PUCALLPA: CENTRO SELVA
ELIZA SQUIBB: Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.
I started to get nervous about missing my flight to Pucallpa as we sat stuck in traffic on the way to the airport. “Oh good! It’s just an accident” was the verdict, and indeed, an accident was somehow better news than an actual traffic jam, because before too long we had wove our way around the line up of at least eight cars with dented-in bumpers. The drivers stood next to their damaged vehicles in the gray afternoon talking to the traffic police and looking like their day had been thoroughly ruined.
I met up with my three traveling companions at the airport, Carolina, Diana, and Jaime, all of them linguists from the University who were traveling to Pucallpa to meet up with two of their professors and work for a few weeks collecting information from tribal elders about one of the lesser know indigenous languages. The flight took barely an hour, and we quickly left Lima’s gray fog behind to fly over huge rocky mountains. I could barely see any traces of towns or roads through these mountains, then for a minute, the mountains were covered in green foliage, before the landscape flattened out entirely and we began to see the long sinuous lines of the river snaking through the green. The Ucayali river is 1771 meters long, one of the origins of the Amazon, and indigenous groups have been living on it’s banks since at least 2000 AD. This is the land of the Shipibo-Konibo, as well as fourteen other distinct indigenous groups: Amawaca, Chaninawa, Kakataibo, Kashinawa, Marinawa, Kokama-Kokamilla, Ashaninka, Kulina, Yine, and Awajun.
We started to see the city from the plane: tin-roofed houses and many tiny trails of smoke clustered around the huge curves of the river. We stepped off the plane into the humid evening just as the sun set. Heat and humidity have a special way of magnifying smells, and after the confines of the plane, the jungle air brought a pervasive smell of bonfire, but more that that, a vaguely sweet smell of burning plastics and trash. One of the first most notable things about this city is that 99% of street traffic is motocarros; three-wheeled motorcycle cabs with a plastic awning to protect against rain. We flagged down two motocarros to get us to the center of town, and I was able to begin my ongoing observation of this mode of transportation: After being here for two days and I’d seen a grand total of two people wearing helmets. Generally, three adults fit across the backseat, although this is tight, plus kids, (and there are a lot of kids!), plus any manner of packages, groceries, etc.. I did see five teenage boys crammed in the back of a motocarro this afternoon, and I saw a driver steering with one hand while holding on to his toddler who was straddling the gas tank in front of him. According to Carolina, on Valentine’s day, motocarro business continues as usual, except with the addition of each driver’s girlfriend snuggled in behind him, arms around his waist. On that first night, riding in from the airport, I saw one motocarro that was carrying a motorcycle in the back; this looked something like an ant carrying the dead body of another ant. I have seen a few motorcycle pickup trucks, and every corner mechanic shop usually has at least one motocarro leaned over on it’s side, getting a wheel changed, or some other form of maintenance. There is also a lot of motorcycle and scooter traffic. Often high schoolers will be driving their younger siblings to school on motorcycles, or whole families will be riding on one, kids sandwiched between parents, or sitting on laps.A second notable detail is the evidence of indigenous culture everywhere here. Kené patterns from different cultures are painted on every lamppost in the town center, tiled onto government buildings, painted on restaurant awnings, and added to pretty much any other available surface. There are also many murals of mermaids and the pink Amazon dolphins, which figure heavily in mythology here. There are a few streets lined with shops selling crafts and textiles, included clothing made from industrially printed kené patterns rather than the traditional embroidery. Many Shipibo women in traditional dress walk around selling their jewelry made from rainforest seeds and glass beads, and this gave Carolina plenty of opportunity to practice her Shipibo, which sounds to me like a very complicated language. So far, the only phrase I’m good at remembering in “Iraki”, meaning “thank you”.
In Pucallpa, there seems to be more restaurants for drinks and ice cream than for food, and given the climate that makes perfect sense. Ordering a cremolada, or a blended icy fruit juice, is a bewildering experience for someone from the far north, because on a menu of fruits, the only flavors I recognize are piña, pineapple, and chicha morada, which is an iced tea made from boiling dark purple corn and sweetened with a lot of sugar. Chicha is drunk all over Peru and has an interesting flavor, mostly of sugar. I called it “juice of corn” for a while, until I remembered the name. Other fruits on the menu,sandia, aguaje, guanabana, popoascu, cocona, camu camu, ungurahui, carambola, remain mysteries yet to be tasted.