Wandering Brooks

in South America

Category: Uncategorized

Bad Shaman: An Ayahuasca Misadventure in San Francisco, Peru – Part 2

I hear raised voices coming from my shaman’s hut. Strange noises had worried me on other nights, but this time I can no longer dismiss what I hear as my imagination. My shaman, Edinson, is undeniably fighting with his wife, Amelia. She is crying now, loudly, and screaming. The screaming becomes more piercing, more urgent. I hear a thud. More banging sounds. Is she throwing random objects around in a fit of rage? More likely he is hitting her, but I cannot believe it yet. Until recently, Edinson was a man whom I trusted deeply. I am unable to so radically revise my impression of him from respected shaman to wife-beater in just a few moments.

He makes sharp, purposeful exhalations, a shamanic technique used during ayahuasca ceremonies to manipulate energies and cleanse spirits. She keeps screaming “Eddy!”, and one or two words in Shipibo. They repeat this pattern – him doing the shamanic exhalation, her screaming the same thing over and over – like some sort of perverse ritual. Is she possessed by some demon (it certainly sounds like it) and he is healing her? Or maybe she is screaming “Stop, Eddy! Stop!” I am filled with doubt. Aside from the first thud, there are no more signs of violence. Eventually things become more or less calm, although she has fits of loud crying from time to time.

There was supposed to be an ayahuasca ceremony tonight, my second with Edinson. It has occurred to me as I lay in my hut, mosquitoes buzzing around me, that tonight might not be a good night to take one of the most powerful hallucinogenic drugs on Earth. I decide to go with the flow. I will wait, see what explanation he gives, see how I feel as the ceremony arrives.

I walk to the ceremonial hut. A young family has already arrived, newcomers I have not yet met. Jaime is there with his wife and child. He introduces himself as Edinson’s cousin. They are a handsome family, with warm smiles and glowing eyes. I tell them I am worried. Jaime asks me why. What a question! Has he not heard what I have heard? I tell him I am worried about the screaming and the crying. He merely nods and says “mmhmm”. A few minutes of silence pass, and then he asks me, “So, where are you from?” I am strangely comforted by his incongruously casual attitude.

Edinson comes in the hut. He acknowledges that “there’s a bit of bad energy tonight,” but assures us that everything is fine. Edinson introduces me to his cousin, mixing up our names and saying something vague about how the two of them work together sometimes. The two cousins chat in Shipibo. Again, it sounds fairly casual. Edinson takes his seat and twists the cap off the small, used plastic water bottle containing the ayahuasca.

Unlike my first ceremony in this hut, three days ago, there is no candlelight. Instead there is only the naked white glow of a CFL light bulb above us. Some details I had not noticed before become clearer under this harsh light. Among Edinsons shamanic instruments is a bottle of men’s cologne. I see a half-finished, two-litre bottle of radioactive-orange soda pop off to the side. Everything looks messy and ugly.

Edinson pours me a shot of the thick, brown liquid. He says “fifty?” I am momentarily confused. “What?” I ask. “Fifty millilitres,” he says. Edinson likes to measure his ayahuasca very carefully, an approach I had considered very wise when I learned about it in the first ceremony. I tell him no, better stick with 40ml, like last time. He pours it out, hands it to me, and resumes chatting with his cousin. Jaime is thoroughly lighting an epic heap of tobacco in his pipe.

Normally the offering of ayahuasca is a sacred moment. It feels inappropriately unceremonious this time. It feels not quite right. Hesitating, I look down at the brown liquid in the plastic graduated cylinder in my hands. I consult my intuition.

You may find it hard to believe, but I am a fairly cautious person, highly attuned to danger. On the other hand, I try to differentiate between fear that protects me from harm and fear that keeps me away from the meaningful and the worthwhile. Psychedelics have been a very positive influence in my life. I have had a fair number of experiences now, ranging from the mercilessly horrifying to the exaltedly edifying (often in the same night), so I know I can handle very intense trips. One important lesson I have received from psychedelics is that bad experiences are often not bad, in the end. They are opportunities to grow. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s because it’s true.

Despite many bad omens and the high likelihood that tonight’s ceremony will be very uncomfortable, I decide to drink the medicine and accept whatever harsh teachings come my way. This is new for me. While I have been able, in the past, to accept a bad experience with psychedelics as an opportunity to learn, I have never been so bold as to bring it upon myself willingly. I almost gag on the first drop that hits my tongue, but I manage to choke it down. I lay back and smile, feeling the dreadful relief of a man whose fate is sealed.

Edinson and Jaime drink their shots. Edinson turns on a radio, briefly, scrolling through the frequencies. Why the fuck is there a radio in a ceremonial hut? He shuts it off. Finally the light is turned off too. We await our visions. Edinson begins to snore.

I become acutely aware of Jaime’s presence. He is sitting, alert, smoking his pipe. The red glow in front of the shadow of his face lends him a powerful air. He is the real shaman, I realize. He stands and begins to walk the length of the hut, slowly, blowing so much tobacco smoke that I can feel it saturating my lungs. He stops in front of my mat, his shadowy frame towering over me. He sucks on his pipe, creating that eerie, powerful, red glow, blowing smoke towards me to cleanse bad energies.

He walks back to his own place. He seems to have sprouted a striped, flowing robe, which waves hello to me in the darkness. Shortly after sitting down, he begins to sing his first icaro of the night.

The ayahuasca is beginning to have effect. This is my tenth ayahuasca ceremony so far, and I have learned that there are gentle ascensions to the spirit world, and then there are blast-offs. This one is gentle. Not that it is pleasant. This will be a wholly unpleasant night, in fact, filled with paranoia, sadness and disgusting, terrifying visions. Jaime helps me through this experience. He sits in front of my mat for much of the night, singing and cleansing.

Paranoia can be common under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Paranoia implies craziness. Delusional fear. Unfounded suspicion. Sometimes, however, a paranoid interpretation of events turns out to fit the facts better than any other version. This is the big lesson that I receive from ayahuasca tonight. In particular, I realize for the first time that William probably received a kickback from my dieta fee. He criticized Mateo only because Mateo does not give kickbacks. He criticized his maestro’s son for the same reason. He brought me to Edinson not because Edinson is one of the few shamans with whom he would drink, but because Edinson paid him. As for Edinson, he did not dream about me dancing with Shipibo women with a pipe in my hands. He received a cut of the price for the pipe and satchel. Nor is he as experienced or knowledgeable a shaman as he pretends. The contrast between his poor shamanic skills and Jaime’s immense power reveal how amateurish Edinson truly is. I have been swindled.

William! I am heartbroken about William. I liked him so much! How could he have fooled me so well? He seemed so sweet and caring. I trusted him, and he abused that trust. What an evil man!

No, I realize, he is not evil. He is sweet and caring, but he is also an alcoholic and desperately poor. He told me about his job. He works as an elementary school teacher, but he just started a few months ago and the government has not yet processed his paperwork (typical of the Peruvian government), so he is not being paid. He literally has no money. He was not obligated to start work, but he loves teaching. He loves kids.

He was able to trick me into trusting him by being his own lovely self. In the ayahuasca state of mind, I intuit that he feels guilty about it, spending part of his kickback on booze to drown the guilt in alcohol.

As for Edinson, I am not so sure. He seems pretty evil to me. The word brujo comes to mind, but the snoring, hungover drunk lying across from me does not fit my image of a powerful, dangerous witch-doctor. He is an incompetent, greedy brujo.

Even with him, I cannot let this harsh judgment go unchallenged. He is more complex than that. I saw the beautiful art created by a previous client of his, a woman from Israel who came to him suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having served in the army. She faced her overwhelming fears and overcame them. She left him reborn, as is apparent in her sublime art. He had shown me the paintings she sent him, proud to have helped her heal. I experienced other moments with him that hint at goodness in his heart.

But he may still be dangerous and I should get out of here as quickly as possible, I decide, inspired by the psychedelic paranoia. I wonder if he would hurt me, like he hurt his wife? Tomorrow, I want to ask him for a refund for the rest of my diet, but I should make sure he isn’t holding a machete when I do it. I briefly consider running away right now, in the middle of the night, but I decide to wait until the morning. About six hours after drinking the ayahuasca, I fall asleep.

After waking, I pack up my things and ask for a refund, with Jaime sitting by my side. We had been chatting about things, Jaime and I. Edinson says he lent some of my money to a friend, and he won’t be able to pay me back fully for another week. He will send it to my bank account, he says. I don’t trust him, but I have no choice. I accept half my refund and hope he sends the rest later.

His wife feels bad and gives me two large, beautiful Shipibo textile pieces for free. She says I can sell them in Canada and maybe get some of my money back that way. On my way out of town, another group of women who see me walking by insist that I sit down with them and rest a moment. When they hear my story, they give me a handful of free bracelets and necklaces. Their warmth and generosity redeems the Shipibo people in my eyes, somewhat.

Ayahuasca is good, I have no doubt about that, but some shamans are bad. Many are interested only in money. On one hand, it’s hard to blame them. Life is difficult here. Poverty is rampant, and if there’s a way to make a buck, why not take the opportunity? Lots of tourists are none the wiser, especially those who come just for one ceremony, and those who don’t speak any Spanish.

On the other hand, psychedelics are serious and should not be fucked with. A little bit of bad energy can result in profound trauma, and some people cannot and should not go through a difficult psychedelic experience, especially with a shaman who only has money signs reflected in his eyeballs and who may not able to guide them through it safely.

I know a good shaman near Iquitos. If anyone reading this is going to Peru with the intention of doing ayahuasca and is worried about the difficulty of finding a trustworthy shaman, feel free to send me a message. I also feel very good about Jaime, who lives in another Shipibo town about five hours downriver from Pucallpa. From what I have heard, San Francisco is almost entirely corrupted by the money brought in by ayahuasca tourism. However, Jaime told me that in his town, Santa Rosa de Dinamarca, they do not charge for ayahuasca ceremonies and diets. They suggest that you make a voluntary contribution according to your means and how valuable you find the experience. Most likely, the farther you go from a big city like Pucallpa, the more likely you are to find something more genuine and traditional.

As for me, I am fine. I was upset by this experience, as you can imagine, but I have moved on. I appreciate for what it was, an opportunity to learn, and an experience that has only added to the richness of my time in South America.


Bad Shaman: An Ayahuasca Misadventure in San Francisco, Peru – Part 1

I scraped my shin on the boat ride from Pucallpa to the Shipibo town of San Fransisco. A minor injury, normally, but within an hour I could see white sores forming in the cut, signs of an alarmingly rapid growth of infection.

Just a week earlier I had given away the antibiotic cream Kinga and I had used to treat our staph infection back in January. An Argentinian boy I met in Iquitos had a bad case of staph, and I decided to be generous and cross my fingers that I wouldn’t need it again. Crossing your fingers ain’t worth shit, I tell ya. There was no pharmacy in San Francisco, so I would have to go back to the city to treat my infection.

The jungle is the Shipibo pharmacy, I learned. I made a friend, William, who offered to heal my wound with plants. I was skeptical. One of Kinga’s friends, Santiago (whom I wrote about in a previous post), had offered to heal her staph with plant medicine, but he only made it worse. My infection was not yet serious, however, so I decided to keep an open mind and give it a try.

William brought me some leaves he had collected. “Natural iodine,” he told me, and sure enough, when he crushed the leaves in his palm, they released a brown liquid that smelled like iodine. I eagerly applied it to my infected wound. He grabbed his machete and told me to follow him. He took me through town to find a tree called sangre de grado. When we found it, I could see that it was scarred with dozens of machete cuts. He hacked at the tree, and when he took the blade away, I was amazed to see thick, dark red sap leaking from the cut bark, just like blood. He took a wad of cotton, removed the seed from the centre of it (they don’t even need to buy cotton balls here), and collected some of the thick red liquid to apply to my wound.

