Escape from Iquitos,…. (literally)

Sometimes traveling to special or exotic places means getting needing to get through some that aren’t so much. Many larger cities require stop throughs in order to get to the ultimate destination. To me anyway, Iquitos is one of those gateways.

I am sure there is beauty, grace and elegance that can be found just about anywhere in this world if we look in the right places. To be fair I have only been to Iquitos twice; once in the dry season and now in the wet season. My experiences here are simply mine, however they are genuine of course and come from an honest yet western perspective. 

To properly set the stage for the insanity just to get to the airport and ultimately my flight back to Lima, a description for those who do not know this place is necessary and the mindset of the people who run this place.

The fact that the tributary that feeds this beautiful river that eventually empties all the way to the Atlantic Ocean of the other side of Brasil is depressing to say the least. It runs directly through the famous or infamous south eastern barrio, Belen (little Bethlehem) where every vile piece of garbage, including human and animal waste, plastic bottles and every other conceivable piece of trash floats out and down river as if was a giant toilet being constantly flushed. Case in point: when I asked  how the kids can swim in the water, brush their teeth in it, swallow it, the response I got was ” no problemo, the water just takes it all away. It was simple as that and said a self satisfying smile assuring me it was all Okay. There was no consideration to where this vile waste of every imaginable description goes. I’m not even convinced there is ever a second thought by most here.

Even hours down river evidence of the plastic bottles can be found everywhere. The amazon is so big, deep and wide that it will eventually disperse it to a point if you go far enough down river; it’s aesthetic beauty remains in tact. So coming out of those areas back to Iquitos can be a tough challenge for some one like me, who cringes at the prospects of loosing such important raw wild places like this to urbanization and lack of respect for the resources and gifts that are literally being pissed all over daily.

Iquitos is a stark contrast to the utter peace, quiet and non chaotic temperate balance of the jungle. It’s a tough place to assimilate back to the World after such an experience, but before I detour completely away from the purpose of this article a focus on the temperament of it people is necessary starting it’s elected officials, who are mostly corrupt and are responsible more crime than protecting against it. 
When asking an ex-pat, Gerald Mayeaux who publishes the only bilingual monthly publication here,(The Amazon News),he elaborated on an event I had no idea was about to happen and find myself in the middle of. He even published a carton of a woman and a their fighting over her purse in a tug o war. Originally there was a police officer completely ignoring the incident. Gerald toned it down a but to exclude the office and add the wild, wild west slogan with a clear warning to travelers and locals alike; “open your third eye!!! See all around you to avoid risk!!!” Basically that sums up this city, unfortunately.

There are a large group of construction workers here who are supported by buddies in the local government and police who are nothing more than common thugs who will seize any opportunity to pray on the weaker, unsuspecting and more benign crowd that lives here as well as tourist with their guard down. Just like the gangs back home in the States, they recruit and embolden the youngest of the boys also to prove themselves in the usual machismo to run the streets like wild dogs. The idea of a mob mentality is triggered here in an instant and can easily get out of hand.

Until breakfast, the day before my flight to Lima I had no idea that the very thing I have been describing was about to erupt in a planned 48 hour “protest” which goal is to shut down every store, resource, bank, gas station and airport. A few days with out business as usual is about all it takes to shut down the city and cripple it financially for a while. This along with the blatant disorder which leaves car windows smashed and the streets ablaze with fires on each intersection is an attempt to intimidate through lawless anarchy. It’s also an excuse to many to get drunk and run the streets and further disregard the limited laws that would normally otherwise protect visitors against such disarray. Another words, it’s party time and maybe a time to et free stuff thats not secured down well enough. We’ve seen it right here in Los Angeles; why not there?

Being here in the low season is wonderful as there are very few tourist compared to the dryer months. However for every plus there is a minus; and this one revolved on my ability to blend in. A 6’3” 215 lbs gringo here can not blend in, no matter two hard I try. So when the sun slipped behind the horizon and darkness crept across the streets with enlogated shadows, it was time for me to get inside.

I was invited to stay with one of the locals here and his place had extra security for he and his family and I was grateful for that. Right about midnight I could hear people clamoring around out on the streets. This would be followed up by random yells, other loud noises and even a few small explosions. By 2:30 am I had to take a peak, but the bars in the from room only allowed me to look directly straight into the street in front. There was no way I was going to undo the 2 x 4 plank which secured the large metal door from the inside and venture out for a better look and open myself and this family to any insanity outside that wanted in. So I went back to bed and listened to the noise hoping the louder they got, the more drunk they were and ultimately the heavier they would sleep in the morning, which hopefully was an opportunity for me and my driver to scramble for the airport. My host, Guido told me there would be no taxis as they did not want to risk broken windows or worse. As for the motorbikes or 3 wheeled tuk-tuks, the fear was branches or broom handles being shoved in between spokes from other cars or motorcycles who obviously were out to sweep the streets and ensure no one gets in or out of town. He had a friend who would help me out but not with out a lot of hesitation. So I offered quadruple what a normal taxi to the airport which he accepted.

