Shatter

Oh shit…..   here we go again!!!

Standing on top of the launch tower at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre, astronaut Kathryn Thornton was savouring her last moment on Earth. It was night, the air was sick with tension but the sky was full of stars.

“It’s a very strange thing to find yourself in a moment when everythinthornton2g is about to fall apart,” says the astronaut, then mission specialist on the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery and since veteran of four space flights and 639 orbits of the Earth during 975 hours off-planet.

“I remember standing there, looking at myself in a space suit, and wondering: how has it all come to this?

Her view was spectacular. NASA’s Florida Space Centre is set between the sea, illuminated that night by a mid-winter moon, and a vast, empty landscape touched in the distance by city lights. “I stood there trying to soak it all in; life became hyper-vivid: those last breaths of natural air, every fragrance, the breeze – every tiny thing was heartbreakingly real.”

Which is how it feels, isn’t it, when things around you shatter?

rocket1 In the next few moments Kathryn’s world was exploded by 22,680 kilograms of thrust set off by controlled explosions so vast they hurtled the 4.4 million pound shuttle she was on  to a speed over 3700 kilometre per hour!!! in seconds. She was on the dark side of the atmosphere in less than one minute. Which kind of terror looks and feels, vulnerably, like this….

There, floating in an unfathomable silence, outside the embrace of gravity, where we gaze toward heaven, but which is actually bereft, Kathryn discovered why sometimes it takes loss to come to grips with love.

spacegirlInterviewing her for a magazine, I was spooked and inspired by the parallels of her experience with my own, lately, of sudden change, explosive forces, disorientation… loss.

In those moments before she blasted into space, she was describing exactly how I feel.

When things get immense, when something precious is lost, there can be a feeling of skating close to an abyss. And this can switch through a bone-scraping dread to such an escalation of the senses, of attention to the minutia of life, of the things that hold us to the little blue planet, that every little thing explodes into Technicolor.

And it can surf too close to that feeling of… falling.

But then, by sheer force of will, sometimes, you pull yourself up. And through what?

In my case: the sea.

wave1The umbilical wordless preciousness of saltwater. The warm fizzy exhale of every little bubble on the fractal skins. The unfathomable, homely ancient rhythm of tumbling waves. Light through a crystal. The exquisite, hopeless curvature of a tiny ball of sand, made by a crab.

IMG_5653In my life, grief has been a wild yoyo ride through a euphoria IMG_5100of tenderness – clinging to the earth through swings of despair sometimes, holding onto hibiscus petals, the tendrils of a passionfruit vine, wisps of pretty clouds as I spit out the bitter taste of infinity.

So that, even if I’m crawling to get there, I end up, more or less, feeling ripped open – in a good way.

In yoga, all of life is a practice for this. We practice endurance, steadiness, self-reflection (does that mean honesty?), forgiveness, courage… grace if we can – on the mat, and hopefully at least four feet away from it, on our way out the door, so that one day we can draw on those virtues when we really, really need to.

And we all will.

Because we all die.

If you did, dig, dig, scratchy, dig, claw, bite down into what the spiritual practices are really about, then I think it may all boil down to just two things.

In yoga, anyway, at final ; ), there is an encouragement to realise that it’s happening now – there’s an attempt to gently coax the living human being to realise, fulfrogly, and with gravity, that life is really now – it’s an exquisite inter-connected miraculous, heart-breakingly beautiful ride, and you can miss the splendor of it – in a dewdrop, a bite of toast, on a prayer mat made of cardboard, or in a break-up – it’s the whole cascade – so be careful not to spend your life turned inward, arguing with the terms.

The practice aims to give us tools so turn off our critic, our commentator and just say, Wow!!.. check it out!!… ouch!!… that was intense!!! Wow! Man! Hey! Christ! Woooo! Ouch! Aaaah! Noooooo…. Oooooooo K then, … to. all of it!

This is Life! Can you believe this shit???

And secondly, it’s preparing us to lose it all.

This is a more quiet teaching. One that’s very hard to give, because it is so hard to receive.

The more you become present with life, the more you come to know, to fathom in ways you hardly dare to imagine, what it means to love it. How beautiful and courageous that is.

And that you are going to lose it.

die2

Life’s losses, pains, separations, grief, despair and everything – are also preparation for that.

So in the end, it’s a cruel stroke. The practice deepens your compassion, your connection, your bond to life – all around you – and at the same time it heightens your awareness that this will all be taken from you. That in the end you will lose it all: the taste of saltwater, the feeling of the fizz-kiss from every tiny bubble surfing in off the Pacific, your name, your body, your hobbies, beloveds – everything!

angelIf we spend much time reflecting on that I believe we might find… humble.

Fear, remorse, bargaining, denial, struggle…. maybe those as well – it’s accountable.

In those moments – that’s when you really want your yoga – whatever it is. What is it that calms the mind-stuff and creates a yoke strong enough between you and your self that you can steady that shit down?

A very dear friend of mine spent his life as a remote rescue paramedic. The guy on the wire in wilderness rescue. I last spent just a few minutes with him (he died some years later, on a wire in a waterfall) over the bar at a high school reunion where he was telling me, because of his job, that he had seen, since our graduation, a lot of people die.

I wanted to know what that was like.

I think he ordered Scotch. “You die fighting, or you surrender,” he said. “When they surrender it is a beautiful thing to witness – it is profoundly beautiful.”

“And when they don’t?” I asked him.

“It is like watching a creature shatter into a million pieces, He said. “It is pure horror.”

He said he had made a lot of changes in his life, having watched all this. He said all of life is a practice for dying well. “It really matters – there is something different, something terrible in what’s left of a body by a soul that could not let go.”

And we’re all coming to that junction.

die1Whether you have a car crash, a fall, a heart attack or die in a nice chair by the fire, we’re all coming up to it, and so as much as the trials of life prepare us for more life, in the end, what skills they give us prepare us, really, for the end of life – for that time when you are amazed to realise that this time there’s no fix.

This is the great scrape that takes not only the scales, but the light out of your eyes.

die4 In her little rocket, Kathryn Thornton and all the other astronauts, had been profoundly, rigorously, scientifically prepared to not have that moment. To not lose their cool as they approached the ultimate metaphor for being alive while you die.

‘Cos, logically, the last thing anybody wants to deal with in tin can full of folk in outer space is a freak out.

earth4The astronauts are put through largely unnecessary logical and sequential steps of operation at that time for the singular reason of manipulating their neurochemistry so that they do NOT activate pathways of peptides anywhere near the brain’s flip-out zones of survival. They keep busy, and that, for the crucial minutes (and the whole flight, really) keeps the crew from certain ‘realities’ that could reasonably cause any individual to shatter in a million pieces.

The weird thing is, despite all the vast resources of the world’s military brilliants – and all we ‘know; about the human mind: it turns out that almost none of NASA’s (or anybody else’s) astronauts were exactly ‘professional’ in those first moments in deep space.

When astronauts – of any nation – push out through the atmosphere into space, at the critical moment of separation, those who don’t fall into the greylands of despair enter a bliss-state, an awe, a rhapsody, really. They don’t press buttons, flip switches, call in numbers to Ground Control.

They stop, fully enraptured in the wonder of the Earth. They speak in hushed tones, received at HQ: of wonder.

NASA calls it Overview.

Their research describes it as… emotional outbursts on entering orbit [that]are unanimous and last, on average, for 42 seconds.

Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the moon, said it like this:

“The nature of the universe is not what I’ve been taught. I can see the connectedness. I feel it. My whole body is extending, physically and mentally, out into the cosmos” earth2Another said, “Defenceless and vulnerable when faced with the ineffable, all I have left to me is a deep feeling that sends shivers through my core. I recognize it as awe, in its full and undiluted splendor”.

Astronaut Edward Gibson tried to explain the experience; “you see things as you actually see them, emotionally and viscerally as ecstasy and (with) a total sense of unity and oneness.”

 “You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe… The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you… to have inner peace.”

He said, “you develop an instant global consciousness … From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’

The Yogis call that Savikalpa Samadhi, or, सविकल्पसमाधि): a state of samādhi in which one’s consciousness temporarily dissolves into Brahman.

In this state, one lets go of the ego and becomes aware of Spirit beyond creation. The soul is  able to absorb the fire of Spirit-Wisdom that “roasts” or destroys the body-bound inclinations and experience its own bliss.

Philosopher David Loy said, about Overview, “To have that experience of awe is, at least for the moment, to let go of yourself, to transcend the sense of separation… integrating, realizing their interconnectedness with that beautiful blue-green ball.”

Which I don’t think is quite right. It’s not only about love for the Earth, it’s about love itself.

I think they were, because of the yoga of their training, holding steady, witnessing the moment when they transmuted what could have turned up as struggle, but became surrender – which is, as all the doctrines teach, at essence (if you ignore all the other carry-on); an ecstasy at the very core of everyday life – if we can only find a way to it.

Kathryn Thornton told me it was ‘wonder’. She told me it was ‘love’.

earth3 “Then, as I watched the Earth, heart-struck – the sun came up, shafting through the layers of atmosphere, it split into a rainbow, travelling fast, like a multi-coloured snake across the edge of the planet illuminating everything it touched, and I was….. there are no words for that.”

This morning I woke up feeling like I’d accidentally ridden a rocket outside the skin of our bubble. There was an abyss all around me. I was thunderstruck with grief. Dogs of regret, shame and loss were hunting me down, and I had nowhere to go but to run: run to the sea, to make it go away.

I was in space, without a window, and even the frame of this long beach on the wide, deep Pacific would narrow my abyss.

I was feeling them: those million tiny pieces, and teetering between shattering and grabbing on to my feeble routine for support, I ran to the sea for stars.

I walked in, full of remorse, offering prayers, knowing I had offended the graces that had offered me a magic I had wounded.

I swam for two hours, letting waves hit me and caress me. I added tears to the brine. I felt the huge expanse all around me, and let the little bubbles remind me of the sucklefizzle wonderful that is being alive.

diving-bubbles I saw pelicans, diving into breakers, the sun glinting off a single feather as the lush ash clouds of Garua swept the coast. I saw the distant plume of a whale, breathing out.

I drew on the miracle meeting in a Cuenca souvenir shop, of a man who makes lights, whose voice makes me rise and fall in the same note, who wears the pants, (and my Fedora as well) – who had caught me mid-tumble, through another bad surrender, and taught me how to do it.

And who was having me let go, just as I was falling in love with everything.

Eat shit and die…

It was a long ride out. About two years, in all… but the final push was a grind, lurch, scramble out of Cuenca, through sunsnakes that rose over the baked-down rubble and concrete to Guayaquil’s inconvenient bus terminal, before plonking down in the right seat on the wrong bus.

There was a slight commotion that I was too sick and hot and had too much lactic acid in me to handle. Ecuadorians were trying to shove me about. There was a lovely copper Madonna with an infant no bigger than a kitten, wanting to be in 27F where I was sitting, like a muffin in a tin. But I wasn’t going to put up with it. I didn’t want to move. I actually thought I couldn’t… I was just that buggered.

“You don’t want to sit here,” I told her. “I’ve got typhoid. Typhus. Deadly illnesses?? Kapish? Just sit anywhere else.. anywhere… please…” I said in English, because I had not the required mineral compounds left in me to muster any Spanish at all. The bus was infested with empty seats: everywhere. And since my allotted spot was being spilled over by a pig-fed man who reeked of beer, I considered myself the victim of a domino-effect. It was their country; they could deal with it.

I was just going to sit here frumpily, and try not to die.

In the end it was all my fault.

I was on the bus to Godknowswhereville. And so the whole goddam thing started all over again.

I left the Andes, at last, and for good, with two bags bulging at the valves, one yoga mat, six hats and a hammock. I had open wounds below my navel where Javier, the puppeteer shaman had stabbed me with his red-hot obsidian wand and told me to ‘get some Temperance!’, a notveryinspring entrepreneurial experience with Argentinians, and bad blood.

The weeks leading up to this simple , triumphant act of common sense had been a ridiculous crescendo of freak badness, knife-business and the complete and total corrosion of my faith in expats, amphetamines, Chilean wine and Transcendental Meditation.

In terms of dimensional realities, I was in a realm near Purgatory. Which is, in fact, in all possibility, the perfect archetype for Cuenca.

(Wiki) Purgatory:, according to Catholic Church Doctine, is an intermediary state after physical death in which those destined for heaven “undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of The Blessed Kingdom“.

The experts say that Purgatory, in Christianity, is a transcendental realm, while others (such as the Jews) see it as a place with Terrestrial Geography, but academics dismiss that idea, rationally, as poetic.

.. but is it?

After three months in Cuenca, and plenty of time under her billowy skirts, beside her moody, delinquent, fang-toothed river (the Tomebamba, or bloodriver), and in so many of her 52 identified churches (and thousands of other unrecognized sacred sites and killing fields), I had come to know a side of Cuenca that no Catholic would dare fathom, most expatriating Americans bumble through without the vaguest notion of, and for which the only sensible genres of expression are paint, pork fat, poetry and pot.

I made four friends there: an elegant painter with a silver pony tail, nicotine-stained fingers and lovely suits, washed to a frail shine, and scented with the husks of miraculous thinking. He was most emphatic about my situation: get away from that man: forever! Never let go of that dog, “Promise me, NOW!”; meditate – and visit more often.

The waiter at my hostel spoke a Ringo Starr-style of English and watched over several weird lurches in my biography from December to May, including the ‘fondling incident’ last Christmas which has been cursing and bubbling and spitting evil phlegm at me all day… (wanting to be told? Wanting to be avenged? Wanting to be understood?).

It happened at dusk, in the popular public garden of our hip hostel, a favourite haunt for back packers and Cuencanoes, especially at sundown. I was with a young man, a 4-year-old girl, and her drug-and-booze-and-betrayal-ravaged sugar mummy: expats  from Vilcabamba (where else?)’. The couple were navigating a precarious bridge out of their former lives as decent people into what he called ‘authenticity’ and she called ‘Elfdom’, and which was wearing me pretty thin. She was under a strict regime, prescribed by her young beau, as part of her Quest for Real Womanhood after being abandoned and humiliated by her ex, who had won a prize for his Machiavellian economics offered by Sir Richard Branson – an entrepreneurs’ retreat on a private island – during which he had developed such a passion for the culinary delights provided that he had spent a great deal of his time, as it transpired, fucking the raw food chef.

He had returned to the Valley of Strange Fruit (that’s for you, Galvino – give me a link to the book!) to tell his wife and baby daughter that he had been ‘en-lightened’ and would thusly shrug off the shackles of matrimony forthwith to partake in orgies of Latino thigh, acid, booze and other splendors associated with being 28, rich, free to do what he liked in Ecuador, and absolved by alimony.

Hi 40-year-old burden to joy was thusly, publically ‘set free’ and had spent the ensuing year being mostly drunk.

These days, she lived by her 32-year-old lover’s regime for untold bliss in Ecuador, which hinged around an obligatory morning beverage of marijuana-steeped tea, day-long intake of the local elixir, Cana, sex in public places and screaming matches, which were all rituals designed to help her self-express.

On his part, the young beau lived on her voluptuous adultery cheques, took off whenever he felt like it, screwed as many nubile tourists as he could get away with, and philosophized ad-nauseam about his adventures unyoking his spirit from the cruel social norms of a deranged Western society to connect with what he called the deeper, realer, more primal life-forces of South America.

The pair are classic examples of some of the expats living in Ecuador: dismantling their lifestyles and cultures from other places, making it rich on cheap land, pushing moral, social, legal boundaries that would only ever be crossed by criminals where they came from.

On this evening, as they swooned about in a fermented sugar delirium, the little girl was dancing about in the dusty garden at the hostel when an unholy thought flit-flat-fluttered across her infant mind, seized her little body and caused her to march up to the beau with a very clear request. “Take off your pants,” she said.

Eyebrows were cocked. Marlboro were sucked at. And the beau, recognizing a moment to free himself from even more fetters of a deranged first world society, dropped his orange cotton trousers and let his blonde dick, snug as a sleepy seahorse, sniff the Ecuadorian breeze.

The little girl dropped to her knees on the dirt, thoroughly delighted, and proceeded to stroke and pet, to whisper and gently blow upon the little penis, fondling it with tenderness, whispering to it and beaming like an angel in a pose of adoration as her mother smiled on benevolently.

Myself, I was catapulted into a state academically known as moral panic. I dashed off to fetch my sarong and draped the young Swede about the waist, (blushing curator, abashing Michelangelo?) which the little girl, in a gesture so swift and decisive it reminded me of something an adult would do, promptly ripped off the shroud and resumed her worship. The sun sank over us in a syrupy lava, the little penis, through some feat of abstract mathematics, remained at ease, and the sugar mummy cracked the brains off another bottle of cana.

A chill breeze announced another Andean night, trousers were raised, the music turned up, and, touched by the special light of even more authenticity, the beau set off to do some abstract dancing around the arthritic fire behind us.

There were spectacular moments most days, throughout which the waiter Beatled- about, polishing glasses, providing a steady supply of nice cold Club beer, matches and an even gaze as he asked me, at precarious moments, “are you going to be ok?” To which I smiled weakly and rushed off saying, “I only ever cry in my room.”

The scene devastated and tormented me. Wasn’t that just totally inappropriate? Would that happen in a public garden in Sydney, San Fransisco or Madrid and be considered ‘normal’? Should somebody do something? And what?

My other friends included a Peruvian artist, Magico, whose tiny spare room I intended to rent for a month for $120 as I pieced my reality back together after this and other shocks. But I couldn’t in the end, because I was confronted beside the bloodriver, Tomebamba, by a junky with a very big knife. I was so utterly amazed by this experience that I became completely fluent in Spanish and was able to tell him, “Are you freakin’ jokin’, mate? I am Australian!”

He waved the knife about menacingly, shoving me toward the bushes, and I was saved by a Seventh Day Adventist Minister who happened to be passing by, causing said ruffian to flee (with my cash, but not my honour) and advising me to thank God for my life and to get a habit or a husband, pronto!

I got quite sick after that. Magico repaired me with guacamole and chocolate cake. He said I needed to be careful of Gringos – they didn’t understand anything about South America – and even though he had sprinkled my new bed with rose petals, I couldn’t move in: I wanted to be somewhere closer to alcohol.

He took me, for an intervention, to his Ecuadorian shaman friend, the man with the obsidian tattoo wand. He stripped me naked in his medicine room, lashed me, cracked me, hit me with stones, rubbed me with crystals, read my tarot and whipped me with feathers. His diagnostic instrument was a cigar. He smoked like a train, blowing the resinous fumes across my body, peering at the tobacco leaves for metaphors in the ash, and then holding it to me to show me the two demented faces that had clearly appeared in its smouldering shaft. “See thees?” he wheezed. “And thees?”

“You be have de very bad spirits. They be watching you – all de time. They be living here!” he poked me below the bellybutton. “They be bringing you de devil! You need only de light, si? You be living from Now! Today! Oy! Only de light and nothing, nothing, nada de nunca of de darknesses.”

I felt a lot better after that, but as days rolled on I wavered, and all of a sudden, at the Museum of PumaPongo, I realized I was still feeling sortof darkish, so I went to the hospital. Thereupon I made another friend; Dr Favio, of Internal Medicine, who had a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi on his desk and said, after I had broken my own rules and cried on the laminate, “es possible you be having de typhus. How you say? De Tyhpoidius? Tyhpoid? Yes! You have been eating de very bad shit.”

Tyhpiod is a nasty business that one embarks on after, one way or another, eating human shit. Carried by a fly, mixed into a smoothie by dirty fingers, served up on a plate somewhere, washed in soupy waters in an establishment bereft of toilet paper in the staff squat – it’s a sticky thought.

Interestingly, around 430–424 BC, a devastating plague, which some believe to have been typhoid fever, killed one third of the population of Athens, including their leader Pericles. The balance of power shifted from Athens to Sparta, ending the Golden Age of Pericles that had marked Athenian dominance in the Greek ancient world.. and the end of the Goddess Age represented by Greece, and a shot in the arm for warrior cults.

During the American Civil War, 81,360 Union soldiers died of typhoid or dysentery.In the late 19th century, typhoid in Chicago killed an average of 65 per 100,000 people a year. The worst year was 1891, when the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 people.

In nations untouched by patriarchal forces of engineering, education, basic hygiene and medical laboratories the basic sequence of typhoid is: eat shit, feel crappy, rupture an intestine and die.

Luckily in Ecuador, despite the gringo’s malice toward the evils of Western medicine and pharmaceuticals, said patriarchal forces are well intact, and ten days of antibiotics, five pain killers and a $6 bus ticket OUT OF HERE were sufficient to not only save my life, but provide spectacular conjugations in ‘reality’ that would cause me to get love-struck, stumble into paradise and put Evilcabamba behind me.. almost.

Yesterday though, even as I quietly restore my allegiance to the Light in an unknown pueblo, kooky forces from the Valley of Bad Hoodoo made shadows in the radiance. A nasty couple there, be-spoilers of my reputation, and heinous drug addicts, pushers and dealers, accidentally crossed my radar on facebook.

Shar Hook Jones and her husband, Will, were (of course) using God as their Righthand man as they spouted off to potential renters and victims of their healing centre cuml cum pit of corruption about how they wished prosperity and joy to all.

I couldn’t help myself. I was singed by certain ironies to do with how these people connive to survive out here by peddling to dreamers, escapees and believers an online conspiracy about their competence in plant medicines, love, family values and the radiance imbued by the beautiful wild (going cheap) when what they really do is smoke hell pot from fart to falldown, on a diet of coca-cola, social media, synthetic small goods and mayhem – all of which made possible by dubious activities in the US prior, and a budding new enterprise facilitated by their juvenile sons since arriving in Ecuador.

I am particularly miffed by this carry-on among gringos, so I petulantly messaged them about a certain large sum of missing moula, and whether God would also have a part in honouring debts and suchlike as a way to said joy for all?

To which they wrote, “Hey! You! Eat shit and die!”

Which s how they do things in Vilcabamba.

Blame it on the Sushi

A continuation of a one woman’s quest to make sense of various things  (and a small, fluffy dog’s endurance of it) ….

Well, it appears that most everything, still, hinges on secrets and lies.

Secrets and lies.

… and lashings of confusion, red wine and procrastination… if that’s what you call it!

After boldly declaring that I would Press The Red Button and discover why my enlightenment was not only vital to all humanity, and frogs and small things everywhere  – but just a click away online, I have thus far failed to hear Craig Hamilton’s alluring message.

I have, however, received a flurry of emails from his auto-mail device, coaxing me to Get Enlightened Now, for under $500, and am thusly rapidly loosing confidence in him as a truly mystical force in my life  – are True Mystics really that good with Mailchimp?

In a message to any readers out there… I want to admit that my last post was not as uplifting as it would need to be to increase my popularity as a Blogger, lunch date or writing teacher.

I am fully aware of that. And, frankly, don’t care much  – which could be a result of my ongoing failure at enlightenment. And it could be some sort of hormonal imbalance. Either way. For now, I know that I am failing to engineer this blog into a platform for either fame or profit. Possibly later, when I have a rabbit and a veggie patch, and a proper tea pot, I will be in a better mood and re-invent it as a way to make you all feel jealous of my marvelous life, and pay me money and other stuff to be my friend and tell other people you knew me when…

Secrets and lies.

Ah yes, there I was, so… after admitting I was feeling less than elated with the state-of-things lately, I was interested to receive a flurry of private mails from other souls equally shitty, but unwilling to hang out their knickers in public, in comments.

These people, like me, wrote that they were getting kindof desperate at the apparent failure of their own quests for happiness, despite diets heavy in kombucha, alfalfa and green smoothies. And despite decades, in some cases, of meditation, hypnotherapy, soul-searching, surrender, abandonment of white goods and vehicles, inheritance and previously illustrious lifestyles.

One wrote that she was nagged, like me, with a prowling sortof deepdown anger, a lumpy irritation that lurched about underneath her new life in the wilds of Ecuador, threatening to ruin the illusion that running away to nature is a cure for modern mood issues. She couldn’t put her finger on the problem – had blamed the moon, the tides, her boyfriend and the International Situation.

But after realisiing that her partner too, felt sortof cranky and clunky and ready to flip shit over, even though he is a role model for personal growth, community networking and Living in the Wild, they had decided to blame it on last night’s sushi – and see how the week unfolded.

They had also decided to Tell Nobody About It. Because admitting to moodiness, irritation, doubt, frustration or sadness risks both your popularity in Spiritual Communities, and your ability to make an income. It also tarnishes several of the central commandments of expat life, which focus heavily on everybody agreeing that we are Happier than those we left behind.

Here in Cuenca, after threatening myself with online seminars on How to Be Enlightened if I didn’t snap out of it, I dragged myself and the Princessa out of bed next morning to face another day of … what next?

I complained of bitchiness and tiredness and violent reactions to the endless bleat of car alarms, hooligans, traffic, rushing people in synthetic powersuits, passive-aggressive friendships and sirens here to my Ecuadorian host, and he looked at me with infinite compassion, saying, “There is the problem of the Neo-Liberalism.”

To which I said, “Are you enserio?”

He said, “Yes! This is the problem of the modern society – there is a brokenness of the true life. To be modern, the people have lost those things that make the life steady, and bring it to deep, and with the stability. This is family. This is knowing you are safe. Knowing that everything is always coming for you, that your roots are deep, deep, deep in the soil of your life and your people. You cannot have this, and what you call the freedom.”

Oh!

Shit!

Now don’t get the idea that this guy is wearing a poncho and a feather in his sombrero. No. This guy is some sort of computer engineer, an academic, social theorist, with a vivid and real-time interest in the political, economic, social and international possibilities of his country and continent – as well as in toasted sandwiches, hot chocolate with cheese and smoked pig.

He goes on, gently exploring my questions, my disappointments and my quest…. “The story that promises the people this thing they called the freedom – the travel, the adventure, the separation – this is the thing!,” he says. “The economy, and political ideas, they have been part of a story that has caused whole nations of people to leave their land, their home, their long story and the people in it for happiness, for money, for something. But this is what we are careful for in Ecuador. Our people have traveled for fortune all over the world, and then mostly, they come home. We ask: the true wealth? What is it? Is it all the possibilities? Or is it the trust, and the deep place you know when you are a part of a whole idea and a people and a story called your home?”

“There are things the people who call themselves ‘modern’ have lost that they cannot measure, because they are invisible things now  – like smoke. It is these things that make the gringos poor, maybe. They are poor because they have lost everything that makes us truly rich, and now they need to invent a new kind of home, a spiritual one, a life-style idea in their apartments, or a sortof shaman idea they can work on to make things seem good to them. Here, we don’t need these things. We don’t need a new home in our story because we know where we live, what it means to belong, even if the place and the people are not perfect – we can love this anyway, and accept it all, because there are things more deep and more real for the people – we love our land, and we love our people.”

We talked for a long while… and decided, apart from the horrible truth that I am quintessential victim right now of Neo-Liberal forces and all sorts of other illusions, I am in need of immediate and possibly brutal assistance: we needed to find a witch.

The fragility of my mood, according to Dani, is likely a combination of my various gringo-delusions, and accumulated doses of ill-will. He has no patience for the question of my failure to be enlightened as a possible issue in all of this, and whisks me off into the cold morning.

IMG_3623Cuenca’s witches can be found in several spots, on regular days, but the ones we set out for hang under the broken escalators at the central market, close to where we live. They are to be found sitting among baskets of cut flowers and herbs, surrounded by clusters of young mothers with babies. In line for their attentions are adolescent men and people in business suits. We wait in the frigid market for their turn to be whipped with flowers, spat at and diagnosed by one of a gaggle of tough chicks in braids.

The witches deal in herbs. They sell bouquets of leaves and blooms, posies and grasses in which they sit, surrounded by living cures for human ails, and laugh and eat fried trout as the Ecuadorians line up to be publicly lashed, rubbed with an egg and checked out for the chilling threat of the evil eye.

What is Evil Eye? Good question!

My local sources say it is bad energy, negative vibes, funky joojoo brought about by the jealousy or bad intentions of others. A case of Evil Eye can be brought about by just being looked at a lot, I am told, or by being looked at with malice.

In any case, it’s worth a check-up, so Daniel and Princessa and me head for the market and prepare for the worst.

Picking your witch is a matter of availability and intuition. The one we liked first had a queue. In the end, we decided on one who seemed kindly and sweet and slightly less brutal with her whipping bushel. She was plump with authority and about four-foot tall, with the trace-marks of the Andean sun on her cheeks. There were four customers in line before she could treat all three of us.

IMG_3681We had an hour or so, then to watch the whole show, sniff herbs and watch the market buzz with shoppers for chicken gizzards, slabs of fresh fish and colourful mountiains of tropical fruits.

The witches all use the same method: first is a rough whipping of the patient from top to bottom, back and front, with a large fragrant swatch of mixed leaves, flowers and herbs, while each healer whispers and sings to herself as the plants exhaled their scent, and the client flinches and smarts. A baby wriggled and screamed in our witches lap as we watched, there were writhing babies everywhere.

Tossing her bushel aside, the witch then passes an ordinary chicken egg over her patient’s body, rubbing the scalp, face, chest, belly and back before breaking the shell into a cut-down plastic bottle to read the diagnosis.

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In my case: bad news! The witch tipped her bottle toward me to show me the cloudy albumen, and a weak, sickly yoke which is textbook chook for a bad case of Evil Eye. Princessa had it too!

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In Ecuador, at the witches’ market anyway, there isn’t much hooha about a positive diagnosis. Nobody freaks out. There is no need to sign up for ongoing treatment, seminars or special diets. You are not accused of being unenlightened, egoic or contaminated by flouride, mercury or hostile aliens. You are simply warned to close your eyes as the witch takes a hefty swig of pure medical alcohol mixed with bits of plant and other mysteries, and blasts it into your face.

Blinded, and blasted into a world of overwhelming fumes and darkness, you are roughly spun about, your clothes lifted to expose skin on your neck, belly and back for further cold blasts with the booze, then dabbed with a black dot on your navel and forehead, and asked for $2. ($1.50 for the Princessa, which Dani scowled about, complaining of Gringo prices).

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And so it was that I was cured of Evil Eye, and the Princess and me began to hope for the best.

Malice in Underland – Part One

The Key to Enlightenment

I’ve never been one to ‘buy American’. I don’t go for Macs, Levis, Victoria’s Secret or Oreos. I will admit to contradicting for the sake of The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Annie de Franco, but in the main, no – I don’t ‘buy’ the American thing. Especially when it comes with Very white teeth.

So it’s a genuine mystery then, why I am snuggled up here in my noisy bed (listening to cheap Chinese car alarms fracturing the quantum field all around the frigid night), with rescue-puppy, Princessa, at my feet and a nice cup of purple flowers swooning in a hot tea beside me, waiting to download my Free Key to Evolving Beyond Ego seminar! I am even mildly excited.

The seminar was sent by a friend who loves me, and is…. concerned (I have cleverly deduced this through calm observation of the lavishing of gifts of books and CDs on Anxiety, Diet, Depression, Meditation, Quantum Physics, Intention, Spanish and neuro-chemistry she bestows upon me every time she sees me).

The seminar, arriving free, with all its cookies and spyware as we speak, comes highly recommended by this friend of mine, based on her life experience sorting through all sorts of heavy shit, including surviving and then escaping a violent marriage, bouts of severe depression, several close-call assaults in her home and on the street, and now a ruthless, debilitating illness that has crippled her in her autumn years.

She says it really helped her. She says it changed everything!

This friend, she always presents her gifts and nudges with a bubble. I mean by that, to help you imagine her, that if we were in a cartoon, she would be the one carrying the party balloon.balloonAnd I would be the one fretting over an abandoned animal.

My friend is always smiling and nodding and offering me her full attention. She lavishes me with listening and praise and encouragement. We hang out, not very often, in fact, and there is she – the broken, crooked, pain-struck one, tending to me and feeding me up, and me, I am sort of bewildered by all this attention, and nervous as well… because I have the sneaky feeling that my friend is really on to me.

She says I need to believe in myself more. She says I am amazing and special and powerful and that if I could only just do what’s right for me First, then I wouldn’t be wasting my time having lunch with her. I’d be off doing something….. else. Something like what? I am wondering. What am I supposed to be doing? What would be better than hopelessly, aimlessly, bedraggedly, befuddeldly and sort of desperately slow-spinning around a dead relationship, a stillborn dreamlife in the fucked-up wild, and a world obviously and utterly failing to be The Change we’ve been Liking on facebook?

We chat away like mad about our adventures, our men, whether to have the ceviche or the chocolate mousse, and the apparently plain fact that I need something – could it be the Free Key to Evolving Beyond Ego seminar?

Let me guess: You think not ?thinker

 

According to some who have judged me recently, this nomadic writing life I have is so darn freakin’ genius that I could be dipped in plastic and sold as Suck That! Barbie. These are mainly folk who have a co-dependent thing going with their alarm clock and a desk job and a car and maybe a spouse and a mortgage and pillows to fluff and leaks to fix and faithful dogs to have had to bury and wonder… is this all worth anything?

housewifeThey are folks who might feel trapped or worn out or un-glamorous in their steady homes, their ironed shirts, their Ikea home office and worn-in slippers. Who see the same view, more or less, from the windows they wake up to every day, and know where the corkscrew is.

Who are these days watching the elastic on their knickers give out from too much pressure, and have a mild sinking feeling that they are missing the whole show of Life, as they tend their teenagers, or their luke-warm marriages or their portfolios and worm farms.P1090899

They are people who think that to be loose in the world, scampering from hither to thither, climbing hill and lolling about in dale, meeting freaks and weirdos is what life was supposed to be about.

They think coffee with a wizard, wine with a reincarnated Knight of the Round Table on a quest to re-instate Camelot, a parting gift from a mad scientist who designs tools to blast toxic sludge from the ether, hanging with a guy who is late for work because he stopped in the park to give stitches to an injured bird and marching through the cornfields with a knightbrave soul fighting off land-grubbers and criminals to save the sacred wilds of the Andes before a lunch of lentils and cask wine with a renegade Colombian doctor who gave up chemistry when he realized he could heal in moments through a grace sung to him through the spheres… sounds like a pretty good week.

But I’m not so sure.

Maybe it’s overload? But my condition feels, in fact, like underwhelm!

I am underwhelmed with wizards, weirdos, wunderkind and just about anybody on a quest, or inspired by angels, or guided by spirit to save the planet, whisk up an ascension or support humanity as it evolves into the fifth, sixth, seventeenth or any other dimension. I am sick of dimensions. I am sick of reincarnated characters from Camelot. I am sick of car alarms, traffic lights, boozers, do-gooders, locked gates, synthetics, pool pumps, factory farming, resentful kitchen staff, Nescafe, raw food, the meat industry and the constant bickering, opinioning, teaching, shoving, blathering on, bitching-behind-backs, passive aggression and bullying that goes on. I am sick of know-it-all call center people and whipper-snippers.

Even though I am a triple-certified yoga teacher, Tantric practitioner, massage therapist, meditator, surfer, mountaineer and cancer survivor, dog-rescuer and have several orphans, lizards, moths and worms to my karmic credit, I am frazzled by loud car radios, thought today about smashing the windscreen of a sedan that was bleating its horrendous alarm for four hours straight, and became very annoyed when my rescue puppy seemed completely disinterested in the squeaky plastic chicken leg I bought her. IMG_3093And even though I don’t have insomnia, self-inflicted scars, anorexia or bitten fingernails I think I might still be slightly tense over the guy who held the knife to my throat in January, threatening a murder suicide, and the one who broke into my bedroom at 3am after my birthday to rob me, and the crazy bitch in Vilcabamba who reckons she is on a holy mission to destroy me because I took too long, in her opinion, to leave my boyfriend. Of the constant theft of what clothing, electricals and peace I have left, and the trauma of watching our beloved wilderness get turned into a shitheap, or luxury villas, or a theme park these last two decades.

On the brightside, I am in far better shape than this time two years ago in Ubud when I saw a dead mouse on the road on my way to a business meeting and broke down hysterically at Kafe, in front of all the yogis – tres uncool! – and lost the two friends I had managed to scrape together that year.

However, it is vividly plain to my friend here, and sneakingly possible-ish to me that I may indeed very well need something – and why not a Free Key to Enlightenment seminar?

Even if it comes in American. And features the razzed-up mugshot of a guy with Horribly too-white teeth. Which is, surely… a sign!craighamilton

No, Jade. It is a HONK from the Universe saying… Doh! YOU! There is nothing good gunna come from this…. There is nothing a guy with a corn cob in his gob, and a photo that heavily photo shopped can tell you that isn’t going to cause you to be persuaded to sign up for some dollar bill. This would be called a marketing strategy. Forget it. Back off. Turn away from the scary man, and get back to staring at the cheap paint in yet another strange bed, pretending to be Transcendentally Meditating. Now. Use the Power of Now, the Force, whatever… do not press play. Do not …

The thing is, I am getting the sticky kinda shameful feeling that a dose of disappointment, let alone outright fury at the general state of things seems like the only really appropriate response. Does this make me a Grinch? I mean, folks… come on! While various camps are still bleating on about how humanity is on the brink of illumination, teetering like angels on the pin-head of Darwin’s wonky pyramid, the evidence is everywhere that, actually… not!

Folks go on and on and on and on about the government, the banks, the illuminati, the patriachy and stuff…. but I see at tables everywhere, in parks, on sidewalks and the sleery cliques we love to boil up all sorts of basic nastiness boiling away among us – the so-called meek! Is that because I am projecting?

I am so weighed down by a sort of limp feeling at the garden variety failure of kindness all over the show that the word enlightenment, as in lighten up, has a real ring for me. But is lightening up similar to looking away? What does it boil down to? Where an it get me, and you and us, since we’re all in this together… no?

I will admit to bouts of the miseries over the last, hmm, incarnation, and I’ve tried everything else, god knows!

I’ve chanted in white gowns and poured milk on the cosmic penis, done fifty kinds of yoga, seen the molecules of ether that are the energy seeds of the universe, fasted, puked, shat in a bucket, ridden the mystic cactus, tangoed with the Vine of the Dead, scraped my tongue, called to Jesus, tee-totalled, drunk the whole case, smoked the whole packet, climbed the Himalaya, the Andes, the stairs to sacred places, rock ledges, waterfalls, icebergs, altars and weird parts of second hand bookstores everywhere… but in general, and in confidence, I can say, I think, that my irritation and impatience with this whole carry-on is actually getting worse.

It’s not that I set out to cure myself of irritability, or depression or anything much really. I set out to escape the too-straight streets of Sydney, the nasty underground politics of ‘a proper job’, gossipy neighbours, that sinking feeling as Sydney turned into a mega-slut-for- cash-real-estate-dollar and crushed all the daisies in her pocket… and to continue my life hobby of falling in love with the wild.

However, at Chapter 44 my condition does not correlate much to what I read in Eat, Pray, Love. And it is not what it says in Light on Yoga. It is not a risk ever mentioned by those who market Galapagos, Bali, Macchu Picchu, Ankor Wat, Antarctica, Vipassana, colonic irrigation or travel as valid investments of time and money… let alone as ways to preserve love for life, or even hope.pigeonsnepal

According to popular wisdom on the road (which is increasingly Chinese-funded, heavily policed and infested with shiny new 4wds wherever you go) any failure to be happy on the path (previously) less traveled can be put down ego-mania. Plain and simple. If you are failing to find access to God and the ‘it’s all good’ download, then you are clearly a failed lightworker and are contaminated with ego.

So – here we go! Enough ranting on. I am pressing play. Will report in tomorrow.

Shrink, Shrunk, Shrank – the ultimate face lift.

Cuenca, Ecuador, is the gorgeous once-Inca, suddenly Colonial, and now rapidly emerging medical epicenter of life in Ecuador. The charming little city is famously aflutter with rainbows, cathedrals, moody blue skies and all manner of medical wonderments.

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It’s the perfect destination, in fact, for the connoisseur of health – offering everything from state-of-the-art medical facilities to gorgeous hot springs, wild rivers inhabited by holographic virgins, sacred springs, witches’ markets, yoga schools and shamanic healers – all under a canopy of beautiful architecture and heavenly skies.

The more I poke about in Cuenca, the more marvels I discover, and some I almost wish I hadn’t!

Tucked away in a corner of the magical city, along its riverside promenade, Calle Larga, is a private museum I promised not to mention by name. This little gem is packed with art, tools, skulls and textiles from Ecuador’s rich past, but its real prizes are not on display, says the curator, because of modern day head-hunters!

I visited with a friend who knew what was stashed in the museum’s hidden corridors, and as can happen here in Ecuador, it took just a little coaxing for him to have the staff arrange an on-the-spot private showing of their most dangerously precious collection.

Heads. Tiny little shrunken ones.

ImageThe curator brought us one from her hiding place, tucked inside a lovely polished wood box, inlaid with velvet. She opened her suitcase-of-a-coffin in the lovely sunshine of a Wednesday morning and left us both agasp.

There are no words, really, for the site of a real-life shrunken head. It’s something utterly, err… jaw-dropping.

What lay before us was the incredibly well-preserved actual face of a real life person, shrunk to the size of a fist, with rosy cheeks, a flowing mane of luscious black hair and a stick poking out from its neck so it could be stood up for display.

A cross between a mummy, a wax statue and something you might buy to entertain a spoilt dog, the head caused the sort of cognitive dissonance you can actually feel in your brain.

ImageThe not-as-ancient-as-you-might-hope practice of severing, peeling and shrinking heads is a medical phenomenon which Ecuador’s warrior-surgeons perfected. It is also what saved one tribe, the infamous Shuar, from domination and obliteration by various conquistadors, including the most modern ones; missionaries and tourists.

Word of their head-shrinking habits protected them from snoops, gold hunters, God-botherers and even oil mining until very recently. Only the worst of the developed worlds’ ‘entrepreneurs’ would dare visit the Shuar – and those were mostly Westerners who sought to provoke and bribe Shuar murders to boost the supply in shrunken heads for their hugely profitable adventures on the curio market.
Today, genuine shrunken heads remain a prized delicacy on the collector’s black market. The museum curator says she has been offered more than US $100,000 cash each for her heads by unscrupulous-looking drop-ins, and that she is terrified of thieves.
Trade in the heads has been a fashion since colonisers were first ‘horrified’ by their existence. Back in the 1930’s shrunken heads were all the rage and fetched about $25. Today, online, you can buy a fake shrunken head for about $80 by mail-order at http://www.salangome.com but a real one is a prize that hunters will still kill for.

Early laws in Ecuador and Peru that severely punished trade in shrunken heads were specifically made to deter tourists from stimulating a trade in them, and encouraging murder to get them – and not to deter the Indians.

Which only makes them more valuable in certain circles, and adds to Ecuador’s challenges in protecting herself from bounty-hunters, because she boasts the finest shrunken heads in all the world.

ImageConsummate artists in head shrinking, Ecuador’s indigenous Shuar Indians remain notorious and dreaded for their passion for death, revenge and war… which seems strange really, because over their uncountable years as custodians of the forest they hardly made a dent in it compared to what developers and lifestyle-changers have done to the area (let alone the planet) in less than a hundred.
Their culture is deeply rooted in spiritualism, magic and war. Without priests as mediums to God, Shuar society depends on intimacy with nature and powerful hallucinogens to make direct, personal contact with spirits. And, according to anthropologists, the Shuar perceive every death in their tribe as evidence of a direct spiritual or magical attack requiring vengeance. Failure to exact revenge by means of murdering the culprit – even for a death we would attribute to natural causes – invites fearsome retribution from fallen ancestors. For Shuar, the successful murder of an enemy should be swiftly followed by the shrinking of their head to seal in their spirit and end the cycle of revenge.

And so the hunt begins. Perpetrators are first pursued through the cosmic realms by means of ritual. One identified, they are killed in real life, decapitated, with careful section of skin from the chest and back. The skull is made into a make-shift basket by means of the killer’s woven headband, passed through the mouth and the neck, as he escapes to begin the shrinking.

Inspecting the handiwork on the head before me at the museum, I can see that this is a very well-practiced skill. The head, now the size of an orange, with clearly recogniseable features, is perfectly preserved down to its eyelashes, lovely plump lips and, dare I say it… exudes a healthy glow!Image

The head has been peeled off the skull (which was likely tossed into a river somewhere as a gift to the sacred pani, the anaconda) has had its eyes sewn shut with fine native fiber and its lips closed and skewered with little wooden pegs. It has been simmered for approximately an hour and a half with spices, then been turned inside out for scraping before popped right-side around, like a sock, and shrunk again by dropping hot stones through the neck and rolling them around to prevent scorching.

Hot sand and stones were later applied to the exterior of the face to seal and shape the features. Surplus hair was singed off and the finished product hung over a fire to harden and blacken. Which would all have taken about a week, culminating in a forest ceremony where warriors make a hole in the top of their shrunken head to fasten it onto a chord so that it can be worn around its new owner’s neck.

Which all sounds terribly barbarian.. until you look into it and discover that as recently as WWII American soldiers were into taking heads of Japanese as souvenirs and relics for sale. Life magazine published a picture in 1944 of a young American woman posing with an autographed skull sent to her by mail from her navy boyfriend, and US troops taking heads in Vietnam caused a terrible fuss – which makes you wonder, really…   who are the real barbarians!

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