God Might Be A Woman
I never could’ve imagined I’d be where I am at this moment, about to subject myself to this bizarre esoteric ritual. Yet here I am, deep in the Colombian rainforest near Buenavista Putumayo, a short distance from the border of Peru. The jungle is serene with a calm ambience, causing me to feel somewhat uncomfortable. Whenever it seems too quiet, too tranquil, one can easily let their guard down. In my experience, it’s often a sign that something is about to go wrong.
At times like this, I always take extra precautions, so of course I have to question what I’m doing here with Johnny Rico, my partner in pandemonium. He seems a bit apprehensive to participate in this Inga Indian ritual himself, which I find strangely out of character for him. Usually any event of considerable risk with unfavourable odds, sure to result in an ill-fated end, is a custom-made scenario for him to dive into.
Johnny’s nervousness has caught me off guard, especially considering this expedition was originally his own idea. Some woman he’d been involved with had challenged his machismo, announcing to a crowded bar that he didn’t have the cojones to take part in the ceremony. Naturally, this was all it took to provoke him into it, but not until he’d roped me in with him as well.
We’re waiting on the shaman (a.ka. brujo or ayahuasquero) to return from foraging for the chacruna and Banisteriopsis caapi used to brew up the ayahuasca, or yagé, a psychedelic potion used by the indigenous people of the Amazon. Its potency as an hallucinogen is said to be intense.
“Bigotes,” Johnny says, “come with to the pulpería to get some more beer. All we have is water, toilet paper, marijuana and cigarettes.”
“Johnny, what happened to the six pack I bought this morning on the drive here?”
“It got drinked carnal. You had some didn’t you?”
“Oh sure. I drank one fucking beer and of course you drank the other five.”
“They was getting warm. I had to drink them.”
“I really don’t think you should be drinking right now,” I attempt to dissuade him. “You’re going to get high enough from the yagé and probably even vomit, get diarrhea and who knows what else.” I know there’s no reasoning with him but I continue. “We were told to purge and not to eat or drink anything beforehand.”
“Just a couple of beers, Bigotes. I must have to relax, I’m a little nervous, and I don’t want to go by myself.”
“Rico, stop with your bullshit. With all the shit we’ve been through together, the narrow escapes, cheating death, staring the devil straight in the face, I’ve never seen you nervous. Except for once, when you had to go to the dentist for a broken tooth and you passed out in the waiting room. You were more than nervous, you were terrified.”
“See, why you have to remember that story? You know la dentista loves to give people pain. They scare me very much, sí. But then you make me watch that movie with running guy where Nazi man drill and pull his teeth. I don’t remember name of movie.”
“Oh ya, Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman, great movie.”
Johnny gives me a punch in my arm and smiles.
“You are never to tell no one that story ever! You understand Bigotes?”
“Johnny, it’s already an entry in my book that I’m going to write someday.”
“Please Bigotes, let us go get some more beers.”
I give in to his request and we start back down the path along the Putumayo River. It’s a two kilometer trek to the pueblo where the bus had originally dropped us off. There’s only one large building and it serves as a multi-purpose grocery store, clothing outlet, liquor store, pharmacy, clinic, and post office. It even has a hall in back where church services and other social events are held.
A group of locals are gathered outside as we approach, and Johnny barges his way through to the beer cooler without apologies.
Looking completely out of place are two gringos, standing there appearing confused.
“Hey, excuse me!” the blond kid hollers at me. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes I’m fluent in English. I was born in Chicago. Why, don’t you speak Spanish?”
“No, not very well.”
“You mean to tell me you travel to Colombia then into the jungle and don’t speak Spanish? So what travel brochure recommended you take on such an expedition?”
“Ya I know, it’s pretty stupid to not speak the local lingo, but we thought we would be able to get by. Do you know anything about the yagé ceremony and if we might be able to get in on it? My name is Jordy and my friend here is Cal. We’re from Provo Utah but we’re not Mormons.”
“Hey Jordy, Cal, I’m Santiago. Do you always mention you’re not Mormons after declaring you’re from Utah? It seems a bit contrite. Anyways, I’ll be heading back to the shaman’s shack. It’s a mile and a half hike through the jungle. I’m just waiting for my friend to return from inside the store.”
Just then, Johnny runs up grinning without having purchased anything. “Bigotes, they have the mezcal you like as your favorite! I’m going to buy it for you. We can drink it after the ceremony. I need to borrow some money. Can you lend me one hundred thousand pesos?”
“Buy for me with my money? Of course. Just hurry up, it’s going to get dark soon and I don’t want to be hiking through the jungle at night.”
I hand him some pesos and he runs back inside the pulpería.
“What have you brought as payment to the ayahuasquero?” I ask the Provo Pilgrims. “You can’t just offer up money immediately, it would be considered rude and a display of disrespect.”
“We thought we would pay him whatever he charged. We didn’t know there were rules. What did you give him?”
“We, well rightfully I, gave him an African bead necklace, a pair of Nike shoes that were a bit large but seemed to satisfy him, and a Swiss Army knife. After that, we offered him abut thirty dollars in pesos each. You guys can do your own bargaining. I’m not going to get involved.”
“Okay Bigotes,” Johnny announces upon his return. “We are ready to be going now. I get some candy for us too.”
“What the hell are you doing?” I holler as he tugs at my backpack.
“I am putting the beer and mezcal in your pack.”
“Here, you carry it,” I say while taking it off and pushing it at him.
“Okay Bigotes, why you so much mad and holler? I will pay you back the money.”
“Johnny, we’ve known one another for what, eight, nine years? During that time you have never paid me back any of the money I’ve lent you! Come to think about it, the first time we met in prison, you asked to borrow some bananas and four Ramen soups which you never paid back. There’s no way you could ever even pay me back the interest on that.”
“So what is with these gringos?” he asks, conveniently changing the subject. “They’re not coming with us! We don’t even know these muchachos. Who are you guys?” he says, turning his attention to the Provo Pilgrims.
“I’m Jordy, this is my friend Cal. Santiago offered to help us get to the shaman’s place for the yagé ceremony. Hope it’s okay with you, Johnny. That’s your name, right?”
“Ya my name is Johnny. Your friend with you, he doesn’t talk?”
“Cal is low key. He’s not the talkative type.”
“Let’s go, children,” I finally interject, “before it gets dark and the mosquitoes come out looking for supper. You coming, Rico?”
As we start back down there trail, there’s a loud thunderclap overhead with a crackling flash of lightning. And here I was hoping we wouldn’t be hampered by a rain storm. In the rainforest, it doesn’t just drizzle after all. It begins as a deluge, as if the sky itself were sliced open, pouring forth a tsunami-like wave of rain all at once.
Luckily, the dark clouds drift past over a ridge without pissing a drop on us. I consider it a positive omen, a sign that all is well and shall be.
“Hey Jordy,” I holler back over my shoulder. “What do they call a person who speaks three languages?”
“I don’t know,” he replies, “what are they called?”
“They’re called trilingual. What do they call a person who speaks two languages?”
“I get it, bilingual, right?” Cal finally speaks up.
“Welcome to the group, Cal. Yes, bilingual is correct. What do they call a person who speaks only one language?”
“Not sure Santiago. What do they call him?”
This gets a laugh out of the group, chuckling as we hike along.
“Bigotes, it is a funny joke,” Johnny says. “Did you just invent it?”
“No, it’s an old joke someone told me years ago, when I was in Italy.”
As we draw closer to the brujo’s shack, it smells like someone’s out there burning tires. The brujo has begun to cook up the yagé over an open fire. He’s using an oil drum cut in half as a cooking pot. He smiles and motions for us to sit on the tree trunks surrounding the fire. He has an assistant with him by the name of Carmen. She looks to be sixty or so, with a warm smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
As expected, Jordy and Cal look to me for some type of guidance as to how to approach the ayahuasquero.
“Brujo, I found these two wandering about the village, and they asked if they could share in the ceremony. Is it okay with you?”
“What did they bring as an offering in exchange?”
“Well boys, he wants to know what you brought him as a gift for taking part in the ceremony. What do you have? And don’t start pulling out money. Save it for last.”
“All I have is my watch, a personal progress medallion, and my New Zealand Mission ring,” Cal reluctantly answers.
“For a guy that isn’t Mormon, you sure have quite a bit of LDS jewelry. And how about you Jordy? Is there anything you would like to gift the shaman? He’s sizing you guys up.”
“Here’s my own watch and medallion. Give it to him.”
“It’s your gift to give, not mine. You both give him the items, and after he has evaluated their value, then pay him with forty dollars each. Be respectful and considerate.”
“Okay, thanks Santiago.”
Both of them reluctantly hand over their gifts. The brujo holds them up to examine them, shaking his head in disapproval.
“What’s going on Santiago?” Jordy asks. “Did we do something wrong?”
“Settle down kids, he’s just evaluating your gifts. Relax.”
The brujo asks me to tell them he needs something more to seal the deal.
“Okay rookies, now pay the man and smile. Act as though you’re sure of yourselves.”
He accepts the Provo Pilgrims’ payments then informs us that the yagé will be ready in about half an hour. Carmen nods her head in agreement, stoking the fire below with a stick.
Finally, a more serene atmosphere fills the air. It’s beginning to get dark as the night stretches its black canopy across the sky. The stars like silver glitter sparkle and flicker while poking holes through heaven’s inky cloak.
“Bigotes, where did you put the mota (marijuana)?” Johnny asks. “I can’t find it in this backpack with a thousand pockets and zippers.”
“Why must I always be the one to keep track of your shit, pendejo? Think, Johnny. I’m aware it may be a difficult concept for you to grasp, but who had the mota last?”
“You are very much gruñón (grumpy) today. But you always find answers to problems. I remember now, it is in my raincoat pocket. Si mon, here it is!” he declares. “Thanks Bigotes, I will roll a porro (joint) for us okay? Ojala (hopefully) I have sábanas (rolling papers)? Para seguro yo los tengo!” (For sure I have them!)
Pacified for now, Johnny whistles happily while he rolls a joint.
“Hey, are you guys going to speak Spanish the whole time?” Jordy asks. “We don’t understand and would appreciate knowing what’s going on.” Cal nods silently in agreement.
“First of all,” I reply, “what would you Provo Pilgrims have done if you hadn’t run into us? Secondly, not to be rude, but I’m not responsible to entertain you LDS lads out here. Lastly, you introduced yourselves on pretense you weren’t Mormons. You lied to me, which I find offensive. You assumed I was a bigot. As it turns out, it is you who is the bigot. If you knew me, you would discover I have no animosity toward anyone because of their religion. Just don’t preach your gospel to me! Now that we’ve got that issue out of the way, I believe an apology is in order.”
“You’re right Santiago,” Jordy says. “I’m sorry I misled you.”
“Not misled. Lied!’
“Okay, I lied. It won’t happen again. We truly appreciate your help. I apologize.”
“Me too,” Cal adds.
“If I may ask you a question without being intrusive, what is your reason for partaking in this ritual? Have either of you ever used psychedelic drugs before, or even smoked marijuana? It’s really none of my concern, I’m just curious why two young innocent lads are interested in this ritual.”
Jordy looks at Cal before responding.
“No, we have never done drugs,” Cal says. “I got drunk once on Peppermint Schnapps when I was like fourteen.”
“I haven’t ever done drugs either,” Jordy says. “Our reason for doing this… promise you won’t laugh or ridicule us?”
“I give you my word.”
“We have read almost everything written about yagé. We’ve done extensive research and have heard that some people have a spiritual experience during the ceremony. Well, we want to know if there is a God. We’re hoping to get an answer or find him, or for him to find us during the ceremony.”
Cal looks to Jordy for validation, then they both look back at me, waiting for my reaction.
“Let me tell you Provo Pilgrims something. That has got to be the most rational and sincere explanation for participating in this ritual I’ve ever heard. I wish you both all the best, hoping you find what you’re looking for. During your research, did you happen to come across any mention of the Beat writers having taken part in the ritual?”
“Ya but I’m not really familiar with those guys.”
“William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg wrote a book together about their experience, The Yage Letters. You guys might want to check it out.”
“Cool, thanks for not making fun of us.”
It is then that the brujo motions for us to follow him inside the hut.
“Here we go children, may the cosmos, or the Gods be accepting of our visit into their realm.”
There are a few mattresses on the floor, two hammocks, candles, a couple of lanterns and a large table in the center of the hut with the legs cut short so it is close to the floor. There’s also six or so large pails and he hands one to each of us, explaining they are to be used for vomit and/or diarrhea. Then, with a serious expression, he points toward the mattresses and hammocks, saying once you are in your place, you must stay there. No wandering around. If you need something, ask, and he or Carmen will get it for us. He directs us to sit around the table as the twinkle eyed Carmen enters with a caldron of steaming yagé.
I explain everything in English to Jordy and Cal.
“Ask him why we aren’t allowed to walk around?” Jordy suggests.
“No I won’t! This is his ceremony, and he is the ayahuasquero, so it’s his circus and he’s the ringmaster.”
The brujo shushes my diatribe with a finger to his lips. He explains we should be silent, calm, and become at peace with ourselves.
He pours the murky concoction into several glasses that have been cut from the bottoms of beer bottles. He then begins chanting in a language I’m not familiar with and spreading smoke all around us, burning what I assume to be is sage. Carmen begins singing softly with a beautiful voice. The lyrics describe a young girl that has left her home to search for answers about life and so on, and so on.
The brujo gestures for us to drink, moving his hand back and forth to his mouth.
“I’m not sure about this Santiago,” Jordy says. “Are you confident everything is going to be okay?”
“Fuck no! I’m not promising anything, but the uncertainty is the best part of the trip. Listen, I want it understood by everyone right now, I am not your guide, your coach, your lifeline or your babysitter. Don’t burden me with your doubts, your fears, or anything requiring me to assist you with making sense of your reality. I’m here to enjoy the experience myself. Do you understand?”
“Sorry Santiago,” Jordy says. “Just feeling a little unsure and frightened I guess.”
“I don’t know about this,” Cal adds. “I’ve heard people have died from drinking this shit, but…”
Still in mid sentence, he snatches up the yagé and slams it down in one huge gulp.
“I have to say that was unexpected,” I comment.
“Figured if I drank it, Jordy would have to do it too.”
And then, right on cue, Jordy slams his own yagé as well.
Having seen the boys through, I turn my attention to Johnny.
“You heard what I told them?” I ask. “It applies to you as well.”
“Why you need to be so much a mean person? We are friends that take care of each other.”
“I’m glad you see it that way. When do you start taking care of me?”
“Salud Bigotes,” he says, tapping my glass with his. “You are more than family. I’m lucky to have someone like you for my friend.”
We both pour the concoction down our throats. I start to gag a bit from the earthy taste of it, like wood, dirt, and leaves all mixed together with the consistency of 30-weight oil. It was as though I were drinking the very jungle itself.
“Bigotes, that tasted horrible… It was like my sister’s cooking! Well, talvez (maybe) a little better. She is not a good cook. You remember?”
“Yes, I do.”
I give my carnal a fist bump as he comes in to give me a hug.
“We will be fine, you think Bigotes?”
“Yes my carnal, we will be fine. Enjoy yourself, Johnny. I’m here if you need me.”
Meanwhile, Jordy and Cal retire to their mattresses near the door, and I take one of the hammocks in the back of the hut.
I close my eyes, telling myself to relax. The brujo sits in the middle of the room, chanting and spreading more sage smoke with some kind of large, colorful feathers.
I estimate thirty, maybe forty-five minutes have passed before I begin to feel the effects of the yagé taking control of my body, commanding my senses to submit, persuading my soul to accept its divine intervention. I was no longer a part of the life I had lived before.
I opened my eyes to get an idea of how everyone else was doing. Knowing my condition, I imagined the others were starting to experience the same intense reactions themselves.
