If you are anything like me, you are vividly aware that there are things in this world which get you excited that most other people think are completely insane.
I don’t know why it still surprises me that when I share some unconventional plan of mine, many risk-minimizers are often more than happy to point out that I am, in fact, an idiot. In turn, this always seems to cause a befuddled tension between self-reflection and amusement: “Am I nuts, or do they just not understand?”
When I first discovered the existence of kambô medicine, also known as sapo, I thought it would be quite spectacular to try it out. My curiosity once again got the better of me, and it was easy to rationalize any fear away by thinking it would perhaps cure me of my IBS symptoms.
As you read the following account by anthropologist Peter Gorman. how could kambô not end up on your bucket list?
After waking up from a kambô session that had floored him, Gorman realized his hearing was sharper, more sensitive. He describes his experience:
And it wasn’t just my hearing that had been improved. My vision, my sense of smell, everything about me felt larger than life, and my body felt immensely strong: That evening I explained what I was feeling with hand gestures as much as language. Pablo smiled. “Bi-ram-bo sapo.” he said, “fuerte.” It was good sapo. Strong.
During the next few days, my feeling of strength didn’t diminish; I could go whole days without being hungry or thirsty and move through the jungle for hours without tiring. Every sense I possessed was heightened and in tune with the environment, as though the sapo put the rhythm of the jungle into my blood.
I asked Pablo about sapo’s uses and discovered there were several. Among hunters; it was used both to sharpen the senses and as a way to increase stamina during long hunts when carrying food and water was difficult. In large doses, it could make a Matses hunter “invisible” to poor-sighted but acute-smelling jungle animals by temporarily eliminating their human odor. As a medicine, sapo also had multiple uses, serving as a tonic to cleanse and strengthen the body and as a toxin purge for those with the grippe.
The women explained that they sometimes used sapo as well. In sparing doses applied to the inside of the wrist it could establish whether a woman was pregnant or not. And during the later stages of pregnancy, it was used to establish the sex and health of a fetus. Interpreting the information relied on an investigation of the urine a woman discharged following the application of the medicine: Cloudiness or other discoloration of the urine and the presence or absence of specks of blood were all evidently indicators of the fetus’s condition. In cases where an unhealthy fetus was discovered, a large dose of sapo applied to the vaginal area was used as an abortive. There was no way for me to verify what they said, though there was no reason to doubt them.
Pretty interesting, right? So what is this kambô exactly?
Kambô is the name of both the poison and the frog, native to the Amazon, also known as Phyllomedusa Bicolor. You can (harmlessly) milk its glands to collect some of the dangerous mix of bio-active peptides, which some tribes, like the Kaxinawá, Matses and Katukina, use for medicine, showing off how much they can handle, and good luck, the curing of “panema,” — what we in the West could call “depression” —’ is often kambô’s primary use.
After gathering the white sticky secretion of the frog, they start preparing the person undergoing kambô treatment by burning away little dots of his or her topskin (called ‘points’ or ‘dots’), in order to directly apply the poison for instant and maximum absorption.
Used to initiate a hunt by attaining a vision of their prey, folklore has it that the frog’s defense mechanism is able to give superhuman strength, foster a stoic attitude towards hunger and pain, and for a rare few, conjure up psychedelic visions (although the validity of these claim have been contested).
These visions come up in their dreams. Peter Gorman writes in his book ‘Sapo In My Soul: The Matsés Frog Medicine‘:
Pablo explained, as well as I could understand it, that sapo, used in such large doses, allowed a hunter to project his animas — his spirit — to his trap while he slept. The animas would take the form of a tapir and lure real tapir to it.
While the aftereffects of kambô sound amazing, the experience of going through it is an ordeal. The following describes how it feels when you are confronted with the faculty of the frog. Rest assured, I am speaking from personal experience.
The participant starts out with drinking around two liters of water just before the application of the poison. This makes the expelling of bodily fluids a whole lot easier. Then the aforementioned scorching starts.
The opening of the skin by a burning piece of wood already gives you the shivers. The first few holes in your skin are not that bad, but slowly your body starts resisting the molten ember. When you are nearing the last fire needle, you already start experiencing the first signs of an induced fever; swollen red skin and a hypersensitivity to your surroundings.
