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Living in Spain after surviving 24 years in prison. Here I will be sharing my experiences as a writer and journalist, travelling all over the world interviewing dangerous people in dangerous places.

My Spirit Beast - The End
22 February 2013

The interior of the hut was rudimentary in the extreme. Carefully crafted timbers supported the roof and wall, but the floor was just earth. Various pots and pans stood on make-shift shelves. When asked, Wilder explained that it took him ten months to build the hut. And the log ‘road’? He said it took 25 years!


  We walked back outside with him and, growing close by, he showed us the vine we would be using. He cut a portion off and beat it to a pulp before putting it into a pot of boiling water with other plants he had cut earlier. It was left on the fire to cook. Wilder explained that he prepared the jage which we would be using tonight in the same way yesterday. It was better to let it stand for a day.


  Back outside, Wilder pointed out other plants, telling us which leaf cured which illness and which plant used in conjunction with which bark could cure another. Although he had no formal education, he was an absolute fount of knowledge. He explained that he was from the Huitoto tribe, who have no written records. Knowledge is handed down from father to son over generations. Wilder said that he had been learning now for 46 years, yet there was still much to learn.  


  He went on to explain that the jage ceremony I was about to experience was millennia old and descended from the Incas. He emphasised that it wasn’t himself who was powerful, but God. It was God’s power, passing through Wilder that cured people. 


  He pointed to two small bowls on the floor in front of him. One contained a thick, viscous liquid he said was pure nicotine extract. He dipped his finger in and licked it. The other was dried, powdered coca leaves. He took a pinch and put it in his mouth. According to the lore, both are sacred to God and the Huitotos. They make the hut powerful, attracting divine power down into it, which Wilder then channels. Fortunately for me, the ingesting of either weren’t necessary for the ceremony. I passed on Wilder’s offer.


  It was quite dark now but there was still an hour or so until the ceremony. Wilder went off to prepare. I noticed Dan and Gary standing over by the shaman’s wife. Both were giggling over something. I walked over and saw that the wife was about to cut the dead monkey’s willy off. I suppose it was funny, but not that funny. I guessed they were both off their faces again. I felt like a teacher on a school outing. 


  I called them both over to me. I looked at their now-serious faces and suddenly it was I who felt guilty. “Look fellas”, I said, trying to sound as reasonable as possible, “ I don’t really give a fuck if you get off your faces. But do me one big favour. Keep an eye on me tonight. If I go into one and try to run out of the hut, grab hold of me. I don’t want to run off and get lost in the jungle, okay?”


  I guess the latter image of Norman running loose in the rain-forest was too much for them. Both burst into laughter and couldn’t stop. I knew I was wasting my time and would have to hope for the best. 


  I wandered outside to try to mentally prepare myself. Despite the effects of the jage I wanted to stay focused. This wasn’t just a hedonistic experience, I would try to write a definitive account of it. I was well aware that, with some drugs, you forgot all about the experience once you had come down.


  It was pitch black outside. There was no moon, but even if there had been it’s light wouldn’t have penetrated the canopy of leaves. There were jungle sounds, but the overall impression was one of stillness. I stood, legs apart, eyes closed and face tilted slightly upwards. I felt the power of the forest all around me. I’m not one for melodrama, but I found myself raising my arms towards the heavens. I was sure I felt the power run into me.


  Suddenly, I was aware that I was completely at ease here and feared nothing in the jungle. A small voice whispered that, whatever spirit I am, I’m a powerful one. Another voice warned that perhaps this should concern me.


  The ceremony was about to start. I went inside and Wilder introduced me to Ernesto, a young Colombian guy who was also to take part in drinking the jage. Wilder was wearing a blue tunic-type top and his head was covered by a white cloth. There was a raised, wooden platform in the corner of the hut, which was holy ground. Only the shaman and the celebrants sat on this. Ernesto and I squatted cross-legged opposite Wilder while he prayed over a small urn containing the jage brew.


  Wilder warned us that, when we wanted to go outside to vomit or to use the toilet, we must ask his permission. He emphasised again that this was holy ground. Jorge would then guide us through the darkness. He crawled across and tied a piece of white cloth around Ernesto’s forehead as well as around mine, explaining that this was to protect against evil spirits. Then he summoned each of us in turn to drink the jage.


  The urn was blackened with age, its top encrusted with old, dried jage. The brew itself had an indescribable smell, one that was distinctly unpleasant. Although the taste was foul, there was no residual flavour in the mouth, only a warm feeling at the back of the throat. 


  This was now the holy phase of the ceremony and all light had to be extinguished. Wilder stressed that light was our enemy and would distort the effects of the jage for the worse, He consoled us by saying that we would ‘see’ more in the dark anyway. I reflected that, with no light, there will be nothing for Gary to film. I further reflected that Dan’s little tin would probably get a right hammering. I resigned myself to the fact that I was largely on my own now.


  I sat in the pitch blackness, waiting for the effects of the jage to kick in. A few feet away, but invisible to me, Wilder chanted, sang, talked and whistled a strange, breathy, un-shrill whistle. Time passed, but I had no way of telling how much. I was fully conscious of all that was happening. It occurred to me that sitting in absolute darkness isn’t the most stimulating environment for the mind. I became incredibly bored and realised that it would be a very long night.        


  Suddenly I was aware that the speed of my thought processes had accelerated phenomenally. Ideas zoomed in and out of my mind like bullets. There were some flashes of light, but no colours, and no visions of anything Amazonian.


  My breathing slowed, then slowed again. I guessed that this was the start of the near-death experience. The knowledge did nothing to lessen the horror of the effect. Everything was ultra-real and I was able to think forward to the next step, then the next. I actually began to experience the process of suffocating to death. I couldn’t imagine a more painful, terrifying end. I knew that I had several more hours of this and cursed my self for ever taking the jage.


  I breathed normally again and, all at once, my mind was a computer screen. Schematics of my personal relationships popped up for me to examine. I was super-sensitive to emotion. Marsha and I had been having some problems lately, but the schematic glowed with warmth and light. I could see that she loved me dearly, and I her.

  Another schematic was of an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while. There was warmth in it and I resolved to contact him again. Another schematic was cold and dark. Someone I had considered to be a good friend cared nothing for me. I wouldn’t contact him again.


  Underneath all this, something was gnawing at my consciousness. I focused on it and realised that I wanted to be sick. “Permessos Wilder”, I cried out and heard his mumbled reply. On unsteady legs, I stumbled out into the darkness with Jorge holding my arm. But it was a false alarm.


  Back on holy ground, I was terminally bored. Then I discovered sex. I had been thinking of Marsha and we started to make love. But it was ultra-real and exciting, as if for the first time. A succession of erotic episodes flashed through my mind like ultra-real porno movies. The thinking of it seemed almost as pleasurable as the real thing. Suddenly I remembered being told that the shaman could see what I was seeing. I reflected that I was certainly brightening up the old guy’s life tonight. 


  My bowels intruded. I stumbled through the darkness and rain, into the filthiest toilet I had ever encountered. I squatted over a roughly-hewn wooden toilet bowl and the diarrhoea poured out of me. The sounds, the smells, the whole experience were all ultra-real. I looked up and was reassured that Gary and Dan had both come outside with me. Then I noticed the camera and saw that Gary was filming the sequence. It was hard to look dignified, sitting on the toilet with one’s trousers round one’s ankles, but I was beyond caring.   


  The sex scenes were not so enjoyable now because I was closely monitoring my stomach, which was bubbling audibly. I rushed to the toilet again, pulling my trousers down as I went. In my haste, I crapped all over the back of the seat. Trying to clean up the mess with tissues was probably the worst experience of my life. I guessed that most celebrants did this. The thought that I had been sitting in the shit of hundreds of others did nothing for my composure. 


