The road to Leticia comes and goes... rather quickly, there being no road there from Bogotá. I'm flying, although the traditional tourist really is "supposed" to take a boat up the Leticia's adjoining Amazon River to reach this blessed town of about 35,000 folks. But them's hardly all the denizen-ry: Tabatinga, across the street in Brazil and likewise adjacent to the river, has another 45,000 denizens. And yes, wait!, there's more: a five minute boat ride across the Amazon River leads to Perú, home to about 5000 more folks in Santa Rosa.
Granted, Santa Rosa is where I'll hear that one can really only marvel at... free range chickens - and not likely not much more... but it's hard to beat three countries for the price of one. Certainly it DOES sound like a lot of folks in the middle of nowhere, so so much for remote and all that Amazonian mystique for the outset, at least. And I'll regardless come to doubt the largess of those numbers shortly, if only to spite the conurbation's greater picture of 100,000 that's laid out like law in the guidebooks. We'll see about THAT, I think.
Whatever the number, being situated deeply inland from the Atlantic Ocean has kept the area respectably off the beaten track by most any other standards. And this still feels true even after aviation has now given its convenient answer to access. Indeed, Leticia in 2010 is serviced from Bogotá by two reasonably large jumbo jets a day, flights of about two hours each. Tabatinga supports an additional, similar number. Thus it's merely booking a seat that's necessary to transport my sacred behind over the mountains. This isn't as romantic as a boat, sure, but it's awfully efficient and, in this circumstance, works perfectly for my vague trip itinerary.
From the vantage point of a window seat, then, I find myself watching roads and cleared areas below disappear. Bogotá and environs are shortly abandoned in search of more rustic fare, and quickly. Soon goes the likes of narrow and clear (and, one might surmise, cold) streams. Increasingly, I'm treated to meandering swaths of brown waterways instead. Each is evidently slothful in nature, of the curvy ilk demanded by a flat river. I can't help but think of their ultimate hemispheric counterpart up north, the Mississippi River, also the grand drain of a continent like the Amazon. Fittingly, such slack flow entails oxbow after oxbow to bear witness to accumulated silt, each otherwise completely enveloped by a almost uniform dark green. This monocolor-mindedness of canopy is broken only by sparsely distributed balls of brighter green, which I take to be palms (in ignorance - they're far more likely to be the monstrous ceibas instead, the well-rooted lords of the jungle).
The other possible breaks to the sea of green come in the form of rare clearings. One might perhaps host a thatched hut, in which case there invariably is nearby water access. How else can someone move through such a tract-less, road-deprived land? I wonder how lonely indeed such a home would need be in spite of the beauty of such vast, verdant country. Not that they're so numerous, such sentinels of civilization providing only the rarest of exceptions to the monotony of burled carpet stretching to a perceptible horizon. Looking into the distance gives no greater instantiation of limits, either, further betraying only the Earth's curvature.
Not so far above this terra firma rests a layer of clouds broken widely, some distinguished by vertical plumes of puff shooting straight up. These give rise to counterparts of shadowed patches of dark green-black land below, though, and for such solar respite I assume that said dirt below is likely consequentially going through a hell of wetness. My formerly residing in semi-tropical Florida affords no difficulty in imagining the thunderstorms that these marshmallow spikes incur in wrath when in the mood - however unseemly that might appear from the white-noise-infused calm of a plane's interior.
Soon enough these musings are all left behind. We gracefully land in a thrushed roar on a simple airstrip, a mere slashing of asphalt carved out of unending bush. As the plane's taxi-ing comes to a halt, I immediately notice a man emerge from a nearby building to meet us. He trundles over to the plane, grabbing a hose on the way to evidently begin refueling - no security-cordoned-off area this. Glancing over at Leticia's airport further rather handily bespeaks "frontier" to any and all's content. Welcome to the jungle... we've got fun and games? How does that lyric go... and why?
We deplane onto the steaming tarmac, making our way into the terminal with its lone conveyor belt of aged rubber. Cracked and creaking, all of us are equally amazed when it eventually kicks to life and performed its function. Huh! The beleaguered mechanization nevertheless gives me long enough to befriend two South African medical students, and soon I'm clambering into a taxi with them. Bianca, Jacques, and I are to be taken to a nearby hostel which I know of... not at all, beyond a name. Moreover, it turns out that this unknown place has also changed its location since the printing of my guide.
Oops, uh... but no worries. The driver has it figured out - how many hostels are in Leticia, anyway? We thus momentarily deal only with the required fleecing of motorcycles trafficking the road, zipping ourselves through lonely streets of blistered concrete to the hostel compound. In the process, this negligibly-sized trip serves to confirm that the town is at best a 10x10 grid or so and, of that, only about a 5x5 section forms the core. Hmm. This should prove an easily manageable ville, I reckon, even if the hostel stands to one edge of it. We'll only be about a rock's throw over from Brazil to boot, apparently.
With several bunk rooms, a pool, a bar, a kitchen, a pond and a bit more, the hostel immediately sees me gauging my length of stay. It's still a work in progress at our time of arrival, but right away I guess that it already handily beats out a number of "completed" hostels I can recall from my year's previous Colombian sojourn. Its touches of Amazon authenticity appeal sufficiently as well, even if they'll soon be found replicated as the area's stock in trade throughout the "city" core and beyond. I'll shortly learn that Leticia's tourism sells rusticity if nothing else.
In minutes we meet the owner, G, something a philosopher from what I'm to understand. He excitedly learns of my classics-dominated, dozen-sized treasure trove of books (I'm indeed ready for a potentially-elongated visit at least SOMEwhere), immediately being encouraging about book exchanges with himself. Good books are hard to come by out in the sticks. As for using his place to work on some music, he's amenable to that as well. It'll take more time, however, to convince him that part of staying put means my keeping the same bed - but that'll play out over time. For now, this looks perfect.
As for the compound, it is indeed a relatively new location for G. He only had about eight beds in the last place, consistently selling out to give him the confidence to take on something bigger. So he's signed a (essentially worthless) contract to settle into this property and expand the business. "Worthless" is an apt description, too, because any improvements made to this former missionary estate will come out of his own pocket. He'd best do them unadvertised at that since the local slumlord has some 100-200 properties, a noted reputation, and the rent would only probably just go up as a consequence. If he leaves, or is forced to leave, that'll be the end of it, too. Hmm - that'd sufficiently deter me! But that's how things work in Leticia, with only a few people apparently running the show.
More to the present, I've picked a particularly tough season for my visit. I quickly learn of some upcoming regional or national sports games, foretelling a likely upcoming squeeze on hotel space. Hmm again. G further sheds rain on my slowing parade in noting that the rainy season is just around the corner. That'll begin in December or so, a little ways off. Granted, rain will potentially knock the oppressive heat back a bit - and it's already an inferno - but the rains more urgently mean that the mosquitoes will soon be blooming, mushrooming, exploding and (pick your participle)-ing in number. Nothing like a little motivation to move on - whenever that's to be, anyway.
But already the heat's wiping me out. Indeed, I've noticed straightaway that it feels like two warm, pudgy hands are placing themselves weightily on my shoulders. This started right about the time I left the airplane, too, a one-two crushing punch of humidity and oven-blast. Oof! Soon these doughy palms of sweat would see me pushed down, down, down onto an awaiting bed... where I shortly often find myself, a fan at full tilt. At least there's been no surprise about the availability of the latter, the availability of strong fans verified immediately upon stepping foot into the hostel.
This heat prostration takes root beginning with the initial few days, daily built-up nauseas easing only after I lay myself down under steady, fan-driven breezes. Even after eventually adjusting to the clime, I continue this practice - it just feels good! Fortunately, the shower works admirably as an alternate as well, offering a glorious stream of cold water that issues forth from perhaps the most impressive shower head in all of Colombia. So it feels each time I stand my sweaty sack of bones underneath it, anyway. Woo HOO! As to its sometimes overly cool temperature, this I can easily forgive, well past already knowing that heated water is likely unavailable in such climes.
Thus it is with this routine that I settle into my room practically immediately, taking on my typical role as the "old resident" in about the span of a day. There's only several hours of the first night to share the place with existing guests, four German-speaking (from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany) women. At first ignoring me, they fuss and joke in German about this man they're now unexpectedly sharing their room with... until they realize that I speak German well enough to understand them. They then regardlessly return to the theme, re-ignoring me and abruptly changing into skimpy t-shirts. Granted, this is necessary to beat the heat, but accomplishing it with typical, immodest Teutonic aplomb causes me to wonder which form of chopped liver I represent. Of course I immediately make ready to vociferously complain about such wanton indecency... but inexplicably never get around to it.
With these women vanishing under the cover of my first night's darkness, my first few Leticia days in earnest are spent with my new South African BFFs. We cook or dine together a number of times, exchanging notes of what we're discovering around town over the course of each day. Naturally, I also waste no time in pulling out my horn, literally sounding out the compound's environs with some initial stabs at some Beatles and jazz numbers with Jacques. Yes, I can get used to this... provided there's a fan around, whirling at full blast wherever I go.
Considerable lazing about the hostel soon allows me to notice that everyone - spare myself - has one thing in common: they're all taking boats up or down the Amazon. These voyages all are either to/from Manaus (downriver in Brazil, "to" in about four days and "from" in about a steamy six) and/or Iquitos (Perú, upriver in nearly two days on the slow boat, downriver a bit quicker - barring pirates, of which I'll hear some later). Hey! Doesn't anyone else get this plane thing? Really, it works! MUCH shorter, more comfortable...
Seriously. These romantic-seeming boat rides don't sound like pleasant affairs at all, one unchanging view of massive muddy river and distant tenth-growth forest after another as I'm repeatedly told. My take will remain so, too, even after being apprised that at least the breezes afforded by constant motion compensate a bit for the uncomfortable and crowded sleeping conditions. No, no, no!, I steadfastly maintain: the mere combination of negligible views and quite palpable worries of theft make for an adequate excuse to bag the experience. Tourist checklists be damned when there's no further point than suffering to checkmark that angled penstroke into the box.
Beyond said boating amenities which I won't be availing myself of, I shortly further hear an exemplary tale of caution: the previous boat from Iquitos has been completely held up by bandits. A rather bold and effective heist, with most aboard losing pretty much everything of value, it's highly likely that there'll be no recompense or investigation of note to follow. This helps confirm my confirmation, although no such hijinx have even been on the horizon for me with such a handy airport. No, I'll happily keep my watery meanderings to short trips, day affairs at best that'll serve to complement jungle tours previously done in Ecuador and Bolivia. Yes, I'm resolved to sit tight in Leticia...
...until I'm not. Yeah, I shortly find myself doing just the opposite as my planned non-motion, and not long after meeting the German girls' replacements: Werner and Peter. Not that I want these two running around in skimpy t-shirts or blithely changing as if I don't exist, but... they're the ones who convince me to tag along. Maybe it's because it's the case that the former is a longtime German-gone-Aussie hailing my former town of Kaiserslautern, Germany - while the other is a Slovak-cum-Aussie-cum-U.S. resident as of the last several years or so. The key to this latter's story is that he's a Slovak - a peep of my ancestral peeps! Well, half of me - the half I talk about, generally. The other half is a state secret. Which is another way of saying I'm not completely sure what brand of mutt I am on that side.
Anyway, figuring these new BFFs to be countrymen of probably about five-eighths of my roots is a good start. Their additionally being men of action and adventure (just run with me on this) furthers the cause, I believe. So I guess I WILL join them on a trip to Puerto Nariño - right about at the moment when I beg them to suffer my presence. This is happening sooner than planned, but what the hey. Good folks is good folks; such reasoning has never failed me before.
At a minimum, however, I'll complete an initial survey of Leticia before leaving. In this I'm possibly unique in being perhaps the lone tourist around not needing to run about and endure the visa stamp game. Already I've been seeing that virtually all my fellow travelers are having to zip over to Perú (via the five minute shot across the river necessary to return a generation back in time) or Brazil (technically "just across the street," yet accompanied by a few seedy grades of drop toward the southerly side of polite company) to do so. Since I'll never "officially" be departing Colombia, there's not to be any such temporal burden to hinder my freely moving about. Yay me!, I say, although not necessarily to anyone in particular. I don't want to make anyone jealous.
Thus able to take in Leticia at its leisurely length, I can afford to notice with a pondering curiosity how it's both (1) bigger and (2) smaller than expected. To the one side this plays out in the more built-up town core than I would have guessed. To the other is my equal surprise in how quickly it disappears to its edges. Perhaps this is an effect of tourism, but I surmise that it's the town's status as a crossroads that more accurately supports this greater density in an otherwise gaping sea of rusticity. I also remember from a few years prior how Panama City is similarly outsized by its placement alongside the Canal.
The existence of a respectable ice cream parlor (of the Mimi's chain) is one benefit of such traffic and commerce, a supply for an evident demand. So, too, are the many restaurants offering the local fishies in any variety of styles for comsumption. The obviously flashy one name-wise, piranha, is only a starting point. My guessing, too, is that it's highly unlikely that the locals would eat the same variety of fishes with anywhere near the twists of cooking available to tempt so many tastes (and pesos). I can only raise my plate to such offerings... before getting back to the business at hand, that of chowing down merrily.
As for the internet - that's admittedly something else entirely, a local horror show vastly influenced by whether the provider owns their own antenna. They all stink, regardless. Supposedly one rather important antenna is in a knocked down state from a recent windstorm, rainstorm or, more likely, jungle rot, but it isn't entirely clear who controls or benefits from it the most, anyway. All I'll be able to uniformly determine over six weeks is that the service sucks - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, particularly when remembering that we (theoretically) travel to get away, after all. Here it's just to be a given.
The supermarkets, unsurprisingly, quickly show themselves to be weak purveyors of grub to parley into something interesting. But we are in the middle of nowhere, true indeed, so this confirmation of paltry-ness is expected. I have to humbly applaud my forethought in wisely bringing both an assortment of spices (my core group of chili powder, homemade curry powder, cumin, black pepper) and coffee to the region as a result. They allow for some semblance of "home cooking", I rightly conclude, even as I think of further upping my game to carting around a dozen or so of them in the future. (I do well remember my traveling companions Matt and Kate from the year before.)
As for the competition to consume all things food? And by that I mean those infectious, malaria-proferring, filth-spreading beasts called BUGS? Oh... yeah. There's no shortage of 'em, starting with the innumerable hordes in the hostel kitchen available on a nearly constant basis. And about everywhere else, too. Specifically regarding mosquitoes, however, I'm already on my malarial pill-poppin' schedule, happily not suffering ill effects (doxycycline is easygoing that way, I can personally confirm). That's not to say that I'm not regardless collecting plenty of bites. From the growing collection of red bumps on my skin, I can only hazard a guess as to what the rainy season ahead might entail - or if I'll stick around for that. On the more-bitten afternoons, such an extended stay hardly seems likely.
Anyway, with all such bases of residence properly established, I feel that I've officially reconnoitre-d Leticia. To MY satisfaction, anyway. This finally allows thoughts to properly turn toward Puerto Nariño, that village about two hours upriver which effectively (with Lerticia) concludes almost all of Colombia's footprint on the grand river. Truth be told, though, I've always known that I'd be headed there eventually. The idea of a motor-less eco-town, a home primarily to indigenous peoples, has long been made more than appealing by my - and all other - guides for the area. I just hadn't counted on either a crazy German or a machete-minded Slovak to provide accompaniment. THEIR terrors of the jungle are mentioned nowhere in print. I jest. Ha ha - see? Anyway, with such companions I guess it surely can be only the more interesting. Oh how true that'll be.
Werner, for example, can recount at will many a random personal history. Almost all are derived from an already-long life of Wanderlust, a properly German word for an improbable - not to mention self-admittedly improper - German. His time in Germany merely proved but a starting point to a life in motion. For a sufficiently long time since - most if not all of his adult life - he's lived the life of an escaped expat in Oz. Said life is one he characterizes by ever shifting residences, each rooted only as far as his boat or commercial van/home will allow.
Naturally such home-mobility holds appeal to me - if only for my preference of land-lubbing sides to such equations. Fortunately not disappointed in my ignoring his "seafaring" life's advantages, he proves encouragingly helpful in relating just his road-ridden experiences. A sounding board of considerable expertise, he fleshes out many an idea I've had in that regard - happily detailing the "wheres" of his stays (within a city's limits), the "how longs", and how to avoid pesky police and neighbors. I'm all ears, a vagabond acolyte to his yoda - minus the light saber. Which, for the record, would be cool to have.
By grand coincidence, too, Werner hails from the very town where I lived in Germany in the 1980s - Kaiserslautern. It pleases me to no end, thus, to be able to understood him clearly whenever he breaks into short bursts of Pfälzisch (the dialect of Kaiserslautern's region). Not all has been lost of my German-speaking capacity!, I rejoice, with each phrase understood shaking my noggin of marbles in hopes of another one to come. On this theme we'll as well share a continuing laugh or ten regarding the Pfälzisch (if not generally German) joke of giving so-so affirmatives in the form of "aye-OHHH" (or the equally-vague negative of "AHHH-no"). His stories of run-ins and misgivings with Americans, all back in the 1960s when Germans had no recourse whatsoever to American military doings on German soil, are considerably more sobering, however.
