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Logging off

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Our flight back to England leaves in just a few hours so before I log off from Two Views for good I wanted to say thanks to everybody for reading and commenting on the blog over the past six months.

Thanks particularly for your kind words about some of the pictures we’ve included – although I suspect that the success of our photography was often as much down to the amazing places we visited as our skills behind the lense.

That said – a special mention has to go to ace travel companion Stuart for getting some half decent pictures of me. It has taken considerable perseverence.  When faced with a camera I am prone to screwing up my nose or, in an effort not to do so, pulling my mouth sideways. It is so bad that our camera doesn’t actually recognise me as having a face at all. Its facial recognition software flashes excitedly at ghoulish looking snow drifts, distorted visages contrived by urban grafitti artists and overgrown churchyard statuary but my best photo smile leaves it unmoved. So well done Stu.

Thanks also to those of you who kept us sane with your emails. They gave us an enormous amount of pleasure.  I would like to share one that came from a little closer to ‘home’ however.  I woke up from a nap in our Buenos Aries hostel to find a message sent a couple of hours earlier from Stuart’s Kindle.  It read “Help! I am locked in the toilet, can you come and get me out?” I did of course, and despite initial reticense vowed to never question the value of the Amazon book reader as a useful travel tool again.

Thanks finally to my family for filing oh so many letters from the tax man and allowing me to travel more or less free from administrative demands. I couldn’t have done it without you.

I have always felt that I somehow missed out by not taking the opportunity to spend time abroad immediately before or after university – so what better way to spend my fortieth year. OK I was older than almost everybody I met en-route and the experience for me was less of a global pub crawl than it appeared to be for some but I would still thoroughly recommend it.

We met some great people, experienced the freedom of deciding how to spend our time day by day, realised just how cheaply one can live a different sort of life, viewed some awesome (and I don’t use that word lightly) landscapes and glimpsed the very different ways in which people live their lives.

Would I do anything differently?  Absolutely not. The fact that we travelled at quite a pace meant that we didn’t always fully engage with the cultures we enountered. That would have meant spending months if not years in one place and maybe it’s something I’ll look to do in the future.

But right now I’m looking forward to getting back to the UK and seeing all of you more than I can say.

After six months

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…and over one hundred blog posts, this is it now – the final post from me, on the day we head back to London.

We’ve had a great few days in Rio – huge thanks to Lance and David (and their dog Mousse), our hosts at Casa Cool Beans, which has been a fantastically friendly, tranquil base in Santa Teresa from which to explore the city. If you ever visit Rio, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to stay here – they’re a couple of really great, helpful guys, and it’s been a pleasure to meet people who clearly love what they do, and take pride in it.  It’s been a lovely way to end our trip.

Arriving three days ago, we headed up to Sugar Loaf mountain for a truly spectacular sunset. Oddly enough, the main thing that I took away from this experience was a huge feeling of surprise that there didn’t seem to be any kind of tribute to ‘Moonraker’ – the Bond film where Roger Moore fights Jaws on top of the cable car – anywhere. In fact, I’ve been going on about it ever since. Jane has pointed out several times that maybe it’s just not that big a deal in Rio, and that maybe James Bond and / or Roger Moore aren’t particularly well known here. Surely even a little photo though? I can’t believe that a scene in a huge movie like that wouldn’t be commemorated in some way…

Still, to be fair, we’re hardly au fait with the Brazilian stars either. On Tuesday evening we turned up at a fantastic restaurant in Santa Teresa called Sobrenatural, and got talking to two locals at the entrance. One of them, a musician, was having his 70th birthday party there, and there was a lot of filming equipment around. He welcomed us in, and it turned out that his name was Robertinho Silva, one of the most famous Brazilian drummers. Fabulous music, fabulous food, and plenty of caipirinhas – a delicious Brazilian drink made from cachaca, a type of rum, lime juice and sugar – to accompany it all.

So it was with a couple of hangovers yesterday morning that we headed up to the immense Corcovado – the 30 metre high statue of Christ The Redeemer which sits on a 700m high mountain overlooking the whole of Rio. It’s a truly spectacular statue, but unfortunately it was a rather cloudy day, so we barely saw what is apparently one of the most spectacular views in the world. Still, the trip was worth it to see the souvenir shops alone – Jesus in a football shirt, Jesus in a snowstorm, Jesus next to a toucan, a Jesus bottle opener…the Lord certainly does manifest himself in mysterious ways.

Finally, last night, it was off to celebrated music venue Rio Scenarium. Apparently The Guardian named this place one of the top 10 coolest bars in the world – not sure I’d agree with that, but it certainly had a great vibe, with three floors crammed with antiques, great music, and locals filling the floor to dance the night away until the early hours.

The last day today, then. It feels a bit weird heading back to London after so long living out of a backpack, heading wherever we choose from day to day, but we’ve both got plenty to occupy us during the summer, so we won’t be twiddling our thumbs for long. At least it seems like nice weather in London too, so the shock of arriving back at Heathrow will hopefully be mitigated somewhat.

I was going to write some big piece on the whole experience of travelling, but I actually think that it will take some time for a lot of it to sink in, so ask me in another six months if you’re interested. For now, I’d just like to say a big thankyou to everyone who’s read and contributed to the blog. It’s been lovely to have so many comments and good wishes from you all, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it. If it’s been of inspiration to anyone out there too, then so much the better.

Finally, the biggest thanks of all goes to Jane for being the best travel companion anyone could have – it’s been an absolute pleasure, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Of special mention should be her patience in putting up with my obsessive logging and categorisation of all expenditure on the ‘Travel Budget Tracker’ spreadsheet too…

Off to squeeze in a final dinner and a couple of caipirinhas before we head home now…see you all back in the UK!

 

Snapshots from Peru

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  • Freshwater dolphins swimming alongside our boat as we journeyed through Amazonian rainforest
  • Almost stepping on a large black snake in banana plantations around Puccalpa
  • Watching locals dancing amidst the stalls in Cuzco’s main market
  • Taking the extortionately expensive trans Andean explorer from Puno to Cuzco
  • Exploring one of Lima’s many art galleries
  • Buying woven songs from Shipebo Indians
  • Acclimatising to hot days and cold nights
  • Enjoying strong cups of coffee in cosmopolitan cafes
  • Waking up to find that we’d been sharing the room with a spider the size of a saucer

The Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu

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One week before returning to the UK we have finally cracked the budget travel thing. Five day treks along the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu vary in price from two hundred to almost six hundred dollars per person. The main justification for this discrepancy appears to be that the more expensive companies take along an extra mule in case participants feel unable to complete the route on foot, provide better meals and in some cases pay their cooks, porters and guides better. Figuring that we’re both reasonably experienced hikers and in the knowledge that we could always supplement the meals on offer from our backpack of snacks and tip the staff generously for their services we went for the cheapest option. It proved to be a good decision. The tour was excellent and we followed the same trail, shared the same camp sites and queued for the same pitiful toilet facilities as those paying a great deal more.

The trek began on Monday morning. We were collected from our hostel at 4.30 and driven to the start of the trail where we met our six trekking companions and Efraim our guide. From there it was an arduous seven hour climb to our first camp site. Hot drinks and popcorn filled the gap before dinner after which we climbed into hired sleeping bags in preparation for what would be the coldest night of the trip. Temperatures dropped to minus six degrees centigrade.

The next morning we set off for the 4,600 metre Salkantay pass – a site considered sacred by the Incas. A three hour high altitude climb through snowy peaks was followed by a further six hours downhill. Over the next two days we completed the remainder of the 66 km route through jungle landscapes interspersed with fields of coffee and coca. Orchids grew through dense hedgerows as did herbs and the occasional wild squash. An undulating path finally flattened out as we followed a railway line from the aptly named village of Hydroelectric to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu.

The next day we had two choices – taking a bus or walking the 1,400 steps to the top. This was a more difficult decision than it might at first appear. Once they get to Machu Picchu most people want to have the option of climbing Waynapicchu – the huge peak that dominates almost every picture of the ancient site. But in a bid to limit erosion the government has set the number of visitors allowed up to the peak to 400 per day. With 2,000 people visiting the Machu Picchu per day competition for a Waynapicchu pass is fierce.

What results is a bizarre pre-dawn race to the top. The walking route opens at 4.45am, the bus route at 5.15am. The bus takes 20 minutes. If walkers are fast they can make it in 45. Stuart and I decided to walk and despite my lack of pace at times were both at the top in time to secure a pass.  That was, however, something I lived to regret because I found the vertiginous drops to either side of the peak frankly terrifying and spent much of my time at the summit in tears as a result.

Despite that ordeal we spent an amazing day amidst Machu Picchu’s ruins. Our trek ended with a walk back down to Aguas Calientes where we soaked our weary limbs in local hot hot pools before catching the train back to Cuzco

The Salkantay trail was hard – much, much harder than we’d anticipated and at times we were counting down the hours until it was finished. But it felt like a great achievement and a fitting end to our time in Peru. If walking 66 km over 4,600 peaks is your thing, I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Culinary adventures

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One of the big surprises in Peru has been the amazing quality and diversity of food available. At local markets every inch of space is crammed with fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and bread. Where, as is frequently the case, the markets are built along railway lines the goods are set out on the tracks themselves to a height that ensures they are not disturbed by passing trains. Specialities include hundreds of varieties of potatoes and multiple types of San Pedro – Ayuhuasca’s cactus-based hallucinogenic cousin. It has been a pleasure to be able to buy delicious, naturally deformed produce by the kilo and at reasonable cost – the polar opposite of the extortionately priced, flaw-free, flavour-free packs of four available from UK stores.

