When a young couple spends New Year’s in Peru’s Amazon jungle, they learn they can depend on the kindness of strangers.
Story and Photos by Michael Fraiman
On the night of December 29, I walked from my hotel in Iquitos, Peru, through the muggy humidity to a Scotiabank ATM near the central plaza. We were leaving the next morning for three days in a remote Amazonian village, and they didn’t take debit. I popped my Canadian card into the machine, typed my PIN, and requested $300. A message appeared, in robotic capital letters: “YOUR CARD IS BEING HELD FOR SECURITY REASONS.”
The machine then flashed back to its default welcome screen, as if nothing had happened.
I froze. There were no bars, no police, no security officers nearby; just slippery concrete sidewalks, shuttered chipped-wood doors and vacant colonial balconies. I looked for a security camera to signal for help; I found none. I pushed random buttons; nothing. I slammed the cash machine with my palm, started to leave, turned back and slammed it again.
I walked back to our hotel, stunned, and, for the first time since university, fell on my bed, clutched my face and broke down screaming.
The Amazon is not a place for nervous people. Everything feels underscored by danger: there are snakes, mosquitoes, poisonous plants and malfunctioning bank machines, and you must slog through it all under a smothering blanket of humidity so thick we had trouble breathing on our first day.
The morning after the bank machine ate my debit card, we met Geiner (pronounced HAY-ner; it’s German), the baby-faced 30-year-old who would guide us for three days through his jungle village in Peru’s Loreto province. I explained my financial situation with frustrated embarrassment—I couldn’t pay him, and the bank wouldn’t open for another hour. Geiner told us not to worry: another bus was leaving at 10 o’clock, and in the meantime he could help us retrieve my card. I liked him immediately.
Walking to the bank, my girlfriend and I asked Geiner questions about our first Amazon trip that had been brewing in our minds. Will our bug spray be strong enough? Should we worry about dengue fever? Will the villagers do anything tomorrow night, to celebrate New Year’s Eve? He offered one blasé response to them all: “Probably not.”
Geiner was a gleeful storyteller, and all his stories were horrifying. He regaled us with tales of a 30-something Israeli man who ventured alone into the jungle, dying days later from a bushmaster snakebite; a Russian girl who peed in some shrubs and returned with a bleeding gash on her thigh; seemingly innocent cane plants that can slice you like paper cuts; a cruise ship filled with Americans who allegedly murdered indigenous
Peruvians to cut off and sell their faces (fact check: I tried to Google this later, and found nothing corroborating); fallen trees with thorns capable of piercing your boots and flesh; mother sloths that, though seemingly adorable, will slash you with their claws quickly and violently if threatened; mosquitoes that lay eggs under your skin that you won’t notice for weeks until you can’t stop itching; and, most personally for him, a kidney stone he painfully peed out just days earlier, after which he vowed never again to drink unfiltered water from the parasite-filled rivers of the Peruvian Amazon.
In telling these stories, I could see exactly why Geiner chose to be a tour guide: he recalled them with the casualness of reading a grocery list, letting slip a quiet smirk that exposed the metal cap on his left incisor, along with a charming kind of confidence in the face of these everyday horrors.
Queuing is a national Peruvian pastime—walk down any city street and you’ll find sedated lineups outside banks, notaries, government buildings and the offices of Internet providers. So I wasn’t surprised that, after the Scotiabank opened, we had to wait 45 minutes for the bank manager while an elderly woman complained to him about her finances. Vee, my girlfriend, sat next to me, bored and sweaty from the inescapable humidity, while I stood outside the manager’s glass-walled office, arms crossed, coolly staring him down to show I meant business. I was not leaving without my card.
Ten minutes later, we left without my card.
For one thing, I agreed to try my credit card at the ATM—my last piece of plastic. It hadn’t worked at other Peruvian ATMs, but it worked now; I withdrew a few thousand Peruvian soles, solving one problem at least.
The second problem was that no one could open the ATMs until later that afternoon. The timing didn’t work out—we weren’t returning to the city long enough after the jungle trip, and needed to leave for the jungle ASAP. Geiner volunteered our driver to pick my card up from the city later in the day, so I photocopied my passport, signed it and wrote a needlessly detailed description of my card (blue, plastic, imprinted with my name) so the driver would know which was mine. I left the bank depressed, certain that I’d never see it again.
Geiner led us around the corner to a white minivan seating a British family of four. The father wore all tan (T-shirt, cargo shorts, fanny pack, the works), while the short-haired mother kept quiet, their visibly ill son lurched behind us and their daughter made an embarrassed face every time her parents spoke. Vee and I sat next to the father and said very little to any of them during the four-hour journey.
We spent the first half of it driving south on the only highway from Iquitos, a 100-kilometre stretch to the riverside town of Nauta; after that we rode in a long riverboat topped with recently dried palm leaves, snaking north on the Marañon River, skirting the Amazon itself and turning south on the Ucayali, docking amid tall reeds and feeling our boots sink into the mud as soon as we stepped off the boat. This was the village of La Libertad, population 250.
In order to catch piranhas in the Amazon, I learned, you need to hook a piece of raw chicken fat to the end of a wire dangling from a wooden stick and relentlessly flog the water with it. You tantalizingly dip the meat in and out; if something bites, you swiftly yank the rod up in one motion and plop the creature onto the floor of your small wooden boat, where it will flop around in the small pools of water, staying alive longer than you’d like.
I’ve never fished in North America, but in my mind it’s a very different sport: the beer cooler, the tackle vest, the tranquility of long afternoons. It’s similar in the Amazon, except you’re surrounded by untold varieties of flora and fauna; vines carpeting the jungle earth; termites bustling inside ballooning tree-side nests; metre-long iguanas resting high up in the trees; spider monkeys leaping from branch to branch—in the sense that it is just you and the natural world, yes, fishing in the Amazon is similar to fishing on, say, the Colorado River. But so far as I can tell, that’s where it ends.
It was our second evening at La Libertad, and our goal was simple: we would catch as many piranhas as we could before sundown, then deliver them to the cooks back at the lodge to fry up and serve.
Geiner was proudly telling us about the time he caught the largest catfish in a village competition at age 13 when I felt my line suddenly tugged down. I yanked too late, and experienced for the first time that deflating sense of fisherman’s failure.
“One motion,” Geiner advised me. “Don’t pull slowly—up and in, at one time.”
Vee and I ended up each catching one big, fleshy catfish, though she glared at me as I drew up around six piranhas to her one. The cooks ended up serving us the catfish and one piranha apiece, setting aside the rest to eat themselves. A wave of pride washed over me when I caught a glimpse of them relaxing in the kitchen afterwards, dining on the villainous sea creatures I’d caught, and understood, however briefly, the adrenaline high of hunting.
It also helped remove any trace of sympathy I might’ve had for the saw-toothed monsters that Geiner had told us about in another of his horror stories, that time about a hippy-haired lodge guest who dipped into a nearby part of the piranha-infested Ucayali River and resurfaced without a right nipple.
That’s when it struck me: there’s nothing purely relaxing about life in the jungle. Take a nap in a hammock and you may wake up with Zika; go fishing at dawn and your main catch will be flesh-eating sea creatures.
The drizzly evening we had arrived at La Libertad Geiner showed us to our lodge, elevated six feet above the muddy earth by wooden stilts; next door the village construction workers were assembling a new one at eight feet.
“The water levels are getting higher now in the wet season,” Geiner informed us. “We think it’s global warming. Everything will need to be taller soon.”
There are dozens of jungle resorts in the Loreto province of Peru, and few endorse their rusticity quite as much as La Libertad. But to call the lodge “rustic” barely describes it—you are the guest of an abjectly impoverished Amazonian tribe that, in 2012, decided the best way out of poverty was through tourism.
Once owned by a German expat, the lodge stood on a plot of land adjacent to the main village; when the German decided to leave, he sold it to a local groundskeeper for one sol—about 40 Canadian cents. The building was decrepit, and the water levels looked as though they’d swallow the whole thing up in a matter of months.
But the waters calmed down, giving 12 community members a chance to band together and purchase it from the groundskeeper, revitalizing the project. They don’t publicly disclose exactly how many soles they bought it for, but it was a high four-digit sum they had to pay off in instalments over the next two years. Funds were scraped together by fishing and selling valuable lumber they found deep in the jungle—“an extreme six-day odyssey,” according to Olivier van Espen, an enthusiastic Belgian who runs the lodge’s website as a volunteer. “Fighting river creatures, day and night, they explained to me. Real ordeal.”
The business has worked out for La Libertad. Today, the owner-partners can earn back their initial two-year investment in two weeks. They’ve hired around 20 locals as cooks, housekeepers, construction workers, boatmen and tour guides. Nothing from the original lodge still stands, and every new structure is being built taller, since the water levels are once again rising.
Meanwhile, in the village itself, shopkeepers move more product, especially beer. More than half the wooden shanty homes still don’t have walls or running water, but most are at least equipped with DirecTV and Claro satellite dishes on their roofs while generators hum underneath. They built a medical clinic last year, and, while we visited, workers were constructing a new water tower near the soccer field. Western money has bestowed prosperity upon La Libertad, and it is now inescapably, in a small but fundamental way, a tourist village.
