Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest

Recently, I played tourist and went to the Point-à-Callière Museum in Old Montreal to see the exhibit on Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest. I am always drawn to exhibits about South America and spent almost a year in Brazil in the late 1970s. In fact, I landed in Manaus and travelled by boat for four serene days along the Amazon River as it snaked its way to Belem.  I say serene because the scenery hardly changed, continuous river with dense green jungle on both sides.

The rubber ‘crash’ saw the Amazon Theatre close its regular operations in 1924.Below is the late 19th century Manaus opera house, built with the wealth generated by the rubber barons. It closed with the crash in the early 20th century, but reopened in 1997 and now has its own philharmonic symphony.

Since my first visit, I have travelled extensively in Latin America and feel a deep, mysterious affinity for it, so I was excited about seeing the Amazonia exhibition.

On the first floor of the exhibit, many exquisitely beautiful artifacts were on display. Pictured below are a mask and two diadems made from bird feathers.

The photo is from the museum’s website.

The artistry of some of the huge earthenware pots was also impressive. I am reminded of a comment made by a colleague years ago. I was at a conference in Rome, one of the great cultural centres of the western world, and she asked me if I was going anywhere else that summer. When I replied that I was going to visit a friend in New Mexico, she laughed at the contrast, saying there was no history there. Now that’s a good example of western hegemony at work because there are many traces of ancient history in the Southwest. Below is a photo of the ancient cliff dwellings in the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation.

There are also a distinct cultures.  At the recent Chagall exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts there was a Zuni Katchina doll on display to show the diverse sources that Chagall drew upon for inspiration for the modern ballet costumes he designed.

Just this past winter I read the fascinating The Lost City of Z, written by David Grann, who also writes for The New Yorker. The book was recently adapted into a film and marketed as an Indiana Jones type adventure story, but it is based on an actual explorer, Perry Fawcett, who was convinced there was an ancient civilization buried within the Amazon rainforest. Well, in the twenty-first century he has finally been proven correct. Wikipedia, in their article, note that the pottery methods used by the ancient tribes are nearly identical to those used today.

However, what drew me to the Amazonia exhibition was the emphasis on Shamanism, which has always fascinated me. I think the subtitle of the exhibition expresses the capacity of the shaman well. Through rituals and the ingestion of mind-altering natural substances, the shaman becomes one with the forest. It is a merging of consciousness. In a special issue of the magazine Tribal Art, Boris Wastiau, the Director of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, explains that the forest is “a conscious ecosystem from which [the shamans] are ontologically inseparable.” For those who have never felt the essential presence or consciousness of the natural world, this may seem strange, yet it is our alienation from the natural world that is leading to our demise. This is a tragedy that could be avoided.

The Amazonia exhibit also had much to say about the precarious state of the rainforest. Oil spills by companies such as Exxon and Chevron have devastated parts of the region. Gold diggers, who use mercury to extract the gold, are poisoning the rivers. Logging is also a major problem. On 25 August, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! reported that the Brazilian president, Michel Temer, is

abolishing a vast reserve of tropical rain forest in what conservationists are calling the biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years, the move ending protections for the Renca Reserve, a swath of rainforest the size of Denmark, paving the way for road building, mining, and logging.

Indigenous tribes in the Amazon are fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest, not only for their own survival, but for the survival of the planet. In terms of its size and biodiversity, the Amazon rainforest if the largest in the world. It is vital to our survival as it supplies 20% of the world’s oxygen.

While I wrote this, Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Hopefully more people will wake up to the reality of climate change and what is at stake.

 

 

 

 

 

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Montreal Microburst

Last Tuesday, Montreal was hit with a microburst. This seems to me to be a new kind of storm as I have never heard the term before. Here is how wikipedia defines a microburst:

microburst is a small downdraft that moves in a way opposite to a tornado. Microbursts are found in strong thunderstorms. 
The air rushes downward and out, so it can affect a wider area than a tornado.

I was visiting a friend in the hospital when the thunderstorm began. It didn’t last long, but immediately knocked out the power in the hospital where my friend is convalescing. When the downpour ended I decided to leave. I couldn’t see much through the small window in the room and outside it was quiet, although there were quite a few leaves and some small branches on the ground. I hurried to the corner where I jumped on the bus and as we began to cross the neighbourhood, I noticed that some trees were down on one of the side streets.

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But as we made our way along, I noticed that trees were down on all the side streets! The traffic lights were also out, so it took a while to reach the main intersection, where we all had to disembark and walk the rest of the way to the metro. Police and firetrucks were everywhere.

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Notre Dame de Grace Park was a disaster zone. A few people were walking around looking stunned. Many of the trees in this neighbourhood are very, very old, so this is a great loss. It is almost a miracle that no one was hurt.

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The photos are from the cbc.ca website.

Even if such violent wind storms are unusual in Montreal, I suppose we can expect more of this kind of thing. Today Hurricane Harvey is the anticipated event in the US. Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I had been to see Al Gore’s latest film, An Inconvenient Sequel. He says there will be more storms and they will be more intense. This is what’s happening folks.

East Meets West

 

Earlier this month, I attended a meditation and teaching weekend at the Marriott Courtyard Hotel in downtown Montreal. When I arrived, it struck me as incongruous that the event was taking place in the Salle Jean Béliveau, named after a hockey star who played for the Montreal Canadiens. But on second thought, it occurred to me that Montreal’s multicultural environment actually lent itself to the mix of Canadian popular culture and Tibetan Buddhism. As it turned out, the teachings of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Master, merge aspects of Western and Eastern philosophyan.

As described on his website, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

is a widely celebrated Buddhist teacher and the author of Emotional Rescue, Rebel Buddha, and other books. A lover of music, art and urban culture, Rinpoche is a poet, photographer, accomplished calligrapher and visual artist, as well as a prolific author. Rinpoche is founder and president of Nalandabodhi, an international network of Buddhist centers.

The title and theme of Rinpoche’s talk was “Seizing Every Opportunity.” First of all, he clarified that opportunity and opportunism are not the same: opportunity is something that can benefit ourselves and others. In order to seize opportunity, one must be prepared — the key is preparation. Once prepared, the moment to seize opportunity has arrived. If you find there is no opportunity, create one. However, you may be the block.

Inner development is required. It’s not all out there in the external world. We must develop our minds, our inner world. We need to tame our minds, and this requires discipline. By way of example, Rinpoche commented on how much time we spend on our cell phones and checking our email. (According to a recent New York Times Wellness section, on average we check our cells 47 times a day!) Instead, we should spend more time cultivating and connecting with our minds. In order to do this, we need to learn to meditate so that we can become mindful. Then we can create opportunity. So you see, Rinpoche presented a blend of western material culture pep talk and Buddhism teaching.

 

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.

May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.

May they dwell in the great equanimity that is free from passion, aggression, and prejudice.

The next day, Rinpoche continued to discuss and define opportunity. He began by stating that we have the power to create opportunity, that we are actually the seed that must be cultivated. Unfortunately, more people are interested in crisis, pain and death than in life — in how to live or to transform our consciousness. He reminded us that every form of crisis is actually a chance for us to create an opportunity. This kind of thinking harks backs to the Greeks, the originators of western culture. According to the Greeks, a disaster, or crisis, presents a turning-point, a chance to do things differently and, thereby, offers an opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to learn something but a space is opened up that provides an opportunity to create something new. Crisis is productive; it’s an opportunity for awakening, to encourage positivity, to help and be kind to others. Rinpoche urges us to use every moment in the best way you can. As he likes to say, “GoKind!”

Here is where meditation becomes important. It is a means of getting to know one’s mind. “Know thyself!”  Meditation leads to mindfulness, an awareness that the individual is connected to the collective. It is the path of the Bodhicitta. Being kind means becoming vulnerable, so one must also be fearless because the path will be difficult. One doesn’t know in advance what an opportunity will become; it requires a kind of blind faith.

So we must prepare and practice, developing not only our skills, but our mindfulness. Then we can seize the opportunity to make the world a better place.

City of Refuge

The sheer number of people suffering forced displacement today is staggering – the greatest flow of refugees since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 65.3 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide. Of those, 21.3 million are designated as refugees, and almost half of those people hail from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Five million have fled Syria alone, and more than 6 million are internally displaced there. Estimates put the death toll in Syria’s five-year civil war at more than 400,000. The destructive war in Yemen, meanwhile, has forced more than 3 million to flee their homes. The UNHCR predicts that 2016 will be the deadliest year for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Daniel, a young French-Vietnamese man, lies dying in a Montreal hospital. Spurned by his family for contracting AIDS in Provincetown, Daniel spends his last months in despair. Only his cousin Mai stays by his side to record the darkest of family secrets. From French Indochina to present day North America, this novel follows three generations of a Vietnamese family as they endure their own folly and the whims of history.

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca, Oaxaca

From Puebla, my husband and I took a bus to Oaxaca. The trip usually takes about four hours, but 100 kilometres outside of Oaxaca, we encountered a roadblock. Since the new year, Mexicans have been protesting the 20% increase in the cost of gasoline when President Peña Nieto removed government subsidies and privatized the oil industry. Roadblocks are part of the protests. We were delayed for almost two hours, so the traffic piled up. Then, when the blockade was removed, the situation became chaotic. Fortunately we were at the head of the line and had an excellent bus driver; in addition, one of the passengers actually helped direct traffic so we were finally able to cross a dirt patch and take an alternate route. Because frustrated drivers became unruly, the situation was potentially dangerous, but all the people on the bus remained calm and waited patiently until we were back on the road.

Oaxaca is a very beautiful city and much smaller than Puebla. Its historic centre was also declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987. Here you will find one of the  most magnificent churches in Mexico, the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzmán.

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Inside, the stunning altarpiece and Rosario chapel are examples of Spanish Baroque style.    2b91074f0381918be47d7e7c65b89531All the goldleaf made me wonder how many Mexicans went hungry while money was poured into the construction of this church over a period of 200 years, from the 16th to 18th century. I don’t think Pope Francis would have approved.

Beside the Templo there is a fascinating museum worth visiting, the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre. As reported by Wikipedia, “This museum includes an important collection of pre-Columban artefacts, among them the contents of Tomb 7 from the nearby Zapotec site of Monte Albán. The former monastery garden is now an ethnobotanical garden, containing a large collection of plants native to the region.” I especially enjoyed a peaceful walk through the garden which features a wonderful variety of cacti. oaxaca_entorno_07_v_800

There are a number of worthwhile side trips from Oaxaca, including the Zapotec pyramids at Monte Albán and Mitla, but I’ve been there before. I’m afraid you can actually become jaded when it comes to visiting pyramids in Mexico; there are just so many! Every time digging commences on a new development, yet another archeological site is discovered.

In the historic centre there are numerous shops and restaurants selling Oaxaca handicrafts and their vibrantly coloured handmade rugs. zapotec-native-art_sidewalk-art-fair1You will also find very pretty embroidered tops and hand-painted figurines.

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However, my favourite shop remains the wonderful bookstore Amate, which has an enticing collection of English language books on Mexican culture and history.

Having visited Oaxaca on several occasions, this time my husband and I opted to stay in Colonia Reforma, a modern middle-class neighbourhood north of the historic centre. We were able to rent a small bungalow in a complex on a quiet side street and are enjoying our stay here even if the ambiance isn’t Spanish colonial. Actually, it’s more fun to mix with the locals than the other tourists. This area also has many restaurants and shops and there is even a bus that goes directly to the centre that costs all of 7 pesos.

Usually I walk to the centre, which takes about half an hour. I enjoy taking in the colonial architecture and the various shops along the way. Perhaps it is symptomatic of how things have changed because the house where D.H. Lawrence stayed when he lived in Oaxaca is now an outlet for Yves Rocher, a highly successful line of French cosmetics produced in Mexico.

Next week we leave for the Pacific coast, and I look forward to it. Although the temperature is perfect in Oaxaca, ranging from 27 C during the day to 9 C at night, the city is 5,000 feet above sea level and I find myself experiencing a mild form of altitude sickness. The effects include strange dreams, lack of appetite, occasional headaches and fatigue. It’s the feeling of lethargy that annoys me the most as I would like to feel more energetic. But I can still read and write.

 

 

At Home in Puebla

When my husband and I visit Mexico, rather than stay in the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, we usually go to Puebla, which is only two and half hours away by bus and relatively peaceful, but it too has expanded considerably since we first visited it some twenty years ago. You can easily get there by bus, and if you sit on the righthand side, you can see the famous volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl that figure in Malcolm Lowry’s modernist masterpiece, Under the Volcano.

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The city of Puebla has a fascinating history. It was founded in 1531 to encourage Spanish settlers in the New World, but it is also where the Mexican army defeated the French in 1862 and the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-20. Due to its colonial history and architecture, the area around the Zócalo, or main square, was declared a world heritage site in 1987. I first visited Puebla in the late 1990s when I attended a conference at La Universidad de las Américas. I immediately fell in love with this charming city and have returned almost every year for a short visit. I always stay in the historic centre at the Hotel Colonial, my home in Puebla.

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The Hotel Colonial was originally a Jesuit monastery built at the end of the 17th century. By the end of the 18th century, the building was used to accommodate travellers from Veracruz on their way to Mexico City. In the middle of the 19th century, it became the Hotel Jardín; then in 1930 it underwent a restoration and became the Hotel Colonial.

The hotel is also known for its restaurant where they serve Mole Poblano, a traditional Mexican dish consisting of chicken smothered in chocolate sauce. mole Many people don’t know that chocolate is indigenous to Mesoamerica. Mole is not sweet; rather it is delicately spiced with chili peppers. Puebla itself is known as a culinary centre, so you will find many excellent restaurants to choose from. My favourite is El Mural, which is on the other side of the Cathedral pictured below.

8142344765_c7df076d5a_bThere are a number of interesting museums in Puebla, but the top one is undoubtedly the recently renovated Amparo Museum, which features a stunning collection of pre-Columbian art and a roof-top café with an excellent view of Puebla and the surrounding mountains. 2612699844_ac05ec8650_bBesides the Amparo, I would recommend the Regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution, a converted house where the first shot of the revolution was fired. You can still see the bullet holes in the wall.

Another fantastic site not to be missed is the Palafoxian Library. Founded in 1646, it was the first public library in Mexico and may be the oldest in the Americas. Not only is the collection intact, all the shelves and furniture are original. 245px-biblioteca_palafoxiana_de_puebla

 

 
Puebla is also famous for Talavera, a type of ceramic that has been produced for over four hundred years.

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Many years ago my husband and I bought a genuine Talavera urn to decorate our living room. We also have hand-painted dishes, but these are copies that we purchased in Dolores.

Last but not least there is a bustling antique market and many fine shops to wander through if you should visit Puebla. These are just the highlights.

 

I Prefer Mexico

As much as I enjoyed my sojourn in Cuenca, Ecuador, there was one serious drawback: the altitude. Cuenca is located in the Andes, some 8,300 feet above sea level, so it is not unusual for visitors to experience altitude sickness. While I did not pass out or throw up, I did experience shortness of breath, lack of appetite and fatigue as well as some dizziness and mental confusion. Altitude sickness can also result in strange dreams and I must say, I had my share, many about feeling constricted. It’s interesting how one’s consciousness can express a body sensation in narrative terms; for example, a dream of being confined in a physical space. It’s a bit frightening, but the fear may be a prompt to move out of that space.

However, there can be a few benefits to living at a high altitude if it doesn’t affect you too adversely. For one thing, it’s a good way to lose weight. Because digestion is slowed, you feel full before finishing your meal. Consequently, you will not find many obese people at this altitude.

After a few weeks, I felt the symptoms subside. Unfortunately that didn’t last. I recently read that it can takes months, even years to adjust. Overall, I felt like I was being held down by an invisible weight, so it was a relief to fly north to Mexico — to the southern Pacific coast — and be back at sea level.

During winter months, the weather is almost perfect: sunny and hot. This year there has been some rain during the dry season, and this is blamed on El Nino.

From my terrace I could see the mesmerizing Pacific Ocean. Image result for condos tortugas puerto escondido In between, there is lush tropical vegetation and beautiful flowers such as bougainvillea and hibiscus  as well as numerous cacti.  Even the birds are exceptionally pretty — a few tiny hummingbirds, yellow finches, swallows and turtledoves, not to mention the grackles. The occasional iguana can also be spotted.

Although it sounds like bliss, soon after my arrival, I came down with a dreadful chest cold that I first blamed on the AC but later came to believe was caused by an allergy as the irritation persisted. Once that cleared up, I decided to see the local dentist and have some ancient fillings replaced. One had already fractured. But the cost of dental work is less than one third what it is at home and the work is good quality. My dentist spent an hour cleaning my teeth to the tune of 50 CDN.

The food in Mexico is also excellent. There are many affordable restaurants in my neighbourhood, the cost of which hardly makes it worth cooking, but there is also a large covered outdoor market and a huge supermarket, both of which are relatively inexpensive. The fresh fruits available are a wonder to behold and delicious to consume.

So despite the inevitable intrusions of reality, I much prefer the enchantment of Mexico and plan to return next winter.

Enchantment may be a cliché, but Mexico does have its magic. This is a country of extreme contrasts and often chaotic. It might even be described as a land of dreams and illusions. The beauty of Mexico is undeniable, but so are the dangers. Thankfully there are still some safe havens.