I am now back in the UK! I actually left the jungle in at the end of July last year. When i first returned to Puerto Isango in September 2013, i started writing some blog posts, but it soon became far too strange and complex to explain in a blog. So here is a very brief summary:

When I got back to Puerto Isango, things did not work out there, to put it mildly. I then found myself navigating a society in collapse – a chaotic anarchy with widespread alcoholism and thieving – being guided by Remuy, a friend from 2012 who is a Huitoto from the ancestral lands in Colombia and describes himself as ‘a drinking, womanising wanderer who is half-wise’.

In November, I met Armando Capino, a sabio from another community, who was a very suitable teacher, and the only person I met in my time there that i consider to be genuinely wise in the universal sense, as well as knowing and understanding their cultural wisdom to a great depth. I was accepted to live and learn with him in his community, and with the help of the villagers we built a (relatively) small maloca (traditional communal house), in which i lived with Armando and his family for 8 months. There, he taught me the traditional cultural wisdom and we slashed, burned and sowed a farm field, as well as building a canoe, hunting and fishing, and putting on an inauguration fiesta.

I am now back in the UK, and have just finished my report to the RGS – if anyone is interested in reading it, get in touch and i can send it over.

Here are some pics:

The maloca we built:

IMG_1151 Maloca

Building the maloca:

IMG_0755 Roofing crew


IMG_0784 Building malocita

Our inauguration fiesta:

IMG_1085 Preparing coca for the fiesta

IMG_1261 Dancing at the fiesta


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The New Plan

Shortly I will be heading back to Isango, after a month in Iquitos. After the first month there, getting to know the people and place, the situation has changed quite a bit, so we have a new plan of action for the return.
Fermin, the old and wise patriarch of Isango, has accepted me as his apprentice. He will start teaching me the cultural wisdom from the bottom up; in his words, he will teach me as the spirit of tobacco inspires him.
In the meanwhile Gelio will continue to teach me the underlying logic, helping me to find my way into the world of the spirits. It is one thing to learn the words of the stories and spells, but another to discover where these can take you if you know how to use your mind to enter into their world – something I could not do without Gelio’s guidance.
After my abortive attempt to learn Ocaina, and having discovered that the three sabios in and near Isango – Fermin, Huayo and Fermin’s ancient but strong father, Mocuquillo, are all Bora, I have decided I will have a go at learning Bora. This should not affect my learning with Gelio, as he is teaching me how to use my mind and is very good at teaching me this in Spanish. Bora should also be slightly more realistic to learn. Everyone agrees that it is easier than Ocaina; and as it has been studied continuously for 50 years by a missionary linguist couple there are more written aids – a grammar in Spanish written for the Bora, a linguistic grammar in English and a dictionary that stretches to over 600 pages. It will not, however, be easy. Bora is also an extremely extensive language with an unusual grammar, and it is a tonal language (like Chinese); at the end of 24 pages explaining the structure underlying the use of tones, the missionary-linguist states, ‘Bora’s tone system seems too complex. A reader commented, “You can’t be right. It is too complicated. How would children learn it?” We agree that our description—and the analysis implicit in it—are too complicated. Of course, the complexity of the facts themselves cannot be reduced.’ Great!
It will clearly be a while before I can learn the sabiduria directly in Bora, so Fermin has agreed to begin by teaching me in Spanish while also saying it in Bora; hopefully after a few months I will understand enough Bora that I can learn directly in Bora.
I also have a box of technological tricks – a video camera (on loan from Tom Mustill, thanks Tom!), 2 camera traps, a GPS, Google Earth (if it stops malfunctioning…) and a normal camera. I didn’t use any of it in the first month, but we will gradually start to do so once I get back. The aim is for us all to learn how to use them – I have very little experience with any of these, and the locals are also keen to learn about the tech toys – and then use them however we think appropriate. In the end we are hoping to put together a video for outsiders, another to show the other communities in the river basin, and to discover whatever we can by combining maps, camera traps and the indigenous knowledge of the jungle.
We have in mind the final aim of having made plans for ongoing projects by the time I leave, but we won’t consider these until the last couple of months – first of all I need to concentrate on learning, not just the sabiduria but also basic jungle skills.
So there is quite a bit in store. But before all that gets going, first we have a couple more preparatory activities: we will sow the chakra, the jungle farm; and we will build a malokita, a miniature but complete version of a traditional maloca, to ensure the spirits will be with us for the apprenticeship.

See you in 7 months….

