The Amazon has a duality that can only be understood when you experience it. Time moves, but it also feels still. Daily life goes by the rhythms of nature and the weather, flowing in harmony with its surroundings. Massive trees and winding rivers create ecosystems for the multitude of lives that inhabit them. The diversity of sounds change with the hours of day and night, but they never fade away. In this mega-diverse territory opportunities are plentiful, but so are the challenges. Distances are long and access is limited. We immerse ourselves in the Peruvian lowland jungle, heading towards Callería in the Ucayali province. We go with excitement for the possibilities of connection that may arise from this encounter with people, food, and cultures.
We depart from Yarinacocha lagoon until we reach the Ucayali River, a riverine highway with muddy waters that vitalize the vegetation running parallel to the river. Paper white herons pose on treetops and shores of the beaches that formed during the summer and now, in winter, are beginning to disappear again under the rising water. The heat and the noise of the boat engine conspire to keep us silent and focused on the landscape unfolding before us. Ahead are five hours of travel to Callería, a time that varies depending on the river conditions which, in turn, depend on the rains and winds.
On this boat, like in the jungle, there is diversity: a cook, a cultural manager, an art director, and a photographer form the team. Different perspectives and knowledges converge in an effort to contribute to an interdisciplinary vision of what we are about to experience together. As we leave the Ucayali behind and enter the community of Callería through the river of the same name, the sun that had accompanied us throughout the journey is replaced by a torrential rain. It’s not surprising; unpredictability is part of the complex Amazonian world. In the midst of the storm, we disembark. Guided by instinct we begin to run, then slow down our pace, allowing ourselves to get wet and surrendering to the experience as it unfolds.
We arrive at Luz Maritha’s house. On her table are plates already served with bijao leaves previously roasted in the fire, containing carachamas obtained from the mitaya (as fishing and hunting are known), and now transformed into patarashca. To go with the meal, there are boiled yucas, carambola juice, and the eagerness of first encounters.
Luz Maritha Rodríguez is an Iskonawa artist and one of the few remaining inhabitants of this indigenous population. In terms of numbers, they represent the smallest population in Peru. According to the 2017 census, only 22 people self-identify as Iskonawas. Luz Maritha’s art is inspired by the stories her grandfather has told her since she was a child, and she communicates them through the use of the natural resources around her, such as bark and clay. The encounter with her arose from a human bridge, from a bond of trust already established. This time it was Roberto Zariquiey, a linguist and collaborator of Mater, who has dedicated almost 20 years to keeping alive the original languages of the Peruvian Amazon, including Iskonawa. Along with her, they opened the Iskonawa School in her home, where children come to learn this language. They gradually incorporate everyday words into their vocabulary and, unknowingly, become guardians of a cultural legacy struggling to stay alive. The school also welcomes Shipibo-Konibo children and, through games and words, the intercultural threads of these two indigenous peoples who already share much more than just a territory are woven together.
The stories passed down by the few elders who are still alive are told in Iskonawa but these tales, rich in valuable wisdom, are finding fewer receptors. The integration of younger generations with the Shipibo population is giving rise to a new culture, diluting the words and along with them, the Iskonawa identity. The fear of forgetting, of not knowing where they came from, of who they are and where their place is, grows. Through the school, Roberto and Luz Maritha have managed to create a space for the conservation and transmission of the language, art, and identity—a sort of seed bank they water in hope of seeing them sprout and spread to avoid disappearing. Other forms of communication without words are also involved. Artistic processes, culinary preparations and the use of medicinal plants are also ways of telling stories and extending existences. Remembering becomes an act of permanence.
Without haste, we begin to try Luz Maritha’s cooking. We haven’t spoken much yet, but are getting to know her through other forms of conversation, such as sharing a meal. We recognize ourselves amid this sensory exchange, allowing each flavor, each ingredient to create new memories infused with different contexts that also unite us in this shared present. Something is slowly unfolding.
The rain takes a pause, which we use to get to know this new space. We go with Elías, Luz Maritha’s father, who is also an expert in medicinal plants. He doesn’t have a user manual with specific instructions; his knowledge is inherited. There is no tangible record of this wisdom; it is imprinted in his memory and continuity is maintained by using and doing. Once again, the act of remembering is weaving bridges for the persistence of knowledge and the preservation of identity. Meanwhile, with Elías, we walk on those bridges, listening to him, getting closer to all that cultural heritage with all our senses. We touch, smell, taste. We learn and express gratitude.
