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The medicine of the Machiguenga

Update 9

AmazonQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks, a team of scientists and explorers are examining one of the most distinctive and most threatened environments on Earth: the Amazon River basin.

David McLain boards an emergency evacuation helicopter to receive rabies vaccinations in Cuzco.
David McLain boards an emergency evacuation helicopter to receive rabies vaccinations in Cuzco.  


Last night David was convinced he was going to die.

After a day of urgent phone calls to doctors in the United States, David went to bed thinking he had contracted rabies from a bat. Whether he did remains to be seen, but the very thought of it kept him -- and the rest of the team -- up all night.

This morning, David complained of strange aches in his arms. His face was ashen gray, his usual winning smile gone. This, along with the kids' decision in Dan's Dilemma to play it safe, convinced us to airlift David out of the jungle.

At 11 a.m., a helicopter set down in on the Manu airstrip (where a worker was still clearing the runway with a machete) and David walked aboard. He was bound for Cuzco where he'll get four days of rabies shots to ensure he doesn't get the disease.

Two hours later, we boarded a 12-seater plane and flew 97 nautical miles over a carpet of rainforest to Timpia, a Machiguenga village on the lower Urubamba River. The plane set down in a jungle clearing, the engines all but drowning out the cheers of children who crowded the plane from all sides.

Timpia is the site of a unique project: a 100-percent indigenous-owned and -operated ecolodge called the Machiguenga Center for Tropical Studies. We'd come here to continue our week's study of ecotourism and its impact on the people and wildlife of the rainforest.

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There, Dolores Primo took us into the jungle to learn traditional Machiguenga medicine. Dolores was the perfect guide. Having grown up in the jungle her whole life, she learned of its medicinal cures from her grandmother. She says she prefers nature's medicines to those of the modern pharmacy. In Spanish, Dolores' name means "aches" or "pains."

We took off down a path with Dolores and stopped at the huito, or passion fruit, tree. "This fruit," she explained, breaking one open, "is good for pregnant women, liver problems, and helps kids get rid of nasty worms."

When Dolores heard that Tom had some stomach problems, she stopped to show us the raiz del viento, a nondescript, gnarled tree root. She cut off a piece of bark and recited from memory, as if reading off a prescription, "Mash the root and boil it, then take a spoonful of the liquid three times a day."

I was impressed. Dolores showed us plants for treating headaches, wounds, fungal infections and nightmares -- plus plants for soothing anger and keeping babies from crying.

"Do you have anything for Dan?" I joked, motioning that he was acting a little crazy.

You name it, the Machiguenga have it here at their fingertips. Pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Europe have long mined the Amazon for miracle cures for cancer and other diseases. Moneymaking drugs like aspirin, morphine and recent cancer-treating drugs like taxol all originally came from the rainforest.

Dolores Primo points out the
Dolores Primo points out the "shimapini" plant, ingested by men to make them more alert while fishing.  

Drug companies have made huge profits, while indigenous people got little credit or money from the drugs they've developed over centuries. But this "biopiracy" is gradually disappearing as indigenous people like the Machiguenga secure patents to protect their intellectual property.

We stopped in front of a red-leafed bush and Dolores exclaimed, "Here's something for your crazy friend! Just grind it up and pour it in his eyes and it'll take care of his madness." Dan decided to pass on this.

At the end of our walk, I turned to Dolores and asked the question that, because of David's condition, was on all of our minds. "What about rabies? How do the Machiguenga treat rabies?"

"Rabies? From a bat?" She shook her head. "There's nothing here for rabies. No cure."

We were all relieved then that David was in Cuzco getting treatment and not wandering down jungle paths with us.

Diggin' it,

John Fox



 
 
 
 


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