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The Peru Papers
Part I: Up the Amazon on La Turmalina,
By Jane Starbird

Saturday, January 24, 1998
- Iquitos, Peru. We arrive at the Iquitos airport from Miami in the late evening. The airport is small and ugly. We file from the plane across the pavement and stand in a long line for the Immigration people. The air is humid and I watch a large toad crawl across the floor as we wait in the line. We chat with young doctors from Oregon excited about their return trip to work in a village, and then with some men who were going on a guided fishing trip.

I too am on a guided trip with The Nature Conservancy through International Expeditions, Inc., along with 42 others. We are eventually collected by our guides, herded onto waiting buses and driven through the warm humid city that is alive with three-wheel motorcycle taxis. All the traffic moves fast, everyone honks. Exhaust fumes and noise hits us unpleasantly. I feel awkward with my companions that I do not know yet, who are as tired and sweaty as I am.

The dock we are driven to is beside a nightclub with speakers blaring loud popular music. We walk by them in a fog of unreality. Our group separates. Seventeen are taken to La Esmeralda, another boat. We climb onto the waiting La Turmalina, our 110-foot home for the week. It is 1am when we finally get aboard, find our cabins and I try to sleep.

Turmalina heading up the Amazon
1998 Jane K. Starbird "La Turmalina"

My dreams are vivid, heavy and moist. The boat drones on up a river, which appears in my sleep as a glue-like ribbon of dark brown ooze, a ditch, not a river. There are brown animal bodies shaped like hippos, and children, in slimy wrestling-matchs. The huge and powerful boat pushes over them, they sink into the muddy, warm, brown goop. Will the real Amazon River meet these dreams of this night when I finally see it in the morning?

Sunday, January 25: I awake eager to see what the Amazon River looks like. Our week's journey will take us up the Amazon, then onto theUcayali and eventually to the Tampiche River. The air is heavy and gray, almost opaque. The river is huge and the shore is a mile away. La Turmalina is a three-deck riverboat with a width of twenty-four feet. There is a comfortable air-conditioned dining room and a big open area on the upper deck for observing passing wonders. Each small cabin has a tiny bathroom with shower and two single-bed berths with storage under them. The rooms have air conditioning also. The boat is only a year old and is beautifully constructed with rain forest woods.

The day is filled with bird names that begin to sound like poetry: Yellow-rumped Caciques, Russet-backed Oropendalas, Tropical Tingbirds, Greater Anis, Dusky-headed Parakeets, and many others. I listen to Edgar and Rennie, our two guides. Both of these men were born in a river village and both left after a sixth grade education to go into Iquitos to have more schooling and get a chance to learn English and get guide jobs. They know every detail of miles and miles of this upstream river, but are not trained biologists. Both live in Iquitos now with young families. They get four days off every few weeks. Edgar has been to the USA as a guest of some schools.

I am glad I can retreat to my bird books and I paint for a short while alone in the tiny cabin before the size of it crowds in on me and I go back to the deck where strangers sit. It takes energy to begin the awkward business of getting to know one another. Sometimes La Turmalina chugs closer to the shore and the trees and foliage takes shape. It is like no other river edge I have ever seen. The amount of swirling muddy water at flood stage is so vast and the density of the vegetation at the river's edge is formidable. I see a lonely canoe on the bank belonging to a village fisherman. There is no path or trail, he was just swallowed up by the jungle.

The colors are green and darker green until the sun slides from behind the shroud of moisture, and then there is yellow mixed into the green. I cannot paint these colors from inside the room. They are palatable; they are to experience, not to put on paper. I write down: "Tropical Kingbird doing Flycatcher behavior, catching an insect in the air and then flying back to the same perch he left. Greater Anis in Cecropia trees that are in tiny pink flowers now. Yellow-billed Terns and Large-billed Terns doing what Terns do, looking down from way high to see fish and dive on them. The river is full of floating vegetation and tree branches. We spot a Yellow-headed Caracara who will become a common raptor to see each day. They are the garbage collectors in this habitat like the Bald Eagles are up north.

In a small boat exploration we notice a Green Tree Iguana, and the "famous bird of the week", the Horned Screamer. Also the most primitive looking of all the birds we will see, the Hoatzin, a throw back to an earlier time of jungle life. Semi-fledged Hoatzins have claws on the first and second finger joints of their wings to climb back to their nests. Black-fronted Nunbirds, dressed all in black except for the bright orange bill."

Edgar says the Nunbirds follow the monkeys who are messy and busy and drop lots of goodies to eat. If we were in the forest it would be the Antbirds who follow the army ants across the floor of the forest to clean up. When we hear loud squawking we look into the sky to see Chestnut-fronted Macaws with very long tails. They are in small groups or in pairs. Close to the water or in the over-hanging are white-winged swallows and once in a while a Swallow-winged Puffbird that sits like a swallow with no visible feet at all.

Cool map of the Amazon basin
          1998 International Expeditions, Inc. All rights reserved.

Explore the Amazon River on La Turmalina. Begin your journey at the frontier town of Iquitos, Peru.  Travel the Amazon, the Ucayali and the Tapiche Rivers. To make arrangements, visit International Expeditions on the web. 

Monday, January 26
: More vivid dreams on the second night of very uncomfortable sleeping. I dreamed that there are huge blisters on my upper legs. They are red, swollen and itchy. It isn't a dream. I wake to scratch. It is only Monday, the third day, and all of us are troopers now. We know how to prepare for the small boat trips. We know what to wear for sun and insects; we know to take water to drink, as it is very hot and we take rain ponchos to protect us. The sky always looks like it may rain. We never know.

Tuesday, January 27: The routine of the days becomes more normal. I look forward to the excursions in the small boats after many hours of dining. I treasure my small notebook with words that tell me the species I see. I want time to read and know the animal while still in this habitat, while the smell of it and the feel of the water will stay with me.

We stop each time Rennie hears the chittering of Squirrel Monkeys over the noise of the boat's engines. He is so good at seeing and hearing monkeys. He knows where to look. Did he hunt them as a child when he grew up on this river?

Giant water lillies have flowers the size of coffee cups
1998 Jane K. Starbird  "Giant lily pads!"

 The giant water lilies have flowers the size of coffee mugs that bloom white and then turn pink before they die. The flowers pop straight up out of the thirty-six inch floating rounds. They are beautiful. Rennie lifts up the edge of a floating pad to show us that the underside has big spikes. It is designed to open itself to the insects and the birds that walk over the top, and not welcome the fish that eat whatever they can in the water. A Waddled Jacana walks across a water lily with his spidery feet. He is a South American distant relative of our American Coot, with his cousin's feet, for walking over the water plants.

The Ucayali's water is brown and full of the mud that lines the shore. We are half way though the rainy season and the forest is flooded all around us. The vast size of it all begins to overwhelm me.

The Amazon River Dolphin and the Estuarine Dolphin, the pink and the gray as we call them, start to show themselves around our smaller boats. There is a wonderful breathy noise as they surface shyly, very close to us. After learning what they need to know about us they swim off. The dolphin is not hunted by the village people because they believe it brings very bad luck to do so. It is a lucky break for both of these species.

There are cicadas out there that produce a buzzing, like static. The level is almost too loud to talk over. One came on the boat, a huge insect with transparent wings. So many species. I write rapidly in my book: "Great Black Hawk, Oriole Blackbirds, Collared Plover, Black Vulture and the Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures, who are smaller vultures with light colored heads and are usually sitting by the edge of the river. The watchful Kingfishers sitting above the water, the Amazon, and the green, and the biggest of them, the Ringed-Kingfisher. They all make a great sound like a dry rattle when they fly off. Noisy flocks of Canary-winged Parakeets and Festive Parrots. A roadside hawk sits in a tree by the edge of the river as by the side of a road. Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets show up like white neon against the intense green forest lining the water."

We motor by trees with Cacique nests, which are not active. When is the breeding season? I have many unanswered questions. There are vines of morning glories with violet-colored blooms. They climb up the trees and fall over into the muddy flow.

Wednesday, January 28: Our long day of exploration into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve gets us out early and there is a wonder of living things to behold. A dark undulating ribbon of a thousand neo-tropical Cormorants floats above us. They look like they are migrating but from this land of fish and water they have no reason to leave. They are residents. Our two small boats motor slowly through thick vegetation that is floating on a black water surface. It's like a scene from the film The African Queen.

