Finding the Fish: A Day in the Indigenous Life

Two weeks have already passed living with the Achuar in the Wayusentsa community. These past couple days, I’ve had some scheduled R&R time at the Kapawi Eco Lodge & Reserve downriver where I’ve been working on getting my journal writing into a Word document and enjoying a few good showers.

First, a couple pictures I managed to upload here on the shaky internet.

Me eating eating a freshly found papaya. SO. GOOD.

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A look inside my cozy home.

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The main part of the Wayusentsa community is centered around this airstrip. Houses line both sides, and some are deeper into the jungle in other clearings (up to an hour’s walk away, or just across the river). My home is just behind this photo to the left.

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I’ll post lots of detailed updates (and photos, the very first one above the title is my jungle home) about my time in the community after I return to Quito in a couple weeks, but for now, I’ll leave you with a day in the indigenous life, day number 6 to be exact, to give you a peek into my jungle experience from my daily diary.

Day 6 – “The Fish Market”

There are moments in your life that you will always remember, and then there are whole days that remain vividly, wonderfully, forever ingrained in memory. This is one of those days.

It started early, very early. At 3:30 AM my alarm slapped me out of my slumber and back to the reality of the night jungle blackness. The evening before as I visited with Sankap, he told me of some traditional Achuar customs and mentioned that he performs a morning ritual with a tea called wayusa, and invited me to come the next morning to do it with him.

As I’ve noted before, with one month here I am trying to do as much as I can, and I agreed that I’d be there at 4am for the wayusa ritual. “I’ll be waiting for you,” he said, “at four exactly, a ver si venga!” he finished with a burst of laughter. Too see if I came? Of course I would come…how many more lifetimes before I get these kinds of opportunities again?! Still, as I lay there at half past three in the morning, sleepiness heavily tipped the scales of motivation.

I did end up groggily making my way out of bed and into the pitch dark insect symphony to walk back to his house. I arrived and immediately noticed a massive pot, and I mean massive – think crock pot times three – heating over a fire and Sankap sitting in the dark morning air staring into it. His wife handed us some long oval shaped wooden saucer’s/bowls and took the pot off the fire, setting it down between us two.

“Careful, it’s very hot,” Sankap warned as we each scooped some of the brew with our bowls. Filled with leaves, the aroma from this steaming water in the pot swirled around our two person circle. Like an herbal tea, it smelled innocent enough, but as I raised it to my lips I already knew that this was about to be a very new and different experience for me.

From what I had read and understood about the wayusa ritual prior to coming here is that it is something the Achuar do every morning before they gather for dream sharing. One’s dreams are then interpreted by elders and others in your wayusa group. What Sankap explained to me as it is now was a bit different, however. He said not much dream sharing occurs in this community anymore. If one has a particularly strong or scary dream one might consult with others in the community, otherwise it is not a daily morning activity.

The wayusa ritual, if not as widely practiced on a daily schedule, is still an important part of Achuar culture. During the wayusa time is when you give advice to your children on how to live and be. It is also the time when Achuar men ask permission from the father of the woman they wish to marry. These are the kinds of important discussions that happen during this ritual.

Apart from being a ritualized time when important matters are discussed, the wayusa ritual is also an energy giving act, which is why Sankap continues to do it regularly. If you have been feeling lazy or tired and not wanting to do work then it is an especially good time to take wayusa, he told me.

The ritual itself involves waking up very early in the morning and drinking the wayusa brew very rapidly, and as much of it as you can to the point of throwing up. Then you drink even more. And go and throw up. Once it’s all out of you, you return inside and drink some chicha. You do not go back to sleep.

On this occasion he was drinking wayusa and performing the ritual simply for its energy inducing benefits, as he was going to go fishing that day. For me, well, I was going to fishing with Ernesto so I could have used the good energy too.

I drank down the first bowl. Then gulped down a second, and dunked the bowl for another. We weren’t exactly chugging the liquid but each bowl went down within a minute or two. Drinking it slowly would have been quite pleasant as it tasted like a light herbal tea. Swallowing bowlfuls, however, did make the stomach feel a bit queasy. “When you can’t drink absolutely anything more, go outside to vomit,” he reminded me between deep gulps.

Nearing the bottom of the pot, I was definitely close to this point and he seemed to be as well. After a final sip he stood up quickly and made for the door. I followed very shortly after and could just make out Sankap staggering toward the jungle already vomiting along the way. Although I felt queasy, I wasn’t sure my wayusa load would depart so easily. Luckily, when I arrived to the edge of the jungle he handed me a leaf. “Con la hoja en la boca, “ he said, and crouched down again thrusting his own leaf partly down his throat to fetch the rest of the wayusa from his belly.

I did as the ritual entails and emptied my herbal contents, purging myself, renewing and cleaning and energizing my system for the coming day. In the lifting darkness, under dark clouds and fading stars, here I was hunched over next to a man, whose ancestors had tamed this same land for centuries past, emptying a sacred infusion of jungle concocted brew back onto the jungle floor. It was a very raw, very primal experience. Doing this multiple times a week as he does one must get used to the sensation of reverse bowel movements. I’m certainly not used to it, but even though the vomiting part wasn’t particularly pleasant in the normal sense of the word, I did, somehow, feel “clean,” and after returning inside to his house for some chicha and several more hours of chatting, with plenty of energy for the coming day.

On tap for this day, as I briefly mentioned, a fishing expedition at the invitation of Ernesto. He came by my house around 8am and as we made our way to the riverbank, we quizzed each other on the previous day’s English and Achuar vocabulary we had taught one another during our ride downriver (we both aced our quiz).

Apart from having to cross the river in canoe, getting to his house is an interesting venture by itself. Much of the way we tread carefully with our muddy boots on the slippery logs that had been laid down as a path through a swampy area of the jungle. Then it’s up an even muddier, steep hill before reaching a large clearing that contains his and his father’s house. From there we continued on into the jungle behind the clearing.

“Change of plans,” he said. We were going to go fishing with fishing poles and line, but now we were going to harvest some poisonous roots called barbasco (timiu in Achuar) to use instead. For me, this would certainly be a new way to fish!

During the trek into the jungle we arrived at a sort of natural obstacle course part of the “path.” Suspended five feet above a fairly wide stream, which was a murky mud color so you couldn’t see how deep it was, was a wet, rounded, tree trunk about the width of your rubber boot (and perhaps a bit more) and 10 or 15 feet in length.

This looked like the perfect place for the gringo to give the locals a good splashing laugh. I teetered and I tottered and slowly made my way across. Luckily, I lived up to my Libra birthright, safely finding my balance from one end to the other. My companions nimbly made their way across as well and we continued deeper into the morning light of the jungle.

After about 20 minutes we arrived at a semi cleared area where two young men, Alex and Gonzalo (students of mine around 15 years old), and another man named Roman (from a different Achuar community called Tinkias) were working. He was here because his wife had been sick and they’d come to see the shaman (Rajuel, Ernesto’s dad) so he could cure her. They had cleared away the brush during the early morning, “to make sure there are no culebras,” Romano informed me. Making sure there were no snakes was a good start and I didn’t mind too much not having been a part of that clear and discover work. They had also sheared the barbasco plant, which is like a small, small tree with many trunks, down to its many stumps.

The work now, dig, dig, and dig some more with your hands to unearth all the roots you can find. So we dug. I’ve never felt such purely rich soil, so fertile and ripe and unchanged by anything but nature’s touch. Slightly damp and full plant and critter nutrients, this earthen matter is where life here begins and ends. And borne from this potent blend of life and death is all that the Achuar have ever needed, for generations and generations; and in fact for all life on this planet, this earth is both our womb and our grave, eventually, always has and always will be.

These thoughts ran through my mind as I worked with the earth during this time, grateful that this part of the rainforest remains potently pure, so full of the complex yet effortless natural cycle of life, and that the Achuar also remain as tangible reminders that coexistence with this biological flow was once and still is our most basic birthright as human beings.

