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Scorched Earth

Feb 11th Sunday.

Day of rest. In the morning, we could see isolated plumes of smoke rising out of the treeline above us. Small fires that looked like evidence of campfires rather than a broad forest fire. We took shovels and water up the track to the ridgeline and made our way into the forest. The brush beneath the trees was black and charred along fifty percent of the forest floor with pine trunks charred up to two metres high but the trees had resisted catching fire.

My foot slipped and my left flip flop broke. I was bare-foot with pickaxe and water container. The charred floor was cool underfoot except where the sun penetrated the canopy. My built-in sensors for detecting underground fire. We spotted a few small plumes on top of the ridge and doused them with water. As small as they were, the heat was intense and the charred roots and branches hissed and steamed a long time during their dousing taking surprising amounts of water. The bigger plumes were down the steep sides of the mountain. Peter had already set off down the side to find the source of the biggest plume and various people went to help.

I continued to where the black ground seemed to end abruptly on the ridge and go no further. I’d doused the few smouldering spots I could see and made my way back along the ridge. Luis was now at the top with a dustbin of water. It must have taken some effort to drag that up there. I joined the chain of five men down toward the source where Peter was and passed buckets of water down the line from the bin. Over the next couple of hours, we put out all the fires that we could find and returned back down to the camp.

The view down the valley was apocalyptic and the mood was muted but I was optimistic. The fire had not damaged any of the tents or living area and cleared swathes of land that we were cutting back with strimmers. On top of the soil was a healthy black layer of charcoal. What wasn’t certain was the fate of the trees as the fire spread through the forest floor. To me, it looked like a miraculous event: a purification, a reflection of my internal purification of yesterday’s Temazcal. A clearing for new growth. A fresh start. A rebirth

Peter had turned the original charcoal pit into a pond by putting a spring water hose into it and we gathered some of the smouldering logs around the orchard and dumped them hissing into the pool.

The rest of the day we watched the hillsides for signs of fire and Joni, an energetic young Colombian, raced up the ridge with water and machete to deal with any we discovered.

We had done as much as we could do. The day was hot and dry and we were lucky that the wind was light enough not to breathe life into any embers that might still be smouldering up the hillside.

Luis left to go on holiday to Ecuador and it was left to those of us that remained to pray for rain. I took my scepticism to bed to listen to the guitars drum and singing which lulled me to sleep. I don’t know what time the rain woke me but through the snare-rattle of the rain on the yurt roof, I could hear cheering and singing as those that were still up were celebrating the steam rising out of the woods as the rain was quenching the remaining embers of the fire.

Coincidence? There were too many happening since my odyssey from Turkey to Colombia and the spiritual path I was now exploring. And does it really matter what you call them? Since the retreat at Aloha Ke Akua, I was being constantly exposed to miracles in life that I previously had closed eyes to. Shown how ungrateful I had been in the past and how I’d taken for granted all that I gained and lost throughout my life. Clung on, far too long, to assumptions and judgements that no longer served me. Now I was happier observing and witnessing what was happening in the moment. There was far more value for me, now, in observation and acceptance than assumption and judgement.

Feb 12th Mon At breakfast, there was no more evidence of smoke or fire but half the hillside looked like it was now entering Autumn with the leaves turning brown. It looked as if some of the trees were not going to survive the blaze. I didn’t really know if they would or not.

Miguel arrived and didn’t speak much about the fire. What could we do about it anyway? We had practical issues to attend to like moving 200 bamboo poles down the slope from the top of the ridge to the new Maloka that was being built next to the kitchen.

Connie is a slight woman of 59 who went about it with gusto. She was here for the Kambo for treating a serious health issue. She was already off her medication and a good way through several Kambo ceremonies and up and down the hill hauling 5 metre, 15cm diameter poles on her shoulder. She and Graciela who were pulling poles out of the hut and dragging them to the steepest part of the track like a freight train were showing us up. I made a bridle for tying two poles to drag down the hill after bruising my sides by wedging the poles under my arms the first dozen trips. The bridle worked well and it was easy to transport two at a time without damage to me or the poles.

The shale and gravel were sharp under my bare feet and as the sun rose high in the sky, the blackened earth began to burn my soles and I surrendered to the kitchen and the river with the thought of finishing off tomorrow as we had already brought down at least half of them.

After lunch, the clouds sheltered us from the sun and the ground cooled down. Connie was back up the mountain track again, bringing poles down making us look bad so I padded my sore feet up the gravel track to help finish off the job with the help and inspiration of Steve, a young fitness fanatic. I was out of my league, fitness wise, but I discovered a secret weapon from the family here: Mambe and Coca leaves. That gave me a turbo boost and the initial fatigue I had felt in the morning had disappeared by the afternoon. It didn’t do much for my bruised sides and sore feet but the job was now done. This freed up tomorrow for whatever else.

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Fire and Water: Temazcal

Feb 10th Saturday

On the outskirts of Baricharra, Jorge has a Temazcal a Sweat Lodge in his Garden: a bamboo framed tent about four or five metres diameter and a metre high. I planned to sit in my briefs since I lost my swim shorts somewhere between Santa Marta and Aloha Ke Akua but the dress code demanded shorts so I emptied the pockets of the canvas shorts I was wearing and removed my Tshirt. I was ready

Our community from La Finca Nuevos Horizontes sits in two concentric circles around a fire pit. The pit is loaded with volcanic rocks that glow orange in the dark. Herbs and plants are scattered upon them and fill the space with thin smoke and thick, sacred aromas. The door is closed and water is splashed over the rocks and the moist heat builds rapidly. I feel claustrophobic as the hot humidity closes in upon me in the blackness of the lodge, and sense panic rising within. I have the urge to escape but I choke it down with reason: for fear of looking bad.

