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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.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Rolling on the River

Riverboat  Amatista on the Amazon


Friday November 18 – Saturday November 19

I knew I was in trouble when Tom and Fen showed up at the airport exactly one hour late.
“Cutting it a bit short,” I pointed out.
“It’s my watch’s fault,” Tom replied holding up his arm displaying the guilty chronometer. “It’s still on daylight savings time.  I forgot to change it back.”
“That was like a week ago, Tom.”
“I know, but this is my travel watch.  I forgot to change it.”
And so it began.

Before we even boarded the plane….
Tom & Fen
“Oooh!  Oooh! I can’t find my boarding pass!”
“It’s in your back pocket,” Fen calmly points out.
“Oooh! Oooh!  My passport!”
“It’s in your fanny pack that fell off under the chair.”

The bulk of the problems disappear when Tom relinquishes all his personal items to Fen for safe keeping.  My wife and friends will point out I’m not much different than Tom, but I beg to differ.  I didn’t misplace one thing on this trip – if we discount leaving my passport on a table in the Dallas airport on the way home.

Five minutes before we’re due to board the aircraft Tom decides he needs a coffee fix.  Not just any coffee - but Starbucks – which just happens to be about 4 blocks away from our boarding gate.

We are well into the -boarding process when he returns.
“Here,” he says handing me the coffee. “Hang on to this. I need to go the washroom.”
“Tom, we’re boarding.  Can’t you wait until we’re on the plane?”
“It’s the coffee,” he says, heading for the can.

Airforce One
The last minute sudden urges to do something totally unrelated with the task at hand turns out to be a pattern that will repeat itself over and over during the trip.    I am relieved when they finally lock  the doors of the plane before Tom decided he needed a donut to go with his coffee.

We are finally on our long anticipated trek to the Amazon jungle – and long it was – about 14 hours in total:  four and a half hours to Dallas, then another 8 to Lima.  The airport in Lima is a zoo because of the APEC conference being held there.   On our way to our gate we taxi by Airforce One, the presidential planes of Russia, China, Japan, Australia and many other countries attending APEC.  Our own Prime Minister Trudeau’s Piper Cub was parked off to one
Trudeau's plane
side well. 

Originally my idea was to have Tom as my roommate, but when Fen decided to come that idea went into the dumper.  When we arrive at the hotel I find I’ve been paired up with Paul, a guy from London, who’s already at the desk arguing vociferously that he has booked and paid for a private room and wants no part of rooming with some bloke from the colonies.  Like most people who don’t speak the local language he believes he can be understood if he speaks louder.  To help matters I point out to Paul that I snore loudly, and have obnoxious bathroom habits, which I’m sure he’ll get used to it.  Paul is now positively screaming at the desk clerk now, who finally concedes and gives him his own room. 

As Paul leaves I saunter up to the desk clerk and in my imperfect Spanish point out I now have no roommate, and since there is no one to pair me up with I guess they’ll just have to give me my own room as well  at no additional expense – which they do rather than go through another screaming match with an unruly tourist.

me and my x in 1967
A few hours later we assemble in the hotel bar to meet the rest of our fellow travelers – twenty- two in total - from countries as diverse as Norway, South Africa,  Britain, Germany, China, the US and Canada.  The ages vary from seventy down to eighteen.    There are a few other Canadians in the group, including a woman from southern Ontario.  It turns out she’s a midwife which twigs a repressed memory.   I tap her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, but you mentioned you are a midwife?”
“Yes, that’s right,” she replied.
“Do you know Bobbi Soderstrom?”
“Yes, quite well.  We serve on several committees together.”
“Well I think I was married briefly to her.”
“She never mentioned she had another husband.”
“Yes, well, here I am.” 
Small world.

The briefing concludes and we’re informed we need to be in the lobby with our bags at 7:00am sharp to catch the bus to the airport for the flight to Iquitos.

 Sunday  Nov 20th 

 I’m in the lobby with my bags along with 19 other people promptly at 7:00am – no Tom and Fen.   At 7:10 the bus arrives and they begin to herd us on board – still no Tom and Fen.  I get on board figuring they’ll be down in a few seconds.  7:15 every one is on board but still no Tom and Fen.  The bus is about to leave.  I ask them to wait and go back into the hotel and call Tom’s room hoping he’s already in the elevator on his way down.  No such luck:

“Oooh! Oooh!  We’ll be right there!  I thought I lost my camera, so I had to unpack everything, but Fen found it. We’ll be right down.”

