Feb. 2009: Walking down the road divider, a 5am sunrise, on the way into town. Dust kicking up from the moto-taxis passing by with wide eyed drivers, gawking at the sore thumb caught in the light of the rising sun. Long shadows from the early flight of horned vultures stretch across the wet tire tracks. There is the sound of the world coming alive all about the dead concrete, barreling through the ancient jungles of Peru, in line with Ucayali River gulping cold water from the melting snowcaps of the Andes. Pucallpa, is a dangerous town; stories of hostage taking terrorists and drug smugglers. Peddlers and pushers with calloused knuckles who prefer to dine upon backpackers with big "take me" signs fastened to themselves, weighing them down, bulging from their backs; like a meaty drum stick dancing in front of starved hounds. But in fact it is more dangerous to trust a foreigner in this place, because most come for a reason; one with many prepackaged explanations. The natives are happy and proud, fully aware and accepting of their neighbors and fully accustomed to lending a hand where it is needed. Only from the relatively recent influence of consumer culture have their hands sought the feel of money in exchange for kindness. But there are still many who know virtue in their blood. I was lucky enough to find such kindness, a CT townie with a pocket full of lucky charms and a knife securely fastened to the hip, a walking contradiction in a place where people come to never be found. I wanted this kind of solitude, for it is only in the places where man ceases to be a man that he truly knows himself. Four hours by taxi down a white sand and red clay road, to catch a boat, two hours down river, then one hour walking up and down hills, deeper and deeper into the hot breast of the Amazon. Going to meet a hidden teacher; the student seeks words with a sort of infinite; greater than an echo, an incongruous conversation with the id.
Oct. 2005: It was my second year in art college. I'm at Borders looking through the art section for books that might fit under my shirt or in my bag. I come upon a book, "The Cosmic Serpent," by Jeremy Narby, shelved incorrectly, wedged between Lucian Freud and Art Through the Ages. I would buy this book and it would lead me to ask questions, to shrug off the predictable, and embrace the implausible. A confection of curiosity and wonder would take over my cerebellum and cause me to finger through every article I could find about Peruvian mythology and cultural heritage. It became a hobby to be anthropologic, a hidden love shared only in passing fancy with those of an elite knowing. First priorities: painting, graduating, finding a job, besting my friends and their summer and after school plans. All else eclipsed by the need to learn the things that are not taught in common institutional circles.
Sept. 2006: An isolated tribe, never previously contacted, is discovered in the Eastern Peruvian Amazon by a helicopter crew surveying a newly purchased area of rainforest, now under the ownership of Peruanco Oil (French owned, Peruvian sounding). No permission, nor discussion of sale took place between the indigenous peoples of the area and the oil company, which was trying its damnedest to hide the news of the uncontacted tribe from the global public. Claiming that the tribe was nomadic and often went back and forth between Brazil and Peru, this was a cunning attempt to avoid governmental interference, and to skirt the issue of the tribes presence and importance. However, due to national exposure the issue went global. Peruanco, along with several other oil companies discovered oil in the Amazon; it is the biggest discovery in the region in the past 30 years. Still untapped, no one can be sure exactly what is under the soil. It should be common knowledge, that in the presence of any major commodity (diamonds, gold, oil, etc.) cultural preservation, the preservation of life, all of morality itself falls in the wake of progress.
There are many examples of this but my favorite comes from Lima, Peru itself, in the early 20th century when the president of Peru, searching for hidden treasures to boost the national economy, dynamited the temple of Pachacamac, the great temple of the earthquake god, (the biggest temple nearest to Lima). Nothing was found and, once he stepped down, the government spent millions of dollars repairing the damage. This is an example of cultural pluralism, which occurs when one culture adopts some of the traits of another culture because they see benefit in their inclusion. Unfortunately the insidious trait absorbed by Peru through years of suffering, betrayal and genocide, was that of greed.
Oct. 2006: I am convinced that the indigenous population of the Eastern Peruvian Amazon will meet with an unfortunate demise at the hands of an obese oil-consuming culture. Fear for the livelihood of the shimmering virtuous cultures I had come to love gripped me in a moment of clear moral choice. No one I knew, cared enough, knew enough, nor had the determination or grit to explore this road. I would make my plans through restless nights, trying to tongue the borders of the path ahead.
More details came in, the uncontacted tribe is perhaps 100 souls or fewer. The oil company had settled with the Peruvian government on buying a 2 million dollar plane to scan for heat signatures in the jungle tracking the tribes movement. The sole responsibility of monitoring the tribe is set upon the oil company and the lobbyists breeding in the local bureaucracy. It seemed inevitable that the tribe would be lost. I would seek only to learn more about tribes like these so that I could somehow preserve some fragment of their cultural heritage before the double tailed coin toss that would decide their future for them.
March 2008: Made contact with an advertising agency in Lima which will help me build my living from the $1000 I have left in my bank account. For the next 6 months I will learn Spanish from nothing but a knowledge of the pronunciation of numerals. I will lend a fraction of my soul to the Devil so that my better nature can keep track of what we ad men feed the public; I would rather it be me than someone who values money over what exactly goes into baby formula. I do the job well but after Christmas I leave to pursue a deeper understanding of my fate. I travel one hour north by plane to the only accessible landing strip on the border of the Amazon, then three days by boat. With my Spanish I speak to many wise men, tribal leaders that have grown weary of the outside world's encroaching duality and corruption. In me they seem to find a renewed confidence in the good nature of the human spirit, even though I am not the first idealist gringo to cross their paths, a 23 year old six foot american is certainly something new.
April 2009- Road blocks have been set up by some of the locals to hinder the transportation of drill equipment into the jungle. Although it hardly makes much difference to a road battered and broken by the summer storms. Whole cliff faces ride the landslide damming rivers that provide water to smaller villages miles away. Juan Flores (A Tribal Leader of the Shipibo)-"But what else can we do? Those bastards never even asked us if they could use our land. They never came to any of us to tell us what they found and they sure as Hell weren't going to share the profits with poorer residents. They just came and found the oil and immediately, production of the rig and drills began. It isn't just the oil companies, it is our own government that is stepping on its people, turning their backs on the very thing that makes this country great. They are taking away that last untouched piece of wonder. One of the last places where anything is sure to happen." As I observed Flores, the rain poured down the sides of the thatched hut. The sound of the overflowing hot water spring running down the mountain. The flames of the oil lamps describing the shape of a man from a different world, peering out through the dark night into my eyes and feeling a deep respect from my colloquial silence. He brushes the brightly colored feathers of the Macaw laid out on the floor to one side to get within personal distance. He extends his leathery hands out into the lamp light requesting my hands in response. I give over both and feel the surprising softness and gentle nature of the man. "Do you have any questions for me?" And although I wanted to ask him about how he came to be in this place far from the sound of people; of how he came to be. I simply said, "I have nothing to ask for nothing is owed me. I have only my thanks to give along with an apology, reserved for whomever may wrong you or cause wrong without giving reason or cause. I give this to you so that you may more easily forgive. A wise man (Ghandi) once said, 'the seeker of truth must be humbler than the dust.'"
Juan folded my hands together and slipped his right hand between mine and with as much honor as can be shared between men, he firmly shook my hand. I would not say goodbye to him when I would leave for town in the morning. I would only be told by the man driving the boat up river that Juan had requested that I return whenever I felt that I had to, an invitation only given to those of the most amiable quality.
May 2009- There are now three oil companies moving to occupy sections of the Amazon where their rigs will drink the blood of the land. When one takes a stone from the ground, there is a whole that remains; a cavity that can be filled with dirt, fashioned so as to make believe that there was nothing absent. But the fact remains that once there was a rock that need not be disturbed, where our eyes can forget but our mind remembers. I think to myself, when this is done the value of that culture that stands in the way of progress may be quantified in mathematical terms. Suffice to say that I will feel an emptiness when they are gone. I will have wished to recognize to another the great value found within the meek.
June 2009- Returning home to Connecticut, where my stomach cries patriotic tears of joy as I enjoy two bottles of Cottrell while wolfing down my first hamburger in more than a year. News of Peru has hit the global circuit: The road blocks that have persisted in the northern territories of Peru have provoked the local government to violence. Twenty five civilians are shot and killed by the local police, 10 policemen are taken hostage by the angered mob. Unconfirmed reports of the several tribal leaders under attack. Juan's name is among the list. The President of Peru has issued a statement calling the people that are preventing the transportation of supplies to the oil rigs, "terrorists," and has called for immediate action to resolve the now public issue regarding indigenous land rights. Days later, the government of Peru, under international duress changed its rhetoric and for now has checked its action.
Late June 2009: I have recollected my routine in the world of the clock that divides my life into quarters and halves. Walking down the still streets of New London catching stray glances at the bar rabble let out from the dry saloons. Following the rain run off down the hill to a two hour parking spot wedged between the alley and a tilted building. I look over at the train platform and see four people under the cover of a canopy speaking familiar Spanish. They see me and quiet themselves, giving worried glances. I yell, "habla pe!" Shocked for a moment they then return to comfort. I ask them where they are from and they say that they are from Leoncio Prado and Campo Serio. Two relatively remote villages in the Amazon near the areas where the riots have occurred. One man does not respond. He hangs his head and shakes his wet coat up from his shoulders. There is a shared look then the group all adopt the man's posture. It seems the memory of that once better place disrupted the momentary pleasure of reconnecting to a bit of home. I say goodnight, turn and leave. I pass them on route to the highway once more and nod goodbye. I catch the on ramp to 95N and wonder if my life in Peru was all fiction, and then I think that maybe someday it will be easier to think that it was.
I am only an artist. But I believe that the purpose of art has changed many times throughout history as art has become more commoditized. Originally art was our first language, it was our first and greatest tool for teaching and guiding our culture. Its inherent value has followed us through our entire evolution. We must not forget this function. Artists must take responsibility again and guide our culture by questioning the foundation of those systems that have governed us so far in the direction of greed, and self destruction. And we must preserve our sources of inspiration as much as we seek to inspire.
-written by Harrison Love