Peter arrived in Quito after four months of guiding mountain climbers in Argentina, and with his return, sheer terror. We planned to head for the Andes Mountains of Peru to begin making our first documentary film but instead, we made a little detour on a rickety prop plane into the Amazon jungle of Ecuador. Destination: Stone Age.
The plane jumped. I craned toward the window. Below, the canopy of trees looked bulbous, like Peter’s beard. Puffy clouds whizzed by and I dug my nails into the seat. If the engine failed would we plop down on treetops? What if only I survived? Would I shimmy down the trunks? Would there be coconuts? My eyes turned to the cockpit, straight ahead. The pilots wore earphones and oxygen masks; a paper map and compass were their only guiding tools. As the drone from the engine pierced my rib cage I thought, “Not even my mother knows I’m here.”
Bumping through the skies, I took stock of my male companions. Peter, with a gleam in his eyes invoked by adventure, cradled our hand-cranked movie camera like a baby. How could the power and magic of this little black Bolex have lured me from my comfortable job in television in Chicago to this, the unknown? Geoff Casebolt, a gangly Oregonian, had a purposeful earnest demeanor. Though one-and-a-half years into a solo bicycling expedition from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Geoff joined our group because he claimed to be hungry for a real adventure. Peter Frey, a tall, balding Swiss picture-book photographer, was the only one among us who had ever visited a similar tribe, in Brazil. Bossy, as if he were our chief, he talked about how we should behave if we wanted to avoid trouble among people who bathed their darts in poison before going on a hunt, and rubbed sticks together to make fire for food. Kernan Turner, the affable AP Bureau Chief for Latin America, organized the trip because it seemed like a good excuse to get out of the office. The men, all strangers, met by chance the week before at the South American Explorers Club in Lima. Only the most seasoned travelers were invited to go. But because the tribe had a reputation for spearing unexpected visitors, Peter suggested they make a place for me, a woman who’d be seen as a peace symbol, to be nudged out of the plane first.
Why did I agree? Only oilmen and missionaries knew the terrain. In the late fifties, five churchmen were speared to death after trying to make first contact. More recently an oil company cleared a runway there, but had to flee when their French chef and a couple of cooks were speared after taking the lives of too many turtles for the soup. Called the Auca, meaning Savages by their Quechua-speaking neighbors in the highlands, the tribe was famous for violent clashes. No one could guarantee our safety but my companions felt confident that our innocence would be perceived: Unlike missionaries or oilmen we had no agenda, other than a driving curiosity to see how Stone Age people lived. The pilot planned to drop us off and return a week later; we’d have no contact with the outside world during our stay.
Now as we flew I had no time to think. A jungle clearing appeared in the overgrowth and the plane banked sharply to the left. Our gazes followed and I grabbed the nearest flesh, Geoff’s wrist. Four wooden shelters with dried leaves on top grew large along the runway and then we were down.
Like a star gliding to the podium to give thanks for her Oscar, I prepared for my role: me, Peter, three men I’d met the night before and a tribe of hunter-gatherers reputed to be deadly. Faced with a genuine, primal stone-age experience, I promised myself I’d never be afraid of anything again – if only I’d survive the week. As I collected my belongings, twenty or thirty half-dressed locals gathered outside, waving. Their eyes were shaped like pecans, their skin colored like the bark of trees. A few crouched down and craned their necks, as though searching for something through the windows of the plane.
“Go on Harriet, go on!” Voices in my head propelled me toward the plane’s door.
“What happened to male chivalry?” I wondered, but out loud I said, “They look quite friendly,” and plunked down the metal stairs, one, two, three. I scoured the scene: an audience of Amazonians, a stage-set of open shelters on stilts, and a barricade of trees. No spears in sight. I squinted for enemies lurking in the forest.
“There don’t seem to be any men around,” someone said. “There’s only women with children and teenage boys.” I felt a twinge of disappointment.
“That’s right,” said Peter Frey. “They’re all out hunting monkeys for dinner.” I eyed one of the women and she eyed me.
“Does that mean I won’t be invited to go hunting then?”
The pilot, who left the engines running, quickly unloaded our duffels and barrels of food. Then he opened a sack of round breads and handed one to each of our hosts. Wishing us well, he re-boarded the plane with a monkey perched on his shoulder.
“It must be a gift,” Geoff whispered. “That probably means we’ve done okay. The people seem happy.” But I wasn’t happy because the plane was taxiing down the airstrip and taking off, before I had a chance to change my mind.
We stood on the pebbly field, gazing at one another in the damp heat of midday. Cameras dangled from the necks of the men; babies with flat thighs clutched the bare waists of their mothers. The women’s hair, black and matted, fell to their shoulders like sharp knives and their mouths hung open in semi-circular half-smiles. Bare-breasted, they wore colorful strands of beads around their necks and elasticized skirts.
Suddenly some teenage boys put their hands on me, touching my crotch, then my stomach and breasts. Their hands were floppy, lacking dexterity.
“Keep still!” Peter Frey said. “They just want to see if you’re human like they are. They want to know if you have the right parts.” I froze while they stroked and prodded my body. One teenage boy with six toes on each foot stood right in front of me, his grin wide and toothy, his eyes flashing with vitality. I offered him my most Cheshire smile in return, but the expression on his face was frozen and vacant. When they finished with me, they swarmed the men, who chuckled nervously about the procedure. But it ended abruptly and our first conversation followed. A wrinkly woman with yellow teeth stepped forward and pointed toward the sky, making a sweeping arc with her arm. Our eyes followed her gesture.
“That’s east,” said Peter Frey. “She’s asking how long we’ll be here; how many sunrises.” He imitated her motion, drawing semi-circles in the air seven times.
“I’ve just told her we’d be here a week,” he beamed. “Now let’s show them we’re here to stay.” Lugging our rucksacks and duffels we headed toward the furthest shelter on the runway. Women, children and teenage boys slapped the outer pockets and stroked the aluminum frames. Grabbing zippers, buckles and locks they sniffed whatever they could hold. We moved with the mob en masse like a floating island.
Suddenly I felt hands, slender and rough, gripping my upper arms, turning me away from the men.
“Peter,” I said, “what should I do?”
“Go with them. They probably can’t figure out why you’re here without a baby.” My wardens moved swiftly. I looked at the one beside me, with fluted wrinkles around her eyes. The younger women with babies on their hips lagged behind.
When we reached a house with a raised porch I perched onto the ledge. One woman stroked my linen blouse. She cracked a smile. I smiled back. Another patted my shoulders. Trying to establish that everything was okay, I nodded my head but there was no recognition of yes. Then I tried shaking my head no but the response was nil. Suddenly a woman with puckered lips slapped my chest with her floppy hand. I remembered Peter’s words. But my breasts were still uninitiated in the maternal sense; virginal and pristine. Until now I hadn’t given much thought to their biological purpose.
I began flopping back, thumping Puckered Lips’ chest while she thumped mine. Then someone tugged on my buttons. My heart raced. I rebuked myself for not having a baby, which would have given me status and meaning here. How could I explain my barrenness, when it looked as though I belonged to those four, strapping men? Unbuttoning my blouse I parted the opening and revealed – a bra. The women stepped forward, staring. My bra comprised two lacey half-moon cups linked in the front by a tiny plastic clip.
A woman with dangling earlobes pulled my shirt from behind and shook it down til it was on her. Then I unclipped my bra. The spectators leaned forward, with nasally gasps and chuckles. My nipples were pale, pink and new, compared to theirs. The dangling earlobe woman pulled off my bra and placed it in Puckered Lips’ hands. They fingered the lacework, talking and chortling until I released the bra from them and positioned it on Puckered Lips’ back, guiding her wrists and arms through the straps. The cups dangled on either side of her armpits, so I hooked the bra beneath her sternum, never-minding the fit. Everyone laughed and Puckered Lips’ eyes caught mine, brown and worn. I didn’t mind giving up my shirt because I had others, but I didn’t want to lose my only bra here in the jungle.
I recalled peace-pipe scenes in Hollywood movies and lit upon the role I needed to play. Flopping my hands in the native style of pointing, I tugged on Puckered Lips’ strands of beads and smiled. She smiled. Then I wrapped my fingers around the beads. Bowing forward as though she’d seen the same movie as me, I pulled the necklaces over her head and placed them onto mine, re-dressing my naked chest in the local style – bare-breasted with beads. I sensed approval all around.
Act Two quickly followed. Puckered Lips grabbed my breasts. She flapped her hands over and under them and slid her fingers from the top down to the nipple, which she squeezed between her fingers and thumb. My nipples were dry. Bone dry. She repeated this motion again and again. I wondered if milk could possibly appear. The mothers gathered round as Puckered Lips squeezed and pinched me. One by one I looked into each woman’s face for help, but they offered nothing in return. I could only shrug my shoulders and shake my head, repeating over and over, “No baby.” But my words fell like stones to the ground.