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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.