- "Sparkle like a princesses tiara!"
- "That's my favorite!"
- "They do one of these every night at Disneyland?"
- "Sounds like a bug zapper.....or hands clapping."
- "It's so fluffy!"
- Someone softly singing "baby you're a firework"
- "I love you Brad Pitt!"
- A VERY young child, defiantly, "I know what puss means!" followed by adult laughter
Monday, July 4, 2011
Thursday, June 30, 2011
To begin, and let's just be clear, when I talk about wild caving, it first means that you don't pay anyone to go into the cave. If there's an 18-year-old kid named Tim with a name tag walking you along a smooth path with rope lights along it, pointing out the paper mache jaguar, you are not on a wild cave tour. At the other end of the spectrum, I'm not going to speak to any form of caving that requires heavy-duty repelling equipment, temperature endurance clothing, or overnight caving. Frankly, because I've never done it. I'd LOVE to do that some day - parachute into a cave or go cave scuba-diving; but for now, I have extensive experience in raw wild caving, so that's what I'll speak to.
This is a pretty safe travel tip even outside of caves, when you're going somewhere alone or with a small group. Let one or two people know your plans - exactly when you're setting out, exactly where you're going, and when you estimate you should be back. I like to add on the "call the police time;" for example, "I should be back by 7 p.m.; but if you haven't heard from me by 9 p.m., then call the police." A multitude of bad things can go wrong - injuries, getting lost, animal attacks, what have you. Also, a number of far more realistic things can happen that can delay your return - rain, traffic, took a nap or your phone battery died. Giving a cushion allows for those delays. Also, don't forget to then re-contact those parties when you return....so they don't call the police. I tend to try and let close, level-headed people know about these kinds of trips - letting constant-worriers know about these kinds of plans stresses them out the entire time you're gone and they might get trigger-happy with that "call the police time" call.
When you enter a cave, it will most likely be cold. Coated in a cool blanket of earth and stone, most likely with some body of water, and without sunlight, your cave has plenty of reason to be cold. Therefore, dress in layers. Wear sturdy boots, like hiking boots, although I've learned that TEVAs and KEENs work nicely too, especially if it's a particularly wet cave. Wear a pair of thick jeans that fit correctly (baggy jeans will fill with mud, tight jeans won't allow you the flexibility you'll need). Wear two or three layers on top - a light t-shirt, a strong long-sleeved shirt (that fits like your jeans), and then maybe a sweater/warm jacket. As you move around in the cave, your body temperature is going to rise (because it's cool, you don't realize how hard you're usually working). So you'll want to be able to shed layers to cool off. Last note: do not wear clothes you like. Because of the different minerals that may be present in the cave, cave mud can permanently stain your clothes. I think I have one or two cave-specific outfits - knowing I'll never be able to wear them anywhere else, except Halloween probably, or a mud fest.....
Knee pads. Plain and simple, you'll be spending a lot of time on your hands and knees. Wear knee pads (the kind you would wear for volleyball or rollerblading are just fine). If you want to rock out a little more, get some elbow pads (again, like rollerblading). It's dark in a cave; and as you move your arms through the darkness, it's easy to nick your elbows on cave walls. Get a caving helmet. Caving helmets differ from biking and construction helmets in that they have a place for your headlamp. Petzel makes some great helmets - although pricey (rock-climbing helmets work too). Lastly, wear some work gloves. These would be really tough gardening gloves or construction gloves - again, you'll be on your hands and knees a lot; and in tight spaces, you'll be pulling yourself forward with your fingers. I find that gloves and knee pads are the essentials to comfort, followed by the helmet.
- A sturdy backpack (waterproof if it's an extra-wet cave)
- At least two back-up flashlights
- At least two complete sets of back-up batteries
- A pocket knife
- A first-aid kit
- A Nalgene-worth of water (cold + exertion = you don't realize how much you're sweating)
- Glowsticks (it's fun to light up caverns now and then)
- A camera
- Leave your cellphone and GPS in the car - there is no reception in caves
At-heart, I am a nature fanatic. It's therefore my opinion, in any natural setting, that you should try and disturb nature as little as possible and leave nothing behind. I always told my campers, "take only pictures and leave only footprints." So there are a few things to follow when in caves, and a few admittedly have blurry lines.
B. Do not touch stalagmites or stalactites. Stalactites hang "tightly" to the ceiling, and stalagmites are "mightily" in the ground. They form from water, carrying tiny bits of minerals from the rock above, dripping through the ceiling of the cave. As the water runs off the rock, it leaves it's little bit of mineral behind. Over thousands of years, this mineral builds up to form some of the beautiful cave structures (see also soda straws, egg yolks and curtains). Often times, you'll see a stalactite right above a stalagmite. Since these structures take thousands of years to form, it's disappointing to touch them - like smearing a painter's canvas mid-painting. Only touch these structures if it's necessary - whether to save you from a dangerous fall, or if holding onto a thick, sturdy stalagmite is the ONLY way to pass the current obstacle.
C. Stay out of the water. Most wet caves will have some form of standing water - whether a tiny stream or lake(s). The more still the water, the more delicate the ecosystem within. Stepping into bodies of water can crush animals or directly deposit foreign chemicals (dyes and films from your shoes, even the salt in your sweat) that could throw off the pH and kill life in the water. If the water is deep, it can be VERY dangerous to enter it, not knowing what foreign objects lie below the surface (animals, plant debris, jagged rocks), and it's nearly impossible to judge the depth. If you come to very swift-moving water, do not attempt to cross it at all - the risk is far too great. The only time it is appropriate to enter an underground body of water, like the stalagmite, is if it is the absolute only route to proceed further into the cave. Even then, it breaks my heart.
A. Keep you voices down. Animals, like hibernating bats, are very sensitive to sound in the cave, and it can wake them out of hibernation suddenly, and kill them. Also, when caving with a group, sudden screams or shouts can be very alarming and disorienting, even scary. Lastly, sound does NOT travel all that well in a cave - when you put enough distance; say, 100 feet, between you and another person, the cave starts to swallow your noise. If you're with a group, or even one other person, stay close together and always clearly communicate your intentions.
B. Pace yourself. Never run through a cave, as you can trip and fall very easily. Also, be respectful of the rest of your party and keep moving. Everyone should rest every once-in-a-while; but if you're at the tail-end and stopping to break every five minutes, you should consider turning around and leaving with a partner. If you're having a problem, clearly communicate it to the person ahead of you.
C. Never shine your light in someone's face. People's eyes acclimate to the darkness of the cave (i.e., their pupils get bigger to let in more light), and they get used to the light-level in the cave. When you shine your headlamp in their eyes, their pupils suddenly contract, which can be painful, flares their vision, and can actually create little light circles in their vision for up to a minute. Most headlamps come with a feature that allows you to angle your light downward at a 45-degree angle. Do this when conversing face to face.
D. Quit the horseplay. Caves are really exciting and fun, but this is not a time to play hide-and-go-seek, fake injuries or fear, or hide and then jump out to scare someone. You're far under ground, and any accidents that result from the above could result in serious consequences. Have a great, incredible time exploring underground - but don't be foolish.
White Nose Syndrome. Starting about six years ago, white nose syndrome showed up in the eastern and the midwestern United States. It's basically a fungus that infects the respiratory system of bats - it plugs up their airways and kills them, en-masse. Entire cave colonies have been dying. It's EXTREMELY poorly understood - it's origin and how it spreads. In a panic, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has restricted caving in areas where white nose has been found and has a massive call for people disinfecting their clothes before and after caving. The caveat is - no one knows for sure where it's origins are and actually how it's spread. So, what does this mean for you? Not a whole lot, honestly. Don't touch bats; and if you're going to go caving in an area that's closely monitored by a park service, check with them first, or the local caving group (often called "grottos") to make sure it's OK to check that cave out. If they catch you coming out of a cave that they've labeled "quarantined" (again, without concrete knowledge on spread), they can slap you with a big fine. Don't quarrel with them either - legally, they're in the right. Scientifically? THAT'S very debatable.
I think that exhausts my caving knowledge for now. If you'd like to learn more, you can always attend a meeting or sign up with your local speleological society. They're listed on the National Speleological Society, which has great information too. Lastly, I started my own caving series this summer - it will probably be another four or five months before I can make another episode, but it was a fun project.
Feel free to post with questions or other great tips! Also, feel free to share any great caves you've explored!
Friday, April 15, 2011
The Journey to the Amazon
A sudden drop in altitude and my head shot up from a deep sleep as the little Peruvian Airlines jet bounced along. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked out the window to find a never-ending expanse of deep green jungle canopy coated with a golden sheen left from sunrise. Through the dark twist was a chocolate brown serpent slithering through the foliage – the Amazon River. I was almost to my destination…..
On Friday morning, as I secured my tie and jacket for our client’s final presentation, I casually leafed through my National Geographic guide to Peru, wondering what I would do with my new-found freedom that the academic half of my spring break was about to conclude. I came upon the “Iquitos” chapter, a sleepy town buried deep in the Amazon Jungle along the illusive river – and it dawned upon me: I never knew the Amazon Jungle came through northeastern Peru, very close to my current home base of Lima. I planted the seed in my head and let it carefully grow in the back of my mind, as the rest of the day was focused on delivering my final presentation regarding the exportation of frozen fish to the United States for our Peruvian client.
Fast forward 17 hours, and I’m sleepily weaving through the late-night Peruvian streets, holding on with what energy I had left in the back of your typical break-neck Lima taxi-driver’s carriage. After our presentations and delectable dinner, most of the class had met at a local watering hole, La Cajo, for a late night of Latin dance, song and performance (special applause for Nathan and Michael for winning the “tourists” dance contest). As we bounded home on the still-busy streets at 3 a.m., the thought of the Amazon came back to me – very alluringly, whispering just barely louder than sleep. We pulled up to my hotel, the Casa Andina, I fished out the soles for my driver, and I crept into the silent lobby where one front-of-house staff was sorting paperwork quietly in the dim light.
I sat down at the lobby computer, with an excruciatingly slow internet connection, and typed into Google “Peruvian Airlines.” As the pages sluggishly loaded, it became clear that I would have to make my Amazonian decision quite quickly. There was only one flight in to Iquitos that day…leaving in just three hours at 6:20. One thinks that you should be at the airport at least one hour ahead of time, it was nearly an hour cab ride to the airport ---- I would have to decide now, prepare and leave without sleep if I was to take this leap in adventure. For just $140, and maybe the lack of anyone present to advise me otherwise, I clicked “purchase” and bought my ticket to the Amazon. I quickly looked up WikiTravel info on the town, printed my confirmation and the information and emailed them both to a few colleagues, asking that if they hadn’t heard from me by 10:30 p.m., send help to the jungle.
I bolted to my room and dumbed out my luggage bag. I was traveling alone to a region I was still learning about – and so smart, light travel was very important. When traveling abroad, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to not stick out as a tourist; however, it’s possible to look like an intelligent tourist – not worth messing with. Knowing sun and mosquitos could be issues, pants (not jeans) and a utility button-down (light and airy) were essential – jeans are too touristy and t-shirts aren’t functional enough. My sturdy hiking boots were perfect for whatever terrain I may encounter – and my watch and glasses were left at home (“decorations” say “wealth” – I went contacts instead). For my pockets, I folded up the Wiki print-out and my itinerary, my camera, essentials from my wallet (health insurance card, driver’s license, and debit card), handkerchief (allergies + jungle probably meant “bad”) and a small pocket-tripod for the camera. And of course sunglasses – light, efficient and ready.
I ran back downstairs and caught another crazy Peruvian cab driver for the long trek to the airport. The ride was longer than usual, as the highway had been shut down by the pending Japanese tsunami (which in the end was a three-foot wave). On our way to the airport, the most meangingful conversation we were able to hold with his zero English and my elementary Spanish was that he told me the women in Iquitos were very well endowed. I thought to myself, “why is this key information? How many travelers go to cities solely based on the chests of the locals? Granted, entertaining, but can the guy tell me how to NOT get malaria? That’d be more helpful……)”
I made it to the airport with time to spare, and visited the iPeru booth, one of which is situated in every Peruvian airport and city. It’s a free travel service manned by one employee who must speak every language on the planet. I asked about Iquitos – and while she wasn’t able to tell me much, she handed me a brochure in English and said to visit the iPeru once I get there. I boarded my plane, snuggled down into my loud, hot, sticky coach seat, and drifted off to sleep shortly before sunrise.
And this is where we started – somewhere around 8:30 in the morning, looking out over the vast, lush canopy of the Amazon jungle. I rubbed the tiny bit of sleep out of my eyes, checked all my pockets that everything was still there, and did my best to understand bits and pieces of the Spanish landing procedures being let out by the flight attendant. I watched excitedly as the green ocean rocketed closer and closer to the plane until I felt the thud beneath my feet, the squeal of the tires, and the all-too familiar sound of propulsion finally catch back up in the race it was losing.
We walked across the tarmac in the immediately hot and heavy air. All across the vast, grey parking lot were amphibious planes and helicopters waiting to be departed to any distance niche of the winding, aquatic snake that slithered only a few miles ahead. Beyond them were the husks of rusting planes and earlier helicopters, slowly being reclaimed into the jungle by its twisting, hungry vines. We scuttled into the tiny airport, which contained one baggage carousel, one set of bathrooms, and one iPeru. I strolled on over.
The man inside said I should catch a taxi (charmingly “mototaxi”) outside the airport to Iquitos, the only town, and don’t pay more than eight soles for it (about $3.00). He handed me the identical brochure the iPeru woman in Lima handed me, and circled on it the iPeru in town – something quite distant, it appeared, from the town center. But it was a jungle town – so I assumed the proportions on the map were exaggerated and that it would be a tiny walk. I looked at everyone waiting for their bags, scoffed to myself a little (high fives light traveler!), and walked out the front door into the Amazonian sun.
The Adventure to Iquitos
As I entered the parking lot, I was immediately confronted with no less than 15 taxi drivers, all asking me “taxi, taxi, taxi?” Men, and boys, would grab my upper arms and pull me towards their mototaxis, no more than 10 feet away. In a buyer’s market though, never appear desperate or urgent. I told all of them “no,” that I didn’t need a taxi (when in reality a taxi was my ONLY gateway to getting to town, where everything was, about 40 minutes away). I walked around the front door for a few minutes, acting REALLY interested in the fencing and walls, and then reapproached the group. I looked at one guy in the crowd (took the glasses off to make eye contact), “un taxi por favor par me” I muttered, and he shot back eight soles. [buyer’s market]. I shot back six, which is about $2 – at which he scoffed. I began to walk to the next guy who opened his arms, first guy said seven, I looked at the second guy, he shook his head, and seven it was. Man I love price negotiating in Peru!
I asked to go to the Plaza de Armas, which literally means the “plaza of weapons (arms),” and is the generic name for the center of every Peruvian town. I loved these little vehicles – the front half is a motorcycle while the back half is a rickshaw. They are INREDIBLY loud and the area is packed with them; and as the National Geographic guide book accurately described, it looks and sounds like the vehicle depot from Mad Max was unleashed on the area. We began rocketing down the highway toward Iquitos’ Plaza de Armas, whipping by lush jungle and tons of street-side fruit and vegetable vendors. The road was packed with the mototaxis, a couple busses, and a few logging trucks full of jungle timber. There is zero road access to the region – you have to either fly or boat in, that’s why you don’t see many, if any, cars. Along the drive I would catch snapshots to the side of what the normal neighborhoods were like in the area – large, foot-traffic only mud roads slanting down sixty feet from the height of the highway, a huge drainage ditch in the middle for rain and waste, and a mixture of plaster and tin shacks disappearing into the distance and eventually swallowed by the jungle.
On our drive we attempted to communicate; however, my elementary understanding of Spanish and his absolute zero ability in English made our chat relatively limited. But, from his general body language and tone of his voice, he was relatively friendly and outgoing. I was able to communicate effectively my reasons for being in Peru and specifically Iquitos, and managed a few minor compliments about the region.
We eventually came to Iquitos, a town I equivocate to about ¼ of Bloomington (or Mariemont). Blue and green mansions trapped in the history of the 1930s snuggled their way in between the hustle and bustle of the new world, expanding with banks, grocery stores, convenience shops and restaurants. Every few establishments were travel agencies boasting large, colorful pictures of foreigners adventuring into the jungle and communing with the animals. I, without my malaria shots, had no intention of going.
We reached the plaza square, which opened up into a very large center complete with a park and grand statue, mototaxis whipping around it and people casually sitting around eating mid-morning snacks on the benches. He came to a gentle stop and reached around for his payment. I pulled out a 100 sole bill, the only cash I had on me from the airport. He looked at me in surprise and frustration, and his gestures and sighs led me to understand he couldn’t break the bill. I communicated back that I would not be paying 100 soles ($37.00) for a seven-sole (~$2.00) ride. He looked like he had a solution, and told me to stay in the taxi. We then began driving around the various restaurants and bars, as he ran in with my giant bill to attempt to break it. In these lingering minutes I stayed put in the taxi – I figured he wouldn’t run off with 100 soles and leave his livelihood behind. Yet each time he faithfully returned, but without smaller bills in hand and with new frustration. He then asked me if I wanted to see the jungle and lots of animals. I said “no,” to which he said his friend spoke English. I still said “no,” and we continued on to what I thought was further bill breaking. Until we drove down a rather calm alley, and his GIANT “friend” came out from an apartment.
My driver shot something in Spanish, at which his friend cordially responded to me, in English, “hey friend, you want me to take you to the jungle? See lots of animals, monkeys, tigers, snakes? I give you a good price.” I continued with my stubborn “no,” but he persisted. I finally brought up the topic, “I never got my malaria shots, so I don’t want to go to the jungle.” To which he responded, “malaria shots, you don’t need malaria shots for the jungle, it’s totally safe.” He and the driver talked more in Spanish, arguing it seemed. Then, in a moment of stubborn bravery, I looked the man three times my size right in the eyes, from the shaded protection of my rickshaw, and said “no jungle” slowly and very drawn out. He shot his friend a bunch of angry Spanish, and then said to me, “ok, ok, no jungle. Bye” and disappeared back into the apartment. I’d saved myself from malaria and potentially getting mugged in the jungle, but now my cab driver had potentially lost a cut AND still had an unpaying customer, and was sure to gut me and sell me in a dark alley.
I was able to communicate with my growingly-frustrated driver that maybe we should try a bank to break the bill – they have lots of small bills. He consented, and we drove back to a bank in the plaza. He disappeared in with the bill for nearly 15 minutes as I relaxed in the Amazonian sun. When he returned, to my amazement, the bill remained unbroken and he wanted to whole thing. There was no WAY I was paying that much for the little cab ride – I can see him just laughing his butt off about the American tourist who he conned nearly 14 times more than the cost of the ride. I explained that I’ll take the bill into the bank and play the dumb American – they’d have to let me break it. There was only one door in and out of the bank, so he could watch for me and I couldn’t escape. He agreed.
I entered the bank and found my way to the waiting room. You were to punch into a touchscreen computer what your purpose at the bank was (deposit, withdrawal, inquiry, etc.) and then the computer spit out a printed number. I then sat in a holding area with about 20 other people, waiting for my number to flash on a monitor above the four tellers. I waited nearly 30 minutes for my numbers to come up, all the while watching random Peruvian TV coming through on TVs in the ceiling corners and the taxi driver, coming in and out of the bank to check on me, growing ever impatient. Finally I was called, finally they broke my bill, and I raced out into the sun to pay the driver nearly double his fee. He expressed he was understanding, yet exhausted from my ridiculousness, jumped in his mototaxi and sped off back into the swarm.
Finding the Boats
Now that I had gotten that batch of shenanigans over with, it was time to find Iquitos’ iPeru office and figure out how to get on a boat out on the Amazon River – granted, what good is coming to the Amazon without getting on the river? I took out my already sweating, breaking apart brochure from the first iPeru, and headed south to the waterfront. As I made my way only two blocks from the plaza, I could see the familiar openness of blue sky that always hovers above water. And then I saw it – or what turned out to be a part of it. A massive tributary of the Amazon – and if this was the tributary, how big was the main channel?! The brownish, green water was lush around the edges with reeds, lily pads and foliage coming up from the depths. Above this greenery hovered a number of thatched, grass huts which stood on stilts – I don’t know if they were occupied or not. I strolled along the boardwalk of the riverfront, with a pretty blue and white stone railing, and watched various motor boats going here and there on the river, birds zipping across the water or diving for fish, and the multitude of restaurants and inns dotting the boardwalk. I made it to the end (at least a well-shaded part I felt not smart to venture forward in), so I turned around and headed back, the iPeru not on the map where it should be.
On my stroll back I passed a giant spray painted sign on the side of the building professing how child sex tourism was illegal. I didn’t realize that was such a popular pass-time in the region, but I was gracious for the reminder. (I found out later from a taxi driver in Lima that it USED to be a big problem ten years ago, but not so much).
I was still confused about where to catch a boat or where the iPeru was, until I suddenly came upon an institution with a name like “The World Explorers Club of the Amazon.” Two rocking chairs sat outside of its awning overlooking the lush tributary, and in one rocked what I dreamed an Amazonian explorer to be. Silver white hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, laying down over his blousy, white, heavily-buttoned and pocketed shirt leading to cargo khaki pants which led to feet propped on a huge explorers backpack. His weathered face had a bit of youth in it – he was probably in his late 60s, but could have had the spirit of 40 – and looked through tiny spectacles into a tiny book he casually read. I plopped down next to him, cheerfully saying “mind if I join you?” – of which he obliged.
I wish I could say he laid upon me the wonders of the jungle, but our conversation was actually quite short. I asked if he spoke English – he did – and if he knew where I could hire a boatman for the river. He, to my surprise, had no idea (how is THIS guy in front of the Explorer’s Club?!) but suggested a thatched compound not more than 50 feet to the west along the river. I thanked him for his time, wished him pleasant travels, and headed in that direction. Oh, and his name was “Brock” – awesome explorer name.
I walked down the stone stairs to the bamboo bridge out to the thatched compound. Underneath its shade was a bar populated by about four locals, and then a number of single-managed tourist gift shops – all empty of tourists. The bar-tender noticed me and asked me in Spanish what I wanted. I walked over and asked how I could hire a boat for the day. She said no boats went out of there – that I’d have to go to the Embarcado (port) about a 20-minute taxi ride to the East to hire a boat. I pulled out my map and asked where the iPeru was – she said I was a block off. I had to walk back into town one block, THEN head East to the end of town. There I would find it. I thanked her for her help and was on my way.
I walked across the plaza, tipped my invisible hat to Brock who had looked up from his book at movement (it was quite peaceful and deserted along the water), and I headed down a long market street past vendors setting up for the day and beautiful wall murals of life along the Amazon. After a short stroll, I came to a tiny iPeru on the corner.
