Sights and sounds of the Amazon

In the Amazon

In the Amazon

A bit of a random post, this one.  But these are some fragments that stick in my mind – ways I’ll remember the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforest after our five-day trip there from Iquitos.

  • the tranquil mirrorlike flatness of still black water
  • a menacingly furry tarantula
  • the lonely donkey-like braying of a camungo (jungle turkey)
  • the peppery bite of bright yellow ají
  • the triumphant hooting of monkeys overhead
  • the seeming ever-present sting of yet another mosquito bite (word to the wise:  skin in contact with a mosquito net renders said mosquito net remarkably ineffective – if you are tall and typically sleep in anything other than the foetal position, this will result in many an ankle bite overnight)
  • the burning and tingling of a fresh coating of DEET on the neck
  • the valiant struggling of little piranhas in the floor of the canoe
  • the dead-ant smell of crushed termites, smothered on hands as insect repellent
  • the fresh dirt taste of the water while swimming
  • the incessant buzzing, chirping, rustling of cicadas
  • the unfamiliar almost sing-song, nearly Brazilian accent to local Spanish
  • the blue and red flash of a passing macaw (guacamayo)
  • the acrid smell (and, unfortunately, taste) of DEET
  • the flashy rainbow sheen of the baby rainbow anaconda (anaconda arco iris)
  • flashing swings of Herman’s machete:  everything from path clearer to pencil sharpener
  • the peeking heads of river otter (lobo del rio)
  • the cool, refreshing lightness of a midday swim
  • the languorous floating in air of a mamavieja (‘old mama’ eagle)
  • the coiled danger of a lancehead snake (jergón)
  • the confused glare of the hypnotoad (la rana)
  • the fluttering azul of butterflies at the river’s edge
  • the cool misty humidity of the early morning
  • grey and rose dolphins, snorting as they surface, playfully swimming, infuriating to photograph
  • the oppressive heat and stickiness of a still afternoon
  • the comfortable laziness of an afternoon resting a-hammock

Comfortably a-hammock

Comfortably a-hammock

  • the puzzled concentration of misunderstood Spanish
  • languid paddling of the canoe’s oars
  • the dusky tastelessness of local instant coffee
  • the eager, energetic grin of Herman off to search out something new in the jungle
  • the jarring inappropriateness of counting new species of spider while squatting to answer the call of nature in the woods
  • the near-hollow echo of the jungle telephone tree roots
  • the ominous bellowing of distant thunder
  • the glorious freshness of an unexpected breeze
  • an early morning chainsaw as a local fashions new beams for his house
  • a subtle pinkish tinge to the clouds before darkness
  • the quiet boredom of another hour or so waiting, ‘relaxing’, for the next scheduled something of the day
  • the soaring grace of a condor/eagle/falcon
  • the satisfying squelch of the mud trail in gumboots in the jungle
  • the satisfying ‘swish’ of bats swooping through the campsite at night
  • the brown and black waters mixing as tributaries join just outside the national park (Marden calls it ‘cafe con leche’)

The Amazon, part 2

The highlight of our first (and only) full day out in the jungle proper – day three of our five-day adventure – was a three to four hour hike through the trees, wildlife-spotting.  Before that, though, we needed sustenance.

Yesterday, when we were off in search of anacondas, Rusber had set a fishing net near the other campsite.  Last night, when we’d gone frog-spotting, we’d checked it out in hopes of what would be this morning’s breakfast:  we found three piranhas, plus the front half of a fourth.  Presumably there was a fifth swimming around somewhere with a full stomach, feeling pretty happy with himself.  Plus there were two ‘walking fish’ and two catfish.

Breakfast piranha.  Tasty.

Breakfast piranha. Tasty.

When we arose this morning, these were already being prepared for our breakfast.  It was simple fare:  a thin oily, garlic-y soup with whole fish floating in it.  But it was remarkably good.  Eating piranha is much like eating other fish:  there’s not any particular special taste to it (or if there is, it was cunningly disguised by the garlic and oil).  But picking at the carcass, you do have to be careful of the teeth.  We followed our soup with some more incredibly fresh fruit salad, and we were ready to go.

Speaking of ready to go, we actually weren’t quite set to be off for our walk until right after a quick visit to the, err, jungle bathroom:  a short track out into the undergrowth, at the end of which you can pick whatever area looks least prickly/insect-ridden and squat and go about your business, as you watch the ants and spiders go about theirs.  One of the less restful restrooms I’ve been to, but I’ll grant that it did definitely add to the authenticity of the jungle experience.

Anyway, this was the highlight of the whole excursion.  (The jungle walk, not the making like the Pope.)  Much of the path we followed through the jungle had surely been taken by plenty of other tourists before us, but it was hardly a well-marked trail.  Many a time, forward progress required some eager machete-work on Herman’s part.  We might not have been trailbreaking pioneers, but we were very much immersed in the natural environment of the Amazon, about as far from civilisation as you’ll get without actually being lost.

Random pretty jungle scenery

Random pretty jungle scenery

And we were thoroughly surrounded by the teeming life of the jungle.

If I sit here and write out a detailed catalogue of what we saw, though, we’re going to end up with a bullet-point list a mile long.  The jungle environment is so different from our normal everyday experiences that every moment of our walk was spent spotting new wonders to steal our attention from the ones we discovered (or had pointed out to us) minutes ago.  So for the most part we’ll go with some photos instead.

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old. The jungle is a fascinating mix of old and new. While much of the undergrowth is young – constantly growing, dying and being reborn anew – some of the arboreal behemoths we saw were as much as five hundred years old. The above-ground root systems of many of the trees – young and old – had a glorious dishevelled look to them, twisting and turning their way around for no particular reason, like an organic game of snakes and ladders. The older ones were simply enormous at the base, spreading out to claim huge patches of earth beneath their impressive canopies.

A tent-like set of roots

Other trees had simpler strategies, just splaying their roots directly outwards in a tent-like sort of structure.

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path. I knew that there were ants in the jungle, definitely. I’m sure I have vague memories of David Attenborough telling me so as I channel-surfed one bored night many a year ago. But I didn’t expect so damned many. They were everywhere! Often, our path would traverse unexplained bumps, and we’d look back and discover that the mound we’d just walked over was an enormous ant hill, literally four or five metres in diameter.

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites. This functions as a natural insect repellent: let the termites crawl all over your hands, then rub your hands together vigorously, squishing the termites and spreading the resulting oily ooze over your skin. It’s less unpleasant than it sounds, and surprisingly effective. Similarly, if there’s a termite nest near your campsite, you can, it turns out, treat it as a jungle version of a citronella candle and just burn it of an evening to keep the bugs at bay. For some reason, Herman seemed to get a lot more enjoyment out of that type more than the smothered-over-hands type.

Cutting out the soft, fleshy heart of a palm tree

Cutting up a palm tree which Herman has just felled with his machete. The outer layers of the palm peel off to leave a soft, fleshy but fibrous heart which went straight into a nice fresh salad for lunch when we returned.

But the photos aren’t enough to capture everything.

Partly, that’s because there’s a huge variety of things we didn’t see, but which contributed to the experience as well.  We didn’t see any caiman (yet), for example, although we heard several, including one large one which we spent quite some time running around trying to track down.  There were two animals for which we only saw tracks, too:  a large tapir, whose size Herman guessed at about 300kg, and a giant (dog-sized) rodent whose name I can’t remember, but which we later saw in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary in Iquitos (there’s a picture of one in the post on Iquitos, if you want one).

Partly also it’s because much of the fun was in the overall experience rather than just the (admittedly captivating) visuals.  I have photos of me swinging Tarzan-style on a giant vine, for example.  But I just look like an idiot hanging there with a dumb grin, and the photos hardly convey the fun of dicking about in nature, just playing.  Nor would a photo have adequately captured us chasing after the sound and confusion of a troop of monkeys hooting through the branches about our heads, off to their next party location, even if we’d had the inclination to stop and take one.  And the ‘jungle telephone’ trees – elderly giants with large hollow roots – are stationary and plenty visible, sure, but the point of them is the thundering boom they make when you strike their root systems:  obviously something you can’t capture in a pretty picture.

And even more than all that, partly it’s because much of the jungle is caught only in fleeting glimpses.  We spotted a lot of frog’s homes (just shallow holes dug into the earth) as we wandered along, one or two with flashes of nervous-looking frogs inside.  And in one of them I’m pretty sure I spotted a new inhabitant – a spider, waiting to surprise whatever smaller prey might walk past after me.  But I can’t be sure – there wasn’t time to look twice before the movement was gone, let alone time for a Kodak moment.  Out of the corner of my eye I was constantly seeing small twitches of movement that revealed nothing by the time I turned to pay further attention.  It was a central part of the experience knowing that for every creature we saw, there were uncountable numbers just as close but staying just beyond the corners of our eyes.

A lancehead snake – difficult to see in shadow where the two fallen branches cross, coiled up and head at the ready

Hell, I wouldn’t even have seen the lancehead snake we came across had it not stayed put, coiled up hidden under the fork of two fallen branches lying across our path, for long enough for Herman to point it out and warn us away.

(Partly, also, the photos aren’t enough because my camera was by this stage starting to not much appreciate its third day in near-100% humidity, and it had started the two-day decline which ended with it refusing to take photos at all.  In related news, I no longer recommend the Canon Powershot S100 to people, and am the happy new owner of a Sony RX-100, which I heartily endorse.)

So I guess you’ll just have to make do with those few photos, and with my repeated insistence that the jungle really is another world, and that our hours of wandering around with Marden and Herman really were the best way I can possibly imagine to experience it.

Our time in the Amazon was the end of January, well into the wet season.  Not at the river’s highest – the waters peak around March, one to two metres higher than during our time there.  But already eight to ten metres above their lowest.  The huge changes in the volume of water are difficult to conceptualise, but the difference they make is enormous.  There just isn’t nearly as much land to explore in the wet part of the year – the rivers really take over.  And the distribution of the wildlife is markedly different.  (For a start, there are a lot fewer mosquitos in the dry times, I’m told!)  For tourists like us, that means there’s less to explore on foot.  So the walk we just took was the only one we’d take:  captivating as the stroll had been, the rest of our time was spent on the water, fishing for piranhas, with eyes peeled for caiman, otters, dolphins, and birds.

We spent some time in the water, too.  After we’d returned from our walk and lunched on more piranha (this time in pasta), Herman and Rusber took us upstream in the middle of the river for us to jump off for a leisurely and incredibly refreshing swim back down to the campsite.  Well, the swimming downstream was leisurely, anyway.  There was a reason they took us upstream before we jumped in:  swimming upstream against the current was… challenging.  Of course we had to try it.  I’m not a great swimmer, but I’m certainly competent.  I won’t be winning any races any time soon, but I have reasonable stamina, I have less surface area to present drag to the water than I used to, and my technique is not abominable.  In this part of the river, I found that swimming freestyle at full tilt, I could make one or maybe two metres progress per minute.  As in, the myriad ants we saw on shore would have been beating me.

We went for a swim the next day, too – this time downriver, after the point where the Yanayacu River joins the Pucate, downstream of Buenos Aires, with stronger current.  Full tilt here had me staying exactly put as massive volumes of water rushed on past.  It’s a humbling feeling putting your full energies into going that-a-way only to be entirely defeated by nothing more than the natural course of a placid-looking expanse of water slowly making its way on its thousand-odd-kilometre journey out to sea.  Especially knowing that there’s a lot more water, from hundreds of other tributaries, to join in and strengthen the flow before it gets there.

Much of the rest of our time in the Pacaya Samiria National Park was spent piranha fishing and searching for caiman.  These are two of the iconic Amazon River tourist experiences, I guess, so our guides were keen to make sure we ticked both boxes.  We spent so much time doing both, though, largely because we were so stunningly unsuccessful at them.

Piranha fishing.  Not pictured:  piranhas.

Piranha fishing. Not pictured: piranhas.

Our piranha-fishing expeditions, unsuccessful as they mostly were, were a lot of fun.  They started so promisingly:  Herman cast his homemade bamboo rod out first and very quickly caught a couple of bait fish, including one where he fortuitously (no doubt he’d tell you just ‘skilfully’) managed to land the baited hook right in the fish’s mouth and pull it straight back, having barely touched the surface of the water.  We were suitably impressed, and excited:  this was obviously going to be easy – surely we’d be returning to camp with a productive catch for dinner.  It wasn’t to be, though:  Chris managed a small catfish, Marden caught a small sardine-like something, Herman chipped in with another bait fish, and I adroitly caught me some vegetables.  We tried a few locations over a couple of days, all with pretty similar results.  Some spots were more promising than others:  those were the ones where at least we managed to entice some piranhas to eat our bait, even if they wouldn’t get on the damned hooks.  At least our lack of a catch was reassuring us that going for a swim in the murky water mid-river had been a not completely ludicrous activity.

Still, eventually, on our last outing, we caught a few:  Herman spotted a termite nest on a tree above the water, and gave it a good poke to break it up a bit and spill some contents into the water.  That enticed the little marine bastards to start feeding, and once they got going, and once we’d churned through a tonne more bait, we finally started getting results.

Eventual success:  a caught red piranha

Eventual success: a caught red piranha

Our search for caiman was a similar story.  After many a fruitless tour of the river, at one point, Herman became quite excited and insisted on squeezing the boat through the vegetation to get closer to the shore.  He promptly clambered over a tree and off into the jungle, disappearing for a good five minutes.  But he came back with a baby ’gator (well, caiman) and a broad grin.  We took a few photos and then plonked it on the boat (suitably restrained, of course) to take it back to camp:  Herman thought we should get some photos of it with a fish in its mouth (and all the fish we’d caught were in the canoe back at camp, not in the main boat that we were in at the time).  So we did that, then Herman gave the relieved animal a bit of a gentle shove and it raced off into the water.

Herman’s catch:  our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

Herman’s catch: our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

So, I guess with the piranha fishing and caiman spotting complete, that probably adequately describes the rest of our fantastic Amazon trip.

Except that there is one other story I want to tell…

On our way back to civilisation, we spent our last night in Buenos Aires village again, in Herman and Wilma’s home (a basic open-walled pole house on the edge of the town’s main playing field).  There’s a tree behind their house which is home to a couple of tarantulas, which Herman showed us with an almost familial pride.  Chris and I decided later in the evening that we wanted a second look, though, so we wandered back.  We were made to promise first that we’d be very careful, however:  tarantulas are quite poisonous, they said.

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

This intrigued me:  so far as I knew, tarantulas were actually fairly harmless.  So, when we got back, I asked (in what I hope was mostly intelligible Spanish).  Oh no, I was told, muy venenoso (‘very poisonous’).  Ok.  So, what does ‘very poisonous’ entail, exactly, then?  Oh, if you’re bitten, it will be bastante penoso (‘quite painful’), and you will need to be treated with medicine.  Within probably a few days.  Or you will get quite sick.

“Oh,” I explained:  “when we say ‘very poisonous’ in Australia, we mean something quite different.  We mean you’ll probably be dead in about fifteen minutes.”

There followed a very entertaining conversation describing Australian snakes and spiders.  (My Spanish didn’t extend to ‘box jellyfish’, unfortunately.)  The locals were suitably impressed, and Chris and I (once I sort-of translated the conversation) were suitably reassured that when we’d been warned off the lancehead snake we’d almost stumbled over the other day, we hadn’t actually been in any substantial mortal danger.

So there you have it.  The Amazon jungle:  a fantastic adventure, and not even particularly likely to kill you!

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos

The Amazon, part 1

I might not have been impressed with Iquitos, but our journey out into the Amazon jungle – the whole reason we were in Iquitos in the first place – was definitely one of the most notable experiences of our trip.

The basics of the expedition were this:  from Iquitos, we would head up the Amazon River, turning off into one of its tributaries (the Marañón River) to head into the Pacaya Samiria National Park, where we would stay for four nights.  (More precisely, assuming I’ve transcribed our guide’s descriptions correctly, we followed the Marañón River up to the Pucate River, and then up to the Yanayacu River, which was our destination.  But basically, we’re talking the Amazon Basin here.)  The first night would be in a remote village – Buenos Aires (no, not that one, obviously), the farthest village into the national park.  Then we continue up the river, to spend the middle two nights at a campsite in the jungle, before returning to Buenos Aires for another night on the way back home.

To take care of us, we had:  Marden, our main guide;  Herman, from Buenos Aires village, who was our local jungle guide, wildlife specialist and professional machete-wielder;  Herman’s wife Wilma, in charge of the meals;  and Rusber, our boat driver (we had our own boat for the five days).  We felt a little spoilt:  “us” was just the two of us (Chris and me), and we had four great people looking after us for the whole trip.

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

Our boat for the five days, tied up at Buenos Aires village

(For those interested in the logistics, we were doing this trip with an Iquitos-based company called Amazon Explorer, and we were doing their Pacaya Samiria Adventure expedition.  We paid $US504 each – $560 with an unexplained 10% discount, presumably for being a bit out-of-season – inclusive of everything from when we were picked up from our hostel in Iquitos to when we got dropped back there at the end of the five days.  If you’re thinking about doing it yourself, I guess getting to Iquitos itself is a factor in considering prices:  we flew return from Lima on Peruvian Airlines for $US280 for the two of us.  The total expenditure for the trip was definitely well worth it, in case you didn’t figure that out from the very first sentence of this post.)

