Tag Archives: Peru

Requena

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.

6O0A2112This 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.

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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.

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An image of one of the floating houses just off shore of Requena. 

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Another several houses further off shore.

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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.

 

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El Chullachaqui

 

Regardless of where one might live in the world, the further that they travel from civilization the less control that they have of their surroundings and their environment around them. If they travel far enough they are left to the mercy of a world without law, a world that governs itself entirely by the ability to survive. Since I’ve been back in South America, I’ve heard quite a few stories about the Amazon as well as people disappearing. Most of them have been about people getting lost in the forest and are never heard from again, however not long ago a friend of mine shared a story with me about the reason how some of these people become lost.

We stood on an empty sidewalk just outside of our hotel, after just returning from dinner. He began telling me about the Chullachaqui, a spirit of the forest who guards and protects it. The spirit is able to take the form of any person, and often tries to trick people into following him into the forest and then disappears, abandoning them. The only way that one is able to discern that he is a spirit and not a friend or loved one is that one of his feet will always be different, often times taking form of the foot of an animal.

He started out telling me of a man that he knows who worked with petroleum deep in the Amazon, who I will call Diego. One evening after finishing work, Diego as well as the rest of his crew left the job site to walk on a narrow path weaving through the forest back to their campsite. Javier, the man’s friend had to go to the bathroom- so he walked a short distance off of the main trail. After a few minutes of Javier not returning, Diego called his name and quickly heard a response saying that he would be right over. After a while longer of waiting Diego was getting concerned, and once again called Javier’s name- although this time there was no response. He called once again; nothing. He carefully followed Javier’s path, careful not to get lost. He was able to find the area where Javier had used the bathroom, but there was no sign of him. He thought to himself that Javier was probably playing a joke on him, and had actually cut through the forest and ran ahead. Surely he would be back at camp by the time that he returned. Diego returned to the camp and found all of the men sitting around the fire, but there was no sign of Javier. He asked the men if they had seen him; they looked at him puzzled, shocked that he was missing. They spent some time calling for Javier and did what they could to search- contacting the other camps in the area by radio to see if they had seen him, without any luck.

After five days Diego’s camp received a call from a campsite miles and miles away saying that a man, completely naked, had appeared at their campsite from the depths of the jungle. He couldn’t speak, and appeared completely delirious. He thought that just maybe it could be Javier, so he called. After explaining Javier’s physical characteristics to the man on the phone, he agreed that it did sound like Javier- so they arranged transportation to get him back to the camp. Sure enough, it was Javier. Completely unable to speak and seeming in an alternate state of mind, they contacted Javier’s parents. After they had arrived and picked him up, they admitted Javier into a mental institution. After a month, Javier’s father picked took him out of the hospital and worked with him- and before long, Javier had made a full recovery.

Time went by and Javier continued to improve.  Diego, eager to find out what exactly had happened to Javier was able to arrange a time to meet with him. After asking him what had happened the day that he disappeared when he went to use the bathroom, Javier responded by saying that he heard Diego calling his name, and responded accordingly. He then went on to explain that he saw Diego join him off of the trail, and said to him that a little ways away there was fruit that they could eat- so he followed him into the forest. After some time walking Diego completely disappeared. Nightfall had come, and Javier was now both alone and had absolutely no idea where he was. He tried to find a way back to the trail, unknowingly wandering deeper into the forest. After that that moment he had no further recollection of what had occurred.

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Returning to the river

Nightfall came far sooner than we had anticipated, leaving us still quite far from our destination. We were then left with the difficult decision to either camp on one of the sandy beaches along the river or continue on, with both having their risks. We were in prime territory for the cocleros, which are especially dangerous at night. On the other hand, navigating a river filled with jagged trees and branches (as well as piranha, caiman and probably some venomous snakes too) with nothing but a flashlight isn’t a particularly good idea either. Of the two, we decided to risk traveling by night on the river. The ride was relatively peaceful, apart from the occasional beaching on a sandbar in the middle of the river. I laid my head back on the wooden rim of the boat and watched the stars pass by high above the trees, clearly seeing both the constellation Orion as well as the Milky way galaxy. I hadn’t seen stars so bright in quite some time. I couldn’t believe where I actually was, and what I was doing. It was one of those moments where you feel like you’re living something that you only read about in books or see in movies.

