Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 2)

To view Part 1, click here.

These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. If you would like to view all of my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.

My Name is Nanki – Day 14

I flicked on my flashlight and shone it out into the watery darkness. It cast a narrow and distracting gaze on the scene at hand and I quickly shut it off. My motorist and I were puttering against the now invisible current heading upriver back to Wayusentsa after I’d spent several days R&R at the Kapawi Eco-Lodge and Reserve. Night had already fallen and I wondered how my driver could not only navigate, but know when we’d arrived. An even blanket of moonbeams and starlight did provide the slightest visibility, and hope, for an eventual arrival.

I had wanted to arrive early in the morning, however, as today was the big Father’s Day celebration in Wayusentsa it had taken a little while for someone to make it downriver to fetch me. We had left at 5, darkness comes around 6/615 here, and it was now 7pm.

It’s slightly eerie being out on the water after dark. Greenish brown and murky by day, the water was a shiny marble black, ripples glinting in the moonlight. Fireflies burst and faded around us along the shoreline like little green supernovas exploring the raucous jungle night.

We arrived around 15 minutes later and I went home quickly to change before joining the fiesta, which had been going strong since 8am that morning. The day had included lots of sports competitions (the sons beat the dads in the soccer game), a feast at noon from the previous day’s casería (hunting). Now it was time for a communal gathering, brief remarks, chicha (even more than what had surely been flowing all day), and dancing. Everyone was in the communal enclosed area where the mingas are held.

Since it was pitch dark outside, small candles and lanterns dimly lit the large area. One could make out silhouettes of people on the other side, but not the faces that went with them. A large radio (more like a boombox) was hooked up to a car battery, it’s neon red light flickering to the blasting music.

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Women were making the rounds, more than usual, with especially strong (for the occasion) batches of chicha. It seemed like every sentence or two of our conversation would be paused to address the chicha bowl that had appeared before our faces. People were getting properly tipsy. Not belligerently or excessively, but joyfully so. Everyone was happy. Everyone was together, letting loose, chatting, gulping, laughing, embracing, or simply sitting blissfully watching it all unfold.

Some of the elected officials (el síndico, vice síndico, secretary, etc.) stood up to say some words, things like, “Let’s all celebrate Father’s Day right now, be happy, enjoy everyone’s company, no squabbling, etc.” Once this was over, with an applause and “ayu, ayu!” after each one, they cranked up the music once more and sporadic dancing began. I say sporadic because after every song people sit down again and then gradually make their way back to the dance floor.

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I sat down next to Sankap to hear more about the day and share more chicha laden conversation. I was getting very full of liquid and feeling the fermented effects in my head along with everyone else. Throughout the whole night Ernesto, Sankap, Rafael or others would make sure I always had a dancing partner, coming to me with either their wife, sister, or a “soltera” and say “Baile, teacher, baile!” Up and down I went, baila to chicha, baila to chicha.

The music was the same five to ten songs over and over again for most of the night, which they didn’t seem to tire of. It was kind of a mix between cumbia, Mexican and pop sounds. I learned later that a lot of it was Grupo Tuna, an indigenous group.

You dance with a partner but this mostly consists of just hopping around in place or in slow circles without touching. The spectacle kind of looks like a two bird mating dance. Shuffle your feet one way, move your hips, swing your arms a bit if you like, clap, whoop. I also soon learned to dance with a bowl of chicha in hand. Not exactly jungle self reliance skills, but a cultural learning experience nonetheless!

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Many of the people didn’t dance, in fact many times it would just be me pulled up there with someone. I’d say the most people dancing at one time was five or six pairs, and mostly people I knew; Ernesto, Sankap, Alex, Rafuel, Rafael and their wives. One of the profesores, Mercedes, was out there a lot. When we were dancing I asked her if more people dance in her home community, Sharamentsa. She said the whole lot are out there. “Here, as it is Evangelical, not as many let loose and dance like my Catholic community does.” I thought this was an interesting statement and wondered, before there were Evangelical Achuar and Catholic Achuar, how many Achuar Achuar would be up here dancing?

In between dances I was sitting with two of my older students, Alex and Gonzalo, for most of the night. We’ve spent a good deal of time together outside of class and grown a lot closer. Since they’ve gotten more comfortable around me, they buzzed me with questions. How was the hotel? Did you write your family? Did they ask what you’ve been doing? What did you tell them? How did you know about the Achuar before coming? Why did you come?

It was definitely a bonding conversation and by the end of the night (2:30am) Gonzalo had taken off one of his bracelets and tied it on my wrist, and Alex had thrust his head band on my head (te la regalo!), and they had made sure every 5 minutes or so to gush that they wanted to learn English!

Also, amidst all of this, I learned some new Achuar phrases. Ernesto had given me an Achuar name, Nanki (spear), and I learned to say “Winia naarka Nanki!” My name is Nanki! And a phrase to follow it, “Wikia nembekjai!” I am drunk!

Place your Fishing Bets – Day 15

A prolonged silence had fallen between Gonzalo and I. But it was not an awkward silence, there is no such thing as an awkward silence when you’re fishing. A fisherman’s most reliable and treasured companion, every prolonged ripple of quietude is most welcome, and comes and goes as effortlessly and with as much certitude as the steady current of water that flows through it. Thus, while we remained alert, our fisherman’s focus lay cradled in this seabed of serenity, and we rested in blissful cohesion with the natural flow of our pristine surroundings.

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It was just me and him in a small oar-powered canoe. No barbasco roots this time, it was old-fashioned throw out your line and haul ’em in kind of fishing.

Perhaps our reflective mood was also the result of the little sleep and lots of chicha from the night before. I’d gone to sleep just before 3am inundated with a staggering amount of chicha, then woken up at 6am to go eat breakfast with the shaman, Gonzalo’s father Rafael (at his invitation the night before). It seems that the concept of “sleeping in” doesn’t quite exist here, no matter the longitude or chicha-tude of the previous night’s activities. He and much of his family were already awake when I arrived, although notably sleepy as I was.

The night before Gonzalo had also offered me an invitation, to go fishing with him in the morning. After breakfast with his father, at around 8am I tracked him down and we set out. At first we didn’t go to the river, we headed out of the clearing where he lives and went a few paces into the jungle carrying machetes. He said we first had to get “lombri” (I had no idea what that was).

At an area where several feet of ground had already been partially dug up and cleared away, we stopped and he motioned for me to help him clear away the top layer of leaves and sticks so that more underlying earth would be visible. We then dug into the ground pulling and pushing out small clumps. He found a worm and stopped to place it on a leaf he had set out. Lombri! Of course, no lures or plastic worms here, we had to go to the jungle’s fish and tackle shop behind his house to procure some bait first. For about 20 minutes we scavenged for those squirmy morsels and when we had about 25 or so Gonzalo said that was probably enough.

Later on, as we sat in silence downriver with Gonzalo’s leg holding down a vine from the riverbank so we wouldn’t drift away, I looked down at my fishing apparatus. Not exactly “natural,” it was a spool of 10 lb fishing line (Araty brand, made in Brazil) that his dad had bought in Puyo. Gonzalo had a small ruler-sized stick with two pitchfork-like ends carved into it through which his line ran through. We had hooks, and the worms on the hooks for bait. No poles or reels, just unravel some line and toss it outward and into the water (the hooks also had little weights on them as well).

Not long after we had stopped at our first place downriver, Gonzalo, with eyes attentively poised on the line, swiftly gave a yank and caught his first fish. About 6 inches long and a couple inches wide, it had a streak of black along its body and two giant whiskers sprouting from either side of its mouth.

A little while later as we were rocking gently back and forth I suddenly saw my line wiggle and twitch. I pulled fast and quick on the line and felt immediate resistance. An Amazonian natural I was! I pulled my line in with my hands and quickly realized something was not right. There was no burst-to-burst pull back. No wriggle. No fight. This would be the first of five or so times I would “catch” a stick that day, a true Amazonian logger I turned out to be.

About half an hour later after we’d moved upriver a ways I had a different, more appropriate kind of success. I felt a few tentative tugs on my line and once I felt another twitch come I copied Gonzalo’s form and snapped the line back. Wriggle, dart, dart, wriggle. Definitely a fish! It was pretty much exactly the same as his. Flushed with confidence now I inquired if he and his brothers or friends place bets when they fish. He said they sure do, and we put a dollar on this match. I tried to place a river logging bet too but he wasn’t having any of that.

For four hours we meandered our way back upriver. In one spot he caught two fish quickly (same kind), and then I caught one too, which was several inches bigger and wider. When we were just about back home I caught a third which was the size of about half a pinkie finger, still counted though! So we ended up tied and will have to have a rematch someday. He took the fish home and said he’d come by the next day with my haul and some other food to go with it.

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This is what he brought me the next day. On the left is what they call maito, fish wrapped and tied up in leaves, which is then cooked by smoking it over a fire. Delicious. On the right he had also wrapped up some plantain and potato to accompany the meal.

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Mirrorless and Feeling Just Fine – Day 16

I am increasingly aware of the how content I am here. Last night, walking back from Rafael’s house to mine, as my rubber boots crunched the dirt below my feet and I looked around at the community lit by the setting sun, I felt a very strong, very present sense of this contentment. I think this comes from a deepening feeling of belonging. Sure, some adapting on my part continues, but much of this adaptation period has past. I know who lives in the houses I walk past, I’ve spoken to them, drank chicha with them, shared meals, danced, taught their children. My relationships here are evolving, strengthening, expanding. I have roots extending deeper and deeper into the fertile culture and life here. I walk around with a sense of familiarity and embark on new jungle experiences with confidence. In just two weeks I feel at home.

That’s not to say I don’t miss my true home, I do, dearly, but arriving back to my home last night, tucking into bed for some writing and reading, I felt that tangible warmth at my core that only home can bring. I nudged a few cockroaches from my blankets, listened to the fluttering bats, the drizzling rain falling outside, and I was cozy, filled with a natural and peaceful content.

Another random thought; I don’t have a mirror here. Apart from the few photos I’ve taken of myself I don’t know what I look like day to day. I don’t know if I have tousled hair in the morning or dirt on my face. I don’t know if a little pimple sprouted up, or the scraggly extent of my increasingly wild beard growth. This preoccupation, or even awareness about those subtle imperfections in appearance (that we sometimes exorbitantly stress over) have simply, almost unnoticeably, disappeared. I just haven’t thought about it.

Choosing an “outfit” or putting on make-up, designing one’s image for the day, these things do not exist here. Or at least very little. Everyone knows everyone else, for one thing, so your actions and words day-to-day within the community shine much brighter than a new pair of jeans ever would. The sort of beauty hierarchy that powerfully drives much of the social current where I am from simply doesn’t have that kind of play here, and would, I believe, seem quite bizarre.

I’ve realized that I have shed some of these layers of cultural and social conditioning. Amusingly enough, when I “mirrored” myself in the eco-lodge several days ago, in a “civilized” place, I immediately shaved and “straightened” up just a tad. I obviously haven’t completely shed this aspect of my social upbringing, but living free from its constant presence for a while has given me a clearer sense of how superfluous and often unnecessarily complicating and stressful it makes our lives in many ways.

A Watery Jungle Excursion – Day 17

For the first time since I arrived, not a drop of rain fell during the day today. Mostly sunny and warm, very warm, we had good weather for our “minga” day. After teaching class I made my way over to the communal area. This was a much shorter group discussion and during it Ernesto asked me if I wanted to go take a walk through the jungle to a nearby waterfall.

To get there we took the path right outside my house that goes down to the river. Ernesto deftly stepped into a small, narrow canoe and waited as I plunked myself awkwardly in after him causing the canoe to teeter precariously back and forth. Sabe nadar? he asked me. I told him that I did indeed know how to swim. Such charming canoe chit chat prior to departure.

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A short canoe ride down and across the river and we “docked.” Our landing area reminded me of the “riverbank” we stopped at during the barbasco fishing day. It was pretty much just plant growth. And lots of it.

Ernesto began chopping away with the machete and sure enough, pretty soon inklings of a path opened up. He said it had been about a month since he’d been to this waterfall, and assuming no one else had come during that time, the jungle had certainly already claimed back much of the path in the past month. I tried not to think of encyclopedic film reels of poisonous spiders and frogs and plants and other insects and beings of the Amazon as we pushed through some of the denser areas. I was wearing long pants, tall rubber boots and a T-shirt.

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Along the way, Ernesto (can you spot him in the picture above?!) pointed out various plants and things, sharing some of the knowledge his father taught him about the jungle. As less and less Achuar learn this knowledge I am grateful that one of my closest friends here still carries this rich traditional wisdom with him. He pointed out fruit that certain jungle animals eat, which helps he and other Achuar know where to hunt. He also showed me the leaves used to make traditional Achuar thatched roofs. Another plant he explained was used to make hammocks by extracting the fibers from within it. The internal stringy fibers are cooked, then dried, before being used like thread.

We arrived at the waterfall after about 20 minutes walking in the jungle. This waterfall was fairly small, at least from what I was expecting. About 15 feet high, and perhaps twice as wide, and tucked under the jungle canopy, it was a watery oasis amidst the dense vegetation. I’m not sure why I expected Yosemite-like falls, it’s not like there are any huge mountains in the jungle nearby.

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Our path took us right to the top of the waterfall and through the stream to the other side (about a foot deep). We made our way down the side and stood in front of the falls. After a few pictures we clambered into the fresh, invigorating water. Standing under the falls was completely exhilarating and the perfect antidote to the hot day. The force of the water could knock you down a bit if you didn’t have sure footing (and it did knock us both down several times), but while standing in the water you felt like you were getting a shower and a massage at the same time, a little natural spa treatment in the depths of the Amazon.

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I’m glad Ernesto thought of bringing me to this isolated falls. I was hoping to have these sort of experiences during my time here and this watery jungle immersion gave me yet another healthy taste of jungle life. I thanked Ernesto as we were leaving for being my indigenous guide for the day and for being a friend with whom I could experience the simple purity and beauty of the Achuar home.

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By Alan

2 comments on “Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 2)

  1. Ahhh so in love with following your experiences, and the budding and flowering insights. Will love to catch up when you get back in the bay.

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