The two weeks went by rather quickly and before I knew it I was sitting at the Air Force Airport Annex with Humberto and Martin, set to head out to Purus for a second month. I was expecting the journey to be a long one as it had been back in November when we were first delayed four hours at the airport, then our plane broke down at the first of four stops and so we were stuck in the city of Atalaya and didn’t make it to Purus for three days. So, it’s safe to say I was surprised when by 9:30 we were in the air, holding on for dear life as our giant Hercules aircraft made its way across the country. You see some funny things when you fly with the Peruvian Air Force. Ever flown on a plane sitting next to a car? Not like a toy car – a real car. As in a Toyota. Apparently someone needed to get their car from Lima to the city of Pucalpa and the Air Force seemed like as good an option as any.
Unlike our first journey, this voyage went rather smoothly. We went from one stop to the next without any breakdowns or delays. I could hardly believe it when by 5:00 that same evening we had touched down in the region of Purus, in the capital city of Puerto Esperanza. We were greeted in Esperanza by the local technology specialist at their education office, Gardel. Gardel helped us collect our things and lead us back to Lucho Lima’s fine hostel.
Puerto Esperanza was exactly as I had remembered it: muddy roads lined by giant puddles of rain water, little shade in which to hide from the brutal afternoon sun, the same two restaurants that feed the whole city. It turned out the City of Puerto Esperanza remembered me too. Every where I went people were saying hello…”You’re back!” They’d say, unable to hide a smile. “Where are you going this time?” “Back to Palestina.” “For how long?” “Another month.” And the same confused smile as if to say, “You crazy, Gringo!”
“You’re famous here,” Martin told me as we sat having a coffee on Saturday morning, me greeting each passerby.
“Just wait until we get to Palestina,” I told him.
There had been one important change in the city of Puerto Esperanza: access to the region had been significantly improved by the announcement of small, 12 passenger planes that flew in and out of the city twice a week on Monday and Thursday. We had arrived in Esperanza on Friday night and Gardel and Lucho Lima had arranged for our transportation to the village of Palestina for early Sunday morning (Miguel and Robert had not come to meet me this time). The flight office was closed for the weekend so there was no way for us to reserve Humberto a flight home for two Thursdays later – I had promised to get him back to Lima no later than Saturday the 3rd as he had an important presentation in Lima on Monday the 5th. So we reached out to a friend – Valduino, the MC of Purus’ local radio station who had become a trusted friend in Esperanza. I gave Valduini the 110 soles he’d need to purchase the flight and instructions to go to the flight office first thing Monday morning to book the ticket for Humberto.
“No problem, Michael. I’ll take care of it.”
The syllabus of any respectable film school’s Purus class probably starts with a lesson that by now is ingrained in the head of every student whose ever passed through its walls: “Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Cocky.” Having not gone to film school myself, I never learned that lesson. It was tempting to be cocky. After all, the first time I went to the jungle things were in a word, hard. The weeks leading up to my departure were one big mess of worry, desperation, and bad news. Cinematographers cancelled on me, power generators were not delivered from factories, and congressmen were shot. And now, things were going without a hitch. It was as if the jungle had been conspiring before that first outing to keep me away and now, after having proved myself during that first month-long trial, it had deemed me worthy of admittance. And like any prestigious club, once you’re given the Jungle’s seal of approval, you can come and go whenever you’d like – you’re expected even. And so, I felt good – damn good actually. I told myself that things were going so smoothly because I had obviously grown quite a bit from my experiences, I was learning, maturing, mastering my profession. I was getting very cocky.
Me, my crew of two, and Roddy the technician were booked on an Air Force cargo flight set to leave Lima on Thursday morning, March 4th. By Tuesday night, I had everything packed up and was all set to leave. The sound recordist had arrived from Buenos Aires and we had gotten along very well. Cesar had packed an entire extra suitcase of canned goods to help us fight Dionisia’s cooking experiments of turtle and cow stomach. We were set. On Tuesday night, I lay in bed and thought about what was left to be done on my final day in Lima.
I had to buy batteries.
That was it. I searched my head for other things I had to do and in doing so thought again about how simple everything had been. Yes, all that stood between me and a second round with the Amazon in Purus was a box of nine volt batteries. That’s when the nightmarish thought entered my head that would keep me up the entire night: “Something terrible is going to happen tomorrow.”
The call came at about 1:00 PM the next day. I was with Martin, the sound recordist, on our way to get the box of batteries that was the lone item on my “To Do List.”
“Michael, it’s Roddy. Listen, Michael, I don’t have very good news.” It seemed that the Air Force had re-routed all of its civic cargo flights to Chile where they would be delivering needed aid to Earthquake victims. The flights to Purus would be postponed indefinitely.
Now, what exactly is the correct reaction here? Are you supposed to get mad at that? No, you can’t get mad about that – that would be inhumane. Frustrated? Perhaps you can be frustrated on the inside, but it’s certainly not appropriate to express that frustration outwardly, is it? Compassion and empathy seem like good, stable emotions for a situation like this. “Oh, well of course, they need the flights more than we do.” That seems like a reasonable response, though not a very productive one. These are the questions that I would like to ask a film school professor. That and, When you are told that the flights that are the only means of accessing the region that is the key to your entire film, have been re-routed indefinitely to Chile, what the hell are you supposed to do?
