I return from various trips and plan to write about them, I get caught in routine things or wallow in the vanity or vacuousness of anything I can ever write, those tales find places in the crevices of my mind. Some of them will stay in hiding forever no doubt. As this year end approaches, I decided to lay claim to my vanity, take on whatever minutiae of ingenuity I have and put my memory to work. Emotional memory is my forte and nemesis, hence every story in this series (if, there ever is more than one that is) must have jarred the sediments of my mind to rearrange them before they settled down again. They own me now.
So here is the first one I didn’t tell in full (parts of the story I did tell earlier). It is still not complete, because say what you may of any skills I lay claim on, attention to detail is one I own. I did have parts of this one written out around 2014 because some of the details do blur with time.
Living with ayahuasca
From the medicinal barks and leaves of the Amazon rainforest comes the mysterious, rich brown, murky and strong smelling ‘tea’ of ayahuasca. The notorious hallucinogen is not as lucrative for the river people, who know better than to indulge for pure recreation, as it is to outsiders who travel long distances to get a taste. However, the responsibility of conservation of the most vital organ of Earth’s orchestra: the amazonian rainforest and the basin needs to be taught and shared by outsiders, to the river people, as they have the seen the devastation rainforests are facing over large parts of the world. Conservation and education of travelers and the locals is implicit in ecotourism in remote wildlife rich areas. Numerous renowned ecotourism companies exist that take pride in their expeditions, their understanding and knowledge of remote corners of the world where only the truly adventurous venture on their own, but, even they, would not survive without local help in the shadowy recesses of the Amazon rainforest. How are the people living in these forest villages affected, by tours on boat cruises that invade their river, their villages and their forest almost perpetually throughout the year? Promoting native people’s welfare is a quintessential part of ecotourism, but does the lifestyle of villagers form a part of the sustainability equation?
On an expedition into the Amazon through International Expeditions, on board La Estrella Amazonica, we met the locals who form the crew of the boat and remain to this day, enchanted by their tales of personal and folklore nature. While not as adventurous as heading into the forest with a hammock, even today I would pass on the adventure over the stories we heard being close quarters to so many bilingual locals. To the locals, the rain that lasts a long time, drizzling away is female rain and the hard, the short torrential bursts are male, that unmarried pregnancies in villages were attributed to the dolphins with magical powers: rising from the river and seducing young girls! And let us not forget the music, although I sang praises of that quite out of context in my nature post on this tour already.
Small motored canoes pass our boat and the schiffs as all of us are leaning over looking for a bird or a squirrel monkey and children and adults excitedly wave at all of us. We drop the binoculars or cameras or both and a tripod and wave back. I did not notice locals waving at each other though, unless they intended to have a conversation. We are the curious ones and their guests.
The naturalist guides on board with us: Johnny and Segundo, grew up in Amazonian villages. Johnny the ‘runt’ of a family of 13, gets a great response from village school kids we visit and gets as excited as one, spotting birds he has probably seen hundreds of times. Segundo thinks he should have been called Ultimato being the last child in his family, is full of laughter and mischief . He makes believe he has a secret connection to the Shaman, who in turn can predict, if not control, the rains. They both have many years of experience as naturalist guides and can see birds and sloths from a distance that is nearly unbelievable. Segundo told me that with my Swarovski binoculars he could probably see the ants on the trees!! And if you have seen a sloth on a tree, tens of miles away and not mistaken it for a branch because of its nearly impeccable camouflage, I will give my binoculars to you as a gift. Of course ‘you’ cannot be the Schiff driver, Jhon, who may not have been the ‘official’ guide but can sure spot a snake in its hole high up a tall tree while driving the Schiff, at what seemed to me to be a speed least conducive to wildlife spotting. And with no binoculars at all! They can hear the calls of monkeys and frogs, and the truly huge variety of birds and tell them apart, but that is a part of the job. A job they are good at.
Bottles with medicines, one of them is ayahuasca
What they don’t have to do is tell us stories and share a part of their soul. Johnny spoke of the importance of a Shaman and the faith people have in one. How it weighs on the present Shaman of a village that he has no apprentice to leave his, not inconsiderable, burden to. He said one saved him when he was a child. They know these ‘spiritual’ stories are being directed to cynical people. Even if, a degree is just a transfer of human knowledge in a way that is more streamlined perhaps, even Shamans undergo a period of training of 8 years at least before going out on their own. That doesn’t garner much faith in the westerners. However, even the cynics were touched by Johnny’s account of how he almost died of a snake bite and even after surviving that he had nightmares and was living in constant fear. The Shaman of his village administered an appropriate dose of ayahuasca. The natives ingest this hallucinogen only in a ceremony specifically organized for the administration under the guidance of the Shaman and afterwards he finally recovered. Ayahuasca is the ‘goddess’ of the forest and may appear in front of the shaman to help him in his path. Apparently, the trance induced by ayahuasca lets people see the past and the future and lets the Shaman heal past wounds for a better future. When you return you are not the same, and it is not a drug to be taken lightly. Despite the skepticism westerners bear for them, the Shamans have no problem with western medicine or with surgical intervention. Johnny said ‘After all, most medicines were derived from some or the other plant, even if at present they can be chemically synthesized’. We visited the village where the current senior-most Shaman lives, met him, asked questions and he seemed pleased to have us over. He carried out a short blessing ceremony for us, using tobacco smoke and chants. Shamans never take money for their services and also act as midwife, spiritual leader and therapist. The small, skinny man with a sweet wrinkled face, misty eyes and a gentle smile, is all of that and an epitome of humility. He is the only shaman for many surrounding villages and even for people who come from cities. He keeps his potions in old plastic mineral water bottles , no doubt donated to him through some group on its expedition.
As we are invited to look into the lives and homes of the people of one or two villages, their methods of cooking and storage, their sleeping quarters and toilets, we may feel invasive, but they take pride in showing their homes. We go back to the boat and await the evening’s entertainment, discussing the water treatment plant funded by International expeditions that provides clean drinking water to that village. Many more such plants are needed and even then, the Shaman still identified stomach ailments as being one of the biggest health issues, especially in children.
The captain of the boat does not speak English and has been navigating the amazon for over 40 yrs. It is no easy river to navigate, as there is almost no slope in the entire river basin, and basically the river carves its own ways, meandering and stalling and depositing silt on one shore and eroding the other shore, in an ever -changing landscape. Especially, during the rainy season, sudden changes in depth on the tributaries, the Ucayali river or the Maraňon river we cruised on, are quite common and difficult to predict. The food served board is carefully prepared to be authentic Peruvian, representing one of the most important ingredients of Peruvian culture. A huge variety of fish, beans and rice, supplemented with different types of chicken. But really, as Segundo commented once “ All I need is fresh fish, beans and rice to survive.” The chief chef gives us a cooking class in how a traditional dish is prepared, wrapping rice and chicken half cooked with spices and olives in two, carefully aligned palm leaves, then tied. This tied bundle will be immersed boiling water so that the flavor of the leaves gets into the food. This is their standard picnic lunch and dinner and lasts for several days on a canoe without refrigeration.
The rest of the crew, comprising of maybe 5-6 additional people, taking care of about 30 people at a time, are multi-taskers with quite a few skills up their sleeves. To our surprise, the same people who served us food and were seen scurrying around taking our laundry for washing, were introduced to us as the boat’s band! With a lead singer and guitarist, Becket, who is a natural, talent inherited from his singer- mom, no doubt. He had no official training, he tells us, but his golden voice can bring many Spanish classic from all over South America to life. As he stands behind the buffet table, identifying the different dishes, carving the whole fish or pork, you notice the gleam in his eyes that turns to absolute sparkle when he sings. He has been on cruise boats and played in assembled bands for over 10 yrs and on La Estrella plays with a friend from the same village, Santa Clara: Milton. Milton is the flute player and supports guitar and vocals. He is seen all day waiting tables at the dining space. He is also the official dancer and many evenings turn into parties with dancing incited by him. Milton used to swim in the river until he was bitten by a couple of piranhas, he told us, now he only kayaks in the river and swims in pools. We often overheard him practicing on his flute in the mornings.
