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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Off to China

It seems I’ve just returned from Peru and I’m about to take off again – this time to China… or “Gina” as Donald Trump calls it.  It seems strange that after all my traveling – I haven’t visited China before. 

It’s a quick nine day tour with On the Go tours – a company I haven’t traveled with before – but comes highly recommended by my travel agent.  The nine day tour is called “Great Wall &Warriors”
and hits the  “must see” highlights - like Tianmen Square, the Terracotta warriors, the Great Wall, and Shanghai – all in about a week.

Unfortunately, Tom, my favourite traveling partner, won’t be going on this trip.  He’s been there – done that, so I’m on my own.    In order to acclimatize myself I’ve spent a few hours in Richmond wandering around the Yaohan and Aberdeen shopping  malls and taking my picture in front of stores with locals.  

Unlike most of my other trips this trip required a visa which was a bit of pain (and pricey) to get. There is an official visa office in Vancouver which made things somewhat easier.  I made an appointment online(highly recommended) and showed up to a huge room that reminded me of a dim-sum restaurant – except it didn’t have tables …  or food trolleys…  or food - but lots of Asian people and one or two  Caucasians  - sort of like Richmond.  I was told to take a number and wait.  However since I had a appointment I was at the front of the line, and within a couple of minutes was at a wicket where my documents were carefully scrutinized before I was told to come back in five days to pick up my (hopefully) processed Visa.

I showed up five days later, and given the express treatment I received when applying I expected to be out of the office in a few minutes – after all, I only had to pick it up and pay for it.  How long could that take?  Evidently a long long time - it seems the visa office has 12 wickets to process applications but only two wickets to pay for them.  

I should mention if you’re on a cruise, or only passing through China on a short stay over, you might not require a visa - so check out visa requirements BEFORE (as many people do) assuming they need a visa and go to the expense and time to get one.

So with my new visa firmly cemented into my passport I’m off the China tomorrow.  I’ll keep you informed on my adventures.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

In Distill of the Night

Friday November 25th

 This is our last full day on the Amazon and I’m determined to make the most of it by getting up early for the “optional” early morning bird watching trip.  I’m not alone – everyone else is there – even Tom and Fen show up on time.  They’ve seem to have finally adapted to Amazon time.  I shudder to think what life will be like when they try to re-adjust to Vancouver time.

The idea is to be on the water just at dawn when the birds wake up.   The trip from the Amatista takes about five minutes and we’re sitting just off a low island waiting for the bird alarm clock to go off.  As the sun begins to peek over the horizon the air is suddenly filled with thousands of green parakeets rising from the marshes and circling in clouds above us.  The noise from the flocks is so loud you can’t hear yourself talk.   Cloud after cloud of brightly coloured birds rise from the marshes. After a few minutes silence settles once more on the river - the whole thing takes less than half an hour. 
The Rum distillery 
After breakfast our itinerary calls for us to visit a rum distillery.  After yesterday’s trip to the butterfly farm I don’t have high expectations.    Usually when you think of a distillery you think of a huge brick edifice.  Not in this case – why am I not surprised.     It’s basically a couple of garden sheds – but you should never judge a book by its cover or a distillery by its building. 
sugarcane delivery device
It’s essentially a low tech operation: The sugarcane is hauled in on the backs of burros and taken directly into the “processing room.”  Here it is crushed by equipment that dates back to the late bronze age. 

putting tourists to work
Our host, anxious to demo the whole process to us, fires up the crusher engine, which coughs and splutters to life creating a deafening roar which reverberates off the corrugated walls.  The room fills with a blue cloud of hydrocarbons which I’m sure will add a distinctive “smoky” taste to the final product.

The sugar cane is then dumped into a huge caldron so old it has an
...and to think these barrels just held oil 
actual autograph by Al Capone engraved on it.   The crushed sugar can is aged in an this vat for  24 hours and the temperature carefully monitored to make sure it’s a constant “whatever,” and then it’s moved to the distiller room.

The distiller  room is so small it can’t  accommodate all of our group on the ground floor so some of us are hustled  up to balcony overlooking  the still – sorry, “distillation unit.”  This is not a particularly good idea – not just because the balcony is pretty rickety and doesn’t have any sort of railings around it; but because of the alcoholic fumes rising from the distiller.  Several of the group are already beginning to feeling the effects and are look woozy.  – I begin to worry a couple of them might do a header into the distiller.  

The high tech distiller
Our host takes a rusty tin cup fills it from the distiller and passes it around for us to sample.  It tastes like jet fuel and I’m careful not to spill any of it on the floor lest it eat its way through the floor like the drool from the monster in the film Alien.  

The medical benefits
We are then hustled into the tasting room which doubles as a tack storage area when it’s not being used for tasting.   The walls are festooned with posters espousing the “medicinal” benefits of this particular rum.    We are seated at Formica tables and provided shot glasses.  Our host brings out some offerings which we will be able to sample with hopes we might purchase a couple of bottles before leaving.  There are two product lines:  dark and light.

Unlike fine whiskey we are encouraged to knock back these samples “like they’re tequila shots.” We’re even provided lime and salt.   Evidently this rum is more pleasing to the palate if it doesn’t  actually touch the palate.  We’re told that it tastes better if it’s allowed to age a bit.
“When was this stuff bottled?” I ask.
“Yesterday,” he replies.
“Ah, that explains it,” I reply. “Perhaps the next time they bury a pharaoh they can stick a few cases of this in the pyramid with him to give it a bit more time to age.”

If I hold my nose I might not taste it
The next bottle we sample is of the dark variety.  That’s because it’s infused with extract from the bark of the Chuchuhuasi tree.  (try saying that three times very quickly after three shots of it).  The Chuchuhuasi (Maytenus krukovii) is a very large canopy tree, whose bark has been used a general remedy by Shamans (“witch doctors” - see earlier post) for many centuries.  It’s supposed to be good for arthritis, rheumatism, back pain, relieving menstrual pain and removing paint.

I don’t know if it’s the earlier three shots of the “light” rum I’ve just imbibed that has totally destroyed all the taste buds in my mouth, but by comparison it isn’t too bad.  I decide to buy a bottle to take home for my wife to use in making her liquor filled Christmas chocolates.   It’s not until I return home I realize this might be a mistake.

(Flash forward 3 weeks later at our Chrismaskah Party:)
“My, Michele, this chocolate has an interesting taste.  What’s it filled with?  Cognac?Drambuie? Baileys?”
“No, it’s something Jeff brought back from the Amazon.”
“Sort of tastes like Buckley’s.  Hey! I think my sinuses are clearing up!”

(back at the distillery)
Tom on his high horse
Tom, who is not much of a drinker, is feeling no pain after 5 shots, so I have little trouble convincing him that an old saddle hanging from the rafters is an early version of a mechanical bull.  Tom sets a new distillery record managing to stay in the saddle for an amazing 11 seconds.

Clutching our bottles we stagger back down to the skiffs for the trip back to the Amatista, c
offee and pledges of sobriety.

Saturday, November 26th

Scenic Iquitos "Jewel of the Amazon"
It’s the last day of our trip.   We’ve been instructed to have our bags packed and outside of our rooms before breakfast.  Everybody’s bags are outside their cabin doors but one….  
“Oooh!  Ooh! I meant to back them last night but I fell asleep.”

While we’re eating breakfast mounds of luggage are moved into the skiffs and transported to the waiting bus.   
Downtown Iquitos
We bid farewell to the crew of the Amatista and head into Iquitos where we’ll have a brief tour of the city and then be hustled off to the airport for an early afternoon flight back to Lima.

Iquitos is the capital city of Peru’s Mayanas Province and Loreto Region. The city of nearly half a million people is only accessible by river and air.  There are no roads connecting it to the rest of Peru.

Iquitos is sort of the Yukon city of Peru.  While the Canadian city was founded as a result of the Gold Rush of the 1880’s, Iquitos grew up to a major city as a result of the Rubber Boom which occurred about the same time as Yukon Gold Rush. 

Gustave Eiffel's Iron House
The early European inhabitants known as the “Rubber Barons”( or less affectionately  as “Robber Barons” by the local population) tried to import all the comforts of home.  Besides European cultural institutions like an opera house, Iquitos was among the first South American cities to have electricity and electric street lights.  The “old” portion of Iquitos centered around the Plaza de Armas still features a few buildings from the boom days including the famous Casa de Fierro (iron house) allegedly designed by Gustave Eiffel for the Paris exhibition  of 1900.  It was then bought by one of the local rubber barons and shipped in pieces to Iquitos to be bolted back together to serve as his home.   There is actually some dispute as to whether Gustave actually designed it.  There is no resemblance whatsoever to the Eiffel tower.  He claims it was built in his student days as a tool shed. 

The "Meccano House"

I actually did some research into the matter.  The house more closely resembles a Meccano house
Then the Eiffel Tower.  I discovered that Meccano was invented by Frank Hornby who lived in England about the same time as Eiffel.  What’s even more interesting is that he set up one of his early Meccano factories in France…..   I’m going to suggest they rename it the Meccano House.  Now if they can only find that special mecanno tool.. .

It had rained heavily before we arrived in Iquitos but now the sun has come out and the temperature is in the high 30s.  So instead of being baked we’re now being steamed.  Our tour mercifully only lasts about twenty minutes before we’re hustled onto a shuttle bus for the trip to the airport and our  1:00pm flight back to Lima.  Unfortunately things do not go as planned.  Peru airports are generally organized chaos and the small airport in Iquitos is no exception.  The automated check-in machines don’t work so we line-up to be checked in manually.  After about forty minutes the counter staff finally begin to arrive.  It’s only when the first of us attempt to check-in we’re told the flight has been cancelled - due to weather.  There might be another plane at eight that evening.

Our guides who thought they were rid of us once they dropped us at the airport hastily arrange for transportation back to Iquitos where we are given day privileges at the one and only five star hotel. 

Given we have about six hours to kill, I take off with to explore the town and hopefully find a few more gifts to take home.  I find a small museum on a side street.  It turns out to be one of nicest museums on the trip.  Of course there weren’t any other museums in the Amazon.  I discover they have  a gift shop with some jewelry made by local tribes.   Compared to the junk I’d seen in the small villages we visited this stuff looks pretty high class !  I pick a couple of small bracelets for my older grandchildren, and then spy a beaded necklace I think my wife might like.   (Full disclosure: I have to tell you my wife had distinctly told me.  Don’t bring me back any more jewelry.  Evidently I have atrocious taste.)   But I can’t resist – and it is only ten dollars!  

When I get back to the hotel I show it several of the women on the tour and they assure me my wife would love it.  (Evidently I didn’t pick up on the eye rolling.)

When I got home I present my find to my wife.
“You don’t expect me to wear that?” she says holding it at arms length.  “I thought I told you.  No gifts.”
“Well what should I do with it?” I ask.
“Why don’t you give it to your daughter-in-law,” she suggested. “She might like it.”

The next day my daughter-in-law shows up with Violet, my three year old granddaughter in tow.  I haul out the necklace and held it out to her.
“Oh, it’s lovely!” She exclaims.
I give my wife a knowing look.  Obviously my daughter-in-law has impeccable taste.
“Violet will love it,” she says fastening it around the three year old’s neck.
Well at least my granddaughter has taste.  She wears it all the time.

We’re fed an early dinner then  hustled back onto the bus for the ten minute trip back to the airport.  This time we manage to make the eight o’clock flight that leaves promptly at nine, getting into Lima barely in time for several of our group to make their connection to their flights home. 

The rest of us are put into a van for the supposedly one hour trip back to our hotel in Lima.  Unfortunately there are several accidents on the road and the trip takes over two hours.  We arrive at the hotel shortly after midnight.  

So, our Amazon tour ends with a whimper – not a bang. 

That's it until the next trip.  If you're planning a trip to the Amazon, you might check out  15 Things You Should Know Before Touring the Peruvian Amazon on Johnny Jet.  This is the link to the GAdventures tour I was on.   Hope you all enjoyed reading about the trip as much as I enjoyed living it.  

Friday, December 30, 2016

Tuk Tuks and Butterflies

Thursday November 24th

Receiving  the trophy for  the Nauta Tuk Tuk 500

After all the excitement of yesterday they have something a little more tame for us today.  Today we’re going to be visiting the town of Nauta -a town of about 18,000 - on a good day.  Nauta,  the provincial capital, is located about 100km south of Iquitos on the north bank of Maranon River – a major tributary of the Upper Amazon.

The scenic town of Nauta
If you google Nauta you won’t find much about it.  Wikipedia has about 10 lines about the town – that’s it – which may be 9 lines more than it deserves.

That said, Nauta is a big step up from the small villages we’ve visited so far.  Nauta actually has some real buildings.  It even has  a few cars and about a hundred or so tuk tuks (more on that later). 

Nauta is the primary commercial hub most of people in the upper amazon might visit on a regular basis.  Most small villages are self-supporting:  If  they need anything they can’t produce or grow themselves it’s off to Nauta. 
The Nauta Market
Nauta Tuk Tuks
The main attraction in Nauta is the huge market where people from surrounding villages bring their produce to sell.  It opens early in the morning and by noon the market is deserted as all the sellers head home to restock.

We’re told we have half an hour to wander around the market and then head over to the town square where we’ll assemble for our tuk-tuk ride.   How far off the beaten track is Nauta?   I couldn’t find a single place selling tourist junk or t-shirts – and believe me I looked.  I’m desperately searching for some t-shirts or a blow guns to bring home for the grandkids.  Declining multiple offers to buy some live chickens I head over the main square – the town is so small even I can’t get lost.  

Our guide has assembled a fleet of tuk-tuks to take us on a hair-raising ten minute sightseeing tour of greater Nauta.  If you don’t know what a tuk-tuk is you’re in for a rare treat.  They are basically an under powered motorbike married to a rickshaw. Versions of these are quite common in third world countries.   The driver sits up front and up to two people or sixty chickens, two pigs or three goats can be placed in the back – often at the same time.  Because the whole shebang weighs about a hundred pounds and has three wheels it’s very unstable - and dangerous – hence you can’t find them in any first or second world countries.  The only saving grace is the whole thing is powered by (and I’m not kidding) a 100cc two stroke engine - basically a lawnmower engine.  When it’s fully loaded, kids on roller skates can go faster.  However given the sad state of what passes for roads in Nauta the ride is as exciting as anything you might find at Disney World - think Mr. Toad’s ride on steroids.  

The guides had rented 12 tuk-tuks for our group. I didn’t realize until after we had begun the tour that it was a race and my tuk-tuk was so slow it was known by the locals as simply a tuk.  My driver told me he knew a guy who could soup it up for a price and guaranteed we would win the race.    Even though I thought I was hopelessly behind you can see how we made a miraculous recovery and won the race…..

The tuk-tuk ride dispensed with and no casualties, we return to the Amatista and chug down river to the little village of Vista Allegre where a rare opportunity to visit a butterfly farm awaits us.  I’m excited about visiting the butterfly farm as it will give me a chance to buy a butterfly t-shirt for my three year old granddaughter.  She has instructed me that has to be a butterfly t-shirt – nothing else will do.  She’s too young to appreciate a blow gun.  I’m sure I’ll be able to find one at their gift store.


A Vista Alegre Butterfly
It appears there are several butterfly farms along this stretch of the Amazon.  A Peruvian NGO  has passed out franchises like Starbucks and McDonalds.  The butterfly farm  I had read about on the Internet was located at Pilpintuwasi near Iquitos.  The one we arrive at is at the village of Vista Alegre.   

Vista Alegre is almost indistinguishable from Solterito village or any of the other small villages we have visited.  It has about a dozen small houses built around a field.  There is usually only one substantial building – an elementary school – built by the government.  If they’re lucky they might also have a water purification plant – also supplied by the government.  In most cases most of the village don’t have electricity – unless the town is lucky enough to own a generator, which only operates a few hours a day.  What they definitely don’t have is the internet.

Almost any other country I’ve visited has some sort of Wi-Fi – even in the deepest Serengeti of Africa I encountered Masai tribesmen carrying nothing but a spear and a smartphone - don’t ask where they kept their phone.   But civilization has yet to reach the upper regions of the Amazon– which isn’t such a bad thing.  

Instead of seeing kids walking with their noses buried in their smart phones looking for Pokémon creatures, I see them actually playing with real creatures – like dogs, cats, parrots and even tortoises.  The kids in these villages seem to be content to have just a soccer ball or volleyball net.  We left them some coloring books and crayons – which delighted them.  I wonder how long that will last.  If history is any lesson about ten minutes after the first cell tower is installed. 

The lack of internet has affected our group in a subtle and insidious way.  On our first day at lunch most of the group (particularly the millennials and younger) have their phones out and are texting madly - only to stop after a few minutes and stare bewildered at their phones.
“Do you have internet?” one of them asks her friend.
“No,” she replies. “What’s the password?” she asks the passing waiter.
“Password?” he replies. “For what?”
“The internet.”
“No internet here,” he answers.
“When will we get it?” another asks.
“When you get back to Iquitos.  No cell phone reception here either.”

This doesn’t seem to compute, as continue to tap away at their phones in hope that somehow magically their texts will be answered.

What is interesting is after a day or so none of them seem to miss it.  The ubiquitous phones and tablets cease to appear on the table at each meal and people actually begin to talk to each other – the hub-bub of conversation and the sound of laughter – which had been missing - returns. 

I’d like to say that we all learned something from this experience; but I’d be wrong.  The second we return to Iquitos the phones and tablets are out and the room is filled with a group of silent people totally involved with the device in their hand.  Sad.  So if you want to experience what the world was like before the internet, this region of the world might be your last chance. In fact, it might be the most unique fleeting feature of the Amazon.
The butterfly shed 

But back to the butterfly farm in Vista Alegre.   The term “butterfly farm” composes of two words – “butterfly” and “farm.”  We all pretty well know what to expect when we encounter a “butterfly.”   The problem is the second word –“farm.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear the term farm I expect some acreage to be involved – even if it’s only a couple.  The farm at Vista Alegre would be more aptly described as a “butterfly enclosure.”   My three year old granddaughter’s toy animal farm is only slightly smaller.  But who am I to judge?  How much room can a butterfly or a herd of caterpillars take? Obviously not much.  The whole shebang is run by just one lady.  I guess she has to get up early each morning to gather the butterfly eggs and then work until sunset until the last caterpillar is tucked snug into its cocoon. 

Releasing the Butterfly - sort of
There’s actually not very much to see in the Butterfly enclosure.  We’re told most of the butterflies are “sleeping” – i.e. in their chrysalis state.    A few languid butterflies float by.  We are each given a jar with a butterfly to set free.  With the sounds of “Born Free” blaring from my mp3 player I unscrew the lid of my jar and the butterfly emerges and flutters off.   We’re told these butterflies will be released into the wilds where they will help the endangered butterfly stock battle countless predators and obstacles.  The first obstacle mine will face is finding the exit – or failing that - a rip in the mosquito netting that surrounds the enclosure.   Given it has a lifespan of about 24 hours it better get a move on.

Needless to say there is no “gift shop” here and my search for the perfect butterfly t-shirt for my granddaughter will have to wait to we arrive back at Iquitos. 

We return to the Amatista where we retire to the bar to contemplate the sad short lifespan of the butterfly.   Such is the cruel life here on the Amazon.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Two sure fire ways of catching Piranhas

Wednesday  November 23, 2016 - morning

 Today is to be a full day on the river.  We have a 5:30am wakeup call so we can be out on the skiffs by 6:30 for an early morning “nature walk.”  I now have developed an efficient daily routine to get the most out of these walks: I get in the skiff, put on my lifejacket and hand my camera to the guide, take off my life-jacket, get out of the skiff and go back to bed.  On the nature walk he gets some excellent shots of parrots and monkeys.  It’s almost like being there.

Piranha Fishing

But today is different; if I want to eat I’ll have to actually be in the boat.  Today we’re being treated to breakfast on the skiffs.  It’s sort of like having a meal on the plane without the trays.  After breakfast we head out   for some piranha fishing.  We’ve just arrived at the spot and the guides are about to hand out the fishing rods  when the other skiff comes racing up to us.  It appears they have a surprise for us:  during their little walk they saw more than monkeys and parrots – they encountered a real live python, and they’ve brought it back to show us. 

Thankfully they just don’t toss it into the skiff and race off (something I might do), but keep it under control so we can admire it.  As our naturalist is holding the snake and unable to take pictures  with my camera at the same time, I’m forced to hand my camera to Tom to take a picture of me holding  the snake.  Tom takes a picture of my foot.

After everyone has their pictures taken with the celebrity snake, it’s returned to the other boat supposedly to be taken back where it was captured and released.  However I’m going to be keeping a close eye on the mystery meat in tonight’s buffet.

Shiner fishing
At this point the guides pass out piranha fishing rods.  These consist of a thin piece of bamboo – much like you’d use to hold up a tomato plant with a  four foot length of fishing line tied to one end and a small weight and a hook on the other end.  We’re handed cups of some raw beef and told to get fishing.

I look at this set up and I know exactly what to do: this is almost the same setup that I use with my grandkids (and before them my kids) to catch shiners off the dock at home.  The secret is how  you thread the meat on the hook  so the little blighters can’t steal it off the hook.  It also helps to know exactly when to jerk the line to set the hook.  The guides tell us to splash the water with the tips of the rods to attract the piranha.   Within seconds I have a fish in the boat.  It’s a miserable small thing so I toss it back and re-bait and instantly catch another one.  I’m about to release that one as well when the guide comes running over and grabs the fish before I can toss it overboard.  He tells me it’s an actual piranha!  Who would have known - it’s such a small thing.  He shows me the teeth which are very sharp and piranha -like so I accept his decision.  Evidently piranha don’t get that big – but there’s lots of them.  With my Canadian shiner smarts I’m king of the  Piranha fishermen and soon have a string of them – which the cook is going to fry up for lunch.  (Care for a piranha on a ritz?  Would you like a side of boa with that?) 
After half  an hour most  of my fellow fisherman are bored  so it’s time to hand in our fishing equipment and head off to a wider part of the river to “swim with the dolphins.”

Most my fellow travelers are excited about the opportunity to “swim with the dolphins”  I find this very strange since we just  experienced the fun of “fishing for the piranhas” in the same river. Hmmm…  Let’s see… 

Recipe for catching Piranha
Fishing rod method
                             Method One:

  1.        Splash water with fishing rod
  2.        throw in hook with meat on it

Live Bait
                        Method Two: 
              (No special equipment required)
  1.        Throw people in the river

Does no one else see the irony in this?

Swimming with the Dolphins

We scoot down the river in the skiffs to where the tributary we’re on joins another making a large bay.  This is where the blue and gray dolphins supposedly hang out.   They are very elusive dolphins – easy to see even harder to photograph. They’re often around the Amatista playing and cavorting  - until you pull out your camera – then they’re gone – until the second you turn off your camera – then they’re back.
The elusive amazon blue dolphin

I’ve experience with dolphins in Mexico and know that, they have little interest in “swimming with the humans.”  I try and explain this to the group.  I suggest that a better name for this activity might be “swimming in the general proximity of dolphins.”   I’m regarded as a spoilsport.    Even Tom, who swims like a rock, decides to jump into the river and “swim with the dolphins.” Even my warnings about the various type of predators that lurk just below the surface doesn’t deter him.
Tom & Fen chumming the water

I opt to stay on the boat with the guides (who obviously know better otherwise they’d be in the water) and film the carnage.  Sure enough a few moments after they plunge into the river  I’m treated to blood curdling screams as some of the  swimmers find their toes being attacked by…. minnows  (not piranhas).   The dolphins have skedaddled a safe distance down the river and are keeping a wary eye on the swimmers.

The hiking, fishing and swimming program having been successfully completed with no casualties,  the skiffs head back to the Amatista for lunch and a welcome siesta.

Wednesday  November 23, 2016 - evening

Captain Johnny
If the day hasn’t been exciting enough we’re told not to get too comfortable on board because we’re going out for a night excursion.  We leave at 4:30 as the sun is setting  and head up a narrow tributary optimistically  the Nauta Caño  River.  As we head further up the creek the  water becomes shallower and shallower.  At the same time the sky is getting darker and darker.  It’s not too long before the skiff runs aground on a shallow shelf.  Johnny, our driver, guns the motors  until smoke pours out of them – but the skiff doesn’t budge.  
“Everyone up forward,” he orders.
We all oblige and crowd up into the bow which tips the front of the boat enough that the skiff slips off the shelf and we progress a few hundred meters up the stream until we become hung up again – this time on a sunken stump.  
“Everyone up forward  again,”

This is repeated over and over again until I think I’m in the submarine U96 in Das Boot where the crew runs  back and forth to help the submarine dive faster. 

It’s almost totally dark now and we’ve moved  maybe a hundred meters since the first time we were hung up.  Johnny has given up ordering us forward and back and has now jumped in the river and is attempting to push the skiff up river  much like Humphrey Bogart in the African Queen.  I’m looking to see who has cigarettes so we can burn the leeches off him.  Even more frustrating  (to me – who is nice and dry one the boat) is the fact that we haven’t seen a single example of wildlife.  The hope was that we would see some ferocious black caimon that can grow up to 20 feet!    But so far the biggest reptile we’ve seen is a little green frog about the size of a quarter.  But with Johnny trudging in the dark in the water I still have hope.
Finally  the boat gets so hung up that Johnny can’t move it another inch forward.  After a lot of pushing and pulling he manages to get the boat turned around and we begin the process of heading back to the Amatista – in the dark.
Johnny and the dreaded black caimon

We’re five minutes into our return journey when Johnny spots something lurking in the lilies near the shore and poles the boat over.  He stares at it for a moment then does a perfect swan dive into the lily pads.   There’s a brief interlude of thrashing about and Johnny surfaces holding…..    A BLACK CAIMON!!!
Not a very big black caimon – but a caiman nevertheless.  I resist the temptation to tell him that back home we refer to reptiles this size as salamanders.  

The obligatory pictures are taken and we’re keen to head back to the boat, but the guides think it’s only fair for us to wait for the other skiff which continued up river a bit further to return so they can get  their chance at pictures with the reptile as well.  After all, as Robertson reminds us, they shared their snake with us earlier in the day.   I wonder out loud if perhaps our little caiman’s mother  or father might return looking for junior and be a might pissed off.

Robertson reassures us that we have nothing to worry about.  The adult caimans abandon their children soon after their born.
“Just like my family,” I  reply.

So we wait for the other skiff to return – which it does after a long interlude where we become more intimately involved with the amazon mosquitos and the chance to see if those  anti-malaria  pills I’ve been taking really work.  For just a minute I feel guilty that I was cheap and opted for the generic brand.

The other skiff eventually arrives and are immensely grateful as their caiman hunt had been as fruitless. More pictures are taken and we finally return to the Amatista to apply copious amounts of calamine lotion externally, and liberal amounts of alcohol internally - have supper and finally to bed - It’s been a long day.

NEXT:  I Win the the Nauta 500 Tuk Tuk Invitational

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A bird in the hand is worth two on a plate.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

They wake us early again for another “nature walk.”  Why we can’t just sit on the boat and watch nature float by is beyond me - but I’m game for game. They promise this won’t be as bad as the day before.  This time there are actually premade “trails,” so they’ll be no hacking.  We arrive at an abandoned amazon resort. At one time it must have been high end – it even has a large empty swimming pool -although I shudder to think of what they used to fill it, and what creature visited it at night.  It appears to have been abandoned recently and the jungle seems intent on reclaiming it  as monkeys have taken up residence in the eaves of the roof.  Our guide tells us the government has bought it and intends to re-purpose it as a “research station.”

Look closely - a monkey!
We’ve progress about a hundred meters  down a well maintained trail when our guide stops suddenly  and points up into the canopy.
“Look!  Monkeys!”
Everyone immediately stops, looks up and begin snapping pictures.  I stare but see nothing but leaves.
“Don’t you see it, Jeff?” Huber asks.
“I see nada,” I reply.
“Third tree over, follow it up till you see the branches fork then follow the left branch to the end.”
He loses me at the third tree.  They all look alike. I’ve been staring up so long that my neck hurts and I’m beginning to see spots – but no monkeys.
Finally I have an inspiration.   I hand Huber my camera and let him take  a picture of whatever he claims he sees which he does and hands it back to me.  Sure enough there’s a photo of a monkey.

Two Pajaros (parrots not wankers.)
We proceed a little further down the trail  and Huber claims to see something else.  I hand him the camera.  By the third time there is no conversation.  He simply stops hand holds out his hand for the camera.

When we take a small break from the animal spotting action I approach Huber with a proposition.
“Listen Huber, why don’t you just hang on to the camera for a while.  In fact I’m thinking of just letting you hang on to it for the rest of the trip and I’ll hang out in the bar on the boat.”
Huber thinks that’s cheating, but still hangs on to the camera for the rest of the walk.

After a few more minutes we arrive at the first of seven rope suspension bridges that thread their way through the canopy.  Given the state of the resort I’m a little concerned about when the last time the bridge maintenance crew might have inspected the bridges.  Although they seem in good repair we’re warned to have no more than four people at one time on a bridge.  I purposely hang back and let the biggest guys go first figuring if the bridge holds them they won’t have a problem with a little guy like me.

After another twenty minutes or so we end up back at the abandoned resort where the locals have mysteriously appeared out of the jungle and set up their “craft fair.”  I spot a nice woven plate with a picture of two parrots on it and decide that maybe my wife might like it. (Wrong!)
Craft fair  

I show the plate to the Amatista captain who’s arrived with the skiff to ferry us back to the boat. 
“Look,” I tell him in my best Spanish, “I bought a plate with two birds on it.”

The captain falls over laughing.   He calls the first mate over and asks me to repeat what I just said.  I oblige.  The first mate calls the rest of the crew over and asks me to show them my prize.  Soon the whole crew is convulsed with laughter rolling on the ground.  Finally one of the crew breaks down and lets me in on the secret.
“You told us you bought a plate with two guys masturbating on it.”
Lunch a a local village
I deny it.  I tell them I know that “pajaro”  means bird.
“You said pajero,” he tells me.  It means something totally different. 
“Pajaro” – “Pajero”…   “tom-ay-to” -  “tom-ah-to” sounds the same to me.  Evidently not.

We return to the boat to freshen up and head out to another village where we’ve been invited to join a family for an authentic Amazon meal.  When we arrive at the village the craft fair has arrived before us and already set up.  I notice there are several more plates with pajaros on them, but decline to bargain for them as the captain and crew are hovering nearby.

Senior Pajero
Our host teaches several of us how to make some local dishes.  I don’t pay too much attention as I don’t think many of the ingredients – namely the giant banana leaves – are available at my local supermarket.

The food, mainly fish, is excellent, and eaten mostly with the fingers.  I decide it’s a good time to let the rest of the group know about my slight linguistic slip up regarding the Spanish word for “wanker.”  I notice the bottle of hand sanitizer being passed around after I pass the food.

We return to Amatista for the afternoon siesta while the boat chugs up river to our next destination – Solterito village.  This is a small village like so many we’ve passed on our journey up and down the river.  This village is named Solterito, after the man who lived alone here for 19 years.

“I guess they called him Señor Pajero, back then” I slyly remark to the captain as he ferries us ashore in one of the skiffs.
“Why would they call him Señor Bird?” he asks.  I guess I haven’t got this pronunciation thing down yet.

Once we get ashore I see Señor Salterito has been busy since  that 19 years of forced abstinence .    The place is crawling with children.  Other than a 90 year old Señor Salterito, I don’t see any other adults.  It’s spooky – sort of like Village of the Damned…. but in a nice way.  

I comment to Robinson, our guide, about the missing adults.  He tells me many adults in the  Amazon still are  untrusting of outsiders.  They haven’t forgotten or forgiven the “rubber barons” who enslaved the indigent   population under brutal conditions to tap the rubber trees.  Robinson says his grandparents remember the era vividly and when he told them he was going to Lima to attend University his grandmother was sure that he would be killed by the white people and never seen again.  The shared ethnic memory still exists and hence the adults are uncomfortable with outsiders .  Hopefully this might change with more exposure to friendly tourists.

I also notice all the houses are up on stilts.  I ask why and I’m told in the rainy season the river can easily rise twenty or thirty feet.  Robinson says the river can occasionally rise even higher and points to the trees behind the houses.  We can see watermarks ten feet up on some of them.  Come June the only way these people are going to be able to move from house to house is with the dugout canoes stored underneath each house. Occasionally the river can rise even higher and it wipes out entire towns and they have to start all over again.

We’ve brought some gifts for the kids – colouring books, crayons, pens, books.  I notice there were no felt pens or permanent markers among the gifts.  I guess the word has spread not to give the kids those things.  I once gave a bunch of them to some Masaii kids in Africa and turned them instantly into a mob of taggers – another village Jeff isn’t welcome back to. 

The kids happily perform some local songs for us and we’re asked to respond.  The best we can do is a hopelessly inane version of the “hockey pokey.” 

Having amused the kids long enough we return to Amatista to amuse ourselves by listening to our crew perform real music at the bar and knock back some  drinks.  We arrive as the heavens open up and rain falls with such force that it’s like standing in front of a fire hose.  No wonder the river can rise 30 feet in the rainy season.

Tomorrow – fishing for Piranha and swimming with the dolphins

Saturday, December 10, 2016

My Friend the Witch Doctor.....

Morning trip to "slothland"

Monday November 21st - Morning

Heading out on the skiff
Well today is the first full day of activities on board the Amatista.  After a hearty breakfast  we board the two  skiffs for a short trip up river where we put ashore for a little nature walk.   There is a lot of excitement in the group because the naturalist tells us we might see some three toed sloths.  Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but sloths – no matter how many toes they have – are not high on bucket list of animals to see.  I’ll take a jaguar, python, anaconda, black caiman or even a howler monkey any day over a sloth - particularly when we have to slash our way through the jungle for an hour to find one.

This is our first expedition into the jungle which I quickly nickname the Bataan Death March.  The heat and humidity – even at nine in the morning - is incredible.    To give you some idea of how hot it is, here’s my list of the hottest places in descending order:

10 Sahara Desert
9.  Sinai  Desert
8.  Vietnam
7.  Thailand
6.   ----
5.  Hell
4.  ----
3.  ----
2.  ----
1.  The amazon

Hacking through the Amazon jungle
In order to get to the sloths we actually have to hack our way through the jungle.  One of the crew has a sharp machete and chops a path for us to follow.  The problem is the guy with the machete doesn’t quite know where he’s going - so there is much backtracking.  Within minutes I’m sweating buckets.  Here’s a jungle tip:  don’t wear jeans in the jungle.  They tend to hold in all the sweat.  In less than 15 minutes I’m so drenched in sweat that it looks like I fell into the Amazon.   Oh yes, another tip: Don’t forget your water bottle.  Luckily for me, I have Tom – and Tom has Fen - and Fen has water, so I manage to share a bit of their water. 

Finally after what seemed a lifetime we break out of the jungle into a treed area and the naturalist stops us:
“Everyone be quiet,” he warns. “I think there’s a sloth up ahead.  We don’t want to spook it.”
“Spook it?” I reply in a loud voice.  “What’s it going to do?  Run away?  It’s a sloth.  What does it move at?  Two miles a week? ”
He ignores my protests and points at a tree up ahead - and sure enough.  There it is, hanging on the side of a tree.  Obviously I’d spooked it as it was on the move – slowly.”
“Wow! A regular greyhound,” I comment.
I’m treated to a round of “Shhhhhhhhhh!” from the group.
“What are you shushing me for?” I ask.  “Are you worried about a sloth stampede?”
Everyone madly clicks away at it with their cameras.

“Not much point of taking a video of it,” I comment to Tom. “Glaciers move faster.”
With the obligatory pictures taken, we hack our way back to the river, board the skiffs back to the boat for showers and cold beer.

November 21st - Afternoon 

Afternoon trip to the "witch doctor"


“I took my troubles down to Madame Ruth
You know that gypsy with the gold-capped tooth
She's got a pad down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine
Selling little bottles of love potion number nine
I told her that I was a flop with chics
I've been this way since 1956
She looked at my palm and she made a magic sign
She said "What you need is love potion number nine"
                                                                                -jerry leiber

meeting the Shamon
After lunch our itinerary calls for us to pay a visit to San Regis to meet a real life Shaman.  “Shaman” is the politically correct name for “witch doctor.” In this case it’s a woman named Corolla.  Evidently her father was fond of Toyotas. 

We are hustled off the skiffs into the town palapa - an large open sided structure with a thatched roof suitable for breeding scorpions.  There are benches all around the perimeter and a small table at the front of the room with plastic water bottles filled with various noxious looking concoctions. 

With Robertson, our guide, interpreting the Shaman explains a bit about the background of becoming a Shaman.  Evidently, it wasn’t that easy.  You have to show some aptitude for the job, and then there is the seven year apprenticeship.  Sort of like going to Medical School, - but without the perks.  Evidently it’s highly competitive.  Corolla explained that there were too other guys competing with her for the job, but one day after three years they sort of disappeared – but there were people who claimed to see two large frogs hopping into the jungle nearby.

Carlota also has a complementary degree in jungle pharmacology.  She explains what various ailments and diseases the various concoctions cure.  She singles me out for one of them.  She tells the guide this particular concoction can cure baldness.  I tell her if she wants to give it a real work out she should try it out on Tom who’s been bald since the fourth grade.

She insists on rubbing it into Tom and my scalp claiming in a few days we’ll have full heads of hair.  I tell her I’ll give it a shot as long as it doesn’t grow hair on the palms of my hands.    Evidently the concoction must be past its best due date because no hair appears to be growing on either Tom or my scalps.   I’m a little concerned because she mentioned something about having to wait until the full moon.

After the pharmacology lecture and demo we adjourn to a sacred place outside the palapa where we are to participate in a “tree planting” ceremony.  Why they need more trees in the jungle is beyond me.  The sacred area is ringed with logs and there are numerous small holes in the ground with small saplings lying on the ground beside them.  We are instructed to stand in a circle and are about to repeat the “sacred pledge” when Tom came charging into the circle.  As usual he’s late, and in his haste to join the ceremony he stumbles over one of the “sacred logs” demolishing it, and kicking seedlings in all directions.  Corolla is not impressed and if I understand her Spanish correctly she curses Tom saying “No hair for you – ever.”
Taking the Amazon Pledge
When order is restored we all join hands and pledge to preserve the forest forever.  The pledge we repeat seemed similar to the one in the pledge scene in Animal House.

“I, state your name, do hereby pledge allegiance to maintaining  Amazon, with liberty and fraternity for all forever. Amen”

With the completion of the solemn pledge each of us plants our tree and depart back to the Amatista to renew our pledges over cold beers.

Just before dinner I am paid a visit by a distraught Tom.  It seems the Shaman’s curse has extended to his camera.
“Something’s wrong with my camera,” Tom explains. “I can’t seem to take any more pictures.”
I take a look at his camera. 
“It appears your SD card is full.  How many pictures have you taken?”
“Forty,” I repeat. “Only forty, how big is your card?”
“4 Megs. Isn’t that pretty big? ”
I didn’t  know they still made cards that small.
“Tom they cards now that are 64 Gigabytes! 
I look at his camera settings and find he has it set for the smallest picture size possible  – about the size of a postage stamp. 
“Tom, you can buy a 32Gig card for about nine bucks at Staples.”
  I rummage through my pack sack and give him a spare 32gig card and change his camera settings to take decent size pictures. 
Tom leaves happy maybe the curse has been lifted – on his camera at least.

Tomorrow we’re off to an Amazon village for a fast food lunch.