Published: March 9th 2009December 31st 2008
Can you imagine a place in this world today where money is no longer needed, where endless varieties of fresh fruit trees are growing surrounded by crystal clear water filled with ample fish that are swimming around your ankles? It almost sounds like a dream to find a place where we are not caught in the endless monetary trap of buying and selling and worrying about bills and car payments working in a job we don’t even like. We thought we found this place in San Francisco yet the local people here are heading the other way. They want all the fancy gadgets the west has to offer and are already trapped in the vicious cycle to pay for these unnecessary things.
After living in San Francisco, Peru for almost a month, I met up with a friendly Venezuelan man known as Ronin Metsa. He is tall and lightly built with a long grey beard and frizzy hair. He has been learning about Shamanism, Tai chi and has been a transcendental Meditation Teacher for 20 years. He introduced me to a shaman living in San Fran yet originating from a town called Nueve de Octubre which is about 3 days
Life on the Boat
Eye through the hammocks
boat ride down the river Ucayali where life is still much more peaceful and hardly any western people have even gone. They have started working on a project to help the community by creating an area where many medicinal plants will be grown and new trees planted. A few of us foreigners in the town were really interested in going to a more native place in the jungle to experience a more natural lifestyle and to learn about the amazing medicinal properties of the plants growing there. We organised a trip for one month and had a lot of things to get ready. There was a tall blonde headed baboon-like Aussie with a lot of history working with plant medicines and an amazing musical talent with flutes, drums and electronic music. Cielo, another Aussie who has been living in Peru for 6 months studying plant medicines and has a website organising trips with various shaman. Sarah, a tall, young American girl who really didn’t know what she was getting into and Max a bearded Argentin wanderer who had spent 4 months living in San Francisco and was looking for something more authentic and natural than San Fransisco could offer.
We all had a lot to prepare and we pooled our money together to buy supplies for the voyage into the deep jungle. This included a complete peke-peke boat with motor to do day trips around the area as there were no roads or cars and everything was only accessible by boat. A shotgun with bullets for hunting monkeys and crocodiles and for protection from occasional pirates that rob boats especially in around Christmas time when it is known people are carrying larger amounts of money and presents. Machetes, food supplies and also some mosquito netting for hammocks and large living areas. All of this was quite laborious and the humid sweaty heat of chaotic Pucallpa drained all of us completely to the point where we were dying to leave the place. In the meantime, the only road to San Fran was becoming more and more bogged from torrential rains that meant less taxis and more time waiting which added to our woes.
Finally the day came for our trip to the unknown and we arrived at the boat port at dawn. The early morning air was crisp and fresh and we were excited and daunted by what we
were all embarking upon. I was felling a little apprehensive due to my mosquito sores on my legs and arm becoming infected and the glands in my groin had begun to swell. When we boarded the boat we noticed most of the cargo consisted of endless crates of local beer, 20000 bottles to be exact, at least we could enjoy the long ride down the river.
The boat was over filled with Peruvians, mostly all carrying hammocks. By the time we had placed them all up I had little room left to breathe as each hammock was literally on top of one another. We all looked at each other knowing it will be a crazy few days. What made things worse was many didn’t even have hammocks so most would lay down underneath the hammocks at night which meant we were tripping over bodies just to go to the toilet. The ride itself was quite tranquil passing lush forest that seemed to be becoming wilder and meaner as we went further down the river. The food was provided and was as fresh as it could be with live chickens being killed and plucked an hour before they were served
for lunch. Before we knew it we arrived late at night on the second day to our destination, two days ahead of schedule mainly because Peruvians have no sense of time. We were surprised and relieved as being cramped on the boat was becoming difficult especially due to the irritation of my sores.
We were greeted on the shore by an enormous army of blood hungry mosquitoes "Welcome to the Jungle" I thought as we hurried off with all our equipment to the local school which would act as our temporary residence. We were expecting as if out of a Hollywood movie to be met by brightly coloured and adorned tribesmen welding spears at us but the people looking fairly ordinary wearing western clothing and we were very surprised to see the government now recently installed a line of street lights that was powered by a generator a few hours every night. We spent the next few days adjusting to the accommodation which was not so easy because of the endless swarms of sand flies, mosquitoes and blood sucking flies to keep us company. At one point it became too much with some of us yelling profanities while running
to the seclusion of the protected hammock. It even included a few sleepless nights as the mosquitoes were so clever to find any tiny crack or hole anywhere in the mosquito netting.
Even the town itself was much more modern than first thought. Already there were a few stores selling soft drinks, beers, cigarettes and various other junk foods. Many of the town folk still live off the land from fishing, hunting and eating papaya and plantain which were all plentiful yet they were becoming fascinated with the western goods and sold a lot of their local produce to passing boats to buy beer, clothing and gas for their boats, thereby becoming more reliant on these services and turning into another San Francisco. The people of the village were curious and concerned with what our intentions were being there and we organised a meeting to establish our motives. It felt as we were on trial in a courtroom with all of us seated in front with many of the community surrounding us in a big circle. "we have come to learn about your culture and to study the local plants for their medicinal properties" Ronin Metsa said, "We are
not tourists and do not wish to endanger your people or your culture, nor cut down any of the precious forest as many others that come here still do, we wish to live here amongst you like brothers". He added. The chief of the village repeated what Ronin Metsa had said in native Shipibo and they seemed happier with the situation. Many were annoyed at the fact that so many big corporations have come into the forest and cut down so many of the trees down without any permission and they do not have any say on this. Ronin went on to add our concern about how many traditions are being lost such as cloth weaving and pot making and how the people are becoming too reliant on an unstable and expensive outside world, talking about the problems in San Francisco as an example. We want to teach and help keep the culture alive and not to forget their roots. Some of the local people found this very interesting as they didn’t not know how the situation was elsewhere.
It was Christmas day and for the first time in many years I had not heard one Christmas carol
or experienced the crazy marketing mayhem that exists in most western countries, it was just another peaceful and quiet day in the jungle as any other. The Shaman planned a trip to nearby mountains to do some hiking and see a special cave that was in the area. We packed the peke-peke and met our captain which was simple known as the motor driver. We were all happy to be on the river to go deeper into nature as even in the village we were only staying on the fringe which seemed to becoming more like a normal town near the city. The boat ride was very pleasant and we passed some lush jungle areas and a few Indians in hollowed out canoes. After an hour the mouth of the river became much wider into more of an open lake where we were greeted by friendly dolphins swimming by the boat. We preceded further down another waterway before arriving at another small village that appeared very similar to Nueve de Octubre but even smaller with much more green vegetation throughout. Again, we had a meeting with the people to see if we were allowed passage through the sacred area in
order to reach the mountains. After a lengthy discussion they told us that due to recent government intervention, foreigners require a permit to enter the area that is obtained from Pucallpa 2 days up the river. We left the village dismayed that we had been refused entry on Christmas day and that such bureaucracy can even exist here so deep in the Peruvian Jungle.
One morning, after rising and having our daily breakfast of fresh papaya and smoked plantains, the Shaman took us further inside the jungle on a quick trek to identify over 10 different plants used for curing illness including Utos used for internal injuries and Uha used for parasites, although to me the trees mostly looked very similar and I could not identify which one was which.
To gain maximum power and effect from the plants we would be undergoing a strict diet for the entire time being in the jungle which meant not eating any oils, minimal sugar, no salt or alcohol and no sex which meant no fun whatsoever!
A selection of plants called teacher plants are then selected and used to aid us with clearing our bodies and gaining information and
power. The first selection was a mix of Renekea, Tobacco and Piri Piri, which was steeped then drunk. It had a very strong flavour and made me feel quite drowsy. The locals didn’t really celebrate Christmas especially not in the traditional way with turkey and presents but they did preorder a crate load of Panatoni from the passing boats and made a huge pot of hot chocolate for the village which consisted of river water, buckets of sugar and a little bit of cheap cocoa.
It was starting to rain more than back in Pucallpa and occasionally it would pour all day long and it made it difficult to do much including prepare a ceremony as the plants needed to be cooked for about 12 hours on an open fire so we were confined to the school and practiced making artisan jewelry and played music.
Meanwhile I was getting very concerned about the sores on my legs as they had grown considerably in size and becoming more infected with pus seeping out more. Luka told me he had experienced it before and it looked alot like a staphylococci infection and it took him 3 months to get rid
of it. I started to worry as in its worst stage it can be fatal. I went and visited the local medicine woman known as Madrina. She was quite short and stocky with jet black hair and was always smiling and trying to help. She was wearing all black at the time as the tradition was to wear black for one year after you are widowed. She knew so much about the local plants and what they were all used for. The plants she gave me were cooked on a fire wrapped in a banana leaf and then they were crushed and rubbed onto the wounds which stung badly. The mosquitoes around kept biting and the sand flies which caused the infection were everywhere especially on the sores and to top it off I even got stung by a bee.
Later that day we had to move to the outskirts of town as the local people need to use the school for communicating on the CB radio and conducting classes. There was an open air shed that was abandoned that had a good tin roof but alot of the floorboards were missing and it barely provided adequate protection against
the rain. There were wasp nests on most of the upper beams and Luka got stung by one as we put up the big mosquito net, his hand later swelling to the size of a baseball. We prepared for a ceremony and the plants had little effect on me, I saw a vision of green pea-like fruit that I was informed I would need yet didn’t know what they were. I felt alot of emotions and experienced great memories long forgotten about my close friends and family and showed me where I had done wrong or treated someone unkind. Cielo was always getting visions of her friend and believing to have a full conversation with them as if on the phone. Max was not getting any effects at all and was becoming depressed and angry that he came all the way out to the jungle for nothing and Sarah simply fell asleep. It was interesting how the effects were so different for different people. I was also highly preoccupied with my sores and they felt like large elongated spines protruding into my legs and arms.
A few days later it was New Years Eve in the village and I was starting to get very worried about my sores as they were getting bigger and more infected even though I was seeing the Madrina every day for a treatment, nothing seemed to be working and with nothing really to distract me I was thinking about it all the time. I was even thinking about heading back to Pucallpa to go to the hospital. We all went on a journey on the boat to a village that had a public phone 2 hours away. It was great for a quick call home to let friends and family know we were ok. I went searching the town to see if the local shop had any penicillin but they were out fishing. When we arrived back the festivities had already begun with many people already half drunk on the locally mad alcoholic drink known as Masato. This consisted of fermented yucca, a local vegetable that is chewed and spit to aid in fermentation. It smells and tastes terrible yet they seem to love it. They had set up speaker systems on the mud floors and were dancing around to cheesy Peruvian Songs. It was one girls 15th birthday and she had a ballroom dress on that looked so out of place on the dirty muddy ground. I had finally found some shop owner who had some penicillin and who didn’t seem at all medically trained. I lay on the wooden table and stuck my bare ass out and screamed and watched the people dance and as the mosquitoes were biting, I couldnt even move to stop them. I knew then this would be a New Years Eve I would never forget.