  Back inside it was just a question of fighting the boredom now. Visual or aural stimulation might have triggered something, but the darkness and silence seemed to deaden even thought. I reflected that jage would never catch on back in London. Sex with your partner might be interesting, but it would have to be in a place with two toilets.


  Finally, after what seemed like an age, Wilder said it was over. He took the cloth from my head and led me to a hammock. I climbed in and he covered it with a mosquito net. I was very comfortable, but my mind was still racing at a thousand miles an hour. I’d have had more chance of falling asleep running up stairs.


  Morning finally arrived and I had counted every second. A cockerel crowed and light filtered through the doorway. When I stood, my legs were still unsteady. As I moved my arms, their outline seemed to lag behind like dark thread. I was tired, I badly needed a shower and I longed for food. 


  I went to wish Wilder ‘goodbye’, but, strangely, his eyes wouldn’t meet mine. He shook my hand and wished me ‘goodbye’, but looked at the floor. I felt too uncomfortable to care and perhaps I was misreading things through the effects of the jage. 


  It did bother me though and it gnawed at me all the way back to the hotel. Previously he had been a man of impeccable manners. What could I have done to upset him? For the more I thought about it the clearer it was that he wouldn‘t look me in the eye.


  A warm shower and clean clothes worked wonders. I felt more like my old self as I joined Dan at the breakfast table. Straight away I asked if Wilder had said anything to him about last night and told him about Wilder not meeting my gaze. Dan looked ill at ease, guilty even, and busied himself with his breakfast.


  My suspicions were fully aroused now. “Oi Dan”, I said chidingly, “you’re supposed to be my mate. If something was said you’re entitled to tell me about it. I’d do it for you.”

  “Norm, I was going to tell you” said Dan , and paused. It couldn’t have been for effect. Taking a deep breath he continued, “Wilder said that it was extremely unusual for you not to vomit. It’s always part of the jage process. Everybody does it.”

  “And?” I questioned. “That can’t be all of it. What’s his explanation?”


  Now it was Dan who couldn’t meet my eyes. He took another deep breath and continued, “Wilder doesn’t know for sure, but he thinks that the evil spirits inside you are so strong that you need to keep what you might vomit inside you just to control them.” You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. Dan and I finished our breakfast in complete silence. Later, I reflected that, from a spiritual perspective, it was the worst news I could have heard.


  Back at ‘Front’ though, all was joy and light. For them, the spiritual perspective was something you drank with tonic. They exulted over the photos of me with the anaconda and baby crocodile. They laughed at the ridiculous tapir and it’s long trunk. The photo of my sitting on the toilet brought the house down. They were all to be included in the article. I laughed along with them, but inside I was far from amused. Wilder’s words still haunted me.


The End

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My Spirit Beast - part 2
22 February 2013

For several seconds nothing happened. Then the water seemed to boil as dozens of small, snapping silver fish thrashed about, trying to get the bait. As a reflex action I pulled the hook and bait from the water. Several piranha sailed clear of the water after it. They were only small, but seemed to be all sharp, pointed teeth. I suppressed a shudder as I contemplated what would happen if I fell in. At this point, life in the Amazon looked vicious and deadly. 


  Now it was me who was hooked though. I fished frantically, pulling a fish from the water at every attempt. Soon all the bait was gone and it was getting dark. Time to find the crocodile.  


   Night fell surprisingly quickly on the Amazon. It seemed like, one moment we were fishing in broad daylight, the next it was gloomy and the very next moment darkness was upon us. We climbed back into the boat and pushed out into mid-stream. At the direction of the boatman, Jorge made his way to the prow and pulled back a tarpaulin. Underneath was a large battery similar to the ones in cars. He fiddled about for a couple of seconds and then a powerful beam of light shot out, lighting up the river in front of us.   


  Crouching over the light, Jorge directed it back and forth, first lighting up one bank with its beam, then lighting up the other. In between, the river was revealed to be an unrelievedly black mass.


  The effect was quite surreal. Almost like a picture projected on a screen, the lit up section of the bank revealed every detail. “Won’t that frighten everything away?” I whispered to Dan. 


  “Jorge knows what he’s doing, mate”, he replied. “The idea is that the light paralyses them. It’s a thing with crocodiles. They look into the beam and freeze. You’ll see.”


  Up until this point, it had all been something of a jolly outing. I hadn’t felt that I was in much danger, unless, of course, the canoe sank. Suddenly though, during one sweep across the river, two deep yellow lights lit up about 50 yards in front of us. They weren’t as bright as car headlights, but their deep yellow glow had an intensity that you might find in car sidelights.


  “What the fuck’s that, Dan?” My tone was curious rather than frightened. Dan exchanged words with Jorge, who focused the beam right on the centre of the river. Once again the two yellow lights lit up the darkness.


  Now there was a distinct tone of caution in Dan’s voice. “It’s a crocodile”, he said hoarsely. He paused to exchange a few more words with Jorge. “A big one”, he added, his voice dropping a couple of octaves.


  Under power from the outboard motor, we had been flying along at a good rate of knots. Dan had already warned that traveling on the river at night was dangerous, because of the many, partially submerged logs. These were trees felled by loggers and allowed to float downriver. Dan had cautioned that to hit one of these at speed would be disastrous. The canoe would shatter and we would all be thrown into the water. Previously I had only been concerned about having a few chunks bitten out of me by the piranha. Now I would be breast-stroking with a large crocodile.


  My thought process was disturbed by a shout from Jorge. Quite involuntarily, I jumped. What could it be now? The beam was fixed on the right-hand bank and Jorge was pointing at something. I followed the direction of his finger and saw, right in the middle of the beam, a baby crocodile, frozen into inaction.


  We coasted into the bank. As we neared land, Jorge motioned me towards the front of the canoe. Explaining through Dan, he handed me the light and told me to keep it focused firmly on the baby croc. Whilst it was gazing fixedly into the beam, Jorge would circle around behind it. 


  As much as I tried to focus my attention on the baby croc, a small part of me was asking where its mother was. Surely this was incredibly dangerous. It must be close by and all animals attack when they think their young are threatened. Knowing what the answer would be though, I didn’t bother to ask. 


  Suddenly, out of the darkness, Jorge could be seen in the beam. The baby croc was oblivious to him. He crept up on it and grabbed it just behind the jaws with one hand, whilst holding its hind quarters with the other. Then he held it up to show us. This croc-in-miniature bared its teeth for Gary’s camera. Now it was my turn.


  My thoughts firmly with big, mummy-croc, I gingerly made my way up the bank and into the glare of the beam. I stood and took baby-croc off Jorge. Partially blinded, I did my piece to camera. “Could my spirit beast be that of the crocodile?”  I posed the question, whilst fervently hoping that the answer was ‘no’. After that, the rest of the journey home was something of an anti-climax. 


  The following morning I discovered that there was a make-shift zoo barely half a mile from the hotel. All the animals were kept in wooden-fenced pens or rough pits in the ground. It was a whole lot easier to see them here than it was to chase all over the Amazon on the off-chance of seeing one. And a whole lot safer.  However, there wasn’t much of a selection.


  The crocodiles lay, three-quarters submerged, in the mud of their large pool. They seemed as if they were asleep but, in fact, were ever watchful. As you moved near the fence surrounding the pool you could see their eyes following you. 


  An Indian threw a chicken onto the bank. It fluffed up its feathers and pecked at the ground, oblivious to the danger. Silently, without a ripple to give it away, the crocodile slid in close to the bank. Then, it came out of the water accompanied by a spray of droplets, its jaws snapping on the hapless chicken and it slid back under the surface, all in one swift, smooth movement. There was something inherently evil in this merciless creature. Once again I prayed that it wasn’t my spirit beast.


  In a pen nearby were several tapirs. They seemed to be a cross between a furry pig and an elephant. The size and shape of the body was definitely pig, but the elongated snout belonged to the elephant. It was friendly though and, as I massaged its neck, it closed its eyes in ecstasy. Suddenly it brayed, flinging the snout upwards to reveal long, curved teeth. It looked absolutely ridiculous, like an animal cobbled together out of the parts of several others. It better not be my spirit beast. Rather be a crocodile and feared than a tapir and laughed at.


  In a murky pool lay two anacondas. Because of the mud it was difficult to see how big they were. An Indian keeper in his street clothes reached into the pool and grasped one anaconda around the head and neck. With his other hand supporting its middle he lifted the creature clear of the pool. It was still partially curled up so it was difficult to determine how long it was, but it seemed to be well over nine feet. In places, it was as thick as a man’s leg.


  The Indian beckoned me closer. I didn’t have any phobias about snakes and anyway, the creature looked quite docile. With a swing of his arms, the Indian draped the anaconda around my neck. Whilst still keeping hold of the head, he motioned me to put one hand just below his and my other to hold the body of the snake. More than anything, I was conscious of the green slime from the pool running down my neck.


  Gary filmed away whilst I did my bit to camera. If one had to be an Amazonian animal one could do worse than to be an anaconda, I was thinking. Growing more confident now, I was aware that, although the Indian was out of shot, you would still be able to see his hand, just above mine, holding the snake’s head. I gripped the head tightly and motioned for him to let go.


He shook his head determinedly. I was sure I’d got the hang of this and I motioned for him to let go again. He adamantly refused and, if anything, gripped tighter. 


  Dan was watching the whole episode and shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. “You do make me laugh, Norm”, he said afterwards. “You come over here thinking you can do anything the natives can do. See that Indian. He’s grown up around anacondas. He’s been handling them all his life. He wasn’t just holding its head. He had two fingers pressed against certain muscles in its neck that paralyses it. If he’d let go it would have bit half your head off. Its jaws open incredibly wide and it has very long, sharp fangs. If the bite didn’t kill you, then the poison from its fangs surely would.”


  I took this all in and told myself that perhaps I should slow down a bit. Dan was right, of course, but I so wanted to do a good piece that I was ignoring many of the dangers. Anyway, I consoled myself with the fact that I had done a good piece to camera with the anaconda round my neck.


  That evening we looked through the footage we shot on the day. I smiled with satisfaction when we reach the anaconda sequence, then gaped in amazement. Half-way through, the anaconda disappeared and there I was, stroking the ridiculous tapir. It was the legacy of Dan’s little tin. I had thought that Gary looked a bit off his face during the day’s shooting. Quite obviously, he taped over the anaconda sequence by mistake. 


  He dropped his head as I went into a spontaneous rant. I shouted that we’d come thousands of miles to get that sequence and others like it and we wouldn’t get another chance, so would he kindly shape up and stay straight until we’d finished filming. Dan sat in a corner, quietly, knowing that it was as much his fault for giving Gary the stuff.


  It was now the morning of the day. I woke early and lay there thinking about what I had committed myself to. The dangers from the various Amazonian animals seemed as nothing compared to the upcoming experience with the jage. From my research and from what others had told me I knew just how powerful a potion it was. 


  I had never been much of a drugs person. I had ‘puffed’ cannabis occasionally and, a few times in the mid-seventies, I took LSD. From the latter I got experience of hallucinogenics. But that was something called ‘California Sunshine’ and, as its name implied,  was all warmth and light. Even so, people still had bad ‘trips’ on it. So much so that some had ended up in mental hospitals. For myself, it brought about a major personality change. So I was in no doubt about the effects and dangers of hallucinogens. 


  Jage however, was something else entirely and had another order of magnitude of strength. Again I kept coming back to the fact that I was far from being a normal person. Some of my experiences in life had been pure horror; some of my previous states of mind pure  purgatory. 


  I had been advised not to fight the jage and to go with it passively. But what if the visions of my personal demons sent me crazy? What if I ran screaming into the jungle and got lost? What if the near-death experience was so real that it brought on a heart attack? 


  However, I was nothing if not a realist now. I always assessed a situation and, if it couldn’t be avoided, I dealt with it. It had got me through the 24 years of incarceration. I knew that I was committed to take the jage now. It was far too late to back out. So I put all the fears out of my mind and told myself that I would just have to deal with it.    


  Once I was up and moving I felt much better. Food interacts with the jage, colouring the visions and increasing the vomiting, so it was necessary for me to fast for most of the day. I ate just a light breakfast of scrambled eggs. By the time I took the jage that night, my stomach would be empty.


  Jorge was waiting outside the hotel with a driver and his four-wheel-drive jeep. Once we hit the outskirts of Leticia all the roads disappeared, leaving only rough tracks. The jeep navigated across water-filled holes and around fallen trees. A normal vehicle wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in this terrain.


  We drove for about half an hour then stopped in a clearing at the edge of what seemed to be impenetrable forest. Quite clearly, even the jeep could go no further. The rest of the journey would have to be made on foot. But how? All I could see was thick jungle vegetation surrounded by viscous, muddy swamp.


  Jorge walked to a fallen tree and climbed onto it. Dan followed. I wondered what they were up to, but followed in their footsteps. We all walked along the trunk of this massive fallen tree. To my surprise, at its end was another massive fallen tree. And after that, another. It was a log ‘road’, made out of fallen trees. 


  Walking was very difficult though, the surface of the trees was covered with slime. Dan called out to be careful. The shaman’s wife had fallen and broke both wrists recently and the shaman himself often fell. So saying, Dan skidded on the slippery bark, over-balanced and had to jump into the swamp. He stood there, up to his knees in mud, and we all laughed.


  Then it was my turn. The surface was absolutely treacherous. One foot slipped and I over-balanced. Next minute I too was standing, knee-deep, in the swamp. Although we laughed, I was aware that it was very dangerous. A bad fall could result in broken bones and the Amazonian jungle is no place to break a leg! I focused my full attention on the act of walking. 


  I couldn’t help but remark on how expertly the log ‘road’ had been made. The end of each log virtually touched the start of the next. Yet it would have been impossible to get heavy equipment in here to move the trees once they had fallen. Clearly, they had been cut exactly right so that they had fallen in these positions. I marveled at the skill and knowledge that this must have involved. 


  Half an hour and several falls later, we emerged into a wide clearing. Right in the middle was a large hut made out of trees. It was perfectly circular, each straight, upright tree trunk closely abutting the next. About ten feet above ground level the sloping, conical roof started. It had been thatched with great care. Dan told me that this hut was called a ‘miloca’ and that it served as a meeting place for the local community. 


  The shaman walked out to greet us. Wilder was 46 years old, but was bald and his face  prematurely aged. He looked twenty years older. Life in the jungle must have been hard. He was very friendly though and welcomed us whilst shaking our hands vigourously. 


  He invited us into the hut and introduced us to his wife. She looked up and nodded to us, her hands full with the meal she was preparing. I noticed some unfamiliar vegetables and, nearby, a dead monkey, its fur all blackened and singed. Quite obviously, it was monkey for dinner. I was thankful that I had to fast for the jage ceremony……


part three is on the way...

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My Spirit Beast
22 February 2013

                                 Although I felt that I had brought the Haiti story to a successful conclusion from a journalistic perspective, from a spiritual one it still left many questions unanswered. The fact that Silva Joseph had told me that I was free from evil spirits was neither here nor there. I was sure that he would have told me whatever it took to get the most money off me. And now that my curiosity was well and truly aroused, I found myself casting about for other ways to test my spiritual well-being. 


  The answer came from an unexpected source. Since our Colombian adventures together, Dan and I were now good friends. We regularly e-mailed each other and occasionally talked on the phone. During one of the latter conversations, I mentioned in passing the trip to Haiti and the voudou ceremonies, especially the ‘priests’. 

  “Why don’t you do something on the Colombian shaman?” suggested Dan. “They’re good at driving out spirits. You can drink the local Jage (he pronounced it yah-hey) too. It’s a special potion. I’ve done it.”


  I had heard of the shaman, of course, but mostly in connection with the Red Indians of North America. My research revealed that shamanism is one of the oldest forms of religious consciousness on the planet. In many cultures the shaman has multiple roles, the most important being his mediation between the temporal and spiritual worlds, although he is also important for his healing powers. In his visionary state, under the influence of the powerfully hallucinogenic Jage, many believe him capable of communicating with the spirit world.

  Jage is used extensively throughout Central and South America. Depending on the area and the culture, it can also be called ayahuasca, caapi and yaje. The potion is made by boiling the bark of the Banisteriopsis vine. Because of it’s psychedelic effects it has also been called ‘the vine of the dead’, the visionary vine’ and ‘the vine of souls’.


  Bearing in mind that, if I did the story I could end up drinking the stuff, I was curious to know exactly what was in it. I didn’t doubt for one minute that Dan had taken it, but he virtually ran on cocaine in the same way that a car ran on petrol. It had probably been just one more psychedelic experience to go with all the rest. I was a novice where drugs were concerned. It might have an altogether different effect on me, one that I might have difficulty in recovering from.


  The answers from my research weren’t reassuring. Jage includes other jungle plants as well as the Banisteriopsis vine. On boiling they break down into the powerfully hallucinogenic alkaloids harmine, harmaline, di-tetrahydroharmamine and di-methyltryptamine (DMT). These compounds have effects similar to LSD, mescaline and psilocybin . DMT has been found to occur naturally in mammals, but is usually broken down by the naturally occurring monoamine oxidase (MO). Jage also contains MO inhibitors.


  Not surprisingly, the drinking of Jage has several severe effects, not least of them nausea, vomiting, dizziness and diarrhoea. It also leads to euphoric, aggressive or sexually aroused states. The vomiting and diarrhoea are crucial to the purgative process that drives evil spirits and toxic matter out of the body. There are often visions of creatures and plants, even by Europeans who have never seen such things before. Occasionally, one sees oneself as the spirit form of whatever jungle creature one is. Some experiences can be beautiful, involving panthers, jaguars and birds. Others, involving snakes, lizards and dragons, can be terrifying.


  Quite clearly, any normal person would have to think twice about taking such a potion. And I was a very long way from being a normal person. Despite my proud boast of having turned around my heart and renounced evil in all it’s forms, my character previously had been, at times, savage. What if I took the potion and saw myself as one of the more terrifying creatures? What if I reverted to my former, savage self?


  I accepted that the only damage I could do, deep in the Colombian jungle, would be to Dan and the unfortunate shaman. But the thought of my roaming the rain-forest in some semi-demented state, thinking I was an animal, concentrated my mind wonderfully. As things stood right now, I wasn’t expecting much of an epitaph. In the latter eventuality, even if I were to write it myself, it wasn’t the stuff of great obituaries.


  ‘Front’ went for the story immediately. Although I emphasised that I was going in search of my spirit beast, their main interest seemed to be in this powerfully hallucinogenic sex drug called jage. No doubt their entire readership were regularly drunk, stoned, wrecked and otherwise bombed out on a variety of illegal substances, and aspired to be even more so. The idea of some super-drug that you could get by merely boiling up a bunch of leaves would certainly fire their imagination.


  The production company had been pleased with the footage they had got from the Haiti trip and had, in fact, made it into a short film, with me as the presenter. They also wanted to cover the upcoming Colombian shaman trip. Their intention was to make a five-minute video, incorporating both trips, and take it to one of the TV networks. Once again they funded half the cost of the trip, but this time Gary would be taking photographs for ‘Front’ as well as filming for the production company.


  The production company booked and paid for the tickets. It was only when Gary and I got to the airport that we saw that our Bogota flight stopped in Miami to change planes. Having passed successfully through Miami before, I wasn’t so much concerned about not being allowed in. It was the two-hour window between our plane landing in Miami and the Bogota flight taking off that concerned me. Gary said that I was being alarmist and that two hours was plenty of time to make a connection.


  We landed in Miami right on time. Then we spent forty minutes out on the runway. When we finally got to the docking gate, there was another forty-minute delay before we could disembark. Then there was a delay in getting our baggage off the carousel. With fifteen minutes left before the take off of the Bogota flight, we were racing through the airport, trying to reach the boarding gate in time. 


  We burst through one check-in, with a flight attendant shouting after me that I would have to check my large suitcase into the hold. I ignored her and just made it to the gate. Gary had a small bag and was passed straight through. I was stopped and told in no uncertain terms that my bag was too big for hand luggage and I would have to go back and check it in. This, in effect, condemned me to miss the flight. Realising this, Gary shouted that I should get on the next flight and he would meet me at Bogota airport.  


  I explained at the airline desk what had happened. They apologised and put me on their next flight. This didn’t take off until the following morning though. I spent a very frustrating night in the airport hotel worrying if I would be able to connect up with Gary again. It was his first time in Colombia and Dan wasn’t the most reliable person in the world. I had known all along that I would have a problem in stopping Dan and Gary partying all the time. 

  My worst fears seemed to be realised when I landed at Bogota around noon on the following day. No one was there to meet me. However, just as I was about to get into a taxi and head for a hotel, another taxi pulled up and Dan and Gary jumped out. It was as I had thought. They had hit it off together and gone out on a bender the night before. In the morning they found that the cheap hotel they stayed in wouldn’t take Gary’s credit card. So they were delayed whilst they ran around trying to raise the money. It didn’t portend well for the upcoming trip.

  I did pull Gary aside and cautioned him about getting too off his face whilst we were working. He explained that he liked a bit of coke, but it was so expensive in London he could rarely afford it. He saw it as an opportunity to have a bit of fun on the cheap. He swore that it wouldn’t affect his work.


  Our flight was to Leticia, the southernmost town in all Colombia and the only one on the Amazon. Dan explained that there had been an agreement between the surrounding countries of Brazil and Peru to give Colombia a town on the great river. The result was the long, thin tongue of land that stretched southwards to meet the Amazon, with Leticia at its point.


  Leticia was typical of all Colombian jungle towns, the two-storied shabby buildings separated by dusty, potholed streets. Along these trundled rusting old cars, surrounded by a sea of motorbikes, scooters and cycles, some carrying several passengers.


  It was both hot and humid. The temperature had reached 91 degrees and it rained heavily for several hours at a time. The Hotel Anaconda was the best in town, but, once again in Colombia, ‘best’ is a comparative term. There was no hot water and the air con wheezed consumptively. We were the only guests. The civil war had killed the tourist trade in an area known for its Amazon trips.


  Ironically, the town was very safe, with regular patrols from the nearby army base. Peru was just across the river, which was patrolled by the Peruvian Navy. Brazil was barely two miles down the road. Smuggling is the name of the game here, drugs for the world’s markets out of Colombia and weapons for the indigenous guerillas coming the other way.


