A journey into one of the world’s most mysterious – and endangered – natural realms
In February, a group of U of T alumni and friends embarked on a 10-day trip to Peru, organized through U of T’s Alumni Travel Program. After arriving in Lima, the party spent a day exploring the capital’s historic downtown and oceanside shops before flying to Iquitos, Peru’s largest city on the Amazon River. There, the group boarded La Turmalina and La Amatista, passenger replicas of the riverboats owned by the wealthy rubber barons of the early 1900s, and began a seven-day journey into the heart of the jungle, visiting local villages and observing the rainforest’s unique and varied wildlife.
Desiderio Malafay, the mayor of San Pedro, doesn’t go anywhere these days without a measuring tape. His tiny village, on the Tapiche River south of Iquitos, Peru, is undergoing a minor building boom, and on most days the 37-year-old father of five pitches in with the construction. Today, however, visitors from Canada have arrived in tourist boats, and he takes a break from his work to act as ambassador. In the shade of a thatched porch, he removes his baseball cap, brushes the dust off his shirt and unhooks his tool belt. On the east side of the town’s grassy central square, several men are still perched on jury-rigged scaffolding, putting up corrugated tin siding on a one-room wooden box, which will serve as a new kindergarten. Not long ago, Roman Catholic missionaries from Nauta, a neighbouring city, arrived with materials and convinced Malafay to let them build a small church. Not many people in the village worship there, so the church doubles as a community centre
Like many villages in the Amazon basin of northeastern Peru, San Pedro is experiencing the benefits of a strong national economy and government initiatives to raise literacy rates among the ribereños – the people of mixed native and Spanish heritage who live along the Amazon and its tributaries. Most of the villages now have a primary school and a teacher from a nearby city, who tutors the children in reading, writing, math and science. But Malafay says his village has little money for school supplies such as books and paper, and few children go on to high school, although most learn to hunt, fish, harvest vegetables and paddle a canoe by the time they’re 10. Malafay’s two eldest children, in their teens, work on the family farm – a square patch of land near the river.
San Pedro has doubled in size since 1988, when it was founded. Almost 300 people – many of them related – now live in this cleared stretch of jungle near where the black waters of the Tapiche River meet the powerful Ucayali. A dirt path runs past the porch where we’re sitting and into the jungle a short way. On each side of us are rows of houses on stilts, fenced-in yards and faded clothes hanging limply from lines. Inside, the furnishings are spartan: hammocks, sleeping mats, mosquito netting and log stools. Malafay tells me the homes are better built than when the village was founded and there are more houses now, but community life hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. A few men work in Iquitos, but most families still raise chickens, fish and grow bananas, plantain, corn and yucca. They eat much of what they produce, with little left over to sell. The village has no electricity, no running water and no medical clinic.
I ask Malafay what the community needs most. “Electricity,” he says, explaining that he’d like to hang lights around the square and along the paths to keep snakes away at night, especially during high-water season, when they’re most plentiful. For North American city-dwellers, snakes exist almost in the abstract. As a life-threatening concern, they rank somewhere between killer bees and chainsaw accidents. But the people of San Pedro live in close proximity to a variety of deadly vipers. Children are especially at risk of being bitten. The village has no money to buy either a generator or lights, so Malafay has made a request to a district government official for assistance. “Any word on when your request may go through?” I ask. The mayor shrugs. “When it’s our turn,” he says.
Before our tour group disembarked at San Pedro, our guides, Edgard and Yvonne, had entertained us on La Turmalina with tales of village life. Edgard had grown up in a ribereño community and recalled some of the lively myths about jungle and animal spirits. Families here are large and, unlike in contemporary Western societies, both parents spend a large chunk of every day with their children. “People here are very poor,” he says. “But they are happy. Families are everything.”
Next door, a woman lounges in a hammock while her young son, sitting cross-legged on the floor, peels a papaya with a machete. Every Saturday, the fathers play soccer with their sons in the central square while the rest of the village watches. Special occasions such as Christmas, Peruvian independence and the village’s anniversary are celebrated in the square with feasting and “firewater,” a homemade rum. Some of the villagers play flutes, drums and whistles. But for day-to-day entertainment, there are no books, magazines, TVs, radios, karaoke bars or discothecas and, as far as I could tell, nowhere to go for a pisco sour, a tasty concoction of grape brandy, egg white and sugar – Peru’s national drink.
Malafay glances across the square to the kindergarten, where work seems to have slowed, and examines his watch. I ask him whether he wants his children to stay in the village when they grow up. “When something happens in the family, we help each other,” he says. “We are good to each other.” He pauses and looks at his feet, pressing down on his worn flip-flops. “But I want my children to study, so they can move to the city and have a better life.”
The sun has dipped closer to the river, and Malafay stands to refasten his tool belt. The men at the kindergarten have now stopped working entirely. Before Malafay goes, he makes a request. “If you return to the village, can you bring medicine? We have no shaman here and no clinic.”
Knowing that I’m unlikely ever to return to San Pedro, I make the only offer I can: an American $10 bill. Malafay accepts it hesitantly, folds it and rubs it between his fingers. I ask Yvonne, who is acting as my translator, if he will be able to exchange it for Peruvian soles, and she assures me he can. Finally, Malafay slips the bill into his pocket and steps down from the porch. Before he heads back across the field, I call out, “Is there anything you wanted to ask me?” Malafay stops, thinks for a moment and smiles. “Have you ever been a mayor?”
The young leader of San Pedro may not be dealing with such big-city issues as gun violence, drug addiction and homelessness, but living in the fragile Amazon ecosystem in a village with a booming population presents its own set of challenges. Humanity’s encroachment into the jungle has caused a significant decline in animal and fish stocks in the vicinity, forcing villagers to clear additional land for farming (and contributing to a further loss of animal habitat). Crop prices are low, and the villagers who sell their produce can end up spending most of the profits travelling the long distance to the nearest city market.
Tour boats have cruised the Peruvian Amazon for years, but the number of visitors to the region has picked up significantly since the early 1990s, following an improvement in Peru’s political situation. Iquitos-based Jungle Expeditions, which owns La Turmalina, runs tours on four other ships and includes as part of its trips a visit to La Posada Lodge, a huge eco-resort with a piranha-stocked lake, treetop walkway and swimming pool on 35,000 acres not far from San Pedro. The guides on La Turmalina make about $600 (U.S.) a week, well above the average salary of most Peruvians, but the crew earn significantly less. Although boats full of gawking tourists stop regularly at villages along the Maranon and Ucayali, the communities feel few benefits from the boom in eco-tourism. Our group has been asked not to give the villagers money; instead Jungle Expeditions collects school supplies and donates them on our behalf.
It’s an appropriate gift. The passengers aboard La Turmalina, mostly U of T and Western grads, can testify to the worth of an education. Now in their late 50s and 60s, some have retired early. Despite greying hair and the occasional creaky joint, they retain a questioning spirit and youthful sense of adventure. Bob Swan (MA 1992) goes whitewater canoeing every year. After Peru, Swan and his wife, Zelia, are continuing onto the Galapagos Islands. John (BA 1965) and Susanne Wilson (BA 1964, MSW 1966) enjoy canoeing and hiking. Anne and Chris Twigge-Molecey (MASc 1969, PhD 1972) cruised up the Nile in 2005.
Back in Canada, most of us would have called ourselves environmentalists – or at least environmentally conscious. But within the jungle’s green cathedral, our earth-saving gestures back home – separating the garbage or lowering the thermostat – seem puny against the scale of our collective sins. We have not come to Peru to save the rainforest; on this tour, we are strictly voyeurs.
Setting off in an excursion boat on the Ucayali just after sunrise one morning, our guide asks us to call out the species we would like to see al natural: monkeys, dolphins, macaws, vultures, egrets, sloths – perhaps an anaconda?
We reach the mouth of a narrow black-water tributary. This is rainy season, and the Amazon is at its peak, 10 to 15 metres higher than in dry season. Water extends as far as one can see through the vegetation. At the sound of the engine, birds take flight. A pair of macaws soars high above, emitting a distinctive caw, caw, caw. Kingfishers, with their dull red chests and bright blue wings, flit among the bushes. Our driver cuts the motor. A solitary woodpecker tock-tock-tocks in a towering cecropia tree. Around us, the jungle chorus rises: whistles, whoops, chirps and trills accompany the rhythm of cicadas.
