25 Jul A Different World : The Belen Market and Iquitos, Peru
We landed next to an airplane graveyard. Burned and disassembled metal skeletons lined the right side of the tarmac as our wheels touched down – a humbling and insightful welcome to Iquitos, Peru. Dark gray clouds hugged the horizon and cast an ominous tone on the entire city. The heat and humidity instantly smothered us, slowing our movements and drowning our excitement. We stood on a curb in the muggy parking lot for 20 minutes waiting for a prearranged ride from our hostel. When our ride failed to show up, we flagged down a tuk-tuk from an eager row of local drivers.
Aaron and I shared a bench seat bolted to the back of an old Honda dirt bike. Our driver kick-started the engine and loud rumbles and reeking gray smoke drowned out the natural background. We clutched our backpacks on our laps and roared toward the city. Within minutes we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic surrounded by resurrected dirt bikes, floods of locals, and pieced-together wooden buses. The air was laced with clouds of exhaust and the acrid smell of burning oil. Poorly maintained engines coughed and backfired, adding to our already overloaded senses. Almost instantly the town turned from uncomfortable to borderline offensive.
Iquitos is not a city for the faint of heart. It’s an amalgam of crude culture, nearly intolerable living conditions, and unrefined third-world traits. The city boasts an intriguing history and a cultural scene that dares to be explored at least once – but perhaps only once. Iquitos sits deep in the Amazon rainforest basin on the northern tip of Peru and just south of the Colombian border. The area was once famous for its rubber production but has since claimed fame for the large rebel army of guerrillas that run extensive drug trades and dangerous gang activity. Nonetheless, intrepid travelers use Iquitos as a staging point for rugged boat tours on the Amazon or to invoke spiritual cleansing and enlightenment through heavy doses of ayahuasca with the local shaman.
Despite the serene, natural setting, Iquitos manages to keep visitors on their toes. The Amazon river and rainforest wrap around Iquitos on all sides blocking off any possibility for road or rail traffic. It’s so far removed from nearby civilization that the only way in – or out – is by airplane or a days-long boat ride. Being this detached and this far off-grid threatens to leave even the most seasoned traveler vulnerable and leery.
We were without our modern amenities. No form of communication. No comforting signs of predictability. Our hotel exacerbated the reality of the situation. The trendy hostel was comprised of four floating wooden platforms held together with pieces of scrap wood and fraying rope. The allure here, is that each of the rooms floats directly on the Amazon river, bobbing up and down with the gentle tide below.
As we crossed thin wooden planks bridging the platforms, Marcel, the hostel owner warned us not to wander far. A recent storm flooded the area causing our room to dislodge and float off down the river. Local boys had since towed it back, but half of the platform was still submerged. Marcel joked that our room had a knack for floating away during heavy winds or intense rain – a real bother seeing as how he had to keep paying to tow it back every few weeks.
We opened the door to our room and were immediately met with the damp, stagnant air inside. Agitated mosquitos buzzed in the background trying to escape through the ripped sections of screen over the windows. Our bed sat a few inches off the ground with an old sheet and two thin pillows laid on top. A tattered mosquito net was tied in a knot and hung from the ceiling.
Aaron walked to the far wall to investigate the facilities. He cocked his head to the side and let our a cackle, a laugh I’ve learned to simultaneously dread and enjoy. There was no door on the bathroom, but I didn’t find it nearly as amusing as Aaron. Realizing I wasn’t apprised of the joke, he teased, “no, the floor,” pointing down. Ripples of murky brown river water swayed back and forth. The thin piece of wood that used to be our bathroom floor was completely missing. Instead, we had direct access to the river below. The toilet balanced on a few rotten scraps of wood miraculously still attached to one wall. Marcel explained his issues with the bathroom floors rotting out and told us that ours was recently swept away by the river. We tossed our bags on the bed and sat on the communal deck trying to take it all in.
* * *
The next morning Marcel offered to take us to the Belen market – a notorious market with a harsh reputation. It’s known to sell anything and everything, even if it means hunt, harvest, or haul. The vendors hawk bizarre items that make most visitors uncomfortable and petty crime is rampant. Going without a guide is strongly discouraged and most tourists avoid the area altogether. Marcel warned us not to pull out cameras and to stay close. After an agonizing night without sleep and a heavy dose of culture shock, we had no problem latching on to him.
As we walked toward the market, Marcel shared grandiose tales from his life and the area. He told a nomadic story of moving to Washington DC with his father who worked as a teacher; which explained his fluent English. He enjoyed the States but complained that the people were too regimented and law-abiding. He tried his hand at a few different businesses and ultimately moved back to Iquitos because he missed the raw lawlessness of it all.
Details of his story changed a little through our conversations, important pieces seemed to disappear, and he was clearly rehearsed. He had the credibility of a slimy used car salesmen you’d see in the movies. His eyes darted around constantly, often landing on a passerby with whom he would share a quick whisper and cackle. Most noticeably, he demanded an intimidating amount of respect from the locals.
We were getting closer to the Belen Market and I tried to keep up both physically and mentally. There was too much to take in. A constant stream of children ran up to us begging for money, food, or our shoes. Marcel shooed them away with a flick of the wrist. It was emotionally crushing to wave them off, to deny their simple requests, but Aaron and I had already learned a heartbreaking lesson.
The night before, as we left a small deli holding a styrofoam container of leftovers, three young kids rushed up to us begging for our food. We gladly handed them our box of French fries. Before we had a chance to realize what was happening, an entire gang of children surrounded us begging for more food, clothes, and money. There were too many of them and the situation quickly grew uncomfortable. Teenage boys tugged on our arms and little girls pulled on our shirts. We couldn’t help just one and we had no way of helping them all.
After Marcel cleared today’s pack of children, we continued on toward the market. Fruit stands and tables topped with knick knacks and bananas lined the street and at first glance it resembled most Latin markets. “We’re almost there.” Marcel said with a smirk that made my skin tighten.
The market quickly grew around us. The street narrowed and long rows of tables lined the road on both sides. The dirt beneath our feet gradually turned to sloshy mud. A stomach turning odor filled the air and my insides leapt into my throat. The smell hung somewhere between rotten fish, decomposing vegetables, and a warm landfill. It reminded me of the days I’d spent helping my parents build our house, when my dad and I would unload the back of his truck at the local dump. I would stand on piles of garbage trying not to breathe. The smell would be inescapable. This, standing here in Belen Market, was so much more intense. The sour smell burned the inside of my nose and made my eyes water.
I scanned the ground trying to figure out the source of the putrid smells. Piles of garbage collected in heaps along the edge of the street. Herds of footprints smashed down fish heads and carcasses, nearly burying them in mud. Scraps of food, banana peels, chicken feet, and wilted lettuce stuck out of the mud and formed a running compost pile as far as I could see.
An elderly woman to our right dropped a machete in a hard swoop and chopped the head from a chicken. The sound startled us and we both looked at her. Without skipping a beat she used the machete to swipe the head forward and onto the ground. It fell in a pile of fly-covered chicken scraps. A small stream of blood ran toward our feet. We stepped over it and kept walking.
Whack. Swoosh. Whack. Swoosh.
We could hear her cleaning, cutting, and separating the chicken. Throwing the remains on the ground to be kneaded into the mud with the rest of the unwanted produce and meat. A few tables down on the right was another lady wielding a machete. In between whacks she was breaking down more chickens, using her bare hands to throw breasts and legs into piles on the front of her table. A steady stream of flies swarmed the warm meat. She used her dull blade to slide the innards onto the muddy ground. My eyes followed as a few bones fell. Sitting directly under her table next to the pile of chicken scraps was a young girl that couldn’t have been more than two or three years old. She was completely naked, sticking the end of a muddy shoe in her mouth.
This wasn’t uncommon. Other tables had children and babies crawling around in fish, chicken, and cow pieces while the mother chopped, diced, and sold. Locals handed over a few sols and the women placed a few pieces of meat in a thin plastic bag. Business transactions were taking place. The children didn’t even notice.
The further we ventured into the market the more bizarre the vendors and the goods. Marcel turned toward me and asked, “You don’t have a weak stomach, do you?” There was that perverse smirk again. I didn’t answer. I swallowed hard and tried to remind myself that whatever it is, it can’t be that wild. People live here, they eat these things, they see this everyday. If children can play in it, then surely I can look at it.
We stopped at a table ran by an elderly woman whose dark brown skin resembled aged leather. Her eyes were piercing and she sat silently as Marcel showed off her merchandise. “Most of what you see here is illegal.” He pointed to a pile of baby alligators then to a stack of tortoise shells, their bodies lying separately on the table. Some whole, some in pieces. Next to them lay monkeys that had been shaved and filleted in half. Various heads, skulls, and body parts from what I assume were local animals filled the entire table. I was curious, trying to comprehend everything in front of me. Trying to determine the use or the allure of such bizarre products. I couldn’t stomach the monkeys. Something about their hands and faces didn’t sit right with me. I tried to hide my unease and I turned away, looking for the little girls I had just seen playing on the ground. What a strange place to grow up.
Eventually, we broke from the table and wandered through an alley lined with local shaman. Their tables held unmarked potions, bundles of herbs said to cure anything that ails you, and different boxes of hand rolled cigarettes offering healing qualities. Women sold potions to ward off evil spells, oils to help find love, and spices that promised euphoria. As we walked, a woman grabbed my left arm and pointed at my rash of bug bites. “Use this. This fixes it.” She asserted while shoving a small plastic bottle of red liquid in my hand. Startled, I nodded and took the unmarked bottle.
