Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fragility of the Amazon

"For his dissertation he and a partner had registered all of the higher plants found in a hectare of jungle. The number was enormous. But what was most interesting to me was that for many of the plants there was only one example in that hectare. That, to me, explained the frailty of the Amazon more than anything else could. If, for instance, we had to walk nearly an hour to reach a Banisteriopsis caapi - ayahuasca - vine, then it was probably the only example of that vine for a couple of miles in any direction. Imagine if instead of an ayahuasca vine, that was a particular type of fruit-bearing tree whose fruit was the food of a particular species of monkey. If someone cut that tree down, that monkey would have no reason to enter those several square miles any longer, and would change its feeding route. In turn, the insects that fed on the waste produced by that monkey would no longer be found there, nor would the animals that depended on those insects for food. And if that particular tree only occurred any three miles for some reason, and if each were cut down over a 20-mile area, there would probably be no seeds dropped by those monkeys to ever propagate that tree in that area again. So the ants that fed off its bark, the monkey that its fruit, the insects that ate the droppings, the animal that ate the insects, and so forth, would all be seriously affected." (Peter Gorman, Ayahuasca in My Blood, 160-161)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It’s Not Easy Being Green (or Becoming a Frog)

When I first heard about el sapo I thought, “What kind of crazy person would try that?” Now I know, me. Sapo is a medicine used by the Matses tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. It supposedly sharpens the senses and increase stamina making the Matses people who use it better hunters. Sapo is the sweat of the giant monkey tree frog, which the Matses people collect by catching a frog, tying its legs to four posts, making it nervous, and then scraping off its sweat before releasing the unharmed, but no doubt petrified, animal (unfortunately, I did not get to see this part as my guide had a pre-collected sample available on a stick).* I wanted to try sapo because I thought that it would help me “see” the animals in the jungle better.

The morning of my introduction to sapo, I was terrified. I had been forewarned by my guide that sapo was “Fuerte, muy fuerte. Pero pasa después de 30-40 minutos,” (“strong, very strong. But it passes after 30, 40 minutes”). What was I doing here? Here I was, a vegetarian from Virginia, being inducted into an age-old medicine used by Amazonian hunters for centuries. What was I expected to do, become the frog? I sat anxiously in the kitchen watching my guide eat breakfast (I wasn’t allowed to eat anything as sapo would mostly likely force me to throw it up) and whittle a stick with a machete. I grew more nervous watching his father walk around me with a smoldering log, while my guide “prepared” the sapo (he spat on the stick and then vigorously rubbed the resin and substance into a paste). He then stuck a small stick into the faggot, setting it on fire before burning me with it three times. After scraping away the skin, he applied the paste. My skin already stung from the burns, but the moment the “medicine” touched my body, my heart started to race. I felt it beating hard in my chest as a current raced through my body. All of a sudden, I found myself lying on the floor without knowing how I got there. I felt my hosts place a cold towel on my forehead and lemon halves on my temples. I sat up and proceeded to throw up, twice. My entire body convulsed and I repeated, “Oh god, oh god.” My guide poured a pitcher of water over my head and had me lie down. Twenty minutes later, I felt well enough to stand and eat.

Later in the day, during our jungle walk, we spotted hoatzin, horned screamers, monkeys, a three-toed sloth, and alligator, tapir, capybara, and jaguar tracks. My guide’s father told me that I saw many animals because sapo brings luck. I don’t know about that, but I know that I sweated loads more than my companions. I also felt more alert to the sights and sounds of the jungle than I did previously. I felt the presence of the monkeys way before my guide spotted them. I didn’t try hunting, but I successfully stabbed a fish with a spear. We cut the fish up into small pieces with a machete and then used it as bait to catch piranhas. How’s that for the power of the sapo? Excuse me, I have to go, I feel a croak coming on.

*In his book Ayahuasca in My Blood, Peter Gorman says, “In large doses, the intense sweating it causes could make a Matses hunter ‘invisible’ to poor-sighted but acute-smelling jungle animals by temporarily eliminating the human odor. In studies by the University of Rome, sapo would found to have bio-active proteins, meaning that the body believes it has produced them and reacts accordingly.

