Thursday, June 12, 2008

El Pongo de Mainique

It was planned that on Saturday morning, we were all heading to the Amazon to take a boat and take in the sights. Because the drive was ridiculously long, we needed to leave at a ridiculous hour, which was 6:30 am. I set my alarm for 6:06 am, giving myself enough time to get up, get dressed, and grab my already prepared bag. This 6:06 method, however, did not agree with Erika, as she needs at least fifteen minutes to just roll out of bed, whereas I can jump out of bed within two minutes of hearing my alarm. My philosophy is that 6:06 gives me the maximum undisturbed time to sleep, whereas an alarm going off every three minutes starting at 5:45 would simply make me wake up at 5:45. To summarize, we remained friends and negotiated and set the alarm for 6:00.

We were all on the bus by 6:40 and man was it ever a long one. Eight hours of dusty roads, with the hot sun creeping up on you is typically not my idea of a fun trip, but with the promise of the Amazon jungle up ahead, we all tolerated it and tried to keep as cool as possible. As soon as we arrived, we ate the typical rice and chicken lunch and then were shown our hotels. Now, hotel is a misleading word, as it conjures up images of chintzy beds, large windows, a television set, as well as the possibility of a gym or a pool. Our hotel was directly above the outdoor restaurant, with a creeky wooden staircase, and very simple rooms. The room contained the bed and the mosquito netting (which included quaint holes) and nothing else. At least I had a picturesque window, overlooking the beach and river, and I was also privy to seeing where the raw sewage flowed out into the river.

Now, when you think of raw sewage, you think of staying far away from it – poff, we said (true, without knowing at this point that it was raw sewage going into the river) and we dipped our feet in the river, some of the students swimming. The bathroom of the hotel was also not what you think of when you hear “bathroom”. The restaurant and the hotel shared the same bathroom, and the smell, oh the stench of it, was nearly unbearable. One of the hotels, incidentally, the one I was staying at, did not have running water at the bathrooms, so you had to bring your own water from the river, I suppose, in order to flush the toilet or wash your hands. I avoided this crisis by using the other hotel’s bathroom where the stench was just as deadly, but at least it had running water.

We took a nice long walk on the beach later that afternoon. Erika and I enjoyed the scenery, especially the interesting shaped rocks along the water, as well as the colourful and unidentified flora around us. On the edge of the beach, in the wooded area, one of the students, Laurent, came across several lines of thousands of red ants. The ants were transporting food across the path and into the woods. It was really neat to see tons of ants hurrying back and forth, carrying food many times their own weight. Laurent also pointed out the ants that were on “look-out” duty; single ants were stationed outside the line of ants, in order to warn them of impeding danger. We were certainly a danger, so out of courtesy, we left them alone and headed back to the beach. That evening we decided to have a bonfire right by the water. It was great – we played a game called “Loup Garou”, which is very similar to Mafia, but with a few additions. Very fun. Afterwards, people started telling ghost stories, which, frankly, managed to freak me out, so I requested for jokes afterwards. After a good hour of jokes and such, I headed off to bed and managed to sleep very well, despite the paper thin walls and the raw sewage below me.

The following morning, breakfast consisted of rice, fried bananas, and runny eggs. The eggs were a bit too much to handle, especially considering the smell that surrounded this restaurant – a stomach churning mix of urine, diesel, and fried chicken. Shortly after eating, we eagerly left the restaurant and jumped into our boats (we had two boats for the group). The minute we took off, I knew I was going to love the boat ride. Catherine and I stayed in front for a good chunk of the ride, taking photos, commenting on the scenery, and just enjoying the wind and the rocking of the boat. We hit rapids many times during the ride, and man, was it every exhilarating! As our boat crashed into the rapids, we yelped with joy and enjoyed getting splashed. Erika kept screaming, “Oh my god, it’s a big one guys!” Who needs roller coasters when you’ve got the jungle?!
The landscape – astounding as always – amazed us with its lush colours: deep greens, bright yellows, and shocking reds. Large trees with gigantic leaves lined the sides of the rolling hills. Along the side of the river were shiny, strangely shaped rocks, often resembling faces, and sometimes looking like a pile of garbage bags, just glistening in the sun. We also passed countless waterfalls, delicately running down the large cliffs that were on either side of the river. After three hours of being the boat, we got off in the heart of the jungle, named the Pongo. We explored a little of the area, but spent most of the time splashing around in the river. It was wonderfully refreshing. When we boarded the boats again, most of us were still in our bathing suits (or underwear for some), and we just lounged about, letting the sun and the wind dry us off. And just to top off a perfect boat ride in the jungle, the sky became overcast, which allowed us to enjoy the return boat trip in a cooler, much more relaxing temperature.

Of course, another 8-hour bus ride back was waiting for us upon our return. Again, it was stuffy and uncomfortable, but it being night, I was able to sleep a little. Even though it was an exhausting ride to and fro the Pongo, the trip was certainly worth it. It was impossibly beautiful - I would love to return someday with any of you who would care to join me.

This weekend, we visit la piece de resistance – Machu Picchu! The recount of the trip should be posted on Monday.

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