At the time of this blog post, only a small handful of people had read the original version of Seven Nights with Ayahuasca, which contained a much longer first chapter with several pages that didn't make it into the final version. Among the folks who read these pages, there was a general consensus that they liked the writing, but they didn't find it especially relevant to the rest of the book. So those pages got the axe.
Here is the uncut version of the first chapter, in its entirety:
Departure from Civilization
Under different life circumstances, perhaps I would have been hesitant about spending ten days with some two dozen strangers in the depths of the Amazon, technologically cut off and geographically isolated from civilization, sleeping in a thatched roof hut with no electricity and no running water, ingesting a shaman’s magic potion of epic potency. But having worked in Tokyo’s corporate world for the last four years, bludgeoned black and blue by the never-ending stresses of work, constantly assaulted by the endless commotion of modern life in a massively overpopulated city, severed from nature save for perhaps a fleeting glimpse of the setting sun viewed from an office skyscraper, I yearned for the isolation and quietude of the remote jungle, for a reconnection with nature, and for a profound mental reset. Though I knew that I had to change course in life, I wasn’t sure which way to go, and I didn’t realize the extent to which civilization had already taken a toll on me. I was unknowingly well on my way to becoming a crotchety young man viewing the world through a lens tainted with misanthropy and bitterness, and my entire journey to the jungle served only to sour me further.
If it had been my first time with intercontinental travel, perhaps I would have been daunted by the twenty-four hours required to get to Iquitos, Peru, especially considering that after Iquitos I still had another three hours to go, first by bus, then by boat, then by foot. But the arbitrary number twenty-four carried little meaning, other than “long”, because a decade-plus of back and forth between continents had already numbed me to the idea that any flight’s precise number of hours mattered. Well familiar with the vortex of intercontinental travel — that blurry and surreal no man’s land inhabited by caffeine-fueled specters — I knew that once I stepped inside the airport, time would stand still, and I would feel no perceptible difference between a fourteen-hour transit and a twenty-four-hour transit. I knew that inside the vortex not much exists other than ticket counters and gift shops, pat-downs and radiation showers, gate numbers and final boarding calls, and fuzzy memories of consistently being uncomfortable in somewhere unpleasant.
My pessimistic attitude at the time, strong as it was, most likely surfaced externally only on rare occasions, but internally it cranked out a steady stream of endless gripes, such as my silent assertion that airplane seats were exquisitely designed to prohibit comfort. This particular gripe internally manifested during my first flight’s takeoff as I attempted to reestablish blood flow in my tingling legs and wring out a dense lump of cramping in my abdomen, but the airplane’s CAFO-style seating arrangement afforded me minimal options for positions, all of which I tried, all to no avail. So it went that I spent the majority of my first flight trying to contort myself into the least uncomfortable position that I could find, enduring that until a limb went numb, then finding the second-least uncomfortable position, enduring that for as long as possible, and so forth.
With my shoes off and feet up on the seat, hugging my own shins, forehead resting on my knees, I listened to the muffled roar of the jet engines and the violent rush of air outside fading from my hearing, signaling that I teetered on the brink of sleep. But my circus contortions would not hold. My feet began to slip off the seat. Under the weight of my head, my neck began to bend at an unnatural and painful angle. My folded arms began to unfurl, unhinging the pivotal leg support for my seated fetal position. Just as soon as I had sampled the sweet taste of dreamland, my collapsing posture would yank me back into groggy consciousness, back to the sound of roaring engines and rushing air. This repeated for an unknowable number of iterations spanning an interminable number of hours, until at long last a crackling voice from above broke the cycle:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching our final descent. In preparation for landing, please ensure that your seat backs and tray tables are in their full, upright positions, your seatbelts are securely fastened, and that all carry-on luggage is safely stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead bins.”
Amongst the bombardment of static-laden verbiage dumped upon the back of my nodding head, I managed to process only the word landing, which I assumed to be an accurate summary of the unabridged version.
Upon our plane landing and braking, the crackling voice recited her scripted request that everyone remain seated until the captain turned off the seatbelt sign. Countless passengers disregarded her request by immediately unfastening their seatbelts, rising from their seats, then rummaging through the overhead bins. With a halfhearted sense of feigned urgency, the stewardess began repeating her scripted request, during the middle of which the captain turned off the seatbelt sign, nullifying her request mid-sentence, which she finished anyway as a formality.
