Friday, August 24, 2012

Iquitos, Peru

To read the rest of this story, please turn to the following link;

I first arrived in Iquitos for a few days of sightseeing in July 2012, my intention being to catch a cargo boat upriver for seven or eight days to the frontier with Ecuador, my destination when I first arrived in Peru in Sept. 2011. I travel slowly. But I didn't expect to travel this slowly. It's now Dec. 2012 and I'm not going anywhere voluntarily for some time yet. This is Iquitos, and I like it. I like it so much that I have now enough copy to publish a whole book about how I like it. But there's the details, you see, that make the liking more than just a matter of an easy place to hang out. Her name is.... Well, that can wait. I have a lot of reasons for being here and for staying. Over the course of these months I've written much about the city and its history, and here I want to add a bit from a fellow who was here about 100 years ago, a man I wish I had met, a man whose spirit continues in others I do meet.

The course of my writing has changed radically since I began this session on Iquitos. Everything has changed, and much promises to change still. In a way, it's a boom time. this is how it was then. Following this, for many posts and hundreds of pages, is how I see it today, as that evolved and evolves now. Here's a guy then:
IQUITOS sprang from the necessity for a receiving and distributing centre for rubber and merchandise respectively for the Upper Amazon system, corresponding to Manaos and Pará for the Lower. It was composed for all practical purposes, like so many riverside towns, of one long street with its one-and occasional two-story adobe (mud) houses with corrugated iron roofs (how unromantic) in which were to be found the offices and warehouses of the local branches of American and European houses, and for the rest, a number of lazy and careless side-streets where lived the native population of cholas and Indians (canoemen and rubber-workers) and Peruvian caucheros.

The houses in these back-streets were built of laced bamboo with thatched roofs; the walls were transparent in places, their only virtues being their coolness, cleanliness and cheapness. Telegraphs, telephones, sewers, electric light, ice-plants and pavements were refinements of civilization which had not yet penetrated into this community. Water was carried from springs along the river-front in earthernware jars by the native servants. The town sprang up like a "boom town" in the West, doomed to exist only as long as the commercial possibilities of which it was born should last. When I was there the population must have numbered about three thousand; later it grew to be a town of 20,000 inhabitants.
Today Iquitos is a boom town of closer to quarter of a million people, as many as 1,000 American per week flying in, others from around the world at least as many. It can still be a wild and open city. Often, though, it's a great place to spend a few days taking in the sights of the Amazon, walking around, just being, and using credit cards rather than wheelbarrows full of silver dollars.

The town is fifteen days in a twin-screw steamer from Pará, some 2,500 miles. It is situated near the junction of several big tributary rivers, by which the rubber used to be brought down to the main stream from the camps, its site marking the limit of practical navigation for ocean-going steamers all the year round. In the year 1900 Captain Todd of the gunboat Wilmington, U.S.N., stated in his official report of his cruise up the Amazon that the average depth in the rainy season from Iquitos to the sea is 120 feet.
Most people fly in and fly out. A hundred years ago, and for some today, the going was by boat, and somewhat harder. 
[W]e were not ashamed to call on the first rubber-merchants we found, Messrs. Marius and Levy, and dispose of our cargo. Having frustrated these gentlemen's attempts to "short-weight" us, we brought a cart round to carry our money away. It weighed 120 lbs. There was no paper money in Iquitos. Silver was the only circulating medium. It was the custom to go shopping with a wheel-barrow.
The civil system is easier to cope with as well, no armed insurrections against the local boss needed to save ones skin from a skinning at the duty office.
And so it happened that the Governorship of the province of Iquitos was not only a post of great personal responsibility, but also a very lucrative one.

In the absence of a civil police force, the town was under a kind of martial law controlled by the military, with the Governor at their head. Bribery and corruption were rife, and each successive Governor strove to make his fortune more quickly than his predecessors. Catch-as-catch-can was the order of the day. With the inexhaustible supply of rubber on the one hand, and the undying demand for it by the civilized world on the other, every ambitious free lance had his eye on the Governorship.
I'm liking it here after all these months, and if someone likes me too, then perhaps I might stay ever longer still. Or, like the narrator above, I might sometime write my own version of this below: 
The first, somewhat laconic, entry in my journal records our departure under the date of Friday, June 13th, 1899...

"Finally left Iquitos to-day after nearly two months of `mañana.' "

    And so we could say "good-bye" at last:

    "Chug puncha cama, Iguitos!"

Fritz W. Up de Graff, Head Hunters of the Amazon: Seven Years of
Exploration and Adventure
. (Garden City, New York: Garden City
Publishing Co.) 1923; pp. 125-144

But I haven't gone yet.

Dag Walker
Iquitos, Peru
Dec. 2012

I've been traveling in south America for close to one year, and I am close to exhaustion when it comes to writing about it all. I write 2-2,500 words per day every day, and though I haven't been posting much of this, I have it on paper, adding ever more weight to my pack as I stuff yet another full notebook into the crawl space that I was sure last time couldn't hold anything else at all. Lots of writing. But I get tired, even if it's interesting work, and here I find I am almost out of energy to write about a town in the Amazon that I like enough to have returned to and will be staying at again for a fairly long time, I hope so I can regain some energy for the next year or so of travel and writing about it. Here in Iquitos, Peru I took some time over the past few days to sit out and drink coffee and read a bit. I blew through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larson's last installment of a book about a young woman with Asperger's syndrome, as I read it. I found the books to be worthless, the last nothing much more than a trite rework of any conspiracy at the top of the secret service agencies, best done in the movies, for example, Three Days of the Condor, and many others. But it's light reading, even if at heart it's a sly propaganda effort to justify the Communist Party and to bash anti-Communism. Ironically, this series of books will leave the Swedish Communist Party filthy rich, Larson having left the royalties to them rather than his wife. I needed a break, and I break by reading novels. I read a women's romance novel about Israel, Bodie Thoene, Return to Zion, and a sequel, A Light in Zion. In the Amazon, even in a heavily touristed town like Iquitos, a good selection of English language books is hard to come by. I did read Oedipus Rex in Spanish. But more to the point here is that I read a book I'd heard of but new nothing of, James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy. It's bad. I read it because I'd read everything else I could find and that was all that was left for now. I read it too because it's set in an imaginary Peru and an even more imaginary town of Iquitos, the very place I sat as I read it. My best guess it that author might have set down in this town once on a tour with other coastal American yuppies, that he might have spent some time looking around the craft stalls down the street from me where he would have bought a wad of fabric bracelets to give to friends back home to show he is thoughtful. But he doesn't display any familiarity with Iquitos itself. The book is cringingly bad, both shallow to the nth degree as philosophy, even for "New Age" drivel, but worse, it's so badly written I nearly gagged as I sped through it. Still, Redfield is hugely popular, and I certainly am not. He's sold millions of copies of his book. I haven't sold even one million copies of mine. [Here's your chance to help that score.] REdfield is very popular, and I am very not popular, to put it mildly. But I am in a position to write, in spite of my exhaustion and reluctance to write much at all at this time, some clearer and more honest and informed account of Iquitos, Peru. It's an interesting place worthy of attention, particularly because it is a much visited and semi-well-known place in Peru. Some of what's to come will repel many readers. Such is life. An honest account is far better than that of a middle aged man who sits in California dreaming about what Iquitos is like.

Ad for shipping to Iauitos

I'm in Iquitos, Peru for the second time, having returned rercently from Leticia, Colombia, a place I found unattractive in the highest. I'd gone by canoe from the Peruvian border town of Santa Rosa in the middle of the Amazon River to the border town of Leticia, Colombia. I arrived at Leticia via a sewage filled backwater. I stayed as long as I could bear and now I am pleased to be back in this jungle city on the Amazon where I feel more comfortable, where I am not faced with Colombia's round-the-clock discos blaring competing accordion music and recorded karaoke singers wailing about their heart conditions: "My heart is broken, aching, melting, stinking, empty, and otherwise in need of an operation." Back in Iquitos, thank the gods.
Downtown Iquitos
Colombia, after so many had praised it so highly, was Hell for this weary traveler, and returning to Iquitos is as close to paradise as one can hope for, even if the stark contrast makes it so much easier to like Iquitos, a town some will be familiar with as the setting of much of the so-called novel The Celestine Prophecy, not a novel at all but a poorly conceived and poorly written essay on one man's utopian day dream about the future of all Californian yuppies. I'm in Iquitos. I must wonder if the writer of The Celestine Prophecy has been here himself, though he sets most of his book in Peru and much of that in Iquitos itself.

My Iquitos' church as opposed to the fictional church of Redfield's book is a block or two from the town centre, a not particularly interesting building at the corner of the Plaza de Armas downtown. Iquitos is a small town and thus has nothing much of interest in architectural charms outside some imported tile covering generic 19th century warehouses. It would be a mistake to come here expecting to see an interesting city.

One flies in or takes a boat.
Redfield, the author of the Celestine Prophecy, sets his characters in conflict with an imaginary classically reactionary cardinal, as if a place Iquitos would have a bishop at all, let alone one who has created a palatial monstrosity of indoctrination and political intrigue from which he plots to keep the world from knowledge of an Aramaic language text of 7th century California-style hippiedom recently discovered in-- Peru! (If you haven't read the book, believe me, I did not make that up.) The church in town is run by an old guy who didn't get far in the hierarchy of the Catholic organisation. He's not at all sinister. He's a priest. He's an old guy. Don't expect much from a visit to the church in town. If you haven't read the Celestine Prophecy but were considering it, try instead the less dreadful but equally inept "science" version of utopia by B.F. Skinner, Walden II. It's slightly more interesting and far more plausible. It truly sucks, but not as badly as The Celestine Prophecy.

Boats coming to Iquitos have changed very little since 1900 or so.
I'll write more about Iquitos as it really is, though it's not going to make everyone excited about this city in the Amazon jungle. Some will be outraged. I like it here. More to come. 

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

No comments: