Into the Floodlands, After the Flood
Of all the flying time and waiting time and crowded airport scenes involved in getting to Peru, a place as far from my house in distance as the Hawaiian Islands, I give only one memory. Out the sunset window to the west coming down the side of the earth I watched columnar clouds take on the breaking light and disperse it in great beams. And down below them the ocean surface was so clear and calm it seemed impossible but I could see a zig zag grouping of islands that boundaried the continental fall off into deep water. The steep slope down into the deep was visible. Painted scree slopes of underwater sand fell off in long spreading triangles of paler color. The slopes cascaded the falloff sands down and down until the darkest waters took it all—into fathoms of deep sea way below the water surface and certainly way below my skybound self. I wondered what it would be like to stand on one of those far off barrier islands and gaze on the open flat seas and such a sky. I wanted to find this place later on Google. I am not sure I can. All other airport and flight moments seemed unimportant comparatively. I did not lose any belts. I remember trying to phone snap some shots out the window of this brief meeting of ocean and light. Surely I failed in comparison to what our local star painted out my window.
Iquitos, we are told, at the end of all the air travel, is a city of six hundred thousand including all the surrounding area. This is information from Donaldo our Tahuayo employee who meets us after the airport pick up. We have a large comfortable bus with tall windows and we are highly distracted by the city street views winging by outside. This city cannot make up its mind between deluge and sunshine. I can see fog to the west and broken light. The airport that we saw appeared to be unprepared to manage a city of this size. Though no doubt a great many of these people here never consider going off to ride in an airplane. On most days, I am with them. Most North Americans in fact never fly. Passport rates in the US hovered just above 15 % until they made them necessary to enter Canada and Mexico. Now they are near 45 %. Meaning over half of US residents never leave their own country. They never think of leaving their own country. They head, I suppose to Disneyworld and the Grand Canyon.
But maybe many others here in Iquitos do fly but only down to Lima or Cuzco for local business or family matters. I know not. Peru is a large land mass. You can fly for hours and still land on another airport in Peru. Iquitos itself is a city known for having no roads outside its own boundaries. No real roads in or out anyway. “Let’s drive to the mountains,” is not an option. Supposedly there is a local road from there to Nauta, a drive of about 100 km southward. What that road looks like I have no idea. But otherwise Iquitos is tangled up on the maps by three great rivers including the beginning stretches of the long Amazon. If you walk off somewhere from this city in any direction, you are going to get wet. It was really damn wet in May and June of this year. And western Amazonia is one great floodplain really. So if you want to get anywhere from Iquitos you need a boat or an airplane, perhaps a chopper if you are rich enough or work the river zones for the Peruvian government as your day job.
Automobiles seem rare enough as we rip across town toward our own boat. The streets are more oriental in appearance than anything due to the overwhelming number of three wheeled taxis. These are the autorickshaws or more commonly in Spanish: motocarros. The main road through town is one way north and another south and there seem to be no marked lanes. It is a four lane swarm of bees moving in woven disorder. And we are the square beetle lumbering in the middle of the mix. The road randomly shrinking to two lanes or three as flow dictates. The rickshaws nearly equaled in number by normal motorcycles with two wheels. The majority of the rickshaws are powered by Honda motors and to my eye there appears to be a complex group of chains connecting everything underneath to keep them moving forward. At the side of the road, with some frequency, the owners would just roll the whole contraptions up on their sides like chaindriven beetles and work beneath them. There must be entire enterprises here living off the sale and repair of chains. It was a hectic traffic scene in the eyes of this American. Roadside cafes and popsicle stands, shaved ice maybe? But the locals clearly considered this roadway activity as just part of life: small children yawning in the back of rickshaw seats. One motorcycle had a very well dressed young woman on the back with her legs crossed comfortably to one side. She was wearing a skirt, white hose and black shoes, looked ready for church, and her place in the dizzy flow of things should be the picture in the dictionary next to the word oblivious or distracted. She was lovely in this uncaring status, gazing across to wherever else her thoughts went in the traffic, totally trusting her driver.
