Hanging out with mom in the Amazon: foraging and walking through the jungle
Going out to the forest to acquire food for the day is one of my favorite activities with my Yanomami family. When I leave the shabono and venture out into the surrounding jungle, the canopy gives me reprieve from the scorching heat and the swarms of blood-sucking gnats. There's absolutely nothing I hate more than being sedentary and exsanguinating in the scorching heat.
Since we always travel in smaller groups, it’s a great way to “spend time with the family." I mean that with a slightly facetious tone because my whole entire village is my family. But when we break into smaller bands, I get an opportunity have a little more quality time mom, with a fewer distractions and interruptions. Sometimes, these excursions last a few hours. Other times it can take up the whole day. The goals seem simple like gather mushrooms or go fishing or harvest plantains. But for a newbie like me, planning and preparation for the day was a bit challenging at first. Not in difficulty, but the downright cultural difference in how start our mornings.
I’ll never forget when, back in 2013, mom shook my hammock at the crack of dawn (which is around 4:30 a.m. in the Amazon) and told me it was time to get up. I moaned not wanting to move. I was still adjusting to sleeping in a hammock, outdoors in the middle of the Amazon jungle, the change in weather, and the cacophony of noises in the middle of the night - noises that I’ve never heard before.
In the mornings, it was quite cold so getting out of my cozy cocoon was a bit difficult. But when mom says it’s time to get up, it’s to get up!
Like a sloth, I lazily got out and shuffled over to the fire to warm up. I continued to boil a pot of water for coffee and made a little bit of oatmeal for breakfast. As I sipped on my cup of Joe, I ambled to my equipment station (where I stored all my research supplies), pulled out my notebook to review my field notes from the day before. Then I took inventory of my supplies, double checked some of the electronics, all the while moving like molasses
Then, I glanced up and caught mom staring at me with an expression that was a mix of “What in the world are you doing?” and, “I’m being patient because I’m your mother, you’re my son, and you are just learning the ways of the Yanomami”, and “boy, if you don’t get your butt ready in the next minute I am going to slap you with the broad side of this machete!”
I noticed that a quarter of the village was waiting on me. I got the hint quickly. I hastily put everything away and started packing for our excursion in the jungle. But I didn't know what to pack. Do I prepare a day pack? What supplies do should I bring? What clothes should I wear? Will I have enough batteries? Which camera do I take? Should I bring a tripod? Do I have a backup pen? Do I have a backup for my back up? I was concerned about being overburdened with extra weight, but also just as concerned in not being able to take a once-in-a-life time photo because I ran out of batteries or take critical notes because my pen broke.
When I continued to put on my shoes, mom shouted a ta haiapraro - that means “ hurry up!”
Then, she pointed at the shoes and said, shami! shami! a joyere - She was telling me that shoes were bad, just throw them away.
I thought about it for a quick minute. But I didn’t think mom realized that decades of protecting my soles with socks and shoes rendered them extremely vulnerable to the elements. I had baby feet and my skin was soft and supple. Her soles were hard as rocks.
I sheepishly smiled and said, ma, wai-ha wai-ha - No, wait, wait. Then she bellowed and started laughing which made me laugh. Soon after everyone else was laughing. I was glad that I was able to provides some comical relief as they teased about my particular handicap. To the Yanomami, it seemed quite laborious in my effort to go out and forage in the forest. Mom, well, she’s up and out in minutes. All she needed was a machete and an empty basket.
Once we were out in the forest, I was a chain-and-ball. Not only was I weighed down with so much equipment and supplies, Just about everything in the forest stopped me in my tracks. I was fascinated with every leaf, insect, fish, tree, nut, berry, all of it. Mom would catch me staring at an army of thousands of leaf-cutter ants coating the rainforest ground or a morpho butterfly fluttering by.
Weti ke tah? Weti ke tah? - I constantly asked. “What is that? What is that?” My relatives took turns answering me and they all found it hysterical when I repeated after them. Sometimes, I tried to mimic the sounds of my newfound vocabulary to help me with the learning process.
For example, when I wanted to say bat in yanomami, which was hewe, I’d squeek with a “tsss…tsss...tssss.” and then say hewe. When I practiced the word thunder, which was yaru, I would blow out sounds of crashing thunder while using my hands to indicate an explosion. This was primetime comedy hour for the Yanomami. And they were a great audience. Just about every sound, or motion I made, in attempt to mimic sounds of the rainforest, was a hit!
These moments, in the jungle, I cherish forever. I was bonding with not just a people of a culture so different than the one I grew up in, but with my very own blood and kin. It was very special.
Watching my family glide through the forest, chop down trees, harvest mushrooms, and snag crabs in creeks was like witnessing a work of art, a beautiful song and dance. The way mom moves through the forest, barefoot without any clothes - the way she swings a machete with extreme precision and efficiency - the way she can spot delicious mushrooms from meters away through thick foliage - the way she can quickly grab large freshwater crabs WHILE carrying an infant child – that's impressive, strong, and beautiful. That’s jungle tough!
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