One river town and three villages

March 02, 2012

Sunday, February 25, 2012

Campbell Plowden and Maijuna leader Romero RiosI wonder how many creative ways there are to say it was a long day. Before heading off to the port, Yully and I had a quick meeting with Romero Rios – a Maijuna leader from the community of Puerto Huaman on the Yanayacu River. We had attended several Maijuna congresses and hoped to begin a copal project with them, but for now we hoped we could at least explore buying some handicrafts from them. Romero told us they had several dozen artisans from two villages who were steadily improving the quality of the chambira baskets they were making but had no certain market for them. We would check out samples at the PROCREL office and let him know which ones seemed good to start with.

Jorge Raul life preserver at Pebas

I got a few hours of sleep on board the Jorge Raul before rising early to write and observe the lancha make pre-dawn calls at settlements to offload cargo such as blocks of ice. We pulled into Pebas amidst intermittent rain where we spotted Don Oscar from Brillo Nuevo waving to us from the waiting crowd. We lugged our gear across the new bridge connecting the bank to the new floating dock and stowed it in his peque-peque – a fifteen foot long wooden boat with a 5 hp engine and elongated propeller.

Pijuayo fruit in bowl at Pebas, Peru

I noted that food vendors no longer lined the elevated wooden walkway that had led from the boat landing to town. The new market was now an enclosed concrete space where a few tables offered warmed over plates of non-descript meat with noodles and brownish rice. I ventured a bit farther up the street where enjoyed two pink smoothies and simple egg sandwiches at a table with some friendly folk who asked me to take their picture. The owner proudly shared her recipe for her juice concoction saying I could make it when I went home – papaya, banana, passion fruit, lemon juice, milk, egg, sugar and vanilla. If only ….I knew to enjoy such treats during my trip because I’ve rarely found a papaya in Pennsylvania worth eating after being picked rock hard before its long journey from some tropical zone.

Kids at Yagua village San José de Piri

Yully and I walked up the steep road and steps to the plateau of downtown Pebas and then traversed the muddy trail to the village of San José de Piri. We a few positive meetings with folks from this remnant Yagua settlement last summer, but since then Yully had had a difficult time building any momentum with our proposed craft project. Her main contacts were often absent or hadn’t followed through on anything. Attempts to encourage artisans to make even simple starts met usually only produced excuses the following month. Our morning visit appeared to be headed for familiar discouragement – the supportive Don Telmo was off fishing and chance encounters with one artisan revealed that the local coordinator hadn’t actually informed her or others that we were coming. She didn’t have any chambira so she hadn’t made anything anyway. We revisited our discussion about the utility (or perhaps futility) of trying to work here when there were other villages that would be immediate enthusiastic partners.

Mariel crafts at San Jose de Piri
We were finally led to the home of Mariella who laid out a few items she had made on her dark wooden table. These included a chambira bag, a few open-ended woven pouches stuffed with white fibers for blow guns, and a Yagua doll fashioned with a small calabash fruit pod head, a skirt of rough chambira leaves and bits of subtle sun-bleached llanchama inner bark. Her craftsmanship was basic at best, but it gave us some hope. She agreed to make a smaller version of the doll as a trial for a Christmas tree ornament by the time we pass through town later tonight.

`Painting of traditional Huitoto scene on modern house

Oscar motored us 45 minutes up the Ampiyacu River to Puca Urquillo and dropped us off at the Huitoto end of this dual ethnic village. Strolling up the concrete path to higher ground, many kids offered a friendly “Buenos dias,” but I remained just another occasional visitor until Cherly Flores warmly welcomed Yully and me into her home – as usual full of crafts mounted on her wall. We had arrived fashionably late (perhaps early by Peruvian standards), but within half an hour seven more women arrived to show us their recent ornament creations.

Huitoto artisan Rebeca Rubio with tutuma ornament

We had good success selling small tutumas (dark brown calabash fruit pods) etched with wildlife figures last Christmas, but our request to increase our order from a few dozen to several hundred had presented a challenge. While the women are skilled weavers, a few of their husbands had made all of this type of ornament in the first batch.
Campbell Plowden with Huitoto artisans from Puca Urquillo

In the past two months, though, the women had been practicing hard. When the carving awl slipped off the slick pod surface, they had often jabbed their hands and ruined many pods, but most of them had gained enough confidence and control to produce lively figures of butterflies, parrots, tapirs, fish and snakes coiled around all types of creatures.

Ofelia Flores with spider web ornaments

A few women had also woven spider web-like ornaments and miniature armadillos. We had to reject a few but agreed to accept most when they added achira seeds to the tutumas to make them miniature hand maracas.

Stingless bee pollinating mamey flower

Our gathering in the sparsely furnished meeting house attracted fewer Bora artisans, but they had made many quality spider-web and etched tutuma ornaments. I was also impressed with the fine weaving and subtle natural colors that Milda Quevare had used to make several chambira bags and placed an order for several dozen of diverse designs. Outside the meeting house a large mamey tree was practically vibrating as thousands of bees immersed themselves in profusion of fuchsia.

Oscar piloted our peque-peque a bit farther up the Ampiyacu before veering off to the right to ascend the Yaguasyacu River and arrive at the Ocaina village of Nueva Esperanza about an hour later. We had had a modest but good start working with a small group of closely related artisans from this village with a few dozen families. Since there was not a single phone in the village, though, Yully usually had to let people know when she was coming through personal contact or messages delivered by Oscar in transit to his home upriver in Brillo Nuevo. Yully had given our last order for another batch of the woven chambira coin purses to the artisan group’s coordinator when they met in Pebas the previous month, but unfortunately this message never reached the rest of the group. This woman had been having problems with her husband, and when he left Nueva Esperanza to go back to his native Bora village, she had abruptly followed him. We consequently arrived with no advance notice, and no crafts from our order were waiting for us.
Ocaina artisan Gloria Vasquez with large chambira xicra

Our friendly frequent host Gloria had been busy on her own, however, and I admired and bought a few of the extra-large chambira bags she had made. She had been one of the village’s founders 19 years ago when a group of families had left their former location adjacent to the other Ocaina village on the Yaguasyacu. Nueva Esperanza is small but still thriving while Puerto Izango has been all but deserted by all but one family.

Manioc soaking in old dugout canoe at Nueva Esperanza

Yully got out her computer, and a handful of artisans gathered to examine photos of the different models of coin purses we hoped they could make before her next visit. I wandered off to enjoy one of my favorite outhouses in the region at the end of the village. It was made from the usual assortment of heavily weathered wood and rusty metal roof, but it was open on several sides and offered a beautiful view of the river to its temporary occupant. On the way back I chatted with Gloria’s elderly aunt who was perched on the corner of her house weaving a bag and reveled in the prime photo-taking sunset light.

Mute girl swimming at Nueva Esperanza

As we readied for our departure, I noticed that one girl about ten years old who had been paying more attention to my picture taking inside than the craft discussions with Yully playfully escorted us to the river’s edge. I noticed her speech was off, and Yully told me that she was mute but not deaf. I hadn’t noticed her using sign language and wondered how she fit into her small society. This slim black-haired girl lacked no joie de vivre. She pushed our boat off the mud bank, dove into the water, tagged a boat with three women washing clothes and swam back toward us with a big smile as we eased out of the village cove.

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