Sunday December 21, leaving Atalaya.
The hard part about meeting a family that takes you in as one of their own is leaving them all behind again… I always cry.
Jaime has a floating house where he guards the boats and engines of the people arriving in Atalaya. He taught me how to handle the engine and helped adding the logs to my little boat.
For now he’s looking after my most precious possession, my bicycle, which he will send me when i get to Pucallpa.
I was 100% focused leaving the city. Although it’s not so difficult handling the engine, it’s still quite new to me.
After some two hours i saw a big white sign next to the river indicating a village and headed over. It turned out to be Montevideo. No, not the capital of Uruguay. As it turns out also a small ‘caserio’ (small village) close to Atalaya.
I ended up staying for four days…
First night, there was a party to celebrate the end of the school year. It’s always pretty akward to dance while everyone is looking at the gringo, but if you look at the floor, it’s ok
After a while i was told that i was the first gringo to visit and stay there, which somehow explains the fascination for my dance moves (which are far from spectacular). This doesn’t mean people haven’t seen gringos before. Some Canadians had installed a water system here in 2010 for example.
Allan, the villagechief, was finishing his house, so i proposed him to help in return for some food. I didn’t spend a penny in those days, which was really nice after spending heaps in Atalaya.
This way i didn’t had to take advantage of their hospitality. Carlito (little Carlos) showed me around. Good guide for being 5 years old!
They found the logs too small, so helped to add some truly fat ones. (Which i didn’t think was necessary.)
Leaving the small port and looking back at my newmade friends, I realize this little boat trip is already a success. I’m so happy i went through with this! An amazing feeling of freedom also overwhelmes me. All i have to do is fire up the engine and off i go.
Next stop was going to be Nuevo Pozo. I had met Andrès, the brother of the village chief, in Atalaya and was eager to spend some time there.
I was quickly welcomed by the workers of the wood mill (who come from other villages) and invited for lunch.
The afternoon was spent drinking too much Masato (local drink from cassava which ferments over time) and listening them talking in Ashaninka. Of course people also speak Spanish and i ended up staying two nights to get a glimpse off village life here.
First night, while going to get my things from my boat, someone robbed me though. I had left my small bag with all my important things half an hour at Andres house. It being a small village where everyone knows everyone, one shouldn’t have to be careful about his belongings.
Some 30 euro were missing, but most importantly my memory cards (with the backup of all my pictures) and Spot messenger too.
I was told not to worry and promised i would have everything back in the morning.
Armando, the chief, came over in the morning with two 5 year old boys who were seen buying candy in the shop. They quickly confessed and went to get my things (which were spread all over the place). I was told they weren’t from this village.
With all my things and money recovered (just some change missing) we could move on.
They were going to clean a field, so i grabbed my machete and joined in. While learning about which plant produces something edible and which not, i was explained the concept of ‘minga’. It’s a community work for which you’re not paid. They say: “today for you, tomorrow for me”. So people make a team and together they work on eachother’s field.
After eating lunch, the afternoon is spent drinking masato.
People are poor here. Dinner is not served. Breakfast sometimes either. Instead, the cassava (called yuka here) in the masato has to do the job.
The only other white people they know, are from charity organisations. Again, I’m the first tourist here. It’s difficult to explain the concept of traveling to gain experience while not making money. Almost every family asks me for help. They aren’t shy. Even my engine is asked. It’s hard to form an answer. They understand that gifts wouldn’t help them, but agricultural development would.
In many ways, my experiences here bring me back to Congo, where i stayed in a small village for two weeks. There as well, the soil is rich, but the people are truly poor. It’s something that will keep me busy for quite some time to figure out.
At night, there’s the birthday party of one of Andrès daughters (he has 16 children with two wives. (Yes, that are many mouths to feed!)). The three year old girl burnt her bum pretty badly by falling in the hot coals used for cooking earlier that day and isn’t seen. But the party goes on anyway. There’s music fed with solar panels (project from the state) and more masato.
The mother goes round and round serving the drink. A woman which isn’t pregnant is a very rare sight here. Girls are urgently looking for a husband when they are 15. Numerous women ask me to marry their daughter, even if they aren’t born yet.
So far the glimpse of life here.
The new logs next to my boat aren’t cut right and it’s hard to go in a straight line. Luckily Don Segundo comes over with his chainsaw and fixes the problem.
After staying four days in Montevideo, i feel like traveling. It’s December 24th. I wonder where I’ll spend Christmas night?
I want to take a lunch break in Tahuarapa, but I feel welcome and decide to spent the night (Christmas eve) there.
After being invited for lunch straightaway by Elias, i go to search the village chief to present myself. My authorisation letters are carefully read, proving that I’m a tourist. I can spend the night under a roof close to the port.
The chief also asks me to go see his little niece, stating that she’s not doing well. The poor little girl has a terrible skin infection that just doesn’t go away. Her eyes are almost completely closed. She’s crying, scared of getting an injection. With her little veil, she tries to cover her face in humiliation. I quickly ask to let her get back to rest and understand the severity of the situation.
They just came back from Atalaya to get her treatment, but there was no money to buy all the medication. As she has both parents, it’s hard to understand why they aren’t able to take good care of her. But that’s not the little girl’s fault, and i give 50 soles (13 euro) to get her more help.
It´s Christmas eve, but the Catholic people tell me they don´t have money to celebrate, so nothing is going on (although i don´t think it´s about being able to party or not). I don´t really mind. I´m tired from last night birthday party, and as many people in the region, my eyes hurt a little. There’s some sort of eye disease in the area and it was unavoidable to not get it.
In the morning a man in his fourties wakes me up asking for a gallon of petrol to bring his girl to hospital. I refuse, thinking that I can´t help everyone. I also think that he´s a bad father, not even being able to save up a bit for when his child is sick. It´s not an easy matter. I´m trying to get my head around it.
I try to leave early, but as usual the people invite me to chat and have breakfast. It´s good not to be in a hurry to travel here
It´s a pretty village actually. Every wednesday everyone works together to clean the buildings and cut the grass with machetes.
Off I go. It’s Christmas day.
As a last stop before reaching Bolognesi, I end up in the community of Señor de los Milagros.
The chief lets me sleep in the community hall and over some cups of Masato, I´m told I´m the first gringo to ever enter into the village. No charity organisations, no nothing. Now that´s a pretty fascinating thing, knowing how many tourists visit Peru.
They ask me all about Belgium and are eager to share their knowledge. I like them a lot, they are really sweet people and no one asks for things. I wouldn´t know why I wouldn´t stay a bit longer?
I help out on another ´minga´, cleaning a field. There are several breaks during the work to drink masato and chat. I start learning about the history of the land (big land owners used to own everything and everybody) and they teach me several knots, among other things. As usual lunch is served afterwards with masato.
I especially appreciate talking to Don Esteban. His story is truly sad and remarkable.
As a young boy, his parents sold him to a ´patron´, one of these big land owners. He must have been around six years old. He was never allowed to study and had to work on the land. Everyone who didn´t listen, got beaten or even killed. Esteban describes it as slavery.
Police never intervened. They must have been super racist. Because if the workers (all native people), stood up to their boss, police was there to protect him.
Esteban not being able to read or write, made him unable to count his money, or try something on his own. By denying education to his workers, the boss successfully managed to own them. And he treated them as property. “Imagine how much he gained on our backs”, he tells me.
As he can´t count, he doesn´t even know how old he is. Luckily one day he was so fed up with everything that he didn´t care anymore about the threats, stood up to his boss and was able to leave.
Writing this down, I realize I was the first outsider to whom he told his story. A story that must be shared. I wished I had better journalistic skills.
I also realized that the recent colonisation occupying the land made the native people destabilize. They probably lived a good life before outsiders arrived.
I see similarities with the native people I met in Chile for example. They are told they are worth less, that they are uncivilised and bit by bit their identity, culture and knowledge dissapears.
Then when they regain their freedom (I´m told as these patrones died), they probably don´t really know from where to pick up their lives again.
Suddenly it makes sense to take a break whenever you want while working to chat to your friends and relatives while sharing masato.
I hope to find more information about the subject, but I´m afraid the cruelty that occured here was never recorded or talked about.
A couple of hours more and I make it to Bolognesi, the only bigger village between Atalaya and Pucallpa.
I try to stay just one day in this small town, cause there’s not much to do apart from spending money.
I meet Joaquin, originally from Ecuador, who moved to the Peruvian jungle as a young boy when his father took part in the ‘rubber boom’ between 1880 and 1918, extracting latex from numerous trees.
Joaquin later became one of these ‘patrones’. He tells me my journey is very dangerous and that the ‘wild’ native people will kill me. He goes on: “three times they tried to kill me”.
But who will try to kill someone without that person having harmed you in the first place?
Meanwhile we talk, there are some native Ashaninka people asking for work. The disrespectful way he threats them, makes me slowly realize that I’m looking at a bit of a devil.
Later i learn more about this rubber boom. Mestizo people (descendants of the Spanish) and foreigners came to inhabit the jungle to extract rubber. In order to have the sufficient workforce, these ‘caucheros’ armed and recruited the native Shipibos in this area to capture and enslave other native groups. Thousands were displaced, many killed.
I’m sure Joaquin had one hell of an example.