Jaen to Tarapoto 14 May:
Soon after leaving Jaen we are passing between rice-paddies. Intermittent bright sunlight breathes color into the green rice and the white clouds hugging distant mountain peaks. In some flooded fields workers are harvesting rice. Of course we pause to photograph some of them.
They seem joyful in their work. They are standing barefoot in water up to their calves, their toes in soft mud, on a fine day. If I did not know better from having seen so many old peasants in China walking with permanently bent backs from working in rice paddies, I might envy them; but they do seem awfully happy.
Soon afterward we pass a set of flooded rice-fields with the sun turning the water bright white, so that the man on his knees in the foreground becomes a mere silhouette. He is kneeling as if in prayer. On the earth. To the earth? It’s a great shot, but I’m past it as I notice him, with a big truck behind me and a long way to drive, so I keep moving, with great regret.
The road is indeed paved all the way – mostly. There’s a lot of road-work, and a lot of stretches with dirt road and pot-holes that would have seemed mild compared to the drive down from Huancabamba. We endured that for a full day; but today each time the pavement disappears we feel betrayed, victimized, outraged: we were promised a paved road today! How can they do this to us?
Awhile after the miles of rice-paddies, we pass a man reclining on white bags of wheat. I drive past, but the composition – the man dwarfed by at least a couple of dozen bags, in front of an adobe house with a wooden door – lingers in my mind, and I stop, back up about 50 or 60 meters, and raise the camera. The man quickly gets up, and I think he’s coming toward us, but he moves to our left, out of frame, and I think he is offended. I apologize and start to leave, but Ragna says he just wanted to talk to me, perhaps thinking we were lost, so I don’t drive off, but instead explain what I do want, and he cheerfully agrees and returns to his perch on the bags.
In front of many houses coffee beans are drying in the sun on mats. On one, a little girl lies happily on the coffee, enjoying the warm sun and perhaps the deep scent of fresh coffee beans. The women sitting near her giggle as we stop and photograph her.
The images create a sense of people dwarfed by their produce. The [unshot] kneeling man silhouetted in the rice-paddy, the man among seventeen trigo-bags, the girl on the coffee, and other images my eyes catch as we pass . . . this is fertile land, and people’s lives are dominated by the food they produce.
Around another turn I spot three women in front of a simple wooden house, with a horse standing beside it and a bunch of beautiful tomatoes on a cloth or mat in front of them. The tomatoes gleam in the sudden strong sunlight, and the house and horse add to the composition, but I don’t stop – and add these three women and their gleaming tomatoes to the list of lost shots I mourn. I particularly would have liked it because it would have fit well with the man with his rice bags and the little girl lying on coffee. Rice, coffee, tomatoes – as well as plenty of opportunities to shoot someone with a huge stack of green bananas or plaintains.
Soon I add two more missed shots to the list, though with less concern: an ideal shot to illustrate the “Se Compra Café” pun, and a shot of a horse tethered in front of a life-size cow painted on the front wall of a building. Too, we miss a nice chance for Ragna to shoot a slice of video in a little town called La Esperanza: on her side a woman stands sweeping in front of a wooden house, then a few meters on a woman sits knitting in front of a wooden house, then a few meters further another woman stands out front performing some other chore.
At the end of a small town we pass a waterfall and stop for snacks and drinks at a stand by the side of the road. As the woman gathers what we’re buying, I photograph a cat stealing a drink from her daughter’s glass.
Fifty meters further on, the road disappears briefly beneath water, and soon afterward we begin to climb.
Around another pass, the terrain differs from the other high country we’ve been through recently. Quebrado Oso Perdido catches me with its name – Lost Bear Canyon? But who, long enough ago to be naming a canyon had a pet bear to lose?
On a switchback turn in the hills I spot a nice setting with three horses in front of a house, with a steep green hill climbing behind it and a brook running right by the house. Once we stop, I spot some folks doing something in the brook a few meters behind the house. I shoot from a distance, wave, and approach them along a narrow, muddy, sloping path full of mud and horseshit. I shoot a few shots, then approach closer.
They seem to be stomping on mesh bags full of fresh, fat carrots. Once they’ve finished stomping on the carrots, two of them work together to pour them into a regular white nylon bag. After shooting a bit I go closer. One of them recognizes that I intend to buy some carrots. (I want to give them some money, but not as a handout – and perhaps I’ll get a chance to eat the fresh carrots.) He comes toward me.
The brook runs between and over some treacherous rocks, and in my first effort to reach them I slip, barely avoid stepping into the water, and let myself fall back onto a flat rock behind me, carefully holding the camera in the air. I know it looks comical, and once they see that I’m not hurt, they laugh with me. When I get up again, one of them standing in the water gives me a hand. Meanwhile others have put a bunch of carrots into a bag for me, and I pay them S./ 1 and say good-bye.
We stop at a small gas station on the outskirts of Moyobamba, trying to decide whether to press on or stay for the night. Another moto-taxi with a Che decal. The proprietor has no idea how long it takes to drive from Moyobamba to Tarapoto, nor do a couple of passersby, but a man running a nearby store says it’s an hour and forty minutes. We’ll arrive after dark.
My last photograph of the day is the river we’ve been following for awhile.
Entering Tarapoto we are surrounded again by snarling moto-taxis. Of course there are few if any signs on the way in, and darkness is falling, so the moto-taxis zipping around us accentuate our own uncertainty about where the Plaza de Armas is, but we muddle through.
The moment we turn left into the Plaza, life is quieter. We stop to look at our small map of the town beneath a nice-looking restaurant with a deck. A waitress steps down into the street to help us, but we decide to eat first, and find the restaurant delightful. [Dona Z, on Grau.] Quite good food, attentive service by waiters who speak some English, and a respite from the road. We also get good advice from one waiter, who aspires to be a tour-guide in the near future: a hotel recommendation in Tarapoto and advice that Kuelap is a place we shouldn’t miss.
The hotel is not in the budget category, but we get apretty good deal on a huge corner room on the fourth floor, with two balconies on which we can enjoy the night air.