Walking Fish

Text by Paola Corini
Photographs by Luca De Santis

This is the real Amazon jungle, where pink freshwater dolphins bring unplanned pregnancies, the night speckled with the red eyes of caimans. Where the ribereños watch you go past their villages, which they have called Buenos Aires, San Francisco and Brittany. Where ‘icaro’ is the name given to the song sung or whistled by healers during ceremonies, the sound to grab onto so you don’t fall into the void. This is the Peruvian forest where the River Amazon officially begins, where everything depends on the great river.  

It owed 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 ow for another four thousand kilometres, at a rate of two hundred thousand cubic metres of fresh water emptied out into the Atlantic a second. e 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 le 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 sh 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 [1]. Yet I was sure that I would have found all the inebriating plants, all the ora 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 le, 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 sh 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. at 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 owed. 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. 

Most of my readers continued to think I was in Brazil, the odd one in Colombia. My friends were writing to me on WhatsApp –“When are you coming back from Brazil?” or “Are you back from Brazil?” –, they were showing an interest in me – “I’ve written to Miltos and they’re happy to put you up in their gorgeous house in Bogotà. He could write something for your magazine. If you don’t stop over, at least go round to say hello, you never know what might come of it.” I’d found my hiding place in a satellite image that showed an auspiciously green area, which still looked like a wood. That thirteen percent of Amazon which belongs to Peru and is an ancient flooded forest, with lakes, lagoons and streams mirroring the trees, community boats, makeshift fishermen’s camps, villages, cursed pink river dolphins and black walking fish. 

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 le 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 sh, as he must have done every day of his life for the past eighty years. We left him in the company of little, jade-green river nymphs, the sound of fish darting just below the surface and the perfect reflection of an elderly man in that jungle of mirrors. 

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. 

I spent the morning in my usual coffee shop in Miraflores, waiting for the moment to leave on my flight from Lima to Milan. I ordered a slice of chestnut, chocolate and aguaymanto cake and an icy cold carambola juice with the star-shaped fruit floating on top. It tasted vaguely of that orange-scented cologne used by the healers all over Peru as holy water and by my mother’s unmarried aunt to freshen up the marital bedroom since the day I was born and a long time before that too. 

“Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.” I had seen Nocturnal Animals just before I got to Peru and the conversation between sad Susan and her friend Carlos had been going round my head since that evening, looking for a place to be fulfilled. My present life was going by in a definitely less painful way than a lot of people’s real lives. I travelled, wrote and read about what I liked, I didn’t have any children, young or old, I lived in a house right in the centre with the lowest of rents, I was capable of loving. Yet I wasn’t convinced that such a banal truth as this was enough to see off Carlos’s reckoning. 

A banana plantation, a vegetable garden, a chicken roaming free, a canoe, a man immobile on the high river bank, a peki-peki engine going further into the reserve, a single mosquito net watching over a whole large family, sex included, a hawk, fish the circumference of tree trunks, forest fruits, little flocks of neon-feathered birds, callow women. I feared that the day would soon be here when we’d need another world because this one had gone: the forest, animals, sound of the evenings, happy isolation, small community, slowly passing time, good spirits, evil spirits. I urged the jungle boy guiding me to stay where he was, to forget the rich couples he met on the cruise ship, not to desire their painful lives. 

I remembered that before getting on the ship I had been met by a half-naked man with a fish mask intent upon a frenetic dance. The fish is a recurring figure in classical mythology. And the dolphin is more so than the rest, worshipped from the Mediterranean and Black Sea shores to the ends of the earth. One day even Apollo turned into a dolphin and that became his sacred animal. Divine and human metamorphosis fills popular folklore. At dusk, we have come to a halt at the source of the River Amazon, in the firm and powerful grip of a catapult whose prongs are the Ucayali and Marañon rivers. The chewing-gum pink dolphins swim around us in small groups, playing in the current, here more than anywhere else. In the rainforest of the Amazon basin, the natives have thousands of legends on this mysterious mammal. 

At night, the river dolphins take human form, woo the girls, follow them into the forest and seduce them. The imagination rushes to the service of reality, and so the legend served to cover up for unplanned births, first from the missionaries’ incursions into the wrong places and beds, then from incestuous relationships in microscopic villages. In any case, no woman stays too long washing her clothes on the river bank, and no man dares kill a dolphin or look them in the eye. The great river cradles my mind, crowded with fantastic beasts. 

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