East of Heart

Contradogma

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From Cajamarca I continued east to Tarapoto.

I

My perception of Peru as a place where I would consider living changed a lot in this trip compared to when I was studying in Lima two years ago. I’m more aware of the the country’s present urge to superficially experiment, undo and reinterpret, while my search these days feels tapered towards constants and core experiences. It created a friction that oftentimes made it hard to connect, even though we both obviously keep looking for ourselves.

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Evangelists recruit new devotees in every plaza. Town and countryside are overrun by a property and land buying frenzy. People lament and stoke age-old political rivalries in the wake of regional elections and ahead of the general ones next year. Pride in economic growth feels like it’s bloomed into an added motive for people to stick out their elbows, toot their car horns and deserve their success “in spite of others”.

It’s a reactionary approach to change that befits the evolving cultural complexity within Peru’s borders and given the onslaught of manipulative forces that bear down upon this rich land from the world’s ivory towers. I still found the rooted, timeless and diverse country that will keep me returning, but the constant tension now makes me want to take a step back from my surroundings rather than engage them. Still, it’s hard not to feel that there is a particular richness to be imbibed from the constant emotion, and a responsibility to get involved in the face of so much latent aggression. Three stories that marked me –

At the market in Trujillo one afternoon, a young woman was talking about her many children and how she couldn’t help falling pregnant because of her horny husband and raunchy sexual appetite. A restaurant worker called her out: “didn’t you watch soap operas growing up?” (many Latin American tv shows subtly encourage planned parenthood). “Of course!” she replied, “well you didn’t learn much!” commented the cook to everyone’s uneasy laughter.

From Tarapoto to Mollobamba I rode with a particularly macho shuttle (combi) driver. Upon arriving through the broad unpaved avenues of the outlying industrial areas, he asserted his place in the vehicle stream by sharply cutting off a young motorcycle rider, coming close to forcing him into the sidewalk. When the 16-year old came up to his window to discuss it at the stoplight, the driver immediately took the high line: “Who are you?! I’m going to KILL YOU! Kill you concha tu madre!”. Somehow these ultra-violent verbal exchanges are common place.

Hugo, the owner of the hostel I stayed at in Huanchaco told me this cautionary tale: “I planted 500 carob trees when I moved here. Only one remains and it’s here in my hostel. The second-last one died when my son graduated and was no longer around to water the one we’d planted in the school yard. It just goes to show you that whatever you do, it has to match the culture on the ground”.

 

II

The fact that I ended up constantly bouncing around the map instead of following the purposeful progression I’d originally envisioned was probably a result of these mixed feelings of attachment. In the greater scheme of things however, this trip encompassed the inflection of a much longer build-up. The stream I’m currently in feels like it took a nice bend when I came down the other side of the Andes to the jungle lowlands on word of another ceremony.

(Below, my loot after a walk around the centre of Cajamarca: purple “criollo” avocados; a green outside, red inside custardy fruit called pasaboca; capulin and aguaymanto (dark purple and orange); mixed steamed beans with parsley and toasted corn, and roasted crunchy “chuña” black and white beans; fresh and “suizo” semi-firm local cheeses with bread; oranges, cacao balls and a local prune and milk caramel toffee)

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Ayahuasca is a medicinal plant that responds to what you need as a body and soul, in the process guiding you towards new insights. It allowed me to find unknown significance in past experiences while glimpsing awareness of a broader reality. Even though I’ve freely talked over the experience with several people, it feels nebulous and still too personal to go over all the procedural details of these ceremonies here. Broadly,

It’s reframed a number of supposedly absolute coordinates by which I measure my life. I can now perceive sadness and happiness as part of one continuum of experience. My points of deepest melancholy are connected to the same curiosity for the unknown as when I celebrate my rituals to discover it: where I feel anxious and lost, I may also choose to trust in joyful awe. The point appears to be to seek out a range of emotions as a way of connecting with the autonomous way of the universe. Needless to say I cried, laughed, loved, shivered, pulsed and felt open like never before.

Much of what we experience as the evolving future is likely not a product of coincidence, but the reflection back of projections and interactions between our existence and that of everything else, that most of the time, we choose to remain unconscious of. We are basking in a metaphysical plane where energetic forces, as opposed to relative distances and hierarchical timelines, determine the “shape of things”. The challenge for me now is how to maintain that awareness, and set forth an intention or connect with assisting channels, while remaining faithful to the mortal structure and responsibility of the every day. Here too, guides appeared, timelines unfurled, the earth opened and the cosmos collapsed inwards.

It all happened in a large and beautiful empty wooden structure called the maloka. Ten of us participated, most were existing shamans, and all were there to be led by the abuela, a master ayahuasquera who had flown in from Pucalpa, farther south and deeper in the jungle.

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III

During my first two weeks in Lima, I left for a few days to explore a plateau six hours into the mountains called Marcahuasi (above a village called San Pedro de Casta). It’s known for its unique rock formations and the supernatural experiences reported by visitors: a moving place where on a clear day you can see all the way to the coast and watch the sun set in the ocean from four thousand metres.

I set off on this side trip in typical methodical exploration: I climbed up at the crack of dawn without a hitch, covered the whole plateau in four hours, immersed myself in photography and the solitude of the barren landscape, then descended, ate, slept in the bare-bones municipal hostel, woke up early and took the bus back to Lima.

It’s a metaphor for the kind of travelling I want to grow out of. I should have camped under the stars, eaten with villagers, spent more time understanding why so many of their terraced fields had been abandoned, gained a better understanding of the “drought and climate change” effects they alluded to.

In this more immersed mindset, it’s likely that I would have also found in that village of 1000 people the door which I later learnt I could have knocked on to find the purest San Pedro in all of Peru.


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IV

Following the 20h bus ride back to the coast from Tarapoto and again facing the futility of surfing, I decided to spend some of my last days in the mountains. I went up to Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range just north of Lima in the department of Ancash. It has Peru’s highest density of 6000+ metre mountain peaks and is known for its unique and diverse Andean culture.

From Huaraz I went one valley over to Chavín de Huantar, a village surrounding one of Peru’s most important archaeological sites. It’s located in the Callejón de Conchucos, a narrow corridor in the Andes that forms part of the upper Marañon River watershed (the river valley pictured at the top of this post, on the way down from Cajamarca). Historically, this was an important area for cultural exchange between the coast, Andes and the selva (jungle).

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Built and expanded between 1500 and 400 BC, Chavín’s temple complex set itself apart through its ceremonial rites and the singular aesthetic that developed from them. Their influence can be found in ancient artistic representations throughout the country, suggesting that Chavín played a seminal role in defining much of ancient Peruvian cosmology, especially along the coast. Visitors were thought to have been put under the effect of hallucinogenic plants before being led through a series of underground passageways where ceremony leaders controlled light and sound to play on their altered perceptions. At the centre of one of the labyrinths, they might have happened upon the five-metre tall Lanzón monolith, underground but surrounded by open space, engraved beautifully to represent the two faces of a central divinity.

In such a scattered trip, it was ironic that ethnobotanical rituals ended up as a defining thread, but I suppose that I needed to observe the effect of perceptual change: both engendered and through retrospective experience of Peru itself, with grounding moments of friendship in Lima at both ends.

Nearly two months since having the blinders momentarily yanked off, I’m still learning to accept that scales and shields can be only slowly peeled off, trusting the firmament’s power to entangle purpose and draw our steps consciously deeper into the ether.


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