At first I thought this was a scam, but it only took a few minutes into the ride to see that it was anything but. Many out there had flat tires from all the glass and our tuk-tuk kept throwing its chain. It was easy to feel very vulnerable sitting there with my two bags full of camera gear while he scrambled as fast as possible to reengage the chain and speed off again before anyone took notice. As we approached the airport after about 25 minutes of weaving in and out of glass, trash, tree branches and cinder blocks I could not have been happier to see the entrance for the airport. I knew if something happened here I could at least make a break for it and take my chances on foot. In fact, thats about what happened.
There was a group of angry people at the gate along side airport police who informed my driver he could not go in.

I jumped out and explained to the officer my flight was flying today and after a few minutes of him talking to my driver and another cop allowed me to pass on foot and carry my bags into the terminal area. It was sweltering and each step produced streams of sweat but I did not care as each step into the basically abandoned airport was one more step away from this place and closer to my friends waiting in Lima for me.

I always keep one set of clean clothes for occasions just like this. After changing and washing up and holding an actual ticket in my hand was one of he best feelings I could imagine.

As I recounted the nights and this days events, I struggled between the idea that I missed some more of this story by not going out and witnessing it with my own eyes and the fact that I had enough understanding of this place to know that would not have ended up well for me or anyone around me. Maybe just reading about the Swiss Associated Press photographer (Anja Niedringhaus) who was just killed by a member of her own security team (the unit commander) while on the way to cover the elections there helped me. A week later I reflect back and am thankful I did not risk more than necessary and count my blessings I never was cornered or directly threatened.

Iquitos is no Afghanistan or any other place like it, for sure. But the point here is some of these remote places are no joke either. Especially where extreme poverty and corrupt politics and police services all are intertwined. I still struggle with the idea of random acts of violence which can erupt anywhere in an instant at the drop of a hat. Do your homework and always have a plan B and understand that our rules don’t apply abroad. Never mind bullets, one brick, rock or bottle can change everything; and even end a life with out warning.

The cartoon in the local newspaper nailed it telling everyone to keep you heads up and on a swivel. Loose the smart phone and take off the head phones for a while and get an idea of the place you are exploring and understand the pulse of the people around you.

It just may save your trip and possibly your life.

One for our troops

One for our troops

While shooting for an agency of this 10 yr old boy, it was easy to tell he was done with all the outfits with bow ties, polo shirts and several others. We needed to get through yet another wardrobe change before calling it quits.
So I promised him that if he did this one last change and showed extra enthusiasm for the last part of our photo session, he could then go into his closet and pick out anything he wanted to photograph as a bonus.
He gave me a big smile and I began to get intrigued with what he’d pick. His dad played in the NFL for many years and is in the top 10 all time in scoring. So I was imagining him in one of his many uniforms with a helmet. When he walks out in the gear in the photo I took attached, I was floored. His heroes all revolve around our troops and his knowledge of US military history was amazing..
So I asked the obvious question; why this outfit?
He did not hesitate as he thought it could be a nice Christmas tribute to all of those men and women over seas fighting for our country and ultimately freedom, as they must really miss their families during the holidays. We obviously were shooting in late December and like most shoots I do, there are always surprises.
This one was no different and was an honor to photograph and learn more about JD, an amazing kid

Little Trouble in Big Bangkok

Serendipity is an amazing thing.

As I was looking through some old photos from a trip to Thailand a few years ago, I noticed many of my favorite shots and memories were a direct result of the least favorite memory I had over there.

After a sleepless and long flight from LA, through Tokyo and on to Bangkok, I found myself completely overwhelmed as the cab dropped me off in his words “somewhere very close to my hotel.”  One of the few things I do when traveling to a remote or unfamiliar place is book the first night or two after reading several reviews from various travel sites. I like to get a little bearing on where I am and find better places once I am there and develop a loose itinerary. 

Only problem was that this hotel was on a walk street that looked like the one right before it and the one right after. Aside form the fact that the signs were really of no help, that it was 2:30 am and oh yeah, the sidewalks were crowded as if a major sporting event just ended, I just clutched my camera bags as hard as I could and made my way through the crowd asking anyone and everyone who knew possibly where my hotel was. FInally I got lucky with one old man who with out ever looking directly at me, just pointed me in the right direction through the maze of drunks, peddlers, and tourist (who could be described in the “drunks” category as well.

After 30 or so minutes wandering around with both arms starting to cramp from the death grip I had around everything that was valuable, finally found the Dynasty Inn. It was an understated, small and friendly place and the english was pretty good. It may as well have been the Four Seasons for all I was concerned and with how tired I was. After a non eventful and quick check in, it was upstairs to a cool shower (as it was still sweltering out) and a very deep sleep.

Not so fast. It donned on me I had not sent word back home that I made it in here in one piece to Laura. So I dried off threw my clothes back on and headed downstairs to have them help me with hooking up to the wireless internet. When I was told it was down, I reluctantly headed out back into the chaotic and seemingly intertwined mass of people under neon lights celebrating God only knows; where I remember walking past an internet cafe before.

It was only a block and a half away, but was no easy walk as there simply was no room to walk on these sidewalks. From the tailors or suit brokers trying to fit me for a brand new suit, street walkers walking right up to me, and food vendors wanting me to buy things I have never ever seen before. On top of all this the cool shower I took 5 minutes ago became a distant memory as felt like 95 degree and the humidity was as thick as molasses, the last thing wanted was any human interaction at all. I vividly remember one instance where I was avoiding a female(?) “masseuse” as a running back would an aggressive linebacker and practically had to stiff arm her as I bumped into a man walking the opposite direction. I said “excuse me”, shed the masseuse and scurried along to the cafe. Thats pretty much all I remember from that night.

