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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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