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Ambling up the Amazon

From the air the Juruà river is a serpent winding forever through the Amazon of western Brazil. The short plane ride over from Rio Branco to Cruzeiro do Sul takes us further into the jungle. The thick canopy green for miles and miles and then suddenly a perfect cookie-cutter clearing of the forest. There it is right before me. All those stories I had heard of tropical rainforest being brutally clearcut. Tress lie ripped to shreds against turned up red soil. Like a brutal crime scene.

Luckily, my journey will take me deeper into the forest than this, into the untainted heart of the Amazon, where I will stay for a month with a community of indians to learn what it is the jungle and its people have to teach me spiritually.

When the plane`s wheels kiss the earth again, I am taken to the docks to board a small fishing vessel, the Adriana. We will be another four days along the Juruá river until we arrive at our destination. On the boat with me are thirty-five Brazilians who have come from all over their country with the hope of receiving inner peace from the forest.

The boat sets off with all of us strategically crammed on board as well as our luggage and a pervasive feeling of anticipation for what we might discover. Some of us gather on the worn floors inside the cabin, crunched beside piles of luggage, beneath rows of cotton hammocks, and eat our lunches – beans, rice, and fish soup. I sit on a bag of rice and lean against a water jug. We`ve been puttering along the muddy river for hours now with little evidence of human life. Only virgin forest and then suddenly, I spot a dug-out canoe on the banks. Maybe three or four indians, farming annuals on the banks, and huts with faded grass roofs standing on stilts. Then once again, pure, raw forest.

The sunset over the Amazon. Puffy clouds turned steel-grey blue and flashed electric violets like a black opal. Sky-blue pinks. Dusk approaches the Juruà valley, an enchanted valley that has given birth to many healers. A pair of Amazonian Pink river dolphins flirt with the bow of the boat, appearing with a soft exhale through their spout and then disappearing again beneath the mysterious glass. Little black bats come out to join their dance. They skate aimlessly across the tributary. I can hear their wings snap the air and the squeals of their high voices.

Darkness has set in. The stars are brighter than ever without a light from the land to deflect them. The southern hemisphere is a foreign sky to me and I lay on the bow to study the new constellations. I spot the Southern Cross and it becomes real for me, no longer hearsay. Like a chaotic symphony, loud screams of the night forest emerge from the banks and I wonder how one can ever sleep through the call of the Amazon.

I ponder my current life’s position within this forest. I have left the life that was mapped for me. I am a white American woman who has just finished college. I was to be married this past fall, buying land, building a home to raise my babies in, and have my husband provide for us. My mid-twenties – a ripe time to start a family. I depended on this dream to define me. I was afraid to find out who I was beyond this.

Then it all fell apart. My fianceè left me and I lost the land. Taking this journey now into the jungle is about reclaiming that part of me that wants to fly free. I have reached deep down inside for courage and independence – courage enough to bring myself to the Amazon for a month. With all its scary tales and legends about the jungle, I was still drawn here for my own life, despite my family’s pressures to get a job, a car, a home, a husband. I have longed to come to this jungle all my life, and now I’m finally here!

After four days of traveling, the Adriana finally docked at the banks of the community. Though we still would have four hours to hike into the forest before we reached our destination. A group of Colima indians came to greet us on the boat. These are some of the people I would be spending the next month of my life with. Though they would be mainly hanging in the background allowing the force of the Amazon to be my main shamanic guide, they definitely would be helping to hold the sacred space.

Eight men squatted together on the bow planks, staring at me and a few others. I tried not to stare back, though I was just as curious as them. With a cup of Guarana soda in hand I sat down near to them so I could casually glance over in their direction. To me, they were an anthropological discovery. I had only seen these natives before in documentaries on the Discovery channel or in photos of National Geographic. But now here they were, authentic Amazonians, sitting beside me, staring at me as if I were some sort of curious specimen. So I stared back. Since they were doing it so shamelessly, I decided to join in. They wore curious haircuts, shaven in uncommon places. Eyes slanted with large top lids like that of Asians. Broad foreheads and cheeks. Blue ink and raised scars tattooed their faces in lines and dots, streaking their cheeks, chin, and forehead. I gave them an occasional smile. They returned a toothless grin. We were like two little children in silent discovery of one another.

I headed for the banks to rearrange my pack. I passed half-clothed women with mullet haircuts. It dawned on me: I’m in another world now. Seeing these indians brought it home to mind. I’m in the Amazon. I’m far from home now.

The group began the trek into the heart of the jungle alongside the natives. The slow pace they led was a teacher in itself. I’m use to hiking California trails at a fast pace, chatting the entire time with my company. The indians walked softly, hardly saying a word to our interpreter. Each step we took, their eyes wandered about the forest, observing the matrix of life. Occasionally they’d stop to watch a macaw trace the canopy, to listen to the play of howler monkeys, or to gather a native seed to put in my hand for observation.

