Viva Jungle Love

All's well that ends well.

All’s well that ends well.

What a year it has been. On this last day of 2013, looking back over all the major life milestones still visible in the rear view mirror, I want to give thanks for finally making it back here to my hometown in the southern Appalachians, reunited at last with my family at the end of a long and uncertain journey.

When this blog went offline at the beginning of the year, I had just left Iquitos after living there for three rollicking years. I left in February and didn’t see Corrina or Maverick again until the end of October– nine months later!  That’s a long time to be apart from your family, especially if you care deeply about them. Corrina joked that she could’ve made another baby in that time and it would have given her something to do while she was waiting for me.

As it was, I spend most of this year preparing camp for their arrival: I found a home for us, got a job and went to work. I also spent a lot of time fretting over a protracted immigration process that cast a long shadow over the summer and fall.

Ultimately though, her papers cleared, and with visa in hand, they got on a plane and we were together again. Except for the day my son was born, that was the happiest day of my life.

Not long after that, there was a wedding. That was a pretty happy occasion too! My entire family was able to be there to welcome Corrina into our family, including my 95 year old grandmother who had to be carried up two flights of stairs like Cleopatra when the elevator broke!


Reader, I married her.

Corrina and Maverick are adjusting well to stateside life, and getting a taste for southern culture. We’ve got a great little barbecue joint down the road, and the other day I taught her how to make collard greens. We go out to our local pub to listen to bluegrass and old time music, and sometimes we go driving in the mountains just to have a look around. Young Maverick, who just turned three, has amazed us all by picking up English in just two months. When he first got off the plane, he was speaking only Spanish, but now all our conversations are in English. It really is a whole new world to be able to interact with my child in my native tongue.

For me, this year has been an enormous hinge, bringing peaceful closure to our life in Peru and swinging open into a new life together in the States.  For all the stress and uncertainty, and for all the problems that yet remain, we’ve passed through a crucible of enormous distance and we are more fully formed for the experience. I think Corrina and I have become more grounded and mature people as a result of all these events, and we stand now as though on the threshold of a new place in the sun.  I think 2014 is going to be a very good year.

To all our friends in Iquitos, I hope you are feeling the same way! We will look forward very much to seeing you all again in the days and years to come, as I know now that in our hearts we will never be far from that noisy, ragged, chaotic little spot of bother deep in the Amazon. (Even now I can almost hear the motorcars.)  Iquitos was my finishing school, and grateful I am indeed for the lessons I learned there, and more grateful still for the woman and child who share its spirit, and who are with me now.

I still get contacted sometimes by people who happen across this blog while researching a trip to Iquitos. If you’re one of those people, I invite you explore the archives and to reach out with an email if you have any questions about any of the material covered here; I’d be happy to point you in the right direction if I can.

Happy New Year!

The Funeral Of James King

Hard to believe it was one year ago today that we got word of the death of James King, the old-school lumberman and former US Embassy Warden of Iquitos. He was known as the wood king of Iquitos, and in fact he had been in the wood business for decades all over South America by the time he settled here. James was a divisive figure, and was possessed of a strong and complex personality. While there were those who swore by their lives that James was a crook, and was wanted for this and that, he never did me any wrong and certainly the US Embassy would not have assigned him as a Warden of Iquitos had he been a crook. In fact I learned a great deal from him, mainly during the last year of his life when I was spending a fair amount of time with him. I was always a little amused that he inspired in others such a vast catalogue of passionate and contradictory opinions about his past and his various exploits. He seemed amused by it as well.

James ran a successful lumber export mill and fine woodworking shop in Iquitos for some years. He also was involved with local people in distant jungle communities, and over the years had made deals with them to help them secure permanent title to their land. He extracted some timber from these lands in exchange, giving jobs to many of the locals in the process. I was around to see the elders of these communities come to visit James in the city, asking for help with a sick baby or a family who had lost their home, and he never turned anyone away. He was generous with these people, making sure to give them money for food and compensating them for the cost of the gasoline required to travel by boat to and from Iquitos. He never advertised this so I think its something that should be recognized, his compassion for the people in those communities, all of whom clearly had the utmost respect for him.

No, the bad things I heard about James came from other gringos who had business deals with him that had gone sour for one reason or another. One can never fully know both sides of a story, so I can’t say for sure that James was an angel, but I do know that the line between a crafty but legitimate businessman and a con man can be extremely hard to discern. My feeling is that James was the former.

His persona was unsentimental, fearless, a bit of a roughneck, and he never thought twice about crossing anyone, especially when he felt he was in the right. And he delighted in calling out hypocrisy wherever he heard it. Around the massive wooden ‘rum and coke’ table where he held court, he made his feelings about corrupt NGO’s, corrupt government officials, and corrupt church officials well known. Although he found ways to laugh about it, corruption irritated him, because as a businessman working in Iquitos, he was forced to work within the system as it was. Of the many accusations flung about over cocktails, time has proven him largely correct.

James was always in the know. Indigenous tribal leaders, village elders, reporters, local politicians, they all showed up around the rum and coke table to discuss the news of the day. James commanded their respect, and he trafficked in whatever information was most current. He was always the first one to ask if you wanted to know the inside scoop. He seemed to have connections everywhere. And his door was always open. No doubt this was why the US Embassy appointed him Warden of Iquitos, their man on the ground in the jungle. They might have formally made him Consul, but James refused to get up and go down to the Plaza de Armas once a month and put on socks and a tie and salute the flag, as he would have been required to do as Consul.

I can’t really do justice to the full-blown utter epic insanity of the man’s life here, and I’m not going to try. I mean, he’s the only guy I know who was shot by both the CIA and the FARC, and he had the scars to prove it. No, of all the stories one could tell about James King, the one I want to share is the story of his funeral. Because it was such a vivid and accurate reflection of his life in Iquitos.

James is survived by his wife and his son. His wife of forty years, Patricia, a lovely woman who dedicated her time and money to sheltering and re-habbing dozens of stray animals, still lives in Iquitos. About two years ago she was in a horrible accident, hit by a motorcycle while crossing the street outside her house. She died twice on the operating table and twice was brought back to life. She had to re-learn her language faculties and other basic brain skills. James was by her side helping her to recuperate the whole way.

But it also meant that he hardly ever left the house. He was drinking heavily, and towards the end, it became clear that he knew he was going to die. The doctors told him to stop smoking, to slow down on the drinking, but he smoked mapacho cigarettes continually from a big wooden bowl which was the centerpiece of the rum and coke table, and he drank rum heroically by any man’s standards who ever lived. And, like the most serious functional alcoholics you may have known, his tolerance for the stuff was nothing short of astonishing.
Later, when Patricia told me that James knew he was going to die soon, it all made sense. He had been pushing it way too hard, even for a man as tough as he was. And one day it caught up with him. He collapsed in front of the TV and was gone by the time they got him to the hospital. They moved his body to morgue, and funeral arrangements were made at the scenic Garden of Eden cemetary outside of town, where he was to be cremated.
James’ best friend was instrumental in staying on top of the logistics during this process. I can’t remember if he already has a fictional name here on the blog, so we’ll call him Aaron Cobbler. On the day of the funeral, Aaron was really the one keeping everything together. We all drove out to the cemetary about noon, which was the time we had been told to arrive. Nothing happens on time here, of course, but we are talking about gringos, going to a gringo funeral, so some people actually showed up on time.
After about an hour of making small talk and wandering the grounds, which were exquisite, Aaron called to say that there was a problem. The morgue used a stock coffin to transport bodies from the freezer to the incinerator, but the coffin was scaled to the dimensions of a Peruvian physique. James had a huge Irish head and was broad as a rhino in girth. He wasn’t about to fit into the regular coffin. So they had to send somebody to the warehouse to locate the spare coffin, which was larger.
Another hour passed, and the X-Large Coffin was located and brought to the morgue. Then another phone call from Aaron, informing us that James’ body was frozen onto the slab where he had been kept in cold storage. More time would be needed to assemble the tools and manpower to pry him from the slab. That’s not an image you want to spend too much time thinking about. So we waited some more, bought refrescos from the girls in the parking lot, wandered the grounds, and looked at the flowers and the miniature umbrellas sheltering each gravestone from the sun.
Another call. No one had paid for the morgue services. The morgue was not going to release the body without payment. Captain Bill, the assistant warden who had so recently become the new Warden of Iquitos, stepped up and paid the bill. He wouldn’t advertise that either, being the good guy that he is, but he paid the bill knowing he’d probably never get paid back.
Finally, they loaded the body into the back of a minivan. As I recall it was almost four o’clock, and we’d been lingering at the funeral home since noon. The van pulled up and a spry team of Peruvians emerged and carried good old James King into the funeral parlour. A priest said a few generic words. James was not religious and would have hated all the hollow ritual of sermonizing that was happening on his behalf, Aaron leaned over and whispered to me. He was right. James was the kind of guy who always wanted to get right to the point. And yet he had become a master of patience, of waiting to see how things turned out, because he had spent so many years doing business in Peru. So the many absurd delays of his final journey were a true and appropriate reflection of the man’s life, and he would have laughed to see it happen as it did.
After the talking was over, Aaron and I got up and removed the American flag draped over the coffin. In fact it was a beach towel with a print of an American flag, but it was the only thing that could be found on such short notice. We folded it with due ceremony–a small piece of knowledge recovered from my days as a Boy Scout and finally put to use some twenty five years later–and we handed the folded flag to Trisha. The coffin retreated on rollers through a curtained hole in the wall, which led to the incinerator. The mourners recessed to a small assembly hall next door.
Aaron had thought to bring a couple of bottles of rum. We passed around plastic cups and poured shots. But there were no mixers. I walked across the street and bought a 3 liter Coke bottle, and with rum and cokes in hand we laid James King to rest in the way I know he would have wanted.
The chimney above the assembly hall belched smoke. I could hear the generators humming, and the incinerator surge with effort, and I saw the smoke from the chimney change from light to dark. In time the mourners peeled away and drifted back down the road to their homes. That was all there was for a sense of closure.

The new Warden would return the next day to collect the ashes. James’ rhinocerous girth had required many hours in the incinerator, which had been left running all night in order to complete the task. By sunset just a group of old school wood men and jungle rats remained, who had known and liked the man enough to linger until twilight sitting around drinking rum and talking about the events of the day, just as he would have done.

Home News

We're pressing on.

We’re pressing on.

Hey folks, Big Changes are afoot here at Jungle Love. Corrina, Maverick and I are moving back to the States. I am leaving next week, to return to my beloved hometown of Asheville and to start work again at the job I had before I moved to the jungle. Maverick is a US citizen and has an American passport, but Corrina needs to wait for her immigration papers to process before she can join me there, which will most likely be sometime this summer.

We are excited about this relocation, and starting a new life closer to my family. Of course, Corrina is sad about leaving her family here, but in truth I think she is a little bored of Iquitos, having lived here practically her whole life. She is well versed in American culture and speaks the language fluently, so this really represents a fresh start for all of us.

I myself am a little sad about having to bring Jungle Love to a close. Looking back over the archives, it is amazing to me the range of stories and characters I was able to write about in the three and a half years that I’ve been writing this blog. The blogging format is many things for many people, but it always suited me very well in the kind of long-form, quasi-non-fiction stories (meaning, I rarely make anything up but generally change the names of characters involved, unless I am directly trying to promote their cause) that I wanted to write about. And being able to do so without the interface of editors or fact checkers, publishing directly to a small but loyal band of readers, has been a real privilege for me, and I thank each of you for your interest over the years.

Having said that, there are a number of stories I want to tell here before I bring this lumbering ship into port once and for all. With the help of another writer friend, we’ve talked about the possibility of turning Jungle Love into a stand-alone book, or combining it with the unruly fictional manuscript I’ve been working at for several years, which also tells stories of Iquitos in a similar style to the blog. I had hoped to eventually publish this manuscript as a novel, but it may turn out to be best to combine the best material from both and publish that instead.

I’ve always tried to keep the style of Jungle Love consistent– no filler, no pointless links or ads or going on about what I had for breakfast (bacon and eggs, btw), but limited to fine-grained stories that characterize the experience of living here in the Wild West border town of Iquitos, and done so with honesty and humor. When I first dropped out of my corporate job to move to the jungle, I was a bit like the Kevin Costner character in Dances With Wolves– I wanted to see the frontier, before it was gone. These days, you have to travel quite far afield to find the frontier, and for me, that frontier was Iquitos. And indeed it is changing rapidly. I did get a chance to see it, before it was gone, and will never have any regrets about that decision, though it cost me a great deal of financial stability and, at times, my peace of mind.

I have a lot of details to attend to between now and my departure, but once I get to the States, I plan to dedicate the first couple of weeks to posting all the best material I have yet in the storehouse, and unleash the backlog of premium content that I’ve kept in my pocket until now.

Eventually, I may look at a Kickstarter campaign, or some other similar crowdsourcing method in order to raise the funds to bring Jungle Love to book form. But in the meantime, because of a business deal that has left me still waiting on several thousands of dollars which have not yet materialized (though I continue to hope that the deal will still be honored, and the money will appear), I would like to do my own micro-financing here on the blog.

Jungle Love is going to do a fundraising campaign from March 1 to March 15. During that time I will be asking for donations from loyal readers such as yourself, and also posting good stuff regularly. When the Ides of March arrive, all the best content will be posted, and that’ll be the end of Jungle Love … the end of new content, anyway. The site will remain online indefinitely , and everyone will have free access to the archives, if you’re ever so inclined.

The reason for this fundraiser is that, lacking those funds I just mentioned, I would like to leave my family with some better means of support in the months before they can join me in the States. I will also be re-posting some of the highlights from the blog’s archives when appropriate, so newer readers can get the flavor of some of the tastier nuggets on offer here.

I have thought long and hard about whether to ask relative strangers for money. I mean, in a way, it’s a little undignified. But on the other hand, I honestly feel like this site has quality content. I’m proud of my little blog, and what it has become. It’s taught me my craft as a writer, really, more than any academic setting ever did. I’d like to think it’s given the English-speaking locals of Iquitos something to chuckle about from time to time. And, if you ever plan to visit Iquitos in the future and you happened across this site via search engine, I hope it’ll give you a better sense of what you’re in for.

In short, I ask for you support. In exchange, I promise to take this blog out with a bang. Honestly, I’m not the kind of person who donates money for content that I could read for free, but in this case, you should. It’s for a good cause– so my woman can buy groceries for my kid while I’m working in the States to bring them there. This is a brave new world for writers who work online–traditional publishing is in turmoil, and online content is cheap and mostly uncompensated. I’ve always tried to distinguish Jungle Love by the quality of the content alone. Otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting, and it wouldn’t be worth my time or yours. The people I’ve met through the blog, and the readership I’ve built up over the years, has been a wonderful and gratifying experience for me. So please, in the weeks to come, do consider clicking on that paypal button up there in the corner, even if it’s only five bucks, because every little bit counts.

One last thing. For Iquitos locals, I am playing my last gig tomorrow night at Karma Cafe in downtown Iquitos with Guitar Bill Curtis and his band, master percussionist Rodrigo, our friend Jose who is a shaman as well as the son of a shaman, and a damn fine soul singer and player of criolla music. For my part, you can expect acoustic Americana roots music, dirty blues, some mean slide guitar and a heap of danceable grooves. 9pm – 3am, no cover.

The Story Behind The Dark Side Of Ayahuasca

Yesterday, an article entitled “The Dark Side of Ayahuasca” appeared in Men’s Journal, a prominent American magazine with a monthly circulation of 700,000. The article focused largely on the death of Kyle Nolan, an 18 year old Californian who died under mysterious circumstances at an ayahuasca retreat center in Peru. The link is here, and well worth a read:

The piece was written by Kelly Hearn, a professional journalist for 15 years, who has written for The Nation, National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, and many others. I first met Kelly this past spring, when he was here in Iquitos doing research for the ayahuasca article. Men’s Journal had sent him to Iquitos to write a feature piece about the overall trend of ayahuasca tourism in Peru, but between its writing and publication, the death of Kyle Nolan occurred. After that, says Hearn, “my editor said, ‘sorry, but we have to ask you to re-write your feature, because it has become a news story now.’”

So the resulting news article, pared down to 1,866 words, bears little resemblance to the article Hearn originally hoped to publish, but these were circumstances beyond his control. Such is the life of a freelance writer. I’ve since become good friends with Kelly, and he happens to be back in Iquitos for the first time since he was here researching the story. I sat down with him this morning at the Amazon Bistro to discuss his thoughts on the article, because I think the story behind the story is even more interesting than what was finally published in Men’s Journal.

“So, this has turned into a news piece about Kyle,” Hearn began. “I originally filed a 4,000 word story that was trying to capture the spirit of ayahuasca, including how it affected me personally. I am obviously disappointed it didn’t get published that way, but that’s the business I am in, I have to accept that.

“It’s frustrating to see the tone and focus of the article change, and I almost feel that I should apologize for the change in tone to all the people who helped me with my research. But, on the other hand, Kyle Nolan’s father was happy about it as a news piece, he said it was ”spot on, good work,” and that makes me feel good, because I wanted people to do their homework about ayahuasca, and if you are looking for a shaman or a retreat center, to find people who are real and honest, like Slocum at Amaru Spirit for example, before they go off with just anyone into the jungle.

“But I met new people, I got a book deal out of it, and the things I didn’t get to say in the article, I hope to communicate in the novel. My original story was that I met really interesting people who went against the grain of the stereotypical ayahuasca seeker. I mean, at first, after everything I heard about ayahuasca, I was telling people to throw up their hands and run backwards from this thing. But in fact it is changing peoples lives. Once I got here and met some of these people, and tried it for myself, I began to see that.”

I should mention that, as a direct result of coming here to research this article, Kelly happened into a set of circumstances that led to a group of private investors financing him to write a novel that features ayahuasca as a major plot point, which they hope to option for a film as well. Now, nearly a year later, he has written a draft and is completing the re-writes. I personally am very excited to read the book, and see the movie too.

So, what, I asked him, was his own ayahuasca experience like? Well, to really appreciate his response, you have to know about a very odd synergy that occurred in Iquitos, three days after Hearn did his ayahuasca ceremony. At the time, Hearn was also researching a story for The Washington Times about the murder of fourteen shamans in the remote town of Balsa Puerto, located outside of Yurimaguas. At the time, the all-time record for flooding in the upper Amazon region was at or near its peak, and the waters had stranded or incapacitated hundred of towns and villages, and made the logistics of travel into these regions into a Herculean task.

