<<  Iquitos & the Amazonia, 10-Jun-2015  >>

Oh yeah, the Amazonia!!!

Right in the middle of the Amazonian Rainforest: piranhas, caimans, tarantulas, monkeys, parrots and lovely Amazonian villages (and people)

I’m sure you have never heard of Iquitos. Why should you? It’s a city in middle of jungle (quite literally). But there is something special about Iquitos. Actually, two things. First of all it has the honor to be the world’s largest city where you cannot go by road. And they say that all roads lead to Rome, them liars! Well, there actually is one road from/to Iquitos, but it goes only 120km to a next jungle town and there it ends. This isolated patch of paved line surely doesn’t lead to Rome. To get to Iquitos you have to either fly across the Amazonian Rainforest or take a boat. From the nearest city connected by road to the rest of the world it takes 4-6 days by boat! Now that is isolation!
The second of Iquitos’s unique features is that it here, right here that the Amazon river is “born”.
To explain: Amazon river is called “Amazon” from confluence of two rivers – Ucayali and Maranon. These two huge rivers both originate far away, high up in Peruvian Andes (not too far from Huaraz) and then descend from the mountains into the Amazon Basin. And when these 2 rivers (which are truly monstrous even on their own) meet, 100km from Iquitos they form the Amazon. So while the water of the Amazon naturally doesn’t spring around Iquitos, the name Amazon starts to apply from here. And from here the river flows its thousands of kilometers through the Amazonian Rainforest all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

We flew to Iquitos from Lima. We had no time for 5 days of lazy boredom on tributaries of the Amazon.

Iquitos is cool. Awesome!
Although deep in the rainforest, it has great urban and also historic feel. Similarly to Brazil's Manaus, its heydays were during rubber-boom, when Iquitos rose from awkward missionary village to a prosperous bustling town. That resulted in imposing colonial villas, complete with Spanish and Portuguese azulejos (ceramic tiles) and ornate balconies. Sure it’s slightly rusting and crumbling, but that’s just why we love the colonial buildings, isn’t it? Truth be told, next to these beautiful colonial buildings are decomposing concrete monsters. It wouldn’t be Peru if it was other way.
But it’s not just these mansions that impress. It’s also the city life. We might be in the middle of Amazon Rainforest and even “end of the road” would be exaggeration, as there is no road :-), but Iquitos is full of cool urban cats, skateboarders, couples. It looks more cosmopolitan than anywhere in Peru outside of Lima. Suddenly the horrible dress so often wore by the Peruvians (think pink sweatpants, the true Peruvian favorite!) disappeared (who would were sweatpants in steamy jungle anyways?) and miniskirts are in. The people also look different. I cannot describe the difference (I always envy the painters who by learning to draw portraits learn to actually describe and capture human faces), but they look very different from the people in the mountains. Their lines are less tough, their skin is slightly more pale. Yes, they look like Amazonians :-)

But as cool as Iquitos is, we didn’t come here for Iquitos.
Next day we left on a 4 days, 3 nights trip “into the jungle”. We went with an independent guide that was recommended by Maria (do you remember Maria, our Spanish friend from Australia? She came to visit us to Huanchaco for few days, on her way across South America).
Our guide was, just as Maria described him, a nice old man from a local village. That was good. What was bad was his Spanish. I understood practically nothing from his jungle Spanish and for 4 days me and Viktor were virtually kidnapped, not having any idea what we were about to do :-)

After taking that only road from Iquitos all the way to its end in Nauta, 120km from Iquitos, we met with our guide Jacinto and his wife, then took 2 hour boat ride on Ucayali (the confluence of Ucayali and Maranon and thus the birthplace of the Amazon is between Nauta and Iquitos) to village La Libertad. We spend one day and night in the village. The village has some 25 houses and 250 more-or-less permanent inhabitants and was completely flooded. Everything is completely flooded here. During the rainy season, the whole Amazon basin turns to one large jungle inland ocean, with pretty much EVERYTHING flooded. The rainy season has finished 2 months ago, but it takes approximately 3 months till the water recedes and the land appears. Until that happens, for some 5 months a year, the rivers flood millions of square kilometers and the only way to get around is on a boat. All houses are built on stilts. You wanna visit a neighbor, or go to school? Get yourself a canoe and paddle! There is literally nowhere to walk outside the houses. The rainforest confidently grows from the river. It is clear where are the “real rivers”, because there is nothing but infinite snake of water there; the rest of the rainforest is filled either by lagunas (where the trees don’t grow) or flooded jungle. You can paddle on a canoe right through the rainforest, between trees and lianas.

I was very happy we stayed at Jacinto’s house, instead of a jungle lodge (where we would have stayed if we took an organized tour), because it gave us chance to witness a village life in the Amazonia. No, no tribal people. Normal people. But they live in very jungly way. They fish, eat fish, get around in canoes and do everything in the “river” (understand the omnipresent flood).
To explain what is life about here, let me tell you the following story:
We came to the village and as the first thing Jacinto tells us that we are gonna swim in the river. The water was some 1 meter deep in the village, the flow was slow, nothing dangerous. Sure the water was all muddy and full of Amazonian bacteria we don’t even want to know about, but these things were not the main worry on my mind. We were in the Amazonia after all, so logically my first question was: “No piranhas?”. “No, no piranhas” answered Jacinto and so we jumped right into the river for a little swim around the village. Those were the days of our innocence :-) As we were standing in the river, suddenly Jacinto changed his mind and told us: “There are actually a lot of piranhas here. But they don’t bite us too much. Very rarely. Very rarely. Look, this scar on my finger is from when piranha bit me 12 years ago”. Nice, so there WERE piranhas. But by that time I stopped worrying about the piranhas. I really started to worry about the bacteria, especially because I had more or less open wound on my mouth (from my lips that cracked and opened up widely in the chill of the Andes two days ago). We have also already noticed that there was no toilet anywhere in the village. Of course I was not naive and from the very beginning it was totally clear where all the biological waste goes to - obviously there was no canalization system here - but when I looked at those 20 houses upstream and realized what we were swimming in, I grew a bit worried. To calm down my paranoia, when I got out of the water I took one antibiotic dose, just in case that the bacteria would intend to throw a party in my lips. Then, slowly but surely, the inevitable happened. We had to pee. Now, you might think that the best thing to do would be to go INTO the water and pee. But I knew very well that pissing IN the water is a big no-no in the Amazonia (not that Jacinto would bother to warn us). The problem is that in the Amazonia there is a specific worm (or was it bacteria?) which lives in the water and is utterly attracted to urine. When it smells the urine it immediately rushes to the place of origin, and… are you ready?... and ENTERS YOUR DICK and lives in your dick ever after! I remember this story very well from Discovery Channel. It’s one of those stories that you never forget once you hear them. Worm living in your dick, is something to remember to avoid. So we asked Jacinto where can we pee, where is the designated “pee place”. Upon that Jacinto’s family (all 8 of them that shared the house) discreetly left the kitchen (that’s right, the kitchen, although that “kitchen” was actually a whole separate house on stilts, which formed half of Jacinto’s real estate) and Jacinto led us the edge of the kitchen, opened a door to nowhere (just next to the fireplace where all the food was cooked) and announced: “This is the bathroom. Here you do EVERYTHING”. And sure they did there everything. Although I did not understand why they have chosen a place in the kitchen, right next to the fireplace, peeing was kind of OK. At least for a man. You just stand at the edge of the door, try to close the door (which is impossible, because are standing in that door) and pee. The slow current takes the piss away immediately. I did not understand how do women piss there. They have to have their faces in the kitchen, with the door open and try to piss outside (which I don’t know how is possible). Why did they not build at least two planks sticking out of the house with a hole between the planks? This is Peru and the Amazonia. Questions like these are pointless. Even more troubling was the idea of taking shit there. The most troubling idea was imagining ME having to take a dump there. IMPOSSIBLE! To shit pretty much in the middle of someone’s kitchen, trying to navigate the shit into the river, while half of the village was witnessing? No way! Luckily we managed not to shit while we were there. And best of all? As Jacinto said, they really do everything right there. In that very same spot where they shit (and no, the flow was not that strong that it would carry the shit far away immediately) they clean the food and wash the dishes! The only thing they do not do there is “taking shower”. When they want to wash their bodies, they go to the other side of the house, jump into the river with shampoo and clean themselves there (with 20 houses upstream with their own “bathrooms”). Needless to say, this was the water that we were swimming in before. Yummy! Classy! Welcome to the Amazonia! And their life is like this 5 months a year. Why should they bother to at least build a little cabin, or at least those two planks, somewhere else than in the place where they wash the dishes and the food?

During the day Jacinto and his son took us on multiple trips to the jungle (how did he manage to navigate in the middle of the jungle I just don’t understand) and to a nearby village that was at least partially above the water. That village looked like true paradise. Kids, teenagers and adults, all playing or sitting outside. Boys playing football in the mud, girls playing volleyball in the mud. Atmosphere of total community life, perfect tranquil tropical life, before capitalism and steam engine were invented :-) I have never seen such a tranquil convivial village.
But. There’s a catch (there always is one). This paradise is shared with millions of mosquitos, insects of all types and sizes that hit you in your face, bite you, get into your food and drinks, spiders (and potentially tarantulas) accompany you everywhere you go. You shower in the water that you just shitted into and which is home of piranhas and deadly venomous snakes (as we soon saw) not to mention all the tropical diseases that you can get and which probably keep the life expectancy pretty low. Indeed the village was full of children. The most extreme children-to-adults ratio I’ve ever seen. Not too many old people were around. Alzheimer has surely very few victims here - probably not too many people make it to the age when they would need to start worrying about Alzheimer.

While we were paddling through the jungle we saw (apart from hordes of insects annoying us all the time) monkeys, toucans, macaws and other parrots. Did you know that word “papagayo” is a local word for mackaw? Mackaw is called “Ara” in “Slovak” and I have no idea where that comes from, but I now have a very clear idea where the word “papagaj” comes from. As we were paddling through the jungle, being bitten by ants, Viktor spotted a snake sleeping on a branch. Jacinto took a look, paddled out a little bit, made a Y-shaped stick from a branch with a little help of his best friend the machete and by one fast movement he killed the snake, still sleeping on that branch. He made sure to “kill it for good” as his son requested and then he hanged it on the branch. The motive for the murder was soon explained. This snake is extremely venomous, 1 out of 2 people bitten dies. And the snake can swim and occasionally enters villages. Jacinto told us that a lot of people die because of this snake. And thus this quick murder was a preventive measure against further deaths.

[To be continued in the next blog post]

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     MARCEL STRBAK | www.strbak.com | www.facebook.com/marcel.strbak