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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11 thoughts on “Living in the Amazon Basin

    • Hey Kevin!

      Sorry to hear about your long work days but your recent 200K sounded like a very rewarding experience for everyone. For an evil nemesis you’ve got a lot of heart!! All the best to you Kevin.

  1. So basicly you are saying you’re happy not being swallowed whole by…..something….out there.

    I really think you have found an uncut gem in potential to be succesfull tourist resorts : the thrill of not being impaled, stung, injected with poison or bug eggs, or just dissapear whole must be irresistable haha !!

    Well in each case you have a very interesting story to tell, not just another generic beach or ski holiday not worthwile to read about. In fact your vacation seems to be more hazardous then all the places i’ve been sent in the military put together ! ;-))

    Is it indiana Yellowmobile now ? ;-)))

    • Hello Arjan,

      Thanks for all of your fun comments! I know it’s strange (to me too!), but going out to the edges of humanity, where all of the abstractions of civilization are stripped away, where it is dwarfed by the raw, awesome power of nature, and to be reminded of the fragility of human civilization, is somehow rewarding – reassuring even! That, no matter the pretenses that modern civilization conjures up, it will eventually have to answer to the reality of nature. Even at the risk of being swallowed whole, it seems somehow… worthwhile.

      And to be honest, if you listed all of the hazards of going to the mountains of Colorado, where Kathy and I grew up – the bears, predator cats, rattlesnakes, spiders, mosquitoes and ticks – it would seem like a very hazardous place. But these hazards are few and far between, and mostly avoidable. But if you want to call me Indiana, OK. But I may have to order a larger sized hat to accommodate my inflated head! I lift my glass and solute you in the far-off wilds of the Netherlands. Cheers Arjan!!

      • I do have some idea what you mean with the awkward feeling of missing western “civilisation” around you. There are people, but their living conditions, language and culture are so diffrent you feel asif in another world.

        Nature is full of things we do often not know….i once was very frightened discovering how loud and chest crushing complete silence feels like in the middle of a sand dune desert. No animals there, no wind and no clouds.

        At work in the resting area’s there’s often a tv showing National Geographic around the clock. You see many strange and interesting things there, amongst other nature (and jungle’s 😉 but your senses dont make you feel you are really there. Nothing substitutes for the real thing eh ? ;-)))

  2. You’re very right! Strange and true that the most horrible thing that most of us will ever encounter is to be entirely alone in a sterile world with only the sounds of sand beneath our feet and the heart pounding in our chest. Gives me the willies!

  3. Hi Yellow,

    Very intresting story of an rather unknown holiday site. Not my piece of cake, neither my wifes! We are not fond off heat and moisture, we do not like those climates. Neither do we like snakes, ticks, predator cats and lots of insects that are hunting our blood or our lives! Admirable that you and your wife enjoyed the trip, it was a nice post to read!

    Greetings, Adri.

    • Adri, hello!

      I know it isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea and requires a very specific variation of lunacy… I guess I’m just the guy to do it! Kathy, on the other hand, is talking about Hawaii next time. Oh well. Another Mai Tai please!

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