Welcome to Iquitos
A guest post by Barry Brett
One of a series of short humorous stories of life in Iquitos.
Each article is a portrayal of actual events, written from the perspective of a Californian living in the Jungle City of Iquitos, Peru.
I wasn’t really heading for Iquitos. Like most tourists who visit Peru my primary target was Cuzco and the ancient Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. Iquitos, a giant trading post on the Amazon River was to be no more than a stop over while I rested and scoped out a shipping line to take me downriver to Manaus, then overland to Brazilia and Rio for Carnival.
I thought a week or two in Iquitos would do the trick. A week turned into a month and the months turned into years! I found the city fascinating. What’s more, passengers arriving up-river from Manaus had nothing nice to say about the boring trip! The food on board was worse than hospital food, and theft was rampant! Then there were those popular T-shirts sold in Rio; “I lost my heart in Rio-my camera, my wallet, my watch.”
I arrived in drizzle on a Thursday. The city was dead. But by Friday night Iquitos morphed into a beautiful butterfly, vibrant and colorful. Hundreds of people from the surrounding villages descended on the Boulevard and Plaza de Armas for a night on the town. Music blasted-out from bars and restaurants lining the banks of the Amazon while clowns and monkeys performed for the general public. There was a guinea pig surrounded by tiny numbered houses. Poor piggy was put inside a sack, swirled-around until dizzy and then dropped into the center. People placed bets as to which house he would run to! Seemed cruel to me. My son had a pet guinea pig once. We loved her. Even had a backyard funeral when she passed away. But a live, dizzy guinea pig in a sack, beats a dead one on a plate. I quickly realized the locals roast them on a spit!
There were wandering bands playing Zamponyas and drums. Traditional dancers wearing almost nothing danced around giant snakes. People wearing almost nothing flocked to the local discoteks and beer and wine flowed everywhere. Yes, Iquitos is a partying town on weekends. The people are so loving and caring. Warm and friendly, they take care of your every whim and fancy. Nothing is left to imagination. You don’t have to imagine it, it’s the real thing.
Saturday boasts a display of capoeira on the Boulevard. An unusual combination of African chants and karate. Young men and women perform the difficult and dangerous maneuvers with precision and skill. Originating amongst the Brazilian negro slaves it evolved over hundreds of years into it’s present form.
I took a side-trip into Belen, the local market. All kinds of unusual and varied fruits and fish were on display. The strangest, ugliest fish in the world swim nearby. There was a whole street devoted to medicinal plants and ointments made from the Boa Constrictor, Crocodiles and fish. There was a stand where they mixed strange brightly-colored bubbling concoctions to cure every illness known to man. I felt like I was on another planet. I glanced behind looking for the Aliens playing flutes or someone brandishing a light saber.
Then there were the artisans displaying a multitude of artifacts. Necklaces made of crocodile teeth. Coconuts and strangely-shaped fruits carved into monkeys or weird-looking jungle dolls. I wanted to stick pins in them but I couldn’t see one resembling my ex-wife or my congressman! There were a multitude of colored beads made from various jungle seeds and berries. Anaconda and crocodile skins and furs from lamas and tigers. Menacing painted piranhas, frozen and perched on a stand, ready to spring to life and attack the innocent bystanders. Oops, there goes another finger!
I grew-up in England. I enjoy soccer. I thought I’d seen it all. You know, those wild out-of-control soccer fans. Welcome to Max Augustin Stadium, Iquitos, Peru. It seemed innocent enough. I noticed brightly painted people entering the stadium with drums, shields and even spears. Oh, great, we’re getting entertainment at half time. Foolish me. Within minutes the ugly chants started-up, getting louder as each side vied for attention. Rioters, (I mean supporters) on both sides beat their shields with spears and howled menacing threats across the field. Screeching high-pitched hoots enveloped the surrounding stands as the drums of both sides beat-out their supporting chants. Police in riot gear surrounded the stands. It had more in common with ancient Rome than a modern soccer match. Only the lions and gladiators were missing. Suddenly these loving peaceful people were transformed into the wild beasts that surround their habitat.
I turned to a friend. “Surely these are not the same people who strolled the Boulevard at night?”
“Oh no Barry, these are university students!” End of story! Say no more!
What an amazing place Iquitos is. Those floating houses on stilts! I guess they just didn’t want to pay for a piece of land. They let the trash pile-up underneath, spreading infections and feeding the rats. I guess they didn’t want to pay the trash collector either! Finally the river rises some forty feet, washing the trash downstream and everyone rides around in small boats. Maybe the stilts have more to do with the small stature of most Iquiteños. It makes them feel tall!
Someone told me there were plans to build a golf course in town. Now wouldn’t that be something. A golf course on stilts! The eighth wonder of the world!
Every type of jungle tour was on-offer. Young men wander up and down the boulevard and hung out in front of hotels offering the most amazing boating and jungle adventures imaginable. Their motto is; “take the money and run!” More reputable outfits operate out of the front of hotels or even have their own office suites on the Boulevard or on Prospero, the main drag. I soon realized who the fakes were. If they spoke good English I was in trouble. After all, they learned English for a reason. Not to help me, but to take advantage of me! And do they put the screws in good. Only my divorce attorney did better-but he promised me!!!
The weather. Well at four degrees south of the equator, it was awesome. Not too humid, hot in the day but only warm at night. Nothing like those sweltering nights I remembered so well in humid Maryland and Virginia. A cooling breeze blows thru the Amazon River and the frequent rain cools things-off. After almost forty years in Southern California, I found the Iquitos city climate inviting and the evenings relaxing.
Missing from the scene are, McDonalds, Burger King, Domino’s Pizzas, Barnes and Nobles, Starbuck’s Coffee House and Walmart. Missing, but not missed!
Welcome to Iquitos
Barry Brett, has spent three of the past five years here in Iquitos, Peru. Growing-up in England, he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man and has lived almost forty years in Huntington Beach, California. July 2009
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For more information about Iquitos read You Could Love Iquitos Peru, by Bill Grimes.