Between the desert and the Pacific Ocean - Fishers who risk their lives | DW Documentary

Between the desert and the Pacific Ocean - Fishers who risk their lives | DW Documentary

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My name is Juan Loo Guimet. I am 33 and I live in Huarmey, Peru. My friends call me Purunga. I'm a shellfish harvester. I love the desert. It’s such a tranquil environment.

That helps me start the day well. My soul is always at peace. Between the desert and our Pacific Ocean, at the mid-point, what we experience on our way down is 100% pure adrenaline. It’s really such a rush to feel the ropes in your hands as you descend with all this equipment, without fear and without looking down, in order to reach your destination.

To get down the cliff, your mind has to be calm, relaxed and free of worries. When it’s time to go down, we leave our problems at the top, along with our street shoes and our motorbikes. You have to go down with your mind free and relaxed, because if you go down with all of that tension and all those problems, from your town life, you won’t be able to concentrate the way you should. That’s happened several times, not just to me, but also to all my colleagues, I think. With too much going on, it can be difficult to work well. It’s risky, if you bring your problems with you.

There’s danger everywhere. What do I think about going down? I just thinking about doing things properly, fixing the ropes properly. If I need to place an iron spike, I make sure I put it in right. You need to know the proper way to tie a knot.

Or hammer in an iron spike. The important thing is to always do it correctly. It is a bit like… It’s like a habit. It’s a task that’s become routine over the years.

You lower your poles down. Or sometimes you lower your backpack. On some cliffs, you just throw the ropes over and start going down. It's a question of habit. When a cyclist gets on his bike, he doesn’t really think about it. And we attach our ropes and we’re ready to go.

We don’t worry about anything, because we’re confident in what we do. There’s a 100 meter drop below you, so on the cliffs in general, you can't be afraid of heights. We know what we’re doing. There’s no room for fear. We have strategic spots on the way down, where we place our ropes that enable us to continue our descent, and those iron spikes are there permanently. That said, we always check the condition of the spikes.

And sometimes they can look good on first inspection, but they’ve actually been corroded by the salt in sea spray and all that’s left is an iron shell. Inside there’s a thread, nothing more. That’s what happened. When I was working with Diego on the Palo Cruzado cliff, we were going down the south face, where the ocean was very rough. So I suggested going up through the crevasse, but the cliff face sloped outwards on the way up so I had to push myself backwards, to get my body up. I kept going on up, but when I pushed myself out, the iron spike snapped.

The spike broke and I was left with the rope in my hands. I was about to fall on the rocks, but I reacted by pushing out with my feet, to propel myself into the water. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

The cliffs are totally unforgiving. You can’t afford to make mistakes. But at the same time, they’re like our second home. Not only for me, but for all of us who work here. We can find what we’re looking for everywhere here.

If someone comes here thinking “Today I’m looking for shellfish,” he can just go down a cliff, where he there’s lots of seafood and not many chitons. If he wants sea snails, he’ll go to a particular place. We can get whatever you need here. Whatever we need. But not many people dare to go down the cliffs. You have to be calm by nature and totally focused.

The cliffs are the gateway to a world of plenty. Grandaso is a good friend. He’s a workmate that I've known for years.

I always liked working alone, but for a while now we’ve been working together. He’s good company. I’ve had a few accidents, so I prefer to be in company now, on the more challenging cliffs. When people approach a cliff or a slope, they immediately stop.

They can’t even lean over to take a look down. They feel dizzy and they’re afraid of falling down. But we go straight on down. The cliff isn’t an obstacle to us, because we know the way and we know where to put our feet, where to rest and where to walk.

We’re not always on a rope, with nothing below us. You always get time to rest and walk before getting to the bottom. Here, when we go down, everyone thinks we’re looking for treasure or something valuable. But what’s precious to us is the seafood we harvest. That’s like gold to us, because it’s our food and it’s our work too.

That’s our treasure. That's what we go down there for. When we're down there, we become one with the ocean.

Everyone goes to work where he thinks it’s best, at a particular spot, depending on the site. I can go anywhere with my poles. They make it easier to get places, so I can get the shellfish off the rocks. These poles are my hands.

They’re an extension of my hands. I don’t know what I’d do without them. On days like this, when the sea is very rough when it’s too rough It’s like the sea’s way of saying “stay out.” For people who gather seafood, with metal blades, with iron, these waters are dangerous.

