This blog post is written by Jessica Karlsson, who has been working with Alianza Arkana as part of her work with one of our international partners – the Swedish nonprofit ‘Asociación Sueca Amazónica’.
A slow start
The clock hits seven in the morning, and I am ready. In the urban community of Nueva Era, where I am living with a Shipibo family, daily life has just started, kids walk to school and you can hear a neighbor washing clothes in her yard.
My host-dad in Nueva Era, Reiner Castro, tells me several times to always count my bags when I travel. One, two, three, four, five, six. Water, sleeping bag, two bags of clothes and camera. I walk up to the main street to grab a mototaxi and go to Casa Ametra where the volunteers for Alianza Arkana live.
Every one of the volunteers was ready and just as we were going to go to the harbour, of course, the sky opened up and a huge amount of water fell over us. We just had to wait until it was over and then we went away with two motorcars and one car.
On the way to the harbour our motorcar had a small problem to find the right way, and I think he was a bit ashamed when three gringos had to tell him that he was in the community of John Hawking and not in San Jose/Tushmo.
Suddenly the motorcar stopped and there was a big line of cars waiting. Another driver up ahead was struggling to find a better way to go around the mud – a constant difficulty when driving, due to dirt roads significantly outnumbering the hardly maintained pavement ones.
After the man eventually stepped aside and rested in the sideway, we continued to the harbour. Daniel, one of the volunteers, was sitting on our boat soaking wet. There was something off about him, but I could not understand what. Then, when the kids were diving trying to find his things in the muddy flood, I realised his glasses were gone! There was another man who may have had a bit too much to drink and pushed Daniel in the water: without missing a beat, a spontaneous coalition formed and the kids were looking everywhere – even a mother jumped into the water with her clothes on and looked for the glasses. That whole fluid and oddly slow scene gave me yet another reason to remind myself of how helpful people are here, even to strangers.
At the port we bought food: rice, cooked banana and majas (a large rodent from the jungle – otherwise known as agouti) and started our boat trip toward Santa Clara. We just entered Yarinacocha lake when the boat engine stopped suddenly and we were floating in the river. The weather was sunny and the guy who owned the boat took the engine and brought it back to the mainland in another boat while we were still floating. It’s amazing how this place affects you – for one hour you are waiting but when the waiting is too long, it changes from waiting to just being in some place.
As we waited for the motor to arrive, we slowly floated for 4 hours to San Jose harbour. Some of us immediately ran to the toilet, another bought a beer and yet another bought cookies for everyone. As the time passed, the people we were going to pick up from Santa Clara were waiting, doing nothing; all the idle time accelerated in them a change of mind and now they did not want to go on our trip to Nuevo Saposoa. However, as it is with many people, with enough conversing and listening, they are able to change their minds. By walking from house to house in Santa Clara, Benjamin, a man from the youth group, convinced 17 jóvenes (youths) to join us!
To come to Santa Clara’s harbour you must go through a small ‘water road’- all the time you have to watch out for the low hanging trees. Even if the trees are not dangerous, large or sharp, there may be insects and lots of stinging ants! Trees are sticking up from the water and papaya chakras (plots) are on the shore line. And, there on Santa Clara’s beach, slowly heads started to show up with the youths carrying their bags.
In the forest they had been hiding all their food, so we had to walk into the papaya chakra and grab several boxes of fresh papaya before we took off. Now the sun was starting to go down and I chose to sit in the front of the boat. I wanted to be able to see all the people travelling with us and, of course, the forest.
For me it is so interesting and fascinating here because the forests have so much diversity – in one tree you can see 40 different plants growing and many others hanging in the tree canopy. One of the jóvenes had to stand in the front with a big stick and push away all big trees that were in the way. After travelling through a small tributary we entered the bigger and oldest form of long distance transport for the people of the region – the Ucayali river. The sun had now disappeared and stars were glowing in the night. Benjamin sat on the roof with a big flashlight lighting up the waterway because there are so many big trees that are floating in the river. Soon, one boat after another started to show up behind us, which were also were being guided by their flashlights. Everywhere from far away, but clearly visible with the vast expanse of sky created by the river space, there were big thunderstorms lighting up the sky. And I have to say that it was a really profound feeling when the young people from Santa Clara started to drum on the way there with the lightning making a show for us.
When we arrived to the community of Nuevo Saposoa, the houses were surrounded by water. Here there was no electricity so the school we had as a base camp was dark. We started to sweep the floor and after 5 seconds mosquito nets started to show up around on the floor. Now it was time to use my Swedish mosquito net I had bought just for this trip. In Sweden when you hike the lightest and smallest things are best. But here when the mosquitos are so many and they are so aggressive, a small mosquito net is worthless. Pablo, the President of the youth group, was kind enough to lend me one of his mosquito nets and after bread and jam everyone was sleeping deeply….or at least we started to….In the middle of the night the thunderstorm caught up with us and Greta’s (one of my companions from Alianza Arkana) tent was soaking wet. She had to move to our tent the following nights. For me, it was perfect to have a bedmate to warm me: for her, I don’t think she was aware that she just got a snoring bedmate!
Canoe in the stream
At six o’clock many people started to wake up and after breakfast (platano and porridge) we had the first taller (workshop session). We started to give out assignments, so everyone could help with something. After that, the workshop started for real with a Zip, Zap game when you stand in a circle and have to be alert. If you get your clap you have to send a clap quickly to another person in the circle. This is a fun and energizing game!
