Originally from Germany, Fabian has been traveling the world since late 2008. He has spent a lot of time in Latin America and is now back in Europe since early 2011, moving every couple of months.
I danced with an Indian chieftain in the middle of the Amazonian jungle to celebrate his birthday.
#Germany, sometime back in 2008
The first thing I saw after waking up from anesthesia was how a doctor flap-opened the abdominal wall of an elderly man in the bed next to me. The gentleman had been in surgery due to some stress-related intestinal illness, but his wound had not healed in more than two years.
“We won’t be able to suture it this time, Mr Schönefeld,” the doctor told him. “It would only get infected again. For the next few weeks, you’ll have to take care of the wound yourself and regularly give it a shower.”
Exhausted, I sunk back into my sheets. There I was, laying in a hospital, waking up from surgery (most probably made necessary by a stress-related illness as well!) – and the first thing I see is a gaping wound the size of a hubcap, hearing about how this gentleman would have to shower his intestines.
I knew that something had to change.
Thankfully, my own surgery had been a minor one, and I got out a few days later. The first thing I did was to finally decide to take another semester to get my diploma thesis done, instead of trying to rush it. Then, I booked a flight to Northern Colombia: If I would have to write the thesis anyway, I could as well escape the German winter and do it in the Caribbean.
I got rid of my apartment, selling and giving away most of my stuff, and boarded a plane in autumn of 2008.
#A Few Months Later
By the time I turned the thesis in, a couple of dear friends came to visit me in Cartagena, Colombia. As we were drinking rum in the patio, two of them told me that they had to travel back to Venezuela, in order to wrap up a business and spend their bolivares before they became worthless. (Inflation in Venezuela was about 30% at the time.)
I decided to accompany them. Together, we crossed the border and took a crazy trip upstream the Orinoco, exploring weird jungle towns, camping near waterfalls, and also spending the occasional night at a bus terminal when we couldn’t find any further transport.
The jungle had been calling me for a long time. I had this idea of going to the Amazon ever since I had seen the Kinski/Herzog movie Fitzcarraldo as a kid. At that time, I didn’t believe that the crazy rubber barons really had built a classical opera house in Manaus, in the middle of the Brazilian jungle. Years later, I had found out that they had done so indeed, and my curiosity was piqued.
As we were traveling along the Orinoco, I investigated travel routes – and found out that the only street connection to Manaus conveniently originated in Venezuela. This looked like a twist of fate.
#Yet Another Month Later
To make a long story short, a month later I was in Manaus. But the story doesn’t end there. After spending two weeks in Manaus (and in the surrounding jungle), I embarked on a boat to Leticia, in the border region of Colombia, Brazil and Peru. It took us a week to get there, and another couple of days later me and a couple of traveling acquaintances met a friendly local who invited us to join a chieftain’s birthday party.
That’s where this part of the adventure begins.
Quoting from my blog, The Friendly Anarchist:
“I heard the cries from the forest. Far away at first, damped by the noise of the cicadas, but approaching fast. The cries were human: They originated from people that were coming nearer, and from all I could tell there were a lot of them. Even though I had been warned in advance, it still gave me the creeps.
I was standing in the darkness outside the ceremonial house in the middle of nowhere, not even sure if I was still in Colombia, or already on the Brazilian side of the border. Down here in the Amazon, nobody cared.
As the people approached, I stood in awe: They were walking way after dusk, crossing the pitch-black forest without any lights, while I already felt lost when merely departing more than three steps from the door.
With the first Indians reaching the house – smiling, joking, laughing – my tension vanished: The guests had finally arrived, and the celebration was ready to begin.
In the afternoon, I had helped the chief to prepare his birthday soup. One of the men had brought a capybara from the woods, the largest rodent in the world, akin to a giant guinea pig. He had skinned it and chopped it into pieces, while the rest of us had gotten wild lemons and cilantro leaves, and prepared a tasty stew with exclusively natural ingredients. Meanwhile, we had talked and snorted tobacco.
I had also been present during the preparation of mambe, a powder made of toasted coca leaves and the ashes from burnt Cecropia leaves. The Indians enjoy chewing it, and they chew whenever they can. After a ceremonial introduction, my friends and I were allowed to chew it, too. We almost suffocated because of ignoring the chief’s advice to not breathe for a minute after taking the fine powder into our mouths; but after a while, we got the hang of it, and we enjoyed it just the way the Indians did.
Now, everything was prepared, and the other guests were arriving: It was a gathering of five indigenous tribes, somewhere in the deep woods of the Amazon rain forest – and I was right in the middle.
What really stuck with for months after the birthday party in the Amazon was its intensity: Everything was purposeful, from the repartition of the food, to the coca-chewing, to the jokes that were told in smaller groups. Every couple of minutes, someone would make the same cry I had heard earlier, and the whole lot of people in the house would join in. It was a cry of approval, of happiness, of general agreement with what was happening and with the stories that were told.
Hours later, the visitors were ecstatically dancing in the ceremonial house, me among them. Still later, I was dozing completely exhausted in my hammock in the same room, while the elders continued to dance and chant.
I don’t know if it was the coca, or their happiness, or their overall condition, but it certainly was impressive: These elders were all past retirement age. They had hiked for three or more hours in difficult terrain. Many of them didn’t even have shoes. And they still were dancing and singing and laughing all night long, until dawn, and then some. When the sun started to rise, they hugged the chief and set about to walk another three or more hours back to their villages.
Feelings and emotions
The whole trip was a serendipitous stroke of fate. Instead of starting with a clear plan in mind, I just followed the flow and went wherever life would take me.
Experiencing this birthday party in the middle of the jungle was a clear result of that. Having this adventure was strange, surreal, wonderful, unexpected, overwhelming, mind-opening, mind-blowing, exhausting, and extremely interesting at the same time.
What did you get out of it?
An even deeper interest in indigenous cultures and mythologies. Respect for the jungle. Respect for a very different lifestyle. A flash in my brain when snorting tobacco.
What was one of the more interesting aspects of your experience?
There were several, but here’s one detail:
As we got to the place early, we had time to chat with the chief. He explained us the background of the Indian cultures in that part of the Amazon. If I remember correctly, there are six tribes living in the area, with different languages and cultures. (Their lingua franca is, ironically, Spanish.) Five of them are friendly to each other and to foreigners. But members of the sixth will shoot you if they meet you in the jungle.
This is why the Indians, when approaching the meeting place in the jungle, made these weird cries: They indicated that they were coming as friends.
Any challenges to overcome?
Even if we don’t count the weeks I spent and the thousands of miles I traveled to get there, there’s still a nice anecdote when it comes to reaching the place of the celebration.
The day before leaving, we asked our local friend what to bring for the walk. “Oh, no problem,” he said. “Just bring your flip-flops or something, it’s close to the road!”
As it turns out, his definition of “close to the road” was a two-hour walk through brushwood, knee-high grassland and muddy tarns. The walk was interesting in itself, but I was happy to make it to the place (and back) without a tête-à-tête with a venenous snake!
Any life-altering moments…a-ha’s?
You know… tobacco and coca are not psychoactive. I had a bit of cachaça, but not that much either. And still, sitting out there at 2 or 3am in the morning, in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, having danced and sung for hours, gazing at the moon… that certainly was a life-altering moment.
When I’m a little drunk, I tell people that I saw a witch out there in the trees that night. As I’m currently sober, I’ll just state that words won’t suffice to describe that experience.
How do you feel now? How have you changed?
Well… I think I dropped my ambitions for an average career once and for all. The process that had begun in the hospital bed in Germany was concluded that night at the party.
By that time, I had really opted out from societal expectations, worries and hollow careerism. Even though it wasn’t easy, I’m happy to say that this was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Did your experience have an effect on the lives of the people around you?
I suppose so. Many of my friends and family members disagreed with what I did, but almost everybody was supporting me – despite their scepticism. I received a lot of help, and I exchanged a lot of thoughts with everybody around me.
Today, I’m happy to say that I’m closer than ever with many of my former critics, and that they now seem to get inspired by (or at least accept and understand) the way I’m living my life. This fills me with gratitude.
(It’s also one of the reasons I disagree with this horrible self-help advice of “ignoring negative people”. There are moments when it might be necessary, but in the long run, critics help us to question our beliefs and re-evaluate our behavior. To be clear: If you’re surrounded by assholes, you’re surely better off to ignore them and walk your walk. But in my case, these people weren’t assholes, they just had different ideas, dreams, worries and goals than me. I value their comments deeply.)
Did you have a source of inspiration? Current inspirations? People who inspire you?
Probably too many to tell! That Kinski movie had been in my head ever since I was 10 years old or so. It started the desire to see the Amazon. Werner Herzog (the director of Fitzcarraldo) certainly is one of the most inspiring film-makers out there, and he always does his thing.
As for current inspirations, I’m amazed by what you do, Patricia! And I’m not saying that just to schmooze you. This movement of people around the planet who decide to take life into their own hands and make it worth living… the bloggers, the pirates, the #occupyers. The micropreneurs, the artists, the protestors in the Arab world. The idlers, the self-employed, the escpaologists. They all inspire me day after day.
Any upcoming future adventures/experiences?
I feel like my life has become a bit “meta” recently. I’m pondering writing a PhD in political theory, but I’m afraid it might be too much of an intellectual adventure and too little of practical experience. Whatever I do, travel should remain a central part of my life. The good thing about that is that adventure comes naturally once you hit the road! :)[line-sep]
For more of Fabian Kruse, check him out at his amazing website: The Friendly Anarchist