the Long's Strange Trip

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~  At Home on the Amazon ~
March 18 through March 25, 2000
$1 U.S. = 3.40 sols
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Iquitos and the Amazon, Peru
March 18 through March 25

Sunset over the Amazon(ccl/wpl)  On Saturday morning we got up very early because we had been told to be at the airport two hours prior to our 8:00 flight to Lima, which had an 11:30 connection to Iquitos.  Typically, we were some of the first people at the airport, beating even the Aero Continente staff to their appointed posts.  After getting some breakfast, we headed to the gate area around 7:30.  8:00 came and went, as did 8:30, 9:00, and 9:30.  By this time the gate area was packed with people who were waiting for their flights to leave.  Wiley and I had a spot on the floor and were playing cards to pass the time.  Let me remind you again at this point, dear readers, that very few public buildings in Peru have heat, so most everybody was utilizing their new Peruvian hats, scarves, and gloves.

Around 10:30 we somehow learned that the weather had grounded all the flights out of Cusco that morning, despite the fact that the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  Our flight finally left for Lima at around 12:30, and I will not even go into the crush of humanity that we had to navigate at the gate to get to our plane.

Obviously, by the time we got to Lima, our flight to Iquitos was long gone.  Surprisingly, an Aero Continente employee met us at the plane, escorted us to the counter, and issued us new tickets on the 4:30 flight.

When we landed in Iquitos it was about 6:00, and one of the nine Peruvian presidential candidates was scheduled to make an appearance in Iquitos later that evening.  It looked like the whole town had turned out at the airport in anticipation of his arrival.  The election is April 9, and there is hardly a house, rock, or wall in the entire country of Peru that isn't painted with one or more of the candidates' propaganda.  Alberto Fujimori has been president for ten years and, conveniently for him, he was able to change the constitution to allow himself another term.  Most people credit him with squashing the terrorism that was rampant in Lima and the coca-growing regions of Peru, and with improving the plight of the poor, but many people feel that it's time for someone with new ideas.

A man named Jorge picked us up at the airport.  Jorge is a partial owner in the Amazon Lodge, which is where we would be staying for the next six days.  Jorge put us on a boat on the Amazon just as night was falling.  He explained that we shouldn't worry, because the moon was full and the driver knew the way very well.  Also, the driver had a spotlight in case he needed it...

The ride was beautiful.  The full moon reflected off the smooth surface of the water, and the stars were out.  There were very few other boats in the water, and by about 8:00 we were docking at the Amazon Lodge.  What a sight!  There's no electricity out in the jungle, but the staff at the lodge put out kerosene lanterns all around the property once night fell.  It is quite beautiful and tranquil, and the sounds of the jungle night fill the air.

Christie and Sebastian  We sat down to our first dinner by lantern light in the large screened-in dining hall.  The food at the Lodge was incredible - everything was completely fresh, from the fish that swam in the river only hours before we ate them to the papaya slices that came from the Lodge's trees.  One afternoon a wild boar came running through the property.  A quick-moving employee chased him down, off'ed him with his machete, and the next day we feasted on wild boar at lunch.  The meat was delicious - incredibly lean and tender.  It turns out that a whole band (coven? tribe? gaggle?) of wild boars had been in the area, and a baby boar had been abandoned by his mother.  Dora, the head employee at the lodge, took the little guy in and named him "Baby", in deference to the more famous movie pig.  Baby was settling into life at the Amazon Lodge somewhat tentatively as we were leaving.  The menagerie of pets consisted of two titi monkeys, Pedro and Pancho, a marmoset named Danello, a wonderful dog named Sebastian, Negra, the spider monkey, two gorgeous red macaws, four blue and yellow macaws, too many green parrots to count, and a very strange trumpet bird who liked to chase people and Sebastian around the grounds.  My favorite marmoset

