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drink the water

The sidewalk under my feet bears a skin of slippery green moss from the night before. Sweat slides between my shoulder blades. It’s early, but it’s already thirty-six degrees (96F). The sun is low in the sky across the Rio Napo. At the waterfront, three men are carving a wooden canoe. Two use machetes to shape the boards that will support the seats, and in the stern the third smears black tar across the seams and then applies fire, sealing the wood against water. A naked little boy climbs in and out of the unfinished boat and around the men. The fire burns out, more tar is applied; the machetes chop unhurriedly. This is Pantoja, Perú, a nearly invisible speck on the map, planted on the arbitrary line that divides the Ecuadorian Amazon from the Peruvian. An hour ago I was in Ecuador. Now, a few kilometers of water and jungle further east, I’m back in Perú. If it wasn’t for the stamp in my passport and the nuevo soles in my wallet, I’d say that nothing had changed. One bend of the river looks like the next, and the sun burns the same in Perú as in Ecuador. Beyond the unfinished canoe, a rusty launch slumps below the muddy river bank. A rectangular box with two stories and a warped cargo deck jutting from the front, the Jeisawell doesn’t look like much, but she’s the only boat that makes the 4-6 day trip down the Rio Napo from Pantoja to Iquitos, the largest city in the world that’s accessible only by water and air.

On the Jeisawell.
I rock in my hammock on the second deck next to Jesus, a tall, bearded hippie from the Canary Islands. We met in Pantoja, the only two gringos crazy enough to attempt this trip. We talked as we waited for the launch to depart, about traveling, about dreams. I mentioned Antarctica. Jesus raised his eyebrows, then grinned. “I don’t know you yet, but I think I’m going to like you.” Outside, the world is divided into three horizontal layers: brown water, green trees, blue sky. This, no more, and the air in between so thick it sticks in my lungs and between my teeth. Except for the diesel roar of the engine, the world is smooth, soft, and beautiful. And then the boat stops. The square prow slams against the bank, the crew swarms over the edge and onto the shore, the captain shouts instructions. Dark skinned villagers emerge from the banana trees pulling blindfolded water buffaloes on ropes. Bunches of green bananas are hefted from shoulder to shoulder, bags of rice and peanuts too. Swearing and sweating under the weight of the cargo, the men wrest screaming pigs onto their backs, haul them aboard by the legs, tails, ears and cram them into their pen next to the engine; ducks and chickens are passed up to the roof and stuffed into bamboo cages head first. The action carries on into the night, and for the next four days, the cargo – human, vegetable, and animal – growing with every stop.

At the start, there were six hammocks on the second deck. By day three, Jesus counted thirty-eight. Strings overlap and intertwine; it’s impossible to move without jostling someone. Families sleep four to a hammock; chickens and turtles rustle and coo in woven bags among the piles of luggage. A pet parrot climbs up and down the hammock ropes. Little kids run and duck between the hanging bodies, grabbing randomly for balance. Below, the pigs fight and root and scream between towering stacks of bananas and lengths of bamboo. The engine bellows and spits and spilled diesel floats on the water like sooty marbles. At the back of the cargo deck is the bathroom, a dark closet with a seatless metal toilet and a water tap overhead to shower. Water sloshes around the floor and drips from the walls, and there’s a bucket of water with a scoop to flush the toilet which I’m pretty sure empties directly into the river. Next to the bathroom the cook, Carlos, sweats barefoot in his tiny cement kitchen, cooking rice and bananas and meat for our three meals a day. To wash the meat (wild boar or chicken) he scoops a bucketful of brown water from the back of the ship and squats over it to scrub, then empties the bloody waste water directly onto the floor, where it mingles with the water from the bathroom and eventually washes back over the edge into the river. Women scrub clothing in the same space off the back. I gasped in pain the first time I saw a plastic bottle pitched over the side, followed by a dirty diaper. Then a plate of food scraps and greasy napkins. Then I quietly bound up my environmental conscience and spat my toothpaste into the river alongside everybody else. To know a culture, one has to live the culture. Judgment halts the learning process. The bones and food scraps, at least, the piranhas will eat.

