Iquitos Peru, A Really Dirty Story
A guest post by Dag Walker
We got 30,000 pounds of stink on wheels and we are rolling through the night like drunken pirate kings of the slum seas as we grind and jerk our way through the most desperate poverty known to man in the Amazon jungle city of Iquitos, Peru. This is a voyage through the Belen district of Loreto Region, where life can end with a flick of a knife and no one would notice the body silently submerged in the creamy dark ever-flowing river on its way to the ocean. Quick and quiet and lost to life never to be found. So it makes good sense for a couple of lads on the bum to explore the rough parts after dark in the closest thing one can find to a tank if one cares to look beyond the daylight hours of Belen life when the sun sets on the bustle of small meat trade and greenery witchcraft stalls and bony fishermen hauling back-bending sacks of charcoal up the decaying concrete walkways or corpulent women carrying buckets of the day’s fish catch to dump on slimy wooden tables lining mud oozing lanes. We travel when the day folk have long gone to cramped homes floating with the flood on cork logs. Our night time trip takes us through the more settled if less prosperous sections of road mud holes and dusty craters of neglect into the darkness of total poverty not well hidden by doorless gaping hole shacks and bare adobe huts that leave a snow-dusting of powder each morning on the floor; Belen, home, where the hard folk lurk. We’re settled safe and sound in that one impenetrable coach even the toughest and stupidest thug wouldn’t think to attack and rob: We ride the through Belen in the night high up above it all as we sail across the city in a garbage truck.
Folks have been in a panic since I first mentioned that I sometimes venture into Belen at night in search of searching. They tell me it is so dangerous that only the craziest man would go in alone after dark, like some suburban suicide search in a barren stretch of an American city long ruled by Democrats where the question of life expectancy is met with a dull stare by the yellow-eyed hulks who tip up a brown paper bag and swill booze bought with swapped out food stamps and blood donations. ‘It’s dangerous out there after dark,’ they all say. So we go, ready for combat against our fellow garbage and muck seeking comrades of the high tidal smells. I’m riding shotgun with my razor sharp hunting knife to be used only if my mate for the evening, Joeri, a Belgian on the Rainbow Road, gets ‘em down so I can finish ‘em off so they don’t get up again to hurt us. We’ve stripped us down to the bare essentials so we make piss-poor targets for the zombies of Belen at night: no watches, no wallets, no nada that we would miss were we beaten and robbed by gangs roaming the night. Danger. We live for it. We climb aboard our vessel and off we go into the deep dark sea of stench. Garbage. It is our life and our love this warm and warmer evening as the wind whips around us with its scents and our struggles to remain calm of stomach and clear of mind. High up above the waves of nausea, we’re afloat on the wine dark sludge. We are defiant. We will rove the city in search of black sacked slime. Basura. Our mission, our quest: to see from on high the life of cleaning up the mess of living. We are ready to kill and die for it. Joeri, standing out somewhat from the usual crowd due to his blond hair and bright red pants with multi-coloured India-geometric patterned and a clashing-like-Titans coloured embroidered cotton shirt, stands in the Belen shadows flicking a spring-loaded asp, the riot police steel baton I lent him to be the first over the edge if we come under attack. I adjust my knife and consider putting it between my teeth so my hands are free as I swing down to attack our foes from the deck of the garbage truck should we find enemy action “out there.” We are set, and we climb aboard the truck, saying farewell to all that is normal and right about life on land as we set our sails for the Mystik Sea of Garbage in Belen.
Dongfeng 375 hp. T-lift dump truck. Cummins engine, 375hp. Hydraulic assist.
Kerb weight: 11,910 kg.
- Drive Wheel: 6×4
- Capacity (Load): 21 – 30t
- Horsepower: 351 – 450hp
- Transmission Type: Manual
- Emission Standard: Euro 3
- Fuel Type: Diesel
- Engine Capacity: 6 – 8L
- Gross Vehicle Weight: 2,500 kilograms
- Place of Origin: Hubei, China (Mainland)
- Model Number: DFL 3258
- Dimensions (L x W x H) (mm): 8668*2496*3410(mm)
What do I know? I grabbed hold of the inside door rail and hauled up myself enough to get a toe-hold on the first cheese grater metal step of three into the cab of the truck; and then it didn’t get any easier, having to climb around like a monkey to make it up so high as the interior where I fell into the seat that was broken and the seat fell back with me when I landed and we crashed into a labourer curled up in the back. There were two small dark men behind the seats, and we ignored them and chatted up the driver, our captain, he being nervous about his foreign stow-aways aboard.
We were safely stashed away for our voyage across Belen with garbage. Sail away, our captain, for distant shores.
We’d waited long hours for our departure, our dozen friends at home having a party and wishing us good luck on such a dangerous trip in such a dangerous neighbourhood, many Cuscena beer bottles knocked over and spilled, foaming and frothing on the tile floor as people got up in a rush to hug us and kiss our cheeks and some to almost cry at this parting amidst dribbling rum bottles and empty jam jar glasses and smouldering cigarette butts laying half dead on the ground awaiting eventual removal to the kerbside maybe in the morning or so when folks woke up and staggered out of their beds and sipped organic tea and talked about vegetable dietas and Mother Ayahuasca while the cleaner swept away all the trash of the hard night before. Garbage. We throw it away and don’t give it any serious thought. Garbage. The word itself is so old and German that we probably couldn’t find it at the bottom of the slag heap of language if we cared to. Garba. It means garbage. We stepped around our friends sprawled on the floor and stepped over the trash littering the courtyard. We went into the night to Belen.
Garbage collection is something different at Belen Market area than it is in the rest of the city where garbage is generally bagged and set out at the kerb; at Belen men go forth on foot and scoop up what they can from small piles of rotten stuff, and they bring it as they can to the main site, an ever-growing pile by the idling garbage truck on the sidestreet where men and women sit in the glare of lightbulbs hanging from frayed cords, people quietly playing cards at plastic tables, people sipping beer, people hardly talking. Small, quiet men working for Brunner Corp. funnel garbage down and down the dark lanes to the heap till there is a full load to fill the truck, the compactor churning and mashing the detritus of a market day into a solid chunk of stuff that will eventually make its way from the market and down the city streets to the aeroport junction where the truck turns off to go to Kilometer 31, the site of the botadero municipal, the city dump. Till such time my Belgian companion for the night and I stand around admiring the filth as if it were some exotic treasure we have been graced by luck to find in the outer Amazon.
We seem to be the only tourists around who are doing this. We watch men coming out of lanes, arms loaded with garbage dripping and slopping on the muddy pathways, and we watch as they toss it into the pile and make their ways to get more and more till there is enough to fill the truck bed. We spend some of this time negotiating with the driver so we can catch a ride with him and his crew, telling him it’s in the interests of the people of Iquitos and the general population of the world to know just what goes on in terms of garbage in this jungle city. One driver looks at us incredulously and smiles and thinks this is the funniest thing he has encountered in a semi-sheltered life. He stands and smiles at us and barely shakes his head in bemused unbelief. “Yes,” he says, “I will take you, but we don’t leave till 3:00 a.m.” I am yawning already at 7:00 p.m. Joeri, the Belgian, takes the driver’s consent as a good sign. I suggest we look around for an earlier departure so I can get some sleep this sweltering and calm, cloudless night.
Thus we find a sullen and nervous man who reluctantly agrees to take us on condition we pay some smallish bribe and sneak into the truck when his supervisor isn’t watching. We sit on the kerb and stare while men walk zombie-like to the shrine of slime, one man hauling a partially filled light orange baby bathtub braced against his belly. Stuff falls out from the gaping holes and small cracks in the bottom of the plastic tub. The pile grows. I wasn’t expecting men in crisp navy blue coveralls with spiffy company logos embroidered on their breast pockets, smiling and smart young men picking up commercial strength plastic bags set niely on the trimmed grassy walk out front of the white picket fence, athletic men gracefully and almost effortlessly tossing said bags like basketballs swooshing into the garbage hoop. I expected men trotting ceaselessly behind the never stopping truck as it creeps along its petty pace and the runners sweat and toss and endure. Instead, slight, stooped men shuffled in the market night grabbing stuff by hand or handy container and then bowed down before the high mass to contribute sacrificial offering to the Garbage Gods. I was expecting something perhaps a little classier.
