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Days of Jungle
by Kelsey

June 26, 2009

I was sitting in my room relaxing after laboring to construct new paths around the camp when I got an unidentified piece of shrapnel in my eye. It hurt mildly, but I shrugged it off and continued to chill out. When I went to the dining room for lunch an hour later, Miguel told me my eye looked very red and irritated. He said that when Jose Luis got back, we would go and find a cure for it in the jungle. It was still irritating me so I agreed to go, and a few hours later we set off to find some medicine, Machiguenga style. Jose told me that he would go ahead and show me a bunch of plants since we would already be out there. I didn’t realize we were going far so I didn’t bring my shoes and ended up hiking barefoot through the forest paths. Surprisingly it was easy on my soles. I felt like a Machiguenga.

The first plant we encountered was tororoapini, the one that would fix my eye. Jose used his machete to carve a footlong piece of the woody liana and drained a few drops of the water it contained into my peeper. Needless to say, it worked and I felt better within five minutes. Other medicinal plants he identified for me were: kajaro, for fever and matiagiroki for snake bite. But plants are also meant to be enjoyed, so he showed me puigoro and chamwiro for mixing with coca to produce a sweeter taste and to intensify the psychoactive effects, and kompirioki, which has sweet fruits that you can eat and drink from. And of course there were plants for constructive reasons; tamarotsa for making hemp bags, kapashi for roofing of houses, and pegompitsa for  making violins. I captured them in photos and you can view them on another page of the website.

Upon arriving at the lake, Jose pointed to a gnarled branch and said, “matsonsori (jaguar).” Apparently the jaguar had been using the poor root to practice tearing its prey apart. I was filled with fear and excitement. We pushed on, rounded a bend, and stepped onto the viewing dock. At the viewing dock there was a beautiful rainbow adorning the sky above the water. I snapped a few great photos and we left.

Today, I wanted to walk through the forest again to the nearby Cocha Salvador. Jose Luis didn’t feel like going so Miguel and I went. Right away we saw a spider monkey (osheto) greedily feasting on fruits. Miguel used his skills to imitate the call of the osheto but it didn’t respond. I tried so hard to get a photo but monkeys are quick and difficult to capture. We pressed on and found various groups of vibrant colored mushrooms fresh from the rains. There were deep purples (rock n roll), flashing reds, and some orange looking ones scattered all about the forest floor. As my eyes scanned the ground for more mushrooms I came across some small, pointy toed tracks and asked Miguel what they were from. He smiled mischeviously and replied, “Huangana (white lipped peccary).” I asked, “Ainoi? (close)’ He shook his head yes and motioned for us to continue on. About thirty yards up the trail we began to hear deep, low pitched grunting. We were almost upon the peccary. Miguel proceeded with caution and I followed his lead. As we came closer and closer the grunting got louder and I could hear the pigs snapping their jaws. I asked Miguel if they were dangerous and he told me if I didn’t know how to climb trees I shouldn’t go any further. Luckily I had an adventurous childhood full of tree climbing so I felt somewhat safe. Miguel turned off the trail to try and get a better look at the beast and I followed closely behind. Right as we caught sight of it, the peccary saw us and charged! Miguel yelled, “correte! (run!).” I took off down the trail like I was racing for a gold medal. No way was I getting maimed by a peccary. Thank god I had my giant rubber boots on as I sloshed through mud puddles and over dead logs. Those things can take on any terrain and keep your feet dry while they’re at it. Rubber boots are a must if you plan to come to Casa Machiguenga, take my word for it. We returned safely to the camp and Miguel laughed at how fast I ran away. The peccary incident had shaken me up a bit but it also excited me. It made me realize I was out there in the wild where anything could happen and I liked that.

