Hammocks, Huts and Hallucinations.

10 01 2009

Once we had arrived in Chiclayo, we then had to catch another bus onto Tarapoto. From here we would head to Yurimaguas, where we would board a boat that would take us all the way to Iquitos, a journey covering 3 days. It was hard to ignore the fact that it was rainy season once we decided to head inland. Each night, and most of the day we were subject to the heaviest rain that we had come across in the entire trip; you were soaked to the skin in the blink of an eye. With a day to spare in Tarapoto we decided to buy our supplies for the boat; the essentials such as Pringles, chocolate, fruit, water and the most crucial item – a hammock! With 3 nights on the boat, unless you planned to spend it sleeping on the metal deck, a hammock was a must! I was getting excited; this was shaping into a real South American adventure!


With the supplies packed, the next day we headed onto Yurimaguas, and once there, we caught a tuk tuk to the port. The port was alive with peddlers, pushers, touts and tourists, and the ground was rich with knee deep mud and sawdust. Yet thankfully there were the remnants of a thin plank walk way through the midst of it all. We precariously carried our stuff along and onto our home for the next 3 days – the reasonably ship shape looking “Eduardo III” – alongside Eduardo II though it looked like the Titanic so we were extra thankful for that. There are five ‘Eduardo’s’ in total, each taking it turns to make the round journey to Iquitos and back.


The ground deck was already filling with live chickens, plantain, oil, vegetables and numerous other interesting items. We made our way up the top deck; after some research online we deemed this to be the best deck on board, and judging by the fact that it was the most expensive, the shipping company must have deduced the same thing. Not only is it the furthest from the engine, and thus the noise and heat that it produces. It is also has open sides (plastic sheeting is secured over it at night and during rain) so you can sit and look out, and a nice breeze at night that helps lull you to sleep. It was also the least crowded as well. Once on deck, a deckhand kindly offered to put our hammocks up, and in return we kindly offered to place some money in his out turned hand… With them firmly secured though, and our bags safely locked up and padlocked to a pole, we headed off to explore the market and get one last dinner on dry land.


We found a quiet little restaurant just 5 minutes from the boat, and ordered the fish of the day with rice and chips. We watched as it was freshly prepared and smoked on the fire outside, before being served. The fish had awfully sharp teeth, and resembled a piranha! However I was told by the old man running the place that it was in fact a relative of the piranha, and not the real McCoy. It tasted good though and we wolfed it down and headed back on the boat as the ships horn began to sound warning us of its impending departure.


I love boat life! The next three days consisted of sleeping, eating (food is provided on the boat – 3 meals a day and very good quality!) sleeping some more, a game of chess or scrabble, reading, dozing, chatting to our hammock neighbours from Portugal, playing with the kids on deck and watching the river go slowly by. The sun would rise and set on the river. Occasionally we would pull into port, and more bananas would be piled on deck, and interesting smells would pass my nose, as numerous different dishes were brought on deck to tempt us. I spent most of the time though, when we were anchored trying to dodge water balloons!


At every stop, the local kids would be standing with buckets filled with copious amounts of water balloons, filled from the river itself, waiting for an unsuspecting backpacker, fresh from a hammock induced doze to stumble clammy eyed to the side rail to look out at the new surrounding! Then with great glee, they would launch a bombardment that would have made Churchill proud – balloon after balloon catching the wide eyed tourist (me…) square in the chest, face, and once even my Pringles! Big mistake… Soaking wet and fuming, I tried to catch a balloon so that I could launch my own attack and frantically grab back some pride… I failed.