When I woke up to the filtered glare of the sun streaming through the blinds, I just felt great. I was so excited to finally see Thailand, photograph it and feel the vibrations of a place I have only dreamt about until now. As I showered yet again. (Showers were a normal breaks in the day for me as carrying around a large camera bag filled with lenses in this heat was not comfortable.) But I would have time to get used to it and acclimate. (Loose, baggy and light clothes work best here but pay special attention in Thailand to the colors you decide to wear as there is more than a passionate rift between the Royal Thai Gov’t or the Thaksin Regime which is a monarchy and those who oppose it. Stay away from Yellow as it can show support for a party you never intended to do so and just be neutral.)   As I dug through the pockets of the pants I wore from the airport and out to the internet cafe last night, my heart began to pump more and more frantically with each pocket that did not contain my wallet, and with with all the credit cards and (14) crispy, brand new $100 bills, drivers lic., etc, etc…

The panic consumed me as neither the pants, or anywhere around the chair I folded them over had any clue of it. At about this time I realized in my tired state last night, I committed the cardinal sin of traveling to a big city, anywhere. I left my wallet in my back pocket and never gave it a second thought. I believe subliminally, when I made it back safely last night to the room with all my camera gear present and in tact, I had “made it” and I basically turned off my overly stimulated brain once and for all.

I dropped my guard and simply never gave the wallet or its contents another thought. Lesson forever learned. I now travel with money belts, and have good hiding places and always spread out cards and cash any time I ever travel anymore. The image of that man I bumped into suddenly flashed like a white light and the realization of what happened to me crashed down on me with a thud. I had been pick pocketed!

Reflecting back, I remember being so upset with 2 things more that anything upon that realization. One would think that right at the top of that list would be loosing my entire cash savings and all my credit cards along with needing to replace all my other cards like drivers license, scuba license, gift cards (which I also have no idea why they were even in there) and a great lesson to anyone traveling to ONLY bring the absolute necessary cards and information and leave the rest at home. I mean, why bring a drivers license if you are not going to drive and have a passport, right? I also highly recommend you xerox a copy of your passport and carry that with you around during the day while you keep the original locked in a safe in the room as well. Well I accomplished all of this with in the first hour of setting foot here.

Anyway, I digress. The 2 most infuriating points stemmed from the fact was that I know better than this. First, only a complete novice would stick a fat wallet in a rear, unzipped or otherwise protected pocket in a city like this and expect anything less. Knowing what to do is one thing, actually doing the obvious while tired is a whole different thing. I still have problems reconciling the fact that no matter how tired I was, I simply knew better.

The second thing that to this day, a few years later that chaps my ass is that I actually apologized to the actual thief. I can clearly picture him splitting the cash and cards with accomplices as I am sure there were a few, and giggling not over the amount of money and cards, but the fact I actually apologized to him as he was taking my possessions. “stupid American, maybe next time he will thank us too.” There wont be a next time dirt bag. I hope 🙂

So when I was not on the phones for long hours with banks and credit card companies blocking all charges (and there were already many piling up out there) except for the hotel that swiped the card, I had to find things to do in an around Bangkok, with only 200 baht (basically $6US) for another few days until more funds arrived through my bank to a Western Union.

First of all, thank God I was in one of the cheapest cities in the World to get by on basically nothing. If I ate, and got my water from the hotel with the card on file, I really didn’t need any money walking around with my camera as much as with many other places I have been. In fact, if I woke up early enough, as I did the next few mornings, I could see the streets, quietly and with out the crowds and possible see Thailand for what it really is; a place where hard work and family values is revered as paramount and the people friendly and of course visit the amazing Wats (Temples) the Buddhist monks all attended to pray each day.

I walked with one particular group of monks before the sun rose as they collected alms through out the streets before they headed to the temples and prayed for World Peace amongst other chantings. The elders were gracious to allow me to watch, listen, learn and photograph them from them as long as I stayed respectful and did into interfere. Store keepers and early shoppers (all Thai) for food and flowers showed such compassion and reverence for each barefooted, orange cloaked monk old or young, and gave something for them to use for that day and in return were further blessed.

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As I listened to the low hypnotic, reverberating chanting in Wat Arun and the sun began to rise in the sacred place they also call the Temple of Dawn, an incredible sense of peace swept through me as I realized that I most likely would not be here unless I got ripped off. The initial plan was to hop on a train and head down to Pucket and on the first ferry to get to one of those beautiful islands surrounded by the warm, emerald Adaman Sea.

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As a Christian, it felt like such an honor to be invited with a smile into someone else house of worship with out judgement and as if I was just one of them and with complete acceptance. The monks were benevolent, friendly and had their own sense of humor especially with the kids I adored. To witness all of this in an amazing temple artfully built sometime back in 1656AD before relocated on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River a few hundred years later was almost overwhelming. More so, I had the entire place including the grounds to myself. The gates did not even open to the normal tourist until 8am as I just slipped in with my new pals both mornings. By then, I was gone…Image

Then I prepared myself for the long walk back and visited other hot spots along the way, like the Giant Reclining Buddha one has to see in person to actually believe as it is so big. Al the while no retuning warm smiles to the locals who I am sure were not used to seeing westerns up so early it the morning here. But that’s just a guess. I know I did not see any.

The real point of all of this and the revelation I made here and now take with me every place I go can serve as a great tool for anyone who travels and things don’t go as planned.

Just because my own stupidity led me down the wrong path I regret, I have to own it and not blame anyone but myself. Doing so, wont allow the incident to take ahold of my ability to enjoy this trip the way it as meant; with an open heart.

As soon as this little internal conversation concluded, I was walking down a very wide sidewalk outside the high walls of another Temple I did not know much about. It was just about 8 am and my entire day was a complete success. But there was a shifty looking Thai man somewhere in his 50’s, who I noticed on the other side of this walkway headed my way who kind of switch lanes which ultimately would lead us into each other if i stayed the course. I didn’t. I put my head down and kind of meandered to the other side of the walkway and when I looked back up to gauge where this guy was, he was suddenly right there in front of me..

My guard was still up as one camera over my shoulder was clear for everyone to see and the bag behind me obviously packed with lots of other goodies was revealed as the straps pulled the front of my shoulders back. The article I read on the airplane over about the tuk tuk drivers ripping tourist off and should be avoided at all cost was not helping me here as they were buzzing by every were I walked.

So I am now literally face to face with this guy who I felt 100 yrds or so back was eye balling me for God knows what. I began to move to the side to let him by. He smiled this big smile (for the life of me, I cant remember his name, but could never forget the big gap in his teeth as he smiled) and asked how I was doing.

Here we go; right?

What am I going to say to this goofball to just make him go away and not be rude about it. So I said I was just fine and headed back to my hotel to unpack and catch a train.

Now anyone who knows how to avoid someone will be scratching their head at this knowing this is way too much info to give a stranger who I think is about to roll me, or try to. But something funny happened to me in the middle of my reply which made me elaborate just a bit more than I would have. I repelled my initial sense about this guy almost by strong-arming the feeling right out of me..I reminded myself of my pledge not to allow the stolen wallet change my outlook and strip me of whole purpose here.

I added that it was a tough day and a half in Bangkok, and told him what happened after he asked why in decent english, but a thick local accent. He asked me if I had seen a few of the sites like Wat In, Wat Saket and rattled off 3 other places, to which I said I had I had not. Also unfortunately there wasn’t enough time as the train was leaving in 3.5 hours to head to the islands. I also added that I was also out of money as well and could not take a cab to those places and pay for it except for a few Baht left over.

He then took the paper I had in my hand and wrote down a list of 5 places and underneath it wrote 50 Baht. He handed the paper back to me and the always universal proclamation of “No Problem” slipped out on cue and he smiled again and said I could see them all in a few hours as they were pretty close.

Before I could say no, as my head was now swirling and I was actually considering dong this, he whistled for a random Tuk Tuk who sped over and stopped abruptly with a screech. He gave the paper to the driver and talked to him in Thai for me. After a few points and head nods, they both looked at me and waved me over. Are you kidding me? 50 Baht or $1.50 US to be chaffered all over the city to visit and explore these sites and then dropped back at the hotel. Hell, the gas cost more.

I gripped the camera bag a little tighter, took a few steps and hopped aboard. I shook the mans hand and thanked him, still not 100% convinced if this was legit or a scam. Maybe the fact I outweighed them both together give me a false sense of bravado, but I felt safe, never the less.

The driver bolted off into the traffic and I looked back at that man who was standing there watching us leave and waving bye. Good deed done for the day?

As the driver pulled up to the first place “the Gold Mount” I began to fully understand that the benevolence of this little strange man back on the sidewalk was sincere. Although he went out of his way to connect with me as I did the opposite. He reached out as a friend & I wondered if I was going to get jumped. By the time he smiled to say hello, I began to think in a completely different way. In short He was one of my many life-teachers on this day. And he did his job well.

The images I got from these place are to me so special in so many ways the best I’ve ever taken. The freedom I felt to snap each shot was an exercise in gratitude for getting so close to the very things in life that have always been out of reach in the past. It’s amazing what an open heart and a little well placed trust can do.

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I will admit there were a few narrow side streets or alleys we raced down between destinations. My eyes were frantically scanning the darker corners and I was on alert, but soon we were back out into the sun and busier streets and to the next stop.

In the end, the driver delivered me to all the places and allowed me to take as much time as I needed to soak on the site and take photos from every conceivable angle. He said virtually nothing, but smiled at every chance (which is yet another reason to travel and get out of Dodge from time to time. Allow yourself to smile, say hello to perfect strangers and have the sentiment returned in a visceral, natural and unstrained easy way. When was the last time walking the streets of LA, NY or any big city in the US and 

have your smile returned to you with a stone faced expression as if you had the Alien Squid monster laying an egg down your face?)

Pick a destination that you’ve always wanted to go see and learn more about. Find a friend if you can to go along (harder than you think), or just go alone and explore. Feel the excitement or in other worlds LIFE surge through your veins as the familiar becomes very unfamiliar and take a calculated chance or two and learn something deeper about your self in the process..

Here are just a few more images from a few hours that morning..All of which would not have been memories for me at all, unless I gathered my emotions and channelled the bad energy out of me due to one bad incident. There was only time to own it, then make the absolute best of it..

