Talking to the Barrel of a Gun
Rocky Contos reports from the Ríos Ene-Tambo in Peru
By Rocky Contos
As the man points his rifle at my head, he screams to me, “¿Porque está aquí?” “¿Qué busca? ” [Why are you here? What are you looking for?]
Most of the dozens of other Asháninka villagers all around on the bank of the river simply do nothing, but a few continue searching through all my bags and kayak. I try to keep my cool. What else can I do? Of course, I know this is a situation that easily could end my life with a pull of the trigger. I have to do all I can to calm the man down and not incite or aggravate him any further.
I reply, “Estoy aquí para visitar y conocer el río y los rápidos. Quiero ayudarles en desarrolar el ecoturismo y oponer las represas. Soy explorador y turista, nomás.” [I’m here to get to know the river with its rapids. I want to help all of you develop ecotourism and oppose the dams. I’m only an explorer and tourist.] Although the man understands, he doesn’t seem to believe me.
He gets more agitated again, putting the rifle right next to my head and screams, “¿Qué de los niños perdidos?” [What about the lost children?]
I know this is a much tougher misconception to deal with, and wonder, will this be it for me? Is it even worth it for me to be here?
I’d been in Peru six months, paddling the headwaters of the Amazon. I’d already made the first complete descent of Río Mantaro starting at 4450 m (14850 ft) elevation, and spent a few additional months paddling the main Upper Amazon (Río Marañon) and the other most distant sources (Ríos Apurimac and Urubamba). At the end of the Apurimac, I was back at the confluence with the Mantaro once again, and continued paddling downstream on Río Ene with its class I-II whitewater.
As I paddled through the Pongo de Paquitzapango – a narrow gorge section of the Ene – I spun in some whirlpools, marvelled at the beauty of the river and canyon and wondered how the world would react to learning of the giant Presa Paquitzapango hydroelectric dam planned here. I wanted to do what I could to stop it. I thought maybe making the issue known to the world would be one way. Because of that, in the weeks before arriving I contacted representatives of the Asháninka – the indigenous people living along the river who were already voicing strong opposition to the project. After all, hundreds or thousands of them would be relocated and would lose their traditional ways of life.
Yet although I considered myself to be an ally of the Asháninka community, I also knew that going through their areas could be problematic, as some might view me as someone on the side of the government – or even the dam company. So I tried to take some precautions – mainly by getting permission from the apus (village leaders) and communities beforehand in order to be recognized as a friend and welcomed.
Just past the Pongo de Paquitzapango, I see villagers on the side with rifles waving me over. I signal to my partner, Pedro Peña, that we should oblige. “After all”, I explain, “if we don’t go over, they can hop on their motorized lanchas, catch us, and force us to do whatever they want anyway.” Pedro will go along with just about anything. As a class V kayaker and raft guide on the Cañete, Apurimac, and Futaleufu, he’s been around plenty.
So we head to shore and the villagers gather around us with their guns. They are a ronda – or citizen’s patrol. Since most Asháninka villages don’t have the usual Peruvian government officials or protection, they have set up their own form of police and justice – with most men taking part. This is to combat various forms of crime, terrorists, and drug trafficking. While the rondas generally are effective at ridding their villages of unwanted foreign elements, this is precisely because they stop, question, and harass unwanted outsiders.
We are bombarded with the usual volley of questions. “¿De dónde son?” “¿Adónde van?” “¿Qué hacen aqui?” “ ¿Qué llevan?” “¿Qué es esto?” “¿Dónde está su permiso? ” I explain everything and we take out our bags to show them what we are carrying – tents, ground pads, sleeping bags, dry clothes, a stove, food, water bottles, a water filter, and a book. The apu still wants to see some form of permission.
I had tried to get permission from the CARE (Central Asháninka del Río Ene) and CART (Central Asháninka del Río Tambo) organizations via email. Although I received positive responses – and they were enthusiastic that I might help them in their bid to oppose the two large hydroelectric dams – there wasn’t enough time to get me an official letter. Yet I couldn’t wait – I had to pass through now as I was already way behind schedule.
I explain all this and mention how Ruth Buendía, the Ashanínka woman in charge of CARE, wanted to get me a letter but there just wasn’t enough time. We chat a little more and the apu – named Ene – seems quite satisfied that I had been corresponding with Ruth Buendía. He turns friendly and invites us up for some masato. We don’t refuse.
Ene has some of the village woman fill two gourds with the pink drink. He hands them to us and says, “Tomen! Masato es como nuestro ‘refresco’” [Drink! Masato is like our soft drink]. I am not fond of it. It’s a bitter drink made by fermenting yuca (cassava) and quite similar to chicha, the corn beer common in the highlands. Yet I wonder – “well, maybe it’s just a matter of getting used to, like our beers made from hops”.
I drink my masato slowly while Pedro finishes his more quickly. I hope we can get on our way, but Ene motions to fill our gourds to the brim as soon as one is emptied. I was warned to drink it completely so as not to offend, so I accept, but this time I am determined to drink more slowly. We continue chatting about all sorts of things – food, wildlife, living arrangements, the planned dam, where we’re from, the Sendero Luminoso, the ronda. They keep motioning us to drink more. Pedro has a fourth gourd filled, while I have a third. I tell them that if we get drunk, we won’t be able to paddle more. Then I begin to wonder if they are feting us with the alcoholic drink precisely so that we’ll stay the night in their village…
Eventually after 4-5 gourds for Pedro and 3 for me, we are buzzed and they see us on our way. Ene says we might encounter some more suspicious Asháninka downstream, but we should just tell them he approved of us and we should be fine. We take off in our whitewater kayaks amid their smiles and waves.
On the water, I ask Pedro why he was drinking so much masato so readily? He says he likes the stuff. I comment that he must be brave not to be perturbed by the fact that masato is fermented by village women chewing the yuca and spitting it into a pot. Pedro seemed a little upset. “Por qué no me dijiste?” [Why didn’t you tell me?] I figured he knew – after all, he is a native Peruvian. But I guess, he’s not familiar with the jungle at all.
Rio Ene is filled with beautiful jungle scenery and huge beaches. As it nears dusk, we find one such huge beach, set up camp, and prepare a fire. I thought we were away from everyone and would have some peace and solitude, but then Pedro points out a woman fishing on the other side of the river a bit downstream. I think, “Shoot – now we’re sure to be visited in the night or early morning.”
Sure enough, at dawn some Asháninka arrive in a canoe. A man has a bow with arrows. There are four of them. I don’t feel threatened since they seem to be a family: husband/wife and two kids. They speak a little Spanish, so we can communicate, although in a difficult manner. We offer them some yoghurt and cereal, which they seem grateful for, and I tell them of Ene and our encounter in the village upstream. The family becomes quite friendly, and the man even allows me to photograph him aiming his weapon. I ask why the arrows are blunt-ended. He explains – to knock out birds. I’m sure he’s pretty effective at it.
We pack up, bid farewell, and take off. Down at the confluence with the Perene, the river becomes the Tambo. Here we stop, and decide to head into the city of Satipo. Although CARE and CART are based there, in the town I am still unsuccessful in finding Ruth Buendía or getting a letter of permission. Pedro goes off on some further reconnaissance while I decide to paddle the Tambo to Atalaya – our plan is to meet in Pucallpa in about a week.
As I’m preparing to get back to the Tambo, I look at the river in the town: Río Satipo. It is a major tributary of Río Perene joining a little before it joins Río Ene. Río Satipo looks clean and fun with 2000-4000 cfs and class II-III rapids. I figure that in the ~60 km down to the Perene and Ene, the moderate gradient in a clean and pretty jungle canyon will make for fun class III rapids. I find the potential first descent too tempting and decide to go for it – solo. Besides, it’s cheaper than taking a taxi back down to the Tambo.
All seems to go well in the initial ~30 km as the river meets my expectations: a warm beautiful river with fun rapids. I imagine how this could become a popular rafting run. Yet on the lower part of the river, I am stopped by suspicious Asháninkas again. I go through the routine of questions/searches. The first group finds my wallet and keeps ~$100US to my dismay (in fact, robbery). Farther downstream, a second group is a bit more friendly and lets me continue after a brief search. Yet a third group keeps me for a long time, while more and more villagers stream out. It is then that the one guy with a gun comes up to me in a very agitated state.
I do my best to dispel his accusation. I say, “¿Qué es esto que dice de los niños perdidos? ¿Hay niños que se desaparecieron del pueblo?” [What is this you’re saying of missing children? Have children been disappearing from the village?]
Some other villagers inform me, “Sí, hace dos semanas que se desparacieron dos niños.” [Yes just two weeks ago two kids disappeared.] Others comment, “Los llevan por sus órganos.” [They take them for their organs.]
I counter, “No lo creo. No es la verdad. Cómo saben esto?” But as I say these words of doubt I realize – what proof do I have that gringos haven’t arrived, abducted children, then killed them and sold their livers, kidneys and hearts for transplants in the first world? It’s a no-win argument.
The Asháninka’s fear of white men in their areas stems from a centuries-old belief among many indigenous Amazonians that white men “pishtacos” come to their areas as devils in disguise with one primary goal: to take away their people and children, kill them, and boil down their fat for various purposes, such as in medicine or use in lubricating mission churchbells and sugar mills. A common warning of mothers to their children in these areas is to tell them that if they go out at night away from the family, the pishtaco will come get them and that’ll be their end. It probably works to keep the kids in line, but has the effect of imparting a negative stereotype of white folks for the rest of their lives. It seems that in the past few decades the myth has taken on the twist that gringos come to abduct children and others in order to cut out the organs for transplantations.
Of course, I initially thought the idea ludicrous. But if you think about how these people live, without much contact with the first world except through sometimes crazy far-fetched fictional movies, I can see how the myth continues to thrive and propagate.
Realizing that I can’t really argue against their beliefs, my strategy changes. I simply say “Es una lástima que alguien secuestan niños. No sé quien lo hace. Pero hay mala gente y buena gente en todas partes. Lo que necesitan saber es yo soy buena gente.” [It is ashamed someone is kidnapping children. I don’t know who is doing it. But there are good and bad people everywhere. What you need to know is that I am a good person.”] I see nods of approval as I explain this reasoning to them. I again explain what my motives are for passing by their village, and how I really do want to help them.
Soon the guy with the gun calms down a lot and even converses with me in a friendly manner. In fact, nearly all of them become friendly. Although they allow me to continue with all my belongings, they won’t give me a letter saying they searched my stuff and approved me to continue.
Eventually I reach the Tambo. I am reluctant to face more Asháninka downstream, but I know I’ll have to. How else will I accomplish the goal of a source-to-sea descent?
Rocky Contos has been in further contact with CARE and recommends obtaining official permission before paddling by any Asháninka communities. The huge mega-dams for the Ene and Tambo are still planned though have been stalled due to recent investor pull-out. Voice your opinion about the dams and support opposition efforts! See www.SierraRios.org