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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Don’t Search My Bags

Don’t search my bags
I don’t know
I don’t know
what is in there
yes I packed
yes I packed my bags

lemme pass
take a chance
lemme pass
I’m in a hurry
to move on
I’m movin’ on

I’m dyin’
yes I am
but not a drug
for this man
just need a wave and a nod
to get me goin’ on

do you really wanna see
all the baggage in the bag
all the crap
that I have
and listen to my story
of how I got what I packed?

ain’t got the time
or the tissue
or the drops for the eyes
threw away
all the tears
‘cause I knew they had to go

where I go is where I go
do you really wanna know?
if you’d seen where I’d been
you’d zip it up again
and let me through
and let me through

here it is
see it all
do you wanna hold me?
grab my wrist
check your list
did you miss
anything
anything at all?

what I say is who I am and
what I am is what you’d say
is a mess of a man
with a bundle in his bag.
not a threat
just a mess

did we really need to check it?

My Best Photos from South America

Gallery

This gallery contains 23 photos.

 

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.

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

The End of the World

El fin del mundo

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.

End of the world, beginning of everything

A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.

Rainbow over the Beagle Channel