Traveling on water roads

The Amazon Jungle, South America

Location No.: 107 – 115

Time spent there: 06/25/17 – 07/07/17

The road ended in Yurimaguas, a small busy town with a port on the Ucayali River. Cargo boats depart from here a few times a week once they have loaded enough cargo and passengers. We had been advised that the boat departure times could change by the hour and it’s common to spend a night or two waiting. We found a boat that was announced to leave in three hours, so after paying for our fare and setting up our rental hammocks on the top deck with other travelers, we rushed to buy enough water and food for the trip. However, we didn’t depart for another twenty four hours. Since we kept being told we were departing soon we couldn’t leave the boat and spent the rest of the day sweltering and roasting under the Amazonian sun while watching endless crates of beer, thousands of egg cartons, plantains, moto taxis, bags of rice and more, being loaded onto the lower level.

Our boat, Bruno, had three levels, the lower one for cargo, the middle and top deck for passengers. The middle deck also had bathrooms, showers and a small kitchen. Our fare included three very basic meals a day, featuring the locals’ favorite all over South America: rice and chicken and chicken and rice. The two cooks were male cross-dressers wearing some impressive makeup; apparently local belief is that they are better cooks than women so they often land these “chef” positions. They did a good job with what they had to work with except for breakfast. I’ve been raised to eat what is set before me giving thanks but I just couldn’t stomach the gray runny porridge which I suspect was cooked with river water. At meal times, the cooks would ring a bell and the 100+ passengers would obediently make a line, plastic bowls in hand. (Thomas bought a red bowl for a dollar before we boarded and I had a little bowl I unintentionally “borrowed” from a hostel. Thomas is holding on to his cheap tupperware and intends to bring it home). Locals and travelers alike looked like prisoners on a floating prison, hungry faces clutching on to the crumpled receipt that was absolutely necessary to get one’s meal.

Cargo boats are slow-moving and so were our days on Bruno. The hours drifted between card games, reading, sweating in our hammocks, chatting with other passengers, at least one shower with river water, more card games and then some more card games. A few times each day we would pull up to small towns and villages on the river banks where passengers and cargo would come and go. Vendors would also flood the boat during these stops selling bananas, jungle fruits, juanes (a rice ball wrapped in banana leaves) and fried fish. During the nights we fought relentless mosquitoes and hoped our backpacks were safe under our hammocks.

We spent the first day moving along the Marañón River until it merged with the Ucayali River, which is an interesting river on its own, beginning in southern Peru, crossing the Andes, reaching the Amazon Basin and eventually becoming a main tributary to the world-famous river. During the middle of the second night we creeped onto the Amazon River. Thomas kept waking up just so he could make a GPS pin at the exact location of the headwaters.

The first leg of our river travel ended at Iquitos, the largest city in the world that is accessible only by boat or airplane. It’s the Amazonian capital of Peru and a fascinating city where moto taxis and scooters rule the streets, people eat grilled suri worms, barbers cut hair on the sidewalks, ice cream is made with jungle fruits and where rubber barons once lived in luxury. A local couple whom we had played cards with invited us to stay at their home where we spent the next five days waiting for a boat to our next destination.

Our new vessel was smaller and faster, promising a speedy two days – 1 night delivery to Pantoja, the closest village to the Peruvian-Ecuadorian jungle border. Transportes Vichu carried passengers, some packages and also served as a mail system and school bus of sort in between villages on the Nanay and Napo Rivers. During one of our frequent stops we picked up a chicken in a woven cage to be delivered at a house a few hours up the river so it was placed on the front end of the speedboat, I don’t think the chicken enjoyed the ride. Another time we picked up two teen boys who were headed to school, since they live four hours away they stay at the school all week. When they were getting off the boat the driver reminded them to focus, to study hard and added, “so you can do something else than just drive a boat like me”. I thought of their family, standing by the river bank, waving as we pulled away.

