Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?


22 Septiembre, 2007





Who is, what is, what meaning does that word actually have regarding life on this planet?   It's completely relative.  If we as a species knew that a comet or enormous asteroid or other celestial body were hurtling towards us on a trajectory that would cause the planet Earth and the body to meet in the same point in space and time, we might instantly understand that we're ALL endangered.   Nothing is certain, nothing is guaranteed, change is the way of the universe.  And so I gladly reach out and take hold of the bit of meat and bone fresh from the cooking fire one room over.   The floor is compacted dirt.  A soft morning light enters through the open siding of the hut's "living room" and the elaborate palm thatching of the roof rustles in a sensual jungle breeze.   We are several hours' walking from the nearest dirt road and other relics of encroaching civilization.  Electricity has no place here.   A breakfast of yucca, plantain, and a salted chicken/jungle plant mixture is spread out on the rough-hewn table – splotches of yellow, chalk white, and mottled gray adorn the bright green leaves the feast was cooked in.   Now the real treat of the morning has arrived from the coals of the kitchen.  Monkey, or so they say.  Mono nocturno they called it, but when the Shuar hunter showed up after dark last night, his old style silver flashlight bobbing its yellow luminescence though the impenetrable blackness of the night like a drunken firefly, I was not convinced of its monkey essence.   We had been talking in the living room by candlelight when the scrawny but spirited dogs heralded his arrival.  Little Indian girls gathered around to fondle and inspect his quarry, brown eyes wide as they petted the downy softness of the brownish-gray creature hanging limp in the hands of their older sister.   Poor thing may have been happily munching fruits or insects just a short while before, now it was bloody-faced in the house of a human family.  I wondered if this thing was endangered.  No opposable thumbs, didn't seem to be a primate, as if that made any difference.  Dead now at any rate.   Will we eat it for dinner or tomorrow morning or never? 



            That morning at the jungle outpost of Shuar Indian Jorge Tungi was the beginning of the end to a wondrous journey into the Amazon basin of Ecuador's green eastern expanse, the jungle-drenched headwaters of the world's longest river surprisingly close to the glaciated volcanoes of the high sierra.  I'd been invited down by one of my best friends here, another volunteer from the same training group.   During our first few months in country, she had expressed interest in heading to the remotest site available … somewhere that offered a true Peace Corps experience in a country often viewed as the epicenter of the Latin American "Posh Corps" phenomenon.   The gist of the invitation was to assist in the delivery of a workshop seminar on community tourism, to be given to locals in a settlement called Uwijint (Ooh-wee-heent), a four hour hike East through mud and jungle from the site Peace Corps had first given her.   (She had since made a site change to Puyo, a much larger city 1.5 hours to the north.  This had perhaps as much to do with unrealistic expectations for the volunteer and lack of meaningful work as with the surfacing of nasty rumors and accusations involving murder, head shrinking, and the overdosing on powerful jungle psychotropic substances by visiting Europeans.)  

            The place certainly was a sight to behold.   Having spent the whole morning squishing through the sucking clay mud of the Oriente, passing under the shade of towering chonta trees and their otherworldly "penis roots," and bearing witness to the sad sight of cattle mucking about in a sweltering hot forest clearing (owned by a local schoolteacher, a participant in the seminar), we descended the final jungle ridge and crossed a shallow river to enter Uwijint.   It is tempting to say that we went back in time upon wading that river, but such would be to accuse the villagers of not belonging to the contemporary world.   Nonsense.  They belong to the world in a much more intimate and tangible way than any of us who have become accustomed to microwave popcorn and the instantaneous exchange of information through the internet.   The Shuar, the people who populate Uwijint, are not a lost culture struggling to maintain an obsolete identity in the face of the modern world.  It is those of us from the modern world who are lost, who struggle to find any identity at all … a difficult prospect when who we are is often defined by what we have – material possessions that we inexorably leave behind.


            I look around as my rubber boots marinate my feet in mud, sweat and river water.   Thatched roof huts with bamboo and chonta slats comprising the walls.  Plantains and yucca growing next to the vine-choked wall of the forest.   The river bends around the settlement, bordering it on three sides where children play and wash clothes.  Ducks quack and waddle nervously while fish and snails make the rounds in their cultivation pond.   From the wood of one supply shack hangs the impressive shell of an armadillo that must have weighed sixty pounds.  The central meeting point of the clearing is the dirt volleyball court, a hand-woven net strung between two vertical logs.   On one side are the school building and meeting house.  Hundreds of butterflies shimmer in the sunlight, iridescent blue and orange.   Clouds of them ebb and flow with the movement of people into their salt-searching crowds, and the kids catch one, tear a bit of wing, then toss them so they flutter helplessly back to the ground to be caught again.   On the other side is the covered area where communal meals are prepared, posts and a roof covering hardened dirt and a fire circle forever heating a pot of something.   Meals take HOURS to prepare.  These are the only structures with tin roofs.  When it rains the noise is so loud that class has to be cancelled.   It rains a lot.  Inside the classroom are perhaps 12 tiny pre-school type chairs and a few particleboard tables with metal legs.   These items, and the tin for the roofs, and a metal filing cabinet, were all carried in 9 kilometers from the road on the backs of the residents.  When there is class, the tables and chairs are in the school building.   When there is a meal or a meeting, they are carried into the meeting house.  The rough chainsaw-cut walls of the schoolroom are sparsely decorated with children's artwork, predominantly a Christmas scene with pine trees and an abundance of brightly wrapped presents below the words Feliz Navidad.  In September.  Maybe it's a state-ordered curriculum?


            The seminar is simple.  We want to touch on themes like quality of presentation and attention to detail.  Never lie, never cheat or misrepresent what you're offering.  Know the difference between real tourists and volunteers.  Understand what each type of visitor is looking for in the experience.  Have a functional emergency plan.   Simple stuff.  We reinforce the material with handouts and interactive sessions where the participants have to come up with answers on their own.   Simple.  But not so simple.  The Shuar women are distant, aloof, non participatory.   In the past they've acted like my compañera is here to steal their husbands and nothing more.  Quiet and reserved, they sneak out during the sessions to tend the cooking fire and usually don't return.   Sure, someone needs to do that, but they are going to be half of the community that presents itself to visitors.  Half of the benefit of tourism and volunteerism here in Uwijint will be theirs.   At least that's what we as outsiders would like to think.  The gringas spend most of the time talking to the men because the Shuar women are too reserved and closed off.   They're reserved and closed off in part because they suspect the gringas of trying to steal their husbands ... because they're always talking to them.   How to break the cycle?  Is involving the women more in tourism and village activities a way to help them, or to unravel a delicate social weaving in a culture we can barely begin to understand?   There are other distractions.  At one point a disruption forms outside, and everyone has to stop and check it out.   One of the community's starving dogs got into a brief fight with a tigrillo or ocelot.  The men stoned the cat to death.   Now the lifeless body of the magnificent spotted feline lies prostrate on the dirt with a ring of peering faces around it.  Apparently it's taboo to eat a tigrillo but not to kill one.  What do the cat's spirits think of that?  Other times the village children grow restless and approach the schoolhouse entrance.   Wood creaks and thuds as they run up and down the porch chasing one another and the sound drowns out our explanation of some important point or other.   Important?  Endangered?  WHAT ARE WE EVEN DOING HERE?


            We finish the workshop activities earlier than we'd have liked the first evening.   Some outlying families have a couple of hours of walking ahead of them, and it's much more difficult at night, so off  they go into the green wall surrounding us.   We remain, drink chicha, the thick yucca beer ubiquitous in the Oriente.  Bathe in the river.   Play Frisbee with the kids in the now dark clearing.  I brought one with LED lights in it and while they're totally enchanted by its UFO antics, I'm fascinated by the green glowing spots on the beetles, like two neon eyes. Never seen anything like it, so bright, so green! Hey kids, come check this out! – They're too thrilled by the frisbee to hear me.  After dinner we make s'mores under the cooking roof.  Sing songs in Shuar and English.  Snort traditional tobacco juice and get head rushes.   The jungle is black, but the Milky Way trickles down over us.  It feels benevolent.


            Night brings sleep.  Sleeping bags unrolled on the dusty hardwood floor of the school room.  A critter, a nightmare, some kind of four-inch-long arthropod with ghastly spiked pincers skitters across a sleeping bag and then perches on the wall, waving antennae.   It's like some forgotten horror from an archetypal bad dream.  Probably just looking for a cockroach to devour.   We ask a local what it is, and without even looking at it he answers "machaca."  Huh?  How do you know?   Oooooh.  It's a dirty joke.  The only cure for a machaca bite is to have sex immediately.   Hahaha, very funny.  It still stalks the walls, but we're too tired to care about the creature or the cure for its bite.


The following day the discussion begins late.  Breakfast takes three hours to prepare, so we shorten the talk and focus on the basics.   Soon we're packing up and hitting the trails.  The plan is to visit two waterfalls and then sleep at the remote property of Jorge Tungi, who has a "cultural evening" in store for us.   Streaming sweat we make our way through the jungle again and take a path that was invisible the previous day.  The Shuar believe that their power comes from the waterfalls, and so to visit such sites with them is a special occasion.   We have a spear and achiote, a natural reddish pigment used for face painting and other adornment.  At the second waterfall we receive facial markings and I try to embody my new Shuar name, pronounced "Eishman Washi."  It means Monkey Man.  Fun.   A lot of fun, but it's almost a Disney experience ... something is shallow about it, like the reality and the true importance is held back.  I know that we just won't be here long enough to get anywhere near the real meaning behind the Shuar ways.  These people shrank heads.  Seriously.   There is magic and meaning and ritual in their heritage, and three days is not even enough time to begin scratching the surface.  Dang, when can we snort some more of that tobacco?   We are here on their invitation to help them earn supplemental income by hosting visitors from another world.  Do they need Peace Corps on Mars too?   The path leads us further through the trees, up ridges, down ravines, across trickles in the forest.  I ponder about what I'd do if I were suddenly here alone, off trail.   Could I even make it back to the road, just 6 or so miles away as the parrot flies?  I think so, but know it would be a true ordeal.   To maintain a straight heading in this terrain is nearly impossible.  Not a flat stroll in the woods, the jungle here is criss-crossed by cliffs and mini-gorges, mud bogs and impenetrable thickets...and here we are so close to the road.   What could it be like farther towards the heart of the continent?


            Our party arrives at Jorge's guest house.   It appears out of nowhere, a two storey apparition of thatched roof and vertical bamboo and chonta.  We are to sleep here on the second floor, in hardwood bunks.   No need for cushions.  Walking all day on the softness of the jungle floor, the stiff boards are strangely refreshing.   Jorge and his family don't live here, however.  We have to leave our things and go to his home a short hike away.  Arriving there the watchdogs growl their welcome and a parrot is immediately perched upon my shoulder.   She wastes no time in gnawing from my ear as we explore the compound.  There is a large flat clearing the size of a tennis court with buildings on two sides, all wooden, all thatched.   Ducks and a turkey strut around the space.  Inside the larger structure we encounter the kitchen room and a dining room with heavy wooden table and benches.   A wild pig skin is nailed to the wall amidst various shells and spears and feathered ornaments.  Jorge and his family don't have much, but I'm struck by how rich this all feels.   What else does one need?  Need becomes so subjective out here.


            Night falls, and I spent some time lying on my back in the courtyard counting shooting stars (3).   We eat dinner at what feels like a late hour because of the darkness, chicken soup and rice and yucca I think, by glowing candle light.  The guy shows up with the mono nocturno which we won't eat until the next morning.  Drifting, tired, when will we sleep?  Jorge disappears for a few minutes and returns wearing nothing but a colorful headband, a traditional bark skirt, and a modern wristwatch.   He has a guitar and two wooden flutes.  His son and daughter have also put on traditional dress.  He explains in Spanish that when he has guests at his home he likes to share with them the traditional music and dance of the Shuar (with guitar?) and now that we are all gathered, our host wastes no time in filling the night air with his soft chanting voice and the melancholy sounds of the flutes and guitar strings.   We get up and dance with his children and with one another, hopping alternately from foot to foot, turning to the side and shaking carved spears.  I have no sense of how long this lasts.  Maybe 20 minutes, maybe an hour.  Someone makes more of the tobacco and we each take a bit of the juice in the palm of our hand, then inhale it through the nostrils, eyes tearing as we sneeze and wait for the sensations to come, the disorientation, the mild euphoria.   Three times.  We laugh, wish one another a good night, and with headlights bobbing, retrace the path to the guest house and relinquish ourselves to sleep, insects cooing and hissing in the blackness.


            In the morning, we pack up and head back to Jorge's compound where he hands out gifts to his visitors as we talk, waiting for breakfast.   Woven baskets, a bracelet, a short ceremonial spear with toucan feathers, and a headband with an ardilla (squirrel) tail attached to the back like a Daniel Boone cap.   I am grateful for the opportunity to come here, to meet Jorge and his family, to begin the first step of understanding the Shuar people and the life of the jungle.   I'm not pretending to have made much progress, but it was a start.  Might this be the very frontier of the modern civilized world and the remaining indigenous peoples and their belief systems?   Was my presence a hindrance to the preservation of old ways or a tiny part in the process of allowing the old ways to coexist successfully with the new ones?   Can that even be possible?  I hope at least that my three day visit to the jungle was received as a sign of goodwill and genuine interest in understanding the differences and similarities between us as members of the same shared world, as vastly different as appearances can make it seem.


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