Though everybody calls me Amadeo Rosas and in fact I am even a little famous by that name, it is not the name that my father chose for me. Among our people, the Capanahua, a person's name is never spoken out loud, because to do so can make you accessible to all kinds of influences, particularly harmful ones. So my real name was known only to me, my father and mother and the headman of our tribe, and like everyone else I was called by a nickname. For me, that nickname was the word for tapir because I was short and strong and had a lot of endurance. Later, I got this Amadeo Rosas name and it happened that I became quite well known and not just around here in the upper Amazon, but in Peru and Brazil and even in North America and Europe, in places like Denmark and England and New York. So all these people, including many I have never even seen, know what name to call me, and for all I know, may speak of me aloud in conversations they have in those places. And what kind of influences this has brought into me, and whether they are good or harmful is best left for others to judge.
I was born in the forest in the land where the Amazon and the Putumayo Rivers meet. My people, the Capanahua, had lived for a long time further up river, but the rubber cutters and other tribes, particularly the sly Remos, had forced us to move. This was about the time of the first great war in Europe when rubber prices were high. In the stories which the elders would tell at night, it was said that we had come originally from the land where the sky meets the sea and had lived there for many generations. Then, because of the whites and their guns and their dogs, we had gone deep into the shadows of the great forests which hid us, sheltered us, and gave us the means to feed ourselves. We had learned the ways of the forest and so we survived. But then again, during the life of our chief, the whites had come again, this time looking for rubber. This made all the other tribes move as well, and so old rivalries and hatreds between these tribes got even more violent as we all searched for a place to live. Our chief was old and he had seen many things and met many people even among the whites, and he had moved the village three times before we had come to the place where I was born and raised.
As I said before, among our people, I was called Tapir because I was strong and had a lot of endurance and could carry heavy burdens over long distances. And while these things were useful, it was also true that I was not particularly quick or clever or fierce and, maybe because my eyesight was poor, I had no great skill with the bow and arrow. So I was not very successful as a hunter or of much use in battle. This was evident even when I was a child, and I got teased. I was always a little distracted because I used to daydream a lot. My mind would just go off to some place where I was a great warrior and a hero. I think even my mother and father, although they were always kind, were disappointed. All this might have been very bad for me except for my sister who was four years younger than I. Almost from the very first, she looked up to me and loved me, and followed me everywhere, and at night always insisted on sleeping next to me. She was many of the things I was not. She was lively and clever and quick. She could spot humming birds high up in the canopy of trees, sometimes even when some of the best hunters could not, and with her graceful agility, she could run through the undergrowth silently and almost invisibly. But she always remained especially fond of me and would think of quick-witted replies often before I realized that the other children were taunting me.
I was thirteen and my sister nine when she became ill. It began as some kind of pain in her left foot, but she said nothing about it until her entire leg was affected, and walking was unbearably painful. The herbal brews with which our chief cured all our illnesses had no result, and she could only lie in bed, glassy eyed and feverish. I looked after her day and night, bringing her manioc gruel and water, washing her forehead, and massaging her leg to ease her pain. The chief went into the forest to determine the cause of her illness in a vision he would receive from taking ayahuasca, the vision vine. When he returned a few days later, he called my father and mother and me to his lodge. He told us that my sister had become sick because she had stepped on a tiny sliver of glass or something like it which had been dropped by a white man a long time before. The object had punctured her foot very slightly, perhaps almost unnoticeably, but the infection was very strong and had entered her in that way. Because it was a white man's illness, it was not susceptible to forest medicines, although this was not often the case.
There was, he said, only one way in which she could be cured, otherwise she would die within two months. This particular illness was a white man's illness and could only be cured by the medicines of the whites. He could arrange for us to go to a Christian priest who lived on the banks of the Amazon some eight days away. He had met this priest on a number of occasions over the last ten years, and he knew him to be a kind man, sympathetic to the forest indians. This priest, whose name was Father Martin Sorriano was a member of an order which had a big modern hospital in the city of Manaus, ten days down the Amazon. There my sister could be cured. He was certain that if I accompanied her, my sister would survive such a hard journey, but he cautioned that both of us would be entering a strange and difficult world for which we had little preparation. He had seen in his vision that we would both have long lives, but that we might not find our way back to our people for a long time, and by the time we did, things could well have changed beyond recognition. His tone became reflective and he looked at me curiously. I remember this particularly because I don't think the chief had ever spoken directly to me before, and I had never felt that he considered me of any great use to our people and his plans for our survival. He said that this journey, even though the alternative was my sister's death, should not be undertaken lightly. It appeared that if I went, I would play a considerable part in the changes that would come to our people, and this was a burden I would have to accept in making my decision. And so, he said, this decision regarding my sister's life and my own future also involved our people, and was mine alone to make. My parents could barely conceal their surprise and anxiety when they heard this. The chief turned smiling to me. But as I looked in his eyes, there was no smile, only the deep impersonal blackness of a still river pool.
"You should be confident. You have the ability to bear a heavy burden though you may not be gifted in other ways. Don't agitate yourself unnecessarily but be attentive to your dreams tonight. Then, in the morning, come and tell me what you have decided to do."
We walked back to our house in silence and for the first time in my life, I felt set apart in some special way. I was nervous that I wouldn't be able to remember my dream or that nothing special would happen. In the two times that I had joined in taking ayahuasca with several others my age under the chief's guidance, my visions had been unclear and frightening and did not lead into the detailed understanding of the forest and the ways of animals and plants which my friends experienced.
But that night, I slept and dreamed more clearly than I ever had before or since. I dreamed that I floated up above our village, and I could see how all the houses were arranged and the surrounding gardens. And then, as I rose higher, above the level of the tall green canopy of the tallest trees, I could see through the branches as the men went out on their hunting expeditions, far along almost invisible trails until they reached the banks of distant rivers.
I watched the movements of herds of deer and wild pigs on the ground and howler monkeys in the trees and the flocks of partridges, tinamou, currassows. I saw harpy eagles and hawks pursue their prey, and on the ground I saw where the boa and the jaguar lived and hunted. I watched other tribes and rubber cutters in their migrations. I saw the sun rise and cross the pale bright sky, and I saw the moon follow through the dark starry sky. I saw everything large and small moving in its own struggle and in its own course, an indescribable mysterious pattern that left me feeling a great tenderness and at the same time very still and calm.
When I woke up, just as the sun began to lighten in the sky, I remembered everything perfectly and without effort. Intuitively, I understood that this dream had been sent to me by the chief to help me make my decision. I looked at my sister who was already awake. She stared at me silently with her large dark eyes and I told her everything, and that I had decided that we should go. She nodded, and I slipped out of the house to go tell the chief of what I had dreamed and decided. He listened, said my dream was a good one and that he was proud of me, heard my decision and at once set about making preparations to take me and my sister to Father Martin.
We set out the next morning. I carried my sister on my back, and the chief, accompanied by half a dozen men, led the way. My mother and father were solemn as they said good by. They wished us a safe journey and a swift return though surely they knew that this was unlikely. It was a sad moment for me and my sister, but soon we were moving very quickly through the forest and had little time to think of much else. It was not difficult for me to carry her along with my bow, arrows and the few other things I possessed, but it was difficult to move swiftly and quietly as the others did. Slowly however, I came to move more easily, and as I became more confident, I found myself more attentive to the patterns of vegetation and the shifting sounds and fluctuating odors that filled the forest and constantly told what birds and animals were or had been nearby. I had never realized before how rich was the knowledge which the forest held and gave, and I found myself, despite my sister's condition and our destination together, amazed and joyful.
We arrived at the priest's cabin on the bank of the Amazon sooner than we had anticipated, but before we went up to the cabin ourselves, the chief observed it from the underbrush for half a day and then posted five of the men in the forest around it and arranged for the signals by which they could let us know if enemies approached. Then I , my sister, the chief, and one other man went to see Father Martin.
The father was a tall, gaunt, hawk-nosed man with black hair and worn black clothes. He treated the chief with deference and the rest of us courteously, and offered us fruit and a kind of tea. He spoke enough of our language, that when we had all sat down on his front porch, the chief was able to explain our purpose. The priest examined my sister carefully, smiled down at her as he stroked her forehead, and agreed to help. He said that a boat would be coming by in the next few weeks, and that he would make sure we would be well treated on the trip to Manaus and taken care of when we reached there. When all was arranged to the chief's satisfaction, he told us that he would stay the night and depart the next morning.
My sister slept soundly and I was glad because during our journey she had suffered a lot. But I could not sleep at all. I was uneasy about the future, and the constant whispers and dense mingled fragrances of the flowing river were unfamiliar and unsettling. Towards morning but while it was still dark, I felt the old chief's hand on my shoulder . He led me a little ways off into the woods so we could talk without being heard.
"I'm going now. Everything with the priest is arranged and he will make sure you are taken care of. Do whatever he asks you to do, even if it seems strange. You will need to learn new customs, and he will show you what you need to know. I think your sister will get well and you two can look after each other. Please do not forget us, your people and come back to us when you can. We will not forget you." And then without another word or gesture, he was gone.