I didn’t know what to expect, really, from the Brunner Corp. located downtown at 487 Yavari. Brunner Corp. and its C.E.O Llens (James) Brunner Ruiz Moore, a perennial losing candidate for seemingly any available political office (National Congress 2010; Governor of Loreto Region 2011), is in charge of hauling away trash in the night. Old habits die hard, because when I showed up to meet the man he had skipped out just as the sun was setting, his security guard threatening me with gaol if I took a photo of the front of the building, a solid concrete bunker with knobless electronic front doors. This is not to suggest Brunner and company have anything to hide behind the bunker walls or the inch thick steel bars over the two square foot window at street side from where the guard threatens people on the sidewalk. And Brunner himself shouldn’t be nervous about being seen, looking like a movie star, one of the Sopranos, I think. The short Soprano. Brunner is short, dressing up for a golf game attired like James Bond’s opponent Uric Goldfinger dressed in knee high length short pants and almost knee high white socks, his golf clubs standing from the ground to Brunner’s shoulders. This is not to say Brunner isn’t a powerful man: recently he was involved in a severe car crash that nearly killed a government official. Brunner was already in some trouble with local authorities, perhaps facing serious prison time for criminal charges pending from business malpractice. Regardless, what the Brunner corporation decides on a daily basis determines the health of the city to a large degree. Over 40 of the city’s intelligentsia, as one would expect, complain in uniform published petitions in local papers, (Feb. 2008.) Poets and lawyers and architects and artists of all sorts and even people without titles sign their names in papers condemning Brunner because of slime seepage into ground water. The intellectuals read the report, and they know; and in knowing, they put their names to a six point complaint. I know about half of the signers, and they are decent people. They are concerned about water. They want the dump site to be moved from its current location at kilometer 31 to somewhere else. Studies show this is a smart move. The smart studies cost upwards of 200-300,000.00 nuevo soles, or, in terms of general cash, a mound of bills bigger than the piles of garbage we wait to be loaded into our truck. Things will be done, sources said, but it will have to be considered in committee before a resolution can be presented. 300,000.00 n.s. Garbage is worthless, but intellectuals… they are just priceless. Meanwhile, men start chucking raw stuff into the metal maw and the motorised compactor squeezes everything to a solid, if wet, cube, reminding me of the unfortunate similarity to making orange juice or coffee in the morning. Backward reels the mind. The smell is intense. Joeri and I sort of discuss Descartes’ idea that animals don’t actually feel anything but instead react like machines programmed to respond as if they feel.
Our mission, which we have chosen to accept, is to journey to the city dump in the night. The dump site is controversial, the same group of intellectuals as above reminding us again in Aug. 2009 that this is so. At the same time, a judge at the Supreme Court issues a legal ruling about it, noting that the land was owned by the mayor’s friend and there were no bids. In my loose translation, the Court’s legal ruling reads: “Yeah, so wa’ da fuck?” I am satisfied. The dump was previously at kilometer three, the place where the vultures were sucked into jet engines. The good news, as all concerned hasten to tell, is that no one died. Vultures don’t count. But the complaints continue anyway.
Empressa Brunner, the garbage company, is unpopular, “an irresponsible company,” according to Regional Director of Health, Dr. Hugo Rodriguez on 12 Jan. 2013 in Diario la Region. The dump could be a breeding ground for dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Or it could be that Brunner corp. has workers in the midst of it all without masks, no lamps, no tools, no proper containers to haul the stuff away so they use their bare hands and get sick and only recently get some sort of medical care for on the job disability. The guys scoop up trash with their bare hands. Brunner’s contract expires in Oct. 2013. A Spanish-Colombian consortium is bidding for the new one and the dump site to come at kilometer 14. With a new broom, all will be swept clean.
We have exhausted our conversation on Descartes. Joeri tells me that because he’s an anarchist he has done a lot of dumpster-diving and he knows a lot about garbage. I know a lot about projectile vomiting because I used to get migraine headaches. I figure between us we have this evening philosophically covered.
