Above the Three Waterfalls

(French Guiana, South America 1995)

I hadn’t eaten in two days.  There was 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 up river, I was actually much closer to Brazil than the Atlantic Ocean to the far north.  I was over two-weeks 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.  The tribe I was living with is called the Wayana, but I also encountered Emerillon and a few Yanomamo as well.  Down river from Wayana territory, there is an administrative boundary protecting the indigenous people from entry of outsiders and diseases (I had permission for research), but 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.

We traveled with a small group of men in two dugout canoes, and it took 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.  Everything seemed somehow quieter and strangely more serious.  Past the falls, it was still a good distance to the village.  As we were finally approaching, everyone from the entire village came down to the edge of the river to greet us, and I was asked to stay in the canoe while the others walked up and spoke with the villagers.

The village consisted only of about fifteen people, and absolutely everyone was staring at me.  The kids were excitedly pointing, and they ran down to the edge of the water putting their hands on the tip of the wooden boat.  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, and I was told that I was the first non-Indian that some of the people in the village had ever seen.  I was also told that I could hang my hammock in the “public” hut.

Odema came 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 had left on a multi-day hunting trip in search of meat further from the village.  The few men remaining were departing for a local hunt earlier than normal, just as I was waking up.

There exist no walls on the huts among the Wayana, and 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 with bows and arrows carried in one hand parallel to the ground.  These weren’t the bows and arrows one would imagine in an old Western film, but they were about six feet long, and absolutely 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 sharp made of bone, some were blunt to knock out small birds, others were barbed wooden tips for fish, and a few of the Indians actually had metal tipped arrows with metal gained from trading down river.

I was given a bow and arrow back in Dakoye, where I was living prior to traveling upriver, but I also had something many of the Indians didn’t.  I had a shotgun with about twenty shells left.  The discussion whether I should bring a gun in or not wasn’t a short one, and 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 goldminers with guns 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, and earlier while I was with a different group of Wayana, I saw the seriousness of this first hand.

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, I was scanning the trees of the river on the right side as we were traveling downstream, and 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 the thatched roof.

We were about thirty feet away, and we were just drifting past them in our canoe.  There were four people on the raft, and no one on either side 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, and I had my shotgun which was laying in the bottom of the canoe near my feet.  We just stared at each other as our canoe drifted by, and I could tell the Indians were petrified.  I knew the minors 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, and none of the Indians could believe that they didn’t try to kill us.

Rumor had it that the platform in Brazil is that if there are indigenous people in an area, the miners can’t mine, but if there aren’t Indians, they can.  The solution: miners kill the Amerindians, so they can truthfully say to the authorities that no Indians are in the area.  Acama, another Wayana whom I had gotten quite close with, later told me that he thinks that one of the reasons the Brazilians didn’t shoot is because I was in the canoe.

While I was with the Wayana, I often hunted with both my bow and the shotgun with me as a backup, but as my stomach growled while I climbed out of my hammock, I knew I was on a mission for food, and since I wasn’t very good with the bow, I would only take my gun.  The problem was that all of the adult men had already left, and the jungle can swallow a person for getting only a few feet off of an established trail.  I had hunted with the Indians many times, but I had never gone alone, and the prospect scared me.

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 the caiman as well as every inch of the trees for any signs of the 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, and I knew it was an animal path.  I tied the front of the pirogue to the trunk of a small tree, balanced as well as I could as 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 that 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 recognize where I had entered the jungle from.  I knew that a short span of non-attention could mean that I was 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, and 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 and felt a serene quietness fill me.  I walked softly, and I could barely even hear my own steps.  The animal path was actually quite well trodden with a few tricky side tracks, and I’d mark a tree with my machete showing where I had come from, so I felt pretty good at the start.  My thoughts were focused, but as time went on, I had to fight to keep my mind from drifting as I walked alone.  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 estimate 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, and 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, and I stood absolutely still, so I wouldn’t disturb any of the precious marks on jungle floor which could be a clue 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 of the trees.  Since I was walking slowly, even the twenty-foot pattern seemed to take forever.  I began to panic which is the worst thing to do.  I walked back and forth about five times before I finally saw the now tiny path and a wave of relief filled me.

It took a bit of time for me to gain my composure, and the fright 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, and I started praying.  Please dear Lord, let me see a pig, I’d say to myself.  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, and 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 into 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, and 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.

I forced the celebration out of my head, and my pleading prayers changed to, Please dear Lord, let me get this monkey.  Please dear Lord, let me get this monkey.  I just kept repeating this, and the monkey seemed larger and larger the closer I got to it.  An adult spider monkey is delicious and could feed everyone in the village.  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 butt of the rifle 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 ivy leaves all around them.  He looked in my direction, made an ungodly noise, and jumped.  I pulled the trigger with an explosion of sound filling the woods, but he was gone.  He jumped from tree to tree and there was no pretending I would catch up to him.  I couldn’t leave the trail to follow him.  I was 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 it very much based on what happened later that day.

I continued back the same way I had come, and my mind went back and forth from the Jeopardy theme song to being very focused, but in the hours I was in the forest on the way back, I saw nothing other than one small boa constrictor.  It was already 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.  Instead of grabbing the grass as I had done going up, I grabbed a thin tree right next to the small dirt area.  I very carefully tossed my machete into the bottom of the small boat, and I had my shotgun in my left hand. With my right hand, I was holding on to a small tree, almost like a vine, and I allowed myself to slide down the bank which was a bit muddy, but mostly just covered in leaves.  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, and it was right 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, and 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 bad bee sting, but I didn’t know what to do.  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 are worse than large ones, but I really didn’t know, and I began to panic.  I tried to remain calm, knowing that for snake bikes keeping the heartrate 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 saying to myself 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, so I pulled the skin around, and 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 don’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 village.

At first I started paddling normally, but I wanted to keep my heartrate 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 also kept praying, and I was very 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, and I used my left had to hold the paddle as a rudder.  It didn’t take too long for me to get back to the village, but while I was floating along, the pain was spreading, and 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 got to the village, my entire right arm was absolutely numb and useless.

As the front of the pirogue slid up against the shore, I was happy that there was a small sandy beach in the bend of the river right in front of the village, so I stepped into the shallow water and pulled the canoe up onto the beach.  There were a few women in the village, but I had only been in this place for a few days, and I didn’t know any of them.  The one guy I knew who had come up river with me was still out hunting.  My communication in Wayana was so weak, I didn’t even know how to ask for help, so I just walked over to my hammock and, with great difficulty, got in.

I don’t know exactly how long I was in my hammock before Odema came over carrying my shotgun and machete.  He casually placed my gun in the rafters of the open hut and said that they had a successful hunt and had gotten a pig.  I was vaguely aware of this, because I could hear the villagers cheering when the hunting party returned.  That was great news, but I had other things on my mind, and because Odema spoke a bit of French, I desperately just said, “Je suis très malade,” or “I’m very sick.”

I was sweating profusely, and Odema looked at me with a horribly concerned face, but he 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 down examining my elbow from a few inches away from my arm, and he poked my arm a few times near the elbow, and then again near my shoulder.  The concern in his face worsened, and 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 to me, he left and returned with water which I drank with his help, and then he just told me to rest.

Later that night, Odema checked on me again, gave me more water, and then crawled into his own hammock which was hung next to mine in the communal hut on the river side of the village.  I didn’t have a hard time falling asleep, but I woke up many times shivering and got through the night in a dream-like state of sleep and awake.

In the morning, everyone was up at first light, and Odema again checked on me and gave me water.  We still hadn’t said more than a few words about anything, and I really didn’t mind, because each word made my head and body ache, and 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, and although it was miserable to eat, I forced the much needed calories down.  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, and I just laid there, stuck in my 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 of the other men with a string cord holding up a short red cloth hanging from his waste, and nothing else, but he had geometric designs painted on his arms and chest.  The shaman pulled a small stool over to the side of my hammock.  He stood over me looking deeply over my whole body, and he put his hand on my chest for about a minute.  I looked up at him, and I couldn’t even smile.  I felt faint and just laid there conscious that at least my eyes were open.

The shaman then sat on the small stool, and he picked up a fist-sized yellowish-brown gourd which he had brought.  He poured a bit of water into the gourd and then very deliberately dropped a small, round pebble into the gourd.  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, and he began chanting.

I don’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, and 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 up, put his hand on my chest again, and then he slowly walked away.

I laid 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 really 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, and 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 what I would guess was about four hours each day, and the villagers had me drinking bark tea, and they encouraged me to chew on the bark from a particular tree.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned later that the shaman only performs that particular ritual when he thinks someone going to die, and I also didn’t learn until later that I was also in the advanced stages of malaria.  After hundreds of mosquito bites, the malaria was dormant in my system, and the shock to my body from the scorpion sting set off the malaria attack.  The bark the Wayana were giving me contained quinine, the same medicine I had taken back in the USA after my first malaria attack from when I was in Africa.  However, back in the village, I was still far from safe.

Even when the effect of the scorpion sting subsided, my fever continued, and it was obvious that I had to get down river 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 a way back down river.

One of the oldest men in the village volunteered to paddle me down as far as Antecume Pate, which is a Wayana village on the Suriname side of the river a few days away.  From there, I could easily get another canoe to Maripasoula, which was a rural outpost of about a thousand people, but it did have a French doctor whom I was anxious to see.  The cost for his 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, but I was up and walking around by the time I left the village.  This was 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 who was most difficult.  I could say Ipoc moni, which translates as ‘Thank you’ in Wayana, but staring deeply into his eyes with mine 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 was dying.  The shaman was one of the oldest in the village, and tears beaded in both of our eyes as he gave me a mostly toothless grin.  All of the villagers were amazingly sympathetic towards me, but I somehow felt like the shaman had actually experienced the pain and anxiety with me.

As my chauffeur pushed us into the current and jumped into the back of the canoe proudly carrying his new shotgun, I waved to the people who had cared for me, and I became overwhelmed with excitement knowing that I was starting my multi week journey home to the comfort of family, friends, a shower, a bed, food, and all of the other things I too often take for granted while living in the city.