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The Amazonia Experience

In a recent journey to Peru an American traveler had a memorable experience with the Shipibo indigenous group in Limonjema, near the city of Pucallpa.  Although he spent a few days there, the contact with people who organize their lives under the beliefs of their ancient culture, had an amazing impact on his life.


Furry boughs and mirrored canals surrounding Limonjema


Manuela chewing on sugar cane at camp in Limonjema


Dave dwarfed amongst field of sugar cane


Amazonian flower dangling colorfully


Susnset by the Ucayali river




 Photos and note by Dave Knieter

Long after the colonialist Conquistadors conquered, and the Catholics so unceremoniously installed a new religion (mass conversion in the 1950‘s and 1960‘s), there remains an indigenous Indian people named the Shipibo.  They reside in the Peruvian Amazon, oftentimes a short canoe or peque-peque ride from the burgeoning and populous jungle city of Pucallpa.  The Shibipo, most famous for their embroideries and the ceremonial vision inducing drug called Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis Caapri), arguably live in third world squalor, caught between procuring ancient traditions and encroaching modernity. Manuela, my travel companion, and I discovered these people in the impoverished village of Limonjema; a proud village, pregnant with life and color, like the trees which invariably bestow haunting numbers of fruit and medicine.

 Conscious that an organized tour to a designated Indian destination might indirectly exploit the natives, we followed the recommendation of a curandero (shaman) whom we visited in Pucallpa.  He explained that Limonjema would guarantee a true encounter with the agricultural, spear fishing, bardering Shipibo, and that Limonjema rarely received visitors. In reality, Limonjema hadn't seen a gringo for three years.  Perfect.

.After a two hour ride through the rain in a peque-peque, a banana shaped boat with a motor, we arrived in the moist hot drizzle laze of Limonjema.  Villagers slowly roused from their hammocks and from behind mosquito netting, and greeted us with both curiosity and awe.  Toting our heavy ruck-sacks, we walked through the village: huts without walls raised on weathered planks so as to protect themselves from the delugeable Ucayali River, a telephone box, an ancient well that was the villages‘ only water supply, skinny chickens pecking at cornels of uncooked corn (choclo) or insects, streams of black ants marching up into the jungle canopy, clouds of pernicious mosquitos, lizards scampering about to camouflage themselves from prey and their nightmarish predators, and countless trees and plants harboring pucay, coco, platano (bananas), papaya, and more earthly delights. 

 The locals, brown-skinned with inquisitive eyes, followed us to the end of the village, where there were large patches of sweet sugar cane (caña de azucar).  They slowly corralled us, the children barefooted wearing dirty rags, the men bare-chested with black jungle boots, the women's hands and hair stained black from grinding plants for traditional hair dye, and nearly all equipped with machetes.  Willer, a Spanish speaking curandero, invited us to camp beside his hut for the evening.  Naturally intimidated by our new setting and duly ignorant, we declined his offer.  Instead, we camped at the end of the village beside the sugar cane  fields.  Absolute hell ensued, and deservedly so.  We undoubtedly offended him.  Nefarious purple-legged mosquitos pierced through the tent and terrorized us like greedy little vampires.

 In the morning, fetid, sweaty, and itchy, we were greeted by two elderly woman clad in bright shirts, squatting down bare-footed  before the entrance to our tent.  One animatedly described in her native tongue that someone had an infection of some kind.  She promptly showed us her flat left breast.  She wanted medicine for something unknown to us, as did Willer who had something called White Eye and his son who suffered from a skin disorder spreading over the top of his head.  The day we departed, I applied Neosporin onto his head while the grandmother held back his hair. I wanted to cry.

 Behind the recently departed women whom were investigating and poking our tent, we saw two boys with machetes dexterously peeling the outer layers of sugar cane -caña de azucar- (the males are so remarkably gifted with the machete that I would unhesitant entrust them to shave my beard) and they soon gave us two long sweet pieces. In return, we cut up a camote (sweet potato) and split into six, for the elderly women had rejoined us, enjoyed in comfortable silence .

 Soon afterwards, the inevitable winter rain pelted down, hastening the soft fertile earth to slimy mud.  Choclo laid out evenly on the ground to dry was suddenly victimized.  The villagers instantaneously began to tackle the ground and scoop their food up with plastic cylinders and we immediately followed, sprawling on all fours while depositing the choclo  into large burlap sacks.  Then the rain quickly subsided.  Everyone was wearing mud suits and laughing under the sun when a young girl gave us a plate of warm fried bananas (platanos fritos).  I began to think that the further one escapes from "society", the closer one invariably comes to unearthing humaneness.

 Willer invited us to sleep beside his hut again, saying that in the morning he would take us into the surrounding jungle.  We accepted.  In the morning we canoed through a labyrinth of mirrored, crocodile canals, spotting perspiring purple flowers, medicinal trees, and acrobatic monkeys leaping from vine to branch amongst the creaking trees and gregarious toucans.  A spear fisher gently paddled before us in a tangle of scraggly branches grazing the apron-smooth water.  Everything was enveloped in green.  There was a soporific din, a perceptible effluence of infinite wonder and life secreting uncontrollably out of every crevice from the terrifying yet beautiful landscape.  I did not want to leave.

 Sadly enough, we had to go.  They made us promise to return and then the procession of gifts unraveled.  In exchange for money, food, and medicine, we were given necklaces made from dyed plant seeds, embroidered cloth, and perhaps the most shocking gift of all - a ceremonial baptism.  Dipping their fingers into bowls of water, the elderly women wet their black index fingers and pressed them to our foreheads.  I inwardly cringed.  The Shipibo had truly adopted Western beliefs. 

 We walked solemnly to the river, facing a swollen orange sun spilling its pulp behind the horizon. To our backs were the Shipibos, nestled in a somnolent green blanket of beatitude, whom simply just welcomed two gringos to take part in their unguarded everyday lives.  They allowed us to enter an undocumented village, one unquestionably off the beaten path.  Despite an increasing dependency on modernity, the Shipibo are beautifully human, instinctively giving, and poised with immeasurable perseverance and grace.  They are a proud people pregnant with life and color, like the palm trees they unconsciously imitate.

By Dave Knieter
Travel Report
Edited by Lola Salas
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