Monday, June 29, 2009

Brothers in the Dark

Now you could drive from Quito to the caverns of Jumandi in a few hours on a paved highway, heading straight east over the mountains to Baeza and on down to Archidona. But in those days, there was no road into Baeza. My father traveled there on horseback in the 1960s and said it was the loveliest, greenest valley he ever saw.

Back then, you had to reach Archidona by a roundabout route that took two days, not as the crow flies. From Quito, you would journey far to the south -- to Ambato and Baños -- then turn east on a one-lane gravel road that was etched into the mountainside high above the Pastaza river gorge. That would take you out through the orchids to Puyo on the banks of the Pastaza, and from there you would head north again, into the Napo province to Tena, and finally Archidona.

The setting around Archidona was then little changed from the days of its founding in 1560, when the Jesuit missioners named their jungle settlement in fond yearning for an Andalucian village nine thousand kilometers across the sea. It was near the end of the line. What lay beyond Archidona was the mouth of Jumandi, where the streams ran deep underground, and then pure rainforest and the Quichua foot trails.

My brother was seventeen, I was fifteen, and the whole cave adventure was his idea. “What if we get lost?” I shouted, perched atop the bus with the gunny sacks and the chickens, our faces in the wind.

“We can’t get lost!” he shouted back. “It’s a river under there and you just follow it out! Besides, we have flashlights!”

Inside the entrance to the caverns, we took off our clothes and stuffed them into our knapsacks. We tied those on our heads and swam across the dark water, against the current, to the falls on the other side. We inched up the slippery rocks edging the falls until we reached a level stream. Around the first bend, everything turned pitch black.

* * *

He sent me the wedding picture in a silver frame and I kept it for years, a handsome sepia portrait that Mr. E. himself had printed in his studio in Rockford. In the photograph, his bride looks very thin in a spare white lacy dress, and he looks like a Lutheran seminary student, which he was, wearing a suit borrowed from Scott Westrem. It was a nice suit, but Scott was a few inches shorter than my brother, and so he had pulled the pants down around his waist as far as possible, narrowing the gap to an inch or so between the pants cuffs and his socks below. He kept the coat buttoned.

I was the best man. I stood up beside him and watched Mr. E. walk her down the aisle. He and Mr. E. smiled at each other, but then he looked nervous and I noticed how hot it was in there. My mind wandered. I remembered the two of us boys playing in the jungle, swimming in the Río Pindo. I thought of a Quichua man named Agustín Tapui, who should have been there.

Agustín lived in a tiny house on stilts at the edge of the mission hospital compound. That’s where my brother went in the evenings. He sat with Agustín’s family and listened to the conversation and drank chicha from a bowl. He had a little primer notebook from school and a thick pencil and he wrote down the Quichua words that he learned from Agustín. He drew pictures to illustrate what the words meant, and wrote down the translations in English and Spanish. He was nine or ten years old.

Agustín took him fishing, taught him how to swim underwater and spear the carachamas sucking the rocks. Then Agustín taught him how to make traps and find barbasco root in the jungle and put it in the river to paralyze the fish. The barbasco vine grows wild in the Amazon, and now scientists inject it into rats to give them Parkinson’s.

Agustín took him overnight hunting for howler monkeys. One time, Agustín left him and another boy in a borrowed hunting shelter so that he, Agustín, could hunt alone in pure silence. The owner of the shelter came in the dead of night with a gun, while Agustín was gone. The owner didn’t know who the boys were, and vice versa, and so they all shouted and scared the bejeesus out of each other.

Agustín brought him home the next morning and he told us the story of the stranger in the night. My dad heard this and was moved to quote a Bible verse from Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians: “For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night,” Dad quoted. Then he added, “Boys, it will happen just like that -- one time when you least expect it. So you’d better be ready.”

I heard Roger E. playing the organ and the wedding ended. At the reception, I made a toast to the best big brother anyone could have, and I wished them both every happiness. After they left, I drove off, too, through the cornfields of Illinois on a hot summer night in my Uncle Jim’s Chevy Nova, to see a girl named Jill. She was supposed to be starring in my future autobiography as the mother of my unborn children, but she wanted to be in a different picture.

* * *

My brother’s wife was a scholar of medieval Scandinavian art history and he followed her to a Swedish island to study the rune stones on a Fulbright. Then she followed him to a little town in Minnesota, where he served as a pastoral intern at a tired old Lutheran church with a dwindling roster of stout but aging farmers.

On a bleak Sunday morning in January, my mom and dad and I motored down from the Twin Cities to hear him preach. He was fresh from the seminary in St. Paul, brimming with Liberation Theology and scathing prophetic judgments to be rained down upon the unholy alliance of American capitalism, its belligerent foreign policy in Latin America, and its self-righteous evangelical piety. I sat in the back of the Impala with Dad driving and watched the snowy corn stubble roll by, as if on a screen. My parents started singing hymns in the car. “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” they sang, then “How Great Thou Art,” and finally, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

We doffed our winter coats in the anteroom of the sanctuary, took a bulletin from the smiling usher, and settled into a pew near the front of the church. I opened the bulletin to find my brother’s name. When I read the title of the sermon he was about to unload, it brought me up short. I looked over at my parents. They were reading it, too, and both turned a shade of white to match the landscape outdoors: “Christ Our Enemy,” it said.

When he began to preach, I noticed that he was looking straight at Dad. I remembered then when he was in high school and the two of them got into fierce shouting matches over the Vietnam War and the campus protesters. They tended to polarize and goad each other into making outrageous statements that neither of them would defend in a more reflective moment. That day in 1970 when the National Guardsmen opened fire and killed four students at Kent State University, my brother was incensed and held my father responsible by association.

“You defend those fascist pigs?!” he had screamed at Dad. “You’re no better than they are! You might as well have killed them yourself!”

Dad’s view of America’s moral authority in the world was frozen in 1946 when he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, at age eighteen. “Our country is fighting a war against the enemies of freedom,” he said to my brother. “If those hippies come out against their country, they’re joining the enemy. They’re with the Communists. If they start a riot, they can expect a bullet to the head.”

The sermon was crafted; his seminary professors would have been duly beguiled. But the aging farmers looked perplexed. Afterwards, we drove a few blocks to his house and he put on a green and red apron and cooked us a fine Sunday dinner of roast beef and potatoes. The snow started falling afresh and my mother relaxed and said she thought it was all wonderful.

* * *

When we were little, the whole family traveled together and so we had a single U.S. passport for all of us, Mom and Dad and the five kids: the Family Swanson. But in 1970, our parents sent the two of us by ourselves from Ecuador to the States to stay with relatives. The problem was, Dad and Mom kept the family passport with them in Ecuador. They put us two boys on a plane bound for Miami with a lengthy handwritten note from Dad in lieu of a passport, scrivened out in his laborious prose explaining the situation in two languages.

The immigration authorities in Miami were underwhelmed by a calligraphic letter of introduction from Wallace L. Swanson, M.D., Director, Hospital Vozandes in Quito. They detained his teenage sons in a small holding room for a couple of hours while calls were made to government attorneys who decided what to do with us. Before midnight they released us into the custody of a man named Charles Haube who worked at our parents’ mission headquarters.

We spent the night with Haube in a trailer in Opa Locka. He fed us Corn Flakes. The next day he took my brother to the airport and put him on a plane to Los Angeles. My brother was supposed to go stay with our Uncle Bud, but his secret plan was to acquire a wardrobe of bell-bottomed jeans and faded embroidered workshirts as soon as possible, thereby to reinvent himself in a new life as a hippie, where he would listen to rock-and-roll music, smoke pot with the gentle people he was sure to find in California, love everyone in sight and bring peace to the world.

I had a somewhat different destination. Haube put me on a Greyhound bus to Decatur, Alabama, to stay with my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Jake, who was a rocket scientist building nuclear missiles at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.

The trip took twenty-four hours, and in Tallahassee a helmet-haired Southern lady about my mom’s age sat beside me and struck up a conversation. She was awfully nice and she had a quart of Jack Daniels. She told me her life story as the ‘hound rolled on through the steamy night. By the time we got to Montgomery, Alabama, she was sobbing. Then the whiskey was all gone and she threw up in the aisle just outside of Birmingham. The driver ejected her from the bus at the next stop. “I’m just trying to get home to my husband, for godsake!” she pleaded. “I don’t give a damn,” the driver said, “Just get off the bus.”

Aunt Jeanette and Uncle Jake’s house overlooked several acres of hayfields sloping down to a wide creek that flowed into the Tennessee River. Inside the house, in a large living room behind a picture window, they had two fine old pianos -- a grand and an upright -- and in the evenings sometimes they plaid classical duets. They had three sons, Justin and Randy and Jon, and the boys took me out on the river in the family speedboat and taught me to water ski.

On Wednesday nights, the older two boys and I and Uncle Jake met in the basement of the Methodist Church for Boy Scouts. Uncle Jake was the scoutmaster, and he bought me a uniform and swore me into Troop 16. On a blistering hot weekend we all went camping in the woods. Uncle Jake pitched his own private tent in the center of the clearing -- the scoutmaster’s HQ -- and the rest of us encamped around the perimeter. After Uncle Jake went to bed and the sound of his snoring was well confirmed, the scouts snuck off into the woods and smoked cigarettes. Around a campfire in the pines, one scout produced a dog-eared copy of Playboy magazine. (The Scout motto was “Be Prepared,” and that they were.) The boys started to pass “the book” around, but then my cousin Randy had a scrupulosity attack and decided that would be a good time for himself and me to retire to our own tent. And so we did, leaving the other scouts out there in the woods on the path to perdition.

Adjacent to Uncle Jake and Aunt Jeanette’s house was the remains of a cotton farm owned by an old fellow named Mr. Nebrig. Across the yard from Mr. Nebrig’s farmhouse was a plain wooden shack, in which there lived a black man named James. Mr. Nebrig and James both had white hair and were about same age. The two of them had been born in their respective houses, facing each other across the grass, and had grown up together over the span of two world wars. Now in the twilight of their years, they would sit and talk sometimes, and you could see that they were friends.

My cousins liked Mr. Nebrig, but the youngest boy, Jon, was especially fond of James. The old black man had taken Jon under his wing and taught him all about animals and plants and the order of things in the natural world of northern Alabama.

“My brother had a friend like James,” I said to Jon. “A Quichua Indian man named Agustín.”

“James has been like an uncle to Jon,” Aunt Jeanette said.

“My brother called Agustín ‘Uncle Agustín’ one time, and my parents laughed,” I said.

My cousins always called Mr. Nebrig “Mr. Nebrig”, and they called James “James.”

One day Aunt Jeanette remarked upon the friendship of Mr. Nebrig and James. She said, “You see how we all get along here in the South, the white folks and the Negroes. It’s not like up North, where they hate one another and burn down the cities. Here, you have people like Mr. Nebrig and James -- they grew up together and love each other like brothers.”

I lived in Alabama all summer and James was the only black person I ever met.

* * *

My brother called late one night in 1995 to say that his marriage was over. His voice broke with emotion and there was no question he had had a few drinks. But he was so happy, he said, because he was deeply in love with a Quichua woman from the jungle and he would finally be able to go home -- truly, go home -- to Ecuador.

We talked a long time, and I recalled another night when he had come to visit me in New Haven and we had stayed up until three in the morning. He had come for an interview at Yale. He had applied to three doctoral programs -- Yale, Princeton, and the University of Chicago -- and gotten into all three. He was trying to decide which one to choose.

“The main thing I want to do is go back to Ecuador and study Quichua religion,” he said. “I want to be down there again. It’s such a strong part of me. But she just doesn’t get that. She hates going there -- it feels like camping to her. She never liked camping, and she doesn’t want any children.”

He chose Chicago and studied with Mircea Eliade, the preeminent twentieth-century historian of primitive religions, and with Fr. David Tracy, a superstar liberal Catholic theologian who ran afoul of the Vatican “enforcer” Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who now goes by the name of Benedict. My brother wrote a dissertation called “The Crown of Yage: Mission Christs and Indigenous Christ in South America.”

When he left his first wife and married Josefina Andi, it was a big scandal in the missionary community. But our mother, God rest her soul, traveled down to the Napo for the wedding and agreed to co-officiate in an amalgam of a Christian and Quichua marriage celebration. She lived to see three of her grandchildren born of that union.

* * *

We shined the flashlights in the water and we could see translucent fish. There were vampire bats screeching overhead. Stalactites hung down like the giant teeth of some prehistoric maw, waiting to swallow us. We walked on for hours through the underground watery maze, following first one branching stream and then another.

“Don’t you think we should head back?” I said.

“I guess so,” he agreed. “We’ll just walk back downstream.”

We turned around and started walking back, then came to an impassable waterfall and realized that we had not come up this way. It dawned on us that there were many routes through these caves. Which one would get us out? How would we find it now?

Then the flashlights went dead.

“Let’s stick together,” he said. “Stay close to me.” I held on to his waist and followed him as we tried to make our way, feeling the edge of the cave in the utter blackness.

“Have we been here before?” I asked. He didn’t know either. We wandered on into the inky subterranean wilderness. After another hour, we heard the waterfall again and realized we had gone in a circle. The panic set in.

“Do you think anyone will come looking for us in here?” I asked.

“Sure they will,” he answered, unconvincingly. We had not told anyone we were going into the caverns that day. Our parents thought we had gone to stay overnight with the missionaries in Dos Rios.

Eventually somebody would figure out we were in there. A search party would be organized. But there were miles and miles of caves shooting off in every direction. It would take the rescuers weeks to find us, I thought. Maybe months. And by then, it wouldn’t matter. Whenever they found us, we would be long dead, just skeletal remains, our blood sucked away by the vampire bats and our flesh eaten by little blind fish.

* * *

We talked on the phone the other night for a couple of hours. “It would be great to work together on something in Ecuador,” I said. “I’d love to go back there. It’s been years . . . Anyway, let me reach out to some people here. For now, just e-mail me a write-up on the field school and something about you -- a biographical blurb.”

Professor Tod Swanson of Arizona State University is a specialist in Amazonian Quichua language and culture. He received a B.A. in linguistics from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago. His current research focuses on indigenous religious approaches to nature. His most recent article on this topic, “Singing to Estranged Lovers: Runa Relations to Plants in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” was published in the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 3:1 (2009) 36-65. Swanson, who directed Arizona State University’s Center for Latin American Studies (a National Resource Center under Title VI) from 2000-2007, is an educator and administrator who seeks to foster collaborative interdisciplinary work on the Ecuadorian Amazon. He is particularly interested in the implications of indigenous religious culture for practical issues such as health, the sustainability of the Amazonian environment, community governance, development, and indigenous language preservation . . .

Professor Swanson currently manages a 600 hectare Amazonian forest preserve and botanical garden. He is founder and director of the Andes and Amazon Field School, a research center operated by Arizona State University in a Quichua-speaking community on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon in Eastern Ecuador. The site is located at a distance of 17 kilometers from the town of Tena (pop. 20,000), capital of Napo Province, and is accessible by a paved two-lane road. It offers a comfortable and stable bilingual setting where international faculty can carry out research over time. The Field School has been in continual (seasonal) operation at the same location since 1999. The facilities have the capacity to house 85 students and faculty in a beautiful if rustic rainforest setting surrounded by water and labeled botanical gardens. Students and faculty eat together in an elegant thatch roofed dining room overlooking the Napo River . . .

Professor Swanson and his wife Josefina are active members of Comunidad Santu Urcu, a Napo Quichua community, where they maintain a family home. They have four children.

* * *

We both noticed it at the same moment and shouted together, “Look, there's a light!” And so there was. A gleaming shaft, like a giant sword from Star Wars, appeared in the distance. We ran toward the whiteness, stumbling in the water and falling and getting up and running on. He got there first, and then I did, and we both looked up and our jaws dropped. What we saw was a narrow slit -- a fissure in the roof of the cave -- about thirty feet straight above us. All we had to do was scale the rock face of the cave, shimmy out through that hole somehow, and we would be home free.

Twenty minutes later we stood in the open jungle, laughing at the pure joy of being alive. There was no path from there, but we made our way through the underbrush, down into a gorge until we got to a river. We followed the river until we got to a road. We followed the road several kilometers into Archidona. We walked through the town, two muddy hombres, tailed by a gathering troop of curious spider monkeys, until we came to a tin-roofed bar with a wide verandah.

He pulled out a soggy fifty-sucre bill and ordered two Pilseners. The bartender gave us the beer and my brother raised his bottle up to me and said, “We’re alive, jefe.” It was the first time I had ever drunk beer.

“Do you like it?” he asked. “It’s kind of an acquired taste.” He was right, and that’s about when I acquired it.

There were other men inside the bar drinking their beer in the dimness and smoke, but we brothers drank ours in broad daylight.

Postscript: I wrote this story en route to Tempe, Arizona, and in a hotel room there, while attending orientation events for parents of entering freshman at Arizona State University. The story is now completed and my son Matt is duly enrolled as a Sun Devil. He hopes to take a course taught by Uncle Tod at some point during his college career. Unfortunately (or not, depending on one’s point of view), Tod will be away on sabbatical in Ecuador during Matt’s first semester. But Matt will be spending several weeks this summer with his uncle at the field school on the Napo River. (“Dad, Uncle Tod is so laid back. He is cool. He is not so stressed out all the time, like you are. You need to chill.”)