It takes hours to get to the Field Station Number Two, our destination in the huge acreage of the Reserve. We take our only short hike through some terra firma while the rain comes down in sheets. It is the first real downpour and it ends after twenty minutes. I spot two life forms on the walk: a two-inch land snail and a four-inch tarantula, seeking shelter from the rain.

My reward for the day is the pleasures of seeing hundreds of Great Egrets roosting or in flight. The most exciting animals for Rennie are the Woolly Monkeys, big dark fuzzy animals that he has not seen in years. Monkey is the favored meat of the villagers and that is why they are in these trees. They are safer here. No hunting is allowed.

The sight of a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth up in the crotch of a tall leafless tree is now a common daily sighting. The sloth look exactly like big termite nests, except for the brown throat, of course. Rennie says the only predator of the sloth is the Harpy Eagle. What easy prey they are for a huge raptor.

Thursday, January 29: Today we motor to a lake for a Breakfast in the Boat outing. We cut the engines and just float. It is early and this lake, Cocha Iberia, is full of our friends the dolphins. Before the day heats up and a breeze comes, the water is as still as the surface of a sheet of glass. La Turmalina stops by a village for provisions and our reward is to watch three dozen bright yellow butterflies and as many light green ones puddling on the mud lining the bank only ten feet away.

We hear about the villagers' myths of the Squirrel Cuckoo: If one is sighted at some special time of the moon or maybe if you drink too much intoxicant it can bring bad luck. There is a myth about the Laughing Falcon: If one is sighted at some special time of the moon or maybe if you drink too much intoxicant, a pregnancy will result. And there is the sexual myth with the dolphins of the river: There is very bad luck with future pregnancies that may involve deformed babies for anyone ever killing these creatures. It reminds me of an understanding and respect for one's surroundings that humans share here with other creatures they deeply respect and rely upon. We in our urban jungle have lost these ties and sensibilities.

Our big boat has traveled up the Amazon, then on up the Ucayali and now we travel on a smaller river, the Tampiche. The foliage along the edge overhangs down into the water. We are close enough to inhale the smell of the plants and their flowers as this river is quite narrow.

We visit another village. The boat takes us through some narrow water channels. The boat stops for the now-common task of removing all the vegetation from the propeller blades. It is a spooky, quiet trip and a contrast to the rushed exploration trips we go on every day when birdlife flees in great haste and distress. We come out on a lake with a mirror surface and an open sky gives us sights of macaws flying and screaming. We stop to look into a nest high in a dead palm. Red-bellied Macaws, Rennie tells us. I hang on his words, wanting him to say more.

The village is named Bien Jesus de Pax or Jesus of Peace. We smile and greet a young mother with an eleven-day old baby. The mother looks about fourteen years old. Attractive people. We never see anyone older than around thirty. Where were they? We buy many hand-carved animals from children under ten. They handle them with great tenderness and sell them with pride. Everything is one dollar each. We are glad we have brand new one-dollar, two-dollar and five-dollar bills as we make them so happy when they see them. I see them decline a dollar that is torn and dirty from use.

Village deep in the jungle
  A village along the river

They sing songs to us in the grammar school, the only public building. We are told that education through the sixth grade is paid for by the State. I sense they are very proud of this. There is no church in this small village. These people seem more connected to their earth than to organized religion. How refreshing to see a society without the impact of television.

At night the boat begins the downstream trip and we travel on the current silently; the engines turned off.

Friday, January. 30: We are heading back toward Iquitos. We are still on the Ucayali but it is so wide that I guessed we had reached the Amazon. All of us travelers have become comfortable with each other. We all look similar with our ex-officio long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and our hats and dark glasses. We are returning to the city of Iquitos that we have not seen in the daylight yet. We line the deck to see the huge harbor with ocean-sized freighters and busy people loading them.

I am dizzy walking on land after a week on La Turmalina. The hotel has a swimming pool in the courtyard lobby. There is only a brief time to get in it and I do. There will be a huge restaurant celebration in the evening. It is the best meal we have had so far. A festive evening with high school age dancing girls and fast music. We fall into bed. Tomorrow night we fly to Lima.

Jane K. Starbird is a mom with three grown sons, one of whom is a marine biologist. She has always been fascinated with animals. She volunteers time each month to lead bird walks for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The rest of her tme she spends being a pet for her dogs.

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