Working, living, loving and dying in the third world!
Walking into the small house with the dirt floors that set on the south side of a sandy, red, dirt road at the edge of the jungle I shouted my presents. My adopted mother answered from another part of the house; she was 41 years old had three sons, and a daughter. She was a widow whose husband had been killed some years earlier in what the local police called an accident. In my opinion, I never thought his death was an accident, and I will always believe he was murdered unless shown irrefutable evidence otherwise. I knew him well, liked him immensely and had heard of his death while back in the United States.
I frequently stayed in the City of Punchana, which is the capital of the Punchana District in the Maynas Province of the Loreto Region in northeastern Peru. It is in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle and is a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Iquitos, Peru located on the fork of the Amazon and the Nanay Rivers. The house I stay in is typical of native homes. It is a large open building as most native houses are, except that smaller rooms were made by using woven palm frond dividers to separate the open space. The front door opened into a small room. Straight ahead of the front door a divider opened into a small front bedroom. The open doorway was private only by a hanging bed sheet. A second opening to the right of this door led directly into a rather large living room area that made up the main part of the house. This room and the kitchen area were continuous all running together. A small propane powered cooking stove set against the south wall of the kitchen area.
A long, wooden, handmade table along with a half-dozen small white, four, legged stools sat a little off center the east side of the room. A five-gallon bucket full of clean water and a large, blue, plastic bowl used to wash dishes sat atop a small wooden table. Palm frond divider also divided this room. Two beds one facing the other along with a cardboard box used for storing clothes were the only furnishings. Large gossamer, mosquito tents, liken to cobwebs hung from bamboo stringers over each bed. Outside of this room, there was only one other small bedroom that was used by the two youngest boys in the family. A storage structure with three single shelves set against one wall of the kitchen area. It held a dozen mismatched plates, an array of different size drinking glasses, and at least one fork, knife, and spoon for each member of the family. The guest was always given the best of the eating utensils with younger members of the family having to eat later.
A single step carved from the hard red clay of the floor led up to the split level of the back room and then on to the back door. The back room was also a bedroom with one bed against the north wall of the house and again a divider made from a combination of palm fronds, and split wooden slats tightly woven between thin wooden sticks. This room also was divided from the main house by a single cloth door that hung across its opening. A back door led onto a back porch where a worn wooden bench was attached to the saw lumber and slat boards that made up the outside back wall of the house.
A couple of wash basins and a bar of soap set atop the thick wooden shelf. Toothbrushes hung from nails hammered into the wall. Clean rainwater ran directed off the tin roof of the house and spilled into a rusting 55-gallon barrel. This water was used for washing one's hands, face, or for taking a standing bath so to say. I always found pouring cool water over your body with a metal water-dipper from the barrel more than stimulating. For some reason, the water always seemed to be icy cold for that moment of shock. There was no indoor sanitary plumbing as a well-worn path lead out across the backyard to a small, falling hovel that served as an outhouse.
Entering the house I had shouted out for Mama, whom I hoped was home. I used the most endearing term, Mamita, for Mother. My adopted mother answered in Spanish indicating that she was in the kitchen area. Making my way back into the room, I noticed she was feeding an older man who has seated himself at the table. A younger man around who looked to be twenty-four or twenty-five years old and an even younger woman in her late teens or early twenties stood to one side. A small stainless steel frying pan set atop the propane stove's open flame; a piece of chicken sizzling in the greased pan while a small amount of rice that I assumed had been left over from breakfast heated in another dish.
