Headshrinking used to be a tradition among the Shuar indigenous communities in Ecuador’s Amazon, the area I’m cycling through. In the last two years, according to the police who accused me of headshrinking, at least 7 headless bodies have been found in Macas’ neighboring communities.
I took thanksgiving day off to bus down to Tesoro and celebrate with a group of Peace Corps Volunteers. I should mention I don’t have a backpack like most tourists. I do, however, have a large black trashbag. I loaded up my tent, sleeping bag, some clothes, and my emergency kit, hucked the trashbag over my shoulder and started walking down the street.
I stepped into a store. To say I got some suspicious looks is an understatement. Whether the gossip is true or not, the town was buzzing about another body that was found that morning without a head. To make matters worse, they say a gringo was responsible for all the beheadings in the past 2 years. But I didn’t realize how seriously everybody took headshrinking until all of this happened.
So, genius that I am I made a joke to lighten the mood in the grim store. “Anybody want to buy some heads?” I asked in a happy-go-lucky tone of voice. They didn’t laugh, because people around here REALLY believe a gringo could be walking around town with a bag of heads like some evil Santa Claus. No they didn’t laugh, but the mom and the older daughter looked at each other with half-smiles and were at that point between fear and the hilarious relief. So I did what any idiot would do, I opened the bag as they stared with worry to see what I might pull out of the bag. I took out a shoe and a shirt and said cheesily, “I have the head of a shoe, or the head of a shirt. Sorry, no human heads today.” The owner of the store, her children, and even the 3 year old grandson erupted with laughter. Another woman in the store, however, took slow motion steps backwards toward the exit as though I were robbing her. After both joking and having a serious conversation about the beheadings with the woman and her family, I bought a bag of potatoes and left the store. Keep in mind, a large potato is the approximate size and shape of a shrunken head.
In Bolivia 6 months ago I urinated behind a tree in the darkness at the edge of a closed plaza. Immediately afterwards I was approached by three casually-dressed men with IDs claiming to be police officers. They demanded to see my ID and said they were going to fine me for urinating in public. I had read in a travel book to beware of false police in the area, so I walked away quickly saying I didn’ t understand them. I am sure they were false cops.
Now, here in Macas, Ecuador, I found myself in a similar situation. Five minutes after leaving the store I was surrounded by three casually-dressed men who flashed unintelligible ID cards at me. “Show us what’s in your bag,” they demanded. I felt like I was about to get robbed. I tried walking away. One of the men put his hand firmly on my shoulder. “Open your bag, now.” “I’m sorry, I just have to be careful. I’ve been robbed a few times on this trip.” I suggested we go to the police station together. They told me to get in an unmarked white pickup truck and they’d be happy to drive me there. I said if they are really police they should understand why a foreigner would not get into a typical pickup truck with three men dressed as civilians. (Sounds like a good kidnapping technique to me.) They got offended that I would suggest they were anything but officers, then they radioed for additional officers. A radio? Wow, great kidnapping prop…or maybe they are legit cops?
I thought a bit more: It was the middle of the day, there were a lot of people around. The woman in the store probably called the police. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll show you what’s in the bag, but please–” Suddenly truck with “POLICE” painted on the side screeched to a stop beside me. Three uniformed men got out of the truck. I laughed with relief. “Okay, you’re real cops, I’ll open my bag no problem.” But the new cops ordered me into their truck. “What? Why? This is ridiculous. I’m sorry, I made a bad joke about having heads in my bag. I didn’t know it was a big problem here. There’s no way you think I’m walking around the city with a bag of human heads! Check my bag, you don’t have to take me anywhere. Are you kidding me? This is ridiculous!” But they had already ushered me into the backseat of the truck. Things only got worse.
I explained the joke to them as we drove to the police station. Jokes should never have to be explained, especially from the back of a police truck.
When we arrived at the police station it was clear they had a new idea on their minds: drugs. Otherwise, why wouldn’t I show them the contents of my bag? My emergency kit certainly looked suspicious. They checked inside the matchbox, they put a drop of my SweetWater water treatment on their fingertip to make sure it smelled like chlorine, and when one of them found a small round mirror that resembles compact powder makeup he asked, “You wear makeup?” I explained it’s my mirror for signaling long distances in an emergency, but I’m sure he thought it was for making cocaine lines. It was when they found a bag of yerba mate that I really thought I was doomed. He picked up the yerba mate, bombilla, and guampa and looked at me. “You drink yerba mate?” he asked. Phew! I can’t believe he knew what it was! He sifted through the tea, smelled it, and set it aside to begin examining a plastic bag filled with what looked like shrunken heads. He held it up in front of me as though he had found what I was hiding all along. He opened the bag carefully so as not to get any leaking brainjuice on his hands. “See?” I said. Potatoes. Can I go now? He took a potato out of the bag and smelled it. Then he scratched it with his fingernail. For those of you are in the shrunken head trafficking business, don’t hide your shrunken heads inside potatoes if you’re trafficking through Ecuador.
They asked what I was doing in Ecuador. Bicycling from Paraguay to the United States. Wrong answer. That’s impossible. Certainly I was lying. When they found my camera they started looking through the photos expecting to find photos of me smoking crack and/or dancing around a fire at a head shrinking festival. But they only found photos of a bicycle trip. “Where is this?” They asked of a beach photo. “Peru,” I said. They mumbled, “Wow, maybe…”
When it was finally time to go, the cop took a slip of paper out of my passport and said he needed to keep in on file because it was blank. I said, “I was told I could fill it out later and that I need to keep it with my passport for when I exit Ecuador. Just let me fill it out right now.” Another hour of arguing ensued. I called the offices at the Embassy and Peace Corps, accusing him of stealing from me. He called Ecuador’s migrations office. I said, “You took property from me. It looks like you’re asking for a bribe. I’m not going to bribe you.”
He said, “How dare you accuse me of looking for a bribe. My boss says we have to keep this on file.”
“So that nobody can use it. It’s like a blank check.”
“I need to use it. It won’t be blank if I fill it out. And it’s not at all like a check because a check is worth money.”
Finally a representative from the migrations office arrived and within 10 minutes said, “Look, just give him his slip of paper back. We don’t need it.” Thank you, sir! And I was out of there like a newborn.