We didn’t take a bus to Cullebrayoc. And Cullebrayoc isn’t so much a place as a crook in the road–one of those hairpin turns with a single structure at the edge of the road. From Marcapata we hailed a truck that hauls gas cisterns and climbed aboard the platform on the back–with about a dozen other people. It’s typical for people to hitch rides with trucks all along the Interoceanic Highway (see here to read an essay about a trip I took back in 2006 on a lumber truck from Puerto Maldonado to Puno–that was before the road was paved). In some ways the trucks are even more reliable than buses–you never really know what the bus-schedulers are up to in the headquarters back in Cusco, but you can always count on a truck passing through town in either direction, hauling cisterns, lumber, produce, and passengers. We paid the driver a few soles a piece for the hour-long ride down to Cullebrayoc, all of which he gets to pocket. “Who knows,” Jason said. “He’s probably sending his kids to school with the money he makes from passengers.”
From Marcapata we descended rapidly, the air soon changing from crisp mountain air to humid jungle air. To our right the Araza River snaked through a valley, the water spreading from a single stream into braided networks criss-crossing over a rocky riverbed as the land opened up. The mountains shrank and the roadside plants grew–twelve-foot tall broad-leaved Nicotiana plants dominated the highway’s edge. Cullebrayoc isn’t really a town, but a community of a few hundred. The community holds an agricultural concession which the families all manage together, and when we arrived we found Jason’s friend, Raul Pandor, rinsing coffee beans that he’d harvested that afternoon.
Raul invited us into his restaurant. The restaurant used to be situated back away from the road, but when the highway was paved truckers started stopping less and less in the little roadside eatery, so Raul and his family moved the structure forward. Still, they said, not nearly as many people stop that used to. Raul and his daughter, Reyna, had a much less optimistic view than the people of Marcapata–the highway wasn’t bringing positive changes to Cullebrayoc. However, a deeper weariness shrouded the Pandors–Raul’s son, Wilber, had died in a motorcycle accident nearly two years ago. Wilber’s son, Roger, lived with the Pandors in Cullebrayoc. He was a quiet, four-year-old boy who played on a bed behind the restaurant’s counter while we spoke with Raul and Reyna. His mother lived in another town. Raul served us coffee and bread, and spoke passionately–mostly to Jason–for about a half an hour. Much of his stress seemed more about the future of his crops in Cullebrayoc, who would do the work now that he was getting older. He’d lived here his entire life. Then he excused himself and headed back to work outside.
About a half an hour later I met Reyna. Jason introduced us outside the restaurant, and she offered her arm rather than her hand for an awkward handshake. She wore red nylon pants and walked with a noticeable limp. Half of her hair was neatly smoothed back into a barrette, and bangs covered one side of her forehead, and like Raul, she was missing several front teeth. She had a son who was a few years younger than Roger and much more rambunctious. Reyna had a striking presence–a serious, quiet persona. Perhaps she struck me because she answered all questions directly to me rather than filtering them through Jason. She held my gaze the entire time, and spoke openly and honestly about her fears and frustrations. Before, she said, they might get fifteen passengers stopping at the restaurant in a day. Cullebrayoc was situated perfectly for road-weary travelers–a refuge, she and Jason called it. Now everybody passes straight through.
As we spoke I had to strain to hear her at times as trucks roared by. It was starting to get dark, and now I could even see them coming before I heard them, the headlights peeking around a curve in the road as trucks made several switchbacks from above before releasing gears and coasting right by the restaurant.
I’m looking forward to translating and transcribing my interviews with Raul and Reyna. They have much more depth than the conversations I eked out in Marcapata, and I feel that Cullebrayoc represents the gate to the jungle, to a different ecosystem represented along the highway–one with a much more fraught relationship with development (not that I would say it’s any less complicated than how the mountainous region is experiencing change as development plunges ever forward–or backward–in Peru). The different attitude was nearly palpable in the thick, humid air.
We only stayed a few hours, and there were no plans–nor any place–to stay in Cullebrayoc. We decided to catch the 7 o’clock bus to Quincemil, our next destination. We told Reyna we’d like to have dinner at the restaurant, and she served us an incredible meal of quinoa soup, roasted chicken, rice, and–treat of all treats–our first fried yuca (a tuber like a starchy potato–and not related to yucca) of the trip. We drank Cusqueña beer and watched Peru’s volleyball team kick Cuba’s ass.
Later we stood out in the dark as 7 pm came and went. Roger, perhaps energized from having eaten his own dinner, kept us company. He played counting games, and chased a small mangy mutt around who was much less interested in him but tolerated his attention. A few times Roger ran right up to the highway’s edge, and I felt my heart flip as a taxi or a car would whiz by, laying on the horn the way all traffic does (rather than slowing down) to warn anybody on the road’s edge, as though the flow of vehicles on the highway was as unstoppable as a river and the best anyone could do was to just stay out of its way. Roger seemed to know his limits, though, and always careened back towards the restaurant before getting too close.
8 o’clock came. Still, we weren’t quite worried. This was Peru. Schedules were only a suggestion. But shortly after 8 I could see the bus’s lights from the first curve in the road up above the restaurant. I could tell it was a bus–another enormous yellow and orange Huayna-Ausungate bus–by the way it was all lit up on the inside. We waited for it to wind down the road before stepping to the highway’s edge and waving our arms, hoping it would see us. It stopped and swept us up. Since Reyna was cleaning up from dinner (she’d actually had a few patrons besides us), we didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Less than two hours later we were in Quincemil.
There are many theories as to how the town Quincemil got its name, one of the most popular (and perhaps easiest to remember and justify) being for the amount of rainfall the town gets. Supposedly the town gets around 15,000 millimeters of rainfall each year, and whereas it’s not the rainiest town in the world, the place lived up to its mythic expectations as soon as we rolled in. We were all glad we’d decided to wait for the bus instead of hopping on top of a truck. That night we bedded down at the somewhat-dingy Tony’s Hotel on the eastern edge of town. The walls were cardboard thin, but there was a bunkhouse feel to the place, and the pounding, continuous rain on the metal roofs throughout the night managed to drown out any noise. A Brugmansia tree (angel’s trumpet) in the hotel’s back yard (well, back…area…where the chickens scrabbled and meals were cooked under a platform) emitted a thick, sweet fragrance.
Quincemil has always been a gold mining town. Centuries ago you could walk down a stream bed and pick up whole nuggets of gold lying right out on the surface. Small communities in the area have always mined artisanally–without mercury or other chemicals. Only with water and a wooden sluice to wash out sediments, to rinse the gold clean. Our two days in Quincemil were probably the most revealing of the trip. I had four good interviews from a variety of people–shopkeepers, farmers, municipal government workers, and one whose family used to mine artisanally on a nearby stream. From all these various perspectives a single theme started to arise: Quincemil is being ravaged by huge mining companies. While we were in town, the recent story was that a Korean company had come into Quincemil and bought up the largest, most valuable parcel of land. Their agenda was to enter, mine, and leave, and most of these companies didn’t leave any money for the town, or if they hired local workers they might pay them 25/soles a day compared to the 100/soles a day a miner might make working for himself.
The gold mining issues in southeastern Peru are complicated. We were just west of the border with the region of Madre de Dios where officials in the past two years have been much stricter regarding gold-mining practices, particularly in regards to undocumented, or illicit, miners. However, nobody seemed to be cracking down in Quincemil. My sentiments were actually turned to the illegal miners who at least, up until recently, hadn’t worked with enormous front loaders and hazardous chemicals like mercury. Now, to compete with larger companies, they do. With global gold prices raging like they are, a small portion of the land around Quincemil is razed every day.
I still have many interviews to transcribe, and much research to do, before I can present a complex understanding of the gold mining dynamics along the Interoceanic Highway. I’m not at all proposing to be an expert on the subject (not yet, anyway). But this much is clear: since the highway has been paved bulldozers and front loaders have had a much easier time entering the landscape around Quincemil. In the past few years–literally few years–streams that used to be pristine–rich with deer, jaguar, monkeys, and birds–are now muddy, treeless swatches full of chemicals. Around Quincemil new neighborhoods have popped up within the last five years. One, called Nuevo Camanti (the district where Quincemil is), is referred to, tongue in cheek, as Nuevo Huepetuhe, after the worst mining disaster happening in the Amazon. And what’s also clear is that people in Quincemil are upset–with the way nobody’s considering other plans for development. That large, international companies have so much power. That their health is threatened, yet no one is really reaping benefits from the gold boom. Much more to come on this.