Johnny was on a mattress staring up at the ceiling, rocking back and forth while whispering what sounded like lyrics to a Colombian church hymn. I later found out it was a Doobie Brother’s song, “Jesus Is Just Alright” translated into Spanish with incorrect lyrics.
“Johnny, are you doing alright? How do you feel?”
“Santiago, do you believe in living after you die? I just visited the place we go. I’m fine, but I think I am about to vomit.”
He can barely grab his bucket before he’s throwing up all the beer he’d consumed earlier.
I turn my head to look at the Provo Pilgrims, lying motionless on their mattresses side by side.
“Cal, Jordy, you two keeping it together over there?”
Jordy slowly turns his head and mumbles incoherently.
“Santiago,” Cal says, “this is more than l ever could’ve imagined. I’m doing all I can to hold on, but it’s a losing battle. I keep seeing a naked woman walking around. Do you think maybe God is a woman? Have you seen her?”
“I’m seeing my family standing in a circle around me,” Jordy whispers. “My grandparents and my brother, my father, Aunt Jocelyn. They all died years ago. This is a strange experience. But I’m not afraid anymore.”
“Enjoy yourselves,” I tell them as I turn away.
I lie back in the hammock, feeling something like a warm, soft breeze now blowing on my neck. I turn around to see what could possibly be causing this most peculiar sensation.
And there I was, face to face with a panther, standing no more than a few inches before me. It glared at me with its yellow eyes for maybe ten seconds before it began purring, sounding more like a deep, guttural growl. It bared its fangs for a moment and licked its whiskered lips. And then, just as I thought it was about to have me for dinner, it slowly turned and walked away, heading back out into the jungle.
Really feeling the yagé now, l told myself it was just a vision, although I’ve never been quite sure.
That’s when Cal and Jordy both begin vomiting as well. Between the two of them, it’s almost like a scene from The Exorcist.
Meanwhile, I’d begun to sweat profusely, rivulets cascading down my face. It wasn’t long before I too saw the spectral form of a naked woman, beckoning to me with outstretched arms. I wrestle with the web-like hammock, finally freeing myself from its grasp. But just as I’ve managed to get up, I’m overwhelmed by the stench of shit and vomit.
I feel a warm sensation in my shorts. Brown liquid running down my legs. There’s no way to stop myself from shitting. The smell makes me retch so hard that I too begin puking.
Carmen runs up to me with the pail and places it on the floor in front of me.
I tell the brujo I must go outside to clean myself. He gives me permission, adding that I shouldn’t go far. Cal and Jordy ask why I have permission to go outside. I show them my legs and feet, which are now covered in shit, prompting them to recoil in disgust.
Before I leave, I look back to see how Johnny is faring. He appears to be totally immersed in the yagé, still whispering and rocking back and forth.
“Johnny, I just shit myself. I’m going outside to clean up. Back in a few minutes.”
He doesn’t respond. Carmen motions me forth, a bucket in one hand a lantern in the other.
Once outside, the jungle begins a conversation with me. I can hear the leaves whisper and the movement of every insect. An unkindness of ravens fly just overhead, squawking their evening greetings. Red howler monkeys emit their throaty screams, bidding all a good night.
Carmen taps me on the shoulder, waking me from my trance. She tells me to walk to the river’s edge, where she will wash me off with buckets of water. I follow her through the thick foliage toward the river. She stops just short of the water, pushing me back with her hand on my chest.
“Cuidado, hay cocodrilos en el río.” (Careful, there are crocodiles in the river.)
There’s a few large sticks propped up nearby, apparently for the warding off of crocodiles. She hands me the bucket and grabs a stick. Raising the lantern high above her head, she starts slapping at the ground while slowly walking forward.
“Carmen, don’t you think there’s a better way to get to the river than having to slap at crocodiles with a stick. I’m not so sure…”
“Cállate bebé, sé lo que estoy haciendo.” (Shut up you baby, I know what I’m doing.)
After beating the foliage with her stick and throwing several large rocks in the river, so as to spook any potential predators, she motions for me to come forward, ordering me to stand in the river before her. I do as she says and she fills the bucket with water, pouring it down the back of my shorts. I’m thinking it would be much easier just to take my clothes off and dip into the river to get myself clean.
As she repeats the action again, I take off my shorts and throw them on the shore along with my shirt, standing naked in only my sandals. I wander out a bit deeper, sitting down to let the Putumayo River wash away all my filth. The strong current felt extremely relaxing, as though I were in nature’s jacuzzi, being massaged by a million tiny hands.
There’s a seventy-five cent moon smiling down on me, large enough to light up the night, reflecting back off of the river. I look down and notice that I now am sporting an enormous erection.
Meanwhile, Carmen has begun screaming at me from the riverbank.
“¿Adónde vas? (Where are you going?) Estás siendo arrastrado por el río, vuelve aquí! (You’re being swept away by the river, come back here!) Hay pirañas en el profundo!” (There are piranhas in the deep!)
It is then I realize I’m being carried down the river. Carmen is running along the bank, screaming at me, but I can hardly hear anything she’s saying, the sounds of the rushing water drowning her out.
I can only make out one word, “pirañas”, which she repeats over and over again while frantically waving her arms.
By this point, I’m now in the rapids, the current tossing me against boulders and the occasional tree limb.
Wait a minute, I realize in a moment of lucidity, after rapids there is usually a waterfall. Yet there I was, naked, tripping on yagé, being washed down a river and possibly to my imminent demise.
What was that I’d heard Carmen screaming? Something about piranhas? The Putumayo is a tributary of the Amazon, and I’m sure there are piranhas in there.
Fuck the waterfall, I’ll most likely be eaten alive before I even get close to the waterfall, either that or crocodiles may savagely rip me apart!
“Santiago, you must fight for your life,” I hear a strange woman’s voice calling to me. “Get out of the river now!”
“I’m trying but the current is too strong!”
The riverbank rushes past as I flail about helplessly. A fallen log suddenly appears before of me, and with my last bit of strength I am able to grab onto it. Kicking with my feet and paddling with one arm, I fight the river’s force as I struggle back towards the riverbank.
“You can’t kill me!” I scream to the heavens. “Many before have tried and failed. You’re not taking me yet!”
Abruptly I am hit with a beam of light, then another, and another. Flashlights?
“Identify yourself!” a voice demands from somewhere in the darkness.
“Santiago, from the United States,” I manage to sputter, still clinging to my log for dear life. “Please, help me out of here!”
Between the lights on the riverbank, I catch a glimpse of the spectral naked woman I’d seen earlier, back in the hut. Once again, she beckons to me with outstretched arms. I doubt I’ve strength enough to make it to her on my own, but somehow I can feel a gentle force now pushing me along. I can’t help but wonder if I’m experiencing a divine intervention of some kind.
Next thing I know, two guys with AK-47s slung over their shoulders are fishing me out of the water. A lantern is lit, illuminating soldiers on the riverbank. An uproar of laughter breaks out among them, echoing through the night without pause. Damn I was high, with no idea of how long I was in the river or where I even was.
“What’s so fucking funny?” I ask the group in English.
“Where are your clothes?” a soldier interrogates in Spanish. “What are you doing in the river at night? Where are you from?”
Another soldier throws a sarape over my shoulders as the laughter finally dies down. They begin talking amongst themselves, apparently unaware that I understood what they were saying.
An officer adorned with gold epaulettes and a red beret approaches me, speaking very poor English.
“Do you speak Spanish?” he asks. “What is why you is here now?”
“Yes, I speak Spanish. I was with the ayahuasquero, el brujo. I drank some yagé and went into the river to clean myself. Then the river sucked me up and took me away.”
There came a break in the traffic of my mind, long enough to discern this group now surrounding me. Based on their uniforms, I quickly surmised they weren’t the Colombian military but FARC guerrillas, a revolutionary group opposing the current government.
I overheard a couple of soldiers discussing the possibility I may be a spy. Then I heard what I really didn’t want to hear.
“We should take the crazy gringo prisoner and hold him for ransom. Maybe his family will pay a lot of money for this crazy pendejo. What do you think, Capitán?”
“Cuál es tu nombre?” (What is your name?), the officer asks.
“My name is Santiago, from Tucson, Arizona,” I tell him. “I am here for the yagé ceremony only. If you are thinking about taking me hostage for ransom, let me tell you: There’s no one I know who will pay a single peso in exchange for my freedom. Although some of them may offer a small sum for you to hang on to me instead.”
The officer laughs as he extends me his hand.
“I’m Captain Arturo Batista of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Santiago.”
“The pleasure is mine, Captain.”
“I don’t think you’re a spy, because no spy would risk his life in a river full of crocodiles and piranhas, doing so naked on top of it. I’m surprised you are alive. Did you know there’s a 30-meter (90-foot) waterfall just half a kilometer down the river? I believe you when you say no one will pay a ransom for you, because you are so stupid. We know where el brujo lives. I will have my men return you there on one condition. You must not say anything about meeting us here. Do I have your word?”
“Captain, you have my word. I do have one question, though. Did you happen to see a naked woman on the riverbank before I was pulled out of the water?”
“No, there was no one else here. You are seeing a yagé spirit in your mind that is not real. Go with God’s blessing. I can’t believe you are not dead, you should be more careful. Nos vemos, Santiago.”
He smiles and salutes in farewell.
“Thank you for your help. Nos vemos, Captain.”
He points to two soldiers and orders them to escort me back to the brujo’s shack.
It’s pitch black out by this point, darker than I can ever recall the night being. I remember how the moon had shone so brightly before, earlier in the evening.
“Con permiso, muchachos,” I ask politely. “How far is the brujo’s place? And by any chance did you bring a flashlight? It’s very dark and I can’t see where I’m going.”
The taller of the two walking behind me answers.
“It is maybe four kilometers. We have a flashlight but we only use it in an emergency. We don’t want to be found by Colombian military. You will be okay, we know where we are going.”
For the first time, I take a closer look at my escorts, noticing they can’t be more than fourteen years old. Along the way, the boy soldiers practice their karate on invisible enemies, mimicking famous actors, grunting dramatically as though they were in a movie. I found it quite funny but didn’t dare show my amusement. I wasn’t sure if they’d get angry, and I didn’t want to push my luck.
Meanwhile, the yagé was finally beginning to lose its potency. I was still having hallucinations, however, seeing all manner of things in my peripheral vision along the jungle path. The moon had once again returned to the night sky, lighting our way through the darkness.
As we get closer to the shack, I hear a voice calling from somewhere in the jungle. The soldier boys grab me and push me into the underbrush, ordering me to remain quiet. I hear the voice once again, closer this time, as the muchachos ready their AKs.
“Santiago, adónde está? (where are you?)” the voice echoed through the night. “Santi, answer me!”
“You are Santiago, right?” the tall boy asks. “Do you know who is calling for you?”
“I think it’s my friend Johnny. He must be out there looking for me.”
“Are you sure?”
The voice called for me again, and this time I was sure it was Johnny. Before too long, we could see the light of his lantern up ahead. I wanted to call out to him, but the boys both shook their heads no.
“You better be dead if I find you,” Johnny screams, “because if not I am going to kill you twice! No, three times!”
Glancing back over at the riverbank, I saw the woman once again, the moonlight illuminating her naked body. This time I felt as though she was bestowing a blessing upon me. It wasn’t a religious experience, more of an evolution of cosmic consciousness. I wasn’t the same person I was yesterday.
“Santiago, you go tell your friend shut up,” one of the boys orders. “Be quiet!”
“Okay, thanks for your help.”
I look back over at the riverbank one last time, finding the woman now gone. A feeling of vague sadness washes over me, though I am grateful to have reached the end of my ordeal.
“Johnny, you’ve got to stop screaming,” I say as I emerge from the underbrush. “You’re waking up the dead!”
“Who said that? Santiago, is that you?”
I step into the light of his lantern and Johnny rushes up to me, hugs me and starts sobbing uncontrollably.
“I thought for sure you were dead, Bigotes. The old witch lady said you were taken by the river. She told us there were crocodiles, piranhas and a waterfall. She was crying and not making sense, so I didn’t know what to do. I waited for some time and then decided to search for you. I took a lantern and started walking down the path by the river. Then something very strange happened. A panther walked up next to me, he stared at my eyes and I could hear him talk inside my head. He said to follow him, he would take me to where you are. So I follow him for a long while until just before you jump out on me. Did you see him too?”
“My trusted friend, I have seen more than I am able to describe right now. Thanks for coming for me, Johnny. But now that you’ve found me, you can stop crying now.”
“Santi, you are naked with no clothes, why?”
“I’ll tell you later. Right now, we need to get back to the shack. Something’s up and I don’t want to be caught in the middle of it. Come on now, let’s go.”
When we arrive back at the brujo’s place, I see my clothes hanging on a wire line near the fire. I pull them down and put them on all clean and warm. We walk inside together and the brujo breaks out in a huge grin, starts singing and dancing around. Carmen runs over crying, hugging me with incredible strength before slapping me in the face and giving me a sharp reprimand. I notice the Provo Pilgrims are still lying right where I’d left them, appearing sound asleep on their mattresses.
“Johnny, how long have I been missing in action? It doesn’t seem to have been a very long time.”
“Santiago, you were gone a long while. You went missing maybe 9:00, then I go to look for you at 11:30. I couldn’t come sooner because I was very fucked up still.
“What time do you think it is now?”
“I have no watch, el brujo has two or three watches.”
I walk over to the brujo, who is still performing his celebratory rites. It takes a minute to get his attention, but when I do, he immediately reaches into his leather bag, retrieving three watches. He hands them all to me and continues his dance, repeating the word “milagro” (miracle), slapping me with palm leaves and wafting that damn smoke in my face.
As I checked all three watches, I noticed one was not working, while the other two both read 2:20. I couldn’t have been gone that long. It had seemed to be such a short while, no more than maybe an hour or so. Where the hell was I? Where did I go? That’s five whole hours I was unable to account for.
“Santiago, I have to tell you about my time in yagé land. It was something so scary and beautiful at the same time.”
“Johnny, it’s not that I’m uninterested in your experience, it’s just that I’m exhausted and need something to eat and drink first. Hopefully you didn’t drink all the water. I need to relax, get my thoughts together, make some kind of sense out of what just happened.”
He looks at me with an expression of disappointment upon his incredibly dirty face.
“Johnny, for now I just want to let you know how much I appreciate that you came looking for me. Thank you, my friend.”
I grabbed a bottle of water I’d hidden in one of the backpack’s pockets, found a mattress near the back of the hut, and drifted off into a much-needed sleep. It wasn’t long before I was awakened, however, hearing what sounded like gunfire nearby. It wasn’t just a few shots, but repeated automatic gunfire. There had to be a battle taking place and not too far from where we were.
“Johnny, did you hear that gunfire just now?”
He cups a hand to his ear and listens with demonstrated interest.
“Yes I hear it, Santi. Do you think it is gunfire? Maybe it is fireworks for a celebration.”
“At 3:00 in the morning? I don’t think so, there’s a battle going on right now. It’s the FARC guerrillas and Colombian military, I’m almost sure.”
The brujo hears the commotion as well, listening from the entrance of the hut. He becomes even more animated than before, crying “viva la revolución!” as he resumes his celebrations once more. He tells us that the Putumayo military base is not far away, and he thinks it is being attacked by FARC revolutionaries.
I don’t have the energy to concern myself with revolution. I keep my word, saying nothing about my encounter with the rebels before. Instead I close my eyes and drift back off to sleep, the sounds of gunfire serving as my lullaby.
As I lie dreaming, events of the night’s saga replay again inside my mind. The panther. The river. The moon. But the one part of my odyssey I keep coming back to was the beautiful naked woman who’d guided me back to safety.
God just might be a woman!