I have gone up to 13 dots. Some tribes go over 100.
After your topskin is burned, the dead leftovers need to be scraped off your arm. A rough cloth is wettened and brushed with force over the already annoyed flesh. Faint scars will remain on either your hands, leg, lower arm or shoulder, and, as animistic wisdom suggests, these are signs that the power of the kambô has gotten hold of you, and these can be used to remind you of the insights you received.
It is at this point that you begin to feel nauseated due to the particular pain of burns and the massive amount of water in your stomach. Some of the more sensitive spirits already start to vomit before the kambô is applied. This is not an easy way out, however, as they will need to immediately start drinking water again.
Now it is time for the biochemical fireworks.
The excretions of the cute little frog contain dozens of peptides of which a sub-percentage are bio-active, which means they act like keys that unlock certain chemical reactions in our bodies.
These are the ones that we’re currently aware of:
- Adenoregulin — acts on the adenosine receptors.
- Dermaseptin — a potent antimicrobial for both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.
- Dermorphin — a potent mu-opioid receptor agonist.
- Deltorphin — a very potent delta-opioid receptor agonist.
- Phyllomedusin — a tachykinin which affects the salivary glands, tear ducts, intestines, and bowels; it contracts the smooth muscles, and contributes to the violent purging.
- Bombesin — stimulates gastrin release.
- Phyllokinin (and phyllomedusin) — potent blood vessel dilators that also increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier.
- Phyllocaerulein — which stimulates the adrenal cortex and the pituitary gland, causes a fall in blood pressure accompanied by tachycardia (rapid heart rate), has a potent action on the gastrointestinal smooth muscle, and stimulates gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions.
- Sauvagine — causes a long lasting fall in blood pressure, intense tachycardia, and stimulation the adrenal cortex.
These are all ways of saying that the kambô frog is very proud to let you know—in the most violent of ways—that you just ate something incredibly poisonous.
But you don’t have to eat it to experience the full-on effects. Applying the sticky goo to the burned area and absorbing it transdermally gives the same experience as if you had ingested the bright lime-colored and bulged-eye creature.
In the first few seconds a not unpleasant warmth washes over you. Soon after, your heart rate increases and your blood starts to race. This is a peculiar sensation to feel when you haven’t exerted yourself physically.
All of this is not really anything new for those familiar with the amazonian pharmacopeia. But the next sensations probably are: your neck gets swollen, your head starts to pound even more, and your eyes get puffy. The awareness that breathing is more difficult adds a pinch of panic.
Your heart rate increases until it reaches top speed, and its pounding rhythm is the only thing that distracts you from the approaching agony.
Every part of your body starts to sweat, furiously.
Then the convulsions start.
Every muscle around your organs starts to cramp, excreting bile in the process.
A wave of electric nausea takes over any control you had left in your body. Some people black out, only to wake up for the next phase of fun.
Thirty seconds have passed since coming in contact with the frog powers. The time of purging has finally arrived.
This is your body using all of its might to reverse the process of poisonification.
You empty your water-filled stomach as a first precaution.
It feels as if you are giving birth through your mouth.
The first time you purge you recognize a familiar yellow-greenish hue of bile that now colors the inside of your personal puke-bucket. You cling to your new friend for the next quarter of an hour.
Then you will be offered—strongly—a few more cups of water.
Then you purge again. The second time the lime-colored purge starts to worry you a little. You start to think this color is not normal. It isn’t.
Another handful of water-brimmed cups are gently pushed in your hands. “You should drink a bit more,” they say.
The third purge has an intense orange tone, and now the thought crosses your mind that you will not make it. You will think that the doubters were right, and that the word “idiot” doesn’t come close to describing the mistake you’ve made.
At least now you know what acute poisoning feels like.
You are urged to drink another cup or water. You refuse. You want it to end. They say the only way to end it is to drink another cup of water. You start to feel like Dumbledore.
The fourth purge has a light-pink complexion. You wonder if it’s blood. Or little bits of died off organs. This worries you.
You start to feel a little better; certainly no more purging is possible, right?
Wrong. There is a cup of water waiting for you, and you have no energy left to protest.
Another outbreak of powerlessness infused with nausea accompanies the fifth purge. Another type of bile has made it to the surface, and this time it has a dark-purple color. You feel like a unicorn that just burped up a rainbow, except stripped away of any of the glory or majesty.
You are utterly exhausted and just want to crash directly on the floor, except your bowels now remind you that have another exit down there.
You hope to make it in time to the toilet, and you make damn sure you bring another bucket. Walking is difficult, and the muscles around your organs still think they should squeeze every last drop of moisture out of your system.
It is here and now where you perform the double. The grand finale.
From first applying the sapo to the moment you come off the poop-throne takes about fifteen minutes. Although, this can be highly variable depending on the strength of the poison. (I’ve done this whole sequence a total of three times, and my longest was about 45 minutes.)
At the end of the purge you feel drained, as if all your organs, glands, and intestines are wrinkled out like a sponge. And, in a way, they are.
You start to feel a sense of relief. You can sense the poison has begun to weaken. Your heart rate drops, the sweating stops, and the convulsions reduce their rhythm to a more sporadic beat.
You start to wonder about how you will feel after going through this trial. You think that this better be worth it.
It takes a few hours for you to unwind and feel progressively better. During this time, you start to feel lighter, and an almost indestructible sense of well-being takes over.
Perhaps this is because you just felt shittier than ever before, and the contrast is so large that you overvalue the normal state you’ve returned to. You are feeling either a placebo effect, or you think you feel something in order to deal with the dissonance (admitting to yourself that going through all of this was worthless is not the preferred way to keep a positive self-image).
But I doubt it. The effect lingers for days. The peptides are bioactive and stronger than their endogenous counterparts. The poison definitely has some effect.
There is value to see the potential perks of the poison from the perspective of hormesis, which is the biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect results from exposure to low doses of something that is otherwise toxic when given at higher doses. The poison triggers hormesis, and in this way, kambô can train the body to become more anti-fragile.
Of course, I can hardly speculate on the long-term beneficial or harmful effects. Short-term, I felt that my sleep and digestion were better. But this only lasted for a few days.
But perhaps more interestingly, my attitude towards obstacles changed:. They no longer fazed me. I felt a primal urge to stand in my own power and realized that this is perhaps what they mean with curing “panema.”
The image of myself had changed to someone who is able to handle kambô (albeit poorly). In relation to that torment, what experience would be able to stop me now?
Looking Back On My Experience With Kambô
Unfortunately the IBS symptoms returned, my newfound strength diminished, and all the while the little pointy scars remained.
Looking back, it is hard to gauge if these experiences were worth it. I definitely explored a part of the human condition you rarely get exposed to in the 21st century. And I got deeply valuable insights into the role the glands, muscles, and organs play in the orchestra of my being. All in all, I do think this experience permanently changed me for the better.
But at what risk? Couldn’t I have easily died?
For people without contraindications, the risk of using kambô properly is quite low, as reports of deaths or long term illnesses are rare. As such, I still wouldn’t recommend people going out to do this without consulting with your primary caregiver first.
I also doubt I have to make this explicit, but I will say this nonetheless: don’t go out and do this on your own. Find an experienced kambô-giver while remembering that the responsibility of your health is yours only.
Will I use it again? Having contemplated this, I feel no reason partaking other than just to see what would happen next time. So I have decided against it. As you can probably tell, the impact on your body is quite intense, and since I didn’t get much out of it the last time I did it, my enthusiasm has waned.
However, there was one time I joined the vomit-fun party as a preparation for an iboga ceremony. I found having purged heavily before the iboga greatly diminished any anxiety and fear going into the multiday psychedelic journey. Therefore I still hold value to use kambô as a preparatory tool for such medicine ceremonies.
Perhaps I am insane. Diving head-first into risky adventures is certainly not the best attitude to guarantee a long life. But, from where I am sitting, I would have it no other way. HighExistence is build on exploring all aspects of the human condition. If that means crawling on the floor looking to add another color to my puke bucket, so be it.