Landing in Tarapoto, the gateway town and airport to the northern Peruvian Upper Amazon, is always a shock for me as I recall the area covered with forest thirty years ago. Now it looks more like Austria, with lots of deforested slopes. In the Huallaga river valley, the rice paddies that have displaced the indigenous people to search for ‘free’ forest areas further away seem out of place. Is this really the promised ‘bread basket’ of the Peruvian Amazon? From the air I see the Trans-Amazonian highway that links the Pacific coast to the Huallaga: cement, corrugated iron, lots of foodstuffs, cars and machines travel by road and then boat to the lower Amazon. It’s 30 °C, which may sound nice from the UK at this time of year but the tropical sun makes one dizzy. The coconut trees (Tarapoto is a palm tree) are covered with large green fruit full of delicious coco water 30 pence apiece. Mangoes are falling from trees like apples in England in September. Olga, Ines and I picked some from the ground and ate them. It was good to rest for one night in the Hotel Rio Shilcayo, now a bit of a luxury oasis but my R&R place since I was doing fieldwork with my eldest daughter Lucia as a baby.
All the glitzy Christmas decorations are up in the hotel and on the main town plaza. We watched Santa motor-bike-sledges full of small children circling round the plaza, blurting out a mix of colonial Spanish carols and new Christmas tunes in salsa mode. Everyone is out on the plaza between 7 and 9 pm, and it’s a festival of dressed up babes in arms proudly paraded by couples or pairs of women. Families arrive on motorbikes, two or three children sandwiched between dad at the front and mum with new baby at the back, all very relaxed. It’s noisy, colorful, crazy, commercialized but the children are all enjoying ‘it’.
A quick visit to an old friend, a European who was one of the first ‘gringos’ to train as a shaman in the region and to organize Ayahuasca tours for Americans and Europeans, started our trip’s inquiry about the midwives. Recently re-married and with a new baby, he explained how he searched in vain a traditional Keshwa Lamas midwife to assist his wife. None of them accepted the invitation in spite of a good pay offer. The C section rate in Tarapoto hospital is about 70% (I will cover stats later) and his Californian wife wanted a home birth. They had to resort to bring an American freelance midwife over for one month, and the birth was idyllic under full moon light and the starry sky in a tub on their terrace.
This was happy news and their pet parrot loudly agreed, but it was sad that the local midwives felt too threatened by their illegality to come forward and attend this birth.
Waiting for Marianna, Sergei and their 4 month old baby Yaroslav, and for Natalia and her 12 month old baby Dasha to return from a shamanic center run by a Peruvian Amazonian shaman married to a Russian woman, Ines, Olga and I went to one of the many waterfalls in this area to cleanse our bodies after our journeys.
Awashiyaku (40 m high) is not one of the tallest waterfalls but it had a special place in the local cosmology and in shamanic healing before becoming a touristic spot. Huge blue Morpho butterflies circled round medicinal trees in bloom. We bathed, enjoying the force of the icy water making rainbows along its fall from the plateau above, its rushing sound mixing with many bird calls and the strong energy of this opening into one of the last folds of the Andes before the green floodplain.
This is supposed to be the short dry season but due to climate change the seasons are no longer well marked. Dark clouds gathered over the hilltops and soon broke into a classic Amazonian storm just as we picked up our Russian friends from the shaman’s town house in a suburb of Tarapoto. Adults, babies and luggage fitted into two cars to travel to Lamas, the oldest colonial town that the Spanish created as a military fort, a mission and a colony of mixed pacified Indians all in one. This was my fieldwork base a long time ago and now the place where I collaborate with the NGO Waman Wasi (link). The purpose of this trip is to move forward with the editing of a documentary film started last March with interviews of Keshwa-Lamas midwives. The overall project, in line with the knowledge conservation and regeneration of Waman Wasi’s strategies, aims to re-value the traditional midwifery knowledge and skills and to help raise the profile of midwives who are now subjected to a cruel and ignorant witch-hunt. In Ecuador and Mexico, progressive schemes have successfully integrated local midwifery practices in mainstream maternity care but this is not yet the case in Peru.
As the storm abated we had lunch while watching the spectacular panorama from the top of this colonial ridge where the Spanish planted their Christian cross. Below, in the indigenous district, we could see a tremendous game of football, indigenous against town people, with loud cheers from onlookers alternating sides at each goal marked. We set off down the new tourist steps that now ease descent along the steep slope. It was not long before we met a few of my indigenous ‘sisters’ who could not be bothered with watching the football. Marianna commented on how agile they are in old age, looking old only when they turn round and show their wrinkled faces. These encounters are always emotional for me because they bring up and immediate recall of our time together in our youths and also of those who have died since then. Touch is part of intimacy among women and my ‘sister’ Jesus grabbed me to walk hand in hand in the fast trotting pace my body quickly re-discovered on the way to see her son, my godson I held as a newborn. His eldest daughter is already 18, engaged-to-be married at the next feast-season. Then we went to see his dad who was in the ritual dance group on the other side from the football ground. Old men (not sure whether the young ones join when they are not playing football), young and old women were dancing in circle to the sound of drums, using nut-shaker necklaces to mark the rhythm. Through the centuries in this place there seems to always have been a contrast between older ways and customs brought from outside, that later replace the old ways as other new customs are introduced. Yet there is a continuity among these colonized forest people that has fascinated me since the days of my PhD research, and this is what I would like to bring out in relation to the midwifery knowledge and plant medicine I learnt from them.
We arrived in the dark to the colonial adobe and red tile roof house of Waman Wasi to settle for the night with a drink of clove and cinnamon tea. Lucho Figueroa, who runs the NGO, made us all feel welcome and I warmed up water for bathing the babies. We woke up to another storm that gave way to a fine rain, one of those that keep people at home for one day or more days, called ‘warmi tamia’ woman rain, as opposed to male downpours. We are all stepping into the rhythms of the ambient forest in this place out of time, waiting for the rain to stop and settling together as the odd group we are.