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Published: June 21st 2011
Last I left off; I was in a boat to Iquitos. Having traveled the Ucayali up to its confluence with the Marañon, the river became the Amazon. This immense, brown stretch of water, witnessed from the middle of the river, was beyond impressive. Concepts of water scarcity and salinification in the world don´t necessarily compute here. I stood in awe of the river, amazed and how many waters from so many places meet and mingle here. And that it is flowing, constantly replenishing, rising and falling; it lives.
As usual with long boat rides, the last day is something of a guessing game. Those who know the voyage well were at an advantage, but no one knew for sure when exactly we would arrive. Folks made bets as to the hour we touch shore, shared their plans for the moment of arrival, and hopefully packed up their hammocks, even as the sky darkened after another brilliant Amazonian sunset. The darkness eased with the far-off glow of the approaching city. The crew told me that although the light-pollution of Iquitos was visible, it would still be hours before we ended the journey. I packed up and climbed into my hammock, and was woken at two in the morning when we landed.
Some families stayed aboard until the morning, hammocks suspended above possessions in clusters, now islands in the emptied space of the boat. Mostly folks unloaded with haste, eager to make it home to their own beds after four days on a boat. Freddy´s aunts Dominga and Doris found me, and together we all climbed down three flights of stairs, passed all of the cargo that would be unloaded in the next days, and descended a rickety plank to the port. I was in a bit of a daze, but we fit the two aunts, the three girls, and Freddy and I into a couple of waiting mototaxis, and off we went.
Dominga knew exactly where to go. She, like many other Shipibo women, travels and sells her art. Shipibo women are renowned for being roving vendors in all parts of Peru. It is never surprising to see a couple women, with their colorful shirts and ornately embroidered skirts, at festivals or in plazas all over this country. Usually one arm is covered in dangling necklaces, with the black spheres of choloke, the dark nuggets or achira, and the shiny red huaywuro. With sweet smiles and expectations they approach and rattle their wares. Dominga has travelled to sell her family´s textiles and jewelry for years, as such is an expert in where to stay and eat on the cheap. The aunts got the last room in their very economic hospedaje, and I found a place nearby. This was all nearby Mercado Belen, with beautiful views of the river (as I found out in the morning light). We made plans to meet for breakfast.
Freddy and I awoke the dueña at our chosen hospedaje with knocks on the door. She told us she was surprised to see us. We were admitted, but not before asking a couple of questions. Apart from the usual (where are you from? Did you come for tourism?) there was also Didn´t we know there was a dengue epidemic in Iquitos? Of course, living in the jungle there is always the risk of mosquito-borne disease, and I knew it was a possibility here as it is everywhere where there are mosquitoes, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that it was serious.
Dengue is a hazard, especially with the increasing waters. There is no vaccination or medication for Dengue. If you get it, you get it. Depending on what type of dengue and how many times one has been infected with it, the experience can range from a few hellish, painful, feverish days to death. It does not sound like fun. However, the health department´s motto around here is: ¨Sin zancudo no hay dengue¨. It sounds simple enough: without mosquitoes there´s no dengue. All around Iquitos and other places in the selva, these words are posted, complete with a big, scary, crossed-out mosquito.
Covering water stores at home only does so much, as flooding from the river and the rain only bring more stagnant waters. Generally, there aren´t many mosquitoes where the city is paved. However, there are parts of town built alongside the river, or in gullies, or in other places where marginalized poor are pushed. The houses here are constructed on stilts to accommodate flood waters, and lack indoor plumbing. If they have electricity or running water, it is probably comes and goes. These are the most vulnerable to flooding, and the successive mosquitoes that could bring dengue. With this in mind, I mostly stayed in the center.
My intention in coming to Iquitos had been to stop for a couple of days and get to know the city a little before continuing on the Leticia and the tri-frontera. It was a relaxed enough time, but I felt pretty slammed by the tourism. After a few months of getting to know Yarina and Pucallpa, I felt comfortable, recognized, and pleased to have a research project there. Iquitos, moreso than Pucallpa, has an extensive tourist infrastructure and thus sees visitors from all over the world. It brags to be the largest city in the Peruvian jungle (although I beg to differ, Pucallpa seems to have more inhabitants) and the largest city in the world unreachable by road, only by boat or plane. Although surrounded on all sides by jungle, it´s a real city, and tourism is seemingly its life-blood.
I felt immediately confounded by the amount of tourists I saw, complete with fancy khaki ¨jungle garb¨ (in the middle of the city?). For the taking there are nearby jungle lodges, zip-lining, wildlife tours, ayahuasca trips, and more. The level of commercialism and being a target of it quickly annoyed me. The way to my heart is not to hassle me with laminated pictures of your jungle lodge and unintelligible English while I am writing an e-mail to my mother, thank you very much. Promoters of tourist packages, dodgy men proffering animal skins while looking over their shoulders for the cops, little Shipibo girls dripping with seed jewelry for sale were present everywhere, and were always on the lookout for foreigners. Avoidance became a game, hide-and-seek on a city level.
I enjoyed the general flow of my couple of days there. I would wake up, accompany Freddy and his family to the nearby market for breakfast, and would then walk around, take rides on public transportation to see the city better, sew, and eat tasty food. The Belen Market turned out to be a great place to get tinctures and other natural medicines to refurbish my dwindling supplies. I frolicked with Chris, Katy, and Sharon, Freddy´s cousins. I admit, I took advantage of Iquitos and its tourism and saw a movie, ate over-priced Indian food, and met and talked with other folks who speak English. It was befuddling to be floating between Peruvian and Western culture, but I these luxuries do not present themselves often in my town.
One thing worth mentioning is Iquiteña architecture. While it´s not the classical colonial style evident in many Latin American cities, it has its charm. Iquitos largely developed with the rubber boom in the early 1900s. As such, the tiled homes of stinking-rich rubber barons decorate the city. I walked along the waterfront park perched above the Amazon, passing by houses that looked like they belonged in Portugal or Morocco. There is no such fanciness in Pucallpa.
I did not come to Iquitos seeking jungle tourism, and maybe would have thought more of the city if I spent more time or money there. However, soon enough I was saying goodbye to Freddy´s family and some new friends here, and embarking once again, this time to the Peruvian-Colombian-Brazilian border.
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