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The Proof

At the end of an evening, Gelio and I were lying in our hammocks in the dark. The hardwood floor was lit by the single yellow flame of an oil lamp. Around us in the night insects whirred and frogs called. Under the house a dog was snuffling for old bones. This is where Gelio is gradually letting me in to the secrets of his world. In the dark calm when activity has ended, the spirits are listening.
We were silent. It was a day or two after I had reconciled his actions and our brittleness had soothed, but I was still not ready to ask him to teach me. I had lost faith.
‘What would you like me to show you?’ He spoke in the dark.
‘What was that?’ I said after a few seconds, not sure how to reply.
‘What would you like me to show you? That is what your spirit will ask you.’ He started to explain how, once I was in the real learning process, I should be open and waiting for a spirit-character from within the stories to start teaching me himself. ‘To learn on your own is very difficult. Once a character becomes your guide, it is much easier, you can really learn everything. He will be your true teacher.’
But I also did want Gelio to show me something: I wanted a demonstration of his power. He had many stories and many people believe he has power. He was bringing me into the logic of his world, but I was yet to experience a demonstration of his power. For my faith to return, I needed proof.
And now I’ve had it. It didn’t come the next day, or even the next week. Talking of the spirit guide, he had explained how if I ask him something, he may teach me in a vision on the spot, but often it will be later, when I’m not thinking about it. I will suddenly realise I have learned, he has shown me. So for the next few days, I was waiting for a proof.
None came. I forgot about the conversation. We returned to Iquitos for August. On Thursday 9th August, I went round to his house in the evening to discuss practical matters, after which we had a couple beers and chatted. His new wife, Rosario, a non-indigenous who has lived in Iquitos all her life, was there too, and at one point said something to Gelio I didn’t catch. He got up and started cracking away at the wall with a make-shift hammer, breaking a hole in a brick. What was he up to?
‘Let me explain,’ Gelio said, sitting down again. ‘When I broke up with Adilia, she did all she could to curse me. She screamed that she would make me an alcoholic, she told Rosario she would send demons to torment her, she vowed to cause our break-up. She knows witchcraft and another sabio was on her side. I knew I could protect us but at times it was hard.’
‘We almost broke up,’ Rosario took up the story. ‘It was all calm and fine, then suddenly I would just get angry about nothing. Then Gelio would get mad. I threatened to leave and he just said, ‘Fine, get out of here then.’ I actually left – I walked out of the door but caught myself on the threshold – ‘what is going on? This is ridiculous!’ I thought, and came back and we calmed down.
‘Then, 2 days after you both left, the noise started. The bug was in my bed! In my bed Paddy. Squeaking and squeaking, I couldn’t sleep. It would follow me around – I would hear it on the floor in front of me, go to kill it, and suddenly it would come from the wall behind me. It was everywhere, persecuting me – whenever I thought I could catch it, it would vanish and appear somewhere else.
‘That’s why, when you two were back in Pevas for the day, I was frantic to talk to Gelio. I was thinking of coming to stay with you to get away from it, but Gelio told me not to worry, he would take care of it. Two days later it stopped.’
Gelio was lighting some newspaper to smoke the creature out. ‘That’s why I wanted to get back to Isango so quickly. I spoke to Fermin and in the evening we dealt with the demon. But now the creature’s in the wall.’
He was smoking it out as he spoke. We all watched the wall.
‘Cheep cheep cheep’
‘That was it,’ Gelio said.
‘Isn’t it terrible?’ Rosario was worried.
It was. A mix of fire alarm and fingernails-on-blackboard, but organic, clearly an insect. I could understand how that could send you mad, especially if, like Rosario had said, whenever you tracked it down it would suddenly appear in another place, uncatchable.
But I wasn’t sure what it would be. It certainly sounded like an insect and we had all heard it together so it was not imaginary, but the way they described it, being sent by Adilia to torment Rosario and capable of being everywhere and nowhere, made it sound like a spirit, acting like no real insect could act.
‘It is a real insect, but it is one people use to torment – you can send it as a spirit to make people get angry or go mad.’ Gelio explained. So it was both. And, I supposed, within this logic, Gelio had the power to defeat the spirit and return it to animal form, but the physical animal also needed to be killed.
It reminded me of tinnitus, so I explained this Western mental illness. Gelio told me how he once treated a woman with that demon; the conversation moved on.
Finishing the beers, I headed off for a date and forgot about the insect-demon. At about 1am, alone in my room, I started writing. I had a lot to write – I had met with Jorge Gasche, the anthropologist, the day before, and Gelio had taught me more about how to turn stories into spells, apart from Rosario’s demon. Scribbling away for a few minutes, I was a little doubtful on some point on a cure Gelio wanted me to try in future – it sounded like a very long shot to me –
‘Cheep cheep cheep’
From the ceiling over my head, I heard the noise! I looked up and it stopped. Weird. But just my imagination surely – that creature was hardly going to appear here now. I carried on writing. The fan whirred; rickshaws passed by on the street below.
A few minutes later it was back – cheep cheep…. Cheep cheep…. Cheep cheep cheep – this time from the wall behind the fan. Quietly, sporadically, but without any shadow of a doubt, a real noise. I have heard tinnitus hums occasionally in the past, and apart from sounding very different to this, they seem to emanate from the atmosphere, or come from a spot relative to the position of your ears. But this was different – a very real sound and coming from specific places. Plus there was the fact that at Gelio’s we had all three heard it together, which can hardly have been a group hallucination.
The cheeps stopped. I finished writing and went to the bathroom to pee. Cheep cheep – just a couple, from the window behind the shower. Jesus. Very strange. A pause. A couple more cheeps. I thought I should ask Gelio to teach me the cure tomorrow, and with that thought the cheeping came on much stronger.
It was a hot night and stuffy inside, so I went to the balcony to clear my head before bed. And it started up out there too! From the air this time, at times from an electricity cable too, and much more insistent – cheep cheep cheepity cheep – it continued for a minute non-stop.
‘Incredible,’ I spoke aloud and it stopped immediately. A minute later it started again, so I tried again – ‘Shh’ I said aloud – only a brief pause – ‘I don’t believe it… but actually I do,’ again aloud. As I said that, and the cheeping insisted and got louder and died away, I realised I did believe it. It was real. I mean, it could not possibly be real in any conventional, physical insect sense, but the sound was real. It could not have been a figment of our collective imagination at Gelio’s, and it was not a figment of my imagination now. It was a part of my experience of the outer world rather than my inner mind, and I am sane enough to tell the difference, even if I have heard the occasional tinnitus hum in the past.
So that was it. I realised, as I admitted aloud that I really did believe it, that now I am ready. I have been preparing my mind to enter into this world as fully as possible, without allowing my western prejudices to diminish my openness to experiences. I have been learning how to understand my experiences within the indigenous logic, but I have also been looking out for ‘rational’ explanations, even if they involve luck; and I have had a slight unease that, deep down, in truth I was unable to really believe that certain things could happen.
Now I have had a personal experience that defies any ‘rational’ explanation. I realise that it was a personal experience that can never be proven to anyone else, and you can easily suppose I was imagining it, or think of an explicable noise I was hearing. But as far as I am concerned, those ideas don’t fly. There is no explicable noise that could possibly account for it, especially as I heard it on that night only and never before or since. As a subjective experience I did not imagine it – though trying to determine if it was ‘real’ or ‘in my mind’ is a meaningless exercise in semantics anyway; and even if you decide I was imagining it, the only conclusion is that Gelio used some subtle suggestion to implant the noise in my mind that evening. That in itself is proof of his power.

