And so today we bid our final farewell to boats and planes, and happily greeted our saddles once more. The thin wheels beneath them will carry us all the way to, over and then down the other side of the Andes, as we forge our last leg towards Lima.
Stepping back on to the pedals again felt slightly jarring – as if we had been away from them for months rather than days – but soon, as always, the rhythm took over, and I was a cyclist, and a happy cyclist at that, once more.
Pushing out of and away from Pucallpa, we soon came across a farm, where much of the virgin forest had been cleared to make way for monoculture palm oil plantations.
I knew from my research that palm oil plantations are one of the leading causes of environmental destruction in the Amazon, and I was determined to see for myself, so we cycled into the farm. Palm oil farms are colloquially known as ‘green desert’. I can tell you now, that’s a very accurate description.
There was no forest, just acres upon acres of palm trees. As we entered the farm, the first people we met were child labourers, no older than twelve, collecting the palm fruit. They were reluctant to talk to us, but did reveal that palm trees took five years to grow before they bore fruit, and often died within 25 years. They clearly knew a lot about these trees. I wondered if, given they were working and not in school, they knew much else.
I picked up a fruit and squeezed it in my hands. Yellow, sticky oil oozed out. I stared at the oil as it dripped from my fingers. This stuff is used in fuels, in frozen pizzas, in candles, in cosmetics, in so much that you wouldn’t believe how versatile it is just by looking at it.
For some reason, I thought of gold. This was yet another substance, so sought after by many, which I wanted nothing to do with.
Since Pucallpa is one of Peru’s centres for the timber trade (with 80% of it illegal), today we interviewed a local woman whose father was murdered by an illegal logging mafia. Below is part of our interview.
(In the interests of her safety, I have not named the woman nor shown her image here. It should also be stated that the dialogue below comes from my notes during the conversation, and therefore is not verbatim.)
PIP: We’ve seen so many logs and timber factories in Pucallpa, and we’ve heard that they were brought from native communities. What’s going on?
WOMAN: Illegals loggers have put a lot of pressure on their lands. They came into their communities, didn’t respect their land. The communities have called the authorities, but no help was given.
P: What happened to your father?
W: My father and the other men who were killed with him wanted the title to our land because it overlapped with a logging concession. They asked the central government so many times but the answer was always no. So my father went to Lima to put pressure on the government. On the way back, he and four other men were murdered. This at least got the government’s attention, and they started an investigation.
P: It’s horrific. How do you feel about this?
W: I have taken my father’s position. And I want to know who killed him. The investigation was poorly done and revealed nothing. We need to take matters into our own hands. We can’t wait for other people to support us. I am campaigning for our land and other indigenous lands not to be deforested, and am pressing the government to establish the same control as Brazil has. Here in Peru, it’s a no man’s land. I am representing my community and all the women of the Amazon.
P: Can you tell me about your father?
W: My father was a great man, very responsible. He was kind and took care of his community. He was respected by everyone. I think and dream about him frequently. He taught me how to set principles, how to take care of the community, how important our people are and how important our forest is. I want to continue his way. My father said, “The road that I have taken might not have any return. I might never come back. And you have to continue the fight”. This is my duty and I will fight until the last drop of my blood.
P: Do you ever get scared?
W: I have been threatened several times. But I always remember what my father told me. He took me to the forest and told me that this is where he will be. I did not understand it at the time, but after his death I realised what he meant.
P: What message would you like to convey to the rest of the world?
W: That I am proud of my culture and that I will never stop my fight to save it. I want the world to know that I am a part of this forest, and that all the people of this forest should have the same rights as anybody else anywhere in the world.
When travelling gets tough, when it gets grimy and it gets draining, there is absolutely nothing like a hot shower and a comfortable bed. I made the most of both last night, and reappeared in the world this morning feeling deeply refreshed.
And then, if that wasn’t delightful enough, I was reunited with my bike. I hadn’t realised quite how much I had missed it until I saw it again. I can’t wait to get back on to it again.
And I will, but not for a couple of days yet. Tomorrow we have a few final excursions around Pucallpa and then, the day after, we hit the road once more for the final push over the Andes. It’ll be one of the most gruelling rides I’ve ever endured but, for me, that’s all part of the fun.
So we earmarked today for R&R. We did our laundry (it seemed impossible that our clothes could ever get clean again after Alto Purus, but they did), we rested, we ate a delicious meal, and we were all ready for an early night when Pip suddenly let out a horrifying shriek.
We looked over to find her staring under the table at her foot. A huge tick had lodged itself between her toes, its abdomen glistening, fat with her blood. I was all ready to tackle it with the tweezers on my swiss-army knife, but Pip’s shriek had been one of surprise rather than terror. She took the tweezers from me and then plucked the tick loose with expert calm.
It shames me to say that, when I found a tick on my own leg a few moments later, I did not display the same expert calm. Thankfully, Pip took over and, all business-like (do they teach this in journalism school?), carefully removed the tick from my skin. She held it up before me, and its legs wriggled mischievously.
“The little bastard’s still alive!” I shouted.
Pip giggled at me, and then disposed of the tick with her foot. “You know,” she said, “we’re lucky they stopped at our legs. Most ticks like to climb up the body towards warmer parts. Like the armpits. Or the groin.”
I stared down at my crotch in horror.
“If there’s any in there,” Pip said, “you’ll have to deal with them yourself.”
I woke this morning with an air of sadness, for I knew that today I would be leaving the Alto Purus.
Our flight to Pucallpa was due to leave in the afternoon. We had plenty of time, and so we packed and prepared for our journey slowly, even managing to squeeze in an interview with the Deputy Mayor of Puerto Esperanza. All was going well and, with an hour left until take-off, we loaded up the car while Peiman took one final drone-shot of the road. With that done, we set off for the airstrip.
And then the military arrived.
In fact, it was just one man: a fat and sweaty officer, who flagged down the car and then demanded that we accompany him to the military base. Aldo translated for me. The military had seen our drone and believed we were capturing footage of the military zone. They wanted to see, and very probably confiscate, the footage. Depending on what the camera had caught, we could be in a lot of trouble.
Sometimes, the spontaneous ingenuity of my team amazes me. While Aldo spoke to the officer, Peiman removed the SD card from the drone and covertly handed it to Pip, who quietly slipped away from the car and back towards our accommodation before the officer could notice. Without being told, I knew exactly what the plan was – Pip would back up and then erase the footage to protect us.
The rest of us were taken to the military base. There were scores of people there, not just the army, but also the local police and immigration officials. Aldo went out to talk to them and was immediately surrounded by seven people who began to bark orders at him simultaneously. The tension was rising, and I wondered not just whether we would make our flight, but whether we would make it out of here at all.
I stepped out to join the fray. In between the shouts, Aldo explained to me that we were accused of breaching military rules and that they wanted to confiscate our equipment and take us into custody.
“Tell them we haven’t breached any military rules,” I said. “Tell them we have all the required permission to use the drone.”
“I already have,” he replied. “I showed them our documents, but they don’t care. They say we didn’t check into the immigration office when we arrived. They said we’re here illegally.”
“Illegally?” I cried, and was all ready to whirl upon these officious men when Aldo, immaculately calm in the midst of all this emotion, placed a strong hand on my chest and cautioned me with his eyes.
“Let me handle this,” he said, and then turned back to the men. He later translated for me what he said to them: “Nobody told us we needed to check into the immigration office when we arrived. If this was necessary, then it was your duty to inform us. Therefore, you have failed in your duty. We will show you our drone. You will see that there is no footage of the military zone. And then it will be your duty to release us so that we might catch our flight.” Though I did not understand his words at the time, I understood his body language, which was firm and resolute. I was suddenly intensely grateful to have Aldo with us.
With the SD card removed, there was in fact no footage at all on the drone itself, but rather than detecting our ruse this seemed to placate the officers. They left us for a few moments while they debated amongst themselves what our fate should be, and while they were gone I noticed that many of the soldiers were taking pictures of us. In a delicious moment of irony, I handed one of the soldiers my phone and asked that he take a photo of me, and he did. It’s the photo at the top of this post – a picture taken by a military man of me inside the military zone for taking pictures of the military zone. That’s just wonderful, isn’t it?
We were released. Though we were grateful for our freedom, we were annoyed that the whole debacle had taken well over an hour. We had missed our flight. We had no idea when the next might be. We were stuck in Puerto Esperanza.
We drove back to our accommodation to meet Pip and then decided to head to the local restaurant for dinner.
“I thought you were leaving today,” the owner said. We explained the situation, and he laughed long and hard. “You think you’ve missed your flight?” he giggled. “That plane never leaves on time!”
Grabbing our bags and bidding him a hasty farewell, we raced back to the car and then drove at breakneck speed to the airstrip. The restaurant-owner was right. The plane had not left. It had not even yet arrived, and would not for the next four hours.
I love this forest. I love its raw and elemental nature. I love that it’s both life-giving and seductively dangerous. I love being amongst it right now … but I also love that I do not have to live my whole life here.
We spent a good few hours walking deeper and deeper into it today, spotting along the way tarantulas, gloriously-coloured frogs and some of the largest ants I’ve ever seen. We tapped trees for fresh water. We listened to the hoots and howls of unseen birds flitting above. We were ravaged by mosquitoes.
Along the way, we met Amancio, a local tribesman, and one of the armed park guards who patrol this part of the forest. Ostensibly, the park guards are on the look-out for poachers and loggers, but, for many of them, they are more interested in monitoring the burgeoning developments of the Puerto Esperanza – Inapari road.
“See this trail?” Amancio said, pointing at a think track which wound out from a cleared patch of forest. “This is where the road will go. It is very close to our concession. It will bring heavy machinery, farming, animals, and it will destroy this pristine forest.”
I knew that many of those who opposed the road were indigenous and many of those who supported it were mestizos, but I wondered if, as with so much else in the Amazon, there were shades of grey between the two extremes, and decided to push Amancio a little further for his full opinion. “Can you think of any good the road might bring to your area?” I asked.
Amancio looked at me like I was crazy, or stupid, or both.
It was on purpose. We weren’t just travelling from A to B, we were also, with Chris, on the look-out for any illegal activity in the forest which the UAC could report.
It saddens me to say that we saw far more than I ever expected. Gigantic saw-mills on the Ucayali River. Illegal logging sites beside the Tamaya River. A Narco-route which crossed from Peru to Brazil.
We also saw a single house, deep in the middle of untouched jungle. We could not see any people there, but we could see the cassava plantation beside it, which meant that this was a genuine home of a genuine isolated family. My heart leapt at this proof of their existence, and for a moment I forgot about all else that we had seen.
We landed in Puerto Esperanza, which we had come to for one specific reason. The Trans-Amazon Highway is built now, and whether it’s for good or bad is immaterial. It’s done, and that’s that. But Puerto Esperanza is the location of a piece of history-in-the-making, for a new Amazonian Highway has been proposed, and it is planned to start right here and then stretch all the way to Inapari.
I knew that coming to Puerto Esperanza and talking to those who both opposed and advocated the new road would give me an insight into the creation of the Trans-Amazon Highway itself: a road which I have obsessed over for a long time now.
As soon as we entered the town, it was immediately clear that the new road proposal is deeply present, and deeply controversial. Gigantic bill-boards rose above us extolling or denigrating the virtues of this new enterprise. There are, it seems, two major groups who have pitted themselves against each other. In the Against camp are the conservationists; and in the For camp are (perhaps surprisingly) the Catholic Church.
When they argue, both sides use Brazil as their reference-point.
Look at Brazil, say the conservationists. The Trans-Amazon Highway brought cattle-ranchers and illegal loggers and destroyed the lives of many!
Look at Brazil, says the Church. The Trans-Amazon Highway brought wealth and ease of communication and improved the lives of many!
But it is clear that the For camp have the monopoly on propaganda. It fills the walls of every street, and we walked amongst it all in a daze.
OUR HEROES OPENED THE ROAD. NOW IT’S TIME TO PAVE IT.
CHRISTMAS WILL NOT COME TO PURUS WHILE THE INVISIBLE WALL THAT ENCLOSES US IS NOT TAKEN DOWN.
WE, THE KIDS OF PURUS, WANT TO BE FREE.
JESUS CHRIST BLESS THIS TOWN AND GIVE US THE HIGHWAY.
I know how I feel about this new road and, if you’ve been reading this blog, you can probably intuit exactly what position I take. But I’m here to learn rather than just feel and, regardless of anything else, Puerto Esperanza is proving to be a remarkable education.
Today was a long day of travel. I’m used to that on a bicycle. I’m still getting used to doing it by peque-peque (a local kind of dugout canoe).
The first leg up the river was long and boring, moving at a snail’s pace, and I was even more uncomfortable than usual in that little boat because I had to wear wellies to protect against ‘chiggers’ (tiny creatures that like to latch on to one’s lower extremities and then lay eggs under the skin).
When we stopped for a break at a Hunikuin village, I was grateful. We were greeted by a pack of young girls who grabbed our hands and pulled us into the settlement. Adults appeared, their faces painted and their bodies wrapped in gorgeous outfits, and in the middle of them all was the Chief, who serenaded us on his guitar. Wooden horns were blown and the tribespeople began ululating in a protracted ‘Ooooooy ooooooooy’ song. Dancing began in time to the music, and all the villagers got involved: children, adults and the old. It was beautiful.
Lunch was a monkey’s head and fish smoked in palm leaves with plantain. Feeling unable to face monkey again, I tucked into the fish. It was delicious. Masato was passed around. Remembering the last time I drank it, it held even less appeal for me than the monkey, and so I declined. The villagers took no offence, and happily got stuck into it themselves.
I had a few moments with the Chief. He was smashed on Masato, and it was perhaps this that drove him to talk about the proposed road to me. Aldo had difficulty translating the Chief’s slurred rants, but he did his best, and I learned that the Hunikuin massively opposed the road. “It will bring animals that are not native to here. It will bring disease. It will bring industrial agriculture. We will lose our source of food. We will lose our culture. And we will lose our forest.”
I would have liked to spend more time with the Hunikuin, but we had to get back into the peque-peque or we would not make the next village before nightfall.
The boredom of the morning’s journey was quickly replaced by terror. Never have I travelled a more dangerous stretch of river on a less stable boat. Long channels of rapids stood between us and our destination. We had weighted down the canoe with too much equipment, and the engine could not cope, so we were forced to jump out and help push the boat up the rapids, sometimes through water which came up to our necks and which threatened to sweep our feet away and then carry us downriver on the currents. We earned every inch of that journey, always knowing that each step up the rapids could be into a depth beyond our heights.
Finally, we arrived at the village. Our number one priority was to get dry. But, in the Amazon, once you get wet it’s unimaginably tough to get dry (especially if, like me, you have only one set of clothes).
That’s one of the many lessons the Amazon has taught me thus far. Another? That this is no place for relaxation. Life in the Amazon is hard and it is relentless. You are against the elements all the time. You have to make decisions quickly and assuredly. For the Amazon is fundamentally hostile, and is no place for the light-hearted.
We’ve just arrived back in Pucallpa (I’ll be very glad not to have to travel in that plane again), and I’m now sat in a bar nursing a glass of Pisco Sour. In fact, as I write this, I’m on to my third, and am already feeling on the brink of inebriation. I’m such a lightweight these days.
I know I need to write today’s post, but I keep catching myself staring off into space, reminiscing over the past few incredible days we’ve had in the jungle, thinking especially of the wonderful people of Yurua, and not writing a word.
I must try.
So the person I’m thinking about right now is Orlando, who I met this morning before we left. He’s the president of the indigenous federation which represents all the indigenous groups in Puerto Breu, and he’s one of those good and down-to-earth people it’s always such a pleasure to meet when travelling. We had a long conversation about his work, and about the problems that both the contacted and uncontacted tribes face.
The first thing he put me right on was that the words ‘contacted’ and ‘uncontacted’ were actually incorrect. All of these tribes had come into contact at some point, especially during the rubber boom years, but those that chose to retreat to the forest and cut themselves off were ‘isolated’ rather than ‘uncontacted’.
The process of adaptation for tribes when they come out of voluntary isolation, he explained, is a complicated one. The outside world can be incredibly overwhelming for them after a lifetime of nothing but jungle and river. Clothes confuse them. The injections and medical attention they receive to ward off all the new diseases they are so susceptible to can be traumatic.
And, of course, money is a problem – largely because, until now, they have had no concept of it. So when they come to Puerto Breu (for example, if they have fallen ill and voluntarily opted for medical attention), then they find not only that it costs money to stay there but also that they will need more money to get back to their homes. Many end up selling what few belongings they own.
“So what’s the solution?” I asked. “Should the tribes living in voluntary isolation be encouraged to remain in voluntary isolation to avoid all this?”
Orlando shook his head sadly, explaining that my question itself was a redundant one. It was only a matter of time, he said, before all the tribes came out of isolation.
I can’t quite explain why, but that thought upset me more than perhaps anything else I’ve seen or heard over the last 40 days.
It occurs to me that I haven’t actually explained in this blog why we’re out here, in the middle of nowhere.
We’re here because we’ve been lucky enough to join a patrol, policed by both locals and officials, to identify any illegal logging which might be going on here. This area is protected, and that’s why the logging is illegal, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Before we left this morning, we had our faces painted red by the local women, had a quick coffee and then set off upstream. The river was narrow and shallow, and as we navigated along it we constantly had to duck our heads beneath the overhanging trees or leap out and push the boat through the clinging mud.
We soon came to an old hunting trail and began to walk out along it. Huge beehives spread across the trees, and we were warned to avoid them at all costs. These bees, when they feel compelled to sting, don’t even go for your skin. They go directly for your eyes.
Our companions began to clear the way for us with machetes and, deciding I should help, I grabbed one for myself and joined them, only to have them immediately leap away from me. “In the jungle,” I was told, “we avoid one thing over all else. A gringo with a machete”. Feeling shamed, I let them take the lead.
We came to a Tangarana tree. It swarmed with ants, also called Tangarana. The tree and the ants, it seemed, had a symbiotic relationship. The tree was both home and source of food to the ants, and in return they destroyed all nearby vegetation so that the tree could get all the nutrition from the soil it needed. While I stood at a respectful distance, fascinated by the whole prospect, Pip got a little too close, and proved the ants’ efficacy. She was bitten remorselessly.
Finally, we arrived at what we had been implicitly searching for. Our tell-tale tree. The mahogany. That it proudly stood only twenty minutes from the river was evidence that there were no illegal loggers in this zone. If there were, this tree would have been the first to be felled.
When we left, it was not with a feeling of satisfaction, but with a feeling of victory.
Right now, I’m sat in a tent in the final outpost before a whole world of isolated tribes begins. This is true frontier-land. This is the most remote I’ve ever been.
In order to ready us for this secluded realm of the Amazon, Pedro briefed us this morning on how to correctly proceed whilst in the 481,000-hectare reserve. The two main isolated tribes here are the Mashco Piro and the Chitonawa. The Mashco in particular have been known to display extreme aggression. Only recently, an Asheninka family strayed into their territory. All except their baby were murdered. In retaliation, Asheninka men travelled upstream armed with shot-guns. They killed 200 Mashco.
The main message of the briefing was that, if we should see any tribespeople whilst in this reserve, we should get as far away from them as quickly as possible. This was a point of safety, as much for them as for us. Isolated tribes are extremely susceptible to disease, and they can grow defensive at the merest sight of someone ‘other’. We were forbidden to film, for cameras can be mistaken for weapons.
Agreeing to each of Pedro’s conditions, we climbed into the boat and set off up-river to Neuvo Eden village, the penultimate stop before the reserve. Only 20 people live here, and when we arrived we were immediately greeted with an offer of Masato: a drink made from the chewing and then spitting out of cassava, which is then left to ferment. Chris warned us not to drink it but, fearing we might offend our gracious hosts if we didn’t, we ignored him and necked the brew.
Back on the boat once more, we realised our mistake. Our gringo stomachs were not accustomed to cope with the Masato, and within minutes we were begging for the boat to stop so that we could throw up. The process itself was (as it always is) awful, but it made us feel much better.
Finally, we arrived at the outpost: a cluster of five houses dotted between the edge of the river and the edge of wilderness. I pitched my tent and climbed in. Night set not long ago, and the air has become alive with noise.
This blog-post has taken me a surprisingly long time to write, and I’ve just realised it’s because I’m shaking. Shaking uncontrollably. Whether it’s from fear or excitement, I don’t know. All I know is that I’m positively filled with adrenaline, and I doubt there will be much sleep for me tonight.