When we first arrived, Geiner took us on a tour of the town, starting from a building with a cross.
“This is the Catholic church, but nobody goes here,” he said, explaining that there was a scandal with the local priest, instigating the entire community to convert to Protestantism and build a new, bigger church on the other side of the main square. Religion matters in La Libertad, but it sounds tertiary: 17-year-old boys impregnate 12-year-old girls regularly, Geiner told us, which sounded indicative of the too-pervasive problem of teen pregnancy that afflicts too much of Latin America and the Caribbean.
“It’s our tribe’s tradition,” Geiner explained.
We passed a rice mill noisily shooting grains into 50-kilogram sacks to be sold for 75 soles apiece, about $30. Behind it stood a tree infested with fire ants, to which locals used to tie up stubborn men who refused to comply with arranged marriages. Nearby we saw a tiny one-room jail cell, made of anacaspi wood, like every other structure in La Libertad—a de facto drunk tank more than anything. All around stood tall trees ripe with papaya and bushes of delicate white toé flowers, a jungle drug more potent and dangerous than the common spiritual tea ayahuasca.
That first evening, we took a shaky wooden boat out to the Ucayali to find the mysterious pink dolphins splashing about. There’s no scientific consensus as to why Amazon river dolphins are pink—females are greyer, and one theory posits that males are pinker because they fight more, and their scar tissue is pink. They’re classified as vulnerable in certain areas, but seem abundant in the Ucayali.
Our boatman, a skinny man named Andres, steered the thing by careening a long stick with a propeller at the end. He turned the motor off once we reached a middle spot of the river, and we saw the British family from our ride here in a separate boat near the reeds. We could hear whenever they caught a glimpse of one; it was a giddy experience, and Andres would tilt our boat to look for what they saw.
After 20 minutes, a third boat approached, this one with cushioned seats and a clean, white-rimmed windshield.
The passengers all wore bright orange life jackets and the parents carried digital SLR cameras with telephoto lenses. Geiner told us they were from the Treehouse Lodge; for as little as US$700 a head, you could spend one night in a towering, open-air treehouse, complete with varnished wood floors, king-sized beds and a private balcony 39 feet above ground.
We returned that night to La Libertad, where our musty bedroom was covered with chipped turquoise paint and scurrying bugs eating dead ones. The pride we felt at roughing it out in a more “authentic” lodge quickly evaporated in the face of what we actually had to live in for the next two days. Our toilet paper was strongly scented, but the toilet barely flushed; we had a private shower, but the water trickled out cold and brown; our room had several power outlets, but the village only had electricity between 6 and 9 p.m.; staff cleaned our bedsheets daily, but we still sweat through them in constant 90-degree humidity; a mosquito net covered our bed, yet each morning we woke up covered in itchy pink bites.
In the large mess hall, before dinner, Vee and I poured ourselves glasses of complimentary chamomile tea. I noticed the tea bags had grown white with mould from the humidity. I tried a glass anyway; it tasted musky and bitter. When no one was looking, I tossed the rancid liquid over the side of a railing.
The next morning, on our way to the mess hall, I spotted our driver waving us over. He reached into his pocket and pulled out my debit card. I was incredulous. He told us it wasn’t hard, but took four hours of waiting in line at the bank. I don’t think I’ve ever waited four hours to help anyone but myself or Vee. I asked him: “Is there anything I can do? Any way to thank you?”
He shrugged. “No pasa nada.”
The thing was, I didn’t even need the card. A part of me didn’t even want it back—for the next three months we spent in Peru, I wouldn’t even use it, worrying another ATM would suck it up. I had other cards, anyway, and had begun rebuilding my ego in the last 24 hours as something apart from frankly what were revealing themselves to be minor first-world problems.
My dilemmas were not serious. Water levels aren’t rising toward my house. Piranhas don’t swim to the shores of Lake Ontario. I wanted to be tougher. But how could I tell that to this man? In his gesture, he had reminded me precisely of how not-tough I was, how ungenerous and frail, how I could never survive in the jungle because my priorities and anxiety simply don’t fit in here. I need to be taken care of, and he took care of me. I didn’t know what compensation was fair, but I had to insist.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do?” I asked him. “Anything at all.”
He thought it over. “Ten soles?”
I gave him 20.
