Iquitos, Peru, a port on the Amazon River, is one of the last frontier towns in the hemisphere. The thick, extensive jungle that separates the town from the rest of the continent has never been penetrated by rail or road; it takes four days to travel by water to Iquitos from the nearest Peruvian city. The only way to get there quickly is by air, on planes that seem to wobble dangerously over the sharp Andean peaks below. Yet 100,000 people live in the river town, natives and foreigners alike. Their plans and hopes are very much like those of the pioneers who settled the American West a century back, who also spent decades in virtual isolation from whatever civilization existed on their continent.

At the turn of the century Iquitos was the world's rubber capital—an Amazon port through which the rich produce of the inland jungle could be shipped—and it still resembles one of those places you read about in Joseph Conrad's novels. As you see the large, solid buildings that line the spacious center of the town you sense how hard the European colonialists must have strained to keep their sanity in the alien world: Iquitos must have had more than its share of potential Kurtzes. They had to use every means available to escape the steamy tropics that had them imprisoned and return, in their imaginations, to the settled atmosphere of European clubs and office buildings. But they stayed in the town they despised, always hoping to earn the fortune that the jungle seemed to offer.

In the end the colonialists failed. The rubber trade died when the large investors back in Europe discovered that Asian coolies provided a cheaper, more docile work force than Peruvian Indians. The few Europeans who remained began to lead the sort of seedy lives that one associates with movies like The African Queen: derelicts and hopeless romantics playing out their last days in a deserted port town. Natives took over Iquitos. A building that had been designed for the rubber merchants by Charles Eiffel became the local police station within a decade, and now, just a generation later, seems alien territory to any European who enters.

But Iquitos is beginning to change—it is just now becoming linked to the United States. The Indians, who remained upriver for a generation after their first encounter with the Europeans, are pouring into the city. They are responding to a promise. While the European colonialists treated them like beasts—threatened to kill them unless they harvested their assigned quotas of rubber—the United States government seems to be telling them that soon they will enjoy a better life. The Indians have, in this decade, just begun to acquire the transistor radio and the outboard motor, and through these two media they receive America's hopeful message every day. The young men travel down river and see wondrous new inventions, their wives sit at home and hear marvelous promises. Now, on the city's flanks, thousands of Indians huddle together in squalid settlements, waiting patiently for someone to offer them work.

Although there is no industry in Iquitos, it still has the air of a boom town. There is always talk of exciting projects—a highway across the Andes, a jet strip that will service all airplanes bound for Europe, a huge investment in tourism by Braniff airlines. People even say that if the United States decides to pull out of Vietnam and reduce its presence in Southeast Asia, the Amazon jungle will again be the focus of the world's rubber trade. But rubber is not the only product people discuss—there may be oil somewhere in the jungle, or gold, or copper. Prospectors are always passing through town on their way to what they hope will be a major strike.

Iquitos is like what Texas must have been in the decades after the civil war. All sorts of people are drawn there. If the extension of civilization into the wilderness gives a little bit of hope to a great many poor people, it also offers adventure to men who feel trapped in more settled regions and a last chance for success to those who have been defeated at home. Soon the wealthiest, boldest of the speculators will control Iquitos and its native work force as completely as their North American counterparts control Texas. But not quite yet—not until modern forms of transportation and communication tie the town more tightly to the rest of the hemisphere. All the elements are there—lust for money, a large native work force, large deposits of mineral wealth—but it's not quite time for the compound to form. For the moment Iquitos is still open to the wild men and strays that want to tame the wilderness.

Pioneer societies are always composed of escapees and exploiters. They are just now arriving in Iquitos, and it is fascinating to see alliances form and personalities change as the process of modernization gets underway.


Marcel is a refugee from the Belgian Congo who could play the hero in any grade-B movie about the savage wilds. Physically, he is well cast: tall, wiry, with long blond hair he continually flicks out of his eyes and a wonderfully lopsided smile. The most striking feature of his narrow face is his uneven teeth, which slope downward—together with his grin—to give him an air of slightly rakish restlessness.

He was chased out of the Congo with the rest of the whites when Lumumba came to power. The coffee plantation which his family had owned for several decades was expropriated. His entire bank account was seized by the native regime. Now, whenever he speaks of Africa, it is with a rich, rolling bitterness that only his fellow exiles can understand. The world that once seemed so secure has unaccountably gone spinning from his grasp.

“Don't talk about it,” he says, slashing his hand downward abruptly: a machete's arc. “Africa. It's all finished.” He pauses for a minute, as if to recall the continent in specific physical detail, and then talks about its new rulers. “Lumumba. What a madman he was. Totally insane. You know he bribed his army with promises and excited them with drugs. They used to sit up at night, drinking and dancing, and talk about how they would tear each of us apart limb from limb, and march through Africa with our dismembered bodies waving like flags above their black legions.

“You know, the Belgians talk about Tshombe as their savior now. They're hypocrites. They want to prove to the rest of the world that there are some blacks they like, but they're lying. In the old days Tshombe wasn't any better than Lumumba. Except that he was always playing the clown, while Lumumba was serious. And he was our man, you know, in our pay. But he was a moron like the rest of them. They're a breed of morons.”

For several years after Marcel left the Congo he knocked around Belgium, trying to find work that satisfied him. But, like most ex-colonialists, he felt useless in Europe. It seemed too cold there, too confining. He hankered after the unmannered wilds to which he'd been born.

In Brussels he met a Peruvian diplomat whose ancestors, conquistadors, had been granted title to hundreds of miles of land in the country's wildest interior region. Now the Peruvian wanted to tame the territory. He offered Marcel co-partnership in a coffee plantation there. Of course Marcel would do all the work.

It was certainly better than suffocating in Belgium for another year. So, without knowing a single word of Spanish or a single fact about Peru, Marcel set out for the jungle. “I've never seen anything like that country,” he remembers. “It was terrifying. There was nothing in the Congo that was so wild. The first few days I spent there were the most frightening of my life. I had to walk for ten days from the place where my plane landed to the place where I was supposed to start the plantation. Ten days and I was all alone. The only people who lived there were some Indians who didn't like white people at all. Later somebody told me that I was the only gringo ever to go in that deep and come back alive.”

He was, for the moment, like Kit Carson and Etienne Provost, Jim Bridger and Bill Sublette, those pioneers who set out from the eastern States and from Europe to tame the North American frontier. Like them, Marcel realized that he had to befriend the natives and even imitate them—it was the only way to survive—although another part of his mind told him that they were still more primitive than the Africans who had chased him out of the Congo. Within a few months he could speak their language, something no other white man had ever managed. He decided that the best way to maintain their respect was to become a jungle doctor, so he immediately began to employ the little medical knowledge he'd picked up in the Congo and in Belgium. It was very dangerous—if any of his patients had died, angry kinsmen would have killed him immediately—but he was careful to select injuries he knew he could cure. In time hundreds of Indians began to trust him. No one ever threatened to do him harm.

It took him about a year to clear all the land he needed for planting and two more to reap full and regular harvests. During that time he built an airstrip nearby and began to receive supplies regularly. His Indian friends had taught him how to hunt and fish in the jungle, so he rarely lacked good food. He considered himself quite comfortable, very lucky.

Sometimes he would accompany the Indians on long expeditions after big game, bear or cattle. On one such trip he found a child nearly dead on a deserted jungle trail. He treated it, fed it, organized a search for its parents. When they couldn't be found he took the lad home. Now he had a son.

But he could not, for all these accomplishments, make a life for himself in the Peruvian wilds. There he had even less control over his own destiny than he'd possessed in the Congo. His future was still determined in the European cities he hated. During Marcel's fifth year on the plantation, quotas on the world coffee market changed drastically, and Peru was badly hurt. There was nothing a farmer and jungle doctor like Marcel could do about that: success or failure had little to do with wit, and nothing to do with hard work. He saw his harvest rotting month after month, in the silos he had so patiently built. For the second time in ten years he was flat broke.

The same thing had happened to the American mountain men, the Kit Carsons and Jim Bridgers. They were able to survive anywhere in the wilds, to conquer nature, but they couldn't survive economically. So they gave up their dreams of independence and joined large organizations that needed their special talents: became government Indian agents or scouts for trading companies. They could no longer enjoy their old, respectful relationship with the natives.

Now Marcel works for a tourist agency in Iquitos, guiding foreigners up and down the Amazon River. Soon, he hopes, he will be in charge of the office.


