Sunday, May 28, 2017


I will not pretend to understand Peru from the very limited duration and reach of my recent visit—and even that from quite a privileged point of
view. But that’s the wonderful thing about art; it allows one a legitimate impression, a feeling, about a place that need not hinge on comprehensive knowledge nor on any dialog but that between artist and beholder.

What I did learn about Peru is that, while its people certainly share the same fundamental aspirations as every other human population on earth, they are also colored by a lineage, a geography, a range of climate, and a collective memory that makes each community absolutely unique. And it is the intersections between those shared human qualities and those singular experiences and challenges where culture is forged.

I spent the first two days of my trip in Lima. I loved the vitality, sophistication and sheer range of artistic expression I saw there—from grand-scale works of architecture and monumental sculpture, to revered works in museums, to edgy graffiti and street performance.

What a contrast, then, when I flew two hours northeast to the smaller, seedier frontier city of Iquitos, the main point of access to the upper Amazon. There, the influence of that fabled river and the all-encompassing rainforest it sustains seems to color everything, not just in the ubiquitous visual themes of water, wildness and wonder, but in the practical nature of tools, weapons and regalia crafted by hundreds of rainforest tribes over the ages and now on display in museums.

Also evident in Iquitos, scattered architectural remnants of the era in which both the rainforest’s natural bounty and the labors of its human inhabitants were first successfully exploited by outsiders on a massive, industrial scale—the rubber boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

     These people...seldom enjoy the 
     luxury of creative expression strictly 
     for personal or political ends.

Once I was on the river, the further away from urban life we got, the simpler and more utilitarian the objects of art and craft became. These people, amidst the daily challenges of surviving in this unforgiving place, seldom enjoy the luxury of creative expression strictly for personal or political ends. Most everything has a practical purpose, albeit sometimes with some decorative flair.

At many of the villages we visited, after “show-and-tell” about life in the community was over, artisans would make a modest effort to sell us their wares—generally quite simple but beautiful baskets, wood carvings, various decorative objects and items crafted of gourds or coconut shells.

Perhaps these artistic and cultural expressions will mean less to you, out of context, than they did to me seeing them in the moment and in the flesh. Or perhaps you’ve been to the area and experienced some of them for yourself. At any rate, I hope at least some of them will speak to you, as they have to me, of people, place and purpose.

Monday, May 22, 2017


When folks ask me for some of the high points of my recent week-long cruise on the Peruvian Amazon, one of the first things that comes to mind is just the wondrous mystique of that whole vast rainforest expanse. It’s not just the pink dolphins, poison-dart frogs and 15-foot anacondas, or the inscrutable oneness with Nature of its indigenous peoples; it’s also the sheer size and power of the river itself.

(Many of the world’s great rivers count their sources as the confluence of tributaries bearing different names. Our cruise, starting on the Amazon proper, reached upstream into one of its two main feeder rivers, the Marañon.)

Where we were, south and west of Iquitos, the Marañon looked to be fifteen, maybe twenty times as wide as the great Mississippi is back home in Minneapolis. One evening, as we returned to the boat in skiffs after some backwater wildlife spotting, our guide gave us a little perspective on the its contribution to the Amazon’s size.

Pointing to the muddy, flotsam-strewn water swirling around us, he said, “Oh, by the way, right here it’s 250 feet deep.” That, even there at the Amazon’s upper reaches, is 50 feet deeper than the deepest point, near New Orleans, in the entire Mississippi river.

   The Amazon’s total flow volume is 
  greater than that of the next six largest 
  rivers combined.

As I pondered this, the immensity of this river started adding up. The Amazon is fed by some 1,100 other tributaries before it empties into the Atlantic, many bigger than the Marañon—only number 14 among them by length.

This abundance of tributaries and the fact that the area of Amazon’s watershed is twice that of the Mississippi—which itself drains more than 40 percent of the continental US—begins to explain why the Amazon’s total flow volume is greater than that of the world’s next six largest rivers combined.

The Amazon's estuary and silt plume from space. PHOTO: Norman Kuring/NASA
That volume reaches up to 300,000 cubic meters per second (11,000,000 cubic feet per second) in the rainy season, with an annual average of 209,000 cubic meters per second (7,400,000 cubic feet per second). At that rate, the Amazon is responsible for no less than 20% of the fresh water entering the Earth's oceans.

The river pushes a vast plume of fresh water out into the Atlantic Ocean, reaching some 400 kilometers (250 miles) long and between 100 and 200 kilometers (62 and 124 miles) wide.
     This place is home to one fifth of 
     all the bird species on Earth, and 
     one third of all plant species.

As captivating as the Amazon’s sheer immensity may be, there’s more to a sense of place than scale. First off, the Amazon Rainforest is…well…a rainforest. (Okay, it’s hard to avoid the scale thing; at 1.7 billion acres, it’s nearly twice the size of the next largest tropical rainforest, and is appropriately nicknamed the “lungs of the earth.”)

A rainforest this size creates its own weather on a massive scale. The steamy exhalations of billions of plants, cooked out by the powerful equatorial sun, rise each day into the atmosphere. There they’re swirled and cooled, wringing out the moisture as rain. And so it goes, day in and day out.

This daily cycle is mirrored in the region's semiannual rainy/dry cycle of seasons. All life here has adapted to the river's predictable 30-foot annual rise and fall, and the flooding of some 140,000 square miles of forest. Tree trunks and the jungle floor, home for half the year to creatures that walk, crawl and slither, become the realm of fish and marine mammals the rest of the year.

PHOTO: Kevin Cure via Wikimedia Commons

The heat and humidity support an astounding range of plant and animal life. Like a colossal, multi-stage Darwinist coffee maker, the jungle canopy comprises at least four distinct levels, the occupants of each extracting what they need from the light, water and air movement percolating through it.

To one unaccustomed to the combination of heat, humidity and light-devouring density of foliage, the jungle here, even at mid-day, feels like a steam bath during a power outage. (I couldn’t take a decent photo without flash.) One can only admire the species, including homo sapiens, which have managed to adapt so successfully to such a climate.

In an environment this unique, this exotic, the notion of place eclipses that of time. How immediate it seems, the fact that this place was once attached to Africa.

Geologically, the pieces—today’s continents—fit like those of a jigsaw puzzle, and, though I know the supposition has been debated by science, many of Amazonia’s species—from certain types of rodents, to monkeys, to large cats, to aquatic mammals and fish—would appear tellingly similar to antecedents found only in Africa.

Paralleling the geology is the amazing hydrological history of the Amazon. At one time, the river actually flowed from east to west. But with the splitting of the South American and African continents some 120 million years ago, and the subsequent upheaval of the Andes, the flow was blocked, creating first a vast inland sea. Then, fed by snow melt from the new mountain range, the sea eventually burst through to the Atlantic, and the Amazon resumed its flow, this time west to east.

In more recent history, Amazonia has been ruthlessly exploited for monetary gain, from the collecting, processing and transporting rubber, to the messy mining of gold, nitrates and guano, to harvesting the rainforest’s rare woods and medicinal plants, to the clearing of more than eight square miles per day for cattle grazing, coca production and other commercial development.

Iquitos's Iron House - Gustave Eiffel, 1889
The effects of the rubber boom—from roughly 1880 to 1915, and again briefly during World War II—can still be seen in Iquitos, Manaus and Belém, where vestiges of European wealth and sensibility still adorn the architecture. The era's ruinous effects on the population and cultures of the region’s indigenous peoples will do doubt outlast the most durable of those buildings.

Today, the brutality inflicted on this land, on these people, remains raw as the world continues demanding more and more of Amazonia’s natural riches. And it is impossible to marvel at the place’s natural beauty without acknowledging—without feeling—that reality.

Of the many unforgettable experiences of this trip, one stands out for its eloquence in articulating this ineffable sense of place.

So, one evening just as the sun is setting, we’re on our way back to the cruise boat in the skiffs. We’re in the middle of a rather wide part of the river, near where the Marañon and Ucayali join to form the Amazon proper. There’s a spectacular sunset. No, wait, there are two…no three.


Looking around the 360-degree panorama, I see three distinct areas of bright horizon and Turner-worthy peach-pink clouds. And, swear to God, I can’t tell which of them is the one, real sunset. Never have I seen anything like it, and our guide, perhaps inured to the phenomenon, casually points out the genuine article, but cannot explain the imposters.

We head over to within 50 yards of the eastern bank, where a spectacular stand of 12- to 15-foot pampas grass sways in the barely perceptible breeze. Our guide suggests we be quiet, listen and wait. Within a few minutes, a flock of a dozen or so green parrots, jabbering excitedly—flying all the way across the river and right over our heads—alights atop the elegant plumes of the pampas grass.

Then, from a slightly different direction, comes another flight. And then another…and another…and another. For the next fifteen minutes, from all over the surrounding rainforest, for miles around, they come by the scores, the hundreds, to roost for the night. By the time we leave, we have to shout to one another to be heard over the din.

The parrots have found their place here in this tall-grass microcosm of Earth’s greatest rainforest. A few billion other critters, having evolved over eons to thrive here, have found their places too. And so, one would hope, have I.

This precious week has shown me both how insignificant and how powerful I am: insignificant for the rarified millisecond in evolutionary time that I've spent here, hoping to better understand one or two things about this incredibly vast and complex biosphere.

Powerful in the fact that my species, in the way we live, the personal and political choices we make thousands of miles from here, may well hold the key to continuing survival for this timeless place and all its inhabitants.

I am deeply grateful for the chance to better realize the connection...and the difference.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


The Amazon. This great river—arguably the longest in the world and by far the largest by the size of its watershed and the volume of discharge at its mouth—has fascinated me ever since I was a boy. The deepest, darkest jungles, the strangest plants, animals and aquatic creatures, the harmony with Nature and reputed mystical powers of its human inhabitants. The fact that its water levels rise and fall by as much as 50 feet each year, turning vast areas into underwater forests…all considered the normal cycle of the ecosystem.

The first horror movie I ever saw, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, was set in the Amazon Rainforest, as have been many others before and since—including Werner Herzog’s incredible 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo. Then there are the books: River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s epic, near-deadly 1913 expedition down an as-yet-uncharted Amazon tributary; Walking the Amazon, Brit Ed Stafford’s account of his 860-day, 4,000-mile tracing of the great river on foot; and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.

So, last fall, when my brother asked me if I’d like to join him for a week-long cruise on the Amazon’s upper reaches in Peru, I jumped in, as it were, with both feet. He signed us up with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) for their Peruvian Amazon Cruise.

I’d intended to journal my experience—at least the best I could during any down time we might have. But both a severe sinus infection and a paucity of free time between outings and events conspired to quash that intention. So I’m taking a new and different approach to my blogging about this trip: Rather than a straight, day-by-day travelogue recounting events as they happened, I’m hitting on several key aspects of the experience, letting my photos tell as much of the story as my words.

So my posts, starting here, will be on People, Place, Art and Craft, and, of course, Nature.

    I never felt the event was hackneyed—

    you know, that ten minutes after we left 
    the next tour group would arrive for the 
    natives’ fifth or sixth perfunctory 
    performance that day.

One of my clients once put on a slide show about a  trip he and his wife had recently made to Kenya. I’ll never forget how grossly he over-generalized what he’d learned—explaining that Africans are so this and Africans think that. He’d been in one part of one country on the world’s second biggest continent…and he’d been there a week.

It's foolish to characterize any place or people by the handful of representative locals one usually manages to meet as a tourist. What I can say is that the few Peruvians I did meet—from the workers at Lima’s airport, to our mototaxi drivers in Iquitos, to the crew of our Amazon river boat, to shopkeepers, to folks we met walking around—struck me as among the kindest, most welcoming hosts I’ve met in my travels.

Nowhere was this kindness more evident than in the rainforest villages we visited along the Amazon and Marañon rivers. I know OAT's A Day in the Life* experiences have to be planned in advance (though one of them, our guide insisted, was entirely spontaneous). But I’ve been on quite a few of these so-called “cultural immersion” visits around the world, and with OAT’s version I never got the feeling the event was highly scripted or hackneyed—you know, that ten minutes after we left, the next tour group would arrive for the natives’ fifth or sixth perfunctory performance that day.

  Folks...encouraged our participation in brewing
  chicha, the fermented, manioc-root-and-saliva- 
  based drink (known locally as masato).

While the settlements we visited lie within the protected Pacaya and Samiria National Reserve, countless other communities in the Amazon rainforest—those in the crosshairs of development’s big guns—face some difficult decisions. Do we try to meet our sometimes dire, short-term needs by selling off our birthright? Do we offer up our slice of the richest biodiversity on the planet to the highest bidder to scour for its rare woods and mineral deposits, for non-native agriculture, grazing land or building plots?


Or do we choose, in return for modest financial consideration, to share this priceless gift with mostly-kind-hearted, respectful visitors from around the world—albeit at the price of a bit of our privacy, and with the concession that it will still fray that primordial natural fabric a bit around the edges?

The people we met in the villages of San Regis and Monte Alegre seem to have embraced the latter option with gusto. They’re proud of their bountiful backyards, their traditions and values, the progress they’ve made in terms of education, public service and health care, and the awe-inspiring river whose rising and falling, whose relentless, all-consuming power, sets the rhythms of their lives.

Folks showed us—and encouraged our participation in—some of their daily activities: preparing a fine lunch neatly rolled up and steamed in banana leaves; weaving a backpack out of two palm fronds; brewing chicha, their fermented, manioc-root-and-saliva-based drink (known locally as masato).

We visited the school in San Regis, where the children seemed genuinely excited to see us. Under the watchful gaze of their teacher, our guide, Daniel, put them through their paces with a little game. After introductions, each child had to remember at least one of our group members’ names and home towns, and then, when that person's name was called, run to her or him with a handshake or a hug. They sang us a song and then joined in joyously as we sang for them: “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap your Hands!”

       I could easily imagine a few seeds of 
       destiny being sown behind those young, 
       impressionable, awe-struck faces.

Many Peruvians, including our guides, were quite open with us about their country's checkered past, recounting for us the hardships and horrors of life during the militant, communist Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s and that group's equally brutal overthrow by President Alberto Fujimori during the 1990s. While we met apologists for both sides of the conflict, all agreed they had lived through a national nightmare.

Still, these folks are optimistic about the future for their children. Yet they do their best to hang onto timeless values, wise, sustainable use of land and water, rituals and artistic expression. The artisans—weavers, basket makers, painters, wood carvers, a boutique rum producer—though certainly highly skilled, surprised me with the modesty of their efforts to sell us some of their beautiful, delectable wares.

In Nauta town, we dropped in, unannounced, on a man in his earthen-floored, unplumbed, wood-fired-kitchen shanty. In thanks for his hospitality and willingness to answer our questions about his daily life, we’d stopped at the public market downtown where each of us had bought him a little something—rice, pasta, sugar, soap…and a live chicken. I’ll never forget his big grin when we spread out that stock of items on his table—goods that had cost us no more than a couple of dollars each.

Our knowledgeable, multi-talented, articulate trip leader, Erik Flores, was born here in the rainforest. He remembers, as a boy, wanting to be a pilot. But his elders quickly dismissed his dream as unaffordable for families of their meager means. So he pursued several other careers, including as a mattress salesman, before realizing his interest in language. And that led, serendipitously, to his job as a guide for Overseas Adventure Travel.

In the pueblitos we visited, I watched the faces of young people as they soaked in Erik’s confident, commanding presence, listening as he, obviously a master of this foreign language, English, enthralled our group with the wonder of this place whose blood obviously still runs through his veins. I could easily imagine a few seeds of destiny being sown behind those young, impressionable, awe-struck faces.

* Overseas Adventure Travel is committed to meaningful interaction with  the communities their tour groups visit. Through the Grand Circle Foundation, OAT supports more than 200 schools in 60 countries around the world.