There are three areas of Belen, roughly: there is the famous and totally exotic market filled with the weirdest stuff one could hope to find, a place stinking and putrid on a dry and cool day at the best of times; and there is the outlying Belen neighbourhood, not too different from poor places anywhere on earth, people living in one room on a dirt floor without doors or windows, a charcoal stove, and thin sheets separating the living quarters from the outside where one uses a broken and unplumbed toilet; and there is the floating slum of shacks on cork log floats, everything flowing away into the open sewer of the river that is life. Garbage collection there is spotty, one might say. It’s a dirty place in many ways, not that the people are personally neglectful, but that there’s little to do with filth but to toss it away and hope it stays gone. Like a typical day in the Middle Ages, this requires faith. Miracles do happen, though this is rare. So, Belen has a bad reputation among the better classes of people, and they all say that Belen is dangerous and that we must be crazy to risk our lives going there after dark where men will kill us for our flip-flops and strip us of our gold teeth and leave us in our underwear if we’re lucky. I’ve fought my way in and out of many such places around the world, and I don’t take it lightly.
Going to a rough place at night I am ready and able to defend myself and my skinny vegetarian hippie companion, the anarchist Belgian who tells me about the conspiracy of shape-shifting Lizard People who are controlling the world in secret. Joeri wanted me to bring a sackful of weapons, but I haven’t got the desire to wage war here, just a basic will to survive and get out of a bad spot with the least harm done all round. I want to see the city cleaned; I don’t want to add to the mess and misery. I want to celebrate health and regeneration. Joeri wants to save the world and expose the social injustice of stuff and capitalism. I like him. He’s having serious trouble with his school teacher father. I can appreciate that, too.
Brenner has about 30 trucks, though at any given time only half are on the road working. The remainder are in for repairs. Each truck dumps an average nine tonnes of trash per night at el botadero municipal. There, during the daylight hours, our driver tells us, “the stench is unbearable.”
We climb into the cab and drive away with a full load of trash and we go off in the night to the dump. I try to take notes with my pen and paper on the dashboard, but the truck is weighed down and each pot hole in the road sends up shaking so badly that by the end of our trip I can’t read a single word I’ve written down. A slow crawling police car hogs both lanes ahead of us until our driver honks sharply and the cops veer to the right damned fast. “We have some respect,” the driver tells us. We speed ahead, bumping and shaking. Not that it’s a bad trip. Not at all. In fact, this is one of the nicest times I’ve had in Iquitos in close to a year: Gripping the handrail inside the door I brace myself against the jolts of the road and sit in to relax as Joeri sits between me and the driver as we all sit in front of the two labourers wedged behind us in the cab. I enjoy the quiet and tranquility of the night, the green of jungle calming because it speeds past as I sit alone with my thoughts and I am untroubled as I think of a fine and peaceful world of sewers and flush toilets and cemeteries and garbage dumps. The ride is almost rhythmic, the soothing hum of tyres playing sweetly like a bow over a tarmac violin. I tell the driver he has what could be the best job in the Amazon. He says yes, “Muy tranquilo.” He’s a sullen and nervous fellow, and I find it hard to want to be nice to him. He sulks in the darkness. Out of nowhere, suddenly he says, “I have four children. They say I keep the city clean. My oldest son wants to drive a truck like I do. My children think I am a hero.”
We turn off at Kilometer 31 and shake down a rutted, lumpy dirt track to the mountain of reeking landfill, our truck backing in at a creep and coming ever so slowly to a jerking stop at the edge of the pile as we are enveloped in stink so thick one can feel it settling in ones stomach like cheese. Our labourers climb out and round the truck as the driver hits the hydraulic lift, and with the steep angle of the box – nothing. The trash is so tightly compacted it will not come out without the labourers reaching up and yanking it out, bit by bit, nine tonnes in clumps per night, by hand. I tie a doubled over black cotton bandanna over the bridge of my nose and tuck the flap under my chin and Uri splashes agua florida over his face over and over and I cannot smell it even with his leg and shoulder pressed tight against me in the truck cab. The driver says, unbidden, “The smell used to bother me, but I’m used to it now.” He takes a tired drag of his cigarette: in the darkness an intense red burst flares like a cluster- fuck of fireflies, a phantom trail of grey smoke twists slowly upward out the open window to freedom in the vast starlit beyond. Our driver sighs.