A cacophony of notification chimes and dance music ringtones blared through tiny, blown speakers, signaling the end to what I saw as the only redeeming quality of being trapped on an airplane: complete isolation from the noisy chatter of everyday life.
A disjointed chorus of one-sided mobile phone conversations flooded the tight confines of the plane, and each emphatic voice competed with the others around it until they all mutually escalated to a plateau of shouting.
“Hello? HELLO? What? No, I just LANDED. I’m sti—what? I’m STILL on the PLANE.”
“YO, WHAT UP. NAH, JUST LANDED. WHERE YOU AT?”
“HEY, Donna. Yap. YAP! No, we’re still on the PLANE. Just wanted to give you a BUZZ and let you know that we LANDED, and that GEORGE here slept for practically the WHOLE FLIGHT! What’s that? No, he’s AWAKE NOW. D’ya wanna TALK to him? GEORGE, DONNA WANTS TO TALK TO YOU.”
Achy and eager to deplane, the herd of restless bodies, much like the discord of clashing voices, jockeyed for position with what little range of motion they had, some more blatant than others in their unwillingness to yield, some more skilled than others at feigning their forced cordiality.
The notion of getting off the plane did tickle my fancy, but my eagerness was neutralized by the thought of spending the next several hours sitting in another airport, waiting to board an even longer flight. My eagerness evaporated completely at my realization that, despite having flown for five and a half hours, I had only managed to progress from one part of the United States to another.
After lumbering off the plane and down to my next departure gate, I plopped down and stared off into the distance, fighting back my heavy eyelids. Just sitting there near comatose might have felt like wasted time, except that before booking my trip I had spent over a year immersing myself in countless books, documentaries, articles, podcasts, and first-person testimonials regarding Ayahuasca and its psychoactive component, DMT. Though anxious, I felt as prepared as possible, and I knew that during my flights and layovers, serious study of any kind would be unfeasible in the hazy pseudo-consciousness and mild delirium that come standard with intercontinental air travel.
So it went that the majority of my time in airports I spent slouched over myself, in a perpetual zombie mode brought on by the inability to sleep on planes, and by the constant dousing of fluorescent lights, commercial jingles, “breaking news”, and gate change announcements. I passed the time and coddled my sanity by observing with half-open eyes my fellow travelers, many of whom, like myself, appeared to be strange and inhuman creatures wandering the airport in a daze of the walking dead.
From down the airport corridor a young woman began approaching my general direction, and although she appeared only as a faint blip on the weak, faded radar of my consciousness, even from afar her silhouette revealed a peculiar shape about her lower half. Her patchwork pant legs appeared to join not at the crotch, but rather down near her calves, each pant leg wider than her waist, each pant leg sagging and cascading down on all sides like a deflated hot air balloon. Her youthful appearance fueled my speculation that she was most likely too young to remember the rise and fall of Hammer pants, and that the resemblance was pure coincidence.
Her pale Caucasian skin, even pastier than my own, suggested that she and I shared at least one thing in common — rarely spending time in the sun — and I wondered if she too might be headed to Iquitos, for she looked like the type that I expected to encounter there. Atop her head, she wore a Rastafarian knit cap, which managed to wrangle only a small portion of her overflowing dirty-blond dreadlocks. Two thin white earphone wires sprouted like saplings from both sides of her chaotic mane, the earphones themselves buried deep beneath her tangled coil of locks, while the other end of the wire plugged into a matching white mobile phone, to which she glued her face. Willfully oblivious to her surroundings, she actively avoided interaction with the outside world, only glancing up from her phone for the occasional split second in order to prevent head-on collisions with her equally oblivious cohorts. Like many other transient, airport creatures, she gulped liquid caffeine from a to-go cup that was perhaps taller than her head, though her unruly dreadlocks and bulging Rastafarian cap made it difficult to ascertain the exact size of her noggin.
She drew closer into view, revealing that in fact her pant legs joined as low as the ankles, like a burlap sack through which she had poked out her filthy feet stained with dirt and sweat. Her weathered and tattered Jesus sandals provided only a thin layer of flimsy cushioning, and they appeared old enough to be a relic from the ancient times of Christ. By comparison, my own pair of weathered and tattered footwear appeared spanking new. With my gaze low at her feet, my heavy eyelids slowly fell closed, and I drifted into a shallow reverie of delirium where my mind’s eye saw her pitted against Jesus Christ in a potato sack race, which she lost, but for which she received His sandals as a consolation prize.
As she waddled past me in her burlap sack, leaving a thin trail of holy Nazareth dirt in her path, a high-pitched squeal startled me back into the waking world. I looked to my right and saw the tiny face of an adolescent girl whose cheeks shimmered under the airport terminal’s fluorescent lighting. At first I assumed the shimmering to be a hallucinatory side effect of my sleep deprivation, but then I realized that she had liberally slathered her face with a sparkling layer of glitter makeup. I couldn’t ascertain what had caused her to squeal, but she had a question for her mother who sat beside her.
“Mom, do I have a pass-, port?”
Her unorthodox pronunciation of passport, separated into two distinct words, suggested that it was her first time saying it out loud.
A tabloid magazine arrested Mother’s attention, preventing her from replying in a timely fashion as Daughter stared at her, wide-eyed and unblinking. After three seconds of bizarre silence, Mother mumbled a lone syllable.
Daughter smiled as she fired off her reply without hesitation.
“I wanna get one!”
Her enthusiastic tone lasted mere seconds, shot down by the only syllable Mother seemed capable of uttering in her apparently inebriated state of tabloid intoxication:
It seemed that Mother thought the notion so absurd as to not even warrant lifting her eyes from the pages. Upon Daughter’s face, her exuberant smile mutated into a frown of dejection as her chipper tone receded into that of a nagging pout.
“We don’t need passports.”
Swift and final, Mother’s reply stomped out Daughter’s hopes like a discarded cigarette butt.
Insistent on procuring a passport, Daughter pled her case in the form of a temper tantrum saturated with entitled overtones. Seemingly long ago numbed to the sound of her own daughter’s wailing, Mother continued scanning the tabloid headlines, with no visible change in her demeanor except for now chewing her gum with emphatic vigor and with mouth agape, as if attempting to drown out Daughter’s whining. And when Daughter showed no signs of relenting, Mother came down upon her with the crushing iron fist of discipline.
“No iPhone for a week.”
Mother handed down the harsh sentence without batting an eye, without skipping a beat in her steady scan of the tabloid pages, in a nonchalant manner that dared Daughter to respond and compound her own sentencing. The mascara shrouding Daughter’s eyes failed to hide the tears that welled up as she folded her arms and sunk into her seat, protesting with her loudest possible non-verbal pout. Mother continued chewing her gum at the loudest possible volume, widening her cheeks into a villainous smile that suggested either smug content in her assertion of dominance, or that she had just read a juicy piece of scandalous gossip.
Not especially keen on listening to Mother’s chewing, and not especially keen on absorbing Daughter’s radiating negativity, I relocated to a vacant seat at the opposite end of the waiting area. But as I sat down, I glanced over to see a middle-aged professional rising from his seat, holding an open laptop in one hand and an enormous cup of coffee in the other, struggling to restrain himself as he barked into his wireless headset.
“No. Nooo, that was Q4. Well you better check again, BECAUSE I SENT IT!”
As he berated his associate, he waved his laptop and gargantuan cup of coffee in exaggerated gestures of frustration and disbelief. The stifling nature of his suit and tie, as well as the energy spent flailing his limbs about, both worked against his ability to maintain moderate body temperature. Beads of sweat glistened upon his brow and head, shining through the gaps in his thinning comb-over. The light glaze of sweat worsened into a profuse coat as his body seemed to be expunging its copious negativity through perspiration.
While I deliberated whether or not I had the energy to relocate once more, a crackly, hurried voice with a slight Spanish accent spilled out of the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We are now ready to begin boarding flight twenty-six-oh-five with nonstop service to Lima, Peru.”
Her voice lacked any hint of sincerity or enthusiasm, and I likened it to a robot’s poorly programmed impersonation of a human being. In accordance with her emotionless instructions, I dragged my weary body into line and joined the herd, migrated onto the plane, took my seat, and then spent the next eight and a half hours in a fog of confusion, unsure if I was awake or asleep, with only one clear memory: the pungent odor of chemical-laden, nutritionally bankrupt pseudo-food surrounding me as I slurred a polite attempt to decline my meal.
