Friday, December 9, 2011

Holy Moses, it's the selva!

The humidity hits you like a load of bricks the second you step onto the tarmac. That giddy “not in Kansas anymore” feeling has been doing flips in your stomach for a while now, as you gaze out the plane window at the endless milk-chocolate river snaking through vegetation so bright and green and thick it looks like a Hollywood set, interrupted only by the silent, winged silhouette passing over it all. The scale of things is dizzying, and when you later look at a map and realize just how minute Peru’s claim to the Amazon basin really is, it blows your mind. Of course uncontacted tribes and cures for diseases and mutant snakes are found out there under the endless canopy – how could they not be?

But the humidity brings it all home. You’ve landed in an entirely different place.

Iquitos lies in the heart of the Peruvian jungle, some 600 miles up and over the Andes from Lima, and is reportedly the largest city in the world not reachable by road. Which is just about the most enticing city slogan I’ve ever heard, and I’m ashamed it took me three years to finally make it here. But make it I had, and it would turn out to be the trip of a lifetime. (See pics by clicking on the link at right – “selva selva selva.”)

Fellow third-year volunteers Eric and Mark and I grabbed our bags and squeezed into an open-air mototaxi to a backpacker’s hostel, then headed out into the afternoon heat to get to know the city. The humidity was incredible. Actually, none of us was sure whether it was really all that exceptional, or if it was just that we were so used to the dry heat of the coast (of Piura, Trujillo, and Ica, respectively). Either way, it felt surprisingly refreshing, and somehow it reminded us all equally of home (San Diego, Hawaii, and Ohio, respectively). It felt like the beach – or Lake Erie in August – should be right around the corner. But instead it was the river.

Walking around Iquitos you feel as if you’ve just stepped back in time about 50 years. It is quintessentially jungle. Starting with the airport’s abandoned jetliners and helicopters scattered about and overtaken by vines and mosses, it’s like you just stepped into LOST. It’s a city that has knows better than to fight the effects of year-round precipitation; everywhere you look paint peels from towering colonial balconies and towers, many strangled by various forms of jungle creep. Public transportation, namely the colorful wood-paneled buses, is completely open to the air. People are everywhere, tourists and locals alike, but what most struck all of us was the porch culture. Virtually every home had its door propped open and a family member or two lounging outside, simply taking in the afternoon and hoping for a breeze. Things here moved at a categorically slow pace, and it felt right. Exotic, often stunning charapas (selva women) strolled in the plazas. We grabbed some street food – rice juanes and green banana-based tacacho with fried pork cecina – on the boardwalk overlooking the World’s Largest River, and called it a day.

Early the next morning, our group having grown to eight volunteers, we set off in station wagons for the two-hour drive to the village of Nauta. Two-story palm trees, fields of yucca, and thatched-roof huts whizzed by, the thick air dripping off everything. In Nauta, a little port town on a large tributary, we cruised through the market for some fruit. The street food was hard to resist: more juanes and some kind of blood sausage that particularly interested Eric. (At this point a small debate arose among the three of us – if two are called juanes, then what do you call a single one…un juane? Un juanes? Un juan? Interestingly, none of the vendors seemed able to clear this up for us.) After meeting our guide Wilson, we slid down the steep mud bank to the long canoe-shaped peque peque boat with outboard motor that would take us to our home for the next few days. This turned out to be another couple hours away: downriver to the Amazon, then cruising with the current a ways until heading up a creek where the water changed abruptly from mocha to almost black, swirling in liquid pinwheels.

The bungalows were perfect (rustic but bug-proof), the food was great, and the whole trip was exceptionally organized. Over the next three days we would cruise the nearby rivers and lakes watching for birds, sloths, and howler monkeys; observe Wilson’s many failed attempts and then ultimate success at snatching a baby alligator out of a mosquito-infested swamp well after dark by the light of headlamps; fish for piranhas with flimsy cane poles and chunks of raw fish – and then eat them; watch pink river dolphins and try unsuccessful to catch up with them (the current was deceptively strong and exhausting to swim against); and hike through the jungle, learning about everything from how to use crushed termites as bug repellent, to the history of rubber extraction in this part of the Amazon, to natural remedies for Malaria (and Cancer, supposedly), to which vines hold water and are safe to drink from – the Uña de Gato is OK, the rest are poisonous. I was attacked by red fire ants, whose bite was so deeply painful I could only laugh in agony. All in all, it was phenomenal – a little plug here for Jungle Wolf Expeditions: highly recommended, and cheap! Wilson’s knowledge was endless – midway through an explanation of the life cycle of leafcutter ants, he peered up through the canopy and said “11:30?” Right on the money.

We also took a trip to Wilson’s home village, one tributary upriver. We had little interaction with the locals, except for the woman at the local bar serving room-temperature and slightly-sweet local Amazonia beer, but were all impressed by the homes: wood-paneled with shaggy roofs, each one set on eight-foot stilts. The dwellings sat well-above the river, but Wilson explained that starting in January the water levels would rise almost overnight as rainwater flooded in. The dusty soccer pitch where kids played would be fishing grounds just a few months later. This was obviously not the first time Wilson had brought clients to his village, and women in cheap flip-flops and track shorts sat in the shade, local handicrafts spread out all around. Observing some beautiful macaw and monkey designs on a hollowed-out gourd in various shades of deep amber and brown, I asked what was used as pigment. I had expected to hear about some ancient nut or root extract. Instead, the reply was “betun.” “Betun??” I repeated, incredulous, “as in shoe polish??” “Sí!” replied the woman, her broad smile as toothless as it was sincere. “How many will you take?” As tempted as I was to walk away from the jungle with this specimen of cultural syncretism, I realized that the fragile piece would never survive my backpack. Later I thought about the Vargas Llosa character Mascarita who becomes obsessed with the defense of the remote tribes of the selva peruana against an encroaching Western society. But Mascarita is conflicted and radical, and these women seemed delighted to be able to sell things to us gringos. Certainly it generated some income next to their subsistence yucca-farming and fishing. Still, I wished I hadn’t even asked.

Speaking of fishing, probably what I enjoyed most was just being near a river again after so many months in parched Ica. I had brought along my fly fishing gear, which hasn’t gotten nearly the use I was hoping for in my years in Peru, and spent every free minute casting off the dock or paddling out to different spots in one of the camp’s carved-out canoes. It took me a couple days to get things figured out, and after trying all the weird, colorful stuff in my flybox, I finally had success with what is probably the most common mayfly pattern in American fishing. Nothing big, but the variety was interesting – a handful of piranhas, a few others I didn’t recognize, and one with a maroon tail and big scales that they told me was called the San Pedro (after St. Peter, the fisherman). The locals don’t eat it; whether out of reverence or lack of taste was not made clear.

We arrived back in Iquitos with an afternoon to kill. Eric, Mark, and I hit the market for a three sol (one dollar) bowl of carachama “armored” catfish soup and stocked up on supplies for our next adventure: Huck Finn-ing the Amazon.

The evening brought a meeting at a local restaurant catering to the already-sunburned and air-conditioning starved foreign contingent. The place was buzzing with pasty Americans and Euros, and wiry, brown locals alike (of course, most of the buzzing was coming from the far more numerous former group, epitomized by a half-drunk man in his fifties wearing an Ivy League hat and bestowing upon us novices unsolicited advice that always seemed to start with, “Now lemme tell ya somethin’ about this river, mmm-k…”). We found the last unoccupied table upstairs, and ordered cold beers. It was soon discovered that squeezed in to our left was the winning team from nine of the last eleven races – four stoic charapas with short, compact bodies and distinctly indigenous features. Team captain Cesar was missing an eye, only adding to their mystique.

Soon Gringo Linda, the race organizer, began to speak. And things quickly spiraled out of control. Frazzled and shouting over the constant din, she and a local organizer pointed out hazy details of the course map projected on a wall. But it all happened too fast, and anyway it was revealed that the uncharacteristically wet spring this year had raised water levels to the point that the course would look nothing like what we saw on the wall. The gist of it was “Just follow the locals!” Otherwise she hardly acknowledged the roughly one-quarter of those present who didn’t speak English, and when she did venture into Spanish her thick Mississippi accent made us all cringe. Exclamations like “You on ya own, sistah!” would have been amusing had they not been hurled in response to legitimate concerns like “What do we do about bathrooms at the campsites?” (Incidentally, “You on ya own!” became the much-overused mantra on our raft over the next several days – in addition, of course, to the Randy Savage classic “Oooohhhh Yeahhh!!”) We were instructed to sign safety waivers, and I had to explain to the understandably concerned Peruvians next to us what all these English words meant and why their signatures and ID numbers were required. Although disturbed by the oversight, I was happy to gain some favor with the folks who were obviously going to be much more help on the river than the hoarse gringa standing on the table up front. We all left half-disconcerted and half-little-kid-on-Christmas-morning-eager about what the next four days would bring.

