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Another day, another snake: life in the Amazon


We are starting our journey at 6 AM and we are delayed for a minimum of half an hour because the airport in Iquitos is closed due to below minimum visibility. Now these delays would probably frustrate most people, however, about a week before we came to Peru there was a plane crash (this flight as a matter of fact) when the pilot tried to make an alternate landing in the jungle in bad weather. I say wait as long as you have to. I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times. Need I tell you how I feel now?

Generally considered to be the most populous city in the world that cannot be reached by road, Iquitos in the Peruvian Rainforest is a gateway to the Amazon. It is the largest jungle city in Peru, nestled in the Amazon Rainforest which covers approximately 60% of the country but only accommodates about 11% of the population. The climate is hot and humid with an average relative humidity of 85%. It is truly hotter than the furnace of Hell here. The only positive thing that I can say about that is that it will undoubtedly prepare us for what lies ahead in the Amazon.

We are staying in a five star hotel in the Plaza de Armas of Iquitos. The hotel itself is marvelous but it takes some getting used to to accept the environment you’re in. Weather aside, the city is in constant motion and is the noisiest place I have ever visited. There are 300 cars and 35,000 mosquitos in the city. A mosquito is not the well known and equally dreaded disease carrying insect (although I’m sure there are plenty of those around) it is a three wheeled motorized rickshaw vehicle that runs rampant throughout this city.

The hotel room is fully air conditioned which is indeed a blessing. There is also a beautiful pool on site and although there are a lot of people in the hotel no one is in the pool. Is there a reason? I don’t know. It’s probably just as well that our bathing suits are in an excess baggage storage facility in the airport in Lima.

Walking the streets of Iquitos is an exercise in tolerance. The people are relentless with their begging and their efforts to sell their wares to you. It dampens your spirit as you try to remain calm and polite engulfed in repetitive waves of the same things over and over again. The local “banco” was a life saver as we discovered that no one wants or will accept travellers cheques in Peru, not even U.S. funds.

The organization of the expedition appears to falter as we leave for the river boat early the next morning. It is already 33 degrees C at 8 in the morning so our state of mind is altered at best. We were met by William who speaks almost no English. He took us to a hotel to wait for transport to the boat to the jungle lodge (we think). We need a voucher for this part of the trip. I give it to William – he gives it to someone else who disappears into the crowd. We get a copy. Hope this works.

It looks like this interlude was by design and was very good of our tour company. Having us wait in a comfortable, air conditioned hotel lobby rather than outside at a hot, humid boat dock was a stroke of genius rather than an invitation to heat stroke.

The speed boat ride to the Amazon River lodge was the only relief from the horrendous temperature available. We navigated for about an hour and a half along the Amazon River, until we reach our comfortable jungle lodge in the Yanamono Reserve. This was a totally new world to us as we observed the brown, turbid, dark waters of the Amazon choked with floating log pieces. The jungle landscape with its small, rustic houses and riverside villages was very impressive to a couple from central Ontario.

We arrived at the lodge and were greeted by a wonderful complimentary jungle drink, allocation of rooms, then lunch. During this dissertation we were given the standard travel information; lunch at 1PM, dinner at 7:30PM, breakfast at 7:30AM, electricity from 6PM to 10PM. Excuse me, what was that last one? The electricity in the lodge and all the rooms is on from 6 PM to 10 PM only. I must confess, in over 40 years of travelling, I have not heard that one before.

A jungle trek into the Yanamono Reserve involved a visit to a small indigenous Indian village where they make sugar cane alcohol. After taking a turn at grinding the cane and straining the juices, we made our own concoction and drank it cautiously. It was very sweet and very potent but I was relieved to discover that I could still see. A little different spin on the holiday drink by the pool.

As we continued our trek through the jungle to a second village we were awed by the variety of botanical species, medicinal plants and trees so large that 20 people could hold hands and encircle the base. I really felt that I was experiencing life in a whole new light. It is hard to imagine that everything these people need is at their fingertips here in the jungle. No grocery stores, no complicated health care plans, no jobs; and yet they are happy and lead a very satisfying life – providing they do not learn about the supposed wonderful things available in the world beyond.

