Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Getting Quality Sapo from the Frog

Someone wrote to me recently asking about the differences she has noted in different sticks of sapo--frog sweat utilized as a fantastic medicine and hunting tool by the indigenous Matses of Peru and the Peru-Brazil border area. Now in the last few years there has been quite an interest in sapo. Many people going to Iquitos are offered it and many ask where they can get a bit of it. It's not something you would do for fun: The sapo--the Matses use the same name "toad" for both the frog itself (they didn't used to distinguish between toads and frogs when they first learned Spanish, though they certainly did in their own language) and the material it gives off as its protective mechanism. The way it works is this: The frog, the phylomedusa bicolor, is a tree frog that moves very slowly and deliberately most of the time. Its primary predators are boa constrictors that live and/or hunt in trees. With few exceptions the tree snakes are venomless--there are a few rear-fanged tree snakes, but as noted, most tree snakes are constrictors with no venom. Now when the snake takes the frog into its mouth, the frog panics and in that moment of panic gives off a bit of a creamy goop called sapo. That material hits the constrictor's mucous membrane and instantly freezes the snake, giving the frog a few seconds to back out of the snake's mouth and make it's escape by jumping the hell down out of the tree.
    If that frog has recently needed to utilize it's protective sapo--or frog sweat--then there is a good chance it won't have strong enough sapo to freeze the snake and so the frog will wing up crushed in the snake's neck, on the way to the snake's belly.
    For human use, the frog is tied up to four little stakes in the ground by bits of string or plant fiber, stretched out so that it looks like a little green trampoline, and then it is badgered a bit until it gives off it's frog sweat. That frog sweat is collected by running a twig along the frog's sides, back and legs, and the material is then generally transferred to a small stick--picture a doctor's tongue depressor, and dried for later use. Once on the stick and dried it looks like yellow or gold varnish.
   To use it, the Matses will spit onto a small portion of that dried sapo, then liquify a bit of it with a knife or stick--scraping the dried sapo into the spit until it's liquified to the point where it has the texture of wasabi mustard.
   A piece of tamishi, a particular jungle vine used to tie house beams together, is then heated at one end and when red hot, the burning end of the tamishi is placed against the skin, generally near  the shoulder.  The burned skin is then scraped off, exposing the capillaries beneath. The diameter of the tamishi rarely exceeds 1/4 of an inch and is often smaller than that so generally two or three burns are required for good effect--though some Matses, during particular times of the year, might do five at a time, and some gringos looking to set world records will try more than that.
   Once the burning is done, the sapo is applied to the exposed subcutaneous skin and within about 15 seconds the acute effects of the medicine onset. Thay will include quickening of heart beat and pulse, often accompanied by profuse sweating and sometimes the urge to defecate or vomit. The extreme torture of thinking your heart will explode and feeling more poisoned than you've every felt, lasts about 15 minutes. Some people are fine after that, others are so exhausted they need to rest.
   What really happened during those 15 minutes was that your entire circulatory system, as well as your kidneys and liver, have gotten a deep cleansing. You felt poisoned because the poison in your system and the gunk on your arterial walls was flushed, huge amounts of it at once, and your bloodstream was just full of that poison.
    Once that flushing is finished--and you might wind up with some weird colored poop and piss for a couple of days--you'll find your whole body has sort of been rebooted. You see more clearly, hear more distinctly, do not get tired as quickly and a host of other things that are vital to a hunter but serve the rest of us as well. Hell, I could write a book and might, but for now that's enough.
    So this friend of mine wrote to ask about differences she's noticed in different sticks of sapo that she's acquired. mostly from my team. And this is what I wrote back to her to try to explain why different sticks would have different strengths:

