Canyoning, Banos, Ecuador 10-10-11

This was the scariest damn thing I ever did. After the first time, though…. no problem. But looking over the precipe and actually walking over it? seriously…. nearly shit in my pants. or wetsuit. take a look at the video.

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The final installment — Amazon, Ecuador, Shuar and Mikiut (part 3)

Mikiut is a cousin of Ayahuasca, it is of the family, but it is not one of the 27 brothers and sisters of Ayahuasca. But….un primo. and let me tell you.

(…. update… night 1 was UNI NATEEM, second night I took MARIR NATEEM, nateem pronounced nah’ tehm)

Ok…. So the next morning I wake up and tell Sama about the experience, or “non-experience,” I guess, and he isn´t phased in the slightest. Its clear, at least to him, all is going to according to plan. I think I´ve been through this, right?

Now I have a day and a half to wait around for the next and final installment. In the morning, both Pina and Linda are moving on. Linda towards Peru, and Pina towards Columbia. I guess the act was breaking up. But before it did, we all put on a little performance for the tribe of women and children.  I played a rip-roarin´ version of Women are Smarter with Pina on the drum, and then a soul-wrenching version of Simon and Garfunkel´s, “The Boxer” (emphasis tongue in cheek, of course) before they brougt the hut down with jugglilng, unicycling, and contact ball juggling.  And then it was time for all of us to leave for the town. It was a well-needed haitus from the little space we occupied for so long.

From the town, a group of us went to the larger pueblo of Palora, and the two burning man wanna be´s left by bus in the other direction.  I spent the day eating, using the internet, and well, not really much.  Nothing really to report here, so lets move along….

So the next day, being that this is NOT ayahuasca, I don´t have to fast, thank God. Three days out of seven not eating …. even during this Yom Kippur season, was too much for me. The day moved along easily, not much happening other than us making this really cool video to prove the week. Speaker is none other than Sama.

or, because we took two,

Now it´s time for the ceremony…. 7pm. lights are out.

I don´t get a bath today, thank goodness. But the paint and the cigar, check. Then the medicine. This Mikiut in its natural form looked nothing more than a big ole green bamboo shoot or an oversized piece of asparagus. Sama took his blade and pealed off the skin into a bowl and tossed the inner stalk. He then took his hand, grabbed the skin and squeezed tight — and the juice dripped through is fingers and into the bowl. quite a bit, i might add. He added a few drops of the ayahuasca (yyyyyyick) was leftover from the dish nearby, leaned over and held the bowl out for me to drink from, which i did quickly, quietly and without incident. It actually tasted exactly like celery.

Celery juice. Yeah, like this is going to work.

He says it´ll take about thirty minutes before my mouth feels dry, I may need to use the bathroom but it´ll be a fake sensation, and then it will totally kick in.

I´ve heard this story before.

Admittedly, I´m losing faith but hell, its only ONE more night and then I move on. But I remain skeptically optimistic. As usual, Sama leaves me be to the orchestra of jungle sounds.

I wait… and wait… and after about 45 minutes he comes back and I tell him nothing´s going on he says, tranquilo. yup. mouth is dry, but that´s it. good shit.

he leaves again, and what do i do? After another hour or so all I do is fall asleep. I´m getting used to this routine.  And then the dreams.

Oh my god, the dreams.

I find myself on the backside of the mountain we´re atop. Its steep. vegitation is thick as can be. I can almost FEEL the plants and trees around me, the dirt under my feet. I hear the sounds of a hundred billion insects crying out for one another. And its a full moon.  The vividness is incredible. I reach my hand out to touch a leaf the size your body and strangely my hand passes miraculously through as if were a hollographic image. I stare at it with my hand, half way through, not feeling a thing and not believing my eyes. Up…. then down and through and underneath. Incredible. Its as clear as day – the impossible. And naturally, as in any dream state, you experiencing a reality. Too much. I wave my hand through it again and then sideways through the entirety of the leaf, and sure enough, and while it exists in my mind, it has no matter to speak of.  Can´t say I´m unphased, but I move on….

Just a few steps further i lose my balance. And for no reason too. And I take a tumble. The feeling of weightlessness as I roll down the steep grade, smells of mulch and living matter, the feeling of branches, dead leaves, and fermenting ground. All of it coming at me real fast. Un F ing believable. I look up, and I´m feeling really embarrassed … and there are two people not too far away watching me. I explain it was uncanny how i just fell…. didn´t know why i would just lose my balance like that. So i straighten up as best as i can on the steep grade, brush off, and begin to work my way back up to the  top again when i reach for what i think is a branch, but of course that one was only one of my fantasy branches, and fall over again, this time way down. And I´m again feeling a bit ashamed as I shake myself off, this time describing how weird I´m feeling to the folks standing to the other side of me. To prove my point I´m not so crazy, I show them what I already knew… that some of the plants and trees were really just fakes. I knocked on a stump and well, that really was a stump. sorry. let me try another one….. and my hand, just as before, miraculously traveled right through solid matter. See that?? I don´t think they were quite as amazed as I was, but it still was really fun and interesting for me to do.

Now, as in all dreams, this dream WAS my reality. So there was no reason for me to believe I was anywhere else but fully awake, alive, and experiencing all this along with a few amigos.  So I climb again.. this time making sure i was testing each tree, branch, leaf, vine etc. for actual physical matter. Yeah, this worked until I forgot again and there I went, grabbing a figment of my imagination and boom, down the hillside and mud i return. This is getting old. But the strange thing is, I´m FEELING the ground. I FEEL the mud. I feel the branches as they thwack me on the way down. And most of all, that weightlessness you feel when you´re falling over a precipice.

Now I´m talking to everyone…. those who´ve amassed to the left and right of me to watch the show. And to be honest, I don´t know if i can actually see them, but I KNOW they´re there and they´re all paying attention. I can´t even remember if they responded to me, even once. But I´m inclined to explain myself because damn, this is embarrassing and the falls i´m taking are kind of dramatic and they seem to be happening with more frequency.

I can´t tell you how long this goes on for, because, well, it was a dream. It could have all been within a period of 4 seconds or an 4 hours, i really can´t tell for sure.

When I woke up the next morning to a bright sun and the jungle warmth in the air, and the same sweet smells, which all seemed nicer today, I quickly slipped on my flip flops and dropped down to the mess tent where I hear the traditional morning voices. I was ready to depart. Three experiences of nothing.  I guess there won´t be much to write about.

I am greated with great big smiles and a round of “como esta’s” and “durmiste bien’s” (did you sleep well?)

And now, with heavy heart, I´m forced to tell Sama the truth.  Sorry, hermano, no hallucinations, no incredible night of illuminations, just a good night´s sleep.  The only good news I have to repport is, I feel as if I slept more soundly than I did in a long time and I feel absolutely wonderful.

He sits there and smiles at me indredulously.

Now, understand something. The dreams I just recreated here weren´t accessible to me until much, much later in the day. In fact, only the tips of the icebergs were aparent that day or night. It wasn´t until the very NEXT day they started to surface with clarity.  This point is key.

Sama stares at me seriously, albeit with a smile on his face, says I slept at most only one hour. He then tells me he had to retrieve me THREE times from the jungle overnight. The first time it seems like I had a few friends with me, but he couldn´t understand me because I was talking in English the whole time. The second episode I was counting allllll the money i found on the ground, which were leaves, of course, and the third time I was playing guitar loudly to the jungle.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  But sorry, hermano, good try. This I would have remembered. And no WAY i would have ventured into the jungle at night are you kidding? i´m no fool…. THAT steep grade are you joking? on FLIP FLOPS hahahahahaha. Thanks, but you can´t fool me there, buddy. ha!

But surely enough his smile remained constant and he offered no further explanation or attempt to convince me other than putting his hand up with three fingers in front of his face, stating once again clearly, he had to get me three times.

Well, I didn´t give the validity of this one more thought as I slept all night. At this point I had no memory of any dreams. Just a deep, dark sleep.

But you know, I did have this deep throbbing pain in my hand…just below my ring finger to be exact felt like a deep bruise.. not a break because there was no discoloration, but did it throb like ever. Actually, on both hands…. Did i do this the other day and just not feel it? Must be the explanation.

So I eat a hearty breakfast and tidy up my already packed up gear (from the day before) and prepare my goodbyes to everyone. Hugs, handshakes, well wishes, etc. go on for a few moments and Sama and I break for the town where I´m boarding a bus to Puyo and continuing on.  We don´t talk about the night as there´s really nothing to talk about.  And before I leave Sama reiterates what he said the day before to me in all ernest — that I will be seeing things more clearly now and be at greater peace with mysel; I first cleansed, second absorbed the energy of the sacred plant, and third was the final stage.  I could do nothing but smile, all the while feeling”yeah yeah.” But I DID feel wonderful and strangely more at peace…. and fully tranquil which is something money surely cannot buy.

At the town, we embraced. Me feeling love and respect for this man who through his heart, his being… through the entire lineage, believed in the pureness of soul and sacredness of the plants and the medicinces within…. he knew what I did not, that I was a changed person.  Despite feeling relatively unaltered at the moment, I was touched by his generosity. By his unselfish sharing of his home, family, friends and culture with me so full-heartedly and spontaneously.  Another glance and it was on the bus. I was off.

The bus took 2 hours to reach Puyo where I was to buy another ticket up to Coca, my last brief stop in Ecuador before reaching the Columbian border. When I arrived, the bus dropped off in the center of the town and not at the terminal, so i opted to walk instead of taking a taxi a good thirty minutes to the bus terminal. Not 15 seconds after I got there the biggest torment of a storm hit us with sidesweeping opaque rains so strong they could kill.  I missed it by THAT much.  I buy my ticket to Coca which was four more hours to the north, and about two to three hours from border of Colombia. I wanted to see more of Ecuador, but to be honest, its weather this time of year offered me nothing but clouds and rain.  And to be more honest, I knew I was done with adventuring in South America. I´m sooooo tired. I need a beach. And to be even more honest, thoughts of being home are even MORE appealing.  But I do have a month left and the caribean coast is where I´m going to be. I´ll surely need it before five months of New York City winter.

And on the long busride towards Coca, the dream from the night before starts to surface… part by part, piece by piece, little by little. I´m confused at first because of the absolute craziness of it and any connection with it being part of my real world. But I can´t help it. I start to connect the dots.  And I did something that just never really occurred to me before those moments, to inspect my shirt. I took it off and looked. Absolutely filthy with dirt from top to bottom.

It was all real and it all happened. 

I never did recall the other two dreams, unfortunately. And it isnt as if the dream, or now I can say, experience itself gave me any guidance itself.  But the week left me with clarity. I started to write all about it, and then I realized that this is private and something I need to keep inside. And while I truly am tired and worn out from traveling, I´m no longer anxious about coming home and putting the pedal down. Windows will open and I´m ready to embrace and make the most of them.

If only the caribbean didn´t get in the way.

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The Ecuadorian Amazon, Ayahuasca, Samas, and the Shuar (Part 2)

… continued

notice the smoke from the stove rising through the roof

Waking up the next morning wasn´t like a breath of fresh air, let me tell you. My head and body felt awkward, as if i was waking up after a long day’s fever. I make my way sloppily to the main hut, the one just below mine, where the food is prepared and eaten, and generally speaking where everyone gathers for conversation.   Sitting there were about 6 or 8, including Sama and Maria. ¨Como Estas¨ and ¨Sientes bien?¨were the questions of the morning. And I couldn´t tell whether I felt good or not because my head was still a little woozy. Sama tells me that this is absolutely typical and that this day was meant for rest. Nothing more. Descansa.  But before, I was treated with a breakfast of yuca and fresh fish which was absolutely delicious and filling. After about 36 hours of no food, i suppose they could have fed me insects and I would have enjoyed.

Oh yeah, that was on the menu too.

I only WISH I could remember the name of this fat, plump snail or slug so i could look it up online and show the photo. But i can describe from memory.  It was the length of your index finger and about the width of three fingers and the depth of two. So we´re not talking a little tiny bug, I´m talking a full and complete mouthful.  Sama had already wolfed down two in front of me, so at least I knew i wouldn´t die from eating one. So I bit my lip, held the sucker from the head and bit into its neck and wrestled hard with my teeth in order to sever its body. And then the chewing. Surprisingly very tasty and very healthy. Ken 1 insect world 0. Well, actually, make it 2-0 considering I ate bees the day before. Gotta love the jungle.

The next stage was the bathing in the river, which was geared to be the final stage in the cleansing process. So I waltzed down to the big river in a private area and took one of the most satisfying river baths in my life. Before I felt like shit, after I felt human again. Not amazing because my body was still recovering.  Cool, fresh water. Not too cold, definitely not warm…. but wonderful.  I returned to camp, retrieved my book, picked up my sleeping pad, and climbed the stairs of the tallest dwelling in the compound and parked myself near the edge which had a commanding view of the jungle. I layed myself down and read for hours and listened to all the birds and jungle songs.

For the next three days I did nothing but rest. My body needed to return to full strength before round two.  Every now and then I´d receive some young visitors

in my quarters

who were curious about this gringo from a city called New York, We visited the botanical gardens and Sama pointed out several plants and told us each respective medicinal value. It was incredible – he had a pharmacy just behind his house.  We ate fresh chicken.. and when i say fresh, i mean I saw them pick up the poor guy, saw his neck severed, his body plucked, chopped, skewered and cooked over a flame before it reached my lips.  This was the way for three days.

On the third day we had more visitors. Chilean Pina and Columbian Linda, who I called Linda Linda for obvious reasons :)  They too were looking for someone authentic in the practice of ayahuasca and they found their way here as well. The way I saw it, visitors were not unique here, but those who did come were the ones who efforted to find the ¨right¨place. And it was clear Sama loved it. To him, all of us are not just sacred guests, but embassadors who will tell the tale of the Shuar around the globe.

About midday we all get our cleansing bath of fresh river water and freshly cut plants. This is no easy task for Sama and he treats the ceremonial aspects of the medicine quite seriously. I watched him prepare the bath. By hand he deleafed full branches of purple leaves with the most tantilizing aroma. He then scrunched and squeezed them to release their powerful scents and tossed them into the soup. Afterwards, he poured them over my body for a few minutes. I was fragrant.

In the afternoon, I decided to take a walk into the jungle alone, on a path, obviously, to absorb all the energy I could from everything living before my second partaking.

See, if you haven´t been to the Amazon before, you may have a hard time understanding just what this jungle is all about. I´ve been to ¨jungles¨in Costa Rica, Panama, Thailand, India, Guatemala, and Belize, but the Amazon is a different animal altogether. Consider it like this. When you leave the path that had been cleared for you, there is no such thing as a clear spot. Every last space in three diminsions is taken. Life is everywhere. Life exists on top of life, and then there´s something else living on top of that. And in between the open spaces you´ll find spider webs that catch the flying life.  It´s literally unfathomable and basically what I perceive as uninhabitable by us humans. But these people sure found a way as do many tribes throughout the Amazon region. If you ask me, I could´t tell you which place I´d like to live in less, the jungle or the desert. In the jungle you can´t find a dry spot of land to lay your butt. Everywhere is waterlogged and slushy and crawling with insects. There is no soft grassy area to rest. Just thickets of plants and trees, thick muddy paths. And if you dare walk them, don´t be surprised if you lose your shoes when you sink ankle to knee deep. Remember when you look at these photos … these were taken ON the path, and not inside the tangled areas. This is where it is MOST clear.

Again, no eating this day.  At about 7pm, Pina, Linda and I sit together in my “apartment” and Sama explains again the significance of these sacred plants and how seriously we should be taking this experience. Our faces are painted, smoke is blown over our bodies, and we are given the sacred liquid putrid soup.

But this time the liquid doesn´t taste NEARLY as bad as a few days before. Sama leaves us and we are instructed to be silent. Never are we to speak to one another. The experience is individual and not meant to be shared. We oblige.

Within an hour, both Pina and Linda puke a few times and return to the hut. I sit there feeling completely unaffected by the juice. After two hours I lay down and sleep. I feel badly because I surely don´t want this poison in my body, but what can I do? If you can´t throw it up, you can´t throw it up. So I´m left with no experience to remember, and all the crap in my body. wonderful.

The next morning I speak with Sama and let him know nothing happened. His response? A smile. Perfecto. The others hadn´t been cleansed like I had before so they naturally threw up. But I had been. This time was for absorption. Absorption of energy and spirits around me. This was to set the stage for my third time the following day. All is good.

Later that day I pull Sama aside and let him know that I was ready to leave, that I had been resting for five days and for me, it was an eternity. I don´t think I´ve ever sat still for this long doing nothing but for hospital stays and the flu.  But his temperament, his assuring smile as if to say, ¨this is perfect,¨ gave me the assurance and the belief in him. I opted to stay for my last installment.

And am I glad I did.

(more to come…..)

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The Amazon….Living with the Sama and the Shuar, October 5th – 11th (Part 1)

My last week in Ecuador was invested in a community called Tawasap, led by an incredible man by the name of Stalen Samarenda (42), his family, and Maria Antoinette, a Columbian student from Pasto who was there on a cleansing retreat to learn about plant medicines.

Maria learning about natural medicines from Sama

Maria learning about natural medicines from Sama

How I found this place was naturally a twist and turn of fateful events. I guess this is usually the way these things happen. What I’m about to describe may go down as one of the most unique times in my life. Granted, I often speak in hyperbole, but it’s hard for me to think of a stranger experience that changed for the better my physical and emotional states and showing me one of the craziest, weirdest, most surreal, and maybe one of the most dangerous nights for me, ever.

But first, the Shuar. 

The Shuar Indians live in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador, and this particular area I visited was about an hour and a half by bus from Puyo which lay about an hour and a half outside of Banos. Ill write more on this later, but this week was too important to forget, so it goes first.

They are a sub tribe of the notorious Jivaro, as were the Ashuar, the Aguaruna, and the Huambisa. What makes the Jivaro so notorious is that they were the only ones in history to practice head shrinking.  Yes, they shrunk’em down to about the size of a fist… which usually took up to about six days to accomplish.  That aside, they’ve always been known to have been the fiercest warriors. True story, a Spanish governor, greedy for gold, was killed by having molten gold poured poured down his throat. And this incident, along with the shrinking heads history, seemed to have a great deterrent effect on the outsiders.  They were never conquered by the Spaniard and are thus called “the unconquered ones.”  The name “Jivaro” shares its roots with the word savage.

According to Sama, his people have existed for more than 4,500 years, and today they try to emulate the lifestyle of their ancestors as best as they can. I believe he said there are nearly 100,000 remaining… but that figure could have been 1,000,000.  (My Spanish is a little suspect at times)  Sure, they have cell phones and Sama has a Acer laptop, but for the most part, what you see is what you get. There are no paved roads or modern conveniences. They live healthy lives in a healthy community largely untouched by the outside world. Ironically, when they go to the nearest town, about 30 minutes away by car, as we did on market Sunday, you´d never be able to tell them apart from the ¨normal¨folk. They understand technology and modern life completely, but they just choose to live differently.

Now, as a quick digression as I write this, there’s the cutest little 8 year old girl at the computer next to me playing a video game. And she has her headphones on and is singing a song in a completely tone deaf fashion…. very loud…. and only my mom and sister can feel my pain right now. 

road from Puyo to Tawasap.... gotta cross rivers sometimes without a bridge

10 minutes before reaching their town, this was our river crossing

When the bus dropped me off in town, which consisted of about 10 houses and one small convenience store,  I was at a loss as to where to go. See, all I did was leave Banos with all my gear and head towards this guy named, Sama. That´s it. I was just hoping things would become clear once I arrived.  I asked the folks sitting at the store about Sama and they pointed in his direction and told me I also could take a taxi. How far, I asked? 1 hour and a half walk. No thanks … piping hot, steamy humidy… where´s that taxi?

About a couple of km´s away from the end of the road, we meet Sama who evidently was walking all the way to town in order to greet me. he says hello to us all and holds out a basket full of what looked like berries. Hell, i saw the other guys rip into it and snack on the little bites, so i grab a few myself and without hesitation toss them into my mouth. They were still warm so clearly they weren´t berries. Upon closer look, they were the bellies of bees. oh scrumptious! Not bad, actually, but that was enough for me.

So at the end of the road Sama and I need to walk another km or two before we reach the entrance to his ¨Sacred Mountion.¨  He welcomes me officially after explaining how I am his guest and now a part of his family. I am no longer a gringo, I am Shuar. I thank him and up we climb. And being that this is the jungle and always wet, the path up was nothing less than treacherous and extremely tricky. But I kept my balance the entire way and to a clearing we empty into……

To  the left was my quarters.  Sama and those who shared this little compound atop a small mountain slash large hill seemed to rotate constantly and it was hard to guage who stayed overnight and who left.  And none lived very far… in fact, they often shouted to one another over the treetops, on the tops of their lungs (and believe me, they have the strongest lungs on earth) rather than use cell phones.  They more often called one another via whoops, wha’s and other callings…. even the 9 year old boys had bullhorn lungs.  Utterly amazing, and funny, to hear them childishly calling one another hundreds of meters away from one another and through the dense jungled forests.

So let me digress again so we all know the fateful way I came to Tawasap.  While in banos, with my new friend Adam, a few days before, we chose to rent a go cart for the day…… 

So Adam and I stop off at this one point of interest about two hours later…. it’s a beautiful waterfall.  Great time, lots of fun photos…. not like I’m not all waterfalled out at this point… but it was nice!

And when we finished up with the water filled fun, back on the go kart we were…. racing around small cliffside roads…. that is, until one of the tires caught a column on the side…. two impacts later we were resting almost perpendicular to the guardwall with the culprit wheel severed almost entirely. After a burst of anger, shame and denial from Adam, the driver of course, we had to make our way back hitchiking to Banos to give the bad news to Rene, the guy we rented from.

To make a long story short, Rene is good friends with Sama. All it took was one question from me about a legitimate shaman and I was pointed towards the guy who knew everything in the universe and more about Ayahuasca and its practice, and he lived far away from the sights and sounds of any tourist.

It took a car accident.

Back to our village in Tawasap.

Bacially, in terms of heirarchy, one thing was clear to me, Sama was the alpha male of the entire clan.  Sure, his dad, best known as the “jefe,” fathered 13 children and God knows how many grandchildren.  And when he was around all you could here was machine gun speach. Shuar language is rapid fire and listening to it alone can cause serious injury to the neck and spine if you´re not careful! And when he was around, whether it was 6am or 6pm, you could hear his authority.  That booming voice which overcame every last person. Sure, dad was ruler, but I got the feeling as if the torch either was being passed or had already. Sama was the mayor. The respect he showed his dad was palpable.

So how did I come upon these people, the big picture?

Well, it all began months ago. No matter how much I was enjoying myself through all the adventuring, one constant remained…. and that was my anxiety of return and all the question marks I´d have to face.  Having spent just about all but my 401k during three years of heavy financial drought, I always knew there would be a day of very difficult decisions to come as nothing seemed clear. All the adventurous trekking solo didn´t seem to dent my anxieties and well, my goal was to have the answers before I flew back to New York.  Lets just say, feeling good, but not feeling entirely alligned.  And I have always known about Ayahuasca and its incredible spiritual powers, and having tried it twice, (August, 2008 and September, 2010), I was eager to sequester myself for a week and go through a full regiment. But the only question was, with whom and where? Most of the places I was both reading and hearing about were for the tourism industry, the very same I came across while in the Sacred Valley near Cuzco twice before in Peru.  I wanted a true shaman. A teacher. Hell, I knew it was a longshot, probably a whole bunch of folklore and bullshit, but I was in Ayahuasca territory. Window open. Jump through or walk away.

How many times have I walked away, I ask?

I´m sure this begs the question for most, and that is, what on earth is Ayahuasca in the first place?

Ayahausca, or Natem, in Shuar, is a stew of vines and plants that is used within a religious, or sacred context. It has been practiced for thousands of years. Sama told me there are 27 different varieties, and each one has a specific purpose and effect.  The strong phsycadellic properties of the medicine can create illumination.

Now, I don´t know what Sama had in store for me, so I confide in him the best way I can. We talked for a good hour or so and I let him understand the true meaning of my visit … that I´m not just a tourist looking for a high, but someone looking to part the clouds, so to speak.  Sama listened intently and you could tell he was involved. This was a good sign for me.  The other good sign was when he explained he did not operate a business and would not accept payment for his services, whether they lasted for one day, one week or one month. I was welcome as long as I wanted to stay.

On my first day, I was told just to relax, and I knew not to eat anything. It was a fasting day for me. I was set up in my habatacion and given a plain wood board that was placed on the ground. That was my bed. yep. wood board. Luckily I had my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, because otherwise I would have been completely shit out of luck. But even with, i cant say i was terribly accustomed to sleeping on a flat hard surface. And as fortune would have it, this would be my home, both my bed and place of rest, for one full week. And it wound up being supremely comfortable but for the insects which i grew quite used to.

So I layed down for most of the day on my palacial bed, reading from Jack Kerouac’s first novel, In the Town and the City. To give you an idea of how much I rested over the week, I finished the novel before leaving, and its not short by anyone’s standards. (and highly recommended, too) Later that day Sama and I spoke about what was to come. He gave me plant medicine for my eyes, as well as liquids, juices squeezed from other plants, to snort through my nose. Now THAT clears out the senses.

By 7pm it was time to start the ceremony. Sama again described for me the sacredness of these plants and the 27 different varieties of Ayahuasca each with its own special properties and powers. Having talked earlier, the one he chose for me was to clean my body. ¨Para Limpiar.”  Sure, ok…. I’m onboard.  He cracks some walnut like, yet soft shells and exposes seeds that when pressed, turned bright orange, red. spreading this on his fingers he applies war paint to both our faces and explains how this is to remind us of the blood that runs through our ancestors and all those who we know and love.  After great purposefulness, next comes the cigar. yes, a cigar.  Lit and reverse, he blows clouds of smoke, over my outstretched hands, into my hair, into my face, throughout my body.  After a few more ritualistic activities, it was time to drink.

He hands me the poison.

Have you ever thought about what it must be like to drink your own vomit?

Well, consider that to be a delicacy compared to the utterly putrid taste of this vine soup. I mean, I have never savored anything more vile in my life, and I had to down a bowl of it, which, by the way, took more than a few moments. I wince as I write this just from the memory, which I’ll never, ever live down.  He smiles, takes back the bowl of finished grotesqueness and stands before me. In a quiet, assuring voice, he leaves with the explanation he’ll be returning in about an hour, once the medicine takes effect. He instructs me to sit upright, close my eyes, sit still and to NOT think about my job, my home situation, or anythng of that nature. Just to let my mind run free of stress. He’ll be back.

I sit and wait… not like I hadn’t been doing this all day.


…………….Waiting more… hasn’t it been an hour yet?

He returns and I tell him nothing’s happening.

Tranquilo, he responds with a smile.

And then I hear it. A motor running in the background. Or so it seems. It surely wasn’t real, but I heard it. Not really a motor, per say, but something LIKE one. and it was a bit annoying too. Then my body began to feel strange… not good, just strange. And about 15 minutes after this, with Sama sitting patiently in his chair near me, in the complete darkness other than the light of the moon, I run outside to purge. Boom came the first. Then stronger the second… equally as strong the third and fourth and then fifth. Damn, I didn’t even eat today, i thought.  When the urge was over, I walked slowly back to my wooden bed and sat Indian style.

Tranquilo, he reiterates.

Todo esta bien, I reply… doing fine. I think I feel better.

He then begins to shake beads over my head and sing in a ritualistic way… something clearly handed down over thousands of years. And then the urge came agan… Out the door I ran and before I could even make it to a safe spot I let loose once more. This time three or four times until the tank is completely empty. However… this time was a littttttttle different. See, the force of my convulsions was SO strong, and the liquid poison slash medicine in my intestines having liquified my bowels…. can you tell whats coming next?

Yeah, it happened.

How FUCKING disguisting. Purging from both sides at the same time. In all my life I never experienced such…. such….   But I did have the cognizence to do what I needed to do and clean up after myself, change clothes and get back into my lotus position.

Tranquilo, hermano, tranquilo.

Well, I did it again the third time, but at least this time I had nothing left on either side to purge, so it was merely a final gasp, a final attempt of my body to rid of it the shit that i fed it. I was through.

When I returned to my seat, I explained to Sama that I was through with all that, but I had no energy left for anything but laying down. He said it was perfectly normal, and that it was also perfectly ok. And for the next few hours, I remained utterly powerless to move even a muscle. no lips, no fingers, nothing. i just lay there 100% depleated of energy. The thought of moving my arm a bit or twitching my toes was fantasy. I was essentially there to stay in that exact position.  Hallucinations, vivid and strange, came my way occasionally. But I threw them aside trying to avoid even the most remote chance of dizziness.

And then I woke up the next day, a graduate of Day 1, the cleansing day.  That was NOT the experience I was expecting but the experience Sama had in store for me all along.

(more to come……)

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Saludos, Peru, y hola, Ecuador! Huaraz to Trujillo to Chiclayo to Piura, Peru to Lojas and finally Vilcabamba, Ecuador

¨What a loooooooong, strange trip it´s beeeeeen!¨

Did I just leave Peru for the last time… at least for THIS time? I´m heading north. Hope to spend about 3 weeks just nestled in on a Columbian beach before I trip it back to the northeast for a full course meal of Winter. And in the meantime, hola, que tal, Ecuador.

I can´t tell you whether I felt sadness or eagerness to hop on the bus for the northern Peruvian boarder. Having basically completed the entire circuit of pre Columbian ruins at Chavin de Huantar, I felt like I exhausted every last historical sight in this country. Lima, Caral, Sechin, Chimu, Mochica, Sepan, Chachapoyas, Inca, Huari, and Tiawanaku….. I think I got most of ém. No, I did NOT go to Nazca and see the lines. First, I´m not the biggest fan of the desert, and second, the only way to view the lines is from the air. And for me that would have meant an hour of utter hell. If i can´t stand on a slightly rocking boat for 10 minutes before needing to project over the side, then how would I fare on a small cezna intentionally rolling from side to side red baron style? I´d say the chances of me enjoying myself were as slim as slim could possibly be…. I´ll see the Nazca lines like most people.. on google images. thank you.

I´ll do all my commentary at the end, so no long goodbyes for now. I´m just looking forward to my next chapter…and with only two months left, I feel rushed. How can I do two countries in two months when i did two countries in 10 months? the answer, differently. with purpose. if i can. big if.

To sum up my journey from Peru to Ecuador. Long, disjointed, but always interesting. First, here was a shot of my last lunch in Huaraz. I seriously couldn´t believe i found this gem the day I was leaving. literally kicking myself sideways. My last plate of peruvian ceviche. It was delicios and cost me about $1.75. i can´t stand it! I wanted to have it for dinner too, but they only served lunch. damn them. damn me!

So while waiting around for my 930pm departure, I hung on the roofdeck, played a little guitar and snapped a couple shots of my home at the Alpes Huaraz Hostal where I stayed for the last three weeks to a month. Huaraz, to anyone who´s thinking about coming to Peru, ESPECIALLY if you´re in it for adventure and some of the most beautiful mountain views, is a must for your itinerary.

So I say my final goodbyes to my fam at the hostal and grab a taxi to the Movil tours terminal. I board, grab my seat, and then am almost immediately greated by the nice businessman sitting next to me who clearly had not showered in three days. Please sir, please do NOT raise your arms… .ever. Bad start. As the bus begins to fill up completely, it starts to get a little toasty. i reach above for the ventilation gizmo over my head and open and point it towards my desperate face. I ¨think¨i can feel a slight breeze. Its working, but more like at 10 percent… but there IS air coming out. I guess it´ll have to do. Bus soon takes off and I´m hoping the diazapam I took to sleep kicks in right away. I´ve got 9 hours and this guy´s smell is going to kill me if i don´t pass out. So i read. Ipod. Two hours later I´m still fully awake and baking in the bus´s heat. I feel the slat where the air was coming out and it was dead still….


yes, they turned off the air.

Africa hot.

Smelly guy.


Sleep apnia from the guy directly across the isle from mr. two week old tuna fish. And we´re not just talking sleep apnia… we´re talking the full entre of the loudest snoring you´ve ever heard i.e. R.W. circa 1991, but fits and starts that would startle the dead.

and damn the air is thick in here.

I think the pill finally kicked in at about 3am so i did get about 3 hours of rest… but man, was that an unpleasant ride.

As soon as I get off the bus in Trujillo, i take a taxi over to the Linea buslines which was going to take me to Chiclayo and then to Piura, at the border. I got there with 5 minutes to spare… bus took off immediately. I got the very first seat in the upper level of the bus and enjoyed a desert view between big peruvian cities. Three hours later I´m in Chiclayo and waiting for my transfer to Piura, another three hours away. I grab a crappy menu lunch and I´m off again.

I guess at this point, I´m just tired with the lack of sleep and never ending rides. What do i do typical Ken style? Naturally, I leave my guitar in the storage above our heads and don´t give it a second thought until I´m at the Linea station in Piura. And when you leave things anywhere in these parts, they find themselves new homes. i was pretty darn devistated. The guitar cost me less than 50 bucks, but it was the emotional attachment I mourned. I could buy another one I´m sure, but rrrrrr. Yet with a stroke of good luck, i had the puira folks call the chiclayo folks and yes, they DID recover the guitar. And even better, they were sending up to Piura on the very next bus, scheduled to arrive at 8pm. What a damn relief!

So here was my decision… continue on and grab the overnight bus to Loja, Ecuador and just get it over with, or rest for the night. It took me all of 1 minute to decide. Stay. I just couldn´t handle another overnite, especially when the next bus seats reclined no more than maybe 15 degrees or so. I take dinner, return to the bus to get my guitar, and then stumble around until i find this little $5 delight of a bargain. Not large… just big enough…. but absolutely perfect. The temperatures are back to hot again, and having two windows on either side of your bed to keep you well breezed was priceless!

Up early, did the markets again near the bus terminal and off i went. Border crossing within two hours and we stopped for forty minutes as soon as we were in Ecuador. And while this is absolutely no shot at peru and bolivia, but ecuador is different. Those two countries are like brother sister. Ecuador seemed more like…… well, it´s hard to say. people were well dressed to the point where i looked like a vegabond, and it just completely lacked the indigenous and farmland feel. So I pop in for a lunch, and I´m reminded once again I don´t need to change money… dollars are used here as their official currency. And for two bucks, I couldn´t believe my eyes. I´m so used to a bowl of soup and then a plate of rice and trout, beef, or chicken with a glass of some knarly juice sort of beverage you get used to over the months. Great stuff… but not often well presented. but here? There were actual vegetables on my plate! AND the juice was really tasty. It just struck me as a more complete meal and it was seasoned! Wow, i think I´m going to like Ecuador, I think. But then I´m reminded … there´s always a ¨but.¨

The aji was in a bottle. THE AJI WAS IN A BOTTLE! I´m sorry, but I think i´d trade all the upgrades just to once again eat freshly made picante sauce. But instead, I´m relaged to eating my hot sauce from a bottle like tobasco sauce. seriously …. i think i´m going to be depressed.

Anyhoo, back on the bus…. and another six hours or so we reach Loja.

And i was reminded… in Ecuador, you don´t have to cross over into the eastern slopes of the Andes in order to be surrounded by green. How incredibly lush. Naturally, the vistas would be blocked by all these meddling trees, but it did feel warm and comforting. Same with the air. I don´t think this has anything to do, though, with the border… just the altitude. I was hot again.

When the bus finally pulls into Loja, I had to make a decision at the terminal whether I would continue onto my destination of Vilcabamba or just hang there for a day or so. I made the right call. I found another gem of a cheap hostal and laid it down for the evening. I even went out to a local bar…. something I just hadn´t done in almost two months… go out for a drink.

And I´m being perfectly serious. The last time I recall going out for a drink was either in Cuzco with Ben or even before that in Copacabana, Bolivia. Could this be true?? Yes, believe it…. it´s not to say I hadn´t had a beer or two, but I just stopped going out. just thought it was worth mentioning.

The next day I did some walking around, researching, etc.

Loja surprised me to no end… I just wasn´t expecting anything so…. well, beautiful and sophisticated based on my experiences south of the border. Loja holds a rich tradition in the arts, and for this reason is known as the Music and Cultural Capital of Ecuador. The city is home to two major universities and it shows… the people I met out at the bar the night before all seemed…. well, seriously cultured. One of the friends I made, Nena, who I again met at a pink floyd cover band on saturday night here in Vilcabamba, is a professor of eco tourism at one of the Universities. Not only is she fluent in English, but it seems as if English is often heard from Ecuadorians all over these parts. The bottom line is, I wasn´t expecting to see streets lined with expensive shops and boutiques, people dressed with an eye towards metropolitan style, more expensive cars, fine dining, etc. And the guy who ran the hostal, Gustavo, had his office in the back of the place. He´s a practicing psychologist. are there psychologists to the south?

Geographically speaking, Loja lies between the humid Amazon Basin and the Peruvian border, and is composed mainly of cloud-forest and jungle. The valley borders the Podocarpus National Park, which is a massive cloud-forest reserve right next to where I´m typing this and will eventually trek into from Vilcabamba. The mountains here aren´t quite as tall, but wow are they stunning.

Ok, that´s cheating because this photo was taking from my hostel in Vilcabamba, the very same one I stayed in the last time i strolled through town six months ago. Ixhcayluma is the name. $10 a night including the best breakfast in the world. The people staying at the place this time around are fantastic… made great friends there… today five of them had left as they´re moving on. I guess today brings round two.

So let me talk a little more about Vilcabamba because there´s a chance one day I look back and realize that this time around, September, 2011, was the month I began to think about the prospect of maybe…. someday, and when who knows, I could become an expat. I really don´t know how much of this feeling is coming from just living in the moment and wanting it to continue, and how much is based on my true intentions. When I´m back in New York and living my life again, these thoughts may fade… and in ways I pray they do because leaving everything behind is a scary thought.

Historically, this area has been referred to as the “Playground of the Inca” and was used as a retreat for Incan royalty. The biggest mountain in view, Mandango, or the Sleeping Inca, is said to protect the area from earthquakes and other natural disasters. And while these countries are ravaged by natural catastrophies, it´s true… Vilcabamba is blessed.

And increasingly so, it is blessing a whole lot of Americans because they´ve flooded the area. From what I´ve learned, I think it´s because of the popularity it had gained after a National Geographic Special on the science of longevity here, as Vilcabamba has been coined the valley of longevity… people have been reported to live longer here than anywhere else on earth. They think it´s the water…. maybe the climate… a combination of many things. But make no mistake about it, this area is one of the hottest spots for ex pats, probably worldwide. Speaking Spanish here is NOT a requirement, that´s for sure.

Here are some of the reasons why one could consider moving here. But first and foremost… understand THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER´S ECUADOR. Whatever your conceptions are of life down here, I guarantee you that you´re not only off target, but your dart didn´t even hit the wall the board is tacked to.

1. It´s utterly stunningly beautiful. This is an adventurers, nature lovers paradise.

2. The climate is perfect. not terribly hot.. probably 75 to 80 or 85 every day, and never cold.

3. It´s brilliantly beautiful. And not just the sights. can you imagine listening to exotic birds chirping all around you all the time making up your soundscape?

4. Average cost of living… total expenses while living in total comfort is roughly $10,000 per year. This includes absolutely everything, from building a house to eating, transportation, utilities, healthcare, etc. If you could work from home, per se, in the US, then you can work from here just the same. Imagine the mansions you could own, servants you could hire, horses you could buy, blah blah blah for about one fifteenth the cost as back home. And with the economy back home slipping further into oblivian for some of us, without much hope of returning to our parents USA, the thought IS enticing.

5. Cuenca, the third largest and all argue is Ecuador´s finest city in just about every category, and its located 5 hours to the north. US standards that´s far, but down here it´s less than a hop skip.

6. Cuenca is said to have the best medical care in all of south america. No, I don´t have any information to back this claim up, but I´ve heard it said repeatedly. People say there are specialists for everything and they´re wonderful (i.e. oncology) and the cost is almost nothing.

7. This place is so beautiful you can´t help but list it three times in a top 10.

8. The ex pats. There is a thriving, loving COMMUNITY here. I don´t think i ever met a nicer, more hospitable group of americans in our out of the united states all in one place who´s not part of my own family and group of close friends. And they´re not drop out hippies. Ok, maybe a swath carry a bohemian vibe, but you cannot characterize this place as a bunch of ex deadheads without laughing because just about everyone has a really impressive story. This one´was a PhD in pharmacology, that one was an industrial psychologist, he owned six restaurants in florida, that guy´s a photographer, chef and master builder, she´s a massage therapist. that one´s an accomplished artist. These people are a collective of highly intelligent, productive or ex productive members of the US who learned about, personally discovered, and then opted to change their lives completely. And not ONE OF THEM seems even the slightest bit unhappy with their decision tio pack it all up and head to south america. I´ve spoken with and basically interviewed about 20 people….. all of who´s names i remember (impossibile?) and who´s photos I´m going to post on here in a little bit with their stories, and it just seems like it´s too good to be true. And utopias are usually just that… an illusion. But all of them? it´s like i´m living in an episode of the X Files. In fact, yesterday while watching football in the yes, SPORTS BAR in town with the football package, sat Louis. Louis and his wife are from Louisiana. We caught the Dallas 4 O´clock game and the Eagles game at 8 together. They are an African American couple most likely in their late 60´s. I found him the most unique simply because I didn´t expect to see an elderly African American down here. there´s zero reason to think this other than… well, he´s the very first african american travelerfrom the US I´ve met in 11 months, i suppose. Anyway, they have a place in Vilcabamba and in Cuenca, survive beautifully on their pensions, and they volunteer taching english at some local schools to help give back to Ecuador. Never saw such contentness in a man´s temperment. It was if he had struck the lottery four times over. I´m telling you, this attitude is prevailing and its just way too damn infectious. This is NOT an agricultural area… it´s a society not too different than back home… just ecuadorian. Again, this is not your father´s ecuador. My perceptions were entirely different than what I´m now seeing with my own two eyes. And oh yeah, at my hotel there´s a family who is, as I type this, looking at real estate. And i´m not talking husband, wife, and kids… i´m talking 90 year old, in one month, woman from brookly, her daughter from Madison, NJ, and the two kids from Philly who are, by my estimation, older than I am. They aren´t even going to move into the same house with each other when they buy… they´re all buying places and going to live in the same area together. This is their first trip down, intent is to move by next spring. Unbelievable.

9. Nature is everywhere, in abundance, and more beautiful than you can imagine.

10. $1 tall boys… have to mention them!

11. Massages… professional in beautiful spas… .they are costly, but not really. $18 for full body 1 hour and 15 minutes. tips generally not required or offered. Again, pretty expensive, actually. So much so, I´m having my 2nd today at 6pm.

So that´s it for now because I seriously want to get back out there to the nice weather and the beautiful vibe. I´m hopefully going to find all my new friends, take photos and maybe jot down a few things about their past and write about them here. Its funny to think about memorializing them, but something tells me it´s just not out of the questions I could be their neighbors.

Don´t freak out Mom and Dad, I´m still coming home!

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Chavin de Huantar, Sepember 10th, 2011

The Chavin culture may be the very last one I visit in Peru and Bolivia. And no question..  no QUESTION I saved one of the best for last.It is agreed that the Chavin were prominent about 1200 BC to about 200 BC, more or less, but they´ve carbon dated the area and the place itself has shown populations living there upwards to 3,000 BC. 

Chavin de Huantar, the single most important of all Chavin centers, is a ceremonial site and was built in three stages over a five hundred to thousand year period. It´s  a 3 hours drive from where I’m writing this, Huaraz, and about 150 miles north of Lima (and a little eastward towards the jungle). It sits 3,180 meters above sea level and at the convergence of two rivers, one of which was channeled directly under the site itself though a maze of underground channels.  Not only did these channels act as brilliant protection for the temple against flooding during the rainy season, they are said to have also doubled up on its utility with an ingenious engineering by which drains, because of their differing widths and lengths, helped create MUSIC from the rushing water below.  It is said that the temple roared like a jaguar, one of their sacred animals.

The internal spaces were constructed according to a plan complete with a system of ventilation and illumination.   The principal role of the galleries was to serve as a setting for private ceremonies to which only the privileged were admitted.  But also they served as places of storage for offerings and ritual objects like shell trumpets, which were used continually in the diverse rituals that were carried out at Chavin.

The site is situated almost equally between the sea and the jungle, no doubt on purpose, making it quite an ideal spot for trade. Remember, Peru is replete with different temperature/climate/altitude zones… and each zone was particular to producing only a few, specific crops/agriculture, fish, or animal protein.   I learned this from the oldest culture known in South America, and perhaps even the entire world, Caral (see my blog entry way back in the middle of March), people organized so they COULD survive via trade.  The Chavin came onto the scene about 1000 years after Caral, but considering the carbon dating proof of people living here way before the Chavin, who knows if these two peoples were linked.

But MOST importantly, Chavin de Huantar was a known to be a gathering place and a place of worship.  This was its singular purpose.  And one of the most significant rituals was the use of San Pedro, one of the world´s most powerful psycodellic drugs, probably very similar to paote.  Arcaeologists aren´t sure whether San Pedro was used only by the nobility and priests or if it had more widespread use.  But it is known it was frequently used, first ingested in the circular depression just outside of the main labyrinths within the structure. After the medicine took effect, those partaking in the ritual would retreat into the chambers for meditation. 

Chavin culture, through its art and iconagraphy, depict human transformations and shape shifting.  So many of the sculptures anc carvings show this transformation from a human head to a jaguar head.  (I guess they wanted to be cats.)   The religious world of Chavin was formed by four main animals the jaguar, the snake, the eagle and the crocodile.    And the iconographic complexity of Chavin’s divinities was enriched after ingesting the psychoactive medicines that worked as gates or passages of communication to the realm of the gods.

San Pedro is a native cactus to the Andes of between about 2000–3000 m in altitude and its found ALL OVER (yes, you can see it growing literally everywhere like weeds)  in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador.  Today its used for in traditional medicine, but throughout Andean history its been used, and continues to be used for healing and religious divinity.  After 3000 years  its popularity is still strong. It´s use is not shunned nor frowned upon; you can quite easily find elderly people of Quechua descent selling San Pedro, in powder form, in the very same markets you buy your veggies.

The Chavin culture is considered as one of the most important and influencial civilizations throughout pre-Columvian history. What stands out for me was the fact that this was NOT a warring culture.  There´s evidence their influence stretched all the way down into the southern Peruvian desert and as far north as Piura, which lies at the northern coast of Peru.  So my question is, how did they organize and build monumental structures, such as this incredible one, without having some sort of hierarchy and forced labor?

Turning to the site itself the site itself – I found it surprisingly incredible. First, they were master stone cutters. And in some ways even better than the Inca if this is even possible to fathom. That is, if your criteria is cutting 20-ton plus slabs of blue granite in perfect rectangular-dimensioned slabs. Imagine going to Home Depot and seeing a warehouse filled with 20-ton 10x16x2 slabs of granite… perfectly geometric shaped and polished like smooth glass.  Sure, they may not have fit them together nearly as perfectly as the Inca had done two centuries later, but the utter exactness, and the fine-baby-smooth polished surfaces were  something that was just jaw dropping.  and get this, there was no local source of granite!! Now did the local surrounds supply the black limestone they used. They had to transport them from extreme distances over difficult terrain, to be mild and understated about the task.

And their architecture was durable. Those of you who don´t know this area of the world too well, let me tell you it´s prone to earthquakes. We´re talking PRONE….. they´re smack square in platonicshiftville.  So the classic Chavin architecture shows a layering of two large slabs sandwiching two smaller stone layers repeated over and over again.  With the addition of a 5 degree angle for each of the walls, it clearly shows a bit of mastery over seismology. Not bad for a primitive culture, right? Incas = 1500 AD, Chavin = 1000 BC… that´s a 2,500 year difference.

Also something I noticed immediately were columns. What, columns? Haven´t seen nor heard of them in all of South American, pre-Columbian history. So what gives here? Columns.   Ceremonial centers with laberynths and storage rooms.  We´re talking subterranean space so ingeniously built with single and double supports which counterbalance the fantastic weight of what is stacked above – why haven´t I seen this type of architecture throughout the Inca empire?  I don´t know the answer, but its probably easy to deduce. The area is so prone to earthquakes it probably had been burried well before, and during the Inca´s reign.  For example, the 1945 earthquake had brought down facades of neighboring mountains and covered the entire archaeologic site beneath several feet, literally burried under rock, clay, mud and dirt. Surely this wasn´t the first time in 2,000 years.  So perhaps it was that Chavin technology was just never copied by subsequent major civilizations like the Moche,  Chimu, or Inca.  Its just a shame… because when you think about it, they were so clearly advanced even relative to almost any society on eart at the time.

And there has been nothing (zero) documented in the entire reign of this civilization regarding war or imperialism. A thousand or so year reign and all in peace.  Is something in that San Pedro?

Turning to their artistic expression, art decorated and adorned the walls of the temple — carvings, sculptures and pottery. Their artists depicted exotic creatures not even found there, but in other regions, such as jaguars and eagles. No depictions were made from local plants and animals. The feline figure is one of the most important motifs and naturally, Jaguars live in the Jungle.

There were three extremely important artifacts which were prime examples of Chavin art: The Tello Obelisk, tenon heads which surrounded the temple, and the Lanzon.

The Tello Obelisk is a giant sculpted shaft which features images of plants and animals. Caymans, birds, crops, human figures, etc. This huge, beautiful slab.  It represents two aspects of the same deity, forming part of a complex mythological cycle related to the natural world. It´ss sculpted in granite and stands at 8 ft. 3 in.  It depicts two zoomorphic series having lizard characteristics in  complicated and luxurious attire, accompanied by agricultureal and marine products which form part of the body of both.  Their heads face upward, which the experts say, depicts their use of San Pedro. 

The Tenon heads are found all over the site are probably the most well-known representations of the Chavin civilization. They´re massive stone carvings of fanged jaguar heads which projected from the tops of the interior walls. Every one of the some 215 plus heads were unique.

The Tenon Head:   human faces with feine features, placed in the upper part of the buildings and protected with decorated cornices. They represent the process of tranformation from being human to feline, the tranformation that was symbolically achieved by doing you know what.

But probably the most impressive artifact is the Lanzon, or the ¨lance¨or ¨knife.¨  Its a 4.5-meter-long, carved granite shaft that still sits in its original spot. The shaft actually extends through an entire floor and ceiling. Its carved with a fanged deity, which is the most revered deity of the Chavin people. He usually has long fangs (of the Jaguar) and long hair made of snakes. He holds a staff-like object in each hand, but archaeologists all agree that these are not staffs at all, but the long San Pedro cactus.

So this brings me back to a question I posed earlier. How is it that a non-warring society can put together a group of people large enough for such monumental projects? This site, even though it was constructed over a lengthy period, would have required a pretty sizable work force, from stone cutting and shaping, to transporting these materials long, long distances over mountains and through valleys, artistry, engineering and planning, and ultimately construction.  If the hierarchy didn´t force their will upon its people, then how did all this become a reality?

I´ve done a lot of reading and its apparent that this may all tie into San Pedro.  If San Pedro was only used by the priests and/or the shaman elite, then its practice was sacred and it was used as a status symbol, just as the coca leaf and the Inca Elite.  But, if it was more widespread and used by the masses, well, then it could be utilized as a form of manipulation.  And surely after using San Pedro they would have been entirely more susceptible to the influences of the shamen. Remember, this is one extremely potent hallucenatory substance which gives those who ingest strong shape-shifting powers.

¨So, sure, I´ll help you build that 20,000,000-ton structure. no problem. seriously, when can i get started?¨

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Akillpo Lake Trek, September 3rd – 5th

Well, I think I´ve outdone myself this time.  I happened upon the most obscure, but one of the most rewarding treks and I can´t even find a shred of information on the place. And I’m excited because I developed theories about El Lago Akillpo I think are remarkable! This lake was of major significance to the Incas…. and I´ve neither heard nor read squat about an Inca presence here whatsoever. This is Chavin and Wari territory.  And I´m not just guessing. I´m utterly sure.

Care to learn why?

I didn´t think so… but read on :)

Ok… this trek was born when I approached a few travel agencies just to gather some information. It had been almost a week since I got back from the Huayhuash circuit and I was feeling a little antsy.  My third stop brought me to a small little outfit… and I entered it because there was a really cool guide who gave me some nice, free advice before my last trek and I wanted to reward them by coming back. I mean, who knows if I would have signed up for one of their group treks.  So I´m greated by this utterly delightful, beautifully-spirited Argentinian woman, Luciana. We´re talking over this map of the trekking region and she begins to explain to me her favorite trek of all… through the Ishinka Valley. THIS, she says, is the most gorgeous and it´ll take 3 days.  For 80 Soles ($30) you can take a taxi all the way to the beginning of the Akillpo Valley at a Pueblo called Joncopampa, about a 5km walk to the entrance of the valley. Then trek up the valley about 10km until you reach Lago Akillpo (4,800m)…. then cross over the “5000m pass” and return down the gorgeous Ishinka Valley until you reach the town of Collon where I´d take a 70 Soles taxi ride back to Huaraz.

I love the plan… but I´m not going to buy into this taxi scam. I´ll take public, thank you. So the very next morning I wake up a little late thanks to the Phish simulcast from Colorado the night before. I let that not deter me. Better to spend an extra night on the trail than in a town/city or behind a computer screen playing with facebook, right?  So with my pack of about 30 kilos or so I set off from my hostal at about 9:30am or so. I grab the first collectivo (shared car) to where the major northbound road splits so I can take the other up to Taranica, a small pueblo en route to the larger pueblo, called Parihuanca.  Cost = 2 soles… so far doing well.  So I get out at where the road splits and grab another collectivo up to Parihuanca… cost another 2 soles.  Still on the positive end. And this is where I figured I´d take the 10km walk up the access into the high mountains rather than spend the obscene amount of money.   Trust me, when you live down here, $30 can take you far.   And I´m in this for trekking anyhow, right? But no sooner do I get out of the car, the driver offers to take me all the way to Joncopampa for an additional 2 soles.

Ok, here´s a big decision. Do I spend the day walking up the road OR do I spend the 65 cents and take the darn taxi?

Fine, I take the taxi. sigh.

Cost to tourists from Huaraz: 80 soles. Cost for Ken. 6 soles. Experience doing it on your own? Priceless.

So now out of the cab and on my feet.   And I begin to walk… and walk… and walk…

Until I see a spot to do some laundry. Oh yeah, forgot to mention that. I left the hostal wearing my only clean clothes.  So to the lavandaria by the rio I went. 20 minutes later, I made myself a fresh supply of clothes – two more pair of hiking socks, two more underwear, and an extra soccer trekking shirt… that is… assuming the sun does its magic in the afternoon. I tie everything to random straps all over my pack and off I go. But what´s this, a fence?

And behind it – Whoa! Ruins!!!!?  At first I figure they´re Chavin considering we´re essentally in Chavin-land. But no, I find out later via internet they are NOT Chavin, but Wari. Now, if you´ve been paying attention to my blog from the beginning, you´d know who these folks were… and if you don´t, well scroll down, amigos!  I thought the architecture was astounding for a culture who lived here from 900 – 200 BC.  But, learning that these were actually structures from the Wari who reigned more or less from 500 – 1000 AD, I revised my opinion to “nice,” but not as wowed at the moment I saw them.

So before the trek really began I felt thrilled  to have seen a set of ancient ruins when I wasn´t expecting. My first thought was.. why here?  Could have been any number of reasons so I just filed the thought away. But more clues were to come later on – this was the first sign there was something special ahead.

Now, between me and the cleavage was a tract of land not so passable. So I opt back to the main road and continue the roundabout way towards the foreboding valley entrance. En route I meet up with a couple guys just sitting on the side. Their jobs? “Wait here and make sure no trekker comes by. If they do, charge them 5 soles ($2 bucks).” Considering in 3 days I never saw another soul, these guys cleary have tough days. So I pay my 5 and continue.  Its fun to tally… cost now is up to 11 soles.

Now, no one told me where the official path began so i had to sniff it out myself. How hard can it be, right? Shit, there´s a valley… let me go in.  The path will appear. And appear it did. Sort of.

