Eat This Shrub and Call Me in the Morning
Story & photos by Skip Kaltenheuser
departs the Iquitos slums, which hover over the water on stilts and
rafts to accommodate mercurial high-water marks that vary 15 meters
with the Andes snowmelt. Devouring Peru's Amazon for several hours,
the boat slows as it enters the tributary Yanayacu that snakes through
the jungle like an anaconda.
Iquitos river fleet taxis
Drinking from a water vine (unidentified gentlemen)
The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends
of the Earth flows somber under an overcast sky. Joseph Conrad would
have gone for it. Villages disappear, but after every few bends in the
river, I can see Indian fishermen netting or gigging catfish, from armoured
ones that can "walk" on dry land, to giants that can swallow
a small pig. My destination, Loving Light Amazon Lodge, keeps a shaman
on retainer. I seek his vision.
An endless palette of greens shifts in light filtering
through cloud patterns and treetops. With 11 times the water volume
of the Mississippi, the river system moistens the strongest lungs of
the earth. As ill-advised development schemes narrow species diversity,
jungle shamans are also endangered. These medicine men and spiritual
leaders carry rain-forest knowledge accumulated by countless generations.
Most villages are now without a leader. Remaining shamans are elderly,
and do not have apprentices. As they die, libraries burn. This blows
an ill wind for modern medicine, which acquires many of its clinically
useful prescription drugs from the rain forest and the realm of folk
medicine. Of 80,000 Amazon plant species, only a fraction have been
Children playing in the
One shaman hanging tough is Marcelino Nolorbe Talexio.
Third generation and in his mid-30s, with hopes for his son to join
the mystic guild, he looks like an Indian James Mason. Talexio's house
specialty is Ayahuasca, the Inca "vine of the dead, vine
of the soul." Boiling down a species of Banisteriopsis vine and
a half-dozen other plants, he produces a potent mix of hallucinogenic
alkaloids, used for millennia to enter sacred supernatural worlds for
worship, healing and insight.
In the meantime, my fellow travelers and I spend several
days gathering our jungle rhythms. We occupy the day with plant lectures,
drinking water from one vine, climbing another, and avoiding one caustic
enough to burn skin. Traveling the river and adjoining lakes, we take
in the local village life that revolves around the river. Children in
a one-room schoolhouse sing for us, then play soccer in a jungle clearing.
A woman we visit downriver climbs down the high riverbank with several
children. They carry parasols and wear pained looks. She lost a child
the week before, another is down with fever. A simple gift of ibuprofen
is gratefully accepted. The small mounds in a family graveyard, marked
by tall yellow and scarlet plants, betray the Amazon's sadness high
mortality for children.
Floating house, Iquitos slum
At night, we hunt tree tarantulas. Is it the brown or
the black that really nail you? Whichever, it's the opposite for scorpions.
Or we paddle in suspenseful search of caimans, alligator-like reptiles
whose glowing eyes don't betray their actual size. Our boat guide's
hands move with startling speed, tossing small ones into the boat that
unnerve those wearing sandals. Small, colourful frogs land in our arms,
one leap ahead of the repeated query, "Is this a poison dart frog?"
Fishermen on the Rio Yanacuyo
|Fishing for the legendary
peacock bass requires special tackle one quickly takes my
lure like an hors d'oeuvre and keeps going. But piranha are a no-brainer
eat 'em before they eat you, that's my motto. Actually, you
can swim and bathe in the river as long as you're not bleeding.
The tough part is retrieving the hook from the razor teeth of a
decent-sized piranha. The best implement I've found is an Indian
carving of a phallic symbol, although hook removal sends a shiver.
And best not to get caught in a downpour while fishing.
Sheets of rain pound our long dugout canoe as lightning slices the gray
horizon, thunderclapping applause and layering dread on the faces of
the young Indian couple guiding me. We bail wildly until comically pitching
our metal pots to the far end of the canoe, as if lightning is so choosy.
No jumping to land, either the thick reeds on this river section
hide vipers and, the speedboat long gone for supplies and the shaman
who knows where, I chance lightning in preference to the bushmaster
and his cousins.
Shaman preparing the vision quest
The night of the vision quest finally arrives. The house
band singing guitarist, a maraca shaker and a bongo player
warm up Peruvian blues of unrequited love as we light lanterns and ponder
a dinner spiced with a side dish of yellow seed pod sauce known as "monkey-dick."
Offered by the chef with a sly look, its memory alone makes my face
The ceremony is in a huge, thatched dome roundhouse,
with wraparound windows covered by mosquito netting. Those not participating
wisely retire to the deck porch overlooking the river, with the exception
of the American lodge partner, the designated lifeguard this night.
Talexio begins by blowing tobacco smoke into a soda-pop
bottle filled with muddy grey glop, topping off the foulest, vilest
tasting brew to cross my lips. How bad? Large, red buckets sit ominously
in front of the newly initiated, just in case.
He settles into a five-hour rendition of his Ayahuasca
Icaro. An Icaro is a shamanic power song learned from an
elder or from the spirits, intended to provoke visions. The song alternates
with a melodic whistle while brushes woven from reeds carry the beat
on our heads and shoulders, rapping on the door between the inner self
and the rain forest.
|Ticked at having drunk
that gunk to no apparent effect, muck so foul no monkey-dick could
fix it, I stand up. I sit down. The jungle's cacophony of night
sounds blend into the shaman's song, which I hug like a life raft.
Skepticism over the shaman's mental alchemy vanishes as the forest
reaches out to my senses while the night's lightning storms play
on the horizon like distant artillery.
The chaotic onslaught of the jungle coalesces into an
inclusive organic wave washing over me, imparting the reverence with
which many locals view their surroundings. What a loss to lose this
relationship. I mull over private thoughts until sunrise.
I'll share one. My father was a traveling salesman with
a well-received megawatt smile. Our bond cemented around riding horses
on weekends and vacations where his LeSabre, replaced every two years
with phenomenal miles logged, navigated the West in a week. He drove
hundreds of miles across Kansas at a fast clip to just make a high school
wrestling match. Our relationship strained during the Vietnam protests
but I felt lucky to have it. Insights often came from around the corner,
a tear while watching "Death of a Salesman." Born in 1907,
his life was interrupted by WWII, when he was second in command on a
Navy ship. So dad was in his mid-forties when his only child was born.
Some kids confused him with my grandfather. My father died a few years
before my Amazon sojourn, just after the birth of my daughter
I think he struggled to hold on until then. I felt I never had time
The shaman's brushes chased away molten pools of gold. Suddenly my father
was with me. Arm in arm, we strolled about the circular chamber
which gained size with every step sheltering us from the thunder
and lightning outside. He was a young man I'd never known.
His face matched a large oval portrait photo I'd found in a farm attic,
from when he was called "Slim" and "Red". He wore
a straw boater style hat. In real time, I was a generation older than
he was during his visit, but that night my years rolled off, too
a peer, a pal. I don't recall words, but communications were clear as
a bell. A smile speaking volumes. Immensely satisfying. Joyful. Fantastic.
Shaman at the helm
In the morning, we gather for the shaman's debriefing.
We describe our visions to a translator and hear the shaman's analysis.
The shaman sips a mixture of rum and garlic, blowing it onto the back
of our heads as he sings and whistles and beats about our heads and
shoulders with brushes. Sobering.
Talexio takes the helm of a long dugout and we journey
down the Yanayacu to the Amazon for a rendezvous with pink river dolphins.
They bob around us, like they're waiting to play a game of Marco Polo.
Mixed with their grey brethren, they look as if some crazed interior
decorator named Kurtz had gone up river in the '80s and then gone terribly
wrong in the heart of darkness. Hot and weary from the night's rigours,
we swim in the cool murky waters, but the dolphins keep respectful distance.
Local mermaid legends undoubtedly originated with the pink dolphins,
fueled by a local's cane-juice horror.
Swimming off the broad expanse of a river beach one
easily imagines caimans, electric eels, big fish with fins like daggers
and pesky piranha. They don't concern me. My frontal lobes are captive
to the legend of the Candiru, the Toothpick Fish. This tiny parasitic
catfish is said to navigate warm urethra canal currents. Once upstream,
he secures his berth with open fins. Wrapped like an onion, I sport
two swimsuits and all my dirty underwear. If the Candiru gets me, it
would only be as an overwrought metaphor for the civilization I have
sought refuge from.
Contemplating river passage
Flocks of ducks fly low in formation along the river
as we begin the long voyage back up the Yanayacu. Our all-purpose shaman
tends the precious motor rigged onto our dugout. Despite strong currents,
floating plants form a thick pea green soup. Approaching storm clouds
turn the sky steel gray. Not to worry, my shaman is at the rudder.
Suddenly, Talexio looks sheepish. The dugout stops,
then drifts backwards. The shaman, who does Ayahuasca four or five times
a week, forgot to fill the gas tank. The dugout has one paddle. Night
Entrance to the Loving Light Lodge
Lightning flashes and the rain comes. A flashlight beam
lights a caiman's eyes. The beer runs out. "Before we die, what
is the lesson, O shaman?" I ask with a sneer.
"Manten tus pantalones bien puestos,"
he replies, reading my earlier fit of fright with the Candiru. Roughly
translated, it means, "Keep your pants on."
Loving Light Amazon Lodge: Extremely remote and rustic,
but pleasing, with a minimum of layers insulating visitors from the
environment. Medical personnel stay for free at Loving Light on any
day they spend half their time tending the needs of area villages. Major
medical volunteer missions elsewhere in Peru's Amazon can be organized
through the Rainforest Health Project in Washington State (firstname.lastname@example.org,
Little Girl and Singer Sewing Machine
|(So, in memoriam to Loving
Light, some unethical locals sold off the lodge wood piece by piece
without notification to the owner choose management carefully
a sad loss making this a glorious but brief place in the
time/space continuum perhaps fourteen years past. Gone but not forgotten,
in the Twilight Zone).
Amazon Adventure; The
Lure of the Amazon; The
Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu; Lima,
Machu Picchu, Peru; Belize,