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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.


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