Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wells and Sewers

I went to my friend’s house located in the shanty town that surrounds Iquitos, Peru. The family get their water from a hand dug well in the back yard. The well is about four feet deep and located about 20 feet from the open sewer ditch. Their house is unique because they have their own well. Most of the neighbors dip their water from a rain run-off ditch before it drains into the sewer ditch. Most American never consider where their water comes from each day. Here people spend a lot of time collecting water and hoping it came from a clean source.

Each day the boys bring water from the well into the house in buckets and fill the large plastic barrels in the kitchen and bathroom. All the water they use for cooking, laundry, showering or flushing the toilet comes from these barrels. Their new indoor sewer system does have a toilet that drains back to the open ditch in the backyard.

If they want to shower they can stand on the tile floor drain and pour water over their heads with a smaller pail. The family is very clean and sometimes shower in the morning, afternoon and night. Since they need to ration their water they learned how to shower with less than one gallon of water from the barrel.

The house was built as part of the shanty town 20 years ago. The family has made some improvements like adding plaster walls and some concrete floors. They still have pieces of cardboard boxes lining the rafter walls. I noticed the boxes because they had our PAC Tour labels on them from tools shipments I sent my friends last year.

The mother washes all the family clothes in a shallow plastic basin. She uses a hand scrub brush and systematically scrubs every inch of clothing. They avoid using white fabric because it is difficult to wash.

Their clothes are hung on a rope in the backyard to dry. Everything dries slowly in the jungle humidity. The waste water is poured on the dirt floor of the house to keep down the dust and harden into a firm clay. Washing the family’s clothes takes about an hour everyday and five gallons of water. I am always amazed at how clean everyone looks without a good source of water.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Imitation Products in Peru

Wood and Supplies

I bought a crude handsaw made in Brazil. There are a lot of imitation products here using American logos but slightly different names. The tools use the “Stanley” logo but are called “Standard”. Cameras have the “Canon” logo but are called “Cannon”. Leather boots have the “Harley Davidson” logo but are called “Barley Davidson”. Most of these imitation products are poor reproductions and questionable quality. You have to look twice if you are looking for authentic American brands

I am making some beds at a friend’s house. The two girls now share a narrow single bed. The two boys and the mother share a double bed. The father with tuberculosis sleeps in another room.

There is a lot of cheap wood sold along the roadside. I bought three, 16 foot long mahogany boards that are 10 inches wide for $1 each. A similar board in America would cost $25 for pine or $50 for mahogany. The bed frames I made are crude, but now everyone has their own single bed.

There are many good craftsmen here. They build good, simple, rough furniture from solid plank wood. A chest of drawers cost $75 and a china cabinet costs $150. If there was a good way to export it, there would be market for their style of furniture. The cement masons are also very good and work for about $2 an hour. They take their time and do a nice job of making a perfectly smooth finish.

There are actually a lot of good stores here. Most store fronts are 15 feet wide and crammed with goods. Some of it is junk but there are many nice stores selling American equipment. The hard part for me is finding the correct store. They all look the same from the outside. The main business area is 10 blocks by 6 blocks. That is 60 square blocks with 10 stores on each side of the street. So that is about 240 business.

It is like the Mall of America except the streets are filled with debris and trash. The road is packed with motor taxis and people. All moving like a school of fish. I am learning how to move with the crowd and stay of of the way of traffic.


Friday, December 15, 2006

History of Iquitos, Peru

I met an interesting fellow named Bill who moved to Iquitos 30 years ago. He had a fine job as a naturalist guide and made good money in Peru. When he moved to Iquitos he built a nice modern house on the edge of town in the jungle. He owned over 10 acres of land. Iquitos had 100,000 people and everyone had a decent job.

In the 1970s oil was discovered near Iquitos. The oil companies were paying for cheap labor. Many people began to move to Iquitos. The terrorist fighting in the rural areas made many other families move into the city. Within 10 years Iquitos had grown to 500,000 people. Most of the people could not find work or a place to live. The president of Peru said people had the right to settle on unused land. Even if someone owned the land, and did not have building on it... it was considered unused land.

When the Holiday Inn Hotel closed near the airport a thousand people pitched their tents and made a shanty town on the 20 acres of property. The government ruled that the people had the right to live there since the Hotel closed. Holiday Inn could not sell the property to a new hotel owner.

