FOREWORD: The following e-mail was drafted to a friend while abroad the Cabo Pantoja barge that travels twice monthly between the Peruvian border town of Pantoja and the the strange jungle metropolis of Iquitos. Since October 14th I’ve been traveling on different types of river transportation, including fishing boats, dugout trunks, aluminum speedboats, and a barge loaded with 6 charging bulls, 100 pigs, 150 passengers, and 500 roosters—none of which sleep late. The cargo of countless items was piled in hard-to-describe ways; the middle and top deck were webs of intricately sewn hammocks. Some guidebooks state “This trip requires plenty of time and patience,” which is an understatement that cannot prepare you for sensory overload of life in slow-motion. I’ve wanted to embark on such a trip for as long as I can remember. Everyday was, without any poetic exaggeration, an adventure, though be it a slow one. Please note: next Monday the 26th I will embark once again on a four-day journey to Pucullpa, Peru. Internet is scarce but expect plenty of insight and photos when I return.
…I haven’t had internet access, which is why I haven’t responded earlier. Now after so much time has passed I don’t know where to begin. You’ve probably read on my blog about Surly and my near-death experience. I’m exaggerating, of course. But things could have been much worse, my head instead of hip could have hit the cement, my impossible-to-find rims could have bent instead of Surly’s weldable frame. I’m fine, he’s fine, no worries. He now looks like some of the scrap bikes people use to load and sell fruit. I doubt most thieves would pick him out in a crowd. One of the sons from the family we were staying with by the river did fancy my iPod, however, and stole it from my bags when we left them behind to bus back to Tumbaco to fix our bikes. I wasn’t even able to confront the teenager because he was away and we had to pack quickly to catch a bus to catch a boat that only embarks twice monthly. I’m over the iPod. It doesn’t matter, and besides I have a few unsold Nanos to replace it. Even in the moment I was more upset by the broken trust and the bad vibes that began to replace all good memories I would have preferred to keep, the incredibly intense and positive Ayahausca experiences with the kid’s Shaman father, the camp nights by the river under the stars, the lazy days reading and playing with the kids. Now I don’t care to know anything more about the place or the family. The energy there fell on its head, a complete 180. It’s for the best you didn’t load up my black iPod with a carefully planned playlist. I’d be physically sick with rage and might have waited around to threaten (or worse) the kid, missing the boat, delaying my trip, and who knows what other negative consequences would have rained down. It’s done and over, and I almost forgot about it completely until I wrote in this summary of happenings. [10/24/09 UPDATE: My point-and-click camera was also stolen while off loading bikes in Iquitos. Yeah, FUBAR, but I’m still surprisingly zen, as if thieves one by one are stripping me of my electronic chains, ha. I’m going to write a post addressing all the of late opportunist theft while trying to put them in context (e.g. my camera = one month of full-time construction work)].
Today is day three on the slow boat through Amazonia, though we’ve been traveling in the region for four days before this barge, arriving just in time to catch this loveable rust bucket to Iquitos. While traveling in a dugout canoe from the Ecuadorian border into Peru I saw my first river dolphin. Apparently, there are pink and grey pods of them all over the interior. Think about that. Dolphins in the middle of a freshwater continent! I still can’t believe it, and have been on the look out for shiny pink bald heads skimming the water’s surface ever since. That same night, on different passenger boat, we got hung up on a tree trunk. Bottomed-out is a better word. Imagine, again, 50 people in a giant canoe overloaded with supplies stranded in the middle of an oceanic river. And nobody cares! No talk of official complaint letters. No angry self-important old man spreading negativity. Just quiet, calm acceptance—because what could we do anyway. Max and I were having a great time. We directed the rescue effort and were some of the first ones in the water pushing us free. The sky was too beautiful, with shooting stars every few minutes, to worry about arriving on schedule. I guess it helps that for us no such schedule exists, ha. It was a minor two hour Amazonian traffic jam I’ll never forget.
I just finished my sweet rice soup and bread rations and sat down to write for the first time this trip. From the top deck of this three-story barge, where my hammock is hung, the stars shine clearly, even brighter than our night on the log, nothing but blackness above, the river and sky and treeline just different shades of dark. There is zero light pollution in this disconnected nowhere—which makes stargazing in my first south-of-the-equator sky all the more incredible. Last night I laid awake until morning watching stars move above the trees from my hammock view as we motored south. Their orbit, or Earth’s orbit, or our southern progress—I’m not sure which—can actually be seen in the shifting constellations, but only with patience. The morning sun arrived as I drifted in and out of sleepy observation. I was exhausted all day but it doesn’t matter. I nap when I want, eat bananas when I feel like it (we bought 100 for US $1), and eat meals on a schedule only because the pots would be scraped dry by the workers if we were to arrive late.
Tonight storm clouds threaten from a distance and the same jungle that lines the river flashes into view with the muted lightning. Midnight rains are possible. Now, as I write, a Brazilian with whom I’ve become partners in crime (we jump off at loading stops to knock papayas off trees) sings from his hammock. Any significant event—significant is relative on a five-day journey through monotonous terrain—sets him singing, and his jolly song has made him a minor boat celebrity, despite the fact most can’t understand his muttered Portuguese. They’ve nick-named him, uncreatively, ‘Brazil.’ When his name is uttered it’s usually accompanied by a bad Portuguese accent or famous Brazilian soccer chants that crescendo into a hoodlum chorus if left unchecked by some funny, usually not understood, come-back by Brazil himself. Besides our mutual fruit interest, I’ve been practicing Portuguese with him. I understand all but the most obscure words, all but the most extreme mumbles, which has motivated me to study my 501 Verb Book each afternoon and begin ‘The Alchemist’ in Portuguese. Maybe rain and thunder and pelted plastic roofs will make ‘Brazil’ sing tonight. I hope it rains.
You’d love this trip. There is much and nothing to do at the same time. Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure you’d love this trip. There is definitely no running aboard and physical exercise that is not directly connected to lifting bananas or pulling roped-cows down steep riverbanks seems to be frowned upon, or at least thought a weird foreign custom. My few attempts at basic yoga movements and stretching on the top sun deck stir up a lot of interest. Hammocks are the game; passengers swing back and forth all day like hibernating cocoons, especially in the covered second level where I suspect the families and children are afraid of our third level’s rowdiness and sudden, spontaneous binge drinking bouts. (Max and I have made many friends with our refilled liter Coke bottle of sugar cane alcohol).
The boat makes periodic stops at isolated grass huts and small villages to load bananas. Sometimes it seems we spend more time loading than advancing. Families grow bananas then sell them to the boat captain, who in turn sells them to vendors in Iquitos for five times as much (etc, etc, with cows, chicken, pigs, wild boar skins—the same-old take-advantage-of-the-indigenous economics). Sometimes a school is the centerpiece of the settlements we visit, distinguishable only by the rows of children that file out in chaotic silence when we approach shore, but more often than not the stilted homes near the river are the community. Education doesn’t help grow bananas or catch fish, after all.
Max managed to take better photos of the village architecture. I mostly played with the energetic kids that flocked to us at each stop. The whole town lines the river when our boat bounces off the mud bank, the wooden plank slapping down between gunnel and banana pile, the workers gathering up the bounty without words or instructions. Our arrival doesn’t cause great excitement in the people anymore—one big boat or another arrives every five days—and I wouldn’t describe their presence as pure curiosity either, though I’ve been mobbed by kids and adults alike begging for their photo to be taken then viewed on my digital camera. The trick never gets old and I’ve taken some decent portraits this way. In a way, the people watch the boat happenings the same we (tjpse who don’t live in the Amazon basin) watch annual parades with the advance knowledge that it won’t ever be as exciting as the first, candy-chasing time.
They line the shore and stare and point and respond to Max and I’s jokes because there is nothing else to do. Our landing is a local football match where the players don’t play particularly well but still provide better entertainment than watching wild pig skins dry. (Many stretched, smelly boar skins are loaded at each stop). Actually, there was one event that was entirely new to all involved. Max’s dreads and my now shaved head seemed to entertain one fairly large town to the point of laughter. One man took Max’s rastas in hand, pulled hard, and kept the few hardened blond hairs as a prize. There was no answer, no response whatsoever, just smiles, when Max asked for an explanation.
No one seems to be in much of a hurry—which is why the elders seem so vital, I suppose. No stress. Sometimes, the banana piles lay in the sun untouched for more than an hour as the workers drink fermented yuca called masato (known as chicha in Ecuador) with the villagers, or go off in search of their girlfriends, free meals, or sugar cane alcohol (all speculation). The same passengers, our drinking buddies, are also in no hurry to arrive to Iquitos. Most have wives waiting for them that, they say, stamp out the kind of timeless child-like adventure they feel on the open river.
At night, we play chess or talk or drink a few rounds. Neither Max or I have any money since we refused to exchange dollars in Pantoja, where few stores have a monopoly on everything, including the town-wide robbery rate for soles, Peru’s currency. The boat’s ticket collector agreed to let us abroad with the promise that one will stay with the bikes in Iquitos while the other goes to an ATM. While everyone else buys beers, Cokes, and crackers from the ship store, we munch bananas. It’s been an easy week on the wallet, and I have a feeling Peru and Bolvia will be shockingly cheap compared to my Colombian/Ecuadorian splurges. Max arranged a Couchsurfer host in Iquitos, an older gentleman who works as a jungle guide. We’ll both hoping he’ll take us out, show us around, maybe even with a group for free. (10/24/09 UPDATE: The jungle guide CSer didn’t answer the phone numbers he provided us. Instead, we met another Peruvian CSer named Jessica who lives in hostel that is currently under-construction. They are adding a second story, all the rooms are without roof, even the bathrooms. There is something liberating about a shower in a room without a ceiling, as if rinsing in pure rain water itself. Until the remodeling is completed, Jessica and the French owner Patrice sleep under the only protection from the elements: on three bare mattresses under a thatched roof that opens to a noisy street. It feels like a slumber party when we all lay down for the night).
And of course there is a lot of time to reflect, meditate, think on a barge that travels only slightly faster than the water flows….