Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
SAPO: An Amphibian Medicinal of the Indigenous Matses of Western Peru
by Peter Gorman
It was 1986 and I’d met Pablo two days earlier. I’d met my first Matses Indians less than a year before that.
In 1984, I’d gone to Peru with friends just to see the Amazon before it was destroyed. We’d met Moises, an extraordinary guide and naturalist whose specialty was jungle survival—despite being retired from the Peruvian military he continued to be pressed into service by his government to train it’s top jungle fighters. During that trip I heard stories of groups of indigenous who were still considered fairly untouched, and determined to return to see if the stories were true.
In 1985, I returned to Peru and spent a month with Moises learning how to survive in the Amazon. We’d headed up to a river town on the Ucayali—one of the two rivers that form the headwaters of the Amazon river—called Genero Herrera, then took small boats deep into the jungle in the direction of Brazil. When the river was too small for motors we canoed for two days, then made a riverside camp before hiking into the deep green for two more days and making our survival camp. Everything I saw was new to me, and Moises would patiently explain things over and over, from how to identify edible plants (1) and how to track animals (2) to which vines were full of good water to drink and so forth. It was all an incredible learning experience for me; one that had me full of new information.
One day a young man walked into our little camp. He was dark and wiry. His hair was black. He was barefoot, wore a pair of old shorts and had two strips of what looked like bark-strips wrapped around his chest and stomach. Most unusual though was his face: He had a hash-mark tatoo that circled his mouth and ran across his cheeks nearly to his ears. He also had thin, six-inch splints, like whiskers, in his upper lip. And his forehead was painted a ruddy red. He looked very much like a jaguar. I was scared to death.
Moises, however, simply said some words in a language I didn’t know—“Biram-bo! Biram-bo, bu-chi!”—and the young man smiled and returned the greeting. The man then pointed to our shotgun, which was standing against a nearby tree. Moises nodded and made a hand gesture that indicated that it was to be returned. The man nodded and picked up the gun. Moises reached into his pocket and pulled out three shells. The man took them and walked into the forest.
When he was gone Moises explained that the man was a Matses Indian, though they were often called the Mayoruna. While in the military he had led a jungle unit in a ground war against them in the early 1970s in retaliation for a raid they’d made on Genero Herrera.
“They stole machetes, shotguns, ax heads. They also took several women captive. Among those taken were two young Franciscan friars, who wore long brown robes and kept their hair long. The friars were later found with their genitals crudely cut off—probably when the Matses discovered they weren’t women.”
The conflict lasted four days. The Peruvian military won. In its aftermath, the Peruvian military built a small base at the confluence of the Jivari and Galvez rivers on which most of the Matses camps were built, effectively preventing further raids.
Twenty minutes into Moises’ story, we heard a shotgun blast, and a few minutes later, another. Twenty minutes after the last the young man walked back into our camp. He carried two large monkeys he’d shot in sacks fashioned from leaves that hung from templines around his forehead. On his head, clinging to his hair, was a baby monkey. He replaced our shotgun against the tree, and then put one of the sacks next to it. Then he turned and started walking in the direction from which he’d originally come.
Moises picked up the gun and a machete and said we should follow. He’d heard a rumor that there was a new Matses camp nearby but had never seen it. We walked quickly through the jungle for perhaps an hour, before coming on a clearing.
The clearing was demarked by posts, on each of which was the skull of a wild boar. At the rear of it a large hut was being built; closer to the near side there were three or four very low temporary shelters. There were more than a dozen children milling around as well as several women, two of whom were tending an open fire. The young man handed the sack he had to one of them. The woman quickly unwrapped the monkey and she and the other woman stretched it over the fire and began buring off its hair. To my horror, the monkey began to scream and thrash about, trying to get out of the flames. The women didn’t seem to notice.
While the large monkey screamed, the young man walked over to a young woman who was nursing and handed her the baby monkey. Without hesitation she put it on her free nipple.
In ten seconds I had witnessed both the cruelest and kindest acts I’d ever seen.
Moments later, an elderly man I later knew as Papa Viejo—old papa—came running at us. He held a shotgun and pointed it at Moises and began shouting. Moises raised his shotgun and began shouting back. I felt like I was watching two silverbacks in a dominance challenge. The shouting and threatening continued for perhaps 30-seconds and then, abruptly, both men put down their weapons and began to talk. Some of it was in Spanish, a little was in Matses, much was in hand signals. A few minutes later Moises said it was time to go and we left.
On the way back to camp he explained that the Matses, like most indigenous Amazon groups, always challenged visitors. If you buckled, they’d have everything you owned. If you didn’t you were generally welcomed. He said he was proud I had stood my ground with him, but that in this case there was not much to fear: “He had no shells for the gun,” he laughed. “If he did his son wouldn’t have borrowed ours.”
The following year, in 1986, Moises and I, along with my brother-in-law, Steve Flores, rented a small sea plane and had its pilot fly us out to the military base at the confluence of the Jivari and Galvez. We negotiated two peque-peques—large dugout canoes outfitted with long-stemmed, 9-hp motors. bought gasoline from the military at outlandish prices, and the next morning headed up the Galvez.
We didn’t reach the first Matses camp until near nightfall. We stopped our motor near the shore, faced by perhaps 50 Matses, all of whom had the facial tatoos of the Matses I’d met a year earlier. Some of the women wore tops, some didn’t. All wore shorts or skirts. The camp’s headman stepped in front of the others and held a spear as if ready to throw it. Moises pointed his gun at the man. The same shouting scene as I’d witnessed with Papa Viejo occurred and a short while later we were invited into the camp.
There was no interest in us at the camp, however, despite a number of small presents Moises brought. The Matses made us feel unwelcome and we left the next day.
At a second camp, the following night, the shouting match produced an invitation to camp, but again, there was little interest and we left in the morning. Moises was unphased. “Patience. Very important in the jungle.”
The third evening we spent at the home of a middle-aged, near-blind mestizo man who told me he’d been captured by the Matses decades earlier. He’d been working as a fisherman on the Jivari when they’d surrounded the tiny village he lived in. They demanded to know who built the best canoes. When the man, Mateo, said it was he, they’d killed the others and brought him with them to the Galvez. The Matses, he said, explained that they didn’t know how to build canoes—they’re more a forest people than a riverine people—and he was to teach them. Instead of teaching them, however, they injured his eyes, making it impossible for him to survive on his own, and made him their canoe-making captive. “Since then, when someone needs a canoe, they come here and take me to the lomas, the high jungle. I feel for the right tree for the canoe. Then they cut it and I direct the alternate burning and chipping away of the wood to shape the dugouts. I finish them myself to avoid cracking canoe.”
He told the story with some pride, rather than self-pity. I asked why he didn’t leave. “Leave? Why? Where? They killed my family and now they are my family.” I asked why he lived alone. “I’m a fisherman. I don’t like a lot of company. But the women come and take care of my food and clothes. It’s a good life.”
Our fourth night was spent at the village of San Juan Anuchi, whose headman kept trying to take our things. Like the headman at each of the other villages he was a curaca (ku-ra-ka), a title given someone who has several wives, is a great hunter and a warrior who can protect his village and who knows the medicinal plants as well as a curandero. But while the others proved indifferent to us, this one was simply frightening. He would walk into the hut where Steve and I were the moment Moises left and grab our packs. We’d object and he would raise a machete. Knowing we couldn’t back down Steve and I would follow suit and the yelling match with brandished machetes would ensue until he was satisfied that we were willing to die, after which he’d begrudgingly put down our things. It happened perhaps three or four times in a single night. We left early the next day.
The following day, in mid-afternoon, we reached Pablo’s camp. Built, like the others, on a high bank to avoid flooding during high-water season, the reception here was noticeably different than at the other camps. Two dozen youngsters and a couple of grown women were waiting on the bank when we arrived. As we did, arrows flew past us into the river while the children roared with laughter. Suddenly a male appeared at the top of the bank and began to bark orders to the kids shooting at us. They obediently stopped, though several giggled at the reprimand.
The man then bounded down the bank’s slope, empty-handed, and began the shout-off with Moises. Moises responded in kind. Moments later we were tying up the peque-peques and Moises and Pablo were hugging.
“He is my friend,” Moises said proudly. “He fought the war against me. He was the fiercest warrior of all. And then we became friends out of respect.”
Pablo reached out to shake my hand. He did it as if it were a taught gesture that he hadn’t quite grasped, missing my hand and rougly shaking my forearm, then burst into laughter. He had an amazing twinkle in his eye.
We clambored up the steep bank to the village, where we were introduced to a second man, Alberto. While Pablo already felt like an old friend, Alberto looked straight through us as though we weren’t people, as though we were lunch. I shuddered. I’d never seen such a blank look in someone’s eyes before.
The camp was built in a simple horse shoe shape, with four dirt floor huts on one side, one on the back line, and three on the other side. A fourth building was a raised-floor, unwalled hut, more typical of mestizo buildings than the Matses huts that I’d seen. The village was probably 40 yards wide and 80 deep. It opened on to the river. What struck me instantly was that there was not a single blade of grass in the entire village, as if someone simply forbade it from growing there.
The village was comprised of Pablo and his four wives; Alberto and his two wives, and their 30 or so combined children, who ranged from new borns to 25-year-olds.
We were given the hut with the raised floor and set up our hammocks while Moises gave gifts to everyone in the camp. There were small pots and colored Czeckoslovakian glass beads for the women; shotgun shells and fish hooks and line for the older boys and men, and small toys for the children. “Always give glass beads,” he’d advised when we bought them in Iquitos days earlier. “Those are the beads the original river traders brought and the women won’t accept us if we bring cheaper plastic ones. And no balloons for the children. They will eat them and die and that will lead to disaster for us.”
Once the fanfare of the gift giving was over, the Matses disappeared into the huts or went back about the camp business. I suddenly wondered what I was doing there. This was obviously a camp that welcomed us, with a headman who had a sense of humor, but what exactly was I doing there? I felt guilty: did I expect a show? I didn’t know, but had a terribly empty feeling in my stomach.
It didn’t last long. Moises, who had disappeared with Pablo, returned in a few minutes. He motioned for us to follow him and we entered a darkening hut lit by a kitchen fire and a torch that burned on the floor. Inside were three women and several children. One of the women held a child who was moaning. She looked feverish. Pablo inspected the child, spoke briefly to the woman, then left the hut. Moises said we should follow.
Take a taste; if they’re bitter, avoid them. If they’re sweet, try a little and wait to see how your body reacts. If you don’t get sick in a half-a-hour, eat a little more. Wait an hour. Still not sick? Eat as much as you need.
Just look for the trees that bear the fruit the animals eat. Find a good place nearby to hide and then wait: The animals will show up sooner or later and you can hunt them then.