When I saw how knowledgeable William was about plant medicine, I asked him if he was a shaman. First he said no, but later in our conversation he changed his answer. Yes, he was a shaman, but he didn’t have a retreat centre to host foreigners, he told me. Sad, I thought, that to him the word “shaman” refered only to the business of ayahuasca tourism (this was my first clue as to his real motives). He said he only learned shamanism so he wouldn’t have to take his kids to the hospital every time they got sick – he could heal them himself.

At this point, I had no intention of doing ayahuasca again. After a disconcerting and enlightening conversation I had with an ex-shaman in Pucallpa about the increasing commercialization of ayahuasca, I was more interested in learning about it through conversation, not through any more direct experience. I had already done a 15-day dieta (traditionally, ayahuasca is done several times over many days, which involves taking other plant medicines and eating a restricted diet), including six ceremonies with a shaman near Iquitos, which was a wonderful experience. After that, I did one more ceremony at a Rainbow community, also near Iquitos, which was both a hellish, infinite apocalypse, and, later in the evening, an endless, heavenly revelation. I had decided that that was enough psychedelics for a while.

William told me that he sometimes does ceremonies with foreigners, but he never charges any money. His reward will come later, he said. One time, three years after doing a ceremony together, a friend he made from Chile invited William to a big conference on indigenous shamanism in Santiago. He told me about the awe he experienced seeing skyscrapers for the first time. Imagine, a man who has lived his whole life in a thatch-roofed hut suddenly finding himself staying in a five-star hotel in a big, modern city. The delight he showed in telling this story endeared him to me warmly.

The next day, wandering around San Francisco on my own, I met an interesting shaman, Mateo, who piqued my interest in doing another ayahuasca diet, but I decided to wait and see what William might say before deciding. In the short time I had spent with William, I had come to trust him very much. Unfortunately this proved to be a mistake.

When I told him about Mateo, hinting that I might want to do another diet, he didn’t say much, but I could tell from his reaction that he did not approve of this shaman. Eventually he told me that Mateo does not allow other shamans to drink ayahuasca with him, because he is afraid they will steal his secrets. Aside from sounding like a bad character trait, this also bothered me because I was wanting to do a ceremony with my friend, William, which would not be possible with Mateo.

William took me for another walk, ostensibly to find more natural iodine and sangre de grado. We found my medicine (it was working wonders, by the way), and along the way he introduced me to some other shamans. First, we went to his own teacher, an old maestro who has worked with ayahuasca for many decades (no one knows how old he is, exactly. Like some other indigenous peoples I have met, the Shipibo did not count age in years before their culture began to be corrupted by Spanish influence). The maestro’s son, who was there as well, was also a shaman and would be leading the ceremonies. William didn’t realize he would be there. When we walked away, he told me he didn’t like the old shaman’s son, saying that he was selfish. So he took me to meet another one.

And that’s how I met Edinson, the best dressed shaman in all of Peru. He was wearing neatly ironed dress pants, a stiff dress shirt, and polished black shoes. He was a little stiff and business-like for my tastes. I did not have a good impression of him at first, but William assured me that Edinson was one of the few shamans with whom he would drink ayahuasca (there are about 60 shamans in San Francisco, a town of 2000 people, so there are a lot to choose from). I asked William as we walked away “does he have a different energy during the ceremony?” “Yes,” he assured me, “he’s a completely different person.”

Trusting William, I decided to do a 25-day diet with Edinson. My impression of him improved in the first few days. One thing I liked was that instead of having a dream or ayahuasca vision in which he saw which medicinal plant to offer me during the diet, like other shamans do, he merely asked me “what is it you want to learn?” I found this a refreshingly sensible approach. I told him my intention, which was to learn to be more patient and loving, to be able to accept things as they are without struggling to change the unchangeable, as well as to have success in my life’s projects and to be able to choose those projects wisely. In sum, I wanted to learn how to live a good life. He said to me “I have a plant for that.”

The plant I took was called tantirao, which means “tranquility” or “peace” in Shipibo. I drank a thick, strong preparation of tantirao for the first three nights. It had a unique taste, something like a mixture of grass and coffee. After draining about half the cup, the liquid started to feel like little razors cutting the inside of my throat, and I could immediately feel my body strongly reacting. Armies of mucus took up arms against the invasion, and my stomach began to churn. I became somewhat drunk, with the muscles in my body turning to soggy noodles, and my thinking becoming distorted. A goofy smile came to my face, and I felt very, very happy. I would vomit between an hour and three hours later, smiling and laughing all the while. You may find it hard to believe, but I found this state of mind ideal for meditating on my intention of learning to live a good life. I did a lot of deep thinking and writing during those first three days. On the fourth day, I took a more gentle tea version of tantirao in the morning. In the evening, I would drink ayahuasca for my first ceremony of the diet.

That morning, Edinson told me he had a dream about me. In his dream, I was dancing joyfully with two Shipibo women on either side of me. He said that I had a traditional crown on my head with a feather in it. I held a tobacco pipe in my hands and I wore a traditional Shipibo satchel around my shoulder. He said that the message he received from this dream was that I should have a traditional Shipibo pipe and satchel. I felt a flicker of suspicion about his motives for saying this, thinking that perhaps he was just trying to make me spend more money, but I had no reason not to trust him at this point. I felt somewhat guilty for being suspicious. He drew me a picture of the pipe that he saw, explaining to me its importance and utility for those who wish to follow the shamanic path. He said he would go out into town and see if he could find it for me.

He returned with the pipe and satchel about an hour later. The pipe was exactly as he had drawn it. Isn’t that amazing? I hesitated, but agreed to buy them. After all, they would make pretty cool souvenirs, and perhaps I would begin to learn first-hand why tobacco was such an important plant in Amazonian shamanism.

The first ceremony went well. I had some left-over terror remaining from my experience at the Rainbow community near Iquitos, but this ayahuasca was not quite as strong. It gave me a chance to process that fear in a more manageable psychedelic experience. I had many interesting visions, including a visit from the spirit of tantirao who taught me about living well. I also came up with a new idea for a novel I might want to write.

