Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The View from Yantaló

"Agustin" (via Ana Moreno)
By R.B. Moreno

Every so often -- more often, in the age of the social network -- someone working in a foreign place sends me a tale just as fishy as it is fascinating. You know these gems. They involve a village and a wilderness. They're carried on the lips of backpackers and aid workers. But rarely are these stories accompanied by a sharp photo, and rarer still is the chance to share them on tape or in lively prose. (There are exceptions here, here, and here.)

Enter "Journal #5," an e-mail that arrived over the weekend from Ana Moreno, my sister and a Paraguay RPCV now studying rural medicine. An extension program of the University of Washington has placed Ana in a remote corner of San Martín this summer. It's newly-governed Peru's gateway to the Amazon and a region known, among other things, for orchids in varieties that probably outnumber your friends (online and otherwise). But that's enough prologue. Here with Ana's permission is "Journal #5." And our storyteller -- but of course -- a fisherman:
Today my 89 year-old landlord, Agustin, told me that he once caught a mermaid. He was fishing in a river not too far from Yantaló and his net pulled up a woman, gringa from the waist up and shiny scales from the waist down. He told me that mermaids communicate by whistling, kind of like dolphins, so she just looked at him and he let her go. “It’s too bad there aren’t any mermaids in this region anymore,” he said. “It must be because of all the people and pollution in the environment. They must have gone somewhere else.” He was completely serious. We were sitting around the table after lunch, and Agustin’s granddaughter was there too. She is one of the most educated people I’ve met here, currently in her last year of dental school in Tarapoto and home for a few days of vacation. She wasn’t smiling either -- this tale of the mermaid was completely true to her. I asked what other Amazonian creatures are disappearing, and the stories began:

It turns out there is also something called a chujachaki, which Agustin describes as a sort of dwarf that looks like a short man with big ears and only four toes. They live in virgin jungles, and their job is to protect the forest. In fact, one day a long time ago when Agustin’s cousin was 8 years old, she was kidnapped by one of the chujachaki and carried deep into the woods. The town organized a search party, which found her the next day unconscious in the top of a tree. She didn’t wake up for seven days. When she finally came to, she was traumatized to the point that she was left with mental health issues for the rest of her life. At the time this happened there was a Spanish priest living in Moyobamba, and he was called to perform an exorcism on the girl. He told them she was taken by this devilish animal because the family was Evangelical hadn’t baptized any of their 12 children. Wanting protection, they became devout Catholics and the two youngest siblings still work as nuns to this day.

Then there are the bujeos colorados, a dolphin-like creature that turns into the form of a man and can steal women away, never to be seen by their families again. There is also a type of fairy that looks like a little man only a few inches tall, that lives among the banana trees and takes care of the crops. The yacuruna is a water ghost, which used to be seen under the bridge in Yantaló when the full moon was out. They protected the river, and appeared in order to scare away any fisherman who came near. Nowadays these beings are seen only rarely, but Agustin remembers when they were a part of everyday life.

Every culture has its myths and legends that are passed down through the generations, but what is striking to me is the absolute certainty with which these stories were related to me. Between Agustin, his granddaughter, and the other people around the table there was someone who claimed to have personally seen each of the beings they spoke of. I found myself becoming convinced as well. Who is to say that the old-timers weren’t actually witness to jungle animals that have since disappeared with the arrival of modernity and the region’s subsequent ecological destruction? And where is the line between fact and fiction in a place where scientific investigation is a recent arrival, and oral histories have always served as the only form of record keeping? If anyone would know what was here before, it is those that lived in such close communion with the jungle and whose lives depended on nature’s will. I’d like to think that maybe there actually is some magic left in the world that science still hasn't touched.
For more on Ana's life overseas, see this profile and our 2008 road trip through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.


  1. This is a great snapshot of a unique moment - thanks for sharing! I can only imagine how this conversation went down initially...I would have been lost when they started talking about mermaids in Spanish :)

  2. Thanks for reading, Lindsay, and good point! Ana's Spanish has long ago outdone mine. But that just means I need to take up residence in Antigua, Guatemala, someday soon.