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.

The final weeks of Peru

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Five months ago I had a decision to make. Well, it wasn’t really a decision, but I had to acknowledge that I wasn’t happy with my life here in Peru. Not really.

I left Australia 17 months ago and I wasn’t afraid to do it, for a better life. I couldn’t be afraid for the same reason to change my own life in Peru.

So I was able to leave my job and to travel for a while, scheduling my airfare to return to Australia at the end of March.

There’s less than two weeks until I return to Australia. I’ve done my travelling. I haven’t been able to blog about it all yet. But now I’m in a weird space, my mind turned to returning home.

  1. I spend my time watching Doctor Who and Marvel movies with my girlfriend. We watched Captain Marvel in gold class last week, eating lemon meringue pie and drinking Corona while we did it. At the moment we’re halfway through Season 4 of Doctor Who. I think we’ll finish the David Tennant era in time.
  2. I just bought Crash Bandicoot N.Sanity and we’re progressing through that twisted and fiddly nightmare of a game. I just discovered Fortnite as well.IMG_20190313_225323_131.jpg
  3. I’m trying to eat more different food, and I’ve been vlogging some of my reviews, such as the one about beef heart. I went to eat ceviche in Huanchaco the other day.

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    My former housemates and I call this place ‘Cheap Hostel’ and we’ve had many a beer here.
  4. I’m creating a scrapbook of my time here and that’s progressing slowly.
  5. I look at my filthy room and know I should be getting rid of stuff and packing. I grow concerned that I won’t have enough room to take everything back. And what about gifts?
  6. My girlfriend Tiffany and I sometimes practice speaking Spanish, usually in the taxis and sometimes in front of her mum. We’re mindful of how little time we have left before we go our different way. Being single again…a new identity and being in Australia….the emptiness…the adjustment… makes me nervous.
  7. Tiffany has a new job starting days after I leave. It’s fantastic, although she moves away from her family for the first time. The problem is she can’t see me off at the Lima airport. We’re both sad about it.
  8. I discovered a place that delivers chicken wings and fries!
  9. I’ve just began and finished watching Umbrella Academy. Now I’m watching a documentary called ‘Explained’ and in each episode it uses famous voiceovers to discuss important issues, like the water crisis, the female orgasm, and whether or not we can increase our life expectancy.

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    I went for a walk near the Plaza de Armas today. I was trying to print stuff for scrapbooking.
  10. That’s been my life for two weeks. It will probably be my life for the next two weeks. I feel sad, but I remember this was my choice, and the best option that I had. Sometimes I think I should do more…go do more things, but I already have!
  11. School has just returned. And I find myself talking about my students again, and wondering what they are learning in history, and whether or not they miss me.

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. 

To the edge of Loreto

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Some of the boats at the river port of Yurimaguas. 

Tarapoto was a small city in a cleared valley, nestled in by the mountain jungles. It’s the first place from the coast I really notice the motos. There are thousands of them zooming through the narrow one-way streets.

The hostel was great value and the people were friendly, more-or-less. The tourist police had a big building next to the plaza and although the officer who helped me couldn’t speak English, was patient and considerate. We had a small mix-up when he thought I asked if I could take a photo of him, and he had to say no because he was a police officer.

He suggested a zoo when I asked for places to see, but it was really a rescue centre. I went to visit for animal photos but the pens and fences made it hard to do that. They showed a hidden pen with the most ‘dangerous’ animal, and the visitors were taken in one-by-one to see it. The pen was empty, except for a mirror.

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There are plenty of waterfalls, a lake, and a small town with a colonial castle, but I continued by mini-bus to Yurimaguas. I sat squeezed among locals and realised it might be a rough ride when everyone grabbed a small garbage bag for themselves. One small girl around 10-years or so, needed it a few times even after we made it through the mountainous jungle route. It felt cold there, almost misty, as if numerous waterfalls and springs weren’t too far away.

During the drive we crossed over into the Loreto Region, easily the biggest of all the 25 regions of Peru, and one that includes the upper Amazon and its jungle basin.

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I’m in Yurimaguas. Eventually I will get to Iquitos, but since it’s unaccessible by road, I will have to get there by river.

Yurimaguas felt rougher. A moto driver immediately approached me as I got off the bus, and stopped the moto halfway on the journey just to let me know it was better if I was stocked up at the market first. I went to buy a hammock, and the guy offered to sell it for 36 soles until I walked out. He was offended when he agreed on 30 Soles, and while it was still a high price, it was a good hammock.

It was a dock town, one where money was made by trade and the transport of it, and not by tourism. My hostel was near the plaza right on the bank of the river. I nearly walked away because it was a shack on stilts, but when I was inside I saw the charm. It was run by a Frenchman, and he was friendly enough.

I bought my boat ticket to Lagunas at the dock. It was sold by a woman with the hardest eyes I have seen. They weren’t just cold, or angry. These were intense, as if she would fuck up anyone who fucked with her, and she would do it without feeling bad about it. She would put some thought into it.

I nearly walked away with my ticket, forgetting to pay for it. She wasn’t amused when I apologised.

As night fell, engines revved and smoke clouded the riverbank. At first I thought it was a stupid time to whipper-snipper the grass, but then the haze spread through the markets as I searched for a general store. The haze was a repellent for the mosquitoes, and it worked well. My hostel was open out to the water, a patio that was also the lounge room and dining room, and the rest of the shack but the bedrooms. The mosquitoes barely touched me. We watched the boats pass us on the river.

Machu Picchu and the Sun Gate

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There was some light in the sky by the time my bus was halfway up the winding dirt road to Machu Picchu. The jagged mountains formed the most intense horizon I had seen in my life.

A few restaurants and a bathroom have been built next to the entrance gate to Machu Picchu. The line of early risers waited while travel guides offered their services, but I had spent too much money to get there. My ticket to the world wonder cost 200 Soles, and that did not include the accommodation or the train tickets.

I bought my ticket from the official government site, Ministerio De Cultura. It was a pain in the arse for a foreigner. My Peruvian girlfriend printed a voucher and paid for the ticket at the bank (of Spanish speakers obviously), and then from there put the voucher number into the website. There are easier ways to buy tickets more directly in Cusco. The problem with buying these tickets in Cusco is that there is a limit of tickets to travel every day.

 

I was able to buy my ticket the week before I went, in high season, but thousands visit daily and tickets were selling fast in the days ahead. There are three types of tickets to Machu Picchu. There is the visit to the ruin, a bit extra to climb the mountain, and a third more expensive ticket to climb the mountain you always see in the photos (Huayna Picchu). For the third option you need to book months in advance. I didn’t have a chance to climb it.

I was worried I hadn’t beaten the crowd when I saw the line for the bus and the gate that morning (at 5am). I need not have worried. I did beat the crowd that came much later, at about 10am. The ruins are a huge place and when I turned around the first corner and saw the stone ruins for the first time, I was able to get plenty of photos in the grey dawn with nobody in the background. Yet, there was plenty of friendly tourists happy to take photos of me on my phone camera all through the day.

 

There were amazing things I saw that day. I was worried it would all be overhyped. I wondered how on earth I could possibly spend six hours walking around ruins. I thought I would be bored within the hour after I had taken my selfies. Definitely not.

I heard the gasp of Asian tourists ahead of me in the dark and I wondered what was happening. And then I saw it. A line of silver spread a ring around the peak of a nearby mountain. The silver became stronger, and the sky changed from gray to blue, and the silver became a sharp glare of white, and that ended up becoming the sun. The ball had formed before my eyes in 30 seconds, and it had announced the start of a new day, all justified and collected in those moments. I spared the sun no more thought as I continued through the ruins, and walked the path up the hill for more than 40 minutes to find the Sun Gate, where the travelers of the Inca Trail can first see the ruins from a far distant for the first time.

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And it was all amazing.

The crazy town of Machu Picchu

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That line on the right side of the bridge? That’s for the bus to Machu Picchu.

There’s a bombardment of market stalls, souvenirs, and statues of the Incas, and all in your face the moment you leave the train. The mountains loom above and the first thing you instinctively do in Aguas Calientes is look above to see if you might be able to see the ruins of Machu Picchu.

The river stream descending from the jungle splits the small town in two, and from the train station you almost straight away cross a bridge to the bus station and the main square. If you arrive at any time in the day you will notice a long line rising up the hill. This is for the bus to get to Machu Picchu.

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The trains bellow.

Restaurant waiters persuade.

The children are crazy. And there is a frantic manic energy to them, as if they are the hijos of carnies. Two infants are playing blocks with each other when I pass by, and one of them grabs a block and starts chasing me and hitting me.

There is fascinating artwork weaved into the stone of the town, with its own stories. My favourite is of the ancient Peruvian god Viracocha, because it had an insight of him emerging from nature, but some of the other artworks are spread across the town and almost hidden from plain sight unless you stare from the right angle.

There were hot springs in Aguas Calientes but I couldn’t go in without thongs (flip flops), swimmers, and a towel. These could be hired but I didn’t want to be ripped off.

