Friday, September 21, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon: Aftermath and Aftermess

Goodbye Peru...
Well, all good things must come to an end, I suppose. Even if there were times I didn't think I'd survive the Amazon jungle. Not due to life-threatening situations, mind you, but rather the strenuous activities of hiking through a sauna-like environment in long pants, shirts, and those damned boots.

But I made it. Even though the plane trips back were trying--eight days in the jungle and no ailments, but everyone on the plane was hacking and wheezing, sure to be my downfall; also, we had an encounter with an ugly American teenage girl who tried to cut in line (but my wife put a stop to that!)--we began the long, dull process of settling back into routine.
Fun in a germ-ridden flying tin can!
Kansas seemed rather...lifeless. Sure, it felt safer and was definitely cleaner, but it lacked the energy, the vibrancy of Iquitos and the unfettered nature of the jungle. Everything about the Midwest appeared so ho-hum.
Except, of course, for my week-long bout with diarrhea. Yay, TMI! (At least I didn't suffer while in the jungle; I can't even begin to imagine...wait, yes I can).
Wake me when we leave Kansas...
I learned a lot on my adventures. While I'm not quite ready to bunker down in a tent (too many serial killers lurking in the woods), or go backpacking in the Himalayas (too many yetis), or cannonball into a hot tub with Buddha (not enough room for both of us), I've decided to embrace nature as my friend. Finally. Call me ridiculous, but the other day there was a grotesque, hard-carapaced bug skittering down the hallway. I managed to scoop him up and put him outside. In the past, he would've been instant floor-kill.

The incredible power of the Amazon--nature at its wildest, most untainted state--proved awe-inspiring, not only in its beauty and yin and yang of terror, but also in the potential it has as a natural state of energy. If people would learn to coexist peacefully with the river, harness it without doing damage, it has the potential to power a good chunk of the world. It is to be respected.
So are people. After my trip, I've vowed to try and be nicer. A tough chore, but I'm committed. Our visit to Iquitos made me realize just how "rich" we are, comparatively speaking. We saw squalor, miserable living conditions, and even worse health care issues. But the locals' living conditions didn't get them down. On the contrary, they carried on with life, making our trials and tribulations appear petty. We could all learn something from the people of Peru.
I also came out the other side with the pleasure of bonding with new friends and reacquainting with old ones. You can't go through a boot camp of that type, storming the gates of hell, without growing close to those experiencing the trip next to you. And seeing as I write full-time from home, it was the most socializing I'd done in years. Big ol' honkin' baby steps!

New friends/family!
Best of all, I love the fact that "jungle pants" has become a nonchalantly dropped word in our everyday lexicon.

Onward and upward, the world's a great big, ol' beautiful and wondrous and scary place, much more than my previously staked-out back yard of Kansas City. I can't wait to explore more. (But, um, just with air conditioning this time).


Friday, September 14, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Final Day: Day Drinking with a Shaman!

During our final meal at the lodge, one of the teens in our group mesmerized Antonio, our shaman in tow, with excellent sleight-of-hand coin tricks. Pretty amazing, something I thought I'd never witness: old magic meeting new.
Our new family.
Even more astounding is what transpired on our last day in the jungle, something I never thought I'd do in my lifetime, something that I'd never even considered: day-drinking with a shaman!

Cheers! ("Tink.")

We were told we were visiting the rum "factory." Yay! Something finally more my speed. Still, to get there we had to go via boat, so I blundered into my usual seat (the anchor position), and off we went. Across from our destination, I witnessed entropy in action as a tree toppled into the river with a gargantuan splash. Just another amazing sight, one of many. But the best was yet to come.
Shaman at work in the rum factory.

Calling the rum joint a "factory" was pure embellishment. Our tour consisted of standing around a hot shed, where an old-fashioned press was operated by a horse to squeeze sugar from cane. Antonio passed around the resultant sugar for us to sip from. I figured if I hadn't caught a rare disease by now, sharing germs with my fellow travelers wasn't gonna kill me. 
Victor explaining rum to a thirsty crowd.

