The end of August approaches, and I find myself recently back in Berkeley after a full field season in Peru. This summer I worked exclusively in the Máíjuna community of Nueva Vida, collaborating with several colleagues (about whom, more in subsequent posts) to document Máíhɨ̃ki, the westernmost of the Tukanoan languages.
This field season was marked by relatively little in the way of physical adventure, which is in general a good thing. In particular: no venomous snakes. Our two preceding field seasons involved somewhat startling encounters with cascabel snakes (the juvenile form of Bothrops atrox), which we found snuggled up in various places in our tight living quarters. Given that cascabeles are venomous, we followed local custom and dispatched them with machetes, rather than chase them off and run the risk of blundering into them with unfortunate consequences in a less attentive moment. A human armed with a machete is more than a match for a little cascabel, but it was nevertheless gratifying not to have to confront another one, however unequal the terms. We did have one serpentine visitor this field season, though: a charming little boa that lurked for a couple of days in the thatch of the hut that served as our kitchen and dining area.
The one near-disaster we had involved a situation so mundane that I’m still shaking my head over it. Several of us had gone to the community of Sucusari to attend the annual meeting of FECONAMAI, the Máíjuna federation, and had gone with a group of folks from Nueva Vida. This trip involved going down the Napo from Nueva Vida, past the town of Mazán, and on to Sucusari. On the way back, we needed to leave a little early because we had to make a side-trip to Iquitos, via Mazán, to buy supplies for the community linguist workshop we were holding shortly after the end of the FECONAMAI meeting, and so we headed upriver with several Máíjunas who had their own reasons to make a trip to Mazán.
Anyway, we were heading up the Napo, half-mesmerized by the blazing sun and the coffee-colored waters of the river slipping by the bow, when the boat almost sank. The river was about a kilometer wide at that point, and we were right in the middle of the tranquil-looking river, when we hit a sand bar, which caused the boat to lurch. Crucially, we were cutting across the current at that moment, so that the lurch sent the ‘upriver’ lip of the boat under the level of the water, and the Napo began to rush into our little vessel, threatening to swamp it seconds and sink it. Needless to say, that would have been very bad: the banks were several hundred meters away on either side, and several of our number were weak swimmers — never mind all the recording equipment and computers we had with us.
Fortunately, someone with the right reflexes jumped out instantly onto the sandbar and wrenched the lip of the boat up, so that the boat remained afloat. With some vigorous bailing we were able to continue, somewhat damp and shaken, but otherwise unharmed. Ironically, Chris and I had just been discussing how mild the river conditions seemed to us in comparison to the more turbulent rivers we are accustomed to in southern Peru. It just goes to show how deceiving appearances can be.