One of the first people I met in Tena – that was in July 2005 – is Carita. Carita is in her mid-forties and runs quite a successful stall on the local market. There isn’t much diversity laid out on the piles of boxes and trays that make up her puesto: mountains of plantain, oranges and yucca paint a green-brown-yellow picture, sometimes accentuated by some chilli and ginger, or the odd wild fruit and herb from the forest. There are many stalls offering exactly the same goods, and no one makes anything but cents from hawking these wares. Carita’s secret of success lies hidden in plastic buckets on melting ice, tucked away in a corner beneath some trays. Quartered carcasses of armadillos, legs and heads of guantas (a large rodent), chopped fish, monkey, peccary – a gruesome sight for European eyes unaccustomed to such raw mortality beyond plastic wrapping. Bush meat is semi-legal. Many wild animal species can still legally be hunted and eaten, just not sold. So Carita gets regularly into trouble with the local police, who confiscate her buckets and feast on the delicatessen themselves.
I was very intent on purchasing some native tobacco, which was how I first ended up at her stall – the trail of questions ended there. Carita Tapuy, if she doesn’t have it she will know where to get it from. She did. But I needed to wait until the end of the day, help her pack up and follow her home. She lives with her eight children and husband and a variety of in-laws and godparents and cousins and friends and all of their children in a cluster of hand-nailed wooden huts by the riverside near the centre of town in a neighbourhood called Las Playas. When the river is very high, the whole area floods and only the upper floors – of those homes that have them – are usable. Her biggest pride and key to her business is a freezer, which was a gift by her oldest son who died in an accident with a faulty rifle when only 18. It needs to be carried up the step ladder when the river rises, but it takes up too much space if it remains there all year round. The electricity to the Las Playas is partly subsidized by the city council, partly abstracted from the subsidized line. Water comes from one shared tap and the river is used for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. To pooh or pee you squat under the open sky rather than indecently dump your waste into the clean water system. That night, when I bought the tobacco – which is a kind of sausage made of cured tobacco leaves – she made me eat some (“good for cleaning the stomach”), I took a picture of both of us together, and we became friends.
By now, I have visited and eaten at her house many times and stayed over a couple of nights, too. She tells me about the customs of her people, about her problems, about the severe violence with which couples and entire families usually interact around her, about how great it is to have a non-Kichwa friend not be afraid of the food she offers or water she drinks, and she tries to teach me Kichwa which until now has miserably failed. I listen mostly or, upon request, try to articulate the difference between “there” (where I come from) and “here” (where we are now). I try to encourage forms of interaction that do not involve black eyes, bloody skulls and broken arms, but I am very confused about how to do that. It’s easy for me to say, having been provided with a context in which skills of non-damaging ways to cope with frustration are rewarded.
For the last few days I have been trying to help her 14-year old daughter with her English homework. She doesn’t enjoy it very much but I suppose she feels obliged now that her mother got a gringa to come around. The first day I turned up, Samuel, Carita’s husband was seriously pissed and displayed an egg-sized bump and a lot of blood on his left temple, “Carita hit me with a stone”. All the children seemed highly amused by the drunken, friendly fun that came out of his mouth that afternoon. When I met Carita later the same day, she showed me a swollen ear, “we have many fights these days, he steals my money for puro (a local spirit made from sugar cane)”. The next time I dropped by, a maybe 18 year old boy lay wailing and weeping on the floor, clutching a pair of tweezers in a very bloody hand. It turned out he tried to hit his young wife while she was using the tweezers, and so they pierced his palm. She shouted at him a lot while we were trying to understand what the “ ‘s ” in “Susana’s brother” meant. Yesterday, one young woman seriously beat up her sister over something that remained unexplained.
It is so painful to see this little community in which all food and sweets and goodies are always shared and in which friends are always welcomed with open (even if drunken) arms, so riddled with physical harm. The fact that most of them are very ashamed of this just increases the frustration that fuels most of the violence. There are so few available alternatives, so few options inspiring the imagination of what is possible. And yet, the laughter and spirit and solidarity that can sometimes be heard in between all the beatings clearly surpasses the awkward smiles and giggles smoothing over the repressed aggression, meaninglessness and hidden betrayal of so many European(ised) families.