My alarm seemed to go off just as I had closed my eyes; I had gone out with Miguel and David to a club only hours before that had recently opened in Iquitos, a city near the Brazilian border in northeastern Peru. I wasn’t really feeling like dancing knowing very well that I had to wake up early the following day, although it ended up being well worth it. It wasn’t at all like the typical bars or clubs that I had known while growing up in Minnesota- this club was entirely salsa music. It had a main stage with a live band composed of three or four men and a woman who were singing, a handful of different instruments, women dancing on the stage in vibrant blue outfits, lights of every color and a huge audience covering three floors. This combination resulted to a fiery energy that pulsed throughout the club that kept everyone alive and moving. Miguel and I had been in Iquitos all week getting organized for our upcoming journey that would take us several days by boat into the Amazon. Additionally we had an opportunity to document a project with a local fish farm who is working with an indigenous community in the Amazon in an effort to help preserve the local species in their area by teaching them how to farm their own fish. We also were able to see a wildlife rehabilitation center, a zoo as well as explore some of the city which was located right on the Amazon river.
This is one of the manatees that I met at the animal rehabilitation center. Manatees are native to the Peruvian Amazon, however due to habitat loss, hunting as well as other factors they are rarely seen and their survival is at risk.
It was still dark out with rain steadily falling on the city. I grabbed my bags which I had packed the night before and headed out the door, down a muddy dirt street and caught a motorcar to the bus stop where I would meet up with Rony. A woman was there waiting for me with a clipboard and list of all the passengers who would be traveling to Requena. After my name was checked I loaded my bags and boarded the small bus. Rony was there as well; we would be the only two traveling to Requena that day from Iquitos. Miguel had another assignment to work on and would meet up with us in several days time. We both headed to the back of the bus where I sat down and stared out the window. The trip to the port would take around two hours, or at least that’s what I was told.
I couldn’t believe how much I had experience in the half week that we were in Iquitos prior to leaving. One of the coolest moments happened earlier that week which started out as a trip downtown to walk the malecon, or the boardwalk that followed the river along the city. While walking the malecon I saw a young man sitting on a wooden bench with quite a few bracelets that he was selling. He had tattoos up and down his arm, gauged ears and a necklace made from chocolate brown seeds looped several times around his neck. Once I got closer I paused for a moment, and then it hit me that I knew who he was. I met him years ago while I was working on an ethnographic project along the Ecuadorian coast through my university in the US. He was traveling around South America at the time and spent a while living and working in Montañita, a small surfing city while making jewelry and fire spinning to pay for his travel expenses. While living in Ecuador in the past I spent a lot of time with a number of travelers who sold handmade jewelry in the streets during the day and played music and spun fire at night. After enough time I was right there with them, learning how to weave bracelets and necklaces as well as spinning fire in the streets. He was one of my friends who I had always hung out with, and just happened to be from Iquitos. A girl appeared at my side not long after meeting Cesar (my friend) who I had also ran into earlier that night, who I found out was his girlfriend. She started out backpacking around South America after leaving her home in Uruguay- and after meeting Cesar she decided to stay in Perú. We ended up having a wonderful evening drinking, laughing, telling stories and catching up.
I watched the landscape slowly change from buildings and houses to lush green jungle and rivers until I gave up trying to stay awake and fell asleep. I woke up once we arrived at a small port city on the river, and after grabbing my bags from underneath the bus headed straight to the boat where we boarded. The boat was large and painted white with a metal frame. It was completely enclosed, with windows on both sides that could be opened or closed- they even had curtains. There was a large door on the front with a window in its center so that it would be possible to travel during bad weather as well as another large door in the back. On top of the metal roof was an area to tie down supplies. I boarded the boat with the help of the workers who stowed my things in the back on several seats. One of the workers walked down the aisle in the center of the boat passing out food and handed me a turkey sandwich as well as a juice box of peach juice, which I was very grateful for. I would guess that the boat could seat around 30, and was quickly filling up. After everyone had boarded and several attempts were made at firing up the engines we were our way.
The river looked different than it did in Pucallpa, it was broken up more and had quite a bit of vegetation growing on the surface. The boat raced across the river faster than I had ever traveled on my previous trips in the Amazon. Tall green river cane once again filled the shoreline while the other plants bounced on the surface of the water as we passed by the shore. Occasionally I would see a houseboat on the river with three or four floors and a handful of rooms, while on top of the boats hung hammocks beneath a tin roof. We wove our way from the main river through a network of waterways moving through the submerged forest passing lily pads at least three feet in diameter. After winding our way through a narrow passage of dark water and plants we arrived back onto the main river. We stopped at several communities to pick up more passengers, each time with groups of people from the communities flooding the boat trying to sell food. We passed a large white barge traveling slowly down the river carrying a very new looking vehicle, which I was told was coming from Pucallpa. With the steady sound of the twin engines continuously going behind our boat it made it all too easy for me to once again fall back asleep.
I woke to a pier jutting out into the river; we had arrived to Requena. We unloaded our things and took a motocar down the cement streets to our hotel. For being a city that had no road leading to it I was impressed by how big that it was and the amount of motorcars that I saw. They even had cement streets and brick buildings, although the majority were wooden with tin roofs. Houses floated in the river just off shore on rafts with boats and canoes resting next to them. We dropped off everything at our hotel, which had wifi- and then left to buy some supplies that we would need for the rest of our trip over the next few weeks.
This picture was taken on a bridge near a small port on the river. On the left are some of the floating houses.
We took about a 5-7 minute mototaxi ride through the city to a restaurant located right next to the river. I had fish, something that I would be eating quite a bit of over the next few weeks. I watched the barge arrive that we had passed on the river earlier dock on the riverbank while men began preparing to unload supplies.
Later on that day we met up with a woman who was the leader of a community in the jungle that my organization is working with. The community is working on future plans to harvest wood off of their land, however doing so in a way that won’t be detrimental to the forest by replanting trees (and only taking trees greater than a specific diameter). The community had been previously taking the wood illegally, so this was quite a change. I gave her an interview later that day and learned a little more about the community. I had an opportunity to speak with her more in depth later that day while visiting a family on one of the floating houses on the river. The houses themselves were quite impressive, supported entirely by large logs- much larger than an oil drum. Most had one room, a cooking area, and hammocks supported from the beams in the main area where everyone visited. Tin roofs covered the houses, with many rusted or bleached from years of exposure to the elements. We sat on a pile of beams stacked on the raft while several children played in the back corner of the room on the dark wooden floor. She spoke to me about how difficult that it has been for her lately with maintaining the community and keeping everything in order. Since she has been the leader there have been several occasions where she has had people try to kill her out of jealousy. Someone even paid a person 500 soles (150 USD) to put a curse on her, and since then she said that she hasn’t been well- although she has been going to treatment. It’s difficult for people to accept change, and although the rainforest continues to be torn down more and more people are fighting to protect it and educate those that live in or near the forest (especially those that now rely on the city for support) on how to use the forest without destroying it. Most of my life I’ve looked at this from an outsiders perspective, although I am starting to now understand a little of why some people look to the forest as a source of revenue. Many are very, very poor- and exotic wood can sell for a tremendous amount of money. Rather than looking at the people as being greedy or bad I’m sure that many are doing it to survive- and if done properly, it won’t destroy the forest. The method that we are educating won’t be detrimental. For every tree cut down several are planted in its place as well as only taking wood from specific regions of the forest.
An image of one of the floating houses just off shore of Requena.
Another several houses further off shore.
In this image you are able to see the size of the logs that are supporting the house. These floating houses are built in such a way that they are able to remain afloat for countless years without having issues of the raft sinking or the logs becoming waterlogged.
I woke the next day, finished packing and left the hotel. I headed to the river with my things in the back of a motorcar, with one hand on my bright red duffel bag where I kept all of my camera gear so that it wouldn’t bounce out of the cart. I met Cesar our motorist at the river, who would be with us for the next several weeks. He had dark skin and grey hair accompanied by a big smile on his face. I accompanied him to fill the gas tanks for the boat as well as four 60 gallon blue barrels which had been filled and placed standing up in the back of the boat. It was in this moment that I realized just how much further that I would be traveling on this trip in comparison to my last adventure on the Rio Abujao. We did all of this at a floating gas station which was a good 100 yards away from land.
Cesar and I returned to shore, where he navigated the boat alongside a wooden building halfway supported by the shore and the other half on large beams in the river. On the other side of our boat was a large wooden canoe filled with people as well as their produce. A man washed several bright green papayas in the river before walking up the muddy shore. I couldn’t believe how much trash there was on the bank of the river; everywhere that I look there were wrappers, bottles, styrofoam, bags and much more- it really bothered me. We spent some time gathering supplies for the journey (a huge burlap sack filled with rice) eggs, oil, canned tuna, crackers, cookies, bottles of water and much more. I took the opportunity to run to the market across the street and picked up a quick breakfast of juanes (rice/chicken) wrapped in a leaf and cooked, it even came with a fried egg. Rony met up with us as well as the rest of our team, and we left.