Keith, the Chocolate Shaman of Guatemala

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The mist smells of banana leaves and wood smoke, the scent of the Guatemalan Highlands when it rains. Mothers carry firewood on their heads and get knocked around by a downpour that’s like bowls of dirty water being thrown from the sky. Village children in hand-woven clothes hide under a tree and squeal as workers get soaked. Clouds shroud the mountains around the lake. As I traipse past a tienda, in and out of the shop wander the flea-bitten dogs who take over the streets at night.

I reach the Chocolate Shaman’s cottage on the village outskirts in the early afternoon. You could take a snapshot of the people sitting on the shabby porch and think it was a postcard from the ‘60s. No Guatemalans, just plenty of folk my age born decades too late — dreadlocks, tie-dye t-shirts and crystals threaded on string around their necks. I recognize most of them — I’ve been taking Spanish lessons in the village for the past week, and they work in the cafes and meditation centers by the lake. The tourists left as soon as the rains came at the end of May.

Everyone huddles together on the peeling benches or cross-legged on the floor. A happy buzz floats in the air as the regulars catch up with each other. I am not part of the scene, just listening in on the conversations happening around me.

“I wasn’t going to come today,” says an American woman in her forties with the faded green swirls of tattoos on her forehead and chin, “but the stars were so good, you know, how could I not?”

“I know, right?” says a little sparrow of a Spanish girl, her brown eyes too big for her delicate face. “I swam in the lake today, my hair is getting so healthy out here.”

“It’s the cold water,” says the older woman, “I haven’t washed my hair with shampoo for years, I only wet it once a month when I put in henna.”

“Your hair’s perfect,” says the girl.

“It washes itself, right? I never use soap or moisturizer either. Just cold water. My skin’s never been better.”

Eventually, Keith the Chocolate Shaman comes out of the crusty kitchen and looks behind us to the volcanoes across the lake. They possess all the spiritual energy in the world, he says.

With his wispy, white long hair, Keith is an American chocolate wizard. Keith is Dumbledore — ancient, thin and long-limbed. As he folds himself into the cushioned chair by the kitchen door and welcomes us in, I take in his papery white skin and blue eyes so alive behind the glasses. I can’t tell how old he is. Sixty? Ninety? He’s been travelling all his life but there is still a youthfulness traced in his narrow features.

One of Keith’s chocolate helpers is Kurt, the Californian manic who looks like an all-knowing, pierced sewer rat. Last night at the party in the bar I went to, he led San Marco’s souls into a wild percussion dance under the garden’s soaking avocado trees, chanting in time with the tambourines,

“We are the gypsies, we are the wanderers, we are the rainbows of the sky!”

Kurt and Keith hand out the 100% cocoa drink in colorful plastic beakers. There are tubs of brown sugar and chili sauce being passed around for extra kick.

In his warm voice, Keith tells us how the the powerful Maya Cocoa spirit came to him years ago in a dream. She asked him to wait for a sign from her. A few weeks later, while volunteering on a botany project in Guatemala’s coastal rainforest, he noticed cocoa trees growing everywhere. He learned about the use of cocoa as a drug by searching the web, brought kilos of the stuff back down from the rainforest, and so came the incarnation of Keith the Chocolate Shaman.

“The cocoa is not a hallucinogenic, which has made many overlook its powers, but boy, this stuff, it’ll speed up and open your heart and mind, and what we’re going to see today might just be the most beautiful thing in the world.”

I drop some chili into the acrid brown liquid and swallow back the harsh mix.

“Chocolate brings the door but doesn’t push you through it,” Keith continues. If you really want to stay safe in your rational mind, nothing but a good buzz will happen.”

While we wait for the cocoa to mess with our hearts, Keith tells us some stories. Back in his Woodstock days, Keith made money running workshops that taught hippies how to survive on their travels, including teaching girls how to pee in the woods. He smiles and shows us how, making a lewd gesture with his long, bony fingers. In the early nineties, he worked as a therapist in New York City with gay men who were HIV positive, some of the most creative people he ever met. Then he moved on to work in one of America’s highest-security prisons with men who would die in prison. Now he is solving the problems of navel-gazing backpackers.

“It’s time, close your eyes,” says Keith in his brown cords and crumpled t-shirt. “Imagine a ball of light. Smile until it becomes real. Oh, the energy here is so beautiful today. Can you feel it?” He has such a kind, slow voice. I listen, I smile.

“Send the rays of light to someone you love, someone you want to help.”

I think of my best friend and her new baby.

“Go to glow. There you are. They can feel the light, it’s working.”

Then Keith the Chocolate Shaman goes on to talk about how there are two things in the world, love and fear. The polar of fear is intimacy, and the polar of love is that “Hey baby, come over here” kind of lust, and I think I understand that much, but then he goes on to talk about pain bodies and empaths and all these cosmic words I’ve never heard before. I open my eyes hoping to find someone else who looks as lost as me, someone who I can smile at and roll my eyes with, but everyone is smiling benignly with their eyes closed and waving their crystals in the air.

Kurt the Sewer Rat is now sitting cross-legged on the floor, letting out funny whoooots and laughing as tears run down his weathered face. I’d already heard that as the cocoa opens our hearts, tears become the base of the chocolate ceremony. Crying into his tie-dyed onesie is the young, mohawked guy from yesterday who sang Bob Dylan under a shelter by the lake — badly. A kind-faced doughy woman with grey hair in a schoolgirl bob howls from under her matted, lilac shawl in the corner. The atmosphere is as dank as the wet earth from which the cocoa beans grow, as heavy as the sound of the rain on the canopy.

Keith begins to single out individuals from his high wicker chair. His voice breaks when he talks with the sparrow girl who was chatting about shiny hair before.

“You’ve been misunderstood since before you were even born.”

She nods with her big sad eyes.

“You’ve always had so much love for everyone around you, wanted them to be happy, so you ate all their shit, their negativity, and no one ever noticed how hard it was for you to love so much.”

Her body shakes from tears as he continues. As Sparrow gets up on her tiny legs to cry in the bathroom, Keith sounds like he is about to cry as he goes around the other souls sitting in front of him. An American woman with a lined, humorless face blinks back tears as she tells Keith in the style of teenage girls around the world.

“I met the first guy I’ve loved in so long, but we can’t be together. I don’t know how I can get through this pain, I just, I just can’t, it hurts so much.”

“He’s scared of your power, you’re such a strong woman,” Keith responds.

Everyone nods. As he continues and the crowd’s nods get stronger, I half expect someone to jump up and say, “You’re too good for him, girlfriend!” Instead, a sexy hippie girl goes to the broken woman in the corner and waves crystals around her aura. Is the chocolate ceremony just glorified group therapy?

Keith moves on and tries to heal more people. The good-looking older woman who doesn’t wash her hair gets extra special attention. Keith circles the top of her breastbone with one long finger and says, “Let it out, let it out.” She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, I try the same.

Before I even open my eyes, I know it’s him touching my knee as a fuzzy buzz passes through my whole body. I look into his watery blue eyes and he begins to speak to me in his ancient voice.

“You’ve always had to be a good girl, always a good girl, no one ever wanted to see your heart, your creativity. You had to keep it in, didn’t you?”

I nod, feel tears in my eyes, but I cannot cry.

The Chocolate Shaman would say it’s because I fear breaking through to real happiness. I say I’m sick and tired of this strange, moody place. I say I’m envious of the others at the ceremony who seem able to feel so much more than me. Still, I’d rather laugh until I cry than be here right now

I look back at Keith and say, “I’m leaving. Sorry.”

This piece was originally published on The Expeditioner.

The terrifying tale of the most moral man in the world

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“Which story would you like tonight?” He asked, bundling into the cold bed beside her. “The Most Moral Man in the World or The Fisherman who Painted Magic Fish?”

“Mmm, the Moral Man. He sounds a lot like me.”

“Yeah right. So let’s see. He was in my Philosophy class at school. I never noticed him until the last semester, mostly because I was twenty and more interested in looking at all the pretty girls.”

“You’re not allowed to.”

“This was ten years ago.”

“Still…”

“Jesus. Anyway, we were doing a class on Kant. We weren’t friends, but that day in the seminar he was sat next to me. He was sort of a quiet hipster before there was even a word for them.”

“Was he fit?”

“Totally non-descript. I can’t even see his face, don’t think I could even back then. But I always noticed how he wrote everything down in class, everything, and even dated each page at the top like we were taught to do in elementary school. I thought that was kind of kooky.”

“I never used to write the date. I just used to doodle.”

“Of course you did. You’re the quintessential doodling daydreamer.”

“You’re the quintessential doosh. No, it helped me learn. Every picture I drew — the swirl of a sunflower, the lines of a star — they all represented what the lecturer was saying. The lecturer would explain a theory, and from there my doodles grew. I don’t think the teachers liked it though. It probably looked like I was being rude.”

“It definitely did.”

“Once a boy in class asked to borrow my notes. First and last time that ever happened.”

“I bet. Anyway, the lecturer, this pompous old guy, told us Kant’s moral philosophy.”

“What’s that?”

“Basically, Kant says you should only act according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

“What? So, like, going against people’s arguments of ‘What’s the point in voting? My vote won’t make a difference anyway.’ Kant would say, ‘If you don’t vote, no one else needs to vote either, and if no one votes, there’s no democracy?’”

“Right. And if you kill, then everyone can kill. Or if you steal, everyone can steal. And that’s no good at all. It’s a nice theory.”

“But it doesn’t make sense for some things. I mean, if I use birth control, everyone can use birth control, and then there’s no babies in the world and we’re all screwed? It’s way too extreme, too didactic. Did Kant follow his rule?”

“No one has, apart from…The Most Moral Man in the World.”

“Is this a true story?”

“Totally true. My stories are always true.”

“I like this guy. So what did he do?”

“He started smelling really terrible.”

“Don’t be dumb!”

“For real. He stunk. And then I noticed he had stopped bringing a notepad to school. I was curious and asked him why. He said that if everyone in the world used notebooks, there would be no more trees. Which I thought was going a little far, but hey.”

“Why didn’t he just use recycled paper?”

“Said that uses too much energy to produce. He was really passionate about it. More sparky than when all his energy went into copying the words of lecturers into his notebooks. Said he’d stopped using soap and hot water too, because if…”

“Everyone in the world did it, the world would have imploded long ago?”

“Right.”

“Well, we just have to ensure only the privileged Western few can afford these things, and humanity will get to carry on for a few more centuries.”

“You’re not even funny.”

“Thanks. What else did he do? This is so cool.”

“He became vegetarian, then vegan, then started foraging until even that wasn’t enough and he became a fruitarian.”

“Like in that Hugh Grant film? I wikipediad it. Not even Gandhi managed to be a fruitarian full-time. How did this guy…?”

“Chris.”

“How did he do it? Are you allowed trail mix if you’re a fruitarian? I mean, that’s all Canadians eat, right? Cranberries and pecans.”

“I only eat bacon.”

She leaned over and kissed his cheek, “Well that’s because you’re the most Canadian guy in the world.”

“The most Canadian guy with the most American accent.”

“Like I can tell the difference. Though I do wish you sounded more German.”

“Ach so,” he continued, “Chris started getting really skinny. I mean, this was mid-winter, months of snow. No fruits are falling from trees at that kind of year. “

“He should have hibernated like a squirrel.”

“Well, he kind of did. And ate a lot of, well, trail mix.”

She laughed. “Super Canadian.”

“I was worried about him. His sparkiness at the beginning of the experiment were gone. Now he just looked cold and gaunt. I took nuts into class, hoping to share them with him to keep his weight up, but he said he couldn’t have any as they were in plastic bags, and if all nuts were in plastic bags that would be no good for the world at all. So I said if everyone wasted the opportunity of food like he was about to do, that would also be catastrophic. He had this vein in his forehead and it started to pulse really ferociously through his skin. He was holding his head in his hands, screaming in the middle of class. I was really worried about him. I guess it was OCD or something.”

“Everything is ‘OCD or something’ nowadays.”

“True.”

“So what happened to him?”

“It’s really sad. I saw him in the street after he stopped going to classes. He was wearing no shoes. I didn’t understand what he was saying. I guess he was so paralyzed and confused about what to do, that in the end he literally did nothing. He died of starvation, alone in his dorm room.”

“That’s the saddest story in the world. Was he nice and kind?”

“Super nice.”

“His poor mum.” She thought for a moment, “Kant’s the worst.”

“The absolute worst.”

“That poor guy. Can you imagine driving yourself crazy just to be good?”

“Not after that. Drink, smoke, eat meat, die anyway.”

“I like that. Cigarette?”

“Sure.”

Our lifestyles have become extremely complex

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“Our lifestyles have become extremely complex. How can we simplify our lives, reduce consumption, lower our impact on the environment, do less harm to other living things, reduce expenses, have fewer distractions, have less maintenance, enjoy more freedom and flexibility, and be able to live life in a way that is less financially demanding? These are the questions that the simplicity of Zen can help to address.” — John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life

Girl meets boy part II: The excellent adventures of the shiny salmon

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“I miss you.”

“You too. I’m so happy you called.”

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good, it’s 5am and I’m talking to a pretty girl on Skype. So I’m good.”

“Aw, you’re sweet.”

“So, how’s the job hunt going?”

“I still have no job.”

“Just be an artist.”

“I wish.”

“What have you been applying for?”

“Everything. Nothing. Five things…in two weeks. It’s not that much. Yesterday I applied to be a travel agent.”

He burst out laughing.

“Fuck you!”

“I’m sorry. It’s just, that’s pretty funny. But what about the temping?”

“Oh, I got my final warning.”

“What for?”