The flight to Iquitos takes about two hours. Iquitos is the gateway to the Amazon -a city of nearly half a million that is only accessible by water or air.    While the Amazon might be 4000 miles long, the runway in Iquitos is only 8200 feet.   An Airbus 320 needs a minimum of 6000 feet.  A Boeing 737-800 needs over 7000 feet -so there isn’t a ton of room to spare – which became apparent upon our landing in Iquitos when the pilot pushes the thrust reversers to maximum and stands on the brakes.  We come to a stop about a hundred feet short of the end of the runway – just a normal landing for Iquitos.

We are met by Robertson, our tour leader, and   several of the crew of the Amatista who quickly collect our luggage and herd us onto an air conditioned bus for the two hour trip to where the boat is anchored.

The Amatista
If you’re expecting a sleek riverboat like they use in Europe you’re in for a big surprise.  The Amatista and her sister vessels are more like old fashioned Mississippi river boats.  It’s essentially a boxy two story structure built on top of a barge.   The Amatista was built in 1994 and renovated in 2013.  She is 124 feet in length and 28 feet wide and has a draft of 8.5 feet which is important since there are numerous sandbars on the Amazon.   She has a crew of 15 and can accommodate 30 passengers in 15 cabins on two decks: 8 cabins on the main deck and 7 cabins on the upper deck.  There is an enclosed dining room on the lower deck and a semi-open lounge and bar on the second deck.

Amatista's Dining Room
Upon arrival at the boat we are hustled into the dining room for a late lunch and assigned our rooms.  I am told that I am assigned a room on the lower deck with a guy from New York.  I explain to our tour leader that I paid considerably more for a room on the second deck.  Since they appear to have made an error I suggested they give me my own room on the lower deck and I will consider it a fair exchange.  The guide departs to talk to the captain and returns after a few minutes telling me they have found a vacant cabin on the second deck which I can have – at no extra cost.  So I lucked into single accommodation again. 

The rooms are all air conditioned and each has two view windows.  There is a large closet with drawers and a small desk in the corner which is suitable for working at the computer.  The desk has a lockable drawer to keep your valuables.  While the bathroom is small it has a fairly large shower and there is oodles of hot water.
Amatista stateroom

We are given a few minutes to unpack and then meet in the lounge for an orientation session where we met our naturalist, Hulber.

As usual Tom is the last to arrive, it appears he’d lost his ipod and spent 40 minutes searching his luggage in vain until he realizes he’s forgotten it on the airplane to Iquitos.  

During the briefing I learn our cruise will not be the leisurely sightseeing trip down the Amazon I had anticipated.  No, we will be making regular stops along the way where we will have to slash our way through the jungle to view the local flora and fauna.

There’s still an hour or so until dinner so we all depart to the lounge on the second deck for “Happy Hour” where several of the crew perform in a small band.

After dinner most of us older folks hit the sack early, while the younger ones party well into the night.  I go to bed early as we have to be up early the next morning  for  a “pleasant little jungle walk.”  

More in a few days,

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Up the Amazon without a paddle

Up the Amazon without a Paddle!

November 15, 2016

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve posted on to the blog – the main reason is that it’s primarily a travel blog and I haven’t gone anywhere since our trip to Yelapa last fall. 

Three months seemed like a long time on the last excursion and the successive wars with the army ants wore Michele and me down.  She has no appetite to return and I figure after nine straight years visiting Yelapa perhaps a change might be in order.

Since the main reason for bypassing Yelapa this year was the encounters with the army ants, scorpions, sea crocodiles and boas, I have decided to try a somewhat calmer place:   The Amazon River.

Our  Yelapa neighbour 
This is a trip that I am supposed to take with my buddy Larry who has finally run out of excuses not to go on another adventure with me.  However, at the last moment, he decided he would rather have his gall bladder removed. Over breakfast with a few of my buddies I mention there is an opening on for the position  of “roommate” on my upcoming  Amazon trip and am startled how quickly the conversation turns to other things – “Say how about those Canucks?  I hear they lost another five games last week!”  So I am shocked when my friend Tom says, “Hey, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to go.” 

