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.

No comments: