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.