For an hour or two we pulled up roots and used the machete to cut them up. These would then be chopped into foot-long pieces and tied together in bundles for the later journey downriver. We eventually finished this work and with the roots tied together using vine, and streams of sweat washing the dirt from our faces, we set off back towards the houses. I made it across the tree trunk bridge crossing, roots in hand and all, and back to the house without incident.

Once there, it started to pour and we waited in the shaman’s house and drank chicha until it stopped. We clambered carefully back down the muddy slope, tiptoed gingerly over the swamp logs once more, and piled into two canoes. With me were Ernesto, the two adolescent boys, Gonzalo and Alex, and Rajuel and Roman. The older men’s wives also came along carrying lunch fixings with them. With three smaller canoes in tow we made our way downriver.

At a stretch in the curving river similar to all the others Rajuel suddenly slowed down, turning us in a wide arc so that we glided sideways, facing upriver into the riverbank. In this case, “riverbank,” was simply dense vegetation hanging over the water. One of the boys stood up with the machete and started hacking away. I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. As the machete worked its destructive magic there was some soon an actual riverbank to step out on, and then the beginnings of a path into the jungle.

At first I thought someone just needed to go to the bathroom really bad, then I thought maybe were leaving the other canoes here for some reason. This was closer to the truth, but we were in fact staying with the canoes too.

After hacking away about 20 or 30 feet of plant growth a swampy overgrown passageway deeper into the dripping jungle started to materialize. We pulled the canoes up the bank and pushed them slowly forward, us and the canoes both sloshing and sliding farther into this swampish jungle tunnel. This was how we were going to get to the lagoon.

I had envisioned an extra bend in the river off in another direction, a small stream to paddle through and an eventual arrival out into a vast lagoon. Reality turned out to be a much better adventure and I still didn’t even know how or when we’d arrive at the fishing area.

Before pushing forward further, the others chopped away some thick sturdy branches and handed one to me. We’d use these as mashing instruments to flatten and partially shred (while keeping intact) the roots. One by one, we prepared the roots in this manner, opening them up so that when they were tied into bundles again, and then dunked in the water, the poisonous juices would seep out.

With that task done it was back to canoe pushing. Eventually the swampy sludge gave way to more watery pastures. After some final heaves and a quick hop in the canoes (two per canoe) we pulled our way forward, grabbing onto tube like plants growing up and out of the water until at last we slid slowly from the jungle and out into our “secret” lagoon pond. I say “secret” only to describe my sense of the place. My indigenous friends obviously knew of its location, but to me this fishing ground was already an absolute legend.

About the size of a basketball court and engulfed on all sides by endless jungle, you couldn’t really tell where this watery haven began and where it ended, where swamp became pond and where pond oozed into swamp. All I knew was that if I still had any doubt about it, I certainly wasn’t a tourist anymore. This was truly a day in the indigenous life. My life, as it was now.

We spread out to different parts of the pond, Ernesto and I in one canoe, Rajuel and Roman in another, and Alex and Gonzalo in a third. Finally, it was time to fish!

A lot of the fishing I’ve done has been catch and release, a concept as foreign to these people as poison fishing is to me. The Achuar do fish with poles and line as I’ve done, but what we were about to do was an entirely new way of fishing for my part. Ernesto grabbed the tied up bundle of roots and holding the length of vine strung to it he tossed the natural chemical harpoon into the dark lagoon.

As it sank a few inches below the surface he tugged one way, and then the other. A milky cloud of water borne venom billowed forth out of the mashed barbasco roots, fading ominously into the murky depths. He continued with this routine, taking out the bundle, smashing it some more, plunking it in again, and our trio of canoes circled every part of this hidden fish market, inundating it with our fatal morning harvest.

I asked Ernesto how long it would be before dead fish appeared and he told me it takes about 20-25 minutes for the first to start surfacing. I thought about the population of fish swimming beneath us, helpless against the ancestral ingenuity of these indigenous hunters. Eat or be eaten is the law of the land, and today we were going to eat very well.

Ernesto and the others continued to dunk the roots as we waited. The sounds of raucous birds serenaded are silent killing endeavor, and then the rain came again. A timid drizzle gradually swelled into a slightly heavier outburst, sprinkling an ever so slight amount of poison free hope into the venomous well of doom we had created. Constellations of raindrops animated the otherwise demure surface water that surrounded us, and we continued waiting, circling, patient, confident, ready.

Suddenly, the rain stopped and the sun peeked out between the parting clouds, fetching a golden gaze on our brooding pond. A short five minutes later and it appeared that once again more water droplets were cascading from above causing little ripples around us. But these ripples didn’t descend from the sky, they had ascended from below. Floating up from the depths of our hunting ground were groggy fish, still with a wee bit of waning energy left.

For Ernesto and I, our first “catch” was also our biggest. He spotted a briefly surfacing fish to our right and as it paused slowly in its venom induced stupor he speared it with a short flick of his wrist and the five foot long metal pointed pole it held. He plucked it from the tip and plopped it in the boat where it flipped around quite energetically, almost reaching the edge of the canoe several times. It made it’s way down toward me and I grabbed it (thanks to my pops for showing me how to hold a fish properly!), holding tight until its gills gave a final flutter.

Slightly bigger than my hand, it had a row of small, sharp teeth which pointed upwards at me through its gaping mouth. It’s mostly silvery flesh had a few streaks of black and the edge of its fins were lined with a translucent red. I silently gave thanks for this future nourishing meal on someone’s dinner table and placed it back on the floor of the canoe.

For the next two or three hours we all paddled slowly around, eyes peeled for surfacing fish. We didn’t spear any more, as none were big enough, and we simply had to swiftly scoop them into the canoe, with the occasional lively one squirting away in the water at the last moment, some flopping wildly about in the boat as the first had, and still others already spent of energy and life when we snatched them from the water.

The majority were only the length of my middle finger and perhaps a few inches wide. Ernesto said there weren’t many bigger fish in these small lagoons anymore. For one reason or another, they’re not to be found. I then asked him how they found this lagoon in the first place. Apparently, the loud birds I’d heard earlier are usually hanging out by such ponds, so the Achuar listen for them to discover such fishing areas, which are frequent if not a bit hidden along edges of the river.

He said it had been about six or seven months since they’d been to this particular one. And how do they decide which pond to visit? Maybe the loudest group of birds signifies a full pond? Or perhaps a telling dream the night before gives a hint? “We just pick one,” Ernesto told me simply. Good ‘ole fisherman’s gut feeling. I could certainly help with that!

In all, we had about forty mostly small fish in our haul. And the others with similar numbers. Not bad. Ernesto strung them up with a vine (through the gill and out the mouth, about 20 to a vine). We left behind our watery graveyard and made our way back and through the swampy tunnel, leaving the canoes behind for now before jumping in Rajuel’s larger motor canoe (called a pekay pekay) that we’d left tied up at the riverbank. We headed downriver for lunch.

Not too far down we arrived at a small casita along the riverbank where the women had come with some of the catch earlier. We washed up in the river, took a seat, warmed our hands by the smoldering fire. And then we ate like kings.

I really wish I had a picture of that meal. Placed before me on a bed of two vibrant green massive leaves was the large fish I’d held in my hand earlier. Although it had been gutted, the rest of the fish remained intact. That same eye stared motionlessly at me, and those same teeth jutted outward in a final petrified pout. A bowl of roasted yucca accompanied this main course. And I even had a pinch of salt to garnish one of the freshest meals I’ll ever eat.

With the rest chowing down on a massive pile of the other small fish and another bout of aggressive rain pounding the earth outside our open air hut, I reached for the fish and began to devour this regal feast, savoring the flavors of the jungle and the indigenous knowledge that helped reap this beautiful bounty.

Ernesto also invited me to dine with him and his family that night so after returning to tug the canoes out of the jungle, and the return trip back upriver, I ventured back through the obstacle course to his house. Another bed of leaves and about 12-15 of the small cooked fish (whole), with more roasted yucca awaited. When you’ve worked a whole day for this meal, there’s no way you’d ever tire of eating it.

I sat on a small bench on one side of the hut and he and his small family crowded around a small table on the other. Our day’s work had quite literally brought this food to the table, as did his wife’s work to harvest the yucca and cook it all. I watched the happy family seated together eating this hard-earned meal, picking out small fish bones and making sure the chicha bowl wasn’t left unattended too long. I ate my generous portion thinking about the generations of Achuar who also made this possible. The jungle had provided for another day, and these new friends had shown me a small portion of their daily life within it using the ancient and enduring ancestral knowledge needed to thrive amongst the grace of the jungle’s bountiful gifts.

As the entirety of the days events washed over me, from wayusa at 4am, to barbasco harvesting, to canoe transporting, poison root fishing, and the two deeply satisfying meals, I felt like I’d really and truly rediscovered an indigenous part of myself, enjoying with every bite how connected I felt with the land and the people (including myself) that had made it possible.

After dinner, with healthy bowls of chicha in hand, and the children asleep, Ernesto and I chatted for several more hours. He told me that he and his wife met in school and that he asked for her hand in marriage over wayusa with her father. “If the father says no, that’s that,” he said. “He will ask you if you are a good hunter and fisherman, and if you can build a house, and know the ways of the community. You have to be a good worker and a good person.”

Ernesto is also very passionate about the traditional aspects of Achuar culture. His father taught him about all the forest can give you, if you know how and where to look. One example of this was the light we had in his hut. It came from a plant he’d gathered, which when lit, bursts into a lasting flame that acts as a brilliant candle. When wrapped in appropriate leaves it lasts even longer. This jungle candle lay in a small bowl in the center of his home, casting a flickering, but strong and powerful light over our flowing conversation.

Ernesto also drinks wayusa many times a week and also told me of rites of passage many young boys must do. This involves going into the forest for three or four days and fasting the whole time. Each day they consume a different kind of plant medicine from tobacco to ayahuasca. In doing this experience they learn among other things to respect their elders, the importance of integrity, and the courage and strength it will take to live and function as an adult.

He said they first do this around 12 years old, accompanied by their father. He did at 13. After arguing disrespectfully with his mother, his father decided it was time they went. His first solo trip came when he was 18 years old, an age when he was “wild,” “disrespectful” and got too drunk during fiestas. He said after the powerful experience alone in the jungle he never got out of control again.

I tried to think of similar rights of passage in my culture. What enduring tests of courage and strength and integrity do we have? I couldn’t think of anything to compare. Ernesto joked that at the next community celebration, Father’s Day in the coming weekend, there would be lots of solteras, single women, so I’d better learn to build a house and hunt and fish and all the Achuar ways if I wanted any chance of their father’s saying ‘yes.’ Considering it took six months for Ernesto to build his house, I don’t think I’ll make the cut in a month, but I’ll see what kind of Achuar I can become in that time, if not the best English teacher they’ve seen.

During the course of our conversation about Achuar culture, I certainly had many, many questions, and Ernesto seemed to revel in sharing the rich cultural heritage of his people. After describing a certain ritual or piece of plant knowledge, he kept repeating one phrase: “Así es cómo vivimos. Así es cómo vivimos.” This is how we live. He always said it with a distant look and twinkle in his eye, a faint smile on his face, and with a tangible air of pride about his whole being. Sankap would also say this to me during our conversations. And with them both I also felt proud to be a part this enduring way of life, sharing in their rich traditions, observing and living amidst a people and a culture so proud of how they live, where they’ve been, and who they remain to this day.

With a belly filled with a good day’s work (and lots of chicha, of course) it was eventually time for bed. He took me across the river and I made my way home. It was quite a fulfilling day in many ways, and this budding Achuar slept deeply that night, dreaming of perhaps a past indigenous life that today had been partially relived, and that for the rest of my life, would never be forgotten.

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By Alan

One comment on “Finding the Fish: A Day in the Indigenous Life

  1. Thanks for what you have written and shared with us !
    Once back in the civilized world you will wait… and notice … a change.
    For me it was and it still is, a more beautifull and new view on life in general.

    and get a medical check-up in Banos or Quito… I got scabies , i hope you didn’t
    bye

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