5 days in the amazon: day 5

So we’ve arrived, day 5 is here. Today is the last of the Amazonian adventure we’ve been on for nearly a week now. But we’ve made tons of furry friends and life-long memories. Today was no exception!

We started off the day with a visit to the Belen Market. This is something we tried to do the first day with the 6 of us but all the locals outside advised us against going in alone. So today we came back prepared with a guide.

It was about 8:30am or PRIME TIME in the market. Most people were there to buy ingredients for lunch. They knew which stand they wanted to visit and they walked with purpose. Whereas we just strolled through the isles observing the people and their products, occasionally talking with a local business owner or two.

Iquitos Peru Belen Market Fruit Stands

As we walked, the smell of raw fish and meats was overwhelming. It was a hot, humid day like most days in Iquitos but still early enough that the market hadn’t been taken over by flies and birds yet (as we were told happens in the afternoons).

There were stands three rows of stands, all selling some type of food products; either raw or prepared. You had the woman selling fish while her small child oversaw her work, the young girl frying banana balls in pork fat to make tacachos, a local snack. We passed another women who was selling humitas and juanes, both special treats wrapped and boiled in banana leaves. We saw a woman whipping a strange mixture, pouring it into a glass and serving it with a spoon. When we asked our guide what it was he told us that she literally just whipped egg whites until they became a fluffy-like substance and this serves as breakfast for many of the inhabitants of Iquitos. We decided to pass on this local delicacy.

Iquitos Peru Belen Market Food Vendors

As we passed further into the market, we stumbled upon a whole section of household items and homemade liquors. There had to be at least 10 stands like the one pictures selling their homemade concoctions. Some were in beautiful displays, names marked with labels. Others were anonymously in recycled plastic bottles.

Iquitos Peru Belin Market Amazonian Liquors

We happened to be in the market for such liquor. We wanted to take some back from the Amazon to give to our friends upon return. A nice lady invited us to a tasting and we tried everything from “21 Roots” to “Raise the Dead Bird” (the second has supposedly includes aphrodisiacs).

After our tasting, we made a few quick purchases. I needed a basket to help me carry back some of the artisan works I had bought in the jungle onto the plane. We got some spicy chilies to take back to our friends who had left earlier on in the week. To quench on thirst we scoped out the most hygienic looking stand to buy a juice which we slurped down right away.

Iquitos Peru Belen Market Juice Lady

We decided to make our way to the mototaxi so we could head into our next activity. As we were waiting for our guide to get his mototaxi, we made some local friends and exchanged smiles and giggles.

Iquitos Peru Belen Market Children Mototaxi

Mid-morning we made our way to the manatee sanctuary which actually ended up being about a 30 minute moto-taxi ride from the city center, even passing the airport. Finally we made it and waited for more people to join the group before we started a tour.

Once the tour began, one of the first things we learned was that the Amazonian Manatee Rescue has a strong interest in teaching future generations about the animals in its care, Peru’s current environment, and the dangers of the animal trade black market. Throughout the complex they had little learning areas for school groups and they mentioned all the “dynamicas” (interactive activities) they use to keep the kids interested, something a Peace Corps volunteer could really appreciate.

Amazonian Manatee Rescuse Iquitos Peru Education Center

We passed many varieties of monkeys but unlike the monkeys we had seen on Monkey Island or at the Animal rescue on our tour in the jungle, these animals were in small cages and demonstrated signs of distress such as pacing throughout the cages. For this reason, I do not have many photos of those animals.

We learned throughout the tour about some of the harsh realities Peru faces in terms of Animal rescue and rehabilitation. They shared with us that in order to re-release animals into the wild, the rescuing organization must release them to the exact locations they were captured. Because many of these animals are rescued from markets or homes, it is hard (maybe even impossible) to know exactly where they come from. So although there are hopes to release the animals into the wild, there obviously are barriers in some cases.

When we got to the manatee tanks, we saw they were places in pairs in each tank. Many were sleeping, something they spend up to 50% of their time doing. Although manatees are generally known to be solidary animals, it seemed the pairs had all formed special bonds. We even saw two apparently kissing! The guide told us that the two were inseparable.

Iquitos Peru Amazonian Manatee Rescue kissing

On the furthest tank in the row another sleeping manatee was showing his belly scars where he had been stabbed various time with a harpoon. Although these animals are well taken care of, it hurt me to see them in their cages because it felt more like a zoo than a sanctuary. However, meeting this manatee helped me understand that these animals could never survive on their own in the wild.

Iquitos Peru Amazonian Manatee Rescue Harpoon

Towards the end of the tour we were able to buy some greens, the main staple of a manatee diet, and feed them to the majestic creatures. They were so sweet and gentle. They swam right up to us when they smelled the lettuce leafs and opened their mouths wide.

Amazonian Manatee Rescue Feeding Iquitos Peru

We finished exploring the Amazonian Manatee Rescue around 1:30pm and headed straight to the other side of Iquitos to make it to the Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage and Butterfly Farm for their last tour at 245pm.

The mototaxi drove us to the Mercado Nanay and we coordinated for him to pick us up there when we were done. Before the driver headed off he helped us identify a local boat driver whom would take us to the farm. Once we negotiated a price, we jumped on in and enjoyed the ride. We passed a few abandoned boats and I became a bit worried about our rushed decision to take the privately contracted boat but in the end it all turned out fine.

Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm Iquitos Peru Boat

We arrived to the farm at 2:45pm exactly and headed up the long pathway to reception with the boat committing to wait for us until we were done.

Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm Peru Boat Entrance

Once inside, we joined with another tour already going on and began exploring the farm and animal orphanage. We learned that the butterfly farm was originally started as a project to help rebuild the dwindling butterfly populations.

The natural life cycle of these summer generations of butterflies is anywhere from 2-5 weeks, once hatched. However, only about 5% of cocoons hatch into butterflies in the wild. In this protected habitat, they are able to reach a rate of about 20%.

Pilpintuwasi Butterfly Farm Iquitos Peru

The butterfly farm was the first of the projects of Australian founder Gudrun Sperrer. Later, the Amazon Animal Orphanage was recognized by the Peruvian Government in 2004 and began accepting orphaned animals confiscated from the illegal animal trade usually in markets, airports, and households. The Orphanage is home to many animal now, including an Ocelot, sloths, many varieties of birds and monkeys, a panther, and a tamandua – an anteater type animal.

Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage Iquitos Peru

Again at the Pilpintuwasi Animal Orphanage, the goal is always to rehabilitate the animals back to their natural habitat when possible. However, many times this is not the case and the staff and volunteers try to make the animals as comfortable as possible while they live out the rest of their lives at the rescue center.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE PILPINTUWASI ANIMAL ORPHANAGE: More and more tourists think they are helping exotic animals by buying them from a random person on the street who claims to have “found it abandoned in the jungle.” While tourists mean well, purchasing such an animal anywhere in the world exacerbates the problem by creating a black market.
No animals leave offspring before they are able to survive on their own. Every animal being sold on the street is there because its parent was killed, perhaps by the person trying to sell it! And every animal being sold on the street is in ill health.
Should you purchase such an animal, albeit well-meaning, you are actually giving the seller a reason to kill another parent in order to sell its offspring, and you are putting yourself in jeopardy because the purchase of an exotic creature is illegal in all countries.
If the animals are lucky, they are brought to a center such as the Amazon Animal Orphanage. But that will not stop the problem. Only you can help stop this problem. Do not buy animals from street vendors. Report them to local authorities.

 

When we arrive back to the village Nanay, where we took the private boat from, we search the stands for some food. At this point it’s been hours since we’ve last ate and we are starving! We find some delicious looking Tacachos (the mashed and fried banana balls) and then stumble upon another local delicacy, Surrey.

Iquitos Peru Nany Market Eating Worms

We end up buying a stick of 3 and splitting them among ourselves. The worms, an excellent source of nutrients, are fried on a grill and taste almost like chicken. I was skeptical at first but I must admit my more adventurous travel companions were able to talk me into make good life decisions once again on this trip. The verdict? Definitely good, something I would recommend to other travelers.

Iquitos Peru Mercado Nanay Surry Eating Worms

After dallying around at the market, we realized the time and made a quick run past our hotel to grab our bags and head to the airport. But we couldn’t leave town without visiting another artisan market first!

Iquitos Peru San Juan Artisan Market

The San Juan Artisan Market appeared to be the perfect chose as it was located so close to the airport and there were many artisans all in one place, ready to sell their products at a fair and reasonable price.

We checked out the baskets, hammocks, rain sticks, key chains and paintings before making our last-minute purchases.

San Juan Artisan Market Iquitos Peru

And just as quickly as our adventure had started, here we are on the 5th and final day, about to head back to our other semi-permanent lives in site. This trip has helped me realize that all good things come to an end eventually, whether we are ready or not. Facing the end of our two-year service in Peru, coming like a speeding train towards the station, we are forced with the truth that this wonderful adventure we have been on will, too, eventually come to a close.

Iquitos Jungle Peru Amazon Plane

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5 days in the amazon: day 4

Last night, we drifted off to sleep with the sounds of the rain splashing down on our roof and the outside patio. It was nice to hear rain, something that makes very infrequent appearances in the coastal deserts of Peru where I live.

When we woke on day 4, the sun was out and shining. We began preparing for our last day at the lodge. Breakfast, like every day before was as 7:30am and after breakfast we had time to pack and shower before our 9am excursion.

When we heard the drum sound (our cue to head to the common area for either food/excursion), we made our, life jackets in hand, down the wooden paths for one of our final times.

Cumaceba Lodge Iquitos Peru Wooden Pathway

We headed out in the boat for our last planned trip at the Cumaceba lodge, the one we had been looking forward to the most. It was time to go Piranha fish! The wooden polls lay in front, tied together by string, look like something my brother would have made when he was 5. Would it really be possible to catch anything with these? I guess we were about to see.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranha Fisihing

When we finally arrived to the spot the water was a bit shallower and we were surrounded by plants. The guide described to us how the piranha like to hang out here because there are many other animals for them to eat. He told us how the piranhas swim in packs, big enough to take down bird, deer, and even humans! Once the boat was stopped, the guide began baiting our hooks and handed us each a pole.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Fishing Piranhas

(I was feeling a bit bad about this whole fishing for living creatures thing and couldn’t get to into it at first. So please excuse the faced I am making in all the pictures)

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranha Fishing Girls

The first thing the guide told us to do was smack the water with our pole, then drop the string with the hock and bait into the water. It should be deep enough so the fish will bite but also shallow enough not to get stuck in the reeds below.

Iquitos Peru Piranha Fishing Smacking Water

Within a few minutes we had some bites. When we lifted our poles from the water, we only found grouper fish. So those were unhooked and instantly thrown back into the water. A few more minutes passed. Nothing. We tried to be patient. Then all of the sudden I had a bite. I quickly yanked my pole up from the water like the guide had taught us. And there it was. My first piranha.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranha Fishing

This meant that most certainly there were other piranhas around because they swim in large groups. We set our poles back in and almost instantly they were biting. They were stealing all of our wait but we weren’t able to hook them! The fish weren’t the only ones who liked the bait either ;)

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Piranha Bait

As our bait supplies dwindled, our driver was ordered to fish to find us more bait. He promptly got on that while we quickly when through what we had left.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Piranha Fishing Bait

As I cast my pole into the water for the 50th time, I felt another bite. I yanked up and there it was! My second piranha!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranaha Fishing 2

After a little while longer Brooklynn caught one as well!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranha Brooklynn

Before we knew it, I had another bite! This time we all posed with the fish.