After the game, it was time for lunch – the ones that were cooking this time went in a canoe and rowed to the house that was across the water. All the other youths cooled themselves in the streaming water that was just outside the porch. One of my favorite games was to walk upstream and then later float downstream; the currents are really strong and it was amazing how fast it went. Pablo, John and I went in a canoe and took a small trip through the area. All the places were flooded and I noticed here how different things in a society are. In Sweden the most important thing is your house, you can be building it for years and then show it to all of your friends at a dinner party. In India, you can get a loan for a nice and beautiful car that is important; but here in a small village the square area was beautiful although flooded as well. We could, for example, go over to a bench with the canoe.
Downstream Nuevo Saposoa there is a lake; and in the lake there is also a fish-farm for the people. Fruit is the food for the fish here. Pablo explained all the fruits of the forest for me and of course, I have forgotten everyone! It was really warm and beautiful – I really wished I had a camera. We saw big birds and iguanas and just being there listening to the silence made me feel so peaceful. After a while the drums from the basecamp echoed and we paddled quickly back!
Once there, one exercise was to walk around and observe each other and mimic the others’ walk. The other exercise was to tell things about yourself: your past, your present and your future. We sat in groups of three and I got the chance to know Marcos, Alianza Arkana’s Shipibo agricultural director for Santa Clara’s permaculture site. He helps the reforestation of Santa Clara and I realised when we were talking how alike we were even though we are from different places, and are vastly different ages! We had one deeply profound thing in common: we both feel an intimate connection to forests!
Another exercise was to write about your dreams for yourself in the future! Becoming chefs, professors and teachers were just a handful of the dreams!
The final exercise was to sit in groups and paint your community. Later you would draw your dreams of your society in the future. The results were amazing! All of the pictures were different and all were creative!
From Excitement to Headache
The third day, we packed all of our bags and finally went to the newly created Peruvian National Park Sierra Del Divisor. Most of the guys went in one of the boats and were so eager to go that they went before everyone else. The other boat was the girls’ boat and the adults of Santa Clara; the last was with us volunteers, food and all the luggage! In the middle of the trip, we had one or two engine problems. It turns out that we bought the wrong fuel even though we asked for the right one. We were joking a lot with the other boats that at least we have all the food if we didn’t make it!
I didn’t notice it from the start but, gradually as we came closer to the National Park the forest started to become thicker. You could even notice it in the water, which was no longer earthy red, the color of the roads, clay soil and sun. This water was dark brown! And the tree trunks started to become wider; some as big as three people holding hands around them. Marcos picked a fruit from the trees that they make honey from; and so many enormous butterflies of different shades and colours were all around us.
When we eventually arrived at the park, after travelling in the small boats for 4 hours, the heat was making everyone exhausted, and I ended up with a huge headache. For lunch we ate tacacho (balls of mashed savory bananas, onions, tomatoes), eggs and plantains! The girls were staying in the guide’s cabin and the guys were in a house next to it. Some of us went swimming in the water and the current was so strong here that we had to be near the shore the whole time! Here the sounds of the jungle were different too. In the night when you took your flashlight, you could see caiman eyes gleaming in the water and along the river’s shores. The guide and the guard in the National Park held a seminar for everyone and asked a lot of important and also hard questions. In the future, there is a chance that the newly planted forest in Santa Clara will need a forest guard.
How will the youth of Santa Clara react to this need? If there are people who are hunting illegally or, if there are just people who are uninformed about sustainable forest management and cutting down trees, what will they do, as a society, to prevent these actions?
With so many good questions and answers reverberating through our minds, all of us went to bed, exhausted from the day.
Rainforest with monkeys!
The next day, we got to enter the National Park. It was interesting to see how they are preserving and guarding the rain forest with just a small line of rope. The youth were maybe not so excited about the practical side of guarding a forest. I was struck by how little the young people from Santa Clara – despite traditionally being people of the forests – actually knew of their forest ecosystems, which is their cultural birthright due to the deforestation in their own community and the impacts of the expanding world.
They did know how to paint their ceramic pots with traditional designs, but here they got to see the resin of the tree that actually gives the black colour. Here, in the forest, you can see the trees that make the leaves that are used to make roofs, and how much hard work it actually is to carry all these leaves to make your home’s roof. In the end, I think that this was an amazing example of demonstrating and teaching how a place could provide all that is needed with its own natural and local resources. The peak of the experience for everyone was not how to build a house or how to observe a tree – the peak was to see all the small monkeys that were in the forest. This type of small monkey is called a shipi, and is connected to the name of the Shipibo people since ancestral times. The name Shipibo comes from shipi (monkey) and bo (indicating plural) – everyone got to see this specific monkey from where their name comes from.
After the walk, everyone was tired so we made our way onto the boats and returned to Nuevo Saposoa accompanied by butterflies. We just made one stop – trading gasoline for fish, turtle flesh and monkey flesh – and then returned to Saposoa and ate a delicious feast. We then bathed in the river, drank fresh coconut water straight from the shell, and relaxed.
After dinner we had an exercise where we expressed forgiveness to each other and made a mirror two by two to stare into each other’s eyes. For me this was difficult because I normally don’t look long into someone’s eyes. After a while when the laughter and giggles had settled and jokes were made, a kind of calm seriousness and appreciation took hold. The last workshop task was to sit together and make necklaces for a secret friend we had from day one of being togther. We send each other the message of friendship and then gave our secret friend hugs and kisses on the cheek. I made a bracelet too – my secret friend was called Amadeo! In the night, we all danced until late and I was amazed at how good a rhythm everybody had, whilst I, on the other hand, was in a corner listening and watching the dancing, while I sewed my Shipibo Skirt as my host-grandmother had taught me.
We had all been together for only four days – all with different experiences, all with different future dreams – but in four days we had had a great time together. I come home with hope, excitement and two important questions. What differences will there be in Santa Clara in 20 years if I were to visit then? What dreams will have become reality and what new dreams will have been born, still waiting to be realized?