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Scenes from the Amazon Basin

 I.

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I’m sitting in the corner of a young couple’s dirt-floor home, pondering the homemade grass basket beside me, while watching S— roll up a wad of fresh tobacco and blow blooming clouds of smoke over his brother, who sits on the edge of a bed with his wife and newborn son. I look down into the basket again, see a baseball sized object begin to shift and move slowly under a limp T-shirt.

“What’s that?” I ask, nodding down at the basket.

“La soledad,” is what I hear from S— say, who laughs playfully, and then continues his ceremony. His father was a brujo, a shaman, and I think of this as he waves his hand to spread the smoke. Afterward, as we head back to the bonfire he’s set up for me as a farewell, I ask him if this was a blessing ceremony for the newborn.

“No,” he says with his naturally easy smile. The night is settling around us, and the toads croak in various intervals. “Remember the bird that sings loudly at dusk? My brother is afraid of that bird.”

“Afraid?” I ask, trying to understand. I’d heard this bird often, and it has a loud, distinct call, like that of a loon.

“They say it is a powerful being, that it can perhaps harm a person,” S— answers. “I blow the smoke over him, so that he can go out and hunt again, without fear.”

“I see,” though I don’t, entirely. And I feel silly for thinking, earlier, that he was rolling up the tobacco leaves in a giant cigar for us all to smoke.

“Blowing tobacco is good for taking away fear,” S— says.

“I will try it,” I respond sincerely, because even though I don’t believe that smoke will take away fear, ritual and the placebo effect does.

We sit by a large fire for my farewell gathering, and the eldest in the community, Tio A—, begins to tell me the tale of the Jrijri, the two-mouthed animal spirit that guards the wilderness of the Amazon. I shiver.

After, Tia E— shows me how to dance in the Achuar way. A complicated hopping, small steps, her hands placed firmly on her hips. I cannot get all the little steps in, and lament my poor sense of body rhythm out loud.

Everyone applauds anyway, and we drink chicha, a traditional fermented yucca beverage.

It starts raining, and one of the men informs me, solemnly, that the river is rising, and that I cannot leave the following morning in canoe, as planned.

II.

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I’m walking in the pitch black through the forest with three young children leading me.

I’m walking back from S—’s house, where I’ve just finished eating supper, a meal of boiled eggs, plantains, and yucca, and a fresh heart of palm salad, all served in enormous banana tree leaves. The jungle is loud and large moths and small bats whir above and around our heads. We have no lights on; I simply follow their sure little feet as they easily feel the mud and planks and stones beneath their bare toes. At one point, one of the girls stops, and we look to see two glowing green eyes brightly shining through the foliage beside us. The youngest sibling, a boy just learning to write, strides into the leaves, retrieves the large glow beetle, and puts it into his older sister’s hand. We continue on, without speaking. They do this three times, collecting three Pyphoruses.

One of the girls tries to catch a giant glow moth with her sweater. It swerves and dives too quickly for her heavy cloth net.

III.

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A dog is screaming somewhere, the dust is blowing through the walls of my hut, the microscopic flies are biting me, the air is always on fire. I am planning English lessons.

I ask a couple walking by, who have just returned from the jungle: “What is going on? What is the animal?”

The man explains with an apologetic smile while holding a branch of green plantains over his shoulder, “A dog is dying. It has an incurable disease.”

The woman beside him, carrying a basket on her back supported by a strap slung across her forehead, glances at me while shifting the heavy weight on her back.

“Thank you,” I say, and the two continue on.

An awful screaming, a dog child, for dogs have become nearly human. Late into the night, screaming. My skin prickles with the sounds which do not let my mind rest. I find out the next day it is my neighbor’s dog, and his child won’t let him put the creature out of its misery.

The dog lies on its side on a blanket under the house on stilts. It stops screaming when I approach it.

There is silence by the fourth day, when I leave the community.

IV.

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A scraggly black and white chicken arrives in my hut the first day I arrive, sneezing and snorting. I am afraid it has a disease and keep it outside. But it sneaks in, and when it sees a beetle, it squawks in delight (so I assume) and rushes after it, just like a cliché chicken cartoon, its head bobbing forward.

I laugh hard; I don’t shoo him away again.

His name, naturally, is Pinto. Painted Chicken.

When I discover a colony of tiny golden rice-sized termites growing under the cardboard box I brought most of my food in, I push it aside and let Pinto feast. I watch, mesmerized by the precision of the birds beak, how it can pick up every single tiny termite within a matter of minutes. Every day I make my breakfast, open the door, let Pinto in, and push aside the cardboard box.

How strange when one day there are no termites.

“They found us out, Pinto,” I say to the chicken, and drop a handle of rice kernels on the ground for him.

One day a neighbor says all the chickens are dying.

Over the course of the week, the chickens die. They are lying in feathered heaps around the huts and clapboard houses.

Every morning, however, Pinto arrives, sneezing and snorting, and cleans up whatever insects I find for him in my hut. He begins to sit and prune himself while I read in the afternoons.

One evening I’m reading and out of nowhere the chicken flies up into my lap. He tucks its head into its feathers. When I tentatively pet it, it closes it eyes.
Unexpectedly, I tear up. I don’t let Pinto sit on my lap again.

V.

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Mundeesh

It is dark and the toads have begun to sing, and fire flies are dancing in the night air outside the hut. I can see the moon through the wooden slats that make up the wall of my thatched-roof home.

“Cici, come,” my neighbor C— says to me through my wood slat door. “I have something to show you.” He smile is wide, slightly mischievous.

“OK,” I say, and I get up and follow him, wondering what surprise is in store for me this evening.

We go into his family’s kitchen. In this community, most kitchens are thatched roof huts, and consist of a wooden table with stools, a large fire made from three logs that touch in a triangle shape in the center, where the fire lives. His son is waiting by the long-logged fire, also a smile on his face.

I sit down and wait.

C—picks up a banana leaf and shows me a fresh pile of plump, cream colored grubs. Like those in the movie “The Lion King.” Palm tree grubs. Or, as I find out later: palm weevil larvae.

“Mundeesh,” C— tells me in his language, Achuar. Then, in Spanish: “Gusano. It is a delicacy. They pay lots of money in Quito for this.” He sets the banana leaf on his lap and picks one up. “Do you want to try?”

I stare at the chubby cream-colored grub, the size and look of a very swollen Caucasian adult thumb. It has a dark brownish-red head.

“A delicacy?” I ask, somewhat weakly.

“Yes, try one, if you want,” C— says. “Raw first. Then we will roast them on a spit.” He puts one in his mouth and chews.

I— his son, grabs one and puts it in his mouth.

After watching the young boy finish his, I pick one up. Its skin is thick and leathery, and I can feel a pulpy juice inside. Its shiny beetle head is about the size of a pencil eraser. There are little hairs—grub hairs—springing out from the thick skin. I put it into my mouth and bite down.

Again and again I chew until the skin breaks, and the pulp spreads across my tongue. A slightly sweet insect pulp. I have to spit the skin out after a while, as I am unable to chew it. The head pops under my molars and I hear the crunch, as if I’m chewing on a half-popped corn kernel.

I sit and practice English with C—while we wait for the roasted version of the delicacy. Roasted, it tastes mostly the same, except the pulp is thicker and warm.

I fall asleep that night, thinking of that sweet pulp on my tongue, and dream of cream colored grubs in my belly.

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Literary Interlude: An Update on my Travel Reading.

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I’m sliding into a low dip on my trip right now–I’m undergoing a change of itinerary, dealing with foot pain, surviving bed bugs at the hostel, food poisoning, and a headcold. Thinking about books makes me happy, so I’m going to share with you what I’ve been reading in the past couple weeks.

Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 2nd. Ed., by John Charles Chasteen. This compact history of around 350 pages was helpful in orientating my knowledge of Latin America and its development since the time of the Encounter, when the Arawaks of the Caribbean first encountered Columbus arriving in his ships. It is, unfortunately, a difficult and often depressing read, filled with the history of slavery, massacres of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, slaughtering military dictatorships backed by the US, and ultimately, the current situation of poverty in most of Latin America, which tends to be a direct result of trade systems dictated by the US and other countries, and the problem of perpetual national debt. I finished this book while staying with an indigenous community in the Amazon basin—and reflected how, even though in the States I tend to live a fairly simple life, the fact that I had a room and a couch and running water and a kitchen and so much electricity and Wifi and savings meant I lived in a completely different sphere from the majority of the world’s population.