A cry erupts from the back of the boat. The curvilinear form of a pink dolphin rises from the river, arcs, then disappears. We strain our eyes for ripples or a clue to where it may surface next. “I think I see it!” someone yells, but it’s a log. “Dolphins have 40 per cent more brain capacity than man,” Yvonne says. “That’s not saying much,” someone quips. The dolphin doesn’t resurface.
We come to what looks like an impassable island, but it’s actually a mass of floating vegetation. Our experienced sternsman uses the prow of the boat to push the green mass out of the way. He drives into it, turns, then reverses to carve a path. As he does, we get a close look at the micro-habitat: huge spiders lie in wait for neon grasshoppers; a tiny green frog with red eyes hides camouflaged in the grass.
We stop at a clearing where someone has built the frame of a house and planted a banana orchard. As we disembark, I put on my cap and jacket, pull up the hood and tuck my pants into my shoes while swatting furiously at the mosquitoes. “Would you like some repellant?” a member of the group asks helpfully. I’ve already applied it – twice. She looks doubtful. “There are a lot of them on you,” she says. As we begin our short trek – no more than a few hundred metres – the mosquitoes intensify their attack. Ahead of me, a group has gathered at the base of a tree. About eight metres up is a brilliant red and blue macaw. I glance up and press on. Back in my cabin on La Turmalina, I peel off layers of sodden clothes and check for bites. I’ve got at least a dozen on my back. Some have swelled to the size of a quarter.
Back in San Pedro, wandering among the houses, Yvonne and I pass a woman sifting flour made from yucca into a large green tub, while her young daughter hangs washing on a line beside her. Across the road, her husband roasts the starchy vegetable over an open fire. Yvonne explains that the villagers use the sap of the yucca as face lotion, its coarse outer skin as pig feed, and the flour to make bread. No part is wasted. On another porch, a man and two boys are packing up dried corn to take to market in Iquitos, a day’s travel by boat, where they’ll sell it for a paltry 40 cents a kilogram. In between these pockets of industriousness, children kick around a can or toss a ball. A stray chicken darts among them. Black and yellow Oropendulas swoop and warble, guarding a nest that hangs like a teardrop from a nearby tree. A young boy approaches us, cradling a cuy (guinea pig) to his chest. Yvonne says he’ll keep the animal as a pet, but eventually the family will use it for food. Women shuffle past, carrying tubs of wet laundry back from the river. I greet them with a clumsy buenos dias, which they sing back in unison. There are few men about; many have set out in dugout canoes to fish. Yvonne and I head back toward the river, where we find dozens of kids crowding around Elaine Winder, a member of our group, who’s snapping Polaroids.
Winder, a retired nurse from London, Ontario, has brought several rolls of film, but it’s clear she won’t be able to take a picture of every child who wants one. Twin brothers. Snap. Whirr. The camera spits out a cloudy image, which Winder removes, shakes a few times and hands to one of the boys. Mother and daughter with colourful barrettes. Snap. Whirr. Edgard steps in to direct, organizing one group for their shot while motioning the previous one to the side. Los cuatro amigos. Snap. The boy with the guinea pig. Snap. Teenage girls in halter tops. Snap. With each change of film, the pushing gets more insistent, and Winder has to take a few steps back. One boy, in a grubby yellow T-shirt, tries to sneak into a picture a second time, and Edgard shoos him away.
As I board the excursion boat that will carry us upriver to where La Turmalina is berthed, I look across at our Tilley hats, bright new running shoes, nylon jackets and expensive digital cameras. To the villagers along the Amazon, we may as well have arrived by spaceship from another planet.
Many of the children are already wandering back home, but some linger on shore, clutching Polaroids and staring curiously at our excursion boat. The driver guns the motor into reverse, turns and speeds into the open water. The children wave and race along the riverbank, following the boat as far as they can. We wave back, and then we’re gone.
Scott Anderson is the editor of U of T Magazine.