4 AM. How’s the saying go? No rest for the wicked? Sighh…
I couldn’t sleep. We were supposed to be meeting at the Victoria Regia at around 8, and there I was, wide awake at 4. Try and try as I might, there was just no way of quelling the mind. I felt my heart racing a bit faster than usual. For a long time I just lay there in my sweat and stared at the ceiling. I had fallen asleep clutching my weathered pocket copy of Lao Zi’s classic text, the Tao Teh Ching that had been with me since childhood. No matter how many times I read that book, there are still lessons to be learnt from it.
The last passage I recall reading before I fell asleep was the 33rd.
“Those who understand others are intelligent
Those who understand themselves are enlightened
Those who overcome others have strength
Those who overcome themselves are powerful
Those who know contentment are wealthy
Those who proceed vigorously have willpower
Those who do not lose their base endure
Those who die but do not perish have longevity”
I thought to myself how badly I have wanted to overcome myself, especially over the last few years. My mind cast back to my childhood. I was always a very curious, inquisitive child. Religion fascinated me. Not necessarily in the way that made me want to rush out and join the church choir. It captured my attention more in the way a gruesome train wreck does. Impossible to take your eyes off. By a very young age I had already read the bible and the Koran. In later years I read the Torah and the Hadith. There were glimmers of goodness in them, but I found the message either diluted or completely washed away by the sheer misogyny, hatred and intolerance prevalent in all of them.
My mother understood my inquisitivity and thus fuelled my desire to learn. She bought me any books she felt would be good for me. One day I discovered the works of Tsai Chih Chung, a Taiwanese artist, who had the novel idea of putting ancient Asian wisdom into comic form. His works were very comprehensive, and covered the great thinkers from Lao Zi and Mencius, through to Confucius and Huineng. Despite the comic illustrations, none of the language or content of any of their works was lost. I threw myself into studying each and every one of these great men’s ideas. Finally I had a more satisfying way to view the universe and all it contained.
My little mind pored through all their works and asked millions of questions. I was fascinated and captivated by the paradigm of complexity and simplicity in their thinking. Those questions lasted with me for my whole life, and I now found myself on this sweaty bed in Peru at 4am asking those same questions. I drifted away with my thoughts for quite some time, wondering if any of them would be solved by the end of my journey. Another hour passed. I got up to have a cigarette outside.
The air was balmy and dusty, even at that time of the morning. Night had begun to loosen its grip on the town, and the sky began to lighten. I stood there on the side of the quiet road, cigarette smoke billowing out of my nostrils with this sense of trepidation growing and growing inside me. I threw a glance across the road to the Victoria Regia. “Hurry the fuck up and be 8am already.”
The day before I had organised with Freddy, the less-offensive hustler, to meet him at 7 to go to the Belen markets. I’d wanted to go then, but Freddy advised me against it. “It’s too late in the evening amigo, no good. Muy peligroso. Turistas get killed there sometimes.” Okay fuck that. I wasn’t gonna argue with that logic. I went back inside and got showered and waited for Freddy. By the time he finally came, I had everything ready and was eager to get moving. We got to the Belen markets, which actually reminded me a lot of my childhood.
When I was but knee high to a cricket, I used to go to the Sibu wet markets with my mother. My crazy little hometown is situated on the third largest island in the world, Borneo. Sibu market back in those days was truly incredible.. A visual panoply. A typhoon of strange, unusual, and bad smells. All manner of creatures, live and dead were for sale in those markets, and I used to stare at the carcasses of these incredible jungle creatures that just hours ago had been kicking and screaming for survival. All sorts of other wares covered the markets. From vegetables, to spices, to crazy, ancient looking river fish, to live animals… you name it. Anything that came from the jungles and rivers beyond was there. Belen was no different. Our main goal was to pick up some mapacho tobacco that the shamans use in ceremony. Mapacho is a jungle tobacco that is an intrinsic part of the Ayahuasca ritual. I’ll discuss it at length further, but now, back to the markets.
After buying the mapacho, Freddy took me for a walkabout. He showed me all the local plants that were used in shamanistic medicine. Unfortunately I also saw a few things that I didn’t want to see, such as leopard skins and endangered turtle species hacked to ribbons. I’m not a prude. I grew up in Asia where the consumption of all manner of fauna is a part of every day life, but never, not once, have I been okay with the killing of any endangered species. I felt angry at the sight of it. I’d had enough. I grumpily told Freddy to take me back to the hotel.
I paid him his fees for showing me around, and parted ways with him. I grabbed my bags and walked across the street to the Victoria Regia where there was already a small crowd of people forming. Dumping my bags in the corner, I walked over to the registration area and introduced myself to the people of Blue Morpho. I bumped into April again too, and we sat and chatted. The room slowly began to fill up. I sat there intently observing my other tour-goers. I must admit, I had a real fear that the tour would consist mostly of “dirty fuckin’ hippies”. Oh how happy I was to be proven wrong.
You may be wondering why I have such a low opinion of hippies. Now let me elaborate. I know that the actions of a few aren’t always indicative of a whole subculture, but in my life I have simply met far too many smelly unwashed people rocking dreadlocks and boat pants that were naught but faux-spiritualists. I have little patience for that kind of shit. Dude, you’re not spiritual. You just can’t get a job and you’re obviously allergic to soap. A lot of these people that I met before seemed to be more in it for the scene than for the true ethos behind the hippie movement. I detest “scene” people and fakers. And, did I mention, smelly people.
But the folks that were filling the room seemed to be from all walks of life. Some were clearly very intelligent people. You could see it from the light in their eyes. You may have noticed in my earlier writing that I mention the term “seekers” quite often. Seekers to me, are those who are seeking answers to the big questions in life. Those who are not content with just accepting the status quo. I began to slowly realise that this place was teeming with genuine seekers.
