Entering the Amazon Rainforest felt like stepping into a National Geographic special. As the motor boat buzzed up the Napo River, tucans called through the trees and iridescent butterflies fluttered past on the breeze. Quechua children watched with guarded curiosity as the boat of gringos zoomed past their small village along the riverbank.
Prior to this trip I had never travelled internationally, and this was my first extended tour group experience; three nights of camping and trekking in the Amazon. The motor boat dropped us off with several ten gallon jugs of fresh water and three days worth of food. We had no satellite phone or maps to speak of. We had signed no paperwork; no insurance waivers or emergency contact information. In South America, the idea of being sued or held liable for someone else’s misfortune is a joke.
Meeting the shaman
Our group consisted of myself, my boyfriend Austin, a French Canadian couple in their mid thirties, “Cook” – a toothless man who was always smiling – and our guide Pedro, who was, he proudly told us, a level three shaman.
From what Austin and I had gathered in the previous weeks of our trip, there are approximately five levels of shamanhood. Level five is more or less what you think of when you hear the word “shaman” – a spiritual leader, often decked out in tribal clothing, who is able to conduct ayahuasca (a mind-altering traditional medicine) ceremonies. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have your level one shamans; the homies in the market place trying to sell you weed, assuring you it’s good shit.
“Trust me,” they say, “I am a shaman.”
At any rate, Pedro did know his flora. He was always excited to point out plants and give us lessons on their medicinal qualities, before he hacked them down with his machete. Even on the wide, well marked trails, his machete was constantly in motion. Palm fronds, bright red flowers, delicate saplings – whack, whack, whack.
The machete did come in handy though; on one of our night hikes, the French-Canadian woman spotted a small, brown snake as it slithered over her boot.
“Snake!” she called out, more excited to have seen an animal than she was alarmed.
A lightning quick flash of the machete, and Pedro chopped the snake in two before our eyes.
“One bite from this snake, and you are dead in thirty minutes,” he informed us.
The bright blue butterflies, deadly animal encounters, and plates full of piranha-like fish for dinner ensured that the Amazon jungle was every bit as marvellous and strange as I had imagined it. Jungle life was constantly buzzing around us. Loudly. Everywhere.
Our days were spent whacking our way through the jungle to set destinations: a cocoa farm where we got to taste the sweet, white fruit of the raw cocoa bean; a Quechua school where we gave candies to timid, barefooted children.
One day, we didn’t make it to our destination at all. Pedro (who claimed to know this part of the forest like the back of his hand) got us hopelessly lost.
At first it wasn’t obvious. Pedro kept hacking away as usual, occasionally stopping to point out an ayahuasca bush. We tromped up hills, down hills, along rivers, and over vine covered logs. After a while, Pedro seemed perplexed. He looked to his left, to his right. He called back to Cook, and they exchanged a series of words in Quechua. Cook shrugged, pointed behind us. Pedro shook his head, pointing to the right. Cook shrugged again.
“Are we lost?” I asked Cook.
He gave me his gap-toothed grin and nodded, “Si, somos perdidos.”
Yes, we are lost.
It’s strange. Rather than panic, I felt a bit of a rush. As if it were all a game, and we were just getting to the interesting part. I remember excitedly telling Austin, “Now I can finally use all of the jungle survival skills that I learned during my Bear Grylls obsession!”
Of course, the truth is that we would have been totally done for if we were left alone in the jungle. Every landmark looked the same as the last, just trees and vines followed by more of the same. Basically, we the tourists had absolutely no control of the situation. The way I saw it, our lives were in Pedro’s calloused hands. And, in a strange way, this was a weight off our shoulders. It was Pedro’s job to stress and find the trail; it was our job to stay calm and keep hiking.
Hours passed. We spent most of our time hiking knee deep up a river. My Bear Grylls education agreed that this seemed like a good idea, although my Amazon Trail education had me worrying about electric eels.
Despite the fact that we were obviously lost, Pedro kept a cool head. Lost or not, he still felt completely at home in the jungle. We even stopped to take group photos (“Are we still lost?” “Si.”), eat our only food (a bag of Lay’s potato chips) and, of course, become educated about the local plants.
At one point, Pedro got really excited about a skinny tree that looked like all the others. We got excited too. Maybe it was a landmark! Maybe this shrub was our salvation!
“Have you found the path?” we asked.
He shook his head. “But this is a very special plant.”
Our collective moral sank immediately. Fascinating though they were, it did not seem like an appropriate time for another shamanistic demonstration.
Without any further explanation, he began to scrape the bark off the tree, collecting it in a leaf. After he had a handful of bark shavings, he asked us for our water. One of the Canadians reluctantly offered hers, which Pedro mixed in with the bark shavings to make a milky liquid. I was standing next to him, so I got to be the guinea pig. He motioned to me that he wanted me to snort the liquid. I made the motion back, “Like cocaina?”
“Yes!” he repeated the motion, “If you take this, you will not get a head cold for seven years!”
I was sceptical, to say the least. I had never snorted anything in my life, but I had trusted Pedro so far. He was a shaman, after all. He poured a small amount of the liquid onto my palm and I sniffed it up. I had no idea what to expect, but Jesus! It was like being punched in the brain— like snorting wasabi! I doubled over, clutching my burning nose as tears streamed down my face.
Ten minutes later we were back to the bushwhack, still brushing tears from our eyes, but invigorated by a strange and wonderful jungle high. It took perhaps another two hours before we made it back to our little camp, scraped up, famished, and exhausted, but still very much alive.
“I always had complete faith in you,” I told Pedro that night as we wolfed down our plantains and Amazonian fish.
“Of course we got back,” he smiled, his ego apparently untarnished after our little excursion. “I’m a shaman, after all.”
By the next week I had a horrible head cold.