At the age of 58, Halle McQueen made the bravest decision of her life; to live in the Amazon jungle of Peru to study the plant medicine and build a small business.
Armed with her newfound bravado and blissfully ignorant about the dangers, Halle returned to Peru after visiting as a tourist, to fulfil her dream. However, her naivety and lack of knowledge about the dangers of living alone in the Amazon jungle exposed her to many experiences. Some were illuminating but others were very ugly.
Her Amazon jungle dream of meeting with shamans, making plant medicine and embracing the simple life lasted for 8 years before it all turned nasty.
She was systematically robbed and deceived by her new friends. When she had nothing left to give, her personal safety was threatened which culminated in a shocking personal assault.
Halle writes as she speaks; with brutal honesty and a wicked sense of humour as she shares her fearful times and gut wrenching sad times as she invites the reader into her private world. McQueen returned home with no regrets knowing that if she had not pushed herself to her limits, she would never have known how strong she was.
An open truck with timber plank rails around the outside was my transport to the Madre de Dios River where a motorised canoe took me down the river through to a beautiful jungle lodge on the river. This was more like what I had imagined! The lodge was situated in a thick, lush jungle with large Macaws in the trees and not a hint of noise from the town. I was allocated a small thatched roof hut with a private shower and toilet. The large wooden bed had pure white linen and mozzie nets, a few kerosene lanterns and a hammock on the veranda. Yes, this was the real deal! This was everything I had imagined. I chose an afternoon visit to a plant medicine garden run by a shaman just downstream a bit. It was so surreal for me to be sitting with a shaman in the jungle talking about and tasting his plant medicine. If there is a place called heaven then this was it for me. I did not want to leave and I was sad as we headed back to the lodge in the canoe as the sun set. Even at this time I knew I would return to the Peruvian jungle one day. Early next morning I went on a group trip to Lake Sandoval which had an interesting history. I met a local man who told me that the original settlement at the lake was built by the Spanish priests who were supposed to preach the good word to the indigenous people. Apparently, some of the priests did more than spread the word of god; they spread their seed and impregnated many girls. They explained the babies as gifts from god and should consider themselves blessed. This was ok for a while but then the local men decided that it was not ok and kept their females away from the priests. The Catholic Church then organized nuns to be posted to the region which presented another problem. Babies from the nuns became an issue so they built a small community at Lake Sandoval to house the pregnant nuns and to care for the babies. Believe it or not! Yes, it was hearsay but it came from a local man so I am inclined to believe it. It also explained the different shades of skin in different areas of the jungle. There were some lighter shades of coffee brown skin which prompted me to ask the question.
We spent a relaxing day with the community. I slept in a hammock most of the day until early afternoon when the shaman indicated for me and Peti to gather our things and meet him at the river. I assumed we were leaving the community and going back up the river to the family of Jacs. I was wrong! We headed further down river for about an hour and dragged the canoe onto the banks before walking into the jungle once more. I felt much more confident with Peti there. We walked for about an hour until we reached a low area where a small lake had formed. I say it was a lake but it was more like a swamp with a few open areas of water not covered with plants. The shaman indicated us to sit and be quiet. It felt like forever and my attempts to ask questions were shut down by the shaman but it was not much longer that he pointed to the edge of the lake where a large tree had fallen and was half in the water. I saw movement on the tree trunk leading into the water and almost choked when I realised what I was seeing! It was the fattest Anaconda I had ever seen! I could not have reached my arms around it; not that I wanted to. It was moving out onto the tree trunk and stopped when it was half immersed in the water. I never saw the end of it which was still in the jungle. Peti told me that it was very special to the jungle people and they thought it was about eighty years old. Not many people knew how to find it because they were afraid it might be killed for a trophy especially now that tourists were venturing further into the jungle. They believed this particular Anaconda was a protector of the river and if it did not die a natural death, the river would dry up and never flow again. I moved behind the two men just in case it was hungry but I was told there was more than enough food in the jungle for the Anaconda and it did not have to work hard for it. It just had to wait and food literally walked over him. The shaman stood and indicated for us to stay where we were. He slowly walked around the lake towards the anaconda and actually put his hand on it and spoke to it before walking back to us. I knew I was extremely privileged to be able to witness all of this and of course typical me, tears came to me eyes.
