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.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Adventures in the Amazon Day Four: On the trail of the elusive Rubio Cerveza!

Poisonous as it is purty.
On our Amazon trip, we saw monkeys (thieving lil' b@$+@*ds!), manatees, toucans (just like on the Fruit Loops box!), parrots, jungle squirrels, poisonous frogs (and, dang, if they ain't pretty!), piranha, caiman, alligators, thumb-sized flesh-eating ants, ducks, 600 species of catfish (okay, not really, but that's pretty much the number of breeds they have in the Amazon), sloths, a fleeting glimpse of a pygmy monkey, gorgeous butterflies and birds, vultures, a pig (pet or breakfast? YOU decide!), horses, cows, spiders, and an ugly American at the airport.

Yet, there was one thing that eluded me, a creature so rare, so hard to find that I spent a great portion of our trip hunting down this most mysterious of beasts: I'm speaking, of course, of the hard to pin down Cusquena Rubio Cerveza!
The rarest of rare Peruvian finds!

So join me, steadfast travelers, as I'm in hot pursuit of the mythical creature known as...Rubio Cerveza.

Known by many, but drunk by only the very privileged few, I first caught wind of the intangible Rubio in our hotel restaurant. There I caught a brief peep at my wily prey. So dehydrated, I could drink Peruvian tap water, the Cusquena Rubio Cerveza caught my eye and captured my heart.

I ordered. And waited.

After 45 minutes, the waiter--everyone's on "Peruvian Time" which  basically means time just simply doesn't matter in Peru--brought me out a bottle of cerveza. Cold? Si! Cusquena? Si! Rubio? No.

I held the bottle, stared dumbly at the Negra label. Oh well, something must've been lost in translation, didn't matter. I downed it in several gulps. Bueno! But not Rubio. 

The next night--at the Espresso Cafe in Iquitos--the wily Rubio crossed my path again. Excited, the menu trembled in my hands as I spotted the item under cervezas. My hand, slick with sweat, caressed the plastic overlay on the menu. My tongue ran over my sun-licked lips in anticipation. With a shaky voice, I ordered.
Later, the waiter came back , said, "I'm sorry, we're out of Rubio."

Foiled again!

But success awaited me in the heart of the jungle, I just knew it! After we finally arrived at the Heliconia Lodge, just off the Amazon River, I headed for the bar at the center of the compound. Lo and behold, a bottle of Rubio rested on the mantle along with three other types of Cusquena beer!

Yes! I'd bagged the creature, suitable for mounting on my wall back in safe, civilized Kansas! Knowing that the hunt had come to a successful end, I rejoined our group, assuming I'd be able to enjoy the fruit (and hops) of victory later.

Tragically, later that night, those hopes were dashed, shattered like a bottle of Rubio against a ship's hull. The mysterious Rubio bottle had vanished from the shelf. Noooooooooo!

Undeterred, I ordered one anyway. This is what I received:
A friggin' Trigo, aka a wheat beer. Cursing, I slammed it anyway.

Once back in the States, I'm still hunting for the ever obscure Cusquena Rubio Cerveza. No luck so far.

But it will be mine one of these days. Oh yes, it will.

Hey, that reminds me of another challenging hunt! In my comedic thriller, Chili Run, the protagonist, Wendell Worthy is on the hunt for the perfect bowl of chili, his brother's life on the line if he doesn't come back in time with the food. In his underwear. It's complicated. See just how complicated by clicking on through! 
Take out or die!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Ghosts of Gannaway: a true (ish) macabre ghost saga

My book, Ghosts of Gannaway, is a true story.
Well, except maybe for the ghosts. That bit I took a few liberties on. Unless you believe in that sorta thing, of course.

And the Indian curse...naturally I made that up. But other than those two things, the events in Ghosts of Gannaway actually happened.

Okay, okay, fine! The murders depicted in my tale are fabricated. Or are they?

All in all, though, Ghosts of Gannaway actually occurred. (If you overlook the haunted museum, the moving statue, the ghostly miners, the yellow-eyed fever, the spectral visions, and other minor details. Man, you guys are nit-pickers. They call it historical "fiction," for a reason, you know! Don't make me come over there!)
The real haunted museum
My wife says I exaggerate. That's her gentle way of calling me a drama queen (which I've been labeled before. As if!). Others less nicely inclined call me a liar. Since I'm a writer, I call it artistic license.

So, at the end of the day, Ghosts of Gannaway actually happened. Every bit of it. 

Couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my fellow horror-loving sister-in-law and she and I agreed that ghost stories are what creeps us out the most. But I also realized that's only true in entertainment. What really scares me is the evil inherent in humanity and what extremes people will go to in the pursuit of money. 

Ghosts of Gannaway tackles both of my biggest fears: ghosts (fun and fictional!) and the greed that destroyed the town of Picher, Oklahoma upon which my book is based (not so fun and true!).

My book is a sweeping historical ghost tale full of curses, scares, Native-American rights, one of the first feminists, greed, suspense, hissable villains, noble heroes, hippies, union strikes, violence, animated statues, haunted museums, pollution, and love that transcends death.

And it's all true. Every last word. I swear!*

*Disclaimer: Author Stuart R. West is a professional liar, fraud, phony, and cheat. Everything he says should be taken with a grain of salt. Do not attempt to believe what he says while drinking or taking medication. Do not listen to him while driving heavy machinery. Should baldness or erectile dysfunction occur after buying into Stuart R. West's chicanery, consult a lawyer immediately. Should sleeplessness occur due to nightmares from reading Ghosts of Gannaway, well...then the author's done his job.

Visit lovely Gannaway, Kansas today. You're only one click away. 
All of it true!
For those electronically challenged, here's where you can get the fancy paperback: