Meet the Locals

Learning old and new traditions in San Roque de Cumbaza


The clay and grains of shaño – pottery that has been ground down to a fine dust – squish between my feet as I step up and down, up and down in vigorous repetition. Despite the humidity, I’m determined to impress Doña Petrona, a local expert when it comes to pottery – she’s been making it since she was 11 years old after all. Via a series of instructions and hand gestures I’ve been informed that only by stamping can I mix the two materials well.

We’re in her house, a forty-minute walk from the village of San Roque de Cumbaza, not far from Tarapoto in northern Peru. It’s an adobe building, with one large room containing a wooden bed in each corner, some slung with ragged mosquito nets, and a two-walled lean-to next door, half open to the elements. A small stove in the corner and a collection of furniture suggests it’s where the cooking takes place.

Palm-roofed and with a swept dirt floor, it’s also where Doña Petrona leads her pottery classes for tourists. As I pummel the earth between my feet, her instructions are punctuated at regular intervals by the squeaks of four chicks wandering around in pursuit of specks of food. They’re caught in an endless game of being half-heartedly shooed from the room.

Despite my best attempts, it doesn’t appear that I’m a natural when it comes to making clay pottery. Although the base elements have been carefully selected – there’s a spot nearby from where the clay is always taken as any old clay just won’t do and the shaño helps to give consistency and strength to the pot – I’m struggling.

After the enthusiastic mixing process, we use our hands to roll out thin clay sausages and then I try to add them to a circular lump of clay to build up the sides of the bowl. It doesn’t take long before Doña Petrona is picking up the sad piece of deformed pottery to help me out, using fast, deft movements of her fingers to scrape and smooth the inside of the bowl with a lump of wood. Despite the somewhat rustic tools, it’s clear she’s a dab hand.

She’s one of the few women left in the community who continues to practice traditional crafts like making pottery. Although indigenous people of the region like Doña Petrona have been doing this for centuries, each and every day precious knowledge about these crafts is lost. As Daniel tells me, “a few days ago, Don Enrique, a much-loved member of the community, died. He was a weaver and made artisanal wine. But none of his grandchildren are continuing with these crafts.” Luckily, by bringing tourists to try – and in my case, fail – at attempting this almost-lost art, is going some way to saving it from extinction.

After a quick drink of chicha – the fermented corn beer much loved in Peru –  we leave Doña Petrona and the misshapen pot, as it needs time to dry out before being fired. I wonder how many malformed ceramics made during these visits Doña Petrona has around her home.

Our next stop is to visit Angelica, who offers us a delicious lunch of inchicapi, a soup made with crushed peanuts, chicken and herbs and served with roasted banana. As we eat, her daughter Estela chats away to us, wandering in and out of the basic wooden lean-to where we’re having lunch. It’s a simple building, used just as a shelter and makeshift dining room when the family’s here to work on their land.

Angelica is only 22 years old, but lives with her husband and his family and their young daughter in San Roque. Her main job is as a housewife, but she’s clearly very ambitious. Having finished her farming studies at a college in Tarapoto, in her spare time she now helps to lead a project for younger children in her community to teach them about the value of growing their own food. “We want to raise awareness that every house should have at least two or three pots growing whatever they like,” she tells me, grinning. “Whether it’s a flower or a vegetable, it doesn’t matter; just something.”

They’ve also been working on breaking local people’s reliance on disposable plastic bags by gifting women reusable shopping bags for when they go the market.

“Lots of times they buy something like biscuits, for example, and when they get back to the house and finish them, where do they put the bag? In the street.” She looks exasperated and I can’t avoid agreeing with her, having seen my own fair share of Peruvian streets and green spaces spoilt by dumped plastic bags.

After lunch, she takes us for a walk around her family’s land, demonstrating an astonishing level of knowledge as we climb carefully between trees of cacao and coffee, towering banana plants and mandarins, all on a steep slope above the hut where we had lunch. We stop by the mandarins, and I’m encouraged to try one – zingy and as deliciously fresh as you’d expect it to be straight from the tree. We then rub the skin onto our faces and arms – Daniel’s convinced it’s a repellent against mosquitoes – and it does work, giving us at least some respite from the incessant onslaught of bites.

Although Daniel is originally from Lima, he arrived in the region back in 2005 with his family, and has since been slowly working with nearby villages to promote his philosophy that sustainable community tourism, built upon the idea of harnessing the tremendous knowledge of the local people, can help to preserve and promote those very skills.

It’s been a slow process, but one that’s evidently starting to bear fruit. As Angelica’s husband arrives and we bid them goodbye and step back onto the road towards San Roque de Cumbaza, I reflect how the visit has given me a new perspective about life on the skirts of the Amazon Jungle. But, more importantly, it’s granted me the opportunity to meet two very different, but equally skilled and passionate women, Doña Petrona and Angelica – one of whom is striving to keep old traditions alive and the other advocating to establish new ones.

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About Steph Dyson – Worldly Traveller

Steph Dyson is a British travel journalist based in Santiago, Chile. She’s updated and authored a number of guidebooks for Rough Guides and Moon, and writes about beyond-the-beaten-trail adventures and experiences in South America on her website Worldly Adventurer and online for publications such as World Nomads, Go Overseas and Transitions Abroad.

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