A Brush with Amazon Justice

Juan, the policeman, spoke softly, almost apologetically, "Doctorcito, I'm sorry, but I must arrest you." I looked up from the microscope. "Why?" I asked. "I don't know," he replied, looking at the ground and scuffing his bare feet on the concrete floor. He was embarrassed because his son was taking part in our study, and at our meetings with parents he and I had talked many times about parasites. One of the nurses scribbled a note and handed it to me. It read, "Walk slowly so I can get to Dr. Atkins before you get to the jail," and she scurried out of the hospital laboratory, heading toward the State Health Department, which was next to the jail.

Juan and I headed down a foot-wide path along the bluff, pushing aside banana fronds. "There must be a mistake," I said. He said he didn't think so because there weren't many gringos in Iquitos, and I was the only one who worked in the hospital. The Harvard School of Public Health had a contract with the Peruvian Ministry of Public Health to carry out long-term field studies of parasitic anemias in Iquitos schoolchildren, and I was the chief of party.

A little boy with a large lizard on his shoulder walked with us, chattering about his new pet. We passed a snoozing three-toed sloth hanging upside down from a limb. Below us was a village of floating huts and dugout canoes and riverboats bringing produce to the market. The stevedores carrying produce up the stairway from the river were strung out like ants at a picnic. Parrots in the banana trees began scolding, and we stepped off the path to let five men carrying a live and not-too-pleased boa constrictor go by. It was as big around as my waist.

Iquitos is the primary Peruvian Amazon River port and the capital of the state of Loreto. The Amazon is about five miles wide, brown, and fast-moving there, some 3,000 miles upstream of its mouth at the Atlantic. Part of the city floated on rafts during the rainy season (it rained about 200 to 250 inches a year). We didn't have paved streets. Nor did we have electricity during the day because the mahogany sawmills were given preference, and the hospital used kerosene refrigerators, hand-driven centrifuges, and a gasoline generator for the operating room.

As my captor and I entered the marketplace, the market women became furious when they saw I was in handcuffs. "Shame, Juan, Dr. CaCa is a good man and he helps our children!" (The nickname came about because I went to their homes daily to collect stool specimens.) A lady reached in her basket and whacked him over the head with a three-foot fish. Juan staggered. Another smashed a turtle egg in his face; they are as big as grapefruit and have a strong sulfur smell. Yet another ran to the monkey stall. There was a shelf of smoked spider monkeys sitting in a row, hunched over, with singed black coats. She hit him over the head with a monkey. Others began to pelt Juan with fresh fruit, and he fled. I thanked the ladies for their support and went down the dirt path after him. He took the cuffs off. People gave us a wide berth because the combined odors of fish, egg, crushed fruit, and smoked monkey were impressive. Juan dropped me at the jail and headed for the river to wash. I was put in a windowless concrete cell with a drunken alligator-hunter who vomited profusely.

 

Did my problem, I wondered, have anything to do with the craziness that went on in the revolution? During one of my first visits to Iquitos, in the late 1950s, a brief revolution about taxation occurred. We had bonfires and torches at night, rabble-rousing speeches, free beer, an awful marching band. Perhaps some seed planted during those heady evenings at the plaza had taken root, causing the present problem.

Was it related to our long-running practical joke? The government hotels had an annoying procedure: requiring not merely name, address, and passport number, but also occupation, reason for being in Iquitos, persons in Iquitos responsible for the guest's conduct, time to be spent in Iquitos, employer's name and address, marital status, spouse's name, mother's name, et cetera. They claimed these data were used to improve hotel service. My rebellious drinking companions and I felt it was merely an invasion of privacy. Amid the revolutionary hoopla, we decided I should test the government's claim by supplying ludicrous data on the registration forms.

I traveled to and from Iquitos often in those days because I was also teaching at the medical school of the University of San Marcos. I began to register at the hotel under curious names and occupations, but always in English. I started out with Sadie Thompson (missionary converter) and Sabu (elephant studies). As the years went by, I registered as Adolf Hitler (real-estate acquisitions), the Great Zarbelli (cannon-facilitated travel), Nanook of the North (refrigerator sales and service), and on and on. I always used my correct passport number to give the police a cross-check. The hotel register was a large, black ledger at the main desk. Every night the police would take the register to the station and laboriously copy it. But after five years, they still hadn't caught on to our game. No, that couldn't be why I was in court.

An armed guard came to the cell after several hours. The jailor released me to his custody and gave me his leoncillo for good luck. These four-inch-tall monkeys fitted in a shirt pocket and perched with their heads out, chattering and jabbering, looking like little lions because of their manes. As I was led from one corridor to the next, the guard told me I was being tried for a very serious crime, and could spend the rest of my life in jail, but he didn't know specifically what it was. He opened the courtroom door and led me to the dock. The elegant mahogany furniture looked out of place in the dark, dank, dripping, moss-coated concrete room. I was alone, still trying to figure out why I was in this pickle.

