Deep in the Amazon with the Ticuna

In the Amazon, you find a world defined by the unknown, the unknowable, and the mysterious. 

As we lowered through the blanket of clouds on our descent into Leticia, the reality of the world we were entering suddenly took on a new life and meaning. It had existed in our minds before as an idea — an abstraction — fueled by books written and stories told of unparalleled biodiversity, a century of countless ethnobotanical discoveries, and captivating legends of ruthless and seductive anacondas, massive tarantulas, lives lost to unspeakable river monsters, and rumors of whatever else may live hidden deep in the heart of that jungle.

What lay before us was a vast and uninterrupted sea of thick, tropical rain forest — thousands of shades of green — as far as the eye could see in every direction from 15,000 feet. There was no sign of human life or dominance aside from the airstrip, a small cluster of simple tiendas and markets, and a series of stilted river-side abodes that made up the bustling hub of Amazonian operations. No roads lead to Leticia, the only semblance of “civilization” this deep into the Colombian Amazon. Carved out of the thick vegetation, it can only be accessed by air or a long and grueling sail up the Amazon River.

Leticia, Colombia

From above, the jungle looks impenetrable and hostile, incomprehensible and exotic, yet magical and mysterious— captivating the imagination and igniting a deep-seated yearning to seek to understand and explore the unknown.

In the Western world, it is a yearning that is often left unsatisfied and dormant. Our collective consciousness is ruled by an objective, scientific model of understanding that attempts to explain away all shreds of subjective meaning and mystery. And with all the blank spaces filled in on our maps, there is little room for the unknown.

The Amazon, on the other hand, is a world that is unknown and unknowable. Endless jungles teeming with life — too dense and too vast to fully explore and categorize. Massive, ancient rivers and tributaries fed by the snowmelt of the Andes, filled with dolphins, anacondas, and pirañas — constantly milky and clouded, obscuring whatever else may live and hunt in those depths.

Sprinkled throughout the vast jungle are communities of peoples and cultures that have learned over millennia to survive and thrive in the heart of la selva, possessing an unbelievably robust and intimate knowledge of the properties of the plants that surround them. Of the infinite combinations and permutations of the tens of thousands of plants that can be found in the Amazon, the indigenous of these jungles know exactly which combinations can heal specific ailments, can be used to paralyze and kill, and which can facilitate powerful and profound mystical experiences. 

How they acquired this wisdom is impossible to know or explain. But Western science tries its best: attributing the acquired knowledge to “trial and error,” the only logical explanation within its framework of understanding. The explanation is incomplete and unfounded -- a reflection of our Western perspective grasping at straws in an attempt to explain that which it can not comprehend.

Some of the remarkable flora of the Amazon

This attempt to explain away the mystery of the incredible wealth of indigenous botanical knowledge in the Amazon completely crumbles when closely inspected. In One River, Wade Davis explains the absurdity of the case for “trial and error” using as an example the sophisticated process of concocting curare, the poison used to coat the tips of darts and arrows of many indigenous hunters in the Amazon:

In the case of curare, Schultes learned, the bark is rasped and placed in a funnel-shaped leaf suspended between two spears. Cold water is percolated through, and the drippings collect in a ceramic pot. The dark fluid is slowly heated and brought to a frothy boil, then cooled and later reheated until a thick viscous scum gradually forms on the surface. This scum is removed and applied to the tips of darts or arrows, which are then carefully dried over the fire. The procedure itself is mundane. What is unusual is that one can drink the poison without being harmed. To be effective it must enter the blood. The realization on the part of the Indians that this orally inactive substance, derived from a small number of forest plants, could kill when administered into the muscle was profound and, like so many of their discoveries, difficultly to explain by the concept of trial and error alone.

When asked how they received their botanical knowledge, the locals say "the plants told us." Their cosmology and belief systems entail a world defined by magic, mystery, and animism -- a type of world in which receiving the knowledge of plants from plants makes perfect sense. 

We are so quick to assume that the way we as Westerners see the world is necessarily the "right" way. But the case of indigenous botanical knowledge reveals a massive blindspot in our framework of understanding. The case of curare, as well as the many other highly-sophisticated processes of botanical manipulation harnessed by the indigenous Amazonians, is as crippling to the argument for “trial and error” as it is energizing and inspiring for those that yearn to believe in a world defined by essential unknowns, sprinkled with magic and mystery, and beyond the explanation of the objective, emotionless predictions of science.

That is the world that you enter when you touch down in Leticia and board a small metal boat rigged with a lawn-mower engine to take you three hours up-river into the heart of the jungle.

The ride out to Leticia

It is a world that is unknowable and uncontrollable, yet rich in meaning and purpose. It is one that is filled with ways of understanding the world that can only develop in such a hauntingly mysterious and wild place — filled with perspectives that are so vastly different from ours in the West that you are left questioning even the most basic and fundamental assumptions engrained in the way we view the world. I again punt to Wade Davis, who has spent much of his adult life dedicated to understanding these remarkable peoples and perspectives:

The Indians naturally had their own explanations, rich cosmological accounts that from their perspective were perfectly logical: sacred plants that had journeyed up the Milk River in the belly of anacondas, potions prepared by jaguars, the drifting souls of shamans dead from the beginning of time… The Indians believed in the power of plants, accepted the existence of magic, and acknowledged the potency of the spirit. Magical and mystical ideas entered the very texture of their thinking. Their botanical knowledge could not be separated from their metaphysics.

And who are we to say that they are wrong? That our way of viewing with the world is the correct way, and that theirs is incorrect and fantastical?

It was these fascinating models of viewing the world, so vastly different than that which I left at home, that brought me to the Amazon. Seeking to learn from the perspectives of these people and immerse myself in their lives so intimately tied with the natural world, I boarded a boat to take me deep into the wet, humid wilderness to spend time living among the Ticuna — an experience that would profoundly transform the way I view humanity and my own interpretation of the world.

As the boat left Leticia, the stilted homes lining the banks of the Amazon River slowly dissolved away into the thick vegetation of the tropical rainforest. Still tied to a state of mind ruled by time, a remnant of the world I was leaving behind, I counted painfully every minute of the three hours of uninterrupted, seemingly-featureless jungle coastline and milky brown water.

As the week would go on, without a watch, a phone, or an appointment to catch, I was able to slowly let go of this attachment to time. Allowing the moments of the day to come and and go as they pleased, the tangible reality of time and its domination over life began to lose its potency. Instead, all energy was funneled into the moment at hand. Our rides along the river — the only way to travel reliably in this world — became a meditation, an exercise in awareness.

The featureless coastline sprang to life, with each tree and bush revealing its individual identity to the chorus of millions of birds, frogs and insects singing to la selva as it transformed from primary forest to secondary forest to ancient virgin forest. Time slowed down and sped up, as our only reference for remaining daylight became the sun’s current position in the sky. The unrecognizable cacophony of jungle noises began to separate into the distinct sounds and songs of each of its participants, from waves breaking, to birds singing, to trees dancing in the wind.

Some of our new friends

Some more new friends

Turning off the “Big River”, we started up an affluent named Río Amacayacu that would be our home for the rest of the week. This stretch of river is the only world that many of the Ticuna know or ever will know. While some venture as far as Leticia or neighboring villages like Puerto Nariño for supplies or further schooling, most will spend close to — if not completely — all of their lives along the banks of Amacayacu, coming to understand deeply the land, its intricacies, rhythms, patterns, and non-human inhabitants more intimately than an outsider could ever begin to imagine.

Most of the Ticuna on Amacayacu live in San Martín, a village of 650. With only a few basic thatch-roofed dwellings visible from our boat, we observed the community from afar as hoards of children played and bathed in the river, climbed up into the riverside forest canopy to use as a high dive, and swung on vines as the women peacefully washed clothes on wooden rafts and canoes tied to the shore. The river — the one filled with the anacondas and unknown creatures that haunted our dreams in anticipation of the journey — appeared to be the hub of all activity in San Martín. Our waves were met by the blank stares of the river-goers, justifiably weary and suspicious of new outsiders and foreigners.

After passing San Martín, we continued down Amacayacu, the pristine wilderness interrupted only occasionally by residents of San Martín in small canoes venturing up-river in search of dinner with hand lines and seeking refuge in the shade of the overgrowth lining the river, as they had been doing for thousands of years. Eventually, we reached our home, a small complex of isolated bungalows constructed by two Tinuka elders — “Don” Agusto and “Doña” Maria — who had left the “loud, big-city life” of San Martín for quiet and solitude. Built with the help of the extended family and friends with only that which could be gathered from the land, the jungle compound revealed the remarkable skill and resourcefulness of the Tinuka people.

The ecolodge

Agusto and Maria have turned to hosting travelers as a way to make an income to sustain their life of tranquilidad and solitude, and to teach outsiders about their way of life. It was an intimate setting, with our group of three being their only guests. Sitting in the kitchen as the Doña and her daughter cooked a meal of yuca and exotic fruits grown in their garden and fish caught 100 feet away, Don Agusto told stories and Tinuka folk lore, attempting to begin explaining the cosmology, spirituality, and identity of his people.

Don Agusto, Doña Maria, and their children at the kitchen table

Fish caught and platanos harvested within 100 feet of the kitchen

The mission to understand each other was a long, complex, yet fruitful process — and one that is very far from complete (it will require much more time spent together…). The juxtaposition between our outside lives could not be more pronounced. They live as the vulnerable inhabitants of a jungle filled with creatures that could easily kill them at any moment, while I was raised in the concrete jungle of New York City, where all natural danger is controlled and mitigated by human domination. Their small pocket of the rain forest is the only world they have ever known, and their sense of place, home, and community entirely defines who they are. I, on the other hand, have spent 11 out of the last 13 months living on the road out of a backpack, unsure of what place I can technically deem to be my “home.”

Their cosmologies, beliefs, and perspectives were formed in a world where all beings and natural entities are living and imbued with meaning, spirit, and mystery — where they are a part of an interconnected fabric of life, related and one with everything around them. And while I have grown to lean towards this perspective, the culture in which I was raised was one ruled by objective science, where all entities are just collections of vibrating, unconscious elementary particles and the human self is separate from nature and everything that surrounds it.

As the days went on, we learned from each other and began to overcome the obstacles of the differences in our conditioning, such that we could truly connect as humans. While our outside histories could not have been more different, we are fundamentally the same on the inside. And this is an incredibly powerful insight. In recognizing our fundamental similarities and the vast differences in our cosmologies and world views, it is possible to understand that the perspective that dominates the Western world is not the inevitable progression of human development. Although it is currently the most powerful and imposing of the world’s cultures, it is but one way of seeing and engaging with the world.

Absent from any sort of measurable material wealth, technology, prestige, or power over others, Don, Doña, and their family are remarkably happy and peaceful people - more so than anyone else I have ever known. It can be seen in the light of their eyes and in the way in which they speak Spanish and their native tongue, as if singing it back to the birds and contributing their part to the ongoing song of the jungle. When the family is healthy and fed, there is nothing else in the world to worry about. Connected and related to everyone and everything around them, life is filled with meaning. When the skies open up and rain and thunder reigned down on the world, Don Agusto would look up and say “Dios habla,” God Speaks.

Living with their family, spending time in San Martin, exploring the jungle and the rivers of the Amazon with the Tinuka, and taking a step away from the Western world, I was able to connect back with what is surely real: full presence and awareness in the current moment and that primordial feeling of being an active participant in the natural world, connected to it’s rhythms and flows.

I felt vulnerable yet whole and filled with meaning and purpose as I assumed that active, inter-related role in the uncontrollable, unforgiving wilderness. I found a similar vulnerability in opening myself fully and completely to others, paying total and complete attention to what the Ticuna were saying in order to fully understand them and speaking truly, thoughtfully, and incredibly intentionally to help them understand where I came from.

It is experiences like these, absent from all distractions and open to the wisdom of these remarkable people and places, that reveal what it truly means to be a human in this world. It shows the vast, beautiful diversity of the ways of being that are available to us as people — revealing that the way we are accustomed to is not the only way. 

Experiences like my time with the Ticuna have the potential to significantly broaden cognitive horizons and stoke an urge to dig deeper to try to understand what really matters and what this thing is really all about. 

And, above all else, it inspires and energizes us to celebrate and work to defend these ways of being that make our world rich and full of wonder.

An excerpt on the beauty of the Amazon from One River, by Wade Davis

The beauty of the tropical rainforest is a subtle thing. There are no herds of ungulates as on the Serengeti plain, no cascades of orchids — just a thousand shades of green, an infinitude of shape, form, and texture that so clearly mocks the terminology of temperate botany. It is almost as if you have to close your eyes to behold the constant hum of biological activity — evolution, if you will — working in overdrive. From the edge of trails creepers lash at the base of trees, and herbaceous heliconias and calatheas give way to broad-leafed aroids that climb into the shadows. Overhead, lianas drape from immense trees binding the canopy of the forest into a single interwoven fabric of life. There are no flowers, at least few that can be readily seen, and with the blazing sun hovering motionless at midday there are few sounds. In the air is a fluid heaviness, a weight of centuries, of years without seasons, of life without rebirth. One can walk for hours yet remain convinced that not a mile has been gained.

Then toward dusk everything changes: the air cools, the light becomes amber, and the open sky above the rivers and swamps fills with darting swallows and swifts, kiskadees and flycatchers. The hawks, herons, jacanas, and kingfishers of the river margins die way to flights of cackling parrots, sungrebes, and sunbirds, and spectacular displays of toucans and scarlet macaws. Squirrel monkeys appear, and from the riverbanks emerge caiman, eyes poking out of the water, tails and bodies as still and dull as driftwood. In the light of dusk, one can finally discern shapes in the forest, sloths clinging to the limbs of cecropia trees, vipers entwined in branches, tapir wallowing in distant sloughs. For a brief moment at twilight the forest seems of a human scale and somehow manageable. But then with the night comes the rain and later the sound of insects running wild through the trees until, with the dawn, once again silence: The air becomes still, and steam rises from the cool earth. White fog lies all about like something solid, all-consuming.

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