The Places Which Don’t Exist and the People who Live there


Written by Fidgit

Considering the only relatively recent stability of national boundaries and efforts to  count and census residents, combined with the notable lack of “organized locating” in South America, I am not surprised to hear it hosts a number of the worlds remaining “uncontacted” tribes. According to a New Scientist article:

There are thought to be around 15 uncontacted tribes in Peru, a handful in other Amazonian countries, a few dozen in the Indonesian part of the island of New Guinea and two tribes in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. There may also be some in Malaysia and central Africa.

Though, how they can be considered “uncontacted” and yet the article hosts a series of images taken by drone of the people looking confused or pointing querulously, gives a very “The Gods Must be Crazy” feeling.

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Some of the photo collections of early families in Villa O’Higgins kept in the local library.

One woman in Villa O’Higgins, Chile, recalled her first census when she was an adolescent. Her birthdate was unknown, so they made a guess, signed it on the document and that was that. She recently passed away as one of the final living settlers of the quaint town, which has a small airport and now boasts a road.

Another example: mailing addresses are not a prevalent concept in South America. Forget about the notion of a mailbox in front of your house. In the cities where there are street addresses, more often than not, they go in absolutely no order. The mail system is often expensive and unreliable. It certainly isn’t for letter sending purposes which put the kibosh on my Midwest-ingrained Thank You card sending practice. Instead I have to send them with someone we pass on the trail, giving instructions like “take this card over the hanging bridge and to the house under the ancient tree. Leave it with the Goat Lady.”

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Women of the Ona Tribe, from Tierra del Fuego.

The “discovery” and ensuing “civilizing” of indigenous people has been a long and often sad story echoed in almost every region – one which often follows a harrowing story-line. In Tierra del Fuego and the Magallanes regions, entire heritages have been wiped out, other than their legends which are now told 4th and 5th hand.

It was not until further north in Chile, when we entered Mapuche territory, that we began to see and sometimes interact with direct descendants, whose existence and lifestyle are sustained by a fierce pride in their heritage even as they lament the rapid decline in their community numbers as people opt for the government settlement check and the promise of an easier life in the city.

Though there are yet some who hold to their roots, festivals and the demanding work of remote mountain living. “They promised me a stipend to pay an electric and cell phone bills in the city,” one woman in a valley along the GPT explained, “But I have no electricity or phone here, and I don’t need them. The city makes you think you need things you don’t, then charges you money for them.”

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This family stopped us on a climb, their nephew (L) was visiting from the city and wanted a photo of all of us together with his smartphone. The ‘tio” (R) wanted to give us directions to the next segment of trail. We submitted to one request in order to gain the benefits of the other. An entire “delegation” of folks from the village were awaiting us at the top of the climb to insist on more photos.

In the US we talk about “disconnecting” as a weekend or even week-long retreat. In many of the places through which we have passed, it is a way of life, for various reasons and to differing degrees because of choice.

Observing this dynamic of community to connectivity was particularly fruitful in a notably infertile region of northern Bolivia and southern Peru. The altiplanos just east and thousands of feet above Lake Titicaca sit on the border at 14,000 ft where nothing grew higher than our ankles and lightning storms were prevalent. It seemed by maps and satellite to be all but empty. Based on what I could see when planning the 500 km segment, we were facing a 200 km+ stretch without resupply options.

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Weren’t we surprised, then, to walk in on a road that had not been marked elsewhere, to towns nothing said existed. It was not until we zoomed in to 300 meters on the GPS that tiny dots with funny names appeared. The area was populated and had been for some time. It was simply forgotten. The houses were hand built of bricks made of mud and straw and so blended in to the landscape, making them difficult to identify from a satellite.

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According to folks I chatted with, the road had been built about seven years ago. Sections had washed out, so parts were impassible by vehicles. Yet, there was so little memory of the road and such a long memory of no road, that a washed out road was considered a net gain, for it made it much easier to lead burro to the field, or walk their pigs to town.

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We were surprised at the number of houses and villages, shops, schools, a few rural clinics. We took shelter from severe weather in several. Many of the towns even had electricity.

P1000629 One had a “tourist house,” obviously a grand government gesture which had been abandoned and ignored by the local population, likely because they had received no infrastructural support for their own benefit. It was one of the only villages where people were hostile toward us.

Being largely ignored by the power systems means daily living takes more work. For example, without running water, laundry is washed by hand in the streams or rivers. Since it is going to take all day anyway, there is no rush, and it is a social affair, with the women and children heading out together and spending the day chatting, washing, and bathing.

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We passed a “hot springs” which in these communities means public bath. We’d watch the motos approach with up to four passengers (interestingly, mostly men). They would strip down to their skivvies and bathe, then scrub their laundry, pack it all up and putter away.

Seemingly the only creatures to thrive on these empty lands were the alpacas and llamas. The owners walk them out of the town each morning onto the open plains, then sit with them all day while they graze, then walk them back in the evening. The people eat soup, rice, and alpaca meat for every meal. This is either fried over a propane stove or cooked over a fire built of dried alpaca excrement, which is gathered after a series of dry days and stored in a tall brick chimney looking things for the wet months.

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This much work going into sustaining survival leaves little time to fret about things like whether they exist on a map.

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Most people in the regions we walk through don’t use maps anyway. They are on this land because their parents lived on it and their parents before them. They are as much a part of it as the grasses, winds, and storms. The discord between the maps and their experience made navigation a bit complicated, because they give directions by community names, and we knew almost none of these. Not to mention the Aymara and Quechua propensity for tons of syllables and “cc” sounds.

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All taken together, some regions seem more comfortable in their anonymity. Finding the balance between respecting that and promoting progress is a tenuous work.

6 thoughts on “The Places Which Don’t Exist and the People who Live there

  1. cliff rawley says:

    Thanks for your insights about the community life of the native people. They do live well without cell phones or electricity. They have a sense of family and community we have lost.
    Cliff and Martha Rawley

    • Her Odyssey says:

      It seems to me a trade off. There are the benefits of being free of the electronic tethers, there are also the struggles such as not being able to communicate or travel quickly sometimes for example in illness and in labor.
      Thank you for coming along on this journey with us!

  2. Nicholas Andriani says:

    “The city makes you think you need things you don’t, then charges you money for them.” Profound. What a stirring article. As an archaeologist (background in anthro), I often struggle with the ethics of tribal studies. Quite a dilemma.

    • Her Odyssey says:

      You must have a unique perspective on the matter! I struggle with accepting there is no carte blanche.

      Walking the Inca Trail, collecting trash along the way, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what we leave behind to be found and pondered by those to come.
      Which stories will have staying power.

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