The Unfaithful Wife

“Her husband cut her leg off, but her relatives say she’s to blame.” Wally calls at 9 a.m. on our short-wave radio. He lives near the Yanomamo village of Niayobateri, 360 miles deep into the Venezuelan jungle. “Juanita was messing around with another man and her husband cut her leg off and we can’t stop the bleeding from the bloody stump. Can you come pick her up and take her to Puerto Ayacucho hospital?”

I drive our green Chevrolet pickup truck the five miles through the humid, enervating heat to Puerto Ayacucho airport and prepare the Cessna 185 for the trip. Amazing airplane, with its oversize tires for unpaved airstrips and modified wings and ailerons for short-field landings. I strap in, hear the engine growl when I plunge the throttle to full open, and smell the exhaust from the 300 hp engine. We roll a short distance, spring into the air and climb to 10,000 feet.

The eternal jungle rolls by underneath, an endless, green field of broccoli-like trees, some 100 feet high, broken only by the occasional small savannah and ribboned with two major rivers – the Ventuari, and the mighty Orinoco that empties into the Atlantic 600 miles to the east. The steady drone of the engine calms me. Nothing to do now for a couple hours except fight complacency and sleepiness. I wonder about the woman’s condition. Has she bled to death? Is she in great pain?

We overfly Isla Ratón where the Salesian Catholics have a mission. Pass the mouth of the Ventuari, where semi-abandoned Santa Barbara sits with its long but untended airstrip. Pass Tama Tama airstrip, headquarters of the New Tribes Mission. Now we’re above unbroken jungle looking for Parima, a small airstrip that nestles among low-lying hills near the Brazilian border. Circling above the airstrip, I see the Yanomamo roundhouse, and a group of people standing in front of the rectangular houses built by the missionaries.

The big tires skim the six-inch grass as we roll to a stop and taxi up to the houses. I open the side window and inhale the cooler air. Wally and Marg Jank are waiting with the patient, who lies on a stretcher.

Wally translates the loud chatter of the Yanomamo women standing around. “I wonder if she’ll die…? She’s so young… Her husband was really mad… How terrible he cut her leg off…! Serves her right for messing around with that other guy; I wonder what her husband will do to him…?” And sundry other helpful comments. The Yanomamo live in scattered shobonos of about 50 people each. Venezuelan healthcare does not extend to this remote location, and neither does law and order. The men frequently wage war on neighboring villages. The people go completely naked. The men expect their wives to obey them and to quickly accede to their demands.

We load the injured woman, into the plane and secure her stretcher. Marg has dressed her in a blouse and skirt, and Wally has decided to accompany her. Marg speaks a prayer over her and we’re off for the long flight back. The afternoon cumulus buildups threaten as we dodge among thundershowers. Suddenly we plunge into a dark cloud and begin flying on instruments. A couple times bright lightning flashes and the plane is tossed around by powerful updrafts. Flying blind for a while, I hope to break out soon because we need those glimpses of the Orinoco River to keep us on course. Finally we land in Puerto Ayacucho and drive straight to the tiny hospital where I leave Wally and Juanita.

When Wally stops by our house the next day, I ask, “How’s the patient?”

“She seems to be doing okay, but she’s flirting with the male nurses. Seems she just can’t learn her lesson. I feel sorry for her, though.”

After a week, we fly her home to Niayobateri where she is received with joy by her relatives and even by her husband, who apparently thinks she’ll now be completely faithful. Is all now forgiven?

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