Completing the boat band are two brothers: ‘the little ‘diablos’, with the cutest faces in the amazon’, Dennis, our Lima based expedition leader, testifies. These two compact brothers play the tiple and the flute with enormous energy, quite contrary to their size. They don’t speak much but their huge heart melting smiles and their pure glee at being appreciated when they perform is never hidden from sight. Apparently these two played on buses and trains in Lima, before being recruited by IE to play on some evenings only. Finally, they were made permanent members of crew. Their talents extend to full size bath folding towels in complicated origami- like structures, that surprised us every day. The shirt and the Scottish boot were everyone’s favorite.
Most days there is almost no cell phone connection and they don’t have internet or Wifi on board. A real break from technology for the guests, but the crew lives on board three weeks at a stretch. They get half a day off every Saturday, which may or may not be enough time to go and see their families. Despite being on his 41st expedition to the Amazon, Dennis said that every time is a new experience. It is never easy as he is always seen making contingency plans, in case it rains and the Shaman (often blamed, jokingly, for not preventing rain, in the rainforest) gives a wrong prediction of weather conditions! Most guests are retired or close to retiring age, and some well above it. The closest civilized hospitals are sometimes an hour or so boat ride away and while everyone hopes that is not needed, that is not always the case. In our group, one lady fell down the stairs and fractured her femur. She was taken to the hospital at Iquitos, the closest city (also where we board the cruise boat). However, as Dennis informed us later, there was a strike at the hospital and one crew member stayed on with the couple to help. Had Dennis not caught her midway, being instantly alerted by a thud, she would have fallen down the entire flight of stairs. Segundo told us on a Wednesday that his mother had died while he was on an expedition, the day we are at the farthest point in the cruise. He remembers her every Wednesday, he said with his usual chuckle.
Time and again we are told and see for ourselves in the two village visits that families, parents and grandparents are the center of people’s lives, especially for the Amazonian villagers. Here, you either listen to old wisdom, or die of numerous possible natural dangers. The children are respectful and parenting gentle yet strict. Unlike in many other tourist spots, children in the villages do not expect tips for having their pictures taken and we are told to not encourage such behavior. IE and possibly other ecotourism companies pay villagers to take care of regions of the rainforest, along tributaries, that do not fall into government maintained reserves. Several volunteers from these villages patrol the forest on canoes to discourage poaching, however, the demand for bush meat is high in Peru and poaching abounds. On our walk through the rain forest, two trackers from a nearby village joined us, they would go off trails and catch poison dart frogs, spiders and other almost invisible frogs to show them to us. Additionally at the end of the forest walk, villagers from several close by villages set up stalls to sell handicrafts, just for our benefit.
On the last day, Dennis introduces us to the whole crew onboard and we get to thank them in person, one last time. Their weeks are filled with the boat and the guests, who change faces but need the same things. Our lives, however, were touched by the unique story of each crew member of La Estrella and the journey that brought them on board. One wonders how they keep up their endless kindness and concern for guests, being on duty all day and in shifts all night. Only their dreams and their life outside the boat elude us. I went back within 3 months (to remain within the time provided in my visa) to meet more of the wonderful people and naturalists with great depth and vistas of knowledge: Renzo Zeppilli and Alan Leiberman, Usiel Vasquez was the local naturalist in that tour. In the return trip I caught over 13 red-bellied piranha and learned a lot more about the changes along the amazon as the seasons change and Usiel told us about the chemicals and neurochemistry of ayahuasca in great detail. I have intended to write that up and perhaps it is time I did use the notes I made!
I am told that since 2017, La Estrella is no longer used for the Amazon cruise. Some of the crew had quit their jobs well back in 2014, because the local company with whom IE had the contractual agreement did not pay them well or give them a salary to keep up with rising expenses: what most workers who have a full time job expect as raises every year. Keeping people under contract, despite them having worked for years in a company is a worldwide pestilent characteristic of oppressive capitalist policies. Clearly that has not escaped the eco tourism companies in Iquitos, Peru either. I also heard that most of the crew eventually got ‘better’ salaries on board a new boat called Zafiro. I don’t think Johnny still guides IE tours even if I am sure he is still a guide in the amazon. About a year later, IE brochures informed me that it now charters this boat/ship for its guest complete with lounges, spa and swimming pool, floor to ceiling glass windows to top off the standard air conditioned cabins. I hope the workers onboard are happier too.