December 2015 archive

Out of the jungle and onto the road

Writing this on Christmas Day, it’s been just over a week since I got on the road.

A week is a long time in travel, and that day in Rio de Janeiro – walking around the Maracanã and exploring the beach life – seems forever ago. I had some nerves biking in the big bad city: I’ve seen City of God, I’ve read the newspapers, and a tiny part of me questioned if I’d come across roving gangs ruling the streets with automatic weapons. Obviously there were none. Cities are full of normal people going to work.

A week is a long time in travel, and I now feel totally comfortable asking homeowners in my awful broken Portuguese if they could fill the water bottles up.

And the biggest impression from the past few days is how hospitable people are here. I’ve spent three different nights in different houses with different strangers, all willing to let a sweaty cyclist stay the night. I’ve been cooked for and cared for far beyond expectation.

Adriana, her father and Renan. Humbling hospitaliy from these guys!

Adriana, her father and Renan. Humbling hospitality from these guys!

Any fear about roving gangs has evaporated with the rainforest mist. It feels great to be on the road.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

And Happy Christmas!

Mike

Losing my mind. And finding my focus.

Baixinha was a remarkable woman. A spiritual leader to many hundreds if not thousands, she deeply touched the lives of countless people.

She was known for sacrificing her time and money to mother more than ten children who were not her own. As a young woman she worked three regular jobs just so she could support these orphans.

People say she was clairvoyant by the age of eight. As she entered adulthood, her reputation for great spiritual work grew: first around the state of Rio de Janeiro, then around Brazil, and eventually as as far as Europe and the USA. She was known for her practicing of the Afro-Brazilian traditions of Candomble and Ubanda, where spirits are harnessed and channelled, providing healing to believers. In later years, she worked closely with the Santo Daime church.

Her following was so great that a local Santo Daime church close to TerraMaya was established around her work. Santo Daime is a young religion – formed in the 1930’s – that fuses traditional Indian beliefs with those of the Catholic church. An important part of the work held in the church is the Daime itself – better known as the ancient shamanic brew ayahuasca. The Daime is drank throughout the services in an effort to get closer to the pure energy of the universe – pure Being, or God, as many would call it.

A quick ethnobotany lesson: ayahuasca has been drunk for centuries, if not more, by Amazonian tribes. It has recently seen a huge surge of interest in the West, with many celebrities advocating the physical, emotional and spiritual benefits it offers. It is made from two Amazonian plants boiled together for many hours – the Banisteriopsis caapi, or ayahuasca, vine and the leaves of the chacruna plant, which contains large amounts of the compound DMT. DMT is a fascinating chemical, thought to be produced by the pineal gland in the human brain. It is a powerful psychedelic, and is perhaps responsible for dreams, out of body experiences and for the visions seen in near death experiences.

Back to the story. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a church ceremony held in the local Santo Daime church on the year anniversary of Baixinha’s passing. It sounded daunting: 12 straight hours of dancing in formal rows, singing vigorously to the 200 or so songs in the service’s ‘hinário’, or songbook.

But it was surely an opportunity I couldn’t miss. To be part of an all night traditional Brazilian church service, with song, dance, togetherness and this magical drink known as Daime, I couldn’t refuse!

We arrived at 7pm. Around two hundred others were already in the church – a circular structure with open windows around the walls and benches at the sides. Green and white paper bunting was hung across every inch of ceiling, starting at the walls and meeting at the centre point.

The men, dressed in white suits and black tie, were on the right of the door, women, wearing white dresses with white crowns placed on their heads, were on the left. Shortest people were at the front, leading up to the tallest at the back. This fulfils two purposes: it allows everybody to see the musicians in the centre and also best allows the energy to flow around the room.

Talking about energy may sound a little esoteric. But energy channelling and flow is a major part of the Santo Daime work.

We start dancing, three steps to the left, three to the right, and singing in unison. I did my best to keep up with the Portuguese words. The constant guitars, flute and percussive rhythmic shakers were insistent. And the energy was beginning to feel tangible.

And we go for the first serving of the Daime.

And more singing, more relentless movement. And the second serving of the Daime. And strange thoughts are beginning to creep into my mind.

And yet more song, more movement, three steps to the left, three to the right. Singing loudly, dancing proudly. And yet another serving of the Daime.

And soon the room is spinning, circling like a great spaceship, faster and faster. Lights seem deeper, perspective takes on new dimensions. And we’re in unison: everybody is as one, together in step, in voice, one entity. We’re one being, marching the long way home across the challenging terrain of our inner worlds. I’m faced with my insecurities, the fears I’ve harboured, the relationships I’ve wasted, the mistakes I’ve made. My friends and relatives are so near, tangible. I can see the sum of how things became to be. Words fail. I feel myself transform into a giant serpent, a terrible reptile full of venom. I focus on the steps, the singing, and manage to push the sensation away. And still we sing, still we dance, still we stay together in a communal focus.

A friend had told me that the Latin root for the word ‘focus’ meant ‘the fire in the centre’. I focus on this fire in the centre of my soul. With the focus on my steps, the focus on my singing, the focus on my fire within, I overcome the crippling thoughts in my head.

And the focus keeps me going. 12 straight hours. Focus on the steps, focus on the singing. Focus.

courtesy of Jeso Carneiro

The Daime

I left the church a broken man at 8am the next morning. My back was agony, my legs were dead weight. But I’d made it. Home through the torment, with the congregation unified. We were together. And I knew, through the focus and the Daime, that I’d had a fresh perspective on myself and my life.

That evening I felt incredibly energised. Invigorated and clean, in complete balance. It was as though I really knew myself, and that everything was right.

I think I’m starting to understand why people go to these services. And why Baixinha was so greatly loved.

I’ll sign off with the traditional words used to open and close ceremonies in Baixinha’s church:

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Life! Health! Happiness!

Mike

Arriving. And learning how to Be.

Ten miles from the small town of Casimiro de Abreu, itself 85 miles from Rio de Janeiro, lies the village of Sana. Turn off on a dirt track towards São Bento and follow the winding road higher into the mountains. The road splits, take the right, splits again, take the left, and eventually you’ll arrive at a rocky bridge over a river.

The final 20 minute walk up the narrow path is the trickiest part of the long journey, up steep and often slippery hillside. Of course, it’s made harder when carrying a fully loaded touring bike, especially when weighed down further by the weight of humidity.

But knowing what I’m heading towards makes the climb more like a pilgrimage than a hindrance: the remote and virgin land of Norberto – my sister’s boyfriend – tucked into Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest.

TerraMaya is what you could call a way of life rather than just a place. There is no mains electricity – the power for charging the emergency mobile phone is solar. Fresh water is fed from 6 natural springs on the land. Everything that is here – the huts, kitchen, bathrooms – was all either built from materials found on the land, or brought up via that journey I’ve just described.

People come here for holistic retreats from daily life. Norberto and my sister Milli organise the workshops, which attract visitors from all over Europe.

I’ve witnessed the effects their work has had with people, and they are without doubt deep and life changing.

But their work aside, just being on the land here is a retreat in itself. Imagine breathing pristine forest air each day and gazing at the thousands of stars of the southern hemisphere at night, unpolluted by artificial light. Imagine total immersion in the revitalising beauty of nature. Imagine not being able to check your phone, let alone Facebook. Imagine going for days without seeing a single advertisement.

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TerraMaya

I’m here from when I landed in Brazil on 18th November until 15th December, when I’ll get a lift into Rio de Janeiro before starting the bike tour. I’m able to post this as I’ve taken the day to cycle into town for Wi-Fi and provisions.

On the journey to date, there have for sure been snakes and spiders, mud and mosquitoes. But to focus on these would be to miss the point. The point I’ve found here is learning how to simply Be. To be present. And wow does it feel good! The stresses and distractions of modern life are miles away, figuratively and literally. The clean living has meant impurities have left my system. And it’s also as though all doubt, worry and fear (of which, if I’m honest, there has been plenty in the lead up to this trip) has left with them.

On one day last week, we hiked up the mountain to a spot that’s been considered sacred since Indian times. There’s a rock balanced on top of another rock, balanced at the top of a mountain, worn into its shape by erosion. Surrounding the rock is a sheer drop thousands of feet to the valley floor below. It’s called Peito do Pombo – the Breast of the Dove. In the circling forest mist, my sister and I hugged each other. I’ve spent some time in the past couple of weeks learning how to live in the present. And in that moment, in that present, I felt for sure the absurdity of thinking of Heaven as a place where the Good go when they die – Heaven was right there on that mountaintop.

Peito do Pombo

This has been the best preparation for the coming journey. It’s allowed me to fully relax, acclimatise and rebalance. I’m feeling strong, confident, and ready to go. Bring on the cycling!

Mike