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Published: January 17th 2008
We arrived in Iquitos, in the Peruvian Amazon Basin, late the next evening, and whizzed around the centre in a little moto-taxi with open sides as the full force of a tropical storm unleashed itself around us. The plan was to get a boat up the Amazon from Iquitos to Leticia, in Colombia, and cross the border off the beaten track, spending a memorable New Year on a boat with hundreds of Peruvians and two toilets. Unfortunately, though hardly unsurprising, no one wanted to work over the New Year period, preferring instead to sit on the docked boats in the mud, drinking home-brew liquor. So we had to spend December 31st in Iquitos, wandering around the centre, drinking beer, opening then refusing to drink revolting Peruvian "champagne", setting off fireworks in a crowd, staring guiltily as the crowds ducked and screamed, saving small children from losing their eyes to wayward firecrackers. We learnt that fireworks are best let off on flat, open ground. I blame John and Paul, though to be fair, the Peruvians didn't seem to mind too much. In fact, the top game of the night for the kids was letting off firecrackers on the ground, and as it spun and fizzed into flame, jumping on them with bare feet. The countdown itself was a bit of a letdown. We gathered in the main square expecting fireworks and cheers and some indigenous version of Auld Lang Syne, but we only realised it was midnight when we saw some Brits confusedly hugging each other with one eye on the clock to make sure it really was 2008. No one else seemed to have noticed, so we sprayed some champagne on some irritable street vendors which seemed the best use of the undrinkable liquid.
Iquitos is a small town, the gateway to the Amazon from Peru, and the largest town in the world not accessible by road. It sits on a beautiful delta leading out to the great river itself, with vultures soaring on the thermals and large fish and alligators as the choice meat on the menu del dia. We spent the time mostly relaxing, reading and drinking beer, recovering from the hard work of Pisco and enjoying the atmosphere of a new town, somewhat uneventfully. John was pickpocketed three times during one trip to the market - luckily, there was nothing in his pocket apart from a hole to his hairy leg - but he was rather shaken by catching these little boys in the act. He took to carrying a slimy, wet bar of soap in his pockets to foil them. Ah, sweet revenge.
Eventually, on the 2nd of January, we jumped on board El Gran Diego, described as being "a nice boat" by the guidebook. Well, if this was "nice" (always my favourite adjective) I can't imagine what the others were like, but what can you expect for a 3-day boat trip up the Amazon for eight quid. We got there early, to reserve ourselves prime hammock spaces at the back of the boat. Oh, how we thrilled at the luxury of our little area, looking outwards to the Amazon. We met two French people who had spent the last 15 months cycling round South America, but they didn't stay very long as within fifteen minutes of setting up their spaces their passports and cameras had been stolen by little children crawling unnoticed underneath their hammocks. It made us nervous and watchful, and somewhat snappy with each other, as we had a lot of stuff with us, and we resolved to sleep with everything of value tied around us for all three days, no change of clothes, no shower, just a bit of tooth-cleaning. Although we were supposed to leave the dock at 6pm, Peruvian timekeeping meant that we actually left closer to 9pm. All the other boats left before us, one managing to break a couple of windows on the side of our boat, another reversing fully into our back. It was a reassuring start. There we were sitting on the widest river in the world (six kilometres in width in some parts), and the boats were piling on top of each other. The wait meant that El Gran Diego could fit more and more people on - in total, on our level, there were over 200 people, some in bunk-bed style hammocks hung one above the other. Our next door neighbour was a vocal chicken we called Milanesa (after our favourite Peruvian fried dish), and there was a diseased mangy puppy who would crap at regular intervals underneath my hammock. Karma. There was a monkey called Pepe, and children of all shapes and sizes and smells. There was a fat boy with stomach problems who would abuse the only toilet; there was a rich lawyer from Medellin who took pleasure in down litres of rum; there were huge flying moths and insects which would regularly land on our faces and hammocks. There was a large bin which we were conscientious to fill with our rubbish, as an example to the Peruvians who would throw everthing overboard (nappies, bottles, plastic wrappers - in fact it ended up being a diverting game for the bored children, like poo sticks I suppose), but which was emptied out into the river anyway. There was a sign saying it was forbidden to pee overboard, over which all the men lined up to pee. There was tripe stew (again, and I still don't like it), and watery oatmeal with stale bread.
An interesting thing happened within a few hours of setting off. A boat crept silently up to the side of ours, with no lights on, and filled with metal drums. Suddenly a police flashlight beamed over El Gran Diego, searching, searching, fixing on the little boat which was now speeding away to the dark banks of the river. "Gas, gas, petroleum por el barco", said one of the boat's stewards. You would have thought they'd have filled her up before setting off. Anyway, the police entered our boat, and I suppose they had a look around the hold, but soon left. A little while later, the little boat was back, again without lights and this time successfully unloading whatever it was they had onto our boat. As it raced away down the Amazon, empty, its lights miraculously came on. Now, I don't know much about taxes on fuel and why they might have to re-fill the boat out of the dock, but the Peruvians were as interested in what was happening as we were. They too had the same knowing half-smiles as we had. The next morning, just as the sun was rising before five, a large group of men collected on the back of the boat next to our hammocks. Something was being unloaded onto another boat and they were all very keen to see it got off safely. I stroked my chin, Fagin-style. Hmmm...what could they be transporting so secretly near the Colombian border? Meanwhile, someone had tried to open my little rucksack and steal whatever he could, but my dirty underwear was not quite what he was looking for. Foiled again!
It took some time getting used to sleeping outdoors with two hundred other people crushed next to you, in a hammock. It's actually quite comfortable, once you get used to the rush of blood to your stomach with your feet elevated for so long. There was nowhere else to sit, other than the hammocks, nothing else to do other than read or annoy each other or drink beer. We spent most of our time eating bread, tuna and peanut butter, the extent of our planning ahead, provisions-wise. It was certainly an experience, washing you face in Amazon river water, catching escaped chickens, and as with everywhere in Peru, going to the toilet is always a memorable one. We passed indigenous villages, who rely on these big boats to pass for their weekly supplies of frozen vegetables, rice and Inca Cola, their floating timber villages rising out of the banks and disappearing into the jungle, a curling wisp of smoke the only sign of habitation. Pinkish-grey dolphins cavorted around the boat, as the drizzle dampened our clothes and hammocks. Large, strange fish were brought back by children in wooden boats. Men lazed in hammocks watching the travellers on boards with little curiosity. It was a change to be one of five gringos on the boat, the definite minority and insignificant at that.
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