Friday, November 18, 2011

Pacaya Samiria The Real Amazon

The canoe looked like nothing more than half a tree trunk carved out. The slightest movement could capsize it. Yet three tourists and three days worth of camping supplies could fit, bracketed by two local guides who rowed through the Samiria river. All you could hear was the paddle parting brown water and the screeches of parakeets and parrots. The paucats, curious yellow-bellied birds, were the noisiest. The females industriously build nests from long strands of straw and guard their eggs inside these hive-like sacs. The male paucats cheerlead on the side by gossiping and singing. What else did we see? A sloth slowly chewing, reaching, picking a leaf, bringing it back to its mouth. A lot of blue martin kingfishers with their long fisherman beaks. Capuchin monkeys, a white-faced tamarind. An elegant black-spotted white heron who could have been at the center of a Japanese painting.

Our guides Marcial and Maria whipped up full meals, spaghetti and fried eggs, over nothing but a woodfire. Marcial especially was a hardcore Amazonian man. Soft-spoken and shy, he turned out to be deadly to river fish. After sunset, he took us out in the canoe: river and trees might as well have been one, so solid was the black sheet of night. The only light came from his headlamp, sweeping the waters for dormant fish. With one hand on the paddle, his other hand stabbed into the water with a three-spronged spear. A few seconds of bubbling and splashing later, his spear brought up a flapping fish. He must have caught at least eight them and hardly ever missed.
Suddenly, something heavy and wet jumped straight into my lap and started flapping up and down between my thighs. The city girl in me screamed, the wannabe adventurer in me tried not to flip the canoe mid-freakout. Apparently, the fish here often jump out of the water to escape predators. Too bad they're completely blind and land on people in boats. Only when my brave friend sitting at the front of the canoe punched the fish in the head with his fist did the flapping stop and my screams. The next morning, I had the same fish for breakfast.

Where we slept was an open-air wooden house of sorts, balanced over stilts. At first we were excited but having a room to ourselves with platforms and thin mattresses. But when darkness arrived, so did the cockroaches. The lack of electricity meant it took us awhile before noticing. A flashlight and candle were our only source of light.  It started with the one on the table, almost scampering into my journal. Then there were the ones on the walls, the floor, the doorframe, on our backpacks, inside our jackets. Giant Amazonian roaches the size of my palm that stood up on their legs. When my friend was about to hang up a bag of food on a nail, she suddenly realized that the nail was actually a cockroach. By the time we came back from fishing, that plastic bag was dripping in roaches. Marcial indulged us pansy foreigners by killing a dozen of them. Right after, another dozen arrived. Along with twin giant gray spiders half the size of my face. That first night, I did not sleep a single second. By the following night, I was so exhausted I told the roaches to all go to hell and slept like a rock.
We went piranha-fishing the next day with pieces of fish as bait but they were too smart for us. Marcial told us about a British tourist who once got half his forefinger bitten off by a piranha and I quickly withdrew my fingers that were streaming in the water. We left the water for a hike where the path was barely discernible through all the vines and shrubs. The tangles onshore are even more dramatic inside the forest. We came across a 500-year old tree, the oldest tree in the park. Its roots could have encompassed rooms. Several roots seemed to rise out of the ground as if standing on tiptoe. I wonder if it was the earth that sunk or the roots that yearned for light. The path started getting very muddy. My whole foot would get sucked into these puddles. Marcial used his machete to clear the path and to fashion us staffs as we climbed and balanced on slippery logs.The mosquitos were a super breed, piercing through repellent and cloth to get a taste of me.

The jungle or "selva" is a web with every leaf, wing and fish scale connected. Vines are the threads that build it. Even trees and roots mimick their shapes, curving and twisting amongst each other in a chaotic interdependence, so unlike the predictably straight trunks of pine forests, maples of the North. Each vine thread leads to a clumb of roots, like messy tassels, that dangle above the water or spread and disentangle within it. On our way out of the park, the last inhabitant we saw was a furry river otter bobbing up and down, calling out to a hidden friend on the shore. I wanted to think that it was talking to me. I wanted to think that within the last few days, I too had become a thread in the intricately woven and chaotically beautiful selva.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"El Romantico" Boat Ride to Lagunas

"El Romantico" could not have been a more ill-fitting name for the snail-paced wooden thing conquering the Huallaga river by inches. We were supposed to be on the express boat that morning but our seats got give away, so our only alternative to go from Yurimaguas to Lagunas was this 11-hour boat ride. I'm sure I could have swum faster. Instead of seats, the boat offers wooden beams and each passenger brings in their own colorful hammocks and sets up their own spot. One man had a sack full of fish, another barged in with chickens swinging off his back, their feet bound and their faces placid, accepting of their fates.
Vendors roamed onboard before departure, hocking everything from bread to scissors to condoms. “Don’t get pregnant on the boat!” the man yelled as everyone tittered. One old lady who was reclining in a hammock snapped something sassy in response.The hammocks were stacked so closely together there’s an inevitable amount of bumping into people as you try to carve a path through the sea of cloth and feet. In the bathroom, the wood was so moldy mushrooms had sprouted. Above a dead spider, furry and thick-legged, dangled like a Christmas ornament. Ants crisscrossed the planks. Around 1:30pm, they brought styrofoam boxes with lunch: dry rice, beans, tasteless plantain and a piece of chicken. 

The thought of doing nothing for an entire day terrified me but it turned out to be a rather pleasant, lazy adventure. The boat made several stops, part of the reason why it took so long, and at each stop, people unloaded and loaded cargo: moto-cars, sacks of beans, crates of chicken, blocks of ice for preserving fish... Dangling my feet over the front of the boat, I felt like there was so much more sky here. The water was of a lazy brown that captured every cloud, lining and beam of light, like a relentless mirror that has darkened with age but retained all the clarity of youth.
From the top of the boat, we chatted with the boat owners and the only other foreigner, a French architect who had been traveling around the world for the last 15 months. We watched as the sun gave in to darkness, though not before unleashing a slew of colors and light behind the shadows of the boat.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Chocolate Factory

The wafts of chocolate coming out of the factory made me melt on the spot. Orquidea, the largest chocolate company in the San Martin region, was giving us a personal tour! I might as well have died and gone to heaven. The sacks of fermented cocoa beans, the series of machines to grind the beans, smooth them, remove the acidity, mix in sugar and milk: all leading up to bins of chocolate paste lining the factory floor. I wanted to dive in and swim in it. Instead of Willy Wonka's orange midgets, they have very professional and much more hygienic employees all in white who mix and fill the chocolate molds on a warm metal surface. In one corner, one woman was experimenting with different types of liqueur fillings.

            Our guide brought out a tray of samples, milk and dark chocolate. I kept brainstorming questions to ask him so that I could discreetly reach for the tray again and again, all the while nodding earnestly. Their super creamy dark chocolate has 65% cocoa. They mix crispy quinoa with milk chocolate to give it that crunch. The mocha one was better than any cup coffee. I wanted to stash myself in a corner just so I could run around at night after closing and make angels in the chocolate syrup or push over a machine and canoe down the chocolate river singing "oompa loompa doopa dee doo, I've got another puzzle for you..."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chazuta Chazuta!

