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December 1998

9 December 1998

Amazonas, Colombia (Leticia, Puerto Nariño, Lagos de Tarapota, Amacayacu National Park)
The very next day after our Paipa trip, Chris and I bade farewell to Julie and Elena as we set off for a week in Amazonas, that strange afterthought of a state tacked on to the bottom of Colombia allowing it about 100km of access to the Amazon river about half-way along that river's mighty 6,400km length. I had received a rather anxious phone call from the travel agents a couple of days after I had booked the trip asking whether I could possibly change the dates of the trip (I could not), so it did not come as too much of a surprise that we were the only ones on the trip and, what is more, that we were not even expected when we arrived.

When we set foot out in the furnace-blast of hot air at Leticia, we watched the few other tourists as they were collected by their respective hotels. Then, after a wait, some kind soul explained to us that the guy who was supposed to meet us had been seen earlier, but could probably now be found at "one of his other businesses" in town. When he was not there either, we decided to adopt the local style and sat down to a few beers while someone else went off to find him.
Photo: Leticia waterfront, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Leticia waterfront, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 1998.
Apparently he had not been told that we were coming but, after some more waiting and a quick walk around sweaty Leticia and its bustling waterfront and Indian market, a guide was in fact found for us (Javier, the waiter from our restaurant, as it turned out!) and a boat procured. We and the other passengers gasped in relief as the boat gained speed, and we felt the first cool air since our arrival - Leticia is about as far south of the Equator as Bogotá is north (about 4½°), but its elevation of just 100m above sea level makes all the difference.

We headed west along the wide brown Amazon river, (although its actual width - we were told 30km, but probably about 15km at this stage - is disguised by a series of long thin islands along its length, so that it rarely looked to us to be more than a paltry two or three kilometres), following the Colombia-Peru border which runs down the centre of the river. On the river-side we saw trees, trees and more trees (which was also almost all we had seen for the last hour of the flight in), with the odd small settlement of wooden huts with tin roofs, and the odd area cleared for cattle or crops. Whenever we stopped to let off passengers or take on gasoline, the heat immediately closed in on us again until, after a fast and pleasant, but somehow exhausting, two-hour ride, we arrived at our destination, Puerto Nariño, just in time for an impressive tropical sunset, the first of several we were to witness.

The hotel in Puerto Nariño (and not the cabañas outside town) was all that could be found for us at short notice, and after a rather bizarre delay while a mass was celebrated in the dining room, we were ushered into our (basic, but satisfactory) room. Puerto Nariño was founded at the point where the Río Loretayacu pours into the Amazon proper, and is Amazonas' second (and last!) town, with all of 1,700 souls, of which 90% are indigenous, (the other 10% being termed "colonists"). The only vehicle in town is the horse-drawn cart used for garbage collection, and from what we saw not even donkeys or mules were used, so that if it could not be carried on the shoulders - and we saw all manner of unlikely things being humped on people's shoulders - it did not get taken.

We were shown how the river level rose from its current relatively low levels to the top of the stilts on which all the buildings are perched, so that in April and May apparently most of the town is underwater, and water and boats replace the footpaths and football pitches. The maximum difference over the year is apparently a huge 9 metres, and certainly we saw the regular high water mark on all the trees about 5 metres above the current level (which was by no means its lowest). We were also apparently lucky to have avoided the mosquito season - when the river is rising and falling they are frankly appalling (and that from a hardened local!). So we attempted to fall asleep that night to the music of millions of insects, some heavy-footed mice or lizards on the tin roof, bats squeaking in the eaves, and the local salsa bar in full swing, and to the almost constant flashes of sheet lightning which lit up the entire sky every few seconds.

But fall asleep we did, although between amnesiac roosters,
Photo: Ticuna fisherman, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Ticuna fisherman, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
over-zealous wood-choppers and other early risers, and on-going work on Puerto Nariño's new town hall, neither of us slept much past 3am. After a lonely breakfast (we were still the only two guests in the hotel, and as far as we could tell the only foreigners this side of Leticia), our man Javier was ready with a boat, three kinds of bananas and a plan, so off we went into the Heart of Darkness. We navigated further up the Río Loretayacu in slightly overcast weather, thankfully much cooler than when we had arrived. We passed much fewer settlements here, and just the odd fisherman nonchalantly paddling his little dugout canoe one-handed.

