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Into the jungle: Merchant/traveler returns with baskets, stories

More than 20 years ago, downtown merchant Janet Browning first stepped into the wilds of Latin American on a journey that would end up changing the course of her life — as well as others that crossed her path.
“There was a story that (storyteller) Donald Davis used to tell, that in the Amazon, the butterflies were so big you could ride on them,” Browning recalled. On a trip with friends, Browning decided to check out the Amazon forest to see if Davis was right.
What she found, instead of giant butterflies, were a number of Indian tribes whose members still held onto skills and traditions long absent from the rest of the world.
“I was struck by their talent and poverty,” Browning said. At the end of her visit, she would also carry home with her the image of a sculptor at a local market whose merchandise she chose not to purchase.
“The look on his face was total devastation,” she said. “It just struck me how from the time I had spoken to him, he had counted on me coming back and to make that sale that could feed his family.”
Browning vowed that she would return.
“I told my daughter, ‘Someday, I would like to come down here and buy everything that someone has.”
Browning was back several months later to fulfill her promise — and has been returning annually to Latin America ever since, supplying her Hands Around the World shop with unusual items to sell, while also continuing to learn more about the Latin American Indians.
Since that first visit in the mid ‘90s, Browning has been able to meet all but a handful of tribes. This past October, she was able to check another off her list.
“This time, I went to visit the Tsachila,” Browning said. “This was my very first time with this particular tribe. It was a little off the beaten path from where I normally go.”
Since Browning’s initial forays into the jungle, she said she is almost always reading and studying about Latin American tribes.
The Tsachila intrigued her partly because of their isolation, as well as some of their traditions.
“They are also called the Colorado, because of the way they paint their hair,” Browning explained.”The way it all started, when the Spaniards came to their area, they brought a lot of Western diseases and a whole lot of the tribe was wiped out.”
As a tribal shaman was praying for his people, he looked up as the sunlight illuminated one plant, an Achiote bush, that had a red bloom shaped like a bird’s beak.
“He felt like that was a sign,” Browning said. So he took the berries from the plant, made a red paste and put it on his hair, shaping it like top of plant as an offering to protect his people.
“The people did get better,” she said. “Ever since then, the men have kept their hair like this.”
Browning was able to visit two villages, after a long and arduous search.
“During the day, they are all in the jungle working,” she explained. But once they located the villagers, they were greeted warmly.
“A lot of the groups are more Westernized,” she said. “This group stays very separated from Ecuadorian society and they still hold to their old beliefs and way of life.”
A young basket maker gave them a tour of the village, with a few surprises — one, a well-protected grave.
“It’s a well-known shaman who died 60 years ago, and was 115 when he died,” Browning said.
According to the information she gleaned from the basket maker, tribal custom usually calls for leaving the house someone has died in and building a new house. The burial house and its contents are then allowed to deteriorate.
In the case of this particular shaman, the family wanted to protect him — so after wrapping him in bark and other natural materials, the body was preserved, still holding a place of honor in the village more than half a century later.
Before leaving the Tsachila village, Browning was able to buy a little more than two dozen handwoven baskets. These baskets are currently for sale in her Main Street shop.
The difficulty in getting back to the villages makes it unlikely that Browning will return for more baskets. Yet the need to continue to provide a venue for under-appreciated traditional Latin American crafts still drives her.
In the beginning, she said, most of the merchandise she would bring back from her visits was museum quality items from Latin American Indians.
“But there are only so many people in town who want a blowgun,” Browning said with a smile.”So I started going to other places – Bali, Thailand, Mexico – purchasing more jewelry and clothing.
“Now the shop is almost everything is homemade and it’s not just artists from around the world, but local artists as well.”
Those items, she said, help pay the bills. Providing a market and a voice for traditional artists and their communities in Latin American remains her passion.
“This is still my love,” she said, holding one intricately woven Tchalila basket. “The other stuff just sort of finances that.”