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Gelio Cubicaje

Gelio Cubicaje is the Ocaina ‘sabio’ and traditional medical specialist who invited me to Puerto Isango. He was brought up there but has lived in Iquitos for 4 years. I met him last year over a period of a few months, in the maloca of Curuinsi, an association of indigenous students from the Huitoto-Murui & Bora tribes (the other People of the Centre tribes) who are trying to salvage their cultural knowledge, working with sabios including Gelio to learn and write it down.
Gelio’s story there is as follows: His adoptive grandfather, who brought him up along with his father and aunt, was a traditional chief and wisdom-keeper and passed on all his knowledge to Gelio over a period of 8 years from age 12 – 20. The sabios-by-inheritance teach much of what they know to everyone, but also have a core of knowledge which they

Gelio putting a spell on me in the Curuinsi maloca last year

Gelio putting a spell on me in the Curuinsi maloca last year

will only pass on to their inheritor and only when they are nearing the end of their life. This spiritual knowledge, which was directly gifted by God to their ancestors, is also highly personal, a part of their being, and once they teach it to someone they lose some of it (‘they feel dried out’), almost as if it were physical. Hence the translation wisdom-keeper seems most appropriate – they are the custodians of this knowledge for the course of their lives.
Gelio has a quiet, serious manner and a powerful presence that does give you the sense of his having some immense internal peace and control. As he was not the head of the maloca in Iquitos, he did not lead the teaching, but appeared to already know everything he heard, cured small aches and pains whenever needed, prepared the coca and tobacco and had a role as a kind of spiritual consultant. He also had various stories from his youth about how his grandfather had chosen him and trials he had gone through.
In the meantime, he has a day job as a witchdoctor. He has a constant stream of patients and once nearly went to Lima to cure a sick man who had heard of his reputation. Last year, he lived in a small wooden house with an old wife; when I returned in June, he was living in a large concrete house, designed to include 2 additional floors in future, with a younger wife. He got the money for the house as a kickback from a distant cousin because he used his mental powers to ensure Nestor got a government building contract – and I have seen him helping the same cousin prepare for important meetings for the next part of the contract. By all accounts, he is a successful witchdoctor.
All in all, there seemed no reason at all not to believe he was a genuine wisdom-keeper; perhaps most compellingly, all the other indigenous people from the same cultural group, including some from his own river basin, believe him to be such.
After knowing him for a few months, and having been on my first 3 month trip to the jungle to live with a different tribe, Gelio invited me to his community to start learning his knowledge. At the time I had to return to England but was already planning to return in future; I applied for the RGS Neville Shulman Challenge Award on the premise of studying with Gelio.
I arrived back in Iquitos in June and over a few evenings discussed and organised with Gelio our plans for starting my apprenticeship. Once this was all agreed, we got ready, during which time he also taught me a basic love enchantment, the standard entry-level spell, and explained some basic points of their logic to help my learning. He also backed himself up with various stories. Some of these seemed highly improbable: after teaching me the love spell he told me some stories of his own successful seductions which flew flagrantly in the face of the personal history I had previously heard; and he came out with a detailed but extremely far-fetched story about how his grandfather had never been enslaved and had defeated the Peruvian slave-master by calling down a plague of Isango (the nasty bug after which the village is named) on his cattle herd. Due to what I had previously heard I took these with a gigantic pinch of salt, but still got a bit caught up in the excitement – they rolled off Gelio’s tongue with complete ease and he used belief-creating story-telling techniques I have previously learnt from none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Both these stories, and a few others that Gelio told, had obvious motives of building my confidence in certain things. In fact, through these I learnt about how Gelio builds faith in patients and creates an appearance of certainty. This is an essential part of his trade in traditional medicine, which by his own description is in large part mind manipulation and faith medicine. Creating false appearances is an essential tool for anyone involved in magic, from Derren Brown to Merlin, and I realised that through these fictions Gelio was teaching me more than the simple truth – just like good fiction.
Then we arrived in Puerto Isango. Within a few days it became clear that Gelio knew much less of the cultural knowledge than he made out. He seemed to know little of the festival songs, a crucial part of the culture, and by retelling rehashed stories he had heard in Curuinsi to Fermin, the old and genuinely knowledgeable patriarch of Puerto Isango, he learned them better because Fermin corrected him. The story of his grandfather’s plague of isango was shamelessly and blatantly forgotten.
Gelio with nephews and niece in Puerto Isango

