Coke Addict Monkey Thieves

I had gone to Misahualli, Ecuador with a water engineer to bushwhack through the nearby jungle to find the source of a clean stream of water. Turns out the water wasn’t that clean.

DSCF0700So we spent some time in Misahualli. In the village square squirrel monkeys bounded about on balconies, roofs, and trees with no fear of the cars and people of the town. Every new visitor intrigued them, but the monkeys’ curiosity was not harmless.

cgYou see, the monkeys of Misahualli are heartless criminals. They steal. They’re interested in visitors because they’re scouting an easy mark.

The best thieves work in teams. One is the actual perpetrator and the other keeps watch. DSCF0772Or not…

Occasionally, the partner serves like a magician’s assistant by being a distraction. I was the sad victim of one of these clever plots even after I’d been warned.

“Watch your things closely here,” my friend told me. “They’ll take anything: hats, bags, food, or whatever they can get their hands on.” He seemed disinterested in the farcical performance going on around us, but he added, “And a little warning: if they do take something, you’re better off letting them have it. If you try to take it back from them, all of them will jump on you. Watch your things. They’re thieves. You laugh, but I’m serious. I was throwing a football with my son when a monkey intercepted a pass and scurried up the tree with it.” He laughed as he recalled what happened next. “It pealed open the football like a fruit. It didn’t like what it found inside and tossed it back.”

After a quick snack, I headed alone to the town square. I saw one monkey sprint down the plaza carrying high above his head a small bag of Doritos he had just swiped from the local market. He approached a bench, leaped several feet into the air, reared back and slammed the bag down with a loud pop. The chips spilled out and he and his friends gobbled up the nacho cheese goodness. These corrupted primates don’t subsist on bananas but on chips, candy, and soda.

I had a bottle of Coke and my camera to snap photos of the monkeys. I was tentative at first, keeping a safe distance. Slowly I moved across the plaza until a little devil raced by my feet and under a nearby bench. I took a video as it moved a rock from the ground to the bench.

What the hell is he doing? I thought. He was putting on a show for my benefit. Suddenly, his partner sprinted behind me and attempted to snatch my Coke out of my other hand. The bottle fell between me and the monkey. We stared each other down. I knew I could take the little critter, maybe scare him away, but I remembered what my friend had said. I didn’t want to end up under a heap of monkeys, scratching and clawing at me. Finally, it snatched the Coke and ran off. Then the fight ensued.

They understood the concept of a twist off, but couldn’t quite get it. Finally, they found a local sitting in the park. The monkey ran up to the guy, jumped on the bench next to him and placed the Coke between him and the man. The man looked at the monkey and shook his head like a parent disappointed in the antics of a child. Nevertheless, the man opened the Coke and gave it back.

coke addict monkey

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My Best Photos from South America

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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.

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.

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.

A Word About Loja

I’m just another backpacker—or mochilero as we’re called in South America—on my way down the continent.  My route is not the conventional backpacker route.  Most stick to the more heavily traveled Pan American Highway at least through Lima, but I had read about the supposed magical waters that flowed through the valley of the Gods and had to experience it for myself.  More importantly, I had a cousin working as a chef in a new five star hotel in Loja so I decided to make a stop in the little city near the southern border of Ecuador.  After two months of living in hostels, where having untorn mosquito nets around the bed is the most important factor in choosing a room, a nice few nights in a classy hotel didn’t sound too bad.

Before I checked in, I spotted a tourist office nearby where I found an agent. I was looking to book a day tour to Podocarpus National Park a few miles to the east.

“Of course we do tours to Podocarpus.”  He showed me a picture of the jeep I would take to go from Loja to the park entrance.

“Great!” I said.  “What time to we leave?”

“Can you come back later this afternoon?  I have to check with our other offices to see how many people we have going.”

“How much is it going to be?”

“One hundred fifty.”

“Do I pay now?”

“No.  You can do that later when you come back.”

I did the walking tour of historic Loja, which was easy enough.  A bright red line had been painted on the sidewalk to guide the tour.  Great care had been taken to accommodate tourists—it’s just that…there weren’t any tourists.

I returned to the tourist office where the agent’s face was planted on his desk and his fingers entrenched in his hair.  I startled him awake when I walked through the door.

“Do we know what time we leave?” I asked.

His eyes were bloodshot and his fingers crawled over his hair to the back of his neck, tugging forcibly at the skin along the way.  “I am sorry,” he said.  “We don’t have the minimum number of passengers to have a tour.”

“How many more do we need?”

“One.”

That was encouraging.  “Oh, good!  So we only need one more.  How many do we have right now?”

“Just one.”  His fingers were now pulling his cheeks, stretching his eyelids to where he looked like a tortured character in a Goya painting.

“Me?”

He nodded.  “Come back in two hours.  Maybe we’ll have some luck.”

At the hotel, the doorman excitedly opened the door for me.  The maître d’ of the restaurant greeted me.  The receptionist smiled warmly.  With her fair skin and green eyes, she didn’t look Ecuadorian, but when I pressed her about her heritage, she insisted that every ancestor as far back as her family remembered was from Ecuador.

I unloaded my bags in the room and asked the bellhop how to operate the safe.  He demonstrated the procedure to operate the safe.  “The combination is 3-6-1,” he said proudly.

So much for security.  Well, I decided, if someone really wanted my stuff they could just as easily walk out with the entire safe, which wasn’t bolted into anything.  I tried the computer and the free wireless, but the signal faded in and out, and I couldn’t really do anything.  The signal was stronger down the hall, so I went back down to the lobby and asked the green-eyed receptionist if I could get another room.

“Sure.  Which one would you like?”

“What’s available?” I asked.

“All of them.”

I was stunned.  “I’m the only guest?”

“Yes.”

My VIP treatment made sense.  Not wanting to put the staff through so much trouble on account of one needy guest, I decided to keep my original room.

When I returned to the travel agency, the agent was already locking up the shop.  It was only 4 o’clock.  “Did you find anyone?” I asked.

He shook his head.

I had thought about inviting the cute receptionist to come with me, but when I mentioned I was planning a trip to Podocarpus, she’d responded by saying, “I hate the outdoors.”

“So what do I do?” I asked the agent.

He came closer to me and said, “Look, you can take a bus to Zamora.  From there you can follow the road to the park on foot.  It’s only five kilometers.  Or you can take a taxi.  The trails in the park are clearly marked.  You really don’t need a tour.”

“Really?”

“Really.”  He shook my hand.  “Have a good time.”

So I took the bus to Zamora.

From Zamora to Vilcabamba

I stood atop a boulder at the edge of the emerald tinted Bombuscara River.  Petite, violet flowers sprouted from the veil of moss covering the massive stone, and I undressed, carefully laying out my clothes to avoid smothering any of the blooms.  The translucent waters rushed by with the soothing roar of a continuous wave, so I stretched my arms over my head, expanded my rib cage and bellowed back.  Once completely naked I jumped in, and the cool water sent a burst of energy through my body.  My splash must have caused a brief shower for the column of leaf-cutter ants marching along the shore conveniently carrying bits of leaf over their heads like tiny parasols.

I escaped the river shivering with laughter.  I put on my underwear, socks and hiking boots and stuffed my shirt and pants into my bloated backpack.  I looked ridiculous, but that didn’t really matter to me.  I’d been hiking for five hours without encountering another person.  Fortunately I wasn’t lost.  Not this time.  A distinct path led me up a muddy ridge past a railing of slender trees that tilted over the edge as if contemplating a final leap while others wrapped their tendrils around larger and more grounded trees.  I’m sure I still had a euphoric grin when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a man wielding a shiny machete.  `

He looked me over.  “Are you alone?”

I nodded, uncertain as whether I had trampled onto private land or possibly violated an Ecuadorian public indecency law.  My appearance was more perplexing than comical to the man, and while still trying to figure me out he asked, “Did you register in the office when you arrived?”

“Nobody was there.”

He conceded this was probably true.  “Stop by before you leave so you can pay.  I’ll be there.”  I read his badge and saw that he was Manuel, the park ranger.  As promised, he was there when I stopped by on my way out, but unable to break my twenty, he let me leave without paying.  My stroll through the park had surprised him, as evidently I was the only person to have visited Podocarpus since a couple of Israeli tourists thirty days before.  This rarely visited area of South America is famous for having more varieties of birds and trees than anywhere in the world, but I wasn’t there to look for birds.  Those days were behind me.  I had come to dip myself in the healing waters of the Bombuscara.  “It is not safe to walk in the rainforest alone,” he added before going on his way clearing paths for the eventual hiker.

I couldn’t help but laugh.  If only he had any idea of what I had been through in the previous weeks.  I imagine he turned to give me another look—a crazy American man walking in his underwear and hiking boots—but I kept my eyes forward on the path ahead.

After the encounter with the park ranger at Podocarpus, I caught a bus to the village of Vilcabamba.  My cousin Ana had told me that once you set foot in Vilcabamba you will feel immediate peace.  I didn’t believe her.  My mistake.  The moment you step off the bus in that town, it hits you.  The calm.  Your heart will slow to a languid beat, an unconscious smile will drift onto your face, and you will have the curious sensation you are home.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.  It could be the perfectly moderate climate with a perpetual breeze sweeping down the mountains into the valley.  The landscape is idyllic as if you were thrust onto the set of a fantasy world that exists only in movies.  There is little traffic unless you count residents taking their livestock on a stroll through the town.  Few cars line the dirt roads as most people walk or ride bicycles.  There is never a need to hurry.  As I sat cross-legged on the speckled shore of the Vilcabamba River, several locals ambled by, stripped off their clothes and dipped themselves in the sparkling water, known throughout the region to have its own mystical properties.  It was absolute serenity.

The name Vilcabamba translates to “valley of the gods,” and surely this would be their majestic retreat.  The region is also known as the “valley of longevity” as the people here are world famous for living well past a hundred years, and many work in the fields into their nineties.  Doctors, scientists, and hippies have descended into the valley to discover the secret of Vilcabamba’s eternal youth.  Some say it’s the special herbal tea they drink, although this is now available in supermarkets in Quito.  Others say it’s their avoidance of Western medicine.  A stress-free lifestyle is another explanation.  Anybody who has been there knows it’s the whole package.  I should have stayed, but I have a plane to catch.