Amazonia Expeditions (AE) has a main office in town with their own dock access. It is a fine thing to have in the waterbound city. And AE is the name for the whole company that is managed by Paul Beaver and Dolly Shapiama his Peruvian wife, one part of which was the Tahuayo lodge and the Amazon Research Centers that we were headed towards. (Their story is too long to retell here but please go to the links.) They hand us a snack which is a finely made sandwich of some fruit and eggs and meat while we await our boat departure. A slight drizzle is still falling out on the deck out back. The first birds of our trip other than Black Vultures seen from the descending airplane are in front of us coursing over the waterways. Music sounds from somewhere south. Ranks of boats are trailing off in that direction to the right and also to the left. Cooking smells waft from somewhere close. Some locust relation of a tree towers over the side of the decking we stand on. My broad hat is on, the one that has come with me to five countries now. Our binoculars have been freed from our carryon luggage at last, we scan the birds and find they are Large-billed Terns (Phaetusa simplex). Immediately they appear like Sabine’s Gulls in patterning. But I learn there are essentially no gulls on this end of the Amazon, this bird serving to fill that niche. True gulls favor salt water in most places. Flocks of these terns work the closer waters. Far across the bay/river Great Egrets dot the shallows we can see through the fog. We meet Alfredo there on the deck, our guide for the next week. He looks fit and has the excellent skin tone of someone born in Iquitos. On the bus ride we met Stephanie, another guest who is also headed towards the lodge, accompanied by her own guide, the young and exuberant Donaldo who shepherded us all across town from the airport on the bus.
The boat, down the winding stairs, looks like it could hold ten or twelve or more. We are six with our guides and the driver who is up front. He is a stocky man with a kind smile, though he looks like he could tear my limbs off if necessary. Or paddle this sizable boat single handedly. Possibly with one of my limbs. I am not a troublemaker however. I am happy to be here. We launch and head north for a short run to reach the actual Amazon itself. This east side shore line of Iquitos is to our west along a widened portion of another river. It is a bay on the map that is shaped like a baby dragon. The shoreline is a jumbled array of structures alien and flotsam. Or partially flotsam. It is tough to tell a boat from a permanent structure. Tough to tell a dock from a stairway, and where the stairways lead: to a boat or a non-boat or a former boat. It has the thrown together beauty of a human collective masterwork that is never quite finished. We shoot out the top of the baby dragons head and hang a right onto the mighty river itself and turn slowly south. The structures out there are all on the real river making headway toward somewhere else. It is Bo and my first time on the actual Amazon and we try to compare it to the raging Napo from last year in spring. It was high water time then in May. This August river is the diminishing Amazon but it is still over a mile wide at the point we enter. This great river forms in Peru and touches that little angular foot that drops down from Columbia before it winds east across the massive country of Brazil to the Atlantic ocean. This river is of course superlative in many measures. It is known the world over as being the largest river on the planet by the amount of water flowing through it. In Peru itself it only reaches 1/5 of its discharge size but it feeds more water across the landscape after this than the next seven largest independent rivers in the world. In the wet season it reaches widths of 30 miles in Brazil. We are coursing over just a 40 or 50 mile length of it on this day against the currents.
Rain batters the windshield for awhile making it seem quite daunting to dodge all the vegetation and random logs that are out there but our driver seems unconcerned. This is the safer time of year. He stretches a hand out now and then to test the rain levels. Eventually we roll up the plastic sheet side covers and have a full open view east and west out of the boat. The river traffic comes into better focus and ranges from frighteningly diminutive to Mad Max; the River Version. Some large boats look too unworldly to float, listing and leaking as they go. Our boat seems fine and fast. And it does not seem long before we turn into the Tahuayo river itself and make our way down smoother and quieter blackwater.
We pass more local water traffic then and soon some true riverine villages. Some of the canoes and small boats are powered by pequepeques, the long armed prop motors that allow one to jump your prop completely out of the water when necessary. These craft often give us waving drivers that wobble in our wake. Our own boatman slows for any and all including the several village shorelines we pass on the way to the main lodge. Alfredo points out the children in small canoes who wait crosswise in the river for boats like ours. They want to ride the rippling wake waves, the only surf in town on this otherwise calm surface. One boy proudly holds up a large silvery fish and we give him a thumbs up. The river Tahuayo is a curving line on the map and it looks like we travel maybe 30 or 40 miles down this river on the internet overhead views I scanned before our trip. The villages themselves were visible in google mapping world as well. Each one seemingly built around a central quadrangular opening that was, of course, the village soccer fields.
Bo and I are bird people so we watch attentively for the river bird life on the way. Herons and raptors and kingfishers pepper the close shoreline. We crane and stretch. This area of Peru is one of the most concentrated bird zones in the world as far as total bird species. Nearly 1 in 5 of the world’s birds are in Peru itself. And about 600 of them hang around Tahuayo. The Ringed Kingfishers ride up and over like they are on rails trying to avoid the boat. Rattling the deep rattle, this is the largest kingfisher in South America and seems common along this blackwater snake of a river. The loveliest Heron in Peru also flutters up as we pass—the Capped Heron, a study in creams and whites and blues with the long breeding feathers atop its head in clear display.
It takes less time than expected when distracted and soon enough we are slowing for the approach to the Tahuayo Lodge which sits in a sweeping left hand curve on the west bank of the river. It is all thatched roof and stilts sitting high up in the trees. The river has retreated down inside its actual bank below the lodge, down from the May and June floods. The structure seems an amazing creation to be this far out in the wild. We are happy to climb out the front door and up the ramp to what we have anticipated for many months. We are welcomed in the communal dining area with a cool juice and given the lay of the lodge overview. Railed walkways lead in all directions. The rooms are in one direction, the “Wi-Fi” room in another, the “hammock” room in another: everything with raised views of the jungle and the river. Stephanie and Bo and I have mostly the run of the place for that day. Some student volunteers are there as well helping with the local construction projects and the manatee rescue project. Even slightly unpeopled the place seems busy. New lodge stilts are going up behind the current rooms: the expansion of a successful place.
We spent our hours before the first sunset walking around the lodge and checking out our immediate neighbors. Our bird and butterfly neighbors I mean. Sunset as always in the tropics near the equator is pretty close to 6 PM. You have a view up and down the river from the front stairs and the dock which juts out and vanishes in the water below some overhanging trees. There are some flowering shoreline shrubs next to the dock and a Glittering-throated Emerald feeds there actively making that electric noise it makes. It seems to always be around. The Yellow-tufted Woodpecker pair was usually noisily about as well. The lodge pet birds are the Black-fronted Nunbirds. Jet black things with a bright orange beak, even the non-bird people would note them when they fluttered up on the railings and gave you the eyeball. They sometimes caught Katydids so large it looked like a green extension of their heads. They seemed too large to swallow but these tame birds always seemed to manage, sometimes thrashing the big insects thoroughly on the railing before they were heads up and gone.
At sundown the wading birds were lofting over in flying wedges and broken groupings. Hundreds of Great Egrets often shifted northward at this time towards a night roost somewhere. Alfredo did not know where. Cocoi Herons and Cattle Egrets followed them. Cormorant flocks and the always present Cobalt-winged Parakeets and Mealy Parrots also seemed to move at dusk. Down river north the Plumbeous Kites came out to feed gracefully over the water, taking dragons out of the swarm. The Nunbirds made crescendo decrescendo rackets out of tune with the Trogons. Everyone seemingly going someplace before the time of the cicadas and the frogs.
We go early to the village at dawn in a short boat ride. We are going to walk around it looking for birds. But we quickly find the awakening life of the village is far more interesting. Long covered walkways connect across permanent water channels. Gaps and jags in the flooring leave long drops into the foliage and water below. We stand above them, imagining. Alfredo says it discourages late drinking. Parrots fly and one tree is full of the Short-tailed Parrot, a beautiful green bird in a genus of its own. Through my binoculars I can see the secondaries are lined and etched with yellows making patterns on their backs. They seem to like the village life. The soccer field up close looks like it has been mortared. Like the teams gave up on footwork and took to true armory and weapons. It may have had something to do with the flood. We are not sure. Long handmade benches stretch along the west side of the field. Oh to see a vibrant game played out here in such a place, mortars or not.
We walk under and behind one row of houses because our driver says someone has seen a Sunbittern in the back. It is a beautiful skulky bird of the water edges. I have seen only one other of its kind in Costa Rica. We keep our eye out for it as we lean against a handmade fence in the shade of some blooming tree we don’t know the name of. A large laden sow stirs and grumbles over to give us a closer look and soon she is followed by four piglets on the run. I look into the nearest blooms above me that are large and red with complex stamens and deep cups and I see a Parakeet there just ten feet or so away. It is meticulously removing whole flowers and holding them in its feet while it drinks the nectar inside. You can see it working its tongue through the diaphanous wall of the blooms. It drops the spent nectaries and chooses another, repeatedly. It seems to be the only parakeet in the tree. This must be its secret morning place, a sweet-toothed bird taking time for itself.
We circle the whole village, attracting little attention. We see a woman laughing as she carries a rooster under her right arm. The children smile shyly. Boats come and go down the long banks to the water. On every house you can see the waterline mark of the flood, generally about 8 to 10 inches above the living level. At its peak the place was just partial structures jutting above the vast flood. Alfredo says the families slept in the attics for the six or seven weeks of high water in May and June. They floated rafts outside the windows to hold the chickens and the dogs close by. Where the big pig stayed I cannot say. How they cooked is unclear. But now everything looked happy and laughing, new stairs going down the banks, men chopping the weeds beneath theirs houses with a sharp machete. Admirable, the rebounding, on this bright morning.
In the lowlands, the hummingbirds are like miracle events. They do not hang feeders here like they do in the mountains. The insects and bees are too attentive. The villagers have better things to do. But here at Tahuayo and the surrounding woods there are about 20 or so species, several of them rare. All of them mysteriously connected to the flowering seasons, the flora and the vines, the canopy, the floods and the fall of the great trees. The code is deep and complicated. No one I think has worked out whether these birds evolved in the mountains and moved to the lowlands or the other way around. The numbers vote for the highlands. It may not be an essential question, especially when you are watching one fly. But in Amazonia whenever we walk accidentally within one of their orbits here one shouts or whispers “hummer” at the sound of the wings or the chipping noises they make going by. Everyone freezes and watches. Usually it is a hermit of some kind. The beautiful Reddish Hermit being the most common after our experience. But once on a trail I shout hummer and stop to look above me in a shaft of light, around another cluster of flowers that are unknown in name and I see a Jewelfront feeding and turning in the brighter air. It is blowing motes of pollen and dust with its airflow. Alfredo is right there next to me, and after a silence he whispers, “it is so beautiful.” It perches briefly, feeds again and is gone. None of us thought to lift our cameras. I knew it was a Gould’s Jewelfront but Alfredo afterward said, “for a few seconds, after it appeared, I could not speak.” He had never seen one. He was born in Iquitos and spends most of his life here now in the jungle. I nodded. I am glad he has seen it with us. As I said, visitations, long remembered. We show Alfredo the bird in the book later back at the lodge.
We take a quiet canoe ride on another morning. Alfredo and I and Bo in the small canoe, the waterline is less than an inch below the brim of our small boat. Alfredo gives it a good look at the dock and then pushes off. “We will be fine”, he says. And I believe him. Though I still keep my arms close and we all make small movements as we slide along the shoreline just after dawn. Without motor noise, the sounds of the forest are dreamy and lush. The Undulated TInamous make their whistled call every direction, near and far. It is a defining sound for the area along with the Howler Monkey roars and the wild breathless hoots and pumpings of the Titi monkeys. The long scream of the Great Black Hawk is like no sound we knew before. The birds are more trustful of this small three headed river monster. It is a quiet beast for the most part. We edge right up to some Antshrikes and flycatchers. The kingfishers give us odd glances, no doubt untrustful of our riverworthiness. They know not what we are. It is easy to think I would take a canoe out everyday if I lived here on this perpetually calm water. And truly it seems like every man woman and child owns a boat of some kind in this land of rivers.
At the Amazon Research Center (the ARC) the trails are laid out in grids. Alfredo knows them like a man knows his own yard. There are a few marking posts with the trails running one direction in the alphabetics and in the other the numericals. They can be relatively straight but I am daunted by the checkerboard layout. It is what our fine guide Alfredo is here for however. I have carried the paperback slim volume I own called “Distribution and Phylogeography of Neotropical Primates” here in my luggage. It is a slim bible of monkey distribution in South America. I have looked through it countless times. I know the monkey names. I feel about monkeys as I do parrots and whales. You are privileged every time, in their presence. Here, in the grid, when you hear monkeys, you can weave your way around the trails, right left and right, to try and reach them. In the unmarred jungle this is not possible. Not an argument for marking up the whole world but still. And on our afternoon walk there, stalking the grid with Alfredo, with his hawklike ears, he hears some Monk Sakis. Pithecia species. The monkeys with the dense woolen jackets. We saw some in a brief breathless chase in eastern Ecuador last year. Our guide Rodrigo, at the time, whispered something inaudible to me and took off up the terra firme hill out of sight. They are here again in the Peruvian woods and wary, a different species. And I have to make my way carefully through brush and vines to see them going away like ghosts in the canopy. I get to hear their many vocalizations. It is my privilege once again. I have not yet seen a youngster. It is a reason, among many, to come back.
We do hear many groups of Titi Monkeys (Callicebus cupreus in this area) during our stay. The common names are poorly established but the Coppery Titi is the best choice for now in this area, though it is more red than copper. The sounds they make as I said are surely one of the defining sounds of the western Amazon now that I have heard it in Ecuador and in Peru. (Bo’s recording of them on one of our walks is here.) They are a bit more trusting than the Saki or the Brown Capuchins and when they are singing their beautiful group song that says this is ours, do not cross our boundaries, they often cannot hear us approaching. They are mostly rufous and dark with silvery long tails. The tails are not prehensile like the Wooly or the Spider Monkeys. This does not, however, seem to slow them down. Like many of the monkeys here they mate for life. For them this may be somewhere in the 20 year range, they are not large monkeys. In the book, the geography is such that whenever you cross large rivers anywhere over the swath of the heart of South America you will find a different appearing Titi monkey. Though they all likely sound close to the same: the White-coated, the Ashy black, the Chestnut-bellied. Really one wants to go hear them all. I hope we save room for them in their own world. Peru seems to be trying. Brazil, I am not sure.
Coffee at the ARC is dark in the morning. It seems to take a heavy charge of the canned creamed milk and not change at all. Pour enough in and it mimics the meeting of the Tahuayo and the Blanco rivers in a swirl. The staggered levels of walkway landings outside the ARC lead down to the boat dock. The array of boats there is sometimes decorated with butterflies: Julia and Heliconian and daggerwing. They look for fish oils, for human sweat, sources of essential nutrients. The tree above the landings and behind rooms #1 and #2 hold a Cacique nest colony that hangs empty from the last breeding season. The carefully woven sacks stand empty. Only one male cacique has decided it is time again. And each morning he shakes himself up into a ball of yellow and black and gives it everything he has. He chirs and rattles, whacks and squawks, he rat-a-tat-tats. This is the bird that I had listened to well before we came to this place in online recordings and described as “a parrot torturing a monkey with a taser.” It still seems about right. Out over the water an Emerald Hummingbird flycatches delicately from the riverside brush. The surface of the water is alive like rain is falling. Several times during the trip this water makes me hold out my hand even under the clearest skies just to check. The great Macaws roll over with that raw deep sound of theirs. The local Caracara comes to check the canoes for fish scraps, storming the butterfies up in a colored cascade. Some days this raptor is lucky. Some days he plucks at nothings in the bottom of the boat. The world surprises us all, gives and takes.
Alfredo has assessed Bo and me after a few days jungle walking and he has determined that we may go on the long trek to the blackwater lake. It is not for the soft of foot. But we are game for anything. Released from work and the real world we are game for camping out there if we must. AE started out as a wilderness camping company many years ago. We will walk out and back, however, today. We wish Stephanie could go. She could walk us down. We leave early. We bring a lunch. We are slow walkers when faced with all the jungle can show us. And indeed the first quarter mile of trail (after we go up river another half hour by boat) requires full concentration. Logs across sucking mud. Imbedded holding poles, delicate footwork necessary. We try to keep the top of our boots above the deep. We mostly succeed. I crack one imbedded pole completely off in a misstep and Alfredo cuts me a walking stick after this. A hawk watches over me like I may be prey soon. But we reach higher ground with our efforts. I can park my stick. And beyond: more birds and monkeys, wilder jungle than I have known.
We hear the knocking sound of wood on wood, like we have found a woodland carpenter. Alfredo smiles, he knows the maker: a group of Brown Capuchins (genus Sapajus) are hammering cannonball fruit on a limb to break them open. They also make the beautiful whistling call. They are very wary. Alfredo whispers and points. These are likely the most intelligent of the Tahuayo area primates. As with most monkeys the first discovery is often their sound and then you can just detect brush moving or the falls of rainwater where they shake the trees in their goings. The underbrush ahead of me is less dense here, less spikey. And I make a course away from the trail toward the sounds. Alfredo lets me go. They have not detected us yet. I have to do some gymnastics around some vine loops but I find a view through to some great palm leaves. And I see nothing but sky beyond and then a cautious Capuchin walks right out on the top of a palm leaf arch, it is carrying a large youngster on its back. The mother pauses as if sensing something and turns her head to look directly at me through our long leafy corridor. I do not move but I see her recognizing my white and distant dangerous face. I hold my breath and she jumps and is gone.
The blackwater lake itself is not large but is noisy with birds and the water surface is lively. There is an opening with some makeshift furniture made from vines and bamboo: the lunching spot. The Hoatzins squirm and sail, making mechanical noises. This primitive bird was our constant companion at the blackwater in Ecuador last year. Here we have walked five hours to be amongst them. They are as crazy looking as always. Macaws seem to be everywhere out here in nowhereland and on the walk we passed many groups of them. Anhinga soar over us. Arapaima fish roil and splash out in the water. This is the great primitive fish of the flatlands, one of the largest freshwater fishes in the world. We walk down the edge of the lake peering out at every opening. There is a rough trail connecting the viewpoints, Alfredo as always leading with his machete. I ask him if there are Caiman here and he says yes just as one launches across the shallow water right next to us, vanishing. Cocoi Herons stand tall in the snags. We flush a Jacana and it flaps off to the left where I hear Bo shout “JACANA” because he has never seen one and he is now happy he has. A beautiful Boat-billed Heron juvenile flaps up and gives us a look. It looks like a different bird with its great reddish back and shoulders. We walk back and have a sandwich at the lakeside opening.
The parrots of South America are one of the reasons we go down there. And the largest parrots of all are the Ara species, the larger of several genus of Macaw. The lake area was rich with them. And these are the three foot long parrots with the great deep voices and the highly evolved brains. They mate for life and it is a long life. The pairs we saw touched and preened, stared down together at the lost and sweaty bipeds like long-known friends sharing a secret joke. We watched: the touching of the great black beaks, the bowing of the parrot heads. One pair looked like they closed their eyes and put their foreheads together as they shared some impressive parrot thoughts. These great animals require wild places and very large trees for nesting and have retreated from most of the places that people inhabit. They do not tolerate habitat degradation. They are high level targets for the parrot trade worldwide still. It was only once we reached the far back ARC area that we saw the big Blue-and-Yellow Macaws regularly at all. We saw a few of the smaller Red-bellied Macaws on the Tahuayo River’s early stetches. We never failed to stop and watch any of them. You tried to find some open sky when they were going overhead. At dusk sometimes parades of 8 or 10 would fly over in the great pinking light. From the morning coffee perch outside the ARC you could watch them cross the opening above the river. The big Scarlet Macaw also occurs in Tahuayo but Alfredo said he sees about one Scarlet per several hundred of the Blue-and-Yellows. We did not find a Scarlet during our week there. The rarer Red-and-Green Macaws have mostly abandoned the northern part of Peru in this area. The only place we found the stunning Blue-and-Yellows actually perched up in the trees was on the walk to the blackwater lake. They were always keeping an eye on us when we found them. Often the pairs were sitting together. They would have remained invisible but for the irrepressible urge they have to make that squawk of theirs. Possibly they can’t resist commenting on the humans they see usually far below.
We walk and boat one morning to the terra firme landscape. Up an actual hill from the river there the cuts in the bank look like layered clay, sometimes like stone. These islands of never-flooded land are scattered through the lowlands and are difficult to map from above because of the dense tree cover. These places are known to the residents and locals. Special birds, plants and insects inhabitat them. This one near the lodge is known for its frog populations and the poison dart frogs here are studied by visiting students from Sweden. Walking the small hills and valleys we see many cups tied to the trees, cut off bottoms and tops of plastic coke bottles for the frogs to come to. Poison darts have an attraction to elevated water pools like the ones in bromeliad leaves. We find several of the impressively colored species near the cups. We find other frogs on the leafy ground. A beautiful woodcreeper call rings repeatedly inside the forest. After some time the rain comes. And Alfredo tells me how the locals walking in the woods will often take the big palm leaves and patch them together, tying them to a tree trunk, making a quick rain shelter. The name in the native language means “tail of the squirrel.” I see Bo standing under a single live palm leaf while we wait out this short rain. He watches above him attentively. After this trip we both vow we are going to buy a machete.
Meals at the ARC and the lodge are generally abundant and varied. Freda and Janet (at the respective sites) guide you through what each dish contains. Rice and eggs, many local juices and fresh fruits, beets, radishes, yucca hearts, mango—we do not go hungry. The beer in the fridge is cold. Peruvian beer or sprite are the main selections after a hot walk. We generally chose beer. They came in the large bottles. It was difficult to believe the effort required to get anything down the river here to eat. And there was also fish, a local staple. Cleaned and prepared from the ones caught on the days fishing excursions. Piranha apparently is very tasty. In the Wi-Fi room at the ARC where the meals were served you could gaze out on the river and the oncoming nights after a long afternoon walk. The beer fridge was nearby. The frogs would begin their nightly chorus. The nightbirds sang. It is something one could get used to.
Stephanie has to leave the night before we do. And knowing, in the evening of that day, we watch for and see the slight change in her eyes: the world-coming-back-too-fast. She has been in Peru three weeks so it is a deeper loss for her. A kind of early separation anxiety from this far-off dreamy world that is gratefully speckled with far fewer people. She takes it well. Headed for London afterward, she may be stronger than us. She hopes the stars come out for her in this place of minimal human lighting. She says it out loud. And we are with her. We find some scotch in our bag. Thank you Glenmorangie and thank you for Bo’s light weight luggage requirements. Extra beers are needed.
We all wander over to the small soccer field in the darkness with our headlamps: Bo and I, Stephanie and Donaldo. The lamps that make the thousand spider eyes shine back from the jungle, like an underlayer of stars dropped beneath the trees. The soccer field is cut right there into the jungle itself, likely with a squad of machetes: a rumpled shrunken surface of dirt but squared up well, with seats along one side and rickety marker goal sticks. It may have involved drunken machete slashing. Though, now that I type it, that sounds dangerous. Anyway, one day, coming back from some beautiful walk or another we heard the shouts and clamor of a real game in progress, out there in this tiny slash of a playground. Fleeting and intense, we laughed at the seriousness. And at the fact we surely would have played in the mud if asked.
Now out here in this selfsame starlight soccer field the frogs talk for us: the Milk, the Gladiator, the Smoky Jungle Frog. And the stars on the southward end of the field are dazzling and clear. Like a wish come true. The Milky Way stripe paints an unreal way across this odd part of the sky I don’t know. This is the farthest below the equator I have ever been and this sector of the sky is making my feet unsteady. I try to put my camera on a bench and shoot it but that is a repeated failure. A Pauraque says “taa-whyy-yooo” off in the dark. The birds shining retinas reflected back by my headlamp intense and pinkish. We found several of them on our night walks with Alfredo. You can walk right up to them in the darkness. We do and we did. Stiff whiskers right there over the large mouth, the eye is enormous and bright. They call in the dark with the frogs. So many things call out there with the frogs I misunderstand. It is too much to interpret at once. And also, out there, dreamily the Undulated Tinamous sing again, the haunting triple whistle of a jungle ostrich working the night. Who knew Tinamous whistled even in the dark? Under such stars? We stay out there with Stephanie carefully, therapeutically until the haze comes slowly across and diminishes that gaudy and staunch map of our own galaxy. We stay out there until Stephanie Marie’s knees seem steadier. Seem steadier than our own anyway.
