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Friday, July 5, 2013

Sugarcane Firewater in the Amazon Jungle

Makako was only a short ten minute ride to the airport. I tried checking in, but the woman at the counter wouldn't give me my tickets until I got my tax exemption from the office located in the corner across the check in area. Returning to the counter, I handed her my stamped passport and exemption paper, and she handed me 70 Colombian pesos. I had bought a one-way ticket out of Colombia, and that seemed to have triggered the airline to charge me a $39 resident tax, which was the 70 COP she handed back to me. Of course, I was leaving Colombia, so then I had even more money I couldn't spend. 
I was the first passenger to arrive at security. In fact, security wasn't even there yet. Therefore, immigration remained closed as well. 

Ten minutes had passed when a group of men and women in green uniforms walked in across the large room. Standing in a semicircle facing the wall, they stood as a man set up a lottery like device on the table in front of them. Spinning the handle, the balls inside the black globe smacked against each other. One by one, each person walked up and pulled out a number. I assumed this was how each person's task was assigned for the day. Finally, immigration was allowed to open. 

The immigration officer was surprisingly friendly, especially for so early in the morning. He even complimented my Spanish!

Security was quick as well, or so I first thought. I pushed my backpack, with liquids and electronics all inside, through the X-ray machine and walked through a standard metal detector. Then, as I was grabbing my backpack, I noticed there were a couple security officers standing behind the metal tables that earlier served as the lottery table. I maneuvered over to there, where a security officer took out, one by one, everything in my backpack. Dang. 

My flight to Iquitos, Peru required a connecting flight out of Panama City. After having served passengers snacks and drinks, the flight attendants prepped the cabin for landing. The large, green-teal tinted glass walls of the airport in Panama City was just as I remembered. Navigating to my new gate, I was soon back on board to Peru and served the local version of a hot dog with an herb pesto, cookies, and plantain chips. 

With one of the fastest growing economies in the world, Peru is perhaps best known for the famous Machu Picchu. It is also home to the largest Chinese population in Latin America (when Peru abolished slavery, thousands of Chinese were brought over from Macau for labor). Therefore, I shouldn't had been surprised when the flight attendant, passing out immigration and customs papers, asked me if I was a resident or a tourist.

On our approach to the Iquitos airport, just outside my window, was a rainbow hovering over the Amazon rainforest. It was a wonderful sight and a great way to first see the world's most diverse jungle.

Once landed, the passengers deplaned. The instant I stepped out of the cabin doors, the humidity hit me. It was like I had just entered a sauna. Though it was as humid as Cartagena and Santa Marta, Iquitos' 90's F were nowhere as hot. Here 91 F actually felt like 91 F and not 111 F.

The Iquitos airport is small, with probably fewer than a dozen gates. At immigration, there were three officers. One stamped the immigration papers we filled out while the other two stamped our passports. It wasn't the most efficient method as space was limited. One of the latter two officers asked me how long I was staying in Peru. Thinking it was just a standard procedural question, I rounded down to 30 days. Before I could stop her, she wrote "30" on the stamp in my passport. For every day that tourists stay beyond their designated length of stay, there's a $1 fine. Excellent. 

Outside the airport, a man greeted me, asking for my name. He then took me out to meet Elena, an employee from Otorongo, the company I was using to take me into the Amazon. Elena popped me in a taxi and I was on my way to Green Track Hostel in Iquitos. 

Iquitos is the highest elevation city that can only be reached by boat or airplane. It's surrounded by the rivers Amazon, Nanay, and Itaya on three sides and by Lake Moronococha on the fourth. With roughly half a million inhabitants, Iquitos is the sixth largest Peruvian city and the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest.

As I looked outside of the taxi window at the blurring city life passing by, I was reminded of my trip to Southeast Asia. Dozens upon dozens of motorized tuk-tuks streamed past, with passengers in tow. They weaved in and out of nonexistent traffic lanes like a slalom skier. Drivers make about 50 soles (~$18) per day, with 15 soles diverted to fuel for the tuk-tuk. 

Standing alongside mom and pop Peruvian tiendas were chifas, a symbol of the presence and influence the Chinese population in Peru. The word "chifa" comes from the Mandarin words "chi fan," meaning "to eat a meal." As a result, most Chinese run restaurants have the word "Chifa" in its name somewhere. 

After settling in at Green Track, I walked five blocks to one of the rivers, along which sat a series of shanties. Then after grabbing a mango juice, I ended up at an open wall restaurant at the corner of Plaza de Armas. Dinner was arroz chaufa de pollo - chicken fried rice  - with a lot of scallions. I'm a huge fan of scallions, so without a second's hesitation, I devoured the plate.

Afterwards, I walked back across the street to the Plaza. Earlier in the day, there were only a scattered number of people in the Plaza. Now, after the sun had set, the Plaza was lit up with plenty of street lamps and dozens of families were busily walking about. A man was sitting at one edge of the park with cans of spray paint, a lighter, and a couple sponges deftly creating paintings of the Amazon landscape surrounding Iquitos. Another man was walking around with balloons of all sorts. Food trucks were set up along another edge of the park selling delicious churros. 

The next morning at 8:30, Edinson, my Otorongo Amazon guide, knocked on the doors of Green Track. 

We hopped in a tuk-tuk towards the Plaza de Armas, where the Otorongo office is located. A couple blocks from the office, we had to hop off and walked the rest of the way there. Why? Because every Sunday there is a military parade in the streets of Iquitos. The police, army, navy, and air force walk through the area surrounding the Plaza. A band plays the Peru national anthem as the flag is raised in the center of Plaza de Armas. This happens every Sunday.

Border disputes between Peru and Chile has in part resulted in "mandatory" military service. "Mandatory" because for 2,000 soles (a little over $700 depending on the exchange rate) a person can choose not to participate. As a result, there are Peruvians who feel that the policy is largely discriminatory against the poor. Though those conscripted are supposedly paid 400 soles a month, some say it's only 50 soles due to rampant corruption. 

Near the end of the ceremony, we began our way to the pier in another section of the city, from where we boarded a motorized canoe to the Otorongo lodge. 

The lodge is located 200+ kilometers from Iquitos, so it took us 2-3 hours. Half way there, we stopped by a sugarcane farm, where I was shown a large wooden contraption, at the center of which was where sugarcanes are fed into and its sweet juices squeezed out. Stemming from the center is a thick piece of wood that's normally pulled by a horse. As the horse pulls the wooden lever, it puts the gears in the center into action.

During the wet season, the flooding of the Amazon fertilizes the soil and makes it suitable once again for more sugar canes to be farmed. 

After being grind out of the sugarcane, the sugarcane juice is then made into molasses or fermented, burned, and mixed with other spices to create various concoctions. I tried four different types - the most memorable of which was a transparent liquid that looked like it would be sweet. With only a small sip, my mouth was on fire. Another person from the lodge who I would later meet commented that it tasted perhaps even stronger than absinthe. Needless to say, one sip was plenty.

Then, we continued forward on the one-breasted river. Though the truth is debated, it's been said that the warrior females (the "Amazons") who inhabited the region had mastectomies of one of their breasts in order to improve their archery skills. Hence, the one-breasted river. 

By then, the Amazon river's color had changed from black to brown (black because of certain chemicals released by nearby vegetation). After another hour, we docked in one of the Amazon tributaries and headed for the lodge...

Next up, five days of exploration in the Amazon jungle and on the Amazon river. 


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