After hearing that the road from Yurimaguas to Tarapoto was impassable, he decided to email his editor and tell him that he was giving up on the story. He was facing a four day boat ride, followed by overland passage across uncertain roads, and then having to hire smaller boats to travel into a flooded and fairly lawless area. He was quite rightly worried about traveling into such a remote region, with no guarantee of safe passage, or of encountering the mayor of Balsa Puerto once he got there, which was the reason for the whole trip.

So, on his way to deliver this message to his editor, he passed a local restaurant a block from the hostel where he was staying. He glanced inside and saw a man who looked remarkably like the photographs he had seen of Alfredo Torres, the mayor of Balsa Puerto. He passed by, paused, and turned around and went back to look in again. He could swear it was Torres, a man he had never met but only seen in photos. So he went inside and said, ’excuse me, are you the mayor of Balsa Puerto?” And indeed it was him! The mayor explained that he rarely travels to Iquitos, but was in town for a couple of days to request emergency funds from the regional government to aid the displaced flood victims in his village.

The mayor finished his lunch and then obliged Kelly with the interview he had been seeking, explaining at length his version of the circumstances surrounding the murders of the shamans. The mayor, who like many locals there are fervent evangelical Christians, had come under some scrutiny because of the deep conflict between the fundamentalist Christian beliefs of the town leaders, and the traditional shamanic beliefs and practices of the indigenous Shawi curanderos who were found murdered. Some even alleged that the murders happened on the mayor’s order. But the mayor proclaimed his innocence, disavowed any knowledge of the real perpetrators, and even said to Kelly that “God has led you to me so that I can declare my innocence to the world.”

“My ayahuasca experience was book-ended by running into the mayor,” Hearn explained. “I dealt with those fears of how to encounter him during the experience. I had some anxiety about it– Balsa Puerto was just too far. But before I could inform my editor, I walked by a restaurant and there was the mayor eating lunch! So I got my interview after all, without even having to travel.”

What to make of such an unlikely event?

“The mayor said it was God, and the shamans said it was the plants who led me to him. I put a lot of thought into it during my ceremony, and sure enough, my problem was resolved for me. It led me to question the whole of reality, really. What was it that led me to him? Just a coincidence? I think I’m still trying to figure that out.”

For what it’s worth, I myself also had a very strange synchronicity that day. Kelly wanted more info on a situation where a Polish man in Iquitos had almost died during an ayahuasca ceremony, and had gone into a coma and suffered brain damage. I had never met the guy, but I had some free time that day and I told Kelly I would go out to see what I could learn, although I had no leads to go on. Then, driving by a street festival in San Juan, I saw a lone gringo sitting by himself among hundreds of Peruvians. On a wild impulse I thought, maybe that’s him.

I pulled over, parked the bike and walked over to this guy and started talking to him. I asked him if he knew anything about this Polish guy, and he had a very strange reaction. He didn’t know what to make of me, he thought I was a cop at first. It took us a few minutes for us to sort each other out, talking in both Spanish and English. But it turned out that this guy, who was Dutch, was a good friend of the Polish guy, and had been the one by his side through the ordeal of taking him to the hospital and dealing with all the residual fall-out. He was the best resource, the most reliable person to talk to, to get to the heart of what really happened. Consider this: having set out on my specific information-gathering mission that morning, this Dutch guy was the only person I asked about it the entire day, and I picked him randomly out of a crown on a whim– and, in a city of over 400,000, hit the bullseye on the first shot.

What really happened, as I understand it, is that the Polish guy passed out during the ceremony, wasn’t monitored closely enough, and aspirated on his own vomit. There is a strong suspicion that he was given toé (brugmansia) in the brew, a dangerous plant that Kelly mentions in the Men’s Journal piece.

Finally though, when I got back to tell Kelly about this crazy coincidence, he he trumped my story by a mile! He was incredulous at the day’s apparent coincidences, and so was I. So, to quote my friend, I am still trying to figure that one out.

Building Community in the Amazon Jungle: A Guest Post by David “Slocum” Hewson

Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

Everything changes, but nothing is lost.

(Editor’s note: Jungle Love is pleased to feature this guest post from David “Slocum” Hewson, the founder and owner of Amaru Spirit, a holistic healing center located in the jungle outside of Iquitos, Peru. Their website is here: Regular Jungle Love readers may notice some similarities between Slocum and Chillum, a recurring character in the blog. These similarities are, I presume, not totally a coincidence.)

“Building Community in the Amazon Jungle”

A guest post by David Hewson

Many gringos come to the Peruvian Amazon with dreams of buying land in the jungle, building homes and perhaps even starting businesses. The natural beauty and abundance of the jungle seems like a paradise on Earth, and it is, until you try living there full-time.

As a kid, I loved reading about Daniel Boone, and the whole pioneering spirit. My great-grandparents first settled the land where my family in North Carolina still lives today. I guess on some deep level I always had that pioneering spirit too, and the past three years–buying jungle land in Peru and building a retreat center there–have given me the ultimate test of my pioneering skills! I have paid a lot of dues to get where I am now. While many gringos come here with similar ambitions, I’ve seen a lot more failures than successes during my seven years in Iquitos. So I’d like to share a few of my own learning experiences in how to build community relations in the jungle.

When I first bought my land on the Itaya river, it was completely undeveloped. In time I learned that I had inherited a border dispute between my neighbors and the former owner of my land. There’s this idea in the jungle that, if you are tending land, even if it doesn’t fall under the deed, it’s yours. But there are always going to be disputes when the map and territory itself do not align. After I bought the land, we discovered that government officials had taken an old map and used that as a template, but no surveyors had ever come out to properly survey it.

The neighbors had been fighting over a disputed swath of land from the people I bought it from– and sometimes they didn’t even know where the line was. There was a tree a meter over the line, but the neighbor tended the tree, so it’s theirs. In my case, the neighbors over-claimed what they actually had. But fortunately, some other neighbors with property adjacent to mine had actually done their surveying according to legal requirements, and filed it in the public registry. The government surveyors then had a problem on their hands–they were obliged to do their jobs properly. Otherwise the borders would have overlapped, based on the boundaries of my neighbors, which were already on legal record.

So the surveyors came back the second time, and it turned out that both neighbors gained land from what they had before on paper! And with that, the dispute was settled, and both sides were content, without the need to construct fences or make problems. This was a rare example where a dispute resulted in a win for both sides! Because where there there are no fences, borders in the jungle can get very fuzzy, and it’s always better to know exactly what’s yours.

