My name is Poupak; I belong to the Cujareno tribe and I live in the Amazon jungle between Brazil and Peru. We are nomads and when there is not too much rain, we put up our tents on the banks of the Amazon so that we can fish undisturbed, but when the rainy season starts we withdraw deep into the tropical forest. The river flows quietly a few kilometres away from our encampment and while our parents work tirelessly to complete their chores, we children have all the time in the world to enjoy our games away from their watchful eye, next to the calm but dangerous water.
You might be wondering how our parents can possibly leave us unsupervised when our lives could be in danger. It is for the very simple reason that they teach us to survive under any circumstances. We know how to fish using just a pole; how to climb tall trees to gather nuts; how to imitate bird-calls and animals when we cannot communicate directly with each other; how to fool potential enemies such as warriors from other tribes, wild animals and especially those humans who aim to cut down all the trees in our forest. How we fear those men carrying strange weapons which are nothing like our own. Nevertheless, we manage to evade them because we have the ability to become invisible – to hide in such a way that we appear to be one with our surroundings.
Of course not all of us have managed to master these skills, that is to say, I haven’t mastered them because somebody always has to come to my rescue at the last minute. My parents are so sad about that and in fact I could say that my father is ashamed of me. When other fathers are bragging about their children’s exploits, mine doesn’t know what to say since I’m nothing but trouble to our family. The other children call me a clumsy coward and to tell the truth, they’re not wrong about that.
Maybe I should explain; one day, when we were playing hide and seek, Mireya hid behind one of the huge guarana trees growing right on the riverbank with his back to the water. I was hiding directly opposite him on the other side when I saw a black caiman alligator glide noiselessly out of the water. It opened its enormous mouth and got ready to devour my unsuspecting friend. But instead of shouting a warning to my friend, I screamed and ran in the opposite direction, tripping over the other children who were lying down hiding behind me. Fortunately, my shouts alerted the alligator and he snapped his jaws shut in surprise. Mireya realized just in time what was happening and escaped, no thanks to me.
A few days later, the adult men of the tribe went out hunting for the prey which was to be our evening meal. They had tracked their quarry for hours and were just about to shoot their arrows when suddenly… I popped up and frightened away the animal. All the men gathered there looked at me with anger and contempt, among them my father who bowed his head in shame when he realized what I had done again.
The months rolled by uneventfully until something happened that was to change the course of my life completely. I had been out for hours with the other children collecting twigs and small branches in the jungle so that we could build the biggest hut in the region, and my comrades left me to stand guard over it. As I was looking at it in admiration, I felt something climb up my left leg and to my horror I saw that it was a carnivorous lizard. Scared out of my wits, I started shaking my arms back and forth to get it off me, I stepped back and … disaster. Not one branch remained standing; our hut was in ruins. You can’t begin to imagine the look on my friends’ faces when they returned. Their cheeks puffed up in anger until one of them punched me so hard in the stomach that he sent me flying into the nearest thorny bush.
That’s when they all began shouting at me; they called me useless, worthless and a whole bunch of other epithets that we only use when we want to really hurt someone. And they hurt me. They hurt me so badly that I forgot the thorns sticking into my flesh.
When I eventually managed to disentangle myself from the thorny shrub, I ran away crying without knowing where I was going. All the feelings of sadness, disappointment and pain crowded together and turned into anger; it was like a volcano of anger which gave wings to my short legs because as well as everything else, I was short of stature. So there I was running and whingeing like a baby when to cap it all I tripped over something … something … I couldn’t say what.
“Careful, child! You’re standing on my foot!”
What foot? I thought it was a stone and the mountain rising up in front of me must be a bear on its hind legs.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I whispered “but I think I’m lost. You know I belong to the tribe, I got into a fight with my friends, well, basically it was my fault and now I don’t even want to see them ever again. There’s no way I’m ever going back there.”
“Wait a minute, child. You’re talking so fast that you’re hardly making any sense,” interrupted the mountain, I mean, the bear or whatever that gigantic thing was.
“What on earth are you doing out here on your own at this hour,” asked the thing. “Where’s your family?”
“But I just told you,” I replied. “I had an argument with my friends and they called me useless and …”
The ‘mountain’ sighed impatiently.
“You are really testing my patience,” it said in its serious voice. “If you want me to help you, you’ll have to explain to me exactly what happened.” He said this in such a commanding tone of voice that I had no choice but to speak more clearly.
So I swallowed, took a deep breath and I told him everything. I recounted what I had gone through growing up with the rest of the children who had been born brave and ready to take on the world. I confessed to him how I wished I was as tall as my friends because I was so short and a bit bowlegged. Ι thought I must have a bit of a squint in my left eye because I remember one time when somebody threatened me because he thought I was staring at him while all the time I was looking in the other direction at a macaw with the most beautiful feathers I had ever seen. That was not easy to explain.
Then I revealed all my insecurities in connection with all the things I couldn’t do as well as my friends. For instance, I had a really poor aim for every time that I aimed my bow at something, the arrow always went the opposite way.
“Maybe you didn’t try hard enough?” he suggested.
“What do you mean?” I answered. “I was using the bow and arrow right.”
“Ha, ha!” his voice echoed like a lion’s roar.
“I didn’t ask you if you know how to use the bow. What I asked you was if you had practised enough. When you want to become accomplished at something, you have to practise it regularly. You can’t expect to be perfect on the first go.”
Without even noticing, I had started to calm down. This huge guy had the ability to soothe me, so much in fact that I could have closed my eyes and curled up next to him to sleep. Suddenly I felt so tired.
“Hey, kid! You’re not going to sleep on my paw, are you?”
“No,” I mumbled. “Sorry, I just …”
He threw me up on his back with one swift move.
“Come on, I’m taking you home to your parents. Which tribe do you belong to?” he asked me.
Before I could answer, we heard the low growl of a leopard who had been spying on us for goodness knows how long. The feline attacked us at lightning speed and at once I felt the bear throwing me to the ground as if I were a sack of walnuts and attacking the leopard fearlessly.
Any time I had happened to see a battle between a man and an animal, the man had always been at an advantage because he was carrying either a spear or a sharp knife. This battle, however, appeared to be totally unequal since the man was unarmed and defended us only with the strength of his limbs. He used his arms and legs with such skill and speed that it seemed like he had done it before. After a time I saw the leopard falling to the ground with a crash.
“Is it dead?” I asked.
“No,” he answered with certainty. “It’s just unconscious.”
“But, why?” I dared to ask.
“Because there’s no reason to kill an animal unless your life is in danger, that is, when you have to defend yourself. Let’s not forget that everything created by the great power was created for a purpose. We don’t have the right to take away a life for no reason.”
Mm, I thought to myself. He’s right. All creatures have their place in the circle of life.
“So I think we’ve arrived, little guy,” he said, lowering me off his back where he had put me straight after the battle.
“I’d like to introduce you to my parents,” I suggested looking at him in admiration. “My father will be so pleased to meet someone as brave as you.”
“Not today, kid. Another time. Goodnight!”
“You never told me your name,” I called to him disappointed.
“My name is Jaguar,” he replied as he walked away.
“Jaguar, when will I see you again?” I shouted, wondering at my courage.
“Tomorrow, at the red rock before sunset,” he replied and disappeared into the darkness. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that my mother would have been worried and my father, well, ok. I went into our hut.
“Poupak!” shouted my mother as soon as I crawled in. “Where were you? I was so worried!”
“I’m sorry, Mom! I didn’t realise what time it was but I’ve got so much to tell you.” My father, who hadn’t moved from his seat up to that moment, gave me a quizzical look and urged me to go on. It was the first time in my life that I told my parents how I felt.
My mother couldn’t stop crying which might explain why I am so emotional. To my great surprise, my father drew back the curtain of the tent and went outside to smoke his pipe without saying a word. Not until much later did I learn why.
The next morning I got up bright and early. To tell the truth, I don’t think I slept at all. My meeting with the Jaguar had me all excited. I was thinking how he had such a wonderful face – so kind, fair, and strong and how calmly he listened to me. He was such a good listener who never interrupted me at all and he was surely very wise because he had an answer for everything.
While I was crossing the forest in the direction of the red rock, I couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night. I recalled my mother’s heart-wrenching sobs which told me how much she loved me and at the same time how helpless she felt. My father, on the other hand, had acted so unpredictably. He hadn’t scolded me for being late and he hadn’t spoken a word while I told my story. Then, instead of saying something supportive or showing me some understanding, he sighed and left the tent. I don’t get him…
And so I found myself at the foot of the red rock. I had never been so close to it before. Jaguar was sitting on the top surveying the landscape. He hadn’t even noticed me coming. I shouted, I yelled, I roared but nothing. “Has he gone deaf?” I said to myself. I was just about to leave but no – I would climb up by myself. How hard could it be? I could sort of climb trees, well, with someone pulling me up and ten pulling me down again because I couldn’t quite do it on my own. But I’m not leaving here, I said to myself.
So I caught hold of a stone that was jutting out and I began to climb but with my legs being so short, they were of no use to me at all. I had to leap from one stone to another and I wasn’t doing very well so then I started to jump and to grab onto any bump I could find. I could feel the skin on my hands tearing, my knees were bleeding and my body was soaked in sweat but undefeated, I made it to the top out of breath and I looked at Jaguar indignantly.
“Didn’t you hear me shouting?” I yelled at him. Unruffled, he offered me a seat next to him.
“Rest yourself, Poupak. Take a breather!” he said.
I snorted and turned to look at the wide space beyond; I had never realised just how beautiful our forest was. Every shade of green on such a blessed earth. Even though the people of my tribe paint their bodies with patterns taken from nature, using vivid colours, they have never managed to capture all the subtle shades of the forest.
“Okay, let’s go,” Jaguar’s voice broke in on my musings.
I obeyed without hesitation, but I couldn’t understand why he had brought me there.
“Tomorrow you’ll bring your bow and arrow,” he said and after leaving me on a path not visible from below, he disappeared into the jungle.
“But where will I meet him?” I wondered and returned to my tent puzzled.
The next morning I woke up again at the crack of dawn, I grabbed my bow and I left the camp. This time he found me walking up and down on the riverbank. He took my bow, examined it and he showed me a tree on the branches of which hung abundant fruit.
“Aim for the centre,” he said.
As usual, my arrow went in the opposite direction. Jaguar probably wanted to laugh but out of the kindness of his heart, he didn’t. He made me try again and again. By the time dusk fell, I had managed to shoot down one fruit. He took me back as far as the camp and disappeared.
At the entrance to the village, Estefan, a notorious bully, nudged me as he passed by.
“Idiot,” he murmured. But this time I didn’t cry or feel sad. I just ignored him. I was fed up with their behaviour. I went into our hut and lay down with a new feeling of peace. The only thing I thought about was the following day and my new adventures.
Jaguar’s influence on me was like a thunderbolt that had hit me and awakened in me another self. I stopped acting like a child and I stopped feeling discouraged by other people’s words. I had gained self-confidence and become stronger. For some reason, my parents didn’t ask me any questions but simply observed me in silence. Now I was a teenager. They had never met Jaguar but they trusted him instinctively and I’m sure that they secretly thanked him for my transformation. I began to take things more seriously and I was kinder and more grateful for all the good things I was experiencing. I followed Jaguar reverently. No, he was not God but he was however, someone out of the ordinary – he was a kind, compassionate and caring human being. I believe that he loved me – you know, like a soul mate, regardless of age.
One evening, we suddenly got separated when the timber smugglers set fire to our camp in an attempt to force us out. They took us by surprise and threatened us with their weapons. None of us wanted to give up our forest. It is our land and our identity. Then, someone started shooting; it was just to frighten us but soon there was mayhem. People and animals were running in a panic while the invaders were firing shots indiscriminately. Out of nowhere Jaguar charged into the fray and the arrows flew from his bow. It was as if twenty men were fighting together. He signalled to me to help him and threw over a quiver of arrows. That’s when the unthinkable happened – everyone saw little Poupak fight like a true warrior with speed and agility.
The strangers were scared out of their wits and scattered. It would be some time before they got over this debacle. The tribesmen filed past me and greeted me with surprise and respect – the camp had been saved!
My father watched from a distance and he was so proud that he wanted to roar “That’s my son!” but he just shot me a look of approval, as if this was what he had been waiting for all his life.
Jaguar looked at me from afar before disappearing once more and this time I knew that I would never see him again. We didn’t say goodbye to each other but for me he would always be my best friend. He was the one who taught me how to overcome my weaknesses and to look below the surface into the depth of the heart where courage and humanity have their home.