The days were easy to fill and I never had a boring day. My little house was one room measuring 4 x 6 mtrs with one door leading out to a 2 mtr wide veranda. The walls were about 3 mtrs high with a space of half a metre to the roof. This was for ventilation which was necessary due to the heat and humidity most of the time. The two walls facing the river had the top half of the wall filled in with steel bars and fly wire which allowed me to have the views down to the river from inside the house. Once the banana palms grew, I could lie in bed at night and watch the monkeys running and jumping across the palm leaves. Some days after a heavy night of rain upstream, the river would rise three 3 mtrs. This was a bonus because the river would pick up nice pieces of timber upstream and dump it on the banks of the river for us to use for shelves and seats. Due to nothing much happening with the lodge building, I took advantage of the free days to explore my surrounding jungle with the help of my neighbor’s children who were living encyclopedias on knowledge about the plants and signs of animals. They helped me in the cool early morning hours to separate and transplant large clumps of banana palms. I also realized the seeds from papaya fruit sprouted very easily and we started a massive seedling garden for them. They grew very quickly and transplanted without looking back. When I left to come home I had a huge plantation of small banana and papaya plants between the track and my house. The children assured me that when I returned the following year they would be fruiting. I doubted that but they said it was a good time to plant; just before the wet season and the moon was right. Before I left Peru after four months in 2009, I tried to talk with Lito to express my concern about the slow process of building the lodge. Of course he pleaded the lack of a trade person, workers and seasonal changes such as rain, no rain, heat, insects and time. However he thought things would improve now for the same reasons. I packed up my house and bought huge bags of dog biscuits for Chica who I left with Lito and his family trusting him to feed and care for her. My neighbour Karlos and his wife volunteered to move into my house to care for it and my garden. I left confident that everything would be ok while I was home. Parting with Chica was traumatic to say the least. She was my only real concern and sometimes I felt that taking care of her and loving her was possibly not a good thing for her. Leaving her to the Peru standard of caring for a dog worried me a lot. It ripped my heart out to say goodbye. She howled as I walked away and I howled all the way to the airport.
I became very sick myself after being bitten by a mosquito which happened to be carrying the virus Leishmaniasis. It started as a typical bite on the inside of my lower leg and slowly grew into a large festering sore which seemed to get bigger every day. It was perfectly round with small pus filled sores inside it. My neighbor put a mix made from the belladonna on it without success. I eventually went to a doctor in town and she said it was Leishmaniasis but needed confirming by giving a swab at the hospital. It was confirmed and they wanted me to go to the hospital every day for intravenous medication. I went to an internet cafe and researched the drug they wanted to use. I returned to the hospital and told them I did not want to do that because it was a serious drug similar to chemotherapy. I also would have had difficulty getting to the hospital every day and getting back in a few hours. The doctors made a recommendation for me to go a jungle medical post every day for injections for three weeks. I thought that sounded a bit better so I bought all the syringes and phials of drug and went back to my house. I was told that the virus was very serious and if it traveled to the brain I would be in big trouble so I took their advice. As I was too sick to ride the motorbike, I paid a local boy to take me to the medical post every day on his bike. After three days of this, I realized that I was not improving, in fact I was worse. I was so weak that I needed help from my neighbor to shower and get me to the toilet. I asked a student from town to stay with me and sleep on my veranda at night just to help me. He was very good to me and checked on me all night. About the fifth night, I woke at 3am with urgency, maybe it was the shaman waking me but mostly I was very ill. I thought that if I did not do something I would die – yes, dramatic; but I did think that! I lay there in my bed and tried to think what to do. I picked up my paper and pen with my flashlight on under the mosquito net and waited for the urge to write. I started writing “what’s your trade?” Yes, I thought. I am a herbalist so what the hell am I doing? Then I wrote “remember the night in the jungle alone.” The answers were right here in the jungle right under my nose. Why didn’t I think of this before? I now believe that I did not have faith in my own knowledge and skills. So that is how I came to making the decision to give up the drugs and try my own thing! I sat up all night studying my bible, The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs by Leslie Taylor ND. I did what I was taught (Dar!) and made a list of how I was feeling and what systems were affected by Leishmaniasis and allocated plants from my bible to attack it. By morning I had a list of plants that I needed and I asked Liana if she could find them in our jungle. She found Una de Gato, Chuchuasi, Sarsaparilla and Graviola. I asked my student friend to go to town to a local herbalist for the others which were Cashew and Kalanchoe. I already had resins of Copaiba and Sangre de Grado for topical use. The herbalist in town also recommended a tincture which he made and called it ‘Cien Hojas Verdes’ which is‘100 green leaves’. Don’t you love that? Not Fred’s potion or Acme something or other. Just what it was —100 Green Leaves! I started immediately by boiling all the fresh plants for an hour and drinking three cups of the liquid every day. On the second day I woke in the morning feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep and I felt that this was the turning point. I decided to try to give the sore a good clean but it hurt too much but my student friend offered to bring his sister from town to do it for me. She was a trained nurse so I said yes thinking that I could just lay back and scream as she washed my wound. It turned out to be good idea; she very gently washed it by wiping a cloth with ordinary soap and water. It hurt so badly! She did this for about half an hour until I screamed for her to stop. She said I did well lasting for that long and the wound was now all pink and bits of dead skin and flesh just fell off leaving a hole exposing the bleeding sore. She said this was good. Funny how pain is good.