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If you didn’t hear the news on Facebook, it may come as a surprise that I’m no longer in South America. I know, I planned to stay a couple of years, but a combination of financial and social reasons led to me to decide to move to Taiwan on very short notice. I’ll admit I’m not sad to be leaving Peru – it’s been amazing, but another adventure awaits me in Taiwan, and I won’t be sorry to earn a little money again for a time. I won’t stop writing, of course, but this blog’s title hardly seems appropriate anymore, and so I’m moving to a new blog, and leaving this one as archives for now. You’re invited to come follow me on my new adventures, of course!


I’m so pleased I can communicate here in Chile. Dealing with flight cancellations, changes, rescheduling, hotel vouchers, food vouchers: all this would be so much more difficult if I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m grateful to the people who can help me in English when I’m exhausted and trying to do something complicated, but more often my Spanish is better than their English and we switch over fairly quickly.

It’s also incredibly nice to be in this otherworldly hotel. Soft clean sheets, hot running water and a bathtub, ample fluffy towels, meals, and transportation provided and arranged on my behalf. It takes all the adventure out of travelling, but on the day of my flight it’s reliability, not the unexpected, that I’m looking for. The sign in the lobby quotes my hotel’s room rate as $289 per night for a single. I’m in a double, with three meals and taxi service included. The airline might have spent a third of my ticket cost on this delay. Considering I checked my ticket online and I have yet another flight change in my connection to Sydney, I can hardly say I feel sorry for them. At the minimum, I feel relaxed about the whole situation. If another of my flights changes, it is out of my hands. As I sit in the hotel restaurant sipping fruit juice while my waiter brings me my steak of Chilean beef, I feel quite confident that the airline will continue to take care of me. I take a bite. The steak is tender and perfectly medium-rare, the tiny balls of fried mashed potatoes crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside. The veggies are lightly curried and served al dente. Yes, I’m in very good hands indeed. This feels so far removed from camping in the Peruvian Andes or exploring the Amazon on $5 a day. I don’t have a single peso on me, and yet I’m seated on a velvet and walnut chair, dining on steak in a hotel with marble floors.

In the afternoon I wandered the tourist sites nearest the hotel – a park leading to a lookout over the city and offering a view of the snow-capped Chilean Andes beyond, a craft market, and the imposing structures of the National Archives and City Library. Exploring the area, I was surprised at how different Chile feels from the more northern countries on the continent. The climate is cooler, reminding me of Vancouver. I’ve re-entered the world of seasons – I was surprised to find it still dark at 7am, as days are noticeably shorter here. The deciduous trees have lost their leaves, something I haven’t seen in over a year. the people are also different – there are more light-skinned people than I’m used to seeing, and my lighter hair and eyes don’t mark me as a tourist like they did in Peru and Ecuador. In fact, I find it disconcerting not being able to use appearance and visual clues to guess what language to use with somebody. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and stick to Spanish. The locals appear to do the same, as a couple of university students raising money for educational reforms assume I’m Chilean until my accent gives me away. I’ve decided that I like the city, though, on first view. My instincts tell me that I could live here contentedly, and maybe enven integrate more into the culture than I could elsewhere in Latin America. If I ever get tired of a world without winter, living in Chile will definitely be an option.

By the beginning of July, our journey was close to an end, so Ellen and I started to make our way to Lima. Of course, we wanted to go the slow way, so after getting off the riverboat in Yurimaguas, we planned to hitchhike our way through the mountains for a week or so until we ran out of time and had to hightail it down the coast to Lima. Ellen’s flight was scheduled for the 16th of July, and I was looking for a job starting around the same time. To my surprise, a couple of hours of internet time rewarded me with four job offers in my inbox, and on very short notice I accepted one of them and booked myself a ticket to Taiwan, leaving on the 9th of July. Suddenly, our leisurely trip through the mountains was about to acquire a note of urgency.

