Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Iquitos and the Mighty Amazon

Back in the forties and early fifties the movie houses always showed ‘news shorts’ before the main feature. Frequently there were 30 second clips on the ‘Amazon Jungle and the mighty Amazon River.’ The jungle had lots of monkeys and huge snakes and other dangerous things, but even worse were the Jivaro head hunters. These guys were fierce. I mean, before you could say “Hello, my name is…” Whap! - your head would be in a pickling pot with your lips sewed shut. We kids (and quite a few adults) used to fantasize about the Amazon and vowed that when we grew up we’d go there. It took more time than expected, but I finally made it.

Iquitos is a city on the Amazon accessible only by air or boat. It is the place I would recommend to anyone who could visit Peru only once in their lifetime, because Iquitos is a composite of almost everything Peru has to offer.

The city itself has three ‘faces.’ The inner city is not much different from any of Peru’s major cities or larger towns. Anyone from Chiclayo, Arequipa, Cajamarca or even Lima would feel a familiarity walking the streets.

A second facet of the city is the river shore inhabitants. This would include Belen to the south and the fringe area bordering the city’s east side, as can be seen while walking the malecònes Tarapaca and Maldonado.

A third distinct segment is what appeared to me to be new communities being carved out of the jungle on the city’s south side. I say “appears to be new” because in Peru what looks new may be ancient or vice versa, probably because the architecture and building materials don’t change. Houses in this section are being built with untreated lumber and thatched roofs as they have been for centuries.

Several characteristics stamp Iquitos with a distinct personality. First would have to be the comparative scarcity of taxis and other private autos. In their place are thousands of moto taxis and motorcycles. Only in the jungle or outskirts of the city can you escape the sound and smell of these metal beasts. The heat and humidity were to be expected but still, the first step off the plane at the airport was like being confronted by a hostile living force. Another difference is the speech pattern of the Iquiteños, which is sing-song and melodious compared to coastal city dwellers.

And speaking of the residents, I would bet that as a percent of the total population, Iquitos has the largest gringo population of any city in Peru. There is almost never a time when several are not in view. Some are tourists, but the majority we saw were unquestionably residents, with many of them projecting an image of having ‘gone to seed’ over time. Whatever it is in Peru that brings out that ‘free spirit’ look, Iquitos has more than its share. There is even an English language newspaper – the Iquitos Times.

There is more to do and see in and about Iquitos than I expected. We managed to see everything we wanted to in five days, but just barely. A trip to the excellent tourist office will provide the visitor with maps and most of the standard tourist options.

Among the standard attractions we saw were the Manatee Rescue facility, sponsored by the Dallas World Aquarium, and that same day the nearby Quistococha zoo/lagoon/park complex. Both were worth the time. One of the attractions I reluctantly agreed to was a boat ride up the Momòn River to visit the Yahùas tribe. I was reluctant because I expected to see a theatrical production followed by various approaches to extract the last penny from my pocket…which for me is exactly what it turned out to be. Enough said about that. Subsequent days found us at the Amazon Sculpture museum in the city, and the ‘Serpentario’ located on the Nanay River, also enjoyable experiences.

The Belen market is worth seeing, but it is not a pleasant area in terms of sight and smell. Most people we talked with told us to avoid the area after 5:00pm because of pickpockets.

The activities we enjoyed most were ones we created ourselves. Boarding a colectivo at one of the terminals and riding it to its destination terminal is a good, inexpensive way to see the city. It’s also a cooling experience during the heat of the day as colectivo windows have no glass.

If you’re willing you can walk a long way along the river front in either direction from the Boulevard. Each step reveals a different perspective of the river shore inhabitants and their daily lives/activities. It was interesting to watch the river boats being unloaded at the Produce Market. It was mostly bananas and charcoal we saw being unloaded.

One of our favorite activities was to ride a moto taxi to the port of Nanay, and there to charter a peque-peque to take us to various destinations we selected on the Nanay and Momòn Rivers. We were told they don’t go on the Amazon as the current is too much for a peque-peque to handle. You don’t need a guide. Simply point to the place on a map that you would like to go and then negotiate the price with the captain.

Though there is lots of boat traffic on the rivers, riding on the Momòn River instills the feeling of a wild river and jungle environment without having to travel for many miles at significant expense. Incidentally, during our five days in the city, on the river and in the jungle we never saw a mosquito.

Walking the boulevard; stopping for a meal or cool drink (camu-camu became our favorite) and people watching is a relaxing pastime, especially toward sundown when the place comes alive. It reminded us a bit of the bohemia feel of Lima’s Kennedy Park and of Mancora.

I can understand why people would be attracted to Iquitos. It’s got something for most everyone plus there’s the attraction of the wild jungle just around the next bend in the river. The Jivaro head hunters are gone, but hey! can’t have everything!


Monday, January 17, 2011

Soldier's Field – Sunday – 3:00 pm EST

The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears play for the NFC Championship and the right to go to the Super bowl.

Those words will be the impetus for heated discussion throughout much of the United States, and will trigger all out brawls on the border of Wisconsin and Illinois. In those two states little else will be talked about this week, and on game day…well, forget about it. Shopping malls will be deserted, church services cancelled (except for special “Let us pray to beat those b*******!” services). Streets will be empty, and anyone daring to place a phone call during the game will be greeted with words from the recipient that will cripple them emotionally for years.

Moderators of internet discussion forums ranging from day care centers to doggy salons will be working overtime imploring posters to “Please keep it clean and no personal insults!” It’s hard to overstate the Packers - Bears rivalry. Anyone unfamiliar with the rivalry (perhaps someone living in Borneo) would think the Wisconsin State motto is “The Bears still suck!” And in Illinois one would believe there must be a state law requiring citizens to mention the “Green Bay Pukers!” at least 5 times daily.

The following post from the official Chicago Bears discussion forum is typical:

I might have to say that this could wind up being the biggest sporting event that Chicago has ever witnessed. I am a big Sox fan and Blackhawks fan and the Championships were great, but this game has the chance to put me into a state of depression that I might not come out of if we were to lose. We have 1 game, not best out of 7. Whatever they (Bears) need to do to win this game, they must do it. Pump extra noise into the stadium, make the field worse than it already is, food poison them (Packers) at the hotel, play unfair and knock a couple of guys out and deal with the fines later. Do whatever it takes to win this game!”

And where will I be on Sunday? Will I be sitting in front of the TV with fellow expats; a beer in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other shouting for my beloved Packers to score? Oh, noooooo. In a moment of pure insanity we scheduled a five day get-away. I’ll be in the jungle near Iquitos Peru, probably saying something like, “Oh look Maribel! - there’s another monkey!” Am I stupid or what?!



Monday, January 10, 2011

Cayalti – the next jet-setter destination?

The town of Cayalti evolved many years ago around an ancient and now unused sugar cane processing factory. The rusting metal hulk of the factory is silent, as are the three huge administrative buildings nearby. Any visitor to Cayalti would dismiss the town as nothing and quickly move on. But they're overlooking the potential. What I see is the sprawling, glitzy Cayalti Resort Complex…the place to be for anybody who is anybody. Here's the deal.

Take a look at this artist’s rendering of the complex. Can you start to see the possibilities? You’ll get even more excited as we take the tour. Let’s start at the beginning with the hotel.

This will be The Tombs hotel. It is as deep as it is wide. It used to be the administrative offices for the sugar factory. We remodel it with early Moche culture architecture and décor. We’re talking swank. I can see a central swimming pool, exercise facilities, saunas, etc. And the hotel lobby is where the hiking tours into the nearby mountains begin.

Behind the hotel is the Moche Temple Restaurant. Just look at this thing! It reeks of grandeur and sophistication. Beautiful people dressed in their $2000 suits and gowns will be pulling up to the door in gleaming moto taxis, eager to lay out $150 per plate for cuy and other authentic Peruvian cuisine. People will learn to associate The Moche Temple Restaurant with elegant dining.