Those next weeks of waiting by the river at the Priest's house were very lonely. The fact that we were still close enough to our village that we could go back if we really wanted somehow made it worse. The priest kept me busy with various chores he needed done. He made me and my sister both wear clothes, pants and a shirt for me, a smock for her , and both of us found this quite hard to get used to. He also taught us some words of Portuguese, some prayers, and a few days before the boat came, he baptized us by pouring some water on our heads as he chanted. Then he gave us little cards which he said we should always keep with us since they would show whoever needed to know that we were Christians and not just savages.
I didn't know what it meant, but I did as the chief had told me and this included using my new name, Amadeo, which the priest said meant beloved of god. The last name, Rosas was , he said, his mother's maiden name and he gave that to my sister as well. Her first name from the baptizing was Maria which means queen of heaven. And to this day, whenever I think about her, it is the only name I know her by, Maria Rosas.
Manaus at that time was a very busy place. Steam ships, freighters came there filled with all kinds of things, machines, cloth, guns, nails, knives, hand tools and left filled with rubber and timber from the forest. The little outboard motor boat which we had been riding in for five days, and which was the largest boat I had ever seen was suddenly dwarfed by those huge black iron hulls. And the noise. I had found the river's soft sounds and aromas unsettling, so you can imagine that this riot of machine noises, steam whistles, chains clanking, men shouting and grunting as they carried crates and bales, and the riot of alien smells, of sweat and fuel oil, and metal, and dry dust completely overwhelmed me. Nothing of the many familiar messages which the forest sounds carried could be heard at all. I was more numbed and frightened than I can say.
I don't think I would have had the courage to step off the boat if it had not been obvious that Maria, my sister would soon be close to dying. She had not said a word for a long time, and she slept, her breath shallow and quick, through most of the days and nights. Her face was pinched with constant pain and her lips were almost white. The few times during each day that she would wake up to eat and drink , she would look into my eyes with such trust and love, and I would smile back with more confidence than I felt. But the time had come when something had to be done quickly.
The boatman, whose name I don't remember, but who was a kindly, silent man, took us through the crowded strong smelling streets and past many high wood buildings to the hospital, and told our story to one of the sisters there . The sister took one look at my sister and called for the doctor and for some other nurses to help, and before I knew what was happening, they had put her on a white table with wheels and were taking her off down the corridor. She turned and cried out: "Don't leave me." I ran after her but a priest I hadn't seen before held me back. "Promise me you'll wait," she cried again. "I'll be here. I will. I promise," I shouted back.
They wheeled her down a shadowy hallway, through a pair of swinging doors and after that, I didn't see her again.
I turned to the priest who was very young looking and asked him where should I stay to wait. He understood my language but he said that it was not allowed. Healthy people could not stay in a hospital. It was a place for the sick and for doctors and nurses. He knew about me because of a letter from Father Martin. My sister's illness would take a long time to cure, maybe as much as a year, and in that time I should go with him to a school that was not far away. There they would house and feed me and teach me things. I told him that I had promised my sister to stay and that she needed me, but he promised that as soon as she was well I could see her again, and that if she needed me, they would let me know at once.
I felt very bad about this, but there didn't seem to be any other choice for me, and I remembered what the chief had told me, and so I let that priest whose name was Father Antonio and who was then and afterwards always very kind to me, take me to the school. I stayed at that school, which was really a kind of orphanage for indians, for six years, and in this way I came to be a man of the modern world.
At the school, I learned Portuguese, a little Spanish, a little Latin. I learned how to read and write fairly well, and how to add and subtract. They taught us about the Christian religion, about the geography of the world, and about its history. From this I could see that the patterns of life that I came to understand in the forest were part of something a great deal larger.
The other boys at the school ranged in age from nine to about twenty and they were all indians, but from many different tribes. They were at the school because, like my sister, they had been sick, or they had been abandoned, or captured by rubber cutters, or in some other way separated from their people. There were about thirty-five of us in all, and some I could understand almost perfectly because our languages were similar, but to others it was easier to talk in Portuguese. All of us, I think, felt out of place in some basic way and homesick. So we grouped together on the basis of language, making ourselves into tribes once again. The rivalries between the groups made our soccer games, running contests, and other sports almost like wars. Like everywhere else, there were big shots and bullies and victims and tattle tales, and best friends, but I was just an ordinary boy, and got along without attracting any special attention.
I was content enough except that I couldn't see my sister. Father Antonio carried messages between us, but he told me that her case was proving more serious than had been expected, and that although she was getting better, progress would be slow. For this reason, they moved her from the hospital to a sanitarium that was attached to a convent just outside the city. I didn't know exactly where it was, but we kept in touch through Father Antonio, and after he had been sent upriver to Iquitos, the Rector of my school. And at that convent, they must have been teaching her too, for after a year she began sending me notes and letters. The first one just said her name, MARIA, but later she wrote that she was getting better and that she was being well treated and that she missed me. Then she wrote that they were sending her to another hospital that specialized in her disease, and she would write me from there, but I waited for a long time without hearing from her and even though Father Antonio told me everything was all right, I worried.
I should say a little more about my school. It was, I now realize, a special place. Very few schools would take indians at all, and if they did, the idea was to turn them into trustworthy Latin Americans. The school I was at had a different aim. They wanted us to keep up with our forest skills and to whatever extent we could, share amongst ourselves the lore of our tribes .So once every six weeks or so they took us to the forest on the holdings of some sympathetic landowner and let us loose to fend for ourselves. We had to wear pants, but in every other way, we were to live as before. We all thought this was very exciting, although my skills as a tracker and hunter were never very good. Still we always got enough to eat, and at night, we would tell stories as we sat by the fire. It turned out that I was pretty good at this, much to my, and I think everybody else's surprise. Maybe it came from being in the forest again and feeling how vivid and informative life is there, so ripe and unfolding. Maybe it was the dream the chief sent me so long ago. But as we sat in the dark, I could just tap into something like a night stream which just flows and flows.
But it was also a little strange, because then, we would go back to school and learn to be altar boys wearing little lace dresses as well as everything else. Strange as it might have been we were all quite aware that our situation was better than falling prey to new sicknesses, being butchered by rubber cutters in the forest or living, working and dying as the lowest of the low on the filthy streets of Manaus.
Whoever started that school had the noble idea that if the tribal people became Christians, then they would not be slaughtered and could live in peace. So really, we were being trained to help priests who were already living in the forest and to guide and translate for missionaries who would go there later. There was also some hope that we would help the priests learn about all the medical and other uses of the many plants, and that this knowledge could help all the world. Like many fine ideas, it didn't work out that way : there was either too much money to be made to let the indians stand in the way or to little to make it worth the effort to understand and teach him. So when the rubber boom collapsed completely, the funds for the project failed and the school closed. But for the time I was there, and for a short time after my schooling was done, it was a good, kind place, and it helped a lot of us indians.
As we became older, to test how we would do and see how we would get along, we were sent out with the boats that supplied the missions up and down the Amazon. Later we would be assigned more permanently to one place or priest or another. There was no compulsion, but it was expected that we would work at these posts for at least five years before going off on our own. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that most of us actually fulfilled our part of the bargain.
Anyhow, I had begun to go out on the boats, and this involved both keeping records, hauling freight, making oneself useful in small ways and generally being sociable. One day however, the Rector of the school who was a stocky, abrupt, gray-haired priest in his sixties, Father Matteus sent for me. I was surprised and nervous, because the Rector only sent for you if you had done something wrong or if something very bad had happened in your family. Since I couldn't think of anything I had done wrong, I was afraid that it must be about my sister. The Rector's office was cool and dim, lit only by the light that filtered through the palms outside and the drawn shutters. Like the rest of the school, it smelled of furniture polish, but here there was also cigar smoke. The Rector was sitting not behind his desk, but beside the window smoking. As I came in, he waved his hand vaguely.
"There's nothing wrong. Come, sit here," and he motioned me to a straight chair beside his. I was used to him being more aloof so I was a bit surprised and wary. "You are Capanahua, Amadeo?" I nodded. The Rector puffed at his cigar thoughtfully for a while. "I don't think I've ever met any of your people ..... In fact, I'd never heard much about them until you came here."
"There's my sister, sir, Maria."
"Of course, of course, Amadeo," A long curl of blue smoke floated out of his mouth and up into the hovering shadow of ceiling as he spoke. "I know about her. She's doing as well as can be expected, by the way." And then he went back to thinking and smoking for a while. "It's just that beside you two, no one has ever met anyone of your tribe. And, at the same time, amongst the forest people, the Capanahua have a great reputation for knowing the ways of the forest, and also, I am sorry to say, for magic. But even the other indians have not met them or seen them. It's really very strange ....Where, I wonder, were you settled before you came here?"
When I told him that we had lived between the Putumayo and the Amazon, he said that some traders and one of his priests had recently been in those parts, but had not come across my people . "Well," I said," our chief is a very wise man , and he has kept us as far away from both the whites and the other tribes as he could."
"Wise indeed," the Rector agreed. "But where that leaves us, my boy, is that you are the only available representative of a tribe no one has ever seen." I shrugged, and he looked at me dubiously. "So, you'll just have to do, won't you?" I must have looked puzzled, but the Rector returned to his smoking and thinking as if I weren't there until finally his mind was completely made up.
"All right then, young Amadeo, I have a job for you. There's a man who would like to talk to you. He's a Danish Baron." The Rector saw that I had no idea what he was talking about and so he opened an atlas that was lying on the window sill. "You remember from geography, here is Europe, and here," and he pointed to a little spit of land towards the top, "is Denmark. The chief of all this land is a king and this man is one of his cousins. Baron means he is a kind of sub-chief." I nodded, and the Rector snapped the book closed. "So he is an important man in his country and he has come here to learn about the forest tribes. He wants to write a book, I'm told. Actually, he wants to write about a tribe that is otherwise unknown.
"So you would seem to be about perfect. He wants to interview you every afternoon from two to four o'clock until he has learned all he can. Then he might want you to go with him to look for your tribe and help him talk with them. He is willing to pay the school well for your services, and he will probably offer you something for yourself, and you should feel free to take it. Is that all right with you?" I shrugged. it seemed quite strange to me.
"What does this man want me to tell him about?"
"Oh you know, tribal lore, laws, religion, myths, that sort of thing."
Then I was quiet for a long time and stared down at the floor. It was a very painful moment for me.
Ever since I had first come to the school and been taught about God and Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary and seen the gold altar, and the paintings, and the shining silk robes which the priests wore when they celebrated the mass, and then had learned of the vast world which the people of this God ruled over with their libraries of knowledge, their incredible boats and machines, their enormous buildings, I had felt secretly ashamed. Why, I remember how shocked I was to find that these people didn't even need to hunt because they could force the animals which they killed for their food to stay near them.
I had never let them see, as the chief had instructed me long ago, that I was afraid or even impressed, but compared to this overwhelming mastery over the world of nature, ours, that of all us indians, seemed tiny and childish, like the games we played on our outings in the forest. I had never wanted to admit this to myself or anyone else. I had hoped I would succeed in learning their ways without having to, but now, I saw I could not escape.
"But sir, my people just don't have those." I was so ashamed that I almost cried. Instead, I suppose that I just looked stubborn, and mulish.
So I was very surprised when I finally looked up at the Rector to see that he also looked quite stunned. With as much dignity as I could muster, I tried to explain.
"My people have nothing. They live in the forest and they have to know its ways if they are to survive. All they have is the forest to provide for them, nourish them, heal them, and give guidance to them. That is all there is. There is nothing that my people have of their own." I felt, in speaking like this that I was betraying my people and exposing their poverty and weakness, but I felt I had no choice. The Rector, on the other hand, looked somewhat irritated, and paused until he could speak patiently.
"Look Amadeo, certainly your people have some kind of God or Great Spirit to worship and pray to."
"Well then, many Gods, like a god of hunting or childbirth or a jaguar god or a hawk or python god."
"No. It is not like that. We admire many creatures have because they show us the qualities and intelligence we need in order to cultivate in order to live, and in this way, these creatures bring us luck or not. But they are not gods; they are just themselves. "
"But your chief sees visions when he takes a certain vine and that's how he knows what has to be done?"
"That is true."
"Is that vine holy ."
"No. It has the power to show us things so we treat it with great care, as we do all the plants and animals which help us."
"And the visions, don't they come from some higher source?"
"They come from the vine itself which enables us to see the ways of the forest." The Rector was quite put out, but he seemed more determined than ever to press on.
"Surely you have myths about how the world was created and how your tribe came to be?"
"Well, we have a lot of stories which the elders like to tell at night, and some of them concern those things, but they are really just family stories like anyone would tell about the past. It always made us glad to hear these stories and we were always trying to get the old people to tell them. But we also liked to hear about the battles and hunting expeditions, and the encounters with unusual animals." Now the Rector seemed near to exhausting his patience.
"But you have laws, you must, about who can marry whom, and about what is a crime and how it should be punished. "
"I don't know. There were certainly disputes over many things, but only if they threatened to become violent, did the chief intervene. As for marriages, I don't know of anything specific. We had to live in accord with the forest and in reasonable harmony with ourselves if we were to survive. So things that were not that way were very obvious and were dealt with so that we could continue." The Rector shook his head.
"So that's all there is? "
"I'm sorry. Yes." I felt very bad.
"You're not just talking this way to protect some tribal secrets, are you, Amadeo?"
"I swear, sir, by all that's holy, I'm telling you the truth." The Rector sighed. He must have seen how I felt, for all at once he seemed gentler. His cigar had gone out and he turned to stare between the slats of the shutters out the window, his chin in his hand. After a long time, he sighed again and spoke.
"I have already told the Baron about you, and he's very very excited, so there's no choice but to go ahead. What you say makes a certain kind of sense. It's too bad it's not more colorful or complicated. People like him, he is a kind of anthropologist, want something that however strange will fit into their categories of study...... Ah well. His fee would have been very useful right now, while our regular patrons are having problems. It's getting hard to keep all our work here, the school, the hospital, the missions, all of it , going." At this point, he must have seen how alarmed I looked. "Don't worry, please.... Things will be taken care of: you will all be looked after."
"And my sister?"
"Yes, especially her. Of course. But it may not come to that, who knows?" He smiled, but his eyes were bleak. "Anyhow, the first interview is at two o'clock day after tomorrow. The gentleman's name is Baron Steingrim Jensen and he's staying at the Excelsior Hotel. You should be punctual."
"Yes, sir." He waved his hand, dismissing me, but as I reached the door, he spoke.
"Amadeo, you shouldn't be ashamed of your people. They live in great innocence, and they know God through his works if not by his name. Perhaps if you think of it that way, you will not have to regret anything."
I turned and saw that as he spoke he was fumbling in the pocket of his cassock, looking for another cigar.
"I will think about it, sir." But I didn't quite understand at that moment what he was getting at..
"You're a good boy, Amadeo. Please don't worry about all our problems here. I didn't mean to burden you. We must be confident that whatever happens is part of the Lord's plan which is hard to see from our limited perspective. But at the same time, maybe you can take your time in talking to this Baron. It wouldn't hurt to stretch it out a little bit."
"I will sir."
But really I was quite disheartened by my talk with the Rector, and it wasn't until I was walking down to the harbor under the morning sun the next day, running an errand for one of the priests, that I got a glimmer of the possibilities in what the Rector had said to me. And, for the first time I had an idea of how I might be able to contribute to the honor of my people, help my school and help my sister all at the same time. In short, I glimpsed how I might be of use in the modern world.
As you can imagine, I was both excited and scared next day when I arrived at the Hotel Excelsior. This hotel was the grandest, most luxurious, and most expensive in Manaus at that time, and only the wealthiest landowners and traders and the most eminent visitors from North America and Europe, including the famous opera singer, Caruso stayed there. It's facade was like a wedding cake of cast iron balconies which looked out over the harbor. I felt that even though the Rector had given me new white cotton pants, shirt, a jacket, and a very uncomfortable pair of black leather shoes, I was out of place. And I might have given in to my fears and walked away, but the doorman who was a tall black man sweating in a heavy red coat with gold braid and buttons gave me such a contemptuous look that I could not give in. I sped past him before he could stop me and found myself in the lobby which was two stories high, painted in cream and gold with maroon carpets, huge potted palms, sofas and chairs with silk upholstery and tables with marble tops . Large electric fans on the ceiling cooled the room with a gentle breeze while well dressed men and women moved slowly and easily and talked in hushed voices. It was like entering a cathedral, and until that time, I had no idea that people actually lived in such surroundings.
Almost immediately, a young man in a blue uniform with smooth shiny hair was standing in front of me, barring my way. But before he could say any more than "I'm sorry, but...." , I told him that I had been sent by the Rector of the school and had an appointment with Baron Steingrim Jensen. The man looked very irritated and snapped his fingers to summon a bell-boy in a little round hat to escort me quickly to the Baron's rooms. So, after a journey up a long marble stair case and down a wide hall way where the carpet muffled even the clumsiest foot step, I found myself ushered by a secretary into the Baron's presence.
The Baron was the whitest man I ever saw. Others that I called white were really just as brown as I am, but the Baron's face and hands were really as white and smooth as a tea cup. His eyes were pale blue, and his hair was very fine and almost white. He wore a black necktie, but everything else, his shirt, his suit, his shoes and socks were white and immaculate. In fact for as long as I knew him, even when we went on a long expedition up-river, Baron Jensen never seemed to get dirty at all, and no matter how hot and damp, he never seemed to perspire. His face got shiny, yes, but he did not actually sweat. He greeted me with a warm smile and a firm hand shake, pointed to a comfortable chair and ordered tea. His Portuguese was not very good, and, of course he spoke no Indian languages and only a little Spanish, so his secretary, a tired looking Spaniard in his late fifties, sat behind him and translated into English when necessary and took notes.
The Baron began by thanking me for coming, and then, after carefully consulting a small red morocco leather notebook, he spoke of his deep admiration for my school, its Rector and teachers. He said that their work in helping the indians adapt to contemporary conditions while preserving as much as possible their culture was very important. His own goal, he went on , was to present the wisdom of my tribe to a Western audience and in this way gain them respect, and perhaps, a measure of safety. He hoped I could appreciate that. I said indeed I could, and that such a thing would indeed be very valuable.
