food, South America, Travel

A week in the Wisdom Forest: my experience living with a Hare Krishna community in the Amazon Jungle

In one week I learned about Hare Krishna, experienced a spiritual ‘sweat lodge ceremony’, learned to use a machete, harvest tropical fruit, make chocolate from raw cocoa, press sugar cane juice, climbed up waterfalls, trekked through the jungle, made a traditional Amazonian meal, took part in mantras and ceremonies, tried to meditate (unsuccessfully), and attempted yoga (even less successfully).

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The Wisdom Forest is located in the Amazon Jungle- to reach it you take a bus to the town of Tena, and then a smaller bus, on which you ask to get dropped off at el mono– the monkey. I got hopped off at the statue of Hanuman and followed a little path that winds through a garden of incredible plants for produce- pineapples, papayas, bananas, coconuts, limes, and cocoa, flush with fruit. Bandu, the resident giant dog, and the friendliest Alsatian I’ve ever met, came bounding up to say hello. The front porch of the house is open, with fresh bananas strung up, people swinging from hammocks between the beams, reading books and chatting, guitars and drums lying around, and a little bike workshop.
The community here are Hare Krishnas. I knew next to nothing about Hara Krishna culture before coming here, but was interested to know more about their way of life, experience living in the rainforest, and volunteering on the eco-farm that produces organic vegetables and fruits, which they both live from and sell from a little tent on the side of the road.

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I am always interested to learn about religions, and ways of life other than the one I am used to, but I will admit I was a bit apprehensive about how I would cope with the level of spiritualism in this vedic community. I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a hippie- but more of a cynical hippie. I care about the environment and conservation because to me the world is beautiful, and it’s logical to look after the planet you call home. I’ve been a vegetarian for 17 years (and mostly vegan for the last) I think it just makes no sense to add to the world’s suffering, and I like animals too much to want to kill them. I object to war and always advocate love and peace because it just makes sense. Non- violence is always better than violence. I don’t like capitalism because it’s a system of fucking people over with unfathomable suffering and death tolls as the consequence. But none of this is linked to any sense of spirituality or connection to something bigger. I think that when we die, we break down and become mud, and that is it. My beliefs are firmly rooted in a combination of logic, proven science, and the general principle of not being a dick. I try to always respect other people’s beliefs, but I have to admit to perhaps sometimes being a bit of a smug twat to two of my best friends, Bethan and Jodi, who really go in for some of this spiritual stuff (reiki, magic stones, fortune telling, prayer bowls that are connected to the sound of the universe etc.) because I have to admit, to me it always seems like a lot of guff. (Sorry to them for that).
But- I told myself to keep an open mind, and even if I thought I would never be the type to go in for this, to learn as much as possible from these people. After all, I was walking into their world voluntarily.

I was thrown in the deep end, as when I arrived the group were getting ready to take part in a ‘sweat lodge ceremony’. First, you get in your cossie and take a jump into the freezing cold natural plunge pool, or shower in an amazing natural outdoor shower that has water running down the forest through a bamboo beam, sheltered by leaves. Then you enter the lodge- a small, thatched hut with a tiny entrance which you crawl through to get in. It’s incredibly dark. Everyone sits on banana leaves in a circle around a pit. Bhaga explains that the hut represents the womb of mother earth, and that we are going to be reborn. We are going to meditate on Mother Earth, and he talks for a while about the importance of protecting the planet and looking after the animals. So far so good. Then they start to bring in the abuelas. Grandmothers. Not old women, but the name they have for the hot stones that they place in the pit to heat the hut and create the sauna affect. The abuelas are each meant to represent a virtue we should meditate on, while they chant a song to welcome them as they are brought in- giving thanks for empathy, patience etc. There are three rounds of meditating, drumming, and chanting mantras to Hare Krishna, Madre Tierre etc., between which more abuelas are brought in, and palm fronds are used to waft the hot stones until it becomes incredibly hot, and everyone is soaked in sweat. With the heat and the beats of the drums, it’s kind of hypnotising. After, everyone comes out of the womb reborn, and plunges in the pool again to return to reality.

There are many variations on this ceremony in different cultures and practices. For some, this is a profoundly spiritual experience. I wouldn’t say I found it that, but it was certainly very relaxing, and the messages were positive. I slept well that night.

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Mornings here start at 5.30am in the temple, located in treehouse overlooking the jungle, where Bhaga, who began the community, leads the morning meditation. The Hare Krishna movement is a kind of branch of Hinduism that practices Bhakti Yoga  (it turns out yoga is a whole set of practices and not just the exercise). Although Varsana, one of the lead volunteers, insisted it’s not a religion in the dogmatic sense, but more a way of life, the ceremony was very like the many I witnessed in Hindu temples while travelling in India. Rhythmic music was played on an instrument I’ve never seen before, with drumming, and chanting mantras, in front of a cabinet full of pictures of Krishna and the gurus (all men). There are many mantras, but the most common is quite repetitive and meant to focus your mind for the meditation:
hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa
kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare
hare rāma hare rāma
rāma rāma hare hare
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After the meditation, there is a ‘philosophy’ class with Bhaga. This is the part I struggled with the most. I wouldn’t so much call it a ‘philosophy class’, as an hour of listening to Bhaga’s beliefs and opinions. Now, I spoke at great length with the other Hare Krishnas there- latinos from Venezuela, Guatamala, and Mexico- and they talked with great sincerity about how the Hare Krishna way of life had helped them to live in a more positive way, in accordance with nature, to learn to reject material wants and to live to serve others, overcome depression and negative feelings in the past, and feel more whole. I have immense respect for them, because they really did live a simple and peaceful life, and did everything they did with kindness, and importantly, would talk about why they believed certain things without judgement of others. Although I didn’t believe in Krishna, and found the rituals a bit bizarre, I largely agreed with their principles, and they said as long as others followed a way of life that incorporates kindness, and in accordance with protection of the earth, we should find our own way to becoming who we felt happy with.

Bhaga’s lessons were not like this. It felt like the hour of judgement. He would lecture endlessly about the dangers of meat, alcohol, drugs, and sex. Even though I agree with not eating animals, the way he aggressively accosted the meat-eaters in the group was unhelpful in engaging them in a cause I do believe in.

We did a test to find out what our ‘ayurvedic body type’ is. This is based in an old spiritual system that promotes the idea people are made either of earth, fire, or air. The definitions seem extremely random, and I can’t help rejecting any system that reduces anything as complicated as people to three types. I was told I was ‘Kapha/Pitta’- a mix of earth and fire. But realistically, elements of all three body and personality types related to me, and all of them contained elements which were completely contradictory to how I am. On the basis of this system, illnesses are treated by diet- if you are kapha you should eat less oil etc., to balance your elements. He promised this is a ‘scientific’ method, and I had to work hard to maintain politeness, and point out that adding the word ‘science’ to an idea doesn’t make it scientific.

In another class, he advised we should not wear suncream because we shouldn’t put anything on our skin that would be poisonous to eat. He said people shouldn’t put it on their children. This was day four, and I actually felt myself losing my temper. The temperature here was up to 30 degrees in the heat of the day. I feel it’s extremely irresponsible in a capacity as a ‘teacher’ to advise people (especially the groups of blancitas that frequent the Wisdom Forest) not to protect themselves against the sun, and not to protect their children. After all, there is proof that getting sunburn repetitively can cause skin cancer and death. I told him as much. He whinged on about whether there was really proof, maybe he’d have to look at statistics, but his friend told him it was bad and never put sun cream on her children and so… bla bla. At this point I felt like saying, mate. Your name isn’t Bhaga. Your real name is Ben and you’re from Chichester. And yes, the link between sun damage and skin cancer has been proven by (genuine) scientific research. Saying ‘but my whacko mate said this’ isn’t going to hold up in academic peer review. Shut up.

For this reason I had to skip the last ‘lessons’, which is probably just as well because apparently he talked about how having any sex will definitely make you a prostitute, and then you will die. Sigh.

After the hour of talking crap, there was a yoga class, which was actually quite nice, especially looking out into the rainforest, but I realised how inflexible I am as I was barely able even to cross my legs, and had to creak my way through saluting the sun, trying ‘downward dog’ etc. without falling over.

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After breakfast, work. The work here was interesting- I learned to wield a machete and felt like a badass (though more likely just a mentally unstable person with a machete). But we harvested the food we then ate which felt very satisfying. Better yet, we used the cocoa to make chocolate- you suck the flesh off the beans (sounds gross I know, it’s sweet but nothing like chocolate) then dry them, and roast them, peel the shells off, grind them, and we then added panela before rolling them into balls. Panela is a syrup made from sugar cane juice which we cut down and crushed, and then boiled. The result was delicious, natural, and as local as you can get.

Meal times were great. The food here was genuinely incredible- all vegetarian and mostly vegan, we had one awesome giant Amazonian meal (below), which contained fruits and vegetables I’d never tried before- piton, fruitipan, chiclas etc. We also made bean stews, lasagne, stir frys, pizza, and even a birthday brownie cake on Kartik’s birthday. As with anything, there is a ritual that must come before eating in Hare Krishna culture. They consider cooking a meditation, and so before eating you make an offering to Krishna, consisting of a small amount of every dish, which is put in a cupboard, and you chant a mantra thanking mother earth for the food and offering it to Krishna, while a bell is rung and you clap. Then, before eating, there’s a cancion (song), thanking again, with guitars, and you chant the Hare Krishna mantra.

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Days off were fun- we spent a day adventuring in the waterfalls, hitching a ride on the back of a local pick up truck, then wading through rivers, hauling ourselves up waterfalls with ropes, and trekking through the jungle while the boys swung around on the real Tarzan style ropes hanging down around us. We visited a local community, and the family of a volunteer which had eleven children, on their small farm, and tried the local drink, chicha.

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The accommodation was basic to say the least- inevitably jungle bugs get everywhere, there were often cockroaches in my room, we found a small snake in the kitchen, and once when I got in the shower I was alarmed when a frog jumped out at my face. I had about 5000 bug bites when I left, though thankfully I didn’t catch sight of the resident tarantulas the whole time.

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On the whole, I had an amazing experience here. I do believe ‘Bhaga’, if I will go with his ‘spiritual’ name, is a bit of a bullshit merchant, and I dislike his negative approach of haranguing people. It makes Hare Krishna seem very negative as a culture, and I don’t believe it is. I never go in for dogma in religions, but I understand the principle of being thankful for what you have and the ceremonies do remind you to be mindful in a way that can never be achieved in the city and chaos of modern life. I could never be a Hare Krishna, and there is an element of the cultish about it, but I like the people very much, and I have to say that after a week here I did feel more peaceful, patient, and open hearted to others. Which can only be a good thing.

It was an amazing way to experience the rainforest, and if you are thinking about it, I would definitely recommend going in a volunteer capacity so you can get closer to the wildlife and really learn to live within it. I have never had so many new experiences in one week and can only thank the people who let us into their home, showed me a path to being a more gentle person, and gave me memories to last a lifetime.

Love and peace,

Helen

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food, South America, Travel, vegan, vegetarian

Peru is vegan heaven!

Peru is vegan heaven. There’s a sentence I never expected I’d write. I ate better vegan food in Peru than I’ve eaten in my whole life. It may not be the traditional fare, but veganism is a well understood concept, at least in most of the towns on the backpacker trail, and there are vegan versions of most of the typical dishes- even vegan ceviche! Everything is plentiful, delicious and healthy. In Peru I was in foodie heaven.

The surprises started in Puno. Puno is a nondescript town that most travellers use just as a gateway to Lake Titicaca. It’s big, ugly, and uninspiring- so imagine my surprise when I found the best vegan restaurant (at that point) on my trip- The Loving Hut does a ridiculously cheap set lunch menu for 15 Soles (about £3.50) that includes salad, soup, main dish and pudding. Usually with these set lunches the portions are small- but here the main was so mammoth that I broke my principle of always finishing every meal. The best thing about this place is the tofu fish and meat substitutes. I’d really missed healthy protein and realised how much I rely on Quorn  and tofu at home, but here they have vegan ceviche, vegan prawns and rice, tofu chicken, burritos, and much more.19883542_10213030267887304_1678444243_n.jpg

The owner was so friendly and told me about the next surprise of the trip- that in Arequipa there was a vegan festival on the weekend I was arriving! With ridiculously good luck, I went straight to check it out- and it was phenomenal. I ate about three meals worth of food and finished with the best cake of my life- an amazingly rich, vegan, dark chocolate and passion fruit cake- the picture can’t convey the foodgasm.

