How to ‘get’ a double-striped thick-knee in Trinidad

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How to see/spot/ get the double-striped thick-knee in Trinidad? (ok, to end the suspense: it is a rare bird in TT, so please continue reading for content, and sorry the photo is down below, thanks much,  kisses…)

Well, of course you don’t go looking for it! That’s rule number one. For every thing. The day you go looking for something Murphy’s law takes over and you are done, it won’t even be in the last place you look for it, because hey, Murphy was an optimist who thought his rules could prepare people like me for life.. That’s working out great, isn’t it? Remember when I went looking for a purpose in life and ended up even more confused but now with an albatross Ph.D.? turns out great, in the end I am told…

So, don’t go looking for it and find yourself the best guide you did not know you could get. In our case it was the dapper Dave. Dave Ramlal, if you are familiar with Trinidad birding at all in the past 30 yrs, you may have heard of him. If you want to be familiar with the above, you should go looking for him!  If you do find him, then maybe you deserved him and its a privilege worth earning.

I have written at length of our previous trip to Trinidad and Tobago, exactly 5 yrs (now 5.5) ago where I met my friends Peggy and Kris for the first time. In Peggy I found the closest I had ever got to a soul-mate, which to me is simply someone who understood me naturally, without knowing me much. It seems now, I give out such strong signals when in Trinidad, that anyone who can pick up the frequency, does so. I must be under serious cover every where else, or simply lucky in Trinidad.

Beginning of 2017 Peggy wanted to go back to Trinidad before the likely changing of her chemo to a more aggressive regime. I was planning to go for a sabbatical after June last year, so we decided that this time, again, we would be in Trini around fourth of July. The six of us, with Kris, Ash, Peg, Lee and us made our own group and Caligo Ventures (having changed hands since the last time, but still providing the only access to Asa Wright Nature Center from the US) set our dates and itinerary. This time we would try to look for the endangered Trinidad Piping Guan (Pawi), for which we would go till Grand Riviere up north, the known range of Pawi.

Peggy, lee and I
Left to right: Peggy, Lee and I

The first night and day after reaching Trinidad we stayed at the Pax guesthouse, run by a Benedictine monastery where we joined Peggy and Lee who had found the place referred to in a travel book to Trinidad. A full description and review of the place may be added to a post I write about where NOT to stay if options are available, beginning with overpriced food and ending with a place needing a serious make-over. I felt bad for the staff who tried to be polite but seemed really at the end of their tether by (likely) being underpaid and having to serve ONE avocado (and look here, they have at least one giant avocado tree and avocadoes are literally dropping off trees in Trinidad, literally used in its correct figurative form here) to FOUR guests and as Peggy later told us Jell-o for dessert after dinner. We did spend a very pleasant day with our first taxi driver: Roberto going to visit  hanuman temple built and visited by people of Indian origin and had Trinidadian dal puri with shrimp, mango and veggies at a place he took us. Roberto introduced me to the two beers of Trinidad: Carib and Stag ( I did not drink beer when I went there the first time) and is definitely a cabby I would recommend, but then, apparently they are all awesome in Trinidad!

Dave came to pick us up on our second morning and I was of course the last one out as everyone appeared to be waiting for me. He said, ‘you must be Ishita.’ And I thought, hmm, where have I seen this guy before while being embarrassed at having kept him waiting. By the time were all in his van I remembered where, some of his photos were on Caligo venture’s facebook page. And I don’t have a photographic memory for nothin’ ! He said we were free to ask him as many questions as we liked and i was sitting in what would be my favorite seat for the next four days: right behind him, I told him very truly, that he didn’t know what he had gotten himself into. He laughed.  I don’t look as imposing as I like to think I guess. Dave is lean, has short cropped hair and usually wears a hip neck piece and long sleeves, his walk as sure footed as it is slick. A small part of my brain hoped I had a walk like that, as the main part of my brain was glad I wasn’t the only one abjectly favored by mosquitoes.

