Upstream of the Amazon at night

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When I booked my boat ride to get out of Lagunas, where I stayed for a three day tour in the jungle, I hadn’t considered the arrival of the express boat and its complications.

The boat was expected to be at the port by midnight, which gave me eight hours to pass the time once I left the jungle, stinking and sunburned.

I booked a night at the nearby hostel, had a shower, and rested. I hadn’t washed my clothes in a week, and had to resort to scrubbing the armpits of the Tintin shirt I was wearing, while in the jungle.

At 10.30pm I took a moto to the port, and I realised the risk I had placed myself in. The port was really nothing but a road that ended at the riverbank. A dim street light shone over the end of the road and empty market stalls, and a general store, and the ticket office.

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Men passed, preparing for a journey on a cargo boat. A few couples waited near the store.

“Am I safe here?” I asked the moto driver in rough Spanish. He said I was okay if I stayed directly in the area of the street light.

Men came to talk to me, in rough jungle-river accents, and I couldn’t understand what the hell they were saying. I didn’t need the attention, or the risk of offending, but they all were trying to help me. One guy offered the transport on his friend’s cargo boat, and another said my boat wasn’t due until 2am.

The ticket master rushed to the office, unlocked the door, searched inside and returned to give me my ticket. Apparently three days before they had given me the receipt, not the official ticket.

And then the street light turned off. I felt dread, unsafe, and realising I was waiting at the shore in the dark. The power in Lagunas is rationed, or more accurately, the diesel that generated it, from 4pm to 11pm.

We could see the boat lights from almost an hour away, cutting out between the bends and islands, and as it passed, people shone torches and mobile phones to lure the boat in. It came and a crowd of us walked into the stuffy boat. It smelled strongly of sweat and eaten food, and I searched for a free seat in the dark and couldn’t find one. A lady took pity on me, sat her little boy on her lap and gave me space. The boat moved on but there was no room for my legs. It hurt to bend my legs at such a tight angle.

The dark became morning. As light shone, the children became active. There were so many infants, and they had to sit on their parents, because of the space. Children became more aware later in the day, and had a habit of staring at me when I wasn’t looking. Most of the time I pretended they weren’t, but when I did, they would shyly grin and look away. They were well behaved, considering, although some of them would lightly return their mothers’ slaps when they were reprimanded.

The boy next to me on his poor mum’s lap began playing with the boat curtains, which stretched the entire side, but soon a TV was set up, hanging from the roof, for the kids to watch some Peruvian situational comedy. They loved it, but for me, it was torture. I couldn’t understand why the tiny tough man with a mohawk was beating a chubby man’s stomach with a whip in some marketplace.

After 12 hours in the boat we reached Nauta, just upstream of the Amazon River, and I left exhausted. Police searched my bag, and then I took a bus to Iquitos.

This blog is part of a collection of my journal entries travelling into the Peruvian jungle region of Loreto. Another piece includes my jungle tour.

A jungle guide named ‘Santiago’

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There’s a shack in the jungle, by the river, in the national park of Pacaya-Samiria. I’m there two nights. Other people pass through in that time. Some take tours of three days, or four, or seven. Some can be in the national park for up to a month.

My guide Santiago takes me on a walking tour on the second day for a few hours, while it rains. We see monkeys, and rubber trees, and the sap stretches. He shows fruits, and I taste a little bitter yellow fruit. He cuts through scrub with a machete.

 

He chops pieces of bark for himself from trees which he says can help with vaginal pain, and cancer, and other sicknesses. Everything we truly need seems to be in the jungle.

We collect strange fish, not just piranhas, from nets. He cooks lunch, we rest, and have dinner. He gets exhausted by my need to speak Spanish when we can ask nearby translators for help, and soon he offers me a boat ride in the night to search for alligators.

 

“Oh crap, I’ve offended him,” I think as we searched the creek by torchlight. “What a terrible way to die.”

Eyes shine orange in the night. A branch resting near the canoe shakes, and I jump in fright. He shows me alligators close up but they aren’t anywhere near as big as salt water crocs. I relax.

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Orange eyes in the dark stare, not looking away from their predator. Sometimes they disappear when I shine the light away and back.

Santiago can find frogs in the trees by torchlight, and shows me, and eventually we return to the shack.

The next day he’ll canoe us both upstream to the park’s entrance, barely stopping except for lunch and to signal the river otters. Sometimes he drinks a brew from a water bottle made from ingredients from the jungle, but offers me none.

  • This blog post is part of a collection of journal entries set while I journey alone to the Peruvian jungle. It begins with this post, if you are interested. 

Welcome to the Jungle!

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My jungle guide is a Peruvian by the name of Santiago. He wasn’t too impressed with me, but I think he’s incredible.

