Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Expat Writings

Iquitos, Peru: Books in English by expats.

I first heard of Iquitos from a relatively wealthy Peruvian tourist at my hotel in Sucre, Bolivia, probably in March 2012, and I thought the man was telling me that Quito, Ecuador was paradise. He told me no, that it was Iquitos, Peru, somewhere in the Amazon jungle. I'd never been at that time to the Amazon, so I put the suggestion that I see Iquitos in the back of my mind and left it there with all the other important things I should get around to if ever I find the time, the money, and mostly the energy to fulfill. I had no intention of ever going to Iquitos.

That was then, and so too it was as I found myself in Lima again hanging out with a drunken partier and great buddy, Pepe, a rapidly ageing and totally cool guy from Belgium, one of those wasted and worthless Europeans responsible for the end of our civilisation, a fun guy having a great time when the world falls into ruin as he and they party till the collapse comes. Me​? I stayed in bed a lot, having picked up a woman who had some crush on me and wanted my to move to the north coast of Peru to live with her. I was agreeable to it, but I told her that first I would go off to see this place called Iquitos that Pepe had raved about. I told her I would be a week or so, not realising at the time that my sickness-inducing 24 hour bus trip over death roads would land me at Pucallpa for the next six day journey by boat to Iquitos from which I would then need take an eight day river boat trip to Pantoja to cross into Ecuador for an other few days by boat to some solid ground in the jungle from which I could then loop around with a new Peruvian visa to end up with the girlfriend on the coast back in Peru. Iquitos was a few days at most, just to stop, and move on from.

I recovered from my bus trip for a month as I lingered in Pucallpa, teaching English and making friends and finding a new girlfriend, feeling slightly uncomfortable about the other one who kept writing frantic and semi-insane email to me begging me to come to her. My girlfriend in Pucallpa was less strenuous, but there was still the desire to see Iquitos, to get it off my list of things to do before I die, and then get a new visa for a long stay in Peru, a settled life with a girl who loved me, a domestic life that I like the whole idea of very much so.

I checked in a very nice place in Iquitos, and I met a little girl the likes of which I had never in my adult life encountered, a three year old. I found her fascinating and I could hardly stop watching her as she did things so strange and unexpected that I soon had to give up comparisons of her to my cat: she was much different. She was the strangest animal I had ever encountered in any jungle or desert or forest. She was a human child. I had never really met one before. I stayed and stayed, and soon my visa was too close to expiry to do anything other than go as quickly as possible to the nearest border, Colombia, to check out of Peru and into another nation so I could return in good standing on my way then to see my by now pretty unhappy girlfriend some thousand miles away on the coast. And not liking Colombia one bit I returned to Peru at first chance and got to Iquitos tired and disgusted. I stopped at a low rent hostel with lots of activity, many people, much noise, and an in-house baby of a year and a half, a thing far less developed and not so interesting as the three year old, but still worth watching and considering the nature of. I stayed, and I eventually stayed so long I decided I should find a job if I meant to stay any longer. I looked for a teaching position at the local university, a futile effort but interesting as it turned out. Still, no job and not much to do beyond indulge in my hypergraphic habit of writing all the time, my trip to Iquitos by then, in those first few weeks and then two months yielding in close to 400 pages of handwritten text about the city. I had enough copy to publish yet another book, and I hadn't even started. Having arrived in late July for a few days, I found that by mid-October I had too much material for a book, but not the kind of material I felt I could use to do justice to a city I was coming to like very much living in. So I got as serious as I can in this life and started writing about the city as a professional writer should do it. Four months later I am close to the end of this project, the research, that is, the writing to come later as I attempt to craft a readable work for the public.

Here I am, almost close. 

When I arrived at Iquitos I knew nothing, and didn't expect to care to know anything, about the city. Once I got interested in the city in a semi-serious way I became very interested, and I hope to do some serious justice to this city, it's history, and its people. I'm writing a serious book. It means I look as well as I can into nearly non-existent public records, talk to people who don't care that they don't have a clue, and sort through tales tall and wonderful and usually so fictional they would shame most science fiction writers. I turn wherever I can to books in English. I've found a few, not knowing there would be any books on Iquitos in English. Some are fun, if not particularly important to the history of the city. One in particular is so badly written and so utterly stupid that I won't mention the man's name here, and I can only shake my head in bewilderment and awe that a moron could sell 100,000 copies of his book from a car trunk. The list of books is objectively short, though it grew substantially in the past few days as I found and added two titles to the list and read the books. In one case I am now left reeling from surprise and am at the same time feeling satisfied that my efforts are right.

I've been researching for over a month now the Rubber Boom era houses in close proximity to the Plaza de Armas in the hope of presenting something like the architectural walking tours I am so keen on taking in many cities I have had the pleasure of visiting over the course of a long life time. For a lifelong homeless man, architecture is a natural interest. For an artsy bohemian life long homeless man it can be something of an obsession. As of now I have met with architects and artists and builders and makers of all sorts, recently compiling a first draft of a section on some historical buildings along an easy walking route in the centre of the city. As it turns out, I am not the first to do this kind of writing, and I am not the first to choose exactly this route. My choice of walking tour route explains to some degree the cool if not hostile initial reception I received at the local office of the Catholic intellectual headquarters in Iquiots, CETA, the publisher of a book by an Englishman who wrote a book that has not only a chapter on architecture in Iquitos but the is exactly my route. Or his route. I had no idea this book existed when I first went to interview Joaquin Garcia, the head of CETA, to ask him for details concerning the buildings I wish to write about. He had published in a magazine, Kanatari, a list of such buildings, and I went to him not knowing that he was also the publisher of a book by John Lane, the author whose route I too am writing on. Independent, yes, but how must it look? I can only thank John Lane for his original efforts, some of which I incorporate into my work, and then I must hope for some generousity of spirit and acceptance that it is natural that two men writing on architecture would pick the same streets to write about because they are clearly the best streets, objectively so, no matter the optics of it.

Regarding other books about Iquitos, I wish I had a chance to meet the New Yorker who bummed around Iquitos close to a century ago, the adventurous young man who wrote a chapter in his memoirs of his time in the Amazon:

Fritz Up de Graff, Head-hunters of the Amazon: Seven years of exploration and adventure. Sydney, Australia: Cornstalk Pub. (1926).

Up de Graf is a fun guy, and he would have been so cool to hang out with that I can only sigh and hope to continue meeting others like him in my travels. I meet many people daily as I travel, even at this snail's pace, and I don't like many of them. Those few I do like are mostly like Fritz Up de Graf: manly, adventurous, honest, energetic and decent.

There is a different kind of person I meet on the road, and they are like the young newly wed couple, the Kellys. I'm not too sure how welcome I would have been in their home, me being a bit rough. But I can enjoy their company in their book:

Henry Kelly and Dorothy Kelly, Dancing Diplomats. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1950.

The repulsive and moronic James Redfield is such a horrible hack writer and sleazy buffoon that once again, because I am a gentleman of sorts, I won't mention his name. He is the author of the lizardly “novel of ideas” below:

James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy. Self published. 1993.

I can't bring myself to write about this creature, so I leave it to better minds to do so for us:
Redfield originally self-published The Celestine Prophecy, selling 100,000 copies out of the trunk of his Honda before Warner Books agreed to publish it. As of May 2005 the book had sold over 20 million copies worldwide, with translations into 34 languages. The book was generally well received by readers and spent 165 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Wikipedia, "Celestine Prophecy."

A writer who is frankly no better a writer than that one above is something different in kind altogether. An author isn't someone who writes books; he is a writer, and he writes books. The man below is one who wrote a bunch of stuff and published it as a book. He is not an “author” in a real sense, he is a talker, an oral narrator, a guy whom one would meet and listen to at the local cafe, where in fact he could be found many a night in Iquitos at Bill Grimes' cafe, Dawn on the Amazon. I'm sorry to note that this man is dead now, in his mid 70s, killed by misadventure when three underage males stuffed a pair of socks in his mouth while taking turns having anal sex with him. I have his book and find it hard, though not physically impossible to read, without gagging. I sort of  wish I could instead have heard him spin his na├»ve and strange paedophiliac tales as he drove away tablesful of diners all evening:

Barry Seymour Brett, Jungle Freeze Frame. Iquitos, Peru: Barry Seymour Brett Publishing. 2010.

The next English/expat book is not necessarily in the right chronological place here, the version I read being the third of four editions. The first edition of the book was published by CETA, the Catholic intellectual group who founded the city's world famous collection of Amazonian literature and documents of all sorts, and who house the collection in the world famous Biblioteca Amazonica, closed now for many months due to lack of operation funds, as I understand it. The first edition of the book below was little more than a booklet, 82 pages long, and a better version of a Lonely Planet Guide about Iquitos. This is the book with the walking tour that is exactly the same route as the one I wrote about:

John Lane, Iquitos: Gateway to Amazonia (The Alternative Travel Guide to the Peruvian Amazon) Fourth Edition. Iquitos, Peru: CETA; 2012.

None of the books above about Iquitos will win their writers any Nobel Prizes for Literature. None of those writers attempted anything so grand as Vargas Llosa (Noble 2010,) the author of a serious comedic novel about the city, Captain Pantoja and the Special Services (1990.)

One book that's only sort of about Iquitos, though more legitimately by light years than the man whose name I never mention above, is Ariel Segal, Jews of the Amazon: Self-Exile in Earthly Paradise (1999.)

Leon Jones, Under the Mango Tree. Iquitos, Peru: Wawawasi Press; 2010.
Leon Jones is a great guy to talk to, pleasant and decent and calm. His book, a blend of personal observation and fictionalised memoir is available in Iquitos at Dawn on the Amazon cafe at the malecon.

Peter Gorman's Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming, is more about ayahuasca than about Iquitos, though there are numerous anecdotes about the city and people and the city's jungle surroundings.

Jules Verne wrote a little known adventure novel about the area in 1886, Eight Thousand Leagues on the Amazon. The hero of the novel stops for the night in Iquitos on 6 June. Beyond that there is little else to read of the city.

Cover photo: Almost Close

Over 100 years later, travel writer Joe Kane writes of Iquitos briefly in Running the Amazon.

There is very little written in English about Iquitos. Those few books written by expat locals often miss the mark. I am close to completing three books on the city. My books on Iquitos might be out in late 1213.

Cover photo: Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close

Please look for Iquitos, Peru: Almost Close, a collection of stories about the history of the city, it's people, and its culture; Iquitos, Peru: Heritage Arcitecture of the City; and finally, Iquitos, Peru: Seating Mother Ayahuasca at the Cannibal Banquet of the Soul.

Iquitos, Peru: Heritage Architecture cover photo

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:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: Beautiful Ruins

'To dream the impossible dream.' That's what I thought as I looked upward in wonder at the Es Salud Building in central Iquitos, Peru. To build a perfect Social Security building for the people of the city so they can live in some state- organised financial security when they age or become injured and so on and can no longer work. And what better way to serve this need than to erect a building so sick that one must bribe the security guard to gain entry into this condemned building and then take ones chances that it won't simply collapse in a heap of rubble as one ascends the multi-levels to the sky. The building is sicker than anyone who might otherwise need to enter it. It's a giant ruin right in the middle of town, a memorial to all corruption of the flesh, a veritable concrete paean to government screw-ups in Third World nations and beyond. To dream the impossible dream, and then to climb the result on the sly. Oh, man, it is a joy to sneak into a building and then pee from the roof top on unsuspecting little ant people down below. I love corruption in government. I want to be the king of the world, like Obama only creepier.

But, corruption aside, I love a nice view of a city with only one high-rise building in it. Climbing so high and looking out so far makes me tingle with urination.

Then I came to my senses. No one can be as creepy as Obama, even one so high as we who climbed the ruined building that dominates Iquitos's skyline.

I've asked over and over what this building is about, what it was meant to be, why it's here and ruined and still standing. It becomes a game to play in my off hours: everyone I speak to about the building has a different story, some very cool, such as the building's concrete lacking gravel to the point it's built of something like pancake dough, that it's so soft it's about to fall over sideways at any time. Or, that it's sinking because it's too heavy for the soil here. That the building is used to supply antennae for the military and the money the owners get is used to pay security guards to keep people out. That didn't work for me. I got in and got to the top with no problem.

The building is only eleven stories high, but it's the tallest building in the city. It's not sinking at all, otherwise one wouldn't be able to enter it from the street. The entrance would be under ground by now, almost 25 years after the fact.

Alfredo is my fix-it guy. He's not impressed by the scene of his hometown.

Locals are used to the big blue beast that rots in the centre of the city.

For me and those few others who climbed it and who will, the building is just good sport, a place to scamper around in, to get a good view of the city and surrounding from, and to brag a bit about having been there.

Eleven stories, and all of them are lies.

I have no idea what the real story is about the building, and I don't really care, as I am sure others don't care. It's a building one can climb up and look around from.

The view inside is less that stellar,

And possibly even disgusting to the over-sensitive,

But with a bit of searching around one finds some pretty sights of the city one cannot find elsewhere.

Being one to push a good thing too far, I decided to climb the final mile.

Until the ladder came loose in the concrete and I faced a long drop down.

So I contented myself with a view of the futility of it all, of nature taking over and reverting to jungle, nature not aware that when nature does triumph, it too must fall and die.

That will be some long time later. For now, man reigns supreme at the heights of the Amazon in the middle of the jungle here in Iquitos, Peru. I content myself with dreaming some impossible dream, some day on a rooftop all by myself looking around at a lovely world. A day in Iquitos. I feel like a king.
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: