Category Archives: Amazonia

Insularity

I am captivated by islands. Though I’m not referring to their landforms. However the ones I’ve had the luck of visiting are certainly worth appreciating simply for their natural beauties. But what pulls me to these places is the effect insularity has on the mindset of the peoples who live there.

Cut off from fast and easy access to other parts of the world, isolated population centers develop distinct identities which are both a boon and an obstacle to us transients just passing through. I’ve had the pleasure of spending some time in 3 very different such cultures.

Hawai’i in the 60’s and 70’s was an island chain in transition. Having become the 50th state of the US a few years earlier, it was also the materiel and military troop concentration point for an escalating war in Viet Nam. The ripple effect of the war created more high-paying jobs than qualified workers to fill them. One could, and often did, quit a job in the morning and have another one that afternoon.

A third element for change was the allure of the islands for the counter-culture youth, usually referred to as hippies. I was part of that culture. With so much money freely floating within the state coupled with the influx of people and new ideas, Hawai’i became one of the most liberal and free-thinking places in the country. But this was not to last.

After the war in Viet Nam ended, followed in parallel with the complete collapse of Hawai’i’s agriculture giants, pineapple and sugarcane, the state was struck low by 2 hurricanes. The first one came in the 80’s and the more destructive one in the 90’s and the devastation is still being felt today.

These successive shocks to the vitality of Hawai’i collectively morphed into a behavioral provincialism that carries on today. I witnessed this firsthand 2 years ago when asked to serve on a State Legislative Task Force for the creation of a medical cannabis dispensary system. Even though 23 other states already have fully functional systems in place the major players in the Task Force demanded a different approach, essentially commanding the reinvention of the wheel. As a result, years later the system has yet to begin treating qualifying patients with respect, let alone functional results.

Rationale for the refusal to incorporate existing, proven methods for a dispensary system focused on the fear of perhaps venturing into new territory, though in fact this was obviously not the case. To be sure, by reinventing that particular wheel the power group behind the scenes on the Task Force guaranteed the creation of a unique system of Byzantine complexity. Much of that complexity relies on the islands’ definition of terms.

The state’s interpretation of the concept of liberal and conservative thought are frequently 180 degrees out of sync with the US mainland. In Hawai’i you find leading Democrats almost maniacally opposed to the idea that cannabis could be a medicine, and you find a Republican who has been tilting against windmills for 20 years trying to introduce industrial hemp as a viable and profitable agricultural industry. So much for progressive action and conservative caution. It’s really fascinating and entertaining stuff if it didn’t adversely affect seriously ill residents.

The Galápagos Islands also model insular behaviors. Though visitors come to see the genetic diversity of the animals and the differences among identical species on the various islands, the diversity of the people on the different islands is just as pronounced and just as fascinating. Who could imagine such cultural/behavioral diversity in such a small island chain? But it exists and the differences are easy to spot. Easy, if one takes the time to sit down and have a conversation with the locals residents.

Iquitos, Peru is the 3rd island culture I am considering. And yes, it’s a city of 1/2 million people in the middle of South America. But it is also the largest landlocked city in the world without a road leading in or out. There is no overland access and it is surrounded by the Amazon jungle. Iquitos is undeniably an island, one with its own unique elements that combine to form its individuality.

Perú is a poor country, though like Mexico it is a rich country. Third largest in South America it is rich in resources and has a reasonably clear understanding of the meaning of that natural wealth. But, like Mexico, the people are achingly poor having to survive in spite of an endemic level of corruption touching all aspects of the country’s culture. Iquitos, at the tail end of nowhere, feels this poverty through an unemployment level of about 65%. So that when 50,000 – 100,000 comparatively wealthy tourists visit the city yearly, the gap between the local population and the visitors is painfully obvious to all.

This gap creates and sustains a vulture-culture, where tourists are declared open-season for opportunists year round. Though the majority of the city is virtually tourist free, the areas along the Malecon and the various historic sites in and around Iquitos are awash with wandering scam artists offering the unwary everything from bogus tours to unrealistic money exchange rates, to prostitutes, to street drugs, to ayahuasca and most likely very much more. Buyer beware and keep track of your personal items; the management is not responsible…

In Lima my first Spanish language teacher there explained to me about cultural feelings of inadequacy as an endemic Peruvian world view. She recounted a number of instances to support her argument that Peruvians regard themselves collectively as backward and thus regard visitors as somewhat intimidating. Here on the streets it is common to witness a deference shown by Peruvians toward gringos and it can be uncomfortable to those of us raised believing in universal equality. I can only image how African-Americans must have felt and behaved toward whites before widespread civil rights movements. I see that deference here in Iquitos far more commonly than either Lima or virtually all of Ecuador.

So, on the one hand you have a deferential population and on the other hand you have the bold “street sweepers” looking for any opportunity to redistribute wealth. This paradox is, in a nutshell, why Iquitos holds such magic. Yesterday, for example, I rode a mototaxi to Embarcadero Bellavista to revisit the confluence of the Rio Nanay and the Amazon. I had been there, on the water, the week earlier and I wanted to spend time on my own without being part of a small tour group.

Before I even got out of the taxi, I had shills and scammers vying for my cash; each one professing to be the real deal at, of course, the best price for you my friend. And even after I had explained (always with a smile, nothing turns uglier quicker than a scowl or a harsh word) that I was only there to take photos, 2 or 3 followed me for a good 10 minutes. Each one assured me that they understood my predicament (?) and had the one, true answer. Gracias, but no…amigo.

Anyway, after the docks drained themselves of photo-opps I decided to walk back to the Malecon, about an hour’s toil in the heat and sun. If you have read Jack London, or personally visited international port facilities then you know that the surrounding areas are not only not pleasant, but often downright dicey as regards personal safety. Yet while I do not doubt that Bellavista shares these attributes at night, I was never once made to feel in any way at risk. Any time I got off Avenida Marina, the Main Street connecting the port with the Malecon, I never experienced resentment let alone hostility. Befuddlement certainly, and even small doses of curiosity, but danger, never. Everyone is just too polite.

Several days after arriving in Iquitos I noticed that the water was rising. From the beginning of February, when I got off the speedboat from Lagunas until the end of the week there were differences in the surrounding topography. This phenomenon was why I came! From the Time/Life books and National Geographic magazines I read as a child, to the PBS and Walt Disney nature programs, I knew that the Amazon swelled and receded yearly, the result of rains in the Andes. Now I was watching it. Slowly and surely, Iquitos is becoming a geographic island as well.

 

 

La Reserva Pacaya-Samiría

After squeezing out of the over-stuffed combi from Tarapoto, I found myself wandering through the river port town of Yurimaguas in north-central Perú. The combi, a minivan remodeled to hold 12 (very small Peruvian) passengers, had 16 of us sardined on top of each other careening down from the Highlands.

