What Ayahuasca is Like

The ayahuasca root

The ayahuasca looked like sludge.  I was afraid to smell it.  I’d never done any kind of mind-altering drugs, and I knew ayahuasca would be an intense initiation into hallucinogenics.  I felt somewhat comforted by the shaman’s presence.  He was experienced with this and there to guide me.  In Ecuador, despite the government’s harsh stance on drugs (ask any of the foreigners stuck in jail for a few years for possession of pot), ayahuasca is legal when taken with a shaman.

Don Alfonso scooped a larger bowl for himself.  “Be careful that you dream the right dream, or your dream may become a nightmare,” he said.  He studied me then began to laugh.  “Do you know why you’re here?”

I started to suspect that he, like myself, was a little drunk.  “Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.

“You are searching for something.  It was not chance that your aunt brought the picture of the Cayramashi.  Tonight, I’m going to find it.  We’ll find it together,” he said.  “The Cayramashi carries the wisdom of a hundred great shamans’ minds.  I always dreamed a visitor from far away would lead me to it.”  He drank his bowl.

Being alone with the shaman underneath his cabin amidst a chorus of a million singing insects inspired a faith in the mystical journey that’s hard to describe.  Perhaps it’s kind of like how listening to Mozart’s Mass in C minor in a Renaissance cathedral can draw spirituality out of the most hardened atheist.  I closed my eyes and gulped it as fast as I could, spilling some onto my Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville t-shirt.

“Ask the yaje a question.”

The only question I had at the moment was when am I going to vomit.  I knew that ayahuasca could be dangerous and that vomiting was necessary to clear the worst toxins from your system.  Immediately, the drink felt indigestible.  I slumped over.  Across from me, the shaman closed his eyes and leaned back, satisfied as if savoring a fine Cabernet.  I tried to stand and pace the room, but my legs felt wobbly.  I sat back down and waited.  After about fifteen minutes, the shaman strolled over to a bush, and vomited in fiery heaves.  But his bowl had been bigger than mine, so perhaps the sickness had come more quickly for him.  He returned to his seated position across from me and fixed his eyes on mine.

I relaxed and took in the sounds of the jungle and concentrated on controlling my breathing.  I wanted to be calm.  Upon closing my eyes, the blackness in my mind was filled with brilliant colors shooting off like fireworks.  Each sound blossomed into shapes of varying animals.  I saw the vibrant outlines of monkeys, snakes, insects, birds, and jaguars.  They would vanish almost as quickly as they appeared.  At times it was so overwhelming I grew dizzy and opened my eyes.  In the visible world outside my mind, the shadows around me came alive, nothing creepy or psychedelic, just alive.  When I closed my eyes again, the shapes reappeared, but I discovered if I narrowed my focus to just one sound in the jungle, everything would go black.

“Why have I not gotten sick?” I asked.

“Don’t fight it.  Let the ayahuasca escape your body.”

“I’m trying!”

“You can’t make it happen.  Let it happen.”

I returned to my images and let a lazy smile curl onto my face.  Everything was going to be okay if I surrendered myself to the jungle, to the ayahuasca, and to the world.  Soon after, the toxins began their flight from my body; I walked to a bush and vomited.  When I returned, the shaman was aglow, not literally, but aglow is the best way I can describe it.  It was as if I could see his emotions, his kindness, his curiosity.  It was an amazing feeling, being that connected.

“Fly with me,” Don Alfonso said when I returned.

Truth be told, I didn’t see the images the shaman saw when he departed on his journey, though I wanted to.  Besides the fireworks display in my mind, there was nothing else.  “Where are we going?” I asked, still playing along.

“Follow me down the river,” he said.  The shaman described the terrain on our travels, but I could only imagine navigating over the brown river and soaring over kapok trees.

I don’t remember when he put out the fire underneath the pot.  I don’t remember when I lay on my back.  The world’s transformation before my eyes was so gradual and seamless that I never suspected the departure from my former universe of precision and reality to the shaman’s world of spiritual fantasy.  Concentrating on his voice made the crude but colorful outlines of animals disappear.  But when he asked, “Do you see the great red tree below?” I opened my eyes and saw it below me.

