Living in the Amazon Basin

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The first thoughts that strike me when entering Iquitos is that much of the city has a certain neglected look to it and the people appear slow and plodding.  No-one rushes, no-one runs.  My impression was that everyone moved with the sort of slow, fatalistic mosey which we, from bustling “civilized” places, would associate with vagrants.  I would conclude in a few short days that these impressions were entirely false – and shallow.

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A major factor is that, unlike other cities we’ve visited, Iquitos seems to be made up of people from the surrounding area – the Amazon Basin.  And, as I found out, the Amazon is not a place where you do anything quickly.  There are many good reasons for this.

First there is the heat and humidity.  It was not terribly hot (for the Amazon) while we were visiting, but after our morning and afternoon excursions, I would emerge from the jungle soaked from head to knees in my own sweat.  To exert yourself thoughtlessly in such conditions would be reckless and silly.

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Coming out of the forest

Second, there is the terrain.  The jungle is made up of very large, very tall trees in varying degrees of age and decomposition.  We were told that the number one killer of people in the jungle is falling trees and limbs.  This fallen lumber is everywhere on the forest floor.  The paths which we used for our daily scouting required constant clearing by the staff.  We’d see some of the guides going out every morning to clear the paths of newly fallen branches and we’d come upon them in the woods using simple axes to cut up trees which were three to four feet in diameter.

In between all of the these trees, both standing and fallen, there is underbrush, leaves, undulating ground with pitfalls, pools, mud and flooded paths.  You don’t walk fast here.  Every step is tentative.  Every step has purpose.

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Walking the log “bridges” on the path

Third, the jungle has other dangers.  There are predator cats, toxic plants, venomous snakes, as well as poisonous frogs and caterpillars.  Piranha and caiman prowl certain parts of the rivers.  Oh, and did I mention that they have some pretty annoying insects?  There are ticks and mosquitoes which can carry diseases, flies that can deposit eggs beneath your skin when they bite, and parasites that can swim up your orifices when you go in the water, just to mention a few.  Even some of the trees (Spiny Palm) have long, slender thorns which easily pierce the skin.  Kathy found them the hard way when she reached out to steady herself and grabbed one of these porcupine-like trunks.  It was no surprise that our guides preferred not to touch the jungle with anything other than their boots or their machetes.  Again, each step is tentative.  Each step has purpose.

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Anaconda sunning on a branch by the river

Fourth, the Amazon jungle is big – really, really big.  You have to take care of yourself.  We took a four hour boat ride to get to our camp.  There are no roads.  We saw only small villages along the way.  If anything bad happened, it would be a four hour ride to the hospital – and that’s if you’re already near a boat.

In the jungle itself, we found that distance is relative.  What would be a few minute jog in one of our forests, could be an hour or more slog through boot sucking mud under a foot of water littered with submerged logs.  But what if you, or a member of your party was injured?  How long would it take then?  I noticed that the guides could have a very playful attitude in camp, but when they entered the forest, their expressions were hard and piercing.  This is not play.  Every step is tentative.  Every step has purpose.

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Kathy scouting for monkeys

So it is not surprising that once we emerged from the forest and from the river and were safely back into our comfortable hotel, I looked upon the people and the city of Iquitos in quite a different light.  I recognized in the eyes of the people that same hard piercing gaze, and that same purposeful walk.  Even the houses and buildings took on a different aspect.  I could see that the people were not as seduced as we are by the illusion of permanence.  In this place where the rise and fall of the river is measured in meters instead of centimeters, where the heat, humidity and rain would rot and rust and crumble and the termites feast on wooden structures, the illusion is surely broken.  Here it is enough to live with tenacity and with pride and with purpose.

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Back From Peru

I gave people on the road a brief respite from my special brand of idiocy while Kathy and I took a trip to the Peruvian Amazon. Yeah baby, the friggin Amazon River! Why you ask? Let me think back – As I remember, it went something like this…

Kathy: I’m bored
Me: Oh yeah?
Kathy: I need a vacation.
Me: Ok. Where?
Kathy: I want to go to Peru – to the Amazon – to count primates – in the rain forest – with a research expedition.
Me: Um… Ok…

So a few weeks later we were gone – first to Huston, Texas – then to Lima, Peru – then to Iquitos, Peru (which incidentally, is only reachable by boat or by plane!). Here’s Iquitos…

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Here’s the view from our hotel room…

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The next day, we took a four hour boat ride up the Amazon and one of its tributaries to reach the research camp…

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Then… monkeys!

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I’ve gotta go for the weekend but more to come when I get back.

Pedalling Song

I happened across a paddling song that the headhunter cannibals of New Guinea sang as they traveled in their dugout canoes…

In the little river, there are shrimp
In the river, there is shit
In the river, there is piss

The shrimp eat the shit
The shrimp eat the piss

We, eat the shrimp

I found this extremely moving and insightful. I thought that perhaps I should have a pedalling song for my travels. It might go something like this…

There are always people on the road

Sometimes people on the road are selfish
Sometimes people on the road are jerks
Sometimes people on the road are obnoxious, aggressive and callous little twerps

Oh yes!
Sometimes I’m on the road

Netherlands Engineering

Have you ever wanted to drive a commuter train through the Netherlands?  I didn’t know that I did until I saw this.  A fellow velonaut shared this terrific video from his work day.

You can find his great blog here. Thanks for sharing this Arjan!

The Time Machine

In the deepest, darkest recesses of the velonaut brain there is a seed of madness.  It is the seed of speed.  It is the need to go faster, for speed at all costs, for absolutely unreasonable amounts of velocity.

It was not always so. We all started out very practically – choosing our new machine to commute in comfort, or its protection from the elements, or its stability, or its year round abilities, and of course its aerodynamic properties which allow us to do more, with less energy.

But that was back in the beginning. We all wrote our checks with trembling pens in trembling hands and submitted our order after long and torturous deliberation. This was followed (for most of us) by a long and torturous wait for the machine to be built. When at last we proudly beheld our shiny new addiction in all its splendor, we quietly vowed to protect it like a child – our lovely little time machine.

First, a ride round the block to set our mind at ease, a week to become accustomed to the enclosure, a month to get used to people looking at you like a madman (or woman), two or three more to gain recumbent muscles and feel one with the machine, and then – the speed. You didn’t notice the change but it’s been happening all the time – the way your heavy vehicle now whizzes by ultra-light upright racers, the way you don’t feel the wind anymore, the way you can now coast forever, and the way the brick wall of max speed has magically transformed into something soft as a pillow – something that can be pushed and negotiated with. That’s where the madness begins…

You didn’t realize, but it has taken that long to break down all of the accepted ‘knowledge’ about human power and machines. Sure, you realized that you would go a bit faster in a velomobile because of something called aerodynamics but it isn’t until you become one with the machine that you suddenly realize you are doing something… superhuman. You have the power to propel yourself faster than you ever believed possible. And once that belief is broken, well, there are no limitations anymore.  You’ve found that the only thing chaining you to the past was your past view of reality.  And all of that has been swept away by the seed of speed.

Once you except your madness, you find yourself subtly transported into the future and are blissfully free… to dream again.