Restlessness in Paradise: Planning for Iquitos

I am reminded of a discussion by Alan Watts about how boring heaven must be if it is actually like a Sunday morning in church. Hell must certainly be at least more stimulating, he wisely opines. I think of this as my friends and I sit around in the evening planning a trip to the Amazon. I’ve read enough blogs to recognize that a certain hellishness accompanies the overwhelming stimulation of the river and the jungle. But when the much vaunted view from our window of the old cathedral yields to a flashing sign of a hat on an old building, ennui has set in. My friend Marcel found such fascination in the neon last night. It was like being in the third pew at church counting the hairs in the old man’s ears in front of you.

So the three of us sit in a spacious apartment, eating well, drinking well, and spending out days at museums and markets. And spending out evenings charting out the next adventure. My French friends, Marcel and Veronique, have the splendidly civilized habit of stopping at 6:30 PM for drinks and snacks, and socializing. These days the socializing revolves around plans for Iquitos and Lagunas and the Pacaya Samiria Reserve.


Veronique is the navigator, starting with many hours with maps and research. She has come up with what seems like the best tour, Huayruro Tours Lagunas. which provides a guide and a small wooden boat. We stay in little refugios and sleep in hammocks. We should see Piranhas and lots of other wildlife, including, of course, the arachnas. The guides are a local family who spend most of their time working in the reserve as conservators.



We get to the reserve after a few day trip on a cargo boat, again sleeping in hammocks. We’ll spend three days or so in Iquitos, not using ayahuasca. I have romantic imaginings about the place-if I were more cashed up I would stay at the La Casa Fitzcaraldo, where the current owner is the daughter of Herzog’s executive producer. But imaginings will have to do. I understand the city is actually quite gritty and dangerous, maybe more so than the jungle. I’ve read that to go into the Belen market, it is best to take a guide just for security. The Amazon river itself starts at Iquitos. I’m considering a later trip from there across Brazil on the Amazon. But we’ll see how I survive the swelter of Iquitos.


So we plan. It is a most un-zenlike activity, forever in the future, and only on occasion looking up and out the window to the glorious present. Cuenca really provides a cozy sort of loveliness that allows us to bask in our plans.





The Tale of the Shrunken Heads and Headhunters

In the depths of the wilds of Amazonia, amidst the dark and dangerous creatures, lurks the most dangerous of them all, the headhunters. Godless creatures preyed on each other for food and shrunken trophies, until the civilizing and christianizing Spanish heroes braved forward.

Or so the narrative goes. In reality, this practice of head shrinking was exclusive to the the “northwestern region of the Amazon rain forest,[1] and the only tribes known to have shrunken human heads are of the Jivaroan tribes. These include the Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna tribes, found in Ecuador and Peru. The Shuar call a shrunken head a tsantsa,[2] also transliterated tzantza.”

The practice of preparing shrunken heads originally had religious significance; shrinking the head of an enemy was believed to harness the spirit of that enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker. It was said to prevent the soul from avenging his death.[4]

Shuar believed in the existence of three fundamental spirits:

  • Wakani – innate to humans thus surviving their death.
  • Arutam – literally “vision” or “power”, protects humans from a violent death.
  • Muisakvengeful spirit, which surfaces when a person carrying an arutam spirit is murdered.

To block a Muisak from using its powers, they severed their enemies’ heads and shrank them. The process also served as a way of warning their enemies. Despite these precautions, the owner of the trophy did not keep it for long. Many heads were later used in religious ceremonies and feasts that Ethe victories of the tribe. Accounts vary as to whether the heads would be discarded or stored.

I must admit to not having given much thought to headhunters before coming to Ecuador. After having seen many of the Canari people in villages and cities, I would certainly not equate them with the “savages” encountered by the Spanish peace lovers, at whose hand 50% of the indigenous population were enslaved, and, according to scholar Linda A. Newson, “depopulation ranged from approximately 72-95%; and that total population declined from approximately 1,500,000 to approximately 217,000 by the end of the sixteenth century.”(source) Newson’s study “provides a graphic and devastating picture of what conquest means for the vanquished, how it virtually destroyed every indigenous group with which it came in contact.”

