A Three-Hour Viaje

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PALENQUE -- Last month, Mexico decriminalized possession and use of small amounts of pot, heroin, methamphetamine, and acid. You still can't buy or sell drugs, and if you have more than a very small amount you can still get in serious trouble. At Room for Debate, the New York Times has asked five luminaries to give opinions on this move. Some are insightful. I could weigh in with an opinion, too, but since this blog is a reported one, I instead procured a bag of psilocybin mushrooms and ate them in my hotel room, to experience a newly semi-legal Mexican high myself.

Here in Chiapas, Psilocybe mexicana grows wild. The Aztecs called it teonanacatl, or "flesh of the gods," and the earliest relics of their civilization hint at its use. The late Albert Hofman first identified the psychedelic compound psilocybin from these mushrooms, and visitors have been coming here for decades to try them.

I found mine by winking at a parking attendant and asking about mushrooms typical of the region. He warned me that the mushrooms were "not food" and said if I waited he could find some. Ten minutes later a boy appeared, sweaty from hustling through the jungle to complete the sale. He took a plastic bag full of long-stemmed mushroom from under his shirt, took my 120 pesos (about nine dollars), and leaned into my car window to catch the blast of my air conditioning and explain the mushrooms' use. The voyage (viaje) will last up to three hours, he said, and if it got too weird, I could make it stop by guzzling mineral water.

I had a delicious pizza out by the Mayan ruins, which were nicely preserved but bored Graham Greene rapidly on his visit. Then I returned to my hotel (the inauspiciously named Hotel Chechen) to settle in and eat the unappetizing, dirty mushrooms that had been fogging up the plastic bag. Here's what they looked like:

Psilocybin mushrooms

I have no idea whether they were the right species. They tasted very much like soft, wet button mushrooms, and the earthy grit that coated them did not appeal. I ate about twelve caps in a minute and lay back waiting for the room to gyrate, for the walls to bubble and melt, and for the lights to starburst outward. Meanwhile I queued up a range of stimuli that might provoke a range of response while shrooming: an Octavio Paz essay; YouTube videos of squirrel-suit jumping and of a Japanese man doing magic tricks for a chimp; a high-res image of "The Flaying of Marsyas"; and a delicious avocado from the Wal Mart in Villahermosa.

I suppose my viaje was the victim of false expectations, if not simply a bad or impotent batch of mushrooms. I hoped to see inanimate objects to take on human characteristics and start meaningful conversations with me; to watch my fingers elongate like in an El Greco painting; and the room to feel like it accelerated me through space and time, like Keir Dullea in 2001.

Instead the effects were mild. I read my book and found the essays insightful (I have read it again since, and concur with my tripping self). The YouTube videos thrilled me, but no more than they do now that the mushrooms are out of my system. I didn't get spooked by the flaying, and quickly closed that window of my browser and went back to watch the chimp again. The only unambiguous sign that the shrooms were tickling my brain was when I looked in a mirror and found that the irises of my eyes looked maroon instead of the normal brown, and stared at them in fascination for about five minutes. I also had trouble sleeping and stayed awake and giddy till about five in the morning. I then drank a quart of water and slept fitfully till ten.

What did the experience reveal about Mexico's new drug policy? Alas, not a great deal. I am more confused than ever by the prohibition on eating psychedelic mushrooms, which even if ten times as intense in their effects would not have been worrisome. And in the absence of any serious feeling of danger or criminality to the transaction -- my dealer was running out of the jungle to make a sale, not to get away from the federales -- it didn't seem as if much really needed to change about the status quo.

I'm sure other mushrooms and other drugs would have more vivid effects, perhaps of the frightening variety I anticipated and wanted. The evening was not unpleasant, but neither was it exceptional (magical chimps and squirrel-suits make a pretty normal evening in the Wood household; now you know), and all in all I would rather have spent that nine dollars on another pizza, hold the fungi.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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