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Published: June 21st 2011
In Iquitos I was a little past the midpoint to the tri-frontier. From Pucallpa, where I´d been living with my host family for a couple of months, I hoped to reach Leticia, Colombia in order to renew my Peruvian visa. Every inch of the journey was passed in boat, firstly along the Ucayali River which later becomes the Amazonas. From Iquitos I would travel the Amazon through Loreto. With forty percent of the country´s area, it is Peru´s largest department. Loreto ends with the tiny town of Santa Rosa, which along with the Leticia and Tabatinga, Brazil create the triple-border.
I asked a motocarrista to take me to the port where boats left for Leticia, to scope out the scene. The boats were smaller than those going between Pucallpa and Iquitos, at two or three decks tall each. All had handmade signs indicating where they were heading and when. Theoretically, that is. Walking the plank up to the base deck of the craft, I was welcomed with genuine politeness and curiosity. I was led to the captain, who came off pretty damn cool, wearing nothing but sandals, shorts, and a fanny pack around his chest.
After shooting the breeze about the route (straight-up Amazon), the estimated time (four days), we negotiated a price and I got my own room on the boat thrown in for fun. I felt great about this boat trip, as everything was in the tone of calm, organized chaos. I hopped off, to return and travel with them in a couple of days.
My return to the port was a little frustrating. Hear me out on this one. I have known all along that being a young white girl travelling solo I would attract attention. I like talking to strangers and have awesome spontaneous conversations all the time. Unfortunately, I also face harassment every single day. If it´s not in the form of whistles or piropos, I get unwanted offers and stares from men on a daily basis. I don´t wear ¨provocative¨ clothing, but it shouldn´t matter even if I did. While I adore the cheek-kissing customary in Peru, sometimes I get pulled too close or men aren´t aiming for my cheek. While the underlying motive may be harmless, sometimes I detect malicious energy. I felt so enraged for my first spell here in South America, before building up a context of machismo in the culture. If I´m in the street, I ignore it, as it´s not worth fighting about. More than feeling threatened, it´s plain obnoxious to me. I advocate for my boundaries without fail, but now I try to work past this dynamic by not giving attention to negative behavior and by communicating directly.
Anyway, my motokar pulled up in the port, and before I could even hop out it was swarmed by over ten guys. They all were pushing and trying to wrangle my big ´ol backpack and carry it for me, trying to secure a couple of soles. I said no thank you, and told them I´d be fine. It was less than fifty feet to my boat. Thus followed an explicit dialogue between the men, musing about where I got my strength from. I wouldn´t make sense if I were to translate what they said, but it was really vulgar and offensive. For the first time, I got pissed. I put down my backpack, turned to faced the chummy swarm of dirty men, and let my sass loose until they backed off. Those idiots got schooled, and in Spanish nonetheless.
A few deep breaths later I was climbing the plank up to my boat. The crew welcomed me and told me to make myself comfortable. We would depart that night. There was only one deck of passengers, so we all got acquainted. The cargo, along with the usual packaged goods and foods, included ice and cattle. The loading of the cows was a pretty painful sight. They were not excited about scaling the flimsy plank, and the process included a lot of pushing and pulling. Finally everyone was situated, bovine included. After another spectacular Amazonian sunset, we embarked.
The pace of the journey was slower than my last boat trip, though I´m not complaining. It is a spectacular area, and the river´s scenery never ceases to amaze me. The Amazon is massive, and we navigated it´s passages between huge, forested islands. The shores are covered in reeds. Even from a boat in the middle of the river they are imposing plants, tall and pointy-looking. It was fascinating seeing them poking out from under the water and extended far up the bank, illustrating how wide the difference is between high and low water times.
Along the way, we stopped at various little towns for passengers and cargo to unload or board. In every port, little kids and old ladies hawked their fruits and juanes (a regional food made of rice with a little bit of chicken and an olive, wrapped in and flavored by shiny biljao leaves). Outside of these towns, human presence one shore was indicated more by plantain chacras (fields) or beached canoes than by people.
Onboard, we listened to cumbia and Brazilian pop music on repeat. Several of the passengers were half- or wholly Brazilian. My Spanish only went so far, and I struggled to understand the Portuguese that I began hearing on this trip. Brazilian Portuguese is lovely and sing-song, but a little more guttural than Spanish.
Something that surprised me was the number of Jesuit villages along the way. A good portion of the passengers were Jesuits. The navy blue veils of the women and long hat-covered hair and beards of the men are distinctive, and make this group immediately recognizable. When I first saw Jesuit women vending street food in Pucallpa I thought, ¨Why are there nuns selling churros?¨ It was great to learn more about their faith, and see nicely-functioning Jesuit communes just where they want to be, far from the cities. I respect their will to live in isolated communities, dedicated to agriculture and living simply. A father and his son explained to me that they had been in Iquitos selling their maíz, and now they wouldn´t leave for some time. Of course, almost any population in the jungle relies on the ships bringing sacks of rice, soap, factory-made clothing and such, but the Jesuits seemingly live humbly, focused on the spiritual.
As such with boat journeys, time blurred. The days were a progression of vivid sunrises and sunsets. The hot sun illuminated a wide, green landscape of islands, shore, and water, without a hill in sight. Some nights it rained. We lowered the tarp curtains to shield the open sides of the passenger deck. They flapped loudly all night, flicking water on us in the downpour. The rain brings a harsh chill that one wouldn´t expect from the steamy, sweaty rainforest. It was enough to make my toes icy, especially around four or five in the morning. Other nights it was perfectly clear, with clear stars drilling the sky. The heavens have never seemed more immense. I have never felt smaller than while watching the night sky turn, floating along an unimaginably long snake of water. Again, I cannot translate this into English.
In the middle of one night, I was roused by a deep voice singing. I rubbed my eyes and peeked out of my hammock. My neighbor, an older Jesuit man with a long beard, had his eyes closed and palms open. He was entranced. His complete love of God was tangible in the air as he let out his mournful and holy songs. One hymn flowed into another with grace. He began sobbing softly, still singing. From a nearby hammock, a young mother could be heard softly accompanying his songs. The pure devotion awed me, gave me chills, and wiped away any mind-chatter. I´ve never identified as Christian, but I got a hint that night of what it means to be in love with Christ. His tears flowed, and he returned quietly to his hammock. The boat was once again silent, but the air was changed. Charged. His flow of Holy Spirit is one of the clearest moments in my entire experiences here, and something I will never forget.
The glimpse of rural river life that the trip afforded me is cherished. Just the scope of the forest and the vigor with which all of the species here live is pretty amazing. That it is inhabited and has been for millennia and that that fact doesn´t impress the locals all made me question the meaning of civilization, and evaluate its role in a different way than I usually do.
It would have taken me longer than the trip to Leticia to tire of river travel. However, in only a few days time that we arrived, where the banks of this magical river are shared between Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, and this stretch of the journey was complete.
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