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The Double Life of Jim Allans 

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Back when Jim Allans started making his winter trips to the Amazon basin, most people knew the place he was going as simply "the jungle." To them it was as exotic and dangerous as the back side of the moon. Now it has become "the rain forest," and it's the hippest cause this side of apartheid. Sting and the Grateful Dead champion its preservation. Schoolchildren write letters in its defense. Consumers buy Rainforest Crunch. But Dessie Allans is still trying to get her husband to pack before the last minute.

"Usually he waits until the last day, and then he's up all night," she says. "This time I'm trying to get him to start earlier."

Their house is North Shore opulent, a red-brick mansion set on a little knoll on the tony east side of Wilmette. The ornaments on the white living-room walls, though, are pure Stone Age: carved wooden heads, six-foot-long arrows with sharp points dipped in poisonous curare, feather headdresses and arm bands. "And none of it's turista stuff, either," says Allans. He often sprinkles his speech with words from the places his heart really lies.

His big blue backpack sprawls on one armchair; another is heaped with Ziploc bags, Metamucil, tea, Listerine, dehydrated rice and beans, and travel packets of tissues--the accoutrements of the modern-day explorer. Over on another chair is the traditional gear: machete, pith helmet, military canteen.

And Allans is already wearing his uniform: sport sandals, white cotton socks, khaki pants and shirt, and a vest emblazoned with a Red Cross patch, the Rotary International logo, and a strip reading "Amazonas." At first it seems he's overdoing the Great White Explorer business, but it soon becomes clear that he'd probably rather wear this unpretentious getup all the time.

Allans is pale-skinned and wiry, and you read his years in his face rather than in his well-muscled arms. To most, 65 might seem an advanced age to be slogging a 60-pound pack through malarial swamps, subsisting on rehydrated rice and the occasional fish. But Allans didn't start his exploring career until he was in his 40s, and he is still riding its momentum with an enthusiasm that brooks no thought of retirement.

His passion is the people of the rain forest, the natives who learned over millennia to live with the forest and who are now, in many cases, unlearning the secrets of survival in the span of a single generation. Rain forests around the world are falling to multinational logging companies, the slash-and-burn farming of otherwise landless peasants, and the intrusion of oil and mineral mining. As they fall, the lives of their indigenous peoples are irrevocably altered.

For the last 22 years Allans has trekked into the rain forest for a month or two virtually every winter. He has taken Western medical supplies and expertise to remote tribes threatened with epidemic diseases borne by white settlers. He has worked to support scientists researching ways to keep the rain forests standing in the face of enormous development pressures. He has networked with politicians, businesspeople, and bureaucrats to publicize the plight of indigenous peoples. He has spent thousands of dollars of his own money financing his expeditions. He has visited 67 different tribal groups in seven countries in South America, and 5 groups in Africa. He has contracted malaria seven times. He has faced swollen rivers, pistol-toting contrabandistas, and the political vicissitudes of the frontier. And now he is going back for more.

Allans leads something of a double life. On the one hand, he is the model North Shore entrepreneur--a product of New Trier, Northwestern, and the University of Illinois; an Army veteran; a man who bought a small carpet-cleaning business and turned it into Kashian Bros. Inc., a prosperous family carpet business.

"He could just sit back and relax and enjoy the fruits of capitalism and not worry about this sort of thing at all," says Gary Galbreath, a biology professor at Northwestern and president of the Chicago Rainforest Action Group.

But then there is the lay anthropologist who camped out in the Skokie Lagoons as a kid, hunting birds with his friends and pretending to be an Indian; the veteran who is trail wise in uncharted jungle and streetwise in third-world frontier towns. This life is so far removed from the one on the North Shore that it is hard to visualize. It helps to see pictures. And on this snowy January afternoon, before he begins packing in earnest, Allans is showing a videotape he shot in the Amazon.

The tape is a composite of his last two expeditions, one in 1991 and one in '92. When it is edited it will be a promotional piece for Rotary International, which has supported much of Allans's medical work.

It begins with footage of a single-engine plane on a red-dirt runway in Boa Vista, a ramshackle frontier town in northern Brazil. From Boa Vista Allans and a few companions fly north into virgin jungle. Here and there sharp hills cloaked with green rise abruptly from the rain forest canopy. Suddenly the plane banks over a huge structure set in the thick jungle. It's a circular building of wooden poles and thatch a little smaller than a football field--a Yanomami Indian village, or shabano.

The airstrip is about five miles away, next to a medical clinic run by the Brazilian government and a nonprofit group established to help preserve the Yanomami.

The video follows a narrow muddy path to the outer wall of the village. There's a narrow doorway through the thatch. Inside, there are people, most of the men wearing nothing except a thong they use to tie their penises to their bellies. The women wear red sashes around their hips. A few men wear brightly colored shorts--the fruits of a recent trade with another tribe.

"I can remember distinctly getting into this remote area, walking, really hot, dying of thirst, and we go under this small opening," recalls Carnig Minasian, vice president of the Chicago Rainforest Action Group and one of the members of the 1991 expedition. "I felt like we were going back in time. It was like we'd stepped into another world. And we were so out of character there. I got this overwhelming feeling that we didn't belong there."

About 80 people live in the village, sleeping in hammocks strung in family groups under the circular roof. Now the village is crowded, though. Besides the visitors there are other Yanomami, relatives from other villages who have come for a funeral ceremony.

The men go out to hunt, and the minicam follows, shaking as branches slap against it. The foliage is dense, claustrophobic. A slight movement high in a tree, a drawn bow, and the camera follows a toucan as it falls to the ground. Then a wild pig. The men carry their prey back to the village in backpacks woven of large leaves.

Next comes the ceremony. The men use long, hollow reeds to blow a hallucinogen into each other's nostrils. They stand around, hopping from foot to foot, very restless. There is no end to the hacking, the grunting, the spitting. A man begins to chant. The camera zooms in close. He is possessed by the spirit of a harpy eagle.

"If you look deep into the recesses of his eyes you'll see that you're looking back 20,000 years," says Allans. "That's how far back these visions go."

The men gather in circles, arms around each neighbor, and dance. The chanting grows heavy. Allans will not film most of the ceremony, partly because it could be dangerous, but partly out of respect for the participants.

Instead, the tape cuts to Allans. Shirtless and with black serpentine patterns painted on his face and chest, he kneels and examines a young girl. During the stay at the village Allans, who has trained as a paramedic, treats over 40 patients for malaria, parasites, fever, snakebite, wounds. Western medicine is new to them, but they soon accept that antibiotics heal infection, that diarrhea--which is often life-threatening here--can be eased with Allans's medications. These medicines, they believe, are effective in treating the symptoms of disease, but only the shabori, or shaman, can alleviate the cause. His healing is required to evict the spirits that cause illness--spirits that the Yanomami associate with the white invaders of their land.

"There was an overwhelming sense of wanting to help them," Minasian says. "These are very innocent people. You see them dying off, and their whole array of knowledge is gone. Now they need us desperately, and yet they wouldn't need us if we weren't there in the first place. For them, it's a no-win situation."

Before Allans and his group left the Indians held a ceremony to honor them. The singing and dancing lasted four hours. "They are much more advanced than we are," Allans says now, "in terms of enjoying life for what it is--living, dancing, laughing, sharing in their familia."

On the flight out the motor of the single-engine plane that has come to pick them up dies. The pilot had poured gasoline from a rusty drum into the tank, and rust has clogged the fuel line. The camera keeps running. Besides Allans, the other passengers are Minasian, a Brazilian interpreter, and a Catholic bishop. The pilot is yelling "emergencia" into his radio. He is going to try to cushion the crash by flying into a big tree. Allans spots the winding course of a river, and the pilot aims for that instead. The plane is descending fast. The propeller continues to spin in the slipstream, but it provides no pull. At the last minute someone spots a runway hacked into the trees--an illegal airstrip built by gold miners. The pilot clears the surrounding trees. A bumpy landing, then the team is standing on the ground.

Minasian stands next to the plane. He smiles and looks relieved. "I'm glad we're with the bishop," he deadpans. "I think it helped." The bishop--who doesn't appear on camera--is not amused. There have been two attempts on his life. The pilot walks miles to a road and flags down a truck to evacuate them. Eventually they get back to Boa Vista.

