Day 126: Up the Amazon

A couple of months ago, I went on a date. It was a good date but, sadly for me, my suitor was due to leave the country very soon after we first met, and there was no opportunity for a second rendezvous before he left.

He was (and still is unless he has perished, heroically, in the twenty-four hours or so since I last heard from him) part of a documentary team making a film about remote communities in the Peruvian Amazon. The title of the documentary they are making (they are still in Peru) has the word “uncontacted” in it.

At first, when he told me about this project, I was quite perturbed by the concept. Wot, you’re just gonna turn up with a camera crew on their doorstep and make a documentary about what ensues, I asked, with deep skepticism. Isn’t that super anthropologically incorrect?

He assured me that this was not the case. The film was not about contacting so-called “uncontacted” communities, it was about documenting the effects of these remote communities’ recent exposure to wider cultural influences. Still, I protested, surely the very act of making the documentary would itself constitute an instance of the very “contact” it sought to document, would it not? That is to say, would not the very act of observation change the nature of the findings observed? [1]

Anyway, I digress. The point is that my intrepid explorer and I, we had a lot in common. Because I have, you see, these past few months, been conducting my own anthropological investigation into remote communities. These communities do not live in the Amazon. No, they (shhh, don’t tell anyone, they’ll be besieged) live among us.

They call themselves “men.”

Just as my date’s documentary team journeyed to Peru with the aim of “connecting with the indigenous communities living along the border of the zone of contact,” so too have I, in the past several months, sought to connect with these local indigenous populations. Certainly, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions; further research is necessary, to be sure. However, the results thus far have been fascinating if somewhat scattered due to the subject’s inherent elusiveness.

I’ve done my level best to employ best practices, remaining respectful of the mens’ cultural norms and traditions. Because the men occupy the border of the zone of contact, it’s absolutely crucial to respect their boundaries, or else they will, in all probability, bid a hasty retreat, often under cover of darkness.

What’s required is a “softly softly” approach. Allow them to determine how much contact they’re comfortable with. Maintain a significant distance at all times or else they will swiftly feel threatened and retreat altogether from the zone of contact.

Even if you adhere closely to these guidelines, there is no guarantee that you will be welcomed into the zone of contact. Indeed, quite frequently, you will be in the zone of contact, like, truly and unequivocally in the zone of contact only to awaken the next morning and discover that the zone has shifted while you were sleeping. You were in the zone of contact but you are now, in fact, in the zone of highly infrequent and sporadic contact or, more often than not, no contact whatsoever.

It’s crucial to be aware of one’s own cultural biases in interacting with the mens. Their language is variegated and nuanced despite upon first appearance seeming fairly limited in scope. These apparent limitations are in fact crucial to its spare beauty; simple temporal phrases like “next week” or “tomorrow night” that to the foreign observer appear quite specific in fact carry an extraordinarily wide range of meanings depending upon an almost infinite range of factors.

Likewise, the vocabulary associated with acts of assent, in particular, is vastly capacious in its range of meanings. For example, in response to an invitation to participate in a social gathering, the words “yeah” or “sure” might seem to indicate assent, but in fact evince a strong reluctance.

In addition to the richness of individual words and phrases, mens’ language patterns more generally are highly complex. While at first their communicative mode superficially resembles the regular back-and-forth cadence characteristic of conversation, upon further observation it becomes clear that this resemblance is illusory. By contrast with the values enshrined in conversation—interchange, reciprocity, mutual exchange, etc.—the mens’ communicative mode values ellipsis, irregularity, and asymmetry. While at first this arrhythmy can be disconcerting, one may, surely, eventually come to appreciate its spasmodic lurches between speechifying and silence.

While this arrhythmical aesthetic makes it challenging to identify patterns as such, one general tendency does seem clear, even at this preliminary stage of research: mens’ speech acts become progressively more minimal in direct correlation to the duration of their acquaintance with the participant-observer.

This practice of gradually decreasing both the length and frequency of utterances can be deeply dispiriting for the intrepid ethnologist. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that these are deeply fragile populations. Electronic communication, with its promise of untrammeled access to family, friends, and lovers, threatens to encroach upon the mens’ traditional way of life. It is only natural that they should be terse, laconic, and downright rude. The mens are very vulnerable right now. They are under a lot of strain. It’s not you, it’s them. I mean, it’s also you. You were probably too chatty. Like, way. Too. Chatty.

But, again, I digress.

A couple of final observations. Although I am loath to generalize from such a brief time in the field, I think I can say at this point with some confidence that the observations presented here apply to all men everywhere across time and space, with the exception of Eric. Eric aside, the findings presented here are trans-historic, trans-cultural truths. Moreover, the communication patterns observed here also—and this conclusion disproves my original hypothesis before I began my fieldwork—obtain regardless of the nature of the participant-observer’s relationship to the subject. That is to say, I originally speculated that these communications patterns might solely manifest in the context of courtship rituals. However, although the patterns are certainly especially pronounced in such a context, they may be observed in all manner of other social relationships.

