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Inside the Amazonian Basin: Learning, Led Zeppelin, and Life in the Jungle

On each expedition on The Healing Journey, Jon Waterhouse uses canoes to travel along rivers, recording traditional knowledge from local people and making detailed scientific readings of water conditions and quality using cutting-edge technology. This summer, he’s working with indigenous leaders in South America to kick off a new project: The Network of Indigenous Knowledge.

Night Noises, Morning Light

During our nights in the rainforest, Mary and I are in the habit of whispering, “What would you guess THAT was?” Sometimes one of us sleeps through and the question goes unanswered, but that’s rare. We both are usually on alert and excited at the plethora of nocturnal activity we know is occurring just beyond where we’re resting our heads. This particular first night in the Amazon was filled with subtle sounds and mysterious loud noises—a strange and awesome audio loop we realize most people will never experience.

At first light, when we all gathered around the long, rough hewn table in the great room of this jungle dwelling, the excitement and energy was palpable. Waking up to the bright, misty morning and our first full day in the Amazon yielded inspiration and promise. We moved from window to window, gulping our instant coffee and drinking in the sights and sounds of our new surroundings, recounting our various experiences of the previous night. As we looked out at the birds, insects, webs and all else revealed by the light of this first day, we shared enthusiastically stories and ideas, exploring the many possibilities that lay before us on this endeavor. We were there to take the first tangible step in connecting the Indigenous People of two massive watersheds, the Amazon and the Yukon—and to give voice to the Machiguenga, one of many remote cultures living on the edges of modern societies or even further beyond the horizon. Our shared vision was unfolding and we were practically chomping at the bit to be underway.

Jon (kneeling at right), Mary (standing at left), and Dacho (sitting at left) pose with friends from the Machiguenga tribe. (Photo by Chris Rainier)
Jon (kneeling at right), Mary (standing at left), and Dacho (sitting at left) pose with friends from the Machiguenga tribe. (Photo by Chris Rainier)

We were honored to have with us on this trip our good friend, Dacho, who joined us from his own remote community situated on the banks of the Yukon River in Alaska. He is Gwich’in Athabascan and the first Indigenous Person from Alaska to connect with the Machiguenga. Like our friends in the Amazon, Dacho lives a subsistence lifestyle—hunting, fishing, relying on the land and water to keep his family healthy and strong. As an Indigenous man, he has experienced environmental concerns similar to those the Machiguenga face now. In 1998, as physical abnormalities became evident in the fish and wildlife in the region of the Yukon where Dacho lives, a group was formed to monitor the health of the Yukon Watershed. That group became the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council, the non-profit organization which inspired the Healing Journey and the Network of Indigenous Knowledge. Dacho’s father is a founder of this council and he still works tirelessly to ensure that Indigenous People are not discounted as natural resources around them are discovered and tapped. These concerns have been a constant part of Dacho’s life. The efforts of him and his family to help the people of Alaska have contributed to many successes so having him along on this particular trip to South America was invaluable. Many times during this visit the Machiguenga would express to us their deep gratitude for his presence and participation.

Like many pristine habitats around the world, we know the Amazon is currently under environmental threat, and that threat is affecting those who have lived there since time immemorial. As this threat grows closer to the small village of Timpia, the fish in their river are dying, and the people who have lived simply off the land for centuries in this immensely bio-diverse place want to understand why. Personally, I feel their pain. Think about it… Can you imagine how it would feel to have the landscape and good health of your home taken away by powers you perceive as completely beyond your control? It must be sad and frightening beyond belief.

Unfortunately, the situation is not uncommon. In the following months—and for many years to come—Mary and I will travel to indigenous groups around the globe, at their request, in an effort to shed light on their situations and to insure that their voices are heard as decisions are made which will affect their way of life and their future generations forever. Thus far our connections have spread from remote, northern Canada to Liberia, Botswana and South Sudan in Africa, to Australia, New Zealand, China, Europe and the farthest reaches of Siberia. In all of these places there are countless groups of Indigenous People whose lives and futures are being affected by decisions in which they have no say. We hope to help change that. And judging by the growing numbers of emails we are receiving since the airing of our PBS News Hour segment, it appears we will. (Please view that ten minute PBS piece here: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/giving-microphone-worlds-remote-people/.)