As we entered the village I immediately was struck by the open ventilation of the school. Housing children of all ages and all grades in one large, open aired room, I smiled as I thought how much nicer a learning environment this is than our overcrowded, forced learning establishments. After enjoying the tribe’s dancing and handicrafts we were introduced to the chief and his two wives. A short, wiry man, I strongly recommend you not mess with him. He has a seven foot blow gun and he’s not afraid to use it. We had the opportunity to try this ancient hunting method and were astounded at the accuracy of the weapon and how easily you can generate an amazing velocity of the projectile. Poison tipped or otherwise, they get the job done.

A before dinner night boat ride was a welcome relief from the intense heat and humidity of the day. Sadly, it was short lived as we enjoyed the magical sounds of the jungle and the light of the moon. Dinner was an unidentified assortment of fish, rice and vegetables. While here in the jungle you have two choices – you eat what is served or you don’t!

There is no air conditioning – what am I saying, there’s no electricity! It makes it very easy to retire early because you have to take advantage of the use of the fan in the room and try to get to sleep before it goes off for good at 10. I thought that was going to be difficult if not impossible but I was thankfully wrong. The jungle has no ambient light so it is truly dark at night and the sounds of the multitude of insects and small animals is unbelievably soothing. Sleep came easily and was rejuvenating.

Dawn breaks early in the Amazon to another stifling hot and humid day, so even an early morning bird watching expedition is welcomed. Welcomed because, although not really into bird watching myself, it was conducted in a motor boat and the resulting breeze was heaven as we viewed a large variety of bird species. We then returned to the lodge where a tasty, delicious breakfast awaited.

Dressed for maximum discomfort in long pants, long sleeved shirt, wool socks, hiking boots, hat and rain coat, we headed out on a three mile jungle hike right after breakfast. Well, at least I’ll be warm. Luckily we didn’t need the rain coats. We were soaked to the skin with sweat in a very short time. It was very educational. It is a primary (original) jungle with lots of bamboo and indigenous plants and trees. Our guide needed his machete to clear a path on several occasions. There were thousands of ants both large and small and a nice Tarzan vine probably 100 feet long, gave a great swing. Although we sport Tilley clothes, guaranteed to dry overnight, that’s not going to happen in this humidity.

After lunch it was off in the boat piranha fishing. Now I hate fishing and not even for piranha in the Amazon made it any better. After about an hour we went to view the river dolphins. This was a wonderful experience as we were able to see the gray and the rarer pink river dolphins in the Amazon.

Oh yes, the Whiteheads are not even settled in an unrated, no frills, hotel in the Amazon. We were resting on the beds and Karen heard noises in her headboard. Not wishing to risk any infestation, she called for assistance and we were moved to another room so they could get rid of the weevils boring their way through the wall behind the headboard. It was time to toast a fabulous day in the Amazon so having had the foresight to bring along a cheap bottle of wine Karen went to the kitchen to borrow a corkscrew as my resourcefulness extends only so far. In English she asked for a corkscrew and the reply was, “Hot water, 5 minute.” Where have we gone wrong? Karen returned empty handed and I proceeded to force the cork into the bottle being the wine connoisseur that I am. There’s nothing like a four dollar bottle of red wine served at Amazon room temperature in a Styrofoam cup with bits of cork floating in it. Sipping cheap wine while the electricity is on, powering a 40 watt bulb and a K-Mart fan, this is my vacation life.

Our final Amazon dinner was an adventure not soon forgotten. During the meal the cook came out and excitedly ushered us into the kitchen to watch a baby boa constrictor eat a bat. Shortly thereafter, Karen felt a thud on her shoulder as a tree frog fell from the rafters and landed on her. On the walk back to our room we came across an immense tarantula on the deck outside our door. A little nervous about what might be waiting in our room, we summoned our guide to make a thorough search before we entered. In its own freaky little way I’m going to miss this place.

More by Eric Whitehead in his book ‘Then there Was One‘.

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