Manaus: Iquitos in northeastern Peru is the largest human habitation that cannot be reached by road. We fly there from Lima, leaving a cold grey foggy city and arriving into a wall of thick hot humidity. The two cities are so incredibly different, it seems impossible that Iquitos and Lima are in the same country. Everything from the climate to the food is of another world. Iquitos feels a lot more like Asia: the people look Asian, there are ‘mototaxis’ (rickshaws) everywhere instead of cars, the buses are open-sided, rice is growing and the evening bar music is accompanied by cicadas and frogs loudly interrupting from the encroaching jungle.
We set the fan to high, strip off our wintry clothes, wet with sweat, and eat in outside cafés. We try ice-creams made from Amazonian fruits, find our favourites and repeatedly select those. We find out about boats and book one that’s leaving the following day.
We visit Belén, a stilted slum district and floating market (sometimes compared to Venice!), once home to the jungle tribes that were captured and enslaved here to work on the rubber plantations. We find it not floating but standing high and dry. The Amazon river is at its lowest level for 40 years. Large cruise liners and other boats are stranded in a sea of grass, others are stuck in the sand on the riverbed.
Iquitos is a town relaxing on its rich past. It was once a wealthy rubber city, so rich that fine buildings were constructed here in the middle of the forest – Gustave Eiffel even designed an iron house, which was constructed in europe and then shipped piece by piece out here. It is exactly that – a house made of bolted sheets of iron and, notwithstanding its novelty value, nothing special.
The market displays the usual horrifying jungle ware of every forest animal. It’s sad to think that the only time I’ve seen some of these animals, like armadillos, is when they are sliced up on a market stall. We leave the sorry scene and take a small boat to a butterfly house and animal rescue centre. On the way, our boatman asks if we’d like to visit the serpentarian, where they have an anaconda. It’s part of the rescue centre, he tells us.
We arrive at the centre and I am immediately given a sloth to hold. It’s a gorgeous creature, but I’m a little bemused. Not as surprised as Nick is, to be draped with an anaconda. Why are these animals in here, I ask. Will they be released soon? The guys working there, tell us the animals are being looked after, but the truth is obvious. The animals are in tiny, dirty concrete cages and clearly only being kept there for tourist money. A baby woolly monkey is in one cage, turning round and round in circles. We leave.
The butterfly house and animal refuge is better, in that the cages are larger and part of the jungle. The owners assure us that they take in injured or trafficked animals for release. But I’m not sure how likely it is that the jaguar they have will be released ever. We ask about the ‘serpentarian’. It’s an illegal operation, we’re told, which they have complained about, but the police are just bought off every time they go to shut it down. Depressing.
Back in Iquitos, my luck is in, I find a Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami in a café run by a Brit who married an Iquitos woman – just in time for the long boat ride.
We take the speedboat to the tri-border of Santa Rosa (Peru), Leticia (Colombia) and Tabatinga (Brazil), a journey of just 10 hours, and arrive in time to formally leave Peru, but too late for the Brazilian immigration (Brazil’s an hour ahead). Colombian pesos and Brazilian reals are accepted in Tabatinga but not Peruvian soles, annoyingly. So we travel into Leticia to change money, visiting three countries in a couple of hours – not bad.
Next morning, we discover there’s (unusually) a boat leaving today to Manaus at 1pm. We race to immigration for the usual formalities, over to the port to buy boat tickets and then to the market for supplies (fruit, hammocks, water, biscuits).
At the port with our bags, there’s a delay – the boat’s not leaving till 3pm. We sit down, only then realising that the other passengers (we are the only gringos), are mostly stunningly attractive young women wearing approximately nothing. Nick’s eyes are popping out of his head at all this beautiful flesh. I punch them back in and make him focus on the job in hand: securing a place in the queue. Our bags must be positioned in line, so that when we get onto the boat, we get a good hammock space.
The minutes, then hours tick by. The beautiful women wander around listlessly, sighing, stretching, swishing their hair like a shampoo ad. The few men are spectacularly unattractive, ancient or teenagers. I give Nick regular kicks to remind him that he’s with the grumpy faced, hairy-legged one, in case he forgets. At 5pm, I ask the ticket lady what sort of time she anticipates us boarding. We’re waiting for the federal police to check the boat.
A few geological eras pass and a panel of suited and booted officers arrive with a few sniffer dogs, who proceed to try to have sex with each other in an unprofessional manner. Introductions over, we wait another age for the bags to be checked, before being allowed into the waiting room. There, my patience is most magnificently rewarded by the entrance (accompanied in my head, at least, by divine trumpets) of six tall, handsome, grinning guys in a wonderful police uniform consisting of black micro shorts and little muscle vests. I’m not entirely sure what division of the Brazilian police force these men represent, but, as a tourist, they are certainly the most pleasant border guards I’ve met. (Much to learn from, Miami border control!) More searching and then we get onto the boat – it’s 7.30 and dark.
This is no lovely Navimag. It’s a very basic ocean liner, thousands of kilometres from the ocean, and it’s our home for the next four days. We scramble aboard and choose a good spot for the hammocks, string them up and climb in like swinging monkeys. And that’s where we spend the next few days.
This is the world’s biggest river, larger in volume than the next 10 biggest rivers together. Once upon a time, it originated in the Congo basin in Africa and flowed to the Pacific. Then the continents split and lifted, and the river’s flow changed direction to the Atlantic. We’ve been to its birthplace in the Peruvian Andes near Arequipa, and we’ll leave it in Manaus.
The jungle slides by in a wall of green trees, banked at times with golden beaches and the rubble of fallen trees. Pink and grey river dolphins leap out of the water and play in pods. But otherwise we see little wildlife – one-third of all the world’s species live in this rainforest.
Meals are served at regular but peculiar times: 6am breakfast, 11am lunch, 5pm dinner. The food starts as rice beans and meat, and gets progressively more tasteless. We snack on biscuits and jelly sweets, and ward off scurvy with apples and oranges.
Our world is reduced to an open hall of swinging hammocks. We lie back and admire their many colours and designs. Some have pretty lace sides, others have interesting weaves. We watch the people in the hammocks. Some are swinging, from some a shapely leg dangles, others cocoon sleeping bundles, in some, a wild dance of flailing limbs goes on – they are the ones holding children.
I marvel at how well everyone gets on. Here, as in elsewhere in the developing world, it is perfectly natural for different people, for families to travel together for days at a time in close proximity without drama. Mothers feed babies; teenage girls coo over the babies and play with them; teenage boys flirt with the teenage girls (little success) and emit an endless stream of shite music from their mobile phones; the many beautiful young women enter a routine of endless plucking, tweaking, tweezering, nail varnishing and filing, hair-combing, make-up and general maintenance of their perfection. We read (except I finish my books too soon), swing, doze, eat, snooze, snack and chat in Spanish to the few Brazilians who speak it (despite the country being surrounded by Spanish speakers).
Being the only gringos on board makes us briefly interesting, until people realise that we don’t speak Portuguese. On my right is a physiotherapist who is ravelling to Manaus to speak at a conference on sexual violence, a field she also works in. We share our snack supplies. Next to her is a family with a tiny baby and a little girl, who is small enough to do running jumps onto her father when he’s sleeping in the hammock. I remember when my daddy was big enough to jump on.
On Nick’s left are a couple of teenage boys who have only 3 songs that they play in a never-ending loop on their mobile phones: Alone by Heart, the Portuguese version of Alone and another song in Portuguese that we don’t know. Nick and I discuss throwing the phones overboard, or the boys, or ourselves. How can a kid’s mobile battery last so long? Both boys wear identical football tops and have identical football towels. They spend an excessively long time combing their hair with hand-held mirrors and rubbing some foul smelling cologne over it. It’s a pointless exercise because they cover it p with baseball hats. They also spend a lot of time looking at the teenage girls opposite them (although these two groups must be the only ones that haven’t spoken to each other), and every now and again, Alone gets played a little louder to attract the girls’ attention. Maybe we should throw the girls overboard.
