June 30, 2015

Agony and Ecstasy in the Amazon: Excerpt from 'Broad Street'

Never tell a Matsigenka shaman his tobacco snuff is anything but katsi, “extremely painful.”

I learned this lesson the way I learned most of my lessons during fieldwork and in life generally—the hard way. Many years ago, in a village at the headwaters of the Manu River in the Peruvian Amazon, my friend Shumarapage initiated me into the pungent delights of seri[1], a fine green powder of tobacco and ash that Matsigenka men blast up one another’s nostrils to dispel fatigue, treat colds, build bonds of friendship, share shamanic powers, or just get plain smashed.

"Tobacco is the shaman’s soul. The more 'painful' or 'pungent' (katsi) the tobacco, the more powerful the shaman."

That first time, Shumarapage punished me with an intentional overdose. “Just one more puff,” he kept saying, until ten hits later I was lying in a puddle of green snot and vomit while a crowd of men, raucous on manioc beer, laughed all around me (the Matsigenka have a rather harsh sense of humor). Among the Matsigenka, such an episode is nothing to be ashamed of: on the contrary, guests are expected to overindulge as a sign of appreciation. And so despite this traumatic initiation, I soon came to savor the sharp sting of tobacco, crave the euphoric rush of nicotine, even appreciate the purifying bouts of retching that sometimes follow an overindulgence. 

Matsigenka men usually share tobacco at dusk, as the cooking fires begin to flicker against the black wall of the surrounding forest and crickets, frogs, and nocturnal birds tune up for an all-night symphony. A pair of men, usually brothers-in-law or other close kinsmen, sit facing one another on a dingy cane mat in the sandy plaza between thatched houses where women cook, gossip, nurture and laugh while children sleep or play.

The men are often grimy and tired, having just arrived from their slash-and-burn gardens or a hunting foray. They may chat softly for a few minutes about the day’s toils and revelations—peccaries plundering the manioc crop, tapir tracks along the stream—or they may be too tired, and so remain silent. One of them reaches into a coarsely woven net bag slung across his chest and removes the shell of a giant snail (Megalobulimus sp.), known as pompori in Matsigenka, which can be as white and polished as porcelain from years of use. He extracts a cloth wad from the shell’s orifice, careful not to spill any of the precious green powder stored inside. He raps the shell with his knuckles, tilting it slightly downward so the powder sifts down from the coiled innards towards the mouth.

"Green tobacco powder is mixed with the ash obtained from burning the bark of an exceedingly rare tree species known simply as seritaki, 'tobacco bark'.[2]"

The tobacco’s owner brandishes his seritonki, or “tobacco bone,” an L-shaped tube made from two leg bones of the curassow, a pheasant-sized game bird with silky black feathers and a hooked, bright red beak. The bones are secured with sticky brown resin and twists of handspun cotton. Then follows a brief but animated conversation as the two men decide who will go first—which is to say, who will start out on the receiving end of the seritonki

“You first!” says the tobacco’s owner. 

“No, you first!” says the other man. “Your tobacco is very painful! I’ll never get used to it.”

“You first!” insists the tobacco’s owner. It’s like watching two gentlemen bicker over who will hold the door.

“All right, I’ll go ahead, but just two nostrils’ full,” the second man acquiesces. He rubs his nose and scratches his head in anticipation.