His attitude toward Peruvians has changed drastically. Now he always talks behind their backs: “These people don't know how to do the simplest piece of work. When I take over the tourist agency I won't give any of them responsible jobs.” And he has his own plans for the Indians he once regarded as friendly neighbors. “I think that the tourists who come here will be as curious about them as I was at first. But they will never travel that long distance to see them, and they certainly won't take the risks I took. So what do you think of this idea? I want to bring them all here, nearer the city, and build a sort of human zoo. Maybe I can use some of the people who are already living here looking for work. Each tribe will be a separate exhibit, and each exhibit will feature one unusual local custom. I know I can make a lot of money that way. A man who is going to Europe on a Braniff jet can stay here overnight when the new airport gets built, and see things he'll never find anywhere else in the world.”

Of course when Marcel is around Peruvians he is still friendly, even fawning. And he is also willing to ally himself with all sorts of foreigners in Iquitos. His two closest friends there are artists from San Francisco, refugees from the hustle and bustle, who would look far more in place in Haight-Ashbury than on a coffee plantation. Suppose that Marcel were to meet Josh and Esther Burbank on the streets of Pretoria, South Africa, where he really belongs. Most likely he would greet the pair with bully-boy cat-calls, and perhaps even a drubbing. Yet set adrift in the Peruvian tropics hippy and racist have had to rely on each other. In the process they have become good friends.

The Burbanks didn't come to Iquitos to escape failure. Josh, a goldsmith, had been doing quite well for himself in San Francisco. A tiny man, less than five feet tall, he has the sort of sparrow-like habits that people who buy gold jewelry like to associate with craftsmen. As he talks he is always hopping from place to place, alighting nervously, playing cat's cradle with his wispy little beard. He no longer knows whether it was his manner or his skill that earned him fifteen thousand dollars in each of his last five years in California.

“But it doesn't really matter,” he says. “The question of whether Americans really like art or artists doesn't interest me any more. I hate it so much back there that I don't even care what they think of my work. You know the problem. They always write about it in those magazines. It's not enough to earn money in the States, even at a trade you like. No matter what you do you're trapped.

“My parents were Oakies who came to California after the dust storms to pick crops. I was only a kid then, but I spend more time now thinking about the people who traveled with us, worked with us, than I do about the nice life I had later on. I have this clear picture of myself back then: how I used to walk around the camps where we lived, talking with everyone, wondering how I could get loose from those knots that had all the people I knew tied up. I never made it. You can't in California, no matter what you try. Your friends are trying, too, and you learn your lesson when you see what happens to them—they use drugs, maybe, or sleep around, or try to bury themselves in some sort of art. They never make it. The only way to get free is to isolate yourself from your entire past.”

The Burbanks knew that they wanted to leave California long before they settled in Iquitos. For several years they had taken vacations in Latin America, reconnoitering, searching for a spot that would fertilize their ideas about art. At first they thought of moving to the Ecuadorean Andes to learn how the Indians there do their craft work, but the climate seemed a bit chilly. Then they considered Lima and its suburbs, where they could share their ideas with other artists.

But Esther, who had apprenticed herself to Josh in San Francisco, had specific ideas about the sort of work she wanted to do which could not be explored in the city. She wanted to see whether it would be possible to develop a totally new kind of jewelry by using jungle animals and wild herbs as her ingredients. The notion had haunted her for years. Josh saw no reason not to share her experiment. He was tired of living around artists anyway.

“We decided that what we were looking for was material and not theory,” he says. “Do you know what I mean? Almost anywhere you go in the world you can find people who want to talk about art, who come out of a certain tradition, and who have theories about their inherited past and their age. But they get boring after awhile. There isn't that much you can say about art, you know. Esther and I decided that we wanted to feel something new with our hands, to create out of materials that had never been used.”


When they first came to Iquitos the Burbanks built themselves a shack in the jungle, about two hundred miles downriver from the city. They believed that no sort of civilization should intercede between a man and his materials. The idea they had was metaphorical, of course, the kind of vision that leads pioneers to explore hungrily, dangerously, before they finally set hammer to wood. They wanted to hunt jungle animals with their own weapons: knives and bows and arrows which they had planned to fashion from the trees and rocks around their house. They would use the beasts they killed as the substance of lovely objects. Then, for dyes, they would employ plants that grew wild. They would get whatever else they needed by trading with the Indians, valuable item for valuable item.

But the experiment failed within weeks; they decided it was too impractical. For one thing the cost of boating a month's supplies up the Amazon River was at least twice as much as a month's rent in Iquitos. Besides, the materials they wanted were not so readily available as they had imagined. Esther had had an idea for a bracelet made of eagle's bone, for example. Although there were quite a few eagles in the jungle, you had to be a pretty skilled hunter to catch one. It wasn't like catching lobster off the coast of Maine. Even for an adaptable white man like Marcel the act of surviving in the jungle was all-consuming. So the Burbanks decided that if they wanted to devote themselves to craftwork they would have to pay money to people who knew how to get the material they needed.

Besides, the jungle was a very lonely place. After a few weeks there the Burbanks began to feel like those musicians who subject themselves to days of silence in totally soundproofed rooms. It wasn't so bad when there was light and they could see the people who lived near them. But the nights were horrible. “We could hear the monkeys screeching and the owls crying,” Esther remembers. “The lapping of the river was constant, terrible. We felt jailed by those sounds.”

But the worst thing was their fear of illness. There were those awful nights when one of them would have a headache or stomach cramps. The pain would dilate in the membrane of their fear as noise dilates in a vacuum.

“I don't know how Marcel survived out there all those years,” Josh says now. “I know that I really admire him. The training he got in Africa serves him wonderfully. After a few weeks with no one to talk to but Esther I thought I would go wild.”

So they moved back into Iquitos and rented a house. They managed to train Indians from all over the jungle to bring them what they wanted. They work on a huge, rumpled table in the midst of a room nearly overflowing with plants and animals. On one side of the table are the delicate tools with which they extract the teeth, bones, and scales they plan to put into the object they're making. Some mystery novels lie stacked nearby. They provide distraction while the husband and wife await inspiration.

The materials for the jewelry are everywhere else, lying about in no intelligible order—feathers here, berries there, little pots of dye scattered all around. There, side by side with thumb tacks and rubber bands, are monkeys' teeth, bat bones, beetle wings; the scales of a crocodile, an armadillo, of a prehistoric fish called peiche which can be found only in the Amazon; Tagua nuts, the tip of an owl's wing, mushroom stalks, the toes of a jungle rat. The devil only knows what spell this brew could arouse if Esther were a witch, given powers of incantation. Spells to twine with the strange drugs that grow deep, deep in the jungle: a snuff, for example, which you blow through a hookah into your partner's nose. The smallest speck is said to summon visions unbelievably rich and powerful.


But Esther is no witch and Josh no warlock. They are skilled craftsmen who have traveled a long way to master a method. And the effort is beginning to pay off. Jewelry crafted from exotic animals is becoming a popular item in semi-hip communities throughout America, and you can even find it on Fifth Avenue. Josh and Esther are already earning more money than they did in San Francisco.

As a result they are becoming interested in Iquitos's future. They are especially concerned with tourism. Large sums of outside capital will be invested there soon, they think, and they want to be in a position to profit. Like Marcel they are busy devising schemes to make Indian tribes and wild jungle scenes more accessible to the traveler. Their friendship with Marcel has developed into a business partnership.

Now they are more interested in talking about the hotel that has just been built in Iquitos, the restaurant that is being planned, than in recalling the reasons they escaped from the United States. They talk with more passion about the crew of television photographers who passed through town several weeks ago than about the ideas of art that caused them to build their shack in the jungle. They consider themselves forward-looking people. When an outsider comes to town they take great pleasure in hearing his views of the different tourist agencies, and ask eagerly for suggestions about how the business might be improved. They are most impressed with Marcel's agency, for they feel he is more trustworthy than his Peruvian competitors.

Soon they will begin to wonder how they can invest the profits from craftwork and tourism into the industry that will inevitably come to Iquitos. Perhaps Josh, Esther, and Marcel will be the first members of the town's Chamber of Commerce. Certainly the Burbanks are skilled enough artists to design an attractive brochure. And as they begin to think about their city as a site for investment, they will have to regard the Indians who live in town and upriver as one of its natural resources—not only an interesting tourist attraction, but a cheap source of heavy labor. The Bur-banks will justify such thoughts on the grounds that they are pumping money into the local economy and offering primitive people a chance to make a better life.

For all their idiosyncracies people like Esther, Josh and Marcel are very much like that collection of wanderers who, just a century ago, gave up whatever comforts they possessed to settle North America's virgin land. Homeless exploiters like Marcel, dreamers like Josh, they made their alliances out there on the frontier where their actions counted far more than their ideas. And what those pioneers did to America, their descendants are now doing to the world.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link