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from the September 2015 issue

Living with the Beast


Wilfredo Inuma is the chief of an indigenous Amazonian community. But above all, he is the guardian of the lavatory. Wilfredo founded the Shipibo community of Bena Gema twelve years ago, together with 150 families fleeing the misery of the jungle. They settled in the outskirts of the city of Pucallpa, capital of the Peruvian region of Ucayali. They wanted schools for their children. And jobs. Wilfredo has worked guarding oil company facilitiess against attacks by locals. He has also picked coca leaves for the narcotraffickers, nine pounds per day in exchange for twenty eurocents. Now he makes handcrafts for tourist shops in Cuzco, none of whose buyers suspect that they have been produced some thousand miles away. Seated in front of his hut, while he designs a rattle, Wilfredo looks out onto the communal toilet.

"The lavatory is important for everything," Wilfredo explains. "With it, we get sick less, our homes are cleaner, and we even organize ourselves better. Before, in the community gatherings, some people left to take care of their needs and they didn't come back. Now they always return."

Pucallpa is located on the banks of the Ucayali, a tributary of the Amazon, the river with the largest discharge in the world. Bena Gama is found five minutes from Yarinacocha Lake. The region is green, with lots of water, and flooding is common. But only half the homes have access to a sewage system. And only one in three has basic sanitation. Old pit toilets fill the spaces between the huts, abandoned for many reasons: lack of maintenance, inundation by floodwaters, or they were so shallow that they became a refuge for snakes. The state installed a water well, but the hole isn't deep enough. The water is full of iron. It even smells of metal. It's a source of poison in the middle of the town.

Nonetheless, today there are four water tanks in the community, a filter, a recycling system, and of course, the lavatory, right between Wilfredo's house and the communal building.

"People come here from other communities to see our lavatory," the chief of Bena Gema notes proudly. "They all want one like ours. Now our goal is for each family in town to have their own."

The Eco-Gringo

"They've given me a Shipibo name. It means 'the gringo with the smelly armpits.' But I prefer they call me Bryan."

Bryan Best (bearded, long-haired, wearing a Shipibo shirt and Guante moccasins) tells me his story as we navigate the Ucayali River in a small speedboat. He speaks a unique Spanish, a mix of English and Shipibo. In his native Nebraska, Bryan was a problem child. He was so aggressive that once the head of his school had to take him down violently. In the eighties, he embraced punk music. And then he found his place in Peru. For eleven years, he's been based in San Francisco, forty minutes from Pucallpa, living like a native. And he has married an indigenous Shipibo woman.

"My wife thought I'd take her to the US," he laughs. "But I think she's now resigned to the fact that I like it here."

Bryan practices permaculture, an ecological agricultural system based on  building  practices that make use of nature while also protecting it. Its goal: the complete preservation of the environment. Bryan eats bitter cacao and granola. He smokes hand-rolled black "mapachos," soaked with aguardiente. To avoid polluting, he tucks the butts into his pocket. He even tucks my butts into his pocket.

On reaching Santa Rosita de Abujau, the entire town greets us with a band made up of four musicians. They've brought out chuchuasi to drink and have killed a hen to fete us. But the chief, Roberto Torres, apologizes for not greeting us properly:

"Forgive us for not wearing typical costumes. But they are very expensive. To knit a kushma takes four months. And they sell for one thousand soles (some $325). If we had them, we would sell them to buy shirts and pants that cost fifteen soles. And with the rest we could pay for two months of street lighting."

Roberto has seen everything pass along the river. In the eighties, the Sendero Luminoso terrorists kidnapped his two brothers, while the Peruvian Marines destroyed various nearby villages. Recently, narco-traffickers landed in Santa Rosita to carry off a neighbor. The entire town had to pull him from their clutches. On another occasion, the townsfolk stopped a launch full of drug traffickers, but it turned out that in addition to narcos, they were also police. And they swore vengeance.

The inhabitants of Santa Rosita also have subtler enemies. Illegal miners look for gold nuggets in the river. To find them, they pour mercury and other chemicals into the water, which poison the fish. Here, food is not bought in supermarkets; it is pulled straight from the water. Every poisoned fish means a sick child.

