Monday, 24 June 2013

There's something about the Amazon...


So glad I actually made it. It was a close call, I had to skip Ecuador completely to fit it in! But the heat wave getting off the plane in Leticia after watching the Amazon river grow bigger and bigger winding through the jungle as we got closer for landing made it worth it in the first 5 minutes. 
Bogota was too cold. Haha 

The jungle towns are really unique themselves, so cut off from the outside world because you have to fly in or get a boat down the river. And not very many of them have airports. 
Leticia is the Colombian part of a settlement made up of three countries!and one of the biggest along the river. Tabatinga is the Brazilian part and then there is Santa Rosa from Peru. So cool. The river separates Peru and the others but Colombia and Brazil just have a line on the road. Cross it and everyone starts speaking Portuguese!! They actually do too, and I couldn't understand a thing. Crazy! 
My hostel was literally across the road from Brazil, so my first day I took a stroll over the border (most relaxed border ever, they don't worry about visas etc until you go further in) and visited a chocolate shop I'd read about. Tried to pay in Colombian pesos but didn't have enough, so tried Peruvian soles but they wouldn't take them, didn't have my American dollars on me... So I ended up getting a bar of Brazilian chocolate for free! I think the ladies in the store felt sorry for me and my appalling Portuguese abilities. Hahaha saved me money though! Score! 
Leticia was pretty dead when I was the for some reason, so I took a taxi boat over to Peru and booked my boat to Iquitos (further upstream into Peru) straight away. 3 countries in a day! 
Cool markets and square with squawking parrots though :) 

The Lancha (3 level barge-like boat that takes supplies up and down the river) only leaves to Iquitos from Santa Rosa every other day so I just booked the next one. then set off to buy a hammock and supplies! food is provided but I hadnt heard many good things. Tourists with sense take the speed boat that goes daily and takes 10hours instead of 3 days. thing is that costs $160, yeah nah. I want to experience the Amazon. 
Plus the lancha is the closest to being on one of those old steam boats the colonial explorers would have used. Like in heart if darkness. Haha
The  lowest level of the lancha is for cargo, it can be anything. One Lancha that passed us had cattle on it! Ours was mainly crates if food or wheelbarrows and farming supplies etc. anything and everything! The second and third levels are for passengers to hang their hammocks up. Second was all locals and had the bathrooms and kitchen area at one end. The third was where tourists are told to go (there were 5 gringos - me and 4 awesome québécois guys, lucky!! People to hang out with!) the rest of the space was local tourists and locals in general. It filled up! They had a little cafe/tienda and a tv screen at one end on this level. Lots of Tom Cruise movies for some reason? Haha 
Food was handed out at meal times, normally rice with a scoop of some bean or meat sauce thing. Lucky I brought along some veggies to supplement it! And breakfast was a mug of sweet rice porridge and dry crusty bread. Pretty good considering I paid 80soles ($32 ish) and we were on it for 3 nights and 2 days. Meals were always super early which was funny; 6am, 11am and 5pm or even earlier than that! The rest of the time we lay in our hammocks and watched the river go by. Every couple of hours or so the Lancha would stop to drop off and pick up people or things at little towns on the riverbanks. Sometimes we'd be there for over an hour and other times less than 5minutes. I got off once to explore a bigger town, figured we'd stay longer at the bigger ones. But I was too scared they would leave without me to go very far, I had to be within running and jumping back on distance if I heard the motors start! It's ok, I made it back - so cool!!
The sunsets and so rises were absolutely spectacular. And ladies selling various snacks and fruit etc came on at a few of the stops. Otherwise I read a lot (finished girl with the dragon tattoo! Really good!) and learnt to make bracelets off a travelling jewellery seller on board. He did a hair wrap with gemstones, monkey teeth and feathers in it for me too! So cool! 
Very chilled. I was glad to have the company of Jean-Raphael, Nicolas, Luis, and Guillome!! Their French Canadian accents are absolutely hilarious and they are just a really cool bunch of guys :) I spent the next week in Iquitos with them too when we arrived! 

They were heading to a small town an hour down river called Santa  Maria to stay with a local shaman and his family during the week, coming back to Iquitos on the weekends :) They planned to stay 4 weeks, but I only had a couple of days until my flight to Lima! 
We arrived on a Friday or Saturday, so spent the weekend exploring iquitos together anyway. It was so nice to get off the boat! We checked out the Belen markets, caught up on internet in ridiculously slow internet cafes and generally explored the town. It is pretty rough considering the number of tourists that come through. I guess it's a different breed of tourist, lots of hippy pants, dreadlocks and feathers. 
I thought it was pretty funny that it was never the locals dressing 'jungle', they tend to dress in tight 90 s outfits. Lots of pink and black, and fitted denim. Always with booty and gold/silver jewellery ;) that's the ones not in traditional dress though! Still a bit of that around too! 
One morning I went to the local zoo while the boys went to the pool complex they have (I was on a tighter schedule). So much more than a zoo... they have a lake too, it seemed to be the fave weekend day trip for locals! Beach volleyball, kayaks, food/drink stalls. Gorgeous little kids running around everywhere!  That part was nicer than all the animals in horrible empty box cages. Nothing like the natural landscapes of perth zoo! But I did see every animal... ? Made me feel more guilty that I paid for the continuation of the place than happy that I saw the animals, even though they were very impressive! Macaws, pumas, jaguars, monkeys, a very playful pink dolphin, giant electric eel, anacondas, toucans... So many! 

Most nights in Iquitos the guys had a beer or two (or three...) at the smallest most local tienda/bar I have ever seen (except maybe one in Thailand :P).  It was a corner tienda that only sold beer pretty much! They also had water. But I highly doubt that they had anything else! Awesome place. There were always a couple of locals drinking there too and just hanging out.  I've been steering clear of alcohol in general for a little while, after Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia I think my body needed a break. And my wallet has been happy too! So I just chilled, minus the beer.  Still incredible.
One night we continued to a waterfront bar that was literally on the water. So cool! Floating bar!! The owner was absolutely hilarious, Marcel I beleive - he really liked to talk. Later on at the shaman 's house a Frenchman who came along had some similar stories about nights with him at his floating bar. He's pretty much a celebrity ;) 

The markets at Belen are insane. Seriously. You can get anything there! If you go early enough you really see the strange things... Any animal that moves can be found for sale and someone's probably eating it for breakfast. Eg. The most unusual probably being monkey, turtle, llama, frog, deer, giant snail, and snake... And you don't read signs to see what the fillet it. The whole body is sitting there in front of you. They also have 'health' stalls with all sorts of potions and tonics. They have love potion! Haha 
I tried a tonic at the shamans house one meal time, I think it was for energy and general good health. It was black and tasted a bit like medicine? :) 
The things I generally got sucked into buying were strange fruit and vegetables, and interesting drinks. I had so many delicious juices! Aguahai (spelling??)  is everywhere, a small fruit of a palm tree. Best as a juice, so good! Kind of like pumpkin? But sweet. Then I had a thick warm drink make from boiled flax seeds and herbs and honey amongst other secret ingredients. They sieve out the seeds and herbs etc. then pour it to and from two jugs to aerate it and it gets really thick like egg whites! Also delicious. Then there was this white fluffy one that is literally  eggs and sugar, with cinnamon maybe, beat until fluffy with a cone shaped spring. Awesome to watch . Then they serve it in a tall glass either with a dash of beer or yuca tea! 
Oh most drinks stalls serve your drink in a glass and you stand and drink it there! They will generally top it up for you too ;) 
Then there is the street food too... Mann. So many bizarre and wonderful things!! I tried my best to sample a wide variety while I was there :)  It really is different everywhere! And definitely the cheapest way to eat. 

I ended up with a good number of chances to try things in the end because I changed my flight at the last minute (for no extra cost! What?!?). It meant I could stay a week with the shaman and his family, and try ayahuasca! ...Which is why the Québécois go there.  Ayahuasca is a  crazy jungle drug. It's been used for thousands of years to connect people to the spirit world apparently, orchestrated by Shamans, kind of witch doctors/village chiefs.

So I stayed an extra week in the jungle with the québécois boys. We lived with the Shaman's family and hung out in hammocks a lot :) the family gave us one big meal a day, about 4pm. They called it lunch? Hahaha generally rice, beans/lentils and salad with chicken or fish. Or pasta with veggies and fish mixed through, with rice. Really tasty actually! And the fish was piranha at least once. Piranha in the Amazon!!! Woo!!!
We walked an hour to a neighbouring village one afternoon which was really cool. No cars there, the shaman's lovely wife and our guide got us all coconuts to drink to cool off :) We also explored the local town... little kiddies running about everywhere and some very fast and skilful games of soccer by the water's edge were pretty regular. Louis and Jean-Raphael enjoyed sunset beers from the local tienda. Amazing. 
There were a lot of other travellers who passed through, coming to stay with our shaman and participate in his ayahuasca ceremonies too. It was fun hanging out and discussing their ayahuasca experiences. I tried ayauasca twice while I was there... Not so great for me. The ceremony itself was really awesome, very other-worldly. Unfortunately the drug and ceremony didn't manage to take me to any other worlds... My spirit was very stuck in my human body, a body that felt progressively more ill and uncoordinated as the drug took effect. The idea is that ayahuasca allows you to open your mind and release your spirit back into the spirit worlds, enabling you to fight your inner demons and explore the depths of your heart in order to find inner-peace and get closer enlightenment/god/whatever you believe in. Purging is an important part of the process, so I am told. That means that most people vomit and have diarrhoea. Nice (Or not). 
The ceremonies were amazing though, really ethereal and ritualistic. Which was incredible to experience. I am really grateful to my Quebec buddies for introducing me to the whole idea of me actually doing ayahuasca and inviting me to such a wonderful place to try it!! 
But I don't think it's for me. Nuh uh, not again. 

That sums up my time in the Amazon then, not exactly in a nutshell... Sorry... 
Flying into the big and cold (by comparison) city of Lima was pretty strange after having bathed in a river and lived without electricity, save 2 hours in the evening by generator, for a week. Peru has a lot of variety :)