Wandering Brooks

in South America

Month: March, 2013

Arútam: Part 2 – Murder and Sexism

On TV, roosters say cock-a-doodle-doo when the sun rises. Not true. It was 3:00 am, and every 10 or 20 minutes, the rooster outside kept me awake with his call of rRRaracckerle-SKKLoopkkk-FuckyouBrooks!

I wanted to murder him.

A few hours later, I heard a different kind of strangled, guttural scream. It sounded similar to the rooster call from before, only more panicked. I heard one last desperate, screaming gurgle, and suddenly, silence. I got my wish. My rooster had been murdered.

The other day I was eating a piece of monkey. It tasted like baby back ribs, but tough and muscly, like a small child who has done a lot of pull-ups. One of the American college kids, a vegetarian, asked me if I felt uncomfortable eating something so similar to myself. I have been vegetarian in the past, and I would consider doing it again, so I sympathized with his sentiment. However, animal suffering means something different to me here at Arútam than in industrial-food-processed North America. I know this is an indigenous society that, until recently, relied primarily on hunting and gathering to survive. Now they raise chickens and buy some rice and lentils from the city, but they have maintained some traditional ways. They continue to eat what the jungle provides, and I’ll do the same as long as I’m living here.

One day the jungle provided an armadillo. Jose hacked at it with a machete, but missed his target and only wounded the critters tail. After a short chase, he held it down while Chris, a tall, 240 lb, non-vegetarian rugby player, grabbed the armadillo and snapped it’s neck. Just to make sure, they then held it under the water for a few minutes to drown. Armadillo tastes somewhere between beef and pork, I would say.

While I have no problem with the Shuar killing and eating animals, I have trouble accepting another aspect of their culture. This is undoubtedly a sexist society. Men may have multiples wives, but a woman may have only one husband. Men handle the Arútam business and flirt with foreign volunteers. The women cook and take care of the kids.

Mario was the first Shuar man I ever met. He is atypical, preferring city life to jungle, although he told me this just after he had climbed down from a tree with an armload of giant guava pods, so there’s still a fair bit of Amazon coursing through his veins. (As far as I know, there isn’t an English word for the Spanish guava. The fruit we call guava is guayaba in Spanish, and it doesn’t come in a giant green pod.) According to Mario, a lot of men that he knows look down on women, believing they are fundamentally less capable and shouldn’t have the same rights. He disagrees with this archaic way of thinking, and he supports gender equality. I like Mario. I like some of his brothers less.

The first time I met Rodrigo, he was shirtless and wearing a fake tiger skin blanket wrapped around his waist. He had painted diamonds on his cheeks and forehead, and had used the same traditional, plant-based ink to draw an outline of his abs. He smiled like a Disney Indian and said “hola amigo!” At first, I thought he put on this Pocahontas act to convince tourists they were getting a genuine jungle experience, but now I think he was just trying to attract girls. During my time here, he has made inappropriate sexual advances on at least two of the young women volunteering with the community. From what I heard, two other Shuar men are guilty of similarly sleazy behaviour.

This is an indigenous community in flux, their traditional ways colliding with modern society. Back when the Shuar were a warring society, fighting incessantly for territory and survival (it’s one of the cultures infamous for shrinking the heads of their enemies), strict gender roles may have been the most successful way of organizing society. I excused monkey murder because I know it’s part of their traditional culture. Why do I find it difficult to excuse sexism for the same reason? I haven’t yet resolved this contradition in my head.

Sexism aside, there is much to admire about the Shuar culture. Folks here are unfailingly friendly, always saying “hello friend!” when they catch your eye. And one has to admire Arútam’s reason for being – to preserve the rainforest, which comes from the deep respect the Shuar hold for Mother Nature.

During our hike, one of the Eckerd College girls hit her forehead on a piece of low-hanging corrugated roof at the jungle refuge. Blood poured out of the corrugated slice in her head. All three of our Shuar guides ran in different directions into the woods, and ran back moments later, arms full of medicinal plants. They squeezed out juice, mashed up paste, and chewed up leaves to prepare various remedies for the cut. Upon seeing this process, one of the other students, a paramedic, was concerned that they weren’t treating her wound correctly. He said the first thing they should do is try to stop the bleeding. A few moments later I overheard Rodrigo, who hadn’t heard my conversation with the paramedic, say, “the first thing we need to do is stop the bleeding.” Their way, using nature’s medicines, was certainly different than North American first-aid, possibly even less effective, but I think it worked pretty well.

Nature heals, but it is also dangerous. A couple weeks before I arrived, Marco, another Shuar man, was bit in the head by a poisonous snake. He suffered a deathly fever for a few days, but eventually re-planted his feet in the land of the living. My second day here, he was back in the jungle collecting palm fronds for roofing when he startled a venomous iguana, which stung both his arms. I am told this iguana is capable of swinging it’s venomous tail and detaching it (it grows back later), effectively throwing a poison dart. Again, Marco survived, but suffered excruciating pain for several days.

I am always hesitant to talk about dangers on my blog. Sorry if I scare you, Mom. I’m not climbing palm trees or stomping barefoot through the jungle, so my chances of being attacked by a snake or iguana are pretty slim. In any case, pretty soon you can stop worrying about tropical dangers and resume worrying about bike crashes, because I bought my ticket home today. I leave Lima, Peru in the evening of June 13th, spend 16 hours twiddling my thumbs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then finally arrive in Plattsburgh, NY at 1:00 a.m. on June 15th. If anyone wants to come pick me up at the airport to drive me home to Montréal, you’re more than welcome.


Arútam: Part 1 – In the Jungle

It is night, and we are walking in the Amazon rainforest. Above, moonlit clouds shine between the shadowy outline of palm leaves and jungle trees. All else is black. We walk slowly, feeling for roots and rocks, tripping often, plunging our boots in mud. Our path is sporadically lit by eerie silent lightening, flickering behind the clouds like broken neon lights.

We hear croaks and clicks and rattles and buzz. We hear high-pitched moans and distant drums. Rodrigo, one of the Shuar men, whispers that the monkeys are having a party. He’s quite the joker, Rodrigo. The drums are coming from a nearby Shuar community, he finally admits.

This is my second week volunteering at the Arútam Forest Reserve, and my first time going this deep into the jungle. During the week, I improvise English classes for eight kids between the ages of around 8 to 16. I have also been stripping bark from logs with a machete, weaving giant palm leaves for roofing, planting sugar cane, and eating about 74 plantains a day.

Arútam is a Shuar indigenous community. It consists of 23 siblings, the sons and daughters of Ernesto and his two wives, along with their families. Ernesto has dyed black hair, and the wrinkles around his eyes suggest he has spent much of his life smiling. When he was eight years old, he was sent into the jungle to survive for three days without food. At the end of the three days, he drank ayahuasca, a potent ceremonial plant medicine in the form of a decoction, whose primary psychoactive component is in the same chemical family as LSD, magic mushrooms, and peyote. In his vision, the river turned red and became overrun by caimans. Red is a symbol of long life. There was one large caiman, which he knew was himself, and two medium sized caimans, which he divined were his future wives. Behind these three were an army of little tiny caimans.

Around the main houses of the community is secondary rainforest, regrown after it was once slashed and burned for Ernesto’s farm, After farming for years, he decided he wanted to protect the forest, not contribute to its destruction, so he turned his land into a place of cultural exchange, volunteer work, and jungle tours. Beyond what was once farmland lies virgin jungle, which is where I now find myself, along with 15 American students from Eckerd College on a spring break service trip, three Shuar men, and one other travelling volunteer.

Something glows at my feet. I see the vague lump of shadow called Frederico crouch down, and the glowing thing floats up in the dark as he lifts it from the ground. He draws patterns in the air, circles and eights, and then smack! Frederico has pieces of glow in the dark mushroom stuck to his forehead. I am delighted. I am so awake right now. I am in my body. I am in the Amazon jungle at night.

The next day, I am exhausted. For the third time in three months, I have a cold (what is wrong with my immune system these days?). I only managed 3 or 4 hours of sleep on the hard wooden floor of our jungle refuge. I am grateful that the hike back home is an easy one and a half hours.

Shortly after breakfast, with the help of ropes and the support of our strong guides, we head down a steep, muddy and rocky hill to the sacred waterfall for one last glimpse of Arútam, the diety of the Shuar people. It begins to rain, hard. Greetings God of water!

Alex and Rodrigo have collected a bunch of tobacco leaves. They crush them up and squeeze the juice directly into our cupped hands. As instructed, I lift my head back and snort the acrid liquid. My eyeballs are electric, and I want another go. Rodrigo obliges, and I snort another dose of burning tobacco juice. Suddenly I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I don’t. I am now ready to hike forever.

Two hours later I am less enthusiastic, Perhaps the boost from the tobacco (whether placebo or biochemical) is wearing off. I catch a glimpse of Alex squeezing more juice directly into his eyeball. After four hours, we have finally arrived back to the community. We survived the hike through the jungle, including several steep climbs and descents. We also survived an  attack by inexplicably aggressive black insects (our guides called them bees) that burrowed into our hair and flew under our clothes to sting us, and none of us plunged to our deaths during the adventure-movie-esque gully crossing on a fallen log.