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A Gringo’s guide to Ayahuasca. Ist Day in the Amazon

The gringos guide to Ayahuasca and what NOT to do…. Day one in the amazon

When a leave falls in the amazon, it makes itself heard and always seems to land with a thud!..When a branch falls, thats a completely different story; look the fuck out! One minute after getting out of the dugout canoe to head for camp, an explosion sent everyone scattering. In an instant we were all instantly bonded. No more quiet and uncomfortable stares followed with a more uncomfortable smiles. A massive section ( to large to call a branch ) of a tree came blasting down from high above snapping every branch from adjacent trees down as if they were made of balsa-wood. When it landed all 3 of us ended in on each side of it, all catching our collective breaths. Each instinctively jumped right back up, brushing off the jungle floor and the host of ants off our collective pants and shirts.

This time the smiles were heartfelt and there was a moment of brotherhood that no language barrier could break. We were all happy to still be here; here in the Amazon; especially me as it was my first time. 

When I initially agreed to visit the local shaman for an Ayahuasca ceremony, I had no idea it was going to be on my very first night. With no sleep for two straight nights, all I wanted to do was crash as soon as the sun went down..after a nice lunch of pollo con arroz ( free range; no GMO Monsanto shit) , I got a tap on the shoulder. My guide said I was in luck as the shaman ( a woman no less) was going to come to our camp for me at 9 o’clock to guide me through the ceremony. I didn’t know that earlier today as it was already decided and I had no way of telling anyone here with out insulting them I was not up for this and just wanted to sleep. I could have sworn I read somewhere one needed to fast for a day before as we’ll, but the out of place gringo trying to be “in place” smiled and said ok.. I quickly found a hammock to grab a quick siesta. A little cafe and another gentle tap on the shoulder awoke me from a place I really wanted to stay. As she smiled and all the wrinkles in her face created a wild mosaic of scripted life written across her face and friendly but piecing eyes told me it was time. Oh boy, here we go! But where we were going, I had absolutely no idea.

My guide was to be by my side to translate, very loosely of course for her.  I was thankful for that as I knew theses ceremonies can take quite some time. 

I had brought a few docs describing what to expect and thought I would take the next day to read them and to mentally brace myself for what to expect. Not happening amigo!  Not this night anyway. I was silently beating my self up at all the opportunities to read about it on several plane flights, boats, etc. But I tried to clear my head and be willing to keep as open a mind as possible.

So like everything in my life I just see a cliff and jump right off. We’re I land will be, where I land I guess. I do it with just about everything in life. Directions, instructions, rules and diligent preparation is for pussy’s, and maybe a few extra alive people in the world, I guess. 

She laid down some fan like bunch of dried leaves in front of me tied together. Then she pulled out a bottle of purplish liquid and poured into a cup for me. Do I sip it or chug it? 

I was instructed to just down it in one gulp. When I felt that bitter ensemble of (kind of like sour berries and woodchips ) slide down my throat, I cringed a bit as the taste was not my cup of tea. I was hoping that was the last time I was going to taste it. But then she then slid a plastic bucket in front of me.

What is that for? My guide told me to vomit in. Greeeaat!!!

If there is one thing in life I really hate, it’s barfing. I will do almost anything not to throw up and only rely on it as a absolute last resort to ease the pain threshold that takes me over the edge. 

The sun is now completely down and its a moonless night. The flashlight now is turned off and she lit some tobacco and blew into towards me while humming a song that just repeated itself over and over. It was pitch dark and I could only see the lit end of her tobacco glowing in utter blackness. When she drew it to her face I could make out the faint lines in her face, but I had to really focus to see anything at all. (I did sneak one photo of her as she did this, hoping not to ruin any of the atmosphere.)

 We were in an enclosed area that was a big room with  four walls that were basically nothing but screens . The jungle around me came alive with all the night noises that one hears and imagines the absolute worst.  But not bugs, snakes or anything would find there way in here and. I continued to remind myself of that. 

After and hour or her chanting and humming that same song, I was not feeling anything noticeable, but my head became light and the nausea began to set in. At first it was not too bad, but the bitter taste of the Ayahuasca still remained in my mouth and it tasted absolutely horrible. She continued her melodic song and lit more tobacco. At first I was sitting cross legged on the flat pillow she brought with her, but now in the pitch dark with no one able to see me either, I crunched my knees tightly into my chest and wrapped my armies around them and made a spot for my head to lay. I was so damned tired and had no idea how long this would last. I kept trying to tell my mind to focus on the present and not drift into the future where my bed ultimately awaited my 

dead tired body.

The frogs continued to croak out side as if they were sitting on my head and the howler monkeys in the back ground added their distant screams into the musical ensemble chorused with her humming. 

My head felt lighter and the noises grew louder and the nausea became very pronounced.  My mind once again naturally drifted back to a place to sleep and all I really wanted to close my eyes for good. I was so tired and if I  knew it would not have insulted her, I would have asked to leave. 

My guide asked me if I felt “drunk” yet. I said no, just nauseous a bit and maybe slightly dizzy. I tried to lighten it up by saying I missed the drunk feeling and am headed straight for the hangover.No reply. Just the pitch dark, with a small glowing red ember moving about from her mouth to a resting position. Evidently I was not there. But I had no idea where I should have been.

