Waiting for the People of the River

Nights are long and sweaty, dominated by the angry buzz of motorcycle rickshaws passing under our window and the heavy beat of tecnocumbia music from nearby bars.  Our bedroom overlooks Nauta’s central market, just a block from one of the Marañón River’s busiest ports in Peru’s northern Amazon region.

Darkness brings no relief from the oppressive heat. We’re in a concrete building with a tin roof, rather than a traditional wooden house with a cool palm-thatch cover.  Yes, the new architecture is sturdier and lasts longer; the downside is the solar-oven effect, cooking inhabitants as they toss through the night.

There is a moment of almost quiet when traffic slacks and the jumbo speakers have fallen mute, around 2 am. This is when I fall asleep … briefly. The bustle starts again at 4 am, with passengers and cargo arriving at the harbor. Boat operators call out their route in low, sonorous voices that float on the pre-dawn air. “Yurimaguas, Yurimaguas.”

As the sun rises, the market comes to life. Fresh paiche, gamitana and boca chica fish cook slowly on barbeques; fruit stands offer coconuts, watermelon and the estrogen-rich aguaje, with its thin, buttery flesh. Street hawkers sell everything from dish soap to mosquito repellent to promised health remedies in murky bottles. By sunset the streets are littered with fish bones, fruit rinds, plastic bottles and other remains of the day.

Rain is the town’s salvation. Menacing clouds build over days; you can feel their heavy load, the pressure of the heat and water ready to burst. And when the sky finally breaks open, Mother Nature is serious. No wimpy drizzle, light sprinkle or steady, relaxing rain. Steam rises from the hot pavement as the streets are flushed clean and traffic comes to a near halt.

Nauta is not the Amazon rainforest from the tourist brochures. There is no cacophony of exotic birds, hum of insects and gentle lapping of the river. It is a jungle city, a phrase that used to be an oxymoron but is becoming more and more prevalent.

This is what government officials call “progress” – a concrete jungle – the way of the future. Television sets blare from every home; children watch Disney cartoons and adults get hooked on soap operas from Brazil and Miami. Restaurants sell rotisserie chicken and fries or Chifa, a greasy Peruvian version of Chinese food. Teenage girls dye their black hair a washed-out shade of orange (an attempt at brown) and boys gel their locks into strange geometric shapes. Both genders wear tight jeans and t-shirts of favorite sports teams, or slogans in English like “Little Princess” and “Hug me.”

It’s mid-February and I’ve come to Nauta with my partner Miki Araoz to work with indigenous Kukama artists and filmmakers. Miki is a painter and filmmaker from the Andes mountains; the Kukama painters run a free art school in a traditional village on the Ucayali river. At least I’m not alone in suffering from the heat and greasy food.

After two weeks in this Brave New Jungle we escape to the river with Don Jose, a Kukama fisherman, his wife and two indigenous filmmakers.  

Fresh air floods my lungs as our boat pulls out of the harbor with the first rays of dawn. The river is on both sides of us now: high banks, forest, tiny villages and open skies. Brightly colored birds perched on sticks pay us no attention as we pass by in our “peque peque,” a large wooden canoe with a roof and pokey outboard motor.

We’re on a 10-hour journey to film one of Don Jose’s favourite fishing spots upriver, but our motor breaks down shortly after leaving Nauta. Luckily we’re able to dock at the small village of St. Regis, to wait for someone to bring us parts. The delay doesn’t bother me – I’m happy to be back in what the Gods of Industry call the “underdeveloped” rainforest.  

There are no roads in St. Regis, just a narrow sidewalk and rows of simple wooden homes built on raised wooden poles, a necessary precaution for the annual floods when the river can rise to your front door. Don Jose leads us into one of the homes, which doubles as a corner store/restaurant. Today’s dish is juanes: rice and chicken with herbs, cooked in banana leaves, and lemon-aid. Since our fishing plans are on hold, we fill our bellies and agree that the local fare is 5-star.

