Friday, February 6, 2009

Benny's Story

I wanted to know more about Benny and how the idea of Sacha began, so Eric and I sat with Benny for almost two hours on the balsa our first evening at Sacha in January. I was prepared with a list of questions, but they were swept aside as Benny started talking and sharing his life with us. Benny left his home in Interlaken, Switzerland at age 23. He had already been married, divorced, had two children, and worked as a tailor. There was no future for him in Switzerland and he was eager to leave his life behind him and start over again. He traveled by ship to Chile in June of 1963. It was midwinter in Chile and Benny did not like it, so after three weeks in Santiago, he left for a greater adventure Bolivia. Bolivia was wild and untamed and revolution was in the air. Benny met Che Guevara. Che was charismatic and driven and determined to change the world he knew. Revolution is more brutal than romantic; the villagers were killed if they did not join the revolutionaries.

Nazis had escaped to Bolivia and lived openly there. Benny met a man named Mr. Altman at the Cafe Alleman in La Paz, drank coffee with him, enjoyed his company. I am not sure when he learned that this 'nice' man was Claus Barbie, but ultimately he was discovered by Elie Weisel and brought to justice for his crimes during World War II.

Benny was a tailor by trade and put his skills to use working in a textile factory for a man named Saltzman. After a few months in Bolivia however, he found his calling. He met a Belgian man named Ralph Reiss von Falkenheim, who took him on as a son and taught him all he knew about gold; finding, refining, and selling gold. And there was much gold in Bolivia.

Benny fell in love with Peruvian woman in Bolivia in 1967 and followed her to Peru. They had two daughters, Roxana and Andrea. The gold trade continued to offer him opportunity and wealth until the late 70's when Peru went to war and it became difficult to get gold and money out of the country. He moved to Ecuador in 1979. There his life became more complicated. Politics interfered with the transport of gold out of Peru to Ecuador to Panama to Switzerland and his profession became more dangerous. Staying out of jail was a challenge, but gold was worth much money. His wife liked Ecuador and his gold business was successful for a time.

Tragedy arose when his wife battled breast cancer and ultimately died in 1982. He was left with two young daughters to raise in Quito. He opened a successful restaurant which he sold in 1983. By 1984, he had lost everything and had no more money. He moved his new wife and children to Ahuano on the Napo River three hours from Quito and civilization. The jungle was wild and adventuresome and his children were happy at the Mission school with the rainforest as their playground. Benny started his life over again. He began making and selling bread and jam. He made cookies and cakes and sold oil, salt, sugar, rice, sardines and vegetables to the native Indians. Within two years he became the biggest salesman in the whole area.

More unique and lucrative opportunities arose for Benny. A big earthquake destroyed all the roads between Quito and Tena and between Quito to Lago Agrio and Lago Agrio to Coca. Transportation was no longer possible on the roads, so all goods were transported on the Napo River. Benny got organized; he bought motors and canoes and worked to become the biggest transporter in the area. He knew the jungle well and had good relationships with the local people. A salesman from Coca Cola asked Benny to organize the transport of the drink throughout the jungle. Benny was again lucky, and had a remarkable knack for redefining himself. His business grew. He had three trucks, and several canoes that would travel the length of the Napo and into Peru. When the roads were rebuilt, he continued to distribute Coca Cola using his trucks and canoes.

Benny became interested in the hotel business and opened the Casa del Suizo in 1987 with only three rooms. With the money he made from gold and Coca Cola, he was able to expand to fifty rooms by 1990. With success, he began to look for another place to start a lodge. He traveled up and down the Napo looking for the right place. I am not sure that he had a dream or a vision, but he knew what he wanted and was not finding it. On his way back from Panacocha one day, he was told about another possibility. For some reason he did not have a guide with him, but he was comfortable in the jungle and walked to Pilchicocha on his own and discovered the pristine lake and knew immediately that he had found what he was looking for. He gathered all the local people to a feast in Coca, and introduced himself to all the relevant players and arranged to buy the 500 hectares he needed to start his lodge.

More of the story tomorrow.

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