As he spoke Baron Jensen's voice was quite fervent but his movements were precise and self-contained. He looked at me openly, but whether he liked what he saw, I had no idea so I acted in as quiet and dignified a way as I could. He said that he understood that I had left my tribe when I was about fourteen, and I said that this was true. He was pleased by this because , he said, it meant that, unlike many other indians who had been to school, I would have been initiated as a warrior and a full adult member of the tribe. And so I came to present my first of many many adaptations, or maybe it's better to say tell him my first of many many lies when I said simply: "Yes." And I saw that this made him quite excited.
So, he went on, I would be willing to talk to him? And I said yes, certainly, and that I would tell him as much as I could. And now the two hours were almost up. The Baron's need for frequent help from his translator-secretary meant that conversation went very slowly. I had expected that I would have already told him about my parents and where we lived in this first session, but I could see that there would be no great difficulty in making this job last for at least three months and maybe more. As the Rector had foreseen, he offered me some money for myself which I accepted, we shook hands again and agreed to continue.
The Baron was very much a man of habit Our meetings which went on for more than a year never deviated from the formula of the first meeting. The handshake, the chair, the tea, a little opening speech that summarized our discussions to date always preceded his questions which he read from his little notebook. He was always polite, respectful, and considerate to me. Even, after a few weeks, when he gave me some extra money to buy two good suits and shirts and a decent pair of shoes so that my passage through the hotel lobby would not be so conspicuous, he managed to do so without the slightest hint of condescension. He was able to maintain both his routines and his manner even on our long trip up the Amazon a year later, but it was only then, when we were together under fairly close quarters, that I saw clearly what I should have recognized earlier: he drank continuously throughout the day and night and was always at least half intoxicated. It was also during that journey that I found out the rest of his day was as ordered as his afternoons. He would get up about nine, bathe and shave, then write out long hand the results of our previous day's work, then lunch, a nap, a walk, then me, then dinner, then he would re-write and plan his next questions, then sit outside and stare at the sky, then go to bed where he would read until he fell asleep at about midnight. Sometimes he would go out for dinner, but otherwise he adhered to this regime single-mindedly.
He was a very private man. He spoke little about himself and it was only years later that I found out that he was indeed a cousin of the King of Denmark and extremely rich. But he was the younger son and so had no occupation in life other than what he chose for himself. Perhaps this was why he clung to his habits so strongly. I also came to feel that there was something very sad in his nature, some kind of longing or regret that was strictly contained by his rigid routine, but I never found out anything about it.
So for two hours a day, six days a week, I provided the raw material for the Baron's industriousness. Although at first I was afraid he would be unhappy at the measured pace of my disclosures, he seemed more than satisfied and even gave me a raise after six months. Just the money I received myself was more than double what a stevedore was getting at the time.
The Baron began with questions about my family and my relatives and how we lived, how we were treated by our parents and elders and what sort of groupings there were among the larger tribe. This led into my upbringing, and what games we learned as children to prepare us for more serious instruction in hunting, farming, and so forth. Since these things were simply a matter of remembering and easy for me to talk about, I was able to get my bearings and relax into my role as informant. And so, by the time we got to the areas where I could not afford to be so straightforward, and had to embellish a bit so that he would have a good impression of my people, I was sure of the Baron's trust and my own confidence.
What I told him about our beliefs and laws can be found in his book, The Children of God, A Study of Amazonian Religion which was published in England and Denmark within a year of his leaving South America. It received commendations from several royal societies, and even before it was translated into Portuguese and Spanish a few years later, it had been reviewed and commented on by intellectuals throughout South America almost immediately after its appearance in Europe. It made quite an impact, and I understand that it is still widely read and admired.
It reports faithfully the facts as I gave them, but uses them to prove the Baron's own theories about the single origin of all religions. It is his idea, based on what I told him, that Eden, a world where God and man communicate directly and man is the steward of God's kingdom, is a reality in the development of all religious systems and societies. As mankind pursues its own destiny , its own desires, and its own individuality, as it divides the sacred and the secular, and culture and nature, individual and environment, this Eden becomes a remote golden age, a mythic time and place, but my people, the Capanahua were still living in that purer reality or only just being drawn out of it.
Now that I have read the book, many aspects of the Baron's questions which puzzled me now make sense. For instance, I was very surprised and in fact alarmed when he began his questions on our religious beliefs by inquiring about how we saw the origin of the world. He obviously considered this of greatest importance and watched me carefully as I answered. Now as I have said, my people were mainly concerned with understanding and following the continuing flow of messages from the forest itself did not consider this important at all. So I had to improvise something quite substantial out of the half-joking stories the old men would tell late at night while they drank and listened to the forest. I had to think very hard about this, but the Baron took my hesitation as a natural reserve related to speaking of holy things.
What I came out with was how in the beginning there was only the sky which was movement and brightness and liveliness in a state of complete freedom compressed itself out of joy into a sun. This caused the great oceans so that the sky and sun could see their reflection, and the moisture also caused clouds which reflected in the water and became land, and as the sun was the liveliness of the sky, man, the densest shadow was the liveliness of the earth. So when we learned the ways of the forest and followed them, we were actually worshipping the great spirit of the sky and sun which is reflected in the shifting forest shadows, its plants and animals.
It was hard work putting this together, as you can imagine, but I was lucky that the hardest work came at the beginning because after that everything was comparatively easy. It was simple then to go into all kinds of detail about various animals and plants and to show how they were the intermediaries, associated with the stars, in bringing the wisdom of the sky down to earth. Our dances which we did to emulate the animals we were hunting so that we could anticipate their movements became ceremonies of sacred communication with sky messengers, and the raucous often drunken jumping around that accompanied a young woman moving into a young man's house to be his wife became a measured celebration of the union of heaven and earth. If you read the book, you will see all this.
As time went by, faced daily by the unfailing courtesy, interest, and even deference with which the Baron received and wrote down my tales, my adaptations sometimes became more daring, and I would watch carefully as the Baron listened to the translation to see if his belief in me had been in the least strained. When he asked me about the origin of our tribe, I was particularly adventurous in cobbling together some garbled reminiscences. I told him that we had originally lived where the sky meets the water, and that a pale blond man had come out of a small crack between those two elements and given birth to us. He had given us all our knowledge of how to conduct our lives, and it was that knowledge which we continued, to this very day, to pass along father to son. We had originally been as pale as he, but that as we went into the forest, we had become dark. I wondered what he would make of this little joke, but no, he just nodded seriously and wrote on in his red notebook. Sometimes, as I went along, I saw him look at me with real respect, almost as if I were a genuine man of wisdom.
All this adapting and expanding and embroidering might sound like hard work, but in fact it became quite easy. From the first moment when I saw what I could do with the Rector's idea, it was like putting a canoe into a small stream and floating along with the current as that stream became wider and deeper and stronger.
During that year I continued to live in the school dormitory and do chores for the priests when I was not with the Baron. But there were fewer students and priests, about half the number from when I had first come, and so it was obvious that the Rector's worries had been true. I saw him from time to time and he looked older and angrier. He always treated me particularly nicely, asked me how things were going, and thanked me for helping the Baron and the school, but I always saw a look in his eye that wondered what I was doing to keep the job going so long and suspected the worst. For my part, I always begged him for further information about my sister, and I pressed him to let me go and see her.
My sister was a sore place in my heart. Even though I had not seen her for many years, I thought of her every day and every night I prayed for her and I knew, that wherever she was, she was thinking of me and praying also. I wondered what she looked like now that she was a grown up woman and I imagined her walking beside me lithe and quick as I walked from the school to the hotel and back. She was the person I imagined myself talking to, sharing memories of the forest, laughing at the stories I was telling, sharing worries about the future. I missed her terribly and no matter how well things may have seemed on the outside, there was never a moment when I did not feel longing and sadness. She was the thread that connected my present life and my past .
I wrote to her twice a week and told her what was happening in my life. Every day I paid attention to the things that I thought would be of special interest to her and saved them up for my letter. I heard from Maria less frequently, about once every other week. I could tell from her handwriting that she was getting stronger but her letters were never very long. She told me that the convent was a pleasant place, very peaceful and quiet and that the nuns were very good to her there and that she was getting well. But even though she was better, she could no longer run, and it seemed that she would always have a limp. She said that the sisters had given her a certain amount of religious instruction. The Christian religion was , in many ways, quite strange, but she was very impressed by the kindness of the nuns, and she liked the idea of prayer which meant she was able to send her love to me, our parents, our people, and anyone she wished no matter how far away. She told me also that she had developed a certain talent for addition and subtraction so that now, she was able to help the sisters keep their records and accounts. It made her happy to be able to assist the people who had helped her, but for me it was strange to think of my sister, once so fleet in the forest, now lame and poring slowly over columns of figures. Her life went along uneventfully, so, in her letters, aside from the occasional anecdote, she usually commented on what I had written, and she advised me to be cautious in my interviews with the Baron and respectful to the Rector who were both so good to me. I could tell that she was quite surprised at my ingenuity and proud of me, and this made me very happy.
At the end of just more than a year, the Baron told me he felt that his understanding of my people was as complete as it could become under the circumstances, and that he now needed to do some fieldwork to amplify and confirm what we had worked on so far. For this reason, he had hired a boat to go up the Amazon to try and find my people, or, if he could not, to interview members of other tribes about their own ways of life. He expected that the trip would take about six months and asked me to join him as translator and guide. He offered me a very large sum of money and the same amount to the school if I would take the job. I told him I was willing but that I would first have to ask the Rector and write my sister.
The Rector gave his consent with a smile that had become both rueful and ironic, and he took my letter for my sister and told me he would make sure I got a reply within the next few days. The Baron was pleased that I had accepted and paid me in advance. I deposited the money in a bank account which the Rector had opened for me a year ago and which now held almost all the money I had made in the last year as well as my salary for the expedition. When I looked at the passbook, I realized that I was now, by local standards, a prosperous man, and could afford to buy a small house or business or farm if I wanted to. I was quite pleased with myself, but at the same time, it made me think about what I would do with my life when my work for the Baron finally ended. Shopkeeper, farmer, family man, none of it seemed very real to me, but I was happy that, come what may, I could support my sister. I heard from her a few days later. She thought I was right that I continue working for the Baron, and although she would miss very much hearing from me, she would keep me as ever in her thoughts and prayers, and looked foreword to my safe return. I knew I would miss her all the more without even our written communications.
I don't know what I imagined, but the boat which the Baron had obtained for our journey was more lavish than anything I had ever seen before. It had a shiny white hull, teak decks and a mahogany cabin and sparkled with brasswork. Inside it had four bed rooms as well as a large parlor and dining room. That boat was a floating version of the Excelsior Hotel. Where he got it from, I cannot imagine, but it caused quite a stir in the harbor when it docked with its captain in a gold braided white uniform and its spic and span crew of two.
It took a few days for the boat to get loaded up, and then we, the Baron, the Spanish secretary, who looked particularly long suffering, and I were off. Our progress up the river, which is still very broad at Manaus was slow and uneventful. The large yacht, staying at the center of the river where the channel was deepest, churned at a stately pace upriver through the greenish waters of the Amazon, and our days and nights were accompanied by the constant rumble of the powerful engines as they strained against the current. The Baron maintained his routine exactly as he had in the hotel and I continued to meet with him in the afternoon, but now I joined him for rather silent dinners as well.
I was, at first, very bored. Without realizing it, I had become used to the excitement of living in a city where every day, even on the most routine errand or just walking idly around, I would see some new thing or witness some kind of drama. But on the boat, there was nothing for me to do and not much to see, except for the occasional motor boat that went up and down the Amazon carrying provisions and mail between the city and the small settlements along the river. The engines annoyed me and the rocking of the boat, anchored every night in mid-stream, kept me awake.
At first, I wandered around the boat from room to room and around the deck, and when I looked outside at the endless dark tangle of trees, bushes, and vines, it all seemed dull and lifeless compared to the vivid and colorful man-made world. But after a day or so, in spite of myself, I fell into the sleepy rhythm of our journey and would spend all my free time just sitting cross-legged at the bow as the waters parted in a white vee in front of me and the forest narrowed slowly on either side. And as the forest closed in slowly, slowly also I began to be aware once again of the noises and smells, and the traces on the river bank of the vast and complicated life that surrounded us. I began to hope that I would again be seeing my people, which I had not thought of as a real possibility until then.
When we had passed the meeting of the Rio Purus with the Amazon and before we had reached the juncture with the Rio Jurua, we began stopping at trading posts, missions, and plantations along the river, trying to find informants . We would first see whoever lived in these places standing on the little docks they had built out into the river gawking and shaking their heads. I would go ashore in a row boat and ask, often in vain, about local indians. They had, it seemed, retreated long ago from those areas which the whites could reach with any ease, though one or two were said to appear out of the forest occasionally to trade for knives, axes and guns. But frequently we would meet a half breed or a priest or trader who claimed some familiarity with one tribe or another and some expertise about their lore. Such people were invited to tea and interviewed for as long as a week. Sometimes it took as long as a day or two for whoever was being interviewed to overcome his shyness and shock at the Baron's pallor and the lavishness of his environment. I was the translator for all these meetings, translating from Portuguese to Spanish which the secretary would in turn render into English. Little of interest was communicated, and nothing that was at odds with the information which the Baron had received from me.
We went along in this way for more than a month and if the Baron was disappointed, he never showed it. He had a camera and he photographed each of his informants standing on the pier or next to their house and he also took pictures of me and his secretary. He also took many pictures of the forest as we steamed by. After we passed the confluence with the Rio Jurua, the river became narrower and darker, and occasionally we did at last meet a few indians who worked or lived apart from their tribe near the trading posts and little missions. Sometimes their language resembled my own and sometimes that of one of my former schoolmates from whom I had picked up enough to get the general idea of what was being said. So I was able to translate easily enough their terse recollections of village life. Their guarded answers about their religious beliefs and so forth required only a little touching up to conform with what the Baron already knew.
The Baron took advantage of these meetings, whose value was otherwise rather sparse, to purchase various artifacts: bows, arrows, pots, and a beaded and feathered headdress. On my own account, I always asked the indians about my people, the Capanahua, and although a few had heard of them and knew of their reputation as healers and magicians, none had any knowledge of their present whereabouts.
As we journeyed further up river, the jungle pressed in on us from either side and the sky became a bright narrow sliver. I found myself increasingly absorbed in the sounds, sights and smells of the dense life of the forest, and the Baron's quest began to seem by contrast alien and trivial. At this point, we also began to take side trips in the row boat which was equipped for that purpose with a little outboard motor. I, the Baron, his poor secretary, and one of his crew would venture up one of the small nameless rivers that emptied into the Amazon through a tunnel in the forest which was lit only by the light which diffused through the leaves and sudden shafts of golden light that pierced through the high canopy of the trees.
"It is so still, so entirely still here. It is like life had stopped or not yet begun," the Baron turned to me and said with his shy smile. And I nodded, but did not reply, because for me, I had become again vividly aware of all that was going on around me.
We were usually looking for some village or encampment we had been told about, but sometimes, it was just a whim of the Baron's. Even though we would sometimes spend as much as three nights away from the ship, we never encountered anyone, and what signs of recent human occupation I saw on the river bank, I was not inclined to tell the Baron about. Instead, we talked about the various medical uses of the plants which we saw. I didn't really know all that much, but it kept us busy for the time. And, as we were now becoming close to the Rio Putumayo and the land where I had been born and lived in as a boy, the plants and animal life were very familiar. I became very homesick for this land which was no longer my home, nor, by all appearances, the home of anyone else.
It was during one of these side trips, while we were camping on the bank of a stream that we heard the intrusive sputter of another motor boat coming our way, and soon enough we saw one of those boats which connected the trading posts coming round the bend. The pilot hailed us and stopped. He had, he shouted, an urgent letter, here he waved it in the air, for Baron Steingrim Jensen. The Baron read it, and with only a slight trembling at the corner of his mouth to indicate anything exceptional, told us that his father had died and that he had to return to Denmark
As the two boats motored back to the yacht, a desire that had been forming wordlessly in me became a plan. Before I boarded the big boat, I quietly asked the river pilot if he came regularly along this part of the river. When he said that he did about every three weeks, I told him I might be staying in the forest for a while and asked him if he could take me back to Manaus after my stay. He said he would be delighted, and we left it at that.
Over dinner that evening, the Baron formally announced that our expedition was ended and that we would be returning to Manaus the next morning. He thanked all of us for our efforts and said that we could certainly keep the unearned portion of our fees with his profound gratitude since he was unwilling that his misfortunes should in any way become ours. He was about to retire to his room when I asked him if he would mind if I did not accompany him back to Manaus. Our journey had opened in me a longing for my former way of life, I told him, and I wanted to stay in the forest for a while. He stared at me thoughtfully for a long while , put his arm around my shoulders, gave me a kind of hug, and silently nodded his assent.
So, the next morning, one of the crew took me ashore along with some gifts from the Baron : a rifle, a machete, an ax, some tin pots, and ten gold pieces. The rest of my luggage, suits, shirts, shoes and a few other things, they would take with them and leave with the Rector. I watched from the shore while the big boat turned clumsily around with a lot of backing and filling, and then before it disappeared around the bend, the Baron came out and waved good-bye to me from the stern. As I waved back, we both smiled.
It took me quite a while to get used to being in the forest and to being alone. As soon as the boat was out of sight, I took off my clothes, folded them and put them in a small canvas valise which I hid, along with the rifle and the other things the Baron had left me in the crotch of a large tree high above the forest floor. It was strange being naked after so many years of wearing clothes and it made me feel very vulnerable for the first few days. I stayed fairly near the river bank, made myself a breach cloth, and began to renew my familiarity with wild life.
That first evening, as the light of the sun became a dim orange glow, a screeching flock of gray parrots flew over two by two on their way to a nesting tree, and locusts buzzed loudly in the shadows of the brush. The momentary twilight of the forest dissolved swiftly into a pulsing darkness, and the dampness in the air began to condense on the leaves, dripping from the treetops in a constant patter that continued all night as it fell onto the palm-leaf shelter I had thrown together to protect myself. I confess that I felt miserable and adrift as I was surrounded by a tumult of invisible life.
