FOREWORD: Below are more snippets from e-mails to friends.
Where I am now I can’t exactly say. I’m somewhere between Iquitos and Pucullpa, Peru. I’m on another boat, one of the several on which we traversed these endless rivers. The Amazon River is to the north. We now motor south down the less picturesque, more dangerous Ucayali river. The security man with a shotgun says there are pirates, that the boat has been attacked several times, but it’s hard to imagine the gentle villagers I’ve seen up until now rocketing towards the barge in motorboats. During his night watch he pulls up a plastic chair close to where we sleep, plops down, and rests his rifle on his legs, many times with the barrel pointing in our direction. He’s obviously illiterate. Sometimes he leans on the long steel barrel like Frank Sinatra while he talks to us in an Amazon bumpkin Spanish I find difficult to decipher. But he still has ten fingers and two hands—that’s reassuring.
At the moment my world view is through the unzipped door of a three-person tent. The riverbank is 30 yards to my left. The motor churns loud and constant, belching a stream of thin black smoke from the stern chimney, also 30 yards away. Instead of hammocks, my travel partner Max and I decided to sleep on the roof of this passenger barge called Henry. We couldn’t believe our luck in having the entire top to ourselves, which we named ‘Penthouse Henry’ while setting up camp the first night. Why would anyone sardine himself into the lower hull when so much fresh air blows above? Silly us. It’s because this is the Amazon. At night our spot is the ripe jealousy of every unresourceful passenger who sleeps with someone’s foot in their face. During the day, it’s just hot as hell. Despite the slight shade the captain’s helm provides, the tent is at best, sucking water from my every pore; at worst, slowing cooking me until heat exhaustion strikes mid-sentence. My navel, as I sit reclined against my backpack, is a pool of sweat soon to overflow. The metal roof—our floor—heats up like an oven and needs to be hosed down periodically to keep the inside passengers cool. Max and I have become friends with the go-to volunteer waterboy. When we see him climbing up the side of the boat dragging the long, green hose behind him, we know it’s time for a rinse. The next hour or so consists of us playing in the spray, staring dripping wet at the scenery, and laying in the sun with the occasional playful douse waving over us. Life is good, and could be great if it wasn’t so ungodly hot….
Here’s some other news from my side of the world:
I’m traveling with a 22 year-old vegetarian Don Juan named Max. Though young, he’s wise beyond his years, fearless, and definitely on the same path of self-discovery as I, only he’s much better about sinking into creative storms of guitar, writing, meditation, and yoga. (I’m inconsistent lately with my harmonica, yoga, and poetry). Max traveled from his hometown near the French Alps to the Canary Islands, then to Senegal, then across the Atlantic to Trinidad & Tobago in a sailboat. In Venezuela he bought a bike and headed south. We met in Quito. It just made sense that we continue together. It’s been more than two months since we’ve paid for accommodation. We camp every night and bathe in rivers. We’ve developed a keen sense for meeting people who will let us throw down the tent in their yard, lend us a spare bedroom, or refer us to someone who will. As you can imagine, we’ve met some characters this way, not even half of whom make it to the blog, unfortunately. South American hospitality is bottomless. The future Couchsurfers I host will receive the same selfless hospitality above and beyond what I offered in Austin. This will be me paying into the karma cycle that has given me so much. Max and I will travel as far as Cusco together, arriving sometime the first week of December. In Cusco I’ll leave my bike with a trusted someone, then begin the long bus journey to Santiago, Chile to meet up with my father. I don’t have enough time to bike to Chile as originally planned. My father arrives on December 13th, the 14th we fly to Patagonia to hike for ten days in the in the National Park Torres del Paine, return to Santiago to meet my mom at the airport, then will spend Christmas and New Years in the Santiago/Valparaiso and surrounding area. Valpo is supposedly a huge glowing Roman candle on New Years, with fireworks reflecting off the bay, the whole city in festival mode. Hundreds of thousands flock to see the show. Luckily, I was able to book reasonably priced accommodations during that time. Hotels, I’ve learned, charge up to 300% more than their normal rate during this time. Once my parents leave I’ll stick around Santiago, visit a Chilean friend, then bus back to Cusco, bike to Bolivia, then finally arrive to Brazil! Brazil! Brazil! By April I will have an apartment, high-intermediate Portuguese, and a social life in southern Brazil. I’m still undecided whether I’ll bike north to Bahia, bus it for a visit, or curl up in my sedentary life while I learn the language.
Here is a gypsy moment you will appreciate: in the charming Peruvian border town of Pantoja, fairly deep in the Amazon and only reachable by fishing boats contracted in Ecuador, Max and I met a man while off loading our bike gear. In no hurry since the next boat didn’t travel down river for another three days, we sat by the shore and answered this man’s questions about our trip—the same ones I answer everyday when I meet people. At the same time a small riot of kids accumulated around us, all respectfully curious. Many had never ridden a bicycle. The man eventually invited us to stay with he and his family. Their home was an open-air thatched structure, with a fire pit stove in the main area, chickens roaming the dirt floor, and a make-shift bread oven that provided income three times a week. He insisted we eat all his wife’s local dishes, drink chicha, and pick fruit from his trees as if they were our own. Later, he fell asleep on the hammock. We left to walk around town. Upon returning to our tent the man’s 80 year-old father invited us to a drink with his friends. They looked as if they had been at it for awhile. The old timer was by far the most coherent. He told many stories as old timers do. Then Max brought out his guitar. He’s learning, which means he doesn’t play or sing particularly well, but like I said he’s fearless and doesn’t embarrass easily. He began to play and sing and the old timers who were by now somewhat comatosed began to perk up, they began to remember that they too are humans and not dead yet. And they began to dance, clap, and sing! Yes, they were drunk, but it was endearing. I then brought my harmonica and made a true mess of the scene. They all wanted to huff and puff into it. The 80 year-old father even played pretty well, blowing his whole being into the tiny slats, nothing in tune with Max’s bellowing. He didn’t care, he was lost in his music. We were making such a scandalous noise that the neighborhood eventually lined the door in silent awe, as if observing a crime scene. The old men kept singing, clapping, dancing. When we finally called it a night, the father who had been playing the harmonica, handed it to me appearing quite sober, and said, “I haven’t felt so alive in years.” It was a true travel moment. For the next couple days every time I’d encounter the father in the village he sang out a different salutation, no matter the distance between us, his arms forming a waltz as if he had once again found his dance partner and could nothing less than two-step across town to communicate his joy to the world….
Signing off I thought you’d like to know that this letter was typed under the watchful eyes of five, yes, five child and adult Peruvians mesmerized by the fact that I can push the little letters without watching my fingers. All leaned in as I tactfully evaded the “How much did that machine cost?” question by saying it was a gift. I didn’t have the heart to tell them this highly affordable, highly portable netbook would set them back one month’s paycheck, that they will probably never own one unless they steal it from me. Of course, I wanted to avoid that too….