Requena is a little town of about 30,000 located 100 miles south of Iquitos on the Ucayali River. A placard over the tourist office claims it is “The Athens of the Ucayali,” but the office itself has no furniture, no personnel, and a dirt floor. Marlene and I spent most of the month of June, 2007 there. We went for many reasons, principally holistic medicine for Marlene’s breast cancer. Our son Bill, who had been there before on one of his Amazonian expeditions, praised the local Shaman very highly.
So after a short stay in Lima, we flew to Iquitos, where Bill and Carla had been married, and went immediately to the Dorado Plaza, the only four star hotel in the city, charging of course Best Western rates. Iquitos, served by four airlines, cannot be reached by road. It is a city of 500,000, created by the rubber boom at the turn of the nineteenth century and growing ever since It is situated a few miles south of where the Amazon takes its turn to the east and heads for the Atlantic, 2400 miles downstream. As Iquitos is only 340 feet above sea level, the Amazon has no falls or rapids, making Iquitos accessible to ocean going vessels, including tankers. As it lies near the borders of Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador, all of them disputed, the government of Peru maintains a large military presence there. If you wish to see what the region looks like, rent Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, about an Irish explorer and dreamer who wished to build an opera house in Iquitos, Peru.
After one night in the Dorado Plaza, we began our adventure. Percy Ycomena, a full-blooded Indian, who had been Bill’s guide, met us at the hotel. He had engaged a taxi which took us along the only road (sixty-five miles long and well maintained) out of Iquitos to the dead-end village of Nauta, situated on the Marañón River. This is a Mississippi-size stream coming out of the Andes. When it joins the even larger Ucayali River, about five miles downstream from Nauta, the two form the Amazon, which at that point, its beginning, is about two miles wide. One could add a thousand miles to the length of the Amazon if one included the Ucayali, which runs north along the eastern edge of the Andes, thus receiving all the rainfall and tributaries that run down from this 20,000 foot plus mountain range.
Requena has a grassy air strip, but I suppose only for emergencies as no regular flights arrive there. Access is only by boats called lanchas, three decked river boats, not unlike the Mississippi steamers of Mark Twain’s era. Lanchas are built with long prows that enable them to run into mud banks along the river for the purpose of loading and unloading passengers and freight. On a such a boat, the trip from Iquitos to Requena takes twenty-four hours. Lanchas are always overcrowded, passengers sleep in hammocks, shoulder to shoulder, four deep. We were too chicken and old and colonial to travel that way if any other way could be found. Later, we discovered a comfortable motor boat ran scheduled trips between the two towns, but we did not know this because our trusty guide Percy assured us the only way to get to Requena was to rent a motor boat, which he did, at an exorbitant price. This met us on the mud bank/dock in Nauta and we commenced a pleasant and uneventful trip down the Marañón and up the Ucayali to Requena. Upon arriving at the trash and debris covered mud bank that served as the Puerto, some of the women of the town approached the driver of our boat and asked if he was married.
From the Puerto, it was but a short walk to the Jicely, the hospedaje where we stayed. The lodging was clean and the staff very pleasant. Our room had twin beds, a ceiling fan, a bathroom with shower and cold running water, and a TV. The television featured channels from Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Brazil (for some reason in black and white), and one from Peru itself. Other TVs in town, we noticed, came with HBO and Hollywood movies with subtitles. The window had no screen, so we covered the opening with mosquito netting Bill had lent us. It was hot and humid, not unlike Miami in the summer, but often cooled by an afternoon downpour, and very pleasant in the early morning, lit by sudden and magnificent dawns.
All the houses along the main street were stores of one sort or another whose front window served as a shopping stall for the groceries or hardware within. Nor did we see any signs of starvation or shortage of food, except among the homeless dogs who skulked about everywhere. Every morning Indians or “River People,” as Percy called them, arrived in their peque-peques–large dugouts run by a small outboard motor–with ample supplies of fish, bananas, yucca, rice, papayas, and other fruits. Packaged goods, equipment, and vegetables arrived by lancha from Pucalpa, a large city some four days upriver from Requena that has a road leading to the Andean plateau and from there to Lima. No need for food reform; here everyone partakes of the Diet for A Small Planet. Adjoining the Puerto is a large covered market area where the women of the town go each morning to buy their goods. A bridge over a lagoon leads to this market, and its street is lined with larger stores selling packaged food, clothes, and just about everything one needed, including electronic equipment and DVDs. The market is set up with large tables and cooking stations where the travelers on the lanchas disembark to take their meals.
Unlike Iquitos, there are no beggars in Requena (nor as Marlene noticed, pigeons). Hundreds of children run about the streets, but no beggars. Everyone works. However, one day on an expedition beyond the town limits, we discovered a row of squatters’ huts, little Peruvian flags placed in front of them.
Despite the filth of this area, the town goes to considerable trouble to keep the streets clean. Teams of cleaners come out every morning just past midnight to clean them. Street lights burn all night on the paved and unpaved streets. Most of the houses, which are wooden shacks with palm roofs, have electricity – and of course TVs. The children are not barefoot but wear flip-flops. Water vendors ply the streets selling ten-gallon canisters of pure drinking water, as the running water in the hospedaje and other places comes directly from the river, at least I assume that, as the water was muddy like the river. Smaller plastic bottles of water are sold everywhere, the chief brand being San Luis, a division of Coca Cola. I never discovered what happened to the town’s garbage, but I suspect too much of it, like the sewage, ended up in the river. Peru has no recycling plants.
Requena was founded exactly 100 years ago by the Franciscans, who built an enormous church, seminary, and school. Today the seminary is empty, as far as I could see, and there was but one elderly priest in evidence in the three weeks we attended daily mass there. But the school is full and the students wear conventional black and white uniforms. This huge building sits on the town square, the Plaza de Armas, typical of all Peruvian cities, where each Sunday morning at 10:00 there is a flag raising ceremony attended by all the civil servants, police, and military, and featuring a long harangue by the mayor or some other official and the playing of a military style band. A statue in the center of the plaza shows a Franciscan priest, with a strange cockeyed hat, not unlike a Tilley, standing in a boat being paddled by two half-sized Indians, not in implications much different from the one of Teddy Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History in New York.
We often visited the Café Cascada on the main square. It provided delicious pitchers of papaya juice, small sandwiches, and usually some special of the day, a chicken or fish dish that always proved tasty. The coffee consisted of hot water to which one added Nescafé from a very small jar. The proprietor, Cesar, had a sister in Chicago. We tried several other restaurants, a Chinese-style one, one with rotisserie chicken, one specializing in quarter chickens served with either French fries or Arroz Chaufa, a favorite Peruvian rice and egg dish. Most of the Requenans took their meals outside on tables set up along the square from food stands offering empanadas, tamales, soft drinks, and Juanes, Peruvian chicken and rice cooked in banana leaves. We liked Cascada best.
Although the town had no movie theater or post office or mail delivery, on the main square it did have a library. This consisted of a large almost empty room with two small tables in the middle, the walls lined with books, some of them in glass casings. One wall contained a respectable collection of Spanish literature. The librarian, a very pleasant woman, did not seem to mind that all I really wanted was a Spanish dictionary, as the little pocket book I brought with me proved inadequate to my attempts to read Vargas Llosa’s novel, La Tía Julia y el Escribidor.
The town has two banks, one private, one government, the government bank on the main square, the private bank on the main street. Both banks consisted of a single air-conditioned room, as far as I could make out the only air-conditioned spaces in town. But the banks have no credit card services. One cannot use an ATM nor wire in money. The national bank handles pay for teachers and other state employees. Once a month civil servants line up at the bank, many of them the day before, and sleep outside like World Series ticket seekers. The line is very long and can take two days to dwindle down, for the teachers come from all over the region for this pay. We observed the same phenomenon in Iquitos, on our last trip, the line several blocks long. Surely there is a better system. I went to the banks to change ten soles notes, the smallest of Peruvian bills—that’s like a dollar bill–into coin, as most people in town did not have change for a note, money being very short. The casino, on the first floor of the hospedaje, always crowded, used slot machines that operated on ten centimo coins, about three cents each.
Hannibal Sol-Sol, the shaman, ran an ordinary medical practice. His home, though on a muddy street, was built of the tile-like building blocks common in Peru and had a corrugated tin roof, as well as television and a phone. Requena was well served by Telefónica, the Peruvian phone company, and phone cards were easy to obtain. In the afternoon patients came daily to the house, and a few with more serious illnesses boarded there, one of them a policeman from Lima suffering from diabetes. Sol-Sol’s wife Lidia managed the home and cooked for outpatients, as a strict diet was a major part of the cure, fish with small teeth an essential. Living with him were a son, also a shaman, a daughter-in-law, their small child, and another son and his ten-year-old daughter. A third son, a local policeman and also a shaman, visits regularly, as did a fourth who teaches kindergarten in the region. Altogether Sol-Sol and Lidia had seven sons. Behind the reception room and bedrooms was a mud space with a thatched roof, chickens, and a pig. Behind that were more rooms of the open thatched hut type, as well as Lidia’s open-air grill-kitchen. And behind that was the jungle, or pharmacy, where Sol-Sol went to collect his medicines. For hard to cure diseases, he and his sons–for another was also a shaman–went further afield. Sol-Sol did not work on Sundays and all the treatments were conducted beneath pictures of Jesus and Mary. He was seventy-two years old, a very kindly man, somewhat difficult to understand as his ordinary language was a kind of Spanish-Indian dialect, very short on audible consonants. Lidia spoke a somewhat more conventional Spanish. Sol-Sol’s chants were incredibly beautiful to hear, and at one point we thought to record them, but the recorders available at the town market cost too much. The Peru Store at the Lima airport had a DVD of shaman chants, which we listened to, but none of them measured up to the elegance of Sol-Sol’s. His was particularly moving when joined in a counterpoint by his son, the youngest shaman.
