First I’m going to pull out all my brushes, take a good look at them, and then throw them overboard. Next I’m going to open all the lids to the paint cans, shove my hand in to get warmed up, and then I´m going to Jackson Pollock all over the place, because that was my experience. So if I lose you along the way, that’s okay, because I’ve lost myself as well. Just look out for the big picture and try to avoid the hammocks.
Iquitos is a flytrap of a city in Northern Peru. There are two ways there: boat or plane. There are no roads to Iquitos because it is surrounded by jungle. When you exit the airport 130 eager ´´moto´´ drivers great you and try to guide you to their vehicles, all the while quoting prices that would make an Arabian sheik gawk. You stand firm that a ride should only cost you 6 soles (a little under 2 dollars), and hop into a shaky hybrid-motorcycle-chariot. Because no one seems to know or care about traffic rules in Iquitos you weave with 6 or 7 other ´´motos´´ in and out of two lanes; if the fumes don’t get you stoned you might be anxious.
But Iquitos is just the corner of this canvas, no more than a stepping stone to the virgin Amazonian Jungle that lies 200km southwest in the Pacaya Samiria Reserve. While I usually like to hike without guides, I have two boundaries: 1) high altitude climbing (its good to have a guide in this context) and 2) the jungle (I just don’t know where to begin). So I found a small eco tourist outfit. ´´You’ll take a boat this evening, arrive there late tomorrow morning, and then you’ll take another boat an hour into the reserve where you’ll meet Don Manuel and your guides. Tell Don I say hi.´´
I really don’t know what I was expecting, but in hindsight it’s better not to have expectations. So when I arrived at the port, or rather the spot where the ferries wedge themselves between each other and the eroding river bank, I was a little surprised.
It took me three boats and three planks to find my ferry and when I did I walked up to the second level (mistake 1) and immediately drifted back to my elementary school days when I first started to learn about slavery and slave ships, because this ship was packed with screaming people, food, and other unrecognizable odors and sounds. I navigated my way towards the back (mistake 2) and found the hammock that had been reserved for me. The engine room was only a few feet away, the bathrooms a few feet on top of that, and above my head hung an exposed light bulb that couldn’t be turned off.
The instant I wedged myself into the hammock (which was touching three other people by necessity) I started to sweat profusely. Several minutes later there was a bum rush for the few scattered life jackets on board, and I jumped down and sweat some more. ´´False alarm´´ my neighbor told me. We hadn’t even left the dock yet.
By 10:00 that evening things had settled down: people were nestled in their hanging beds and happily spilling rice and other delectables. But I wasn’t quite content. I was drenched and nauseated, so I made my way through the masses and stepped outside. Damn, why hadn’t I thought of this sooner and why hadn’t I brought my jacket? After a quick back in and back out I decided to curl up on the deck next to the captain’s room. Ha. The captain’s room, or rather the captain’s cubby, where the captain drove the ship with no radio, no charts, no GPS, no radar, nothing save for the spotlight he thrust into the darkness every couple of minutes. My head was facing the railing and I could make out the name of ship, ´´Eduardo VII´´ What happened to the other Eduardos? It didn’t matter. I got up and pissed off the boat.
24 difficult hours later I arrived at San Martin Pishcado. Counter to the prevailing notions that jungle people either run around topless and breastfeeding, or shooting at birds with bamboo rods, the people of San Martin dressed in jeans and t shirts and went about doing ´´normal´´ things that ´´normal´´ people do. They were fixing their houses (which had palm thatch roofs with expert carpentry inside….all without the use of nails), cutting their lawns (by use of machete), and building boats (again with skilled and beautiful craftsmanship). I was introduced to Carlos and Roland, my guides for the following few days, and it was decided that we would go camping at three o’clock the next afternoon.
Here’s the thing, I’ve been to the Bronx Zoo, seen the Amazon exhibit, heard the birds, looked at the snakes, smelled the dampness, and almost fallen asleep at the end. I’m not quite sure what Jungle Book fantasy I was living in, but this didn’t quite prepare me for the real thing. It didn’t quite prepare me to walk into the exhibits and discover that there’s no glass, no painted backgrounds, and no end. Before we left I was under the impression that we might set out from town, in about an hour find a nice open spot, set up a campsite, do a little casual cooking, and then follow a sign that might read ´´Jaguar’s Pool 3km This-A-Way.´´ Ehh, not quite.
After a 3 hour boat ride in a hollowed out canoe with a makeshift lawnmower engine fashioned with a 10ft pipe for a prop shaft, the adventure would just be beginning. Soon thereafter, Carlos, who was at the head of the canoe, would tip his head, and Roland, who was in the back, would turn the boat towards what had at first been pleasant, but distant scenery. When we approached Roland killed the engine, swung it into the canoe, and handed me an oar. Carlos picked up a machete, and we began to penetrate the jungle.
The first thing that struck about the interior was the difference in light; the canopy swallows everything. The next thing that caught my attention was its stillness, akin to a taught guitar string waiting to be plucked, waiting for an event, any event, to release the tension. Even though Carlos hacked away (with swings that really do make the ching ching sound you hear in the movies) at fallen trees and shrubbery, vines still managed to feel us out like jungle fingers testing for plumpness. After 2 more hours of navigation, the sun was low, and we finally stumbled upon the first piece of dry land. We beached the canoe, and the guides immediately disappeared into the jungle with their machetes. As I unloaded the boat the mosquitoes came out to greet me in swarms. When Carlos and Roland came back with seven precisely cut saplings to build the shelter, I couldn’t stop slapping myself. Apparently Amazonian mosquitoes don’t give a shit about deet.
At around 9:00pm we got back into the canoe to see wildlife. Roland started to make a sound that landed itself somewhere on the spectrum between constipation and a really good Saturday night. Ha-ha, I thought.
´´It’s for crocodiles,´´ Roland said.