Sunrise over the Maranon River
The chattering high school kids outside my room woke me up super early but it was a blessing because I got to see a beautiful dawn and sunrise above the river. At 6:30 in the morning it wasn’t my usual waking hour, but the air was fresh and I felt good, even hungry enough to partake of the breakfast of chicken noodle soup (among the best I’ve had in Peru) prepared by the skillful cooks. Everyone on board was making jokes about them and their open homosexuality. I hadn’t encountered any of that yet in Peru but in the guidebooks it even comments on the frequency among some crew on the river being gay. The guys were really nice though, and they sure could cook. I was mystified at how many reports I read not to eat the food on board the boats.
Rock a bye baby...
What boats were they taking? Did they even try it? I was experiencing some of the better food I had eaten in Peru on this trip. One of the cooks even served with white gloves and it was even more touching because the gloves were slightly oversized. He was so earnest though that I couldn’t laugh. And anyway, never laugh at the person that is cooking your food, right?
The rest of the day was spent lazily resting in our upper deck hammocks, catching up on sleep from a short night, wandering the deck to talk to the passengers and looking at the river and sites along it as we passed. We made a few stops for disembarkation and embarkation, for taking on produce and cargo, and at each stop the local women came on board to sell their fruit and prepared foods.
Such a variety of products I had never seen before, among them the many many exotic fruits that grow in the jungle. I wasn’t brave or hungry enough to try them but later that day the kids introduced me to one of the fruits which I spit overboard at the first bite. It was sour and strange-tasting and I wasn’t sure if it was because it wasn’t ripe or if that was just how it tasted. The fruit they had me taste was the one that is about the shape of a small avocado with a skin that resembles the pattern on a hand-grenade. In fact, because of its shape it really resembles a small hand-grenade! I was anxious to try it so I was even more disappointed when I didn’t like it at all.
Our motley crew of 3rd deck passengers included the traveling high school basketball teams.
The girls slept in hammocks on deck and the boys were in cabins with a few teachers as chaperones. Other than a family of a better-off Peruvian petroleum worker, the rest of my travel mates were foreigners like me. There was a young German couple who were quiet on board but meeting up here again in Iquitos
turned out to be quite genial and open. A guy from Paris and his very young-looking girlfriend from the jungle kept us guessing the whole two days. They kept mostly to their cabin sprawled out on the bed and I only was able to exchange a few words with them at breakfast one morning, but not enough to get their story. So with plenty of time on our hands and active imaginations we cooked up many scenarios for them, not all of them savory.
The girlfriend dressed exclusively in pink and white and always looked fresh and immaculate while the guy, like us, looked like an unwashed vagabond most of the time. There were two Israelis traveling together, the ones that introduced the hookah pipe the night before and scared half the deck until we explained that they weren’t openly doing drugs. They really made us laugh with their confidence in thinking they knew everything that was going on, despite not speaking a lick of Spanish. One of them (as far as I could tell, their names were something like “Adoo” and “Adaa”, I kid you not) asked us as we were leaving the boat, “how do you say ‘don’t bother me’ or ‘go away?’ They were annoyed at the insistent mototaxi drivers that had boarded the boat to try to hook passengers for a ride into town.
Later on they amused us again when they told us that several tour operators had approached them to entice them to buy a jungle excursion and when finding out they were Israeli showed them their book of comments from previous customers and proudly pointed to the page in Arabic. Another operator opened the book and had them read the comments in Hebrew which basically warned any potential Israeli tourist away from the shady disreputable company. Besides Stella and her friend Austin and I there was another American. I was impressed with Donovan. He is the national web manager for the U.S. Forestry service and he was using his 10 day vacation to fly into Lima
and Tarapoto and spend his time in the jungle.
We all imagined what it must be like to go from an office in Washington D.C. to the Peruvian Amazon jungle in the space of a couple days. And even more, the shock in going back so abruptly to American corporate culture. Evidently he always does something like this on his vacations, whether to Madagascar or Peru or some other exotic locale. These are the types of Americans you meet traveling and they are a refreshing bunch to meet and spend time with. It’s like a small coterie of the initiated. I hope to meet them when I go back home.
I spent much of my time with Stella and Austin and we talked about everything in the slowly passing hours and languor of time on the river. The trip invites long lazy conversations and we shared the feeling that two days was too short.
Food vendors meeting the boat
In the evening after dinner I joined the lively basketball teams on the other side of the deck and I played the violin for them, even though when I asked for requests they yelled out the titles to reggaeton songs. They made me laugh so hard with their jokes and typical teenager antics. They ribbed each other about having crushes on the girls and wanted to know if anything was going on between me and Belinda, the purser of the boat. I loved their nicknames, “Payaso” (clown), Daddy Yanqui (the reggaeton star), “Hombre Elastico” (Elastic Man..for his tall skinny body) and so on. Payaso amused the whole group with his rendition of Michael Jackson’s dance in Thriller, the first thing they went to when I shared my iPod. By the time I left them, when they were called to bed, I had made thirty friends for life and I really felt affection for the kids.
Plantains for sale
They were a good bunch, seemingly unspoiled by ennui, materialism and the other common ills of the typical western teenager. They were just really fun sweet kids and I enjoyed being with them very much.
Stella, Austin and I wanted to wait up until 1 in the morning to see the point where the Maranon river met the Ucayali to form the Amazon river. For all of us there was something mystical about seeing that even though we knew the boat crew must have thought we were crazy. We tried to wait but fell asleep. I woke up when we reached the town of Nauta and stopped again for the usual exchanges. The town signaled the point about a half hour from the start of the Amazon and I woke up Stella and Austin. We waited and asked questions from the navigator.
They were an hour or more off in their estimate and it wasn’t until almost 3 am that we reached the area. But disappointingly there was no grand spectacle. In fact, we were some way into the Amazon before we realized that. It wasn’t entirely our fault since at night it’s hard to see anything on the dark river. The navigator periodically shown a high beam spotlight to illuminate the area in front of the boat, but it didn’t seem to do much for the captain whose method of steering seemed to be to weave a serpentine route from one bank to another. We seemed to be traveling as much sideways as straight ahead.
Exhausted from staying up and waiting and for being 3:45 in the morning I said that I was heading for bed. We were now in the mighty fabled Amazon! Next morning, Iquitos…