Five people are sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle, looking down at their white pails with trepidation. “Remember throughout, you have four things to guide you: your posture, your water, your breath — and your bucket,” the practitioner reassuringly tells the room.
“Using a stick of incense, I will burn a small hole in your skin, just enough to burn off the outer layer of the epidermis. I’ll then put a dab of kambo on the exposed tissue, or ‘gateways,’ usually three or four spots, depending on how easily you react.”
I’m at a modest apartment in suburban London, quietly observing a small group that has gathered to experience an exotic form of medicine exported from the rainforests of South America. Kambo is the dried skin secretion of Phyllomedusa bicolor, or the waxy-monkey tree frog. Sitting in wait on a small wooden palette, the substance looks like a few blobs of craft glue.
The group shares their reasons for being here. This is not the stereotypical middle-class, New Age, ayahuasca crowd, all flowing white robes and ornate jewelry. Two of the women are working-class Colombians, dressed in sportswear and sneakers, and though they haven’t taken kambo before, they had heard about it years ago, back home.
“I’m here for my health — I’ve had liver problems,” says the first, a middle-aged woman working as a nanny in London. The second woman also works for a wealthy family in the city. “I want to achieve clarity of mind,” she tells the group. A younger man says he’s taken kambo five times before. “I’ve done ayahuasca, and that had some benefits, but with this I can get the physical cleanse without the exhausting psychological experience,” he says.
The host spends the next hour explaining the history of kambo and how the session will proceed. “I have prepared two liters of lukewarm water for each of you,” he says. “First thing is for you to drink five pints of it. After I apply the kambo, your temperature will begin to rise pretty quickly, and the purging should start within a few minutes.”