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Meet the Machis
by Kelsey

June 16, 2009

The morning we left for Casa Machiguenga was bright and warm, just the way I like it. I was finishing my breakfast, an omelette with all the fixings and an avocado (another slam dunk by Ciro, the cook) as I heard Satu yell, “Oye chato, vamanos! (hey man let’s go!).” I slugged down the final gulp of my instant coffee and grabbed my day pack. As I made my way down to the river, the dark green thick of trees broke and I saw the rest of the group seated in the boat, suited up in the bulky, bright orange and yellow life vests and ready to go. I threw my bags into the bow and hopped in next to Anthony, the guy from Texas. “Hey, morning everyone, how’s everything?” They quietly said they were good, and as Cristiano gave the motor cord a yank we were off.

Boating down the Madre de Dios river is peaceful. Its muddy brown, meandering straits are ever so gentle and the surrounding banks are full of life. On our way we saw at least ten different species of birds including kingfisher, snowy egret, macaws, and cocoi herons. In the water there were endless groups of turtles (sempiri) lazily sunbathing on fallen trees and we spotted eight caiman, one of which was the endangered black caiman. Being surrounded by all these ancient reptiles and amphibians in the vast expanse of the Amazon made me feel as if I had been transported 100 million years back in time. Lisa and I joked that with our cargo trekking pants, life vests, and rubber boots we looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park. I started humming the theme song and we all had a good laugh. Everything was so wild and pristine. It was such a drastic change from the crowded, dirty streets of San Francisco that I felt completely disconnected from my own cultural reality. It was one of the most supremely satisfying times of my life.

Five more hours upriver (katonko) and we reached our destination, Casa Machiguenga. We were tying up the boat and unloading our bags when I heard the patter of bare feet on muddy soil. I turned around and saw a short, dark haired man wearing a tan and brown striped pullover robe. “Manchakintsi.” The word flashed in my mind like a bolt of lightning. A manchakintsi, or cushma, is the native attire of the Machiguenga. I had read about this type of robe in my studies prior to coming to the Amazon. I couldn’t force down the giant, shit eating grin that was creeping onto my face. I was here. All my years of monotonous, disconnected armchair anthropology had finally paid off and being in this jungle, standing next to this man (surari) was the fruit of my labor.

“Hola,” I stammered. He answered back, “Hola.” The excitement I felt had my mind racing at 100 miles a minute. I manically wracked my mental files for the Machiguenga words to introduce myself, “Nopaita Kelsey (I am called Kelsey).” He smiled and chuckled lightly as he replied, “Nopaita Jose Luis.” The shape of his face, his medium length, straight hair, and his gentle, welcoming demeanor reminded me of my friend Rob “The Guy” Stetina. I felt at ease. He smiled again and walked to the boat to help carry supplies up to the camp. As we were unloading the gear two more Machiguengas came to assist us. The first was an older man who wore a cushma, and the second was a young man wearing soccer shorts and a printed t shirt. We introduced ourselves and I learned the older man was named Samuel and the young man was Miguel. Both were equally as welcoming as Jose Luis. It took us 10 more trips to finish unloading the boat, and when we finally completed the work we celebrated with warm coca cola and loaves of bread. Satu joked to the Machiguengas that I was their new slave. I was not amused and told him to stop. After the bread was munched and all the soda swilled, Cristiano told me to go get the soccer ball I had brought as a gift for the Machiguengas. I quickly ran to my room to find it. I had read and heard from some people in Cusco about the Machiguengas love for soccer and was eager to play with them. When I returned we made the teams: me and the Machis versus Darwin, Cristiano and Ciro. “Nice,” I thought, “A chance to bond with them.”

The Machis played hard and seemingly without fatigue. I on the other hand was drenched in sweat and gasping for air after only 10 minutes. I took off my shirt to cool down. Jose Luis and Miguel made a good team. They controlled the ball masterfully and effortlessly advanced down the field like a pair of wolves closing in on their prey. Miguel scored the first goal and I went to high five him but he didn’t understand my gesture and instead shook my hand. Whoops, forgot I wasn’t in the states anymore. My feet started to sweat profusely and they were slipping around in my shoes so I took them off. After all, the Machis weren’t wearing shoes and they were doing better than me so why not? Mistake number one. We played for ten more minutes and my big toe began to hurt. I lifted it up to take a look and realized I had incurred a huge blood blister. Lesson number one, Kelsey’s feet do not equal Machiguenga feet. I told them I had to stop and proceeded to my room to pop the blister with the knife my friend George had lent me. Thanks George! I returned to the game but they had already finished playing. Apparently they did just fine without me and won. I saw Jose Luis and Miguel heading to their room and I didn’t see them the rest of the day. I was feeling pretty good about my stay so far. Jose Luis and Miguel were both nice and cordial and we hadn’t had any communication problems yet, save the high five incident. Later, we ate dinner and I hung out with Cristiano, Darwin, and Ciro and drank beer. I swear I speak better Spanish when I’ve had a couple of drinks. We talked for a while then retired to bed. As I lay in my room I wondered how the coming months would be. I was nervous but excited and hopeful…

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