Mamita introduced the older man to me, but not the two younger people. The man was her father, a Shaman or Medicine man from the small city of Requena which was about 130 miles down the Amazon river from Iquitos. The woman told me that he was her true father and had come to visit for the day. I had heard of the man numerous times, but I had never met him. I spoke to him and was surprised that he knew who I was. He was a short, stocky man of medium weight and I amazed how young he looked, and that he had such a full head of curly dark salt and pepper colored hair. He wore a pair of long pants, a checked blue and white short sleeve shirt, sandals, and some necklaces around his neck. The ornaments were made up of beads, teeth, plant seeds, and a few assorted feathers. My adopted mother said he had taught her all she knew of plant medicines and the healing effects of the rainforest. Mamita was known in the community as a “Bruja” (brew-ha) or witch. Being referred to as a Bruja is not a bad name as she processes powers that I sometimes find hard to explain. She has a vast knowledge of leaves, plants, trees, and other medicinal herbs that abound in the jungle.
I excused myself and went into the back bedroom where I slept, and got four inexpensive pocket knives from my suitcase before making my way back to the kitchen, where I sat down at the table across from her father. I knew his last name was “Aguila” in Spanish, which meant “Eagle” in English.
I had purchased a dozen small, inexpensive single bladed folding pocket knives made in China before leaving the United States. Half of the knives had an eagle embossed into the plastic handle scales. I asked him if he wanted one of the knives and he quickly picked out a folder with an eagle's effigy on the handle. I smiled and asked him if he wanted a few more of the knives as a gift to give to someone else. His face brightened, and he quickly handed one each to the two young people stand near the table. He thanked me again putting a second Eagle folder into his pant's pocket. He and I and Mama talked some more before I send the youngest of my adopted brothers named Charley to a small nearby store to buy a local soft drink called Inca Kola.
Pouring everyone a glass of Inca Kola we all sat around the table and Mama's father and the two people with him ate chicken and rice and listened to the conversation, the old Shaman nodding occasionally. The night came quick as we continued to discuss things of the jungle, where his family had come from originally and what tribe they were. He told me that he was from a tribe that called themselves, Colombianos. Colombianos were who the country of Colombia was named after he added.
Before he left for the night, I saw him talking to my mother. Walking over to me, he said he had a gift for me, but needed to warn me of the powers of the gift before I took it. Reaching up he removed a necklace that hung around his neck; there were five of the most unusable teeth I had ever seen all strung on a long green and black woven cord. He placed the toothy adornment around my neck in what seemed to bring much amazement to his young proteges that were traveling with him.
My mother put her hand to her mouth in what I saw as an act of surprise as he stepped back. His instructions were solemn and straightforward on wearing a necklace of pink dolphin. He turned toward his daughter and quickly admonished her to impress upon me the gravity of this talisman of Pink Dolphin teeth that now hung around my neck before leaving the house with the others.
A few minutes had passed before I removed the necklace and looked at the teeth strung on the cord. They reminded me of jaw teeth from a dog or coyote, but more delicate.
My mother was looking at them when another much younger woman who was my adopted mother's niece, walked in. Her name was Liliana and she was my girl friend. She came to the table spoke to her aunt, and reached over and kissed her on the cheek. Asking what was going on my mother explained what had transpired in the few hours before, and then said her father had given me a set of pink dolphin teeth strung on a necklace. The young woman who was twenty-seven years old became very nervous and began speaking rapidly in Spanish to her aunt. I was only able to catch a few of the words such as 'peligrosos and mortales ' which meant 'dangerous and deadly' in English. The two women sat across the table from me and began telling me a story. They both said that only a person who was strong at heart referring to their magical or spiritual powers such as that of the old man who was known as a powerful shaman could wear the necklace all the time. Mamita related that he had told her to make sure that I did not wear the necklace when I slept as the spirit that was in the necklace would kill me. I smiled and laughed slightly at their wild superstition. Both women became solemn and concerned about my attitude.
"Do not go to sleep with the necklace on,” both women scolded with emotional voices.
“Please, do not go to sleep with the necklace on,” my young girlfriend Lilly begged. “It is very powerful medicine, and you do not understand ---- the spirit, it will kill you if you go to sleep with it around your neck.”
