Posted March 29, 2012 by in Adventure

The Shaman’s Seeds of Wisdom

A chorus of tribal drums thundered in the twilight of Hampi, reverberating off the granite boulders that crumbled down from the cliff face above. Sam Monahan sat cross-legged on a worn mattress away from the drum circle, near a teepee that glowed orange against a twinkling carpet of stars. In the flickering candlelight, I anxiously watched as he lifted a jagged rock, and frantically crushed a pile of seeds into powder.

I had always harbored a fascination with shamanism, and thus, I outstretched my hand, as a generous pinch was placed in my palm.

“Eat it,” I was instructed.

Belonging to the convolvulaceae family of plants historically used for shamanic rituals, the baby woodrose seed (argyreia nervosa) is a natural repository of the hallucinogen ‘LSA’ (similar to LSD). For centuries, LSA seeds have been employed by shamans as a means to crowbar open the mind, sending you on a six-hour journey of kaleidoscopic spiritual encounters and profound epiphanies, where reality disintegrates around you, and all the truth and terror of the cosmos spill into your scull.

I examined the greyish mound in my hand, humoring the faint possibility that this might be a bad idea.

But it’s important to remember that recklessness is the doorbell of adventure, and I’m as pig-headed as a Bible salesman. I carelessly tossed the powder in my mouth, cringing before I drowned its bitterness with warm whiskey. A didgeridoo groaned and I sat back on my mattress, patiently waiting for the seeds to kick in, for the heavens to open up, and astounding revelation to come crashing down from the ether…


It was after two weeks in Mumbai—two weeks of toiling in Bollywood and tromping over garbage, two weeks of inhaling exhaust, dodging rickshaws, and single-handedly thwarting a bed bug apocalypse—that I made an executive decision:

I needed a vacation.

Travel arrangements were made, and a few days later, I boarded the VTS south-bound bus to Hampi.

“Hampi’s my favorite, you have to go!” gushed my Mumbai-friend Tilmann.

“Hampi’s my favorite, you should stay a whole week,” enthused Brian, and Joe, and Kalle, and Nick, and at least a dozen other people who stressed this before I even left home. When I’d ask them why, their voices would fall hush and they would speak of enchanting, ruined temples, dappled across a rosy, alien terrain of boulders and crumbling rock formations. They would describe a relaxed, ‘shanti-shanti’ pace of life, and that if you weren’t careful, days could easily turn into weeks. And when they reminisced of afternoons wiled away by cool, blue rivers, under plumes of ganga smoke and shady coconut trees, dining on such rare delicacies as Penne Alfredo and Banoffee pie, their gaze would always seem to fall wistfully into the distance, as if Moses were extolling some backpacker’s promised land.

At about 8AM, a pair of hands violently shook me awake, and before I could wipe the sleep from my eyes, I was ejected from the bus and into the mayhem of Hampi Bazaar, beneath the massive gopuram of Virupaksha temple. I followed the cryptic advice of my friends, trudging past the hotel touts and rickshaw-wallahs, shirking through spice stalls and clouds of incense, and then climbing down the ghats of the Tungabadrah river, where a dinghy ferried me to “the other side.”

No one had ever told me what I would find on “the other side,” and I now realize that’s because describing such a bizarre and ridiculous place is an arduous feat…

I stood before a vast, verdant rice paddy, hemmed on three sides by undulating, ochre boulders. A dirt road snaked along its southern perimeter, where shirtless hippies rode motorbikes past bamboo huts with signs (all in English) proffering pizza, falafel, ‘authentic souvenirs,’ and a restaurant that seemed to specialize in birthday cakes, all curiously addressed to someone named ‘Sharma.’

Near the end of the road, I found (of all things) a towering Navajo teepee—the significance of which remains a mystery to me.

“Open bed,” grinned Radhi, the young Indian proprietor, who wore a feather pierced through his earlobe, and always seemed to be carrying a wooden flute. “Seventy rupees,” he baited—a dollar and twenty cents. I nodded and followed him into the teepee, where I found myself surrounded by chatty, amiable backpackers, picking through breakfast on mattress cushions. The next thing I knew, I was whisked off on the back of someone’s motorbike, puttering past ancient temples with a crowd of friendly Germans and Israelis.

We wiled away the afternoon by cool, blue rivers and shady coconut trees. And when evening fell, we climbed past shrieking monkeys to a hilltop Hanuman temple, where strangers passed around joints as we watched the ember sun dip beneath a sprawling panorama of green rice paddies, cobalt rivers, and amber rocks.

