I spotted the crappy cargo boat. I asked the cleaning lady in my hostel if she had ever travelled in this boat before. She replied that her mother had – she died when the ship sank. And yet, here I was about to travel on this piece of art voluntarily for days from Leticia, Colombia, to Iquitos, Peru.
24 hours before
I talked to three different people about exiting Colombia, entering Peru and the cargo boat ride. I learnt the hard way that sometimes people don’t like admit if they don’t know something, and would rather give false information. I would have expected my hostel not to do this, but at least I had time for what was waiting for me this time.
I had to go back to Colombia from Peru. Straight to the airport. Exit stamp, check. Take a boat taxi and cross the Amazon river, the third time at this point. We popped into Brazil as the captain had to drop a friend at the market. 10 minutes, 3 countries. Entry stamp to Peru, check. I took the boat taxi back and forth between Colombia, Peru and Brazil so many time even I lost count of the number of border crossings.
Quickly to the marina. No boat today. What? Tomorrow. Great. Hostel for 3 dollars a night. This slum was not worth more anyway, but I had roof over my head and running water if I bothered to pump water in the shower.
The next day the chaos began once again. Back to Colombia as on the tiny Peruvian island changing money was too expensive. Even the daily menus were almost 80 Cents more than the usual 2 dollar. What a rip off huh?
At night, equipped with 10 extra kilos of water and food I finally spotted the crappy cargo boat at the dock.
First morning: I haven’t slept this well for a long time, although I wasn’t exactly surrounded by luxury, but my hammock lulled me to sleep. The night started off rough when I was woken up by a giant insect (they grow big here I tell you!). When I flicked it off at speed like it was sucking the life out of me, I realised this European ’don’t even touch me’ mentality was not going to work here as it was completely against the environment I was in.
I’d been travelling for months prior to reaching the Amazon and now I act like a princess who rejects nature. This was the last time I hurt a bug. They still can’t take a siesta on my skin, but now I gently relocate them.
Breakfast: At 6am three pieces of rock hard pastry were distributed and I was given some not exactly convincing, white, warm, slightly mint flavoured fruit juice looking liquid in a mug. This was included in the roughly 20 dollars I paid for the experience and the full board. For this much money of course I was going to soak my have-seen-better-days pastry in the juice.
While I was enjoying my breakfast, I noticed the first family of grey dolphins swimming by.
The First day: I used to care about what people thought of me, I tried to be liked by everyone. Today I don’t give a f…- I mean I care a little less;) Even friendly people like me need some down time alone and in Latin America it is twice the challenge. The locals – especially the opposite sex – tend to ask a hell of a lot of questions and they try to maintain a conversation even if they clearly bother me.
So I decided to cut myself some slack for being rude and abrupt on occasions. For how long are you angry at a stranger after they are rude to you? 3 minutes? 5? Then you forget you ever met them. Following this philosophy, when a young man hung his hammock inappropriately close to mine and he was determined to find out how I am, I initiated the get-away-from-me sequence. I made sure he didn’t know I was from Hungary for a start.
I was simply not prepared to spend the next 3 days literally living side by side while he continuously asked questions when I was trying to read. So I was rude. Two minutes later he was gone and I got my space back. I didn’t care what he thought of me or my behaviour. This was the easy road, so I took it and it proved very effective.
I wanted to dedicate these few days to total reflection, relaxation and rehabilitation. I spent hours at the front of the boat just watching nature. This is why I was lucky to see grey dolphins twice and pink ones once on the first day.
Lunch: Around 11am they gave out – what for me seemed like a half portion – a rice dish with chicken, eighth of an egg and some sauce. In normal circumstances I would have demanded vegetarian, but I didn’t completely lose my mind. I would rather eat it than starve, and anyway, this is local happy chicken, not the tortured, stuffed farm poultry. If I was to eat meat anywhere, this was the best place.
During the afternoon came the greatest surprise, – that we docked on every corner. When we touched land, a flock of ladies and children flooded the boat selling their goods for peanuts. Everything only cost a dollar. What a relief that I can buy more cooked food. Even though I was prepared and I had roughly three barrell banana and enough pastry to open my own store, grandma’s cooking was a better choice.
Second day: Time seemed to stand still. I spent hours at the front of the boat getting lost in nature, the shore, the river and the clouds. It was silent, only the boat’s engine made some noise, but after a while it because white noise and wasn’t noticeable to me. I was thinking. At some stage, my train of thought was interrupted by a young man, who came to the front not expecting to find me hiding in front of a container. Holas were exchanged and off he ran back to tell the gang that the white girl said hi.
Alright let’s get back to where we were. Anyone who saw me with my sleeping roll asked me if I was about to practise yoga. Strange how it didn’t occur to anyone that I might just not want to sit in the dirt. I thought this must be the signature gringo (originally meaning a white traveller, but today it is a collective description of a backpacker regardless of skin colour) activity. I didn’t do any yoga, but I managed to meditate often unintentionally. The windchill was soft, it was easy to get lost in my thoughts, then empty my mind completely.
On a side note let me tell you about the British guy I travelled with for a week and half. He was a hell of an entertainer on the boat. Almost thumb sized, scary looking bugs were everywhere on the floor and the adventurous ones managed to get into our hammocks. This is when I jumped out of it with the speed of light, but he with a noble simplicity ate them. When I saw him chewing on his first insect my jaw almost dropped, but there were bigger bugs around us so I kept my mouth shut. He just kept on adding extra protein to his diet.
Communities by the shore
I was very much surprised to see just how many people live by the shores of the Amazon River. We docked at least 40 times and went past over a 100 indigenous communities. The locals – with their slight Asian and strong features don’t grow very tall. Although many practise the old traditions, keeping their languages, dialects and cultures alive, some of the biggest brands still walk on the streets. Of course they didn’t buy them new, but I saw plenty of Adidas, Nike and Under Armour especially on the men.
Native traditions may vary from community to community, but in the tiny pueblo I visited, 14 families revealed their community’s secrets to me. These were secrets I would have thought died out a long time ago. Here the ladies wear the pants, not the men. If the woman of the house is not happy with the fish, the man needs to go and fish another one.
Of course great power doesn’t come for free. When the girls get their first period they automatically become part of a ritual which comes with extreme pain. In the old days their hair were pulled out by hand, it was a bloody ceremony. Today they only pull out a little hair from the bottom and cut the rest short with scissors. I didn’t understand why this was necessary – my jungle Spanish is a bit rusty.
Choosing a mate is also very far away from our ways. All the similar aged boys line up in front of the sexually mature girl, who then chooses the lucky candidate, someone who looks mostly like a sex god. Then he needs to prove to the girl that he will live up to her expectations in bed. We are talking about mostly virgin boys by the way from around 14-15 of age. If she is not happy with the performance she may choose another boy. She does this until she is happy.
Shortly after making a decision the baby factory opens for business. The more babies they produce, the more help they get around the house. Divorce is very rare around the communities, but in the rare case it happens, the fathers of the couple need to decide if they agree for their children to go on their different paths.
Dinner: Around 5pm I got a similar dish to lunch, also half a portion of rice. If I was lucky I found hidden beans.
Arrival: I was reborn and a whole new person left the boat. It took a dirty, filthy, crowded and rusty cargo boat, but I finally rested for the first time in six weeks.