Gelio with nephews and niece in Puerto Isango

Then, about a week into my stay, Fermin unwittingly dropped a bombshell: rather than apprenticing to his grandfather at age 12, Gelio had moved to Iquitos!
Fermin claimed that although his grandfather had wanted to teach Gelio, Gelio was still a small child (ie 5 or 6) while his grandfather was getting too old; so instead he had taught Fermin and asked him to teach Gelio later. Gelio had gone off with a botanist to work in Iquitos for 4 years, after which Fermin had taught him a little bit.
Wow. That was pretty serious. But all I had to go on were their different words: who to believe?
I chatted to Gelio, who now said he had gone to Iquitos from ages 16 – 20 but his grandfather had already taught him.
His older sister had another story: ‘Gelio was a right little rebel when he was a kid, he didn’t want to do any school work, so when he was 12 he got sent to Iquitos with a butterfly-catcher. He came back when he was 20.’
‘So how did he learn his medical knowledge?’
‘Oh, he always used to sit with our Dad and grandfather when they were in the mambeadero so he learnt it there.’
3 people, 4 different stories. What was clear was that Gelio had spent a few years of his adolescence in the city, and knows much less than he claims. As you can probably imagine, I was pretty pissed off.
I was also confused as to his motives. At the same time as I was making these enquiries – which I did in an incidental manner and about which I did not confront Gelio directly, although I let him know I was picking through the fictions – he not only continued to spin blatant yarns about his past but also helped me enter into the community with the explicit aim of understanding everyone’s point of view. He himself suggested that later on I needed to have in-depth discussions with each resident individually about their lives and hopes for themselves and Puerto Isango. I asked him if it was fine for me to write what I learned about him for the people in my land, even his fictions. ‘Of course, everything,’ he replied without skipping a beat.
So what was going on? I could see no real motive for what he was doing – both opening up his home reality and continuing with this charade of being a true wisdom-keeper when I could see through his lies the moment they came out of his mouth. I had also worded our agreement such that money could not be the motive.
For a few days I lost all faith in anything Gelio said or did and was wondering whether my report to the RGS would basically be telling them he is a monumental fraudster.
Fortunately, I won’t have to do that. I have found that Gelio really does have traditional medical knowledge and is both teaching me icarus and helping me understand the logic behind their cultural knowledge, as well as how to enter into the world of the spirits; he has also given me a personal and solid proof of his powers, which I will explain in the next post. In the meantime, Fermin, the truly knowledgeable patriarch, has accepted me as his apprentice.
But what was Gelio’s motive for the continued falseness while allowing me to understand the truth? I think I have worked it out, and Gelio has tacitly agreed with my analysis. The goal of his stories and self-misrepresentation is to build confidence – without which his medical powers are less effective. He has a great skill in creating stories on the spot and making them believable and has used this to great effect in Iquitos for a few years; they only start to fall down when one person learns enough to see that they cannot be true; probably no one has bothered to investigate them in the past, or cared as they have gradually discovered the holes. In bringing me to Puerto Isango, he really is opening his world up to me in a way he has never done before. He just didn’t realise at first that that also means he has to change strategy in order to keep my confidence – in this situation the fiction tactic backfires massively – and that in opening up his world he is of necessity opening up himself, including his frailties and weaknesses – something he has never before done with an outsider.

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A different definition of true

