Saturday, December 13, 2008

One Night in Lima

Stepped out into the electric December night in the charming and fashionable district of Miraflores. Still had eight hours to kill before my flight home.

Wandered around, looking at the lights and seeing the sights, soaking in as much Peru in my final hours as I could.

Then I headed to Las Brisas del Titicaca, a peña in central Lima, for a show of folkloric dance.

The place was already a flurry of activity when I arrived there around 11:30, and it took me a little while to figure out just what the hell was going on.

I hope you can make this out. Those headdresses are in the shape of condor heads, and the capes are representative of the wings, as these guys were spinning around.

The condor dance over, some weird, Lucha Libre looking guys came swarming out on to the dance floor.

They were joined by men wearing bull costumes, a toreador of sorts, and dancing girls in (I guess?) traditional dress. After the masked weirdos carried the defeated toreador offstage, the crowd applauded heartily, and the announcer came out to introduce the next spectacle.

I still wasn't really following that well, but I gathered that each dance was meant to showcase the cultural traditions of a different region of Peru. But the overall effect was more like that of a Vegas show, (with the elaborately-costumed dancing girls showing plastered-on smiles and lots of leg), or maybe a nightclub floor show from some 1930s movie.

I have no idea what happened next. I think they called it the Dance of the Reyes Morenos, which loosely translated, means Dark-Skinned Kings.

Maybe some video will clarify:

There was also some sort of Gargamel character involved.

I should mention that the crowd, mostly locals, ate all this up. Me, I just sipped my Pisco (yeah, whatever, I've never been one for doctor's (much less shaman's) orders) and tried to process it all.

Occasionally, to give the dancers a break, these guys would come out.

Ooh, this was one of my favorites. The guys were in white suits with black shirts, white ties and fedoras, and it wasn't all flashy and skirt-flaring like the others, with all the stomping around. Just elegance and grace, with a little bit of spice. rrrAOWWrr.

Ooh! There was a hambone one that I enjoyed a lot too:

And then every hour and a half or so, the band would start playing some salsa, and everybody would get up and dance. And I mean everybody. Old men, young children, couples, singles, all shaking their booties until the wee hours. And I mean the wee hours. I had thought I was going to be the last one there, but when I finally left at like 2:30, the party was still going!

One of the final dances was the Marinera.

A beautiful and amazing duet, that I can't really do justice to with the pictures.

A fitting last night in Peru.

From the cab to the airport, I saw this billboard. As you can see, Darlene is Chica Max 2008, which means "2008 Max Girl". Mmm.

So that's it, folks! Here I sit at the Bogota airport, trying to fill a five hour layover by stealing glances at South American stewardesses. I hope you enjoyed my adventures, I know I can be a little verbose at times, but I do get starved for English expression. I hope to see all of you soon, and (last time!) please take a second to give to the public school kids. Really, any amount is welcome. By the way, I can't even see the amount you donate, just that you have donated, so don't worry I'm gonna think you're cheap. I just don't want this ridiculous look to have been in vain. Remember, it's tainted all of my pictures from Peru. It would be much cooler if I could remember that it did some good.

¡Hasta la proxima, chicos!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle

Left a freezing drizzle in Cusco, thirty minutes later stepped off the plane in Puerto Maldonado to a balmy and humid 85 degrees and blue skies.

Puerto Maldonado, on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest, is a town completely over-run with motorcycles.

Except for the van that picked me up from the airport, I don't think I saw a single car my entire time there.

Not that there's much to do there. It is, as its name implies, mostly a port on the Madre de Dios river, one of the feeders of the Amazon.

A forty minute boat ride from the port lies my jungle lodge, Corto Maltese.

This is Karina, the lodge owners' French niece and resident Ayahuasca expert, with her child Maitreya, who was smack-dab in the middle of the terrible twos. You can tell by the eyes that Maitreya is a terror, but what you can't really tell is the child's sex. I'm just saying, at this point, it was difficult.

My habitation for the next three days. Nice, right? (That's what they call it here, su habitacion.)

So after being greeted with some cold passion fruit juice (¡muy rico!) and a light lunch (the grinning waiter assured us all that it was caiman, but actually it was chicken), I was led on a solo nature hike of the rain forest.

One of the upsides of traveling alone (and, yes, there are downsides, e.g. eating alone in restaurants, no one to blame when you're running late, having to remember all your witty little comments until the next time you're in front of a computer with internet access) is that occasionally you get the guide all to yourself. My guide through this part of the trip was Lucy.

She was knowledgeable and professional, which is good because I was going to be stuck with her for a while.

But, clearly, I liked her at once. As if to heighten this awesomeness, the only other guests at the lodge were a giant group of some twenty-odd middle-aged and elderly Finns, led by a fierce and stocky woman who would interrupt their local guide to bark at the group in what I can only assume was Finnish before barking back at the guide in clipped, noisy Spanish. (shudder) I bet THAT got old. (In fact, I know it did. Lucy, the other guides and I shared quite a few laughs about it behind her back.)