After landing in Lima, I fumbled my way through the haze of one more layover and one more flight, both indistinguishable from my previous layovers and flights, except that the majority of caffeine-fueled specters now spoke Spanish. My prohibitively poor, infantile grasp of the language allowed me to easily tune it out, offering a thin barrier of protection between me and the constant commotion of civilization from which I was fleeing. But that barrier dissipated as soon as I set foot outside the airport and into the unfamiliar streets of Iquitos.
I was struck first by the city’s most prominent feature: the infestation of motorized tricycle taxis, whose air pollution was rivaled only by their noise pollution. The thick, stinging, airborne toxins scratched at my lungs, and my burning eyes corroborated that indeed the air was beyond polluted, perhaps even dangerously toxic.
I was struck next by the city’s second-most prominent feature: the disheveled legions of stray dogs that hobbled about the streets, afflicted with a multitude of ailments. Some appeared to have rabies, wearing beards of profuse saliva. Some appeared to have leprosy, with patchy chunks of fur missing. Unprotected from the relentless tropical sun, their bald patches glowed with chronic sunburn, a dark hue of pinkish red like that of cured meats. Some of the strays had open lesions, some had sores oozing with pus, and some had wounds apparently inflicted by other dogs, or by humans who lacked the compassion to see suffering in other living things.
A steep language barrier precluded any conversation between me and the taxi driver during the ride to my hotel. As we waited at a red light, he whistled to himself, and I looked out my window to see a stray dog so ravaged by the combination of malnutrition and disease and injuries that when he limped over to a patch of shade and lay down to rest, I could not distinguish him from a canine corpse, save for the breathing complications which forced his atypical, labored wheezing.
The traffic signal changed, giving us the right of way, but a steady cross-stream of motorized tricycle taxis ran their red light amid a flurry of revving engines and honking and shouting in Spanish. My taxi driver offered his own contribution to the collective grievance, hurling an emphatic complaint audible to no one outside of the sealed windows of our vehicle, understandable to no one but himself.
After I checked in at my hotel, the hospitable staff showed me to my room, which they had graciously chilled to the brisk level of a walk-in refrigerator. The rattling air conditioner appeared to be several decades old, having long ago faded to the dirty yellow hue of a chain smoker’s fingernails, and it struggled as it coughed out gagging amounts of what smelled like moldy Freon. I thanked and tipped the hotel staff, shut the door behind them, and then immediately laid the air conditioner to rest.
Settling into my hotel room, I noticed that it came with six large complimentary mosquitoes, and that the hotel’s exposed plumbing ran floor to ceiling along the back wall, directly next to my bed. The dilapidated electrical outlet appeared to be a shoddy wiring job from the start, and to have only worsened over whatever number of decades had passed since its initial bootleg installation. I attempted to plug in my laptop, and my suspicions proved true as the outlet projectile vomited two hundred and twenty visible volts at me; and so, forgoing that route, I drained my laptop’s last remaining battery juice while wrestling with the hotel’s nigh-unusable Wi-Fi, trying to send my parents the promised confirmation email that I had made it safely to Peru. After a forty-five-minute struggle, on the brink of a dead battery, I emerged triumphant, and with that minor victory under my belt I set out to procure jungle supplies before sundown, in preparation for the next day’s hike to the retreat grounds.
In accordance with the retreat’s guidelines, for the past two weeks I had abstained from all sexual activity, including masturbation. When I had read the retreat’s brochure several weeks prior, the notion of imposed sexual abstinence struck me as dubious, especially given the track record of organizations that have imposed sexual abstinence, and the tendency of those policies to backfire. One of the retreat’s justifications for imposed abstinence was to allow for mental concentration and devotion of our full attention, but I knew from past experience that harboring inside of me a raging pressure cooker of repressed natural instinct would not be conducive to mental concentration. So while the policy didn’t present to me any challenges of willpower — I knew that I could abstain from sexual release for a few weeks because I had already done so in the past without issue — the policy concerned me for reasons of efficacy and practicality.
Nonetheless, I had given them the benefit of the doubt, resolving myself to temporary abstinence, rationalizing that thousands of years of shamanic tradition probably produced more wisdom than my twenty-something years of masturbating.
