A Great Man?

Entry by: Seeking Wolf

24th November 2017
A Great Man?

Whatever made me think that I could do this?
Everybody else here seemed to be indigenous Peruvian, even though wearing various items from elsewhere; these were not the naked forest dwellers of legend. Nobody was smiling, and I had no idea whether to sit or stand.
Fieldwork in a Belgian hospital had not prepared me for this.
I realised in panic that I didn’t know the protocol.

Inside my Deet-sprayed jungle trousers, it felt as if something was crawling its way upwards towards my crotch.
What the hell is it?
I am all at once overwhelmed with an urgent necessity to take a piss.
I have no idea if it is acceptable to leave for this purpose, or where on earth I could relieve myself anyway.
I am on the verge of tears.
How had I ever thought I was qualified?
I can’t even speak without the interpreter-and goodness only knows what those grins mean between him and the man who appears to be in charge.
They said I was a great man for the job.
But the truly great know their limitations in advance, don’t they? At least to some extent?
At least to prevent landing themselves in this kind of situation!

I have been sent here by an international NGO to try to persuade this group to stop hunting jaguar, which brings them some real cash from an Eastern company. At the interview I had been able to speak at length about shamanic societies, the importance of animals like the jaguar for healing journeys, the respect paid to these creatures as “people” in their own right by populations across South America...I realise now how woefully inadequate my academic studies are to the discussions I hope to have. I am equipped only to write papers on the travels of others.
I am to offer recompense to this group if they will, in essence, hand their territories over to be maintained, and monitored, by an international wildlife group concerned to protect swathes of forest, with the focus being on the disappearing jaguar, and with the intention of supporting indigenous lifestyles.
But nobody here seems to be the least bit interested in my first hesitant introduction, except to offer me jaguar skins to buy when this word has been, presumably, translated into...whatever this language may be. Why hadn’t I paid more attention?
What kind of NGO sends complete amateurs out to do this kind of work?

I try to clear my mind, even as I feel overcome by dizziness...
Is it the humidity?
Or long and weary travelling through various levels of altitude?
I could not place where I am on any remembered map.
What if I am ill?
I stifle hysterical laughter at the thought that, THEN, I might at least meet a shaman -who might appreciate the importance of jaguars.
But I have read so much of ayahuasa and the sickening , perhaps –Heaven help me!- irreversible effects of this drug, where tourists lap up shamanic encounters not so very far from where I am ...
If I am to do this job properly, it does not have to be all at once. I remember-many years ago- reading Aristotle’s work on the “great man”-the man of “virtue”- whose virtue stems from his appropriateness, his knowing what to do, actions bound up with character...and they DID say I was a great man for this job.
And I liked the interviewing team...Well, two months ago, I did; they were so enthusiastic, with funds already in place for this mission.

“Our fragile world... importance of predators in the eco-cycle...shamanic affinities with jaguars...ancient ethno-religious myths...”

And-yes-I was flattered, curious, and in need of work, any work...
My studies had been, like those of earlier anthropologists, “from the armchair”, and to get anywhere in my career, my field-work- Ha! THIS was so remote from a field it was laughable- had to become more “adventurous”.
My reasoned plan had been to combine this piece of funded work with time living "as if" a group member...
Yet, Aristotle’s man of virtue was first among equals...here I am unknown and this group seems well beyond my ken.

Trouble is, had they seen too many voyeuristic ayahuasa tourists, too many biologists, wildlife photographers, even crazy groups shooting the rapids on modern rafts, to dole out to me the hospitality that my readings –from-uh-
thirty years ago-indicated as a norm?
Certainly nobody seemed inclined to do more than lounge about, and my tent was growing heavy in my huge pack...

Behind the leader lay a pile of spotted skins.
At least I could make further reference to the purpose for my visit, and, if things got too bad, try to find the chap who had brought me here, in the hopes of persuading him to guide me back to the relative comfort of a shambolic guesthouse two days journey upriver...

I became aware that children were laughing.
And one grabbed hold of my trouser-leg, stroking the fabric. Combined with my particular discomfort, I had great difficulty in not kicking this infant away.
The urge to pee got stronger.

People are clapping and pointing at the child. I resent them for egging it on.

I have never liked being investigated by children, though they can be photogenic; I had hoped to take pictures of beautiful forest dwellers, with live jaguars if lucky, or even as montage, to document my anticipated article, and keep the funders sweet. But this one could not leave me alone it seemed, eventually settling over my boots...Perhaps it –in retrospect, I have no idea of the child’s gender-was trying to make me feel welcome. I remembered reading about one Amazonian tribe where children normally share hammocks with all the adults, including visitors...

Is this a great job but the wrong man?

“So”, I venture, via the interpreter, “Where did those beautiful skins come from?”
The answer is literal: from the forest.
“And why do you hunt them?”
Immediately several skins are spread around me...

”Take them to your place... buy them...they give great magic...."
"Look how warm, how beautiful, stroke it!”

One is draped over the infant at my feet, who snuggles closer.
I am disgusted. Do they not realise, these people who are meant to live in connection with nature, just what they are doing?
What about their beautiful traditions?
Oh, GOD! I am really going to have to pee.
I have no choice.
I snap at the interpreter to excuse me.
And stumble outside across the clearing. I can’t believe there are MORE huts, and then the river...The trees are entangled with vines. I will have to clamber behind one...I just make it ...sweet relief!
I hear strange rustlings! Jaguar? Or worse?

And immediately the sound of laughter-lots of laughter...
A child runs forward and shows me to a hut, where, incongruously, sits a toilet pan surrounded by large leaves, and donated by another NGO, whose logo is engraved into the bowl. It seems completely unused, and a huge supply of toilet paper sits damply stacked beside the leaves.

So, in shame, and relative comfort, I go back to the main hut, where people are sitting about deep in what looks like consultation, which stops as I enter.
The leader speaks urgently to the interpreter.They want to know my exact business, and what I can pay to stay the night within the confines of their village. They have a house I may share, or, if I want to put up a tent, like those earlier “investigators”, as they put it, they can show me a place away from the anaconda tree. There is stifled giggling from all.
Unless I want to film jaguars, in which case there would be just time to direct me to a special spot for the night. They have noticed I have no gun, so would recommend a guide-at a small charge. I hastily assure them that this is not my immediate plan, especially as I am hoping to stay a while.
Eyebrows are raised, and I am again asked what I am prepared to pay.
People speak among themselves. I ask the interpreter what they are saying.
He hesitates, then, “They say the large man seems unhappy. They want to know why.”
This seems the moment!
My reputation at home rests on their compliance; it is time for clarity.

I plunge right in, outlining the deal; if they will agree to the NGO’s plan for guardianship, it would simultaneously enable them to retain this swathe of rainforest safe from lumberers while allowing the wildlife its natural space to rebuild its populations, thus benefiting all. This, at least, sounds rational. I have found my lost purpose. I speak with animation, even.

“But, how do we know?”
“We are paid well for jaguar teeth for that foreign medicine.”
“And jaguars are dangerous.”
“We no longer have enough forest for our needs, we have to do these things to survive at all.”
Quiet glances are exchanged. An old man starts to speak, and stops.

I try to explain the principle of the vicious circle-that, the more they subscribe to external pressures for jaguar teeth in exchange for cash which can buy only Western commodities, the greater the risk to their lifestyle.
But they are not convinced.

“Last time a visitor came, she was going to give us lots of things, American medicines, for diseases we did not have before others came, food ...until we offered her a meal... She shrieked at being given the most prized delicacy of the forest, and so what good will it be for us to keep these ways?”

I want to tell them, in detail, all the research on Western corruption, its devastating effect on the natural world...I hesitate, then realise I am in earnest.

“You people”, I say, “live one of the most enviable lives on this planet.”
The translator looks puzzled...
“We others have lost our way ...I truly wish to learn from you great people.”

At this, the atmosphere changes; there are smiling eyes, at least briefly. Perhaps I can –eventually-do this job!

“Now we drink.
Tomorrow we talk business.
Eat with us.”

Things are looking up.
Could that be peyote they are chewing? No- that’s a Mexican thing.
A warm beer with an American label is put into my hand.
I am elated.
At the rush of sugar. And the unexpected hospitality after the awkward introductions.
This is the life!
Perhaps there will be music?
I realise there is a kind of log I could sit on-it has felt absurd standing over these people, all considerably shorter than myself, for so long.
Once I am settled, two, then three, children immediately pile around and onto my lap.

Stay mellow, stay friendly...this is part of “living with” ...they must like me...
I am suddenly hungry to learn from them!

I notice the delicious smell of roasting meat, and simultaneously remember that, in parts of the Amazon, the piece kept for guests is the monkey’s hand. No wonder that woman lost her enthusiasm. I pray that deer may be on the menu tonight.

I try to put myself into a place where I can accept whatever is offered.
People are now talking quietly and the fire feels like a sanctuary...

Somebody rubs two fingers together near my face; this sign demanding money has become universal. I shrug, rummage , produce the plastic beads I was advised to bring. There are roars of laughter, and suggestions that I am sent to sleep near that anaconda after all. People start telling jaguar stories, about frights, about deaths. When I mention I had read that jaguars ran from people, I am put right in no uncertain terms. With giggling and exhortations not to go out at night alone, not even if nature calls. Everybody guffaws and I am overcome with laughter and beer. I am going to get on really really well with these great people!