Before I went to Peru, I had read online that people will try to give you directions even if they have no idea how to get where they’re directing you. In an eargerness to help, if you look lost or ask how to get somewhere, someone will give you directions…even if it sends you off in the complete opposite way that you need to be going. This sounds like it could be really frustrating, and you might wonder why they don’t just tell you that they have no idea where said place is, but it’s a part of their culture and their being. They want to help, and in their minds, they are.
I never really came across this until almost the end of my trip. I took a 5 day getaway to a small jungle town in the central Amazon called Pucallpa. Unlike Iquitos and other well known, touristy type jungle towns, Pucallpa is not necessarily a foreign tourist destination. It is more of a domestic travel spot where you will find Peruvian tourists. The reason another volunteer and I decided to go to Pucallpa was because it was cheap. Because it’s not built for foreign tourism, you have the capability to do anything and everything on your own. One day, Zoe and I decided to hire a Peke Peke – a narrow, long, wooden, motorized taxi type boat- to go check out a traditional tribal village of Shipibo people. Apparently this village, San Francisco, on the edge of a lagoon, was a place of straw huts, dirt “roads,” and traditional tribal dress. A 30 minute hike from there would get us to Santa Clara, another Shipibo village, but less modern. In Santa Clara there is absolutely no electricity, which made it a more “genuine” tribal village. Obviously, Zoe and I wanted to hike from SF to St. Clara, so after asking about ten different people how to begin our journey, we finally decided, or rather hoped, that we were on the right path. Every person we asked gave us a different set of directions. Apparently, what I had read before I left for Peru held true in Pucallpa.
Zoe and I walked, and walked……and walked…..down a red dirt road that was walled in on both sides by the jungle. Every now and then we would pass by a straw house with kids playing outside or a family lined up alongside the road staring at us. The hike was amazing- we were surrounded by countless numbers of trees that I had never before seen in my life, and the mass of colors was beautiful. The diffferent shades of green contrasted with the bright pinks and reds of flowers, while the bright blue sky above the tree line and the rusted red color of dirt below it just added an unforgettable and surreal touch to the place. It seemed, though, that somewhere along this amazing hike, we had gotten lost. Keeping track of time was a difficult task while walking on a road cut through the jungle. The essence of every single moment sort of captivates you; you don’t really want to know what time it is because the passing of time means the passing of the hypnotic moment that you’re in. After what was supposed to be a 30 minute hike turned into about an hour and a half, though, we pulled ourselves back to reality and decided that somehow we had missed Santa Clara. We weren’t sure how because at a few points along the way we had asked if we were going the right way, and every time we were reassured that Santa Clara was indeed just right up the road. Since we had not yet passed a village, we wondered if maybe we were just insanely slow walkers…or maybe these random tribal people we were speaking to were getting a huge laugh out of sending us the wrong way. At one point, a group of little boys pointed us the “right” way, and then ran off laughing. Sure, that might have been an obvious sign that we were being played, but when a map to this place doesn’t exist and signs are unheard of, what can you do?
Eventually, we decided to turn around. Again, asking for directions along the way, we were told that Santa Clara was just down the road….in the direction we were now heading. Apparently this tribal village was also a magical moving village. Zoe and I made a deal between ourselves that if the next person we asked did not give us a sure answer, we would just head back to San Franciso. We came across a girl standing outside of a lone straw house. We tried to explain to her that we kept being sent in the wrong direction, and we simply wanted to know where St. Clara was. And what do you know…we were IN St. Clara. Yes, this dirt road with a few straw huts scattered about was the infamous tribal village we were searching for. Where were the traditional markets and tribal dressed people? After asking around, we figured out that there was no public market….rather, if you wanted to buy something you were taken into someones house and shown buyables that were wrapped up in a huge sheet and unfolded on a table in front of you. The family who told us this took us through their front door (which was actually a hole in the wall with no door), through their combined living room/bedroom (the interior of the house was one room with a matress on the floor and a sheet hanging from the ceiling, turning the home into two rooms), and into their backyard where there was a wooden table next to a fire pit. We were shown jewelry, coin purses, and other souvenirs that were in fact more expensive and the exact same as they were in central Pucallpa. Of course, we still bought a few things from this family as it was obvious that they needed our money more than we did. We left Santa Clara a little speechless. No, it was not the traditional village that had been described to us, but rather a group of people just trying to make ends meet. We also left thinking that our 30 minute hike turned 3 and a half hour, lost in the jungle hike was completely worth it. We were tired and hungry, but filled with new experiences and memories that would never be forgotten.
It’s true that the Peruvians we met along the way tried their best to give us directions that more often than not led us the wrong way. But looking back, it turned out that we had gotten to Santa Clara by following everyones’ directions…we just didn’t know it. So maybe what I read online was true- Peruvian directions don’t get you where you need to go. But maybe it’s not because they’re giving us bad directions, but rather because we just don’t understand that our idea of a village is different from theirs. In our case, we assumed that this village would be made up of more than just a handful of homes, and that its’ presence would be marked by a sign at the very least. Obviously, we assumed wrong. It’s clear that even when you can speak a person’s language, there can still be a huge barrier. From this trip I learned that you really have to throw all previous assumptions out the window and always keep an open mind. The saying holds true- always expect the unexpected.