Iquitos Amazon River Cumaceba Piranha Fishing

After a couple hours of trying our luck, we ended up with 5 small Piranhas. They were too small to eat so we through them all back and watched as they swam off.

Iquitos Peru Piranha Throwback

When we finished up, we begged the guide to let us swim a bit before we had to head back. He agreed and we drove off, stopping only about 200 meters from where we had been fishing. Brooklynn and Reesy, much braver than me, jumped right in.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Piranha Fishing (2)

I was eventually pressured to jump in, but almost instantly jumped out. I decided to be the self-designated photographer which meant I needed to stay dry in the boat.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Swimming

We then headed back to the lodge, had one final lunch, said our goodbyes to room 2 and the lodge staff and made our way towards the boat to take us back to Iquitos city.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Vacation Goodbye

The boat ride was long and I was missing my afternoon naps I had been accustomed to in the beautiful hammocks at the lodge, so I laid my head down, shut my eyes and dreamt of all the animals we had met during the last few days.

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I awoke to a log of excitement and opened my eyes to see one of the staff members who had joined us on the boat had caught a fish with his bare hands, WHILE the high-speed boat was moving.

Iquitos Peru Amazon River Fishing with Hands

Check out the teeth on that thing! He laughed and told us that they jump out of the water alongside the boat. After that, I managed to stay awake for fear of missing more excitement and I took in the beautiful skies of the Amazon one last time before returning to the mainland.

Iquitos Peru Blue Skies on the Amazon

We may be back in Iquitos but the adventure is not over! Join us tomorrow as we explore the Belen Market, try local delicacies, and visit a manatee rescue and the local butterfly farm!

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5 days in the amazon: day 3

Day 3 was another early morning. Surprise, surprise. We woke up to watch the sunrise over the river while bird spotting. Although the morning sky was beyond incredible, I was less than thrilled to be up at 5am to be looking for birds. However, seeing as half our group had to head off today it was nice to get the extra hours with them!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Sunrise boat trips

After the bird watching/sunrise excursion, we headed back to home back, Cumaceba Lodge, and enjoyed a nice breakfast. Next on the list was visiting the native Yagua tribe and learning about their traditions. While we were there they danced, played music, dressed in the customary clothing, and painted our faces. They told us how traditionally the leader of the community will have 7 wives and this leader only had 1 so 6 of us would have to be staying and then everyone looked at my group!

Iquitos Peru Yaguas Tribe Face Paint Artisan Iquitos Peru Yaguas Tribe Dancing

After the dancing, we headed outside to try our hand at shooting a blow-dart. We all learned pretty quickly and some of us even hit the target! All those who missed were reminded that they would have to stay here with the town leader and be one of his many wives.

Iquitos Peru Yaguas Tribe Blowdart Target Practice

Later we checked out the handmade crafts and stocked up on souvenirs. While this whole part sounds pretty touristy (and maybe it was) I really did appreciate how the group explained to us that although they live pretty modern lives, they only dress in the traditional clothing when visitors come and show us parts of their culture in efforts to preserve it.

Iquitos Peru Dream Catchers Yaguas Tribe

We headed back to the boat hot and sweaty after visiting the tribe so we begged our guide to take us swimming again. We didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to where we swam yesterday but he told us we could swim in the Black Water, one of the tributaries to the Amazon as we headed out. We were hesitant as first and pressed him to explain all the critters in this part of the water. Finally he admitted there could be piranhas and if we had as much as a cut they could bite us. WHAT!?! So of course we did the logical thing and jumped right in. I won’t lie. I was 100% terrified of being eaten alive by piranhas but I did hop in nonetheless.

Iquitos Peru Swimming With Piranhas

On the way back from the lodge we even had a praying mantis jump on board with us. We took turns admiring it and protecting it from the splashing water all around.

Iquitos Peru Praying Mantis Boat

Getting back to the lodge we were hungry and tired so we decided to spend some more time in the hammocks while we awaited lunch. When lunch finally did arrive it did not disappoint. We stuffed ourselves with more palm salad, fish, beans, bananas, yucca, and watermelon. YUM! Reesy even got to bang the drum, calling us all to lunch!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Lunch Drum Food

After lunch three of the girls headed out while the other three of us stayed behind to explore the jungle some more. Exhausted from the piranha swimming, I headed back to the hammocks for what was most likely my 3rd snooze of the day. I love vacation J

Upon awakening, we prepare ourselves for another canoe trip. We were headed back to explore the swamp from my nightmares last night but this time by the light of day. Terrified of what was to come, I made the girls let me sit in the front so I could be closer to the guide.

Iquiots Peru Cumaceba Lodge Swamp Canoe Trip

As we headed off in our canoe, we were once again surrounded by green. The massive trees towered over us as we gently glided across the water. We heard birds and insects from all directions and saw monkeys swinging from tree to tree above.  Life went on like this for close to an hour before we were awaken from our dream land.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Caneo Swamp

The canoe became stuck when we began to enter a part of the swamp that was much shallower. The guide got out first, in the same water he had warned us about the electric eels the night before, and attempted to push us. When his attempts failed, he asked for our assistance. The second I stepped into the ship deep water, I could feel my socks begin to moisten. I had a whole in my boots! For me, this meant I got to crawl back into the canoe while the others pushed me through the remained of the shallow waters.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Swamp Canoe

It wasn’t long before we emerged from the covered swamp and landed in a small town. Like the floating village we had seen yesterday, the houses too were on stilts, raised above the water below them. We observed a young girl standing close to the ledge throw a bucket down below into the water. She then swiftly reeled it back up to the house. I attempt to avoid thinking about what she would eventually use this water for. Would it be to clean, cook, or for something else?

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Village

 

When we reached the shore, we all filed out of the boat and were in awe by this small village. The 80 families of the village support themselves through farming, tourism and producing Amazonian liquors.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Village Visit

We were able to walk from one end to the other of the town in 3 minutes. We walked and talked as the children played. Some stopped to watch us or yell greetings our way. After our quick stroll, we found ourselves sitting in an outside classroom while our guide, now teacher, began explaining how to make juice from sugar cane. He gave us a quick demonstration before offering to let us take a stab at it. The juice was some of the most delicious I’ve ever tried. Maybe that’s because it was pure sugar. I was assured by those with me it was because we had worked so hard to make it. I’ll let you be the judge on that one.

Cumaceba Sugarcane Juice

It wasn’t long before we were hurried off to the next activity which was sitting in a man’s house while he explained all the natural products they produce in the community. We sat for a while before sneaking off to explore on our own.

Right after sunset we took off back towards the lodge in our little canoe. Luckily, this time no one had to get out and push. We made it back safety and shortly after dinner we called it an early night.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Village Sunset

Stay tuned for our last day in the lodge tomorrow before we head back to civilization. SNEAK PEAK: there will be piranhas!  

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5 days in the amazon: day 2

Day 2 on the Amazon started bright and early because today we headed to Cumaceba Lodge where we will be spending the remainder of our trip! The lodge is located in the jungle an hour outside Iquitos City. We met up with our guide first thing to go over basic safety precautions for the trip and received our life vest. Although some of us hated them at first, we learned to love them… but more on that later! After the chat, the guide told us to leave our bags and head down to the boat. He would have some workers load the boats for us. How fancy!

The boat took off promptly but before we headed towards the lodge we took a tour of the floating houseboats of Belen. We saw people washing their clothes, transporting fresh water, working on the electricity. We saw stores and restaurants. All of these people living in their houses built to withstand the constant flooding in the months of November through July where the absolute only way for the population to get around is by boat.

Iquitos Peru Belen Floating VIllages Daily Chores

Water is life for the people of these villages. It is where they bath, wash, cook, and use the restroom. They travel by boat everywhere and even the primary grade school is located on the water. As we passed, we could hear the children singing a lesson and see their colorful paper decorations filling the walls above us.

Once we finished touring the village we set off down the river towards the lodge the same way we headed the day before. As we came to the meeting point of the Nanay and the Amazon we stopped for a minute to see the stark contrast in colors of the two rivers again.

Iquitos Peru Amazon River and Nanay River Meet

Before we know it we were arriving at our new home for the next few days, the Cumaceba Lodge. The lodge is a series of bungalows, some private and others shared rooms, all raised and connected with a wooden pathway for the rainy seasons when the land floods. We ditched the lifejackets and headed straight to the hammock to relax before lunch.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Hammocks Bungalows

Lunch eventually was served but it was so delicious with many foods we had never tried before. There were fried bananas, ribbon salad made from palms, yuka, beans, and the most delicious chili sauce made with bits of the cocona fruit, also known as tomato peach. It was served with a scrumptious cocona juice. QUE RICO!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Lunch Food Tomato Peach

Obviously after lunch we had to get a photo shoot in by the hammocks. Roxy took turns photographing each of us in full-relax mode.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Photoshoot Camera

We didn’t have much downtime before we headed out again to play with more animals at another nearby animal rescue. As we pulled up we saw the famous Victoria Amazonian water lilies, the largest of their type in the world.

Iquitos Peru Victoria Amazonian Water Lilis

We got off the boat and were greeted by all sorts of animals including many human children. There were parrot and toucans, sloths, various types of monkeys including my favorite, the squirrel monkey. We also saw a strange anteater type animal that is related to the wolf family and some anacondas (AKA Boa Constrictors).

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Jungle Animals

After a while with the animals we headed off in search of the rare pink Amazon river dolphins. We ended up seeing only a few but there were many regular grey fresh water dolphins swimming around. I tried so hard to get a good picture, unsuccessfully!

Iquitos Peru Amazon River Dolphin Swimming

Once the guide decided we probably wouldn’t see many more we jumped in the water to cool down! The trip turned into yet another photo shoot because what else would we do in this situation? We stayed there for a while until we all got tired of swimming.

Six Chicks Iquitos Peru SwimmingIquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge River Swimming

As we headed back, tired from our swim we admired the gorgeous sunset. The sky was painted with all sorts of colors. The lighting was so perfect that we had our boat driver/photographer drop us off on a different dock so he could grab a picture of us with the perfect lighting. We stayed there for a while modeling our neon orange life jackets for the camera.

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Golden Hours Photos

At night we headed out again, only this time by canoe into the swamp behind our lodge. We rode around for about an hour looking for Cayman/Alligators, nocturnal monkeys, tarantulas and other animals. I was so scared during the whole experience that the bats flying overhead would swoop down and bite me! But the guide kept reassuring us they only eat fruit and insects. Finally, we headed back towards home base. We unloaded the boat and headed up the dock to the lodge. Reesy all the sudden called us over and told us to bring the lanterns. A tarantula had crawled into an empty rain boot while we were gone and waited our return. We all decided to sleep with our rain boots inside our room that night!

Iquitos Peru Cumaceba Lodge Amazon River Sunset Day 2

Would you swim in the Amazon River with dolphins if given the chance? What about piranhas? Stay tuned, more on that tomorrow!

 

 

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5 days in the amazon: day 1

The Amazon jungle is like no place I have ever been or seen. There are so many wild animals filling the air with music day and night. The color green, in all of its shades, is something inescapable, reminding me how close to nature I am. Even the fruits are different!

Iquitos Peru Amazon River Rain

Day 1 started bright and early with a quick breakfast before heading out into the rain (what would be a rain forest without rain, right?). We wanted to make it to Monkey Island and be back before lunch. However, first we had to figure out how to get there! For this, we visited the iPeru office, a tourist information service offered free in Peru. The representative provided some of the best service I have ever experienced in Peru and on the Peruvian Labor day nonetheless. She gave us a map detailing how to take the local transportation and even included the boat prices so we could make sure no one was trying to overcharge us.