When we began building the first structures on the land, I invited all my neighbors over for a minga. This is a day of shared communal labor. No one gets paid, but you provide a meal for everyone when the work is done, with the understanding that you will show up for your neighbor when it’s their turn for a minga. This event was chronicled here:

The minga is a great example of community in the jungle. It encourages social cooperation and trust between neighbors, which becomes extremely important when the time comes for the community to band together in order to deal with problems that affect everybody.

One of the greatest problems faced by this community, myself included, was illegal logging on all our lands. Thieves coming upriver from Belen were constantly entering the quebrada (creek) that gave access to this area, cutting down and stealing trees and whatever else they could take. I knew something had to be done about all these invaders, after I caught some thieves on my own land. It had been vacant for so long, people assumed it was free for the taking. This problem with wood theft really was so out of control that in the beginning, there were eighty to one hundred boats coming in on the weekends, dozens and dozens of people on a single day! Each one intent on sneaking in and hauling logs illegally out of the forest.

So I obtained a signed, notarized document stating that I had permission to control access to the quebrada, on behalf of the entire community. Then I hired a person from the community to be my guard, as he would know who was from the community and who wasn’t. I paid him a good monthly salary, because it was essential to be able to identify people as locals or strangers. Some of the people coming up the creek were harassing me, yelling crude and insulting things, but they weren’t strangers or thieves, they were locals from the village! Not everyone in the community thought it was a good thing to have a gringo in the neighborhood.

The other thing I did was buy some guns and make sure my guard was always well-armed, night and day. A word about guns: there are no police in the jungle. You are your own police. I never owned a gun until I moved to Peru. In the jungle, it is a necessity. Without that protection, eventually you’re going to be exposed to the risk posed by people who come onto your land with guns of their own. It’s just that simple.

Finally, I hired a painter to paint a big sign, stating that we had armed guards and permission to shoot on sight, complete with a pictorial icon of a person getting shot, so even people who couldn’t read would get the message. We posted this sign prominently at the entrance of the quebrada where it was impossible to miss. And after we did that, the traffic from invaders dropped immediately from dozens every week down to maybe one or two a year. The problem virtually went away overnight.

Even with that, I wasn’t accepted by a lot of the community. And I understand, I’m a gringo on the land, I have a different way of living, and they’re not used to it, they’ve never had a gringo try to set up stake among them. And that brings me to the Sunday morning meeting where everything turned.

Each Sunday morning around 8 or 9am, the community held a public meeting to discuss whatever issues were current. I found these meetings to be largely a waste of time. Besides, we worked on the land on Sundays, and often did ceremonies on Saturdays, so it was inconvenient for me to attend, although I was expected to either go in person or send a representative.

Meanwhile, the mayor was talking behind my back, sending nasty verbal messages through the locals, little birds coming to chirp that we’re going to fine you for not attending, little threats like that. It was just a situation like, how are we going to get money out of this gringo? We’ll fine him! I said to the little birds, I won’t talk to the mayor unless he sends me a signed, hand-written message with my name on it. If you want me to come, you have to give me a signed invitation. And so they did that.

I talked to my lawyer about it, and he said I was on private property. So long as the community is not indigenous, I wasn’t legally obligated to attend any of these meetings, and they couldn’t legally enforce a fine.

Armed with this information, I went to the meeting that Sunday with my wife and my child. I planned my words carefully in advance, so I would know exactly what to say in the heat of the moment, facing a roomful of villagers, some of whom had been publicly denouncing me. When I got up to speak, it was obvious that they were all charged up to harass the gringo. I began by talking about how we all faced a common problem, and pointed out the money I had personally invested in order to deal with it.

“I’ve spent a lot of money on this already, for example to hire an artist to paint these signs, warning people not to come into this territory,” I began.

How much did you pay? They wanted to know. I told them. And then they laughed. They were making fun of me for spending that much money on a sign.

“But if you don’t spend that much, so it looks professional, no one will take you seriously,” I said.

At that moment, what I really needed was for them to take me seriously.

So I said, “Who here feels safer now, because I have put up signs and bought guns and hired armed guards from your own community to police this area? Are people still tearing your trees down? How many people come onto your land now?”

There was a silence in the room as that sunk in. Then one man, a guy who had been one of the ones harrassing me before, spoke up.

“No one,” he said. “I have not had any problems since then.”

“Me neither,” another man said. “I don’t have invaders anymore.”

Then all at once, they collectively understood that the money the gringo was spending actually was benefiting the entire community, and the whole energy changed. They had to admit that the problem had more or less gone away. And they said, he’s exonerated from these meetings, we’re not going to fine him, and the gringo is OK.

“In fact,” I continued, “Each one of you has a right not to come to these meetings, you all have private property!” The mayor cut me off immediately. He got out a book and started reading the laws.

I said, “I don’t care what you’re reading, this doesn’t mean anything! It’s a tax system, and they make money each time you don’t come to the meeting, but you don’t actually have to pay it.” I made the mayor very nervous talking about individual rights, and once I mentioned my lawyer’s advice, he intervened and quickly changed the subject. In my opinion, this problem with meetings and taxation goes back to Fujimori, who put these meetings in place, to make sure regional authorities could keep track of what local villages were doing. They didn’t want any of these communities getting too independent.

After that Sunday morning, something shifted. As a show of goodwill, I agreed to send a rep to be there every week in my place. And we’ve never had any problems since then. They accepted me because they know who I am now, because I was willing to stand before them publicly with my Peruvian wife and child by my side to make my case, and because it’s not in their interest to mess with me. Now the whole community knows that I am a job provider, I’ve got a good business up and running, and I’m not going anywhere.

I even made a proposal to the town to raise the funds to plant coconuts along the road to the town, so people don’t have to drink sugary sodas all the time, they could drink coconut water instead. If we ever get the funds together, I’d still like to do that.

The mayor and I even started to get along after that. He was the one who made the ruling that I didn’t have to attend the meetings anymore. The mayor, you see, is also a shaman, and he had wanted me to drink ayahuasca with him for some time, but I wasn’t interested– he was too political, too slick, he had lived in different parts of Peru and knew a lot about life outside the jungle. I was wary of him–he was very charismatic, which can be a red flag with Peruvians–in my experience here, the most charismatic people are the ones to watch out for. So it was, I believed, with the mayor.

Ultimately, what really broke the ice between us was that I did drink ayahuasca with the mayor-shaman; or rather, he drank my medicine, at my place. And this veteran ayahuascero, who had worked with the medicine for decades and bragged about his ability to handle it, got rolled over by my brew and went unconscious for three hours. And I was the one tending to him. After that, I think we started to have a real understanding with each other, and there was mutual respect.

It’s funny how the people I avoided the most in the beginning are the people I’ve gotten the closest to now! The mayor is now employed as the head shaman at my retreat center, conducting regular ayahuasca ceremonies for my clients there, and he does an excellent job too.

One last observation. When I first moved onto the land, my cane field was burned. I found eleven witnesses who said it was the former owner’s cousin, who had kept an eye on the land, but never got paid for it. He wanted to scare me so that I would go away. He’s now one of my best workers. He’s the only one who will tell me in advance if he’s not coming in to work the next day! No other worker does that, they just don’t show up.

At the time, I confronted him, did you burn my cane field? I have eleven witnesses. He denied it. I said, well, because you burned the chacra where I’m going to construct a maloca, now I don’t have to do another minga! So I told him I wasn’t going to press charges, and I thanked him instead.

Tar-Babies of Iquitos

Ef you don't take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I'm gwine ter bus' you wide open.

Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open.

When I first moved to Iquitos, I was given two great pieces of advice. The first was: “there’s no reason to ever make yourself a part of anybody else’s problem.” These simple words have spared me many potential headaches. The second was this: “Never pass up the opportunity to make a friend instead of an enemy.” Many situations, whether you’re dealing with drunks or street piranhas, cops or con men or noisy neighbors, most any given situation can be turned for the better or the worse, all depending on how you handle it.
I have taken that advice to heart, and always prided myself on having no enemies in Iquitos, a place where trust is the rarest commodity of all, and where the lingering resentment of business dealings gone sour continues to smolder for years and years. You can almost smell it in the air, like a distant pile of burning tires. Take, for example, the Golf Wars. The first Golf War was a conflict between two sets of gringos involving the Fitzcarraldo-esque creation of a golf course in the jungle; a conflict that continues to this day, although it has largely become a Cold War. The Second Golf War was the attempt of some of these same gringos to build another golf course in partnership with some Peruvians and get it right the second time, but it too ended with the very same bitterness and acrimony that characterized the first conflict.
For years I’ve wanted to write a long non-fiction piece about the Golf Wars, but it would have made life too hard for me. Some very uncomfortable truths were going to come out, as each side accused the other of being the bad guys. I have a pretty good idea of who the bad guys really are, but as someone seeking to live in peace with my family, writing about the Golf Wars would have violated both rules at once– in a truthful telling of the tale, I would have made enemies, and I would have made myself a part of someone else’s problem. So the real story will probably remain untold until some other writer, one who does not live here, attempts to tell the tale.
For my part, I will only say that it’s a textbook example of how business deals between friends can go pear-shaped, and result in thousands of dollars in lawsuits, wasted time and wasted energy, and permanent grudges between people that were once friends.  They might as well have flushed all that money down the toilet–at least then the lawyers wouldn’t have gotten it. I used to joke that it’s a story that deserves to be taught in MBA programs as a cautionary tale. But the truth is, there is no classroom or syllabus that can prepare a gringo for how to do business in Peru. The place itself is the classroom.
I’m just painting the scenery here so you can appreciate the nature of the tar-baby–to be sure, each of the businessmen in the example above have their own tar-baby to contend with. In the classic Joel Chandler Harris story, Br’er Fox makes a model of a rabbit out of turpentine and tar, and leaves it on the road to exploit the stubborn pride of Br’er Rabbit, who is offended when the tar-baby does not return his greeting. Angered and confused by the rude silence of the tar-baby, he throws a punch. But the more he punches the tar-baby, the worse he is entangled. The tar-baby has become emblematic of any problem that is only aggravated by engaging it. By addressing it at all, you only make more of an intractable mess. With a tar-baby, there’s nothing to be done. Try to fight, try to be nice, nothing’s going to work. All you can do is ignore it.
In fact, there are versions of the tar-baby tale from all around the world, and the earliest appears to come from Africa. I want to note that in the American South, the term tar-baby has also been used as a racial slur, even though there’s no latent racism in the Br’er Rabbit tale. (Br’er Rabbit’s problem with the tar-baby is not one of discrimination, it’s about pride and ego– it’s not that the tar-baby looks different, it’s that he looks so much the same, Br’er Rabbit is fooled into being offended by a perceived lack of social graces!) It was used by ignorant whites to slur black people, probably because it just sounds offensive. I am aware of this second connotation, but I’m only interested in the original meaning here.
My friend Bo Keely recently compared corrupt cops in Peru to tar-babies. And he is certainly right about that. I’ve also been making this analogy for some time now, and it deserves a few more examples, so others that follow will not make the mistake of the throwing that fatalistic first punch that only gets one further stuck in.
And that brings me to the first person in Iquitos who ever declared me to be an Enemy. That would be Ricky Dix, a misanthropic snake farmer from Minnesota who has lived in a shipping container in the jungle for nearly thirty years.
Ricky was also one of the people involved in the first Golf War. It was upon his land that the golf course was built. He had been living out there, several kilometers out of town off a dirt track from the main road, for decades, in a metal shipping container. Back then, a few decades ago, that area was a truly remote place. For a lone gringo to choose to set up camp so far away from everything appears to be nothing short of self-elected exile. He is there to this day, although he’s come up in the world– besides growing snakes and rats for fun and profit, he also has a second shipping container now. You know, for storage.
One day, Corrina and Maverick and I were headed out to the golf course for a social function. They were having a barbecue out there, and we had been invited. We encountered Ricky on the road in front of the golf course. When he learned we were going there, he became apoplectic. I’ll quote as directly as I remember it:
“You’re going where? Why would you want to associate yourself with those thieves? You realize they stole that place from me? And you want to support that? Well, you are really showing me what kind of man you are. I thought you were a decent person, but if you drive up that driveway right now, you’re showing me your true character, that you have no integrity. And I’m putting you on my enemies list, and will consider you an enemy from now on. So go on, make your choice, I’m going to stand right here and watch you, and see what your decision is, what kind of man you really are.”
My response was to tell him that this was not healthy or normal behavior. And I said that I did not appreciate him threatening me and my family. When he heard that, you could see the gears spinning, envisioning his exposure to future denuncias and lawyerly complaints, because he was in fact standing there threatening me, red-faced and ranting in the road like a crazy person. I could see his self-awareness click in, and he regained his composure. He reiterated that I should not go to the golf course, and he turned and walked away. I watched him the whole while into the distance, to see if he would turn around. He did not. We went on to the golf course, and we had a lovely afternoon there. I didn’t mention what had happened to the hosts or anyone else. Why make yourself a part of anybody else’s problem?
A few weeks later, I saw Ricky at the lawyer’s office, of all places. We shared the same attorney at the time. I came out of the office and he was sitting in the waiting room. I greeted him as a civilized person would, but he only stared back. He was giving me the silent treatment. I told him that I had no bad feelings towards him and I hoped he would feel the same. He stared at me mutely with death-ray eyes projecting pure and sullen resentment my way. He reminded me of myself, when I was thirteen. I was civil towards him nonetheless, though privately I was reminded of a line from the Bard, in Henry IV part 2: “how ill white hairs become a fool and jester!”  Which is to say, it’s undignified for an old man to act immature.
Several times after that, for months afterwards, I greeted Ricky whenever I saw him, but he would not speak to me. Despite his silence, I wasn’t tricked into throwing a punch of any kind. Being civil and respectful went nowhere, and being a hater was only going to drag me down to where he appeared to dwell, in the basement of resentment and dark thoughts, and those crippling underworld fantasies where the vision of your enemies suffering terribly is the only thing that keeps you going. Sticky indeed, the touch of the tar-baby.
There are a few rumors about Ricky that have circulated for years around town. One is that he is an ex-CIA clean-up man, who was sent in to eliminate witnesses and evidence in the immediate aftermath of classified paramilitary operations, and that when he started losing his marbles, he was given early retirement and sent off into obscurity. That’s all nonsense. Though Ricky, to his credit, never confirmed or denied the rumor. Given the opportunity, why not build up one’s personal mythology? Might keep the locals from messing with you, if they think you’re dangerous. I’d probably do the same.
One day recently, I had a conversation with another old-school gringo jungle rat who has been out there in the jungle, living off the carretera outside of Iquitos, for just as long as Ricky, back when they were the only two gringos out there. And he told me that Ricky was in fact a conscientious objector from Vietnam. And if that’s the case, then perhaps I have misjudged him.
He also told me that back when Ricky first moved into his shipping container, he helped with the interior decorating. They lined the walls with cedar, to discourage cockroaches, and helped him assemble mahogany beds so he would have a decent place to sleep. Mahogany furniture in a jungle shipping container! That’s real industrial chic if I ever heard it.
So while I offer Ricky Dicks as my example of a tar-baby, time has revealed his situation to be more nuanced that I understood at first. Back when we were speaking, we had some interesting conversations about history and other subjects. He’s widely read and a very bright guy. There are many other tar-babies in Iquitos, Peruvian and gringo, who are far worse. The key to avoiding a tar-baby, I have learned, is to know one when you see one, and some of the ones I am thinking of have many excellent disguises.
It’s been awhile since I’ve seen Ricky, so I don’t know if the silent treatment is still in effect (it’s been over a year) or if he still considers me an enemy. But if he ever reads this, I’d like to point out that the person who first gave me that great piece of advice about never making yourself a part of someone else’s problem, was Ricky himself, when I first moved to Iquitos.  He did try to make me a part of his problem, that day on the road outside the golf course, but in doing so he underscored the importance of his advice even more. And now that I’ve spun all this out, I think it’s time to let it all go and forget about it. So please, whatever you do, just don’t throw me into the briar patch!

Sax Education: Gerald Mayeaux, Brian the Con Man, and How a Vintage Jazz Saxophone Got Stuck In The Purgatory Of A Gringo Business Deal

Brian McCarron, the most prolific small-time con man in Iquitos' history

Brian McCarron, the most prolific small-time con man in Iquitos history

You remember Brian, right? The British con man and drug addict who hunts for unsuspecting tourists along the streets of downtown Iquitos, spinning sad yarns and begging for a few soles. I saw him just the other day, near Plaza de Armas, looking pretty rough and strung out. I’ve put up warning posters around town, and he sometimes comes into Ari’s Burger to rip it off the wall, before running away. This tells me that my little public service ad campaign must be making a dent in his take-home pay…

That it’s Ari’s Burger where this has been happening is funny in itself, because Ari also has a brand new hotel just down the street. A few months ago, some of Ari’s family members, who didn’t know who Brian was (although they should have) were fooled by his performance as a proper Englishman temporarily down on his luck, and they offered him a room in the new hotel as a place to stay for a few days! Brian was in heaven. He smoked his pasta up there in the air conditioning, with cable TV, great views of the city, ordering room service whenever he felt like it.

That only lasted a few days, though, before the word got back to Ari himself, and when the next knock came at the door, it wasn’t room service, it was Ari’s security staff, stopping by to kick his ass out.

If you read this blog, then you might remember this profile of Brian I wrote awhile back. If you haven’t read it, it’s worth a few minutes as a primer to the backdrop of weirdness and depravity against which this story plays out.

Yes Doc, but will I still be able to play like Charlie Parker?

Yes Doc, but will I still be able to play like Charlie Parker?

For years, Brian has been conning tourists for a few dollars, crashing in crackhouses, and living a life dedicated to a crippling addiction to pasta-base cocaine. His four children back in England will likely never know their father, or what a disgrace he’s made of his life. You might think a guy like that doesn’t care about anything. But he does. When I interviewed Brian for the blog article above, and I suggested that eventually he might turn up dead in some back alley of Iquitos, he responded that he was indeed going to leave Iquitos someday, but he wasn’t leaving until he recovered his saxophone from Gerald Mayeaux.

Gerald, the owner of the “Yellow Texas” restaurant (as La Region, the Iquitos paper of record, recently referred to it) is a well known character around town. This is his first appearance on the blog, and I am using his real name, because I think Gerald would want everyone to know that he got the better of Brian on a business deal–the only deal Brian ever really cared about during his time in Iquitos.

Years ago, Brian and his mate from England, who I’ll call Noel, were making lots of money in England and would come to Iquitos once in awhile for vacation. Sometimes they went out to the jungle to drink ayahuasca, other times they were partying and throwing lots of money around on sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. There’s a lot of both going on in Iquitos, sometimes in the same week–a big detox in the jungle, followed by a re-tox in the city, rinse and repeat.

Ultimately, Brian’s life went one way, and Noel’s went another–one day the vacation came to an end and Noel got back on the plane for England, but Brian chose to stay behind in the streets of Iquitos, where he remains to this day. Noel later went on to find success trading in the import/export business, and he still comes to Iquitos sometimes, although he and Brian are no longer friends. I consider Noel to be a friend, however, and he is the one who told me how this whole sordid saxophone saga got started.

She was a diamond in the rough.

She was a diamond in the rough.

Before coming to Iquitos, Brian and Noel were bumming around in Hong Kong, when they managed to fake their way into construction jobs helping to build the Hong Kong airport. Noel landed a sweet gig as a night supervisor, driving around in an air conditioned truck, while Brian was stuck busting concrete and gophering equipment around in the scorching heat. After they’d saved enough money to move on, they decided to head to South America. Noel told me that they weren’t above nicking the odd low hanging fruit once in awhile. As, for example, when Noel held Brian suspended by his ankles and hanging over the other side of the Sony electronics counter at the Hing Kong airport, at a moment when the attendant had stepped away, so Brian could snag a brand new digital camcorder from behind the glass counter. A couple of cheeky monkeys were this pair, back then.

According to Noel, Brian acquired this sax at about the same time. Brian has always sworn that it belonged to his grandfather, and it’s a family heirloom, which is why he wants it back so badly, but Noel tells another version.

To really appreciate Noel’s version of the origins of the sax, you have to know what happened to it once it came to Iquitos. As Brian became more desperate for money, he approached Gerald one day, ready to cut a deal. But Gerald’s wife had recently loaned Brian a hundred dollars, and Gerald wanted to get the money back. So he loaned Brian another three hundred dollars, and held the sax in hock, with the agreement that Brian would return to England and bring back a replacement sax, as well as a violin (?!), in payment of this debt before Gerald would return the original sax.

No doubt it really did pain Brian to give it up for hock, because he had been playing jam sessions and entertaining the dinner crowds at La Noche, and was by all accounts a very talented player. In fact, the very first time Brian approached me on the street, he cited the loss of this sax (saying it was stolen from him) as part of his story of trouble and woe. My friend, who also happened to play the sax, perked up when she heard him say that it wasn’t just any sax, it was a Selmer Mark VI from 1954–a rare and iconic model, the Stradivarious of saxophones, and the instrument of choice for many of the great jazz musicians from the mid-fifties onwards: Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Branford Marsalis, the list goes on and on.

Later I asked Noel about this, and he said it was true. It was a very valuable instrument. I looked it up, and then went to talk to Gerald myself. He had been holding onto this thing for two years already, and still expected Brian to uphold his end of the deal. I was quite a bit more flush in those days myself, and I offered Gerald a thousand dollars cash, on the spot, for the sax. He mumbled something about needing to dig it out of storage, and he never did take me up on my offer. He was adament that Brian would still return to honor their bargain.

Two more years passed, and Brian never returned to close the deal. In that time, by his own admission, he had earned far more than enough money by hustling tourists to buy back the sax, had he bothered to save any of it. Instead, he insisted, on principle, on giving away everything he didn’t need at the end of the day, and starting out fresh each morning with not even a dime in his pocket.

About that time, I did the interview with Brian for the blog, and he asked me to find out the fate of his sax, as he still intended to get it back. I went to Gerald, only to learn that he had just given it to a missionary and his music teacher wife to take back to the States for a full analysis by experts.

Then last week, I saw Gerald again, and by this time, having consulted professionals, he knew its true value. Almost. A Selmer Mark VI from April 1954, made in the first months of the first year they were in production, commands large prices on the secondary market. The condition has a great deal to do with it, and how much is original vs. the quality and extent of restoration. With a thousand dollars invested in refurbishing it, Gerald says his could sell at auction for up to twenty grand. I checked it out on eBay, and found that a flawlessly preserved 1958 Mark VI model was listed on Ebay this week at $19,500, and a 1954 version very similar to Gerald’s was listed at $13,500.

So once Gerald finally knew what he really had on his hands, I understood why Brian wanted it back so badly–it was his last, desperate meal ticket out of town. But at this point four years had gone by since they struck their deal, and Gerald said the deal was off, he was keeping the sax to sell in the States.

That’s when I decided to tell Gerald the rest of what I knew about it. Noel had once told me that, while visiting the Hard Rock Cafe in Hong Kong, Brian had stolen the sax from a glass display case that claimed this saxophone had belonged to none other than the legendary Charlie Parker. If that’s true, it makes this Selmer sax worth more than I could begin to estimate–even more than money, it would be an irreplaceable treasure, an artifact in the history of jazz akin to the Holy Grail. Or better yet, Gabriel’s trumpet, if such an item ever came up for auction…

But I also know that Noel himself is not above spinning a good-natured tall tale or two, and fudging facts on occasion, and it’s more likely he told me all this just to add an element mystique and glamour to the whole affair. It could well have been stolen from the Hard Rock Cafe, could well have belonged to a famous jazz musician. But it was probably not Charlie Parker who ever played it. Parker died March 12, 1955, while the Mark VI in question was manufactured in April 1954, less than a year before his death. Plus, while Parker is known to have played other Selmer models, the Mark VI did not come into fashion until after his death, and he is not known to have ever played it publicly except under the most fleeting and transient circumstances.

The real parallel here, the one that sneaks up and strikes a minor chord of sadness and pathos, is that Charlie Parker, even after he was famous, sometimes pawned his saxes to buy heroin when he was short on money. His addiction to heroin was so profound that he often played borrowed or second hand saxes until he could recover his from the pawn shop. In this, at least, Brian the Con Man and Charlie Parker really do have something in common with Selmer saxophones.

Whatever the case, I related all these facts to Gerald, which he noted with great interest, saying that he intended to contact the Hard Rock Cafe corporate offices to see if he could finally verify the full story of its provenance. Good for him, I hope he does. And I will report any such findings here on the blog immediately.

As for Brian, I told him the sax was long gone. He was crushed. Maybe the loss will spur him to find other worthwile reasons to get out of Iquitos someday, back to a better kind of life and a family waiting in hock for him on the other side of an ocean.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers