10/12/19 – 10/17/19
You can ride the hundred flat kilometers from Iquiotos to Nauta in a day. Somewhere in the middle though, you will find the Reserva Nacional Allpahuayo-Mishana. It poured most of the day and we were soaked by the time we pulled in. As the rain subsided we took a walk into the jungle. I generally don’t have any regrets about things we’ve missed along the way, but I realized that day that the Amazon deserved more attention than we had given it. Even off that trail less than a mile from the road we came across mutant vines engulfing trees, woodpeckers with bright red mohawks, hordes of monkeys, and orange headed blue butted frogs. I relieved myself in a strange bush with bright blue flowers and the thought crossed my mind that I could be peeing on the cure for cancer.
We sat on a wooden bridge in a little clearing with several streams carving through it. It was almost silent except for the intermittent call of a bird that sounded like a new steel gate that just needed a drop of oil.
I took a walk on my own after dark. Angry spiders. Foaming plants. Death howls from unknown animals. I saw what appeared to be a bullet ant dragging a stick five times its size up a tree trunk. Supposedly the most painful insect bite on the planet. Some tribes are known to ritualistically put their hand into a glove containing one and let it bite them as it can cause hallucinations. No snakes, but moths the size of my head.
We arrived in Nauta the next day. Dump of a town. Wander around looking for a restaurant. Trash everywhere. Filthy stalls in the market. Rotten fruits and veggies. Intricate system of wooden bridges between different parts of town on steep river and creek banks that no doubt flood in the rainy season. Creepy bunker style motels for just a few dollars a night. Good looking fish but we choose the wrong street vendor for dinner and get cold rice, cold trout, and sit in front of a plate of cold turtle heads that appear to stare at us.
Three o’clock wakeup. Quick ride to port. They originally told us the bikes would be ten soles but switch to eighty. We’d realized in Iquitos that our lights had been stolen on the boat so we don’t let out bags out of sight until they’ve been put in the luggage compartment.
Fancy chairs. The boat was over one hundred feet long. The Amazon River like an eight lane highway. It can be over a mile wide at some points. The way to see the jungle is on the tributaries and arteries running to and from it which are more like old country roads.
Football field size floating islands of tree debris and mud floating downriver with birds nesting on top.
“Do they know where they're going?”
Turtles basking on drifting tree trunks. Chocolate mud water chewing away at sandy and ever evolving steep shorelines. Little old Amazon men in big old Amazon canoes carved from solid tree trunks. Wrestling three hundred pound fish and knocking the fight from them with an oar to the head.
Occasionally we run over a large log or some other debris and you can feel the engine kick as it chews it apart. Stop at little villages along the way. Mud walls from the water to forest often twenty feet tall. No docks, just stairs carved into the mud. A gaggle of women board at every town to sell baked goods, fried fish, pencils, blessings, anything you're willing to pay for. Overpowering scent of fresh weed wafts through the cabin.
Land after dark in Yurimaguas. Millions of bugs under orange glow of high pressure sodium dock lights. Thousands of pigeon size bats feasting. Cabbie tries to follow us around and keeps suggesting hotels as we walk in. He wants to talk to the owner for us, which means he will then try to get us to pay him for negotiating. We shake him. Look at a few musty rooms before finding one on the outskirts and eating Chinese food.
As we finished breakfast the next day, we noticed Soph’s seat bag was open. It had been just out of site from us in the restaurant and somebody had helped themselves to some spare parts and tools. Fifteen kilometers out of town and my bike sounded horrible. I kept stopping to make adjustments, but it sounded like my bearings. It had been man handled on all of the boats and sat with the hub facing up in a storm for several hours. I didn’t want to risk causing damage so we hitched a ride to Tarapoto. We were picked up by Miguel Angel, who carelessly drags our bikes, and chaotically fastens them, on top of an eight foot tall pile of fresh fish and stale garbage in the bed of his truck. He tells us thirty soles in the street. Soph keeps pushing him for the price again, insinuating that the bikes might be more. He then says fifty.
He runs his truck like an informal colectivo as he makes his sales run. Honking horn and slowing every time we pass somebody. They jump in a little space next to the fish and get dropped a town or two down the way. Miguel Angel throwing trash out the window without a care and telling me about how the mining operations don’t respect the land. Hotel California comes on the radio and he asks me to translate it for him. He dropped us just outside of town, tries to pull a switch on the price, I hand him fifty soles, and we ride away before he can say anything.
We find a hotel and I immediately try to fix my bike. I found a mechanic shop and asked a man named Edwin if he knew where I could find a car wash so I could clean the drive train. He said he could wash it then and there.
Foreigners have a number of sayings to describe the machismo work ethic and mindset. Two of my favorites are “Always sure but often wrong,” and “There are two speeds; complete idle, and absolute chaos.” Edwin was hardly awake when I arrived. Within seconds he was yanking my chain in all kinds of different directions and sort of touching with a sponge that didn’t have any soap on it. I watched as my drive train was being molested. I tried to intervene so he didn’t dislodge my derailleur, but he pushed me away. I just wanted it to end as quickly as possible. He finished and started to work on the brakes, and I told him we were all good. I gave him three soles and we called it even. He went back to sleep.
I eventually found a shop that didn’t look like it would use cooking oil as a chain lubricant and got my hub opened up. Full of water. The young man cleaned and dried it. There was still a clicking in my drive train. He assured me it was perfect, I explained that I’d been on that bike for sixteen months and knew every sound and vibration it made and that this was not normal. We settled on him pretending to turn a screw and me knowing that I would be flipping it upside down to work on it on the ground back at the hotel while it rained.
We were on the road a couple of days later when I saw a man riding a few hundred meters ahead of me. I caught up to him. His name was David. He lived in Lamas and we had planned on passing through for breakfast. He seemed a bit hurt that we would only be spending an hour or two in town and said that we should take the rest of the day off and stay at his place. He’d cycled around Peru several times in the past. We left our bikes at his place and wandered town. He seemed to get a kick out of introducing us to all of his friends and telling them that we had cycled from Alaska and would be staying at his house.
Lamas has a castle that was built by an Italian man with fine taste in gargoyles. There are two parts of town. One of Hispanic origin, and one of indigenous. The indigenous part is noticeably poorer. In the evenings the residents come out and do shoeless dances for tourists. Interestingly, many of the tourists are indigenous people from other parts of Peru, apparently it is customary for them to travel to other villages and learn their dances. I didn’t find them to be particularly good dancers and I’m not sure that they were really enjoying it. I had a cut on my arm and a little girl came up and rubbed the same strange red “tree blood” that a woman had tried to sell me in Ecuador. I was now in debt to her and bought some chocolates to settle the score. David bought peanuts in a plastic bag, which he tore open with his teeth, spitting bits of petrochemically derived moldable polymers onto the ground.
Some of the older people in the village only spoke Quechua. Some of the children only spoke Spanish. I asked David why the children didn’t learn their native language.
“Es una berguensa para la familia.” I had never heard this word before. I asked him if he could explain it to me and he did so, with many other words that I didn’t understand. I scratched my head. He started over and from what I could tell he was saying that having your kid speak Quechua is a bit like having a child that is gay. He seemed satisfied with this explanation and offered me some nuts. I watched the people dancing and wondered if perhaps one day people would travel to Livonia, Michigan, to watch gringos mow their lawns on Sunday mornings with a beer in hand.
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