Part III – The Pilgrimage to Lagarto Cocha

Note: This blog is a part of a series on my journey to the Ecuadorean Amazon and it is a sequel to this blog – Part II – Journey into the Ecuadorean Amazon . I highly recommend reading that before you read this post below.

Lagarto Cocha

In the early morning of the third day, we were preparing to depart for Lagarto Cocha – a sacred place for the Secoya in the Amazon near the border of Ecuador and Peru whose name translates to Caiman Lakes. Most of Don Basilio’s family members, as well as Don Cesareo’s family, were coming with us to Lagarto Cocha. We had two canoes for accommodating all members with their belongings and food supplies. Gasoline tanks were ready for the motorized canoe and we were placing the luggage and food into the canoe.
While we were doing that, a group member named Daniel, who is now a close friend and mentor, asked me: “Hey Ankur, have you ever tripped before?”
I replied “Umm… not really” and he started chuckling. I was going to find out what he meant soon enough.

We set in motion and the canoe ride lasted for about 8 hours. Along the way, the scenery was mind-blowing. There were multiple rainbows showing themselves during the first two hours of the ride. Here is a picture of one below.

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A variety of birds were flying across treetops. Blue macaws to the Amazon were like pigeons to cities. Monkeys could be seen climbing treetops and we also saw fishes jumping out and into the water. During the journey, Don Cesareo was telling us some interesting stories about his childhood and shamanic experiences. The most interesting point to keep in mind was that he had first consumed ayahuasca as a child of 8 years with his grandfather, who was also a shaman, in Lagarto Cocha! Literally, he had been drinking the sacred medicine for more than a century and we were heading to the same place for our retreat! Here is a pic of the crew without me.

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And here is me wearing an Alabama t-shirt in the Amazon!

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Finally, we reached the entrance to the sacred territory. We had to show permits for entering Lagarto Cocha to border guards of both Ecuador and Peru. The color of the river water changed from light brown to a much darker hue. This was a natural phenomenon because the leaves of the trees there produced dark tannins and when they fell into the river, their pigments created a sort of a tea when mixed with the water. About 10 minutes after entering Lagarto Cocha, we saw the loveliest creatures (my bias is due to the fact that they are my favorite animals). Pink dolphins were circling the canoe and occasionally, they would briefly show their beautiful faces but they were shy about that. I was so excited to see them that I stood up on the seat of the canoe and it got out of balance. Of course, it did not capsize but I got off the seat and stood on the canoe floor. Unfortunately, I could not get a picture of the dolphins because they were too fast for me. The sounds of the rainforest were enchanting. Birds were singing and insects were humming but little did I know how alive the rainforest became at night. The trees themselves commanded respect as they were enormous and awe-inspiring.

Teachings of the Grass

Our mission was to find the camping spot where the Secoya had previously stayed. Lagarto Cocha is best described as a forest land filled with lakes. Floating vegetation like certain grass species were growing throughout the lakes and this was our main obstacle or rather our teacher. When we tried to reach the camping spot known by the Secoya people, our canoes actually got stuck in the tall floating grass. Later on, this would become absolutely normal in our canoe rides. The first time it happened, I was mildly surprised. All of us in the canoes got out and pushed the canoes over the grass. It was a challenge but still great fun to be honest. Here is an example of how the grass was our ‘obstacle’.

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My philosophical insights from these repeated incidents were that the journey of life will never go as planned. Unexpected situations and what may be perceived as catastrophes will arise no matter what you do. Our responsibility is to deal with those unexpected uncertainties in the best way possible with a nice smile on our faces. A positive attitude to overcome difficulties is much more constructive and useful in times of crises. This is why I said the tall grass which was seemingly an obstacle to the canoe was a great teacher. In Stoicism, there is a famous saying which goes along the lines of ‘The obstacle is the way’. This made much more sense to me after my experiences in the great rainforest. Here is an instance where we had to pull the boat on sand because the water level became too low!

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Reaching the Campsite

Eventually, in the late evening, we reached a small campsite in the forest near the lake shore. This is what it looked in daylight like after setting up the tents.

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While navigating the riverscape, we did not have any kind of cellphone or GPS service. All navigation was carried out by the Secoya people, often lead by Don Cesareo, who knew the place like their baby. We finally reached the campsite after sunset and could not see much so we got our flashlights and headlamps out. Tents were set up and the Secoyas constructed neat little bathrooms a short walk away from the campsite. This is a picture of our good old jungle bathrooms!

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Preparation for Ceremonies

Over my two-week stay, three yage (a different preparation of ayahuasca) ceremonies were conducted at the campsite of Lagarto Cocha. I will start by stating the pre-ceremonial rituals. Firstly, it is extremely important to know what ayahuasca is and gain more knowledge of the tradition. I read the book ‘Rainforest Medicine’ by Jonathan Miller, the author who led this trip, twice before the trip. I cannot stress the importance of respecting this sacred vine before the ceremonies. Ayahuasca is NOT something to be taken for fun. This is a vine whose translation literally means ‘vine of the soul’ and is not something to be messed around with.
About nine days before consuming yage, I had to undergo a ‘dieta’ which is the Spanish term for a diet. I had reached Peru on 22nd July and was going to stay there until 4th August. During that period, I avoided alcohol (I don’t drink that anyways), fatty or oily foods, and sugary foods like candies or pastries. This was the recommended dietary preparation for ingesting yage smoothly without vomiting or other negative side effects. It is extremely important to have kind intentions too! These actions are also to inculcate discipline as before each ceremony, it is imperative to fast and not drink water. Since there were going to be three ceremonies, it meant a total of three whole days of no food and water (not three consecutive days but three separate days in a period of two weeks).

The first ritual we participated in after reaching Lagarto Cocha was called the sunrise renewal ceremony. This was the day before the first yage ceremony which would happen in the night. It was around 5 am in the morning and we gringos were standing in a line to receive a medicine. Leonel, one of the healers, had prepared a brew out of Konsa’a, a native plant, for cleansing the body. As you can guess, the goal of the ceremony was to vomit the toxins out of the body. So I gulped down three bowls of the brew which tasted alright (similar in taste to carrot juice) and then less than 5 minutes later, I felt a force akin to a punch on the stomach and vomited on some innocent plants. I saw this scene multiple times as the other group members were doing the same beside me. I will leave the rest to your imagination!

It was amazing and inspiring how much the Secoyas were connected to their natural surroundings. Their ecological knowledge was beyond incredible and they truly depended on the rainforest as I mentioned in my previous blog. Because they depend on the gifts of Nature, they have to protect their landscapes so conservation is vital to them and not an option. They made most of their items from natural materials too such as this wonderful bag.

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This is another example where Don Basilio is showing us a plant which the natives use in a certain ceremony for strengthening their teeth.

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In the next blog, I will share some details on the yage ceremonies themselves!

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Part II – Journey into the Ecuadorean Amazon

Part II – The journey begins

Note: This blog is the second installment of my travel blog series and a continuation of Before the Journey to the Amazon . I highly recommend reading that before you read below 🙂

I reached Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, on the evening of 4th August on a flight from the magnificent city of Cusco, Peru. I joined the fantastic group of people who were my companions on this journey. The very next morning, I had to wake up around 5 am to hop on a bus which took the group to an oil drilling town in the Amazon rainforest called Shushufindi, which was located near the Aguarico River. The bus ride was about 9 hours long and along the way, the environment changed from cloud mountain forests to lowland tropical forest. I could not help staring outside and stick my face against the window to see the surrounding beauty. Here is a taste of the surrounding scenery!

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Finally, we were nearing the banks of the Aguarico and I felt extremely disheartened to see palm oil plantations instead of virgin rainforest. This is a result of economic growth and fulfilling consumer demand for processed snacks (and profit) at the cost of preserving the natural environment. Palm oil is found in half of the processed food in supermarkets and it is a major driver of deforestation in tropical rainforests unless it is sustainably sourced without deforestation. Here is a picture of the palm oil plantation I took on the bus. This may look harmless at a glance but this is replacing hundreds of acres of diverse rainforest area which animals and people call their home.

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Oil pipelines were running through the roads and I also realized the flat irony that we were on a bus going on a road constructed inside the Amazon! The environmentalist in me was screaming angrily and yet silently as I felt helpless. Once we reached the river bank, we loaded our baggage on a motorized canoe and headed to an indigenous household which was about an hour downriver.

This was the house (more like a wooden lodge) of a respected elder shaman, Don Basilio.

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His family greeted us very warmly and helped carry our heavy bags to the house. Their hospitability was genuinely something to learn from. They treated us incredibly well for strangers. Every member of the family spoke two languages – Spanish and their native language called Paicoca. Since I had been learning Spanish for more than a year online by video chatting with teachers from South America, I could communicate to a certain extent with the members.

The lodge itself was above and beside the river. The backyard was the great rainforest itself and different fruit and medicinal trees grew near the house. Inthe evening, the bats were flying around and eating mosquitoes around the house. Dogs and chickens were running freely around the house and living in relatively peaceful coexistence and they were not fully domesticated. Rainwater harvesting and solar panels for limited electricity were common features of the houses I visited. Inside their houses, they had very few materials. They had what they really needed and basic necessities such as cooking utensils, some clothes, phones, and some equipment for canoes. In other words, they led simple lives by consuming less.  Here is a fun picture of the amazing blue macaw on one of the lodges!IMG_0464

Every Secoya member had an encyclopedia-like knowledge of the local ecology. Nearly every family member – teen to adult- knew what each plant was along with its medicinal use. There were no supermarkets or malls in the rainforest (obviously) so the forest itself was the main provider of food, medicines and other accessories. They were very well connected with Nature. They hiked into the forest near their house and gathered fruits, medicinal plants, animals, etc. The river was where they bathed so in summary, their way of life was highly dependent on the gifts provided by Mother Nature. Family bonds were tight and generally, most family members lived together. From a very young age, the children learn the ancestral skills of cooking, boating, fishing, weaving, etc. The Secoya people are masters of handicrafts. Below is an image of a ceremonial crown worn by the Secoya shamans during ayahuasca ceremonies. This is completely hand-made!

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I bought a hand-woven hammock from Don Basilio and it was worth every penny. The fabric was so strong that up to three people could sit on it. Discipline and a strong work ethic are among the core values of the Secoya culture. Usually, the work they do is out of lifestyle necessity, not out of the need for money. For instance, foraging medicinal plants and hunting animals is out of the need for food and healing.

However, there was also the aspect of modernization in the households. Some houses had solar panels for electricity to charge their phones – yes some members had smartphones. I was also surprised to see the little great-grandchildren of Don Basilio watch Lion King on a laptop! In fact, I am friends with all of the Secoya teenagers and middle-aged adults I met on Facebook!!! While it seems crazy that people living in such remote regions of the Amazon have such technology at their means, I appreciated the fact that they were able to communicate effectively with distant friends or family and they kept up with the outside world. Unfortunately, modernization had changed some important and beautiful aspects of true indigenous Secoya culture but all of the members I interacted with practiced and respected their ancestral traditions along with incorporating few aspects of a modern Western lifestyle.

The eldest elder

The very next afternoon, we went to Don Cesareo’s house. I had read about him in the book and was so excited to actually meet this amazing person in real life. He is the most respected shaman in the Secoya group. On seeing him, I would have guessed his age to be around 70 years old but he had aged so well. I was flabbergasted to learn that he was 110 years young! I realized later throughout my experience that longevity of life was a common trait in the Secoya people who practiced their ancestral way of life. These beautiful people live a long life because of being extremely active and healthful. In other words, they add years to life AND life to years!! For instance, Don Basilio himself was around 80 years old but he was leading hikes into the rainforest, maneuvering the canoe with his paddle and sometimes pushing it after getting into the water, and wielding the machete to clear some trails! He put my physical fitness to shame. This is a picture of him doing the same!!! Yes, he is 80 years old!

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On top of that, nearly every elder I met smoked cigarettes! Here is a pic of me lighting up a cig for Don Cesareo – the 110-year old shaman!!!

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I will elaborate on the various aspects of indigenous life and contrast them with our modern lifestyles in my final blog (part 5) of this series. There are many reasons why we see this vast contrast in health and longevity between populations and I will explore them in the last blog.

The elder shamans are the most respected individuals in indigenous groups. They have acquired years of experience and knowledge to heal people. Decades of living and training in the astounding rainforest enabled them to cultivate certain spiritual abilities which would sound unbelievable to an outsider. Later on, I would find out the intensity of their knowledge and completely understand the reasons for the respecting these amazing elders.

More to come in Part 3 of this series!!
In the meantime, here is a short video directed by my friend, Venika Gaur, which will prepare you for what’s coming up – Teachings from the Amazon

Thank you so much for reading!

Before the Journey to the Amazon

PART 1 – Before the journey

As a child, I had always been fascinated with the animals living in the rainforest. The first time I ever experienced the humid environment of a rainforest was in a museum with a small area of animal sounds playing on speakers and some patches of rainforest vegetation. From then on, I started reading about the life there and was fascinated by the beauty of the biodiversity there. I started watching some videos and documentaries on the Amazon rainforest so I badly wanted to visit the place.
My journey to the Ecuadorean Amazon unknowingly began in the in the summer of 2016 when I bought a book called ‘Rainforest Medicine – Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon’ by my now dear friend, Jonathan Miller Weisberger. Funnily, I was searching on amazon.com for books on the real Amazon and stumbled across this masterpiece on indigenous traditions. This book was my introduction to the sacred plant medicine, Ayahuasca. The book focused on the culture of the Secoya, or Siekopai, who are an indigenous group native to the upper Amazon living in parts of Ecuador and Peru.

