Wednesday, 9 May 2007

End of the rainy season my soggy white @rse

Nobody seems to have told the Columbian rain Gods that the Dry Season should have started by now. Yes, I'm in Columbia, a bit. For a few days at most. There is a three way border between Peru, Columbia and Brazil on the Amazon river and hopping between them is pretty easy. My boat docked at Santa Rosa in Peru, then I took a five minute trip across to Leticia at the southern-most tip of Columbia (where I was told it was the best place to stay) and last night I walked into Tabatinga (wild west Brazil) for a drink.

Now I can say that I've visited Columbia, in the same way someone that's spent a couple of nights in Land's End has visited England.

Originally there were four of us gringos, all from the same inbound boat, but the other three were scared to go to Brazil so they've gone to central Columbia instead (qua?). One of them had her head spinning that she'd been in three different countries in one day, but being a good European this impressed me far less. Been there, done that. I did realise, though, that I had six currencies in my wallet - pesos (Columbia), soles (Peru) and reals (Brazil), plus the near universally accepted dollars, a few quid for a coffee in the airport when I get back, and some leftover euros from New Year's in Athens. G*d, I'm so cosmopolitan. It felt just like travelling in Europe used to. Thank the lord for the Euro - good enough for the foreign johnnies, but not good enough for the Brits.

On Saturday I'll be taking passage on another boat into central Brazil, in preparation for which I've been to the Federal Police station in Tabatinga to get my Brazilian entry stamp done.
The only problem with getting a VISA was that the Brazilian policeman was disappointed that I wasn't from Liverpool - "The Beatles, yes?". I strongly advise anyone that grew up remotely near the Mersey to come to Latin America with a LUFC shirt and a suitcase full of moptop memorabilia - you'd clean up.

As I write this I realise I can now add Brazil to my list of countries that sound like slang for something vaguely saucy when used as a prefix - a Brazilian entry stamp sounds like something you'd have done at a tattoo parlour or body piercing salon, and "I'm having problems with my Brazilian entry" sounds like it requires a visit to the clinic. For coffee here I've had both Columbian roast (which sound like it's dr*gs related) and a Brazilian roast, which sounds like something footballers do in hotel rooms.

My favourite country for this is Holland - Dutch anything sounds thoroughly dodgy. "He's visiting his Dutch cousin", "She's got the Dutch ham out" and "We'll be riding the old Dutch tandem all afternoon", off the top of my head. I encourage you to try it. Next time a friend is buying four cans of guinness (or Stella, or even Strongbow) why not say "Ooh, he's gone for the old Irish (or Belgian, or West Country) four pack there, I see".

Anyway, my favourite place in Columbia has been the restaurant with no menu. You had to just describe to the waiter what you wanted and he'd say if they could make something close. This stumped me, to be honest, coming up with something off the top of my head like that, but when I finally thought of something to order, plus a beer with it, he dutifully popped off quite happily. About five minutes later I saw him walk in carrying a supermarket carrier bag containing what was unmistakably a single bottle of beer, which was immediately brought over to my table. If I'd understood the situation I would have asked him to get in a six pack, or better still set up some sort of pressurised hose system for them to draw off beer at will. A pump, I believe it's called. For me this beat the Streep-Tease Bar hands down. We're didn't go in, but I liked the idea of a bar full of pranksters making faces, putting stickers on her back and shouting "He's behind you!" every time poor Meryl turned around. It also beat the sign for Amazon Tours, the misprint on which made me disappointed not to be carrying my camera - It proudly read "AMA-TEURS, trading in Columbia".

My favourite person in Columbia so far has been definitely this US guy we met who's carrying a twelve foot wooden cross round the world on foot. He was telling us proudly (ooh, I spotted a sin) how he's been carrying it for twenty two years, has visited 170 different countries and spoken to all kinds of different people about "the ways they can let Jesus into their lives".
The responses in our party were varied, but I think the others all agreed that my first question ("So who pays for that exactly?") was the most cynical thing they'd ever heard - until my second and third questions. Belated registering the phrase 'on foot' I wondered aloud "But you're travelling by boat now, right?", thinking that if this guy was actually walking the length of the amazon carrying a machete and a bl**dy great cross then I'd slip him a few quid myself. He explained that he carried the cross *in* places, not necessarily *to* them, telling me that it was all about making contact with people and talking to them about the gospels, the trinity and "what God means in my life".

By this point I was thinking that this sounded like a great scam and I wanted in on the action, so I politely enquired "So how long every day do you actually carry the cross", at which point you could see the jungle tumbleweed rolling. His answer, long-winded and evasive as it was, could be boiled down to "I pose with it just long enough to get a photo".