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa. I couldn’t put this book down and finished it in two days. One of the most compelling reads in many years. I wondered why the translator chose not to leave “bad girl” in Spanish. The voice of the narrator is addicting, endearing, loving, and my eyes teared at those moments when the plot cut through the heart and mind. Extraordinarily psychologically astute, it is a love story of a malformed attachment unlike any I’ve ever read. For those of you who need to know: there are allusions to violent abuse scenes that are at times extremely difficult to read.

Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara. I’m struck (and somewhat jealous?) by the way men can travel—I’d never feel safe riding a motorcycle, and crashing in people’s sheds, yards, and homes while exploring any part of the world. Or jumping on a ship to Easter Island as stowaways…Not exceptionally deep literature, but enjoyable to read while I travel South America, and a good prelude to the Che biography I have queued up.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. This just happened to be on my Kindle; wasn’t part of my South American literature list. Started it late one night while in the Amazon jungle, in my tent, listening to the bats sweeping out of my hut into the night air for their nocturnal insect feast. One phrase describing the mood of a married couple who have just witnessed a harrowing tragedy, remains lucid: “Emotional comfort, sex, home, wine, food, society—we wanted our whole world reasserted.” (Pg. 39) It brought me back to thinking of “home” and what this actually means, especially while I spend time in an indigenous community, watching families eat, work, play together. A wonderfully intellectually rich book; however, beware—this is, in my opinion, a psychological horror story. It will make your skin crawl, as the cliché goes, in an unconventional way.

Has anyone else read these books? What did you think?

 

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La Soledad, and Traveling Society

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El Poblado in Medellín, otherwise known as the tourist district.

One evening as my new friend Max and I were climbing the steep hill lined with lush plants to our student apartment, I asked him what he liked to read. He mentioned feeling both “social and lonely” while traveling, and for this reason, preferred reading spiritual texts while abroad. I was astonished that this laid-back, good-looking Californian man just beginning the prime of his life felt this way. My response: “Me too. But isn’t that life? Social and lonely?”

Leading up to this discussion, Max had asked me whether I liked traveling solo. I said, absolutely yes. To travel alone is like jumping on a boat and sailing; you get to stop as often as you like, at whatever island or port city, and spend however long you want there, with whomever you meet, often marvelous people you wish you could stay with for a longer time. Traveling alone drives you to go out and meet people, to form webs of community where none existed before, and for me this is nearly always a rewarding experience.

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We foreigners trying to learn salsa through observation. Son Havana, Medellín

Nevertheless finding yourself alone is alarming at times and comes unexpectedly: an evening out becomes an evening in with cerveza and a book when you realize you forgot where you were meeting a new friend, and that friend doesn’t respond to your Whatsapp messages. [The new friend, E— from S—–, is stressed because she lost her cell on the metro to ladrones, her mind being a bit out of sorts after having spent the afternoon with a handsome Australian from her hostel.]

But being alone, in a state of solitude, is not the same as loneliness. 

Solitude, at least for me, is usually a pleasing experience. There’s ecstasy in being alone, of sailing solo, of having complete freedom in every sense of the word; you go where you want to go, you meet who you want to meet; you change your itinerary at your whim. For those of us who have felt tied down, perhaps by family obligations, illness, or a relationship which ultimately led us to an inner dissolution of spirit; by financial constraints which keep you in a job that is equally dissolving; or by self-entombment, the incarceration by our own beliefs that we don’t deserve to be free, to be content, to seek what is best for us. If we are lucky enough to break free for a time we will find ourselves in a bubble of ecstasy, living life between the company of constant traveling society and a great solitude. At least, that’s how we feel, those of us afflicted with Wanderlust. Unless solitude flips into a state of loneliness, which is bound to happen from time to time.

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Traveling Society: Yasmin, Karine, Katrin, Hongda, and Chris.

When I asked my teacher Óscar  what he thought of loneliness, he looked up from his notes and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “La soledad es la consciencia de la carencia del lenguaje.” [My rough translation: Loneliness is the awareness that language is imperfect.] I smiled at this concise description, knowing it was only the tip of an iceberg. Óscar is a brilliant man; one who has with scientific precision examined ideas, situations, and events from every possible vantage point and is prepared to give you a fully prepared opinion.

His answer, unpacked: loneliness stems from the difficult in fully sharing oneself with another human being, since all forms of language are ultimately inadequate, always a substitution for what lies underneath. His example: If you say, “I feel lonely” and I say, “I feel lonely, too”, are we feeling the same feeling? Not likely. Our feelings of loneliness have differing histories.

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Sandra, one of my teachers at Total Spanish, and I discuss our obsession for books, writing and cats. (El Gato, above, approves this message).

For those of us afflicted with Wanderlust, states of pleasant solitude and aching loneliness come and go. It’s part of the journey. For us, hostels and language schools are Heaven-sent. Total Spanish is a Spanish language school (see website here) in Medellín which provides a place of kindred minds, the perfect way to join a community for a short period of time.

At Total Spanish I’ve had the privilege to take four hours of private language class with several teachers, who happily discuss to my heart’s content whatever topics come up (while drilling me on grammar, including the subjunctive tense). I find with one teacher, Julianna, a fellow aficionado of psychology and self-growth, a bright woman possessing impressive knowledge of her country, language, and relationships.

Sandra, another teacher, and I find ourselves deep in conversations having to do with women, el machismo, and feminism. Being specific in our attraction toward men, we also wonder how we can find men with “el cerebro muy sexy”. As we are both brainy women ourselves, it’s not always easy encountering men who can live up to our cerebral powers. Shortly after our lunch, my eyes don’t shift away when I notice an elderly Colombian couple silently holding hands in an elevator; their at the moment word-less bond a prehistoric comfort I can only dream of at this point in my life.

To accept the occasional presence of loneliness is a necessity; and perhaps the community at large so strictly prohibits feelings deemed “negative” that I don’t have enough practice with feeling lonely—when loneliness hits, so does the desire to flee from it, to other countries, to new people, to books.

In the end, loneliness, like certain depressive moods, can activate one to action: after three weeks here in Medellín, after spending time making new friends, I can’t really say I feel lonely. I feel surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, teachers, and like-minded travelers. Traveling, in my opinion, offers a distinctive way of viewing life experiences. Being lonely is a universal experience, no matter where we are in life.

Cheers, my new friends. I hope to see you all again someday~

 

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The Plunge: Cali’s Music Festival, and an 11-Hour Bus Ride through the Andes

Sometimes it’s best to just take the plunge and not worry about what you’re getting into. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with two sharp Fulbright English teachers to the bus station and boarded the supremely air-conditioned Bolivariano bus for an eleven-hour ride to Cali, Colombia, for a musical festival.

Bringing a plastic bag in case you forget your Dramamine is recommended when bussing through the Andes. Likewise, try not to be jealous when you notice, after you’ve just lost your dinner into a plastic bag at Hour #9 around Hairpin Curve #26 that your literary traveling companions are contentedly reading their books, and not gripping the seat in front of them.

Sickness aside, el paisaje (countryside) of Colombia is absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to take video after video of the hazy afternoon sun setting over clouded green mountaintops. The middle-aged pediatrician who sat next to me happily talked about his country, his life as a pediatrician, and showed me the details for the music festival on his cell phone, lending another pleasant facet to the long ride.

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I ended up saying farewell to the English teachers after arriving, and the next day explored a bit of central Cali with a new friend from the Netherlands, who like me, was seeking—perhaps subconsciously—the roots and shape of our self-identity through new experiences. We spoke extensively of our home cultures, our upbringing, and mused over our obsession for extended travel. For both of us, there had been a sense of not belonging, and feeling like an outsider in our communities. My inkling is that this sense of Not Belonging has something to do with developing self-identity; once a person has this, there is a security that allows one to root into their home places. Our discussion kept reminding of Alice Merton’s song, “No Roots”. There is complexity in the desire to travel, and there is complexity in the desire to be rooted and stay in a place.

After lunch we made our way to the Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez, a five day affair attended by around fifteen thousand people. An enthusiastic 17-year-old Colombian I stood next to during the concert explained how this was one of the best festivals all year in Colombia, and he heartily hoped I was enjoying it. (Which I was, mightily). Africans brought as slaves to the coastal areas of Colombia in past centuries developed their own culture and musical styles that have become an integral and beloved part of Colombian culture. The festival is a competition of musical groups from the Pacific, all of which delve into the traditional rhythms and musical themes of that culture.

While I tried to my best to dance in rhythm to the addicting, heavy percussive beats that mesmerize the entire body, at times I stood still and let myself absorb the stunning nature of the festival; a celebration of human beings, a smattering of Americans, like me, and Europeans, like my friend from the Netherlands; of thousands of Colombians of Spanish descent, Colombians of indigenous descent, Colombians of African descent, all partaking in music, food, and dance, all celebrating the unique cultural expressions that have developed over time in this most surprising and diverse country.

On my long bus ride to Medellín the following day, I couldn’t help but think back on the conclusion my friend and I briefly surveyed over that savory bowl of Colombian fish soup. For those of us who, for whatever reason, felt we didn’t fit in, that our traits, our curiosities, our intense personalities were at odds with our prevailing culture, traveling offers a place for us to seek others like us, who mirror ourselves and offer understanding and an intellectual haven of sorts, and gives us a glimpse into the ways in which other cultures proclaim their identities in proud fashion.

Traveling moreover offers a space to get us outside of our deeply rutted brains, to offer a radical way to understand who we are while also forging relationships with people and places that will always be dear to us.

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Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.

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What is Home, anyway?

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Hostel Sue, in the La Candelaria District of Bogotá.

My sense of home has evolved much in the past year. I’ve been considering it more than usual this past month after I gave up my attic apartment and put all my things into storage and started darting between friends’ homes. The question finally presented itself while I was backpacking with my dear friend Malory last weekend in the beautiful northwoods of Minnesota. We’d set up our tent, had our chairs ready to go, and I’d even brought my expedition hammock to try out. We had, basically, a living room in the middle of a circle of cedars, on the edge of the boulder strewn Manitou River. It felt exquisitely homey. So I had to wonder:

“What is home?”

Is home a pile of books, a mound of ideas floating, playing in the air before me as I sit daydreaming on a couch or an overstuffed chair, a cup of tea or coffee, a bar of dark chocolate? Music from the piano, a woven rug laid before a flickering fire in the fireplace? A comfortable bed, a kitchen table? The sound of laughter from your friends and family in the living room?

I used to live in a lovely little house in South Minneapolis with a black cat and a German Shepherd, with a backyard and a garden. Even while I was grateful to have a home, the experience eventually suffocated me, for reasons I won’t go into now. While heartbreaking to leave it all, the leaving was inevitable. I had some sort of growing to do, a restlessness to wring out, and a journey to undertake. Some might say a journey of the soul, and I would believe that, even though I consider myself more a material philosopher than a mystic.

As I sit here, my first night in Bogotá, Colombia, at Hostel Sue, I understood completely for the first time that I am absolutely free for the next seven months to create Home wherever I am. Even at a random little hostel I find ad hoc through an app.

The same walls that provide comfort for those who choose to live in a house in South Minneapolis had become my shackles, my cage; the lack of a physical space that is my own has produced a deep joy. I don’t question it; I simply accept. I say this even while I dream of a home someday again with a piano, books, a table, friends, and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine about to be served.

That reality will come in time, I’m sure, but not for now.

For the next seven months, “Home” is my backpack, my mind, my heart, my ability to create spaces for myself where I am, the digital spaces in which I communicate with friends and family back home; the communal spaces here, where I will meet new friends.

As my dear friend Malory reminded me regarding the privilege and joy of travel: We enter the Homes of others–whether this is their country, their backyard, their school, their house or their apartment–with humility and open curiosity; and we leave filled with gratitude and a widened knowledge of humanity and the world.

And so, hello Colombia; thank you for receiving me and providing a land and space for my home this month. I eagerly look forward to partaking in your culture, your landscapes, your history.

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My old Home in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crew, whom I miss dearly (but they are in good hands now).