Our shaman then dumped the resultant sugar into a fermenting barrel. Once he set the bowl back on the ground, a friendly pig lapped up the rest (I still don't know if he was a family pet or breakfast). Hey, alcohol kills germs! Apparently the pig had too much to drink and then sat on my wife's feet.
Rum-guzzling pig.
We hurried through the rest of the "tour": there's the fermenting barrel, over there's the oven to boil it, bla, bla, bla, let's drink!
All creatures, great and small, love them some rum.
Gathered around a table, three bottles were plopped down in front of us. Again, we shared a shot glass, all of us practically family now. After the first several shots, germs began to not matter so much.

Na zda-rĂ³-vye! 
Ay caramba, dios mio!
The first bottle was straight up "aguardiente," aka "firewater." Akin to grain alcohol, it could strip paint off a wall and melt a clown's face. My chest nicely warmed, we moved onto the next bottle of booze, a ginger-infused alcohol.

To your health!

Antonio nudged my wife, pointed at the bottle, then wound a finger around his ear: muy loco! Didn't stop him from enjoying his rum, though. What's good for a shaman's good for me. 

Here's mud in your eye!
Ay, yi, yiiii, Viagra!
Next came "Siete Raices," which Antonio described as Viagra. For some reason, the factory owner kept pushing it on me. Did he know something I didn't? Hey, who was I to stand in the way of medicine?

Down the hatch!

Soon, our guide Victor filled up his cup by mixing two of the rums. He claimed it was Antonio's fault since he said he needed his Viagra. We weren't about to let him drink by himself, so the men joined him. 
Education can be fun!


Not to be outdone, the women had their turn at the bottles. Again and again. 
Gettin' some good learnin' done about nature!


A perfect way to end our jungle adventures, this went on for a while...
Incredibly, my boat balance appeared to have improved by the time we left.


All in all, a very peculiar day. Which leads me into an extremely awkward and shameless segue: Have you read Peculiar County yet? Here's what critic "The Cellophane Queen" had to say about it: "Amazingly good. Brilliant. Pitch perfect characterizations and intriguing use of language remind me of the master writer, Stephen King. Dibby is a heroine of the first order taking charge in a very Peculiar County in Kansas." Visit alluring and strange Peculiar County now.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Seven: Piranha Fishing!

After another night of sleeplessness in the jungle, we... Oh. Wait. Did I not tell you the unfortunate sleeping circumstances of our lodgings?
You see, the Heliconia Lodge is very nice, offers great food, and the staff is top-notch. 

But seeing as we're in the jungle, of course, air conditioning is unheard of. Electricity, too, for the most part, which is why the lodge runs off a generator. Naturally it wouldn't make much sense to run it full time, so they turn it off three times a day, usually when I wanted to shower.

(Side note on showering: Our first day at the Heliconia, we kept going out on excursions and each time I'd soak through my clothes. Not by rain, mind you, but sweat. So I kept showering and changing clothes. Six wardrobe changes in one day, I felt like Cher in Vegas. By the next day, I pretty much just gave up on hygiene. Sure, you didn't want to sit downwind of me, but everyone in our group was in the same boat. Literally.).

Anyway, I could live without electricity during the days. We were never in our room anyway. But then they'd power down the generator every night at midnight. The room fans would stop as the entire compound ground down with a dying, monstrous groan: pretty much an alarm clock to jolt me awake. I usually clocked in a solid 45 minutes before the generator stopped.
In bed. NEVER asleep!
Then nature's sound machine took over, keeping me up most of the night. (And the endless sweat, natch. In fact, I've come up with the perfect slogan for the Heliconia Lodge: "At Heliconia, we sweat the hell outta you!")

What does nature's sound machine sound like, you ask? Kinda like this (ahem)...


You get the drift. Some kind of unidentified bug/animal/monster took to haunting me right outside our room: it sounded like a blacksmith pounding out metal. Also, I was too busy wondering what sort of varmints were scampering around in our dark room to sleep. The horror stories about scorpions, tarantulas, and snakes didn't help.

So. Sleep deprived, missing the wonders of air conditioning and quiet, we wandered once again into the jungle on a medicinal plant trail, great for pharmacists, exhausting for we mere authors. 
Antonio using his version of G.P.S.: "Great Product of Survival"
However, we did something very cool. We planted mango trees in the Amazon jungle in honor of Earth Day. I'll gladly brave the sleepless nights, nocturnal monsters, and near death experiences by visiting again in five years to eat a mango from our tree.
Cool was the order of the day as later we went out piranha fishing. Danger's my middle name (not really, not even close).

Time and time again on our trip, we'd been told piranha were good to eat. I'd never realized piranha was an edible fish, just sort of thought of it as an eating fish (remember: movies are my education). I kinda think it might just be practical on the Peruvians' behalf to eat what they have plenty of (otherwise I'm completely baffled by the choice of goat's head soup). Oddly enough, though, it was never offered to us at the lodge. But we were prepared to catch dinner for everyone.

Off we went on our fishing expedition! I warned everyone I was prepared to fall. They all agreed, hardly a shocker. 
Before the fishing trip with happy and high expectations!
Hooks were baited, lines were sunk, and we waited. And waited. And waited, just merrily bob-bob-bobbing along. The blasted piranha kept nibbling at our bait, just eating it. Our buddy fed the piranha a lot (next fisherman: "Man, that's one fat fish.").

Only one of us snagged a piranha (teacher's pet, teacher's pet, teacher's pet!), a small one at that. 
Expectations dashed!

Still, all in all, how very awesome it is to snootily drop into conversation, pinky finger raised, "The other day we were on the Amazon River, fishing for piranha..."

While we're on the subject of sharp toothed critters, check out the second in the Zach and Zora comic mystery series, Murder by Massage. My hapless heroes face all sorts of shark-toothed, crocodile-teared types such as
dancing cops, ex-radical hippy militants, pompous pastors, and a creepy set of "Furries." What're you waiting for? The party's started and it's a blast!

Friday, August 31, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Six: Spiritual Healing in the Jungle

I'm kinda skeptical by nature. Which is a funny way to phrase it: "by nature." Because during our eight days in the jungle, "nature" challenged some of my earlier, stubborn notions.
Me in all my glory getting dowsed by a shaman!
Jungle Momma, the amazing organizer of our trip, is--like my wife and many others in our party--a pharmacist. These days, however, she resides in Iquitos and the jungle, soaking up all the information she can regarding the vast, untapped, and downright amazing array of herbal and plant medicines available in the jungle. She's also been apprenticing with a shaman for the past twenty years.
Antonio, the Maestro!
Which brings me to Antonio, el Maestro Magia! Antonio, one of the last of the red-hot shamans, is a fascinating guy. He carries within him immense knowledge passed down from previous shamans, sadly the end of the line. Since his village civilized and moved into Iquitos with direct TV dishes, no one's interested in carrying on the shamanic traditions any longer, preferring the sparkly, new-fangled allure of Western medicine. A shame.

Antonio's part miracle worker, part doctor, part magician, and a pinch of dirty ol' man. Maybe even a sliver of Catskills vaudeville stand-up comic. Savvier than he appears, he pretends to not speak English at all, although we had our suspicions.  During his stay at our lodge, he was sequestered in the back conference room, down a very long walkway and closer to the jungle, because he can't handle all of the city energy in the lodge for too long. Yet, the reach of civilization has touched Antonio, too. Wearing an Americanized ballcap, emblazoned with the letter "M," and duded out in designer jeans and stylin' kicks, he resembled a tourist emulating American style (or lack thereof). I so wanted the "M" on his cap to stand for "magic." Alas, it was a corporate symbol for Iquitos' mega supplier of cable TV and cell phone plans.

The stories surrounding Antonio are amazing. With one look he diagnosed someone's cancer with his "MRI vision." He healed someone's growing fungal attack with jungle plants when all  Western medicine failed. Father of many, lover of even more, no one truly knows Antonio's age, but it's guestimated at around 82 or so. Given that, he's in better shape than I am, leaping off boats with ease and (terrifyingly) running through the jungle bare-foot.
El Maestro Magia!
Our first night in the jungle lodge, Antonio arranged a group blessing. This consisted of our donning our swimsuits; one by one, he doused us with a bucket of cold water with flowers stirred into the mix. His blessing went untranslated. For all I know, he could've been singing the Brady Bunch theme song.
We were then given the option of having a personal, spiritual healing session with el Maestro Magia. I waffled back and forth, wanting to experience it, yet fearful of what he might find out about my health. Did I believe in his unexplained abilities? I don't know. But I was afraid enough to waffle. And after the stories I'd been told by intelligent, sane people, I'd be a fool to dismiss Antonio's talents out-of-hand. So, I continued to waffle. Man, can I waffle, more waffling than the local IHOP, a waffling talent I've perfected over many years of waffling. I mean, if I've got some kind of necrotic skin disease, isn't it better to not know about it until the last second?

At the last moment, I took a giant leap of faith over my waffles and landed in Antonio's domain, off the griddle and into the frying pan. 
I entered the circular room, empty except for Antonio sitting to the side in a folding chair, head bowed. I approached him, shook his hand. Quietly he muttered something, gestured toward the folding chair across from him. I sat. He slapped some kinda nice-smelling oil on my face and doubled down on my head (I kinda think he liked the feel of my slick pate as he gave it a few extra smacks). A cigar was lit as he smoked herbal tobacco, constantly blowing it on me as he whistled a nameless, tuneless song. I closed my eyes, went with it, tried to "get out of my head" as I was instructed (usually an impossible task; I mean where else am I gonna go?), as he brushed palm leaves all over me.

I'm not sure what happened, but something did. The constant rustling of the dried leaves fell into a drum-like pattern. Pungent, rich smoke transported me elsewhere. With my eyes shut, I envisioned the past, ancient tribes beating drums, dancing around a fire, a community of respect for Mother Earth.

A duck-like call at my temples brought me back; Antonio sucking out the bad energy from my head. When it ended, I was disappointed. Eyes still closed, I waited. Finally, Antonio said, "okay," a universal word. I opened my eyes, felt comfortably numb, rested yet exhilarated.

I stumbled out to the communal hammock/nap room and just lay there contemplating my navel for half an hour.

Was I really transported back in time? No. Probably just my writerly senses propelling me into a flight of fantasy. But I felt more rested, comfortable, and at peace than I had for a while. It also made me consider bigger issues than my rather small Kansas City backyard.

Other members of our group experienced different things. My wife felt connected to water. She said, "We're moving close to water." I said, "Okay, as long as there's air conditioning."

Another person felt a shoulder wound heal and the word "metaphysical" kept bouncing around his mind. One woman said it felt like the aftermath of a really great massage. I couldn't argue with that. Another guy shrugged, said, "it was alright."

Of course Antonio also strongly believes in love potions, so there's that. And he's a huge proponent of the sexual potency enhancement power of rum...but that's a story for a future post.

Speaking of unexplainable things, check out Zombie Rapture, a very different kind of zombie tale. You've been warned... 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Five: Visit with the indigenous

Our day started with a red-eyed, bird-watching boat trip at six in the morning. Bleary-eyed, half-asleep, agitated like a disturbed hibernating bear, I blundered into the boat and managed not to capsize it. Barely. We saw lotsa birds, rare and exotic ones, but I probably would've rather seen the inside of a coffee cup.

A local fisherman kindly showed us his daily catch. Later we found out the locals weren't too keen on tourists invading their waters and jungles. Given their past treatment by invaders, I can't say that I blame them.
After lunch, we visited an indigenous people's village. Decked out in long pants, long sleeves (groan), and enough bug spray to kill Mothra, we set out, again by boat. Oh, we also had to don boots.

Ahhh, the boots. Those damn boots. Man, I hated those suckers. Heavy, hot, ill-fitting, we wore them every time we trekked through the jungle (snake protection). My feet were terribly loose so I had to wear two pair of thick, hot, sweltering socks. Conversely, one of my calves is oddly larger than the other and I couldn't even get the boot on so I had to roll the top down on that leg. Not only did I look even more ludicrous than usual, my feet felt like I was walking on burning coals.

But once we hit the village, my petty pedi-problems seemed minuscule in comparison.