This is me in Peru, carrying the cross ...this is me on the amazon, carrying the cross ...and this is me ... oh, where was this now ... anyway, look, I'm carrying the cross ...

When I get back I'm going to have a whip round, and if I raise enough money then I'm going to travel the world with a six foot inflatable guinness can, talking to everybody I meet about the three stage pour system, those great mambo ads they used to have, and what the Irish black gold means to my life.

Seriously, though, watch out for this guy's book, it's just a matter of time and I'm sure it'll be a corker. As one of the USians said afterwards, "I wonder if he knows how greasy he sounds?". But you've got to admit he'll get people talking about God and Jesus everywhere he goes. As in "Jesus, what's that idiot carrying that cross for?" and, "God, I hope this guy leaves soon".
For anyone that's worried that I'm currently staying in the kidnapping captial of the world, my guide book says there are no guerillas in the region, and who am I to question the mighty Lonely Planet? See, it's not all drugs and gangs here. I hope.

I've already been told a couple of times "Columbia doesn't have a problem with cocaine, Columbia has a problem with the US. The US has a problem with cocaine", something I also heard in Peru. Mind you, in Peru I was told that "Peruvian mosquitos don't carry malaria", which made me wonder how they know. Do they get to the border and have their own little mozzie customs post, with an officious little mosquital pr*ck saying "Anything to declare? Any malaria, dengue fever, anything like that?". Or is it more like Union regs, where the malarial mozzies get to the border, have a cup of tea and light a rolled up fag and say "Carry malaria into Peru, you're 'avin' a larf. More than my job's worth mate".

Regardless of this, I'm still taking a daily cocktail of anti-malarials and anti-histamine, and smearing myself liberally with the strongest repellant I could find, something that claims to be 98% deet. It's foul. It takes the print off books and food labels, and even melted the frame of my sunglasses where it touched my face - really.

I'll tell you who hates the US, though, it's the Columbians. I mean, you might think that you think George Bush is a c0ke-snorting, drunk-driving, draft-dodging, war-mongering, thoroughly demented son of a b*tch ("That's son of a Texan b*tch, boy!") but you if you want to meet a bunch of people who really feel they've been d1cked around by manifest destiny, it's these guys. Maybe in Palestine you'll find more yankee bile per square kalashnikov, but these guys will be running them close.

Nor, as I was told after I'd worn my Cienciano shirt for a day, are they overly fond of los PeruaƱos here. Over the years it seems Peru has fought bitter wars with most of its neighbours, and they're barely on speaking terms with each other now. Think of them as the Germans of Latin America.

What unites the whole continent though, as far as I can make out, is their common hatred for the Argentinians, who they view as aloof, pretentious and arrogant. Think of them as being the French. When the Argentinian economy went into meltdown I'm surprised we couldn't hear the collective cheer down Brick Lane, they loved it so much.

Did I mention before the cab driver who thanked me personally for winning the Falklands war and putting the uppity Argies in their place? I believe I was busy playing with my Hans Solo at the time ("They're not dolls, it's Star Wars!") but it's nice that my contribution has finally been recognised.

Anyway, below is a long description of what taking my first riverboat down the amazon was like, for those that want to read it. It's huge, the result of me being stuck in a boat for several days with very little else to do.

For everyone else, all my jungle love


My Amazonian Adventure

by Nathan Lawrence


I went down to the docks to find out when the next boat downriver was leaving, and after a while of aimless gawping I started talking to some salty old seadog who showed me round one particular vessel with pride, explaining the strict departure schedule (sometime Monday, maybe Tuesday at a push), and boasting about the fact that there would be music on board. I thought he was the captain until he introduced me to the man that actually expected payment (whose demeanour strongly suggested that while there might be more unwelcome creatures on his boat, at least they could be scraped off and hosed into the water), and then he wandered off the ship when I did, facing the nearest bar and asking me for a tip. I figured that I'd never have sorted the trip out without his help so I gave him a small amount, and his expression (no trace of pleasure, not quite actual disgust) indicated that I'd probably given the right amount.

I've now learnt enough Spanish to mistake what people are saying to me, rather than simply saying "que?" as before, so the entire transaction was peppered with misunderstandings and confusions on my part. When I was told later that we'd need our own cutlery in order to partake of the meals (a piece of information that turned out to be wrong, and irrelevant) my first thought was "Nobody told me that!" and then I realised that someone probably did tell me, I just thought they were talking about something nautical and ignored it.

