An intrepid traveller's flight of fancy
TRAIL OF FEATHERS: IN SEARCH OF THE BIRDMEN OF PERU by Tahir Shah Weidenfeld, f10.99, pp. 320, ISBN 0297645927 he complaint goes that this planet, like an overused adventure playground, no longer provides the thrills of the unknown, and that from Kamchatka to Cape Horn there is no more to be said or done. Luckily original travellers continually appear. Those who have read this author's previous books, Beyond the Devil's Teeth and The Sorcerer's Apprentice, know that he has a talent for inventive and outrageous travelling. He uses a natural candour to confront villains, mountebanks, lunatics and murderers, allowing situations to develop which would have most of us running and screaming.
Always interested in rumours that some people have flown, fly now, he noticed that often where feathered men and serpents appear, so do shrunken heads. At an auction for these apparently covetable items — semi-clandestine, since shrunken heads could hardly be more politically
incorrect he met amiable lunatics, for instance the man who knows that a flying machine was found in Tutankhamen's tomb, that the Valley of the Kings should be called the Valley of the Dead Pilots,
that it was the Egyptians who taught the Incas how to fly.
Well, why not? Anything is possible!
London's libraries and salesrooms, myths and legends, all pointed to Peru and the Birdmen. The Wright Brothers and Leonardo da Vinci are as far as many of us get, but hundreds of attempts at flight have been made everywhere in the world. What
is odd is not that we flew when we did but that it took so long. Surely some of the wings made of feathers, silk, bits of this and that flew far enough to be called flight? But our author's interest was in long, fabled flights over jungles and desert. When he asked shamans and the initiated, 'Did these people really fly?' the answers were tantalising. Soon he knew that the hallucinogen ayahuasca was a clue.
The author's love of comic excess is such that even the list of provisions for the journey, inspired by his friend Wilfred Thesiger's Victorian standards, are good for a laugh. Among them were 22 family-sized sachets of Lancashire hotpot, and off he set on the Inca trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu, described as worse than Everest. He noted that Machu Picchu looks from above like a condor.
Peru never had African slaves, and therefore no Macumba, so strong in other parts of South America. The systems of belief are native shamanism, and very weird they are. Festivals throughout southern Peru honour their beloved condor by capturing one, feeding it stimulants, and sewing it on to a band tied around a young bull. The frantic bird tears the bull with its beak, striving with its great wings to escape, bird and animal, like a mythological beast, providing the intoxicated populace with what is called a bull fight.
Outsize characters abound. Sven from Bratislava, who had done seven years in a high-security prison, was walking around the world in the name of peace and poetry, pursued by a Parisienne in search of a father for her children. She was armed with a smelly llama foetus, which was an aphrodisiac and also good for hangovers.
Nazca, of the famous desert patterns that make sense only from the air, is a nasty little town, but flourishing because crammed with initiates, every one of them claiming to know the Secret. More important still are the thousands of mummies being excavated for whatever will sell to museums and tourists. We have forgotten that powdered mummy from Egypt was the snake oil of the Middle Ages. The last mummy dust was sold in Germany in 1908 at 17 marks a kilogram.
Near a cemetery high in the Andes Tahir was told by a shaman that he was filled with evil spirits. He undertook the cure, which began by him being stroked all over, naked, with a hypnotised guinea-pig, whose entrails were later examined for marks confirming the possession.
In the poshest hotel in Lima he was the only guest: it was empty because a murderous she-ghost with a cleaver had moved in. Tahir survived, with only a bad headache.
A traditional storyteller in a market told him a tale 'in my family for 15 generations' which is known all over the Middle East and appears in the Arabian Nights. But she did point him onwards on the trail. By now he knew that he had to find the Birdmen, far away in the jungle, safe from civilisa
tion. They are the Shuar tribe, dreaded by everyone as murderers, torturers and sorcerers. Naturally this did not deter our author. In a town called Iquitos, described as the Saigon of the Amazon, apparently filled only with crooks and bar girls and beauty queens, whose best talent is to pick up white tree grubs with their teeth, standing, from the floor, Tahir was fleeced of his last money.
Now what was he going to do?
Enter Richard Fowler, a Texan Vietnam vet. 'The Tet Offensive, Battle of Hue, Hamburger Hill, and all that shit.' The Amazon jungle was now his turf, and he undertook to keep Tahir alive. He began by hiring a rotting boat, already holed, full of rats and wolf spiders. Into this piled Tahir, Richard, a shaman and his relatives along for the ride, and some hitch-hikers. and they embarked on a vast tributary of the Amazon, flooded and dangerous, to reach Shuar country. The food was disgusting, and the Lancashire hotpot came into its own.
After days of what sounds like hell, though the Vietnam vet was enjoying every minute, they reached the Shuars, but they had become Christian and had given up killing — but not ayahuasca, which the missionaries had known better than to forbid.
Now they set off into the depths of the jungle, together with a sloth whose severed head would be needed for some magicmaking. If to ingest revolting substances with a smile is a necessary talent for this kind of travelling, then so is the ability not to show shock at the cruelty to animals. The author's tender heart was clearly under strain. After days of walking, during which he decided he preferred to experience the jungle on television, they reached the big man, the great sorcerer Ramon, and there at last Tahir flew on ayahuasca. His shoulders and arms grew powerful muscles and white feathers burst forth. He was on the far side of a wall in a no-man'sland of illusion, but Raman told him that ordinary life was an illusion and this was real. Witches in Europe told the Inquisition that they had flown and seen marvels. Mushrooms, probably, or datura.
Tahir Shah's relish in storytelling is such that it would be easy to forget that this is a serious, well-researched quest.
There are two useful appendices, one about ayahuasca, the latest fashionable fix. The author is worried because it is being taken wrongly and dangerously prepared and out of its cultural context. The other is about shrunken heads and other items of magic and mystery. It seems we have got shrunken heads all wrong. They are of no interest to their makers once made. Their use is to imprison the vengeful spirits of the killed so that they do not get out and attack their killers. Just imagine, all those little heads with sewn-up mouths containing murderous spirits looking for a crack or cranny to wriggle out of so they can do their worst.