Cultures At-Risk

Bora Indian Dancer

Flying into Iquitos, east of the Andes and gateway to the Amazon, our Peruvian Airlines jet lands on one wheel and then the weight of the plane brings the second wheel slamming down. It seems a bit dicey to me, but no one mentions it. Perhaps they’re looking out the window at what the English would call “pissing down rain.”

And what rain it is. Perfect jungle rain – just like the Dorothy Lamour rain that you’ve seen in all the movies… the same rain that molded Dorothy’s sarong to her well-proportioned body. The rain is warm… shampoo commercial rain. Lovely.

Our guide begins with “God bless this trip for everybody.” I appreciate his concern. We shouldn’t have to worry. Our guide goes on to reassure us as to the expertise of our boat’s pilot: “He knows the river like his hand’s palm.” We are in good hands.

Taking the boat from Iquitos to Heliconia Lodge, we pass confiscated wood that has been harvested illegally. It is reassuring to know that Peru is paying attention to deforestation. The Hershey’s chocolate river teems with fresh water sardines, catfish, and piranhas. Our motorized boat sprays latte foam to the left and right. On the shore we see tankers to transport both crude and refined oil. Our guide warns us not to buy animal skins, teeth, or feathers.

Heliconia Lodge stands on stilts some two feet above the water. My fellow Ramblers have left to tour a sugar plantation. (And on their return they bring a bottle of cane-based, “seven-bark” rum guaranteed to cure anything from rheumatism to syphilis. It is also supposed to take 20 years off your life. I am not prepared to testify for its curative properties, but as we drank the rum, we did get rather loud and boisterous.)  

I am alone with Pedro, the resident Macaw. He’s a fine fellow who shouts “Hola” non-stop to those who listen and to those who would rather not. Ripening bananas hang from the lodge’s rafters. From time to time, with all the finesse of a careful shopper at the produce counter, he chooses the better of the best bananas for himself. He is free to fly away, but the treats lure him to the lodge where the living is easy.

The Amazon is running fast and the surrounding ground is flooded. The grey brown water sparkles with a silver sheen in the sun. I think of Monet’s Water Lilies… splotches of shimmering colors in constant movement.

We are completely dependent on boats for transport. The flat-bottomed boats are hand-hewn and quite a work of art. Square at the back to hold a motor if you have one. Otherwise, you will paddle with an oar shaped like a palm leaf.

Sitting behind a guide, I am impressed with his deft paddling skills. The shape of the oar gives him lots of options, and he maneuvers our five-passenger boat with dexterity around and over floating debris. The rainy season, which averages ten inches of rain a month, has just ended. Entire trees that have washed away from the river’s banks jut up out of the water

As we travel about Peru, stopping here and there at villages, we are given to questioning Eco-tourism: when is tourism exploitive and when does it honor the foreign culture? How many tourists does it take to break a culture’s back?

In an earlier blog I mentioned the sophisticated, snake-oil-sales technique of the Uros living on the reed islands of Lake Titicaca. Marketing was their game. We were exposed to their culture; they were happy to expose us; we were happy to be exposed; and money sealed the bargain to everyone’s mutual benefit.

But now we are east of the Andes, down river from Iquitos. On the way to our jungle lodge, we stopped at a native village where we were greeted by the local Bora population who don’t actually live there. Rather, this “village,” was their 9-5 workplace. They clocked in at nine; donned their costumes; put on a show; sold their handcrafts; waved good-bye, changed their clothing, and went home to cook dinner.)

The native leader was a man of distinction: he had starred in a National Geographic Special. Approaching the village, our guide said that the people in this locale used to be head hunters, but now they only shrunk people’s wallets. He also said, that some local tribesmen had gone to the city looking for work, but their general illiteracy and lack of computer skills, relegated them to village life – fishing, a bit of agriculture, and tourism.

In contrast to the Uros who are seemingly happy to have the best of both worlds (a traditional life on the lake, easy access to the city of Puno, and a steady flow of tourists), the Bora tribe that we visited was at a disadvantage. The world has moved too fast for them. They are not keeping up.

A handsome people who could have thrown themselves into the entertainment business, they were clearly unhappy dancing in traditional, fiscus bark skirts. In addition to the skirts, the women wore large collars (breast plates if you will) which hung over their bare breasts.

I loved the carved, 20-foot long, wooden anaconda. The snake was a bit convex from head to tail. Standing on the snake’s back, the men rhythmically stomped out a beat for the dancers in front of them. Cool.

Thinking that I might pay homage to the anaconda snake god (and buy myself some credit should I meet a live anaconda in the jungle) I bought earrings made of anaconda ribs. The guide teased of unintended consequences. What if the live anaconda recognized my earring ribs as those of a close relative?

In both native villages, the scenario was the same: sample the local indigenous culture and pay for the privilege by buying their handcrafts. The Uros exploit the tourists, yet the facial expressions of the Bora tribe suggested that they felt exploited.

Perhaps the attitudes are based on having options. The Uros’ proximity to Puno gives them educational and employment options, and they eagerly supplement their income with tourism. In contrast, the Bora tribe living far from any city has fewer options, and they accept tourism as a last resort. The must feel exploited.

This mulling over of cultural identity in a global world takes me back to my days teaching on the Navajo Reservation west of Gallup, New Mexico. Reservation life has changed dramatically, so I must set the time. I was teaching at the College of Ganado in 1975-76. My youngest, the only belladonna in her class was in the local, community-run school. As a result, I was quite aware of the local Chapter House debate.

At issue was how to preserve the Native American culture and at the same time adapt to the world outside the reservation. Three, parental factions were at loggerheads: some parents wanted classes taught exclusively in Navajo; other parents favored a bi-lingual approach; and another third saw learning English as the best option.

Finally it was decided: as the warring factions were nearly equally divided and each grade already had three sections, the following year parents could place their children in either a Navajo, bi-lingual, or English classroom – their choice.

As migration rocks national identities around the world, the question of accommodation is still with us. It would be nice to let the local stake-holders seek solutions within the community. Imposing solutions at a national level can only lead to anger and frustration by all parties.

I missed a National Geographic picture this morning. (We have taken to calling all the good shots – especially the ones that we have not quite captured “National Geographic shots.”) I was down along the river and a little girl, maybe seven or so, dressed in her school uniform, was paddling her small canoe upstream. The equivalent of a two-car-family here is a two-boat family. What a dramatic contrast between spoiled American children who grumble at walking to school and the small Peruvian child who paddles a small canoe upstream

Our guides have been wonderful – expertly guiding us through the jungle, pointing out medicinal plants, poisonous, mushrooms, birds, marmots, and a coral snake – thankfully dead. Dead by an ant’s bite. Apparently ants favor cold-blooded prey. We have seen the pink dolphins as well as the dreaded piranha.

I have to go. We three Westcliffe couples (Mark and Lynn Prebble and Phil and Debbie Rabinowitz and we two) met the Manu Expedition folk this evening, and I will have no Internet connectivity for another six days. We are moving on to a life without electricity. Oh Boy!

About timeout2

I have lived 100 lives. I write essays, short stories, poetry, grocery lists and notes to myself. If I am ever lost, look for a paper trail, but be careful not to trip over any books that lie scattered here and there. I am a reader. I am a reader in awe of writers. When I don't live in Westcliffe, Colorado, I live in London where I am a long-time member of Word-for-Word - Crouch End.
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