Professor Sigismund Goodfellow, a gentleman anthropologist whom we have already encountered, telephoned me last night and asked, “If you would be so good as to escort a new graduate student entering the field. She is Daniela Rubin, and she arrived from Goldsmiths just last week. I am afraid I am too much, shall we say, ‘under the weather,’ to be of any use. Introduce her to your informants, as she is particularly interested in,” he hiccups, “ethnobotany and shamanism.”
I meet Daniela Rubin on a blazingly hot Saturday morning outside of where she is renting a room. She is staying in an antique “gingerbread” house, owned by an elderly couple who are so deaf that they force me to shout, holler, bellow in the street so that the whole place now knows who I am and what I am there for. I am very sensitive about these things, I know how people in this postcolony are always looking and listening and taking notes, on everybody, on strangers perhaps more. Blazingly hot, I said, as it had just rained and now with the sun shining the evaporating rain became like a steam, bristling with biting little flies. After hearing some rustling of papers inside the house, and footsteps on an old wooden floor, out comes this 28 year old woman, olive skinned, long black hair, dressed in heavy brown sandals, khaki green pants, and a canary yellow sleeveless jersey. She walks towards me, limp hand extended, her other arm wrapped around a satchel, and she says, “Hi, I’m Danny.” Danny, a name that’s cute, unlike the lack of any smile on her face.
After performing the usual acrobatics in trying to open the burning hot, dented passenger door, I invite her to enter the oven-on-wheels. I use my sweat rag — I learned from school children to always carry a small hand or face towel to wipe off the litres of sweat I would lose in a day — my soaked sweat rag, to wipe and this way cool down the steering wheel. A buckling start and we lurch forward, past a child with a box on his bike, standing in the gutter, calling out, “Dolla a bodi!” He sees me looking and smiles and says, “white man, yuh na wa na bOdi?” overemphasizing the “O” so his mouth almost raised off his little face. I start to laugh and shake my head, “Next time,” I tell him.
Daniela looked as if her skin had gone into overtime producing a film of sweat and grease, and she fanned herself repeatedly with her agenda. “Is it always this hot?” I tell her that in August it is the worst, and the massive rain really offers little comfort in the end when you have to suffer the steam. I ask her if she knew what “pee wah” was as we pass a pickup truck, with its back panel down, revealing a glowing red and orange mountain of pee wah.
“Oh yes, of course, I have seen it in Guyana. It is of Amazonian origin.”
I ask, “Have you eaten it?”
She shakes her head, and I tell her to try them, they taste vaguely like potatoes, just boil them for about — whatever — until soft to the fork, peel them, and don’t forget to salt the boiling water. “Damn good stuff, man” I say, and she looks straight ahead. I add, “but not as good as tipitambo in my view.”
“Tipi what?” she asks
“Oh, it’s another Amazonian thing there. You possibly know it as Venusia spadafora or whatever.”
Off we go, to find Moses on his Mount.
Several dozen potholes later, her mood shifts, as if the knocking about in the hot car, buffeted by a dense breeze, has somehow allowed her mouth to directly broadcast whatever was on her mind. She asks me,
“So you don’t mind my stepping on your turf, I mean, it’s not like I mean to step on your toes or anything, but I wanted to find out if these were real shamans you were taking me to meet, or some of these new age plastic shaman types.”
Now, I don’t know what a “real shaman” is, but that’s not what bothers me…about a high class student from an elite institution where she should know better, that’s not what bothers me at all.
“Step on my what? Wow…Danny…you seem to take this ‘field’ thing too literally.”
“Brilliant.” She did not want any explanation, just a green light. And that “brilliant” would become the start of almost every sentence she would utter that day.
“Hey Danny I am turning right here”
“I think I may sneeze”
“We might even get there in one piece, as long as my engine does not explode…again”
“I think I might have lung cancer, I don’t know, but I have been coughing up lots of blood”
But the whole “turf and toes” idea would not leave me alone as we wound our way up through the hills. Turf…and toes. Terrain. Feet. Stamping and stomping. My property. My estate. It all seemed very “plantation” to me, very appropriate for this “postcolony”. The thought was magnified as we passed the ruins of a famous estate that once belonged to a French count who went mad and who was said to have drunk the blood of several of his slaves.
(On a side note, I am always amazed at how slavery and torture can be beautified in the postcolony. Candy-coloured plantations, where torture of the severest kind has been documented. On the other hand, in the capital city, there are the ruins of a market where slaves were sold, and most local passers-by don’t even know the history of that block of ruins — some think it was a contemporary building, destroyed by a recent fire. I wondered if, out of a similar desire to attract tourists, if Auschwitz came with a gift shop and a cute cafe.)
“So, Danny, tell me something. You think I see these people as my property, part of my personal collection?”
“Brilliant, I always manage to offend the over-sensitive sort. No, what I am saying is, you were here first, you weren’t even supposed to be the one taking me on a tour –”
– “Oh well Dr. Goodfellow’s car is air conditioned, so you really missed out there…” I say with a hint of jealousy.
“No,” her voice becoming more serious, “what I am saying is, these are the people you are studying, and I didn’t mean to intrude, to usurp, are you able to follow?”
“Ok, but maybe they will like you so very much that they will tell me to bugger off. You know, I think they get a choice about who gets to dig around inside their skulls.”
“Brilliant, I love self-righteousness!” She turns away and I can see a faint smile on her face. I think to myself that this is going to be a very long day.
“Say, Danny, what have you brought as a gift?”
“A gift? For you?” Apparently the chauffeur is not entitled to one, but I let that go.
“No! I mean for the hosts we will be staying with today. Did you bring a little something?”
“Brilliant, now I have to bribe my way past the door.”
“Oh well, screw it man, now we have to find some kind of shop, we can’t show up empty-handed like some leeching scumbags.”
The way her head snapped around at me showed that she was quite gobsmacked by what, I confess, was too strong and was not meant to be about her alone.
As if an idea suddenly struck her hard, she says, slowly: “Listen, would you mind very much getting a bottle of rum?”
“So we should encourage that now?”
Looking at me as if I had become even more of a turd, she clarifies: “No, but if I have to pay to enter, I might as well get a return on my investment.”
What? Meaning she would get a drink out of it, or what?
Toe turf. So there it was, the field is just that, property, you cultivate it, and it’s yours. Can she be blamed? I mean, after all, she was just being careful, and besides it’s part of the unwritten code of anthropology — stay on your own turf. Apparently we are gangsters. But the influence is a biblical one, not so? In that case, it’s not an unwritten code — “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s ass.” She just wanted me to know that she was not coveting my ass, or asses. But it’s not just the Holy Bible. It’s also John Locke — how can I say this fruit tree is mine? Well, if I planted it, and invested the labour, then you can’t just come by and take freely.
“JAH LOVE!” shouts a smiling, semi-toothless, bare-chested young Rasta boy from a yard we pass, with a half-peeled, juicy-looking, big, fat orange in his right hand, and a tiny pocket knife in his left hand. I answer, “Alright brother” and just wave backwards.
We get to this ramshackle shop on a bend, and I have to practically skid to stop because I don’t remember anything else on the way to where we’re going. As soon as I enter I get a gentle smile from the owner, an Indian man in his fifties, Radio Ramleela blaring in the background. I rush him. “You have any puncheon?”
“Nah boy, I all outta dat since las’ night.”
“Ok, then lemme get a bottle of Vat 19, a jaliter (2 liter bottle) of Coke, and one of those bottles of salted channa, thanks.” I rush out, and Danny greets me, with “brilliant”, and heat crazed I almost want to strike her on the head with the rum bottle and leave her limp-ass carcass out for the cobos (a French patois derivation of corbeaux, vultures). She doesn’t even offer to bloody share the cost, I mean, come on. Manners! Am I supposed to remind her that she owes me money? Why should she place me in that position?
“Hey so Danny, who is your supervisor, is it Dr. Goodfellow?” I need to know, because someone will owe me big time for this sacrifice I am making.
“Oh no, my supervisor is Danny, you know him.”
“Danny is your supervisor, and you call him Danny, and you call yourself Danny too?”
“He calls me Danny too!” She smiles and winks, like, “we have a little special link, he and I.”
Danny and Danny. Danny too. Danny II. Danny, raised to the power of two. Or, Danny Part Two.
“Ok then, Danny, from now on I will call you Danny2.” She misses the irony, because she can’t see the writing in my head.
“What did you mean by ‘real shaman’ a while ago?” I ask her. We only have about 10 minutes left to the drive and I start to worry about whose space I am about to invade with the Goldsmiths Miss Thing at my side.
“No well, what I meant was, you know, you get some types who want to claim they are ‘indigenous’ such and such, and the whole eco-botanical-nature-shaman thing is usually a tool some use to fortify their claim.”
“Ah, yeah, ok Danny, you see that? I would make sure you keep that in your back pocket when you speak to Moses, because if there is one man who can sniff out a sniffer, it’s him.”
“His name is Moses?”
My left hand rests on the stick between our thighs, as I begin to gear down to take the heat off the brakes as I swerve into Moses’ generous green yard.
What a pleasure, that cool stable shade, after that rocking hot car. I know to make my way to the thatched meeting house, bypassing Moses’ gallery as I shout, “Hello! Afternoon! You sleeping again man?” laughing. We always accused each other of taking too many siestas during the day, an old joke, forget it.
“Max, I coming down now, you go have a sit.” Moses’ big deep voice calling out from behind thin curtains, what a welcome change.
“You bring some little libation?” he asks me, as if he suddenly remembered to ask.
In the meantime, my favourite music video is blaring from his television set, and how appropriate the message is:
“Whoa, Moses, you can smell it though glass or what?”
“Nah, I just asking if to bring down some ice…jackass” he chuckles.
“Yes, lots of ice please.”
“I coming just now.”
I motion to Daniela to take a seat on a bench, and I go sit at the opposite side of the hut, because I intend to drink and observe and little more. I did my driving and now I need my rest. I watch Daniela polish the exterior of the bottle, placing it exactly in the centre of the little round table in the centre of the hut, and she takes out a micro-thin digital audio recorder, and places it right next to the bottle.
Moses, in jeans, a white jersey, and straw hat, shuffles in with a bowl of ice. He catches sight of the audio recorder, and his head cocks back.
“So this is an interview?”
I introduce Daniela to him, and stop at the point where she will need to tell him what her research interests are about.
“I want to learn more about the ritual and pharmacological aspects of native plants in communities such as yours, and how that ties in with identity and issues of power, especially with reference to theories of self-actualization and practices of locality, indigeneity, and contested ideas of healing.”
Moses, sitting on the edge of his hammock, looks at her with a face of stone. The only thing he says is, “uh-huh.”
Daniela fidgets during this intermission, and I see a familiar sparkle coming to Moses’ eyes, followed by a faint smile. He asks, “So how is it that you want me to help you?”
“Well I heard that you say you are a shaman and –”
“That I say that I am a shaman. Uh-huh, go on.”
“So to get started I am trying to develop an inventory of the plants that are most significant to your healing practice.”
“And this is why you brought rum. Is a healing kinda t’ing,” Moses adds, reverting back to local parlance.
Daniela laughs and says, “no, that’s just a present. As I was saying, an inventory…”
“Inventory? Who you work for again? Who you collecting for? You plan to grow these plants on your balcony in cold cold London?”
“No, no, I’m just a student, and the rum is just a gift, I can assure you, it’s just a small way to say thanks.”
Pouring out enough rum to fill her styrofoam cup, Moses says, “and good gifts are the ones you share with friends,” and sprinkling some on the ground, “and with the ancestors.”
Daniela asks, “Max, aren’t you joining us?”
“Well, if you insist. Moses, ‘leh we fire one!’ ” Moses laughs, delighted at how much of the local parlance I want to adopt at any moment.
“So, if I can ask, where does your knowledge of the properties of plants come from,” rushing headlong into what she said was not an interview. It’s as if she had just finished getting her parachute off, picked up her rifle, and hit the field running.
“I get it from the Great Spirit and from dreams!” Moses did not shout this, but he said it with such firmness that it bordered on hostility.
“Drink up,” he tells Daniela. She barely finishes putting down her cup that he fills it back up again, while giving himself a drop or two. She certainly is getting a return on her investment, I thought, and then realized that Moses was making an investment of his own.
In the meantime, I begin to occupy myself with Moses’ underfed black dog, stroking him from his face down to his tail, coating my hands with his thick grease and dust, all the while looking him in the eyes and whispering: “Who’s my sweet, beautiful little agouti dog?” The dog, unaccustomed to such attention, looks up at me stunned, as if asking, “What are you doing?” Moses looks over at me and says, “You will need to wash your hands, he just finish diggin’ by the latrine.” “Digging by the latrine?” I ask the doggy with excitement — “there’s a good little agouti!”
“So you don’t learn about the plants from family or other shamans,” Daniela continues.
“No, I learn about them from talking to animals too.” Moses smiles.
“So the knowledge wasn’t passed down to you then.”
“Well, listen,” Moses says rising to his feet and taking a few paces toward her. “I wouldn’t pass on all my knowledge to my own son, because some you learn special, and some medicine you get from dreams.”
She smiles in a way that could have been read as, “this is bullshit.” Moses puts his hand out and tells her, on his feet, taking a few steps towards her:
“One day a man come to me with prostate problem, he say he can’t pee, how I could help. All night I toss and turn in bed, and then I get a dream. I see a little brown bottle with this word on it: A.B.R.A.C. A voice tell me to give the man a teaspoon of that and his cancer go melt. So next day I go by the pharmacy and I ask for A.B.R.A.C. They look through some big books and them can’t find it, saying it don’t exist. So I start to walk home. I reach a lonely intersection, nobody around, and I hear something — tink, tink, tink, on the ground. A tiny brown bottle roll up to my shoe from nowhere. I pick it up and it say A.B.R.A.C. on the label. When the sick man come, I give him a teaspoon and I tell he: now go take a pee in these beer bottles. He fill up nine bottles without stopping, and he pee black, black like coal he peeing. Swelling gone. No more cancer. Next day I go look for the medicine bottle, and it gone.”
Daniela is silent. She glances at me as if she wants to go, and I pretend not to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed Moses’ story.
“Well, I won’t be finding any A.B.R.A.C. around I’m sure,” Daniela says, “but I was hoping you would know something about the plants used in your community.”
Daniela sees a bush behind Moses, recognizes it, and jumps up to take a leaf. She exclaims, happy, “oh I know this one, this is” the Latin name was unintelligible, “and I learned of its uses when I spent time in the Amazon.”
“And what you call that?” Moses asked, his eyebrows furrowed.
She repeats the Latin name, Neurolaena lobata and talks about the uses of the herb. Moses says, “Well I don’t know about that, but we here does call it Zebapique and it good for diabetes,” whereas Daniela said it was used to treat menstrual pains. She got a doubtful look on her face as she looked at Moses, and he returned it.
They had several such exchanges, touring the yard, picking leaves off various plants, Moses explaining only one particular use for each one (good for cold, good for stomach ache, good for rheumatism), but not how to prepare it, and each time Daniela would correct Moses about any given plant’s uses, saying, “um, not in my book, no.”
Wandering around on my own, I gather black seeds from a plant in my palm. Moses, glancing sideways, and then freezing, says, “No, Max, you would not want to put those in your mouth.”
“Oh no, and why not, dear sir?” I ask, as usual sparring with Moses for fun. “I just may do so.”
“That is datura boy, and the dose you does be thinking of taking is good enough to give a big fat white man like you a big fat white heart attack, and I don’t want to have to be toting your big fat white self up by hospital 60 miles away.” We both laugh loudly.
“Oh so this is datura then. That is native to here?”
“No, East Indians bring it.”
“No there is one native to Mexico, if I am not mistaken,” Daniela interjects.
Moses asks Daniela:
“You know the name of the plant that can take away a person’s voice?”
“Take away a person’s voice, as such? No I don’t believe I ever heard that one before,” Daniela asserts.
“I know, I’m just teasing. Listen, try this leaf, nah, we call it Callaboca mint, it sweet and leave your breath nice. Try it.”
She places the leaf on her tongue, timidly, looking up at him. After a few moments…nothing happens.
Moses asks her again, softly and deliberately, “so, really, you never hear of plant that can make a man go silent?”
Daniela smiles and begins to open her mouth when suddenly she claps her hand to her throat. Her mouth swells up like a balloon. It bursts open, letting out what must have been a kettle’s worth of watery spit, splashing onto her sandals, making mud out of the dry dirt around her feet. Moses says, “Sorry, what is that you be saying? I cyah hear.”
Still spitting, Daniela sticks out a tongue that has swollen, looking like a small, red fist more than a tongue.
“Right, no voice. Case closed. Go drink a ‘cokes’ to cool it down.” Moses had just introduced her to Dumb Cane.
Daniela would spend the next three hours wearing thin on my nerves, drinking, talking excitedly with her new found master, and getting drunk to the point that she slipped down onto her knees at one point. Moses’ plan was working.
A great song wafts in from Moses’ radio back in his mud-walled home, it’s “Rum Till I Die” by Adesh Samaroo:
On and on she went about her ex-boyfriend; about how ugly her supervisor’s wife is and how she distrusts Daniela for always coming by their home; about how her supervisor could do much better in terms of a female mate; about how bad she needs to get this Ph.D.; about how she is much smarter than any of the other doctoral students; about how she worries that she won’t get the information that she needs; about how local people stare at her too much when she goes walking by; about her fear that someone could mug her or worse; and, about how she knows many black people in London but none as friends. Moses, lying back in his hammock strung to one side of the hut, just nods and smiles throughout, taking his own mental notes. As the day had grown hotter, he had his jersey off, revealing the tattoo of a crab on his left breast. When Daniela spoke, she did so often while eying that crab.
Daniela was thrashed by rum. As we got up to leave, she stumbled, and then staggered out after me as we left in the dark. The whole time we made our way to the car she kept calling out to Moses, too loudly, “Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”
I start the engine, we turn around in the road, hands waving out the window to Moses’ silhouette, standing in his driveway, with an aura created by a lone exposed light bulb on the exterior of his home, a few moths swirling around it.
As we get to the end of the road, Daniela says: “That is one clever darkie.”
I said nothing, but I was so surprised that my foot came off the accelerator and we began to slow down.
Daniela adds: “And one strapping man too, if I say so myself. Who is that woman in the background, a care taker?”
“No, that’s his wife.”
“Hmm.” Daniela’s final thought before she passes out, leaving me in blessed dark silence for the drive back to town. I assume Daniela will not be in condition to type up her “field notes” tonight.