The poles do the work for me. They’re very important. I couldn’t do what I do without them. When I’ve got the net fixed and my blade on the pole, I just sit on the edge of the wall and I start to fish.

But I always watch out for those huge waves that can come in. One false step while you’re running or even the wrong posture can be risky too, but fortunately, the poles do all the work for me. The Pacific Ocean is full of life.

Coming here is a real pleasure for me and not just to fish, but to enjoy everything that’s around me the birds and the surrounding biodiversity. I make the most of it and I enjoy what I do, every day, really enjoy and love what I do, not just harvesting seafood, but interacting with my surroundings. Harvesting seafood with poles is an art. It's like you get used to doing what you like to do. All day I harvest seafood with my poles.

That’s all I do, at low tide, at high tide, whether the water’s calm or rough. It’s an art, but it’s not for everyone. Some people try it out, but they get tired of it quickly, because you need strong arms and a lot of dexterity and accuracy to be able to get those shellfish. If you go for one and you prod it with your spike, but you can’t get it off of the rock, then you just have to leave it, because when a mollusk is on the rock and feels something touching it, then it tenses up and clings to the rock harder.

If you try to get it again, the shell will come off, but the meat the mollusk itself will stay stuck to the rock. Better to leave it. You’ll get it some other time that’s all.

You’re never alone on the cliffs. You’re often with the sea lions that live here. They’re a bit like our friends. They’re always there, at the bottom of the cliffs. They have a good life here, because of the amount of food they find. This is one of South America’s biggest populations.

In terms of our accuracy, wherever the pole touches the rock, there’s a shellfish. As for the chitons, It’s hard to get them off the rock. When you touch them, they cling to the rock.

The limpets clamp themselves to the rock too. But after a moment, if you tap them two or three times, they’ll come out. Sea snails are tough too. With the sea snails, you find them all bunched together, like grapes, so you need to get the first one fast and be quick with the rest, because if you take too long, the other sea snails will jump off, one by one. They’ll feel your presence and they’ll jump into the water. Sometimes there’s nothing.

Like today for Grandaso. That’s because the water’s really rough. When the water’s rough, for us it’s a bit like is with trawling. They like to catch the silverside, but you can’t fish for silverside all year round. There’s a clearly defined season and a period when fishing is prohibited, during which the state imposes restrictions, to allow the fish to grow and to reproduce. There’s no period when what we do is banned, but if the sea were always accommodating, there’d be no shellfish left.

When the sea is rough, that’s our prohibited period. It's as if the sea were saying, this much, but no more. Be patient, so the seafood can grow, so they can all grow the sea snails, the shellfish, the sole, everything. The sea lets us do our work with poles and when we talk about poles, we have to think about José Mallqui, who is known as El Zorro or “the fox”.

He was one of the pioneers of the pole technique. He’s the father of the cliffs. He taught us the basics of what we do. Especially me. How to use the pole with dexterity. The world around us is hostile and not just to humans.

When you see the sea lions, especially the big males that live below, there’s a lot of rivalry among them, to protect their harem. The goal is always the same: to mate and procreate. When shellfish harvesting has been good, I always take the time to go fishing where I know it’s a good spot. Not many fishermen come here. The boats don’t go near the cliffs, because it is very dangerous for them.

One, two, three, four. That’s good for fishing. There are good spots where you can catch nice fish. But when the tide changes, it takes the fish with it and sometimes there aren’t many.

You have to pay close attention. But I love fishing. You never know what you’ll catch. You can find everything around these cliffs. Not just shellfish, but also a wide variety of fish.

First we shell the bait, which is mostly small crabs. One of the qualities that you need for fishing is patience. Sometimes you might move from one bay to another, but still not find any fish.

But with patience and intuition, we eventually succeed. I’ve known Cenizo for quite a while. I trust him, because he has the skills and dexterity needed to maneuver the boat close to the cliffs and into these spots. There are places that are too dangerous to get into. You have to find another way in. In those situations, I call on my friend Cenizo.

He has a boat and it takes me to those places, which makes it easier for me to get there. I know that if anything ever happens to me, he’ll be there to help. If I can’t get up or the spot is too hard to get to, I know he'll be there. I can get back on the boat and try again. We use an tire inner tube as a float, to transport the equipment we need to work on the cliffs.

That means I don’t have to wear myself out swimming back and forth. Sometimes when we make our way to the cliffs, we talk about different things. I'm usually in the front of the boat, and he's in the back, talking to me.

Often, because of the noise from the engine and the wind, he’s talking and I just say, yes, yes. Oh, yes but I didn’t actually understand a word he was saying to me. The sea is full of dangers, one of which is the sea lions. Something happened to a friend of mine He jumped into the sea and got bitten on the thigh by one of those big animals, by a sea lion. Their jaws are really powerful. It’s not like a dog bite.

It’s much more powerful. My friend went to the hospital and had to have surgery. That's why we take so many precautions, to make sure everything goes smoothly. After a long boat ride, we finally get to the place where we’re going to work. Once we are in the water, we have to judge the waves carefully and catch one that will get us to the rocks.

Then we need to get up to the spot where we’ll be working. When I start my day at sea, I remember the words of those who have worked at sea for years. You should not be afraid of the sea, but you should respect it. One of the things I always tell my colleagues is, we can’t just look for shellfish. We have to keep an eye on the sea, too.

That’s why we have two eyes. You have one eye for the sea and another for the mollusks. I could have chosen an occupation that’s more relaxing and not so risky. But this is what I like doing. I’m happy here, surrounded by nature and the life in it.

The sea is impressive. With each breaking wave, you learn to judge the best time to get out of the danger zone and the best time to go in to get the shellfish. The sea birds are one of the truly amazing things on the cliffs.

Northern gannets nest in the cliffs, on the ledges on the cliff face. You’d never think that they could survive here, but there they are. The seafood that we find here in Huarmey, can’t be found anywhere else.

The people who enjoy the flavors often tell us that the taste is unique. That’s why the shellfish from Huarmey is sent out to other regions, where it’s served in restaurants. It’s the same with the fish. Our fish tastes different from fish from other regions. It’s all sent out to the markets and picanterías. Every day we go back to town.

We don't sleep here. That’s another part of the day. When I started working out in these areas, my father already knew them. He knew these places were here.

But my mother and sisters don’t know the cliffs. They have no idea what it’s like here. But I think that if they came to see the cliffs, they’d tie me up to prevent me from coming back to work here, for fear that one day, I wouldn’t return home, because of the serious risks that we’re exposed to on the cliffs. The accident happened at 10:00 in the morning.

As I fell, I opened my arms and one arm hit the edge of the rock face. That split the bone in half, leaving an open fracture. That ripped my clothes, including my neoprene suit. This is the exact spot where Diego died. I was going up without having rested.

I was coming back from another cliff and I was worn out. I wanted to climb all the way up the wall and my arms gave out. At a certain point, you feel a warmth in your arms.

You want to keep going up, but you can’t make it. You’re torn between a desire to keep going and staying put. Your hands can no longer hold the rope.

I thought I can’t do it. I don’t have any strength. I thought it was all over.

I saw my life flash before my eyes, in a split second. One day I got a telephone call, and I suddenly found out that Diego Diego was gone. The sea had taken him. They never found his body.

That was a big shock. And That's why now I prefer going down the cliffs with someone else, with company It’s safer. In the past, I liked to do sports, but I can’t anymore.

I can jog a little and that's all. I think I’ll be able to run again, given time. I’ll recover little by little.

I spent 6 months in Lima in rehabilitation, in physical therapy, working on it every day, taking medication, to help me recover faster. Again people said, Purunga is dead. He fell off the cliffs. It’s terrible, but that's life for the people who work on the cliffs.

Life is not easy. Every day is a challenge. We don't know whether we’ll make it home in the evening. But it's the life we want to live. It’s the life we love.

Some of our friends have gone, but we’re back with them every day. They are with us in the cliffs, and every day they remind us to be careful. Nature is powerful and you cannot fight it. We get on our motorbikes and head back to town, leaving the cliffs behind us and thanking God that we’re going home, safe and sound.

Now we just need to deliver the treasure that we took from the cliffs. We’re going back happy, glad to have found so much here. And we’re even happier to be going back home to see our families. The seafood is displayed on tables and sold by the dozen.

There are also women who prepare the seafood right on the spot chitons and sea snails for example, so people can enjoy them here. And every day, we start all over again.

2024-05-21 05:04

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