Category Archives: Peru

Flashbacks to Peru as we leave Washington

Leaving Washington.

Last night we went to Boo at the Zoo; a Halloween party amongst the animals. No, truly, there were animals to be seen, I wasn’t referring to one-thousand sugar-soaked children in fancy-dress, Really, I wasn’t.

The kids had a great time collecting a huge range of horribly unhealthy foods. The treats included a lollipop with a light inside it. Imagine children running about in the dark, their cheeks lit from inside as they suck on a lightbulb covered in toffee. Nightmare…

We actually did see some animals and as it was after dark we got to see some of them up close and personal. I was particularly taken with two specimens. First the naked-mole rats. There’s something strangely fascinating about these beast even though they are almost the definition of ugly. I do wonder: if we have some atavistic, base-of-the-spine, genetic reaction to lizards thanks to a time when our ancestors were tiny mammals and lizard-like dinosaurs ruled the world – then perhaps our fascination with naked mole rats indicates that that’s how our ancestors actually looked.

The other animals was the Saki Monkey. What made this especially thrilling was that we’d seen them in the wild a couple of weeks earlier. I have to admit we got a far better look at them in the National Zoo than we did in the wild; but seeing them close up after having seen their cousins leaping from tree to tree in the Amazon was a strange thrill.

Declan and Callum in costume at the zoo
Declan and Callum in costume at the zoo

Today, we spent a long time making our way back up to Newark Airport and then flying to Montreal. We rather staggered into our apartment in Montreal and collapsed in front of the television to watch one of our new favourite shows: Penn and Teller Tell a Lie. For those who don’t know, Penn and Teller are probably the most famous magicians in the world today and their new show involves them presenting a series of amazing things one of which is not true. Today their finale was “Piranhas will not eat you alive”. We all immediately screamed at the TV – “THAT’S TRUE, WE SWAM WITH PIRANHAS THREE WEEKS AGO!”

As a matter of interest, Penn and Teller claim that the whole Piranha as the supreme carnivore thing came about because a bunch of locals put on a show for Teddy Roosevelt who wrote about it his book about his travels in the Amazon. This popularised the whole idea which was then picked upon by movie producers in the 1950s and a whole species of fish got a terribly ill-deserved reputation. That may be true, but for the moment I’m sticking with the story that we swam with a ravening hoard.

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Goodbye Peru

Our last day in Peru and we descended the huge cliffs down to the Pacific Ocean. The beaches here are made up of rocks and pebbles and the waves crash in with a continual thunderous crunching sound.

The Pacific's rocky coast.

We fly out tonight at 10:30pm. We’re all feeling a bit tired just contemplating a night on a plane followed by a three-hour train trip from New York down to Washington DC. Anyway that’s for tonight and tomorrow. Now it’s goodbye Peru.

Sunset over the Pacific - goodbye Peru.

Food for thought

Boys meet cookie.

Food is a bit of an issue while travelling. It’s been amusing, over the last few weeks, to see a variety of people realise quite how little our kids can eat and survive. They start off thinking we’re joking and then after a couple of meals come to the realisation that there are people in the world for whom the definition of a ‘good meal’ is a plate of rice, white rice of course.

Eating with kids while traveling is always a challenge. I have to admit we’ve avoided the worst of the potential problems simply by not putting ourselves in situations which will lead to angst and arguments.

The fact that we’ve stayed in apartments and houses for most of the last year has made things immeasurably easier because we can hide healthy foods within a pasta sauce, for example, in a way which you just don’t find in restaurants. The flip side has been having to make do with a variety of cookware, deal without spices or oils, compromise on ingredients and so on. We’ve had to negotiate new supermarkets on a weekly basis which can be tricky (as well as entertaining). We’ve often found a food we love in one place, never to see it again: a lovely eggy-potato-sausagey thing in Germany for example, or fish cakes in Norway.

Black corn.

The last three weeks have seen us eat the best we have in the last ten months. On the Inca trail we had amazing meals cooked over a camping gas stove. In the Amazon we had buffet meals three-times a day using local ingredients; and we had piranha we caught ourselves! Much to Cal’s delight every meal had piles of rice available. Returning to having to cook for ourselves has been a shock to the system – a shock exacerbated by having to cook with bits and bobs of equipment and having the stove die on us half way through a meal.

I have to admit there are some parts of the experience I don’t find so entertaining. In particular I am entirely over having to buy water. The two kilometer walk back from the supermarket with ten kilos of water on my back is not a memory I relish. It makes me realise how lucky we are at home to get clean, drinkable water from the tap and it makes me long for that too.

We’ve become adept at finding and navigating supermarkets around the world. The differences are endlessly entertaining. From gun-toting shoppers in Jerusalem, to unidentifiable dried bits of animals in Beijing, to automated recycling in Germany, there’s always something to grab your attention. Here in Peru it’s the seemingly endless varieties of corn and potatoes as well as the cheap labour leading to lots of people actively demonstrating and selling things. Today, as we wandered in to a supermarket in the middle of a school day, the Oreo sales-team kicked into frightening overdrive at the sight of two kids. We spent half and hour in the supermarket being stalked by a giant Oreo backed up by a guy wearing two pressurised containers of milk on his back like a flamethrower.

Miraflores, churros and Minecraft

Churros.

We had a rather frustrating evening when our oven ran out of gas half-way through cooking dinner. This was the final straw in a list of minor annoyances with the apartment so we had a chat with the landlady and had one of those frustrating experiences where we didn’t get the two things we wanted: things fixed and some sense of apology. Some of the minor things are now repaired but certainly there was no sense that they felt responsible. Of course this is one of the hazards of renting like this: they have our money and bond, we have no comeback beyond a bad review.

Miraflores street.

This morning the sun dawned on a lovely clear day, perfect for a walk around Miraflores. Miraflores is one of Lima’s richer suburbs. It’s full of gardens tended by an army of workers; its streets are lined with security guards protecting upmarket shops, offices and residences. It’s a growing suburb with building works all over the place; but still a strange mix of styles. Walking the streets reminds me a someone with bad dental work: there are some wonderful looking buildings sitting right beside decrepit slums.

Dinosaur in Parque Kennedy.

Our main aim in setting out today, other than just looking about, was to find a cafe mentioned in an article in the in-flight magazine as we flew down from Iquitos. Cafe Manolo is something of an institution, famous for its churros, like so much here imported from Spain. It’s not a purist approach though – it has both Spanish and French versions of the chocolate. We went French, because we like the place. The churros were, it has to be said, absolutely excellent.

Luckily we then had the chance to walk off the huge calorie intake of hot chocolate and fried dough as we set out to find a post office. A bad map reading meant our stroll turned into an enormous walk circling half the suburb. We did eventually find the post office but it was a tiny hole-in-the-wall place with no materials in any way up to packing up three hand-made blowpipes. The walk was worthwhile anyway as we saw more colourful birds than we had seen in our time in the Amazon – probably thanks to all those well-tended gardens.

The highlight of the day for the boys was definitely playing Minecraft with some of their Australian friends this evening. It was a bit of relief for us as well. Our walks tend to be filled with the boys telling us all about Minecraft and what they intend to do in the game, so it was wonderful to have them with an outlet for the their enthusiasm.

Churros salute.

Incongruities

Sitting in the middle of the Amazon jungle looking at Sydney real estate ads might well be the definition of incongruous.

Checking real estate ads in the Amazon jungle
Checking real estate ads in the Amazon jungle

Some days the strangeness of this life seems to hit more strongly than others. Partly it’s moving from the Amazon to a bustling city. But more than that it’s returning to a rented apartment that we were last in before the Inca Trail, Macchu Picchu and the Amazon. And returning to this flat seems like coming home. And that’s not… not normal.

There’s no question we’re living a strange lifestyle. Everything we live from fits in a few backpacks. Even people in second- or third-world countries comment on how amazing it is to be able to live for a year out of a backpack. There’s no consistency, no reliability, no daily routine.

But what makes this really strange is that we’ve come to see this as normal. Contemplating going home and fitting back into a routine, finding a place to live for more than a week at a time, dealing with day-to-day stuff seems far more frightening than contemplating the next experience as we travel.

The fact that we’re now two months away from returning home and having to deal with the realities of what that means – from finding a place to live to getting a car to dealing with school – feels strange and unusual. Dealing with those things while sitting in Peru is just, just, just incongruous.

Oh, and if anyone has any suggestions about how to find a rental property in Sydney or wants to volunteer to look at a couple of places for us… just let us know!

Sad farewells

Boys with Nikki.

Somewhere on the deep, dark expanses of the Amazon tonight floats a hat that has seen the Pyramids, the little enamelled kingfisher bought in the Lake District glinting gently in the moonlight.

Our day started with a wistful goodbye to the wonderful Nikki from Melbourne who has been our companion for the last few days. And then we were off downriver. The Amazon jungle put on a final display of hawks, herons and butterflies as the river gradually widened out in front of us. We saw more and more people as we approached the lower Lodge; although it says something about our last few days when seeing two locals fishing from a canoe feels like a crowd.

