Friday, January 12, 2007

Off the Boat Into the Jungle

From Nauta to Iquitos is 65 miles by road and 100 miles by river. I had traveled both routes last year and I knew the old road was dirt and clay for the first twenty miles. From the amount of rain we had last night I expected a lot of mud on the road. The rains had stopped at sunrise. I waited until until 10:00 AM to depart and hoped that the road had dried out. Leaving Nauta I was surprised to find the road was under construction and being paved with asphalt. A road crew of at least 200 men were moving blacktop with wheel barrels and smoothing the tar and gravel with rakes. Another crew of men dragged wooden planks over the new asphalt to level the road.

Good paying organized jobs in Peru are scarce. Over 50% of workers over the age of 16 are self employed. That means they have jobs as street venders where they do not receive a monthly pay check or receive any insurance benefits. The other organized workers might only receive a minimum wage of $100 per month based on a 200 hour work schedule. I am sure most of the men working on the new road were fortunate to have a job paying $5 per day doing strenuous labor.

After two more miles of road construction the pavement ended. The dirt road began again into the jungle. I was able to follow the tire ruts that had been left by a bus last night. The ruts were so deep my bicycle pedals were hitting on the sides of the tire tracks. I decided to try riding on the grassy edge of the road but the mud was too soft. I started walking and pushing my bike as my shoes became covered with clumps of thick red clay. In the next two hours I had traveled six miles. I would ride and walk trying to find the best wheel track to follow. The mud was just the right consistency to stick to my knobby bike tires like cookie dough. The clay would ball up between my tires and bike frame and lock my wheels every few revolutions. I carried a small stick to clean my wheels but I was spending more time cleaning off mud than riding.

At my current rate of speed I still had several more hours of mud riding to go. I wouldn’t get into Iquitos until after dark. I found that riding in the water puddles was actually better. The water kept the mud from sticking to my tires. My front tire would slide, and my rear tire would spin, but I was able to keep moving. The afternoon sun was now starting to dry the clay into a solid crust. The edge of the road was firm and fast again and I began making better time. When I reached the pavement I knew I could make it to Iquitos before dark. For the next 45 miles my knobby tires hummed at 18 mph. I had finished the cycling portion of my tour without any serious mechanical or physical problems.

I arrived at the Baltizar Hotel downtown at 5:00 PM. They charged me $11 a night for a room with air conditioning. I got a bucket of water and disassembled my bike for a thorough cleaning. I used the remaining spray from my WD-40 lubricant to give my red bike frame a shiny polishing. The old bike looked pretty good again. Now it was time to find my old friends in Iquitos.

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