True Stories from from a World Traveler Bill Honer: A Trip on the Peruvian Amazon Copyright BillHoner2010


1979: I meet Sinners and Saints in Lima, Take a Boat Ride on the Amazon, and encounter a Crocodile

The flight from Mexico City to Lima proved to be quite illuminating. Another passenger shared an underground travel guidebook for South America; It painted a picture of a far more predatory landscape than the one described by the conventional guidebooks I had been reading. One section read:

“Hepatitis is a serious health risk, given the poor standards of hygiene in most South American countries. Many travelers go to Quito to recuperate. Gamma globulin can help somewhat, though it does not guarantee protection from the disease.”

The book proceeded to discuss personal safety:

“Pickpockets are especially prevalent at bus stations and crowded squares.   Armed robberies occur both in the cities and the more remote areas as well. Be careful with your possessions.”

I decided not to keep more than thirty dollars in cash when walking around town. The travelers’ checks were safe enough, but I would need to be vigilant to avoid being a crime victims.

After clearing immigration in Lima, I began looking around for someone who might be running a guesthouse. A woman saw me and offered a room. Her home was located in Miraflores, one of Lima’s nicer areas. It offered access to transportation and decent restaurants. The poorer the country, the better class restaurant I chose for dining, viewing the additional cost as health insurance. This approach often resulted in paying the same price one would pay for a meal at a medium-priced restaurant at home. I had taken only one carry-on bag, thus eliminating long waits for baggage claim.

As I waited for my new hostess, I noticed an older Germanic-looking woman pass by. Her features were rather severe. I could not help wonder what she had been doing in 1943; South America was a haven for many German war criminals.

The house was very comfortable; it overlooked a rocky bay called La Herradura, the horseshoe. I appreciated nature; perhaps it was all those trips as a child to the boat harbor in Flushing in Queens with my family. At least twice a week after school, my dad would drive us to the ocean or to Flushing, where we would remain until sunset.

That night, I went to La Colmena, the beehive, in the center of Lima. The huge plaza was quite a spectacle, with singers, dancers, and actors performing small pieces of theater, along with a plethora of ladies of the night. After an hour of watching the spectacle, I went to a café, ordered one beer and hen took a taxi back to Miraflores.

The next day was initially devoted to obtaining the gamma globulin injection. I went to a public health center and obtained a prescription. Next, I purchased some from a pharmacy, where I was told to go to, of all places, the local convent for my injection. A rather attractive nun extracted a small sum of Peruvian money from me and injected my bare bottom with gamma globulin..

“I have had my ass grabbed by a saint and solicited by a sinner in the last twelve hours!” I thought to myself. .

Leaving the convent and walking toward the bus station, I turned right at the next corner, only to see three tanks and a group of soldiers coming towards me.

I immediately turned and ran nonstop for two blocks, never looking back. There are times in life to ask questions and there are other occasions to lose no time running away. This was clearly the latter. It appeared that I had come close to walking into a revolution.

A leftist military coup was in power; it has made improvements in health and education, but in the end it was still a dictatorship.

I attended the horse races for the afternoon at the beautiful Hipodromo, where I had

two winners. The next morning I left for Iquitos, where I made arrangements to stay at a lodge run by anthropologists who were studying the Yagua Indians.

I knew there would be crocodiles nearby the lodge; thus it would be too dangerous to walk around without a guide. The river contained pirhanas; there were also some dangerous snakes. As long I was with a trained guide, I believed I would do quite well.

The boat that carried me from the town of Iquitos to the lodge looked like a larger version of the boat used in the movie The African Queen. It had a motor in the middle and chugged down the river in a leisurely fashion. There were three other passengers, a couple from South Africa and a government administrator from Lima who was on holiday.

The South Africans told a familiar story. Someone had used a knife to cut into their knapsack while they were traveling on a bus in La Paz, Bolivia; they lost their money,  but retained their passports. Of the twenty foreigners I had encountered in Peru, at least one-half had been robbed, some at knifepoint. It was not surprising I felt safer in the jungle than in Lima.

It was very hot and muggy on the river. The jungle landscape included a missionary compound and some temporary settlements. After many hours, the boat turned into a tributary and stopped. We climbed into a small motor boat and were taken to the lodge operated by the two Anthropologists, who were present to greet the new arrivals and

given an overview of “Adventure Lodge.”

“We hope this will prove to be an interesting and enjoyable experience for you. If you follow the rules, it is likely you will have a safe and healthy stay. When visiting the Yaguas, please do not offer money. If there is something you desire, please offer to barter something in return for it. Most importantly, please do not leave the lodge area without a guide and remember to drink lots of liquids, said one of the Anthropologists. . .

As I walked to my room, I passed a bright green macaw sitting on the railing.

“Hello,” said the bright red and green bird.

“Hello to you.” I answered.

After passing the friendly bird, my eyes turned towards a strange scene in the garden. A huge rodent, certainly the largest I had ever seen, was munching on plant leaves. His dining was interrupted by a playful kitten that stalked the larger animal and was pouncing on its back. The rodent remained undeterred from eating the lettuce. I later learned that I had been in the presence of “Charley” the pet capybara and “Elmo” the cat.

My room was unlike any I had experienced. The walls did not reach the ceiling. Mosquito netting was draped on top of the bed in tent-like fashion. I put my clothes away and decided to wander around the grounds.

Charlie was still consuming plants. I noticed a sign posted on a tree:

NOTICE :Do Not Go Beyond This Point!!! It is dangerous to do so.
This is not an amusement park. Please remain inside
the garden area unless accompanied by a guide.

I went to the main lodge in search of a guide and found one. Marco had been retained by the Peruvian civil servant, but was available for short-term excursions. It was a fairly long walk through the jungle to the encampment of the Yagua Indians. The guide was of Peruvian Indian ancestry; he wore short pants and was constantly slapping mosquitoes away from my legs.

I asked him to say some phrases in the language of the Yagua Indians. Upon arriving at the bamboo house of the Chief, the Shaman was sitting with him. As I entered, I said a few words of greeting to them in the language of the Yaguas.

The Cief pointed to me and waved his arm towards the Shaman, as if to say, “Will you look at this guy!” Both men laughed.

The guide smiled and said “they think you are pretty funny.”

All members of the tribe wore grass skirts; the men often carried bamboo blow guns and curare tipped darts to kill animals. Recently, a pregnant boar had been killed; a piglet had been saved and was being fed and nurtured by the tribe. A nine-year old boy was walking around with a monkey perched on my head; the women had decorated their faces with a paste from red berries. They were beautiful, with very dark eyes and beautiful smiles when they chose to share one.

The Indians greeted me with only mild interest since visitors were common. I found I was free to roam around. The nine year-old with the monkey perched on his head tagged along. Communication tended to be limited to pointing and smiles. Soon the guide appeared, indicating it was time to return to the lodge. I noticed the guide had a rather broad smile on his face. He had previously explained that every few months, the entire adult tribe took a euphoric drug and held a party that lasted several days. I wondered whether the guide had perhaps decided to get an early start on the party.

I went to the bar and ordered a beer. The cold drink was a relief from the incessant heat and humidity.

I returned to the room and tried to take a nap, climbing under the mosquito netting and stretching out on the bed. It was too hot for sleep; the humidity rendered the air suffocating. Outside, the jungle was noisy from the sounds of the macaws and monkeys. I had slept in Times Square in New York City and in the jungle; the former was clearly the more peaceful place. After much tossing and turning, I fell asleep.

The next day, I once again visited the Yagua village. Another group of tourists were already there. The guide explained that some of the men would demonstrate proficiency with blowguns in a few minutes.

They reminded me of Dizzy Gillespie hitting high C when they performed.

I walked around the village, observing the life of the Yagua. The women were preparing food, and the men were working on their blowguns.

After lunch, I went out with a guide in a rowboat; we traveled along one of the tributaries to the Amazon.

There were orchids growing sixty feet above ground. The butterflies were huge; some were the size of my hand. The guide pointed to a school of pirhanas.

It was proving to be a good trip; one more day in the jungle would be sufficient. I began checking on boat departures for the return trip down the Amazon to Iquitos.

That evening, I went for a walk with one of the guides. The jungle was so thick with vegetation that it made walking a slow process. He suddenly stopped and motioned me to be still.

I could see him staring intently into the stream. Finally, I saw the eyes peering out from the water; it was a crocodile.

The guide turned to me with an anxious expression and pointed to his lips to maintain silence. After viewing the mostly submerged creature, I continued the walk through the jungle. The colors were intense; I had never seen such bright yellow bananas.

That night, I slept restlessly under the mosquito net. It was wonderful to visit the Amazon, but it was also nice to leave it.

 

 

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