Time in the Village
Chapter 8: When the house was finished, we left for Tarauacá on the boat. It felt strange to go back into the world after having just arrived in the jungle. I was impatient to start the dieta...
When the house was finished, we left for Tarauacá on the boat. It felt strange to go back into the world after having just arrived in the jungle. I was impatient to start the dieta and didn't want to leave the jungle and these beautiful people. Sitting on the boat, I did my best to surrender and to remember that it was very important to obtain all the supplies for the dieta.
The journey to Tarauacá took a whole day. The day after we arrived, we went to a supermarket and bought a mountain of food: a hundred kilograms of rice, a hundred kilograms of beans, eighty kilograms of spaghetti, bags full of corn to make popcorn, soap to wash our clothes, and soap to wash the dishes. We bought plates, cutlery, cups, dried crackers, butter, ropes for our hammocks, mosquito nets, hammocks, lighters, and diesel to use for the lanterns we bought. We bought two-hundred litres of mineral water to prepare the caiçuma. We bought warm, fuzzy, cosy jungle blankets with a jaguar pattern. We laughed when we bought them, saying we would connect with the force of the jaguar when sleeping under those blankets! We bought two-hundred litres of gasoline so that we could go on jungle expeditions during our dieta. I bought a mattress after learning that sleeping in a hammock was quite a challenge, especially since I am so tall. I wrote some final emails in a dodgy internet cafe, spoke a last time with my parents, and ate as much food as I could. I knew that food would be scarce in the next few months. I enjoyed some sweets and my last pieces of fruit and my last sips of pure mineral water for a while.
The next day we were on the boat again, going deeper and deeper into the jungle. It had rained heavily in the days prior, and the river’s water level had risen several meters. We saw that some villages were underwater and some houses had been swept away. Luis said he had never seen the water so high in his life.
When the sun went down, I was sitting at the helm of the boat with my flashlight, illuminating the way. We could only see a tiny bit of shimmer on the water, and the river was full of death. Fallen trees were everywhere. Sometimes massive branches would stick out of the water. The driver didn’t navigate the boat any more slowly when it was dark, and sometimes we would miss a tree just by inches. I held my breath in those moments, thinking of losing all our precious supplies when the boat would tip.
When we got back to the village, it was pitch dark. It had been quite a journey. The young guys from the village came to help unload all the stuff, and we piled it up next to my hammock in Luis’s living room. I went to help the boys, climbed back in the boat, and put a big, twenty-litre bottle of water on my shoulders. I picked up the big bottle off the floor of the boat, and as I stood up, I lost my balance. The boat started to move, and after a few wobbly seconds, I landed on my back in the river, the huge bottle breaking on the side of the boat.
It took me a few moments to realize what had happened; then lying in the cool water, I had to laugh at myself. I climbed out of the river and walked to Luis’s house. Almost the whole village was there, and they looked at me standing there soaking wet. I explained with gestures what had happened. It took a while for them to understand, but when they did, the whole house erupted in laughter. For the next few days, people kept teasing me, miming me falling off the boat.
This was all preparation for a journey that I could not yet completely grasp. I had gotten a glimpse of it in my last ceremonies in Peru. I had seen the vastness of the universe and felt the power of that force. In those nights I had connected with the spirit of Muka, and he told me that he was going to take me out of this dream that we call the universe, into a much grander reality. That ceremony had been profound. It had been my last journey in Peru before going into the jungle. Seeing a glimpse of the vastness of the universe had been a very humbling experience.
I learned that this was a big moment for Sete Estrellas, the village of Luis: I was the first foreigner that had come to stay in their community. Sete Estrellas was only the third Yawanawá village in the history of the tribe, that had welcomed a foreigner to do dieta. Mutum, the village I had visited first during the Mariri Festival was one. The other was called Nova Esperanza. Sete Estrellas had not received people to do dieta yet, and we all felt that sacredness and responsibility. Muka is the most sacred plant of the Yawanawá. In their history, only select people have eaten the root of this plant. The dieta of Muka is a rite of passage, an initiation into their spirituality. Muka is taken by men who are on the path of becoming a warrior, a leader, or a healer.
So there I was, preparing for this experience, and at the same time, helping to create a space where people could come learn from the Yawanawá in a beautiful, sacred way. Mutum and Nova Esperanza had blossomed from the foreigners who came. The people in Sete Estrellas had seen that growth in those other communities and were grateful for my presence, hoping this would be the start of a new chapter in their village. Since the first time I visited Sete Estrellas sixteen months before, no other foreigners had come. Hopefully more would follow, as Luis hoped. If more Westerners came for dietas and spiritual knowledge, money would enter the community, along with all the benefits money brought.
I should clarify that the tribe is (and was at the time of my visits) partly Westernized, in the sense that they have a few modern conveniences, rudimentary schools, and other marks of civilization. They all wear Western clothing (mostly jeans and tee shirts) except during their festivals when they wear tribal dress. They have generators to light their homes at night, aluminium boats, and diesel and gasoline. Some have wristwatches, which are a mark of status.
A few chickens can be seen running through the village. Cows are very rare and are regarded as a sign of great wealth. Each family has a field where they cultivate corn, bananas and yuca. The men make the fields, build the houses, hunt, fish, and do communal projects when they are needed, such as keeping the grass low so there is less danger of venomous snakes. It is hard work to live in the jungle. All these things combined make for full days of work.
The women work hard, too—harvesting from the fields, preparing the food, taking care of the children and elders, keeping the house organized, washing clothes, and doing dishes. The women make bracelets, necklaces, and other artwork that they use or sell. They also help to plant the fields (the men prepare the area in the jungle and clean it, while the woman plant the crops). The woman are very strong physically with all the work they do.
The tribe was illiterate until the missionaries came and built little schools in every village—imagine just a jungle hut with some rooms. Some of the women in the tribe teach there, and some of them receive a salary from the government of Brazil for that work. But the schools are not so regular. When a field has to be made, everyone is helping, including the children. So then there is no school.
The children are taught to read and write, mainly Portuguese. All the children are literate, as are most of their parents. Most of the elders are illiterate.
I felt so grateful to be learning from the Yawanawá—to enter this space of learning, at the original source of the knowledge of the plants. The indigenous people had been passing on this knowledge for thousands of years, from grandparents to grandchildren. Here I was in the middle of an ancient Amazonian tribe, starting my study.
During those early days in the village, while we were building the jungle house, there was a twelve-year-old boy named Qwatsi who was with me almost all the time. Qwatsi and I had a very close connection. We had so much fun together. He was one of those helping to build my house. His mother, the daughter of Luis and Louisa, had left him at her parents’ house when he was three days old, and Qwatsi hadn’t seen his mother since. He had grown into a beautiful, strong boy, full of love and laughter.
One day I was watching the men building my house, with several young boys working alongside them. Sitting on a fallen tree next to the house, I saw Qwatsi coming out of the forest. He was carrying three large trees on his shoulders. He threw the trees on a pile next to the unfinished house. I stood and tried to lift one of the trees myself, to no avail. I am of a slender build and don’t have a lot muscles. Humbly, I sat down again. Qwatsi laughed loudly, on seeing this. I jumped up to run and try to catch him, but he was too quick and disappeared back into the forest, looking for more trees. There was so much fun and laughter happening all the time.
When I sat down on the fallen tree again, I started to wonder if it was right for a young boy to be building a house, carrying big trees on his shoulders. At the exact moment I was thinking that, a father of one of the other boys came to stand next to me. “Look at these boys,” he said. “They are working, carrying the trees, building the house. They are learning now which trees are good to use to build houses. Not all trees in the forest can be used for construction. Here they learn how to use those trees to build a good house. The only way to learn this kind of thing is to do it; this is their classroom. By working, they are supporting and strengthening their bodies so that they can become strong men. In the jungle, you need to be a strong man; otherwise, it will be difficult to live here. When they grow older and marry, they have to take care of their wife and children. They need to know which trees to cut for the poles, which palm leaves to use for the roof, and how to construct the house from the ground up. Nobody will build a house for them later on, so it is important for them to learn how to do that from a young age.” He had answered my question; I hadn’t even needed to ask it.
Soon I found out that the entire Yawanawá tribe knew about my arrival. They had heard that I was in Sete Estrellas preparing to enter the dieta, and several Indians wanted to join in that. It was very rare for a Muka dieta to happen, and Luis had never led one before. He had never even taken Muka himself. We had many conversations around this. I was learning more Portuguese and learning more and more about the tribe. I learned that the village was actually led by Edi, one of Luis’s sons. The first time I spoke to him, we had a nice conversation. He was a few years younger than me, and he already had five children. People in the tribe seemed to marry early and have children at a young age. Edi was very excited about all that was happening, and he wanted to join me in the dieta. One of his best friends from a neighboring village also wanted to join. His name was Muca, almost the same name as the Muka plant.
I learned that Edi and Muca had nothing to support themselves, which meant they would be eating my food and living in my house. This created a bit of a challenge inside of me. On the one hand, I felt that the first intention had been to be only with Luis and Louisa in the jungle for three months, without anyone else around. That appealed to me very much, because it would keep the dieta very pure, and I could feel the depth of that situation. Tuning into two more people entering the dieta gave me quite a few doubts. It could go really well, and it might become a very special unfolding to do the dieta together with two young Yawanawá men. But it could also shift the dieta in a different direction.
With more people around, there would be less silence. Where would they sleep? Would that mean Luis would be less available for me? What would happen with the food and supplies that we bought? Would they be enough? We had bought food thinking of only me doing the dieta. So that would probably mean we would need more food at some point. Would I have enough money for that? Did I want to spend money on that? Did that mean we had to go to Tarauacá in the middle of the dieta? Weren’t we supposed to stay in the jungle for the whole time?
I sat with those doubts for a day. During that time I learned that even more people wanted to join the dieta. When I expressed my concern to Edi, he voiced very clearly that he and Muca were there to protect me and the dieta. No more people would enter the dieta. That conversation gave me confidence, and I relaxed into the situation. It would be difficult for me to say no to them, so I decided to let the two men join the dieta. These two men were showing up for a reason. I needed to trust in all that was happening.
Later I found out there had actually been some fights over who would get to join the dieta. Muca had been in a quarrel with three other men before earning his spot. I learned that for the family of Edi and Muca, these three months would be very difficult. The men would not be there to hunt and fish for their wives and children, and also the men had to be celibate for the whole period of the dieta.
A few days later Muca and his parents showed up for the first time in Sete Estrellas. He was a strong, short man who didn’t speak so much. I liked him from the first moment he stepped out of his boat and walked up the shore and into Luis’s house. We had some long conversations about all that was happening, and I shared a bit of my feelings about having people join the dieta. Muca and Edi were very understanding. They assured me that they would protect and help me and that they would be there for me in any way they could. They had already made sure that no one else would join. They had told everybody that there was not enough food or space to sleep. I felt so relieved, supported, loved, and protected by these men. We would be the first three warriors of Muka in Sete Estrellas!
It was interesting to see that Muca’s, who stayed a few days in Sete Estrellas, was always accompanied by a young lady who must have been around fifteen years old. In the beginning I assumed she was the younger sister of Muca. Later I learned she was the second wife of Muca’s father. I had come into the jungle with the commitment to learn and observe, and not to have any judgements or to try to change things in the tribe. And as much as some things didn’t align with the way I thought about the world, having multiple wives seemed to acceptable in the tribe. Jungle life was different for sure from anything I had seen before.
In those days of preparation for the dieta, I lived in Luis and Louisa’s house, sleeping in the middle of the living room. We were together all the time. We ate every meal together, and I gained an appreciation for how they treated their food. The men would go into the jungle with their guns to hunt. The Yawanawá are hunters; they hunt their food. But they also use the word “hunt” for many other things. When they found out I was unmarried, they suggested we go and hunt for a woman. Lots of laughter accompanied that conversation. We would soon go out and hunt for Muka in the jungle. Hunting was a practice of survival and respect. When they asked if I hunted, I didn’t know what to say. I had never thought of myself as a hunter. But I thought about it, and after some consideration, I told them I was a hunter of visions. They smiled at me—they had never met a hunter of visions before.
Whenever hunters returned from the jungle, the whole village would gather to see if they had caught something. It was a simple life. If someone had caught something, there was food; if there was no catch, there was no food. They lived off meat, fish, dried crackers, and coffee. I saw hardly any vegetables or fruit.
After the men returned from the hunt, the women and children would take over. In Louisa’s outdoor kitchen, the game was laid down. Sometimes the children would play with a turtle or a tatu, a small armadillo, for a few days before it met its fate. Bigger animals that arrived in the village already dead would be prepared immediately.
One afternoon two men returned from the jungle with two black spider monkeys. I had never seen dead monkeys before, and felt quite shocked at seeing them. Louisa put on a big pot of water to boil. She dipped the carcases in the boiling water for a few minutes, then threw them back on the kitchen floor. It all happened without much ritual. The children and the women sat around the bodies and plucked the monkeys’ fur until they were completely bald. The boiling water had loosened the fur. I sat right next to one of the monkeys, and I had to hold myself back from being judgmental. They just had killed these beautiful animals!
After all the fur was removed, they chopped carcases into pieces, and everyone received a piece to take home for dinner. Some pieces ended up grilled over the fire; others ended up in a pot as part of a soup. Every family received some meat of those animals. It was a feast when a few animals arrived after a hunting trip. The whole village had food, and everybody was happy. Bones were used to make applicators for the rapé; all usable parts were salvaged, and little was thrown away.
In those days I learned that the food cycle in the jungle was so pure, so direct. The source was the tribe’s immediate environment. They hunted the animals with a lot of respect, according to the needs of the community. Many people from the community were involved in the preparation of the animal, and children learned from a young age what it took to eat and survive. They knew exactly what they were eating. Though I was a vegetarian at that time, seeing the direct connection the Yawanawá had with their food, I decided to eat with them. In the days before the dieta, I ate monkeys, turtles, lizards, tatus, many different kinds of fish, and eggs from several different kinds of birds. It felt so good to be able to eat everything in the days before my dieta started. I ate as much as I could—and enjoyed all of it.
Seeing the direct connection the Indians had with their food, I couldn’t help but reflect on the relationship we in the West have with food. I remembered a story my father once told me. He was the director of a school in the Netherlands, and one day they started talking about meat in their discussion of food. My father asked, “Where does meat come from?” A boy raised his hand and confidently answered, “Meat comes from a factory.” He explained a whole process that was happening in that factory, ending with the meat coming out of a machine ready to go into the supermarkets. The discussion continued, and my father asked the boy, “Doesn’t meat come from animals?” The boy was very clear: meat had nothing to do with animals but instead came from factories, where it was produced for us.
When I heard that story for the first time, I felt upset, but I was not surprised. In the Western world, we are often so disconnected from the food we eat. Most people have no clue where the food on their plates comes from, when and how it was killed or harvested, what hands have touched it, what chemicals have been added, or how far it has traveled to arrive on their plates. Seeing those monkeys being prepared by the Yawanawá, highlighted how much we in the West are losing our connection with the food we eat. I felt so grateful for what I was going to eat that night.
But in spite of admiring the simplicity of the relationship the tribe had with their food, I felt bad for them. They often knew true hunger. My purchases from Tarauacá were stacked right next to my hammock in Luis’s living room. I had a hard time being in that house with a mountain of food in boxes next to me. Part of me felt like sharing; another side of me knew that if I shared generously, all the food would be gone in a couple of weeks or less. And getting more food entailed a whole expedition of several days and would cost a good chunk of money. It was challenging to be in that position. I was learning that being in a completely different culture—in a different part of the world with people with different customs and habits—was not always easy.