But at least in this last case, the gringo can help. Bryan's NGO, Alianza Arkana, with financial backing from the Aquae Foundation and the support of UNICEF, installs drinkable water and sanitation systems. Faithful to his philosophy, the American has designed a permaculture system for this: water is extracted from the subsoil or collected rainwater. The shower, washbasin, and sink are all the same space: strips of wood. Accustomed to the river, the Shipibos squat over it to wash. The water and residue fall in a circle of banana palms, progressively turning into compost, which will be used as fertilizer. The banana tree roots filter the soap.

Bryan has designed a perfect sanitation model with a minimal cost and has saved lives, but in Nebraska, that was difficult to understand. He has a four-year-old son, who has only been to the US once. His mother sometimes comes to visit him, although she can't stand the mosquitoes and prefers to meet up on the coast. His father has never come to Peru.

"My dad has a different lifestyle. He's worked all his life supplying computer services to telecommunication companies like AT&T or BellSouth. I guess a son like me didn't fit into his plans."

The Sponsor

I'm going to sponsor a lavatory. The community of Puerto Bethel, ten minutes from Santa Rosita by speedboat, is preparing for the grand opening. In the afternoon, Bryan and two Shipibos fuss about, perfecting details, burying tubes, and studying defects. Everything is full of expectation.

When night falls, we need to find a place to sleep. There are no hotels in Puerto Bethel. The entire town forms a mile-long line of houses parallel to the shore, the jungle an impenetrable wall behind it. The streetlights are turned on for just three hours every other day, because the gas for the generator is expensive. There is only one telephone.

One family takes us into their home, which is one of the fanciest in town because it has a sink. Our hosts give us chicken broth with coriander and noodles for dinner. And fried bananas for garnish. We drink chapu, a hot banana juice. The diet here is hearty: carbohydrates to work long hours in the fields. At the same time, it is the freshest food in the world: the chickens, fish, and vegetables come from the river or residents’ gardens. I’ve seen  everything I've eaten here when it was still living.

The problem is that there are no drains. After eating, when I have to use the bathroom, I decide to go to the lavatory I will be sponsoring. I open the front door to the house, but outside there is only darkness. To reach the lavatory, I must walk with a flashlight for fifteen-hundred feet along a path inhabited by venomous vipers called jergones.

At night, beneath the starriestsky I've seen, I listen to tales of Amazonian terrors. They tell me of the Chuyachaqui, which disguises itself as someone you know before leading you into the jungle until you get lost. You never find the way back, and eventually you go mad. There is also the pishtaco, which appears like a blinding light and makes you faint. When you lose consciousness, it steals your vital organs. But the most terrifying of all is the final advice Bryan gives me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world: 

"Before going to bed, open your mosquito netting and kill whatever you find inside it."

I don't even make it to the mosquito netting. On the wall of my bed there is a spider that's four inches long. I need to call a member of my team to kill it and, while they’re at it, to do in the cockroach beside it. What no one can kill are the mosquitoes. My tourist’s bug repellant is laughable  in the eyes of such insects. They even bite through clothing.

When at last I go to bed, I make sure that the mosquito netting doesn't have the tiniest hole. In another room, a teammate asks for help with another insect. In the most cowardly act of my life, I refuse to emerge from the mosquito netting.

Being poor is not lacking money. Being poor is having to shit between your home and that of your neighbor. It's not being able to take a step without exposing yourself to the attack of some animal or a rapist. Getting used to getting all bitten up, like a rain of humiliations, and giving thanks they're not poisonous. Taking six hours to eat breakfast, because first you need to catch it yourself and there is no electricity. Being poor is a damned hell.

But the inhabitants of Puerto Bethel never lose their smiles. From their point of view, things keep getting better. They waited eight years to get picks and shovels from the state in the eighties. Five years later, the first school opened. With the following government came the gas-powered generator for the electric lighting. An oil company used the town as their communication base for five years and left them a small dock. But Puerto Bethel's greatest point of pride is that a girl from the town has come to be a policewoman in Pucallpa.

And so, the following morning during the inauguration, the town authorities offer solemn speeches beside the Poiti Xobo, which is the Shipibo name for lavatory. The children have composed a song dedicated to their new friend. And the UNICEF coordinator offers classes in its use, explaining what the two covers are for and how to sit on it.

"Nobody wants to hear about water closets," a UNICEF representative comments. "It's not easy to get donations because nobody wants to see their name associated with human waste. Only water companies like Aquae, or some toilet paper brands, support these works. And yet, sanitation is an essential need for any human group. Without it, there is no health, not even safety."

At the end of the ceremony, standing beside a UNICEF delegate, I break a bottle of aguardiente to inaugurate the lavatory. The Shipibos give me a name in their language: Tsenan tsani, which means "the young man who keeps his promises."

It would be more correct if it were "the middle-aged guy who dares not emerge from the mosquito netting."

The Living Animal

Twenty years ago, the Amazon river, with its creamy brown water, coursed through the city of Iquitos.

Today the Itaya, a black and glistening river, passes through it.

That's how life is here. The water can barely be differentiated from the earth. Slowly, the riverbed changes course, deviating, new islands emerge or entire towns are inundated. The river is a living thing, a lazy, implacable beast.

So far this century, the monster is angry. Climate change is altering it. The "friajes,” when the temperatures drop suddenly to 18 degrees Celsius, have gone from taking place twice per year to now thirteen times each year. The population is not prepared for this cold, and the incidence of pneumonia is greater here than in the snowcapped mountains or  higher altitudes.

The river's swell, which before would last three months, has extended to six or seven, increasing the risk of flooding, and with it, the plagues of mosquitoes and health risks. What's more, nothing can be sown during these months.

To reach the district of Indiana one must sail along the Amazon River, which in some sections is over a half-mile wide. On both shores, one can see the infinite and exuberant green. And yet, these are deforested areas. Of course, there are plants and trees. But the wooden trunks have long been pillaged, and with them their fruits, and with those fruits, the insects. What's more, due to contamination, many animal species, such as manatees and paiches, have migrated to lakes and rivers further away. All of which means that there is less food.

As we continue on our journey, I wonder if there is a human way of confronting such enormous problems: weather, abandonment, poverty, global pollution.

Well, I am about to discover that there are.

There are people who manage to tame the beast.

Photo essay courtesy Santiago Barco.

Butterfly Wings

The teacher Janet Reátegui didn't want to get into politics. Her husband was a councilman, and candidate for mayor of the District of Indiana. She just supported him. But one day, he got sick. It was devastating. He was brought to Lima for treatment, and there he died.

Janet has character. When she was bringing her husband's body back to bury him in his native land, the airline told her that there wasn't space for it on the flight. They would have to send it later. Janet raised an uproar. She threatened to hold the wake right there in the airport. She went and got candles and everything. She almost went through with it. Until she managed to travel with the coffin. Perhaps because of that tenacity, upon returning home, her husband's colleagues asked her to take over his candidacy.

"The people of the district handed me a petition full of signatures asking me to enter politics," she remembers. "I didn't want to because my husband had been dead for barely eight days. I left town for two months to mourn. But upon returning, they asked me again. And it was precisely on International Women's Day: March 8. And I accepted."

It wasn't easy to be a female candidate. Machismo is solidly entrenched around her, and Janet had to face vulgar jokes during public appearances. But two years later, she won the mayoralty. And at the end of her term, she was reelected.

Indiana is a district of some 2,049 square kilometers and 15,000 inhabitants. The size of Barcelona with a population that wouldn't even fill a single grandstand of the Camp Nou sports stadium. Eight thousand of these inhabitants live dispersed among sixty-two indigenous communities. But unlike the communities of Pucallpa, here the population is organized. Janet reveals her secret:

"I tell the people: ‘Do you want water? Band together. I can't set up a water tank for a single settler. But if you all organize, that's another story. For example, if you want lavatories, gather the wood to build them yourselves. If you want electric lighting, build your houses close to one another to make installation less expensive.’"

In managing requests to ministries and the state, Janet gives priority to the communities that do their part. And it works. In the community of Sunicaó, they're preparing floating lavatories. Since the rising of the river could inundate them (and spread their contents throughout the town), they're going to put belts around them made from plastic bottles. Using, incidentally, recycled bottles. The mayor asked them to collect a thousand bottles. To date, the inhabitants have collected twenty-five thousand.

In another community, San Rafael, there are sidewalks. Just like sanitation, sidewalks are things we never think about, but which we can’t live without: they don't turn into puddles, they're comfortable and clean, and they increase the mobility of the elderly and those with disabilities. They represent the difference between a village and a slum.

San Rafael also has a butterfly farm. In addition to being a tourist attraction, it serves to measure the health of the rainforest according to the silkworms it houses. And when the butterflies eventually die, their wings are sold to make handicrafts. Bio-earrings are even made from the chrysalises, those magic jewels that one day turn into butterflies and fly away. The breeders return ten percent of the specimens to the forest, with the goal of protecting the species.

The mayor Janet Reátegui is the product of two political traditions: the left and the Catholic faith, since Indiana was founded by Franciscans. In her mayor's office there is a poster with her photograph and a prayer asking God for strength. And the local council chambers are named José Carlos Mariátegui, an homage to the founder of the Communist Party of Peru.

The result is a combination of a vocation for service and social organization, applied with pedagogic calling. In the district capital, a kind of Amazonian utopia of some four thousand inhabitants, the pier is clean, garbage is recycled, there is a local police force and electric light from six in the morning until midnight.

Indiana shows that, with the same amount of money, a community can live in misery or with dignity and in good health. The difference lies not in the budget, but in the creativity and organization of its use and disbursement. And, perhaps, a touch of magic.

The Formal Sorcerer

To look at him with his shirt tucked into his pants, his glasses, and his hairstyle with its strict side part, no one would think that Alvaro Yaicate was a sorcerer. And in fact, he doesn't like that word, either. He has his own classification:

"A sorcerer does evil things. I only do good works. The sorcerer works with the objects of people: clothing or photographs. Not me. I am a vegetalista shaman. But the people from here call us 'curiosos.'"

Like all medics, Álvaro has studied: two years with the master Egisberto Murayani and then another six with Luis Mozombique. His studies were made in secret corners of the jungle, where the masters gathered their disciples to teach them the curative properties of plants.

Perhaps our city bodies are already bewildered with aspirins, antibiotics, and antidepressants. We are probably too numbed (or too impatient) for traditional medicine. But in a world without hospitals, and with a quieter rhythm of life, plants heal. Mint flowers for toothache. Pampa oregano brewed as a tea for stomachache. Pulp of camu camu for a cold. Colored pine nuts for bruises. There are even herbs with anti-conceptive properties, and a preparation made from aguardiente and fox teeth to become pregnant. An entire pharmacy hanging from the trees. Shamans even know how to handle practical problems, such as sucking the venom from a snakebite.

"I have nothing against conventional Western medicine," Álvaro says. "I am a father. I also want a hospital for my children. But in many areas of the jungle, the nearest medical post is hours or days away by boat. In those cases, then, people come to see a shaman. Sometimes they even come to see us because they feel more comfortable with us than with the doctors with their white coats."

Álvaro's clinic (a room in his home) lacks exoticism. There are no dead animals or esoteric symbols. The only thing hanging from the walls is a calendar. It is simply a doctor's office.

A consultation costs twenty soles (six dollars) and begins with an exploration of the patient's pulse, to discover what ails them. Once the problem has been located, Álvaro places some small sea stones soaked in floral-infused water and tobacco over the area. After diagnosis, he smokes mapacho and exhales the smoke over the patient while reciting a prayer called an "icaro." There is a different one for every illness.

Many of their cures are not essentially different from Western ones. For problems of the throat and bronchioles, he prescribes honey. And in his firstaid kit he's never without an old home remedy called thymoline. They are simply low-cost natural remedies.

"Normal illnesses are easy to cure," Álvaro tells me. "What's difficult is the mal beneficiado: the evil eye put on you by a sorcerer. That is a power struggle between both parties. And it can be a long one."

Álvaro's services don’t include placing the evil eye on someone, but if you give him the name and address of the person you desire, he can make them fall in love with you. That is called "amarre." He can even manage, with the right spell, to make that person fall out of love with their partner. And if you need help in business, he offers a spell with agua de colpa, which he collects from animal caves.

For him, none of this conflicts with Western medical care. In fact, outside of his office, he works at the municipal observatory to prevent malnutrition, helping children and educating parents in healthy habits of diet and hygiene. With his help, malnutrition in Indiana has dropped nine points in three years.

We usually consider "native" versus "Western" as all-or-nothing, as if it were necessary to choose between them. "Traditional" versus "efficient." But to tame this beast, two reins are needed.

"Viviendo con el monstruo" © Santiago Roncagliolo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.

Words without Borders would like to express its thanks to the Fundación Aquae, which provided funding for the trip that led to this report.

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