Apr/May 2007   Travel


by William Reese Hamilton

A Yanomami at Platanal has taken an arrow. The message comes by radio, so there are few details. Just, "El fue flechado."

The young doctor at the medicatura in La Esmeralda appears matter-of-fact about it. He looks up at us from his chair, seemingly cool in his gray uniform and campaign hat. It happens quite often, he tells us.

"If he's alive tomorrow, we'll leave in the morning. Two of you can come with me." Alfredo and I are the interested ones. He has been going to the Yanonami settlements off and on since 1992. My record of experience is, of course, as blank as a fresh T-shirt, since what little I know about the Yanonami I've learned second-hand from television programs and anthropology books.

By ten the next morning, our small aluminum launch has been loaded down with enough boxes marked "Okamo" to bring the waterline up to a few inches of our gunwale and leave barely enough room for four--the skipper, the doctor, Alfredo and me. And so we push off again up the green mouth of the Orinoco. We've already traveled thirteen hours up river in a tiny toy boat from Puerto Ayacucho to La Esmeralda. It's five more to Platanal.

May, June, and July are the rainy months in Las Amazonas, and the river has already fallen a couple of feet off its flood crest by mid-August, but both sides of the river are still a fecund mass of leaves with sudden thrusts of giant trees and magnificent palms. What lies beyond that solid wall of green, the Yanonami knows far better than we. He can pick out the subtle signs of his prey and has the skill to hunt him down. Nobody on the Orinoco rivals his skill with the long, stiff bow and two-meter arrow. His life has always depended on it. We are as ignorant about survival here as a country boy in New York City. To us, this is just endless blue sky, dark river, and thick jungle, with a rare glimpse of a long snake gliding through the water or an alligator stretched across a rock like some prehistoric sculpture.

Anthropologists love these strong, little people because they exhibit such an outrageously primitive machismo. The Yanomami male seems to love punching his opponent in the chest until he falls to the ground, slapping him hard against his side just below the rib cage to knock the air out of his diaphragm, or whacking him over the head with a poleaxe until he is unconscious. All while the women and children wail their dismay for the disadvantaged opponent. These may be mock battles, but the machos love to show off those head scars.

The doctor tells us that after one such head-bashing ritual, he was visited by so many bloody warriors there was no room for them in his clinic, and he had to tend to them on the ground outside. The same men who had been trying so hard to knock the others out lay around now chatting and bleeding together like the closest of friends. To show off his courage, one tough warrior refused anaesthetic. "Just sew me up," he ordered proudly. Of course, since the Yanomami are so famous for taking powerful hallucinogenic, he probably already had enough painkiller in him.

It's approaching one in the afternoon when we swing into Okamo, the first of the three main Yanomami villages. The great Orinoco is a slim river up here, and the Indians are lined along its bank, ready to greet their doctor and unload his medicine boxes. They are a motley crew at all stages of dress, from the semi-nude to those decked out in their free, red, political campaign T-shirts and baseball caps. While they haul the supplies to the clinic, we go up to look over the village of palm and bamboo huts. I'm anxious to take pictures, but every time I point my camera, men, women and children alike run off yelling "Mak" or "No."

"What are they afraid of?" I ask.

"It is not that you will steal their souls, as you might have heard," Alfredo says. "They think the camera will freeze the soul, so it can't move on. When they die, they will no longer be able to move through the fields and trees, hunting."

It is then I see her carrying the infant on her hip, nude to the waist and as beautiful in her own way as Gauguin's Polynesians. Like the others, she's afraid of my camera.

"How do I get her picture?"

"Photograph her in a group. That way she won't be so afraid. She'll think you're aiming somewhere else." And this is how I freeze the soul of my Madonna of Okamo.

She is perhaps fourteen or fifteen-years-old, and already a mature woman, cocoa-skinned and sandy-haired, a thin tattoo running through her light eyebrows, her face unmarked by the usual pegs a Yanonami pierces through her earlobes, nose and mouth. If I come back in a year or two, she'll already look old and tired, beaten down by the tough life and her husband's clubbings. A Yanonami woman carries those head scars too. The one near her is probably still in her twenties, but she looks sixty, her breasts already hanging flat and withered. Her life is difficult to imagine. If she is abandoned or widowed, she will become a prostitute for the entire tribe, to be raped and beaten by any man who wishes, without protection from anyone.

Our young doctor is ready to shove off again, but several men are hanging around him, trying to stop him.