Six Chicks Trip Iquitos Peru Ice Cream

When we walked out of the office, the sun had come out and with it the heat, too! Luckily for us, there was an ice-cream stand waiting on the corner and we all treated-ourselves to a delicious mid-morning snack.

Iquitos Peru MotoTaxi Ride

After satisfying our sweet tooth, we grabbed two “moto-taxis” and headed towards the Puerto de Productores where we would get our boat. To get to the port, we first had to cross through a small local market which we explored a bit as we walked through the space. Once we walked out the back of the market, the view blew us away. Down below we saw the river littered with small homes and stores floating on the water. The dock was just a series of wooden-boards laid one on top of the other. The vegetation expanded down the hill and into the water.

Iquitos Peru Jungle Boat Port Amazon River

We loaded into a small boat and waited for it to fill up. As we waited, we even made friend with the local neighborhood kids who were working for tips by unloading the boats as they came in. The children were intrigued by the fact that we didn’t look like everyone else, giggling when we spoke bringing our accents from various regions of Peru with us. Brooklynn began translating colors and greetings into English for the kids to practice. Finally, the boat was full and we took off.

Iquitos Peru Boat Port Amizon River Kids

The boat took off up the River Nanay and our cameras didn’t stop clicking the whole time. We took in the city view of Iquitos from the water and then we watched it fade away as we got deeper and deeper into the jungle.

,Iquitos Peru Amazon River View

We headed up the river, the dark blues of the Nanay mixed with the heavy brown waters of the Amazon. The contrast of colors reminded us just what a powerful force nature is, creating the Amazon with a series of major tributaries in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The Amazon runs mostly through Brazil and Peru, and is part of the border between Colombia and Peru. And here we are, sitting on one of the greatest, most magical rivers in the world.

Iquitos Peru Amazon River and Nanay River

On the way, the public boat made a series of stops to drop people off. My favorite was the water stop, where we literally pulled up along side another boat and the person jumped from one to the other. How do they coordinate this stuff?

Iquitos peru Amazon River Boats

We continued on until we got to our port where we had coordinated Juan, a private boat driver, to meet us and take us the rest of the way to Monkey Island. As we filed off the boat a line (more like a group without any organization at all) began forming, of people waiting for their change. I had been close to the front of this “line” so everyone shuffled past me and crowded into a small space. I was so scared of being pushed back into the river but getting those Peruvian Soles (the local currency in Peru) was more important to me.

Iquitos Peru Amazon River Boat Payment

Once we got all the correct change, we hurried past the crowd and headed towards the small peke-peke boat waiting for us. The name comes from the sound the motor makes when it’s running. We took in the sites as we headed down one of the tributaries. The scenery was so stunning and the colors so vibrant, a natural photo shoot began. The driver laughed as we took turns posing on the front of his small boat and would laugh harder as he made small turned scaring the life out of whomever happened to be in front at that time.

Iquitos Peru Amazon Photoshoot Monkey Island

Within 20 minutes we had arrived at what can only be described as the most magical place on earth – La Isla de Los Monos, Wildlife Sanctuary. As the boat crept closer and closer we could see dozens of monkeys running around the island freely, interacting with their caregivers! Our anticipation growing, we just wanted off this boat already!

Iquitos Jungle Peru Amazon River Monkey Island 1

After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably only 2 minutes) we arrived! The monkeys scurried over to investigate these 6 strange “gringas” who came to visit. We were escorted first up to the lodge to sign in, go over the rules, and put our things down. The monkeys followed us the whole way.

Monkey Island Iquitos Peru Monkey Stalker

Finally, we were ready to play! We first gave snacks to our new friends, feeding them oranges and apples. They loved this and jumped all over us to get at the fruits. They surprised us from all directions, using their strong tails like an extra arm to maneuver around and swing from one of us to the other. We were in heaven!

Iquiots Peru Monkey Island Monkeying Around

The monkeys soon lost interest in us and we headed off to do a bit of exploring. As we trekked through the jungle, we were a sight to be seen! The 6 of us had all decided to wear our shorts and flip flops because Monkey Island would be our nature-light day. We passed a variety of insects and plants. To me, the ants were the most impressive with their long, thin bodies transporting leaves in coordinated efforts. We past a few termite nest where we were told if you rub the little bugs all over your body they can act as natural insect repellent. In the end we all decided we could live with the bites and did not rub baby termites all over ourselves.

Iquioto Peru Monkey Island Nature Trek

Our trek didn’t last too long. There were recently a lot of rains in the jungle so some small ponds had formed, blocking our paths and we weren’t dressed appropriately to continue on. So we headed back to play with the monkeys some more. We snapped more pictures and said our goodbyes to our new friends, all of us very sad to be leaving. However we had more adventure awaiting!

Iquitos Jungle Peru Amazon River Monkey Island 3

As the boat pulled away Segundo, the local caregiver to the monkeys, waved goodbye and continued playing with his monkey siblings.

Iquitos Peru Monkey Island Segundo Goodbyes

The two boat rides back seemed much quicker. We continued snapping more pictures of each other while admiring the nature that surrounded us. We laughed and reminisced about the amazing experience we just had with the monkeys and talked about our plans for the rest of the day.

Iquitos Peru Return from Monkey Island

Upon getting back, we took a walking tour through the town and learned about the architecture. You’ll see many of the building facades tiled in Iquitos, something that was imported from Portugal. The glossy tiles serve as a reminder of the days when Iquitos was one of the principal ports in the rubber exportation business.  We saw more floating houses and businesses from the boardwalk. We saw many guides hustling to get their last customers for the day before the sunset.

