Up and Down The River
It’s time to hit the jungle. It’s Amazon time. We arrange to leave the bikes where they’re parked in the hotel foyer in Tarapoto and get a cab the one and a half hours to where the boats depart for downriver sailings. That is to say, we all have near-death experiences at the hands of the terminally-blind cab-driver on the mountain hairpins on which he plays slalom with the oncoming trucks. In the front seat Josh is launching for the steering wheel and I’m screaming at the driver from the back seat. Arriving alive at the departure dock is delightful, but unexpected.
Amazon riverboats heading for Iquitos have three classes, cattle-class for cargo, local cattle-class for locals, and gringo cattle-class for gringos, all of which are one floor of the boat each. We pitch up in the heat as the cacophony of humanity on the muddy banks loads cargo, bananas, fish, stock and just about everything else onboard already overloaded boats. Kids run around the decks selling drinks and snacks and we hitch our hammocks on gringo-class and assume the position.
Onboard a riverboat floating down the Amazon there are three timings you should be aware of; breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s also nap-time and snack-time but apart from that the time is your own to spend as productively as you can, suspended in a swaying hammock watching the jungle float by. We decide to get off the boat in a small dot on the map town to see if we can organise a closer look into the jungle. We get hooked up with a local couple Enrique and his wife Valvina and their dugout canoe and start paddling our way deeper and deeper into dense forests where everything views you as a food source.
Seeing the Amazon from a dugout, quiet and unobtrusive, is epic. We pull over to the muddy banks so Enrique can build a fire and Valvina can make meals of rice and eggs and fried bananas. It rains, unsurprisingly being rainforest, and we reach the extent of the down-river freeride and turn around to work for each up-river paddle-stroke. The days are hot when the sun bakes-down so we pull alongside for all-hands-to-bathe and swim amongst the piranhas and freshwater rays. Along the way on the last day of three we come across sloths and whole communities of monkeys on both sides of the river, crashing through trees as the little buggers swing from branch to branch taking massive leaps through the sky. Very cool.
Back in small dot on the map town we suss out when the next riverboat is due to swing by, and it's 3am, so goodtimes. We check into a plank & corrugated iron roof “hotel” which actually works out brilliantly overlooking the whole river and bank where the boats dock while the storm clouds pound down and locals take shelter and pink river dolphins coalesce upstream in no hurry. It’s a beautiful few moments at dusk watching the scene and listening to the raindrops making small holes in the silence and probably one of the most sublime moments for me of the entire trip.
Mystery and Certainty
Back aboard the boat and 2 days later we arrive in Iquitos, the largest city in the world which cannot be reached by road. River and air only. And I didn’t really know what to expect but it’s a trippy magical place, feeling so isolated and perched on the banks of the Amazonian interior and bustling with far more people than should reasonably be living in the middle of a rainforest. This is brought into tragic focus the day we wander down to the local’s market, where pillage of the jungle is up for anyone’s grabs; tables and tables and tables of fish of every possible variety caught every day, many still squirming they’re pulled out of the river that recently. Dozens of vendors selling turtle eggs, and turtle-meat, and baby parrots by the box-full, and live baby monkeys tied up to their cages terrified and screaming. We duck through the back of the market to the riverbanks and see the scourge of habitation on floating logs that rise with the river and rubbish everywhere. You don't have to be a greenie to hate this, it's disgusting. If I ever had any idealistic hope that we would see sense and start treating our planet better it was brutalised then and there in that horrendous spectacle of what amounts to a civilisation’s pillage of its environment. Believe everything you’ve heard about how unsustainable the destruction of the Amazon is.
Back in the gringo part of town I am absolutely captivated by talking to the hordes of spiritual tourists here to take ayahuasca, a mixture of a hallucinogenic vine and leaf prepared by the traditional Shamans and medicine healers of the Amazon cultures. It is a fast growing industry, and no doubt there’s substance to the reported healings of everything from drug-addiction to depression by the true Spiritists. But from talking with people it’s also clear that drug-tourists are coming here to get fucken baked in exotic non-western ways. Despite what the guy with 20 years acid-and-coke-taking history tries to convince me. Regardless, I’m intrigued by people’s motivations; is it curiosity or boredom, intrepid boundary-exploration or escapism, wisdom-seeking or delusion? The jury is out for me but for the few days I’m in the midst of this slice of society I lust-after more study into the Psychology of all this unknown mysticism. Maybe you unwittingly go to certain parts of the planet in order to be influenced in specific ways for chapters you are yet to write.
At the conclusion of the Iquitos chapter we fly our way back to where the bikes and gear are stored, despite me & Doc not having our passports on us and so absolutely packing that the airport security won’t let us on the plane which of course turns out to be unfounded given we’re in the Peruvian jungle and no-one is even remotely interested in asking us for ID. And we resolve to mission-out of the jungle-basin back through the Andes and finally to hit the beach for a while.
Cue in two large days in the saddle. There’s stuff to see on the way but there will always be stuff to see on the way and we’re about ready to be-not-so-touristy for a bit. Cue me jinxing things. Firstly I’m riding along reflecting on how lucky we’ve been to not even have had one flat tyre the whole time we’ve been together. Next minute Josh is pulling over with a blown-out front. Alarm bells should have been ringing but weren’t.
I’m taking a corner. I'm the lead bike. And there are two thoughts. One, I can’t wait to get to our beach-town destination and enjoy a nice cold beer, and two, I’m feeling confident and relaxed and so take the exit just a few kms faster, nothing reckless, but maybe a slightly wider arc. Then. BANG!! The front tyre slips out from under me. And then. BLAM!! I’m slammed into the tarmac. Aroha and I are pirouetting down the road into the on-coming lane at 80km/hr. I’m-tumbling-fuck-I’m-sliding-on-my-head then we both catch a rough section of road and are flipped a couple of times. And then it stops. Get-up-get-up get off the road. Stumble. Hurt? Not hurt. Am I sure? Yes.
Doc and Josh saw the whole thing and are pulled over and shouting and yeah I’m okay help me get the bike off the road before a truck comes guys. And then a dawning realisation of what just happened, and in how much trouble I am with Mum, again. I take a look over Aroha, is my trip over? Is this a write-off? How bad is it? Lots of superficial breaks... but no leaks... no fatal cracks it seems.
How the hell did that happen I’m wondering as we walk back down the crash site and there it is, an invisible oil slick on the road under our boots, greasy as dish-wash soap and sinister in its subterfuge. I must have just collected it exiting that corner and Doc and Josh were both lucky to not have come straight through it behind me. A guy in a pick-up pulls over and offers me a lift to the next town so we strap Aroha in the back tray and all my gear and me piled in the back seat. I get dropped at a mechanic in town and talk about the repair job and the guys bail ahead of me for the beach-town and I negotiate a cab for me & the gear and then once in the cab, with the ordeal over and the mechanic sorted and me on my way to where we wanted to go all along I finally allow a few moments of Fuck. Me. That. Was. Close. Bro.
I arrive at the coast, in Mancora surf town, and walk through the hotel which opens out straight onto the beach, where the guys have the beers ready and we celebrate the joy of being alive with man-hugs and high-fives. And sometimes, sometimes, you just get lucky.