Peter, meanwhile, will evidently supply any energy necessary to propel all three of us along. He unquestionably offers us two laggards a push if we even THINK to delve too deep on the slack side of The (His) Force. Light sabers are intended for use, he'd undoubtedly instruct given any such opportunity. Indeed, Werner and I quickly recognize the possible need to physically hold him back from diving into the jungle on his own. It takes no imagination to see him leaping into the bush, hatchet (or blowgun) gripped in clenched teeth. The guy wants to DO something, reminding me greatly of my mountain-minded Czech friends back in Seattle, as his focus ever lies in the present: where's the REAL jungle? "Let me at it!" Okay, he never actually says that - verbatim, anyway.
Peter soon takes to relaying an adventure he's heard about numerous times in awe - something about an ex-military, Special Forces-type guy who's somewhat recently walked the length of the Amazon unaided. Of an apparently like mind to do something spectacular, Werner and I can only hope he doesn't get any such ideas while WE are around. But certainly his attitude can serve better for whatever we three are to accomplish together, right? Right: With his excitement in being on the Amazon so palpable, I'm frankly merely glad that he hasn't spotted any machetes available for immediate purchase. Undoubtedly he'd go off into the bush forthwith, without a second thought, leaving the lazy duo of Werner and I to self-motivate beyond the mild strolls we only seem to accomplish. All the while, of course, I won't have the heart to tell him (and certainly not Werner, who like me isn't new to the region) how HARD it exactly is to find virgin jungle in the first place. We'll just have to keep him on a leash shortened with... booze.
Such liquid libations soon help when, beyond the task of speaking to the inner Tarzan we all share, MY new agenda for Peter consists of mining him for Slovak stories. After all, in this singular person I've found a link to the culture on my Mom's (fully Slovak) side. But my Mom seems to have only the most meagre of tidbits in her memory these days, in spite of growing up the child of dyed-in-the-wool Slovak parents. And I rarely bump into Slovaks, either, to date only receiving precious little info about them outside of what comes via the filter of my Czech friends. Albeit friendly rivals both pre- and post- the velvet divorce, they're sure to bring some bias along... which only leaves - that I know of - the odd blurbs in Stoker's Dracula concerning my mysterious kin, and those probably are not QUITE true. For all the above, then, I feel fortunate that Peter has a will to share, especially so if liquor is on hand. It often is, not coincidentally.
To this end we'll nevertheless need rue the unavailability of slivowice, which Peter repeatedly insists Czechs can't have a proper idea. (No comment.) In our current situation, anyway, we're forced to find substitutes - namely rum and aguardiente. Then, with the booze now flowing, none might dare disagree with the guy carting about an impressively-sized Slovakia flag. Under the fog of alcohol, THAT WHOLE THING will come up again and again, Peter's demand of the entire Czech nation: when are they going to get around to making THEIR own flag?
Apparently the Czech Republic is still holding on to the old Czechoslovakia banner as their own, a supposedly broken promise of the Velvet Revolution. I haven't the means to give a damn, to be honest, but I nod my head in commiseration as I otherwise move on to refilling shot glasses under repeated assurances of high times canoeing in Slovakia someday. And Peter DOES sometimes move away from the flag thing time and again, randomly offering to help me discover what might still exist of my roots in Slovakia. Might I have any such interest? Duh! What American mutt DOESN'T entertain such ideas of rootedness found? Sold!... and pass the slivowice!, I insist. I mean aguardiente.
Unsurprisingly, below such clouds of booze are lifelong friendships cemented, godchildren named, wills changed, and empty bottles of booze stacked. In other words, the time has officially come to leave Leticia behind in favor of Puerto Narinño for a spell. (And you thought I'd never get there, dear reader? HAH!) But to GET going, we first have to loiter at the "docks" - a dried-mud embankment with some grass and reeds thrown in - under an already-blazing sun. Ow! At least the boat actually takes off on time. Yes, here again is a timely reminder that we're in Colombia, the seemingly lone on-time country in Latin America. (Argentines and Chileans might likely protest, but I haven't seen the likes of their soils in a decade - and there aren't too many of their ilk in Colombia to make their case.)
Onboard under outboard (motor), we quickly plow our way out of Leticia's channel for a few minutes. This departure sees us dumping a small wall of water over the line of plastic and styrofoam lined up to adorn the banks, but we somehow successfully clear the channel without scraping bottom or being blockaded in by said rubbish. In doing so, we pass the stilt houses across the channel on what's called "Fantasy Island" (I shit you not), then, when we bank hard to the right to head upriver, we next lose to our wake the larger boats sitting off Tabatinga. These comparative behemoths to our nimble craft, hulks at rest not of the finest nick, are awaiting longer, grander voyages up- or downriver. We're just beating them to the trick, now officially entering the broad soup of chocolate brown that is the Amazon itself. I pee my pants in due awe.
The boat now instantly picks up speed, delivering a steady side-spray to match the uniform surface we're carving. This splash-back fortunately only just comes up to the elbows of us passengers, a warm pleasantry to disregard as we prefer to delight in the rarely afforded breeze we're being treated to. About time!, I think, enjoying the drop in oven-like temperature. We slide by a remnant number of stilt-businesses which line the Colombian side then, upon their termination, so too go our links with civilized territory for a spell.
Crossing next to the other side of the river, we pass a tiny scattering of similarly ramshackle - but now Peruvian - stilt buildings. We pull up alongside the largest, one which sits next to a mid-sized, gray warship of the Peruvian Navy. Yeah, okay... but... what exactly are we doing in Perú when we're only passing from one Colombian town to another? TECHnically I know that we're never leaving Colombia, but apparently we need to deliver a passenger manifest to Perú regardless - to which end we'll not be informed. I scratch my head in puzzlement (at least figuratively), rueing far more not being able to take pictures of the goofy warship: We:re specifically admonished to not do so beforehand, us tourists a rather predictable lot often enough.
Instead we're now suddenly expected to don chalecos - lifejackets. They're evidently necessary to make a show of safety-mindedness that in reality all know to exist only in protocol. So we finish delivering the manifest to the Peruvian authorities, resume our course upriver, and the lifejackets duly find their way back into their storage racks one by one over the next hour or two. Frankly they're uncomfortable in fit, being both hot and tight, and at least *I* have already picked out the heads I'll step on to safety if we flip. With such forethought I know I'll be fine. This is unquestionably something I'm sure the other passengers would be reassured to know.
For the remaining journey, there's absolutely nothing to do except take in the scenery. We make up to ten brief stops along the way, delivering and accepting passengers, but for each we mostly just receive waterside glimpses of the villages sitting above the embankments for our trouble. And, should confusion reign as to what such a collection of huts comprises, each has an oddly (yet nice) official sign in steel. These postings give each settlement's name, plus a simple crude map showing its location on the river. Among these are a couple of wildlife and national parks, too, but other than these fleeting details we merely find ourselves plugging away against the current. The driver dodges the odd log disastrously headed our way; I fastidiously keep my skin out of the blasting sun; Puerto Nariño is eventually ours. Hey, who turned off the fan?, I immediately find myself thinking.
Well, hey: Puerto Nariño! Hmm. Now what? For the locals onboard, this apparently isn't much of a question: All disappear in moments. Us clueless tourists, however, walk up from the dock cloaked in mystery - which is a cool way to go, by the way. We shortly make our way onto a surprising-to-behold sidewalk, a main boulevard of sorts that fronts the line of businesses which are set back to, in turn, front the water. In front of THEM a number of people stand about, talking, sitting, standing... and that's about it. The sun beats away and... all is soon quiet. Okay, this is weird. No motorcycles or cars? No trash on the ground? Come on! Is this even possible in Latin America? Surely not!
But apparently so. Before those questions can have proper explanation, though, our trio has already met our contact (via Werner). Willington - m'hombre! He enthusiastically greets us in spite of not exactly expecting us (Werner sent no word), then immediately gets to business: Are we ready to immediately hit the jungle, rent a boat, or go on a tourist walk to a designated, authentic village? Uh... not... yet. Instead we muse that, for a man with an awfully English-seeming surname, he sure is 100% Colombian-looking - for what that's worth. The name is just odd and wholly out-of-place, but I'll stupidly never get the story behind it. People probably thought that way about Livingstone in Africa, too.
Most important is that Willington ("Percival" would seem as apropos, he SO doesn't look the name) is somehow Werner's area contact. Here Werner's trademark serendipity obviously chooses its time to pop its head, mainly in his never having gotten around to contacting this man to tell him that three - count them, three - Tarzans of the jungle are on the way. Anyway, might he recommend some places and ideas to us? Well, yes, of course he can! Now we're getting with the program (and spending a peso)! That I'll personally suffer a horde of flea bites from his friend's hotel, or that we'll learn he's charging us more for what others similarly offer for less - all THAT will wait. We'll just let Jeeves (I mean Willington!) have his way with us at this first blush: He's so awfully nice and accommodating! Surely a coincidence.
Of greater import, us three jungle-teers aren't in great agreement of what the hell we want to do now, anyway, now that we've hit the big small town. It takes no time to see that, while Peter is ready to unsheathe the aforementioned knife and charge into the jungle, Werner is as easily content to dawdle and naysay any plan of action we come up with until the birds came to roost. I'm somewhere in between. Fortunately, though, Werner will soon show that his naysaying fronts are mostly an instinctual opposition on principle. Peter and I shortly learn that he'll generally give in to whatever nonsense we're up to doing in the end - just after first saying no for a bit to keep us in check. Meanwhile Peter has a jungle to claim, like pronto...
...which will have to wait a spell, since Day One sees us arrive late in the afternoon, forcing a tiny delay to the wholesale slaughter and consumption of what critters might lie beyond the vines we should find ourselves soon swinging from one to the next. What else to do, then, but to make mash from potatoes (no omelet from broken eggs for us, thank you very much) and eat dinner, drink a number of beers, and chat with the local women? The latter are the same poor ladies who seem surprised that we've stopped by their completely vacant restaurant in the first place. Certainly we have the time to chat, however, just as they have both the right and time to giggle away at us funny-looking gringos. As for actually getting fed, we need remind ourselves that we ARE on the Amazon, apparently: it's obvious that our gullets will be filled with fish only sometime after someone goes out and catches them. Or so it seems, even though the region is known for fresh fish... and what arrives on our plates a century later is a fiasco of lameness. Oh well. We'll have to do more research into this fish thing.
The next day a heavy rain kicks in to get our stay properly started on a wrong foot. Hmm - looks like we won't be doing much against THAT deluge. At least the coffee from my stash is up to the snuff to erase the evening's dinner and beers. Eventually properly drugged on 'feine, we make a stab at wandering the rough streets - sidewalks, that is - of Puerto Nariño. All we know is that we're looking for something... like a clue, although we're in agreement for the umpteenth time that this sure is an odd place. Seriously.
But first to confirm the following promised detail of the guidebooks: Yes, almost everyone in sight is indigenous. And this does contrast greatly with Leticia, where a large Bogotá contigent was carted in shortly after the town was negotiated away from Perú to end a border war in the early 20th Century. So these are pure-blooded INDIGENOUS (!) men that are going around with weed whackers, tidying the place up to the side of nearly every sidewalk we traipse. This is truly great, even shocking, but for the prodigious effort we can't help but wonder why they leave so much mud and grass scattered widely on these the very BEST sidewalks in the entire country of Colombia. They're rendered dangerously slippery, and this is especially noteworthy on account of the generally-approved, historically-tested concept of stairs being avoided in favor of inclined slabs of concrete. Why would anyone but the greatest of fools stay on these grass-greased slicks? Good questions, all, and as we continue tromping around I weigh far more considerably the concept of purchasing medical insurance as we approach each of the various climbs in town. Or are we just picky, a trio of spoiled tourists afraid of adventure? Perish the thought.
We thus walk gingerly to the two ends of town, possibly a couple of kilometers apart in distance. Not that we care. With time aplenty to kill on account of the rain, we'll actually cover nearly ALL of the numerous crossing sidewalks offered in P.N.'s grid. And that brings some peace and tranquility beyond the obvious: It's SO nice not to hear a motor!... even though we'd love to hear a generator keeping a fan going throughout the Amazonian night. During the day, too, the town is eerily qui-et as a consequence. Indeed, with electricity running only at 9 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight, the combination of heat and silence will come to underline our entire time in Puerto Nariño. Drinking ever more beer and coffee are shortly deemed essential, like from the get-go.
For all the grand conclusions we'll come to in these in-depth surveys, the reality is that we don't accomplish much over the next several days. The heat wins, and how. We do check out the market, however, even if we find it a far drop below weak: Only a handful of people stand watch over the tiny selections offered in a few stalls of an otherwise vacant building. Fortunately that pitiful display of abundance will be compensated by finally finding a meal of the promised excellent fish, pirarucu. We also try eating the various meats-on-a-stick offered near the river, wisely not questioning their provenance whereof. In that latter process we also sample the banana leaf packet with (mostly) rice and (a tiny piece of) chicken inside, too. As for the local fruit juices of the jungle - such as arazá and borojó, for example - THOSE are downed with licked lips, and happily so. So not all will be lost under oppressive weather.
Finally, too, we have our "adventures". One such occurrs, for example, when Peter falls down - along with the bridge that's collapsed from under us. Hel-LO! Fortunately it's only ten feet above a ditch, a haphazard construction likely in use mainly for the rainy season, bBut for that fiasco Peter will receive the pleasure of a severely bruised bum for our entertainment - plus the knowledge that he just missed a number of large and rusted nails by inches. Okay, fine - CENtimeters - I know, I know! We all try not to think about the woulda-coulda-shoulda if a doctor were required. Peter'll regardless be in pain for days to come... although it's worth noting that no one ever finds such high times on the Left Bank or the Bridge of Sighs. Us three experienced travelers have no troubles concurring on that score. We're on the Amazon! Yay! Ow!
Our other adventure, where the three of us paddle a local canoe ten kilometers (SIX MILES! - so there), goes better. Off we head to Lago (Lake) Tarapoto, with grand hopes to fish (well, just Peter) and, more importantly, observe the Amazon-endemic pink or gray dolphins. For this foray we fortunately receive a perfectly sunny day, a good omen to all. And - lo and behold - we almost immediately do behold numerous pink dolphins of up to 2-3 meters long that surface nearby on the way. Hooray - a mission accomplished! They'll repeat their performance of being visible over the day, too, although this is more so the case toward sunset (by which time more than a few grays will fully breach from the drink as well). This is all pretty cool stuff visually, especially with the pink coloring that is indeed odd - indisputable proof that it's always the stranger properties of ANYthing that attracts attention.
Over the course of the day, meanwhile, Peter is our primary fisherman. He happily takes to whacking the water with a paddle in true indigenous style, something we've witnessed plenty by now - even if none of us fully understand the technique. Werner and I figure that Peter's actions must be giving the locals slowly gliding by in tiny canoes something to chuckle over. But Peter nevertheless religiously stays on task - when not otherwise desperately winging the four-pronged harpoon we also have along (Willington has outfitted us with a full complement of indigenous sea weaponry as promised). Miraculously, he spears a fish on his first try without aiming - to which there'll be no repeat performance. Unfortunately the fish won't bear worth eating, not even a nibble - what poor luck for the little bastard, a gringo from Slovakia winging a spear into you as you flop your way down another calm day in Amazonia. More important to ME is that each bobbing harpoon gives me a target to paddle for, mainly because our adventure is getting a little hot and boring, even if it IS the Amazon. Indeed, with the hope of our staying in the reeds to find luck fishing among them not panning out, the reality is steadily dawning that the midday sun is going to screw us royally. It takes no prisoners.
I thus stick to aimlessly playing the paddler extraordinaire as Werner daydreams away. Which makes me naturally think of just how that harpoon COULD be used to prod SOMEbody to pick up a paddle. Or so I start to muse as I also begin to tire and the sun takes to cooking us properly after first addling our brains as an appetizer. Eventually Peter and I take to chiding our fellow adventurer to grab an oar or fishing rod, but - sigh - he stares off into space instead. Sure, perhaps he's the wiser of Peter and I together in some regard, lazily enjoying the charms of Amazon, that beating heart of the planet, but at the time we're far too busy scheming on how long - uh, scientifically speculation, no more and no less! - it might take to find a body disposed of in the middle of such wilderness.
Admittedly, Werner's reticence would be undoubtedly easier to accept if we weren't trying to get back to town before sundown. This shallow-drafted log we're in doesn't exactly propel itself, and we've got a ways to go. But there'll be no cracking of resolve for our imperturbable daydreamer, not with a blade of grass in his teeth and a mind about four planets distant. (Which would be, like, Uranus? Har! Sorry.) Anyway, Peter and I resign ourselves to unwitting servitude in this the New Amazon Navy (modeled on the Phoenicians, but unfortunately sans the guy with the steady drumbeat in the back). Fortunately we manage to both pull into town just before sundown AND without the ill feelings expected. We're merely getting to know our friend ever better, as Peter and I shruggingly agree already on one thing: Werner is the most round of pegs to ever seek a square hole.
Whatever - we've just experienced some pure nature, and IN THE AMAZON at that. Yes, there has been that, and with both trees of every hue and leaf while spying nary a hut to break the spell of verdancy. We've been passed by many a native person in a canoe, quietly pounding the water to beg its offerings from below, but otherwise they've drifted by in silence and solitude that more than matches any similar mien that we could possibly muster. As to the infrequent boat that putzes by, with a weak two-stroke motor struggling away tp pierce the silence with its weak, plaintive beat? Okay, we need close our eyes to ignore those briefly and, well, I'll even fess up that we literally grabbed hold of one on the way out to the lake. That saved an hour's paddling and gained a conversation with a bemused local carting a French tourist out for a quick survey of the lake (and immediate retur. What with three clueless gringos paddling nowhere in a hurry, he'd certainly gotten plenty of free entertainment in the bargain.
We ALSO have been receiving quite a water show over the course of the day, with "atmospherics" of our expedition best described as... lively. For instance, wide patches of bubbles blurble away continuously in some spots mysteriously, or odd splashes might erupt at times to any side of our boat from nowhere. What the hey? THAT's new! - if discomfiting at times. Such happenings indicate life below the water's surface, obviously, even if it seems only to be the smallest fishes that agree to be pulled up for a looksee. Yet, while each such spotting doesn't fail to engender a frenzy (likely both ours AND theirs), for all we know we actually might be gliding over the Loch Ness Monster of the Amazon. Strike that - that's EXACTLY what we've been doing! Adventure!
Also unexpected, it should be noted, are the spiders of every variety which climb onto our paddles... and thus into the boat. It takes a while to figure out this pattern, and then only when it's too late: they leave numerous bites on each of our butts as a consequence, from right about where the pant-legs in our shorts let them in from sitting positions to about as far as they can continue on exposed skin. Ow! (By nighttime they'll swell to sizable bumps, too, affording us the belated pleasure of extended-play-hard-scratching as a kind of dessert to the entrée of a day's fishing.)
Meanwhile, beyond the joys of entomology, we also successfully enter into the realm of ornithology (how one DOES learn from TripTrumpet!) for our efforts as well: birds of many a fine feather make their racket the entire day. But here I'll just let it suffice to say that they're numerous and colorful (which saves a trip to pick up a field guide, TT also being lazy). And, well, to complete the survey such as it is, Peter assures us other 'teers that he DID see a snake zip by on the water's surface. Yes, nature's been all around us one way or another - just what we were looking for.
But we'll have nothing to EAT to show for all of this effort. No, there'll be no fish fry, no filets on sticks over an open fire as substitute dreams of sugarplums in our heads, and all this will be much to Peter's dismay in particular. Neither will natives emerge from the bush to trade fish for wampum. Nope, we'll get nothing to physically bring home outside of a number of sunburns, bug bites and, in my case, scorched lips. Those are decidedly NOT a good thing for this trumpet player, mind you - and they'll last a week or so, too. For all the above, then, and with particular regard to the empty hands and burned skins that are our only tangible results from a grand day out in the Amazon, I deem it most fitting to term our venture The Voyage Of The Clowns. I'm not sure where to get the proper stamp for that on our passports, but let's just consider it done, shall we? Yes we shall.
For our otherwise continuing tale of sloth in Puerto Nariño, we do get a very good feel for life in this town of primarily indigenous people. Not that that takes much, however - these are awfully simple folk by and large, mostly poorly educated and humble as one would suspect in a sustenance-based economy. So, in other words, no deep discussions about the trajectories of history and the locals' place in the grand order of things come to pass. Conversations mostly stay on the tritest of subjects, perhaps involving us giving advice when asked on what can be done to help advance their cause with tourism. We sure aren't going to tell them how to fish, that much has been determined. Among us three, meanwhile, all we can agree (finally!) on among our worldly selves is that Puerto Nariño can be summed up in three things: fish, kids, and sidewalks. All, we've been noticing, are seemingly in equal abundance.
Starting with the latter, the aceras/veredas we so diligently are treading are unquestionably extremely odd in their good construction for such a small, outlying place. An outside hand (da guv'mint) has come along to help with that miracle, sure, but this is still a noticeable difference. Indeed, for all my travels in Latin America, I've come to be more than a little used to watching my step, always only step away from twisting my ankle in an eroded or crumbled hole. But not here, even as it's just as odd that there's a brigade of women sweeping them up daily, even RAKING up the mess near them and hauling it away (not particularly WELL, true, but still amazing for Colombia).
Regarding the fish, our Part Two of the Puerto N. equation, the evidence has been forthcoming at literally all hours: A steady parade of (mostly) men and women can almost always be seen walking about with a cluster of them in one or both hands. They'll be hanging from a string, a bunching of plentitude for all to admire. And we do, too, as we likewise assume that the getting is good in spite of our trio's exemplary failure. It must be said that some of these creatures are awfully vicious-looking things with nasty teeth - should we really WANT to do battle with that?!? A particular few of these types remind me of bottom-feeding, fishy versions of the Creature From the Black Lagoon - even if my stomach finds them uniformly attractive once they find their way onto my plate. What the hell do I know? People eat oysters and sea cucumbers, too, after all. Go figure.
Which leaves the other item: kids. What with the plentiful food for sustenance, and an impressive grid of sidewalks leading to nowhere to do nothing, some logic can be contrived to explain their abundance in Puerto Nariño. This is a y-oung town. One needs only turn around and look in any direction. They're either playing soccer or going back and forth to the oddly large school on the far end of town (which I learn serves as a boarding school for the much larger P.N.-hubbed region). Whatever the backstory, you can't help but practically trip over these miniature multitudes. Boredom breeds, we theorize in unanimity.
For all such deep thinking, four days and nights come and go rather quickly (excepting the interminable wee hours without a fan running). And this has been in spite of there being absolutely nothing to do come the evenings, including Friday and Saturday: Zzz. No, we've been (not unhappily) making do instead watching the locals fish in their shallowest of boats while employing traditional methods. Or we've been chatting with one of the same about what this or that is that we saw here or there. Not that we kinda don't already know - things just aren't that complicated around these parts - but that's kinda the point in just finding an excuse to have an exchange. Nevertheless, what we mostly have been doing is just walking around and eating fish. Learning about and enjoying the results of the appetizing Amazon style of preparing fish, wrapping it in a banana leaf with vegetables and shoving it into a fire, has been a plenty good enough research to merit the visit. Burp.
All the above blather only leaves mentioning the lone other walkabout of note, when we head up to the retired friar's compound. The man's nowhere about, making a bust of our picking his brains for local lore, the only possibly intellectual angle of our program. We find ourselves wishing we'd stayed at his compound, however (even as we'd take a miss on his throwing a tantrum, which I'd hear about from some Canadian girls some weeks later back in Leticia, somewhat terrorized by the experience). In the present, though, we find the place creepingly, crawlingly alive - minus the fleas and bedbugs that yours truly has had enough of at our digs in "town". The animal kingdom is indeed well-represented at the friar's, what with macaws, monkeys, iguanas and even snakes making their presence known. One snake actually even gives Werner and I a good runaround, a consequence of being "trapped" in the two-meter square space found atop a lookout tower about three stories above ground. Our motions in both avoiding and following said miscreant could only best be described as COMIC. Anywho: Mainly we like the friar's place because, if we're going to be nothing (as we are), why not do so on a ridge with a view, a kitchen, and being afforded a breeze?
Well, that's it for Puerto Nariño: Mission... accomplished? Who knows, but enough of the stifling heat and bug bites! And enough of our hotel owner insisting that we must've curiously run into a web of spiders (as if any experienced traveler didn't recognize flea bites). Worse, my stash of good coffee has run out. No, with four days "invested" in P.N., at least Werner and I have lost our collective will to go further out into the jungle to sweat things out some more. We're fine with leaving the best sidewalk network this side of NYC behind.
Peter, however, is still game to give it a bit more of a shot, of course. He's not ready to give up on the tentative plans we've had and cancelled each day, that of spending an afternoon and evening with a hunter in his home. The idea consists of twice going trekking into the jungle, once each under daylight and then cover of night, an attractive idea indeed - but one which never comes to pass, Werner and I both having been there and done that on previous trips. And by now we've had our proper taste of this oddest of enclaves without the need to add a fresh collection of mosquito bites to the list.
Thus Leticia calls us back as Peter stays stubbornly on in search of adventure for another day (which fortunately he'll find it, it's worth mentioning). Besides, by now we've all successfully (finally!) learned that most puzzling of questions that's been haunting us all: What has that odd, enigmatic, and strangely pretty Finnish girl been up to? For four days we've glimpse her periodically, the lone other gringo(a) strolling about town, plodding forward with her head down and only venturing the most shy of furtive glances at us. So, just as we're leaving, I finally seek her out to demand answers. How dare she avoid us?!? What's her dealio?!? And she comes forth with the goods, too: She's up to... absolutely nothing. Sounds familiar and it figures, too - this is just the place for such plans.
So Werner and I take the fast boat back to Leticia; Peter can be expected back the following night to tell us of his grand day out (while I send him money back upriver since Puerto Nariño is ATM-less). Said money matter is accomplished immediately upon arrival, then Werner and I wander about the waterfront area for a spell, wondering: Is it good to be back in Leticia or not? We haven't a clue... but gawd is it still hot! Not even an ice cream at the vaunted parlor that is Mimi's can do enough to beat it, either, not while lugging about a full pack. So I head back to the hostel, slightly deflated by such a return on the roast, losing track of Werner in the process.
Actually, that makes perfect sense, since aimlessly wandering off IS Werner's wont in the first place. Perhaps he's following a bird... or a motorcycle... or a girl... off somewhere. All are equally likely, and just as likely to be abandoned at any point for any reason whatsoever. I guess this is the definition of a free spirit. For my part, though, I trudge forward as if on a mission, toward the comfort of a fan. At some point after seemingly losing contact, I'm surprised by a disembodied yell from Werner - from somewhere - telling me that he'd catch up with me in a spell... which he does when, about two days later, he returns from somewhere or the other (and after considerable chagrin on the hostel's part about his missing presence while holding his stuff) to reunite with Peter and I. This occurs only for the shortest of time before his getting on a plane to Bogotá, we next learn. Yep, ol' Werner's suddenly decided to head on toward faraway Easter Island (Isla de Pasqua/Rapa Nui), with plans to disappear further from there. Well, there goes... Werner.
Meanwhile Peter's come back after having gotten his fill of jungle after all, well-satisfied while also happy to be out of the muck, too. No, the hunter didn't kill the wild boar-like thing he and Peter spotted under cloak of darkness (fortunately or not), but Peter's nonetheless charged up about having caught, slain, and eaten a number of prodigiously large piranha. And, for all my jaded "experience", he has me on that score: I've only proven capable of eating such prey, never catching one to date. (Granted, I've hardly even made a stab at catching the bastards, not with the idea of getting them off the line afterward to think about.)
Now with Peter's slow boat to Manaus looming, thoughts turn away from the jungle for once. A number of us now-weathered stalwarts at the hostel deem that, yes, it IS time to get together for a respectable night of... drinkin'. First disappears a beer or two, then we kill off a bottle of rum (Ron Caldas - recommended), and then comes the aguardiente (San Cristal - equally recommended). Well, that ends MY imbibing, anyway, not having any inner Kurtz waiting to spin me off into further oblivion. I stop while pleasantly behind enough, already sufficiently bamboozled from the booze.
Dutchman D and Peter, however, head off into the night for more. I find out sometime the next day of their exploits - after they finally each awake far into the afternoon. The short of it is a litany of errors, ending with a hop over the hostel's tall, impregnable and barbed gate to reenter the compound in the dead of the night which, come to think of it, finally explains the staff's (now verifiable) worries about any clothes left drying on the line within the compound (not to mention anything else not nailed down which might disappear on a nightly basis). Outside of some scratches and headaches, both proclaim victory - over what, I'm not exactly sure.
But then Peter's gone as well, off on the boat toward points downriver in Brazil & Venezuela, with an eventual return to Colombia likely, soon to be followed by a few more of my temporary ex-pats-in-residence. This, of course, is becoming something I've learned to expect in Leticia daily as more time passes, most often a consequence of the biweekly, slow boat that heads to Manaus. Its regular departures come in addition to the various weekly and daily UPriver boats to Iquitos. Oddly, this transport activity is continuing to supply ever more South Africans - I'm already up to numbers four and five, still all from Cape Town - but eventually a handful of French speakers drop in, too. Which is all good: Now I can butcher English and French beyond the traditional Spanish. Perfect.
Of these incoming visitors, I soon realize that many are specifically coming to this neck of the woods specifically to try ayahuasca. This is the powerful drug of the Amazon region, a shamanistic brew legal in Colombia and Perú but not so in Brazil - not that there's any difficulty in acquiring the potion in any of the three. A tree extract mixed with other ingredients, ayahuasca makes for a particularly powerful punch of hallucinogens theoretically administered by a shaman. "Yowza!" apparently doesn't quite cover the experience, according to all, and it truly is hardly kid's stuff: It traditionally is only taken by the shaman himself. But not nowadays, not with tourist dollars to commoditize it - although I think it's reasonable to question the exact authenticity of the drug (not to mention the experience) being administered. My doubts will do absolutely nothing to stop the flood of takers, of course.
Anyway, here's the upshot of the experience: (1) You're given the brew to drink. (2) You vomit insane amounts of whatever possibly is inside of you over the course of a day or so (and this even after fasting beforehand). (3) You'll feel like you've died. (4) You'll wish that you'd died, particularly after (5) You watch yourself get eaten alive (or dead) by the bugs and serpents of the jungle. Then comes (6), where you rapturously enjoy the intense hallucinogenic experience that's uniformly expected to follow. Oh, and then there might be (7), where you might never "come back" from the experience. Oh, THAT! Pish posh! Anyway, such was what I pretty consistently hear. Enjoy!, I think, but not for ME, T.Y.V.M.
My own experiences in such directions effectively keeps the appeal in check more than sufficiently. I gladly listen instead, however, sipping my own drug of choice (coffee, beer, rum, aguardiente...), while always wanting to lead back to the same essential questions: In theory, isn't a shaman supposed to walk you through this in a jungle ceremony? The reply: Nah, mate, you can do it anywhere! And aren't you supposed to be a member of the tribe and in shaman training yourself? The reply: If you put your 100,000CP on the table, surely that covers the membership dues! And who has the time to do the entire process properly? You, obviously. So it goes.
Indeed, all one has to do IS merely walk over to nearby Tabatinga (in Brazil), where they ("They" who? I dunno.) allow for doing it right in town. Hmm. Well, yes, I can indeed sniff something in the air, I believe... much as I imagine Scarface licking cocaine to suss out the appealing taste of cement dust. I regardless am happy to continue taking in the various testimonies offered and, for all my nay-saying, I have to attest to generally-satisfied customers. And this comes from the GENEROUS sampling among the numerous hostelers who are giving it a go, too. In fact, the last of the Cape Towners I meet go back for seconds, insisting on a much higher dosage. (At about 18 years old or so, they strike me as surprisingly experienced hands at the game of narcotic intake.) And, really, what the hell do I know, anyway? And at what level does the Placebo Effect work, anyway? All I know is that I'll not be finding firsthand.
It's the Dutchman, meanwhile, who proves the most adept in expressing his enthusiasm. A converted believer who needs no arm-twisting in the first place, he puts a sixth or seventh whirl of the potion under his belt over the week or so we cross paths. More to his credit, I however think, is that he's one of the few Dutchmen with whom I don't even get into a decent argument. I almost feel ripped off... or maybe THAT's the secret effect of the drug! It isn't as if we don't try to still do so, either - if only for old time's sake on my part - but we get along just fine, it appears, and can't be bothered. Perhaps, too, the real failure in finding verbal combat is that his true interest lies in the activity at hand, his body a living witness to the science of what ALL of the world's drugs have to offer. So he tells me, and frankly I'll just have to instead be suitably impressed that he appears highly functional.
For more in-depth knowledge of ayahuasca I soon inadvertently receive more than plenty from a masterful book, One River by Wade Davis. This is a door-stopper-sized, yet eminently approachable tome which owner G lends me from his personal library. Harkening back to the use of a sacred text in a monastery (and Leticia might similarly be seen as withdrawn from the world), a vow is solemnly extracted from me that it'll not leave the premises. It won't, but I won't exactly be propping it up with votive candles blazing, either - although that's not a bad idea, I think, as I get into its story. I indeed have a hard time putting it down, too, more than content to be able to read it here practically in situ - with the jungle appropriately at my arm's reach. I open my eyes to its contents, this sort-of travelogue that consists of researches into the local drugs that the shamans have been administering for eons all over Latin America. It's a phenomenal work in ethnobotany throughout, even if its historical value will prove the most fascinating to me in the long haul.
For example, I learn of the horrors effected on the populations in the very area in which I find myself. These atrocities are beyond unspeakable, done in the day (the late 1800s) of a man who went by the name Arana. Beyond his crudely-managed genocide, the numerous and blithe attitudes of many of his contemporary missionaries are not given short shrift, either. One can even debate which was worse, particularly when the latter as easily dismissed the local heathen tribes as subhuman as the former saw them straight up as potential slaves-to-the-death. Shockingly, in many of the details one can say that the concentration camps of the Nazis look practically benign in comparison - if only because they actually made ghastly attempts at subterfuge and euphemism to the outside world at times. The actions that took place over decades in the Amazon were baldly, bluntly brutal.
