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Saving a Dying Language
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The Journal

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Friday, July 19

The day started productively. I met at 7:30 a.m. with Gabel Sotil, the director of the department of education and culture, and spent an hour talking to him about the origins of the Iquito language revitalization project.

Sr. Gabel Sotil
Sr. Gabel Sotil, Jefe de la División de Educación y Cultura de la Municipalidad Provincial de Mayna, was a key figure in setting up the Iquito language documentation project.

After that it was a mad rush to the supermarket for food supplies—mostly rice, canned tuna and crackers, and lots of instant coffee. Tom and I gathered all of our gear into the hotel lobby—Tom had brought Chris’s from her hostel earlier—and arranged for a taxi, while Chris was off for the hardware store for light fixtures and some wiring needed for the center.

Bella Vista is the dock where we were to meet Carlos, who would take us upriver to San Antonio. With the promised 85 hp motor, Carlos assured us it would take about four hours to reach the village. It was 11 a.m., and though our destination was only about 120 kilometers as the crow flies, Amazonian rivers are far from straight.

We planned to pick up Emerson, one of San Antonio’s schoolteachers, at his village about 30 minutes outside of Iquitos. He was at the beach for the scheduled stop and loaded himself and his gear on the boat. This is where the trouble began.

The burden of the extra weight was immediately apparent. Now the boat was quite crowded with six people along with their accompanying gear and supplies. The motor was obviously strained, and before long Carlos had his assistant, or motorista, pull up next to an elderly man in a dugout canoe. After only a few gestures and fewer words, the assistant jumped out of the boat into the canoe with the now bewildered man and Carlos sped away, back on track upriver.

Losing one small passenger made little difference to the stress upon the engine, and Carlos soon turned the boat back to head for the port in Santa Clara, a small town we had passed about 10 minutes earlier. According to Carlos, we were using too much gas, and needed another boat. The plan was that he would find a telephone in the village and call back to Iquitos for someone to bring a larger vessel. After another 30-minute delay, and no expectation of a replacement boat, we had to ask Emerson to get off and take the slow boat to the village. Not surprised, Emerson packed off to a nearby transport boat with plans to be in San Antonio the following day. Carlos restarted the engine…or at least tried.

Thatch truck in the village of Santa Clara
Thatch truck in the village of Santa Clara. Thatch is one of the main products of the area. It is shipped down river on large boats and then loaded onto trucks to be transported to different areas of the jungle.

When it was obvious that the motor was not going to start, Carlos jumped from the boat declaring that he was going back to the phone to again try to find another boat. When nearly two hours passed and there was no sign of Carlos, Chris, Tom and I started considering what our options might be if he didn’t make an appearance soon. While we might find a local home to put us up for the night, we weren’t willing to leave nearly $150 worth of gasoline unattended.

Eventually we heard another motor coming up river and were joking that somehow Carlos had managed to get back to Iquitos for another boat, when lo and behold, the motorboat coming around the bend indeed carried our guide. We were so pleased to finally be getting underway, we never did find out exactly how he managed to make the arrangements. By now it was 3 p.m.—we should have already been in San Antonio, but Carlos reassured us that we were within three hours of the village.

Five hours later, in the pitch dark, we finally arrived in San Antonio and were greeted by several of the village’s children and adults. We were very happy to be on dry land. At least it hadn’t rained on us coming up river.

We spent a bit of time meeting the other members of the team and hearing about the progress made during Chris’s absence. A welcome drink of pisco, some rice with tuna, and we were more than ready to crawl into a tent and crash. Sounded good in theory, except that there was a party in the village that night which provided music to fall asleep to. Unfortunately, it provided music all night and stopped only in time for the roosters—who need to have their clocks reset—to start their crowing well before dawn. Sleep was in short supply, and it wouldn’t be the last time. 

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