Before the boat set off there was a stream of hawkers and vendors, and because I was now fearful of having not brought enough food (I had a packet of crackers, a few bread rolls and half my bodyweight in boiled sweets) I bought a sack of bread for about 80p. Bread that turned out to be stale, I found out the second we hit the water.

I say it was irrelevant because when the first meal came round it was rice, potatoes and a piece of meat so small that in Poland it would have been considered a vegetarian option (the real veggie option, of course, was to sit down and shut up), so I manfully tried the bread. It's like breadsticks, I tried to tell myself, and failed.

I'd arrived early, as advised, intending to bag a prime spot for my hammock - near the front, close to the window, not underneath a light, I'd been told. I got a good one, too, and was feeling pretty smug when, about a week and a half later, everybody else arrived slung their hammocks any old where, often in far inferior, locations. Then more hammocks were put up, then more, then still more, until I was crushed into an space that would have had the average battery hen picketing for an increase in living room. There were people either side that had put their hammocks so close to mine that when they f@rted, I could feel my cheeks vibrate. Then more people came along and put their hammocks in between.

In the Guide to South America (1964) it says "Bus trips are better than railways for the scenery, and offer unparalled insights into local life and ways for the tourist". I used to think that, too, but now I realise that nothing beats a boat if you want to experience, the sights, the sounds, and most particularly the smells, of a hardworking Peruvian on the road (© Spinal Tap, you know I like to quote the greats) .

To my left was a small family of about fifteen, four and a little 'un to a hammock. Closest to me was the mother and eldest daughter, a tight matriarchal unit that lay lengthwise across their hammock and proceeded to invade my personal space in ways that would make a proctologist blush. They're a tactile race at the best of the times, the Peruvians (though not so much touchy-feely as argy-bargy) but at least a trained medical practitioner uses gloves.

And before you get all Peter Stringfellow on me here, we're talking about a Biiig Mamma, and a Not-so-diddy-daughter, you wouldn't have wanted to swing in that hammock, if you get my drift. A death slide, maybe. The elder was wearing a t-shirt for the entire voyage that read "I'm now single", and I did think, lock up your menfolk girls, this woman, her three daughters and her seven chins is back on the market.

To their left was their screaming baby, and because I'd gone a couple of bus rides without, I felt I was owed one. He was a trooper, too, bless him - he started crying the second he got on, continued to wail without cease during the voyage (with one brief, merciful period of peace while he watched in fascination as I made marmite sandwiches, which ended when I ran out of rolls), then, clearly realising that despite his heroics he still hadn't got up to quota, he redoubled his efforts when it was time to disembark.

Fortunately the entire clan left quite early on, well before the mountain range of fruit pith, pip and seed that they'd all liberally spat onto the deck started attracting flies.

To my right was an American, who when she arrived said "I'm so glad there's someone else on board who can speak English, otherwise I think I'd go insane". Later, after I'd read another few chapters of my book, she hinted "Are you always this talkative?", to which I felt that the only suitable answer was a slow and lugubrious nod.

Taking the hint, though, I proceeded to make polite small talk, explaining to her my firm conviction that the French should ask for the Statue of Liberty back since there is no longer any liberty in the States*, until at one point she asked me to tell her about the book I was reading.
* I love saying this to USians, mainly because so few of the ones I've met actually know that the Statue of Liberty was originally a present from the cheese-eating-surrender-monkeys.
Shortly afterwards, while she was explaining to me why she was cutting her trip short ("So like, I thought, 'I've seen the jungle, I've seen the mountains, I've seen the beach, why not go home?' I mean, otherwise I'd just be going to, like, a-nother jungle, a-nother mountain or a-nother beach, ya know?"), I offered to lend it to her.

Later, when space opened up further down the deck, she moved her hammock.
This is something the Peruvians never do - the girl who replaced the family from hell didn't move hers for ages, even though loads of space opened up to her left. After a while I began to wonder if there was a motive for this, so next time I caught her eye I smiled.
Sure enough, first chance she got she moved her hammock.

Behind me was a large gentleman who'd slung his hammock across mine in such a way that when he got in my head dropped alarmingly towards the floor, and when he got out I was bounced upward and almost catapaulted across the deck.

At my feet was a hammock belonging to two young ladies, which attracted the attention of all the young studs on board, who took to wandering over and leaning nonchalently on the nearest hammock while chatting amiably on the topic of the day. That hammock was, of course, mine. You'll be pleased to hear that I eventually found a way of expressing "My dear chap, would you mind awfully not leaning on my hammock, it does tend to make it drag so?" in such a way that it required no Spanish whatsoever.

Those two ladies were surprisingly forgetful during the course of the voyage - you'd be simply astonished at how many times they were forced to hike from one end of the boat to the other, bending and stretching past all the hammocks containing all the young gentlemen, simply to fetch some small trifle or other.

I didn't get to meet many of the other passengers. I did get chatting to a guy called Pedro, who was from the jungle but worked as a painter in Iquitos, and whenever he could he'd leave the urban sprawl to head back to his roots. He gave me his number and told me that if I was ever in Iquitos again I should give him a call and we'd go out dancing.

I was told later that there's a large and thriving gay scene in that town, because it's about the only place in Peru that didn't persecute homosexuals in the eighties and nineties, and with retrospect there may have been an ulterior motive to Pedro's kindness. Pedro, or Peter the Jungle P00f as I now think of him, had a large and colourful, dangly earring, his nails and toenails painted, and was rather enthusiastic in his appreciation of modern dance. Sadly I lost his number during the next rains, but I wish him well.

I also saw a young black woman walking round with a big, red faux leather book in her hands, chatting to people about the contents. At first I took it to be the bible, but when I got a closer look I discovered that it was a Reader's Digest Abridged Version of several of Nancy Fairbanks' finest.

I'd been warned that petty theft was common on these vessels, so I was careful with most of my stuff, though not alert enough to prevent the theft of an old pair of trainers that I left on deck, lying underneath my hammock. From that point on I even locked my toothbrush up, thinking that anyone that would steal those smelly old sneakers would nick anything.

Just as we started I was asked to move my bags from the tiny, airless, dusty storage room they'd been in because a family of four would be sleeping in it. I wasn't sure if this "cabin" would cost them more or less than deck space for a hammock.

The toilet was an exercise in voluntary constipation. I mean, I'm no stranger to revolting toilets (I've been to France several times) and I've become accustomed to the Peruvian habit of providing one loo for every three or four hundred people (half of whom are experiencing strange eruptions in their stomach that are making them go the toilet a great deal more often than they are accustomed, and the other half are having to go with rather more urgency). I'm also aware that sometimes that single toilet might even work.

I've even become inured to jungle bathrooms, where you'll find yourself queueing alongside far nastier creatures than you'd find even in an average English town on a Saturday night.
However, taking one look at this lavatory was enough to make you realise that maybe you didn't want to go all that badly, at that.

I think the next advert for Imodium should simply be a photo of this toilet with the caption "Because you really don't want to bare your @rse to that".

This is a joke of course - I'm sure it would be tremendously bad for you to misuse Imodium in this way (don't do it kids). Mind you, actually using this toilet wouldn't have done you any favours, either.

The dining table was quickly commandeered as the cards table, always populated by two hardened young river hands (they sat across the table from one another, and might as well have been wearing fins). Around them a series of travellers came and went, usually lighter in the wallet than when they sat down.

One lucky chap had his wife to help him. She stood behind and offered suitably encouraging hints like, "What are you betting on that for? You've got nothing" and "Oh, that's good, keep that one" and even at one stage "That's great, you'll win this time, for sure". A second man was soon joined by his wife, and the two of them began every hand with an animated discussion of the comparative merits of their husbands cards.

After they finally called it a day and walked away from the table, you could still hear the wives - "You see? You don't know how to gamble, you've lost your money!" - and I was reminded of the phrase that behind every great man there is a great woman.

Later on I noticed that the two women were playing alone against the young sharps. They appeared to be doing rather well.

I'd had visions of slowly drifting down the amazon, luxuriating in my hammock, reading, writing in my diary, taking the occasional stroll on deck in order to capture a photographic masterpiece or point out a particularly interesting specimen of the local fauna to the less experienced jungle travellers.

However, because of the crush of people it was pretty difficult to move around the boat, and after only a day I could feel my feeble leg muscles already starting to atrophy, to complement my "haven't lifted anything heavier than a pint glass for years" physique.
On the rare occasions that I did manage to escape from the hammock jungle to get out on deck, I inevitably encountered the same young woman attempting to breastfeed her baby. This isn't something that embarrasses me necessarily (though I don't regard it as a spectator sport) and the women here are usually fairly casual - you'll often see women swaying down the avenue with a baby strapped to her stomach, suckling away at her exposed breast, nobody giving her a glance.

However, I do find it a little disconcerting to be casually admiring the view knowing that two feet to your left there's a young lady and her baby who probably wished you'd go and admire it somewhere else. I could imagine her thinking "This is a lovely quiet spot where I can feed my baby in peace - oh no, it's that dratted gringo again!".