Alfredo takes us to back the village, to Chino, on our last morning before we rip towards the airport and back to our lives. We made our way early from the ARC to the lodge again. Stephanie having showed us the way. We have miles to go before we sleep. The girls of the village who weave bracelets and baskets from the things of the jungle are laying out their wares just for us. We are honored. The day is clear and the sky is very blue and seems exceptionally far off. We take the short boat ride north. Gangs of children are swimming in the river, across and back, into the submerged trees. Again we come to those handmade stairways up the steep banks in town, rebuilt after the big flood. Some still partially ending up there towards not quite anywhere, towards somewhere, gap toothed and challenging. When we bump up against the bank a storm of butterflies is released from the mud.
Between the houses, colored banners are flapping from every connecting doorway, music is playing, and the place smells like food. The children are running here and there. In the market room the girls look shy behind their colored things. Bo and I both want to buy something from everyone and we work our way around the room touching and lifting: necklaces, bracelets, woven bowls which must take hours and hours to get just right. We have American dollars and we are all trying to convert the exchange rate on the fly with Alfredo’s help. When I hand over the first American dollars the lovely craft girl takes each dollar and checks it carefully on all its edges. I think she is checking for counterfeit bills at first, but who checks American singles? She hands one back which has a small tear along the edge. And Alfredo tells us the problem is the exchangers pass this need for perfection on to the girls. They want to spend these immediately on food and necessities. They are unlikely to ever go all the way to Iquitos on their own journeys like we will make in just a few hours at high speed. We then become bill inspectors ourselves, checking all our money, holding it up to the natural light, wanting them to have it, wanting some more bangles for ourselves. There is a slight joy when they nod at a cluster of bills with approval. When we are done, everything is packed up and the place is emptied out. I have a pocketful of bracelets and necklaces.
We say goodbye to Freda and Oscar. The run back up the rivers to civilization is bittersweet as always. We cling to the last parrot flights. We point at every kingfisher and watch the wake surfing children positioning themselves. Back on the Amazon itself it is a clear day. The crazy mix of boats astounds us again. Things are assorting themselves into memory already. And on the river we pass a slow boat with an IV bag held in the air. Alfredo zooms over to speak to them in rapid fire Spanish. A middle aged woman is blanketed in the bottom. We move her and her accompanying family and a presumed nurse over to our back seat sections. We carry them at what must be five times their boat speed to the outskirts of the city south of Iquitos. Sickness out in the jungle villages can get serious quickly. And Paul and Dolly run one of the best clinics on the Tahuayo, covering all the costs themselves. This lady likely came from deeper out, a different clinic or something less. It is a risk, living such, living so far from, well, anywhere.
I think of the parakeet we flushed from its termite nest. I think of the Titi choruses and the Capuchin walking on the Palm with its burdening child. I think of the Mustached Tamarin, a new and superb monkey looking at me through the trees, shifting its head from side to side. The ARC and its images will stay. And Bo took a picture of the rough sharpening stone on the dock at the ARC. A quick one off shot. I hardly expected it to be one of my favorite shots of the trip but it is. “A Heliconian, a sharpening stone and a reflected blue sky.” The men would sharpen their machetes rhythmically on this large flint usually in the mornings, tidying up for the day, the ringing shearing sounds beating beneath Macaw flights and the wild morning songwork of that single Cacique trying to fire up a season in a place with mysterious seasons. Hard, as always to let it go. A wild place holding its own for now. Breaking your heart like a new friend who can only live far away.
Alfredo stays politely while we go through the long check-in line for the flight out from the diminutive Iquitos airport. He waits for us at the security entrance. He is headed home to his daughter and his wife. He will get a single night there with them before he has to pick up another large group tomorrow. And take them into the hinterlands, into monkey world, the parrot place. Lucky fools, we think, they don’t even know. They just suspect, the friend that awaits them, the sounds, the reflected eye, the strange southern starry, starry sky. I hope they find a pick-up soccer game. I want to go back for one myself.
Thanks to Paul and his wife for making such a place in such a place. It seems hard to believe it is there. It certainly was not created easily.
Please vist their website.
As well as their charitable page with a donation button.
Thanks Alfredo, you are a patient man.
And thanks Stephanie Marie, the big spinning wheel of random humans could have done bad, bad things to us. It was a pleasure to spend a few days with you and share a few beers. You made our trip better. Have a fine London life.
And thanks to my wife Vicki, for staying and working while I chased the songs of monkeys. Sometimes just working is heroic.