Peru is a land of three wonders: the gigantic Amazon River, the mysterious drawings in the sand called the Nazca Lines, and the most wondrous place of all, Machu Picchu. The Amazon at Iquitos was my first stop.
Iquitos, Peru is proud of two things: its massive oil-producing reputation and its claim to be the uppermost port on the headwaters of the Amazon River. I soon decided that both claims perhaps were somewhat exaggerated.
Our tour group arrived in Iquitos late one winter afternoon to explore a bit before going on to another stop downriver for overnight. Rather than joining them, I planned to explore Iquitos then meet them later that evening at one of the Amazon lodges, which looked like an inch away on the map. It was arranged and, when the time came, I went with a guide to the river to see two men in a canoe waiting for me.
My blue Samsonite hard luggage marked me as a tourist, but I wasn’t yet concerned. It was after I clambered into the canoe, my passport, travelers’ checks, and pills clutched to my chest, that I realized as the two men began to row away from the shore that I was the only other traveler on this journey. And it was getting dark. And I had no idea how long it would take us to travel that “inch” that had looked so easy.
We swung out into the dark river beneath a now-dark sky. The only advantage to being away from the oil-fueled flames marking the oil well sites was that the sky was filled with at least a zillion stars. That kept me busy for about five minutes.
Then I understood my unease. I was alone, in a canoe, with two men I didn’t know…not even their names, and no one really knew where I was. Or that I’d even successfully left Iquitos. Now the idea of escaping took hold. I looked away from the canoe, finally spotting a series of tiny lights in the distance. A town. On an island, perhaps. If either man made a move toward my possessions—or me—I’d jump out of the canoe and swim toward the lights. That idea went nowhere; sanity prevailed. If I swam carrying my heavy suitcase, it would pull me deep into the water, and I couldn’t leave it, nor the small carry-on that held all my papers, in order to go toward those tempting lights.
No, but that was not the only reason I scrubbed the idea of swimming. The Amazon is famous for having those body-chomping piranha fish which can skin your flesh off in mere seconds. Besides, I didn’t swim too well, although maybe fear would propel me some of the distance to safety, but not before the fish got me. Suddenly the warm night and the bright stars didn’t offer the consolations that they had minutes before. My back stiffened until I could almost feel an iron rod in place of my spine.
Making matters worse, there was no conversation with the two men. The little lights disappeared, and the true darkness of an Amazon night, without the interruption of city lights and their reflection against the clouds, made the world pitch black. I might not even be able to notice if the men moved toward me. They continued to talk softly, but my stay-out-of-jail Spanish wasn’t quick enough to translate.
What seemed a century passed before lights flickered ahead; the men’s voices got louder and seemed a bit more cheerful. Maybe they’d been afraid of the river, too? We pulled into a small dock, the men jumped out, lifted out my suitcase, and one of them held a hand for me to take.
It all seemed so normal. When I looked at my wrist watch a little while later, I realized we’d been on the river only two hours. But now I was safe, in a room where the walls came part way up its sides and the bathroom was many darkened steps away. However, there was a light on in the restaurant, which was part of the lodge, so I quickly hurried over to get dinner. I hadn’t eaten since noon and it was now past eleven.
Two French women were eating dinner in the restaurant, but neither acknowledged my presence. They looked so very soignée and rich. I looked like I’d been drawn through that proverbial knothole backwards. An imperfect end to an imperfect day.
The next day, after our tour group was together, the tour director promised us an exciting trip to visit an Indian village to watch “the natives in their local habitat.” Despite knowing those people needed the money that visiting tourists provided, I couldn’t bring myself to walk around peering at people as though they were manikins in a store, so I opted out of that trip, too.
Later, after the rest of the tour group left for their “natives” trip, a young man with the Lodge asked if I’d like to take a canoe ride down the Amazon and see the local flowers and butterflies. I agreed. This was the highlight of the trip so far. We floated down a daytime Amazon, not nearly as frightening as a nighttime Amazon. He was most informative, pointing out things to see, but the one thing I most recall was the flight of a few truly giant butterflies with wings of the deepest, clearest blue that I’d ever seen.
But Peru wasn’t finished with me. Two days later we were in Nazca, staying overnight with plans to fly over the famous Nazca Lines the next morning. When I awoke, I was so cheerful and eager that I decided to eat breakfast, usually not a good decision when I fly. I happily climbed into the four-passenger plane and sat beside the pilot. Two other people were already aboard, and when I turned to greet them, there were the two stylish French women. They still didn’t speak to me, nor even nod an acknowledgment.
We took off, our pilot smiling and eager to show off his precious Lines. In fact, he was so anxious, that he swooped and swooped and swooped, over the Monkey, the Tiger, and the Snake among others. Each time he asked me if I saw them. Each time he turned the plane on its side, my stomach also went sideways.
Fortunately, there were small bags ready for the purpose for which I used them. I was terribly embarrassed to be unattractively ill in front of the two svelte French women. However, the pilot, anxious I saw everything, kept asking, “Did señorita see that?” He’d point to another one of the animal symbols in the hard-packed dirt below us. I‘d nod, then have to take recourse to the bag again.
When we landed, one of the other tour members came up and said, “That pilot scared us to death when he took us up. Was he okay with you?”
I nodded. The pilot was fine. Only my stomach had objected. Besides, I still had that wonderful Peruvian treat to come—Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is featured in the fourth installment of the Briana Fraser series, Peru Paradox, soon to be released. You can purchase the first three books in the series from Barnes and Noble or from Amazon.