AMAZON JUNGLE, ECUADOR, 2002
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2002 ON
"EARTH PILGRIM", THE ORIGINAL SACHABIYAN.COM WEBSITE
ar beyond our hectic modern lives, there exists an undiscovered world where people still see and feel things in their purest and most innocent forms. It is a way of experiencing the world that is perhaps as old as human consciousness itself.
When I first heard of this place, I wondered how such a pristine place could possibly still exist. Where the Amazon meets the Ecuadorian Andes, is a place called El Oriente — the dark womb of the earth. This mysterious land was protected for years from explorers and missionaries by impassable mountains. Here, a two-hour plane ride from Puyo, a gateway city to the Amazon, reveals a lush rainforest that still lies undisturbed like an endless green tapestry. Serpentine brown rivers meander through the jungles, forming an intricate network of waterways that feed the Amazon. El Oriente is one of the most bio-diverse zones on the planet, and home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna, most of which have yet to be identified.
Deep in the heart of El Oriente live the Huaorani people, reputed to be the fiercest tribe in the Amazon. They are superb hunters and feared warriors who inhabit a verdant world filled with the sounds of strange creatures. They possess a profound understanding of the plants and animals of their environment, stemming from their total reliance on nature. They revere the jaguar and the anaconda, and speak a language unrelated to any other tribe. Until recently, some Huaorani still used stone axes and maintained a hunter and gatherer lifestyle in their isolated rainforest haven.
The Huaorani have an unequalled reputation as a ferociously independent tribe. They are generally hostile to outside intrusions, and willing to use force to defend their territory. Like so many other indigenous groups around the world whose lands and natural resources have been appropriated by ranchers, miners, corporations, and even nations, the Huaorani have been forced to adapt as best as they can to changing realities. One particular Huaorani clan, the Tagaeri, having retreated deeper into the forest, shuns all contact with the outside world, and are said to kill any intruder on sight. They gained notoriety several years ago for the rude welcome they gave to a group of North American missionaries who were speared to death. Among the world's remaining indigenous groups, they are one of the most isolated from Western civilization.
After a year of research, in 2001, I finally met Carlos Godoy, the man who made my journey into this seemingly impenetrable culture possible. Carlos was an ex-military pilot who ran a small non-profit out of Puyo, the dusty gateway to the Amazon. His company operated a couple of single engine Cessnas, donated by Wings of Hope in St. Louis, mostly to deliver foods, educational and medial supplies to nearby Huaorani tribes. Many of these tribes had been suffering from the repercussions of multi-national oil companies setting up operations in their territory. These conglomerates were destroying not only one of the world's largest biological resources, but also one of its most unique cultural ethnicities.
The rainforest was a source of food and medicine for the Huaoranis, much needed for survival. As Carlos pointed out, "If history has taught us anything, with the intrusion of outsiders, their cycle of life will become disrupted by illness and starvation, which will result in death and ultimately, extinction." Like the rainforest itself, their indigenous inhabitants offer something unique to the world, for they are the repository of an ancient, intimate and all-encompassing understanding of the natural and spiritual world. With the continuing devastation of the rainforest and the disappearance of its original people, humanity is losing valuable encyclopedias for knowing itself. It is as if we are destroying, one by one, the world's oldest and most comprehensive libraries, and the vast wealth of knowledge contained therein.
Technological advances have benefited our society immensely, but they have also created miseries. Most politicians and business people have little concern when it comes to making a profit. Many times when a tree is cut down or blood is spilled, someone is profiting. Sadly, this is the sort of greed that has made it possible for us to live the way we do. As an urban culture with exploding populations, we are moving into new areas and consuming the earth's natural resources at an alarming rate, like a cancer. We are so caught up in the surge of society's progress that very few of us ever question at what expense we are able to maintain our lifestyles.
We have detached ourselves from nature and fabricated the idea that everything in this world has been created solely for our consumption. These ideals are passed down from generation to generation. Without a proper reassessment of our values, the propagation of our destructive, self-centered attitudes will persist, and may eventually hinder the survival of all life on our planet. Indigenous people co-exist with us in a world very different from our own. Their earth is vibrant with life and mystery, and in their ancient wisdom may lie the origin and essence of the entire human race, and perhaps also the key to our salvation.
the rest of their time to feasting, spiritual celebrations, or simply lying in their hammocks telling stories. Meat is a rarity. It can take days for a hunting party to bring back game. Tapir, wild pigs and anteater are the most sought after game, but they also hunt a number of other species, including giant rodents, armadillos, certain snakes, and several varieties of monkey and game birds.
Hunting is the activity that enjoys the most prestige among the tribe's men. In preparation for the hunt, the men paint masks around their eyes using red dyes made from urucu seeds. The mere glimpse of a Huaorani hunter's face through the foliage evokes dread. One day, I followed a Huaorani hunting party as they moved silently through the forest — listening, sniffing, and calling to the animals. The rolling terrain along the banks was barely visible through all the foliage. The forest was dark and quiet except for the rustlings of my feet on the fallen leaves. Sunlight peeked through the dense canopy, providing just enough illumination for me to find my bearings.
Monkeys peered at us as we winded our way deeper into their world. As we came to a clearing, a hunter raised his blowgun and drew a thin arrow from his belt. His senses were focused on a howler monkey perched in a tree. He raised the gun to his lips and blew. One hundred feet overhead, the monkey floundered and fell as the curare poison on the arrow tip took effect. Curare is a muscle-paralyzing substance that kills tree-borne animals without poisoning the meat; it causes them to relax their grip and fall to the ground. The hunter slung the monkey over his shoulder like a handbag and we moved on.
The Huaoranis' senses are attuned to the natural world. They can identify animals hidden in the forest simply by their smell. They can call them, even communicate with them. They have no fear of anything in the jungle, and are able to navigate through its vast labyrinth by their senses alone. My senses, on the other hand, were slow, and I felt intimidated by the sheer immensity of the forest. On several occasions, I stood frozen, unable to react in this unpredictable environment; my heart raced as thoughts of never finding my way out overwhelmed me. There was something viscerally terrifying about being in the jungle alone.
The leader of our party, the high-shaman named Malku, had ingested the sacred Ayahuasca drug extracted from the Banisteriopsis vine, which gave him the power to blend into the jungle. He was immersed in a deep trance, apparently believing he was being guided by the spirit of a jaguar. His movements and instincts were so nimble and spontaneous that he must have appeared invisible to his prey. When he moved, there was no sound. He darted from tree to tree, yet I didn't even notice him. The times when I lost sight of him, I panicked. I would catch him in the corner of one eye, but by the time my eye focused on his spot, he had vanished.
Malku later explained that when taken properly, Ayahuasca has the power to tune a person to the reality of the rainforest, sharpening their senses, and inhibiting body odor through its own smell, so that animals cannot detect anything. The Huaorani and many other Amazon tribes have used it to improve their hunting skills for thousands of years. Much of what the Huaorani understand about health and spirituality is also derived from the use of Ayahuasca.
When we returned to the village, the hunters greeted members of their family with a warm embrace. For the next several hours, families gathered to prepare a feast and to gorge. Gratification was immediate, and the fruits of their labor were enjoyed quickly. Afterwards, everyone congregated around a fire, some squatting on the ground, others lying in low-slung hammocks. People were happy here, unburdened by any unnecessary complications, content with the bare necessities of existence. I often heard laughter as the tribespeople joked and prodded each other. Life was good. Life was simple. I realized that what looked at first like "primitive life" was actually a masterly adaptation to the environment.
ver countless generations, the Huaorani have developed an intimate relationship with their environment. They typically work only two to three days per week on survival tasks, but their diet is always plentiful and healthy. They prefer to dedicate
POLAROID FROM THE JUNGLE, AMAZON, ECUADOR, 2002
No Destination — My Conversation with a Rainforest Shaman
set of beliefs that form a collective worldview that dominates the psychological and physical experience of each member of the tribe. Although most young men aspire to become shamans, very few can withstand the initiation rites. Becoming a shaman is the highest status one can attain in the rainforest — the master of the spirit world. But it comes at a price.
Malku is a legendary shaman, one of the remaining few who reputedly have the ability to shape-shift into animal and plant forms. He was over 95 years old, still a powerful man, a man to fear and respect. Despite his primitive appearance, he had a pure intelligence that burned in his eyes and in the clarity of his thoughts. He had a way of looking at me that opened me up and made me trust him deeply. As dusk approached, he began to speak of the spirits of the forest and what they had revealed to him. In the light of a fire, I listened to the great shaman whose powers were revered far and wide throughout the rainforest.
We spoke for hours through an interpreter, swapping jungle stories for city stories. He stared at me as I spoke of a distant land teeming with cars and factories, a concrete jungle where people spend most of their lives enclosed in cubicles staring at computers, where most people have never seen a monkey or snake, except on television. I spoke of a society where people kill one another for ideals, beliefs and pieces of paper called money, a society where status is measured by wealth and rarely by wisdom.
I told him of a strange place where a mass media controls people's thoughts and dictates their lives, a place where it is rare to marvel at the sky of an evening or morning because of our preoccupation with our hectic lifestyles and our self-inflected anxieties. I described to him a world that produces brilliant scientists, thinkers and artists, and in the same breath, produces ruthless murderers, rapists and tyrants; a world that is capable of so much beauty yet is overrun by so much ugliness.
Malku lay silent in his hammock absorbing my stories with the curiosity of a child, occasionally shaking his head in disbelief. He sat up and stared at me intensely for several minutes, lost in thought. What follows are excerpts of our tape–recorded conversations, translated from Huaorani to Spanish to English as accurately as possible to convey the original meaning.
"Your society considers us as savages," he said, "But who are the real savages? For us, progress does not threaten other life forms or cause potential damage to the earth for future generations. How can that be progress? Yet you think you've progressed and we haven't? Your country may be rich as you describe it but its riches, it seems, are a poison as long as people continue to suffer. It is reprehensible that the gluttony and exploitation of one class of people prevents another from having the basic necessities of survival like food and shelter to which everyone is entitled. I might as well expect birds to fly backwards. The earth doesn't belong to anyone. We are here temporarily, and it is ours to share."
Malku paused and took a deep breath. In his eyes I remarked a profound sadness. His look conveyed more to me than all his translated words. How could I possibly summarize for him the outcome of thousands of years of human thought, endeavor, conflict and suffering without trivializing it? I tried to explain that modern society has chosen technology as its destination at the expense of our humanity. Our society holds our minds captive from birth as we are conditioned to imitate, to conform, thus our lives become routine, mechanical, detached from nature. We are cultivated into exemplary consumers, enjoying luxuries aplenty, yet we become lost in the vapidness of our society.
"You may have a great deal of knowledge about many things," he replied, "But without direction and a respect for nature, in the end, you will destroy yourselves. That is probably the destination you speak of. Direction is not something pre-planned or imposed by anyone; it is something unpredictable, always surprising and forever mysterious. It is the movement of life itself, and it cannot be captured by thought. You say people in your society are becoming lost, disillusioned and have a hunger to find a deeper meaning in their lives, a spiritual awareness. But without a true respect for nature, no matter how much they search, they won't find anything meaningful or enduring.
"It seems, without direction, you have cluttered your lives and invented things to search for as an escape, becoming slaves to your thoughts. In reality, there is nothing to search for at all. There is enough meaning and beauty in life just as it is. Fulfillment comes from being in tune with nature. Do you think that if humans disappeared off the face of the earth that life would stop? Life will continue just the same, marching forward, with or without us.
"In nature, things are as they are — spontaneous, alive, in the moment. It knows nothing of the future, it cares for nothing for the past — things simply exist here and now. If you could understand this simple truth, you would live each moment with a deep trust in life without confusion, without fear. Even in death, there is no destination. When we die, our corpses nourish the soil so that plants may grow and animals and humans may continue to live. Even in death, we follow the movement of life.
"Look around you; everything breathes the fullness of life in the jungle because we do not suffocate anything with our thoughts, our arrogance. We evolved in parallel to you — only our approach has been very, very different. We kill only to survive, and even tribal warfare, which is rare nowadays, is mostly in self-defense. We hold an equal respect for all living things whether it is our children or the trees. The same spirits unite us all. Unlike you, we do not separate the physical with the spiritual world. We inhabit both worlds at the same time. In my mind, there is no separation between dream and reality, and I can move seamlessly between one and the other. It is by going back and forth that I obtain my knowledge."
The shaman lowered his head and closed his eyes. The crackling sound of branches in the dying fire filled the silence between us. I fiddled with my recorder in the darkness and somehow managed to load a new cassette. Malku began speaking of dreams in a hushed tone and seemed cautious with his words. He explained that we create many things in our dreams, yet in our waking reality, we discredit their usefulness and validity simply because we have the rational ability to doubt them. He pointed out that in a dream, we cannot wonder if it is a dream, so things actually appear ultra-realistic — more vivid than in the waking world. This is the only distinction between reality and dream.
"If we stop doubting, we can open our minds to other states of perception and train our senses to enter into other realms, which are as real as our waking world."
In many ways, Malku is like a sensory superman. The extraordinary sensitivity of his sensory system awakens and responds to the phases of the moon, the passage of seasons, and the movements of the planets. He developed his heightened awareness over a lifetime of training. It is a long and terrifying apprenticeship based on the repeated ingestion of hallucinogens, prolonged fasting, and total isolation in the forest to absorb the natural energy required to return to one's natural state. This ritual also prepares the body and the nervous system for the powerful knowledge and expansion of consciousness from the plant teachers.
"In everyday life, the mind creates the impression that we are separate from reality, and prevents us, like a shield, from experiencing the power of the natural world," Malku continued. "Access to truth without preparation could be a shock to the system."
Unable to elude my Western rational ideology, I was naturally skeptical about all this. It has been scientifically proven that prolonged fasting causes one's intelligence to go to sleep, and after a certain point, one's imagination starts to kick in. The brain needs certain vitamins continuously, and if they are not supplied, it often leads to delirium. This, combined with total isolation in the forest can potentially "crack" one's brain, and induce hallucinations that make ordinary things look pale. In addition, with the repeated ingestion of hallucinogens in such an unstable state, the experience is heightened further, and reality becomes, in essence, an altered state of mind.
Unsure whether my translator had conveyed these thoughts accurately to the shaman, I asked, "So in going through this ritual, aren't you in fact creating your own reality?" Malku shot me a bewildered look. "As with dreams," he replied, "In an Ayahuasca induced trip, we do not create our reality; we simply open ourselves up to receive all the information around us. It all comes from the outside world — we just tune in and listen."
"So why not just tune in and listen naturally... without the drug?" I asked.
"The promise of knowledge rests on the other side of a vast, raging river. If we try to swim in the river, we know the current will carry us away. So how do we cross the river?"
"We create a bridge to the other side!"
n most Amazon tribes, the individual, the community and the environment are woven inextricably with a world of spirits. In each community, the shaman mediates between all these forces and keeps them in balance. The shaman and his community share a
Invocation of Spirits
as the sun; and night was ushered in by a horde of strange new voices: the warbling of tree frogs, the chirping of bats and the shrill chorus of insects.
I began rigging my hammock to a pole when Malku's grandson, Luiz, suddenly burst in, telling me excitedly that I was being summoned to Malku's compound across the river. Malku lived beyond the village edge., somewhere between the human community and the natural community that envelopes it. Apparently, the jungle spirits had given him permission to perform a cleansing ceremony on me — a kind of jungle exorcism. Malku would look into my body to see what spirits were troubling it. Depending on what he saw, he would invoke the spirits of the anaconda, monkey, frog and several plant species to balance my energies. As preparation for the cleansing, I avoided eating meat or drinking alcohol (chicha) for the last two days, sticking instead to a strict diet of manioc and rice.
I followed Luiz into a dugout canoe and we headed down the river in darkness. The sky was dotted with countless stars, and even the constellations were visible. A full moon shimmered on the water. I sat wondering how one could describe such beauty without comparing it to something else. Words seemed inadequate. Not even a poet could do it justice. It was simply the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I was humbled. I was absorbed by the intensity of all the strange noises creeping out of the jungle. As we glided through velvety darkness, I was in awe. I became the night.
We arrived at Malku's hut earlier than expected. His son signaled us to enter. Crouched over on a small turtle-shell stool at the center of the hut was Malku, preparing the Ayahuasca brew. Next two him were two children fast asleep, curled up by the fire. As I waited for the ceremony to begin, I became aware of a light — a deep rich amber refulgence — dawning from far away, beyond the partly sealed rim of my weary eyes. It was a cloud of fireflies dancing outside, fluttering in ecstasy, suffusing the night with a surreal glow.
Gradually, shadows began to slide as two women next to me got up to perform a tribal dance. On their arms, painted in black, were the elaborate patterns of the anaconda. The two stomped about wildly in a drunken stupor, calling out in high-pitched voices to the spirits of the night. The whole scene had a very dreamlike quality to it, a kind of magic only the jungle can evoke.
I sat shirtless on a grass mat facing Malku as he finally ingested the divine jungle elixir. Soon his eyes became glazed, and he began to retch. The sight of his placid face and his unblinking eyes in the faint light made me shudder. He muttered something under his breath and slipped into a trance. Days ago, during our hunting expedition, Malku had explained to me that for healing and cleansing ceremonies, he usually has visions of something, which I imagined was akin to a quartz crystal refracting paths of light into all the colors of the spectrum. Along these paths, he encounters his spirit helpers who illuminate his presence and guide him through the journey into the other world.
The shaman knelt down in front of me and began whistling a beautiful incantation. He fanned the contour of my face with dried leaves in a steady rhythmic motion. In the silence of the jungle, the sound of his whistling combined with the fluttering of the leaves was hypnotic. This lasted for several minutes, after which time, I felt numb, drained of energy.
Suddenly, tears streamed down my face. Why was I crying? Was I sad? No. I tried to say something but I was unable to open my mouth. I realized I couldn't even blink. I was a puppet and a spectator at the same time. An elderly woman came by and splashed my head with a jug of cold, perfumed water. Although I was fully awake I felt like I had just awakened again within my wakefulness. Before I could recover from the shock, another woman handed me a cup of Ayahuasca. I drank it without realizing what it was. The bitterness nearly made me choke, and within seconds, I vomited.
arkness in the jungle sneaks up on you silently. Through the opening of my grass hut, I witnessed a rush of vibrant colors: a flash of crimson and magenta, a sudden burst of red, then — blackness! The racket of birds and monkeys died as quickly
POLAROID FROM THE JUNGLE, AMAZON, PERU, 1992
colors. Wild vivid patterns flashed like strobes under my eyelids, morphing into one another, and induced my nausea again. I vomited a second time. I felt extremely light-headed so I lay down on the grass mat thinking I would lose consciousness. Strange convoluted images inundated my head, submerging me deep into a surreal realm.
When I opened my eyes, I was amazed with my night vision. At first, there was an indescribable oddness in the air. After staring at near and far objects, glancing back and forth, I noticed there were subtle changes in perspective. Objects began shimmering, waving about as if they were made of thin plastic and moving to invisible air currents. If I stared at an object, it would freeze then melt into something else entirely. Once I realized what was happening, it would snap back to its original form, start moving, only to freeze again, when I resumed staring at it.
Slowly, the power of the tea began to overtake my senses and I felt like I was falling into a void from which I would be unable to return. If I felt any emotion at all, it was detached terror. I wanted to get out but it was too late. I felt a coldness, like death, creeping over me and lost all body awareness. What followed next is a blur. I extracted as much info as I could from my notes and my interviews with the people present during my trip to reconstruct the experience. I also had to fill in some blanks with fragments of my unreliable memory. So, what you are about to read is an esoteric interpretation of what I probably experienced.
Basically, my mind cracked, and from the fissure sprang forth a reality so powerful that my meager five senses could not decipher anything. My sense of logic and rationality broke down completely. The visual effects reached the height of weirdness and became indescribably intense. A dizzying parade of frightening creatures like bright multi-colored snakes and giant reptilian beings approached me and kept repeating: "Let go, let go." Frogs, spiders, birds and bats also danced in the air above me repeating the same thing.
In my journal, I tried to describe what I felt but most of the words did not stick to logic. In fact, most of it was gibberish. At the time, language seemed inadequate. Perhaps this was because words are not real things. They are symbols. And everything we know is a symbol. All the mystery of reality in our lives is carefully tiled over with words, and we are encased within a linguistic shell of self-made perception. When we get beyond words, beyond logic, we begin to feel our experiences with the undiluted awe of truth, and that cannot be translated. We can talk about it, we can describe the perspectives and actions that usually accompany the experience, but we cannot describe the elusive experience itself. The feeling and the description of the feeling are two completely different things.
All I remember is that my reality as I knew it had fizzled and seemed like a fog. I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond the farthest reaches of my imagination. My mind still refused to accept what was there. In this world, next to these bizarre creatures, I felt tiny, insignificant; and my perception seemed almost one-dimensional. Wherever I looked, at first, everything appeared crystal clear, but as soon as I focused on something, my shadow always crept in, obscuring the details. The truth dangled in front of me like a carrot, juicy and taunting, yet I was unable to grasp it. "Let go, let go," the voices kept repeating. As my frustration mounted, I finally took a deep breath and mustered enough courage to toss aside my presumptions and fears, and abandoned myself completely to the fever of the dream.
The sound of rushing water filled my ears and an ocean of energy suddenly burst forth, dragging me out of the dark gutter of confusion. The world spun around me and I felt a strange togetherness, a perfect sensation of pleasure and truth. Slowly, everything around me became transparent like a shallow mountain stream. Image by image, memories of myself flashed before me at blinding speed, carrying me back in time, reeling me further and further into the past until I found myself once again in an embryonic state, back in my mother's womb. Everything seemed strangely familiar.
I was floating in a liquid sky, weightless. I could not ascertain whether I was dead or had been dead or whether I was awake in a lucid dream. I stared at my tiny hand and entered into it. It was indescribable. I saw a map of fibers consisting of patterns of cells. Cells were magnified as patterns of molecules. Molecules became patterns of atoms, and atoms turned out to be patterns of subatomic particles. All matter looked like a series of patterns within patterns, like a fractal. Deeper and deeper I went until at last, the galaxy itself lay before me.
I stretched through space like an elastic, amid dense fields of luminous particles, searching for the ultimate pattern of the universe... only to discover there wasn't any. All that existed was me — a silly monkey suspended in mid-air, flailing around in the vacuum of space. Fear engulfed me, forcing me to create patterns out of patternless disorder. Soon my erratic movements became a rudimentary dance. Then, it evolved into a beautiful tango: fluid, rhythmic, vibrant — alive, with meaning and purpose! I sank deep into the dance and disappeared amongst the stars in the sky. The last thing I saw was the earth-rise in the distance, crowned by the glorious halo of a sunburst, sparkling with life...
sat for a long time in the silence breathing calmly, listening to the whispers of the river and the forest. Gradually, faint lines and forms began to appear in the darkness and evolved into three-dimensional kaleidoscopic images bursting with deep saturated
The Language of Nature
vomited two more times during the night as a final act of cleansing when I returned to my hut. As the rain began to fall, I was lulled by the patter of raindrops. Even in my dreams I felt awake. By daybreak, my mind felt absolutely light, like a huge weight had
been lifted from my head. A harmonious mind-body balance had been established where my thoughts appeared and disappeared in accordance with a natural rhythm, and only in response to a challenge. There was no clutter, no motivation, no confusion. The usual demand to "know" was absent. My breathing was normal, my heartbeat steady, and my mind clear. It wasn't enlightenment or anything mystic, and there was no bliss, no revelation and no transformation — only an acute sense of being alive. Everything existed in a simple state of grace, uncorrupted by thought. Somehow I felt like a new being, yet unchanged.
The arrogance of all my presumptions became obvious. Our modern approach to reality relies upon waking consciousness as the only way of knowing. I had always accepted my perception, what I could see, hear, touch, taste and smell as gospel and thought I understood everything, but I came to realize that it is, in fact, the least reliable test of what reality really is. We absorb everything around us via our senses and somewhere inside ourselves we actually create the world. All sensory inputs are processed, translated and filtered neurologically, which is how all animals perceive the elements of their environment. A bat, a honeybee, or an octopus all perceive the world uniquely different from us but their reality is no less real than ours.
We never see reality, but only an internal representation of it constructed continuously by our brain. Reality is a by-product of the mind. And since the mind can only deal with ideas, all the mind can ponder are its own ideas about reality. Whether or not an idea is true depends not on how closely it corresponds to the absolute reality, but how it is classified within our own mental library. If we don't have a relational concept or a notion or an idea about something novel, then our brain won't even accept it, and we automatically dismiss it as crazy. That is the problem with rational thought; it restricts our system of belief and makes us cling to a tiny slice of life.
For this reason, I was skeptical about the whole cleansing ceremony and expected it to be nothing more than a superstitious ritual. However, the moment my rationality and logic broke down, a gate in my mind opened, allowing a reality more powerful, more galvanizing than anything I ever imagined to flood in. The waves of truth penetrated deep into my core, washing it with a wordless awe. My emotional connection to this new world was terrifying and intense. It was a world that was beautiful, frightening and transforming, beyond my power to dream, a world that exists right now before our eyes — if only we could see it.
It would be foolish to focus upon Ayahuasca by itself as a healing agent. The hallucinogen is simply a means toward an end, a way in which healing can begin. The shaman acts as a guide who conducts the spirits to the initiate, or rather, the neurotoxins to specific pathways in the brain. Studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) have shown that Ayahuasca activates the frontal cortex, and with careful administration, the areas involved in episodic memory. But ultimately, it is the initiate who must do the work, face his fears and go down the dark hole alone to find the answers. The Ayahuasca acts as the bridge to a realm of knowledge that goes far beyond our reality. The fantastic world to which I was transported is not accessible through the rational mind but through a dream language. Dreams act as doorways that connect us to the power inherent in the natural world.
Some may rightly argue, as I initially did, that this is a reality created through a psychedelic drug so it is false, it is a dream, maybe a sweet or terrifying dream, but a dream nonetheless. It would be futile to attempt to prove or disprove this because, as anything, it is a question of belief. At first, I had difficulty dealing with my experience because it challenged the prevailing worldview, as well as my own. Everything was in radical conflict with the most fundamental assumptions of modern rational science concerning consciousness, human nature, and the nature of reality. But instead of dismissing my experience as a mere psychedelic trip, I delved deeper into the nature of my experience.
I was left with the disquieting knowledge that the speed and coherence of certain sequences of images could not have originated from the cluttered depths of my brain. And it was inconceivable that certain thoughts belonged to me, precisely because of all my presuppositions and my conditioned system of beliefs. This was the most troubling aspect of my whole experience. If I was not the source of this information, where did they come from? My desire to unravel this mystery gave me the motivation I needed to study the biology of Ayahuasca, and to familiarize myself with its basic constituents.
Ayahuasca is not a synthetic drug like LSD; it is a psychoactive cocktail prepared from a combination of plants that grow naturally in the jungle. It contains the active ingredient dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is an endogenous psychedelic, secreted naturally in small quantities by the human brain. It is believed that increased levels of DMT inhibit certain normally controlled and regulated processes within the brain and stimulate what are known as the serotinin receptors, which significantly enhance the reflective and intuitive faculties. Research has shown that DMT is produced heavily during the deepest stages of sleep.
While our society seeks all our truths in laboratories using machines and instruments, for thousands of years, Amazon Indians have journeyed into uncharted territories of the mind to acquire knowledge about the universe. My real question was: what is the source of this knowledge? Is the information created inside the brain as reason tells us, or is it actually picked up from the outside like the shaman claimed? To my amazement, I learned that the images I had seen in my visions were similar to those reported by the natives. I was puzzled. How could I, a person with a totally different cultural background, see what they see? Was it the manifestation of a universal consciousness or archetypes within the human mind?
It is hard to believe that the immense wealth of knowledge the Indians have acquired throughout their history was already stored in their brains, and was simply triggered by an exotic tea. It is unlikely that the human brain has the capacity to store that much raw data. It is even harder to grasp that so many different indigenous cultures from around the world shared the same visions and acquired the same knowledge by the same means without ever coming into contact with one another. According to Malku, the transmissions he perceives originate from something that links us to all living things, which is the source of all his knowledge. The mind is like a radio and the Ayahuasca merely tunes it to the frequency of these transmissions.
The first thing that comes to mind when we think of the common thread of life is DNA. We know that DNA is contained inside our brain as well as in all life. All cell-based life is wired on the basis of the instructions stored in DNA. In four billion years, it has multiplied itself into countless species, while staying exactly the same. It is the blueprint for life. It has been scientifically proven that the global network of DNA based life, the biosphere, emits photons which are low level electromagnetic waves, and there is speculation that these may be perceived in de-focalized states such as in hallucinations and dreams when the specific brain receptors are active.
This is still a gray area in scientific research, and ironically, we may have to rely more upon science, especially in the area of biochemistry and quantum physics, than on conservative religious beliefs for satisfactory explanations of these "spirit-world" experiences. Perhaps DNA is the language of nature Malku was speaking of. Perhaps DMT exists in our brains as the necessary link between our consciousness and the language of DNA. Perhaps indigenous people have known about its existence for millennia. Perhaps the part of humanity that cut itself off from nature discovered its existence in a laboratory only three thousand years later.
eyes, and hair encrusted with mud. A mere month in the rainforest had taken its toll on us. Nearby, a group of Huaorani men were laughing too, probably thinking the same thing.
A turboprop landed on a patch of grass field that served as a landing strip. The entire village emerged from their huts and formed a circle around us. I received hugs and gifts from members of the tribe — a startling contrast to the initial reception when I was greeted with weapons and hostile looks. Malku approached me through the crowd and stared into my eyes, his gaze piercing. I assumed he was going to say something but instead he put his hand on my forehead, closed his eyes and smiled. Then he shook my hand and walked away into the forest without a word. He knew I'd be back.
As we rose above the canopy and penetrated the cloud cover, images of the jungle slowly faded into a light gray mist. All that remained were the precious memories lingering in my mind. I felt a sinking feeling like I was leaving my family. Heading back towards civilization now, my senses were saturated, and it seemed like my whole experience in the jungle had been a dream. It was strange to think that somewhere down there, lost in the vastness of the rainforest, isolated completely from the rest of the world, live a simple people that understand perhaps more about nature and our origins than even the most educated and so-called wisest people in our society.
In the Western imagination, the Amazon Indian still retains the romantic notion of noble, child-like innocent living in an earthly paradise. We often think of the "true" Indian as someone who has never left the jungle, wanders around naked and free, speaks no other language than their own and lives in perfect equilibrium with nature. Perhaps a handful of the most remote tribes still stick to this image, but reality in the rainforest is double-edged. And then there are the oil companies, the gold miners, the rubber barons, the loggers and farmers who portray indigenous people as a bunch of lazy, backward, violent savages that should be tamed and confined to scattered reservations — only as an pretext to perpetuate atrocities against them and colonize their land.
With this constant threat of annihilation, some tribes are left with no choice but to resort to violence to protect their children and their territory. After all, these are human beings with the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, yet often without the same rights, even though their ancestors arrived on their lands a quarter of a million years ago. Whether they dwell in the forest, the mountains or the plains, the indigenous people of the world simply wish to live in harmony with their environment and in peace with the outside world. They are united by their desire to retain control of their own destiny, independent of government or corporate involvement. That is the least they can ask for after centuries of genocide by colonists and opportunists.
There are things in life we learn through experience that shatter everything we were taught, and alter our lives forever. These are not lessons we can anticipate. They teach us that life is not about what happens but how you handle it. Once that lesson hit me, my life split into two distinct paths. I could either sleep through life and focus only on my own selfish needs, or I could awaken to a greater humanity by understanding the injustices and suffering of others in the world. The easy choice would have been to adopt the path of least personal suffering but how could I claim to be human if I didn't even try to feel for another human?
I had already visited several tribal communities in the jungles of South America and Asia prior to this journey, and they too seemed out of place, out of time, with our frenzied pace of technological progress. I have been fortunate to meet many wonderful indigenous people, full of humor, simplistic virtues, warmth and dignity, who have taught me more about myself and the meaning of life than any teacher or guru. I observed them in their timeless rhythm of work and play, of hunting and gardening, feasts and funerals, Strangely, I feel more connected to them than to the people of my own the culture. They all have so little, yet they deserve so much more. It is my sincere hope that my images and words will connect others to this greater humanity, and inspire a feeling of responsibility towards our environment and our native cultures so that we may all share a common destiny. ▪️
s the morning mist cleared, Carlos and I sat on our luggage waiting for our aircraft to arrive. We glanced at each other and began to laugh. We looked like a couple of jungle derelicts in filthy clothes, scruffy beards, hands and faces swollen, puffy red
AMAZON JUNGLE, ECUADOR, 2001
ride became increasingly bumpy but I didn't notice. I was too engrossed with the beauty below. An ominous silence suddenly filled our cabin. When I looked up, without warning, a dark wall of thunderclouds loomed before us.
We entered into the turbulence with hushed anticipation. Visibility was practically nil, and the hammering of the rain against the fuselage became deafening. It felt like we were submerged underwater. Our little plane bounced around in the darkness like a toy, the propeller fighting to pierce the turbulence. I clutched my seat, terrified, as we began to lose our sense of direction. As the world spun about me, I realized that our journey to the rainforest might end in disaster at any moment.
Sweat streamed down the pilot's brow as he fought to control the erratic movements of the plane. Our eyes strained to see the forest below or any sign of light. Finally, after an anxious eternity, the sun sliced through the clouds, and the pilot released a deep sigh of relief. Like a dream, the forest reappeared through the mist. Amidst all the foliage, a brownish clearing poked out, revealing a settlement of grass huts. When we landed on the rough grass field in the heart of the Amazon, I felt like kissing the earth.
The propeller sputtered to a standstill. I was engulfed by the sounds of the jungle. On the airfield were the Huaorani men, watching us intently. Their bodies were completely naked except for a piece of string around their waists that secured their penises upright against their bellies. Some had blowguns in their hands, while others had clubs, spears and axes. Bare-breasted women were sitting on their grass skirts a little further away next to their homes. This sight took me back a thousand years. I had arrived into a virgin world; a world suspended in time where the past, present and future merged, and obeyed the natural rhythm of the jungle.
Carlos greeted members of the tribe with a warm embrace, and assured them I wasn't one of "them", meaning I wasn't affiliated with any oil, gold mining or rubber company. Still, they eyed me suspiciously for several minutes, pointing to my camera gear repeatedly. After much discussion, one of the elder tribesmen leaned in to examine me. He seemed fascinated by my tripod, and studied it from every angle, tapping on it, opening and closing the legs, unsure of what to make of the strange contraption. I smiled. It was the meeting of two alien cultures. To them, I must have seemed like a traveler from the future with this fancy, shiny equipment. Soon I had a circle of curious naked children around me, too. Some were brave enough to touch me then scurry away giggling through the tall grass.
Carlos informed me that we would be camping at another riverside village that had even less contact with the outside world, and was supposedly more "primitive". We gathered our belongings, waved goodbye to the pilot, then headed into the jungle, guided by two Huaorani warriors. We walked for what seemed like hours, across two rivers, towards the next settlement. My head felt full of smoke, and lethargic from the deep humidity. The dark air was humming, popping, and teeming with insects; and already, I was dreaming of the simple things I took for granted back home: a bed, a shower, clean clothes. Along the way, one of our guides whipped out his machete to kill a poisonous snake slithering next to us. And he laughed about it.
In any expedition like this, where survival is the prime objective, there are always five goals to keep in mind: water and food; shelter; fire; signaling; and first aid. One can prepare for these things, but not the physical and mental challenges, which are unique to each journey. I would spend the next twenty eight days and nights in a completely unpredictable environment, camping out in the forest, being soaked by constant tropical rains, bitten by countless insects, and unknowingly bathing in a river festering with piranhas.
Here, far from any city or town, the loudest noise was the screeching of monkeys, and the brightest lights at night were the iridescent fireflies. It wasn't unusual to see several kinds of monkeys like spider monkeys, howler monkeys and pygmy monkeys go scampering by in front of me. Nor was it out of the ordinary to see the most vibrantly colored macaws and butterflies swoop down right in front of my face. It was also common to feel giant beetles and other exotic insects crawling up my body at night while I slept. Nighttime was party time for creepy crawlers.
To get the most out of my experience, I lived with the Huaorani not as an outsider but as one of them, embracing their customs, their beliefs, and even their food. Hunting and feasting are important aspects of the Huaorani culture so I had no choice but to abandon my psychological barriers, and to adopt their high protein jungle diet. Slowly, my taste buds grew accustomed to the unusual variety of flavors offered on the jungle menu: lightly charred and faintly rotten monkey, boiled capivara, grilled tapir and roasted armadillo, and their version of chicha — manioc that had been chewed, spat into a bowl, and left to ferment into an alcoholic beverage.
For four weeks, I pushed my body beyond its limit with intense physical workouts, lack of sleep and an irregular diet. Towards the end, my muscles were aching for a break, and even regular shots of Ibuprofen were no longer effective. At first, I was not adapting well to the stresses. I even considered cutting the trip short. But slowly, as I gained a better understanding and respect for my environment, I realized that in spite of the hardships, internally, I was establishing very concrete connections.
For me, spirituality is a byproduct of experience not doctrine. And such experiences cannot be taught or explained. It is therefore meaningless for me to discuss the impact of this journey on my own spirituality or to give opinions about the connections I made. In our journey through life, we gather knowledge from many life events, and it is up to us to do what we want with it. We draw our own conclusions, make our own choices, shape our own lives, and perceive the world through our own filters.
I've always imagined a person as a vessel of experiences, heading into a vast sea of uncertainty. Without a map, without a guide, many fear the unknown, and limit their experiences to the illusion of security and comfort. Others learn to trust life, moving with it through the darkness and the storms, finding thrill in the unknown, and allowing life to naturally find its own course. For them, each step through the darkness is a discovery, an inner discovery. And in these discoveries lie dormant a powerful awareness.
n the equatorial Amazon, a dream can turn into a nightmare in a split second. We left Puyo around noon, aboard an ancient single-engine turbo-prop. It was a clear day, and the horizon was green as far as my eyes could see. Halfway through the flight, the
POLAROIDS FROM THE JUNGLE, AMAZON, ECUADOR, 2001
some energy. It was overwhelming. Dawn's early light turned the high clouds into swaths of burnt orange and flaming red. Slowly, the sun rose through the branches and blinded me with a pristine light.
All the children and young people of the village were already in the river for their morning bath. They were jumping, diving about in a frenzy of splashing bodies and laughter. Some youngsters rolled around in the muddy bank, covering their entire bodies with brownish clay. Nearby, others leapt into the water from high branches on the trees. Amid the chaos, a mother sat quietly by the water's edge washing her baby. It was a captivating scene that returned me to fleeting dreams of my own childhood.
To be connected to the river and to the earth in such a primal, intimate way is ultimately to have a profound respect for nature. The Huaorani do not consider nature as a commodity. Instead, it is embraced as a source of life, a teacher that communicates with them through a subtle, delicate language. Nature represents the totality of their existence from which they are inseparable. Their worldview is synonymous with the rainforest itself. Unlike us, they know where everything in their life originates. Everything has a meaning. I didn't even know where my soap came from.
I stood in the river in a daze, my mind flooded with a barrage of strange, if not impossible thoughts. I began to believe in ideas that were not acceptable from a rational point of view. Things I would have considered absurd just a few days earlier suddenly seemed plausible. I wondered whether nature really was animated by some kind of intelligence that could communicate with us. Why not? How can nature not be conscious if our own consciousness was created by nature? Perhaps if modern man had not separated himself from nature, and had his sensory system remained in tune with it, he too could have communicated with it.
Unfortunately, our society's status quo has a firm grip on us, immobilizing us with our egos, and undermining our interaction with nature. In all the big cities, people exist in their own little concrete shells, constantly preoccupied with the pursuit of personal pleasures. This virtual reality we have created for ourselves breeds arrogance and our belief of superiority over all living things. It has provided us with the license to dominate and subjugate nature for our own comforts. The continuing destruction of the rainforest is a glaring testimony to this, and directly or indirectly, we are all responsible for it.
The Amazon contains more unique species of plants and animals than any other patch of land the world. Every year, thousands of species are lost before they are ever identified. Each species is irreplaceable, and contributed a vital part to the balance of the earth's fragile eco-systems. Perhaps even more distressing is the fact that the indigenous people who are caught in the middle often suffer the most damage. They become alienated from their traditional way of life, and are confronted with a destruction of resources, alcoholism and prostitution.
As I watched these children — the next generation of Amazon Indians — splashing about in the murky river, I couldn't help but wonder about their future.
n my first morning in the jungle, I woke up at dawn to bathe in the river. As I made my way down a muddy bank, I became aware that every inch of the forest was alive; and the closer I looked, the more life I saw. Everything was animated with
POLAROID FROM THE JUNGLE, AMAZON, ECUADOR, 2001