Valerie Meikle’s life was already a movie eight decades before she became a protagonist of the screen, in a documentary-style drama produced by her daughter Clare Weiskopf and son-in-law, cinematographer Nicolás van Hemelryck. Released in March for the 57th edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival, ‘Amazona’ weaves a tale that begins with the pastoral idyllic of England and one woman’s ambition to trade “town and gown culture” for Colombia
It’s been no ordinary life and one steeped in adventure at the expense of social acceptability. With every intensely personal decision, such as leaving Bogotá to live in the most remote regions of the Amazon, Valerie has understood that there could be loss and tragedy, and the path that she would chart would not only change her destiny, but that of her two youngest children: Diego and Clare.
Amazona is a film about reconciliation between a mother and her daughter. The need to mend emotional bridges strained by pride and stubbornness.
It is catharsis unleashed, part travel log, part intimate diary. Then, the story of how Meikle paddled 1,500 kilometers down one of Colombia’s most treacherous rivers, the Río Putumayo, into the heart of the jungle, broken by sorrow, besieged with pride.
The project to document Valerie’s life took six years in the making and a crowd funding venture by two young and honest storytellers in search of a narrative that looks inwards to family and the poignant epic expedition of rowing at age 56 into the unknown. “I wanted to relive my mother’s journey. I wanted to understand who this warrior woman is,” says Clare. “Then, I realised, Amazona was not an adventure movie, but a story of personal sacrifice.”
Born in London in 1937, Valerie Meikle grew up in pastoral Hertfordshire, a world removed from the grime and squalor of urban areas. Later on, while venturing out on a bicycle to Norfolk, she met a self-exiled American who dabbled in poetry and eked out a scholarly existence an ocean away from his Jewish mother and native New York. But James Weiskopf was an intuitive soul on a scholarship reading History at Cambridge. “He was interested in Colombia, but a bit frightened,” recalls Valerie of how she met “Jimmy”, a kindred spirit, and future husband. So they “traveled West” – to Ireland. “I felt I was the midwife that took Jimmy away from the commune.”
With just two changes of clothes and a bundle of poems, the young couple biked their way around Ireland, until they found a cottage in Ennis. “In Ireland everything is magic,” recalls Valerie of living-off the land in county Clare. They sold hand-sewn leather items at the local market, and in 1977 Valerie’s third daughter, Clare, was born.
Valerie’s connection to Colombia, however, began exactly two decades earlier, when in 1957, while hitchhiking around Europe, she met a Colombian in Rome called Alberto Guarnizo. Alberto came from a small and prosperous agricultural town in the depart- ment of Tolima, known as Armero. She recalls the smell of jasmine at Barranquilla airport, the gateway to an exotic land, holding the promise of a gentrified home with manicured gardens and a country club. She married the lawyer and became a mother to two daughters, Liliana and Carolina. But the relationship was one of physical and emotional abuse. Alberto tried to separate her from her daughters during a bitter separation. Feeling adrift and grappling with the breakdown of her first marriage, Valerie, returned to England. Enter the moody poet of the commune.
Jimmy followed Valerie to Colombia and the stone cottage in Ireland was replaced by an apartment in Bogotá. The jasmine-scented utopia that lured Valerie to Barranquilla in 1960 became a kaleidoscope of experiences and trips to the heart of Muisca culture. They spent weekends among the hippies of Pandi, Cundinamarca. But this kindred spirit who “knew about Colombia from the news” was risk-averse. Valerie wanted to explore the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and converse with shamans in the Amazon. They parted ways “amicably,” but the bond between Jimmy and Valerie was strong, grounded in the love they shared for their children. Diego, Valerie’s only son, was an unconditional traveling companion and Clare, who enjoyed living in Bogotá accompanied her father while he wrote articles for business journals and newspapers.
On November 13th 1985 disaster struck the town of Armero. A lavaflow caused by the eruption of the Nevado del Ruíz volcano buried the town killing almost all of its 25,000 inhabitants. Carolina Guarnizo, who was visiting her father from England, was among those who died. The tragedy tore Valerie’s life apart. She needed strength and to begin rebuilding a shattered life.
If someone has truly lived Colombia it’s Valerie Meikle: from sorrow sown in a Tolima field to dreams betrayed by relationships. Then she met Miguel, an artist and artisan from Boyacá who loved nature and wanted to spend time among the peoples of Colombia’s many indigenous groups. They decided to pack their belongings and embark on a journey. Destiny loomed on the horizon.
One of the reasons Miguel wanted to be in Putumayo was to find a natural cure to his epilepsy. A shaman from the Siona tribe called “Taita Pacho” began treating the artist with Ayahuasca – also known as yagé – a powerful meditative and hallucinogenic brew. After 13 sessions he was cured. Valerie and her traveling companion, became converts of the healing powers of this sacred and transformative drug.
They ventured deeper into the jungle until they reached the port of Puerto Leguizamo. There, members of the Secoyas peoples who inhabit the border between Colombia and Peru invited them to visit. The Elders took them in. They arrived during a lunar eclipse and were given a hut. “I though we were going to live there forever,” said Valerie. She washed her 11-year old son in the local river, and cleaned his nappies by moonlight. What began as an introduction on market day in Puerto Leguizamo resulted in two years living among the Secoyas. “We had our own canoes. We learned to fish.”
Valerie never looked back. And what began as a trip to “meet Indians” turned into a life among them. What was missing was to explore the river that is the Amazon. They packed some chocolate and blocks of raw sugarcane, panela. “And that was it. We left.” The Elders, however, were concerned for their safety as they were paddling into the unknown, and across a vast expanse of rainforest where anything could happen and they would never be heard from again. “The Elders didn’t even want to say goodbye.”
Currents took them down river. There was no schedule. It took five months to enter Brazil and disembark at Leticia, the departmental capital of Amazonas and main river port in Colombia. This 1,500 kilometer journey became the inspiration for a 1999 book authored by Meikle under the title “To- wards the heart of the Amazon: Expedition of a life”. The book is available on the cyber Amazon.
For Meikle the path to fulfillment was a river, and as she looks back on her life in a critically-acclaimed film, directed and produced by her daughter and son-in-law, there is a sense of having closed some chapters with an unconventional past. For some, Valerie was an absentee mother and a “hippie” who preferred a life of wilderness and isolation to the responsibilities of a staying at home. Always among us, navigating her destiny, Valerie Meikle through personal sacrifice, fierce determination and an unbreakable spirit, can honestly say, she is the Lady of the Amazon.