Originally a ranching village, the town became a gold-mining center in the 1980s when satellites discovered how rich in minerals the area was. Over 45,000 Brazilians flocked there, fleeing urban poverty for a shot at success on the frontier. Miners had extracted over $1.5 billion in gold by late 1991, when the government closed the area to create a 37,000-square-mile reserve for the Yanomami.

There are still thousands of miners working illegally in the new park, since resources to enforce the ban on mining are scarce. With the ouster last year of Brazilian president Fernando Collor de Mello, the status of the reserve is in doubt. In the long run, it will be a grave challenge for Brazil's government to maintain a reserve for a relative handful of Indians in the face of the country's burgeoning population. Allans says, "There's a tremendous starving population who moved great distances to get there because the areas they're from have been denuded."

Relatively few of the miners got rich. Most of the immigrants ended up working for others. Many died of violence. Many died of disease. The diseases they carried--tuberculosis, malaria, the common cold--infected the Indians, who continue to die at an even greater rate.

"There are Indians, settlers, farmers, missionaries, gold miners, everything converging on this area that was absolutely undiscovered," says Minasian. "You're getting the same kind of vibe that you probably did in this country during the Gold Rush in California--one year it's just Indians and the next year 45,000 gold miners show up."

In Brazil, Indians are second-class citizens. "In Boa Vista, there's a hospital, but they don't want Indians in it, or half-breeds," says Minasian. "That's the kind of problem you face. It's like the United States was, except that we know the outcome. We know what's going to happen. I don't mean to be negative, but the handwriting's on the wall for these Indians."

It is difficult to imagine that the creation of a park can shield the Yanomami from the cresting wave of development, difficult to imagine that a man's 20,000-year-old visions of an eagle can survive the onslaught of alcohol, TV, and outboard motors. It is easy to say, from a distance, that this is a grievous loss. But what Minasian found in the rain forest was that it was hard to identify the bad guys.

"I really got a dose of reality when I went and saw how many different points of view there are," he says. "You can go down there and listen to the sob stories of wealthy farmers who lost their land to the Indians and they'll break your heart. It might have been their grandfathers' land, and now the Indians might not even want the land, so they'll turn around and lease it to someone else."

That's one reason why the Chicago Rainforest Action Group--a volunteer organization founded in 1989--has funded mainly small-scale projects supporting the work of on-site scientists and educators, whose field experience may lend some knowledge of those complexities, though that knowledge does not necessarily engender ideal solutions. A CRAG-supported project in the Peruvian rain forest, for example, has established an extractive reserve in which local people hunt, fish, and grow crops, but also act as wardens to enforce conservation laws.

Allans holds out a little hope that the Yanomami may be able to maintain some of their culture. "If they were more submissive they would have been gone a long time ago," he says. "But the only way they'll make it is by better understanding and transacting with outsiders." To that end, several groups are currently working to help create a written version of the Yanomami language, a vital step in fostering cross-cultural communication.

Allans's first priority, though, is the Yanomami's survival. Though the Yanomami are thought to be the largest remaining unacculturated group in the world--9,000 in Brazil, 10,000 in Venezuela--disease is causing their numbers to shrink quickly. Allans thinks at least 1,500 have died of disease since the gold rush began in 1987. And so he has focused his attention on possibly the least ambiguous act a North American can perform in the rain forest--saving lives.

That's why he is packing his bags again. He is the mid-U.S. director of the Tennessee-based Remote Area Medical Corps, an organization that sends volunteer doctors and nurses for brief stays in remote and medically underserved regions. He is in charge of the group's South American expeditionary forces. The military terminology is not coincidental. RAMC's medical professionals operate under conditions military field doctors would understand. "RAMC is our MASH unit," says Allans. "It's rough, raw, remote work, conducted in extreme conditions."

On this trip he will be conducting a study on the feasibility of opening up a permanent clinic in southern Guyana. The clinic would serve as a base from which medical personnel would travel to nearby towns and villages to provide aid.

Along with RAMC and CRAG, Allans travels as a representative of Rotary International. It can be very valuable to have nonprofit institutional backing in the Amazon, where uninvited North Americans dispensing advice are often viewed with hostility. The international network of Rotarians, especially, can open doors, and Allans--an engaging talker--has spent a great deal of time networking with its members in South America.

"On the 1991 trip we were in Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela," says Minasian. "This is a seedy town. You're there only for one of two reasons: because it's a stopover into the jungle or you're in the drug trade. It's right on the border of Colombia. It's a very poor community, but there's people driving around in Mercedeses. We're there walking around with all our field gear, and some guy who had sour grapes because we wouldn't use him as our guide called the frontier security forces. They took us into a house in a residential neighborhood. It's not like the main headquarters where Amnesty International would know where you were, just a house in a neighborhood. They put us in there and took our passports away--I mean, you may never see the light of day again!

"We were fortunate that we knew some very influential people in Caracas. After two-and-a-half hours of coercing I got them to make the phone call; we had a business card from this guy. He knew the president of Venezuela. Within ten minutes they were giving us apologies and handing us back our passports and we're outta there. We never would have made it back if we hadn't known somebody."

Allans attributes his fascination with indigenous peoples to his parents, Greek immigrants who instilled in him a love of foreign cultures both ancient and modern. As a boy he read about North American Indians and empathized with them. He practiced their skills as a Boy Scout. In World War II virtually all his mother's male relatives in Greece were killed in the resistance against the Nazis. While a tank commander in Patton's army in Western Europe, Allans decided that modern civilization was far more savage than the so-called "savages" he'd read about. When he was wounded he was sent to recuperate in Bavaria, where he lodged with several other American officers in a house belonging to a German anthropologist. The man--"more a scholar than a soldier," says Allans--had lost both legs in North Africa, but harbored no bitterness toward his former enemies. The two men talked anthropology; the German had conducted his studies in Africa, but he told Allans to look at South America. He said the natives there needed help and were receiving none.

Allans returned home and took anthropology classes at Northwestern. But jobs involving fieldwork were scarce, and he wanted to earn some money. He bought the small carpet-cleaning firm, expanded it, gained a financial cushion.

One evening in the late 1960s he heard a talk in Wilmette by a Peruvian anthropologist, Luis Uriarte, and the old interest bloomed. He volunteered to become the U.S. representative of a mission helping Jivaro Indians on the Maranon River in Peru. For ten years he raised funds in the U.S. and delivered medical equipment into the backcountry of Peru and Equador. He got to know some of the tribes, and their environment.

"The first two or three trips down we hardly saw any wildlife," he says. "To the untrained eye it's a morass of green, an untamed tangle. You saw the animals in the pictures, but you don't really put them in their proper perspective to their environment. You usually think they're bigger than they really are. You can go by a cayman, look directly at it, and think it's a log until you hear it splash. Or you look at a snake and it looks like a length of hose."

During one of those early trips to Peru he was joined by his daughter Dori, who was fresh out of high school. They took dugout canoes to a Sequoia village, stayed there for a while. When they left it was afternoon. Dori was in one canoe with Luis Uriarte, whom everyone called Lucho. Jim was in a larger canoe with Steve King, an ethnobotanist, and two Indian guides. A wind rose and thunderheads built in the sky. It was the rainy season. Upstream it had already rained a great deal; the river was rising rapidly.

"You can tell when there's drainage off the mountains and the weather's stormy," Allans says. "The water rushes so quickly that there's a chocolate-type foam on the surface. If you're in a small log canoe you usually want to pull to the side and wait for the river to drop. We couldn't find a good landing, though, because the water had risen so high that it had floated over into the adjacent trees and swamp areas, which were very poor tie-in areas, not safe at all. The venomous snakes climb up into the trees when their holes get flooded, and the ants and the insects."

They knew there was a small hut downriver because they'd stayed there on their way up. As they reached it they saw several Indians there. The Indians gestured. "They unquestionably were not friendly. This meant we were stuck on the river as darkness was approaching. The rain was torrential, so torrential that it turned the water entirely white. The boat was leaking readily. I removed my T-shirt and later my shirt to plug in the cracks. Steve and the Indians were trying to keep the boat moving with the current and not broach as we hit small whirlpools and eddies. It was hard to keep the main channel. Many times we ran over logs and debris. Lucho and Dori were ahead, and with his flashlight Lucho would point out the obstacles, but not long after we left the hut we lost contact."

"The waterline was just below the rim of the canoe," remembers Dori Allans. "It was scary, but an incredible experience. We knew what we had to do, and we did it." They kept paddling and bailing.

As Jim bailed he saw a firefly at his feet. "I knew Indians considered fireflies a good luck piece--light, you know," he says. "Light means hope and survival. Another hour passed and we heard a churning just like powerful motorboats. I said to myself, thank God, there's the Peruvian navy, one of their river gunboats was coming to rescue us. But then we went through a clearing where we could look into the water and I noticed that it wasn't a motorboat, but millions of spawning fish. Our hope went down."

They battled the current for hours, from dusk till two in the morning, and then Allans saw more fireflies in the boat--three, four, then hundreds. "I was so consumed with trying not to wash out the fireflies," he says, "because they were good luck, and bailing out the boat, that I didn't notice the wind had dropped. After several hours I finally looked up into the sky. The storm was over, and the fireflies were really stars."

They were soon reunited with the other canoe, and found a village where they could eat and sleep. "And that one firefly that I saw when everything was cavern-dark was still under my seat."

In February Allans returned with another year's worth of tales to tell. In preparation for RAMC expeditions planned for next season, he spent nearly a week of this trip dealing with government officials in Guyana, arranging the endless permits required to bring people, aircraft, and equipment into the country. Then he trekked into the back country with several companions, backpacking 25-pound diagnostic microscopes and some 60,000 antimalaria pills to several medical outposts. Carrying such supplies personally, he says, is the only way to be sure they reach their intended recipients.

He also visited again with some Yanomami villagers, trying to determine exactly what sort of care future expeditions will need to provide. In Brazil and Venezuela he found villages so ravaged by malaria that the survivors were unable to perform their ritual burning of the dead. He also found mutations and stillborn children becoming more common in villages near gold-mining areas, a condition he suspects may be symptomatic of poisoning from the mercury used to process powdered gold ore. A group of Chicago-area toxicologists is now trying to get funding to investigate that suspicion.

Allans reports that "tension is mounting" in the relatively lawless frontier towns of Guyana, Brazil, and Venezuela. "Every year it gets a little worse. There was a very xenophobic attitude in all the frontier towns we went to, because they know the eyes of the world are on them."

But he has gotten used to the dangers, human and otherwise. "Sure the rain forest is a hostile environment, and it's not a place for amateurs," he said before leaving this winter. "But I find areas of Chicago more dangerous. The urban jungle is a lot more violent."

In the beginning it was the adventure that attracted Allans, the chance to see, as he puts it, "something that is seen by very few other people, what is becoming a lost world. But what happens is that you realize that you have then seen some things. You also realize that you can spend many lifetimes and not see it all. I did this because it was the vehicle to move out of a comfortable country to go somewhere I didn't know and understand. But then adventure turned into a crusade, into a dedication to assistance. I believe that if you succeed in life, then you must give back. You must pay back a percentage of that success to people who are less fortunate."

For all his dedication, Allans's work goes well beyond altruism and into a deep, personal curiosity, not only about other cultures but about his own. "He gets the biggest bang out of working as an anthropologist," says Mark Weissman, a resident in emergency medicine at Cook County Hospital who joined an RAMC trip in Mexico last fall. "Everything else he does to support his interest in anthropology, which is hands-on anthropology, not theory. He's interested in studying as broad a range of phenomena as possible."

"Human beings tend to seek and to ask, "What's this all about? What am I? Why am I what I am?"' Allans says. "Many of us who have really gotten involved with indigenous peoples saw beyond the adventurous, explorer aspect and saw deeper into returning to what was in essence the beginning of our own tribal groups, many many hundreds or thousands of years ago."

The explorers of the past found plenty of blank spaces on the map to grab their attention. As those frontiers dwindle and vanish, the explorer is left with another mysterious terrain--not geography, but the human condition itself. Plumbing its expanse demands a curiosity revealed as much in small gestures as in dangerous treks to exotic places, the sort of curiosity revealed in the sight of Jim Allans eating chicken in the stark white kitchen in Wilmette. He gnaws off the meat, then crunches the bones for the marrow inside. "It's an indigenous thing," he says. "It's very nutritious."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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