In addition to phones and DVDs, Requena also had an internet café of sorts, more of a candy and soda pop store, with four computers. One computer worked fairly well, but the other three took forty-five minutes to connect with Google or Comcast and our e-mail. Once connected, one had to be very careful not to lose the connection because a command could take up to five minutes to accomplish. I think the sluggishness of the system had more to do with the outdated machines than with the satellite hookup available.
Bird watching, one of our passions, was a disaster. Near the Equator the sun comes up quickly at 6:00 a.m. and sets just as abruptly at 6:00 p.m.. Dawn is brief, and there’s very little dusk. After 7:00 a.m., the birds stopped singing and disappeared into the jungle, so there was not much of a window of opportunity for a little leaguer like myself. Peru boasts nearly 2,000 species of birds, second in number perhaps only to Brazil. Yet in almost three weeks in Requena I spotted but twelve species, among them the House Wren and Chimney Swift and the ubiquitous Black Vultures. On any given morning of the year, a “varsity” birder in Santa Cruz can observe at least seventy-five species before noon. Although Requena adjoins a huge national reserve, we were unable to arrange a trip there. Once we did attempt to bird on the Tapiche River, a small tributary to the Ucayali. We were in a dugout, but had no success, as we could barely turn about without tipping over the boat. Another time we went by moto-taxi to the edge of town on the other side of the air strip where the jungle begins, but sighted only two additional species, one of them a beautiful but fairly common Silver-beaked Tanager which we had seen on our previous trip to Peru.
Even under better conditions, birding is not easy in the Amazon jungle. On our previous trip to Peru, at the Explorama Lodges with an experienced guide, in five days we saw fewer than seventy-five species, though we got to know them fairly well. The dense vegetation, the lack of trails through the wetlands and mud, the intense downpours of rain, and the wide dispersal of the birds make birding a challenge. Poor vision, hardness of hearing, and a failing memory do not help either. For the beginner I would recommend a Victor Emanuel Nature Tour with Big Leaguers and Neotropical experts who know where to go, recognize all the calls, and play tapes to lure the birds out of the shadows.
Requena would be an excellent place for an anthropological or sociological study, as within its small compass, it reveals at least four layers of culture—indigenous, Catholic, bureaucratic, and modern. Built on a hill – rare in this part of the Amazon where the Tapiche River flows into the Ucayali–since humans first invaded the region it has been an Indian trading center, local inhabitants arriving each morning in their dugouts with food and wares ready to exchange. At the beginning of the last century, the worldwide demand for rubber–abundant in the forests surrounding Requena–brought in a new industry and new population. The Franciscans followed. They organized the town into streets and squares, converted the native population, and introduced schools and literacy. The Church was followed by the State of Peru, its laws and institutions, then came casinos, motorized vehicles, and now Evangelical, Mormon, and even Muslim missionaries. And finally, on top of this, international TV, DVDs, satellite communications, the internet, and cyber culture have arrived. How does it all go together? What will this lead to? How will Requena develop? I wonder.
Though I have travelled much in the world, I had never before lived in what we call a third world setting. It opened my eyes to my own privileges and dispelled some of my indifference to the plight of others. Or are we to be pitied and the people of Requena, almost all of them handsome and well formed, to be envied? In fact all the while we were in Peru we never encountered anyone with an “attitude” nor did we detect any anti-Americanism.
Sol-Sol’s treatments concluded—and more about this in a moment—it was time to leave Requena.
Actually, I could not wait to leave and return to luxury and self-indulgence. The trip back was not easy. On the assigned day of departure, Percy, with whom we had arranged to come get us so as to avoid the discomforts of the lancha, arrived six hours late. So we spent another night at the hospedaje staring variously at the TV or the ceiling fan. The next morning we departed at 5:30, walked down to the Puerto, where to our dismay Percy showed us our boat, a wreck of a thing that looked like it had spent several generations in the mud of the Gowanus Canal. No driver except Percy himself and a young assistant named Danny. The outboard motor would not start. Danny sitting on the prow of the boat–which was too high above the water for the one Indian paddle we had on board to function efficiently–managed to take us away from shore to a floating gas station out in the Tapiche River. There we bought two new spark plugs (you can get anything you want in Requena). After numerous tries, Percy got the motor started. Off we went, the motor working only in spurts. This went on for half an hour or so, and now on the Ucayali proper we ran into fog and could not see the banks of the river or very far in front of us. We drifted for an hour or so, Danny using the paddle to keep us off the mud. Although it rained almost every day, this was the dry season and the level of the river was dropping. We had to be careful not to get stuck in the mud.
