Amazon River Blues: Blessed Damnation

Karma Café


3° S, 73° W

It is a land that god, if he exists, created in anger. It’s the only land where creation is unfinished yet…

Werner Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon (1981, during the production of Fitzcarraldo)

There is a liberty to living on the edge of oblivion. Iquitos is a frontier town. It may be a two hour flight over the Andes and into the jungle from Lima, but this is the frontier. Priorities are different here. Survival must not be taken for granted. Survival must be intentional. Civility blurs as nature corrupts. You cannot see the tree for the jungle. You cannot see the river for the Amazon. Wear deodorant if you want. It doesn’t really matter.

The waterfront in Iquitos

The floating markets of Belén, a barrio on the city’s outskirts, specializes in mapacho cigarettes and bushmeat, but you could find nearly anything. What you want?, the hustlers hustle. 24 soles ($6.64) will hire you a rickshaw-driver for the day. 40 soles ($11) will get you a gram of cocaine. You want to fuck? Name the fuck and they’ve fucking got it. Even the city’s mongrels know a good time when they smell one. They creep towards the river as the day ages closer to closing time when the vendors shutdown and leave leftover offal and putrid fruit for the dogs to lap up. Not me. I’m riverfront, but heading the other way, crossing paths with the mangy mutts. I am no more noble than these dogs, I only smell better. Arguably.

If you’ve visited frontier towns before, you’re familiar with the five types of contemporary fellow traveler: sportsmen (big game hunter/fishermen), escapists (criminals, life insurance fraudsters), hippies (narco-tourists, new-agers), perverts (sex-tourists) and/or professionals (journalists, scientists, photographers, oilmen, missionaries, mercenaries, YouTubers, etc.). And they all congregate in the same bars, often owned by an ex-pat who arrived as any of the above, married a few local girls and wound-up staying long past their visa expiration. One side-alley bar mostly relegated to narco-tourists is Karma Café; off the waterfront, but not far. Karma Café is a Dutch opium den with hypnotic cocktails, a television airing regional soccer matches, ceiling fans circulating the sweet scents of sweat, cannabis & patchouli and a food menu catering to those on the ayahuasca diet (no fat, no salt, no sugar, no sex, etc.). From Karma Café’s cocktail menu (far-removed from the ayahuasca diet page), I recommend Peru’s national drink, the Pisco Sour. It is equal parts decadent and wild. It is fatty, salty, sugary and sexy. It has all the allure of the Amazon with 10% fewer mosquitos.

Nature here is violent. I would see fornication, and asphyxiation, and choking. And fighting for survival, and growing, and just rotting away.

Werner Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon (1981, during the production of Fitzcarraldo)

There’s a sleepy German beside me with wispy locks of thin hair at play around the crown of his skull. This is my friend, Doctor Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen. He is the world’s pre-eminent “Scat Man”. Blindfolded, my guy here could sniff a whiff of shit and accurately categorize the feline. Quite the party trick. Doctor Wolf von Ho is at the moment drunk, and yawning, after following me along my bar-hopping adventure with Doctor Theodore Bette. Dr. Bette is the fellow with the Middle-Earth eyebrows snoring on a beanbag chair in a corner of the café.

Doctor Wolf von Ho has caught a second wind. Leaning forward, he raises the index finger of an evangelical in his pulpit. Love, he says, is chemical imbalance! There is difference, ja?, between lust und, und attraction. Lust being caused by testosterone secreted from your… Doctor Wolf von Ho holds out his hands as if waiting to squeeze a pair of cantaloupes. Secreted from your testes, okay?, he says.

Wolfgang and Victor

I hold up a hand for pause. In America, the clinical term is “balls”.

Doctor Wolf von Ho accepts this information with one slow deep nod. His smile is impossibly wide. Ja, ja, ja, he agrees, testosterone secreted… he says, pausing as his mouth puckers in preparation… by “balls”. He goes on. Attraction, inzwischen, being when the brain is releasing dopamine und there is increasing of the serotonin levels. Lust und attraction are not always simultaneous, ja? You lust for persons you are not attracted to, example: dancing lady. Ooo-la-la, sexy lady. You are attracted to persons you do not lust, example: a wife. Doctor Wolf von Ho pauses a moment for quiet reflection, a smidge of weltschemerz in his furrowed brow. He misses his estranged spouse, Mrs. von Ho, wherever she may be. He perks back up and says, maybe sometimes there is lusting und attraction occurring gleichzeitig, ja? Maybe sometimes no. Then there is third something, okay? Attachment. Oxytocin, when created, it is bonding hormone you might have for ein Bruder oder eine Schwester, but most times not romantic.

Most times? You haven’t met my sister, I say and laugh. Doctor Wolf von Ho scrutinizes me unblinking with his bulbous forehead pitched forward. Dude, I tell him, it’s a joke.

Love, Doctor Wolf von Ho says, is the mixing of a chemical cocktail. You are finding many recipes. Many recipes tasting like love. Few recipes reach the table, ja? Many teaspoons lust, many teaspoons attraction, many teaspoons attachment? All persons having varying capacity to access testosterone und serotonin und dopamine und oxytocin. Und, mein freund, the accessibility of these chemicals changes over time. Love, Doctor Wolf von Ho says, is not irrational. It is rational. The chemistry is quantifiable. But love, Doctor Wolf von Ho waves a finger, love is fleeting. There are no constants in the chemical reactions of love.

There is some sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder…

Werner Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon (1981, during the production of Fitzcarraldo)

I wouldn’t have expected the spike of dopamine the first time I spied Bridgette d’Juneau sipping a bottle of coca cola in the Casa Morey hotel lounge. She was wearing a dull-windbreaker and utilitarian khakis which fit her as snug as a cardboard box. Her skin looked cold and easily blushed, resembling a slice of forgotten cheese pizza in the refrigerator. Her zombie-blue eyes spotted me and quickly looked away. Perhaps I had confused dopamine with what was testosterone. Was it mutual attraction between us or mutual lust? And what could possibly be driving this chemical reaction? In Morocco, the French have a saying, la chaleur complique la vie. The heat complicates life. Had I met Bridge in Seattle, where she’ll return after her Peace Corps tour, she would’ve seen me as an insipid toad and I would’ve seen her as a frost-bitten spinster-in-training. But out of nothing came this unexpected spark. La chaleur complique la vie. To the roar of howler monkeys, within the buzz of mosquitos, under the watch of quiet stalking jaguars, Bridgette and I had a moment.

the Ayapua, Vic’s quarters were in the hull

Bad maths. One and one not meant to be a two. The over-boiling cauldron of chemistry could not be replicated in a lab, but here it was, served-up on a petri-dish.

This morning, she refused me when I asked to escort her to the airport. She was flying to Lima. I would likely never see her again. She insisted we say goodbye at Casa Morey. She left, the door to the hotel room door closed and my interior collapsed. Within five minutes, I emerged from the hotel and employed a rickshaw driver to race after Bridgette d’Juneau. I chose the wrong tuk-tuk. I would be too late. She was gone. I used the airport lavatory for a nervous movement of my cramped bowels. How could this happen? The logic was all wrong. But the chemistry prevailed. And now I am contemplating a move to the Pacific Northwest? To be with her? Porque? Have I gone mad?

…This overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. There is no harmony as we have conceived it.

Werner Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon (1981, during the production of Fitzcarraldo)
Herzog, 1981

The devil local villagers call Yacuruna can shape-shift into a river dolphin and when sensing a menstruating woman the demon uses his charms to lure the unexpected damsel into the river. So I am told by Doctor Theodore Bette, “Teddy Betty”, earlier tonight at Karma Café. He is an anthropologist with incredible furry eyebrows who studies puberty rituals around the world. Yeah, Teddy Betty scores high on the creep factor, but only until you get to know him. He’s a standup guy who becomes narcoleptic after two scotches. Teddy Betty said, three scotches ago, the empirical evidence I have gathered suggests ecdysiasts (or “voyeuristic dancers of a strip-tease persuasion”) who rely on gratuity paid by gentlemen callers receive a significant increase in revenue on nights they are menstruating, suggesting patrons of these establishments of ill-repute are subconsciously alerted to the dual facts of import regarding menstruation: firstly, this woman is fertile and, secondly, she is not seeded by a rival. Teddy Betty paused a moment to clear his throat. Did you, Vic, he asked of me, in your transgressions with Miss Bridgette, perchance notice…?

Doctors Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Theodore Bette would have been less comfortable in the eclectic confines of Karma Café had they not arrived already severely inebriated. Their preferred watering holes are the ex-pat bars along the promenade full of civilized exiles: pedophiles, tax evaders, death fakers and sport fishermen. Karma Café is occupied by refugees of a more existential bent: narco-tourist philosophers soul-searching via the god-vine, ayahuasca. You can tell the hallucinatory pilgrims by their urge to purge (ayahuasca tripping mostly involves excessive vomiting), sunken eyes and starved bellies bloated on rice & haphazardly-picked fruits. They speak loudly. The eavesdropped ear easily picks-up their tales of puke-bucket affirmations. They are awakened. And I’m sleeping in.

I am on my second Pisco Sour listening to Doctor Wolf von Ho explain how to tell if scat belongs to puma or jaguar (puma eat neither river dolphin nor caiman while a jaguar will pounce on any creature within striking distance, as can be divined through a thorough analysis of shit) when the ghost of Bridgette passes in the background. The translucent phantasm isn’t quite Bridgette, but a doppelgänger perverted with piercings and clumped, unwashed hair, mumbling to herself in a dialect out of the Rhine-Valley. Taken by this shimmering image, I turn towards her and speak, guten tag freulein. It is unclear what chemicals she is under the influence of, but she is certainly on a higher plane of experience than me. She passes and my greeting falls limply to the opium-den floor. This is for the best. In the absence of Bridgette, a replacement goldfish is not the answer. Better the void than a desperate grasp to immortalize misspent love.

Sloths live in trees, Doctor Wolf von Ho says, but sloths must defecate on the ground and this is being where they are most at risk for being eaten by the jaguar! So too, there is maybe precedent, Doctor Wolf von Ho says, in the love-afflicted. For they are being most vulnerable when descending into the jungle for this dopamine dump. It is being safer then, I am thinking, Doctor Wolf von Ho says. It is safer to remain… Doctor Wolf von Ho waves a hand at the heavenly ceiling above us. Remain aloft. Remain aloft and alone rather than descend, becoming then vulnerable.

Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that’s all around us. The trees here are in misery. The birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.

Werner Herzog in the Peruvian Amazon (1981, during the production of Fitzcarraldo)

The hour is late as we walk along the promenade, but the riverfront is alive with frenetic energy, loud with drumming and illuminated by the airborne blazes of fire jugglers. Acrobatic dancers are performing competitive capoeira with rings of people watching, entranced, blue-lit phones raised to capture video. Shamans stand on the sideline, active eyes scanning for recently arrived rubes from the Northern Hemisphere to take advantage of. Ayahuasca?, whispers at passersby. Cocaine? Mapacho?

Scat-Man, Doctor Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen, as he watches the crowd, says, time is very much being a factor in chemical reactions. The chemical cocktail of love is having a dependency of time. If time ist night gut… No chemical reaction. Und chemicals being finite, there is no being forever. Chemicals becoming exhausted. Love becoming less combustion and more nostalgia. Love becoming emotional response to memory. With time, nostalgia disintegrating. There is no being forever.

Doctor Bette with Vic Neverman, aboard the Ayapua

Romantic love is akin to a primitive witnessing a solar eclipse, Doctor Theodore Bette hypothesizes. A miracle of synchronicity which startles and delights. To be noted!, Bette continues, romantic love is an experience unique to our species. No other beast has the imaginative capacity for it. Ja, Doctor Wolf von Ho nods. If only to be jaguar, having only hunger and satiation of appetite. What life!, Doctor Wolf von Ho laughs. Indubitably, Doctor Bette agrees, saying, and what magnificent stories your precious felines must have, if only they were capable of telling stories. The privileges of our humanity is quite the blessed damnation. To possess a concept of love does not make us poets. What makes us poets is understanding love is fleeting.

The three of us are quiet as we approach the hotel, Casa Morey. We arrive alone in our own thoughts, each of us considering his own blessed damnation.

For more drunken philosophical banter with scientists, read about Vic’s crocodile research in Cuba.

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