Friday, November 04, 2011


“Do you all want to try Ayahuasca?”—in Pascual’s proposition there was no sign of taboo. After a week in the jungle we now felt integrated into the family. We knew the character of each and every child. We knew that Manolo was rowdy and daring, and kept hoping for a smile out of MARCELLI who seemed not to have found in her three years of existence a reason to show facial expressions. We had a special connection with Cristian who had confided in us his reservations about studying in the city, and afterwards had taught us how much he knew about the jungle (we, in an unfair trade, taught him how to play chinchon). We had towering vines cut by machete in order to accept the internal wáter that flows through them, swum in their rivers, and tried all their manjar, accompanying them even in the peculiar banquet of sampling ayangos, giant red ants ingested alive after taking off their wings. In this context the invitation was offered.

We haven’t entered the jungle in search of ayahuasca, but we have seen it. According to Pascual the concoction is a vital part of the Shuar culture. The plant communicates a vision to them that can be about the past, present, or future. Not only adult men take it but also women and children. “When one is little it is possible to have a vision that he or she will live 80 or 100 years or have to kill a man or go to war.”

The jungle is that which gives food to the Shuar and provides them with materials for their huts and canoes. It’s logical as well that the jungle, reconfigured behind the mask of ayahuasca, that guides them in that ritual journey of introspection. They have wandered in the jungle for millennia to come across this hidden compass, the heavenly vine, as its etymology suggests. All of this reveals a know-how, a symbolic domestication and practicality of nature.

 The scheduled night we walked barefoot in the mud-as always- to the family kitchen. When we entered we saw Pascual waiting on us with a serene pose next to the ayahuasca that with much love he had worked on all afternoon. First, he had chosen very carefully the vines. He had cut them in equal parts and next, with his machete, had scraped off the mosses that were adhered to the bark. In order to avoid a “bad dream,” he had imitated his ancestors and wrapped very carefully the green residue and returned them to the jungle. With a large stone he grinded each little trunk, adding a dosage of a leaf of yiaji to each crushed up trunk. In the perpetual fire at the center of the hut he had boiled the potion, surrounded by curious little chickens and his dogs until he obtained a dense syrup.

An inoffensive marmalade. It was this that the amber concentrate seemed when Laura and I accepted our cups. She and I were arriving to this common crossroad of destiny from completely different routes. During her pre-trip life Laura had had an attitude of rejection towards any substance that promised to distort in any way her consciousness. Perhaps the double morale of our contradictory society had worked its way into her, a double standard that breaths a relaxed atmosphere of harmful drugs like alcohol and tobacco but catalogues as “dangerous” these substances that are less functional for the production line. Honestly, her impermeability towards any type of temptation had always surprised me. However, it seemed to me that she maintained these barriers because of pride for which her curiosity showed.

Mi case was different. I had never traveled for the hunt of “altered states of consciousness,” but I had tried them out with a collector’s intrigue, with the same ritual inquiry I have when I expose myself to new cultures, languages, and places. I had never pilgrimaged to Catamarca in search of San Pedro that whispers the meaning of my life nor had I spent more than an afternoon in the coffee shops of Amsterdam or Christina. I met many travelers on mystical journeys who traveled all of Latin America with expectations to have magical encounters with some mushroom or plant. Aside from a few exceptional cases, these cases seemed to me a marathon-like catharsis with the urban saturation as a point of refuge. They are valid escapes-but escapes in the end-made by a miserable soul used to moving through the subways and the working around schedules. I had abandoned very early in life that world, with two foundational addictions as my first-time gear: poetry and the road. Perhaps because of having this lifestyle that I had always dreamed—constant travel—I never felt any urgency to dig out secret pockets of the soul in search of other senses. I had had mystical experiences with acids in India and I can say I learned from them, but I wasn’t waiting around for them, but better said had stumbled upon them through opportune invitations.