Ever since it was first ‘discovered’ by European explorers 500 years ago, the Amazon jungle has occupied a place as much in the Western imagination as in our knowledge of the real world. Cast variously as an Edenic paradise or a green hell, and containing everything fantastical from El Dorado through supernatural animals to wild Indians and demonised loggers, stories have been brought back that conjure the imagination but appear to do little to unravel the reality of this abundant wilderness that defies understanding.
It should be no surprise then that those who have lived here for millennia have outlooks equally steeped in the supernatural power of the jungle and live in a world of spirits and magic. Ever since I first came to the Peruvian Amazon last January, I have had the feeling of living in a mythological world. With a fisherman I have discussed the sirens as living, everyday creatures; a mechanic has described, with hilarious animation, an anaconda with yellow ears and gaping mouth that is so large it decides the routes of rivers; a lawyer has recounted the time she nearly got kidnapped by a trickster dwarf with a goat’s leg; and a woman working in insurance has told me of a vision she had of her unexpected future, which subsequently came true. Stories that sound completely absurd to us are taken for granted here.
When a Matses friend asked me in all seriousness if the story he had heard in a river town about ‘pela-caras’ – white people who go around peeling the faces off locals – was true, it would have been easy to laugh, but that would have been to ignore how genuinely wonder-filled and unpredictable the world really is. Only 50 years ago there actually were people who shrank their victims’ heads as magic fetishes and people who steal organs do exist. Not to mention the fact that the Matses’ own grandparents had the custom of eating their own relatives when they died, people have walked on the moon and I am personally capable of directly talking to relatives who are an almost unimaginably long distance away. So I just explained to him that it struck me as highly unlikely to be true, as I can see no reason why any white person might want to collect indigenous faces. Peeled faces simply aren’t worth anything.
But it was a story he had been told by people who really believe it, so why would he have disbelieved it? Even in our ‘rational’ world, one can only base one’s beliefs about the world beyond our personal experience on what other people say (or write) and how that fits in with our internal logic, itself based on the accumulation of our experiences.
Of course, he was referring to a second-hand story, a rumour or legend. But what about the stories I hear that are supposedly first-hand? Are they just pulling my leg, seeing what the gringo might believe? No, well not always at any rate, because they are often not talking to me, but telling each other stories. And they have hundreds. One friend claims to have come across an anaconda so long and strong that it lay straight across a 300m river, the current breaking across its back, with just a small gap at the tail end for my friend’s boat to pass.
Many of the tales, such as that anaconda, probably have explanations that are more reasonable to a western mind. And there is no doubt that they do embellish stories, pull legs and most confusingly of all, flip from anecdote to joke in the blink of an eye. Once a dark and serious story about a meeting with a demon at night turned into a penis joke; but a few days later the same person repeated the same story, with a different ending, when we passed the part of the river on which it had happened.
‘On which it had happened’? Really Paddy, I hear you say. Yes, on which it had happened. But I need to explain what that means. Such occurrences are experienced. Of that I have no doubt. But I have discovered that the question of whether they ‘actually’ happened, in an objective sense, is a non-starter. The work of the imagination and the work of the ‘spirits’ are inseparable and equally valid as explanations of subjectively occurring events. For example, when a friend was young, fearless and foolhardy, he spent the night at a saltlick when his mentor had told him he mustn’t because he wasn’t strong enough to defend himself against the spirit of the saltlick. Waiting there in the dark, he heard a gigantic creature stomp into the mud. The vague shadows suggested something monstrous. Shaking with bewilderment he fumbled his torch and it flicked on for a lightning stroke only, revealing the spirit in supernaturally enormous detail. Almost paralysed with fear he got the torch back on to reveal a perfectly ordinary tapir, but the feeling of it being the spirit of the saltlick stalled his trigger-finger. Returning home and recounting the story, his mentor laughed and told him not to disobey.
What had happened? Had his mentor called a spirit, or caused his young imagination to create something that was not there? A seemingly natural question, but not here. What matters here is that the subjective experience was that of a mighty creature. That experience was one caused by the mentor (or perhaps just not controlled by the youth) and the result was a severe case of the heebie-jeebies and an unsuccessful hunt. So as far as he is concerned, it definitely happened. The challenge is not to discover the ‘reality’ of the event, but to learn how to cause and control such occurrences in future – that is the power of the elder.
In fact, in this worldview, both explanations are correct. It is true that a spirit came through the jungle to the saltlick. And it is true that the youth’s imagination caused him to see something that wasn’t really there. Strange though it may sound, in this land, there is no single objective reality that is the correct one, the exclusive truth.
I discovered this while listening to myths. Myths and stories are often placed in the ‘first generation’, a kind of once-upon-a-time device, a time in which many things were possible that no longer are. When I was first told some of these last year, I asked, are they true? Did they really happen just like that? Yes, was always the reply.
The Bora and the Murui have very different creation stories. Yet not only do they not argue about which happened, which is true, they say both are true. Many people here have also studied the Bible, and say that that too is indeed God’s word, really happened and is ‘true’. Plus they have no problem in considering that the scientific theory of creation is ‘true’. That’s four creation stories, to us mutually exclusive, but all apparently true!
And this isn’t just a result of cross-cultural comparison. Within the Bora / Ocaina wisdom (most of their stories are the same), there are various characters who are the protagonists of multiple stories. Some of these stories encompass entire life-paths for these characters, including death. All of these stories are ‘true’, seeming to imply that the characters lived multiple lives and died multiple deaths. A bit of a stretch.
Fermin’s words to explain his belief in all the creation stories get us somewhere towards understanding: ‘They are the same story told in different words.’ In other words, what is true, what is real, what matters, is not the detail of each story but what we would call the symbolism within the stories. There is a strange phrase that is sometimes used about literature – ‘fiction can be truer than reality’. It seems that here a shorter, sharper and stranger version of that phrase is taken for granted: fiction is true.

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The Fly

There is an enormous fly in the jungle. It is as big as my thumbnail. Its buzz matches its bulk, and its feet must secrete some foul substance – as soon as it lands on you they cause irritation.
The other day, as we were walking home, one of these nasty monsters buzzed around me.

Zzzzzznhhzzzzztsszzzzzz…. It really is annoying. Soon it landed on my neck and I had my chance – whack – got it. Catching the body in my hand I rolled it between my fingers. Gosh it was a satisfying crunch and splurge as it cracked and burst. Discarding the broken wings and gooey white innards, I looked up to the trees in peace.

Zzzzzzznnhhhzzzzztssszzzz…. Not 5 seconds had passed and the buzzing was back. Again, it landed on my neck. Crunch, splurge.

Zzzzzzzznnnnhhzzzzzz….. Another! Crunch, splurge.

Jesus. 7 flies I killed, still counting. There was never more than a few seconds between each fly, and the only time 2 were flying around me was when an interloper dropped back, bored of annoying Gelio.
After the seventh death, I realised there was a lesson to learn: in the jungle there is no point in trying to get rid of every annoyance, the challenge is to ignore them. Still, I killed at least 2 more.

But how is this even possible? Every time I killed a fly, a fly hopped straight back up, with immaculate timing. They never overlapped in their quest to annoy. Suspending rationality for a second, the logic of the immediate situation seemed to suggest the same blasted fly was just hauling itself back together and having another go at pissing me off. I mean, why else would there always be one and only one fly around me the whole time, however successful my swatting??

The local people do not believe in reincarnating flies. But it seems to me this is one, admittedly slightly pathetic, everyday example of the overwhelming irrationality of this jungle world. If even flies can act with such illogical aplomb, imagine what anacondas, jaguars, and the airs of the night might be capable of….

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Wake Up!

On our second day hunting, Gelio was lagging behind in the morning. After 4 years in Iquitos, the long jungle hikes are something it took him a short while to get used to and as well as the 5 hour hunt the day before, he had been out ‘mahaseando’, hunting agouti and fishing in the small streams, until 2am. After about half an hour I stopped to wait for him; when he caught up he was rubbing an eye – a particularly vicious wasp had stung him right on it.
Now, for the Ocaina, nothing happens by accident, so this had to be some kind of sign from Ham-woh, the jungle god. I didn’t ask at the time, figuring I would find out in our evening debrief, but I did wonder. It was an interesting hunt; among much else, I had my first plunge through a swampy aguajal; I learned to recognise irapay, a short palm whose leaves are used for roofing; Duro shot a huapo (a kind of monkey); and I got a good smell of ‘Pichihuayo’, a tree whose resin supposedly smells like an unwashed woman. When we were returning in the afternoon and about an hour from the village, I was exhausted. We had been hunting for over 6 hours, during which we hadn’t eaten anything; and my coca had run out. Coca powder provides slow release energy and dulls hunger, so now it had gone the pangs of an empty stomach called out loudly and I felt drained. I had no interest in the hunt and just wanted to be home.
A wasp rose from the ground in front of me and came straight at my face. It flew behind my glasses with the skill of a red arrow and landed on my eyelid. Panicking slightly – a jungle wasp in your eye is pretty scary – I threw my gun to the ground and shook off my glasses, but not before getting stung on the bottom eyelid. I cried out and Duro and Gelio came running, only to burst out laughing when they found out it was a wasp – rather than a poisonous snake for instance.
‘Estas de malas ganas, pues,’ Gelio chided, knowing full well I was knackered. It means I didn’t want to be out and was feeling fed up. So there it was – the message from Ham-woh was that I should wake up.
Once I had put on my glasses and cleaned the mud out of my gun, I was astonished to discover that my eyes were wide open. I really was looking at the jungle properly again. Not only that, but I felt energetic. The sting barely hurt and I genuinely felt much better for the rest of the journey, there was almost a swing in my step. It might be a slightly sadistic medicine Ham-woh had cooked up, but it worked!
Now is a good time, I think, to explain a bit about my attitude to such beliefs held here that are somewhat contrary to a Western outlook. I come from a scientific background and am generally skeptical of arbitrary beliefs. But I am delving into the spiritual world of indigenous Amazonians, and am doing so as much as possible on their terms. I am doing my best to put aside my preconceptions and fully enter into this world – discovering its own internal logic. I do not exactly ‘believe’ anything – I simply take what I am told, understand it as best I can and look out for evidence as to whether or not it seems to concur with life as I experience it.
I was told Ham-woh controls all, so if something out of the ordinary happens I try to guess why, find out what they think and then consider whether it is consistent with my experiences. In this case, it really seems to have worked perfectly. Gelio was ‘de malas ganas’ in the morning and got stung in the eye. I was ‘de malas ganas’ in the afternoon and got stung in the eye. Not only that, but the sting really did help me wake up and look around. From a scientific outlook, this can surely only be explained as fluke. Sure, wasp stings relatively common around here, and they generally aim for bare skin, often the face. Annoying little insects are attracted to sweaty, tired bodies. But there have been ample opportunities for an eye-sting when we are not ‘de malas ganas’ and they have never been taken up. Point to Ham-woh.

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Sights, sounds, smells

Jungle hunting involves spending many hours hiking about straining for any sign of edible animals – ‘edible’ meaning large enough to warrant a shot. It is not at all easy. There are still quite a few animals in the local area, although most have ‘gone away’. But ‘quite a few’ is a relative term – despite its reputation, the jungle is actually pretty barren when it comes to large animals – and those that are here know full well that humans mean trouble.
Hence the hours of hiking, scanning the ground and canopy with eyes, ears and even nose in search of food. The jungle makes this just about as hard to do as could be possible. Not only is the ground almost entirely covered in leaf litter, but where earth does show through there is an intricate patterning of vaguely print-like indents to confuse a beginner. The monumental confusion of the multi-layered canopy includes branch nodules, termites nests, shadows and who knows what else that look a bit like animals to a hopeful and hungry novice. Even the locals say spotting an animal that isn’t moving is difficult. You really need to know what you are looking for.
One day, on the way home after 6 unsuccessful hours, Elio spotted some monkeys off to our left – ‘vamos’ – we plunged through an horrendous thicket of saplings and lianas that left me cursing and swearing until we reached an enormous tree. They were howler monkeys, which are pretty big, but head up to the very top when humans are near. After a few minutes of looking from various vantage points, Elio spotted one and pointed it out. It was a tiny red spot that looked like a seed, but was apparently the underarm of a howler. I was distinctly unconfident about taking that shot so we tried for a better view. There wasn’t one, and when we returned to that point he had moved and vanished.
Sounds are also important. The jungle is not a loud place; when you are not listening very hard, all you hear are the trills of insects and chirps of small birds. At times there is a swishing of branches that might mean monkeys – but more often is just the wind or a rotten branch cracking. Many other animals make their own noises as they wander about in search of food, so you should strain to hear them in the distance. When doing this you become aware of the quiet cacophony around you. There are literally millions of different insects here, each with their own personal anthem, and the wings of many birds hum to some extent – here the humming bird is not called the humming bird as it is not a particularly unusual characteristic. So as you strain in hope of hearing the grunt of a peccary in the distance you must try to distinguish it from the myriad sounds on the edge of hearing; and when you are not certain exactly what a peccary’s grunt sounds like it is surprisingly difficult to tell whether you are hearing a loud noise a long way away or a quiet one close by. And after a couple hours of listening, I am pretty sure either my mind or the jungle provides the extra challenge of adding in occasional noises made by something that can’t be seen…
Smell is probably the sense I take least notice of in my life at home, but here it must not be taken for granted. The fresh jungle air is an olfactory delight. Apart from the Pichihuayo, a tree you can smell for metres, there are new smells round every corner, such as the sweet aroma of parinari, a tasty fruit. The smell of the inner bark is a useful identifier of many trees and lianas, but most importantly of all, animals smell. Jaguars hunt mainly by smell. While our noses are not that well attuned, many animals smell enough to give themselves away. Last year I only learned the smell of sajino, a species of peccary that has a rank stench, but now I know that armadillo, paca and huangana, another peccary, all smell as well. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to describe a smell, you just have to experience it and remember it, and in such an aromatic area it is easy to get confused. The other day, day 5 of our peccary hunting, everyone was out and determined to find the herd we had been told was on the other side of the river. I was with Fermin, the old and experienced patriarch, and we were on tracks made by a small splinter group earlier that day. He paused and sniffed. ‘I can smell them.’ That was when I learned that huangana smell, so I took a whiff and my nose immediately locked on to the distinctive scent. As we walked on, I could sometimes smell it but not always. Rather different to sajino, I mused, with their sharp stink. This is more like a musty grandpa smell. It gradually dawned on me I might not be smelling huangana. A couple days before Fermin had said he doesn’t bother to bathe when his wife is away (she was) and he is an old man… A discrete olfactory investigation revealed it was true, I was on the scent of Fermin. I still don’t know what huangana smell like.

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El Centro

In the Ocaina jungle, no one is ever lucky. Ham-woh, the jungle god, controls all. If you want protection from the snakes, falling branches and jaguars, you’d better ask him nicely. If you are hoping to catch food for your family, it is he who can give you the opportunity. But you’d better be alert and take every opportunity you get. If you are out in his land when tired and longing for home, he might send a wasp to sting you in the eye and wake you up. It’s a tough love from the jungle god.
I am deep in primary jungle. On the outskirts of this tiny, decrepit village there is fallow for a few minutes’ walk, after which there is undisturbed jungle that is effectively never-ending. Amongst the trunks soaring to the canopy are saplings waiting for their chance to reach upwards, along with a great variety of ferns and ground palms. Trees

El Centro

El Centro

with every conceivable bark – smooth, rough, flaky, spiky; white, orange, brown, mottles of all kinds – are hung with lianas, leading up into the canopy itself, a silent green catastrophe of leaves and branches, a frozen leaf storm.
The jungle is far from uniform. The most obvious and useful areas are aguajales, swampy areas colonised by palms such as aguaje and ungurahui, whose fruits are beloved of both man and beast, and colpas, saltlicks, mud-ponds to which animals come to get their ration of salt. But there are many other variations, sandy areas where trees are smaller, periodically flooding areas, and so on.
Usually, we walk along footpaths. These criss-cross the undulating ground, fording the numerous meandering streams on logs, but are marked only by footfalls through the leaf litter and the minimum of hacked undergrowth to allow single-file passage. If a footpath has been unused for a few months, it blends seamlessly back into the jungle and is visible only in memory.
Of course, the indigenous people know the local area like you know your street, but for me it is not so easy. Last year, when I first came to the jungle, I literally got lost after walking 10 metres from the path, just like they told us when we were kids. I am happy to find that this year I have quickly got more accustomed, but I am still green as a leaf. I felt I was starting to recognise the main paths and have a bit of a sense of direction (where’s home?) but sometimes think I am on a completely different path until I come to a stream with its unique log bridge – the first and easiest marker posts. Otherwise, it’s experience that counts – places are slowly becoming ‘where we turned off into the aguajal’, ‘where we saw howler monkeys’, or ‘where there was the enormous jaguar footprint’. Because I was not joking about jaguars. We share our local territory with an enormous male whose pawprint is almost as big as my hand. One day Gelio pointed out a shrubby plant flattened across the path – ‘it’s a jaguar, challenging us,’ he said, then uncovered a paw-print to prove it. Fortunately in the local area they have become afraid of men with their guns – these guys say jaguar meat is tasty.
5 year old Luis with the breakfast parrots

5 year old Luis with the breakfast parrots

Hunting is the main reason for entering the jungle. Elio, like most locals, is a professional peccary hunter. Which is to say, apart from hunting and farming to feed his family, he mainly relies on selling bushmeat to buy the basic goods needed to bring up his kids, and around here the most plentiful bushmeat is huangana, a kind of peccary that marauds through the forest in herds of up to several hundred. Most of Elio’s evening stories about successful huangana hunts on which he killed 10 or more of this seemingly inexhaustible species, and the first day we were out, he spotted some tracks from the day before. After excitedly repeating ‘ayer’ several times he confidently predicted their likely path, heading towards an aguajal and then circling round to a colpa. We then spent 5 days searching for various herds of peccary that kept arriving, but we always seemed to be a day behind.
To rub salt in the wound, on day 5 we were all out hunting except Flu, who stayed behind to laze on the porch – he is truly ‘The Dude’ of the Amazon. When we returned empty-handed in the afternoon, we found Flu looking somewhat aghast. ‘The huangana attacked me,’ he moaned. It turned out a huge herd had come right up to the house in the morning! Flu had got out an old shotgun and let off 3 shots without killing a single animal! Gelio and I went for a running reccy to find out which direction they had gone, but it was too late, they were far off to the north by then and out of reach. Flu is the butt of many jokes, but that evening everyone was genuinely pissed at him. The phrase of the night was ‘tu eres verdamente un danadazo’ – ‘you really are one seriously damaged individual’.
The next day, we gave up. While a herd running up to the house should definitely provide dinner (and a small fortune for Elio), it turns out that peccary are very hard to find – even a herd is hard enough to track here that you need to find tracks made in the last hour to be able to catch up, and despite Elio’s invincible confidence they are basically a law unto themselves and can go in any direction.
Fortunately, as the community is so small and the jungle rich, we have had no problem with food. Fish is the most reliable staple but the menu has included a six-foot eel, small alligators, parrots, rats, a tiger heron, paca, agouti, and more. I have even had a success – with my first shot I got a small bird called a ‘montete’. Being a single meal, I wasn’t particularly proud, but Elio saw it differently – small is hard to shoot – ‘asi tu eres un maaldito de balea,’ he exclaimed with gun-popping fingers, which is the local equivalent of ‘so you’re a badman with a shotgun?’ ‘Of course’, I replied, but whether that is really true is yet to be seen…

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Mamba and Ampiri

Mamba and ampiri, or coca powder and tobacco paste, are the fundaments of this culture. In the words of Fermin, ‘They contain many words, much wisdom, they are our bible.’ He meant that in a very literal sense. It is only with the power of coca and tobacco that sabiduria, cultural wisdom, can be accessed and spoken by the wisdom-keepers. These words have come in visions to their ancestors, directly from God and through the spirits of coca and tobacco. Only by communing with those spirits through their physical substances can the sabiduria be accessed – in a very real sense, coca and tobacco contain the sabiduria.
But it is not just for sabiduria that these sacred substances are used. They are essential ingredients of any successful hunt, any evening chat (even if it is just about past successful hunts or how many English girls I should bring with me next time), or for working the chakra. When we are a bit short, as he pours himself a small spoonful at dusk, Gelio jokes, ‘this is just to be able to look.’
While coca powder comes from the same plant as cocaine, it is processed and consumed in a different way and has totally different effects. The coca leaves are picked from mature plants, toasted until dry (you can tell this from the way the leaves rustle as you swish them around the cauldron), then smashed up in a special, sacred smasher-upper.

Working late in 'the office': toasting coca

Working late in ‘the office': toasting coca

In the meantime, dried leaves from a certain kind of tree (fortunately the first to grow in the fallow) are burnt to ash, and this is added to the coca powder. The coarse powder is sieved through cloth, the remains being smashed again until it all gets through. Finally, it is time to imbibe. To do this, you pour a spoon or 3 into your mouth. It is a very dry powder so be careful – if any gets to the back of your throat you will have a coughing fit; in which case you should spit it quickly into any suitable receptacle, such as your cap, wash your mouth out with water and put the same stuff in again. Waste not want not. In your mouth, mixing with saliva it gradually becomes a paste you can store in your cheeks gerbil-style, allowing it to gradually absorb into your bloodstream. It is best to keep it in your cheeks without being liquefied and swallowed for as long as possible. The custom around here is to pour it all in at the start and make it last, so my cheeks are getting a bit of a stretching.
For the tobacco paste, the tobacco leaves are dried and then put in water which is boiled, being stirred almost continuously, until almost all the water evaporates. The solid bits of leaves are discarded and the result is a thick brown paste. This is then mixed with sal de monte – jungle salt – which is distilled from palm trees and is a foul, chemically white powder similar to salt.
As to the effects, apart from making you a vessel for the words of the jungle god. Coca powder makes you alert and gives you stamina. It concentrates the mind, slowing an excited one or speeding a tired one, while making your thoughts much more organised and giving you the ability to concentrate for hours on end. So it is perfect for oral learning, or listening to interminable stories about successful peccary hunts after 5 days of unsuccessful hunting, for example. It also staves off hunger and gives you slow-release energy – perfect for hunting or farm work. In fact, it really is very good for anything that involves concentration and organised thinking – I find it perfect for writing while here, and am ‘mambeando’ as I write this. I have also been reliably informed by everyone I have asked, both indigenous people and anthropologists who have used it on and off for decades, that it is in no way addictive. It is said to have various medicinal values and there is no evidence that it does any harm (apart from sore cheeks as they stretch). So please don’t worry, Mum.
Tobacco paste seems to me the less important of the 2 but I have been informed it is the reverse – the coca powder is the background for the power of tobacco. This is dabbed onto the tongue using a little stick. It is extremely strong tobacco essence so, although taken in tiny quantities, has much stronger effects than smoking. The effect is that it
Making jungle salt: stalk inedible; crown acceptable; absurdity encouraged.

Making jungle salt: stalk inedible; crown acceptable; absurdity encouraged.

‘opens’ ones senses, making you receptive to all sensual input, especially sounds. So on our second day hunting (when one should have all senses on high alert at all times), on which morning Gelio had informed me he had dreamt of a man sleeping alone, I found that with coca but no tobacco paste I was concentrating hard on my own stream of consciousness rather than the sights and sounds of the jungle. I guessed that lonely man was the power of tobacco we had been neglecting. It was. We dipped into the tobacco paste, which immediately opened me up to the jungle.
At certain times you also gulp down a lot of it in one go, as liquid or in pellets, in order to vision. This gives you an immediate stomach ache – it is poison after all – and slowly intoxicates you until, if you are lucky or practiced, you have a vision. Then you go be sick so as not to absorb too much poison. This seems to be done fairly rarely though. We did it twice while I was living in the Curuinsi maloca in Iquitos last year but I have never seen it done before or since, although Gelio says we will do so when we come back in September to open up, get any visionary advice and be ready for some proper learning.
So those are the basics of the Ocaina & Bora sacred substances. There is an awful lot more to them – the stories and songs around them are very important and they also form the basis of many of the icarus (medicinal spells). But I will have to wait to learn those until I return and make my own mamba and ampiri, and so shall you.

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