“I can’t sleep again, not at night. The manager caught me napping at my desk because I was so tired. I’m screwed if they fire me. You have to call me every night before bed to help me sleep, ok?”

“Sure. Do you want a story now?”

“What about?”

“Ok, this one’s called, uhm, The Excellent Adventures of the Shiny Salmon.”

“Of course it is. So where did you meet this shiny shaman? Sorry, salmon.”

“In Amsterdam.”

“They have salmon in Amsterdam?”

“They do when you’re on LSD.”

“Ha! Is this a true story?”

“It is the true story of my dreams.”

“Of course it is. Tell me.”

“Ok. So one September there was a shiny salmon. It was time to leap up the waterfall to food and safety with all the other salmon, but he could feel it in his fins, he just wasn’t ready.

‘There’s so much I’ve still to explore downstream,’ He told him mum. ‘I heard from this koi about a pool downriver that lights up with bioluminescence under the full moon, and all the snails around do a moon dance under the stars. Oh mum, I want to do a moon dance! I want to catch a ride on the back of a pink dolphin and be tickled by strange, glowing moss. I want to taste the inky plankton who live on the edge of the creeping waterlilies a thousand miles away, and to hear the sweet songs of the Narwhal Symphony Orchestra up north. I want to live, mum. I can’t go upstream, not yet.’

Him mum kissed him on the gill and said, ‘I love you and want you to find meaning in your life, but just know that you won’t be so young anymore when you eventually do come to climb the waterfall, and you’ll have none of your friends around to encourage you up to the top. Even if you do make it back up, we’ll seem different to you. You’ll seem different to us. Our bonds will change, and you might find the peace and security of a regular salmon’s life difficult to settle back into. You’ll miss the open seas, but you’ll also feel envious of your cousins who have begun to lay eggs with other salmon.’

The shiny salmon began to cry. ‘I love you mum.’

‘I know, shiny salmon. I love you too.’

With that, she kissed him goodbye and flipped up the stream.

For years, the shiny salmon had the time of his life exploring the world’s rivers and oceans. He danced with the most beautiful cod he’d ever seen to the song of a thousand Narwhals. He tried hallucinogenic seaweed with a group of dazed plankton, splashed on the backs of friendly pink dolphins in the Yangtze, and at a snowy hot spring in Japan, learned how macaques live and vowed to bring such mammalian acts of physical care back to his own community.

He spent a summer drifting along Turkey’s rivers, getting massages from garra rufa fish until he grew thoroughly fed up with exploring, bored of being alone, scared of growing complacent at all the places he’d been. He missed his mum and his salmon friends, was sick to death of all those dumb, gurgling spider crabs who got in his face and whose language he just couldn’t grasp no matter how hard he tried. He was tired of falling in love with the wrong fish and the wrong mermaids on the wrong side of the world. It was time to go home.

But when he made his last flip to the top of the waterfall where all his friends and family lived, his mum didn’t even recognise him. After all, shiny salmon was now half blind from the muddy waters of the Yangtze, and was still recovering from swallowing black oil in the warm seas off Mexico. His cousins shunned him, told him they didn’t need his help finding food. He was just too full of dangerous talk of how salmon should really, really live like monkeys. He was just too weird.

Tinkering around, bored, one day, shiny salmon discovered that if he mixed local dragonfly legs with a little algae, it tasted just like the shrimp he remembered from his nights spent dancing and feasting off the Jamaican coast. He cooked up a big dinner for his old friends, cousins, and mum.

‘That was the best meal I’ve ever had,’ whispered his old friend, Sarah, kissing him on the fin. And little by little, he began to see the beauty of staying in one place, of living life slowly.

What I’m trying to say is, if you love life upstream, love feeding and laying eggs and growing chubby with your friends, then that’s beautiful. But it’s ok that it’s taken you a little while to climb that waterfall. It’s ok that your life upstream isn’t quite there yet, and that you’re a little envious of your friends who are now way ahead of you. It’s ok, because you did what was right for you, and things will come together. Do see what I’m trying to say?”

“I’m the salmon.”

“Something will come up. We’re hopefully going to live a long time, ’til we’re 80 or maybe even 90. A gap year or three is still just a few percent of your life, and you’ve had a great life. You’re a great artist. And I’m no guru, but it pays to travel when you’re young and limber and too sweet to be cynical.”

“You’re right. I’m going to approach some galleries today.”

“Night night, sweetheart.”

“Night night, and thank you.”

“What for?”

“Just, you stop me from feeling like a ghost girl.”

“A ghost girl?”

“It’s just nice to talk to someone once in a while, to feel less invisible.”

“I know. I know. Sweet dreams.”