I have also indulged in a little culinary tourism at local restaurants. First, I tried guinea pig – ‘cuy’ in Spanish. Now before you berate me for snacking on the family pet I should say that 1. the wild guinea pigs found on the Peruvian grassland differ considerably from their domestic counterparts and 2. if it’s good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me. The Catholic church in Cuzco has a large oil painting depicting Jesus and his disciples sharing one of our furry friends as part of the last supper. All the same, I wasn’t sure that I could cope with the prospect of a whole animal sitting – nose, toes and all – on my plate so I ordered cuy stew instead. This turned out to be a mistake. The stew still contained an entire guinea pig – only coated in a gelatinous gravy rather than the more usual crackling. People have since asked what guinea pig tastes like and I can only say that, based on my experience to date, it tastes rancid. I may do the dish a disservice, however, as I suspect that the particular piece of meat I ate actually was rancid. I certainly felt unable to complete it and was very glad when the night passed without the need for an urgent trip to the bathroom. The experience has put me off trying guinea pig again for a while so you can put that pan-piped version of Bright Eyes away for the time being.

My experience of another local speciality was somewhat better. On arriving in Lima we asked our taxi driver to suggest a good local ceviche restaurant. If you are not familiar with ceviche it is seafood ‘cooked’ by chemical reaction with its lime dressing and is considered by most Peruvians to be their national dish. It is traditionally served with corn on the cob, lettuce leaves and sweet potato. Our taxi driver took us to a surprisingly cheery restaurant down a dark back street. Despite the fact that it was around 3.00 on a Friday afternoon it appeared that the working week was over. In one corner karaoke was in full swing while in another a group of business people sat nursing local beers and puffing on cigarettes under a prominent no smoking sign. The dish when it came was delicious – so much so that I sought out and have included a recipe. Apparently each chef will have his own signature ceviche but the following is considered to be something of a classic.

Recipe

800g firm white fish such as sea bass
1 red onion, finely sliced
1 red chilli pepper, finely chopped
1 yellow chilli pepper, finely chopped
Juice of 15 limes
salt

Cut the fish into small chunks, dress with the lime and season with the salt and chilli peppers. Serve immediately. (The fish can be swapped for or supplemented by cooked crab meat, cooked octopus, blanched squid or scallops).

I’ll certainly be trying this out when I get home.

Ayahuasca – conclusion

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It’s three days since the last ceremony took place, and we’re now in Cuzco.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about my experiences this week, and thought I would attempt to sum it all up.  This may be a rather premature conclusion, given that the effects of the medicine apparently continue to work for some time afterwards, but here goes anyway.

First of all, let me say that I consider the retreat to have been beneficial.  At times I felt physically exhausted and depleted, unable to concentrate on anything, and wondering why on earth I came here to seek some kind of enlightenment in the grip of a hallucinogenic plant.  But I left feeling well-nourished, relaxed, healthy and calm, and despite not having had the sort of epiphany some people describe, I’ve certainly finished the week glad that I sought out the experience.

It’s definitely been a journey though, and at times, I’ve been sceptical about its purpose – let me try to explain why.

The day after each ceremony, we had a group discussion about what had happened the previous night.  The guidance seemed to be that, whatever each person’s experience, the medicine had given each of us what we needed.  Throwing up or crying was always referred to as ‘purging’, and was explained as the body expelling negative energy, both physical and mental, and as a necessary part of the healing process.  Jane had extremely shaky legs during one of the ceremonies, and the explanation put forward was that the back of one’s legs hold many memories and energies.

This all jarred with me somewhat – it felt slightly too convenient to attribute any feeling to ‘negative energy’, and for the explanation for everything during the week to be that ‘Madre’ was simply  giving you what you needed.  For the most part, it felt less to me like I was purging negative energy, and more like I had a foul, viscous, unnatural liquid in my body for several hours, which I ended up wanting to get rid of.

As I said before too, I was at times sceptical of some of the views which were espoused during the week regarding certain experiences, opinions and lifestyle practices.  I tend to err on the side of scientific, evidence-based explanation for things where possible, and a lot of these topics felt like they occupied a domain which was the polar opposite of this.  That’s not to say that there isn’t validity in them – I don’t know enough to comment, in truth.  But it felt that there was a bit of a snowball effect going on  – I can well imagine how easy it would be, if you were searching for something in your life, to attend a retreat like this and come away with a whole world of newly-acquired ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’, no matter how much common sense or evidence may steer you otherwise.

Put simply, at times I felt like I was wondering what I was doing there, that my subconscious wasn’t really that tortured after all, and that the whole thing was a bit of a New Age experiment which wasn’t really for me.

So why, given all this, do I feel like I’ve had such a positive experience?  Why have I come away feeling energised, happy and ready to recommend it to others?

