Chapter 22

SWIMMING WITH PIRANHA

1991-04-21, Quito


Mid-morning and I have lost track of time. What day is it? What century for that matter? Slowly floating down a quiet stretch of river deep in the Amazon near the border between Peru and Ecuador.

The river has a quiet lazy feeling about it, not much animal activity along this stretch. The canoe works slowly forward, there are numerous logs to float over or move out of the way. Many times in and out of the water as we guide the boat through obstacle-filled channels.

Our guides have become nervously alert and on guard. They continually scan the tree-covered banks. Andres, our Captain has two pistols strapped to his waist. Luis, silent for once and keenly intent on observing the bush-covered banks, is fondling a shotgun.

Luis relates that not long ago in this area Andres was sailing downriver in a canoe when he was attacked by a savage group of Huarani. Around that time five Missionarios were killed by another band of the same tribe. These are the wild Indigenous we will be visiting!

Andres was hit by three spears in his arm and side. He was lucky to escape. Floating in the water beside his upturned canoe, got hung up on logs further down, then waited for hours, blood flowing from the wounds into the water till another boat passed by and rescued him.

Andres is taking no chances. He lifts his shirt and reveals an ugly patch of scars, his face expressionless.

And as the day crawls on, I have this eerie sensation that we are being watched. Quietly, discreetly observed from the shore with invisible eyes.

I have this sense, this feeling at other times, other days during the trip. In the silence, on the river or in the forest. Unseen eyes obscured by the abundant growth of rainforest and the camouflage of native acumen, keenly observing us.

In Deep

Altered States come in many shapes and sizes. They are initiated through a variety of modes and settings, from dance to chanting, from high-altitude mountain climbing to medicinal plant ingestion.

This one, almost constant day and night, is the flavor of semi-soft raw turtle eggs, the unusual taste of less-traveled rivers filled with Piranha, the aroma of damp compost with a tinge of burnt monkey and the ethereal sound of naked virgin forest where the wild animal is king.

I wanted one more Selva journey in Ecuador before leaving for new lands and new people. I'd been looking around for a suitable excursion for two months, and shortly before my time was up found a deep jungle tour for ten days into Huarani Territory. I grabbed it!

I meet my guide, Luis Garcia, a Quechua Indigenous, at The South American Explorers Club.

Short, five foot seven inches, muscular, dark, expressive face with innocent eyes. A former soldier fluent in English, Spanish, Quechua and Huarani tongues, Luis informs me there will be eight of us and three other guides on the jaunt.

Cruising down a river slowly, the senses are assaulted by the unknown. It is a constant, colorful barrage of the new and unusual. The sights are a glare of pristine sunlight mirrored off slow-flowing log-ridden waters.

Flocks of low-flying Pajaros, beating wings as if running for their lives, scream overhead. One or two Guacamayos, larger multi-colored parrot-like birds, make their presence felt as drifting rainbows cascading between high trees.

Tortugas, water tortoises, sit quietly on logs, observing. As the canoe comes close, they dive in uniform precision 1-2-3, into the pool, out of sight. An occasional Kingfisher flies just up ahead, guiding the boat deeper in.

The glassy silence is broken by the sound of some skulking animal moving through nearby brush. There are many around here. Agouti, peccary and the legendary jungle cats, Jaguar. Occasionally, families of monkeys are spotted swinging acrobatically through the trees.

We commenced the journey from Coca, a deep jungle town grown up from military presence and oil production. Luis provides food and shelter. All I need is pack, clothes, camera and endurance.

Coca is oily. It has an unclean Petroleo smell to it day and night, heightened to stifling levels by the deep jungle heat. It's a port town on the wide Rio Napo, one that feeds directly into Rio Amazonas and Peru, not far distant.

To go any farther down, one must have military authorization, time and nerve.

I had traveled down past Coca before on the Rio Napo, hopping canoes and sleeping alongside the river at night near Indigenous huts. Fishing for Bagre, those large 10 to 50-pound river catfish that make delicious eating. Buying rice, maize and yucca from the natives for a few pesos just to eat a simple meal.