Heightening my interest further, the text roams through a plethora of towns I well know in Colombia. Now I read about them from eyes that saw different stories. One anecdote, in particular, fascinates me. This has to do with the practice of the shamans in the Tayrona area, of Lost City renown. Come one bright, propitious day, I learn, a shaman might take an apprentice shortly after birth to live with him, an understudy for life of sorts... with an odd caveat: Said novice is only taken outside under night's darkness, the time to wander the forests for herbs. Otherwise he's kept inside, sleeping through the day. Eventually, come 18 years of age or so, the old shaman FINALLY presents the boy-now-man to the daylight world: "You see, it is as I have told you!" he hears... and the resplendent colors immediately overwhelms the young man as he steps outside under the sun for the first time in his life. Wow - talk about a hallucinogen! Who needs ayahuasca? (This article interestingly speaks to other, yet relatively uncontacted tribes in the Amazon.)
To GET to this illuminating reading, meanwhile, I (necessarily to me, oh anal me) finish my other book - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. While I don't completely understand all of what comes my way in that one, I feel sufficiently educated to say it merits the slog. Owner G, meanwhile, happily claims it from my hands the moment I hit its last page, a new treasure to likely soon decompose in his mildewy library. In the forthcoming missive I've come to expect from him regarding all things literary or of life in general, I'm told that I really need a good grounding in philosophy to touch such a tome in the first place... and off he goes, book in hand, triumphant. He hasn't read it yet himself, of course - I'll just have to take him at his superior word. (G's habit of always trying to sound profound will soon come to be found an irksome quality, one that I'll necessarily have to deal with however subtly over my entire stay - more on that later.)
For my gift I'm nevertheless again promised permission to (someday) see the books in his library's Inner Sanctums 1 and 2. But this is getting to be an ongoing tease, I think, especially as No.3 - the only semi-public one - has already proved a bust. I have no idea if that portends the rest, but okay, fine. Only time will tell, anyway, if I'll actually get to enter these mysterious realms to determine whether reality can possibly match the appeal of the forbidden. And, with a couple weeks already passing since my arrival, I'm by now at least certainly curious. Fortunately suspense is one of the better parts of living (however minor the case), so on the story goes.
From MY library, meanwhile, I lend out my second Twain book of the trip. This one goes to an English teacher hailing from four-seasons-in-a-day Melbourne. "Roughing It" should likely eventually prove equal to my expectations, I know, much like its inspiration that is "The Innocents Abroad" - but I haven't actually read it yet. I certainly am becoming ever a greater fan of Twain's dry wit and scathing satire, unable to stop myself in spreading the word. Heck, for a first time I, too, have begun harboring thoughts of a tiny lending library consisting only of books that I might actually read again. Twain has proven of such caliber and appeal that I'm guessing this one will belong.
So I hesitatingly pass the book over to Archie, a quirky bird also staying for a long spell at the hostel. Naturally, I extract vows of indentured servitude should he or the book turn up gone. But he and I have read a phenomenal number of similar works, so I feel I can trust him with this gem from MY sanctum of unread books. Naturally I keep the rest hidden in my locker, triple-padlocked and sprinkled with heavy doses of rat poison, anthrax, and arsenic spread throughout. Or I should: Books, particularly quality ones, are jewels when there aren't any others to be had around and, until G's Sanctums No. 1 and 2 are opened up to me, my hoard is the de facto literary treasure of Leticia, practically speaking. I've already wandered all of the streets of town, where there's not even a Spanish bookstore available.
In Archie, meanwhile, I find a man with a number of curious ticks. The most egregious offender among these is his traveling with a Sideshow Bob (from The Simpsons) puppet/doll. He even has a Facebook page dedicated to the same. O-....kay. Now let it be known that I had nothing on The Simpsons (perish the thought!) or Sideshow Bob in particular, an upstanding if despicable antagonist in his inimitable way, but the way Archie practically makes him his best friend and companion does make for... discussion. At the least I'm finding it perhaps more than fitting, anyway, that I've met Archie in Leticia, joining G and the hardcore ayahuasca enthusiasts.
Yes, here's a man who mumbles to himself constantly, yet otherwise speaks crisply clipped and intelligibly. Indeed, even if for the most part he speaks in earnest, if rapid-fire monologues, just as equally these might degenerate into lengthy rambles on EVERYthing that has him fired up at the moment. It proves exceedingly difficult to break him out of these harangues once the train's left the station, too. There are numerous such moments, irksome to endure all, yet I nevertheless imagine that he still must be an inspiring and terrifying teacher both. He's a puzzle wrapped up in an enigma, stuffed up the business end of a puppet. I just wonder if Sideshow Bob has any idea.
On a practical level, a number of our discussions manage to become more intense than I am ready to deal with - and certainly not on vacation. At times, it's evident that a rage is building in him at his latest perceived injustice; he turns red and ready to blow as guests (including myself) begin to scatter as nonchalantly as possible. When NOT doing so in a timely fashion, I am trapped with wondering how long I'll be able to keep the discourse from spiraling away to that dark place that Archie's invariably headed to. Walking around the compound, I soon learn to change plans midstream as necessary, my feet turning to the direction 180 degrees away from the impending storm. Never comfortable around people who lose control to begin with, this unknown X factor called Archie increasingly makes me feel quite uneasy. Fortunately, at least in Archie's case things typically go back to copasetic shortly thereafter each time. But between the two waters of G and Archie both I'm being thoroughly able-tested on human management skills. Whew.
Into such mercurial hands go my Twain book, anyway, and I trust in Archie's heightened sense of righteousness that I'll get it back. Meanwhile, with One River relegated to staying within the premises, I next begin Updike's The Witches Of Eastwick to bear without. I've come to be someone who feels naked without something to read at all times, a crutch consciously adopted from a Seattle friend. His fastidious habit of never stepping out of his house without something to read makes a logical sense to which I've completely concurred, horrified as well at the prospect of finding myself bored, waiting, and with nothing to do.
Perhaps with similar thinking, then, G eventually finagles to inspect the contents of my book stash. He wants to make his selections known, of which books he hopes to see stay in Leticia. After all, HE's in a more precarious situation to be left empty-handed should his library be exhausted (which it nearly is). Thus Mann's Death In Venice need stay behind, he insists, another philosophical work he's sure will be beyond my comprehension. Sigh - am I such an uncultured rube? Sniff. Honk!
By now having a suitable measure of the house of madness I've descended within, it's around this time that I settle, too, on a limit for this enduring heave-to I've been making in Leticia. I firm a date around Christmas (the 26th) for departure, making for six weeks total on the Amazon this time around. This seems... survivable, if not necessarily advisable. Who else stays this long in Leticia as a tourist?, I wonder. By G's count, that number is about... zero - and without any close competition, either. But that date's been chosen with care, only coming about based on a momentary - and precipitous - drop in price, one that lasts only a day or two since no one wants to travel on Christmas... yet, until they're forced to. I'm not, so I happily grab a spot, knowing that this can change on practically an hourly basis. I'm far from being the only tourist in the same boat, far from family while likewise disinterested in the "celebrating the holidays" concept.
Once again, however, I'm forced to use an agent to get the task done, just as I had to in Bogotá to get to Leticia in the first place. What with both the website of Aires and the horrific local internet connection proving too cumbersome, there doesn't seem a choice. I've come to think this is even by design, Aires having no real low-price in-country competitors. So why not collect an agent fee to boost earnings? The upshot of all this, anyway, is that the date is now fixed, and I put out the word to a few friends in Medellín that I'll be coming: Prepare the guitars, I declare! (Two are professional musicians, met the previous year in Colombia.)
The City Of The Eternal Spring (Medellín) will need wait a bit still in the interim, though. There's still first my birthday to pass, for one thing. After the previous nights' drinkfest, that side'll be mellow by necessity, but being treated to coffees and lunch in Brazil by G proves a nice touch. (He DOES have his good days, making his bad ones that more the puzzling.) For the exotic Brazil portion of the day's festivities, then, I jump on the back of his motorbike and off we go... about a dozen blocks or so.
More intriguing by far is having to wear this silly helmet that does not strap on. THAT suitably revives the concept of surviving one's own birthday in a completely different sense than the usual drinking kind. The required-helmet business certainly here proves itself comical for its lack of effectiveness, especially what with the way it practically bounces off of my head every time we hit any kind of bump. I can't help but chuckle aloud to myself in the ridiculousness of all this. Needless to say, too, there are lots of bumps on the road - and I probably look every bit the village idiot who laughs inwardly with a bemused, possibly beatific smile.
The jolting ride serves to remind me that Leticia - unlike Puerto Nariño, but like almost everywhere else in Latin America - is particularly inadept at the concept of street maintenance. (This includes the sidewalks, too.) But this lack in (at least) pride of appearance I can only take to be cultural, what with the little effort it would take to stack the random chunks of rubble or discarded trash in any kind of orderly manner. It seems that the poorest and richest houses BOTH have at least one chunk of broken-out concrete lying somewhere near their front doors. As for the sidewalks that'll eventually - certainly - crumble into the hollow spaces found within them, leaving a dangerous hole for ankles to twist on? THOSE I might fairly attribute to economics. Somewhat, anyway - how much effort would it take to fill them in with sand? (The spoiled Westerner within me grumbles silently - well, until now).
As for internet access, I don't know the exact ins-and-outs of the poor service uniformly offered, only that it sucks. I've come instead to look at the internet spots as good places to experience minimal air-conditioning - and THAT has value, even if the connection doesn't. The computers offered otherwise only barely sufficiently work for making successful email contact... and not much more. I quickly resolve that lengthier tasks, such as uploading pictures, will have to wait for Medellín. An unchanging computer screen is a difficult thing to watch, especially when the "waiting" icon freezes as well and the pesos tick away at the (admittedly cheap) rate of 1500CP/hr (75c). This further, if unintentionally, promotes my maxim that less internet makes for better travels.
As to my stay's other rhythms of life in Leticia, well, there's not much scintillating stuff, it's true. For example, I might resort to watching the compound's cat catch flies, at least when it isn't scrambling up the massive screened windows - there isn't any glass anywhere - to haul in lizards. Those activities are only attempted, however, when he isn't boldly begging scraps by jumping directly onto the table to take them from your plate. In this he only differs slightly from the compound's nominal dog, who begs for whatever he doesn't find by dumping over the trash time and again. He otherwise dolefully uses his eyes on each and every transient backpacker that waltzes through - which he never will apparently learn doesn't include me. They thus both keep me on guard, much like a free (and unasked-for) exercise program to fight the ever-present danger of my grub disappearing approximately one second after I take my eye off of it.
Another advantage they have in this matter is that we're all too busy practically passing out from the heat. True, this isn't as hot as Florida in the summertime, but the humidity makes for a close enough facsimile when there's only the rarest of A/C refuges in town to escape. In the hostel's compound no such respite can be found, however, so only time would help me with the adjustment. Until then I'll just have to insist that my constant sweating and perspiring are really just my... glow.
One thing the heat blast affects is food and drink. As with the rest of Colombia's lowlands, it's assumed the tourist should not trust - and therefore need purify - any water. But soon I also learn the hard way (i.e. rot) that the various fruits and vegetables I'm buying better be consistently observed and eaten FAST. I shortly find myself storing practically nothing fresh (the fridge is a scary disaster of mold, too), walking to the market almost every day. This isn't a bad habit, true, but even the market habit won't do anything for my books and clothes that are each accumulating a certain amount of damp. How many days, again, before my plane ride? Will the book pages still be holding together by then, the shirts not acquiring a permanent stink?
On December Third comes the first unmistakable sign that it'll be getting worse, too. Into the night a thunderstorm rages, sending down torrents the likes of which I haven't seen since my Florida summers some 20-plus years before. The runoff rapidly carves trails onto the compound's grounds as a result of the onslaught. More importantly, as soon as the rain abates, the next wave begins - that of the mosquitoes. Apparently I ain't been seein' nuttin' yet, just as G advertised. Now I start seeing the bastards hanging around the kitchen and bathroom at all hours, and in serious numbers for the first time. So I'll get to enjoy a new collection of bites to add to the zillions of no-see-ums that have already been feasting on me every time I went into a hammock. Lucky me. Dusk's daily approach now means "Seek cover!"
One consequence of this is soon having to take to smashing mosquitoes onto bathroom walls any time before attending to business there. A seated position is no way to handle such massacres, unlike the impressively frantic dance which I perform when slapping down the walls in this now-daily-ritual. Come the next day, too, I'll see the ensuing hundreds of OTHER tiny bugs - the other ones which bother me on a regular basis - feasting on the remains of my palm-slapped atrocities. Conga lines extend from each funerary site to unknown lairs beyond the scope of the room and reason. And this is true even when I can no longer make out a mosquito corpse any longer: They apparently continue chowing on whatever invisible matter is still behind from the carnage.
All the while over these six weeks, meanwhile, I establish a twice-daily ritual of stepping out from the hostel. This allows for the necessary (cold) treat of ice cream, yes, plus the required market shopping for dinner (and the following morning's breakfast) ingredients. But mostly I just have to walk SOMEWHERE to get some exercise. The only down side comes in leaving behind the cleanliness of the compound to emerge only into the trash-littered sites that are invariably found beyond, regardless of where I go. The intense heat speedily dissolves any vestiges of the most recent, cool shower as I immediately take to dodging the motorcycles that fly by as their dust accumulates in the air and onto me. They often quite literally brush me by when caught unaware, making me jump a bit - which is probably their intention in the first place. Evidently the game of scaring the bejeezus outta gringos whenever possible never gets old.
Environmentally, things aren't much better. For example, chunks of grass might be set on fire for any stretch of the small road I daily take toward "downtown". Or someone might be out among the waist-high weeds with a high-powered weed-whacker, trying to tame the mess. But that translates into stones and hunks of mudclump that of a certainty go flying, pedestrians be damned. Good luck with that!, I think, this futility merely redepositing sheathes of grass everywhere while as a consequence, too, chewing up and spewing out ungodly amounts of plastic bags, styrofoam, and whatever else might be revealed from former hiding places deep in the weeds. Yuck.
Just outside the compound, I daily note the latest condition of an abandoned taxi's hulk. Windows long gone, the interior is essentially missing as well. Yet kids will often be hanging around it, on this plaything that can't say "Get offa me!" to combat its otherwise inescapable, irresistable allure. I slyly eyeball what new damage they accrue upon the defenseless wreck. On one day, for example, a horde of kids use steel rods to pound whatever's left of the windshield glass upon the vehicle's roof. While immediately reminiscent of cooking with mortar and pestle, I'm also brought back to that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember the one where monkeys beat the ground with sticks, raging in front of the mysterious monolith that's appeared? NOW you do.
Sometimes the uses of the wreck are benign. One day, for another example, I spot a few girls alongside the taxi in somber attendance. One has a captured wild bird, petting it in her hand gingerly as the wings have evidently been broken somehow. The bird can only merely shiver in fear, a poignant scene straight out of an independent short film undoubtedly with deeper meaning that I can conjure up. Just as deep a moment comes, perhaps, when I watch three boys standing on the taxi's roof. Each holds a discarded plastic bag and, on a count, they throw them up into the gentlest of breezes. The contest apparently is to see which will make its way furthest from them. They delight in this modest adventure, proving yet again the resourcefulness of kids in taming and transforming their immediate world into toys.
In town, meanwhile, I quickly get to know the lay of Leticia's (heat-stuffed) stores. Not that there's much to know, fair enough, but I piece together the offerings of the meagre supermarkets sufficiently well to know that I won't starve. Sussing out the open air marketplace similarly apprises me of who has what fruit and vegetables, only some of which can be found in the supermarkets as well (or sometimes, in a rare vice versa, can't). But, in comparing between the different stalls, not much difference can be discerned between them - although the handy mesh-nets used to hold the produce does ease the bargaining process. Yeah, the fabled third world marketplace is often overrated, just as I've already found over the years. The DRAW of them, however, never goes away.
Street food is another enduring story of my stay, as I steadily increase my sampling of food stalls. Deep-fried dough balls (buñuelos) are delicious, as are guava buns. Here, as elsewhere, both are nice exceptions to the rule that is the lack of variety in the uninteresting offerings of a Colombian bakery. As for fish on a stick - particularly the local pirurucu and gamitani - or even flavored meat on occasion, my pescatarianism (veggies and fishies) going on holiday somewhat as I am - these are welcome additions to the menu, too. Fresh-cooked meat generally often spells stomach safety, I know.
Repeatedly sampling Colombia's zillions of juices was a foregone conclusion before I even entered the country, of course. In Leticia, these are now supplemented by the ones unique to the Amazon region. For all the above mentality of continuous sampling, I quickly discern a favorite spot for imbibing each, eventually tending to settle on one locale exclusively. Such are the convenient benefits of staying put for a while.
Another benefit of the long stay lies in finding those little things that are worth the trouble. For example, the Museo del Hombre Amazonico is well worth a wait. That I learn a little something about the local indigenous cultures seems merely a cute side side, though, after I find that it's THE only place in town that has A/C approaching COLD. Holy cow, Batman! Now THAT's news, the kind I'd happily sell along with elevator passes in one-story buildings to unsuspecting tourists - if I had anything approaching smarts.
Okay, El Museo DOES offer a quality (if small) exhibit concerning the local tribes. The only visitor each time I drop into this one room museum, the docent of the place - a tribeswoman herself - happily and personally accompanies me through the exhibits. Up close I inspect spears, ceremonial masks, and baskets as she adds further commentary and answers questions alongside. (It's worth noting that my simultaneously reading One River makes all of this more interesting than it would have otherwise be, too.) Also helpful - and this being in relaxed Colombia - is the docent's not caring if I handle some of the items. Cool! Granted, for that I get to wonder who last played the wooden trumpet before myself, or at least was able to make a proper sound from it. I most certainly do so, thank you very much, alone proving that this detour is sufficiently worthy beyond merely cooling down my skin. The other artifacts, I suspect, can likewise be remade without much notice from a functioning tribal community nearby (should a visitor unlike me handle them roughly).
I similarly eventually check out the nearby indigenous art gallery, the massive one replete with both authentic and hokey items for sale - but sorely lacking the cooling element of delicious A/C. But it's in the back and relatively out of sight where I spy the REALLY interesting stuff, larger items not for sale and set up as an ad hoc museum. These include easily the scariest collection of stuffed fish I - or anyone - will likely ever see. Picture-taking was prohibited, naturally, but it wouldn't be a challenge to break that small taboo. I'll not do so, however, so the dedicated reader (YOU!) will need come and see for yourself how odd these critters are. Just think... fish dinosaurs.
Easier to picture is the nearby Parque Santander. Every day at sundown, an ungodly number of pericos (parrots) noisily make their way back to roost high up in the massive trees found there. The ground, if anything, gives proof to this - one has to watch head and footstep both. By fortunate coincidence, this same display of aviary mayhem - albeit on a smaller scale - is available each day at my jungle hostel, over by its hammock area. So I'm lucky to be able to pick and choose between the two on a daily basis: Will it be Parque Santander and an exceptional ice cream, or the compound and a beer? Of such decisions is the success of a travel surely made or broken.
My trumpet playing, meanwhile, steadily broadens in scope and volume. Encouraged by staff and client alike to play as much as I feel inspired to, I do just that. My lip has other ideas in mind for the week (plus) following the Lake Tarapoto blistering, however. For that I briefly learn to get used to the slow and steady trickle of blood when a blister cracks as I try to weigh healing versus horn-down time. No fun, that, and I'll not know which gets the right end of it in the end, but I gain intimate knowledge and even MORE appreciation - if that were possible - of Louis Armstrong. His legendary, nightly cutting back of his lip callouses with a pocket knife repeatedly comes to mind as I wait for the blisters to cease and desist for good. I'll need not resort to such crude tactics, fortunately, my lip getting steadily stronger with each passing day. That allows me to put together something of a program of technical drills, the plan being to do that while concurrently picking out new tunes to begin memorizing. My repertoire is overdue for some additions.
Inspired trumpet playing won't be a problem, though, not with so many drishtis for my drashtis. (A drishti is a focal point in the distance to gander at while doing other things - like yoga. Or drooling.) This concept proves as handy for the trumpet as it might for anything else. With trees dropping fruit, ducks and turtles surfacing in the pond, and random splashes coming from unknown points below the same, there's no shortage of suitable backdrop charm to relax in. Then, toward evening each night, the aforementioned parrot army of untold number makes their deafening chatter in their descent to the nearby trees they favor - before giving way to the chirps of cricket-like sounding bugs. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.
To further take advantage of my long stay, I manage to attach myself to the trips of others with ease. As was the case with Peter and Werner, I do the same for a day out with a traveling Portuguese veterinarian, Jose, plus a young German, Daniel. Walking down to the waterfront, and with Jose negotiating in rapidfire Spanish (about as rapid as his English), we soon have a peque-peque (or putt-putt boat as I call it) boat easing out of Leticia's port (a dubious, yet technically accurate description). I can only watch in amusement as he boldly works 150000CP down to 50000CP in about two minutes flat, his age belying his expertise in bargaining.
The sort-of plan we have is to circumnavigate the Peruvian isle of Santa Rosa across the river from Leticia. Should opportunities to swim or see something of interest along the way come up, we'll jump on them. Sounds like a plan, yep, and with this strategy we initially make our slow tracks to an encampment upriver. It's only a short ways distance-wise, located still on the Colombian side, but the boat nevertheless requires a good hour. Once there, we immediately hop off to head into the jungle via the campsite fronting the shore. Shortly we're checking out the massive Victoria Regia lilies, almost immediately after the path leads us onto an elevated boardwalk. Wow! - These plants (the largest water lilies in the world) could easily convince me that they're strong enough to hold a small child (which they reportedly are)! Pretty cool stuff. Moreover, the intriguing patterns found on their surfaces are also abundantly clear under the beating sun.
Nice... but we have to keep moving, and for obvious reasons: Mosquitoes have rather stunningly (and extremely quickly) found our scent (okay: funk). They're onto us in waves by the time we come to the massive trees (ceibas) which follow our lily-viewing. Called the drum tree by some - for their capacity to make far-carrying noise when beating their "legs" - we're sufficiently impressed by their size alone. Their multitudes of drop-vines - some many meters long - lend them further support, too, often rooting separately. Tarzan should have had it so good: What an amazing canopy to swing in! And maybe he - or somebody, something - does that on a regular basis: We can hear any number of animals WAY up there in the same greenery - somewhere.
But we still have to keep moving, then moving some more, only briefly pausing to check out one clearing after another of these engaging trees. Our mosquito-hosting is going through a logarithmic increase each time we slow down for more than a minute or two. Seriously - my legs by now are quickly seeing themselves sporting red streaks wherever I swat the greedy bastards. Soon we're slapping each other (with enthusiastic permission) as well, now all enjoined equally in desperate combat against this plague. Evidently there's nothing like a little gringo blood, and their consistency in having already imbibed some betrays their gluttony when ever more red goo smears on sweaty skin. Ultimately this mayhem hurries us back to the camp we initially passed through, tired and sweating - yet miraculously finally free of our persecutors. Whew.
The entry camp area, sitting on a ledge embankment above the river and offering numerous benches with a view, is just the place to hang out. A local man and boy eventually emerge from the sole building nearby to talk about the few gorgeous macaws that are tame enough to approach us. Free to roam, they've long figured out where their handouts lay - which is lucky for us. What beautiful, gigantic - and photogenic, needless to say - birds! And what black tongues and sharp beaks to keep us on our toes!
For such feeding tomfoolery, however, we're eventually required to buy a few insanely-sugared Peruvian Colas for the privilege. This comes to the eternal consternation of José, perhaps somehow speaking to his inner veterinarian (he IS one, after all), but more likely it's his sense of mild outrage in paying for what nature is deciding to provide (and which I generally agree with, but...). I eventually successfully convince him to set his bargaining panache to rest: the price of a soft drink (at less than a dollar) each is quite bearable. Besides, the sugar water is actually COLD! (I hazard to imagine that, if we looked more affluent, the price tag would be significantly higher, maybe about the charge for a new refrigerator or so - which they could use, by the way. Ice, anyone?)
Thoughts naturally next turn to swimming, if only because - good god! - it's crazy hot out! But our first chosen spot doesn't prove terribly inspired, even as we pull over onto a large beach fronting the mighty Amazon with great hopes. At least it's a good spot to present my white behind to the river in adulation (scary picture actually taken withheld for the sake of world peace). Or maybe not, but in any event Jose and I wade purposefully into the river, hoping for a bit of cool while Daniel busies with taking pictures of himself "on location" in the boat's prow.
As for us watered-down adventurers, Jose and I both quickly agree that this water is NOT that refreshing. Damnation. And this'll stay true even after we head out to the middle of the river for another go, hoping to find ever more of the few colder pockets that fleetingly tease us from time to time. But the top foot or so of the river will remain stubbornly and un-alteringly warm - if not outright hot. At least we know not to pee in the river, possibly attracting the nightmare of all nightmares, the now-famous jaranga catfish of the Amazon. THAT bastard seeks heat, climbing into penis and vagina alike, but it's a considerably more challenging affair for us males should this one-way-barbed beast need ever be removed. In such cases, apparently, the afflicted "member" needs to be sliced open for holy catfish extraction. We can hold it, needless to say.
The hot water nevertheless demands that we try another spot, again right in the middle of the river but upstream a ways. As our driver bails out some water from the boat - it seems that every boat in the area, without exception, has a steady leak - José and I jump in again. Our German friend stays dry, however, or as dry as his rolling and roiling sweat allows, as he resumes his chore, now having the driver take a slew more of pictures to prove he's on the great river. Silly him: THIS time the water IS refreshing, encouraging both of us to stay in much longer. It apparently helps to be in the main current of the river, even if both the boat and us two mermen are alike drifting down at a pretty good - surprisingly so, based on our points of reference - clip.
Back aboard, and again under motor, we next try to spot some dolphins, but we soon give up on that: It's likely too hot and early in the day. However, when we round the downriver side of Santa Rosa's island, we fortunately compensate by spying a pair of harpy eagles. UNfortunately, this pause also somehow raises the attention of a powerful boat out in the river's middle. Crap!: The Peruvian Coastguard is a ways off, but in moments that's no longer true. So, upon seeing their bow irrevocably turned toward us, I quickly donned my lifejacket and nudge my companions to do the same. In no time they board us and are asking us for documents.
Oops - it turns out that I'm the lone person to have none, however much I pat all of my pockets to make a good show of it. So I engage in confident and friendly conversation to hopefully do the trick instead... which it seems to. Then again, being an American possibly/likely helps - our embassies are notorious for good follow-through in such matters (as opposed to, say, the Australian - I've already known of multiple instances of Aussies having significant problems in such matters). After several minutes, the soldier - in full combat gear like his three shipmates, impractically armored like black clad stormtroopers under a blazing sun - hop off. Whew!: I'm spared a night or ten in a Peruvian jail, something I deem as without a doubt a VERY good thing.
Finally we make our way to Santa Rosa proper, that hardscrabble island village on the Peruvian side that is just across the river from Leticia. Vastly comprised of shacks, I notice that all use the same chainsaw-milled, tough-as-nails lumber I've consistently been seeing everywhere up and down the Amazon. But what amazing, hard wood! Surely it's the envy of any carpenter from Panamá to the Arctic Circle. And that's just looking toward North America - Argentines and Chileans, not to mention the rest of the world, would be just as happy to get their hands on this wooded gold. On the other hand, Santa Rosa's ragtag fleet of motorcycle taxis look like vehicles taken straight out of 1920 - even as the main sidewalk (and thus the central "road") is shockingly in awful good shape. That must have been built since my guidebook came out, there mentioned as only a dirt path. Whatever - the mototaxis make short work of it from the looks of things, some careening off on only two wheels to spit dirt as they turn off of it and back toward the ad hoc water landing/port of mud and reeds.
There they hope to get fresh tourists like us, who unhelpfully are instead scrambling over the crude embankment to follow the dirt path on foot to the big city. Minutes later, we're walking the length of the town's "built-up" section. Well, THESE are several exciting minutes! Zzz. So we thus next settle ourselves into a massive, porched bar located alongside the walkway/highway. We MUST, we decide, sample three very large beers of EACH new brand suddenly available now that we're across the border. Those are namely Cuzqueno, Pilsen, and Cristal. Soon we each have a different favorite, too, something to yab about as we overlook the field of weeds and land-locked boats just beyond our perch. The poor vessels are evidently waiting for the rains to swamp the area once more to allow motion. For the present, though, many colorful birds are making good use of them as roosts or target practice. And that's to be it for our daytripping, us three quickly agreeing to abort a pink dolphin watch at sunset on the peque-peque about as soon as we undertake it only modestly in earnest. Leticia is calling us back home.
More Leticia time can only mean more exploring, of course. But for me it's not to be the exploring hoped for in the collective minds of the local guides and theme park operators. Do I want to see the "monkey island" upriver, where Werner, Peter and I stifled laughs as a woman hopped onto our boat in short-shorts and designer, camouflage boots? No, thanks (on the island and the boots, anyway). The same thinking now goes with the Serpentarium, just outside of Leticia. I shudder to think of the conditions of the poor reptiles within. Ditto on the treetop-walking shtick and the rest of the shlock on offer.
I'm still up for putzing about the area, though, and one such foray obviously is to take the road out of town - the only one - and see where it leads. But walking in the bathtub air of the vicinity feels out of the question - isn't there a bus? Well, yes there is, as I'll also find that this potential Shangri-La of Amazonia can be accessed by mototaxi if I don't want to jump on one of the cheaper buses each marked Km 11 or 22. The number - as one can guess - specifies how far (if not how often) the bus will make it down the 22km-long road. I'm ALWAYS all about public transport.
The 11km trip will prove sufficient, as it turns out. But 8km, where I first get out, would as well - or so I'll later know. But I've heard that the 8km area offers pleasant lakeside dining, and a plate of fish with a view sounds appealing - if such should actually be the case. Instead, I find only a couple of establishments serving what little they have left over in their depleted cupboards. This specifically does NOT include fish at my hour of arrival, just after lunch. So I walk away from this disappointment, only eventually offered a fried fish as I gather distance from the last establishment. Surmising it might just be the cook's lunch being given up for my benefit, I pass. (Things can work like that in the poorer stretches of Latin America.)
So no, I won't bite, but that's equally because the lake's turned out to be merely a concrete-banked, manmade pond. What kind of natural environment is THAT? Moreover, it's filled with a noisy group of Colombians wearing all of their clothes, all bathing quite happily in the frolic of music blasting horrifically across the way. To all this, the only thought my noggin might be able to achieve would be the implied command to TURN THAT %#/&$ OFF!
Thus I find myself disappointedly hitting the road again, now on foot, deciding to walk the 3km necessary to the next possible restaurant. For this I'm initially joined by a mangy, pregnant dog... and three soldiers in full combat gear. Hmm - should this be comforting or scary? I haven't any idea. But I soon leave them all behind in the heat, what with my quickened pace, passing a mysterious Cuban restaurant with no one around in the process. THAT sounds appealing in concept, but... no. Next comes the Serpentarium of ill repute. No thanks to that, either.
I settle instead on the Paisa place. No, "Colombian heartland" food isn't exactly the regional speciality I'm looking for in the Amazon, but this is all that comes at the end of the 11km area's business-y stretch in which I find myself. So there I dine on a large tukunare fish, starved enough to eat whatever's on offer by then - even if it SHOULD come off of the cook's own plate. Luckily I'm soon surprised by the fish's prodigious size and taste - plus that it's surprisingly healthy fare. Hey - something HAS finally worked out, I think, finally relaxing comfortably while I enjoy flipping through the final pages of the Updike novel.
In satiated comfort, only now am I ready to return home, however grudgingly I have to admit that this outing has overall been mostly a bust. At least I KNOW it is one now, and that this includes the entire road up to km11. All of this area has shown itself to be only mostly ranches or the odd tourist compound, with no jungle approachable or even available from this roadside survey. That effectively lays my initial hopes to waste. Then later, in chatting with a few locals, I'll confirm that the same would be the case to km22 as well. I guess that all I need now is a bus back to Leticia.
Which I get - right after waiting a good while, and after walking back to the 8km marker's restaurants, then waiting some more. Finally aboard, I get to repeat the joys of traversing the newest, smoothest and best-est road in all of Colombia, a vehicle-bearing counterpart to those stellar sidewalks upriver at Puerto Nariño. Who would've thought?, I muse, even if in this case "progress" should be noted as something of a double-edged curse - since apparently this gleaming strip of concrete is the result of American intervention. Is this a good thing? Depends on who you ask.
The problem, naturally, is that ulterior motives are assumed by all - which, historically speaking, makes a lot of sense. Indeed, saying "U.S." ANYTHING in Latin America is the surest way to get a conversation of a conspiracy nature started - also not without some reason, what with the C.I.A.'s efforts in Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and more coming to mind. But I've long noticed how America-cursing comes a bit too easily to many in the world, all courtesy of the convenience and universal appeal of a powerful scapegoat. Everyone loves an underdog and, outside of that brief interlude following the 9/11 tragedy, the U.S. hasn't been considered one since, oh, like 1898. This damned-if-you-do-WHATEVER situation arises, then, even when intentions are the most benign - which they SOMETIMES are. So I'm left to wonder what the real story of this road's construction is (as the original one which sort of parallels it is condemned to eventual ruin from neglect). Who'll talk straight when the U.S. is concerned? It doesn't seem anyone.
In my day's absence, meanwhile, G's wrapped up some discussions with the local minister of culture that have transpired over a few days. Apparently my trumpet services have been offered for a mysterious Christmas concert. Huh?!?, I gasp, balking at first on account of that uncomfortable feeling of being promised to deliver an unknown. What will the others be playing? What should I play? Would anyone recognize the tunes, or care? I'll be playing to HOW many people? All valid questions, I think, so I temporarily decide to say no until further notice. How dare one control freak try to out-control another with obligations?
Meanwhile the hostel completely vacates yet again, which is weird since this is supposed to be about peak season. Apparently that's not yet the case, but a couple of Italians from Torino come by to break the lull, two men tattooed from head to foot and happy to engage in any and all talk about coffee. And good pasta. And Italy in general. Sounds up my alley, actually. But then they'll head on to Bogotá in a little over a day, and the place feels as empty as it again is. Their interlude, however, would actually be the last of the calm before the beginning of a small onslaught of Americans that would be the storm, soon to be followed by the more typical hordes of Germans and Australians.
One curious American woman shows up in the middle of the night at this time, immediately making ready to leave Leticia with the Italians the following day. Engaging in conversation, I soon determine that she speaks little Spanish and is looking for a kindred English-speaker. Sure - I'm nothing if not gabby, and the fact that she's been a Peace Corps worker in Paraguay is something I find very cool and interesting, "corps-people" generally being my kind. Then again, this makes the dearth of her Spanish knowledge more curious - I'm pretty sure the Corps offers some language training. She assures me that she didn't have to waste much time with THAT. Okay, then.
As for Paraguay, she admits that there isn't much to do or see - just something to check off a list, if you will. To this she rolls her eyes in mock contempt, proceeding to tell me how she's "done" South America, coincidentally covering the same countries that I've perhaps spent toward two years altogether. Apparently she's "done" each in about a week, and it's only mere lassitude that holds me back from my own version of eye-rolling as I next learn of her hectic itinerary. Well, suffice it to say that this girl has covered some territory, even if her cultural disdain doesn't help me in my attempts to pigeon-hole her somehow - not if she's been a member of the Peace Corps while also a child of (Indian) immigrants. She's American, in other words.
Conversation next turns toward religion, a mill's grist not usually found in a first chat. Here she declares herself a former Hindu gone "spiritual", that worn-n-weary catch-all classification of comfort. Sigh - THAT again? Over the years I've well found said stock phrase to be a sufficiently nebulous (and thus appealing) thing to claim, particularly for women for some reason (at least vastly so in my experience). Okay, that's fine and good, but... zzz. Mercifully, she's off and onto her plane shortly thereafter, leaving me rueing far more the gregarious Italians she's parted with - who have yet to make me that fine coffee they've promised a few times. Come on, guys, I'm-a SUFFERIN' out here in the sticks!
Two other Americans, men who study birds and frogs (one to each), prove of more lasting interest than their spiritual countrywoman. Sharing their room, I can't help but learn of their various studies - plus where they go to look for the critters. Maybe I should join them on some of these ventures as a fieldhand, I wonder? Nah, I just as quickly decide, not if this entails getting up (apparently) at 5 a.m.! Instead I opt for picking their unquestionably capable minds, especially now having finished with the thoroughly fascinating book One River.
The frog man, I find, is also particularly interested in local fruits just like myself, it turns out. A-ha! Now here's something right up my alley, even if I can only boast a fledgling expertise. Now with like purpose, we spend time comparing notes of what we've tried in Colombia: Uvo/uva caimarona, borojo, arazá, carambola, copoazu/copasú... Both lists are steadily growing apace for us, it seems, both the growing number of "tries" as WELL as the "trieds". One does have to admit that opening Pandora's box has its good side.
And then... my old hostel companion-in-literature Archie returns, that Melbourne teacher with an axe to grind with the world. What news, oh Arch? And aren't you supposed to be in Perú by now? Unsurprisingly, he seems to have missed his boat to Iquitos some days back and, as the only one to stay nearly as long at the compound as myself, it looks like he'll be returning for yet another short spell. But then... au contraire. Nothing is so simple with Archie.
As he triumphantly re-enters the compound, I track him with the bell of the trumpet I'm playing, watching increasingly wide-eyed as he gathers a storm while marching through the compound looking for G. He doesn't acknowledge my obvious presence as he makes his determined way, only huffing in defeat and returning toward me when he reached G's office in the back. No dice there - G's evidently out and about. So now he comes directly to me, fortunately just as I've finished up the trumpet session. "Hey Arch...," I start, only barely managing to choke that out before a litany of angry lecturing spills forth. Wha-?
"How DARE you...!," "WHEN did you...?," "HOW did you...?!?," he blurts with minimal control. He shakes with increased rage next, as I'm particularly glad that my instrument's now safely found its case. That'll be one thing less to worry about, frankly, at the rate this rant is going. But then, as if to emphasize whatever unintelligible point he's making, he grabs my music stand and shakes it now in anger as well. Huh?!?, I think, now completely befuddled. Indeed, it'll take some tens of seconds to register that this barrage has all along been directed at... ME. Whoa!
Apparently someone's written some nasty message on his Sideshow Bob Facebook page, possibly signed in as himself. That's about all I can make of the polemic, although I'm not even completely sure of that. Nor can I make out why his wrath has turned my way, always having been particularly nice to the odd fellow. Hell, I've even begrudgingly entrusted him with my coveted Twain book, thinking that I've done so to a kindred literary spirit. Or so I felt at the time.
Whatever the story, I'm compelled to cut him short after about sixty seconds of this raging nonsense, now properly recovered from the shock. I grab the stand back from him, telling him where he can put it if he doesn't apologize and come up with some evidence to back his outrageous claim. Really - if I wanted to "get at him", I'd have done far better than claiming on his webpage that he likes to suck various and sundry appendages of Colombian males. Puh-lease! Give this amateur (if long-winded) scribe some credit. He soon cools down to this, apologizes, then storms off, a new rage building. Ah, the people one meets on a vacation in the sun - Especially in Leticia!
Over the next couple of days will come further reports of Archie sightings, all invariably of him very determinedly walking about town. The dispatches flutter in, about how he's ever muttering more to to himself, all accompanied by an even greater lack of peripheral vision than previously - if that were even possible. He recognizes no one else's presence, lost in his world of anger - and here I've defended this shmuck to others repeatedly, claiming that surely he couldn't be a full-on nutjob. He's merely impassioned, I've been insisting. Until now, anyway, when anger management seems more the order of the day. In any event, by the time G confronts him after hunting him down in town, he's once again resettled the blame on yours truly. Sigh. What can I do but give up? Hell, I even LIKED Sideshow Bob! Which makes me think: Might the culprit be... Mel? Or Bart Simpson? Ah, Leticia days!
Such soap opera doings, meanwhile, only leave... the Christmas concert. Oh, right! Fortunately, a Frenchman comes by around its time - a timely arrival for my rescue, and perhaps the first time such an occasion has happened (a Frenchman coming to an American's plea) since the American Revolution, or maybe the presenting of the Statue of Liberty. I jest! Sort of. Anyway, he's come in on the latest slow boat from Manaus, showing up in town at 5 a.m. and happily noting my (muted) horn when I set to practicing at 7 a.m. Coincidentally, it turns out that he has a soprano sax with him - do I want to play together later? Sure - and, uh, would HE like to slap something together for a concert? Thankfully, he's far more the extrovert than I: indeed he would. Whew.
Now I only have to talk with the local "minister of culture", whom I've missed the previous day. A trumpet and sax revue? Uh... "Great!", she says, smiling widely. But she hasn't a clue as to what Christmas tunes I play for her are (The Christmas Song ("Chestnuts roasting..."), Rudolf, Let It Snow, etc.). Apparently Christmas diddies aren't exactly as universal in the western world as I've thought. It doesn't matter, she insists, game for me to play anything I deem appropriate. Further, she insists, it's only to be a casual affair, perhaps with 100 people or something like that. Okay - done.
And that figure turns out to be a little shy of correct, but not horribly so. Come the grand evening, perhaps 150 or 200 people at best slowly gather. Us two westerners show up on time and ready to play, of course, but as for the audience... well, this is Latin America - have we forgotten? So they straggle in over the next hour or so, almost all arriving well after the start time. I really should expect this by now, I joke to Eric, as we handily kill time watching the descending parrots come to roost nearby to the timely dropping of the sun. We even have time to practice our shtick in the adjacent "Hombre Amazonico" museum, too, again with me vastly enjoying its excellent AC. Such sublime comfort allows us to put together a presentable, traded-verse version of Let It Snow. As to the rest - who knows? We'll come up with SOMETHING.
Which we do, as in short order I learn that Eric can really spit out some jazz a la Coltrane, obviously far more accomplished in the art of improvisation than myself. Or at least he can play an awful lot of complicated-sounding stuff that wouldn't dare. Whatever - in such realms I have no issue with deferring to my superiors, happy to enjoy a listen without feeling inspired to similarly do so. Besides, he vastly better looks the jazz musician part, what with the funky glasses and ponytail. With MY Samson locks recently shorn, I'll take the second hand street cred Eric affords - while drawing attention away from me at the same time. My disguise of dork-hood only leads to pleasant surprises, I convince myself, reveling in the sweet subterfuge!
Meanwhile it's time to make our humble presence known as a duo: showtime's arrived. We walk onstage to the microphones, immediately kicking out a snappy Let It Snow to get things started right in the tropics. Then Eric manages a St. Thomas for me to eventually join in on. The fun continues when I next guess that there's a decent possibility that folks'll recognize Satchmo's classic What A Wonderful World, and I give a small speech about the song and its Louis Armstrong connection before launching into what I hope is a warm rendition. The emcee, then the crowd, ask for an encore from us, to which we enthusiastically pop out a very twisted Summertime. Another suggested encore has me again playing solo, this time on Chega De Saudade. Hey, this IS fun - but it's time for the gringos to exit stage left and let someone else strut their stuff.
Coming off of the stage, an older man compliments my playing before taking the stage himself for several numbers - which only make the compliment the more appreciated when I hear how marvelously he plays and sings. What an incredibly light, controlled sound he has! Playing and singing with a Brazilian flair (but from Leticia, COLOMBIA, mind all), I make it a point to get his name and inquire where he regularly plays. Unfortunately he's followed all too soon by a small rock duo. Their horror ends when a local chorus takes over the venue complete with director - which means that things are going from bad to worse in my book. It's time to bail on this impromptu frivolity, in other words, in spite of it on the whole not being a bad bit of cultural exchange.
The following morning I head back to Puerto Nariño with Eric, who I've convinced of its merits. Suggesting that we go with instruments in hand to make it a certain smash hit doesn't hurt. For Eric's part, though, he's also going to look for some kind of jungle experience on the cheap that doesn't take the form of a tour. Perhaps going out with the hunter as Peter had, I suggest, might do the trick. He's quickly sold on the idea - especially after his fellow travelers from the Manaus boat can't get the expected tour price they've been arranging with a local guide to drop from a vastly higher amount. Leticia simply isn't the cheap place to look for an Amazon tour, anyway, I know - not with Perú, Ecuador, and Bolivia upstream.
So we get on the fast boat for the plow upriver and, outside of a couple fussy engine stops that are oddly performed in a midstream contact with another boat in the service, we arrive there without a hitch. As for the coffin lashed on top of our small vessel? We just hope it's empty - or portends no ill omens. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passengers in the other boat equally apprise it in horror or amusement both while the drivers fuss over the opened-up engine in question, periodically revving it as us passengers try to keep the boats hand-lashed together. Then, without any noticeable change to the ear, they deem all things okay and the boats separate to move on.
Since I was last gone Puerto Nariño way, meanwhile, I see that the river's measurably risen. This is most evident in the increased flotsam-jetsam we've been witnessing, all dangerous crud for our boat driver to dodge at maximum (sigh - naturally) speed. As for that large sandbar I spotted only a few weeks before, lying just outside of Isla de Los Micos? It's completely disappeared, our intrepid driving shooting us directly over where I know it to lie. Such a successful manoeuvre action is testimony to its sufficient submergence, sure - or the fact that the boat driver probably doesn't particularly remember it or care. I wouldn't dare to guess which.
Back in Puerto Nariño town, we run into immediate luck as I bump into ol' Willington on the main sidewalk. Chip cheerio, old chap! Okay, I STILL haven't a clue to his name's deeper origins, but SURE, he's willing to take us to the hunter - and as soon as we want to go! Good, good. But first, we insist, we need to sweat-hike our way over to the Friar's, to see if a certain dour American birdwatcher from our Leticia hostel (who arrived the day prior) wants to join us. Offhandedly having made him the promise to look up the hunter with him in mind as well, I unfortunately feel compelled to follow through.
Fortunately he's not up to our type of hijinks, even if that's not determined until we're about ready to leave without him. He's not at the friar's as scheduled, but our running into him by chance shortly thereafter does prove that it's hard to miss anyone in tiny Puerto Nariño for long. We bump into him at the same family restaurant of "Amazon Romance Fish" that I frequented the last time in town and now again almost exclusively. This visibly disappoints some imagery is been conjuring for himself, finding that his restaurant "discovery" has already been done, but such is life in the big city when there aren't that many options, anyway. Perhaps - if he'd thought about it - he'd realize that such discoveries probably occur on a weekly basis. For my part, however, I'm overjoyed with something else entirely: the owner has taken my suggestion from my last visit, swapping out the tiny and brutally hard wooden chairs he previously employed with more comfortable ones. No Iron Butt will be necessarily endured for this amazing fish that I'd still regardless order. Progress on the Amazon!
In the meantime, our man on the scene Willington has tracked us down. Although we've only loosely arranged the hunter trip with him, with money to be made Willington's on the job. True enough, you never know when the random gringo will show up, the fickle - albeit dependably herd-like - bastards. He quickly grabs us, shortly ushering us aboard his personal putt-putt (okay, fine peque-peque!) boat. Only an hour or so is necessary to reach our destination, an indigenous village of some 100-200 people, we're told. Once there, we hop onto shore in the unrelenting blaze of an Amazonian afternoon, meeting the hunter a few minutes later.
Yes, he'd be happy to take us out, both for an afternoon walk and another one around midnight. Hopefully the animals will show, too, he says, but with impending rain we should perhaps not expect to see many if any. Then, just as Willington had mimicked so excitedly back in P.N., our new friend and fearless leader demonstrates his plan of blowing one such critter away and eating it. This pantomime begins with a show of aiming a rifle, followed by an effusive POW! that erupts as soon he stops the motion. The subsequent licking of lips follows as a matter of course. Ah, fresh meat! Or is that collectively Eric and I?
Which brings up another question: Will we, uh, be eating wild monkey or rodent? God only knows, but I take comfort in meanwhile knowing that, with our participation or not, he'll be hunting all the same. Such is how I intend to maintain a shred of karma, anyway, rather averse to killing things for the hell of it (mosquitoes massively excepted). Business negotiated successfully, Willington soon leaves as Eric and I next meet the rest of the family, beginning with the hunter's four boys aged 2, 5, 8, and 9. Each is apparently more than a little happy to make our acquaintance. Seriously - within moments they're hanging all over us, swinging from our arms or crawling through or hugging our legs.
This continues, too, even when we set up our hammocks and Eric and I jump in to test them out. The boys immediately jump in, too... as the poor vessels of strings nearly bottom out on the floor. To be honest, this intense amount of physical contact and affection with our brand new acquaintances is a bit disarming, even as it's obvious that the kids are well-loved by their parents and hardly attention-starved on their behalf. We each figure it's best to assume only the best intentions in taking this constant and physical monkeying about that uses any available limb of ours as jungle-gym time for all.
However, on one point we agree something might be atypical. Getting around to discussing these intense antics later, we both realize that we've equally guessed that the oldest boy is probably gay. Although - whew, fortunately - nothing inappropriate happens, the way he alone wants to touch our bellies, chests, or (of all things) Adam's apples just somehow seems to suggest this to each of us independently. It actually gets to be a pain to attempt entering the hammock while simultaneously keeping him out of it, especially as we are guests of the house. This perhaps naturally leads to a discussion between Eric and I, about what being a gay boy/man could possibly mean in an indigenous village in the Amazon, even taking into account that our hosts are such incredibly friendly people. Neither of us has a clue as to what that might imply, actually, but neither of us think it a good idea to bring up this suspected orientation of their boy with his parents, either.
All the above has nothing to do with our jungle walks, however, which are - long story shortened significantly - busts. Oh well. The first, at about 4 p.m., starts promisingly enough. We head out of the village through the nearby fields (called chagras, which is probably really chacras, here the local name for any roughly cut patch temporarily ripped from the jungle for crude cultivation). After some words from the hunter about the various crops, we next dive into the forest proper, now following the hunter's own faint tracks from daily wanderings on the hunt. He explains a number of plants' and trees' properties as we run into ones of interest, with good details forthcoming as he knows or remember them. And then... then the rain begins, which makes things uncomfortable right quick. And then it keeps going. And going. And... sigh.
Fortunately, we're already mentally prepared for this, what with the hunter's warnings at the outset. Ameliorating the situation at times, too, is the forest cover which helps fend off or delay the wet barrage sometimes significantly. But that all eventually falls to the wayside as we ultimately get thoroughly soaked. By then it's also getting more than a bit slippery, too, highlighted each time when we have to walk over narrow logs to cross the numerous creeks. I wonder about just what insurance might possibly ever cover such a fall as I teeter and make my way over yet another sketchy log. Each seems in danger of collapsing, or at a minimum will shunt me off to plunge headfirst into the stream and mud below - which would certainly result only right after bonking my head on the log itself on the way. Of the animals, meanwhile, we see... nothing. We only HEAR some - whatever/wherever they are. By the time we come back to the hunter's hut, all we can do is peel off our clothes and hope for the best on the next go-round.
The ensuing night walk, however, unfortunately only entails more of the same. This occasion begins when I alone miraculously awake in my hammock at 1 a.m., meekly stating "Es la una..." to the others, equally in a mixed hope for both assent and dissent. I sincerely question if I should even bother pushing the issue, but I ultimately can't help myself from further asking "Quieren irse...?" That indeed gets the other two up, now with all of us looking out into the darkness where a veritable deluge is in progress. We HAVE asked for this... right?
Abso-fucking-lutely. We put on our wet clothes, the same ones which will now somehow manage to get impossibly even MORE wet. To this I reflect that I've been drier in many a bathroom shower - or bath. The sky of the entire Amazon is evidently dumping on us with abandon, now with thunder and lightning to give visual and aural aids in respective accompaniment. And for all this we'll see... a big frog. Granted, it IS a massive cane toad in its real environment (as opposed to the imported ones I saw in Queensland, Oz), but... yeah. Great.
Actually, in a way it still is. The forest walks actually ARE adventures, two beautiful walks that even find us in a pitch darkness that is at times sppoky. Both reward us with a multitude of mysterious sounds, ones which the hunter explains from his perspective and we can marvel at. Of specific interest to the hunter, of course, is whether such soundings suggest something to kill and eat. His are indeed a set of skilled eyes and ears that by necessity look at our surroundings with the heightened and practical purpose of taking care of mouths to feed. In between or after such attention-heightened pauses of recognition, meanwhile, he relaxes, sometimes telling us two rubes a story. He also attempts to explain how he's developed his sense of direction in reconnoitering this network he's created of barely-noticeable paths. He's often reduced to trudging about with only a minimum of markings to follow and, as the lone hunter in the village that ventures out on a regular basis, it's completely up to him to make his way back safely.
Us tourists nevertheless almost break our necks repeatedly for the pleasure of such knowledge. This is something to appreciate especially wherever the thinnest-of-thin topsoils over the ground gives way to the inevitably thick clay or mud below, an achievement that's nothing doing in such a downpour. One of my pantlegs even finds itself viciously shredded in the process somehow, but this is only realized upon inspection back at the hut, when I notice a monstrous gash running down one thigh that miraculously has penetrated no deeper. Wow - when did THAT happen?
As for the remains of the pant leg, I decide to leave it with the hunter. The detachable lower pant legs can be reattached elsewhere with their zippers intact, just as the large velcro clasps I've had recently sewn on them can be reused. So much for my long term thinking of maintenance, I guess, but this is salvageable stuff and this is an area that salvages EVERYTHING. Mr. Hunter nods in solemn agreement to my (admittedly humble) offer, reasoning that the rest of the nylon material in the pants will be somehow usable as well. Nope, nothing gets wasted out in the sticks, he agrees.
It turns out, meanwhile, that at least one timely, undeniably positive, and tangible thing comes of our visit. One of the boys, the 5-year-old, has stepped dead down onto a rusty nail only a few days before our arrival. Eric being a nurse in France and all, I'm thinking that his newest charge couldn't possibly receive much better service in attending to the wound. And, as it is, it actually HASN'T been looked to properly - the poor boy hasn't slept in several days. He's been howling away each night, the father says - as we well know from all of one (admittedly greatly-disrupted-by-hunt) night. Setting to the task at hand, Eric and the mother work together to get the remaining bad stuff out of the wound, the mother mostly holding the howling boy still as Eric administers away. The heel is thus cleaned thoroughly as the child yells and squirms away to no avail: the adults know what they have to do.
To this first aid end, Eric and I next clean out a good store of our medical kits, equally decided to leave a chunk of supplies behind. Their likelihood of being used in this household (or elsewhere in the village) is a heck of a lot greater than on us dilettante travelers. Moreover, we can reload easily and cheaply enough. As things currently stand, we're told, there are approximately no medical supplies in town at all. The last donations have run their course. Our newfound family doesn't even have any gas for their boat's motor (although, with their upriver location, it'd take but 2-3 hours to float down to Puerto Nariño). Anyway, now with our packs lighter on med supplies, that's that - we can only hope for the best for the boy.
Come morning, we quickly realize that a final plan for piranha fishing will be the next outing to find failure, another bust on account of the rain. An idea to go walking around the village will soon go the same route - nowhere, not with this downpour. The place is verily being drenched, lakes and rivers arising from what was dried mud just the previous afternoon. We're instead reduced to waiting in the hunter's interesting-if-spartan abode, playing goofily with the boys while alternately looking at the continuing rain outside and fully resigning ourselves to the general failure of our mission. At least neither of us particularly care: Welcome to the jungle! Again.
Come a break in the wet proceedings at about noon, Willington shows up on schedule. Immediately we start to make our way back to the dock through the village, simultaneous to the goings-on of a house that is still blaring music from a fiesta that is limp-ingly continuing somehow from the night before. We witness an elderly, drunken couple yelling at each other as a result of that fun, berating one another boisterously in between taking ineffective swings at faces and chests. Eventually they fall onto the ground and continue this tawdry brawl with similar, futile success; We gingerly sidestep the mayhem. Frankly, it's altogether weird to bid adieu under such a bizarre scene, what with such extreme circumstances as the rain has provided as a flooded backdrop. We don't exactly know what to make of it all, us two interlopers of a curious sort but no more, as we hop into the boat to head downriver. We look about us, now with the river's banks swollen with vastly more water than only the day previous, nevertheless still knowing this won't alter our voyage much: downriver is still downriver.
Back in Puerto Nariño, we decide on an appropriate follow-up plan. This consists, chiefly, of doing nothing. We catch up on our recently-aborted sleep, read some, play horns both together and apart, plus make a couple more pilgrimages to that same family restaurant where we can indulge in repeated helpings of that delicious fish wrapped in banana leaf. I show Eric about town a bit, retracing the steps of Peter, Werner, and I, all the while as we sweat some more.
When we play music together, meanwhile, we find that the lack of a rhythm section quickly narrows what we see as reasonable possibilities of collaboration. Simple blues tunes like St. James Infirmary, then Summertime, receive extended run-throughs as a result. (This limited repertoire status to our ensemble playing will continue in Leticia upon our return.) At least here, at the friar's compound, we have a Swiss-German couple to keep us company, appreciative listeners in addition to a couple of the friar's staff members - which is how a sun goes down, comes up, then sees us off toward the docks and the incoming ferry to Leticia.
Only a funny bit of business remains, one which we've actually temporarily forgotten about. When poor Willington shows up at the port, hopeful to meet an incoming boat of potential customers, he bumps into us two head-scratchers in the process. Jointly registering "Oh yeah!", we politely ask for our money back for the fishing that had been aborted. We've paid by the activity and, while accepting the failure of the jungle walks, the fishing's never being even attempted seems a reasonable cancellation.
For this we get to watch a variety of emotions play over Willington's face. Quickly realizing his bad luck in bumping into us, some negotiating ensues of a curious nature before we eventually decide to just let Willington make his choice, telling him we're not going to seek authorities or anything as dramatic as that. Nope, it's up to him to show he has the money on hand or not to give us. Of course he does, we all know, but the game is infinitely interesting to watch as it plays over his visage. We can visibly watch him weighing the odds in his head of our recommending (or bad-mouthing, which we'd actually not bother with) him as a good minute expires in silence. Finally he comes to his decision, giving our money back as he quickly gathers steam in joviality to part as back-slapping friends. (He'll happily greet us on the streets of Leticia unannounced some days later; we've already mentioned him fondly to others by then. Seriously: How many Willingtons can one expect to find in the most vast of jungles in the world, by Jeeves?)
After this latest Puerto Nariño interim, I surprisingly finally make it into G's inner book sanctums back in Leticia. Turns out that there isn't much there of interest after such build-up, but I choose both Roald Dahl's Kiss Kiss short story compendium and Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana as engaging - if brief - tales. Both look manageable to finish as I likewise hand off Thomas Mann's collection of short stories on a rather more permanent basis. G's been maintaining vigorous surveillance on that one to not let me possibly forget, but I decide that that'll not happen before I also borrow an unexpectedly racy (in its fashion) Dahl book, Switch Bitch, also snagging an Orwell autobiography of sorts in "Down and Out In London and Paris" in the process. All are rather brief reads, none destined to leave town with me, the sanctum remaining sacrosanct.
Otherwise this collection of the inner sanctum proves a bust. And he really should be attending to them much better in such humidity. But he neither takes my suggestions of better protecting his books from the climate and termites, or trading them more freely, seriously. As to the humidity in particular, and since he's already lost some that way, why not trade the bulk of them? His lack of interest instead suggests that the given conditions will be favored to win the war of paper's integrity versus G reading them fast enough. How long, exactly, WILL it take for them to dissolve of their own accord?, I muse. Or better: Can a sanctum be regarded as such when it's empty?
In any event, I'm now committed to Leticia for the remainder of my "Amazon nights", if still happy to continue watching the parade of folks coming through. Fortunately (for me), there'll even be a number of others who are caught for longer local spells. That's mostly because the flights to Bogotá and beyond are really booking up. Some stays are being extended in hopes of finding cheaper tickets, but mostly it's not the case that that's working. Actually, one such victim is Eric, reduced to staying a good while longer than expected if however much to my cheer for good comradeship. It's been nice having a friend around to cook, play music, and chat with on a decent variety of subjects.
Another such victim, meanwhile, is a loquacious Australian, R, who's both well-spoken while... a bit edgy. This "edginess" of his, actually, strikingly harkens me back to a peculiar comportment I well remember from the nearly nine months recently spent in Oz from October 2008 to June 2009. But it's nevertheless refreshing to hear R generously agree to my assessment regarding the curious, if typical, manner in which so many (native-born) Aussie males ride that fine line of having a (usually, but not necessarily boozy) ball and having a brawl. To this he recounts at length the environment in which he grew up, a classic Aussie coming-of-age tale set in a country town north of Melbourne. For men, he explains, there's just still this predominating boy's club mentality of being on the border of a fight as often as a joke (again, particularly when drinking's involved).
As he speaks, I can't help but think back on my time busking the streets of Oz, recalling the folks I met then, the (mostly) good and the bad. From the bad I came to eventually resolve to play nowhere near places where liquor would be served... or when darkness would soon fall. Everybody and their brother wanted a go at my trumpet, supposedly having played for a year or ten when a "schoolie". Sometimes, however, such initially pleasant conversations would get to the point of someone almost grabbing it from me - or being practically willing to scrap with me if I said no. I'd know from the start to say no, of course - which inevitably led to more than a few "edgy" situations. It's all friendly until it's suddenly not.
In telling his story, meanwhile, R decides to divulge a secret of his. It comes about as we all get around to personal histories and the like (we have time, after all). Apparently he was a national athlete for Oz some years back, even attending (as an alternate and without competing) in a couple of Olympics. Not quite good enough, he dallied once in the steroid world to try and make up the difference, taking stanisol for six weeks once. Not comfortable with needles, his girlfriend would inject it for him. Yep, he doped and got away with it if for no glory - but here he's still feeling guilty about it, years after this dark point in his former career.
But it's also one that he's never felt can be exposed to even a friend, especially true in a small town, where how it might reflect on his family is of the utmost importance. I ask him if that's possibly even still the case, but he isn't sure. Perhaps in simply saying a little, he says, he'd unwillingly be implying a lot more that ISN'T true. A conundrum, to be sure. In any event, he solemnly vows that he never competed on the stuff, a nervous wreck instead who finally stopped when he couldn't get past the guilt of trying it out. As for the effects? THOSE were actually wonderful, performance-wise... and accompanied by all of the well-known side effects from anger to acne. As to the official controls, the testing? Well, he assures me - boys will be boys. All involved apparently typically know the whens, wheres, and hows of the tests, from athlete to trainer to official. Word gets around when and where it needs to.
Locally, his fascination with speed lands him into some trouble - when he crashes a rented moped at high speed. This effects a slide-out that leaves his foot a bit of a mangled mess, best visually summed up by... "yecch!" It needs to be disinfected thoroughly, and the swelling's still growing (and will for a while), too. In the interim he's hobbling about, nothing left of the former sprinter in him for the time being. Fortunately, it's probably not broken, we learn... before he suddenly disappears. Several days pass before we get to the bottom of THAT story, but but by then we're at least apprised that the foot is indeed healing.
Eric is actually somewhat miffed in a professional way, that his offer to help (he has other high-quality medical supplies with him that didn't head to the jungle to be left with the hunter) has been accepted only to be skipped out on, but R has successfully shrouded himself in mystery as we lose track of him. I spot him a couple of times on the back of a local's motorcycle, still with crude bandages on the foot, but that doesn't elicit much more comment than a few "No worries, mate! She'll be right!" - and certainly I'm no one to speak, not after my self-healing episode following a slipped disk the year before in San Agustin. Then again, maybe he's having second thoughts about having divulged his great secret.
Anyway, since I can obviously offer no grand expertise in any of the above matters, all I can do is what I know - which is to play my trumpet... and make lots of quality coffee, which I soon found myself doing lots of. This is especially true since I'm quickly realizing that I've cornered the tiny market of quality coffee drug in town, by now buying the only few packets of quality stuff available in town. The least I can do is share prodigiously, which I do each day at the hostel, holding court with whomever has the good luck to show up when I start "brewing". That this consists of a boiled pot of water and a filter sock stuffed with joe, sometimes fitfully jabbed at by a spoon, is immaterial. I have the GOOD stuff - and no back alley is needed for partaking. Take that, ayahuasca!
One thing I finally get around to doing is a proper walk-through of Tabatinga, that nearby cousin to Leticia I've practically forgotten about. And "Walk" is be the operative word, too, as would be "long". In any event, I undertake this overdue, lazy loop of virtually the entire town, starting from the border to head to the port (and chief mercantile area) before cutting toward the airport and back to the border on the main drag. Whew. It's sunny as hell for this escapade, as usual, and it is for that alone that I perhaps don't glean much interesting information, instead mostly curious as to where the shadows are. But I do find that there's less trash on the ground - even as more open sewage flows as well, under wooden boards that are often placed to drape across the running fluid. Yuck. I also notice that the mayhem at the market and port is a bit greater than in Leticia, making for a little more hubbub, but there's no drawing power beyond that. Nope, I'll rather have to be satisfied with buying chocolate at an outlet store: Apparently many a chocolate company subcontracts out their supplying and labor to Brazil. I DO learn something, after all.
Perhaps as a result of that long walk, by now motorcycles and mopeds have come to sound like a good idea after all: Six of us hostelers decide to set on finding out how. Surely we won't suffer the fate of the Aussie, will we? No, we won't, but the shop where we set ourselves to renting them does bring him to bear regardless - the same place where he'd gone. Apparently, when R committed the damage to his cycle, passerby contacts who helped him on his feet assured him that repairs would run no more than 125000P ($62.50). But he here at the shop he had to go through jumps and hoops to get THEIR estimate of 300000P down to 175000P.
Not that the owner really has much recourse to law, of course. For that, it probably would've helped if he had some paperwork, for example. Or laws even allowing such rentals. But no matter: NOW he DOES stricter procedure in place, so our group leaves names and passport numbers to effect the transaction - even as we still have actually SHOWN nothing. We merely instead only can give repeated assurances that we'll be careful, swearing that we're of character vastly unlike the Aussie in question. Then we're handed over the bikes at 15000CP for three hours per bike: Incredible! Eight dollars for a spin with no legal consequences? Amazing, indeed.
Still, it isn't like there're many places to go. There are the roads to km22 and... well, to Tabatinga. That's about it, unless one maybe includes a shot off of an embankment into the Amazon River. We'll hold off on that, curiously enough, deciding on the nice roll out to the country first, for which I'll finally find that, sure enough, there ISN'T any difference in going from km11 to km22 - just as my previous trip by bus and foot so forcefully suggested. But this time it'll be with a breeze while under motor, a distinctly pleasurable upgrade.
And so happily goes, too, right up until km19 or so - where we run into mud. By km21, we feel sufficiently pushed from our increasingly requirements to push mopeds on foot to turn around. Moreover, the bikes are beginning to bottom out as well in the lumpy road and it looks like we're going to be shortly caught in downpours as we make our way back to town - which is exactly the case off and on over the next 30-40 minutes, even after throwing in a beer stop to momentarily dry out. That cold is nowhere an issue has nothing on the fact that being BLIND is: This rain is really a-comin' down.
As for mishaps, well, the Swiss couple falls over on their bike at low speed. Ker-plunk. But no harm's done there, fortunately no Aussie wipeout rerun at all, even if they nevertheless also get mislaid on the way to Tabatinga as well. But that'll have to pass for excitement on our grand day out. The bikes are soon returned on-time and unharmed; our sextet has gotten a little wind and rain in our respective hairs. And then the REAL rain begins, each of us shuddering to think if we had to make it back in THAT.
This all, by the way, coincides with the brief, if grand "French period" at the hostel. Over some rather singular days, for once I've been finding that it's the language of love that's to be the overriding majority langue. I'm game. I'm glad enough for the practice, too, even if my repeated mangling of words and sentence constructs is something the battered language could do without. But words nevertheless steadily come back, and I feel rewarded by all of us staying "in tongue". Woo woo. It undoubtedly helps, too, that French-speakers are as uniquely preconditioned to speak their own language as Americans are with English (something I've consistently(-enough) found over my travels). Anyway... Vive la France! (... especially since my random forays into German always prove far more embarrassing, even if each such event proves that it's all still there in the noggin - SOMEwhere.)
