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.