IN THE TRACES OF THE MULE DANCERS. TRAVEL NOTES, PERU. JULY/AUGUST, 2019. Post 4 of 6

DAY THIRTEEN. TUESDAY AUGUST 9th.

The Silence in the Jungle.

 

Following on from the recordings made with the Asháninka at Marankiari, the gifts and exchanges, the way the women responded with such excitement to Arthur’s photographs of ‘King Chokery’ and his wife, the sense of kinship, and then the presentation of the copy of the original contract between the government and the Peruvian Corporation, we felt that certain parts of the story were being withheld or glossed as myth. Bertha Rodriguez de Caleb agreed to talk to us, in the twilight, beside a smoking fire, only because of the intercession of Beliza, as intermediary and translator; a fellow Asháninka who had already helped and advised over the meal prepared by the river. Bertha knew about the cave of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the messianic leader of the uprising in the 1740s, but she told the story without revealing any details about a possible pilgrim route. The paths over the plateau above the Perené, and the significance of the journeys to the Salt Mountain, Cerro de la Sal, always seemed to invoke the names of those neighbouring settlements, Metraro and Mariscal Cáceras, working plantations right at the outer limits of land controlled by the Peruvian Corporation.

 

‘We entered the great Trans-Andean forest after crossing the Pucartambo river,’ Arthur wrote. ‘We were a goodly company to start with, consisting of seven Europeans, as many Cholos, and a score of mules. The shade of gigantic trees seemed grateful at first… But the road was a villainous rut at a gradient of about one in three, a width of about eighteen inches, and knee deep in something like liquid glue. Before we had gone five miles one-half the cavalcade had come to grief, and it was some weeks ere we saw our pack mules again; indeed, I believe some of them lie there still… Shortly after six o’clock we were overtaken in inky darkness, yet we plodded on, bespattered with mud, tired, bitten, and blistered by various insects.’

 

Lucho’s headlong velocity – ‘Come on, vamos, let’s go’ – is neutered by the obligations of hospitality, that a meal, lunch, must be prepared as a social event with advice coming from all sides, with many participants, donors, casual witnesses. Root vegetables, variants on the inevitable yucca, are being hacked by machete on the mud floor of an outhouse shack, set conveniently close to the box with the hole for relieving urgent bodily functions. 

Lucho intended to bring pork as his offering, but remembered in time that this would not sit well with Seventh Day Adventists, followers of Fernando Stahl. He went early to the market in La Merced and chose a nice mix of prehistoric mud creatures, all bone and spine, and plump piranhas with rictus grins. They smoked and simmered. And made for a fine broth. After which, the dialogue could begin.

It had been hinted that, if all went well, we would be guided to the shrine of Juan Santos, a short distance from the village. The post-prandial gathering at Metraro showed no interest in Arthur’s photographs, but the locals were engaged by the letters and documentation dealing with the transactions of the Peruvian Corporation. They were shocked to discover, confirmed in writing, the duplicity of Stahl. The Adventist missionary offered, if he was permitted to establish settlements and schools, to make the Asháninka biddable, sober and willing to work on the coffee plantations. Soon he was conducting baptisms in the Perené.

The spokesman of the village, in long plaid shorts and sandals, mounted a motorbike piloted by a character in a cap with a DOPE signature and cannabis leaf design. And we were instructed to follow: we would be taken to the path that led to the cave of the reincarnation of the betrayed and slaughtered Inca, Atahualpa.

 

‘At last,’ Arthur continued, ‘there was a slight opening in the forest, and the ruins of an old thatched shed were discovered, with one end of a broken beam still resting upon an upright post, sufficient to shelter us from the heavy dews. It turned out to be the tomb of some old Inca chief whose bones have lain there for over 300 years, and there on the damp earth, we lay down beside them, just as we were. Our dinner consisted of a few sardines, which we ate, I shall not say greedily, for I felt tired and sulky, keeping a suspicious eye upon the Jesuit priests…

We were told, by the way, that the bones we were handling were the bones of Atahualpa, so treacherously murdered by Pizarro; but in Peru, of course, every such tale must be taken cum grano salis, and in this case the remains turned out to be those of a pretender who died about 1740…’

 

Juan Santos Atahualpa has become an authentic icon of resistance for the Peruvian tourist industry. In the main plaza at Pichanaki, on the back of a hoarding placed alongside a giant coffee cup for a recent festival, is Juan Santos, looking like Colonel Gaddafi about to greet Tony Blair in his tent, stern desert gaze and tribal robes. But the resting place of his bones remains obscure: hut, cave, shrine or, as some accounts have it, carried to Tarma.

We are hacking through the cloud jungle, trying to keep pace with the men from Metraro. Pressed hard against dripping rocks, reaching for vines. The village leader pushes ahead to test the path, overgrown, blocked by fallen trees, to the sacred cave. His bike jockey, the man in the Dope cap, holds us back. This is the moment of the silence in the jungle. Nobody moves. The birds are hushed. Everything is in green suspension. We catch our breaths. A moist and luxuriant interval, standing, not talking, but already suspecting that this is as far as we will be allowed to go. None of those miraculous old women will manifest to wave us through to the next stage of enlightenment.

The leader returns: it’s impassable, we must retreat. We follow the motorbike through a golden-hour landscape of small farms and thickets of dead and dying banana palms. Our guides dismount and walk down a dusty road beside the ghostly barracks of a diminished coffee plantation. Here is the final and most unexpected revelation, a tall blue and white pyramid, triggering memories of the pyramid in the grounds of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s in Limehouse. But this alien structure has a memorial function, it is dedicated to the Adventist and colonial prophet, Fernando Stahl.

‘He must have been a Mason,’ Lucho pronounced. ‘Like all those Jesuits and bankers and politicians in Lima.’

It was that time of day. ‘I shall never forget that calm, bright Sunday afternoon when we looked out for the first time on the great interminable forests of the upper valleys of the Amazon,’ Arthur wrote. ‘The faint buzzing of bees, the subdued chirping of finely feathered birds, the flutter of brilliant butterflies, are the only commotion in the air… What crops of vegetables and fruit might not be produced in such a climate and in such a soil.’ 

 

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