Another 45 minutes of pitch darkness, sleep deprivation and every imaginable sound a jungle can make was descending down on me like a bad dream. The dream got worse as my belly began to turn and I began to feel around in the blackness for the bucket she laid before me about 2 hours earlier. I began to sweat profusely and the heat began to get to me.

Oh shit, no holding back now. I had to let go and unhinge the torment that was raging in my belly. What the hell did I drink?

Not the question you ask after you drink something from a woman who walks out of a jungle and says here, drink this, right? This is when the race to unscramble my brain to make sense of this as I vomit violently into this bucket. 

I think of my guide who in an attempt to endear myself to him, bought him beer and even an ice cream back in Iquitos earlier that day. He seemed like a really nice guy and I believed he liked me as we’ll. He s right there. He won’t let anything happen to me and he is not drinking it. I am protected, right?

That’s what I kept telling myself. I also reminded myself of how gentle this shaman was whence first met and the warm smile and gentle touch on my shoulder when it was time to begin.

Finally the barfing stopped.

My guide handed me a cloth to wipe my face with and suddenly the sweating stopped. As I began to cool off, I was asked again if i was feeling anything. 

The next day I found out was that this was a hallucinogen and when they were asking me if I felt drunk, it was really if I was seeing anything.

But I took them literally and kept telling them, I did not feel drunk. The weird part was that I remember feeling almost embarrassed that I was not feeling what I felt they wanted me to feel. I tied to, but to no avail.

After another 30 or so minutes, the shaman came over to me and placed her hand on my head and chanted some more. I followed the little red glow of the tobacco in the pitch dark as she waved that fan in my face while she hummed once again. She then opened my shirt front the back of my neck and blew smoke down my spine and followed it with her hand and then did the same to the front, chanting all the while.

Rather than just let go, I caught myself trying to analyze everything and almost treat it like a science experiment. And I wanted so bad at this point to have what ever was to happen to just happen.

With the sensory deprivation and the sounds of the Amazon on top of me and a true shaman throwing her best stuff at me, I was confused by what I was imagining and what I wanted to happen.

But to tell the absolute truth, I just felt sick. I felt sicker when I began to realize that this may ruin my next 5 days here.

What if I stay this sick?

What if I can’t leave my bed?

How pissed off will the guy who hired me to shoot photos for him to promote this place if I come back with this sob story?

These were all the thing swirling through my head at the moment. I just could not lasso the swirling entanglement of thought which I knew were keeping me outside the true experience here.

And then even more sick to my stomach from what was ever inside me that began to stir once again. Sick in my brain and soul for not knowing what to really expect and come all this way to this remote part of the world, and to do something like this, only to feel really, really ill.

I felt I had let her down as well as my guide and of course ultimately me.. There is no way these tribes have been doing this for this long to only feel with what I felt. It’s like an Indian doing peyote and forget then dream land, the spirit animals or whatever’s vision they see; only a sick feeling and an unsureness of what’s next. 

When it became evident so late into this moonless night that my visions were not to be realized, she said it was time to stop.

Part of me felt like a huge failure. The other part was so happy to just go to my bed. I walked back to my little cabina in the absolute dark with just a small light. I felt really alone and with what  had just gone on and a groaning jungle that suddenly felt like it was crawling over me like a large snake around a poor rodent who wandered aimlessly in its path.

As I finally made my way into the room, and just crashed down on my bed, little did I know my night had just begun and there would be a third consecutive night with no sleep what so ever.

I wanted so badly to commune on a deeper spiritual level that had been passed on from generation to generation for as long as people have lived in the amazon. And I was honored to be part of something as sacred and ritualistic as this, that I ignored the one thing that I believe this was supposed to be built around; a completely empty and free mind. I simply could not deliver.

I won’t call this a bad trip as truthfully I don’t think there was any trip at all. Maybe that is the definition, who knows?

Postscript; a few days later I met a younger local man who spoke enough English to tell me of his  experience with Ayahuasca. He told me of his visions of walking  amongst all the jungle animals along with many other visions he had. He said his ceremony lasted 3 or 4 hours and the visions lasted for another 6 hrs. Every time he tried to close his eyes to sleep, they just got more intense so he kept his eyes open for as long as he could. He also told me he did not need to fast and he never got sick at all. 

I think I have really just not been mentally prepared for such an experience as all I really wanted to do was sleep. If you are from around here, it is the common belief why I never got any visions. Many have told me so in the next several days when I discussed it with them.

If you are from a modern western philosophical frame of mind, it all just nonsense and many may even think black magic or worse. It’s nothing more than the way we were taught and formed a system of belief and usually not based on any real substantive experience. More so, it a clear reflection of who we are spiritually, our relationship with God and ultimately our connection with our own selves, fears, desires and dreams through nature and divinity.

I still believe you can have a mix of it all. As much as I like to believe I am in harmony with nature, I’m now sure more than ever, that I’m not sure. It was an eye opener.

The reflection is less clear as my life back in the US is me, through and through.

I would never be able to survive out here in this jungle as much as I would like to believe I could,  living as these people do. I envy the way they approach each day with a real purpose, a lightness in their step and an over apparent willingness to smile, laugh and love each other. 

