This city girl has recently returned from a month in the rainforest, where I was privileged to sit in Council with elders from the Secoya people of Ecuador. Their story would move anyone to tears – their land, their culture, the ancient medicine they carry, systematically bulldozed by foreign ‘interests’ until only a mere hundreds of their population remain intact.
But I was surprised to come back with a story of my own, a story I'm still living, and one I suspect I will live for the rest of my days. It's the story of a journey – a journey within a journey, within an even larger journey – a journey of Initiation. It's also the story of loss – how I got lost in the jungle (literally) and who and what I found in getting lost.
That's the question Initiation asks of us, isn't it? How much are you willing to lose in order to find what you didn't even know you were looking for? Let me set the scene...
After three days of preparing mind and body with sunrise ceremonies, we were ready for our first nightlong ceremony with the plant medicine the Secoyas call "yage" (pronounced "ya-hey"). The ceremony starts by purifying ourselves with sweet water infused with rainforest flowers and hiking as a group (about 20 of us) up a steep trail to the ceremonial lodge, an open-air site covered with a canopy and strung with hammocks for each participant. Later the elders will come in their ceremonial garb and take their places at the front of the lodge, with the men in the middle and the women behind them. I found my hammock at the very back and settled in for the night.
As we all snuggled into our spirit cocoons, we became very still (as instructed) and the sounds of the jungle embraced us. The cicada people gave us a vociferous welcome, while the ocean rumbled in the distance and birds and monkeys rustled the twilight-darkened treetops. Hours later, the shamans will arrive and the medicine, which is considered too sacred and potent to travel the same route as the participants, will be carried up via a separate "yage trail."
We remain quiet as preparations are made at the front of the lodge – I can't say exactly what goes on as it is pitch dark by this time and I’m wrapped up in my improvised mosquito net blanket all the way at the back – until we are invited one-by-one to the front of the lodge to drink our first cup of yage. As the night unfolds, so do the sweet visions of the medicine, supported by the singing of the elders and the spirits of Nature. But that's not really the story I'm here to tell. My story is about what happens later...
Morning comes. The shaman’s song of the night before gives way to whispered conversations and snatches of laughter as the journeyers awake. Me, I am snug as a bug in a rug, just feeling my way into slumber, integrating the visions and lessons gifted by the medicine. And so I remain…
Lo, many hours later I awake to find the lodge empty, the spirit cocoons heavy with blankets left behind by my fellow journeyers. Judging by the sky, it’s late afternoon, almost 48 hours since my last meal or water and a full day before the group is due to come back to the lodge. With stomach grumbling and only a small amount of water in my bottle, it’s time to make my way back down the trail. No problem; the trail, although steep, is well groomed, with steps cut carefully into the hillside and even graced with banisters along the trickiest parts. It took only about 20 minutes to walk up and, with what I guess to be about two hours of light left, I should easily be back before dark.
That’s before I roll out of my hammock and find out I can’t walk. My legs simply won’t hold me up. First things first, I make my way over to the latrine on hands and knees to think things through. Once seated there, however, I’m taken by an overpowering fatigue that lands me face down in the dirt. Unperturbed, I figure I’m meant in this moment to honor the s#*% everyone had left behind. Coming to some time later – no working legs still – I crawl back to tidy my hammock for the ceremony the following evening.
I was in a quandary. With no land legs, do I still attempt the trail or, with no food and water, do I huddle back in my hammock until the group returns? Never being one to shirk a challenge – and being something of an expert on navigating tricky terrain butt first – I decide on the former. So with plenty of light to bounce my way down the trail steps, I deliberately place my headlamp on the perfect hanger made by my hammock rope, and start to slither my way to the trailhead carrying my water bottle, my sarong and my trusty dog Noodle (a gift to my Inner Child from Mr. Mopp’s toy store). What could possibly go wrong?
Butt-sliding my way to the front of the lodge, I come to the place where I remember the trail starting straight ahead. No trail in sight. Turning off to the right, however – which doesn’t seem quite right – is a clearly marked trail. “But, wait, isn’t this the yage trail? The trail the participants are not supposed to walk?” “But it’s the only trail.” Oh, well, maybe the trails converge a little while ahead – and recognizing my propensity for being somewhat directionally challenged – my butt, my dog and I head down the only path to take.
Starting to sound a bit like a fairy tale? With hindsight, I realize that’s how the BIG JOURNEYS are – the mythic ones – the Journeys of Initiation, the Hero’s Journey. That’s why myths and fairy tales stay with us. They reflect the turning points in our lives – the breathless moments where it seems we have no choice but to plunge ahead into the dark night regardless of the dangers that lie ahead.
Let’s pause a moment and look at the elements of the story so far. We have a Heroine– yes, I get to be the hero of my own story, hooray – let’s even say an Innocent, though admittedly in an altered state of mind. But isn’t that true of most fairy tales? They start with something just a little “off.” Our Heroine is Alone and facing a Dilemma. She weighs the limited options before her and decides on a Course of Action. Then with quiet deliberation, she plunges down the Only Path she sees – leaving the Light (the headlamp safely secured to the hammock) – with no one but her Trusty Companion (a stuffed dog, embodiment of Inner Child/Innocence.) And let’s not forget the Handicap, the legs that won’t work… more on that later…
So here I am, maybe forty-five minutes down the mountain, butt sore, and still no steps, no banisters. By this time I realize I am indeed on the wrong trail – the yage trail, the medicine trail of the shamans – and, no, it isn’t going to converge with the right trail – (you guessed that, didn’t you?) – and it’s beginning to get dark. But by now, I am fully committed – going back up is not an option. So I do what any red-blooded city girl would do – I yell for help.
With a 30-year career as a theatre artist behind me, one thing I know how to do is project. My cries ring through the rainforest…
To be answered only by crickets, howler monkeys and an occasional macaw. I begin to realize my predicament. Can’t go up, can’t stay, nobody coming to rescue me. There’s no choice; I must descend into the darkness.
With no aid coming from human allies, I figure I’d better enlist some spiritual ones. I call upon a guide I had encountered the night before and instantly feel her beside me, an aboriginal Grandmother, a real straight talker, who says to me in no uncertain terms, “Well, child, you got yourself into this, now how are YOU going to get yourself out?” I realize how right she is, I had gotten myself into this. Every decision I had made at every turning point has brought me to this precarious junction. And it was up to nobody but me to get me through.
Mosquitoes begin to swarm in the gathering dusk, and I tell them – in no uncertain terms – that I’m in trouble and need them to guide me and not eat me. I’m answered by the rushing swell of cicada music in full surround-sound – kind of like a cicada carwash – and ask the cicada people for their protection and support.
I decide it’s best to get as far along the trail as I can before the light fully fails so, gathering up my courage and strength and my will to get out of the jungle alive, I propel myself forward – stumbling, crawling, slithering and bouncing down the yage trail, pushing myself to go beyond the limits of both body and mind. I don’t know how long I keep this up. Several times I’m startled by a mosquito drilling deep into my ear – Zzzzzz – to realize I’d been lying passed out on my belly on the jungle floor. My insect guide is telling me – in no uncertain terms – to get up and go and I obey. I stumble along until I come to a spring, a really good thing as by this time I’ve lost my water bottle and bundle and now it’s just me and Noodle and one of us is very thirsty.
By now it’s fully dark and I’ve lost the path. I call upon all my guides, the Secoya elders, and my spirit Grandmother, the Aborigine. She calmly yet firmly reminds me that I’m on a Walkabout of my own choosing and that I must follow the songlines. So I begin to sing to the Earth. As I do, twinkling lights appear in the soil – just like in the movie Avatar – that guide me step by step. Although afraid, I’m strangely calm, knowing that beings and forces greater than me are at work and that somehow there is a plan for me. A plan I am bringing to life.
“Keep following the songlines,” Grandmother prods. With no more path, I decide to follow the water, knowing eventually it will lead to the ocean. (Our home lodge is nestled within the rainforest right on the shore of the Pacific.) The sound of the ocean is tantalizingly close; although I have no idea how far from the lodge I may have wandered, just beyond, I must come to the beach where I can spend the night in relative safety.
Unfortunately, just beyond was only more jungle and I was running out of steam. I wasn’t panicked; I’d come this far with only a few scratches (and no mosquito bites!); my guides were with me, and so was Noodle. Pausing to contemplate, I looked up at the waxing crescent moon shimmering above the jungle canopy. Caught by the beauty of it all, I marveled how a city girl like me has come to be sitting on her own in the coastal rainforest on a balmy night, lit up by the moon, serenaded by cicadas and the ocean waves. What an amazing gift. How serene, how peaceful…
That’s when I hear the Wild Pigs.
Horror scenes from the Lord of the Flies pass before my eyes – blood and guts everywhere, my blood and guts! Quick, what can I do? Can’t run – they’ll hear me. Besides, I can’t run. So I do the only thing that comes to mind, the only thing in my life-skills toolbox I can think of in that moment. I call “GOLDEN BALL OF PROTECTION!” Now I don’t know if I ever really truly believed in the golden light of protection before, but I commanded it to come at that moment and wrap itself around me while I huddled and quaked inside.
Lo and behold, the grunting and shuffling subsided almost immediately, along with the queasy feeling of menace, and I emerged, newly appreciative of the gravity of my situation, determined to find my way home. I sang; I followed the songlines; I clutched Noodle saying, “I’ll never leave you, Noodle,” to which he answered, “I’ll never leave you, Valerie!” and I carried on.
On and on, deeper and darker, the jungle went on too. It was beginning to look like it would be a very long night. Still stumbling and bumping along the spring, I am suddenly waist deep in water. I have fallen into a gulley and no matter which way I turn, the jungle walls on all sides are too high to climb. “I’M JUST A CITY GIRL!” I whine – the first words I’ve uttered aloud since my futile cries for help what must be hours ago – and give way to my first tears. “Crocodile tears,” I hear the words – “CROCODILE!” and remember where I am, a place where crocodiles are not just the stuff of pirate stories, and scoot out of the water to a ledge I don’t remember being there a moment before.
“This is it,” I realize. I’m going to have to face my biggest fear – being Alone All Night in the Wild. Yes, even after many years of both studying and teaching the shamanic path, I’ve always been too much of a chicken to attempt a supervised vision quest. The thought of being alone on a mountaintop with no food or water, exposed to the elements and prey to whatever beast of the night roams my way, has scared the living daylights out of me. Now I am actually living it, with no one to look after me and, for all I know, no one even aware I am lost in the jungle.
First and foremost I know I have to stay warm. The previous night taught me it would get quite chilly, and here I am in nothing but a light cotton shift that’s soaking wet. I make sort of a teepee out of my dress by putting my arms inside and pulling it over my head and down below my feet. My background in Chinese medicine has taught me that it’s crucial to keep the kidneys (the storehouse of our life-force energy) warm, so I placed my fists on them, keeping the wet material away. Next, I call on my sound-healing repertoire and remember how ancient Tibetan monks could melt the Himalayan snow through breath and recitation of sacred syllables, the “Five Seed Syllables of the Warrior Mind.” Breathing and chanting within my steamy one-woman tent both warms and calms me. I realized it would be a long night, and that Spirit would ultimately either take me or leave me; either way I was okay. I would just keep breathing and chanting as long as I could… and I surrender myself to the night, to the jungle, to whatever might come.
After a while, I realize I’m not chanting alone. Other voices are with me – “go Spirits!” I think. Then I hear “Valerie!” and realize these are human voices. A lot of them, and they are nearby and calling MY NAME! “I’m here, I’m here!” is all I can manage to get out. A long moment later, the light of a headlamp shines through the trees and a man appears. A strong glorious man, a warrior, a tracker, a Godsend! (Later I learned that it was Miguel, the youngest of the Secoya elders come to rescue me.) All my bravado vanished in an instant, I blurt out something elegant like, “Uieiuagheujsijeoijaweuru!” and Miguel, recognizing I could barely walk, hoists me out of the gulley on his back. (I was told later I had ended up an impassable lagoon just behind, and minutes away from, the elders’ cabin.)
Miguel deposits me into the sturdy embrace of my friend Duff who arranges for food while Josep (pictured), the young companion to the elders, prepares a warm bath infused with rainforest flowers and plants. It’s hard to describe how comforting it is to come back to the safety of your kind, to know that people are looking for you and ready to receive you with food, care and words of welcome. As in the old stories, my body was revived through the healing power of water and plants, my heart through love, and my spirit upheld by forces greater than anything visible on Earth.
And this is where my story BEGINS. For it’s not in the telling of a story, but in the living of it that we learn and grow. My night in the jungle was just the beginning of my Initiation on the Yage Trail. Many hard tests came in the wake of this journey, a slew of lessons I am still trying to figure out. I’m still integrating what I lost and what I found, still sorting out who I was before and who I might be now. All I know for sure is "I'm here" and, through it all, Noodle stayed with me and is with me still, washed clean of jungle grit, and I know that no matter what happens, we will never leave each other.
Elder "TinTin" becomes fast friends with Noodle