Now, again I haven’t taken the official Purus course, but here is how, I would imagine the book would go:
1. Asses the situation. What are your options?
-I could give blood. I had given blood a few times in my life, once in the aftermath of 9/11 and a second time at some high school blood drive. The second time did not go so well – the blood didn’t come out easily. They had to stick me with a needle 5 or 6 times just to say in the end, “Thanks anyhow.” I decided not to give blood.
-”We could go to Chile.” That was Cesar’s reaction and I won’t lie, I entertained it for more than a few seconds. But Chile would have been an entirely different film and would have meant the end of everything I’d been doing here in Peru. It felt like giving up.
The only option was to wait and keep myself as up to date on good information as is possible in Peru. I called the Air Force flight office about 3 times a day – often getting different answers with each call. Things got worse when a few days later I got a call from an unknown number on my cell phone.
“Michael!!! It’s Robert from Palestina. Where are you?” Robert and Miguel, two of my friends from the village had heard I was coming at the beginning of March – I’m not really sure who would have told them (I certainly didn’t), which only strengthens my belief that the jungle knows everything about those who intend on passing through its depths. Robert and Miguel had gone to Puerto Esperanza to meet me and take me back to Palestina with them. I was flattered, but devastated as I felt by not showing up I’d let them down and, to make matters worse, couldn’t give them a straight answer about when I’d be coming.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’m not sure when the flights are leaving. I’ll be there soon.”
“Michael, can you bring me a pair of Nike sneakers?” Miguel asked.
“Yes,” I told him. I went on to apologize one last time. “I promise I’ll be there as soon as the flights leave.”
“Yeah. Don’t you leave without my Nikes!” Were Miguel’s final words.
In the end, it turned out that the round of flights had been all out cancelled. There would be nothing departing for the region for another 15 days. March 19th was set as the new departure date.
2. Asses the Damage.
At the end of the day, the damage caused by the two week postponement was not all that grave – or at least didn’t appear to be. There were two big hits:
Cesar would no longer be able to come. He had booked other work for the end of March going into the beginning of April so could not come on the 19th, nor could he meet me there at the midway point on the 4th. Roddy, couldn’t come either. He had to go out to the mountains for other work and Bari Gloria would be on an assignment in the north of the country. Bari assured me that the local specialist in Purus, Gardel, would be able to handle anything that might come up. Bari had, after all left the Internet OK and the only major work that was needed was the installation of the two solar powered batteries, which was really no big deal at all. I was in good hands, he promised. I had my doubts.
But Humberto could still come along for the first two weeks and Martin was very flexible and could stay on with me for the full month. I’d be able to handle the camera work myself the second half. The important thing was that we were leaving.
I never went to film school. It’s definitely not a decision I’d ever say I regret per se, but I’ve certainly, on more than one occasion, found myself reflecting on the choice in the context of a lingering “what if?” I imagine that had I made a different decision after college and decided to invest three more years of my life getting a degree in production from a directing or producing program, I would have arrived on the first day of registration, opened the course offerings booklet and found in bold letters under required courses: How To Get You and Your Crew Into And Out of the Region of Purus in Peru. I imagine it would be a two semester course. Semester one: Getting In. Semester two: Getting Out.
You may remember the region of Purus where I lived last November. Referred to as the “Capital of Isolation,” the only way to access the region is via Peruvian Air Force cargo flights that depart from Lima every 15 days. The flights drop you in the “city” of Puerto Esperanza from where you can take an 8-hour boat ride down river to the village of Palestina on the Brazilian border. There are no roads in Purus. I had lived in Palestina in November and spent most of my time with an adorable ten-year old girl named Lidia and her family. The month was in the end a success, but was not without its fair share of challenges and setbacks. Most notably, the Solar Powered Internet system that had been the reason I had chosen the village of Palestina in the first place – offering me an opportunity to film students in one of the most remote parts of the world using the Internet for the first time – was not working. Upon my return to Lima in December, the Ministry of Education here had promised they would send one of their technicians out to Purus in February to repair the Internet and, for good measure, they promised to send a technician along with me when I returned for a second time in March.
The three months in between trips to Purus flew by and before I knew it, it was time to get things together and prepare for my return to Palestina. Things went delightfully smoothly. Both of my cinematographers, Cesar and Humberto, agreed to come along for two weeks each – Cesar the first two, Humberto the second two – and, with Humberto’s help I found a sound recordist from Buenos Aires who was willing to fly himself up to Lima and come along for the full month. The technician from the Ministry, Bari Gloria, returned from his own trip to Purus in mid-February and happily informed me that the Internet was left “OK.” (Peruvians very much like using the term “OK.” They don’t use it as we use it – back home, I interpret okay as “so-so.” So if you asked someone how they are and they responded, “OK,” you’d probably follow up with, “What’s wrong? A Peruvian “OK” is much more enthusiastic, in the vein of “Great!” or “Fantastic!”). A second technician, Roddy Guillen, a plump and friendly fellow who had accompanied me on an expedition to the mountains back in February was all set to come along with me as the on-site technician should anything go wrong. (I imagine that phrases such as “should anything go wrong” are not used in the textbooks that they give out in the Purus Class in fIlm school. They probably use the phrase “when things go wrong” instead.) To top it all off, I had received a small grant from the U.S. Embassy here to help me with the expenses and I had convinced One Laptop per Child to buy a pair of Solar Powered Batteries that would allow the Solar-Powered Internet System in Palestina to function 24 hours a day. “The Capital of Isolation” was about to have 24-hour wireless internet access and I would be there to film the consequences. Things were looking OK.