Peruvian Village Life (February 1880)

Number 6 in a series. Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty–but also his cultural chauvinism (which, considering his era, was mild by comparison to other travel narratives). The following was printed in the July 6, 1880 edition of the New York World, four months after it was written.

Iquitos, Peru, February 26th—On returning from my trip among the Yaguas Indians to my little hut in Pevas I received an invitation from the Peruvian Steamship Company to come to Iquitos and join an expedition for the purpose of exploring by steamer, for the first time, the River Napo and its tributaries. The village of Iquitos, as I have stated in previous letters, is 150 miles above Pevas, but how to reach it with no steamer due for nearly a month was a serious question, as the rains were falling and the current of the Maranon or Amazon was running like a mill-race. As I had but few days to spare before the little steamer Mairo would leave, I resolved to go by canoe, a journey of six days. The canoe, or rather dug-out, was easily obtained, but the hiring of three men to paddle was not an easy task. I paid a visit to the Governor, and he was, as usual, profuse in his promises. Yes, I should have men–as many men as I wanted. Would I not accept the loan of his large, well-covered canoe? He fairly overwhelmed me with promises, but I had been so often deceived by these local functionaries with their big promises that I left the Governor fully convinced that I could receive no aid from him, yet admiring his unequaled politeness and mendacity.

I succeeded in obtaining two Indians rejoicing in the names of Jesus Fortunatus and Espirito de Santo, two uncouth-looking individuals, with a sort of far-away look in their eyes, caused, I have no doubt, by nights spent in drinking chicha, the favorite beverage of the Indians. Notwithstanding their names they were capital paddlers. So early one morning, amid the adios of my numerous friends, we pushed off from the bank and drifted down the little River Yaguas, and were soon slowly paddling our way up the Amazon. The scenery was most monotonous—a horizon of sky and water over which hung dark masses of clouds, with here and there a flooded island showing only the tops of the submerged trees. Now and then great trees, torn from the bank, would come rushing by us with their trunks covered by countless gulls. One is apt to associate these birds with the white sandy beaches of the ocean, and they look strangely out of place twenty-five hundred miles away from their native element. But what is this great, river but a vast inland ocean? Our Mississippi is not much more than a creek compared with the Amazon.

Two days and a half above Pevas we passed the lower mouth of the River Napo, and with a curious feeling of pleasure and awe I looked far up the stream, knowing that I would soon enter its almost untraveled waters. Opposite the mouth of the Napo the Maranon or Amazon spreads out into an immense bay full of forest-covered islands. In the dry season the river is full of sandbars, but now even the islands were invisible. I do not wonder that Orellana as he emerged from the narrow mouth of the Napo and gazed for the first time on the vast expanse of waters, exclaimed, “Hoc mare aut non?“–whence I have been told the Maranon or Upper Amazon derives its name. From the upper mouth of the Napo the far distant shore of the Amazon can be seen five miles away. We camped that night at the upper mouth of the Napo, cooked our salt fish and rice and watched a most glorious sunset.

After two days more of paddling we reached the village of Iquitos, where I saw with pleasure the little steamer Mairo still in port. From the water’s edge very little can be seen of Iquitos–only the roofs of some palm houses, over which were hovering the “sanitary commissioners” in the shape of turkey-buzzards. We wound our way slowly up the steep bank, almost knee-deep in mud, and at last reached dry land in front of a ruinous plaza. Turning to our right we paused down the long unpaved, grass-grown principal street of the village. Everything seemed dead with the exception of numerous well-fed boas which lay stretched across the narrow sidewalk, quite a contrast to the little Brazilian villages on the Lower Amazon, where one always hears the musical cry of the fruit-sellers. Often we got glimpses through large open doors into houses where women were busily engaged in their much-loved yet tedious operation of “examining each other’s heads.” The interiors of these palm houses were very neat and clean, and usually contained on an average some ten children each.

In a few minutes I arrived at the house of Don Carlos Mourraille, one of the owners of the Peruvian steamers. This gentleman is a Frenchman educated in the United States, which may account for his being the only really live and enterprising man in Eastern Peru. I met with a kind reception and generous hospitality, and as I am indebted to him for many favors, I wish here to express my sense of obligation. I learned that the steamer Mairo would not leave Iquitos for the River Napo before March 15, and that I had ample time to make a voyage of some six hundred miles up the River Ucayali. But more of Iquitos. Some fifteen years ago this village was a thriving place of some six thousand inhabitants, and the Government erected a large factory, machine shops, tile mills and other works. Two large iron steamers, of 150 horse-power each, the Morona and Pastasia, besides several steam launches, were brought from England, and numerous English mechanics with their families emigrated to the town. “Alas,” said my informant, shaking his old gray bead as he gazed upon the now grass-grown streets—”alas! those were happy times; gold and silver were plenty! and beer—beer was only 25 cents a bottle.”

“But what has been the cause of all this change?” I asked.

“Revolution,” said he.

I asked no more questions, for any one who is acquainted with the modern history of this the most uneasy of all South American republics can easily imagine what followed. The navigation of the river was stopped, the boats were laid up, and the mechanics who were able returned to England with their pockets full–not of gold or silver, but of the I.O.U.s of the Government. It was only in November, 1877, that any one could be found, notwithstanding a subsidy of about $60,000 per annum, with confidence enough in the promises of the Government to again open the navigation of the Upper Maranon and the River Ucayali. A contract was at last made, and now the steamer Morona makes bi-monthly trips between Para and Yurimaguas, the head of steamer navigation. The Ucayali has also a monthly steamer. Without the subsidy–and I hear it has not been paid since December last–these boats could not run, as they do not carry passengers or freight sufficient to pay for half the wood they burn. They preserve the authority of Peru on the Upper Amazon–for it is not generally known that Ecuador claims the Amazon from the Brazilian frontier, and all land to the north of the Maranon. But more of this in my next letter.

The Iquitos of to-day has a population of 2,500 and is a quiet, sleepy place as are all villages on the great Amazon. The principal business of the place is conducted by foreigners, and their stores are well stocked with foreign articles, all of which, however, are very dear. For example: flour is worth $22 per barrel; butter, in cans, $1 per pound; coffee, 30 cents per pound; tea, in cans, $3 per pound; shoes, French, $7 to $10 per pair (I never nave seen a pair of American-made shoes on the Amazon); coarse prints, 30 cents to 50 cents per yard: rice, $3 per 29 pounds. House rent is very dear, from $10 to $20 per month, but liquors and onions are cheap. It may be said without exaggeration that the Indian population of Iquitos subsists on the two last mentioned articles–onions by day and liquor by night.

The inhabitants amuse themselves by dancing the fandango. When a school-boy I read often of the Spanish dance called the fandango, and I always associated with it a bright starlit night in the tropics. A dance in open air under the shadow of the great palms; young girls with countless fireflies in their hair; dark, swarthy-looking men, with broad-brim hats, smoking large cigarettes-all this did I read of, and I longed to see this Spanish dance. Since I have been in Peru I have witnessed many of the dances of these people, and the fandango so called is, I regret to say, nothing more or less in my opinion than a drunken orgy. I have witnessed no dances under the palms, seen no swarthy men, but I bound to to say that fire-flies are not wanted to set off the beauty of these Indian girls.

Though Iquitos has no inn, yet two billiard and gambling saloons are to be found. In one of which the walls are decorated with a most fanciful likeness of Columbia surrounded by the eagle and shield; her robe is most gracefully pinned up, and in her hand she holds a bottle which sets forth on its label the excellence of American champagne. I mention the above, as the picture always attracts a great deal of attention, and I have been repeatedly asked if the senoritas of my country were as pretty as Columbia. I always answer in the affirmative. Iquitos commands the trade not only of the Maranon but the rivers Ucayali, Napo and other smaller streams, even sending goods far into the mountains. I was very much surprised to find so few American goods. Nearly all articles on the Upper Amazon are either of English or French manufacture. These foreigners have monopolized the trade of Eastern Peru–a trade which, not withstanding the war, is surely yet steadily increasing. Why the Americans have so completely neglected this great valley I fail to see.

The majority of the inhabitants of Iquitos are of Indian or mixed blood, and in general appearance differ greatly from the Indian population of the villages of the lower Amazon. The men are all below the average stature, with pale, sallow complexions, coarse black hair, and whose deeply sunken eyes tell too plainly of nights spent in drunken revelry. In all the Brazilian villages on the Amazon combined I have never seen one-tenth part of the drunkenness that I witnessed during my stay in Iquitos. As to women, I will say but little, lest I should be called a second Gibbon, who, you will remember, was constantly writing of the pretty girls he met with during his journey through Peru and Bolivia. Those of Iquitos are beautiful, and the ease with which they can roll and smoke a cigarette, drink a glass of liquor and assume modesty will astonish a stranger. It must be remembered that the above remarks apply only to the Indians and creoles. Of the higher class I wish to say nothing.

Of the war on the coast we hear but very little, and the only one absorbing topic now is our exploration of the Rio Napo. The work on the little steamer is progressing very slowly. This delay is very irritating to one who has been taught the truth of the proverb that “time is money,” but the sooner one learns to regard useless delay with absolute indifference, the better it is for his peace of mind if he intends to remain in the Amazon Valley. I have now become so accustomed to it that if I saw a man run I should expect to hear of a funeral in the family.

I leave on the steamer Pastasia to-morrow for the River Ucayali, and on my return will immediately depart for the Rio Napo.

Just as I am finishing my letter I hear the loud notes of a drum calling the people to a fandango. I walk to the door; it is a most beautiful night and the Southern Cross shines with unusual splendor; the air is soft and balmy, and the broad river winding away to the west looks like a stream of molten sliver. I ask myself why this most glorious country should be given to such a lazy, indolent people, and I leave it to older heads than mine to answer. –Ernest Morris

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