There is an uneasy alliance between the natives, mixtos and oil company managers, mostly extranjeros. All revolving around money and economics. The military presence, allegedly on guard around the Frontera of Peru for Narcotrafficos and illegal border crossings, seems more preoccupied with protecting Ecuador's oil interests.

I'm not fond of Coca.

All the adventurers rendevouz there the evening before setting out. Two couples, the rest of us, singles. A professional photographer, a student, other experienced explorers and a few novices. Each of us will provide a different perspective and face for the group.

We have an introductory dinner that night. Luis introduces Alphonso our cook, Marco a young river guide, and Andres the boat Captain. While the names are mostly Spanish, all these men are either Mixto, that is to say, part Latino part Indigenous, or full-blooded Indian.

They are all experienced, living most of their lives here in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Andres especially has that certain look of competence about him, like these rivers are his permanent home.

I'm a little surprised we need four crewmen for just the eight of us and am anxious for the journey to begin the following day.

Setting off at mid-morning in an open-sided wood-slat seated bus, we leave Coca behind. Gear stowed on top. Legroom is at a premium. At least there is air. Once past the military checkpoint, papers attended to, and assurances that we are not unauthorized oil exploiters, we are off on an oil-company road, leaving civilization.

Four hours later. Hot, sweaty, jarred by rock-covered dirt-packed road, we pass an oil-pumping station. Shortly after, the road ends.

This is the embarkation point on the Rio Shiripuno, a small tributary leading into Rio Amazonas. We will head east till we cross and pick up another, Rio Cononaco, heading South-east, days later.

Unloading the gear near the river we take a break, then it's time for work. One large twenty-four foot canoe awaits us down the hill, docked on a small wooden bank. All hands are needed to move gear, equipment, large heavy crates of food, Vegetables, fruit and cookware, two heavy outboard motors, drums of gasoline down toward the boat.

It is a team effort. A work-crew and line are formed to hand carton and baggage into the boat. Needs to be a slow, careful operation.

No one wants to haul a backpack or motor out of the water. River voyages are not all adventure and discovery. Time is consumed by constant daily loading and unloading. The end of the trip actually becomes easier and less tiring; as more food is consumed, there is less to carry.

Once on the river, seated in the canoe, and shoved off, there is no turning back. Modern civilization is behind us. No roads, no trucks. No electricity, telephones, radios. Nada!

An electrifying sense of anticipation, wildness, a childlike glee that surfaces like the rush of wind in an open-topped car just barely under control. I'm back in the Selva! A separate reality, a constant altered state. Living under new laws, different rules. If you want a change of perspective, go into the jungle!

We use one motor, the other for back-up. Even so, it's slow going. There are many logs in the river. The boat cannot weave around or cross every obstacle. Within the first two hours we are out of the boat, a few of us, three or four times, standing on river logs, or in shallow water pushing and pulling our transport through debris.

Traversing narrow waterways is season- and rain-dependent. In the dry season rivers are low, navigation is difficult due to log-jams. During the rains, when the water is high, unseen flotsam can wreck the underwater propellers.

We pull up to a bank, where there is a small trail ahead. Luis instructs us to disembark. The crew shoves off with the boat. We will meet them further downstream. For now, a short jungle walk.

Coming upon a short bush with round green rubbery-spiked fruit, our guide breaks one of the fruits open. Inside, soft brown seeds. He explains these red Acheote berries are used as spices and cosmetics; as he rubs the seeds into his face, a bright red dye emerges.

We all take turns popping open the fruits and painting one another. Red dye smears across forehead, brazen stripes down cheeks, a blood-covered arm. The Wild Gringos!

Another tree has a large termite hive attached to its side. The termites take wood from the surrounding area to build and sustain their hive and to provide food. Yet they do not harm their host tree.