This is a town of transience. Even the locals in the poor end of town, in the dodgy lanes of stairs cut into the hills in the corner of the end suburb, don’t feel local. There is a desperation, a hunger, an aggression, among the waiters that I haven’t seen anywhere else in Peru. The most reasonable meal I could find was a Peruvian menu for 15 soles (which was to include a salad platter for an entree, lomo saltado for the main course, and a crepe for desert).

They forgot to give me the desert and charged me 13 Soles for each beer. At another place the alpaca steak was 40 soles and when I said this was far too much, the waiter brought it down to 25 soles. The other waiter who brought me the check didn’t realise I was given a discount, and also charged me a service tax not mentioned on the menu! My understanding is this is illegal, but no gringo questions it.

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The line for the bus at 4am.

Travelers were in the mood to talk here. I met visitors from across the world who had time for friendliness and to share their adventures, including a trio from Argentina who taught me how to say the name of their country properly, and a Canadian.

The main thing to do in town while waiting for your trip to Machu Picchu is spending money, or trying to avoid spending it. You can also walk the steep climb to Machu Picchu, or you could take the bus. From memory it was 50 soles for the return journey, but it could be more.

The trip is worth it but you are at the mercy of the long lines at the start and the return journeys. I woke at 4am for my trip to Machu Picchu and was surprised to see that I had not beaten the line.

 

Nuestra casa

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The entrance of the apartment. 

Peru has a lot of culture.

I’m sure that it does anyway.

Yesterday I ate KFC and binge watched Gossip Girl. Today I watched movies and ran to buy ice-cream. Tonight I’m finishing this draft listening to Friends.

Yes. All this culture is incredible.

I’ve been in the mountains over the Christmas season and when I returned to the beach town Huanchaco (where I intend on staying while teaching) my housemates (introduced here) had secured an apartment to live in.

And it is great. My room is near the garage out the back, and I love being the recluse. Living the dream would be for a sibling to be rich and successful with a mansion and a huge family. I’d be the cool uncle living under the pool table.

The lounge room and kitchen is huge, and we have a large TV to watch Netflix on (courtesy of housemate Amy. And it’s Canadian Netflix. Not that piece of crap Netflix they gave Australians in the hope they would pirate less).

While I rested in my room for the first time I realised that I was more relaxed than I had been in…a while. It’s the first bedroom I’ve really felt at home in for three years (how many bedrooms have I had in in that time? I count five, but it could actually be more). I had my own space and the apartment was a safe space. The outside world was Peru, with its cultural differences and language barrier.

What I wouldn’t give right now for a book in English. Even an e-book.

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Clown decorations in the house. 

A few days ago I realised I felt a type of restriction in the world around me, and a big part of that is the language. I need to know more Spanish because without it the conversations can’t move beyond a ‘I will have fries with that’ or ‘another coffee please’. Even asking how much those fries and coffee is has their limitations when I fumble with the change. It’s embarrassing and sometimes stressful.

And so…for a moment, I feel safe in the apartment with my housemates (who either don’t drink much or are cutting out for a month. To be honest, I am relieved as I consider doing the same).

I have moved around a lot and often my mind reflects on the past and on the future and so I never quite settle into where I am. It’s occurred to me that I can stop living from a suitcase for once, if I allow myself to. I can actually make a life for myself in Peru, and not use it as a travel holiday or a transition to avoid living. I can create hobbies not for self-improvement or to prove how much of an adventure I am on. I could do things that extend on who I am like learning to cook rice (ha ha ha, I already bought a pack), or learn Spanish with commitment, or work at a nearby bar. I already have a membership at a gym although I have slacked off lately. In fact, I can go right now, if I allow myself to (I won’t because I’ve never quite recovered from eating guinea pig nine days ago).

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When I wrote that I wished I could read an e-book it occurred to me that I could. It’s actually news to me that I can download e-reader programs on my Iphone until I realised that is what housemates were doing (Housemates. Holy crap my life is a Big Brother episode). It only took a minute to download the program and find old books I had on file from almost three years ago. I have my entire Princess of Mars series (a collection by the author of Tarzan. They made the first book into a Disney film called John Carter and it’s about aliens on Mars, and flying ships).

There’s my embarrassing books as well, such as ‘the shy man’s guide to personal and dating success’, and Holly Madison’s memoir of life in the Playboy Mansion.

But yes! I also have a modern Sherlock  Holmes adventure (The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz. I recommend this), Gone Girl, and (alright!) Charles Bukowski’s Post Office. That’s getting another read tonight because I miss his beautiful meanings hidden among the angry, bitter cynicism of the lower class American working life.

Life is grand. XOXO.

Burnzy.