Or how to survive in one of the most amazing areas of this planet..
28.08.2007 - 15.09.2007 30 °C
It seems rather strange to write about the Amazon from the comfort of the luxury apartment I’m living in Buenos Aires at the moment. It also seems quite impossible that these to locations are part of the same continent, the same world.
I left Tarapoto, and its quiet atmosphere, at 4am in a shared taxi heading to Yurimaguas, the town I was catching the first boat to begin my sailing time in the Amazon River. The road to Yurimaguas was started to be paved few years ago, but in Peruvian time that normally takes a while, so we were driving in concrete for few kms, and then back to gravel for another few. I tried to get some sleep, but the proximity of the other 2 men I was sharing the back seat with, together with the bumps in the road, was making the task rather difficult. Also at some point, the thickest fog ever, decided to come down from the mountains to join us for the ride. And if that wasn’t enough, when the fog disappeared, it was replaced for a scary storm and all the rain that someone can imagine. At this point, sleeping was out of the question, specially, after we got hit by falling rocks from the mountain due to the rain. Great.
After 3hs of this crazy ride, I was quite happy to see we were arriving in Yurimaguas, even though I was really tired! I tried to leave the car and I was rapidly surrounded by 7 or 8 guys trying to sell me something: a hotel, a taxi ride, a jungle tour, and so on. At that point, I had to shout to all of them to give me some space and to stop talking to me. There is something I had already noticed since I arrived in Tarapoto a couple of days before: the presence of a white woman, travelling alone and luckily speaking the language, was something apparently very unusual in this area and worth paying attention to. That was for the locals only, so imagine the locals that are trying to make a living out of the tourist in one way of another. I can’t describe the feeling, but I’m sure in some countries the way they followed me around CONSTANTLY would be considered stalking.
Once I organized my stuff, and had my backpack in place, I chose one of the mototaxi drivers to take me to the port. Of course, he knew how to do his job well, so he told me the next boat to Lagunas, my next destination, was departing at 11am, and if I needed to buy supplies for the journey, he knew where to go. I let him take me to the market, to buy a hammock, some cutlery, a Tupper to use as a plate and some food, and eventually made it to the port, where my boat was waiting. The first impression is hard to describe, because in between the tiredness, the weight of all the stuff I was carrying, the craziness of the port activity, the mud covering my boots, and the comments of the workers around me, made me feel I was in the middle of a strange dream. I managed to climb to the boat without falling and making a fool of myself, and got to someone who looked like he had some sort of control in that mayhem. He asked me to go upstairs to the second deck, and told me the price of the ticket. I did as I was told and climbed to the second floor, that was only occupied by a mum with a child, and another family. I tried to copy what they had done, and attempted to hang my hammock in the same way. It took me a while to get it right, but hey, im only a beginner! :D
I also put all my gear together, locked it to a metal bar, and decided to take a little nap in my newly adquired “bed”. When I woke up, the situation was not like before exactly: hundred people at least had arrived, and they were hanging their hammocks REALLY close to each other, and they were piling LOTS of stuff everywhere. Also, dozens of vendors, walked up and down, selling the basics such as tooth paste, cutlery, soap, and stuff like that. I took a look outside and they were still loading cargo non-stop: from fruits, to cows, from big boxes, to a mototaxi. It didn’t seem to me that there was a weight limit for the cargo, and I wasn’t too sure this old boat could handle it. But hey, as I said before, I was only a beginner in the “sailing the amazon in crappy boats” world, so who am I to question that?
We left eventually about 7hs late, when I didn’t think that an extra orange could be loaded without sinking, or a single person could be added without running out of air. At that point, I had about 10 different guys coming to ask me where I was going, and after finding out I was heading to Lagunas, trying to sell me a tour in the Pacaya-Samiria Natural Reserve. I thought they would leave me alone after we left the port, silly me, I thought they would stay in Yurimaguas. I was not pleasantly surprise when I realized they travel to Lagunas, and that they DON’T STOP in their attempt at any time. I had a tantrum when 2 of them followed me to the toilet and where waiting for me when I opened the door. “Cant you just leave me alone to pee at least????” That scared them off for a while, but not permanently. I found out there were 3 israeli girls looking for a tour as well, and we decided to take it together and bring the price down a bit, using the Jewish technique of bargaining and my language skills. Once I had a tour booked, I finally could enjoy some peace for the rest of the journey. When it was time for dinner, you grab your cutlery and your tupper, and you head to the “kitchen” were, after queuing for a bit, you get given the food: some rice, a piece of chicken, and a fried banana. Ummm, not too bad. Not specially tasty, but better that I thought it would be. After dinner, it is movie time: Terminator (the first one) dubbed badly in the most ridiculously sounding Spanish. Oh well, it kept then entertained, so at least they were quiet and I went to sleep. I woke up about 4am, when the boat was stopping, and my tour guy came to inform me that we were at Lagunas.
