Sometimes traveling to special or exotic places means getting needing to get through some that aren’t so much. Many larger cities require stop throughs in order to get to the ultimate destination. To me anyway, Iquitos is one of those gateways.
I am sure there is beauty, grace and elegance that can be found just about anywhere in this world if we look in the right places. To be fair I have only been to Iquitos twice; once in the dry season and now in the wet season. My experiences here are simply mine, however they are genuine of course and come from an honest yet western perspective.
To properly set the stage for the insanity just to get to the airport and ultimately my flight back to Lima, a description for those who do not know this place is necessary and the mindset of the people who run this place.
The fact that the tributary that feeds this beautiful river that eventually empties all the way to the Atlantic Ocean of the other side of Brasil is depressing to say the least. It runs directly through the famous or infamous south eastern barrio, Belen (little Bethlehem) where every vile piece of garbage, including human and animal waste, plastic bottles and every other conceivable piece of trash floats out and down river as if was a giant toilet being constantly flushed. Case in point: when I asked how the kids can swim in the water, brush their teeth in it, swallow it, the response I got was ” no problemo, the water just takes it all away. It was simple as that and said a self satisfying smile assuring me it was all Okay. There was no consideration to where this vile waste of every imaginable description goes. I’m not even convinced there is ever a second thought by most here.
Even hours down river evidence of the plastic bottles can be found everywhere. The amazon is so big, deep and wide that it will eventually disperse it to a point if you go far enough down river; it’s aesthetic beauty remains in tact. So coming out of those areas back to Iquitos can be a tough challenge for some one like me, who cringes at the prospects of loosing such important raw wild places like this to urbanization and lack of respect for the resources and gifts that are literally being pissed all over daily.
Iquitos is a stark contrast to the utter peace, quiet and non chaotic temperate balance of the jungle. It’s a tough place to assimilate back to the World after such an experience, but before I detour completely away from the purpose of this article a focus on the temperament of it people is necessary starting it’s elected officials, who are mostly corrupt and are responsible more crime than protecting against it.
When asking an ex-pat, Gerald Mayeaux who publishes the only bilingual monthly publication here,(The Amazon News),he elaborated on an event I had no idea was about to happen and find myself in the middle of. He even published a carton of a woman and a their fighting over her purse in a tug o war. Originally there was a police officer completely ignoring the incident. Gerald toned it down a but to exclude the office and add the wild, wild west slogan with a clear warning to travelers and locals alike; “open your third eye!!! See all around you to avoid risk!!!” Basically that sums up this city, unfortunately.
There are a large group of construction workers here who are supported by buddies in the local government and police who are nothing more than common thugs who will seize any opportunity to pray on the weaker, unsuspecting and more benign crowd that lives here as well as tourist with their guard down. Just like the gangs back home in the States, they recruit and embolden the youngest of the boys also to prove themselves in the usual machismo to run the streets like wild dogs. The idea of a mob mentality is triggered here in an instant and can easily get out of hand.
Until breakfast, the day before my flight to Lima I had no idea that the very thing I have been describing was about to erupt in a planned 48 hour “protest” which goal is to shut down every store, resource, bank, gas station and airport. A few days with out business as usual is about all it takes to shut down the city and cripple it financially for a while. This along with the blatant disorder which leaves car windows smashed and the streets ablaze with fires on each intersection is an attempt to intimidate through lawless anarchy. It’s also an excuse to many to get drunk and run the streets and further disregard the limited laws that would normally otherwise protect visitors against such disarray. Another words, it’s party time and maybe a time to et free stuff thats not secured down well enough. We’ve seen it right here in Los Angeles; why not there?
Being here in the low season is wonderful as there are very few tourist compared to the dryer months. However for every plus there is a minus; and this one revolved on my ability to blend in. A 6’3” 215 lbs gringo here can not blend in, no matter two hard I try. So when the sun slipped behind the horizon and darkness crept across the streets with enlogated shadows, it was time for me to get inside.
I was invited to stay with one of the locals here and his place had extra security for he and his family and I was grateful for that. Right about midnight I could hear people clamoring around out on the streets. This would be followed up by random yells, other loud noises and even a few small explosions. By 2:30 am I had to take a peak, but the bars in the from room only allowed me to look directly straight into the street in front. There was no way I was going to undo the 2 x 4 plank which secured the large metal door from the inside and venture out for a better look and open myself and this family to any insanity outside that wanted in. So I went back to bed and listened to the noise hoping the louder they got, the more drunk they were and ultimately the heavier they would sleep in the morning, which hopefully was an opportunity for me and my driver to scramble for the airport. My host, Guido told me there would be no taxis as they did not want to risk broken windows or worse. As for the motorbikes or 3 wheeled tuk-tuks, the fear was branches or broom handles being shoved in between spokes from other cars or motorcycles who obviously were out to sweep the streets and ensure no one gets in or out of town. He had a friend who would help me out but not with out a lot of hesitation. So I offered quadruple what a normal taxi to the airport which he accepted.
At first I thought this was a scam, but it only took a few minutes into the ride to see that it was anything but. Many out there had flat tires from all the glass and our tuk-tuk kept throwing its chain. It was easy to feel very vulnerable sitting there with my two bags full of camera gear while he scrambled as fast as possible to reengage the chain and speed off again before anyone took notice. As we approached the airport after about 25 minutes of weaving in and out of glass, trash, tree branches and cinder blocks I could not have been happier to see the entrance for the airport. I knew if something happened here I could at least make a break for it and take my chances on foot. In fact, thats about what happened.
There was a group of angry people at the gate along side airport police who informed my driver he could not go in.
I jumped out and explained to the officer my flight was flying today and after a few minutes of him talking to my driver and another cop allowed me to pass on foot and carry my bags into the terminal area. It was sweltering and each step produced streams of sweat but I did not care as each step into the basically abandoned airport was one more step away from this place and closer to my friends waiting in Lima for me.
I always keep one set of clean clothes for occasions just like this. After changing and washing up and holding an actual ticket in my hand was one of he best feelings I could imagine.
As I recounted the nights and this days events, I struggled between the idea that I missed some more of this story by not going out and witnessing it with my own eyes and the fact that I had enough understanding of this place to know that would not have ended up well for me or anyone around me. Maybe just reading about the Swiss Associated Press photographer (Anja Niedringhaus) who was just killed by a member of her own security team (the unit commander) while on the way to cover the elections there helped me. A week later I reflect back and am thankful I did not risk more than necessary and count my blessings I never was cornered or directly threatened.
Iquitos is no Afghanistan or any other place like it, for sure. But the point here is some of these remote places are no joke either. Especially where extreme poverty and corrupt politics and police services all are intertwined. I still struggle with the idea of random acts of violence which can erupt anywhere in an instant at the drop of a hat. Do your homework and always have a plan B and understand that our rules don’t apply abroad. Never mind bullets, one brick, rock or bottle can change everything; and even end a life with out warning.
The cartoon in the local newspaper nailed it telling everyone to keep you heads up and on a swivel. Loose the smart phone and take off the head phones for a while and get an idea of the place you are exploring and understand the pulse of the people around you.
It just may save your trip and possibly your life.