B: Hmmm....to me the sapo is pretty universal IF, and this is a big IF...if the frog in question has a full load, has been running freely, and is properly collected. The variation in strength probably has something to do with the individual frog as well, just like humans have different levels of strength and so forth. 
   The keys to me are 1) collecting sapo from a frog that has not utilized its sapo in at least a week; 2) collecting the branch the frog is sitting on, rather than collecting the frog itself; 3) that the sapo is only collected from a frog living in its natural environment, not one held in a camp for repeated sapo taking.
     Collecting sapo from a frog that has not utilized it's protective sapo in at least a week is the equivalent of not milking a poisonous snake until it has not eaten in a week or so: Once the strongest part of the sapo has been utilized for defense, there will still be sapo looking substance there but it will not be at full strength, just as a venomous snake that's recently eaten will not have much power in its venom--although it will still have that liquid. 
    With more people collecting sapo these days, much of it is being collected very badly. People often hear the frog then climb into the tree and take it back to their canoe to bring to camp to milk the sapo. Problem with that is that the moment you touch the frog it gives off it's best/strongest sapo because you're terrifying it. The Matses always, and I mean without exception, either call the frog to have it come to them (actually Pablo was the only person I knew who could do that), or cut the branch on which the frog is sitting and then they bring the entire branch back to camp without disturbing the frog--which allows them to get the best/strongest sapo out of it during collection.
    Collect only from free roaming frogs: As the sapo is made as a result of what the frog eats, the sapo will only be strongly made if the frog is dining on what it likes to dine on. Some people I know keep frogs in their camp to periodically milk. They have weak sapo because while the frogs may be living in a tree and eating insects, it may not be living in its tree of preference and eating its insects of preference, which are what makes the sapo. That's also the reason that if you purchase a phylomedusa bicolor frog at an aquarium it won't poison you with its sapo: Eating crickets doesn't allow the frog to make sapo.
   One last note: As only the first release of sapo has the maximum strength, when Matses like Pablo and Alberto--whose lives depended on sapo to give them the edge when hunting and allowed them to walk for a couple of days at a time--collected sapo, they might use two or three frog's worth of sapo to make a single stick. They culled the very very best. When my team collects for me--unless I'm with them--they'll milk a whole stick and sometimes more from a single frog. Which means one end of that stick is very strong and the other end is very very weak. Tough to tell the difference visually, which is why I tend to do a tongue test on any sapo I send out these days: Just touch my tongue to both ends of the stick to insure that it's good material. If my tongue instantly tingles and my heart starts to pound, well, I've got good stuff. (You would not want to administer it through the tongue, however, because the mucous membrane is simply too delicate and burns quite easily. Plus, the sapo gets into your blood stream way way way too fast to be healthy.)
    How's that? I could be wrong but I don't think I am.

About That Lawn...

Well, the problem with getting the lawn done was that I started painting my office. Which meant that all those jungle artifacts jamming the shelves and all that art, and the vitally important medicines I have on my desk and everything had to come down and get cleaned one by one. And let me tell you, when I got stuck by a blowgun dart with curare on it, even though it was just for a second, well, made me really sick. No fun.
    And then there were the headdresses where each feather needed to be cleaned. And then the buying of the paint and new rollers and drop clothes. Then cleaning the ceiling fan, then painting the ceiling, then the walls--painting was easy--and then the clean up and then getting everything back into place. The darned project took six days--in part because I was working on a cover story and only worked on the office for three or four hours a day. And when the cover story was done, I worked on a Drug War Follies column for Skunk. Then I got the room back together.
   By which time, the grass, which had been mowed during the several days before painting, had grown to nearly a foot high in a lot of places--we'd had a lot of rain during that week--making collecting it in the mower bag impossibly difficult. I did it that way, pushing the electric mower and emptying the bag about every 30 feet for the first 1/4 or so of an acre, then gave up and just cut it without the bag. Much easier, except that I had to rake it afterward. And I have already done enough raking in my lifetime. I don't like raking anymore. Still, I had to do that for one patch of maybe 5000 square feet and another of about 6,000 square feet. Royal pain in the neck. But now I'm down to just three or four more hours of mowing and another three or four hours of raking and then I will be done again. Which is good, because the grass I mowed just in front of my house on Friday--that's just four days ago--needs mowing again--and soon, if I'm going to be able to cut and bag it, rather than rake it.