The Call of the Amazon
From the air the Juruá 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. 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. Trees lie ripped to shreds against turned up red soil – like a horrid crime scene.
Luckily, my journey will take me deeper into the forest, into the untainted heart of the Amazon, where I will stay for a month with a community of Indians to learn what 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. It will be another four days along the 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. We 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.
Sunset over the Amazon consists of puffy clouds turned steel-grey blue and flashing electric violets like a black opal with sky-blue pinks. Dusk approaches the Juruá 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. 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 position within this forest. I 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 fiancé 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, I am still drawn here for my own survival, despite my family’s pressures. 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 docks at the banks of the community. We still have four hours to hike into the forest before we reach our destination. A group of Colima Indians come to greet us on the boat. These are some of the people I’ll be spending the next month of my life with. Though they will hang in the background allowing the force of the Amazon to be my main shamanic guide, they definitely will be helping to hold the sacred space.
Eight men squat on the bow planks. With a cup of Guarana soda in hand, I sit down nearby so I can casually glance over in their direction. To me, they are an anthropological discovery. I have only seen these natives before in documentaries on the Discovery channel or in National Geographic. Authentic Amazonians are sitting beside me, staring at me as if I were some sort of specimen. They wear curious haircuts, shaven in uncommon places. Their eyes slant with large top lids like that of Asians. They have broad foreheads and cheeks. Blue ink and raised scars tattoo their faces in lines and dots, streaking their cheeks, chin, and forehead. I give them an occasional smile. They return a toothless grin. We are like two little children in silent discovery of one another.
I head for the banks to rearrange my pack. I pass half-clothed women with mullet haircuts. It dawns on me. I’m in another world now.
The group begins the trek into the heart of the jungle alongside the natives. Their slow pace is a teacher in itself. I’m used to hiking California trails at a fast pace, chatting the entire time. These Indians walk softly, hardly saying a word to our interpretor. Each step we take, their eyes wander about the forest, observing the matrix of life. Occasionally, they 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 walk the trail in silence with them to listen to the teachings of this foreign jungle. Every sense I own has a piece of the forest to digest. My eyes behold huge ficus trees with roots that grow above the earth. White-faced monkeys goof off, stunned by my presence. A gayota bird flies above a pond of water hyacinths and dives in for an occasional fish. The entangled, knobby, vine forest meanders and worms about like one huge lasso enmeshing the standing trees, creating entire walls. I can hear macaws screeching, insects rubbing their hind legs together, water trickling, branches falling towards the earth. I can feel my feet planting into Amazonian soil, squooshing amongst muddied trails. Something that reminds me of peaches fills my nose. There’s a smell of damp rainwater and musty soil.
My feet open up and swallow the force of the forest into me. The incessantly biting bugs give me some space as I walk in meditation. The Amazon speaks to me about the abundance of life in its dense lushness, booming with green life. She shows 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 am at the edge of my nerves. The forest whispers to me to relax and surrender. I find my place.
In the Juruá valley, you won’t hear any planes flying overhead nor will you see cars, bicycles, or even horses – only feet and dug-out canoes. There is no electricity. 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. Our walls serve 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 tarantuala is our housemate who luckily keeps to itself 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 it paradise! I go down with a friend one morning to wash in the river. We each carry a bucket and a bar of coconut shavings. We undress in silence and sit on the planks over the stream, dunking loads of cool water over us. I am feeling emotionally troubled, though I’m not sure what about. I have been snared in a daze since I woke up. But the water feels good and I sit there for the longest time, dumping bucket after bucket over my head. I can’t understand why, but I know that water is serving a bigger purpose than my bath.
Heat grows in my chest. A knot welds in my throat. My lip quivers. And before I knew it, a dam breaks inside of me and I am wailing like a baby while my arm methodically scoops up the water to continue to wash away my pain. There is something about that river that is healing me. “Oxun’s working her magic on you,” my friend whispers. Later I learned that Oxun is one of the forest spirits of Brazil, considered to be the Goddess of healing waters of the earth.
My bathing ritual washes 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. Oxun gives me the space to exhale a peaceful breath as I watch the heaviness float downstream. This is the healing gift I receive from my time in the Amazon.
We leave the community and head back down the river. We stop a day to visit Ipixuna, a small village of Indians. I stand out on the porch of a community structure and think, soon I will be out of the Amazon and in my home. How do I bring back 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 gave me many new treasures that remind me I am enough – just as I am.
In Ipixuna the grid of mud houses is cornered by dense, green Amazon. Two eight-year old boys walk down the street together. The street is nothing more than pounded, red earth. Rain pours down at high noon. Not just pours, but dumps. You have to shout to be heard. Mosquitos and trees rejoice. Children rejoice wearing only their torn underwear. Barefeet, they slide down muddied slopes and run the streets holding hands and squealing. Women walk by carrying food in their arms. Do they ever feel the need to prove themselves?
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 simply, in poverty, isolated. And happy. I will leave here to see other worlds and cultures. 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.