So, what does this, which is not news to a lot of people, have to do with headhunting? Head shrinking  was a practice of dealing with an enemy by controlling the soul of the dead opponent. The subjects were not sought solely for the purpose of shrinking heads. That is until Europeans arrived and started purchasing, or trading for, them for museums and “private collections.”

Tsantsa, the shrunken heads

A shrunken head exhibited at the Museum of the Americas in Madrid.
Tsantsa or shrunken head.

In the 19th century muraiya Shuar became famous among Europeans and Euro-Americans for their elaborate process of shrinking the heads of slain Achuar. Although non-Shuar characterized these shrunken heads (tsantsa) as trophies of warfare, Shuar insisted that they were not interested in the heads themselves and did not value them as trophies. Instead, they sought the muisak, or soul of the victim, which was contained in and by the shrunken head. Shuar men believed that control of the muisak would enable them to control their wives’ and daughters’ labor.[3][4]

Since women cultivated manioc and made chicha (manioc beer), which together provided the bulk of calories and carbohydrates in the Shuar diet, women’s labor was crucial to Shuar biological and social life. In the late 19th century and early 20th century Europeans and Euro-Americans began trading manufactured goods, including shotguns, asking in return for shrunken heads. The result was an increase in local warfare, including head hunting, that has contributed to the perception of the Shuar as violent.[3][4] In 1961 Edmundo Bielawski made the only footage showing what appears to be their head-shrinking process. (Source)


Headhunting became a commercial practice to satisfy the demand of collectors, museums, and even tourists into the 20th century.” At the end of the 1800s, Westerns had created an economic demand for shrunken heads. They became valuable for trade, collectors and to supply tourists. This created a huge increase in the rate and number of killings.” (s0urce)

Hold a shrunken head in your hand like a grapefruit, smell its old leather scent, then close your eyes, and you can almost hear the war drums beating and the shrieks as warriors are cut down and triumphantly beheaded. The smell is a trifle disappointing because you expect smoke from cooking fires or even a trace of the hallucogenics that transported shadowy figures far beyond the Amazon.
It’s all thanks to Billy Jamieson, a beguiling mix of collector, showman and enthusiastic salesman. He saved the museum as it disintegrated into leaky shabbiness, and in the process of financing its purchase sold mummies and coffins for $2 million U.S. to an Atlanta museum. (source)

The notion that colonized peoples were savages and heathens was necessary for the joint project of colonialism and Catholic evangelism. Shrunken heads would surely have confirmed the European notion of the savagery of the Andean and Amazonian peoples, even though there was a spiritual dimension to the practice. In fact, it became an aggressive and systematic practice after the civilized Europeans started collecting heads for decorative and entertainment purposes.


The projection of savagery and evil onto the “exotic others” as a means of exorcising one’s own intrinsic darkness, and the ability of the colonialist explorers and the Catholic Church  to use this projection to justify the practices of domination and exploitation around the globe was a central feature of colonialism. The creation of a market for human heads provides a glimpse of the hypocrisy of these European exploiters.


For further reading:

Linda A. Newson. Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. xii + 505 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-2697-5.





Haunched over the garbage heap ravaged by crows, a naked wraith of a man. Look around, no Jesus, no Allah, just the circling raptor passing a jaundiced eye.

On my last day in Bangladesh, on the hour ride through the traffic, people and detritus of Chittagong, on an appropriately rain drenched day, I saw him. There was a man, not a shred of clothing, washed at the moment by a heavy steady shower, bent down beside a pile of garbage taller than he. A crow sat atop the assortment of trash so useless after the multitude of pickings garbage gets on the way to the street that only the one crow and the destitute man showed any interest.

I tried to imagine how that man was as human as I. He had had a mother and father, who may even have had hopes and dreams for him. Perhaps he once had had a lungi and some taka, had taken tea on the street corner with friends. He may have once been a laborer, or a rickshaw driver. Even in Bangladesh you cannot grow to be a man without the minimum of support and nurturing. In Bangladesh, that would include, most likely, some basic Islam. It would have to included at least a lot of rice along the way.