Elías tells us that with the barks of ubo and capirona trees he has been able to heal large cuts, that chuchuwasi is not only a good aphrodisiac but also cures colds and rheumatism, that with the resin of tanoni he treats snake bites and the leaves of malva can lower a fever. That the wachaca weed cures cancer. The distance, then, between the communities and the cities begins to feel even longer, and the inherent duality that coexists in the Amazon becomes more palpable. Perhaps the challenging access to health facilities and the difficulties this conveys play a role in preserving traditional knowledge. Perhaps necessity leads them to continue using what they have in their surroundings and to stay connected to the spirituality of plants. Perhaps.
The geometry portrayed in Iskonawa art pieces reflects the paths taken in the collection of the yacoshapana bark and a mud hidden in the depths of the Callería River, which will later be used to hand-paint their memories on a tocuyo fabric. Fragments of a past they may not have necessarily lived but to which they remain connected through the stories transmitted. Luz Maritha’s art attests to this. Her pieces speak Iskonawa fluently, and thus, this endangered language finds other ways to converse and survive. While narrating her canvases, she expresses a certain nostalgia, repeatedly mentioning Roebiri or Cerro El Cono, a place she has never been to but recognizes as part of her identity. From there, past generations came to settle in Callería, never letting go of the invisible vine that linked them to that place. Her drawings are also autobiographical, depicting her everyday objects, like the batán she uses to prepare masato or the shell of a motelo used as a tray, and her natural environment composed of mud and rivers.
The next morning, we trace our own geometry in search of the same bark and the same mud. Luz Maritha, her two sons Huver and Michael, and Percy her husband, come along with us. In the river, the four submerge and disappear beneath the warm waters, only to reappear with their hands full of a black mud they pile in the canoe. But not all muds are the same, and the one at the river bottom differs from the one collected from the banks, two hours away, which is used for creating ceramic pieces. Knowing this distinction speaks of transmitted knowledge and records that are part of nature. With enough bark and mud, we return to the community. We prepare a pot of water where we boil the yacoshapana along with three banana peels and lime juice. We let the mixture rest and so do we, as we wait for it to be ready to use.
We are summoned by a white tocuyo fabric stretched on the wooden floor in the center of Luz Maritha’s living room. Surrounding it and in silence, we pay attention to the initial strokes that she outlines, gradually understanding the technique. It’s our turn; we dip the brushes into the prepared mixture and as they touch the fabric, the mustard color impregnates it. After finishing the outline, we use the collected black mud to cover the painted fabrics completely and leave them to dry in the sun. And just as the mud came from the river, it returns to it. We rinse the fabrics in the running water, which dissolves the mud to the bottom, revealing the stories in black and white.
Drops falling from the sky on our last day in Callería remind us of the first. Outside, children play and collect rainwater in buckets. Inside, in the kitchen, there are smells of raw fish, vegetables, and burning wood. Also, a growing curiosity about what we will do with the available ingredients for lunch. A small group forms, including adults and children, whose eyes shine and widen with surprise as they see us placing the fish directly on the grill. Intuitively, and in the absence of a pan, we use the lid of a pot to sauté the vegetables. There are looks of astonishment but also approval. Suddenly, amid everyday actions like chopping garlic and stirring vegetables, complicity is generated, manifested in laughter and participation. A language that we all understand, the language of cooking, brings us closer. Words are no longer as necessary when behaviors feel familiar. Among aromas and smoky fire, the connections being forged seal that understanding.
Seated again at the kitchen table, we are not the same as a few days ago. We sense that they aren’t either. We can’t be, as the eagerness of the beginning is replaced by a comfort and a repertoire of experiences and learning that leave us wanting more. During the journey back to the city, we process the exchange of these four days. The connections are real and leave the path open for many joint possibilities. Shortly before saying goodbye, Luz Maritha tells us in Spanish, “we loved it, but it felt like too little.” We understood she was talking about lunch, but the timing of her words is undeniably fitting, there will always be so much more to learn.