Reynaldo and me living fabulously in Shipitiari.
Starting out on the wrong foot.
I didn’t exactly feel rested when my alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning. Thanks to Reynaldo’s pep talk, I decided to sleep without my earplugs, and what with the frogs, the squealing baby next door, and a mishmash of other unrecognizable jungle noises coming from all directions, I woke up every half hour. I dragged myself out of bed and plodded like a zombie to the bathroom. Since there was nowhere to rest my clothes, I laid them on top of the commode while I took a cold shower. By the time I got out, I was shivering like a leaf, and in one spastic motion managed to knock my shirt and only clean pair of underwear into the toilet. Fantastic.
Just at that moment, Reynaldo knocked on my door. Of course he chose that day to be early. I hurriedly flung the sopping wet clothing into a plastic bag I had found at the bottom of my book bag. I pulled on another shirt I had brought along and ran to open the door.
“Buenos días,” Reynaldo chirped. “Buenos días,” I parroted.
“Are you ready?” “Um, not exactly,” I mumbled. He looked off to the side. “Is this bag ready?” he asked, motioning toward my large back pack. “Yes,” I answered, figuring I could stick the rest of my stuff into my daypack. “Okay, the bus is leaving soon, so please come when you are ready,” he said, picking up my back pack and walking out the door. When he left, I frantically began to cram things into my pack and gave the room one last search before grabbing my machete and heading out the door.
I bolted to the common area expecting to see Reynaldo, but he was M.I.A. “Must’ve gone to catch the bus,” I thought, not considering the fact that I didn’t know where the bus stop was.
I darted outside and saw a man building a wall across the street. “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?” I asked in Spanish. “Si,” he nodded and pointed down the road. “¡Gracias!” I cried and bounded down the road. “Thank goodness everyone knows everyone around here,” I thought to myself. I kept rushing along, not pausing to consider if I was supposed to turn somewhere. After walking for a good five minutes I began to get worried. Leave it to me to get lost in the smallest town ever.
I saw a guy on a motorcycle across the street talking to a friend. “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?” I interrupted, trying to disguise my desperation. He smiled and pointed in the opposite direction. “He’s at the market,” he said. “Are you sure?” I questioned. He nodded. “¿En verdad? Really?” “Si, en verdad,” he laughed.
I had to make a split decision. I didn’t think Reynaldo would leave me, but then again, I didn’t think he would leave me before, and I wanted to be absolutely sure I didn’t miss that bus. “Can you take me?” I blurted out. “Si,” the man conceded and made room for me.
I leapt onto the bike and we drove… all of a few seconds. If I had been looking hard enough, I could have seen the marketplace on the horizon. I convinced myself that the motorcycle ride was still necessary- time is money after all, and thanked the man profusely before he drove away. There, casually sitting on a bench, was Reynaldo, completely oblivious to all the heartache he had caused me. “Hola, Tina. The bus is late,” he smiled. “Of course it is,” I thought.
After thirty minutes, the bus finally arrived. Thankfully, there was a lot more room than last time, and we actually had seats to sit in. All the stress of the morning dissipated as we ambled along. There seemed to be no divide between the forest and the passengers; the palm trees whipped their leaves through the windows, blessing us with water droplets that fell on our faces and shoulders. A little girl with pink bows in her hair reached out her window, grabbing at the trees to catch a handful of leaves. We drove over streams and rivers, rocks and mud, and under an emerald canopy framed by a clear blue sky.
After an hour and a half, we stopped in Shintuya, a small jungle town, to have a fish and rice breakfast. Shinutuya is at the heart of much environmental debate in the Madre de Dios region. Its leader seems willing to allow an oil company to come into the area to pump oil. The town would be paid off, but their way of life would certainly change, and since the company does not have an excellent track record, the Amazon would be impacted as well i.e. deforestation and oil leaks.
At the time, I had no idea any of this was going on, and I sat there, oblivious to the undercurrent of rising tension, silently eating my breakfast and watching some old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on television with a bunch of kids.
Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.
As we finished cleaning off our plates, a man came into the home where we were eating and spoke with Reynaldo. “Our boat is here, Tina,” Reynaldo relayed back to me. We got up, thanked the Señora of the house, and headed down to the river. It was another peke peke, not much bigger than the one we had back at the MLC. The man who spoke to Reynaldo turned out to be the driver, and there were a few more passengers waiting on the boat. I was the only woman there.
Those first three and half peaceful hours on the boat were my favorite part of the journey, riding down the river, watching the shore zip by and the birds dotting the sky. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Suddenly, the boat stalled. “Uy!” the driver exclaimed. We had hit a sand bank and the motor was rendered useless. All of the men jumped out and began to push the vehicle upstream. I motioned to join them but froze in my tracks when Reynaldo put his hands up to stop me. “No, Tina. Stay,” he commanded. I sat back down and waited for a bit, but once the water had become shallow as a kids’ pool, I couldn’t take it anymore and leapt over the side of the boat to lend a hand, much to Reynaldo’s dismay. “I can handle it, thank you very much,” I smiled, half believing it myself.
We pushed with all our might, the peke peke straining against us. When we came to deeper waters, we had a different challenge of walking upstream through the powerful current. We continued on like this for half an hour. I couldn’t fathom how some of the men were accomplishing this barefoot while I was struggling in my rubber boots, water up to my mid-thigh. Just before we came to dock, the water deepened and the captain told us to jump back on. “Oh, no,” I thought. The boat was moving quickly now and I had been pushing in the back. Within a few seconds, the boat was out of reach and I was left behind. Reynaldo shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I grumbled as I trudged my way through the murky waters to the dock.
Trees are hard to come by. Well, some of them.
It’s not easy being green.
One of the passengers on the boat was a park ranger named Manuel. Before he attended to whatever business he had in Shipitiari, he joined forces with Reynaldo, the driver, and me to look for chiwawakos. We had been planting trees as part of the reforestation program for so long that I had taken for granted where the seedlings were actually coming from. I had no idea that every time new cedros, awanos, or chiwawakos were needed, an expedition was launched to find them in their natural habitat.
Things were different in this part of Manu. Characteristic of a primary forest, the trees were huge, towering meters and meters above our heads, and unlike the jungle surrounding the MLC, the air was thick with mosquitoes. I had doused myself in insect repellant, but they didn’t seem to care, landing on me without hesitation and feasting off my blood. “Focus on the forest,” I told myself as I resisted the urge to scratch.
I caught my breath as we came upon an enormous tree that seemed to be as old as time. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked Manuel in awe. “A chiwawako,” he replied. My mouth dropped open. There we were, searching for chiwawakos and I had no idea what a grown one actually looked like. Massive. Imposing. Ancient. I wondered how long it would take for a small seedling to become the size of that giant.
Hanging out with the chiwawako tree.
After forty-five minutes or so of looking in the prime locations and finding nothing, the driver and Manuel left Reynaldo and me to continue looking. Reynaldo showed me a seedling similar to the one we were looking for and we hastened our pace to keep up with the sinking sun. We didn’t have much daylight left due to our late bus and the river road blocks.
I wasn’t yet adept at identifying the plant, so I kept getting my hopes up every time I saw a promising looking weed. Part of me felt like I was more of a burden than help to Reynaldo. He was even getting concerned about the bites accumulating on my fair skin. “Estoy bien, I’m fine,” I told him again and again, though I’m sure the expression on my face told him otherwise. As I was starting to feel sorry for myself, I noticed a bunch of tiny green leaves poking up out of the soil. It couldn’t be. The plant was far too small. “Reynaldo!” I called out. He was already far ahead. “I think I found one!”
After the first chiwawako we unearthed two more specimens. “How many do you normally find?” I asked Reynaldo. “About thirty,” he replied. “Oh,” I whispered, suddenly unimpressed with our findings and realizing why this was usually a two person job.
It had gotten too dark to see without a headlamp, so we abandoned our search. Reynaldo reminded me of someone as he gently wrapped the roots of the seedlings in banana leaves. “You’re like Johnny Appleseed,” I told him. “¿Quien?” he questioned, and I told him the tale of the kind man who loved nature and gave apple seeds to people for them to raise their own orchards.
Reynaldo aka Johnny Appleseed with a chiwawako seedling.
Shipped to Shipitiari. Be back soon.
Having aborted mission chiwawako, Reynaldo set his sights on another goal: a fish farm in Shipitiari. Reynaldo explained that we were going to visit every home in the village and meet with the families to see who would be interested in raising fish since the river itself had none to catch.
There was no need for doors or walls in Shipitiari- walls would just lock in humidity, and no one was going to steal from you anyway- so most homes had a very open floor plan. Some houses were simply straw roofs on stilts.
While they were all farmers, every family was different- some reserved and suspicious, while others were loud and outgoing. Some used plates and cutlery, while others preferred to eat off the table using just their hands. A constant was the smell of cooking fires and fresh papaya.
The locals all generously shared their yucca, fish, potatoes, and eggs- simple, hearty jungle fare. I gladly ate the food they offered me at every house. I was famished. I found that I loved chicha- fermented corn- and masato- fermented yucca. The daughters of the village brought the drinks out in clay mugs that were about as big as them.
Despite my efforts to “blend in,” I may as well have started doing the dougie, for all the stares that were being directed at me. “Blanquita! Blanquita!” I heard again and again. One family couldn’t stop laughing when I told them I had never eaten purple potatoes or papaya with seeds in it before. “Where did you find this girl?” a woman my age asked Reynaldo, throwing me a challenging glare.
The peke peke driver, Juan, his family and I got on better. I gave his little daughters some chocolate and I was deemed “ok” in their books. I’m really not a fan of papaya, but I needed something to talk about, and the family’s papaya tree caught my eye. “That’s a nice papaya tree you have there,” I told Juan. “You like papayas?” he asked. “Yes!” I said. With that he walked over to the tree, cut me down the largest papaya he could find and handed it to me. “For me?” I stared at the enormous papaya that took up my entire lap. He nodded. “Wow. Gracias,” I thanked him. I was sure someone at the MLC would appreciate it.
By a community house in Shipitiari
After a long, long day we made our way to the last family of the night. The father met with Reynaldo while I sat waiting on a stump, tired and a bit saddened. A little girl no more than five years old came out from behind me, gleefully running with a butcher knife. I began to make the most ridiculous faces I could muster up, in hopes that I could catch her eye and get her to forget about her “toy.” I made a monkey face as she flew by me. It worked. She paused, hiding the knife behind her. Apparently I survived a month in the jungle only to die at the hands of a five-year-old.
She smiled at me, revealing a perfect set of pearly whites. Oh, she was cute and she knew it. She giggled as I continued my shenanigans. She disappeared for a moment and came back knife-free. She stopped in front of me. “¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her. “Dahlia,” she whispered shyly. “Hola, Dahlia,” I said. “What’s that?” I asked in Spanish, pointing to a toy plane nearby. She picked it up and brought it to me. “Un avión,” she said. I took the toy and began to make sound effects as I rolled it across the ground. She laughed and clapped her hands and came to sit on my lap. I put my hand up for a high five. She looked at it confused. I held hers up so we could complete the hand gesture. “High five!” I said. “Sheesh, I’m so North American,” I thought, but she laughed and hit my hand again. “Tina!” Reynaldo called out. “Time to go.” I reluctantly stood up and put Dahlia back on the ground. “Adios, Dahlia. Bye bye!” I cooed, making silly faces as Reynaldo and I disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
I sent up a silent prayer into the canopy that Dahlia would stop playing with knives but never stop being happy.
Even the birds are staring me down in Shipitiari.
We slept in the empty community house at the front of the village. It was another sleepless night, but I wasn’t too worried about it since I knew that sleep would come easily back at the MLC.
Our boat left bright and early. We shared the peke peke with a couple and their two small children. The woman nimbly perched on the side of the boat, a pole in hand, staring at the horizon. She expertly navigated between the sand banks so that we only had to get out to push a few times. The sunrise colored the sky in pinks and oranges, and after a couple of hours, another color show came into view- the biggest rainbow I have ever seen.
An arco iris
By the time we got to Shintuya, our bus was there and ready to go. At the beginning, the bus was relatively empty, but as time passed, more passengers piled in, and the atmosphere became rowdier and rowdier. By the time we got to the outskirts of Salvación, there were kittens mewing from underneath a seat, an elderly woman was selling an alcoholic beverage in little bags, and the bus driver was playing music at full blast. A smiley grandma plunked down next to me and asked me to help tie a sling around her neck to hold her grandson. The baby was so big that he ended up sleeping on both of our laps. I had to be vigilant the entire ride so that the enormous papaya I’d been given didn’t roll over and smother him.
And then there was Jorge. Jorge came onto the bus and all the passengers noticeably sighed. He locked eyes with me and grinned. “Hola, blanquita,” he said as he sat down in a seat already occupied by someone else. “Peru veeeery beautiful, no?” he asked in English. “Si,” I nodded and looked out the window. “¿No entiende español?” he asked Reynaldo, wondering if I spoke Spanish. “Si, entiende,” Reynaldo said. For some reason Jorge did not accept that I spoke Spanish. “Peru veeeery beautiful,” he repeated. Then he pointed to his chest. “I am your friend.” He pointed to Reynaldo. “He is no your friend. I am your friend,” he reaffirmed. Everyone laughed. “You understand?” he asked me. I smiled and nodded. He turned to Reynaldo again. “I thought you said she speaks Spanish,” he said, even though he had been speaking to me in English. “She does,” Reynaldo said.
“It’s your stop, Jorge. The banana plantation,” someone yelled. “Mmm, that’s okay,” Jorge dismissed the idea. “I will ride around one more time.” Everyone on the bus groaned. “No, Jorge, you need to go to work,” one woman demanded. “What will all those bananas do without you?” another asked. “Aah, you are right,” Jorge acquiesced, rising from his seat. “Hasta luego, blanquita,” he crowed, turning to me. He took my hand, vigorously shook it, and exited the bus. As I looked down at the baby dozing in my lap I shook my head. There’s no place like Manu.