Day 146 – Plant Therapy – From Cocora Valley to San Pedro via Yoga

Word of the Day 

Dendrophilia: the love of trees. The term may sometimes refer to a paraphilia in which people are sexually attracted to or sexually aroused by trees.


Since starting my travels I have often oscillated from one extreme to another in an effort to derive some kind of balanced existence. This has taken many forms: periods of aggressive partying will be followed by abstinence and a renewed interest in the gym; after travelling with friends I have enjoyed some alone time (and vice versa); from the bustle of city life I’ve yearned for the tranquility of a beachside bungalow or a mountain retreat.

One of these switcharoos was required after the work I had put into my recent attempts at self-improvement. In search of relaxation and serenity my destination of choice was Salento, a breezy 9 hour bus ride through steep winding roads from Medellin.

Salento

Salento sits in what is known as the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Region, of Colombia, as its consistent year-round weather conditions are perfect for growing the stuff. It is a quiet little town surrounded by lush countryside which for me (and anyone old and British enough to remember) is reminiscent of the backdrop for Postman Pat, with hills and trees so green and perfect that they must be fake.

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Other than visiting one of its many coffee farms, which is a pleasant way to spend a few hours, you can also play Tejo, a Colombian sport/pastime (depending on who you ask, a bit like darts) which involves throwing heavy metal pucks at a gunpowder-filled target 20 metres away, creating a mini explosion on a successful impact.

My game, including a cameo performance from two visiting Profumos (hi Proffo and Steph) was, as usual, accompanied with a bottle of aguardiente, so we sensibly played the gringo version from half distance. Still, with the neighbours’ pucks whizzing past our ears at great speed we were relieved to emerge unscathed.

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Tree Love

The real draw that brings the backpackers to Salento is a tree – Colombia’s national tree – the wax palm, which is most prevalent in the nearby Cocora Valley.

I didn’t realise I was a dendrophile (not in the sexual sense, I might add) until recently but, on reflection, I have been fascinated and surrounded by majestic trees since my early childhood. Living in a house called Redwood, named after the giant conifer in our garden, I also loved the weeping willows of our neighbours, the towering oaks at my first school ‘Oakwood’ and the ancient yews of the nearby Kingly Vale (see below). The mystical power of trees is hard to put into words but Herman Hesse does a pretty amazing job here (thanks for the assist Julia).

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The wax palms of Cocora Valley are very different from all of the above but truly spectacular as these trees, sometimes growing as high as 60m, all trunk and no leaf, seem to have somehow outpaced evolution. With no obvious need to be so tall relative to one another or their neighbours they are really just showing off.

Often compared to the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, their dimensions and general appearance are certainly surreal. With the perfect sunny day and a mountainous backdrop we couldn’t help but keep taking photos.

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Yoga Love

Returning to El Viajero in Salento after 6 hours of walking, a free yoga session put on twice a week by this excellent and great value hostel (shout out to my El Viajero amigos) was the perfect way to stretch out and wind down. Yoga, a traveller staple, has not played a huge part in my trip but I have enjoyed it when available, always feeling energised and motivated by the practice.

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The yoga sessions in Salento were hosted by Vladimir, an excellent instructor with an immediately warm and loving energy. He was spiritual in a genuine and unforced way, and sang beautifully at the end of each class.

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I felt somehow drawn to Vladimir and was not surprised to find out that he was a practicing shaman. After my recent ayahuasca experiences I hadn’t been planning on taking any more plant medicine, but they say the plants call you when you’re ready, and I had a strange feeling that I was supposed to meet Vladimir at this time. It turned out he was hosting a san pedro retreat on the only 2 days I had free before meeting friends, cementing my belief that the universe wanted me there.

San Pedro

San pedro is an Amazonian cactus, one of the three main ‘power plants’ along with ayahuasca and peyote. Albeit less potent than ayahuasca, san pedro is also a psychedelic, well known for its healing properties and its ability to rekindle people’s love and enthusiasm for life.

Not having any ailments to be healed, nor feeling short of enthusiasm or love for life, I perhaps didn’t need a san pedro retreat like some of the other participants, but I thought it would be an interesting experience, and it was.

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The ceremony, conducted entirely in Spanish for 12 people, started at 10pm and finished at 11am the next morning, without interruption. We drank, chewed and ate the san pedro, also known as ‘huachuma,’ throughout the night while sat around a bonfire getting increasingly ‘chumado’ while singing and chanting with the assistance of tribal drums, guitars, panpipes, rattles and various other instruments. It felt a lot less weird than it sounds. No photos were allowed during the ceremony but this was the aftermath.

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We took turns to pass around the Talking Stick (that’s my inaccurate translation from whatever the Spanish was) whereby each person got to hold a stick and speak to the group about anything on their mind. My statements in Spanish were short and jovial, as the huachuma only made me feel a little silly and spaced out, but for many of the people involved this was an extremely emotional coming of age. Most of them cried some combination of happy and sad tears, and left the following day as new people, rather like I had felt after my ayahuasca experience.

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Perhaps the language barrier softened the impact of the shaman’s words, but for me it was an unusual and entertaining night rather than a life-changer. Having said that, watching the sun rise from complete darkness behind the mountains was a beautiful sight that I will never forget, as was this goat doing yoga on the verandah.

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Next Stop: Carnaval de Barranquilla

What is The Gump Method

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Day 33 – Ayahuasca Part I

HEALTH WARNING: THIS IS A BIT LONGER THAN MY USUAL POSTS

ALSO: LOTS OF WORDS AND NOT MANY PHOTOS FOR LEGAL REASONS 🙂


Ayahuasca is a psychoactive drink brewed from a combination of 12 sacred master plants growing in the Amazonian jungle. For centuries, the brew has been used as a traditional spiritual medicine by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin; the tourist trade for ayahuasca has only boomed in the last few decades.

Ayahuasca is a medicine rather than a drug, but as the drink contains concentrated amounts of the hallucinogen DMT it is illegal in most countries except Peru, where the government states that the “wisdom” plant “constitutes the gateway to the spiritual world and its secrets,” recognising ayahuasca’s status as “one of the basic pillars of the identity of the Amazon peoples.”

I travelled to Perpignan on the Southern tip of France for my ayahuasca retreat with 5 other curious travellers, only one of whom had previous experience of the medicine. Three ceremonies were planned over five days by our shaman Ru and his girlfriend Hannah, an energy healer. I had met them both a few months earlier at the Secret Garden Party festival and we bonded instantly. This is me hitting on Hannah (it’s ok, Ru took the photo).

Pomme d'amour

Half hippie half North London boy from the flats, a musician and ex-boxing trainer, Ru did his shaman apprenticeship over 6 months in the Amazon jungle. He is an incredibly spiritual but also totally normal and funny guy who I knew would be the perfect guide for my first ayahuasca journey.

In preparation for a ceremony the body needs to be cleansed. The term ‘Stoptober’ has been coined for giving up cigarettes in October but we stopped almost everything: with alcohol, meat, dairy, sugar, salt and processed foods off limits it was also Droptober due to the weight loss. We were even banned from sex, both with others and with ourselves (Floptober).

The reason for this cleanse is not only to show respect for the ‘divine goddess’ and the plants she represents but also to prepare the body for the ‘purge’ (vomiting) which occurs between 20 minutes and a few hours after drinking the thick, brown medicine.

ayahuasca brew

Each person comes to an ayahuasca ceremony with their own objective which is stated, in the mind, before their first drink. I had no particular yearning for a deeper understanding of anything, feeling I had already been on a spiritual journey in recent months, but Ru said something in the preparatory phase that helped bring me clarity:

“Plants don’t have spirits but all spirits have plants:”

After my walk in the Fontainebleau forest and a beautiful experience earlier in the day watching a hummingbird hawk-moth drain nectar from the flowers in the garden I felt a strong desire to connect with nature and asked ayahuasca to help me.

As night fell and the ceremony began one of the group was overwhelmed by emotion and started sobbing. We each took turns to drink our first cup with the shaman and return to our places. I felt reassured that my place was next to Andy, my best friend for the last 25 years, who would be with me on the journey.

I closed my eyes and waited. Nothing. After 15 minutes another group member started purging aggressively into his bucket. Nothing. Before long I realised Andy was on a magical mystery tour, giggling, mumbling and singing to himself as I sat there in complete darkness feeling nothing. Another hour passed and I took a second cup, still nothing. A few puffs of purple smoke were the only vision I had as I sat there, disappointed and frustrated that it hadn’t worked on me.

Two hours in there was a cacophony: multiple people vomiting loudly into their buckets, Andy having a whale of a time next to me bouncing around in the clouds and me sat there thinking “well this is shit.”

I felt like Oliver Twist as I knelt in front of the shaman and asked him for my third cup. Feeling a bit queasy by that stage I took my bucket with me, knowing that one more swig of the smoky, bitter liquid could send me over the edge, and it did. I puked violently into my bucket 5 or 6 times, still only thinking about what a shitty time I was having, and then sat back in my spot, swilled my mouth with water and blew my nose.

It is common for the visions to start after a purge, and as Ru broke out into one of his many beautiful and magical shamanic songs it started POW. With my eyes closed I was suddenly in a greenhouse with light streaming in from all angles. Space and noise were distorted as Ru sang, with tweeting birds and chirping crickets, frogs and insects providing the backing music. Next I saw kaleidoscopes of neon animal faces before my sick bucket became a menagerie with gorillas and monkeys and birds and plants growing everywhere. I suddenly realised how excited I was to write about this when a hippopotamus looked up at me lazily and said “stop thinking about your blog and focus on the animals.”

As I watched a pink flamingo preening himself I briefly panicked and thought “surely this isn’t my spirit animal?” but the flamingo flew away and was replaced by every animal I had ever seen. I went deep into the rainforest where every noise echoed through the jungle. I joined in and made a few noises of my own: drips and drops of water and then out of nowhere a “KAW” thinking I was a bird, which drew giggles from the other participants.

I found myself in the taxidermy shop on Essex Road in London where I bonded with the big stuffed giraffe that has been in there for years. I felt his pride and frustration as I connected with him.

As my body went into convulsions I felt the spirit of ayahuasca was inside me, giving me energy. When Ru came over to check I was ok he spoke to me as a lion. I giggled as he turned into a hummingbird hawk-moth, then a baboon, and as he played the xylophone beautifully in my visions he was a fly, beating down left-right-left-right on the instrument with his big, bulbous eyes.

Then I was a frog being rescued from the pool in our Hamptons house, before finding myself in a garden populated by all the family dogs from over the years who are no longer with us: Billy, Louis, Rufus, Amber and Baxter; all smiling, wagging their tails and turning over to be tickled before going into their own doggy dreams.

Very briefly I was Indiana Jones, Andy was the BFG, Jackie (not even present) was a mermaid and Hasina was a tree, but mostly it was just me and the animals. Whenever we got carried away Ru said “tranquilo” to calm us down. While there is no dialogue allowed with anyone other than the shaman, Andy, Hannah and I were clearly bouncing off each other’s trips as the laughter at times became uncontrollable. Each of us was given a special time with the shaman called ‘Limpieza’ where we were cleansed and asked what we needed help with. In the height of my high I didn’t really know what I wanted but asked for help in finding my spirit animal. Ru said “maybe you won’t choose one, but all of the animals” as he presented me with a turquoise pendant necklace.

I had been waiting for him all night and then he came – the white tiger – but instead of Pieter the cuddly toy I saw a white version of Tony the Tiger (the Frosties mascot) which started a wonderful period of white tiger faces peeking out at me from behind leaves and branches, smiling and laughing with me. In my head I was saying “come and find me, come and get me” but it was at that point that I realised I didn’t love one animal, I loved all the animals, even the ugly ones as I smiled at a rat. During this epiphany Ru came over, hugged me and, as he does for all participants, gave me my new nickname: Tarzan. It was too perfect and I burst into joyous fits of laughter.

Ru called the ceremony to a close but the journey continued as we were still full of ayahuasca. Gurglings, rumblings and painful wind in the stomach were uncomfortable and I needed food. I ate an apple followed by an unpeeled kiwi. We were finally allowed to talk to each other and it was hilarious. Mine was the most lighthearted and fluffy journey but all of us had incredible experiences with very different outcomes.

Andy took a trip on the love train. Starting with the members of his own family his vision took him around the room and outside the house where he fired love thunderbolts from his wrists like Spider-Man.

Hasina spoke to the goddess in their own new language and was told to draw a series of symbols which she has since been trying to decipher.

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Farid purged the pain and suffering of all humanity, feeling an overwhelming urge to save the planet.

It took Justin the whole ceremony, and 5 cups of ayahuasca, to let her in; only after everyone else had left the room did he finally cast his inhibitions aside, purge and see visions of his own, immediately taking on the persona of a cat before being called upstairs by the real life house cat Fauve who was sat, purring, on his bed.

What do these different journeys say about us as people? Only Ayahuasca knows, but it is clear from our first ceremony that ultimately she gives each person what they want and need, not necessarily in that order.

After hearing various horror stories my first experience of the medicine was magical, beautiful and beyond my wildest imagination. How the next two journeys unfold, and whether I touch on anything deeper and darker in my inner psyche, is yet to be seen.


Next stop: Ayahuasca Part II

What is The Gump Method

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Day 29 – Forest Bathing

Words of the day: 

Phonophobia: a fear or aversion to loud sounds

Shinrin-yoku: the Japanese art of “forest bathing”

Shunrin-yoku: the art of forest bathing while shunemployed


After 10 years in London I had accepted the noise of the city: like people living next to a busy railway track who stop hearing the trains you get used to it.

I moved to New York in late 2015 and the volume went from 7 to 10. The buzz and energy of New York are a big part of what makes it special but there is no escape hatch when you’ve had enough. You can get anything you want in downtown Manhattan, unless you want outdoor quiet time which is guaranteed only by leaving the city.

I was sad to leave New York after 14 months but happy to leave behind the noise. Living on 19th street, one block away from a fire station, I had a specific issue with the unnecessarily loud and genuinely frightening FDNY fire trucks. Words like ‘beep’ and ‘toot’ are totally inadequate to describe their booming devil horns which assaulted not just the ears but the whole body and soul. I realise they were saving lives and I was just trying to sleep but I developed a genuine phonophobia from the incessant horn abuse.

A German friend who I spent time with in New York (hi again Luki) was, at the time, working on a really interesting project called the Sonic Movement. With growing numbers of noiseless vehicles, for safety reasons European regulations now mandate that new electric cars sold in the EU must emit noise by 2019.

Rather than the unimaginative replication of existing combustion engine noises proposed by the regulators, the Sonic Movement identified this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make our motorways and city streets sound more pleasant.

What if, instead of screeching brakes and roaring engines, electric cars sounded like classical music? Instead of toots and beeps and FDNY death honks, horns could replicate birdsong. Yes, my two examples are totally impractical but there must be a happy medium.


With all this emotional and aural baggage I approached the Forest of Fontainebleau on day 29, about 40 minutes south of Paris, for a solo walk in the wilderness on a Monday. I took a fold-up paper map and deliberately left my headphones at home – just me, my map, and the sounds of the forest. I didn’t have a loin cloth handy but packed my speedos just in case.

packing for the forest

I had planned to switch off my phone for the day but as I entered the woods I realised how dependent I had become on the little computer in my pocket. How will I know how far I’ve walked? How will I take photos? What if I get really lost? I put it in airplane mode and resolved to use it only for emergencies (and photos and poetry recitations).

Marching deeper into the deserted forest I realised it was the first time I had done something like this, totally alone, and took pleasure in just wandering along, observing and listening. I was also in search of a suitable location for my first attempt at ‘forest bathing.’

The Japanese love a good tree and when they’re not celebrating the cherry blossoms during hanami you may find them in the woods enjoying a spot of shinrin-yoku. This essentially involves ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ and is regarded as a form of preventive healthcare.

I identified a small clearing under some oak trees and lay down for 15 minutes looking up at the canopy. I can honestly say I have never felt so relaxed. A couple of aeroplanes passing at 30,000 feet provided an amusing contrast as I lay silently among the leaves. As insects buzzed past and acorns dropped around me I had once again found my perfect paradise.

This time lapse video captured my view (extra point if you can spot the plane):

The woods weren’t completely deserted, but in 6 hours of walking and shinrin-yoku I had seen only two men, one lady of the forest and three dogs. After enjoying my own company for hours on end my interactions with these strangers were a little awkward, especially when I realised one of them was working.

As I calmly walked through the trees, enjoying the silence, I remembered the first line of the prose poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann which was on the wall at home when I was growing up:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence. 

I was never encouraged to read the poem – it just hung there – but over time it has come to mean a lot to me. It is a beautiful collection of words offering gentle guidance on how to live life. As I had no music to distract me and a lot of walking to do I decided to learn it.

Finding a lovely spot for afternoon tea on one of Fontainebleau’s many formations of huge boulders I set up my recording studio and gave it a go. The gap after the word ‘silence’ was deliberate, but all other dramatic pauses were just me trying to remember the words.

From the noises of London and New York to the silence of Fontainebleau I am making an effort to go more placidly; my day alone in the forest was very special and I believe that all my big city friends would benefit from a little more silence, shinrin-yoku and maybe even some boulder-top poetry recital.


Next stop: Ayahuasca (Béziers, South of France)

What is The Gump Method

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trees and boulders

Day one. Welcome to The Gump Method

Word of the day* : shunemployment

Hmmm. An inauspicious post-midday wake up for my first day of freedom.

This is not how I mean to go on but I’m blaming jet lag…. I took the Sunday night red eye back to London after 10 days of fun in New York, expertly woven into my last three workdays in the office.

Ok so how does this feel. Yep, pretty good so far. Everyone else is at work and I’m sat in a coffee shop with all the freelancers and a couple of new mums in Dalston. I’ve got my leather jacket on so feel more of an affinity with the former. I wonder if I still look like a guy who works in finance. Someone told me I had a ‘finance guy haircut’ the other day, just after I’d got it done. Gutted.

unemployed hero

So what am I actually doing. Well, I can’t claim to be funemployed as it’s Monday morning and I’m not having fun, so for now I’m calling it shunemployment. I am shunning the workplace and the hand that fed me, with no particular plan or timeline to stick to – the complete opposite of my typical working day.

For now, I’m not putting any pressure on. Immediate goals are to enjoy the freedom while reducing alcohol consumption, getting back in the gym, eating better, sleeping better and giving myself time for stuff, like actually planning where I am going to travel to rather than just naming a list of countries I haven’t been to – Russia, Nepal, Nicaragua, Colombia.

I also have a few short trips in Europe lined up over the next 5 weeks or so. These are things that were booked in advance when I was still working, and will be a nice warm up for the bigger trip(s) further afield. South of Spain with my mum (hi mum) then Oktoberfest in Munich (one of my favourite things in the world), then an ayahuasca retreat in the south of France (more on that another time). So at least some potential for weirdness before I go travelling for reals.

THE END (apart from the note below)

Note

* I had a ‘word of the day’ in the diary I wrote as a kid, so I’m going to keep this up as a nod to the 12 year old me. In another nod to the 12 year old me here is the number 5318008. Please comment or send me a reply if that number means anything to you 🙂