“Sure,” I answered.  I was soaring high above the trees and darkness had turned to daylight.  I didn’t see my wings; I was more like a particle of air floating through space.  The shaman was a man yet a bird with his colorful feathers.  All of this seemed absolutely normal.  And I did see the red tree.  It seemed as if it had been transported from a New England autumn to the jungle.

He swooped down to the earth and I followed, but when I reached the ground, I had difficulty moving.  I found myself inching towards the red tree.  Now, the shaman was a leaping from tree to tree.  Without speaking, he urged me to follow him.

“Why can’t I move?” I asked.  “Why can’t I fly anymore?”  An incredible weight was stopping me.

“Hey!” a voice called out.

I looked to my side and saw a turtle next to me—not at my feet, but next to me.  His head seemed enormous.

“You can’t go that way,” it said.

“Why not?”

“Because you don’t belong in there.  Our home is outside the jungle.  Besides, the anaconda blocks the only path.”

A giant anaconda was rolled up in a coil, apparently sleeping.  A swarm of vicious flies hovered over its muscular body.  I looked around for the shaman, but he was gone.

“Then I’ll go over it,” I said.

The turtle laughed.  “You can’t get over it.”

I crept up to the snake.  Just as I prepared to crawl over him, he whipped out his tongue and flicked it rapidly.  Then, with amazing quickness, he uncoiled his head and came at me with his fangs.  I pulled back and suddenly found myself in a cave.  I could hear the anaconda’s voice.

“You shouldn’t have gone down this path.  Why are you so foolish?” He waited for me to answer, but I didn’t want to give away my hiding spot by speaking. So I remained silent.  The anaconda laughed.  “You think you can hide safely under that shell?  I can flip you over, pull you out, and devour you.”

I felt his head start to burrow beside me.  I quickly dug myself into a hole making it impossible for him to get under me to flip me over.

“He laughed again.  “What a hole you’re in now!  You can’t stay there forever.  Eventually you’ll have to come out.”

A flash of light swept briefly before my eyes.  And then again.  First it was a flash of red.  Then a flash of green.  The colors were iridescent and beautiful.  Finally darkness was lifted completely and I was again face to face with the anaconda.  His gaze, however, was skyward.  I looked up at the brilliant colors blazing through the sky.  It was the Cayramashi.  My spirits were lifted and I wanted to be with its beauty.  My shell was in its talons.  It flew on into the jungle.  I had a surge of energy.  I rose to my feet and leapt over the anaconda before he could react.  I raced through the forest with amazing speed.  I was a jaguar.  I jumped over fallen trees and burst through dense foliage as easily as a bird flies through a cloud.  The Cayramashi was overhead, appearing and disappearing behind the leaves of the trees.

Finally, the Cayramashi came to a stop and perched itself high on a hill.  I tried to follow but the hill was slippery and steep.  I couldn’t gain enough traction to climb.  High above, the shaman sat next to the Cayramashi, but neither he nor the bird offered any help.  “Patience,” he said.

Then an explosion blasted through the forest.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Hunters.”

I heard another shot.  Closer.  I panicked.  “What are they hunting?”

“Probably jaguars.”

I looked for a place to run.  Another shot rang out, this one closer.  My eyes opened.  “What was that?”

The shaman was sitting across from me.  A candle lay burning between us.  “Hunters.  Don’t worry.  They’re on the other side of the river.”

“What are they hunting?”

“Jaguars, probably.”

“Did I already ask you that?”

“Don’t worry about it.  Sleep.”

I put my hands on my head and felt my hair, and my forehead, and my nose, and my ears.  I lay back down on the ground and closed my eyes.  The jungle noise once again filled my ears and fading glitters of light poked through the blackness in my mind until I fell asleep.

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A Shamanic Ritual

As we neared the shaman’s cabin on stilts, a teenage, cherub-shaped boy emerged from the door and led us up a set of exterior stairs into the main room with a long wooden bench against the back wall and a tiny stool in the center.  Without a word, the boy disappeared, so we sat on the bench and waited.  When at last Don Alfonso entered, I couldn’t help but stare.  I knew what to expect, but seeing him in person was surreal.  His crown and his arms were adorned with colorful macaw feathers.  Several layers of beaded necklaces hung around his neck as well as more impressive necklaces made from the teeth of jaguars and shells of river creatures.  Bright streaks of red dye from achiote seeds marked his weathered face.  He sat on the stool, lit a cigarette, and waited for us to initiate an exchange.

Aunt Belén’s movement was so slight that at first I didn’t detect it.  From her backpack, she slid out Uncle Enrique’s leather journal.  It had been almost twenty years since I’d seen that book but I recognized it and the drawing she pulled out of it.  She rose to her feet and approached the shaman.  His eyes grew wide as she handed the drawing to him, and I knew what he was going to say before he said it.  “The Cayramashi.”  His voice was higher and wavered more than I expected.  “The Cayramashi contains the wisdom of the greatest shamans.”  He called out to his son who quickly came.   He gave the drawing to the boy who, handling the paper carefully, disappeared into the back room.  The shaman guided Belén to sit.  He sang, his voice interrupted by periodic coughs, and waved a branch of dried leaves over her head.  This, Colin later explained, was a limpia, and the shaman, despite the cigarette in his mouth, was not a chain smoker.  The smoke served to cleanse the patient’s body of evil spirits.  When he had finished, he took Belén by the hand to the back room.  There was more singing, then silence.  We waited for hours, filling our time by wandering around the cabin as Omar identified the plants and wildlife.

Angel's Trumpets outside the Shaman's cabin

It was late in the evening before Don Alfonso emerged.  “She has cancer,” he said.

We had traveled for sixteen total hours for the shaman to tell us what we already knew.  But perhaps that’s what many great journeys do, confirm what we already know to be true.

El Dorado – The Golden Man

On the mountain overlooking Lake Guatavita there are four placards summarizing the words of the elders of the Muisca tribe.

Fire. This is the light which shows the way, dispelling the shadows of fear in our hearts, If we control the fire of our passions, we will find peace in our spirit and will shed light on the path of those who come after us.

Water. Life’s fluid dancing in the universe, present in each one of its manifestations. Along the way, it purifies the soul and fertilizes our earth.

Earth. This is the body on which dreams are woven.

Wind. The breath of life. Everything comes and goes. So the thoughts we project should be full of love. What is the seed you share as you meet other people on your path?

I had packed all my bags and managed to talk my airline into connecting me through Bogota on my way back to the United States so I would have one full day with a missionary I had met and become close to while in Ecuador.  When he picked me up at the airport, he didn’t ask many questions and talked only of his new projects around Bogota.  The next morning he had me out of bed early for a day excursion to a lake about sixty miles outside the city.  During the ride, I tried to figure out a way to tell him my story, but I didn’t know whether to begin with an apology or to plunge right into it.  It was a Saturday afternoon, and the park containing Lake Guatavita was strangely devoid of tourists.  Colin apparently knew the area well and talked the park ranger into allowing us to climb to the top without the aid of a guide.

After a thirty-minute hike we reached the top of the ridge overlooking Lake Guatavita.  Colin leaned against the railing and faced me.  “Do you know the legend of El Dorado?”

“The city of gold, right?”

“That’s right.  But the name refers to ‘the golden man.’  Did you know that legend has its origins in this lake?”

“Really?  I’ve never heard of Guatavita.”

“People have done crazy things in the search for El Dorado.  But it was all a misunderstanding.  The Muisca people who lived here worshiped the earth.  When a new chief came to power after having been prepared for his role since childhood, he would take part in a ceremony to honor the lake.  Dipped in honey and covered in gold dust, El Dorado would go out on a boat to the center of the lake and when the sun emerged in the sky, he would jump in.

“The gold dust represented seeds.  So when he went into the water he symbolically fertilized the womb of mother earth and in return received the power necessary to rule his people.  After he came out of the water the people would throw offerings – many of gold – into the middle of the lake.  Can you imagine what an outsider would have thought when he saw a man of gold rowing out there or when he witnessed the people participating in the ceremony throwing gold and emeralds into the water?”  Colin gave me a moment to let it sink in.  “This is how the legend of El Dorado came to be.  Of course the legend grew to where the Spanish believed there were cities made of gold and went deep into the jungles searching for El Dorado.  And it all started because of outsiders misinterpreting a religious ceremony.  El Dorado was not a city.  El Dorado was a man.  He was a man who worshiped and understood our connection to the earth.  This is the treasure of the Muisca people.  In the good ol’ days people didn’t come to take from the lake.  They made a pilgrimage here to give to the lake.  The crater itself was the womb of mother earth.”

I looked out over the perfectly round lake.  It was completely peaceful.  “Where are the tourists?” I asked.

“People are afraid to come to Colombia.  Even though a tourist hasn’t been kidnapped in nearly ten years, there’s a history of violence that lingers in people’s minds.  We know it’s safe, but people have so many countries to choose to visit so they figure, why risk Colombia.  It’s a shame.  They’ll never know what a great country it really is.”

I looked out over the nearby hills that made the shape of a man lying on his back.  “That’s sad.  It’s sad that this country will forever be viewed through a prism of violence.”

“Not forever.  Forever’s a long time.  Perceptions change over time.”

I was overcome with a feeling of calm.  My heart seemed to slow and my face relaxed into a smile.  “Did the Spanish ever find much gold at this site?” I asked.

“Of course.  But everyone who has come trying to extract the gold from the bottom has been bankrupted in the process.  The Spanish tried.  The Dutch have tried.  Americans have tried.  It’s not meant to be.  Do you see that ‘V’ carved in the mountain?”

“That was a failed attempt to drain the lake.  They extracted a lot but always invested more to find what lies at the bottom.  That’s supposedly where the good stuff is.  The water level has dropped considerably because of the attempts.  Do you see across the lake there about midway above the water?  That’s how high the water used to be before the lake was drained.  If you look across the shore you can see an entrance to the caves where archaeologists have found a bunch of artifacts including a boat made of gold.”

I studied Colin carefully.  I didn’t know if this was the best time to bring it up.  “Did you know there are caves near Misahualli?”

“Sure,” he said.  “But they’re a muddy mess when they’re not full of water.  But they also hold the cleanest water.”

“And the shamans know of them?” I asked.

He gave me a wry smile.  “The Spanish left many written accounts of shamans who spent extended periods of time in caves with no exposure to sunlight.  It was a place to think.  It was a rite of passage.  Here in Colombia, not far from Bogota, they’ve found human bones that are oddly curved.  The lack of exposure to the sun creates a deficiency of vitamin D causing the bones to warp, so scientists believe these bones belonged to shamans who confined themselves to the caves.”

We climbed to a higher vantage point and looked out over the lake.  Apparently there is debate over how a crater lake came to be in a non-volcanic region.  Some say a meteor crashed into the mountain.  Another theory is that the lake is the result of a caved in salt dome.  Nevertheless, the water is said to be over 250 meters deep and so murky near the bottom, scuba teams were unable to see enough to find anything.  A few years ago, the government put an end to the searches and created a national park to protect the lake.

Colin turned his back to the water.  “Today people don’t throw things into the lagoon.  What they do—many people from many religions from all over the world—is come here and put their backs to the lagoon, to keep the old traditions, and make a meditation for about a minute.  And you ask for something.  Then you take your thoughts…”  He made a fist, then turned around, opened his hand, and blew his thoughts into the lake.  “…and you give it.  It’s the gift.”

