28 November 2009

the river real

When I embarked on a river voyage down the Amazon in August, nothing could have prepared me for the otherwordly beauty of Peru, the Amazon and its people. It was a fairy-tale trip of cultural immersion come true.

Two dozen of us spent eight days in a blissful state of unplugged idyll on International Expedition’s Amazon Voyage – meandering several hundred miles along the Amazon River, from Iquitos to the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve and back, on the small, yet amenity-equipped riverboat La Amatista (“The Amethyst).

We walked through rainforests, watched sunrises from our boat, listened to the most beautiful symphony of howler monkeys, horned screamers, flocks of parakeets and fluttering bats and butterflies, and had an acute awareness of every inch of skin that was exposed to the sultry humidity of the jungle.

It was the people, though, who most stirred my soul. Here are four of their stories.

He had a quiet, confident presence, but Robinson’s wild intelligence, understanding of his surroundings — he was born in the rainforest, after all — and his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for all living creatures was what was infectious.

With exaggerated trills of the “r” (that I couldn’t quite master), our tour guide deciphered the differences between the Amazon kingfisher and its Ringed species counterpart — we stopped counting different bird species at 102 varieties. He pointed out breadfruit and jackfruit trees and unfolded the medicinal benefits of the fer de lance tree in treating snake bites.

But what impacted me most was this point he made: “Activism about animal rights is a luxury of education.” When our skiff happened upon a young woman who’d killed two caimans, he delicately explained to her the benefits of at least allowing the amphibious beasts to mature long enough to reproduce. Robinson respected the environment, yet he understood the Ribereños’ (or river people) necessity to survive.

The river people — small communities of hunters, fishermen and gatherers — are simple, yet they’re hardly poor. It’s a different reality than what we’re accustomed to. Yet their standards of living are no better or worse than ours, and the Ribereños’ simple contentment is enviable. Robinson hopes increased tourism to the rainforest will bring more eco-conscious eyes to the Amazon, and ideally enabling hunters to become artisans and slowing the draining of the Amazon’s natural resources.

The children eyed us as we stood before a classroom in a village named “August 11th.” Nearly 20 students ranging from two to 12 years old sat attentively at their desks lined in four neat rows.

It didn’t take much prodding for George, our able tour guide and natural born entertainer, to have the kids singing, “How are you my friend, how are you?” As we gringos stumbled through simple “muy bien” responses, I recommitted myself to learning to speak Spanish. No excuses, this time.

Like Robinson, George was born in the rainforest and had been inspired to become a tour guide by a similar school visit when he was a child. His enthusiasm for inspiring the young Ribereños resonated in the intuitive connection he had with the children. Under his tutelage, we recited and learned one another’s names. The students recited their national anthem (not an easy task, as it has seven stanzas); we got off easy singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”

Friendship came easy with Ernesto, as well as the other Peruvian tour guides on the boat — Rudy, Fernando, Hernando, Robinson, George and Laura.

Ernesto, the Peruvian poster boy for following your dreams and finding happiness,
grew up in Ocongate, a village 2.5 hours east of Cusco. The second-youngest of six children, he knew by the age of six that he wanted to be a tour guide and a farmer.

His curious British accent (he learned English by listening to British music) belied his copper-brown skin and dark, wavy hair and I couldn’t help but feel a sweet affection for the kind-hearted, kid-at-heart as we exchanged stories and ideas and pored over maps of South America during the course of the trip.

After carefully climbing the steep, uneven steps to a rustic coastal village, we came face-to-face with an ear-to-ear smile and sparkling deep brown eyes. Bany, an 11-year-old girl, held out a section of watermelon that I happily accepted.

Immediately enthralled by the curiosities that we were, Bany stayed close and an entourage of her young female friends soon followed suit. She placed chicken feathers in my hair and I pulled her raven locks back with my blue silk scarf. She giggled as my face was painted with fiery streaks of achiote (a pigment made from seeds). When it came time to say goodbye, Bany grabbed my hand and indicated to Ernesto that she wanted to show us something.

Halfway up the hill, she announced that she wanted to watch us kiss. Taken aback, I reacted rather clumsily. Without skipping a beat, though, Ernesto snatched the opportunity to have an impromptu talk with the inquisitive young girl about intimacy.

Bany’s eyes widened as Ernesto explained that she’d have more opportunities in the world if she waited just two years longer than the other girls to have a baby. When he conveyed the conversation to me in English, I was moved almost to tears by his thoughtful gesture.

The Company: The 10-day Amazon Voyage is run by International Expeditions, which also organizes nature travel tours. Prices for this trip start at $3048, not including round-trip airfare to Lima. Occasionally, IE offers a $500 per person discount.

Travel: My itinerary started in Seattle, with a layover in Houston before arriving in Lima, Peru. The group of less than two dozen guests convened at Swissôtel Lima for an overnight stay before a flying to Iquitos and boarding La Amatista the following day. A valid passport is required for travel to Peru, but no visas are required. There is a departure tax from Peru, which is currently $30.25 USD.

What You’ll See: Expect to see more than 100 bird species, as well as three-toed sloths, pink and gray river dolphins, squirrel monkeys, woolly monkeys and a large variety of tree and plant species. Don’t expect to see a jaguar. Hernando said that in the 70-plus trips he’s led on the Amazon, he has only seen one – and only for about seven seconds.

What You’ll Do: The trip balanced boat and land excursions. At least one or two big adventures were planned each day, including village and classroom visits; hiking in the rainforest in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve; fishing for (and later eating) piranha; swimming in the Amazon; canoeing; searching for bats after dark; shopping for local artisan products; drinking Pisco Sours as the guides and crew played musical instruments; learning about the medicinal benefits of plants from a local medicine man; and educational seminars on everything from the local politics and people to in-depth information on the Amazon and its history.

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