Saturday, October 21, 2006

What Gringos Expect from Trips to the Amazon

Here's a tasty nugget from the time I owned my bar--The Cold Beer Blues Bar--in Iquitos. It was the first, and at the time only, bar owned by a gringo. It was a sort of gathering place for the malcontents/criminals/police who lived or were stationed in Itquitos, the largest city in northwestern Amazonia. It was also the largest city for 1.500 miles east, till Manaus. So there I was, opening a bar on the oldest and most violent port in Iquitos. What a wonderful experience. And here is a small story about it. Something that happened one day, and something that hopefully gives a glimpse into the challenges that lurk when one decides to become an Amazon guide. Yikes!

What Gringos Expect from Trips to the Amazon

By Peter Gorman

In my experience as a tourist in Peru, I wanted an Amazon that has not existed for hundreds of years, and perhaps never existed. I was always disappointed on some level or another. Things weren't wild enough, the anacondas not long enough, the black caiman not ferocious enough, the indigenous not indigenous enough. Took me a while, years of work there, to accept that it was what it was. My poor teacher, Moises, was pushed by me to walk from the Ucayali to the Brazilian border several times searching for people who lived in the jungle, when of course, no one lives very far into the jungle, they live on the rivers. I rented puddle jumpers and flew all over the Peruvian Amazon looking for hidden camps and such--and there were none. We built rafts and floated down the Jivari, we tried to climb mountains that existed only in my mind and books someone who had never been there had written.
What was there, finally, was fantastic, but it was what was, not what I pictured.