Scraping the outer shell, a swarm of termites erupts. These crawl over the skin, leaving a distinct odor. Once used to the crawling around of the insects it is not offensive. A residue left by the termites on the skin is used as an insect repellent against mosquitoes and other flying bugs. They just don't come near.

Some wild Yucca, a native staple is nearby, and we pull some up to eat later. A few more medicinal plants are identified, then we are back at the river, on the boat, heading toward our evening encampment. If we have time, maybe we will make a jug of Chicha with the wild Yucca!

Shortly before sunset we drift to a beach along the river. Wide, sandy stretch, relatively flat, backed by jungle, a wall of trees.

Carefully unloading food and equipment, we make our home for the night. Jose and Marco begin setting up the stove and kitchen and begin slicing vegetables. Luis and Andres are in the forest cutting branches to build our hut.

This is a working trip. All of us pitch in, driving the wooden branches into the sand, front and back, one long shelter, then covering that with a tarpaulin. Adding rope and individual mosquito netting and a plastic tarp on the ground to protect us from sand. I notice all the welts on my legs from the sandflies.

Inside the nets, all that's needed are sheets. Nights on these riverbanks are warm enough. The sand provides a good cushion.

A simple meal of soup and vegetables is filling. Maize, yucca, rice and spices. Some potatoes, tomatoes and peppers. In the following days we will add to what we have brought with turtle eggs, Piranha from the river, and a few birds. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners are ample and quickly prepared.

Sometimes we collect wood and build a fire. The sounds change. Day noise recedes, in the late afternoons flocks of multi-colored birds come alive.

Parrots, green and red explode in a psychedelic squawk as they fly in flocks overhead. Toucans and papaguayos glide from tree to tree. This also dies down, and the evening insects emerge.

Clicking, whistling, an occasional sound like the clanging of bells. I hear fish jump from the water. Silently still and patient, a discreet movement can be heard as a Caiman seeks a bite.

The next day, breaking camp we tear down our hut, clean up our site removing as much evidence of our presence as possible. Eat breakfast and load up. I am eager to depart.

As we move farther in, deeper into the green, each day is filled with a new texture, like the prickly bark of a tree, a novel aroma or a new sound from some forest dweller.

Turtle eggs are delicious.

Buried along sandy beaches, deep and well-protected from scavenging animals. I learn to hunt for them with a stick. Finding a hole, digging. There could be ten to fifty eggs laid. They are small, the shells flexible and rubbery. The liquid inside is thick, a little gamey. They taste great raw as well as cooked.

The Huarani don't need sticks to find turtle eggs buried deep beneath the sand on the beaches. They simply walk around feeling the sand with their feet, then start digging, uncovering hundreds of the delicious treats.

Moving downriver, deeper into the Selva there is occasional rain, but not much. Mostly hot sun on the water. I also find the bugs are not bad. Most of the time I'm in shorts or a bathing suit.

So much for Bwana with the Banana Republic khaki pants and long-sleeved jungle safari shirt, bandana and straw hat! The reality of the Selva is that under a canopy of trees, the atmosphere is comfortably warm and even the occasional rains don't penetrate heavily through those tall sky umbrellas.

Also, the hiking boots are a drag. Occasionally it's sandals, usually just barefoot. I'm going native. Baths are in the river.

At first observing the conventions of the guides, wearing shorts or underwear into the water to bathe. By the third day, deciding to drop this pretension, I drop the last covering as well. Some of the other Gringo Explorers slowly, timidly and eventually follow suit.

Hey! It's the Jungle, I'm going Native!

Life On The Edge: Jungle Living

By the end of the third day we arrive at a small tributary of the already small Shiripuno. Going up it a little ways we stop at an encampment along the bank.

Huts revealed just near the water, up a steep embankment. Some built by former oil exploration crews in the area, others are native bungalows. Now inhabited by Caruae, the tribe's leader, and his extended family.

We have come deep into the Selva and have arrived at a Huarani outpost. The word in their language meaning 'People'. To many Mixtos and Latinos they are known simply as Auca, meaning 'Savages'. A term these Indigenous are not fond of.

