Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pink dolphins, palo de sangre and caipirinhas, oh my!

Having spent a year living in one part of the Colombian campo, I can't help but make comparisons when I visit other parts of rural Colombia, even when those parts are in the Amazon, where I was just on a little vacation.

As we trudged through muddy jungle paths, I mentally checked off the trees I recognized (plantain, lulo, chontaduro) and those I didn't (açaí, palo de sangre). The mud was still pretty much the same as in the northern Colombian campo, as was the resulting need to wear knee-high rubber boots when traipsing through it. They eat a lot of friend food here as well, especially patacones (friend plaintains), but I was not used to, and happily devoured, the multitudes of fish that abound. Words for some things are also different. Here they refer to as peruches the homemade popsicles that in the "interior" (read: every other part of Colombia) they call bolis.

One principal difference is the strong indigenous presence. A big chunk of this section of the Amazonas department is part of resguardos, which are much like Native American reservations in the U.S. Such a strong indigenous influence is not typical in most parts of Colombia, but here it is quite evident: in the faces of the people, or in the Ticuna and Yegua words one sees on school walls.

The Amazon river is of course the focal point of the region. It provides the transportation, the sustenance, and the employment for nearly every inhabitant. Even the indigenous cosmology is influenced by the centrality of the river to everyday life. One of the local indigenous tribes, for example, believes that what we know as the Milky Way was created by the bubbles generated by the tail of a manatee swimming across the sky. And the coolest part, I think, is that the river is inhabited by pink dolphins!!! Yes, pink. When they are young they are grey but as they age their skin turns into a very rosy pink. They're quite magical, and have understandably inspired lots of myths among the locals. A principle legend describes how at a party that brought together outlying villages from all over the Amazon river region, a stranger showed up and started hitting on all the women, but then disappeared before the party ended. The next time he came, they got him drunk enough that he passed out instead of disappearing, and they discovered that at dawn he turned back into the pink dolphin that he really was. Statues and paintings of pink dolphins with, ahem, certain human characteristics therefore abound.

Set among the triple-borders of Peru, Colombia and Brazil, this region is also a fascinating mix of cultures. The influence of Brazilian culture is easiest to identify, given the linguistic difference, but I could also identify it in the sambas that play alongside vallenatos on the radio and park benches painted with the three countries' flags that line the sidewalks. It´s quite easy to hop (or boat) over to the other countries´ border towns, so we took advantage in order to have dinner in Brazil and lunch in Peru. Mmmm, Brazilian caipirinhas and Peruvian ceviche!

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