At dinner that first night we met our companions for the week, Mark and Stephanie Smith and their son Bryant, of West Point, New York.  You may have already gotten a little background on the Smiths from Wiley's story in Medicine, Coincidence, and a Hole in the Head.  The more we talked with them, the more we found we had in common.  Mark is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a 1979 graduate of the University of Alabama, the same school revered by Wiley and his entire family.  Bryant is named after legendary Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant.  Mark is the cadet's doctor at West Point, the U.S. Army academy.  He incorporates many alternative techniques in his practice, including homeopathy and herbal medicine.  Stephanie is a registered nurse, Reikki master, and an importer and distributor of Maca, a Peruvian herb shown to alleviate the discomforts of menopause.  Throughout the week we discussed topics as far-ranging as college football and natural childbirth.  We couldn't have had more delightful and interesting companions for a week in the jungle, especially given that these are the exact types of people that Wiley hopes to solicit input from on his potential career options.   Stephanie and Mark

At the Amazon Lodge, you can have as much or as little activity as you choose.  There are several boats, and your guide is available to take you fishing, on a hike through the jungle, or on a wildlife-spotting boat ride.  Or, you can just lay in the hammock and nap away the afternoon.  Wilson was our guide.  Like many Peruvians in the tourism industry, Wilson taught himself English.  His parents split up when he was very young, which forced him onto the streets to sell ice cream to help support his mother and siblings.  Despite the fact that Wilson never got past the 4th grade in school, he knows everything about the plants and animals of the jungle, including many of the Latin names.  He pointed out many plants throughout the week and told us how the locals use them to cure many different illnesses, including parasites (a big problem for the children of the jungle, as everyone there drinks from the river), kidney ailments, and infections.  For instance, the fruit of the muyaca plant is used by people who live in the jungle to prevent malaria.  While I found all this very interesting, it was especially fascinating for Wiley, Stephanie, and Mark.  Wilson even managed to find a Camu-camu tree to show us.  Camu-camu is a plant whose fruit has a very large amount of vitamin C, and is reported to have anti-viral properties.  One of the reasons Stephanie had come to Peru was to investigate importing the fruit into the States and selling it as a supplement.

Wilson grew up in the jungle, and still has property somewhere "out there".  He pointed out hawks, monkeys, pink dolphins, termites, and many other creatures of the jungle throughout the week.  One night, as we sat in the boat at dusk, watching pink dolphins surface and submerge around us, he told us a story about how his oldest brother drowned in the Amazon when he was only 11 years old.  Wilson's grandfather drank a substance made of many jungle plants, called ayahuasca (eye-ah-was-ca), and had a vision of a mermaid who said that she loved the boy and had taken him to live underwater with her.  This gave Wilson comfort, and he still believes that his brother is alive, in the Amazon, living somewhere with a beautiful mermaid.

So this brings me to the story of our ayahuasca experience.  As I mentioned above, ayahuasca is made from several plants that are indigenous to the jungle (see Wiley's recipe).  The Indians of South America have used this drink for over 1000 years as a tool for healing.  Shamans drink the ayahuasca, and they believe the resulting visions they have help them understand how to heal someone who is sick.  Our shaman was named Norma.  Norma was inspired to learn natural medicine after a local shaman cured her of cancer as a young girl.

Norma began preparing the ayahuasca for our ceremony at 6:00 Monday morning.  The ayahuasca had to cook all day long.  In the meantime, we went for a hike in the jungle with Wilson.  It was hot and steamy, and each of us had our own personal cloud of mosquitoes to escort us.  It wasn't so bad as long as you were moving, but when we stopped to look at something, one or two of the little fiends was able to permeate the heavy layer of DEET we were each wearing.  It wasn't the most pleasant experience, as the water was up, which required that we wade through some areas.  Well, everyone waded but me, because Wiley piggy-backed me so my boots wouldn't get wet.  Apparently, the honeymoon isn't over...

Bryant was invited to participate in the ceremony, but declined, so it was Mark, Stephanie, Wiley, and I, along with Norma and her assistant, and Wilson as a translator.  At about 6:00 that evening we got ready for the ceremony. We were first instructed to take a shower, repeating the words, "God and man are one, and if God is with me, nothing can be against me." We then went to room 10, where the ceremony was to take place, to take our aromatic flower bath to cleanse ourselves prior to the ceremony. In it there were plants to protect against bad spirits, to protect us from brujeros (witches), and plants to purify us. As we individually poured a bowl of the incredibly fragrant water over our heads, we recited "All that is bad goes out of me." After then turning to the right to face west, we recited "All that is good comes into me."

For the people of the Amazon, the ayahuasca ceremony is sacred and is approached with reverence.   Before we drank the tea, Norma said a prayer, as Catholicism is intertwined with the rites of the jungle.  (She also wore a protective head band, which she compared to Jesus' crown of thorns).  I was the first to drink, and as a large shot glass of the drink was handed to me, I focused on an intention and drank it down.  We were all seated on cushions on the floor of one of the cabins.  A thunderstorm outside provided sporadic light flashes into the otherwise total darkness.  After everyone had drunk the tea, which tasted like really strong, bitter coffee, we waited for about 15 minutes.  Then Norma and her assistant began singing and humming traditional ayahuasca songs.  The shamans say that the ayahuasca vine teaches them the songs.  The purpose of the singing is to facilitate the visions.  The sounds were beautiful, and I felt very comfortable.  Norma drank pure tobacco juice, which she said makes her tranquil and able to facilitate the visions of those around her.  

After about 10 minutes, I began to see other people in the room.  They looked like ancient Peruvians to me, and their presence was comforting.  Norma later told me that this is a common vision.  (wpl) - A pipe (by the name of "Ronco") of strong tobacco was passed around, and we were told to smoke.  As none of us were smokers, everyone had a little bit of a challenging time with that.  Periodically we were asked if we were seeing anything, with only Christie answering in the affirmative.)  With my eyes closed I could see many beautiful pictures in my mind.  I thought about my family, and about this amazing journey that Wiley and I are on.  At one point, I saw myself in the kitchen of a huge house with lots of children, some of them blonde and some of them Peruvian!  I was a little concerned about this, but Norma told me that the children were my protectors.

Beautiful singing and whistling continued, while her assistant smoked cigarette after cigarette, blowing cleansing and protective tobacco smoke in the air and rattling a shaker of leaves in beat with the singing.

After about two hours the visions and dreams were over, and I found out the neither Wiley, Mark, or Stephanie had had any visions.  Norma then gave some impressions she had.  She said that I would live a long life, and she said Wiley had many projects he was working on.  They tried again the next night, but still had no visions.  I am still sorting out all of my thoughts and dreams from that night, and I feel very lucky to have been able to be a part of such an ancient ritual.

(wpl)  The next night Mark, Stephanie, and I made our second attempt at the ayahuasca.  This time Wilson participated, and Norma also took the ayahuasca.  It was much thicker this time, as Norma was determined that the rest of us would have visions.  Mark got sick first (throwing up is a common event when taking ayahuasca - it's considered a "cleansing" event) and stayed very sick all night.  Stephanie got sick a few times, Norma got sick, Wilson almost got sick, and I didn't get sick at all.  Again, no one (except Norma) really had any visions.  The only slight vision I had was of a pair of tennis shoes with stickers of eyeballs on them.  Norma later told me that meant that someone was envious of me.  I don't know why that would be...

Roughing it...gently The cabins at the Lodge were rustic but comfortable.  Everything was built on stilts, since the Amazon rises quite high during the rainy season.  One morning it started raining around 4:00 and continued well past noon.  The sound of the rain pattering on the thatched roof of our cabin was the best sleeping prescription available!  Some of my favorite memories from the week are of the time I spent just lazing the time away, in one of the comfortable hammocks on the big porch.  Everyone seemed to take a nap after lunch, including the staff, so things got really quiet and peaceful.  It was truly a relaxing week.  Former corporate denizens and mortgage holders, now unemployed backpackers

We visited the Yagua Indians, who live on land owned by the Amazon Lodge.  The chief and several of the men demonstrated their accuracy with the blow gun by nailing a $5 bill attached to a post (Whoever hit the money got to keep it.  The chief was the first to hit it - don't know if the other guys in the tribe were deferring to the chief or not.).  They make a potion called curare out of jungle plants, and dip the darts in the curare.  Curare is deadly to animals and humans, as it causes respiratory arrest in animals once they are hit with the dart.  The Indians sharpen the blow darts with the jaw of a piranha.   Glad we don't have to get our food this way

The Amazonian jungle is an incredibly tranquil place, but living there isn't easy.  Most people are farmers, growing bananas, yucca, papaya, corn, potatoes, or other crops for consumption and for selling in the markets of Iquitos.  Wilson explained that the inhabitants of the jungle start their day at sunrise, cultivating crops or fishing for the next meal.  There is abundance, but survival is the name of the game.  Everyday is devoted to securing the next meal for the family, and the people work hard. 

On Friday morning we got up early and headed out from the Lodge for our trip back to civilization.  On our way back to Iquitos we stopped to visit the Boras Indians.  They performed several tribal songs and dances, and of course, drafted us to participate.  They were probably thinking, "Man, these white people sure don't have any rhythm!"...  White people can't dance

Floating city  Before docking in Iquitos, we traveled through the floating neighborhood of Belen.  Belen grew up during the rubber boom of the late 1800's when housing was short in Iquitos.  To solve the problem, people began building their houses on balsa wood supports and living directly on the Amazon.  It was a rather depressing-looking place, especially when Wilson pointed out that the residents of Belen use the water of the Amazon for cooking, drinking, washing clothes, bathing, and as the place where the outhouses empty.  At one point we passed a man with no shirt, sitting on the front porch of a house labeled "Dentist", waiting for his next patient.

After docking and having lunch we walked back to Belen to visit the large open-air market there.  I always love going to markets when I travel.  I get this sense of abundance, and the sights and smells are incredible.  I am fascinated by what the local people are buying to eat and use in their homes.  Belen was no exception.  We saw people rolling and bundling hand-rolled cigarettes made of pure tobacco, people selling all kinds of fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs, pig's heads, dried fish - you name it, it was there, and somebody was selling it.  Wiley bought a homemade remedy from a woman who said she could cure his cold, or grippe.  She kept handing him shot glasses full of different kinds of liquid, and took great offense when I asked her if her potions were made with agua purificada.  After his second slug of murky, unknown liquid, I walked away and left him to his own devices. 

Later that afternoon we said goodbye to the Smiths.  Stephanie was staying on a few days in Lima to visit with a doctor there who has done a lot of research with Maca.  We spent the night in Iquitos, then flew to Lima the next morning.  Our second visit to Lima was much better than our first.  This time we stayed in the Miraflores section of town, which is quite upscale.  We got a little hotel room, got some clothes washed (the guy who ran the laundry had a "New York Marathon" t-shirt on and we talked marathons and running for a while), and bought some things we needed that you can only get in a big city.  Wiley tried ceviche  for lunch, which is a delicious dish made from fish pieces "cooked" in lime juice and spices (no heat), and served with tomatoes, onions, corn and sweet potatoes.  We enjoyed walking around the neighborhoods with the locals, just taking it easy on a Saturday afternoon.

On Sunday morning we headed back to the airport for our flight to Cusco.  The only reason for going back there was to get the train south to Puno and Lake Titicaca.  Someone we met while traveling had told us that the party atmosphere of Cusco gets old, and we agreed by this time.  Everyone wants to give you a flyer for their bar, wants you to look at the menu for the restaurant they work for, or wants you to buy something.  It's somewhat draining.  Mostly we laid low and updated the web site.  After we selected a hotel room, we told the manager that we wanted to buy train tickets to Puno.  In about 5 minutes our phone rang, and they told us a man was downstairs and he could sell us train tickets.  We met Caesar, and gave him $56 for the tickets.  He told us that he would be back in the morning to pick us up at 7:30 to take us to the train station.  After he left, I had the distinct feeling that I had done a really dumb thing, but sure enough, Caesar was there at 7:25 the next morning.  He whisked us to the train station, and we were off for points south.

Click here to continue in Peru/Bolivia with "Of Reed Boats and Floating Islands"



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