Thursday, 22 November 2012

Tribal warfare

Most of us identify ourselves with somewhere, a place we call home. And while we tend to have a strong sentimental attachment to where we were born as well as the family we belong to, we of course had no say in either case.

However, whether we like it or not, our place of birth is an important decoder for many people as to what we’re about, our view of the world and such like. Moreover, because we tend to be only ever seen as being from one place regardless of how well travelled we are, if we settle in another location for a time our views and opinions on certain things are often not considered as important compared to those of the ‘natives’.

One of the more innocent ways this can manifest itself is in the ‘what would you know, you’re not from here’ jibe from locals. In a Colombian context, normally that statement of fact doesn’t bug us – appearances apart, our general honesty tends to mark us out as different. But if it’s said in a ‘mind your own business’ context when the discussion is centred on areas where perhaps this country could do better – environmental, social and other such ‘borderless’ issues in a sense – then we can get quite animated.
Colombian soccer tribes go to 'war' - in a positive way that is
Not much time left to save ourselves. Or is the game already up?

You see, despite how ‘small’ the world may have become thanks to advancements in technology as well as travel, us human beings are still quite tribal.

In some ways, this ‘tribalism’ can be positive and even enjoyable. Sport, for one, in its truest form – a bit of healthy competition where clubs or regions or nations or whatever go head-to-head to see who is the best within a certain sphere. Heck, we could even put the Eurovision Song Contest into this positive (although perhaps not enjoyable) tribalism.

But even within the sport bubble, the more insidious elements of this particular ‘ism’ frequently surface. Hatred of the ‘others’, racism, violence – the world’s soccer terraces and indeed playing fields are particularly adept at fostering such feelings and subsequent actions.

It is within the fields of both nationalism – or ‘land ownership’ in its earlier form – and religion though where tribalism has been at its most brutal and deadly. From man’s earliest battles to the world’s current conflicts these two afflictions have been to the forefront. Considering the origins of the human race, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Middle East continues to be the global epicentre of these wars. We may live in a more ‘advanced’ age than ever before, dealing on a daily basis with people who are not of ‘our’ tribe, but old habits die hard.
Orange Men setting out to march in Belfast
'Thou shalt not cross' - Orange Men about to march in Belfast

To deal with the problems we face – be they economic, environmental, health, etc – most of us now realise that cooperation and close partnership on a global scale is what is needed. What’s more, as a species we have done more to damage our natural environment than any other, something again the majority of us are finally aware of. Yet despite a lot of talk in trying to limit our destructive ways, progress on this front appears to be painstakingly slow.

In times of uncertainty or danger, we tend to retract into the ‘comfort’ of our tribe. Again, we may outwardly know that we’re all interconnected but a lot of the time our actions betray that.

Take the current EU economic crisis. Now while many wrongs have been made by many parties across the currency ‘union’ – in both the Euro’s formation and its operation – the best, indeed only, way to solve the problems is through greater alliances and collaboration. The desire in a number of quarters, however, is to go on solo runs, to withdraw to the national boundaries that we know and love so well. Europe doesn’t need reminding of the problems that can emerge when jingoistic tendencies spring up.

From time immemorial, powerful political and religious leaders have been able to mobilise the masses under their control to fight for a relatively abstract state or belief in order to butcher their fellow man. For in individual terms, a few psychopaths aside, most human beings do not have an inherent desire to kill. However throw in a perceived dehumanised, monstrous enemy, with associated misplaced fear and ignorance and it’s surprising how that can change.

Modern warfare, where thousands of people can be killed at the touch of a button in an off-hand way, has balanced out any developments we may have made in the last few hundred years to be a more enlightened, peace-seeking species. The lives lost don’t seem real, the damage and pain is very often removed from the ‘doers’ sight.
'Wrong Way' seeing the world from a different angle
Time for us to change our view of the world

Two, perhaps seemingly contradictory but not, mindset changes are needed. One is to step outside our small tribal base and think of the global, inter-dependent, inter-connected tribe as well as this planet being our shared home. The second is to think of those ‘others’, fellow people that is, as individuals – living, breathing beings with similar worries, concerns and aspirations as ourselves.

The usual argument against all this is that it’s wishy-washy, idealistic, utopian rubbish. Yes, it is idealistic, but what's wrong with having lofty aspirations? The easiest option is to just accept things as they are. Make no attempt and, of course, nothing will change. For some, that is perhaps the way they want it.

But for the human race to truly evolve it demands more. As does the quest to protect our shared global home.

* For related articles see: 'Phantom freedom' and 'Whose land is it anyway?'

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The ayahuasca 'trip'

As the saying goes, ‘All “good” things come to those who wait.’ It is over four years ago now since we first heard of the psychedelic brew ayahuasca (or yagé as it is also known), a drink taken by many Amazonian tribes for its believed healing and spiritual properties. That introduction came via a BBC documentary with Bruce Parry – his experiences with the vine based concoction resonating deeply with us at the time (for more on that see Not deep enough though to make us go in pursuit of having our own ‘enlightening’ experience with the plant during our first trip to South America a few years back.
A large pot of dark brown gold - the ayahuasca/yagé in the brewing stage.
'Kids, come & get your yagé before it gets cold...'

In one sense the opportunity never really presented itself throughout that initial jaunt here. This time around though, it did. Firstly through a weekly private student of ours who is a frequent taker of the brew, a fully signed-up member to its supposed powerful, positive, life-enhancing properties. Our second avenue to it came from a network of Dutch friends (who else would you bank-on to lead you to a hallucinogenic substance?), with one of these deciding to get away from the ‘big smoke’ of Bogotá and move to a forested commune a few hours south-west of the Colombian capital. Here they take ayahuasca on at least a weekly basis, frequently joined by guests wanting to sample the sacred drink themselves in relatively easy-to-reach yet idyllic surrounds.

It might not be as ‘authentic’ as getting down and dirty with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon heartland but it beats taking it in an urban setting. We were after all out in the ‘wilds’ of nature together with getting all the ‘old native’ ceremony trappings from our Taita, or Shaman if you will.

So it was to this remote commune in the hills outside the town of Apulo that we were to have our own ‘Bruce Parry’ moment – he was our most visual reference point anyway on what this plant drink might do to us.

A ‘special guest’ curtain-raising performance from a number of Krishna worshippers (a Hindu deity) was as unexpected as we felt it was unwarranted. At least it killed an hour or so while we waited for the main event. And sure aren’t we all one and the same in any case – Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Indigenous tribes and what have you. If only the majority of subscribers to these different sects thought the same. We live in hope on that front.

Once we got that opening gig out of the way, the stage was set to commence ‘operation fulfilment’. After some form of prayers and blessings headed by our Taita – a prerequisite for all spiritual ceremonies regardless of creed – we finally got to take something. We had after all been fasting since breakfast at 8am and the time was now 10 pm (the more stringent ayahuasca takers recommend not eating at least 24 hours before consumption).
The ritual gets underway.
'Taita Nelson' gets the night's main proceedings underway.

The first part of the process was to have powdered tobacco blown up our nostrils. Now we’re not accustomed to taking substances via our nose (honestly, we’re not) so just the thought of having this done to us was a little off-putting. The reason for the tobacco is to apparently clear-out the air passages of your body – the ayahuasca clears out the rest. It certainly didn’t disappoint on this front. Next time our nasal passages are stuffed we know what to reach for. And despite our pre-uneasiness, we actually found it reasonably satisfying. It left a pleasantly surprising dark-chocolaty taste in our throat. ‘Seconds’ might have been pushing it but we did take the option of sampling the tobacco paste afterwards along with puffing on a big cigar. All things tobacco compliment the ayahuasca – or so we were told.

Now we must warn that the tobacco powder may not be to everyone’s taste. It does pack-a-punch as a friend of ours discovered to his, literally speaking, downfall. He panned-out after taking it – receiving a nasty bang on the head in the process. Not before though he got to down the drink we had all come for.

It certainly doesn’t help when you see previous takers of ayahuasca turning their eyes away in discomfort as people start to consume it. You’d think the more you take it, the more accustomed to its taste you’d become. Not so it seems. So we were preparing ourselves for something practically unpalatable. We were given the standard cupful, a nice amount to put-back. Sticking with the chocolate theme, it resembled the delicacy in its melted form. Alas, the taste was nothing like that but in the same token, it wasn’t unbearable. One way to describe it would be like a thick, stale Guinness.

Once downed, it was a case of playing the waiting game. Some people vomited straight away and thereby requiring another shot as the initial one wouldn’t have ‘kicked-in’ before it was ejected by the body. We were told to try and keep it in for at least an hour so that the ‘spiritual’/psychedelic properties could ‘show their face’.

That proved, surprisingly, not to be a problem. Normally if we see or hear other people getting sick that makes us very queasy even if we’re feeling in the best of health. So considering you’d dozens of people all spewing their guts and we were less than fighting fit we figured we’d be joining them in no time. But no, nothing of note happened early on.

Now the more experienced, fully believing (yes, perhaps we have some ‘hidden’ doubts to all this) members say you have to let the ayahuasca/yagé take over your body, control you. There are a couple of things then on this front we must mention that may have worked ‘against’ us. Firstly, we have always associated vomiting as a negative practice, a sign of weakness. However, in this process, it’s a fundamental part of the experience. Subconsciously then, maybe we were putting up too much of a fight? It is though quite difficult for us to do otherwise.
The picturesque setting where the commune is located.
Always reliable - the spectacular Colombian landscape.

Another thing which was slightly off-putting was the fact that it was far from an intimate experience on the night in question. There were at least twenty people there, the majority of whom were complete strangers. Contrast this with Bruce Parry where he was getting personal assistance from his Taita throughout the process. If you equate it to losing your sexual virginity, it was like we lost ours in a group orgy – not the most comfortable experience we think.

Plus, the sight of a 12-year-old girl going through what must have been a horrific ‘trip’ also surely played its part in us not having the experience we were looking for. You can dress ayahuasca up whichever way you want but allowing somebody so young take a hallucinogenic is questionable, to say the least.

Despite all this, we did eventually get something out of it, however slight. We saw some interesting colours and shapes for a time and just before we did eventually vomit, the ground became luminous green, with vine/snake shapes present – one of the apparent ‘standard’ visions. You could say we did go on a small ‘trip’ after we purged ourselves – our mind certainly wandered anyway having passed out on our vomit. Lovely.

The best vote of confidence we can give to the whole experience at this stage is that we are willing to do it again. As the song goes, ‘things can only get better’. Well, here’s hoping.

* If you're interested in experiencing this for yourself, you can leave a comment after this piece and we can give you further details on the commune and who to get in contact with.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Bogotá's simple pleasures

It should come as no surprise to you that we’re far from high maintenance here at ‘Wrong Way’. It’s the simple, small things in life that we tend to derive most pleasure from.

That’s why, for example, we like to do our grocery shopping here in Bogotá at ‘La 14’ – the supermarket that feeds you for ‘free’ while you stock-up. ‘They’ do say that you should never shop on an empty stomach but having something to eat before you hit for ‘La 14’ (on weekend afternoons anyway) will only spoil your experience. Between the various complimentary servings on offer – meat, pasta, biscuits, cereal, fruit, ice-cream, you name it – you generally leave there quite satisfied. We’d nearly (nearly that is) pay a little bit more for such customer service. But get this, it’s about the best value supermarket around – as close to a win-win scenario you’ll get in these parts.
Service with a smile. Our local barman dishing out the booze
'Me regalas 'una grande' Servio, por favor.' Quality service with a smile

When it comes to our favourite ‘vice’ of alcohol we’re more than happy-out knocking down a few 750ml bottles of the national brews Aguila or Poker in a local ‘tienda’ (‘old man’s bar’ as we’d refer to them in Ireland) for the very agreeable price of 2300pesos (about €1 or so). Go to the more upmarket Bogotá Beer Company (BBC) chains or the ‘Irish’ Pubs and you’ll pay at least four times more for just three-quarters the amount of booze. Plus in those places you tend to be just another number. In our local tiendas we’re greeted with a hand-shake and a smile each time we visit – it’s nice to feel welcomed (the fact we tend to polish off a nice few bottles plays its part in us being gleefully greeted. We do after all have to play-up to the Irish stereotype).

The same goes for our regular café visits – we find the simple, ‘rough and ready’ local ones far more agreeable in price, atmosphere and customer service (the latter we refer to in Latin American terms – the standards are pretty low on that front. See ‘Doing Business in SA for more). What’s more, we don’t tend to see a major difference in the quality compared to a 'fancy' Juan Valdez or an Oma coffee house.
Our bog standard local café - basic yet brilliant
Simple, cheap & very satisfying - the local café

For many Bogotanos though it’s not ‘hip’ to be seen in your bog standard café – the same goes for drinking in the tiendas. It’s usually fine for the women because they don’t expect to pay anyway. You think then they’d allow the men choose the location, but no. We however are quite principled on this one, usually. Forking out greater than European prices to drink in places where firstly you're treated no better than dirt and secondly the clientèle and environment are generally very fake is not our thing. We can happily live without the people that frequent such places.

The above ‘simple pleasures’ are ones we now know and expect. They still of course do the trick but it’s always nice to get ‘treated’ from an unexpected source every now and again. However such unplanned random experiences can be hard to come by in this city. We had one though on a recent buseta/colectivo journey.

OK, we have expressed before (see ‘Bogotá’s Transport Truths and ‘Dulling Down Bogotá our preference for these old-school city transport buses but that was more because we felt they were the least worst option, not because we found taking them overly pleasurable.

What made this particular commute to one of our classes a ‘stand-out’ experience was the conduct of our 'conductor' or bus driver if you will. As it was initially unclear from the colourful but confusing route display (nothing unusual there) if this bus we’d flagged down was going in the direction we needed, we had to ask the driver to make sure. Once ‘Senor Conductor’ realised we were native English speakers, he immediately ushered us into his screened-off zone – a place usually reserved for family members or very, very good friends. This is the business class/VIP section of Bogotá public transport. A front row seat right next to the driver, out of view from the ‘commoners’ in the back. How privileged we felt.
The Colectivo VIP treatment - we were privileged to be invited to sit next to the driver
The 'special' bus seat next to the driver - usually only reserved for family

The reason he invited us in to his ‘sanctuary’ was because he has a desire to learn English (although our conversation was all in Spanish). We’ll let the fact slide that he has so far failed to follow up on his offer of inviting us to dinner – sure you can’t win them all. In any case, the 'special' bus journey was enough to put is in a positive mood for the rest of the morning.

So as you can see we tend to be easily pleased here - very much subscribers to the 'keep it simple, stupid' principle. Alas it can be hard to get the ladies to sign up to the same programme. We'll keep trying though.