But so anyways, that nature hike was like being in the movie King Kong. Nothing was that strange, except that it was all ten times the size you'd expect. And with the heat and the humidity, the abundant flora and fauna, there was something seriously primordial about the whole thing.

Lucy showed me how to make this dye out of water and a native plant, and then we painted our faces to look like savages preparing for battle. On our way back to the lodge, the faces of the Finns as we passed was worth the 24 hours of vaguely purple hands.

After nightfall, we went out on the river to search for caimans. For those of you who don't know (like me, three days ago), caimans are like alligators, only creepier because they are bone-white. We saw a few slithering along the muddy bank, though mainly what we saw was the spooky red reflection of the flashlight off their eyes, the only part sticking up out of the river.

Then it was back to the lodge for dinner ("How are you enjoying your monkey?") and rather than join the Finns for beer and billiards, I went straight to my mosquito-netted bed. After all, I want to be fresh for my ayahuasca!

Early the next morning, before breakfast ("toucan eggs?") Lucy and I sprinted off into the jungle to get good seats at the parrot blind before the Finnish delegation got there. It would become a theme, the two of us going everywhere just a couple minutes before they would come trudging up, sweating and swatting at insects. Hee.

Can you see the many green parrots and parakeets? I know they look like leaves, but if you squint you can tell which are birds and which are plants.

Check out the tongue! Fascinating animal.

Then it was off to Monkey Island. (Don't worry, it's just a name. It's really more of a peninsula. Ha! Picture me trying to explain that Simpsons reference in Spanish to Lucy and the other guide!)

Sorry about the quality of these pix, those dang monkeys are FAST! These are Red Capuchin monkeys, by the way.

A 4 km hike into the jungle led us to Lago Sandoval, an oxbow lake in the heart of the jungle and home to some pretty sweet biodiversity.

What's an oxbow lake? I'm SO glad you asked! See when a lake naturally twists and turns, sometimes it loops back on itself, depositing silt and stuff where it used to have water, creating a little lake. But the lake only lasts a couple hundred years, because the flora around there (trees and what not) start sucking up the water and eventually it's just not a lake anymore!

That was a terrible description, but it's a pretty cool phenomenon. We set out in two rickety canoes.

Gasp! It's the elusive Tiger Heron! Wow, we are really lucky! (Yeah I'm no ornithologist, neither.)

There were some monkeys on the lake, too. These are howlers.

I stole a photo of the Finns, so you could get an idea of the sternness. Stark contrast to Lucy's and my constant giggling and making fun of each other's accents and linguistic gaffes.

Um...this was some kind of cool bird, too, but I can't remember the name, and you don't really care anyways, do you?


And then came my favorite part of the day, when we saw a whole pack of squirrel monkeys.

Oh, man, they were so adorable! Scurrying around in the trees, leaping (falling really) from branch to branch, baby monkeys clinging to mama monkeys' backs, oh I was in monkey heaven. Unfortunately for you, like I mentioned, they're real quicklike, so I have a bunch of pictures of tan blurs. These were the best ones I got.

Ok so this one's all blurry, but I had to include it. This guy would climb down upside down to pick the fruit off this tree, but each time he dislodged one, it would slip out of his hands and drop into the lake. He just kept at it! Whew, boy oh boy do I love me some monkeys.

So ever since I had arrived, Carina had been stopping by (mealtimes, or afternoons, which I would spend lounging in the hammock on the front porch of my cabin, looking out at the river or reading Dan Brown (you shut up! He writes a good page-turner! I also read some Agatha Christie and Philip Roth on this trip so just lay off, lit-nerds! You know who you are! (whom you are? aw crap.)) to give me discouraging updates about the ayahuasca session. First, she had nobody to babysit Maitreya, so she couldn't do it with me. Then her usual shaman was on antibiotics (I know, I tried so hard not to laugh when she said that), then another one and another one was unavailable. And of course, since she was all (is there a way to say hippie-dippy without sounding condescending?) enlightened, she kept saying maybe it wasn't meant to be, and there was a reason why it was so difficult. I would smile, and agree, and inwardly think, "but this is the WHOLE reason I'm putting up with this smothering humidity and occasional downpours and spiders in my shower and soaking myself in insect repellent! So I could buy some damned enlightenment and INNER PEACE! Stop dithering and get the stupid vine juice!"

A giant butterfly that took an interest in my giant boots.

Next morning back onto the river (this is a gold-panning operation. Good luck, fellas, I'm pretty sure the Spanish got it all.) to go visit a native tribe, the Ese-Eja.

SERIOUS close-talker this guy. And he was all big arm movements and indigenous language. Disconcerting. Dejaviso was his name. In his language it means "little". But his government name was Melvin.

Here he's wearing a tunic made out of tree-bark and displaying the use of his wooden machete.

His father Shehua ("small mouth"), or Enrique (on paper) kept grabbing on Lucy and saying how he was gonna make her his fourth wife and how their native corn liquor tasted better and was way stronger than city whiskey and they could drink gallons of it and dance all night, not sip it the way they do in the city. Kinda charming, but kinda creepy, too.

But they let me taste the sugar cane juice, and put on the headdress, and shoot the bow and arrow, so a good time was had by all.

A little bit further down river we stopped at a still-working farm for lunch, where I discovered that some Peruvians put mayonnaise on their Chinese Food. (Pause for nausea to pass.)

The farmer, Nelson, let us drink coconut milk straight, break open a cacao plant and suck on the chocolate beans, and pick starfruit right off the tree. It was great, but my mouth is still sore from the sweet. Too much sweet!

It rained that afternoon. A lot. As I dozed in the hammock, Carina finally summoned me to her cabin to tell me the good news. She had found a shaman, Fernando, and she needed to explain what to expect.

When I arrived, Maitreya was tearing around the room stark naked, beating everything in sight with a plastic shovel. I tried to remain as stoic as Carina, nodding and listening as she explained that the most important thing was not to overreact to the effects. That whatever happened in the "temple" was meant to happen, and that it would be different for everyone, and to trust the ayahuasca.

So I'm sitting there, sipping my tea, trying not to be distracted by this feral toddler's little pecker bouncing around the room, wondering if the name of a buddha was appropriate for this beastling that was now staring intently at my leg scar (remember the mountain biking?) before attacking it with the plastic shovel.

The next four hours were long. I wasn't allowed to eat anything, so that was out. I also wasn't supposed to drink any alcohol, so there was very little to do to pass the time. I packed my suitcase and gathered together what Carina had told me to. A blanket, a pillow, light-colored loose-fitting clothes, a flashlight. Some water, but not to drink, because that would dilute the effects, just enough to wash my mouth out.

I finished my book and went to trade one in the library, but the only one in English was Twilight. So now I'm reading a book for teenaged girls.

At 8, I loaded up my things and set out into the dark, muddy night. I met Fernando at the crossroads, and he led me by oil lamp to the temple. I had been expecting something out of Carlos Castañeda, but he was just a thirty year old Spanish guy in orange sweats.

There was a lot of ritual. Smoke was spread around the room, especially by the windows and doors. Each item was prayed over, and placed in front of him with reverence. Eventually, he poured a liquid into a small round bowl and handed it to me. I choked it down in one gulp. It tasted like one of those 5-hour energy drinks. So, you know, kinda nasty, but...sweet?

Fernando took his dose. Then he blew out the oil lamp and we sat there in darkness and silence for an hour while we waited for it to take effect. Occasionally he would chant, or whistle, or play the guitar and sing. After about an hour, I was sorta feeling something, but y'all know me, too much is always better than not enough, so I politely hinted maybe another bowl? We each took another serving and soon thereafter vomited into our respective buckets. Although, I gotta say, as vomitings go, not one of the worst I've ever experienced. And I figure if the shaman threw up too, then it was probably part of the process.

Most of what happened after that was a blur. There's a definite overwhelming physical sensation, kind of a deep and intense nausea. And visuals? Enh, maybe a few. I do seem to recall a lurking lizard-spirit out the window that just stared at me without saying anything. But no talking to long-dead relatives or anything like that. I felt completely relaxed, and my thoughts wandered. Far. For part of it, I was in a trance-like state. Or maybe I nodded off. After three hours or so, Fernando relit the lamp and we talked about it a little.

The walk (or should I say stumble) back through the rainforest to the cabin is not one I'd like to repeat.

All in all, I'm glad I did it, but there must be easier ways to reach enlightenment.

Though, at breakfast, Carina assured me that sometimes the revelations of the Ayahuasca don't occur to you for several weeks. She urged me to write to her and tell her of my continued progress. And who knows, maybe she's on to something. She's clearly connected with the divine here. How else do you explain the halo?

Oh, and I woke up with a weird cut on my forehead this morning that I can't account for. I'm not saying the ayahuasca had anything to do with it, but I AM looking in your direction, lizard-spirit.

Lucy took me into town to see the Puerto Maldonado market, but all the noise and filth was not agreeing with my stomach, which hasn't been right all day. When we passed through the meat section, I was done.

At the airport, I found out my bag was overweight. It hadn't been on the flight here, and I hadn't bought anything in the jungle. The only explanation is that some of my clothes are wet from the oppressive humidity of the jungle. Great.

Plane back to Lima via Cusco, (I don't recommend flying the day after an ayahuasca session) and onto the internet for the first time in four days.

Lots of mustache donations in the meantime! Thanks so much, guys! You're awesome. If you haven't donated yet, there's still time! One more week of growing and that's it! I'm still in fifth place, so if you want to never see this mustache again, you've got some work to do!

Lunch in a sidewalk café in Miraflores. I'm still trying to locate the Carbajal brothers for a peña. But I'm still not allowed to drink booze or eat pork, so that puts a bit of a cramp in my plans for this evening.

My plane leaves at 5 AM, and I plan to sleep all the way home, so I have no hotel tonight. I'll just wander around Lima until around 2, then taxi it to the airport. Good plan, huh? What could possibly go wrong?