Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Power of Place, People, and Tongue

This journey seems to be very much about recognizing and appreciating the power of place. Yes, there are "papitos" or spirits who live in mountains and other regions and they have an effect on us.

I came back to Cusco from the Pongo and Quillabamba feeling changed once again. I'm not quite sure what the spirits of the Pongo whispered to me when we crossed through it, but they certainly said something.

Or maybe I am just getting old and finally developing the tranquility and peace that comes with age. I seem to want to be a different kind of warrior now, not one that causes more war and conflict in the world, but fights for its transcendance.

One woman in the journey said she didn't want to talk to me about the Camisea gas project because so many journalists had come to her village asking questions and she was tired of it.

Though I have always respected this position in theory I have to admit I was annoyed that she was applying it directly to me, who am after all such a fantastically good person.

So this little pinprick of annoyance stayed with me throughout the trip, especially when I found myself sitting near this woman. A little current of invisible hostility began to grow between us, and I fell right into it.

At the same time, I recognized that I had to thank this woman for being who she was and giving me a chance to look at how quickly my own invisible hostility sprang up. It's easy enough to talk about peace and enlightenment when everyone is being nice to you.

So Añay, hermana. Thank you.

Here's what I learned to say in Machiguenga on this trip: Anomi. Tiarapipaita. Bekimba Egge.

Which means, "Hi, what's your name. Cheers."

For some reason I found Machiguenga easier to roll off the tongue than Quechua. Quechua is a language of rocks and mountains. Machiguenga is a language of the river.

But I guess we need them both.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hounded by Ancestors

Those hordes of you who are reading this (ha!) are probably wondering why I write so much about indigenous people, and what my own background is.

I grew up being half-Jewish in a white middle class Gentile neighborhood. That already gave me a divided identity, and a habit of not really belonging anywhere.

I also grew up being hounded by invisible Indians. They'd show up in dreams and my waking life. You know how much more open little kids are to invisible people. These weren't fantasy Disney Indians, either. These were some angry Indians who kept insisting they had something to tell me.

So, like a lot of "white" people whose families have early pioneer roots on this continent, I decided to do the genealogical research to find out if any of these invisible people were ancestors. I found several cousins of the same family branch who said the family had Indian blood, or that such and such an ancestor was Indian. You know the story, I think it's a common one on this continent, where at a certain point in history Indian ancestry was hidden or vanished in white families, just as the attempt was made to physically vanish Indians from the continent.

There is of course the "wannabe" phenomena, with all sorts of white people looking for their hidden Indian great-great-great, and the question I've always asked myself is whether on some collective or metaphorical level this is not some form of white guilt trying to replace the "vanished" Indian.

But on some level, it is still is a shout from the ancestors.

In my own case, I didn't find anything "on the rolls", but when I asked my dreams to tell me the truth of the matter, one of the invisible people, a woman, came into my dreams and handed me a piece of paper that said "Kickapoo" on it. Maybe she handed me a piece of paper because she thought that I, being a writer, would take her more seriously that way.

I knew only vaguely of the Kickapoo, didn't know where they were from, but when I looked them up turns out my ancestors lived in that region. (Illinois.) Fine, I said the morning after, but th is is only a dream, I want something I can put my hands on. That same day a friend said, out of nowhere, "open your hand" and put a white arrowhead in it. "I found it in Illinois," he said.

This is why when people ask about my ancestry I say Jewish-German-French- English ScotsIrish and Kickapoo.

It's a helluva combination, a combination of enemies warring within my own blood, which no doubt has contributed to the length of time it has taken me to find some kind of internal peace, as well as an obession with bridge building between people on a world level.

Reclaiming the Native piece of my ancestry filled an important gap in me. It was as if, until then, some part of me had been silenced, a part that deserved to be given voice. Probably why I am here in the South trying to facilitating the unheard voices of Native people.

As basically a person from a white, Northern culture, I don't claim to always get it right. But I'll keep trying.

Nor do I claim to have any special knowledge of Native people just because dreams and cousins say there is Native blood in the family, although I do believe your blood can speak to you across the generations. But in attempting to bridge and understand the cultural mix inside me, I hope to create similar bridges in the world.

And my ancestors--all of them--will keep bugging me to get the job done right.

Crossing the Pongo de Mainique

The Pongo de Mainique is a dramatically beautiful spot on the Urubamba river, with tall waterfalls, a rapid current, and spirits in the mountainous rocks by the side of the river who are said to give information to healers who pass through here.

The Machiguenga believe this is the place you go when you die. If you have lived a good life, your spirit goes on to the good waters. If you are bad, you go, essentially, to the waters of hell. Everybody gets a chance to come back again, as an animal, and then as a human.

I crossed the pongo with a group of Machiguenga and other people who were travelling to attend a meeting in Sivankoreni. We all bowed our heads and prayed to the spirits so that our asses wouldn't crash on the rocks.

I guess they heard us, because we arrived safely in Sivankoreni, about six hours away from Ivachote.

There was a lot of talking and the usual local political tug of wars at the meeting. I met some great people, and plan to visit the Lower Urubamba again.

The community has a giant tv screen and pretty modern community center. So there we were in the middle of the jungle, a whole bunch of us, watching big screen wrestling.

Outside, the women cooked in an iron pot over an open fire and washed their hands in the rain.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

If You Don't Like It, Burn It

Turns out that some of the voters in several precincts of the regional elections in Peru were unhappy with the results. So they took the votes they didn't like, ripped them up, or burned them in huge bonfires in the city center, like in Paucartambo.

Some news commentators suggested this was another tactic of intimidation..that the losers hired the people in the crowds to make a fuss, and therefore nullify the results.

In the largely Aymaran district of Puno, Humala's far more militant brother Antauro won. I've read Antauro's newspaper and interviewed his etnocacerista followers. Most of them are really into their Indian roots. But one guy told me they also admired Hitler. "He did for the German race what we are trying to do for the descendants of the Incans here." Everyone in the office, a small group of about ten, nodded their heads. And the Jews? I asked. "Oh well, Hitler had to do what he did because the Jews were controlling the economy."

I see, I said, trying my keep my impartial journalist face from slipping.

Actually, there are parallels between the Incan descendants and the Germans post World War I. The lost empire, a sense of humiliation. Etcetera, etcetera. A dangerous combination, as the etnocaceristas have shown.

How quickly we stupid humans forget our own errors.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Great Moments in Journalism

Still in Quillabamba. I expected to spend just a few days here, since I'd been told in Cusco that it was rainy season here and impossible to travel by boat to the interior.

But what do they know in Cusco? Apparantly not enough, because everyone here tells me the river, and the famous Pongo de Manique waterfall, is still passable. So I'll be going there tomorrow, and visiting some Machiguenga communities.

So what have I been doing, in this high jungle town of heat and flowers?

Lots of nothing. Some interviews. Ex presidential candidate Ollanta Humala came to town and people swarmed around him with beaming faces, mostly campesinos. He was much more likeable in person than in his newspaper photos. I guess that says something about how he was portrayed in the media. So I took a few pictures on my own, and he made a point of reaching over and giving me some large pats on the back and a big smile. I'm not sure if he was doing this because I seemed to be the only media person welcoming him, or because I am the only gringa in town.

Being the only gringa in town is actually somewhat refreshing, after the Cusco deluge of tourists and the constant flow of vendors and other folks trying to wheedle nonexistent money out of me. This town is large enough so that people pretty much leave me alone, don't necessarily want to know what I'm doing here, though the little kids and even some of the adolescents stare at me like I was an extraterrestrial.

Until Sunday, the town was blooming with political banners, chants and speeches by loudspeaker, truckloads of youngmen yelling political slogans as they drove through town. Now the regional and municipal elections have seems more than anything that Peruvians voted for change. Hardly any incumbents were re-elected.

I've had to wait for various things to happen here in Quillabamba in order to continue with the articles I'm writing, and most of them didn't happen. People I was supposed to talk to never showed up, etcetera etcetera. Working freelance in South America, at least the kind of stories I do, is very different than working in an office in the States, where you can get so much information by just picking up the phone. Here, even local phone calls are relatively expensive, and in some places, there are no phones. So you go there.

But some of the best stuff that has happened to me--and the most amusing--has been stuff that never got into any of the articles. Like the time, just a few weeks ago, when I was introduced to a leader of an indigenous organization in Puerto Maldonado who I was going to interview and as I went to shake his hand my pen went flying out of my hand right into his eye. Ouch.

If I had been able to say something in English, I could have attempted something cute like "Heh, Heh, let's have a stab at this interview now, shall we?"

