Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 1)

Alan Pierce shares his personal views and opinions of working collaboratively with Wayusentsa community…

Alan the Achuar: Glimpses into Living and Learning in the Jungle (Part 1)

A month as a volunteer English teacher with the Achuar of Wayusentsa in the Ecuadorian Amazon has come and gone. Perhaps a “looking back” post is in store for the future, but first I want to place you in the life I led, the people I shared it with, and in the evolving feelings and thoughts I had during the moments and days as they flew by.

These excerpts come from the fairly detailed daily diary I kept. I’ve added little titles here to each entry to give a sense of the theme for that excerpt. More posts like this to come, but if you would like to view all my photos with captions chronicling the beginning to end of my month, click here.

The Staples and the Rhythm – Days 1 & 2

It was in one of the classrooms while we were planning the week’s schedule that I experienced my first Amazon downpour. I’m sure a sprinkle and a drizzle are the norm here as well, but this first outburst was a powerful display of tropical proportions. First, a bank of dark, wind-strewn clouds came together swiftly and not so subtly across the sun-streaked sky. Perched above us they took a deep, shuddering breath, then, an inevitable, cathartic, exhale. The murmur of this mounting force overhead swelled quickly and unstoppably all around us. Somewhere between that first quivering sigh and the now thunderous roar, a tidal wave of sound crashed relentlessly into our senses, rushing down and through our ear canals, inundating our bodies and our beings with an ultimately cleansing and humbling reminder of nature’s sublime power. All conversation stopped, our vocal chords no match for the screaming water now plummeting to the earth and clamoring against the roof above our heads.

A deluge from another day. When it pours it POURS!
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The bowl pictured above, called a mocawa, is filled with chicha (a fermented drink usually made out of manioc). It’d be easy to say the Achuar here drink chicha like Americans drink coffee or soda, but it’s much more than that. It is their morning coffee, and their afternoon tea, their glass of wine with dinner, and their generous nightcap before bed. And then everything in between as well. In fact, in these first two days I haven’t seen anyone drink anything other than chicha, but getting oneself drunk off its fermented element is not its purpose. It plays a deeply social, culturally significant role in Achuar life. Above all, it is a bonding element, an instrument of social cohesion, from large public communal events to life within the home. The best way I can describe its customary use in the home when visitors are present is as a tool for ‘growing-closer,’ whether between a host and a stranger, or two good friends, or a father and a son, or neighboring families. As the dent in the chicha bowl deepens, so does the connection between its conversing consumers.

Sitting in Sankap’s home the second night, I offered my bowl of remaining potatoes to Napoleón who politely refused, saying, “No thanks, I have chicha. For us, chicha is all we need sometimes. It’s like a meal.” Indeed, I was the only one eating. With the food and the several bowls of chicha in me, I was getting quite full, and even a bit of a buzz from the fermented brew.

I’d heard that visitors taking the drink for the first time (which, if I could compare it to anything I’ve had before is something like Kombucha) often get upset stomachs. Foreigners certainly aren’t used to be being served something that’s been prepared by a bit of chewing in someone else’s mouth, or a mashing up and mixing up of the drink with bare hands, and served in anything but dishwasher clean cups or bowls. However, from the first sip of this alimentary and social staple, it suited me and my stomach quite well.

One reflection before finishing up. Time moves at a leisurely pace here. Like the heavy, humid air it seems to sit still at times. The Achuar (when they’re not playing soccer or volleyball, at least) move at a similar pace, deliberate, present, with the purposeful and unhurried steps of a people accustomed to a rhythm of life that remains simply, local. This tranquil pace suits me, at least for now. I’m up with the sun and crowing roosters at 6am and retiring some time after the sunset and a social chicha meeting with someone. The night before I had asked Napoleón while we were drinking chicha and talking with Sankap what time they go to sleep. He leaned back, with two hands on his belly and had a healthy chuckle before saying with a grin, “We don’t really have a specific hour of bedtime here. You go to bed when you can’t drink any more chicha.” We both had a good laugh and took another sip. It was definitely bedtime for me.

Meeting the “Minga” – Day 3

Most every Wednesday, I’m told, is dedicated to the “minga,” a community gathering where community matters are discussed before everyone shares in some communal work, then sports, and interspersed chicha chatting. This would be my first intro to much of the community members and I was excited for the opportunity to introduce myself officially. Here is a picture of the minga scene I arrived to.

On two sides of the vast open space that marks the (I think) regulation size dirt soccer field, sit a few houses, the airstrip marks the edge of another side (with a small classroom in between), and on the final side is a large squared off area about the size of a basketball court covered by corrugated tin and lined with benches running along each of the four sides and a line of benches running long-ways for part of the way in the center.

