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I Fed on on Alligators and Piranhas and Mosquitoes Fed on Me
Can you imagine a city with half a million people in the deep jungle, unconnected to the outside world except by air and slow river boat ? I am now in Iquitos, one of the largest cities in Peru, yet more closely linked with other isolated communities in the hot humid basin of the Amazon, the world's most voluminous river.
|The Amazon River, from the sky.|
I flew in on a TANS flight (sounds like Tan's Airline, isn't it ? Hey man, my own airline) five days ago and have just returned from a three-day trip to the jungle, as evidenced by the more than 40 mosquito bites on each of my arm, 30 bites on each leg and countless on my shoulders. I must suppose that I am sweet, or otherwise Amazonian bugs would not cry out for more. Pray for me that none of them carry the malarial virus, for although I had taken the yellow fever vaccination, I did not have the patience for two months of pre-visit intake of malarial pills. I have seen mosquito 5cm in size – thank goodness I haven't met those twice as large, only found in the deepest reaches of the jungle. The latter not only bite you, but lay two dozen eggs in the wound. Just watch the little maggots grow in your wound... what a wonderful pre-lunch tale!
And of course, some of my dear friends from Singapore would be wondering why I paid so much to get to the jungle. Didn't Wee-Cheng have enough mosquito bites during his army days ? Perhaps you are right! Well, maybe I just need a bit of reminder that my Reservist obligations await me when I get home.
Iquitos is a strange little place. A large city with a small-town feel. It is part of Peru and yet in the hot tropical jungle. A local told me, this is not Peru, it is the Amazon.
No wonder the large military garrison here holds a massive parade every Sunday to remind locals who they are. I have just watched one from a ice balcony facing the central square, while having English tea in a restaurant run by the British Honorary Consul in the Iron House, an iron-plated building designed by Eiffel (who built Paris' Eiffel Tower) a hundred years ago and shipped piece-by-piece up the Amazon to this town.
Those were the days of the Great Rubber Boom, which turned this town and others (such as Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon) along the Amazon River briefly into the world's richest towns. Grand old mansions were built here, and professional opera performances traveled upriver to entertain the rubber barons. This lasted until the Rubber Boom shifted to British Malaya, after a sneaky British agent smuggled rubber seeds to Malaya. This freak event in history is somewhat related to me – it is one reason for the Chinese emigration that changed the demographic landscape of Malaysia and Singapore, and one of the reasons why my family landed up in Singapore.
Despite the remoteness, Iquitos has a large Chinese community, and many Peruvians here have partial Chinese ancestry. Many have mixed Chinese, Native Indian and Peruvian blood. Many Chinese moved here during the Great Rubber Boom to work on the plantations. After the bust of the boom, many of the Chinese then settled here and married local Indian tribes. I met so many Peruvians who say they have Chinese great-great-grandfathers, including my jungle guide, Roberto Tang, who doesn't look Chinese at all – the result of being 4th generation Chinese – only 25% Chinese but retaining a Chinese surname. He looks more Indian and Latino, although he says his grandfather is almost completely Chinese in looks. Roberto says there are some villages where local Chinese settled down and interbred just among themselves, as a result of which everyone in those villages look Chinese although they all have Catholic first names (many changed their surname to "Flores" so as to facilitate naturalization) and speak only Spanish and Indian languages! It is so strange to find our "lost cousins" in the middle of the deep Amazon jungle. Maybe someone should do serious research about this and write about them.
The Amazon is the largest expense of tropical rain forest in the world. It is often known as the Lungs of the World, as one-sixth of Earth's oxygen originates here. It is also an area of diverse wildlife and plant-life. The continued destruction of this jungle and its wildlife threatens the survival of mankind, and the eco-diversity of this planet.
|Sunset over the Amazon.|
Many areas along the river are crowded with farming villages, and they say they no longer have as rich a wildlife as it used to be just a few decades ago. My guide still remembers the days when any casual observer would see alligators and anaconda along the banks. These days one has to trek into deeper jungles and tributaries just to see a few surviving ones. He jokingly reckoned that within 10 years, he would be out of a job because there would be nothing to see.
Even then, during those few days in the jungle, I did manage to see and learn about the amazing wildlife in these parts. Forget about the alligator and the pink dolphin. The former doesn't hold much of an attraction for me apart, from the fact that they taste quite good – tender and fatless, probably quite a healthy diet too!
The pink dolphin looks cute but since they are protected, they are meaningless to a Chinese gourmet like me! Just joking! Do you remember those movies on those cute little fishes called the piranhas, that attack young couples frolicking in the water thinking that nobody is looking at them, or jump out suddenly from the water to attack innocent passersby? Though small in size, these fishes are often shown attacking large animals and humans in packs, tearing apart much greater creatures in mere minutes.
In real life, as our jungle guide assured us, they are much friendlier than that. They only attack you if you bleed. We were asked if we wanted a swim with the piranhas. Interesting idea, but I don't fancy letting the fishes finding out where little cuts I may have but not be conscious of.
One must also mention another friendly fish in the Amazon, the caneros. They are tiny creatures, some of which are not visible to the human eye; the largest ones are only 5 cm (2 inches) long. They get turned on by human urine, then attempt in groups to enter that human body, either through cuts, ears or human organs (for example, the anus or even the little willy). Once inside, they do a wonderful job of eating one from the inside out. Just imagine the wonderful feeling of having dozens of little fishes, some smaller than little bugs, eating your flesh from within! Time for dinner?
Oh yes, I did try the piranhas, grilled with some salt. They are tasteless and extremely bony. If they do not kill you while alive, they might just choke you to death as well! Not all fishes are man-eaters. Some are extremely tasty; for instance, the paiche is a tasty creature often found in local restaurants. They can grow up to 2.5 meters, and are fruit eaters. They do cause some deaths though, such as when local fishermen drown while attempting to catch these gigantic fishes and the canoe gets overturned as a result.
|A capribara is about the size of a large pig, but doens't cook up nearly as tasty.|
Iquitos is a great place for the gastronomically adventurous. Apart from the pretty much chokable piranhas and really tasty alligators and paiche, you can scout around in the local food markets for anaconda (one of the world's longest and most formidable snakes), monkeys (I heard the locals say they are tasty, but probably too human-like for me), jungle turtle, deer, jungle cat, capribara (the world's largest rodents, i.e., rats, as large as a pig but not very tasty), protein-rich ants (good when deep fried) and wobbly beetle larva (deep fried too – saw them in the market, fairly disgusting when alive). Don't ask me how they taste. I haven't tried that many.
Of course many of them, such as the anaconda, have the ability to make you their dinner, rather the other way round. Just watch the movie Anaconda, although most of the time it's humans who are more dangerous. As for the ants, if you are not careful with Amazonian ants their bites can often kill, not because they are poisonous, but rather they cause so much sudden and intense pain that the victims often die from an instant heart attack.
The jungle aside, Iquitos has friendly people and is a laid-back town to hang around in, although I hate the noisy scooters that plague this city.
|Belen Market in Iquitos.|
Last night there was a performance in the main square. The Catholic Church has set up a huge platform in the square to celebrate 100 years of the Vicarage of Iquitos. Local Latino youths dressed up as Native Indians (or should I say "dressed down"), and attempted their interpretation of local dance (the result is pretty Hawaiian). Then they carried around a symbol of the devil to signify what they see as evil non-Christian religions, followed by a triumphant cross that signifies the conversion of local peoples to Christianity. The devil was defeated, and local Indians were depicted as happy and liberated under the cross.
Well, such an interpretation would have been seen as politically incorrect in many parts of the world. Personally, no other forces in the world have caused more destruction of indigenous cultures and religions as Christianity and its cousin, Islam. Colonial powers might have overwhelmed local independence and political powers, but it was the zealous clergy of the newly introduced religions like Christianity that tried actively to destroy local cultures and indoctrinate the conquered peoples with that of the conquerors. I detest the loss of so much human knowledge and wisdom throughout the ages. Sorry folks, just my two-cents worth.
Tomorrow I shall take a two hour flight on a Peruvian Air Force seaplane (the sort of small plane that takes off and lands on water) to Santa Rosa more than 100km down the Amazon River. This is the easternmost outpost of Peru, in a tri-border region with Colombia and Brazil. I will visit the Colombian city of Leticia, capital of the Amazonian Department of Colombia, as well as its twin city of Tabatinga, across the border in Brazil.
The Colombian ceasefire was broken a few days ago – I actually watched the Colombian President declaring war on the Marxist rebels on Colombian TV – but the Amazonian region is so remote that the civil war doesn't affect this town. After a few days there, I will return to Iquitos, either via a 2½-day cargo boat journey along the Amazon or a 10-hour speed boat that costs a lot more. Either way, it might be subject to pirate attacks – there were two last year, but the locals are cool about it. Leave it to Santa Maria, they say. Besides, river journeys are a wonderful way of seeing life on the Amazon.
OK, that's all from me.
Tan Wee-Cheng http://weecheng.com
Copyright Tan Wee-Cheng. All rights reserved. Story reproduced with kind permission.
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