Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest

Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest

We carry no food or water, though we each have a machete strapped to our waist. A heavy woven basket weighs on my back, suspended by a thump line running around my forehead to its brim. My companion, the wife of a village elder, is teaching me to weave traditional native basketry like mats and carrying baskets. Trekking through the Brazilian tropical forest, she’s instructing me today on the collection of palm shoots for plaiting different items. Young women of her tribe are no longer interested in learning this native craft, so the tradition is dying. My mentor is proud that I’m learning from her, but sad that a “white woman,” rather than a woman of her own people, is her apprentice. There’s a lot to teach me.

Mazarella is 30 years my senior, 50 pounds heavier, and ages wiser in the ways of the forest. She’s patient with me, and kind. I like that she’s quiet and has a wry sense of humor. We enjoy each other’s company. It’s past noon now and I think back to my morning meal, which was before sun up. My mouth is pasty, and sometimes it feels hard to swallow. We swing our machetes to cut a path where none exists to reach yet another palm tree, where we cut out the central shoot that’s used for weaving. Placing it into my basket we have gathered enough material and it’s finally time to head home.

My mentor is proud that I’m learning from her, but sad that a “white woman,” rather than a woman of her own people, is her apprentice. There’s a lot to teach me.

As we plod through Brazil‘s rough terrain in late afternoon, we come upon a small clearing where fallen trees lay on the forest floor. We set down our loaded baskets to take a rest. The tall canopy provides speckled shade from the sun, but holds down the moisture that saps our strength and intensifies the humidity. Beads of sweat decorate my face, and my dress contours every crevice of my body. I taste grit between my teeth. We stretch, and weave little palm fans to cool ourselves, pulling our skirts away from our legs. It’s impossible to feel comfortable.

“This is good firewood,” Mazarella points out as she looks at the logs we’re sitting on. “It burns slowly and makes hot, long-lasting coals.”

We gather pieces to add to our already weighty bundles, and Mazarella turns over a section of log that’s been facing the ground.

“Oh! Look here! Come see what I’ve found!”

Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest

In the rotten wood she’s discovered two dozen grubs hidden in the interior. Each is curled into a beautiful comma that if stretched would be three inches long. They’re white and plump, with a dark core under translucent skin. A few begin to wiggle as she gathers them from the log into her palm, exposing them to the dim light. Mazarella picks one up between two fingers, holding it aloft to admire. POP! She tosses it into her mouth. As she doesn’t have teeth I stare at her in awe, trying to guess whether she gummed or swallowed it.  Either way, it disappeared quickly, and she picks up another.

“Here, eat this one,” she says holding out the fat, curved larvae squirming slightly on her hand.

I hesitate. I’m not squeamish about food, but faced with the moving undeveloped body of an unknown insect, somehow my stomach doesn’t feel quite as hungry as it had just a while ago. Still, I didn’t want to show weakness, so with abandon I accept her generous offer and throw the creature into my mouth.

“Here, eat this one,” she says holding out the fat, curved larvae squirming slightly on her hand.

A strange, acrid taste takes shape on my tongue, and I move it around inside my mouth struggling to find a place where it won’t touch my taste buds, but can’t find one. Still unsure about whether I should chew or swallow it, the thing in my mouth suddenly feels as big as a tennis ball. My brain screams “SWALLOW!”, my stomach shouts “SPIT!”, and my conscience scolds “DON’T YOU DARE!”

Mazarella is still looking at me as this moment stretches on, my body and mind at odds with each other over what to do. I gulped. It was a huge gulp. With nothing to wash down the lump in my throat, I fought to find enough saliva to force the little beast down into my belly without vomiting. The slimy exterior must have aided the process because somehow it found its way through my gulllet. Mazarella puts another into her mouth and holds one more out to me.

“No thanks,” I reply casually.  Having proven myself in my own eyes, I felt I could decline with dignity.

She carefully wraps the remaining grubs in a large leaf, places them on top of the firewood in her basket, and happily prepares to carry the rest of her Brazilian delicacy home.

Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest

Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest
Posing in the village where I lived during my stay in the Brazilian tropics, while conducting anthropological research and learning basketry.

 

Bite Me: Why I Ate an Insect in the Brazilian Forest

About Surabela Fabian

Surabela FabianS. B. Fabian is a former hippie who spent most of the 70’s traveling around the world trying to figure out who she was. She then spent most of the 80’s as an anthropologist trying to figure out who others were. The 90’s were spent trying to figure out who her children were, or at least, what to do about them. Recently she realized that she still doesn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but is having fun writing about the journey. She lives in the U.S. with her husband who, even after 30 years, still shakes his head at her in wonder.

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