An Amazon Love Story
As soon as I saw the beast with the two big eyes, I screamed and ran into the bushes. It moved with a loud noise, and I was sure it was going to bite me. Then Kenny found me and said not to be afraid, that the animal was a machine that runs on the ground. He said the nabuh get into it and it takes them places, the way a boat takes us places in the water.
On the day not long ago when Yarima was frightened by the “beast”—a car—the now 19-year-old woman from the Amazon forests of Venezuela also endured a few other firsts in the world of the nabuh, or outsider: She wore clothes, flew in an airplane, saw herself in a mirror, flushed a toilet, even drank a Coke. Three months ago her husband, Ken Good, an American anthropologist who spent 12 intermittent years with Yarima’s people—the Yanomamo—brought her to Philadelphia, where, he says, she’s become a jungle Alice in a 20th-century wonderland. “Every day she sees so much weird stuff that weird becomes normal,” explains Good, 44. “She’s still full of questions, like why don’t we eat tarantulas and grubworms, what’s money, what’s snow, do we eat the plants we grow in our houses, and last month, who were all those fat men in red suits standing around in front of stores? It sounds funny but for her it’s frustrating. I know because I felt the same way when I first lived with the Yanomamo. I didn’t know their language, their ways, their foods. They treated me like a pet, like a clown.”
(Good translates for his wife:) I was a little girl when I first saw Kenny. I had never seen a nabuh before, and we all pulled the black hair on his face, laughed at his white skin and wondered why his body was so long. We helped him build a house out of clay to put his things in, away from the big house made of leaves and wood where all of us lived. But then we ate some of his house [the Yanomamo sometimes eat clay], and Kenny was very angry and shouted at us. For a long time he wouldn’t speak to us, and we called him Ghost’s Tongue, since the dead cannot speak. Then he started to speak our language, and one day he told my mother I was pretty.
Yarima was 7 in 1975, when Good first entered the vast Venezuelan-Brazilian border area where an estimated 10,000 semi-nomadic Yanomamo live. He reached the headwaters of the Orinoco River by plane and dugout canoe, and there made contact with Yarima’s group of about a dozen families. For the next 12 years he lived with them, occasionally leaving for supplies, visa renewals and funding for his doctoral study on Yanomamo ecology, which he is now completing for the University of Florida. Prof. Marvin Harris, his research sponsor at the university, believes Good now knows “more about hunting and food supply among Amazon Indians than any other anthropologist with recent field experience.”
An athletic, city-bred boy from Philadelphia (“I played sports but wasn’t very outdoorsy”), Good never thought he would stay more than a few years. That’s why, when he was pressured by the village headman to accept Yarima, then 9, as his bride, he agreed. “The old man said I shouldn’t stay unless I took a wife,” Good recalls. “I laughed, then I figured when I leave, our so-called marriage would dissolve, which is what happens to most of their child-bride relationships. For the first few years she was just another kid. She’d bring me water or hang around my hammock area. That was the total expression of her feelings, which for a Yanomamo kid is a lot.”
Once I went to the river to watch Kenny leave. I thought he would never come back. I stood by his boat and waited. When he finished putting his things in, he turned and gave me a shiny pot and touched my face with his hand. Then he left. For a long time I cried. At nights in my hammock I would remember how he carried me on his back in the forest, how we would look for fish in the streams, how we would play my games, how we would walk together on the leaves without a sound, more quiet than the wild boar and the deer.
Some outsiders have called the Yanomamo “the fierce people” because, for sport, neighboring villages sometimes engage in violent head-clubbing and chest-pounding contests. But Good found the Yanomamo to be feisty and hardworking, usually more interested in gathering sustenance than in fighting. Naked except for such decorations as feathers or skin-piercing facial sticks, they live in a communal, circular house with a thatched roof and an open compound in the center. The houses are scattered throughout the forest near plantain, manioc and tobacco gardens. When one garden is depleted, the group moves on to harvest the next. “They also hunt, fish and gather insects,” says Good, “but it’s not the paradise you would think. They go hungry a lot. Diseases and infant deaths are way up. They don’t even name their babies until they’re 3 because most don’t make it that far.”
Good himself suffered from frequent malaria attacks, once for seven weeks. “I thought I would die,” he recalls. “Yarima was by my side, and someone told me not to worry, that after I died, they would cremate my body and drink my ashes in a plantain broth. It’s the highest compliment the Yanomamo can give someone. It’s like taking your spirit and making it part of themselves.”
Good left for medical treatment in Florida, and when he returned to Venezuela, he intended to stay for only a few months. But he says that when he saw Yarima, “all my neat plans were forgotten and I didn’t care about ever leaving. I guess I was in love.” Another time Kenny went away for a long time, and again I was sure he would never come back. When he did, I had become a woman. Finally I could hang my hammock next to his, and we were happy together. I told him I would always like him, even if someday he got tired of me and disappeared forever into the world of the nabuh.
Good went downriver, beyond the rapids, one last time for several months. When he returned, Yarima and her people were gone, his storage hut burned to the ground and his tape recorders, cameras, notes and supplies destroyed and strewn about. Eventually he learned that a Yanomamo from a neighboring group, a man who hated outsiders, had convinced Yarima’s people that Good was dead and that now Yarima was free to be with all the men. During several weeks, more than 20 of them raped her repeatedly. She was beaten and once almost strangled to death, her earlobe was torn, and when Good found her she was traumatized. “Every time I left, I had a feeling this might happen,” he says. “Among the Yanomamo a man should be around to protect his wife. I miscalculated. It’s not as if I didn’t love her. Whenever I was gone I was desperate, always worried about her.”
Furious with the men for what they had done, Good took Yarima out of the jungle to the river-port city of Puerto Ayacucho and had her earlobe stitched and treated. It was her first of several contacts with the outside world.
Kenny covered me with a shirt and dress, saying the nabuh like to wear these pieces of cloth because it makes them feel good. They would stare at me if I didn’t cover myself or if I kept the sticks around my mouth and the one through my nose. In the big house [hotel] where we stayed, the first thing I did was take off my clothes. Then Kenny showed me how the nabuh make light by moving a little stick on the wall, and how they sleep on a big, soft box, and how they look into a shiny window to see themselves. I was scared of losing my spirit in this thing. Most of all I was scared of the white box called a toilet. I thought it would bite me. Then I saw it swallow water, and Kenny told me the water goes into a big hole in the ground. Sometimes I forget things, like once when I went out without my clothes and Kenny had to run after me. He says he was afraid that the nabuh would see me.
Good returned to live with Yarima and her people for two more years. Then, when she became pregnant last winter, he decided to bring her to His parents’ home in Havertown, a Philadelphia suburb, so that they could marry under U.S. law and she could deliver the baby under medical supervision. “I thought it would be safer,” he explains, “even though I had to convince her not to go off and give birth by a river, the way they do in the jungle.”
In Venezuela some authorities and missionaries objected to a foreigner taking a Yanomamo away and marrying her. “I think I’m the first outsider ever to do that, and at that point they just couldn’t believe I loved her,” he says. “The authorities also are very sensitive because the Yanomamo, like all native populations, run the risk of being wiped out by contact with outside cultures. Whatever happens, I think their assimilation is inevitable, but at least in our case it’s being done through marriage.”
Their baby, David Alexander, was born last November, only a few days after Yarima and Good were married in the Media, Pa. courthouse. Good’s parents and several Venezuelan friends were on hand. “She didn’t understand what it was about,” he says with a chuckle, “so I just told her that this is what the nabuh do when they want to live together and not be bothered—they stand and answer a lot of questions. She was so serious, with me translating everything and her giving long speeches for answers. Believe me, when she says she’ll stick with a guy ‘until death do us part,’ she really means it.”
I was afraid of airplanes, and I’m not anymore. I had never seen black people and other kinds of nabuh, and now I see them all the time. I never wore clothes before, and now I even cover my feet. I never saw snow before, and now I can taste it. But in the nabuh’s world there is too much silence. In the forest there is always laughter and people talking and children playing on the vines in the trees. Here, I only hear sirens. Kenny says the nabuh make this noise when they are rushing to help each other when there is a fire or someone is hurt. Now, at night when everything is dark and the baby is quiet, I hear the sirens, I hear the nabuh crying for help.
“She spends a lot of time with her Walkman, listening to all the tapes I made in the jungle,” says Good. “It helps her when she’s feeling down or lonely.” The couple plans to return to the Amazon once Good turns in his nearly completed Ph.D. dissertation and finishes a book about his sojourn among the Yanomamo. A heavy smoker, he says he seldom wanted a cigarette in the jungle and grew to cherish his simpler, less stressful life with the Yanomamo, recording information, hunting, fishing and gathering food. But he worries about his son’s health when they return and says he can’t predict how Yarima will readjust—”now that she’s hooked on unsalted french fries” at Philadelphia fast-food restaurants.
“That’s all she wants to eat,” he adds. “That and plantains. Bananas won’t do, so I spend half my time buying out the city’s supply of plantains. Then there’s all the tobacco leaves I buy. She rolls them in wads, then puts one behind her lower lip and that keeps her satisfied for hours. Practically from the time they can walk, Yanomamo suck on tobacco. Although she ate roasted tarantulas back home, she finds the American variety unappetizing. The same goes for grub-worms. But she’s tough, she’s adapting little by little. The other day I took her to a hockey game and she freaked out. She wanted to jump in and knock around with the guys. She said it looked like they were having a great time.”
I miss my family. I want to go home. I have my baby and Kenny talks to me. But I can’t understand anyone else, so when I am alone I listen to my Walkman, to the sounds of birds and my people’s voices. I know every voice. When they chant I can see them, my cousins, my brother, my friends. In the middle of our house in the jungle, I see them eating and dancing. I tell them I am here, I am in the world of the nabuh. I tell them I am going home. Soon they will see me.