As the result of endorsements by friends, telling me how pleasant Tarapoto, the “City of Palms” was, I looked forward to getting there after my 4 month Lima sojourn. Facing either a 24hr bus ride or a 1hr flight, I took a taxi from the SAE/Lima clubhouse to the airport. It was a cost difference of about $60 and very much worth it; however Tarapoto wasn’t.

Perhaps I invested too many expectations into this small town, having read so many guide books laying around the SAE/Lima Clubhouse. Perhaps those friends who spoke so highly of Tarapoto aren’t really friends. Perhaps it was just me, unable to define what I was looking for to clear my mind of a city of 10 million. Whatever the cause or causes, Tarapoto disappointed. Perhaps it could have been the haircut.

My First (and last?) Selfie

My First (and last?) Selfie

My last one in Lima had grown out unevenly and I wanted to just comb my hair straight back and keep it simple for the jungle. The young lady who sat me down and snipped away had other ideas. Sadly, I have a feeling that she had failed to articulate those ideas down to her fingers and I ended up stumbling away with perhaps the worst chopping that I’ve ever had; certainly the worst in South America.

But she had recently moved to the “Big City” of Tarapoto from a small village bordering Ecuador and I was her very first Gringo! And the first gringo that she had ever talked to. This was a big day for her tiny shop. She was nervous and flirty and amazed that I could speak Spanish, so we had a thoroughly enjoyable time together talking about all sorts of things.

As part of a larger task, I am learning to forgive perceived injustices I’ve carried as resentments over the years. I have Balkan blood in my veins and it’s normal for a Serb to pass on a grudge through generations or even centuries. If you doubt this, simply ask a Croatian. The two cultures have been at each other’s throats for a millennia. Thus, I have some deep cultural teachings to overcome. It’s now 3 weeks after the haircut and wearing a hat is no longer mandatory. All is forgiven, Floricita. Pretty much.

What truly sealed the deal about my dislike for Tarapoto happened when I found out, after an hour’s walk in searing heat and a truly brutal sun, that the chocolate factory tours were shut down because of a remodeling project. That was it; I’m out of here! I was crammed into the combi the next morning, barreling on to Yurimaguas.

Mototaxis in Yurimaguas

Mototaxis in Yurimaguas

Smaller, dirtier, and far more humid than Tarapoto, Yurimaguas is a major shipping gateway to Iquitos and the Amazon. It is also the end of paved roads in this part of Perú, and even dirt roads end just outside of town. I enjoyed my stay and found it very pleasant. People and goods arrive from the mountains and the coast in Yurimaguas for transshipment down the Huallaga River to the larger, faster Marañón and finally down to Iquitos.

The other option for reaching Iquitos from within Perú by way of water, is to reach, by land or by air, the city of Pucallpa and board a similar type of vessel traveling down the Ucayali. I expect to be in Pucallpa next month for another, very different jungle experience. Just upstream of Iquitos, the distance changing with seasonal flooding and the variable nature of large rivers, both the Ucayali and the Marañón join to become the Amazon.

By any metric the Amazon is the largest river in the world. And even here, more than 2,000 miles from its delta on the Atlantic coast of Brazil, here where it first gets its name, IT’S A BIG RIVER. Certainly at this point the Amazon equals the breadth of the Mississippi at its fullest, and either of the Ucayali or Marañón flows would rival the Missouri or the Ohio. But at this juncture I’m downstream of where I want to be so let’s go back a few days.

Yurimaguas is where I had planned to board one of Eduardo’s Boats. But Eduardo is dead and his 2 sons are now rivals in the transport business, constantly fighting each other for commerce. What was once the shipper of choice, Eduardo’s Boats is now just one of a number of shippers vying for trade. After some consultation with hotel staff and folks on the street I chose another option to make my way downstream. I’m happy that I did.

Passenger/Freighters at Yurimaguas

Passenger/Freighters at Yurimaguas

The idea of fighting for hammock space crammed shoulder to shoulder with other passengers sounded less and less appealing. Without problems (when did that last happen?) the downstream voyage takes about 3 days of constant heat, humidity, and the farts, belches, and snores of scores of unwashed bodies. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to break up the trip into 2 segments, going ashore at the village of Lagunas about 1/3 of the way to Iquitos.

Instead of the large and very slow passenger/freighter, I boarded a 3am speedboat in Yurimaguas and came ashore at Lagunas 5 hours later. Standing at the top of the muddy bank, José was waiting to grab my bag and take me to his office. I had signed up for his tour, Huayruro, to take me into the Pacaya-Samiría Reserve. For several days José and his wife Emilia would be my hosts and guides. We floated and paddled downstream in a dugout canoe, staying at mosquito-netted camps along the way.

The 2 of them, members of the Cucama indigenous group, are people who can and do live off the land and the rivers with a fishing line, a skinny bamboo fishing spear, a box of matches, and of course the machete. Oh, and bottled water for the gringo. Along with a roll of toilet paper for the white guy as well.

José and Emilia

José and Emilia

They had never taken someone my age on a trip with them and to say that I was pampered doesn’t do their hospitality justice. I sat amidships in the canoe and was expected to document the journey with photos and witty conversation while the two of them did all the paddling. Spanish is also their 2nd language so we got along very well. But less than a week was more than enough for me.

Near one hundred degree temperatures competing with near one hundred percent humidity takes an ever increasing toll on me each year. The mosquitos, though less in numbers and less voracious than those attacking me in the Everglades years ago, are not my favorites either. But with the oppressive heat/humidity combination and just sitting in the canoe most of each day, I struggled mightily. Though not with food.

José just speared one of many fish

José just speared one of many fish

José, paddling from the front while his wife sat in the stern, for seemingly no apparent reason would randomly steer toward one bank or the other on the opaque brown river. He’d then reach back behind him to grab his spear and within seconds he had a fresh fish at his feet. After several of these he would slice off a piece of one of the fish and thread it on a hooked fishing line tied to another 1/2-inch thick bamboo pole.

Our first piranha

Our first piranha

Then he would slap the hook onto the water’s surface with a quick flip of the pole and literally in a second or two, one of 3 species of piranha swimming nearby would become the next course in our next meal. Emilia had only packed some salt, a few tomatoes and a bag of onions when we set out. And for the next few days I picked fishbones out of my teeth breakfast, lunch and dinner. Piranha, by the way, is supremely delicious.

We went caiman spotting at night and saw even more birds by day than I had seen in the Cuyabeno Reserve in Ecuador last year. Parrots, Macaws, 3 kinds of Kingfishers, Egrets, Storks and many more took flight around each bend in the river. The Pacaya-Samiría Reserve is a national treasure and surely a place worth the struggle to reach for anyone visiting Perú. One can also visit the Reserve coming upriver from Iquitos, paying 3-5 times as much but with more pampering and fancier accommodations. Your call.

Eventually the torture ended, after the 3 of us each grabbed a paddle and fought our way upstream back to Lagunas. I was so truly taken with my guides that I left Emilia with a princely sum of 50 soles as a tip. That’s about $14.26, not a trivial amount in the jungle. But José was too wiley for me and when he dropped me off at the backpackers’ hostel, I found out that he had already paid for my night! I was humbled mightily.

Dawn on the Huallaga

Dawn on the Huallaga

Early the next morning, just after sunrise, I boarded another speedboat and zipped down the Huallaga. An hour into the trip and the river joined the Marañón, one of the major rivers in South America.

From there it was an uneventful 6hr ride to the port of Nauta where I got off in a driving thunderstorm for yet another crammed, sweaty combi ride, this time into Iquitos. I set aside 3 weeks for Iquitos, and like so many other places, 3 months would not have been enough for this amazing island in the jungle.

The largest landlocked city in the world (nearly 1/2 million population) without a road leading to it, Iquitos is worth a very long look. I’m doing just that.

On The River

Sitting here in Iquitos at the Yellow Rose of Texas, I have time to reflect. Plenty of time, really. I’ve given myself 3 weeks to soak up the history of this city and to find a way for explaining to myself just what Lima was all about.

My 4 months in Lima slipped by in a blur. After a number of false starts I finally admitted to myself that I was standing too close to events while still caught up in them to be able to recount anything accurately. This opportunity for a bit of geographical separation permits a chance to place those months in context. Here at the Yellow Rose, where I generally breakfast, I can more clearly look backwards and a bit forwards as well.

Also here at the YRT, “where the beer is colder than your ex-wife” you can find a Margaritaville style sports bar, restaurant and cafetería (what they call a coffee bar in Latin America rather than what we call a collection of steam tables back in the US of A). It will also host a TV broadcast of Super Bowl 50, so I expect to return and fight for table space this next Sunday as well. The staff is bilingual and the tables are plentiful with an unhurried feel to the place

I got to Iquitos by floating down 2 rivers after spending several days in a jungle reserve with an indigenous family. Now I’m here, where one of the rivers, the Marañón joins another, Rio Ucayali, to become the Amazon. And I’m trapped. There’s a vaguely Golden-ish Retriever asleep on my right foot and I haven’t the heart to disturb her from her snores.

Even as auspicious dates play a major role in traditional Chinese culture, so too I saw no reason not to incorporate them into my own life. A week ago, January 23rd, marked the day one year past when I landed in Ecuador on a flight from Miami. I commemorated this day by saying goodby to Lima and boarding a flight to Tarapoto. I have 5 months left on my Peruvian visa. On the surface that seems to be a lot of time, but Perú is a big place with much to see and do. And if I hadn’t left Lima when I did, I might never have done so. Yet since I accomplished most of what I set out to do there, I can view the time spent as time positive.

Primary among my goals was the important one of personal physical well-being. Traveling full-time I had fallen into the trap of many who live on the road: I was eating a lot and doing little about it other than to eat some more. Compared to my “sedentary” lifestyle before I started flexing my passport, my new habits included virtually no time to maintain any sort of muscle tone. This turned out to be a dangerous and eventually a life-threatening practice which I realized far too dramatically in September.

Once visitors arrive in the Galapagos (always, of necessity, by air) they need to board a ferry and cross a small channel between the flat rock that hosts the landing strip and the main island of Santa Cruz. As I was hoisting my bag, too big and too heavy, to heave it onto the top of the ferry, I almost landed in the water between the dock and the bobbing vessel. It was a dramatic reminder that in 9 months of travel with no proper physical exercise, I was woefully out of shape. I already knew this from earlier experiences, but there is nothing like a close call offering potentially great bodily harm to drive home the point.

An extended stay in Lima would offer the chance to rectify my physical decline and it did. Shortly after settling in at SAE/Lima I enrolled in classes at Ashtanga Perú. This type of yoga is a highly energetic form which requires the practitioner to balance on one’s hands between poses and expects the neophyte to have already attained middling level of flexibility. It kicked my ass.

But now, with the knowledge of Ashtanga gained, I can be holed up in even the smallest of hotel rooms, and have enough space to roll out my yoga mat and pummel myself into keeping up a modest level of muscle tone. By far I haven’t incorporated all the poses or asanas, but I carry a plasticized chart of them and slowly move forward, learning new asanas over time. I owe a deep thanks to Fernando, Pedro, and the rest of the staff at the Lima studio.

El Enano, Miraflores, Lima

Pulling this feeling of gratitude forward, I’m also deeply indebted to the folks at “El Enano,” which is Spanish for “the dwarf” though I never once saw one. This outdoor eating establishment, open virtually every day of the year from 6am to the next day is hugely popular with Limeños. El Enano was half way along my path to and from the yoga studio, so after practice each day it was my sole choice for breakfast with none of the other nearby eateries coming close.

Posted along the inner wall of the seating area (26 bar stools bolted to the concrete) and up near the ceiling was a menu of nearly 200 items. By far the majority of these were fruit juices, offered either singly or in combinations of 2 or more fruits. There were simply not enough days in the week, nor weeks in the months I lived in Lima for me to try them all. Though I did mark off my choices on a take-away menu I carried in my backpack just for this purpose.

Combos like carambola/maracuyá/tuna (tuna’s the fruit of a cactus) or fresa/mandarina/uva (strawberry/tangerine/grape) kept my imagination soaring and always in anticipation of the next day’s selection. Up in the northern hemisphere we keep hearing about “superfoods” and how their concentrated benefits outshine conventional products. Unless you can actually see them, arrayed in their spectrum of colors, it will be nearly impossible to know what we don’t know; thank you Donald Rumsfeld.

Shortly after arriving in Quito, Ecuador early in 2015 I discovered the wonder of such fruits that I had never heard of let alone tasted. More than a dozen years living in Hawai’i had kick-started my love of tropical fruits, but the sheer variety here in South America vastly overwhelmed even the wonderful options back in Honolulu. And now that I’m here along the Amazon, Perú offers even more than I found in Ecuador. Fruits like arazá, copoazú, taperiba, mamey, camu camu, aguaje, gamitana, cocona and many more are exciting elements in my daily life.

Fruit Vendor, Lima

Fruit Vendor, Lima

And if, for some reason, the 4 blocks to El Enano from the SAE/Lima Clubhouse were somehow too far to travel, I just walked 3 doors down to the corner and visited the pushcart street vendor. Pretty much any direction from the Clubhouse and no more than a block or two distant, vendors with their pushcarts offered fresh produce and/or fruits with this dizzying array of options.

The fruit-sellers all had their assigned locations and would set up just after dawn, hawking their freshest of fresh foods throughout every day but Sunday. Life was good and it was easy. Healthy eating, in spite of not cooking for myself, was never a difficult prospect. From weekend organic farmers’ markets to natural food stores, good food that was good for you was never far away.

Also close by I met a slowly roving band of cynical middle-aged expats who moved in circular migratory patterns throughout my adopted neighborhood. Introduced to them by a Canadian SAE Club member early in my stay, I paid my dues and joined the club for a bit. Buying a round for whomever stumbled into whichever bar they fancied that hour of that day made one a charter member. I was in.

After a week or two, or perhaps three, or was it four? (I’m a bit cloudy about those details) I realized that I didn’t want to resurrect old depression-inducing patterns and learned to keep my distance from the gang. They were nice enough guys, at least superficially, but endemic bitterness toward a world that done ’em wrong grew to be too tedious for me; especially after the 47th time of hearing the same grievous injustices.

I did pick up some tips on how to snag the best hookers and score some righteous weed. Great, just what I needed. NOT! Though they did introduce me to my street-smart Spanish teacher and until we had a cultural falling out a few months later, Ely taught me a great deal. However, picking scabs, especially in this tropical heat, will fester wounds, so let’s say goodbye to Ely and the gang and then move on. But before I go, I will say that I benefited from yet another ayahuasca delayed effect that I never would have discovered if not for this group of merry men.

Just like the disappearance of my life-long seasickness through after-effects of ayahuasca, which I discovered during September in the Galapagos, hanging out with the barflies in October taught me that I could, for the first time ever, successfully mix tobacco, alcohol, and weed without puking my guts. In previous encounters over many years I could mix any 2 of the 3 and remain vertical. But try as I might, and yes, I have tried over time, I could never join all three in one harmonious union. Now I can. Ain’t that something real special?

So yes, one could argue that Lima did slow my forward progress. As if I have some defined direction or timetable. But I don’t and if I did, just which direction is forward? And when do I have to be there? I’ve mentioned before that early on, really the first week in Quito, Ecuador a year ago, I learned that I can only make decisions one step at a time because each step opens up the most amazing circumstances and I’m taking my time to feel them out.

Two weeks from today (Super Bowl 50 played last night, I’m a bit slow posting this) I’ll be puking again at my next ayahuasca sessions. This particular retreat serves up a “pre-game” purgative for all the participants before we start with the brew of the vine. Designed to void all the cheeseburgers and fries we seem to accumulate in our “normal” lives, the folks at Nihue Rao believe that no one really practices the proper diet before an ayahuasca retreat, so the purgative will level the playing field. As it were.

So that was Lima, and this is Iquitos, with yet more jungle experiences to follow.

 

 

Where The Writer Bites The Lodge That Fed Him

Here’s the second of the my 2-part posting about my experiences in the Rio Cuyabeno Reserve. If you came upon these 2 postings out of sync, you probably haven’t lost much, but reading the first post first will probably make more sense; so go back and start at the beginning.

Did I mention the fresh-water dolphins? Every afternoon, as we headed to the ole swimmin’ hole, we would stop at a bend in the river where the Rio Negro joined the Cuyabeno and wait, perhaps what? 3 minutes, for a spotting. They are not of the “Flipper” variety and have no interest in human contact, but their lives are predictable and therefore they are pretty easy to locate. At the juncture of the 2 rivers they swim in circles feeding on the numbers of fish passing by. Compared to the familiar ocean-going bottlenose dolphins they are an odd looking bunch and they rarely provided us with more than a glimpse of their blowholes as they surfaced for air.

Each day following the previous was a precious reminder of why the Amazon Basin is so important by ensuring that the world goes ‘round. The bio-diversity can at times be overwhelming, it is that ever-present in one’s consciousness. So what of the people who inhabit this biological cornucopia? Do they exhibit this same richness. I wish it were so.

As mesmerizing as the Jamu Lodge stay was, it was not perfect. And yet, the blame cannot be solely the Lodge’s responsibility. This blame must be shared. It must be shared not only with the other lodges located within this river shed, but also with federal agencies and the indigenous communities themselves.

Puerto Bolívar

Puerto Bolívar

Towards the end of my stay, on a Saturday both bright and hot, the guests of Jamu Lodge and the nearby lodges were invited to attend a once-yearly celebration downriver at the Siona community of Puerto Bolívar.

The Siona, the Cofan, the Secoya and other indigenous peoples populate Amazonia. The Cuyabeno reserve is operated by a collective primarily made up of Siona and Cofan, with the latter group also extending into Colombia. The collective puts up pieces of the reserve for bid to outsiders and this is how Jamu Lodge came to be. Jamu, now 15 years old, and the other lodges lease the land they are on and adhere to the guidelines formulated by the collective.

The guidelines dictate how many lodges the reserve can sustain, how many guests the reserve will receive, and how the lodges care for the environment. Jamu has been in the forefront of the “green” movement within this jungle environment and relies solely on electricity generated from solar panels to operate day-to-day activities.

After some pointed questions about their “green” claim, I was invited to inspect their composting system, the solar charging station, the water filtration units, and the bio-digester for black-water (the plumbing kind of black water, not the tannin-based kind). They really do have a green system. If someone wanted to build a new lodge there on the Cuyabeno, using Jamu as a model would be a smart choice.

But the problem I saw was not with Jamu’s environmental footprint, but rather with the manner in which it handles the interaction between us tourists and the folks downriver. We had been invited to come and share with the Siona and join in, not only at the huge community feast, but also to afterwards take part in the festivities and games of skill, like tree-climbing and spear-throwing, swimming and dancing, chicha-drinking and running. I was ready.

So we left right after breakfast and motored downstream until we landed in Puerto Bolívar around 11am. Sulema had arranged for us to first visit with a family that she’s known for years. The the mother, señora Florinda, showed us how to harvest yucca, peel it, grate it (watch the fingers!), strain it and then cook it on a ceramic griddle for a surprisingly tasty (nothing added) tortilla-like flatbread.

Later we went down to the community hall and listened to several elders. They explained how, in the past, they used bows and 7-ft long arrows to fish. The elders showed us how the blow-gun was made and used, with darts soaked in varying strengths of curare, depending on whether you wanted the animal for food or just to knock it out and keep it as a pet; all fascinating stuff. Then it was time to eat. And so we ate and then just picked up and left.

Lovin that Monkey Meat

Lovin that Monkey Meat

As the communal dishes were being set out for a crowd of several hundred I wandered down the tables seeing what I could see, and then seeing more than I wanted. Halfway down the 50-ft long foodline I spotted one of the main dishes and a human-like claw on one of the platters. I had read that folks still eat monkey and I had also read that it should be refused since primates the world over are endangered. I was so glad that Sulema had brought Lodge-made boxed lunches.

What didn’t make me happy was that immediately after our private meal (off to the side and separate from the foodline), we collected the containers, walked back to the canoe and motored back to the lodge. This was disturbing to me. And I let it be known to Sulema and Victor, the head guide. From all I’ve come across and all I’ve seen personally, no one eats and runs, that’s one of the biggest insults imaginable. The answer I received was as vapid as could be.

They “explained” to me that, well, the Siona aren’t very organized. What??! So, you insult them? I’m still trying to figure out just what transpired, but disorganization is not at its root. These folks, the Siona, host the lodges who in turn host us tourists. Why visit, eat, and then vanish? WTF, indeed.

I understand that they live simpler lives. Puerto Bolívar is miles and hours from the nearest road. Their electricity comes from a diesel-powered generator.  Although earlier I had seen a Siona teen teardown and reconstruct a Yamaha 40hp outboard motor. I lead a simpler life than that kid.

But if they lead simpler lives, isn’t it the responsibility of the lodges, depending on the indigenous community for their existence, to help organize a once-yearly event so that there can be real interaction between the tourists and the people who have lived there for millennia? And wouldn’t this organization of efforts give both groups, the indigenous and us, the chance for interchange? To the benefit of all? Jeez Louise.

Based on previous personal experiences contacting indigenous life and customs here in Ecuador, I know that outsiders want more and deeper opportunities for cultural exchange. And after my encounters with the Shuar down south, I realize that the indigenous also want this exchange because it may be their last, best hope of preserving what they have left.

Siona Elder2

Siona Elder2

Earlier, in a completely separate post, I mentioned about the violent confrontations the indigenous have recently had with the Correa government. They do not have a receptive ear within that government and they are desperately looking for other means to get their message to the rest of the world. Here, on the Rio Cuyabeno, they still have that chance.

I came away with feelings of embarrassment (to be included in such an insult), anger (at such insensibility) and confusion (my normal state). Since the visit I’ve communicated with both the lodge and the owner, a Quito-based entrepreneur. Or, I should say that I’ve written to both but not heard back from either.

So, given this lack of perfection, would I repeat my jungle experience again? In a heartbeat. The Amazon Basin is 7 Wonders of the World rolled into one majestic piece of the planet and it deserves to be seen by all who can do so. I would also repeat my stay at Jamu Lodge, which offers both a most restful hideaway and a stimulating chance to be off the grid and unconnected; with some wildlife thrown in to boot.

If I were to repeat this trip, I’d save even more money by flying (or taking a 10-hr bus ride from Quito) to Lago Agrio. Then I’d stop in one of the local agencies and book passage to the Lodge from there. Now that you know it, start planning your trip. Below is a repeat of the images from the first part of this story.

In the Galapagos and Thinking About the Amazon

I’m sitting in the Hostal Gardner here in Puerto Ayora, Galapagos waiting for the Steelers-Pats game. It’s already over (it happened last night) and either Rothlisberger has prevailed or Brady has yet again displayed super-human abilities. Or maybe both. But I don’t know who came out on top and ESPN3/Español will, through pre-recorded programming, lead me to NFL nirvana. It’s still 8 hours until the broadcast, so what to do?

It’s surprisingly cool today, 10 feet above sea level and a few miles south of the Equator. The proprietress of the hostal, Janina, has invited me to take a trip to the highlands of this island to view giant land tortoises, see 2 collapsed craters, and walk through some lava tubes. Her recently married cousin, the cousin’s husband, and Janina’s boyfriend will be going with us too. This should eat up some time before kickoff.

I’d also like to review the jungle trip that I took last month. But I saw so much and La Amazonia is such a critically important region of the world that I’m going to split my account into 2 postings. I’m also going to post more images to go along with the postings, since this was a visual journey. WordPress, the group that hosts my blog, has a feature called a photo-carrousel, so I’m going to try that out too. Let’s see how this works; in Spanish: ¡Vamos a Ver, Compañeros!

I had decided to follow my nose and hook up with a place called Jamu Lodge. It’s located on the right bank of the Rio Cuyabeno, one of the major tributaries in Ecuador leading down to the Amazon River. Though I didn’t know it when I signed up, I later learned that the Cuyabeno is a “black-water” river, fully saturated with tannins from trees growing in the surrounding forests.

These tannins not only stain stain the water dark but they also lower the pH to around 5.4, which makes for an acidic environment. It also means NO MOSQUITOS! It’s hard to believe that one can visit the Amazon basin and not be eaten alive by these parasites, but sadly (not!) this was the case.

After a 7hr overnight bus ride from La Mariscal in Quito I found myself at dawn in Lago Agrio. This is an oil-drillers town hard up against the Colombian border (across the Rio Putumayo) and reputed to frequently host visiting FARC guerrillas on their best behavior. Well, I didn’t see any.

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

An Interesting pair of bluejeans in Lago Agrio

But I did have breakfast at Hostal D’Mario while waiting for another bus which would take us to the end of the road. In the meantime I was entertained by a vendor selling medicinal tonics. These folks with their pushcarts are fairly common in cities and towns throughout Ecuador. Here in Lago Agrio this young lady was pouring liquified herbs from jug to jar to jug to jar with a brilliantly choreographed style. And her bluejeans were one-of-a-kind.

Finally by mid-morning this other, much smaller van showed up. The driver stuffed me and nearly a dozen fellow trippers inside and we took off. I was surrounded by Germans, Dutch, Belgians, a Scotsman and his French wife. Except for the Scotsman they all spoke passable English. We had 2 more hours of sitting in the van until we ran out of pavement and boarded a long canoa for yet another pair of hours motoring down the Cuyabeno to the lodge. By this time I was done with sitting for the day. Or so I thought.

After an hour or so of unpacking, introducing ourselves and settling in, we gathered back at the dock to go up the river for a sunset swim in huge lake formed by the Cuyabeno. Since by then I’d already been back in Quito for a month, wearing layers of fleece for the ever changing high-elevation climate of the capital, it was downright paradisiacal to be clad only in a bathing suit floating, splashing, blowing bubbles and stroking around the boat while watching a beautiful sunset in one direction and a moonrise in the other. I haven’t been to heaven yet but if it’s anything like swimming in that lake at sunset, I’ll be knocking on its door.

The real wonder though, was that this was the first of successive evenings that we spent swimming at sunset. And as the moon was on the wax, each night was more stunning than the night before. After several of these swims we stayed out late for either a nighttime walk through the forest or we floated down the river spotting caimans or a tree boa or we were enchanted by the hundreds of fisher bats, the largest of the bats in Cuyabeno Reserve, swooping down to the water for a night’s feast of small fish.

By day we also traveled either up the river or down it or on one of the feeder streams with our guide Sulema. She was a fantastic set of eyes for us, motioning the motorman to halt the canoe countless numbers of times as she spotted monkeys or birds or sleeping bats, plus 1/2 dozen anacondas throughout the week. I knew through readings that this part of Ecuador has some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. But to be there, on the water, and witness this abundance is a spellbinding experience.

A day-walk through the forest is a great example of our time there. We were sloshing (knee-high Wellington boots are the only way to do this) up a trail when Sulema stopped at one of the trees. It could have been any tree as far as I could tell, there were so many of them. Some scientists argue that this portion of the rainforest contains more vegetation per square foot than any other spot on earth. I surely won’t contest that point of view.

As it happens she stood in front of a cinchona tree, where quinine comes from. She explained how the bark is stripped, then dried to a powder and used as an anti-malarial medicine. This bark, in powdered form, was the basis for Samuel Hahnemann’s development of homeopathy for treating diseases. Here, growing wild in the rainforest, it seemed to me like just another tree. Who knew? It turns out many, and for thousands of years in the Quechua culture.

After much oohing and aahing from her charges Sulema then proceeded to blow our minds. In a fold in the bark of the cinchona, known as quina locally,  she pointed out what appeared to be a sleeping beetle about 2 inches long. She ordered each of us to get close enough to see a tiny thread with a white dot protruding from the head of the bug. This insect wasn’t sleeping, it was dead.

And the dot on the filament were spores of a microscopic fungus the beetle had ingested. The fungus feeds on the brains of this and other insects. She explained that eventually the fungus causes the insects to act like zombies and find protected locales for their final resting places. To complete its cycle the fungus bores through the head of the bug and the spores on the end of the stalk are released into the atmosphere to find new hosts. How’s that for nightmares?

I noticed that several of the group seemed to be trying to hold their breaths until she said that this fungus was very specific to insects. The collective sigh was short-lived though when she continued by saying that there were literally thousands of different kinds of air borne fungi like that and we were breathing them in all the time. Sleep well tonight will you? Actually, I did.

Potoo

Potoo

The next morning we were up before dawn engaged in a bird-watching venture, floating among the semi-submerged trees and looking for avians just stirring. While we saw many “Stinking Turkeys,” or Hoatzin which are the most common bird seen in the Cuyabeno, the Potoo was the fascinating one for me. It is one of the few nocturnal birds in the reserve and it took me a good 5 minutes to finally see one while Sulema patiently waited for these old eyes to figure out what to look for. During the day they perch with their beaks pointed skyward and freeze in that posture, becoming (truly) one with the tree. I was pretty excited about this one. You really have to watch this video:

https://youtu.be/ZtjFG16ADZQ?t=1s

For my part the image that I grabbed was of a Potoo perched about 5-6’ above the water on a branch of a dead tree, their favorite hangouts. (On my Mac, if I double-click on the image and then click again on the enlargement, I can then see the bird. Give it a try.)

After finally identifying this bird I came to realize that it was impossible for an outsider to “know” the Amazon even in several lifetimes. Sulema was showing us the easy stuff, animals large enough or common enough for even us lumbering, loud, and camera-flashing tourists to see. And to know that we were only scratching the surface of the abundance of life here is a very humbling realization. But you take what you can get and what we got was a lot, so we continued on.

One of my hopes while in the reserve was to finally see monkeys in the wild. When I was in Guayaquil I took a guided day-trip to Manglares Churute, a vast mangrove reserve and we hoped to catch a glimpse of howler monkeys, the largest in this part of the world.

But a rambunctious group of teens had proceeded us on the path half an hour before, both laughing and chasing the monkeys deeper into the forest with their noise. Though I fully enjoyed myself (except for the snake encounter), I really was disappointed that we could only hear them and occasionally see a shadow or two.

Fortunately the Cuyabeno, and more specifically Sulema, didn’t let us down in this respect either. Of the 9 or so species of monkey in the reserve, we were able to spot 6, including the tiniest, the Pocket Marmoset, smaller than my hand. We saw the Wooly Monkey, with a tail as bushy as a raccoon’s but twice as long as the entire raccoon. We saw White-faced Marmosets and a few others of the marmoset family but I’ve forgotten their names.

Yet the real stars in the region are the Spider Monkeys, flitting through the trees in tribes of many dozens of animals at a time and not too worried about human trespassers. While we didn’t have the good fortune of 2 other groups at the lodge, where the monkeys actually came down to just a few feet from their canoes, I had my needs met to be sure.

In the tea caddy

In the tea caddy

Tarantulas, and scads of other spiders as well, were pretty common near the lodge. And we even had a juvenile who made itself at home in the tea caddy. Each night and on the same tree there were 2 trophy specimens that lumbered slowly on, in search of smaller prey. The lodge also hosted a mild tempered parrot (loro, in Spanish) who often decided to perch on a guest and tour the facilities.

Of the lodge itself, nothing could be found amiss. From the mosquito netting covering each bed that prevented intruders from disturbing our sleep, to the inexhaustible and delicious food for each meal, to the friendly and attentive staff, this was the way to see the Amazon Basin. Elías, the head waiter, could give the best of English butlers a run for their money in his unobtrusive yet excellent and cordial way of anticipating every need. We were living the life.

So with that, I’m going to end part one here.

The Natemamu Vision Puts Me Out Of The House And On The Road

Natemamu, Part IV: The Spirit World Among the Shuar

For the rest of the time at the Finca we continued with ceremonies every night except the last one. The idea being that the final day would start early, about 6am, and be quite full before nightfall. The following morning, a Monday, we were to board, first the taxis, and then 2 separate buses that would take us to Gualaquiza, in Morona Santiago province. Paul wanted our energy levels high for these leapfrog transportation undertakings, and it was just as well. Non-stop ceremonies had a cumulative effect for by the end of a week none of us found much time for sleep.

Once the goodbyes concluded, we worked our way back through Catemayo where about ½ of the group split off to return to Quito for flights back home. The rest of us, about a dozen or so, purchased tickets for Loja where we would locate a bus to Morona Santiago. The weather, as it had been during the retreat was in the mid to high 70’s and no rain, so moving our mountain of luggage, though much smaller, was also easier in these pleasant conditions. And we were all grateful since the scenery, which was certainly beautiful outside of Catemayo continued its dramatic unfolding with grander, broader vistas of misted mountains and rivers that kept increasing in size.

While we were dropping in elevation the mountains within view remained quite high as we followed Andean drainage basins and at some point crossed a continental divide. Now, instead of flowing to the Pacific, these rivers were all destined for the Atlantic via the Amazon. We passed through Loja province and into the southernmost Ecuadorian province of Zamora Chinchipe, and when we reached the provincial capital of Zamora, we headed north into Morona Santiago. It was a full 8 hours of bus rides that finally dropped us off on the highway to lug our bags (they’re not called luggage for nothing) 20 minutes up a hill to Miguel and Gabriela Archangel’s compound.

By then it was late afternoon and time for some quick introductions and another simple but tasty meatless meal. Shaman Miguel had built his own Lodge, one that Paul had lent him several thousand dollars to build. But with this being wet Amazonia, the dirt floor was far more plastic and sticky than that at the finca. And for the 5 days or so that we were there, along with some days of rain, we relied even more so on those Wellington boots.

Landry, Our Oglala Sioux Frenchman

Landry, Our Oglala Sioux Frenchman

The ceremonies, which began that night, were of a different type and style. Each night we were expected to sit upright on hard benches in almost total darkness, while Miguel and Paul sang, chanted, and played their instruments. And mid-way through these ceremonies we had a surprise when Landry, a tall young Frenchman in our group, began playing the drum and beautifully chanting North American Oglala Sioux songs. He was really good! He later explained that he had studied (and studied quite well) with a Sioux elder who took up residence on the small island off central France where Landry lives.

Gabriela Archangel

Gabriela Archangel

By this time Gabriella was also regularly attending the ceremonies. We had been told earlier by Paul that she herself is really a shaman, but she denies all talk of this sort. However her touch gave her away and we all knew from that personal physical contact that she has powers that probably surpass her husband Miguel. After the first night’s ceremony, which was a far stronger brew that brought on difficult struggles for the whole group, Gabriela started passing by each of us and placing her hand on the top of our heads as we were seated on the benches and feeling the first hallucinatory effects of the brew. By sharing her touch, she was able to convey an amazing feeling of peace and tranquility. She also came outside and stood with us while we vomited, since a number of us, myself included, lost muscular control and the ability to make it back into the Lodge on 2 feet.

I had neither visions nor hallucinations during the stay here with Gabriela and Miguel. I discovered later that the reason was due to lack of technique. In preparing for a ceremony, a participant needs to prepare with a heavy dose of introspection. And the product of that introspection needs to take the form of a petition to La Medicina.

The vine should be addressed with a question or an enunciated goal that is both quite clear and very specific. I knew none of this at the time and as a result I came away with little more than a clean digestive tract. I was also still having sessions that were diverted away from the spirit world by heavy body-energy discharges. Diarrhea, just so you know, is also a common method of purging, though usually not as frequently a purge as vomiting, therefore a number of us came away very clean after our stay.

Shaman Alberto Catan

Shaman Alberto Catan

So when the time came to leave I believe that all of us looked forward to a change. And thankfully Paul had saved the best for last. Heading further north to Macas, the provincial capital of Morona Santiago, we started hearing about Alberto Catan’s place. Alberto, if you remember, led our first ceremony at the Finca, and his wide open smile and good nature from that time nurtured our anticipation of staying with his family outside of Macas. Paul had also prepared us with the knowledge that we would take part in the yearly celebration of the Chonta palm and the harvest of its fruit.

In a phrase, Alberto’s compound was a Garden of Eden. He had a fast-flowing stream running through the center of the property and a separate sleeping lodge for guests, which we gladly inhabited during the week we were there. Alberto, his wife María, and their extended family welcomed us all and we could tell that this part of the journey would be fine. And it was.

Shaman Lodge and bridge to our guest house

Shaman Lodge and bridge to our guest house

There was a separate Shaman Lodge, a separate dining house (that straddled the stream), beautifully planted grounds, and an overall peacefulness that we immediately absorbed. As with our first Shuar family, we also began our ceremonies here on the first night. There was some concern among us that, like the first ceremony at the finca, this first ceremony at Alberto’s place would also be a spiritual assault. Alberto cooks a mean brew and sees no reason to dilute his creation. That first session at the finca gave everyone strong hallucinations, so we prepared as best we could.

And strong they were, though again, because of my ignorance, most of my time fell to purging and calming my body reactions. As with Miguel and Gabriela, these sessions were endured on hard benches, though his fire was more substantial, and this helped us keep from stumbling. More light also feeds hallucinations with the increased visual input, and later many reported just that effect. Me? I was standing on the bank (when I wasn’t bent over) and watching the river flow.

But on the night of Natemamu I got my second vision and loved every bit of it. Natemamu is a ceremony quite different than the “standard” natem/ayahuasca ceremony. During a natem ceremony the brew consists of the pounded inner bark of the natem vine and at least one other plant, usually just the leaves of the yagé, though often a leaf or two of toé.

With Natemamu however, it is only the inner bark of the natem, make into a thin tea. And the goal here is to consume as much, and more, as one think’s they are capable of drinking. I was up with the leaders in this go-round, and made 8 or 9 bowls of about a liter each. It was hard to keep count since my bowl never emptied with Alberto’s family circulating with huge pitchers full of the liquid. These never-ending bowls were also accompanied by vigorous shouting and chanting from the family to, in Shuar, “DRINK, DRINK!!!”

At the finca, about midway through the retreat, we had 2 successive nights of Natemamu and somehow each of us found the will to consume this unkind beverage. The afternoon before the first night Paul was explaining the protocol and what was expected of us. Even those of us who had participated in Natemamu before were apprehensive. I, of course, hadn’t experienced this sort of thing, but from listening to the others who had, I thought that I’d rather clean the toilets or something.

As Paul explained it, “It all sounds pretty horrible, but actually, it’s much worse!” He wasn’t exaggerating. You think that you can’t possibly down anymore of this stuff, but there’s shouting all around you, you’ve already returned a good bit of it to the soil at your feet, but you remember why you’re here, and you drink some more. He had already counseled us to be ready for a heightened sensory awareness, and that we would be able to hear the earth’s rhythm. Again! The guy really knew what he was talking about. I could sense this noise pattern at the finca, and now here again at Alberto’s compound.

There were new sounds (no, not just the puking) all around me and even though the sun had set some time before, it was light enough to see. A heavy, droning, thumping tone kept injecting itself into my awareness, and I guess that this was the earth’s rhythm Paul mentioned. And then at some point Alberto somehow knew that we were done, and it was time to return inside the Shaman’s Lodge.

We were all pretty weak by this time, and I somehow found the strength to climb up to the 2nd tier of the racks inside the Lodge, and I sprawled on my back in utter exhaustion. Sometime later, and I had no way of telling if it was minutes or hours, I received my next message. Again, the delivery was a mystery, but this time I did have a strong visual that drove home the message.

By this time I had already been in Ecuador four months and most of that time I was quite comfortably ensconced in the house of my school director’s parents. Sofía’s parents are my age and we have become very close, laughing, joking, commiserating with each other as age takes its toll. And I could very easily stay at their place until Immigration pounds on the front door. But I wasn’t sure that that’s really the right way for me to be traveling. Well this message put all these questions to rest.

You have no doubt seen those gag greeting cards that have a pop-up that jumps into place when you open the card, right? Well I essentially received the same setup in this second message. I was seeing the landscape of Ecuador as a giant carpet unrolling, with trees, rivers, mountains and all popping up as the carpet unrolled. And at the same time I was receiving the message that my Quito phase was over and until October, when my visa runs out, it’s my mission to hit the road.

It's Time to Move On

It’s Time to Move On

So after this plane touches down in Lima, I finish my work there, and return to Ecuador, I’ll be on the road, circling the country. I’ll start in Otavalo, an indigenous pueblo north of Quito and witness Inti-Raymi, the Andean indigenous New Year. Since December 31, I will then have witnessed 4 separate New Years in less than 6 months: the calendar New Year (which I celebrated by going to bed before 11pm), the New Year in el campo at the time of Guaranda’s Carnaval, the Shuar Chonta Harvest, and finally Inti-Raymi. It will be a lot of fun.

Since Wood Ashes Repel Vipers, We Could All Purge In Peaceful Bliss

Natemamu, Part III: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

It’s now June 2nd and I’m sitting in the international terminal of Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport. I’m on my way to Lima, Peru for 9 days. I’ve got air-miles from American Airlines and they’ve been burning a hole in my virtual pocket for some time. So since I had some personal business to attend to in Lima, it was time to cash in some of those air-miles. It’s free, right?  Yeah, right. And this ticket only cost me some (pretty high) taxes; so much for “free flights.” I’m here ultimately as a result of a message that I received during my second encounter with natem. But this presents a chronological disconnect, so let’s back up a bit.

Before we had arrived at the finca Paul’s assistants had already “ringed” an outer perimeter, 10 to 20 feet away, and completely around the Shaman’s Lodge with a border of wood ashes. It seems to be common knowledge in el campo of Ecuador (and perhaps elsewhere too, I’m a city-boy and don’t know these things), that wood ashes keep vipers away. They simply will not cross such a barrier which can penetrate their scales most painfully.

I’ve never corroborated that notion of ashes, but I will say that none of us reported any snake sightings for the 8 days we were there. We did hear from several of the support staff that the week before there were several sightings, and snakes in Ecuador I’m told are almost always poisonous, and neurotoxic at that! So each night, religiously wearing my knee-high rubber boots, I always remained hyper-aware of a possible encounter while puking my guts out, or removing negative energies, as it were.

Though I never repeated during successive ceremonies the intensity of the Opening Ceremony’s hallucinations, each night’s journey to the edge brought me visions of heightened energies from the plants growing everywhere. No, it was more than visual manifestations , I could sense, I could feel and even hear these energies. And I’m supposed to watch out for vipers too? Were those leaves on the low bushes by my feet moving because of the wind? On more than one occasion it took me some time to return back to my mat after voiding my innards.

I do have to explain that there is a difference, a very big difference, between hallucinations and visions. The hallucinations are visual “fantasies?” I guess you might say, while visions are more than just visual messages. These visions involve multiple sensual inputs which present one with a very different type of communication.

Paul and both of the Shuar shamans took great pains to remind us over and over that a shaman does not provide us with answers. A shaman is a facilitator who helps us prepare to receive our personal messages from La Medicina, the vine. Shaman’s break down the barriers, through the use of various techniques, between ourselves, or better yet our outer selves: those visible characteristics (our ego, in Freudian terms?) we present to the world, and our inner selves. And the medicine then bridges that gap and delivers the messages from our inner selves. All this is taking place in the spirit world that the Medicine Hunter frequently describes.

In my own case, I received my first message and I was totally unprepared for it. So when it arrived, I was only too happy to be lying down. I know that I would have been knocked from my feet had I been up and about during a purging. I say this because not only was the message so true and so fundamental, but the delivery was also as powerful.

As I write this, hoping the Lima plane will be on time, I’m feeling a rising level of anxiety since the very act of articulating this experience will fall far short of doing justice to what transpired. What makes this recounting of the ceremony so weak, so insufficient, is that I still don’t know how I received the message.

Was it spoken to me? No. Was there writing, perhaps delivered holographically? Not really. And yet the message was very real, very personal, and answered a nagging, serious, and chronic problem that had been physically eating away at me for years. Somehow, some way, the message arrived from elsewhere and imprinted so firmly in my psyche that I had no choice but to accept it as real. And even after nearly a month of returning and immersing into my Quito routine, I know that this separate reality will be with me as long as I live.

To those of you waiting for some juicy gossip, here’s a spoiler alert: I ain’t sayin’ nuthin. My message was for me and if you decide to take part in a natem or ayahuasca ceremony, your message will be for you. The shamans are all very clear about this. The conversation one has with the inner self, mediated by the vine, is as personal an experience as one will ever have. So while I will reveal a later message I had in a later ceremony, this first message is off limits to the casual reader.

A technique common to all shamans is the use of icaros. These are songs, some of which are passed down through generations during the rigorous and life-threatening training a shaman receives in order to finally become a shaman. Other icaros are presented to the individual shaman during their own journeys to the spirit world and then the shaman brings them forward to those he is helping to cure. And still other icaros are of another sort.

Paul Eijkemans

Paul Eijkemans

Paul, who by his own reckoning, has undergone more than 700 natem ceremonies along with other deep training, is also a shaman. Of this there can be no doubt. He is of the first generation of cross-over shamans who originated in the “developed world” and answered a call to enter this more primary Amazonian Basin world of the vine.

Like the Zen Buddhists of the 60’s that I met in Rochester NY some decades ago, or the yogis of the 50’s that I met even earlier in Honolulu during the Flower-Power years, Paul is here, working as a translator to help those of us from the northern countries knock on the doors of perception down south in the jungle. One of his translations is music.

Often using a shaman’s fiddle, a primitive 3-stringed instrument vaguely resembling a western fiddle or violin, or another, single-stringed Shuar instrument that looks like a bow that could shoot arrows, he will play some traditional Shuar icaros, often singing in Shuar. These icaros are tools that a shaman uses to both call the spirits and to help us as participants prepare ourselves to receive messages. He uses these icaros to great effect, and they do get results.

Or he will call on Nial. With his name pronounced like “dial” Nial is from Dublin and not only plays a beautiful guitar (he’s a professional recording artist) but he throat sings, and can make his voice sound like a harmonica, a whistle, and an amazing number of other sounds. During our retreat Nial, as a senior assistant to Paul, brought us his highly evolved ability to read people. And in my case, he knew exactly what I needed to hear.

During this second ceremony each of us individually received a personal cleansing by Paul while sitting on a stump in front of the fire. When my turn came, I sat there waiting for Paul and Nial began to sing. He mixes his own compositions with popular rock and folk songs, knowing somehow, ahead of time, which song is needed for what part of the ceremony, for which person.

A recurring song he played, The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” always got a huge laugh, and also always turned into a huge, highly animated sing-along. Another sing-along was “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. These songs and others were played a few hours into each of the ceremonies, after the initial hallucinations and purgings were over and we were ready to make connections with our inner selves.

Since I was easily the oldest person at the retreat, and my age was more than once the topic of interest during several group discussions, Nial realized that a unique opportunity presented itself and would be to my advantage. So as I was sitting on the stump, waiting for Paul to prepare himself mentally for this cleansing, Nial started singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and I instantly understood just why I was there.

For far too long, for too many years, for too many decades, I had been postponing decisions in my life. Crucial, critical, and truly life-affirming decisions had been deferred, and for far too much time. Now, in my later 60’s, it was quite clear that the time for deferral, if there ever was a time for it, was most assuredly over; I either act or I go to the grave denying certain personal truths.

image

Thanks again, Nial. You knew exactly what I needed to know. Dylan’s song, like all good icaros, bridged the gap between my outer self, and the self that lives in the spirit world. It prepared me for receiving that first core message later in the night. After all those years, I was finally ready to listen.