Day One: Build a Raft

All 150 or so participants in the 2011 Great River Amazon Raft Race met up early in one of the city’s many plazas, and soon several school busses were packed, roofs towering with a precarious arrangement of duffel bags, paddles, plastic chairs, and miscellaneous supplies. The caravan set out for Nauta, retracing our route from days before. I sat down next to two Americans – career Marines, as it turned out. They had participated the year before, and related horror stories of heat exhaustion, dehydration, and race disqualifications. We popped a flat about halfway there, but no one was fazed, especially when a conveniently located tacacho stand was discovered. In Nauta we were received by what appeared to be the whole town; high schoolers performed a traditional dance, a band played, and local leaders gave speeches celebrating our visit and upcoming journey down the river that defines their entire existence, that is at once their livelihood, their means of transportation, and their sewerage system. To us it was simply an adventure of epic proportions. (This welcome birthed Overplayed Phrase of the Week #2: “Holy Moses!” – in a thick northern Euro accent – which, according to the Danish race sponsor, would be the only way to describe our feelings upon arriving some 180 Km. downriver four days later.) We scattered to pick up last minute supplies (nylon webbing, 3” nails, and kilos of bananas and oranges, in my team’s case), and boarded assorted boats waiting to ferry us across the river to our first site.

Balsa logs were everywhere, half-length telephone poles scattered like hundreds of toothpicks. There was supposed to be some kind of method to the ensuing madness. Not surprisingly that went right out the window. We all dove in, seeking the best eight logs we could find for our respective crafts – what wasn’t so clear was what separated the good logs from bad. We had heard, and intuition told us, that the straighter and lighter the logs, the better. My team worked with Eric and Mark’s team to round up sixteen decent-looking logs to split between us, and we got to work. The idea is to sort of sharpen the ends for streamlining purposes, and then lash your logs side-by-side into something seaworthy. Some teams opted for a catamaran design, with two four-log platforms joined by cross beams and open in the middle, but we followed the example of the nearby local teams and went with the simpler eight-across model. We had a couple machetes on hand, but it did not take long to realize that the far easier and more effective option would be to pay one of the ubiquitous chainsaw-toting locals to do it for us. We also enlisted a friendly kid to help lash our logs into something that looked vaguely paddle-able. All day there had been much collaborating among teams and observing of other rafts, and by evening it was clear that Eric’s and mine were two of the smallest and sparsest of the gringo crafts – everyone else had used bigger logs, and many had erected canopy structures for shade. Most had comfortable-looking padded seats of some kind; ours had plastic kiddie chairs with the legs sawed off. Undeterred, we christened ours the Slim Jim, inspired both by its form and the fact that we would be racing in memory of pro wrestler and longtime face of the Slim Jim brand, Macho Man Randy Savage, RIP 2011 (see “Oooohhhh Yeahhh!!” above).

A small storm had rolled in around 4PM, and the rain would continue on and off all night. Lunch hadn’t shown up until dinnertime, and then dinner not really at all, which didn’t bode well for the “included” meals during three days on a wide-open river. We were crammed twelve-deep into a leaky and stuffy disaster relief tent meant for ten, and the bugs were relentless. Somehow, I slept like a rock.

Day Two: Gentlemen, Start your Engines!

People were moving quickly in the morning, and early. Some of the local teams, it appeared, had actually worked through the night. The Slim Jim, of course, lay just as we had left it. There was an ant-like procession taking place, back and forth from the fields behind the camp area to do one’s “business.” I joined it, and crossed paths with the owner of the terreno; we chatted, and then there was an uncomfortable pause as we both looked out at the gringos squatting all over his rice paddies and bean fields, overt contamination in which I was complicit. (I later wrote a letter and had my Peace Corps friends sign it, and have been invited to the race committee’s office in Lima to talk further about improving the sanitation situation for next year.)

A meager breakfast of cheese sandwiches and watery oatmeal was distributed, and then we launched. Immediately, my heart sank. The Slim Jim, it appeared, did not float. We didn’t sink either, but just kind-of hovered a few inches below the surface. But we were obviously one of the few; just about everyone else sat comfortable above water, dry and ready to go. The immediate diagnosis was that we had chosen logs that were simply too small to support our weight. Of course the Peruvians could get away with this – they were half our size. (It was some consolation that Eric’s crew was in the same boat, no pun intended.) We lost a few unattached items like the makeshift fishing pole we had rigged up, and there was some nervous argument among our crew (made up of myself and three first-year volunteers from the north, one of whom, Dan, is my site replacement in Chalaco. All good dudes.) I sincerely believed our adventure was ending before it had even begun. But the initial terror subsided as we remained semi-bouyant, and suddenly a bullhorn sounded and we were off: a colorful flotilla of home country flags and plastic tarps punctuating the muted browns and greys of the morning river.

The locals and a handful of more experienced crews took off ahead, establishing a wide gap in the field. We started towards the back, butts underwater and still shaky on our precarious craft, but pretty soon we got into the swing of things and began passing teams one by one. Our perspective from days before on the plane had been reversed – the impenetrable jungle now rose up on either side of a river that was no longer a delicate thread curling through the green, but a slow-moving and immense living body. No longer passive, distant observers, now we were part of it all. The current proved quite difficult to follow, and probably the best advice we received all week came from (go figure) the local teams: follow the crap. By this they didn’t mean literal crap, but rather the refuse – both natural and man-made – that floated where the current was strongest. To us the phenomenon of floating alongside apparently stationary logs, only to look up at the shore whizzing by, was exhilarating. Mark Twain might have smiled and shaken his head at us in sympathy – what a bunch of rookies. We had been told that it would be tempting to continually seek the faster current near the shore as the Amazon meandered to and fro, and indeed it was hard to keep a straight course and resist crossing the river at every turn. Teams took different approaches, and within a few hours rafts were spread out all over the place, some taking what quickly turned out to be the wrong course. This proved to be an accidental advantage to starting behind the pack, and Team Macho Man was able to avoid many of the same mistakes.

That first morning had been mercifully overcast, and by noon half the sky was a deep, heavy gray. To see the rain coming across the river in sheets was unforgettable; when it hit us it was absolutely glorious. There was no lightning or even whitecaps to cause alarm, just a steady, calming rain on the biggest river we’d ever seen. Nearby rafts disappeared into the mist, and some had the misfortune of finding themselves trapped in a powerful eddy on the far side of a big bend. Of course the rain soaked us, but we were soaked already. We laughed, and there was probably an elated whoop or two. Half an hour later we emerged from the storm, came around a bend, and saw rafts lining the shore and a large tent overlooking the river. There was an overwhelming sense of relief: we had survived Day One, and it was only 2PM. We hoisted the Slim Jim ashore, collected our saturated belongings, and humped it uphill to bask in the afternoon sun.

We were put up in a small, quaint jungle village, with the same stilted houses we had seen days before. Most of us rafters spread out on the floor of the local school, with others in the same tents as on Night One. The locals were friendly if a little stunned, and women sold much-sought fried chicken, delicious boiled peanuts, and beer. Around dusk the promised dinner was announced; when I finally got to the front of the line to pick up styrofoam plates of pasta and chicken for my team, the chicken had temporarily run out. I convinced the ladies to give us double pasta and call it even – we were much more interested in quantity than quality. Later that evening Peru played Paraguay in its first 2014 World Cup qualifier; a couple dozen or so volunteers and other rafters joined a large group of locals crammed into the only place in town with cable, a private home whose stuffy, sweltering front room was also a bar. Here were three degrees of peruanos: the real ones, the tourists who were only temporary Peruvians, and us volunteers who tend to think of ourselves as somewhere in-between. But true to the unifying power of The World’s Game, all cheered like mad for the home team. Peru played the best soccer I’d seen in my three years here, and emerged victorious over a perennial South American powerhouse. The end of a great day.

Day Three: The Long Haul

Our third day began like the previous: early and with a lot of commotion. But then things hit a wall, as the local participants had called a meeting with the race organizers to complain about an apparently unannounced change in prize money distribution. None of us extranjeros was entirely sure what the issue was, but it had something to do with entry fees being raised this year, while not correlating correctly with the prize money distributed across the different race categories: Men’s, Women’s, and Mixed. You have to realize that while we were all there to have a good time and some Amazonian adventure, these people are in it to win it. Every day on the river is a day lost in the fields, which translates directly to money forfeited. In any case, there were serious accusations of huge chunks of missing cash, and things got heated. I believe at least one local team pulled out at that point. Linda, for her part, was completely absent. In fact just before the meeting I sighted her sitting down by the rafts shaking her head in silent dejection, sipping on a poorly-concealed beer. At 9AM.

Finally rafts were launched, hours after the planned-on early start to what was supposed to be the longest day. The start was staggered this time, with the slowest finishers from Day One leaving first, followed by a middle group, and finally the fastest teams. Apparently, we had finished just in time to qualify for the “fast” category, and since we were the least organized of our group, ended up being the last raft off the shore. The rest of our group was out of sight before we knew it, but again the upside was that we had a whole river of slower rafts to follow, and pass. By mid-morning we were cruising well, having worked out the kinks of the previous day and bringing only the essentials (water, sunscreen, snacks), no longer so worried about the Slim Jim succumbing to the chocolatey depths. Pink river dolphins breached from time to time, and exotic birds chirped in the trees, keeping us entertained. So did what would become an endless series of “Dude, if you could pick 10…” (insert category, everything from “rivers” to “songs by The Band” to “women”). We waved in reply to locals on the banks at each settlement we passed, who yelled and whistled generally unintelligible messages of encouragement. The sun was strong, and breaks were frequent. Sunscreen was applied and re-applied. Water was chugged. Spare t-shirts and bandanas were dunked, draped around heads. We rowed and rowed and rowed. We stopped to stretch, and swim. The day dragged on, the heat intensifying by the hour.

An organizer boat came by once or twice, leaving some snacks once but no real lunch. At 2PM they told us we still had “Oh, a couple hours” to go. The sun was high now, and just frying everything it touched. Soon after, we emerged around a wide bend into what can only be described as a lake: the river had grown to probably a mile or more wide, and the only signs of life were tiny specks in the distance downriver, too far to tell which way they had gone. We opted for the left-hand bank, and pushed on. At some point I had told the guys about the “Power 20’s” we would take when I rowed in college, meaning twenty hard, well-coordinated strokes to keep the crew focused. Early on one of us would spontaneously lead one every hour or so, but by now we had all succumbed to what my old coach would have called “lillydipping.” We were exhausted, maybe a little delirious, and pretty much sick of each-other. Finally, as the sun sank behind the western bank, we sighted the supply boat, a big three-deck river cruiser, moored ahead. As the day before, a sense of relief flooded over us all. But a massive storm was brewing, and lighting was crashing as we pulled in. We were shocked to hear that we were boat number sixteen to arrive. This meant that there were some twenty or more rafts still on the water – many of them miles behind. Guardacostas rescue motorboats were being organized, but it struck us all that this effort was happening far too late. We would later hear stories of rafts stranded in the dark on sandbars, flashing their cameras to signal the rescuers. Fortunately, all made it in, albeit it soaked, exhausted, and more than a little shaken up.

We camped out at the local school, again. Here at least there were bathrooms, but no showers. I took advantage of the rain to rinse off in the runoff from the school’s gutter. Finally on night three we received what I would call the first real meal on the part of the organizing committee, and afterwards some of us took a stroll around town, barrigas llenas y corazones contentos (bellies full and hearts happy). One beer each was enough to knock us all out.

Day Four: The Final Poosh

Stiff backs, raw hands, and some incredible sunburns greeted us on the morning of our last day, but adrenaline was pumping for the final push into Iquitos. The day started heavy and gray, although the locals assured us it wouldn’t rain (they would prove correct). The teams rescued the night before had been disqualified, so the field was reduced roughly by half, and we were now part of the slower group. We departed in high spirits, alongside rafts of fellow volunteers. This time we were one of the lead rafts, but fortunately didn’t take any wrong turns. About an hour in, the leading local teams passed us, and it was a sight to behold: simple crafts manned by sinewy crews working together in short, rapid, perfect strokes like well-oiled jungle machines. Only a minute or two separated the two leading teams, and we realized that for all our effort, we were basically on a pleasure cruise compared to what these guys were doing. As I mentioned, two very different ways of seeing the race: good, clean jungle fun, or food on the table. The lead women’s raft passed a couple hours later, as did Eric’s team (slyly named “Three Coxswain Julie” – sound it out), who would end up finishing first among the foreign teams.

By 2PM we could see the sun glinting off the sheet metal roofs of the Iquitos port area. All week there had been buzz about the notoriously difficult final half kilometer, because the city lies on the outside of a bend so wide it actually creates a back-current that must be fought. Like most teams, we approached from the opposite bank, and had meant to cross as early as possible. As it turned out, we could have crossed earlier and avoided about 45 minutes of excruciating work to get into the Iquitos marina. There were ten-minute spans where we would be paddling like maniacs just to stay in place. Our “Power 20” mentality bounced back with a vengeance, and we killed ourselves. But the occasional glance behind reminded us that we were in a fairly enviable position; many rafts had missed the turn completely and were swept far downriver, and a few ended up having to be rescued. Finally we made it into the calmer bay, and an overwhelming stench welcomed us; we were paddling through Iquitos’ sewerage.

Ten minutes later we cruised into the dock area to the cheers of rafters and lots of locals. High-fives and bear hugs ensued. We had survived The World’s Longest Raft Race. It was time for a beer.