But in Spanish all I was able to muster was a dumb apologetic laugh and "Wow, great first impression, huh?"

At any rate, of all the people I spoke to in that particular organization, he is the one who is still sends me emails and wants to know how I'm doing. I guess he was impressed with my aim.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

From Quillabamba

I seem to be living too hard and fast these days to do as much blogging as I thought I'd be doing. Since my last entry, I attended the continental indigenous conference in Bolivia, then came back to Cusco, where I got together with friends to try one more time to say goodbye to Cusco. The big joke everyone has is "Are you really leaving this time?" And I say, "Yes." And then something comes up to keep me in the Cusco area.

This time it's my desire to visit the region where the Camisea gas project is. Lots has already been written on this project, which has been filled with disaster from the very beginning...badly constructed pipes, ruptures, negative effects on environment. What hasn't been written about much are the social effects on indigenous people here of the project, or the "hush money" that seems to get liberally spread around to local politicians, journalists. and other leaders..and of course is difficult to prove. So I'll say it here in this blog, in the event that I can't say it in a forthcoming article.

The other thing I will say is that I don't understand why the majority of internet cafes in Latin America are also trying to be discoteques, with, like the one I'm in now, blaring hip hop or reggaeton music. Another reason why I don't blog much...I think I'm too old or too Northern to think straight with so much noise.


Friday, September 15, 2006

From Pilcopata: Hello Kitty

Jaguars and tigers here in the jungle are like bears in Alaska. Everybody has a story.

Walking back to town from my campsite, I met a woman who had hiked five hours from her community, Guadeloupe. She said there was a tiger, black and red and white, that was killing cows in her community.

One day she saw it, facing her about six feet away on the road.

"Hello Mr. Kitty," she said. " Pretty Mr.Kitty."

The tiger stared back.

They faced each other for about a half an hour, she said. It may have only been five minutes, but I'm sure to her it seemed like a half an hour.

Eventually Mr. Kitty turned around and sauntered down the road in front of the woman for about another half an hour, she walking a respectful distance behind him. Finally he ran off.

Bravery is like that. Ordinary. Staring into the unknown moment and speaking to it in a voice that may hold fear, but also tenderness and strength.

And maybe just a little bit of bullshit.

I understood the woman's encounter with the tiger because I had had a similar one with a rattlesnake that had risen to meet me on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, California.

I admired the woman and her bravery. I will probably never meet her on the road again, but her tiger story will always walk with me.

Sleeping With The Jaguar

Near the town of Pilcopata, Peru, I slept for four nights alone in a tent in the jungle.

By day, I watched bugs drill holes in the ground to catch other bugs, chased butterflies with my camera, swam in the river. At night, I fell asleep listening to the symphony of frogs, crickets, and the occasional caw-caw-caw of a bird calling in the dark.

Down by the river, I found some tracks that were distinctively feline in appearance, and bigger than a cat´s. Still, they didn't look all THAT big, so I didn't think too much about it. They simply looked like they belonged there, just as I for the moment belonged in the tent above the river.

After I returned to the village of Pilcopata, people told me about the jaguar that had been roaming the area I had been sleeping in. It had killed seven goats, and surprised a fisherman at night by the river.

I don´t know if the tracks I saw belonged to the jaguar, or one of its cousins. But I was glad that the people in the village told me this story after my four days and nights alone in the jungle. The human word is powerful, perhaps more powerful than jaguar tracks. If I had listened to the story beforehand, I might have lay awake at night and let fear interfere with the noises in the night. Instead, we simply left each other alone, I in my place and he in his.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Salvation and Back

Out of Cusco, into the jungle with bugs the size of your hand flapping and sizzling against flimsy screen doors, orange and blue butterflies flocked in small crowds on the banks of the river, waterfalls, lush and bountiful plant life, sun rising in the morning through the trees as I bathe in the river, a beautiful 12 year old Machigenga girl named Juana with her nose pierced with the traditional red bead and her stiff grey schoolgirl uniform, standing shyly outside my tent, wanting to talk in the way that you talk when you are both in the jungle, silently, watching the miracle of it all, bugs, trees, water, earth, light, listening.

Yes one of the jungle towns is actually called Salvacion, and nobody seems to know why. Some say it¡s because a group of people were almost lost in the river and then miraculously saved, some say it's because of a local plant colloquially called Salvacion. At any rate, it's a pretty little town, quiet and calm.

Nearby is the Aramkbut community of Shintuya, where I spoke to some of the community leaders and watched a group of energetic boys and girls play a tough game of barefoot soccer on a grassy field. People in this area are nervous about petroleum development, which is planned for the area of the Native reserve and some of the surrounding region. The company proposing this development--Hunt Oil--does not have a great reputation in Peru, being one of the companies involved in the disastrous Camisea project further north. And the older folks complain that none of the younger people want to learn the Native languages. A grandfather and grandmother talked of a time fifty years ago, when whole families were wiped out by smallpox brought by contact with the outside world.

It used to be, the old man said, that fish were bountiful here, but not any more. Logging and mining have taken care of that. He's a skinny bright eyed man with a wealth of memories and a nagging pain in his chest.

For lunch, I ate macaroni soup with his family, then fell asleep in the humid heat of the afternoon. In the morning, there were no eggs in town, so I ate bananas, rice and papaya at the home of another neighbor, Victoria. She proudly told me of the time just a few months back when the entire community of Shintuya tore town a sign that the government had put on their land saying "Manu National Park." "We are not a national park, we are a community," she said.

The government wanted to put the entire community, all 250 people, in jail for their "vandalism", but the community won, and now the sign is gone.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Israel, Lebanon and the Jews

It's hard not to be shaken by what is happening in Israel and Lebanon, no matter where you are.

What has impressed me is the widening rift between both sides. Even most of the Israeli left is supporting the war in Lebanon, while the entire world reacts in horror to photos and stories of civilian carnage in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hizbollah is being seen as a heroic force by an increasing number of people in the Arab world.

This widening rift was captured for me by two articles. One from a self proclaimed "cappucino drinking Yuppie" in Lebanon who now considers himself a terrorist because of Israel's bombing, and one about a woman who opposed Israel's first Lebanon war but supports this one, because basically, the world, historically, doesn't give a damn about Jews and therefore Israel's only recourse is to aggressively defend itself. Both sides feel that they have no choice but to pursue war.

I support Israel's right to defend itself, but think its choice of military strategy in this war has been both morally and strategically wrong. What's the point of "destroying" Hizbollah if you create a thousand other Hizbollahs in Arab states throughout the mideast?

With this current strategy, and the civilian deaths it is causing, Israel is only providing more ammunition for world outrage. And the world has been quick to blame Israel, and Jews--for all the world's ills.

Here in the Andes, I have found anti-semitism to be thick, and nearly impossible to argue with.
We're not talking anti-zionism, or disagreement with Israeli policies. We're talking old fashioned statements about Jews controlling the world and its finances and Jews being too secretive and refusing to help dying Christians on the Sabbath. .One guy even told me he didn't blame the US for any of its policies because it was really the Jews who were controlling things. He even swore up and down that the problem with George Bush was that he was really Jewish.

Some of these statements have come from locals, others from European tourists.

This is the part I have a problem with when it comes to criticism of Israel or of Israelis. Despite the egregious acts committed in various countries by my own government, most people are quick to separate the American government from the American people. Yet people will actually try to convince me I'm wrong when I point out that Jews in both Israel and the United States have widely different opinions about Palestine. People here seem to feel that they know more about Jews than I do, even though I am a bonafide Jew being Jewish on my mother's side and many of them have only seen Jews in the cartoons waved at street demonstrations or published in newspapers. Because to many I don't "look Jewish" (whatever that means) I have the dubious privilege of listening to all sorts of anti-semitic comments.

Okay so I'm ranting again. I'm ranting because in truth, the entire situation in the middle east fills me with horror and despair, and at times I wish it were simpler and I wish I could jump on the finger pointing bandwagon like so many people on the left who seem to feel that all the world's ills would disappear if Israel would just politely pack up its bags and cease existing, or the people on the right who are convinced its all an Islamofacist plot.

The threads of the current situation in Lebanon are far deeper and more tangled than many of us want to own up to. There are historical reasons for Israeli paranoia and aggression that many Europeans seem to conveniently forget when they start waving their Star of David equals Swastika flags, or make blithe comments like one leftist American friend who said "all the Israelis should just be shipped to New York". (Kind of like the Iranian presidents remark that Israel should be moved to Europe.) And Israelis and Arabs both, blinded by their own historical and ancestral wounds, can only lash out against the other side, in the mistaken belief that by destroying the other, they will have destroyed their enemy.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

With the Q'ero: Emptiness and Laughter

After having talked about it for awhile, I finally hauled myself up the mountains to visit the Q'ero, a remote and traditional nation that live in stone huts at 17,000 feet high. Until the 1950's, the Q'ero were pretty much left alone, except for the criollo hacenderos, or land-owners, who somehow managed to find them, give them Spanish names, cut their hair, and of course, put them to work in less than favorable conditions. The story that I had heard until my visit was that the Q'ero were the "Last of the Incas", untouched by "modern" civilization, but it's not clear to me just how remote they were if the hacenderos managed to get to them.

Recently, the Q'ero have been made famous by books by Alberto Villoldo and other writers, who have described their healing techniques and connected them to Europeans and North Americans. This has had some effect on the communities, with community members competing with each other for the tourist dollar and unqualified people offering "despachos", or ceremonies, to tourists. But despite this, the Q'ero people that I met still have a remarkable depth and openness, very refreshing in the commercialized hustle that Cusco has become. The very thin mountain air was also refreshing, even though three of the four of us who went to the communities from Cusco managed to get sick with some kind of stomach thing.

The trip was two days by car and horse to the first village, and then another day to the second.
While I was suffering from the stomach stuff, a local pampa misoyoq, or curandero , did a despacho for me, but I was too out of it to really see what was going on. The next day I began to feel better. A few days later, two other pampa misoyoq did one despacho each for three of us.
Very powerful work. That night I "dreamed" that the energy of the apu had entered and cleansed me. It was four o'clock in the morning, we're all lying in our sleeping bags in the stone hut of one of the curanderos. The apu told me in the dream to raise my hands to receive the energy, which I did. Afterwards, I had this almost irresistible urge to laugh out loud. This is what it feels like to be healed, I thought: emptiness, happiness, laughter.

Since my return I have managed to hold onto a new feeling of balance and clarity, even amidst the tug and pull of Cusco. Añay, Bernadino. Añay, Modesto, Añay, Lorenzo. Añay los apus.
Thank you.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

From Cocha to Cuzco

Okay so now I'm feeling guilty that I've let so much time elapse between the last blog in Cocha and this one. Especially since in between Cochabamba and Cuzco there were celebrations with Evo Morales in cocalero country and in his home town near Oruru, as well as the impressive inauguration ceremony at Tiwakanu. The visit to cocalero country was especially moving, with campesinos spontaneously coming up to me, tears in their eyes, putting their arms around me and saying "We´ve waited so long to have our own president." There were more tears when I interviewed Morales sister and first lady, Ester Morales, who spoke of her fear for her brother's safety now that he was president. And in the small altiplano town near Oruru, where Morales was born, everyone from the local villages showed up with traditional music and food, though Morales himself looked a little exhausted by then with all the celebrating. For a good photographic account of all this, I recommend my friend and fellow journalist Guillermo Guille's webzine for the Bolivian community in Argentina, Renacer. Go to "fotoreportajes."

So now I'm in Cuzco, on the eve of the Peruvian election, and I, like a lot of Peruvians, am less than excited about the candidates who will compete for the presidency on April 9. On the right, you have your basic rightwing neoliberal empresario, Lourdes Flores. And on the left, you have Ollanta Humala, a nationalistic caudillo with a shady military past and even shadier family members (Mom Humala says all homosexuals should be shot) and Alan Garcia, a recycled center leftist whose been here before and doesn´t seem to have a lot of new stuff to offer. Sorry guys, I know one of you is going to win, and I sincerely hope that I and my Peruvian friends are wrong in our cynicism.

So why, given the cynicism, am I in Cuzco? I guess I have to blame the apus, or mountain spirits, for that. They say that Cuzco either wants you here or it doesn't. And it seems that Cuzco wants me to stick around here for awhile and do some healing work, both with myself and with some of the people who live here or are just passing through, so that's what I'm doing. I have made friends with many of the residents and visitors, as well as with the narrow winding cobblestoned streets and the local Incan ruins, like Temple of The Moon, and Qenco. And now I can even manage a few words of Quechua, important stuff like what are you doing and where's the food?

I'll post again after the Peruvian elections. Promise I will. Tupunanchiskama. (See you later.)