Viaje a Iquitos y Pevas

If you've ever glanced at a Lonely Planet Peru book, then you know the archetypal image of Peruvian Culture, the catechrestic Andean Peasant Woman. She wears a lovely pollera or skirt, an old-fashioned hat, and two braids, her hair parted down the middle (which is COMPLICATED-- Galeano tells us in Open Veins of Latin America that the outfit, modeled after the dress of Spanish campesinos in Andalucia and the Basque State, was mandated at the end of the 18th century by Charles III... see page 47 if you have the 1997 edition in English). She is a dramatic and compelling figure, but she represents the Sierra, the central-south part of Peru. By far the largest department in the country is Loreto, the Selva or jungle, but the people who live there are often ignored both by their own government and, for better or for worse, by tourists.

Well, Rach and I have been living this year with our good friend Rosa, who is originally from Iquitos, the largest city in the Selva. As she's just finished a diploma in cultural development, we've often talked about her frustration with the lack of interest and funding for projects in the Selva. Rosa is about to head back home to spend several months working in collaboration with a group of community leaders from several towns in the Amazon Basin, the ministry of culture in Iquitos, and her employers at the Goethe Institute to discuss how to remember, value, and share cultural traditions from the region. It's a complicated project, replete with challenges specific to our old friend the nonprofit industrial complex. But, that's Rosa's story, not mine.

Suffice it to say that after talking to Rosa, I knew I wanted to visit the Selva before leaving Peru. So, Rachel and I flew to Iquitos (you can't take a bus-- it's not connected to any roads) and then took an overnight boat to Pevas, a small town just off of the Amazon River and between 6 hours and 4 days from the border with Colombia and Brazil, depending on which boat you take. There we met Rosa's soon-to-be-collaborator Santiago Yahuarcani. He, his wife Merelda, and their children welcomed us into their home and were incredible hosts for two days, showing us Pevas and a bit of the jungle, cooking delicious meals and teaching us how to make Yuca bread, and introducing us to Santiago's mother, who sang to us, sharing a bit in her native language, that of the Huitoto people. They were truly some of the most generous people I've ever met, and I'm not sure if there exists any adequate way to thank them. They're also all artists, and their home is full of their work: masks and paintings and artesania. If you're in Lima, look up their eldest son Rember Yahuarcani, who displays his work frequently here.

Then we took the fast boat up the Amazon and back to Iquitos, where we stayed with Rosa's parents, also incredibly generous and kind people. (As a side note, since I seem to have assigned myself the role of cultural promoter of all things Peruvian, both Rosa's parents and the Yahuarcani family said that they would be happy to host any friends of ours in the future, so let me know if you ever have a hankering to visit the Selva.) Iquitos is a busy city, full of mototaxistas hurtling down wide streets, ignoring any lanes that once existed. We tried aguaje ice cream, visited markets where vendors displayed baskets full of still-gasping-for-oxygen fish, sipped tragos of afrodisiacos (sweet, dark liquor), and even made a brief stop at a beach before a rainstorm forced us to duck for cover.

And all of that brings us back to Lima, where I'm now fighting off a cold, taking my last few Tai Chi classes with Ana and the circle of energy at Yuyachkani, and arranging last-minute gatherings with all of my friends here. Tomorrow is our fiesta de despedida for the whole house (minus Coqui and Pepinot, who stay, along with a whole host of German volunteers)-- Rosa's off to Iquitos, Rachel to Cuzco, and the chicos (Juanmanuel and Erick) are in search of a new roof. The theme of the party? ADIOS, EX-COMUNA; HOLA, ALBERGUE ALEMAN!

What time is it? Picture time.

On the boat to Pevas. All passengers bring their hammocks on board for the slow journey down the Amazon river. We were part of a bloc of extranjeros: the joke was, "So, a Russian, six Haitians, and two gringas get on a boat..."

Santiago, working on a mask

Merelda taught us how to make pan de yuca... yum

Martha and Santiago, the abuelitos

Rember Segundo (named after his uncle).
He was too cute to be believed.

Back in Iquitos, where there's been a bad drought this year, making transportation difficult. The rainy season has just started, and within a month the river should rise to fill this field.

One of the mansions built during the the turn-of-the-century rubber boom days in Iquitos. (Also, a lady motociclista.)

La Playa! Oh, you can tell that it's about to pour?

On tourism

Me quedan cinco dias. Five days! That's overwhelming and exciting and sad all at once. On Wednesday night I'll take a red-eye to LAX and then another flight to Seattle, arriving just in time for Christmas Eve with my family. Here in Lima, summer has finally arrived after months and months of fog and chilly humidity (yeah, it's a whole different ballgame). Nativity scenes and blue-eyed Santa Clauses have popped up on the facades of pollerias and corner stores, and the palm trees in the park in front of my house have been adorned with strings of lights and speakers that blast tinny Christmas music every night between 6 - 11 PM. It's all somewhat surreal.

Rach and I decided to squeeze in two final, quick trips (between my performance and her finals) before I head back to the States. I haven't had time to write about the trip to Cajamarca last month, so I'm playing catch-up now. Cajamarca is in the northern part of Peru, in a valley fringed by big international mining companies from the US, China, and other countries. The cityand land is gorgeous, but the mining industry is ever-present-- in the huge trucks that roar through the streets and hills, in the municipal projects that "represent new relationships between the public and private sectors" (i.e. are funded by Yanacocha). A taxi driver named Antonio took us out to the Ventanillas de Combayo, supposedly an Incan burial ground, and explained that a person working for the mining companies can earn a salary 4 or 5 times greater than, for instance, a teacher (and perhaps 8 times greater than that of a domestic worker in Lima). He says that almost every family has an uncle or a son or a father working in or for the mines, so who can protest? Well, he has a point. From my tourist's point of view, Cajamarca seems to have more wealth than other cities I've visited in Peru. It also has noticeably more old women begging for money in the plazas all day before hiking home, up to the hills, at night.

I share this because I think it's important-- for me, for other potential tourists-- to think critically about the places we visit and to examine how we contribute to unjust systems. Rachel and I have tried to be responsible tourists this year, visiting friends of friends instead of "tourist destinations" and planning our own trips instead of going through agencies in hopes of having more control of where and to whom the money goes. But tourism is a complicated and ugly beast. At Machu Picchu, for instance, the guards make barely enough money to support themselves in pricey Aguas Calientes, and they're often fired three months after they're hired, a post-Fujimori development that means that the guards never become eligible for health insurance (it's common practice in many of the supermarkets as well). We learned this from Clemente, a guard who led us up the mountain at 3 AM.

This is a longer discussion, one that I'll happily have with anyone who is thinking about visiting Peru, but I'll leave it there for the time being and just show you some lovely pictures of Cajamarca...

At the hot springs at the Banos del Inca, where Athaulpa supposedly bathed before the Spaniards killed him and ransacked the city's gold. I'm oversimplifying a lot of very complicated stories into this one little blog post, aren't I?

Las Ventanillas del Combayo... empty tombs built by the Incans. Suprisingly similiar to the above-ground tombs that you find today in cemetaries in and around Lima.

Rachel and I decided to do a day hike to Cumbe Mayo. We read that it was about 20 kilometers away from Cajamarca and thought, "20 kilometers is about 6 miles, right? No problem." We weren't worried when everyone we asked for directions warned us that it was leeeeeeejos, far away.

It turns out that 20 kilometers is actually about 12 miles, and we didn't reach Cumbe Mayo (above) until about 4 PM, two hours before sunset (I know, we should have turned back, but we were so close. Mentira.) Luckily, a bunch of hippies gave us a ride back to the city.

On our way back to Lima, we stopped for a few hours in Chimbote, where my buddy Cathleen is working as a nurse this year, to eat some early-morning combinado (cebiche and tallerines a la huancaina-- spaghetti with hot aji pepper sauce) and to reminisce over plastic cups of sweet Chimbote wine.

Another post about our second trip, to the Selva, coming later this afternoon (gotta post this stuff before I head home, because who wants to read a travel blog once the travels have ended?)...