One of Caruae's wives has died a week before we arrived. His last surviving wife is sick, withdrawn, lying in her Hammoca virtually catatonic. A jungle fever like a flame in her body, already deformed by snakebite and years in the jungle.

Caruae has the look of a disconsolate man. The deep well in his eyes reveals both a desolation from the inevitability of existence and an acceptance of this way of life as well. Life for these dwellers in the rainforest is raw, basic and merciless.

Children are everywhere. Some sick with fever. Others taking the load. Even the small ones must help prepare food and tend the crops, pluck feathers and skin animals for food.

One six-year-old boy helps us unpack the canoe. He has six toes and six fingers. A probable sign of inbreeding among these survivors.

A nine-year-old girl is carrying a feverish baby on a sling against her body continually. The bald head continually lolling from side to side in a drunken roll as insects land on the infant boy's pock-marked face.

The images move me with consternation. I've visited numerous tribes before and seldom have encountered as much illness as here. Yet, what to do? Outsiders bringing in western medicine are just as likely to bring in disease as well.

For that matter, so am I. Even if outside help provides a better living standard, how is that even judged? What is the yardstick?

Two grown men, sons of Caruae, help with the hunting and food gathering. The first day we meet, one is carrying a chain-saw around with him. It was left by the oil explorers. There is no gas available, it is just a useless attachment. Valued only due to the novelty.

Here among the Huarani life is incredibly simple, basic and as close to an animal-like existence as I've found anywhere. Even their language is coarse and uncomplicated. Many grunts and clicking sounds.

Their logical perception is such that they only count to four, anything greater is simply: Many!

We stay in a large thatch-roofed hut that night, pitching our plastic tents and mosquito netting on the floor. At least we have a thatch roof tonight against the occasional downpour.

Next door in another room sleep the Huaranis. All together, piled on hammocks scattered helter-skelter around a central fire in the hut. There must be fifteen people in there, all swinging on those vine-woven beds.

The fire burns constantly, day and night. On the coals, in the midst of low-burning flames, a cooked monkey, hair and all. After it is killed, the monkey is just thrown on the fire.

Eating is a casual thing. Any hour of the day or night, if someone is hungry they just go to the fire and rip a piece of meat off the monkey.

Late in the night the family chants a prayer. Tomorrow Caruae will hunt with us. The chant goes on for hours, back and forth between the sons and daughters and father. It is gutteral, raw, primal. The rhythm is a low sing-song, some loud some soft. No instruments.

The chant is an invocation, imploring the spirits of the land to provide successful hunting so the family will have food.

Sitting in a corner near one of the children's hamocas the constant back and forth syncopation of that jungle rhythm absorbs me in a kind of dense wooded reverie. I can feel myself melting into this picture, becoming a part of this seductive and uncompromising world in a weird way. Even their chanting hovers just on the edge of familiarity in my consciousness.

Sinking below the level of knowing I am an outsider, a strange familiarity envelops me in mysterious arms. Visions of running naked through a dense carpet of moist leaves, listening for the sound of a drum as somewhere in the distance another native is signaling by thumping on the trunk of a tree.

And I am hungry. Following the spoor of a pack of wild pigs through the brush, keenly aware of the weapon harnessed on my back and a thirst in my belly.

In a way it's like a fish in a lake being lured onto the hook by a brightly colored fly. Having spent a lot of time now in the Selva, each further excursion just grabs me a little deeper. Taking me to where?

Slowly returning to the level of rational senses reveals a shudder of fear. What is drawing me in?

The family doesn't mind my presence, as they continue the invocation for hours, unpretentious, open and lost in their own passage through shrouded channels. This is their World.

Huaranis are not particularly neat nor conscientious about keeping their homes tidy. Scraps of food are everywhere, scattered chaotically around in the yards and huts. Several areas close to the living huts have mounds of feathers and skins where birds have been plucked. Filth in the environment is totally ignored.