An old man swings manically in his hammock. One of the tall beautiful women is on closer inspection a ladyboy. People snigger meanly when she walks past, but she’s far prettier than the sniggerers. I make friends with one of the most beautiful women, Claudia, who wears a teeny tiny vest, hot pants, jewellery and full make-up that takes her a good, time-filling hour to apply. I admire her lovely nails. The reason it took her four hours to do her nails, I discover, is that they are a work of art, full of glitter and little pictures of flowers. She asks to do my toe-nails but I’m far too embarrassed to let her near my hoary old nails, let alone my big clumpy feet – she has little princess feet in pretty pointy slippers. By the third day, Claudia is wearing green contact lenses beneath her perfectly made-up eyes.
The boat trip, I realise, is actually a mini fashion show for which Nick and I are poorly and dowdily prepared. Upstairs, there’s a bar, populated during the day by hideously drunk, lecherous old men, but in the night, I assume, by the beautiful. I’m in bed by 8.30, so I can’t be sure. We go to bed early because the lights go out then and we want to stay guard by our bags. Also, the night is punctuated at all hours by stops at obscure ports to noisily load and unload cargo. And besides, doing nothing is surprisingly tiring, so we’re sleepy by 8 (unless they’re drugging the dinner…).
As time progresses, so does the number of ladyboys. By day 4, I see there are now 3 ladyboys, although whether they have newly begun dressing as women on the boat out of boredom, or were transvestites but in man-robes for boarding, is not clear. Joining in the spirit of continual preening that occupies all the other women on board, two of the ladyboys set up an impromptu hair and beauty salon. Hairdryers are plugged in and a queue of women is processed.
The boat stops for a couple of hours while police with drug dogs board and check everyone’s bags. The dogs are only interested in the food in people’s bags, though. One of them eats crisps from a suitcase and, far worse, one pees on Nick’s bag! No apology from the police officer.
The hours go by in a lazy haze of daydreaming and minor ‘activities’ (I handwash some clothes, wash my hair, shave my legs. Nick sleeps some more). It is alternately stiflingly hot and muggy, then cool and breezy. I venture upstairs to the only air-conditioned room, a small cinema. They are about to put on a film and kindly switch the settings so the subtitles are in English. ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” a woman asks me. I’m a bit baffled. “Are you a believer?” she presses me. Er, no, I say, while the rest of the audience turns in disbelief (disbelief at me, not Jesus). I’m from England, I explain.
She is unconvinced by my explanation, but tells me that the film is a biblical parable – sure enough, white robes, beards and staffs are soon displayed – and that it might not be to my taste. I scoot.
The boat is, naturally, filled with Catholics (apart from Claudia, who is Evangelical), and every day at 6.30 there is a prayer announcement (“if you want, it’s not compulsory,” a kindly lady explains), a rolling stock of biblical films and, most bizarrely, I notice that when the teenage boys pick up a book to read, it’s the New Testament. Still, other than the occasional leaflet distribution, no one tries to convert us, so we’re happy enough.
In fact, doing nothing, while the Amazon drifts by, is probably the most relaxed we’ve been since we got to South America 5.5 months ago, although my back aches a little from the banana shape.
For a good three hours before our arrival in Manaus, a kind of hysterical beautifying frenzy takes place, wherein hitherto unrevealed dresses of luxurious splendour are donned, make-up and perfume are applied to even the youngest infants and everyone looks as though they are going to a ball (except me and Nick, of course). My boat friends take pity on me and suggest we meet up in Manaus to go shopping.
I am diverted from my humiliations by the incredible Meeting Of The Waters: a merging of the pale, café au lait river that we’re on and the swirling black waters of the Rio Negro. Under us are manatees, river dolphins, perhaps even bull sharks.
Our time on the river ends as we pull into Manaus just after dark.