El sapo

Nervous but excited

I'm smiling because I thought the burning was going to be the worst part

My guide applying the paste

In pain

It got pretty intense

I Dream of India

As a lifelong traveler (I've been traveling since I was in the womb), I've come to associate different places with smells, noises, feelings. India is one of the places with the strongest associations for me. When my grandmother returns from India and opens her suitcases, I inhale deeply and think, "It smells like India." I can't describe the smell, some sort of sweet perfume particular to India. Other smells often remind me of India, including dust, urine, and jasmine.

I was thinking about this recently when in Taropoto and Yurimaguas, entrances to the Peruvian jungle. Everything reminded me of India. Every morning I awoke to motorcycle traffic, noise, and intense heat. It even smelled like India. And I was filled with a desire to visit India, despite the fact that I recently visited it in July. I crave India.

Do you associate smells or other sensations with countries?

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling Up the River

As I lay on a hammock on a boat floating up Río Mañon, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this normal?” On the one hand, this is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life. On the other, it’s a crazy premise: “Let’s go on a three-day boat ride in a shitty boat and try to have a good time.” You might think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. This was no luxury ship, folks. The lancha, or ship, had two decks, both of which were chock-full of hammocks. Swinging side-to-side in my hammock, I would bump into my neighbor. There were too few bathrooms for the approximately 200 passengers and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that they made my latrine in Paraguay look nice. I was particularly worried as my stomach hadn’t been doing so well (probably a combination of eating at markets and 5-sole-menu places where I drank the juices).

The upper deck was unenclosed but thankfully had a roof to protect us from the intense sun, allowing breeze from the river to fan us. Of course, there’s not much breeze when your boat only moves at 10 MPH. From our hammocks, we could watch the jungle banks passing by. A few times, we heard squawking and spotted a flock of parrots flying up from the tree tops.

The second day passed much as the first, full of reading and amacar-ing (“to hammock oneself,” yes, Spanish has a verb for that). The grand adventure of the day occurred when the boat stopped at the town of Santa Rita. The Argentine hippies, having devoted the whole day to weaving bracelets and smoking weed, decided to divert themselves by practicing juggling. Unfortunatley, one ball rolled off the upper deck of the boat and into the water. The Argentine luckily was sober enough to ignore his friend’s cries of “!Tirate!” (“Throw yourself in!”). Seeing this, one boy from Santa Rita ran down to the water and jumped into a boat. He didn’t even have an oar; he had to paddle with his feet. As the whole town looked on from the shore, a second boat, this one with a motor, joined the search-and-rescue mission. To the delight of the crowd of passengers on the boat and on-lookers onshore, the second boat returned triumphantly with the pink ball captured. The Argentine thanked the boat driver with a bracelet and then proceeded to drop the ball…Don’t worry, he caught it this time.

In the evening, the colors of the setting sun were intensified by the immense gray clouds. The wind picked up, threatening to throw our things overboard, and it started to pour. We ran for shelter, forgetting that we were on a boat. The only protection it could offer us was a plastic curtain and a leaky roof. I lay in my hammock journaling, as water dripped on me. The storm quickly picked up strength and speed and transformed from a welcome source of cooling air into a freezing, terrorizing rain. Large drops of water rolled down from the ceiling, soaking me. I hid inside my hammock, but it did little to protect me. A fellow Peruvian passenger had a br4illiant solution to stop the leaks: he placed life jackets over the holes in the roof to absorb the rain. I passed the night alternatively sweating from the heat and humidity and shivering from the waves of cold washing over me.

Around 4 Am the third day, we passed by Nauta, a town which marks the beginning of the Río Amazonas. Other than that, the third day was marked by a desperate urge to off the boat. I was not the only one who felt that way. As we neared shore, a bull broke through the wooden fence that contained it and swam toward freedom. I was tempted to do the same. It had been three days since I’d last showered and my supply of bottled water was nearly out. The brown sewage that surrounded the boat (aka the Amazon River) wasn’t an appealing option to bathe in. The phrase “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” came to my mind.

We finally arrived at Iquitos, the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by land. It is only accessible by boat and plane. When we arrived, I spotted “cruise” ships (the South American version in any case) anchored at the port with air conditioning and individual cabins. “Psshaah,”I thought to myself. “They missed a true Amazonian river adventure!”

A lancha similar to the one I rode on:

The bottom deck, a storage deck for beverages, bananas, and bulls:

Relaxing in my hammock:

The lower deck was much more crowded:

Vendors entered the boat at every port:

Boats on the river:

The pink ball rescued!

A crowd of onlookers watches: