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Hallucinogenic frogs key to an Amazon trip


Tossing and turning in bed the night before my adventure tour in the Amazon, I was having second thoughts of going up the Ucayali River to live with the Matse Indians. Not because these Indians have been known to be violent in the past or because of the piranhas, caimans and anacondas, or even because of the virulent strains of malaria. No I was worried about my jungle guide, ex Vietnam vet, Richard “Auckoo” Fowler. Maybe I had been foolhardy during our drunken “get to know each other” when he showed me his rap sheet and I proclaimed,
“That ain’t a rap sheet, it’s a resume; you’re hired.”

Word had spread fast around town that I was heading out with Auckoo and people gave me all sorts of warnings of this colourful character. But he was one of the few guides that could get me to the Matse Indians to experience the Sapo or poisonous frog ritual. There are around 2,200 Matse Indians living in the Yavari Valley of Peru and Brazil. They are often referred to as the Cat People because of their distinctive facial tattoos and whisker like spikes stuck into their noses. They use Sapo to improve their luck in hunting.

However Auckoo did forewarn me,
“Look I’m not for everyone and I only have one guarantee,…
 
I’ll get ya out alive!”

Leaving Iquitos Auckoo appeared to be in his element, telling me war stories as we headed up river overnight by ferry. After 14 hours sleeping in a hammock we arrived at the small outpost where we met Fernando and Pepe, our host Matse Indians. During breakfast Auckoo lit a fuse in a block of cheese, jumped over the table and yelled, “Fire in the hole, its C4”. Auckoo came back over another three hours in a dugout canoe up the tributaries, pointing out various bird and plant species as we entered Matse country.

Auckoo explained how in the 1980’s some missionaries were slain by the Matses at the very village we had arrived at. Stepping out of the boat with our supplies (a crate of beer, five packets of cigarettes and a pineapple), He called out,
“Lucy I’m home!”
The thatched roof wooden hut village, untouched by the modern world, was carved out of the jungle, surrounded by fields of maize and yucca. Wild pigs, chickens and laughing children ran around carefree. Staying at Pepe’s house we soon slipped into village life. The Matses are a quiet and peaceful people who despite their hardships always smiled.

An excited Auckoo woke me at sunrise the following morning.
Pepe had caught a Giant Monkey Tree Frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) during the night and was collecting Sapo for us.

The large green frog was splayed out between four small posts, each limb tied with string. Pepe aggravated the frog to induce it to secrete the milky white poison we needed, after which the frog was released unharmed. Then it was my turn.

Pepe removed a stick from the fire and pressed the burning ember into my chest, creating six small wounds. Maybe six hits of Sapo was overkill as my macho bravado wilted. Auckoo grinned,

“Abuse in moderation, this is a full contact experience, a neurotoxin, not some warm fuzzy Ayahuasca trip with a hug at the end.”

Pepe then scraped away the burnt skin, exposing an open wound, and with an audience of giggling village kids, he smeared the Sapo into it. The Sapo’s peptides affected me instantaneously. My breathing became laboured, heart pounded and I broke out into a cold sweat. My legs buckled as I collapsed to the ground. It felt like I was dying as I threw up yellow bile. After 10 minutes Fernando threw a bucket of water over me and I felt a bit better. I crawled off to my hammock and slipped into a deep sleep.

When I woke a few hours later I felt better, more than better I felt great, strong, focused and alert, suddenly aware of every sound and smell emanating from the jungle. Auckoo said the jungle was inside me now. Pepe then took me hunting deep into the forest, with nothing but a machete and a shotgun with only a single cartridge. Now being an avid environmentalist I felt somewhat perplexed of going on a Sapo induced killing spree, but justified it as part of the tribal village life experience. However after chasing an armadillo and being chased by a huge Tapir (Tapirus terristris) we returned empty handed. I suspected Pepe was a little disappointed in me for not hitting the armadillo with my delegated stick hard enough because he kept telling me how good they tasted. Parched and nearly fainting due to dehydration in a place that has 20% of the world’s fresh water, Pepe macheted a meter of thick vine and held it to my mouth. A flow of sweet water quenched my thirst. My attempts of fishing with Fernando the next day yielded similar lack luster results, just one tiny catfish and a dead piranha I found floating past the canoe.

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