My journey began in darkness and rain, a taxi ride in the hours before dawn at the intersection of three countries. I was picked up in Colombia, dropped off in Brazil, waiting for a boat to Peru. After refusing the offers of the local drunks to carry my bags, my only company was a couple of grizzled old river porters, their waterfront bungalow adorned with posters and calendars of 80’s-style pin-up girls – one for which I would clearly not be mistaken. It was a moment for waiting. A handful of other respectable-seeming passengers trickled in with the April rains, including a matronly Brazilian woman who reassured me I was in the right place. A water taxi left us in Santa Rosa, Peru. All baggage strapped onto my body, I walked a long muddy plank to a very unofficial-looking door and knocked. One menorah candle burned sheepishly in a refuge camp of immigration paperwork. Documents signed, we set off along the Amazon toward Iquitos, one of the sailors standing statuesque on deck with a light to burrow our way toward the sunrise.
Other passengers carried suitcases, coolers, garbage bags filled with various treasures, plants, animals. . . a man boarded in a small town about two hours into Peru, his leg in a cast and with an i.v. bag in his hand. Twelve remarkably comfortable hours of dozing and daydreaming later, we disembarked in Iquitos, Peru – a city of about a million people in the middle of the Amazon. The price of my mototaxi ride plummeted from 40 soles to 1 sole in the space of about three seconds, which gave me a sense of the inflation rate for the less assertive negotiators.
Amid the decaying grandeur of the rubber boom days – a bit of Spanish colonial architecture, colorful ceramic tiles, the requisite green central plaza – lay a town with an innocence I found exotic and hard to understand. Come to think of it, a lot of the places I’ve visited in Latin America feel that way. I find myself constantly wondering, questioning and marveling at complete strangers who welcome me into their lives, invite me into their homes and families and offer me all sorts of help, assistance and friendship. Something about this embarrassment of generosity makes me slightly uncomfortable – maybe because it makes me see how we operate in such stark contrast. Something – probably a lot of things -- about our way of being has jaded me and us. Latin America itself is full of dramatic contrasts, which is another part of being here that keeps me thinking all the time.
Of course there’s a time for thinking and there’s a time for flinging oneself into experience. I met a curandero through a Colombian friend (not Pablo Escobar) and accepted his invitation to a medicinal healing ceremony at his center in the jungle about an hour’s drive outside of Iquitos. As you probably know, the Amazon is tapped by healers and pharmaceutical companies alike for its wealth of trees and plants with curative properties. In this part of the world, it’s not unusual for shamans work in cooperation with western medical doctors, thus lending the tradition of plant medicine a measure of respect that it doesn’t have in mainstream US culture. I’m far from being an expert on this topic but I hear there’s a writer/anthropologist named Wade Davis who can tell you what it’s all about.
The curandero dropped me on the side of the road with a few essential items – the rest I left back in my hostel, most curiously free of charge -- and one of his workers accompanied me through the moist earthy depths of the high jungle. I talked a bunch with a South African couple that had worked extensively with this curandero; they spent an entire month at his center last year, following this dietary and social regime (lots of solitude) and attending three ceremonies per week (lots of vomiting and visions). They seemed authoritative about the curandero and about the plant medicine, in general, so I felt free to spend the remaining 24 hours leading up to the ceremony in the hammock in my cabin, again alternately daydreaming and napping like an old man. Between the heat and humidity and my body adjusting to a cleansing diet – no salt, no sugar, no caffeine, no alcohol, no meat, no dairy, no chilis, no oil, -- my usual energy was reduced to a low but steady hum.
While I can’t say that I saw god or discovered the true meaning of life, I did experience something unusual and positive with a cast of international characters, including a lovely French drummer who was also an initiate. For most of the ceremony, I found myself waiting for something to happen, and ultimately it was a gentle and interesting introduction but kind of anti-climatic. I’m glad for having had the experience, even though it will mean a month without eating chilis or pork, including a week I will spend in Mexico. These are the sacrifices we make for purification and vision, I guess. I did break my alcohol fast tonight in the company of my new adoptive family in Lima with my new favorite drink, the Pisco sour – fresh lime juice, Pisco and whipped egg whites.
I returned to Iquitos on a microbus, which is a minivan utilized in ways that boggle the mind. Just when I thought there was no way we could possibly pick up another passenger, the van would slow down just enough for someone to hop on board with a bundle of wood, a chicken or a large bag of something, thus making us yet more deeply reminded of our respective relationships to the concept of personal space. Sometimes the least pleasant situations make for the most entertaining memories. Carlos Alberto, the interpreter for the ceremony and my companion for the journey back to town, prattled on tirelessly – lifting his shirt and asking me if I thought he was fat, asking me if I could send him a John Denver cd, telling me about his various ex-wives and children and occasionally breaking into “Take Me Home, Country Road.” Also among the passengers was a certain Juan Maldonado, allegedly the oldest jungle guide (ie, an expert in the plants and animals of the jungle) in the Amazon and – so he told me – the guide to Werner Herzog and company during the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.” It was Juan’s 64th birthday, and he told me about a Facebook-assisted discovery of his long-lost U.S. American daughter who he hadn’t seen since he left New York when she was one year old. She will be coming to visit him in June for their first meeting in 37 years; he has been waiting.
A little relieved to leave the humidity, heat and squalor of the jungle city, I arrived in beautiful, sea-fresh Miraflores (the most touristy and ‘charming’ neighborhood in Lima) on Saturday night to a hostel owned by a Limeño surfer and gastronome who invited me to a parilla (ie, lots of meat) dinner as a way of apologizing for a long wait to get into the room I had reserved. He was injured and unable to surf but on Sunday showed me the famous Herradura (horseshoe) beach, which was completely full of muscled wave-chasers because of the seasonal swell. From there, he dropped me off with yet more friends of friends of friends, who promptly invited me to cancel my hostel reservation and stay with them. One of them, Erika – former Miss and Mrs. Peru, free spirit and lover of life -- whisked me off to witness the famous Peruvian Paso de los Caballos – a competition of saddle horses known for their elegance and smooth ride. Erika and her husband Vito, a well-known Peruvian painter http://www.vitololi.com/index-sp.htm, and I watched one of their favorite movies tonight, “August Rush.” I had never heard of it -- a fairy tale about an orphan child/musical prodigy who reunites with his long-lost musician parents in a concert in Central Park. The three of us sat on their bed and ate popcorn and grapes. They both cried, and I let myself believe the story.