  I had already lost a day, so I didn’t want to waste any more time. The following morning Dan introduced us to Jorge, a young guide he knew from a previous trip. We struggled down to the river with our kit and some provisions and climbed into a long canoe powered by an out-board motor. I was fully alert and in work mode now. I knew that the cultural element was going to be supremely important. I needed to see the people, the creatures and the plants, all in their natural environments. Only then would I be able to understand the true import of any visions I might see.


  The Amazon was mighty and magnificent. Only a few hundred yards across at Leticia, it  widened until it was difficult to see either bank At a shout from the boatman I turned and saw dolphins, both blue and pink, dipping in and out of the water. A myriad fantastically-coloured birds swooped and called all around us. Along the bank grew thick vegetation, unbroken by any sign of human habitation. As an experience it was quite breathtaking.

  It started to spot with rain. Moving swiftly, the boatman unrolled a water-proof canopy and headed for the shore. It wasn’t panic, but all his previous movements had been slow and lethargic. I wondered what he was concerned about. I was just about to find out. 


  Suddenly, the heavens opened. Rain, in very large droplets, poured down in such quantity that we couldn’t see a yard ahead. The surface of the river seemed to boil, churned up by the falling rain. Seconds ago the sky had been clear and the sun was shining brightly. Lesson one was that the weather can change very quickly on the Amazon.

  By now though, we were moored in a little tributary. Jorge suggested that it was a good opportunity to eat. We hunkered down in the canoe, eating what the hotel had prepared for us. A wind had sprung up, whipping the thick reeds so that they thrashed against each other. Together with the sound of the rain, the noise was awesome. As the elements warred around us, one could only feel very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Once again the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly. Steam rose from the land where the freshly fallen rain had pooled. We set off, out into the main stream again. We had only been traveling for an hour, Monkey Island was still another three hours away. In Amazonian terms, this was only a short distance.


  Dan explained that Monkey Island was a project started by an American 20 years previously. He had built long, wooden dormitories for tourists to stay in whilst observing the thousands of monkeys that inhabit the island. Or that’s what he said his intention was. He disappeared when customs found five tons of cocaine in a shipment of wood he was sending back to the US. The place had lain derelict for many years now, occupied only by an Indian family who scraped a precarious living from the very few tourists who visited.


  I was eager to get close to the monkeys. I had been doing bits to camera with Gary as we traveled, but the birds and the dolphins have all been so far away. As we glided into the bank, the Indian and his whole family were waiting for us. Soon we were standing in a large clearing, but I couldn’t see any monkeys. “Where are the fucking monkeys then, Dan”, I asked petulantly. Dan gave me his ‘long-suffering’ look, he knew me and my impatience quite well now. “In the fucking trees, Norm”, he replied, pointing in the general direction of the surrounding forest.     


  Then I saw them. In fact, the monkeys were the trees. There were so many thousands of them in the branches, that the trees seemed to be the same colour as the monkeys’ fur. The grey army sat watching us to see if we were dangerous to them. As the Indian pulled out bunches of bananas they recognised the signs. They swarmed to the ground and ran towards us. They were all quite tiny, none larger than a domestic cat and most the size of kittens. Some were mothers, with mouse-sized young hanging round their necks.


  Completely fearless now, they swarmed all over us. They were clinging to my clothes, my shoulders and one was sitting on my head. I laughed hysterically, all the while peeling bananas as fast as I could, only to have them snatched from my hands by the tiny manikins. Under the circumstances, it took five attempts for me to do a piece to the camera.


  Dan explained that our next mission was to photograph me with a young crocodile, but for some as yet unexplained reason this could only be done at night. We had several hours to kill. Dan announced that, in the meantime, we would go fishing. I had been fishing only once before in my entire life and I found it to be extremely boring. You sat about for hours with virtually nothing happening. As I articulated these thoughts, Dan gave me another of his ‘long-suffering’ looks. “You’ll see”, he replied cryptically.


  We pulled into another small tributary and climbed out of the canoe and onto the bank. Jorge busied himself breaking off small branches from nearby bushes and a tieing a fishing line and hook to each. We now had four ‘fishing rods’ that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the hands of garden gnomes. It was my turn to have the ‘long-suffering’ look. I turned to Dan, indicating that I was only doing this to humour him. He smiled, but said nothing.


  “What are we fishing for?” I asked laconically, as Jorge fixed a small piece of fish flesh to the hook of my ‘rod’. “Pirahna”, replied Dan deadpan. I pulled my feet back from the water’s edge as I lowered the hook and bait into the water…..


to be continued

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TIGERS - part 4 - the end
15 February 2013

Sitting in my room in the Tissawewa Rest House, I took stock of the situation. Although I had managed to go where no other journalist had been for over two years, I didn’t have much to show for it. ‘Front’ is specifically a visual magazine. I had taken a few photos of road-blocks and bunkers around Anuradhapura, but there was nothing to suggest that I was in the middle of a war zone. I would need some action pictures.

  From a public phone in the center of Anuradhapura I called the mobile number that Mr Kumar had given me. I didn’t recognize the voice that answered. I explained that I had managed to get to Madhu Road, but had been turned back. I emphasised that, for my story to have any impact, I would need some action photos. The voice told me to call back in one hour. 

  I was directed to a small shrine not far from the Tissawewa. As I waited it wasn’t only the intense heat that was making me sweat. I really didn’t think that such a third world country had the technology to intercept every phone call, but, should I be caught meeting with someone who was undoubtedly linked to the Tigers, it could be very serious.

  Eventually, a tuk-tuk pulled up and the driver approached me. He bid me good day and called me Norman. Clearly, this was my contact. I got in and we set off. Over the next hour or so we drove along the highways and byways of Anuradhapura as my loquacious driver regaled me with stories of the armed struggle in the north. 

  I asked about the women’s brigades and he told me of the recent battle for Elephant Pass. He described it as the greatest victory in Tamil history. Elephant Pass was a massive military base for over 20,000 Government troops. Built around a lagoon, the inter-linked satellite bases that protected it were thought to be impregnable. One by one, over a period of six months, key satellite bases had fallen to onslaughts by women suicide squads. Finally, they captured the base that controlled the water supply. The 20,000 troops were now trapped without water. They fled, leaving masses of equipment behind them.

  I suppose it was a tribute to the way the Government managed the news and the international community co-operated with them, that there had been few reports of this in the press. No doubt I should have felt privileged to be one of the first to hear about it first hand. However, my mind was firmly on getting the photos and putting some distance between myself and this driver. Finally, he wished me farewell and handed me a small package. 

  Back in my room I examined the photos. There were twenty of them and they were exactly what I wanted. I had heard that the Tigers had a pretty good propaganda machine of their own. They regularly filmed battle situations. Each photo had been taken in the heat of battle. There was enough blood and dead bodies to satisfy ‘Fronts’ requirements. In the event, they printed several of them prominently on one page.

  The editor expressed his satisfaction with my story, despite the fact that I hadn’t managed to meet with the Tigers. For myself, I was disappointed. Even though no other journalist had managed to get past the Government’s blockade, I still felt that I hadn’t delivered what I had promised. This was reflected in the somewhat childish tirade I concluded the article with. It was pure ‘Front’ though.

  “So next time some scumbag dictator bans the international press in an attempt to cover up his war crimes, he’d better watch out. ‘Front’ just might show up at the front”.


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TIGERS - part 3
11 February 2013

To give credit where it is due, the driver had always been aware of the danger we were in. Throwing the jeep into gear, he quickly reversed in a tight arc, then accelerated away.  The jeep bucked like a wild thing as we raced across the bumpy terrain. I quickly became aware of another danger, that of falling out of the jeep. I clung on like grim death. So intent was I on holding on, I didn’t even look over my shoulder. All I knew was that the elephant was very close behind and, sitting in the rear seats, I would be the first to feel the weight of its trunk.  

