Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Respect the Amazon Jungle

Just like every other city, town, and village we´ve arrived at along this journey, we didn´t look up or reserve a room or beds in a hostal in Iquitos. You could say we didn't do this because we didn't know when we'd be arriving and for two weeks stranded in Pantoja, we had no phone or internet access but the truth is we never reserve room. Let life happen.

Walking down the streets of Iquitos towards the center of the city, my pack felt heavier than I'd remembered. This was most likely the result of my muscles beginning the process of atrophy from three weeks of sitting, laying in my hammock, and endless waiting. Our group, arriving from the cargo in Iquitos was now nine people deep, including the three of us, Tristan and Amandine, Paddy and Louisa from England, Alex from France, and Javy, a soldier from Spain. We happened upon a guy in the street who told us he'd show us a cheap hostal for around 8 soles ($3) a night. A little shady? Perhaps, but at that point we wanted to get our bags off our backs, shower, and get some food and beer.

We arrived at an adventure outfitter office a block or so from the Plaza de Armas called Maniti Expeditions (http://www.manitiexpeditions.com). The office had a couple tents on the ground with other travelers sleeping, and two dorm rooms with beds separated like office cubicles by thin paneling. Only one bathroom though so we decided to haggle the price down from 10 soles (the guy was lying when we met him) to 7 soles per person per night. We dropped our packs, downed some water, and took turns washing the filth of the past few days off our bodies. That cold shower felt amazing. By the time we headed out as a group to eat, it was past midnight. We found a fast food burger/chicken place and promptly devoured our plates. On to the beer! To be honest, most of us were so beat and ready for bed but one beer would be O.K. We found a bar with large bottles of beer for 5 soles each ($2), pricey for us but it was the only place around open. One beer turned into a few and by 4:30am half of us decided to call it a night.

The following day, we slept in then headed to the market for lunch, a little internet time to tell family we actually were alive and not killed by lightning, anacondas, rebels, or the river in general. The manager of the expedition company, Guido, told me that our English friends, Paddy and Louisa, were taking a 3 day/2 night jungle tour leaving the next morning and he would give the three of us a good discount if we wanted in as well. After tossing the idea around with the girls we decided it was worth a shot if and only if we could get it CHEAP. We talked over a price, about 25% of what is listed online (people who book tours like this ahead of time from the internet are suckers) but promised not to disclose what we actually were paying. I don't think this counts. We asked him specifically, "What do we need to bring?" He said the company provides everything, from water, to food, to boots, to mosquito nets. "Just bring a small day pack with some clothes, towel and toiletries, as well as cameras and whatnot."

Us: "Should we bring our hammocks with mosquito nets?"

Guido: "You can if you want to but no need because we have everything you need."

Us: "Where will we sleep?"

Guido: "The first night will be in our jungle lodge down the Amazon river, the second will be in OUR tree house (he said his tree house like it was the company's) in the deep jungle."

Us: "Wow! A tree house. Will there be mosquito nets and beds?"

Guido: "Absolutely."

Awesome, finally we were heading into the old growth Amazon rain forest. No more puny edge growth or secondary forest. We were ready for the real thing. We left the next morning with small packs. I brought jeans, my swim shorts, tank top and long sleeve shirt from REI, towel, rain jacket, bandanna, head lamp, rubber boots, flip flops, and toiletries (toothbrush, sunscreen, bugspray). Kara and Jess did the same. Kara brought her hammock but not her net for it just to lounge around in at the lodge. In the morning we met our guide, Carlos, a polite 29 year old from Iquitos who spoke English well and was very knowledgable about the jungle. A van picked us up in the rain and took us to the docks where we boarded our boat. Here we go.

On the way to the lodge, down the Amazon river, we stopped to watch pink and gray river dolphins near the confluence of the Amazon with one of its tributary rivers. High fish populations where the rivers meet attracts the dolphins to feed. Freshwater dolphins, thousands of miles from the Atlantic ocean...How did they adapt to live here? It's incredible. Further down river we stopped to observe some fishing birds who make their dwellings in the mud cliffs banking the sides of the river. Their colors reminded me of the Belted Kingfisher, one of my favorite birds back home. Onward we passed two decommissioned passanger river cruise ships moored to the side of the river and growing rust. Carlos told us that two years ago, the Peruvian police with the help of the F.B.I. and D.E.A. found over 200 kilos (400 lbs) of cocaine on each ship. Wow. Later on, we turned off the Amazon and winded our way through the flooded forests to an indigenous Yagua village. A touristy chill came over us. Then men, women, and children were all dressed in traditional clothes made of grass thatched skirts, headdresses, and droopy grass necklaces that the women wore to cover their breasts. Each man, woman, and child stood in front of a booth of trinkets made for tourists. They were playing dress up for us. It felt fake, forced. If you googled "Yagua, Amazon" you would most likely find pictures from this village. All the tours stop here. The chief welcomed us though didn't seem that genuine, it was like a speech given over and over. He painted our faces with achote (the red fruit used for pigment we used in Nantar) giving different designs for those who were single and those who were married. Then they showed us a demonstration of their expertise using long blowguns, used traditionally to hunt birds. Carlos said they accept tips. Ugh. Semi-forced tipping feels so awkward. The blowgun demonstration was cool to see and he offered us a go at it for free with the expectation of a tip. I get it. These people are working for eco-tourism now. Every trinket bought, ever tip given most likely keeps a tree alive in the jungle (selling wood is most villages primary source of cash income. Most of their food though, they grow themselves). And this is great for tourists coming just to Iquitos to get a taste of the Amazon then comfortably flying back to Lima in an hour, staying in a nice hotel with good food, but for true travelers, people seeking the essence of a culture, this isn't it. Spending two weeks with the indigenous Shuar who opened their doors and hearts to us, volunteering teaching English and working in the fields, living amongst the community was real, was the essence of the Shuar culture. This just felt awkward. They didn't wear their traditional clothes when tourists weren't around. We didn't know we'd be going there and didn't bring money to tip. Sorry.

We left the Yagua village and continued on to the lodge. The boat pulled off the Amazon once again and passed a flooded house on stilts with an old dude rocking out in the flood water up to his thighs with no pants on. No Pants Pete is the watchman, making sure people don't enter the lodge when no one's there. We get out and climb the steps into the lodge. Decent, rustic, tranquillo, the lodge has a screened in room with hammocks hanging from the beams, a screened in dining room next to the kitchen with two picnic tables, a raised wooden walkway leading to the few cabins or rooms. The rooms are simple and nice with screened walls but no mosquito nets over the beds. Yeah, the room is screened but the blood suckers can still get in when you open the door. There's at least 50 in there when we arrive. We'll figure something out.

We ate lunch, which was delicious, and set out on a hike through the flooded forest learning about medicinal plants, exotic fruit, and looking for birds. Mostly we just saw the black and yellow-tailed pendulum-nest birds common thoughout the amazonia region. We walked into the town of Fatima, nothing exciting, a smaller Pantoja, and through some edge forest where fields and orchards battle with the secondary forest over sunlight and space. Kara, Jess, and I were getting ancy to get into the thick of it. Old growth. Primary forest.

"Where's the primary forest, Carlos?" This is a nice hike but we don't need a guide to walk on a cement side walk through the village. Our guide said that the virgin forest is not far but we'll save it for tomorrow. We head back to the lodge and wait for dinner. After dinner and coffee (free coffee all the time was a highlight) we headed outside for a night hike through ankle deep flood water looking for caimen, frogs, and snakes. Not ten seconds after walking out the door, Carlos pointed out a snake, about two feet long, swimming under the water. Brown with red markings, it was of the poisoness variety. Everything in the Amazon is. Every creature poisoness or not needs some sort of serious defense mechanism. From the trees living in symbiosis with ants who attack anything that touches it, or the spines and thorns that grow on just about every plant. Nothing is nice in the jungle. Beautiful but dangerous. For the most part though, dangerous or poisoness creatures see humans as predators and not prey and the snake did its best to stay away from us. But it was a reality check that if you don't respect this environment, if you are careless, you can find yourself in deep shit. As we walked along, our headlamps first on our foreheads then in our hands (the swarms of mosquitos at night in the flooded forest are insane in the light) moved back and forth in front of us cautious of each step. Next to a marsh, Carlos stopped and listened. He imitated a caimen call, a deep throatal noise similar to a bull frog, but nothing returned to call. The same marsh on our return, Carlos spotted the head of a yellow anaconda, juvenile, probably five feet long but it disappeared into the water and marsh grass. Anacondas are constrictors, hunters in the water and on land, who bite their prey, wrap them up and wait for the last exhale of breath when the lungs constrict and shrink and then they squeeze. If they're close to the water and it's a big prey they're drag them under water and drown them. Some anacondas can grow to around 15 meters (over 45 ft). Keep you eyes open. I've never experienced mosquitos like at night in the Amazon. It's probably one reason why tourist season is not when the river is swollen and flooding the forest. A couple of frogs and a tarantula, and our night hike was through. Back to the lodge to nurse our battle wounds and get ready for bed. We asked the manager of the lodge and Carlos for a mosquito net for our bed and they kind of laughed and said the room is screened. There are no mosquitos inside. They bid us goodnight. The fact was that there were loads of mosquitos in our room and Kara's blood is like candy to them. If there's one, she gets chewed to shit. If they didn't have any mosquito nets, I would prefer the truth. Forty minutes we spent hunting down every last mosquito in our room before getting into bed. Even Kara, my beautiful, life-loving, woman of the Earth found her inner predator. Kill or be killed.

The following morning, we took a canoe for a ride through the surrounding swamps...there was no dry land. We spotted a couple of different species of birds, their names in Spanish going in one ear and out the other. Maybe when I get home, I'll look them up in a common birds of the Amazon book or online. Carlos was a wonderful guide paddling us around the swamp even though two hours into the trip we were starving, excited to get back and eat breakfast but we were lost in the swamp. Even the pros get turned around in this place. When Carlos was here two weeks ago, the swamp was two feet lower. Trees or plants that were markers of where we were or which way was home were submerged or looked different with different water levels. But we gave him some time and he found the way.

After breakfast, we took the boat further down river to "Monkey Island," where rescued animals from the Iquitos black market could be brought to be rehabilitated and released into the wild. Although it seems to be more of a tourist petting zoo than a rehab. Animals are constantly handled and fed by hand. I don't see many of these being successfully rereleased into the wild. The first creature to greet us was a capuchen monkey who clearly was habituated to humans. He'd climb up on your shoulders for a photo and take mango slices out of a worker's hands with no hesitation. There were other capuchen's in the canopy of the nearby trees that were more wild and weary of humans. A female spider monkey named Suzie stayed at the top of a tree for most of the time gracefully flowing from one tree to the next. Two macaws, one red/orange and the other blue/yellow waddled around on the ground, their wings probably clipped before they were rescued from the market. Another mammal, related to the ant-eater but smaller who looked like a mix between a racoon, ant-eater, and tasmanian devil would climb the trees and run around on the ground oblivious to the cameras flashing around them. On another tree, only a meter from the ground was the ever-so-slow, ever-so-adorable three toed sloth. With a perpetual smile across its face that was contagious, he just chilled moving at a snail's pace up and down the tree. This sloth was also handled by the workers and less likely to be released. It was a zoo, without the cages. Except for the three anacondas, the animals could go as they pleased. The anacondas were each a different species, one a yellow, one a black, and one a patterned land anaconda whose name escapes me. The snakes would be picked up for pictures with tourists.

As fun as it was to see all these beautiful animals up close, this didn't feel like the jungle adventure we wanted either. We wanted WILD. Before we left, we were given a taste of a medicinal drink called "seven roots" traditionally used to cure common colds, flu, or just taken each day to stay healthy.

One of the roots used is "Uña de gato" or "Cat's claw," a common medicinal herb from the amazon used for thousands of years to treat everything from mild illnesses to cancer and leukemia. Steeped in boiling water as a tea, the uña de gato repairs damaged DNA to reboot the biological apoptosis or "cell death" killing mutated cancer cells where the cell's apoptosis has ceased to function. There is a growing interest from "developed countries" for alternative therapies to treating cancer. From teas using uña de gato to suppliments of amazonian tumeric spice (also repairs DNA) to ayahuasca. Cat's claw is in clinical trials in the U.S. in different hospitals, I'm sure closely monitored by pharmaceutical companies, to take something that has no lethal dosage, and change it, manipulate it, and mix it with other drugs that the average American's health care won't cover while making a fortune selling the drug to hospitals. All the while a $500 plane ticket will get you to the door of the real thing, practically free. Silly.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Monkey Island (they wanted tips too). We left and returned to the lodge for lunch and to pack our stuff for our second night, our night in the thick of it, in the tree house in the jungle. We take the boat back to the village of Fatima but waste 45 minutes waiting to sign our names to enter the reserve when there was no one to open the door where the log was kept. We didn't even know there was a reserve, we just thought it was the jungle.

Us: "So Maniti Expeditions has a tree house in the reserve?"

Carlos: "No. It's a watchtower, not a tree house, used for spotting herons in the swamp. It's not Maniti's. It belongs to the reserve."

Us: "So...it's a watchtower, not a tree house owned by the expedition company. O.K. But there are beds or mats there to sleep on, right?"

Carlos: "No. We will sleep on the floor. I brought mosquito nets. But, the villagers are saying the swamp is flooded and we cannot reach the tower without hiking through waist deep swamp for 30 minutes."

Us: "Is that safe?"

Carlos: "Eh. There are black anacondas, poisoness spiders, and electric eels. We could just make a jungle camp instead using plastic tarps and dry grass without going into the swamp."

We were hesitant about trying to go. Someone in the village said a different expedition company was using the tower even though we had paid to spend our second night there. And we couldn't go back to the lodge because it was full with another group of jungle travelers. We were irritated and didn't feel like we were getting the truth or that we were getting the run around. Either another group was using the tower so they were exagerating about the swamp OR the swamp really was dangerous to go through and they said there were others using the tower to make it seem like we couldn't go anyway. "Well. Fuck it, let's go see if it's that bad then we'll make a decision."

After 30 minutes of hiking on dry land, we arrived at the black, dark, swamp water. No one really discussed it, we just began walking. We all had shin high rubber boots on and the water wasn't that deep. This was O.K. But slowly, the black water rose on our boots until the moment came when water crested the top of the boot and flowed down our legs and feet, soaking our pants. No turning back. Deeper we forged. Knee high, thigh high. Someone would step in a hole underwater and be soaked to their hip. Keep moving. Don't think about what lies beneath. A huge spider crawled up Louisa's back. Paddy didn't say a word and just knocked it off her. Better she doesn't know. Finally we reach a bench, nearly submerged in the swamp with a dugout canoe chained to it. 30 minutes by canoe to the watchtower. We climb in, carefully. Someone blinked and a little water crested the canoe. We were barely afloat. Carlos began paddling from the front. The canoe only had one paddle. We bumped into a tree covered in ants. One of the girls got bit by the angry ants falling into our canoe, but the bite feels like a wasp sting. Carlos was up front using his machete to clear a path. A waterlogged and half sunken canoe sat ominously off to our left. Was that the group that was supposed to be here? We could be in a horror movie. Carlos is trying to be a good guide. He says this is Amazon swamp, primary, untouched. It's deep. There are large anacondas here, caimen, alligators, electric eel. No one's blinking. Louisa wants to turn back but the sun is nearly down. It's safer to keep going, get to the tower. She starts to hyperventilate and having an anxiety attack. Carlos spotted an alligator hiding in the vegetation growing on top of the water. Louisa and Paddy ask him to quit being a Naturalist and get us to dry land. Twenty minutes later we arrive at the basic, simple watchtower. No other group was there. Three stories above water with leaf-thatched roof. We were happy to be out of the canoe but there was a new problem. Ants.

Hundreds of ants were crawling all over the tower. Most were the size of large ants in the states. Interspersed were soldier ants, monsters, three times the size of the others with mandibles (pinchers) visible from six feet away. We made it to the top floor but they followed. Carlos said they're jumping ants. Great. Some of them were in the thatched roof and fell on us and began biting. Their bites are painful! Their pinchers grab on to you so you cannot just brush them off then they dig in and bite. We were thinking if they keep coming up to the top, one of us is going to end up in the hospital in Iquitos. "How are we going to sleep here?!" The sun sank over the Amazon to the west, a beautiful and brief moment of wonder for us then it was back to the ants. Adding to the shit, swarms of mosquitos. O.K. Focus on the basics. Carlos brought a couple sheets, blankets and mosquito nets. Paddy began setting up a net. Kara began hanging her hammock but she didn't bring her nice net that goes with it because Guido is Iquitos said they have everything we would need. His "tree house" my ass. We started killing the ants but that only attracted more ants to eat the dead ants. So kill and sweep, kill and sweep. If the guy in Iquitos had just said, "Hey, the watchtower is pretty rustic. Bring your hammocks with mosquito nets," then it wouldn't have been an issue. We camp all the time. We know to be prepared but his assurance before leaving Iquitos screwed us. Meanwhile, Carlos is down below trying to make a fire to boil swamp water for tea because we had no water (How he managed to find dry wood in the swamp escapes me). We brought our liter bottles with us but expected there to be water at the "tree house" so we didn't conserve it during the hike. Carlos comes up the tower and begins to burn our toilet paper supply to deter the ants. They don't like the ash. Good thinking. They began to keep away from our floor. We all climb underneath the one mosquito net set up at this point to escape the mosquitos for a few. They're covering the net searching for some gringo blood (Carlos doesn't get bothered by them). He calls us down to eat dinner, hard boiled eggs and bread. The fire from beneath the tower is keeping some of the mosquitos away.

Then the last thing I want happens. I have to take a shit...in the swamp, at night. I'd changed into my bathing suit at that point because my jeans were soaked. I climb down the tower and wade through ankle deep swamp water looking for a patch of dry land. Got one. Then, sweeping my light back and forth looking for snakes and spiders nearby. A tarantula-like spider the size of my hand glows in the light of my head lamp a few feet away. "You stay where you are!" I squat and turn off the light to keep the mosquitos away from my exposed ass cheeks. "Please God, make this a quick one," I prayed. I wipe and leave the tp on a log to retrieve in the AM to burn if it's not already consumed by an insect of the jungle and high tail it back to the watchtower. Success!

Our nerves calmed down. The ants seemed to be leaving us alone. We talked about getting drunk when we get back to Iquitos and laugh about our night in the swamp. The stars came out, a clear night. Beauty in the Amazon rain forest. I set up a mosquito net for myself after a failed attempt to put Kara and myself in her hammock. Kara jerry-rigs a mosquito net over her hammock (it didn't work well). The boards beneath me felt like rocks against my hips and knees. I killed all the mosquitos who had found their way beneath my net while setting it up and we all doze off telling funny stories from the past. The chorus of frogs singing to us. We were in the Amazon jungle.

We woke up around 6AM to take the canoe through the swamp two people at a time through the swamp to look for birds. Kara and I went first. Carlos paddled us through tunnels of overhanging vegetation to a heron look-out, similar to the tower we slept in but only one level. We spotted a couple types of hawks with Kara's binoculars as well as some herons, specifically the cougar heron. It's call sounds feline like a jaguar or mountain lion hence its name. We also saw some humming birds, and some tanagers. It was a beautiful morning.

We packed our things, got a couple more ant bites for souveneirs, had some swamp water tea and eggs for breakfast and got back into the canoe to head back to civilization. We paddled the canoe as far as we could in the flooded forest until a submerged log stopped us and started our wet hike back through the black swamp. Even though it didn't rain, the river must have pushed more water inland because the water was higher than the day before. Just get through. Something brushed against my leg and I just told myself it was a stick and kept moving. We made it through though without an incident. Back on dry land, we had made it. It was sunny, and hot, and we were out of water. We hiked back to the boat, back to the lodge for lunch, filled our water bottles and surveyed the damage. Kara got chewed by every insect possible through her pants, through her hammock, all over her legs and bum. I don't understand sometimes how she likes Nature with bites like those. After lunch we headed out, back to Iquitos. We were too tired for beers. We must be getting older. Showers, dinner, then crawled into bed to read and fall asleep. Our adventure in the jungle was over. It was difficult yet worthwhile. The Amazon is like nothing we've ever experienced. Respect it and protect it. It has something to teach us all.

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