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I was absolutely mesmerized on reading about the ceremonies done by the Secoya people and was so curious to know more. I visited the website of Jonathan’s organization, Guaria De Osa, and subscribed to the email newsletter hoping for something exciting.  My heart truly yearned to visit the rainforest and meet indigenous people. I also bought a poster of a waterfall in the Amazon which I stuck on the wall of my bedroom to remind myself every single day that I had to go to that place. Although I did not get to see the place, San Rafael Falls, which is shown below, I did accomplish my objective of visiting the rainforest.

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In December of 2016, I found about the UK based Non-profit called PodVolunteer which partners with various organizations around the world and places volunteers to work in conservation-related projects. After a bit of searching, I saw that they had animal conservation projects going on in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru which were led by Crees, an Amazon Conservation group. PodVolunteer accepted me and the Peru trip was finalized in February 2017.

Fast forward to March 2017, I received an email from Guaria De Osa stating that Jonathan was going to lead an expedition to Lagarto Cocha, a sacred territory of the Secoya, in August!! There would be three ayahuasca ceremonies over a duration of two weeks! I could not possibly have missed this opportunity especially because I was already going to visit Peru in the second last week of July, 2017. I contacted him and then talked to him over the phone about this upcoming trip. Fortunately, things worked out and I was able to visit two extremely beautiful countries of South America.

A brief intro to Ayahuasca and Yage

For those who haven’t heard these terms, don’t worry! I was in your place before the summer of 2016. Ayahuasca is actually a forest vine whose name translates to ‘vine of the soul’. The sacred vine is concocted into a completely plant-based medicine used in different ways by various indigenous groups of the Amazon. The medicine is created from a combination of the ayahuasca vine (Banistereopis Caapi) and chacruna or amiruka (Psychotria Viridis). The latter contains N-N DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) which naturally occurs in various plants and animals. Ayahuasca is used as a hallucinogenic medicine to undergo spiritual journeys as well as heal certain diseases! The sacred vine is shown below. IMG_7124

Yage is slightly different from ayahuasca because it is a combination of the ayahuasca vine and yage-oco instead of chacruna.  Ayahuasca can induce more vomiting but yage is meant to be ingested after a vomiting ceremony so the experience is generally more primal.
More to come in the next blog of this series!

Entering the Peruvian Amazon

Hello again,

I finished my volunteer program in the Peruvian amazon today. During my stay, I had no phone service or internet access so I could not post anything. I am extremely glad that I received this fantastic opportunity and I met some amazing people from different parts of the world.

As I had mentioned earlier, the purpose of my trip to Peru was to volunteer in biodiversity Continue reading

The 4 am hike to Machu Picchu

Hello all,

My name is Ankur Shah and I am an Earth System Science and Physics major at UAH. Thanks in part to the Honors SAGA program, I got the amazing opportunity to visit Peru to volunteer in the Amazon rainforest. The first two days of my trip were entirely up to me so I decided last month that I would visit Machu Picchu as it would be a shame if I went to Peru and missed out on one of the magnificent wonders of the world.

The stars shone brightly in the deep blue sky with tall mountains looking down upon you. This can be the closest description for the first hour of the hike to Machu Picchu. Words fail to explain the beauty of this experience.  Walking on cobblestone streets with no lights and looking up to find a vast array of constellations against the backdrop of gigantic mountains is a truly humbling experience. The entrance opened at 5 am and we chose to climb the steps to the top instead of simply taking a bus. I was with two other people I had met the day before and we did not want to miss the sunrise. The picture is below but it does not do justice to the moment.

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The Incan architecture and symbolism is expressed wonderfully at this World Heritage site. The trails make you think that you are in an Indiana Jones film!

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Since I was alone on this trip, I had the opportunity to interact a lot with other people including two cool French guys with whom I hiked to the amazing Incan bridge. This trip made me realize how much the Incans knew and piqued my curiosity for diving deep into Peruvian cosmology.

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It is absolutely mind boggling that hundreds of years ago, they knew the exact dates of Summer and Winter Solstices and their observatories had specific symbols which shone only on Winter Solstice. Along with that,  they used constellations to orient their structures with proper cardinal directions and had well defined water drainage systems.

It is hard to choose favorites on this journey but I would pick the Incan bridge simply because the path to reach there was extremely narrow and  dangerous! The drop was about 2000 metres so it was an intense hike. Even the way they might have constructed that bridge is food for thought.

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In just two days, I visited three separate cities for going to Machu Picchu and until now, I was traveling alone. Hence, my Spanish skills came in very handy while asking for directions and simply talking to Peruvians, who were super friendly, and I met some amazing people on the way. Travelling alone has perks of its own as you make your own decisions and you create the strength of the experience. Now, I am with a group and we will be heading to the Amazon rainforest tomorrow for volunteering with biodiversity conservation and reforestation projects. Will keep you updated! Ciao for now