The Putumayo, The Devil's Paradise/Chapter 6
The next morning we called upon the Intendente, General Urdaneta, and presented to him the letter from Dr. Miranda. He received us very cordially and promised us that he would see that we had cargadores by Monday to take us to Puerto Guineo. After a pleasant conversation of almost an hour and a half, during which he supplied us with considerable information about Mocoa and the Putumayo, we left him and went out to take a look at the city. At noon we met him again at the restaurant, where he introduced us to Dr. Ricardo Escobar, the medical officer of the garrison here. Mocoa is the capital of the territory of the Putumayo, an immense tract of land comprising the whole region between the Rivers Napo and Putumayo from Mocoa to the Atlantic. This rich section is also claimed by Peru and Ecuador.
The dispute between these two countries has been submitted to the King of Spain for arbitration and the country that gains his decision will then have to arrange the matter with Colombia. There are no Ecuadorians established as yet in any part of this vast territory, the upper half of which, as far down as Remolino, is occupied by the Colombians, while the Peruvians are in possession from there to the Brazilian boundary at the mouth of the Cotuhue, for Brazil, with her usual astuteness, has seized a large triangular area at the confluence with the Amazon. The part of the territory at present occupied by Colombia is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Nariiio, and all officers and officials are appointed from Pasto. The capital of this huge territory is a small town of bamboo huts having a population of about five hundred. Until recently it was the place of confinement of political prisoners, but about a month before our arrival President Reyes had pardoned all but nine, who had been sent out of the country by way of the Putumayo, the Government's agent, Don Rogerio Becerra, conducting them as far as Remolino, where they had been released.
As the maintenance of these prisoners and the garrison had been the chief industry, the exile of the former and the withdrawal of the latter, which was taking place when we arrived, was causing a general exodus to Pasto. A small traffic with the rubber collectors of the Upper Putumayo and the neighbouring Indians is, however, still carried on. Agriculture and stock-raising are developed only sufficiently to supply the small local demands, for the inaccessibility of the place prohibits any large trade with outside markets. The climate of Mocoa is agreeable and healthy, and the land, level and covered with thick forest, is fertile and well adapted to agriculture. The temperature is about 20° C. and the elevation above sea level is approximately five hundred meters. One very attractive feature of this vicinity is the complete absence of mosquitos and gnats.
From Mocoa one can see, blue in the distance, the mighty, towering peaks of the Cordillera Oriental, which, rising high above the unbroken wall of forest that surrounds the town, seem to pierce the very sky. A good mule road or highway connection with Pasto and La Sofia, the head of steam navigation on the Putumayo, would do much to awaken Mocoa from the torpor into which it is now plunged, for, in that way, this virgin region would have an outlet not only for the important forest products such as rubber, ivory, &c., but also for the valuable agricultural staples, as coffee, cotton, yuca, sugarcane, and the thousand other products of the tierra caliente which can be grown here. Besides, the opening of these means of communication would greatly facilitate immigration to this vast region, which is the most essential aid to its development.
An interesting plant, very much in evidence here, is the achiote f or urucu. This is a small tree, yielding a fruit, which is encased in a red berry, resembling in shape that of a chestnut. This fruit, when crushed, gives out a bright red juice, which is used by the whites to dye clothes with and to color soups, meat, etc. The Indians, in addition to using it in this way, also employ it to paint themselves with. The Indians of Mocoa are also Incas, the same as those of Santiago. They speak the same tongue, have the same customs, houses, arms, and utensils, differing only in the dress, which, on account of the heat, consists only of a long, black or white cotton shirt, almost concealing a pair of knee-pants of the same colour and material, and in their food, which is more diversified and comprises not only maize, but also yuca, plantains, and many forest products. Like the Incas of Santiago, they also profess Christianity and have a limited knowledge of Spanish. These Indians are very ugly and do not possess the good features, clear skin, and physical endurance which so characterise their brothers of the mountains. Many of them suffer from the carate so prevalent in the Cauca Valley, and, consequently, present a most repugnant appearance.
The following incident illustrates the superstition of these aborigines. One day Pedro and I went to an Indian house to buy some souvenirs. Here, the aged owner of the hut had an old, worthless bodoqueda that he wished to sell me, and insisted so strongly upon my buying it that I lost patience and spoke to him rather harshly. Instantly one of our Santiago Indians, who seemed to have taken rather a liking to me, called me aside and implored me not to offend the old Indian, who was a noted brujo or wizard, for, if I did, he would surely visit some fearful punishment upon me, such as making me blind or insane, or even worse. Although I laughed and explained to him that the wizard was nothing but an old fraud and could do me no harm, the good fellow could not be convinced, but still clung to his belief. Such superstitions are very common among all these aborigines.
During the next two days only three of our Santiago Indians showed up, thus delaying us in the same manner as they had done at Pasto and at Sibundoy. In this interval we made the acquaintance of Don Octavio Materon, a junior partner in a company, formed in Pasto, for the purpose of cultivating rubber on the Upper Pulumayo. The manager, Don Gabriel Martinez, to whom Jurado had given us a letter of introduction, had, we learned, gone down in his capacity as corregidor to the Garaparana, leaving Materon and the other partner, Gonzalez, in charge. Materon had come to Mocoa to bring down some bultos of merchandise that had been delayed here, and, finding that we were going his way, kindly decided to wait for us.
On Monday morning, November 25th, the Indians sent by the Intendente arrived, ready to take our effects to Guineo. As there were still two bultos lacking, we decided that Perkins and Pedro should go on with the five bultos that were ready and await my arrival in Guineo, while I remained in Mocoa to take down the other two bultos as soon as the cargadores should arrive with them. So, bidding goodbye to Perkins and Pedro and arranging with the remaining Indians to return in three or four days, I resumed my weary task of waiting.
As we had been informed that it would be necessary to purchase a canoe here, I made several inquiries and at last was directed to one Bernardo Ochoa, a lean, bilious-looking aguardiente merchant, a victim of the carafe who had a canoe in Guineo that he would sell. I did not fancy buying a canoe without seeing it, but, as both Materon and the Intendente assured me that it was large, well preserved, and quite worth sixty dollars. I began negotiations with the man, who at first asked one hundred dollars, but, after a great deal of haggling, finally sold it to me for eighty dollars. At the same time I bought a small barrel of aguardiente, as I was told that it would greatly facilitate intercourse, not only with the Indians, but also with the "whites" who inhabit the region.
On Wednesday morning, at about 9 a.m.. Dr. Escobar came in and informed me that a messenger had just arrived from Pasto with an order to arrest Pedro and send him back to Call. Completely amazed by this intelligence, I went to the Intendente, who showed me the order and informed me that he had already sent two soldiers to Guineo to arrest the boy and bring him back. As we had taken Pedro from the railway and had stayed several days in Call and Popayan and several weeks in Pasto, without any attempt having been made to arrest him, I could only think that it was some mistake, so I made a few guarded suggestions to the General, but without the slightest effect.
In the afternoon I set about hiring another boy to take Pedro's place, and after some time succeeded in engaging a stupid, torpid-looking youth, to whom I offered a couple of pounds to clinch the bargain. What was my surprise then to see him come back in a couple of hours and, with tears in his eyes and in a voice trembling with fear, beg me to let him off. Upon investigation, I found that some wretch had filled his weak head full of bloodcurdling yarns about the cannibal Indians and the decimating fevers met with there. The poor fool was in such a miserable state of fear and dismay that, upon his paying back the money I had advanced him, I was glad to let him go.
On the following afternoon I was agreeably surprised to see the two cargadores from Santiago arrive with the two remaining bultos. Finding that they were intact, for the Indians often steal part of the contents of the bultos. I paid the two rascals and sent word to the Mocoa cargadores that four of them should come in the morning to take us to Puerto Guineo. Shortly after I had arranged this matter the soldiers arrived with Pedro, who seemed to be quite knocked up with the long march and the gloomy prospects of the tedious journey before him. Shaking hands with the poor boy to encourage him a little, I asked what it was that he had done. He protested his innocence of any wrongdoing so stoutly that, convinced that there must be an error somewhere, I again went to the Intendente, but he was determined to carry out his orders, and I could do nothing with him. Returning to Pedro, I endeavoured to cheer him up a little, but without much success. After writing him a good reference, I paid him off, and, with a last adios left the poor boy alone in his dismal cell. I never saw nor heard from him since.
In the morning, as soon as the cargadores put in their appearance, I loaded them up with the two bultos, the barrel of aguardiente and our food and hammocks, while Materon did the same with his. After which we took our leave of the Intendente and the simpdtico Dr. Escobar, and began the last stage of our overland journey. The morning was fine and invigorating, and we pushed on rapidly, crossing many fine, sparkling quebradas, which wound their way softly through the dense, tropical forest that covers the Amazon Basin from the Andes to the Atlantic. As we made our way along the level path, we frequently stopped to examine some strange plant, to pursue some rare butterfly, or to shoot some new bird, whose brilliant plumage or sweet notes attracted our attention.
Just before noon we passed a "cave," a great, long, overhanging rock, in some places of such a height as to permit us to stand erect under it, and reached a large, sparkling stream, where, seated on a great rock, overspread by the protecting shade of the forest, we had our lunch. The traveller, entering for the first time these gloomy forests, as yet untouched by the hand of man, is bewildered by the splendour and magnificence of a superabundant vegetation. Indeed, it is impossible to give any exact idea of the immense variety of the thick-growing plants and of the incessant activity of Nature in their development. The dense vegetation accumulates and piles up, forming, especially on the banks of the streams and rivers, opaque masses, perfectly impenetrable, through which the sun's rays never pierce. The high giants of the forest tower above everything, the smaller trees and the shrubs crowd under their branches, while the numerous vines and bejucos knit the whole into one solid mass.