On New Year’s Eve, La Libertad holds its annual elections for the positions of mayor and police chief. I don’t know who their mayor is, but they elected Andres, our boatman, as the police chief. The election ceremony is followed by a New Year’s Eve party at the primary school (three rooms, old chairs), to which Vee and I brought a bottle of cheap champagne mixed with Fanta. I asked Andres whether he thought he’d send anyone to the drunk tank tonight.
“No,” he replied, staring at me queerly. “It’s a party.”
Some men offered us plastic chairs on the school deck. A hallucinogenic frog was sitting on one. We shooed it off and sat down as the men passed us a cheap rum-and-juice mix, which we drank quietly, saying nothing for about an hour as cumbia music blared from the old boom box they’d set up. Few said anything—it was too loud to talk—and even the mothers, many in their teens, looked bored as their baby girls sat on the ground near their feet. At 11:30, we walked down the stairs to the main square, where Geiner was talking to Andres.
“You want to go to the nightclub?” Geiner asked. Confused, we said yes.
La Libertad’s “nightclub” is in fact a wooden shop that happens to stock a lot of beer and, on this night, was decorated with a disco ball, green lightbulbs and yellow balloons. Like true Peruvians, Geiner, Andres and their friends made sure there was always a full beer bottle on the table. Three women, including Andres’s girlfriend, showed up, and after drinking one beer each, Vee and I began dancing alone to the generically bouncy cumbia. When we sat back down, one of Geiner’s friends asked Vee to dance and she agreed; this inspired the rest of the group to get up, forming messy lines and dancing in the same bland manner, marching in place to the simple electronic percussion, the music ticking endlessly.
I excused myself and walked behind a curtain to find a bathroom, but there wasn’t one; there was a bedroom, partitioned off with a sheet, next to a kitchen missing a wall in the back. Some planks led out into complete darkness, eight feet above the ground. I peed from the kitchen into the mud below.
Midnight arrived with no countdown, an abrupt realization that a new year had, indeed, begun. We all stepped outside to see the lonely fireworks set off by some villagers who were drinking in the middle of a field. It was raining, a cool relief after so much humidity. Geiner moved to hug us in celebration, but at the last second threw fistfuls of wheat flour on our heads, citing some Amazonian tradition that I have since tried (and failed) to research online, and which I still don’t understand.
The rain mixed with the flour, caking itself onto our shirts and skin. We were confused, pasty, wet and smelled vaguely sweet. Over the next few days, I would continue finding bits of dried glop on my shirts and in my hair. It looked like the most fun any of these guys have had in months.
We awoke on January 1 to the distant echoes of cumbia. Vee wanted to sleep in, so I took a walk to the main square to find the source. I found a man with only four visible teeth blasting the music from his porch, keeping the party going alone, yelling down at me to join him. I politely declined.
After breakfast, I found Geiner sitting on the wooden lobby steps at the lodge wearing dark plastic sunglasses. He smiled weakly at me. I asked if we might ship out to see the famous giant Victorian water lilies this morning, so we could take naps before lunch.
“I think it is better if we go later, maybe at 11,” he replied.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Because it will not be so hot then.”
“But doesn’t it get hotter in the afternoons?”
He paused, looking out at the water, and replied, “Yeah…”
We left 10 minutes later. Andres, also visibly hungover, waved us over to the boat and steered us toward the narrow passageway to the giant lilies. Allegedly able to keep a small child afloat, the biggest looked about a metre wide, sturdy and thick, with occasional pink bulbs poking out from between the pads. I asked what they were.
“That’s a flower,” Geiner replied. “From… from a plant.” He then went into a long, incomprehensible monologue about how a beetle crawls into the flower and changes the flower’s gender, male to female—or is it female to male?—and its colour, it goes from white to pink, or pink to white, I don’t remember, and the beetle, it crawls… it crawls to another flower, and that’s how they spread.
Geiner didn’t say anything else for 20 minutes.
When we got back to the lodge, he disappeared into his room, and Vee went for a nap as well. I decided to take one last stroll alone through the village. I passed the abandoned Catholic church and the new Protestant one, the empty school now littered with empty beer bottles, the nightclub with splotches of unsifted white flour caked onto its wooden staircase.
I tried my best to savour the moment: the sights of emerald jungle and sounds of tinny cumbia mixed with faraway bird calls, echoing across the field. I passed a dirty soccer ball, left behind from the communal game of pickup played the previous evening, and the half-built water tower beside it, where men would later return to work, hammering large wooden planks together on rickety ladders in foggy humidity.
I reached into my pocket and thumbed my debit card, certain that I wouldn’t last a month in the Amazon, and grateful that my biggest problem here was, at worst, a fleeting inconvenience.