There is a certain irony to the fact that of all the mens I have encountered this year, it is the man who is, literally, up the Amazon, a place where he went because of its remoteness and exclusion from modern communication networks, who has thus far been the most consistent communicator I’ve encountered this year.

What do we make of this, noble readers? Is it perhaps the case that men need to, literally, be up the Amazon in order to be motivated to communicate regularly with women?

I think that this really might be true.

As further evidence in support of this thesis, consider the following, a passage from the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates’s 1863 account of his expedition to the Amazon. Towards the end of the book, Bates reflects,

“I suffered most inconvenience from the difficulty of getting news from the civilised world down river, from the irregularity of receipt of letters, parcels of books and periodicals, and towards the latter part of my residence from ill health arising from bad and insufficient food. The want of intellectual society, and of the varied excitement of European life, was also felt most acutely, and this, instead of becoming deadened over time, increased until it became almost insupportable. I was obliged, at last, to come to the conclusion that the contemplation of Nature alone is not sufficient to fill the human heart and mind.” (Henry Walter Bates, from The Naturalist on the River Amazon, 1910)

You see?? He had to spend years in the Amazon before realizing, eventually, that communicating with people added to his quality of life.

If it is indeed the case that men must be up the Amazon in order to develop a basic understanding of Western modernity’s communication protocols, then how can we, as ethnographers in the field, use this intelligence to better understand and interact with this community? We can’t send them all to the Amazon. (Can we???) But even if we could, I don’t think this is necessary. I think, rather, that we might use various techniques to induce a sense of figurative up-the-Amazon-ness in local mens, thereby coaxing them into more sustained communications with those of us who remain committed to fieldwork in this area. What kind of techniques do I have in mind? I’ll end with three simple recommendations.

  • Resist the temptation to send parcels of books or periodicals more than once every four months, or every two months at the most. If possible, send all items by steamer.
  • The Peruvian Amazon has very high humidity. If at all possible, always engage men in a suitably humid environment. (Hot yoga classes are everywhere).
  • During his voyage to the Amazon, Bates suffers an “ague,” the most specific symptom of which is “damped enthusiasm.” He successfully treats the ague with “a small phial of quinine.” Ergo, to treat the mens’ congenital listlessness and lack of enthusiasm, dose with gin and tonic at regular intervals.

BONUS technique: make the subject watch all the Carry On films. There isn’t actually a Carry On film called Carry on up the Amazon, but there totally should be. And most people who are not British and of a certain generation find them deeply estranging, which is just the effect you want to produce.



[1] If I did not harbor a strong suspicion that If HWMBP will read this, then I would proceed to draw a parallel here with quantum mechanics; but I know that that would piss him off royally for sound intellectual reasons, and so I will refrain from doing so.


Day 74: crisps and crayons

This week, the elder reached a milestone: he walked to the corner shop to buy something by himself. It was about 5pm. Some neighbors were coming over for a drink and I suddenly thought, ooh, let’s have crisps with our drinks. I was going to go myself to buy them but then I hesitated and asked the elder if he wanted to. His face lit up.

The corner store is across the street and just a few houses down from my new apartment. I can see the awning from my front door. Walking to the store involves crossing the street but nothing else tricky to navigate.

The elder set off and soon returned triumphantly bearing a packet of salted crisps. [1]

A couple of days later, when he came home from school, the first thing he asked was, “can I go buy chips again?”

“No!” I said. “No more chips!”

But then I remembered that we were out of milk.

“Actually …. OK … you can go buy chips if you also buy a half-gallon of milk.”

After giving him detailed instructions (“the organic kind, and not nonfat, OK?”) and some cash, he set off. As he was walking away the younger started to cry, “I want to go with him!” she sobbed.

I called the elder imploringly and he turned round and came back for her.

“All right,” I spoke sternly to the younger, “you have to do what he says. And you have to hold his hand crossing the street. OK?”

She nodded obediently.

I went back inside. “I’ve just let our four-year old walk to the shops supervised by our nine-year old,” I announced to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved. “Do you think that’s irresponsible?”

I don’t think it’s irresponsible,” he said. “But,” he added, “round here someone might report you to child protective services for that.”

I remember fairly clearly the first time I walked to the corner shop by myself. I think I was about six. I don’t remember what I bought, but I do remember that my Mum had only given me 50p with which to buy it, and, to my mortification, that turned out not to be enough, which I only discovered when I finally reached the front of the queue and the grandmotherly lady at the register rang me up. I had to leave my intended purchase behind and return home empty-handed (except for my 50p, that is.) I ran home crying, feeling crushed.

Perhaps this formative experience explains why I still have poor judgment when it comes to making purchases.

I recently did a big Amazon shop for essential supplies for the new place: more T-shirts for both kids; fridge magnets; crayons.

It was with the intention of buying this final necessity that I added this item to my Amazon shopping cart: “Tin Crayon Box, holds 64 crayons.”

I’ve included the link so that you can see for yourself that the image is of a box full of crayons.

I am here to tell you, readers, that this picture is profoundly misleading.

Come on, don’t tell me that you wouldn’t assume, looking at that image, that it is an image of a box filled with crayons, the presence of those crayons revealed by the smile shaped hole that appears under the word “Crayola”? Right? You’re with me, yes? Oh, come on.

But, in fact, the apparent smile-shaped hole is merely an image of a smile-shaped hole with crayons visible through it. I don’t mean that it’s an image because it’s a picture on the internet (which it is, obviously); I mean it’s also an image on the actual box. But still, even when I opened the brown cardboard Amazon package and observed with some surprise this trompe l’oeil effect on the outside of the box, I still didn’t get it, not till I opened the box with a gasp to discover NOTHING, nothing at all, inside.

I had purchased an empty tin box for storing crayons.

I was highly indignant and felt that I had been hoodwinked. However He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved said (while trying, unsuccessfully, to repress a smirk) that it was my fault for not reading the reviews. Sulkily, I went back online to read the reviews, to see if reading them would, in fact, have saved me from spending $10 on an empty tin box. And, indeed, readers, I must concede that he was correct; two of the seven reviews alluded to the fact that it was “only a tin box.” However, that was not the central insight I gleaned from reading the reviews.

No, the great insight I gleaned from reading the reviews was that there are two sorts of purchasers of this product. The first kind, who are the majority, 5 out of 7, 5 people to whom I am completely unable to relate, bought this product in full knowledge that it was an empty tin box. These purchasers were ridiculously pleased with their purchase. In their reviews, they said things like, “I looked high and low for this exact container and was really excited when I found it” and “this is a great tin.”

I find it unfathomable that one would buy an empty tin expressly for holding crayons on purpose.

But the second sort of purchaser, my kind of purchaser, is, if anything, even more baffling. Case in point: the reviewer who observed, scornfully, that the product was “only a tin box,” went on to declare, “Lesson learned. Will go and buy a box of 64 crayons tomorrow. What a rip off.”

What I find comic and also, embarrassingly, completely relatable about this reviewer’s comment is that the purchaser’s instinct is not to return the box. The purchaser’s instinct is, instead, to buy the 64 crayons that can then be used to fill the box. I imagine that this purchaser, like me, did not necessarily even want 64 crayons in the first place. Honestly? I think that 20 crayons would be an ample sufficiency (to use my late Uncle David’s brilliant phrase) for most households, mine included. But as soon as I realized the box was empty, my own thought, exactly like this reviewer, was, “fuck! Now I need to go and buy 64 crayons pronto!”

I feel like we’re back to Eeyore and his empty honey pot. Like Eeyore, the second sort of purchaser’s thoughts turn immediately to filling the container, because then it will no longer be an Extremely Disappointing Purchase but, rather, a perfectly serendipitous one. “Why, what luck! These 64 crayons I’ve just run out to buy fit perfectly in this empty box I happen to have!”

But maybe this is wrongheaded. Maybe, instead of rushing, panic-stricken to fill the box, we second sort of purchasers should slow down and allow ourselves to consider whether, as Heidegger puts it, sort of, “the empty space, this nothing of the empty crayon box, is what the crayon box is as the holding vessel.” That is to say, “the vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds” (from “The Thing,” in Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p.169).

Huh. So the receipt of the empty crayon box might be regarded as an opportunity to contemplate the void-that-holds and to think about what it doesn’t hold, and what it might or might not hold in the future. At the risk of belaboring a metaphor, I would think that there must be value in registering negative space without racing to fill it, whether that space is an empty box, a sparsely furnished flat, or an absent wedding ring.

Or, maybe I just need 64 crayons. Stat.


[1] When I was growing up we referred to these as “ready salted” crisps. Maybe that’s not how they’re labeled any more. But the name distinguished them from my favorite kind of crisps, the plain unsalted kind with the little blue sachet of salt nestled in the package. The idea was to rip open the (yes, slightly greasy) packet and salt your crisps to the precise level of saltiness you preferred. You would distribute the salt evenly over the crisps by holding the packet closed and shaking the bag. It was a nice ritual. I suspect this sounds terribly antiquated (“in my day after an eighteen-hour day down ‘t mill we salted our own crisps ….”).