Long Way to the Amazon
A journey of almost two days by plane, automobile and cargo boat to Lagunas: the gateway to Peru’s northern Amazon jungle.
February 18, 2015
Most trips, for me, begin with a feeling.
As I posted on Instagram today: “Been in Lima for a while now and am hankering to get on water to disconnect for a bit, but it’s hard to leave writing worries behind. This photograph, taken in June 2008 on the Rio Dulce while travelling in Livingston, Guatemala, encapsulates that feeling for me: a woman’s hair flapping in your face on a lancha that ignores the laws of physics, with too many passengers squeezed onboard.”
I’ve been in Peru for five months now and I’ve never been to the jungle. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are part of Borneo, are home to some of the oldest rainforests in the world (though they are increasingly under threat due to widespread logging and palm-oil cultivation), and contains a wilderness that I imagine would also appeal to those who find the Amazon an attractive proposition. Having grown up in Malaysia, however, I’ve taken them for granted and associate them not so much with beauty but with mosquitoes and leeches and unbearable heat. Still, it doesn’t seem right to leave Peru without making it to la selva.
Of course, as soon as I’d made the decision to go, it was as if I’d never been to the jungle. When you’re in turbo travel mode, you see everything like you’re seeing it for the first time.
February 28, 2015
I flew with Peruvian Airlines this morning from Lima to Tarapoto. The flight was delayed by two hours, the plane having arrived late from Cusco. I don’t usually fly if I can help it, but I’d heard of a recurrence of buses being hijacked by armed bandits in Tingo Maria, which I would have to pass through to get to Tarapoto. And anyway, I’m tight on time. My flight out of Lima to New York is booked for March 12.
I arrived in Tarapoto at noon. It reminded me, oddly enough, of Siem Reap, though Tarapoto doesn’t really look anything like Siem Reap, except for the humidity and the relentless army of tuk-tuks — called mototaxis here. Being run down by one seemed like a possibility, and I had a very specific sense of déjà vu while riding one downtown from the airport. The more I travel, the more I have these moments. I’m not sure what it means, if anything.
I asked my mototaxi driver to take me to where the share taxis — colectivos — headed for the port town of Yurimaguas congregate. It turned out to be a warehouse-like garage on Calle Alfonso Ugarte, cuadra 14. We weren’t even in plena selva yet and the mosquitoes were already buzzing with bloodlust. I sustained my first bites while sitting unsuspectingly in an empty car, waiting for other passengers to fill it up. I was told that a seat costs twenty soles and the journey about three hours.
My fellow travellers ended up being a skinny man, a woman of considerable girth and her young son, who spent most of the ride puking pitiably into a plastic bag in the backseat. Not that our driver cared. He drove fast, too fast. I was in the front passenger seat and managed, somehow, to fall asleep halfway despite the speed and the sticky heat. Drivers here tend not to use the air-conditioning, and the windows, even wound down, didn’t do us many favours.
The heat grew even more oppressive when we had to wait in line for opposing traffic at construction bottlenecks where landslides had occurred. We never had to wait too long — maybe fifteen, twenty minutes — but it was always long enough for our driver to cut the engine and throw his head back for a nap. Once, he woke as the queue started to move, just in time to see a car cut ahead from behind him.
“Concha su madre!” he swore. It’s an expression unique to Peru, but means the same thing the world over.
I may be a baby of the tropics, but I still marvelled at my surroundings. It was such a change from everything else I had seen in Peru. Back in Lima: desert. In Huaraz: glaciers, turquoise lakes. In Cusco: mountains, valleys. And now, jungle: both familiar and exotic at the same time.
Along the way to Yurimaguas we passed ramshackle wooden shacks — some gutted, some still intact — with signs outside reading “HAY PAN” or “HAY POLLO”, or with topless men sitting outside on brittle rattan chairs, smoking and staring vacantly out at the highway while a dog or two mulled at their feet. The sounds of the jungle — the tweeting, the buzzing, the hissing — were so loud, so present, that even our driver’s reggaeton soundtrack playing in the background couldn’t drown them out.
At about three in the afternoon, we arrived in Yurimaguas at another warehouse-like garage. Before the car even came to a halt, a young man had managed to poke his head and one arm through my open window. “Mototaxi, señorita?”
I saw a gaggle of other guys waiting expectantly behind him for pickings, and nodded at him. “Esta bien, amigo — Oscar? Ok Oscar — vámonos.”
I asked him to take me to where the boats leave for Iquitos, the world’s largest city not accessible by road. I had heard about the Eduardo cargo boat that could drop me off at the village of Lagunas en route. The Eduardo leaves from the port of La Boca, and the lanchas rapidas — speedboats — leave from the other port. The latter cuts the journey time in half, but would be more uncomfortable and reportedly more prone to capsizing. And anyway, I’ve always wanted to travel by cargo boat.
Luckily, there was an Eduardo boat leaving at 5:30 p.m. (they don’t depart daily), which would get me to Lagunas early the next morning. Oscar guided me on board to meet with Kapitan Denis, who quoted me eighty soles for a private camarote to Lagunas — it costs a hundred and fifty soles if you’re going all the way to Iquitos. Alternatively, I could just pay fifty soles and hang a hammock — vendors were selling them onboard — from the rafters and sleep in the open like everyone else. For privacy’s sake, I chose the cabin.
Kapitan Denis hollered orders at the Eduardo’s cleaning boy. Mutely, the young man showed me to my cabin on the top deck, starboard side, and handed me a padlock for the door. It was spartan, to be kind: just two bunk beds with life jackets strapped beneath them, and a narrow slatted window for air. But the most important thing: there were three plug points, which worked! Which was a good thing because my phone’s battery was down to five percent. It’s always down to five percent.
Then I asked Oscar to take me to the local market to pack some food for dinner, since the boat passage only included breakfast the next morning. At his suggestion, I bought a pack of juanes (a boiled rice yellowed with turmeric and cumin and wrapped in the Amazonian bijao leaf), pollo parillada (grilled chicken), a portion of picarones (a sweet potato-and-squash donut), and a banana-shaped fried dough with a tube of melted cheese inside that tasted like ricotta but wasn’t ricotta. Then a stop at an ATM. Then at a mini market for a roll of toilet paper, a set of plastic cutlery, a can of tuna, and a tube of Ritz cheese biscuits — surely the most universally accessible biscuits in the world.
“So how much are you going to charge me after all that?” I asked Oscar, when we were back at La Boca.
He smiled, suddenly shy. “It’s up to you. The original trip to La Boca from the garage is five soles,” he said.
I gave him twenty. He pushed me the names of Tibilo Tours and the Acatupel Association in Lagunas, but I had mostly set my mind on Huayruro Tours, if only because they were the ones I had managed to call from Lima.
Just as I shook his hand and we parted ways, someone called out to him. “La has matado?!” Which literally translates to: “Have you slayed her?!”
The interloper: a leering grin. Oscar: a sidelong glance at me and a nervous laugh.
I walked away, pretended not to understand.
Boarding the Eduardo, I hurried up to my cabin to charge my phone for a few minutes, hoping to take some photos before the boat departed. I made a self-guided tour of the vessel. Bottom deck: cargo — eggs, beer, rice, sugar, et al. Middle deck: hammocks, kitchen, dining area, bathrooms. Top deck: private cabins, another small outpost for hammocks. As I made my way around, people stared. Everyone on the boat, as far as I could tell, were local. There were no other travellers. “Chinita,” some men hissed. It was something I had learned to ignore in Peru, because they always did it under their breath — so that they could pretend they hadn’t said anything if you didn’t respond to their overtures, or if you were to call them out.
Waiting for the Eduardo to leave port, I perched on a bench outside my cabin, making conversation with other passengers. Many of them were from other parts of northern Peru, headed to Iquitos to visit family, or old flames. One man, Juan, told me the story of how he had fallen head over heels in love, a long time ago, for a pretty girl from a nearby village. When they met, he had been travelling alone — “Like you,” he said — on a boat like the Eduardo to explore the depths of his own country. He had ended up accompanying the girl to her village, where he met her family, who treated him like one of their own. When the time came for him to leave, her father, a fisherman, asked him to stay, the offer of his daughter’s hand in marriage implicit in his request.
“But I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t,” Juan said. He had worked in a bank all his adult life and the life of a fisherman in a remote Amazonian village wasn’t for him, even if it came with the dream of a pretty, agreeable girl who loved him back.
During a lapse in our conversation, a young girl caught my eye. I had felt her looking at me, and when I turned to her, she smiled shyly but didn’t look away. She broke the ice first.
“De donde vienes?” she said. She had heard me speaking with Juan in Spanish.
Her name was Stefanie, and she was from Chiclayo. School was out for a couple of weeks, and she was travelling with her family. She looked younger than her twelve years, but exuded a certain precociousness. She asked me the usual things people ask of an incongruous stranger: What are you doing here? What do you do for work? What language do you normally speak? Where is your family? Did you have a boyfriend? Why are you going to Lagunas? Will you be staying long in Peru? Do you like Peru? How old are you?
I told her, and her mouth narrowed in surprise. “I thought you were twenty,” she said.
“What about your family?” I asked, pointing to the women and children gathered behind her whom I had noticed her speaking to earlier.
She shook her head. “They’re not my family,” she said. Her family — father, mother, kid brother — were passing their time on the middle deck. She had been wandering around the top deck on her own, exploring.
As the sunset deepened, we wandered over to the bow of the ship to better take in the view. The top deck was mainly scattered with men gathered in loose circles of testosterone, smoking and playing reggaeton at maximum volume on their phones. “Nicky Jam! Daddy Yankee! Don Omar!” Stefani would shout out. At least, those are the ones I know and remember, accumulated from too many chicken bus rides during my gap year in Central America.
Then, one man broke away and walked up deliberately to us. He looked to be in his late twenties — all angles, serious face, defensive macho swagger. “Hola, do you know which river we’re on right now?” he asked, looking right at me.
I stared at him for a beat. Was he, a local, really asking me, a tourist, which of the Amazon’s many tributaries we were passing through right now?
I saw Stefani peek a quick glance at me, her smile the widest I had ever seen. Again, she broke the ice. She giggled. Then she looked at him, then back at me, and giggled again.
Discomfited, the young man retreated to his coterie.
In fact, I did know the river. “It’s the Rio Huallaga!” I called back half-heartedly to him.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Stefanie said to me, wicked with mirth: “He knows! He was just asking so he could talk to you! He knows!”
I grinned at her. “Good thing you’re here with me then.”
Later, her mother found us. “I was looking all over for you!” she said to Stefani, looking like she was about to berate Stefani before she noticed me.
“Mamá, this is Emily,” Stefani said. “She’s travelling on her own!”
“Oh, really? You’re not afraid?” her mother asked.
“No, she’s almost thirty!” Stefani said, before I could answer.
Later, when the sunset pyrotechnics were over and the sky was completely dark, I asked, “Is anyone getting hungry? What are you all doing for dinner?”
Stefani looked at her mother and her mother shrugged. “We’ll wait for the morning,” she said.
“Oh. Well, I’ve bought some food, and it’s too much for just me. Wait here,” I said.
When I came back, we settled on a bench and ate with our fingers, sucked on chicken bones, built tuna hills atop Ritz biscuits.
After that, Stefani’s mother and brother went back downstairs to rejoin her father. Stefani stayed. “Let’s play a game,” she said, availing herself of my pen and my notebook.
Word association, in Spanish. Not surprisingly, I lost.
As much as I enjoyed Stefani’s company, I was tired. I felt sticky and dirty and just wanted to read, or listen to music, and fall asleep till morning. There were showers on the boat, but they were all slosh and dirt and I didn’t imagine I would feel any cleaner after running myself through them. I didn’t have the heart to send Stefani back to her family, though, and since I had an extra bunk bed in my cabin, told her she could stay with me if she wanted to. We had popped downstairs earlier to say hello to her father, and I had seen how crowded the middle deck was, with another layer of snoozers below the swaying hammocks.
“As long as your parents are okay with it,” I said to her, and she scampered downstairs to ask their permission.
When she returned, we spoke a bit more and played more word-association games. Then she climbed up to the top bunk and I settled into the bottom bunk. I asked if she wanted to listen to a podcast, explained what a podcast was.
“Yes, let’s,” she said.
I put on Radio Ambulante’s “When Havana was Friki”, about the metal scene in Cuba, on my phone. I guess Radio Ambulante is the equivalent of This American Life, created by probably my favourite Peruvian writer writing in English, Daniel Alarcón. When the 22-minute episode ended, I turned it off, thinking that Stefani had probably fallen asleep, since she’d not made a peep the whole time.
But then: “Is it over?” she said.
“Yes. I can put on another one if you want,” I said.
“Yes, I liked it very much.”
By the time the second episode ended, she was asleep. I covered her with one of my clean shirts, turned off the lights, and followed suit.
March 1, 2015
When I woke up the next morning, Stefani was still asleep. I crept out to use the bathroom downstairs, took a walk along the deck. As I was leaning on the boat rails by the kitchen, the Eduardo’s cleaning guy walked up to me and asked — somewhat nervously, I felt— what my final destination was.
“Lagunas,” I said. “Are we there yet?”
He paused, looking guilty. “Actually, we passed Lagunas almost an hour ago. I wasn’t sure which camarote you were in…”
“What?” But surely when I made payment they had recorded which cabin they were putting me in. I hurried down to the bow’s deck, where Kapitan Denis was talking to another man.
“Ay chinita! What are you still doing here?” he said, when he saw me coming down the steps.
“Ay señor! What happened?” I lamented, though in spite of the cock-up, I was in high spirits. The morning light was beautiful, the breeze pleasant, I loved being on the river.
Kapitan Denis apologised, said the cleaning boy had made a mistake, thought I was in another camarote and when I didn’t respond to his door-knocking, thought maybe I had decided to carry on the journey to Iquitos. To be fair, the both of them really did look apologetic. And I should have set my alarm for earlier, but I had been lulled by experience into thinking that times and schedules were elastic here.
“Never mind,” he said. “Another Eduardo boat will be heading back this way from Iquitos and we’ll transfer you over. You won’t have to pay extra.”
“When will that be?”
“Maybe in a few hours. I will let you know when I know. But now, have your breakfast. One of my boys will serve it soon.”
I went back to the cabin and woke Stefani. She stared dazedly at me.
“Stefani, did you say your family was going to Lagunas too? We’ve missed it already,” I said.
She jumped out of bed and raced downstairs. I followed guiltily.
“Stefani!” her mother said. “You didn’t tell us which camarote you were in. We didn’t know where you were.”
“So sorry about that,” I said. I told them what Kapitan Denis had told me, but Stefani’s parents told me not to worry, that they would continue on to Iquitos instead. They had been planning to go there eventually, and anyway they hadn’t entirely decided they would stop in Lagunas in the first place.
I left Stefani with her parents and went back upstairs. A man was serving breakfast: a cloyingly sweet, milky white drink and two buns with too-pink ham slices for every passenger. I saw Juan again and joined him and his lady friend. He asked me about Stefani, said he’d noticed how we got along.
“I saw how she came up to you yesterday,” he said. Then, turning to his lady friend: “She’s just a child, but she isn’t shy at all.”
“You know, the girls here are very liberal, very adult,” he continued. “In fact, there are many child prostitutes in these parts. Sometimes, the parents themselves even offer them up. They need the money.”
I’m not sure if Juan was telling me this in an offhand, general sense, or in relation to Stefani’s curiosity and independence, but in any case he seemed disapproving of her boldness in approaching strangers. Why were such characteristics, admirable in a boy, always somehow worrying in a girl?
An hour later, the boat sputtered to a stop alongside a small village called San Luis: just a few houses on stilts with thatched roofs. Men heaved sacks of rice — cultivated, I assumed, by the villagers — onto the Eduardo, to be sold in Iquitos. A raft of large logs, tied together, floated along the riverbank. It was attached to a small boat, ready to be dragged downstream.
Just then, Kapitan Denis came upstairs and told me I had two options: hop onto another Eduardo coming from Iquitos in the evening, which meant I would only get to Lagunas at noon the next day; or pay someone from San Luis to take me to Lagunas by speedboat right then, which would take only thirty minutes. I could opt for the former for no additional cost, but would have to pay 100 soles for the latter. In the end, I opted for the speedboat.
I hoisted my backpack on and said a rushed and harried goodbye to Stefani and her family. She seemed shy this morning, with people staring as I descended the stairs and stepped off the boat. There were two men waiting in the speedboat: a villager from San Luis at the steer, and an itinerant logger sitting at the bow, who stood and offered me his hand as I stepped in. He had tree-sap stains on his yellow shirt sleeve and a chainsaw lying in front of him, toothbrush and toothpaste discarded on top of a tarp like an afterthought. This was his life, he told me: an entire month spent cutting trees followed by twenty days of rest, then repeat.
Much later, when I posted the picture above on Instagram, a friend commented, “#chainsawmassacre”.
In fact, the two men were complete gentlemen. They deposited me safely in Lagunas, then chugged on.