They say that at the beginning of creation, everything was people, just like us. The stars were on the Earth and lived a lazy, promiscuous life, harassing the females of all the other creatures. One day, the gods, who were tired of such behavior, decided to make an example of them and to punish them eternally. They ordered all the female stars to leave the Earth and live in the dark sky, filling the forests with the splendor of their light. Since then, the male stars stayed on Earth, living in the jungles and suffering from the loneliness that comes from not having their partners. This is also the way lightning bugs were created. They further say that since then, each time a shooting star crosses the sky, all the lightning bugs come out in the hope of finding the one they loved, who left for the heavens.
Legends and tales like this one can appear fragile and difficult to preserve, yet they are as solid in the world view of the indigenous peoples as the hardest of the hardwoods or the largest of the river rocks. They represent the oral tradition of the Amazonian peoples, their identity, and a connection with their gods and ancestors. Thanks to them, indigenous men, like Mañuco and Mishaja, learned from their parents that the yellow spotted side neck turtle is man’s friend and watches over them, protecting them from the dreadful eel, that certain vines can provide water to the thirsty walker, or that the song of the White-throated toucan announces the coming of the rains.
It is nearly ten o’clock at night, and the clearing of Infierno, a native community some three hours by canoe from the city of Puerto Maldonado and in the heart of the southeastern Peruvian jungles, flickers in the light of a bonfire. Squatting around the fire are a dozen people, men, women, and children, listening attentively to the stories Mishaja is telling them. They have heard these a thousand times before, but each night it seems as if were the first. At each retelling and depending on the mood of the storyteller, the stories change, with new details that enrich them being added; the peals of laughter from the listeners and their comments continue for hours.
Mishaja, whose given name is Agustin, is one of the nearly 600 Ese’eja natives living in the southeastern Peruvian jungles. Sadly, like so many other Amazonian ethnic groups, the survival of these indigenous people’s traditions, customs, and even their very homes is being threatened by new life rhythms imposed on them by modern society.
Likewise, the forests in close proximity to the community are not at all what they used to be. The macaws no longer fly over their houses, and the huge fish are as rare in the rivers as trees are in the largest of cities. There is, however, a place where the jungle is still lush and explodes with life, where humans rarely visit, and where nature writes the rules as it has done for millennia. This place is called Candamo, a tributary of the Tambopata River, and known as “the last jungle where humans do not tread”.