A tree frog would start croaking high up in a tree, and soon was answered by another until there seemed to be hundreds of them. In this raucous chorus, two whippoorwills sang forlornely to each other. A rotten branch of a big tree came crashing down somewhere deep in the forest. Mosquitoes in buzzing swarms bit me and I could not fall asleep.
Crickets and other insects emitted a continuous pulsating background hum for the other intermittent sounds of the night. A nearby partridge sang out suddenly with a clear flute like song. A heron also floated his call on the heavy night air, and a nocturnal monkey repeated his sad piping note over and over ever more rapidly. Calls seemed to emanate from alternating directions around the camp, and there were many other sounds which though dimly familiar, I could no longer identify Late at night, a deafening and drenching thunderstorm passed by, and sometime after that I fell into a restless sleep.
With the first pink light of dawn, a flock of toucans waked me with their cries from a nearby treetop, and the partridge I had heard the night before flew high above me in the trees. I stood up to look, and suddenly had the feeling I was not alone. I stopped and looked around. Great trees hung with vines and lianas, some attached to the tree trunks, others hanging free from the upper branches loomed above me, while dense groves of smaller trees and underbrush made it impossible to see very far. I could neither see nor hear anything other than the jungle and its sounds.
That day I searched out the herbs which I remembered from long ago. Rubbing myself with them, I could hide my human scent. I found a small clear stream where I could wash. By then the sun was sending shafts of honey-colored light onto the riverbank and to the forest floor. An emerald dragonfly hovered and darted in and out of the sunlight over the water, and I saw the flash of the silvery side of a big fish in the depths of a pool and thought of catching him later. The rest of the day, after I bathed, I wandered around, remembering the way to walk noiselessly and smoothly through the underbrush and looking for the proper kind of wood and vines to make a bow and arrow. I also searched out the fruit trees where the partridges fed, and listened as a band of howler moneys passed by overhead but far away. Night came as before and I was, this time, somewhat less uncomfortable.
By the end of two weeks, I was quite at home again in the forest. At first I lived on grubs and roots, and then since my hunting skills were as poor as before, I took to building little traps from sticks and vines in which I could catch birds or small game, as I wished. This skill which was unknown to my people, had been taught to me by a boy at school. I then made a long trek to find my former village or whatever was left of it, and after eleven days, I found the place deserted and overgrown. I stayed there for about a month. Nothing of the conical houses remained except for here and there a faint indentation in the ground, but at the garden sites, I was still able to find some yucca to eat. I visited the hunting grounds of my uncles and father, and I slept in the small secluded clearing near a spring where the chief had conducted the sessions with the vision vine. This place was the only one where there was still some faint feeling of the presence of my people.
I never encountered anyone nor the evidence of anyone, and I felt like a wandering ghost haunting the place. It was as if the entire world of our village, and all the people who had lived there and the things they had been and done had been no more than an episode in the life of the forest which now swept it all away and absorbed it, almost without a trace The only evidence of our existence there now was me. And I too had changed. True, I was happy that I could once again live in ease and harmony with this forest. Its messages were vivid and clear to me, and the rhythms of its movements brought me a profound sense of peace . But when I was a child and a boy, those things had completely engulfed me and been all the world for me, and now they were only a part of the world I knew. I felt strangely empty being there all alone. I knew it was impossible, but I couldn't help thinking that if Maria had been with me, just sharing these faint traces of our past would have given them more presence.
One night, after a cloudy rainy day which shrouded the forest in a cloudy mist, I had an exceptionally intense dream. There was no particular form or shape to it, but I felt I was swirling and tumbling in a whirlpool of colors and all I could hear was terrible screaming. I felt like something very dear to me was being pulled away, but I didn't know what it was or how to protect it. I woke suddenly crying for my sister, and I decided to go back to Manaus as soon as it was dawn.
I had to wait ten days on the river bank before the boatman came by. My clothes were only a little mildewed and the rifle and machete only slightly rusted, and I must have looked fairly fit for the boatman, whose name turned out to be Jose Alves, complimented me.
"Most people who go off into the jungle for a long spell, when they come out, they are sick and miserable and filthy. They can't wait until they can get someplace where they can have a hot bath, good hot food, clean sheets, whatever. And they can't wait to talk with somebody, be with somebody, anybody, you know? They're a mess, and they look half-crazy from being out there too. But you, you look good. You look like you just had a long vacation. You must be some kind of a man, yes? Some kind of a man." He was a wiry little man in his mid sixties. His hair had turned gray and he had a gold tooth that made his friendly smile completely sincere. Nonetheless, the suddenness of all this chatter washed over me and all I could do was nod and shrug and smile back at him. "Manaus, right? That's what you said when that ocean liner left you off, no?" I nodded again, threw my belongings into the boat, sat down and off we went.
We were together on that trip for almost three weeks. Jose settled down and after a while stopped altogether trying to find what I had been up to. But he loved to talk and as we stopped at one little settlement after another, he would tell me all about the occupants, their character, their habits, their history, and their needs. I helped him with the loading and unloading and with keeping track of all our deliveries, and he showed me how to run the boat so that I could spell him while he rested. In between our stops, he pointed out navigational hazards, and told stories about settlements that had failed, blood feuds, Indian raids, tempestuous romances, fortunes made and lost, arranged marriages, fraternal rivalries, murders, jealousy, spells and curses, miraculous healings, unaccountable occurrences and disappearances. In fact, he spun out an entire history of man's activities on this stretch of the Amazon for the last hundred years as we traveled down the river. Our slow meandering course and the twists and turns of his stories became fused in my mind as the river flowed on and on. It must have gotten in my system without me really being aware of it, because when we finally reached Manaus, this time the port and all those buildings looked so rigid and their very solidity seemed foolishly in vain.
I was sorry to leave Jose, but I was very anxious to see the Rector and find out about my sister. I was also excited because I thought that this time, at long last, I might actually be able to see her. But when I got to the school, it was closed and boarded up. I couldn't understand what had happened. It took me an hour or more to track down the half blind old drunkard who had been left there as caretaker, and he could tell me almost nothing. The order had decided that they could no longer to run the school and the Rector had been sent back to Sao Paulo. I must have started to scream at the old man :"What about my sister? What about me? The Rector promised. You better tell me." I think I must been very threatening, and I was certainly and suddenly almost completely beside myself and crazy because somewhere in that old man's stuporous brain some thing stirred.
He did recall something, something the Rector had told him about a former student and some letters that had been left at a bank, something like that.
I was running off down the street without even waiting to hear if there was anything more.
The bank guard took me to the bank manager but he continued to hover around because I must have looked like a person who was on the edge of doing something desperate. The manager, by contrast was full of smooth assurances that everything was taken care of, provided for, arranged, but the guard did not leave until the manager had brought me my valise from the boat, a box of my belongings from the school, my bank book and a stack of letters. I ripped into these letters like some kind of dog. The topmost was a short note from the Rector. It said that , as I knew the school was closed, the money had run out, he was being sent to Sao Paulo and would probably be sent out elsewhere. He thanked me for my help and my loyalty, and said he had made sure that my sister was continuing to be well cared for. He enclosed, on a separate page, a letter of reference for me should I ever need it.
There were two letters from my sister. The first was very short and said that although she knew I was still away, she missed writing to me and just wanted to say how much just thinking of me gave her joy and strength. The second was much longer. The convent where she had been staying was to be closed. It was all very sudden but the money had stopped coming in and the Provincial General of the order in Sao Paulo had decided that drastic and immediate steps needed to be taken. Some of the sisters were going to a small convent-hospital near Iquitos and that she would go with them. There she could live pretty much as she did now and could continue to help in the same way. She did not have the address, but was sure that if I came to Iquitos, I would find the place easily.
I was, as I read this, completely clear on what I had to do next. I told the Bank manager to give me a letter of credit for the amount in my pass book and that I would be back in a few hours to collect it and the rest of my belongings.. I ran to the harbor, found Jose and told him I wanted to accompany him back upriver to Iquitos. He agreed and the next morning we set off.
I was very nervous on this trip upriver. The journey was slower, because we were going up stream, and because we had further to go.
We were in that boat together for almost six weeks, and while I performed the same duties as before, maybe to ease myself, I began telling Jose all about the things that had happened to me in my life. When I finished, Jose nodded seriously and smiled. He said that my story reminded him of another one, and he went on to tell about a brother and sister, born in Spain, who were separated at three and five years of age respectively when their parents died. Each was raised by a different set of relatives, and the boy became an army officer and the girl married a rich Brazilian. As they followed their different destinies, they completely lost track of each other. But fifty years later, after each had given up all hope of ever seeing the other again, they met by accident one evening when they were seated in the same box at the opera house in Manaus.
The next day, Jose told the tale of a young apprentice rubber cutter who was kidnapped by the indians and trained to be a medicine man and chief, but escaped and after having many strange occupations became a healer. He went on late that evening into another account, prompted by the sight of a huge rock jutting out of the river near its edge.
It seemed that Jose's supply of stories was truly endless, but on this journey, he talked more about other boatmen, their lives, skills, adventures, follies, and lore. In this way, a time which might have been most anxious for me passed in an almost soothing way. One night, towards the end of this trip, I asked him if the number of stories he knew had any limit. After considering this as he smoked a cigarette with his nicotine stained fingers, he said that being a single mortal man, there must be a limit, but that he had not yet found it. Since people continued to tell him things, he doubted that he would find an end to it.
But whatever relaxation I had felt on our trip evaporated when I saw the scruffy little harbor of Iquitos. All I could think of was my sister. I felt that she was very near to me, and I was so anxious to get on with finding her that I think I did a very bad job of unloading the boat and tallying up the cargo. Jose said he would wait a few weeks for me, and then I raced off into Iqiuitos like a mad dog on the scent.
I went everywhere: by day I visited the churches, convents, monasteries, schools, the mayor's office, hospitals, and the military barracks; by night hotels, inns, bars all with no result. People were kind or officious, concerned or uninterested, but the result was always the same: no one had heard of my sister or a group of nuns that had recently arrived here from Manaus. After a week or so of this, I took to frequenting the markets where people came from outlying regions and might have heard of something and I spent a lot of time in the bars and places where travelers stayed. It was no doubt my desperation at feeling, on the one hand, that I was at last so near to the place where I could at last find my sister and, on the other, so close to losing even the slightest contact with her completely, that I began to drink quite a lot. I got quite insane. I reeled through the streets and crawled through the bars telling my increasingly wild and incoherent tale, crying uncontrollably for all and anyone to hear. And so I might have become another lost and deranged drunken Indian, talking crazily and, when my money had run out or been stolen from me , begging and living on the street. But Jose, who had, in his unobtrusive way, been keeping track of me, came and saved me.
He found me passed out in my own vomit on the dirt floor of a bar, and with the help of a friend of his, took me to a room he had rented and made me sober up and would not let me out until I could control myself. He kept me there for about five days, bringing me food, water to bathe in, clean clothes, and just sitting with me. Unlike his easy going, talkative manner on the boat, he didn't say much of anything and mostly looked thoughtful and a little sad. When finally he thought I would be all right, he took me out for a long walk. We ended up sitting on one of the little piers that jutted out into the green oily water and looked at the dark forest on the opposite bank as the sunset turned the sky a brilliant opalescent orange. We sat there silently along time, Jose smoking and the two of us just looking as the sky became crimson and then deep lavender. Then he began to talk to me in a low careful voice.
"The same thing happened to me you know. Not exactly the same, but enough the same that I know how you feel now even though for me it was a long time ago. And I also know that the feeling never really goes away. You're young and intelligent so I won't lie to you. It doesn't ever go away, but...." and here he shrugged and made a little smile. "You know, I used to be a singer...It's true. I played the guitar and I sang. I had a beautiful voice and I could make up songs that every now and then I still hear people singing today, and I lived in Manaus. I was very popular. I played in all the best bars there and I made a very good living. I even had a house of my own, and I met a very pretty girl and fell in love and got married and we lived in that house and I made enough money that I could give her anything she wanted.
"So I was very happy, and I was crazy in love with my wife. I thought about her all the time and all my songs were about her. But my wife, after a year or so, she was not that happy. She didn't like going with me to the bars, and she didn't like staying home alone, and she didn't like the idea that when I was singing other women found me attractive. She didn't like those things even though she had found me attractive when she had first heard me singing in a bar. Well, anyhow, late one night, I came home and she was gone, and all her clothes were gone, and her hair brush and her jewelry. Everything, except for a note to say that she had left with a school teacher who was moving to another city and kept normal hours.
"Just like you, I went crazy. I drank. I couldn't work. I didn't want to write a song or sing one. I swore I would never sing or play again, and in fact, for some reason or other I still haven't. But then I absolutely couldn't see any reason to go on at all. I was scared to kill myself so I became a drunk and a bum and lived by begging and by odd jobs. I worked around the harbor mostly, loading and unloading and then I'd go and get drunk. That was it.
"But then, I don't know, I began working on the boats themselves, going up and down river, and I liked it. It was interesting and it didn't bring any old memories back. Slowly I saved some money, and I got a boat of my own. And that's how it is. So, you see, I know all about it.
"But the thing of it is, and I'll tell you the truth, you never, not ever get over it. I still miss my wife. I think of some evening or other when we went out and laughed and had a good time and there was all that love, and even though I can tell you about it, tell you my life story, I still can't understand why it had to happen the way it did. But also what happens is this: this feeling of missing her just becomes part of you, part of what you think about, part of what, for better of worse, you are. So just like I miss my wife, you will miss your sister and think about her and pray for her and sometimes even talk about her. It will be this way for as long as you live, and it will be the same for her. And maybe you will meet again and maybe you will not, but that is the way it is for now, that is the way your two lives will always be connected." Jose was quiet for a long time, but then he shifted and looked at me.
"I don't know if this is exactly the right time, but it's as good as any to tell you that I'm getting tired. I haven't had a regular place to live since my wife left, but now I think I'd like to. I'm not going to live for ever and I'd like to get off the water, I'd like to stop being the one who is always moving, and I'd like to live on the solid earth and look out my window while things move around me for a change.
"You see what I'm saying? I'd like to get a house here in Iquitos. You can take over my business. We'll be partners or something. I don't need much. I just want to live decently until I die. While I stay here, I can keep an ear out for anything about your sister, and you, as you go up and down the river, you can keep looking for her too. So it wouldn't be like you were abandoning her, but you would have a life.
"Don't decide now. Tomorrow, I have to go back down river. I'm a little late, as it is. Why don't you come with me? We'll make the trip together as many times as you like and I'll introduce you to everybody. You can see if you like the life and learn how to do it. If you don't like it, well, that's up to you. I won't mind. OK? " I nodded in a non-committal way. I understood what Jose was doing and I was touched, but at that moment, I just didn't know.
That night, I lay in bed and prayed for a long time. I wanted some sign of where to find my sister and what I should do. Disappointed, I fell asleep, but when I awoke, it was almost like when I was a boy in the forest and I woke to see my sister lying in the next bed, smiling and waiting for me to wake up. Somehow this memory made me feel it would be all right for me to follow Jose's plan.
And that's what happened, and that's how I came to work on the river. Jose and I took many trips together, down river and back. He showed me everything about how to conduct the business and at every stop we continued to ask after my sister even when it made little outward sense to do so. After six months or so, Jose stayed ashore and I made these journeys by myself, just as I have continued doing to this day.
Jose died two years after settling in Iquitos, while I was still down river and he had been buried for two weeks when I got back. He left me his house and whatever else he owned, and I was able to buy a new and bigger boat, but otherwise the business has remained unchanged. I have continued to ask after my sister wherever I go, but still without success. I suspect that my customers think of this humorously as a quirk in my character, but they are always kind enough to answer gravely that, no, they have not yet heard anything, but they will themselves continue their inquiries and will let me know if they hear of her. And I am sure that when the occasion arises, they repeat the story of my futile search to the travelers who pass by or to visiting relatives, and it has in this way become part of the stock lore of the region. It is not entirely comfortable to me that something which is so intimate to my feeling may have become so casually widespread, but I console myself by thinking that even as idle gossip it may still reach Maria's ears and perhaps bring us together at last.
So my journeys up and down river are still accompanied by my thoughts of Maria and I realize now that my looking for her has almost become like being with her. But also throughout my work days, I am constantly reminded of Jose, especially when I pass by a point of land or something else that reminds me of one of his tales or else when I am telling one of his stories which have now become mine. Also, often when I am alone on the wide green fragrant river, plying my way between one village and the next, I will amuse myself by imagining that Jose is still with me and I am laughing with him over the latest bit of gossip I have picked up or nodding sadly at the latest tragedy. In this way these two absent people are part of me and I sometimes also imagine that three of us are all together in the boat amid the heaps of bales and bundles, quiet and happy as the motor boat roars towards the faint orange lights of a distant settlement beneath the black shadows of the trees and the gathering purple of a twilight sky.
I had been living this way for a year or two when the Baron's book came out in its Spanish and Portuguese translations. Whereas in the articles and reviews that had been published much earlier, I was referred to only, if at all, as the Baron's informant, when the book came out, I was there both by name and in a picture of me and the Baron standing together which he had made the secretary take. So then I became quite well known up and down the river not just as a boatman, but also as a person knowledgeable in the ways of the forest and its people. After that, visiting anthropologists from France, Germany, England and the United States, and there seemed to be a small boom in them, came to seek me out, both as a guide and an informant. Even if I had no other source of income, I could have made quite a decent living performing these tasks. I was able to provide all of them with information which they found highly satisfactory, and I am proud that I was able to contribute to the respect and appreciation which all the world now has for the intelligence and culture of the forest indians.
Life being what it is however, subsequent events have not allowed me to enjoy this pride in my efforts without some serious second thoughts. Some years after the book had been translated into Portuguese and Spanish and had been widely distributed and read here, and while I was well established in my secondary occupation of informant, a gawky earnest anthropologist from the University of Chicago in the United States found me on the dock in Iquitos as I was returning from down river. He had been waiting for me, he said, for quite a while.
He told me that he himself had only recently returned from a long expedition on the Amazon above Iquitos, well into Peru, and, to get to the point of his rather long winded and overly detailed account, he had found the remnants of my people, the Capanahua, in a settlement just before the Amazon meets with the Rio Maranon. This settlement had been established by some Capuchin monks in order to protect a half a dozen tribal groups and to teach them how to survive in contemporary society. There were maybe three hundred indians there, eighty of which were Capanahua. They knew about me because the priests had read to them a lot from the Baron's book. So they wanted very much to meet me and to talk to me. And this anthropologist, whose name was Stanley something, had promised them that, if he could, he would find me for them. I thanked the anthropologist and told him that I would go when I could, but that it might not be for a while. I made sure that he gave me good and clear directions.
I was, of course, very curious and nostalgic to see my people, so I got in touch with an old friend of mine from the school, who substituted for me on the boat from time to time, to find out when he would be free. His name was Isidrio and he was a taciturn fierce looking Huitoto Indian in his mid-forties. He was an experienced river pilot and he worked for the timber companies, but like me, he was unmarried, so in between jobs, he was often free to take over my route. I had once asked him to be my partner, but he didn't like keeping his life on a regular schedule, so he said no. Still, he liked to take the boat a few times a year, and this allowed me to take trips guiding the anthropologists or lounge around in some hotel or other being a professional informant.
I also liked to slip off into the forest from time to time and live there as I had before. I had made something of a habit of this because of the peace and stillness and deep pulse of forest life. I should also say, that as the years have brought more and more people seeking their fortune in the upper Amazon, many of those little trading posts, missions and so forth have become towns which have in turn spun off their own smaller river side settlements, and it has become more difficult to find the large tracts of jungle where I can wander without encountering evidence of a living soul. Anyhow, it was a few months before I could arrange for a good time with Isidrio and make the trip to see my people.
The settlement was set a couple of hundred yards back from the river and consisted of about a dozen large metal-roofed sheds set in a clearing around a bare plot of hard red clay. Indians of various tribes were wandering around in pants and shirts and a group children were being taught to read in one of the smaller shed by a young monk in a dusty white robe.
My arrival did not attract much interest and I went to the small peeling white cottage that looked to be the main administrative building. I was met on the porch there by a gaunt birdlike little man with wire rim dark glasses in his mid fifties. He stood on the porch and watched me come towards him. His voice was especially melodious, and a little remote as if it didn't really come from his body.
"How do you do? My name is Dom Francisco Pereira. I'm the administrator here, but I don't believe we've met." But when I told him who I was, immediately I could see that he knew of me and he became very warm and animated. He invited me in to the house for coffee, and told me over and over how glad he was that I had come and how important this would be for my people.
"Your people, the Capanahua, oh, they have suffered a good deal. There was a terrible epidemic, cholera probably, quite a while before they came here, and it killed of all the older ones, all of them. And so what was left were the youngsters, the eldest maybe twelve and the children. They were very brave, wonderful hunters and so on, but, well, they only knew bits and pieces of the tribe's history, its lore, its ways, its medicine; everything, in short, that you could say went into making up its soul. For years they wandered from here to there, keeping away from any other humans and surviving as best they could. They told me that when the epidemic was done there were about fifty of them and by the time they came here there were about thirty. Now, they've been here for ten years and their number has more than doubled. Unlike some of the others, they still like to live off in the woods, over there." And here he swept a bony hand out to indicate the forest beyond the encampment to the South. "It's a marvel that they are doing so well. They've had to change their agricultural methods so that they can stay in one place, and a few other things, but, really, that they've survived to now and are even flourishing in a modest way is remarkable.
"But, and I'm sure you are completely unaware of it, the thing that has really made the biggest difference has been your book." At this point I must have looked both alarmed and puzzled. "It's true, believe me. You see, as I said, they had lost most of the unique wisdom of their tribe. They had forgotten all the ways that made them themselves. When they first came here, they wouldn't associate with any of the others. They wouldn't wear clothes and they only came to us for food, medicine, help with getting machetes and knives, and to learn how to farm so that they wouldn't have to move. Otherwise they kept to themselves, and although they appeared quite fierce I always felt that deep down they were like lost children who act tough so that others won't know how frightened they are. It seemed to me that they were secretly ashamed of themselves, of their ignorance of their own ways, you know.
"So when a friend of mine sent me your book and I read it, well, I saw immediately that it could help them, and I sent one of the brothers who spoke enough of their language into their camp to read it to them. After that they wanted us to read it over and over until they knew it all entirely by heart And it made such a great difference to them. The wisdom of their ancestors was not lost, you see. They found something they could cling to, and they could once again know the meaning of their lives."
At this point, I should tell you that I was quite frightened and my feeling that what I had done out of my own shame and to impress the white world had taken a direction I could never have foreseen. I had never thought that my own people would know of what I said much less be changed by it. I had imagined that somewhere, deep in the forest, my people would continue in their own way, untouched, at least at the heart by anything that went on outside. And even, if it had a good effect, as the monk was telling me, I could not help but feel that I had betrayed something that had been real and true. The monk was so full of enthusiasm at this point that he failed entirely to notice my distress and plunged on.
"Now, even though your people still live in the forest, it is not out of fear nor a feeling of inferiority. They do so because they feel it is essential to how the tribe worships and fulfills its place in the divine plan. You have, you see, restored their vision and given meaning to their ways of life. And there is one other thing, kind of touching really and I think you might be amused....." I felt like I was being battered and far from expecting a further entertainment felt as if I was anticipating another body blow. He went back in the cottage and brought back a stained and worn copy of the Baron's book. "Here, you see...." And he turned to the photograph of me and the Baron. "Here. Here you are." I was standing stiffly next to the pale and dapper Baron in the white suit he bought me. "When the Capanahua saw that you, an elder of their tribe with full knowledge of their lore, could wear clothes if necessary.......well, now they do it too, at least when they come to the compound or when I or one of the brothers go to visit them. So you've helped them be able to go out into the modern world. A small thing perhaps, the clothes, but it has helped with the isolation, the isolation, you know."
So that was that, and I still don't feel exactly right about it, but I stayed there for a few weeks, mostly in the forest with my people, living in the conical houses whose smoky musty human smell took me far back to when I was called Tapir and knew no other life and felt such deep intimacy with the life I did know. It was good to go out with them hunting in the forest. It was a long time since I had had any companionship on such a venture. Not much was expected of me on account of my age, and they were all very eager to show me their skills and their prowess. But to watch their lean quick bodies flickering silently though the trees as they tracked and pursued their prey made me profoundly happy and at ease in a way I had missed without even knowing it for all my adult life. It was almost as if, if I were a little more alert and my eyesight were just a little better, I would see my sister with her lithe tawny body and sharp eyes running through the underbrush to hide behind a tree. And at that moment, everything that I am telling you, from the time I left the forest on, was just one of those strange disquieting dreams which stay with you for a while after you have waked up.
It may sound odd, but all this made very proud of my people, of this little remaining band who had managed to keep to the beauty of our ways, and to continue on. So it was good also to hear the speech of my people with its clicks and complex soft diphthongs, and to drink with them around a fire long into the night as they told the stories of their difficult migrations, and of hunting , and of the old chief, and the stories he told. Some of the men, the older ones were the children of people I had grown up with, and it was with great sorrow that they told of what had befallen them. No one remembered me, of course, but their complete acceptance and respect for me did give me a twinge from time to time.
This happened most intensely when they would want to hear from my lips the things that were written in the book, and, in spite of all my efforts to avoid it, I could not. The whole tribe, gravely eager would gather at night in the firelight to hear these recitals, and tactfully they would point out any omissions I made, even the slightest. I had to do this for many evenings, and once when my shame at being so deceptive became acute, I tried to hint that all these beliefs about the creator and the stories of our origin were not so important as the life of the forest itself.
This remark met with some annoyance, and one man almost angrily asked if that was not simply my own interpretation, and said that if I lived in the forest all the time and endured its cruel hardships and privation, perhaps I would not get such strange ideas. There was an embarrassed silence when he said this, and someone else explained to him that no doubt I had been misunderstood by all of them on this point. I saw how it was and corrected myself for I could tell that there was no point in doing otherwise. Their evident relief showed me that I had had no choice. For some reason, at that moment, I had a vivid recollection of my sister's face, not the serious and worried face that I had come to imagine, working out sums for the convent, but the face I had truly known when I was a boy with its bright naughty smile and quick dark knowing eyes. She was looking at me, as she so often had, as if we shared a secret joke, even though I didn't quite understand. At that point, I had to cease feeling guilty. So I enjoyed the rest of my stay, and when I left, promised to return which indeed I will.
Just as I was leaving, a young man, maybe sixteen, came up to me and wanted to ask a question privately. It was, he said, perhaps a stupid and obvious question, but it bothered him and it would help him if I could answer it. The question was about the nature of the difference between the life of the forest people and the life of a modern man: he couldn't be sure what it was. I told him that this was not at all stupid and was, in fact, an extremely profound question. I would have to think about it and I would tell him what I thought on my return. So I have been thinking about this, and what I think I will say to him is that for the forest people, the world is truly the forest and for a modern man the world is truly a history.
*The majority of the text on page 51 is taken from pp 4&12, page 52 from pp.5&7, and page 53 from pp7&8 of Wizard of the Upper Amazon by F.Bruce Lamb, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley California, ISBN#0-938190-80-6.