I kind of feel the next day like the first moment  landed here almost getting clobbered my a massive falling branch; just lucky to have more days to see what I can see, experience what I can experience and know how lucky I am to even be able to have a peek around the next bend in the road I am on. 

So as much as I would like to write about what a wonderful and life changing experience I had with Ayahuasca, I simply can’t. And it kills me to admit it. But that’s life! Maybe there will be a time and place for a second shot, I am not sure. One thing I will take form this is that no matter how much I think I have freed my brian from the pollution of a overly busy existence, I have so much more work to do.Image

Sunset for Allison

 

This is a bit old, but keeps me focussed on why I love what I do so much..Every once in a while it’s helps to read how we once were and thought..This one I will read from time to time jut to keep me on track..

 

 

Dec 12, 2006

 

My legs were somewhat sore from a rather ambitiously paced 13 mile run earlier in the day. The couch felt so good as I propped them up and settled to watch the MLB playoffs and curse the Yankees even before the first pitch was thrown. I was in no hurry to go anywhere fast.. The late afternoon is also the favorite time in my house as the low sun glows through the front windows and throws long golden rays of warmth across the wood floor and catching all the glitters from miscellaneous shiny object in its way. It’s the warmest my house is all day from ambient light and the living room is my favorite place to be.

 

Something though kept telling me to keep a watchful eye on the sky as there may be a special sunset due to light cloud cover. I also had some other things on my mind and the beach at night is a good place to see them for what they are worth a little clearer. As the sun sank and the streaks of filtered light crawled deeper in to the dining room I began to get real fidgety. My legs were happily off the ground but the rest of me was unsettled…I said screw it, “it’s only the Yankees” and grabbed my camera and hoped in the car. Besides I knew it would be my last chance to catch the ocean sunset before my trip to the Netherlands the next day.

 

There are a few places I like to go to shoot pictures of the sunset here in the South Bay, but for some reason, also beyond me I took a drive through a never ending stream of stop lights and signs to get to South Redondo vs the straight shot I had to Manhattan Beach Pier…I also parked up on the ocean side of Catalina Ave. and the only significance there was that just on the other side of the street it was free parking and I would not have needed to dump several quarters in the meter for the time I would need.. For some reason tonight I could not be bothered with the few extra steps even though the shots I wanted were down the long set of stairs and down the beach a way. 

 

The air was clear and there were enough low clouds to give me the colors I look for on the really good nights for shots that are a bit more than special. I was able to corral a few images I liked down below at ocean level and the melted into the horizon. A sailboat even gave me the prototypical sailboat in the sun shot. I decided to head back up top to watch the glow change the colors from a higher perspective and shoot until the light was gone.

 

After the sky was relegated to the very last whispers of red veins across an otherwise lifeless sky, I began to slowly walk to my car. It was at this time a car pulled up behind me. There was a woman driving and she looked panicked and began to ask me something through a half opened window. She proceeded to park right where I was walking so I stuck my head in the window as I could not hear her, but could see that she was visibly upset. There were no tears, but there was something wrong.

 

She asked if I had seen the sunset and took pictures of it. She proceeded to tell me how she had tried to get down here on time but just couldn’t make it. I slowed her down and told her I had her covered and that I got a few decent shots. She went onto tell me that I must think she’s really strange and I told her she had no idea who I have in my life already and that strange is a relative term. She half smiled and went on to tell me that her daughter’s favorite thing was the sunset at the beach.

 

A chill went down my spine as the word  “was” the only one that suddenly mattered here. 

 

She proceeded to tell me “today’s her birthday” and she died seven months ago. If there was anyway I could send her a few shots….  I stopped her mid sentence and told her she could have all of them if she wanted and that I’d send them to her before I left for Europe in a low-res format and the hi-res images would be ready for her when I got back on a disk.

 

She continued to thank me and I had to almost stop her again so I could thank her. However exactly it was I got to this exact spot to be available for her, was truly an honor and the reason life keeps me feeling like there is so much more going on than we know. 

 

Photography has already given me so many gifts back that I can never truly put into words. To be able to help memorialize a person I have never met and help keep Allison’s spirit alive in this way is the truly the pinnacle for me. To whatever degree I make it as a photographer in my life, I am pretty sure the few simple shots I took tonight will be the ones I am most thankful for.

 

As she drove away, I walked up the car and took one last look at the sky…There was one last streak of pink all alone across the horizonImage

 

Call me crazy, but I couldn’t help but wonder….

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It’s Free! And it doesn’t hurt at all

I still clearly and fondly remember a trip I took Ecuador a few years back. The country had the most spectacular scenery from miles up in the sky, framed by the Andes to the cool blue-green pools deep under the Pacific Ocean, exploring the depths of the Galapagos. There was never a shortage of breathtaking scenery and great photo ops at each turn. However, the most profound memory I brought home and one that still remains with me even to this day was one the simplest of gestures and the easiest one to pass along with out breaking your stride in the least bit.  It may seem simple and a bit trivial, but the unsolicited smiles from the locals really made a real impact on me. It really opened my eyes to where I live full time and how much I can acclimate to any environment; even one full of grumpy people.