As I trekked through the streets of Iquitos with an unwanted accumulation of testosterone within me, my heightened mate-detection radar picked up the voluptuous silhouette of a fertile woman off in the distance. From afar I couldn’t make out her facial features or skin tone, but her traffic-stopping hips, bountiful chest, and pronounced backside suggested that she was gifted with the finest of Latin American genetics. I knew that the retreat’s imposed abstinence policy, the insurmountable language barrier, and my own moral convictions precluded any possibility of a sexual encounter, but an ambient Siren’s song drifted into my ears and beckoned me to come hither, just to say hello with a quick glance.
As I drew closer, I saw that the wonderfully proportioned female silhouette was that of a faceless mannequin, positioned outside a clothing store. At first I assumed that no mannequin could possibly have such pronounced curvature, and that the repressed sexual energy polluting my mind was distorting my perception. But drawing closer revealed that the mannequin did indeed wield gravity-defying double-D cups, a phenomenal waist-to-hip ratio, thick, healthy thighs, and a commanding rear end that protruded in all the right ways.
The bustling noise of the Iquitos streets faded out, and everything in the periphery blurred away as I stared with acute tunnel vision at the inanimate temptress. Without my explicit consent, a rogue surge of blood flowed through my neglected genitals and threatened to engorge me, but I chose not to heed the warning, under the assumption that the shame of being aroused by a faceless mannequin would be sufficient deterrent to squelch said arousal. That quickly proved untrue, forcing me to avert my eyes from the saucy mannequin’s porn-star proportions, and to scurry off with one hand in my pocket, attempting to contain my shameful semi-engorgement.
Searching for something to clear my mind, I cast my gaze down a small backstreet devoid of human life. An unruly mob of ravenous vultures, dozens in number, thrashed about in piles of rotting garbage, their beaks tearing at the rubbish as they squawked and jockeyed for position. They stabbed and lashed at each other, establishing a brutal pecking order, with the largest, most ferocious of them indulging in the filthy spoils of high rank. Amidst the heinous screeching and cawing, from off in the distance the hoarse shouting of a decrepit old man echoed through the streets as he expended the last of his strength, crying forth exasperated but zealous tirades in Spanish. Though unintelligible to me, his rasping sounded like a soothsayer’s grim premonitions of the end times, which seemed to be unfolding in the alley before my eyes.
As I stared in a dumbfounded stupor, the distraction allowed my semi-engorged member to deflate. At the same time, a flock of adolescent street hawkers picked up on the scent of my gringo trail, swooping in and encircling me. Before I could snap out of my stupor and comprehend what was happening, I found myself center stage in a dynamically assembled, impromptu bazaar of small children, each touting his or her inventory of various wares: crafts and jewelry at exorbitant prices set specifically for tourists. With nearly a dozen handfuls of goods thrust toward my face, amidst shouts of “authentic” and “handmade”, I noticed that most of the hawkers seemed to be touting suspiciously identical items — thread-for-thread and bead-for-bead — which I assumed were mass-produced on a factory assembly line.
I felt an aggressive tugging on the side of my shirt, and when I made the mistake of looking over, a young boy locked eyes with me, thrust a handful of bracelets in my face, and repeatedly shouted.
“For me schooool! For me schooool!”
If the sale would have truly financed his education, perhaps the inauthenticity and preposterous asking price would not have fazed me, but his brand-name sneakers and New York Knicks basketball cap, both spotless and new, cast serious doubt upon the legitimacy of his claims. Not interested in funding the matching jersey to go with his cap, I declined his offer, which he repeated another eight to ten times while relentlessly tugging at my shirt.
In an attempt to ward off the throng of hawkers, I gestured the universal empty pocket motion for “I’m broke” and insisted that I had already spent all of my money. One of the boys then offered to buy my shorts — the pair that I was currently wearing — under the false impression that they were name brand and of actual value. Had they not been the only pair of shorts that I had brought, I would have accepted his offer, which was more than the $2.99 that I had paid for them at the thrift store.
When it became obvious to them that I was an unprofitable venture, the throng disbanded and scurried off, already hot on the trail of other, more lucrative gringos. I likewise scurried off to purchase the few wares that I actually needed, as quickly and as inconspicuously as possible.
