Letter from Nauta

Stephanie Boyd experiences new life amid grief on a night voyage in the Peruvian Amazon.

Credit: Sarah John

Water spills over the sides of our canoe as Deomar plunges his oar into the river. We lurch forward, riding low in the dark waters under the light of the full moon.

I’m sitting cross-legged on the wooden floorboards, clutching my boom microphone, a sound recorder strapped to my chest. Miguel, my partner, perches on the edge of a wooden seat, filming Deomar in the bow. Deomar’s wife Mariluz is in the stern. Her strokes are firm yet calm, moving us forward with quiet strength.

Twenty years ago Mariluz and Deomar made this same journey when she was in labour with their fourth child. They were trying to reach the closest health post, a small medical facility three hours from Shapajilla, a Kukama indigenous village on the Marañón River in Peru’s northern Amazon region. Tonight, we’re filming a re-enactment of their journey for a documentary Mariluz and I are producing.

Mariluz’s first three children were born at home without complications, but she suffered high blood pressure during her fourth pregnancy. A doctor scheduled a caesarian at the hospital in the district capital, a 10-hour boat ride away. Mariluz was determined to avoid the surgery and turned to traditional medicine. She began taking a variety of ‘slippery’ preparations, from medicinal plants to the uterus of the stingray, baked over an open fire in banana leaves.

‘The stingray gives birth easily,’ she explained, because it produces ‘a mucous substance which allows the babies to just slide out’.

A few weeks before the operation, Mariluz felt like her baby was on the way so she visited the health post. The obstetrician told her she was wrong: there were still two weeks to go. She made the long journey back to her village and went into labour that night.

Mariluz sensed her baby was coming fast and wanted to give birth at home with the village midwife. But Deomar insisted on going back to the health post. ‘I’ll bring my biggest oar,’ he said, ‘so we get there faster.’

A torrential rainstorm broke out as they were preparing to leave. Mariluz put on her rubber boots, got into the canoe and covered herself with a plastic sheet.

Deomar urged her not to start pushing. He was afraid she would die, or that the purawa, the giant boa spirit that lives in the river, would smell blood and overturn the canoe.

Halfway there, she planted her feet on the seat in front of her and held onto both sides of the canoe. ‘I pushed,’ she says, ‘and Juanita was born, really fast.’ Just like a stingray.

Mariluz heard her baby cry and found a flashlight to look at the newborn. After a while the rain let up and she came out from under the plastic sheet.

‘I looked at the reflection of the moon on the river and it was beautiful,’ she recalls.

Two decades later, the moon is lighting the couples’ way again, but this time a nervous film crew is onboard. Miguel’s sudden movements rock the small canoe and I’m convinced we’ll overturn.

To calm down I concentrate on taping the rhythmic sound of the paddlers. Several days of hard rains have given us an unexpected gift. An orchestra of frogs and insects is creating an incredible soundscape, their jubilant singing, in perfect harmony, accompanies our journey. The moon illuminates us with her cool glow, a welcome balm after the crushing heat of the day.

Despite my mosquito bites, sore back and wet trousers, I’m overcome with a feeling of peace. This has not been an easy trip. My mother passed away suddenly a few months ago. I was not able to be with her. Grief, loss, disbelief and sorrow come in unexpected waves leaving me in a state of limbo.

Birth, death, pain and joy: the lifecycle that we struggle to understand and often fear. But tonight, the jungle chorus helps dissipate my loneliness. The sky belongs to the moon, her light is so bright it obscures even the stars: a solid beacon of hope and comfort; an old friend who is always there if we only take a moment to lift our heads.