Trip Report: Acid in Icod El Alto
“Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness.”
— Yousuf Karsh
At 04:30am, perched on top of the sleepy, fastidiously clean town of Icod El Alto, I was getting high. Lying in a sun-bed and watching the stars, something caught my attention in the corner of the room in front of me. The shadow of a nearby Jade plant, its leaves curved and resting in contentment from their day in sun, began to move. As I shifted my gaze to its shadow, the plant's branches grew in length, and the leaves began to curl and bend in rotating shapes. I brought my hand to my face and watched as the skin contorted and reformed in front of me. I knew, cognitively, what was happening, but in front of my eyes reality was changing. It would be one hell of a night.
Last Friday, on the way home from a tiring and rather frustrating (if not uneventful) night out in the city of Puerto de la Cruz, in Northern Tenerife, I took several large gulps from a water bottle I'd found in the back of my friends' car.
Little did I know that I was ingesting over 150 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide, known to most as LSD.
The circumstances leading up to that event feel apt to be written down in script form, ready for a 2007-era James Franco, Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Craig Robinson treatment.
It all started from a decision. To go or not to go?
One car was going back to our residence: rest, a cup of tea, sleep.
One was going to town: liquid courage, uncertainty, accelerated life.
It was my second last night on the island. What else was I going to do? I took the latter option, down the road to Gomorrah.
Smash cut beers, tequila shots, an inhale of weed, a threatening rant by the local drug kingpin, and two women biting and scratching one another in front of us. A police raid broke up the chaos, and my friends followed the calls of two Danish beauties in the direction of the beach. Deciding, after it hit 2am, that I had made a mistake, I found myself in a grumpy mood. Why hadn't I just gone back with the others? I reloaded on my phone the web page of the one taxi service in the city. It was closed, and it was an hour and a half walk back to our house, up hill, at night, in my flip flops.
At 4, Vim, a Sri Lankan who was not engaged with chasing a kiss from other tourists, decided the night had gone too long. Suggesting we go collect the car and pick up the others, we walked off in the direction of the parking lot. As we recollected the day we had had, climbing sunbaked volcanic hills in the renowned Masca valley, we came across a couple looking desperate and lost.
They appeared out of a video game side quest, looking for some thing to eat and drink to recharge them. It was their last night on the island, and they were perplexed that they couldn't find anywhere to nourish them this early in the morning. Offering the Pringles we had in the car, we arrived to find that one of the ticket machines was broken and the other wasn't accepting our ticket. It appeared to be a repeat of the last time I had gone out with these guys, when our car had been towed earlier in the day. Vim went off to search for some help, while I noticed that the security booth, while unmanned, had a iphone on the desktop, and a TV blaring a Telenovella at high volume. The whole scene - hungry passersby, broken technology, and empty booth, felt Lynchian. I passed the nutrition on to my new friends, and they happily munched on it, asking if we could follow it up with some beer. Unfortunately their good luck had ended with our saddle-shaped snacks. Beginning to argue, the girl ran off down the tunnel, upset at something her partner had said. Calling after her, he winked at me and ran off. Again, I had the feeling of living some strange fantasy, and have wondered since whether the whole thing was a trip-infused hallucination.
Awaiting Vim's return, I found some water bottles in the back of the car. Suspecting nothing, although aware that some high calibre narcotics had been purchased earlier in the day, I swigged one and began working on a second. When Vim got back, having wrestled one of the ticket machines to success, I passed it to him for him to take a sip.
15 minutes later, and we were back in the car park outside our place, a small collection of hill-clinging residences and a chapel high up in the barrio of Los Realejos. The night was quiet, although occasionally one of the local roosters punctuated the silence with a cry - of delight or fear I'm still not aware.
Leaving the car, Luciano and Elco, the other two of the intrepid wolf pack stopped us in our tracks. Looking about in the back of the car, they enquired why two of the water bottles were empty.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Those are the bottles with the LSD. What did you do?"
I think I'll remember that moment as long as I live. The feeling of the ground caving in beneath me reminded me of going to a theme park as a child, suddenly realising I was locked in to a rollercoaster I was unprepared for in every way.
I didn't know how much I'd taken (I didn't want to know), and I didn't know how long it would last, but I knew what this meant: that I was in for the ride of my life. That I was about to enter into an experience that relied heavily on what experienced psychonauts describe as set and setting. Well, my mindset was completely out of whack: I was tired, still a little drunk, and pissed off. Now I was panicking and embarrassed. My setting was slightly better. While I wasn't too sure how much I trusted the people I was with (it was, after all, their bottles I had drank from), I knew that there were few better places to trip than in the middle of a nature-filled town, on a warm tropical island, looking up at the stars.
To their credit, the guys rushed me upstairs to the roof of our residence, and plonked me on a sun bed. By this point I'd started feeling the effects, the Jade plant pointing me in the direction of where the trip was headed. I pulled out my phone and shot off some last minute texts to those still sleeping in the house below: "I'm about to start tripping." "They're gonna join me.", "I'm not gonna be able to sleep.", "Come up and join whenever you wake up" This is getting intense", "THIS IS RIDICULOUS", "i'm quite scared", "But I'm trying to be positive". I think that last text was more for myself than anyone else. I remember vividly the self talk at the beginning of the trip, attempting to remain calm, remembering that the experience would be over in a matter of hours, and that no matter what, I wouldn't lose grip on reality. That I would turn this into a positive experience, even if it felt difficult or uncomfortable.
After that, my phone was taken away (as little contact with the outside world is highly advisable for somebody in that state) and the guys debated what to do. In some insane early morning, rum-infused logic, they opted to join me on the journey. Collecting the remaining narco-water, said bottoms up and swigged it. Their rational, which at the time seemed foolproof, was that having experienced hands at sea with me was better than remaining on land. I felt at the time like Odysseus setting sail for Ithaca, unsure of the trials and tribulations to be found on the hazardous seas before me. Where would be my six-headed Scylla? There were no sheep in the village; would a peek in the mirror reveal a Cyclops preparing to munch on my jamón-filled body? I had been saved in treacherous waters by a beautiful surfer earlier in the week; was this my witch-goddess Circe?
In the debate for what to do next, a movie was decided on as the best course of action. Appropriately, the film that was eventually settled upon, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, won out. What then followed was as close to a religious experience as I have had in my twenty nine years on the planet. I had seen the 142 minute epic previously in resplendent 70mm print in the BFI Southbank in London. Then, I had been very impressed, but more for the theatricality of the scale of the project. Watching it in this state, aspects of its methodical, languorous pace, meticulous attention to detail and long abstract scenes of cosmic transmogrification took on new heightened meaning. His use of colour, of semiology and gradual addition and subtraction of objects and people felt as if he knew exactly what sort of state one should be in when watching his movie. It feels apt that the movie, upon release, only received serious attention when the late 60s counter-culture began to combine it with psychedelia. Apt too, that the cosmic discovery and alien-feeling associated with LSD was and will always be memorialised in my mind with the ultimate journey into the unknown that the film takes on.
Whenever I needed a break from Kubrick, a look up saw the stars forming patterns and connections, jumping across the sky and rotating around one another. They appeared to be playing an unknown and intricate astronomical game of patterns, in which to parse out any meaning or sense might be a fool's errand, but to watch brought immense pleasure and awe. A trip to the bathroom was akin to stepping over a draw bridge in a 1950s adventure flick: fraught with danger and difficulty. I remember the sounds, lights and changes taking place within the cramped bathroom I was locked inside of as being nautical: I was in a submarine at the very bottom of the Mariana Trench and lacking oxygen, my brain was gradually losing its grip on the here and now. Afterwards, I was told that the "trip" that LSD gives you is in fact your body fighting the drug, attempting to bring about some form of equilibrium in a brain that has swung all the way to the end of the absurdist spectrum. My trips to the bathroom exemplified this the most that night, and upon emerging back into the movie "theatre", I was surprised to find things exactly as I left them, my friends lying in the same position, unaware of the struggle I'd been through for what felt like 30 minutes, but must have been just 3.
Upon sunrise, the urgent singing of the birds and soft rustling of the nearby trees told us that a walk outside was required. Standing and walking while tripping is a difficult endeavour. Being around people, when you feel like you've just touched down from a month on the ISS, is even harder. But it was early, the sun was shining, and we needed a change of scenery after the movie had finished. Stumbling outside, we struggled to find direction or reason in what we were doing. We changed course several times, unable to work out where we should be going. Eventually one of us declared we must follow the sun, which had just bid us good morning on the peak of a nearby hill. It seemed as good an idea as any. We trudged up the path, and I took on the feeling of being on a luxurious stroll. Each step felt charged with some out of body energy, and I let my hands clasp together behind my back as a Victorian dandy might have, prancing the streets of London on a spring day. Reaching our first spot of sunshine, we observed a cat that had had the same idea. It was ginger, and its eyes were closed while perched on the railing of a balcony. We stared at it in wonder, and gradually, over the course of slow, sensuous, seconds, it opened its eyes and stared back at us. The wisdom it imparted felt so meaningful that I wanted to cry with happiness, but a passing dogwalker's concerned face told us it was time to move on. She had witnessed arrivals from Mars, and we weren't yet ready to communicate with the Sapiens we were encountering with worrying regularity. Rising into the nearby hills, we met flowers and plants of sumptuous beauty. A bee, resting on a grey rock, groomed itself as I got as close as I could in order to inspect its pulsating little body. It quivered with morning energy, and I thanked it for the good work it would be doing that day. The further we climbed, the more wonders we saw: farmers tilling their fields, a bunch of kittens crawling out of a shelter, an old man peering out of his door, his face contorting into a gargoylian snarl.
Eventually we made it back, and were welcomed by those who had been sleeping downstairs, now in a caring, jovial mood. We explained the story and laughed it up. This didn't quite feel congruent with my experience however. I felt a strong pull to separate myself from my tripmates, and wandered downstairs to a separate balcony. LSD can bring up some extreme emotions and intensify states of beings your sober self might take on unconsciously. I had, I realised, been holding onto a strong feeling of responsibility to remain watchful and strong. Explaining this, my tired, spent body could do nothing more that cry into my friends' arms. It was well needed. We went down into town for a sumptuous breakfast, and the day took on a cathartic quality.
Reflecting on it hence, I've only had good things to say about the trip itself. While it was a surprise (and one that occasionally still provides me with panicked moments in the months hence), and felt daunting in the moment, it grew in my mind to be one of the defining experiences not only of my time in Tenerife, but of the changes that have taken place in my life in the last 18 months. Moving country, seeking out personal and professional change, and meeting new and inspiring people, the trip was an exemplification of a philosophy of acceptance. The drug, in the moment, strongly urged me to let go; to stop resisting. I wanted to be strong, but it told me, just like the undercurrent of the Atlantic ocean had the week previous, that there were forces out there stronger than my resistance. The more I fought, the longer it would take, and the worse it would feel.
So the next time you see a water bottle in the back of a friend's car at 4:30am, pause and think: "what's the worst that could happen?" Just ask what's in it first.
All images created in Midjourney by the author, in the style of Ralph Steadman.
For psychadelic aftercare and integration, I did a circle with Psycare UK on zoom.