* * *
The market soon digressed to more traditional tables overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables; peppers, limes, lettuce, and tomatoes. What didn’t fit on the table sat in piles on the ground. Squash and corn sat neatly on the muddy street, mingling with whatever lay beneath them. Then came tables of plastic children’s toys, hand-poured candles, pots and pans, and knock-off make-up. They really did sell everything here.
Before I had the chance to appreciate the normalcies in this part of the market, Marcel turned and motioned for us to follow him down an alley. He called ahead to a teenage boy who jumped from his seat on a pile of fish cartons and swung opened a large metal door. Immediately, we were met with a refreshing burst of ice cold air. The cooler instantly filled with fog.
Once the fog settled and the air was thin enough to see through, we discovered we were standing in a meat locker. The teenage boy yanked on a large meat hook with a cow head speared on the bottom. He swung it out into the open for us to see. I’m not sure what response he was hoping for, but I couldn’t seem to generate one. He let go of the hook and the head swung back in line with the other animals, eyes pointed at the ground. Then, he pulled out a frozen pig head, then an alligator head, and whole fish that were larger than me. That familiar tingle of unease was making its way through my stomach again. I stepped backward, eager to leave.
We walked out and the young boy closed the door behind us before quickly running off with the few cents Marcel tipped him; clearly amused that someone paid to see frozen food. As we continued down the alley, groups of people swarmed around us. The narrow area quickly became congested and claustrophobic. My stomach tightened.
Marcel placed his hand on the back of an older man and mumbled a few words in Spanish. Aaron and I watched intently trying to figure out what adventure he was planning next. A few young men fell into me and Aaron. They were pushing each other back-and-forth and intentionally including us in their game. Before we had a chance to realize their intentions, Marcel turned around and barked a few words at the men in a tone that silenced the entire area. Realizing we were with Marcel startled the boys and with wide eyes they scampered off down the alley. “They were just trying to pickpocket you, he laughed.” Then he turned and stepped onto a wooden canoe. We followed.
As we rowed away, I pulled out my cellphone and snapped a picture of the dock and the back of the market. My heart rate started to slow and I felt safe on my sequestered island, even further detached from the real world. Aaron let out a sigh and pulled a cigarette from his pocket.
“Where did you get that?” I asked
“Some lady in the market, said it was the best in the world.”
We sat on thin slats of wood maneuvering our boat through the floating town. Rickety shacks built on stilts hovered a few inches above the river. Power lines shot out in poorly hung webs and dangled dangerously close to the water. On several occasions we were forced to fold ourselves over inside the canoe to avoid electrocution as they passed inches from our heads. The homes themselves were in horrible disrepair, decaying from heavy storms and a lack of resources. They were all primitive, the most rustic homes I’ve seen outside of Villa El Salvador. Some were nothing more than a buckled platform with sheets strung from wooden poles.
Women sat on the edge of their platforms dangling their babies in the river as they washed them. Children squat down over the water, using it as a bathroom. Some collected pots of water for dinner. The same water that consumed our bathroom floor. The same water that was full of caiman, piranha, and who knows what else. The people here are tough, rugged, and raw. One night of sleeping in their huts and walking through their market was enough to shake me.
I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel watching the inner-workings of a shanty town float beside me. I remember feeling so many things that I actually felt guilty. Part of me was smiling, filled with the adrenaline needed to mentally survive these situations. I was proud of myself for not retreating into my shell – begging to find an air-conditioned hotel room, to find a source of normalcy. There was an overwhelming part of me that was heartbroken and devastated looking at the living conditions. In the States, these homes would be condemned, calling for a state of emergency. Here it was simply Monday.
A wooden canoe slid past us with a family onboard. We waved and the young kids squealed and excitedly waved back. The boat was thin and long with a thatched roof and a small motor. Marcel pointed, “You guys want to go into the Amazon? Sleep on one of those boats? Like a local. I have a guy, he’ll take you.” Aaron and I shared wide-eyed glances. My chest burned and I couldn’t comprehend the idea of living here.
A few hours later, when we got back to dry land, Aaron and I walked to the grocery store in town. We asked the owner if we could place a call on their landline. After haggling on a price, the manager handed us a phone. I watched as young boys bagged bottles of Coke and bags of rice for waiting families while pressing the phone against my ear.
“Hello.” My mom answered. Surely she didn’t recognize the number of a small Peruvian grocery store.
“Oh my god! Are you okay? Where have you been? Are you guys okay?”
“Mom, we’re going into the Amazon tomorrow. We’ll be living on a wooden canoe for a few days. You won’t hear from us for a while.”