Saturday, 10 December 2011

Saved from a venomous snake bite

Two posts in a day - wow that doesn't happen vey often.  Well I just wanted to write a post separate from the ayahuasca one about the various other things we did whilst in the Peruvian Amazon.  So here goes.

On arriving at the first lodge we took a quick siesta and then went to visit a local tribe called the Yaguas.  They painted our faces according to our marital status, which is apparently what they do within their own tribe.  Everyone in our group was married except for Anny and I who are engaged, so our faces were painted differently to the others.  Then they played a little music for us and then for what I found the most fun part - they got out their blow gun and showed us how they shoot down monkeys from the trees using a poison that paralyses them, by practising on a wooden post.  I would not have appreciated practising on real monkeys as that doesn't fit with my vegetarianism.  Two of the Yagua guys missed the post, but more than half of our group hit the post first time, which is surprising considering that the Yaguas need to be good at darting so that they can catch food.  Maybe they had drunk too much before the demo, although they seemed perfectly sober to me.

Anny tring her hand at blowdarting

Later in the day we went to see some young healers who taught us about the plants that they use in their traditional medicine, and this is where I asked them about the ayahuasca ceremonies and managed to sign myself up for one.  There is a drink made from seven roots that the locals drink, and each root has some particular medicinal properties.  The properties of each root was explained in detail, along with the strict rituals that the healers must follow regarding their diet and abstinence from alcohol and sex during their training.  They have a tough life it seems.

The lodge where we slept the first night was about an hour from Iquitos and is located in what is termed a secondary forest.  Basically the trees have been felled and the vegetation is not the same as it would have been before the felling began.  The remaining trees are much shorter and the vegetation less dense.

In the morning we got on the boat, which is the main form of transport in the Amazon and headed towards the other lodge, which is located in primary forest where the trees are much taller.  On the way we stopped at a place where there is an 80% chance of seeing dolphins, and we were the lucky 80% and not the unlucky 20%, as we saw plenty of them.  We saw both kinds - the grey and the pink river dolphin.  The pink dolphin in fact is unique to the Amazon.  We had to make a short walk by land across an island to another river where a boat was waiting for us.  Whilst crossing the island a young boy came out to greet us carrying a baby sloth that he had as a pet, and he asked for a tip.  We didn't give him one of course, as we don't want to encourage the locals to take animals from the forest thinking that they can make easy money from them.  The poor animals have a hard enough time as it is with the locals killing them for food.

The second lodge was quite remote and was exactly the kind of place I like to stay.  After resting for a bit some of us went for a jungle walk, but Anny wanted to rest as she has been to the Amazon before and seen most of the animals.  Unfortunately I was stupid enough to forget the insect repellent and so got eaten alive by the mosquitoes during the walk.  I was hoping there was some kind of natural repellent I could use, but the guide didn't know of one that was easily accessible.  Instead he gave me a leaf and told me to keep fanning myself to try and keep the mossies away.  Throughout the walk the guide talked about the various symbiotic relationships that exist such as the tree that houses ants that then help to protect the tree and the pig that makes a hole that snakes share in return for the snakes helping to protect the pig from predators.  I have heard about all these symbiotic relationships on wildlife documentaries but it was great to be able to see them firsthand.  We didn't see the pig and snake though.

Later in the day the guide took us out on the lagoon on a canoe, and Anny and him did some fishing whilst I just watched them.  I did the paddling as I wanted to get in some exercise and it was pretty tricky at first as the canoe didn't have a rudder so it is hard to stop it doing circles.  After a while I got the hang of it though.  The guide caught two small fish before throwing them back in the water and Anny didn't seem to be catching anything.  In the end though Anny caught two small fish also, so it was a two all draw.  Anny also threw them back as neither of us wanted to kill the poor fish.  I had hoped to see a piranha as there are plenty of them about, but the guide said to catch them we would need to use meat as bait, which would involve killing one of the fish we caught and using that, and that is something I didn't want.  I was also interested to hear that the infamous fish that swims into people's orifices does exist and it is a type of catfish.  Apparently it more often swims into men's anuses than up their penises.  On the walk back from the lagoon the light was starting to fade, and as we were strolling through the jungle the guide suddenly stopped us in our tracks.  Neither Anny or I had seen it, but there was a snake right in the middle of the path that hadn't heard us coming and so hadn't had time to slither away.  It was clearly startled and was coiled up ready to strike if we came any nearer.  I don't have a fear of snakes so it didn't really scare me, but I asked the guide all the same if it was venomous.  It most definetely was, as he recounted that this snake was a common lancehead viper or bothrops and one of the same kind had killed his aunt when he was younger.  She believed in traditional medicine and didn't go to the hospital, preferring instead to use plants and herbs to counteract the venom.  He said when she died later in the day she was bleeding from her gums and from under her fingernails, and it didn't sound like a pleasant way to go.  He said if she had gone to the hospital she probably would have lived.  Despite telling us that if we had continued walking without seeing the snake it would have most likely struck us on the boots and not penetrated the rubber outer, we were very happy that he had seen it in time.

At night I went out with the guide for a quick walk around the camp to try and spot some tarantulas.  We didn't find any, but we did find plenty of other spiders instead.

The next morning at 6.30am we went out in the boat to do some bird watching.  Once we turned off the motor we saw plenty of them.  There were all kinds of colours of birds from bright yellow to blue to multicolored beauties.

On the way back to Iquitoes we saw yet more dolphins and even saw some tourists swimming in the river near to where they were.  Rather them than me as despite the fact that most dangerous piranhas live in Hollywood and in reality they are unlikely to bother you, there are all kinds of other nasty parasites that live in the water and may make you sick.  Not to mention the anacondas, other snakes and caimans.  We also made a short stop at an animal rescue sanctuary where the animals are actually free to leave anytime they want.  All of the animals have been rescued from captivity and are roaming in a space that has no fences or cages to retain them.  The only thing that keeps the animals coming back is the food that the sanctuary owners provide for them, as most of the animals have no idea how to fend for themselves and how to catch their own food.  There was a baby monkey called King Kong that was ever so cute.  He would jump up on me and sit on my head and lie on my arm, but he was also a clever little fellow and was opening all my pockets to see if I had anything interesting inside.

King Kong and me

The trip to the Peruvian Amazon was a fantastic experience and although we weren't trekking into virigin jungle and seeing jaguars and other rarely seen creatures, it was a nice insight into the other world that exists outside of the cities and villages where most of us live.  A place where animals run the place, and where we need to afford them respect.  The venomous snake was a poignant reminder of how respectful we must be of the power of nature.

Experiencing the force of the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca

As those of you who know me personally know, I am always up for trying out new things from other cultures.  Well my visit to the Peruvian Amazon was no exception, and whilst I was there I took the opportunity to try the substance that is known as ayahuasca, made from a jungle vine.  Ayahuasca is more than just a hallucinogenic drug to the local people though.  Taking ayahuasca for them is a religious sacrement and it is also widely used in their traditional medicine.  They take advantage of the fact that it induces intense vomiting and diarrhoea to clean the body of worms, parasites and toxins.

Originally I did not think that I would get the opportunity to try ayahuasca, as our tour was already prebooked and did not include any ayahuasca ceremony in the itinerary.  As part of our tour though we got to meet a couple of young healers to talk about the medicinal properties of various plants that you can encounter in the jungle.  At the end of the talk I asked them if there would be any possibility to try ayahuasca later in the evening, and it seems I was in luck as another tourist was already taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony later that evening, and they said it would be possible to join him.

Anny holding the vine from which ayahuasca is extracted

Someone came to our lodge to pick up me and the other guy at around eight thirty in the evening.  The other guy told me that he had tried ayahuasca twice before in the US, despite it being illegal there, and that he had travelled to the Peruvian Amazon for the sole purpose of taking part in a week long series of ayahuasca ceremonies.  He had already taken it the two preceding nights, and told me to expect a lot of vomiting taking it for the first time.  I asked him if he had had any hallucinations but he said that he had not, although he had seen many other people having hallucinations throughout the various ceremonies he had attended.  I was not sure what to expect and I felt it best to just enter the whole experience with an open mind and see what happened.

The shamens normally have their hut outside the main part of the village so that there are no distractions for the participants and so that they can focus on the ceremony itself.  When we arrived at the hut the shamen himself was busy with a villager and we (the Japanese guy and myself) sat in the darkened room with a younger healer who started to prepare the ayahuasca.  The preparation consisted of a series of rituals combining smoke (which is very important in their traditional medicine and is blown into the bottle containing the ayahuasca) and songs (which are whistled throughout the whole process) and some words (almost like a prayer to the ayahuasca that it would treat us well).  The shamen then entered the room and repeated the process that the young healer had started, but for a shorter period of time, and the ayahuasca was now ready for our use.

First to take the ayahuasca was the Japanese guy.  He swallowed down the liquid quickly and then handed the cup back to the shamen.  Some more smoke was blown and songs whistled, and then next was my turn.  I checked with the shamen that I should drink the whole cup and not just part, as I didn't want to take more than was necessary.  He reassured me that it was fine to drink the whole cup and I started to swallow it down.  The liquid was very bitter and I tried to drink it as quickly as possible.  It was not a drink that you would want to sip and savour the flavour.  Next the young healer and the shamen took the ayahuasca and then we all sat down in silence waiting for the drug to take effect.

Half an hour passed and I still felt nothing, other than the occasional eruption of gas and rumble of my stomach.  The young healer left the building and went into the forest outside and I assumed that he had gone to be sick.  He came back shortly afterwards and then it was the turn of the Japanese guy.  I could hear him vomiting outside and I wondered whether I would be out there alongside him shortly afterwards.  The Japanese guy returned and then suddenly the drug started to take effect.

At first I felt just slightly dizzy, but then as time went on I started to see fuzzy multicolored patterns infront of my eyes.  Next I started to feel as if I was a snake and I was moving my hands in a kind of wave motion.  I realised now that I was really starting to get into the twilight zone and that strange things would start to happen.  I would close my eyes and then when I looked up suddenly there would be a person standing there infront of me, but in fact there was noone and it was just my imagination.  The urge to vomit came and I went outside ready for the cleanising of my body to commence.  As I was stood outside strange things started to appear at the edge of the garden where the forest began.  I would see people that suddenly would disappear and then animals started to appear.  At first the animals were scary like big black dogs and a wild boar or big and a dead badger on top of the compost heap in the corner of the garden.  Then later the animals became more exciting and less scary.  I saw a polar bear and a white horse and I didn't feel scared of them.  I just remember thinking how beautiful they were.  Inside the hut the shamen and the younger healer began to whistle the ayahuasca song and start to shake their rattles.  My perception of sound was heightened and everything around me began to vibrate.  The sound of a mosquito buzzing about me was driving me insane.

Inbetween the bouts of vomiting I returned to the hut and sat with the group.  Inside the hut with the whistling and the rattles being shaken vigorously I felt waves of euphoria rushing through my body.  The sounds, the dizziness, the visions - I had control of myself enough that I knew what was happening, but at the same time the drug was running its course inside me, and I felt its power.  The shamens believe that in this state they can communicate with their ancestors, and I am not sure whether I believe in that kind of thing or not, but I can see how it takes them away from their normal state of mind where everyday distractions can take over.

After two hours or so the effects of the ayahuasca began to fade, but it was another hour of vomiting and diarrhoea before I started to feel that I was back to my usual self.  Three hours after the ceremony began we were all more or less okay again, and the young healer did a quick healing ceremony on me and explained the things that I should and should not do in the coming days.  For instance he explained that you should not have sex for at least a day, and that you should not eat pork for at least fifteen days afterwards.  He also told me that my aura was very positive and that I would lead a good life.  He then took the Japense guy and me back to the lodge and I took a well deserved sleep.

In the morning the young healer came to the lodge to deliver some traditional medicines to our fellow tourists, and Anny asked him what my visions had meant.  He explained that the polar bear and white horse are very positive signs, and good things will happen.  The black pig or wild boar that I saw on the other hand is a very bad sign, and he says this was my body and mind ridding itself of something very negative.  Once again I am not sure whether I believe in this kind of thing or not, but around the time I saw the black pig or wild boar I recalled one of my ex girlfriends who treated me very badly.  So that does kind of fit with what he was saying.