  After what seemed an age, the driver slowed. I looked behind and saw that the elephant had stopped a couple of hundred yards away. There would be no further pursuit. Perhaps it was the unexpected adrenalin rush, but, suddenly, I just couldn’t help myself.  I laughed and laughed. So much so that Raja looked at me quite concerned, then managed a weak smile in return. I continued to burst into fits of giggles all the way back to the main gate. As they dropped me off at the Tissawewa they must have thought that I was quite mad.

  Having now established my tourist credentials, I felt that I could venture into nearby  Anuradhapura town and make some enquiries. A tuk-tuk, the local, three-wheeled motorized taxi, dropped me off at the central square. The obvious people to ask were the taxi drivers, gathered around their tuk-tuks. However, taxi drivers in all cultures invariably work hand in hand with the police. I would have to be careful what I said. 

  I stressed the fact that I was interested in the Catholic church at Madhu Road. All the drivers threw up their hands in despair. Muttering darkly about ‘Tigers’, several made imaginary shooting movements with imaginary guns. Clearly, none of them would take me. However, I did manage to elicit the information that a bus went from Anuradhapua to Vavuniya. Another bus would take me from here, along the Mannar Road, to within a few miles of Madhu Road and the Catholic church.

  From my research, I knew that Vavuniya was a large, garrison town and massively out of bounds to anyone who didn’t have a good reason to go there. The next part of the journey would be fraught with risk. All the international aid agencies had accused the Government of human right’s abuses at one time or another. I had read plentiful accounts of Tamil civilians being murdered out of hand. I did have my press card as a last resort, but in a war zone that would be no guarantee of safety. I wouldn’t be the first journalist to be taken round a corner and shot in similar situations. And in this instance, no doubt the Government would blame it on the Tigers.  

  At nine the next morning I was on the bus to Vavuniya. Twenty-seven dusky fellow passengers cast sly, suspicious looks at the only European on board. I thought of Gordon at Khartoum and felt my stiff upper-lip quiver.

  Travelling quite slowly, we slalomed through several road-blocks without stopping. About ten miles from Vavuniya the roadside bunkers started to appear, with armed soldiers posted every hundred yards. There was no turning back now.  

  As befits a garrison town, Vavuniya was absolutely swarming with troops. Hundreds of them, dressed in various uniforms, strolled about in groups. I slipped unobtrusively off the bus and into the nearest café. 

  As soon as I was confident that my arrival hadn’t sparked a hue and cry, I emerged to locate the Madhu Road bus. The central bus station was easy enough to find. I bought a return ticket to Madhu Road and sat in the back of the darkened bus, waiting for its departure.

  Time passed, and more and more people got on the bus. When we left, there were 46 passengers crammed around the 28 seats. I wasn’t complaining, they were good cover for me. I hunkered down and tried to hide myself in the crush. 

  The earth-work forts and bunkers began immediately we left Vavuniya. Spaced every hundred yards along the road, each was manned by scores of heavily-armed soldiers. Suddenly we stopped at the first road-block. 

  The success of any journalistic venture depends a large part on luck, or, in my case perhaps, on stupidity. As every living soul except myself made to get off the bus I remember thinking how curious it was that everyone was going only to the first stop. If I realised it was a road-block, I certainly didn’t realise that one was required to get off and show one’s papers. If I had, then perhaps that would have been the end of it. I sat at the back of the bus, waiting patiently for the journey to continue. 

  Accompanied by the ‘clumping’ sound of heavy boots, two very large military policemen climbed into the bus and made their way to me. I did have the presence of mind to pull out my passport and hold it out towards them. They stopped, took it off me with care, almost reverently, it was clearly a British passport, examined it, then handed it back. No one word had been spoken. Whatever they had assumed, it was enough for them. All the rest of the passengers climbed back onto the bus and we continued our journey. Only this time they were looking at me with a mixture of reverence and fear.

  The view from the bus was one of preparations for war. Tanks stood cheek by jowl with gun emplacements, as jeeps bristling with armed men raced between them. Military-tented villages were dotted here and there. If this wasn’t actually the front line, then we were very close.  

  Three more times we stopped at road-blocks and exactly the same procedure was followed. The fourth pair of military police at least had the initiative to ask me where I was going. “The Catholic church at Madhu Road”, I said confidently, as if I had been going there all my life.

  I alighted at the Madhu Road stop with a growing feeling of euphoria. If this indeed was Madhu Road, then surely it was just a question of nipping into the church, making the brief acquaintance of the priest, then nipping out the back door into the arms of my new friends, the Tigers. In my dreams!

  I had been sitting on the left hand side of the bus and had got off on that side too. As the bus moved off it revealed the other side of the road to me. I took in a great mass of civilians squatted at the side of the road. I noticed the barbed wire boundaries and guessed it must be some kind of transit camp. But transit to where? Surely they weren’t all going to the Catholic church too?

  Then I noticed the soldiers, at about the same instant as they noticed me. Twenty highly excited soldiers, some waving automatic weapons in the air, ran across the road and surrounded me. There was some confusion, what with the fact that they were all trying to speak to me at once, but the burning question was, “What the f--- was I doing here?” This was a highly restricted area and I didn’t have the necessary papers. 

  “How did you get here?”, demanded a young, senior officer.

  “On the bus”, I replied, thinking that it was a very obvious answer.

  “Yes, but how did you get past the checkpoints?”, continued the officer, shouting now.

  “I just showed them my passport”, I said quite calmly and pulled said passport from my pocket and waved it at the officer.

  The officer examined it quickly, then handed it back. Turning to one of the group of soldiers that had surrounded me he said, “Get him out of here before a senior officer sees him and we’re really in trouble. Stop a lorry, anything that’s going back to Vavuniya, and put him on it.” 

  “So how do I get permission to come to this area then?” I shouted over my shoulder as I was led away.

  “There’s an office in Vavuniya”, shouted back the officer. 

  My escort of soldiers stopped a large dumper truck on the other side of the road. The driver and his mate were told to take me straight back to Vavuniya. We set off, but within five minutes we were halted by a stationary line of traffic in front of us. A few minutes passed and we could hear the wailing of sirens getting closer. 

  Suddenly, on the other side of the road, going in the direction we had just been, was a large United Nations convoy. Several armoured personnel carriers were painted in the UN colours and carried the legend ‘UN’. Between them were two buses full of people, also with the ‘UN’ logo. Clearly, this was some kind of UN-supervised personnel exchange between the two sides. I couldn’t help but reflect that if it took the UN and armoured vehicles to cross the cease-fire line, then I had been quite naïve in thinking that I could do it on my own.

  Back in Vavuniya I managed to find the office the officer had told me about. It was full of civil servants processing travel application forms. I managed to get an interview with someone quite senior. He looked at me quizzically when I mentioned that I had just been turned back from Madhu Road and laughed when I asked how I could get permission to go there. He said that it was completely out of the question....

to be continued

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TIGERS - part 2
07 February 2013

  Firmly in ‘work mode’ now, I was soaking up every detail of my environment. As a city, Colombo seemed to be mostly a slum. Ramshackle, two-storied buildings lined the sides of roads full of potholes. All progress, vehicular or otherwise, was hindered by hundreds of cows. They wandered on pavements, in roads and even into shops, as if they owned the place. Which, it turned out, they did. The cow is holy to Hindus, and Sri Lankan Buddhists refuse to kill any living thing, (except the occasional Tamil, that is). Ergo the cows, everywhere!

  Fort railway station was straight out of the films set in the days of the Raj. Old fashioned steam trains puffed and whistled alongside platforms that couldn’t have changed much in fifty years. All that was missing was Sir Ralph Richardson and a detachment of red-jacketed British troops.

  I was already attracting many curious stares and a couple of people actually stopped me and asked if I was English, before welcoming me to the country. I was impressed both by their impeccable manners and their excellent English. However, once again I was concerned about attracting attention. I quickly took my place in the ticket queue.

  I bought a ticket to Anuradhapura, 200 kilometres to the north. This was the site of an ancient city and the temples and ruins were world famous. It wouldn’t be unexpected for a tourist to want to go there, I hoped. There were two surprises. A second class ticket cost me only the equivalent of £1.50 for the 200 kilometres. I reflected that, back in London, £1.50 wouldn’t take me one stop on the Underground.

  When I saw the carriages though, the ticket price made sense. They were dilapidated to the point of being nearly derelict. There was no glass in the windows, no curtains either and the wooden benches were without cushioning and hadn’t been painted for many years. Every carriage was thoroughly overcrowded. Even here though I was given privileged status. Two young men stood up from a bench seat and allowed me to slip inside and sit by the window, before re-seating themselves.

  The six hour journey took me through dusty, tumble-down towns and villages separated by vast expanses of jungle and scrubland. On the train or at any of the stations we passed I didn’t see so much as one European face. Seated in the window, curious faces stared at me from platforms and level crossings. I felt about as undercover as Madonna.

  The further north we went, so the carriage emptied out a bit. After one stop though, a young guy got on and sat next to me. He engaged me in conversation, then showed me his Army identification card. It did wonders for my paranoia.

  Either I was wrong about him however, or Sinhalese agents aren’t up to much. Suddenly a ticket inspector appeared. On inspecting the Army guy’s ticket it turned out that he was traveling in the wrong class and he was unceremoniously ejected from the carriage.

  I arrived at Anuradhapura, my face roasted by the sun and sandblasted by the dust. As I alighted onto the platform, I was nearly rugby-tackled by Raja, the local equivalent of wide-boy, Arthur Daley. Raja professed to be a taxi driver, but hastened to assure me that he was also a tourist guide and could get me whatever I wanted. The wink isn’t part of Sri Lankan culture, but his ‘knowing look’ was international. All the time he repeated, mantra-like, “wonderful people the British, wonderful people the British. I was tired, didn’t want to attract any attention and was longing to sleep. Against my better judgment I got into his taxi.

  The Milano Guest House was a slur on the good name of Milan and had no Italian connection that I could discern. The room for one was barely tolerable, even if the only air conditioning was an ancient rotating fan set in the ceiling. It was the bathroom for five that I had a problem with, especially as the other four were cockroaches. After a brief two-step with a couple of them in the shower, I retired to the bed, silently cursing Raja under my breath.      

  After 24 years of eating prison food, I had thought that I was beyond being upset by a ruined meal. Breakfast at the ‘Milano’ though was a culinary experience too far. I had only asked for chicken and rice, for God’s sake, yet the rice was soggy and stuck together in lumps and the chicken was all skin and innards. I seriously considered punching Raja full in his fat, smiling face when next we met.

  In the event, I resisted the temptation, rationalising that such behaviour would certainly bring me a whole lot of attention, probably from the police. When he arrived to take me sightseeing though, I had paid for my room and was waiting with my bag all packed. I cut through his obsequious, “Good morning sir”, with a steely, “Take me to another hotel immediately.”

  The Tissawewa Rest House was a quaint leftover from the colonial days. Its genteel decay was more than compensated for by scrupulous cleanliness and excellent service. I secreted the copy of ‘Front’ I was carrying beneath some cushions lest it’s contents outrage the servants.

   The large house must have been very beautiful in its day and, even though the white paintwork was peeling, there was still a feeling of sumptuousness about the place. The house stood in it’s own gardens and grounds, which were extensive. Hundreds of small, and not so small, monkeys roamed freely. Most had absolutely no fear of humans. In fact, the one caution I had from the staff was to make sure I closed my windows, otherwise monkeys could enter and steal things.

  In such an idyllic setting it would have been very easy to forget what I had come for and just lounge around for a couple of days and relax. However, I was on a tight schedule. I would want to spend at least a couple of days with the Tigers, should I manage to contact them. That was why it was so frustrating to have to pretend that I was a tourist. I would have to waste good time doing ‘touristy’ things. Ergo Raja.

  Later that day he took me on a tour of the ancient city. The temples were magnificent, their time-worn facades testimony to the architectural excellence of a bygone age. It must have been some kind of holy day, because thousands of pilgrims, wearing only white, sheet-like clothing, swarmed everywhere.

  Outside every temple were rows and rows of sandals which the faithful had removed before entering. Mine were the only pair of shoes. I still hadn’t seen another European since I had left Colombo.

  At the entrance of one temple stood three uniformed soldiers carrying machine guns. Raja informed me that they were guarding a special temple, inside which stood a holy tree. This tree was supposed to be thousands of years old and had been closely linked to one of the original prophets. I felt that this was worth seeing.

  It didn’t look like much, just a gnarled, thin old trunk, bereft of leaves. It was surrounded by a circular railing, through which the faithful reached to touch the tree. Right next to it stood another soldier, also carrying a machine gun. Raja explained that the guard was necessary just in case the Tigers tried to damage the holy tree. I couldn’t help but reflect on the ridiculousness of a situation where people would fight and die over an old tree.

  A couple of hours in the heat and the dust was quite enough for me. I got Raja to take me back to the Tissawewa for a mid-day snooze. Later, he had organized a safari for me. I wanted to establish my tourist credentials as soon as possible, then move on to other, more serious, things.

 The Habarana Wildlife Park was so absolutely massive that I was sure it didn’t have a wall around it and was, in fact, just a part of the countryside. The gate-complex was impressive, with large, barred gates and armed guards in uniform, but I guessed that was for the benefit of the tourists. I signed up for the basic 50 quid tour.

  I have a theory about wildlife and safaris. I feel that any responsible parent would warn the cubs that the upright, two-legged creatures might pull out a camera and take your picture. On the other hand, they also might pull out a gun and shoot you. So, to be on the safe side, whenever you see one, HIDE!   

  For the next two hours, with Raja sitting in the front of the open-topped jeep next to the driver and me in the back, we drove along the bumpy, dusty trails of the wildlife park. Every living thing hid from us. On one occasion, far in the distance, we did see what looked like a water buffalo beside a lake, but when we finally got there the creature had disappeared.

  I was quite unconcerned. I was content to go through the motions of being a tourist and safaris had never appealed to me anyway. But you could tell that Raja was deeply embarrassed. For a start, his incessant chatter had diminished to barely a trickle of half-hearted encouragements that there would be something just around the next corner. By now it was growing dark.

  So far, I had been completely relaxed. It was just a safari and I didn’t consider myself to be in any danger at all. The dangerous bit would come next when I tried to contact the Tigers. Further, I had assumed that, for all his insincerity, Raja knew what he was doing. I was just about to be rudely disabused of that notion.

  Exiting a small forest of trees onto another large plain, we could see, a short distance away, another clump of trees. Amongst these were several elephants. I don’t know if they tried to hide, but, as all the trees were quite small, perhaps they just weren’t successful.

  Seeing his chance to redeem himself in my eyes, Raja ordered the driver to get close to the herd. On the fringes, just outside the tree line, stood a very large elephant that I took to be a male. In fact, it could well have been the bull, for it was much larger than any of the twenty or so others in the herd. 

