Saturday, February 7, 2009

Stories About Benny

I had visited Sacha several times and had never met Benny. I had heard stories about him, had met his daughters and son-in-laws, had wandered over every inch of his nature preserve, and wondered who this man was. How did this idea start for him, how did it evolve and grow and change and come to be this incredible refuge? Eric told me Benny would be at Sacha the first night that we would be visiting. And he wanted to talk to us. Eric brought his tape recorder and I was useful because I spoke and understood German, and Benny was most comfortable in the language of his childhood, despite having lived in South America for most of his adult life.

After waking up early, catching the plane to Coca, going down the river in the motorized canoe for two hours, walking to Pilchicocha for another 30 minutes and floating by canoe to the lodge, the first activity Maya and the students are itching for is the plunge into the lake full of piranhas and caimans. I met Benny on the balsa while watching Maya diving with the students off the side of the balsa. I am not sure what I expected, Benny was legendary and I had all sorts of fantasies about him. He looked like a man in his sixties. Nothing in his face or his rather serious smile suggested anything about his adventuresome past. He agreed to meet with us before dinner.

The balsa is a deck at the edge of the lake. There are caimans underneath, and one year when we arrived and a group of young women in bikinis were sitting on the deck at waters' edge to warm up in the sun, suddenly scores of cockroaches swarmed out from under the balsa and precipitated alot of screeching and running. Eric sets up his experiments on the balsa, and has a pile of electronics in a corner whenever he visits. The balsa is set up as a barbecue dinner one day a week. The balsa is built in the traditional style with wood and palm, and looks natural and appropriate in the midst of the jungle.

Eric had asked me to plan some questions for Benny, to be prepared to interview him, but prepared questions were not necessary. Benny had much to say, not that he had an agenda, he just started into his story and of he went without pause for the next couple of hours.

Benny described knowing immediately that he had found the location for his lodge. He wasted no time in gathering those who owned the land and bought 500 hectares around his lake. He brought 150 men to the jungle to start the building. He had a master carpenter but no architect or engineer. He had a clear vision of what he wanted.

At first, few people came. Many did not think it would work. The logistics were overwhelming. Benny was confident in his business sense. He knew he had a good thing going and persisted. Gradually the place became known and referrals trickled in.

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