“Que tipo de carne es este?” “tepezcuintle.” I was sitting in the typical house on stilts made with hand hewn lumber somewhere in the Skuy River basin. We had walked for five hours, following the river, ascending and descending steep, muddy slopes. I’d come with one of the families from Yorkín and a Peace Corps volunteer to visit the husband’s parents. I had been told that this was a two hour walk, and I thought “easy, I’ll just bring one water bottle and two packets of Emergenc-C, one for the trip up and one for the trip back the next day.” I did not bring any food because I knew I would be offered food when I arrived at the family’s house in two hours. The trip turned out to be more than I expected in terms of length and elevation gain. I had sweat out so much fluid that, even though I was able to refill my Nalgene in the river and in the many feeder streams entering it (straight, no filter), I was not able to replace all the salts and minerals I was losing and by the end of the journey I was beginning to cramp up in my calves and thighs. I had already consumed my one Emergen-C and had run across no bananas on the way. When we made it to the house, I went down to the stream to wash up and put on some clean clothes. Upon entering the house, I was offered a cup of coffee and a bowl with two pieces of fried dough and a portion of dark, smoky/salty dried meat. The meat was strong; and what would usually be too salty for my liking, but it was exactly what my body was craving and I tore into it ravenously. It was only after I was almost finished that I thought to ask what exactly it was that we were eating. From the descriptions of numerous people I was able to discern that they were talking about a large rodent-type creature, and indeed, according to Wikipedia,
Cuniculus paca is a large rodent found in tropical and sub-tropical America, from East-Central Mexico to Northern Argentina. Introduced to Cuba, Bahamas, Jamaica and Hispaniola. It is called paca in most of its range, but tepezcuintle in most of Mexico and Central America. “Tepezcuintle” is of Nahuatl origin, meaning mountain dog: tepetl = mountain; itzquintli = dog. The lowland paca is mostly nocturnal and solitary and does not vocalize very much. It lives in forested habitats near water, preferably smaller rivers, and digs simple burrows about six and a half feet below the surface, usually with more than one exit. The lowland paca is a good swimmer and usually heads for the water to escape danger. It also is an incredible climber and it searches for fruit in the trees. Its diet includes leaves, stems, roots, seeds, and fruit, especially avocados, mangos and zapotes.
After our meal, the matriarch took me into the kitchen and showed me the head of the creature which had been soaking in water to get it to begin to soften and break down so that it could be fed to the dogs. She grabbed the head with one hand pulling from the top set of teeth and the other pulling down on the bottom row, the jaws tore apart with a crack, revealing the skull and brains. The Peace Corps volunteer murmured in English, “I didn’t need to see that.” I commented in Spanish that the brains I had eaten in the past were delicious, and the matriarch commented that these were good too, but the dogs also needed to eat.
The matriarch and patriarch of this house were not from one of the indigenous groups in the area, but were rather from Chiriquí, in Panama. They had built the house by hand, hauling everything they needed on foot from where the canoes land in Yorkín. The lumber was hand hewn on-site. They lived there by themselves, with one indigenous ranch hand who lived in his own hut on the property. 25 years ago they started with six head of cattle and now had around 70. The land looked well cared for, not overgrazed, and the cattle all looked strong and healthy. There seemed to be some argument about whether or not the house was outside of La Amistad Park and whether or not it was in Panama. I took GPS coordinates so I will be able to confirm this later. After finishing my meal, I walked around the property a little bit and saw two pigs, a few goats, a couple horses, the cattle, fruit trees, and some unrecognizable vegetable plants spaced sporadically about the grounds. From the edge of a clearing at a high point on the property I could look down into the Skuy River basin; a small stream on my left cutting through the side of the hill and the Skuy River on the right side of the valley crashing down through the verdant emerald foliage. It was beautiful.
I slept that night on a foam pad in the living room with a sheet of fabric pulled over me and still in my clothing. It got pretty cold that night. I didn’t sleep much, the floor was cold and hard, and there was a baby murmuring off-and-on in the next room throughout the night. Having lived alone for most of my adult life, even small noises in the night bring me to alertness. In the morning I had more coffee, fried dough, and more smoked rodent, and later a drink made with fresh cow’s milk and plantain (I could’ve done without the plantain, the thought of fresh milk got me very excited, I had not had any since arriving in Yorkín, as there is no refrigeration, and no goats or cows in Yorkín). It began raining really hard so we delayed our return, everybody slightly worried about the rising stream crossings, but remaining stoic, as if talking about the rain would make it rain more. Indeed, soon it stopped raining and we headed down the mountain. For the return trip, I had thrown a few bananas in my day pack for trail food along the way. Even though my old football knees hurt like hell whenever I have to descend, the return trip was easier, only took us four hours, and I avoided cramping by munching on my bananas throughout the day. Along the way I saw a few toucans, an armadillo, and a big ass rodent. Later that evening, after a shower and a change of clothes, I went to the house of the family with whom I had made the journey, to have dinner. On their wall was a poster of anthropomorphic bears building snowmen. I told the woman that when I was a child and there was a new batch of fresh snow that had just the right amount of moisture, we would also build snowmen. She looked at me like she had no idea why somebody would do such a thing and asked me the same. I told her because it was fun and got us out of our mother’s hair and outside of the house on a cold winter day. She again stated that this just didn’t make any sense; and why would people do such a thing
“The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented have rejected it” Levi-Strauss.