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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
22 February 2013 @ 00:01

                                 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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