Now the case was the same. I had stumbled upon ayahuasca and I accepted it calmly. Next to me was Laura in a fix. The stories of “enlightenment” and heightened understanding that we had both heard about were striking to her, but the stories recounted to us about travelers vomiting and defecating themselves upon drinking the concoction instilled fear in her. Perhaps what we shared in common about ayahuasca was that we didn’t expect it to be a delivery of clarity given the uncertainty of our lives.

When Pascual put the cup before me I drank it with respect, following the practiced taught to me by the Russians in order to chug any given drink: exhale all the air and drink the liquid with the instinct of breathing demanded by the lungs. When the cup reached Laura, she was about to reject it. I suppose that Jimena’s, Pascual’s fourteen year old daughter, presence encouraged Laura to drink. In the middle of the Amazon, the brave Laura was putting her consciousness into the hands of a vine.

For a half an hour, both of us felt a certain abdominal discomfort. Pascual watched us quietly as if he were a stone guardian with peace ambushed on his face, almost abstract. Around the light bulb night butterflies fluttered in a fury. Then came the moment that Pascual suggested we return to the house we were staying at in the village. On the way wack, the mud felt morbid, immaterial. Laura vomited on the way. Next to each other inside our tent set up inside the cabin, we both let ourselves go with the plant. I’m not going to talk here about Laura’s visions (see her blog), and I’m afraid that my own are of little inspiration and not so exciting.

As always, I kept my pen and notebook at hand (once in Laos, an involuntary combination of antimalarial medicine and marijuana made me write a kilometric poem). The colors and geometric patterns began to parade around my closed eyelids. In addition, in the old Indochina, an experienced Frenchman swore to me that ayahuasca submerged itself into a person without piety in the depths of miseries. I believed I maintained a level of acceptable coherence in my life and I left the plant to be the judge. Think about my mistakes, I supposed I could be judged based on my exaggerated love of the road, for having left behind my studies, for being almost a stranger to my nieces and nephews (whose birthdays I sometimes remember), for taking my stories and the social journey as sacred.

But such a judgment never came. Geometric figures, snakes, masks that seemed to be molded in African ebony appeared and dissolved. Fractal outlines, multiples of themselves. Among all this picturesque carnival I managed to see cursive letters drawn in the void. Later, I saw the cover of my own book, Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil. Suddenly, a map of South America appeared next to it, and it was being filled with cursive writing that was now more intense and fierce. In those days I had certain minor dilemmas about how to fit all the realities and challenges of such an extensive continent. Latin America, for me, was infinite, and we were too curious for our own good wandering around this region. I felt then that the plant was advising me to limit the next book to South America in order to give more protagonism to each story and each struggle.

Speaking of struggles, soon after surged a sequence that both Laura and I shared. In a painting, the Shuar were coming out of the bushes of the jungle waving their spears and blowpipes, closing in files against the threat of mining companies. Their faces looked painted as if in signal of war and they adorned themselves with feathers. Among them, to my greatest surprise, was I, also holding a spear (then I remembered that Florentino, another Shuar, had given me the nickname Nanki, or “spear”). In the background the phrase “You’ll never convince us” resonated.

Those two visions were the clearest. During the four hours that the effect lasted, neither of us lost lucidity. At most we were slightly dazed. In the morning I asked Pascual if maybe I had had a lower dosage than Laura. He responded to me what I had already suspected: the plant chooses, if there were no more visions it was because I didn’t need them.

The human mind is like an onion with different levels of consciousness, an infinity of internal folds. For a system that values the dog-like attention of the individual to the orders of a boss, substances like ayahuasca or marijuana can implicate a threat to this system´s foundation. The alteration of consciousness is produced, and at much more embarrassing and pernicious levels, during the excess of alcohol, a venerated and promoted state from the age of fifteen and up. But it is accepted because it permits a letting-go of tension and anxiety generated by consumerism and because of that contributes to its continuity. When the alteration of consciousness, in turn, is accompanied by dangerous learning that may challenge or contest the established order, then we work for the imposition of discredited labels. It doesn’t matter what the manuals of the efficient contributor to society say, the plant has earned itself a spot in the world. It has been officially declared Cultural Patrimony of Peru, and it is used by some psychiatrists to treat phobias. I interpret the disinterested offering of the Shuar and a petition for alliance given their problems (thus the vision of the spear).