Bill had a similar problem with his land. Bill divided his land into 50 foot by 100 foot lots and sold them for $75 to anyone who would build a permanent house. All his land was soon sold near his house but the shanty towns surrounded his area. Even where there were swamps the shanty town was built on stilts. This is similar to how the houses were built where my friends live.

Raw sewage was everywhere and polluted Bill’s well. He had to pipe in fresh water from the city. The same thing happened all over Iquitos as the town area tripled in size. The unemployment rate (or under employment rate) was over 80% and most people had to find basic jobs selling bananas or fruits for a few dollars per day.

The same problems are still here today. The people are so poor it is hard to believe they can eat. Yet the people are so clean and well dressed. The women look Preppy and and the men dress in clean shirt and pants. I know most of them live in dirt floor houses. Most of the well educated and successful tour guides I know are happy to make $20 per day.

The people look like they care about their appearance yet the streets are filled with garbage and filth. Today I walked down the street, picking up trash. People were coming out of their houses to see what I was doing. They thought I was crazy. No one offered to help. They think trash is normal.

I bought a trash can for my friend’s craft booth to help clean up the area. I have been trying to persuade the merchants that if they expect to receive higher prices, they need to project a higher image to tourists. It is so frustrating to see people not care about their country. Peru is beautiful, but it is being ruined by the people.

The good thing is, there are few bugs. Even with all the street garbage there are few flies, knats or mosquitoes. I walked many miles at night and have not received one mosquito bite in two weeks.


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Night Visitor in the Jungle

I stayed at a rural resort area in the jungle. There were bungalow cabins to sleep in. Each cabin had a cot type bed and an indoor bathroom. The windows were open without glass but were covered with screens.

I went into the bathroom in the dark. I sat on the toilet...shut the door...and turned on the light. Behind the door about two feet from me was a tarantula spider as big as my hand next to the door hinge. I had heard they are harmless to most humans unless provoked. My first response wasn’t to provoke the spider but to get out of the small bathroom as quick as possible. Now with my pants around my ankles I couldn’t run fast anyway.

I slowly got up and kept watching the spider. It looked like it could wrap itself around a baseball. I found two pieces of stiff cardboard and opened the screen door of the cabin to the outside. I scooped up the spider and flung it back out into the jungle. I closed the door and noticed the large gap between the door and floor. I didn’t sleep well the rest of the night.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Iquitos Hotel

It is hot again...it’s always hot...like a summer night in St. Louis. I must be the only sweating. The locals can tell I’m an American. I am dripping from the moment I go outside my air conditioned hotel room until I can return to the artificial climate inside again.

There are political demonstrations downtown and the police have closed about six blocks of streets. Nothing violent, just lots of drums and marching. Nothing against the United States. They don't like the president of Peru. Many of the people here are sad for the USA and the terrorist attacks. They say it has cut their tourism in half.

My $10 motel room is simple but okay. Very basic with a cement floor and the bathroom sink is in the shower. The shower only has cold water because the electric heater on the shower head doesn't work. It doesn't matter because the tap water is about 80 degrees anyway and you don’t need hot water.

My room is very clean..no bugs...but I do have a six inch lizard that eats them all. I notice the lizard on the walls and curtains sometimes, but he doesn't bother me. I bought a new towel and a small rug to wipe the sand off my shoes. I also bought a scrub brush to wash the bottoms of my shoes each night. The mud in the streets is orange and thick. Similar to pottery clay that dried like concrete.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shopping With a Clown in Peru

I see some of the same people each day. Sometimes I carry my tools and wood saw. I think they accept me as a regular worker...not as a tourist. I see the family that sells the horrid ice tea everyday. They don´t speak a word of English. We write translated messages on my note pad and draw pictures.

I do not think the kids go to school because they cannot afford the $5 per month entrance fee. I tried to explain that I was a carpenter helping friends build their beds. Two of the girls said they did not have beds. They asked if I could help build them a bed to share and how much would it cost.

I calculated the lumber cost and mattress price and said it would be about $30 to $40 depending on how good a mattress they wanted. Their mother shook her head, no...not now. I could see their disappointment but I told them I had a better idea for getting a bed before I left town in a few days.

I had been looking at the family furniture stores that make their own beds at a low price. I asked the girls and their mom if they wanted to go bed shopping in the morning. They said they had no money to buy a bed either. I told them it wouldn't hurt to look and get some prices.

The next day we met to take the moto taxi into town. Everyday at their street corner there are several mime clowns who perform. One of them is named Austin and he speaks some English. The mother asked this clown to join us for our shopping trip. So we all crammed into a motorcycle taxi and headed for town, with a clown sitting between us.

When we got to the furniture store the clown attracted more attention than us. We walked between the rows of handmade beds and the girls looked for the right one. The clown was doing his mine routine for the people and then talking prices with the salesman. The girls asked if they could get a double bed to share instead of a single bed. I thought that was a good idea.

After about 15 minutes they found the one they liked. It was bolted together and looked very strong. The clown negotiated the price and the bed would cost $35 with delivery. The salesman said he would disassemble it in have it ready in 10 minutes. I told the mother I thought the price was good and I would pay for the bed. It was actually cheaper for me than building a bed from scratch.

We loaded the mattress on the canopy of the moto taxi and put the bed frame boards across the back. Then we all headed back to their house to assemble the bed. We followed a maze of dirt trails into their back neighborhood. The houses here are made from weathered barn wood that are tacked together with plenty of spaces between the boards. If you can imagine an old, dirty poorly built pig barn...that is how the houses looked.

Now, remember the clown is still with us.

We drive through the streets and the neighbors are coming out see the clown. We arrive at the house and all these people start helping unload the moto taxi. The clown and I just stood and watched. The whole experience was kind of like a dream. The family didn't speak any English, but the clown kept telling me...”they can not believe they have a bed”.

The clown and I said goodbye to the family and walked back to the main paved street. The clown got on the next bus to work his mime routine for the passengers. It was hot again.

I walked one hour back into town. Along the way I bought a whole coconut and drank the milk from a straw, then had a plate of rice from a street vender. I took some photos of vulchers eating street garbage. Later I met some local students that said they spoke good English. I asked them if they could recite Shakespeare. They couldn’t, but they did know the names for the first sixteen presidents of the United States in order. That’s something I couldn’t do.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Counterfeit money is a big problem in Peru. I have seen imitation small coins made from plastic that are good copies of the original. Paper money and larger bills are also common fraud items. That is why most stores will only accept clean untorn bills. Dirty money can camouflage paper currency that has been tampered with or reproduced on a good copy machine.

The base for Peruvian money system is the “Sole” pronounces “So-lass”. Compared to the American dollar one Sole is worth about 27 to 33 cents. The exchange rate varies day-to-day by a few cents. A one Sole coin is about the size of an American quarter and is made from a yellow brass colored metal. The coins are stamped with ornate designs of faces and fig leaves.

During my travels in the deepest part of the jungle the store merchants were extra careful about looking for fake coins. I think it must be because of the drug trade and this region of Peru has more illegal activity. The Soles coins were what all the venders kept looking at most closely. I would buy a soda for three soles coins and hand the money to the vender. They would examine each of the three coins, then hand one back to me...shaking their heads and saying...“No good”. I would ask “Porque?” (why). The vender would show me something wrong on the coin’s fig leaf. I would dig in my pocket for another Soles coin and give the vender a new one. The vender would look at the new coin and give me a smile and thumbs up that the coin was okay.

As I purchased items from different venders in that same town I started to divide my two pants pockets between accepted and rejected coins. The local experts had taught me how to look for counterfeit coins. When I traveled to the next village the venders looked at my money carefully again. However my “accepted coins” were no good in their village. They wanted coins from my “rejected coin” pocket. Since I had plenty of both types of coins I decided I could play along with their game. Sometimes they would reject a coin and I would put it back in my pocket keeping my hand closed around the coin. Then I would jingle the coins in my pocket and hand the same coin back to them again. They would examine the “new coin” and give me the thumbs up. I couldn’t figure what they were looking for on a coin to determine if it was fake. I don’t think they knew what to look for either. As I traveled for several days through this area I must of touched and spent over 100 coins. All my rejected coins were always welcomed somewhere else.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Stuck in the Bathroom in Peru

Stuck in the Bathroom

Last night I was at a restaurant. I felt a touch of diareaha coming on so I went to the bathroom. The men’s room door was locked. I tried it again a few minutes later...it was still locked. It was starting to rain hard outside so I was it no hurry to leave. The people sitting at the table near the washrooms could see I was getting desperate by my frequent visits to try the door.

Finally I noticed the door was ajar. I went into the one hole room in a hurry. When I tried to leave the door was locked. I knocked and shook the door but no one could hear me.

The only way out was over the nine foot dividing room into the women's room. I jumped up and pulled myself up far enough to see into the women's room. There was no one there. I had been training for the Inca Trail back packing hike by doing 50-100 pull ups a day. Now I needed all my arm strength to pull myself over the top and lowered myself into the ladies room.

When I walked out the door the table of people next door wondered where I had come from. Now before I shut the door, I always check the lock and toilet paper supply.

I feel in good health and my foot blisters are fine. I am still making the four mile walk each way to downtown in the morning and afternoon. I stop by the same street vender each day and buy some of her ice tea. It tastes horrid, like it is made from Oak leaves and beef bouillon. But it is ice cold and a good place to stop for a drink. In the afternoon her ice has melted, but the tea still tastes as bad.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Amazon by Boat 1999

Amazon by Boat

Note: I wrote this update in December, 1999 during my first tour in Peru. At that time I didn't imagine I would return to Peru over ten times in the next 6 years. The adventures I've experienced and the people I have met in Peru since this first trip have changed how I look at the world. The following story is how it all started.

December, 1999
Our trip to the Amazon Rain Forest started by flying from Chicago to Miami, Florida then on to Lima, Peru. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago had organized our tour. Our trip would emphasize the native culture in the upper Amazon River area and the smaller rivers that combined to make the largest river in the world. There were twnty six members in our group. Most of them were retired senior citizens from the Chicago area.

To get deep into the rain forest we left Lima Peru on our flight to Iquitos (say “ee-KEE-toes”), located on the other side of the Andes Mountains. We were going 500 miles northeast into the rain forest. After we crossed the mountains we began to see the endless green carpet of trees. From the base of western mountains, to the mouth of Amazon on the eastern shore of Brazil, the continent only drops 1,000 feet in 2,500 miles. The whole areas is bigger than Texas without a hill higher than twenty feet. Just marsh grass, rivers and trees.

In Iquitos we boarded our boat, the “La Turmalina”. It resembles a small Mississippi River style riverboat except it has a pointed bow and diesel driven propellers. This boat was built three years ago but it was constructed in a style that makes it look like it is from the turn of the century. Brown carved mahogany woodwork fill every room and railing. All the wood was sealed with thick shiny varnish.

At 8:30 PM the La Turmalina pulls away from the dock and into the main channel of the Amazon. Five minutes after leaving Iquitos the lights of the city disappear. There are no roads across the land so civilization stops at the last house in town. The night is black except for the reflection of our boat lights against the muddy river. The caption steers the boat by watching the currents and only occasionally turns on the overhead searchlight to see ahead. I stood by the railing on the upper deck for several hours, like I would do each night of the tour. Just watching the distant riverbanks lit by a partial moon and scattered stars.

They fed us three meals a day on the boat. They say French cooking is the best for flavor, Japanese is the best for presentation and Peruvian is a combination of both. All our meals had lots of steamed vegetables, rice, fish, beef, pork chops and sauces. After my second buffet meal on the boat I was concerned about gaining weight on the tour.

The Amazon at this point is about twice as wide as the Mississippi River near St. Louis. We were heading back up river toward the western mountains. Our destination was 250 miles away on one of the smaller tributaries in the Pacaya National Wildlife reserve. We would travel four rivers to get there. The Amazon to the Ucayali, then to the Puinahua, and finally up the Pacaya. Going up each river would be smaller than the previous one. Each one goes deeper into the rain forest and further from civilization as we know it. Our turn around point would be a 1941 Japanese scientific outpost that is now a Peruvian Forest Ranger station. We would return on the same rivers to Iquitos, traveling twice as fast with the current.

All these rivers had small villages along the bank. Most of these settlements were five to ten miles apart. Sometimes a thatched roof house was visible from our boat but most villages were tucked back in the trees several hundred yards from the river. The bigger villages had over 100 residents and they had a school made from wood planks or cement block. All the rest of the buildings were made from palm trees. These houses had open sides and were built on stilts four feet above the ground. An extended family shared the house with everyone sleeping on mats and hammocks. Most families of ten people shared a 600 square foot dwelling.

All the villagers we met were very friendly and excited to see the gray haired Americans. I joined in a soccer game of boys against girls. The kids play barefoot and are very good at soccer skills. Even the youngest toddlers would chase, kick and pass the ball. Soccer games are an important social event between villages. The entire village travels to an neighboring town by dugout canoes. They spend the day playing soccer then have a big party at night. This is when the teenage boys and girls get to meet someone new outside their village and is an important social time for them.

During our fourth night we docked along the overgrown banks of the jungle. Edgar is one of the crew who’s job is to tie up the boat and jump from the ship’s railing into the dense underbrush. I notice he scouts the ten foot leap for several minutes with his flashlight. He jumps away from the boat and lands relieved on solid ground. Another crew member throws Edgar a machete. He begins hacking the waist high underbrush down to below his knees. A path is cleared twenty feet back to a palm tree. Edgar wraps a thick white rope around the tree several times. The moths are thick in front of the boat’s spotlights. Edgar swats at them as he considers how to return to the ship. The railing is much higher than the river bank and too far from shore to jump. Another crew member lowers a lifeboat to use as a bridge. Finally everyone is back aboard and ready for bed after a long day.

Driving the boat is difficult in the current and even more challenging at night. The river is filled with debris. Branches, stumps, and even telephone pole size logs float with the muddy current. The banks of the river are very soft and made from black dirt and silt. There are no rocks in the rain forest. Not even a pebble big enough for a slingshot. The river is constantly cutting into the bank and forming a new path. New channels are cut and the old riverbed becomes a desolate oxbow lake. Large hunks of the bank fall into the rider like fragments of giant icebergs. With the dirt come live trees, grass and fallen timber.

At night the occasional splashing of dirt makes us think the camon (alligators) are diving off the back and swimming out to meet us. The boat’s searchlight reflects the orange eyes of owls and camon along the shore. One night we took the small motorboat out and patrolled the shore with flashlights. We spotted seventeen gators in three miles. The largest was fifteen feet long and weighed five hundred pounds. It swims without a splash or ripple and disappeared under our small boat without a trace. We are glad to get back on the main boat.

Our tour boat jerks as we hit another big log. The pilot tries another path through the floating maze of debris. There are four drivers of the boat. They work as teams and rotate every two hours, one person driving and the other person watching. The other two drivers are sleeping. Guiding the boat at night is tedious and dangerous. Most of the crew grew up in the rain forest and moved to Iquitos with their family when they were ten years old. They learned to play in dugout canoes in the river as soon as they could walk just like city kids learned to ride tricycles on the sidewalk. The crew knows how to drive the boat better than anyone.

We had heard reports about how bad the bugs would be in the rain forest. We brought long pants, shirts and repellent. The first night I saw a four inch Preying Mantis, a five inch Walking Stick and a huge moth. I was waiting to be carried away by mosquitoes. The next day we hiked to a village through the jungle. Insects were scarce. During the week we hiked some everyday and went sight seeing in the small boats back into the swamps. Actually I only received five mosquito bites all week. We stopped using repellent and wearing long sleeves. My worst bites came in one of the final village from the sand fleas. They itched for a few hours but were fine the next day. Overall I think the bugs are worse in Wisconsin during our backyard cookouts.

Another rain forest legend is the piranhas fish that will eat anything that falls in the water. They have razor sharp teeth that can nip chucks of flesh as easily as Jello. However they are not aggressive toward humans. Some of the members of our group proved that by swimming along one side of our boat while other members fed the piranhas popcorn from the other side. Fortunatly I was not on the boat at the time because I think I would still respect the piranhas and not go swimming. One morning we went fishing for piranhas with a fishing pole and bait. We caught about thirty of these five inch fish. The ship’s cook fried them up supper. They look just like bluegills and taste like monkey.

We saw lots of other wildlife. There are over 3,000 types of fish in that area compared to only 200 varieties in all of north America. The type of birds ranged from tiny finches to parrots, hawks and vultures. Large animals are rare but we saw many monkeys and sloths perched high in the tree tops. The distant roar of the Holler Monkey can be heard three miles at night. They sound like a cross between a lion’s growl and a jet engine.

The rain forest is changing and probably won’t be the same in ten years. The changes to culture and resources will be similar to what happened to the American west 150 years ago. There is too much potential in the rain forest for it not to be used. As one village said “don’t tell us about conservation while you have a full stomach”. It will be interesting to see how outside pressures will change the local people. I am glad I got to see it today. It will be different tomorrow.