The Coastal Post - November, 1996

It's A Jungle Out There


I met Jos as he worked on his canoe at Puerto Tambopata, a mud bank with, maybe, ten long freight canoes on the slow moving muddy river with the same name. Here an arroyo and a sewer join the vast spider web of water

flowing from the Andes to the Atlantic. The brown of the river is fringed with vivid green grasses and trees which are bordered by a light blue grey heat haze. An exotic burnt smell fills the air.

Two boys were diving and swimming just below a large sign forbidding swimming within three hundred meters of a sewer outfall. I suppose they could have done worse, with the regional hospital is just 500 meters downstream.

A short powerfully build man with dark skin, Jos's clothing consists of an old pair of athletic shorts and sometimes a polo shirt over one shoulder. On his chest are, hand tattooed, two snarling jaguar heads and in between,

the words "Tu y Yo" (You and Me). Born in Iquitos on the Amazon far to the north, he says he came to Madre de Dios, the eastern jungle, thirty years ago.

He has a house and a long cargo canoe with a motor, in addition to a "chacra" (small farm) up the river, so, he is fairly well off by local standards. Probably not much over thirty, I was not sure of his wife's age, but she is thin and short and her teeth are bad. They have four children who just stared at me when I spoke to them. Jos said, "Four is enough" and held up his hands, as if protecting himself from something. Then as an afterthought adds "Don't you think so?"

His small house is built overhanging the gully choked with thick tall, green grass, orange red mud and every kind of refuse. I have a hard time moving in his hut as my head is always banging into something. Jos rolls out an upright log for me and one for himself, and we sit down. There is one bare electric bulb hanging from a wire, but it is not on, and it is dark inside. I had seen a water spigot in front of the house. Jos seems proud his daughter is attending school. Three or four times he mentions she is in "el colegio."

He jumps up and hunts around for some beads he got from some Indians up river. I buy them. I ask for the name of the tribe and he says "mash copir" I write it down as best I can, and ask him if this is how it is spelled, and he looks and says "Yes," but it is obvious that he can't read.

He hauls bananas, huge sacks of charcoal, squash, rice and yucca up and down the rivers and sometimes even goes down the Madre de Dios to the Beni in Bolivia. "How long does it take," I ask. "It's quick" he says and holds up one finger. "One hour," I exclaim in disbelief. "One day there, one day back." We have different time travel frames of reference.

He has just taken me on a two hour boat ride and his wife seems very pleased that money has unexpectedly come their way.

As we drifted, Jos spoke softly, but later we had to shout over the put-put of the motor, the "pek-ee-pek-ee," a simple, powerful engine mounted directly on a seven or eight foot drive shaft so it sticks way out back at an acute angle--no gears, no clutch. The whole unit moves on a bent steel reinforcing rod, to power and steer the long canoes-very useful, very inexpensive and very noisy, but just right for the selva.

Jos asks me lots of questions, like: "How much does a kilo of meat cost in Estados Unidos?" and "Is there much selva in Estados Unidos? How big are the canoes in your country?" I take the price of a pound of hamburger and

steak and double them to give the price range of meat in kilos. I have to think a bit to answer the second. There never was much selva, or moist tropical forest, in the U.S., only in Florida and I am not sure if any is left. I tell him we have only small canoes that hold only a few people and usually aren't powered (He seemed surprised at this).

He doesn't understand why people take drugs. "In Iquitos and Pucalpa, there are lots of drugs, but not here. In Maldonado, it's either agriculture or timber. He takes me past the saw mills cutting big logs floated down the rivers. He shows me a bush with large white drooping conical flowers. "If you take the flower and dry it and chop it up and

smoke it..." (he moves his eyes back and forth and shakes his head like he's dizzy) ,"toda marijuana!" He laughs.

There is big business in tourism in Maldonado right now, but it doesn't affect the people much. The planes come in twice a day from Cuzco packed with healthy looking but grubby young Americans and Europeans with back

packs. They are taken off immediately to expensive jungle lodges up river for a "Jungle Experience."

I didn't see one Indian street seller, or one "Artesania" store in town selling folk art. The market sold only the usual junk- inexpensive, drab western style jeans and polo shirts with American logos (Jos's polo shirt said "Calvin Klein"). The westerners try to dress like the natives: the natives like westerners. It's a strange mirror image.

Jos doesn't understand wars: Iraq, Bosnia, the fighting between Peru and Ecuador. He has obviously seen these things on television. "It's peaceful here," he says. "There are immense parts of the selva that haven't ever been touched yet by humans. Anyone who wants to work and make a living, can just go in and...he moves his hand as if lighting a match..."make chakra, make agriculture." Just set fire to a small patch and plant seeds. That 's it-work, invest, take risks and reap your profit.

We pass an area where the selva had been cleared for pasture for cattle. We pass a huge brahma bull which Jos calls "ceb." I told Jos that the breed originated in India and spread to the tropics because it was resistant to heat and that the Indian Indians didn't eat them. He thought I was joking with him. I explained as best I could the Hindu belief in reincarnation and Jos began laughing. He was very amused by this-having a cow and not eating it. And, I supposed there were far too many possibilities for quick rebirth and death in Jos's world.

Going back, Jos asked me how much it cost for passage to the U.S. and if there were many police control points like at the Bolivian border. My mind suddenly blanks out in awe of the thought of Jos and his wife and four kids getting off a plane in New York, LA or New Orleans .

But then, this was exactly what has been happening everyday in Lima, Sa Paolo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Kinshasa, and yes, San Diego and Antonio, and for a second or two, I got a hint of the immensity of the transformation affecting our world.

As a well adapted inhabitant of the capitalist jungle, and one of the many well meaning, self appointed protectors of the rainforest, it is hard to see where Jos and his kind fit into this picture.

After all, Jos is the enemy...or is it me?

often far exceed the actual cost of the service.

Makes uniform the pr'ysm$'