Later, as the mid-day sun beats down, I sit on a bench in the shade of tall grandfather trees and watch the paucar birds sing. Their tiny bodies inflate until they seem about to burst, and as their proud song floods the airwaves, they shrink back down to size. Only to begin again.

Leonardo, our Kukama producer, is pacing the riverbank, trying to catch a cell phone signal to find out when our rescuers will arrive.

This is more than a film for Leo; it’s part of his life mission to document and share his people’s culture and connection to the forest. He doesn’t reject change or promote cultural isolation. On the contrary, Leo’s team at Radio Ucamara has made a series of music videos with local youth that fuse hip-hop, rap and cumbia with traditional Kukama songs. (Watch one here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seVYrt99DgQ)

Leo is part of a burgeoning cultural revolution in the Amazon that is forging a sense of indigenous pride and identity amidst the deluge of Coca Cola culture. We have to know who we are and where we came from in order to survive in the modern world, he explains.  To forge the past with the present and create something new, unique – the Kukama of now.

Four years ago Leo saw our last documentary, “The Devil Operation,” at a festival of censored films, and hunted us down. He told Miki and I that he’d been making audio-recordings of his people’s stories and legends about their river for more than a decade. His dream was to make a film to reach Kukama youth and the outside world, and he wanted us to help.

And this is when things started to get weird, or magical, or both.

Leo told us that his river is the ‘ɨa’ (ee-ah); a word in the Kukama language that means the heart. It’s the center, the life force and the mother of their universe.

 Their river provides them with water to drink, fish to eat, a transport route for their canoes and a place to meet, swim and relax. But the connection goes even deeper. Underneath the water’s surface live the Karuara, which literally means “people of the river.”

When an indigenous person drowns in the river, if their body is never found, it means they have transformed into a Karuara, or water spirit, and live in villages under the river. The Karuara visit their loved ones in dreams, lounging in hammocks made of boa constrictors and smoking sardines like cigarettes. They marry mermaids or pink dolphins that change into dashing young men who lure young women into the water.

Despite their playful side, the Karuara are powerful beings: they can cure illnesses and provide their human loved ones with guidance, knowledge and protection. But oil spills, proposed hydro-electric dams, dredging and other megaprojects threaten the river’s fragile eco-system as well as the vibrant spiritual world below.

“If we lose the ɨa, everything falls apart,” says Leonardo.

I’ve been covering environmental and indigenous rights issues in Peru since the late 90’s: street protests, tear gas, police brutality, assassinations and tense courtroom dramas are normal fare for me. But I’d never heard of a parallel world of river spirits. I’d fallen into the trap of defining resistance as standing in the line of fire, filing lawsuits and signing petitions.

It is that, but resistance is also about cultural survival: remembering who you are and passing that onto your children and grandchildren; preserving seeds for future generations. The Amazon region’s peoples have lived in harmony with their environment for centuries. They are our first line of defense in this fragile zone, which holds 20% of the earth’s fresh water and is considered our planet’s lung. If they forget who they are and their connection to the ɨa, the guardians of the forest will be lost.

And so the Gods of Documentary had spoken: I was hooked. We gave a crash course in film making to the staff at Ucamara, produced some short films, published a book of Kukama legends entitled “Karuara, People of the River”, illustrated by children, and are working on a feature-length documentary.

Four years after that fateful meeting with Leonardo, we find ourselves sleeping in a canoe on the river and filming Don Jose as he paddles out to fish at dawn, at mid-day, at sunset, and all hours in-between. He prepares his instruments with sacred tobacco smoke, and sings Icaros, ancient songs taught to him by his grandfather, to attract different types of fish, like his favourte, the gamitana.

His wife, Doña Irma, cooks the fresh catch over an open fire in the bow of our boat. Our stomachs rumble and after eating we agree that it surpasses 5 stars. The wait to fix the broken motor, the noise and heat of the concrete jungle, mosquitos and other annoyances, are all worth it.

By – Stephanie Boyd, co-director of “Karuara, People of the River”. Stephanie is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has been living in Peru since 1997.