The door opened, and I was stunned to see Jorge Atkins, M.P.H. '46, take the defense-counsel chair. No lawyer, he was the state public-health officer, an old friend, and the man the hospital nurse had rushed to tell of my arrest. He had studied public health at Harvard, but loved the jungle, as I did, and returned at the first opportunity. He had watched the Perry Mason program frequently while in the United States and now I was fulfilling his fondest dream--he would defend me. He was smiling in anticipation. Carlos Quiroz, the chief of police, did double duty as counsel for the city in this case. The judge was a businessman, Raul Vallenas.

City counsel made an opening statement, and I learned for the first time that I was charged with horse theft. In his opening statement, Jorge asserted that I hadn't done it; it was a case of mistaken identity; but if I had, I had been driven temporarily insane by the oppressive heat and humidity. As I listened, I thought that his approach had rarely been successful for Perry Mason. The judge wasn't moved by it either; in fact, he soon fell asleep .

I sneaked a peek at his writing pad. The only thing he had done so far was to make a drawing: a river scene depicting the typical open, lashed-log raft used on the Amazon to bring cattle down river. But as I looked more closely, I saw that instead of cows there were about 10 horses, and at the tiller was a man with curly hair and thick glasses, much like me.

The judge began to snore, whistle, gasp, and twitch spasmodically as his sleep deepened. The monkey was fascinated by the noises. He cocked his little head and whimpered and cooed in excitement. Jorge droned on. I tried to signal him discreetly, but he was lost in his performance, strutting and looking to the ceiling for divine guidance.

He finally noticed that the judge was asleep, but rose to the occasion. In a scene reminiscent of Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution, he leapt to his feet and vigorously pounded the table. The sound reverberated off the concrete walls. Papers, dust, and books flew, the sleeping judge almost jumped out of his skin, the frightened monkey experienced a metabolic event in my pocket, and a big yellow-green blob of slime-mold on the wall slipped and slid to the floor with a plop.

The embarrassed judge retaliated by threatening me with contempt for the pungent odor that filled the room. When I said it was the monkey, not me, he replied ominously, "In the jungle, a man must be responsible for his monkey."

Jorge continued, arguing that there were no horses in the state of Loreto, so that even if I was a horse thief, which I wasn't, there were no horses to steal. The judge nodded his head in agreement and said that perhaps the defendant stole horses elsewhere and was merely in Iquitos on holiday, but it was none of their concern in the absence of a specific complaint from somebody accusing me of stealing horses in this jurisdiction.

The judge pinned down city counsel: "Do you have a witness who saw Dr. Bob steal one or more horses?" "No." "Has anyone complained that one of his horses is missing?" "No." "Why do you believe Dr. Bob is a horse thief?" "Because he admitted it. There is a writing in English that lists his occupation as a horse thief at a time uncertain that has been brought to our attention. The individual who discovered the record is a foreign, minor child whose parents will not permit him to testify."

The judge dismissed the charge with an admonition to me not to steal horses while in Loreto.

At that moment I understood how the charge had come about. So did Jorge, for he had actively participated in our research at the hotel. I had registered as a horse thief five years before. It was only when counsel mentioned "a writing in English" that I remembered that a Scottish family with an inquisitive eight-year-old boy was currently living in the hotel. The boy must have read through the entire register, had not understood the political humor but been shocked by the entry listing theft, and had run to the hotel manager and translated it for him. The manager, in turn, must have gone to the police.

I asked Jorge whether we should tell the judge about our prank. He suggested that we take him to the plaza for a beer and explain matters at the appropriate moment--after our thirsts subsided.

Robert B. Bradfield did his undergraduate work at Cornell and earned a doctorate there in 1955. He did postdoctoral study at the Harvard School of Public Health and was put in charge of the University's program in Peru, where he spent eight years. He was subsequently a clinical professor of human nutrition at the University of California, Berkeley. He was badly injured while working as a volunteer in health-delivery programs in Africa and was retired on disability. He now writes about travel from his home in Orinda, California.

You might also like

The Poetics of Homelessness

A Harvard graduate’s reflections on being unhoused

“Edifying and Beautiful”

Botanical illustrations on display at Harvard’s rare book library

Sarah Ganz Blythe New Art Museums Director

Assumes Harvard post in August

Most popular

Parks for Tomorrow

Bas Smets harnesses nature to cool cities.

Mechanical Intelligence and Counterfeit Humanity

Reflections on six decades of relations with computers

John H. Finley Jr.

Brief life of a masterful House Master: 1904-1995

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

Harvard Professor on Printmaking

An art historian analyzes an overlooked medium.

Dream Renovations to Harvard Yard Libraries

An ambitious plan for the next century of learning