One place where French comes in handy is in communicating with two French hipsters-sort-of-gone-native, Batiste and Marion. They turn out to be the couple we've been hearing about, abandoned on their broken-down ferry to Tabatinga from Manaus some weeks before. It's taken them nearly thirty days to make their way here, but only as the locals they've met along the way have or haven't (as was more the case) decided to take pity on them. The ferry crew took off only shortly after their mishap, offering no help to stranded passengers in a fitting example of survival of the fittest - as Batiste and Marion begged, bargained, and bartered their way upriver.
For all that, however, Eric immediately dismisses the two as "bobos" (which I take to be French for "f**king wannabe hipsters!"). "But they speak French!" I (only inwardly) argue. And the guy has a guitar! Then again... maybe Eric's correct, after all: Attempts to set up a trumpet-guitar duo are soon repeatedly frustrated when I try outlining chords that he can't pick up for the life of him or his nice-looking guitar. Eventually I resort to telling him to just play what he wants - I'll figure something out. This succeeds in making this beatnik-out-of-season overjoyed, and soon he's singing joyfully away on diddies of French origin as I pitch in stray solos and riffs to accompany his earnestness. And, to be fair, it IS fun in the end - notwithstanding the fact that the elegant charm and beauty of Marion can't be dismissed in adding to the atmosphere. Oui, oo-la-la, and all to that.
The handful of Canadians that show up, on the other hand, are another story, to a one wandering through with a Canadian flag attached to the backs of their packs, of course. Sigh - some things never change. I feel for them, I really do, much as an Aussie might feel for a Kiwi or an Argentine for an Uruguayan, but I don't feel compelled to assure them that they'll be just fine if they relaxed about the deal, either. They'll regardless STILL be confused for Americans, moreover lumped in as gringos hereabouts no matter what. Welcome to the machine, my friends! I DO wonder how long it'll take the entire nation to cast the chip off their shoulder and roll with it. I've long noticed that the ones who do seem to end up... in the U.S.
So I most ignore them, I guess is what I'm saying, instead returning to my wonts such as how, given the the hostel's setting, wildlife of all sorts continue to be so damned interesting. Indeed, long before this brief period of "Oh, Canada,...", I've been finding that their movements make for a pleasing rhythm to the day, starting at 6 or 7 a.m., when I pull out my (silenced) horn for technical drills. That, by the way, is also when I find out that every forgotten crumb of food or drop of juice from the night before is invariably swarming with ants to greet the morning. It isn't that they've taken all night to notice the scraps - the buggers are ubiquitous 24/7 - but their massings by dawn's early light make for actual black, sea-sized smudges of ant-dom.
The birds provide greater fascination for me, however. Of many colors, each has a time of the day in which they find the hostel's grounds of particular interest. The parrots rouse loudly at dawn, unfailingly followed by the brigade of birds that gingerly walk on/in the water and hunt. These flamboyant stalkers come in several colors and sizes, notably of the kingfisher and crane families. Then come the ducks, whose fights and quacking seem to cover the bulk of the day. Their milder companions, the turtles, merely surface and sometimes visibly slink away in fright from them.
At various times fish seem to fly out of the ponds, too, but it's toward sundown that they're typically a bit more visible even while underwater. Eventually I learn how to get some nice views of these half-meter-long aruanas (the pond's been recently stocked with their babies), poor cousins to the region's coveted pirarucu. This sounds particularly hopeful since I knew by now how tasty the piraricu are - even if the aruanas actually look like large eels. Who knows? Whether they ARE true kissing cousins or not will come down to a fish fry as far as I'm concerned.
Come sunset the parrots return, like clockwork, resuming their massively-volumed chirping clatter. They alight on the trees with flurries of aerial acrobatics, swooping in packs up and down before suddenly dropping onto a chosen tree. At random, not always predictable times, something will scare the parrots in ALL of the trees - when a human passes by it's obvious, otherwise generally a mystery - but in either case there follows a blackening of the sky as they re-roost in a renewed outpouring of noise. In only all of several minutes, all of the various flight squadrons relocate their roosts to resettle.
Dusk brings on the bats. They apparently need time to load up their sonar - and maybe their radar, I have no idea - before performing strafing runs for bugs over the ponds. They're difficult to spot, actually, until the water or sky serves as a backdrop, but then they suddenly seem to be everywhere. For their part of the show's act, they mostly squeak a bit for up to an hour as they do their backward wing-sweeping. Then they seem to suddenly disappear, summoning the closing curtain which finally begins to drop with the loud sounds from the crickets and frogs. A last, deafening roar of high-pitched squeaks and chirps eventually fills the air, then... nothing. Almost, anyway - the jungle never fully sleeps - But I will, content to look forward to another cycle of wild-sound. Such exuberant pulses of nature remind why I'm in the area in the first place.
Of all the rhythms mentioned above, one activity I take a less-than-passive interest in is the daily hunt performed by a large garza (crane). Arriving each day without fail, it moves its massive frame in lurches as it walks extremely slowly over the weeds and reeds of the pond... and then stops. In apropos moments, it next then slowly lowers its body, extends its neck forward... and freezes. Intense concentration follows, then - and from the right angle you can actually watch its entire body quiver in anticipation - it strikes like lightning. Wings fully spread in a flash of white lightning, as it thrusts its beak under the water to came out with a tiny fish. There seems to be one of these strikes about every five minutes or so, perfect television to watch as I play intervals and scales under a slowly warming jungle sun.
On one occasion, and serving effectively as a unique, "jungly" fare, a bowl of mojojoi is brought to the hostel. Good god, what ARE these jumbo crawlers?, we all wonder, not yet understanding the purpose of the delivery. A number of us guests take turns staring at them, giggling as they propel themselves about actively... and then we, well, eat them. Okay, this has been encouraged, almost forcefully: Apparently these massive grubs of the rainforest are a delicacy, or so G insists - and who are we to disagree? To my palate, however, one's puh-lenty enough. Sure, I'm proud to merely swallow the thing, somehow - especially after my teeth had cut through its thin leather skin into the gooshy goop inside - but this tastes like... like... no chicken I particularly want to eat. Ever.
Ah, exotic stuff! No, not the mojojoi! I'm jabbering about the one Greek guy who comes by the hostel, a scholar living in Amsterdam: When have I ever seen a Greek in Latin America before? (The answer: Never.) His curiosity of origin actually ensures that he'll get to experience a slightly different Leticia than the rest of us gringos, especially intriguing to any local finding out that he doesn't come from the typical countries of U.S.-Canada, Oz-Kiwiland, Northern/Western Europe, or the rest of South America. When a Bulgarian (an insufferable man) and a Turkish-Bulgarian (a boisterous, infectious hoot of a constantly-laughing woman) next arrive as well, all I can figure is that here we have ample proof that other countries beyond the usual suspects are finally on the economic march.
But they're still a sideshow as, leading into Christmas, my final cohort takes on a decidedly American-Canadian-Aussie look. Two Aussies from Canberra try to kill their plane-waiting time with learning how to play chess; the Californian nurse from Humboldt unceasingly looks for her next salsa venue each night; the Canadian nuclear plant worker spins yarns of the ice fishing he's missed out on. True, none of us are being overwhelmingly taken in by this town, to be sure, but we're all nevertheless enjoying the respite it provides from the rest of the planet. Since we all can't leave until Christmas, we'd better learn to like each other enough - which we do. Booze helps, too.
As for the name-dropping, nonstop story-weaving Dutch-American (wannabe) actor from NYC? He unwittingly gives all of, and in particular the chess-playing Canberrans, a good laugh. From near their beds they nightly stuff giggles, too, as he repeatedly tries to wheedle everyone's favorite Turkish-Bulgarian into sleeping with him - as in au natural, right there in the dormitory with the rest of us. While actually accomplishing said deed surely wouldn't be to the further amusement of all, this phony gives us plenty of conversation fodder ad nauseam - and "nausea" is indeed the appropriate word with regards to the fellow.
But all of these various characters pale in comparison to host G as a human sideshow attraction. Indeed, as so many travelers come through the compound, numerous folks have their "interesting" run-ins with the man in charge - just as I often do. Many come to wonder, naturally, how or why I'm staying so long under his dominion, some suggesting I even deserve a medal. Well, to that I can only say yes, sure, and that it should be made of gold, but hopefully what follows below (to show how I do merit it) won't read as too much the rant that it admittedly is. That I bring down the petty rainclouds I can only blame myself for, but things SHOULD be different in the middle of the largest jungle in the world, right? Right?!?
Maybe. As to WHY I stay so long, let me straight up cop to laziness... and a good practice space. It's hard to find a place while traveling where I can both play an un-muted trumpet and stay IN TOWN. Since I prefer to not move around much, that limits the number as well. BUT that doesn't mean that I don't seriously think on numerous occasions about pulling out and setting up stakes elsewhere. It's just that... yeah, what a bother! Granted, it isn't like it wouldn't be far simpler to not manage a temperamental, possibly bi-polar personality (my unprofessional take), and that would be an unquestionably preferable situation. But each time a downright curmudgeonly exchange happens between us, it's shortly followed by a helpful and friendly one, another chunk of time bought by my giving in to "Aw... what the heck!" Since one NEVER knows when the next sour mood will come in G's case, hope is always alive that it won't.
Even on the cusp of my departure he drops a zinger, accusing me of not being an entirely honest man. I'm "pretty" honest, he judges, but not "entirely". "Huh?", I ask, pray tell give me an example? I owe him for a tamale and a beer the day before, he suggests. That he had generously waved the beer over during a large meal put together for all by an Italian woman and myself, or that he offered the tamale as free, are details that fall to the wayside in revisionist history. Offering to pay, with him refusing, doesn't resolve the matter, either. Ergo, I'm dishonest. Hmmm, well it IS easier to sit in judgement that way. I think it's also called entrapment or some such, but maybe doing ayahuasca 50 times (as he states he has) and getting stoned every day has deleterious effects after all. I can only sigh. Sigh. An-n-n-nd... sigh.
But there's plenty more of these shenanigans, such as G's maddening alternation between being extremely difficult to track down to pay for room or board ("too busy!") and then later appearing out of the blue with demands to do just that ("You think you don't have to pay?!?"). I think this how bi-polar can be defined, but I'm not a psychiatrist. Sometimes he thinks he's busy, sometimes he actually is, but mostly it just appears that he just isn't in the mood. Guests are hounded out of the blue about outstanding beer bills from his sort-of help-yourself bar, an almost nightly occurrence when he leaves the bar open and no one wants to walk to town. We jot our transgressions down on a scrap of paper in the meantime to be hunted down as miscreants later.
When we DO buy booze in town, our host grousingly complains that we should be using his open bar - even as he refuses or forgets to stock it in any kind of timely fashion. After initial complaints that a few of us have brought aguardiente and rum into his bar on one occasion, we good-naturedly proceed to wipe out his stock... to never see them again replaced on the shelf. Us spoiled brats can only hold up our hands in anguish, now again having to walk to town for a refill, unanimously agreeing that we'd be THRILLED if he had the stuff, mark-up and all: No greater tourist frustration can be had in a boiling spot on the planet than nothing cold to drink. He'd make a killing selling beer alone! Are we grouchy? You bet your ass.
The compound's natural setting as a reason to stay is a particular plus to consider, the necessary daily walks to town notwithstanding (admittedly alongside open sewage, an unattractive proposition). Also, as THE hostel of record in town (the first and biggest by far), here I can hopefully bank on more musicians coming through than elsewhere. Ironically, it's my horn playing that fortunately works - and reworks - as a selling point to G as well, especially liking it when I play Latin ballads while happily bragging to incoming guests about the trumpeter-in-residence. Such laudatory moments stand in stark contrast to those later times, when he raises an eyebrow and curl a lip over a new and likely transgresson, but I do quickly learn to call him on his accusations dead blank - to which he always backs down, accusations without proof being awfully easy to make yet much harder to substantiate.
But I'll never fully be able to understand what makes this enigmatic man tick, however obvious insecurity seems to be a key component. He's studied philosophy to some extent, but this education only seems a crutch, a way out in saying further discussion of a matter is "too deep" (for us uninitiated) - when he's likely just not interested in the topic, or has nothing interesting to add. These are opportune moments for him to use jargon that no one outside of a philosophy student could - or would want to - understand. No, we don't know those terms, but yes, such use is condescending.
On subjects where any of us DO know more than him, and it shows, he walks away. Otherwise he casually dismisses the ability of others to understand a variety of subjects, his sneer leaving little space for anyone who might want to pursue the point under discussion. Meanwhile, to each guest that comes in and rubs him the wrong way, possibly even challenging him, he later confide to me (as the long-staying guest I guess I have some kind of "rank") that they only THINK they're smarter than him. Hmm, I think... as I raise the trumpet to my mouth to play another tune. I really DO enjoy playing the trumpet without a mute!
As the litany of complaints I hear over the weeks grows, many of the guest just as often express how they want to (or do) like G in spite of himself. I do, too, which makes the whole situation the more tragic. In the meantime, however, he'll continue to mistakenly read his hostel ledger. time and again making a new mistake with a guest's details and then accusing them of dishonesty. He similarly views the bits of paper us guests leave at the bar to track down our beers, literally accusing us of taking more minus any proof as to why he thinks so. He just has a... knowing... suspicion.
A woman to whom he loans socks to makes for a particularly pathetic victimization. She hangs the filthy things out of her room immediately after returning from the jungle, hoping to temporarily avoid their smell as she attend to other things. He picks them up in the interim matter of hours before she can attend to them again, of course, not passing up fodder with which he can accuse her of not respecting him and returning them laundered. The poor girl stands flabbergasted as he rants away, yet another jaw to drop in surprise at an accusation that under normal circumstances would start as a question. They're SOCKS, fer chrissakes!, I feel like screaming at him. And I should, but I'm wearing down as well.
Nevertheless, almost all of us victims do exactly as I do - we stay on. Each of us, in our flustered moments of G-dom, weigh picking up our packs for only a matter of days or a week, foremost thinking of possibly losing contact with the friends we've been making in the compound. Few of us have mobile phones that can work here, the obvious means to keep up the thread of communication, whereas we know that we'll each see each other come night or morning in the compound. Plus, when it all comes down to it, we can put up with some stupid bullshit for $10-$12 a night. Cheapness. Laziness. Whatever.
The locals, however, are far less likely to put up with G's antics for too long, and I notice that the compound workers tend to steadily leave - and typically without notice. Entrenched in the local community, and having with other, less cantankerous options at their disposal, they up and leave when they've had enough of being berated. All are in turn accused of not being up to snuff at some or other, confrontations I witness that make me frankly cringe at times, especially when it sure looks like they work their asses off to me. Instead, over long hours and sometimes under the blazing sun, they have to listen to this harsh voice tell them how crappy a job they're doing - especially unfair when he often doesn't specify what exactly he wants in the first place.
I miss them all after they take their sudden leaves, each incredibly friendly and helpful. Luisa was a treasure, for example, both a font of local knowledge and only ever upbeat - and she furthermore won't even stoop to say a word against G when I bump into her on the streets later. As for the indigenous girl, the one who only smiles and sets to her work on my first days of arrival? She's mysteriously gone one day, the first "failure" I witness. Or what about the man from Cali, who digs massive holes like a maniac to make a cistern, humming under the sun's blast, always quick with a smile and happy to chat as he plugs away without skipping a beat? One morning near the end, I see that he and his family have cleared out in the middle of the night. In fact, the only one to out-survive me come Christmas is the one who invariably hollers "Algo huele rico!" (Something sure smells good!) when she passes me by in the kitchen. But she's been around even less than I have, yet already talking mutiny on the eve of my departure. Gems all - exhibiting to me always the same qualities G notes to me when he hires them - none is good enough in the end. When I defend their loss, G merely dismisses my observations with a shake of his head. One can only wonder how long it'll be before he's inevitably alienated the entire workforce of the town.
In all of this, the only REAL guilt I feel (along with the rest of the disgruntled guests) lies in having given G my money for so long. Yet it's difficult to merely despise the guy, even for all his annoying faults. He's been nice many times, too - normal, in other words. I genuinely like this intelligent tyrant, enjoying numerous interesting conversations with him and easily acknowledging his experience in the area as of unquestionable value - especially when he's as charming and carefree as he can be. Knowing that those times exist makes the stay overall reasonably tolerable - if somehow tragic as well, when looking at the whole.
Still, when I make ready to leave, I won't agree with his final assessment. Having shown similar interests in the history of the Amazon and literature, surely we'll meet again, he insistingly tells me. I don't have the heart, however, to say no, I KNOW that I won't be running into him again. I'm not a perpetual juggler at heart, and the time has come to move on to Medellín and reenter the rest of the world again. I might run into some of the OTHER friends I've made at the hostel, ojala, and maybe I'll even stay there as long. But as for the odds of staying at a hostel similarly run with a dose of insanity? Zero. There's only one Amazon.
More pictures from around Puerto Nariño:
More pictures from around Leticia:
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