As the single engine Norseman flew over the treetops, Shirley gazed out of the window. Mary Ann was sitting beside her, and every so often exchanged a few words, but it was hard to talk above the noise of the engine.
The view was mostly of tree tops from the thick jungle below them. From time to time they caught sight of the winding Purus river, a tributary to the majestic Amazon. It was the 1960s and, on the five-hour flight from Manaus, there was plenty of time to reflect.
Her thoughts went back to particular moments of her own surrender to God. But what did the future hold for her now among the Paumari people? How would they react to two single white women? She had studied the survey reports and knew that the Paumari lived on the edge of Lake Maraha. The whole geography of the area, however, changed with the seasons. Over time, some of the loops of the Purus had become cut off from the main river as oxbow lakes. The village to which Shirley and Mary Ann were heading was on the furthest edge of an oxbow lake, about three miles from the river.
On their own
Her stomach churned. Although by now she had worked in a number of villages with other colleagues, each of them had some contact with the outside world. The Paumari village was different. There was no road, no air strip, no two-way radios. There was no electricity, no running water or sanitation. Their only contact would be with river traders and local inhabitants. Once the pilot took off, she and Mary Ann would be on their own. They had a small transistor radio and hoped to pick up some messages which were broadcast to people in the area. The battery power, however, was a fragile resource and would they get any reception? For three months they would be isolated. The Paumari would be their neighbours, and she hoped they might also become friends.
Excitement began to rise within her as the pilot called out and she realised that they were nearly there. She had rehearsed in her mind dozens of times what she planned to say as her introduction to the Paumari. There was no more time to be scared. As the pilot circled the lake they could see the villagers coming out of their houses to stare at the sky. She guessed they had never seen a plane before.
She caught sight of a few small children who clung to their mother’s skirts. The plane would be an awesome sight for them, and she knew that this was an historic moment for them and her.
The pilot now brought the float plane down and it skimmed over the lake’s surface before stopping somewhere in the middle. He then taxied slowly to the edge. Shirley and Mary Ann remained seated while he shut off the engine and opened the door. There was one fixed step and from there a slightly tricky manoeuvre to stand on the float as the plane rocked on the water. They edged along the float and then stepped onto land.
As the pilot secured the plane, some of the villagers edged a little closer, very apprehensive. The children’s faces showed both fear and fascination. Shirley and Mary Ann gave their greetings in Portuguese and were relieved when they seemed to be reciprocated. The pilot helped them to make small talk, all the while keeping a close watch on the children touching the plane as they chatted to themselves.
The houses, such as they were, stood on stilts about three feet off the ground with a notched log acting as steps. There were about five or six of them in a row near the water’s edge. They were devoid of furniture and the living areas was open on all sides. It looked as if families did everything together in full view of everyone else. It was a daunting prospect, but Shirley and Mary Ann knew that if they were to be accepted by these people, they would have to live like them as much as possible.
She turned to one of the leading men and asked if it would be possible for him to build them a house. It was only much later that she recognised she had made a major faux-pas. Perhaps it was just as well she didn’t realise at the time. When she did learn the truth it was to discover that men only ever built houses for their wives — not for strange single women who had only just arrived! Fortunately, however, the man let the mistake pass, and the group suggested that they could buy a house. They pointed to one and said the owner was away. This in itself seemed to be a precarious arrangement and fraught with possible misunderstandings, but they finally persuaded the ladies that the owner would be agreeable to the idea.
The pilot started to unload the plane and asked for help. He realised that the Paumari would not touch what belonged to another person for fear of being accused of stealing, but were happy to help if they were invited. Once this cultural nicety was out of the way, it was ‘all hands on deck’.
The main floor of the house was about ten feet square. Shirley and Mary Ann, tired after the flight, now found themselves entertaining the whole village. Their luggage took up a lot of space but it was apparent that the villagers were not going to miss a moment of this extraordinary event. They clearly had not had so much fun in a long time. As Shirley quickly realised that her whole life was going to remain under constant scrutiny from this moment on, she decided to make a start at unpacking. It was a time-consuming affair, as each item was examined carefully and passed around. She felt alienated from the process as they spoke to each other in Paumari, but, nevertheless, it proved a useful bonding session. Everyone sat on the floor or on their haunches and no one was in a hurry to go anywhere.
Some of the men offered some firewood and the pilot got a small fire going. It was awkward to cook with the rest of the village watching, although by now some of them had retreated to their own houses, popping back every few minutes to make sure that they were not missing anything exciting.
As night fell that first evening, Shirley and Mary Ann realised the urgency of getting some water from the lake. With a bucket and a torch they made their way gingerly down the log which acted as steps to the house. They wanted to collect some water away from the edge of the lake in the hope that it would be a bit cleaner. It came down to using a canoe which sank under them! It was some while before they finally made their way back to the house, soaking wet but with their precious water. Many of the villagers were still waiting there and Shirley hoped that the darkness had obscured their exploits. They did appreciate, however, that they would be the main source of entertainment for a long time to come!
Their uninvited guests continued to stay. Shirley and Mary Ann found their air beds and rigged up their mosquito nets. The pressure lamp was causing much late night fascination for the villagers. The people wanted to see how to put it out. Once that was done, they took their cue and departed. The pilot left as well, to sleep in one of the Paumari houses.
Shirley and Mary Ann were exhausted, but their minds were too full of the day’s events for them to sleep. It felt very strange to be exposed to the whole village. Eventually however, the night-time sounds of the jungle lulled them off to a fitful sleep.
This article is an edited section of Called to go: the true story of a young English nurse and her work with the Paumari by Margaret Gee with Shirley Chapman, recently published by Lastword Publications. It is used with permission.
You can buy the book (£10.00 inc. p&p) from Margaret Gee (020 8594 0771 / email@example.com) or Shirley Chapman (020 8554 4338 / firstname.lastname@example.org). £5.00 will go to the work of translating the Bible into Paumari.