DCIM100GOPROFor the first few days until the river grew it was necessary to have someone scanning the water at all times to keep an eye out for trees, shallow water and other potential problems.

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Weaving our way through the forest just as night began to engulf the land.

We arrived at the small community where we would be spending the night, parking our canoe with several others along the muddy clay shore. I was careful not be engulfed in the mud as I exited; luckily it was mostly sand and held my weight. Several boys wrestled with a squealing pig by the feet while it to escape; I figured at some point before leaving we would probably end up eating it. All of the buildings were made of rough cut lumber, arranged in a large square with a grassy center about as large as a soccer field. There were several small restaurants as well as small stores for those who needed supplies while traveling. We were lucky enough to find a man that had rooms available for rent. There were very few women present, and all the men that I saw simply stared at us without really showing any type of facial expression or greeting. I was warned earlier that this place is a little dangerous, I’m assuming because of its location and some of the people that they cater to. I wondered if anyone that I had just seen were drug traffickers or illegal miners/loggers. Our rooms were nothing more than beds enclosed by grey wooden walls with pictures of women in bikinis taped on them; the tops of each room were left open. Still, they had locks on them which I was grateful for- even though they were held in place by nothing more than nails. After a quick dinner and bathing myself with a bucket behind the building we all went to bed.

I woke early the next morning with the feeling as if bugs were biting me all under my shorts, right where the blanket was. I realized that the blanket that I had been given earlier had bed bugs in it. In a daze I threw it to the side and tried to fall back to sleep. I woke in the morning to find red bumps covering my body. I’ve had bed bugs in the past, and they will go away after about a week- but they are not fun. It was raining very hard when I first left the room, although after a short time it stopped. After a quick breakfast and restocking on drinking water we were back on the river. The rain came once again in full force, this time never letting up. Time after time we smashed into logs or beached ourselves on sandbars hiding just beneath the surface. I wore a pair of shorts assuming that I would be spending time in the water, which I wasn’t wrong about. What I hadn’t anticipated was being wet all day long. I hid underneath my rain poncho every chance that I had, trying my best to stay warm. I prayed that our boat would hold together- every time that we hit a lot I could feel it scraping and pushing against the bottom of the boat right before hitting the motor. The boat was already leaking pretty badly; in addition to the rain it made the trip miserable. After some time I dozed off, taking refuge underneath my poncho. I awoke to shouting, and through the rain saw the top of a tree jutting out from shore rapidly approaching the left side of our boat, smashing into the wooden canopy sending a log the size of my thigh into the canoe that had been covered in termites. As I had mentioned before, trees are everywhere in the river- some of the larger ones will fall laying themselves completely across the river (at the time, the river was around 80 feet wide). After throwing out the log that had fallen after the impact our motorista was able to navigate away from the tree and back onto course. Our motor which had taken countless hits from logs and sandbars eventually gave out, and after a number of attempts in trying to fix it we had to go back to our other motor which was resting in two pieces on the bow.

We arrived to our destination located about two hours away from Pucallpa, where the risk of hitting a tree in the river had vanished almost entirely with the river now being at least 150 yards wide. It was good to finally be out of the canoe and on land. After stowing away our things, we set off to see the community. It was significantly larger than the last, but still very poor. Children fished along the river with a line and hook, using a branch as their rod. I was told that it is no longer safe to eat many of the species of fish from the river because of the amount of mercury that they carry, a sad result of the gold mining further up the river. For the people here the river is everything- their drinking water, transportation, food and link to the outside world. We later met with the community to speak of our plans in helping them to gain rights to their land and establish a territory- which took place in their school, a large cement building that made a U shape around their soccer field (every community has a soccer field).  By 8pm I was almost ready for bed. Without having access to a TV, computer, my phone or even electricity it’s easy to begin living with the rise and fall of the sun. Sleeping on the floor was getting to be easy as well, much easier than keeping everything dry.

The next day I woke very early to a man shouting, and not long after that someone blasting their speakers from several blocks away. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play music that loud at 6:30am, but I quickly forgot about it. I got dressed and headed outside; everyone was already very busy. I watched as a group of men set out in a wooden canoe; two of the men being from our team. They were off to establish the boundaries of the territory for the community as I had seen several days before. I spent a little time talking to a group of children along the shore who were fascinated with my camera, while watching two women wash clothes by hand next to the river. A boy of maybe 16 or 17 carried a small, naked baby to the river- setting her on a log and rinsing her off. She was very content with the water and seemed to enjoy herself. After putting her in a hammock, he then went to swim. He was joined by a smaller boy as well as a girl of maybe 12. They swam back and forth near our canoe, racing and wrestling in the water. They climbed on top of our canoe and screamed as they pushed each other off. It was great to see them having fun, I really wanted to get in myself but wasn’t able to at the time.

I set off with my camera to take some photos and video of the community. All of the houses were supported by wooden beams at least two feet off of the ground to help protect them from the rise of the river. Some of the houses consisted of nothing more than a wooden platform on stilts with a roof- no defined rooms, and if anything two or three wooden walls while others used tarps or sheets for walls. They had their clothes strewn out across the floor or hanging from a line in their homes to dry. A group of children saw me with my camera and decided to help show me around the community. They were more than happy to share their home with me and help me get to know everyone, they also loved having their photo taken every opportunity that they were given. They brought me to a farm where they eagerly showed me a huge male turkey that lived there, with its feathers fluffed up proudly as a hen followed him around. In addition to turkeys they had chickens, dogs and cows.

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The kids and I continued our walk around town, passing by a group of fruit trees along the road growing behind the fence of a small house. They picked several oranges and a coconut and handed them to me which I was very grateful for. Soon the group of men that had left earlier on the overly packed wooden canoe returned, machetes in hand and mud covering their boots. After reuniting with my team, we ate a quick lunch of fried fish and rice and then gathered our things to leave.

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We traveled to the community “Comunidad Nativa Nueva Botana”. It was a quick ride compared to what I had grown accustomed to this past week. Of all the communities that we had previously visited, this was by far the largest. Everything was set up along one large grassy street cutting through the forest. Branching off of the road were houses, each given a cement street light. The houses were constructed the same as the communities that I had seen earlier, all on stilts and most having little more than a roof over their head. I heard over a loudspeaker held up by a tower rising high above the community the announcement of our arrival. For this community all that was necessary was to give our speech using maps and charts explaining how we planned to help them with their land. Everyone seemed to really get into it, and all who had the desire to speak were given a turn. A small chicken found its way into the building and wove its way across the wooden floor, scurrying beneath the chairs hunting for whatever bug was unfortunate enough to be spotted. A woman sitting by the door snatched it up and held it in her arms, much to the chicken’s disapproval. She lovingly fed it mosquitos whenever she killed one. I stood in the back with my camera on a tripod filming and watching everything happen. Determining the borders of a community and getting everyone to agree on them is a very big deal. Once this was finalized a map was signed after the presentation to acknowledge the validity of the territory. We then left to take a short 90 minute ride back to Pucallpa. I watched a dolphin surface before returning to the depths of the river. The same river which only yesterday was 25 feet across was now at least half a mile wide, and with the water now safe for travel we were able to relax as we returned. I watched the sun set over the river, my first sunset that I’ve been able to see in the Peruvian Amazon. We arrived to Pucallpa just as darkness began to cover the land.

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Walking amongst giants

The next day I set off with another member from the Department of Agriculture and a handful of men from the community to take soil samples. I was told that it would be about a half hour walk through the forest. I was amazed at how intricate the trails were that existed, in addition to how well the people knew them. To any Minnesotan (my home state) they are what we would call a deer trail, which is nothing more than a depression in the leaves going in a specific direction winding through the trees where countless animals have walked, and are easy to lose. The sun quickly disappeared as I continued beneath the canopy walking deeper and deeper through the forest. It wasn’t long before we came up to a tree of immense size. The trunk was at least 12 feet wide, tapering off as it climbed to the sky breaking through the canopy. This is what I had been hoping to see. The deeper that we traveled the more and more frequent they became, some bigger than the first. Not paying attention, I got hung up on a vine that was draping down over the trail. One of the thorns stuck me and put a pretty good size hole in my shirt. I’m very lucky that it was just my shirt as the thorns themselves were as large as a dime in diameter. The trail kept breaking off until we found our first destination, which was marked with a GPS. A group of men began digging through the clay dirt, breaking through the dense roots as best as they could. They had a box of specific dimensions at least a meter and a half deep. I left with another group to find the second location. If it wasn’t for the men that I was with I would have been lost in no time at all, several times I got off of the trail and quickly realized that I was going in the wrong direction. A little off the trail I saw a tree unlike any that I had seen previously. It was one of the largest trees that I have ever seen in my life. Wood has a very high price in the Amazon, which unfortunately means that giants like these are highly sought after. We all worked together in digging the second hole, which took quite a bit of time. As soon as we began working, we were attacked by thousands of bugs (mostly small bees that wanted our sweat) others were mosquitos and flies. At one point I was stung by an ant after touching a tree that it was protecting. It was comparable to a bee sting.

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I was told several days earlier that when in the jungle, on must know that they become part of the entire system that exists there. Just because we are humans, it doesn’t mean that we are above the system. As I am quickly learning, the jungle can be ruthless. I later took a break with one of the men and we took off to walk a little further down the network of trails to look for more large trees. It felt so good to be in the forest, especially walking where I wasn’t being constantly bombarded by bugs. We later went back and visited the biggest tree that I had seen, which was even more impressive up close. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to be able to stand in its presence.

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I was surprised at how little direct sunlight actually made it to the forest floor; in most parts of the forest the majority of it didn’t even break through the canopy. It reminded me of when I was in elementary school learning about the rainforest and about the different levels of vegetation that grow, where the little bit of sunlight that does make it through the giants that dominate the top levels is often caught well before it reaches the forest floor leaving it in shade. I saw solitary rays of light shooting down through the branches from high above me, reaching the plants that were fortunate enough to fall within their path. In the jungle, everything is fighting for survival from the little ants defending their tree to the numerous species of vines that cover the larger trees in an attempt to climb their way high enough to reach the direct sunlight.

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By the time that we got back to the dig site the bugs had quadrupled in amount, to the point that I could hear them swarming. It was mostly the bees, who would land on every part of our bodies. They weren’t aggressive, although they were very persistent. I remember looking over at one of them men helping dig who literally had hundreds of them covering his shirt and arms. We worked quickly to finish the holes, and then took some pictures of the various layers of the soil as well as some samples. Afterwards we headed back to the other site, and once finished we left the forest. After a quick lunch we took off on the river once again, to meet with the rest of the group who had left a day before us.

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San Mateo

We finally arrived to the community of San Mateo, the last community on the river before entering Brazil. We were greeted at the shore by a handful of children and adults all very excited to see us. Several of them were in a fruit tree hanging over the clay embankment along the river. One child dropped down a piece of fruit for me, which was about the size of a pear and bright red. If you were to try and imagine what a rose would taste like, but sweet- that is what I would compare it to. I later found out that the name of the fruit is Pumarosa (rosa meaning “rose” in Spanish). After meeting some of the members of the community and being shown around a bit, we headed to the field to play soccer. The community was small, from what I could tell containing no more than 40-50 people in total. The houses were made of wood and were held up on stilts, with palm thatch roofs. Each house contained one enclosed area, and an open area usually with a hammock or two hanging from the support beams. Chickens and ducks ran freely with dogs all throughout the community. I stood out in the field and admired the community surrounded by thick jungle as we prepared for our game. This is the farthest that I had ever been from civilization, and it felt great. The air had a fresh, sweet aroma to it. I watched a flock of parrots fly by- and then I heard the sound of the bird that I have been waiting all of my life to hear in the wild: macaws. I turned around, and on top of a large palm tree saw two of them perched on a branch chattering with each other. I was the first time in my life that I had ever seen them flying and living as freely as they were. Shortly after I heard the familiar sound once again, and watched a flock of eight bright emerald green macaws fly above me across the blue sky. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. All of my life I have been wanting to experience what I just did in those ten or fifteen seconds that I watched them fly over me.

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That night we had dinner with the community, which was soup and spaghetti noodles with a piece of venison (deer) along with a drink that they made out of fermented yucca, a plant that grows indigenous to the Amazon- which is basically prepared as you would a potato. It was prepared in a large plastic tub with water, and then served. Normally I will try anything, although I wasn’t sure of where they got the water. Many people in the forest drink from the river, and it could possibly cause some stomach problems if you aren’t accustomed to it- or you could get a parasite. Beside me was a small girl with a baby monkey on her head, clinging to her long dark brown hair. It squealed every time that someone tried to touch it. I wondered what had happened to the mother, although more than likely she was eaten. The area where they prepared their meals was held under a tin roof supported by six large beams. In the center was an iron grill sitting on four small legs on the ground, with hot charcoals underneath. They would put their pots on top of the grill to cook and prepare their food. Several chairs and benches were underneath the canopy as well as a hammock, where the adults sat comfortably chattering amongst each other as we ate.

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Later that night we had a meeting in one of the buildings to discuss what it is that we had planned to do for the community. They were able to get a generator going so that we had power, and were able to set up a laptop and projector so that we could give a PowerPoint presentation. Everything was explained with how the different steps are necessary to help a community gain rights to their land. With us we had several members of the Peruvian Department of Agriculture, who would be working with the land as well as taking soil samples.

The next day I set out with one of the members of the Department of Agriculture to document the process. With us were several people from San Mateo. We traveled in a small wooden canoe equipped with a good sized motor. The majority of the motors that I had seen since then are unlike any that I have ever seen in my life. Rather than the propeller dropping down straight below the boat, instead it is connected to a long pole about eight feet in length, with the propeller at the very end of the pole. On the opposite end of the motor is a long steel rod that that continues for another two feet which is used to steer the motor. The motor rests on a short steel rod that sits inside of a wooden hole on a board in the back of the boat. It is made this way so that the motorista is able to raise the propeller as high or as low in the water as they would like so that they won’t hit any debris. We went to several different locations, exiting the boats and trudging through the mud while hacking our way with a machete through jungle thicker than I have ever seen. Led by a GPS, once the edge of the territory was found a 15 ft parameter was cleared and the area was marked with a wooden post (which was made on site) and then spray painted with the name of the community, and then documented. This was the process until mid-afternoon, when we returned to the community. I took some pictures of the community as well as gave several interviews to the people who live there in addition to members of our own team where I was able to learn a little more about the agriculture within the community and the length of time that people have been living there. It really was a beautiful place, far from the chaos of the city and all of the pollution.  I climbed one of the fruit trees with a group of children and then spent some time speaking with the adults, who were near the cooking pot where we had dinner. They gave me some grief about being 27 and not married or having any children, and jokingly tried to give me several of their children to bring home with me. I glanced over at the forest just behind the palm thatch houses which I so badly wanted to explore to search for the giant trees that I knew existed there.

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I spoke with one of the members of the team that night about the river, and he told me several stories about things that he claim live at the bottom of the river and only come out at night. He said that there are fish that exist in the rivers that are larger than the river dolphins that I had seen several days ago, fish large enough to swallow a human. He said that some time ago he had a run in with several of them while traveling at night with his boat. There was a time when he hit something that wasn’t mud, sand or a tree- and stopped them in the water. When his friend put his foot in the water to push the canoe he felt skin on his bare foot, the type of skin that one would expect to come from a fish. I took the opportunity to ask him about other native species since he was from the area. He told me about anacondas that were large enough to eat a person, or crush a canoe by wrapping itself around it. There are few places in the world where there are animals that exists of this size, and I consider myself very fortunate to be able to travel to a place where they live.

Into the lion’s den

 

I woke in complete darkness to the sound of a boat passing down the river. Thoughts passed through my head of men with guns and cocaine making runs in the middle of the night. It made me realize why it is so difficult for people to receive help in the jungle- because it is composed of a very intricate system of rivers that only a professional could navigate without getting lost, hours and hours from the nearest city. Out in the jungle anything goes, and you have to be prepared for the worst.

An alarm went off at 5am, which was our key to get up. I packed up the tent that I had been sleeping in on the hard wooden floor of the thatch roof house. The tent was mainly for protection from mosquitos, which were horrendous. We left right around 6am. A man from the community warned us of a location which we would pass after about an hour on the river where they mine gold.

I couldn’t believe how beautiful that the forest was. A heavy mist engulfed the land, making it possible to only see the massive trees for a certain distance down the river. As we continued older growth forest became more and more prominent along the river, with massive branches looming over the water. Rafts constructed of large logs tied together and held in place by smaller trees were sometimes seen floating down the river, or laying along the shore abandoned by whoever constructed them. This was the method that some of the loggers used to try and get wood out of the forest and to the city. I soon saw an area washed away by water in the otherwise dense shoreline of the river, and behind it a relatively large area of jungle that had been hollowed out. Floating in the water was a raft with a steel barrel on it, as well as a machine with several hoses. It was explained to me that this was a gold mining location, and that we had to be cautious while passing by. I watched a flock of parrots fly over the river, something that I had been waiting to see all day. The sun came out quickly burning away any bit of fog that had remained- and with it came the heat. My coworker that was next to me earlier had moved to the bow of the boat to help distribute the weight better, and was once again hit by a flying fish. We had been traveling for 15 hours up river, and were finally getting closer to our destination- which was right next to the Brazilian border. From time to time I would see canoes tied off on the river bank leading to trails that would disappear into the forest. Other times I would see men in their canoe on the shore that would simply stop what they were doing and stare at us as we passed by. We eventually passed a boy on a long wooden canoe who whipped it around after being greeted by the driver of our canoe, and stopped to speak with us. He was from the community of where we would be staying. He picked up my coworker and I to help lessen the weight of our canoe, and took off. I couldn’t believe how fast that the canoe traveled, gliding over every tree or sandbar which would have undoubtedly stopped the much bulkier metal canoe that we were in. In hardly any time at all, we had arrived.

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The beginning of a new adventure

 

We took a mototaxi to the busy shore of Puerto Reloj, weaving in and out of other vehicles on our way with our luggage strapped to the back of the vehicle. This was finally the moment that I had been waiting for, the moment where I was going to get to travel into the Amazon. I sat waiting on the shore while our boats went to fill their tanks. Dozens of boats of all sizes were pulled up along the river. A little girl of about nine or ten sat in the shade underneath the canopy of a wooden canoe waiting to leave, with a green amazon parrot perched on her hand. She gently stroked its head while watching the people loading and unloading the boats. The shore itself was very dirty, covered in trash both in the water and on land. People everywhere were walking around selling clothing, food, batteries or whatever else to those preparing to leave. I took a few moments to buy some fishing hooks from a man in a store close to where the boats were, hoping that I would have a chance to catch something while being gone.

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We left the port, with countless other boats traveling up the Ucayali River. The river was at least three quarters of a mile wide, possibly more. I quickly discovered how important it is to have a boat driver that knows what they are doing on the water (down here they are called motoristas). There were numerous trees, branches or stumps floating independently down the muddy river, all of which could possibly end your trip. It wasn’t long before we stopped for lunch at a small community along the shore who had tables set up to sell food to people traveling along the river. I ate piranha for the first time with rice, beans and plantains. The meat was white and flaky, and absolutely delicious. We soon continued, seeing boat after boat traveling back and forth in the river. Some carried heaping mounds of sand, although most had either passengers or produce such as bananas. Most of the boats were far different than any that I had ever seen back home. Essentially they were canoes, ranging in length from fifteen feet to forty. Most had a canopy, stacking bananas and materials on top. The majority were made out of wood. Along most of the shore at this point grew river cane, most of it around 16-20 feet tall. I spotted something large and gray appear just above the surface of the water, and then quickly disappear beneath the surface. It took another breath, and then once again returned to the murky depths. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen. After years of watching documentaries about the Amazon, I had finally seen a river dolphin. Our motorista made a right turn down a smaller river, and then several more times as the large river branched off into smaller versions of itself, disappearing into the lush green forest. We saw fewer and fewer boats, although there were still quite a few small communities along the shore with their clothes hanging on lines to dry in the sun. Each community had one or two wooden canoes tied up along the riverbank. These canoes were smaller and not made for carrying large loads and didn’t have canopies. While watching the forest I watched a fish startled by the boat launch out of the water and hit my coworker, bounce off of a white supply sack sitting in the back of the boat and flop back into the water. It gave us all a good laugh. I couldn’t believe the amount of trees along the shore, many covered in vines draping down into the river. Now that the river was smaller I was able to really get a better look at the forest. I commented on it to one of my coworkers on the boat, and he remarked that it was all second growth. We passed men dragging logs behind their tiny wooden canoes slowly down the river, I counted one towing at least twenty. Yellow butterflies and many species of birds crossed the river, becoming much more frequent the further that we traveled from civilization.

We had to make several stops along the river for one reason or another. There was quite a bit of erosion along the banks of the river, resulting in a tremendous amount of trees littering the shoreline. Navigating through the river became significantly more difficult as the water level was much lower than the significantly larger Ucayali River that we had been in earlier. Several times we hit either a submerged tree or a sand bar, so we made a stop to raise the motor. In total we had two canoes, five people in one and six in the other. It soon began raining, making it significantly more difficult to navigate around the trees in the river. I’m sure that for anyone not from the area, it would have been almost impossible. We passed a man and his son in a smaller canoe making their way up the river. The son was driving while the father sat in the front. They kept watching us, but never waved- something that I noticed with a lot of people in the area as opposed to those closer to the city. As soon as we passed them, I watched the father reach down and pull out a rifle. I told my boss and one other person in the boast about the gun, and they didn’t seem concerned in the least. They responded by saying “todo tiene arma” or “They all have guns” also that it is necessary to have one out here because of how dangerous that it can be.

We eventually caught up to our companions in the other canoe, which had passed us earlier when we were first hit by the rain. They were parked along the shore; we pulled up next to them to discuss what was to be done. We had about a hour to go to reach our destination, although less than an hour of daylight left. One of the men said that the river can be dangerous at night because of the “cocleros” or men who produce and traffic cocaine in the forest. We decided to stay with a community near where we were parked, after getting the verbal confirmation that it was ok with them. We stayed on the top floor of a wooden, palm thatch roof house. The community was very nice, although very small with no more than seven or eight buildings- one of them being the school. I spent some time on the first floor playing with one of the children who was eager to show me his wooden top, which the adults fired up a generator and watched TV. I eventually wound my way through the people and onto the wooden walkway leading to the back of the building and to the small kitchen and visited with the mother who prepared our food. She spoke about her husband, and how he has been gone for over a month. He had a bacterial infection on his foot that ate away a big hole. He had to be treated for it in Lima, leaving her alone. A large pot boiled on an iron grate in the corner of the room, fueled by a bed of coals beneath it. I asked her about what it is that she was preparing, and she spoke to me about an animal that lives in the forest that in Spanish means “false cow” mostly because of how large that it grows- I later found out that it was tapir, and what we would be eating for dinner. After a quick meal I spent a little more time speaking with the mother, when the boy who had the top came up to me and wanted to show me his turtle. He reached down on the floor next to the cooking pot and proudly showed me a beautiful brown and orange box turtle that he said he found in the woods, and had kept it for quite a while, feeding it fruit.  After taking a few moments to look at his turtle and say goodnight I walked up the wooden stairs to the area where we had all set up our tents, and quickly fell asleep.

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