Until I spent a few days on the Amatista, “Amazon” meant big river (or even bigger online retailer), impenetrable jungles and dark-skinned men with blow darts. The vision is accurate as far as it goes – except that the blow darts are now mostly found in souvenir shops — but I learned this week how the Amazon is a lot more than a river. The Amazon basin, called “Amazonia,” is one of the earth’s natural superstars.
Amazonia is comprised of dozens of rivers that traverse eight South American countries. It’s the size of Australia and provides 20% of the earth’s oxygen and 20% of its fresh water. It’s home to ten million of the world’s known species and many more that have not even been identified.
We saw a small corner of Amazonia this week in Northern Peru on a four-day river boat adventure. It began in the tiny town of Nauta where we boarded the Amatista. This was not a luxury cruise. The Amatista has seen better days — at different times, we lost the air conditioning, the bathroom plumbing and an engine. A few of those unidentified insect species made their way to our cabin. But the ship was comfortable and the staff were wonderful.
The river was lazy and mostly brown with sediment where we navigated. Except for occasional small fishing boats and a lot of pink and grey dolphins, the river was mostly ours. Twice a day, we set out on motorized metal skiffs for adventures on the shore and the river’s narrow tributaries. It was hot and muggy. On the one hand, a lot of sweat and a red nose. On the other hand, big hair. We saw lots of animals, mushrooms and birds, including monkeys, sloths, bats. herons and hawks.
And, oh yeah, mosquitoes! They loved us but not equally. There is a “joke” about how you don’t need to be fast when you meet a bear in the forest – just faster than the guy next to you. Apparently, Belle is faster than me when it comes to mosquitoes because I am pretty sure I got her share of bites.
One day, we visited a local village where we learned how the residents sustain themselves with fishing, hunting and farming. Two of the women in the village prepared a lunch of local dishes, including Juane, made with rice, olives, and chicken or vegetables — all wrapped in a bijao leaf, which looks like a banana leaf. Juane is served with an amazing salsa of local peppers, onions and a jungle fruit called “cocona.” We also had “patarashka,” a local fish marinated in herbs, chilies, onions and tomatoes and then wrapped in a bijao leaf and slowly grilled over a wood fire. Oh wow, it was all just so delicious.
After lunch, we met Eduardo, who is 85 in a country where the average life span is 65 years. He is still supporting his family by fishing, hunting and farming. He is married to 42-year-old Lucy and together they have six children. After we learned that sex is not a topic that causes embarrassment in the jungle community, Eduardo and Lucy explained their use of the rhythm method since their last baby was born. Eduardo credits his good health and long life to his virility. He is still handsome and really does have a special kind of energy.
Another day, we visited a local shaman, Carolla, on a forested hill overlooking the river. Carolla began her life’s work at age 14 after the senior shaman in her village told Carolla he knew she had a special gift. Following 8 years of training, Carolla began serving the community and has been practicing for about 12 years. In Peru, very few shaman are women. Because her work as a shaman does not provide enough income to support her family, Carolla hunts and fishes.
During our visit, Carolla performed a brief cleansing ceremony to a beautiful chant, shaking a palm frond and blowing puffs of cigarette smoke into our hands and faces. She taught us about some of the many medicinal herbs that are used in Amazonia communities, like cat’s claw (for cancer, arthritis and AIDS), curare (for inflammation, kidney stones and fever) and dragon’s blood (for diarrhea and skin problems). She also explained the use of ayahuasca, which is a hallucinogenic medicine that is widely used in the Amazon basin and has become popular with foreign visitors looking for a spiritual experience. Peruvian shamans closely supervise their patients who take ayahuasca because the physiological and psychological effects can be intense, even dangerous.
Our explorations off the ship were rewarded in the evenings, when the Amatista’s staff served us delicious dishes made with the foods of the local communities — river fish and jungle chicken (haha), tropical fruits and adapted varieties of less tropical vegetables (like broccoli and tomatoes), grains, and potatoes (this is still Peru!). Pisco sours were always on the menu.
Then three of the staff who called themselves the Chunky Monkeys would play traditional Peruvian music. I was unable to upload the video of their beautiful playing so here is a classic by Stephen Stills.
We are back in Lima thinking about how it was such a great privilege to visit this part of the world that is so essential to our global environment.