Before we know it, it was 4pm and we still hadn’t eaten so we found a cute restaurant called “La Noche” with outdoor seating on their balcony, overlooking the river. Their menu was huge and a little overwhelming for those of us who are used to 1 or 2 options max. living with a host family but when we saw Alligator we knew we had to try it. Or course we got some local Amazonian liquors to try along with our food.

Iquitos Peru Amazon River Boardwalk

After all this running around we were so exhausted and decided to head back to the hotel. No more than 20 minutes after we arrived, I received a call asking if we wanted to go on a mini-tour of the city. It was my friend’s dad, Abner, who lives in Iquitos. At this point we were all so tired I expected everyone to just say no and call it a night.

I feel so fortunate to have friends that are even more adventurous than me and say yes to everything. So we piled in his moto-taxi and he drove us around, explaining some of the history of the town. One of the things I liked most was the weekly block parties that happen every Saturday and Sunday. On each block there was at least one happening. Then he took us to see the sun-set over the River Itaya. I figured there would be nothing to see because it was already dark but when we got there what a sight it was. The oranges and reds reflected off the water and illuminated the boats floating by.

Iquitos Peru Itaya River Amazon Sunset

We ended the night with a quick visit to Blanquita, famous among the locals for having the best, most authentic Amazonian food. We tried the tacachos which are essentially fried bananas, mashed and rolled into a ball (or in other words, Heaven) and the pescado a la hoja, fish cooked in a big banana leaf. Of course the night wouldn’t be complete without shots of our new favorite Amazonian liquor.

Six Chicks Trip Iquitos Peru Blanquita

Tomorrow join us as we venture into the Peruvian Amazon, up the Amazon River and into the jungle. We make lots of new friends along the way including more monkeys, dolphins, snakes, and sloths. OH MY! What rain forest animals are your favorites?

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5 days in the amazon jungle

When you think of Peru, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Many of you are probably instantly thinking MACHU PICCHU, one of the world’s wonders. Some may think me, your favorite Peace Corps volunteer living in Peru J But Peru is so much more than just Machu Picchu. If you visit Peru and only see Machu Picchu and/or Lima, you ARE really missing out. There are actually three distinct geographical regions in Peru; the sierra highlands, the coastal desert, and my new favorite – the rain forest.

The best known of the three is the central high sierra of the Andes, characterized with its massive peaks, steep canyons, and extraordinary Incan and Pre-Incan archaeological sites. If you follow my journey, you may know that I live in the narrow, lowland coastal desert region, a northern extension of the Atacama Desert.

 

Highlands and Coast of Peru

Highlands and Coast of Peru

Peru’s third great region is the dense Amazonian forest. This part of the country is so known for its inaccessibility with cities such as Iquitos, a city of 400,000 inhabitants, only accessible by air or by boat up the Amazon.

Transportation into Iquitos is limited to air and water

Transportation into Iquitos is limited to air and water

Prior to last week I have been lucky enough to visit various coastal and sierra towns but had never been to the jungle although it’s always been on the top of my list of places to visit. When a few of my friends mentioned they wanted to travel there too before we finish our service in the next few months, I jumped at the chance and we got right to planning a “chicks trip” for the six of us!

Peace Corps Volunteers enjoying vacation

Peace Corps Volunteers enjoying vacation

During the next few days I want to take you all through my journey, day-by-day, so you too can learn about the wildlife, the indigenous communities, and the amazing food of the Amazon. See you tomorrow, bright and early on the Amazon!

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grieving in peace corps

Death and grief are natural parts of life. Everyone deals with them and everyone deals with the differently. They are something we learn to deal with. But what happens when you are taken out of your ‘natural’ environment where you have learned to cope? What happens when you live on the other side of the world, in one much different from your own? What happens when you are a Peace Corps Volunteer and you need to grieve?

This past February I lost someone close to me; my uncle and godfather. Although we’ve always lived far apart, he consistently found ways to let me know he was there for me. He never missed a birthday, often sending the first card I received in the mail. And I knew I could count on summer adventures at his house in upstate New York visiting the Old Forge Water Safari. We would cook out on his deck and enjoy the afternoons together. Anytime a bear or deer crossed into his backyard he would quickly and quietly call me over to show me. Every Thanksgiving we traveled down to Myrtle Beach to escape the North and celebrate family. When I would wake up early, no matter the hour, he and his wife were always up ready to take me with them on walks down the beach enjoying the quiet early morning hours.

My Uncle David, dad, siblings and cousins all smiling for a family picture

My Uncle David, dad, siblings and cousins all smiling for a family picture

Before I left for Peace Corps, I had begun to worry about him. He had lost a lot of weight but anytime I asked him about it he would say it was nothing and tell me not to worry. But of course I did. I would ask my dad for updates on our Skype calls as my uncle was not a fan of the internet. His death seemed all too sudden for me, but now looking back it was probably something he had seen as imminent.

I received my last update on his health on a Wednesday, February 24th. I was FaceTiming my younger sister at the time and the message came through first to her. The family had decided to take him off of life support. She told me, “Hey who knows, maybe he’ll pull through. There are stories of other surviving.” but I knew in my heart what it meant. It was not more than 20 minutes later that she received the next message from my dad letting us know that my uncle was finally at peace.

The days to follow seemed surreal to me. Everything was going on as normal here in Peru. My projects continued. My counterparts continued. My host family continued. Life continued. Everything was exactly the same in my world. And here I was, trapped in the middle of this tragic situation and the alternate universe that I now live in. Of course, I could have taken a few days off to grieve and everyone would have understood. However, I didn’t know how to grieve here.

I was surrounded by people but never felt more alone, cut off from the only world that would understand how I felt; my family. I was reminded of the unfamiliarity of my surrounding, which had grown normal to me in my everyday life. I craved to express myself in my native tongue, to be surrounded by familiar sounds, smells, and places.

