To see a place from the right perspective, I’ve come to realize you have to take advantage of whatever mode of transportation most people use to get around on a regular basis. Have you really been to NYC if you haven’t taken the Subway? Amsterdam without a bicycle? Manchester without a Segway? Nairobi without taking a matatu? Puerto Maldonado without a motorcycle?
We’re spending our mid-season break in Puerto Maldonado, a bustling port town where the Tambopata River meets the Madre de Dios. It’s the biggest city in the Peruvian Amazon, a jumping off point for tourists heading to ecolodges, a staging ground for mining operations both legal and illegal, an important stop on the Interoceanic Highway which cuts across South America from Lima to Brazil (exposing miles and miles of the Amazon to illegal settlements, hunting, and agricultural pressure), and the center of regional government. A town with at least four pizza places (though one recently burned down), a great bookstore, several mercados, an Indian restaurant, a variety of discotecas, and heladerias selling ice cream in deliciously exotic flavors like Brazil Nut and Passion Fruit (my two personal favorites), Puerto is a nice diversion from the isolation and occasional deprivation of the rainforest. I won’t tell you how much ice cream I’ve had in the past three days.
Conveniently for us, a bunch of other usual CICRA residents are also in Puerto Maldonado with us. It’s really funny watching people I’m used to seeing moderately to quite dirty in field clothes and mud-covered boots wandering the city looking clean, fancy, but weird in clean jeans, dresses, fancy sandals – sometimes even jewelry! In a series of impulse buys, I’ve bought two dresses, a pair of pretty flip flops, and matching pairs of earrings (of course, it’s added up to about 30 dollars, so I’m not too upset). We’ve gone out dancing twice, played Settlers of Catan with some added twists, and, as I said, eaten a shameful amount of ice cream. It’s been really fun interacting with people in a completely different environment, though. One of the guys who’s around right now is Marco. At CICRA, he’s perhaps best described as the mechanic – he deals with the generator, the water, the lawnmower, some trail maintenance, etc. etc. etc. He’s probably in his mid- to early twenties, and has been hanging out with the monkey team for the past couple of evenings. He also happens to own a motorcycle.
Though Puerto has a lot of people, it doesn’t extend over a HUGE space. Most people get around walking, taking tuk-tuks (three-wheeled, three-seater motorized rickshaws), or by motorcycle. There are motorcycle taxis (one sol for a trip to the plaza, vs. two soles to go by tuk-tuk). Entire families ride on the same motorcycle: Father driving with a four-year-old in front of him holding onto the handles, mother sitting behind him with an infant on her lap. Teenage boy with grandmother’s hands wrapped around his waist, two brothers, two sisters, everyone has a motorcycle. At the discoteca, a lot of people were dancing with their motorcycle helmets still on!
Sunday night at the Discoteca, Marco offered to take us out on his motorcycle to see Puerto, if we wanted. I jumped at the opportunity! So yesterday afternoon, he showed up at the hotel and we went and tooled around. He showed me the port on Madre de Dios where there were giant trucks lined up waiting to cross the river via ferry, as the bridge is still in the “there are two supports erected which were built 10 years ago and have no more funding to actually build a bridge” stage of the project. We went to the much less built-up Tambopata port, and continued up and around through all sorts of parts of town, frightening a number of dogs who were in the road and splashing through an impressive number of puddles. We also stopped at the Tower that overlooks Puerto Maldonado, which you can climb up for 2 soles per person. In my continuing effort to stop being afraid of heights so that I can climb the 60 meter tower at CICRA before I leave Peru, we climbed up this one. It was really beautiful – a thunderstorm was approaching and we could see the lightning through the clouds. It was getting dark, the lights were all visible for a distance until there were no more lights and it was just rainforest forever and ever. The oppressive humidity and heat were dissipated because of wind from the approaching storm … it was pretty wonderful, and almost enough to forget how high up I was!
I’m sort of hoping Marco will be interested in going back out around on the motorcycle in the next couple of days – maybe I’ll learn how to DRIVE a motorcycle, too! If a motorcycling primatologist in the Amazon isn’t intrepid … I don’t know what is.