The Amazon: the mightiest river of all

It is some time after sunrise and I have just woken up from a decent night’s sleep. I am swinging in my cheap hammock, trying to get the dirt out from underneath my nails. It’s a lost cause because they are going to be just the same as soon as I scratch myself again. I feel like crap – I am sticky and I stink. I can smell myself. My shorts are soaked in sweat, covered in dirt and stained with mango and ink from my pen. But hell! Who cares! I am sailing down the Amazon – the mightiest river of all.

I have given up on cleanliness altogether because it just doesn’t last too long. Soon after you’ve bathed you are sticky again. Dirt seems to be in the air. But that’s not the main reason I have sucumbed to the dirt. The lack of clean water is. Sure there are showers on board but the water comes from the river. It all comes and goes into the river and I mean ALL of it. Trash and canalisation from coastal towns flows into the river as well as those of the boat. The water is brown, foamy and thick with trash. That’s the reason I haven’t showered in days. The idea of ‘washing’ myself with others’ dirt somehow just doesn’t appeal to me.

I am on board of Carlos Antonio II, which I boarded in Iquitos, Peru, which is the beginning of the Amazon river. It is my second boat and my 5th day of consecutive travelling through the jungle. I boarded Tucan in Yurimaguas a few days back and it took us 2 1/2 days to reach Iquitos down the Huallaga river. The boat had two floors and a crago section. Most passengers slept in hammocks hung on the two decks. The cows, chicken, pigs, potatos and the 70,000 eggs we carried slept on the ground floor.

When we got there on Sunday afternoon there were hardly any passengers on board and plenty of space to hang our hammocks. We were told that the boat leaves at 4pm. It was 3.45pm. At 7pm we were still there and it was clear that we were not going anywhere because the boat didn’t have enough passengers and all its cargo. We spent the night on board.

People started flowing on board the next day. They came, and came, and came…By the time we left (5pm) there was hardly any space to breathe. What we Europeans thought of as tight was a waste of space according to locals and they would stuff another two hammocks in between. You ended up being squeezed between two other people and even then people still had to sleep on the floor. Luckily, most people left halfway through the journey and I was able to move again. We made it to Iquitos at midday on the 4th day. Whether I spent time in Iquitos or boarded the next boat to Brazil depended on the boat schedule. There was a boat leaving on Saturday and another one leaving the same day. I did want to spend some time in Iquitos and check out the floating market I had read about, maybe even celebrate New Year there but I didn’t want to wait 4 days for the nexst boat. I left the same day. The boat left at 7pm which gave me enough time to do some sightseeing.

I enjoyed the boat rides in Peru – there was so much to see. I was mesmerized every time we stopped at a small harbour or passed an indigenous community. I loved the people and the way the did things. It is a completely different world out there.

The mototaxi driver who had picked me up from the port stuck with me for the whole day and took me places. It would probably have been cheaper to take separate rides but there was no getting rid of the guy. I didn’t pay too much more anyway and he made a decent guide.

We first went to confirm the boat’s departure time and buy a ticket. The touts at the port would fight (literally!) for every passenger and try to bad-talk the other boat although they were identical. It was a war, a battle field. As I walked through the maze of food stalls, people and mototaxis, men ran after me trying to touch me only because I was white. Teenage boys insisted on carrying my bags when I came back to board the boat. I laughed at first but eventually the guys got rowdy and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. We left surrounded by a cheering crowd of men.

Our next stop was a bank where I could exchange reais (Brazilian currency). I was told it’s better to do it at a bank in Iquitos instead of at the border. I had $40 with me and thought it enough to cross the border and reach an ATM. Imagine my surprise when the girl behind the counter told me that one of the 20s was fake. I had taken it out from a cash machine just before I left Panama City. She not only didn’t exchange it but also retained it in accordance to Peruvian law. I tried to explain and get it back but she was adamant. She had to keep it. I was furious. $20 would last me 3 days in Peru and she wouldn’t give it back so I could exchange it on the street. I was upset. I had to pay for something that wasn’t my fault at all. Luckily I hadn’t brought more bills with me. I looked at the other two bills I had left in the hostel and by the look of them, they are also fake. I hope I can exchange them at the border.

This small accident didn’t stop me from enjoying the Belen market. It was our next stop and the main reason I had wanted to spend time in Iquitos. It wasn’t a floating market but a floating village! The market as a matter of fact was perfectly grounded. It was the town’s streets that were underwater as the river rose (Nov-Apr). We saw exotic animals being sold – baby monkeys, s baby sloth, turtles, parrots, lizards, and even snakes. My guide got me trying different fruits – a yeallow, slimey one, a really acid one, an aguaje (similar to avocado but yellow and much smaller). We saw women making cigarettes and cigars, vendours selling exotic plants and herbs, potions, women having their hair done on the street. I even bought some agua de florecimiento that I’d use to wash myself on New Year’s Eve hoping it would bring me luck in 2010. It’s water mixed with rose petals and other flowers as well as natural perfumes. It does smell divine. If not luck it would at least help me smell a bit better.

We had lunch and my guide got me to try suri – those big, fat, white, protein filled bugs. I had the grilled, crispy one instead of the bug stew despite Johan´s attempts to convince me it was so much better. To my surprise it wasn´t that bad although I will not be trying it again.
We also got a canoe ride that took us around the sunken village. It was absolutely fascinating! I loved it and had a blast. I didn’t want to leave but it was time to take my spot on the boat before the crowds flooded.
Iquitos is where I experienced the machismo in full swing. Johan (the taxi driver) asked for a kiss instead of money after just 15 mins with me. I laughed and told him that a kiss doesn’t have a price. Throughout the day he kept mentioning it. When he took me to the boat he wouldn’t leave. Every time I asked how much I owed him he would come up with a rediculous amount and ask for a kiss. He used every opportunity to touch me and the niceties flowing out of his mouth didn’t have an end. He loved me (!), he was leaving with a broken heart, he didn’t like the other gringas, and asked why wouldn’t I stay and dance with him. That didn’t stop him from asking a rediculously high price and kept asking, begging even for more when I had paid a reasonable amount. After a while I got fed up with him and gave him an ultimatum.
– Take it or leave it! I am not giving you more money. – I declared.
He took it and left. Because of guys like him I have had to make up countless boyfriends, fiances, and vene husbands. There is always someone waiting for me or meeting me at the end of the journey. The last imagenry boyfriend is waiting for me in Brazil. It was the only way the guys on the boat would leave me alone. If I told them I was single there will be no end to it.
After Johan left I was one of two people on the deck. It was 4.30pm and there was nobody on board. I hoped it would stay that way when people started to come in. Luckily, it did stay that way and there was plenty of space for all of us when the boat left.
For the first few hours I had to put up with a guy a hammock away from me. He spat, blew his nose, threw rubbish and made disgusting noises. All that on the deck just under the hammock. I wondered how their women stand them. I guess it is not too difficult when some of them are just as bad.
It is late afternoon on the Amazon and most people have left. I have spent the day writing and eating. I am surprised by how much I eat considering I am not doing anything all day. I am already expecting my dinner served to my hammock (an upgrade from the 1st boat where we had to queue with our plastic pots like prisoners).
It is time now to get ready for my Amazon-style New Year’s celebration. It is December 31, 2009 and I am on a boat in the middle of the jungle. I have decided the Amazon river is much cleaner than the first river we were on and I am going to take my chances and shower despite the worms stories the Germans told me (the worms get under your skin and stay there). The Amazon has been an exhilarating experience. Me and the Germans stood at the tip of the boat one night gaping at the magnificent sunset wondering whether trhis is really happening. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe I was sailing through this fantasy land where people sing Spanish, girls look like Pocahontas and boys like Mowgli. The mystical land we have all read about in the enciclopedias our parents bought us. For many it will remain a dream. For me it came true. I am here now.
PS A different view on Amazon river travel: http://www.roadjunky.com/article/492/brazil-amazon-hell-trip
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