Guests of the Noke Kuin Tribe
A rare invitation to drink Ayahuasca with the Brazilian Amazon Basin Katukina tribe
Following an unforgettable ten-day plant medicine retreat, my brother (and Shaman) Andres and I were invited to join our friends Pajé Penó, Mõcha, and Tama on an epic road trip from Peru’s Sacred Valley to the Noke Kuin Samaúma village in the Brazilian jungle. We would spend five days as guests of the tribe — an unexpected yet welcome invitation.
I’d love to be able to talk about the rugged countryside and jaw-dropping views of northern Peru, but thanks to working extensively with Ayahuasca, Huachuma, Hapé, and Kambo for over two weeks, I was fast asleep for the lion-share of the twelve-hour journey to the Brazilian border.
Our trip would involve three legs: a minibus to manage the twelve-hour trip to the border; a four-hour border taxi to ferry us to Rio Branco; then, from there, we would take a hire car the last eleven hours to the village in the Katukina indigenous reservation.
Awaking from my car-coma, I immediately noticed huge birds littering the sky like ominous bin-liners with insidious plans, their widespread wings precision-guiding them to carrion. This was my first (and by no means last) sight of the black Brazilian vulture.
We stopped in the small town of Brasileira to look for a SIM card shop and acquire some water. With people spread so far and wide, there aren’t many shops, so it’s common to see retailers carrying their wares in carts. I was greeted by a man selling leather shoes and boots. Also handling repairs, this mobile cobbler trudged up and down the main street, stopping by people, apparently not attracting much business that day. It struck me as a hard yet necessary way to trade. This, and so so many of my experiences in this place, were so far-removed from my previous life in London, and even my life in Bali, that I often felt lost in such strange lands.
During our amble, Andres and I received a different kind of greeting as were stopped by two slightly agitated Federal Police officers. The men were dressed in full military police outfits — two pistols and an assault rifle between them. Following his training, one chap rested his hand on his pistol as he asked for our passports. His partner began rooting around in the public bin next to us — into which I’d just emptied a load of used tissues. The policeman asked Andres what we had thrown in the bin — believing it to be drug wraps. He seemed rather disappointed as I explained I had the “cold from Hell” (the humour in which apparently did not translate at all) and had been collecting snotty tissues in my pocket for some time. After some serious scrutiny of my passport, the two happy chaps conceded and let us go on our way. The whole thing seemed rather surreal to me, as a bloke from the UK currently dwelling in the more peace-loving Balinese countryside, but as Andres bluntly explained, “The Federal Police don’t fuck around here, bro!”
As our magic van set off on a long carve through the Brazilian countryside, every possible shade of green flashed by. The landscape was a smörgåsbord of farmland and jungle, and the long road rolled through it nonchalantly and brutally, all at the same time. All-in-all, the entire journey would cover 1,716km; a journey made an unequivocal joy by my musical, jovial, and fun-loving travelling companions.
Finally, we arrived in Rio Branco — a rather tired-looking city in western Brazil. Here, we said farewell to our taxi driver, stopped for food, then picked up the rental car that would be our home for the next eleven hours or so. And then we were off again — this time with me at the wheel, through more of Brasil’s beautiful countryside.
Not to over-romanticise: it wasn’t all exactly relaxing, as the roads of western Brazil have pot-holes like cliff sides. We chicaned around countless series’ of road craters, and I wondered for how long this rather unwelcome challenge would be along for the ride. Alas, it transpired that this fun terrain would, in fact, be for the remainder of the trip. Or at least for my six-hour share of the drive.
I can honestly report that driving on the roads of rural Brazil (partially blind and in the dark) was some of the most harrowing driving I’ve ever had the misfortune to tolerate. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but in a twisted extreme sports kind of way. Rapid reaction motoring, with snaking swerves and road crater or total asphalt-ending moments in every other breath. It felt rather like playing an endless computer game, gaining points by dodging holes, as the endless straight road continued ahead. After six hours, exhaustion took over, and I had to hand the wheel over to Andres, who handled the final five-hour stretch entirely complaint-free. I was comatose from there on, though I recall Andres having to handle a few tricky manoeuvres of his own.
