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I’m Peter Gorman. I’m 70 years old from Whitestone, Queens, New York. I lived in Manhattan for 30 years and have lived in Joshua, Texas for 20-years now. I’m a dad and a granddad and proud of the kids. I have spent an average of 3 months in Peru annually for the past 37 years, including a few years in the late 1990s when I opened The Cold Beer Blues Bar on Puerto Mastranza (Pablo Rossel and Requena) and lived there with my family full time.
I first visited Northwest Amazonia in 1984, got absolutely fascinated, and returned for a month of survival training with jungle guide Moises Torres Vienna in 1985. On that second trip we ran into a family of indigenous Matsés who were in the process of building a camp not far from the Aucayacu River after having left the Galvez River. I won’t go into it all here but the encounter was extraordinary and left me feeling that I would have to get out to where the majority of Matsés live: On the Alto Javari and Galvez rivers.
In 1986 I got out to those rivers, visited several camps — spaced roughly 8 hours apart by peque-peque – and made a fast friendship with Pablo, the headman of one small camp, and his brother Alberto, the only other adult male in the camp.
During my time with Pablo I was introduced to two vital medicines: sapo — the mucous or sweat from the phyllomedusa bicolor, known typically as the large waxy monkey tree frog — and nü-nü, a snuff made from the inner bark of the cacao tree and black tobacco, Nicotia Rustica.
During the course of the trip I collected several broken arrows that had been used to kill monkeys, a quickly fashioned stick-and-vine noose used to strangle boars hiding in a hollowed out log, and several other throw-away items. I also collected leaves from several medicines Pablo and Alberto showed me.
I mention these details because when I returned to New York I began to wonder whether Moises had brought me to real hunter-gatherers or to some sophisticated tourist tribals. In an effort to figure that out, I decided to offer the things I’d brought from the jungle to the American Museum of Natural History. A meeting was set up and I was nervous because I imagined they would look at my things and tell me to get out of there with my tourist junk.
That is not what happened: Dr. Robert Carneiro, head of South American Ethnology, and Lilah Williamson, who was designing a permanent Hall of South American Peoples for Dr. Carneiro, both wondered how I’d gotten my things and asked if they could have them for the new, permanent hall. Of course I said yes, and they asked me to write a report on the entire trip and very specific information on how and where I acquired each item I was giving them.
The report included the sapo and nü-nü, and the sapo section was passed along to Dr. Vittorio Erspamer, a pharmacologist working at the FIDIA Research Institute at the University of Rome.
The plant medicine leaves were passed on to Dr. Steven King, a botanist working on plant-based medicines at the New York Botanical Gardens.
While Erspamer went wild for my report on the use of frog sweat — which began a correspondence that lasted for several years until his death — Dr. King was absolutely nonplussed with my plant collecting skills. He told me that if I should ever wind up genuinely collecting plant medicines I would have to spend a couple of weeks learning to do it correctly at the Botanical Gardens.
That chance happened in the 1992, when a new pharmaceutical company, Shaman Pharmaceuticals, went into business. King was a key player in the organization which had Dr. Richard Schultes, the father of modern ethnobotany, as its front man.
By chance, Dr. King and I met at a seminar to introduce the new company and he agreed to partially back a plant collecting trip to the Javari River for me if I would take the private plant collecting course he’d proposed years earlier. I did and it was fantastic.
The trip necessitated my having a boat to move sufficient supplies to collect plants. I spent a couple of weeks in the ports around Iquitos searching for a boat to rent before I found a 39’ Brazilian boat that would be perfect. It took a week to supply and outfit it, and then, with a tiny crew: a cook I wound up marrying the following year, a motorist (the owner’s son), and a driver (timonel) to share the chore of getting the boat safely down the Amazon to Leticia and then up the Javari several hundred kilometers to the Galvez and the Alto Javari.
I collected plants from a number of villages along the Javari, most of which were Matsés, but one of which was a Bora camp that was not supposed to be anywhere in that region.
The 32-day trip was successful — 55 medicinal plants were collected both in bulk and as herbarium specimens — including a new subspecies of one of them.
The following year Dr. King sent me back, this time with Dr. Tom Carlson, a medical doctor and botanist with Shaman Pharmaceuticals. Because the first trip had gone so unexpectedly well, Shaman footed the entire bill for the second trip.
The first boat, the Rey David was no longer available, so I started searching and finally found the Jacaré, a 51’ fishing boat that I had converted to a deck boat.
That trip was also successful. Unfortunately, Shaman fell on hard times and there we no more trips with them. Additionally, Peru refused to sign onto an Intellectual Property Rights Agreement dealing the medicinal plants, so no one else was going to hire me either
25-years have passed since that second trip. I want to go back to the Javari. I want to do a little plant collecting but I primarily want to record the changes that have taken place on the river since I was last there. Is the Bora village still in the area? Has someone taken up the job as plant healer from my old friend there or are they dependent on visits from modern doctors to take care of them? How about the village of blond Matsés on the third day up the river, the result of some German missionary women being stolen some years ago. Is that camp still there? What about the crazy camp of indigenous San Luis (I can find nothing about them) whose camp I have visited several times but I’ve only ever seen their slaves, never a single indigenous? How about logging? There was very little commercial logging there years ago (the good mahogany was taken decades before I ever arrived) but what is the situation now? How many gringos, both missionaries and adventurers visit or live in that hinterland, the border between Brazil and Peru?
I think that is a record worth having, and coupled with my two initial trip reports — along with a 1988 Javari report on a trip done with Moises — would make a unique addition to the literature of the Amazon. And, of course, I think I am the person who is best suited to doing it.
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