Here we have the Cayalti Casino. The architecture is identical to its adjacent sister building the Moche Temple Restaurant with the exception that it is 1/3 larger. It will hold a casino to rival those in Vegas. And the place is big enough to include a large showroom for name entertainers. We’ll have to start out modestly with names like Julio Iglesias and Trini Lopes, but as we grow we’ll be able to bring in the heavy hitters. And we’ll have courtesy communication between the two buildings so the people waiting for a table at the restaurant can gamble at the casino.

Smack in the middle of our complex is the town’s principal park. We’ll call it Inca Parka. It will serve as the central connecting hub for all of our attractions. The park is near-perfect for our purposes. It’s big, attractive, has lots of benches, and is well lit at night. We’ll place four to six ‘Inca Temples’ in the park…upscale outdoor bar/snack locations with Incan uniformed staff; each oasis offering snacks and drink unique from the other.

This is the Human Sacrifice Bar and Grill. It’s now a senior center for old guys who play checkers and cards but we’ll turn it into a trendy place with beer, mixed drinks and chicken wing type stuff with live music. This is where people who don’t feel like gambling at the Cayalti Casino or dining at the Moche Temple restaurant will likely start their evening.

How about this for a promenade? We call it the Inca Trail. It’s wide and goes on forever. We close it off to vehicle traffic and put seating islands amongst the foliage down the center. On each side of the street I see upscale, one-of-a-kind shops offering original artifacts (legally of course), handmade silver, gold and precious stones jewelry, and Alpaca items from grade AAA wool. Scattered amongst the shops would be upscale lounges where shoppers can pause for refreshments.

Groupo Sink Hole runs parallel to and only 50’ from the Inca Trail. It represents the seamy side of our complex. It is the polar opposite of the Inca Trail, containing bistro joints and bars, blues bungalows, starving artist kiosks, cevicherias, chintzy trinket stalls and in between a few dimly lit storefronts dealing in ‘other’ goods and services. We won’t be able to keep up with the demand for "I’ve been to Groupo Sink Hole" T-shirts

I don’t know what we do with this place but it's got too much potential to ignore. The stairs stop at concrete walls. That freaks me out. Ya gotta wonder what this place was. Maybe we could make a Vegas style wedding chapel out of it. It would be great for bridal party photos.

After our guests have indulged extensively and spent heavily at the other attractions, there’s still Opium Alley. Look at this passage way…the one under the bell. Can’t you see a bunch of small opium dens scattered along the winding path, with hashish shacks and tattoo shops in between and Incan flute music softly blanketing the whole area? Stoned and tattooed…what a great way to finish the day!

Well…that concludes our tour. What do you think? Can you hear that ‘ka-ching’ sound? We’ll have to build a small airfield for private jets, and then we need to think about where to put the waterpark, and…oh oh…gotta go. Paris and Nicky Hilton just walked into the Tombs Hotel lobby. They’re not going to like hearing that Brad and Angelina arrived minutes ago and reserved our last room, but it's their own fault. Next time call ahead.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

About taking photos

The list of photographic subjects in the Lambayeque Region is endless. There are historical sites, colonial buildings, street markets, mountains, beautiful desert shrubbery and many more. Day in and day out what I enjoy photographing most is people. I don’t mean the standard ‘this is my cousin and her uncle’ photo. I look for that rare moment when the person (or people), setting, time and circumstances all come together to voice a statement. Ninety-five percent of the time when that type of opportunity presents itself I miss it, usually because I’m too late and the moment has passed. Sometimes I think I got the shot only to discover it’s not there when I get home. All the pieces are there but the substance is missing. The camera obviously didn’t see what I saw, perhaps because what I saw was as much a feeling as physical objects. Another reason it is difficult to photograph people is because Peruvians like to pose. They want to sit or stand erect with hair in place, clothing smoothed and a serious expression on their faces…which often destroys the effect that caught my attention to begin with.

