ABOVE THE THREE WATERFALLS
French Guiana, South America 1995. Twenty-Six Years Old
I hadn’t eaten in two days. There had been a dry spell in successful hunting near the tiny village I was staying in upriver from Pelea on the boarder of French Guiana and Suriname. This far upriver, I was actually much closer to Brazil than the Atlantic Ocean to the far north. I was over a two-week dugout canoe ride up into the Amazon rainforest.
I had been living in different Amerindian villages for over two months, but this one was by far the most isolated. I was living with the Wayana tribe, but I also encountered Emerillon and a few Yanomamo as well. Downriver from Wayana territory, there was an administrative boundary protecting the indigenous people from entry of outsiders and diseases (I had permission for research). However, it was three small waterfalls that really separated this tiny village from the outside world.
I was excited when Odema, one of the Wayana I had gotten to know quite well, told me that he was going above the waterfalls and that I could come if I wanted.
Traveling as a small group of men in two dugout canoes, we needed a full day to drag the heavy canoes in and out of the water around the falls. Once above them, it was as if the Wayana traveling with me had changed. They became quieter and more serious.
Past the falls, it was still a good distance to the next village. As we were finally nearing it, everyone from that village came down to the edge of the river to greet us. Odema asked me to stay in the canoe while he and the others walked up and spoke with the villagers.
The village consisted of about fifteen people, and absolutely everyone was staring at me. The kids, excitedly pointing, sprinted down to the edge of the water and placed their hands on the tip of the wooden canoe in order to marvel at me.
After a few minutes of speaking with the villagers, Odema walked into the shallow water, grabbed my hand, and led me up to the curious crowd. Odema told me that I was the first non-Indian that some of the people in the village had ever seen. Odema also explained to me that I could hang my hammock in the “public” hut.
Odema and the group had come up to this village to visit relatives, but also for good hunting. But for some reason, no one was successful at getting more than a few fish. Two days later, a few of the men left on a multi-day hunting trip in search of meat farther from the village. The few men remaining were departing for a local hunt earlier than normal, just as I was waking up.
There existed no walls in the huts among the Wayana, so as I slowly opened my eyes in the dark of pre-dawn morning, I could just make out the movement of the men walking quietly out of the village. They carried their bows and arrows parallel to the ground in one hand. These weren’t the bows and arrows you might imagine in an old Western film; these were about six feet long and straight with slightly slack strings. Only when the string was pulled back would the bow arch. The arrows were also different. They were about six feet long, and some had magical designs painted on them. Some of the arrow tips were made of bone and were sharp. Some were blunt to knock out small birds. Others were wooden with barbed tips for capturing fish. A few of the Indians had metal-tipped arrows with metal acquired from trading downriver.
I was given a bow and arrow back in Dakoye, where I was living prior to traveling upriver. I also had something many of the Indians didn’t—a shotgun with about twenty shells. The discussion about whether I should bring a gun in or not hadn’t been a short one. My anthropology professor and I decided that I should bring a gun for two reasons. First, a male who can’t provide food would quickly become the village idiot. And second, Brazilian gold miners were starting to come over into French Guiana in search of gold, and they had guns, so it would be better to teach the more remote Wayana about guns from the back side of the gun, rather than them learning about guns from in front of the barrel. Miners were notorious for killing Indians. Earlier when I’d been with a different group of Wayana, I’d seen the seriousness of this firsthand.
In this earlier experience, I was way up the Tampoc River from Dakoye on a multi-day hunting trip. There were three Wayana in the canoe and me. As we were rounding a bend in the river, traveling downstream, I was scanning the trees on the river’s right side. Then it was as if someone had pushed a freeze button—the air became instantly tense. I looked to my left and saw a Brazilian gold mining raft. It was about fifteen feet square with hammocks, dirty clothes, and other things hanging along the rafters of its thatched roof.
We were about thirty feet away, just drifting past in our canoe. There were four people on the gold mining raft, and neither they nor any of the Indians was moving.