So without the ability to be comforted by the familiar external world, I had to make a choice to purposefully address my grief. I knew that I could ignore it, and harbor it deep inside. But that is just where it would stay; deep inside.

Everyone will deal with grief differently and with being in a different world from what you are used to, the first step is acknowledging just that: things will be different. You are going to experience feelings differently and the way you handle those feeling may also have to adapt. In my case, that acknowledgement was the first step in healing.

The second step was reaching out and asking for help. I told those closest to me in my site of my recent loss and let them decide how they wanted to be there for me. Some didn’t know what to say. Some offered their apologies. Others gave hugs.

Shortly after the loss of my uncle, I was scheduled to attend a training with a group of other volunteers. I didn’t know most of them that well as they had arrived in Peru a year after me and the ones I was closest with were busy planning the training. However, coincidentally I just happened to be having a one-on-one conversation with another volunteer and she mentioned to me how her uncle was sick. I told her about mine. We talked about what it was like to be so far away and the thoughts going on in both of our heads. It was nice to finally open up to someone who understood.

My Uncle David and me after my college graduation

My Uncle David and me after my college graduation

Peace Corps was also supportive in helping me grieve. After discussing it in country staff, I was able to arrange a week to go home and be with my family in the US. Many people from the office reached out to me personally to offer their condolences. At home, we had a mass said for my uncle. I spent time with my father, mothers, and siblings. I soaked up a year’s worth of moments in 6 short days before I set off again, to return to Peru.

All the while, I had to search for peace with the situation from within myself. I had an idea my uncle was sick but I didn’t know I wouldn’t see him again. He had told me he was fine so many times. Maybe he believed that. Maybe he thought he could beat it. Maybe he knew he couldn’t. Maybe he was trying to protect me. I realize that this is something I will never have the chance to ask him. After much meditation and reflection, I’ve also realized that it is okay. I have found peace with the unknown and accepted it. I could dwell on his death and all the questions I have but instead I have decided to let the good memories live on and let all the rest slip away.

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finding I’m not alone

In August 2015 I met Cristina Cerna. At the time I had no idea she would quickly become my most valued counterpart. A huge advocate for community empowerment, Cristina works as the head of the office of the Defense of Women and Vulnerable Populations in a community within our district of Moche. Being only a “Centro Poblado” and not a District Capital, all funding must come through the capital city of the district. In this case, many project ideas are left unfunded and the municipality is left understaffed.

Human Denominator - Womens Entrepreneur Group Cristina

Cristina my counterpart enjoying a bracelet making workshop

With the invitation of Cristina, I began meeting with her to discuss what Peace Corps can do and our need for community support to create projects that are truly sustainable. She could not have agreed more and was the first counterpart to see me as a partner instead of as another employee on her staff. We quickly got to planning a month-long Income Generating Activities entrepreneurship workshop and invited all members from each of the 29 mother’s clubs in the town to attend. The first day ZERO participants showed up.

 

At this point, a year into my service, I have become very used to this and most of the time the counterpart turns to me to ask why no one has shown up. However, Cristina turned to me and asked ‘what are we going to do to make this happen?’ This was the game-changing moment in my service. Instead of feeling like I failed, I felt supported. I felt like part of a team.

Some of our Women’s Entrepreneurship group after a jewelry making workshop

From then, we’ve formed strategic relationships with non-profit organizations as well as government sponsored program to help us in our promotional efforts. We have also partnered with a major agricultural business, local experts and community leaders to aid us in bringing new, exciting, relevant and useful information to each woman. We have empowered more than 40 women in various themes including entrepreneurship and business management, customer service, screen printing, jewelry making, along with various other crafts that the women can work in to generate extra income for their families.

Human Denominator - Womens Entrepreneurship Group Income Generating Activities

A fellow volunteer coming to give a women’s empowerment talk

The women we have worked with now show up – every time, on time. They come happy to learn and encourage their friends and neighbors to take part as well. They are empowered to provide more for their families and better their community. This program created from the perfect collaboration of counterpart Cristina and Peace Corps Volunteer will have lasting impacts on the women in the community and their families as they have learned how to take their futures into their own hands and now realize their true value instead of only that which society places on them.

 

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the sweetest feeling

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Peace Corps is all about team work. As volunteers, we are not sent into our communities to carry out and own our own projects. So in other words, we need community support. If this wasn’t easier said than done, there really may not be a need for Peace Corps. The goal is community ownership but that is not something that happens overnight. It’s a long process of building trust and helping our communities see the value in potential projects.

As someone who has always been extremely independent, goal oriented and productive the idea of relying on others who were not those things was my worst nightmare. I had fantasies of Peace Corps before I arrived; of living in a close knit community, where everyone called me by name, wanting help from a free, university educated, foreigner with new ideas and insights. But my experience has been almost the opposite. Over the past year, I have spent day in and day out doing whatever is asked of me, to prove that I am here to work and to help the community. I have gone to random events, just to show face and build trust. I have made countless offers to help in whatever way I can, mostly always to be turned down saying that they are fine or, even worse, the yes that really means no (where you try and set something up for months just to keep being canceled on).

So many days I couldn’t stand it. So many meeting I have walked out thinking “that’s it. I will never work with them again.” So many phone calls to other volunteers have been spent agonizing the drawn out process of getting anything done. So many tears have been cried to just feel a shred of acceptance in the community.

The hardest point hit a few months ago around the time of our Mid-service training. This training is filled with our routine medical checks, teeth cleanings, and presentations of our first year accomplishments.

During the weeklong event we also take part in resiliency discussions. For my group’s training this year, opened up by going through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and taking into account if we were lacking in any of these areas, forming a plan to fill them. Then we broke into true Peace Corps fashion and got down to the “dinamicas” (translated to “interactive activities”). This one consisted of various papers with different phrases pinned to the walls throughout the room. The facilitator would read an instruction such as ‘stand below the statement you identify with most’ with all of us moving to different parts of the room and then explaining our decisions. The last instruction she read was ‘stand below the statement you couldn’t imagine continuing you service if you felt this way’. I quickly found myself the sole one thinking I could not go on if “I feel I’ve gained what I set out to”. As we went around and each person explained theirs I was worried that maybe I didn’t make any sense or I was missing the point. As my turn crawled closer I quickly tried to put words around this abstract idea that filled my head, more of a feeling than anything else. It wasn’t until last Wednesday, almost two months later that I became 100% sure I had been under the right statement.

Jumping forward in time to last Wednesday, one week ago, it seemed all at once that a change occurred. Wednesday I started the day with my 1 single business advising project and by noon that same day I had been invited to consult 3 more businesses as well as gained buy in to start a youth entrepreneurship club. I went from feeling the opposite of integrated with ZERO community involvement to various people I’ve known since almost my first day in site approaching me to ask for my help with their projects.  Now what does this have to do with “I feel I’ve gained what I set out to”?

Well looking back now, at that point a few months ago even though I couldn’t put my fingure on exactly what this feeling was I was missing a huge piece of Peace Corps, the most important piece – Community Integration. Of course I’ve had projects that have been a success and have had help from counterparts along the way, and of course I have made many acquaintances. However, I never felt like people really wanted me involved or wanted to work with me as much as I started to feel over the last week.

And since that day, we have restarted an “English for Artisans” club as well as a “Conversation Club”, both back by popular demand. I had a successful tech-exchange (when Peace Corps allows another volunteer with a special skill to come share that skill in your community) workshop for the local food fair coming up which has led to follow up workshops being planned for later this week in various business themes. And my favorite proof of the community integration is that I have even been asked to teach the local sweets shop how to make brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

I think back to that question, if ‘I have gained what I set out to’. Before I felt so far from it and although I still have not achieved all that I now want to while I am here in terms of our projects, I have achieved what I came here to. After all this time at site, I can (finally) confidently say that others have been positively impacted by my presence in the community and have been motivated to better themselves. And to me, that is the most incredible feeling I have ever felt.

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Teaching the ladies from the bakery how to make brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate syrup.

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giving credit where credit is due

I’ve now been in Peru for 16 months, or 489 days, also equal to 11,736 hours. During this time, I learned to speak a new language, I moved and successfully integrated with a family I didn’t know existed before but I now love, I learned how to navigate the new culture and successfully work within it, I’ve started projects, completed projects and dreamt up even bigger plans for future projects. Living and working abroad, in another culture, seeing extreme poverty everyday has not been an easy experience for me. I’ve cried.. A lot. I’ve tortured myself with thoughts of home and the luxuries that await me at the end of this service. However, I’m surviving and maybe even more than that… thriving.

I once believed that I’ve only made it through because of the support I was receiving from a certain individual starting the first day I arrived in site. From day one, he accepted my for who I was. He made me feel at home no matter where I was. He gave me the love I’ve always searched for. He cheered for me through the rough times and was there to celebrate the wins, however small they were. He made me feel whole and complete. He made my soul smile.

13 months, or 473 days, or 11,352 hours later, we decided to each go our separate ways. I was crushed. I felt like that life support I was receiving was yanked from me. In the blink of an eye, my fountain of overflowing happiness ran dry. I honestly had no idea how I could make it another year in this new world I called home without my support I was so used to receiving. I was deeply saddened by the reality that all this happiness was something I may not ever feel again.

The few weeks that followed turned into a time of deep reflection for me. I didn’t throw myself into work to escape my problem. Neither did I avoid my responsibilities all together, wallowing in my own self-pity. What I did do was  send time with myself; time running, reading, meditating, writing, talking. I purposefully spent quiet time alone and dedicated it to taking care of healing my heart. I brightened up my room; trading in my dark grey bed spread for a white one with pretty pink and purple pops of color, surrounding myself with beautiful. I lightened my load by long runs alone with my thoughts, accepting them for what they were as they entered, without judgement or blame and, almost as effortlessly as they came, I was able to let them float away into the wind. I purposefully watched sunsets over the ocean, thinking about how the beach I sat on was made of billions of individual grains of sand coming together to form a collective whole. I cooked the things I wanted to eat, knowing nourishing my body would most definitely help to nourish my soul. I scribbled my thoughts down as they came into my head, pondering them and their origins, acknowledging them without judging them. I listened to the music I once loved so much, reminding me of cherished memories with my sisters, my true soul mates in this world. I spent time reaching out to friends, not hiding or masking the pain I was feeling, pretending to be something I’m not but instead embracing it. I went to sleep early and woke up late when I felt like I needed to. But most of all, I loved myself. I accepted who I am, who I am not, what I can do and what I can not.

Through all this, I saw my true strength, my true resilience, my true spirit and soul. I created a space of support and acceptance of myself. Here, in this space, I found that joy I thought I had been robbed of. Had it been there all along? Was I learning to create it for myself over the past year? While I was busy crediting external sources as the sole reason for my internal happiness, was I actually learning to love myself and in doing so, I felt that completeness I’ve never felt in my life

While I do believe life is a gift meant to be shared with others and we should spend time surrounding ourselves with individuals that bring out all the best of us, I think it is crucial that we not rely on others to complete us. Like the billions of grains of sand, each of us is complete and whole. It’s not when we are together that we a truly whole but instead when we are together we are merely reminded of our collective purpose. It is vital to generate that love for self from within and understand from where your happiness comes. In this way, no matter our external factors, we can be enough. We can accept ourselves for who we are. We can make ourselves feel at home no matter where we go. We can find the love we’ve always searched for from within ourselves. We can cheer for ourselves through the rough times and celebrate the wins, however small they are. We can feel whole and complete. We can make the soul smile.

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