A Visit with the Elders-Matses
A guest post by Gary Lighthall
To sit around the camp fire with the tribal elders and hear about the time before they came out of the forest was truly an amazing experience.
Several years ago a friend who had traveled with me brought a friend of his to my house for a visit. The young man was from the Matses tribe and said if I was interested he would guide me to his uncle’s village on the upper end of the Galvez River. Amazon Beaming (Petru Popescu) was the story was sent to me by my friend Mike Lee and it dealt with Loren McIntyre’s adventure with the Matses in 1969.
I sent the young man and my friend into the village to get permission for a visit. Once I had permission, I called my buddy Mike and the trip was on. Now I needed to get supplies for a jungle walk and a visit in the village. In the army I spent some time in Southeast Asia and assumed this jungle would be similar-hot and humid and with plenty of mosquitoes. I found some excellent hammocks with their own mosquito nets that would serve as our beds as well our tents. With some backpacking gear we were ready for the trip. We took a lancha to Requena where we picked up our Matses guides, bought some food, 10 gallons of gas and began our walk on the trail to the Galvez.
The walk was up and down the whole way. We crossed over 25 small creeks on 6 and 9 inch diameter logs and 3 rivers on much larger logs. We stopped at most streams and with my water purifier we filled our water bottles and mixed in some electrolytes. We traveled from 6:30 am until 4 pm thereby giving us time to set up camp and cook dinner during daylight. The strength and walking speed of the Matses was incredible as some of the packs were over 40 kilos. Nothing slowed them down. Something to be said for never riding in motorcars or collectivos to get around. Each evening we would build a fire and have dinner. On several occasion we had armadillo (does not taste like chicken) and turtle supplied by the jungle. We also used this time to dry out our clothes as the humidity caused us to sweat profusely. By the 4th day we were more than ready to get to the river. By late in the afternoon we reached the Rio Lobo and found the boat and the small motor waiting for us. We traveled through the afternoon and finally reached the Matses village on the Galvez later in the evening.
It was great to be out of the jungle and not have to put on rubber boots to begin my day. After breakfast we were introduced to the chief. We gave him the medicines he had requested and also some gifts for the village. We brought enough for 2 villages as the other village is only separated from the one we stayed in by a small bridge. As with most remote tribes that I have visited they are slow to trust or warm up to you, although those who had walked in with us did visit us often. Something I had learned was to bring in items to trade with. Once you start trading, the ice is broken. When word got out that the gringos brought items to trade the house got busy.
Several days into our visit the chief of the adjoining village asked for a meeting with both villages and us. The chief who called the meeting explained that Mike and I and our guides should leave and not return. His reasons were that we were uninvited, we were not Matses and we could be oil engineers. This speech went on for 20 minutes more or less and during this spiel I had to interpret for Mike. Towards the end Mike could stand no more and stood up and told the chief that what he had just said was not true and explained our side. Well of course they had no idea what Mike was saying which was lucky for us. I got Mike to sit down and explained that in a minute or two we would have our opportunity. The fellow running the meeting asked me to speak and so I explained that I had sent my friend and a Matses person into their village to get permission and what would I have to do to be invited. I explained what I had been told and that we did as asked and that we had brought in the medicine for both villages, but if we were not welcome that we would pack up and leave. While some discussion was going on the chief of our village stood up and said we were invited and that we did as requested we were welcome in his village. After our chief gave his speech all agreed that we were welcome to stay as long as we wished. As we left the meeting the chief who was mad said he would stop by later for his village’s medicines and gifts. Hooray for gifts!
As we began trading and meeting others the elders would stop by in the afternoons and evenings and tell stories about the days before they came out of the forest or were forced out, as the case may be. One of the more interesting ones was about how one of the fellows grandfather raided a convent near Requena to acquire some new wives and new blood for the tribe. Wow, what a story as it was common to raid other tribes for wives but (I am sure this did not set well with the pope). Another Matses told about when his father or grandfather would encounter outsiders. If they killed them they would than take their items such as machetes, axes and sometimes pots and pans.
We watched them make their bow and arrows (6-7ft), they did this with great pride. Their arrows are truly a work of art. Mike wanted to get some used bows and arrows for his collection but they explained that they just would make new ones and discard the old ones. We asked did they have any items from their grandparents, the answer was “no” as when they died they would burn the items as it bothered them to see their items when they were gone.
They explained that they now live here in Peru, and no longer in Brazil. This is due to the extreme fighting between the tribes and they were basically driven from their home to Peru to find some peace. They explained that the young men (less than 30 years old) would no longer tattoo their face with the traditional tattoo nor do the young women. I remember one time with the Matis, who also tattoo their face. They wanted to trade one of the tattoos on my arm for them to tattoo my face, but I declined. The women used to wear 6 inch spines in and around their mouth but this is no longer practiced in this village either.
One evening we were invited for a night hunt, on this hunt we did get a 7 foot long caiman and they chased a tapir for about an hour but lost him in the jungle. Upon our return they invited us to breakfast the next morning for caiman. Mike and I were up by 6:30 am but the caiman was already devoured.
Mike is always ready to try things that are new and the Frog Poison Ceremony was right up his ally. We found a guy that was qualified to do this. Mike prepared himself by eating a small breakfast, as you need something on your stomach. I saw this ceremony done by the Mayoruna (same tribe, different name) in Brazil some years ago. Mike had said he wanted 4 spots of the poison to feel the affect, so they showed up with the poison from the special frog on a stick. They burned 4 spots on mikes arm and then pulled off the scabs and applied the poison. The Matses use this poison to steady their hand for the bow, more energy to go further into the jungle. Mike turned red, stuck out his tongue and passed out. One of our guides who was standing next to him caught him, then put him into a hammock were he slept for the next 4 hours. Evidently the affect is different on gringos and the only effect was Mike was terribly hungry after having had a great nap.
The Matses also use a small wooden tube to blow a tobacco blend called Nu Nu up the nose but Mike declined this one although he traded for the item they use for this. We continued to trade till we ran out of items and made plans to come back home.
We thanked everyone and decided to take a canoe to Angamos on the Yavari River to catch a plane to Iquitos as we both had decided not to do the walk back and Mike need (needed) to get back to work. We packed the canoe with the bows, arrows, lances, burden baskets and some fishing nets plus some items the chief wanted to sell in Angamos and off we went. Once in Angamos we got out on the second day there and made it back to Iquitos much richer in life experiences and having made some new friends.
A year later I returned all the photos to the Matses that Mike and I had taken of them during our visit.
A Visit with the Elders-Matses
Guest post by Gary Lighthall
To read more of Gary Lighthall’s adventures click this link to Back To A Simpler Way Of Life, Urarinas.