In recent years, I’ve become an occasional jungle guide myself. Among guests I've taken out, desires vary widely. A night of canoeing in the deep green on a tiny tributary is what some people are after; the low growl of an ocelot after it's snatched a chicken thrills others. Still others want to swing on a 100 foot vine, or come for physical, emotional or spiritual healing. Everyone is different in what they need, and obviously sometimes I fail as seeing their real need and they return home hating me. Others feel the opposite.
One fellow, because of the oddness of his need, sticks out just a little further than most others. He was a young fellow. I met him in Cuzco when the leader of a group I had there ran into an old friend who had been studying with a noted curandero named Chaski. I was asked if I would take the friend, and a couple of others into the jungle for a week when I was done in Cuzco. Problem? They had almost no money.
I said okay anyway and several days later they arrived at my bar in Iquitos: The friend of my former guest, her girlfriend, and a couple. The couple was made up of a woman in her 40s and her boyfriend, a 20-year-old named Mark. They spent one night in Iquitos and we took off up the Ucayali the next day.
The friend of my former guest and her friend had a great time: Everything I suggested they do, from swimming to hiking to spending time just sitting near Julio they did with great enthusiasm. But the couple didn't want to do anything. They didn't like the food, wouldn't dare go in the river, didn't want to hang with Julio, wouldn't hike--more or less nothing.
On the third morning, a day that I was going to drink with Julio--and I'd invited the others, if they wanted--young Mark came to me quite early and demanded to know what I'd done "with our money?"
I explained that they'd all four paid half of what one person would normally pay, and that I'd used their money by the time we got off the big boat from Iquitos--on supplies, a small crew, the boat and so forth—and was by then spending my own to support the trip.
Mark wasn't having it. Rather than quibble on a day I wanted to spend with Julio, I made him a list and when we were on the way back to Iquitos, I gave it to him. On it was a series of fees for things like: Semi-private lecture; two overnights on the boat with me; fees for jungle days with me, pay for my crew, etc....the fee was purposefully extravagant, maybe $3,400. I said I'd gladly give him back the couple of hundred dollars his girl had paid for him if in exchange he'd pay the individual fees. He decided he'd stick with letting his girlfriend pay for him.
But something changed when I gave him the list, and when we got back to Iquitos he sat in my bar--not drinking much--for two entire days. He just wouldn't leave, and I didn’t know whether it was because he'd decided he liked me or was just trying to make me crazy with his presence.
On the third day a real cast of characters showed up at the bar and Mark began asking who they all were. I pointed out one man who was about to be tossed from the country for suspicion of having sex with young girls; three men were US DEA; another a former CIA man put out to pasture in Iquitos whose job it was to report back to Washington if the DEA boys got out of line. There were also a couple of US pilots working illegally in Colombia, a few US marines, couple of guys who were alleged to be major cocaine smugglers--and my friend Jim, who was trying to get a logging concession on the Manitee river where he would selectively cut a small portion of the concession and his wife Pat would run an animal reserve on most of it. She was already doing it at their house down there, rescuing dozens of animals monthly, and Jim wasn't really a danger to any trees.
So it was a real hardcore crew at my joint that day. Just the worst humanity had to offer in Iquitos and then there was me too, probably just fitting right in.
For some reason Mark got stuck on Jim and went to his table when Pat went to run an errand. In a few minutes I heard Jim's voice booming: "Peter! Who is this young man and why is he sitting at my table calling me an Indian killer?"
Jim is bear of a guy and he was getting high, so I called over to Mark and asked him to come back to the bar and to leave Jim to his beer. I served a couple of people then turned around and there was Mark, back at Jim's table, his hands moving furiously, looking like he was insistently making a point.
Jim's voice boomed. "Peter, tell this little man I don't kill Indians, didn't steal their land, don't cut their trees and that if he doesn't leave my table I'm gonna start to get sore."
This time I insisted Mark return to the bar and he reluctantly did. I explained that Jim didn't do any of those things, and asked why he thought Jim did.
"Because he want's to cut trees. The Indians need the trees or they'll die. The whole Amazon will die."
"Not really. First off, there are no indigenous people within 50 miles of the piece of land Jim is trying to get a concession on. Secondly, he's never actually cut a tree; that's just a cover for making a reserve. And thirdly, if Jim doesn't get the concession the guy who is suspected of having sex with little girls is going to get it and he will cut every tree on that land in six months.
"Things aren't what they seem down here," I continued. "They’re not what you read back in the States. There is a world of difference between an armchair do-gooder's fantasy and this reality. And the reality is that all the bad men combined havn't done nearly the damage done by people with good intentions."
Mark turned and walked back to Jim's table. I turned to someone at the bar and suddenly there was a crash, followed by another: I turned to see Mark's chair finishing a backwards summersault, hitting the table behind it, and sending that table and its occupants flying. Simultaneously, there was a red line of paint dotting the wall from where Mark had sat and making its way around the bar walls as if some invisible modernist was splashing a brush full of deep red paint in a line about four-feet high around the room.
The dust cleared. "Peter." Jim said, still sitting. "I owe you for a bottle of ketchup and I need another beer over here."
Mark stood, a little off balance. "You broke my teeth! You broke my teeth!" he said to Jim.
The people who'd been hit by Mark's fall called for a towel to wipe up the mess and new beer.
"Yes, I broke your teeth," said Jim. "I was going to snap your neck but decided you're just young and stupid, so I hit you with the ketchup bottle across your mouth instead. Now shut up, sit down and have a beer. And not another word about killing Indians."
We cleaned up the mess, got everyone the new beer they needed, wiped some of the blood and ketchup off the wall, left some as an artsy reminder of the moment and went back to work.
And Mark? He refused Jim's generous offer to fix his two broken front teeth. Instead, he called his parents in the states and excitedly told them that he'd just been in a fight with an Indian Killer in a bar on a port in the Amazon and he'd lived. And for the next week or so until he left town he told every person that came into the bar that whatever their Amazon adventure was, he could do them one better.
Always good to have satisfied clients.


Unknown said...

That was a really good read.


Peter Gorman said...

Thanks. I often wonder if he's ever fixed his teeth.
Pat, meanwhile, is working with her animal reserve and Jim is selling blocks of fancy hardwoods to wood crafters and doing well. And he's still not cutting many trees at all, just enough for Pat to have space for the animals.