Welcome to the Jungle
We arrived in the Noke Kuin Samaúma village just before dawn and were unspeakably grateful to be offered two rooms in Mõcha’s house. Andres and I were more than happy with this twist in the plot, as we’d been fully prepared to spend a week in mosquito hammocks in a nearby tree. Walls, roof, and a shower (bucket and clean water) were absolute luxury. The rooms were connected to the kitchen space. Wearily, Andres and I parted at a long table and into our adjacent rooms for a lengthy interview with the coma police.
The following day, we left early for supplies. The nearest city (circa 70km from the village) is Cruzeiro do Sol. We took Mõcha, Tama and their families to a huge supermarket and to an electrical store. We bought a fridge-freezer as thanks to Mõcha for giving up his family’s rooms; we also bought enough food supplies to feed five thousand. Or so we thought…
Returning to the village, we were welcomed by a great many members of the community. The kids and mothers swarmed around the car as we unloaded the stash we’d bought for our hosts. I’ve never seen people get so excited by the most basic of foods. Funnily enough, it really was as if we were feeding the five thousand, what with all the loaves and fishes to share. We watched from an open window as they divided the rich supply of bread, fish, rice, coffee, fruits, yoghurts and other goods. I was impressed as I watched this small community calmly working together to evenly distribute their welcome supplies.
As the sun wained on our first day, a group of the young men huddled under a porch — sharing the space with a motorbike which was also quietly keen to stay dry as the jungle rain settled in.
We sat and ate bread and cheese with Pajé and laughed and joked with some of the men. We talked with Mõcha’s father, Sheré — the current Cacique (chief). He told us about his twenty-three children; eighteen of which were in our village.
During our discussion, Sheré explained that in 1998, he was the first villager to share Ayahuasca plant medicine with the other villages. This work quickly spread around Brazil and Chile. He went on to tell us he’d developed a written alphabet for the Noke Kuin language and overseen the construction of the health centre and school. I suppose that with twenty-three kids, building your own school seems like a very sensible idea.
Afterward, Pajé and I sat together on the porch, silently watching over his community. I put my arm around the tiny man with a big heart, and I thanked him the best way a guy who doesn’t speak Noke Kuin or Portuguese can communicate with a guy who lives in the jungle: hand gestures and whistling noises (obviously). Apparently, over the previous weeks, Pajé, Mõcha, and Tama had noted my idiosyncratic gestures with great amusement, and now, at any given chance, they mimic these and the whistling sounds whilst having a good old giggle to themselves. I’ve been the butt of far less pleasant jokes.
As the men gathered, talked, sang, and shared Hapé, the women all worked together on the porches of each other’s wooden houses — balancing babies and preparing fish on their makeshift fires. While this dynamic would likely be criticised by many, all I can unbiasedly account for is that there was a sense of unspoken teamwork between the male music group and the females preparing food. Though it did occur to me that one group might well be having the easier ride. This is Noke Kuin village life. A patriarchal arrangement, for sure.
Pajé and I sat silently together on the porch as we watched his world go by. And a very tranquil world it is too.
Later as the light all but drained from the sky, Andres and I sat on the porch as someone shoved a guitar in his hand. He sang a song in Spanish as a group of villagers huddled around us, listening intently. I wondered if I had the courage to sing and play in front of all those incredibly musical people — and on their home turf too.
As I entered the simple wooden house, the dark corner of the ‘lounge’ was illuminated by a single light bulb and a widescreen TV, pumping out cartoons for the squatting group of small people — all happily making do with an entirely furniture-free floor. Observing them, my mum’s long-gone advice about sitting too close to the TV rang loud in my ears. Nevertheless, I was a guest in this place, so I left the goggled-eye sprogs to their up-close viewing, very sure they wouldn’t miss a single frame of the animated robot tale they watched with such intent.
Andres and I both needed internet to touch base with a few people, but it turned out that digital connectivity in the village is a little less simple than usual. Obtaining the right to connect to the outside world involved a five-minute car ride, then some hairy driving up a dark and very hacked and muddy camp entrance. We then had a short walk through the sticks, at which point we would all huddle around a cell tower to access free WiFi. It was fun and oddly communal (in a non-communal-looking-at-phones sort of way). It also made me consider how quickly this rigmarole would likely reduce my data-imbibing Instagram habit.
The excursion was perhaps made more adventurous as, driving back, I failed to escape the muddy holes upon our exit, and we got stuck. Thankfully we had a car full of young folks from the village who’d accompanied us to stream music and send messages to friends. With their help and with guidance from Andres, we eventually managed to free the car and force it up and over the contoured mire and back onto the solid asphalt surface of the road. Everyone took this in their stride while I was rather rattled by the event.
There is no need for alarm clocks in the village. Since everyone gets their heads down as it goes dark, the kids are up between five and six. And then a musical group of small people is rapidly formed. Waking up is, therefore, usually brutal — either by way of a lot of drums and guitars or the early stifling humidity and the realisation that your mosquito net provided top-draw overnight stay to a fistful of hungry winged critters. Either way, I couldn’t help but wake up rested and happy, as there was a kind of peace to the lack of peace, if you know what I mean.
We went to a small market where Pajé bought his Yuca (a low-cost powdered flour that the tribe consumes with other foods). Driving through these lands: every once in a while, a residence would pop up in the countryside’s lush green. Simple, stilted wooden structures with tin roofs, surrounded by small clearings. Appearing and disappearing just as quickly as we carved through the jungle road. Chocolate brown-bodied cowboys rode bareback on horses, cantering and corralling their herds across high-definition green spaces. Occasionally we’d happen upon a small shack selling something or other or providing mechanical repairs. Always something to see on this road.
There’s always something trying to get in your ear in the jungle. Constant buzzes and flashes of some variation of a winged imbecile, relentless in reaching its goal (i.e., my ears or face). The countless variations of insects had the resilience of a door-knocking Mormon, despite receiving clear indications that I’d prefer my facial space to remain 100% trespass-free.
On the subject of insects: during a pre-dawn visit to the long-drop outhouse, I had to share my experience with a large black spider with unimpressively spiky legs. My voyeuristic friend (which some Googling suggests may have been a Whip Spider) was as large as my outstretched hand and sat low to the ground on high alert as my head torch shone in its beady eyes. I couldn’t decide whether it had plans to pounce or was rather waiting with anticipation for the moment of my departure. Either way, this was one of the fastest pee-stops of my forty-four years of existence, and every time I returned to the outhouse, I watched out for the eight-legged long-drop guardian, ever-so keen to avoid any further meetings. Actually, we met a few more times after that, and it turned out to be a pretty cool spider. Though I can categorically guarantee you did not want this bad boy in your bathroom—especially while you were working with Ayahuasca.
Pigs, chickens, cats, and dogs all roam free throughout the village; the people here have indifferent relationships with dogs. Though as I learned: indifference is not dispassion, it’s simply that everything here is wild. Everything looks after itself. And the dogs must find their own food in the jungle or around the village if they are to coexist rather than assume the role of a pet. I would see a more familiar canine/human arrangement later on, as some dogs curled up under the hammocks of their owners during their Ayahuasca journeys. Ever the faithful guardians and protectors, as dogs are.
On the second day, Cacique (chief) Sheré invited us to accompany a large group of the village’s young folks as they would perform some Noke Kuin songs at a large inter-school event in the city. We had such a wonderful time watching these passionate and talented musicians share their culture with so many onlookers from far and wide. The tribe also had a stand where they sold their stunning handmade jewellery. I watched as the other children from the towns and cities looked on with interest at these kids from the jungle.
Returning to village life, having been surrounded by all those people and the comfort of a car, I found it surprisingly hard to settle in all over again. A potentially rougher-than-planned re-entry, as this night I would join the tribe in an Ayahuasca ceremony. We’d work with the medicine at its very source — in a wooden maloka (meeting place) under the stars, in the jungles of the Amazon Basin.
Before the ceremony, Andres and I made food. There was a bloody great downpour of rain and suddenly, our moment of peace (and scrambled eggs) transformed into a houseful of life. The family had returned, along with Penó. We shared our food and talked about how the band had done the village proud with their performance.
As the rain continued to smash down like giant grey water bombs, the kitchen soon filled with whipper-snappers, who quickly queued up for bread, butter, and eggs. The lack of furniture and the motivation for play-fuel was just the ticket for the marauding bunch of sproglets. Bemused, I watched them — a standing line of kids all filling their bellies like a swarm of really cute bees.
Watching the kids’ faces as they realised we had butter… They spread it as if it were the finest strawberry relish on this side of the equator. I’d have worried for their cholesterol had I not been sharing their delight in what I’d previously considered a basic pleasure.
As the sky cleared, the sun, on its way out, gave pause to assist a fluffy cloud in painting a pretty picture filled with pinks, oranges, blues, and grey. I’d have been rather chuffed if I were that otherwise unassuming cloud. I hung out of the window and watched the kids re-emerge for play and clean our filthy soaking car with their hands and tee shirts. Dragonflies zipped around my face, dancing together like tropical teenagers on a Saturday night. The simplicity of it all, of the people, was a wonderful scene to imbibe.
The moment of calm provided me the opportunity for a huge, conscious breath, and I took in a lungful of peace and gratitude while standing quietly as the crickets chirruped and the toads croaked. The night jungle was coming alive again, and it was time for the ceremony.
I don’t know why, but even though this was my ninth Ayahuasca ceremony, I was a little nervous. Not for the next deep healing likely coming my way, but for the questions I had over whether everyone would join the ceremony or would we have an audience of observers — all keen to see how we would handle the experience. I meditated through my anxiety as Andres slept like Pooh Bear in a hammock he’d secured right across the lounge space.
Arriving, I saw that the maloka had been transformed by way of dozens of hammocks tied around the perimeter of the huge circular space. Babies already slept under mosquito nets, as others lay back listening to the musical group, which increased in number every minute. I managed to find a space for my hammock near the music, as I enjoy letting the sounds guide my journey.
The ceremony begins with the rural consumption of
Hapé (or Rapé): ancient tobacco mixed with natural healing plants. Hapé is served by a two-way pipe called a Tepi. The server loads the pipe and then blows the mixture up each of the recipient’s nostrils. It’s an assault on the senses the first few times, as a combination of blocked nasal passage and a feeling of euphoria and light-headedness follows. The tribe believes that the powder opens your third eye, opening you to the spirit realm. I suppose it’s like a next-level snuff.
The first time I took Hapé, my subconscious served up unwelcome memories of my days of cocaine abuse, which was most disconcerting. I’ve since changed my perspective, as my days of addiction are long behind me, and the two are in no way comparable. Besides, when in Peru or Brasil, do Hapé! It’s as simple as that. I believe it to be an exceptional source of centring. Once served Hapé, I enjoy meditating, and to meditate with Hapé is to go deep, and fast, using the breath to provide immediate focus.
The Noke Kuin use Hapé from a very young age, serving each other or themselves (using a single-use device called a Kuripe) regularly and throughout their lives. As we sat quietly in the maloka, Mõcha began to come around with his Tepé; hence I knew the ceremony had begun.
A Journey in the Jungle
As the adults waited for their portion of Ayahuasca to be prepared and blessed by Pajé, the children had already been given spoonfuls of the brew and slept into their journeys. Pajé did some bodywork on one of the small boys — a ceremonial energy cleansing of the abdomen, chest, and back. The work is designed to transfer negative energy from the body for the Pajé to purge. To experience this process is quite literally supernatural, and one feels for Pajé as he does this work so methodically and selflessly. Another little boy near me began to purge as a mindful elder watched over him. At the same time, I observed two of the elders scanning all the lines of sleeping kids by torchlight — constantly checking in on the little mites as they began their deep dive with the medicine. It occurred to me how lucky these kids are to have the magic of this plant available to them at such a young age. To be shown a fresh perspective of self and oneness; to learn the innermost laws of love and appreciation at such a young age… Surely this meant they were gifted with the power to avoid the relentless scaling of humanity’s layers on their mental and spiritual psyches?
Andres was invited to take the Uni (the Noke Kuin word for Ayahuasca), followed shortly by me. After drinking the brew — which is not the most pleasant of flavours — I retired to my hammock to meditate. Others took turns afterward, going around in the circle until the entire gathering of around forty people had ingested the brew. And then came the typical period of calm, as each and every one of us sat peacefully, letting the medicine work its way through our bodies. Then, as Mõcha began singing, the people began to activate again — sharing Hapé and joining the song. The singing continued, with more voices and more instruments. Drums, guitars, and the charango (a South American ukulele). The group was alive and as one — from small babies to elderly adults. The Ayahuasca coursed through all of us, setting us off on our own personal journeys.
I felt the first wave rush through me, and as I closed my eyes, distant shapes of brightly-coloured sacred geometry began to twist and turn towards and around me slowly. The rush increased; the common eye-hugging feeling sent a wonderful sensation through my energy field. As the warmth and the images grew stronger, I breathed deeply and consciously, taking me further into the blissful space, so bountiful with untold healing information. Who knew what the medicine would show me this time? Which long-forgotten concepts or subconsciously suppressed memories might be shown and released for me to examine and let go forever?
All that was left for me now was to buckle up and enjoy the ride. And so buckle up I did. And then down, down the rabbit hole, I went.
The details of my journey are my own. Suffice it to say that I shall never forget my ceremony with the Noke Kuin as long as I live. It was a truly wonderful experience, like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one bun and wrapped up in a gently rocking hammock, covered in gravy, with a side portion of roast potatoes to boot.
It’s impossible to retain all the information one experiences during a plant medicine ceremony, though it is undoubtedly stored subconsciously, which will serve me as and when my future existence needs to call on this data. In fact, the medicine really is an intrinsic opportunity to reboot. The journey and the purging process clean and revitalise my spirit, body, and mind. A metaphysical reset if you like, taking on new (yet ancient) concepts and methodologies of how to be. You see, for me, this journey of mine keeps coming back to some common themes. One of which is the distinction between being and doing. Human being or human doing. I once struggled with the notion of this shift in consciousness, yet now that’s simply no longer the case. Perhaps that’s one of the greatest gifts that Ayahuasca gave me. I know for sure there are — and will be — many more such gifts.
As the cacophonic child-noise-generated alarm clock sounded in the maloka around 07:00, I’d had two and a half hours of sleep. I dozed off again and eventually awoke at 08:30. A visit to the long-drop (yeah, Spidey was still there), followed by a lengthy bucket shower, left me feeling cleansed and fresh. This might be my last Ayahuasca ceremony for a while, having already undergone a heady programme of Huachuma and Kambo medicine sessions back in Peru. Needless to say that the past few weeks had been a marathon of consciousness expansion and spiritual and physical healing. It was now time to begin the reintegration process — back into the “real world.” Thankfully, the real world I currently inhabited was a tiny laidback back village in the jungle — where the people cooperate and communicate, and oneness and peace prevail. An entirely wonderful place to take some time to reflect and meditate. And so, for the next few days, I did just that. Talked, laughed, sang, meditated, ate, and slept.
In Search of the Frog
We had a rare rain-free night, so we set out in the bush to search for the Kambo tree frog. I figured, what with me being so intimate with its poison, it would be nice to meet one. Cacique Sheré, Pajé Penó, and Tama led the way, with Andres and I in tow – excited to find one of these luminous green reptilians.
Entirely free from light pollution, the black sky was thick with stars. We walked along the roadside for about fifteen minutes. Just before we turned off the road, a beautiful shooting star zipped across the sky right in front of us before burning out as it entered the atmosphere. As if my expedition couldn’t be any more perfect, a shooting star waves a fond farewell during my final night in the jungle.
We’d been off the road for all of five minutes when we heard the distinct call of the frog. Tama and Sheré took the lead as Andres, and I followed — me in full camo gear and boots. As my head torch shone down at Tama’s feet, I chuckled at my cautionary outfit, noticing the fellas weren’t even wearing shoes. Perhaps my concern for spiders and snakes was melodramatic after all. Still, it kept the Martin-hungry mosquitos off of my legs and arms for a short while at least.
We all stood under some trees by the water’s edge — completely silent and with our torches off. It was pitch black under the trees, and I took this brief opportunity to close my eyes and have a few cheeky conscious breaths — centring on the noises of the living jungle and the sound of the air in my lungs. Such an awesome moment. And then Sheré began mimicking the frog’s call. We stood like that, with Sheré frog-calling in the blackness, for around five minutes. And then the Kambo frog began calling back. It conveniently transpired that we were standing very close to it. Andres shone the torch high up in the trees on the bright white belly of the massive green hopper, and I simply looked up in wonder. Perching on a 15ft high branch of a tree — just like a bird — was the Kambo frog. I’ve always used the words “tree frog” (granted, not all that often) without really considering the concept. It’s a frog. In a tree. Like a bird. But not a bird. It’s a frog! A tree frog, in fact.
As Tama quietly disappeared into the undergrowth, I considered the fact that he was half my size and subsequently wondered how on Earth he intended to cajole the frog from its perch. Shortly thereafter, my answer came trudging out of the foliage, in the shape of Tama carrying a huge bamboo. Without breaking his stride, he raised up the length of wood until it was right under the frog. To my surprise, our new green pal simply stepped onto it and was instantly fished out of the tree and brought down to eye level for a human encounter. Such a huge and agile creature — placid and trusting of us from the get-go. Andres and I took turns carefully handling it and allowing it to climb on us. The Kambo frog is a really stunning creature to look at. Naturally, it secreted its venom onto our hands, so we were careful to wash immediately afterward (don’t try this at home, kids. Neural toxins are not for the faint-hearted…). And that was that! We placed Kermit back in a nearby tree, and off we trotted back to the road — and onto the nearby cell tower, for one last blast of connectivity before we returned to the camp for our final evening.
Despite their huge hearts, the Noke Kuin are all quite small in stature. Which makes hugging them as a six-foot tall human all the better, as an embrace from these people can be felt on a whole other level. They have a very peaceful existence and thus exude tranquility and love.
Throughout my weeklong stay, I detected no resentment and heard no raised voices or frustration. Everyone communicates calmly and often, and everyone helps one another without the necessity for words. It is a community in the purest sense.
In fact, their language lacks many words which we use in our everyday lives: two notably being ‘necessity’ and ‘problems.’ I love the idea of life and a language with no place for problems…
It was time for Andres and me to say goodbye to our wonderful new friends — many of which, of course, Andres already knew so well. It was late as we left. I hugged Pajé and gifted him my Balinese sarong as a way for him to remember our encounter — one which I would undoubtedly hold in my heart forever. I hugged Mõcha, Sheré, and Tama warmly and shook hands with many more. And as I slowly moved the car down the dirt track, Andres and I sighed a great lungful of love for these people who had welcomed us into their hearts and homes with open arms. Driving into the dark, images of those smiling faces zipped through my mind like an exotic flip book of wonder. And then, in a flash, I was on the straight and crater-filled road again. The long trail back to Peru, then onwards to Chile, and ultimately back into the gentle and loving arms of Bali.
I spent decades on a doggedly determined quest for success, yet now all I seek is harmony. To taste such a simple way of life filled me with gratitude and harmony in abundance. Something which I shall never, ever forget.
I don’t know what my future may bring, and thankfully, I stopped worrying about such futility some time ago. All I can do is live mindfully and in the present, every once in a while, accessing my subconscious for reminders of how to be. One thing is for sure above all else: I’ve fallen in love with being. And spending time with the Noke Kuin tribe reminded me once again of the deep value of humility and maintaining the high vibration of gratitude.
With Heartfelt Thanks
Thanks to Pajé Penó, Mõcha, Tama, and the people of the Noke Kuin tribe for allowing me to document their way of life and for their unequivocal hospitality. And thank you to my dear friend Andres, without whom this unforgettable experience would simply not have been possible. Until our next adventure, my friend.