The beginning of our excursion, then, was getting to Buenos Aires (yeah, no, really, not that one).  Mostly, that involved a leisurely three-hour or so boat ride upriver.  Not very eventful, but a good opportunity for a mid-morning nap.  The only real happening on the journey was brunch:  Marden carefully cutting up fine pieces of deliciously fresh fruit, just like your mum used to, into a tasty fruit salad and yoghurt concoction.  Clearly Marden had dealt with finicky Western tourists before:  we were impressed and amused to see that he was very careful with hygiene – plenty of hand sanitiser first, ditching overboard any bits of fruit that rolled away off the chopping board even for a second.  But I had to laugh a bit on the inside when he promptly washed the chopping board and bowls in the river over the side.  (I’m sure it’s actually quite reasonable, and it didn’t bother me in the slightest.  But I had to giggle as I automatically pictured the horror this would surely put on the faces of many of the more “ewww, germs!” sanitation-conscious travellers we’d met.)  Anyway, breakfast was tasty, and we proceeded upriver, now enjoying a late-morning post-prandial nap.

As we arrived into the national park, we had our first glimpse of the level of voraciousness we could expect from the local mosquitoes.  It turned out that by a slim margin, this was actually the worst mozzie spot we found.  There’s something not quite right about having to interrupt your use of the bathroom facilities mid-stream in order to wave the mosquitoes away from some areas of temporarily exposed skin that insects really have no right to be interested in.  But it was enough of a warning for us to break out the DEET immediately, and to keep it regularly topped-up from then on in.

The enemy:  mosquitoes

The enemy: mosquitoes

Perhaps this guy can help?  A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Perhaps this guy can help? A guest in our canoe later in the trip.

Between sunscreen and mozzie repellent, our days became a ritual of which a professional house-painter would be proud:  first the undercoat, then the topcoat, both rigorously applied for an even cover all over.  (For reference, you want the sunscreen on first, because it needs to absorb into the skin somewhat to be effective, and then the DEET on top, where the mosquitoes can smell it most offensively.)  By the time I sat down on that first evening to write a few notes in a journal, I was scrawling that we’d “been killing mosquitoes pretty constantly since arriving”.  Then I had to put the pen down for a bit for a DEET break.

Before that, though, what I’d been writing about was our afternoon canoe trip wildlife-spotting.  At 4pm we’d set off (well, roughly 4.15 or 4.30 or so – no doubt bang on Peruvian 4pm, in any case), paddling around (well, Marden and Herman paddling, Chris and me sitting watching them paddle) awhile before some menacing thunder encouraged our return.

In our waterborne couple of hours, though, we saw and heard plenty.  In the air there were eagles, camungo (which I gather are properly called ‘horned screamers’ and which Marden referred to as ‘jungle turkeys’ as well), kingfishers and herons.  In the water, there were dolphins – grey and the rarer pink – who were obviously enjoying perpetually evading our attempts to take photos of them.

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

A tarantula in its now-exposed nest on a tree trunk above the waterline

On a tree trunk poking out of the river there was a tarantula nest which Herman picked open to find the unimpressed homeowner inside.  Above us in the branches we gawked at a sloth and observed many a shaking branch that provided further evidence of the monkeys we could hear causing a cacophony all around us, unseen.  And there were bats dozing on a tree trunk to boot – not a sight I’d really expected to see in the jungle, I’ll admit.  There were no caiman to be found, although not for want of trying – Herman is an impressive mimic, and I have no reason to think that his call for the caiman would be any less effective, assuming one’s around, than the abilities he proved in attracting a variety of birds and monkeys.

At any rate, the ominous thunder drove us back to our home for the night – and with the sun setting shortly after our return, I doubt we missed much other than getting wet in the downpour that started soon after darkness fell.  We were left gazing at the thatched roof of our pole house accommodation for the night, wondering – stupidly, given that, y’know, people live here and probably know how to build themselves houses that function as intended – how it would hold up to the rain that looked to be settling in for the evening.

Huge ants on a tree root

Huge ants on a tree root

Speaking of which, the pole house we were staying in was somehow elegant, in a simple, functional kind of way.  And it had convincing-looking mozzie nets, which was a boon.  But we spent most of our time marvelling at two things:  the trail of enormous ants leading up the nearest tree, and the incessant and refreshingly natural sounds of the jungle.  Well, natural right up until interrupted by the distinctive mating call of the Airbus A319, as a regular flight back to Lima made its way overhead.

After we were done amusing ourselves for a couple of minutes with the cleverness of that particular joke, we turned around to wonder where the light had all gone.  One of those little things:  it’s astounding just how fast the darkness sets in near the equator when you’re away from the ubiquity of artificial lighting.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner of catfish fillet with tomato, all wrapped up and baked in a leaf.  And I relished the chance to try ají, the local pepper.  (For the benefit of those with no real exposure to Spanish, it’s pronounced ‘a-hee’.)  Little yellow or green seeded balls of hotness, straight from the plant.  They were delicious and added fantastic flavour to the food – and our local friends seemed impressed with how much I took to them (remember that South America is not exactly known for its appreciation of spicy foods).  Although I will admit that having squished them by hand to get the flavour out and into the rest of my food, I may have coated my fingers such that subsequently rubbing my nose gave me an invisible moustache of fire for a good few hours.  Still, tasty.

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Dawn on a beautifully still river by Buenos Aires village

Birdwatching in the early morning

Birdwatching in the early morning. Yes, there is a bird in there in the branches, thanks very much, if you look closely just right of centre.

Day two had an early start:  a Peruvian 6am (so roughly 6.15-6.30) get-go to spend some more time birdwatching in the canoe.  It was another couple of hours of keeping the eyes peeled, spotting a few more species than we’d seen the previous afternoon:  this time we added ‘old mama’ (‘mamavieja’ in Spanish) eagles, a handful of other birds whose names I already couldn’t remember by the time it came to write them down later, an ant nest on a tree trunk above the water line, and a bee hive in a knotted hole in another tree trunk, looking for all the world like the tree had evolved a convenient jungle defence mechanism of ejecting bees from a specially-developed trunk anus.

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree

A puckered bee-hole in the trunk of a tree. (It’s like an A-hole, but further along in the alphabet… Thank you very much, I’ll be here all week.) Watching bees stream out of here when disturbed was, well, odd.

We returned feeling that our hard work of sitting and watching Marden and Herman paddle (as well as some pretty energetic looking at the birds they pointed out, obviously) entitled us to a hearty feast.  We enjoyed a delicious meal of French toast for breakfast.  The mosquitoes enjoyed a delicious meal of me for breakfast, apparently:  evidently I missed a few spots with the DEET.  After that, it was time to sit around and relax for a bit:  this was a big theme of the trip – lots of free time, since after all, there’s actually not a tonne to be doing out in the jungle constantly, to be honest.  Especially when you’re being waited on hand and foot.

Then again, let it not be said that the relaxation time was not entertaining.  I’ve probably mentioned a couple of times prior to now on this blog that I speak a bit of Spanish, but I’m not fluent.  Definitely trying to improve (that was, after all, a lot of the point of much of the time we spent in Lima), but at this stage I was at the point where I could hold conversations, but only fairly stilted and necessarily straightforward ones.  This trip to the Amazon was definitely giving me some Spanish practice:  Marden spoke English, at a level somewhat above my Spanish, but Herman, Wilma and Rusber didn’t speak any, so any interaction with them was either through Marden, or via my broken Spanish.  Even speaking with Marden, there were quite a few conversations where we found I understood him better in Spanish than in English.  (Yes, this made me proud that I was making headway on my Spanish.  One of those little but concrete achievements that progress is all about!)

In fact, the situation was made somewhat more complicated by the style of Spanish spoken locally, too.  I’m not sure it’s a separate dialect they employ – the words and grammar all seem the same.  But they most certainly speak Spanish very differently than anywhere else I’ve heard, with a very different rhythm to sentences, and with emphasis on what the rest of the Spanish-speaking world would consider completely the wrong parts of the word:  demasiado instead of demasiado, cerveza instead of cerveza.  (And no, there’s no particular reason I’ve remembered those two words as the examples!)  Also, they lengthen emphasised syllables a lot – in a way that regular Spanish pronunciation (whether in Spain or in Latin America) just doesn’t do, which really breaks your expectations about how the syllables in a sentence should flow together, making things much much more difficult for the beginner to keep up with.  Truthfully, I’m not too ashamed to admit that it actually took me literally hours to work out that what they were speaking amongst themselves was in fact Spanish, and even then I was unsure enough that I had to bite the bullet and just ask Marden.  Not that I’m any expert, but their speech had a very Brazilian Portuguese lilt to it and I wondered whether on this side of Peru, closer to the Brazilian border, perhaps the locals didn’t speak the Peruvian national language after all.  And obviously it’s a big enough difference to be an issue for more than just me:  when Marden spoke Spanish to me, he’d always switch to standard Latin-American Spanish pronunciation, emphasis and rhythm, switching back to localese when he then turned back to Herman to resume their conversation, or to ask Herman a question on my behalf.

