Back to a Simpler Life—Urarinas

by Captain Bill

Back to a Simpler Life—Urarinas

A guest post by Gary Lighthall

Gary Lighthall's boat on the Chambira River

In early 2004 I made my first visit to the Chambria Basin to see if I could make contact with the local Indians of the region. My goal was to visit, ask some questions and take some photos if permitted. My guide was a local young man who traded with the Urarinas and than rafted his items to Iquitos. So off we go me, my wife and brother/sister-in-law. We ventured up the Chambria River with a pecky-pecky motor, food, water and high hopes of being invited in to their simpler ways. I cannot say the first visit was a success as the motor failed 2 hours up river and we had to wait 3 more days to get another motor to take us the rest of the way. That motor failed 2 days up river but at least we were at a village of the Urarina. What we discovered was that if no men were in the Urarina village at the time the women and children would move back in to the jungle. We did have some success with some of the villages and with a tremendous amount of patience and time some photos were taken although no more than about 15 in total. So as we ran out of food and time we returned to Iquitos with plans to come back again in about 4 months. The second trip was more successful. We spent some time in the villages and watched them go about their daily chores of living in the jungle that they had called home to for 100’s of years. On our second trip we brought back copies of the photos to show the other Urarinas what they are and gave back to those Indians that we had visited on our first visit.

Urarinas family photo by Gary Lighthall

I wanted to return and I felt that since I had minored in my university in Social Anthropology it was time to put it to use. Luckily I met another trader who had along with his father been to every Urarina village in the entire basin. Through him we were introduced over the next 4 years to every chief (less 4 villages) in the entire basin.

When you travel up the Chambira you are traveling through virgin forest. There is no machinery there tearing up the forest and causing terrible damage to such a pristine area of the rainforest. The majority of Urarinas now live several days travel up the Chambira. During the rubber boom era they were shot on site and rounded up as slaves to work in the rubber boom trade.

What we saw in the villages was mainly the women making masato in vats using large spoons to mash the yucca into a liquid sometimes using camote (sweet potato) as a catalyst for fermentation. The men hunt for meat by shooting monkeys, birds, pigs, tapirs and mahats (small rodent) which is a cross between pork and beef. When they have shotgun shells they use them when they don’t they use their blowguns with poison darts. They also trap large animals such as tapirs. Of course during low water there is plenty of fish which they preserve by smoke or salt. For pets the kids have the young of the animals the dads have killed for eating. The men and boys play soccer when they have a ball while the girls and women watch. The Urarinas have no games and no toys.

So over the next couple of years we visited and began to learn about their customs. Some were obvious and others needed explaining. As to the duties of the women they carry the water, cook, mend the clothes, weave the katchiwanga (sleeping mat) make masato and care for the young. The women don’t brush their teeth. They use a leaf and normally they don’t comb their hair. It’s not uncommon to see a 15 year old girl with tooth decay or teeth missing. The women were hard to photo as they would turn away when the picture is taken. One older woman screamed and fell out of the hut when the flash went off but now they will bring their kids forward for a picture of them. Women are not allowed to speak with outsiders or negotiate. For a majority the women also don’t speak Spanish, only their native language. In years past the women would have her children in the jungle. The man would stay with it and the mother only visiting the child to feed it and her husband. After 5 days they would then present the child to the village. In one village we saw a very young girl with her head shaved and that is the custom when they have begun their first menstruation. The girls will marry as early as 15 and some men have more than one wife, up to 4, but for a majority they only have one.

On one trip we saw that one of the villages that had been abandoned was now populated with Urarinas. We stopped and visited for a couple of days and found out that they had been up a small tributary and had wanted to move out of the jungle so as a group they came out to be on one of the main tributaries. The Urarinas will live in small hunting camps or in established villages. They are semi-nomadic by nature and change locations for various reasons. Also, the village may decide to change the name. They elect a governor who is the person in charge although some of the villages still have a chief. Each family has their chacras (farm/garden) where they grow their yuca, plantains and sometimes corn and papaya, they also grow their own tobacco, but this and herbs are grown close to the hut. During low water there is more contamination in the water that they drink although they have been advised to boil the water they do not. It is during this time that the old and the very young are more at risk for dehydration due to extreme vomiting and diarrhea. It also is not uncommon to lose one or two to this problem. When someone dies they bury them the following day. The grave has a small table built over the body. If it is a woman then her sleeping pad and favorite pots and pans are laid there. If it is a man then his blowgun and machete. Than they will build a roof over all of it, put out a bowl of water  (ayahuasca if it was a shaman) and build a small fire at the head of the deceased. The belief is that the first night they will leave the grave then warm themselves, have a drink of water and rise to the heavens. After the roof falls in then they move the water bowl to head of the deceased as a grave marker. In all my travels I have seen only 2 grave yards as they don’t like outsiders to see the graves.

Gary Lighthall with a Urarinas shaman

The Urarinas still dress they way they did in the past, women with a red top and a black skirt, men with a collared shirt and pants or shorts. The shirts are passed down and it is not uncommon to see ones with tears and patches. The men dress this way since since they first traded for their trees as this is what the wood traders traded them and it has remained as the men’s normal dress. They also trade for chonta (heart of palm), pigs and some handicrafts. For these the Urarina receive shotgun shells, machetes, salt, rice, flashlights, batteries, pots and pans and clothes for the men and fabric for the women  We also traded for items of interest and used the same formula that the traders used thereby not over inflating or under inflating the price that they paid for the same items.

As the years went on my family grew and to date all 3 of my kids have traveled in to this region and have a understanding of the jungle, although limited, and of another culture.

Back to a Simpler Life—Urarinas

Guest post by Gary Lighthall

Bill Grimes is the owner of this Captain’s Blog and the president of Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Bernard barrass February 4, 2011 at 9:37 am

What a great story, I’m thinking of visiting Peru in August and would dearly like to visit those wonderful people. Any ideas ?

2 Greg Thomas (UK) February 4, 2011 at 9:38 am

What a lovely story. Well Done.

3 Leo February 4, 2011 at 11:57 am

Great post!

4 gerry March 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

very interesting. i am moving to iquitos and would like to travel and learn more about the different cultures in the amazon. this sounds like a great place to start. if possible, please let me know who i should contact.
thank you,

5 Captain Bill April 23, 2011 at 9:27 am

Thanks everyone for your interest in exploring the Amazon. If you think you would enjoy an experience similar to Gary’s the best two companies to help you get there and back safely, are Greentracks, and Dawn on the Amazon. To get the most from your exploration of the Chambira River to the Urarinas villages, takes a minimum of 3 explorers in your group, and plan for at minimum of 9 days, two weeks is better.
Captain Bill Grimes

6 Shane October 14, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Please leave these people alone. The tour companies are ruthless. Do you want to be the tourist/ gringo to bring in the next disease?

7 Ross August 30, 2012 at 1:08 am

Shane. I second your motion. But these cultures will be crushed under the boot. The next generations will cry about the horror and the loss… It is a shame… I have see what happens to these nations in canada.

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