Finally the port of Iquitos loomed into sight. Iquitos is the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, with a population of 370,962. It is generally considered the most populous city in the world that cannot be reached by road. Once off the boat, we were bombarded with offers off a lift into town, and as our sea legs hadn’t quite adjusted, we consented. After five minutes we began to wish we hadn’t. Our driver wove recklessly in and out of the traffic, and to top it all off initiated a road rage induced tuk tuk war – at traffic lights our driver cut another up, so he in turn lashed out with his boot at our driver covering him with mud, so our driver attempted to push him into the line of oncoming traffic… as passengers we could only sit, opened mouthed in horror, with our hands tightly grasping the side. Luckily we reached our hostel in one piece (no tip for him!) and checked into the delightfully named, Hobo Hideout. Our room was up three flights of stairs, and was mostly thatched with an actual bear skin rug on the floor!


The reason we had come to Iquitos was to find a guide who would be prepared to take us further up the River Amazon and explore the Peruvian Selva (the Jungle). We spent the first day in Iquitos exploring and attempting to book a tour to depart in the next day or so. We were lucky enough to come across a man named Alex who ran a tour company called Ecological Jungle Trips (Opposite The Yellow Rose restaurant if you are ever in neighbourhood.) We had looked at many different trips, and the biggest downfall was that many had prescribed itineraries, and the accommodation was pretty fancy. We wanted to rough it in the jungle and to do what ever took our fancy. Alex was our man. Our tour was for five days and five nights, the accommodation was a choice of a hut or camping in the jungle, and we were free to pick and choose our activities as we pleased; and all for a very reasonable price.


We had a day in hand before we left to on our trip so decided to take a boat across to a place that had been recommended to us: it was an animal orphange and butterfly farm called Pilpintuwasi. Heading down to the port we came across a bizarre sight; one man was transporting his cow across to his village in his little boat! There was barely enough room for them both, it was very amusing to watch them navigate the busy waterway.


After haggling the price down we too headed out in a boat of our own (animal free). The ride to the park was around 50 minutes. Once there it was a further 30 minutes to the sanctuary itself.


Arriving we headed up the main path to be greeted by a small monkey, screeching at us and jumping around; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little alarmed. Anxiously tip toeing around him we headed up to look further around the park. My guard was up though; I wasn’t going to be jumped by a monkey again! The first place we looked in was the butterfly enclosure. It was amazing seeing them fly all around, their vivid iridescent wings shining in the sunshine. My favourite were the Blue Morpho butterflies; their great aqua marine wings caught my eye everywhere I turned, as they played around head. We got to see the chrysalises squirming about with life, and were even lucky enough to witness a butterfly hatching before our eyes and make its first flight into the cool jungle air.


After the butterfly enclosure we headed down to see the Cheetah. The conditions in the sanctuary are about as good as they come. The animals have all been rescued from far worse situations, and the guides are very knowledgeable about them. On the way down to Cheetah, we were joined by a little friend – the monkey we when we arrived! He followed us along the fence, seemingly calm after our aggressive introduction. Without warning he suddenly jumped down towards Claire, and climbed up her leg, and onto her shoulder. He stayed there as we looked at the jungle, attempting to undo the string on her shorts. His human like hands picking at the knot until it was undone.


After he got bored of that he jumped onto my back and undid the zip on my bag. Before I even realised what he was up too, he had taken a box of matches and jumped into a tree. I did not want to be responsible for burning down an Animal Orphanage, so frantically tried to coax him down with the offer of food. He refused, and spent the next 20 minutes shaking the box and throwing them around the jungle. Thank goodness for safety matches! The rest of the trip passed with out incidence, or almost did We saw Anteaters, McCaws and many different types of monkeys, including some very cute marmosets and pygmy marmosets. Right at the end of trip just before we were going to leave, I started talking to a very sad looking monkey who was missing some fingers. He was fascinated by my watch, and reached for my wrist to take a closer look. He then began to inspect my hair for any bugs. I let him do so, and he thoroughly began a search for anything that might be lurking there. After around 5 minutes though, he suddenly flipped: he started shrieking and running about. Something still haunted him from his life before the Sanctuary, and he was very distressed by something, hopefully not something he found in my hair… The guide anxiously signalled for us to walk away slowly and we made our exit.


