One of my childhood dreams was to visit the Amazon. But once I’d gone I was left with an empty feeling, realizing that just one trip was not enough to fill the desire sparked by youthful dreams. After my second trip to the Great Forest the idea to mount a more serious expedition started to form. My anthropologist friend Ivo and I put together a trip to carry us to the headwaters of the tiny Momon River to a village called New York. Just as I finished my book Life’s Only Photo (sorry, Estonian language only), we planned to venture deep into the forest to meet the Matsés people, those sometimes affectionately known as the “cat people” for their whiskers and facial tattoos. We gathered information and sought out the best ranger we could find. As a translator we found a young Matsés from Iquitos, Peru, who could primitively translate the Matsés language to Spanish and who was willing to travel with us to his home village. Now there was nothing left to do but get supplies and airline tickets aboard Peru’s all-powerful Air Force plane that maintains connections to its farthest outpost in Angamos.
In Angamos we bought provisions, and through great effort acquired a bit of gasoline and an able boatman with whom we embarked on our journey toward the Matsés’ village. The Matsés are a people who have become famous in the West for their whiskers which they wear in tribute to their totem animal, the jaguar. Elderly people still maintain this habit, but the young view it as silly, and the tradition is dying with the elder generation. Also of interest about the Matsés is that their contact with the world of the gringo has been minimal. In 1969, when man walked on the moon, female missionaries made first contact with the Matsés people.The missionaries’ mark on the Matsés has been the formation of a rather bizarre matriarchal society. Older Matsés have lived the first half of their lives as true forest people, with a sudden, dramatic change in the second half concerning traditions and the values of faith, nature, and eating. However, the Matsés are not yet entirely westernized. They speak the Matsés language, many families still live in the long house, and they retain old traditions in food preparation, communications, and hunting. All this is indeed quickly vanishing, and given the inevitable development of the world, we have no reason to condemn anyone. But what of these "new gods" being imported to the culture? It is emotional to witness how the old values are not replaced by new, since the world is simply no longer values-based.Through this short photo series we have the possibility to view one chapter in the lives of the Matsés people, since I perhaps may never find the energy to write a book on the subject.
Reaching conclusions in the traditional sense is too complicated. I understand only that my presence does not make the world a better place, that I stumbled upon a chessboard where a great game is played, where I am of as little importance as the Matsés people themselves. The game's important players are oil companies, conservationists, government officials, Matsés- and other indigenous peoples' “representative groups,” and other third parties. The journalists who write stories are as far away and as powerless in the balance of things as leaves in the wind. And politicians can be sometimes corrupt, or very corrupt. The missionaries of a variety of religions, cocoa paste businesses, energy businesses, forestry businesses… Are all the chess pieces present? Shall the whites begin?
The last chord
Departing the Matsés we arrived back in Angamos village to await our plane, which would come a full day later than agreed. We were obliged to spend the night in the storekeeper’s pantry. The storekeeper -- naturally a woman in this matriarchal society -- asked us, among other things, if we might care to marry her. In Angamos we encountered anew some of our old Matsés acquaintances. Under certain circumstances the state of Peru pays support and pensions to people in distant villages. Upon presentation of identification, these payments are made from the Angamos army post, where our air strip was located, giving us the opportunity for transient meetings. After our extended period in the forest we were enjoying the western luxuries of canned wieners and sweet lemonade, until the former Matsés tribal leader walked past, their most dignified man. His eyes were vacant as he sucked on a large pink lollipop. But instead of moving the lollipop around in his mouth, he moved his head around the lollipop. (Is there a right way to eat a lollipop?) This was his final chapter of an orgy of sweets before returning to the forest. Perhaps I would have behaved in the same way if offered something previously delicious and unknown to me.