10/9/19 – 10/11/19
“I must go back. I have much to learn from these medicines.”
If you were going to pick a poster child for taking psychedelic drugs in the middle of the Amazon, Roger wouldn’t be your man. Bloodless cadaverous complexion, brow glistening with sweat, nonstop nasal drip soaking a handful of toilet paper that he stuffed into his pocket, balding.
“I turned into a blackbird. It knew everything about me.”
Still, it is hard not to have a certain degree of curiosity toward ayahuasca. When Christian missionaries first encountered rhe jungle brew, the logical explanation was that it was the work of the devil. On some level it is a miracle of indigenous science in that in order for the psychoactive chemicals to have their desired effects, they must be combined with substances known as MAO inhibitors, which are powerful antidepressants. How somebody would stumble upon the recipe for this a thousand years ago is one of life’s mysteries.
I noticed a pattern of six black dots on Roger’s shoulder.
“It’s from the Kambo treatment.”
“What’s that like.”
“There is a lot of vomiting and diarrhea. It is very therapeutic and cleansing.”
Kambo is the venom from the Phyllomedusa bicolor, the Amazonian giant monkey frog. A paste is made from scrapings off the back of the amphibian. A shaman burns three to six holes in the participant’s skin and then applies the concoction to them. Once you realize what they are, you see these dots on glassy eyed tourists all over the city.
“I believe it transmuted several spiritual abnormalities I carried.”
If one wants to try either of these, a shaman is needed.
At street level, Iquitos is a lot like any other large Latin American city. Hectic traffic, unfinished buildings, narrow streets, hustlers, dog shit, beautiful colonial architecture, vibrant markets, happy little people sitting at park benches. There is something strange about it that you really can’t put your finger on though. Something about it being in the middle of the jungle. Unreachable by roads. Too far away for the circus of the modern world to tell the locals what to do and they know it.
The Centro Mercado encompasses several blocks. It is not dissimilar to any other large city market in terms of rows and rows of fresh vegetables, people clamoring for position in front of vendors, prices being yelled out, money exchanged, smell of rotting poultry in the butcher section, and strange puddles of infected mercado mud that you do your best to avoid but occasionally step into. I made a note to bleach my feet and sandals as soon as possible. The striking differences are the giant river fish and a the number of people selling strange forest tinctures that will help you speak to God or at least perform for an extra hour or two. Hundreds of live crabs scurry around in wooden boxes. Small crocodiles on top of tables or gutted and hung from the branches that support blue tarp roofs. There are catfish bigger than most of the people walking around. Most appear to be dead but occasionally one twitches and an old lady bashes it over the head with a wooden mallet.
It is a twenty minute walk or so to the Belén mercado from the centro. The street that leads is full of garbage, sick dogs, and hangovers. Occasionally there is an empty lot between the tightly packed buildings, presumably where one has collapsed, which gets turned into a makeshift dump. People freely throw their trash on the streets as there do not not appear to be any pickup services. They seem to take comfort in the annual flooding of the river which carries a large portion of it away. Some undoubtedly makes it to the banks of indigenous communities. I like to think of them re-purposing an old tire for a small raised bed. I have yet to come up with a romanticized vision of what they do with all the grocery bags and dog shit.
A man named George began to follow us around. He kept asking if he could take us on a tour of the town on the other side of the river.
“Is like Venice,” he tells us.
“Posiblemente mas tarde,” we tell him and then wander around for a bit.
“Please, my family needs the money,” he says and won’t leave our side. He warns us that it is a dangerous area and to keep an eye on our pockets. I tell him that we just wanted to wander on our own and that we will find him later if we decide to take a tour with him. After a short walk we realize the market basically contains the bruised goods that don’t make the cut for the main mercado and head back to the river banks to find George. There is some heckling over the price as we have learned that in the jungle you must always be clear whether or not a quote is for both people or one. You then have to make sure that there isn’t an extra charge for your backpack. Sometimes somebody might claim that there are government fees or some other erroneous costs that were not in the original quote. We verify three times that the total charge is twenty soles, about six dollars, for a one hour tour and get in his canoe.
