Peru’s Three Gifts to Travelers

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.

Sunset on the Amazon (7613489930).jpg
By Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA – Sunset on the Amazon, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

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.


The Paper Problem

If you are a book lover and often carry a book to read while on a trip to China, Europe, Mexico, Central and South America, and maybe other places that I don’t know well, you may think—not a problem, countries all have book stores and some are super (like Hastings in London).  And surely they are all in English. (Oh, you know better than that, unless you are in a store that caters to English-speaking travelers, and they are found only in major cities, like Mexico City.) But it’s not the availability about which I want to warn you.

There are plenty of books in Mexico City, even more books in London, etc., but a paperback that would cost you $9.95 plus tax here, suddenly has a price tag of …oh…$15.00 or more!  Suddenly, even the ratty TV set in your hotel room looks better than reading.  But you are unhappy.

Better carry that paperback which you tossed out when you planned to “pack light.” Or pay the $15 or $18 dollars, and complain about it forever.

I speak from bitter experience.  A solo woman in a large city shouldn’t be walking the streets at night, and maybe the TV is in a language other than English, and it’s not even remotely understandable.  What is my first solution?  Find a bookstore, choke at the price for the English translation of a novel that is about three years old (publishing date) and either buy it or pout. Neither a pretty picture either way.

The numbers may be slightly off, but the problem is the same.

Then there’s the idiot (me) who, after selling travel articles to the Los Angeles Times, thinks she may make a career of it.  So, I went to live in a smallish town in Mexico, driving my car, loaded with “stuff” and one item….my typewriter.  (No, we didn’t have computers in those days! At least “civilians” didn’t.)

But, I didn’t bring a ream of typing paper.  Most of my articles would run about 12-13 pages, but I figured I’d just find a shop that sold typing paper and buy some. Wrong!  Oh, there were such shops, not many, but some.  And clerks were pleasant. And I soaked up the environment.  Until I got soaked at the checkout counter.

The price for a sheet of paper was $1—yes, you read that correctly.  One sheet—a hundred pennies.  A ream, which wasn’t offered, would cost me…now, don’t breathe….$500—hey, there are 500 sheets of paper in a ream.  True, this was a few years ago, but I can’t trust that much has changed.

Then on a later trip to London; the same result.  Paper is expensive in most places in the world; some countries don’t even pretend to have paper for sale.  Maybe things have changed.  If so, just consider that I’m behind the times.  But if it hasn’t changed…..better bring your own paperback and your own roll of almost empty toilet paper.  Or smash a fuller roll for easier packing. ‘Nuff said.  Gee, have a great trip!

Let’s Talk Tips!

There’s a tip of a mountain, a tip of a hat, the tip of a spear—these are all acceptable discussion topics.  The one that makes grown men crease their foreheads and grown women cry is the tip aka—the “gratuity.”

And, it’s important—vital perhaps—to the livelihood of a person who has accompanied you on a sightseeing trip or cleaned your room or helped you in some other way to enjoy your trip.  That’s when tips become a problem: too much, not enough, not worth it?  But the biggest question is: how much?

Tips may be a primary source of income for that helpful individual, but it’s hard for travelers, who may seldom come into contact with such a situation, to gauge the right amount for a tip.  One source of advice is to ask the tour guide, who also will expect a tip, but he/she may have a stake in that helper’s amount, via his getting a bit of that person’s “take.” (My suggestion: carry a lot of $1 bills.)

Tips are not important to most people, but very important to the people with whom you come into contact. And you surely don’t want to be called a “cheapskate”—nor a “tenderfoot’” too new at the game to give too much in a tip.

Enough about basic tip drill!  Relax.  Think about 10%-15% on the negative side; 20% is really nice if you can afford that; ten is too little; twenty-five is too much, unless the effort by the individual you want to tip was extraordinary. It happens.

Have a great trip.  Get plenty of one dollar bills, and relax.  No one will hurt you if you forget to tip—once!  Don’t think that negative word about your cheating pattern doesn’t get around the tour group—the others with whom you are traveling, and the others who are making your travel experience a memorable one.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has been tossed over a cliff at the end of a tour for being a cheapskate. And, as real cheapskates say, “You’ll never see any of them again.”