Our first stop was a fantastic, ancient, ginormous tree next to the village. Legend has it that it contained mystical qualities and I certainly wasn't going to scoff in the face of such overwhelming nature. 
These boots aren't made for walking!

A small local girl had been craftily lying in wait for us. As soon as we disembarked our boat, she met us, carrying her pet sloth with her. Yep, a pet sloth! No fool, the child had been schooled in the nature of mercantilism, voguing for change. She got me. Seemed like bad karma not to tip.
The Salesmen of the Year Award goes to this little girl and her sloth.
As we entered the village, children ran merrily about--some in school uniforms, others not and I never could figure out why--dropping "buenas dias" and spreading the word of the visitors' arrival. 

This particular village had been aided by charity (Jungle Momma's art program being notable in providing lessons in how to improve the indigenous' wares). A new water tower provided clean water, yet abodes were still meager by our standards. Unlike Iquitos, though, they kept their village scrupulously clean (if you overlooked the visibly sick dogs living paw to foot among the villagers), decorated trash bins strategically located throughout the small village.
When I entered the grade school, the children adorably feigned working hard at math. I thought I'd flex my Espanol muscles and talk to the kids: "Ahh, bueno, bueno, ninos! Muy caliente matematicos!" They just kinda stared at me. (Later I found out I'd only singled out the boys--having left out the "ninas"--and told them their math was very hot.)
We piddled about the village for a while, killing time. Turns out it was a strategic ploy as it gave the people time to set up their small marketplace.

Soon we were hustled into a traditional communal hall, a large hut thatched with palm leaves. Decked out in original Yagua full garb, grass skirt and face-paint for the benefit of we marauding tourists, the chief proceeded to tell us a little about his tribe's traditional ways (and to shill for money). Soon, other villagers were painting our faces (wait a minute! Why did the other men get "hashtag" marks on their cheeks and I got the feminine stripes? Curious and curiouser...). Next they dragged us out for a hoedown of a dance (basically an endless, dizzying circle around the uneven dirt floor in my heavy duty boots and suffocating clothing).
Next was blow-dart shooting where my wife nailed the target first try.!

Eight to ten stalls were set up, each representing a different family. The offered goods were similar (bracelets, masks, fans, touristy stuff), but the quality varied by booth. To be authentic, some of the women wore traditional palm fiber breast covers...which didn't quite do the job at times.  We were told that uneven distribution of funds might cause strife, so we tried to share the wealth.

Now, I was warned early on that the Peruvian merchants expect you to barter. Just part of the deal. But to me it felt wrong to barter with these poor villagers so we gave them asking price, even though one woman automatically brought her price down when she saw us waffling.

Last to leave, the Chief accosted us. He stuck his hand out. I thought it was a token of friendship, so I grabbed his hand. Clearly pissed, he jabbed out his other hand. Dumb American that I am, I seized that hand in a sorta embarrassing cross-armed double hand-hold. He yanked away, held out his hand again and bellowed, "Change!" Hard-core salesmanship, the taint of civilization. I obliged. Otherwise, we weren't getting outta there. He looked at what I gave him, finally said, "okay," and stepped aside. Guy needs to be selling cars in Kansas.
As we left, I was struck by the happy nature of the village. Honestly, though, my privileged, liberal-guilty self fabricated a touch of sadness. I felt like donating my boots to them.

In fact, I would've happily paid them to take my boots.

To show you just how generous I'm feeling, I'm going to donate this book to you (for the low, low price of $2.99). Bad Day in a Banana's for a good cause (beer money). 

Friday, August 17, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon: An American Ox in the Jungle

I don't camp. Never have, never will. Nature and I don't get along. If I so much as glance at poison ivy, I turn into a giant blister bubble. On the other hand, my wife loves camping and nature. Everything that is nature except for...the unspeakable eight-legged critters. She suffers from a truly bad case of arachnophobia. 
My wife (kinda, sorta) avoiding arachnids in the jungle (what she doesn't know won't kill her.)
Over the course of our trip, several people thought they could cure my wife's fears easy-peasy with some Dr. Phil nonsense: "Oh, the best way to conquer your fear is to face it." Someone else tried the routine of "no, no, spiders are good! They bla, bla, bla..." While their intentions were good, they've never witnessed my wife jump out of a moving car once she spotted a spider. While she was driving. Twice.

So, for obvious reasons, people thought we were crazy for going to the jungle.
My wife, um, enjoying the floor.
Me, I possess the grace of a big, lumbering meth-head trying to thread a needle. Getting in and out of the boat proved extremely problematic. Our guide, Victor--an amiable sort, fluent in English and bird-song--grew weary of my (literally) rocking the boat. Constantly, he told me to "slow down, slow down." But he didn't understand speed was the only way I kept from falling, sheer momentum my only ally. Amazingly, I didn't capsize the boat, but I capsized myself a couple of times. 
Victor standing at ease and defying gravity in our boat.

Once, Victor wanted to redistribute weight throughout the boat so he instructed me to move back a bench. I'd successfully moved myself back before by just using my arms and swinging my body backward, so I thought I could do it again. Methinks I'd forgotten the 50 pound backpack attached to my body. I fell between the benches, legs up in the air like half-price day at the old-West brothel. A particularly poor day to wear white pants (and what the hell was I thinking wearing white pants into the jungle anyway? SO dumb.). 

A good larf was had by all (except for me and my wounded pride. Not to mention my wounded arse).

Falling isn't anything new for me. Gravity and balance are not my friends. While escorting us across wooden planks to the local jungle health clinic, Victor remarked on one of our cohorts' very good balance. I said, "I think she has better balance than me." 

Victor readily agreed. "Much better," he said. "Much, much better."
Of COURSE nature just loves Victor.
So there I am, floundering around in the jungle, trying my damnedest not to fall on snakes or worse, planting my feet ploddingly, arms out like a new-born tyke learning to walk. Hardly jungle material.
Back to that health clinic... The Yanamano Clinic--a small, humid as hell building just off the river--is run by a doctor from Wisconsin and services the locals (or at least those who've embraced Western medicine). The doctor, understandably frustrated by the government's lack of aid, caring and health care, ripped through a list of her recent patients and their alarming ailments. Needless to say, machete wounds topped the list. A sobering (and sweltering) visit, it truly made me grateful for what we take for granted in the States.

Solar-powered (and without air conditioning, natch), the small operating room was a sparsely lit hot-box where the doctor sweats over her patients while sewing them up. Recently, a fan had been installed (a huge deal) and a bright light bulb had been donated (again, victory). Doctors Without Borders swung by one day with good intentions and big ideas, but little could truly be done. It's a very bleak situation for both the locals and the doctors because help doesn't come from many places. And the locals are uneducated about their own ailments and what modern medicine can do for them. 

Later, I was told this was one of the better clinics. At least there weren't holes in the ceiling.

On the way out of the clinic, I made a big mistake, a huge one.

As we left the clinic, I held the door open for everyone because Mom taught me to be a gentleman. Our boat driver, Walker, glared menacingly at me as he slowly walked through my proffered opened door. Victor, our guide, actually stopped dead in his tracks, stared at me. He opened his mouth to say something, then shook his head and hurried through the door. Hands flailing, they chatted animatedly and angrily back to our boat. Clearly I'd done something to offend them.

Only later did I realize my whoopsie moment. 

The culture of Peru is muy machismo. Men are men and the very mention of a "metrosexual" will get you beat up. Men drive motokars and women work in the kitchen, end of story. However, the men are fooling themselves, for women truly rule the roost. It's a very sexist culture, but only superficially so. Regardless, men take their manly manliness very manfully.

Things weren't right between Victor and myself until the end of the trip.
Friendsies again! (L to R: My wife, Victor, me, Jungle Momma Connie)

On the bright side, my wife had only one minor spider incident. In the boat, she reflexively kicked our friend's butt to get rid of a small, menacing arachnid. (I purposefully didn't tell my love about the lodge's four pet tarantulas until we'd left). Not bad odds for the jungle!

Speaking about odds, meet Tex McKenna. The odds are stacked against this high school student: he's bullied, misunderstood, hip-deep in a murder mystery, and has just found out he's a witch. And it's only his sophomore year. Read the first book in the acclaimed Tex, the Witch Boy trilogy.