Transition from fashion, advertising celebrity photographer to the rainforest.
My dad passed away in my early 30th at the height of my photography and commercial film career. The pain from his passing made me began to question who I was, why was I here and how was I really doing it all for. Looking back, -- something deep within me was calling me to open beyond my well-defined life to discover who I was, beyond the people, places and things I had become attached to.. I became involved in the energy practice world with a deep study of yoga, Chi Gong and energy healing. I met privately with a well-known spiritual teacher, a Taoist Master 38th generation Chinese healing, name Master Hua Ching Ni. He shared with me through Chinese astrology, that the next cycle of my life was in the south.
I thought south meant " A Gone with the Wind style home in Georgia and a healing business" but on a second meeting he said South America with his thick Chinese accent. He told me there were people waiting to help me, and to go and work with the Angeles. I know pretty cryptic and I thought Angeles? What the heck does that mean. I chose Peru intuitively because I wanted to work with rainforest shamans, that still lived so close to nature. I wanted to bridge the heaven and earthly plane within my daily existence. After a month in Peru focused on Andean tourists sites, I found my way to the Manu Rainforest and a shaman named don Alberto from the native village of Huacaria.
Huacaria went on to be my first pilot village where we went on to stay five years being(change t bringing) services of clean water to 18 homes, and water and sanitation connections to the school, reinforced with a health director on site 18 days a month teaching daily hygiene to the school children, mothers and families. We trained a village water and sanitation committee that learned how to build and maintain the systems. The water committee we established in Huacaria, has now gone on to help two other of our project villages have access to these same vital human services.
Art in my life.
Art is a part of my life. I see life as art,. Its the way I see, feel and touch. Its my natural instinct. When I'm in my boat on my way to project villages I see the river as a museum and the fallen tree trunks pulled into the river from high water tides and erosion, as art pieces. My camera is always with me, we are really one in the same. An artist is who I will always be.
Relationship to the Communities and villagers
The villagers have become family not only to me but my team.. We have been in one village 13 years, so a lot of life has passed between developing the project, and maintaining it over the long term. I've watch clean water, good hygiene, and a dignified toilet at the school transform sick kids with parasite filled stomach into healthy, flourishing, educated, culturally aware and happy children. I've celebrated life and tragic death with the people, laughing and crying together, celebrating their success with our project and their growth in the community with other NGO's. The shaman and I seek advice from each other, and talk through problems that are puzzling to him and the village, because they don't quite understand some of the traps of a more modern society. There is a bond, a trust that has developed over the years. They look up to me and I look up to them, with such pride in how they have allowed the wall of victim hood to come down, and have taken better charge of their health and future.
How did you meet Glenn Shepard?
A biologist friend in Peru who knew Glenn for many years, suggested I call him. She said he was the best. In 2001 I wrote him an email, and he answered with a lot of reasons to walk away. What did a fashion photographer know about indigenous rainforest cultures. He was right, at the time, but he did not know what lived in me.
In his email, Glenn told me I would probably fail, I had no experience working with native people, and many had tried before me and failed including one of his initiatives. I still have a printed copy of that email I did not listen, and then in 2003 when I had some money to do a field study, I called him again, and this time he said yes to helping me get the base line censes documented in the village. We have been together ever since evolving projects in three villages in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. I have a deep respect and love for him. We are part of the same tribe.
Peru felt like home, really from the moment I stepped off the plane. Something was familiar and everything was so different. I did not speak the language, so I went without an agenda. I wanted to practice following my intuition, and following where my heart lead. I hung out for 2 and 1/2 months. I'd ride in public transportation instead of taking a taxi, and eat the daily $1.00 menu for lunch. I did a few touristy things like walk the Inca train in Machu Picchu, visit Andean medicine men, and spent time at orphanage run my an American woman. I aligned with anthropology professors at the Cusco University and gathered information on indigenous rainforest cultures shamanism and the indigenous medicine called ayahuasca. I then found my way to the rainforest on a converted Russian army bus turned into a tourism transport, and then in the cloud forest I switched to a flatbed truck filled with locals their kids and chickens. On the tourism bus I had met a local woman that owned a restaurant two hours outside of Huacaria. She took me under her watch and helped me understand the forest, find a shaman named Don Alberto, from the native village of Huacaria, to drink ayahuasca. The first thing he asked me was "why do you want to drink ayahuasca?" I responded to bridge heaven and earth. Bingo, right answer! As night arrived and our session began, the forest was alive with a symphony of sounds. Don Alberto. handed me a small gourd filled with the brew. It was bitter, but I got it down and then he began to sing songs that called in the spirits of the rainforest. The properties of ayahuasca help you connect to your Source code, the essence of your existence. I'm not sure I experienced all of that, but I did experience a oneness with the forest, and its importance to the world, that has remained with me.
First visit to Huacaria.
I went and visited Huacaria, met the school teacher and began buying tooth brushes, tooth paste, coloring books, puzzles, and crayons etc., for the kids. I asked the teacher her needs, and the first thing she asked for was a new schoolhouse. Being the westerner, I wanted to give them what they asked so I started raising money for a new schoolhouse. I now call those gifts western bandages on a bigger problem not ready to be revealed. With additional visits to the Huacaria I could see that there was a bigger problem, the water contaminated and the kids had low energy and their bellies were distended, filled with parasites. The school teacher one day asked me if I could help bring them clean water, and I said I would try. Never having a day's training to do so, I founded a nonprofit with a lawyer friend of mine who filed all the paper work, we had our status within 45 days. I then started writing grants, reached out to Glenn, the local medical personal, a slow sand filter expert Humphrey Blackburn, a sanitary engineer from Lima Moises Mera, and a local architect and artist Rene Baretto. I followed the dots and a project was born. From conception to implementation the water treatment system, sinks at every home and bathrooms at the school took about 2 1/2 years' time. All through the building we were teaching health and hygiene education to the children and mothers, and technical and vocational training to the water committee. We stayed on with health and technical training three year after the infrastructure was built to be sure the villagers could integrate the change into everyday life.
And indeed, Life has never been the same since that day.
Meditation and the energy practice world is part of everyday life. I have an ability to help people release chronic patterns, thoughts and perceptions that keep them limited from living their best life The forest is one of my greatest teachers. It’s frequency calls me and resonates with every fiber of my existence. Being one with the nature, the trees, the spirits of the rainforest, and the people is the deepest practice I've ever engaged upon.