SAN JOSÉ AND SAN FRANCISCO (NOT THE NORTH AMERICAN ONES)
ELIZA SQUIBB : Shipibo Textiles: Creating economic viability and cultural visibility through craft.
July 17, the day following our arrival in Pucallpa, was an open slate, because my linguist companions were still waiting for their professors to show up. Carolina is enchanted with everything that has to do with the selva, or jungle, she chats with everyone and is eager to explore new places. She helped me get to San José, a settlement two short motocarro rides from Pucallpa. After the town of Yarinacocha, the road abruptly turns to dirt, and huge dust clouds are kicked with each passing vehicle. If a car goes by, even the motocarro driver has to practically shut his eyes to avoid the dust. This is the dry season, and therefore called “summer” here, November through March are just as hot, but much more rainy, the dusty road turns to mud, the water level rises, and most communities are accessible only by boat or canoe. Now, one hour away by plane, Lima is having it’s cold, gray “winter”, and this gets extra confusing when you ask a Limeño when they were last in the selva: “winter” they might say, leaving you thoroughly confused.
We arrived at Señora Adelina’s house in San José: a quiet garden of fruit trees, hammocks, and a few different cabins with banana leaf roofs in the traditional Amazonian style to house visitors. Adelina is part of a collective of 30 Shipiba women who export their embroidery to different partners in North America and Europe, often as embellishment on organic pima cotton clothing. Adelina also participates in many craft fairs around Peru. After dropping off my stuff at Adelina’s house, we went off again to catch a boat to San Francisco, a Shipibo settlement an hour boat ride away, to visit Adelina’s mother Teresa, another talented embroiderer.
The port of Yarinacocha is lined with market stalls and tiny restaurants along the bank of the river. We walked down to the shore where a few river boats were unloading the day’s catch, huge tubs filled with chunks of ice and many different kinds of strange looking fish, including some truly huge ones. We inquired about a ride to San Francisco, but everyone told us that the best way to go was by car, since the road was accessible during the dry season. A block away, there was a line up of cars, and we completed the number of passengers needed to start the trip. Two people shared the front seat, and there can be three or four passangers across the back, plus kids. Our driver had a customized shirt with a long sleeve only on his left arm–the arm that rests on the window sill–to protect him from the sun. Motocarrodrivers often wear a second tee-shirt on just their arms for this purpose, or else cut-off sleeves. The drive took us through groves of banana trees, and by sitting in the window seat, I was thoroughly coated in red dust upon arrival in the village. The first thing that struck me was the quiet that almost roared in my ears after three weeks of hearing constant car alarms and traffic in Lima. There was not even the sound of a distant motocarro, just the ever present buzz of insects and sounds of chickens and dogs in the brush.
Here in San Francisco, every house is up a good two or three feet off the ground, roofs are made out of banana leaves, and often the wooden sides of houses are painted with Kené. Teresa was sweeping out her house and yard, but she sat down with us to chat and catch Carolina up on everyone’s health. Her mother, Anastasia, a very talented Shipiba potter, had been very sick, and almost died a few days previously. We went to visit her too, she was apparently getting better, and eating a little bit, but she didn’t look well. In all the neighboring huts, laundry was hung out to dry, children relaxed in hammocks and on porches while women worked on embroidery. A uncle or brother was watching over a huge pot of ayahuasca that was boiling down on a fire in the yard.
We said our goodbyes and flagged down a motocarro to take us to the “botanical garden” not too far down a dirt path. We found the gate locked but in a nearby hut two older women were working on their embroidery, and one of them offered to take us through the garden. She explained that she was the mother of the resident shaman, and in the garden there were huts for travelers who come to stay for a month to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies. There was another huge pot for boiling, and an ayahuasca root drying out. Many different ayahuasca vines were pointed out to us, red, yellow, white ayahuasca.. but they all looked like vines to our untrained eyes. When I mentioned that the vines resembled snakes, our guide laughed, saying that the first time she took ayahuasca she thought she saw a snake coming towards her. People often say that Ronin, the great anaconda comes during the ayahuasca ceremony and wraps herself around the participants.
As a foreigner, it seems like everyone talks to me about ayahuasca, or is anxious to point things out about it. It definitely appears to be one of the main attractions for travelers who find their way to this area, and people stay for long periods to learn about it and perform the proper dieting and rituals. The textile production then becomes a linked to this as a way to provide souvenirs. While some embroideries and painted patterns remain completely abstract and geometric, many of the embroideries I’ve seen so far also incorporate figurative imagery such as the ayahuasca vine or flower and the anaconda snake.
After a dusty walk back to the center of San Francisco we had lunch at the local restaurant: a picnic table under the tree where everyone waits for the car back to Yarinacocha. Lunch was a banana leaf package that contained yellow rice and a small chunk of chicken. Spice was added to this by spooning on chopped onions and peppers that were marinating in salt water. Drinks were cool-ish glasses ofchicha morada, and desert was sugar in its most elemental form: a snack bag of bite sized pieces of sugar cane that are chewed for a minute to extract the juice, and then the fibrous part is spat out into the road.
After making our way back to Adelina’s house, we relaxed for a bit in the hammocks in the yard, then Carolina had to head back to Pucallpa. Her professors were arriving the next day and they would be busy buying supplies for a two day trip up the river to the community that they work with. Apparently the village elders, los veijitos, “the little old people”, didn’t feel like making the trip down to meet them, as travel is more difficult in the dry season, and everyone we met teased Carolina about having to travel to such a remote place. She seems game for any adventure however, and I’m sure I’ll get to hear about everything in detail when they return in early August.
In the evening, Adelina and I sat out in the garden under the moon (it was the first time I’d seen the moon since my arrival in Peru, Lima’s pollution is not conducive to star-gazing) and talked about life in Pucallpa, before I went to bed in my hut and was lulled to sleep (not exactly) by all the village dogs and chickens, plus some mysterious rustlings in the roof, and the largest spiders I have ever seen.