We were greeted by Kris and Ashley in the famous verandah of Asa Wright after checking out our room w/ queen bed (my special request made on behalf of my husband who was falling off the twin bed we had last time). Happily reunited I was of course constantly chirping. I think people, including Kris and Ashley think I am an extrovert. To say that is  far from the truth is an understatement.  Anyway. It is just that in the right company  I just happen to chirp a lot. The center celebrated its 50th anniversary last year and has upgraded in every possible way since I last saw it. The center guides are just a pleasure to talk to, they love their jobs and some of them travel for hours daily to get to their job. The food was fantastic and I must say I really like the new chef, because I do not recall that I liked the food that much 5 yrs ago.

It did rain on any plans on the first day, however, it was the ONLY plan (and not in the formal itinerary I might add) that suffered from the rains. Otherwise, we made good on every trip that had been planned.The rain brought my dancing jacobins out in tens as they drank in the ran and i soaked in their joy. The young, and the males especially take special delight in preening and spreading their wings and tail feathers to get the most of the rain. It is a sight I haven’t forgotten in five years, and now cannot get back to, soon enough. I did notice and later Dave confirmed this, that the number of Jacobins in the feeders was way more in proportion to the copper-rumped who, five years ago, were the feisty little hummers that fought off every other hummer that wanted a little drink. By the time we were leaving, I did see an increased effort by the copper-rumped to make a come-back. I already have way too many photos of those two hummers on this blog, so I will refrain to post more.

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Golden-olive woodpecker

I should mention that a tropical storm Bret had hit Trinidad about two weeks before our planned arrival and while most of the places we visited showed no signs of being hit, there was some damage by trees falling over and mud slides in Blanchiseusse.

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Female barred antshrike
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Female purple honeycreeper

On the discovery trail, the main trail at AWNC to or at which all other trail lead, we started off with seeing the Trinidad mot-mot, two of them but in deep shadow, followed by both male and female great antshrike that D called out. Their call is like a ping pong ball bouncing off after being dropped. Our treat for this hike were two male bearded bellbirds calling at each other and being close enough that we saw them clearly. I think it was a great show that lasted more than 5-6 minutes as one of them actually moved closer still that I got a good video of both of its calls: boink…. boink… boink (guttural), the call comes from deep inside that crow sized bird, and the quicker boinks that seem to indicate that the bird needs to stop to rev up its chords for the next round. These birds don’t call during or close to rain. Their beards look like black worms wiggling from the lower jaw, and should have inspired beards in pirates of the caribbean (but we don’t need another movie for that, no!).

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Bearded bell-bird
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Blue-headed parrots

After we got back it did begin to pour and we felt sorry for the group of school kids who had left to take a walk down the trail right after us! What goes around….

That evening we headed for the area inside Agricultural research center in Arima for some night birding. We or rather D was hoping for some macaws (some green variety) but as usual they didn’t want to be seen by me (or more likely my husband who literally is dying to see some in the wild). The Moriche oriole, a very rare and possibly endangered bird is also seen there and also eluded us that night. We did see the little cuckoo, in the shadows but still clearly. After a great dinner, in light drizzle, I found out how to differentiate nightjars from paraques at night and I can tell you they are much easier to differentiate at night that day, unless they fly around you slowly! No, I am not telling you how here, ask D, it is something to do with their eyes.We saw and heard a southern lapwing as it bothered a common potoo.

However, D had not given up on the Moriche oriole and that is how to get the double-striped thick-knee.

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Palm tanager eating wild tobacco

But before that, we spent an entire day at Blanchiseusse, up the mountain. Seeing the grayish saltator, blue headed parrots and the trinidad euphonia. Also, not a big deal but both the morphs of ferruginous pygmy owl (grey and rufus). One of them posed for photos wonderfully and D called him out. They have a pattern on the back of their heads that looks like they have a pair of eyes there! So the birds of the nests these guys attack are never sure where it is looking, because otherwise this little guy looks like a little doll. I also saw a clove tree with fruit for the first time on that day. It was a long and tiring day for most and we headed back ready for dinner and bed.