Catching Peruvians in a candid situation is hard to do, but sometimes their posing actually creates the effect I’m looking for. I saw the head of this woman looking at me from inside her doorway and was wondering if I could get a photo of her peeking at me, when she suddenly came outside with the little girl in hand, and then struck this pose. There is a lot in this photo that speaks to me, with the repaired sandal having the loudest voice.

This man was also watching us through a window. As we approached his house he stepped to the doorway and motioned for us to come inside. For whatever reason he apparently wanted to show us the corn shucking process he and the boy were doing on corn probably grown on the plot behind his house.

We saw this family hurriedly setting up for a photo as we drew near their house. This photo…like the others above speaks to me of pride and dignity. The message is, “We sell fish!”, which is probably what their ancestors have been doing for generations in that same house in that same small village. Other sources of income likely come from the moto taxi and portable food kiosk in the background.

I have no idea who this man is but couldn’t resist taking the photo. His clothing, like something a cartoon character would wear is what initially caught my attention. The contradiction of the lettering above his head and his being asleep didn’t dawn on me until later. Perhaps readers in Trujillo can tell us something about him.

These are just four of hundreds of photos that I call favorites. But perhaps they don’t speak to you as they do to me, and that’s okay. I believe that photos capture not only what we see but a part of who we are, and we are all different.


Saturday, January 1, 2011

Peru successfully repels Muñeco invasion!

For centuries relations between the nations of Peru and bordering Muñecostan have been stormy, with violent border skirmishes a frequent occurrence. Last night in vicious street fighting seen throughout the country, courageous Peruvian citizens met and soundly defeated invading Muñecostani forces. Nowhere was the fighting more ferocious than on the city streets of Chiclayo.

For the past two days Muñecostani forces at the squad and platoon levels were seen secretly assembling all over the city; their attempts to ‘blend in’ largely unsuccessful as sharp eyed Chiclayanos noticed ‘unnatural mannerisms,’ and even children were heard to exclaim...”There is something different about those people”.

What sounded like sporadic shooting was heard across the city at approximately 11:45pm, followed by a barrage of explosives exactly at midnight. Commando units from the Muñecostani 2nd battle group 8th infantry had parachuted onto the roof tops of houses and businesses, intent of firing at Peruvians on the streets below. Their plan failed when Chiclayo’s roof dogs literally tore them to shreds before they knew what hit them.

Muñecostani cavalry units didn’t fare any better…most of them falling victim to collisions with combis and taxis before ultimately joining their comrades in a fiery death at the hands of Chiclayo’s outraged citizens.

Row after row of charging infantry Muñecos were mowed down where they stood. To the shock of Chiclayanos, the bodies of women Muñeco soldiers were found in direct violation of Muñecostan’s own laws which state that no women are permitted to serve in active combat areas.

Amidst cries of “Die!...Muñeco…Die!” the screams of burning Muñecos could be heard mingled among the constant explosions – their gasoline dowsed cardboard or cloth uniforms having gone up in flames.

In a desperate attempt to salvage victory the Muñecos offered their version of the Trojan horse…El elefante loco (The crazy elephant). Chiclayanos were not fooled and quickly made prisoners of the Muñeco soldiers hidden inside. The elephant was later filled with explosives and burned…as were the prisoners. Unfortunately atrocities occur in all wars.

As Peruvian officials were announcing victory to the world, Muñecostan president Cugo Hhàvez denied any invasion had taken place, instead claiming that thousands of innocent Muñeco tourists had been slaughtered and vowing revenge next New Year’s Eve.


Ps… Seriously now, the burning of muñecos on New Year’s Eve is a tradition I look forward to. It is impossible, at least for me to capture in words or photos the surreal transition that takes place in entire neighborhoods over a large part of this city at midnight. Cheering people gathered in the streets…the constant deafening roar of ground and aerial fireworks combined with eye-stinging lung-searing thick black smoke from hundreds of burning muñecos as far as the eye can see creates the impression that Armageddon has arrived. All of these activities are prohibited and illegal. There are no police to be seen at midnight.

Happy New Year everybody!