Slipping out of her corporate job 30 minutes early, Mona meets two friends outside of a graffitied door in Brooklyn. They aren’t there for happy hour, they’re there to be treated with kambo, the poisonous venom of a green frog native to the Amazon basin.
“I told my boss I was going to the doctor,” said Mona. “I wasn’t lying.”
Traditionally used by peoples across Central and South America in spiritual and healing ceremonies, kambo, or sapo, is now readily available in Brooklyn as a body cleanse ritual.
Pasqualo is the medicine man holding this Tuesday night ceremony. He hails from the Bronx but has been initiated into the Shipibo tribe of Peru. He has 20 years of experience in the world of plant medicine and has been a teacher for eight. Donning a large poncho and a beanie, and speaking in a thick New York accent, he invites partakers to sit in a semicircle and focus on their intentions for joining the ceremony. A part-time music producer and full-time healer, Pasqualo also administers ayahuasca, a psychoactive drug that some say offers the equivalent of 10 years of therapy.
If ayahuasca is hailed as the “drug of choice for the age of kale,” kambo is its juice cleanse cousin. Pasqualo says he recommends ayahuasca for a spiritual journey and kambo more for the body. “I’ve seen kambo cure cancer, depression and other deep illness.” But it doesn’t cure everything. “We can’t win them all; sometimes it’s too far gone,” he says.
I arrive late to the group. A multitude of candles add to the church-like ambience of the ceremony. Stationed in front of each partaker is a small bin for vomiting. I can hear the footsteps of a dog in the kitchen and the rumble of the F train. Pasqualo asks if there are concerns or health issues. Heads are shaken.
First, appetizers are offered. Rapé, a tobacco mixture, is blown into the nose to “decalcify the pineal gland,” says Pasqualo. Then sananga eye drops, made from the Amazonian shrub Tabernaemontana, are drizzled into the eyes to “clear the vision.” Mona, a graphic designer who requested a pseudonym in order to maintain her professional image, has recently had Lasik surgery and declines the sananga. She is remorse to miss it. Although last time it felt like her “eyeballs were being ripped out,” she highly recommends it. “Relaxing into the pain is a part of the process,” she says.
Pasqualo begins to chant, alternating between Spanish and bird whistles. We sit with our backs to him as he shakes a leaf rattle over each of our heads. First he sits behind Mona, his fingers at the base of her neck. Kambo is usually applied to the arm or the leg, but we asked to be scarred right below our hairlines. He takes a piece of wood and burns Mona twice on the neck. I hear her sharp intake of breath.
Then he is behind me. I feel two quick jabs in the back of the neck, not too different from the numerous times I’ve been careless with a lighter. It hurts. Pasqualo swiftly goes to the third participant in our circle. I anticipate the discomfort we’ve been promised. Nothing happens. Then I realize it’s because he has only burned us; the venom hasn’t even been applied yet.
The second time he comes around the circle, he rubs the kambo resin into our open wounds. It burns as any irritated cut would. The temperature in the poorly heated room turns tropical. I feel warm, itchy and nauseous. It’s something between an allergic reaction and the stomach flu. My throat closes and my eyes swell shut. It’s difficult to breathe. “Tell me when you’re ready to take it off,” says Pasqualo. “Ready,” I think. But instead, I clutch my stomach. I’m determined to prove my plant medicine street cred.
I am unclear about the etiquette of the ceremony. Eventually Mona lies down and I take it as my invitation to go into the fetal position I’ve been longing for. The salad I had for lunch begins to come up. We were told to eat lightly and the warning gains more context. I vomit twice more into the bucket. “The one who purges the most, heals the most,” says Mona afterwards. I receive the gold medal in this category.
Finally Mona raises her hand and Pasqualo wipes the kambo off of her neck. I raise my hand feverously. He wipes it off. The heat subsides. I am aware of the meditative soundtrack and the train rumbles outside again. I feel a sense of peace, but I’m unsure if it’s the kambo working its magic, or mere gratitude that I don’t feel as I did before. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
Pasqualo gets his kambo from a “dear sister” in Iquitos, Peru. The substance is collected from the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog. To harvest the venom, the frog is caught and tied spread-eagle on four stakes. Under stress, the frog releases venom from its glands. It’s imperative to the procedure that the frog is not harmed. As for how the venom gets to the U.S.? “Magic,” says Pasqualo.
A variety of peoples across the Amazon Basin have used kambo for healing and ceremonial purposes. In the 1990s a study in the academic journal Toxicon profiled its significance in the Matsés people of Peru. The study noted that the Matsés performed kambo rituals before hunting in order to improve their physical skills and to reduce hunger and thirst.
Although lab analyses of kambo’s effect are inconclusive, some studies suggest it is effective. The study suggests it causes the release of peptides, which were found to increase cardiovascular and gut activity. This would accounting for the vomiting and increased blood flow that could lead to physical strength. Lab rats given the peptides also showed decreased hunger and thirst.
Pasqualo classifies himself as a medicine man because he has undergone the rites of passage of the spiritual practice of shamanism. But not everyone who administers kambo is a medicine man or a shaman; those who haven’t gone through the rites of practice are simply called kambo practitioners.
An International Association of Kambo was formed in 2016, listing practitioners all over the globe, including New York. One of these is Wendy Lieber, who works a desk job by day and is a kambo practitioner in her spare time. She says she was called to share kambo after her first experience in 2014. “It was profound, something inside me cracked open.” For Wendy it wasn’t a choice, she had found her calling.
Now she serves kambo at least once a week, usually to small groups of around four people. She charges $150 to $200 per person, an average price tag among practitioners. People find her through her website or through word of mouth. Before each ceremony she vets the applicants via phone or email for their medical history and current medications to make sure they won’t interact badly with the kambo.
During her first kambo ceremony she had immediate relief from a painful jaw spasm for which traditional doctors had recommended strong painkillers. Wendy believes such treatments address the physical symptoms, not the cause.
“Tissues hold on to trauma and that causes sickness,” she says. This is why plant medicines triumph where other medicines do not, she believes.
“On a physical level [kambo] clears you out, we’re putting so much junk into our bodies these days,” she said. But she also feels that it addresses spiritual issues as well, by teaching clients to surrender in uncomfortable situations.
She credits kambo for changing the way she interacts with her clients at her day job, and says it has helped her bring a more human element to her work. “Sometimes people just want to vent, and I’m much more sympathetic and open to listening,” she says.
It is true that the venom causes bodily discomfort. “But that’s what we’re supposed to do, to relax into the discomfort,” she said. “It’s a lesson we can take into all of our lives.”
Both Pasqualo and Wendy are clear that they do not discount Western medicine. “I would never tell my clients to come off of their medicines,” says Wendy. Pasqualo is hopeful for more acceptance of plant medicines in the Western world. “It’s inevitable that the two worlds will merge, there’s so many things that need to be cured.”
Not everyone is convinced about the effectiveness of kambo. While it’s perfectly legal in the United States, the government of Brazil banned it in 2004, stating that its effects were not properly studied. This came amidst outrage from the indigenous Katukina people, who felt outsiders trying to patent the drug were committing biopiracy. The Katukina people felt they should be compensated by anyone who develops a patent. Brazil saw similar conflict when an American pharmaceutical giant, Squibb, made billions in 1975 when it developed Captopril, a blood pressure medicine, from the Amazonian jararaca viper.
Is the new wave of kambo practitioners and users appropriating indigenous culture? Wendy says it all depends on their intentions. “Just because we live in a place where the medicine doesn’t grow doesn’t mean we need it any less.”
Pasqualo feels similarly. “There are sham shamans who are doing this for the money or to rip the culture off,” he acknowledges. “But I will say this, there are people who earn that right through rites of practice. There are people in it who respect and support the culture. Only you know what intention you are coming with.”
At the end of the ceremony, we revive ourselves and look up the subway route home. We are exhausted and sedated on the journey back. For the next few days I feel lighter and refreshed, similarly to how one feels after getting over a stomach virus. “It’s my flu shot of the jungle,” says Mona. “I’ll be back for it again next season.”