I dined on Penne Alfredo and Banoffee pie, and as beer and whiskey made its rounds by candlelight, a drum circle began—occasionally interrupted by the resident puppy dashing into the dining area, followed closely by Radhi, shouting in Hindi.

Didgeridoos wailed as new friends emerged from the darkness—Germans spinning elegant poi in the shadows, and Brits wobbling on a tightrope lashed between two mango trees. I met a Russian rapper, an Australian pub-rat, and a dozen ‘spiritual’ hippies, with fanciful names like ‘Nayana’ and ‘Chandra.’

“Chandra is Sanskrit for moon,” the Swiss girl boasted, proudly parting her blonde dreadlocks with a ring-clad hand. “My spiritual master gave me that name.”

Wooooahhh,” burbled a spacey Californian, “Women are very connected to the moon,” he declared, without elaborating any further.

Days passed.

Breakfast, river, sunset over ruins, Banoffee pie, drum circle.

Breakfast, different river, sunset over ruins, Banoffee pie, drum circle.

I began to slip into a comfortable, thoughtless routine.

“I’ve been stuck here for three weeks,” confessed a Swedish backpacker, Andreas, as we sipped chai over yet another glorious sunset vista.

Breakfast, river, sunset over ruins, Banoffee pie, drum circle…

I idly peeled the label off of my Kingfisher bottle as the late-night conversation inevitably returned to spirituality and the ‘positive vibrations’ of Hampi.

“Hampi’s my favorite part of India,” rejoiced a Polish girl. At which point, I realized that I hadn’t seen a sign in Hindi or a squat toilet since I’d arrived.

In fact, Hampi didn’t seem much like India at all… I suddenly felt like I was in some culturally confused twilight zone; some Hunter S. Thompson fantasy, set in ancient Vijanayagar ruins, all strung out on kumbayah and Prozac.

I decided that there must be something I’m still missing. Perhaps I needed more time.

Breakfast, river, sunset over ruins, Banoffee pie, drum circle.

“They’re baby woodrose seeds,” exclaimed Sam, “We picked ‘em off the side of the road, and we’re gonna eat ‘em!”

I’d only heard of woodrose seeds through the stories of other backpackers. ‘I once met a guy who met a guy who had these seeds,’ the tale would usually start, ‘Seeds indigenous to India and containing LSA, like the ones used by shamans!’

“You want some?” asked Sam.

“Sure,” I said coolly. (If you don’t condone my decision, just write it off as youthful rebellion, or insatiable curiosity, or a gross misinterpretation of  “Carpe Diem”).

And thus, I sat in the drum circle, patiently waiting for spiritual upheaval, for hallucinatory gremlins to climb out of a beer can and reveal to me the meaning of life, regurgitating cosmic truth in my ears.

The only regurgitation, however, was done on my part, twenty minutes later in the bathroom, as I sprayed pizza and falafel and Banoffee pie all over the toilet bowl.

“You don’t look so good,” mused Heidi when I returned. A didgeridoo groaned over the thundering drums.

“No,” I shook my head, and then stared vacantly as a swirling web of tiny rainbow patterns emerged in the darkness behind Heidi’s head.

I stumbled away from the teepee, away from the light and noise and into the blackness, until I was surrounded by boulders of granite and the silent night sky. Satisfied, I sprawled out on the ground.

After twenty minutes of lying on the warm rock, staring up at intricate rainbows patterns and glimmering stars, while djembes echoed in the distance, I experienced something of an epiphany; a moment of clarity.

I realized that I’m lying in the dirt with barf on my shirt, in the deserts of India, eating hallucinogenic seeds picked off the side of the road, because I’m still wrestling with the mystery of why so many backpackers enjoy sitting around all day, getting stoned under coconut trees in pretty scenery.

I also suddenly realized that I hate relaxing vacations, and always have. I can’t stand ‘chilling out’ all day. I don’t travel to get reprieve from my life; I travel to enrich it, to experience it ten-fold. I want adventure and intellectual stimulation and the thrill of uncertainty; I’m too restless to rest. I don’t need to love Hampi, and I don’t need to love every place I travel just because other people do.

The very next day, I caught the night bus to Mysore. And at 5AM, I was dropped off in a grimy, inner-city bus lot, with the vague instruction “go that way,” pointing down a forbidding road marred with litter, graffiti, and dilapidated signs in Hindi and Kannada and squiggly languages yet unknown to me.

As the city of Mysore stirred to life in the early morning mist (or perhaps it was smog), I tightened my pack and marched down the long, filthy throughway—tromping over garbage, inhaling exhaust, and dodging rickshaws. Savoring every bit of it.


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