THE AMULET'S PLACE
How deep in the psyche lurk our superstitions?
When British explorer Mungo Park trudged into the African bush in the late eighteenth century, he was intrigued by the Africans’ attachment to their amulets, or saphies, as they were known along the banks of the Gambia River. In most cases these saphies were no more than scraps of paper containing short prayers extracted from the Koran by Muslim priests. Nevertheless, throughout the land they were acquired in great numbers by the fearful souls, who believed they possessed quite extraordinary powers.
Amulets, talismans or charms, each with their subtle differences, have endured for centuries the world over. Pliny the Elder is said to have described the amulet as, ‘… an object that protects a person from trouble …’. Given the enigmatic subject, unsurprisingly fetishes emerge in diverse forms: a string of garlic, a rabbit’s foot, a bag of herbs, the talons from a Bald eagle, or even a pebble dredged from the river. It only takes a dose of belief to ensure they bring us luck, or keep one from harm, once the power is ascribed. I imagine that many in this day and age dismiss the amulet as the conviction of an eccentric. I must admit, generally they occupy no place in my thoughts. And yet, clearly superstition prowls the alcoves of my subconscious, for why else would our camper be awash with them?
Our principal amulet is undoubtedly the model of Brian the Snail, a character from the Magic Roundabout, a much-loved children’s TV program from a bygone era. Our camper is in fact named Brian, for out on the road he is ponderous, like a snail, and whilst being our transport, the shell on his back doubles as our home. Christine gave me the model as a birthday present during our journey across the Atlantic on the cargo ship. His place has been on the dashboard ever since leaving Buenos Aires, from where he’s watched 130,000 trans-American kilometres click by. After any near misses out on the road, and there’s been a few, we’ve always tapped Brian the Snail on his shell, thankful for his protection.
A strip of ribbon with Toyota written on it in gold-coloured letters has for many kilometres been wound round the camper’s rear-view mirror. This was bought at the shrine of Difunta Correa in Vallecito, Argentina. Legend tells of a young man who, around the time of the Argentinian civil war, was forcibly recruited and sent to fight in Rioja. The wife missed her husband terribly and set out from San Juan with her baby to find him. In the deserts of San Juan Province she perished from thirst. When her body was discovered some days later the infant was found alive, having survived by suckling his mother’s breast. This mythical figure is revered as a protective symbol by drivers of trucks, cars and buses throughout Argentina and Chile. This strip of ribbon has faced the scissors more than once, though we’ve always deemed it too risky to discard it.
A canvas pouch tucked away on a shelf in the back of the camper contains a more conventional talisman. The silver St Christopher pendant was given to me by my mother when I began travelling extensively years ago. Legend tells of how it was St Christopher who carried a young Jesus across a raging river. Ever since then he has been recognized as the patron saint of travellers.
Foraged pebbles and cowrie shells aside, our final two amulets have been gifted to us along the way. They have been close to a dustbin a couple of times and only by some obscure intervention do they remain. Crossing the Garibaldi Pass (Tierra del Fuego), the snow settling deeply across the road, we descended quickly to Toluin, making for the shelter of Camping Hain. An icy wind howled across Lake Fagnano, rollers crashing over the beach. On arrival the eccentric Roberto, owner of Camping Hain, was frantically nailing his ornamental wheelbarrows back on top of the wall they’d blown off.
Inside the refuge, Roberto made a roaring fire in a large cylinder he’d salvaged from a gas works, whilst the building’s timbers shuddered and shrieked in the gale. At that moment it seemed the only thing holding the refuge together were the many short planks of wood inscribed with travellers’ messages of hope, aspiration and success. The freezing wind made it one of the coldest nights we’d experienced for weeks. Doing our best to thaw out the following morning, Roberto presented us with what’s become known as The Hain Pebble, a pebble he’d painted in a garish yellow and purple.
‘Come back in winter,’ he cried, as we drove, still shivering, out of the entrance. ‘It’s very beautiful here in winter.’
Our final amulet is the Nohelia Cross. Finca Nohelia is an eighty-hectare estate near Jericó, in Colombia’s coffee-lands. Alongside their coffee plantation Jon and his father harvest mango, papaya, avocados, oranges, lemons and sugar cane. On day two of our stay we met Jose Velasquez and his dog, a brown mongrel named Lucas Alberto Velasquez. Jose fizzed with nervous energy. He was a campesino and had been working on the slopes leading down to the Rio Piedras. The hand shaking mine was stained from the coffee beans he’d been picking. Jose insisted we visit his mother’s house one hundred metres down the lane, where he showed us his vegetable patch, the two shrubs placed strategically so as to ward off evil spirits, some well-kept chickens in a bamboo enclosure, his banana tree, the bench he sat on each evening to enjoy his bottle of beer and the contents of his tienda, a small shop, because we were half an hour’s walk from the town. Use my motorbike any time you wish, he’d said, pointing to the keys hanging on the wall. In the house, Jose’s mother offered cold drinks and we were led from room to room, each point of interest explained, until I imagined there was little left to know of Jose’s life. This openness and hospitality had been typical of the Colombian people, leaving us perplexed how the country had accommodated, and still does to a lesser degree, such violence and cruelty for so long.
We rested four days at Finca Nohelia and when we left Jon sent us on our way with the Nohelia Cross, a small, gnarled wooden cross poking from a knob of stone. This cross from Colombia, which spends its days beside the gear lever, has become more than just an amulet: it is an important reminder how, in a world of mayhem and insecurity, humanity invariably prevails.
As we rumble along these distant roads, I rest easy knowing our saphies are each in their particular place.
The British explorer Mungo Park, I’m quite sure, would have been impressed.
(James Marr is the author of short stories from a long continent - the Americas overland)