is welcomed into their villages bearing gifts of traditional or new varietals of medicinal plants for the village shamans. In return these villages welcome him as one of their own, and the shamans share their knowledge of plant medicine with him. In this way Chris can help the villages continue their ethnobotanical traditions while becoming a courier of information between cultures.

Branches

Towards the end of my stay Jenny and Aatik, a couple of young med students from Canada, moved in and started their one month ‘Work Away” volunteer position. They had never cooked, juiced, or seen a scorpion; let alone seen or heard of Ayahuasca or Peyote. I loved the positive attitudes they kept towards all new experiences, even if it wasn’t really their thing. Chris has a cool sense of intelligence and a warm sense of community that can make anyone feel at ease and in awe throughout their entire stay at the Living Library.

Chris taught us all how to make golden milk one night, the strong smells of turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon filled the air. Jenny and Aatik laughed as they used fresh turmeric for the first time- their hands and clothes stained golden yellow. I asked them how they felt about working with Ayahuasca and Peyote. “I don’t feel the desire to try them…” Jenny replied, crushing more turmeric through a strainer heavy with the boiled root, “but I am still extremely curious to learn about their history, uses and effects…the same way I love to study medicine but don’t intend to try most pharmaceuticals!”… I loved this response and carry its message with me.

I don’t feel the desire to try them, but I am still extremely curious to learn about their history, uses and effects…the same way that I love to study medicine but don’t intend to try most pharmaceuticals! -Jennifer Daccache, medical student

Flowers

So what you may be wondering if you are still reading this; Did I trip out on psychedelic plants while I was there? Interestingly enough (if you know me) the answer is no.

Though the option was available through several well established organizations in the surrounding area, that is not what I was there for at the time.

I was there to make delicious healthy juices, to work hard 6 hours a day nourishing and caring for these plants. I was digging garden beds, building benches, painting signs, and most importantly learning the value of plants that I was completely unfamiliar with. During my free time Vanessa would come visit. We would talk about spirituality, health, and gossip. We would sit in the dirt and talk about our lives as we built little fairy villages into the forest. And in the evenings I would either sit on the deck, watching epic thunderstorms roll through the valley, or sit drinking tea and coffee with Chris and the occasional guests that would pop in: a never-ending parade of amazing and truly interesting human beings. Like attracts like.

I would repeat this experience in a heartbeat and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in getting a true jungle experience, broadening their knowledge, getting dirt under their fingernails, and being a part of something meaningful.

Feel free to message me with any questions you may have!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. shadymama says:

    oh – this is lovely. you are lovely! what a meaningful, heart and mind opening experience you called forth and fully embraced – inspiring.

    Like

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