If you, the unknown reader, are considering the option of going off to the jungle in search of the wisdom of this plant, don’t forget that you will be using for your benefit an element of its culture. Your ethic will tell you until what point you deserve to indulge in these fruits without knowing the strength of the roots. The Amazon is, to use chess terms, in check, and it is much more than ayahuasca: it is depredation, mining companies, and multinational oil companies. You can see here our humble attempt of giving back to our Shuar friends. Happy travels!

Saturday, September 24, 2011


TRANSLATED by Eric Blair

We were getting close to Tsunki, a Shuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. When we had everything under control, one of the passengers in the canoe told us that Pascual Yampis, our local contact, had left for Macas. We feared that the rest of the community would be hostile or unfriendly towards our visit. When the canoe finally arrived in Tsunki we were exhausted and we didn’t even know if we would be well-received. However, by only mentioning Pascual, his wife, Rosana, came up to the precarious dock and gave us our welcoming. We climbed the stairs carved out of mud and with timidity took cover behind Rosana and her children, among other locals who looked at us perplexedly.

A wooden cabin separated from the ground by some wooden boards was assigned to us. Inside we set up our tent to protect us from the various insects of unpredictable size. I noticed that on top of each cabin there were solar panels. Other dwellings in the community were simply huts thatched with straw in the traditional style. Later, we would learn that they were not homes but kitchens. In the middle of everything a wide open space served as a soccer field. We fell in exhaustion on top of the sleeping bags and deeply slept for three hours, lulled by an amazon diluvium, until we were called to dinner.

In the famliy kitchen we were invited to dinner, seated at a school bench serving as a table, in an area separated from the kitchen by a partition formed by some planks between which the fire’s smoke was filtered. One of the little girls put two plantain leaves in front of us which wrapped up a ration of chicken with sliced up hearts of palm, a typical dish known as ayampaco.

Afterwards –just as I feared- we succumbed to the chicha ….. The preparation of chicha, made from boiled yuca, is a task delegated to the women, who spit the chicha into a pot so that human bacteria can make the yuca ferment. Slowly, the drink develops a higher alcohol content. The final concoction is served in a cup made from “pilche,” a native fruit. I had learned to fear that yellow hemisphere filled with sour liquid. But I had to accept it in order not to offend our hosts. Laura can certify that is is very difficult to find something I’m not willing to consume:  I used to consider myself an ostriche, and here I am completely defeated by the laws of the jungle. In this context I formulated a theory about the existence of an individual palate and another that is cultural and collective. And in this collective palate of the Shuar yuca is praised instead of forgiven; therefore, it is the staple tuber of Amazon villages, and assumes the role of the potato and corn of the Andean world or of wheat in Europe.

After dinner we asked for permission to go into the humble kitchen. Until then they were tending to us as if we were ambassadors –and maybe we were, from another culture- but sooner or later we wanted to break that barrier and to share space. A fire was burning in the middle of the room. The pots and cooking utensils were situated on top of a wooden table, while changinas, sugar cane baskets used by the women for collecting on the farm, were hung from the ceiling. On another table some of Pascual’s eight children sat side-by-side. There were so many children that we never got to see them all together, quiet and in the same place. We still didn’t know we would fall in love with this family. At that time the children still looked at us with a mixture of respect and fear. The first name that we memorized was Manolo’s, maybe because he was always monkeying around, dancing, or running to us wih capturaed cicadas in his little hands.

 We went back to the cabin somewhat let down because we didn’t get to have a table chat with Rosana. Five minutes later, she entered out of nowhere, sat down on the floor, and, as she breast fed her baby, began to talk to us about her life. She was 34 years old and had had nine children, one of which died from a vomiting complication. Just to reach a doctor requires a two-hour canoe ride and then a small plane to Macas. She speaks with a serenity that doesn’t omit her fortitude. She pauses after every word. The Shuar speak Spanish whimsically and with ever-changing grammar. Nevertheless, they are masters of a language just as exuberant as the jungle whose words name trees, seeds, forces, and spirits. More than just a language, it is a cosmogony. Rosana explains that each of her children possesses a Hispanic name and a parallel one from the Shuar. Cristian, the oldest of sixteen years, is Arutam (the supreme spirit of life), while Henry is Itti (wasp). She proudly clears up that all of her children are baptized, but when Laura asks if they maintain their beliefs she belts out like a geyser a mighty YES. In Egypt I went to Mount Sinai and the desert environment where the Judeo-Christian god spoke to Moses. In comparison just imagine the religion that the Amazon jungle may have dictated to man.

Our first encounter with that jungle occurred the following day. Cristian solemnly offered to go with us to a waterfall. It would be silly to think you could keep up with someone who has walked in this jungle since his first steps. The Shuar adolescents have very toned and robust bodies and are efficient receptors of the hunter and warrior legacy of their race. Each three or four steps Cristian tells us the name of a fruit or a tree. Just like a wave of a magic wand he makes once unknown objects shine upon the fabric of our urban ignorance. Over there is the pitchfork, and we learn that it wasn’t straw used to thatch the dwellings but instead a type of palm. There is also a plant from which they extract a poison used when fishing. A few more steps and…”You all wanna eat hearts of palm?” Cristian steps away about ten paces and with his machete begins to chop a palm tree. He returns with a cylinder the size of a bazooka, a great surprise for us who are used to small canned ones from the supermarket. After a while, with the manners that characterize him, he asks: “Would you like to try grapefruit?” With one swing of the machete it falls, with another he cuts a small piece and then offers to Laura: “Take this, ma’am.”

The journey to the waterfall isn’t simple. Sometimes we had to climb just by holding onto roots and lianas and cross fallen and mossy trees used as bridges. Cristian notices our difficulty and makes us two walking sticks made of sugar cane. He anticipates the road. He walks ahead of us and takes out all the low-lying branches. Some of his machete swings are absolutely necessary to create a path and to counterattack the slow and growing bite of the jungle. At regular intervals, other swings from his machete end up jammed in hard trees that he would never be able to take down:  through them Cristian establishes a dialogue with the jungle, perhaps even expresses his affection for them. .

Finally, we arrive to the waterfall. It’s not huge, but it creates a beautiful watering hole for swimming. I let the vertical torrent wash over my head, at least for a second. The light is magical. Before diving into the water Cristian crosses himself, executing a premeditated act of syncretism. In Shuar thought waterfalls are sacred. The Shuar men only go to some of them during periods of fasting and “with a mission,” as Cristian designates to the occasion of drinking ayahuasca. Just before he puts his foot in the water Cristian announces that the water frequently inhabits a boa. When he sees our reaction he clarifies: “It’s not a real boa. It’s the spirit of a boa.” All of this talk concerning being devoured and the essence of the creatures of the jungle is something typical of the Shuar. The jungle gives us armor, not only with mud and sweat but with its legends. Our urban world, when evoked (with difficulty) from the symbolic bushes of the jungle, is a fictional narrowness, which likely projects no shadows or influences. From below, above, and all around she is resounding. Beyond each specie it is a supportive conglomerate that contemplates the scorpion, his venom, and the exact antidote hidden in the bark of the right tree. The Shuar know about the relationships between all the entities of the forest. They are served by these relationships. They name them in myths and songs. And they die in them..

