TRANSLATED by Eric Blair
We were getting close to Tsunki, a Shuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon. When we had everything under control, one of the passengers in the canoe told us that Pascual Yampis, our local contact, had left for Macas. We feared that the rest of the community would be hostile or unfriendly towards our visit. When the canoe finally arrived in Tsunki we were exhausted and we didn’t even know if we would be well-received. However, by only mentioning Pascual, his wife, Rosana, came up to the precarious dock and gave us our welcoming. We climbed the stairs carved out of mud and with timidity took cover behind Rosana and her children, among other locals who looked at us perplexedly.
A wooden cabin separated from the ground by some wooden boards was assigned to us. Inside we set up our tent to protect us from the various insects of unpredictable size. I noticed that on top of each cabin there were solar panels. Other dwellings in the community were simply huts thatched with straw in the traditional style. Later, we would learn that they were not homes but kitchens. In the middle of everything a wide open space served as a soccer field. We fell in exhaustion on top of the sleeping bags and deeply slept for three hours, lulled by an amazon diluvium, until we were called to dinner.
In the famliy kitchen we were invited to dinner, seated at a school bench serving as a table, in an area separated from the kitchen by a partition formed by some planks between which the fire’s smoke was filtered. One of the little girls put two plantain leaves in front of us which wrapped up a ration of chicken with sliced up hearts of palm, a typical dish known as ayampaco.
Afterwards –just as I feared- we succumbed to the chicha ….. The preparation of chicha, made from boiled yuca, is a task delegated to the women, who spit the chicha into a pot so that human bacteria can make the yuca ferment. Slowly, the drink develops a higher alcohol content. The final concoction is served in a cup made from “pilche,” a native fruit. I had learned to fear that yellow hemisphere filled with sour liquid. But I had to accept it in order not to offend our hosts. Laura can certify that is is very difficult to find something I’m not willing to consume: I used to consider myself an ostriche, and here I am completely defeated by the laws of the jungle. In this context I formulated a theory about the existence of an individual palate and another that is cultural and collective. And in this collective palate of the Shuar yuca is praised instead of forgiven; therefore, it is the staple tuber of Amazon villages, and assumes the role of the potato and corn of the Andean world or of wheat in Europe.
After dinner we asked for permission to go into the humble kitchen. Until then they were tending to us as if we were ambassadors –and maybe we were, from another culture- but sooner or later we wanted to break that barrier and to share space. A fire was burning in the middle of the room. The pots and cooking utensils were situated on top of a wooden table, while changinas, sugar cane baskets used by the women for collecting on the farm, were hung from the ceiling. On another table some of Pascual’s eight children sat side-by-side. There were so many children that we never got to see them all together, quiet and in the same place. We still didn’t know we would fall in love with this family. At that time the children still looked at us with a mixture of respect and fear. The first name that we memorized was Manolo’s, maybe because he was always monkeying around, dancing, or running to us wih capturaed cicadas in his little hands.
We went back to the cabin somewhat let down because we didn’t get to have a table chat with Rosana. Five minutes later, she entered out of nowhere, sat down on the floor, and, as she breast fed her baby, began to talk to us about her life. She was 34 years old and had had nine children, one of which died from a vomiting complication. Just to reach a doctor requires a two-hour canoe ride and then a small plane to Macas. She speaks with a serenity that doesn’t omit her fortitude. She pauses after every word. The Shuar speak Spanish whimsically and with ever-changing grammar. Nevertheless, they are masters of a language just as exuberant as the jungle whose words name trees, seeds, forces, and spirits. More than just a language, it is a cosmogony. Rosana explains that each of her children possesses a Hispanic name and a parallel one from the Shuar. Cristian, the oldest of sixteen years, is Arutam (the supreme spirit of life), while Henry is Itti (wasp). She proudly clears up that all of her children are baptized, but when Laura asks if they maintain their beliefs she belts out like a geyser a mighty YES. In Egypt I went to Mount Sinai and the desert environment where the Judeo-Christian god spoke to Moses. In comparison just imagine the religion that the Amazon jungle may have dictated to man.
Our first encounter with that jungle occurred the following day. Cristian solemnly offered to go with us to a waterfall. It would be silly to think you could keep up with someone who has walked in this jungle since his first steps. The Shuar adolescents have very toned and robust bodies and are efficient receptors of the hunter and warrior legacy of their race. Each three or four steps Cristian tells us the name of a fruit or a tree. Just like a wave of a magic wand he makes once unknown objects shine upon the fabric of our urban ignorance. Over there is the pitchfork, and we learn that it wasn’t straw used to thatch the dwellings but instead a type of palm. There is also a plant from which they extract a poison used when fishing. A few more steps and…”You all wanna eat hearts of palm?” Cristian steps away about ten paces and with his machete begins to chop a palm tree. He returns with a cylinder the size of a bazooka, a great surprise for us who are used to small canned ones from the supermarket. After a while, with the manners that characterize him, he asks: “Would you like to try grapefruit?” With one swing of the machete it falls, with another he cuts a small piece and then offers to Laura: “Take this, ma’am.”
The journey to the waterfall isn’t simple. Sometimes we had to climb just by holding onto roots and lianas and cross fallen and mossy trees used as bridges. Cristian notices our difficulty and makes us two walking sticks made of sugar cane. He anticipates the road. He walks ahead of us and takes out all the low-lying branches. Some of his machete swings are absolutely necessary to create a path and to counterattack the slow and growing bite of the jungle. At regular intervals, other swings from his machete end up jammed in hard trees that he would never be able to take down: through them Cristian establishes a dialogue with the jungle, perhaps even expresses his affection for them. .
Finally, we arrive to the waterfall. It’s not huge, but it creates a beautiful watering hole for swimming. I let the vertical torrent wash over my head, at least for a second. The light is magical. Before diving into the water Cristian crosses himself, executing a premeditated act of syncretism. In Shuar thought waterfalls are sacred. The Shuar men only go to some of them during periods of fasting and “with a mission,” as Cristian designates to the occasion of drinking ayahuasca. Just before he puts his foot in the water Cristian announces that the water frequently inhabits a boa. When he sees our reaction he clarifies: “It’s not a real boa. It’s the spirit of a boa.” All of this talk concerning being devoured and the essence of the creatures of the jungle is something typical of the Shuar. The jungle gives us armor, not only with mud and sweat but with its legends. Our urban world, when evoked (with difficulty) from the symbolic bushes of the jungle, is a fictional narrowness, which likely projects no shadows or influences. From below, above, and all around she is resounding. Beyond each specie it is a supportive conglomerate that contemplates the scorpion, his venom, and the exact antidote hidden in the bark of the right tree. The Shuar know about the relationships between all the entities of the forest. They are served by these relationships. They name them in myths and songs. And they die in them..
“We don’t need to go shopping. The jungle gives us everything. We live free here,” explains a proud Cristian. Some might see the Shuar as a relegated Amazon people that abandoned the loincloth just a few decades ago. In my opinion, however, they make up a sovereign community from their environment. There is no division of labor here. Each person knows how to fish, hunt, and cure, and could parachute into any other sector of the jungle and, like a seed, could reproduce each aspect of the culture. In comparison, a city kid is an inept addict to videogames. And because of this I fear the moment when the mining and logging companies contaminate their environment, forcing them to move to the city when they can no longer hunt their huanta or armadillo and are made to be common workers in a building under construction. Furiously and with powerlessness I am reminded of the Ayoreos that I met outside of Santa Cruz de la Sierra who were once great hunters but now weave cell phone cases or panhandle in the streets.
We went back to Tsunki. Under each step of our boots the texture of the jungle, woven in a language of light and chlorophyll, crunches. It has only been a three-hour hike, but only now do I start to feel convinced –and not only theoretically- that the defense of indigenous cultures must not be understood as a behavior based upon altruism or backing them into a corner of anthropological rarities, but as a horizontal line, a barricade resistance, together with the ancestral wisdoms of the planet, together with the few who can educate us about respect towards the land.