Friday, January 22, 2010

Oy Vey...More Gringo Complaints About the Amazon...

On a board I sometimes post on, someone wrote a note saying that they felt ripped off when they went to a well-known ayahuasquero and offered $100 and labor in exchange for several weeks of being taught about ayahuasca. He was smart but naive. I was probably harsh, but here was my response to his general letter of complaint, in which he explained he got several days at the ayahuasquero's compound, two unfulfilled ayahuasca experiences and then was asked to leave.

Well, I'm sorry you had this experience, but it's a good BEWARE sign to other gringos. No one in the Amazon needs your help. Not your physical labor, at least. So if you think that's something of value, you're very mistaken. Labor is inexpensive there so you offer nothing when you offer labor.
Generally, and as a gringo who has had a bar/restaurant there, have kids from there, bought land there, constructed houses there, take people out to the woods there, my feeling is that you need to be aware that if you don't have money you are worthless. You are like an indigenous man who cannot hunt. What's your purpose? If you can't hunt it's time to put you out to pasture. Or poison your soup. Just as simple as that. Unfortunately, few gringos grasp indigenous culture, from which mestizo culture springs, and so don't get it.
Lots of gringos go to Peru thinking they can trade things. The reality is that if you can't hunt--produce food or money--you have no value among the locals. And that's a good thing. They don't need you cluttering up their lives telling them you can help build a house and then not knowing how to weave leaf sections together for a rain resistant roof or even how to find the right leaves. Heck, by the time they teach you that they could have built 100 houses.
And if you think you've come to an agreement, it's only because you don't speak river speak. It's Spanish, but then not. Very few future or past tenses. The agreement is generally for now, not tomorrow or the next day, regardless of what was spoken, because the Panoan language group did not traditionally have past or future tenses. So the agreement made with Rolando, in this case, was for today. Not tomorrow.
Our arrogance as Westerners who imagine other people think like us, is astounding. It's not wrong, because we don't know better. But it is astounding. Your money got what it was worth. You spent some days in Rolando's house or compound, you ate, you drank medicine twice. No effect. Tough luck.
He wasn't necessarily cheating you, he was just being himself. When dealing with indigenous or riberino mestizos, you must give gifts daily. The day you are out of gifts you are no longer welcome.
That's just life, and most foreigners don't understand how that is. Same as giving all the gifts to the headman and expecting his wife or wives to teach you something. Why? They didn't get gifts. Gifts are not shared in that culture. So you paid one guy and no one else, no matter how much you gave.
This is the problem with foreigners in a strange land. It takes years to learn to navigate other cultures, not weeks.
I'm not coming down on you; you didn't and couldn't have known better. But the thought that a gringo would offer labor to a Peruvian has me rolling in the aisles. You think you did; you're sure that's what was agreed on, but that concept is so outside the Peruvian mentality that they can't be held accountable when you call them on it. It simply is not a concept on any level.
Peruvians who deal with gringos, at least people like my team, expect at least $20 a day, plus $15-20 US walking around money. Plus a hundred bucks a month for the months they are not working. Plus all emergencies taken care of, maybe $1000 a year for each team member.
Why? I'm the poorest man on the planet. But the why is because for the remainder of the year, when not working with me, my team makes 10 soles a day when they work, maybe two weeks a month if they're lucky.
So my $2000-2500 US a year is their bread and butter and nut much more than that.
I happen to pay my staff well. Few people pay what I do. No matter. The point is that you arrived at Rolando's place, gave him $100 and then another $30 and thought that would take care of you for several weeks. In real time, despite what you thought he said, or what he actually said, that takes care of 3-4 days work, at a maximum. Remember that he is paying people too. So while it's not your fault, you must understand that if you brought him $50 a day it barely would have covered expenses. Maybe twice that and you would have gotten the time you wanted with him.
And I don't know Rolando. I don't know how many people he pays. But I will venture to guess that the two local people who came to drink ayahuasca with him on your dime didn't pay him anything, or, if they did, it was a chicken or some rice: which meant Rolando, if he has family, had to get paid elsewhere. That was you.
I am still sorry that you had a rotten time. I wish the world were different. But it's not. We Westerners need to open our eyes and see what is there, not what we want to see there.
I've a friend who was a guest on one of my trips a couple of years ago. He recently went out, without telling me, for a 30 day hike with a couple of my team members and went to the Galvez river to spend time with the Matses.
While he wrote me, after the fact, that he had a fantastic, if difficult, time on the hike, he was bored to death in the Matses' villages. And in the end he threatened to file a denuncio--a report of being ripped off with the local police--in Iquitos.
I love the guy but had to laugh. What the hell did he think the Matses would do in their villages except be themselves? They go out hunting at 5 AM, return when they have food enough for their family, and then lie in hammocks for 15-20 hours till it's time to hunt again. And my friend was bored. OF COURSE he was bored. He wasn't used to a lifestyle that took care of business in an hour and then rested for 23 hours.
If he had told me beforehand I would have clued him. I've spent months with the Matses and 99 % of the time was eating or resting. Women tend the chacras, the fields, not men. Women fish, not men, traditionally. Women clean the camp, not men. Man's job is hunt and protect. And if he can do that in one or two hours a day, he's good as gold. So my poor friend found it boring. But my friend was wrong to think he was being cheated. He was in the reality.
And the reality, very often, like your experience with Rolando, is a far far cry from your imagination. The reality is not wrong; your imagination is simply a size too big for it.
Thanks, gorman


The Grudge said...

Great read! People should do a little research before venturing out and expecting that will not come. I had a great time in Peru and the people there are amazing.

Steve Beyer said...

As anthropologist Pierre Clastres pointed out some time ago, indigenous peoples of the Amazon craved metal tools not to become more productive, but to be just as productive in less time -- that is, to increase leisure. :-)

Kuchinta said...

Another interesting piece, Peter. Thanks!

phoenix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
phoenix said...

Great Post! basically to the peruvians, we gringos are like walking banks. they don't need us unless we have money. the harsh truth.