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How I Misspent
My Summer Vacation

By Geoff Dyer
A philosophical tale of narco-tourism

Where are the best places in the world to take drugs? Well, it depends on the drugs, of course, but generally speaking, somewhere hot with clear blue skies — where there is not too much chance of getting into trouble — works nicely. Grozny in January would be a very bad place to take drugs of any kind. Saudi Arabia, though sunny, puts you at the risk of becoming paranoid. Many people speak highly of Ibiza, and Amsterdam remains an enduringly popular destination for those who enjoy a weekend binge on mushrooms or a wide choice of marijuana. For the more adventurous, site- and substance-specific expeditions — Iboga in Gabon, Ayahuasca in the Amazon — are becoming increasingly popular choices. Trips like these, however, are not for the faint of heart.
     What about the moderate psycho-active traveler,the kind of person who likes smoking grass and is not averse, if the circumstances are propitious, to doing an occasional hit of acid; the kind of person for whom snorkeling in the clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas is extremely nice — but for whom stoned snorkeling in the clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas is one of life’s supreme pleasures?
     This is the basic premise: any experience, however fantastic, can always be enhanced by drugs, or — and how simple life would be if this were not the case — diminished by them.
     Take, for example, Death Valley in the Western US. When the photographer Edward Weston first visited in 1937 all he could say, apparently, was “My God! It can’t be.” So mind-blowing is Death Valley that you want to make it more mind-blowing. Hence, not surprisingly, it has for some time


PHOTO BY
NARELLE AUTIO
had an almost canonical reputation as the place to take LSD. The French philosophe Michel Foucault tried acid for the first time in 1975 at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park and enjoyed what he later called the greatest experience of his life. “The sky has exploded,” he said, “and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth.” A few years ago in San Francisco, an aging psychonaut helpfully summed up what characterizes the best LSD, namely its capacity to produce “open-eye hallucinations.” That’s Death Valley in a nutshell: an open-eye hallucination.
     Since a full-fledged acid trip is no small commitment, the author thought he would be content with just getting very stoned in Death Valley. The effect of being stoned, however, was twofold. First, to make him regret, with every fiber of his being, the decision not to take LSD. The place cried
“This is the basic premise: any experience, however fantastic, can always be enhanced by drugs, or — and how simple life would be if this were not the case — diminished by them.” out for acid! Being stoned enhanced the experience of the place to such an extent that it made him crave a further enhancement of experience, which in turn diminished the already achieved enhancement, making him wish he had not even gotten stoned.
     Something similar occurred in Hampi, India. Formerly known as Vijayanagara, Hampi is famous for its ruins, which can be something of a disappointment. The ruins are too ruined. It’s only after clambering up into the surrounding landscape that you appreciate how richly Hampi merits its top status in the world stoner circuit. The boulder-strewn landscape is utterly demented: it doesn’t make sense. Everything is just piled on everything else; boulders sit on even bigger boulders. You come to realize, in a bold surge of post-bong enlightenment, that the planet itself is no more than a vast, densely populated boulder. You end up saying the
word to yourself — boulder, boulder — until it either drains of all meaning or become so dense with meaning — so, as it were, bouldery with meaning — that it robs all sense from the surrounding world, until there is, in fact, nothing but boulder. “Boulder is great,” you cry. “There is no boulder but boulder!”
     The Tungabhadra River curves through the midst of the still-active Hindu temples of Hampi Bazaar, and sparkles in the sun like the Lost City of the Incas. What a place! When the author was there, Hampi was becoming a bit of an offshoot of Goa in that a trance scene was taking root. On the night of the full moon, there was to be some kind of party across the river at Virupapuragadda, a spot popular with hard-core Israeli trancers. The author arrived just before sunrise, but evidently the party had never really kicked off. It didn’t matter, though. He was happy to get stoned and set off over the boulders. Hampi is one of those destinations where
it is never too early in the day to get completely basted, and it was wonderful to go bouldering like this. The sun slanted over the rocks. Shadows curled up, stretched, and slowly began to move around. It was perfect — except that the combination of being stoned and needing to concentrate while climbing conspired to make him superconscious of where he was putting his hands as he hauled himself over the rocks, and as soon as he started to think about where he was putting his hands, he began to worry that he might be putting his hands on a snake warming itself in the risen sun. From here it was, of course, a short step to becoming concerned that the whole place was full of snakes, that it was actually snake infested, and that it was best not to do any more clambering, that he was better off just sitting there in a state of pathologically heightened vigilance (i.e., terror).
The most psychedelic place he
has ever
been is near Sossusvlei, in Namibia. Huge red sand
dunes roll
on into the infinite distance.
     He has a thing about snakes, you see — but then he has a thing about many things, which is why the drug experience is such a tightrope for him. Not that this has dented, even slightly, his faith in the benefits of narco-travel. The number of occasions when the author has wished that he had not attempted to narcotically improve his responsiveness to a place is far outweighed by the number of occasions when he has lamented the impossibility of doing so.
     The most psychedelic place he has ever been is near Sossusvlei, in Namibia. Huge red sand dunes roll on into the infinite distance. This is incredible in itself, but the best place of all is called Dead Vlei: a dazzling white lake bed, dotted with dead camel-thorn trees, surrounded on three sides by red dunes — all presided over by a sky of the deepest blue. This place is more hallucinatory than even Death Valley or the Black Rock Desert in Nevada: it is, in fact,
the very epicentre of the psychedelic sublime. The author was not even able to smoke grass there.
     And it is the sublime we are speaking of and searching for — a place where you dissolve into the landscape, become so immersed that you’re oblivious to your own presence. This is the goal: to see without being, to be what is seen.
     The desert is a natural site to explore the potential for achieving this kind of state, and so, for related reasons, are the ruins of Greek and Roman antiquity. Thanks to the relentless expansionism of the Roman Empire, spectacular examples are scattered across North Africa (Leptis Magna in Libya) and the Middle East (Palmyra in Syria, Baalbek in Lebanon). All things considered, though, Hadrian’s Villa near Rome is a more accessible and less demanding environment.
     It is difficult to say why psychedelics and the ruins of classical antiquity go so well together, but it probably has
to do with the conjunction of different kinds of timelessness. This is also what provides the connection with deserts: they are without time. They are their own aftermath. Ruins, on the other hand, are places where time has stood its ground. On a clear, hot day, the sight of ancient columns framed by blue sky is like a glimpse not of time stopped but of time stilled. At the peak of a trip — if all goes well — you enter a zone in which there is no time. In other words, the psychedelic experience shares with the desert and the sites of classical antiquity (where—and this is not the case for deserts — the remnants of time are preserved) a special silence and stillness. To experience both simultaneously is to be sealed completely within a dreamspace undisturbed by any human presence, even your own.  

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