-> road stories -> south america = Enlightenment Guaranteed!

¨I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superhuman abundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.¨ -Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

In February 2004 I flew to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and travelled overland by bus, foot and boat to Cartagena, Columbia. The trip lasted 8 months.

These are the newsletters I wrote along the way.

Starting from The End of the World...
I overdosed on orcas...
...travelled up the Rio Paraguay
only to land in a hammock with a cowboy in Brasil...
then tripped out on Bolivia...
and marvelled at market savvy Peru...
until I got to gorgeous Columbia, and left too soon.


(*Pink River Dolphins Cost Extra) 

Hello from Magical Mystical Peru!®(copyright 2004) 

Cusco markets its spiritual roots and powerful history with all the oomph of a seasoned street hawker. Everywhere you go, you are inundated with misty Machu Picchu photographs special 3 for 5 Soles, giant full color posters of actual autentico indians all painted and decorated and wrapped up in snakes and feathers looking soulfully out at you from the jungle, inviting you into their lodge to experience the magic. The gringo trail in Peru is so well worn that it is slick and the money just flies out of your pockets. Get on the train to Macchu Picchu ($58 dollars, 4 hours), take the bus 25 minutes up the hill from the town to Macchu Picchu ($4.50) (or alternately, stay right next to Macchu Picchu ($500)), go inside Macchu Picchu ($20), hire a guide to tell you what it is that you are looking at ($6) and voila! How did you just manage to spend $200 for a day in a third world country? Paying tons of cash for visits to these magical mystical places leaves me feeling lightheaded, dizzy, slightly ill and more than a little used. 

This is not to say that Peru isn't overabundant in truly powerful religious places and experiences to be had. My god, those rocks at Macchu Picchu! They buzzed. Being a closet religious fanatic, I kept sidling up to them and secretly laying a finger on one ancient rock and then another. My whole body tingled every time I touched them. I wanted nothing more than to have full body contact with one of them and to just lie there and moan with pleasure. Those were some gooooood strong rocks. 

The ginormous Catholic church in Cusco, which is a gold-plated homage to the power of Spain is exquisite and spooky. There is one place where all the priests and higher up guys sat in these incredibly intricately carved wooden chairs, each one  different and gorgeous, and there is pregnant Pachamama with her belly and stunned goddess face consistently carved into each chair under the arm rests. 

Wandering the carved and cobbled streets basking under golden lamplight at night in Cusco, which continutes to carry on traditions and rituals that count back to calendars we no longer understand, the sacredness of that place feels profound. Nonetheless, the Incas loved their gold, so did the Spaniards and the modern Peruvians do, too. It costs something to go to the Sacred Valley in Peru. Always has, always will. 

The monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa was inhabited by sequestered nuns from rich families for 300 years who had the most marvelous sense of color and space. Walking around in there made me want to be a nun, it was so wonderful to inhabit that kind of peace and light. 

The Nazca lines spiral and sketch themselves out below your little cessna plane cruising above it. Trouble is, it's such a goddamn racket with the huge airport tax, the plane fare, the this and the that of the negotiations to avoid paying full gringo tax on everything that by the time I got up there, I got the sickness and was hungry for more more more, just determined to get my money's worth. The pilot had said he'd fly us over the monkey, the spider, the alien, and some other kilometer long drawings worked into the earth below us, only visible from the air, but geometrically perfect, their origins a perfect mystery. But I wanted to see the orca, which was a little out of the way. So, we flew over this drawing and that, the pilot dipping first to the right side, then to the left so we all could dutifully snap our photographs, while I doggedly pushed us on towards the orca, which he thought was the whale, which we'd already seen, so we never got to see it anyway. And it wasn't until that night when I was going to sleep, after I'd bought my Nazca playing cards, Nazca postcards, eaten at the restaurant with Nazca drawings all over the monkeys and shut my eyes inside my Nazca engraved hotel to the spirally imitations all around that I felt any kind of wonderment that such drawings could exist. Two kilometer long monkeys with perfect spiral tails! Giant gorgeous perfect spiders only visible from the air! Why?why?why? 

But we were on a mission, we were on a schedule and we were on a budget, and so we bombed on, Staci and I. See, she had come from the states for 20 days to see Peru. I was dead set on floating around in the jungle for a while. I also wanted to see everything there was to see while I was there and I wanted Staci to see it, too. In order to do it all, we went somewhere different every day for 10 days becoming the bleary eyed backpackers that I often pity when I meet them on the road. The ones whose travels are exhausting laborious to do lists and who never really get to see anything at all because they’re moving too fast. I must say, the pictures turned out real nice, though. Lots of ‘em, too! 

And so, the gringo trail in southern Peru is slick and efficient and you can see and do it all according to schedule, but it'll cost you, pilgrim. However, I knew that once we had traveled north on a bus, then a plane, then a boat, then we'd be well off the trail again (hooray!) and at the mercy of river time and schedules, which are only predictable in their ability to baffle and change. 

We arrived at that little village I'd been fantasizing about all these days, all thatched roof houses and rusty reused corrugated tin walls with heartbreakingly gorgeous kids shouting hola!hola!hola! and laughing hysterically when we said hola back.

And then the next day, we got into little tiny dugout canoes and our two local guides started paddling us into the jungle where we sustained the overabundant mosquito population, were paddled around amidst pink river dolphins, stuffed full of fish twice a day, and hitchhiked by butterflies. We saw sloths and monkeys and an anaconda, too. We were absolutely forbidden to lift a finger, which was a bit difficult for two 'can do' kind of girls like us. 

As South and Central Americans are not particularly known for their subtlety. I was referred to for the duration of the trip as 'la gordita' (the little fatty). I'm not THAT gorda but compared to petite Staci and the mini guides, whose heads I could see the top of when we were standing next to each other, I must have seemed a true giantess. So, conversations between guides would go, 'put the gordita in the middle of the canoe and the other one in the back,' to which the other guide would object, 'no, no, put la gorda in the back, it's much easier that way' which made me want to just get out and walk. It’d be much easier for everyone that way. Then again, if it were me paddling stinky, sweaty gringos and their giant, excessive backpacks upstream through the muggy jungle, I'd be calling them gorditas, too, and probably putting them on strict one fish a day diets for the duration of their stay. Not that gordita is a bad thing around here. To the contrary, I remember one day last winter in Mexico, when I was recovering from the Excited States of America and limbering up my road legs, a feral little man who was as short as he was wide barrelled up to me out of nowhere, grabbed me by my love handles and still hanging on, roared out, 'MMmmmmmmmm!!!! Oh yummmm! Yummmm! Yummmmm! I can see why they all love you! You are delicious!' and then proceeded to squeeze my arms as well as if he were testing me for ripeness. Yep, it is hot to be jamona (hamlike) here, and that is muy bien for the mojo of valkyries like me.  

I bet we gordita'd up enough mosquitos for some of them to even get married and have big mosquito families of their own. I slathered on toxic 95% DEET bug repellent the whole time while Staci tried to avoid the toxic stuff and fared much worse than me in the bug world. Every time she peed, the mosquitos came zooming in on her ass and had a big old feeding frenzy. She was impressively lumpy. The ground was hard, the bites itched and itched and itched, it was very very hot. Staci was pretty fucking cranky about it all sometimes. So was I.  

We got back to the little town of Lagunas after five days in the jungle and still liked each other enough to want to do an ayahuasca ceremony together. It would be a psychic enema, leaving us fresh and clean for the next spiritual extravaganza. Our guide, Juan, said he would introduce us to the village shaman and stay with us during the ceremony. Juan struck us as a tragic, wise, silent jungle guy who had experienced much in life, including previous ayahuasca ceremonies. He also had the same birthday as Staci, which seemed kind of cosmic. Rudber, the younger guide, was very earnest and hardworking, a real family man with four kids. He offered to accompany us as well. They took such good care of us in the jungle, we figured the more the merrier. We went to the bar and drank several cold delicious beers together and they said they'd be back for us in a few hours after arranging things with the shaman. Juan showed up a few hours later alone, swaying from side to side, and took us to the shaman. Turns out, Juan is a drunk when he is not being a jungle guide. Rudber had given us his mosquito net for the duration of the jungle tour because the meshsize in mine was large enough for the mosquitos to fly through and so Rudber had spent the past 4 sleepless nights being eaten alive so we could be bug free. He was exhausted and I think he missed his family, so when he showed up again, we cut him loose to go home. The TV was going full blast in the shaman's house under the fluorescent lights, which I took as signs that he must be a successful shaman if he could afford a TV and electricity. He took us into his backyard where we looked around for a special shaman hut or some maybe womblike structure where we would die and be born again in or something. No such luck. There was a little bench and two pseudo-adirondack chairs. One was kid sized, so Staci got that one since she's not gordita. The shaman gave us a demo with his shaky leafy wand thing and cigar and sang us a little song in Inca so we'd get some idea of what the ceremony would be like. Then he asked us for 10 soles so that Juan could go get them some liquor and cigarettes. He said it was part of the ritual. I thought about voodoo and ancestors and about how many gods and ancestors do tend to like their liquor and smokes, unlike our own ascetic ancestors and gave Juan the money. He told us he would brush our foreheads with alcohol when we got too hot and I envisioned the cigarette smoke as being a kind of rope we could climb back into this world on when ayahuasca world got to be too much. We gulped the ayahuasca down, blessed with cigar smoke and an inca prayer, and waited to head out on our journey. A half hour later, I wasn't feeling anything and Staci was feeling extremely uncomfortable in the baby adirondack chair and wishing the mosquitos weren't eating her alive. An hour later, I still wasn't feeling anything and drank some more ayahuasca. Staci was lying on the bench, all hot and uncomfortable but maybe having some nice visions and I was feeling annoyed with the shaman who kept singing his stupid falsetto Inca songs and shaking the palm leaf bush thing on our faces and heads and giving us static cling. I really did want to get enlightened and have epiphanies and revelations but Staci wasn't doing so good and the bugs were out and even the adult adirondack chair was pretty uncomfortable and the shaman was really getting on my nerves by then with his goddamn shaky leafy thingy. Juan was well pissed by then, and maybe the shaman was, too. I think they were surprised that the ayahuasca didn't affect me but I am sure it would have if I hadn't gone into wonderwoman mode and made myself impervious to all outside influences until I could get myself to a safe and comfortable place and the ceremony had become just one more thing to get through. I have an overdeveloped sense of self-preservation. I did have a nice puke on the way home, though. 

In order to get anywhere on the river, you have to follow the path of least resistance. If a boat is coming your way, get on it, even if it is not a nice boat, even if you don’t feel like getting on a boat that night. There might not be another one for days or even weeks. If they say the boat is coming at midnight, get yourself to the dock at 5 pm that night before and stay there until the next afternoon. The boat might come, it might not. We learned that lesson the hard way when we missed our boat by 10 minutes by turning up only 2 hours early in the middle of the night. If only I’d had a bag of coca leaves to give to a furiously paddling native to chase the big boat in a little canoe! Chew, Juan, Chew! The next boat going our way came two days later, two days too late for Staci to catch her plane back to the states, so we had to change directions and plans. We went back the way we came and Staci flew away. 

I was hoping to take the same nice boat we’d been riding on back up to the city of Iquitos. I even planned on treating myself to a bed in a cabin instead of the usual hammock. Plans, shmans, at the last minute the fancy boat's captain decided not to leave for 3 days and the ghetto boat (and I don’t mean ghetto fabulous) next to our nice shiny freshly painted blue and white boat became my only option. I climbed aboard and found enough space in the already crammed deck for my hammock. Once you are on the boat, you might be days late or days early in arriving to where you wanted to go. I learned this riding trains all over the United States, and it applies to boat trips as well: Every time you get on a new boat, just assume that you will be there forever. Take the batteries out of your clock. Make sure you have earplugs and plenty of water. This boat is your new home. Forever ends when you get off the boat.  It took 2 days and 3 nights to get to Iquitos. 400,000 people live here in this city which is only accessible by boat and by plane. Taxis with passenger cabins, motorized rickshaws, blast around, drowning out most other noise. I'm having a tv war with three of my neighbors. We all have screens (to keep the bugs out) instead of walls (to keep the noise out) and our own TVs in our rooms. My neighbors play game shows in Spanish and soap operas at top volume. I like non-suspenseful movies in English and nature stuff. The din from our 4 competing television sets last night was impressive even by Latin American standards. All in all, though, this city has a muggy, laid back, island feel. I’m thinking I’ll stay a while.  

I've been visiting the local universities and traditional medicine institutes, talking to shamans, doctors, and curanderos about rain forest plants in general and ayahuasca and cat's claw in particular. Also, I've been hanging out around the endless floating shanty town of brujerias (witch stores), picking up information about curing this and that from the women. It is hard to be around the pink river dolphin penises and endangered species animal heads but the pragmatic spiritualism that they apply to people's ailments is very appealling. Turns out tobacco and hard liquor are an integral part of every ayahuasca ceremony. A local shaman here told me independently of the witch who read my coca leaves in Bolivia that I suffer from mal de gente (literally, the bad wishes or envy of other people, manifesting in a variety of health problems) and asked me if my left knee hurts and if I have trouble with my skin because of it. My knee does hurt. I do have skin trouble. Weird. Cool.  

It is nice living at the mercy of the river. You just can't have too much of a will. The river just wears it smooth like one of those great big shiny rocks that are so nice to lie on on a hot summer day.  Says William Blake: “Dip that man in the river who loves water!” or something like that. Here’s hoping you each can get yourselves to a nice cool river on some hot sunny day this summer and let the currents caress the edges off of your worries until the day slides by. Keep in touch!!! Love Kat

“Adventures today are about exploring the unpredictable, not the unknown.” – Heidi Howkins 

“In the west we live in a safe and relatively comfortable world. We do everything we can to preserve and prolong our physical existence. We vaccinate our children, pass laws that mandate seat belts, develop life saving devices like airbags and tamper resistant packages. And we spend exhorbitant amounts of energy developing products that enhance physical comfort and soft-ride suspension systems, scented fabric softeners, high tech shoes with gel and air bubbles.          
Longevity and comfort are, of course, good things. But in our quest for physical comfort, we often neglect our spiritual need to honestly and openly confront both our own mortality and the fragility of our world. We pad all of the sharp edges in our lives with bleached cotton or high-tech foam, and then wonder why the notion of a wild wind whipping across an exposed ridge both terrifies and fascinates us. We deny our kids real challenges, guarantee that they’ll move from grade to grade, and then wonder why they respond with apathy and indifference. We travel to work in climate-controlled vehicles and spend the day in a gray cubicle and then wonder why we crave caffeine and other artificial stimulants. Deprived of risk and real danger, many people invent games that artificially create adrenaline rushes. Some of us even invent artificial problems and enemies, like psychosomatic illnesses and soap-opera relationships. In many cases, we re simply craving true challenges and real journeys, experiences in which the outcome is not certain and real loss is possible.” –Heidi Howkins 

“When was the last time you encountered the sacred? The last time your soul trembled with the indubitable awareness that it was being flooded with a numinous presence? Whatever the sacred is, it is unquestionably the most fascinating experience of our lives. It draws us almost against our will. We will continue to seek it out, as the moth does the flame.” –Heidi Howkins

Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?

Hmm, let's see...I want to...

Play with orcas...
Float up the Rio Paraguay...
Dance the Forro...
Learn 10 reasons why Bolivians are the weirdest people in the world...
Float through the jungle...
Find a tropical island paradise...

None of the above. I am too busy for that crap. And I think it is time for you to get a real job, Katherina.

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