I shook my head and muttered something about the fact that I would remove the necklace before I went to bed. Thinking back, I believe I made that promise more to placate their superstition than anything else. It was nearing eight o'clock at night and with the sun down the air cooled to a sweltering eighty-five or ninety. It was a beautiful evening, late summer, hot, humid, and oh so romantic along the promenade that laced itself along the riverfront. The three of us decided to eat out and flagged down a three-wheeled moto-cart or jungle taxi. We rode the taxi downtown where we were going to eat dinner. We stopped at a small restaurant whose chairs and tables flowed out onto the white marble walkway. The breeze off the Amazon River was refreshing; the beer was cold and, Mamita's niece kept telling me what a great kisser I was. Life was good. What more could one ask for?
After a few hours, we made our way back home, and I explained that I was tired and that I was going to go to bed. In reality, I think I had consumed too much beer to and with the heat it had walloped me. The heat and humidity of the Amazon Rain Forest are like none other in the world. I love it, but it takes about thirty days to acclimate to it. My bed was in the back of the house just before you went out to the back porch. I had purchased an electric fan at the market downtown when I arrived a few days earlier, and my mother always made sure that it was in my room when I slept. The two women were in the front bedroom, laying on the bed watching television, both of the boys were gone. I lay down stripped to my sleeping shorts, pulled the mosquito netting over my bed and tucked the loose edges under my mattress; you learn the tricks quick to keep the blood suckers out. I had turned the fan on the lowest setting, and it moved the silken sheets of finely woven cotton in repetitive folds like a flag in a stiff breeze.
I do not know how long I had been asleep, but slowly I began to dream of darkness. It was if I were paralyzed as I watched a boiling cloud of black soot forming above my bed. I could see my body lying on the mattress, and I could feel something in the room with me. When I turned to see what was behind me, it was if I were slammed back into my body. Something was tightening around my neck, choking me every so slowly like a snake coiling around my chest. It constricted every so tightly around my neck. I tried to call out, to scream for help. In my mind I know I am dreaming, or I think I am dreaming, I am not sure, I just know I can not wake up, shout out or lift myself from the mattress. Something massive, powerful, terrifying was pushing me into the bed and squeezing the life from my chest. My heart began to burn; I felt hot; sweat poured from my every pore soaking the sheet and mattress I lay on. Terrified at what was happening, once more I tried to shout out. I knew I was yelling, but I could not hear my voice. I was becoming desperate for breath; I thrash about before feeling the tightness around my neck loosen so very slightly. A moment seemed to lapse before it began to crush me once more. That split instant was all I needed. I scream I think, or maybe I cried out in udder anguish for something, someone, anyone to help me.
I began to fade in and out, as breathing became even more challenging; I heard distant voices shouting. It was the voices of women, wailing, screaming out to someone, or something. Then I felt hands on my body as they clawed and pulled at my arms that crossed my chest as I clenched my hands around my neck. Pulling my hands down from my throat my mother grabbed the cord that hung loosely around my neck and pulled, breaking the cord that held the teeth. The necklace gave way from around my head, and instantly I was awake, gasping for breath. I was confused as what was happening, but I could breathe, and it felt good as I pushed myself up on one elbow. It was then I realized how truly wet the sheets, mattress and my body were from perpetration.
My mother and my girlfriend were both shouting at me. Mamita held the pieces of the necklace in her hand, shaking it wildly at me all the time speaking in Spanish so rapidly I could not understand. My girlfriend Lilly also joined in on the Newt bashing as she seemed to be repeating some of the same rhetorical. The Spanish word 'idiota' was being thrown around quite loosely in more than one sentence.
Mama's eyes were tear filled as she shouted. “I told you not to go to sleep with this necklace on,” she said. “It will kill you, my son,” she scolded in a harsh voice before quickly turning and rushed from the room with the necklace in her hand.
Lilly came back in the room with a wet washcloth and began to wipe the cold, damp rag over my forehead and chest cooling me down. Once I was calm and cooler she crawled under the mosquito net with me, and I whispered, “thank you,” before giving her a kiss.
She spoke only one word. “Rico.”