As the fog began to lift, Percy got the motor started again, and off we went to find breakfast in Nauta. Percy had bought two canisters of gasoline. When the first went empty and the motor stopped, Percy hooked the motor to the second canister. But yank and pull the starting cord with all his might as he did, he still could not prime the motor. Not a sputter. For several maddening hours we again just drifted. At one point a dugout with several young river people came alongside, and they, seeming more knowledgeable than Percy, disassembled the carburetor and put it back together, but still no positive results. Percy tried again and again, never seeming to tire of pulling the starting cord. Finally the motor locked up and he could not pull the cord at all. It was a beautiful day, not too hot, and if we had not been so anxious, we might have enjoyed the dozens of river porpoises, both pink and white, surfacing all about us. As the river people told us that two mechanics lived in an Indian village which we could see in the distance, we decided to paddle over to it. This took more than an hour, Danny being no Lewis and Clark voyageur, and we having only the one paddle.
The Ucayali, the Marañón, the Amazon, and the Napo, which a few miles upstream from Iquitos run into the Amazon from Ecuador, are all huge rivers, not what one imagines jungle rivers to be, with blow-gun wielding natives, quills in their cheeks, lurking behind every tree. Rather the rivers are more like an Interstate Highway and one cannot proceed a few hundred yards without encountering human habitations, small banana plantations, and Indian or river people villages. Lanchas of all sizes ply up and down these rivers and fishermen in dugouts are seldom out of view. At one point a luxury lancha, complete with cabins and an aft deck restaurant where we saw passengers dining, sailed by. I recognized it from an advertisement in a Victor Emanuel catalog. I repressed a desire to yell for help and instead passively resigned myself to my fate. It was getting dark.
As this was the dry season and the river was falling, the inhabitants take advantage of the change by planting rice in the emerging brown mud, so that much of the river bank became a huge rice plantation. When we got near the shore, Percy clambered out of the boat into the shallow water and started to push the boat from behind. Guilty about my not helping our journey up to this point, I too jumped out to push the boat more quickly. But I sank into the mud up to my thighs, and after managing one step, realized, in something of a panic, that I was still sinking. How Percy managed to walk in this mud, I do not know. This was thick mud. Somehow he got the paddle from Danny and managed to stick it under one of my feet, which I raised slightly, and this taking the weight of my bulk allowed me to raise up enough to pull myself back into the boat. Here I remained while Percy and Danny, after planting the paddle in the mud and tying the boat to it, took off across the mud to the village.
Marlene and I waited in the boat, stewing, and very concerned at the setting of the sun, for it was now 5:00 p.m. We had been on the river for twelve hours, had nothing to eat, though we did have water. To tell the truth, I was so anxious about escaping that I was never hungry. In about half an hour Percy and Danny returned not with a mechanic but with a villager on his peque-peque. For a modest sum, he agreed to take us to Nauta. So lashing our boat to the side of the peque-peque, we set out at about three miles an hour. Once we arrived at the “source” of the Amazon–where the Marañón joins the Ucayali–and turned upstream, the going got slower, as we were now bucking the current, and the Marañón’s had considerable force. Marlene thought we were not moving at all. But as it was a beautiful moonlit night, under other circumstances quite romantic, I could see in the water a very small wake as we progressed at the rate of about two miles or less an hour.
Finally, at 11:30 p.m. we reached Nauta. Percy was able to find a taxi, and we rode back to Iquitos, making conversation with the driver who kept falling asleep at the wheel. At 12:45 a.m., we arrived at the Dorado Plaza. We dumped our muddy luggage and headed to Ari’s, the all-night fast food restaurant on the square, at last ordered our breakfast, ham and cheese sandwiches.
So ended our Amazonian adventure. It was followed by a very enjoyable visit to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, an uneventful return to Lima, and then home.
As to Sol-Sol’s treatments, they did not cure Marlene’s cancer but held its advance in abeyance to about the same degree as a month’s chemo therapy and infusion she received at the Stanford University Medical Center. For six years, Marlene kept a diary of her illness which she entitled, “Writing for Sanity.” After her death, I self-published the book and it is available on Amazon.
For Marlene’s photographs, see her website: marlenepark.com.