Chutí from Kilometer 6

This is Part V of New Worlder’s first series: Food & The Amazon Rainforest, which explores the relationships and possibilities surrounding food in one of the most diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on Earth.

Just as Chutí, a 23-year-old Ticuna student from a small village near Kilometer 6 of the road from Leticia in the Colombian Amazon, returned from town with documents related to his exams, a gringo was getting out of a moto taxi. The gringo asked if he knew where yuca was being processed for farofa and tucupí, which is called ají negro in other parts of the Amazon. Chutí knew of a place. It was through the forest about a kilometer away. He had nothing else to do for the rest of the day. Without thinking anything of it he said he could take him there.

The gringo was a writer, just passing through Leticia and the Tres Fronteras region from Iquitos on his way to Manaus. He spent the previous days in Leticia exploring a few indigenous villages up the Río Amazonas towards Puerto Nariño. In town, he spent most of his time in the market and along the malecón, talking to the vendors selling fish like gamitana and tucunare, colorful fruits like camu camu and aguaje, and the stalls with juanes and other typical foods of Colombia’s Amazon. At the restaurant Tierras Amazonicas, a kitschy tribute to Amazonia where they skewer mojojoy (palm grubs) and grill pirarucu (paiche), he struck up a conversation with a waiter who thought he might be able to find someone making ají negro near kilometer 6. So, the next day he went.

After walking through the forest, Chutí and the gringo found the factory closed. He thought of an older couple making farofa the artisanal way nearby, which as it turned out was what the gringo really wanted to see anyway. While the gringo had a flight to catch in the afternoon in Tabatinga, on the other side of the border in Brazil, he had a few more hours to spare. So afterwards he thought of another couple making ají negro in their maloka. The gringo took photos of the ají negro and the process and they all thought it was strange, yet they felt proud and told the gringo what made their ají negro special, how they like to use it, and how it can have different degrees of spiciness to it. Afterward, Chutí and the gringo found a small restaurant where they cooked simple Ticuna dishes and the gringo took photos of the food and how it was made.

As they walked back to the road to town, Chutí and the gringo talked about New York and how tall the Twin Towers were. How many meters high they were and how far away could they be seen, Chutí asked. They talked about what fish he are in the United States and he was surprised when the gringo said he could find pirarucu there now.

“Do you think more people would want see these things?” he asked the gringo.

“What you have here is important,” the gringo said. “Tourists might not come by the thousands just to see Ticuna food traditions, but it’s something that many would like to see while they are here anyway.”

There were touristy places in Leticia already, like Tierra Amazonicas, and several have displays of native fish and an area where they make process yuca, but they don’t feel real. The authentic act of making these products in their natural setting with the people who make them for their own livelihoods was usually inaccessible to most tourists. The connection to culture was often missing. They then discussed  how Chutí could organize some sort of little tour of Ticuna traditions in his community, much like the two had just done. He would need to organize a few families, but it wouldn’t be an impossible task. These traditions were quickly disappearing as Leticia sprawls outward, but there were still enough around. If he could show a few tourists the things they were doing anyway, everyone could benefit. He didn’t expect it, but the gringo gave him a nice tip for helping him.

“When I woke up this morning I didn’t imagine I would be taking you around looking at all of these things I see every day,” said Chutí.

“I didn’t either,” said the gringo. “I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do and you made it happen.”

“That’s life,” said Chutí.

“That’s life,” said the gringo.

“What time is your flight? You realize there is a one hour time difference in Tabatinga,” said Chutí.

“Oh shit,” said the gringo. “Oh shit.”