The other passengers were military personnel traveling to the border military base, four other foreigners and a second driver. After ten hours we docked in Santa Clotilde for the night. This quiet jungle village comes to life once the sun goes down and the electricity allowance starts. From 8 to 11 pm, they crank the music up, charge their phones and stroll their one paved street in town. We heard that sometimes they party too hard on the weekends and use up their electricity allowance for the week. The kid who told us this said they don’t mind because the town parties were so much fun.

We repeat the same the next day but as we travel further away on this water road, the villages become smaller, the isolation feels bigger, we encounter less smiles and more stares. We deliver a box of medicine at the wrong place, a group of twenty some children surround one side of the boat and inspect us, pink river dolphins swim close to us, children brush their teeth in the river, families travel in small canoes, their sparse houses sit on stilts. I stare at the green lush jungle and tell two young dutch travelers about the uncontacted tribes who still live deep inside.

By 5 pm we reach Pantoja, the end of our second leg. The immigration office sits on top of a little hill next to the military base; we are informed that we can’t get our exit stamps until the next morning. Even though the first Ecuadorian town is only a few hours away by canoe, late evening and night travel has been prohibited in an attempt to control the movement of refugees from Haiti, Cuba and African countries and out of safety concerns for the few travelers who like us take this Amazonian route into Ecuador. It’s possible this is true and it’s also possible that it’s because some areas of the Amazon jungle are a hotbed for illegal mining, logging and drug trafficking. In that regards, we appreciated them making sure we weren’t on the river after dark.

A small canoe takes us across the border the next morning and drops us off at Nuevo Rocafuerte, a modest jungle town where Ecuador’s new president was born. Although it was mid morning, the immigration office was closed and a passerby suggested we go look for the officer who often hangs out at a government building on the other side of town. When we located the officer he told us he could stamp us into the country at 3 pm since he was “busy at the moment”. Jungle time, they move at another pace here. Our official entry to Ecuador consisted of registering our names in a notebook and stamping our passports (when we left the country six weeks later, the border officers couldn’t find our names in their computer system).

Our last boat departed the next morning at 5 am, it was a lancha rapida, a fast boat carrying fifty passengers on tight seating along two long benches. At the first stop, several heavily armed soldiers boarded the boat and asked us for our passports and questioned us about our plans in the country. Across from us sat two of the funniest people we met on this trip. These two girls were government employees who are stationed for one year in the Amazon jungle, working on programs to improve life conditions for the indigenous tribes. They laughed, sang and joked for the next nine hours while sharing their life stories, their tales about living in the jungle, they talked about their hometowns in Ecuador’s central region, the foods they craved, the phone operators that work in the jungle and life with little to no internet access. One of them explained how the government now requires employees like them to live in the jungle towns in an effort to integrate the Amazonian people with the rest of the country and vice versa and to foster more understanding of the needs of the indigenous people and their culture. She thought it was a good thing but she cried when she spoke about how much she misses her children and shared that her five year old son has asked her over the phone why she abandoned him. I asked her why she took this job since it seemed to be so hard on her and her family. She smiled and replied, “My husband and I want to take our kids to Disneyworld”.

It rained hard on the Napo River that day and temperatures dropped. People wrapped themselves in fleecy blankets and wore wool hats. I didn’t know it could get so cold in the jungle. The guy sitting next to me told me that Argentinean rock was his favorite music and he played it on his chinese speaker. We sang a few songs together and he proudly showed me how his bluetooth speaker also doubled as a radio, an external battery and a flashlight. His dream is to have a car of his own one day. I told him that his speaker was much better than mine and that made him smile. He wore a puffy jacket, I wished I had one too.

After thirteen days on water roads, our last boat arrived to San Francisco de Orellana, aka El Coca, here is where paved roads begin again.

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Bruno, the cargo boat and a busy port.
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The middle passenger level, less hot than the top level but noisier.
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There seemed to be some silent understanding that all foreigners were supposed to sleep on the top level. It got cold at night up there. Our hammocks were the two last ones to the left.
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Small village on the Amazon River. The bananas took a while to load on the boat.
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Sunset on the Ucayali River.
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Jungle town on the Amazon River.
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GPS pin of the Amazon River’s headwaters.
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Moto taxis are the main transportation mode in Iquitos. There are barely any cars on the road. Honda has a factory in Iquitos and the most of the parts for assembly come from Brazil.
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Gloria and Pablo, our friends and hosts in Iquitos. The park we were at was recently inaugurated after extensive renovations. It used to be a dark part of town used for prostitution and drug trade, now its bustling with families enjoying the cooler night temperatures.
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Grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves and plantains. A staple meal in Amazonian cuisine.
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Nico, baby monkey who lives in a protected rescue farm but loves people.
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Two days on this boat. Note the basket on the front, that’s the chicken.
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Canoes, we saw women washing clothes in them.
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Thomas thinks it’s funny to take these photos. I enjoyed my nap.
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The people who live on these water roads.

PS: To cross the border between Peru and Ecuador through the Amazon rainforest, one must embark in a long journey combining a twenty hour bus ride, a two hour taxi colectivo, multiple moto taxis, three days on a cargo boat, two days on a speedboat, four hours on a canoe, nine hours on another speedboat and ten more hours on a bus.  It is not a journey for those looking for comfort or any level of luxury. It was tiring, hot and long but it was pretty darn cool.

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Light my fire

Caratunk, Maine

Location No.: 10 as part of The Appalachian Trail

Time spent there: 08/09/16

This day a year ago, I was so close to crossing the border into Canada and finishing my thru hike. Emotions ran high for myself, for my fellow thru hikers and everyone’s feet were burning to get to the finish line.

On this particular day, the Appalachian Trail traversed the Kennebec River and the riverbank town of Caratunk in Maine. This is a great day for thru hikers, since this town features a fun jaunt across the river, a brewery, a hiker hamburger challenge, ice-cream and an opportunity to pick up resupply boxes.

I got a box from my friend, Dave. It had hiker’s food, enough Starbucks instant coffee packets to fuel every thru hiker on the Trail, and two sporks.

Two Light My Fire sporks, a green one and a black one. I had never felt more alive than at that time, hiking that Trail. I was ablaze, sort of a walking bonfire. I had experienced fire before, the type that reduces everything into ashes and leaves you covered in soot. My landscape had felt permanently desolate, until I saw the sparks. They led me to an incipient decision to go for a long walk on the Appalachian Trail, where I found the heat, oxygen and fuel necessary to light a strong, crackling fire.

After a fire has been ignited, it goes into what firefighters call the “growth” stage. I hope that’s where I’m at now. The flames are still going, some hot coals are settling in and I can feel the warmth.

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The two sporks today, or what is left of them as they roam around South America
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Thru hiker, Leprechaun, who lost to the might burger.
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Thru hiker, Chud, paddling us across the Kennebec River

Are you refugees?

Paso Jeínemeni, border crossing point

Location No.: 51

Time spent there: 10 minutes on 01/31/17

This was the second time I had walked across the border between two countries. Last year I hiked into Canada from the USA while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail and the IAT . This time I was border hopping between Argentina and Chile while exploring Patagonia.

Thomas and I arrived at the chilean border crossing checkpoint after walking 5 miles from the argentine town of Los Antiguos. A friendly officer takes our passports.

“So you are from the United States of America?.” He is suddenly serious.

“Yes.”

“I’ve been following the news about your country and your new president.”

“Umm. Ok”, we chuckle and frown a little. We are still getting used to everyone we meet making some comment about our country’s current political climate.

The border patrol officer looks at our backpacks and smiles.

“Are you refugees?”

“Not yet. But are you receiving refugees? We might have to take you up on the offer in the future.”

We smile back, he is just being funny. Passports are stamped and our new friend welcomes us into his country. He thought it was crazy to be walking into countries so he orders a car who was also crossing the border to give us a lift into the next town.

Today there are thousands of displaced humans who are crossing borders on foot, others who are waiting at camps and many who became our neighbors and live in our cities. Thousands who unlike me aren’t out on a beautiful adventure, humans who unlike me actually are refugees.

Let’s not forget about them. Let’s extend a helping hand. Let’s lift up the borders of our lives and let’s give them a chance.

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Welcome to Chile

Fat Guy

Cochabamba, Bolivia

Location No.: 78

Time spent there: 04-21-17 – 04-26-17

I don’t like the nickname we gave him but it was involuntary. His name starts with a “J” and his weight isn’t his most prominent feature. However, every time we tell this story, we end up calling him “Fat Guy, the one who took our money”.

We met him through Couchsurfing, he had eighty-seven positive reviews so no need to worry. He picked us up at the bus station on a Friday and took us to his family’s home. He was a  really big guy, long hair in a braid, a friendly smile, and an arm in a cast. His mother cooked lunch for us, we took a nap in his room and he explained that he had to work that weekend.

Fat Guy was an operator on a radio/tv tower on top of a hill outside of town. The tower had a small bedroom, bathroom and kitchen in it. It sounded like an adventure and we had read some interesting reviews about it in his profile.

We spent the next two days with him, cooked meals together, learnt about his job, shared personal stories, gazed at the city lights below us, and hiked in the trails nearby. There were a couple of inconsistencies in his stories, but who doesn’t have those? Life doesn’t always add up perfectly. We liked Fat Guy. He had unique life tales, he related to the world around him in his own way and he welcomed us into his whirlwind of colourful experiences. He was Bolivian yet so un-Bolivian both inside and out.

Nice guy, but we still kept our backpacks locked at all times, except for those thirty minutes. Damn moment of carelessness while we skipped over to the nearest store for breakfast items. Half of my hidden emergency fund was gone and Thomas’s wallet was ransacked with about seventy percent of it missing. We didn’t want to point the finger immediately but after going over every possible scenario we couldn’t find any other suspect.

Thomas, who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt was willing to believe that an alien had abducted our cash before blaming Fat Guy. Until he decided to take a break from our  hushed Sherlock discussion and eat a snack. Thomas keeps a hidden stash of gourmet chocolate in his backpack. To find the pocket where he keeps his treasure, one would have to be intentionally searching his bag, throughly. That was it, no further proof needed. What kind of man takes another man’s chocolate?

There is always the chance that our conclusion was wrong so we decided not to confront him. We packed up and said a brief and short goodbye to Fat Guy and his radio tower. He didn’t seem surprised to see us depart in such haste. As we shook the dust off our feet, we wondered if he had eaten the chocolate already or if he was savoring it right then.

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PS: I reported him to the administrators of Couchsurfing and his profile has been removed. Usually, with an allegation of this type, a user might be blocked for a time but in his case he was removed completely in less than two days. It’s possible that other guests reported him in the past as well. I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences with Couchsurfing and continue to vouch for the community yet there are always a few bad apples in the bunch.

That time I built a fence

Puerto Cayo, Ecuador

Location No.: 115

Time spent there: 07/15/17 to present

The agreement was 3 hours of work every day in exchange for beachfront accommodations. And the fence. Like the one she shows me on Pinterest.

I set to work hoping it doesn’t become a Pinterest fail. Intertwined pieces of driftwood slowly took shape as I held my breath with their balancing act. Structureless they held on to each other as the fence grew wavy and rich in texture.

On low tide mornings, we would drive to the south end of the malecón and scour the beach for fresh crops of wood. One day we even loaded up an entire tree on top of the pick up truck. The neighbors complained but eventually settled into the artsy new addition to the beachfront. She likes it, it actually does look like the one in the photo.

The birds like it too.

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Ref by The Daily Post’s Photo Challenge: Textures

Coin

Sucre, Bolivia

Location No.: 75

Time spent there: 03/31/17 – 04/17/17

“They have been in my family for generations. My grandmother made me the current custodian. We have twelve of them.”

He places one in my hand.

“I’m lending this to you. Now we will have to meet again in this lifetime. You need to return it.”

Undoubtedly, I will see David again.

 

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Vintage coin reads “Republic of Bolivia”