Published: Oct 28, 2022
Amazonian slang word of the day = mandarina. The word for a man who does the dishes and holds his wife’s hand in public.
If we thought we’d be getting a lie-in today, we were wrong. We were told to be up well before sunrise because, apparently, yesterday’s two-hour canoe paddling is going to be a daily standard. I saw the redness of the upcoming sun bleed into the remaining blackness of the night at 5:30 am as I ate my Amazonian bananas for breakfast, with clouds reflected in the river and no lighting for miles. All I could hear were the noises of the howler monkeys gathering their tribe and marking their territory.
Our first destination: clay licks. These are walls of clay that 11 different species of parrots, parakeets, and macaws fly for kilometres to get to early in the morning in order to lick them – the clay contains minerals that neutralise the toxins these birds have accumulated from eating seeds. A Discovery-channel moment happened to us, one that our tour guide said he hadn’t seen in 13 years: we saw a Boa Constrictor snake lash out and strangle a nearby parakeet, capturing it whilst it was mid-flight. The other birds simply stayed there, no longer tiptoeing around the snake, safe in the knowledge that it was now full and wouldn’t be disturbing them again.
Boa Constrictor VS parrot: guess who won?
Our next destination: a hike along a forest trail to meet the Indigenous Kichwa community of Añangu, hoping to learn more about life in the rainforest. Actually, no sooner had we entered the community were we called out of it again by one of our tour guides’ radio systems informing him that macaws were approaching a different clay lick. So we had to hike as quickly as we could through a terra firme forest to catch a glimpse of them, keeping very quiet — only once we’d seen them did we return back to the community. The locals started by teaching us how stinging nettles and chilli oil squeezed into one’s eyes were common punishments administered to children in the community – delivered in a communal manner with all the adults watching the procedure. My first instinct was to think about the damaging effects of this kind of punishment, as well as the long-lasting trauma that might occur as a result…and then I thought about just how Western that thought process was, and how important it is for me to be mindful about cultural sensitivity. The open way in which they explained their traditions made it clear that they did not consider them to be traumatic practices, even stating that the chilli oil helped them with their eyesight and strength, which they needed when hunting dangerous animals in the wild. In fact, they prided themselves on being a strict community, purposely incorporating penalties for broken rules such as drinking as a way of reversing the alcoholic tendencies of other Indigenous communities in the Amazon.
We then saw the community medical centre, the primary school and the high school, the teachers’ room, and the soccer field. We got caught in the Amazonian rain. A local man took down a coconut from a tree and gave us its juice to drink. My brothers tried and failed to make a fire for twenty minutes whilst getting laughed at by the village girls. We danced with the beautiful Indigenous Amazonian women, who are part of an empowered group of female pioneers wanting to work rather than attend to the household while the male members of their family go out hunting. We learned about the circular structure of their houses, built in this way to keep bad energies out, and the “shell-phones” the locals use to make calls in the jungle. We saw their hunting tools, and the crafts made by the women. (Side note: they told us that they hunt and eat MONKEYS! I had to reaalllly check my biases with that one — if the average person in London told me they ate monkeys I’d probably feel pretty strongly about it…)
The most heart-warming thing I learned? That women breastfeed their babies, in front of whoever happens to be there, and they do so until their children are two years old. Why? Because they believe that breastfeeding isn’t just about making their kids strong and giving them a good immune system, but that it’s what love and connection is all about. They just do it, and they’re proud of it, and nobody takes offence — it was beautiful to see. And another thing: the Indigenous Amazonians we saw are distinguished by their jet-black hair that doesn’t change colour as they grow older. They will never have grey hairs on their head…how interesting is that??
The Añangu community
Whilst I was in the community, I had the incredibly unique opportunity to ask all my questions – I asked about gender roles, about love, about therapy, about their children…and what I learned was fascinating. I’m conscious that what I was told may not be representative of everyone in the community, and it’s important to be careful about making sweeping generalisations. Nevertheless, I’m sharing it here (with the above disclaimer included) because I found it super interesting. I was told that mothers teach their sons how to be Macho Latino — the practice of being strong, not crying, and having lots of lovers. I was told that women often get depressed because their husbands have these lovers, and in the past, some have taken poison to end their lives. They told me that men aren’t allowed to get depressed in the same way – they have alcohol problems instead. Marriage is not about love, but about male sexual pleasure, and therapy doesn’t exist and wouldn’t work because the belief is that you’ve got to be crazy to see a therapist. Women are allowed to get divorced, but are generally taught to stay with their husbands no matter what their husbands do to them, plus if they get divorced, the shit’s on them. So a lot of women end up hitting their husbands. And, under no circumstances should a man be a mandarina. That’s a man who does the dishes and holds his wife’s hand in public. It’s also the word for a tangerine. Because, well, if you’re a tangerine, you’re a bit soft. Instead, a man should always walk in front of his wife. And not show her public affection. And not be monogamous. Our tour guide openly told us that he was a proud mandarina, stating that he’d made the decision to be different from his father who he saw regularly with many lovers and who badly hurt his mother in the process. In a world with enormous pressure to not be a mandarina, I thought that this man’s rejection of the social norm was extremely brave and commendable.
For lunch? Green and red plantains, white cocoa beans, rice with beans and bananas mixed together (surprisingly good, by the way), hearts of palm (palmito), Guayusa tea, more granadilla, a new South American fruit called tamarillo, and more bananas, always. We were also offered something called a weevil (a squirming wormy insect thingy) – roasted alive, actually – but we passed on that one.
Plantains, white cocoa bean, and heart of palm
In other news, I had my first experience using an ecological toilet today, but I’m going to spare you the details of what that was like. And we saw a tarantula.
I feel totally at the mercy of nature, at the mercy of animals who will always know their land better than I, who speak amongst themselves whilst they watch my every move from the treetops above, who are adapted, so perfectly, when I am not. I feel like a stranger in the land of these native animals and native people living symbiotically with one another, and yes, whilst I am contributing to a system of eco-tourism that ultimately helps them, I cannot shake the strange feeling of being an intruder. Ethereal is the word I’m using today, to describe what it’s like to be in the home of the largest collection of living plant and animal species in the world.
(adjective) extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.