I turn my head and see for the first time a second crew at work in the night, dark little shapes with small miners’s lights attached to their foreheads, scavengers picking through the load of garbage we have dumped, men carefully sifting through the slime and the muck and the sickness like beetles poring over a bloated corpse forgotten and rotten on a killing field. The nimble pick and pull and stash away in pockets and packets little bits of shit they can eat or use. I realise I am seeing live Henry Mayhew’s Nineteenth Century London poor. Household waste, commercial waste, hospital waste, all this unsorted filth is fair game for the silent scavengers who clean the dump itself. It is ecologically sound.
I move my dizzy head slowly, slowly to keep down a slowly rearing wave of nausea, and I see across the two truck wide dirt track to our left a hulking gang of now idled major moving-machines that during the day rev up in black clouds of cloaking diesel smoke and then lurch with the roar of grinding gears to hurl themselves heedless reckless frontal first into the grim mountain of muck, bulldozers that mount the mountain and tear it to pieces like blood-crazed Crusaders entering the city and mash and spread and regroup, raging garbage terriers shaking the dead body of a bloody rat, and then at sunset to rest and warily contemplate it all, eyes half closed at work day’s end, ones reward before them laid up like a tray full of sick cookies piled high and steaming on a waiting jungle plate. Three bulldozers and a giant front end loader hunker still in the night. Just beyond them is a grass malocca, a windowless hut for someone to sit in. But it sets a far lean and long arm’s reach from the very edge of the mountain. I ask what it’s for, why anyone would choose to sit so close to the mountain. Our labourers and our driver whisper about this, and the driver quietly announces: “It’s an ayahuasca lodge.”
Our load is dumped and the labourers climb over Joeri and me, brushing over us as they climb back behind the seats and listen to a radio softly playing exuberant Spanish love songs, and with them climbing on us we are truly putrid, the stink in our clothes, our hair, on our skins, filling us like a giant ayahuasca worm slithering into our mouths and nostrils, curling up in thick coils, sleeping heavy in our lungs and guts. We will seep stink for days. Joeri and I chain smoke oily black mapacho from a smooth wooden short barreled pipe and turn our attentions to the inner peace of the road ahead in darkness.
Our light load on return allows us to simply glide over the jolting pot-holed road that made illegible my work notes scribbled on paper set on the dashboard. We soar. And then we arrive at port again in Belen, that frightening landscape of danger and fear where lurk the desperate and violent in secret places waiting for scraps of human flotsom to devour, flip-flops, shirts, life itself.
Our driver enters a back street and parks our giant truck in mud and filth that I drop down to when the steps give out from the cab. I pay the man in coins. I walk away so he can’t come over and demand a bigger bribe. I look warily for small gangs of thin faced killers with cold black eyes watching us from behind broken slats of shacks in the slum. Joeri and I are ready for them, we being sufficiently armed for street fighting and death.
But the shacks are silent and the streets are otherwise deserted and the slum-dwellers are asleep, resting for tomorrow’s daily drudge of haulage and suffering in the sticky, sickly draining heat. We stand back to back and wait. And wait. Man, the place is deserted.
Looking down the lane in the pale grey yellow of dust-covered street lamps we see the old bent bones of abandoned vendor stands draped in limp plastic sheets spotted with mud and bird shit. In the far distance we see two immaculately uniformed police officers in white helmets and brown suits standing, black booted legs apart, tapping stiff black rubber truncheons on their palms, unfriendly cops staring straight at us. At the moment then they don’t even register in my suspicious mind, that being set on those who would come for us and do us harm. We turn left and leave their line of vision, moving cautiously into the depths of the empty market lanes, looking back, concerned that perhaps the supervisor of the garbage group will send out men to beat us for not paying him his due. We round another turn and see a light bulb burning under a torn blue tarp over a plywood stand where slumps a sleeping vendor, head resting on folded arms by a see-through plastic cover on a pile of black skinned fruit and wilted vegetables awaiting the bender. We are thirsty, and Joeri approaches while I stand back to guard us as money is exchanged for drink.
We have awoken a yawning twelve year old girl in a fuzzy white sweater pulled up over her arms and laid across her chest, the night air surprisingly cold for the locals as we sweat. I wipe my face on my shoulder and scan the lane for drug-blown maniacs and drunken brawlers. The girl slowly peels aloe vera leaves and lets the juice ooze into the blender like a mix of egg whites and snot, adding something else till the drink she’s made comes out the colour and texture of dish soap. It doesn’t taste like much, but I say I like it. Because it’s probably healthy.
We walk away down the empty streets, our lethal secrets hidden, our thoughts turned again to philosophy and the meaning of garbage. We walk slowly home like sailors returned from the sea who find all is exactly as we left it, we who have seen strange ports and the endless ocean.
Exhausted, I drag my 200 pound of stinking self across the beer bottle and cigarette butt littered courtyard of our home, and I stagger through the night like a rum drunk pirate up the crumbling concrete staircase to my room on the rooftop. I hobble and bob my way through the low rent poverty of sleeping backpackers laying around on the floor of heap a hostel in the Amazon jungle city of Iquitos. This is a voyage to the toilet and then to bed where I can end my day with a flicker of eyelids and no one will notice my body and tired mind silently submerged in the velvet darkness of ever-flowing sleep running its way to the oceanic. Quick and quiet and lost to waking life, I long for sleep, a peace so rarely found. Peace, buried so deep. It makes good sense for a tired old man on the bum to explore even the rough parts of dreams found in sleep in a dusty little room on a roof when one lies down to look beyond the daylight hours of cautious life when the sun sets on the bustle of small coffee matters and joke trading with passing people who won’t recall the adventure of climbing up decaying concrete walkways to a restless home. Peace. My dreams take me through a troubled sea from which I rise safe and secure in the warm rays of morning sunlight. Me, settled safe and sound in a near impenetrable coach of dreams even the self wouldn’t think to attack and beat: in sleep to dream at rest through the night high up above it all, I float free above the city in a black-flagged ship across the starry skies of mind. The trash of a day is gone, and I am at rest.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to summarise as well as does Joeri the high adventure we shared as we sailed into the darkness of Belen and the embracing green surround, we being safely settled in our giant floating vessel, the Dongfeng 375 hp. T-lift garbage truck. I leave it to Joeri to sort out the tormented wash of jungle garbage imagery and the monkish stillness of meditative being in our urban Sea of Tranquility.
I beg the reader’s indulgence as I have taken the petite-bourgeois liberty below of changing some minor points of punctuation, capitalisation, spelling, and so on. The rest is all Joeri’s.
But no! That would be a gross injustice to Joeri’s gently florid mind and the unrestrained laughing exuberance of his didactic poem. Joeri is, to be blunt, special, a laughing, loving, lovable boy of 30.
we are also the media,just been lastnight on Iquitos rough area for making docu about the unknown or unwanted to know surreal trashbashbattle , we, me and an American psychocowboy, warjournalist from Idaho and way beyond the eye of god , f…ully armed with safe and sound equipment went with the garbagetruck to visit holy mount garbage cruising trough treasure island confronting heavy trashmetal and all kinds of wicked shizzle, whats ina name, who needs a job to apply for intensivecare, just follow the vultures and follow your nose ,shockingblue but real mellowyellowhoneysweetness,lonely rangers planet versus bambamspamstories , good to share and spread the message, smells like teamspirit we are change from the ground op, connected with the divine, we can learn from all colors and all dirt is a blessing of cleansing the soul we are one, even with the trash, viva la basura, karmasura sutra jaia gaya aum namoshivaya
Iquitos Peru, A Really Dirty Story
A guest post by Dag Walker
This piece is an excerpt from my up-coming book, “Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close,” a popular account of Iquitos, its history and people.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
If you would like to read more about Iquitos Peru, click this link to my blog, No Dhimmitude; and here is another article about Iquitos in the Captain’s Blog, Iquitos, Peru: Black Days, Red Nights: Riot ’98.