Occasionally you visit a place that you think is a slum. Then you visit another place and say, "No, THIS is a slum!" Then you realize that a slum probably would not have guided tours and you wonder what a slum could possibly be like. Even though there are obvious differences, most of life in Latin America doesn't seem so dissimilar to our own. Belén, however, looks like the sad places you see on TV with naked toddlers eating rotten fruit on top of a garbage dump whose lives can be changed for just ten dollars a week even after healthy administration and spokesperson fees are deducted.
It sits on the outskirts of Iquitos, on the flood plain. The water level here swells ten to twenty feet in the rainy season. All of the structures are built to rise and fall with the water. Floating houses. Floating outhouse. Floating walkways. 15,000 inhabitants. River banks lined with garbage. People bathing in trash water. George points to a water tower near the center of town.
“We have water to drink for three hours every day.”
He walks us by a dirt field filled with young men playing futbol, waves to a few, and introduces us to the group. Nobody seems particularly interested. The school is a large concrete building constructed on pillars. In the mud below it is a crudely constructed wooden box, similar to a dog house but with a sliding door and a latch.
“Police don’t help here, so when the people are bad we put them in these.”
The rainy season hadn’t started yet, so all of the structures were nestled in the mud. It must be strange to not know exactly what angle your house is going to sit on for the next eight months until the water recedes. George’s place was in the middle of a large puddle and we walk across some shaky planks to the front door. A little dog jumped over a board blocking the entrance and greeted us. His daughter stood inside, on the edge of the light coming through a window, in a little pink ballerina costume. The wood slat walls seemed relatively new. Each house sat on top of ten to fifteen massive logs. These are the buoys for the houses during high water. They have to be replaced every year and cost about thirty dollars each, a week’s work for many people. On a beam above the stove is a pile of old National Geographics. Covered in soot from wood burning below them and mold from the damp air. George hands me one as if it is the Holy Grail.
“This how I learn English,” nodding and smiling. He opens one up and clumsily reads from the September 1992 Issue. “Dolphins in Crisis,” clearing his throat he continues, “In the past decade millions of these intelligent marine mammals have been drowned in nets or poisoned by polluted waters. Now the world acts to protect them.”
We wander around a bit more. It’s easy to forget where you stand in the world. We love to focus on the things that we don’t have or how difficult it can be to keep the high speed fiber optic internet running at home every month. Then you walk through a place like Belén and for one of the few times in your life you really think about everything that you have and how fortunate you are not to be washing your clothes downstream from your neighbor’s shanty shitter.
We got back to town and I had a message from Oscar, the sales representative for a local shaman that performed Ayahuasca ceremonies. He had a strange sense of urgency in wanting to get together, but I guess that’s sales people. He’d been recommended by a friend we’d met on the boat from Panama. Finding a Shaman in the digital age is different than I would have imagined twenty or thirty years ago. Now you go on Tripadvisor or Yelp to read user reviews. My favorites are the ones where people rave about the ‘authentic’ jungle experiences. These are often punctuated with something like ‘…..and the wifi is relatively fast.’
Oscar explained that we could not have any caffeine or alcohol for twenty four hours leading up to taking the medicine.
Soph responded with a quick "No thanks."
I wasn’t so quick to bail and told him that I would be in touch. Later that morning, Illaria, the Italian woman that we met in Roca Fuerte, sent me a video of a tank that had been set on fire in the streets of Coca. The gasoline protests were still raging and she was still stuck in Ecuador. Our boat had only been a few hours ahead of hers. It could have just as easily been us.
Back at our hostel, Roger was staring at pile of lentils that he’d spilled on the floor.
“It reminds me of eternity.”
Not looking to get into a protracted discourse over the nature of the universe I grabbed a little bottle of vegetable oil and went back to our room where I used it to treat our saddles for lack of a proper leather conditioner.
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