So this weathered but charming outpost called Sabeti would be our home for the next week and a day. We unpacked boxes and began the process of setting up for the students—sorting, testing and calibrating equipment, as flocks of squawking parrots zoomed noisily past the bluff as if late for work. Along with our water quality testing paraphernalia, we brought with us still digital cameras, compact video cameras and laptops to start the tribe documenting and preserving what they want the world to know about them. (There is an old generator in Timpia which will allow them to recharge batteries.) The group of trainees would arrive the next morning, but on this afternoon, after all class preparations were complete, we would make the trip upriver to greet our Machiguenga students in their village community of Timpia.

A brisk boat ride brought us to a large open beach and a path that leads to the community. As we hiked up the trail to Timpia we encountered an unlikely foursome, a British film crew loaded down with cameras and recording equipment. We stopped, clearly incredulous and amused at the chance meeting. We exchanged greetings, explained our purpose for being in this remote locale, shared our credentials and such. They were exhausted and looked as if they would deeply appreciate showers and beds—we learned that they had been filming in the jungle for months—so we invited them to join us for the night at Sabeti. We assured them there was plenty of room and they were thrilled to accept. We agreed to meet there later and continued on our separate ways.

Once in Timpia, we celebrated our return to Peru with the tribe, sharing gifts we’d brought from Alaska, one being an ulu. The ulu is a traditional tool used by Yup’ik, Inuit and Aleut women to cut meat, with a handle usually hand carved of bone, ivory or antler and a single piece of metal forming a rounded, curved blade. The ulu was presented to Delia, our cook (and the mother of four of our adult students), who examined it closely and laughed excitedly while thanking us.

The ulu is a traditional tool used by Yup'ik, Inuit and Aleut women to cut meat, with a handle usually hand carved of bone, ivory or antler and a single piece of metal forming a rounded, curved blade.
The ulu is a traditional tool used by Yup’ik, Inuit and Aleut women to cut meat, with a handle usually hand carved of bone, ivory or antler and a single piece of metal forming a rounded, curved blade. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

We introduced Dacho and the new team members and briefly outlined our plan for the next several days. As it turned out, a handful of youth from the tribe had left Timpia to attend school or take jobs in larger communities within the watershed and already, others had eagerly stepped up to take their places in our trainings. We were impressed by the dedication expressed at the opportunity to learn all they can to retain the health of their lands and culture. Mary and I are constantly amazed at the level of devotion we witness in young people with regard to taking care of their environment and the planet. Whether we are in the Amazon, on the Yukon or in the middle of the Bronx, kids just seem to get it, and their passion and unquestioning willingness to participate in environmental stewardship overwhelms and encourages us.

Machiguenga woman presents bag to Dacho.
Dacho received many gifts from the tribe, including the woven bag pictured above, a bow and arrows, a basket, and a bowl. (Photo by Ryan Toohey)
Machiguenga boy presents necklace to Jon.
Jon received a necklace and fishing spears as thank-you gifts. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Because so many scientists have swooped in to indigenous communities, collected their target data and departed without ever really engaging or connecting with the local people (often never to be seen or heard from again), we understand what it means to a community for groups such as ours to actually come back after the first visit, especially once we’ve stated we want to assist them. Everyone was happy and so obviously thankful we had returned to help them understand what is happening in their water and environment.

After this warm reception, we were brought up to speed on events in the region. We learned that the development corporations have been there and in exchange for removing natural resources, they are offering much. When a small, remote indigenous community is suddenly offered paved roads, running treated water and cable TV, the result is always the same. Division. Some members of the community want to maintain their traditional way of life while some want access to whatever the developed world enjoys. It’s challenging. Helping these folks find their balance as progress ensues is imperative.

When we returned to Sabeti just after sunset, our British friends were already there—showered and settled in for dinner, and they were giddy. Hot meals and restful nights had eluded them for the many weeks they’d been filming. The crew shared that the goal of their project is to raise awareness in the harsh realities of what’s currently happening within the Amazon. We learned that one of the crew, Charlie, had purchased a portion of this epic rainforest and with an incredibly impressive piece of high-tech camera equipment, he is recording events and conditions in the area of his new land purchase. (He showed us a few stunning photos including some he’d captured of amazingly colorful insects taken within his white photographer’s cube.) Their journey to explore his new parcel of land within the Amazon, thus far, had delivered them directly into the dark side of gold mining and oil and gas development, as well as illegal logging and the drug trafficking trade deep inside the Amazon. They shared dramatic stories and photos relating to their experiences. Some tales were warm and compelling, while others were unsavory and infuriating. All perfectly designed to entertain and enlighten the TV audience.

