We have decided to go on to Yurimagua, a remote town on the river, and probably catch a boat there for Iquitos. When we get to the police-stop at which we had paused two days earlier on the way to the waterfall, we’re told the road is closed for work until the end of the day, and that we can’t drive through until nightfall. We’re all dressed up with nowhere to go, and Ragna decides we should go back the other way to Moyobamba.
West of Tarapoto, we pause in San Antonio. A steep dirt road down from the paved road between Tarapoto and Moyobamba. A hamlet wedged between the road above and the river beside it.. No reason to stop there except that there is no reason not to. It is very quiet. At first it seems deserted, although today is Saturday. We see almost no one. A few kids playing in front of their houses, a wheelchair-bound woman inside an open doorway. An occasional horse, tied and grazing.
There is one rough dirt road through town, parallel to the river, between two rows of simple houses, the river running behind one and the steep hill to the paved road rising from behind the other.
We drive nearly the length of it, and when we turn Ragna gets out to walk back, videotaping. I drive back the way we’ve come to where there is a large square common area in which a horse is grazing. Far beyond it, a woman leans on a stick or cane, watching me.
To my left, an old woman stands near a doorway. I approach and tell her what a beautiful and tranquil place it is. (It is what I so often say. It is true each time. Whomever I say it to agrees, sometimes with great enthusiasm.) I ask about taking her picture, and do so. When I show it to her in the viewer, she laughs.
She gestures toward the doorway then, and introduces me to the woman inside. In a wheelchair, the woman we had seen as we drove in. “Con mucho gusto,” I say, extending my hand. The older woman is telling me that it happened in a car accident, that her spine was injured, and that she was thrown some distance from the car, or perhaps that the car that hit her threw her a ways in the air. Her legs, bare from the knee down, have sores on them, and one seems smaller than the other.
“Que lastima,” I say. What else is there to say, or feel? This is a pleasant place, but day after day inside this simple house, probably without books, must be like a prison. The steep dirt road up out of the village isn’t so easy for a car, and would not be easy for someone to push a wheel-chair up. I have spotted one car in the village, far from her house. “Que lastima.”
They are country people speaking frankly and openly to a stranger, as country people often do, everywhere. They do not ask for money. I do not offer any. A few soles could not repair her legs or give her a better education and more interesting life. To offer would accomplish little. To stand talking with them, without pity or condescension, though with full sympathy, is what I can do. And it ain’t much.
I walk slowly across the green field, its grass kept short by grazing animals. I take some boring shots of the horse with the children in the background, the horse with the old woman with her cane in background, the green hills that rise steeply from just across the river. When I approach the old woman, I raise the camera and ask, “Con su permiso?“ Sure, I can take photographs. I do.
I climb the stairs to where she stands, and we talk briefly. It’s a good village. The fiesta will be June 12th and 13th. I also shoot more photographs. Her house bears a sign, “Peru 2001.” I wonder how Peru has treated her. Two small pigs lie sleeping in the other entrance to her house.
She has few teeth in her mouth, and a limp. Her name is Senora Delgado — although I will not learn for months that “delgado” in Spanish means “thin.” She tells me the name of the illness that lamed her, but I do not recognize it. She turns out to be 57. Younger than I am, yet an old lady.
I wonder about her life. She does not seem unhappy. Nor does she seem radiantly happy. Standing with her, looking across the green common area so familiar to her, over the thatched roofs of her friends’ [or enemies’?] homes, I feel the tranquility of the place, the peace. (Or is even that merely a strangers’ projection? Perhaps the village is riddled with invisible strife.)
The air is still and fresh. The world is green and calm. The silence is broken only by the children’s occasional shouts or laughter and the flight or calls of birds. Yet it seems terribly bleak, too. Simple houses, no books, probably no hot water, difficult transportation. Perhaps even getting food is a daily struggle – and this, small as it is, is a place to which others from more remote homes arrive on burros to trade.
Yet there is some balance . . .
I do not know how to keep score in life. I like hot water, good coffee, occasional ice cream, and getting to read The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books now and then. But I meet people who have none of that, and never have. They seem calmer and more at ease than the average professional person I know in San Francisco. Is that pretense? Is it my skewed perception? Or do the uncertainties and insecurities and city-noises and fear of crime and the confusing assault on our senses of electronic media, background noise, information, and proliferating obligations collectively drain more human spirit from us than the washing machines, improved medicine, big-screen movies, fine cars, and gourmet foods pour back in?
Ragna approaches, and remarks on the shyness of the people in the village. I introduce her to Senora Delgado. Ragna shoots some more videotape. From a few dozen meters away now, I see her showing the video to Mrs. Delgado and eliciting laughter.
Sadness clings to me as fog clings to the peaks. The drive back to Moyobamba, which we made in an hour and forty-five minutes the other evening, takes hours today, partly because the sadness seems to slow down my driving but also because we stop periodically to look around or shoot video or photographs.
I do manage a photograph to illustrate the silly pun I’d come up with on the drive down from Huancabamba:
["Se compra" means, more or less, "We buy"; the list of local crops such as coffee and corn is not a menu.]
At one point we see a lady in a bright blue dress raking coffee on a mat. Ragna has been wanting to videotape someone doing that.
“This lady?” I ask.
We pull over.
I do not leave the car this time. The blue-clad lady raking coffee would be a decent still shot, but the car is mostly still on the road. Even though traffic is light and we’re not on a curve, it seems prudent to stay where I am.
The lady approaches us. I explain that Ragna wants to shoot video of her raking the coffee. She smiles and laughs.
In the rear-view mirror I see Ragna shooting, then showing the video to the lady. The lady laughs now and touches Ragna fondly on the shoulder, like an old friend.
When are you coming back?
She invites us for platidos, narjanas, and mandarines. I leave that one up to Ragna. She is very careful about what we eat where, and that mandates that we politely decline. I explain that we haven’t time, we have to get to Moyobamba. She asks when we will return. I say that I don’t know, but that whenever we do we will stop at this spot and visit with her. I do not volunteer that quite possibly we will never return.
When we reach Moyobamba, it’s clear from everyone’s familiarity with it, and from the occasional tones of respect in their voices, that the hotel is the biggest thing in town.
Yet finding the hotel proves difficult. We stop so often, receive such conflicting and confusing directions from so many people, and pass the same spots so often without ever finding the hotel or a sign for Calle Sucre that I wonder if maybe the hotel doesn’t exist, but is a shared joke among the citizens, each of whom understands that when someone asks for the Hotel Puerto Mirador he or she should give some random directions, very seriously, knowing that those will lead only to another stop, another query, and another random answer.
But the arrival, finally, is worth it.
Two colorful parrots greet us in the parking lot, and we walk through the hotel toward the pool, with a long green hill sloping down to the river behind it. The room’s delightful – surrounded on two sides by nature – and the restaurant beckons. We eat a very good late lunch.
What a distance we are from San Antonio del Rio Mayo!
In the evening we drink pisco sours in the bar, smile about the art on the wall, and play a lengthy game of eight-ball on an old billiard table with stains and such radical table roll that we sink few balls and give up before we even finish a single game.
Morning in Moyobamba. I awaken early and walk around the grounds. I watch the morning fog battle the sunrise. Over a fence I hear farm-workers in a field laughing and chatting. Then I snag some coffee and return to the room.
Sitting out back with my coffee, I can see in the distance below a ferry boat plying its trade, slowly crossing and re-crossing the river.
In my pensive mood, the ferry boat evokes memories of a very different ferry boat, a world and two decades distant, and a tanka comes unbidden into my mind:
Ragna emerges. Lovely in her nightgown: our cabin is at the far corner of everything with only our view of the river in front of us, and she doesn’t need to worry about fully dressing. We drink coffee and shoot a little video and some stills and try to figure out what the day will be about.