While I was conversing with others, a woman quietly sat next to me. She had a very gentle and calming energy about her. She looked to be in her early 50’s. Eventually a break in the conversation allowed us to introduce ourselves. How relieved I was to discover another kiwi! As we talked, we quickly realised how many similarities she shared with my own mother. Both of them, New Zealand women who had married Malaysian men, and had spent most of their lives living in Asia. I was absolutely engrossed in conversation with her for quite a long time, until finally we were told to pay attention to the briefing that was to follow. Everyone was finally accounted for, and boy was it a big group. Forty participants in total, as well as lots of staff. Quick introductions were made, and directions were given as to how we would get to the retreat. Buses first to the docks, then a boat ride down the river into the Amazon, and to our retreat, but not before a quick detour to Monkey island.
We boarded the buses. I noticed the others seeming far more relaxed than I. My adrenalin had kicked in and I was raring to go. Finally, the moment had arrived. FINALLY! After all this time! We were on our way. I can’t really remember much of the ride because my brain was absolutely buzzing with a mixture of excitement and anxiousness. We arrived at the docks and jumped onto the boats. Yet again, I can’t remember much of what was actually going on in my head at the time. After what would have been probably 45 minutes we reached monkey island, which was a refuge centre for some of the more endangered endemic monkey species.
A huge spider monkey greeted us at the docks; its quizzical face staring at us, its long prehensile tail dangling in the air like some kind of bizarre hirsute question mark. Everyone got off the boats and started walking along the gangway to the centre of the island. Along the gangway, we were greeted by more monkeys. There were in total about 5 or 6 different species there. The one that truly fascinated me was the Uakari, a primate that has fascinated me since childhood because of its unusual appearance. A small monkey, it has a bald face that is coloured bright red. Kinda like me without sun block. We walked around for some time, snapping photos and enjoying the mischievous show that the monkeys put on for us. After about half an hour of this, we were led into a meeting hut, where the director of the island explained the history behind the centre, as well as some of the challenges that they continually face, such as flooding and snakes.
About an hour after we landed, it was time to get back on the boats. Me being full of beans, I was of course the first one back to the boats, and I was surprised at the sight of the spider monkey we encountered earlier, calmly sitting in my chair at the rear of the boat. Well, it seemed just as surprised as I was, and it made a move for the side of the boat. Apparently the poor thing didn’t take into account the movement of objects in water, and as it reached for the adjacent boat, it ended up falling in the water. Spluttering, it clambered onboard the other boat, wiped itself off, and gave me a rather filthy look. By that stage I was pretty much crying with laughter.
The engines gunned to life, and down the river we went again, onwards to the retreat centre. After about 20 or so minutes, we had arrived. All my previous fear and doubt was now completely replaced by enthusiasm and elation. I’d made it. I was here. After a short briefing, we were assigned our rooms. My room mate was a Californian guy by the name of Sam, who had a thing for rather large wide-brimmed hats, and had an infectious smile. We settled in and introduced ourselves. Shortly after, we were back in the meeting room for a much, much longer discussion.
I found myself unable to sit still at all during this meeting. The discussion centred around the structure of the tour, and what were the do’s and don’ts while we were here. My joy was now replaced with growing anger and frustration. I caught myself realising what a maelstrom of emotion I had been feeling over the last few days. This was but another cycle in my mood swings. I ended up standing up at first, then pacing around the room with arms folded while waiting for them to finish talking. That was torturous for me. I was getting irritated beyond belief, and it showed. Anyone who knows me well enough knows that I’m not really one to hide emotion. I have a hard time of hiding how I really feel, which depending on the situation, can either be a blessing or a curse. I was sure that the staff there were taking note of my antsy behaviour.
One of the seniors, a youngish American guy by the name of Matt, suddenly asked “Does anyone here have a martial arts background?” Momentarily caught off guard, I sheepishly raised my hand. “Okay,” Matt continued “Just be aware of that while you’re under the influence. Please make sure that you contain yourself so that no one else gets hurt.” I started to wonder exactly what I had signed up for. Was I going to go into a murderous rage and hurt someone? Hopefully not. Caveat emptor indeed. The brunt of the conversation was taken up by the rules and regulations of the dieta.
You see, I hadn’t signed myself up to just ANY Ayahuasca retreat. I had signed myself up for the full dieta. The difference betweeen the two is simple. During a normal Ayahuasca retreat, of course you are supposed to forgo certain things, but overall, the food that you consume is fairly reasonable. Devoid of excess flavour, yes, but still reasonable. During the dieta, it is MUCH more intense. Not only are you supposed to forgo salt, oil, and sugar, but because of the fact that you’re dieting with a special blend of eight other plants, you are also supposed to eat even more restricted foods (a ridiculously bony species of fish, and chicken cooked in a very unappetising way) as well as eliminate the use of any soaps and shampoos. Even toothpaste! The rationale behind this is to cleanse the body of any chemicals that may interfere with the medicine from the other plants. This is supposed to keep you as pure as possible, and to maximise the effect of the medicine.
I thought to myself “Great. now I gotta put up with 40 smelly people, on top of the fact that I’m easily irritated AS IS.” I stuck my hand up a few times to clarify a few points, as well as to ask if we were allowed to swim in the pool, seeing as it had chlorine in it. I was overjoyed when they told us that we could, as the water was very pure. More questions ensued. Too. Much. Talking! Just when I thought it would never end, they finally called for the close of the talk and told us to go get some rest. Yay! I could feel my legs again. I went back to the room, changed into my swim shorts and made a bee line for the pool as quick as I could. In the pool, I became acquainted with another young American guy by the name of Luke. Sam, my room mate, eventually jumped in too.
END OF PART ONE