I had been in saunas before bit I’d never attended a sweat lodge. these are not the same. There is no ceremony to a sauna and you can move about and leave when you want, and there is light. In a Temazcal, you are there for the duration of the ceremony…

How long would I be trapped in this oppressive heat and darkness? I trust that I am safe amongst friends and resolve to endure it as long as necessary. Part of the ceremony is to introduce your self and your parents out loud and state your intention. My intention followed on from the recent Ayahuasca experiences: to maintain connection to the great spirit and gratitude to the ancestors. 4 songs are sung one after another to the beat of a drum. The sweat drips down my bowed forehead off the end of my nose onto my thighs. My canvas shorts are already soaking from the rivulets rolling down my torso. The earthen floor feels cool and it’s tempting to lay down. The songs finish and the door is thankfully opened and I blink in the light and gasp at the cool air that drifts to meet my skin.

More rocks are introduced and we are again consumed by darkness and more heat but the initial fear has now melted away into the darkness, the lodge is representative of the womb of our mothers. The thought makes the experience less uncomfortable and something to welcome. More songs, the heat consumes me. When the door is opened, I relent and lie on the floor next to my companeros. The cover is lifted at the back of the lodge to let a breeze through. It feels so good, even though lying down feels like succumbing to a weakness. We resume our positions when the third set of rocks are introduced. More plants smoulder on the rocks and fill the lodge with wild fragrances.

Mitchell seems to be struggling with the heat and moves away from the rocks pushing me against the wall. I feel OK in myself now, engaging more in the process,  and at the start of the fourth round, I exchange places and move into his space in the inner circle. There is heat here radiated off the stones as well as the steamy convection circulating around the lodge. I face the stones resolved to keep focussed on my intention knowing that this opportunity will soon pass. I’m here now and, whatever I do, I will emerge from the lodge whenever the ceremony is complete in time – I may as well give it my all.

The fourth session completes more quickly than expected and we emerge into the Colombian breeze drenched and muddy. Edward, the young 18-year-old from the UK had been laying down and looked as if he’d just been dug out of a potato patch: King Edward.

Whatever my preconceptions were of the sweat lodge, I emerged filled with peace and gratitude. This was more than a ceremonial sauna, it was a spiritual rite and I felt even more bonded to this community, La Familia… I took a shower and washed the mud off my canvas shorts and hung them up in the breeze as long as possible, and wandered around in my t-shirt and underwear, while eating fresh pineapple and Strawberries, before experience the chill of putting damp canvas shorts back on. They aren’t cold for long. Things dry fast in this part of the world.

There are strangers in the headlamps as we approach the entrance to the farm in the valley below. There is an exchange in Spanish between Luis and the stranger. There has been a fire. It’s dark and we cannot yet see the extent of it. Below the mountain track down to the camp, I see the glow of what looks like a charcoal fire but it’s not in the location of the charcoal pit that Peter had been using down by the river.

The air smelt burnt but cool. When we reach the kitchen, we can see little damage to the camp but the surrounding brush is thinned and blackened and two or three isolated fires can be seen flickering in the trees up in the mountain near the pines at the top of the ridge. There is not much we can do in the darkness. Peter is distraught.

His charcoal burning was the source of the blaze which caught the tinder-dry grass not far from the charcoal pit. There had been no rain for over a month; this was the dry season. Luis lit a cigar and prayed for rain to come before the cigar was finished. I was Skeptical, as usual, even after all the spiritual ceremonies I had immersed myself in. Before the cigar was finished, it started to rain. Coincidence? The timing was immaculate but admittedly the rainfall wasn’t heavy enough to douse the fires. We went to bed trusting all would be OK. Although the power of Peter’s remorse kept him up and checking the mountains in the night.

Odd! We are all away for a day to be purified using fire and water and returned to a purification of another kind on the land. What was there to be concerned about?

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Ayahuasca: Nuevos Horizontes

Feb 8th Ayahuasca 3

It was a late start and, despite earlier discussion, the clearing for the Maloka was ignored as the venue for this Ayahuasca ceremony and we huddled around the fire normally used for cooking next to the kitchen. There felt more of a chill in the air this evening and I edged my chair closer to the fire. Everyone is quiet with an introspective look in their faces as they glow orange from the flickering flames in the night.

It seemed like hours before we were called to the altar although I didn’t mind. Sitting around the fire in a silent group has its own mystical power.

The cup was small and the flavour more pleasant than I remembered. The flavour is irrelevant, this is sacred medicine. I returned to my chair and felt my body starting to cool despite the heat of the fire. I went to the tent to fetch a blanket to wrap myself against the evening chill. It took a while for the medicine to kick in and I felt almost drunk. The earth beneath my feet and the coals within the fire took on geometric shapes and the flames flickered blue, green and yellow.

I remembered I should ask questions that I wanted answers to. Once again I asked, “What is my path?” The answer came as a feeling and a thought: “This is it. You are on it here and now. The path is infinitely wide and infinitely long. What you are looking for is a limitation…” This reminded me of what Miguel and Luis told me before the first ceremony. “You are already on my path, let happiness be your guide.” I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. I wanted that ‘limitation’ for giving me a direction. Without it, I was a ship on an infinite sea without a compass, but I felt liberated by what was revealed. This answer told me that my ship had a rudder and I could steer anywhere I wanted. I needed better questions for getting specific answers but I had not prepared well enough.

I had no more questions but felt relatively content and accepted the moment as it presented itself. I relaxed into the experienced and felt great warmth for those around me, this community of courageous souls, this family. Keely was to my left, still and silent in a chair enveloped in blankets. She was like a temple with doors closed, I couldn’t tell what was going on inside. Rosalie laid down on the floor beside me, her fingers caressing the soil. She reminded me of Deb and I felt Deb’s spirit was around me. I was not alone and experienced great peace and tranquillity. I felt I was no longer there for me. I was there to share this space with others and I watched these souls as they moved through their own experiences, prepared to help but not to interfere. I experienced very little nausea this time and did not need to purge or feel a need for a second cup. This night was easy on me.

The moon rose over the mountains to the east judging the crescent of the moon, the sun not far behind. and as the guitars came out, I went to bed, sung to sleep by the voices around the fire.

Feb 9th Ayahuasca 4

The day after an Ayahuasca ceremony feels different to a normal day. There remains a spiritual connection and I’m fascinated by other people’s experiences. I found out that Rosalie had missed the first two ceremonies at Aloha Ke Akua and that last night was her first. It was really none of my business but I was glad she had had a good experience.

The remainder of the day was fairly restful. I spent some time down by the river and thought about some questions to take to tonight’s ceremony. I slept a little in the afternoon. A fire was lit in the new clearing for the Maloka and people had already arranged their mats for sleeping outside. I claimed a chair near the fire and brought a blanket even though it didn’t seem as cold as last night.

On the opposite side of the fire, 5 people sat cross-legged on yoga mats. We were silent, faces reflecting the glow of the fire. I had forgotten my notebook but remembered most of the questions I had written down so decided to leave the notebook in the tent. Keely was to my right and Carlos, a middle-aged Colombian who I had never met before but had arrived that night was to my left wearing distinctive red sandals.

After taking the medicine, I got comfortable in my chair with the blanket wrapped around me. The medicine made me feel cold so I edged toward the fire and wrapped myself tightly in the blanket. I was shivering and I leaned forward to lie on my thighs half curled up wanting to lie down and go to sleep. I was thinking of the questions I had thought up earlier. I looked at my feet and saw Mayan or Aztec style patterns in the soil and faces carved within them and a message came to not go for comfort.

In a dream when I look away and look back, the patterns change. Here when I looked away and looked back, the same faces were still there. These were representations the anscestors; all the souls who had gone before. They told me I had the gift of life. It was mine now and I was the bearer for all that preceded me. I felt both gratitude for that and guilt that I had not been grateful for the gift of life I had been given up until now. Ultimately, my life was up to me I should do whatever I want and listen to my heart and the clues and signals along the way, my intuition.

Then my negative traits were shown to me: judgement and resentment. I felt uncomfortable but the answers to my questions began to come. This must have been a long time because Bryan brought his guitar to the fire and the music started to play. My resentment was highlighted as I wanted the silence to concentrate while the answers to my questions were being delivered. What are my talents? “You are already using them.”

I felt the discomfort and curled up in the chair. “Do not go for comfort” echoed in my mind. I fixed my eyes on Carlos’ red shoes; an anchor in my experience drifting in a sea of discomfort in front of the fire. How can I best serve with joy? “You serve by being joyful, everything else follows.” Carlos sat like a rock, immobile in his chair, feet firmly planted on the ground, the faces of the ancestors continued looking up at me. Immovable stoic stone faces in the earth and in the corner of my vision. Carlos’ red shoes planted into the ground.

How do I find my ideal partner? “She will appear when you are ready, do not be attached to whoever comes…” That used to be an important question for me but had since become a simple curiosity as I came to appreciate myself…  but this answer was a clue to my failed relationships: attachment, to own or belong to… it had been the undoing of my relationships, that and ingratitude.

My biggest lesson of tonight was that of Gratitude for all those that have gone before: people and events; for they truly have given us the world we have now. I don’t really need anything else apart from gratitude, my questions highlighted all my ingratitude that went before. I was done but stayed by the fire wanting peace but thinking I should be enjoying the music.

Eventually, I stood up and made my way across the grass toward the toilet. It seemed like a long hike into the wilderness and I felt happy in the cool night air away from the fire and the music. Again, there was no purging and the medicine stayed inside me. I filled my water bottle at the hose and went to sit in the kitchen in the dark and to experience solitude for a while before going to bed.

I didn’t know what the time was but the moon was not yet up so I guessed earlier than last night. Luis came by and shared a few words, then Bryan came by to pack away his guitar and shared a few words too. Lying in my bed, my mind flickering colourful flames of thought, I cast my mind back to the hours wishing for sleep while bent over in the chair. “Do not go for comfort.” The message had said and I stayed with that all night. And here I was, now comfortable, yet unable to go to sleep.

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New Horizons

Saturday 3rd Feb,

Luis and Miguel organised a ‘minga’ for the weekend; communal work on the new farm, La Finca Nuevos Horizontes, where friends and family gather to help out. I was in and joined a Fabian and Lara in their car to bounce along the mountain track to the farm.

Although the farmland follows a ravine, it is still 1100 metres above sea level which keeps the temperature very moderate. Descending the hillside from the parking area down to the river, we look down on a grove of Banana, orange and Papaya trees and further up parallel to the river to the encampment.

Apart from the compost toilet, the kitchen is the only structure yet established on the land: a bamboo shelter with a black polythene roof with two tents one side and a yurt and tent the other. Crystal clear mountain spring water flows constantly from a pipe resting on the river bank and is extended to irrigate the bananas, Oranges and papaya. Facilities are basic but it’s all we really need. Nothing else is required. The water needs no filter and tastes cool and sweet straight out of the ground. The flow is persistent and the unfamiliarity of watching the flow looks wasteful but is the epitome of abundance. Nature provides all we need and the water never stops flowing.

The water tastes clean and pure and keeps us energised throughout the day. I take a machete and rake to help mulch the trees with fresh cut grass from around the grove and the cutting activity clearing the overgrown land further up the river bank. My ankles itch despite frequent application of the insect repellent that I’m trying to ration for lasting the weekend.

After lunch, it’s “river time.” The land levels out under some trees near some rapids. The water here is fresh and cool spilling over time-worn boulders singing its song of relaxation to the people lounging in the hammocks in the trees on the bank. It’s a long break after a delicious lunch and I grab an extra 20 guilty minutes sleep in the hammock when everyone resumes work. It was much needed and I took a little more energy to my tasks.

The people here are half my age and twice as energetic. Steve and Mitchell are from the UK. Steve, an ironman enthusiast and Mitchell both attending regular CrossFit sessions in San Gil, as well as physical labour. There are some people from Bucaramanga here too that don’t speak English but we all work together happily

5pm comes and we knock off work retiring to the kitchen shelter.

The tent needs no mosquito net, the bugs that cause the problems are strictly daytime pests and my ankles drive me crazy until I fall asleep.

I’m awake at dawn but lie in until the breakfast bell at 7.30 and resume raking and watering. The sun does little to help dissipate my generated body heat. I drop down to the river bank where there is a flat boulder about 2 metres by 1 where I can strip off and plunge into the river.

I don’t need a towel, the sun and air are warm and dry and I sit on the rock to air dry for a couple of minutes and get dressed. My ankles don’t itch now but the bites were looking angry.

After lunch, it is river time and no more work is done for the rest of the afternoon. We pack up and load up the Jeep to go back to La Palmita. It’s only 12 Km but it takes half an hour as the track is so rough. My right ankle is swollen and painful and I duck out of going back to Nuevos Horizontes the next day.

Sunday, I take to the hammock under the maloka reading Neale Donald Walsh’s “Conversations With God” napping in-between times. I feel a bit guilty for not helping at the farm. The residual effect of decades of work-a-day conditioning even though there is no pressure here to do anything.

My swollen ankle is painful to stand on and needs some respite from the sandflies. I keep it elevated for most of the day.

Monday, the swelling has gone down and the itching is not so bad. It’s a half hour walk to San Gil and I look for an outdoor or camping shop. Nothing! The adventure capital of Colombia does not cater for the adventurer. I return in my flip flops with insect repellent instead of hiking boots and socks.

After a day in a hammock at La Palmita, I was back at La Finca, legs sprayed up with deet. It was quiet and there is no pressure to work but still, a lifetime of ‘employment’ conditioning to look busy when the boss was about is hard to shrug off and my mind lugs my tired body over the land.

Feb 7th, More people arrive now, mostly from the Aloha Ke Akua retreat a week or two back. and we clear a square for the new maloka, Many hands make light work and within an hour or two, a square is cleared…

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La Palmita

I awake before dawn in the sweaty Cartegena air and lay still in Pantelisa’s cockpit watching the sky slowly brighten behind the lights on the dockside cranes.

I feel relaxed but there are still jobs to do on the boat. I help Rolf troubleshoot the sticking sail sliders with a workout on the winch, hauling and dropping the mainsail a few times, while the sun turns up the heat in the marina.

It’s still uncertain as to when to move Michaels boat from St Kitts to Colombia so I pack my rucksack and walk into the Old Town with the intention of catching up on some writing and making my way to San Gil via the bus terminal while I have the time.

I pass Papa’s barbers and go for a haircut in an old 1950s barbers chair. It felt like a film set and I got a good old-fashioned trim including ears and nostrils for under £3.

Espiritu Santu is a cafeteria in the heart of the old town. It’s a wide and deep hall reminiscent of a school refectory although it is waiter service. Fillet of fish with fries and coconut rice with a salad and two juices for £5.50. Not as cheap as outside the city but still a great deal. The hall is busy and reverberates with boisterous latino chatter, too much for concentrating on writing so I browse the internet on my phone instead.

It was hard to get a handle on where the bus terminal was as the results are scattered all over google and the map of Colombia. Approaching a taxi on the rank outside the city walls, I accept the price and hop in, confident I will make the bus on time. There is one bus a day to SanGil from Cartegena and I arrive at the terminal an hour before the 17.30 departure.

The Expreso Brasilia bus is modern with the most comfortable chairs that recline well back. National Express in the UK could learn a lot here. The air conditioning was set for maximum cooling which is not so bad sitting with the sun coming through the window but with the onset of nightfall, arctic conditions ensued. Outside the city, the fun started, horn blaring and trucks being overtaken in the dark along highway 90. It reminded me of the journey along the Sinai from Sharm el Sheik to Cairo. I turn my focus to updating my blog until my battery dips into the red at 5%.

At Barranquilla, I had the driver retrieve my bag so I could get my jacket but I had nothing for covering my legs and feet. I glanced across the aisle at the guy in lumberjack jacket and balaclava nestled under his blanket. He had local knowledge, I can’t expect conditions to improve. I discover a socket outlet between the pair of seats and power up my laptop; bonus. I can get a lot of work done here as I expect the journey to be over 12 hours and the computer gives a little warmth for my legs. At 2am I get tired and curl up to stay as warm as I can and grab a couple of hours sleep. With a blanket, it would have been perfect but the cold kept me from decent rest.

At daybreak, we follow the valley looking at the rapids in the river below and start scaling the mountains, overtaking heavy trucks lugging their burden up the gradients. The roads are smooth, the view spectacular and the bends sharp with long drops the other side of the concrete barriers. I’m all typed out on the blog and instead enjoy the view of the sun bathed vista the other side of the window, legs curled under, sitting on my feet.

I think of how to ask the driver how far San Gil is and remember I have data for checking maps.me. This town is not San Gil. It’s Bucaramanga 60km north. We’ve been driving for over 15 hours and we have at least another hour and a half to go.

The bus pulls into the San Gil terminal dead on 10am. I’m hungry and thirsty since I brought no food and my body relied on my excesses at Espiritu Santu. There are food booths at the terminal and I ask for a vegetarian pastry “Tiene sin carne?” “Con pollo?” Chicken, as close to vegetarian as I could get, except it had some sort of chorizo in it as well. Vegetarian seems to be an alien concept in local circles in Colombia. I was hungry though and it refuelled me for the half hour walk to the centre of San Gil.

“The adventure capital of Colombia,” Lonely Planet tells me as I walk by industrial units and garages along the main road, aromatic with spent engine oil. The sun was burning away the bus induced chill and I dispensed with my jacket as I crossed the bridge into the city centre. Google maps paints a street grid on my screen. Is this plaza the city centre? Gringo Mike’s restaurant is across the square. Likely, being a gringo, he should speak English and would know and I head across the square.

I hear a call “Hey Paul!” Mike, Malissa and Bryan from the Minca retreat approach from across the square. They had just arrived in town from Finca Palmita and were on their way to the market so I tag along. This is indeed the city centre. After a refreshing natural smoothy in the market, we share a taxi back to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were at their new property working and Mike gives me a tour of the place and I’m shown my bunk on the first floor of the Maloka.

At the foot of the garden is the river, cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to bath in. It has none of that fertilizer smell that runs off the land into British rivers. I strip off to cleanse myself in the pure cool water and stay well below the surface while a whitewater raft drifts by full of whooping adventure seekers. I wait until they are flushed away before shaking off the water, getting dressed and settling in at La Palmita.

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Ikaro

Santa Marta is a grid system of streets: Calle x by Carrera y so it’s easy to guess a route to roughly where you want to go. Ikaro is in a pedestrian precinct near Parque de Los Novios on Calle 19. I leave the bike at the side of Calle 18 and walk around to Ikaro and up to the counter. I spot Helmut and Inka out the back of the kitchen and stroll around and treated to a nice cup of Mate Green Tea. No sign of Jason. I book into the hotel across the road and flick on the air conditioning and spend a cool couple of hours online.

When night descends I emerge into the street to buzzing activity, music and crowds. This place is busy. I fetch the bike off the street and push it along the precinct and park it in the well lit Plaza next to a cleaner looking bike and go for dinner at Ikaro. It was good catching up with Inka and Helmut. They had been upstairs in the double suite above my dorm at Aloha but our paths never really crossed.

I awoke early and continued updating the blog to the point of arriving in Colombia about 2 weeks back. I was living my life faster than I could write about it. I went for breakfast at Ikaro before the 10.30 cut off and checked out of the hotel before the noon deadline then hit the road to Cartegena. Carrera 4 led me south straight onto highway 90 along the isthmus that had been visible from Aloha. The Cienaga outskirts are depressingly run down and polluted. A contrast to the beautiful sunsets seen from way up in the mountains.

The air was hot, even along the shoreline. And the bike was humming along at 100kmh keeping the air flowing around me to cool me as much as possible. Without riding with a group, I could find my own pace and not push it too much with the traffic. Overtaking was easy on the long straights and sometimes along the generous hard-shoulders when the oncoming traffic was busy.

It’s about 200km from Santa Marta to Cartegena with Barranquilla in the way. I found the Barranquilla ring road for the easier route away from the congestion.

There’s a volcano near Cartegena. I passed a sign: Volcano 18km. It was the only one I saw and I soon found myself at the Cartegena City limits just as rush hour was starting. I wasn’t going back now. I got my bearings and used the sun as my beacon for finding Club Nautico in Manga.

The Cartegena rush hour is frantic, tight and noisy, elbow to elbow with motorcycles, taxis and buses. The licencing laws ignore motorcycles under a certain size which results in swarms of 180cc and below bikes. As soon as the dock cranes become visible, I know I’m home. I see Mike and Toni on the way to the bike wash so they get to see Minca mud rather than a pristine bike.

I have dinner and a few beers at Toni’s boat and eventually follow Michael to Pantelisa squeeze between the baggage in my old cabin on for the night. Compared to Minca, Cartegena is hot and sweaty and I go up to the cockpit at 3.30am to sleep in the slight hint of an intermittent breeze.

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Rio Elemento

I awoke before lunch, hungry but with a feeling of profound contentedness. That ‘never again’ feeling was now a distant memory and I was looking forward to tonight’s second ceremony. It was to be lighter, focussed on celebration with a later start.

Naturally, a good part of the day was spent sharing experiences. It turned out that last night had been one of the most intense yage ceremonies ever experienced by both Aloha and the facilitators. Being my first time, I thought that this had been ‘normal,’ if there is such a thing.

The previous day after the herbal bath Tim had told Miguel and Luis he had had a vision of the indigenous ancestors and consequently the dose was scaled back to half.

Miguel confessed that I had slightly more as the medicine put more of itself into my cup, which cleared up the mystery of how everybody else seemed to be able to walk unassisted. It was a perfect introduction for me and the learnings came for many days after this night.

We spent a good deal of time sitting around the fire with the guitars playing and whoever wanted to sing along. Makete is a world-class musician and songwriter and played a fabulous set in front of the fire. He stopped and asked, “Are we drinking medicine tonight?” It was probably midnight by the time the ceremony was underway.

I drank my second ever cup and this time, with logistics in my mind, topped up my water bottle and went to the toilet straight away while I was still able, and then got comfortable in my spot.

This time the taste of the medicine had an association with vomiting and I could see how it would become harder to keep down if I thought about it too much. the dose was lighter and the effect was slower to arrive. There were no psychedelic colours, everything looked normal and I could walk OK. I felt light headed and made my way to the ridge to walk around ready for the purge. It was a while coming and I helped it along deliberately in order to feel better and go and sit back down.

I laid down in contemplation. Nothing profound appeared to be happening and I was fine with that. Instead, I was reflecting on last night and thanking the stars and mountains. I felt almost as if I was drunk but with sharpened awareness instead of the dullness that alcohol brings.

I was recovering by the time the next cup was being offered and I stepped up to the altar. It was harder to keep down because of the flavour. I purged fairly soon after and walked around for a while, visiting both the main fire and the quieter fire in the purpose build circle below, warmed my bones and contemplated whatever came to my mind then returned to my spot to sleep.

In the morning, I awoke just before dawn and people gathered around the greying embers of the fire to close the retreat and share experiences one by one. I didn’t know what to say but the right words seemed to come out on their own without thinking about them. A deep feeling of gratitude, not just for the Ayahuasca but all the processes leading up to it and beyond. Every part of the retreat was like a jigsaw piece that interlocked with the next to build a larger picture of part of the universe and my part in it.

This week had bonded our whole community. Deeper than I have ever experienced before. The retreat was closed and people began to drift away, and as people left, the energy of the site began to wain. Aloha still had its own feeling but the energy that we all brought to the retreat had been palpable.

Tim left straight away and I promised to meet him at Rio Elemento hostel in Minca the next day. Rosalie left too but most of us stayed at Aloha for one more night.

Monday, I got ready to leave after just one more cup of tea. The tea would be ready in 10 minutes but still wasn’t apparent an hour later. I might as well stay for lunch, so I waited. Another hour later, I felt I had already overstayed and I prepared to leave. Lunch was about to be served but I had made up my mind and took my helmet and bag and retrieved the bike.

I rode the opposite direction to the way I came and followed the loop around via Los Pinos and Pozo Azul. It was an easier route with far more paving and probably took the same amount of time even though the distance was further. I spotted Sam in a juice bar and went to offer her the cup of tea that I’d promised the day before. Herbert and Alle were there too so the offer was quickly forgotten as greetings were exchanged. The juices were nectar to my taste buds. Greg, Adam, Sheryl and Jason joined us and so we had a mini-reunion tagged straight onto the Aloha departure.

As we disbanded I made my way to Rio Elemento. They were fully booked but there was a hammock I could rent. Perfect, I took it and Jay, the owner, proceeded to give me a tour of the place. There is plenty of space here and a good sized pool and walking around the pool toward the river, the familiar blue eyes of Rosalie pierced my awareness. I didn’t expect to see her here – it was an unexpected pleasure.

Greg, Jason and Sheryl joined us as I returned to the terrace above the pool… I wanted to catch up on my blog but it wasn’t going to happen here right now. I went to dinner on the terrace and Gerhard joined me at my table. Gerhard was 57 and saw me as a fellow older traveller. I keep forgetting I’m old. Most of my peers are half my age. Greg and Jason joined us and Gerhard shared so much wisdom from the lessons from his recent divorce, we were all inspired. He admitted that he didn’t love himself until after his divorce. A tough lesson that I recognised through my own history.

There were four hammocks in the corridor and it looked as if I was last to turn in. I kicked off my flip-flops and settled down wearing my shorts and t-shirt with a blanket over me and drifted off to a fitful sleep. I woke at dawn slightly chilled. It was a cold night and I got up for an early breakfast. Greg, Rosalie and I went down to the river for a swim. Bracing mountain water got the blood flowing.

There was no check out time as such so I retired to the hammock to update my blog until the middle of the afternoon. I had promised to meet Helmut, Jason and Sheryl at Helmut’s hotel and restaurant in Santa Marta. It felt time to revisit ‘civilisation’ so I eased the bike through the mountain passes toward the city…

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Ayahuasca 1

Thursday felt like a rest day. I needed it, not because of the Kambo but because of the Men’s Circle and Purpose Spark process cracking open my psychological shell.

Keely and Makete were my Purpose Spark team and we had already shared a lot but sharing didn’t get any easier: exercise after exercise putting us on the spot without time to compose ‘impressive [inauthentic]’ stories, relying solely on truth and vulnerability. “Vulnerability is a muscle.” Greg, the facilitator told us. It was a powerful muscle too, I could see its power to inspire in listening to other people’s heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a muscle worth exercising.

Pen and paper crystalised all that bubbled up within; dormant baggage from the past buried under the blanket of suppressed emotions that I never knew remained hidden deep down in my bilges.

Shortly after five, we headed down the mountain ridge for the sunset hike. It wasn’t far to a small plateau on the peak at the end of the ridge below Aloha and we watched the sun descend over Cartegena and beyond.

People started to return to the farm when the sun started dragging the twilight away with it and eventually I am left sitting on the ridge with Ryan, Makete, Jason and Bryan. All have had Ayahuasca before and I learn about the revelations that each have had from their ceremonies. I’ve never done an ayahuasca ceremony before so I was fascinated by what I might be in for tomorrow night.

I was feeling the evening chill but did not want to miss this conversation. The moon although far from full gave us all a silver sheen and we sat like ghosts on the mountain.

Friday morning, I was beginning to feel flashes of doubt. It could be apprehension or fear of the unknown, but both are a disease of thinking and I let those thoughts go. I felt fulfilled and at peace with all the processes that led up to today and I felt I didn’t really need the ayahuasca but Miguel and Luis had reassured me that it is good for opening us up to the spirit world, where consciousness lives… and for me, where consciousness lives is worth exploring.

It was a day of silence today and I grew tired that afternoon so went to my bunk for a couple of hours sleep. The ceremony wouldn’t start until at least 8pm. It was dark when I awoke and everybody had already got their bedding out on the grass. We were all to spend the night around the bonfire. All the best spots closest to the fire were already taken and I settled into a place further away next to Edward and Keely.

The fire was soothing in its warm orange glow and sparks floated up to meet the stars in the cloudless sky. The ceremony began with ritual chanting and dancing around the medicine before it was dispensed which, even though I didn’t understand the words, stimulated my own appreciation and respect for the ceremony before I drank the ayahuasca and followed with water. I went to sit down and wrapped the blanket around me.

I had heard that the medicine tasted really bad. It was distinctive and strong flavoured but not bad. 10 minutes later I began to feel nauseated and disorientated but didn’t want to be the first to move, and started to wonder if there was some sort of protocol to follow. Others had drunk before me and they weren’t moving. Edward moved to the ridge and I followed a moment after finding my own space. The grass was turning fluorescent violet and turquoise and appeared as a geometric web. Reality as I knew it was falling away along with my ability to move.

I already knew that the secret to the medicine was to surrender to it but I had a dilemma: I was stranded in the grass at the edge of the ridge. I couldn’t  surrender yet, I was too far from my bed and I needed to go to the toilet to purge these laxative sensations. With both locations slowly receding further into the distance, pretty soon, it was going to be a long journey to either. I rested on my hands and knees heaving saliva into the violet grass webbing and praying to the purple mountain in the indigo sky in front of me. Even though I wasn’t wearing my glasses, everything appeared vivid and pin-sharp with the colour and contrast turned to 100%. Imagine your drunkest night after a party but sandwiched by full awareness underneath it all and a layer of dreamworld on top: a lucid dream on a roller coaster…

I wanted to purge but I felt empty and moved slowly toward Miguel and Luis for some water. Copious amounts of water stimulates the purge.  Standing up on shaking legs, I downed a glass of water. I didn’t want another… “Never again,” I thought as I staggered back to the ridge and laid in the grass.

I was conscious and had all my senses within these new scenes and feelings. If I was to make it to the toilet, it had to be now while I could still move. I put my hand up and Miguel came to help me. Bryan walked me to the block. My legs were weak and I needed support. I passed Tim who was bent over purging the weeds next to the path to the toilet block,  which inspired my own next to him. I felt a bit better as I made it to the toilet. The shadows across the path from the bathroom lights gave the path geometric pattern that was rich in colour. It was hard to walk upon and work out where the steps were.

The room was intense orange and green with shadows taking on geometric patterns. It was blissful sitting there letting everything go both in body and mind but I was aware that others would need it too so didn’t stay too long. The benefit of the trip to the toilet was that I was led back to my bed. I’m thankful for the help I received and remembered the message from the Kambo: “Allow others to help you…” Thank you, Miguel and Bryan.

I wrapped up in both blankets and faced the fire. I felt safe now and laid down. Laying down made me feel sick again and I crawled out to the edge of the grass. I purged a bit more but not much. I think I was done and settled down under the blanket again.

Miguel came to me, his silhouette vivid out of the night sky and asked: “How you doing, Okay?” I said I thought I was resisting. He replied “Good, keep going.” laughed and disappeared. I smiled and relaxed into the experience

Everything looked vivid and alive,  and I thought grateful thoughts of how my mum had brought me up almost single-handed and empathy for my father’s dementia and wishes for him to stay strong for whatever he was going through. I felt no profound messages coming through from or for myself. Instead, my awareness was going out to the stars as though I was an astronaut in orbit but still feeling the Earth on my back. The world became silent apart from my breath. The sky came over the mountain in front of me Cassiopeia was above and Orion was following the moon to the western skyline.

My feet were cold but I could feel they were under the blanket. The tree to my right was violet and turquoise and stood out against the sky. I wished I could photograph it all, it was so beautiful.

I didn’t need anything and knew I could surrender completely but there seemed to be nowhere else for me to go. I just breathed into the night sky appreciating my existence in this moment.

Couldn’t I have just one secret message? A clue to my ideal role in life perhaps? No, nothing, just a feeling gratitude and being alive. That was good enough. Words came and went that I had not heard before. Words with no meaning but felt good speaking into the stars.

People started coming to the fire and singing with the guitars and although I was perfectly aware of all that, I was still down the rabbit hole and a second cup was offered to those that felt the urge to go deeper. Should I? I didn’t know and, anyway, I couldn’t move which I took as a sign to stay put.

Six hours after taking the medicine, I was coming down to Earth, I felt such peace and descended into a warm and tranquil sleep. When I woke it was dawn. The blankets and pillow were moist with cool dew, but I was warm and comfortable. I thought about what revelations I had this night and couldn’t really define any as the sun slowly rose above the mountain so I took up my bedding and headed to my dorm with a feeling of peace, gratitude and fulfilment, which was probably the revelation I was really looking for…

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Kambo

Wednesday morning dawned and I was still nursing fatigue from some sort of stomach bug and didn’t feel like getting up for yoga but I went anyway. Sam was leading this session and she turned out a real joy. Less of a workout than Rike’s session on the first morning after I arrived at the retreat. I was beginning to feel better. Just in time for the Kambo ceremony.

Legend has it that an ancient tribe in the Amazon were struck down by a mystery illness resistant to all their know medicines.

One of the shamans, Paje Kampu, embarked on a vision quest to see if he could divine the answer from the great spirit. He trekked into the jungle and cooked up some ayahuasca alone in a remote spot and drank it at sunset.

In his vision, the queen of the forest led him to an enormous tree and showed him how to call for a small bright green frog (phyllomedusa bicolor), whereupon he stared up into the branches and sang. To his surprise, a bright green frog climbed down onto his shoulder. The queen told Kampu, “This frog is the prince of the forest. He is poisonous and has no predators but, fear not, the poisons of the forest are also medicines.” And the queen showed Kampu how to work with the frog.

Kampu returned to the tribe and set about treating them with the new medicine. Not only did it cure the tribe of the mysterious disease, it served to cure snakebite, malaria and curses.

Amazon tribespeople harvest Kambo by calling the frogs using the same sacred songs and play instruments that mimic its voice. The frogs descend from the high trees where they live, allowing the shamans to suspended them on strings who release them as soon as the frog allows the secretion from glands along the side of its body to be scraped onto a stick, where it is then dried and wrapped in leaves.