I stood there at the highest point of the mountain overlooking the crater-lake.  I turned my back to it and closed my eyes.  Prayers filled my mind and I was overcome by hope.  I knew what I had to offer and took it from my pocket.  I thought of her as she drifted into my consciousness.  I turned and faced the lake and took a deep breath.  I opened my hand and released it.  I think I saw the glint of gold as it fluttered toward the deep waters.

Along the pathway home

In Ushuaia

Midnight in Ushuaia

WE ARRIVED in Ushuaia last night at 10:30 pm, but the sun remained hovering midway up the sky.  The bus came to its final stop by the pier near several medium-sized vessels that were dwarfed by an Antarctica-bound cruise ship.  As we got off the bus a crowd of salesmen swarmed us with offers to stay at one of their hotels or hostels, but I had already made a reservation the day I left Montevideo.  An Israeli girl I had been talking to since the ferry across the Strait of Magellan jumped at one of those offers and before I knew it, she and her uncle and brother were in a van, out of my life and into my memories.  The other passengers dispersed leaving me alone with my overstuffed pack and a crude map of Ushuaia.  In Ushuaia the wind blows only from the south and the diminutive trees bow in penitence.  And if light could blow in the wind, here it does.  It blows into you.  It blows through you.  It fills you.

I followed the road listed on the map and climbed a steep hill, but the road ended at a cliff before I reached my hostel.  Playing in the streets were a couple of kids (What is bedtime in a land that never darkens?) whom I could have asked for directions, but I felt confident in my ability to find my destination.  I turned on a street then onto another paved road whose incline was so severe I thought any wind from the opposite direction would send me tumbling down several blocks before depositing me in the water.  But the wind was at my back pushing me onward, and eventually I discovered the road restarted atop the cliff.  My back ached by the time I reached the hostel, but my body and mind were confused as if I had jumped time zones.   All I wanted to do was sleep in a bed.

I was assigned a room with a mother traveling with her fifteen year-old daughter and seventeen year-old son.  Two other pairs of unmade bunk beds appeared occupied with clothing strewn over the sheets, so I threw my bag onto the top bunk above the teenage boy.  I introduced myself in Spanish, and as it turned out, the family in my room was from Argentina—Mar de Plata—and Spanish was the only language they knew.  Oddly, they seemed to be the foreigners.  I spoke with the mother and son, but the daughter shied away and hid herself under her covers.  Had I interrupted an important conversation or was my presence making her uncomfortable?  She didn’t even introduce herself but instead allowed her mother to do it for her.  Ultimately, I retreated into my thin, stiff pillow and fell asleep before the midnight sun’s final light receded.

I slept until eleven o’clock this morning and the Argentinean family had already left for their day’s excursion, but two young women were sleeping on the bunks on the opposite wall near the door.  A wild night possibly?  Their faces had that contorted look that showed how they fell into their bed last night is where they remained until the morning.  By the time I returned from taking a shower in the communal bathroom across the courtyard, the two were stirring.  We performed our Spanish introductions before settling into English.  Lauren was a British university girl on holiday and Julie was a young professional from New York.  They had a reasonable explanation for their wild night: they were celebrating Lauren’s birthday.

“It’s my birthday today,” I told them.

“Happy birthday,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think we can do another night like last night.  We’ll go to lunch with you though.”

We walked into town for lunch, but it was a hurried affair as Julie had an early afternoon plane to catch back to Buenos Aires and then on to New York City.    She was also insistent on visiting a shop to buy a “fin del mundo” t-shirt, so we went shopping afterward.  How it could be so hard to buy a t-shirt, I don’t know, but nothing satisfied Julie.  She was so tightly wound that any minute it seemed as if she’d spin out of control.  Her excuse was a guy.  She was not the first of many solo female travelers I’d encountered whose response to a bad breakup with a boyfriend was a trip to a place as far away as possible.