Once while I was brushing my teeth I could see her through the open door (the bathroom door was open because I couldn't bear the thought of being shut in with that smell), naked baby in one hand and soiled nappy in the other, giving me a look that seemed to indicate that she felt that her need was more pressing than mine and I should make way. She watched me reproachfully as I brushed, making sure to clean the back of the mouth thoroughly, as my old dentist used to tell me, and didn't thank me when I held the door open for her after I'd finished.
I'm surprised she waited since in Peru generally the attitude towards queuing is 'don't bother', so while I'd be standing outside the door waiting in a state of absolute dread, some youngster or other would barge past and walk straight in. At one point a nun and what I can only describe as a baby nun (she was about eighteen months old, wearing the full nun outfit) stood behind me and made doe eyes at me until I caved and let them past. However, knowing what awaited, I think it would have been kinder to make them wait.

We'd just landed at a village of nuns, one of many on the river, where the young children would board the boat with fruits and other foods for sale, and leave at the next stop. The prices were generally higher and the quality poorer if you bought from the nuns, but who could argue? Transactions for Jesus and all that.

Looking at all these prepubescent nuns, I did start thinking about the idea of them being "brides of christ" and there being a legal marriage age - they were far too young to have made an informed choice in the matter ("Did I say I wanted to become a nun? I'm sorry, I meant to say that I want a pony"). I assume they're orphans, and I don't know what their options are as regards leaving, but I reckon I have a better chance of becoming P0pe than all these children remaining in the order once their hormones start kicking in.

We stopped at many small jungle settlements, several hundred kilometres of river separating them from the nearest convenience store, places where saying "I'm just nipping to the shops, does anyone want anything?" will yield an answer slightly more lengthy than "Ooh, could you get me ten B & H and a packet of maltesers?". The standard order seemed to be three barrels of gasoline (for the boats and electricity generators, if they're lucky enough to have one), forty eight crates of beer, several large boxes of assorted toiletries and a few bottles of non-brand cola. Given that these boats supply the villages twice a week, if they're lucky, I was surprised they needed so much coke.

One afternoon, I was standing at the deck rail, I heard a slight splash and looked down to see a bit of a commotion in the river, caused by a small feeding frenzy of sleek, silver fishes. Then another plish followed by lots of froth and fish leaping from the water. A couple of young girls were throwing pieces of orange peel into the river and the fish were rushing to the surface to attack them. One of the girls noticed me. "Piranhas", she said, with a wicked grin. "They eat everything".

I wasn't convinced (I felt they were too long and narrow for piranha, based on the movies I've seen) but I watched the pair for a couple of minutes, disposing of their garbage in a thoroughly biodegradable way, and was enjoying their fun. I wished I could join in - if only I could lay my hands on some unwanted food to throw ...

As soon as I returned with my sack of stale bread I began to throw it with gusto, and between us we soon had quite a fizz going on in the water below. The boiling water attracted a small crowd, and everybody was joining in with whatever they had to hand. The girl hadn't lied when she said they eat everything - drinking straws, paper tissues, plastic bags, even a used condom (don't even think about it, I really tried hard not to), and it seems I wasn't the only one to have been caught out by the stale bread. All were thrown into the water, all were ruthlessly attacked, and, if not eaten, then at least shredded in the murky water.

The trick was to throw the right sized piece - too small and it would immediately disappear with one gulp, too large and it would be seized by one of the bigger fish and triumphantly carried away. You could see these larger pieces surfing on the ripples, smaller fish trying vainly to nip at the sides, carried by the unseen jaws of an obscenely large piscine beast under the surface.
Get it just right, however, and your piece would attract the attention of some half a dozen piranha, each eager for a slice of pie (or melon rind, or guava stalk, or whatever it might be). This would often spark some nasty competition between them and they'd start taking lumps out of each other, the smaller ones leaping out of the water to avoid their bigger neighbours' teeth, brief silver flashes against the dark Amazonian water. I was hoping that one of them would take a big enough bite that his victim would become the next target, but alas it was not to be. I'm not sure if piranha are cannibalistic, but I felt they wouldn't be so pernickity as to let a wounded comrade go to waste.

When we were running out of things to throw one lad enterprisingly spat into the water, only to see his sputum rapidly attacked and swallowed. This quickly became the new game, twenty or thirty people spitting into the river and watching the piranha making the river seethe. I didn't spit myself because in this heat I've come to regard all bodily fluids as something precious and not to be wasted, but all in all we spent a very pleasant half hour, feeding the piranha in the bay.

bout six metres away, some young children were bathing in the river as their mother washed clothes.

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