Encounters that define a journey
By Maxim Meukens
The Hammock Boat
A little propeller plane that took off from the Bogotá airstrip now is hovering above a green carpet that seems to spread out to some point in infinity in all four dimensions. The view outside my window has remained unchanged for the last hour now, revealing how incredibly big this forest we’re flying over actually is. Its vastness should not hit me as a surprise for this forest is the one and only Amazon rain forest. This rusty barge runs on propellers and it’s the only way to reach Leticia, the bordertown I’m heading for. Leticia lies in the middle of the jungle, with no roads at all for a thousand miles around. Overland, a vast system of rivers is the only way to transport cargo or people from one place to another around here. Leticia has approximately 33,000 inhabitants on the left bank of the Amazon river, and is located at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru come together in an area called ‘las Tres Fronteras’. If you want to make a trip into the deep and mysterious Amazon forest, this is a fine location to start your journey. Coming from Colombia I had to choose if I would either go East, into the Brazilian jungle or further down south, towards Peru. The southern route seemed to be the most sensible one for me. I did not have too much time to lose though, because a journey over water is not quite the same as its counterpart over land. The main difference is time. If you don’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for the luxury of a fast boat, there’s only one option: cargo ships. Apart from cows, buffalo’s, wood and oranges, cargo boats also transport people. An entire deck is reserved for this purpose but even that amount of space would soon prove to be insufficient to house all travellers. Locals call this kind of boat a ‘hamacero’, which basically means ‘hammock boat’. I was wondering where this name should ever have come from, when I was buying my ticket in the port. I did not have to wait long for an answer though, because when I asked the skipper if I needed to bring anything special he looked at me with a malicious grin and responded: “Yes, a hammock and a lot of luck”. Why he needed so desperately to add those last words I did not know and honestly, I didn’t want to know either. Of course, it wasn’t hard to link these words to the horror stories I heard on my way down here about the hamaceros when I revealed to anyone my intention of embarking on one. Bugs crawling under your toe nails if you don’t wear shoes on deck, totally disgusting and insufficient amounts of food and absolutely no drinking water… You name it and it has been said about these trips.
The Sign Post
You can imagine the way I felt when finally the time had come for me to go. I had chosen to head for Iquitos, Peru. The journey would take four days and four nights. With a fast boat the same journey only takes you eight hours, but cargo ships stop every few miles to exchange all kinds of stuff with the settlements on the Amazon river bank. They also just go really slow… But no worries, I had calculated this into my travel schedule and the slow pace would allow me to really penetrate deep into this whole new reality. I suspended my brand-new hammock next to some guy that didn’t seem too eager to steal my stuff and then throw my strangled corpse in the river. Initially, the sleeping deck was not full and, although there must at least have been eighty people slowly rocking in their hammocks together with me, I could sleep in a relatively comfortable way. Along the way though, more and more people joined our party, up to the point that I lay literally choked between two fat Peruvian women, whose hammocks not only housed their fruits and beverages, but also their three kids and a dog. If it wasn’t their snoring that kept me out of my sleep, the kids’ feet kicking me in the side would get that job done. But hey, if you’re going off the beaten track you have to be prepared to suffer a bit. In every situation lies beauty somewhere, so I decided to make the best of it. I started strolling around the boat, chit chatting with those who crossed my path. After all, people are like sign posts that lead you to your next location. There was something going on with the crew. They all called each other ‘mamita’. Could it be that they are all gay? I asked myself, and indeed, at lunch time they clearly gave me larger portions of food, always accompanied by a subtle wink. After this discovery I felt like being on a poverty-stricken Amazon gay cruise. Despite the fact the whole crew was extremely friendly, I still felt rather lonely and decided I needed a friend. I had already noticed two young guys on the boat. Apart from me, they seemed to be the only gringos on board. I went over to have a chat with them. What happened then was totally absurd. The first one I talked to was from Portugal and his name was Joao. When I then told him where I came from, he looked at me with surprise. He told me to come up and talk to his friend Wouter. Just like me he was from Belgium, although he was now living in Colombia for about a year. That great big bush of dreadlocks of his is what immediately struck me when I first met him. Loosely bound together, they dropped all over his shoulders like a waterfall and reached all the way to his waist. He was silent and introspective, as if he was pondering over some grave matter, too transcendental to express. Almost feeling sorry for having disrupted his chain of thoughts, whatever they might have comprised, I asked where in Belgium he exactly came from. “Antwerp”, he said, “but I spent some time in Ghent too”. Things got really strange when we discovered that not only we lived in the same city but that we even shared a few acquaintances. Friends even. As the days and nights passed in a manner that resembled the river’s tranquil flow, we often passed a few hours together. He used to set on the nose of the ship to practice his songs. As a young singer-songwriter, he was fiercely dedicated to his music and could not get through any day without at least a few hours of playing that guitar of his. Or his harmonica for that matter. I would join him to listen to his songs and to write some things down about my past adventures in the Wild Continent. He also told me about the ritual of Ayahuasca. He fueled my already profound interest even more for this exotic ceremonial hallucinogenic, and he mentioned that in the community there might a possibility to try it. I felt truly calm within those moments. For the first time even, since the beginning of my trip. It had been a hard journey with intense and beautiful moments, but also with alienation, loneliness and hostility. When we then finally arrived in Iquitos, we decided to spend a few more days together.
In Search of the Rabbit Hole
Wouter was going with his Portuguese amigo to some community in the middle of the jungle. “It’s a Rainbow community”, Wouter explained to me. There once was a huge Rainbow Gathering in this forest. Like-minded spirits came together to spend a whole month in the jungle and with each other to reconnect with Madre Tierra. Ever since, people from all over the world have taken refuge there, to keep the spirit of the gathering alive and to continue in the same tradition. How many remained, neither of my travel buddies could tell. It was to be seen upon arrival. After a day’s rest and tour around the local market – stacked with crockodile eggs, fried maggots, cat’s claw and tobacco leaves – to supply ourselves for the journey into the beautiful terror of the deep jungle. I had never before been anywhere nearly as exotic and luscious as this place, and the radical difference between what I’m used to and the Amazonian reality was truly mind blowing. The oppressive heat, the mosquitos attacking every bare piece of skin you have, cockroaches the size of your hand and so on. It’s a grotesque world out of proportion and you always first have to recalibrate your reference system to cope with it. Iquitos is, even more than Leticia, an island in the jungle. With a population of over 400,000 people it is the largest human community in the world, that isn’t reachable by road. You have to take a plain or a boat to get there. Therefore it has become totally self-sufficient. Every car on the road there has been built on a construction site within the premises of the city itself. Every brand of cars that you see on the streets has their own factory there. As is with practically all the other stuff available in the city’s shops. The degree of industrialization is consequently big. No wonder that the people I met in the community after we had arrived there, referred to Iquitos as ‘Babylon’. You could say it’s hippie-slang for a degenerate and polluted world. The word Babylon is taken from the Bible and stands for the depravation of the initial purity of mankind. Except for great and urgent needs, the people in the jungle wanted to stay as far away as they could from Iquitos. We caught a bus that would eventually leave us somewhere at the side of a road, where we only had to take a little path straight into the jungle. From then on the rumor of civilization ended and only the sounds of the forest remained. Overhanging trees blocked out the sun so that all was obscure and ominous on the forest’s floor. Wouter said the instructions were clear. There would be signs to guide us the way and we would not get lost. Initially none of this seemed to be true. Wouter was only guessing where to go at a certain moment and no signs were to be seen. Great was our relief when suddenly Joao noticed a yellow piece of cotton hanging in a large tree. Along the way more pieces followed, all painted in different colors. It was clear that they would guide us to the community. Finally we saw a construction in the distance. It resembled a wooden house but it had no walls. It would be a better description to say that it were two platforms suspended above each other in the air. A man sitting in lotus-pose on one of them welcomed us with a smile. He explained us the workings of the Rainbow community, while a Peruvian lady brewed us up a pot of tea. If one was to live here, you had to engage yourself in the daily working process of the community. That meant doing things like working in the field, or cooking dinner. For this you would get free lodging and food. The only time one didn’t have to work was when somebody was preparing for an Ayahuasca ceremony with the local Shaman.
Receiving the Mother
I stopped breathing for a second when he said those last words. They basically meant that I would find here what I had been searching for. Participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony was not the goal of my trip, but during my time in Latin America, I had heard a lot of people talking about its purifying power. Although the way the body gets purified after taking this potion extracted from a root is rather disgusting; you vomit and shit all the dirty stuff out of your body at a dreadfully fast rate. It was said that one would feel totally renewed, both spiritually and physically, after taking it. A nice extra was the strong hallucinogenic effect of the potion. Curious as always, I asked around now and then to find out where I could find it. These efforts remained fruitless. Until now. I finally had a date with the female monster that is Ayahuasca and I was ready to tango. I agreed with the shaman to organize a ceremony the next day. Nobody would be participating except him and me. To prepare for the trip I had to withhold from any food within the limits of 24 hours before the ceremony. Only ginger tea was permitted to me, but that couldn’t stop the thumping headache the lack of food was giving me just before the start of the ceremony. Delaying the ceremony was not in any way an option though. Now that I had gotten so far, there was no turning back. The shaman put all the lights out except for a small candle and all around me became pitch black. I could only feel the bugs crawling over me and hear animals making all kinds of noises in the distance. Still I felt calm and after he had blessed me with dried palm leaves, he chanted a holy song and handed me the magic potion. I fell into a beautiful cosmic daydream on the crossroads between reality and the realm of clouds. My journey to the far ends of perception was often interrupted though, when an irresistible urge to vomit or shit urged me to go and hang with my ass or face over the platform to release the copious streams of body fluids. A very strange thing, because I had not eaten in more than 24 hours. This continued all night, and it felt good. It’s not in any way like vomiting or having diarrhoea when you’re sick. It feels like a relief, and, indeed, like a purification. At daybreak, I fell asleep. When an hour later I woke up again, I felt light and energetic. I was happy that I had such a nice experience because I had heard other stories of people going completely out of their minds. I wondered if they had any idea of what they were getting in to. In the community I met all kinds of seekers. All of them were living there for spiritual purpose. They wanted to create a powerful bond between them and the jungle in particular and nature in general. One of them had barely left his shack. We only saw him once or twice to share an extremely modest meal and to tell stories about things like the power of the ‘Ohm’ or the nature of his undertaking. He was fasting and ate about one tenth of the portions a normal man eats. However fascinated I was, I was eager to hit the road again. I said goodbye to Wouter and Joao and searched my way back through the jungle until I reached the main road, where I hitchhiked for a bus to stop. All this came forth out of a one chance meeting. On a trip, the road ahead of you is defined by the people you meet. That’s what makes encounters between people such a strong and powerful event. On our trip Wouter and me had the idea to organize a show together when he was back in Belgium. And so we did. The concert was a great success and Wouter remains a friend up until today. So never take the people you stumble upon for granted, they might hold your future within.