Sunday, August 15, 2010

More Jungle Stuff

Well, Madeleina's back, I've got some parakeets singing in the background, Chepa is off to wherever to pick up Sierra and Alexa and spend some time with her boyfriend; Italo and Sara and Taylor Rain and Marco were over for dinner several times this week, both my trucks are suddenly suffering--which means I'm about to suffer--and I'm on about 18 deadlines for my local alternative weekly newspaper. So life is perfect--or perfectly insane--again, and I'm close to feeling right at home.
So I'm feeling I should be talking about the goings on at the Gorman's, but at the same time I'm sort of in a discussion on that board I occasionally post to and the discussion deals with the health of the people of Peru/the Amazon. One poster talked about the vibrant health of the people of the jungle; another, a well known and very articulate author named Steve Beyer, who has a book out called Singing to the Plants--that you all ought to buy after you've bought a second copy of my book (Ayahuasca in My Blood-25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, available from all internet sources and now a few bookstores too!)--questioned the claim of vibrant health among jungle people. He sites stats of average longevity, infant deaths, deaths of mothers giving childbirth and so forth and discussed the need for external medical help and its value.
Well, I couldn't help but wade in, and so this is what I weighed in with:

And just to throw the monkey wrench into everything, if do gooders would never have brought tee-shirts to the people of the jungle, they would still pick at each other and eliminate all lice, prevent insect bite infections and so forth. My family still does it, as does my team in Peru. They just sit one behind the other, pretty naked when no other gringos but me are around, and clean each other like monkeys, head to toe.
Sweating into those tee-shirts all day after you've gotten those insect bites is where the infections come from as a rule, I think. And not having anyone clean them when they start to infect finishes the job.
Now, can we get the natives naked again?
But there are a lot of doctors on trips out there who are passing out antibiotics that they are not administering dose by dose. And if you know people from the jungle, if you tell them to take 2 or 4 a day for 10 days and then disappear, well, those people will take the first day's medicine, then save the rest, putting a crimp in their immune systems. While it might make the doctor feel he's done something good and worthwhile, in fact he/she's just wreaked havoc with the health of a person or several people.
So while I like to help, I always have to keep in mind the honest adage that more harm has been done in the Third World by people with good intentions than all the harm done by evil men.
So there is a very very fine line here on what is permanent help (education); temporary help (addressing immediate needs) and what is a genuine hindrance (teaching people to wear tee-shirts all day because they should be embarrassed by their bodies, offering up medicines you will not be there to administer, handing out miracle drugs like aspirin which undermines the longer term but more permanently effective cures of the local curandero, rendering locals dependent on outsiders).
Hope you two don't mind the butt-inski in me...

To which Steve responded that yes, help had to be given in the correct way or it would do more harm than good. He then pushed on the "vibrant health of jungle people" question and so I was sort of compelled to answer. And this is what I wrote:

Well, to me it always seems they are all in vibrant health. They are just so strong, so agile, so quick. But I recognize a lot of my friends die there by the time they are 50. Some, like Julio, have lived till they were in their 90s, but most of my friends get a snake bite or something equally disastrous and are quickly gone long before that. Which I think is just a law of the jungle: Be strong enough to hunt or die.
I never thought much about the baby deaths. I know we in the West use them as a barometer of overall health to some degree, but in the Amazon, or at least deep in the Amazon, women often give the number of children they've had in two numbers: 21 and 12 for instance, or 16 and 9. That means they gave birth to 21 and 12 are still alive. Or gave birth to 16 with 9 still living. For us that is a large death ratio; for the harsh jungle I think it's simple attrition and it would be wrong to come in and supply medical care that would keep all of those 21 babies alive. That's too much fishing or hunting, that's too many people; those numbers represent too great a strain on the jungle.
Not that I like those babies suffering. I don't. But the real jungle is harsh and not for every baby to come into and survive.
I guess I don't see the life span as an issue. I think people are in great health out there until something happens and when it does, it's a disaster and they're gone.
The malaria that affects the brain swept through a huge swath of the Upper Yavari about 12 years ago and took dozens of babies and old people and people who were ill. Here that would be horrible. There it was a necessary culling process. And I know that sounds heartless and someone might ask "Well, would you want your family to lose some members because of something like that?" and the answer would of course be "no." But things are not perceived the same way out there. Out there a person who cannot hunt or fish or tend a chacra--field of yucca or plantain or whatnot--is a burden on the rest of the community and while the community is sad to see them go, there is also a sense of relief. A baby born deformed will often be strangled at birth with his/her umbilical cord. That sounds so heartless but it's not. In the Matses antigua, old ways, tradition, that dead baby would be put into a freshly made clay container--the container looked like a sort of oversized, round-ended football--and that container would be placed in a fire tended by his mother--with frequent visits by the father--for three days. At the end of that time the container would be opened and the mother and father would consume the ashes of their baby, so that the baby's spirit could come out again, be born again, this time without deformity, so that it could survive the jungle.
And I suspect that many of the babies in the "21 and 12" types of equations, even among mestizos, were often killed by infanticide, though it's not something the parents would talk about. Too many female babies, for instance--a standard in the entire Loreto region--might make for a sort of paradise for men in Iquitos and Requena, but are a disaster in the deep jungle. Who is going to hunt or fish for them when they grow up? Who will do the male parts of the living?
I know that sounds terribly chauvinistic, but it is a different world out there in the deep jungle. And I know there is less and less deep jungle but still, someone has to hunt, someone has to fish, someone has to burn the chacras, someone has to collect the food and wash the clothes and out there those jobs are pretty well defined as male or female. So female babies are often killed at birth. And never, in my little direct experience with it, in any but a respectful way that urges the baby's spirit to return in the future.
Given that, I think that those who survive have a sort of vibrant health. Yes, they get fungal infections a plenty. Yes, if family does not pick at insect bites daily, and clean the hair daily of peojos there will be lice. But in my experience most people get tended to. I know I do, even from my team. My ex, from Iquitos but just 3 generations removed from tribal life, still goes through all the kids' hair daily, and mine about once every two or three days, to check for lice eggs. And that's here in the States.
So I'm in a quandary about medical help. Yes, in villages that get too large--more than 50 people--something of a septic toilet would be invaluable. But in my experience, among people who know how to live in the jungle, the toilet is a deep hole in the ground that is shared, but constantly fed with plantain ash and sidra--jungle grapefruit--to kill bacteria. And the shack built around it is always built of saplings that prevent flies from entering. That is not the case at all in Iquitos or in many of the towns Steve mentions on the Tamishiyacu, or in Genaro Herrera. But those places are hardly jungle anymore and so jungle rules don't apply. Those people are generally not having 21 babies and too many females isn't an issue. Those females are going to go off to Iquitos or Lima and study and try to find jobs when they grow up is probably more the current day thinking, so they're not a liability. And for them, yes, medicines brought in from the outside can be a positive. Too, many of those people no longer know or have access to the full spectrum of jungle remedies and so need external medicines.
And those people are not in the same health at all as people in deeper jungle, I don't think.
It's early. Forgive me for rambling a bit. It's a subject that is often on my mind, particularly when i'm asked for medicines by jungle folk. I really prefer not to give them, but then hate to see suffering, so sometimes do.
How's that for muddying the whole issue?

And there you have it. Gorman's take on the issue of vibrant health, how to keep jungle toilets bacteria free and fresh, and the question of infanticide.
HA! And you thought you were going to get a cute little story about the new goat guy, didn't you? Or the fact that the hens are laying eggs the flavor of which I don't like, but which will change, I'm told, once they get used to eating what we feed them here--lots of fruits and veggies and rice and garlic and such. Well, no. I brought you to jungle illness instead.
And with all this writing this morning I'm already pooped.
Time for more coffee. Ah, coffee....the elixir of something...
Good morning, everybody!

1 comment:

The Grudge said...

Thank you for sharing this. It is an invigorating perspective on life in jungle. Take care.