Thursday 3 December 2009

Finally in Iquitos

Something so sophisticated as a traffic lane, doesn't exist on the roads of Iquitos. In this town, whose population varies wildly according to different sources (1 million according to a local in Lagunas; a local from Iquitos claims 600,000; Lonely Planet: 460,000; the city's official web-site: "261,648 habitantes aproximadamente"), mototaxis hurl along the streets, squeezing themselves into every empty space. Three, four abreast, they block the rare cars that are like clumsy giants, stuck traffic and surrounded by the little taxis riding motorcycles. It's amazing how much a mototaxi can transport: huge clusters of bananas; a stack of ten plastic garden chairs; flowers in colorful pots; long planks of wood and two meter long metal pipes. Plus passengers, of course. Scattered amongst this horde of three-wheeled vehicles, one can spot speeding scooters from time to time. Sometimes a young child sits in front of its father, who steers the scooter, without helmets or belts, and sometimes the child is behind its father and in front of its mother, the trio crammed together as they race along the streets. Aside from young men, one can also see women on scooters: the younger ones steering, while the older ones, dressed in skirts, let their elegantly closed legs hang off to one side, riding side-saddle behind them.

Iquitos is ugly: grey, shabby, noisy, full of the mediocre buildings so typical for South America, where only the facade is painted or decorated while the rest stays unfinished. I totally cannot understand why Bjarni likes it here. It is true, here we eat good pizza instead of thin broth made of chicken neck, in our room we have the internet instead of grasshoppers, "a shower" means warmth instead of a bucket of ice-cold river water, but I just don't feel welcomed as I felt in Lagunas. The children don't run towards me, asking for a picture, the adults don't smile at me at every step, "Buenos dias" doesn't reach my ears on the street, no cook looks at me with the hope that I will like her soup.

The Amazon, which Iquitos overlooks, is big and brown and full of piranhas and crocodiles: one cannot swim in it. Belén, a floating neighborhood, looks sad: the river hasn't flooded the raft-houses yet, it is too dry, so all there is to do is walk between hovels, past outhouses lined up behind shacks on stilts, among people with sad faces, their whispers echoing behind you: "Peligro, peligro.. Hide your camera, it is dangerous here..". The Bellavista Nanay port greets us with a flock of touts offering rides on boats they don't even own, and with beer in a bar whose walls are painted with ladies flaunting naked breasts and seductive hips. In Peru, when we want to buy two beers (one each), waitresses apparently mishear something: we always get one beer to share, the second one has to be requested again, later. It is no different in this bar, though our waitress does venture a shy smile when, for the third time, she comes to wipe our table clean of the water that has condensed off our cold beer bottle. An unplanned visit to the Bora tribe, North of Iquitos, leaves me with a feeling of disgust: for a stiff price men and women dressed only in skirts dance their traditional dances for us. The reality of these dances is a sad display of Indians completely bored with theater for tourists: three steps to the right, three steps to the left, to every single dance; one of the girls has her toe-nails painted, as if she awaits an evening party in town; the second one chews gum; the singing is muffled and unclear; above our heads a group of men in jeans thatch the roof. After this display, we are surrounded by our dancers, jostling and desperately offering trinkets for sale.

Pilpintuwasi, Quechuan for "Butterfly Farm", is the only place worth visiting in Iquitos. Monkeys run slowly around the green grounds, parrots perch in the trees, crocodiles swim in the pond, and little turtles dry themselves in the sun. All the animals here are victims of bad treatment, rescued and recovering in this place. Tony the Piranha, a brown capuchin, is a local troublemaker: he jumps on the wire mesh of the butterfly incubator, trying to catch and eat them, sometimes he mistakes a male monkey for a female - and he is very charming. Apparently, I am surprisingly popular with the monkeys here, as two of them climb to my shoulders: Tony the Piranha is sweet when he wraps his tail around my arm; Chavo on the other hand, a red bald-headed uakari, scares me when after five minutes of pulling my hair and making angry faces, doesn't want to stop.

After so many days in the humid, tropical climate I cannot wait to leave the jungle. I don't know if, if it weren't for the fact that we spent two weeks being sick in Yurimaguas, I would enjoy our little adventure more. For now I am tired and look forward to Lima. We are not getting on a boat again, we are flying instead.

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