Iquitos is the wild west. It has an energy that I haven’t seen elsewhere in Peru, one that is scarily crazy and backwards, yet exciting and glamorous all the same. Iquitos is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road – you can only get there by flying, by taking a 3-4 day cargo boat from various amazonian cities in Peru, Brazil, and Colombia, or by taking a 12 hour fast boat. Yet when you arrive in Iquitos, you don’t feel like you’re trapped by the rivers enclosing it. It’s truly a city, bustling with rundown moto-taxis honking at one another, the rain seeming to splash upwards from the concrete during the daily downpour. The city is full of oddities. There are casinos and Hummers and various forms of police in the downtown and waterfront areas. You can find bars, clubs, vegetarian friendly restaurants, and beautiful colonial Spanish architecture along the boardwalk. But there is also poverty – an overall “sketchiness,” where strangers approach in the same casual way to take their tour of the jungle or to buy their drugs. There are stray dogs on every corner, grouped together and howling at whatever passes them, all looking completely disease ridden and hungry. There are kids that are devoid of gringo curiosity, rather trained to steal the gringo’s bags draped over their chairs at restaurants. There’s the famous Belén market that sells fruits and fish right next to dead turtles, caymans, monkeys, and tapir. In a funny contrast, just a few blocks away you’ll find an expensive supermarket selling sugar free biscuits and ten varieties of granola next to the in-store wine shop and air-conditioned cafe, one that we frequented on a daily basis for their set menu lunch. There is wealth that oozes of loose morals: casinos are safe-havens for the ever-present mafia to launder their money, and the presence of not only various Peruvian police forces but also of the DEA only proves that the movement of cocaine in and out of the amazon drives much of the wealth that can be found there. (You’ll notice the extremes that I had experienced in and around Iquitos in the photos I’ve posted here.)
The dichotomy of life and death is so easy to perceive in Iquitos. In just one day I went to the Belén market in the morning, where I saw dead endangered animals being sold as if it were entirely normal to eat animals that in no way have a place in our diet. I cringed when one woman holding a live turtle pierced it’s skin with a knife, getting ready to open it’s insides to present to shoppers looking to buy that evening’s dinner. I couldn’t bare to watch the skinned tapir head, the charred and hairless monkey hand and tail, it’s head nowhere to be found. That afternoon my friend and I visited Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm and Amazon Animal Orphanage, founded 12 years ago by an Austrian woman named Gudrun. Just an hour by taxi and then by boat outside of Iquitos, orphanage is home to various species of monkeys as well as a capybara, tapir, an ocelot, and a jaguar, all either brought to the sanctuary or rescued by the Eco-Police. It was incredible to see the amount of care taken to create a safe and healthy habitat for these animals as well as seeing how much it took to sustain various species of butterflies. Pilpintuwasi curates their entire life-cycle process, from housing the butterfly eggs to providing spaces for the caterpillars to grow, and then for the butterflies to survive and mate. We learned just how much work and time it takes to ensure a successful transition into a butterfly, and how short and beautiful their time on this earth is. And it was ironic and sad to see the same species of turtle in the water as I saw that morning in the market. I was able to see a small tapir while learning of its very slow mating process where a female has a baby once every five years and has a gestation rate of 13 months. Many types of Tapir are endangered due to heavy human consumption; it was no surprise that I had seen tapir heads, hooves, and their meat for sale at the market only hours before.
I had never seen a jaguar, and at this orphanage I was fortunate to see one, although he had been kept behind bars for the past 13 years after it was brought to the owner as a cub. It’s incredibly ironic that most of the animals cannot go back into the wild, whether because they were born in captivity, are physically unable to survive on their own, or in the case of the jaguar, not allowed by the Peruvian government to be transported to an open reserve or to be released into the wild. These sanctuaries and rescue centers are incredibly important for the survival of these animals and for the species in general, while also serving as a place to educate the people of the destruction they cause by capturing, killing for food, or keeping these animals as pets. But they also present a difficulty to the casual visitor – we are still seeing these animals in captivity, and they will most likely remain as such for the remainder of their lives. The zoo is the evil stepsister, but they are related all the same. This goes back to my post on Huaraz and Huacachina about the environment: we cause this destruction. We abhor it and want nothing but to change it, yet we perpetuate it by taking part in the visiting of animals, the rainforest, by merely being visitors to these places. And these people who live on that land are equally responsible for destroying their habitat, and the habitat of the animals that live there.
The high rainfall during the months of November to May in the amazon also brings out the mosquitoes. Never before have I seen so many mosquitoes in one place. And wow we did suffer from their presence, their attraction to gringo blood. My friend and I booked a three day tour in the jungle, away from the chaos in Iquitos. I left with the most mosquito bites I’ve ever had in my life – there were so many all over me, I even had two bites on my eyelids. The amount of scratching caused bruises to form – it was a discomfort that was hard to psych myself out of. But it was worth it to see truly what goes on in the jungle. We went upstream 220 kilometers outside of the city, to the underside of Pacaya-Samiria Reserve, a 20,000 square km protected area that is the largest in the country. We stayed in a rustic lodge built on stilts in the water, and took the small motor boat every day along the river to look for wildlife and to stop on land to do some walking through the jungle. I expected to see monkeys, pink and grey dolphins, caymans, sloths, various species of birds, tarantulas, medicinal trees and plants, and a copious amount of spider webs. I didn’t see any sloths or caymans, as nature doesn’t guarantee all flora and fauna sightings that exist in the jungle. But what I didn’t expect to see to the extent that I did, in only a short amount of time, the destruction. The sheer horror I felt when I saw our “local” guide, who was just a villager with a small boat and a machete, cut through his backyard whenever a tree or plant stood in his way. The way he spoke about the animals as if they’re just a good sport to catch and kill for pets or food. The little respect he had for nature. Most of the jungle paths we visited had lost it’s luster, completely void of the lush vibrancy of a healthy planet. We stopped at a local village along the river to find the waters near their homes, all built on stilts, full of empty plastic bottles and smelling of rotten fish. In fact, we did see some dead catfish, their guts swollen, floating belly up in the water just by these people’s homes. I can say I did see a sloth in the jungle, however it was completely in the opposite way that I had imagined. As I approached the poor three toed sloth, he was tied to a wooden post on the underside of a woman’s house. His arm was held up by a knotted rope, and he had little place to move. Our group spoke to the woman, who told us with pride that she found the sloth and decided she would care for it by giving it food and keeping it as a pet, that way her neighbors wouldn’t kill it for food. I understand our need to respect the cultures and customs of others. However, it was impossible to hide my disappointment and my sadness. Indeed the jungle that we fly thousands of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to visit before it becomes obsolete is being destroyed from the inside – and frankly I am not sure that anything will be done about it. Not now, not ever.
On our last day we visited the Centro de Rescate Amazónico (CREA), an amazon rescue center and Manatee sanctuary. In contrast to the sobering effect that our jungle tour had on our visions of the future of this planet, this place provided us with a small glimmer of hope. Here we learned of the great efforts that are being made to protect the manatees, macaws, monkeys, otters, turtles, and caymans, helping to rehabilitate them as they’re delivered to the center and subsequently sending them back to the wild when they are ready. CREA frequently accepts school groups. The local students, many of whom have these wild animals as pets in their homes, are known to give up these animals to the center after learning of the harm that they are doing to them by holding them in captivity. And so we see first-hand the importance of educating people of the world they live in, and it is indeed a precious place that they inhabit.
As I write this, I am on a 19 hour overnight bus ride from Lima to Mancora. To my left is an orange sunset shining its light along the dry desert coastline, the highway bordering the sea. It’s a dry beauty, and the sun illuminates my face, giving me warmth as I reflect on the overwhelming amount of emotions I felt in the amazon just a couple of days before.
And it hasn’t just been about the battle between humans and the environment. I was confronted with a far more immediate and personal decision to make in Iquitos. I received an email my first day in the city from the Hertie School in Berlin. I had been accepted into the International Affairs master’s program. It’s funny how it happened the same way I was able to reflect in Manú National Park, the amazon region in the south of Peru (I wrote about my experience and my decision to apply for graduate school here). It all seemed to come full circle when I received that email – I knew that I had a huge decision to make, and it was extremely time sensitive, as the tuition deposit is due in exactly a month. And I still have not made my decision. When I realized that I was actually accepted, the utter shock on my face showed my surprise that such a prestigious school would take a chance on me as their wild card in their Class of 2018. I knew I was going to Berlin, but I had already made it up in my mind that I had more time, and that perhaps early next year I would be picking up my life and starting anew. It seems that things are moving a lot quicker – I now have a timeline again. If I accept, by September I will be moving, and much of what I thought about while spending hours boating in the amazon was precisely what that means for my life in New York. How I would be leaving my friends and family, most of whom have no idea that when I return in June, I would have just two months to see them. How I won’t be returning to the life I started to create for myself in NYC. I now arrive in Mancora on the coast of northern Peru — a town of surfing, beaches, and ceviche — to take the time to rest and find some clarity.