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The Floating Slums of Iquitos: Acculturation in the Peruvian Amazon

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It is not yet dawn, but already the sprawling marketplace is coming to life. The great concrete staircase leading up the hill from the Amazon is crowded with men and women who carry yucca and sugarcane bundled on their heads. Water boys struggle up the 110 steps, rolling their 55-gallon drums of river water as carefully as if they were filled with porcelain.

The sound of haggling is everywhere, crude jungle Spanish and strange dialects echoing from the corrugated steel roofs of the market stalls. Deals are struck. Fruits, vegetables, dried fish, and turtle eggs change hands and are piled on the vendors' tiny tables. From the restaurant stalls come the smells of frying fish and plantains; they mingle with the scents of medicinal herbs and the foul odor of blood and animal intestines as fresh game is butchered. Nearby, stray dogs and gallinosas, huge jungle vultures, keep an eye on any scraps that fall from the butchers' tables.

At the bottom of the hill, water taxis and old canoes pick up and discharge passengers. They wind through the flooded streets, beneath the pilings of stilted homes, in concert with a small armada of other water taxis headed toward the muddy port on the Amazon. A second armada of canoes, already filled with jungle products, heads in the opposite direction, crowding the streets. Early risers wash their clothes through holes in the floors of their raft shanties; there is constant wailing from the babies who are lowered through the same holes for their morning rinse.

The canoes emerge from the streets into the Amazon’s wash, then head to the section of riverbank that serves as dock for the motonaves (flat-bottomed riverboats with clanking steam engines). On the muddy bank, groups of men and boys, dark and well-muscled with Indian features and oriental eyes, work frantically to unload the morning motonave’s cargo of lumber, thatch, latex, and other raw materials from the jungle—all headed for the factories of Iquitos. Down the riverbank, other groups work just as frantically to load a motonave that is preparing to leave. Its cargo of clothes, kerosene, tinned food, and other finished products is headed up the Ucayali River to towns like Nauta, Requena, Contamana; from there the goods will make their way to the villages and outposts that dot Peru’s Amazonia.

This is Belen, one of the ports of the city of Iquitos. Built on rafts and stilts at the end of the nineteenth century, it provided cheap labor and market products for the rubber barons who were at that time transforming Iquitos from a jungle town into a Peruvian city. It is half-marketplace, half-slum; utterly obvious, yet fantastically mysterious. It is one of those places that change both with the hour of the day and the time of the year. When the river is high it is called the Venice of Peru. When the river is low it is an ugly place where disease is rampant and vultures outnumber the locals 20 to 1. It is the place where people from all over the nearby jungle come to sell their products, and it is also the first stop for those people—Indians and mestizos alike—who choose to move from the jungle to the city to look for work. It is a place where cultures meet and change, a melting pot for the people of Peru’s jungle.

Slave beginnings

Belen’s mother city, Iquitos (pop. 200,000), is located in the heart of the jungle of northeast Peru, at the confluence of the Ucayali and Napo rivers, the point where the Amazon River begins. To the west lie the Andes; to the east, the Amazon River and nearly 2,500 miles of unbroken jungle. As it is surrounded by water and jungle, there are no roads one can take to get there: Access to Iquitos is either by boat or plane, mostly the former. Its climate is unbearably hot, and almost-daily downpours keep the region oppressively humid all year round. Geography and climate contributed heavily to the development of dozens of tribes—the Bora, Mayoruna, Omagua, Peba, Yagua, and Yameo, among others—that have historically inhabited the area. Most of them were riverine peoples who depended upon hunting, fishing, and the seasonal changes in the water levels of the rivers for their basic floodplain agronomy. They developed rafting skills, which provided them with a degree of mobility and opened trade routes throughout the river systems of the region.

The numerous tribes share similar linguistic roots and physical characteristics. Anthropologists suggest, therefore, that their shared prehistoric origin dates back to the Siberian crossing of the Bering Straits during the last ice age. The vast new territory allowed their cultures to develop in near isolation. Adapting to their particular areas, they developed different weaponry, clothing, dialects, social structures, and spiritual belief systems. And while to outsiders those differences might appear minute, to the indigenous cultures they were obvious and threatening.

Tribal warfare played into the hands of European adventurers who traveled up the Amazon to Iquitos during the early nineteenth century. Had the indigenous cultures been able to set aside their differences and band together, they might have been able to expel the outsiders, and the region’s history would have evolved differently. As it was, the Europeans exploited those intertribal hostilities to gain a foothold in the area, and by the mid-nineteenth century Iquitos had become the center of European commerce for western Amazonia.

When the great rubber boom of South America reached Peru during the 1870s, it drew thousands of new adventures, misfits, fortune hunters, and businessmen to the area. Iquitos became a boomtown where great mansions were built with imported Italian tile and French wrought iron, in imitation of Brazil’s Manaus, the fantastic Amazonian city one thousand miles to the east. The ancient Indian trade routes became the trade routes for the rapidly expanding city as well: Food, raw materials, and latex came up the Ucayali and down the Napo in exchange for guns, beads, and other trinkets for the Indians. Steamers came from Europe to Iquitos regularly; their hulls were filled with finished goods when they arrived and rubber when they left.

The economic boom called for more workers than were available, so Iquitos became the center of the slave trade for the region as well. Belen was the slave port; to it streamed the boats carrying Indian captives from the interior. Slavery had been outlawed in Peru in 1866, but in the absence of military presence or police force there was no one to enforce the law in Iquitos. Slavery continued to flourish there until nearly the turn of the century.

When the slaves finally were freed, most of them had nowhere to go. Many were second-generation slaves who would have been less at home with their tribes—provided they would have been accepted—than they were in Iquitos. Many others were mestizos, the offspring of European men and Indian women, and thus had no tribes to return to. Yet Iquitos was far too expensive a city for freed slaves to live in, so Belen began to expand from a small port to a large community to accommodate them. It became the home of freed slaves and raw recruits from the jungle, providing a hiding place for outcasts from Iquitos and serving as marketplace for Indians and mestizos who brought their goods from the nearby jungle for sale in the city.

Venice of Peru

Belen is built on a steep bluff on the south side of Iquitos, its buildings a sort of skirt wrapped around the hill and trailing out into the wash of the Amazon River. At the top of the hill is the marketplace. Below the market the houses on the hill are constructed on stilts and arranged on haphazard terraces. At the base of the hill the stilts are one story high. Farther out the stilts are twice that: During April, the river is twenty feet higher than it is in August. Still farther out into the river the homes are built on rafts and tied together with thick cords of jute; beyond them houseboats are moored to concrete pilings. Some estimates suggest that Belen is home to 10,000; other put the figure at four or five times that. It is difficult to fathom which is the truer number because so many of the buildings are home to several families.

The economics of Belen remain much the same as they have for the past century. It is the marketplace and southern port for Iquitos, the connecting link between the jungle and the city. Iquitos is dependent on Belen for cheap labor, and Belen remains dependent on the river for work.

When the river is high, from December through June, the streets are crowded with canoes and water taxis carrying jungle products from the motonaves to the great stairway. There are as many as half-a-dozen big boats to load and unload daily, and dozens of medium-sized barges as well. There is work for everyone who wants it and money for clothes, kerosene, shotgun shells for hunting, fishing line, and even the occasional extravagance like transistor radios and Walkmen. The cervesarias, the beer bars, stay open late, and there is music every night from small dance halls.

Beyond providing work and money, the flood season is the time when Belen remembers its riverine roots. There is clean water to drink, good fishing, and plenty of fruit to eat. Pink and blue dolphins swim in the streets. Refuse, piled up for months beneath the stilted homes, is washed out to sea. Jungle flowers blossom everywhere; courting couples crowd the wash with canoes at sunset; the air is fresh.

It is the time of plenty in Belen, and newcomers flock to the port from distant places. For many it is the first time they have seen the promised land, the great city. They step off the motonaves barefoot, in missionary clothing; all they bring with them are their few possessions and their aspirations. They imagine they will find work and perhaps earn enough money to move to Iquitos itself, where they will have a concrete-block home and all of the things the city offers. The reality is that they are ill-equipped for anything but dock work: They will fall prey to all kinds of unscrupulous predators who will overcharge for a hammock space in a shanty and short-weight their work. And they will either have to return to the jungle or push on to Lima or some other city where they will discover that their crude Spanish and jungle ways are not wanted.

Marina Rodriguez, a mestizo whose mother was full-blooded Shipibo Indian and whose father was a Brazilian gauchero (rubber worker), has been in Belen for nearly fifteen years.

“The first time I saw Belen I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world,” she says. “Everywhere there were children playing and people laughing.”

She arrived with her father and six of her thirteen brothers when she was nineteen, shortly after her husband and mother died of malaria on the Javari River. With her she brought her two small children, a boy and a girl.

“For us Belen was good,” she says. “We had so many men that there was no trouble making money loading the boats. My father was even able to buy a pequepeque [an oversized canoe with a motor] after a few years and begin fishing. We had three nets.”

She worked with her father and brothers for several years until her father, despite his relative success, could no longer afford to stay and moved back up the Ucayali to a small town nearly a full day away by motonave. Two of her brothers joined him; another has since moved to Lima, and three others have died. Her children live with her father; the remaining brothers are scattered around Peru and western Brazil, and she rarely hears from them.

Asked why she did not return with her father, Marina shrugs. “What could I do except to take care of them? That’s no life for me. Besides, I see them often enough. The only thing I miss are my children, but they had to go because I couldn’t afford to keep them here. A woman with no husband or family has a hard time; there are not many jobs for us, and with children it is impossible.”

She speaks without self-pity or remorse. She is an independent peruana (Peruvian woman), and that is enough for her. She shares a raft home with a friend and sells T-shirts to tourists in Iquitos. She earns almost a dollar a shirt and says that during tourist season she can sometimes sell as many as two dozen a week, a reasonable living.

But Marina is more the exception than the rule. She had the support of a large family for several years while she learned to deal with the people at the market—where she sold her father’s fish—and later with the tourists. Most come without such support and find that even if they manage to survive the predators, the first low-water season is enough to finish them.

Reign of vultures

Every day from the beginning of July through the end of November the river recedes, exposing more and more of the stilts so many of the homes are built on until the whole city looks like a strange and gigantic skeleton. The motonaves become scarcer, and work dries up with the streets. The rafts fall with the level of the water, and by the beginning of August they sit in stagnant pools or muddy fields. The air is still and humid and filled with the dank odor of waterlogged wood drying in the tropical sun. Without plumbing, human waste, which had been washed out with the river in flood season, infects the drinking water, and disease begins to spread through the slum. Dengue, cholera, and dysentery claim infants and the infirm at a staggering rate. Wild dogs and rodents spread rabies and other infectious diseases. There are more gallinosas on the thatched roofs of the village than there inhabitants within, and sky overhead is filled with the vultures circling the shallow graves of the newly dead.

In a matter of weeks Belen undergoes a change from a pocket of plenty to a village on the verge of desperation. At the Iquitos zoo all of the game animals disappear within the first two weeks of the low water season: Hunters so close to the jungle do not see the point in having tapir and wild boar sitting in pens and growing fat while their families go hungry. Even the fishing is bad when the water is low.

Those who can do so leave. There is a dramatic reduction in the population of Belen as they scatter out into the jungle to make their living for the season. In the dense forests, there is less competition for what little food is available. Those who cannot leave make their living any way possible: It is the season of contraband. A jaguar skin will feed a family for a month or more if sold to a middleman, who in turn will sell it to some insensitive tourists. Black market snakeskins, animal hides, macaw feathers, and black caiman skins appear in the market. Guns and cocaine, normally the province of the real outlaws, are transported and treaded by ordinary people.

In the market, robberies escalate. Thieves duck in and out of alleys, grabbing tourist bags and cameras and disappearing into the catacombed terraces. The police warn outsiders to stay alert while in Belen and to avoid it altogether in the evenings. “Peligroso,” they say. “Dangerous.”

The tales they tell

“I have always thought of Belen as a little wonder of the world,” says Germain Lequerica, a poet and short story writer of German and Spanish descent who spent twenty years living in Belen before moving to Iquitos proper. “Look how it changes over the course of a year, even the course of a day. In the mornings, when the motonaves and the launchitas [long canopied canoes] arrive with all their goods, it is like a new world. But at night it is like a town of madmen, with drinking and fighting and stabbings; with contraband and putas [prostitutes] working out of canoes on the river. It’s a town full of people with very little but time.”

Lequerica came to Belen in a different way than most of its inhabitants. He left the city to be among the people of the jungle, to write their stories and myths before they assimilated and forgot them. He has written about the thirty-meter boas whom the people of the Javari say are too large to move and so must use a kind of mental magnetism to draw food to them; of the pink river dolphins that the fishermen on the Ucayali say change into beautiful women at night and seduce them. He speaks about the magic winds on the Putumayo, which cause men to beat their wives and children; and of how the people from the Maranon say that one is never alone in the jungle, that there are always Indians watching everything they do.

In chronicling their legends, Lequerica has become something of an anthropologist. “Look around,” he says. “Look at the faces. Belen is a melting pot for the peoples of the jungle. No one knows what they really are or where they are from. Oh, they know they used to live in Requena, perhaps, but where were they before? Whose people are they? Most of them can’t tell you whether they were once Yagua or Campa, or how their blood was originally mixed. Were they slaves? Stolen? They don’t know. Yet if someone speaks of catching an electric eel and placing the electrical sack beneath the flesh of their wrist to give them fantastic strength, you know they were once Shipibo. And if someone speaks of a man who can run like the wind and talk with animals, they are describing a Mayoruna. And only a certain branch of the Yagua would ever use a poison made from ground-up stinging ants for his blowgun darts. Where but a place like Belen could I gather those stories?”

Asked why he left, Lequerica laughs. “It’s my new wife. She likes this place but only from a distance.”

Lequerica’s fascination with the people of Belen is well placed. For each there is a story. His own son, Roberto, who grew up in Belen, is a butterfly collector for elegant shops in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. Each day he must go out into the jungle to hunt fresh game so that he can collect the blood he needs to attract the exotic species he wants. Several years ago, Roberto’s best friend, Moreau Torres, came from Herrera, a small town on the mouth of the Auchyako River, because he had killed a man over a woman while he was drunk. Others, like Mateo, a water taxi driver, stay because it is the family home. Mateo is the grandchild of Indian slaves. “I would never move to Iquitos,” he says. “Not because I couldn’t afford it, but because the people there are the grandchildren of the people who made slaves of the Indians. They are gallinosas, vultures.”

Not everyone shares Lequerica’s fascination or Mateo’s anger. Most of the people who arrive in Belen are just hoping they can work enough to move to the city. Torres dreamed at first of simply avoiding going to jail; now he dreams of a house on dry land. But make a living he must take tourists out into the jungle, a job he is qualified for but not one he enjoys.

“If you told me I would leave the jungle to find work going into the jungle, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he laughs. “Probably when I get my house in Iquitos I will have to make my living taking tourists to Belen.”

Like Marina Rodriguez, Torres is one of the lucky ones. He has learned to deal with tourists, and they are the way out of Belen for the people who live there.

Good medicine

It is morning in the marketplace. Shoppers have replaced the locals, and the vendors are selling, not buying. Germain Lequerica makes his way through the crowded aisles. He buys sidra (jungle grapefruit) and aguahe (red palm nuts) from a fruit seller, a package of hand-rolled mapachos (black tobacco cigarettes) from a tobacconist. He nods to a number of acquaintances as he walks, then stops to talk at a stall with a table covered with plants, roots, and bottles filled with variously colored liquids. The stall belongs to Jovina, a brujha (medicine woman).

“I see your ulcer is acting up,” she says, cutting a bit of root from a brown tuber and handing it to him.

He bites down on the medicine, chews a moment, then spits out the pulp. “Thank you,” he says. He points to her remedies. “You know why she keeps so many? It’s because each type of people is used to a specific remedy that comes from the place they were raised. She has more than thirty remedies for ulcers alone. And god help her if she gives a Yameo Indian a Marubo medicine.”

Lequerica begins walking again and starts down the stairs to the water’s edge. “I know who they are by their stories. She knows them by their medicines.”

At the bottom of the stairs he steps into Mateo’s taxi, and they start for the port. The water is still high, and the air is sweet. There is fresh paint on a number of the homes. A canoe carrying three Indian men passes in the opposite direction. They look as though they have just gotten off a boat and are seeing Belen for the first time.

“Go back to where you’re from!” Mateo yells at them. They turn slowly, taken by surprise and not sure whether the remark was meant for them. “There’s nothing for you here. You’ll just be slaves the way my grandparents were slaves. Go back before you fall in love with things you can't have!"

The three men turn away and talk among themselves. Mateo scowls. Lequerica smiles. "They won't go back. Not now. Not while the water is high and they've still money for a taxi.

"They would if they knew what was in store for them. They would if they knew that it would take generations to make their way up the hill and into the city.

"But they don't. And if you told them over beers later they wouldn't believe you. How could they? Look at all they see here. They can't imagine that none of it is for them."

Copyright © 2007 The World & I Online. All rights reserved.

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