Inside, two men occupied the tiny office which was filled with the sound of a massive, buzzing fan. I don’t know how much these guys get paid, but hopefully it’s a lot – because they speak fluent English, among probably tons of other languages. I introduced myself (the IPeru staff are always very cordial) and explained my purpose for being in town. He asked what I’d like to do, and I said I wanted to get on a boat to the Amazon. He then laid out a very detailed plan on how I get a taxi to the Embarcado, who are legitimate boatmen, and then where I should go. He mentioned a butterfly sanctuary, a nature preserve (not deep in the jungle), and two native tribes…..that’s right, native tribes. I had never dreamed of visiting natives – but this sounded exciting! The Bora and the Yahua. He circled everything on my map and drew lines connecting how long it should take me to get there, how much I should pay for every leg of the journey, and that I owed each tribal chief 20 soles for the privilege of visiting their tribe. I thanked him profusely, stuffed my rotting map back into my pocket, and then walked back out into the buzzing Amazonian street.
Preparing for Departure
It was apparent that I didn’t want to eat anything while in the jungle. Although I delight in rare delicacies of fruits, vegetables, and meats (I’ve been known to try guinea pig, chicken’s feet, salmon eyes and more), natural water was not something to be messed with in Peru – and I didn’t want to get ill while here. So I needed to fill my stomach before embarking to the great unknown. I walked back up to the Plaza de Armas and found a rather bustling diner, almost reminiscent of the 1950s (while tile floors, streamlined silver chairs and Formica tables with all sorts of random paraphernalia on the walls. It was littered with locals, so I figured it can’t be too bad. I was brought a giant plastic menu – and although I typically order per what sounds good, my reading ability that I ordered by picture – some kind of meat kebab with potatoes and a fruit smoothie.
It’s nice to enjoy a meal when you have nowhere to be – nothing to do. I sat at my table alone and watched the people around me and the whirr for mototaxi traffic whipping by on the street outside. I observed about three tourists (out of 20 or so patrons) come in and out of the bar – one man somewhere out of Southeast Asia and two Americans looking like they were old Grateful Dead roadies. A young girl, maybe six, strolled the open bar asking for money with her one, outstretched hand, as her other arm was missing from the elbow up. Most patrons obliged her – but I must have looked terribly threatening, as she never approached me – or at least, I was close enough to the kitchen that the manager might see her and threaten her out.
My food arrived in about 20-30 minutes, and was hot and delicious – sausage and ham skewed are roasted with yellow potatoes. The fruit smoothie gave me the hydration and the sugar I needed to keep going. I ate them casually, silently processing the world around me. It was at this point that I called the faculty chair, Phil Powell, who was back in Lima leading the program. He knew that I had been thinking about the trip, and encouraged it, but had no knowledge of my actual departure. When he answered, I shortly explained, “Phil, I made it to the Amazon! I’m having lunch in Iquitos at the moment. You should’ve come, - you’d love it here!” He was excited to hear I had come, and wanted to know everything I had seen and done so far. I gave him the recap (not in as much detail as this blog), and informed him of the future plans – and if I wasn’t back by 10:30 p.m., send help. He cheerfully wished me the best, and our brief conversation was over. I finished my meal, paid my bill, and headed out into the sun once again.
Step two of three before heading off was getting some money and change. If the taxi driver didn’t have change for 100, there was no way the boatmen or tribal chiefs would have change. I tried three banks before I found one that had both a working ATM AND had simple enough Spanish that I could understand what I was doing. After withdrawing my money, I went to the teller who happily broke up my bills into 20s (for you Americans, Peruvian bills only come out of ATMS in 50s or 100s, so for small transactions you have to find somewhere to make them smaller). I then sat on the floor of the bank, took both shoes off, and careful spread the money between both boots, pant pockets and shirt pockets. The guard inside had a big grin on his face – I must have looked insane, looking back on this. But spreading my money around means if/when I get pick-pocketed, I don’t lose everything. There was one stop left to make, so I was off.
Anyone who knows me knows that I typically don’t like any kind of medicinal chemicals going on or on my body – I typically don’t like taking medicine, and I hate putting on suntan lotion and bug spray – I like natural healing and feel in nature. But, in the case of the Amazon, and if I needed to keep the mosquitos off because of malaria, this is one case where I’d consent. I strolled the streets until I came upon a small convenience store – selling snacks, drinks, and some toiletries. I found both rub-on bug spray and sun-tan lotion – and buying them was also another great chance to break up bills. I opened in the store, applied, and stuck them in my back pocket in case of re-apply was needed (I didn’t know how frequent rain was). I stepped back out into the noisy, dusty street and wiped my hands. People know where I am and where I’m going? Check. Essential materials? Check. Food? Check. Money? Check. Protection from malaria? Kinda check. I was ready. I extended my hand up in the air and within minutes a moto-taxi came roaring up. “Embarcado, por favor.” “Quattro soles.” “Bueno.”
The ride to the Embarcado was a quick and speedy one to the East. My driver was the first I had who didn’t readily appear Peruvian – he was of Asian descent, potentially Vietnamese. There was no conversation, and my greatest highlight of our drive was seeing another mototaxi with the Batman symbol spray-painted on it. At least Amazonians have humor too.
After a quick venture through a variety of roads and dirt “highways,” we roared to the tip of the land on the map, and I was dropped off into the wild fray of Embarcado. Before the actual docks was an open air market with maybe 30 families each with individual huts selling sweet, succulent smelling delicacies from roasted nuts, fresh fish from the river, jungle fruits and vegetables, and of course those few who continue to sell sunglasses and hats. But I was barely able to take in the shouts of “best deals” and “fresh fish” of the roaring market as I was immediately accosted by probably 15 different Peruvian men, aging from the low teens all the way up into their 50s. They thrust colored brochures of tourists in the jungles in my face, and were demanding in Spanglish for my business to go up the river. I adamantly explained that I had no need of going on the river, and was just here for the market (a dead lie). I began walking through the market and the mob followed, trying to convince me why I needed to go into the jungle (“see animals, monkeys, met pretty girls in tribes, see tigers, I’m the best boatman”), and they continued even as I explained there was no river in my future and attempted to wave them off like flies. Slowly, one by one, they dropped off to head back to the road to watch for the next non-local to arrive by moto-taxi. I walked past the market and down to the docks to look at the boats as casually and disintegrated as possible (again, in a buyer’s market, never give a sign of urgency). I looked back and one boy, maybe 15 or 16, had followed me this far. He had a nice face, relatively clean, wore a baseball cap and a fanny pack, and looked at me with interest. I sized him up – I was bigger than him, so if any funny business happened on the river, I think I could take him. I motioned him over.
The two of us began negotiating price. I pulled out my map and said that I wanted to visit the two villages and the nature preserve and pointed on the map. We talked it out for a while, his asking price way too high. But he was cordial, not pushy like the other guys, so I felt comfortable in talking with him. Looking over our shoulders, various acquaintences were giving him the evil eye and even yelled a few things at him, at which he shrugged at and said snarky comments to them under his breath, I assume to the effect of “losers.”
After a cordial negotiation, we agreed upon 60 soles ($22.22) for three hours on the Amazon River to take me wherever I wanted to go. Find me a cab driver anywhere in the modern world that will take you anywhere you want to go for three hours for $20.
He eagerly led me to his sturdy water craft – it couldn’t have been more beautiful. It was a 20-foot long boat, sitting low in the water and quite narrow. It had a thickly-thatched roof or leaves, a hull of rich Kelly green and an interior flecked with yellow. The boat, with its outboard motor and benches, could have easily fit 10 people – life jackets included. But on this day, this one day, I had my private guide on the Amazon River.
He ripped the cord in the motor’s engine, the boat shook to life, and we motored out in the harbor.
The Tributary Trip
The water of the Amazon River and its tributaries carries a blue sheen on its top, but you can see the brown below. It does not appear to be a thick mud-brown, like the Ohio or Mississippi – but a brown teaming with life and jungle run-off. Sturdy green plants peak their heads up through the surface, and the shores are a thick wall of dense, green, lush jungle vegetation. There are various breaks in the jungle which house large, rotting steam-ships being eaten up by the jungle and even a large ship-building yard we passed. Every few minutes a small boat, much like ours, would motor past off to some river destination or was headed in the same way. There were no boats larger than ours that I saw on the river. One ski-doo out of a restaurant high on stilts by the water, but that was the most bizarre of jungle crafts. My driver let me soak this all in for about 20 minutes before we began to make conversation.
Joel, as I came to learn his name, spoke absolutely zero English but was a very pleasant gentleman. He made his living ferrying people up and down the river and grew up in Iquitos. I explained the purpose of my trip, where I was from, what I was studying, and did my best to compliment Iquitos and the region. He smiled and laughed often – he was the most pleasant driver I’d met thus far. Our journey up the river was calm and peaceful, a gentle breeze blowing up and down the river with us protected from the sun in the shade of the boat’s thatched roof. Joel began to drive the boat to the left of the river to a set of shaky, wooden stairs reaching down from the dark jungle. A massive sign at the top of the hill said, in Spanish, “welcome to the Bora tribe.” There was a small hut next to the sign, and shaded figures stirred. We had reached the first jungle tribe.
The Bora Tribe
Joel tied our dock line to the bottom of the stairs, which reached to the water, and we both ascended the wobbly steps. At the top I was greeted by a dirt path leading into the jungle, to somewhere unknown, and two topless girls briskly strolling from inside the sign’s hut. They were very smiley and greeted me. They both looked no different from normal Peruvians, except for potentially even darker skin due to exposure. They both wore dark, I assume leather, “skirts,” and I assume they were in their teens, and were both about shoulder-height to me. Joel and the girls talked amongst each other, walking on either side of me, as they led me up the dirt path. The girls would ask me very quick questions, and when I responded I didn’t understand and I’d look to Joel for help, who’d just laugh and offer no understanding of my English, silly laughter went all around.
And then a complete rush of anxious adrenaline rushed through my veins. Here I was, currently being led into the outskirts of the jungle by three teenagers, who spoke no English, two of them were topless, and I had NO idea what was about to happen. I realized at iPeru that the guide had told me to visit the tribes, but I had failed to ask “what happens at the tribes?” What in the holy F had I just gotten myself into? I had no idea what was about to happen – but I just kept telling myself that these seemed like nice kids and I’m a competent traveler – everything will be just fine [nervous laughter].
We walked only a couple minutes – just far enough to no longer see the water, when the jungle opened up to reveal a village. There are about eight huts, walls made of singular, verticle wood poles and all roofs covered in thatched leaves and branches. Smoke billowed up from a couple of the biuldings, but I was ushered into the central hut, which was VERY large (maybe 50-60 feet across) and probably used as a gathering place. Wooden benches lined the walls, above which hunt trinkets of jewelry. Random villagers, men and women, lounged about in the hut, but in total there were maybe eight of us inside. Two older men approached me, the younger of which wore a great feathered headdress and a great boned necklace. The men also wore the leather skirts, and as this one approached me he began to sputter off a myriad of phrases (that I hoped were a welcome). Joel and the two girls sat on a nearby bench to smile and watch the show, as I tried to explain I didn’t speak any Spanish. The man then took off his headdress and necklace and placed them on me. Then a very old, weathered man came over from the shadows of the hut and began talking shakily, and whispers. One eye was completely fogged in sky-blue, potentially blind. He put his fingers into a half-nut, almost like a coconut, and began to smear an orange colored paste across my cheeks. Both men began to talk earnestly to me, asking questions (I could tell by the pitch of their voice), but when I turned to Joel for help, he just smiled and shrugged with the sense of “you came out here buddy without Spanish, it’s not my fault when they cook you for dinner.” I turned back to the two tribal leaders, explaining I didn’t speak Spanish but I’d love to see their village, when suddenly a voice broke out from the shadows, “he says you’re the chief now. What would you like the, to do?”
Stunned, I looked to my right, from which emerged a man most likely in his late 40s, slightly balding, sporting a bright green t-shirt and swim trunks, and the same face paint I had just received. “Excuse me?” I said. “He says you’re the chief now,” he calmly repeated with a grin growing under his bushy mustache, “would you like to see them dance?” I responded “si, si” to which the chief told the older man some instructions. The older man went over to two huge logs on the ground and began to beat them with mallets. Commotion stirred in the huts around the main hut, and villagers began to pour in from everywhere – men, women and children. By the time his drumming had ceased, there were nearly 24 people gathered in the hut. The chief explained some instructions, at which point about three men gathered in a line with poles in the back and began to chant, bashing their poles up and down in the ground. The women of the tribe, probably six younger girls, gathered and began to dance around the center of the hut, the dance mostly consisting of walking in a circle with a hand on the leading person’s shoulder and chanting along. The men joined in the circle, and they chanted.
During this time I was filming from a bench, and my English speaking savior sat at my side. We conversed as the dance went on. It turned out that his name was Israel, who was on a weekend get-away with his girlfriend, Karen. They were both from Cusco, and Israel was in the real estate business. They had simply been lounging around the village when I showed up, and he couldn’t bear watching me struggle any more. He was an incredibly delightful man; and through our relationship for the rest of the day, he became my translator who opened me up to the world I was exploring. He was gracious and generous, and quite comical, and my adventure was entirely different, and advanced, thanks to his help.
The dance completed, and the men of the village went back into their line and began a different song. The women formed a front line, and two of the came up and took my hands to welcome me into it. This dance had a different rhythm to it, but consisted of really holding hands in a line and walking back and forth about four feet in either directions. Simple and easy to follow along. The girl to my right, who was one of the two who originally had led me to the village, kept gently scratching my palm with her middle finger as we danced and looked at me smiling. I THINK this was flirting, but it also could have been testing to see if I was tender enough to be eaten later on. – my joke is simply an opportunity, I felt very welcomed and safe in the village.
At the conclusion of the dance, the chief came up and told me to walk around the hut and see if there was anything I’d like to buy. [from now on, know that Israel is translating everything into English for me that is said] I walked around and immediately, just like with the boatmen at the embarcado, the women and children, maybe seven, pushed their jewelry and bags into my face giving out price askings. The geniality of the dance was now over, and I was suddenly thrown into a tumultuous market once again. I smiled and laughed a lot, and patiently walked around about a third of the hut looking at everyone’s treasures – bracelets, dolls, bags, necklaces. Heck, the chief even said I could keep the headdress and necklace I was wearing – for a price. In the end, I bought a bag for Melissa and two bracelets for people I can’t mention because they haven’t received their gifts yet. I approached the chief, gave him back his wears and sat down to pull off my boot to get the 20 soles for him. I assumed that he might be disgusted by the sweaty bill coming from my boot, but the girls just laughed at my silliness, Joel smiled (probably because NOW he knew where all my money was), and the chief graciously accepted my payment. He demanded one picture with one of the girls (I wish I had known the context of WHY it was her), which was slightly awkward because that was definitely the first time I’ve ever posed for a picture with a topless girl – and I pulled the “hover hand” (not touching her) despite the chief’s upset nature that I didn’t want to grope the girl. A couple of the girls asked me something in Spanish, which Israel translated as “are you an actor?” This was baffling, and I assumed it was because I was sporting my new aviators I had bought in Lima a few days back. To my own surprise, I said that I was (they didn’t need to know that I was only Harry Bailey’s brother or Nana the Dog in Peter Pan – heck, I was in an ice cream commercial when I was 16!). This sent them into a fit of giggles, and then we all said goodbye.
Joel, Karen, Israel, their boatmen and I walked back down through the jungle to our boats, accompanied by a boy and a girl who begged for tips – I needed to save my money for the other tribes and whatever might come up, so I refused. They were adorable though, it was very hard. We boarded our respective boats, and I asked Israel where they were going. He said they were headed up river to see another tribe, the Yagua. I asked Joel if the Yagua was a good tribe to visit, and he waggled his hand and said it was so-so. Israel insisted I come along – and so I consented, and told Joel to head to the Yagua. Our engines roared to life, I waved goodbye to the young boy on the steps still asking for a tip (he was half begging, half laughing and joking about it), and we turned up river for the Yagua tribe.
The Yagua Tribe
Only a ten minute boat ride up the river, we came to the second and final tribe of the day. Instead of steps, we docked against a grassy shore that gently rolled up to the lip of the jungle. At the crest of the hill was only one large hut, just like the first one, but no additional huts around it. It was surrounded, however, by racks of wares like inside the Bora’s hut – jewelry and other gifts. Joel led the three of us up the hill and waved to the chief who waved us in. We walked through the main, mini, dirt courtyard, families of natives already gathered. There was a wider diversity of age here with more elders than the Bora – but their population at this spot was much lower. Women wore only bright red cloths around their wastes while men wore bell-shaped, thick, large grass skirts. There were smiles as the chief led us into the main hut. Israel, Karen and I took a seat.
An assistant to the chief came up with a half cup like at the Bora, and placed their village marks upon our faces (which oddly enough look like cat make-up: whiskers and nose). He then began to tell us about the village, while occasionally playing a small flute. He explained that the actual village is much bigger, but nearly a three-day hike deep into the jungle. They come to this spot so that they can access tourists, which is the primary flow of income for the tribe. He is their chief (who looked like he was maybe in his 50s with a headdress). During his story, two small children played in the dirt in the corner of the hut (well, near a doorway – it was circular, so no corners). He asked us if we’d like to see their dance. Does he need to ask?
He blew a special tune on his flute, which summoned a small group of dancers. Each of us was pulled into the middle of the hut by a tribes-person – I by a women who looked in her 7s and maybe came up to my chest. She delicately led me by my hand, crooked near her shoulder, in a circle as each of us walked in a circle as the chief played his flute and chanted something with his assistance (the dancers chanted too). Joel recorded this on my camera as we danced; but to my heart-break, I had to delete this video, as he recorded the whole thing and it ran out of memory. My day was only half over, and I had to leave room for any other surprises. The dance concluded, and we all applauded each other and smiled at one another. He then asked us if we’d like to learn how they hunt. Again – is this a rhetorical question?
He led us back out into the main courtyard, where everyone had gathered. His assistant brought out a massive blow dart gun, carved from a single branch, maybe almost five feet long. In the end he placed one small dart, which was the color and half the length of a kebab skewer, with a small piece of cotton loosely wrapped around the far end. We walked maybe 20 feet from the hut where we had just been and turned. Near the front door was a small, colorful wooden parrot standing on a perch. The chief lifted the gun, took in a deep breath, and hit the parrot right in the head with the dart! Holy crap! He then handed the gun to Israel and loaded the dart for him. Israel took aim twice and missed both times. This looked completely awesome and fun, so I stepped up next. My first dart skimmed the parrot’s belly, which got some “oos” from the crowd. I countered a bit and tried to aim higher, but going over the parrots back. You only get two tries though. Karen went third, but I missed her shots as the villagers were now trying to sell me their wares. I bought a wooden and grass doll that resembled the tribal clothing with “Yagua” scrawled in its forehead for my mother, which now happily lives at the Tennessee house. The villagers also offered me a wooden turtle, but it was about the size of a grapefruit, and I needed something much smaller to transport with me the rest of the day. We negotiated back and forth for a while, me asking a crowd of about six people if they had a smaller version of the turtle. Israel’s boatman was attempting to help with the translation. During this period also they offered me a smaller version of the blow-dart gun – and although awesome, I would’ve loved to try and get that bad boy back through customs in the US.
A villager finally produced a turtle that was about tennis-ball size, and was just perfect. I sat down on the ground to get money from my boot – and found none. I then took off my other boot – no money. The villagers looked at one another in curiosity. I put my boots back on and then dug into my pockets. Tripod, camera, map, Wikipedia print-out, plastic cards from the wallet…….oh. my. god. I was out of money! How could this be?! I had loaded up on about 200 soles before leaving Iquitos! Where was my money!? I found a few bills in my pocket – but after I had purchased the doll, I didn’t have enough money to pay both the Yagua tribe and Joel for the trip! I called for Israel, and asked for help translating. I wanted to return the doll and get my money back, so that I could pay the chief and Joel. Israel looked concerned that I wanted to make that request, but he told Joel and his boatman to help me out. While the arguing and conversations went on between them, my adrenaline started to rise. What happens if I’m out of money? Does Joel leave me in the jungle? Will the chief shoot me in the head with the blow-dart gun, like his parrot? I did not want to find out. I KNEW I had had more money on me at some time – was I pick-pocketed at the Bora tribe with everyone clustering around me to sell their goods. I kept digging through all my pockets. This flurry went on for about ten minutes, with apparently the person who sold me the doll having vanished. I dug into my shirt-pockets and then HOLY MOTHER OF GOD I FOUND MONEY! I thick wad of sweaty bills had rolled up inside one of the creases inside my shirt pocket! I shouted over the arguing that I had found the soles and everything was ok. I loved the doll and wanted to keep it and I quickly gave the chief his 20 soles and thanked him sincerely. The small turtle seemed to have disappeared – but it was no longer my concern. Everyone was now happy they had money, and I was alive, so I let the turtle go. Israel, Karen and I posed for a couple pictures with the tribes people, we said our thank-yous and goodbyes, and headed back down the hill to our boats. As we arrived, another boat like ours pulled up and dropped off a white, well-to-do couple in their thirties, who jumped of their bow into the soft grass below and headed up the hill, with a kind smile and wave exchanged. We got back in our boats, and Israel asked me what my plans were. I said I had been told about a fascinating wildlife reserve we had passed earlier back down the river, and I said he should come along. Karen was up for some animals and Israel was a very go-with-the-flow king of guy, so I showed Joel the map (which now had the consistency of a wet handkerchief from my sweat and the humidity of the jungle), pointed at the circled animal preserve, and he happily obliged. Once again the two outboard motors roared to life and puffed out a cloud of purple smoke, we backed up, and roared back down the sprawling river to the animal reserve.
Padre Cocha – The Wildlife Reserve
Our journey back down river was not a long one to the reserve. We tied off our boats alongside maybe two others, and walked up the slightly stony, roots-covered path to the base of the reserve. The reserve itself was a complex of maybe 10 or more bamboo buildings on 10-foot tall stilts (I’m assuming for flood season), that were connected with a series of bridges between each hut. The huts themselves had one or two cages in them with animals, flanked by a large, color banner of the animal and a description of it in English and in Spanish.
We climbed the set of stairs to the “entry,” which was a man sitting at a desk who welcomed us and his assistant, a tall, gangly, pleasant man in his 30s with a well-bandaged hand (I think – memory is fading). Without paying or anything, or first step was being led INSIDE a cage, where about four sloths were hanging around. One guide talked to us about the sloths, whom were all rescued after predator attacks and were being rehabilitated – it was almost comical to see the sloths with random bandages on them – like war veterans. It’s comical because they always have a calm, pleasant look on their face with a smile. I had never seen a sloth move in real life – but it is amazing their top speed – which truly looks slower than slow motion. The guide plucked one of the sloths off the branch and handed it to Israel, who held it for a couple pictures. He then handed it off to me, and without a moment to reject or hesitate, I was holding a sloth. He was warm, VERY dry (not soft), and his rib cage, where I held him facing forward, was incredibly hard – like a brick with no give. He sprawled all for arms out and slowly looked around like “where’s my next branch?” Although their claws look long and tough, they move so slowly that they could never be a threat. I posed for a few pictures with the sloth, and then gently placed him back in the hands of the keeper, who then led us back out to the desk.
The main gentlemen asked if we’d like to go ahead and see the rest of the reserve, of which Israel and Karen were eager to. We all ponied up 20 soles, and two guides then led us around to the rest of the cages in the park. Each was the exact same procedure – no matter what the level of danger was with the animal, we were permitted to walk into every cage and were offered to hold the animal. There was some cute, furry thing that grunted a lot and was about the size of a dog – and was very interested in eating the cuffs of my shirt. We then were taken into a cage with a huge boa – and for some reason I wasn’t feeling up to holding it (I tended to avoid pitfalls of danger on the trip), but Israel was very interested. We then visited pond of huge, ancient-looking turtles, of which I held a baby one. We saw a few other random mammals, and then went down below to the grassy floor below where we visited the parrot – and as people always say, it’s ridiculous how light birds are, despite whatever size they may be. Our guide lastly took us to a muddy pond, and began poking around in it with a long pole, trying to pull something from the murkiness up on the concrete landing. Israel asked what was going on, and the man said he was trying to fish out a crocodile. This went on for about five minutes, occasionally the wide mouth of the animal breaching the surface. After a time, I knew that if this thing WAS fished out of the water at our feet, it would be pissed for having been stabbed a hundred times with this pole. So we pleaded with the guide that we had seen the crocodile enough and it was awesome, and to please leave it alone.
The guide mentioned that they had guest rooms, and Israel asked to see them, so we got a tour. We were walked through a large dining room, up on stilts that had a bar and a cooler. Across another wooden bridge and we got to see a couple guest-huts – which were actually quite nice, open-air, with mosquito nets, running water, jungle-print bed-sheets and very clean. The three of us went back to the dining room to sit and relax for a bit. A woman behind the bar sold Israel and Karen Crystal beers and I had a cold, refreshing bottle of water. This was my one mistake of the day – I had not brought water with me on the river. I had avoided carrying water in town because it screamed “tourist,” but I should’ve loaded up before I went on the river. Oops.
Joel, Israel’s tour-guide, and about three of the workers of the reserve hung out on one of the bridges just chatting while the three of us enjoyed the view and some refreshments. We talked about how the two of them had met, Israel’s business (which is financing real-estate), my schooling and where I’d worked before school, my future plans with my career, and we talked about Melissa and our great relationship. The battery in their camera had died, so I promised to get pictures of everything for them and send it in email when I returned to the states. Israel was a proud new owner of a smart phone, and recorded my name and email information (I very sadly have yet to hear from him). While we were there, two (or more) men who were tourists came in and sat down to have a drink, maybe in their 40s, but I don’t remember what their conversation was. It was a large, open-air dining room so they were not close.
It was a delightful break in the day. After we finished our drinks, we paid our tabs and walked out to find our guides and get ready to go. We entered our respective boats; and Israel, in almost an excitable child kind of voice, asked me “where now?” There was one thing I had really wanted to see – but had yet to: the main Amazon River. I asked Joel how far it was, and he said not far. I asked him how much money it would cost just to take me out into the main channel, since we hadn’t talked about that before. He said only five soles (about $2). There was no reason to resist – I told Israel my plans, which sounded great to him! Karen was always very smiley and easy-going, thrilled to be along for the adventure. Our engines roared, and we set out for the main channel.
The Amazon River
Our journey out to the main Amazon River channel was long, but very calm. We passed locals relaxing on floating logs, and randomly some tourists near a shore-side restaurant playing with a ski-doo. We passed our original embarcado, and what appeared to be a massive, WWII era destroyer boat. Our last mark was a peninsula with a number of wooden shacks on them, which I think were homes. What was most interesting was passing a massive boat, same design as ours without the roof, carrying roughly 30 locals all chanting and singing a song. I would’ve loved to know the story behind it – it was surreal to watch pass us.
Then, before I knew it, we had arrived to the main channel. Its size was overwhelming – wider than any river I have ever seen in my life. There was virtually no trash in it, save for one small piece of floating Styrofoam. Our two boats slowed down and eventually cut their engines, and then we sat there in the silence of the river – traffic was incredibly low so we were nearly alone just bobbing in the water in the wake of our own boats. I have failed to mention this before – but Israel and Karen’s driver was probably in his 40s, and his wife and young child, maybe five, road along in their boat everywhere we went and relaxed in the shade of the boat when we had made our stops. I asked Israel to ask his boatman about the water if it’s polluted – of which they said not really. There is some trash that floats down from Brazil, but it’s a relatively clean river. I sat there for about 10 minutes, just taking in the vastness of what could’ve been a massive lake, the peacefulness of the light breeze, occasionally carrying a river bird across its expanse, and looking at the cool water, random green plants bobbing on its surface. I couldn’t resist – I asked Joel to get a shot of me on the bow in the river. It may be my most favorite picture from my trip – the pinnacle arrival of my adventure. I was now floating on the Amazon River – something we learn about as kids and dream about its mysteries, vastness, biodiversity and beauty. And here I was, having come all the way on my own, and now its water was lapping at my bow. I couldn’t have been more content.
We all discussed what to do next, which was to head back to Iquitos. We told our boatmen that it was time to head back in to the Embarcado, and we both agreed to meet back up on shore once we had settled things with our drivers. The outboard engines pierced the silent beauty of the river, and we headed for port.
Goodbye to Friends
We motored back to where Joel’s boat had first been tied up, next to an open air restaurant which was now populated with about six people listening to a live band. I hopped up on the dock after Joel had tied off the boat and paid him and tipped him. In as best my broken Spanish could muster, I sincerely thanked him for one of my greatest adventures. I explained that I had dreamed of the Amazon River ever since I was a little boy, and he had been kind, funny and incredibly helpful in making my day wonderful. He was very kind, much hand-shaking, and I got one more picture of him with his boat. Joel headed into the restaurant, and I went to find the other boat with Israel and Karen.
The market was bustling again – but this time, no one pressured me to go onto the river and into the jungle – word of Joel’s triumph must have spread. I tried looking down to the docks where I had seen Israel’s boat go – but to no avail. I began walking through the market looking at the fish and fruits again, when I spotted the two of them haggling with some vendors. We happily met back up, and Israel offered me a kebab of what looked like giant cowry shells, skin-colored and soft-looking. “What are they,” I asked. He said they were delicious. I insisted yes, but what are they? And he said, “I don’t know, some kind of jungle nut, they’re delicious.” I explained my food allergy and he withdrew the kebab – whew, another death opportunity avoided. We talked about what to do next, and decided to go back to the Plaza de Armas and decide what to do when we got there. We hailed a mototaxi, jumped aboard, and headed back to town.
During our ride, Israel wrote down his email address on my scrap of Wikipedia paper I had, so that I could send him the pictures when I returned. Despite him clarifying it three times, his writing was so poor due to the bumpiness that now I’ve returned, every iteration of his email address fails and I have not been able to send the pictures – I do hope he emails me soon so I can reply. I owe the man a great deal for bringing meaning to my day.
Karen and Israel decided they would go back to the hotel and rest, despite me mentioning there was a zoo and a manatee refuge to visit. The three of us were dropped off in the plaza, and exchanged hugs goodbye. I wished them the very best in life and best of luck in their upcoming marriage, and I remember the last thing I told them was to have many wonderful children. They wished me well in school and with Melissa, and we went separate ways down the road in the plaza.
I went back to the waterside just to sit and take in the view a little bit longer before I headed out to other adventures. My flight was to leave around 7:30 p.m. and it was now around 3 p.m. After walking up and down the waterfront boardwalk for a while, and enjoying the shade of a bench, I caught yet another mototaxi and told them to head to the zoo. Between my two remaining site-seeing options left, I decided that the zoo could give me the best opportunity to see all the animals I had missed having not gone into the jungle. The manatee refuge sounded interesting – two grown manatees and a few baby manatees that they let you bottle feed for free – and was run by an outside volunteer organization – so admission was free. I’ve never been much of a manatee guy – and also had no way of drying off before my flight, so it was off to the zoo. The other benefit was that the zoo was close to the airport, back northwest of town, so I could take my time at the zoo and still easily catch my flight. To the zoo.