“We don’t need to go shopping. The jungle gives us everything. We live free here,” explains a proud Cristian. Some might see the Shuar as a relegated Amazon people that abandoned the loincloth just a few decades ago. In my opinion, however, they make up a sovereign community from their environment. There is no division of labor here. Each person knows how to fish, hunt, and cure, and could parachute into any other sector of the jungle and, like a seed, could reproduce each aspect of the culture. In comparison, a city kid is an inept addict to videogames. And because of this I fear the moment when the mining and logging companies contaminate their environment, forcing them to move to the city when they can no longer hunt their huanta or armadillo and are made to be common workers in a building under construction. Furiously and with powerlessness I am reminded of the Ayoreos that I met outside of Santa Cruz de la Sierra who were once great hunters but now weave cell phone cases or panhandle in the streets.

We went back to Tsunki. Under each step of our boots the texture of the jungle, woven in a language of light and chlorophyll, crunches. It has only been a three-hour hike, but only now do I start to feel convinced –and not only theoretically- that the defense of indigenous cultures must not be understood as a behavior based upon altruism or backing them into a corner of anthropological rarities, but as a horizontal line, a barricade resistance, together with the ancestral wisdoms of the planet, together with the few who can educate us about respect towards the land.

Thursday, September 01, 2011



Far away from the Santa Cruz de la Sierra downtown, where glamorous cambas show off their lifestyle in Bolivia's cutting edge city and economic capital, other people -mainly internal migrants- make a living off recyling. 

Cooperativism again is the key for success. Cooperativa La Estrella has direct contacts with the factories they sell cardboard and plastic to. In this way they avoid intermediares. 

Most people ignore where all the boxes and catchy packing of the items they consume go to. Consumism has its other ending in the recycling system. In this way a taboo and double morale is born: what is desirable in the shops turns into something worthy of shame in the dumpsite. We don't like to see the eventual resutls of our lifestyles.

Postcards of a dumpsite. We were glad to have been able to document the alternative realities of a moodern cities like Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

Monday, August 29, 2011


As we hitch-hike around the world we visit schools in oder to share stories of cultural exchange and hospitality. (Learn how to support the project here) In the Paraguayan Chaco we visited school "Nuevo Amanecer". The school is attended by children from seven different nationalities: churupíes, nivaclé, angaité, paraguayans and even some poor German Mennonites.

We then headed to Mariscal Estigarribia, where we also visited schools "Nuestra Señora del Chaco". Above you can see the headmaster preparing a traditional dress for the Bicentenary celebrations.

Different aspects of Mariscal Estigarribia. Above: the militar quarter. Below: Nivaclé natives.


 Our experience in the Paraguayan Mennonite Chaco, quite surprised to find a Hindenburg Avenue in the middle of the harsh enviroment... In the picture, the "Cooperativa". If you are German, then you can become a member. If you are not a member, forget about healthcare, education, etc..

The main city in the area is Filadelfia (German name: Fernheim). Note the traditional architecture. It doesn`t look at all like the rest of Paraguay. 

Special paths for bikes, another Germanic innovation in a country doomed by traffic chaos..

People in Filadelfia were celebrating Eastern behind closed doors. A Christian celebration meant to share evolved into a very private event here. So we just hit the road and hitched a lift, decided to explore the network of Mennonite villages around Filadelfia. We would accept all rides. And that's how we got to know Martha and her family.  Martha is a social worker from neighboring Heimstatte. We stayed at her place for three, visited their lands and cattle. We were really surprised at Martha's awareness of issue like single mothers. She was quite a revolutionary lady considereing her enviroment, always encouraging her community to create fair links with Paraguaya society.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


“I would invite you to stay at home, but I am poor" – had been Asuncion's statement. The woman on her fifties had met us on board the Luz María. She had presented us fruits as a way to spark conversation. So we stayed over overnight in the ship and on the following morning we visited her just to drink some tereré. Invariably we were invited to stay a few days. The family was really poor, and lived in an unfinished house with a large garden sprinkled with trash. For us it was however the chance to explore everyday life of a Paraguayn family. Asunción introduced us her daughters, persistent enought to pay for university by selling empanadas in the street. 

Charge your cellphone credit!

