Home » Peruvian Amazon » JEAN SHEPHERD TRAVELER 4 of 4 & an A.F.




After the following dramatic, and even soul-searching trip to the Amazon, Shepherd explained to his radio listeners what he was about to convey to them in a series of broadcasts:

“I was there. I am a trained reporter.

“I’m not going to appear, incidentally, as an anthropologist

on any of these shows—an expert.

I’m appearing as an artist who has seen something

and would like to transmit his impressions to you.”

Jean Shepherd’s friend and fellow-broadcaster at WOR Radio, Barry Farber, won a prize at a Luden’s Cough Drop Company promotional event. Farber told them where he wanted the donated prize delivered, but didn’t want to deliver it himself, though he figured that his friend Jean, who loved to travel, would want to go. Jean, not realizing where he’d go and what he was getting into, said he’d do it.

Then Shepherd found out where he was going—with a Luden’s representative and a photographer, and there would be a translator. He was going to Amazonian headhunter country to deliver to the recently converted and now former headhunters, 500 pounds of Luden’s candy and cough drops. In little boxes. Free. To headhunters.

As for headhunters, New York’s American Museum of Natural History has a couple of shrunken heads on exhibit along with a detailed text describing how to shrink a head. See small foreground case here. It’s part of the large, permanent Hall of South American Peoples that I designed over a period of years in the 1980s. This exhibit is in the Amazon half of the hall, which was curated by Dr. Robert Carneiro, a Jean Shepherd listener back in the 1960s.


By the way, speaking of myths, I received a letter from one of the museums locally and the writer happens to be an expert on South American matters, both flora and fauna, and he sent me a long note telling me about various myths.  He says, you know, one of the best things he ever found in the jungle was to walk around in street shoes.  He says street shoes in the jungle, and he says when he was walking across streams he wore tennis shoes.

He said, don’t worry, Shepherd, about the electric eels and the piranhas.  He says, don’t worry about the crocodiles.  They’ve got them down there, but don’t worry about them…. 

[Regarding the letter which Shepherd received from the  expert at “one of the museums locally,” the present author worked with that expert for years designing and overseeing the Hall of South American Peoples, the far half of which is about peoples of the Amazonian jungle. Years before I designed that hall, in a small, temporary exhibit based on one of Dr. Carneiro’s research trips to the Amazon, he and I installed the hammock he had used there, still stained with his own dried blood, extracted by vampire bats while he slept.]

bob carneiro

Dr. Robert Carneiro.

A Jean Shepherd listener and an ethnologist of Amazonian cultures,

he sent me a copy of the letter he wrote to Shepherd fifty years before.

With his permission I reproduce part of it here:

Dear Shep,

Before you buy your ticket for the Peruvian Jungle, I suggest you forget all about boa constrictors, piranhas, and electric eels.  If I were you, I’d start worrying about the amoebae you’ll meet in your palm hearts salad at the Gran Hotel Mercedes in Pucallpa.  The world’s record for bowel movements in one day is 28, and you’ll get your chance to break it….

You can leave your heavy leather boots home, too.  In the jungle I found street shoes most convenient except when I had to wade across streams.  Then I switched to tennis shoes.

If you don’t chicken out, and prefer not to carry a headful of myths with you into the jungle, come on up one of these days.



                                                                  Robert Carneiro

An old friend of mine who does travel pieces for Playboy—Shel Silverstein—really travels around—and I mean there’s a difference between traveling and tourist things.  Usually a traveler is a lonesome, solitary figure….


A lonesome, solitary figure.

(Self portrait of Shep’s best friend, Shel.)

Whereas the tourist remains part of the thing that he was that he’d left at home.  He really remains a Texan or a guy from White Plains.  Because he usually travels with a lot of other guys from White Plains and Texas.  They travel like a little knot of migratory birds moving across the landscape.

Jean Shepherd, after his Peru experience, may never before have been in such an extraordinarily excited state on the air. Giving listeners his authentic Peru tales within a mere few hours after his return, he is in a heated rush. Wordsworth described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Shepherd’s overflow in extemporaneous prose does not here have the necessary time for recollection in tranquility. Listeners and readers are caught up in the unstoppable flow of spoken words as he describes this unique adventure for us and we exult with him.

•    •     •    •    •    •    •    •     •    •    •    

 Back from the Amazon:

“I guess I came back changed.”

Indicative of the profound experience Jean Shepherd has had in the Amazon, his preconceptions and change of mind—and admitting to them on the air—are nearly unprecedented.  His ways of thinking: about the delights and dangers of the Amazon; the particular nature of primitive peoples and how they live; and even the work and nature of at least some missionaries, will never be the same.

“One of the Truly Great Experiences of My Life”

Wow, I’m back!  This is Jean Shepherd, and I can say it will take me at least a week and a half or maybe even a month to begin to sort out all the strange, exhilarating, exciting—perhaps in some cases frightening— impressions that I’ve had.  I’m going to tell you this as a man who has been in several places in the world and who has involved himself in several things.  Adventure is always something that can’t truly be described.  I’m talking about genuine adventures, not necessarily to go on a safari in Africa that is organized by a safari company.  Or even the Hemingway kind of organized adventure.

This sort of adventure that I’ve just come through is a total adventure in the sense that you’re not going to kill an animal, you’re not going to a place where other people have gone to do a thing that other people do.  This is something else again, and it’s almost impossible to tell you or describe to anyone else just what it was like. 

Peru as a country is one of the most exciting, unusual, eerie, spooky, beautiful countries in the world.  After trips, I constantly get heckled by people who say, “You go there and you come back an expert.”  I’m not trying to say that at all.  I’m not going to be an expert.  I went to the headwaters of the Amazon.  I was there.  I am a trained reporter.  My life has been devoted to absorbing sights and sounds and listening.

And I am going to try to give you my impressions

of what I consider probably the high point of my life

as far as adventures and experience is concerned.

I had no idea it would be like this when I left and I might point out that it was not a lark.  It started out a little bit that way, but by the time we arrived in Lima and had begun to go over the Andes, we realized this was a very serious thing and not only was it serious, there were certain elements of danger in it and I don’t wish to even dwell on that.  It had nothing to do with the headhunters by the way—the people we visited are ex-headhunters.

This has been a great experience for me and again I would like to thank all the people who made it possible.  The Luden’s Company.  They sent us there—to give five-hundred pounds of candy to the natives, who went out of their skull—you should have seen them.  There were guys running around throwing “5th Avenue” candy bars in the air yelling and hollering….It was not done as a promotion or gimmick for Luden’s.  It really wasn’t.  It was one of those strange, believe-it-or-not stories.  Luden’s had no idea there were even such people called the Shapras, so they weren’t down there promoting Luden’s Cough Drops with the headhunters—who don’t have much need.

When I left to go visit these people, I had the usual hip, urban attitude towards the “native,” and particularly what we call the “unspoiled” savage.  That anyone who went and tried to bring any kind of help to them was, quote, destroying them.  You know the feeling.  And I’d like to say that, after having been out there and having been around these natives and listened to them talk and watch what was happening, and heard things about the other tribes in the area, I came away with a totally different concept.

Primarily because it is an inevitable problem that civilization will creep in and is creeping in on these Indians because there are great oil deposits in the jungle.  Great mineral deposits—gold is found there and there is gold mined and gold is panned in the rivers.  Prospectors are there and if these people have no language, have no written way to understand the complexities of the world that’s coming in on them—know how to read and write—they will be totally destroyed, just like we destroyed many, many tribes as we moved West.

And these missionaries are trying to prevent that by giving them a language that can be preserved, so that a thousand years from now somebody will be writing in Shapra, and their literature can be preserved and they will have a way of dealing with civilization when it comes in on them. Of course, not only that, they take to the Indians something which is of inestimable value and that’s medical aid.

I guess I came back changed, no question about it.  We walk around town, we walk around our world, and it’s unbelievable how much we take for total granted.  One thing I learned out of this experience—which was a tremendously moving one to me—was how resilient and how tough and how un-killable, in a genuine sense, mankind is, and even you and I.  I wasn’t in this camp twenty-four hours and found myself drinking the river water without question about it, eating the roots and the vines and one thing and another they dug up and gave us for food, and I realized very quickly that if need be, we can survive.  We really can.  And not only that, it’s a pleasant survival.  It’s hard but it can be done and it is done.

You eat their food—if you don’t eat their food, it’s not really an insult, it’s a slight.  Can you imagine somebody arriving at your house and they bring their own lunch?  And they say, “You know, we don’t trust your food, so we’re bringing a lunch.”  So we ate their food.  They have a kind of yam they boil that tastes very much like roasted chestnuts.  They also have a kind of banana that’s not quite like ours.  They throw them in the fire to roast.  You split the skin after it’s been burning and it’s fantastically hot and succulent and absolutely delicious.

So we had eaten and they were burning a monkey for us.  Here’s the recipe for cooking monkey.  You get a spider monkey or a rough monkey or a howler. You just throw the monkey, fur, insides and all, onto the fire.  That’s the recipe.  An hour later you drag it out and call the gang.


•    •    •    •    •    •    

[Tariri is the native chief, Dori is the missionary/translator.]

I want to tell you this little story.  This is one of the truly great experiences of my life and I want you to accept it as that.  I’m just telling you what happened.  After supper I went over to my bag and I took out my jews harp, and they were all looking, smiling.  And two little girls about two or three years old had attached themselves to me and they were holding my arm and sort of petting it. Just beautiful.  I’d look at them and they’d giggle, and they loved my beard—they’d reach up and pull it.  They loved to feel it, and they were laughing about it.  It turned out that the reason that they loved me was that Indians are beardless—no beards at all but their ancestor had beards.  Tariri said that the children laughed whenever I said anything because they said that “He is the first big monkey who talks.” I was like a big monkey to them.

I said, “Dori, call them all around,” and they stood there.  They didn’t know what was going to happen.  I said, “Tell them I will play for them.  This is an American folk instrument.  This is what the natives of America play.  I’m a native of America.  I’m not going to play a violin or an organ or sing a hymn, I’m going to play what the natives just like you play.  I’m also a native.”

I took the jews harp and I sat up on the table and I began to perform.  And there was a moment—the kids giggled and Tariri looked, and Arushpa looked.  I played You Are My Sunshine, and I finished it and they were astounded!  And I said, “Now I will sing the song for you.”  They were so enraptured by that, their eyes were shining.  And then I took my kazoo.  I said, “Now I will play another native American instrument.”  You couldn’t believe it, they loved it so!  And then I took out my nose flute and that threw them, because they play flutes.  The kids died—they were rolling on the floor and Tariri was yelling.  I played You Are My Sunshine, and Red River Valley.


Shepherd holding jews harp, tape player in front.

Luden’s Lee Chamberlain holding microphone,

Sol Potempkin must have taken the photo.

I played about five songs and then Tariri says, “We want to sing,” and they all sang for me.  Arushpa came creeping out with his long bamboo flute and he played the very intricate music they play, and the other boy brought his out and they both played.  And I said, “Now I will play with you.  Let’s all sit in together on a session.”  Probably for the first time in the history of music there was a headhunter/Madison Avenue, flute-and-jews harp duet and we really swung.  I caught the beat of what he was doing—their music is pentatonic—a five-note scale, a very minor-sounding scale.  Well, they led and I followed with my jews harp and my nose flute and the three of us played and the crowd went out of its mind!

We stayed till three and four o’clock in the morning playing and singing and the translator had faded off into the darkness.  They’d never had anything like this in their lives before.  

Many white men come to them and give them medicine, white men come and preach to them, white men come and study them. But no white men ever came to entertain them. And be part of them.

When I left, Tariri said,

“We have never seen this kind of white man.”

He said he loved it. He said–to use his exact phrase, he said,

“This is the first white man

who has ever come to them

who has participated with them.

Who has done things with them.”



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