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True Stories by Steve Keely
Grassroots Jungle Economy
Amazon bus companies offer triple-deckers that ply the Rio Amazon day and night to tributaries and branches and on to smaller navigable streams to open a million doors to adventure. Last week I was marooned in the river pueblo of Genaro Herrera that provided surprising economic lessons.
Money, like smiles, expedites transactions. A hunchback in an oversized turtleneck appeared at my side peering with an index finger at one nostril. Balanced in the other hand was a tin of confections that I sampled to identify as fresh coconut sweets. "Rico!" I congratulated, "Take me to the factory."
His speech was slowed due to an off-angle mouth that enabled me to understand everything he said. "First sales!". He was knock-kneed and pigeon-toed, nor did i have difficulty accompanying him on street rounds. He hooted in open windows and doors passing out the refreshing sweets to many who promised, "I'll pay tomorrow at the market" until it dawned on me that this was barter on the clock.
Capitalism probably started in a remote jungle town with abundant nature and scarce capital where it makes sense to reward capital above all else. This is where it works best, and you can't study pure capitalism in the modern First World except in skid rows, swap meets or Appalachia. There are no jungle licenses, seed capital, coat-and-tie meetings, paperwork, sales team, CEO, regulations, baron or partners. You just spot a hole in the market and fill it with material, food or a service.
People pranced up, selected a big dollop, and forked over 8 cents. 'I make a dollar a day- business is great!' for daily he greeted hundreds. Another vendor waggled a tray under my nose averring, 'Our town is known for this,' so I bought a 2"x3" cheese brick for a dollar. An eagle-eyed breadman followed with the famous town bread, and thus the little man and I sat on a park bench munching sandwiches until I could no longer hold it in.
'Take me to the cheese factory!'
We passed to the ornate home of an elderly man whose grandchildren were 1/2-mile away with 3-gallon plastic pails at the buffalo pasture procuring milk. He merrily led us into a tiled, well-screened kitchen with great stainless steel pots where the milk was boiled, stirred, salt and a bit of lemon added, and the mixture passed through cheesecloth to separate the curds from whey. A line of a dozen wood hand-presses with simple metal levers pressed the curds into 3"x6" molds that locked overnight to drain and firm the cheese. I saw no refrigeration so it must have sold out the next day. We tipped the old man a confection and left.
'Take me to the bread factory.'
Three blocks away we knocked and entered an elegant living room with a graying matron who ushered us into the walled back yard with a centerpiece 3-meter wood-fired cement oven shaped like a hive. The 3" cool iron door opened to a swept clean expanse; the husband and children were out selling. Each morning she kneaded dough from a perpetual starter on an inlaid wood table and placed the loaves and rolls into receiving pans on a long board that led to the oven. A brick-ringed outdoor well with a bucket on a rope that dropped 8' to a high water line and now another 10' provided fresh water to bake 100 loaves per day that also sold out.
I had stumbled on the obvious that if the owner's thinking is sloppy, your business gets disorganized, the help greedy, the final product sloppy, and distribution is a joke. There are no companies here and surprisingly few partnerships outside the nuclear family viz the bread and cheese factories. No one takes advantage of man's rights and liberties. Imagine strolling an avenue with no signs that order 'Do This & Don't Do That.'
We ambled Main Street as a thunderhead rolled overhead, thunder clapped, and it opened to pour but in five minutes yielded a perfect 180-degree rainbow, and everyone threw down their 4'-leaf umbrellas. Sudden whoops swung our chins to see a great white stallion mounted and snorting on a black mare on Main.
"Why are they copulating? I asked."
'Let's go ask,' and he led me to the puffing beasts who dismounted and stared at us . The hunchback studied them a moment and turned to me. 'He says it's because they need gusto in life too.'
'Take me to the confection factory!'
We stepped onto a lesser dirt road hemmed by traditional thatched homes where the front yards made our sidewalk through scratched circles and squares on the red earth with children clicking marbles, playing hopscotch and smacking volleyballs. Many senoras perched on tiny stools fanning flies from cartons of the specialty their husbands were off in the jungle cultivating. About a quarter of the families own or rent nearby (15-60 minutes hike) chakras, or farms, of 1-10 acres of cleared jungle of yucca, banana, watermelon, nuts or vegetables. During planting and harvest the wives and children work the patches too.
We paused in a door arch to buy 15-cent cups of the national drink Masato from a lovely senorita that every seller brags is fermented by the best spit in Peru. I was thrown back to fostering capitalism at eight with a Kool-Aid stand on a hot Idaho Falls sidewalk wondering how much profit to drink, should I discount the shoeless kids, do dogs lap, and should the windfall go for more powder or an umbrella.
The road and games waned into a path through backyards where residents waved elastically, and entered one front door where a thin man in underwear poked his smoking shorts in a wood box of coals and briskly offered, 'Insectos', before the trail exited his back door.
At last the hunchback paused in a clearing to pat my shoulder. 'My mother is crippled with arthritis.' He swung open the creaking door of a shack and chirped, 'Mom, I'm home!' Mother is a crippled ball of wrinkles stuffed under a bugnet with clean flowing black hair. She extended a boney hand and asked, 'Is my son being good to you?' There was no coin between our palms but a thought popped- If you don't have integrity, you have nothing.
'The question, maa'm, is your son being good to you? Does he tote you daily to the porch to enjoy the sun, birds, butterflies and neighbors?'
'We'll try harder, won't we, mother, 'he vowed, and brightly changed the topic. 'Now for the tour!' at which she turned her face to the wall. We exited into a dirt floor kitchen swept by a white and yellow flurry of chicklets and ducklings that pecked ants off my bare ankles.
'This is grassroots jungle economy!' I exclaimed.
He slapped his little knee so hard the momentum of an elbow knocked open the wood shutters with a declaration, 'The coconut tree!' where a putrid stream ran by the tree with great bunches of 7'' brown nuts hung at 20' and three plucked each sunrise via a rickety ladder. The foul water is heralded as 'Rico' with human excrements from the upstream town that make the hunchback a complement Sweeny Todd who turns around and sells the citizens their sweets. The recipe is one cup of shredded coconut, three cups of brown sugar, and a pinch of lemon rind. Stir briskly for five minutes, spoon 2'' dollops onto a circle of wax paper that fits the vendor tin, and bake in the wood oven for 15 minutes to produce one daily batch of 50 brown-and-white treats.
He led me beneath the coconut tree with the sun setting gold over the stream.
'The name of this beautiful town is Genero Herrera, ' as if making a formal introduction.
'Why do you love it? '
'I know nothing else.'
I needed rest after the long day and sweet stomach, and walked alone with directions to the first of two hotels, a railroad flat with 'Oficina' etched in a door that opened to my tap to a senora with a blaring transistor radio in one fat palm. I thrust $3 into the other hand yelling that I'd rent if the radio was turned down, and she proved herself the manager sans commission by handing back the money. I continued to the second hotel where an owner-operator answered with a flashlight he pointed about a 10x 20-meter corrugated tin roof compound subdivided into four clapboard rooms , and I got a key for $1.50 that opened door #1 to a clean sheet and bed under a bugnet to be romanced to sleep by crickets and frogs.
Loud banging at 7am startled me. The hotel owner was hammering new shelves in the front window with a capitalist gleam in his eye 'to sell little things that everyone needs`. I pitched in and paid in advance to finance more nails to complete the project before the next morning, and slipped out the door determined to eschew the hunchback who trailed me like a conscience. But there he was with a full platter.
'This is a river economy, ' my pal explained as we ambled toward the most self-regulating market in the world. Half the families fish, some irrigate to farm, a few cut logs to bind into 100-meter rafts to float five days to downriver markets, and passenger ships come and go every other day. These behemoths load fish in 2-meter ice-lined wood crates, and drop off things of steel and plastic that don't grow in the jungle. ' Fifty venders like me swarm each boat to earn as much in one hour while the ship docks as we make all the rest of the days.'
The town market is a concrete, tin roofed arena with twelve 4'x8'cement tables for transient vendors, and the west wall is lined with ten rental stalls for permanent sellers having lockers slightly larger than my retirement crate. Sixty busy buyers chattered, traded and bought yucca, rice, nuts, fruit, vegetables, dead and alive chickens, 15-cent sandwiches, and dime chicha and camu-camu fruit drinks. Early risers sell out and vacate the tables to another vendor. Early buyers take home the best quality. Supply and demand controls the price and number of sellers and purchasers. Basically it's a locale to trade and sell the excess fish and produce each family business doesn't eat, and the market pinch hits for a town newspaper.
Promotion sale!' I barked in the market center. . `Buy one and get one free for an amigo!' The plate of fifty was halved in ten minutes with the promise of tomorrow's business.
We strolled out and down the avenue to the second most interesting spot, the port. This is where any river town takes root, adds in maturity a 10-meter rusting barge that still raises and lowers 30 vertical feet with the seasonal (Nov.-May) Andes snow melt, and presently the port is a free trade zone where any town staleness in the slow heat of the day gives way to bursts of activity. Kids play hide-and-seek among 2-meter trunks left by workers who straddled them with chainsaws to cut and sell 2''x12' planks straight from the bank; fishermen swoop to and from the muddy shore in canoes with 5Hp motors mounted on rebar called peca-pecas; and clouds of 6' turkey buzzards compete with a million flies for tossed fisheads. Daily a small cargo boat chugs up to offload coastal and mountain produce like carrots, tomatoes, potatoes and apples, and takes on fish, bananas and yucca. Finally, a passenger steamer docks semiweekly. These engender the first of three port subcultures.
Three guzzling stevedores leapt from the weeds of a Steinbeck novel to beg treats.. Their drink is unfiltered cane liquor, agua diente, to which orange rind is added for flavor and a bit of color to look like wine. It goes for $2 a gallon, and one trip up the 50'embankment with two sacks (80 kg) of cement will get you high, but not drunk. The cheaper stuff has kerosene for an extra kick with the ship's cargo. .One stevedore with icteric eyes unwound a rag bandage and thrust a blackened hand in my face to show a machete cut to the bone of the ring finger. He seemed timid of the newfangled hospital where patients with current documents are given credit, but consented to let me rinse the puss with agua diente and escort him onto a bottle-capped plank (to prevent slippage) into the general store where a lady buying a hammock keeled at the dangling finger but the ubiquitous Chinaman owner nobly fetched from the medicine shelf a three day course of tetracycline for my $2 and a confection.
A splinter stevedore subculture that I call the wheelbarrow children plays marbles at the fringe of drinkers. Up and down the bank they zip with what-have-you for a dime to market or home, and some little brothers trail wagons picking up spills. Self-interest is responsible for incredible innovations that improve lives.
The second port cult are the ship vendors of fifty of the town's pretty senoritas and young mothers who balance head pans of up to 30 pounds of fish and chicken dinners ($1 each), baked potatoes, empanadas, sliced watermelon, and more along the streets to port. My economic advisor's low prices and giveaways have cornered the market on confections, so none dare compete. All the vendors rise with the sun three times a week on anticipated ship arrival days to cook great vats of stuff and await customers. Today is that day! but the midget warns that one in five captains doesn't dock for lack of passengers or cargo.. It's problematic but I get my pack and join the loaded hairdos in the shade of a stucco port building with eyes to the upriver bend. A shout, 'That's it! 'but the ship slides by with only waves. The dinner plates are discounted up and down the streets the rest of the day and still the vendors children get plump.
The third subculture is the six taxi (3-wheel 125cc motorcycle rickshaw) drivers because the population of 3000 pedestrians supports no more. Like the stevedores and vendors, the drivers are buried in work the hour before, after and during a boat docking. . A ride costs $.75-add as much for a load of firewood or groceries- within a one mile radius of roads and trails except a spur east for thirty minutes into the jungle. Half of the young drivers rent (($8/day) and the rest are owner operators. A $3.50 gallon of gas lasts a 12-hour shift, and the profit after rent and gas averages $10 where the daily minimum wage is $5 Few in a town without vehicles can afford or need a taxi except to chauffeur rich kids to school or compete for heavier cargo with the wheelbarrowers. The taxi drivers are the best Hearts and soccer players in town engaged half their working hours awaiting a rare whistle to hire, and many sleep nights under the surrey s fringe on some balmy cul de sac.