  At first the elephant ignored us. It continued to pull clumps of grass from the ground with its trunk and stuff them into its mouth. At Raja’s insistence, the driver drew closer. From 200 feet away the animal looked big enough: from 100 feet away it looked enormous. It completely dwarfed us and the jeep we were sitting in.

  By now however, although it was still chewing the last mouthful of grass, it wasn’t intent on pulling any more from the ground. All its attention was on us. Suddenly, it started to paw at the ground with one of its front feet. At the same time, a deep growling sound came from its head, which it was now swinging from side to side.

  Up until this moment, I had been merely a complacent observer of events. However, I was aware that elephants killed many people every year in Africa. It was just beginning to dawn on me that, should the beast charge, we could be in danger.

  I might have read its mind. With a piercing squeal that immediately morphed into a full-throated bellow, it charged. Temporarily, the deafening sound paralysed all movement. I remember mentally remarking to myself how swift it was for such a large animal…....



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05 February 2013

For quite a while I had been intending to do a piece on the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka. Having spent so long without liberty myself I seemed to have a natural affinity and sympathy for liberation movements. These invariably suffered from a poor press, with the international media usually supporting the status quo. I felt that my piece would serve a good cause, as well as cocking a snook at the powers that be.
  From my research I knew that Sri Lanka was ostensibly a paradise island, the size of Ireland, that lies off the southern tip of India. It’s major selling point in the holiday brochures are the beautiful beaches in the south. Except for the occasional bomb outrage, the average tourist would hardly know that a virtual civil war is raging in the north. 
  This situation, like so many others of its ilk, had been largely created by us. As the former colonial masters when Sri Lanka was Ceylon, we had handed over power after independence to the Sinhalese-dominated civil service. The Sinhalese are Buddhists and make up about 76% of the population. The Hindu, Tamil minority make up about 15% of the population and are heavily concentrated in the north. There was also a much smaller minority of Muslims.
  Needless to say, the Sinhalese who we had handed over to were reluctant to share power with anyone outside their immediate community. The Tamils strived for representation and equal rights, but were rewarded only with Government-inspired race riots during which many Tamils were massacred. This resulted in the Tamils demanding their own state in the north, called Tamil Eelam, and the creation a force committed to fight for it, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tigers for short. This war had been raging, at different intensities, for over 25 years.
  Despite overwhelming international support from countries as diverse as the USA, India, China and Russia, the Sinhalese had never managed to defeat their out-gunned but better motivated enemy. On the contrary, in. fact. Displaying a commitment and fanaticism that the Government couldn’t match, the Tigers had won a string of victories culminating in the near taking of Jaffna, the major city of the north. This would have been a crushing military and political blow to the Government.
 Certainly not unique to third world liberation movements, Tamil women had played a leading role in the fighting. This had arisen out of necessity, as so many of their men-folk had been killed. Ironically, the women’s brigades had won a reputation for being amongst the fiercest fighters. Many of them had formed into suicide squads, throwing themselves in waves against entrenched positions. The Government troops especially feared them.
  I found this to be particularly fascinating, occurring in a Tamil culture that was largely non-violent. I hoped to interview some of the women’s brigades as part of my story. The other interesting facet was that the Tigers had virtually introduced the suicide bomber as a weapon of urban warfare. Again this was deeply ironic, occurring in a largely non-violent culture. 
  I also knew that, unlike in Colombia, the Government denied the Tigers any concessions at all. There was a tight, news blackout on the war, with journalists, even local ones, refused access to the front in the north. Increasingly losing the military war, the Government seemed intent on winning the propaganda war through strict news management and censorship.
  Quite obviously, I felt that didn’t include me. However, I wasn’t so naïve as to think that I could go waltzing into a completely strange country without any help. There were two sides to this dispute, I would need the assistance of one of them.
  As luck would have it, the headquarters of the expatriate Tamil community in England was situated in Eelam House, over in Borough, South East London. A phone call elicited a request for me to put my application in writing. Similar to letters I had written to other liberation movements, I mentioned that I was a freelance journalist and a member of the National Union of Journalists. I pointed out that the magazine I wrote for (‘Front’ in this instance) was a lifestyle magazine with a readership in the hundreds of thousands. Further, that by writing my articles in an ‘adventurous’ fashion, I could reach an audience of young professionals who normally, perhaps, might not read a ‘political’ article. I concluded by saying, “I am aware that this is an important time for the Tamil Eelam movement. I followed with interest the recent assault by the Tigers that nearly caused the fall of Jaffna. I would like to meet with you in the first instance, but I would also like to go to Tiger-held territory north of Jaffna to write my article.”    
  Liberation movements are just as much in the business of propaganda as the Governments they oppose. They need all the publicity they can get, especially if it is sympathetic to their cause. I wasn’t at all surprised when I got a phone call inviting me to a meeting.    
  I duly presented myself at Eelam House, a rather unimposing two-storied, office-block- type building, surrounded by a wire fence. Inside though was altogether more impressive, being done out like a Hindu temple. I was required to remove my shoes and was ushered upstairs to an office. Behind a large desk sat a short, plumpish middle-aged man with a round, pleasant face. He smiled broadly as he stood to shake my hand and introduced himself as Kumar.
  I never determined whether this was his first or second name, so I erred on the side of caution by calling him Mr Kumar. Mr Kumar was politeness personified. He explained that he had been a journalist himself back in Sri Lanka, so he knew something about the profession. He went on to say that the situation in the Tamil-held north was very volatile at the moment and the Government wasn’t allowing any journalists up to the front line. I told him that I knew this, but was determined to find a way through. 
  He fixed me with a long, studied look, as if weighing me up. I recognized the signs and realised that the situation called for openness on my part. I told him that I had recently spent over 24 years in British prisons so I wasn’t a particularly ardent supported of the Government line. My article would be factual and unbiased.
  The smile was once again on Mr Kumar’s face. He wished me well with my trip, but added that to give me the contact details of Tamil activists in the north would put their lives in danger should the details be found on me. However, he did write down an English mobile number for me. He said that I should try to reach a place called Madhu Road in the north. If I got there okay, I should call this number. I left feeling that I had made a very positive contact.
  I didn’t have any problem in pitching the story to ‘Front’. By now, they had every confidence that I would complete every assignment I set out on. This was all very well,  but I was aware that, in magazine journalism, you are only as successful as your last story. It wouldn’t do to take an international flight to Sri Lanka costing several hundred pounds, just to be stopped at customs and sent right back again. Clearly I would have to have a cover story.
  I could always be a tourist, of course, but that would only work if I stayed in the south, where the tourist resorts were. Once I went north, especially if a search revealed my journalist’s card, I would have some explaining to do. 
  I scoured the internet for details about northern Sri Lanka, particularly the area around Madhu Road. I noticed on several maps a small icon right on Madhu Road. When I checked the reference at the side of the map I found it represented a Catholic Church. 
  So that was it, then. In a country full of Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, where religious pilgrimage was almost a way of life, I would be a pilgrim. Only a Catholic one. I wouldn’t need the permission of the Pope, and the Rabai didn’t have to be told. However, I did borrow a small cross and some rosary beads off a friend, just in case.
  I landed at the capital, Colombo, and had minor misgivings as I approached customs. I needn’t have worried though. Tourists were so thin on the ground right now that any foreign face was welcome. Further, even though we had been the colonial power, many Sri Lankans still seemed to be involved in a love affair with England and the English.
  Outside, I was surrounded by a baying mob of taxi drivers all vying for my attention. I was trying to be as low profile as possible, so attention was just what I wanted to avoid. I jumped into the nearest taxi and told the driver to take me to the railway station…..
next part coming shortly..

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