Monday, September 28, 2009

Iquitos Journal – September 7th, Part II, and September 8th, 2009

September 7th, 2009

Now just past 10; will breakfast at 8; don’t know how I will sleep in this heat. Unbelievable, unless you’ve been here.

I imagine not all that many people have been here.

I haven’t been downtown, the core of Iquitos, but from what I’ve seen – passing the Plaza de Armas on my way to the hotel – this city is like Mos Eisley. Lucas, look no further. It weighs heavy like – like a bad metaphor. Transparent, see-through, a farce not at all thought out but carried to extremes. The smell and the humid air are almost too much to stomach. My sense of smell has been heightened in Peru – threw up outside a bomb-sight shitter on the Inca Trail, gagged on the smell of my hotel room sink drain this morning, and the sick/sweet scent I smell right now is as thick as syrup.

[The scent turned out to be a fragrant wood, cut and processed at the neighboring plywood factory]

Makes me miss that high clean Andean air… and the repetitive noise I hear is not the fan vainly trying but some insect or amphibian outside the window, lost in some ancient genetic mating call.

I can’t wait to get to the jungle proper, where the influence of man is lost among the orchids and vines, where the jaguars hunt and the roads are overgrown with flowers.

Must remember: I came here voluntarily. And the fan past the light strobes shadow down in time with the rhythm of frogs.

***

Now packed, last beer from the fridge is open for business. Karma be damned, I killed a large ant on the floor. All I have to do now is sleep, rise, and head out to the lodge. I have no idea what that will be like – who will be there, what kind of people they might be, how the excursions will be run, and so on. Doesn’t look like I’ll be able to communicate with the outside world for a few days. Maybe not until I get home.

***

Midnight. Too hot to sleep – don’t want skin touching anything. Nothing on TV and nothing I haven’t already read. Will try to rest. Missing S…

And so to bed.

***

September 8th, 2009

I left Iquitos in the morning, and I was not impressed. It looks odd, thrown together, with little infrastructure and that which exists is unmaintained. In the Plaza de Armas, there's a multi-story hotel, half-finished and abandoned for decades, and the Iron House, made by Gustav Eiffel during the rubber boom years and then left to fall apart until recent reconstruction. The people see to be either unconcerned with how the city functions, or they’re too focused on the tourists to care. I was approached, aggressively, twice by the same cigarette vendor. No, I don’t want your cigarettes, so go the hell away already. I’m sure I’m not giving Iquitos a fair shake – but I’ve been warned often about pickpockets and I’ve seen enough to plant a strong impression.

A van from Muyuna Lodge picked up early in the morning and took me to their tour office, where I paid my bill and waited with two other guests for the speedboat’s departure. Above the lodge office is Mad Mick’s Trading Post, a jungle supply store and dorm run by a gregarious Aussie. I rented rubber boots and then had a cup of coffee across the street at The Yellow Rose of Texas, a tourist bar with enough “Texas” d├ęcor to fill any twelve bars in Austin. The waitresses wear cowboy outfits and the waiters wear orange “Hook ‘em!” shirts.
The dock was a riverbank reached by concrete steps. When we arrived, a crowd of children selling cold drinks stood at the door of the van, waving bottles in our faces. The entire experience was strange and for some reason my guard was up – maybe because other people were handling my bag, and handling it casually. Children tried to help carry it – of course, they expect a tip – and I didn’t allow it. If I can do it myself, I will...
From Iquitos, it was a 2½ hour journey in a cramped speedboat to the lodge. The heat and humidity were lessened by the breeze, but the sun burned down on my exposed left arm. Along the way, we picked up and dropped off several people. Little docks and communities of houses on stilts line the Amazon – a very wide river, with steep banks on one side and wide, sloped beaches on the opposite shore, and lots of river traffic – old riverboats, speedboats, canoes, motorized canoes called peque-peques for the sound the engine makes, and butterflies in the middle, a kilometer from either shore. Rafts of trees torn from the banks float slowly downstream, half-submerged navigational hazards. The water runs brown, gray, blue, green, depending on tributaries and the effects of the sun, and it’s a strange sensation to drift off to sleep to the roar of the engine, and wake to find yourself further up the Amazon, and to dip your hand into the river and scrub your arms and face with river water that has traveled a thousand miles already.

After a few hours, we reached the Yanayacu River, narrow where it joins the Amazon and a rich, coffee-and-cream color. But the Yanayacu - Quechua for "black water" - slows and widens, with reeds and overhanging trees, and half the dark water filled with hyacinth and lily. Mercifully cleaner than the Amazon – Iquitos harbor is a depressing cesspool filled with trash and sewage, and the rusting hulls of forlorn ships – the Yanayacu is a cool, shaded, and peaceful river with high muddy banks and deep forest along its length. Half an hour later, we docked at Muyuna Lodge, set on stilts some distance back from the river and approached by a long wooden walkway with a thatched roof. We were handed cold juice and led into communal dining area, where I met Hulber, my guide for the next five days, and had a welcome cigarette in the rainforest heat.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Iquitos Journal – September 7th, 2009, Part I

I don’t know what to expect, so I have no idea what the hell I’m getting into. The jungle… I don’t even know what that represents in my mind. Parts of this trip have been so completely different from what I thought they would be that I’ve almost given up expecting anything. Whatever happens, happens, and whatever comes my way, comes my way. And that’s a great place to be in - I can worry about money, or disease, or pickpockets, but I won’t die, and whatever adventure I have will surely be worth living.

From above, the jungle, the selva, the green hell, a blue-green expanse, completely flat. But on the ground, it’s probably impenetrable, except by river, or native path. And maybe that’s my fascination with it – a truly wild place, where there are no paths, no directions, no choices, just inwards, inwards, inwards, always inwards except where the slow and winding rivers run out.

***

15 minutes before I land. A massive river appears, serpentine with huge channels and oxbow lakes, while cumulus glows orange and purple over the green jungle.

***

I think Iquitos is hell.

I’ve never seen anything so… different… in my life.

Arrived to a blood-red sun on the horizon, 90F, and humid as hell. Sweating immediately, got my bag, met my driver, and from there…

There is no law here but there must be something in control. There is certainly no law on the roads, and no environmental law, and no building codes, and the gap between those who work and those in power is immense. The road from the airport to my hotel is 30 minutes long - 30 minutes in which I thought at any instant someone would die in front of me. Motorcars – motorcycles fashioned into rickshaws – crowd the one-lane road – though the road is 50ft wide and shared without regard to safety or lanes by decrepit buses, scooters, motorcycles, and exhaust fumes so thick it looks like fog. Lane changes, horns, families of three on one motorcycle, no helmets, no seatbelts, and all of it taking place in a current as thick and lazy as the Amazon, through a third-world landscape dominated by buildings that long ago should have been abandoned and torn down but now house businesses selling groceries and household goods, building materials, motorcar garages, food stalls. I saw tipped over motorcars and makeshift mechanics up to the elbows in grease. I saw dark eating places so unsanitary and dirty that I’d be afraid of the bottled water – but illuminated by huge flat-screen televisions. I saw crowds of people doing… something – anything, just walking, existing among the old peeling ads painted on failing cinderblock walls and shuttered store-fronts and piles of rotting trash and construction lying idle in the street. I was terrified, full of beauty and enlightened.

This is so far removed from my sphere of reality that I think I must be in heaven or hell. I don’t know which. I’m drenched in sweat, I am full in belly in a strange, hot room. I have a fridge full of local beer, and dogs bark while I smoke a cigarette and pack for the jungle lodge. I have just met one of the most original people I can imagine – I couldn’t have imagined – he is what Hunter S. Thompson had in mind when he spoke of “one of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

I don’t know if you can smoke in here but I’m doing it and you can kiss my ass because that’s the way things seem to work around here.

This isn’t a room – it’s four, and it isn’t what was advertised. My driver pulled over in front of a walled compound with a large wooden door. We buzzed in, and were met at the end of a garden by an old man – weathered, tanned, leathery, firm of grip, bright eyed and bushy browed – Walter Saxer, the owner, a holdover from some more free time and place, captain of La Casa Fitzcarraldo.

He said there was a booking issue and he showed me my new room: a bed, and old fan, two lamps on speakers doubling as nightstands, a huge desk with a TV on top of it; a second room, empty except for a mini-fridge, some bookshelves (mysteries, travel guides, “Blood Meridian” – fitting), a door leading to the garden, and a hideous painting of an indigenous woman carrying baskets; a third room, down a few stairs, a utility closet than anything else; and a bathroom, with a bare fluorescent bulb, a mean spider spinning a web, and a shower stall I hope has been cleaned within the last year.

I said I was hungry, asked about the restaurant, and Walter said it was closed. But he made me food anyway, prepared it himself - fried plantains, a slab of smoked pork with spices and strange sauces, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, and carrot. Simple, pure, amazingly good. Walter bought it to me at an outdoor bar, poured me a local beer (Amazonica, a lager), and we talked while I ate and a dog named Barko (?) lounged in the sweltering heat, and a trio of kittens crawled around the cupboards and countertops near the sink.

Walter – this place revolves around Walter, and it should revolve around Walter, since he seems to be legend incarnate. This was the house that Herzog used in his film; this is the legendary home of Fitzcarraldo. It has lost some of its charm. It still has a pool, a thick garden, ocelots in a cage, a tree-house, hammocks. And it still has Walter – film producer, conspiracy theorist, communist, old hippie, hotel proprietor, chef, conversationalist, renaissance-man of the jungle. We talked into the thick night about Peru, about economics and politics, about power and greed and democracy, about the lives of people in Iquitos and change and corruption in the US, about transportation and energy and prison and marijuana. He fetched another Amazonica, and eventually I came back to my room to wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

I’m beginning to think Iquitos might be heaven. The purest form of democracy. A kind of anything goes but we all want a leader without bullshit because we want a leader who is us – and who likes to party.

I’m in my boxers and the sweat is dripping off of me and I want out and I want in, and I am here and it is all I have – pure experience, here and now. I would miss the world I know but it is so far removed it might as well not exist. I wouldn’t want S. here – maybe Brass, he could do this – but this is almost too much for me. It’s too hot and humid to do anything – should I shower? Is it worth it now? Will it make a difference? I can’t pack, I can’t start, I don’t know where to begin.