Thursday, January 18, 2007

Crossing the Jungle

The small 4 x 4 pickup truck had a king cab that fit three people and a driver...but they insisted on cramming in five people with the driver. The back of the truck had railings for ten people to stand up and hang-on. Everyone had at least two gear bags piled in the back. My bike was strapped to the outside railing. The truck was packed full and overloaded by 1,000 pounds. We could only average 12 mph. We would travel the next 300 miles on rock, dirt, mud and water.

The first day I traveled in the truck for 13 hours. Tickets were $8. I had a seat inside...because I paid $4 extra...well worth it. Going through the remote jungle we only saw village huts every few hours. Any smooth and straight section of gravel road had concrete pillars down the middle. This was to stop small airplanes from landing that were smuggling drugs.

We must have crossed 50 streams and small rivers in the first 100 miles. The water covered the wheels and the floor of the truck was always wet inside. I was inside the cab thinking maybe it would be better to be hanging on outside on the railing than to roll over and get trapped underwater inside the truck. Just before a water crossing I would take a photo of the river. If we didn’t survive there was chance someone might find my camera and be able to explain our drowning.

The one lane road was very rutted and muddy. Meeting an on coming truck meant each vehicle had to get half way off the road and possibly slide into the ditch. Everyone traveled at idling speeds. When the mud got too deep for the truck, everyone had to get out and walk. The driver then just did his best to get the truck moving again. I thought we were going to tip over at least ten times because one wheel was in a two foot deep rut and the other wheel was up on the side bank.

Later that night we got to the town of Juanjui (Wan-hooy). Juanjui received world attention in 1984 when rebel MRTA guerrilla forces invited the media to televise their attack against the local army. Instead of a battle the rebels showed up with soccer balls and organized a street party for the town. The rebels received much favorable publicity across South America. The MRTA guerrilla were rivals of the notorious Shining Path rebels. Some of the most influential guerilla leaders were actually women college students. Unfortunately over 30,000 people were killed during twenty years of turmoil. Many of these victims were villagers and farmers caught in the crossfire. Since 1997 the area has become more politically stable. I felt safe here now, but Peru received a tainted reputation because of the conflict.

It was hot here tonight in the jungle. Near 90 degrees at 8:00 PM. I stayed at a motel in the center of town. The room did not have air conditioning, hot water, or a toilet seat. The water only worked when you asked the office to turn on the water pump for ten minutes to use the shower or flush the toilet. The room only cost $7 but it was clean and safe.

I was surprised to find the availability of public Internet computers were very common in Peru. Not many people have computers in their homes. Billboards for Internet Cafes are seen on every street in town. The cost is about 70 cents per hour. Even in the rural areas I could use the Internet at the city hall. I would try to write home everyday. My wife and daughter knew I was okay and it was a good way for me to compile the daily updates from my travels.

The next day the taxi truck departed at 8:00 AM. The road was better and we made good time on the gravel sections. We rolled into the city of Tarapoto by mid afternoon. I was a little disappointed about not riding my bike the past 300 miles. It would have taken me at least six days with only a few small villages to buy supplies. I would have been several days behind schedule with my scouting trip. Actually the riding in the truck was pretty fun and I would do it again.

After two long days in vehicles I was looking forward to riding my bike tomorrow. Tarapoto is a big town and my fancy hotel room is very nice for $28. This is the hotel I want our group tour to stay at in the future. There are many good restaurants in Tarapoto and an airport with daily flights to Lima. We will base our loops rides out from here. I wanted to ride everything first and get a better idea of what to expect. So far I have been eating well and have not been sick or had one bug bite.

I am not sure why I like the jungle life of Peru. The landscapes can be beautiful, but there are hundreds of other beautiful locations around the world. To say one is more scenic than another is only based on opinion. Maybe what I find fascinating are the people’s simple lifestyle of focusing only on day to day necessities. The more I got to know the rural people of Peru I began to understand the motivations in my own life. As an American with a comfortable life I have the luxury to plan for the future. I am expected to prepare for my life twenty or thirty years in advance.

In Peru I had many discussions with local people about their future. The people with few possessions were most concerned with their next meal. Some would dream of having a baby and family someday. These people have an admirable trust that everything will be fine for them. “What will you do in the future” I questioned one young woman. “Jesus will decide my future” she said. Later I asked a street vender what was the interest rate the bank paid on a savings account. They answered me honestly ...“I have never put money in the bank. I don’t have enough coins at the end of the day to fill a small purse. All my money is spent each night buying food for tomorrow. If I do not work everyday, I do not have enough coins to buy my next meal.”

I also met several Peruvians who had much money. They reminded me of Americans in how they thought about their future. They knew they had a safety net of cash for immediate problems. Most could afford to extend their field of vision toward other longer term decisions. Such as “What kind of car to buy” or “Were their stock investments secure”. It seems everyone needs a certain amount of uncertainly in their future to make their current life valuable.

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