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I never expected that I would one day marry a Peruvian woman, much less one from Iquitos, the river city at the headwaters of the Amazon. But then no one said falling in love was a matter of choice. I simply found myself irresistibly drawn to Gilma Josepha Aguilar Chavez and went with it.             We met in March, 1993, while I was in Peru to collect and write about medicinal plants and their uses among jungle curanderos—traditional doctors who use plants as curatives. Gilma, who grew up on the river working on her father’s cargo boats, was recommended as an assistant and accompanied me—along with several others—on a month long trip into the interior. She proved an invaluable asset as a co-worker, a person who managed to keep smiling no matter how difficult things got. By the time the trip was through I’d fallen in love with her, and when I returned to New York I realized I was thinking about marrying her.

Well, it was more romantic than that: while love had little chance to express itself on a boat which had—aside from us—a crew of three crude, tough, hard-drinking river men and no private quarters, there were hours spent at the wheel together piloting the Amazon and its tributaries, moonlit nights watching black cayman and large boas slide past us in the rivers, and long days collecting plants from indigenous tribes beneath the brilliant canopy. There was also a night—and this might have been the night I fell in love with her—when Gilma grabbed a machete and stood by me while I tried to convince a boat full of drunken river pirates that the first to board us would lose his hands. “The first and the second,” she’d said, taking her stand. (My crew of tough guys had vanished below deck the moment the pirates approached us.)

            In any event, by the time we returned to Iquitos I was telling her I loved her; she had heard that before and was not impressed. But home in New York I began to believe that I actually could marry her; I’d never been married before, but at 43 and deeply in love it suddenly seemed like the right thing to do.

            I returned to Iquitos in August to find out how serious we were about one another: she had two children from a previous marriage, after all—seven year old Italo and four year old Venesio—so marrying her wasn’t something to do without some thought.

            She liked that I had come to visit her but was disappointed that I didn’t offer to actually set a wedding date. “I don’t know how it is in your country, but here if you tell someone you want to marry them, you do it,” she said in a mix of Spanish and halting English. And then she said that she would not work for me again until we were actually married. “If I work with you on a boat for one month, no one will think anything about it here in Iquitos. But if I go out with you on the boat again and we are not married they will say I am your woman, your whore, and I am not that.”

            True to her word, when I returned in December for another month on the river, she refused to come with me. And the trip, though magic in several ways, was miserable without her. So I decided to ask her to marry me the moment I returned.


            I returned to Iquitos on the evening of January 17 and headed straight to Gilma’s home, a small brick row house with a cantina on the ground floor and a large bedroom—shared by Gilma, her two children, her mother, two cousins and an aunt—on the second. The extended family is part and parcel of life in Iquitos, and since many men who work in the jungle die young—as did Gilma’s husband—the family is frequently made up of mostly adult women.

            Gilma was not at home, but her mother, Lydia, a lovely Brazilian with Spanish, Black and Indian blood, was thrilled that I was finally going to ask Gilma to marry her. Her children were thrilled as well, as were the cousins, aunt, a sister-in-law who helped out in the cantina, and several dock workers who were just then having beers. To celebrate, everyone ordered fresh beers to then told me I would be paying for them. Gilma’s mom explained that was normal for Iquitos, that by paying for the beer I was making friends, and when a man was about to ask a woman to marry him he needed all the friends he could get.

            Gilma arrived within the hour, out of breath from a long bicycle ride. “I’m not sure about it,” she said as she brought the bike inside. I looked at her, puzzled. She laughed. “I’ve been thinking of your proposal on my ride. Someone took a taxi out to tell me. If I was saying no they would have come back and told you and I wouldn’t have had to turn you down personally. That way you wouldn’t lose face. But since I’m not sure I wanted to talk with you.”

            It hit me that I had stumbled into a tradition I knew nothing about. It had never occurred to me that a proposal would have any particular flavor here: Iquitos was, after all, sort of a second home to me, and though rural in many ways, quite modern in others. I’d been plant collecting and writing about the jungle there for ten years and thought I knew all the little idiosyncrasies of the place. But this was a surprise. It was the first of several.

            I wanted to take Gilma somewhere to actually propose, but leaving was difficult. Word spread fast, and with the weather hot and the proposal taking place in a cantina, dozens of people I didn’t know suddenly materialized and I found myself being glad-handed by all of them on their way to drinking the beer I was—as custom dictated—buying. Someone had alerted Gilma’s sisters and a brother who lived in Iquitos as well, and they also appeared, apparently already in the know that she hadn’t officially said yes yet. Of course I hadn’t officially proposed yet, but that was the least of anyone’s concern.

            I finally managed to take her to a small restaurant overlooking the Amazon and asked her to marry me.

            “That is only the question,” she said. “What’s the proposal?”

            “The proposal is that I love you and will you marry me?”

            “But what do you propose? Where do you propose we will live?  How do you propose to live with a wife and two children after you have lived alone for so long? That is the proposal.”

            “Well...” I stammered. “Okay. We get married and you move to New York. In six months time the kids come up and join us. We spend time here for my work but we live in the city. As for affording a wife, I probably can’t. But there’s always enough to eat at my house, and we can clothe the children from the trash cans around town....”

            She laughed, “I accept.”

            I had no idea that hearing her say yes would make me so happy. I leapt up, let out a yell, and proposed a drink for everyone in the restaurant. Gilma cancelled the order immediately. “Bad luck. Only when you are going to propose, not after I accept.”        

            Chagrined a little by stumbling over custom, but even more by cancelling drinks for strangers after ordering them—something I had always wanted to do but never had occasion to—I told her that we had a few customs of our own back in New York, and celebrating great news with strangers was one of them. I made my offer a second time and when the half dozen or so were served I made a toast, leaving Gilma slightly stunned.

            “No one in Iquitos would ever tell perfect strangers how much they wanted to marry someone and how happy they were that they were accepted. That is very loco, man.”


            As I was returning to the states in less than two weeks I wanted to get married right away. Gilma said there would be some red tape involved and suggested instead that we wait until my next trip, a few months away. I wouldn’t hear of it. Having finally decided to marry I thought we should do it immediately. She said we could try.

            The following morning we headed out to her father, Demetrio’s, home. Enroute we stopped to buy meat and cheese, customary gifts on the occasion of asking for a daughter’s hand. Demetrio, a Peruvian whose mother was a Brazilian, had been told we were coming and was waiting for us. He greeted me with a hug and called me hijo —son—giving his blessing before I asked. After I had he opened the food we brought to formalize my request and his acceptance.

            Afterward, we headed off for coffee on Iquitos’ plaza, where Gilma said we were to meet a man who might help with the paperwork. I assumed she meant the marriage license: no such luck. We’d been seated less than ten minutes when Jorge Panduro, a slim good looking man I’d seen around town but had never met, joined us. He explained that we needed AIDS tests, certificates of birth and bachelorhood, announcements in the local papers, documents proving that Gilma’s childrens’ father was no longer living, and a host of others. In all nearly two dozen documents would be necessary. Nothing he couldn’t normally do in a month or two, but nearly impossible in the time we had. Nonetheless he agreed to help.

            Our first order of business was to get to Lima to secure a Certificate of Bachelorhood, a statement sworn and notarized before an American Consulate agent stating that I was single. It seemed like such an absurd request that I called the Consulate in Lima and asked if there really was such a thing. I was assured that without it I could not be married to a Peruvian. So we made arrangements for a flight the following day, then met up with Jorge again at Gilma’s cantina, where he itemized the papers necessary and their costs. The costs, he explained, were not for the documents themselves but to move them to the top of their various piles more quickly than normal.

            Simultaneously, her sisters began preparing the fiestas we would need to insure a successful marriage: there were several, it seemed, and while none needed to be fancy all needed to take place.

            It was all a little more than I bargained for: I thought we would just have a justice of the peace come to the cantina one day the following week, have a little ceremony and get-together with family and call it a wedding. Not in Iquitos, where family ties and distant relations all have a place in tradition, and where ancient feuds, rivalries, and debts need to be publicly settled. And marriages are one of the opportune times to mend and strengthen those old fences. I acquiesced and packed a bag for Lima.

            The Certificate of Bachelorhood was easily acquired, and we spent our two days there buying our wedding bands and clothes for us and the kids. Back in Iquitos by Friday morning, we stopped by a local clinic to have blood drawn for an AIDS test, then hurried back to the cantina to find out how Yolanda and Amelia, Gilma’s sisters, were doing with party arrangements.

            When we got there we discovered that the house painter that Gilma’s mom had hired to whitewash the cantina for the various fiestas was refusing to continue to work until someone bought him more paint. We purchased the paint, then worked with Amelia on the wedding invitations.

            The madness continued throughout Friday and Saturday. Jorge came by nearly once an hour to tell us about another chore we had to do. We had fingerprints and photographs taken, met with local generals and Police Chiefs, and had friends vouch for the genuineness of my love for Gilma.

            Beyond the insanity of the mundane, there were the offers from local brujhos—a sort of witch doctor—to make potions and cast spells to insure a happy married life. With many of the people in Iquitos only one generation away from rural river life and their traditional fears of the spirits said to inhabit both the jungle and the river waters, dependency upon those who can cast spells remains high, even among the well-educated class. So as word spread about our impending marriage we were offered several chances at letting magic lend us a hand. Among the suggested magical remedies were pusangas—potions—to keep Gilma magnetically attracted to me; spells to keep me sexually active with Gilma and impotent with other women; stones and amulets to make us forget each other’s past; charms to insure healthy children and so forth.

            As someone who has spent a lot of time in that part of the world I accept and respect their practices, and believe that much of their magic has some basis in reality, but in this case I declined the help. Our marriage was going to have to succeed or fail on its own merits. Gilma agreed. “We will make our own magic,” she said.  


            The early fiestas on Friday night and Saturday afternoon were for neighbors and distant relatives who weren’t invited to the wedding parties proper, simple affairs involving beer, chips and well-wishing. The first of the large parties occurred on Saturday night. It was the traditional despedida de saltero—the end of the single life.

            Guests began arriving just after sundown. The wide double-doors of the cantina were kept open so that neighbors and passers-by could also view the party. Chairs lined the walls of the cantina; the rest of the room was cleared to make way for dancing. Local music was piped through speakers set up both inside and out on the street, where a swarm of children danced to it. But inside, it was up to me to lead the festivities, and I was told it would be bad luck to start with Gilma. It was, after all, the end of my single life as well, and my last chance to make a play for another woman.

            I picked one of the young cousins who lived in Gilma’s house; a good choice it turns out, since had I chosen one of the adult single women it could have caused a scandal. Of course, no one having told me the rules it was simply a lucky choice.

            Once the dancing started and refreshments were served I assumed the fiesta was under way. But shortly thereafter the real festivities began. One of Gilma’s close friends, Elyse, turned off the music, took the floor and announced that Gilma and I were getting married, and she wanted to hear from anyone why we could not go through with the wedding. When no one came forward she asked for people who would testify why we should be allowed to go through with it. The custom, I was later told, has origins in the old riverine tribal life of most of the people of Iquitos. The announcement of the wedding having been made, the despedida de saltero is held where the public can see, and they are offered the chance to either halt the wedding or urge its consummation.

            In answer to Elyse’s request for testimonials a line formed and perhaps a dozen people waited their turn to speak for us. One by one they told their story of how long they’d known Gilma, and what they’d heard her say about me. Some of it was embarassingly intimate, but all of it was good. And when they were done I was urged to speak as well, and I announced to the revellers how much I loved Gilma and wanted her as a wife. I promised to try to make a good life for her and the children and hoped she would have me. Gilma accepted my proposal.

            After I spoke, Elyse announced that since no one had spoken against us, and since Gilma had accepted me in front of her family and friends, the marriage could go forward.

            At that, Elyse covered Gilma’s eyes in a piece of black material and another friend handed her a red-ribboned and very phallic capinuri root—to insure fertility in her and potency in me—to dance with while I was told to strut and crow around her like a rooster in a mating dance. The capinuri tree and the use of its roots I was told later, is an ancient jungle tradition, not only introducing the bride-to-be to the physical nature of the sexual life she is about to enter, but the extract of its bark is often used medicinally by curanderos to treat both infertility and impotency.

            The dance drew raucus response from the guests and the crowd gathered on the street. It was followed by the even more embarassing custom of drinking the leche de monje, presented by Gilma’s cousin Monica. Monica placed a chair in the middle of the room, tied a bib around Gilma’s neck, sat her on her lap like a baby and fed her a baby bottle full of an off-white liquid. Gilma drank, was burped, and drank again. The process was repeated on me, and I was told I had to drink the bottle dry. But the bottle wasn’t filled with milk, it was filled with aguar diente, a powerful sugar cane liquor, colored with a little milk and an egg. One gulp and I could see that drinking the bottle would leave me borracho, drunk. I tried to beg off, but Monica insisted I finish it for luck.   

            Like the capinuri root, the leche de monja is traditionally used by curanderos throughout the selva—jungle—in this case to encourage milk in young mothers whose breasts are dry.

            The remainder of the evening was a more traditional fiesta, with dancing and eating until the late hours. But just as we were about to leave, Gilma’s sister Amelia took her outside and put her in a motocar, a three wheeled taxi typical of Iquitos. I tried to join her but was told I couldn’t. Just as the initial dance of the evening was my last chance to back out of the wedding by showing my interest in another woman, this was to be Gilma’s last chance to ride off in the taxi and meet with any secret lover she might have, either to end it or to run off with him. If she didn’t return shortly, I would simply return to my room, knowing the engagement was off.

            She returned in just a few minutes, to a loud cheer from the remainder of the revellers. The despedida de saltero was over.


            The next day, Sunday, was spent decorating the cantina for the first of our two receptions and arranging for the food and drink for the parties. Everyone in the family ran around frantically, some to the markets, others to buy balloons and confetti, still others engaged in making the wedding cake. Jorge came around with his continual stream of paperwork, promising that all appeared finishable by the following morning, when the municipal ceremony was slated, so things looked good.

            The only cultural faux pas I made all day was suggesting that I wanted to buy dozens of roses to put up in the cantina, and a flower for Gilma to wear in her hair. Gilma was with her mom when I asked where I could buy them, and both of them looked at me horrified.

            “Real flowers?” Gilma asked.

            “Of course. Dozens of them. Where can we buy them?”

            “The graveyard,” she answered. “Flowers are only for the dead. If we have them our wedding will have bad luck.”

            She was serious, so we settled on plastic white roses for her hair and left it at that.


            The wedding day began with a spectacular sun rise on the Amazon. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter storm clouds gathered and a torrential rain poured down on Iquitos and the surrounding jungle. Gilma explained that rain on a wedding day was bad luck. I told her that in the United States rain was good luck for a wedding, which she didn’t believe for a minute. “I think you just make these things up,” she said. But when the storm broke and the sun returned she seemed cheered.

            We were having coffee at a small restaurant on the square when Jorge came rushing in: we were short one paper and the justice of the peace at the offices of the Municipalidad was not going to let the wedding proceed without it. I went to see about it while Gilma went home to get ready.

            While it was my wedding day it was just another Monday in Iquitos and the municipal offices were crowded. Jorge managed to talk us to the front of the line—the wedding was only an hour or so away—and we went in to speak with the judge. The judge, a woman of fifty, sent Jorge out to speak with me alone. I assumed I was to pay another fee and when the judge explained why the wedding couldn’t proceed I asked if there was anything that could be done about it.

            The judge grew irate. “If you are offering me a bribe, then I must tell you I do not accept them. And if you ever make that sort of offer again I will have you arrested.”

            I was stunned. I didn’t know how to respond. I thought I was simply following protocol. The judge handed me the stack of papers Jorge had given her. “You can leave now. Come back with the proper forms next week.”

            “But I’m leaving for New York in five days. I want to get married and go to Lima and try to take care of immigration....”

            “That is not my problem.”

            Nothing to do, I turned and headed for the door. Just as I got there she called. “Mr. Gorman. You love this woman?”

            I told her I did.

            “I believe you do. Come here.”

            I did as she asked. She took the papers from me, found the marriage licence, and put her seal and stamp on it. “Enjoy your wedding,” she said. “And remember, she is a Peruana. Take care of her.”

            Papers in hand I rushed to join Jorge. We barely had time to pick up Gilma and get to the marriage office. Jorge told me to relax; he had managed to reschedule the wedding for noon.

            Gilma’s house was a beehive of excitement. Guests, family, and friends were everywhere. I went upstairs and changed into my wedding clothes, with help and advice from Gilma’s boys, then met with my best man, Elyse’s fiancee, a German named Stefan. He was more nervous than I, though I was beginning to feel a little queasy myself. Not at the prospect of marrying Gilma, but at the thought of how rotten I would feel if she backed out at the last minute for some reason. I hoped she wouldn’t.

            Just then she came up the stairs to the second floor and my fears vanished. She was very beautiful in her simple dress and plastic flower headband. She smiled when she saw me. “I thought maybe you were trying to get out of this with a last minute excuse about paperwork complications.”

            I assured her I wasn’t. “Good,” she said. “Then let’s go do this crazy thing.”

            We went downstairs and headed over to the marriage office.

            There were probably nearly two hundred people gathered on the street outside. Many, if not most of them were uninvited, but Iquitos is a smallish city and a New Yorker marrying a local girl appeared to be a matter of general interest.

            The marriage office was a simple room with a long table—on which sat the official wedding books for the city—at one end. Above it, on the wall, hung the Peruvian and State of Loreto flags. Gilma and I and our witnesses, Stefan and Gilma’s friend Lucy, were instructed to take the seats behind the table. The justice of the peace entered and began the civil ceremony.

            She spoke in rapid-fire Spanish, much of which went by too fast for me to understand, though I kept my ears open for the part when I was to say “I do.” I did. Gilma did the same, and then all of us were instructed to sign the official marriage books, after which the judge wished us luck and started to leave. I called out that we hadn’t exchanged rings yet; the judge came back and asked us to exchange them.

            Stefan handed me Gilma’s and I took her left hand. A gasp went up from the assembly. I wondered what was wrong. “Dereche. Dereche,” the judge said. I knew the word but it didn’t register. I continued to try to take Gilma’s left hand but she wouldn’t give it to me. “Dereche,” the judge said again, and it finally dawned on me that she was saying “The right. The right.”

            It seemed crazy but I put the ring on Gilma’s right hand and then she did the same. The crowd applauded, we kissed. We were married.

            Outside, Lucy had a car waiting for us to take the apparently traditional drive around the city with horn blaring, while the guests returned to the cantina for the first fiesta. While we drove Gilma explained that Peruvians use the right hand because it’s easier to touch the heart with the right hand than the left. I’ve subsequently been told the real reason may have more to do with Iquitos having been an Indian slave port just a century ago and slavers branding the left hand. Others believe using the right hand may have developed as a reaction to the Conquistadores who took local women and gave them wedding bands—on their left hands—to appease the Catholic Bishops of the time.

            Our drive ended with our return to the cantina, which was festively adorned with balloons and colored paper. Over the door hung a pinada, which was opened as we passed beneath it, showering us with confetti and candy. We walked in to the Wedding March being played on a tape recorder and kissed for the crowd.

            Gilma looked around for her father, who, because of his estranged relationship with his ex-wife Lydia, was not guaranteed to attend. When she didn’t see him she shrugged. “I was hoping he would come,” she said.

            And just then he walked in, the first time he’d been in the cantina for years. The crowd hushed. He walked to the rear and sat. Someone put on a waltz and I took Gilma’s hand and began to dance. Her mother cut in in a moment, and a few minutes later her grandmother took her place. The women kept replacing one another, until I had been dancing for what seemed like twenty minutes. One of my partners, a friend of Gilma’s, explained as we danced that I was meant to be exhausted by the dance, as a sort of protective measure for the bride on her wedding night.

            Suddenly a shout went up from the guests. I turned: Gilma’s father Demetrio had taken Lydia’s hand and was asking her to dance. She refused at first, but at the urging of the crowd joined him for the waltz. Gilma, her brother, her sisters, aunts and uncles all began crying. I hadn’t realized just how estranged they were.

            When the dance finally ended there was a champagne toast and then ceviche—raw fish with lime and cilantro, the national dish of Peru—was served while dance music played.

            I was certain that things were going well, and they were, with one exception. While there was only one gift for us—which was fine, these weren’t wealthy people and most of them didn’t know me very well—at one point I saw an elderly woman take the solitary gift and start to leave with it. I wasn’t going to say anything, of course, but one of Gilma’s friends noticed me noticing the woman and came over to me.

            “She’s upset because you didn’t bring gifts,” she said. “The old custom was that the bride and groom give gifts to everyone to thank them for coming.”

            I asked if everyone was disappointed that we hadn’t supplied presents. “No. Just the old people who grew up with the tradition. The rest of us are hoping you don’t mind not having received them.”

            I assured her we didn’t.

            By mid-afternoon it was time to move the party to Gilma’s sister Yolanda’s house several blocks away. Gilma had thought it best since there would be better control at a private, fenced in home than in an open cantina.

            Fence or no, however, some crashers, including the Mayor and the Chief of Police, gained admittance in time for a lavish dinner of roast pork, yucca and potatoes, followed by a wedding cake. The music played and champagne and beer flowed. There was a second dance I had to dance with all of the women present, and then one where I was told to take the floor solo. Wherever the tradition of exhausting the groom came from, it appears to be one the Peruvians are willing to hold on to.

            By early evening we ready to make our getaway when Yolanda asked us to stay: a curandero was coming by to bless her new baby and we were to be made the godparents. Yolanda explained that though the baby had already been baptized in her church, the occasion of our wedding and the participation of a curandero were the best auspices to protect the cuerpo and tonchi, body and soul, of the child against any malevolent spirits that might accidently harm him. We agreed, and a few minutes later the curandero, Pepe Panaifo, arrived. He prepared some things in the kitchen, then came to the living room where we formed a circle around him. Gilma was given the baby to hold, and Pepe began the ceremony by speaking in an indigenous (and unidentified) language while one of Gilma’s cousins read aloud from a bible. He blessed the child with water that had been infused with herbs, then moved from the indigenous language to Latin.

            The ceremony was both simple and beautiful; Pepe blessed each part of the baby, then spoke to the six directions on his behalf, warning the malevolent spirits who hover about children that they should do no damage here. It was a microcosm of the religions of Peru; belief in both the animate spirit world of their hereditary indigenous cultures and the Catholicism of the Spanish.

            When the ceremony was over, the guests toasted Gilma and I one last time while we said our goodbyes. Then the dance music was turned on again while we slipped away to start our new life together.

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Rating: 5.00


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