Travel Writing Awards Finalist
By Aaron Smith
Anacondas, alligators, piranhas, cannibal Indians, malaria and being in the middle of the Amazon jungle hundreds of kilometers from civilization didn’t scare me. Well, not nearly as much as my ex-Vietnam vet jungle guide Auckoo did. Back where I started my journey in the North Eastern Peruvian frontier city of Iquitos, accessible only by boat or plane in the middle of the jungle, everybody said Auckoo was insane and that I was even more so for hiring him. But I had little choice- no one else would take me where I wanted to go, deep into the Amazon Jungle of the Yavari Valley to live with the Matse.
These Indians, also known as the cat people because they puncture their cheeks with reeds of grass hence looking like whiskers, shun the outside world and for good reason. They have been exploited by successive governments, decimated by disease and had their territory encroached upon by prospective oil companies. Until recent years, they were cannibals, eating their enemies, believing it empowered them. The 2,200 surviving Matse Indians of this area struggle to maintain their cultural identity.
However, I was having second thoughts as we headed up the Amazon River over night by ferry. The only gringos on board, I lay in my hammock dismayed as Auckoo, dressed in a cowboy hat and army fatigues, ranted ‘Nam war stories for most of the night without breath or break, a beer in one hand and a machete in the other. But I only had myself to blame. Even Auckoo, always referring to himself in the third person, forewarned me he was stark raving mad. A real wild man, tall, lean, wiry, wrinkled and desiccated like an old leather boot, married to an Indian and 10 years too long in the jungle, he had a reputation of getting you well off the beaten track.
By the light of dawn we disembarked at a small police outpost where we met Pepe, the Matse village chief and continued in a dugout canoe up the Ucayali River. Pepe, though small in stature, rippled with muscle like a man 10 years younger than his actual middle age. A traditional jagged blue line tattoo surrounded his mouth and continued up to his ears. Auckoo elucidated, “They call that the Jaguar Smile.” Pepe, like me, spoke little Spanish and communicated with shy smiles, sighs and hums. He had a peaceful demeanor and seemed bemused by Auckoo’s antics, occasionally giving me knowing looks as if to say. You realize he is insane?
We meandered further and further up, the river became narrower, the jungle grew denser and Auckoo babbled an encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna as we approached a small village. Grass huts inset in fields of maize and yucca. Auckoo explained the Matse killed a family of overzealous and persistent Christian missionaries on the very ground we stepped onto some 20 years before. Auckoo, carrying what appeared to be our only supplies- a crate of beer, five packets of cigarettes and a pineapple, called out, “Lucy I’m home.”
The jungle was savagely beautiful, teeming with sounds and life. It’s not difficult to believe a large percentage of the world’s biodiversity lay inside. Carefree children ran around with chickens and wild pigs. Village life was hard, simple but incredibly tranquil. Living on fried piranha, washing in the river and observing the Matses’ daily routine, I started to feel the rhythm of a way of life that hadn’t changed much since the Pleistocene. Then one morning Auckoo woke me before sunrise, excited he explained, “Pepe’s making Sapo.”
Sapo, which is Spanish for frog, is what the Matse call a poison secreted from the skin of the Giant Monkey Tree Frog that they ceremoniously use to improve their luck in hunting. I was going to be initiated into the ritual. Pepe had a large green frog splayed out between four posts, each limb tied with string. He aggravated the frog to induce it to secrete a milky white poison, after which it was released unharmed. Then Pepe removed a branch from the fire and pressed the burning ember into my chest, creating six small wounds. Pepe scraped away the burnt skin, exposing an open wound and with an audience of giggling village kids, he smeared in the Sapo. The Sapo’s peptides affected me instantaneously. My breathing became labored, heart pounded and I broke out into a cold sweat. My legs buckled as I collapsed to the ground. It felt like I was dying as I threw up yellow bile. After ten minutes, I was revived by Pepe throwing a bucket of water over me. I crawled off to my hammock and slipped into a deep sleep.
When I woke a few hours later I felt better, more than better, I felt great, strong with heightened senses, suddenly aware of every sound and smell emanating from the jungle. Aukoo said the jungle was inside me now as he smudged orange dye from a jungle fruit on my face like war paint. I noticed individual leaf cutter ants scurrying across the forest floor, the veins in leaves and birds high in the tree canopy with amazing detail. Pepe then took me hunting deep into the forest, with nothing but a machete and a shotgun with only a single cartridge. Now being an avid environmentalist, I felt somewhat perplexed about going on a Sapo induced killing spree. However, after chasing an armadillo and being chased by a huge Tapir, we returned empty handed.
As our time with the Matses finished, I realized I may not be Amazon Indian hunter material, but my chronic lower back pain, which had been plaguing me for months, mysteriously disappeared after the Sapo ritual. Also, whenever it rains now and I hear frogs croaking, I feel a strange affinity with them and get the occasional craving to eat flies. Maybe Auckoo was right, maybe there really is a little bit of the jungle inside me now.