The Amazonian Zoo
We pulled up to a cul-de-sac that ended at the zoo, two large iron gates with the sign overhead. Mototaxis waited outside the entrance of the zoo for visitors to emerge. I paid my driver and then bought my ticket, which was only about six soles, and entered the gate. A small boy, maybe only seven, came up and asked me a bunch of questions in Spanish, none of which I really understood. He led me over to a large map and began narrating where everything was in the zoo. I could’ve figured it out myself – the zoo was rather clearly laid out and the animals were listed on the bottom, numbered with the numbers corresponding to their positions in the zoo. The kid went through the whole list – maybe 40-some animals, and it was then that I realized I was being a bit hustled. This kid definitely did not work for the zoo, but was definitely going to expect a tip when he was done. I patiently listened to the end of his narration, tipped him a couple soles, of which then he offered to take me through the whole zoo. Having a deep passion for zoos and having THOROUGHLY seen the map, I thought I could figure the rest out on my own. I thanked him, and began to descend down the long concrete path into the jungle and the zoo.
The San Diego Zoo is lush with plants imported from around the world and maintained by professional staff. This zoo was packed with lush vegetation; however, this seemed to be local and grew naturally. For how rural and primitive this setting seemed to be, the zoo was actually a very high-quality establishment with signs on all pens and was very clean.
The first concrete ramp had probably my favorite part of the zoo – myths of the Amazon River from throughout the centuries painted in color. One beautiful painting after another was flanked with both Spanish and English versions of ghost ships, jungle men and women, demons, fairies and more. The stories were beautiful, and fascinating, having been passed orally for generations and captured here. It was an incredible insight into culture, and I was the only person I saw there who stopped and read every single story.
After my literary history lesson, I wandered around the zoo and looked at all the various animals behind chain-linked cages. They seemed to have plenty of space and looked well-fed and watered – although many of the cats and monkeys paced back and forth in their pens. Of particular note was a large, “o”-shaped lake that surrounded a monkey island. A zoo-keeper was making noises at the water and splashing it, and as I walked up a friendly, beautiful river dolphin broke the surface and opened its mouth for a treat. A few of us were offered to pet it, but I was too far to make it over in time to before it dipped back below the surface and swam off.
There were large jungle cats of every kind that you see in “The Jungle Book,” plenty of calm and cute monkeys with plenty of personality, and large squawking parrots. At one point I found a cage of parrots that didn’t know how to say “hello,” but were more than willing to squawk over and over again “hola!” There was a minor aquarium that housed a massive tarantula, and I even followed a tribe of leaf-cutter ants along the walking path to wherever their hive was to feast away.
The zoo eventually leveled to flat ground and I heard a great deal of talking and laughing. To my amazement, at the base of the zoo was a public beach. Real sand led into the river, which had safety buoys floating out in the water for safety. Probably near 100 people were out in the water playing and splashing, using toys that were piled near a large lifeguard tower on stilts, filled with maybe four lifeguards watching the water. A group of teens played soccer in the sand while another group of people my age played volleyball. Others dotted the beach sunbathing and chatting, while families sat at small, shaded tables eating and sharing together. I’d say there were near 200 people on the beach. I sat and just happily people-watched. One thing of strange note – there was a huge pole with pool toys and garbage from the river. I don’t know the point of the decoration, but it was eye-catching. I strolled up to a fence behind the beach and looked into a huge pen that housed some river birds, a bunch of the little mammals that had tried to eat my shirt at the reserve and a number of flat tortoises. After about 30 minutes of relaxation at the beach sitting at a table and people-watching, I headed back into the zoo.
There seemed to be no end to the zoo – and although I kept finding pens with more and more monkeys in them, I was seeing less and less people and it was starting to become dusk. I decided that it was time to head back to the entrance and head to the airport. I’d have to kill a lot of time at the airport, as I’d be about two hours for my flight – but the manatee preserve was now closed and I had heard that Iquitos becomes dangerous on weekend nights as that’s when pickpockets and more serious criminals come out. I knew I didn’t want to be in town at night, and that the airport was probably my safest place due to the number of tourists and officials there.
I walked back to the zoo entrance and negotiated a fair deal with a taxi driver. I realized later I was bargaining way too low – thinking we were really close to the zoo, when in fact it was about a 20-minute ride. But he obliged, and I sleepily watched from the back-seat of the taxi as I watched dusk approach over the jungle canopy. Moto-taxi drivers collected at roadside restaurants to get food and drink, dogs chased taxis and rummaged through food, and I caught glimpses of people walking back to their homes in the side “suburbs” of Iquitos I had seen when I had first arrived that morning. And then there was the airport.
Going Home to Lima
I paid my moto-taxi driver and waited in a long line for 40 minutes to check in for my flight. I strolled the tiny airport a bit, and actually ran into Brock from earlier at the explorers club. I told him many thanks for helping me find a boat, and asked how his trip had been. He said he had spent ten days in the jungle with tribal shamans studying mystic healing. He was a calm-voiced man of few words, and being that THAT was his story, he continued just to be more awesome. He didn’t seem interested in chatting, so I let him be with his shopping, and later reading, and went outside. I sat on a bench and just people-watched for a long time. There was the fence where I had caught my first moto-taxi of the day, where family and friends waited for people to get off planes – so I watched a couple of those reunions – but frankly there were very few planes coming in. I napped on a bench for probably just 20 minutes, and then headed inside. When the sun had finally gone, I sat near my gate and played “Snake” on the old-school Nokia phone I had in my pocket, as a friend and teammate and I had an ongoing competition for the week. I casually observed the mix of races of 60 people sitting around the room waiting for the same flight to Lima, families, couples, tourists and more, until our plane landed and we were called up. We walked back across the tarmac in the dark, found our seats, and settled in. The flight was short, of which I dozed off for most of it, dreaming of the river. I awoke only for the snack they distributed – a tiny sandwich and some sort of biscuit, which I hungrily ate as I had missed dinner, and passed back out.
I woke up as the tires screeched on the tarmac, and new I was close to being home. I always feel proud walking through baggage claim when I have no bags – such a freedom from having to wait or worry if my bag made it or not. I went outside, caught the first real taxi I had seen since that morning at 4 a.m., and explained the location of Casa Andina, my hotel.
On the ride back, my driver was very curious about my visit to Iquitos and said he had visited there too. He said there was a lot of sex in Iquitos and asked if I had had any. What in the crap is going on?! My driver there had said to be on the watch-out for the big-breasted Iquitos women, there was a giant sign in town for child sex tourism, and now this driver was talking about the sex there. Iquitos has a very sordid reputation that National Geographic failed to mention, apparently. Of course I told him I had not, that I had gone there to see the river. He was very disappointed, but enjoyed my stories of the tribal women.
We pulled up to the hotel around 11 p.m. and I quickly found a number of my classmates in the lobby, already eager to hear about my day. A shower, change and 15 minutes later, I was in the company of friends having dinner and sharing the adventures of my day on the Amazon River.
As Anthony Bourdain, host of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, says, the more I see of the world the more I realize how little I know. It is my experience that most people are afraid of traveling to remote destinations, especially alone. But it is in these experiences that we have time for reflection on ourselves and our lives, and when we can really see who we are – when we have to react and make decisions without relying on anyone else’s input or influence.The Amazon is lush, beautiful, humid, clean, and teeming with life. It was a wonderful adventure in which I felt very empowered, but very humbled, by going it alone and choosing when and where to go. I become smarter with each adventure, and even more excited to see more of our incredible world without fear or reservation. Taking proper precautions – telling people where you’re going, researching the area you’re headed to, and dressing and acting as an educated traveler, not a tourist, can provide for a safe and rewarding journey. I can only hope that the rest of my life is filled with such adventure and that I can teach and empower others to explore their world as well. With inter-culture education comes understanding, appreciation and hopefully peace.