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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.

What Gringos Expect from Trips to the Amazon

by Peter Gorman
all rights reserved

BOMBAY, INDIA —The small room is dark and warm, the air thick with cigarettes and incense. Both windows and the only door are closed and locked. Against one wall, Karen, a dark haired 34 year old, props herself on a colorful pillow. Her husband, Abdullah, sits on the floor near her. Between them are the objects of their affection: matches, a spoon, a length of elastic cord, a small container of water, a wad of cotton, a lime, several plastic bags filled with brown powder, and a syringe.

Abdullah wraps the elastic tightly around Karen’s left arm, just above the elbow. He fills the syringe with water, then empties the contents of two of the small bags into the spoon. He carefully releases the water from the syringe into the spoon: the brown powder dissolves almost immediately. He strikes a match and lights a small piece of cardboard. He holds the cardboard beneath the spoon for a few seconds, until the brown liquid begins to bubble. The moment it does, he removes the spoon from the fire and puts it gently on the ground, not spilling a drop. He takes a piece of clean cotton and wads it tightly, then puts it into the spoon. It absorbs the liquid instantly. Karen makes a small sound. It isn’t a word, exactly, just a sound that carries with it a slight tone of impatience.

Abdullah smiles at her. He puts the syringe’s tip into the cotton and pulls back on the plunger, drawing in the liquid. He turns the syringe upside down so that the needle points up, then taps it sharply with his forefinger, forcing any air bubbles to the surface of the liquid. He squeezes them out of the syringe, then squeezes one more time until a few drips of liquid squirt free and he is satisfied that no air remains in the needle.

Karen presents her left forearm. Her veins are distended from the tightness of the elastic. Abdullah takes her arm and prods the vein he’s chosen with his thumb. He places the syringe against it then gently pierces her skin. She pulls the elastic free.

Relief floods her face the instant the heroin begins to enter her bloodstream, even before the syringe is empty. Her eyes light up with an almost incandescent glow. She begins to sweat. Abdullah smiles and pulls the needle free. Satisfied that his wife is taken care of, Abdullah repeats the process, then injects himself.

For more than an hour the two sit in the dark room, hardly moving. Their eyes fight the urge to close, their heads the urge to nod onto their chests. For the time being their world is rose colored, their hearts filled with love and peace for every living being. They are in a state akin to samadi, a blissful euphoria in which they feel themselves floating through space. But it is not only their bodies that are floating; their emotions are floating as well, their egos suspended in another place. They have no worries. It is how the world was meant to be.

After a while, Abdullah lights a cigarette. He draws on it as if it were the most fantastic thing. Karen leans over and he gives her a puff. She smiles. Today is a good day. There are eighteen more bags of Iranian garth, brown heroin, at their fingertips. She does not remember that she earned the money for the heroin from a stranger she met at the glamorous Taj Hotel, or the things she did with him. She has forgotten the police and their crude comments while she pays them for protection. She has even forgotten how badly she misses her young son, or that her family no longer permits her to visit him. She has forgotten everything except her dreams, that she will one day soon return to Bahrain with Abdullah and begin a new life, free from the Dragon whose tail she has been chasing all these years.

The following morning Karen is wearing a pretty skirt and blouse and walking arm in arm with Abdullah through the teeming streets of Bombay. It is a hot day; dust is in the air, and the pitch and roar of Falkland Road’s vendors makes her voice seem small. “I make no excuses,” she says. “I am who I am. Abdullah and I are drug addicts but we do not steal. We hurt no one. It is just a part of life.”

She tries to sound lighthearted, but it’s difficult to know whether she really feels that way or if it is the residue of the morning’s heroin that is talking. “Oh look,” she says suddenly, girlishly, “a sampwallah!” She pulls at Abdullah’s arm and the two of them run across the road to watch the snake charmer work. He has three closed baskets at his side. He begins to play his flute, tapping his feet in time to the rhythm, then he taps the baskets and pulls off their lids. From each a cobra’s head emerges, their capes flared. Everyone in the small crowd around him, except for Karen, steps back in unison, in case the snakes should strike.

When she’s asked why she did not step back from the snakes as well, she laughs. “My family is from Orissa,” she explains. “They are tribals from the mountains there. All of the men used to collect snakes for the sampwallahs, and they always broke off the cobra’s fangs, so I know they are not dangerous.” Abdullah smiles. “She always says that,” he says, “but I’m not so confident. A cobra is still a cobra, after all.”

She tugs his arm again and they go running down the street to a vendor’s stall where he buys bananas to eat. No one would take them for drug addicts. No one would take the playful Karen for a prostitute. They are simply too nice for that. It is hard to imagine that they are anything but young lovers in the throes of a passionate affair. They look almost out of place here on Falkland Road, India’s most notorious prostitution street, where even now, early in the morning, dozens of women and transvestites lean from windows and beckon to prospective clients.

Karen has never worked Falkland Road. “Low class,” she says, “and the brothel owners expect you to work for nothing. A few rupees, maybe even forty or fifty, but what is that? Only villagers or low-caste girls will work for so little.”

Karen prefers to work near the Taj, or the 5-Star Oberoi Hotel, if she must work at all. Most of the time Abdullah brings in enough money for the both of them, helping tourists find their way around Bombay, or working as a cook or a driver, and selling a little heroin on the side. But when his work is slow, or he is ill, Karen must work. She prefers foreigners, whom she describes as gentlemen, and has a few regular clients who work at the German and Australian consulates who pay her as much as 2,000 rupees, though most of the time she works for Rs. 400. Even that is good money: the rent for their room is only Rs. 600 a month. The heroin is where their money goes. Both Karen and Abdullah use 12 bags a day, at a cost of Rs.360. Most people would die from such large quantities, but Karen and Abdullah have been using it for so long that their tolerance is high.

Things did not have to be this way. Neither Karen nor Abdullah come from the swollen underbelly of India’s impoverished millions. Though Karen speaks with pride of the tribals she desends from, her family has not lived in Orissa for two generations. Her grandmother was converted to Catholicism long before Karen was born, and moved to Calcutta after she married. Karen was born and raised in Calcutta, attending Catholic schools where she studied art and politics, with the thought of going into teaching. She even attended college for a year, until she fell in love with a young Muslim man named Suliman. Six months after they met, while Karen was still just 18, they married and moved to Bahrain to live with his wealthy family. It was a marriage neither family ever accepted, hers because she had to convert, and his because they did not understand why he took this simple Indian woman when he had his choice of the most beautiful girls from all the right Arabian families.

Karen soon discovered that not only did her husband Suliman’s family not care for her, but that Suliman himself was a drug addict. Every day he would shoot heroin both in the morning and at night, and Karen was always surprised that his family did not know. In fact, it was in part to spite them for making her life so difficult that she began using it herself. “They hardly noticed I was even there,” she says, “much less whether or not I was high. I was such an embarrassment for them.”

When their son, Hassan, was born, both families temporarily put aside their differences. But shortly afterwards, when Suliman was killed in an automobile accident, things came to a head: Suliman’s family ordered Karen to leave their house, but insisted she leave Hassan with them. “They said that Hassan was their grandson, and that he had to stay with them,” she says, her eyes on fire. “But I have different traditions. I wrote my brothers in Calcutta, and they arranged to meet me in Bahrain and take me back to India. It was like a movie. If Suliman’s family had found out I was leaving with Hassan I think they would have killed me.”

Her eyes suddenly glaze over for a moment, as if the mention of Hassan is too deep a wound to ignore. He is nearly twelve now, and she has not seen him for more than three years, since her brothers discovered her drug use on a visit home. She knows he is well-cared for, though, and that is her primary concern. She brushes the back of her hand against her eyes, wiping away a tear. “I don’t want to talk about Hassan anymore. He is a beautiful boy, and he is going to be strong and handsome, like Suliman. But it hurts to talk of him.”

Abdullah puts his arm around her shoulders and they walk quietly. They are so much in love it is enviable. They have been together five years now, married for almost four. He too is a Muslim from Bahrain. He says privately that he would prefer it if Karen never worked, though with such expensive habits, and with him so ill lately, it cannot be helped. There is no ordinary job she could get which would pay anywhere near what they need. Too, he admits that like all junkies, sex is next to impossible for him to perform, and he tries to think of Karen’s work as a way she can satisfy her physical needs. He shrugs after he’s explained it. “I know that is not a real justification. But even when I have the money...” He pauses. “When she is with me we make love. But I can’t, you know, get hard...”

In the street, a group of young boys are playing soccer One of them makes a pass and the soccer ball suddenly comes flying at Abdullah. Without breaking stride he knocks it high into the air with his head, then catches it on his right foot and balances it there. He drops it to the ground, and kicks a perfect goal. The boys raise their hands in acknowledgement and shout out his name. Karen playfully nudges him in the ribs. “Showoff,” she says.

Abdullah laughs. He was once a member of the Bahrain National Football Team. It was a long time ago, before he began using heroin. He travelled throughout the Mideast, Asia and Europe as a star, staying in the fanciest hotels, or as the guest of the upperclass. There were some drugs, of course, that was part of being a sports hero. But not enough to ruin your game or slow your reflexes when you are still young.

“The first time I used heroin was in a disco in Singapore,” he says when asked. “Our coach was very strict with curfews, but we knew how to get around them. He would check to see that we were in our rooms at the proper time, but we would sneak out later, to go dancing or to parties. And this one time, in Singapore, one of the fellows at a table with us took out what I thought was cocaine, and I asked him for a little. He looked at me and said it wasn’t cocaine, it was the Lady in White, heroin.

“I was too cocky to say I’d never done it so I acted as if I had and snorted some through a straw. It was very different than I expected, and I didn’t like it. It slowed me down too much and in those days I was full of speed and energy.”

It was another two years before Abdullah used heroin again. He’d broken his leg badly during a team practice, and the doctors had given him morphine as a painkiller. “For some reason they had me on morphine for nearly four weeks. At first it was a regular shot every eight hours, but after a week or so they gave it to me whenever I said I needed it. I fell in love with it, and began asking for it four or five times a day. I suppose they gave it to me without question because I was a sports hero and they assumed I knew what I was doing. The only thing I knew was that I’d never had such a feeling of warmth in all my life, and I never wanted it to end. By the time I left the hospital my career was finished—my leg couldn’t really be repaired for that level of play anymore—and I was a junkie.

“Come to think of it, maybe it was because they knew my leg wouldn’t heal that they gave me all that morphine. Maybe it was for the pain of being through as an athlete more than for the physical pain.”

Back home, Abdullah’s brother, a small time drug dealer, supplied him with heroin when the morphine was gone. But he was soon caught and sent to prison, and Abdullah began to buy his own. But he too was caught, several times, and it was only his former status that kept him from prison as well. Even so, after his seventh arrest in less than two years he was given the choice of going to jail or being banished from Bahrain for a period of 10 years. He chose banishment and moved to Bombay.

“But next year we will be able to return,” says Karen. “And then we are finished with this life.”

“Yes,” says Abdullah. “We have told my parents everything and they understand. They want us to come live with them until we can get work and afford a place of our own.”

“It’s different in Bahrain,” says Karen. “It is such a beautiful place, not nearly so dirty and crowded. I’m so tired of the crowds here. It’s like you can’t get a moment’s peace. And then, of course, there is all the rest...”

The tone in her voice has changed; there is a note of anxiety around her words. She turns to Abdullah and puts her head against his chest.

“I think it’s time we head back to our room,” he explains, turning down an alleyway. Enroute, he stops at a shop and buys two bottles of Blood ‘n Clear, an Ayurvedic tonic, and a small bag of oranges. Karen drinks her tonic quickly, then peels an orange and begins to eat. It isn’t until she has eaten the entire fruit that she looks up again.

“I’m sorry. I’m forgetting my manners,” she says. “I just got so thirsty that for a moment I thought I would faint.” Abdullah smiles patiently, explains that he has to pick up some medicine then excuses himself and disappears into a darkened storefront. When he returns he nods to Karen and they continue the walk home.

Back in their room there are half a dozen people sitting on cushions and the floor. All of them have a sort of dazed look about them, and two or three look on the verge of sleep. There is an acrid smell in the air, like burning metal or gunpowder. One of the men, Mikhail, says hello. Next to him, on the floor, is a straw, some tinfoil, and a packet of heroin. He picks up the straw and offers it to Karen, who sits near him. He puts a little of the heroin on the foil, then picks it up and holds it near Karen’s face. He lights a match and holds it under the foil: Karen puts one end of the straw to her mouth and the other to the foil. In moments the heroin begins to sizzle and pop, and Karen moves the straw quickly, in an effort to catch all of the smoke as the heroin burns.

“What a waste of good stuff,” says Abdullah, taking his syringe and the rest of his works out of a small dresser and beginning to set up. “That’s enough for a fix that she just used.”

Mikhail looks up blissfully. “It’s for your woman, man. It’s a little present.”

“You must have rolled a rich tourist if you’ve got enough to smoke,” Abdullah chides.

“Something like that.”

Karen says nothing. Her eyes are already glazed over and she is beaming. Abdullah explains that she will still need a fix with the needle, since the smoke will not last for long. He takes out the heroin he’s just bought, cooks up a single bag and injects her. She hardly seems to notice. When he is finished he cooks up two bags for himself then bares his arm and shoots up.

After their initial rush, Abdullah lights a cigarette. “I will have to get clean before I return to Bahrain. Maybe three or four months...” he starts, but his voice trails off.

Why? he is asked.

“They will be watching me very closely. I am well known there.”

How difficult will it be to quit?

“Very. We do not have many programs for withdrawal here, so you have to just quit on your own. And when you try to stop that way, every part of your body fights you. It’s like each cell, every drop of blood, is a hungry mouth, begging to be fed. And if you don’t feed them they get very angry and tear you apart with so much pain that you don’t even know who you are. And then, even if you can get through those agonies, there is the vision that comes.”

His eyes start to close and he fights to keep them open. His speech is slurred. “It is the Lady in White. She is a vision a lot of heroin addicts have. It is almost a mandala. There is a lady, a beautiful woman dressed in white. Her skin is like cream, her eyes are fire. She is on a carousel with you and she is seducing you to come to her. She wants you.

“This is the spirit of heroin. You want to get off the carousel but you cannot get off. You know you need her one more time. She tells you how good everything will be if only you come back to her. You know you will die if you do not get off, but you cannot get off. She is so beautiful.”

Abdullah’s head nods forward onto his chest and he is dreaming.

That evening over a simple meal of bread and vegetables, two difficult questions arise. The first is what Suliman’s family will do when Karen reappears in Bahrain with Abdullah. It is a small place, after all, and they will surely find out she is there.

Abdullah answers. “They have not seen Hassan in several years now, and they know he has been raised with Catholics, so they can do nothing. In the old days there might have been a feud, but not now.”

Karen nods in agreement. “Hassan is already history to them.”

The second question is even more difficult to ask: Are they worried about AIDS?

“We are very clean,” Karen says. “We never share needles with anyone, and I make all of my customers wear condoms.” She speaks very directly, without any embarrassment.

But has she or Abdullah been tested for HIV infection?

“Not yet,” she answers.

Three weeks later both she and Abdullah go for an AIDS test at JJ Hospital. They don’t explain why they have decided to go, they simply have.

On the way to the hospital, Karen is very animated. She tells a story about a woman she knows who keeps a monkey for a pet. “The woman and the monkey are both junkies,” she says, “and the monkey sulks if she cuts the heroin too much.” She laughs at her story as if it is hilarious, perhaps because she is still high from her morning fix. Inside the hospital, however, she begins to get cold feet, and it is only with Abdullah’s coaxing that she stays.

“If I have it I don’t want to know,” she tells him.

“But we are already here,” he says, “and now that we are we should find out. When the tests comes back negative we will have a celebration.”

She looks at him and smiles. A nurse calls them into her office.

They return for the results two weeks later. Abdullah is HIV negative. Karen is positive. The moment she is told a look of death comes over her face, as if the blood has been drained from her. She looks as if she is going to faint. Abdullah puts his arm around her and helps her from the room. They leave the office in silence and go directly home where Abdullah fixes them both with two bags of heroin. They don’t say a word for more than an hour.

“The test is probably wrong,” is the first thing Abdullah says. “If you are positive then I am positive. And since I’m not, they must have made a mistake. We’ll take another test and you’ll see I’m right.”

“Do you think so?” she asks in a dreamy voice.

“It’s the only explanation. The bastards at the hospital can’t do a simple blood test.”

“I don’t feel sick,” she says, as if that lends credence to what he is telling her.

“Of course not. Let’s not even think about it anymore. It can’t be right. They always say that if the test is negative it’s right, but if it’s positive it can be a mistake. Everyone knows that. Besides, we’re too careful.”

The simple explanation coupled with the rush of the heroin seems to satisfy her, and she nods off.

When she wakes a little while later she has already begun to convince herself that Abdullah is right, and the test result obviously a mistake. “I can’t believe the hospital could be so sloppy,” she says, slurring some of her words. “I could see it if I worked on Falkland Road, or if we shared needles. But we’ve always been very careful, because when we return to Bahrain we want to have children. We’re going to stop fixing next month. That way we’ll be clean for six months before we go back.”

She leans over to where Abdullah is sitting and rests her head on his shoulder. Her eyes begin to close again. She fights for a moment to keep them open, then gives into the urge to fall asleep. Her face is peaceful. It is how the world was meant to be.

Copyright © 2007 The World & I Online. All rights reserved.