Lagunas is a very small town at the edge of the Pacaya-Samiria Natural Reserve, and it is used as a jumping point for jungle tours there. This town can only be reached by boat, and it is literally in the middle of nowhere. The arrival of the boat, even in the wee hours, is the most interesting event of the day. Disembarking was quite chaotic, but with a little help from guys that work for the tour operator, climbed the muddy hill and left the port. This is a place where there is no electricity from 12am til 5am, and the roads are not paved (of course not!), but I still decided to walk to the office, cause it felt safer than the mototaxi (which did actually broke down and the girls had to walk as well). The office was in fact the “manager”’s house, and his wife left bed to welcome us. We were offered a couple of beds (that is not exactly the word for that piece of wood covered by a mosquito net that we were offered, but I cant think of something else) to rest, until the departure into the reserve in the morning.
By this time, I was tired, sweating as a result of the humidity, but mainly overwhelmed by this entire new world, specially the conditions these people live in. Their houses are shacks that a simple storm would blow, they have not toilet, only a whole in the ground at the back of the garden, there are no rooms in the house, only different spaces separated by tiny curtains. And they have chickens running around the kitchen, which make company to the biggest pig I’ve ever seen, named “Sebastian”. All these things have to be seen to be believed, trust me.
We left in the morning with our 2 guides, which are native jungle people, that speak a rather poor Spanish as I know it, but that I managed to understand and therefore, translate to the girls in English. The moment I stepped in the canoe, in the small river we were about to navigate through the jungle, I experienced a sensation of freedom and peace I was in need of for a while. Luckily I was by myself in the canoe, with the guide, that only spoke to point something of interest out, and that gave me the opportunity to experience the sound of the jungle, the smell, the heat, making me feel I was in the most remote area, far from all the rest of the world as I know it.
The tour was amazing, we managed to see quite a few animals: lots of different birds, tarantulas, monkeys, even a sloth! We went crocodile hunting at night, and found a few! But even more exciting than the crocodiles, was navigating through the river in complete darkness, with the only company of the shiny moon, and the thousands of sounds of the jungle night. It is a surreal feeling. We also got blessed by a couple of jungle storms, that left us completely soaked, and fearing the sinking of the canoe in a river full of piranhas, crocodiles and electric fish. Tempting.
After these 3days in the most austere way of living (no toilet, no shower, sleping on the floor of the lodge and eating rice, pasta and potatoes ONLY) I was more than happy to go back to civilization. But Lagunas cannot be exactly considered that, even though I managed to get a room in a tiny hotel, and had a well deserved shower and time to organize my stuff before catching the second boat, heading to Iquitos, that was meant to arrive at 10pm that same night. For once, the boat was on time, and after a VERY difficult boarding, going downhill in the mud with all my stuff (this time no help was available) and jumping into the boat trying not to fall into the river, losing my belongings and my dignity, I found a spot in the 3rd deck, which had plenty of space around, a luxury in these boats.
It wasn’t very clear how long it would take to get to Iquitos, as everybody said something different, but moreless, it would be a day and a half. I went to sleep straight away, and woke up with the sight of pink dolphins following the boat whilst the sun was rising. It was the most beautiful view, and made me understand how stunning is this part of the earth, that people keep trying to destroy. Breakfast was served, and even though it was only a weak hot chocolate and a ham and cheese sandwich, seating there, with that extraordinary view, I realised how lucky I was to be there.
The rest of this journey was very nice, as I met really nice people (locals and a gringo), the boat was kept really clean, the food, although repetitive (rice rice and rice) was tasty, and in general everything was good. Especially the arrival at some port in the middle of nowhere, where all the inhabitants of the village would be waiting for the boat for one reason or another: to leave, to meet someone arriving, to receive a package, to sell us something. The boat means the only contact they have with the world, especially in this smaller village were there isn’t even contact by phone…
On Sunday, about midday, our card game was interrupted by the sudden stop of the boat in the middle of the river: we had hit a sand bank. Another boat tried to help us move, with no result. The hours were passing and nothing was being done. Apparently a boat was meant to be coming to help, but as I have mentioned before, Peruvian time differs from the rest of the world. So myself and Richard, the British guy, decided to leave the boat and jump into some smaller fast boats that were offering transfer to Iquitos to the passengers like us, stuck in the middle of the river for god knows how long. That was probably one of the best decisions I have made in this trip, because I found afterwards through other traveller that the boat was there for almost 12hs until it managed to get away from the sandbank, and in that time one of the cows that had slipped with the rain and fell on the floor with a broken hip, had been sacrificed, and chopped into pieces in front of everybody. A show I’m glad I saved myself from witnessing.
Iquitos was a nice place, and even though it is not conserved as it should be, you can still see from the buildings that there was a time when money and power were in every corner. The rubber boom brought wealth, and took it away again when things changed. Being the biggest city in the world that can’t be reached by road, everything in Iquitos must be shipped or flown, adding cost of living, but at the same time, conserving a special feeling of desolation. The highlight was without a doubt, the visit to Belem, the floating shantytown, that in times when the river is low, it is simply a muddy, filthy area, with football pitches where normally there is only river water, and the most outrageous market I’ve ever seen (I don’t think I will ever forget the sight of a chopped turtle for sale)
After a couple of days of chilling and recovering from “rice poisoning” by eating only meat, it was time to catch the third boat to get to Santa Rosa, located at the triple border (Peru, Colombia, Brazil). In Iquitos I bumped into 3 guys I met in the Natural Reserve, and luckily one of them was heading my way, so myself and Yair, my Israeli friend, head to the port together. The port in Iquitos is huge compared with any of the previous ones. It is also a lot more chaotic and a dirtier. It was clear from the minute we saw the boat that we wouldn’t be travelling alone on this one, as even though we were early by 2hs, the boat was filling up quickly. We met a Spanish guy that hanged his hammock with us, and whilst I was talking to him, Yair realized his small backpack, containing money, traveller’s cheques, Ipod and such, had been taken. I started asking around loud, and a lady said she has seen someone taken it. I was furious. Why didn’t she say anything??? I asked, and she said she wasn’t sure it was ours. Well, it was clear it wasn’t the thief’s! Yair was in shock, so I grabbed him to try to find the bugger in the port, whilst we left Hugo looking after the luggage. After no luck, I told him that he needed to report it to the police, for insurance reasons, and so we did. To make a long story short, everything was against us: the nearest police station was far away, we had to beg for the report to be done, we were running out of time, and eventually, in our way back to the port, our mototaxi got stuck in the mud so had to jump off it and run to our boat, which luckily was still there (for once, I thanked god for Peruvian time). But that wasn’t the end of the adventurous evening. When we entered the boat, we literally had to jump over people to get where we left Hugo. The poor thing was relieved when he saw us, as he was fearing the boat would leave without us but with our luggage! In the meantime he had been fighting to maintain some space for us, as people were cramped in the boat in a way I didn’t think it was possible to transport human beings. I had a hammock over me, and all my belongings underneath my hammock, so no possibility of movement, whatsoever. The line was crossed when someone tried to hang another hammock in between me and Yair, even though we were already literally sleeping in the same vital space. NO WAY, GO SOMEWHERE ELSE! I guess in this occasion I was really glad I could speak the language, because I made use of all my bad words to keep them away from OUR tiny space.
We finally left port, and the thought of spending 2 and a half days in that floating piece of s**t, was not ideal. I couldn’t think at that point that it would get worse, but it did. There are so many things I could tell you about those two days that I won’t even get into it, because I don’t want to keep you reading more than necessary, but just imagine that we only had 3 toilets for over 200people that I calculated could be travelling on board. Those toilets were not cleaned even once in that time, nor the sinks. I stopped washing my hands in the sink because I could not bear the idea of touching the taps. I began using baby wipes that, thanks god, decided to buy before leaving Iquitos, “just in case”. The food was not only rice, but bad rice. It was given out in plastic plates that were thrown to the river once finished, because the crew on this boat didn’t think that bins were necessary when you have a huge river you can throw everything into. People spat on the floor, because they couldn’t be bothered to leave their hammock to do it overboard. And for some strange reason these people spat more than anybody I’ve seen in my life. So, I guess that at this point I can stop giving you gross details about my life on those two days, before you get sick
To add a bit more interest, we survived 2 storms, that even though I’m sure you won’t believe that a river can become an ocean in a matter of seconds, with the strongest winds, the biggest waves and rain that would freak anybody out, you should believe THAT is possible. People began to put on the few lifejackets available (of course not enough for everybody, and Peruvians don’t believe in that “women and children first” thing) and I began to fear that maybe, there was a possibility that we wouldn’t make it. So I put my money wallet on, with my passport inside, just in case I needed to be identified at some point after the sinking. Yes, at this point I was pretty sure that would be the end to this boat. But as so far during this trip, I still keep my “lucky star stuck to my ass” as we say in my country, and survived that one too.
By the time we arrived to Santa Rosa, I was ready to leave the river and never come back! But after I got to immigration I realised what I was ready to leave, was Peru. As a closing show, after 5weeks in the country, when I got to the immigration officer and realised that when I entered the country, on the 26th of July, some not very concentrated immigration officer had stamped my passport with 26th of May date, making me totally illegal for overstaying in the country, I was fuming. I had a couple of hours waiting for the problem to get solved, and that was enough time to think that after hypocritical politicians, useless immigration officers, dirty boats, nosy people, hundreds of tour sellers, and thousands of looks and “hola bonita” comments every time to cross a man in the street, I was ready to leave the country. I don’t want to sound negative, and give a bad impression of this country, in which I’ve had an awesome time and I’ve met wonderful people, but I guess things towards the end were pointing me the “exit” sign.
And probably for that reason, when we arrived in Leticia, the Colombian border town, I felt relieved. It was a chilled little town, were for the first time in weeks I could walk around without feeling an animal in a zoo. And we went to a nice hotel, where I could have a shower, and sleep in a bed! And eat normal food, and all those little things you learn to appreciate in only a couple of days. I crossed into Tabatinga, the Brazilian border town that is practically a continuation of Leticia, to get my passport stamped, and to have a look at the next boat, which seemed to me at the time, like a luxury cruise compared to the other one. And it was really clean, and new, and it brought back my liking for sailing this amazing river.
After a couple of days in Leticia, I left in boat number 4 by far, the best one. It took us almost four days to reach Manaus, but I was having such a great time, that I wouldn’t have mind to spend some more time there. I met really nice people, and had time to read, to sunbathe, to relax observing the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I’ve seen! Food was served in turns, and we could seat down in a table! Wow! And had decent showers (even though I suspect the water was straight from the river, cause it felt weird, but hey, no complaints) and clean toilets. We left the amazon river and entered the Rio Negro (the black river) where Manaus is located. I must say that the river is literally black, and it is a change from the chocolate colour of the Amazon, but also very beautiful.
Manaus was my last stop in my Amazon adventure, and after over 2500kms of sailing the mighty river, I can say I have had the pleasure of getting to know one of the most fantastic areas of this planet, in the way that the locals do, which is very different to what we see in National Geographic channel. In Manaus also, I had the pleasure to attend a concert in the Teatro Amazonas (the famous opera house) which is the most beautiful theatre I’ve been to in my life! I liked it so much I returned the next day for a contemporary dancing show, just before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Buenos Aires. Whilst watching the show I could not help but think how random is my life and how much it has changed in the last 3months, which by the way have passed SO quickly, that I think it is all part of a dream.
I left the jungle, the river, the humidity and the 40degrees, to land in the biggest city of south america, at 10degrees and looking as dark as England in a winter afternoon. A bit of a shock, but I guess, the sight of my parents, after all this life changing experiences, compensates the lot.
So, this is me now, living in the most expensive neighbourhood of this awesome city, in the most amazing apartment ever, and living again with my folks after 5years of living by myself. It has been hard at first, because I was in need of a “reinsertion back to society” program, but I’m getting there. I guess having a hot shower for the first time in 3weeks, and wearing high heels again after three months it is as hard for anybody as it is for me, right?