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.
For 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.
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.
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.
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.