Visita: A Visit with the Achuar

A house.  A roof over no walls.  A home open to wind and world.  “Wiñajai!” I call from outside – “I come”.  “Winitia!” the reply – “You come.”  I stoop to enter – the thatch reaches low, and all within is shaded privacy, murmuring family.  Inside the steep roof rises high and conical at either end, thatched of chapi palm, or better still the strong turuji, a thousand separate panels rising in neat steps bound with strips of kakou bark.  From in here, underneath, the living lines of stem and leaf paint the run of the rain outside.  The support poles hang in the same streaming lines, dead straight from the ridge-beam way above me, fanning in perfect semi-circles at either end, demarking a large oval supported beneath by heavy posts and a lateral frame, split palm trunks bent and bound to round each end of the single space.  No centre pole supports the immense weight, somehow it supports itself.  Not a brick, not a nail, ingenious jointing and lashings of vine hold all together these years and years, standing cool and tall and open to all.  The cavernous space of roof invites the essence of sky inside, and the earthen floor beneath is the gently undulating complement to the geometric precision of the architecture.  Wood, leaf, bark and vine.  Machete, axe, and many hands.  Eight months of dedication.  A home truly their own.

It is late afternoon, time of the most central of Achuar customs – the visit.  I seat myself, as indicated, on a carved bench called tuntan, in tankamash – men’s area.  Man of the house is seated opposite on the low round chumpui seat carved in the turtle shape of the Tsunki water spirits.  Wives and daughters tend the ekent, family area where visitors do not enter.  Here are palm beds and scattered belongings, and a large space for the fire.  Three tree trunks at least my own length are laid in a star, and burning at the centre of the symbol is jí, the fire, igniting the union of the four elements from which we eat, we live.  A large changín basket hangs above, black with smoke, here to store meat where no cockroach can reach.  Hostess will come and serve nijamanch before we speak, in ceramic bowls of local earth handcrafted slow in early mornings by firelight.  And painted with coloured clays from places women only know: white, black, even purple, red.  Intricate designs striping, crossing, fine fine lines laid with hairs from her head.  All lacquered with the sap of the wishich tree, and fired in open flame.  She reaches into the bowl, sifting strands of yucca from the creamy drink, stroking and squeezing, stroking and squeezing.  It is sweet, if a fresh batch, otherwise sharper and deeper, more mature, and with a kick.  The nijamanch is the very signature of a household, and the foundation of the Achuar diet.  So central to the culture that their word for yucca is mama.

If alone, I am welcomed in Spanish.  If visiting along with a friend then I am treated to the spark and glow of the ceremonial welcome yaitias chicham, or ‘slow talk’.  After nijamanch is served it will start suddenly with unmistakeable meter, bounding back and forth between guest and host, in a verbal dance that takes boys years to master.  Sometimes they overlap eachother, both speaking at the same time, but always with that strong and sure flow, punctuated by the other’s rhythmic affirmations “eh ha”, “uh uh”, “mm hmm”, with the rise-fall intonation that universally speaks ‘I hear you’.  The click clack glottal cadence of Achuar seems to me always to reflect the surrounding earth, echoing something raw and mysterious.  But particularly now, in the deeper tones of daily ceremony, the sounds are rich and alive.  I am told they tell of the state of things, in a cultural context, remarking ‘Isn’t it good we visit eachother like this, for didn’t our ancestors always do it?’ and such.  Not a pause at all, but a current as deep and steady as the river, for fifteen minutes at least, until, as if from nowhere the host concludes with an abrupt “Ayu”, and we share silence.

Now the visit continues much as it would in any other family home.  Conversation, plans, news, jokes.  Food, always, for the forest gives enough to share – agouti, paca, tapir, deer, monkey, armadillo, piranha, palm grubs.  And yucca, plantain or sweet potatoes, roasted.  Salt the only additive from lands we don’t know.  Animals move about, in and out – chickens, baby birds rescued from felled roosts, tamed trumpeters strutting like peacocks, beady-eyed parrots curiously clambering, endless puppies, and in one house even a coati, caught as a cub and never thought to leave.  Children play or crouch close, listening.  Fathers show an open tenderness that is touching, striking, in the face of a fierce warrior code and its hangover of machismo.  In musical households a bamboo flute may be brought out, intoning ethereal whistles back to the birds as twilight comes.  I find myself thinking: here is life at its own pace, life in its own space.  And each visit the supreme normality of it reaches further into me.  I leave feeling energised, enlivened, calmed, and content, and I smile as I slow-walk back home.

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