I tell Tom the fantastic price I found for the trip and airfare (under $3000.00 for everything) wouldn’t be around long.  If he wants to go he’ll have to book it immediately.  I figure he’ll go home, think twice about it and that will be the end of it; so I am surprised when he calls later that day and says ,“I have good news and bad news.”
“What’s the good news,” I ask.
“I’m definitely coming,” he replies.
“…and the bad news?”
“I can’t be your roommate.  Fen (his partner) wants to come and for some strange reason insists I room with her.”

That is mixed news for me.  Having a known roommate is better than having an unknown one.  I’d had bad news with several of the others: the last one insisted on sleeping with the lights on and took pictures of everything he did during the trip – including candid shots of his bowel movements.”

Tom Gliding
Tom also has his problems.  He suffers from insomnia and tends to wander a lot during the night – which isn’t a good idea on a river boat.  Did I mention Tom can’t swim?  Travelling with Tom can be fun:  He’s known throughout the world for his high pitched girl-like scream that can be heard for miles – like the time when we were taking Glider lessons and his instructor stalled the glider and put it into a tailspin.  People from Hope BC to Penticton claim to have heard him – or there was the time when we were kayaking in Haida Gwaii when a whale breached about three feet in front of him.  Sarah Palin claims to have heard him in Alaska.

Tom and Fen booked the trip before they called me so he is somewhat shocked when I tell him he should visit the travel clinic.
“What for?” he asks.
“Shots,” I reply.
“For what?”
“For everything:  Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B, Polio, Yellow Fever to name a few.  And you’ll need a prescription for malaria pills and the oral Cholera vaccine”
After returning from the travel clinic with a swollen arm, Tom confides that if he knew that he would have needed so many shots he would have booked the trip.
“You know,” he opines, “Maybe Larry had the right idea.  Compared to potentially getting any or all of those diseases getting your gall bladder out might be a walk in the park.”
What really terrifies Tom is when the travel clinic doctor tells him there is a chance of getting Dengue Fever. 
“Well just give me the shot for that.  You’ve given me a shot for everything else.  What’s one more poke in the arm?”
“Sorry,” she tells him as she sticks another round band aid on his arm, “There is no vaccine for that. Too bad, ‘cause it’s really nasty.”
Tom went home and read over the contracts for the trip and flights and is disappointed he couldn’t find a way out.
“Listen, Tom,”  I tell him.  That cruise runs 52 weeks of the year, when you work out the math, it’s really unlikely you’ll ever get Dengue Fever. I only know one guy who got it  and he survived - barely”  Something worse is more likely to get you: things that there are no vaccines for.”
“Like what?”
The dreaded Candiru
“Well to start with you got your snakes, electric eels, Red- Bellied Piranhas, sharks…..”
 At this point Tom has stuck his fingers in his ears and is singing “La la la la” as loud as he can , so I don’t have the heart to tell him about the Candiru – a small spiny fish famous for launching themselves up the urethra of anyone foolish enough to pee in the river. If you want to have nightmares, check out this list of the 10 most terrifyingcreatures of the Amazon River -  but don’t send it to Tom.  

Image result for amazon river boat sank
Recent river boat sinking
I also didn’t mention to him a similar boat to ours blew up and sank last July - or a recent string of pirate attacks.  But hey, the good news is they seem to only attack “luxury” cruises, so I guess we don’t have to worry and things have been relatively calm since July. Besides, Tom doesn’t have to worry about pirates, I have had experience with pirates on one of my previous trips to Thailand where the cook and I fended off pirates with a large cast iron frying pan.

Actually the trip sounds like fun, and completely safe (I think).   I told Tom he has more chance of getting Dengue fever than the boat blowing up under him or being attacked by pirates in the middle of the night.

 We will arrive in Lima this Saturday and take a plane the next day to Iquitos in the jungle to  get on board our GAdventures River Boat where we spend the next week cruising up and down the upper reaches of the Amazon River. Then it’s back to Lima for a few days of R&R and back home.  Total time gone just 14 days – although to Tom it might seem like a lifetime.  

Hopefully there’s some Wi-Fi along the way so I can keep you informed of our adventures or if you have to start a crowdfunding to raise our ransom.

If you want to learn more about the cruise here’s the link to our itinerary.

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