Last photo at the Research Centre.

After lunch at the Lodge we set off again, this time for Iquitos. The event which will ever-after be known as “the hat tragedy” occurred just as we turned onto the Amazon proper and went up to full speed. The wind whipped around us and in a flash Declan’s hat disappeared behind us. He was, understandably, very upset: “That hat represents so many memories!” Dec was right, in a world where our possessions are what we have in our backpack the boys’ hats have been a constant companion, the stains and scratches reminders of visits and experiences. We’re all a bit bereft to have lost one.

The last photo of Dec's hat.

Anyway, we were moving at speed and soon arrived in the turmoil of Iquitos. After the calm of the upper Amazon, Iquitos was like being hit in the face with a hot, damp, ugly, noisy brick. It was frankly a relief to get to the airport and catch our plane back to Lima.

We had a wonderful time in the Amazon and, although I’m looking forward to cooler, drier weather and warm showers, we’ll miss the place.

Our Amazon adventure may be over; but, somewhere out on that amazing river, Declan’s hat ventures on.

Dugouts, blow-guns and tarantulas

My dugout canoe.

I awoke this morning and set out in a dugout canoe to silently glide over the river-waters in search of wildlife. I did end up seeing a dolphin and a great troupe of squirrel-monkeys, but really the thrill for me was paddling the dugout. It’s remarkably responsive and easy to steer, but the hand-carved paddle, in a shape with looks just like a spade from a pack of cards, is amazingly heavy.

This morning we continued the theme of handmade things by making our own blow-pipes (or maybe blow-guns, there’s continuing discussion as to what is the correct term). They were made using a variety of palms and bit of tree that we gathered at the end of a machete from the surrounding jungle. We whittled the palms into shape, used a hot iron to ream out the bore, carved a mouth-piece and made darts. The end result was shorter than real ones would have been, but otherwise completely authentic. Well that’s not quite right, a truly well-made blow-pipe would have involved splitting the reed in two and smoothing a bore before binding the two halves back together – but that would have required days of skilled work. And we had neither days not that skilled work.

Target practice with the guns.

The end result shoots remarkably well and the boys were soon making mincemeat out of a target. As an interesting piece of trivia: apparently the natives used to walk about chewing peppers, the hot breath making it easier to get the required force to send a dart 50-100 metres.

Tarantula.

After lunch we set out way upriver in the motor-boat. We covered enough distance that the river was seriously narrowing with the jungle edging closer and closer on the sides and then turned off the motor and drifted back downstream. The silence proved to be a great way to see a wide variety of birds including the impressive blue and yellow macaw with its distinctive long tail. Though, the most exciting things was seeing an enormous tarantula – no one was willing to put their hand in the photo for scale, so take my word for it, it’s big.

It was a great final day in the jungle – leaving us with only one unanswered question: how on earth do we get handmade blow-guns back through customs?

Five lessons from the jungle

Pirhana.

1. If you venture into thick jungle and the guy wielding the machete is a foot shorter than you, you are going to bump your head a lot.

We set out at crack of dawn to explore the grid system around the Research Centre in search of interesting things. There are rough paths following the grid so the walking was tough but OK. Then we went off into the pristine jungle to search for a particular palm that Christian could use to teach the boys how to make a blow-dart gun. We had thought our walk through the Valley of the Poison-dart Frogs was tough going, but this was real jungle.

Piranha dinner.

2. David Attenborough has superhero powers.

In all the wandering about and looking for animals we’ve done in the last few days, actual sightings have been few and far between. The problem is that this is roughly pristine jungle and so the animals are spread out. A fellow-traveller who had been to Borneo tells us you go out and trip over animals there because the logging has forced them all into a small area. The Mr Attenborough setting out and within seconds talking in hushed tones within feet of interesting things is, in our experience, either special effects or, as stated, superhero powers. As he’s one of my heroes, I’m going with the later.

Fungi.

3. If you want to spot things in the jungle, don’t ask the guy with one eye.

There are so many layers to the jungle that real depth perception is crucial to spotting things. Jennifer was seeing stuff and vainly trying to point it out to me. Unless it moved I had no hope.

4. The dangerous things are not always obvious

We went fishing for piranha again this afternoon and caught several – three different species in fact. They do have vicious teeth but are nothing like as dangerous as advertised. In fact the thing that has really captured our imagination is a particular fungus. this little beauty falls on its victim and then grows to take control of the victim’s nervous system, sending them slowly insane. Eventually the victim finds a high spot and dies, the fungus spores and the cycle continues. The only saving grace is that the victims are always wasps – at least as far as anyone knows.

5. People like lists

There are definitely a group of our fellow-travellers that are trying to tick off a list of having seen as many animals as possible. We’ve discovered that’s simply not us. Most of a year of travelling has made us very copacetic – we’re pretty much happy just to be here, seeing some cool stuff is a bonus rather than an end in itself. Which means we are not getting up at 5am to tramp through the jungle again tomorrow.

Gone fishin’ for piranha

Frog in the dark.

Last night we went out spotlighting again and tracked down tree frogs in full mating call. Huge, big things with balloon-like throats making deep croaking sounds. Apparently the frog that can keep up the croaking longest gets to mate.

Then this morning we moved from our residence of the last four nights 15km further up-stream to the Amazon Research Centre. The ARC sits in a reserve where there are no nearby villages and no hunting allowed. It has a higher level of biodiversity than most other places around and is surrounded by jungle demarcated by a careful grid system to keep track of and study the local fauna.

Cal reading Dickens as we motor upriver.

As we motored upriver, Callum did his best imitation of a Nineteenth Century British explorer: lying back and reading Dickens. He did deign to raise his head and look at the especially interesting birds we saw, but I kept expecting him to snap his fingers and ask for a G&T to ease the journey.

Dec meets his dinner.

This afternoon, we went fishing for piranha. We were on a clear mission: this was not generic fishing, we wanted piranha. So we motored down to a spot when a tributary meets our river, moored and settled into some fishing using some basic poles. It took a little while until our first bite and then Declan landed a small piranha. I thought his face would split, the grin was that big. Not long after he caught a catfish. Then we moved to the other side of the river and Callum landed a decent-sized barracuda. Over the course of three hours the boys had gone through, perhaps, ten hookfuls of bait; I managed two changes of bait, the fish were so uninterested in me they couldn’t even be bothered stealing my bait. I eventually managed to catch a fish on the quick catch-and-release program – I hooked it but it wriggled off the hook before reaching the boat.

Then Declan hooked a bigger catfish, a major battle ensued with Christian, our guide, shouting “Play it, play it.” while Declan struggled to keep the fish on the line. The end result didn’t really show how tricky the fish was to bring in given a basic pole and line, but we all felt satisfied that this was a fish worth eating.

We had Declan’s catfish for dinner tonight. And it was good.

The Valley of the Poison-Dart Frogs

Fer-de-lance snake in the tree.

Last night when Declan and I went spotlighting on the river the jungle was a dark lowering place. The trees were pitch-black walls, the clouded sky a dark grey and the river itself a fustian path leading ever onwards. The sounds of monkeys, birds and frogs seemed almost alarmingly close. Finding a fer-de-lance, the most poisonous snake in South America, came with heightened tension and then seeing the eldritch glow of a single firefly bobbing erratically over the river seemed like something other-worldly.

Poison-dart frog.

Today the river was quite a different place. Bright blue skies saw the sun burning down as we headed up a tributary to the valley of the poison-dart frogs – a name which ought to be capitalised and used as the title of a TinTin book. It took us about two hours of constant motoring through the jungle until we reached our landing-place. And then we set out into the jungle.

Poison-dart frog on a machette.

For the next three hours we walked through oppressively thick jungle to the rhythmic metallic-ringing sound of machetes clearing a path. The humidity was like a thick wet blanket and within minutes we were all dripping with sweat. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that felt so far from civilisation; there was just our small group and thick, unending jungle around us. Insects from tiny little flies to dragonflies the size of small birds droned all around us; there were probably birds too, but the jungle was too dense to see anything more than a few feet away from where we were standing.

Termites are a natural mosquito repellent.

Our goal was to find the tiny poison-dart frogs. The natives have traditionally used the toxic excretions of these little amphibians to coat their blow-gun darts. In keeping with much of the jungle flora and fauna the frogs are handily colour coded to indicate to predators they they are dangerous – and that colour coding makes them look rather glamorous to our non-native eyes. We found a yellow and black stripped frog within ten minutes of starting out, but it was a couple of hours until we next found a frog, this one a red-stripped one. In the meantime we discovered a couple of small toads and a huge mahogany tree. There aren’t many mahogany trees left in this part of the Amazon – loggers used to use helicopters to find those sticking their head above the canopy and then cherry-pick them out.

Finally we literally staggered out of the jungle into the small clearing where we had lunch by the river. There was a table and some shade and flocks of moths and butterflies attracted either by the shade or the salt from the sweat drying all over us. We all had moths and butterflies land all over us and add the fluttering of their wings to the gentle river-breeze that helped to, eventually, cool us down.