Mapping the mystery
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.
It's 2:50 p.m. in the liquid heat of an Amazonian afternoon.
We're docked next to the town of Roaboya, a settlement of 400 Shipibo Indians on the muddy banks of the Ucayali River. A scrubby, flood-plain forest lines the river's chocolate-brown waters.
A stupefying haze of humidity hangs over the day, blurring the horizon. The sun is a white smudge in an opaque sky but still burns hot. I'm on deck, shirtless, dripping sweat and yawning. Two days ago, we left the loud and suffocating port town of Pucallpa and headed north, downriver, toward Iquitos. We boarded this huge, refrigerated box of a riverboat called the Aquamarina. It boasts twelve double rooms with hot water, AC, and origami-folded towels.
For the eight of us, we have twelve crew members and -- this is the weird part -- eight heavily armed soldiers from the Peruvian Navy to protect us from river pirates. Each morning we're greeted by a soldier with an M-16 machine gun. He's nice enough, but it gets the day off on the wrong foot. The Shipibo are one of the only indigenous ethnic groups that still live along the Ucayali. Proud and traditional, they have fiercely resisted change. They're known for their beadwork, pottery and fine textiles. We expected to walk the town's solitary dirt path, stop in a few huts, and buy some souvenirs. We planned an hour visit. That was a day ago. Turns out that a small miracle occurred this morning and some villagers believe we may have had something to do with it.
When we stepped ashore, Luis Gonzales, a well-spoken, Pucallpa-educated schoolteacher greeted us. He welcomed us to the village, but warned that we wouldn't find many people home. Three days ago a farmer named Mestanza Pino left town to fish in a newly discovered lagoon. He never came back. Most of the town's men were out looking for him; the women were preparing food for the search party. Everyone worried about Mestanza. He's a man with big responsibilities. He has a wife and six little children.
John asked Luis how Mestanza got lost. After all, Shipibos have lived their entire lives in these jungles. They know their way around.
"The people here say a neighboring shaman cursed him," Luis began. "Spirits trick you and disorient you. You get very lost. It's very difficult to survive three days in the jungle without food, water, or protection from the cold," he concluded with a sullen shake of the head.
"Last night," Luis went on. "Our Shaman, Wesha Meni, held a ceremony to find him. He drank ayahuasca (an herbal hallucinogenic), and let his mind travel. During his trance, he saw Mestanza alive in the jungle, and told the search party where to look: three kilometers (about 1.8 miles) east of here."
"Do you believe that?" I asked, annoyed. This was an educated man. A father of six is lost and instead of a systematic search, townspeople were taking instructions from a witch doctor.
A few huts down, we met Mestanza's wife, Olga. She shook each of our hands, but avoided eye contact. Then we met her children. They were a glum and scruffy bunch, but polite. Their father's small banana and yucca garden and the fish he catches are the family's only food source.
Sixty hungry men would be back at 3 p.m. for a lunch break and Olga asked if I would help by buying food. We delivered 15 pounds of rice and 10 pounds of sugar to a group of women stewing fish in an enormous pot. One of the women was Mestanza's niece. "Do you think they'll find him?" I asked.
"I doubt it. He was probably bitten by a snake," she answered. We walked the town for another couple of hours. Gloom hung over everything. Even kids were quiet. I asked the soldiers who accompanied us if they could give the search party logistical support. They agreed. Then we turned back and headed for boat, intending to come back when the search party returned. Moments later the town erupted. People mobbed Mestanza as he emerged from the jungle into town. Glaze-eyed, lumpy with bug bites, and as dirty as the ground he trod, he staggered down the street.
For three days, he had wandered, sleeping on logs and eating nothing. Before even hugging Olga, Mestanza turned into the shaman's house for a purification ceremony. There, Wesha spat agua florida and blew tobacco smoke on him, driving away the curse.
Some townspeople murmured that the gringos brought good luck. Now he could go home, clean up and get well.
Out on the street, I met the man who found Mestanza in the jungle. "Where did you find him?" I asked.
"Three kilometers east of here."
While policy-makers squabble, Amazon vanishes
August 10, 2001
Cobbled corridors aim to protect Brazil wildlife
February 16, 2001
Amazonian alligator bounces back from the brink
November 16, 2000
AustraliaQuest's final entry (last year's trek from Classroom Connect)
November 3, 2000
New book, article accuses scientists of disrupting Yanomani tribes
October 2, 2000
AmazonQuest at Classroom Connect
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