Today was nuts. At 7am I set out to a neighbor’s house, Jairo Padilla (a different Jairo than the usual Jairo) because he knew two mineral licks I didn’t have on my map. He was getting ready and asked me if he could carry his shotgun. Normally my answer to that question is no because if they’ve got their gun with them they pay more attention to finding animals to kill than they do to the work at hand. We were just going nearby though, where there aren’t many animals; and besides, Mark (my advisor) had told me recently to try to get some photos of people hunting. So I said sure, bring the shotgun. I grabbed my camera.
We hit the trail and headed out into the forest, Jairo leading the way and me snapping photos of him carrying his shotgun looking like a professional Maijuna hunter. I was thinking man, these will look great when I give presentations in the future on my work. Thirty minutes into the walk, we had arrived at the first mineral lick, and right away Jairo stopped on the trail. I noticed it right away – sounds of a large animal moving through the mud in the mineral lick. We sped up and pushed some palm trees out of the way, and sure enough, there was an enormous tapir trudging through the mud trying to get away from us. Jairo looked back at me and smiled, then shoved a cartridge in his shotgun.
It took two shots to kill the tapir (they have SUPER thick skin) and Jairo was ecstatic. He was jumping up and down and high-fiving me. I was shocked – I expected not to see a single animal large enough to hunt this close to the community, and I was looking at the largest animal (and one of the hardest to see) of them all. What in the world. I was pumped up that I got to see such a crazy animal. Jairo was pumped up that he now had over 200 kilograms of tapir sitting in the mud. He said let’s go find the second mineral lick, then head back to the community to get some people to come back and help carry it. I didn’t argue.
An hour later and we had recruited Jairo and Marina, Glenn, and Gloria to help us carry this thing out of the forest. We headed back up river and back to where the tapir sat in the mud and I watched as they used straps to haul it out of the mud, laid down a mat of clean palm leaves, and began to process it into pieces that they could carry (AKA 40 kg each – nuts). They worked efficiently, like butchers, with Jairo (my buddy) taking the lead and quickly taking out all of the organs and sectioning the meat. Marina and Gloria emptied and cleaned all of the intestines and other organs, and saved them all. The intestines would be used to make sausages out of some of the other organs. I’ll spare most of the details, but after processing the body they loaded straps laden with tapir sections onto their heads and started hiking out. It’s a pretty striking sight to behold – a line of people carrying 40 kilograms of meat each on their heads crossing log bridges and hiking for 40 minutes in the rainforest (without any shoes in Gloria’s case). To give you an ideal of scale here, the local name for the tapir is sacha vaca which translates to “forest cow” or “wild cow”. It’s a large animal.
Back at the community, word had spread that we had found a tapir and people were arriving as soon as we rolled in to help carry and process the meat from 40 kilogram chunks into manageable pieces to gift to people, to sell, and to eat at an upcoming minga. Victorino took the role of lead butcher right away, sitting on the porch of Jairo’s house with an absolutely massive knife and skinning the whole thing in a matter of minutes. He jointed it, cut the ribs into racks, and even cut bones into sections for soup broth. I asked him how many times he has done this because he was going so fast, and he just looked at me and laughed. Clearly he was the go-to meat guy in the community. People were coming and going from Jairo’s house all day, each of them leaving with a large chunk of meat or a tapir limb. It was awesome. Jairo gifted me a kilogram of meat with no bones for my dinner (over 2 pounds of meat for my dinner…???) which I cooked up with some soy sauce and lemon juice. Yum.
Jairo also decided that we had had such luck together that to celebrate he was going to prepare some ayahuasca for us to drink together. If you haven’t heard of ayahuasca, it’s a native Amazonian vine that belongs to the Psychotria genus – a genus of plants that causes hallucinations and crazy dreams. It has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in some places, sadly, but it was deep cultural roots with many indigenous groups including the Maijuna. The vine is mashed, chewed up, spit out, and fermented (often with other Psychotria plants mixed in) then taken as a shot. Everyone sees something different when they take it, it’s supposed to be crazy.
I told him if he prepared that for us, I would try it. He assured me I would not die. We shall see! Talk about a crazy, awesome day. Time to take a bath and wash off all of this mud and tapir blood… Some of these photos may not be for the faint-stomached, sorry!