jueves, 14 de junio de 2012

Iquitos & La Jungla

The Amazon River, at 48 kilometers of churning café con leche currents at its widest, is the widest river in the world, the second longest, (or longest-- there is a long running competition between the Nile and the Amazon for Longest River; I've heard arguments for both.) It has a discharge volume greater than the next seven largest rivers combined. It accounts for one fifth of the world's river flow, carving out a drainage basin of 7,050,000 kilometers . The basin is home to some of the world's most diverse and exotic flora and fauna; more than one third of all the species in the world live in the Amazon rainforest (sadly not including leopards, tigers, lions or elephants, as I've been told).
The Amazon is born in the Pacaya Reserve in Northeastern Peru, from the joining of the Marañon and Ucayali Rivers, then flows into Brazil; it empties into the Atlantic Ocean near the city Manaus. Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia would love a piece of the Amazon, but the coveted Jungle Highway lies in the hands of Peru and Brazil alone (it does cut along a tiny part of Colombia's border but doesn't enter the country). This makes Peru the only country in South America to boast the desert coast, the Andes mountains, the Amazon rainforest and the Rio Amazona herself. Complete with Macchu Piccu, Peru holds one of the 7 New Wonders of the World and one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
Every year in October through May, the waters of the river make a sudden dramatic surge of seven meters upward. Plantations flood; the first floors of houses are under water  it rises half way up the tallest Amazon trees and turns the forests into swamp lands, towns into floating roofs. During these times, three quarters of the entire jungle is buried underwater. This part is called “selva baja” or “lower jungle”. The quarter that is elevated enough to remain dry is “selva alta” or “higher jungle”.
 The flooding of the Amazon makes for two drastically different seasons for the jungle people. In the summer, they farm; in the winter, they fish. As the river basin dries, one crop at a time comes into season, flooding the market with a single, dirt cheap product at a time. (First yams, then watermelon  then bananas etc.) Futbol, the sport of the Amazon, is put on hold during the floods and rowing becomes the only form of exercise.
This year, the Amazon rose a record nine meters, two meters higher than the previous season. Actually, it`s been rising more and more every year. The obvious cause is global warming. Snow and ice in the Andes is a major chunk of our water system held in reserve- each year it melts more and more, flowing from glaciers into streams and eventually into the Amazon. Whether the water is flowing directly into tributaries or evaporating into the clouds to become precipitation, the melt is simply adding to the system. At the very end of the line, the oceans are affected; thus we hear or the rising oceans.
A week ago, I stood on top of one of the world´s greatest entrapments of the water cycle, a glacier in the depths of the Andes mountains. Today, I float down the muddy waters of what that glacier has become.
Ed left to pick up his sister the night we got back from Vallunarahu, and I spent an extra two days in Huaraz to go rock climbing. I had Heard Hatunmachay is the place to go, one of the best spots in the world even. I was halfway through booking a ride to the nearby village when the phone rang. There`d been a strike- no one could leave Huaraz. Oh god. I knew that strikes could last a week at times- I could be stuck in Huaraz, and I had a flight booked from Lima to Iquitos in three days- Ed had my ticket in Lima. Of more immediate concern, I would have to find closer rocks to climb.
After some hunting around, I found two climbers, a Venezolano and an Argentino, who planned on visiting the local spot the next day, just a 20 minute walk from the outskirts of Huaraz. They said I could borrow their rope.
We met at 8 thirty and walked over to the climbing area  really just messy  rock outcrops with some good pockets and bolts drilled in. The easiest route was probably a 5.9, and it was all sport climbing. I have never sport climbed before, and I have never belayed someone leading a route. Of more concern was the fact that I didn't even realize that lead belaying is very different from top-rope belaying until my climbing partner, the Venezolano, was roped up and on the wall. Let's just say it was a harsh lesson, and these guys really said it like it was. (Especially harsh after being taught by kind and mild Wisconsonians all fall).
I made it up the 5.9 no problema, but the next route was a 5.10 plus overhang, and after 3 tries I called it a day. The fact that I had climbed nearly 6,000 meter Vallunarahu the day before was considered a lame excuse. Men of the rock and mountains are a hard core bunch.
That night and the next morning, I made half a dozen trips to the bus station to see what the deal was with the strike. Finally at around 10 the roads were announced clear, and I began my descent of 3090 meters to zero. The first three hours or so were incessant,  nauseating switchbacks; the views were incredible, but I don't think I've ever been that car sick. Sherlock Holmes was playing in the background. I wasn't watching, but the dramatic operas were the ideal soundtrack for watching the majestic cliffs and mountains out the window-- my type of movie screen.

The plan was to meet Ed and his sister (LB) at HQ Villa Hostel that night and then taxi together for our 6 o clock flight to Iquitos. I checked into HQ Villa around 10 and they weren't there. Where were they? They had my plane ticket and I had zero information about the flight except the time it was leaving and my destination.
HQ Villa is in Miraflores, the richest section of Lima- a city of 9 million  I walked down the boulevard past the American, French, and German embassies and half a million international banks to get dinner. It's the Peruvian Manhattan-- the streets were alive and lit, teenagers in posh Brand name outfits milled around laughing with friends-- an outdoor mall with flashing lights gave me the options of the fanciest McDonald's I've ever seen, a Starbucks, a Pinkberry… What a strange interlude between the quiet indigenous mountain people of Huaraz, and the jungle.
I didn't find out that Ed and LB were staying at a completely different hostel until about midnight when I checked my email. So we decided to meet at the airport. I didn't realize how incredibly vague our plan was until I arrived at the Lima International Airport at 4 thirty the next morning.
I walked into the Domestic Flights section, expecting to see their faces pop out of the crowd, or to find a gigantic flashing arrow floating in the air pointing at them… or maybe I just though I'd be psychic that morning. I had never seen Ed's sister and had absolutely no idea what she looked like; also I knew Ed had just gotten a haircut so I probably wouldn't recognize him either.
I went up to a security guard to ask for assistance. 

“I have a flight to Iquitos in an hour," I said.

 “Ok, what airline?”

 “I don't know.”

 “Where's your boarding pass?” 

“Don't have one."

 “Itinerary? Check in number? Flight number?”

I was starting to realize that I may be a bit screwed  “My friends have my ticket," I explained.

 “Ok, then you have to find your friends!” 

Very helpful man. They would be in line to get their bags checked, but I wasn't allowed in;  you needed a boarding pass. I walked around the outside and snuck in a different way, then started scanning all the lines. No cigar. Maybe I can check in using my Passport number? I was just discovering that wasn't working either when Ed jumped out behind me with my ticket and not much time to spare. Fyoof. Going to Iquitos after all.
Iquitos is a bustling and growing city sandwiched between the natural boundaries of the Itaya and Nanay rivers, both of which flow into the Amazon, a 10 minute boat ride away. It's an international hub, just 12 hours out of Brazil and about 8 from Colombia (by boat of course). It's the biggest city in the world that can only be accessed by boat or by plane; it's in the middle of the jungle and there are no roads. (Hence us flying). Most residents of Iquitos were born there and have never left, only gone an hour or so up or down the Rio Amazona.
The river truly is the Interstate Freeway of the jungle- ferries, barges, tugboats, container ships and motorboats chug up and down its waters to pass between the many jungle villages that line the river and into the surrounding countries. Traffic is rarely a problem- there are 50 kilometers of space to fit a good amount of lanes.
I expected Iquitos to be a charming, interesting yet comfortable mix of city and jungle, sort of like the Rainforest Café. Not quite. Iquitos is dirty, busy, grimy and poor. It's the hub for the Amazon villagers: people who live on wooden planks above the river and sustain themselves on what meager crops they can grow and what fish they can catch in their front yard, where less than 1% attend University and none have been farther than Iquitos.
In the city, motos and tuktuks clog the streets with shouts and fumes, and the humid air and sweltering sun weigh down on the sprawling ghettos. In chaotic, dark markets, shady vendors with toothless grins sell turtle eggs and jaguar skins, piranha skulls and bone necklaces  hallucinogenics and viles of jungle substances I wouldn't dare to ask about.

The plaza de Armas, center square

We arrived around 8 and took a taxi into the center. Our taxi driver already had strong opinions of which jungle tour would be best and which hostel; he carted us around for an hour or so until we settled on Casa Francesa, an elegant but low-budget hostel with appealing jungle decor and silky hammocks.
As always, the idea was to get the cheapest and most adventurous tour. We stumbled upon a charming and persuasive salesman who offered a grand adventure package-- four days of camping, jungle trekking, canoe rides, and of course all the highlights of the Amazon's flora and fauna, complete with an English speaking “biologist” guide. We were able to barter the price down to less than half of the Lonely Planet's Price estimation, so we booked it. Now the day was ours to explore Iquitos.
First stop, Belen Market. The market is famous among travelers for its exotic wares and intense atmosphere. It's an experience. Walking right behind Ed and LB, I got lost several times in the dense mobs, bright colors and dark twisting alleyways; the poignant smells of spices and rotting meat, sizzling fry-ups and animal excrement. We swerved around and ducked under hanging sacks of mysterious fluids, women with fresh tobacco spilling out of their arms and men with hairy black hooves and skins in hand, squawking parrots and gibbering monkeys in cages.
Under our feet, pools of blood and feces swirled in the muddy rainwater. Vultures perched on multicolored umbrellas and on the roofs of dilapidated buildings. Old men passed out drunk on vendor's tables beside gutted tortoises displayed with their eggs where the stomach should be, butchered iguana, fried piranhas, and live baby alligators.
In the meat market I gagged at the sight of cow heads, eyeballs, pancreas  liver, lung… Mangy hairless dogs lapped up remains from the ground. We wandered towards the river where the ghetto begins. Stairs lead down from the upper market to the water's edge; the hill is lined with shacks in increasingly poor condition and below, a shantytown sprawls into the river in heaps of tin and rotten wood.

We stopped halfway down to buy long sleeved shirts at a secondhand store and then continued down. Everyone started at us; a scarred old man sat shaking his head. We kept on walking and a woman blocked our way and did the same. 

“Don`t go down there,” she warned, making the motion of a slit throat. Ok, we get the message.

Back up the stairs, we stopped to talk to a man selling a jaguar skin and he offered to take us to the floating houses off the river shore-- where those too poor to even keep a shack on land reside. There are about 2,000 living in these literally floating houses-- that way you don't have to pay rent, water  or electricity.
We putted around in a motorized canoe and witnessed the workings of a legitimate floating town. Floating among the houses are floating petrol stations, all bearing gigantic warning signs painted across the front- “NO FUMAR!” (No smoking). We watched children swimming right next to the “port-o-potty” hole that emptied into the river. Here, everything revolves around the Amazona.

Floating petrol station.

We decided to continue down the river to an animal sanctuary and non profit organization buried in the thick jungle of the opposite bank called “Pilpintuasi.” Ten minutes out of Iquitos, we entered the Amazon. The color of the river made a sudden change to a creamy light brown and opened up to a far wider breadth. The almost turquoise sky reflected perfectly in the deceivingly fast currents, a glass mirror.

The deforestation of the Amazon- LIVE!

You can see the changing color of the river here.


Pilpintuasi is a bit like an animal orphanage. The workers there take the abandoned, injured and abused animals in the area-- victims of abusive owners, poaching, and illegal trafficking-- and nurse them back to strength in semi-captivity.
 Most animals are not released back into the wild, though. Once they have been in the sanctuary for some time, they become comfortable with the workers there and are no longer afraid of humans. Peru's laws against hunting the exotic and endangered animals for meat, skins and even crafts are close to useless, as they're not enforced. As a result, hunting and poaching are rampant along the Amazon. An animal unafraid of humans will not know the difference between a tourist looking to take a picture and a local looking to take its life.
If they're not directly killed, animals are often captured and sold as pets in the Belen market, as we had just seen-- tiny monkeys, parrots, turtles, you name it. Well-meaning tourists who call themselves animal lovers often buy critters as souvenirs and then, not knowing how to correctly feed exotic animals, effectively kill them. Sloths for example, have a very specific diet of a specific variety of leaves. The lazy, loving teddy bear-like creatures may be ideal pets at first, until they starve to death.
Even if you know the particular diet of a sloth, by buying a baby animal in the market, you are paying to have a poacher kill its mother. Baby animals don't just hang out by themselves in the wild, and when it comes to Mom it's a fight to the death.
Inside the sanctuary, we were greeted first by a giant, three-meter long manatee named Marbino. Local to the Amazon, manatees are severely threatened by hunting. Inside, we watched our guide feed and hold coatis, ocelots, sloths, macaws, Capuchin monkeys (the smartest monkeys in the world; they make and use tools), and pygmy marmoset (the smallest monkeys in the world). And finally, a jaguar. The giant cat, of the third largest cat species in the world, paced and sneered at us through its deadly incisors, thick muscles rippling under the gorgeous sought after pelt. It leaped up against the cage side and seemed to almost tear it down, ripping a bloody hunk of beef from our guide's unprotected hand.
Then the butterfly farm, and the butterfly house for the wriggling chrysalilses. I was surprised to learn that caterpillars don't literally sprout wings and become butterflies- they form a chrysalis out of a layer of skin, dissolve themselves into a liquid mass of cells inside their leaf-like protective wrap, and reconstruct themselves into an entirely new organism.





Blue morpho

The way back to Iquitos

Now to see these animals in the wild. Our jungle adventure began with a four hour boat ride down the Amazon-- half way in a public boat and half way in a motor canoe. You have to get at least 200 kilometers away from the city to get real animal action. Our journey ended 20 minutes down the Rio Tapira, a small, shall we say, residential street of the aquatic variety.
As we disembarked, it began to rain. When the first few heavy drops of rain fall on the Amazon, she fades from blindingly bright blues and greens, to hazy shades of whites and grays in a matter of seconds. A young girl popped out of the trees with rubber boots in hand, ours for the next 4 days. And we sure needed them. The pathway to “camp” was puddly mud, at times deep as the rim of our wellies. We expected to be camping in tents, but soon found out that wouldn't be possible-- there was no solid ground.
Additionally, we were told most of our jungle excursions would be by boat instead of by foot. During the dry season, tours are done by foot, and during the rainy season by boat. We came just at the end of the rainy season- the river had gone down by 2 meters and has about 6 to go. Disappointing news, but for the time being I was quite enchanted by our new jungle home, a primitive round thatched roof cottage on stilts, barren but for a table, benches and three hammocks. Attached by an elevated walkway was another with a simple kitchen and our bedroom-- three simple mattresses with mosquito nets.

The harbor we pulled out of
Public boat

Live chicken- our dinner the last night...

Jungle hut!

Day 1, Afternoon. Hunt Bug and Tree.
Our first tour was a nature walk around the minimal patches of dry land surrounding our jungle hut. Lobo, our guide, has lived 5 minutes away on the same river his whole life. Turns out he wasn't an official biologist, but knew absolutely everything about every plant and animal in the area. Our entire trip was more or less within the boundaries of his back yard, and he knew every tree, swamp, river and lake like the back of his hand. 

We dove into the thick of the trees, and  immediately met termites and leaf cutter ants in their mansions. We learned that termites and a certain species of birds maintain a symbiotic relationship. The termites cluster over the bird eggs while the mother is away like a blanket to keep them warm, and as payment, feed on baby bird poo.
We were then introduced to the giant sapothe tree and the even bigger ceiba tree, the biggest in the jungle at 50 meters tall. The siringa has the widest trunk, and its roots sit above the soil, vertical and thin like walls. On the dark side, the strangler fig's mission is to suck the life out of the surrounding giants; it winds up their trunks like an over-sized vine. Vines themselves, I learned, are literally hanging roots. They bring nutrients and water to the tree's trunk in the exact same way, but instead of sucking the water from the soil they collect it from the rain.
Next was the rubber tree. Lobo sliced it with his machete and a white liquid oozed out. We rolled it about in our hands, and it really turned into a rubbery ball. The juice ran down the tree and spilled into the puddles, swirling around our “rubber boots”, which are actually now made of cheaper petroleum. Another tree contained a sap which is spread on broken limbs like a plaster. It becomes a natural cast and remains hard for 6 weeks. The substance also contains vitamins that help heal bones quickly.
I asked Lobo if deforestation was seen as a problem here; he explained that there is a Peruvian law which states that with every tree a logger cuts down they have to plant 10. Some follow the rule, he said. My guess is that number is very small. The police aren't about to trek into the depths of the jungle to enforce that sort of rule.

Big tree

Rubber juice


Day 1, Evening. Hunt Alligator.
Alligator, not crocodile. Alligators are smaller and found in the Americas, while crocs are exclusively African. Here was the first of our excruciatingly extensive series of canoe tours. The tiny, unstable wooden craft we used was a three-seater canoe with an extra seat put in, and you had to stay completely still lest you tip the boat. The first tour, though, was pleasant. We left after dinner and paddled through the nighttime jungle, down the river Tapira and through the surrounding swamps (these are forests during dry season.)
Alligators are best hunted at night because they are spotted by their glowing red eyes, and at night the fish rise to the slightly warmer surface water  easier for lagartos to catch. We didn't catch an alligator that night, but we did see owls, night birds, and a gigantic tree boa. Lobo pulled the boa out of the tree, maybe three meters long and thick enough to swallow a monkey whole, and dangled it over us, close enough to elicit the involuntary shriek.

Our little boat.

Day 2, Morning. Hunt Bird.
The idea was to watch the sunrise. It was cloudy, but we went out anyway to look for birds. By boat, of course. We saw loads of “crazy birds”- these black and red birds live in trees with monkeys (probably what drives them crazy), because the monkeys pull the bark off of trees, prompting insects to spill out for an easy lunch.
A small black and yellow bird's brain is fed to babies in jungle villages because it's said to increase intelligence. Then there were hawks of the slate and opportunistic varieties, tucans, and woodpeckers. We also got a glimpse of squirrel monkey and black tamarind families. Those two types of monkey are the easiest to spot because they travel in groups of up to 150. Crashing through the canopy, gibbering and throwing fruit about, they're hard to miss.

 Can you see the monkey?

Local dude with prehistoric fish

Day 2, Afternoon. Hunt Piranha.
Well, fish piranha. By this point we had been in the cramped canoe about 5 hours the night before and another 5 hours that morning. My butt felt bruised and I desperately needed to move my stiff muscles. It doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of fishing.
On the upside, I caught the first and biggest piranha. Now I can finally get over my childhood fears of those tiny monsters, risen from watching Animal Planet episodes where a peaceful, unassuming tapir would be strolling along a river bank, slip a bit in the mud, and at once be a churning mass of blood as a gang of piranhas devoured it within seconds.


Biggest one!

Day 2, Evening. Hunt Sloth and Iguana.
This one was a success! I managed to catch glimpses of several sloths and iguanas through the blinding pain of my bum, all splayed out on branches in the epitome of laziness to soak up the last rays of the setting sun.
Sloths, I learned, have an excuse for their lethargy: They're drunk. The leaves that make up their diet are heavy in alkaloids that deliver an affect similar to drinking a beer. So, they are, literally, perpetual drunks. This seemed  evolutionary absurd to me; they do have predators. When one comes along, they hide.

Day 2, Night. Hunt Frog and Spider.
A break from the vessel for a brief midnight stroll: Bullfrogs and tree frogs, scorpion spiders, and a brown tarantula. New guide for whether to be scared of our eight legged friends: If a spider has a web, it's not poisonous. Webs mean that the spider can't catch prey on its own by biting it, so it has to rely on a sticky net.

Day 3, Morning. Village.
I thought it might look weird to write “hunt” here. This was a pleasant morning- the cloudless sky delivered a brilliant yellow sunrise down the river. The village tour was organized upon my request-- Lobo was very kind to give us a glimpse of legitimate jungle living.
His village numbers roughly 100 residents. Right now, the village is a narrow strip of land with water on both sides, just recently emerged within the last few months. An elevated concrete sidewalk runs from one end of the town to the other-- it was put in place by the government, meant to help kids get to school. Otherwise, the ground is too muddy to walk for their little feet. During the rainy season, the houses are almost completely submerged, and families have to build temporary floors just below the roof. The school is submerged as well, so classes are cancelled throughout the winter.
When the town was first built, the buildings' stilts were tall enough to avoid the floods, but with the rising of the Amazon they're going to have to rebuild. The houses are arranged one by one in a line along the sidewalk, and each has a personal solar panel which provides for a lamp and a small radio; no TV.
These jungle towns each have their own language, and like the Quechua spoken in mountain villages, is passed down orally by elders and not taught in school. When the villagers converse in Spanish, the language is almost unrecognizable; they maintain the lilts and inflections of their native tongue as a melody to lyrics in Castallano.

Amazon sunrise.

Day 3, Afternoon. Hunt Dolphin.
The sky was a pristine blue and the sun shone unencumbered by clouds: It was the perfect day for a swim. With dolphins! The Amazon is home to both gray and pink river dolphins-- their gender is recognizable by the coloration. Males have gray heads and females are a pale shiny pink all over. Lobo, with his infinite knowledge  knew exactly where to go to find our playful mammalian friends. We attached a motor to our canoe for the trip to give us a bit of leverage against the Amazon's currents and sped back out of the now quite familiar River Tapira, into the blue, the wide open river sea. Released from the claustrophobia of trees and vines!
 Cielo melted into rio in a nonstop wash of celeste, blue above and beneath and all around our speeding craft. Far, far across the Amazon`s immense breadth, a thin line of emerald jungle shot along the smooth bank. We powered along for an hour or so to reach a sandbar right in the middle of the river.
When Lobo told us we were going to a beach, I definitely wasn't expecting something so nice. The sand was a fine pale grain like you'd expect in the Caribbean, and despite being in the center of the river, the surrounding water was calm and current-less; its shallow depth and the protective sandy barriers made for a pleasant swimming area. During the rains, turtles lay their eggs there so the tracks and nest holes disappear. We disembarked, donned our suits, and jumped into the refreshing cool.
Dolphins are social animals, and Amazonian river dolphins don't have predators. The native people may kill tortoises, fish and manatees, but they stop short when it comes to the graceful and friendly river dolphins. So dolphins have nothing to fear, and on top of that, they're curious by nature. These qualities make dolphins relatively easy to find.
The trick is to splash around and whistle to attract their attention. We swam about, kicking and slapping at the water, but only saw pods from a distance, maybe 20 meters away. I was thrilled as it was; it was a gorgeous day and just amazing to be able to get out of the boat and swim. After a half an hour or so, we jumped back into the boat and rowed towards the dolphins.
We managed to get the boat right in the middle of the pod, and pink and gray shapes peeked up and shot out all around us. They would flip up a tail, a nose, or leap out of the water with a spout of the blow hole, sounding like a person blowing a raspberry. A few meters off, we saw a pair mating (or maybe they were just having fun; dolphins are they only animals other than humans that have orgasms for pleasure).
Once the pod started to move away we paddled over to another spot to try our luck. It was even better. The dolphins came right up the boat; it looked like there were 50 of them. I couldn't handle myself, I was poking Lobo saying “can I jump in can I jump in can I jump in”; finally he gave the ok and I attempted a delicate dive off the middle of the canoe and gave it a good rocking.
I was in the water for about half an hour. I would see a dolphin, chase it, and get pretty close, see another, chase it again-- they were nowhere and everywhere at once, popping up here and there all 360 degrees around me. I spun in a circle trying to see them all at once, baby pink flashes in the sea of baby blue sky and water, and then I realized I could just tread water and they would come to me.
You could anticipate one coming my the bubbles in the water. I wanted a head to appear in front of me but that never happened; I know that they were diving right under my body by the trails of bubbles, but they teased me and didn't show their faces often. I was beside myself though, screaming and laughing each time a tail slapped the water a foot to my right or a dolphin slid above the surface in an elegant pink crescent, a foot to my left.
I didn't bring my camera because no doubt it would have gotten wet and ruined, but dolphins are playfully elusive and would have been hard to capture in a good shot anyway. You'll just have to trust me that that afternoon was definitely the highlight of the jungle.

Day 3, Evening. Hunt Alligator Take 2.
We left at about 4 after a nice few hours of relaxation in Jungle HQ. The destination was a lake which holds giant lily pads and hopefully, alligators  During the dry season when the river ceases to exist, lakes remain, becoming the congregating spots for all aquatic animalia. So in high tourist season (August), the lakes are guaranteed to house a few alligators. Right now, you never know.
The sun set as we rowed towards the lake. We wound through a new swamp, and came to a dead end. The passage through which Lobo rowed just a few weeks before was dry-- a quarter mile worth of mud. I was relatively clean after my swim in the Amazon (key word: relatively. This just meant I wasn't caked in mud.) Not for long.
The canoe was carved straight out of the trunk of a giant tree and weighed about 200 kilos. We weren't about to carry it, so dragging it was. We pushed on the seats and our boots slipped in the thick mud; both of Ed's feet got caught under the keel at one point and he fell face forward into the puddles. We sweated and huffed and the mission seemed ridiculous, but we made it.
Once in the lake, the sky was deepening to a hazy lilac dusk and pink bushy blossoms of tangarana trees glowed softly. Lily pads, 2 meters wide, lined the shore. During the dry season, the water of the lake isn't contaminated by the dirt of the risen Amazon, and the Lily pads can grow up to be 4 meters wide.
"This is called Mawa lake," Lobo explained. What a pretty name. “A year ago, my uncle died in this lake.” Uh oh. “He came out here to fish and never came back. We came out to look, and his canoe was upside down in the water and he was no where to be found. We think it was an anaconda. That's why it`s called Mawa lake-- in my language it means Lake of Death.” Ah. He tells us this after we're in the lake and after I comment on the pretty name.
Fortunately I was not eaten by an anaconda. We scouted the periphery of the lake for a couple hours while the sky darkened  We had planned our mission for the hours of 6-8, because the moon rose at 8 that night and the darker it is, the better for alligator hunting- to see the glowing eyes.
In the black of the sky, the stars swirled and lightning bugs, earthbound shooting stars, zipped about in the reeds. I was in the back of the boat, so I was able to carefully lay back and stretch out a bit. I let the others do the hunting- which I assumed would be futile- and stargazed. As I lay on my back, fish leaped from one side of the boat to the other, flying over my belly.
Eventually we gave up and decided to continue the hunt on the way back. Mud portage mission 2 commenced, this one in the pitch black of night. I pulled and pulled and clouds of bugs swarmed my headlamp; I gasped and sucked them down my windpipe, where one stayed stuck until I washed it down with dinner.
When we finally got the heavy boat to the other side, a silent lightning storm began to our left, too far away for thunder. On our right, the full moon rose yellow behind palm fronds and spiky jungle trees, just like you'd picture a classic jungle at night. Behind its sallow glow, striated clouds gashed the sky in a pattern of deep blue and purple tiger stripes. Our little boat drifted through the blackness of the swamps, where vines lashed out like anacondas and strange splashes and crashes around us made us jump.
All of a sudden Lobo was standing, and we were still-- he had spotted something in the bush ahead. A pair of glowing green eyes in his flashlight beam- an alligator.  Gotcha! It looked tiny, like a gecko. Lobo dove. There were a series of splashes and grunts- it sounded like a real wrestling match. And then he emerged victorious, small alligator in hand. We each got a turn to hold it, which was exciting.
At last, mission complete. It was our last outing of the tour; the next morning we would head back up the Amazon to Iquitos and catch a flight back to Lima. It was an ideal end.

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