We started our travels with a couple of excellent free rides, ending up dropped off in a valley right on the border between the jungle and the mountains. The fields nearby looked a little swampy for camping in, but an abandoned-looking dormitory had several open rooms that looked quiet, and even the locked rooms were visibly empty when we peeked in the windows. Ellen and I set up our sleeping mats and got down to relaxing in the hot afternoon sun. About an hour later, though, the owner showed up and discovered us, and naturally invited we intruders to join his family for dinner and stay at their house. We were originally unenthusiastic about the suggestion, but as he was insistent and we were squatting on his property, we agreed. His place turned out to be a sweet setup indeed.

It turns out our host was running a camp for workers at the nearby Stevia farm, and had an empty dormitory/storeroom for us to sleep in, and plenty of food to share. We sat with him for an hour shelling peas, and chatted about the area and our travels. After dinner, he invited us into the family home to watch TV before bed. I was wiped out, and would have gladly refused, as I still wasn’t sleeping well at nights due to tweaking my back a few weeks earlier, but I’m glad we joined him. Not because we watched anything interesting, nor had any conversation, but upon seeing his house we were able to recognize that the family wasn’t at all short of money and we had no reason to feel guilty for accepting his hospitality. The leather couches and big-screen TV in his living room assured us that we weren’t taking advantage of someone who couldn’t afford to be generous. When we left the next morning, not only did they feed us breakfast, but they also packed us a lunch to go and pressed a twenty into Ellen’s hands (worth about $8).

The next day’s ride was just as nice. A trucker who was driving through to Chiclayo on the coast, our driver was full of interesting conversation. He stopped to buy us lunch, pulled over for a scenic lookout he thought we’d like to see, and spent the time playing ridiculous music (Backstreet Boys? Really?) rather than harassing us about our life choices as Peruvians are wont to do. We got off on the road to Chachapoyas, intending to go through that town and Cajamarca on the way to Lima.

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn't advance us in our trip!

At least the road to Chachapoyas was beautiful, because it sure didn’t advance us in our trip!

Sadly, life had other plans for us. Upon getting halfway to Chachapoyas, we found out that the mountain road to Cajamarca was closed for repairs, and we had to double back and take the coastal route from Chiclayo to Lima after all. That delayed us most of a day, and we ended up stuck in the mountain town of Baguas, where no truck drivers seemed to be passing by on the same highway that had been so busy the day before. Finally, Ellen checked with a local bus company and got us tickets on an overnight bus to Chiclayo, from which city we intended to hitchhike to Lima. After a full night on the bus, though, a cheap ride on another bus line direct to Lima seemed easier, and so our last travel day ended up being 23 hours of bus time. We arrived at our couchsurfing host’s home around 9pm and were grateful for the welcome – and for bed!

I had two days in Lima before my flight, so Ellen and I set about exploring the city. We wandered around downtown seeing the sights, and came to recognize that we were ready for our trip to be over. We were done with admiring the architecture, uninterested in the hustle and bustle of the city, and unable to pay for any of the tourist sites. We still enjoyed exploring the markets, and I managed to buy myself a pair of shoes and a blouse for when I started working in Taiwan. I felt a bit silly that we stopped for lunch in Lima’s Chinatown the day before I got on a plane to Taiwan, but the food absolutely satisfied a craving.

What we really wanted to try was cuy, the Peruvian mountain specialty of fried guinea pig, which we’d never had the chance to try while we were in the mountains. Of course, it’s not traditional on the coast where Lima is located, so it took a fair amount of effort to track down a restaurant that served it. It took an internet search and careful cross-checking against a map to locate a tourist restaurant near us, and the day of my flight we went out at lunchtime to seek out the elusive dish. Our efforts were rewarded, though, and the tender meat reminded me of a cross between duck and rabbit, and certainly didn’t bring to mind a household pet.

The little cuy's head on Ellen's plate. I'd heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren't bothered.

The little cuy’s head on Ellen’s plate. I’d heard they were creepy to look at, but we weren’t bothered.

I finally got to try cuy!

I finally got to try cuy!

Soon enough it was time to go. From our couchsurfing host’s house, it was a quick one-sol ($0.30) transport bus ride to the airport. Speedy it was, easy it wasn’t. Luggage is forbidden on transports in Lima, so I was squished into my seat with my bag on my back. The bus driver swerved sharply between lanes, floored it without warning, and screeched to a halt at random intervals, launching me into the laps of the passengers facing me every couple of minutes. I’d have apologized to them, but the locals without bags were equally uncomfortable and crashed into strangers just as much as I did, so I assumed it was par for the course. The woman next to me spent half the ride shrieking at the driver to slow down. When I got to the airport, four hours early for check-in, my flight had been cancelled and my itinerary changed. Thankfully, I was bumped up to an earlier flight, and was still leaving that night. As I watched my bag roll away behind the check-in desk, I smiled. My trip was over. Or so I thought.

Spending time in Peru, especially in the jungle, has made me realize how much we can’t take for granted. There are some things we should appreciate more, but most of us don’t. Fresh drinking water, for example. People in the jungle don’t drink water. They boil water from tiny streams for coffee or tea, and filter or chlorinate it to mix with fruit juices, but they don’t drink it on its own. Coca Cola is, of course, happy to supply bottled water but at a dollar for two liters, it’s out of most people’s budgets. Since soft drinks go for the same price, if the locals are going to buy bottled drinks, it won’t be water. Ellen and I buy as much clean drinking water as we can carry, and still we rarely have enough. On days when we have sufficient supplies to drink our fill, we feel very fortunate indeed.

Adequate housing is another luxury rarely seen in Peru’s Amazon. It’s a given that any roof here will leak in the rain. A family with more than one bedroom in their house is doing well for themselves. Some houses have electricity; the lucky few have solar panels or generators of their own. Ellen and I often joke on our trip that we felt like first class hobos. We sleep in tents, but our tents are at least as dry as most people’s homes. When we set up camp, we have mosquito nets to protect us as we eat our dinner. My personal solar panel kept my cell phone charged (at least until my phone was stolen).

We’ve really come to appreciate the simple pleasures here. Food cooked over an open fire tastes better. We have time and opportunity to watch the sunset in all its glory almost every night. We have everything we own, and everything we need, with us all the time. We have clothes and bedding for a variety of climates. If it gets chilly overnight, I have a sweater or a spare blanket. When it rains, we have tarps to protect our campsite. The food we eat is produced locally. We know the veggies and fruits were grown within a few kilometers of where we bought them. We see vendors go door to door at restaurants, selling a bag of yucca or fresh papayas. Eating local isn’t a movement, it’s a way of life here.

Somehow in the city, we rarely make time to watch the sunset.

Somehow in the city, we rarely make time to watch the sunset.

I’m writing this from a riverboat on the way to Yurimaguas, leaving the Amazon. This boat ride is a lot more peaceful than the Pucallpa-Iquitos run. I’m sitting in the shade on the upper deck while Ellen reads in her hammock. A German traveller is updating his diary and keeps scooting closer to me as the sun infringes on his cool spot in the shelter of the tarp roof. The view is simple: sandy banks thick with reeds, palms, brush and trees. We are surprisingly close to shore, but the captain steers us clear of the many logs and trees in the water along the shoreline. In some places, full trees are submerged and their leaves peek through the water, determined to survive. In other places, trunks have roots growing out of them six or ten feet above the ground, clearly indicating some past high water mark. Where the bank is shallow, makeshift rice paddies keep the locals fed, along with bananas and yucca growing in soil reclaimed from the river, during dry season at least. Lucio, our Amazonian host, told us that when the river floods each year, the locals live on nuts and seeds gathered from the trees on high ground. I wonder whether the crops survive the yearly deluge or whether families struggle to replant foodstuffs every time the waters recede. In Costa Rica and Ecuador, yucca took two years to reach maturity, but with the fertile soil near the river, maybe crops grow more quickly.

You can clearly see how deep the water is in the wet season.

You can clearly see how deep the water is in the wet season.

We are leaving the Amazon with many questions still unanswered, and sights unseen. I’d like to be here in wet season, when the fruits ripen and the river is teeming with fish. I’ve heard you can just dip a net in the water and come up with enough fish for dinner. I wonder how the houses do with all that water around. Some two-story homes are clearly below the surface on the first floor at least. The better structures are on stilts, but within a community there seems to be no consensus on how high the houses should be lifted above the ground. Some are as high as ten feet, while others just two or three. There must be some families who have just one room when the waters come. Is it a hardship for them, or are they so busy fishing and gathering food that it’s rarely an issue?

In many ways, I’d love to live here, to set up a home on these banks and make a life as people here have done for thousands of years. Living off the land would be much simpler here than in Canada, and with both food and natural building materials at hand, it’d be easy to live a low-impact lifestyle here. Sadly, environmentalism isn’t given the time of day here. Garbage is tossed onto the ground or into the river, and it’s just considered normal. Many people’s homes are surrounded by trash. I guess when the water comes, the flood washes the waste away and the people don’t worry about it. It breaks my heart, though, to see children drink a Coke and throw the bottle off the back porch without a second thought, following their parents’ example. The boat crews sweep the decks and toss the garbage right overboard. The river is so huge, you don’t see much trash in it, but I can’t help wonder which shoreline the bottles and bags wash up on, which marine creatures get caught and tangled in the plastic and nets.

This is the river's surface in the docks, where Ellen and I boarded a small boat to get to Lucio and Ana's place in the jungle.

This is the river’s surface in the docks, where Ellen and I boarded a small boat to get to Lucio and Ana’s place in the jungle. Yes, that’s all floating trash.

Ellen and I packed our garbage out of the Amazon, but what good does that do, really? The whole country lacks infrastructure for recycling and waste collection. Here in the Amazon, the river disburses it, but on the coast you can see the sands littered with bags and cans, blown back and forth across the desert. Humanitarian aid organizations come here to do projects related to clean drinking water and disease prevention – I can’t help but think an investment in waste management infrastructure and educational programs on recycling, composting and safe garbage disposal would benefit the people as well. But changes like this need to come from within, rather than being imposed by well-meaning outsiders. It would take a cultural shift over at least a generation to accept it, and most aid projects fizzle out in a few short months or years. Just like my view on politics, I see little chance of lasting, meaningful change for the better. Maybe it’s cynical or shallow on my part, but I’m going to focus my energies on something where I can make a real difference that I can see.

This place, and this family, is ridiculously nice. On June 24th, the festival of San Juan, Ellen and I took a day of rest after our busy weekend of exploring the Amazonian way of life. We set up our mosquito net as a safe haven where we could chat and play games in peace, and spent the day puttering around. We went for a swim in the Amazon river (staying close to shore, of course) and washed our laundry in the river as well. We felt slightly guilty for doing nothing all day, but after dinner Lucio suggested a quick walk to the bridge and back. This turned into a full-scale jungle walk by torchlight. We listened to the sounds of nocturnal birds, bats, and frogs, spotted a few jungle creatures, and listened to Lucio tell us a legend that was the Amazon version of Hansel and Gretel.

The following day we walked into Tamshiyaco, the nearest town. On our way, we passed a local who had just come across and killed a 3.5 meter long boa constrictor. The snake was still moving, although the blood trail from a nearby field indicated that we’d missed the action by at least 15 minutes. We felt thrilled to see such a large snake – and frightened to find it so close to our path. What if we’d been the first to stumble over it, unarmed and unaware? Despite the carnivorous snakes and piranhas in the river, the Amazon doesn’t feel like a dangerous place to me, though. It has a powerful natural force to be respected, but caution rather than fear seems to be enough to keep you safe. You can swim in the river, but not too far out where the current will sweep you away. The piranhas don’t eat people except in extremely rare cases, and the crocodiles only come out at night. The Amazon feels like just another place that people call home, albeit a wilder one.

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

To think that we could have come across one of these on our own!

On Wednesday morning we went fishing again. I wanted to make up for my failure to catch anything earlier in the week, and nobody here will turn down a nice fried fish. I jokingly insisted we all change rods, blaming mine for my bad luck last time, and the lucky rod Ellen had used before paid out on this trip as well. This time around, I caught four piranhas, a sardine, and a tall flat fish called a palometa, while Ellen caught two piranhas and a striped grey fish that Lucio called a lisa. Lucio, using the rod that had been so unlucky for me last time, broke his hook after catching just one fish, a catfish-like creature that we used for bait. The four silvery-grey larger fish flopped around in the bottom of the canoe while we finished fishing, but Lucio insisted that the piranhas be put at the front of the boat where they wouldn’t bite our bare toes while we fished. I found it amusing that we were free to trail our hands and feet in the water, or even jump into the river to bathe or swim without fear of being bitten, but a half-dead piranha on the canoe floor was a risk. However, seeing the impressive mouthful of teeth in one of them, I was willing to play it safe!

