It’s one of my oldest memories: sitting in a darkened classroom surrounded by pairs of crossed chubby legs on a colorful carpet that was sporadically rigid due to the Elmer’s glue that was usually being flung around. We all wriggled as we watched the huge exotic images leap onto the marred whiteboard with the audible click of the carousel slide projector as our teacher told us stories of her latest trip. The light creating the images of giant and vivid blue butterflies, scruffy tarantulas and lush layers of never ending greenery bounced off of the whiteboard and reflected mosaics onto our amazed, round faces as her words permeated our young imaginations. Over the years this memory would bellow out from its depths in the odd moments when I’d be flipping through a Nat Geo magazine or browsing the web, the iconic images always provoking a moment of day dreaming about adventures I thought I’d never get to experience.
I was sitting in the tiny baggage claim area in Iquitos. A navy darkness had fallen outside yet you could still feel the humid heat lingering in the air from that afternoon. The lights hanging from the bare ceiling seemed to be alive and writhing from the sheer number of unidentified flying objects that were hovering around, occasionally dive bombing downwards and bumping into the recently disembarked passengers as they collected their bags. Every breath seemed thick and heavy in comparison to the painfully thin air of the high altitudes in Cusco. I settled down to wait for my travel partner. The one hour difference between our flight turned into two and a slow anxiety began to tighten in my chest as a growing crowd of locals and mototaxi drivers lingered outside. Finally the familiar lanky figure strode past and we were ushered to a large white truck. A loud and multifaceted buzz roared all around us as we drove into the city and a quick glance around left us feeling suddenly out of place in a normal vehicle. It seemed that everyone (but us) was zooming along in Frankenstein-esque motorcycles with attached roofs and passenger carriages, each with their own design and color scheme. Finally reaching the hostel we happily rested after the long travel day, our grubby and swollen feet resting on the cool metal bars of the hostel bunk beds as we laid on our backs, flipping through Peruvian travel books. We brainstormed what the next day’s adventure would bring through long and drawn out yawns as sleep languidly won us over.
The morning came with a new sheen of sweat. After a quick breakfast of fresh fruit a mototaxi came to pick us up and drove us to the guide’s office where we would be meeting the rest of our travels partners. The bright street seemed to idly purr with mototaxis and reggae radio stations as we bounced around on a mysteriously fashioned bench, watching people begin their day. Quick and rushed introductions were made in a small and restricted office. The last preparations were made. The bus drove us to the entrance of a marketplace and port where our boat awaited. Only allowed to spend a few tantalizing moments in the rambunctious market, our walking became irregular as our feet followed our hungry eyes. We quickly darted between the different stalls lining our path to the launch point, hurriedly asking what the innumerable items were and how they taste. Huge colorful and battered plastic buckets squirmed with unknown animals as they flopped around in shallow water awaiting their inescapable doom. Tarps laid out on the ground were piled high with alien fruits and foreign-looking fish from the nearby river ways, their owners fanning away ravenous flies.
Once our tour guide had pulled us away from the market we walked along precarious boards over murky waters and onto our boat. Within minutes of our cruise it was announced that we were officially on the Amazon and we all fell silent to absorb the moment, listening to the hum of the motor and the waves hitting the boat. Low dense jungle framed the highway of wide, flat and tan waters, vessels of all shapes and sizes dotted it as we pushed onwards. As we turned onto a smaller branch of the Amazon the water quickly changed color to a deep brown and the surrounding jungle seemed to thicken and awaken with the energy of all of its hidden life. We switched boats in a village nestled on the shore. All of the huts were on slits (the river can rise suddenly and extremely during the rainy reason), walking down the lone dirt path we passed by the open wooden houses while watching people cook over open fire pits, relax in hammocks or play soccer barefoot.
Ungracefully we shuffled onto the next flat canoe that would take us to our cabin. The water seemed blacker and more ominous now that it was so close to our bodies, the years of listening about the dangers that lie in the Amazon seemed to linger, submerged just below us, as we glided along its glassy surface. The next few days were filled with infinite moments of true awe and appreciation of the ingenious power of nature and the human ability to survive and thrive in its most wild parts. The rose gold sun sank into the horizon as we swam with pink river dolphins. What appeared like millions of stars shone down as we hiked in the jungle at night in search of nocturnal creatures. The midday heat and humidity sharpened our senses during the lessons on medicinal plants. The slight coolness of the late afternoon refreshed us as we fished with for piranhas and visited a local tribe.
As our short trip came to an end we gathered our bags and nimbly embarked the flat canoe one last time, a sense of sadness rolled over us as we thought of the dense, hot city that awaited us. Humbled by the fierce environment we had just witnessed, the idea of returning to Iquitos now leered ahead of us as an unpleasant and frumpy alternative in comparison to the lush greenery and the cool, dark waters of the Amazon River. As we merged onto the swirling beige highway towards Iquitos my mind began to drift with the surrounding current and once again, I found my Kindergarten self, sitting crossed legged in front of a whiteboard in a dark classroom, amazed at the adventure I was lucky enough to have.