We take a moto to the national park border, sign in, and pack all we need into a dug-out canoe. Santiago loads it up with rice, eggs, water, tomatoes, and potatoes.

For eight hours he paddles slowly downstream in the creek. The jungle around us is dense, and the mangroves all have spikes the size of nails running along their roots so that if I fell into the water, without a canoe, I would drown or be in agony trying to claw my way out.

The price of life here seems to be pain.

Santiago paddles a few times, stops occasionally, and listens. Then he paddles. Tree branches collapse, and I shift excitedly, but he ignores them. He zones out the unnecessary sounds, but can point out the monkeys, and an Iguana which takes me five minutes to find after he points straight at it.

We see two anacondas that first morning, curled into branches over the creek where the best place to get sun is. After one anaconda sighting he declares that I am lucky to see one on my first day. On the second sighting he is amazed. He shifts the canoe so that I am about a metre away from its coil. It makes me anxious knowing it could choose two ways to travel if it wakes, and one of them is the canoe.

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When river dolphins splash around, he imitates their call. When monkeys pass nearby searching for fruits, he calls to them. It fools the animals sometimes, especially when we sight the otters on our third day. They are really pissed off. They yell at us in otter-speak, the second time that Santiago fools them.

I’m sunburned by the time we reach a clearing with two shacks in the late afternoon. One of the shacks is for us. I rest in a hammock just as the storm hits us. Lightning strikes and I am scared.

But despite this there is peace. There is no reception or internet. As it grows dark someone turns on a motor, which powers the electricity. Santiago prepares dinner.

*This story is part of a series of journal entries travelling into the Loreto Region in January. You can read the first piece of the collection here

Along the Rio Maranon

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People get into the express boat at Yurimaguas at 6am.

There’s much debate as to where the source of the Amazon River is, or even, where it actually becomes the river. But, according to Peru, and to Google Maps, the Amazon River is named once the two tributaries ‘Maranon’ and ‘Ucayali’ join.

The jungle between their joining is the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria, which is Peru’s largest national park.

I want to visit the jungle and I hear the best way to visit it is by taking a boat to the small town of Lagunas, on the west side of the park. Most tourists come from the east, near Iquitos.

 

I travel downriver on an express boat, which leaves the Yurimaguas Port at 6am. It is a canoe shaped raft with a roof, and windows near the water, with a toilet at the back. There is an aisle which fits between three seats. After the passengers take their seat, the crew load up the front of the boat with fresh produce, and items that cannot wait for a slower cargo boat.

We stop at a few small villages along the way, with shacks, and thin horses, and the occasional telecommunications tower, of dug out canoes with tiny engines. It take five hours to reach Lagunas.

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Children and elderly people stand at the port of Lagunas, ready to get onto the boat to sell their wares.

Children and elderly women stand on the bank waiting for us and as soon as we hit land, they pile onto the boat before I escape. There’s too many of them. They sell soft drinks and water, beef hearts and fried egg rings, and strange jungle fruits. More kids get on the boat but find themselves trapped at the back. They cannot leave until the ones at the front do, but those ones are determined to reach more customers.

The captain shouts something, probably to say it is time to go. I try to leave and a kid laughs at my expression, but in a nice way. He sees the humour and the madness of the situation, expressed on the face of an outsider.

 

I’ve been told by the Lonely Planet guidebook and by a man at the Yurimaguas port to seek the president of the ‘Asociacion Huayruro Tours’, Miguel. I am told by the last hostel owner that he will get him to wait at the port for me. A man beckons me to his moto at the Lagunas port, and I assume he is Miguel. He take me to a hostel. I get a room and after a bit realise that there has been confusion.

I visit the association three times that day, but each time I’m told the president will return from the jungle in an hour. The truth is I am anxious.

There is no way to get money in Lagunas. There is no bank, no ATM, no exchanges, nada! I brought all my money, about 700 Soles. I am worried it won’t be enough for three days in the jungle, more than a day in Lagunas, and a boat trip to Iquitos. At the same time, I feel it’s too much money to have with me.

The main street is fine enough, but most houses are made of wood and appear run-down. Every street that branches out from the main one become dirt, and in most cases are overgrown with grass. It’s intimidating, and after three times not hearing from the association I buy my boat ticket out for that night. I’m impatient and not accounting for jungle time and limited reception, but I’m also scared of the jungle and for what I’m going to expect.

But I quickly learn as I walk through town that the people are kind, and the best of Peruvians. They offer advice, aren’t greedy, and are hospitable. I begin to feel safe as Miguel finally contacts me. I agree to take a jungle tour for 500 Soles total which would last three days. I go to the dock and am able to reschedule my ticket.

I’ll leave for the jungle the following morning.