Rah! I'm a piranha! (They don't look so scary once they're caught!)

Rah! I’m a piranha! (They don’t look so scary once they’re caught!)

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Several fish that we caught, displayed in one of the nice bowls we admired so much

Late in the morning, we headed back to the house with a wooden bowl full of fish. We’ve seen a lot of similar bowls, which look like they’re made of coconut shells, are used for all sorts of tasks, especially for bathing. Ellen and I admired them openly, so Lucio offered to show us how they’re made. He took us to a tree with shiny green fruits the size of a small watermelon, pointed out a ripe one, and knocked it down with a stick, so he could make us a bowl each. He carefully sawed the fruit in half, shoosing which angle so the bowls would stay upright when filled. Then with a machete, he removed the horrible-smelling pulp (it’s good for inducing vomiting in sick or poisoned patients, he explained) and scraped the inside of the shell clean with a spoon. The completed bowls we placed to dry in the sun. At the time they were green, but within a week or two they’d turned brown, and looked like they’d make fine salad bowls. At this stage in my trip, with thoughts of leaving South America and establishing a home again on my mind, I was glad to carry around the bowl as a souvenir of my time in the jungle.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Lucio hollowing the bowl out with a spoon.

Uncle Lucio and Aunt Ana’s house is a few hundred meters inland from the Amazon River, a short distance from a little village. The front of the house affords a view of a field of water buffalo with the river beyond. Behind their home, a chicken coop is nestled among fruit and nut trees. The jungle backs the orchard almost immediately, and the house is an interesting juxtaposition of civilization in wilderness. The roof is half thatched, half metal. Many of the beams are milled, but one section is made of nothing but logs. A concrete road the width of a sidewalk passes by the front door, but there is no plumbing in the area and the family cooks on a wood fire. When we arrived, Ana was cooking lunch for a road crew that was improving the riverfront path. She quickly fed us and pointed us to a little purple cabin on the riverfront with plenty of balcony space for our tents and two hammocks for us to relax in. We were home!

Somehow, we seemed to settle right into their family’s routine. Lucio took us for a little tour of the nearest town while the rest of the family did their shopping. Waiting for the canoe to take us home, Ellen and I watched river dolphins jumping and frolicking in the sunset. We rode back along the river by moonlight. Ana had a dinner of locally hunted armadillo waiting for us – “It’s endangered, but we need to eat,” Lucio explained.

The next day, we got to have our little trek into the jungle. Lucio took us wandering through dense foliage and across streams. As the path became less identifiable and split off repeatedly in all directions, it was clear we could never have explored this way on our own. We were making too much racket crashing through the bush to see any wildlife, but our guide was thoughtful enough to point out medicinal plants, edible fruits and nuts, and the local trees used for lumber. Back at the house, we munched on fresh Brazil nuts and finger painted with the seeds of the achiote fruit, under the cheerful instruction of the local children.

Sunday was the festival of San Juan, who was the namesake of a local town and the patron saint of the Amazon. Ana left just before midnight to buy special ingredients, not to return before lunchtime. While she was gone, we went fishing for piranhas with Lucio. Fishing is a much simpler affair than at home. Lucio cut three rods from a nearby tree and tied fishing line to them. We headed out in the family canoe with a can of worms from the garden. Cousin Romario turned our boat down one of those dark streams nestled amongst the trees that Ellen had been so dying to explore. We puttered up to a likely spot in the shade and watched as the fish managed to eat every worm off our hooks without being caught. Ellen had better luck than the rest of us, catching two small fish that we used for bait. My spell of bad luck continued as everyone else managed to catch something, and we got three piranhas in the end. The quiet time on the river did have one excellent reward, though: we saw two different kinds of monkeys in the trees. There was a pair of tiny monkeys no bigger than one of my fists. Their small bodies clutched the tree trunk as they ate sap from beneath the bark. Farther up, three slightly larger monkeys, black and white, swung from the branches at the tops of the trees. It was an excellent end to the morning.