Community Discussion 4.19.2020

She navigated the cart through the market like a pro! She remembers doing this nearl 30 years ago and enjoyed every minute of it:-) (Photo credit: Elius Kim)
Mom pushing a cart in the grocery store (Credit: Elius Kim)

I'm answering a few questions I picked from my social media! There were so many good ones, often very insightful. Of course, for those that sent words of love and encouragement I thank you from the bottom of my heart.


SDET Russell Brand had posted: Can you try to make some Amazon like food for your Mom since she is staying indoors? Thanks. Please make sure to not to have wondering outside alone?

When this comment was posted, I think the assumption was that Yarima is still in the US. She had returned home to her village a long time ago.

I appreciate this post because it helped me think back and reflect a little more on my experiences with my mom in the United States especially regarding food. When Yarima was traveling outside of the Amazon we tried our best to accommodate her dietary needs. Obviously, we couldn’t go out and hunt a spider monkey, or shoot a lapa , or harvest grub worms. Feeding mom was one of the biggest challenges of having hosting her in the US. It was quite fascinating thinking back on our shopping excursions at the mega Walmart, Target, and supermarkets

Walking down the brightly lit aisles, never has a Yanomami woman from our village been presented with so many food options all at once and so easily obtainable. We could buy a chicken plucked, cleaned, and already cooked. We could gather fruits by simply picking them up off a shelf, already packaged and cleaned, and placing them in the cart. Done! We didn’t have to call upon our brothers and sisters to trek a mile through the dense jungles while getting eaten alive by gnats and mosquitoes to a foraging site; or carefully wade through dangerous swamps to scoop up fallen fruits; or climb tall precarious trees to smoke out a beehive’s nest, chop it down, then hastily carry it meters away to harvest the honey before the bees come back to seek revenge.

Oh, how easy it was to gather the plantains in my suburban neighborhood. All we had to was walk out the front door, drive a few tenths of a mile, walk a few steps into the store, place them in the cart, check out, drive back and carry them into kitchen and plop them on the counter. We could acquire kilos and kilos of plantains without breaking a single sweat! Back in the forest, it was often strenuous exercise. we had to walk to the gardens and pick out right the right tree to chop down, then fasten the heavy bunches, called hands, onto a strap made up of fibous bark, hoist it on your back, secure the strap on your forehead and then hike back to your hearth which, sometimes, could be miles and miles away!

The limitless options in the grocery store, however, did not expand her highly particular and narrow repertoire of food choices in the US. Much of this was strange, foreign, and simply, well… unknown. I can be the the same way when I travel to a foreign country. I don’t just stick everything in my mouth. I want to know what’s it made of, how it’s processed, etc. So as far as ‘Amazon food’ mom stuck to a staple of…you guessed it, plantains.

When we went out to restaurants the challenge was even greater. After a couple of months, she’d become accustomed to the taste of pork ribs. They were somewhat like the ribs of peccary of the Amazon She couldn’t understand why we’d desecrate our food by slathering a perfectly fine meat with that all-American barbecue sauce. To mom it was a perversion. It’s hard and dangerous work getting this kind of meat in the jungle. Here it was just placed in front her without having to lift a single finger, except to point it out on the menu that this is was what she wanted. The sauce defiled such a prized food with a sauce that was too sweet. By the look of her very disappointed and somewhat disgusted face, she quickly become frustrated and turned her plate away. I too became frustrated because I knew my mother was hungry and I felt like I was not doing a very good job of feeding her. So many times, we had to resort to the universally accepted all American (and apparently Yanomami) snack called the French fry. But one could only French fries so often before you get bored. Added to our list of commons foods was hard boiled chicken eggs, oven roasted chicken wings, pizza, apples, peaches, and slices of bread. We did however, found out that she very much like eating the Cornish hen since its size, texture and consistency is similar to a bird they hunt for in the Amazon. You win some and lose some.

I find the second part of the question interesting. It touches on a subject that many of my friends have brought up. At times, when I write about my experience with mom and the activities we have done, a common critique was, “it just sounds like you’re not allowing mom to have opinions of her own and that she can make her own choices.” And I agree. It does come off that way sometimes. Obviously, mom is an independent minded human being capable of making her own choices and constructing her own opinions. In fact, when in the Amazon she is the master of her domain and I’m an inexperienced and sometimes helpless fawn that can barely keep pace with the children when trekking through the forest. I’d have to say during her stay in the US the roles were reversed. Yarima is not master of this domain. So when I describe some of her difficulties in performing the most mundane tasks like buying underwear, or crossing a street or using the public bathroom segregated by sex, I’m not undermining her agency or ability to make her own choices. The truth is she just doesn'tt understand the concepts of options being presented to her.

Imagine a Yanomami being asked if you'd prefer to take the train or the bus? It would be like going to an alien world and then suddenly asked if you prefer to take the 'argoporter' or the 'flimoloner'? This analogy is an oversimplification but I hope you get the gist.

So, I had to make a lot of those choices for her. I know it sounds a bit infantilizing, but it is very much like taking care of a helpless child. Questions like, "Hey mom, what would you like to eat for dinner?" or , "Hey mom, where would you like to go today?" or even, "Is everything OK? Is there anything I can get you?" These are strange and foreign concepts to her. The Yanomami don’t ask these silly questions. Yes, I always was concerned that mom had control over what she wanted to do but that was the Westerner in me. Mom, the Yanomami woman, was in a totally different universe, and had expected me to make all these choices for her. What to eat. What to drink. Where to go. Yes, she was my mother and I was her son. But I was also her guide and she depended on me to take care of her. If mom wanted to go for a walk around the neighborhood alone or not, it’s really not my place to “allow” her to do so. On the other hand, I was extremely concerned of accidents or conflicts. Can you imagine if she were to get hit by a car or needed emergency help and she was all alone?

Melania Pina had posted: I'd like to know if your mom went back to Venezuela ! I wish you can convince her to stay in the US for good. How is the situation with them in the jungle with all the Venezuela's crisis? Please, let us know when the documentary is ready. Sending my love to your mom and your family

Mom is back home safe and sound. While I admit I am speaking for my mother, I can go on a limb here by saying that I don’t think there is any chance of convincing her to say in the US for good. And I wouldn't want to try. She was born and raised in the Amazon. That is her true home and she has her family there. Surely, though, she could visit again.

The crisis in Venezuela has made it increasingly difficult to coordinate the logistics in traveling through the country let alone going to Yanomami territory and back. We shall see! I believe their situation is the same - crisis or no crisis. My Yanomami family does not depend on the government, income, market economy, or essentially anything else that goes on outside of their rain forest home. They hunt, garden, fish like they did for millennia and they do so sustainably without destroying their ecosystem. Will this last forever? I don’t know. We humans are the only species, in my opinion, that destroys the earth in a way that puts our own survival at risk.

The shortage of resources in Venezuela largely prevents outsiders to travel to Yanomami territory. While there are many communities that are in desparate need of support in the face of epidemics and confronting illegal gold miners, this could also be viewed as a very positive scenario for my family. Such limited mobility is their best defense against the spread of the current pandemic and the negative consequences of sustained outside contact.

Thank you for your love.

Phileo Hammond has asked: Can she speak some English?

She speaks very little English. She did spend six years in the US in the late 80’s and 90s and picked up a little bit of the language. Although, as it is difficult for most, learning a new language as an adult is much more challenging than when you are a child. She did surprise us every now and then by blurting some English phrases like, “You sit down,” or “I want chicken and eggs,“ or "It’s hot!”


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