The motorboat provided no cover. It was a two-hour boat ride on the Huallaga to visit the cocoa farms in Nuevo Paraiso. I wondered if it's called that because it was a real mess before. Cold, cutting wind and occasional showers were the travel standard here. Tiny, sharp-winged birds with silver-white bellies flicked the river surface, diving for fish. 
On the way to the farm, we trekked along a muddy path where I was enchanted by a flower called the “Licorna,” resembling a braid of red and yellow bird beaks. After our meeting with the farmers, we were stuck in Chazuta for awhile. The odd thing about this tiny, dirt-covered town is that its one and only road is closed for construction from 6am to 6pm every single day. To kill time, we asked the municipal building to unlock the small houses in the plaza for us. These held archeological digs of ancient funerary urns. The clay jars looked too small for a human body, it’s possible that some of them were luggage to take into the underworld. We tried to visit the historical "museum" in the municipal building but they couldn't find the keys even as a young man tried a ring of about fifty of them. Circling around town, I discovered bite-sized children holding hands on the way home from school, playing inside a cardboard box better than any car, ones with vacant stares who hung onto doorframes. A pharmacy offered its menu in big red letters painted on the front wall: Cures! Injections! Instant pregrancy tests!

I was offered some fresh guaba, and unlike guava is about half my size. It's a curious fruit whose outside looks like a plump vine while the inside is similar to cocoa, white flesh over large stones. I snacked on it happily from the back of our truck until I discovered further up the fruit's long stem a brothel of maggots. They reassured me that these were "natural" maggots that very often live inside the fruits and that the rest of the guaba was fine. I still prefered not to eat any more after seeing all those flesh-colored things squirming inside. The road seemed to have opened again and we headed back to Tarapoto in the dark of evening.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Field Rats Taste Like Pork

In addition to gorgeous mountain views, La Collpa restaurant in Tarapoto offers meats that you prefer not to think about when chewing and sighing with happiness. From left to right: palm salad, picuro (a wild field rat), ribs, friend tilapia, chorizo and venison. The field rat was like pork with a kick of extra flavor: crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and as fatty as bacon. Subway monster-rats in NYC probably aren't as tasty.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Saucy Lagoon

 The Blue Lagoon in El Sauce felt like a giant, private swimming pool surrounded by overlapping mountains and palm trees. Paddling on my back, I had the sky to myself like the inside of a big blue bowl with swirls of white: steam from a home-cooked soup. I could up eat up every bit of it with a spoon.

What a slice of silence is Sauce compared to the sweaty, pulsing chaos of Tarapoto. We circled the lagoon by boat where the guide pointed out the 50 foot-high platform jutting out of a cliff for brave souls to jump off of. One of the other volunteers was the only one from our tour group brave enough to attempt it. I climbed up to the platform with him for moral support. From up there, the smallness of the boat in the distance and the dizziness from looking down, as if from a five-story building, was enough to kill any of my adventuring tendencies. When he jumped off, I was the one who screamed.

The lake is overseen by a barren volcano that no longer erupts but once in awhile, releases sulfur into the lake which kills all the fish. Returning from the boat ride, we found our eccentric tour guide "P." A shady-looking Santa Claus, he traveled through the Peruvian jungle for 15 years as a missionary before working in tourism. Rumor has it he once got lost in the jungle for months and survived on nothing but grubs and wits. That night, we stayed in a quiet, riverside bungalow and sat by the water drinking coffee "coctels" or liqueurs.
The next day we woke up at 5:15am to catch the sunrise: only it was bright as day already and the roosters had been crowing since 3am. So instead we went hiking and stumbled upon a beautiful riverfront property with elaborate gardens - turns out it belongs to Don Pollo, the chicken kingpin of Peru. The friendly old gardener told us any other time he would let us walk through the gardens but Don Pollo himself was coming by that day. I imagined a cigar-smoking mob boss leaning back in a leather armchair, stroking a chicken made of solid gold.

Heading back to Tarapoto, our colectivo got stopped by a military checkpoint. Soldiers with huge rifles marched over to the car and demanded to see our ID's. We didn't have our passport with us and just as I was having flashes of me sprawled on the floor of Peruvian prison, he acquitted us because of our American tourist status, though not before asking me if I was Korean. One of the guys in the colectivo didn’t have his ID and he got taken out of the car to be questioned. I caught a glimpse of the soldier unbuttoning his shirt, poking him in the chest, searching him. They searched all the bags in the trunk. After what seemed like an eternity, the guy was released to come back to the car.