Between a birthday, vacation, bike ride and trying to finish several reports/papers I’ve been slow in writing these last few weeks. One paper that I just spent an inordinate amount of time reformatting for publication was about fieldwork a couple of years ago, also over my birthday. So I thought I’d share my (non-linguistic) fieldnotes from that day:
I spent the morning of my birthday throwing up into a ditch. It’s more typical that I end my birthdays this way, but today was deliberate.
Just after sunrise, one of the older men burned a series of holes along my arm and rubbed frog venom into the wounds. He seemed calm about it, his tattooed jaguar whiskers curling with his smile, so I pretended to be calm too and put on my best ‘I do this all the time’ face. The frog venom ceremony is common among the Matses, with everyone in our village, Estiron, wearing trails of round white scars along their arms and chests. Just after I arrived we were sitting around in one of the huts when an elder asked me if I would take the frog venom ceremony. Although I had only begun studying the Matses language at that point, I know how to recognize the ‘dare’ tone in any language so I agreed. I figured my upcoming birthday was as good as time as any.
There are five steps in the Matses frog venom ceremony:
- 1. you get burned
- 2. frog venom is rubbed into the burns while you act like it doesn’t hurt
- 3. heat washes over you and your head starts pounding
- 4. within a few minutes you begin throwing up violently
- 5. some time later you stop throwing up
It is not entirely clear what the attraction is. There are no mesmerizing or profound hallucinations and it does not make you more virile or more fertile. It is unlikely to catch on as a party drug. The ceremony is not accompanied by music or chanting for consolatory exotic appeal. Apparently you feel more energetic when it is over (true, compared to when I couldn’t move) and you are a slightly better hunter (untested). I forgot to ask what happens to the frog.
The other favorite pastime of the Matses – tobacco – is somewhat similar. It is not enjoyed by smoking, which is considered odd, but by having someone blow it up your nose using a blowgun. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m told the experience is painful and people commonly throw up. Sounds familiar. The nausea is followed by becoming extremely dizzy from the nicotine rush. For people not accustomed to having tobacco blasted into their sinuses, I’m told it also has a strong laxative effect. Unfortunately, the dizziness usually prevents people from walking anywhere. At some point after this, when you’ve extracted the wads of tobacco from your cranium and cleaned the mess around you, apparently you feel ‘calm’.
Football and volleyball are becoming popular among the younger Matses. The elders don’t even watch – obviously these sports can’t compare to spending your spare time involuntarily jettisoning past meals.
So I’m throwing up in a ditch. Rainer is taking the ceremony with me. He flew from Berlin at the same time I left San Francisco to complete the field work together. At the last minute he’s decided to take the ceremony with me for solidarity. I’ve got to say though, there comes a point when you’re feeling ill that someone throwing up next to you stops being a ‘solidarity’ and starts being a ‘trigger’. After some amount of time – an hour? two? less? I crawl into our hut and lie very still in a hammock with my eyes closed not sleeping. In another couple of hours I will be fine.
The large thatch hut we live in is David’s, the third linguist in our party and resident expert on Matses. He has been visiting this part of the Amazon since the 90’s, first as an ethno-biologist when he fell in love with the Amazon, switching to linguistics when he fell in love with Amazonian languages, and finally moving into a Matses village when he fell in love. The hut is divided into two rooms. In the front room we squeezed two mattresses under mosquito nets along one wall for Rainer and myself. Along the opposite wall sit batteries, inverters and cables hooked up to the mosaic of solar panels on their little wooden tower outside. Across the middle of the room are three hammocks which are our office chairs. A cluster of microphones sit on a wooden stool in the dead center, and a general mess of papers, cups, notes and clothes is scattered throughout.
The second room is David’s, with his wife and child. At least, it was theirs until a little while ago. His wife is popular in the village and one of the girls volunteered to be a nanny, moving into their home and room, followed shortly after by the nanny’s sister who decided she should also move in as the nanny’s assistant. So it’s just the seven of us.
In the afternoon we had two elicitation sessions with visitors from the next village, a couple of hours walk through the forest. We’re specifically looking into reported speech in the Matses language, and the claim that all reported speech must be direct quotation. We’ve already made some exciting discoveries about the language, but I won’t give them away here – make sure your subscriptions to linguistic journals are current.
There are about 20 families in Estiron. They’re much like people anywhere: the kids are cheeky, the teenagers get bored, the adults work hard for their families, and the older people tell great stories. Our oldest informant already headed a large family when the Matses first established peaceful contact with the governments of Peru and Brazil in the 60s and 70s, so his tales of month-long hunts, raiding parties and chance encounters with neighbouring tribes are pretty amazing. Everyone has been welcoming and friendly and eager to work with us so that we can learn more about their language. This contrasts with another group of people currently visiting. While the Matses own their territory, the Peruvian government has granted drilling rights to a foreign oil company, creating a grey area about rights to the land. The company sent an envoy to village on the next river during the week, causing Matses from across the region to meet them there and chase them out with arrows and spears. I thought the arrows and spears were a nice traditional touch, seeing as they mostly hunt with shotguns nowadays, but I suspect the envoy didn’t appreciate this deliberate but subtle symbolic gesture. It has made me really appreciate the welcome we’ve received and the above all privilege to be working here.
The one exception to the overwhelming hospitality is a girl of about 3 who remains scared of me – she runs and hides behind the stilts of a hut every time I try to makes friends with her. She is particularly insightful, as she must know that it is not about her.
It is about the monkey.
She has an orphaned woolly monkey almost permanently attached to her, hugging her front with its long arms and legs wrapping around her body and head nestled in her neck. It looks like it bought its soft woolly coat to grow into, so in volume it is almost as big as its adopted mother. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen so I’ve made it made it my goal to befriend the monkey. Separated from the girl however, it transforms into a scary snarling beast. When I first saw them, the girl’s older brother was holding the monkey by one arm, which was using every free limb to try to scratch everyone in reach, screeching and baring its tiny sharp teeth ready to bite off a finger or gouge out an eye. When it became too dangerous for the boy to hold he launched it directly at his little sister. My heart skipped a beat as it flew through the air and I waited for the girl to be torn apart, but monkey just went silent, softly wrapped itself around her and went straight to sleep. The girl didn’t so much as blink. Until she saw me watching, that is, at which point she got wide eyed, started crying, and ran under a hut hugging her monkey close.
She’s hiding from me again today as walk past her hut through the village – I can see both her and the monkey’s heads looking out at me from behind a post. I’m contemplating my regular swim. The river carves out big ‘S’ bends through the forest. Two of the bends are only a few metres apart at Estiron, but the river loops out through the trees for more than a kilometre between the two. We’re at one of the more remote headwaters in the Amazon – it took more than a week to get here – and the river is only about 15-20 metres wide depending on the rain. It flows at about walking pace because the Amazon is so flat – if you climbed to the top of the tallest trees that break through the canopy you’d see nothing but a carpet of forest stretching to every horizon, and if you went to those horizons you’d see the same thing again. My daily swim involves jumping in at the upstream bend and gazing up at the trees, vines and colorful birds while swimming the big loop back to the village again. It takes about 30 minutes, the only real break I give myself each day, and it’s very relaxing and more or less safe. Despite what the movies tell you, piranhas do not attack healthy people in a feeding frenzy, only nibbling on dead or injured animals. They might occasionally attack something that looks like the thrashings of a dying animal, but that’s it. I wasn’t entirely sure it was a great idea to swim with the fresh burns in my arm – maybe they make me look too injured – so I gave it miss today. That, and you could be forgiven for mistaking my swimming technique for the thrashings of a dying animal.
We worked again, this time our star informant Daniel, who’s been great at translating sentences like “‘What type was the dear Pacha killed’ said Deshe” into Matses. He always humors us by graciously pretending to be equally interested in how such improbable sentences are differently formulated in Spanish and Matses. We were looking at the locative alteration today: ‘ëkë’ (other side), verses ‘ëkëbi’ (this side). We could have done this by talking about hypothetical situations, but it’s always more fun to move about and act things out, and it tends to elicit more novel variations. We made a loop around the hut, carrying recording equipment and testing the use and repetition of ‘ëkë’ and ‘ëkëbi’, on different sides of the house, much to the amusement of the neighbors giggling behind thatch walls.
After a dinner of fish, taro and papaya that finally made me well again, I spent the evening looking over the data we collected during the day and planned more elicitation sessions for tomorrow. I’m writing this from under the safety of my mosquito net listening to a curtain of rain sweep across the jungle outside. It’s nice to feel so relaxed and focused – must be the frog venom working.
All is good.