Sent to family on August 7th, 2008.
Elleroy Canadiensomarneshan! ("good afternoon, those of the Canadian tribe!" in Yanesha')
I am writing to you after being in the Amazon with the Yanesha' people for 5 weeks. I had an intense experience, attending their rituals, listening to their sacred music, getting lost in the jungle, letting the symphony of insects invade my dreams. Waking up with cockroaches running over my body, sleeping on the earth, bathing in pure rivers, seeing fractal shapes when I closed my eyes at night. Being mistaken for a spy, a doctor, an engineer, and even an evangelical missionary…but really just a lowly student trying to do harmless research.
It was breathtaking but often troubling to be among the Yanesha'. Most of them still live in large tracts of pristine jungle lands and mountains, but many factors are changing their world: the influence of modern corporate Peru, the exodus of children to find work in cities and buy modern amenities, the Church telling the Yanesha' their spiritual practices are demonic…. Another big threat is that a Canadian oil company has just discovered a lot of natural gas in their area and is now hiring them at slave labor wages to drill into their own protected forests in order to extract the stuff. It was infuriating and scary to be living with them at this time when their lives are changing so much, in part because of a very unsustainable Canadian enterprise.
Here are some of the highlights of my journey…
The Yanesha Tribal Congress
I went to the annual gathering of the tribal leaders in order to ask for permission to learn the Yanesha language for my school research, and to contribute to the anthropological mapping project that has begun in the area (a project headed by RC Smith at the Instituto del bien comun, an amazing Peruvian NGO). The congress made me sign a pact that if I was going to 'rob them of their language' they were going to 'rob me of mine' and thus we commenced the process of me trying to learn Yanesha while attempting to teach them English. They agreed on which communities I was to stay in and my main informant, Espiritu Bautista, assured me that he would send word to the various leaders so they could welcome me.
Arrival in Yuncullmass
There are no phones, electricity or running water in many places in the Yanesha reserve, and I ended up arriving in the first community before the residents of Yuncullmass received the message about my arrival. They live in a very remote area in Chanchamayo province. In the past 60 years, only 7 foreigners have visited the village, so imagine their surprise when a pickup truck dropped off a dusty, weather-beaten foreign girl travelling alone, announcing in their language that the congress had approved that she would be studying their ancient songs. There were about 15 residents waiting under a small roof for a package to arrive, and they just stared at me in silence. Luckily the chief was there, and after being upset that no one told him I was arriving, and me trying to stammer explanations, he said to me in Spanish, « I knew something was going to happen today, look, the clouds are still hiding the faces of the mountains, and it's already noon. The mountains are protecting themselves from the arrival of a strange person in the valley. » I felt very awkward but he kindly invited me to stay with his family. In his small hut he gave me yucca and a hard-shell river fish to crack open and eat.
Afterwards, I felt restless and I got up to stretch my legs and walk around the hut. I immediately fell in the mud onto my hands and knees and strangely, a large glob of mud jumped up and landed on my forehead. The chief laughed and said, « You fell! - that means in our tradition that you have planted your seed and you will return next year to the same place to pick up the fruit. And the earth on your forehead is a good sign, that is what our people do when they arrive in a new place, rub earth on their forehead so the land can get to know them. »
I stayed with his family for four days and ended up having a great time, going on amazing hikes, drinking large amounts of fermented yucca drink, eating wonderful fish and learning interminable long lists of tree and animal names from elders. When it was time for me to leave, it started raining just as I was about to get into the logging truck, and the community members said the sky was crying, and they were all sad to see me go, and so was I.
La Laguna Encantada
Further down the valley, another community I stayed in, Laguna, was located about a kilometer from an enchanted lagoon in the middle of the jungle, that people now keep a safe distance from. Until recently, people had lived in their small houses near the lagoon, but at night, a strange jaguar would come out of the lagoon and eat their chickens, then they would observe it going back into its watery home. The villagers all say that there is another world down there, and that no one has ever been able to touch the bottom of the lagoon, even though they have tried with long poles when they are on rafts. Once, they tried to drain the water out of the lagoon and the ground started shaking and opening up beneath them and swallowing up trees and rocks, so they stopped. A number of large animals also live at the lagoon's edge. Some schoolgirls brought me there and we saw many of the giant birds and huge insects who live there, as well as a giant lizard. The people say they are the protectors of the lagoon, and some are species that are not found anywhere else…
Attacked by a Rainbow
Seems unlikely, but it can happen. In Yanesha culture, many rainbows are actually evil spirits and they can burn you, if you are not careful. I did not know this crucial piece of information until I found out the hard way. I was swimming in a river with some kids when an enormous double rainbow came out during a short rainstorm. We started running back to the house, but the sight was so amazing that I stopped to take some pictures. The full moon was also peeking out behind some clouds smack in the middle of the rainbow's arc and it looked quite surreal. I felt a really painful burning sensation on my legs and I thought I was just having another allergic reaction to the many bug bites from the river's edge. By the time I got to the house my legs were on fire… sleep did no good, because the next day my legs were even more swollen with strange welts. As I explained what happened to the lady I was staying with, she said, « Oh, the rainbow got you. You need to cover up when he comes out, he can burn you. Now you know! »
photo: my inexplicable welts after being 'attacked' by a rainbow.
The Path of El Tunchi
Another odd mishap occurred in the community of Loma Linda, one of the last places I stayed. I got to know the paths well, so one late afternoon I decided to go to the river on my own. I started down the path, humming a tune, when all of a sudden, the usual path disappeared before me. I was surrounded by trees. How was that possible? I looked everywhere for the path, but it was gone. The crickets sang their agressive songs as I searched for ways to advance. I could hear that the river was not far away. Another path appeared out of nowhere, it was very odd indeed. It veered off to the right and I started walking down it, against my better judgment. I followed it quite a ways into the jungle, parallel to the river; I hoped there would be a way to get to the water's edge… but soon the path turned into large rocks, and started leading me down a random cliff. I tried to climb down but the rocks all began falling and I started losing my footing and sliding downwards… As I was about to reach an untimely end, I got angry. I felt like something out there was toying with me, which was awful, because usually I felt very calm and safe in the jungle. I started yelling at my surroundings to stop toying with me and bring me where I needed to go. I scrambled up and went all the way back down that path until I was back at the spot where the original path disappeared. I waited there, demanding answers, until all of the sudden the old path appeared again! And I was on my way again… Later, I was told by the Yanesha that there is a spirit in the jungle called El Tunchi, who whistles at people walking alone in the jungle and wreaks havoc and plays with them if they sing back. So, you must never respond to any suspicious whistling. I don't remember any whistling, but I was humming when I got lost, so it could be possible that I had a random encounter with Old El Tunchi.
I better leave it at that for now… I would like to tell you about the curious experiences I had recording women singing their sacred songs and trying to get the lyrics translated but it would go beyond the boundaries of what is considered a normal email. And I have a lot more to say about the Canadian oil company that is presently stirring shit in the jungle but that will have to wait until I gather some more information and compile my notes better….There was also the Ponapnora menstruation ritual, in which a young girl is locked into a tiny hut for 2 months after her first period, during which she fasts in specific ways and is purified by medicinal plants and when it is time for her to come out, the community has a huge feast to welcome her… I got the chance to attend two of those rituals, you can see some photos of this old custom, and other parts of the journey, here :