"I must go to Platanal," he says. "Hay uno flechado."

"Forget him," a healthy looking Indian says. "Look at my leg. It needs your help."

"Don't worry, I'll be back this afternoon," he tells them.

And so we're churning upriver again, past the second village, Mavaca, stretched out along the right bank like a postcard, with crowds of natives shouting and waving at us as if we were the QE2. And then finally, at three in the afternoon, Platanal.

There are no huts by the water, just a couple of bongos, those long wooden boats you see all along this river. We follow the doctor up a muddy road toward the Yanomami shabono, a large ring of thatched homes with a great empty field in the middle. Nearby, is the concrete medicatura, where we find the wounded man in a small back room. He has been lying nude in a hammock for five days, waiting with a few male family members. They are squatting around a fire on the floor. The room is filled with smoke. The man is obviously in pain and groans when the doctor leans him forward to apply his stethoscope.

The long arrow passed through the bicep of his left arm and into his chest cavity, how deep and exactly where no one can tell without an X-ray. The shaft of the arrow has been removed, but the tip, which was tied to the shaft and dipped in curare, is most likely still in his body. The poison was not enough to kill him, but it could be playing hell with his organs. His skin is a waxy yellow and his breathing labored. The doctor suspects he has pneumonia.

Two men tie his hammock to a long pole and lug him down the long muddy decline to our launch. There the pole is laid across the bulwarks, so he hangs freely in the hammock above the hull. His younger brother accompanies him, sitting across from me in the boat. And then we are off again. No ceremony, no heartfelt good-byes.

Gliding down toward Okamo, I study the boy, his straight black hair, broad bridged nose, dark eyes and wide, sensitive mouth. He could be a Filipino, I'm thinking. I could have seen him walking down a road in Cebu or at the market in Bohol. Just exactly like a Filipino--thin, brown, Malaysian. His brother lies behind him, and I am tempted to snap a portrait of the two together. But they seem to read my thoughts, and before I can raise my camera, the young one has scooted to the side and the patient and covered his face with the edge of the hammock.

"How was he wounded?" we ask the brother. The patient lies there mute.

"He was robbing a woman," the brother says.

"What does that mean?" I ask Alfredo.

"Sometimes they raid and kidnap women from another group. Sometimes the woman is unhappy and wants to leave, so she runs off with the man. Sometimes it depends on who you ask."

Only the wounded man knows what really happened there, and he isn't talking. But I find myself pondering motives as we move down river. Was it lust or stupid machismo that drove him to it? Or was this man a true Romeo trying to carry off his Juliet? Of course, at the primitive level, it is easy to call love mere lust. But what does that say about the rest of us? Were that Montague boy and Capulet girl in love or mere lust? And if this man was willing to risk his life for a woman, does that make him a true lover or just another dumb macho? Pity we can't sit down together and discuss Medieval chivalry.

The doctor gets out at Okamo, where he will be staying on for some time. I want to take a picture of him standing in his handsome gray uniform with all the Yanomami men, but the headman yells out what seems to be a non sequitur.

"No pictures! This is not a time for pictures. This is a time for politics."

And so we leave. And find ourselves almost immediately in the middle of a tropic downpour. It starts softly, and I can see ahead where the clouds end to the south, so I don't think about covering myself. But Alfredo arranges a poncho over the hammock to protect the wounded man. The rain thickens. The younger brother and I are getting really wet now, and each time I think we will pass out of the storm, the river turns back into it. Finally, I figure it out. The storm is following the river valley. But I'm too soaked to worry, so I sit back and enjoy what becomes a classic Venezuelan "palo de agua."

It's dark by the time we reach La Esmeralda, but an ambulance is waiting with its headlights pointed down at us. Two men lift the patient onto a gurney and slide him into the back, and he and his brother are carried off up the hill to the local hospital.

The next day they are flown to Puerto Ayacucho, where there is an X-ray machine. I stop by the hospital to ask about the patient, but the news they get over the radio is brief. "They say he's better," I'm told, but there are no details. Did they operate? When will he return? No one knows.

Then, a few days later, we get news that a girl has been shot and killed at Platanal. A girl, they say. But as we have seen, what to us is a girl is a woman to the Yanomami. She was shot by accident, they say. But if you shot someone out in the jungle, wouldn't you claim it was an accident? Of course, there are never any details in these sketchy radio reports. But it occurs to me it might just be our Romeo's Juliet who was shot. Yanomami men don't take kindly to a woman who wishes to run off with someone else.


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