When we got back to Iquitos, we made sure that we had copious amounts of mosquito repellent packed and that our camera batteries were charged and ready to go. That evening, we decided to head to the cinema as tickets were ridiculously cheap. Popcorn in hand, we decided to watch a particularly dire teen/horror film (in hindsight, I hasten to add – I don’t make a habit of choosing films I know are rubbish…) However it was one of the more interesting cinematic experiences I have had. Half way through the film I could hear squeaking and the flutter of wings, and looked up 5 minutes later to see a couple of bats flying around the auditorium; even more noteworthy given the subject of the film – Vampires! I definitely recommend the Iquitos cinema for their avant garde approach to cinema.


The next morning bright and early we headed off to begin our Amazonian jungle adventure. We were picked up by Alex and driven to nearby town of Nauta. From here we would go on a 3 hour boat trip to our final destination. In Nauta we were introduced to Lucio, our guide. Lucio was born in the village near where we would be staying, and had lived in the jungle all his life. He spoke no English at all, so we had to get by on our limited Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. In the jungle though, this proved to be no problem. You don’t really need to talk much in case you scare the animals away, and when we did we got by perfectly.


We arrived at our base camp by dug out canoe, again sampling the delights of drifting lazily down the river. Our base camp consisted of wooden food hall and kitchen, 5 smaller bedrooms connected by walk way, each equipped with a two mattresses and mozzie nets, a small toilet away from the main building and a football pitch in the middle. All around us we could make out the weird and wonderful noises that made up jungle life – our imagination began to run away with us. What was out there!? Over the next 5 days our senses were attacked by a five prong charge. We were determined to make the most of our Amazonia jungle experience.


Our guide Lucio was great. He was the Master of Machete and could rival Doctor Dolittle when it came to making animal noises. He taught us a great deal about his home, the medicinal properties and the animals. We even learnt jungle folklore. The first day we arrived, after an hour or so to get our bearings and collect our wellys, we headed off into the jungle to see what lay around the camp. We didn’t follow a path, simply used the machete to mark the way, occasionally checking the sun to know where we were. Lucio pointed out numerous trees and plants on the way, occasionally cutting of the bark to show us its medicinal qualities. There were treatments for everything, from diabetes to cancer.


When we got thirsty, Lucio cut away at a large tree root, shaping a section about a metre long, before handing it to us. By tipping it up, we were able to drink the nutrient full water that lay inside. It was fantastic! The only problem we had was with the bloody mosquitoes! Pardon my French, but they annoy me more than anything in the world. They serve no purpose only to irritate and spread disease… Lucio spread some orange goo on us from one tree that was supposed to prevent getting bitten. This was on top of the regular applications of DEET that was already warming my flesh. Not that it did any good! They were ruthless in the jungle, biting any exposed section possible. Some were so full of blood they had trouble flying away, lazily hovering from side to side, eyes glazed over in a blood drunk manner. I took great joy in killing as many as I could, hoping the message would spread, that if you drunk from me, then you had better understand it would be your last supper. Either they didn’t understand or were just too addicted they couldn’t help themselves, but they kept on biting, and I kept on slapping.

That night, covered in DEET, dead mosquitoes, mud and also my own blood, I relished the idea of a good scrub in bath. The bath being the River Amazon itself! It was fantastic, although at first a little apprehensive! I had been assured that there were no piranhas around, but then my Spanish wasn’t perfect… Lucio assured me that whilst dolphins were swimming in the water, there would be no Piranhas. Soaping myself up I timidly dipped a toe in, (note – Claire was happy to let me try first!) Toe still intact, I took a running jump, a sharp breath in, and landed with a splash in the cool refreshing water. It was heaven, the dirt left my body, and I happily swam about, relishing the experience. As I lay floating, looking up at the sky, I heard a noise approaching from my right and flash of something moving through the water. Momentary panic though was soon replaced by astonishment, as I witnessed the dorsal fin of a river dolphin breach the surface.


Later that evening we played chess by the river and had our first jungle meal, consisting of fish, rice and fried plantain. We hit the sack before the mosquitoes ate us alive. The next morning we were paddling down stream to camp, so needed to recharge our batteries. For the first night, we fell asleep to the sound of the jungle.


For the next three days we planned to camp in the forest. Each morning we awoke early and paddled further down stream. Our camp consisted of a fireplace, and three hammocks complete with mozzie nets. Each day we went for a paddle as the sun rose up, declaring each day open. We watched keenly as the animals came out to feed. After which we too headed back for a quick breakfast of fresh mango and deep fried pancakes (not so nice…) before heading out into the jungle. We walked for miles, and saw an abundance of wildlife. During our trip we saw a vast array of wildlife, from monkeys and porcupines, right through to pink dolphin!


At night we went for walks in the area around our campsite. One night Lucio came to get us from our beds where we had been reading to show us something. We slipped on our head-torches and headed to where he was standing; right on the tree in front of us was a large, incredibly hairy tarantula. It was around 2 hand spans! Right above it was something even more daunting: a scorpion spider! 8 legs, teeth and scorpion like pincers! Some things I’d rather not see, particularly when my bed was literally metres away… We also took the dug out canoe to look for crocodiles. When we had spotted a few, Lucio took us closer up and actually grabbed one from the water so that we could get a closer look. It was very… thoughtful of him!


We ate under the stars before heading off each night early as the mosquitos were even more prevalent when the sun had gone down. Each night we had to do a tedious check of every inch of the inside of our mosquito nets! Just one of the little devils in and you would know it in the morning!


Two of the three days we went fishing for piranhas for dinner! For bait we had to search for a particular seed pod. After lopping of the top of one from the floor with the machete, we would tap it to find a number of fat grubs inside. Lucio was a master at knowing which ones contained them, Claire and I kept finding empties. After we had sufficient supplies, we collected our lines and headed off into piranha territory! Lucio taught us that Piranhas live in the cloudy sections of the water – areas that he described as café con leche (coffee with milk). Remember this if you are reading; who knows it might one day save your life! Claire turned out to be a dab hand at fishing for Piranhas, much to my envy and Lucio’s awe. She netted a whopping 8, to go alongside my measly 3 and one baby that I had to put back.


On the last day, we took our left over bananas and paddled to a spot where we could see some more monkeys. Sitting under the trees where they sat, Lucio instructed us to hold up our bananas. I stood open mouthed as they made their way down, pushing past each other in a rush to get a snack. They jumped into our boat, using their small little human like hands to quickly peel the skin off and get to the good stuff inside.


One monkey in particular ate his too quick and ended up with hiccups. I watched as he sat there all confused as to what was going on, before turning to Claire for some help. She is like the Monkey Whisperer, or just a kindred spirit. Claire took to burping the monkey, like you would a baby, and he sleepily fell asleep in her lap. It was an absolutely magical experience!


The final night we headed back to the main camp. I wasted no time in stripping off and cleaning myself up in the river. After swimming out to the middle, the sky suddenly turned black and commenced to open up and pour down on me. I could see nothing around me except the rain; feeling it penetrate the surface of the water like bullets from the sky. It was incredible; I don’t think a conventional bath will ever be the same again!


The final evening was upon us, and we still had one last thing to experience; A Ayahuesca ceremony. Made from the roots and leaves of numerous plants in the jungle, Ayahuesca is a psychoactive infusion. It is used largely as a religious sacrament, yet it is also used for its purgative properties. Many refer to it as la purga, “the purge”, for reasons that we would soon discover. There are no long lasting effects at all.


We prepared ourselves in the way that we had been instructed. We had refrained from eating that day, and had kept our diet free from spices and such like. We also attempted to clear our minds and prepare any questions that we might want answered. I was curious as to the effects and keen to try new experiences. We had spoken to many locals who had taken the substance on a number of occasions, and there was a certain mysticism that surrounded it that I was curious to understand better. The ceremony itself was done in the main hut, with our guides present to ‘look after us’. There were three Chilean guys who had arrived that day who were taking it with us. We spoke to the Shaman, a weathered man in his sixties before hand. He answered any worries that we may have had, and made sure that we were fully relaxed and understood what was going to take place.


It began with sitting in a circle, in front of a bowl that we would need later… There was a lit candle on the floor and the Shaman was in traditional dress. We sat focusing on the candle for 15 minutes, before passing around a medium sized glass. We each were instructed to drink the thick brown, foul smelling concoction in one go, and then wash it down with something equally horrid tasting. We then sat there for a further 30 minutes. I was sceptical for a while that nothing was happening, when I suddenly felt my hands go numb, quickly followed by the rest of my body. Suddenly before my eyes, the area around appeared as if looking at it through a kaleidoscope. Vivid colours and shapes danced before my eyes.


The next four hours was like a rollercoaster. After half an hour, the first person began to vomit. We had been warned this would happen, and shortly one by one we joined him. I found myself emptying my stomach contents into the provided bowl for over half an hour. It was an incredibly unpleasant experience, but one I had been forewarned about. Afterwards I slipped in and out of lucidness. I found myself shaking hands with shadows and getting invited for a walk in the jungle by a little girl, who then began to stroke my hair. I saw insects, heard voices, all from inside my mind. I found I could grab handfuls of light, feeling it flow through my fingers, rippling with my touch…


Would I do it again? Probably not: the vomiting and other reactions were pretty violent and unpleasant. But I don’t regret the experience, and am glad that I tried it when and where I did. I certainly will not forget it.


The next morning, after our last jungle breakfast, and a number of goodbyes, we paddled back to reality. That night we found ourselves back in civilisation, drinking beer in a restaurant in the Iron House. Built by Mr Eiffel, it is a symbol of what Iquitos was once, and a stark reminder of the life we had lived the past 5 days and the one which we had come back too.


That night I developed a terrible headache, which quickly turned into a violent fever. I was burning up and began to hallucinate. Luckily we were staying at the Casa Pescada, and the owner instructed Claire to get me to Hospital. Thankfully the owner came too and translated it all for me. I had a number of tests run, and was placed on a drip. The results came back within the hour, confirming the owner’s prognosis – I had caught Dengue Fever.


The WHO says some 2.5 billion people, two fifths of the world’s population, are now at risk from dengue and estimates that there may be 50 million cases of dengue infection worldwide every year. The disease is now epidemic in more than 100 countries, many of these being in South America.


Dengue Fever is caught from day time mosquitoes, and I estimate that I must have caught it sometime whilst on the river boat up to Iquitos, and not in the jungle where I received more bites than I thought humanly possible. It is a mixture of flu like symptoms, ranging from headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, high temperature. It is also known as Breakbone Fever as a result of the joints swelling and stiffening up. I could barely move my head, and everything ached. It can develop into serious complications, such as haemorrhaging, if regular fluid in take is not maintained. All in all it is extremely unpleasant!


The next day we were due to fly to Lima. We checked into One Hostel, and it was the best decision ever. Melissa and her family treated me like one of their own. The hostel is a lovely place; a perfect home from home, just what the doctor ordered! Over the next month I slowly got better. I had lost just under two stone, and was incredibly lethargic. The symptoms began to disappear around the two week mark, and then it was a question of gaining my appetite and strength. If it hadn’t been for Claire being the perfect nurse and the kindness of the Tola family I might still be ill now. The hostel was right next to a large supermarket so I had plenty of fresh fruit and veg for when my appetite returned. The hostel also had a large sofa, complete with blankets on which I could wrap up and watch TV and the numerous DVDs they owned.


With time counting down though on my escape to South America, I was anxious to get better quickly, yet determined to allow myself time to completely get over the illness so as to avoid a relapse. It was an immensely frustrating time; there was still so much I wanted to see!