Eastern had arrived, and Asunción didn't stop cooking chipá, and never hesitated to offer the best they had. One night there was a terrible storm, so we all moved to the only beedroom in the house whose roof didn't leak. Sheltered by their hospitality we realized again how humble people with leaks in their roofs can be more human than those who decorate their palaces with cristal from Murano...


After visiting remote areas of rural San Pedro Departmen Laura and I headed to Paraguay River, where we embarked on a lazy journey up the river on board the Luz María, an old wooden boat. The Luz María was commanded by Mr. Jacquier, an 80 year old kind man who had spent 50 years of his life sailing up and down the same river. He lived, worked, dreamt and breathed the river... He was proud of the Alfa Romeo engine that propelled us, which didn't deterred butterflies from caressing its carcass as it kindly advanced...


After witnessing a scenic sunset we stayed overnight in the Luz María, before setting foot in the city of Concepción.


Fighting transgenic seeds is just the first part. Tesai Reka has gone beyond and created CEI (Centro de Educación Integral) where students receive agroecological education. The school has 30 acres of its own property.

We shared our views in a debate group formed by community radio activists, complaining recent laws limiting their power range and possibility to cashing advertisment. We were surprised to learn that university students traditionally don't get involved in social struggles sustained by oher sectors of society.


Isn’t this butterfly beautiful? Considering travel to South America? Be welcome, but also note there are social problems beyond the beauty of ruins and landscapes. Paraguay is a country where 46% of population lives below the line of poverty and 60% have no access to the health system. In this context it’s paradoxical to see Colorado party politicians complaining that the government of Lugo and social organizations hadn’t been able to heal in three years the poverty they themselves contributed to establish in the previous sixty.  

Luckily for Paraguay, there are people striving to change this scenario. In San Estanislao we met the people of Tesai Reka (the search for health, in Guaraní) a foundation who has been working for over 13 years in order to bring tools and primary health attention to rural areas, empowering communities. 

We stayed for nearly a week in their base at Punta Suerte, taking it as a basis to visit surrounding communities. In that way we met Ña Juana, this lady as lovely as commited with the social struggles of its people. She is trying to organize rural women into a cooperative to produce poultry.

In San Pedro Department land is concentrated in few hands. Land Reform has never reached humble farmers, while other own as much as 50,000 acres. Ña Juana tells us that in Cururubó, landless farmers managed to “recover” 1.004 acres of land from one large cattle ranch. Police force tried to withdraw them seven times they finally settled. When Brazilian farmers occupied recently 800,000 of state owned land to produce soy they were tacitly welcomed and forgiven since their massive agroindustrial activities are perceived as improvements for the land.

Farmers teach us how to chuck corn by using our thumbs as we talk and butterflies fly around, as if they were absorbing the pain and healing the wounds of Paraguayan history.

This is Piña Poity rural women’s league.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Tapiabiru is an old Guarani expression that translates as the search for the land without evil. Every men should once in his life attempt a pilgrimage to find –within himself- this revelation. As we set to hitch-hike across Paraguay we wonder if we are not ourselves trusting to find this tranquillity and kindness in present day Paraguay. In the picture, one of the two ambulances that gave us a ride in a single week!

Paraguay is a country full of contrasts. Horse drawn karts and Mercedes are frequently spotted side by side.

Fancy some chipa?


And if a turtle is not enough for you, then stop a Beetle! We got this unique ride in a VW Beetle owned by Graciela, a 50 year old lady, student of Politic Science and hard rocker! For the way the engine trembled we thought of the car as a Herbie with Parkinson, while Graciela preferred to say her car was a special version featuring vibrator!


We ended the Hjek staying with Alberto and Hilda, owners of a despensa (shop). We also asked them were to camp. And nobody in Paraguay is mean enough to let you on your own!! Drinking tereré, watching butterflies flying by and learning Guarani from their 8 year old boy…. Those are the moment when you feel traversed by a culture, as the combined warmth of people and climate hits your chest as the bass of a drum.