FRIEND AND BROTHER
A guest post by Eduardo O’Shee
The three boys were sat at a table in the corner of the room, next to the door, along with Juan, the jungle guide. They were looking people walking by the sidewalk through the window. It was 6 pm but night falls very quickly in the tropical areas, so the Putumayo street was already brightly lit and the usual bunch of chiclet vendors, kids and hustlers were already deployed in their tourist-chase pattern. When Juan saw me walking in the bar, he waved his hand inviting me to join them.
Their features were more or less common to the local people, but there was something I immediately noticed which made them different from most of the local loud-voiced, bragging and hand clapping fellows. These didn’t look shabby nor flabby. Though they wore old shirts, frayed jeans and tennis shoes, they looked clean and decent. Like people that grew up in the countryside that I had seen in many different places in the past, they stayed still, stooped over the table, their hands under the table, and spoke timidly.
Juan told me that his new buddies were Ecuadorean Indians, invited by some NGO to give a lecture next morning about their lives in the jungle to a group of biologists from different South American countries. Among other items they were supposed to talk about their hunting, fishing and agricultural methods. Scientists and Indians had spent the day visiting Iquitos: paved streets, motocarros roaring all around, clinking slot machines… nothing too bewitching for their innocent but clever eyes, except for the girls in shorts.
Juan introduced us. The boys had been given Christian names: Carlos, Alfonso and Braulio. I had expected some more colorful Indian names, like Machucafuerte, (which means something like “He who punches hard”) Washington Bolivar. I even knew a guy in Pucallpa named Hitler Panduro, (Hitler Hard Bread) The Peruvian registry office, when available in Indian villages, was very flexible in the old days and I pressume it still is.
Carlos said they’ve just arrived from a village (at which he was the chief) in the jungle, close to a border area.
The boy spoke a disjointed parley, basic and telegraphic, the kind of language someone would use to record basic information about earthlings, put it in a capsule and sent it to the outer space expecting for aliens to catch it, listened to it and understand it. Anyway, in spite of his rudimentary Spanish, the young Indian chief struggled all the time to get through. He chose very carefully the few words he knew in a touching wish to get fully understood. At last, I thought, a real Indian has arrived from the deep jungle. He was not one of those Boras, who lived in a village by the Nanay river, close to town, and dance to amuse tourists in native garments but wear jeans, hot pants and t-shirts in the Iquitos discotheques every Saturday night.
Carlos’ brother, Alfonso, introduced himself like an Indian version of Mr. Jingle, very formal, saying with a big smile: – “¿Yo? Indígena“ -”This conversation”, I thought,” is becoming a little bit funny, like a mockery of a footage from Fort Apache.
Carlos explained to me that he and his brother were, actually, Secoya-Cofán Indians, because –”¿Papá? Secoya… ¿Mamá? Cofán” As for Braulio, he was 100% Secoya. He said that they lived “en el río Aguarico… más arriba del Napo… y para el otro lado del río es la Peruana… y para el otro lado hay una Colombia.”
(“We live in the Aguarico river, higher up the Napo, and on the other side of the river is “La Peruana”, and to the other side there is “a Colombia.”)
Actually, these boys lived in the upper angle where three border lines converge (Peru, Colombia and Ecuador) but since they are just Indians who live there before kings and presidents shared out their land, before Orellana showed up and surveyors came afterwards sticking milestones, maps are just drawings with no meaning at all for them. Those countries fought “small”, but anyway bloody wars, once in a while around their villages, but Secoyas never understood what did that had to do with them.
Most of the scattered tribes in the Amazon jungle speak completely different languages. They consider foreigners the Indians next village and lived for centuries fighting their own tribal wars. That’s the case with Secoya and Cofan nations, although they shared the same territory.
Carlos and his brother were bilingual in both. The Secoya nation belong to the same racial trunk of the Achuar (or Ashuar) which main and most famous branch is the Jivaro.
Playing down the unbearable dificulties and mishaps they had to go through, he spoke about a long journey. “Muchos días y noches para llegar a este país, Iquitos. ¿Sol? En la cara… quemados… ¿Dormir? Hotel.”
(“Many days and nights to get to this country, Iquitos. Sun? On the face. Burnt. Sleep? Hotel”)
They had traveled from Ecuador to Iquitos, all the way down the Napo River, which means… I don´t know, a lot of miles to paddle on a small canoe.