A multitude of things have contributed to the feeling.  The first is that I came here seeking an experience.  I came to the jungle, far away from luxuries and the trappings of normal Western life, and put myself in a situation where I took three doses of a strong hallucinogenic plant compound, to seek out a positive experience, along with a small group of people seeking the same.  Even if the effects had been minimal (which apparently they were, based on others’ accounts), the process itself comprised the lion’s share of the experience.

The second was the diet – all we ate during the week was vegetarian food, and on ceremony days, we would have lunch at 12:30, then nothing more for the rest of the day.  No alcohol, no sugar, and plenty of water.  A lot of the time I was hungry, but I still felt better – leaner, nourished, not weighed down with fat and starch, and so on.  It would be a truly abstemious person in regular life who could fail to feel better by the end of the week.

The third factor  is the ayahuasca itself, and specifically the experience of the third night.  This is the most difficult to sum up for me, but I think the main lesson I have learned is the power of symbolic experience.  During the third ceremony, when I started to have the bad visions and feel nauseous, it definitely felt to me that there was something negative in my mind which needed to be removed.  It wasn’t specific – no awful suppressed childhood incident was uncovered and there was no traumatic trigger point to which I could causally relate what I felt – but it felt real.  When I threw up, it felt like the foul substance in my stomach had associated itself with the negative thing in my mind and that the purging of the one (through vomiting) had symbolically also been the purging of the other.

The final, and most important factor for me though, was people’s belief.  Everybody involved – the organisers, the shaman and the participants – had faith both in the process but also in their own  ability to go through it.  There’s no doubt in my mind that this yielded results.  One of our group had a very powerful message on his first night.  Another found that warts on his hand, which had been troubling him for years, had disappeared on the third day.  All this, I think, is because people believed it would work.

So, despite my rational perspective on things, and some initial scepticism, I’ve found myself leaving the retreat thinking that faith is probably the biggest ally a person can have in their life.  Be it UFOs, sungazing, or a hallucinogenic plant compound and the ministrations of a shaman – whatever it may be, if you believe in it, and that belief enhances your life, then that’s all that matters really.  Combine that with a healthy dose of belief in yourself too, and you have a powerful combination for effecting positive change in both your own life and those of others.  And after all, effecting a positive change is what I set out to do in the first place – the scientist in me would consider this experiment a success.

Ayahuasca ceremony 3

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As I lay on my mat, listening to the shaman blessing the bottle, counting down the minutes until I would have to take my final dose, I found myself gripped by apprehension.  I was dreading swallowing the foul liquid, and sure enough, when my cup came round, my throat instinctively tightened up, and I almost threw the whole lot straight back up again.  I furiously rinsed with water, racing to take away the taste before it took hold of me and nauseated me for the whole night.

The maloka was much darker, as the moon had been obscured by clouds, and the room felt like an ideal canvas for the medicine to present her visions on.  Nonetheless, the effect was slow to start.  The first visions didn’t come until long after the shaman had finished singing.

This time though, they came on strong, in a distinctly Alice in Wonderland style.  I saw a bizarre  geometric animal, with eyes on all sides of it, folding itself down a staircase. It moulded its contours to the angles of the staircase whilst continuously looking at me with one or more eyes.  I followed it down until I reached some kind of a courtyard, where a number of plants were growing as though in a puppet show.

I descended even lower and entered a dark realm where the visions became very indistinct.  I started to feel very sick, scared and panicked, overcome by a sense that something was writhing down there, in conflict with something else trying to catch and envelop it.

I opened my eyes, the maloka was spinning, and I threw up.  For maybe five minutes or so, I was on my hands and knees, mouth straining to open wide, gripped by what felt like some kind of force struggling to be expelled.  The episode felt extremely violent, and when it was finally over, I collapsed back onto my mat, feeling completely drained and exhausted.

I went outside on my own for a while in the early hours, and sat there looking at the sky and the ground, hearing the noise of the birds and the insects.  The sickness had totally gone, and I could barely even taste the ayahuasca.  I went back inside, lay down, and slept calmly until the next morning.

Ayahuasca ceremony 2

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The next night, we assembled in the maloka once more.  I was dreading drinking the brew, and my stomach felt knotted up with anxiety at the memory of the taste.  When it came, though, I swallowed it quickly, took a gulp of water, then rinsed my mouth out as quickly as possible, relieved not to have thrown the medicine up straight away and have to drink another dose.

Something felt different this night.  Steve had told us there was a Scorpio full moon, which meant that you could ask for anything no longer helping you in your life to be purged from you.  I’m not a believer in astrology, but I did feel somehow more ready to have a journey, and I felt myself consciously trying to relax my mind and let the experience in.  After about an hour, the shaman began to sing an icaro, and I focused on the beautiful melody, trying to let it into my head and take me where I needed to go.

I began to see things.  As with the previous night, the visions seemed to be of a technical nature – I saw insects in great detail, and something which hinted at their complexity.  I saw the hexagons on the surface of a fly’s eye, which then transformed into an orange pattern with what seemed to be a mechanical animal superimposed on it, a bit like Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss.

My body felt as if there were some kind of energy in it too.  Sometimes my mouth would open wide, and it felt like my jaw was struggling to dislocate itself to take in breath as a vision came.   I could hear myself moan at times, and it sounded like a cross between discomfort and awe at the hint of what might be revealed to me.

After a while, the English man next to me began to cry – softly at first, then with deep, racking sobs.  The strangest thing then happened.  I felt myself waking up, but in a slight trance-like feeling, and reaching out to him.  I raised myself up onto my hands, and angled my body towards his as he sobbed.  I felt exhausted, and wanted to lie down, but felt compelled to face him.  As he cried, I felt myself taking deep breaths in, and felt my nausea levels increase until I violently threw up.  His sobbing was loud in my ears, and it felt like as his body was racked with his own pain, there was some corresponding effect on me.  I can’t say I physically felt his pain, but I certainly felt extremely aware of it.  Finally I finished throwing up, and soon afterwards, he stopped crying.  We both sat there in silence for a while, then lay back down.

I saw two of the group go outside, I got up to follow, eager for some air.  Outside, it was like a group therapy meeting – all six of us were there, sitting in the bright moonlight.  The general consensus, apart from one of the group, who was happily “tripping his nuts off”, was that we all felt pretty damn awful.  Apart from him, we all felt nauseous, restless, tired and  confused – nobody was having a great time here.

We sat there for half an hour or so, then made our way back to our mattresses to try to get some sleep.  As with the previous night, I felt that the experience was finally over, and I soon dropped off to sleep.  I woke next morning feeling emotionally battered, tired, and dreading the thought of the final experience that same night.  I didn’t want to give up without going deeper into myself though, so despite a growing sense of trepidation throughout the day, I knew I needed to complete what I had come here to do.

Ayahuasca ceremony 1

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We arrived in Puccalpa late on Saturday, after a delay of several hours. Within twenty minutes, we had our bags, had met Jill, one of the retreat owners, and were in a moto taxi to the port.

An hour later, we were in the communal kitchen area, sitting down to our first dinner- a lovely vegetarian spread with salads, quinua (a type of grain similar to bulgar wheat) and fruit. Jill, an American lady, runs the retreat with her partner Casey, and Steve, another American who recently moved down to Peru to help them for a few months. As for the participants, in addition to me and Jane, there were four other men – one British, two Americans and a Canadian whom we had met at the airport. We did the polite introductions, and before long, the conversation turned towards people’s experiences with ayahuasca. Only two of the group had done it before – the British man had done it in England, then again in Brazil, and one of the Americans had been at Tierra Vida the previous year. For the remaining four of us, we were in uncharted waters.

Soon the conversation moved on towards other subjects. We discussed Miracle Mineral Solution (a natural compound which has purportedly been proven to cure all manner of ailments, from malaria through to AIDS), David Icke, alleged corruption at the heart of the US FDA (Food Drug Administration), the notion that governments want to keep their citizens poor to control them, sungazing (a practice whereby people don’t eat for extended periods of time, instead relying on the sun for their energy), and so on.

It was clear that there was a predisposition within our group towards what might be called, for want of a better term, ‘alternative’ lifestyles and beliefs, and the conversation interested me a great deal, although I did have a great sense of scepticism about most of what was being discussed. Everyone was tired though, so it soon tapered off – Jane and I soon retired to our cabin, in the middle of a banana plantation, where we drifted off to sleep as the jungle throbbed with the sound of birds and insects.

The next morning we all mucked in to help with the preparation of the ayahuasca. It takes four days to brew apparently, so this one was being prepared for the final ceremony. The first stage is to beat the vine with a hammer until it splits into thick strands. These are then pulled apart, shredded finely and placed in a huge pot with the leaves of another plant which contain DMT. The brew sits on the fire for four days, and over this time, the leaves and vine shreds are removed from the the pot, and the mixture is left to simmer, reducing to an overall volume of three to four litres.

The beating of the vine was tiring but rewarding work, as we all got to know each other a bit better. By midday, we were ready for another delicious vegetarian lunch. The food was incredibly appetising and healthy – it felt as it my body was soaking up nutrients with every mouthful.

At around 16:00, we met in the maloka – the traditional circular, wooden structure where ceremonies take place – to discuss our intentions. This is an important part of the ceremonies, and involves expressing what you hope to get out of the ceremony. We all duly did so to the best of our abilities, but it was pointed out to us, however, that the intention, whilst useful, does not necessarily dictate your experience. In the ayahuasca community, the effect of the ‘medicine’ is embodied as a feminine spirit, referred to as Madre Ayahuasca (Mother Ayahuasca), and commonly simply referred to as ‘she’. It seems to be accepted that ‘she’ will bring the drinker what is needed, and that the intention, whilst guiding this, may be overruled at her discretion.

After sharing our intentions, we then did a ceremonial ‘smudging’, where sage and palo santo (‘saint stick’ – a Peruvian wood) are burnt together and the smoke is fanned across your body with a feather, in order to clear unbalanced and negative energies from your body.

We then had a few hours to relax before the ceremony began at 20:00. I was filled with a mixture of excitement, foreboding, apprehension and nervous energy as I waited, and the hours seemed to drag painfully slowly. Finally it was time though, and I made my way over to the maloka with my flash light, pillow and water bottle.

The room was lit with soft candlelight, and eleven thin mattresses were laid out in a fan pattern around the room, each one with a small ‘purge bucket’ next to it. The shaman, or curandera – a lady of around sixty – sat opposite me on the other side of the room with her husband, also a shaman. She is part of the Shipibo people who live in Peru, and whose culture is heavily influenced by the use of ayahuasca as a plant healer. The room had a serene quality to it, and felt very safe. I lay down on my mattress in silence, and after fifteen minutes or so, Jill, Casey and Steve entered the room. They took the big bottle filled with the ayahuasca to the shaman, and she began the blessing – a process involving blowing smoke over the bottle, which made a sound like a child blowing across the top of a glass bottle to make a rudimentary flute.

After ten minutes, it was time to begin. Jill poured a glass of the ayahuasca – around half the volume of a small glass of wine – and brought it over to me. “You first,” she said, and handed me the glass. We had been told that the first time would be the easiest, as we wouldn’t know what to expect, and so I downed the mixture as quickly as possible. All the same, it has to be pretty much the foulest consistency and taste of anything I’ve ever drunk. – acrid, bitter and viscous, with a pungent earthy, smoky taste. I rinsed my mouth with water, and, despite having given up smoking six years ago, lit up a machapo – a traditional roll up cigarette made from strong tobacco, used in ceremonies to help to take the taste away.

Everybody took their dose, the candles were extinguished, and I lay back to wait for the medicine to take effect. After what seemed like a long time, I felt like I was beginning to drift off. Then suddenly I was startled by a high pitched sound, as the female shaman began to sing an icaro. Icaros are songs used to communicate with the spirits of the natural world, to heal the sick, and to actually provoke certain kinds of visual displays or visions in those medicated with ayahuasca.d

The sound was eerily beautiful, and as it went on, I felt like something was beginning to happen. I had a fleeting glimpse of some colours and a dull, faint, kaleidoscopic pattern. What appeared to be a highly detailed technical drawing of an insect flashed into my mind – like a blueprint for a species, or something similar. But each time it happened, I felt myself grabbing hold of the vision, and attempting to dissect it. What is it? Is it a vision? What does it mean? Is it another dimension? My rational mind was racing, and I didn’t feel able to let go and surrender to the ayahuasca.

The shaman began to sing to each one of us in turn – when she reached me, the last one in the circle, she sat cross-legged in front of me in the dark, and sang her beautiful, ethereal songs as I felt myself drifting to the edge of something, then pulling back again. Finally, she finished her singing, I sat up, and she blew smoke and flower water over my head, then got me to place my hands together, and blew smoke into them. She patted me, motioned me to lie down again, and went back to her side of the room.

Soon afterwards, I began to feel very sick, and my head started swimming. I propped myself up on one elbow, and the room had the faint quality of a 3D picture without the glasses, with blurred, overlapping reds, greens and blues. I felt more and more nauseous, sat up, and was violently sick into my bucket. The foul taste of the ayahuasca was in my mouth, and I threw up again. I suddenly felt very panicked and afraid, and called quietly out for help. Jill came over, brought me some tissues, and placed her hand on my back while I threw up, all the while crying too. It felt extremely violent, and after a few minutes, she called the male shaman over, who came back to sit in front of me and sing some more. I felt too weak to sit up, so lay down, feeling feverish and nauseous as the songs wafted over me. Gradually, though, I began to feel better, and when he bent down to blow smoke over me once again, he said “Se pase nada” – “Nothing more is happening here”.

I looked out of the window at the moon, and whatever had happened that night felt like it was over. I drifted off into a fitful sleep, waking up next morning at dawn as the same came into the maloka, and six exhausted figures heaved themselves up to face a much-needed day of rest.

Welcoming ….

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… two new people to this amazing world.

Laura Grace Gilbert, and

Arthur Alexander Freimanis

(These flamingos are the  nearest we have to a picture of a stork)

Welcome to the jungle

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This is the last blog post for seven days or so, as today we fly to Puccalpa, in the Amazon jungle, for a week long retreat with Tierra Vida Healing centred upon three ayahuasca ceremonies.

I first heard of ayahuasca from a good friend last year. Also known as ‘vine of the soul’, ayahuasca is a potent brew made in the Amazon basin by combining two indigenous plants, a liana (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub (Psychotria viridis). Participants drink it during ritualistic ceremonies run by shamans, and it is renowned for inducing an extremely visionary state of mind, during which participants can gain an insight into their subconscious, and potentially an understanding of how to effect significant positive change in their lives. How it works is not completely understood, but it is apparently non-addictive, with no side-effects beyond initial nausea. It is for this reason that ayahuasca has been used for centuries in South America for healing purposes.

I remember the conversation with my friend being extremely interesting, but we headed off on our travels, and it stayed tucked away in the ‘Worth Revisiting’ filing cabinet in my head. Then a few months ago, I read a book which purely by chance contained an account of an ayahuasca ceremony. It piqued my interest enough to start doing some online research, and I soon found out that Peru is is the spiritual home of these ceremonies.

There’s a great deal of literature written about ayahuasca, and many online forums with discussions about people’s experiences.

Each person’s experience is unique to them, but a big part of it is about purging the mind and the body, and so shortly after drinking it, most participants apparently violently throw up. An extremely intense journey into the subconscious may then follow. For some, the experience is beautiful, but most people have baggage lurking in there somewhere, and depending on what that is, it can be terrifying too, as the ayahuasca forces them to confront their deepest fears and insecurities – often represented by demons, snakes and the like.

The results, however, can be transformational. Participants speak of feeling purged and free, renewed and energised, of having experienced states of expanded consciousness, different dimensions of existence, and a huge sense of connection with all living things around them.

We met a man in Chile recently who had participated in several ceremonies with his girlfriend, and told us a story about an experience which he had undergone some years ago and which he had no recollection of – during his journey, it was played back to him in perfect detail, and as a result, he felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Online, there’s also an account by a journalist in National Geographic who participated in several ceremonies, and attested to the fact that her lifelong depression had been lifted as a result. Other accounts range from people who were able to kick cigarette smoking through to those who felt that their creativity had been enhanced and reinforced by the experience, and approached their passions with new found energy and motivation.

So far, so good – you take something, have a hallucinogenic experience, then experience enlightenment. As Jane’s mother said, “In my day they used to call it LSD”. I’ve never taken LSD, so I have nothing to compare this with, and I don’t know what the technical differences are. But from what I understand, whilst the two compounds share some chemical similarities, ayahuasca is most certainly not recommended as a recreational drug. It has been used for healing purposes by shamans for centuries, and, despite an explosion in ‘ayahuasca tourism’ in recent years, the reputable shamans and retreats emphasise the healing aspect of the brew, and urge you to treat the ‘medicine’ with huge respect.

So why am I doing this?

I’m neither religious nor particularly ‘spiritual’, but I don’t believe for a moment that the world we normally perceive is all there is, and I certainly subscribe to the view that there are different levels of consciousness and awareness to be reached. I also believe that nature offers us ways of doing this, via compounds such as those found in ayahuasca.

For me, to have the ability to open up a channel to my subconscious, and to gain a deeper understanding of myself, and the factors influencing my behaviours and decisions, is an incredible privilege. To then potentially be able to purge my mind of negative residual elements is an opportunity I find too fascinating and powerful to overlook.

Now feels like an opportune moment to have such an experience. I’ve shifted my lifestyle for six months, and extricated myself from long-held routines and constraints (for me, possessions, administration, bills, home maintenance, commuting and so on) which were taking up an inordinate amount of my time, making it difficult to focus on creating the correct conditions to achieve a balanced and fulfilled existence.

Another shift is imminent too when we get back, when I move down to Bath for a year to study song writing. Having left the UK with some doubts about whether this was the right thing to do, almost six months on the road, free of the aforementioned routines and constraints, has made me realise that instinct was correct, and that this is the right path.

So quite simply, now feels like a great time to build upon that positive, optimistic frame of mind, and to have an experience which allows me to hopefully understand and purge any negative elements which could affect it.

That’s what I’m hoping for at least – let’s see what happens.

Over and out for a week – in the words of Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Welcome to the jungle.”

Snapshots from Bolivia

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  • Grilled trout from an undercover market on the edge of lake Titcaca
  • Almost hourly displays of military might in Potosi
  • Brass band practice in Uyuni
  • Balaclava clad shoe cleaners in La Paz
  • Rubbish strewn stretches of the Atacama
  • Hotels, houses and even a bus stop made from salt
  • Full skirted, hair plaited, ladies in bowler hats
  • Gasping for breath at altitudes of over 4,000 m

Macabre superstitions

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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve come across some macabre Bolivian superstitions.

An early morning trip to buy fruit in Potosi took me to the edge of the local meat market . Goats were piled high with their throats recently cut and whole cow heads were offered for sale. But a stranger stall caught my eye. Hanging from hooks were row after row of dried llama foetuses, many decorated with ribbons and pom poms.  Elsewhere on the stall were dried frogs, plus an assortment of what looked like herbs and spices.  I learnt afterwards that the llamas are buried into the foundations of ninety nine per cent of all new buildings in Bolivia to ensure the prosperity of their inhabitants.  They are also burnt along with sweets and spices to ensure the success of new business ventures. The dried frogs are taken home and plied with cigarettes in order to generate wealth.

I saw a somewhat less macabre examples of Bolivian superstition in Cobacabana earlier today. The cars around the town square were bedecked in flowers and other decorations.  Apparently the ritual blessing of cars and trucks with alcohol, streamers and confetti is performed every Sunday by the local priest. With the world’s most dangerous road less than a three hours away I can see why drivers wouldn’t want to take any chances.

World’s Most Dangerous Road

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Another day, another road trip.  Only today’s happened to be a 64 km mountain biking excursion down ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’ (WMDR).

The road, which begins at La Cumbre (4,700 metres) and finishes at Corioco, 3,600 metres lower, was built with hand tools and dynamite at the beginning of the century as part of the main trade route from Bolivia to Brazil.  For the best part of a century, its moniker was well deserved – at its narrowest, the road is just 3.2 metres wide, and and on average, claimed 26 vehicles and 200 lives per year, before being finally closed to most traffic in March 2007, following a ten year project to build a replacement road.

In the ten years or so since cycling trips began on the road, 15 cyclists have been killed, so the guide books are at pains to impress upon you the need to go with a reputable tour company with good bikes and guides.  We didn’t need to be told twice, and chose La Paz based tour company Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, who were the first company to start doing this ride.

We got great bikes with hydraulic disc brakes, full suspension, good clothes, and a comprehensive safety briefing.  OK, so it’s ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Road’, but let’s face it, 3.2 metres wide, on a bike, gives you a pretty good safety margin, despite the 600 metre sheer drop to your left, so it was reassuringly frank to hear from our guide that the number one rule was “Do not ride like a f***ing idiot”.  Most accidents, as you can imagine, are caused by over-confident riders racing each other and going too fast.

The first part of the ride was on asphalt, and just before we got to the old road, we went through a narcotics checkpoint.  Apparently we were riding through one of the biggest coca producing areas in the country, and, whilst production and consumption  of the leaves is not illegal (coca leaves are for sale everywhere), the narcotics officers are on alert for trafficking of the paraphernalia required to produce cocaine from them.

After about 12 km or so, we turned off onto the old road, and there we got our first glimpse of what we’d come to see.  It really was a spectacular sight – a tiny sliver of sandy road, cut into the side of a mountain and snaking its way down to the valley below.

I didn’t find the ride particularly scary or challenging – strange, since I’m normally scared of heights (the skydiving must have cured me).  It was pretty much downhill, and despite the precipitous drops, as long as you ride at a safe speed and keep your eyes open, then it’s no different to any other dirt road.  One interesting thing about the WMDR is that, unlike elsewhere in Bolivia, you drive on the left hand side going up and down it.  The reason for this is that the drop is on your left, and the steering wheel is on the left too, so it makes sense for them to be able to see how close their wheels are to the edge (no matter how terrifying that might seem).

The landscape was way more beautiful than I had imagined – as we got lower, the temperature rose and the landscape went from rocky shrubland to semi-tropical forest. Not surprising, given the total elevation drop is 3,600 metres from start to finish. After four hours or so, during which I got a flat tyre and my pedal fell off (apart from that, safety was great) we finished up in an animal sanctuary, where volunteers look after some monkeys, tortoises, a cayman, a few parrots and some coatis.  A pleasant place for an hour or so, and I got a good picture of the cayman to send to my best friend’s kids (they wanted a crocodile, as I recall, but hopefully they won’t know the difference – I certainly don’t).

Finally, we finished the day with a trip to the Flying Fox Zipline, which was set up once the road closed as a way of bringing money to the region.  There are actually three ziplines, 200 metres above the ground, and spanning over a mile in total.  My only experience of a zipline, as I can recall, was on a school trip to France about 25 years ago, and I don’t think it was as high as this one.  Surprisingly though, I wasn’t too scared again, and off I went, high above the valley floor.  Jane was a little more nervous, but the guy behind her helpfully told her she had to go first – she told me that after ten seconds or so of having her eyes closed, she opened them and realised that it wasn’t too bad at all.  Great fun, and a nice end to the end before our three hour drive back to La Paz.  It didn’t occur to either of us we would drive back up the road again – good job we were sitting on the left of the bus.

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Jane

Logging off
Logging off

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Stuart

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