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A Night in Pilco Grande

October 1, 2010

A night by the fire in Pilco Grande.

This morning, my guide Panchito and I began our journey to the villages of Pilco Grande, Jajahuana, and Sunchubamba. The Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (ACCA) works with these communities on reforestation projects. Each community has also set aside a chunk of forest as a communal reserve. My job is to photograph the people in each community and the plants and animals in their forest with the ultimate goal of creating a photo/video presentation to give to the communities.

We were able to hitch a ride to Pilco Grande with Dr. Imma Oliveras, a research associate from the University of Oxford, and one of her graduate students. She had hired a car for the day and they were going in the general direction of Pilco Grande. We spent the morning stopping at research sites in Manu National Park for her project on fire dynamics in the Andes. Essentially, all the mountains around here used to be covered with cloud forest. In the present, most are bare and dry. The local people have cleared the land over time to create room for agriculture and grazing. It is a difficult place to remove trees, so they often use fire. The removal of the cloud forest through fire permanently alters the water cycle on these mountains, leaving a dry, barren landscape in what was once a rich, moist ecosystem.

We visited two sites in Manu National Park and then proceeded to hike down and around a mountain through the puna (a high elevation ecosystem with low shrubs). It was only my second hike at elevation and I felt it. I was sweating and huffing and puffing the entire time. The trails were barely visible and were not even real trails, but imprints left by cows skirting the mountainsides. Despite the difficulty of the hike, I had a fantastic time. Imma was incredibly interesting and very spunky. We hiked for over 5 hours, stopping at study sites along the way. Some of the sites were all but inaccessible and yet there are researchers braving the heights to sample them for tree density and soil properties. From the ridges, we were able to see two fires on opposite slopes.

After the hike, we met the driver and took the car down to Pilco Grande – our ultimate destination. They dropped us off in front of the house owned by the President of the community. He was away, but his children said we could pitch our tent behind their house. They watched us assemble our camp through cracks in the wall of their house. Just a few minutes later, the President and his wife pulled up on a motorcycle. We introduced our project and ourselves and received an incredibly warm welcome. After the formalities, I went to rest in the tent, while Panchito went searching for birds. A few hours later, Panchito returned to me to ask for medicine. The President’s wife was very sick. With my limited knowledge, I gave instructions for her to rest and drink water and provided some Tylenol for the fever. I ventured into the house a little later to find everyone gathered around a fire. They offered me hot water with sugar and a bowl of boiled corn kernels. Guinea pigs, a common food staple, scampered around my feet on the floor of the house. As we sat in the glow of the fire, the President informed me that I was the first extranjera (foreigner) ever to visit Pilco Grande. They had seen tourists pass in cars, but no one had ever bothered to stop. The community itself is made up of 27 families and they are spread out in the mountains. There is a school and only three buildings have electricity. The rest of the houses, like the one I was staying in, lack electricity and running water. There is a river right beside the town, so there is no need for showers or sinks.

The lack of running water was not an issue until I ventured to use the restroom. I have experienced some interesting bathrooms in my day –lalas at Girl Scout Camp, gold-rimmed holes in Moscow, and pits in Africa. I just wasn’t prepared for this. It was a concrete pit with a pipe leading into the ground and I could not figure out how to flush it. I stayed in the bathroom for far too long and finally emerged to motion Panchito over to the shed. The solution, of course, was to walk across the yard and bring the garden hose into the shed to flush everything into the pipe. It was a funny, if slightly embarrassing, learning experience.

Plumbing challenges aside – I sat around the fire for a couple of hours that night listening to the President speak about his vision for the community. They are using part of their land for agriculture, but the President is intent on keeping a large chunk of primary forest as the communal reserve and on reforesting much of the other land with native trees. As he spoke, I was impressed with his understanding of the importance of conservation. He spoke to me of his hope that by preserving the land, the community will be a rich place for future generations, and of wish that his children will want to bring their families back to live there. Out in the middle of nowhere, in a place where people struggle to farm potatoes on mountainsides in inhospitable climates, I found an amazing ray of hope for the future.

The President's Son

The Wife and Daughter of the President of the Community of Pilco Grande

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 10:51 pm

    It sounds like you are in for a great adventure over the next 10 months. I’m looking forward to more! Spoke to Bill today and he is ready to join you in a few days, He will have your boots tomorrow and will bring them to you. The cameras for the kids are ready to go. Have fun at Machu Oichu and take lots of great pics. Please send some to Roel. He asks about you all the time and really wants to see Machu Pichu.

    Love all the colorful photos of the Peruvian people. They don’y smile much for the camera though.


  2. Connie&Pat permalink
    October 4, 2010 4:51 pm

    Gabby, what a wonderful, descriptive account of your arrival in Pilco Grande. The text compliments the photos so well, and telling this story is why you are there. Keep up the good work!

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