Friday, May 8, 2009

The Legend of Juru Puku

This is a short story that I wrote and had published in the tri-monthly Peace Corps Paraguay Volunteer magazine.

The Legend of Juru Puku
(vocabulary list at the bottom)

Stories are things that we all carry with us. They are personal and cultural, private or public. They can describe a whole culture, or give a glimpse into the heart of somebody you have never met. When time, imagination, and superstition mix there can be some interesting results. This is a story that was given to me by an old lady who lives just outside of my site, alone, in a small wooden house. I call it the Legend of Juru Puku.

Today, all that remains of the community once called Juru Puku is a well full of dusty trash surrounded by kokue, divided by a thin dirt road, and a lonely hill crowned by the survivors of what was once an indistinguishable part of the Alto Parana Atlantic Forest. The previously mentioned well marks the boundary between the German soy and the Japanese soy, who together bought and sold the local life until all that remained was a desert of monoculture. Ña Nancy says that at one time about 20 years ago that area was home to a small but guapo community much like many others all over Paraguay. They had a church and a small school and once a week the dispensa truck came through to fill up the small stores. Like most people in the campo, the people of Juru Puku were superstitious. Back then, the forest was still very much alive and there was even an indigenous tribe close enough to the town for the people to trade occasionally. Still, there was little contact between the campesinos and the natives.

One day a male rural health volunteer arrived in Juru Puku. He had been requested by a profesora in town who had heard about Cuerpo de Paz at a partido hapé. His name was William Sentacious and he was your typical early 20's fresh out of college bright eyed bushy tailed all American kid. Ña Nancy says he started learning Guarani right away and soon became fluent. He was guapo and drank gallons of tereré, hoed lines in between mandi'o, and kept his floors swept. At some point William developed an interest in the indigenous tribe and began asking people about them. Ña Nancy says that people told him that they were dangerous and not to go into the forest. Eventually, his curiosity won out over his neighbor's warnings about forest spirits and giant snakes.

At this point in the story, Ña Nancy told me that William was living at her house. Once he started going into the forest she worried about him, but he always came back. That is, until he stopped. At first he was very excited to be talking with the indigenous tribe. He would tell his friends in site about them, telling stories about the children or the hunters. Ña Nancy was reluctant to go into more detail, but I too was curious about this tribe and asked her to tell me more about them. It turns out that they had preserved a tradition of a magic of sorts. It seemed fairly harmless, mostly nature oriented spells or chants intended to bring desirable weather or deter dangerous animals. At specific times of the year they held spiritual ceremonies. This is all fairly unsurprising as far as indigenous cultures go. Specific to the region was their belief that the great forest shrank and grew in great natural cycles. Interestingly, and perhaps uniquely, the elders devised certain objects of power that could subtly influence these natural cycles. I can not guess what purpose they could have had for the creation of such items, and Ña Nancy was not able to shed any more light on them.

Judging by the amount of time William Sentacious spent in the forest, I would guess that he learned something of their secret practices. Ña Nancy told me that at some point during his second year, he stopped returning regularly. He would stay out for days at a time and when he did emerge he refused to talk in detail about what he had been doing. By now the PCV had also completely stopped his trips to Asuncion (which at that time were a monthly necessity). This, my old story teller assures me, is what eventually lead to the decline of Juru Puku.

It was a hot and dusty day when William was taken away. He was staying with Ña Nancy at the time when a large and dirty, but clearly brand new, truck rolled in. Two tall North Americans emerged and began speaking to their PCV. Of course Nancy was not able to understand what they said, but the effects of the exchange were dramatic. William became angry and shouted at the two men. They were trying to get him into the truck but he refused. Finally they physically put him inside. Then they were gone and William Sentacious was never heard from again.

The story doesn't end there. That evening Ña Nancy went in to clean William's room. His few personal belongings had been hastily taken by one of the North American men, but one thing had been left. They probably hadn't recognized it as belonging to their PCV. It was a small bundle wrapped in soft leather, and upon opening it she discovered an ornately carved wooden bombilla. It was a striking shade of dark red, and she could not tell from what sort of tree it had been made. Knowing something of the secretive tribe, Nancy recognized it as an item of some importance. She was afraid of the power that it may hold and did not know what to do. She feared that the indigenous people would be angry to discover that an outsider was in possession of a sacred item. She didn't know why William had it, but she decided that she needed to get rid of it.

That very night Ña Nancy took the ornate red bombilla outside, bundled it in the soft leather, and dropped it into her well. A few weeks passed and she had almost forgotten about it until her two small children became suddenly ill and died. Shortly after that her husband went out to work and never returned. In despair, Nancy moved away and never returned. Within three years of her move, all of the land in and around the town of Juru Puku had been purchased, cleared, burned, flattened, and turned into a sea of whispering soy plants. All that remains is the old well that used to belong to Ña Nancy.

Quietly, the old woman finished her story. I sat and thought. Several questions were quickly being translated in my mind: What happened to the tribe? Did they come looking for their bombilla? Why did she think that it was the cause of the disappearance of Juru Puku? She only looked at me and shook her head silently, refusing to answer any of my questions.

All I know for sure is that the well is still standing.

Asuncion - capitol of Paraguay
kokue - field, farm land
guapo - hard working (in the rest of latin america it means pretty)
campo - country side
partido hapé - soccer game
mandi'o - mandioca, also maybe called yucca? A tuber similar to a large potato.
Ña - Mrs.
bombilla - Metal straw with filter on the end used to drink Terere and Maté
Juru Puku - Long Mouth