Saturday, August 24, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Seating Ayahuasca at the Cannibal Banquet of the Soul (5.2)

This is the Amazon. One has to expect hardships when coming to the jungle, and one must live with the results of ones adventure-seeking knowing one took a chance. People come here looking for the new and perhaps even some kind of spiritual enlightenment, something different from the daily grind back in the city at the sterile office under fluorescent lights, home for the evening in the leafy suburbs for dinner from a microwave oven. Back home it's muggers and car accidents and heart attacks. Here, one can easily lose a leg in a matter of days from an infected scratch got on a walk from path to the pond. Life in the jungle ain't free. Folks get eaten alive in this land.

What has to be the ironic coincidence of my season was sitting down last evening to watch a minute of television with my friend John, he getting a major kick out of Peruvian kiddie cartoons and crude, locally made slapstick shows. John was watching a movie, some poor excuse to show off young bodies on a beach, girls topless at every opportunity, a movie called Piranha. In the movie lots of young men and women are eaten up by fish. My buddy Lucho lost a pad from his right forefinger when a piranha flipped into his boat one day recently. Killer fish. I liked the movie. I thought it was pretty hilarious, especially so because I had just been looking at photos of Peter Gorman's leg. Since some leg is better than no leg at all, Gorman is probably lucky to have what's left of it. He looks like he was attacked by a movie full of piranhas. Not pretty. This is the Amazon. You can be eaten alive here.

Here in the Amazon basin surrounded by rivers everywhere, most of the locals don't know how to swim. Most people live from fishing, but they use canoes and nets, and they know enough not to fall into the water. They're clean folks, most of them getting a bucket of water from the river, checking to see what's in it, and then they pour the water over themselves as they sit in the canoe. They don't jump in the river and bathe. If they were to do that they know they could well be eaten to death.

Most tourists who come for a visit to the Amazon city of Iquitos come for a few days or a week to take ayahuasca or to walk in the jungle with a guide who shows them crocodiles and snakes and bugs and butterflies. Most local people have never seen a jaguar. The only hope they would have of that is to be lost and helplessly hurt in the night, and they would then be eaten. Tourists come here to have a tame adventure in the wilds. Then they go home with colourful stories and digital photos and knick-knack souvenirs. Some come for the ayahuasca, the jungle drug they take at mostly up-scale “lodges” not too different from convention centres back home. They stay for a week, see visions, and take a mototaxi to the aeroport to return home to tell their friends what a deep spiritual experience they had in the jungle. They don't come here expecting to lose a leg. But, sometimes folks get eaten anyway.

Ain't no big thing to sit next to a corpulent middle-aged hippie and see him turn a page of a paperback novel and then sweat like he was sitting in a rain storm. No big deal to see him suddenly grimace, his eyes bulging, his body going through a full top to bottom spasm of pain: one might assume he has a conscience and he's just remembered some random incident from his worthless life. No big deal to wait till he's done and then say, “Norman, how ya doin'?” And no big thing to hear him speak between gritted teeth, barely audible, “Hurts.” And then he slowly lets out his breath and takes a swig of bottled water and hangs his head down and tries to clear his mind a bit from the pain one can see so clearly in the bandage that goes from knee to ankle, a bright yellow stain that deepens by the hour as he sits and ya chat about cowboy novels and the nature of being a man in the world today. Hour by hour sitting at the riverside cafe, day by day on the Amazon River in the jungle city by the eternal flow, Gorman was losing his leg to flesh-eating disease. I have one of Gorman's Elmore Leonard cowboy novels in my bag. I say to him: “This'll make a great story for you, assuming you live through it.” Gorman flashes me one of his phonier well-practiced grin-smiles. He was just walking along, and then he got a scratch. An hour later he couldn't bear the pain of his pant leg touching his skin. He didn't know it then but he was being eaten inside out.

Gorman is a writer, and a good writer at that, if not a good man. He writes vivid prose that comes alive on the page as he describes some small incident of small people doing some dirty and stupid thing that comes to ruin in a dog-eat-dog world of semi-fiction. Then he wrecks it all with some long pages of maudlin crap about “healing ceremonies” in the jungle with Mother Ayahuasca, loving goddess of the plant universe, and I want to reach out and pound that stinking, suppurating leg of his. He's a con man who scams lonely fat girls and insecure effeminate men by telling them about how wonderful they are and how their drug-induced visions are making them whole again after the terrible traumas they have unfairly had to suffer in the modern world. I could puke. He knows it. I'm not shy about saying so. So we don't talk about that stuff. We talk about cowboys and the open range of the Wild West. Gorman probably could have written good Western novels.

Gorman and I read a Leonard novel, Hombre, in which a White boy, kidnapped by Indians, grows up and returns alienated in the White world as an adult. Hombre, known to us as “Man,” dies while doing the right thing, i.e. saving a woman from death at the hands of bad men. It's not a heroic end. It's just what the average man would do in that position. Unfortunately, there aren't so many average men around. Gorman and I stare at each other across the water ringed wooden slat table, his ashtray overflowing with smouldering cigarette filtres and cellophane wrappers and bits of tin foil. His little grey-brown goatee sticks out as his head goes back against the Portuguese tiles of the colonial period building that is the cafe we sit at on the patio looking out at the white painted concrete balustrades that fence off the Malecon Tarapaca from the Amazon River, the malecon walkway filled with gawking tourists and strolling local families and wandering foreign hippies squatting down selling handicrafts on the pavement. Gorman looks like he's going to pass out from the pain. Gorman comes to and sips more water, reaches for another cigarette, and suffers, big drops of sweat falling from matted, twisted horns of long hair dangling around his bullfrog throat.

Gorman came to Iquitos to sell folks a jungle adventure tour and grand ayahuasca visions and a chance to forget themselves as small, unimportant losers in a big, unimportant world. Gorman sold his tours and made some money to pay for his family back home so they can live. Nothing heroic, just the ordinary thing a man does in the world. Big time ayahuasca guru, Irish Catholic who ran off to live with hippies and came back to make a living in the world at large where he lost half his leg to flesh-eating disease. Well, this is the Amazon. Ya know, (and you know) sometimes ya gotta get eaten.

“Hey, man.” 

For Gorman's account: 


Always On Watch said...

I read An Occasional Walker while on vacation. Your first book is a kind of Canterbury Tales, and I enjoyed reading it very much.

Please let me know when your next book is available.

Dag said...

AOW, thanks for the comment, and especially for the comparison to Chaucer. Beyond that, I think you're right about Canturbury Tales. I didn't set out to write a chronicle of pilgrims telling tales about a time, but when I look at it, then yes, you've summed it up pretty well. And of course I take this as high praise and like it.

I have three books waiting for publication here in Iquitos. I wrote two and a half volumes on my first year of travel in the Andes, and when I got to the Amazon in Iquitos I wrote yet another volume of my first month here. It was unfocussed, so after returning to Iquitos after a short trip to Colombia I settled in to write something I liked. I had a volume of local history and character tales by Christmas. Now, because that volume wasn't actually complete to my standards, I have three volumes almost ready:

Iquitos, Peru: Heritage Architecture of the Rubber Boom Era;

Iquitos, Peru: Ayahuasca;

Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close.

I'm excited about these books. I now have a walking tour available to people who want to see in detail the architecture of the city. I am soon bringing out a 16 postcard book of Iquitos' early years. But it's the books that make my life here so much fun. Will indeed let you know when they come out.

Meanwhile, if I may, I would like you to write an review for me.


And my best from Iquitos, Peru.