Sunday, 22 April 2007

When the Good Lord created the world

... he very kindly put the more likeable aspects of our existence (air conditioning, refridgerators and cheesecake) where civilisation is, and left some of the nastier things that we must endure (killer ants, malaria and ten meter snakes) out in the jungle where they belong.

Desp├Čte this, though, we somehow found ourselves flying into Puerto Maldonado airport with nothing but a fifteen gallon barrel of deet and my near-terminal hatred of mosuitos to sustain us.
Puerto Maldonaldo is a small town at the southern-ish end of the amazon rainforest, lying on the Madre de Dios river - so called because the first explorer to find it exclaimed "Mother of G*d, that's a big river!". The Madre de Dios runs four thousand kilometres before it meets the Amazon, and is therefore considered a 'tributary'. Two and a half thousand miles of water and it still doesn't make full river status. Harsh.

As we landed I felt confident because you could clearly see a half sized football pitch painted on one of the service roads leading to the only runway, obviously intended for the ground crew to have a quick kick-about in between flights. In an unprecedented display of positivity I even found myself singing "Welcome to the jungle" by Guns n Roses as we landed. My kind of place, I thought.

I was soon disabused of this ridiculous notion, though, by the welcoming committee of biting insects that had been organised in our honour - and that's even before I found myself up to my an*s in swamp water and down to my elbow in creepy tendrils camouflaged as snakes. I was expecting the jungle to be hot - that pretty much goes without saying. If you're visiting the amazon rainforest, too, you expect it to be wet (again the clue is in the title) - although would you believe that the time we spent there was the most rain free I've had since I arrived in Peru?

Of course you would. Before my visit, though, I would probably have used terms like steamy, sweltering and sultry to describe the place, whereas I now know that words such as sweaty, soggy and dank are more accurate. Not to mention airless, stifling, overpowering and suffocating. Positively torrid, it was.

What I hadn't been prepared for at all, though, was just how dark it would be. The thick canopy of branches in the sky lets little light penetrate to floor level, and if I'd known how badly my photos were going to turn out I don't think I'd have sallied forth to do battle with the bloodsuckers in the first place. Almost every creature we saw, our guide said "Hates sunlight" and I could really see that the jungle is the place to be if you're a sun-hater. "Over-hunted" was the other phrase he used about almost everything, too.

Something else I hadn't expected was the mud. We were travelling at the end of the rainy season and the start of the dry season, and it turns out I was focussing too much on the "start of the dry season" part of that equation.

What I hadn't considered enough was that for the previous three months all of the trails had been under water almost all the time, and then tramped and treaded by man and mammal alike.

Lots of the jungle animals, particularly the large ungulates, like to walk on the man-made trails because it makes life easier for them. For this reason you'll also often see a puma or a leopard ambling along the paths, on the off-chance of bumping into a convenient meal - saves all that tedious hunting, you see. You can't imagine how I was looking forward to turning a corner and coming face to face with two hundred pounds of jungle predator.

So although it didn't actually rain on us (much) while we were there, the trails were knee deep in a particularly rich and unpleasant form of jungle mud. Plus it was almost completely dark, and it was hot, and it was sweaty and wet. The jungle is hot, gloomy, sticky and covered in filth - just like my teenage bedroom. The horror.

Unlike my teenage bedroom, though, the jungle is home to an awful lot of activity, particularly at night. We didn't get to meet some of the more glamorous inhabitants of the area (ocelots, armadillos and coatimundis) but we did see plenty of other livestock - caimans (it's a kind of poor man's crocodile), mildly venomous snakes and plenty of monkeys (or mankeys as the brochure promised). Not everything could kill you, but a respectable percentage would put you in hospital for a few days. If there were any hospitals in the area, that is.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, too - it was like hiking with your own personal David Attenborough, though I didn't have the heart to tell him that we saw a wider range of exotic and potentially lethal wildlife on the way to the bathroom every night than we met on his nature trails.

I also suspected him of giving a slightly Disneyed account of the harsher realities of jungle life, especially when he pointed to two ants and said "Look, one ant is trying to help his friend, who is sick". Sick of the other one trying to bite his head off, maybe. And I may not be a regular subscriber to Nature magazine, but I reckon that what those two parrots were up to was more Playboy Channel than Disney Channel, and what that monkey was doing with himself was pure Men and Motors.

He was also good with the imaginery wildlife. "Wow", he'd exclaim, "A striated heron just flew away. Did you see that? It was a red breasted Macaw, but it's gone now. Oh, that was amazing, it was a spider monkey. He left".

My favourite commentary moment, though, was when he stopped for two minutes in the middle of nowhere, stared intently into the scrub and then announced, accusingly "Nothing. There is nothing here. Let's go."

