Tag Archives: Jungle

Requena

My alarm seemed to go off just as I had closed my eyes; I had gone out with Miguel and David to a club only hours before that had recently opened in Iquitos, a city near the Brazilian border in northeastern Peru. I wasn’t really feeling like dancing knowing very well that I had to wake up early the following day, although it ended up being well worth it. It wasn’t at all like the typical bars or clubs that I had known while growing up in Minnesota- this club was entirely salsa music. It had a main stage with a live band composed of three or four men and a woman who were singing, a handful of different instruments, women dancing on the stage in vibrant blue outfits, lights of every color and a huge audience covering three floors. This combination resulted to a fiery energy that pulsed throughout the club that kept everyone alive and moving. Miguel and I had been in Iquitos all week getting organized for our upcoming journey that would take us several days by boat into the Amazon. Additionally we had an opportunity to document a project with a local fish farm who is working with an indigenous community in the Amazon in an effort to help preserve the local species in their area by teaching them how to farm their own fish. We also were able to see a wildlife rehabilitation center, a zoo as well as explore some of the city which was located right on the Amazon river.

6O0A2112This is one of the manatees that I met at the animal rehabilitation center. Manatees are native to the Peruvian Amazon, however due to habitat loss, hunting as well as other factors they are rarely seen and their survival is at risk.

It was still dark out with rain steadily falling on the city. I grabbed my bags which I had packed the night before and headed out the door, down a muddy dirt street and caught a motorcar to the bus stop where I would meet up with Rony. A woman  was there waiting for me with a clipboard and list of all the passengers who would be traveling to Requena. After my name was checked I loaded my bags and boarded the small bus. Rony was there as well; we would be the only two traveling to Requena that day from Iquitos. Miguel had another assignment to work on and would meet up with us in several days time. We both headed to the back of the bus where I sat down and stared out the window. The trip to the port would take around two hours, or at least that’s what I was told.

I couldn’t believe how much I had experience in the half week that we were in Iquitos prior to leaving. One of the coolest moments happened earlier that week which started out as a trip downtown to walk the malecon, or the boardwalk that followed the river along the city. While walking the malecon I saw a young man sitting on a wooden bench with quite a few bracelets that he was selling. He had tattoos up and down his arm, gauged ears and a necklace made from chocolate brown seeds looped several times around his neck. Once I got closer I paused for a moment, and then it hit me that I knew who he was. I met him years ago while I was working on an ethnographic project along the Ecuadorian coast through my university in the US. He was traveling around South America at the time and spent a while living and working in Montañita, a small surfing city while making jewelry and fire spinning to pay for his travel expenses. While living in Ecuador in the past I spent a lot of time with a number of travelers who sold handmade jewelry in the streets during the day and played music and spun fire at night. After enough time I was right there with them, learning how to weave bracelets and necklaces as well as spinning fire in the streets. He was one of my friends who I had always hung out with, and just happened to be from Iquitos. A girl appeared at my side not long after meeting Cesar (my friend) who I had also ran into earlier that night, who I found out was his girlfriend. She started out backpacking around South America after leaving her home in Uruguay- and after meeting Cesar she decided to stay in Perú. We ended up having a wonderful evening drinking, laughing, telling stories and catching up.

I watched the landscape slowly change from buildings and houses to lush green jungle and rivers until I gave up trying to stay awake and fell asleep. I woke up once we arrived at a small port city on the river, and after grabbing my bags from underneath the bus headed straight to the boat where we boarded. The boat was large and painted white with a metal frame. It was completely enclosed, with windows on both sides that could be opened or closed- they even had curtains. There was a large door on the front with a window in its center so that it would be possible to travel during bad weather as well as another large door in the back. On top of the metal roof was an area to tie down supplies. I boarded the boat with the help of the workers who stowed my things in the back on several seats. One of the workers walked down the aisle in the center of the boat passing out food and handed me a turkey sandwich as well as a juice box of peach juice, which I was very grateful for. I would guess that the boat could seat around 30, and was quickly filling up. After everyone had boarded and several attempts were made at firing up the engines we were our way.

The river looked different than it did in Pucallpa, it was broken up more and had quite a bit of vegetation growing on the surface. The boat raced across the river faster than I had ever traveled on my previous trips in the Amazon. Tall green river cane once again filled the shoreline while the other plants bounced on the surface of the water as we passed by the shore. Occasionally I would see a houseboat on the river with three or four floors and a handful of rooms, while on top of the boats hung hammocks beneath a tin roof. We wove our way from the main river through a network of waterways moving through the submerged forest passing lily pads at least three feet in diameter. After winding our way through a narrow passage of dark water and plants we arrived back onto the main river. We stopped at several communities to pick up more passengers, each time with groups of people from the communities flooding the boat trying to sell food. We passed a large white barge traveling slowly down the river carrying a very new looking vehicle, which I was told was coming from Pucallpa. With the steady sound of the twin engines continuously going behind our boat it made it all too easy for me to once again fall back asleep.

I woke to a pier jutting out into the river; we had arrived to Requena. We unloaded our things and took a motocar down the cement streets to our hotel. For being a city that had no road leading to it I was impressed by how big that it was and the amount of motorcars that I saw. They even had cement streets and brick buildings, although the majority were wooden with tin roofs. Houses floated in the river just off shore on rafts with boats and canoes resting next to them. We dropped off everything at our hotel, which had wifi- and then left to buy some supplies that we would need for the rest of our trip over the next few weeks.

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This picture was taken on a bridge near a small port on the river. On the left are some of the floating houses.

We took about a 5-7 minute mototaxi ride through the city to a restaurant located right next to the river. I had fish, something that I would be eating quite a bit of over the next few weeks. I watched the barge arrive that we had passed on the river earlier dock on the riverbank while men began preparing to unload supplies.

Later on that day we met up with a woman who was the leader of a community in the jungle that my organization is working with. The community is working on future plans to harvest wood off of their land, however doing so in a way that won’t be detrimental to the forest by replanting trees (and only taking trees greater than a specific diameter). The community had been previously taking the wood illegally, so this was quite a change. I gave her an interview later that day and learned a little more about the community. I had an opportunity to speak with her more in depth later that day while visiting a family on one of the floating houses on the river. The houses themselves were quite impressive, supported entirely by large logs- much larger than an oil drum. Most had one room, a cooking area, and hammocks supported from the beams in the main area where everyone visited. Tin roofs covered the houses, with many rusted or bleached from years of exposure to the elements. We sat on a pile of beams stacked on the raft while several children played in the back corner of the room on the dark wooden floor. She spoke to me about how difficult that it has been for her lately with maintaining the community and keeping everything in order. Since she has been the leader there have been several occasions where she has had people try to kill her out of jealousy. Someone even paid a person 500 soles (150 USD) to put a curse on her, and since then she said that she hasn’t been well- although she has been going to treatment. It’s difficult for people to accept change, and although the rainforest continues to be torn down more and more people are fighting to protect it and educate those that live in or near the forest (especially those that now rely on the city for support) on how to use the forest without destroying it. Most of my life I’ve looked at this from an outsiders perspective, although I am starting to now understand a little of why some people look to the forest as a source of revenue. Many are very, very poor- and exotic wood can sell for a tremendous amount of money. Rather than looking at the people as being greedy or bad I’m sure that many are doing it to survive- and if done properly, it won’t destroy the forest. The method that we are educating won’t be detrimental. For every tree cut down several are planted in its place as well as only taking wood from specific regions of the forest.

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An image of one of the floating houses just off shore of Requena. 

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Another several houses further off shore.

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In this image you are able to see the size of the logs that are supporting the house. These floating houses are built in such a way that they are able to remain afloat for countless years without having issues of the raft sinking or the logs becoming waterlogged. 

I woke the next day, finished packing and left the hotel. I headed to the river with my things in the back of a motorcar, with one hand on my bright red duffel bag where I kept all of my camera gear so that it wouldn’t bounce out of the cart. I met Cesar our motorist at the river, who would be with us for the next several weeks. He had dark skin and grey hair accompanied by a big smile on his face. I accompanied him to fill the gas tanks for the boat as well as four 60 gallon blue barrels which had been filled and placed standing up in the back of the boat. It was in this moment that I realized just how much further that I would be traveling on this trip in comparison to my last adventure on the Rio Abujao. We did all of this at a floating gas station which was a good 100 yards away from land.

Cesar and I returned to shore, where he navigated the boat alongside a wooden building halfway supported by the shore and the other half on large beams in the river. On the other side of our boat was a large wooden canoe filled with people as well as their produce. A man washed several bright green papayas in the river before walking up the muddy shore. I couldn’t believe how much trash there was on the bank of the river; everywhere that I look there were wrappers, bottles, styrofoam, bags and much more- it really bothered me. We spent some time gathering supplies for the journey (a huge burlap sack filled with rice) eggs, oil, canned tuna, crackers, cookies, bottles of water and much more. I took the opportunity to run to the market across the street and picked up a quick breakfast of juanes (rice/chicken) wrapped in a leaf and cooked, it even came with a fried egg.  Rony met up with us as well as the rest of our team, and we left.

 

El Chullachaqui

 

Regardless of where one might live in the world, the further that they travel from civilization the less control that they have of their surroundings and their environment around them. If they travel far enough they are left to the mercy of a world without law, a world that governs itself entirely by the ability to survive. Since I’ve been back in South America, I’ve heard quite a few stories about the Amazon as well as people disappearing. Most of them have been about people getting lost in the forest and are never heard from again, however not long ago a friend of mine shared a story with me about the reason how some of these people become lost.

We stood on an empty sidewalk just outside of our hotel, after just returning from dinner. He began telling me about the Chullachaqui, a spirit of the forest who guards and protects it. The spirit is able to take the form of any person, and often tries to trick people into following him into the forest and then disappears, abandoning them. The only way that one is able to discern that he is a spirit and not a friend or loved one is that one of his feet will always be different, often times taking form of the foot of an animal.

He started out telling me of a man that he knows who worked with petroleum deep in the Amazon, who I will call Diego. One evening after finishing work, Diego as well as the rest of his crew left the job site to walk on a narrow path weaving through the forest back to their campsite. Javier, the man’s friend had to go to the bathroom- so he walked a short distance off of the main trail. After a few minutes of Javier not returning, Diego called his name and quickly heard a response saying that he would be right over. After a while longer of waiting Diego was getting concerned, and once again called Javier’s name- although this time there was no response. He called once again; nothing. He carefully followed Javier’s path, careful not to get lost. He was able to find the area where Javier had used the bathroom, but there was no sign of him. He thought to himself that Javier was probably playing a joke on him, and had actually cut through the forest and ran ahead. Surely he would be back at camp by the time that he returned. Diego returned to the camp and found all of the men sitting around the fire, but there was no sign of Javier. He asked the men if they had seen him; they looked at him puzzled, shocked that he was missing. They spent some time calling for Javier and did what they could to search- contacting the other camps in the area by radio to see if they had seen him, without any luck.

After five days Diego’s camp received a call from a campsite miles and miles away saying that a man, completely naked, had appeared at their campsite from the depths of the jungle. He couldn’t speak, and appeared completely delirious. He thought that just maybe it could be Javier, so he called. After explaining Javier’s physical characteristics to the man on the phone, he agreed that it did sound like Javier- so they arranged transportation to get him back to the camp. Sure enough, it was Javier. Completely unable to speak and seeming in an alternate state of mind, they contacted Javier’s parents. After they had arrived and picked him up, they admitted Javier into a mental institution. After a month, Javier’s father picked took him out of the hospital and worked with him- and before long, Javier had made a full recovery.

Time went by and Javier continued to improve.  Diego, eager to find out what exactly had happened to Javier was able to arrange a time to meet with him. After asking him what had happened the day that he disappeared when he went to use the bathroom, Javier responded by saying that he heard Diego calling his name, and responded accordingly. He then went on to explain that he saw Diego join him off of the trail, and said to him that a little ways away there was fruit that they could eat- so he followed him into the forest. After some time walking Diego completely disappeared. Nightfall had come, and Javier was now both alone and had absolutely no idea where he was. He tried to find a way back to the trail, unknowingly wandering deeper into the forest. After that that moment he had no further recollection of what had occurred.

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Returning to the river

Nightfall came far sooner than we had anticipated, leaving us still quite far from our destination. We were then left with the difficult decision to either camp on one of the sandy beaches along the river or continue on, with both having their risks. We were in prime territory for the cocleros, which are especially dangerous at night. On the other hand, navigating a river filled with jagged trees and branches (as well as piranha, caiman and probably some venomous snakes too) with nothing but a flashlight isn’t a particularly good idea either. Of the two, we decided to risk traveling by night on the river. The ride was relatively peaceful, apart from the occasional beaching on a sandbar in the middle of the river. I laid my head back on the wooden rim of the boat and watched the stars pass by high above the trees, clearly seeing both the constellation Orion as well as the Milky way galaxy. I hadn’t seen stars so bright in quite some time. I couldn’t believe where I actually was, and what I was doing. It was one of those moments where you feel like you’re living something that you only read about in books or see in movies.

DCIM100GOPROFor the first few days until the river grew it was necessary to have someone scanning the water at all times to keep an eye out for trees, shallow water and other potential problems.

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Weaving our way through the forest just as night began to engulf the land.

We arrived at the small community where we would be spending the night, parking our canoe with several others along the muddy clay shore. I was careful not be engulfed in the mud as I exited; luckily it was mostly sand and held my weight. Several boys wrestled with a squealing pig by the feet while it to escape; I figured at some point before leaving we would probably end up eating it. All of the buildings were made of rough cut lumber, arranged in a large square with a grassy center about as large as a soccer field. There were several small restaurants as well as small stores for those who needed supplies while traveling. We were lucky enough to find a man that had rooms available for rent. There were very few women present, and all the men that I saw simply stared at us without really showing any type of facial expression or greeting. I was warned earlier that this place is a little dangerous, I’m assuming because of its location and some of the people that they cater to. I wondered if anyone that I had just seen were drug traffickers or illegal miners/loggers. Our rooms were nothing more than beds enclosed by grey wooden walls with pictures of women in bikinis taped on them; the tops of each room were left open. Still, they had locks on them which I was grateful for- even though they were held in place by nothing more than nails. After a quick dinner and bathing myself with a bucket behind the building we all went to bed.

I woke early the next morning with the feeling as if bugs were biting me all under my shorts, right where the blanket was. I realized that the blanket that I had been given earlier had bed bugs in it. In a daze I threw it to the side and tried to fall back to sleep. I woke in the morning to find red bumps covering my body. I’ve had bed bugs in the past, and they will go away after about a week- but they are not fun. It was raining very hard when I first left the room, although after a short time it stopped. After a quick breakfast and restocking on drinking water we were back on the river. The rain came once again in full force, this time never letting up. Time after time we smashed into logs or beached ourselves on sandbars hiding just beneath the surface. I wore a pair of shorts assuming that I would be spending time in the water, which I wasn’t wrong about. What I hadn’t anticipated was being wet all day long. I hid underneath my rain poncho every chance that I had, trying my best to stay warm. I prayed that our boat would hold together- every time that we hit a lot I could feel it scraping and pushing against the bottom of the boat right before hitting the motor. The boat was already leaking pretty badly; in addition to the rain it made the trip miserable. After some time I dozed off, taking refuge underneath my poncho. I awoke to shouting, and through the rain saw the top of a tree jutting out from shore rapidly approaching the left side of our boat, smashing into the wooden canopy sending a log the size of my thigh into the canoe that had been covered in termites. As I had mentioned before, trees are everywhere in the river- some of the larger ones will fall laying themselves completely across the river (at the time, the river was around 80 feet wide). After throwing out the log that had fallen after the impact our motorista was able to navigate away from the tree and back onto course. Our motor which had taken countless hits from logs and sandbars eventually gave out, and after a number of attempts in trying to fix it we had to go back to our other motor which was resting in two pieces on the bow.

We arrived to our destination located about two hours away from Pucallpa, where the risk of hitting a tree in the river had vanished almost entirely with the river now being at least 150 yards wide. It was good to finally be out of the canoe and on land. After stowing away our things, we set off to see the community. It was significantly larger than the last, but still very poor. Children fished along the river with a line and hook, using a branch as their rod. I was told that it is no longer safe to eat many of the species of fish from the river because of the amount of mercury that they carry, a sad result of the gold mining further up the river. For the people here the river is everything- their drinking water, transportation, food and link to the outside world. We later met with the community to speak of our plans in helping them to gain rights to their land and establish a territory- which took place in their school, a large cement building that made a U shape around their soccer field (every community has a soccer field).  By 8pm I was almost ready for bed. Without having access to a TV, computer, my phone or even electricity it’s easy to begin living with the rise and fall of the sun. Sleeping on the floor was getting to be easy as well, much easier than keeping everything dry.

The next day I woke very early to a man shouting, and not long after that someone blasting their speakers from several blocks away. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play music that loud at 6:30am, but I quickly forgot about it. I got dressed and headed outside; everyone was already very busy. I watched as a group of men set out in a wooden canoe; two of the men being from our team. They were off to establish the boundaries of the territory for the community as I had seen several days before. I spent a little time talking to a group of children along the shore who were fascinated with my camera, while watching two women wash clothes by hand next to the river. A boy of maybe 16 or 17 carried a small, naked baby to the river- setting her on a log and rinsing her off. She was very content with the water and seemed to enjoy herself. After putting her in a hammock, he then went to swim. He was joined by a smaller boy as well as a girl of maybe 12. They swam back and forth near our canoe, racing and wrestling in the water. They climbed on top of our canoe and screamed as they pushed each other off. It was great to see them having fun, I really wanted to get in myself but wasn’t able to at the time.

I set off with my camera to take some photos and video of the community. All of the houses were supported by wooden beams at least two feet off of the ground to help protect them from the rise of the river. Some of the houses consisted of nothing more than a wooden platform on stilts with a roof- no defined rooms, and if anything two or three wooden walls while others used tarps or sheets for walls. They had their clothes strewn out across the floor or hanging from a line in their homes to dry. A group of children saw me with my camera and decided to help show me around the community. They were more than happy to share their home with me and help me get to know everyone, they also loved having their photo taken every opportunity that they were given. They brought me to a farm where they eagerly showed me a huge male turkey that lived there, with its feathers fluffed up proudly as a hen followed him around. In addition to turkeys they had chickens, dogs and cows.

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The kids and I continued our walk around town, passing by a group of fruit trees along the road growing behind the fence of a small house. They picked several oranges and a coconut and handed them to me which I was very grateful for. Soon the group of men that had left earlier on the overly packed wooden canoe returned, machetes in hand and mud covering their boots. After reuniting with my team, we ate a quick lunch of fried fish and rice and then gathered our things to leave.

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We traveled to the community “Comunidad Nativa Nueva Botana”. It was a quick ride compared to what I had grown accustomed to this past week. Of all the communities that we had previously visited, this was by far the largest. Everything was set up along one large grassy street cutting through the forest. Branching off of the road were houses, each given a cement street light. The houses were constructed the same as the communities that I had seen earlier, all on stilts and most having little more than a roof over their head. I heard over a loudspeaker held up by a tower rising high above the community the announcement of our arrival. For this community all that was necessary was to give our speech using maps and charts explaining how we planned to help them with their land. Everyone seemed to really get into it, and all who had the desire to speak were given a turn. A small chicken found its way into the building and wove its way across the wooden floor, scurrying beneath the chairs hunting for whatever bug was unfortunate enough to be spotted. A woman sitting by the door snatched it up and held it in her arms, much to the chicken’s disapproval. She lovingly fed it mosquitos whenever she killed one. I stood in the back with my camera on a tripod filming and watching everything happen. Determining the borders of a community and getting everyone to agree on them is a very big deal. Once this was finalized a map was signed after the presentation to acknowledge the validity of the territory. We then left to take a short 90 minute ride back to Pucallpa. I watched a dolphin surface before returning to the depths of the river. The same river which only yesterday was 25 feet across was now at least half a mile wide, and with the water now safe for travel we were able to relax as we returned. I watched the sun set over the river, my first sunset that I’ve been able to see in the Peruvian Amazon. We arrived to Pucallpa just as darkness began to cover the land.

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