This enigmatic frog has no natural predators. It is not an endangered species. Except, as usual, by the threat of destruction of its habitat by money-hungry humans.

Attempts to breed the frog in captivity by Big Pharma have failed: captive frogs do not secrete the medicine. Scientists are mystified as to why not.

Edward, an 18-year-old from England was feeling ill and came to say he wasn’t going to do the Kambo as he felt so ill. We said “Kambo is a medicine, you’re closer to the Kambo than we are since it makes you purge anyway. He turned and his illness caused him to turn and projectile vomit into the weeds before returning to bed.”

It seemed a shame to come this far and not go through with a session so I went to the cabana to talk to him. I said “How would you feel at the end of the week and you missed the ceremony having come this close? If it were me, it would bother me and it might even heal this sickness.” He said he could always do it again another time so I said “OK, if you’re sure.” and left. Ten minutes later Edward appeared, ready for doing the Kambo.

We were split into four groups of four and five and I was in the last group along with Adam, Herbert, Edward and Tim. Michael from New Zealand was in the first group and was shouting out in distress as the Kambo was forcing his body to purge. This wasn’t helping the anticipation. Someone said it feels like we are gladiators waiting for the arena where the lions were eating the warriors. Tim was about to go to meditate when Ryan came up to say the energy felt different and that we should go into the third slot, cutting out Tim’s meditation opportunity.

We sat on our mats removing our shirts and downing two litres of water as quickly as possible as the ceremony started, the surface of the skin on the shoulder were burned away ready for the medicine to be applied. It wasn’t long before I started feeling the effects. My hands and arms began to tingle and I bent forward to the bucket ready for the purge and promptly passed out.

I was in a dream world and I felt a hand on my cheek and a distant voice say ‘breathe’ and I slowly came round well away from my bucket. I felt nauseated and began to heave into the bucket. “Never again.” came the thought. Not much was coming up and I was urged to drink more water. I couldn’t take any more. I had water in my mouth but felt unable to swallow.

The feeling was beginning to subside. Ryan said, “I’m going to burn another dot OK?” “OK I said as I prepared for a second wave.” and the tingling and purging rose within me again but I didn’t faint.

“Come on, what are you holding onto?” Ryan asked. Good question. A thought that didn’t feel my own came to me “Allow people to help, don’t do it on your own.” I looked around me and there were bodies scattered all around with Herbert facing the other way. I wanted to go to the toilet and I was helped by Rike and Luis. This was the first time I had been helped onto a toilet and executed this most private act in company. I didn’t care though. It was necessary. Back on the mat, I purged as much as I could but far less seemed to come up than went down.

I looked across at Adam who rose out of his bucket with a smile and said: “You’re a warrior, man.” Exactly the thought I had about him. His heart and soul were in it. Apparently, we all passed out apart from Herbert who was disturbed by the sight and turned round to focus on his own process. Edward was laid on his side but conscious and Tim was really going through the mill. Tim had seven dots since he’d had Kambo before. I had three.

It was a relatively long session since it was an intense group but we were soon out of it and I began to feel cleansed. The sickness that I had experienced the last few days was no longer there and on top of that, I felt happy. My shoulder was a little sore where the burns were but I felt good deep inside. Never again? Maybe one day…

 

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Purpose Spark

Saturday morning and there was no wifi or signal at Aloha so I fired up the bike to explore Minca, get some more offroad practice and maybe catch up on some writing. I do like multiple reasons. In a way, going downhill is harder than coming up. It’s easier to come off under braking especially locking the front wheel. Best not touch the front brake if possible.

Wherever I went in Minca, there was no WiFi. Ordering tea for the purpose of using the Wifi resulted in me drinking tea impatiently thinking of internet connection. This wasn’t working out. I gave up any online interest although the phone now had a signal for checking messages and other small-screen keyboardless stuff. Walking around Minca revealed some tucked away hostels and juice bars. More than was first apparent although it is still not a large town. What’s clear is that there is a business opportunity here due to the growing number of backpackers now that the road is paved to Minca.

I crossed the small bamboo bridge across the river and made my way back toward where I parked the bike and heard someone call “Paul!” It was Herbert and Alle in a cafe and I went to join them for a while. They had hiked up to Pozo Azul waterfall and recommended I go since I had transport. Taking this as another omen, I took the bike up and swam in one of the upper pools where there were no people. The water was cold, straight off the mountains so I was less than a minute, enough for a wash and cool off before riding back down to Minca. the ride was better than the swim.

The softer parts of the track up to Aloha had deeper ruts than yesterday and although I was riding better, I got off at the deepest stretch and walked along the edge while keeping the bike under power to guide it through the ruts.

Sunday was a day of reading and sleeping. I was beginning to feel cold, I had caught some sort of chill which sapped my energy so retired to bed and stayed there until Monday lunchtime. I was off my food. I met Greg and Adam round the campfire that night who were fascinated by my life journey to that point, especially sailing from Turkey to Colombia and find myself here, now at this retreat. I said I was simply following the omens. Talking with Greg and Adam was an unexpected pleasure. It’s rare to speak openly with people right off the bat, at least for me it is, but this place around a campfire had something special.

I had committed to the timetable for the retreat but Tuesday morning came and I hadn’t the energy to face yoga at 6.30 so missed the first session. I needed rest and recuperation and wasn’t in the mood for socialising, Even less than usual.

Greg runs Purpose Spark and an exercise had us randomly selected our various groups of three. Mine included Keely from Gravesend and Makete, a hugely talented songwriter/musician from Montana. The various sharing exercises opened us up in preparation for the sessions to follow, including the medicine ceremonies.

My automatic judgments were still running riot in my head but I got used to telling them to shut up while I started to get to know this community…

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