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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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
Edited by Lola Salas
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