Life in the Woods, Peruvian Style! Part 5


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South America » Peru » Ucayali
October 17th 2010
Published: December 4th 2010
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After staying in the logging camp for two weeks longer than I had expected, it was past time for me to return to Pucallpa, or at least somewhere I could e-mail my parents or the university from. Luckily, the opportunity came for me to travel down river with Ireny´s family. From them I got an invaluable glimpse into the lives of rural, selva-inhabiting Peruvians, and my heart was touched by their concepts of family.

The adventure started again with the trip back from our logging camp to the ¨last stop¨ camp on the río Nishia, where there was the big field and various fruit trees. I walked with Ácido, which definitely helped to alleviate the waring effects of a five hour hike in substantial sunny heat with a mighty backpack. We stopped to drink and splash around in as many creeks as possible.

On that note I would like to mention that I did not treat my water on this jounrey. And now, as I write this almost a month later, I feel absolutely fine about that. I was following the customs of my hosts, but I had also run out of my chlorine water-treatment drops pretty soon after departing from Pucallpa. Whoops! And also on the water note, the folks I was with in the camp taught me their custom of bathing, which was basically soaping us and rinsing off straight into the small creek where we also drew are drinking water. I am not all about this, but I figured for the sake of getting along with folks and also for the sake of immersion I would give it a go. And, I think for the most part, it worked out ok. I was and continue to be healthy. Yay!

Anyway, Ácido and I got through the jungle fine, without being robbed by Shapishikus (dark forest spirits that put on the face of your loved ones and steal you away for evermore into the deep, scary forest!). The only trauma I experienced was the after-effects of insect bites that left me reminiscent of the time I had scabies. Ew, all around. (But everone needs to eat, right?) Ácido and I made an alternatively very kind and very sad farewell, and I was left to get used to the idea of returning to the city in just a matter of days.

As Ireny´s parents were taking a day in the monte to search and cut Bilhao leaves (a big, waxy leaf used as a wrapper for juanes, a favorite street food in the selva region), and two of her brothers that had come along were hunting for meat to bring home, and Ireny was hanging out for a last night in the camp with her little son (her parents had brought 6-year-old Cirilo along for the trip); Dorkas and I had the camp to ourselves the whole day. Dorkas is with Miguel, who is Ireny´s 19-year-old brother. She is giggly and sweet (and cooks up some mean rice and beans), but I was surprised when she told me she had been with Miguel for three years, and she is only 15 now. Well, that´s the edges of my culture rubbing up against regular life here.

The night was a strange one, simply in the sense of how a family who is decidedly poor and rural interracts with someone perceived as a tourist to the jungle (me). As is typical, they gave me the rundown of each and every white person that they knew or had met, and (less expected) asked me if my country was next to Holland. The exception ws Cirilo. He immediately started calling me Tía, addressing me informally, bringing me wild cucumbers, and having tickling matches with me. Yay! I tried my best to be gracious and kind to Ireny´s parents, as they would be taking me backdown the river out of the goodness of their hearts, and I ate the roasted monkey they fed me with a smile.

In the night there was a fierce lightning strorm and the hardest rain and thunder of my life. BOOM! We awoke to a grey but calm sky, packed up the peki-peki, and made our way down the still shallow and windy Nishia. It was very slow and we made frequent stops, not only due to the grasses that kept getting stuck in the motor´s propellers, but also the engine ceased functioning all together at times. Ireny´s brother Fredy, the 22-year-old self-identified mechanic (with a whole bunch of stick-and-poke tattoos), hammered away at certain bits, tied bits of metal to other bits of metal, and (a couple of times) just seemed to be banging on the motor in general. Eventually, we got rolling again, the water got deeper, and we only stopped voluntarily to fell an aguaje tree. The fruits are delicious when cooked, and the spines of the leaves are used to make implements like brooms.

It was a long journey. Up river, with the madereros, it had taken two days to reach the field-and-fruit-tree camp from Doce de Mayo, and we were returning in just one day. This entailed peki-peki-ing through the night. After using the last hours of daylight for the brothers to shoot some geese, a mind-blowing sunset fell over the wide-open waters of the precoursors to the Río Tamaya. The stars began to shine in earnest, the moon set, and Ireny´s mom (a totally baddass woman who dons her rubber boots and frequents the forest with the toughest of dudes) asked me to sing to them. So I sang songs from my community, almost all in English. Pretty much until I couldn´t think of more. The ride was that long.

We made a pit-stop for Dorkas to pick up her little chicken from her parent´s house in an up-river community, and I had a big reality check as I once again realized that I was a foreigner here in Peru. Even in the twilight a group of young folks at the dock of Dorkas´ community started up the typical, ¨Hello! Hey Baby! I love you!¨ and so on. It is somewhat disheartening that this is the only English that folks would bother to learn, and I am usually used to laughing it off. This time, however, I was reminded that not everyone would treat me as kindly as the loggers had in the month that we had gotten to know one another, or as respectfully as Ireny´s family hadin just the last couple of days. It was kind of a downer to realize that from now on I would go back to being ¨that gringa¨ to folks who didn´t know me.

As we continued on back to Doce de Mayo, I watched shooting stars, more plentiful and brighter than I had ever seen in my life, and thought about how different the experience in the woods had been from what I thought it might be. Eventually, we reached Lago Imiria, and with everything dark in Junin Pablo (across the waters) due to apower outage. However, this posed absolutely no problem for Don Miguel, Ireny´s father, as he could probably navigate to and from Doce de Mayo in his sleep. And here I will just take moment to acknoweldge the incredible teamwork, dynamicism, and love that was evident between family members in the simple act of driving the boat.

As we pulled into the shore on the family´s property, we were greeted by quite the hullaballo. (Ireny is the oldest (at 27) of 8 children. She has 7 younger brothers, and, at 14, her little sister Everly is the youngest. Again, my culture rubbed against the unfeasability of this. I guess this is another way that Graziella, the mother of the 8 kids, is a spectacular baddass.) So, as we pulled the peki-peki onto the mud, the whooping and shouting of what seemed like a small militia of boys surrounded us. We unloaded our stuff, and walked a couple of minutes from the water to the house.

I am now laughing at the spectacle of this night. When Graziella wasn´t yelling at the kids or the dogs, the boys were shouting over one another. If it wasn´t the dogs barking incessantly, it was the floorboards of their tambos smacking and creaking. Or little kids crying, or the sounds of grown men wrestling. However, I impressed myself and managed to take a nap before our very late night dinner.

This night was special, as I learned about how different families can be. For example, my family is four people: my mother, father, sister and I. We have a couple of cats and live in a house big enough that we don´t use all the space. However, the Valles family lives two parents, eight children, five or six grandkids, an uncle and his three sons in a small tambo with a loft, plus the four dogs, two pigs, and plethora of chickens scurrying around beneath the house. Family togetherness is valued more than independance, and nobody has plans to move out. Miguel and Dorkas live in mostly-constructed house next-door. And pretty much all of them were around, leaving only sometimes to go work in the madera or in chakras.

The night was filled with this commotion, and also reviewing the legal papers sent to Ireny and her parents. Her ex-partner, somewhat bitter over the fact she had walked off with their three kids, was necessitating that she and her parents travel to Masisea for a legal hearing. Of course, all of the brothers had to chime in and tell her what to do. So the noise continued into the night until, mysteriously, everyone went to bed at the same time, the one light went out, and things became eerily silent. Wierd!

The next morning we got everything ready to go to Masisea. We crossed Lago Imiria for Junin Pablo to buy a couple of things, and then waited at Ireny´s house for the colletictive boat. This type of collective was decidely low-tech. Rather than a banana boat, it was a peki-peki with cargo, and a total of sixteen people. Sixteen people!!! On the way down river were: Ireny, her mother, father, her six year-old-son Cirilo, four-year-old daughter Mari, two-year-old son Jakron, her younger brother David, her cousin Jason, her neices Almedra and Casey who had no one esle to take care of them, two Shipibo women travelling down river, and the two boat drivers. It was a tight squeeze.

Unrighteously, we left at midday and ended up travelling in pretty wicked sun and heat. We were seen off by the horde of brothers, and I said a silent goodbye to Doce de Mayo, realizing I would soon be back to the big city. The boat ride was fairly surreal after the sun set, as it was back to the twinkly luciernagas and shooting stars over the Tamaya. At a certain point in time, all of the kids started falling asleep, and Ireny, her mother, and I formed a big cuddle-puddle with them in the middle of the peki-peki. Then I explained to them the etymology of cuddle puddle was, which was fairly hilarious. I couldn´t sleep, so instead watched the Southern Cross and a whole slew of other stars pivot and slide across the sky as we twisted and turned on the winding river and continued through the night. I get high off of beautiful stars, and did indeed spend a proportionate amount of time giggling rather than sleeping.

At one in the morning we arrived at a far-flung port of Masisea. This is a good-sized town, but, due to low-water levels we needed to walk about forty-five minutes to actually reach the inhabited part. I slung two-year-old Almedra over my backpack, and we got to walking. Graziella´s niece lives in Masisea, and we set up our beds (or hammock, in my case) there and got some nice sleep before the early morning cacaphony of chickens and motortaxis.

I had a good time talking to the thirteen-year-old daughter of our hosts, Alexandra, despite the fact she asked me if I wore lipstick (definitely not) and that she was giving me a staredown like she had never seen a white person before. But a very sweet staredown. Ireny, her kids, her parents, and I then made the walk to the courthouse, where I sat patiently outside until it was almost done and they only needed to sign papers. Eveything came out ok and Ireny would keep the kids. We gave one another a very loving hug, and made a sweet farewell before I walked backed to Alexandra´s house to get my things, then took a mototaxi to the dry-season port, about fifteen minutes outside of town.

In the port, it dawned on me how much my Spanish had improved in my time with the loggers. In the conversations I had with random folks while looking for a collective boat back to Pucallpa, they were quick to tell me that they thought it was fairly extreme (baddass, dare I say?) that I was in the monte for a whole month. I boarded a collective boat back to the city, half-filled with platanos and with only a family of Shipibos as the other passengers. We neared the city, and one of the captains was so all about me that I didn´t even pay for the ride.

I spent a good portion of this last boat ride tinking about how natural and smooth it had felt to be in the woods, with the madereros, and beginning to miss them. When we docked in Pucallpa, and the mania of the port, the shoutings of ¨gringa¨, and the frenzy of mototaxi drivers trying to rip me off assaulted my senses, I began to miss the camp in vain. Thus began a period of reflection and reintegration, and of course gratitude for the whole experience.

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