What I learned later was – there´s one main path, but if you wanted to be cool, you could take the low road and pass by all the waterfalls (my route).  But again, I didn´t know this.. to me, this WAS the path. So I start to climb and what´s the first thing that strikes me?  Stairs. STAIRS. Now, I´ve read and learned a ton about all these cultures, and the only one responsible for building-cosntructing amazing staircases through the mountians were the Incas. So hmmmm… the Incas had their hand in this place? You´re probably thinking to yourself, well, why not? This was eventually part of the Inca empire, right? Right. And I´m feeling the same way and I pay no extra extra attention to this fact until I come close to reaching the lake. Hell, I´m just happy they built some steps for me to use.

As usual, I look up at the task ahead. I know I´m at about 3,500 meters, or at least started there at Joncopampa.  The lake sits at 4,800 meters, and the pass at 5,000. I´m just beginning. I´ve heard this before on other treks countless times. At valley must climb over that monster. repeat repeat repeat.  And my initial ascent was really sweet, too.

How can you complain when you pass waterfalls like these?

or this one….

And these trees… I´ve never seen anything likeém. Definitely out of a fantasy novel with their skins of wax paper ish looking, feeling … flakey, stuff.  but as I climb higher, the forrest becomes a little more dense.  And dangerous too. Here I am, supposedly doing high-altitude trekking and I´m nowhere NEAR treeline. In fact, if I´m not mistaken, I´m getting bitten by mosquitos. excuse me? I didn´t bring bugspray, dammit.

What are YOU guys doing

all the way up here.

this is simply

And then it starts to get really hairy. I know each trek offers up some new challenges… but now the trekking´s getting a little weird.  Take this photo for example.. notice anything funny about it? I bet at first blush nothing looks strange… yep, there´s my backpack leaning up against … up against…. say, isn´t that the path just above?  I mean, since when does the path just drop out of existence like that?  Try jumping THAT with a pack on. Naturally I took it off and lowered it to safety and jumped down…. which was still a bit steep even without it on.

And then the dense, low branches presented their own set of difficulties.  I mean, every two minutes… no, LESS than two minutes I had to drop to my knees, contort myself in three directions just to get my pack, with guitar strapped on back with it´s neck protruduing overhead, over, through and around the unforgiving brush. It was maddening. So much so I heard myself screaming in dire frustration. Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!  Jeez, I was never warned about this. Whyyyyyyyyyyy???  But just when I was about to curse everything to hell, I´d turn a bend and see stuff like this:

And then… THEN  i set my eyes upon this, and right then and there, despite still having another hour of energy in me and two hours of sunlight, I knew this was where i was to lay down for the night.  And so I made camp. The noise was a little deafening, but cést la vis´, as they say.

I´d say it was a little slice of heaven.

I then went to work. I gathered some of the largest rocks I could carry from the stream in front of my tent, placed them on my trusty tarp I carry with me in case of inclement weather, and waddled them through the woods to a an open area cliffside overlooking the V shape from where I entered the Valley. I just feel sorry I never took photos of the spot, the spot I made my campfire. Hence, the rocks for surrounding the fire.

And me and my buddy, senior guitar, played for hours by fire before the sunset and then and under a crisply seen universe of stars.  My feeling of contentment was sky high.

The night was different than most in the past… and maybe it was because there was plenty of firewood! I played guitar and sung my heart out to the canyon where no one but the wildlife could hear me. How awesome! (and no one noticed all the flubs)  I didn´t finally call it quits until 10pm… which is about two to three hours after my normal bedtime in these parts.

In the AM i was up at the typical 6am hour or so and out the door by 7. Have to say, the climb from my campsite for about an hour was one of the most incredibly frustrating, painful and tear your hair out adventures. The brush became a thicket. I had to remove my pack no less than anothe 15 times and slide it through open holes, and during the times I was too proud and too determined to let the branches win their little game, I was turned back almost every time. Imagine thinking you can force your way through only to find yourself not only repelled, but tangled, too. And we´re talking a guitar neck also. It seemed like every last appendage to my pack (mattress pad, trekking poles, guitar) was getting snagged.

But at least the scenery was beautiful.

And then… without warning… without any indication my luck could change…. I FOUND THE PATH I SHOULD HAVE BEEN ON ALL ALONG. It only then occurred to me that I was on an auxillary, scenic route. Now it all made sense. For the life of me I just couldn´t figure out why on earth someone would send me on a trek that was this ¨through the bush.¨ So figure maybe two or two and a half hours of struggle… but i did feel better off for the wear

Now the moving was easy. Yes, all uphill, and it would stay that way the entire day…. .but wide, well-defined trail without needing to lower down on all fours was like a weight being lifted. No… it WAS a weight being lifted.

For the next two hours I felt as if I was in hiker´s heaven. No more narrative for now… just photos of my climb through and out of the forrest.


And just like that, the complexion of the trek changed dramatically. Instead of the Emerald Forrest, I was back in high altitude, granite peakville with the dominating skyline of the Akillpo Mountain/Glacier staring at me in teh face for here until the top.  I broke for about a half hour just to catch my breath and to take in all the changes…and pat myself on the back for a morning well done.

So first was a jaunt through your typical rock garden valley of the Andes.

 And here´s a look backward from whence I came….. You can´t even see the forrest any longer.

And then I hit the pampas. The pampas is always fun. Trying to snake your way around these little sunken ponds and around the rivers is always a crapshoot. You never know when you´re gonna snafu yourself in.

And then from here we hang a right hand turn and climb up to the lagoon.

So remember way back when … when I mentioned I had theories about this place? Well, here is when they started to materialize. But, being that I still had grand illusions of crossing over the pass into the beautiful other side, the sight of Tambos only confirmed my belief the Incas were here. Tambos are ¨wayside inns¨or places to rest. And it is no surprise they were sitting just before the rise to the lake and subsequent peaks. Maybe someone arrived at 4pm and couldn´t make the cross before the next day. So these rock huts were their Motel 6. And Tom Bodette left the light on.

 By about 1:30 I reach the crest… my My goal for the day. I´m a little early and a little late… I´m in no man´s land. At 1:30 or 2pm do I begin my reach for the summit and over? What if it takes me 2 hours and then the other side doesn´t look so pleasant for camping? Can I make it down in the darkening hours? No, not a chance. This is NOT the place to be taking chances.

So I unpack my things.. set up camp by a choice spot with the best view and decide what to do next.

Being that its so early, I begin to plan out my next move. Ok, where is this pass. Luciana was clear it could be done so it must be here somewhere. I´m looking, I´m looking, I´m looking….. I barely see a seam or crack…. Just tall, foreboding, towering peaks, some of them an insurmountable 90 degree angled peaks. I scan the line of mountains and just don´t get it. I look for anythting that may resemble a path…. anything at all.

No, nothng from where I was standing. So equipped with my topo map I go on a two hour scouting mission over craggly landscape. One foot then the next. Over heaps of boulders to loose rock with drops of 100 meters or more on either side. This is crazy, I´m thinking. It has to be here, but it´s clearly, clearly not.

By 4pm I´m through. And also resigned. I´ve been fooled. There is no pass over the top and I´m going to have to just reverse course for the very first time in my South American trekking career. Damn damn. I was so disappointed at first.

But it got me to thinking.

If there IS NO pass, then this lake is isolated. No throughway.

And if this lake is isolated, then why did the Incas build elaborate roads to reach it… why did they build Tambos for storage in a place so inaccessible? To build all of this must have taken literally armies of men via Mitae´s (forced labor) and quite a long time. So my conclusion?ç

This place MUST have had significant ceremonial purposes. I bet the Tambos were there for the priests who came either to woreship and/or make sacrifices. This was a place of pilgramage. It is clear otherwise why spend all the effort to build access and storage for a place without inhabitants, without agriculture, without anything but a beautiful lake by an enormous glacier? I´ve done preliminary research on the internet and can find absolutely ZERO on this place. All I can do is imagine.

So anyway, I rustle together my typical dish of quinao, pasta, soup mix, fresh aji (like jalapeno) .. and make enough for three adults and proceed to finish the whole thing. But half way through I realized that I was about to miss the sunset.

Oh no you don´t. Not without me. I didn´t climb all the way up here to miss that.

Stay tuned for more……

Stay Tuned 

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