JUNGLE RIVER. The promise of riches lures Peruvians to the Madre de Dios

Madre de Dios is the name of the river. Broad and brown, it wanders like a lazy snake through this vast jungle region in southeastern Peru. On either bank, the tall, green rain forest rises: beautiful, majestic, full of secrets. Madre de Dios - Mother of God - is the name of the region, too. For many Peruvians the name holds a promise of riches, for gold dust can be extracted from the river's sandy banks.

Thousands have come here in recent years - most from poor, hungry villages in the Andes highlands. The tiny new towns along the river have a Wild West air: half-finished shacks of bare boards, and ``streets'' that change from dust to mud in the frequent torrential rains. What electricity there is comes from generators. What water there is must be hauled up in buckets from the river. Rats are a common sight in these towns. Mosquito nets are a must.

Puerto Maldonado, the region's capital, has two paved streets. There are pickup trucks and motorcycles, but almost no cars. To take a taxi is to ride on the back of a motorcycle. To cross a street is to step carefully over the concrete sewage trench that runs down the middle.

Puerto Maldonado can seem desolate when the sun blasts those dusty streets at noon. The little shops shut up tight, and even the dogs move slowly.

But the large, square Plaza de Armas is laid out like a park, with neatly trimmed lawn, benches, and a stately clock tower under the palms. When the day's heat is past, children, mothers, young couples, and courtly old men linger there, savoring the cool night. The frontier town becomes eminently civilized on the Plaza de Armas in the evening.

Traveling by river in a long, wooden canoe with an outboard motor is the main means of transportation in the jungle, and the only way to keep cool. On the riverbanks, monkeys can be heard, and occasionally seen, chattering and leaping through the treetops. Birds screech and caw. Swarms of butterflies, often all the same color - pale green, orange, or yellow and black - surge to and fro at the water's edge.

In spite of the brooding, all-pervasive presence of the jungle, one never goes far on this river without seeing people. Mile after mile, gold-sluicing operations dot the stony beaches. Rough, thatched houses on stilts cluster in clearings near the water's edge. The life is uncertain, and the promise of riches is rarely kept, but no one starves in the jungle. Up in the Andes, in the home villages of these descendants of the Incas, people do starve.

``Everybody's always able to eat here in the jungle,'' says a North American who has lived here for years. ``There are always bananas and there's always yucca. In the mountains, if there's no rain during one year, there's no corn and no potatoes and they're not able to eat.''

In the throbbing jungle night on the edge of a town called Labirinto, a lonely Andean pipe plays a traditional mountain tune. The sound recalls the sharp, dry air and emerald hills of Cuzco, and an ancient people who today migrate to the jungle in order to survive. It's a homesick sound.

Gliding down the river in the first light of dawn, under a leaden sky heavy with rain, one feels the jungle waiting, unfathomable, on every side. But at certain bends in the river, one can actually see the Andes in the west from a canoe on the Madre de Dios. In this mysterious land of squalor and beauty, snowcapped mountains appear even in the jungle, reminding their people of home. -30-{et

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