In sloth mode along the Ama­zon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & In­dul­gence A Bolt To The Bridge In San Fr - THE IN­DE­PEN­DENT

times an­nounced by a loud splash, at other times a sigh-like ex­ha­la­tion, but in­vari­ably be­hind us, al­low­ing just a tan­ta­lis­ing glimpse.

I watch a small group feed­ing mid-river as I re­cline on the sun deck, sliv­ers of pink gleam­ing in the brown wa­ter when­ever they break the sur­face.

Then there are all the beasts that elude us, but the very thought of which makes the for­est seem even more en­tic­ing: the rare Ama­zo­nian man­a­tees that sur­face only for a gloop of air be­neath the cover of the wa­ter let­tuce; the jaguars that, ac­cord­ing to guide Juan Te­jada, are spot­ted just two or three times a year; and the ana­con­das, gi­ant ser­pents of leg­end.

We nearly meet an ana­conda. Spot­ting the im­print of its mas­sive coils pressed into the float­ing veg­e­ta­tion where it was ly­ing just mo­ments ear­lier, we cut the en­gine and scru­ti­nise the tan­gle. No mon­ster snake ap­pears but Vic­tor spies a baby fer-de-lance, Latin Amer­ica’s most feared snake, draped in­no­cently across a raft of wa­ter let­tuce. The prospect of meet­ing either species quickly scotches the idea of a re­fresh­ing dip for any­one as yet un­de­terred by the pi­ra­nhas and elec­tric eels.

Af­ter lunch on day three we reach the con­flu­ence of the Mara­non and Ucay­ali rivers, mark­ing the birth­place of the Ama­zon proper. By now we are be­gin­ning to see more river traf­fic: log rafts car­ry­ing peo­ple, dogs and chick­ens; dugouts laden with bananas. Th­ese boats are a re­minder that com­mu­ni­ties also live along the Ama­zon. And to find out more, we hop into the skiffs and pay a visit to the vil­lage of San Miguel, home to a com­mu­nity of rivereos, or river peo­ple.

We moor be­side the dugouts and wan­der among the wooden build­ings perched on stilts that raise them above the flood. The vil­lage is coated in mud, glis­ten­ing where the flood­wa­ters have most re­cently sub­sided. A vig­or­ous game of foot­ball hur­tles past on a pitch that is still half-sub­merged. Mean­while the vil­lagers gather on a patch of dry land to spread out their cu­rios — an­i­mals, bowls and other arte­facts carved from balsa or fash­ioned from seed­pods — and the shop­pers among our party get down to busi­ness.

Such tourist ex­pe­ri­ences can some­times feel un­pleas­antly voyeuris­tic. And yet at San Miguel I don’t feel bur­dened with that cus­tom­ary us-and-them guilt. There is poverty, yes, but also a sense of an in­dus­tri­ous and sel­f­re­liant com­mu­nity liv­ing from the land (or wa­ter) in the only con­di­tions it has known, and for which it is bet­ter equipped than any­one else on the planet.

And the out­side world is not ab­sent: fol­low­ing the muf­fled bass of a stereo sys­tem down a line of planks that dou­bles as a high street, I find the Tou­can Bar, where foot­ball posters line the walls and beers (not nec­es­sar­ily ice-cold) line the shelves.

Aqua Ex­pe­di­tions is work­ing closely with th­ese river­bank com­mu­ni­ties. As well as fu­elling the lo­cal econ­omy by en­cour­ag­ing a hand­i­craft in­dus­try and other eco­tourism spin-offs, it pro­vides free med­i­cal sup­plies and a trav­el­ling doc­tor who makes reg­u­lar calls. Mean­while, the Aqua nat­u­ral­ists are work­ing with the park au­thor­i­ties to teach and en­cour­age a more sus­tain­able use of for­est re­sources, in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, a new tech­nique for har­vest­ing palm fruits with­out felling the tree and so de­priv­ing macaws of vi­tal nest holes.

Wild an­i­mal prod­ucts, once a re­gret­table sta­ple of tourist knick­knacks in this area, are now sel­dom seen.

We end the day watch­ing the sun set over a back­wa­ter la­goon as fish­ing bats swoop across the wa­ter and the rip­ples of river dol­phins lap against our skiff. The only light is from the canopy of stars above us.

It is one of those time­less wilder­ness mo­ments. Such mo­ments do not, of course, tell the whole story. Wilder­ness? Just a few miles down­river, Aria is lit up like a Christ­mas tree, promis­ing hot show­ers, a sump­tu­ous din­ner and a ride home to our real worlds. Time­less­ness? We read ev­ery week about how the Ama­zon is chang­ing ir­re­vo­ca­bly as the forests are whit­tled away and the out­side world makes its de­mands.

On our last day back in Iquitos, we visit the ex­tra­or­di­nary float­ing com­mu­nity of Be­len, where more than 33,000 rivereos have taken their aquatic life­style to the doorstep of the city. This Venice of the jun­gle, com­plete with churches on stilts, float­ing bar­be­cues, taxi dugouts and a ded­i­cated ra­dio sta­tion, is liv­ing, bustling proof that the Ama­zon can­not stand still.

As our plane leaves Iquitos and soars above the trees, I watch the for­est’s green car­pet roll out to each hori­zon and it seems that if any­where were big enough to slow down the plun­der­ings of moder­nity, it is surely the Peru­vian Ama­zon. The plants keep grow­ing, the river keeps flow­ing and we can only hope that change, when it comes, keeps sloth time.

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