Also, hanging from the rafters of the illegal mining raft were rifles and revolvers. The Indians I was traveling with had bows and arrows. I had my shotgun, which was lying in the bottom of the canoe near my feet.
Each group stared at the other as our canoe drifted by. I could tell the Indians were petrified. I knew the miners might attack at any moment, and I made the firm decision that I would definitely fire back if it came to it. Thank God it did not.
Finally, when we were out of sight, we talked about what had happened. The Indians were relieved that the miners hadn’t tried to kill us.
Rumor about the platform for miners in Brazil was that if there were indigenous people in an area, the miners couldn’t mine, but if there weren’t Indians, they could. The solution: miners would kill the Amerindians, so they could truthfully say to the authorities that no Indians were in the area.
While I was with the Wayana, I often hunted with my bow. My shotgun served as a backup. As my stomach growled while I climbed out of my hammock, I knew I was on a mission for food. Since I wasn’t very good with the bow, I would only take my gun. The problem was that all the adult men had already left, and the jungle could swallow a person who got only a few feet off an established trail. I had hunted with the Indians many times, but I had never gone alone, and the prospect scared me.
So, I decided that I would borrow one of the dugout canoes and check along the banks of the river for crocodiles or iguanas.
As I paddled upstream, I scanned the edges of the river for caiman as well as every inch of the trees for any signs of large iguanas—but nothing. Finally, I decided to get off the river and see if I would have any luck finding wild boar, deer, monkeys, or anything edible.
As I was softly paddling, I noticed a small dirt patch along the steep bank on the right side of the river. I knew it was an animal path. I tied the front of the pirogue to the trunk of a small tree. Balancing as well as I could, I picked up my machete and shotgun, and grabbed a clump of tall grass to help hoist myself up the three-foot, slanted bank. It was obvious animals had used this small path to come to drink, but I didn’t see any fresh tracks.
I was only a moment into the forest canopy and away from the incoming light along the river when it seemed to be almost night, even though it was still morning. I gave my eyes time to adjust and then observed intently, looking for unique trees, so I could later recognize where I had entered the jungle. I knew that a short span of non-attention could mean that I’d be lost, and I mean—really lost. Being lost in unfamiliar territory was common, even for the Indians. It had happened to a teenage Wayana and me a few weeks earlier. It took us almost a full day to find our way back, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone.
Once I was confident I could recognize at least this spot, I began walking slowly. I felt a serene quietness fill me. I walked softly, and I could barely hear my own steps. The animal path was actually well trodden with a few tricky sidetracks. I was marking trees with my machete showing where I had come from, so I was feeling pretty good.
My thoughts were focused, but as time went on, I had to fight to keep my mind from drifting. At one point, I had to fight the theme song from Jeopardy out of my head.
A meal could be anywhere: in the trees, on the jungle floor, right behind me. As more time passed, I started to feel my hunger. I had paddled for over an hour, and now I estimated that I had been walking for over three. I knew I had to turn around soon, but I felt like I would find something in just a few more yards, just a few more yards.
Finally, I heard something—the first sound I’d heard in a long time. I looked up to see two macaws high above me. Once they saw me, they started croaking loudly. That wouldn’t be good for me to surprise anything. I thought about shooting them and eating them, but quickly forced the thought out of my mind. I’d eaten a few toucans with the Wayana, but never the majestic bright red, blue, and yellow macaws.
I decided that I should turn around.
Terror struck me. I had only stopped for a few minutes and had taken only a few steps in different directions to get a better view of the birds mocking me from high above, but when I turned around, the trail was gone. While walking along it, I was sure I was following an easily recognizable trail, but it was nowhere to be found. My heart rate immediately doubled. I stood absolutely still, so I wouldn’t disturb any of the precious marks on the jungle floor that could serve as clues to where I had come from.
I finally made a note of a few particular trees about ten feet on either side of me, and I did the same to two more trees, making a square area where I guessed I might have come from. I wasn’t entirely sure which direction even that was. Being near the equator, the sun didn’t really help for north or south unless near the beginning or end of the day for east/west, so I randomly named one of the sets of trees north, and I walked back and forth between all the trees. Since I was moving slowly, walking back and forth between the trees seemed to take forever. I began to panic, which was the worst thing to do.
I walked back and forth about five times before I finally saw the now tiny path. A wave of relief filled me.
It took a bit of time for me to gain my composure, and the fright had expended a lot of my energy, but at least I knew which way to go. I rested for a moment and drank some fresh rainwater trapped between a large jungle palm frond and its tree trunk.
At first, I was happy just to be back on the path again, but then the desperation for food crept back into my thoughts. I started praying. “Please, dear Lord, let me see a pig,” I’d say. Then I’d repeat, “Please, dear Lord, let me see an agouti.” Then, “Please, dear Lord, let me see a deer. Please, dear Lord, let me see a bush turkey,” and “Please, dear Lord, let me see a monkey.” And I did.
I first heard the rustling of the leaves. I looked up. A very large, black spider monkey was above and in front of me, but he was at least a hundred feet up in the trees. I stopped. I tried not even to breathe. The monkey was still too far away for a shot. I crept slowly, watching the back of the monkey as he was busy chewing on something. I crept as quietly as possible. My heart rate increased. Strangely, I didn’t even think of just the meat I’d be able to eat if I got the monkey, but I imagined the celebration in the village as I returned with a large monkey. I’d parade around the center of the village, and they would all think I was a hero. An adult spider monkey is delicious and could feed everyone in the village.
I forced the celebration out of my head. My pleading prayers changed to “Please, dear Lord, let me get this monkey. Please, dear Lord, let me get this monkey.” I kept repeating this. The monkey seemed larger and larger the closer I got to it. I became anxious. My focus was intense, and I was just about in comfortable range. The monkey wasn’t too far away, but he was high in the trees.
I knew I needed to get about twenty feet closer for a good shot. I slowly raised the barrel of my shotgun in the direction of the monkey and calmly placed the gun’s butt against my shoulder. I was aiming right at the animal, but I needed a few more yards.
I was just about there when the monkey jerked. He was sitting between two branches with leaves all around him. He looked in my direction, made an ungodly noise, and jumped. I pulled the trigger—and an explosion of sound filled the woods—but he was gone. As he jumped from tree to tree, there was no pretending I would catch up to him. I couldn’t leave the trail to follow him.
I became depressed. I imagined not the joy of the villagers when I returned with meat, but the silence as they watched me return from another day hunting with nothing. I was mad at God, and I even started negotiating with God that if he allowed me to find some food on the way back, I’d be perfect forever. It didn’t work. In fact, I think God didn’t like this negotiating based on what would happen later that day.
As I continued back the same way I had come, my mind went back and forth from the Jeopardy theme song to being very focused. In the hours I was in the forest on the way back, I saw nothing other than one small boa constrictor.
It was afternoon when I got to the familiar opening where the pirogue was tied. I stood at the top of the bank for a moment, negotiating how I would get down into the boat. First, I very carefully tossed my machete into the bottom of the small boat, all the while holding my shotgun in my left hand. Next, rather than grabbing the grass as I had done to ascend, with my right hand I grabbed a thin vine-like tree trunk, which allowed me to slide down the leaf-covered muddy bank.
I was awkwardly dangling from the vine-like tree trunk and almost sitting on the canoe bench when I felt it.
The sting was profound. It was on the tip of my right elbow. The boat was wobbling, and I fought for balance. My left hand was still occupied with the gun, and I still couldn’t let go of the vine without falling into the water, unless I got more of my weight over the center of the canoe, but it didn’t matter. It had already happened. The small rust-colored scorpion was up-righting itself as it scurried back under the leaves along the bank. I let myself awkwardly slide into the boat.
The pain felt like a serious bee sting. I could handle the pain, but my heart raced as I wondered how bad the sting would become and what kind of scorpion had stung me. In Africa, a few years earlier, I had heard that small scorpions were worse than large ones, but I really didn’t know. I began to panic. I tried to remain calm, knowing that for snake bites, keeping the heart rate down was important, so the poison wouldn’t move around the body as quickly. I assumed it would be the same. There was a battle in my head between the desperate prayers I was whispering and the echo of Oh shit that kept creeping into my mind.
It was hard for me to even see the tip of my elbow. After I pulled the skin around, I could see a bright red dot. Not educated in treating scorpion stings, I just squeezed the area with my left-hand thumb and index finger, but I didn’t know if it did anything or not. As quickly as I could, I untied the front of the canoe and let the current pull the nose of the canoe around, facing the direction of the village.
At first, I was paddling normally, but I wanted to keep my heart rate down, and my right arm began to burn worse and worse, so I stopped. I squeezed the area again, but I could tell that this was doing nothing to push any of the poison out. I kept praying. Also, I was happy that I was upriver from the village.
As the pain increased in my right arm, I ended up just holding it against my body. I used my left had to hold the paddle as a rudder. While I was floating along, the pain was spreading. It felt like poison was traveling up the veins in my arm and down into the right side of my chest. By the time I reached the village, my entire right arm was numb and useless.
As the front of the pirogue slid up against the shore, I was pleased that there was a small sandy beach in the bend of the river right in front of the village. I stepped into the shallow water and pulled the canoe up onto the beach. Other than a few women, the village was empty, so I just walked over to my hammock and, with great difficulty, got in.
I didn’t know exactly how long I was in my hammock before Odema came over, carrying my shotgun and machete. He casually placed the gun in the hut’s rafters and said that they’d had a successful hunt and had gotten a pig. I was already vaguely aware of this because I had heard villagers cheering when the hunting party returned.
While that was great news, I had other things on my mind. Because Odema spoke a bit of French, I desperately uttered, “Je suis très malade,” or “I’m very sick.”
I was sweating profusely. Odema looked at me with a horribly concerned face but didn’t say anything.
“J’ai été piqué par un scorpion,” I continued. I tried to move my right arm up to show him, but it didn’t move, so I rolled over, with great pain throughout the whole right side of my body. My left hand was mostly stuck between my body and the hammock, but I tried to point at the mark on my elbow.
Odema crouched to examine my elbow. He poked my arm a few times near the elbow and then near my shoulder. The worry in his face worsened. He began mumbling to himself. He put his hand on my forehead, just as a concerned mother would do to a sick child checking for fever. Still without saying anything, he left. He soon returned with water, which I drank with his help. Then he told me to rest.
Later that night, Odema checked on me again, gave me more water, and then crawled into his own hammock, which hung next to mine. I didn’t have a hard time falling asleep, but I woke up many times shivering. I got through the night in a dream-like state of being asleep and awake.
In the morning, everyone was up at first light. Odema again checked on me and gave me water. We still hadn’t said more than a few words about anything. I didn’t mind because each word made my head and body ache. I could barely remember the limited French I knew anyway. I was becoming delirious.
Odema brought me a few fatty scraps of the boar that had been cooked the night before. Although it was miserable to eat, I forced down the much-needed food. Most of the village was now at my side, and all looked concerned. They had saved some of the softest and best parts of the meat for me, which I greatly appreciated.
After eating, Odema was gone for a while. I just lay there, stuck in the hammock, with the right side of my body absolutely paralyzed. My breath was becoming faint, and it felt like my chest was also numb. The Indians from the village never left me. There were at least a few who sat near me concerned the entire time.
When Odema came back, he wasn’t alone. He was with a shaman. The shaman was dressed the same as all the other men with a string cord holding up a short red cloth hanging from his waist and nothing else. However, he also had geometric designs painted on his arms and chest. He stood over me, intensely examining my whole body. He put his hand on my chest for about a minute. I looked up at him. I couldn’t even smile. I felt faint and just lay there, conscious that at least my eyes were open.