The fly in the business ointment is the town constable. The starred equator shadow that stalks the town for bribes quickly spotted the sole gringo. 'When did you arrive?' 'Two days ago.' 'When are you going?' `An hour ago, but the steamer didn't stop.' 'What's the name of your hotel? ' 'The cheapest in town.' 'Show me your passport.' I stepped up, and replied, 'Find it in my hotel, ' and turned on my heels. The superfluous policeman in a small town is government interference in economy. His greater height with worry lined eyes as everyone hates him as a forced import from Lima incites a Peruvian proverb, `The first place to look after a crime is the police'. He earns $5 daily but the main income, according to the citizens, is extortion to the tune of $2 for a taxi traffic violation to $500 to spring a man from jail.
Peru has a high literacy rate and the schools are prolific, tidy, cheerful and second in my informal survey of third world education to Philippines. The jungle kids read and write better than in California where I taught before being fired for defending students pinned down by rocks during a playground war, however the Peruvians are never taught to think, only feel. The kids (or parents) pay for their uniforms setting an investment model for life. There are some free schools but most pay something. Teachers earn $7 daily. Sixth grade education is mandatory and most 50 hut-or-greater pueblos have the traditional blue paint primary school on a bluff overlooking the river. Secondary school is compulsory ((to grade 11) but not practiced in the jungle towns with the top 10% or so matriculating to colleges upriver two days to Pucallpa or downriver a day to Iquitos. Maybe 20% of the males and half as many females join the military for a year at $10/month and tattoos to see more of Peru. The less scholarly but more eager teens strike out for bigger cities for high paying jobs at $5/day as clerks, street cleaners, waitresses, construction workers and the like. The majority of grads at all levels, however, toss the pointed hats and stay with the family business, and take a wife to incest the economy.
It's harsh to admit that each Amazon pueblo owns a distinguishing physiology and subsequent mentality that dictates whether its working philosophy will become capitalism or socialism. The Genero Herrara people are taller, lankier and brighter than the neighboring communities. There are no drugs in the teenagers' eyes, girls and boys hold hands on dates, the cantina is open Saturday night, there's no bordello or pool hall, religion is downplayed, and I saw no overt bars. Most kids think school is an overemphasis on intellect. They burst out the door at last bell and dash to a family business, the river to swim, or to volleyball.
The town streets erupted thirty minutes after last bell with volleyball games on every corner, lot, and alley. Fresh scratches were made for court lines and twine stretched for nets. A hundred balls bounced across town with 60% participation. The sport makes sense where all ten eager kids or adults need for hours of play is one ball and a piece of string. Age groups had games, as did mothers, grandparents, gays and tots. Scores were kept, dogs were audience, and yet there was no evidence of a running record, tournaments, matching one block against another, or inter-group matches.
We walked through these selling confections. Where there were no front yard games he hooted like a monkey in front windows and, once where there was no answer, we entered the room of a deaf, blind man weaving hammocks. 'Coconut sweet? ' shouted the salesman. 'No, I haven't sold a hammock in a week, ` he screamed. The hunchback slyly placed one fat dollop under the man's nose that involuntarily opened his mouth and in it went. Selling is making sure your product is the easiest to experience and complete the sale.
The other evil phantom that stalks the town is television at 7pm. At the twilight hour up and down the rivers hundreds of Amazon boondocks crank on the town generator. Streetlamps pop, blenders that were cut in midstream whir, and TV's resuscitate. The pristine jungle town gallops into the 21st century for three hours. TV mini-stadiums scattered in front yards and alleys fill to capacity to watch soccer, movies and cartoons.
The stumpy Adam Smith. has no eyes for television. 'I was born in this town. How did you get here? ' he asked.