Their bodies are another matter! They go into the river often. Three or four times a day at least. The teen-age girls virtually live in the water. With or without those bras and slips the Missionarios gave them to wear. Their unselfconscious innocent and joyful play is a totally natural thing!

Four Pajaros are tied to the outside support beams of the hut. These hook-beaked large green and red Amazonian parrots squawk day and night.

In the middle of the night, awakened by their screeching alarm, tossing uncomfortably in the middle of my mosquito net, I wish the Huarani would eat these birds for dinner one day. They are kept as pets.

I noticed a rash on my arm as I was awakened. It started at my wrist during the day and now hundreds of these little red dots are slowly creeping up toward my shoulder. They are following a bloodline, a vein. I don't believe they are bites. I may have brushed up against a tree whose bark is toxic.

A baby condor lives in a smaller hut. The bird is a large fuzzy gray ball of feathers and beak, maybe six months old. Not able to fly, the condor wobbles around the hut on awkward legs.

Condors are considered sacred animals and good luck for these people. Caruae found this one nested in a high tree. He climbed to the top when the mother was not around just to capture the animal.

Loading the canoe early next morning, we leave, with Caruae and two girls as passengers. We will drop the girls off at another home they have further down the river. Then go hunting with the Huarani leader.

Following narrow, barely visible jungle paths up and around hilly, tree and brush covered soil, I can't help but think: 'Eight Gringos plowing like bulls through the brush. How is Caruae going to find anything with all this awkward noise?'

The jungle man moves with a stride more like monkey than human. Long arms trailing at his sides, slapping haphazardly at insects in an instinctual reflex. He sort of lops along following a trail here, the next moment heading off into the trees, yet always knowing his direction.

Vines and dead leaves everywhere, and the most noticeable animal life are foot-long large fluorescent blue butterflies flapping lazily through the branches.

The Huarani cups his hands around his mouth and imitates the call of a bird. Occasionally he will take a rolled leaf to his lips and evoke the sound of another animal.

We stop a moment, Caruae is listening and watching silently. Just casually listening and observing. He does not appear particularly attentive.

He slowly, almost abstractly pulls a one and a half foot long thin wooden shaft from the fletch on his back. Next takes a small wad of cotton-like fiber called Kapok from a gourd tied around his waist. Twisting the cotton between thumb and forefinger, he applies it to the end of the flecha, or arrow.

He inserts the shaft, sharp pointed end covered with a black tar-like gum first, into an eight-foot-long blowgun. Slowly he raises the gun and aims toward the top branches of a tall 150 foot tree, sighting along the shaft.

The blowgun comes to his mouth as he steadies the ten-pound weapon with his hands.

There is a barely audible 'pffft'. A moment later a much louder 'SQUAWWKKKKK!'

The rustling of branches as a bird takes to the air, fleeing. Caruae just stands silently and watches for a minute. A noticeable 'THUMP' like the slap of a timpani reverberates through the trees as a heavy object falls to the damp earth.

Eventually, Jungle-Man heads off through the trees in the direction of the sound. About two hundred yards away he retrieves his prey.

Caruae comes striding back carrying a large Toucan by the neck. The bird is still alive, barely. Twitching muscles but unable to move.

The flecha is tipped with a nerve poison, Curare, and is stuck in the birds leg. The toxin has immobilized the animal, it will stop breathing soon. Caruae loops the bird to a rope around his waist and we move on.

Two wild turkeys are shot in the days that follow, as we move through the forest, sun barely visible above the trees, tracking wild pig and monkey.

Other animals scattering as we approach, the noise of awkward Gringos sounding like a beacon, a warning for miles around. If Caruae is discouraged, he does not show it. We have given him loads of food for his family.

Caruae points out useful plants in the forest as we follow a trail. A vine used to treat snakebite, a leafy green bush whose leaves can be dropped in the water, paralyzing fish which then float to the surface for catching and eating.

The Curare vine is long, ropy, wide and thin like a wiring harness. Its bark, when stripped, is cooked into a paste. Just a bare tidbit placed upon my tongue leaves a gagging bitter taste. Like other jungle plants, I learn how to cut, strip, boil and prepare the poison.

For days now I've been swimming and bathing frequently in the rivers. Both the Shiripuno and the Cononaco are filled with Piranha. These meat-eating blood-devouring aggressive little beasties that always create whirlpools of froth and blood whenever a hapless victim falls overboard in the movies.

Occasionally I feel a nibble, become concerned. I've seen all the Tarzan flicks! For the most part, if there is no blood in the water, they don't attack.

We spend time each day throwing out lines, catching the Piranha for cooking. Even in the boat, if not completely dead they can wound with razor-sharp teeth.

I like the evenings on the beaches. The heat of the day slowly disperses. Sitting and writing or just listening to the flowing river is relaxing and often promotes reflective moods. No modern conveniences, no television, no lounge chair and cozy room full of stereo sound.

Yet, I feel incredibly peaceful out here among the forest like some kind of natural balance can be tapped inside that merges with the river in an eternal flow beyond the boundaries of time.

There is a natural rhythm to all of this, like some eclectic symphony whose Maestro is sleepily motioning each instrument to the fore. I'm reminded of the movie, 'The Emerald Forest'. The melody is similar and even more eerie in reality.

Dangerous Game

One night after setting camp and dinner, it's late, midnight. Luis opens a jug of Trago Puro, the homemade 100% cane alcohol preferred by the Indigenous. This is firewater, strong and harsh. We all have some with coffee. Luis keeps drinking his straight.

After many cups of this jetfuel Luis jumps up excitedly exclaiming; "Time to go Caiman hunting!"

The crew has gone to bed. He, Caruae, and us Gringos commandeer the canoe into the river. Flashlights and moonlight to guide us. Luis and Caruae in the bow with nooses of rope. They're going to lasso the suckers!

Caiman are fresh water alligators. Green or black, shiny scales, like ancient reptiles, they look like some primal throwback to a misty prehistorical epoch when the planet was a gaseous swamp and the only lifeforms around were wallowing in water and mud.

Three to nine feet long, mostly mouth filled with rows of teeth. Scaly armor that feels like metal plating on the sides of a battleship. Powerful and fast in water or on land. Nocturnal creatures usually active only after dark. Sharp, sharp teeth. A dentist would love their smile. Nasty beasts.

But Caiman don't drink Trago Puro. Typically, they will slip underwater and cruise rather than fight when chased. Unless cornered.

The Caimans are out in abundance tonight as we drift slowly from shore to shore. Lying along banks, mostly covered by water, flashlights pick up twin irises glowing red in the glare. It is possible to keep them riveted and immobile, somewhat, with the light.

Luis or Caruae will slowly motion the boat toward one and will try to snare it from the water. If there is obstruction they disembark into the water, moving silently up a bank, circling around the animal to come up from behind, rope in hand.

Every time we come near one of them, the animal slips silently into the river, an underwater submarine and Se Fue! - "He's Gone!"

We try for fifteen with the same results. All of us anxious and sipping our Trago.

Discouraged and tired in our midnight attempts we float toward our camp. At the last minute, on the opposite shore, just before camp, we spot another one! Stealthily easing up, the canoe like a soundless ripple sliding through the water, flashlights illuminating his eyes. Luis dips the rope carefully into the water, just ahead of the snout.

The animal moves, darts ahead, into the noose. Luis tugs! Snared, right around the neck. We've got one!

As I hold the rope dragging the animal beside the boat, Luis take another swig of Trago and prepares another rope to tie him up as we head the boat back to camp. Caiman in tow.

This boy is a Mean Green Eating Machine! Five feet of scale, spike and teeth. What am I doin' here?

We haul the animal toward sand, slowly dragging, and prepare another rope. I hold down the strong whip-like tail as Luis secures the snout, then proceeds to bundle the creature, body and legs with rope.

Caiman doesn't like it, cannot move. Those eyes fixed, unblinking, motionless in a malicious stare that reminds me if he gets loose, I'd rather be comfortably in Quito eating ceviche at Manolos Restaurant. Picking up the ancient beast, he weighs at least fifty pounds of pure reptilian grit, scale and muscle. Lots of teeth.

A few others come cautiously forward to pet or hold our captive. Cameras flashing, Luis takes another swig, hands me the jug and I join him for a belt!

"If Caruae had caught the creature it would now be dinner for his family. We have enough food and do not need to eat it. We will let it go." Luis announces.

On the sand it is cautiously untied. Head toward the water, the last binding to go is the snout.

We have backed a respectful distance away. The Reptile is free and dead still. Will it turn toward us, or head into the river?

Our guide kicks a shot of sand toward it. Suddenly, on four short stout legs our armored buzz-saw bolts like lightening into the river! That baby's gone! Time for bed.

Strange Wanderings

Crossing over to Rio Cononaco, many days have passed and we are not far from the Peruvian border. Pulling up to another Huarani village, out of the canoes and up into jungle, we make our way toward village center.

No one is around. The spread-out huts, round with thatch-roofs, all look deserted. This is a main Huarani village and it appears dead. Luis confers with Caruae then tells us there is another village, the same people, about a two-hour walk from here. We hit the trail.

The huts look abandoned. Unkempt in that particular Huarani style and left to rot. Old trash piled around, yet no signs of life. No clothes, hamocas, cooking utensils, weapons. Nada.

The trek reveals a distressing scene. The path winds through chaotic growth and patches of harvested Yucca and cleared dry land.

The land is frightening for its deadness. I can feel it, sense it, smell it. No life here. No rustle of animals in the bushes, no birds overhead, a silence that stagnates abnormally in an atmosphere immediately noticeable for its lack of vitality. The area is hunted out. I begin to wonder what we will find in the other village.

When we arrive, it is abandoned as well. Again, the chaotic trash, the haphazard huts. There are signs of missionary activity as well among this tribe. How long ago? A further chat with Caruae:

"No one has been here for a long time. They have gone hunting for food. I cannot tell when they will return."

They could be gone for weeks or months, much deeper into the Selva. The Huarani are known for wandering. Whole tribes, men women and children will travel and live off the land, searching for food to collect or a spot to settle on. They are like nomads.

Even though there are a few crops, like yucca, papaya and banana, it does not look like they will return. The surrounding land is barren. Desolate.

Homeward Bound

Returning to the boat, we eat a late lunch, then begin heading upriver, searching for a campsite for the night. It will take us four days to work our way back toward a more familiar civilization. The return journey.

We pick up Caruae's daughters, their baskets loaded with harvested yucca and banana. Stopping another night at the large Huarani family home, we leave gifts of food for them. Again we are on our way, a slow return toward the modern world.

A tinge of despondency like a slow violin dirge sits inside my chest. Even with illness and primitive living conditions there is a crystalline sensation of pure serenity that pervades the wilderness, a pristine beauty so naturally abundant and alive with an indefinable energy of existence.

The lure of the forest is as subtle as it is powerful. A slow mist of warm moist arms envelops you in a seductive embrace where all that is felt is the pure energy of abundant life. Out here there are no obscurations to shelter behind. It is like a tingling awareness that what has always been suspected before, always taken for granted, is unveiled in still clarity, amplified.

The forest can be called an ecosystem or an environment. It is more. It is a living entity. All the components, trees, insects, water, animals growth and decay are functioning parts of this entity. For that matter, the Huarani did not just live in that entity, the were a part of it, another component.

I notice a certain resignation inside that arises from the belief that this land will be changed in the not too distant future. The signs of its inevitability are becoming apparent.

Encroachment by the modern world. Eventually the Huarani will have to assimilate or disappear. It is an existence on a diminishing timescale. And the loss will be a tragedy. A consolation, for me only, is the tremendous fortune to have gone in, to have become part of that world, even for just a brief period.

I would like to return someday. OJALA.


Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman


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