At the age of 74, risk capitalist George Sarlo may not have seemed an obvious candidate for an ayahuasca experience. Sarlo, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1956, has had great professional success as a co-founder of Walden Venture Capital. He lives in an upscale neighborhood of San Francisco, in a large house with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
And yet something was always missing. Sarlo’s father had disappeared from their home in Budapest in 1942. He was set up in a forced labor battalion, an experience he did not survive. At the age of 4, George had told himself that it was because he was “a naughty boy” that his father had left that day early in the morning without saying goodbye. He believes he has never recovered from that early loss.
Sarlo’s close friend, a doctor, told him about ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine from the Amazon. Ayahuasca has been used for centuries in sacred healing traditions in Central and South America and is now gaining popularity around the world, seen in recent headlines about Silicon Valley customs, although N, N-Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, the active ingredient in an ayahuasca trip, is usually illegal in the United States (there are a few exceptions, based on religious exemption). Tourism in Ayahuasca is flourishing, with more and more people flying thousands of miles to participate in week-long ceremonies in Peruvian jungles or to look up more luxurious contexts, such as a four-star resort that comes complete with masseuses, swimming pools and -the -art fitness centers. And in particular, the increasing popularity of ayahuasca knows no age limits: many of those who are now showing interest are square in Sarlo’s own demography.
Sarlo himself was initially skeptical. Taking ayahuasca would entail a potentially painful night of hallucinations and all kinds of secretions, especially vomiting. One of the most notorious aspects of an ayahuasca journey is the violent cleansing. But he still decided to go to Yelapa, a small village in Mexico, and to swallow the bitter brew.
That night he saw a series of “old-fashioned photos of soldiers in Hungarian uniforms,” he said, and black-and-white film footage. But he was scared and sick, and swore that if he came out of the hallucination, he would never come back. The next day, exhausted and incomprehensible, he told the shaman that he was disappointed that he had not found his father. The shaman told him to try again the following night: on the Mexican day of the dead.