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Exploring wilds of Ecuador, MM's full-bodied reporter becomes full-fledged tribal goddess in her most eye-mazing adventure.

"Jungle Jane--Queen of the Amazon"

by Jane Dolinger


Modern Man

Vol. 12, No. 9-141,  1963

    MY NAME WILL not he found in Burke's Peerage, but "Queen Jane" is known throughout the Amazon as the white girl who ruled a savage Indian tribe deep in the jungles of Ecuador. Admittedly, I will travel anywhere and do almost anything for a story but this is one adventure I had not planned and one I do not intend to repeat.
    When I set out by Indian canoe on one of my many trips into the Ecuador interior, I had no intention of visiting the Machaqui tribe--but my guide followed the wrong river and I found myself in the territory of these dreaded head-hunters. It was getting too dark to turn back, so we set up camp for the night--without a fire. With the moon riding high across the cloud-flecked sky, I heard the pounding of Indian drums, and I knew that messages were being sent up and down the river to advise the witch doctors that our group was near their main village on the banks of the Rio Tiputini.
    Early the next morning, we tried to slip away. But as we rounded a bend in the narrow river, we were intercepted by six canoes filled with painted Indians. They forced my canoe to the river bank and in Quechua, the native tongue of all Amazon tribes, told us bluntly that their brujo, or witch doctor, was expecting us.
    Prodded by their lances, my guide and I hurried down a wide jungle trail. It was a mass of bright flowers, and overhead in the trees were dazzling pink, white, purple, and black orchids. Flitting through the branches were dozens of yellow and blue macaws, long-billed toucans, and flocks of shimmering green parrots.
    It took two hours to reach the village--a dismal assortment of about 40 palm-thatched huts without walls. We were halted in front of one hut from which dangled a grisly shrunken head. From my experience in the Amazon, I knew that this was the sign of the brujo and that within the next few minutes he would decide my fate.
    A gaudily painted young man--slender, lithe, and wiry--emerged from the hut and studied me with his dark eyes.
    "Do you speak my language?" he asked in Quechua.
    "Not too well," I replied, "but enough, I hope."
    He scratched the back of his head, gave me the once-over, and then burst into a wide grin.
    "Last night," he said, "the drums warned that a woman was near our village, but I could not believe it. We have seen many missionaries, but you are the first white woman to come here...and now that you are here, I want to tell you that for many weeks I have dreamed about a white goddess who would come among us to be our queen."
    I stood open-mouthed not knowing if I should humor him or run. Either he was a playboy with a new line, or he was simply superstitious like the rest. Whichever he was, he was the man who called the shots; and knowing the Indian mind, I finally told the brujo that I, too, had been having dreams and that I had traveled to their village following a destiny over which I had no control. I could pour it on as thick as anyone, I thought, and this was exactly what the witch doctor wanted to hear. He nodded solemnly. Like all other tribes I had visited over the past few years, the lives of the Machaquis are steeped in superstition, and this which doctor was no different.
    I looked up and studied the shrunken head which hung grotesquely from a rafter of the hut. Three long strings of jungle vine tied the mouth shut. Like the head-hunting Jivaros, the witch doctors of the Machaquis sewed together the lips of their victims to make certain that the spirits of the dead men could not escape to wreak vengeance upon those who had mutilated their bodies. Yes, the brujo was serious--deadly serious--and I had gotten myself involved, for better or worse, beyond the point of backing out.
    After the witch doctor left, I was escorted by several Indian women to one of the huts where I was disrobed and clothed in the colorful garments of the tribe. But I made one concession to civilization. While most women were nude above the waist, I insisted on covering my bosom with garlands of flowers. Like all Machaqui women, my cheeks were painted with two red spots made from the juice of the achiote fruit.
    The witch doctor, whose name was Sagino (meaning "wild boar"), was a man of action. That night, the drums pounded. And by noon of the next day, nearly 400 Indians had arrived to watch my coronation as "Queen of the Machaquis."
    My guide had been instructed in the use of my Rollei, and I put him to work photographing the procedure. This was not only a great moment in my life--one which I wanted to record on film--but also, I knew, the pictures would be necessary to prove it!
    There were no white horses, no gilded carriage, and no triumphal procession. But even a transcontinental television hook-up would not have made me feel any more important as I walked along a trail to a throne of palm fronds. I was escorted to a small wooden bench draped in a piece of hand-woven material. The brujo appeared and put on my head a crown of multi-colored bird feathers.
    I do not know what I expected, but I was pleased to learn that there was nothing more to the ceremony, and that I would not have to go out into the jungle and slay a jaguar or shrink someone's head. I was a bona fide jungle queen, and my bird feathers were my authority.
    Each day after my coronation, I sat on the "throne" for an hour or two. I doled out to the women hair ribbons, mirrors, combs, cheap lipsticks, bobby-pins, and other trinkets which I always carry on my forays into the jungle. For the men, I had fish hooks and cigarettes, and for the chiefs, gleaming new machetes. In turn, the Indians brought me jungle fruits, colorful plumes of birds, neck laces made of monkey bones and jaguar teeth, and most important, golden nuggets wrapped in palm leaves. I learned later that some of the river beds in Ecuador are repositories for nuggets washed down the slopes of the Andes. The mother lode has never been found.
    It was not all fun, however. The food we ate could scarcely be called a gastronomical delight. A typical dinner consisted of banana soup, boiled boa snake, fried fish (with entrails intact), sweet potatoes, toasted gusanos (grubworms), wild honey, and chicha--a vile and potent brew. To see this food prepared was enough to turn my stomach. Young boa snakes, six to eight feet long, were first decapitated. Their still-writhing bodies were then dumped into clay pots filled with boiling fat. After being cooked for about a half-hour, they were fished out, cut into small pieces, and served.
    I might, however, have accumulated a fortune in gold nuggets had not sex reared its ugly (in this case) bead. On the fifth night of my rule, Sagino told me that all Machaquis had accepted me as their queen. They now wanted to make sure that there would be a successor. Sagino, as brajo, had been chosen by the chiefs to father my child.
    Luckily, I had anticipated something like this when I first met Sagino, so I did not act alarmed. When a white woman lives with savage tribes, they invariably want to find her a suitable husband, because nothing is so unnatural to them as to have in their midst a childless woman.
    I told Sagino I would be happy to comply with the wishes of his tribe. However, first there were certain acts which I had to perform alone in order to purify myself for the matrimonial couch. I clothed these acts in secrecy, claiming that they must be accomplished for the good of all the people of the tribe. I explained very carefully that early next morning I would leave in one of the canoes for a secret destination, there to make certain sacrifices, and bathe in the pure water of one of the many lakes in the vicinity. I would return within three days.
    I also told Sagino that my guide, who served as my personal servant, would accompany me for my own protection.
    When Sagino agreed, I breathed again. He even promised that as a wedding gift, he would give me a pocketbook made of monkey fur, twenty parrots, and a new hut.
    I almost regretted having to deceive the Machaquis, but I also knew what life would be like among them. My short-wrap-around skirt and flowered brassiere were hardly sufficient to protect my body from the bites of swarming, tiny black flies who bit harder than mosquitos and left scars that often remained for a year. The huts were always filled with clouds of smoke, and we slept on bamboo slats without covers and in the same clothes we had worn each day. Then, there was the food. I decided that jungle life could never compare with Paris or London.
    Next morning, while the village was still asleep, I quietly hurried into my slacks, blouse, and jungle boots and followed the trail leading to the river. My guide was waiting for me in the canoe. We hurriedly paddled upstream in the direction of Puerto Napo, expecting at any time to hear the drums signaling natives to stop us. But the drums never sounded.
    It had been a thrilling experience, but five days as "Queen of the Machaquis" had been more than enough.
    Sagino did not know it, but I had abdicated my throne.

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