To travel by boat through the Amazon is to travel into an isolated world. It requires ultimate surrender, and constant vigilance.
Surrender, because nothing is certain in this riverine world of floating houses, mestizo magic, and pink dolphins. Departure time is irrelevant, if the boat even leaves at all.
Vigilance, because everyone, and everything, will stop at nothing to ensure their own survival, just like the endless jungle that extends for miles and miles, in every direction.
Seven years ago, I had a vision of my future self. I was in a boat, heading up the Amazon River, traveling towards some impending, transformational shamanic encounter. And here I was, traveling up the Amazon, to study a tradition of indigenous healing that is older than time.
It felt strange, realizing that I am now the person I hoped to become in the beginning of my adult life. It just goes to show you, that the lives we envision for ourselves are possible. Life is a mythic journey, and all it takes for us to be true to ourselves, is to live it.
With that said, nobody in their right mind would take an Amazonian riverboat. Its hot, crowded, unsanitary, made of metal, slow, wet, loud, and lacking any semblance of comfort or control. Its not quite a “tourist friendly” experience, to put it lightly.
Unlike the famous Nile cruises, that peruse their way up and down that woefully tamed waterway, whose wild torrents and mystical swells once nursed a great civilization, there are no luxury experiences to be found on the Amazon.
The Amazon cannot be tamed. It is too great, too primordial, too savage to ever allow anyone but her shirtless, brown-skinned children to feed or profit off her mucky, brown banks.
No, this languid, frustrating, and blisteringly uncomfortable journey is only for the most intrepid of travelers. Only slightly cracked, overzealous vagabonds, circus performers, and lost looking Chinese tourists need apply. Thankfully, I fell into the first camp.
I didn’t take this trip to enjoy it. I took it for the experience of being adrift for three days on the world’s greatest river. I took it for the sensation of being surrounded for miles by ruthless, impassable jungle. I took it to say that I did it, because for me, there is only one way to get to the Amazonian city of Iquitos- the largest city on earth not accessible by road.
And that, my friends, is by boat.
Our departure city, Yurimaguas, was a dodgy river town some four hours outside of Tarapoto- itself a remote city on the outskirts of the Amazon flood plain. Being the annual flood season, the road was washed out, and our 3 hour trip to Yurimaguas turned into six.
Thankfully on our transport there was an Argentine couple we befriended, eventually joining ranks with for the impending haggle battle/bullshit patrol that all port experiences inevitably require in developing countries.
Floating up the Rio Maranon for three days, a main tributary to the Upper Amazon, was a journey through an isolated world.
The river is a way of life. It is an omnipresent source of vitality, income, information, and mobility for the thousands of people who inhabit her banks. Rickety houses float, water-level, on stilts, precariously aligned to the current mood of this slow superhighway. Riberenos, mixed-race, or mestizo Peruvians, of both indigenous and foreign blood, live so intimately with this great river that it is almost freighting to a traveler from the developed world.
Families travel together in dugout canoes, bringing heaping loads of jungle produce to trade and sell from one boat to another. With their put-putting outboard motors, small boats flock to our giant transport, seeking to sell some food to passengers, or earn a few soles from a crop of platanos. All of this, in motion, in accordance with the slow drift of the river.
Life in the Amazon is life in motion, because standing still is simply too dangerous.
Standing on the third deck, I look down at the water below me. I watch mothers casually pass their babies over the river, from boat to boat, free from any fear or mistrust that their great river-mother will snatch their child away from them.
Like many Latino countries, Peru is intensely Catholic- a clear and undeniable vestige of its colonial history.
Yet on the river, it is clear, that while mothers may take their babies to be baptized in the church, it is the river, in all of her divine, flowing, unstoppable glory, that baptizes and saves these people every day.