Tuna, peanut butter and bread

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South America » Colombia » Leticia » Rio Yavari, Amazon
January 25th 2008
Published: January 25th 2008
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At the end of our little cruise we touched down in Santa Rosa, which is the Peruvian side of the river. From where we stood, we could see Leticia (the Colombian border town) and Tabatinga (the Brazilian town) on this three-way border. After a few emigration formalities, mainly involving me paying a small fine for overstaying my Peruvian visa, we hopped from dirty nappy to dirty nappy to get into a boat for five minutes to take us to Colombia. Expecting full body cavity searches and hectic immigration, we were surprised to find absolutely nothing in the way of immigration - no desk, no guard, no closed office, no queue. In fact, not even the army guys, with their reassuring sub-machine guns, knew where we could do things correctly and legally. So we didnĀ“t. We just found a hotel - by this time the heavens had opened and we were completely drenched in a tropical rainstorm - smelling of damp (as all cheap hostels must), which had a broken sink, a bucket to catch the water from the sink as it wasn't plumbed in, cockroaches, and other people's hair on the beds.

It continued to rain on and off, in regular afternoon downpours between the bursts of brilliant, steaming sunshine. We decided that to make the best of our time there in the Amazon we should go on a jungle tour and sleep in our hammocks for yet another night. We arranged to meet our guide Sergio the next day, early in the morning, carrying hammocks, food (again, bread, peanut butter and tuna - can you see a pattern?), lots of doxycycline and 90% DEET mosquito repellant to sufficiently burn our epidermis to be unappealing to the little bloodsuckers. We met Sergio in his village, a little community consisting of various local tribes, including his, the Uitoto. He was a silently charismatic man, with one missing eye and a smooth, muscular chest. He carried a huge woven basket on his back and supported by his forehead by a cord, filled with pots and pans, guns and machetes. His house was a raised timber structure, clean and cool, with butterfly roof and corrugated plastic gutters at the base of the v-shape. A large, peeling picture of Che Guevara was tacked to one wall, alondside images of the Virgin and family portraits, and hammocks swinging in front of a large, flatscreen TV.

The first part of the trek was fairly easy, though muddy and slippery. We balanced precariously along wet, slimy logs to cross stagnant pools of water and tried to avoid slipping into the murky depths buzzing with mosquito larvae. Eventually we arrived at a clearing in the forest, another part of the community to which Sergio belongs, called a Maloco. Sergio's group have undertaken the task of building this large community building, for rituals and festivals and to teach the young children the traditional indigenous language through songs and stories here. Each person in the group has to help in whatever way they can, tying the tall structure together with lianas or weaving palm leaves to make the roof matting, or cooking and feeding the workmen in the communal kitchen. To help fund the project, tourists are welcomed to stay in a neighbouring house and are well looked after, while getting that "native" experience. The group are also responsible for the upkeep of the jungle paths which we were going to trek, but this had been ignored for a while because of the importance of the continuing work on the Maloco. Here we picked up Jesus, Sergio's cousin, who was to be our second guide, a jolly little man with a round, smiling face and a cheeky manner in contrast to Sergio's seriousness, which could have been shyness. Here, before setting out again for the next leg of the walk, Sergio introduced us to coca. Now, we'd drunk infusions of coca leaves in Cusco to help with the altitude acclimatisation, but had heard that it was far more effective to eat the stuff. Sergio had a large jar of finely ground coca leaves, of which he put two large spoonfuls in either corner of his cheeks, mixed with a thick, black tobacco paste. He offered us some, though we didn't touch the tobacco stuff as it looked noxious, and used less coca powder than him. Apparently it helps you focus when walking in the jungle, making you more sensitive to sounds and animals around you, and makes sure you keep your footing. Whatever the reason, we tried some and all nearly choked on the fine silky powder that escaped in green puffs out of our mouths. We kept it in the corners of mouths, like masticating camels, swallowing a tiny amount at a time with saliva. It did have some effect, whether it was heightened clarity or not I don't know, but it certainly made our mouths go numb. Though cocaine is derived from coca leaves, coca is completely legal and a useful natural remedy in jungle or high altitude areas. I'm not sure, however, whether I'd be allowed to bring back some coca leaf teabags and I don't really fancy trying my luck.

We continued for another couple of hours, eventually reaching Sergio's second house, deep in the jungle, by which time I was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth from the numbness induced by coca sucking. As we later found out, this was where his mother and family had always lived, but he was born in the community dwelling further out, where we had first met him. When he was a little older he moved back to the jungle house and found a wife and got him some children, before moving back to the larger, open community. He maintains this house, and it seems to be a place where many of the local men come to toast their coca leaves and rest before heading out of larger jungle treks to hunt or collect building materials. He has large fields of coca leaves (and judging by the amount he got through in one night and two days, he needs a fair amount for personal consumption), as well as tobacco, grapes, limes and other strange looking fruits. Sergio instructed us in the making of his precious green powder. First he collects a large amount of leaves, and over an open fire moves them continuously until they are toasted. He then collects some other leaves and burns these to a fine ash, which he mixes with the toast coca leaves and then pounds repeatedly in a large hollowed bamboo used as a pestle and mortar, eventually forming a very fine dust which he can use. Hanging over his open fire was a large, live, buzzing wasps nest. When asked about it, he just shrugged his shoulders and said "I thought it looks pretty, so I leave it there". Fair enough.

Onwards we walked, deeper into the jungle, but obviously not too far removed from civilization since planes would periodically fly overhead. After wading through more swamps and crossing rivers over logs, following paths which only appeared to Jesus and Sergio, and which looked like more random jungle mess to us, we arrived at a small hut, without walls but with a woven palm-frond roof, and raised slightly off the jungle floor. While Sergio and Jesus cooked rice and made soup out of nothing it seemed, we silently munched our slightly depressing provisions. They laughed when they realised we hadn't brought anything to cook, another head-shaking look-at-the-funny-gringos moment. We put our hammocks up and waited as the rain stopped, before wandering around poking sticks into holes to see what creatures would come out and trying, in vain, first to fish, then to catch minnows to fish, then to find grubs to fish, and finally giving up on the futile fishing lark. We discovered a large black tarantula living 3 metres from our swinging hammocks, not poisonous, but which would puff an irritating dust onto your skin which would burn a little. Sergio of course, picked it up by hand and pressed the dust out of it with the tip of his machete. Ugly creature it was, with fearsome black fangs and a revolting body structure. There were some cuter white lipped tree frogs however, making loud mating calls all night, which are more my kind of animal. We set off for another couple of hours walk, to try and find some animals or insects, but nothing revealed itself. We did however see some tiger tracks (hopefully it was long gone) and a tapir watering hole, and some parrots in a perch 60 feet above us, which Jesus tried to shoot for dinner, but (thankfully or not - I wanted something more interesting than our planned fare) he missed. On our return, Sergio wove Paul a little basket and showed us how to weave the palm fronds together to make the traditional rook matieral.

That evening, after more pointless fishing attempts and some lighthearted banter, we settled into our hammocks after another nutritious and delicious meal of bread, peanut butter and tuna. Sergio and Jesus smoked while swinging in theirs, around the camp fire, singing traditional Uitoto childhood songs to us, which their grandmother used to sing to them, and which they are now teaching their own children. We then went on a night walk, which was exciting at first, until the fear set in. Without seeing any animals, all we came across were tarantulas and spiders' webs and huge, palm-sized insects which sounded like chain saws when you held them. The big insects I didn't mind so much, but the sheer number of spiders started to make me a little uneasy. It was completely, penetratingly dark. When we switched off our head torches, we couldn't see a thing, not even enough light came through the depth of the jungle canopy to let our eyes get used to the dark. Through breaks in the leaves we could see a million stars, wishing we could find a clearing to observe them closer. But frogs, spiders and freakish insects were all we saw, although we heard a myriad of piercing, strange cries which could have been insect or animal and we had no way of knowing either how to locate these creatures which surrounded us or how to return to our safe hammocks. The sound of the jungle rose in a deafening crescendo at times, everything seeming to swell in cries around us, before dying away into a few croaks and creaks. Then, again, the sound would grow and enclose us completely, and in turning off the lights the claustrophobia of the jungle would envelope us. For that's what made me most uneasy, the sheer closeness of everything that can see and sense and watch you, when you can't see a thing, at the jungle's mercy, completely dependent of Sergio and Jesus to lead us back safely. I wasn't the only one who was unnerved by the night walk.

The night was comfortable enough, damp and alive with the buzzing of mosquitos beneath and around the hammock and mosquito net, mine which I had just discovered holes in. We arose early, to our usual fare, though John by this time was not feeling very well. Jesus had awoken early and miraculously caught a fish witin five minutes, and made a delicious rice and fish stew for our breakfast , no doubt laughing at the useless, helpless gringoes who are quite happy to go hungry, although they really liked our peanut butter. We went on a morning walk after packing up, on the hunt for more animals, though again in vain, although more reassuring in the daylight than the previous night's walk. Sergio and Jesus would at points blow through a particular cut leaf and make a piercing animal call, which is supposed to attract the animals to us, unsuccessfully however. On our return, John was in a worse state, weak and pale with recurrent diarrhoea. He had been on a jungle trek in Iquitos before we all arrived, without proper DEET mosquito repellant and not taking his anti-malarials correctly. I thought malaria or dengue fever, but didn't say anything to them, only asking Sergio on the slow walk back what he thought it could be. John was tripping and dragging his legs all the way back, looking awful, and we walked on slowly to try and support him across the slippery logs. It had rained a lot the previous night and our route was waterlogged, so we waded through much more swamp this time, mosquitos baying for our blood in the annoying way they have of dive-buzzing past your ears continuously. It took us a long time to get back, as we had to stop for a longer time at the two houses to allow John time to rest. At one point, Jesus rushed off into the depths of the forest, and a few mintues later, we heard a loud gunshot which frightened us all as well as the animals. We came upon him grinning manically over a large, dead female monkey which he had killed for food for his family. He cut the tail off, pulled out the spinal cord and stuck it on a twig, prancing around like a French maid dusting the house. They eat every part of the monkey, brains and all, except the intestines. I would have liked to try some.

We made it back, wet and muddy and smelling potent, looking forward to a shower and a laundry. About to rush to the hospital to get John some emergency treatment, we met a doctor staying in the same hotel as us (we had moved to a more salubrious establishment on our return) who diagnosed gastroenteritis, of the standard Peruvian kind, as they are dirty and their water is unclean and their food is all rotten (his opinion). Reassured we bought some dry crackers and rehydration electrolyte (which from my experience of the Peruvian affliction, is a marvellous if revolting strawberry sweet-salty cocktail) and settled him down with National Geographic on Sky TV. It was good to be back in some luxury, a cold shower, clean sheets and welcoming restaurants with more on offer than tuna and peanut butter.


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