Scientists who study psychedelics say one of the distinguishing characteristics of the experience is its “ineffability.” At some point I would like to try to eff the ineffable in my writing, but for this story I have left the description of the actual experiences to a minimum.

Two days later I went to Pucallpa to go to the bank. I needed to take out money to pay for the rest of my diet and to pay for the pipe. On my way back into town, I ran into William, whom I hadn’t seen in several days. He had offered to take me piranha fishing a few days earlier, but he had never shown up. He was in a very good mood when I saw him. In fact, as he uncharacteristically gave me a big, sloppy hug, I realized he was drunk. I was surprised and a bit unsettled by this interaction.

I paid Edinson the rest of the money for the diet. After that, his attitude seemed to change. I hardly noticed it on a conscious level, but something felt different. He seemed more aloof, maybe. The day of the second ceremony, I noticed his eyes were bloodshot. I wasn’t sure if he was just tired, or… maybe he was drunk too? It all went downhill from there.

(to be continued…)

Down the Rio Napo: Part 2 – Leaky Canoe. Suspicious Government Business. Stuck on the River at Night. Quechua Families Feed us Weird Things.

I cross the border in a peque-peque, a dugout canoe with a small motor. I got a cheap ride from a guy who has a farm amidst the riverside jungle between Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador, and Pantoja, Peru. He was headed in my direction anyway and didn’t mind taking me along for the ride – for a lot cheaper than anyone else had offered.

I arrive in Pantoja two hours after the cargo boat had left the port for my intended destination, the city of Iquitos. I have to wait six days for the next boat.

I count my money. If I’m paying 3 dollars a night for lodging and I put aside 6 dollars a day for food, I’m still short a few to pay for the ride in the cargo boat. I make a deal with Marcela, the owner of the town restaurant. I can pay 5 dollars a day to eat all three meals there and I’ll just barely have enough money to survive.

My first lunch in Peru is ceviche, a delicious plate of raw fish “cooked” by the citric acid in a lemon marinade, with baked, crunchy, giant corn kernels, and pieces of yuca.

Ruperto is my host in Pantoja. A waddling, horking, friendly old Peruvian guy, Ruperto lives alone in a decrepit house by the town port. His favourite activity is “mirando gente,” watching the people walk by. Sometimes he goes for walks around town too, which only takes about 10 minutes, even at his slow, waddling pace.

He is hosting a few other people as well. Carlos is from Iquitos. He is doing a survey of young children living in areas of extreme poverty for a government aid program. Julio is from a town downriver, Santa-Clotilde. He was hired by Carlos to take him up to Pantoja in his canoe. There’s also a Quechua indigenous boy named Rober. His family lives in a stilt hut between Pantoja and Santa-Clotilde. He is Julio’s assistant.

After a couple days, I am on friendly terms with Julio, and he offers to take me with them to Santa-Clotilde for only 50 soles (20 dollars). From there I’m told it’s easy to find a ride to Iquitos. Suddenly I have enough money to pay full price at the restaurant, so I head there and pay the difference.

We leave before sunrise the next day. The canoe is a bit bigger than your usual dugout deal, with a slightly bigger motor too. It’s a bit leaky though. Rober has to bail out the water every 20 minutes.

We go to a little village about an hour downriver where Carlos has more government business. He needs to get the village schoolteacher to sign a piece of paper attesting to government aid she has received. She hasn’t received any government aid, she says. She refuses to sign the paper.

I look at the paper. It is a form with statements like “I have received (blank) services or goods,” and “These services and goods were provided by (blank) during (blank) dates.” The blanks are not filled in. Carlos is insisting that she sign the paper “to justify my route,” he says. Again, she refuses. Carlos is frustrated, apparently not seeing anything wrong with what he is doing.

Over the next several hours, we visit a few more small riverside communities so that Carlos can get more people to sign more blank pieces of paper. Later we pick up a woman named Kathy, who is another government worker who was doing the same survey on young children in a different town.

It is 5:00 p.m. We have been travelling for 12 hours and have finally arrived at Julio’s intended shelter for the night, a small stilt hut housing a Quechua family – friends of Julio’s – where we can set up our hammocks for the night. It’s humble lodgings, to say the least, but it’s better than sleeping in the middle of the jungle or being stuck on the river at dark…

Kathy insists that we keep going. We can find somewhere else to sleep, she says, and we are in a hurry to get back to Iquitos.

The sun sets around 6:30 p.m. We are still on the river, and the sky is getting darker by the minute. It is soon pitch-black.

Kathy says she is afraid, but I am excited! This is very adventerous, in my opinion. I can’t see what the difference is between the river at night or during the day, except that at night it’s more of a thrill! Julio told me afterward that people have drown trying to navigate the river at night. They hit a log, capsize their boat, and no one ever sees them again.

Around 8:00 p.m., We see a flashlight wisking this way and that on the distant jungle shore. Thank God, says Kathy. When we get to land, the flashlight is gone, and no one answers our call.

It’s time for Julio to get pissed off. He has every right to be pissed off. We had perfectly good shelter three hours ago. It was unnecessary and dangerous to keep going. He yells for a while and threatens to abandon us (does that include me?) on the shore.

Should I sleep in the boat? That seems pretty damn uncomfortable to me. I’d better just stay awake all night. Or maybe I’ll hang my hammock between some trees near the shore. But then Julio and his canoe might be gone when I wake up in the morning.

After brooding for a while, Julio suggests we keep going. About 10 minutes farther down, we find a campfire on the shore. Another Quechua family has a big hut nearby. Relieved, we set up for the night.

The next day we once again set out before sunrise. Along the way, we stop at a couple of  Quechua homes to do some shopping. Julio buys giant yuca, live caracol (a kind of river shellfish), and a live turtle, rooster, and duck. The animals are all stuffed in the front of the canoe.

A Quechua family feeds us zapote, a delicious, thick-skinned, brown fruit with fibrous orange flesh and big black seeds. Another family feeds us wild boar soup and platano. The cooked boar head grins on a steel platter. Julio eagerly grabs some cheek muscle with his bare hands. I give it a try too. It tastes like pork and licking a battery. When we drop off Rober at his home, his mother offers me mazato, a drink made from yuca, traditional among the indigenous people (the women chew up yuca and spit it into a gourd, leaving it for a couple days to ferment.) Julio calls it “leche de vaca yuca” – milk from the yuca cow. It tastes just like you would expect a regurgitated, fermented root vegetable to taste.

At one of the Quechua homes, a small monkey approaches us from jungle. It casually wanders up a house stilt and hangs upside down near the kitchen fire. Kathy decides the buy the monkey as a pet for her mom. The lady of the house finds some string made of a ripped t-shirt and ties it around the waist of the now screaming monkey, who continues to scream for the first 20 minutes after we resume our journey, but soon seems to accept his fate. He happily eats some tiny bananas, which makes my stomach churn to see such tragic cuteness.

Or maybe that’s not cuteness making my stomach churn. Come to think of it, I don’t feel so good…

There weren’t any bottles of water available in Pantoja, so I had bottled some refresco (kind of like lemonade) that I got with my meals at the restaurant there. I had treated it with my water purification drops, but within a day the bottles started to bulge and it tasted a bit funny.

One time in Montreal, I drank fermented fruit juice I found in a dumpster behind Parc avenue, which tasted delicious and didn’t make me violently ill. I figure it might be safe to drink this fermented refresco too, especially since I’ve treated it with water purification drops. My stomach disagrees with this assessment, however.

Julio and Carlos have been drinking water straight from the river. Kathy “treats” her water with the juice of a fruit similar to an orange. I doubt that works. Carlos says he has no other choice but to drink the river water, but he says biologists have tested it and contaminants are within an acceptable range. I don’t trust Peruvian biologists, but I am dying of thirst and have no other option. I reluctantly fill my water bottles and add a big dose of water treatment drops. I am now drinking brown water.

After a total of 25 hours sitting in a canoe, we arrive at Santa-Clotilde at 3:00 p.m. on the second day. I am dizzy and stiff and hungry and tired. Within the next 12 hours, I will have so much fermented refresco expanding in my intestines that my body will have no choice but to order an emergency evacuation. I will be sick for a couple days, but I am alive and happy nonetheless.

Down the Rio Napo: Part 1 – Jungle Tour with Teenage Catholic Missionaries

I met a cute girl in Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador. She was a catholic missionary from Quito, visiting the Ecuadorian Amazon with a big group of young people doing mission work. They were going to visit Yasuní National Park for the day, the most bio-diverse place on Earth. She invited me to come along.

I felt uncomfortable being attracted to a catholic missionary. Turns out she was only 18, which is a little young for me, but more importantly, she was a catholic missionary. For me, attraction usually means an interest in sex. She seemed attracted to me too, but what does that mean for her? Marriage? It just felt wrong, like a love affair between a Jedi and a Sith (am I the Sith, or is she?).

The Vatican paid for my boat ride, my entrance fee, and the guide in the national park. The serenity and wonder of the park was ruined by chatting, laughing, teenage missionaries, and the loud nun that came along, but I fully appreciated my luck in getting a free tour. If there were any jaguars hanging around, we scared them off and didn’t see any.

I want to see an anaconda in the wild. That sounds pretty cool. We went for a swim in a lagoon towards the end of the tour, and I wondered if anacondas might live there. The guide, who otherwise seemed pretty lax about safety, was adamant that we stick together in a big group, and that no one swim off on their own. There were pink river dolphins, but we only saw little flashes of their backs from afar, and the ripples left behind when they dove back under the water.

We were back on the boat. When no one was looking, the guide smiled like a boy with a slingshot and pointed at the girl beside me. He made a lewd gesture with his hands, like he was squeezing her ass, and he laughed. I literally did not comprehend what he was doing. It seemed inconceivable to me that a jungle tour guide was making that gesture at a teenage, catholic missionary girl. After a few seconds, I rearranged my model of reality and gained the ability to understand what he was saying. Despite not approving of his gist, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Arútam: Part 2 – Murder and Sexism

On TV, roosters say cock-a-doodle-doo when the sun rises. Not true. It was 3:00 am, and every 10 or 20 minutes, the rooster outside kept me awake with his call of rRRaracckerle-SKKLoopkkk-FuckyouBrooks!

I wanted to murder him.

A few hours later, I heard a different kind of strangled, guttural scream. It sounded similar to the rooster call from before, only more panicked. I heard one last desperate, screaming gurgle, and suddenly, silence. I got my wish. My rooster had been murdered.

The other day I was eating a piece of monkey. It tasted like baby back ribs, but tough and muscly, like a small child who has done a lot of pull-ups. One of the American college kids, a vegetarian, asked me if I felt uncomfortable eating something so similar to myself. I have been vegetarian in the past, and I would consider doing it again, so I sympathized with his sentiment. However, animal suffering means something different to me here at Arútam than in industrial-food-processed North America. I know this is an indigenous society that, until recently, relied primarily on hunting and gathering to survive. Now they raise chickens and buy some rice and lentils from the city, but they have maintained some traditional ways. They continue to eat what the jungle provides, and I’ll do the same as long as I’m living here.

One day the jungle provided an armadillo. Jose hacked at it with a machete, but missed his target and only wounded the critters tail. After a short chase, he held it down while Chris, a tall, 240 lb, non-vegetarian rugby player, grabbed the armadillo and snapped it’s neck. Just to make sure, they then held it under the water for a few minutes to drown. Armadillo tastes somewhere between beef and pork, I would say.

While I have no problem with the Shuar killing and eating animals, I have trouble accepting another aspect of their culture. This is undoubtedly a sexist society. Men may have multiples wives, but a woman may have only one husband. Men handle the Arútam business and flirt with foreign volunteers. The women cook and take care of the kids.

Mario was the first Shuar man I ever met. He is atypical, preferring city life to jungle, although he told me this just after he had climbed down from a tree with an armload of giant guava pods, so there’s still a fair bit of Amazon coursing through his veins. (As far as I know, there isn’t an English word for the Spanish guava. The fruit we call guava is guayaba in Spanish, and it doesn’t come in a giant green pod.) According to Mario, a lot of men that he knows look down on women, believing they are fundamentally less capable and shouldn’t have the same rights. He disagrees with this archaic way of thinking, and he supports gender equality. I like Mario. I like some of his brothers less.

The first time I met Rodrigo, he was shirtless and wearing a fake tiger skin blanket wrapped around his waist. He had painted diamonds on his cheeks and forehead, and had used the same traditional, plant-based ink to draw an outline of his abs. He smiled like a Disney Indian and said “hola amigo!” At first, I thought he put on this Pocahontas act to convince tourists they were getting a genuine jungle experience, but now I think he was just trying to attract girls. During my time here, he has made inappropriate sexual advances on at least two of the young women volunteering with the community. From what I heard, two other Shuar men are guilty of similarly sleazy behaviour.

This is an indigenous community in flux, their traditional ways colliding with modern society. Back when the Shuar were a warring society, fighting incessantly for territory and survival (it’s one of the cultures infamous for shrinking the heads of their enemies), strict gender roles may have been the most successful way of organizing society. I excused monkey murder because I know it’s part of their traditional culture. Why do I find it difficult to excuse sexism for the same reason? I haven’t yet resolved this contradition in my head.

Sexism aside, there is much to admire about the Shuar culture. Folks here are unfailingly friendly, always saying “hello friend!” when they catch your eye. And one has to admire Arútam’s reason for being – to preserve the rainforest, which comes from the deep respect the Shuar hold for Mother Nature.

During our hike, one of the Eckerd College girls hit her forehead on a piece of low-hanging corrugated roof at the jungle refuge. Blood poured out of the corrugated slice in her head. All three of our Shuar guides ran in different directions into the woods, and ran back moments later, arms full of medicinal plants. They squeezed out juice, mashed up paste, and chewed up leaves to prepare various remedies for the cut. Upon seeing this process, one of the other students, a paramedic, was concerned that they weren’t treating her wound correctly. He said the first thing they should do is try to stop the bleeding. A few moments later I overheard Rodrigo, who hadn’t heard my conversation with the paramedic, say, “the first thing we need to do is stop the bleeding.” Their way, using nature’s medicines, was certainly different than North American first-aid, possibly even less effective, but I think it worked pretty well.

Nature heals, but it is also dangerous. A couple weeks before I arrived, Marco, another Shuar man, was bit in the head by a poisonous snake. He suffered a deathly fever for a few days, but eventually re-planted his feet in the land of the living. My second day here, he was back in the jungle collecting palm fronds for roofing when he startled a venomous iguana, which stung both his arms. I am told this iguana is capable of swinging it’s venomous tail and detaching it (it grows back later), effectively throwing a poison dart. Again, Marco survived, but suffered excruciating pain for several days.

I am always hesitant to talk about dangers on my blog. Sorry if I scare you, Mom. I’m not climbing palm trees or stomping barefoot through the jungle, so my chances of being attacked by a snake or iguana are pretty slim. In any case, pretty soon you can stop worrying about tropical dangers and resume worrying about bike crashes, because I bought my ticket home today. I leave Lima, Peru in the evening of June 13th, spend 16 hours twiddling my thumbs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then finally arrive in Plattsburgh, NY at 1:00 a.m. on June 15th. If anyone wants to come pick me up at the airport to drive me home to Montréal, you’re more than welcome.

Arútam: Part 1 – In the Jungle

It is night, and we are walking in the Amazon rainforest. Above, moonlit clouds shine between the shadowy outline of palm leaves and jungle trees. All else is black. We walk slowly, feeling for roots and rocks, tripping often, plunging our boots in mud. Our path is sporadically lit by eerie silent lightening, flickering behind the clouds like broken neon lights.

We hear croaks and clicks and rattles and buzz. We hear high-pitched moans and distant drums. Rodrigo, one of the Shuar men, whispers that the monkeys are having a party. He’s quite the joker, Rodrigo. The drums are coming from a nearby Shuar community, he finally admits.

This is my second week volunteering at the Arútam Forest Reserve, and my first time going this deep into the jungle. During the week, I improvise English classes for eight kids between the ages of around 8 to 16. I have also been stripping bark from logs with a machete, weaving giant palm leaves for roofing, planting sugar cane, and eating about 74 plantains a day.

Arútam is a Shuar indigenous community. It consists of 23 siblings, the sons and daughters of Ernesto and his two wives, along with their families. Ernesto has dyed black hair, and the wrinkles around his eyes suggest he has spent much of his life smiling. When he was eight years old, he was sent into the jungle to survive for three days without food. At the end of the three days, he drank ayahuasca, a potent ceremonial plant medicine in the form of a decoction, whose primary psychoactive component is in the same chemical family as LSD, magic mushrooms, and peyote. In his vision, the river turned red and became overrun by caimans. Red is a symbol of long life. There was one large caiman, which he knew was himself, and two medium sized caimans, which he divined were his future wives. Behind these three were an army of little tiny caimans.

Around the main houses of the community is secondary rainforest, regrown after it was once slashed and burned for Ernesto’s farm, After farming for years, he decided he wanted to protect the forest, not contribute to its destruction, so he turned his land into a place of cultural exchange, volunteer work, and jungle tours. Beyond what was once farmland lies virgin jungle, which is where I now find myself, along with 15 American students from Eckerd College on a spring break service trip, three Shuar men, and one other travelling volunteer.

Something glows at my feet. I see the vague lump of shadow called Frederico crouch down, and the glowing thing floats up in the dark as he lifts it from the ground. He draws patterns in the air, circles and eights, and then smack! Frederico has pieces of glow in the dark mushroom stuck to his forehead. I am delighted. I am so awake right now. I am in my body. I am in the Amazon jungle at night.

The next day, I am exhausted. For the third time in three months, I have a cold (what is wrong with my immune system these days?). I only managed 3 or 4 hours of sleep on the hard wooden floor of our jungle refuge. I am grateful that the hike back home is an easy one and a half hours.

Shortly after breakfast, with the help of ropes and the support of our strong guides, we head down a steep, muddy and rocky hill to the sacred waterfall for one last glimpse of Arútam, the diety of the Shuar people. It begins to rain, hard. Greetings God of water!

Alex and Rodrigo have collected a bunch of tobacco leaves. They crush them up and squeeze the juice directly into our cupped hands. As instructed, I lift my head back and snort the acrid liquid. My eyeballs are electric, and I want another go. Rodrigo obliges, and I snort another dose of burning tobacco juice. Suddenly I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I don’t. I am now ready to hike forever.

Two hours later I am less enthusiastic, Perhaps the boost from the tobacco (whether placebo or biochemical) is wearing off. I catch a glimpse of Alex squeezing more juice directly into his eyeball. After four hours, we have finally arrived back to the community. We survived the hike through the jungle, including several steep climbs and descents. We also survived an  attack by inexplicably aggressive black insects (our guides called them bees) that burrowed into our hair and flew under our clothes to sting us, and none of us plunged to our deaths during the adventure-movie-esque gully crossing on a fallen log.

Election Day Photos

I ask one of assault rifle toting soldiers if I’m allowed to take photos. He says, “ask the guy with the star on his hat.”

From the floor above, the boss of the soldiers watches over the outdoor basketball court that has been re-appropriated as a polling station for election day. He looks down on me as I approach. When I ask about photos, he responds, “What for?”

“Oh, we’re just tourists, interested in the election,” I say.

“No,” he says.

“Oh, uh, it’s for…” I look at Kinga, trying to think of the right word, “…journalism,” I say, looking back at him.

He kind of shrugs and says okay, so I say thanks and give him the thumbs up before he changes his mind.




Improvised Fiesta of Fruit and Flowers

We are the last two to catch the bus to Baños, Ecuador, which we run to catch as it rolls out of the terminal in Ambato. Despite being late, we get the best seats up front with the driver.

As folks from South America tend to do, he asks Kinga and I about our relationship status. It’s not easy to explain our friendship to people from this culture, and not just because of language barriers. He tells us he is ordained to perform weddings, and offers to marry us as soon as we get to Baños.

He has an assistant who collects fares and opens the door to yell at people about where the bus is going. He’s a younger guy, about 26, and when he hears that Kinga and I are not married, nor are we “novios,” he starts to hit on Kinga. “Your eyes are so beautiful. Do you have facebook? Your eyes are so beautiful. Very beautiful. Where are you staying in Quito? I will come visit you. Your eyes are so beautiful. I am a lesbian. I like women.” This is supposed to be a sexy joke, I guess.

The traffic is terrifying. The driver tells us that Baños will be so busy that we won’t find a hotel room and the hot springs will be crowded festering pools of dead human skin cells. Well, he didn’t really say that, but anyway we abandon our plan to go to Baños and get off the bus in the middle of the highway. We decide to hitchhike back to Quito. We have no water. I am really hoping we get picked up…

The third car that passes us is a small pickup with a black tarp over the truck bed. We tell the driver we’re headed to Quito, and he says “¡Vamos!” We climb in the back and find a tent set up over a double mattress laid down in the truck bed. Inside the tent are two little kids who don’t seem to like us. Do they realize their dad just invited us in, or do they think we are intruders? They threaten to spray us with foam from an aerosol can.

These cans are everywhere during the fiestas, by the way. Walking around Ambato was like running a gauntlet of soapy foam.

The truck pulls over several times – at mechanic shops to fix the engine, to buy delicious Salcedo popsicles, to pee while enjoying the view of Cotopaxi Volcano, and for other mysterious reasons. The driver’s brother is following us with other family members in another car. Each time we stop, he offers me a shot of homemade aguardiente. It is so strong it makes my eye twitch and burns my teeth. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am drunk. Kinga rejoices.


We had gone to Ambato to see the Fiesta of Fruit and Flowers, about which we initially knew nothing. The highlight of the event was the parade. There were live bands (or giant soundsystems on the back of a truck) playing salsa, traditional andean music, reggaeton, etc. Dancers in various kinds of traditional or not-so-traditional dress followed. And then there were the beauty pageant queens, about 20 of them in total (including Miss New Jersey), waving from floats made of chili peppers, bread, uchuva (groundcherries), apples, oranges, plums, corn, beans, or dozens of different kinds of food and flowers. The cops also showed up to do stunts on their motorcycles and to hang out on the landing skids of their helicopters to wave at the crowd. Our favourite part was the devils.



Three months ago, I would not have gone on this adventure to Ambato, which involved a lot of uncertainty and improvisation. How do you find a place to stay in an unknown, ultra busy city during fiesta time? The first night, we stayed outside Ambato in another city called Salcedo, on the advice of a crazy but helpful old man in the mile-long line to get on the bus in Quito. We hitchhiked to get around Ambato, and we stayed in the city until late at night without knowing how we would get back to Salcedo. It always worked out just fine. I have learned that travelling can be very rewarding when you are kind of irresponsible.

Magic and Mistaken Identity in Medellín

Two middle-aged men offered to buy me an ice cream in Parque Berrio in Medellín. The well-coiffed, thin one in a suit was a lawyer. The fat one was an economist. The lawyer told me they have an apartment nearby. Would I like to visit? I was confused by this rushed invitation. I didn’t know what to say. He changed the subject and the conversation died down pretty quickly.

An older man in baggy dress pants and a too-big, half unbuttoned collared shirt was ranting in a deep, booming voice about his mother, who was a witch. He had constructed a sort of shrine on the ground. There was a square, green piece of cloth, bordered on two sides by a line of vials filled with green liquid. Magic potions, he explained. At the top of the square cloth was a doll’s head, with a cigarette in the doll’s mouth. He ranted more about magic and his life as a child, and lit the cigarette in the doll’s mouth.


At first he ranted to an imaginary crowd, which gradually materialized into a real crowd, gathered in a wide circle around him. He insisted that we move a bit closer. He learned special powers from his mother, he told us. He flashed a razor blade and sliced through pieces of newspaper to show us how sharp the blade was. He took the blade to his palm and sliced. No blood appeared. He took the blade to his carotid artery in his neck and sliced. No blood appeared. I saw that only one side of the razor was sharp.

He asked for coins to perform a ritual that would give good fortune in business. I gave him 200 pesos (about 10 cents). He invited those who offered a coin to gather close to him. About 8 of us, all men, stood in a tight circle around him. He poured green potion into a cup filled with water, took a black stone out of his fanny pack and dropped it in the cup. He covered it with a cloth, and then uncovered it. The water was no longer green, but perfectly transparent. He poured more green potion into the water, which promptly lost its colour and turned transparent. He took more black stones out of his bag and put one in each of our hands. He poured green potion into our hands. It smelled like cheap liquid soap. He rubbed the coins we gave against the black stone and told us to rub our hands together. Presto, good fortune.

He offered to sell the potions, making about 25,000 pesos from four or five men. He invited the suckers to follow him if they wanted to receive an education on the ways of magic. Together, they walked out of the park.

Later that evening, my couchsurf host asked me where I was sitting when the men offered me ice-cream and invited me to their apartment. When I told him I was sitting on the stairs to the metro, he laughed. That is where the male prostitutes sit when they are working, he said.

Mental Breakdown. Bad Medicine. Scuba Diving. Rest.

Kinga had two small sores on her leg when she left me in Palomino. I wasn’t expecting to see her again for at least a month, but only a week later I ran into her again in Taganga. Both her legs were covered with dozens of dime-sized infected wounds, probably originating from bug bites.

In Colombia you don’t need a prescription for anything. You can just go to a pharmacist and ask for whatever you want. When you know exactly what your problem is and what drug you need, this system is very convenient. But sometimes it can be dangerous. Kinga showed her legs to a pharmacist, who gave her an “antibiotic,” which was actually an anti-viral drug that was inappropriate for her condition and made things worse. To treat the stomach pain she started to experience, the pharmacist gave her a drug that is meant to treat acid reflux and peptic ulcers. Again, this drug was inappropriate and was even more harmful than the anti-viral drug.

I got infected too. We went to see a real doctor. There was a giant painting of Jesus looking down on us in the waiting room, the walls of which were totally covered with framed certificates of participation in this or that medical conference. “Looks like someone wants to win the Nobel Prize in medicine”, said the woman next to me. We got called in, and the Nobel hopeful identified it as a bacterial infection and prescribed a penicillin injection. I’m allergic to penicillin, so while lucky Kinga got a needle stabbed in the ass by a ruthless nurse, he told me to take a different kind of antibiotic pills. I learned two days later, however, that these pills are also in the penicillin family. He prescribed me a drug that could kill me.

According to the Internet, I was having warning sign side-effects. I hadn’t died, though, and I was almost done the three day course, so I decided to keep taking them. But then yesterday I blacked out in the shower. As my vision started to go dark and I fought in vain to stay conscious, I wondered if I might be dying. It was an interesting/scary experience, and I decided to abort the course of antibiotics. We have also been using a topical antibiotic cream, however, which seems to work quite well.

Kinga is doing better. So am I, in more ways that just the infection. The overcrowded loudness of the busy season had contributed to a small mental breakdown for me. Every hostel in Taganga was full when I got back from La Guajira earlier in January, but I found a tent in a cheap place called Ocean Reef. It was hotter in the tent than out, too hot to possibly fall asleep. It was so small that my head touched one end of the tent and my feet touched the other. The rocks stabbed me through the sleeping mat and I actually started to cry because I just wanted to fucking sleep and I couldn’t.

A friend from Québec, Jacinthe, visited Taganga the next day. She asked me how I was doing, although she could see that I was not doing well. I told her there are two kinds of happiness. There is feeling good and there is living an interesting life. I’m not happy according to the first kind, but I am having a very interesting experience, and for that I feel very happy. We did contact improv on the beach after the sun went down and she gave me a little massage and magical heart healing. It was nice to smile again and feel close to someone.

I escaped the insanity of Taganga by taking a PADI open-water diver course which included two nights accommodation in a private cabaña in Tayrona National Park. From about 2:00 pm, after our last dive of the day, until 9:00 am the next day, I was utterly alone under the roof of a simple palm-leaf hut facing the ocean. After the sun went down and I couldn’t read any more, I listened to my iPod for the second and third time during this trip. (It is an escape to listen to my music, and even when I am uncomfortable in Colombia, which is often, I still want to be here, not in my iPod world. But for the sake of my sanity, I made an exception this time.) I cried again, both nights, this time not because I was breaking down, but because I was so relieved to be alone and to have the space to feel my emotions fully.

The PADI course consisted of six dives. The first two dives were shit because my instructor was distracted by having to babysit two Colombian tourists doing a “Discover Dive,” meaning they had no experience and they weren’t doing the open-water course. He had to grab them both by the arm and pull them along, while I was left to figure things out on my own. The second day I learned all the skills you are supposed to spend two (or more) days learning. For instance, ten meters under the surface of the ocean, I practiced breathing from a mock malfunctioning regulator (the thing you stick in your mouth that gives you air) by holding it just outside my mouth and taking “sips” of the stream of air bubbles. The third day was pretty free, just diving for fun. Fish and coral, sure, but my favourite was just looking up and seeing the whole underwater landscape, and seeing a flock of divers flying in slow-motion beside me.

That was almost a week ago. Since then I have been living in the twilight zone, sleeping on the windy roof of a place called Casa de Maria. I spend most of my time lying in a hammock. Kinga and I have been taking turns being sicker and taking care of each other. It has been a sort of vacation from my vacation, which has been especially relaxing now that the high season is over and Taganga is back to being a calm fishing town with just a few tourists wandering around.