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Peru Monogatari, The Liquid Realm of Iquitos, la novena maleta, part one




Dear Danarel


I hope that you don’t mind that I am giving titles to my letters. The complexity of the material and the number of details obliged me to do it, otherwise I will go in orbs larger and larger and land into a never ending story. And to be on the safe side let’s better start with the beginning.  The opportunities to go from Peru or Ecuador into the Amazonian jungle, the enchanted and dangerous domain of  fabulous plants and animals, leading to amazing experiences and sometimes to complete disasters – abound. There are of any kind and for any purse, I even I say for any age and any sex. Like a little brook bringing its contribution as modest as it can be to the majesty of a mighty river, each customer contributes to the survival, nothing more of both human and animals, of the world’s largest basin. It is true that   I haven’t seen too many old people or obviously pregnant women on the catwalk, I mean trail, but it is not sure that I   looked in the right direction…For a flat introduction we got already one…

For some reasons I chose Iquitos as home basis among many other Amazonian outlets. At first, my cousin N. told me years ago about the city and about an archetypical Jewish adventure which occurred there. It began in XIX century when a group of Moroccan Jews went up the river to follow the rubber bloom. Their arrival, it was an all male group,  led to a proliferation of Levis and Cohens who became  as mestizos and Catholics as anybody else. However, a large slice of their descendance returned to the ancient faith and immigrated to Israel. The second source of wondrous images came from a young Scandinavian girl I met in Arequipa who drifted in the area for a long while. Into the third streak of fascinating information I run myself years ago when I begun reading upon the origin of the sweet water South American pink dolphins, buteo. The rise of the Cordillera de los Andes chain some 250 million years ago dramatically modified the orientation of the mighty river way which said goodbye to Pacific and brought its waters to the Atlantic.  Eventually the occurrence blocked also the access of these marine mammals; they are related to dentate whales, to their original habitat. It is probably wrong information, or at least a not totally accepted hypothesis, but it thrills my romantic imagination till today.  I am still wondering how quickly orogenic changes transformed the animal God aimed to be a peak of creation, smart, athletic and handsome   into the ferocious predator it became, which often behaves like a bad father, sexual aggressor or sociopath. However similar evolution of sorts occurs to other very well known species which is inutile to name…There were some more reasons for my choice of  Iquitos  but we have to avoid this post getting the format of a menu in a Chinese restaurant…

When I reached by plane this unique grand city, the world’s only one  that is not connected by road to the rest of the country (Peru) and it is 3500 km away from its outlet to the sea I discovered  what was undoubtedly the major reason of my arrival there. Even if it was deeply hidden in my unconscious (I may  have something like this)   Iquitos is the truest and the closest embodiment of the mythical Macondo created by that despicable human being and genial author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I adored Macondo with its incessant warm rain, lavish vegetation, shabby cabins, love and luxury flood, passion and murder plenty, ideals and dictators growing and wilting, witchcraft and modernity on sale, progress and decay intermingled. Under the most torrential rain I run from the plane to the airport barracks happy to come HOME.

As soon as the three wheeled motorcar brought me to the hostel, meters from the river bank, I broke into a ferocious dance to celebrate the encounter with the world’s largest streaming waterway.  I felt like Bellow’s Henderson, in the King of the Rain book,   where from the little that I remember, rain bringing rituals were tempered with philosophical discussions and mingled with some head cuttings penalties. This last issue which is quite endemic in the area (Jivaroan, Achuran tribes)   does not speak to me too much in spite of the fact that is very cultural and a marvel of technicality: reduce the head and preserve the features.

Water at Iquitos, if it rains or not, it is always present in the air, within the ground, on the people skin and even under it.  The river or the rivers congregation (in seven days I navigated on Nanay, Itaya, Ucayaly, Maranon, Yarapa, Cumaceba),  you never know where exactly you are,  was so large, so strong, so rich, that the horizon seemed to flow together with it, to melt into it a single course leading to the end of the world, to THE RIM to which all of us dream and desire (unconsciously!)  There was no beginning and no end.  Green surfaces, floating or anchored in the swallows areas were gently decorating the stained and sacred, brown tanned waters. Well, if you look at them from far away or on my photos they may appear to be blue. I will not argue. The motored canoes or the more modest paddled ones I used to travel from one spot to other were crossing the green fields or the narrow channels with the authority a native black caiman and the insignificance of a fly on  a giant skyscraper glass pane.  The river is continuously out of its bed and bites deeply into the land through a net of lakes, swamps, flooded forests, open lagoons, channels and canals, and the dearest of me from all, the bayous which is probably a  channel with barely moving dormant waters.  These frequently narrow, sinuous and mysterious passages are tenderly wrapped in continuously changing and always present shadows thrown by the rich shores’ vegetation. Like three-dimensional curtains, the ever green walls are luring you attention and denying you approach. They often start from the stream itself with apparently innocent floating hyacinths fields, then rise into reeds, continue  into a  screen  of mangrove trees displaying the  upper part of their arched  roots and keep on going  further on the land with bulbous trunks palms, lianas that will support a Tarzan bond, aerial roots of strangler figs,  endless vines, scrubs and  giant fan  ferns to reach at the end the stronghold of  imperial buttressed sky scratching trees  of many sorts.  Do I have something nasty to say? Just for balance sake? If at the level of Iquitos the river plays the role of universal sewer and ultimate dumping ground  (see picturesque toilets underneath)  twenty minutes further in any direction it takes the role of life provider, wash house, swimming pool,  fishing ground and drinking water reservoir. But as Murphy says better use bottled water and sugar cane  rum!

The city looks like two halves of a poisoned fruit; one shows great extent of decay, the other is essentially rotten. I like them both. The first half is that of the rubber boom. There is a sad story behind the rubber bubble (from 1880 to 1914) and I cannot go ahead without to mention it (mostly in images like in the church). It is fresh, only 140 years old. Rubber was collected from hygea trees of the Amazon forest and used for various industrial purposes. The area became filthy rich, that means some few people. Towns with european pretentions grew in the jungle. Others people, the rest, most of the workers,  died thanks to practical enslavement and atrocious work conditions. Life continuous unperturbed. Not far from the rubber slaughter house  29.000  in Mexico, 56.000 in Venezuela were killed last year, without romance,  by regular criminals. Politics contributed mighty.

So, let’s kill the killers will said a natural! Are you mad burps a correct, that being me? And what about the human rights? Barbary is not the way to curb down the crime. What people need is the eradication of poverty and accurate education. Sounds good, superb project but is much easier to flat your wrinkles if you have the necessary.There are too many people in the world, there are not enough jobs; there will be less and less jobs. Egyptians, Aztecs, Khmers  were building megalithic contraptions, ritual useless compounds where people were supposed to get in close contact with their silent Gods, only to assure a minimal payment and a day long employment to counterbalance the lack of jobs and the humans’ murderous instinct… Let’s go back to ritual, we have the world cup, but this is not enough ….This kind  of social talk exhaust me…One more word  and i will rejoin the Peace Corp or some ONG…There is nothing better for an empathetic fellow, if you like exotic life and some  hefty allowance! But let’s spring back to rubber.

The local  rubber barons  and  merchants from around the world, including Moroccan Jews I spoke before , who got up the stream, dealt in everything, money was flowing of course and they built superb  mansions composed of living quarters, the upper floor and large business space, the ground floor. These houses   show an amazing stylistic unity. Did the Cohen, Morey, Vela and Barcia got together and made compelling aesthetic decisions? I don’t know but high, barrel arched entrances giving access to the enormous space of the ground floor, the exquisite tiles imported from Portugal padding the outer walls from the sidewalk to the roof, the Italian finely wrought iron work securing and enhancing the balconies, together with sensuous curvilinear cornice binding the whole are the hallmarks of this hypothetical artistic mesa redonda. Alas, they share another feature which is a state of progressive and irremediable decay. By 1914 after a little bit more than 30 years the rubber bubble burst and with it the dream of developing a European city within Amazonian swamps. Thanks to some foreign help a handful of mansions are restored or are on the way to repatching.   But in a country where corruption is traditional   and misery flourishing endemic, ,  I do not see enough money coming in  or staying by to remediate the progressive and inevitable erosion of Iquitos cultural heritage. Ha! Ha! If that is a cultural heritage. I do not believe that Iquitos style, which developed within   a kind of  mining town culture, is  meaning anything, it is just a fantasia, a soap opera …alike to that of  the ruined colonial towns in Africa….or the derelict mining tones in the  States, it was born to flourish and die rapidly. In memoriam!






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