Magic and Misery in the Amazon Jungle
My Two Months Living With The Matses
By Anna Kovasna
This must by far be the craziest thing I have ever done, I thought as I, after 8 hours in a dugout canoe, climbed up an impossibly slippery riverbank under the intense scrutiny of 40 Matses Indians. After waiting through two weeks of flooded landing strips and crashing planes, I had finally arrived to Estiron, a Matses settlement on a small tributary to the Yavari. I was there to do fieldwork for two months, and I came alone. My host and interpreter had suddenly left me at a military base the day before. In addition, the goods I had bought in Iquitos to trade for food, lodging, and information was on a boat still safely anchored in Iquitos, at least a week’s travel away from me.
After a few days, just as I was starting to find my bearings after nearly being kicked out because of a rumor that I was a Petro Peru agent, the village chief woke me up at dawn and asked whether I wanted to go to a hunting camp for a week. Twenty minutes later I was on my way to a very close encounter with real life in the jungle. Contrary to Estiron, which looks like most villages in the Amazon the hunting camp consists of a small traditional longhouse. To my great joy and sometimes fear, I thus got to string up my hammock next to everyone else’s and enjoy a week of true communal living, which also meant getting over a certain amount of squeamishness and learning a lot about the killing, singeing, skinning, plucking, gutting, and cooking of a whole range of animals I only had seen at the zoo before. For the rest of my stay with the Matses, the story of how I started to cry when a sloth was singed alive and then politely refused its head for dinner never failed to elicit hearty laughter. A real jungle icebreaker!
However grim that particular incident was, the overall experience was beautiful. Like many other people in the world, the Matses have to interact with each animal they eat and thus live life in direct relation to and completely aware of their surroundings and their place in it. To get a glimpse of life with that kind of presence is one of the many treasures the Matses gave me. Apart from that, I too soon shouted with excitement when the homecoming hunters first could be heard and enthusiastically inspected and inquired about the day’s kills. A welcome break from more monotonous household chores, the return of the hunters felt like Christmas every day. I never ate heads though. You have to draw the line somewhere, and mine goes there.
I came back to Estiron full of sand fly bites and monkey meat, stumbled into a meeting of all Matses chiefs, and found an interpreter for five days. When he left, literally leaving me speechless, I decided that the best way to continue working on both language and friendships was to take part in as many activities as possible. The following week I thus learnt how to fish with hooks and poison, harvest yucca and ferment and toast it to make fariña, make two types of fermented drinks, weed fields, gather wild fruits, spin cotton, make traditional bracelets (although that is a skill I never got the hang of), make string from palm-leaf fiber and weave that string into hammocks, ornaments, and fishing nets, weave fans, mats, and four types of baskets and gather and prepare the materials for doing so. Apart from weeding, which not even a machete can make fun, I had a very good time, and as with the hunting, it was incredible to experience a life where everything you need can be found in the forest or on the fields that you make, plant, and tend yourself. The difference between visiting someone and physically sharing all aspects of someone’s life, to really live like someone else, are immense, and to feel so directly involved in and connected to both nature and everyone around you is amazing.
That week, I also did my first frog poison ceremony. Much more than a macho gimmick, giving frog poison is a central ceremony used to throw out laziness and transfer skills, energy, and life force from old to young or the skilled and hard working to the less so inclined. As such, it traditionally played a great role both for the organization of work and society and for the individual Matses to consider themselves, and be considered, a real and good person. Taking part, which means having someone, an old woman in my case, burn holes on your arm and put the toxic secretions of an arboreal jungle frog in the wounds to make you vomit bile and feel as if your blood volume just doubled and all of it tries to fit into your head, certainly gave me more respect among the villagers. By adapting and embracing all aspects of Matses life, it seemed like I, in the eyes of the villagers, became exactly what the frog poison was supposed to make me: a better, more real person.
The week after that, the malaria came, forcing many of my new found friends and their children to travel for a full day just to get treatment, boiling with fever and completely exposed to the elements in their dugout canoes. Despicable in itself, the outbreak also joined forces with some sort of bronchial infection that had me floored for a few days. After giving away some of my supply of gas to transport the sick downstream, I spent most of the week desperately homesick, wondering if my things and my interpreter would ever arrive, knowing very well that their absence was the only thing between me, a completed study, and a quick escape. By the end of the week, just when I had truly given up hope, both interpreter and goods miraculously arrived, only six weeks later than planned.
After the darkest hour comes dawn, they say, and as cliché as it is, that is exactly what happened. The rest of my time in the field was spent together with my host and interpreter, who once there turned out to be immensely helpful and full of good information.
The next morning I did my second frog poison ceremony, feeling like I still had not really experienced what it was like. After doubling the dose from the first time, I instead felt that frog poison is something I have no desire to ever do again. My understanding of Matses Language developed rapidly. My host decided to make me his adopted sister. Evenings were spent with my family or visiting friends and listening to fabulous stories of brave men turning into jaguars at night. I started to feel at home, but more than that, I started to feel as if a veil had fallen from my eyes, revealing an amazing, magical world I had never experienced before. Life in the jungle is not like life in Sweden, and I am incredibly grateful I had the chance to let it seep under my skin however uncomfortable and homesick it sometimes made me. When the day came to leave, I cried. Then I had to bribe a pilot to come and get me.
Living with the Matses for two months was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. It was also one of the hardest, and for the Matses too, life is not always beautiful and easy. Corruption denies them even basic modern healthcare, they are constantly treated badly by people in the surrounding communities, game and fish are depleted as civilization reaches further and further into the jungle, the rivers they drink from become polluted and they live in a country where the president is ready to allow commercial exploitation of almost the entire Peruvian Amazon.
All societies change and we have no right to demand that the people of the Amazon continue to live as we imagine that they always have. They do, however, have the right to change in ways they choose for themselves, to have power over their own lives and situations.
While visiting the Amazon, take the time to really meet and listen to its people, their dreams and troubles, fears and hopes. Let yourself fall into their lives for a while. With small means, we can help the Matses and others like them to find a way forward, and by using the voices we who do not live deep in the forest have, we can try to influence the future of the Amazon in a way that means both them and us can continue to enjoy the immense gifts of the most amazing place on Earth.