The Roots

The story is told by Florence

Our story started five years ago, when Alice and I went to the wild rainforest for the first time.

We first met Gabriel, a wise man from the Shipibo-Conibo’s community. The three of us embarked on a 19-hour bus ride crossing the Andes from Lima to Pucallpa. Once we arrived at the Ucayali river, we took a 4-hour boat to our final destination : Bethel, a small community of Shipibo-Conibo living deep into the jungle.

We first got attacked by mosquitos and later by spiders. At night we didn’t dare leave the wood houses because we feared snakes. But one day, once Nature had accepted our presence, we were invited to see the sacred lagoon by its guardians, the Shipibos. The path opened to us and we walked under the scorching sun : fatigue and thirst quickly overwhelmed us. We walked this way until we caught sight of a strong light, the beautiful reflection of the sun on the lake’s surface : it was vibrating and calling us, beckoning us closer. I had never seen a lake of that colour. It was as black as oil, shining like the skin of a snake, peacefully resting in eternal silence. I felt amazed.

It wasn’t allowed to swim in the lake. The owner forbade it, they said. Being Western visitors, we misunderstood. And this is something that amazes me about the Shipibo. They knew exactly what we were thinking, so they explained to us, patiently and with the sweetest smiles, who the owner of the black lake was : the sacred snake called Ronin.

Alice and I still remember the feeling of navigating on the black mysterious water. I remember how my fingers brushed against the surface while the boat moved forward. Gabriel was laying in front, Alice was looking around with new eyes and I was secretly drinking the water, gathering it into my palms. It was pure and transparent. I remember wondering what made the lake so dark.

Pollution took over the lake. An oil company invaded the forest and water of Ronin. Nearly all the fish and underwater life died. The Shipibos said that the sacred snake, protector of the water and the balance of the forest, was gone forever. The light would never come back in Bethel.

It happened so quickly we barely saw it coming.

Alice became pregnant and stayed in Canada where she started to tell our story.

Since then I have been visiting Gabriel every year, to take photos of the Shipibo community. One day, I told him about my dream project : tell the Shipibos’ story through a series of photos. He looked deep into my eyes and told me that we should go back in time. I didn’t understand the meaning of his words, but I trusted him.

A completely different story was about to begin.

We took a boat at the Yarinacocha port as we had done years ago : he told me, « Now we are going to travel south, the same way the Incas did to reach Cuzco. »

We travelled south to the most remote place I had ever been: according to the official registry, its name is Puerto Grau. But its inhabitants call it by their own name : Koman Kenia. We met the Koman Kenia at sunset : the people were waiting for us along the river banks. I promptly jumped off the boat and onto the wet soil, trying to pull off a casual, laid-back demeanour : I guess I wanted to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t some naive and delicate city girl. But I didn’t even have the time to enjoy the fact that my feet didn’t hurt, because the Shipibo women came to me and hugged me so strong I totally forgot who I was. These women took me in as their own and started singing to me while the moon shone in the dark sky. Arm in arm we quickly left the river : I lost Gabriel, and couldn’t look behind me. Some kind of force made us go forward. It was pitch black and I was more or less following the movement, but my feet didn’t stumble. Maybe it was because of their singing, all the voices coming together to welcome the nightly visitor.

I got very sick during the night, as all travellers do. My mission was to strengthen my body, preparing it for what was to come.

Days later, we left the community and took the boat on the Yarinacocha to enter a smaller river. Something caught my attention and I turned around to look behind me. At this precise moment, I saw two pink dolphins jump out of the water in a synchronised dance, crossing one another as though sealing our entrance into the deepest part of the jungle.

But the river was blocked by enormous pieces of wood the water had dragged along. They were the remnants of the deforestation that this land had suffered.

We spent many hours clearing the way, but it wasn’t the only barrier. We went through five barriers of wood : not only did they prevent us from moving forward, they also trapped the fish, which were dying. The whole ecosystem was in disarray. This is what the Shipibos of Koman Kenia wanted us to see : they wanted us to see what had happened to the flora and the fauna. But things also happened within me. This was the place where I came to love the song of the birds, the shiny reflection of the sky against the current and the Koman Kenia themselves, as they swam close to the crocodiles and snakes so they could push the boat and go through the barriers. This is where I understood how these people were connected to the essence of the place.

When we finally reached the lake, I cried. I saw my reflection in the water. I saw who I was. I swam in the lake, I dove in. I went inside myself and I came out again.