In the afternoon we reached a cross which marked the divergence of our road into two trails, one going to Puerto Limon on the Caqueta, and the other to Puerto Guineo on the River Guineo, an affluent of the Putumayo. This cross is about six leagues from Mocoa and the same distance from Limon and Guineo. Some distance beyond, we stopped for the night in a couple of small ranchos built about a month before by the soldiers who escorted the exiles to the port. Here we passed a fairly comfortable night, well protected from the torrential downpour which took place shortly after our arrival here and continued all night.
In the morning we found the trail wet and muddy and the vegetation, through which we were obliged to wade, soaked us completely, so we removed our shoes and clothes and put on alpargatas and pyjamas. These we found lighter and much more comfortable, and in this garb we continued the rest of our journey. Soon the trail became worse and the small, shallow quebradas became rushing, brawling torrents, through which we were, in some cases, almost obliged to swim. The Indians, in these places, grasped hands and waded through together, carrying the bultos on their heads. At first I trembled for my poor possessions when they did this, but I soon perceived that they, knew their business, and did not interfere with them.
Towards the end of the journey the trail passed along the banks of the Guineo River, normally a quiet, meandering stream not over two feet deep, but now a swollen, dangerous torrent. We experienced some difficulty in crossing several of its numerous tributaries, but, after what seemed an eternity, we reached Guineo at one o'clock in a state of complete exhaustion. Here we found Perkins comfortably installed in an old bamboo hut known as the "convent," where the priests from Mocoa generally stop when they come down to Guineo to preach to the Indians. We soon discovered our old railway enemies, the moscas or gnats, which made me feel quite at home. But a still worse misfortune was revealed to us when Perkins, who was preparing some food for Materon and me, informed us that all the bread was spoiled, having probably got wet on the Paramo of Bordoncillo. We braced up considerably, however, when he dished us out a hearty meal of fried yuca, plantains, sausage, and panela, and after a couple of hours' rest felt quite restored.
We then went out, and, through an Indian to whom I delivered a letter Ochoa had supplied me with, ordering the transfer of the canoe to me, had a look at our vessel. We found it to be a good river-going craft, about nine metres long and something over one metre wide, and in a toler- able state of preservation, being made of cedar, which is the best wood for the purpose. These canoes or "pituches", which, as a rule, measure from six to ten metres in length, are made from a single log of wood, hollowed out by the adze, or, as with some Indians, by fire. Cedar is the favorite wood, for it is light, easily worked, and very durable. When this cannot be obtained, however, various other kinds of trees are employed, such as caoba or aguano palo-rosa or lauro-rosa, palo-maria,§catagua or assacii and itauha. But none of these woods are equal to cedar, for either they do not resist the action of the water so well, or else are so heavy that they make the canoe cumbersome and dangerous to navigation.
We next bought a couple of paddles from the Indians, and our naval equipment was then complete. The paddles in use in this region by both whites and Indians are generally only about a metre and a half in length, with wide, rounded blades, which facilitate rowing in shallow water. Oars such as are used in oar-locks would be quite useless here on account of the numerous stumps and logs in the rivers and along their banks and chiefly the cargo, which often takes up nearly all the inside of the canoe. Many of these paddles are constructed of fine wood, well finished and painted and varnished to a degree. The only other building at Puerto Guineo, in addition to the convent, is an old, dilapidated church, both of which stand on the bank of the river in a small clearing sowed with plantain trees. As already stated, the priests of Mocoa often come down to Guineo for a few days at a time to preach to the aborigmes, and the convent and church were built by the Indians, partly for the convenience of the padres and partly as a sort of monument to their own importance. Like the convent, the church is of bamboo with an earthen floor and a thatched roof, upon which some vegetation was beginning to present itself.
Inside were a few crude pictures of saints, and behind the altar stood a cross with a ghastly figure of the Crucifixion upon it. A few cheap altar cloths and the remains of several used up candles completed the outfit, the whole of which was entirely covered and wound up with numerous cobwebs. In the midst of the dense forest, surrounding, these neglected relics of civilization, live a tribe of Indians who call themselves Cionis and speak a language of the same name. They are quite distinct from the Incas, and occupy the whole region of the Upper Putumayo, living in small villages of from ten to fifty families along its banks. In all, they do not number over a thousand. But they all speak more or less Spanish, with the peculiarity that the only form of the verb they use is the gerund.
These Indians are short, broad, and strong, but generally lazy and shiftless. Like the Mocoa branch of the Incas, nearly all of them suffer from carate. The ugly and unusual custom of pulling out the eyebrows, eyelashes, etc., and cutting the hair short is observed by both sexes. The women are, if possible, uglier than the men, which is saying a good deal, but the latter endeavour to compensate for this by painting their faces blue and pink. The ordinary designs used for this purpose are geometrical figures and branches of trees. Another very common custom is that of piercing the ears and the dividing wall of the nose with small bamboo tubes colored a bright shining black, and frequently from ten to fifteen centimeters in length and nearly one centimeter in thickness. They also generally wear upon each arm, just between the shoulder and the elbow, a sort of bracelet, made of fibers from the leaf of the chambira palm, the loose ends of which reach almost to the wrist. This is supposed to ward off attacks of rheumatism and other similar complaints.
- tropical lands
- skin disease
- Native alcohol or rum.