I walked the trail in silence with them to listen to the teachings of this foreign jungle. Every sense I owned had a piece of the forest to digest. My eyes beheld huge ficus trees with its roots that grew above the earth; white-faced monkeys goofing off and stunned by my presence; a gayota bird flying above a pond of water hyacinths and diving in for an occasional fish. The entangled, knobby, vine forest meandered and wormed about like one huge lasso enmeshing the standing trees, creating entire walls. I could hear macaws screeching, insects rubbing their hind legs together, water trickling, branches falling towards the earth. I could feel my feet planting into Amazonian soil, squooshing amongst muddied trails. Something that reminded me of peaches filled my nose. The smell of damp rainwater and musty soil. My feet opened up and swallowed the force of the forest into me. The incessantly biting bugs gave me some space as I walked in meditation.

The Amazon speaks to me about the abundance of life in its dense lushness, booming with green life. She has shown me a world that is ancient, a world that relies on spiritual harmony amongst the natives, plants, and animals. A world that still exists despite the rapidly encroaching machine. She tells me of living simply and letting go of the unconscious mind games I play in order to get to the core of my being. It is that core that recognizes a kinship to the natural world.

With the intense itching of my mosquito and spider bites, and the extreme heat, I was at the edge of my nerves. My mind panicky. My body irritable. The forest whispered to me how to relax my body and surrender. Let my breath go. Let the thoughts calm. All of me learned to surrender. I have found my place in the jungle now. I’m deep inside my body; it roams this land with me.

In the Juruà valley, you won’t hear any planes flying overhead nor will you see any car, bicycles, or even horses. They have only their feet and dug-out canoes. You won’t be able to use cell phones, radios, or television sets. There is no electricity. No need for lightbulbs or light switches. In fact, there isn’t even a kitchen sink in this community. Our showers are the buckets by the side of the river. Our stoves are wood fires. Our toilets are holes in the earth to squat over. Our beds are hammocks and mosquito nets suspended in the air. Our furniture is the wooden floor and walls as back rests. We eat the same thing every day: boiled manyoc (like a potato) with olive oil for breakfast. Beans, rice, and fried, salty, river fish for lunch and dinner. A glass of brown water to wash it down. A tarantula is our housemate who luckily keeps to himself in the corner of our ceiling. You must carry a flashlight at night. Snakes and bobcats roam the nocturnal forest.

It doesn’t get much simpler than this. Some call this ‘primitive living’. I call this paradise!

I went down one morning to the river to wash with a friend. We each carried a bucket and a bar of coconut shavings. We undressed in silence and sat on the planks over the stream, dunking loads of cool water over us. I was feeling emotionally troubled, though I wasn’t sure what about. I had been snared in a daze since I woke up. But the water felt good and I sat there for the longest time, dumping bucket after bucket over my head. I couldn’t understand why but I knew that water was serving a bigger purpose than my bath. Heat grew in my chest. A knot welded in my throat. My lip quivered. And before I knew it, a dam broke inside of me and I was wailing like a baby while my arm methodically scooped up the water to continue to wash away my pain. Their was something about that river that was healing me. “Oxun’s working her magic on you,” my friend whispered. Later I’d learn that Oxun is one of the forest spirits of Brazil, considered to be the Goddess of healing waters of the earth such as rivers, waterfalls, and creeks.

My bathing ritual washed away a gnawing restlessness I had within me. This was the band-aid that covered up a long-time need to prove myself to the world. Letting go of my need to prove myself, I let go of the need to compare myself to others. The mind chatter that wonders if I am prettier than her, smarter than him, or more spiritually enlightened than them. Oxun gave me the space to exhale a peaceful breath as I watched the heaviness float downstream. This was the healing gift I received from my time in the Amazon.

We have left the community now and head back down the river. We have stopped for a day to visit Ipixuna, a small village of indians. I stand out on the porch of a community structure. Soon I will be back out of the Amazon and returning to my home in the states. How do I bring back with me what I learned? How do I integrate the new me into my hometown? The future is yet to be told but I know the Amazon has given me many new treasures that remind me I am enough just as I am.

Ipixuna. The grid of mud houses cornered by dense green Amazon. Two eight-year old boys walk down the street together. The street, nothing more than pounded, red earth. One stops in the road to pee without any inhibitions. The rain pours down at high noon. Not just pours, but dumps. So loud you’ve got to shout to be heard by the person next to you. The mosquitos rejoice. The trees rejoice. Little boys and girls rejoice in the streets in only their torn underwear. Barefoot, they slide down muddied slopes and run the streets holding hands and squealing. Women walk by carrying food in their arms. The rain is nothing new to them. I wonder if they ever feel the need to prove themselves in a competitive world.

Thunder rolls across the sky like God beating a drum. People lean out their windows to savor the drops falling on leaves, to hear the roaring song. This is their life here in Ipixuna. They will carry it out here; simple, poor, isolated. But happy with this life. I will leave here to see other worlds and cultures. But I will remember that there are lives carried out in this way. This is enough for them. This is the life they have been given, here in the Amazon.

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