Welcome to the Jungle

Trip Start Oct 15, 2006
Trip End May 01, 2007

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Flag of Peru  ,
Friday, March 9, 2007

I first came to the Amazon about three years ago, specifically to the Brazilian part near Manaus. I was so impressed by its scale and beauty, returning there wasn't the hardest decision I've taken on this trip. This time, it was the Peruvian side, about 1,000 miles upstream from where I'd been before. Peru is actually home to the source of the river, high up in the Andes, though to say there's one source is a bit of a misnomer as thousands of rivers, pour water in on a daily basis. Before I go on, here are some interesting facts about the Amazon and the surrounding jungle:

Approximately 1/3rd of the world's freshwater is in the Amazon and its tributaries
Where I am, the river is around 1mile wide - by the time you've reached Manaus it's 6 miles wide - the mouth of the Amazon is 200 miles wide - that's the same distance as London to Manchester - this place is big!
There are approximately, 214 species of birds, 50,000 species of plants and trees, 200 species of mosquitoes (!)
The Amazon is home to the world's largest snake - the Anaconda, which can grow to 8 metres in length, the world's largest spider - the giant tarantula and contains numerous things that can kill you - that's excluding malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever and numerous other parasites and diseases that will leave you feeling a little poorly!
The vitoria-regia (named after a pub in Albert Square) is the world's largest flower, growing to over 6ft wide!
And finally, the really mind boggling one - you could fit the Western European land mass into the Amazon region, twice over - as I said, this place is big!

One of the more interesting things I got the chance to see on this tour, was the opportunity to visit some genuine riverside villages. I say genuine as you weren't immediately offered the chance to buy some local Indian handywork before you'd even stepped off the boat! Indeed in one village, I wasn't actually offered anything to buy at all - which for Peru is pretty refreshing! There are two kinds of communities living on the river - the Mesquites  

and the Indian tribes. The Mesquites are essentially a cultural mix - some Spanish Conquistadors, local Indian tribes and a large dose of European influence from the late 19th Century. This was when the area really came to the world's attention as it became, for around 30 years, the centre of the world's rubber production. But then as quickly as the boom started it ended as rubber production moved to places such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where getting the rubber out to transport was a lot easier! But in those 30 years, a lot changed for the region. The little village of Iquitos became one of the richest cities in the world, even inspiring some slightly mad Frenchman to ship out an entire house made of metal, designed by Gustav Eiffel (of the tower fame)!  

People came from all over the world to make their fortune and once the boom had finished, many stayed to make their homes here, mixing with local populations to create a wide-ranging social pot that still exists today.  One of the slightly odder things I found was my guide, Abner, turned out to be Jewish - yup, Abner Cohen (I really do kid you not!) was born in a little village about 100 miles upstream of where we were staying and although not a practicing Jew, was proud to claim his heritage. Apparently, there are numerous families along the river who can claim Jewish heritage - who knows, may even have distant relatives out here!

Of course, most good things have some bad angles as well and for the local Indian populations, the rubber boom proved to be their nemesis. Needing cheap labour, the rubber barons press ganged the local population into slavery and in so doing wiped out many different tribes. Prior to the boom, Peru had around 60 indigenous Indian tribes living along the banks of the Amazon. Today it as 11. And to make matters worse, even these tribes are under threat as never before. The attractions of city life are luring the young away from the traditional life of their ancestors and putting entire villages under threat. We visited a tribe called the Iaguar - as Abner explained, when he first started as a guide 10 years ago, the village had around 200 inhabitants - today it has 45. Realistically the village will be abandoned in the next few years as there won't be anyone young enough left with to fish and hunt.

Efforts are being made to incentives the youth to stay put, but realistically these efforts are likely to fail - the lure of 21st century life is too great. Can we blame them - no, of course not, but it's still troubling all the same. With the destruction of these communities, many secrets will be lost - when we visited the Iaguar, one of the men had been bitten by a venomous snake a few hours before - but rather than being rushed to the nearest clinic, his wound had been treated using traditional methods and his prognosis was excellent. Perhaps instead of fighting a losing battle to persuade unwilling tribes to hold onto their old ways, we should be intensifying our efforst to document and catalogue their lives so their secrets are not lost forever.

Anyway, back to the jungle itself - the one key thing I noticed here, as opposed to Brazil was the large amount of animals around - in Brazil, other than the occasional monkey, the place, whilst full of birds of every variety, seemed to lack wildlife. Here was different - on our first walk, we came across both a three-toed sloth and a two-toed sloth - both sloth like in their movements (ba-boom!). On the second night in the camp, there was a flurry of excitement as a tapir wandered through on the scrounge for some leftover fruit for dinner. And of course, there were the ubiquitous monkey's  - they proved less clingy than the Brazilian variety (eh, Dom!), but cute nonetheless. Of course, no trip to the Amazon would be complete without fishing for Piranha and this time, I broke my duck, plucking one of the rivers finest out of its murky home. It was served to me with dinner, along with a mate and I can safely guarantee you that it is possibly the most bland, boney fish I've tried

- not to be recommended. Of course, the other thing the jungle is famous for is the friendliness of its local bugs, who are always trying to get really intimate with you. I had my famous jungle formula insect repellent with me and whilst it kind of works in a limited sense, I still ended the trip looking like I've got a bad case of the measles. The locals swear by a plant that they rub onto themselves, but since this genuinely smelt like animal shit, I put up with the annoyances of a couple of hundred bites - good thing this part of the Amazon isn't a malaria zone!!

And, so off again - due to the vagaries of my ticket and to be honest, some piss-poor planning on my part, it's Buenos Aries on Saturday via night stops in Lima and Santiago - oh the joys of airport queues........
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