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On these benches, three sides at least, sat the men from the community, casually chatting and sipping chicha. The women occupied the final edge of the enclosure, tending to the “chicha” bar and walking around and serving the men, or sitting there sipping or making chicha, or hush-hushing crying babies. They never entered in the communal cross-enclosure conversation, although they seemed to be listening intently.

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When I arrived people were still slowly showing up as well. I asked for el síndico, basically the elected head of the community, and several men pointed across the enclosure. There sat a man lounging on the tabletop in front of him, arms out in front and his chin just about resting on the wooden surface. He raised a leathery hand and motioned me over. As I approached I could see that his quite leisurely countenance (which he seems to maintain all the time) only slightly veiled the strong presence of an established and confident leader. I introduced myself, telling him I was the English volunteer, that I would be here for a month, etc. He nodded politely to show he understood and motioned for me to have a seat.

The chicha flowed and flowed. I was given a bowl by one of the wives, every man had a bowl in hand or on the bench next to them. A bowl in hand or next to you is not sufficient chicha at these gatherings I soon realized. The women also made rounds circling the enclosure with a bowl of their brew stopping at each man to have him take a sip. Or two. Or three.

After everyone was settled el síndico said some words and then a general discussion followed. Each person who spoke did so standing up, addressing the whole community. It was all in Achuar so I didn’t know what was being said, although I did hear the word “voluntario” thrown in quite a lot. It’s strange, at least to me, but often if not all the time when speaking Achuar, these people will also mix in the occasional Spanish word or phrase. I hear numbers and days of the week a lot, or random words like “voluntario.” I asked Napoleón about this and he didn’t really have a clear answer as to why. “We just speak ‘Sp-achuar’ sometimes,” he said laughing.

After a while, and many more sips of chicha, I was asked to speak. I stood up and introduced myself to everyone, thanking them all for the opportunity to be there, and for their generosity in hosting me. I also briefly mentioned how I would be conducting classes and that I hoped to get to know everyone during my month and experience everything I could of their day to day life.

There was to be another meeting the next day of all the “padres de familia” in order to, among other things, include me in a logistical discussion of how they would organize my presence in the community.

After community discussion was over, I was informed that it was now a communal work time. For about an hour the entire community toiled away happily and dutifully together under the afternoon sun, chatting, laughing and amusedly watching the newbie, the gringo, or apach as they say here. El síndico had given me a machete to work with and so with the rest of the community that hour I was busy on my hands and knees slicing away at inch high weeds sprouting up in clumps in an area a little ways away from the enclosure we had just been in.

With a belly full of chicha and amidst the intense heat I wasn’t exactly feeling energized, but it was my first public and group activity with the community and I certainly wanted to make a good impression.

With the sounds of the Achuar language surrounding me I steadily got better at grazing the ground with the machete and worked alongside this new family of mine for the duration of that hour. I commented to Sankap that I enjoyed the work and being a part of this communal process. “Así vivimos, unidos,” he said. This is how we live, united.

Afterwards, it was time to rest a bit before sports time. Kids, adults, me, everyone playing a game of friendly but intense soccer. Sankap seems to be one of the better players, whipping through defenders with shrieks of laughter and scoring most of our goals (against el síndicowho was the goalie for the other team).

Towards the end of the game it started pouring, but there was no stoppage. We continued, drenched, and in the flowing mud for some time. What fun! I played on the defensive end and our team ended up winning 4-0. Back under the enclosure we shook off the rain and mud, catching our breath and warming up. Then I noticed five children standing out in the rain throwing a ball back and forth over the volleyball net. Why not?

I tore off my shoes and socks and shirt and dashed out into the rain. They looked surprised, but excited that an adult had joined them, not to mention the foreign English teacher. Now that they had six, a game of three on three it was. And what a game we had.

With over a dozen Achuar men turning to witness this spectacle from the covered benches, these six kids had the time of their lives. Additional opponents in this swampy slosh of volleyball soon made their presence felt. First, the pelting rain made sure we were blinded in a fury of plummeting water any time we tried to look skyward at the ball. Ankle deep in the mud slush, now turning into a murky lake, our slippery pitch then made sure that footing was impossible and that sure face planting was probable. Lastly, our uncontrollable laughter left us breathless and at times helpless to reach that soaring rain-soaked ball and score a point to bring us closer to ending that muddy madness of a game.

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And to add to the thrill of it all, I even made us count in English to which the dutiful and thoroughly mud-drenched students responded by positively screaming out the score (after a quick look at me for a little reminder). Nine! Ten! Eleven?! I’m pretty sure none of us really wanted it to end. I’m also pretty sure the big kid was having the most fun out of any of us.

Back home I tried to dry off before dinner. Dinner tonight, a giant papaya in my own front yard. Earlier, Sankap and two of his children had dropped by carrying a bundle of maduro(plantain), two large papayas, and a coconut. I couldn’t say maketai, thank you, enough for such thoughtful generosity.

I grabbed my papaya, a knife, and a book and sat outside to eat it. A careful cut in half, a gouging of the seeds and I dug in. Now, I’ve eaten papaya before and mostly thought it was without much taste. This papaya literally exploded in my mouth with every glorious, juicy bite and I closed my book to savor this Amazonian gift in all its effortless culinary splendor. What a perfect way to end such a rich and memorable day.

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While writing these words tonight, one more experience lay in wait for this day. I heard a soft, “Alan, Alan,” outside my walls and turned to see Pedro and one of the young boys I’d played volleyball with earlier, Ishmael. “Tienes cámara?” Pedro asked. I told him I did have a camera and went to get it. I showed them some photos I’d taken of the runway and airplanes at Shell and of the jungle from the air.

Captivated by the images, they whispered to each other rapidly in Achuar. Then I played videos I’d taken from inside the airplane, one on take off and the other while landing. I’ll never forget the look on this young boy’s face. Illuminated only by the light of the screen, I wish I had a camera to capture those moments of pure and absolute wonder.

If dictionaries used images instead of words to define each entry, under the word “wonder,” a photo of this boy’s face would have been understood in any language, by any culture.

Only this child was a witness to his own surreal subjective experience of seeing the earth race furiously forward, hearing the roar of the airplane, witnessing the view of his home and his river in miniature, and weathering the chaos of landing on a dirt runway, all for the first time, and on tiny battery powered video screen no less. It was definitely a special moment and I feel privileged to have played a part in it. This was truly a wonderful end to a wonderful day. Well, after three more urgently requested viewings, of course.

Project Leave No Peanut Behind – Day 4

Napoleón’s brother Ernesto offered to let me borrow a pair of rubber boots from him (for the month) so I put these on over my pants and headed out to meet the pair of brothers for our rendezvous with the peanut harvest. We went down to the river, me, Napoleón, his wife (carrying their young child), Ernesto and two older boys named Alex (15 years old) and Gonzalo (14 years old, pictured below).

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Downriver we went, all squeezing into the same canoe. I’m not sure what kind of wood they are carved out of but these canoes are extremely sturdy and while wobbly — totteringly so — I’ve yet to see one tip completely one way or another. With our load of people we cut it close, water rippling by only inches from the top edge of the canoe in some places. After about twenty minutes we glided to the riverbank once more, coming up alongside a row of other canoes already tied up and probably with peanut harvesting owners already somewhere deeper in the jungle.

Towards this destination and these people we went. There is certainly no park service maintaining these “trails,” only the initial machete and then possibly weekly foot journeys through the newly carved paths to keep the leaves trampled down and the spider webs (at least most of them) at bay.

We walked for about 15 minutes into the jungle. Parts of the path were fairly open, if not thick with mud or the occasional fallen tree to clamber over. Other parts were more overgrown and one had to push through leaves and branches to get by, trying not to think of the ants or spiders or other jungle critters that might be bothered by your intruding hand or forehead.

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There were just a few rays of warm yellow sunlight gleaming through the thick jungle on most of this walk. A full spectrum of vibrant green surrounded us as we marched swiftly towards our destination. I didn’t know where exactly we were going, and also realized slightly embarrassingly that I didn’t even know how peanuts grow, obviously a product of the disconnected nature of my “modern” culture and my “modern” life from the things that nourish me. So here my jungle education would begin. Not hunting or fishing. Not pottery making nor hut building. Not leaf learning nor snake dodging. Peanuts. First lesson, utter jungle ground zero, what do they look like and how do they grow?

We began to enter less dense, more sunlit areas and eventually burst out into the brilliant and heavily hot sunshine. Plants still covered most of this area, although there was a break in the first canopy above and part of the land had already been harvested.

Ernesto’s wife Leticia and their young child was there along with several other women and young children, all barefoot, standing or sitting or working next to mountains of peanut plants and peanut shells. A few of them were munching on peanuts, and all them were positively goggling at my presence there. Did they see my probing eyes trying to discern the size and shape and appearance of those mysterious peanut plants?

As the heat pounded my face and neck, the mound of already harvested peanut shells fixed me with a cool stare, threatening to bellow out my socially borne secret to these sage jungle companions. Luckily, they remained silent peanuts, as peanuts are, and I got to work amidst the stares, whispers and giggles which I am used to by now and certainly don’t mind. I must have looked very out of place in that group.