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In Arequipa I also had vegan ceviche in El Buda Profano (pictured below) which was delicious but unsatisfying compared to the Loving Hut version.

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For extremely satisfying fare, head to Burger Chulls, where I got a vegan lentil burger with sweet potato fries and a passion fruit drink for just 15 soles again! (£3.50!) and couldn’t move for the rest of the evening.

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Crepes are everywhere in South America, surprisingly, and have been the biggest test to my attempt to be vegan most of the time (sorry, I caved for nutella). But Le Petit Francaise will treat you to an incredibly delicious vegan batter hummus and roast vegetable crepe that is to die for. They are so nice they would probably also do you one with lemon and fruit if you asked.

Huacachina is an incredibly small town in the middle of the desert, so imagine how shocked I was to eat the best falafel of my life- in a hostel! Bananas has an incredible menu and these sexy bastards were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and came with hummus! (I think I’ve had hummus deficiency since arriving in Latin America so I was too excited about this). La Casa de Bamboo is another hostel with an exclusively vegetarian menu, including Thai curry, falafel and incredible large breakfasts. I went three times in my two-day stay.

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Lima is meant to be the best place for food, but was less inspiring for me (but I hated Lima in general). However, here I did get a vegan version of a very traditional dish called causa– avocado layered with potato, and vegetable (usually with tuna or chicken). It was creamy, salty, and very satisfying.

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If Peru is vegan heaven, worship at the altar of Cusco, where a quick search on Happy Cow revealed more veggie restaurants than it was physically or financially possible for me to visit in my time there. The crown for best veggie food was removed here from the Loving Hut and rewarded to Green Point. I’ve never been so happy from food, and I get happy from food often.  Again, for 15 soles, a lunch menu included salad, rich and sweet pumpkin soup, a moderately spicy and fragrant chana masala, topped with yukka (god I’ve missed curry) and a delicious banana and chocolate mousse (all vegan!). The evening options are also incredible- I had a portion of vegan lasagna as big as my head and packed full of fresh veg, while my friends had dumplings and courgetti spaghetti. In spite of my fare I got extreme food envy for the people at the next table who ordered sizzling hot tacos, my god.

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Here I also enjoyed El Encuentro, which offers mainly meat substitute versions of traditional Peruvian food (which to be honest, is a lot like Chinese- meat, rice, soy sauce). And I had the best salad I’ve ever eaten in a shamanic raw vegan restaurant- which was so large it took a full forty minutes to eat!

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More than these, in Cusco, vegetarian food is advertised everywhere, even at mainstream restaurants, and you can get vegan cakes at bakeries. I’m sad I didn’t spend more time in Cusco for many reasons, but the food is a large factor.

So vegans and vegetarians- don’t fear South America- go to Peru!! And add to this list of amazing, healthy, and satisfying food. Nom.

food, vegan, vegetarian

My guide to veggie/vegan eating in Bolivia

Before going travelling, I spent three months as a vegan- having tried Veganuary, found it surprisingly easy, and decided to carry on. I’d been a veggie for 16 years- having given up meat at 9- but had only just made the connection and the next step- to cut dairy and all other animal products. Lots of people asked me ‘are you going to continue when you’re travelling?’ and I said that I would try to do so most of the time, but suspected I may need to revert to vegetarianism at some point.

I was right. I know some people manage to just about live as a vegan out here- but it requires serious dedication, pre-planning, and basically never being able to eat anywhere with friends, and sitting in the corner of a hostel eating peanut butter out of a jar instead. As much as I love the last activity, after a couple of days here it became obvious that for me, vegan would be too difficult. Vegetarianism is well understood in South America, but veganism is barely a concept- although there are some great little restaurants and cafes trying to change that. As it is I’ve managed to do vegan 70% of the time, but I have reverted to eating cheese and eggs occasionally… On the short tours I’ve taken (2/3 days exploring the islands of Lake Titicaca, and the Uyuni salt flats) the only non-meat or fish option has been omelette… omelette… more omelette. I have no idea how you’d explain veganism in Spanish, to people with very little means doing what they need to survive, but I think you might starve.

However, I want to write about those little awesome beacons of the plant-based life that are dotted all over the continent to give some guidance to other veggies and vegans travelling in the region. Though it’s usually possible to get a veggie option in restaurants, it tends again to be- omelette. Or tomato pasta. Or pizza. Without a doubt the best  (and usually vegan) food I’ve found has been in the little veggie cafes and restaurants.

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In La Paz I was lucky on the first day to stumble into Restaurante Vegetariano Armonia, a little vegetarian restaurant over a bookshop, in the bohemian district of Sopocachi- all the best things in one place! Armonia only opens for lunch, but offers an incredible buffet between 12 and 2.30pm for just 34 Bolivianos- around £3.84. I ate two huge plates of mixed salad, fried plantain, potato cakes, spinach fritters, and veggie rice, and had to stagger back to the hostel after for a nap.

The other veggie haven in La Paz has to be Namaste, a funky hippie haven easily within reach of the main market. The extensive menu of delicious and healthy options includes tofu and peanut Thai  veg stir fry, empanadas, soy fritters, lentil burgers, nachos, and burritos. I had these gigantic tacos, stuffed with veggie mince, salad, and guacamole. They set me back just 29 Bolivianos for a huge and satisfying dinner.

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I couldn’t help returning the next day for the set menu lunch, which consisted of a salad with the most delicious dressing I’ve ever had, soup, vegetarian lasagna (which I must admit was a bit cold), and fruit in some kind of rice pudding. Again, only 25 Bolivianos- and they do great coffee too!

veg namaste

In terms of street food, it’s quite disappointing that the local favourite- salteñas- basically Latin American pasties- are mostly full of meat and potato. However, in Sucre there is one place- Salteñeria Flores– that offers a veggie option. Hot, stodgy, and full of beans and veg, it’s a cheap and satisfying-if not mind-blowing option.

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Another favourite street food in Sucre are papas rellanas– which are served everywhere for breakfast. In the week I spent in Sucre learning Spanish, I often went in the morning to the spectacular Parque Bolivar to buy one or two of these treats for breakfast. Con huevos, is basically a veggie scotch egg- a boiled egg wrapped in mashed potato, and deep fried. There is also a queso option which is flat and has chunks of cheese melted into the potato- and again deep fried. You can either eat them there in the park, out of a plastic bowl with a teaspoon, next to all the locals on little stools, or take them away in a plastic bag to eat at home with a good English cuppa. Good for the waist? No. But the soul, yes. And only 3 BOB each- around 32p!

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The other fantastic thing for veggies are the markets- with fruit and veg stacked high and sold so cheap. Best of all are the freshly squeezed fruit juices, which would set you back four times the cost at home and have several times the flavour here, with fruits you’ve never seen before easily there to try. Just make sure you ask for it sin leche as there is a local habit to add milk to juice for some reason (yuk!), and also sin azucar if you prefer your sugar natural rather than added.

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Sucre is a veggie paradise and the one place I think it would be doable to be vegan 24/7. Without a doubt the best place is the Condor Café, which is also home to the Condor Trekkers, an eco-friendly local touring company which is not-for-profit, and puts its proceeds into local projects such as building roofs for schools, and teaching children about health and hygiene in deprived areas. It does dirt cheap and huge cheese empanadas, delicious falafel and avocado sandwiches, and another bargain-a-licious set lunch menu.

Prem is mostly open for lunch times, but serves awesome and huge seitan baguettes, fresh juices, and set menus in a friendly little place just off one of the main streets.

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El Germen is another great find with a huge menu of vegan options, including a ridiculously cheap 12 BOB veggie burger, quinoa soup, veggie lasagne, and veggie curry. I went with the tofu curry, having been missing protein substitutes, though I have to admit it was quite bland and not really what I’d call a curry. Still- healthy, and cheap, and I still went back the next day for a veggie burger which was much better.

In Copacabana, I was extremely surprised to see a vegan food cart at the bottom of the main high street- and sad as it is, could hardly contain my excitement to have hummus for the first time of weeks. Selling veggie burgers, falafel wraps, hummus sandwiches, vegan brownies and flapjacks and energy balls, this cart belongs to Hostal Joshua nearby, which also has a vegan restaurant- though sadly only open until 8 so I missed it the one night I was there, but on the basis of the sandwiches definitely worth checking out if you are there.

So- I’m now travelling over the water of Lake Titicaca to continue my tour of veggie eats into Peru- wish me luck!