“So if a guy tells you he doesn’t love you anymore and moves out and never returns your phone calls, do you think it’s over?” Julie asked.  “We were so good together.  Four years!  That’s what I gave him before he pulled this on me.”  She stuffed her new t-shirts into her luggage.  “I just hate putting all those years to waste.  For nothing!”

“You enjoyed your relationship then?” I asked her.

“Yeah.”

“You have good memories?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, keep those good memories and move on before they turn bad.”

She scowled at me.  “I took this trip to put him out of my head.  But I can’t.”

“How long have you been away?”

“Ten days.”

“You should stay.”  I told her.  “Give yourself at least a month.  You’ve already made it this far.”

“I can’t.  I have to work.”

“Quit.  Relax.  Believe me.  You need to.”

She dropped her eyes as if in prayer.  “I know.  I should.  I should stay.”

It is here in Ushuaia, the precipice of our hemisphere, where the road ends, you pause, then turn around and start again.

Christmas Eve in Montevideo

Christmas Eve in Montevideo.  Early in the day there was a raucous party downtown different from any Christmas Eve celebration I have ever seen.  University students took to the streets of the historic district.  Nearly every store and restaurant was closed, but a roar of voices floated down the streets like drifting smoke.  As I walked towards the grassy plaza, I passed a couple of staggering women sharing a bottle of liquor.  They were immediately swept up by a group of shirtless, drum-banging men skipping in rhythm to their own beat.  It was hard not to get captured by the energy of the crowd.  I climbed a stone wall and looked down into a complete mix of faces.  My eyes stopped at every blonde head of hair I passed looking for Maria.  Did Maria mention Montevideo?  Maybe not.  But maybe Punta del Este for New Year’s.

A young woman with curly black hair and green eyes looked up at me and smiled.  She swayed with the music, causing her lime green skirt to flutter like a blowing leaf.  She reached up and handed me a bottle of rum.  I took it and swallowed a mouthful that my body was not yet ready for.  I coughed into my shoulder as I handed the bottle back.  Hesitant to join the crowd in Montevideo, I sought refuge in the iglesia matriz, an ornate church with shiny marble floors and an expansive nave, but oddly silent and empty on Christmas Eve.  I was alone with the ornate tomb of Mariano Soler, the first archbishop of Montevideo.  Was he really inside?  I moved closer touching the marble exterior with my fingers.  I sensed someone behind me and spun around.

“You are too early,” said a man wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt and holding a mop.  Of course.  Everyone outside would need time to sober up before they attended Christmas mass.

I walked the twenty kilometers to my aunt’s house along the beaches of the Rio Plata in Montevideo.  The waves lapped at my feet as I walked barefooted carrying my sandals in my hand (by the way, sandals are not meant for walking great distances as my blisters proved).  Along the Ramba, the main pedestrian stretch, men and women jogged or rode bicycles.  On the beaches, fathers playfully chased their children into the harmless waters.  Sailboats drifted across the horizon.

It’s a young city, a romantic city.  The sun was setting and people of all ages sat on benches, sipping mate, which they brought in thermoses, patiently waiting for the sun to dip gently into the river.  A raspy voice sang out from above, I turned around and searched the overlooking hill for the source.  It came from an old man sitting on the grassy hill.  He was sitting alone with a cup of mate in his hand.

Later that night I sat outside in the dark along the sidewalk of a neighborhood listening to a cascade of whistles overhead.  The Christmas Eve skies in Montevideo are illuminated with  fireworks filling the sky in a dazzling display of colors.  It’s different from the well-synchronized shows I’ve seen in the United States.  In Montevideo, color touched every piece of space in all directions.  There is something about light poking through darkness that beckons you to come closer.

Contrast that with complete darkness.  There is something perfectly laconic about blackness, but this is deceiving because even absent the myriad of tones, it arrives in subtle gestures and forms.  There is the blackness of mystery, and within this is the bleakness of fear intertwined with aspirations of hope.  There is the blackness of storms before they’re ripped apart by lightning.  There is the blackness of an abandoned basement defined only by the drips of a persistent leak.  There is the blackness in the emptiness between planets and stars, and there is the blackness of the density beneath the jungle canopy.  The blackness of a cave.  It is permanent.  Persistent.

Iguazu

The popular tale at Iguazú is a history lesson about the guides who used to paddle their tour groups to the top edge of the falls, and then paddle against the current while their clients peered over the edge.  This was a common practice until the day one guide couldn’t handle the current and the entire group of European tourists plummeted over the edge.  After the deaths of those tourists, the government banned such trips.

We hear so many stories like these that we sometimes forget their sources.  They’ve gotten so repetitive that if you start one of them, many people will stop you mid-sentence and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that in Lonely Planet too.”

The waterfalls at Iguazú were spectacular.  If it wasn’t for the paved paths and the slow Disney-styled train-ride with Ennio Morricone’s Mission music in the background, I think I would have enjoyed the experience even more.  Nevertheless, no photograph or video can capture the feeling of being there—hearing the thunderous roar, following the countless streaks of white through plumes of mist, or feeling the refreshing droplets accumulate on your forehead.  I followed the hoards of tourists across the bridges that led to a point at the top of the Devil’s Throat.  From there it looked as if the world simply dropped off into an unknown abyss.

For a hundred pesos I took a boat ride to the base of the falls.  Of course we didn’t go directly underneath the falls, but we were close enough to be blanketed by a solid white wall of mist.  I had never been surrounded by pure whiteness before.  It is difficult to measure the canvassing power of water.

As I sat by the pool at the hostel, I met myself in other travelers who are in South America without much real purpose at all.  Some are on a rambling journey around the globe.  Few have a set itinerary.  We find ourselves standing on deserted roads waiting for the next bus or pickup truck to roll by and take us to God knows where.  Where our lives intersect we swap stories.

Midnight Flight

I’m at the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my midnight flight.  My itinerary from Ecuador to Argentina is not a typical one.  I saved a couple hundred dollars by catching a flight from Lima instead of Quito.  Twenty dollars was all it cost for a bus ride from Ecuador’s capital to the southern border and ten was spent on a hostel in San Ignacio.  Though my ticket says Buenos Aires, the ultimate destination seems as clearly mapped out as the nauseating floor pattern on the thin carpet beneath my feet.

I bought a journal at the gift shop to help me overcome the stretches of boredom that accompany every long voyage.  The cashier gladly accepted my US dollars but gave me Peruvian soles in change.  I didn’t calculate the exchange rate to see if the amount she returned was correct.  Perhaps the game is played here as it is in Ecuador where shortchanging someone is a way of life.   It doesn’t bother me anymore.  I wouldn’t even classify it as dishonesty.  It’s just the way business is done.  There are no apologies when the mistake is pointed out.  The money is quickly recounted, and few customers count their change twice.

I originally came to South America—Ecuador, specifically—to see the jungle, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what I experienced.  Words alone don’t seem to suffice.  For example, there’s the humidity.  Living a good chunk of my life in south Texas, I know a little about humidity, but the word ‘humid’ comes nowhere close to describing the jungle humidity that will turn a package of Tic-Tacs into mushy goo in just a few hours.  And then there’s the mental effect.  The jungle can be suffocating to the point where sense of direction, time, place, and purpose are distorted in so many ways.

The jungle I saw didn’t seem to fit with the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family.  I remember a time when I was eight and I sat on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own.  I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses.  Inside the scrapbook was an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin.  Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals.  My uncle explained that the jungle is like a high-rise apartment building.  In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas.  On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life.  Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.

It’s amazing that the world of the birds is a mystery; we’ve studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy.

I remember seeing a photo of a jungle shaman.  He wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck.  A macaw feather pierced his wide nose.  Then my uncle turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch.  The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey.  The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind.  He said the shamans called it, Cayramashi.  I grew up dreaming that somewhere in the jungle, perched high upon a kapok tree out of reach, was a bird as mysterious and enticing as the Cayramashi.