The next day, I wanted to go again because I wanted a shot of a peccary. Neither Jose Luis or Miguel wanted to go. But I had to go, I needed that photo! In the spirit of adventure I chose to go it alone. I packed up all the necessary items: water, my camera, my knife, and lastly a snakebite kit. As I put the yellow plastic container in my bag, I had mixed emotions. On one hand I was prepared for a snake attack, on the other hand the fact I was preparing for a snake attack scared me. I grabbed a machete and headed out to the wild. Before I even got to the forest trail, there was a group of monkeys cruising through the trees right by the restroom facilities. Again I tried and tried to get a photo but those damn monkeys were too quick. Frustrated, I journeyed on. I must admit I was apprehensive to go into the jungle alone. And between seeing jaguar markings and being charged by a peccary I had good reason to be. I walked slowly and silently. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a brown blur fly through the branches and heard the crash of the leaves as it landed. Yes! Another opportunity to get a shot of a monkey! This time I caught him at the top of the tree and captured a photo. I was feeling great so I marched on without fear. I could take on this jungle, no problem. As I trudged along carelessly I was getting further and further away from the camp. Further from anyone who could help me in case something did go wrong. And then I heard it. Was it a growl? Another low pitched peccary grunt? Whatever it was, it was loud and sounded like a large animal. Fear began to cloud my senses. My heart was racing and my mind was not far behind it. I flinched at every falling leaf. I had a machete, but what could that really do against the gnashing fangs and razor sharp claws of a jaguar (matsonsori)? I got low to stay out of sight and waited, frozen in my tracks. Oh no! I heard it again, this time closer. I started to panic. I was alone, far from Casa Machiguenga and nobody would hear my cries for help. A good ten minutes passed before I dared move again. I knew I was at least halfway to the lake where I could dive into the water if a jaguar sprang upon me. I really wanted to make it there too, in case there were any otters (parari) around. Of course, the lake was where I had first seen the jaguar markings.

After much deliberation I decided to go for it and hurried down the path. I thought to myself, “Wait, is this wise? I heard a scary noise and I’m moving further away from anyone who might be able to help me.” I trusted my better judgment and turned back. “Besides,” I thought, “I kind of like my family and wouldn’t mind seeing them again while I’m in one piece.” On the way home I ran into the whole gang out looking for me. I told them everything was ok and we all headed back to the camp. Later that night, Rafael and his sons stopped by on their way home from Boca Manu. We had a big dinner together and afterwards watched “Braveheart.” Yes, the Machis have a small DVD player and some movies. It seems the far reaching hand of globalization has touched them too. Twenty minutes into the film, William Wallace was slicing and dicing the English, and Rafael brought out a jug of masato. Masato is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented yucca. I had hoped to get a taste of this concoction after reading all about it in my studies leading up to this trip. Sure enough, Jose Luis offered me a cup and I graciously accepted. I took a sip, then another, and then one more. It was a taste unlike any other I had tried before. It was vaguely, extremely vaguely, like lemonade. Kind of a sharp, tart taste. But on the whole, I cannot describe it. It was good, that’s as much as I can say.

I spoke with Rafael about Machiguenga intoxicants as we sipped masato. He explained the process of preparing tobacco (seri) so it can be taken through the nose. First, they dry out the tobacco. Next, they crush it up and rub it on a cushma to purify it. After that, they mix it with another plant so that it will not hurt the nasal cavity. Once these steps have been taken, they proceed to blow it up each others noses with a small, 90 degree angle pipe. As he was finishing his explanation I heard a noise outside. I looked to see Jose Luis taking down his laundry from the drying strings. He came inside and told me to get my stuff too. I asked why and he replied, “Inkani inkani! (rain rain!)” Stepping outside I turned my gaze to the sky. It was a clear, moonlit night with only a few hanging clouds. I shrugged and followed his advice.

When I awoke the next morning I laughed. It was absolutely pouring! It was raining so hard I was worried the leaf woven roof of my room might cave in. It did not, however, and the ingenuity of Machiguenga architecture had me amazed. I didn’t feel like going out quite yet, so I lay in bed and read a book I found in the office, “The Shape Shifter,” by Tony Hillerman. Part of the subject material, Native American mythology, sucked me in right away. That, and the fact that it was set in Arizona, a place I once lived, had me completely focused on the text paying no attention to my soggy surroundings. That is, until I heard it. It was faint at first but grew louder and louder, short, repeated calls that were almost like barking. I recognized the noise from an imitation Jose Luis had done a few nights before. Yes, I was hearing the call of the jaguar! I listened intently as I heard it move through the trees. It wasn’t close enough to see, but I was thrilled to hear my first jaguar. Later that day, I asked Jose Luis how he predicted the rain. He said he knew by the clouds and that he could hear it coming from far away. “Amazing,” I thought to myself.

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