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Next morning, while not as bright or early as some people, I was up looking for the tufted coquette in the vervines by our room and I think it was the day I took a few photos. Although, THAT little guy is far from being tamed and I assure you, I accept that challenge with pleasure. I will have a photo of him I am proud of one day. This was our last day at the center and we had it packed. With the trip to the oil bird cave, one of the more difficult ones led by a center guide. The hike down went pretty smoothly and wrapped in a tent made of a giant leaf, we saw the exceeding cute tent-making bat. It even looked a little greenish itself! The oil birds screamed their eerie call as we saw a couple pretty close to the entrance of their cave here, apparently there are birds there that travel to Venezuela (another known oilbird haunt) and come back here. They are all of course tagged and known. On the way back, the rain gods finally lost patience and we came back dripping wet. Not that I cared.

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Oil bird with regurgitated palm fruit

 

Lester and Dave
Lester(left) and Dave(right): Our Trinidad guides of Indian origin, carried with pride and Caribbean flair

Last evening was our Caroni Swamp trip, to see Peggy’s favorite, Trinidad’s national bird: the scarlet ibis. And again, might I add, not a single photo I am proud of. We met Lester, who I am sure was our boat guide last time we went too. In the intervening years, his dad: Winston Nannan was awarded the President’s medal for his huge contribution in the conservation of the habitat of the scarlet ibis. The swamp will be named after him, even though we did not have the good fortune of meeting him as he has passed. Nevertheless, guides are awesome like that, and Lester is quite funny too. That day the rain gods (and possibly every other god that I have ever prayed to) was smiling at me and rewarded me with a full length rainbow in all its glory.  There was some friction in the group for silly reasons I am choosing not to get into at this point, including inviting people we had just met at the center to join our group. I know I am mean, but scarlet ibises were practically the reason we were back, and my socializing-to-new-people mode had been turned off since I met D, since I wasn’t expecting to be needing it again in the tour. I rarely, as rare as the bird we saw next, chat for the heck of it. To me the only polite thing to do is NOT pretend that I am interested when I am not.  Anyway, I am weird I know. Another long day came to an end, I thought it had gone great (but it turns out, not everyone did!). But, the rainbow, I am sure had no complaints!

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Scarlet Ibises

Rainbow and binos

Next day was our long ish road trip to Grand Riviere where the pawi awaited our arrival with bated wattles. I was supposed to sit next to D! Well, I had called shotgun for this particular drive, the day we were on Blanchiseusse and Kris hadn’t been there, as she hadn’t been on some of our hikes or trips, and ok, I am such a baby. I had got the front seat for Caroni, even if that had been the trade off for letting the strangers join our group. I clearly had issues with letting some things go….

The whole list of over 120 birds we saw is beyond the scope of this post, we did see the tropical parula and bay-headed tanagers (life birds for me) among many  others..

So, on the way back we stopped at the agricultural center in Arima looking for the oriole. I even saw it fly across at about 6 ft above the ground. No one else did, even if we waited quite some time. I think Ashley had wanted to see it and told D, it hadn’t been me who had requested the stop, but I am so glad we did. Because finally, we got what I had hoped we would make in the Caroni marsh: a truly special sighting we make as a group. On our way out, remember I am sitting right behind D and at this point not in the best of spirits, but still with eyes open, and suddenly while taking the turn towards the exit he stops the van midway. And says in cheerful (ok, he always sounds cheerful, I would say he had a laughing talk: an undercurrent of a good laugh as he talks that seems to be some type of a Caribbean male phenotype, and is expressed beautifully in D) amazement (he was never amazed before): “Is that a double stripe(d) thick-knee?” And I am like ‘what, where, is that a bird?’ Right in front in the little line of wild grass. A large-eyed, long legged, superbly camouflaged bird. Not been reported in Trinidad in 10 years. And before that reported only 5 times. A double striped thick-knee. A rare vagrant. Making us some kind of a big deal.

When I said good bye to Dave at Mt. Plaisir, I hoped it was not forever.

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Double striped thick-knee: the elusive and gorgeous bird of our trip!

The rest of the trip is kind of a blur, though it shouldn’t be. Our rooms were wonderful, with AC and lovely views. The Pawis were kind and showed up and we went back to their haunt on two days, we also saw some forest birds with Nicholas.  A truly amazing experience of watching a leather-back lay eggs, this time (unlike the last) she laid fully formed, golf-ball sized eggs. That are springy! We saw the vultures lying in wait for the little baby turtles that emerge, yet another predator.

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I am compelled to mention here that we saw the hotel, the supposed eco-lodge: Mt. Plaisir, harboring dogs that dig and eat the eggs. I am sorry, if you are selling yourself as an eco-lodge, where the ‘eco’ part is the eggs being laid on the beach you are situated on: the dogs that are fed by the employees of the lodge need to be secured for three months. It shouldn’t be that hard, these are not natural predators. The hotel employees are lovely people, I know  feeding those almost stray dogs is kindness. But some objectivity and a few ropes or some other means of containment is needed. I saw the dogs eating the eggs and no matter how much Pierro (the owner of Mt. Plaisir) denies it, it happens. The locals of this beautiful town, volunteer their nights to look out for the leatherbacks, tag them and maintain some numbers etc. They love these animals and I envy their involvement in something as beautiful as that. Not that anyone is stopping me. I know. All of us did not get to see the nest building and egg laying of these turtles but we all saw the many babies saved and kept away from the vultures by human intervention by another David. Nicholas sold us some chocolate he makes from local cacao, that was wonderful.

I would be remiss in not mentioning our final driver in TT: Anthony who drove us back from Grand Riviere to the airport. I did sit in the front that day, I suppose no one else had the energy to engage in a conversation. But engage I did and he was wonderful. Talked about Trinidad in real terms, just the way I would want to talk about India to someone I trust will not get the wrong impression just because my country has some issues. It is hard for some people to accept the culture in other places but thankfully I know better. I wish him as a driver to anyone who understands his openness and warmth without judging. He went out of his way to take us on our final TT outing: we ate the local street special : doubles, two puris with chickpeas in a spicy sauce, from his favorite shack (they are all different, we have been told) and he even paid for ours!

Any country that has people like the ones I met there, has been doing things right for a LOONG time. Trust me, I am a philosopher. Trinidad. Who knew that my heart could belong in a place so well off my sphere till the time I was 30. And who knew that at 35 (at the time) I could still fall in love. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geoffroy’s Tamarins in Panama

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Geoffroy’s Tamarin striking a lion like pose
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The only time one of them looked straight long enough for me to take a shot
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Those ears and smoldering eyes- the tamarin is only about 9 inches of body-length
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Two tamarins

 

It has been a few months I posted anything. So a photo post was at the very least due. A great start to my 2018 in Panama, with these tamarins on the first day of this new year.. In the Gatun lake of the Panama Canal area.

Panama is wonderful for many reasons, and Panama city is the ideal city I would have built. National park within 20 min of (slow) driving. Old and very new (read skyscrapers and glass buildings) parts of the city. Jazz. Absolutely LOVELY people. And the ocean.

The end of logic as we knew it: Nov 8 2016 anniversary special

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This is a composite  I made of  photographs of two graffitis (a tank and a revolutionary) and a painted door in Hauz-Khas village in Delhi

I would be remiss if I didn’t write about what the anniversary means to me personally and try to project what I think it SHOULD mean to people of the two countries in the world I relate to tangibly.

The projections may be utterly inverted, as clearly I have failed to understand the majority of thought in both those countries right from electing Trump (who people thought would be a “game” changer as in the one openly racist, utterly ignorant, and totally unqualified for the game of playing President, to the game of who can nominate the worst suited people to hold critical government positions), to calling a peaceful, thoughtful gesture by Colin Kaepernick unpatriotic (while talk of major officials having clandestine ties nature with Russia are shrugged off), to always supporting groups like NRA which literally have done nothing for you and never will (support ACLU, if you must, maybe the word liberty is not as clearly understood by people who tote guns as it should be); then the catastrophic economic decision for demonetization by PM Narendra Modi being exalted as brave- when the people actually suffering were poor and old Indians. How is the PM brave? for making a ludicrous policy censured by a majority of real economists worldwide, seem like some act of cleansing of  our nation’s not-entirely-Hindu soul ( he LITERALLY CALLED IT SHUDDHI YAGNA – ‘a pyre to make us pure’ translated losely, my blood boils figuratively at his gall) because apparently our poor are not suffering enough that we need images like this photo essay has, to reaffirm their misery.; then there are the gourakshaks who speak for the rights of cows in India and beat up people who transport, have any kind of meat in their house AND happen to be Muslim, and claim the same high octane of righteousness that every single monster who has hurt others for a cause that somehow is purported to be above humanity has claimed in the past. Thinking about that kind of fervent righteousness reminds me of 9/11 where innocent lives were extinguished to make a point about religion, imperialism and hegemony by the Taliban. It reminds me of every soldier and civilian killed in the Iraq war (2003-2011) that was totally unnecessary and based on false pretenses. Of the Rohingyas who are being driven away from their homes by the purportedly peaceful Buddhists and the Myanmar government. They probably lose no sleep over this because you know, they are Buddhists and anything they do is peaceful and right. It reminds me of every Nationalist movement that thought nothing of the people who live in those nations and called for groups of people to hate, fight and kill each other for the betterment of a “Nation”. Like one can make a map happy by changing its boundaries and the colors of dots that stand of population type in the region. Moreover TO make a MAP happy, one must make sacrifices. Nationalism should be about preserving national parks in the US, preserving ancient buildings in India and at least trying to objectively assess issues faced by the minorities and the marginalized. Nationalism should be to aid the Puerto Ricans when they need it the most, to put an end to their billions of dollars of debt, a debt that can never be repaid anyway. If people in need are less equal from people not in need then the premise of nation is only for the rich and the healthy. But the rich don’t send their children to the army ( remember how Trump never served). So whose nation is it?

PM Modi thinks (or at least says) that our Nation, India, deserves sacrifices to rid itself of black money that was never much in the form of hard cash to begin with. 94% of black money is in estates and gold, that is not a new fact of 2017, it is a known fact forever. To bring back the 6% everyone stood in lines for hours to get their own money, were DENIED their own money as banks and ATMs ran out of money. And  just to stamp on our faces exactly how incompetent the government can be and still get away with it, the printing of the new notes lagged far behind the need.  Still, for the entire time the process of bans, exchanges, ATM upgrade to fit the new notes lasted, the middle class and the lower class believed in the cause. They believed because every one likes to think they suffer for a reason and that bad people will be brought down by the virtuous (with Mr. Modi adopting the role of god appointed  messiah) as their sins  reach some tipping point. These are the two main reasons of success and omnipresence of religion: solace if not explanation for human suffering and winning against evil. And it worked for a while. Aided by the fact that for the GENERAL public trillions or lakh-crores of rupees that makes up the 6% of black money in cash sounds like a LOT because they have never seen or heard the likes of it,  and were never told it is just 6% of the actual lot of black money. The hard economic fact of that is that even if it was ALL recovered under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the income declaration scheme,  and the guilty penalized it would still not have been worth the expense to the government and the colossal loss to the informal sector which, wait for it: actually employs people and pays for their livelihood and drives the economy.  The claim of making India cashless where even Japan is not, is so laughable to not be worth more than this sentence. I suppose everyone must have known that the Mallyas, Adani’s, Ambani’s and yes, the Bachchans will never be caught, but maybe they did not guess that they will prosper as they sell more oil, phones, dataplans etc.

It turns out that the promising hope of delayed deliverance at a later point, be it apocalypse when God will fly in and banish the sinners to burn in hell and save his true believers or the black money hoarders will one day be caught AFTER all the cash has been extinguished from small businesses and as farmers realize they are going to starve some more, works quite well for demagogues.

It does not work well for economists, who have gone ballistic  with figures and data (Article by Larry White); please read this one too by Vivek Kaul, to show that not only was the hardship useless to bring back black money, it SLOWED the economic growth like never before, it was akin to government approved legal money laundering because 98.6% of circulating cash went back to the banks and the likelihood of hoarders of black money in cash, to ever be caught and pay the penalty of 50% to the government is well nigh zero. Yes, the same probability that Trump would change overnight into a knowledgeable, well-spoken, well-read adult who knows that winning is not the end of it all, often it is the beginning of something you don’t know how to handle, also and foremost: who gave a fuck about other people (even one other person except his own self).

While in the U.S., recent elections in Virginia, NJ have heralded a real change in the game. The future of dreamers still remains uncertain as DACA is on hold. It is still 3 yrs (unless Robert Mueller is actually our messiah appointed by God) for Mr. Trump preaching America First in world summits which are designed to bring the world together. 3 years of unsuitable heads of major government agencies like EPA, USDA, and heck, even the White House. 3 years of twitter squabbles with North Koreans that could lead to WWIII; with journalists, news agencies and heck yeah, attorney generals, senators, other White House officials! 3 more years of ‘waiting to see what happens’ as if administrative things happen on their own  and the utterly reassuring ‘it will be good, it will be great, and we will WIN!’.

I have only small rays of hope that people of India will see the truth, will see that painting everything saffron is not the way for ‘vikas’ (progress) in India. It is infact, the pure anti-thesis of that. But there are rays and I hope that the few things India stood for: secularism, knowledge and education, liberal arts or liberty in arts and empathy (if not working policies) for the poor and marginalized will make a come back and from there we can progress to changes to social structure and economics.

The days when the U.S. could claim being stable enough to excuse its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, are in fact, over. The U.S. maybe stable (I explain myself because I believe some Americans don’t understand what I say unless I make it clear, because everyone has different understanding of sarcasm, especially in writing, like the use of maybe in the last sentence, when clearly it is surely). But it’s head no longer is, and I am not the one making this up (refer to explanation one line above): the determination of soundness and leadership qualities are always made by the world at large (e.g., we can’t ask Trump to validate his own stability) and one only needs to see what the Chinese /French/ German newspapers are saying about current President.  For a change, I was being optimistic about “3 years left”. It is more likely 7, right?

Lily pond

 

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Lily pond

 

These lilies are mainly all I photographed in my  last trip to India. A small digression: I took the train from Delhi to Kolkata (HIGHLY recommend: Rajdhani Delhi- Howrah AC 1st class over any flights). As we entered West Bengal I saw tens of lily ponds from behind my window glass and despaired that I won’t see one up close unless I got off at random stations and hiked backwards. Yes, that is on the bucket list now of course.

Two lilies-wm

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Dragonfly on closed lily

However, my yearning was strong enough that I did get to see one gorgeous lily pond in the majestic Agri-horticulture society of Kolkata. In October other than the decades old trees and many tropical, south american plants that were flowering there wasn’t much else. However, spat in the center of the sprawling gardens was, to my utter delight: a beautiful lily pond with open lilies at around 12 noon. Yay for serendipity, because while Moniraj claims he knew it was there, I wonder if he actually did. haha.

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Subject of black & white: pink lily

And this leads to another digression, people.. please read (my) travel stories (cughhh..ayahuasca..cough). I know they are long but it is the next best thing to going there and that actually DOES take longer and maybe you will want to take the time to GO once you read? Or not. No pressure.

The two lilies and the black& white lily were edited in my iPhone itself. All watermarks on computer of course. I am getting ready to change my 3 yr old iPhone so seemed like a good adieu. Thanks for all the fish and bones..

Seeing as water lilies live about 3 days, i think they are temporary, they bloom only a few hours a day too. Of course, everything is. Still appropriate for the photo challenge this week.

Best remembered trips: Ayahuasca in the Amazon rainforest

children-puma cahuaI 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.

Johnny -wm
Johnny
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The unsecondable Segundo
Jhon
Jhon

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.

shaman-wm
Shaman

medicine bottles of shaman-wmBottles 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.

astounded child-wm

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.

kitchen in amazon-wmoctagenrarian at home

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.

Becket-portrait
Becket

MiltonThe 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.

Trackers
How to shave with a machete: Our trackers with Segundo
village mart-1
Handicraft market in the jungle

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.

blood red amazonian sunset-wm
Blood red sunset of the amazon