Carmen and I can’t get enough—at least at first. We take turns gazing through the scope, afraid it might fly away. But we grow bored before it does. We settle back in our camp chairs and resume our word games. “Map, mop, map,” I instruct. They repeat after me. “Watch my face,” I say, exaggerating my cheeks. We do the same with bad, bud, and butt, and all afternoon I can hear Gustavo muttering the words to himself.
I didn’t come all the way to the Peruvian Amazon to teach English; I came to study the birds. Or rather, to learn from the biologists who study the birds. But it’s July, the height of the dry season, and the weather has been unusually cool. The macaws and parrots, the birds we’re supposed to be watching, are quiet. We are on a little island in the Tambopata River. Below us the current is slow, the water murky, and every morning after we’ve situated ourselves, a family of turtles climbs up from the water one by one, and balances against each other like tiddlywinks on the driftwood. The occasional pair of caiman eyes floats by, and sometimes the reptiles half-emerge from the water to sun themselves on the shore. I’ve watched a caiman sit in the same position for an hour and never once move, and its stillness seemed to be an ode to the this section of the Amazon, where life practically slows to a halt while the rest of Peru rushes on around it.
I am a short term volunteer at the Tambopata Research Center, here for just twelve days. Carmen is here for three months, learning about the environment so she can someday be an ecotourist guide. She loves birds, always gasping when a yellow-crowned parrot flies over. She’ll shout, “Mira, Amanda! Jello-crowned!” She is better at identifying the birds than me—she can tell a mealy parrot from a yellow-crowned just by flight. She’s twenty-three, with a soft face and long glossy black hair, thick bangs across her forehead. All the men who work at the center call her “preciosa” and “Carmensita.”
Gustavo, the field manager, has been here four years and jokes that he’ll be here forever. Every few nights he presents a slide-show to the tourists who visit the lodge. It shows the research that we’re doing, the various threats to the macaws—hunting, deforestation, a new highway that now runs through the Amazon. And although mining is illegal in this preserve of land, desperate miners find a way, and mercury seeps into the river system, making “forever” questionable. But all that is easy to forget up here. If you never see the threats, there’s no reason to believe there’s no forever. That a reptile couldn’t sit on the shore of this river for an eternity.
The Tambopata Research Center (TRC) sits on the bank of the Tambopata River in southeastern Peru, not far from the Bolivian and Brazilian borders. The research center is in the southern portion of the Tambopata National Reserve—nearly 1.5 million hectares of protected land that the Peruvian government set aside in 1990. A group of naturalists and scientists first noticed the rich biodiversity of the place—over 400 species of birds, and around 100 species of mammals live in the region, some of the highest densities found in the world. Taking advantage of a lull in oil exploration in the area, these conservationists proposed the vast preserve. TRC is touted as “The Most Remote Ecolodge in South America,” and whereas I’m not entirely sure if that’s true or not, it’s probably one idea that drew me here the first time I came, back in 2006. That and the fact that parrot and macaw research happened here—one of the only projects of its sort in the world.
The first time I came to TRC, I stayed for three months as a volunteer researcher. I paid the lodge ten dollars a day for food and a bed. This time it’s more expensive, but I’m happy to pay what I do, considering most tourists pay near $1000 for a five-night stay—more than I’d spend for three months in the rest of Peru. But it’s really money that protects this place, not research, although the research helps. The Tambopata Reserve was set aside for conservation, scientific research, and tourism. So as long as some sort of economic growth can come from preservation, it will be protected. Colorful brochures and tantalizing websites form a picture of this remote jungle as somehow real, as the destination, like a jungle equivalent of Macchu Picchu, while the rest of Peru clamors outside the reserve, eating away at the edges.
The first time I was here I did things like trek through swamps. In the dark one night, two other researchers and I hiked by headlamp to a swamp and slowly submerged ourselves—shins, knees, hips, ribs, until we were wading through up to our armpits, our packs and emergency radios discarded on the bank where the trail ended. We were hoping to see a tapir, an elusive animal that is active at night. We wouldn’t really even be able to see the animal itself, just its eyeshine in a beam of light. We came close to two animals that took off splashing through the water. Their eyeshine was red, and we later learned they were caimans.
I loved that feeling of adventure, of the off-duty forays into the jungle. Back then, one of the researchers I was working for told me of adventures he’d had with another researcher, how they’d trekked for days into the jungle, or maybe canoed up a tributary. How they were caught in downpours, how they accidentally slept on ants’ nests, and I remember that feeling: Take me with you!
And when one of the boatmen, a local Ese’eja man, told me he was going to take a boat trip upriver all the way to Candamo, where the jungle begins to give way to the foothills of the Andes, I felt it then, too. The urge to go deep. That I had arrived in a place on the threshold of nearly untouched territory, and that the most valuable thing a person could do—or at least, that I could do—would be to submit myself fully to this vast wilderness. Here, I thought, lay something pure, the real Peru.
Every morning at least one or two of us must wake before dawn to count parrots and macaws. Upon waking I always listen for the patter of rain, which exempts us from bird duties. We walk through the dark to the river and board a boat, typically with a load of tourists, and we putter upstream to our little island. We walk up a trail, the tourists stopping at one place, and the researchers continuing on to our own spot. The island has a clear view of a cliff wall on the riverbank, a stretch of red clay soil called the colpa. Colpas are full of salt and minerals, and the birds come here to eat the clay, which provides a source of sodium and also helps them to digest their otherwise indigestible diet of unripe fruit. Years of this accumulated research will eventually be able to answer more questions—which birds come when, why some come more during certain times of year than others—which will give a larger understanding of the ecology of tropical rainforests.
As the sun crests over the jungle canopy, the birds arrive, flying over the river and roosting on treetops above the colpa. They congregate slowly, until there’s a mass of squawking, chirruping birds. Eventually they’ll tentatively dip down onto the exposed wall of the colpa—usually one bird leading, then the others quickly following. In little clusters they’ll perch on the cliff and bite off chunks of clay. After a minute or two of blissed-out, manic eating, some mysterious threat causes them to take flight all at once. They lift like a swarm, a flash of blue, green, and scarlet tipping and changing colors in the sunlight before disappearing into the trees. It is our job to count the eating birds every five minutes, one or two people scanning through spotting scopes or binoculars, another person recording the numbers.
My training should be quick, but in truth I only remember the names of some of the parrots. And I can’t for the life of me differentiate between the screech of a scarlet macaw and the screech of a red and green macaw, neither in flight nor perched, just like Gustavo, despite all my impromptu English lessons, can’t seem to untangle “could” from “would.” He has learned “May the Force be with you,” and maybe that’s enough. Despite our mutual ineptitude, we become fast friends.
“Four years, Amanda,” Gustavo says to me sometimes in the afternoon when we’re back at the research center and entering our morning data. He scuffs around the lodge in his flip-flops, which he pulls on over his socks, which are always pulled up around the cuffs of his pants. “Four years,” he’ll say, shaking his head in mock weariness. He does get to leave sometimes, to go back to civilization, to visit his girlfriend in northern Peru, but for the most part he seems like an installation. His clothes have taken on the sweet musk of jungle aroma.
“Scientists have to be a little crazy,” he says. And I can see that. I realize how much I’ve changed in the six years since I first came here. I wouldn’t make it as a scientist now—not because I couldn’t handle the remoteness, the wildness—but because I just start to question too much. Is this worth it? I find myself not nearly as enamored with the jungle this time. I’m no longer breathless at the sight of mist rising from a jungle canopy. I no longer start at the site of mountains in the distance when I look upstream, the peaks rising like a mirage with a layer of cloud clinging like a halo. I remember the first time I saw them, back in 2006, one of the boatmen pointed upstream, los Andes, he said. Perhaps that was the moment when the world started to feel a little smaller, the Amazon not as unending as it had first seemed. I don’t feel like a bonafide researcher this time. Twelve days is not enough to claim any sort of authority over the science of the Peruvian Amazon, even if I have been here before. But I’ve also lost some sort of faith in the “why” of the research. The research can only be conducted as long as this place can be reserved with tourist money.
“Tourism generates glossy brochures and colorful stories that may or may not reflect any lived reality in a host destination,” writes anthropologist Amanda Stronza. Whereas she isn’t bashing tourism, she begins with a litany of common criticisms against it: “Tourism transports people to a liminal space in which social roles and responsibilities are abandoned or turned upside down.” Authenticity, she says, “lies in wait” as though “behind a curtain.” And whereas the wildlife that tourists come to see is real and tangible, there’s a whole story behind the curtain that this ecological wonderland omits.
Each morning as we walk to the colpa, whether there are many birds or just a few, the tourists are dazzled. They talk about the birds excitedly with the guides on the boat ride back to the lodge, and they eagerly focus their binoculars on any speck in the sky or on the water. To be in Tambopata, one must develop a set of wilderness eyes. Within a matter of hours you learn what to look for, what signs might signify which species–whether that high-pitched whir is a frog or a bird; whether the pronged footprint in the mud is a tapir or capybara; whether the bird swooping by is in the parrot family or just a common oropendola. Every few days a new group comes, and it starts all over again. I envy that moment of awakening, that first foray into the jungle, and I realize I’ll never have that sort of infatuation again.
Except for his nightly presentations, Gustavo rarely interacts with the tourists. Yet he remains unwaveringly confident in his research. Not unaware that it sometimes feels like an uphill battle, but ever faithful, and each night he ritualistically lays out his shirts and thoroughly sprays them with fungicide from an aerosol can, preparing for his next day in the field.
Perhaps my growing disillusionment comes from the fact that a tourist can technically arrive at TRC and almost never really have to see the rest of Peru. They fly into the little airport just outside of Puerto Maldonado, are whisked away on buses that often take them directly to the port on the Tambopata River. They pass through the community of Infierno, where the Ese’eja people live, where they might have a brief glimpse into what seems like native Peru—despite the fact that the Ese’eja are a mix of different people—before leaving it all behind. They never have to enter the city, never have to breathe the smog or become deafened by motos rumbling over the newly paved streets, never have to have their bones rattled by early morning jack-hammering, never have to see the scabby, tumor-riddled dogs stretched across shaded doorways nor share their meal with the homeless men who stumble through them.
Puerto Maldonado is one of Peru’s fastest growing cities. In 2011, the South American civil engineering company Odebrecht finished the last pieces of the Billinghurst Bridge—a shiny steel suspension bridge crossing the Madre de Dios River. It was the final piece of the new Interoceanic Highway that now runs as a continuous snake of asphalt from Peru’s Pacific coast, over the Andes and through the Amazon to Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Peru is trying to be more like Brazil, trying to rise upward out of its parallel ruts of poverty and corruption. Puerto Maldonado has nearly doubled in size since I was here six years ago, and I hardly recognized the city on my return. Many of the city’s roads are now paved. The central plaza is now lined with national bank branches. Chain stores sell appliances, mattresses, machine parts on every corner—supplies that once could only be attained in the next nearest city of Cusco, or across the border in Brazil. All moto drivers (although not passengers) now wear helmets, and taxistas wear official yellow vests.
In June, before I arrived at TRC, I traveled down the new highway from the city of Cusco in the Andes Mountains down to Puerto Maldonado. The last leg of my journey was in a taxi, and the driver agreed to stop so I could take pictures along the way. We stopped in one of the many shantytowns that have popped up along the road in the past few years. The buildings are constructed of lashed-together tree trunks, with blue tarps for walls and roofs. Many towns are built on platforms right over the swampy water, and during the rainy season the people must be hit hard with dengue fever and malaria.
People flock here to mine. With gold prices at an all-time high, miners spread out into the jungle from the highway, up rivers and tributaries, digging into fresh, raw terrain.
Before the Peruvian government started really paying attention to what was happening, the influx of miners had demolished Huepetuhe, turning it into a moonscape of a settlement in the jungle, west of Puerto Maldonado. Rivers had been dredged and diverted, the sediments run through sluices, mixed with mercury, and spewed back out onto the land again. The operation has left behind patches of hellish, empty landscapes with nothing but red hills of sludge—denuded swaths so vast they show on satellite images taken from space.
A few years ago, Peru’s Minister of Environment, Antonio Brack Egg, started cracking down on illicit miners, sending in troops to destroy the equipment of any miner who couldn’t show permits. In some instances they set fire to river mining operations, floating sluices called dragas. In 2011 Brack Egg gave illicit miners one year to legalize, one year to go through the process of paperwork and obtaining permits—a process that is easy for a large company, but difficult for a single-man operation. That year was up in March of 2012, just a few months before I arrived in Peru, and it culminated in miners flooding the streets of Puerto Maldonado in protest. It was too difficult—near impossible—for them to formalize, they complained. They referenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international law that cites humans’ right to engage in productive employment. As I came down the highway, we drove through several more shantytowns that had been abandoned when the troops came through. Tarp roofs sagged where water had collected, and many of the stick platforms were falling into the swamps below.
Outside the Tambopata National Reserve, mercury runs into the river systems—where people drink, wash their clothes, where their children swim. Mercury is used to separate traces of gold from watery sludge. Miners mix gold-laden sediment with water, gravel, and mercury, blending it together. And when small balls of mercury and gold come together, the mercury is then burned off. Legally, companies are supposed to have fume hoods to control how much mercury is released into the air, but it can be assumed that most small-scale miners don’t do this. Whether consumed, absorbed through the skin, or breathed in, mercury affects the human nervous system. Direct contact with mercury can cause nausea, headaches, vision impairment, and weight loss. According to the US EPA, children who were exposed to mercury while in the womb may have impaired “cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills.” So not only are large swaths of desert-like terrain left in the wake of gold mining, but the desert that’s left is a toxic, dangerous place.
And so perhaps this is part of the reason why I can no longer gaze forever through the spotting scope at scarlet macaws, perched in pairs, rifling their macadamia nut bills through each others’ feathers. Because this little spot can sit protected, dependent on tourist money from people who are convinced they are seeing something “real.” Now, on quiet mornings or afternoons at the colpa, I turn my attention to The Peru Reader—soaking in info about pre-Incan cultures, agrarian reform, political strife in the mountains. I almost forget to appreciate the family of red howler monkeys that I watch one afternoon, crawling across the colpa, prying off chunks of clay. They gnaw unabashedly, chewing their clay open-mouthed.
In the evenings, the staff always softens to Carmen’s request to watch her favorite TV show after dinner, Yo Soy Peru (I am Peru), on the staff television. On the show, singers dress up like famous musicians and sing their songs. They are judged on how well they can impersonate, how well they can seamlessly adapt the famous icon’s persona. I suffer through rounds of “Eminem” and “Cristina Aguilera” and an occasional traditional Peruvian icon, which are always much more interesting to me. “They are Peru,” I want to say. But then, who am I to say? Carmen is in love with “Bon Jovi,” and every time he passes another round with the judges, making it onto the next show, she screams a little and fans herself. The staff laughs: “Carmensita, tranquila chica!” I find myself being lured in with her: “Bon Jovi” wailing “Living on a Prayer” is suddenly as fascinating to me as a family of howler monkeys.
Of the people who work here, there are the men who cook for the tourists (and for the staff). There are the guides, who come and go with the tourists, and the boat drivers who come and go with the guides and their groups. Since there are only a few drivers, I see the same ones over and over—Ramón, Angel, Agostino and Gatito. Gatito’s my favorite, although it’s hard to believe he can navigate well with his small, milky-looking eyes, but every time I see him he grins and calls out Amanda, in which I respond with Gatito! There’s a maintenance staff that weed whacks around the lodge every few days, filling the open-air lodge with blue, clinging smoke. They fix pipes and repair loose thatch and search for tourists’ dropped earrings in the dirt beneath lodge’s slatted floors.
Being here sometimes feels like sleep away camp or the Army—especially the way the staff gathers around two tables with benches at meal time on a little porch behind the kitchen. We eat from tin bowls, serving ourselves from giant pots. Sometimes we get leftovers that the tourists don’t eat. If there’s any dessert the chef Manolo sets some aside for Carmen and me, usually something mysteriously purple and incredibly sweet. But most of the time we eat white rice and chicken, the chicken not meaty breasts or thighs, but bony backs and ribcages.
“The volunteers call it ‘chicken ass,’” Gustavo tells me. “‘I’m so sick of chicken ass,’ they always say.” He always comments on the volunteers, their peculiarity, measuring me against the others who’ve come before. “Do you do yoga?” he asked me once. “All the volunteers do yoga.” He shook his head in disapproval.
I learn to eat like the staff, pulling bones apart with my fingers, popping them one by one into my mouth and working any slivers of meat off and leaving a clean pile on the edge of my plate. There are no napkins, and we all eat with one greasy hand perched as a handling tool above our food.
Coffee has to be surreptitiously taken from the area where the tourists eat. I am allowed to have it, but none of the staff drinks it—“Volunteers always need their coffee,” Gustavo says—and I feel guilty because I know how expensive it is. It’s the paradoxical situation of Peruvian economy—a country full of riches, but none of it to keep. If the staff wants coffee, they help themselves to a little jar of Nescafe from the kitchen shelf.
The Tambopata is a secret dream world speckled with pink ceiba blossoms, resounding with the whooping whistles of toucans and tinamous, infused with a fecund aroma that seems to rise like steam from the damp forest floor. You don’t go to TRC, you arrive, emerging from the dense thicket as though through the looking glass. All civilization is far behind now, and you stand, bewildered, on the edge of the jungle and the little opening that holds the cozy network of thatched buildings. In the past I crossed that threshold eagerly, wanting to be held in this little dream world. But now I am too aware of what this world shuts out.
At lunchtime the generator comes on (lights typically go off at 9 am and come back on at 5 pm) so the staff can watch television. While we eat, the tourists, full from their meals, wander around the lodge’s common areas taking pictures of emerald hummingbirds sipping at a heliconia plant, or waiting for the peccaries to venture to the edge of the forest to root around in the tall weeds.
As the tourists escape into their real-life nature documentary, the staff escapes into whatever show is on. TV here is never an isolating affair, not like the way I think of it in the US, each viewer zoning out into her own private numbness, but instead is accompanied by a continuous stream of commentary and one-upping and wild gesticulating. Television hour is the only time staff is allowed to put their own needs before those of the tourists. Rambo, sweaty and blood-smeared, pumping bullets from a machine gun, evokes the same shouting and table slapping as a nature documentary about golden eagles. “Maldito,” the men murmur as the birds swoop before a mountainscape, sinking talons into their quarry. I find myself lingering around the TV more and more after meals.
One morning at breakfast we are suddenly watching footage from the Cajamarca region in northern Peru. A US based firm called Newmont had proposed a copper mine called Minas Conga—a project that would drain five alpine lakes in the region and replace them with reservoirs. In April, President Humala had given the green light to Conga, as long as Newmont was able to curb environmental impacts. A later poll showed that 78% of Cajamarca’s population was opposed to the mine, including the region’s local politicians. During early July, violent protests broke out between locals and police. Two days before I arrived at the research center, the death toll had risen to five, and the government had called for a 30-day state of emergency in the region of Cajamarca. The region’s largest city, also called Cajamarca, is the famous site where Pizarro’s army strangled Atahaulpa, the then Inca ruler, to death in 1533. Pizarro, or course, came seeking gold and silver.
On the news, we watch families of victims carry coffins throughout the streets, but pushing between protestors and police breaks out; a coffin is dropped. The camera cuts to police surrounding a man and beating him. “Conga no va!” protestors shout. Stop Conga. “Agua si, oro no!” Water yes, gold no! On the news, the reporter refers to it as guerra—war.
The staff is glued, silently shaking their heads. Gustavo crosses his arms and stands next to the television to hear. When it’s over we put on our binoculars, go looking and listening for birds.
At first, I love the quiet and stillness of the lodge. I love my little room, the bed even with its ancient yellowed mattress, the mosquito net that tucked around it—even with its littering of moth wings and grasshopper legs across the top. I love the balance of daylight to darkness—a near equatorial perfectness of twelve and twelve, that when I’m awake I’m on and ready and rushing through the jungle, and when I stop I’m ready to eat or ready for sleep. At first the quiet of the jungle is a deep, soothing balm after the noise and pollution in Puerto Maldonado. I had stayed in a hotel in the center of the city where I was never free of the roar of moto-taxi traffic or the child-like giggles of two mangy mealy parrots—a noise that in nature is softened by the tree canopy and distance, but when echoing off tiled concrete walls becomes intolerable. The jungle was so still and quiet it made me want to cry at first. I slept like I hadn’t slept in years. But after a few days the stillness becomes unnerving.
It is hard for me to tell at first if it is the place or me. Is it because it is the dry season, where everything is safe, where there is less activity? Less chance of mosquito-born diseases, less chance of boot-rot or fungus sprouting on my clothes? Is it because there is less bird activity, fewer people, less of a sense of hustle-and-bustle from what I remembered—the work, after all, is pretty dull this time of year. Is there something different about this place, or is it that I can never really see this place in the way I once did?
On one hand the silence is beautiful and stilling. Sometimes it feels like an ominous quiet, an unsure quiet that’s hiding something.
Angel leaves with one group of tourists; Ramon comes in with another. Again, we show the video of the macaw research, unwinding the filthy sheet from its bar on the ceiling and setting up the projector. I start to get tired of the footage, the voiceover that says “bits of eggy membrane” when showing a pink and bald freshly hatched macaw. Gustavo, as field research manager, has shown this video every week for the past four years, and he still doesn’t know exactly what it’s saying.
Everyday we truck through the jungle trails and record bird activity—or lack thereof. Years and years and years worth of data. So much data for one small section of the Amazon, and I wonder what it’s doing to help. The nightly video shows graphs of what’s been discovered: some species of parrots eat more clay when they have newly hatched chicks. It seems so small and useless when presented like this. I’m not entirely convinced the data will matter if the tourists were ever to stop coming. I begin to recognize the truth in the statement “Environmentalism is a First World problem.” If the tourists weren’t here to pay for the wildlife show, I’m not sure this place would be protected. Only once basic needs are satisfied can people worry about their birds, their trees, their pristine landscapes—first they need to worry about food, a house, a living. But in the short-sighted rush to obtain the basics, people don’t stop to consider the consequences, the potential tragedy. Some forms of economic security mean a demolished landscape and health risks.
Sometimes the tourists nod off during the show. Four or five days isn’t enough time to get used to the up before daylight schedule. Gustavo told me once that the tourists always ask him, “The tourism helps, right?” And he always answers, “Yes, of course!” But, he told me, he’s not so sure. “It’s not always the best for research,” he said.
One of the guides tells me how each tourist group fills out a survey form at the end of their trip. Tally points are collected based on the surveys, and guides are granted or not granted jobs based on their scores. “I have to find spider monkeys,” he says one evening, preparing a night-hike for his couple from France. “It’s a good bet, spider monkeys at night. It’s my last chance—I think they’re disappointed they haven’t seen more wildlife.” He’s worried he might get a bad score, that he’ll be offered fewer tourists, that he’ll lose his job. Another night, a different guide and I strike up a conversation about gold mining. “My parents are gold miners,” he tells me. “I can’t blame them,” he says, turning slightly defensive, perhaps afraid I might call out the contradiction—he working for the environment, they working against it. I don’t, though. Instead I say, “I don’t blame them either.”
“What are they supposed to do,” he continues. “Everybody has to eat.”
The taxi driver who drove me to Puerto Maldonado made a point of saying, “They’re all foreigners,” when we drove through the shantytowns. When I asked him where the miners were coming from he said, “Brazil,” and then, “The mountains,” meaning the Andes. In the jungle, people from the mountains were considered outsiders. I’d heard something similar from an American man I met in Puerto Maldonado when I returned to the city from TRC. He’d been living here for ten years, running a reforestation project, and was the first to explain the miners’ protests in detail to me. He said that when the miners were pushed out of Madre de Dios because of stricter regulations, they just crossed the border into the next region, Cusco, where officials weren’t as vigilant. He viewed the miners’ protest as skewed: “The miners were protesting here in Puerto the right to do something that’s illegal,” he said, comparing their fight to mine to a fight to rob banks. “Every other week in the news, you hear about miners killing each other over gold, mining bosses killing their workers so they don’t have to pay them, police busting prostitution rings where you’ve got twelve-year-old girls who are sex slaves in the mining camps.” Yet, he too was wary of ecotourism as the savior option. “I just feel like ecotourism should be one tool in a tool kit. And here most projects that are oriented towards conservation take ecotourism as the cure-all.”
He was able to articulate what I’d been thinking about during my entire time at TRC—can this be the only option? If tourists just decided to stop coming, would the reserve actually be reserved? Something felt odious about tourism; it had little to do with the tourists themselves, who were typically curious, adventurous, and concerned people. Rather it had to do with troubles I felt about authenticity versus the “show.” That people came to the Tambopata to see something—as I first wanted to see it—as pristine, virgin, untouched. The “real” Peru. But as I spent more time in the ensconced fantasy that the research center seemed to be, the real Peru was out there, through the television, in the streets, in the mines.
“We’ve got to do better,” he said. There had to be something better than relying on just tourism. “We’ve got to be more creative about solutions.”
On Esto es Guerra one night, the two teams face off, one man from one team against a woman from another team. They race to answer trivia questions and then to ring a bell. Whoever rings the bell first gets to chase the other around and smash a pie in his or her face. Eventually, everyone is smashing pies in everyone else’s faces. The women make kissy faces with whipped cream dripping from their chins. The staff laughs hysterically, Carmen rooting for her favorites and covering her mouth to stifle a scream whenever her team gets pied.
Someone changes the channel, despite the groans of the staff. Cajamarca is back on the news. The newscaster sticks her hand into giant holes blown into the side of a building. There’s footage of people being mauled by police in riot gear. The mother of one victim cries on camera, holding a photo of her son. “Conga no va” and “Agua si, oro no” are spray painted across buildings. People gather in streets yelling, holding signs. Children stand in second-story terraces with signs, bandages pulled over their mouths.
But Newmont won’t back down. They say they’ll hire more researchers, so they can be really, really sure that there’s no real threat of water contamination for the town, but Cajamarca isn’t buying it. They want their lakes, not the mine.
“We all hope this problem is solved soon,” the newscaster says.
Then it’s back to Esto es Guerra. Now the women are pretending to be dolls. They stand with stiff arms, 90-degree angles at the elbows. They maintain this semblance during the trivia round, although their faces contort with concentration when the questions come: “Who is the president of Brazil?” (a multiple choice question). “Who wrote the Origin of Species?” For once they don’t wear their bathing suit outfits—red and green sports bras and trunks—but skimpy little dresses.
Out in the jungle the tinamous are starting, the low whistles signaling evening.
Gustavo and I are on the fire tower. He’s trying to teach me the difference between mealy parrots and yellow-crowned parrots. But then he realizes the yellow-crowned he was just looking at is actually a mealy. Nothing is ever how it seems. From the tower we can gaze out over the canopy, the treetops like endless layers of gauze, some of the trees massive with dendritic branches like exquisite brushwork. I sometimes get scared at the idea of just wandering into the jungle, how easy it would be to get lost, and from up here the fear is magnified when I can see how far the forest stretches. But I also know that this vista is part of the charm. The view of the canopy belies its limits. I could easily get lost, but it is not endless.
Gustavo leans on the railing and starts talking about how lucky he is. “The Peruvian government doesn’t support biologists,” he says. “They don’t care about their own researchers.” And in fact, many of researchers who come to the lodge are American or European—people who can easily get funding from a university to conduct research. In Peru it is difficult—he lucked out by landing the field manager job. There aren’t many projects like this that really support Peruvian biologists. And then, as if reading the skepticism that had been growing in my mind, Gustavo says, “This is a good project, you know. It’s important—the only one like it in South America. There are no other projects that have gone on for this long studying macaws and parrots.”
I nod, and I tell him I know, and that he’s right. But there’s still a grain of skepticism in me. I think it’s just become harder and harder for me to care about birds, to truly believe in something pristine, untouched. For whom does the little green jewel sit, untouched? Is it for its own intrinsic value? And if so, is that enough?
During my last night at the lodge the temperature dips down into the fifties. It is a friaje, the air thick with fog in the morning. I bundle inside my sleeping bag—fifty is warm compared to what I slept through while in the mountains, but this is the jungle, and my blood has already acclimatized to the hot, humid days. Who would think you’d ever have to snuggle in your sleeping bag in the Amazon Rainforest? The next morning, before I leave, I take pictures of Carmen standing in the steep roots of a giant kapok tree—she is wearing a down jacket, a hat, and gloves.
At breakfast, we catch the tail end of a news story about a group of children that had been recently rescued. They had been captured and trained for combat by Peru’s Marxist guerilla group, The Shining Path. There are photos of small boys holding machine guns out in a field, and then live footage of President Humala and his wife greeting boys coming off an airplane. Humala’s wife carries a small boy whose look seems entirely lost.
By that evening I’m back in Puerto Maldonado.
A few weeks later I’m in Lima, getting ready to fly back to the US. In a Chinese restaurant, I come across a new Peruvian TV show, one I haven’t seen before: a drag queen talk-show host interviewing a woman dressed like a little girl. The girl was a character from a Mexican sitcom called El Chavo del Ocho. She wears big glasses and has freckles painted across her nose, her hair pulled into pigtails. Her name in the show is La Chilindrina—named for a “freckled” Mexican pastry. The drag queen wears gold lamé and is dressed like a fortune-teller: a circus-themed show to celebrate the circus that is in Lima this week. I’ve made a Limeño friend with impeccable English, urban clothes, and a worldly sense of taste. He apologizes for Peruvian television. “It’s the worst,” he says. And I hear myself saying, “Oh, it’s not so bad. I kind of like it actually.”
Later, walking around Lima, I come across a miniscule graffiti stamp on an old colonial building. I have to practically lean in to read it. “Conga no va!” it says in tiny, stenciled letters. Such a little voice calling out into a loud, grumbling city, which seems as though it could hardly care.
It will bring me back to the jungle, where I first saw footage of protestors shouting those words. I think of how after an hour of electricity from the generator, the noise would just shut off, as though it weren’t there anymore. How the staff would go back to work. How we’d go back out to count birds or identify trees, how guides would lead their tourists, hoping that spider monkeys might be active, swinging sillily from branch to branch to branch. How normally when I think of shutting off a television, I think of turning off the fantasy that the media creates, whether it’s some corny game show, or hyperbolic headlines. But how up in that sweet, green jungle it sometimes felt the other way around—that we were stuck in some sort of hyperbolic Eden and the television held what was really happening, whether the small wars that blazed across the country, or the shallow, useless dramas. Even the screeching, pie-smooshing ridiculousness of Esto es Guerra—it seemed necessary somehow, an antidote to the turmoil.
I wonder how Carmen is faring as the only female now, and if “Bon Jovi” made it to the next round on Yo Soy Peru. And during my last few days in Peru, every time a TV turns off, I almost expect to hear the nearly imperceptible roar of howler monkeys in the distance, for a passing rain shower to darken the sky.