This is not an e-mail: Excerpt from “The Yage Letters” by Allen Ginsberg & William S. Burroughs

from The Yage Letters Redux

January 30

Hotel Niza, Pasto

Dear Al,

I took a bus to Cali because the autoferro was booked solid for days. Several times the cops shook down the bus and everybody on it. I had a gun in my luggage stashed under the medicines but they only searched

my person at these stops. Obviously anyone carrying guns would bypass the stops or pack his guns where these sloppy laws wouldn’t search. All they accomplish with the present system is to annoy the citizens. I never met anyone in Colombia who has a good word for the Policia Nacional.

The Policia Nacional is the Palace Guard of the conservative party (the army contains a good percentage of Liberals and is not fully trusted). This (the P.N.) is the most unanimously hideous body of young men I ever laid eyes on, my dear. They took like the end result of atomic radiation. There are thousands of these strange loutish young men in Colombia and I only saw one I would consider eligible and he looked ill at ease in his office.

If there is anything to say for the Conservatives I didn’t hear it. They are an unpopular minority of ugly looking shits.

The road led over mountain passes down into the curious middle region of Tolima on the edge of the war zone. Trees and plains and rivers and more and more Policia Nacional. The population contains some of the best looking and the ugliest people I ever saw. Most of them seemed nothing better to do than stare at the bus and the passengers and especially at the gringo. They would stare at me until I smiled or waved, then smile back the predatory toothless smile that greets the American all through South America.

‘Hello Mister. One cigarette?’

In a hot dusty coffee stop town I saw a boy with delicate copper features, beautiful soft mouth and teeth far apart in bright red gums. Fine air fell in front of his face. His whole person exuded a sweet masculine innocence.

At one customs stop I met a nacional law who had fought in Korea. He pulled open his shirt to show me the scars on his unappetizing person.

‘I like you guys,’ he said.

I never feel flattered by this promiscuous liking for Americans. It is insulting to individual dignity and no good ever comes from these America lovers.

In the late afternoon I bought a bottle of brandy and got drunk with the bus driver. Stopped over in Armenia and went on to Cali next day with the autoferro.

Vegetation semitropical with bamboo and bananas and papayas, Cali is a relatively pleasant town with a nice climate. You do not feel tension here. Cali has a high rate of straight non political crime.Even safe crackers. (Big operators in the crime are rare in South America.)

I met some old time American residents who said the country was in a hell of a shape. ‘They hate the sight of a foreigner down here. You know why? It’s all this Point Four and good nabor crap and financial aid. If you give these people anything they think ‘oh so he needs me.” And the more you give the bastards the nastier they get.’

I heard this line from old timers all over S.A. It does not occur to them that something more basic is involved here than the activities of Point Four. Like the U.S. Pegler fans say,’The trouble is Unions.’ They would still say it spitting blood from radiation sickness. Or in process of turning into crustaceans.

On to Popayan by autoferro. This is a quiet university town. Someone told me the place was full of intellectuals but I did not see any. A curious, negativistic hostility pervades the place. Walking in the main square a man bumped into me with no apology, his face blank, catatonic.

I was drinking coffee in a cafe where a young man with an archaic Jewish-Assyrian face approached me and went into a long spiel about how much he liked foreigners and how he wanted to buy me a drink or at least pay for my coffee. As he talked it became obvious that he did not like foreigners and had no intention of buying me a drink. I paid for my coffee and left. In another cafe some gambling game like bingo was in progress. A man came in emitting curious yelps of imbecile hostility. Nobody looked up from their bingo.

In front of the post office were Conservative posters. One of them read: ‘Farmers, the army is fighting for your welfare. Crime degrades a man and he can’t live with himself. Work elevates him towards God. Cooperate with the police and the military. They only need your information.’ (Italics mine.)

It’s your duty to turn in the guerrilias and work and know your place and listen to the priest. What an old con! Like trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Not many people are buying it. The majority of Colombians are Liberals.

The Policia Nacional slouch on every corner, awkward and self-conscious, waiting to shoot somebody or do anything but stand there under hostile eyes. They have a huge gray wagon that rides around and around the town with no prisoners in it.

I walked out along a dusty road. Rolling country with green grass, cattle and sheep and small farms. A horribly diseased cow was standing in the road covered with dust. A roadside shrine with a glass front. The ghastly pinks and blues and yellows of religious art.

Saw a movie short about a priest in Bogota, runs a brick factory and homes for the workers. The short shows the priest fondling the bricks and patting the workers on the back and generally putting down the old Catholic con. A thin man with distraught neurotic eyes. Finally he gave a speech to the effect: ‘Wherever you find social progress or good works or anything good there you will find the Church.  His speech had nothing to do with what he was really saying. There was no mistaking the neurotic hostility in his eyes, the fear and hate of life. He sat there in his black uniform nakedly revealed as the advocate of death. A business man without the motivation of avarice, cancerous activity sterile and blighting. Fanaticism without fire or energy exuding a musty odor of spiritual decay. He looked sick and dirty – though I guess he was clean enough actually – with a suggestion of yellow teeth, unwashed underwear and psychosomatic liver trouble. I wonder what his sex life could be.

Another short showed a get together of the Conservative party. They all looked congealed, a frozen crust on the country. The audience sat there in complete silence. Not a murmur of approval or dissent. Nothing. Naked propaganda falling flat in dead silence.

Next day took a bus for Pasto. Driving in, the place hit me in the stomach with a physical impact of depression and horror. High mountains all around. High thin air. The inhabitants peering out of sod roofed huts, their eyes red with smoke. The hotel was Swiss run and excellent. I walked around the town. Ugly crummy looking populace. The higher you get the uglier the citizens. This is a leprosy area. (Leprosy in Colombia is more prevalent in high mountains, T.B. on the coast.) It seemed like every second person had a harelip or one leg shorter than the other or a blind festering eye.

I went into a cantina and drank aguardiente and played the mountain music on the juke box. There is something archaic in this music strangely familiar, very old and very sad. Decidedly not Spanish in origin, nor is it oriental. Shepherd music played on a bamboo instrument like a panpipe pre-classic, Etruscan perhaps. I have heard similar music in the mountains of Albania where pre-Greek, Illyrian racial strains linger. A phylogenic nostalgia conveyed by this music – Atlantean?

I saw working behind the bar what looked at first like an attractive boy of 14 or so (the place was dimly lit owing to a partial powered failure). Going over by the bar for a closer look, I saw his face was old, his body swollen with pith and water like a rotten melon.

An Indian was sitting at the next table fumbling in his pockets, his fingers numb with alcohol. It took him several minutes to pull out some crumpled bills -what my grandmother, a violent prohibitionist, used to describe as ‘dirty money’ – he caught my eye and smiled a twisted broken smile. ‘What else can I do?’

In one corner a young Indian was pawing a whore, an ugly woman with a bestial ill-natured face and the dirty light pink dress of her calling. Finally she disengaged herself and walked out. The young Indian looked after her in silence without anger. She was gone and that was that. He walked over to the drunk and helped him up and together they staggered out with the sad sweet resignation of the mountain Indian.

I had an introduction from Schindler to a German who runs a wine in Pasto. I found him in a room full of books warmed by two electric heaters. The first heat I had seen in Colombia. He had a thin ravaged face, sharp nose, downcurwing mouth, a junkie mouth. He was very sick. Heart bad, kidneys bad, high blood pressure.

‘And I used to be tough as nails,’ he said plaintively. ”What I want to do is go to the Mayo Clinic. A doctor here gave me an injection of iodine which upset my whole metabolism. If I eat anything with salt my feet swell up like that.

Yes he knew the Putumayo well. I asked about Yage.

Yes. I sent some to Berlin. They made tests and reported the effect is identical to the effect of hashish . . . there is a bug in the Putumayo, I forget what they call it, like a big grasshopper, such a powerful aphrodisiac, if it flies on you and you can’t get a woman right away you will die. I have seen them running around jacking off from contact with this animal . . . I have one in alcohol around some place . . . no, come to think it was lost when I moved here after the war . . . another thing I have been trying to get information on it . . . a vine you chew and all your teeth fall out.’

‘Just the thing for practical jokes on your friends,’I said.

The maid brought in tea and pumpernickel and sweet butter on a tray.

‘I hate this place but what is a fellow to do? I have my business here.

My wife. I’m stuck.’

Will leave here in next few days for Mocoa and the Putumayo. Won’t write from there since mail service beyond Pasto is extremely unreliable depending on volunteer carrier-bus and truck drivers mostly. More letters are lost than delivered. These people do not have even the concept of responsibility.

As Ever,

Willy Lee


yageletterscoverThe Yage Letters Redux  is the definitive edition of Burroughs’ epistolary novel about seeking hallucinogenic yage in South America.

In January 1953, William Burroughs began a seven-month expedition into the jungles of South America, ostensibly to find yage, the fabled hallucinogen of the Amazon. But Burroughs also cast his anthropological-satiric eye over the local regimes to record trademark vignettes of political and psychic malaise. From the notebooks he kept and the letters he wrote home to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs composed a narrative of his adventures that appeared ten years later as “In Search of Yage” within The Yage Letters.

That book, published by City Lights in 1963, was completed by the addition of Ginsberg’s account of his own experiences with yage as he traveled through South America in 1960, and by the addition of other Burroughs letters and texts.

For this new edition Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris has gone back to the original manuscripts to untangle the history of the text, telling the fascinating story of its genesis and cultural importance in his wide-ranging introduction. Also included in this edition are extensive materials, never before published, by both Burroughs and Ginsberg that shed new light on their adventures in exploration and writing.

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