He also pointed to a kind of fern and said "This plant is very nice. It's good for uses" and moved on.

His enthusiasm was infectious, and it did sustain me right up until the final day when we got up at four am in order to see a couple of parrots sitting on a rock. It was a very affecting experience.

We were told that in this area the people keep tarantulas in the house because they eat insects (I used to think I hated tarantulas, but it turns out they eat mozzies, and anything that eats those whining nectar-feeders is a friend of mine) and they also breed boas because they eat rats. However, once the constrictors get too big the poor loves get turfed out into the jungle to fend for themselves. As you can probably imagine, though, a five meter long snake can do a fair bit of fending.

There are quite a few animals and sanctuaries and shelters in the area, where they save such poor creatures as mistreated anacondas (eight to ten metres of man eating malevolence) rather than finishing the job, as would seem logical. They also save the poor jaguars (whose name in the native tongue translates as "death from above" or "he who can kill with one leap") in order to re-release them into the wild when they've recovered their strength and are feeling more up to the tricky task of hiding in trees and killing whatever walks underneath.

We also saw a chocolate tree, but to my disappointment it didn't have branches bowed under the weight of Green and Blacks, so we moved on.

Highlight of the trip, however, had to be visiting the traditional indigenous family and their traditional indigenous souvenir shop ("In case you want to buy some memories", as our guide put it. Good idea, I thought, I'll have some of Frank Sinatra's if they're going).

This visit consisted of the grandfather explaining what life used to be like in the jungle, and it was a lot like when your oldies go on about how different things were when they were kids - in his day they didn't have cotton, they made all their clothes out of bark; they didn't have shoes, they used to tramp through the jungle barefoot; they didn't have comfy mattresses, they slept on reed mats.

Sadly all of these 'traditional' ways are being lost, because it turns out that bark is itchy and unpleasant to wear, walking barefoot isn't too handy when you're treading on thorny and poisonous plants, and it turns out that it's easier to get a good night's sleep on a well sprung mattress than it is on a piece of reed.

My top five authentic indigenous 'you had to be there' moments (in reverse order) are:

5. As we left we turned back to see the guy ripping off his itchy bark smock to reveal a pair of board shorts underneath

4. After a long untranslated passage, the only comprehensible words being gringo, blanco, indigena and nativo, our guy mimed walking off into the jungle, legs splayed and arms aloft carrying bow and arrow. Our guide said "In the jungle, everyone walks like this"

3. After explaining that they had no drinking water in fancy bottles in the jungle, Mister Indigenous showed us how to get a drink out of sugar cane by beating it and twisting it into your mouth. Having taken a few mouthfuls he then preceded to have a coughing fit that lasted a good five minutes. Hmm, tasty.

2. He spent fifteen minutes of lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together, only for his baby gap and wellington boot wearing grandson to stamp it out.

1. Our guide asked him "How long have you and your family lived here?""Eight years" was the reply.

Gosh, eight years, as long as that.

So I'm temporarily back in Cusco.

And finally, comrade Marloh sent a reply to a previous email of mine that I enjoyed tremendously. I hope he won't object to my quoting part of it for your instruction:

"So in this way I came upon "Alpaca to the sauce", and it has been keeping me amused ever since. I have a million little theories of what it could be; one of them is it's a battle-cry; from the olden days of Alpaca farming, when there were feuds between the alpaca farmers, and they would shout 'alpaca to the swords!'. Another of course is derived from the remaining social strata of Peruvian society, those who were not Alpaca farmers. When they were served food which had a particularly bad sauce, they'd deride it by shouting, contemptuously, "Alpaca to the sauce", which was the equivalent to "bollocks to this", or potentially translated as "Get the (resident) Alpaca to lick this off my plate, it's so bad it doesn't even deserve to be taken out to the Alpaca (when it would be "sauce to the Alpaca").

I have successfully used it all over London. It's particularly useful while driving. I said it with a smile, quietly, as I waved an old woman across a zebra crossing. Pointing at the lights which for me were green, I shouted it at a pedestrian who walked confidently across red traffic lights. I even said it on the phone today. I had a call offering me double-glazed windows.

Are you the homeowner?
Yes. What is it you are trying to sell?
Nothing, what would you say if you had new double-glazing installed free of charge?
Alpaca to the sauce
Excuse me?
You heard.
And with that I rang off. It worked a treat - they haven't called me back."

Good advice there, I think.

Alpaca to the sauce

It has come to my attention that although my previous email was primarily about the Inca Trail, I barely mentioned Machu Picchu. So, for the curious, I shall now inform you that it was very nice. It's a series of small walls between two mountains.

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