Head Shrinkers, Peace Corps, and Giving Thanks for the Amazon

25 11 2009

22 November 2009  Abandoned house to Mendez  50k   $pent: US$12.00

Mendez' welcome sign in Spanish and Shuar

Hills. Rain. Still in the cloudy, hilly Amazon. Everything is mildewing so I got a hostel in big Santiago de Mendez (population 7,000 perhaps?) and had my stank laundry washed. Since it was Sunday everything was closed. I made a new friend Fabián, who washed my laundry for free in his mother in law’s washing machine. We drank cola and talked about marriage and cycling while we waited for the washing cycle to end. Then I went to his friend’s internet cafe to post the last update you read (Haha, Tim good question… I was updating the website on this day, 22nd of November, but I hadn´t written this yet, so the journal entries ended with me camping behind an abandoned house on November 21st. No wireless behind the abandoned house. Sorry for the confusion, the journal updates are delayed sometimes.)

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23 Nov 2009          Mendez to Tesoro          40 k           $pent: US$5.00

I continue to descend through the hills so it is getting hotter. From what I understand there aren’t distinct seasons near the Equator here in the jungle; it is always very hot. The daily rain is a welcome refresher. I keep passing towns that have caves and river rafting advertized on tourism signs, but the only tourist I’ve met was the Colombian hitch hiker 2 days ago.

The first highlight of today was the Shuar people and language. I met an older man who was excited to teach me Shuar. He was even more excited when I offered to buy him a juice and asked him to sit down with me so I could take some notes. In the middle of our lesson a friend of his came in. My new teacher said to him, “Look, this gringo comes in and learns more Shuar than the children of this town know (I had written down about 5 phrases so far). It’s a disgrace that this language is being lost among our people.” Photo of my teacher and me below.

I asked a Shuar man to take this photo. I don't think he had ever used a camera before. Plus I'm tall. Bad combination, hilarious results.

Later, as I continued riding northward another Specialized Armadillo tire started to separate at the seams and the tube was peeking through, so I stopped to change it (still no flats!). A group of school children were walking home from class and gathered around to watch me change the tire. I explained that I think Shuar is a beautiful language and I want to learn it, then I asked if any of the kids speak Shuar. Some of the kids signaled toward a young boy and said, “He does. Speak to the man in Shuar!” He took his little brother by the hand and walked away saying, “Let’s get out of here.” It was obvious he didn’t appreciate being known as the indigenous kid.

New tire installed, I bicycle past some wooden houses with straw roofs I thought it was an opportune time to practice the Shuar my friend had taught me. “pyngarek huma!” (are you tranquil?) I would yell with a smile as I waved and passed the homes. The first response was happy “eee!” and the man spouted off a list of Shuar greetings I couldn’t understand. “Puhuta!” (goodbye) was all I could say, and continued cycling. The second and third interactions worried me. They both got very angry that I was greeting them in Shuar. A “don’t treat us like we’re Indians” message was made very clear to me by the way they responded. So I stopped greeting people in Shuar.

My second highlight of the day involves stumbling upon a Peace Corps site. I went into a small store to buy food and, on a whim, asked if there were any Peace Corps Volunteers around. “Si,” the girl responded without hesitation, indicating that the volunteer lives across the street. She even walked me to his house to introduce me. His name was Mike in the United States, but here he is Miguel and he is a sustainable agriculture volunteer a.k.a. organic farming expert. He took me for walk through his town, through his neighbors’ fields and explained projects, one of which is the (re)introduction of more crops in addition to the common Papaya or Yucca (Mamon and Mandioca) monocrop farming that dominates this small town of about 100 families. The organic tomatoes, peanuts, and eggplant are looking great!

His site is especially interesting to me because I know it’s similar to what my site in Paraguay looked like 15 years ago. I have seen photos. And it is distressing to think this Amazon jungle site could so quickly turn into what that 93% of Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest has turned into: some sort of transgenic monocrop like Monsanto soy, while the absence of trees contributes to topsoil loss. The small rewards that are being reaped won’t last long unless responsible practices like what Miguel is teaching are adopted.

24 November 2009    Tesoro to Macas      35k           $pent: US$4

One of three dams I passed

Today I continued riding through the small jungle towns from Tesoro to Macas, John Perkins’ Peace Corps site (author of Confessions of an Economic Hitman). I have been cycling the rough roads (now largely paved) and passing the giant hydro-electric dams he describes as transnational “development” projects that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.I’ll be bussing back to Tesoro on Thanksgiving to celebrate with a group of about 20 Peace Corps volunteers!

HEAD SHRINKING: On the way out of Tesoro I crossed paths with another cyclist, 19 year old Jason who turned around and joined me all the way to Macas. What he told me scared me more than anything I’ve heard so far: In the last two months 8 headless bodies have been found in this area. Last week two women in his town disappeared and one was found without a head. The rumor is that foreigners are offering large amounts of money for shrunken heads, and that’s probably why some people here seem afraid of me. So according to the many rumors I’m hearing, Shuar indigenous people and/or doctors are kidnapping people, taking the heads, shrinking them (an until-recently abandoned Shuar tradition) and leaving the bodies. The victims are always females because they have long hair from which the heads can be hung. From what I have been told by about 10 people I have talked to, the women/girls are usually typical mestizo Ecuadorians but one was a Shuar indigenous woman. I couldn’t find anything in recent news. The Peace Corps Volunteers admit the stories are most likely true, although they think the numbers are more like 5 beheadings instead of 8. I’ll be visiting the police station later to set the facts straight. But my hair is getting long so first I’m going to a barber just in case.

25 November           Macas, Ecuador       Day off             $pent:  US$4

Updating website, Skyping my family, avoiding head shrinkers, making mashed potatoes.

Now I’m gonna go update that Ecuador photo album and make a video for ya. Check back soon, and thanks for your support and comments!

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