Swam in the Amazon - Check!
As Peace Corps volunteers, we don’t really get much ‘vacation’. For instance, Christmas and New Years – we don’t get any time off, same with weekends, so if you want to go somewhere during that time, you have to take vacation. We get two days per month and weekends are not included. We received three free days for Thanksgiving – hence, jungle trip during Thanksgiving. (Yes, the vacation policy of Peace Corps Peru is ridiculous)
While most of my friends and family were enjoying the delights of this time of year, the autumn brisk, leaves crunching under foot, football games, delicious homely food, and all around good cheer with friends and family too long not seen – I was meandering through the hot and humid Amazon, constantly sweating and swatting mosquitoes, listening to the jungle’s liveliness, and eating bananas and river fish – although we had good cheer as well.
We spent 4 days canoeing through an immense jungle reserve, watching monkeys (and acting like them), big colorful birds & butterflies, dolphins, sloths, spiders, ants, snakes, iguanas, and all kinds of other stuff. Spending time in that environment, one’s respect for nature exponentially increases as you realize how unequipped we are for survival compared to everything else (which is why we developed brains I suppose – though I would argue while our brains are more advanced, we are more out of tune with the world). Everything is food – the leaves and fruit, the algae in the water, the mosquitoes, the fish, the reptiles, and us too – everything is equal and part of the system. The jungle is teeming with life at all spots and Mother Nature’s food chain is clearly visible. Your eyes see all the life growing upon things that are already growing while your ears listen to the melody and rhythm of nature. To say it was beautiful and educational is an understatement.
The most ‘national geographic moment’ was when we saw an eagle killing a small monkey with its talons and beak. It was nuts. Unfortunately, no one got a good picture of it due to the trees and movement entailed when one wild animal is killing another – but it’ll live in my head forever. Hiking through the jungle is intimidating, especially because I grew up in a deciduous forest environment and its life is foreign to me – the jungle has so many things to kill you or hurt you badly. Don’t touch anything without seeing it first. The ants were the worst…not only are they everywhere, but they pack a mean bite and no bug spray deters them…and they are huuuuge. The trees are so high and dense the sun is blotted out but its heat is still immense. You can’t see more than 10 to 20 feet in any direction because the plant life is too dense.
We went canoeing at night and that might have caused the most anxiety…with all the sounds and nocturnal animals out looking for food. Bats, snakes, mosquitoes, crocodiles, spiders, basically everything meant to hunt in that environment and then there’s you…it’s easy to see why the first religions and those that followed came to see night and dark as evil. (holding a caiman (small alligator) on S.S. Beardhawk...the name of our vessel)
After the canoeing part, we had to spend a night in the town Lagunas, waiting for the boat to take us to Iquitos (the big city). Lagunas is a town of about 10,000 people and has dirt roads but no cars (only motorcycles/moto-taxis). The electricity is on from 6am till 10am and then from 6pm until midnight. There really aren’t any restaurants so our guide cooked us food for the extra day we were there. We spent a Saturday night there and coincidentally, there was a huge regional beauty pageant, which is a big deal there. The town is not a big tourist destination so we received a lot of attention at the pageant (the white skin makes you stand out). We didn’t help with our gregariousness and unreserved attitude (the alcohol might have helped too) – now everyone there thinks we’re crazy. Our guide told us he has never met such crazy people and he will tell god that we’re crazy, but good-fun crazy. Perhaps it was all the singing and dancing and semi-nudity... (who can resist singing and dancing to “In the jungle/ooweemaweh” or “Welcome to the Jungle” while in the jungle?)
Once we caught the cargo boat for Iquitos at midnight we strung up our hammocks, read and relaxed until Iquitos. For anyone who has never had the opportunity to swing in a hammock for two days with nothing else to do but read and nap, I recommend it. The cargo boat had everything from a jeep to cows on it (not a good place for cows, one of them died on the trip).
Iquitos is settled on the banks of the Amazon River. At this point, it is actually the Amazon River and not one of the hundred rivers feeding into it. For being in the middle of nowhere and cloaked with a sauna-like heat blanket, it was surprisingly very active and rambunctious. The town has about 400,000 people and has similarities to other cities…except the roads don’t have many cars (mainly moto-taxis), monkeys are a common pet, and your awareness of your location on the globe gives it a different feel – not to mention that huge river giving way to a different diet with its abundant plant life and animal life. As Karrie observed about the few cars on the roads, “I presume anyone with a nice car isn’t actually Peruvian but a foreigner in the natural-resource extraction business.” (if you can't see him well, he is taking a bath - we saw multiple people doing the same)
We spent 4 days in Iquitos doing a variety of things. Although, between the hours of 11am and 3pm, we weren’t doing anything other than trying not to move while an electric fan unsatisfyingly threw air upon us. With the humid weather you could never really feel dry…everything felt damp and sitting in the shade also involved sweating. With my white skin and blue eyes, my ancestors did not evolve to suit that environment and I missed the cool and dry atmosphere of my little mountain town…but I’m back here now.
Life in the Peace Corps consists of having something to look forward to – which is essential to helping you make it through your time in site. There is a lot of down time and many, ‘what the heck am I doing?’ thoughts, at least for me. The trip to Machu Picchu and mountain climbing expedition were two; the visits of Dundon and Fletch were two others. The jungle trip was a big event to look forward to as well and it didn’t let me down. I have about 8 months left in the Peace Corps – pretty soon, the event to look forward to is returning home. (that's me, swimming...or jumping into the amazon!)