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The cost is of course absolutely nothing, except for the brief acknowledgement that someone outside our own little World is relevant, even if only for a brief moment. Yet for some reason it ‘s such a rare commodity here back at home, and one rarely given with out pretension.  It’s amazing what a simple yet, genuine and warm smile can do when it comes from out of the blue. I reference Ecuador and can easily add China, Thailand, Ireland as well in my attempt to describe why or how Peru is had the same affect on me. Even though they share borders with Ecuador and it would seem possible for these borders to be more transparent, they do not do so with the far east and in Europe..So obviously is not  a geographical phenomenon, it become more increasingly a larger perspective which coincidently enough comes from the people who in social circles possess less. Less material things, that is and by no means less emphasis of enjoying life.

This kind of basic and genuine form of communication breaks so many boundaries and is universally understood no matter how terrible the foreign language skills are from a particular location. In China, I went with out a single word in my language-bank so even to say a simple greeting was a challenge at first. However, when armed with enough enthusiasm, confidence in my ability to act out on the spot charades, or draw a quick picture; ultimately I managed just fine with a very open mind and a self defacing, yet genuine smile. Every time it was returned to me and usually with the help or direction I needed. I was forced to interact with people at every turn, which s not a strong point of mine. But for some reason, (possible desperation,) I did so just fine. I think it had more to do with the fact that the people were so accommodating towards helping me.

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One of my little guardian angels “Sunny” who helped me find my place after a 22 hr train ride and a 2 hour bus trip only to get completely turned around.

So much like Ecuador and China, Peru offered a better base for my ability to communicate with my 2nd grade level spanish, but once again the thing I take home with me, more than the beautiful coastline of Miraflores, the greenness and grandeur of the Sacred Valley and of course the jaw dropping spectacle that is Machu Pichu, is once again the warmth of the people and the brightness and sincerity of their smiles.

Whether it be the smallest child, or the oldest person we met, there is an acknowledgement that you are in their realm and more than that are welcome there. Even the taut’s or any number of people selling a number of items on the street are polite and have a thank you followed by a genuine smile even if there is no sale made. It just seems to be in their DNA to be gracious and polite. Weird, huh?

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This man rode into town every day to sell Sugar Cane..Every day, I saw him he wore this smile with out fail

I guess, the main reason I really continue to run out to parts of the World that especially more provincial is to get a sense of hope and perspective that there’s still places where the pace of life is just slow enough to understand how quick this ride we’re on truly is. It kind of validates the struggle I have wanting this life to go on longer so I can experience more of it and simply expand my horizons intellectually, empathetically and of course spiritually. A place where complete strangers can pass you on a street you have never been on, look you dead in our eyes, extend a big smile simply to say hello and have a nice day. There is no other meaning behind it, yet it warms the heart completely and connects us all. It also makes me wonder why its not like this back home where I live in a beach town, full of people who have life by the literal balls and don’t deal with the day to day life and death struggles simply to to stay fed that I see and meet every time I jump on or off a plane.

It also makes me wonder who the truly rich and blessed people are and who are really the less fortunate ones. Generalizing does nothing in this country except make people crazy and force them to pick out the 1 or 2 people they know or heard of to dispel that particular “myth.” This is also not anywhere close to a commentary on a truly capitalistic vs social conservative perspective. I can easily separate the facts that one has nothing to do with the other and ease the ideas that begin from the top down. It appears to me that many of us have lost the idea that begins at the the bottom and grows up and then out. Maybe we all forget where we came from, or where our parents and how their parents have struggled to get us to where we are. Although we are now living in a society that does stress a sense of self entitlement, I’m still not buying the fact that we can not rediscover our foundations we once embraced and get back to being the best country in the World’s history to live in. I am constantly reminded that with a little humility, hard work and servitude to the family and neighborhoods we live in, I won’t constantly be coming home to a place that has lost its warm smile.

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Quechan woman with her Llama in the Sacred Valley, Peru

I am always packing my bags before every trip with the intent of finding extremes of emotions and experiences in usually remote and hard to reach places.  I usually find what I’m looking for as I remain intrepid in that task, but what strikes me the most is the people I meet along the way and how someone who I meet for a total of a minute or two can impact my life as profoundly as many people I have known for years.

Coming home is always a mixture of excitement and a bit of contrition. Most times I come home and spend days in the house trying to acclimate to seeing all the same old robotic and lifeless faces in the cars to my left and right. Sometimes a little walk around the neighborhood, can be a good ice breaker.

I believe to truly understand why we are all in this place in our hearts and souls we simply need to look in the mirror. It starts each day and the second we get out of bed, whether we do just our little part to make someone else feel present, welcome, loved, wanted or just acknowledged. If we are waiting for a larger Leviathan (the kind Thomas Hobbs once described) to tell us what and how to do it, then it’s just going to be too late.

So here is a little photographic tribute of thanks to so many of those beautiful and warm smiles I was on the lucky end of and that continue to help me understand that we are all indeed connected, for better or worse.

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Definition of two old wise men, who also happened to be genuinely nice. By the Gold Mount Temple in Bangkok, Thailand

Peru 2012

The front desk clerks at our hotel in Lima who we actually spent some quality personal time with their families during our stay, including diner at their house

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One of my favorite Inn Keepers in Yanghsuo, China..Was actually hard leaving this guy when it came time to go

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Fresh fruit vendor in Thailand..Met this woman every am helping her pull a cart that a water buffalo may struggle with to her spot over a huge hill

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