This gallery contains 23 photos.
This gallery contains 23 photos.
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.”
“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.
“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.
I heard another shot. Closer. I panicked. “What are they hunting?”
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
An acquaintance of mine recently came back from a medical mission in the Dominican Republic. What caught his eye and what he wished to impress upon me was the abundance of poverty and squalor. “But how are the people?” I asked.
“Surprisingly, they seem pretty happy,” he said. “But they wouldn’t be so happy if they knew of all the things they didn’t have.” Funny that this comment was coming from a man who drinks himself into oblivion at least twice a week to escape his loveless marriage and angry clients.
I’m not going set out to prove that money doesn’t buy happiness. That argument has been made and pounded into our brains through literature, television, movies, and our own anecdotal experiences. What I am curious about is why, when we live in such an advantaged society, we feel such discontent and a need to escape. This need and revolt against the self has less to do with class than it has to do with being American.
You could say escape is part of who we are. Most of us descend from people who fled their homelands for a better life in America. When confronted with problems, like Huck Finn, our first instinct is to get away. In fact, much of our culture is about getting away: going away to college, moving out after graduation, taking that transfer for the better job. But whereas it once was external forces that prompted us into action, now we are escaping from ourselves.
We find escape from the confines of our marriages through affairs, escape from the stress of our jobs or joblessness through drugs and alcohol, escape from mundane drudgery through our virtual lives, escape from obligation through resignation. We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that we can tolerate anything because relief has always been so instantly accessible. Too bad relief is only temporary.
What the enlightenment taught us was an ability to look inward for strength, but this reliance on looking within has made us culturally narcissistic. Consider some of the clinical characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder:
-The individual has a grandiose sense of self-importance
-The individual is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success
-The individual believes he or she is special and unique
-The individual requires excessive admiration
-The individual has a sense of entitlement
-The individual is interpersonally exploitive
-The individual lacks empathy
-The individual believes that others are envious of him or her
-The individual shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Not only does this characterize our brand of patriotism where national interest is front-center, but also our own practice of directing our life’s purpose towards serving the self. Is that how we define success? By the fruit of our careers? By sexual fulfillment? By attaining enviable status within our communities? It’s our own version of the Greek areté, or all-around excellence. Unfortunately, we are poor judges of the things that make us happy. We become paralyzed by the duality of the mind, and have a tough time reconciling our narcissistic tendencies with our Christian virtues of humility, empathy, and charity. Steinbeck nailed it on the head through his character Doc in Cannery Row.
“It has always seemed strange to me…the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”
Just as a nation divided against itself cannot stand, an individual divided against himself cannot stand either. We teeter on the brink of insanity, balancing opposite extremes. The political polarization in our country actually reflects quite accurately the “schism of the soul” we are experiencing as individuals.
Generally speaking, we are a nation governed by a conservative conscience that is just an annoying voice set against our liberal vices. We are outraged at the split-second sight of a female nipple on network television, yet we are the world’s biggest consumer of porn. We condemn affairs and premarital sex but have our own. We detest drunk drivers yet we frequently drink and drive. We are walking contradictions. It’s no wonder we’d want to get away from ourselves.
It’s like we live each day with so much regret for who we are and the things we have failed to do or the things we have done. We’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that happiness is one wish, one dollar, or one lover away. What if instead of looking forward to what we hope could be, we looked around and reflected on what we have? During my travels of through South America, while I did see a lot of poverty, I also found a lot of happy people. It was refreshing. The one thing they had in common was a tie to each other. Family. Community. In our Houdini nation of escape artists, we are becoming lonelier. In the end, isn’t that what we fear most? In the end, will we realize, as Christian told Jack in the final episode of Lost, that “the most…important part of your life, was the time that you spent with these people…You needed all of them, and they needed you.”
On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide. Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times. We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book. Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.
I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities. When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today. I was in luck. The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again. Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it. I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.
The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning. There were no other guests in the cab. When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents. I was alone. Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures. A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.
There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes. But my luck had not faded. The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared. It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty. Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints. The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids. There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth. By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3. They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port. The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.
I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana. Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way. Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates. They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.
“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother. “We keep getting lost.”
We had rarely crossed paths in the room. They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends. I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes. Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice. The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation. Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her. “How are you enjoying the hike?”
She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes. Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters. “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears. Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.
“No problema,” I said. “No hablo bien.”
This time she read my lips and laughed. From then on she was more at ease. After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel. The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle. While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels. My mind filled with expansive empty space. I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.
A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.
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.
“You have good memories?”
“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?”
“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.
It begins with a gaze
then a clasp
a lean forward
a frame nearly collapsed
in one sweeping step
freedom and surrender
a buried face
legs intertwined until two
love in déjà vu