Next the shaman sat on a small stool. He picked up a fist-sized yellowish-brown gourd that he had brought. He poured a bit of water into the gourd and then very deliberately dropped a small, round pebble into it. His eyes went into a distant stare vaguely in my direction, and he placed the gourd just below his mouth near his chin as if it were a microphone. He began chanting.
I didn’t know what he was saying, but the pattern was na, na, na … na, na, … na. The first three syllables were low notes, the middle two were a bit higher, and the last was much higher than the others with an upward swing at the end. Then he would repeat. Over and over the shaman did this for hours and hours. He was rocking slowly for most of this, and he didn’t seem to pause once during the entire time. His stare was entirely fixed. Finally, he stopped, stood, put his hand on my chest again, and then slowly walked away.
I lay in the hammock for three days. I could literally feel the poison in the right half of my body, but it was the fever and chills that made me delirious. I never really thought to myself that I would die right there, but at times in my delusional agony, I actually wished for it. I knew that my body was seriously going in that direction. It was one of two times in my life that I spoke in prayers with God accepting the idea that I really might meet Him soon.
The shaman returned each day and did the same chanting for about four hours each time. The villagers had me drinking bark tea and encouraged me to chew on bark from a tree.
I learned later that the shaman only performed that particular ritual when he thought someone was going to die. I also didn’t learn until later that at the same time I suffered from the scorpion sting, I was also in the advanced stages of malaria. After hundreds of mosquito bites, malaria had been dormant in my system. The shock to my body from the scorpion sting then activated it. The bark the Wayana were giving me contained quinine, similar to the medicine I had taken back in the USA after my first malaria attack from when I was in Africa.
Even when the effect of the scorpion sting subsided, my fever due to malaria continued. It was obvious that I had to get downriver and out of the forest. I had planned on being in the jungle for anthropology research for three months, and the end was coming soon anyway. Odema was planning on staying in the isolated village for a few more weeks, so he couldn’t take me out, but he helped me arrange passage downriver.
One of the oldest men in the village volunteered to paddle me down as far as Antecume Pate, a Wayana village on the Suriname side of the river a few days away. From there, I could easily get another canoe to Maripasoula, a rural outpost of about a thousand people that had a French doctor whom I was anxious to see. The cost for the man’s volunteering to paddle me out was my shotgun and the remaining twenty shells I had left. It was an easy choice.
In the dugout canoe, we made a pile of palm fronds, so I could recline in the bottom of the boat rather than sit on one of the benches. Even still I was up and walking around by the time I left the village, a necessary condition since I would need to help the old man slide the canoe around the falls on the way out.
Saying goodbye to the people in this small, isolated village was tough. I would have loved to stay with them longer, but that wasn’t possible. It was hard to say goodbye to Odema, but it was the shaman that was most difficult. I could say, “Ipoc moni,” which translates as “Thank you” in Wayana, but staring deeply into his eyes as I held his hands in front of me was the only thing I could do to try to express how much I appreciated his efforts while my body had been dying. The shaman was one of the oldest in the village. Tears beaded in both of our eyes as he gave me a mostly toothless grin. All the villagers were amazingly sympathetic towards me, but I somehow felt like the shaman had actually experienced the pain and anxiety with me.
My chauffeur pushed us into the current and jumped into the back of the canoe proudly carrying his new shotgun. I waved goodbye to the people who had cared for me.
Have you ever become close with a group of people in a short amount of time? What was the situation and what allowed you to become close with them?
Generally, do people help others who are in need? Why or why not?
Imagine that you just survived a near-death experience where strangers helped you get through it. What would you say to them?
Do Something Extraordinary
If you survived an ordeal getting a “second chance” on life, is there anything you would change in your life? Make that change now.