Other moments in life are fleeting and seemingly insignificant....
My month’s rental was coming to an end, and as often the case, my next moves were still unknown. I had long forgotten about my reply to Jessica’s Facebook advertisement for photographer in her upcoming Jungle Ayahuasca retreat, when I received her call. Jessica’s retreat fit nicely into the unknown, and I had never spent much time in the jungle of Peru - I had responded without hesitation or much consideration, as spirit guided me to reach out. Jessica called to let me know that I was the one she had chosen and ask when we could meet and confirm the details. Our first meeting was intriguing and exciting, learning about this wondrous courageous woman and anticipating the 7 day adventure ahead. Conveniently, my bags were already packed.
Jessica Bertram: Born in Germany with a Peruvian soul, fluent in English, Spanish and Quechua, mother of two Peruvian daughters, member of the School of Traditional Shipibo Medicine, with 22 years experience leading tours into the rainforests of Southeastern Peru - and family of the Harakbut People.
The Harakbut Tribes of the Madre de Dios River were discovered in the 1940’s and today consist of a population of only 2000. Within this group are the Huachipaeri and Amarakaeri people, amongst other tribes - all of which suffered greatly in their years of first contact with Catholic Missionaries, which continue to have a very real presence in their lives today. With the introduction of white supremacist missionaries, the majority of Huachepiri people were wiped out by diseases, leaving only 200 people left today to tell their story. Victoria, our hostess, Huachipiri woman and matriarch of ‘Grandma’s Home’ Retreat, is one of these rare people, sharing the tale of her father’s ‘first contact’. Today, ‘mission’ imposed beliefs and dependancies have left the Harakbut necessarily redefining themselves in stark contrast to their parents and grandparents generations. A fast changing world has forced the Indigenous worlds of the Madre de Dios River to conform in the ultimate confrontation of capitalist/consumer civilisation.
Jessica Bertram too shares a big history, that lead her directly into the arms of the sacred medicinal plant Ayahuasca. For the last 16 years Jessica has been working with Ayahuasca (also referred to as the Grandmother), and contributing to the community by facilitating healing ceremonies, both to bridge the gap between self and identity, as well as between ancient cultural values and introduced (now somewhat internalised) Catholic ideals. Twelve years ago, Victoria could barely breathe and the doctors told her that she was going to die and there was nothing to be done. Jessica met Victoria in the throes of her illness, and through Jessica’s Ayahuasca treatment, Victoria was able to heal herself from a ’shrunken lung’, the consequence of a life burdened with divorce, abuse and colonisation. Together, their commitment to the healing practice of Ayahuasca is secured in the humble retreat space that they have built.
Nestled deep in the banana plantations of the jungle, accessible only by boat, are the huts that home the hearts of those wanting to expand and heal. Here, in this buzzing and alive corner of the world, lives Victoria, her second husband Albert, and Victoria’s two sons, Jose and Steve. I was brought along to Grandma’s Home as the photographer, to capture the essence of their work and their space. What I experienced was one of the richest encounters of my life, an invaluable first hand experience learning, growing and loving (and painting) with ancient people of the lands.
Our little huts awaited, as we huddled around Victoria and Albert who welcomed us and gave us a few guidelines to liven in the jungle. Don’t walk off on your own, wear socks with your sandals, and listen… always listen. The sounds of the jungle would teach us lots over the coming days, if we would just learn how to listen. Our intimate group of four included a Canadian school teacher, two medical students studying the health benefits of Ayahuasca, a Swedish film maker and myself. Together we humbly joined Jessica and the family and embarked upon an experience that would stay with each of us for the rest of our lives.
The days that followed saw us creeping through viney jungle, wading through pebbled rivers, drinking sacred water from bamboo, identifying Puma tracks from Tapirs, rafting through Amazonian waters whilst bird watching, learning about plants that cower when you touch them and others that hurt you to heal you. We Immersed ourselves in the healing natural hot springs, ate at least 10 different meals made of bananas at different stages in their ripening process, and appreciated every spare moment we had to simply breath, rest and consolidate the plant teachings from our three powerful ayahuasca ceremonies set amongst howling nocturnal monkeys and noisy giant jungle rats.
As meals were being prepared, we would curiously peel back pages of a giant folder, lovingly packed with an extensive collection of rare historical photos, photos of bare bodies, marked with the traditional wito* designs, as the pages turned the clothes began to creep in, the occasional image presented the catholic priest, surrounded by the people of the jungle, characteristically out of place, on mission to convert, conform and ultimately control. Jaws dropped at the incredible nature of such images, whilst both Alberto and Victoria identified family and friends from generations passed. Many persons they recalled are still alive, an ancient testament to worlds of extreme transition.
One day as the others were asleep resting, I sat with Victoria and Jose, threading beads onto necklaces that were to be given as offerings to the guests. As we threaded, I asked questions in my broken Spanish, and was privy to absorb the energy of Harakmbut family life, as jokes were made between mother and son, I understood the meaning without understanding words; marriage was the topic and Jose was the subject - being of the same age as Jose, and recognising the banter, I recognised again that some things in life cross cultures - indeed we are closer to one another than we might think at times. Victoria gifted me a monkey tooth and a piece of iguana skin. I painted her hair with Wito to cover her greys. The intimacy of the moments shared will stay with me forever.
No two ayahuasca ceremonies are ever the same. Most of what we experience is unable to be shared in words - and so, it seems fitting that our second ceremony left us somewhat speechless, having been escorted into multidimensional universes all existing simultaneously, past present and futute, now and only now in all of our minds and hearts… Let’s simply say that something BIG happened and I wouldn’t dare try to tell you about it.. It was clear, however, that things would never be the same for any of us.
Tobacco Insights and Breakthroughs
The two young medical students who joined the retreat encountered ayahuasca for the first time. One of them had clearly been a big smoker upon arrival, each break we took on our 5 hour drive to Manu saw him lighting up a tailor cigarette and puffing away as if his life depended on it. By the second ceremony, we could hear him crying out for help, for he believed that the tobacco was going to kill him and he was evidently afraid. He didn’t smoke another cigarette for the rest of the week, and I doubt he would ever touch a tailor cigarette again. On the other hand, if it were not for the sacred Tobacco, Mapacho, I do not think I would have made it out the other end. I give thanks for my reunion with a sacred medicinal plant that supports me in being grounded, centred and safe.
Though it was not my first priority, I was definitely hoping to have the opportunity to honour my hosts by painting them into their world… As part of my Emerging Earth People project, I aspire to recognise our indigenous origins through the people who have lived in harmony with the earth - and simultaneously be part of the SHARING of history… but as I have learnt along the way, 'mutual enthusiasm' is paramount and creating this experience/artwork was not my agenda in any way. Nevertheless, Victoria and Alberto were wanting to be painted and chose their special tree for the occasion. It was my first time painting people into the world who spoke a different language to me, which definitely added an extra challenge, but nothing that would hold us back. As we merged, Jessica swatted gigantic ants and mosquitos, and the two held one another as lovers do, whilst I honoured them for their creation of ‘Grandma’s Home’. The outcome, more than a million words. Ancient Love Lives on.
When it was time to leave, we bid our gracious hosts farewell, and each received a threaded gift, as a memory of our time together. Mine had a little frog on it, reminding me again of the frog medicine that has been appearing before my mind’s eye every ceremony... Our farewell was heartfelt, and a little bit sad - we had become family in a very short time, worlds apart united through our willingness to learn, heal and grow.
Giving thanks, Dákichi, for my time in the jungle, as I await the opportunity to return again to Grandma’s Home, one day.
For more info www.grandashome.com coming soon!
Photography and Web Design by Orly Faya
*wito - a natural dye that comes from a tree in the jungle.