Mary was reading about Led Zeppelin guitarist, Jimmy Page, and had recently purchased the “Unledded” DVD in Lima, so in honor of our guests from the UK, after our candlelit dinner, we put a bed sheet up over a large screened window and used our training projector to show the film, transforming our dining zone/classroom into a theater/concert hall. Large flying insects were attracted to the lighted action on the sheet and members of the tribe were completely mesmerized by the show. Charlie mentioned that his son goes to elementary school in England with the grandson of Robert Plant—an odd anecdote to hear while watching a Led Zeppelin video in the jungle. All in all, the evening was fun, unexpected and completely bizarre.

Grasshopper on screen showing Jimmy Page's double-necked guitar.
Even the wildlife came to enjoy the show. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

The next morning well before sunrise, the Brits departed, and a bit later our Machiguenga students arrived. Their eagerness to learn the processes of collecting water samples, photographs and video in this effort to preserve their culture was quite apparent. The very idea that they can play a role in the protection of their traditions and the health of their part of the world through documentation empowers these people. They are clearly committed to absorbing every bit of knowledge available to that end.

In response to the students’ enthusiasm, lead scientist Ryan Toohey was equally excited to teach the various ways of collecting and understanding water quality data (as was evidenced by his frequent outbursts of “Watch this!” prompting those of us on the perimeters of the class to eagerly focus in only to see… wait… what did we just miss? Aaah, the mind of a scientist…). Armed with YSI 63/550 probes, Hanna meters and a plethora of other devices, Dr. Toohey was like the Pied Piper and his students eagerly followed him to the water’s edge to literally catch that scientific glimpse into their waters—and the lifeblood which has sustained their people for millennia.

Students gather around a bench full of materials.
Students were introduced to new tools and methods that would help them learn more about the water that runs through their homes. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Students stand on the riverbank while Ryan lectures from the water.
“…his students eagerly followed him to the water’s edge…” (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Students gather around for a demonstration.
“Watch this!” (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Award-winning filmmaker, Todd Hardesty, is documenting our efforts while in Peru. The humor Todd dispenses while behind his camera created a relaxed experience for our Machiguenga friends as they were learning to film while being filmed. Watching Todd in action gave them a clearer idea of how they might record their own story and he was quick to share with them tricks and tips as they followed and studied his every angle.

Todd with video camera and students
Todd shows off his videography skills. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Todd laughs over his camera with a Machiguenga couple
A relaxed, informal approach made recording lessons more fun for everyone. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Todd and Chris film an Ashaninka couple.
“…they were learning to film while being filmed.” (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Our friend and National Geographic photographer, Chris Rainier, has trained indigenous folks in story-telling and capturing images the world over and also is pleased to be a part of the NIK effort. He brought several still and video cameras along with laptops he’d gathered from generous donors on which the students would use to download and store images until we return to Timpia in the fall. His presentations hugely inspired the group and by the end of that same day they had already filmed, downloaded and edited three short videos.

Chris lectures students in a classroom.
Chris’s lessons began in the classroom, then continued with hands-on activities. (Photo by Mary Marshall)
Chris and two students gather around a camera.
The students learned quickly, producing three short videos by the end of the first day. (Photo by Mary Marshall)

Ultimately, worms native to their region of the Amazon is the big story on which the students will focus. There are 34 types of worm or larvae consumed by the Machiguenga and the story they create will introduce us to the finer details of the worms’ many uses. We know that one large worm is red and tastes like candy to the children. During the time of year when these delicacies are abundant, they are found on a certain bush and when kids traveling the river spy one of these loaded shrubs, they often don’t wait for the boat to reach shore before leaping out and high tailing it to the treats. Most worms are high in protein, some are best when put in the fire, some are crunchy and others are gooey. Later, back on the road system while on our way home, we made a brief visit to the new Machiguenga Museum in Quillabamba, where we were surprised to learn that even the museum curators were unaware of the abundance of edible worms found throughout the Amazon. We look forward to our return in the fall when we will learn the full story via the video documentation the students are currently creating.

A Pinktoe Tarantula, Bullet Ants, a Milky Way, a Hawk Wasp, and a Mouse

Later that night, we all donned our headlamps and ventured outside to discover what nocturnal creatures were in residence nearby. There was the pinktoe tarantula that made her nest in the trunk of a fan palm just a few steps from our quarters. The pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia avicularia) looks like the very tips of her fuzzy brown legs have been dipped in pale pink paint. She didn’t seem to be bothered by our presence, which is good because as you can imagine, once we knew she was there we were curious about her habits and therefore checked in on her often. Next, just beyond the fan palm, was the nest of the infamous bullet ant. In our opinion, the bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) is king of the jungle and one of the insects within the Amazon for which we are always on the lookout. The sting of this shiny, black ant—over an inch in length—is said to be the most excruciating in the entire world. Its pain compares only to that of a gunshot wound, hence the name. On top of that noteworthy claim, the intense pain lasts continuously for 24 hours, with no drug or natural remedy known to relieve it.

The Satere-Mawe tribe of Brazil uses the bullet ants in their warrior initiation ritual. They place hundreds of the large crawlers inside a leaf-woven mitt. Young men are then required to place their hands in the mitts, keeping them on for at least ten minutes, roughly. Although the effects of this ritual can cause extreme illness and even death, it may be repeated twenty times over a period of months before a young man is considered a warrior.

Bullet ant on a twig
The bullet ant looks benign, but its bite is excruciating. (Photo by Guillermo Knell)

Feeling we had bothered our wild neighbors sufficiently, we moved closer to the open area near the bluff, turned off our headlamps and looked up. The image over our heads was breathtaking. There, in all its glory, was the Milky Way, dividing a giant black backdrop into two vast sections of twinkling lights. The benefit of viewing the night sky with no city lights diluting its epic glow is something I feel everyone should experience. In Timpia and at Sabeti, there is no light reflection as far as the eye can see, and we feel most fortunate to visit this place where star-gazing is so grand and easy.

The following morning while we stood on the bluff overlooking the Urubamba River below, sipping our coffee, we heard what we presumed to be a small bird crash into one of the window screens behind us. Upon further inspection we saw it wasn’t a bird at all, but a giant Hawk Wasp (Pepsis formosa), presumably drunk. The hawk wasp is infamously known by insect buffs as the tarantula wasp because it uses the large spider as a nanny, of sorts. Here’s a lovely visual for you: The female tarantula hawk captures, stings, and paralyzes the spider, then either drags her prey back into her own burrow or transports it to a specially prepared nest where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen, and the entrance is covered. When the wasp larva hatches, it creates a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then enters and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive. After several weeks, the larva pupates. Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and emerges from the spider’s abdomen to continue the life cycle. Tarantula wasps are also nectarivorous. The consumption of fermented fruit sometimes intoxicates them to the point that flight becomes difficult. And that explains the crash. Though this huge guy isn’t easily provoked, the pain brought on by its sting is second only to that of the bullet ant. We examined him carefully then watched him regroup and take off, fearlessly, crossing the wide river. Since we are on the topic of stings and pain and such, I’d like to take this opportunity to quickly introduce you to Justin Schmidt. He created the Schmidt Pain Index—a “painstaking” effort, I’m sure—which is where we learned that two of our Sabeti neighbors (the bullet ant and the hawk wasp) top his list. Just thought I’d toss in that little nugget…

Later that night as we prepared for bed, we heard a shriek coming from one the rooms. Several of us jumped to the rescue and discovered one (unnamed) member of our team standing on a chair, pointing and yelling that a giant jungle rat had just fallen through the roof from high over his head and was now lurking somewhere nearby. But our search revealed nothing so we went about our business. A few minutes later we heard a little splash coming from the lav and went to investigate. There, swimming in the toilet bowl we discovered the “giant jungle rat.” This little guy had mistaken the toilet for an exit from the building and was stuck in the bowl now, desperately trying to get out. As we all looked on, Dacho draped a small towel over the rim, the mouse quickly climbed up and over, bolted for a wide opening between the uneven wooden wall slats, and was gone. We tossed the towel in a spot to ensure no reuse and went back to bed.

As always, I thank you for reading.

In the upcoming phase of this trip journal, I’ll include a day of traditional fishing—using a natural fish poison and nets, drinking masato and children with machetes…

See you soon,

Jon

Read all posts by Jon Waterhouse

Comments

  1. Lorenzo Sartilug
    Yap Island
    May 29, 11:14 pm

    Beautiful story! Jon, if and when you have the time, please come and visit us on Yap and its neighboring islands.