The Coastal Post - October, 1996

Letter From La Selva Amazonica


I should have known that it would be hot in the Amazon.. I knew it intellectually, but it is different when you feel it. When it is stifling hot at 8 AM and when the sweat drips down your back like water running down a gutter.

I knew it would be like New York City in August—only more so. So why was I surprized and so unprepared? My clothes were too heavy. My bag was too heavy. Why did I bring my camera along?

To secretly learn how stupid you are is a good enough reason to travel as long, or course, as your mistakes are relatively minor. For example, the pilots of the American 757 who ran it into a cloud of Andean rocks never got a chance to profit from their mistakes.

And or course that poor young woman, from New York, Lori Berenson, who got sentenced to life in prison for assisting Peruvian terrorists, made, what I would say was a serious mistake. She is in a maximum security prison near Puno, on Lake Titicaca. I once pent five days in a "luxury hotel" on that highest of lakes, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone (well maybe the Trailside Killer).

According to the main newspaper, El Comercio, Lori may get to complete her life sentence in the US, but she will probably have to keep her mouth shut, and that may prove difficult. But you never know-geography does change people.

Here in Peru, you can appreciate how facts of geography utterly change things. Lima is 8 degrees south of the equator, but it is on the coast and the waters off the coast are usually too cold for much evaporation to form so it hardly ever rains there. A pall of clouds does form over the city most of the year cooling it considerably.

Driving from the Lima up into the Sierra for two hours takes you to where it gets bitterly cold. Drive another hundred and fifty kilometers east and you plunge down into "la selva," the jungle where it is hot, hot, hot. All three areas are in the tropics—or "The Torrid Zone" as I learned in my geography lessons—but they are very different places where different peoples, plants and animals, live different lives. A fact easy to forget from the perspective of earth sensing satellites and the rhetoric of the brotherhood of man. Things seem simple but then get complicated.

Just like what happened with my room in Pucalpa. It was hot on the top floor of the hotel, and all day there was an incessant roar of traffic. I noticed it was cooler on the lower floors and asked if I could change rooms, climb fewer stairs, get cooler and further away from traffic noise. After a couple of days, my room was changed and I went lower down on the other side-where there was different traffic noise, where the afternoon sun heated that side of the building—with no window screen! I had felt the coolness of the lower central staircase and thought it applied to the whole floor. I suffered just a little and relearned that in life, you exchange one set of problems for another.

Peru is coming out of shock from the violent insanity of the Communist insurrection which went under the name of Sendero Luminoso, and is now confronting serious problems of overpopulation, poverty and environmental degradation.

The soldiers in tanks and sand bagged emplacements with machine guns have pretty much shrunk back all around Lima, so that now, they are mainly seen around military barracks. The informal street markets which choked the sidewalks of all of the old section of the city are mostly gone, and the flop houses, porno houses and discos are being shut. Century old buildings are being restored.

A serious effort at public education in family planning is in operation, with ads in newspapers and on TV, discussions on the radio and signs on streets and in hotels and restaurants, polo shirts and even bumper stickers. This seems to be the first step in a feminist transformation of Peruvian society.

I was speaking to an MD in the lobby of my hotel and I mentioned the sign down the hall. "I put that up," she said. "We hope, that by educating men and women, we can cut down on the number of illegal abortions. All abortions are illegal in Peru, and death from illegal abortion is the leading cause of death among women." I was not able to check this out, but it seems remarkable, extreme, astonishing!

Children are everywhere in rural Peru. They play on the broken crowded sidewalks while their parents tend little shops, or display items on the ground. These children are extremely well behaved and seem loved and well cared for. One also sees children who do not seem well cared for wandering around. They look wild and unkempt and, without detracting from their humanity, move through the streets, like the stray dogs that also move silently about, on the look out for something to eat or do. My hotel in Pucalpa had so many large and small wooden statues, it seemed like an art gallery, so I asked about the artist. In this way, I met Juan Tamani, a Cocama Indian, who took me to his studio near Lake Yarinacocha. He has traveled over large parts of South America and can carve anything from wood. He is 57 and he and his wife have 11 children who are all educated and have traveled but haven't emigrated.

I asked if he was a "shipibo" and obviously this was not the right thing to say. "Shipibo is a Castillian word and has negative connotations. They are 'Chama' and I am a Cocama. I and my family speak it. He insisted that I take a copy of a grammar book of Cocama.

I visited the Cave of the Owls near Tingo Maria in the famous Huellaga River famous for coca leaf and terrorism. This is where La Selva begins. Frank my motorcycle cab driver whispered to me of the family group ahead of us, "They are Peruvian tourists! This is really good. They are not afraid to come here now! "I thought maybe I should have been more afraid of coming by land, but it was too late.

Our jam packed little bus had been stopped twice at Peruvian Army checkpoints, twice at Peruvian Marine checkpoints, twice by the National Police and once at an agricultural inspection station-looking for blighted banana shoots. Since I was the only one with a passport, I got special treatment—I got questioned more. I was politely treated, but becomes unnerving standing in the open in oven like heat where everyone else has a machine gun but you.

I hesitate to call la selva, "the rainforest" because, right now it is the dry season and, although the Peruvians are not destroying the green selva the way the Brazilians are, it is obvious that la selva's days are numbered and sooner (Brazil) or later (Venezuela, Columbia, Equador and Peru) it will be gone, just like our prairie with perhaps a few large National Parks here and there, and maybe a few Indian Reservations-probably without gambling casinos.

I met a group of clean cut looking American young men, pleasantly drinking beer in a small restaurant in Pucalpa. They really stand out among the shorter mestizo and Indian Peruvians. I asked them what they were doing here so far from home, in this unpleasant part of the world, and they laughed but didn't answer. One said "Let's just say we are Amway representatives."

What is going on is "source country interdiction": the eradication of coca bushes in small holdings. Our Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) eradicates the leaves of a potent plant grown by the poorest of the poor Peruvian campesinos, while our Department of Agriculture (DOA) subsidizes the growth, and distribution of the leaves of a potent plant rich American farmers grow. We sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, then try to wage war against the whirlwind.