I cannot say that I feel the need to try ayahuasca again, despite the fact that you are normally meant to do it three consecutive times, as it has a kind of learning curve associated with it, and each time the visions lead you a little further down the path to enlightenment they say.  I can say however that I felt pretty good the following day, except for being a little tired, and I am glad that I got the chance to try it at least once.  When I am old and grey I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that I tried all the weird and wonderful things that exist out there, and not to always have to wonder what something would have been like.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A Marriage Proposal and Retracing the Footsteps of the Mighty Incas - the 4 Day Inca Trail

Good morning from Lima everyone.  Anny and I are now back from the 4 day Inca trail and it was definitely something I would recommend doing for anyone that is in Peru and has 4 days to spare in their itinerary.  Whilst you could just take the train or bus to Machu Picchu directly, arriving there after completing the Inca trail is much more special in my humble opinion.  So now for the story to begin.

We were picked up from our hotel on the 30th November at an ungodly hour, and driven by bus to just outside of Olyantaytambo, with the springs from the seat poking us in the back and causing some discomfort.  Despite this discomfort the route was very scenic and also a little scary with huge drops on the one side of the mountain.  Arriving safely at kilometre 82, where the 4 day Inca trail begins, we disembarked the bus and prepared to set off.  There were 8 of us to begin with, 4 Aussies and 2 Brits in addition to us, and a Canadian guy joined us in the evening after finishing another trek that he had been doing in the region.  All of the other couples who commenced the trek with us had taken the option of an extra porter to carry some of their personal belongings, but Anny and I had decided to forgo this option so that I could get in some extra training and save a few pennies.  I had promised Anny that I would take most of the weight.  I put my pack on and realised that it was going to be much tougher for me than for the others, with my pack weighing 11kg, and most of theirs weighing less than 5kg.  The Canadian guy was carrying 16kg though, so he has to take the hardcore award.

After signing in at the first checkpoint we were off.  The first day of walking is not that tough and follows the valley that the train route to Machu Picchu also follows.  It is a beautiful valley and there are lots of houses at this point on the route, and also mules and horses transporting goods for the local people.  Anny and I walked at the back of the group for most of the day as Anny doesn't like walking too fast, and day one was what I would describe as a lovely stroll in the countryside.  There were several Inca ruins along the way, and at each one the guides would tell us the history behind the places and what they were used for.  We slept in a small field near some houses and a small snack shop, and there were some beautiful views down the valley.  The only problem with the campsite was that there were dogs barking late into the night (something I am now used to after my bike tour of South America but something that Anny is not yet used to) and a rooster woke us up at 4am, a whole hour before we needed to get up to start the days hiking.

The group at the start of the trail before the Canadian guy came

Day two of the Inca route is a toughie and is uphill for most of the time.  The highest pass of the day is 4,215 metres above sea level and for those that have not spent long in Cusco beforehand to acclimatise it is hard going, and they suffer headaches and nausea.  Some do not manage to make it and have to turn back at this point, although the vast majority do make it, and once you are over the pass it is better to keep going even if you are suffering from altitude sickness rather than have to climb back over it.  The guides are also carrying oxygen for those that need it.  Anny coped very well with the altitude and I thought she would have a tougher time than she did.  For me it was absolutely fine but recall that I had been at heights of around 3,800 metres above sea level for 3 weeks before the trip, so was fully aclimatised.  Day two was pretty long and after finishing the hiking everyone in the group was pretty tired and had a dodo or siesta before the evenings meal.  The food by the way was fantastic and the chef definitely earned his tip.  There were 3 of us veggies in the group, and he catered for us very well, incorporating tofu into the Peruvian style dishes so that we missed out on nothing.  In the nightime one of the guides recounted the story of a young Israeli who killed his newlywed bride, a much wealthier German lady, not far from the camp and how he tried to make it appear like a robbery.  He was later convicted of the crime after a porter testified that he had seen the young Israeli earlier in the day with a big knife, similar to the tool that was used to kill his bride.  The guide had a nasty habit of telling us stories of ghosts and murders just before going to bed.  The following day he told us in the evening about a woman who had died at camp 3 after a landslide caused a rock to fall on her tent and about a guide who died when a rock hit him on the head and knocked him off the trail.

At the highest point on the trail - 4,215 metres above sea level

Day three starts uphill but overall there is a lot of downhill throughout the day, and very steep downhill at that.  There are often steps but they are very narrow and so steep that you need to pay constant attention to where you step.  When it rains the stones become very slippery and unfortunately it did rain for us, so we had to be very careful.  Day three like day two is also a toughie, and very long.  For me it was actually harder than day two, because I find going downhill very tiring both mentally and physically.  Towards the end of the days hiking the route splits in two and you have the option of a short and steep route straight down to the camp, or a longer route that passes by some Inca ruins.  Anny and I chose the longer route past the ruins and so did everyone else in the group.  During the night on day three it rained extremely hard, and the water started coming inside the tent.  The porters had not left enough space between the rain fly and the inner part of the tent, but on top of that there were some holes in the rain fly.  We were even considering at one point whether it would be better to leave the tent and seek better shelter elsewhere, but in the end we decided to wait it out and see if it would stop.  After about one hour it stopped and we thanked the Lord.  Throughout the rainstorm Anny had been thinking about the rock that had crushed a tourist in her tent during a heavy rainstorm, the story that the guide had recounted to us.  I must admit that the story had run through my mind a couple of times, but I tried to dismiss it as extremely unlikely and not worth worrying about, and tried to reassure Anny too.

We were woken on day four at 4am and given a coca tea to help us to wake up.  When we got outside the tent we talked with the others in the group and it seemed that everyone had got wet during the night, and most had also been thinking from time to time of the guide's story of the landslide and the crushed tourist during the rainstorm.  On a side note I think the guide should stop telling such nasty stories to people just before bedtime, unless his aim is to cause nightmares.  Other than his stories he was a really cool guy and extremely informative on the Incas history and culture.  Anyway back to the hike itself.  The checkpoint only opens at 5.30am so we all queued at the checkpoint along with the other groups, ready for it to be opened.  When it opened we made our way through and just after the checkpoint some people in the group started running as they wanted to be at Machu Picchu as early as possible.  I couldn't persuade Anny to run though, and she said we should worry less about time and more about enjoying what remained of the Inca trail before Machu Picchu.  In retrospect she was very right.

On arriving at the sun gate we had our first views of the mighty Machu Picchu, and it exceeded all of our expectations.  On the postcards Machu Picchu looks quite small but the site is vast and awe inspiring.  We took some cool photos and then made our way down towards Machu Picchu itself.  The closer you get to it the more impressive it looks.  The Incas were truly an advanced culture and Machu Picchu really makes you appreciate that.  They understood all about the sun and the stars and nature, and all of this knowledge is incorporated into their buildings.  I have to say that this place definitely deserves to be high on the list of man made wonders of the world.  Something else happened at Machu Picchu that is very good news for me and Anny at least.  I got down on one knee and proposed to her and she accepted.  The ring that I had got as a tempory ring until I can buy the one that I have already decided upon didn't fit, but Anny and I both saw the humour in it, and she didn't take it badly at all.

After a guided tour of Machu Picchu, Anny and the Canadian guy and myself went up Wanaypicchu to get the best view of Machhu Picchu that you can possibly get.  The route is not for the faint hearted though and there are many points on the route that induce vertigo in all but the hardiest.  I had vertigo in several places and although Anny seemed fine at the bottom, she got vertigo at the top too.  The path is extremely steep and exposed in several places, and there are a series of ropes and cables to help you up and down.  I am really glad that we had good weather as doing the route in the wet would not be a wise choice at all.  I was really surprised to hear that only 2 people have died on the mountain, as I would have expected it to be higher.  If you wanted to commit suicide it would be a perfect place to do it.  The views from the top are just fantastic though, and if you don't mind heights I would definitely recommend it.  If you don't like heights though, it is probably best that you don't go.  Also it isn't really possible for anyone who has any kind of physical disability unfortunately.

The amazing view of Machu Picchu from Wanaypicchu
An unlikely pair that we saw whilst on the Inca trail

In summary, my overall opinion of the Inca trail and Macchu Picchu is that it is fantastic and I recommend it with all of my heart.  It is also now a place that Anny and I will remember forever, as being the place where I first proposed to her.  I wish you all a good day my friends and may the travels continue, with Iquitos and the Amazon being the next stop on our route.