One of the waitresses turned on a huge music gear. One of those with big, booming loudspeakers that you see in every bar in Iquitos, so when the first blast of tropical sound shook the glasses on the table, the smile of the boys wiped off instantly. They jumped up in their stools, frightened and shocked and plugged their ears with their fingers.
Once they realized that thundering was the usual way of having fun in town, in a matter of minutes they’ve got used to it and they regained confidence. I considered fashionable to offered some “Caribes” cigarettes, reenacting the peace pipe footage of Fort Apache, but after the first drags they didn’t seem to be enjoying it. They said, quite sincerely, that they make their own cigarettes at home, from the dried leaves of the plátanos and agreed that theirs are much stronger and tasty. Instead, Pilsens were OK.
Then, getting into deeper matters, Carlos asked Juan some erudite questions about the hunting methods of the local tribes, so such as the kind of poison local Indians used to knock down a monkey or how they built a candela, (fire) taking for granted that in the whereabouts of Iquitos still lived real Indians instead of cartooned characters, like those in the “Bora” village.
Anyway, the guide described methods and operations he had seen years ago, giving many technical details. He explained the way most of the tribes in the Amazon plains poison their arrows, almost unanimously, with nicotine, how they build a fire, catch a turtle, etc., although he didn’t say that the only tribes still doing things the old way lived in very remote areas in the deep jungle and their culture was circling the drain which runs to extinction.
Beers kept coming, empty bottles piled up on the table and around it, on the floor, so the Secoyas, like everybody else in the bar, got gradually more cheerful and friendly. The Secoya boys wanted to dance. One of the waitresses had caught their attention so Alfonso invited her to dance but the girl blew him off and dribbled away since she had spotted a better prey, an American young fellow who was in a nearby table so Alfonso, who in spite of his Jivaro stock didn’t show any sign of annoyance, began to dance alone, waving his head, his face upraised and his eyes closed, hopping and spinning on a tile and I could barely saw his feet tapping and shuffling in a vague fashion of a Grass Dance.
Carlos liked that salonera too and said, thoughtful, “sería lindo que ella hiciera el amor con Secoya Cofán… ¿quizá los tres?”
(“It would be nice she makes love with Secoya-Cofán… the three of us, may be?”)
Since Juan had already left, there were only two possible combinations left to get the equation, but I didn’t ask.
Then he asked, with the impeccable manners of an ambassador visiting a strange kingdom, the usual questions I had answered many times before about my own country: Was it cold?; was it far? He said, in a sad tone of voice, that they used to live peacefully in the old days in their village, but things had changed from the mid 80’s and at the moment we were chatting that evening, the situation had turned out very dangerous because of drug cultivators, traffickers and Colombian guerrillas, plus Ecuadorean and Peruvian military lurking into their hunting fields.
“Hace poco los militares de la peruana cruzaron el río. ¿Nosotros?… jugando volley… entonces casas vacìas… nos robaron arroz y harina… ¡toda nuestra comida!… nunca más amigos,” he added.
(“Recently military men from “La Peruana” got across the river. Us? Playing volley. Then, empty houses. They robbed our rice and flour… all our food! Never again friends!”)
And then he added: “Y del otro lado de una Colombia andan hombres con rifles que siembran la marihuana y la… ¿cocaína? Matan mucha la gente. Ahora muchos indígenas de la Colombia están en Ecuador. “¿Nosotros? Más a la selva.”
(“And to the other side of “a Colombia” men with rifles skulking around seed marihuana and the… cocaine? They kill many people. Now many Indians from “the Colombia” are in Ecuador. Us? Deeper in the jungle.”)
I went home at 3 am; the night was damn hot and I was slightly loaded.
Next morning, at about 7, I went to a cafeteria in front of the Plaza de Armas to have breakfast and there was Juan, the guide. He told me that he had seen the Secoyas minutes ago, still drinking Pilsens at the bar.
I never knew how their lecture to those scientists turned out and, by the way, they had to paddle upstream the Napo to get back home.
I heard this journey’s chronicle years ago. I still toy sometimes with the idea of sailing upstrem the Napo to the Aguarico, to visit my Secoya friends, but I never could and anyway, they probably have vanished “deeper in the jungle.” I really hope so.
I’m reading in my notebook some of the expressions they used that night. I underlined the word Carlos used to call me: “Na-á-te” which means both “friend” and “brother.”
Friend and Brother
A guest post by Eduardo O’Shee
Bill Grimes here, reporting from Iquitos Peru. I received this email from Ed a few days ago;
Dear Mr. Grimes: