From Pilcopata to Cuzco: Cocaine, Quechua Women and Music

The following story is part of the Peru travelogue.

TWO WEEKS had passed since I first arrived at the Chontachaka Ecological Reserve, located a few hours deep in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle. It was time for me to leave and, after an hour of waiting, our ride back finally came. We were three volunteers leaving: Minttu from Finland, Perry from Australia and myself.

I was sitting next to a big Quechua woman who apparently wasn’t familiar with the concept of personal space. I had to squeeze myself in and force myself into imagining I was in a wider spot in order to tolerate (more or less) the next 8 to 10 hours. As is usually the case, the bus was full with people and luggage not really knowing where to stand or sit, a general confusion that reminded me of pretty much every bus ride I’ve ever taken in Peru.

Vargas Llosa’s book, The Storyteller, occupied most of my thought processes as I had just finished reading it before leaving. It tells the story of Paul Zuratas, a Jewish student, nicknamed “Mascarita” by the author due to an unusual birthmark on his face, who is obsessed with preserving the culture of the Machiguengas Indians of the South-eastern Peruvian Amazon. The latter are threatened by the typical threats of our age; industrial ‘development’ – in this case, the rubber industry – and religious missionaries who, as usual, are obsessed with christianizing cultures they deem to be uncivilized and primitive.

It just so happened that I wasn’t that far at the time from the real Machiguengas themselves. Reading about their myths and legends, their stories, while at the same experiencing a similar environment somehow made me feel closer to them. Unfortunately, I couldn’t meet any Machiguenga but the very possibility of that happening brought the narrative to life in a way that can be attributed to a mixture of fortunate geography and curiosity.

An hour into the bus ride, as the darkness quickly but quietly filled the Jungle, the Quechua woman started talking to me. Her Quechua-influenced accent was heavier than that of Rafaela’s and I couldn’t quite understand what she was saying. She seemed to be asking something of me and I ended up saying “Yes, okay” just to end the conversation. When we arrived at a police checkpoint, she started moving frantically, gesturing with her hands and speaking a mixture of Quechua and Spanish. I didn’t know what she was on about but I remembered at that point that Coca Leaves are searched for everytime a bus leaves for Cuzco or any of the other main cities and it seemed apparent that she wanted me to hide hers. Police never search foreigners, I was told, as drug dealers use Campesinos, all of which are native people, for supplying Coca Leaves.

I had accepted without giving it much thought. The first policeman was already getting in the bus and the amount of Coca Leaves on her was ridiculously small – even I had a larger amount on me – far from being enough to even produce the slighest amount of cocaine. I was almost convinced that helping her would be the right thing to do. Four policemen ended entering and confiscating a huge amount of Coca Leaves.

I know that above a certain amount, coca leaves are illegal. Below a certain amount, you find them everywhere in the form of tea, sweets and cookies. Out of the bags confiscated, only one of them, a huge bag probably weighing around 5 kg, seemed to exceed the said amount. The rest were small and pretty much negligeable – I found larger amounts at supermarkets in Cuzco. That they would be confiscated as well struck me as odd, as suspicious.

As predicted, the policemen didn’t even bother to search me. The woman was very happy and even offered to give me some leaves. I kindly refused but was relieved. After all, why would she offer to give away parts of an already very small amount of coca leaves if she could sell them to some cocaine manufacturer instead and make a lot of money? She certainly didn’t look like someone who has a lot of the latter, with her torn, washed out clothes and what hardly passes as sandals.

The policemen left and, as more people left the bus, we were able to free ourselves from annoying luggage. I closed my eyes and put on the first album of the night, “The Wild Hunt” by The Tallest Man on Earth and slept the rest of the way.

Also found on IncaDiaries

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