Yet here he was with nobody caring enough to lend a lungi or another plate of rice. He scraped at the side of the pile of garbage searching for a bit of something-something that still could pass for food. Anything else, anything to be bartered or transformed into a few taka, had been retrieved somewhere between the households and this tall mound at the end of the street. What hadn’t the dogs and birds gotten already?

This image has resonated in my mind now for the near year since we silently drove past it. It reminded me of how helpless we all are without each other, and how we are just naked animals without society. And how much society can utterly fail.The exquisite vulnerability of us all without each other.

I long for and mourn for Bangladesh.


Great Travel Advice-Really

Here is another of those list articles that I often just pass by. But this one had lots of good advice that I haven’t seen before. As a very seasoned traveler, I learned a lot from it: Like looking for airline tickets in a private browser (the travel sites know you are looking, and prices go up accordingly).

Some I know, but it is worth a reminder, for example, don’t over-plan your trip. When I find myself wanting to do everything, I remind myself that the world is very large, and you cannot see everything. I would love to go to the Galapagos, but it is beyond my budget. There are 52 churches in Cuenca, a representative sampling will do. I saw a couple in Salento waste their whole down-time there planning for the next week of their journey, pretty much hour by hour! Meanwhile, some very interesting people were sharing travel stories and beers.

There is the usual packing advice, but it is, again, worth being reminded that whatever you pack you will be carrying yourself. Over cobblestone streets. Sometimes at 4 AM. In the 21st century, whatever you need or forgot to pack can be found where you are going. Since I am on a long journey (at least a year) I ended up with two bags, one a good backpack with wheels, and one a duffle that morphed into a suitcase along the way. As an experiment, I sorted my bags at one point and put things seldom used in one bag and the frequently used stuff in the good backpack (it has wheels als0, for long hauls not over cobblestones). I have traveled for weeks now without opening the second bag. It will not be leaving Cuenca with me. Some things I’ll send back to the US, some I will give away.

One added word of advice about bookings is to be sure you have heard back directly from the hotel/hostel/airbnb before arriving there. Arriving exhausted at the end of a day’s travel to find no room at the inn is really painful. This happened to me at my last Airbnb reservation. Reduced to exhausted tears, I finally hit a bed 4 hours later.

So, here is a list worth browsing:

15 Things You Need To Know Before You Travel

written by Kaelyn DavisMay 4, 2016

Ecuadorian Markets: Adventures in Food and People

The markets in Ecuador have a special pan-seasonal range of products because we are at the equator, and there is an altitude for every growing zone. Tropical fruits and veges come up from the lowlands, and beautiful sea food from the shores just 150 km away. Being high in the mountains, root vegetables, fresh herbs and temperate climate flowers overflow the stalls, interspersed with more exotic flaura I don’t recognize. Fruits also span the climate zones, with mangoes, bananas and fruits I don’t recognize nestled alongside pears and berries.


But the queen produce of the markets is potatoes. There are thousands of varieties of potatoes in the Andes, and only a fraction make it to the market. The other day I bought some tiny white finger potatoes that were speckled with rosy red. After I cleaned them, I cut them in half, and the kitchen was filled with fragrance! These little tater tots smelled like pure clean earth. Cooking them filled the house with this warm perfume. They never became soft, retaining just a light crunch after plenty of cooking. They tasted as earthy as they smelled. What marvels!




Other potatoes have different qualities, of course, and a soup may contain 3 or 4 varieties. A yellowish medium sized potato dissolves and gives body, and can be used to thicken any number of dishes. The rosy crunchy papas give texture and color (not to mention aroma!). Another type gives flavor. I like the tiny red ones for their taste.



Onions also come in a variety of colors and flavors, and stages of maturity. I love the little ones just forming bulbs for salads. My housemate and I disagreed on which to use yesterday for guacamole-she wanted red, but I went for the sweeter taste of white. She doesn’t like chiles in her guacamole, so the red adds color and a bit of sharpness. I like chiles, and there is a little round red one here with black seeds that gives great color and bite. We ended up with 2 guacamoles.

Speaking of chiles, there is a very small variety here, and only a couple of fiery ones. Ecuadorians don’t cook spicy hot food, but will serve a aji (chili) sauce at the table. It isn’t very hot, and it has a soft sweet balance with the use of slivered onions and tamarillo (tree tomato). I want to work on making my own aji to taste to serve with tamales.


tree tomato

tomato tree

Throughout Latin America I have encountered a generous variety of tamales. Even the leaves they are cooked in vary. In Mexico and New Mexico, corn husks are generally used, though in the more tropical regions of Mexico you can find banana leaves wrapped firmly around the corn masa. In Ecuador, I have been told the leaf is from the haliconia, but at a market yesterday the vendor said the leaves were from something else. The filling have likewise varied. I am especially fond of blue corn tamales found in New Mexico and Mexico, but mostly one finds yellow or white corn. The masa (flour) and cooking techniques vary too, resulting in tamales that are sometimes smooth and light as a feather, or dense with some texture. Finally, tamales can be filled with everything from a little farmer’s cheese to a half of a chicken. I encountered the later in restaurants in Colombia. Big pieces, bone in, of chicken with potatoes and vegetables wrapped in huge banana leaves, each one a plate-sized breakfast. I plan to experiment with tamales, as they seem infinitely versatile.

colombian tamales

When I went to the Saturday market here in Cuenca, I saw large bouquets of herbs. I recognized amaranth and a couple of others, but most were a mystery. Yesterday at the  country market we asked and were told they were all medicinal. I’ve read that the Andean people know the varieties and uses of all the growing things for your health.


Markets are where you learn the most about people and culture, I think. At a village market yesterday we came across what is probably the most well-known Ecuadorian food-Cuy. Most people in the US and Europe know cuy as Guinea pig, and as a small big-eyed pet scampering in a cage. Here it is much bigger and not as cute, at all. Cuy is traditionally staple form of protein in the Andes. I expected to see it more often in the markets and streets, but the first time I saw it in any quantity was in this village. I’m pretty much an omnivore, but when I saw the preparation and roasting of it, I was utterly turned off. I never had one as a pet, so I don’t imagine it with a charming face. This is not the reason for my distaste. In fact, the cuy on the grill have truly evil faces. I think I would be afraid to set into one.

The other creepy food we encountered in another village was huge grubs, the sort that are the center of an eating challenge on the Survivor television show. I think they are eaten alive, but they may also be cooked on the grill. They are an Amazonia food found in the base of a palm tree. I haven’t gotten past my aversion to eating insects, though I rationally know it is a good idea in terms of nutrition and the environment. But if I imagine a grill of cuy and grubs when tempted by some high calorie treat, I think I will be saved from indulgence. I have posted the pictures at the end of this post with a “trigger warning,” (Ha!) so you can decide if you wish to see them.

Many times yesterday I had older Ecuadorian men, in suit jackets and brimmed hats, greet me with a big grin, a handshake, and probably every English word they knew. We clearly were not seen as interlopers. It was easy to share a laugh with the women selling their goods (when looking for mutton I sent a half dozen women into hysterics when mimicked a sheep, baaaaaa). Sometimes we were directly laughed at, as soon as we turned our backs, and admittedly we were a sight. Marcel is quite tall and lean, with a bald head, I am very tall by comparison to the local women, and with silver braids and my hat, a bit confusing. Veronique is shorter, but quite lean and wiry, with very short hair and a hat. Many times we were stared at, and if they had cameras, I am sure we would have been subjects for their own pictures of exoticism.


Trigger Warning: Gross Food Ahead

Grubs, eat them fresh or skewer them for the grill




The Skies of Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca lives up to the promises of colonial beauty, beautiful rivers and mountains, indigenous markets and warm culture. But what strikes me the most is the skies. With mountains in every direction, and the sea 150 km away, and equatorial temperatures, the sky is a constantly changing panorama. Sunny mornings are always fringed with clouds banking down over the surrounding peaks. Villages in the mountains are shrouded, waiting for the mid-day burn off. Afternoons most often become rainy as the cold mountain air collides with the warming sea breezes from the west.