Peruvian Amazon by Cartography
Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis
It flowed down from the Peruvian highlands, for one thousand miles, around one thousand six hundred kilometres, as far as the Amazonian plains. In correspondence to Nauta City was the point where it began to be called, quite simply, the River Amazon. There it met the Rio Marañon, another river coming from the mountains and ice, and, together, they continued to flow for another four thousand kilometres, at a rate of two hundred thousand cubic metres of fresh water emptied out into the Atlantic a second. The Rio Ucayali was a natural river, without any barriers, channels, dams or artificialities, without any human impact. A good-fortune fluid, I wanted to say, since I was interested in curanderos and medicine.
A week earlier my low-cost flight had left me at dawn at Iquitos, scarcely three hours from Lima. I hadn’t seen anything in Iquitos, like the Belen market, which he wanted to have me believe was a fetid and stinking place, an abandoned hulk of fish and rotten trunks, run-down huts, now that it was dry season in the city. He wanted to convince me that, once in the reserve, I wouldn’t miss Iquitos, just like you don’t miss the chaos of Rome in the yellow pastures of Campo Imperatore . Yet I was sure that I would have found all the inebriating plants, all the flora of Upper Amazonia that I needed for my research in Belen. And in the city in the evening I would have drunk a cool beer in some touristy veranda on the river with some local used to asking strangers questions and suggesting going to ask a shaman to prepare us some ayahuasca the morning after.
Instead he had driven for one hundred kilometres, in the direction of Nauta, and hadn’t let me see the river yet. In Nauta, to silence all of my questions about Belen, he’d taken my hand and asked me to follow him to the morning market. We sneaked through the calm crowd in single file, like children between the tall stalks of maize in August. With a handful of dollars, the river people ate the best Amazonian breakfast before school or work, a patarashca cooked on a live coal flame and a fermented drink of jungle cassava.
The air smelt sweetly of wild coriander, onion, Peruvian lemon and ají charapita. There was nothing dangerous in that place, except that aphrodisiacal scent of fresh herbs. A gift from the plants’ spirits. It seemed to me that all the local young women were trying to seduce me. I felt the rhythm of the blades of oversized knives tapping my temples as they deftly sliced into the skin of freshwater fish and broke their little bones. The women responded to my guide’s greetings and flattery in that Spanish that smoothed their coarse beauty. They didn’t lift their idle eyes from the counter. They knew they were teasing, I would have liked them to look at me. The village music was an exotic carillon to my ears, Italian panettoni with the names of unknown saints were piled up out of season in the large drug stores, at the embarcadero trailers were hurriedly unloading heavy sacks of Andean potatoes and cereals, before diving back into the flow. It was then that I noticed the Coca-Cola-coloured river, grandiose, swift, shining, peaceful. It was eleven o’clock in the morning in north-west Peru and it was starting to get really hot.
I was by myself in the village’s large straw maloca, emptied even of children – where was everyone? – when a gentle breeze, such that seemed impossible in the Amazon, woke me and I realized that I had been asleep. That book was robbing me of my dreams. We had recommenced our slow sailing upstream, following the bank of a river that was as tall and crumbly as a pale Sachertorte. Marañon and Ucayali could not be more different, just as brothers all too often are. They explained to me that technically the Ucayali was the River Amazon, due to its density, temperature and the way its waters flowed. I loved it right from the start, with its sweetness and supreme character. Instead, the Marañon seemed a stagnant soul, with an excess of mystery, suited to beings of a gloomier nature.
We paid for our friendship with a bottle of Coke, fresh from the fridge. He leaned out of his sleek canoe and grabbed it with his good hand: the other had a large cut in the thumb that had just healed, a piranha bite. We met him at the point where the water really could be called black, deep inside the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. He’s Alex’s grandfather, my guide told me, not so much because he wanted me to know, but instinctively, like when you recognize a friend from far off. We had left Alex this morning at the village school, at break time.
He was the leader of his little group of friends. They’ll have been eight years old or so. Somehow Alex had let us understand that to ask for a photo of one of the others we had to have the OK from him. Alex, a name that has been used for centuries, meaning “defender of his men”. In the end what he wanted was to pose for us too, on the school’s wooden balcony. We left Alex’s grandfather there, calm in his wooden motor boat, coming back from his fish, as he must have done every day of his life for the past eighty years.
We spent seven days and seven nights on the river. If we’d stayed a couple of years, we’d have seen Alex grow up, his grandfather letting him taste his first ayahuasca as soon as he turned ten, and the village shaman seeing that the boy had a strong temperament, that he was capable of administering the medicine’s dreams. Then Alex would have visited the city, left the village soon after, and turned his back on his chance to become the next shaman.
.... (continue on Cartography Magazine N.2)