Arriving back at my hotel room that still reeked of moldy Freon, I calculated that it had been some thirty-six hours since my last rendezvous with meaningful sleep. With barely the mental energy to set an alarm, I reached a slow, lethargic hand into my bag and pawed around for my mobile phone. Like all of its predecessors, it lagged a solid decade behind current technology, but precisely because of its simplicity it could hold a charge for over a week, and thus could serve as a reliable flashlight and alarm clock for my stint in a jungle with no electricity.
But as I pulled the phone from my bag I noticed that it displayed the incorrect time of precisely zero o’clock. I presumed that it must be trying to sync the time of day with the service provider, and that because I had no international service it couldn’t make contact. I also presumed that there would be a way to manually set the time of day, but that proved untrue after I systematically explored every menu and sub-menu in the entire interface, finally conceding that until I returned to the United States my phone would be stuck at zero o’clock.
I returned the phone to my bag, looking over my shoulder at the hotel room’s 1980s-era tabletop clock, which appeared both older and wearier than I was. Extending my right arm overhanded like a praying mantis’s claw, I snatched up the clock and curled it in toward my squinting eyes. Staring at it in my clutches, I realized that setting the alarm would require me to know at least one of the three Spanish words written on the side of the clock, none of which I could decipher, despite having studied Spanish for two years. A humble sense of shame and defeat guided my slow mantis claw as I returned the clock back to the table, and then in similar, shameful mantis fashion, I snatched up the hotel phone and requested an old-fashioned wake-up call.
Expending the last of my energy, I killed the lights and crawled into bed. Lying on my back with eyes closed, I welcomed the immediate, hypnogogic imagery that swooped in and carried me on delicate wings toward dreamland. I soared weightlessly through the limbo of semi-consciousness between waking and dreaming, and a blissful sense of relief massaged my exhausted mind. But mid-flight on my way to dreamland, an awful and devastating ruckus ravaged the delicate wings on which I flew. Spiraling into a nosedive, I plummeted back toward waking consciousness, smashing into it with a fiery crash that forced my eyes open. Somewhere within the vicinity of my hotel room, a sudden and boisterous fiesta burst into action with a simultaneous explosion of music, tambourines, and excited shouting and singing in Spanish.
Dragging myself out of bed, I stumbled in the dark over to the air conditioner and turned on its ventilation fan, thinking that I could utilize the white noise of clunky, failing motor parts to drown out the fiesta, and thinking that I would be safe from the moldy Freon as long as I only used the fan. Both proved to be untrue, as the fiesta’s rambunctious song and mirth overpowered the fan’s rackety clanking, and the expulsion of moldy Freon odor seemed to be a systemic problem. Though the white noise of struggling, outdated machinery did help somewhat, I immediately cut the power, not wanting to exacerbate whatever damage the polluted air of Iquitos had already inflicted on my lungs.
I collapsed back into bed and soon drifted into a Latin-themed state of delirious quasi-sleep, wading in the shallow waters of dreamland where I swung sticks at piñatas, slapped tambourines, and rolled the r’s on the nonsensical Spanish that flowed from my mouth. The fiesta raged into the wee hours of the night, affording me only a brief sample of the REM sleep that my body craved.
At sunrise I convulsed awake to what sounded like clanging pots and pans. With foggy eyes I turned my head to see the room’s exposed pipes clanking and trembling, perhaps because of faulty plumbing, perhaps because someone down below was banging them with a hammer. Still exhausted and desperate for sleep, I waited in hopes that the racket would cease, but when the intensity only increased I conceded defeat and rose to seated position on the edge of the bed. With a surplus of free time before departure, I stared at the vibrating pipes for some ten minutes as I tried and failed to make sense of my Latin-themed dreams.
Groggy and jetlagged, I spent the next hour mulling around my room with no clear purpose, debating between the options of showering, or continuing to debate about showering. The pervasive funk of Freon along with an escalating urge to defecate tempted me to actually enter the bathroom, rather than just think about doing so, and my scheduled 8:00 a.m. wake-up call convinced me to finally begin the day.