'Two days ago...' I was riding high on deck three of Henry 8th looking over a 20'painting on the third deck of Superman- American symbol of truth, justice and the economic way-with a real life preserver around his waist from Pucallpa to Iquitos. The boat stuck on a sandbar for 24 straight hours as the captain refused to offload me onto smaller passing launches until I followed him into the captain's quarters and snapped a photo of his bloodshot eyes in the bathroom mirror and threatened to turn it over to the Navy. That got me off the ship in a hurry jumping by penlight at midnight onto a 60'cargo launch where the old sailor at the wheel accepted $2 fare including a tour of the 15'x 30' cargo hold that drafts 6'of water (compared to Henry 8th's 9') and immaculate engine room with a 500Hp motor. The teen crew of three sang Latin ballads to stay awake, I taught them to steer by the North star, and they let me hold the 1'bow light above advancing snags. I was no pretty figurehead in a dripping Yankee cap on a string tether to my suspenders that had dropped into the open toilet to the deep river and nearly dragged me in. 'And so, ' I concluded to the rapt hunchback, `I arrived after three hours in Genero Herrera. `
He put a knobby finger aside a nostril, and tarried. I pulled a coin from my pocket and with sleight of hand tugged it out his big ear. He bit it, put the tip in his pocket, and strutted into the lights.
I categorize the few hundred pueblos along 3000 Amazonian river miles by their electricity. The majority are villages of 10-30 thatched huts on stilts or balsa logs that elevate with high water and have no electricity. Matured towns of a few thousand citizens have a dirt stem from the port (that shortens two blocks with high water) lined with front room businesses like hardware, clothes and groceries, and three hours (7-10pm) of electricity from a municipal generator. The handful of towns of 5000-or-greater boast a paved main road, secondary school, the river bus stops daily, running water, and 24-hour electric.
Genero Herrera falls into the middle grade with three hours of night electricity, and ergo the blessed Internet cafe where I type notes at $..50/hour in rare English of this chance laboratory to overview a set of businesses that all are born out of a purpose bigger than their product. Away out here from the global economy the driving forces of free market are pure and direct. Hunger is capitalism's way of getting you to plant a garden, and fornication the way it makes you plant more to take to market. It's a free trade garden of Eden. Neighbor competitors watch each other's stores and there is no greed elixir. Gold still represents the ultimate form of payment elsewhere, but here it's money, confections and hellos.
I think two forces drive human nature: self-interest and compassion for others. The goal is to tweak capitalism that harnesses self-interest to simultaneously abet the willing-and-able but beaten to the ground. This may mean taking a short term loss in the bigger picture. The clean town of 3000 smiling citizens spreads a quarter-mile along a bank of the 200-meter wide Ucayali River, and sensibly advances upriver over the decades toward fresh and away from nutrient rich water except for gardening. Lawless selling is the rule. Most travelers never see it, or must bribe the captain to stop.
Can you offer evidence that capitalism exists today where you live? Can you start a business on a shoestring overnight, export something made by daredevil hands, or start a new life for $75 in 24 hours? We are deeply involved in an interventionist economy that accrues benefits to the politically connected. Capitalism can be our moral system as in Genero Herrera and thousands of other Amazon pueblos.
The motel owner locked the door before I finished typing, but kindly left the window open.
The next morning the hunchback is not on the doorstep. The town is a-rustle and a cry goes up, 'Here she comes!' I pack in a jiffy and race to the dock. The vendors are forming a phalanx on the rusting raft to storm the arriving Henry 8th. The blue and gold triple-decker glides a few meters beyond to a mud outcrop where a deckhand lassos one anchor post on shore and another shoves out a 4Â'wide gangplank that the vendors rush blocking the stevedores and passengers.
What mayhem! Sliding down the mud bank I wanted to see a physical manifestation of the spiritual intent of capitalism. How do you gracefully revise a system as vast and complex as laissez-faire to serve the greater good? With sudden alarm the answer came as I hoped the 3'' fat rope tearing the foot thick post from the mud. It snapped behind me and I grasped the gangplank with all fours as the current Shanghaied the ship, deadman and vendors.
The 150 galvanized passengers bought in a feeding frenzy. I scrambled to the third deck to watch the hunchback sell and bow out with an empty plate. He scanned the upper tiers for my eyes, and I realized the genius of the confectioner is his self-interest that serves the wider interest, and then I lost sight of him in the crowd. The vendors disembarked at the next town, and pooled to hire hand-hewn canoes back to Genero Herrera.
It was the greatest economic advance in Peru in a decade!