Sunrise: tiny, searing, and orange, seen through a loose jigsaw of clouds over a great distance. Jesus and I watched from the roof as we ate breakfast: tacachos, huge balls of banana dough, mashed with cooked onions and garlic and salt, simple and delicious, and served with thick, sweetened milk and oatmeal. We’d been warned about the questionable sanitation on the boat, and had brought supplies to feed ourselves for the four days, but curiosity and an unwillingness to be those snobby gringos mastered our fears of stomach infections. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, I reasoned, and I ate what Carlos scooped into my tupperware bowl. As the light of day grew on the horizon, so did the heat, slowly but insistently, until midday, when being hot became an activity that required all of my attention. The passengers lay in their hammocks, eyes closed, paralyzed by the heat. A few scraps of a tabloid newspaper were passed around. The roosters crowed ceaselessly from the roof. I wandered the decks taking pictures and I could feel the eyes of the cargo boys following me. I offered to show them the shots I was taking, and suddenly I had an audience. They crowded around, mesmerized by the instant replay of the digital screen. I handed the camera off to a couple of them, showed them how to use it, enjoying their excitement as they snapped pictures of each other then hurried to see how they looked on the small screen. Seeing the images they chose to capture with my camera was like being allowed to sit behind their eyes for a minute, to see the world with their same focus.

We stopped at one village located away from the main flow of the river. The water of the tributary was a clear, dark green, and as Jesus and I stood on the deck, roasting in the midday sun, Sofia, one of the women who worked on the boat, suggested a swim. The wharf was a temporary structure, made of massive floating tree logs chained together, waiting to be floated downstream to the sawmill in Iquitos. I walked across them, balancing against the pitch and roll of the trunks. Later, I would stand on a pile of sawdust in Iquitos and watch other hundred-year-old trees like these being turned into boards and chips. This was the closest I came to the old growth Amazon jungle. The water was smooth, cool, and delicious on my hot, two-days unbathed skin as I swam in place against the strong current, like a water treadmill. Sofia followed us out and took a sponge bath from the edge of the tree-wharf, lathering then rinsing, the white foam bubbles drifting down the tributary to mingle with the brown water of the Napo’s main flow.

Arriving in Iquitos after four days on the river is like landing in the middle of a dream. Houses float in the harbor with bright yellow walls and blue roofs. A hundred dugout canoes paddle between massive, sparkling oil rigs and sagging fishing boats. Jesus and I climb the stairs from the port to the street, passing through a hazy indoor marketplace. Yellow light filters through the open windows and catches in the dust and the thousand shouting voices that stir the exotic, steamy air. We pass through in our bandannas and sandals, four days of sweat and river water on our sunburned skin, and we are one with the teeming crowd. My eyes are full, my shirt is sticking to my back, and I feel like a traveler in the third world. Iquitos itself is una locura, a crazy thing, the largest city in the world inaccessible by roads: a jungle in the middle of the jungle, a city of 400,000 people and 76,000 motorbikes. It is impossible to hold a conversation on the street. The bikes move in hordes, lining up five and six across at the stoplights, revving their engines. On the edge of the city, the stilted shanties of Belén lean over the muddy river banks. It’s the dry season, and the famous floating houses are grounded on their wooden raft-like foundations, warped and slanted and waiting for the winter rains to raise the river and lift the houses. The hotel that Jesus and I find overlooks the ghetto, and beyond it, the low river. In the evenings, tiny lights glow from below and smoke from five thousand cook fires rises in the faint breeze off the low river and blows up the hill into the city proper.

Lives are lived in the open in the jungle. Chairs are hauled out onto the sidewalks, TVs, dining tables. The buses have no windows. Passengers in the moto-taxis can wave and converse with each other across the lanes. Everyone, everything is visible. One night, traveling across the city, I leaned on my elbow out of the window of the bus, into the heady sunset air, watching the families in front of their houses as we sped past. Children running, a couple embracing. A woman bathing at the public water tap, shampoo running from her hair over her wet clothing. Two girls poring over a love letter, men shaking hands over a table. A smile, a look, a movement. Women rest their chins on their hands on the window frames and a teenager rocks backward in his chair in the doorway, a serious man studies a test booklet. One hundred stories in one hundred seconds.

Two things Jesus and I did with our time in the city. One was to spend three days with the Cupay Peña family, members of one of the indigenous tribes of the jungle near Iquitos. We ate at their table, slept under their roof, and watched the flow of their life: cooking and cleaning, occasional trips to the city in the peke peke (the slow-moving motorized canoe), fishing, school, and visits from the community’s shaman. Andres, the one-year-old grandson, wasn’t sleeping. It might be an evil spirit, they told us. The shaman sat in the kitchen, ate a fried fish at the table, and then held the child on his lap, smoking a pungent, hand rolled cigarette and blowing the smoke over the boy’s skin and head to cleanse him, whispering to the child with one breath, exchanging a joke with the mother in the next. The family wore ordinary clothes, watched telenovelas (soap operas) at night, behaved like a family anywhere in the world, but their energy was something different, something more in tune with the jungle on their doorstep. This plant cures this ailment, one would explain. Hear that bird? It’ll rain tonight, another pointed. Serenity flowed through the wooden house with the open walls.

The other thing we did was visit Belén, the floating ghetto. It was like walking into a dream. And as in dreams, better not to ask questions or pass judgment, better just to observe. Even with eyes wide open, I saw some things and wished I didn’t see others, understood parts but often couldn’t grasp that the things I was seeing were real. The filth was unbelievable, indescribable. I watched black scavenging birds circling the reeking stream beds between the houses, diving into the floating piles of refuse along the riverfront. At the port, shirtless, barefoot men staggered across rickety plank bridges carrying two hundred pound bags of rice on their shoulders. Others lugged wooden crates of pineapples and papayas on their backs, the weight of the fruit supported only by a strap around their forehead. Necks bowed at forty-five degrees, tendons popping, stomach muscles writhing under sweaty brown skin. Their jaws clenched, their eyes focused only one step ahead. In the market, the wealth and the irony of the region are plainly displayed: bananas, fish, and fruit pour into the city, every day of the week, a non-stop harvest, and in the alleys between the stilted houses, children go hungry. I watched people shitting into the brown water, tossing bags of trash off of barges, mothers pouring buckets of water over naked children on the beach fronts.

I watched my values lose their meaning. To the people who live at the waterline, the jungle and the river are not important for their beauty. They are resources: jobs, money, and transport. Developing a sustainable way of life in harmony with the environment takes money and energy that the people of Belén don’t have and that the government of Perú isn’t willing to spend. It’s more profitable to keep drilling for oil, chopping down trees, dynamiting for fish and over-planting cash crops like rice and sugarcane. Conservation is a luxury, a ludicrous gringo imposition. No wonder they look at us as they do. A wry grin here, a turned back, a shy wave or a shout of “Hello!” full of bravado from a gang of teenage boys in a doorway. How we must seem to them, we foreigners. Whatever our intentions are, whatever we tell ourselves, whatever reasons we give for being there and however appropriately sympathetic we feel afterwards, the truth is that we are exactly as we seem: rich gawkers. I’ve never felt so off balance, so muted. I struggled with a moral vertigo, as my eyes continued to observe and to record.

The four days on the cargo boat, then the ciudad loca, Iquitos and its floating ghetto, Belén, and time with the Cupay Peñas: this was the beginning.  Next, another boat ride into another village, and a camping trip in the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria.

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