Cramped and awkward, the entire bathroom seemed like it had been added as an afterthought. The sink’s rough wooden countertop had been filed away with a crude tool to allow the bathroom door to open and close with approximately one millimeter of leeway. The shower, about as wide as a refrigerator, provided barely enough standing space for an adult male of thin to medium build, with minimal range of motion for washing oneself. The toilet faced directly against a wall, leaving enough room for only a pair of shins, and leaving the user with only two options: sit on the toilet sideways first, then swivel shins around ninety degrees, or just use the toilet while sitting upon it sideways. Any attempt to sit on the toilet in the traditional way — from a standing position facing away from it — would result in knees hitting the wall, a backward loss of balance, followed by bare hind parts crashing bottom first into the water tank.
Electing to use the sit-and-swivel method, I discarded my shirt and dropped my drawers, emptying what would potentially be my last solid bowel movement for the next ten days, into what would certainly be the last Western toilet that I would see for the next ten days, cramped or otherwise. My follow-up shower, long and hot and likewise the last of its kind for the next ten days, managed to wash away some of my grogginess and jetlag, leaving me physically and mentally refreshed as I packed my one lone bag and headed toward the hotel lobby, the retreat’s scheduled pick-up point.
Aside from wielding considerably less luggage than most, I fit right in with the lobby’s congregation of apprehensive and bumbling foreigners. We made our unceremonious acquaintances with each other, initiated by self-introductions based on the loose assumption that, as fellow confused-looking foreigners with jungle gear, we must be headed to the same place. Some folks appeared well versed in bold Third World adventures, showing no signs of anxiety other than what might be reasonable for someone who was thirty-six hours away from ingesting an extremely powerful psychedelic. Other folks did not appear well versed in adventure of any kind, radiating with an aura of excessive nervousness and general discomfort. But I was surprised that the group did not strike me as the purely thrill-seeking and pretentious neo-hippies that, in my misanthropic state of mind, I had presumed would inundate the retreat. Rather, a variety of cultural backgrounds comprised the eclectic group, which appeared to span an age range of at least four decades, and my initial hunch was that indeed everyone seemed to be there in search of introspection or healing of some sort.
Outside of the hotel, our ride — a dilapidated, long-retired school bus from Korea — pulled up amidst a thick cloud of dirt and exhaust, trailed by a flock of clamoring street hawkers. They touted their wares at rock-bottom “discount” prices as we filed into the bus, but most of the hawkers, unable to secure a sale, stood dejected as our ramshackle bus’s coughing, wheezing engine summoned the energy to depart.
Along our way to the boat port, the musty odor of old vinyl seats mixed with an already pungent cloud of body odor, helping to dilute the otherwise stinging air pollution of the Iquitos streets. Despite the minefield of potholes, all of which we seemed to hit throughout the forty-five-minute journey, our dilapidated Korean school bus managed to hold together and delivered us to a run-down but lively port on the Nanay River, a tributary of the Amazon River.
Unattended children and stray dogs scurried to and fro as rifle-wielding commercial boat crews loaded their cargo of thatches. A trio of children swam and frolicked in the shallow waters nearby, blissfully indifferent to the danger of snakes and alligators and piranhas, and equally indifferent to the thick, bubbly film of brownish-white goo that coated the polluted river banks like a toxic fungus. Wearing genuine smiles, the likes of which I had rarely seen since the last time I ventured to the Third World, they giggled and pointed at our motley crew of predominantly pasty white, camera-toting foreigners.
We loaded our cargo of largely unnecessary and burdensome items onto a boat that was far less dilapidated and far less Korean than the bus that we rode in on. As we filed onboard one by one, most of us advertised through a wobbly lack of balance that it was likely our first time boarding a jungle boat via a rickety, lopsided plank.
With everyone boarded and ready for departure, the land crew shoved us off, and I bid farewell to the port’s polluted river banks as we pulled away. We gathered speed downstream, and I bid farewell to the stinging airborne toxins of Iquitos, as a refreshing breeze of crisp jungle air streamed across my face. The last signs of civilization faded out of sight beyond the river bend behind us, and so too faded from my mind the noise and commotion of everyday life, the insidious psychological toxicity of the corporate world, the nauseating odor of man-made pseudo-foods, the dizzying vortex of intercontinental air travel, and the chronic symptoms of negativity and malcontent that plague Western society and which had plagued me. Speeding along the calm waters toward the start of my true journey, I felt something that I almost didn’t recognize: a glimmer of hope.