Thursday, September 27, 2012

Into the Amazon

Zaya came back from an unsuccessful attempt at finding a truck to help speed us towards Tarapoto. It was 11AM. Very late. And we had a long way to go. Taking the wheel I put the hammer down for all 64 kilometers to Pedro Ruiz. We stopped for a late lunch of ceviche and chicken Milanese and filled up with gas for the second time that day.  Continuing east towards Rioja, Moyobamba and Tarapoto, we crested the pass just outside the tiny town of Florida when the heavens opened. The rain soaked Zaya and the cold mountain air chilled her thoroughly. Sitting in the back meant that I was effectively shielded. We stopped as soon as practicable so Zaya could change clothes and a grab warming cup of tea. 

Dusk was descending along the high ridgeline that protects the Amazon from the dry western side of Peru. In the increasing gloom and in our haste we almost flew by (haha! this is a mototaxi, it doesn't fly anywhere - ed.) two Carreteras, or highway patrol officers, flagging us down. The older one, a burly, dark haired and handsome man in his late 40's, led the discussion. Our conversation went like this (he in Spanish, we in Spanglish): 

"Hello. May I ask you what the bloody hell you think you're doing on my road in that thing at this time of day?
"We're heading to Tarapoto!" 
"Tarapoto is two days drive from here for you. This road is incredibly dangerous and mototaxis are banned at night for that reason." 
"But we are driving from Piura to Cusco and we're trying to catch up with our friends. We're a couple of days behind them already." 
"You're driving to Cusco in that? You really are crazy. Seriously, this road is not safe in the dark. What I want you to do is drive as far as Naranjos, the next major town. It's about one and a half hours down the road. You'll find a hostal there. Don't drive any further than that tonight!" 

He was very charming and made us feel like our dad telling us, his children, not to do stupid things in the dark on a mountain in the jungle. As soon as we left them it became clear why it was going to take so long - a long downhill run lay ahead of us with nothing but switchbacks and hairpins all the way. The inherent instability of the mototaxi makes cornering a very slow activity. Thirty minutes later an almost full moon broke through the clouds and highlighted the jungle with its silvery shadowy glare. The drive was at times spectacular and in turn terrifying. On one corner I could see the road ahead like a long gash, dark against the shiny blue of the trees, a sheer drop on one side and an overhang of dripping rock above it. We eventually reached the valley floor and I opened up the throttle at last. Pausing halfway at a police station for directions, an officer gave us the impression he was expecting us. "Oh it's you two. Yes, just carry straight on for another 25 minutes."

We dragged into Naranjos tired and relieved to be in the flare of its orange street lamps. This place was crumbly and disorganized in a way that felt like we'd reached the raggedy edge of civilization. "This town isn't going to look any better in the morning," I said. We found a hotel for 40 soles or about $10 for the night and went in search of a beer.  In the snazziest bar we could find five guys sat around a table passing the beer bottle and glass in the traditional manner. They had been doing that for a while before we arrived. Alex, the obvious ringleader, introduced himself and he 
immediately settled in to flirting with Zaya. Zaya held her own and eventually decided we should all have our own glass and do beer shots American style. This was the moment when the wisdom of the Peruvian approach became obvious for me. Two shots in short succession made them all noticeably redder and tipsier. Passing the bottle and glass like a blunt means you aren't going to get too drunk too quickly. 

Back at the hotel a short while later I realized that I had left my card in the ATM in Bagua Grande. Duh-oh! 

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