For a little over an hour we worked in that clearing harvesting the peanut plants that had been planted there. Apparently (I am learning!), peanut shells and the peanuts inside them are the seeds attached to roots of the peanut plant. So harvesting meant ripping up the plant and plucking the peanut shells off the roots.

None of them were using gloves and I didn’t bring any with me here so it was true “hands-on” work. Other than some sort of stinging nettle that gave me a few unpleasant but non life-threatening surprises, digging my hands into the earth and helping pile up the peanut plants for plucking was quite enjoyable, in a meditative, hard-working, sweaty, peanut-plant-epiphany kind of way.

When I sat down next to Napoleón and the pile of plants to begin taking the peanut shells off the roots I noticed one of the women, the woman who had planted this small peanut field, get up and go to the loose earth where we had just ripped up the plants. There she got on her hands and knees searching for any peanut shells that had remained in the soil. She scoured the area for a good twenty minutes before returning satisfied with a handful of peanuts in one hand to add to the pile.

With the direct work she had put into that field and the very present mouths they were going to feed, not to mention the money to be received from selling a sack of those peanuts downriver, every single peanut counted. She wasn’t about to leave behind even a single one. After our trek back we piled into the canoe once more. Napoleón stumbled a bit getting in with one of the peanut sacks, but managed not to tumble into the water.

Then he seemed to be washing his hands very carefully in the river by the canoe. Only when he raised his hands up again did I see the five or six peanut shells he had rescued from the water. As we set out once more, with the canoe edge sagging even more precariously close to the watery surface, I drank in the feeling of a good afternoon’s work and the success of our mission to lead all peanuts home.

Cultural Gifts – Day 5

For several hours with Sankap in his home, we talked and drank chicha. We talked about religion, about how deer in Achuar culture (traditionally) have not been eaten because they contain departed souls, about the delicate balance between maintaining cultural heritage and developing for the future, about education, about many things. Above all, I was – we were – living a deeply Achuar experience right there in his home that night. Talking, getting to know one another on a deeper level, over many bowls of chicha and around a fire with family, these kinds of days and evenings and shared experience are what the Achuar do, how they live, “solidarios,” he said. “Aislados,” I told him, was how I would describe much of my society. Isolated.

In huge crowded cities and a no-time-to-stop-by-for-a-chat daily rhythm, I thought about how much my society has forgotten the sense of community that comes so easily, that’s lived so joyfully and fully and purposefully here. Only once this aspect of Achuar culture fades away will their cultural heritage be truly lost. Until that time, we will always have something deeply meaningful to learn from them.

Cultural Chasms, Human Bridges – Day 10

Later that evening I went to visit Rafuel across the river, but he was out fishing when I arrived so I stayed and chatted with Ernesto and Alex and Gonzalo, and ended up being there for several hours. They gave me a bowl of food with potato and more tasty tapir. We talked about so many things it’s hard to remember them all, but there was a lot of joking around and cultural exchange going on. One theme of our conversation was food.

I tried to explain how much of our food system works; massive farms produce massive quantities of food, which is then usually transported massive distances by truck to massive grocery stores where we go to buy ingredients for our massive meals. There are also farms and factories which grow animals for slaughter and packaging and then distribution to these same grocery stores. We in turn have to have a skill like being a teacher or a lawyer or a painter or a writer or whatever it may be so that we have money to buy food. I tried to explain these increasingly foreign sounding things to them as simply as I could, but each attempt sounded increasingly bizarre even to me.

Ernesto seemed to know that we also put chemicals onto our plants during the growing process and I explained why many farms do this, and how a growing number of people and organizations are trying to change this norm to return to more naturally grown food.

This brought us to the topic of money and how my culture is built so completely around it. I told them how much a house might cost as I had done with Sankap, and from the look on their faces I’m not sure they believed me that some houses could cost upwards of half a million to a million dollars, and more. I continued saying that in my society some of the highest paid people are actually sports players who make millions in one year for their one specific finely tuned athletic skill.

The social and cultural chasm between our backgrounds certainly became more and more apparent around these narratives. It certainly is a different kind of “hard work” and “dedication” needed to learn to live in my society (manage your money, pay your taxes on time, pad the resumé, etc.) and theirs (hold your cultural traditions close, hunt, fish, build houses, etc.). However, in the end we do arrive at similar places. Provide for your family. Treat those in your community well. Mentor your children. Live with integrity. Love. These are values we all strive for, their culture or ours, and remind us that in some ways, in the ways that matter most, we are not so different. There is no cultural or social chasm so wide it cannot be connected by a bridge, or many bridges of deeply shared values. Talking, laughing and comparing that evening, even though we marveled at the many gaping cultural disparities, we also reveled in the simple but powerful reality of our ability to deeply connect on a human level, and that our shared humanity was the most important comparison of all.