Anyway, the other inhabitants of Buenos Aires village also had no English.  Where I’m going with all this is a hilarious quasi-conversation we had with a local villager who happened to wander by as Chris and I stood around looking out aimlessly but admiringly across the river.  Many of the details of said quasi-conversation, I must admit, escaped me.  And even for the bits I understood, that understanding came only after multiple repetitions of the sentence in question.  But basically this congenial gentleman was offering us a local concoction made from the sap collected from cuts inflicted on a particular type of local tree.  I’m still not sure whether it was then fermented and thus an alcoholic drink, or perhaps some sort of hallucinogenic.  We declined it, so I’m just going on what I understood from the conversation.  But one thing we most certainly did understand:  one of the effects is very much like Viagra.  As he made exceptionally clear with a series of highly entertaining gestures and knowing winks.  Apparently ‘wink, wink, chuckle, chuckle’ is about the same in any language.

After that entertainment, it was time for another tough three hours of sitting around in a boat as we headed upstream to our campsite for the next two nights.

An anaconda

An anaconda

There were two options for the campsite, near one another.  We explored the first for about ten minutes, only for Marden to reject it on the basis of an over-active airborne insect population.  But before proceeding to the second site, we took a bit of time to head off in search of anacondas.  After only five or ten minutes of walking off amongst the trees, Herman’s jungle expertise had him bounding off into the bush towards some evidence that none of the rest of us had either seen or heard, and we followed to find him pointing out a smallish anaconda.  Smallish by anaconda standards, anyway:  it was still a good metre and a half at least.

It smelt bad – kind of rotten.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that it pissed and shat itself in pretty short order:  apparently that was some sort of self-defence mechanism.  But the smell was there even before that.  Marden told us that this was because it was about ready to shed its skin.  Evidently they stink around that time.

Anyway, we took turns holding the anaconda and posing for photos.  When it came my turn, I was amused to feel its ribcage moving in my hands as it presumably tried to piss and shit itself some more.  To no avail:  that particular defence mechanism was already exhausted.  Holding it directly behind its head with my other hand, I could clearly feel the detail of the bones in its spine – an odd sensation, to say the least.

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

Me feeling up the anaconda’s spine

After letting the anaconda slither away, we moved off to the next campsite and, well, stood around as Marden and Herman made camp:  one large tarpaulin on the ground, with mattresses to sleep on, another tarpaulin strung overhead for shelter from the rain, and a thorough-looking set of mosquito nets around the mattresses.  The campsite came pre-prepared with a bamboo picnic-style table (complete with rudimentary bamboo benches) and a couple of trees conveniently located hammock-stringing distance apart, so after some early standing about, much of our watching was subsequently done while comfortably suspended roughly a metre off the ground, swinging gently back and forth.

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table

Our campsite, complete with hammocks and bamboo picnic table. (Actual sleeping happens off to the left, under tarpaulins and mosquito nets.)

Lunch preparations were afoot as we were lulling ourselves off.  Our Peruvian-time flexible schedule had us eventually chowing down on that at around 4pm, and then we were off on another canoe adventure.  We didn’t see as much this time:  more dolphins, some toucans, and another Airbus.  We were hoping for caiman, but no luck.

Dusk on the river

Dusk on the river

Still, dusk on the river was incredibly beautiful.

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

A bullfrog, or ‘smoky jungle frog’, pulling its best “I believe I can fly” moves

Our evening adventure was a return to the earlier rejected campsite, to see what we could find in the deepening dark.  Herman located and temporarily purloined a particularly large bullfrog for us to gawk at – a ‘smoky jungle frog’, apparently.  We tripped and stumbled our way around a little further in the dark, finding – or more often hearing and not finding – more frogs as well as other mysterious jungle noises, and seeing a few miscellaneous other night creatures.  The scorpion we nearly brushed past on a nearby tree trunk was a particularly entertaining surprise.

A scorpion on a tree trunk

A scorpion on a tree trunk

And then it was back to camp for bed at around 9.30pm.  To sleep on a thin mat on the ground, in a mosquito net that I didn’t quite fit in.  I got a surprisingly good sleep, though – my earplugs meant that I didn’t hear the monkey party that apparently took place in the trees above us between 3 and 4am.  And they also blocked out the gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle respiration of a few of those lying around me.  So I was well-rested for the next day’s explorations…

Iquitos

The Amazon River, seen from Iquitos

The Amazon River, looking away from Iquitos (arguably the best direction to look, even if the Amazon weren’t there)

To the untrained eye, Iquitos is a shithole.  A gateway to the Amazon, yes, but as a place in its own right, a shithole.

To the slightly-more-trained eye…  There’s some pretty significant elements of shithole-ness, still.  It’s dirty and obviously poor.  Most of the buildings are shanty houses – and not just on the city fringe, either:  much of the city, apart from a couple of old colonial-style grandiosities, looks on the verge of falling down.  Traffic is chaotic and messy, with the roads full of ‘motorcars’ (motorbikes with the back wheel cut off and replaced with two wheels under a partially enclosed bench seat for passengers).  And though it seems to be a fairly standard thing in Perú, it’s never encouraging when your hostel apparently sees a need for two substantial security doors at its entrance.

Nor was I much encouraged as to the city’s awesomeness by overhearing a loud conversation between American expats in a café that sounded remarkably like them patting themselves heartily on the back for a few vaguely strong words directed towards the owner of their favourite brothel, when they saw him employing underage girls for some other customers.  (I may have entirely misheard the conversation – and for all I know, they weren’t even referring to Iquitos – but my view of the city still wasn’t improved.  Especially given the reinforcement that came from the number of old American men walking around with young Peruvian women in tow, and the ‘say no to child sex tourism’ graffiti on a nearby wall.)

But most of those complaints apply to Hanoi and Saigon, too – cities which I loved.  Their streets are just as anarchic, and people do even stupider things on them than Peru.  Hell, if nothing else, at least having three wheels on the favourite mode of transportation in Iquitos gives you a little more protection than the two you find in south-east Asian cities.  The cities in Vietnam are predominantly poor, and it shows just as evidently as in remote Perú.  And there are plenty of dipshit expats and tourists all over Vietnam too – and I’m sure just as much sex tourism.

So when it comes down to it, I don’t really know why I had such a negative reaction to Iquitos.  It would have helped if it had food like Vietnam’s, I suppose – instead, we ended up eating at the same café day in, day out, just because nowhere else seemed particularly enticing.  And a decent coffee wouldn’t have gone astray in putting my mood to rights.  But it wasn’t just that.  For some reason, I just didn’t enjoy being there.  Maybe I was just in bad humour because my camera was broken again.

Given all the above complaints, though, I found it especially interesting just how many conversations we overheard of foreigners gushing about how much they love Iquitos.  (No, we weren’t going around Iquitos eavesdropping.  But these were the type of foreign journey-makers who aren’t real good at keeping their excitable voices down.)

Apparently, we heard, the Western world is falling apart because it works too hard, and these Peruvians, with their more relaxed lifestyle and their slower pace of life “have always known where it’s at”.  Apparently the traditional shamans of the area have found the secrets of enlightenment – although I couldn’t help but notice that this sentiment always seemed to be followed (or sometimes preceded) by a detailed discussion of the wonders of ayahuasca – a psychotropic made from local plants – and always seemed to be expressed by people who so perfectly fit the stereotype of your typical recreational enjoyer of mind-altering substances in the West that, danger of relying solely on stereotypes suitably acknowledged, surely it couldn’t all be coincidence.

Apparently, we heard, the local population is so lucky to be able to live next to and even in the jungle, so close to nature, in their beautiful traditional villages.

This is the point where I would generally stare in wonder at my food, wondering whether it just hadn’t occurred to our noisy neighbours that ‘traditional’ in this context is basically a convenient way to say “what we used to do before we found out there was a better way”.  The point where I would struggle with the frankly insulting notion that an American or Brit or Aussie can turn up and marvel at how great the life is here, completely oblivious to the fact that they can enjoy such a great life here precisely because their own societies are so much wealthier than the local one, making everything cheap for the foreigner, making the lack of social security and healthcare a non-issue, making it a trivial exercise to travel widely and experience everything as an exciting adventure rather than as the unchosen difficult reality of impoverished daily life.  Ignoring the fact that the ‘great life’ that they’re enjoying is not available to the locals.

So maybe I just didn’t like Iquitos much because I didn’t like so many of the people like me here.

For all that useless reflecting, Iquitos was how we got to our fantastic trip through the Amazon, and so it was definitely worth going through.  And the combination butterfly house and animal sanctuary, Pilpintuwasi, was definitely a great visit – seeing not only some beautiful butterflies, but also an ocelot, a jaguar, several sloths, a variety of monkeys, many many birds, and more.

So in remembering Iquitos, maybe I’ll just stick with some of the photos from Pilpintuwasi that I did get from my shittily misbehaving camera, and leave it at that.

Have some pretty pictures:

A three-toed sloth in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A three-toed sloth in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

Brightly-coloured macaws and a monkey in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

Brightly-coloured macaws and a monkey in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A giant rodent in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A giant rodent in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A rescued jaguar goes for a swim in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary

A rescued jaguar goes for a swim in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary