Early on day 2 of my Amazon adventure, my translator Guillermo and I found ourselves waiting by the water for ‘Tall Jairo’, the indigenous local who would be our guide for the next four days. His arrival time drew closer, arrived, and passed, with no sign of the man. Eventually in the distance we saw two boats travelling slowly together, and sure enough, it was our guy: he’d stopped to help a man who’d caught a fish half as big as his canoe:
Once the boat was de-fished, we popped in and headed just a hundred metres down from the town, looking for pink dolphins. This species of river dolphins is peculiar to the Amazon, and as the name suggests, they’re pink. They start off quite a normal, dolphiny colour when they’re young, but as they get older their pigmentation changes and they turn a light rose. They also have a much less pronounced dorsal fin than ocean dolphins, but are otherwise more or less the same. Oddly enough.
There’s a local myth about these creatures, which are never hunted. It says that, somewhat like the selkies of northern stretches of Europe (Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavia), they can take human form. Male pink dolphins in particular are known for changing into handsome men and luring human women into the water to mate. (Also, why is this the second time in this blog having sex with dolphins has come up?!?) So, if you see someone standing in the water, look to see if they have a belly-button: if they do, they’re human, but if they’re don’t then they’re dolphins in disguise and you should beware.
We spent several hours in the sunshine watching dolphins (yes, a little excessive). I really don’t have any good photos I’m afraid, but here’s what they look like:
The dolphins were plaguing a fishing net stretched across the river, and boys were cruising around in canoes trying to scare them off by slapping the water with machetes.
We returned to Puerto Nariño for lunch and in order to visit a traditional Ticuna ~farm (Ticunas being the local indigenous people). There was one big annex, with open walls and a triangular roof covered in plant fronds. One small section of it was enfenced, and as we sat down in front of an elder, we learned all about it.
The fenced off section of the building reflected a practice of the local people, whereby upon menarche a girl would be sent into the cage (I can’t think of it in any other way) for up to three years. During this time, she was to leave the enclosure for no reason, and it was absolutely forbidden for a man to even see her. While interred, she would learn all of the traditions and culture of the tribe. (This practice is still regularly performed, but usually for only ~a month).
Once her time was up, vegetable oils and waxes would be put in the girl’s hair and she would be dressed up. The other women would get her drunk, and they would leave the enclosure together. All of the men, meanwhile, would be barred from the village for the day. The women started to dance around the girl, and as they did so, would grab the waxy substance in her hair and brows, pulling it out until the girl was completely bald. Men would later join the celebrations, which continued for three days before ending with a cleansing in the river. The girl had to keep her eyes closed for this whole time, and would only reopen them once she emerged as a woman. (Any inaccuracies will have to be forgiven—obviously I heard this all in translation).
Next, the elder told us the story of the monkey Cheruku. One day, a man and his wife went into the jungle to hunt for monkeys. The man caught one monkey, and gave it to the woman to hold while he went back to hunt for more. The woman, looking at the little monkey in her arms, loved it. She said to it that if he were a human man, he would be very handsome and she would fall in love with him. Upon hearing this, the monkey turned into a man and kissed her. He then brought out a flute and played it, whereupon the lady shrank in size and jumped onto his back. The monkey-man and the tiny woman then took to the trees, running off to become lovers.
The husband, meanwhile, returned to where he’d left his wife and couldn’t find her anywhere. In a moment of intuition he looked to the trees, and sure enough, he saw his miniaturised wife on the back of the monkey-man as they fled. He started to follow them into the jungle.
After many days, the monkey-man and the wife came to the shore of a huge river. Here, there were lots of other monkeys, and as the husband watched silently from the jungle, they threw a net over the river and started to cross using it. Once all of the monkeys were walking on the net over the river, the husband ran out from the trees and chopped the net free, so that it sank. All of the monkeys drowned: the only survivor was the man’s wife, who was restored to her proper size.
The wife swam back to her husband and they headed into the jungle. However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they weren’t getting on very well. The husband wasn’t particularly impressed that she’d run off with a monkey, and eventually he became so riled up that he left her in the jungle to find her own fate.
The woman, who had lost both her monkey love and her husband, was distraught. She called after her husband again and again, but there was no answer. Then, as it was a sacred time and people could still do magic, she turned herself and became the first macaw. That’s why the macaw has such a sad cry: it’s that of the woman calling after the husband she’s lost.
Shortly after this we were at lunch and I saw that condensation from my water glass had made a picture which looked like a reindeer throwing up into the sky, so I told Jairo and Bambi that hey, I could do creation myths, too. Haha hopefully you’re not storied out yet!
Once upon a time, the sun lived on earth like people. It lived in the far north, with its best friend the reindeer. One day, the sun and the reindeer were drinking at a lake, when the reindeer started looking at his reflection. He saw what he looked like, and he compared it with the shininess of the sun, and he was so overcome with jealousy that he turned to his friend and ate him in one big gulp. After a while though, he started to feel sick. He felt sicker and sicker, until he couldn’t hold it in any more and he vomited the sun straight up into the sky. That’s also why it’s still so cold in the far north: because the sun isn’t friends with the reindeer any more.
So that happened. Jairo thought it was hilarious.
Post-lunch, we spent far too long sitting on the river once more looking at dolphins, then we made our way to a tributary. About half an hour up this smaller water body, we came to San Martin, Jairo’s village. The village has been there for about four years, and has a population of around 500 people. It’s in the middle of the rainforest/national park, and the residents are local indigenous Ticuna. They mainly occupy themselves with growing food, hunting and fishing. There’s also a school and a small church.
The hut in which I was staying belonged to Jairo’s something-in-law. It consisted of one large kitchen/dining area, where the whole family spent a lot of each day. As did a range of wild-life: there was a dog, a couple of cats and a box of two-week-old kittens, some chickens and a particularly rambunctious parrot. They aren’t yet sure whether the parrot is male or female, and are waiting to see if disappears one day (meaning it’s female), or brings another parrot back with it one day (meaning it’s male). The hut also had an out-house and another room, where Guillermo and I slept. This room had an adjoining small room where the family slept all together (the only room with a door).
There were always a few animals in the room, eating or playing on the floor.
My floor-bed and Bambi’s hammock in the second room of the house.
Bananas in the corner next to the oven.
The gender-indeterminate parrot.
The main living area.
After dropping off our things, we went upriver to go swimming in the river. Yes, yes I did have the sound-track for ‘Pocahontas’ in my head for the entire trip (just around the riiiver bend—just aroundddd the river bennnnd!) On the whole, it was a very inactive day, and I was getting pretty thoroughly grumpy (also quite lonely, as Bambi was the only one I could speak with and I didn’t know him that well yet). I was actually considering cutting the trip short, but decided to sleep on it—and that was definitely the wiser choice.
After dinner, a Peruvian man arrived in the common area. He swings by once a month with tablets and tupperware for the villagers to buy. I was quite bemused: people kept shaking the tablets with this sort of scientific precision (not sure what that was meant to achieve). A couple of the substances were unknown, but happily I was able to help with a couple of them (I worked in a pharmacy for a whole six weeks after finishing school in 2003, and thanks to my stupid memory memorised a massive number of compounds). Most of the items were prescription only, and there were even some very, very powerful antibiotics. The Peruvian obviously had no idea what the different drugs were used for: which begs the question, where exactly did the pills come from?
I was also bemused by the presence of a clock the man had for sale. What possible need would anyone in the village have for a wall-clock? Especially a one so elaborately decorated with a depiction of the Last Supper, and tinny yet upbeat hourly song. Bizarre.
Our final activity for the day was to go for a walk through the village under the moon. Jairo told us a little about getting married in the village. Essentially, the ~chief has to give permission to marry. Largely it’s no problem: in San Martin, there are three ~clans. You can marry people from any other clan, as they’re not your family. However, the chief’s permission comes into play if you want to marry someone from outside the Ticuna. It used to be permitted to marry Europeans (etc), but not any more—and it was rare, even when it was permitted. Also worth noting is that women do get a say in who their husband will be, unlike back in the day.
By now, I’ve talked several times about the hot/cold country dichotomy, and peoples’ theories about how the weather influences your personality. Sigh. I give in!—there might be something to it. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, my Russian posts were inevitably acerbic, whereas here in Colombia I’ve become almost unbearably loquacious. I’ve gone back to writing poetry, for goodness’ sake: so apologies for the recent massive stylistic change!
I obviously didn’t take my laptop into the middle of the Amazon with me, and instead took notes for the blog while I was there. Rookie error. I’ve just typed the notes up (my writing’s actually that execrable that if I didn’t do it while I could still remember what my notes were vaguely about, I wouldn’t be able to read them)—and it’s three pages. Part of that is because, oddly enough, my Amazon experience was markedly different in a lot of ways to the things I’ve done before, and as I spent a lot of the trip with indigenous people, there was a lot to learn and write about. So again, please forgive me as I write the world’s most epic blog posts in the most unnecessarily verbose of ways.
Access to the Amazon in Colombia is via a small city and ex-military base called Leticia, in the south-eastern corner of the country where Colombia, Peru and Brazil intersect. Access is par avion only. I slept for most of the flight, only waking ten minutes before touch-down: upon which I immediately got involved in an intense discussion about policy, public-private partnerships and corporate ideology with the Amerikanets next to me. We kept talking even as the plane hit the ground and rolled to the airport. It’s weird: when I was 18 and started travelling, it felt like everyone was about my age. Now I’m 28 and find the same thing: and even though I’m no longer working in a law firm/corporate environment, still everyone I speak to is a lawyer/politician/banker/etc. It’s, been, great. See? It’s not like all travellers are drop-kicks who are writing off their lives—there’s also a cadre of super-intelligent people who aren’t challenged enough in daily life.
I casually booked my Amazon trip through a company called Borugo. The owner, Alejandro, dealt quite well with the fact that I hadn’t paid him any money, given him any credit card details, and didn’t in fact book my flights until the day before departure. There were no tours already running, so it was just me, a native guide, and a translator. The translator Guillermo, a linguistics student, met me with a sign at the airport, and then it was off to Alejandro’s house to sort out itinerary, payment and so on.
Alejandro’s house had a distinct air of Colombianness. Living in rainbow-land as I do, I couldn’t help but imagine the place full of cigars, shady deals and intrigue. (I think a Cuban element slunk in with the cigars). We were there for a bit, thence to a cafe for lunch, where we saw a girl who looked exactly like Kirsten Dunst. It made me think about disappearing, as I often do: and certainly, if you wanted to hide from the world, a far-flung corner of Colombia would be the place to do it.
Next it was waiting for Guillermo (henceforth ‘Bambi’) and the boat-driver to arrive. Then it was waiting some more, over coffee. Then finally we got into a small boat, to head to the main boat pontoon (where we waited again for an hour or so). It was a very slow day, and very much running on Colombian time.
Finally, a boat arrived to take us a couple of hours up the river (yes, the Amazon), to a town called Puerto Nariño. We went straight to a sort-of conservation museum, Natutama, where we learned about the animals of the river. Happily, it was one of the few times I didn’t need Bambi to translate for me: animals I can cope with. Stories, however, I can’t, and we heard quite a few myths of the local indigenous people on the trip.
The first of these stories was how the moon came to be in the sky. Back in the day, there was a man in the local tribe who had exceptionally white teeth, and he was very vain about it. The other people in the tribe asked him how come he had such white teeth, but he would never tell them. Then one day, his sister followed him into the jungle, and saw him eating from a very special plant. She figured out that’s what was making his teeth so shiny, and she cut it down.
However, that’s not all there was to it. Our white-toothed friend wasn’t just vain: he was also in love with his sister, and stalking her. She knew that someone was watching her, and so one night she hatched a plan. She put some dye from a special staining plant on her hands and pretended to go to sleep. When she sensed that there was someone above her, watching her, she leaped up and quickly put the dye on their face.
The brother, startled, ran away until he came to a lake. There, he looked down and saw his reflection, and was aghast to find that he had dye on his face: and it just wouldn’t come off. He knew that he couldn’t return to his village, as everybody would know he had been stalking his sister (and plus, he was too vain to return while so disfigured). Hence, he ran away to live in the jungle.
One day, while crying piteously, a bird swooped down and asked what the matter was. He said that he couldn’t return to his village, that he just wanted to run away, and the bird agreed to help him. The bird advised the man that there was a very tall, hollow tree in the forest, and that he should climb it until he reached the top.
That’s just what the man did: he found the tree, and climbed and climbed and climbed, for what seemed like forever. At long long last, his head popped out, and he found that he had climbed so high, he was among the stars: and that’s where he lives today. His face, with the shameful dye from his sister’s hands, can still be seen in the night sky in the form of the moon.
After story-time, Guillermo and I walked through the town to find our hotel for the evening. It was utterly rustic in its charm, having that torbidly romantic air of a 1930s novella: I felt that if I only opened the door, I’d find myself amidst the heavy glamour of Egyptian ruins, or of some other exotic location. Which, I suppose, I would.
Well, it’s been an interesting few days. Wednesday involved a blend of laziness and wandering around London, before meeting up with a guy called John that evening. I went to high school with John, and hadn’t seen him since we were both 18 (so around ten years ago!). He sent me a message on facebook in response to one of my “I’m going to be in London” posts a few months back, saying that we should meet up while I was here. I said ‘yes’, not really thinking anything would come of it, and was quite surprised when he then followed up.
It was such a fun night. It was weird in some ways: for one, obviously, we’ve both aged in the last ten years, and that was super-interesting. For two, I guess we both have some preconceptions about who the other is, based on the person we used to know: but we’re now completely different people. We went for drinks then dinner (though I’d had an epic lunch and actually couldn’t manage more than some miso soup!), and it really was a great time. It’s always a pleasure to speak with someone else who travels.
The next day, I headed down to Portsmouth to meet up with my friend Paddy, who I worked with as a sailing instructor in 2007. We’ve kept in touch ever since, though obviously rarely see one another. I’m only in the UK on average probably every 18 months! We went for drinks, then dinner at one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, then some more drinks (and some more, and some more). It was really fun.
It got me thinking: how lucky am I to have spent two evenings in a row with two such amazing people? I feel so privileged to have such intelligent, gorgeous, fun people in my life. And I suppose that’s one of my favourite things about travelling: it forces you to meet exponentially more people, and among those people you find a few which just blow your mind. I feel like thanks to travelling, I’ve found a disproportionate number of ‘diamonds in the rough’ as it were. Sometimes it does suck that I can’t have all of the people I care about in the same place—it’s definitely something you suffer from when you first start travelling, that no matter where you are, you’re always missing somebody. In part, that’s what my tattoo’s about—being happy because they’re out there somewhere, rather than being sad because they’re not with you.
On a completely different note, yesterday I woke up thinking about polar bears, so here’s another short picture book. It even has a guest appearance by Charlie the Hedgehog! Enjoy.
Well, this is definitely not what they had in mind.
As anyone who has ever read this blog at any point will know, I almost never get around to sleeping. Well, doing ridiculous things like this is part of the reason why! I stumbled across the verb for ‘snuggle’ in class this morning (I guess that’s now yesterday morning..) and haven’t been able to think of anything but hedgehogs since. So, here’s a story in Russian and English, about the adventures of a hedgehog named Charlie. (Thanks to Fedya and Anya for correcting the worst of my errors!)
Quick update: Thanks everyone for your lovely comments and feedback! I’ve corrected my mistakes on the paper copy, but won’t upload new pics with the fixed Russian. Also, sorry for the massively confusing thing that the mother hedgehog says, it doesn’t translate very well..! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the siesta from alcoholism and politics 🙂