Fishing is the mainstay of the local economy, after the rubber market crashed in the 1940's, and after the coca industry which boomed in the 1970 was completely eradicated in the 1980's. We saw three main methods employed:

The waters teem with fish of all kinds, up to 80kg in weight, although when Chris tried his hand, he only managed to come up with the obligatory single piraña.

Further up-river, we turned into the Lagos de Tarapota, a couple of quite large but mirror-still lakes, where pink and grey river dolphins could supposedly be seen. And, right on cue, a mother and two babies appeared (of the more reticent pink variety), albeit briefly and not in a mood to play. In addition we watched Amazonian kingfishers skimming the water, blue-and-yellow macaws squawking, great blue herons loping across, and any number of ospreys, eagles and hawks soaring overhead or gliding from perch to perch.

Photo: Typical forest scene, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Typical forest scene, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
We disembarked at an isolated homestead, and after commiserating with the old homesteader over her failing corn crop and her so-so yucca, and after handing over the three pirañas it had taken half-an-hour to catch, we walked through her backyard and into the selva to meet some of the trees and other denizens. I instantly forgot all the instantly-forgettable names, but among others we saw:

Photo: Blue Morpho butterfly, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Blue Morpho butterfly, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
We also came across a large number of butterflies (including some common yellow-and-black ones which would land on one's fingers for the salt), some strange flat black centipedes, armies of leaf-cutter ants, and much too many mosquitoes, as well as learning something about indigenous customs, from hunting trips to emergency signals. Quite a full morning, all things considered!

After lunch (yup, fried fish again for Chris, and rice and patacones again for me!) and an hour or two relaxing in the thankfully mosquito-free hammocks in the hotel, we went dolphin-hunting again on the main Amazon river, and succeeded in spotting several, both the pink and the smaller and more agile grey, although they were very unwilling to pose for the camera (over the next few days we saw many dolphins, and they became quite commonplace). Javier related to us many tales about crocodiles and obscure kinds of fish, including the (well-known but surely apocryphal) one of the small transparent carnivorous fish with a penchant for human orifices. He also explained about the process of the creation and erosion of islands in the Amazon as silt is deposited after the high water season, and the currents changed accordingly, so that what islands there are are constantly in a state of change and movement, and new islands come and go with great regularity.

Photo: Sunset over Río Loretayacu, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Sunset over Río Loretayacu, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Later in the afternoon, we walked up to Alto El Aguila, the highest spot around, and just ten minutes upstream from Puerto Nariño. Although by no means high, it does nevertheless afford a wonderful view over Isla El Sapo and the Río Loretayacu, and while monkeys and macaws frolicked in the bushes, dolphins made brief appearances in the river below, clouds of dragonflies danced around us, and the bell-birds made their fantastic calls, we sat and watched another stunning Amazonian sunset.

The next morning saw our most interesting, and certainly most tiring, trip to date. Although Javier had impressed us so far with his knowledge of the area and its customs and vegetation, on this walk he brought along Clarindo, the local expert "man-of-the-forest", as well for good measure. He also togged us up with wellington boots, which did not seem very suitable footwear for a serious hike, but which turned out to be indispensable. We set off from Puerto Nariño up into what the locals insist on calling "the mountains", despite their being less than 50m high. The paths led up though the cultivated lands (banana, yucca, corn) of the indigenous locals behind the town, before deteriorating into tenuous winding tracks through thick jungle. Eventually we seemed to abandon the paths completely, and Clarindo just machete'd his way through apparently virgin rain-forest.

Between Javier and Clarindo, we were regaled with a vast body of information on local customs and strange eating habits. Once again the local Indian names escape me, and I am sure that I have forgotten the half of it, but among some of the many things we saw (and among some of the many things we ate and drank!) were:

In places the going was quite tough, especially in the incredibly high humidity, but we tried not to stand around for too long at a time so as not to give the ants and mosquitos time to find us.
Photo: Jungle near Puerto Nariño, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Jungle near Puerto Nariño, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
By far the most difficult part, and the main reason for the wellies, was through the pántano, a swamp of clingy, sucking, and seemingly bottomless, mud and brown oozing water. The technique was to walk along the semi-submerged and semi-decomposed branches which someone had laid long ago, using two long sticks as balancing aids, prodding with the sticks to find the next branch or trunk, and then gingerly making one's way along it without slipping into the ooze all around.

It had been probably the most interesting half-day walk I had ever done, and we were both highly appreciative of our guides. But by the time we arrived back in Puerto Nariño, Chris was having problems standing, never mind walking, and the heat and humidity and difficult terrain had so taken it out of us that we decided to pass up the afternoon canoe-paddle, and to relax in the hammocks until our body temperatures had returned to something like normal. That afternoon, when we could have been canoeing, it threw it down with rain for almost the only time in the entire week, so we felt ourselves justified.

The next day was, if anything, even more sweltering than the preceding ones, and even at 7.30am we had broken into a sweat which was to continue for the rest of the day. We headed some way back down the Amazon, noting en route the marked difference in color where the blue-black Loretayacu met the red-brown Amazon (this also seemed to be a favourite spot for dolphins). We then turned off up the edge of Amacayacu National Park, and up the Río Amacayacu, a tranquil river meandering its way further into the heart of the selva.

We stopped off at San Martín de Amacayacu, a traditional Ticuna Indian village, technically within the National Park itself, but functioning autonomously. We trudged around the village in the brutal sun while Javier cadged, bartered and bought fruit for us, giving us a chance to peek into the daily lives of the locals without too much embarrassment. Although by no means a pretty place, they were obviously making some attempt to stick to traditional styles and methods. The houses varied between completely enclosed and completely open, and most were cooking fish or boiling up the local yucca brew for the weekend rave-up. We spent quite a lot of money in the local artesanía shop, run on cooperative lines - having finally, and at length, decided how much we owed, they then had to set about distributing the money to the various artesans, which was an even more painful process to watch.

After a luke-warm beer in a stifling hut, we just had to go for a wonderful refreshing swim further up-river before we expired from the heat.
Photo: Ticuna children, San Martín, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
Ticuna children, San Martín, Amazonas, Colombia. Dec 98.
On the way back past San Martín, we distributed sweets to the local kids by the riverside - after the initial well-behaved and dutiful queue for one sweet each, they seemed to enjoy much more the free-for-all as they scrambled for handfuls thrown into the air. We were not quite sure what to make of it all, but it was clearly expected (we had bought the sweets specially), and it seemed harmless enough fun. We also bought a fruit with which Javier tattooed us, and we watched the initially clear colour turn a dark blue as it dried, and hoped that he was right that it would only last a week or so, because no amount of washing seemed to move it.

From there we went around to the other side of the National Park to the main Ranger Station and Visitors Centre, where we listened to a rather tedious speech about the Park's 450 species of trees, its trails and viewing towers, and its attempts to combine conservation with eco-tourism and the needs of the local indigenous population. We also went for a short walk through the forest, having vetoed the idea of rappelling up a 45m ceiba tree, and then walking along a very rickety-looking rope bridge, partly on the grounds of self-preservation, but mainly because the Col$20,000 price seemed excessively steep. They certainly had some interesting ideas going in the Park, including several remote viewing platforms, but the prices they were quoting for doing anything at all there smacked of delusions of grandeur, and they seemed in danger of pricing themselves out of what is already a very small market.

On the way back we became side-tracked watching dolphins, and we did not in the end have time to go canoeing to the Victoria Regia water-lilies on Isla El Sapo (for the uninitiated, the largest water-lilies in the world, with leaves which grow upto two metres and which can support the weight of a small child), although we had already seen some briefly anyway, so we decided to cut our losses and head for the cold shower and the hammocks.

So, with our sweat-sodden clothes hermetically sealed away in our cases, we travelled back down the Amazon to Leticia for fond farewells and a rather perfunctory and pointless visit to Brazil, mainly so that Chris could say he had been there. We took a cramped bus across the border which separates Leticia from its Brazilian sister-town, Tabatinga, a slightly larger and grubbier version with even less to see. It seemed to have no centre as such, and after we had milled around for a while and tried unsuccessfully to obtain a beer in at least two bars, we decided to take another cramped bus back again to uninteresting but at least friendly Leticia for our flight home.

20 December 1998 Back to top

New York, USA (Stratton Mountain, Vermont)
Apart from the office Christmas party, which successfully followed last year's successful recipe of a barbecue at an employee's weekend farm, that was the end of Chris' stay, and it only left us a few busy days before our last pre-Christmas trip, this time to the concrete jungle of New York. Between this visit to Helen and Iain in New York, Chris' recent visit, Julie's not-quite-so-recent meeting with her father in Florida, and what seemed at the time like some judicious mail-ordering, we thought we had managed to arrange for delivery of all our Christmas presents without having to rely on the Colombian mail system which had become increasingly erratic of late. Although the arrangements were sometimes tortuous, and at times verged on a sort of international pass-the-parcel game, most of it miraculously came off, (although, as usual, National Geographic let us down).

And, despite more problems with our credit cards (yet more fraud on our account - despite Nat West's assurances that they were not sending us the cards to Colombia by mail this time, they had obviously done just that), we hit the stores of New York and New Jersey with a Latino vengeance.
Photo: Elena skating, New York, USA. Dec 98.
Elena skating, New York, USA. Dec 98.
Our purchases included a scanner (at last, photos on the web-site!), a new modem (at last, updates on the web-site, after several weeks more without Internet access!), and the usual glut of clothes, CD's, books and toiletries. Elena had her first experience of ice-skating, about which she was by no means convinced, but she seemed suitably gob-smacked at the quantity of goods for sale, the lights and decorations, and the sheer number of Santa Clauses on the streets.

Having packed for the usual December blizzards, we arrived to unseasonable warm weather, although it gradually cooled down the longer we stayed. We had, however, also packed for skiing in Stratton, Vermont, and as the reservations were already made, we went along for the hell of it, not expecting too much. But to give them their due, despite the fact that there was no real snow within hundreds of miles, and that temperatures had been up in the 70°F's just the previous week, they had managed to produce enough man-made snow to provide us with some skiing, even if not of the highest quality, and without much variety in runs. Nothing daunted, we concentrated on lowering our centres of gravity by continuing the gross over-eating we had begun in New York.

We lied about Elena's age and packed her off to Little Kids' Ski School for 4-5 year olds
Photo: Elena skiing, New York, USA. Dec 98.
Elena skiing, New York, USA. Dec 98.
for a couple of days, muffled up to the eyes in largely borrowed clothes and rented miniature ski equipment, so that she waddled like a green penguin in order to get anywhere, and climbing steps became a slow-motion replay towards the top. Primed and bribed with hot chocolate and videos, and in the company of just a handful of other kids, she had her very first ski lessons, which as far as I could tell seemed to revolve around "French Fries" and "Pizza Wedges". We tried to watch from a discrete distance so as not to distract her, and (when she figured out that "French Fries" were the same as "Chips"), she sort of got the hang of it, although the concept of "Pizza Wedges" remained beyond her to the end. Getting up after a fall (which, for obscure reasons which I never understood, involved saying "Gorilla, Banana") likewise remained a mystery to her, and the usual attitude we saw her in was one of arms-upraised supplication, either to be hoisted upright or carried somewhere. But, credit where credit is due, she lasted the course, and the poor little bugger was physically wrecked at the end of each day.

What was supposed to be the highlight of the trip for Elena (although in actual fact it was probably eclipsed by the skiing) was an Off-Broadway
Photo: Elegant Elena, New York, USA. Dec 98.
Elegant Elena, New York, USA. Dec 98.
production of Elena's favourite Disney cartoon "The Lion King", an elaborate and sophisticated affair, although most of the spectacular special effects were wasted on Elena who was having problems following the dialogue, even though it was word-for-word from the film. We managed to get through it with only one major screaming fit, although my nerves were quite frazzled enough by the end. It was not too long before I started to find the teeming crowds everywhere in Manhattan overwhelming and, after ultra-polite Bogotá, the brusqueness and brashness of New Yorkers began to grate, but for a short period at least it is certainly a fascinating and exuberant place to be. I have always reserved judgement on whether I could ever actually live there, but after a quick look at the What's On Guide and the Restaurant Guide I think the answer is probably yes.

Elena was spoiled throughout the week more excessively, thoroughly and comprehensively than ever before by her doting relations and the many other fiends and colleagues we tried to fit in to our short time there, partly in the form of sweets, chocolates and presents, but partly by the sheer quantity of new experiences (skating, skiing, Broadway shows, all in a week, and all at just three-and-a-half years old!). We sometimes forget that she has accumulated experiences in her few short years which it took us half a lifetime to amass. She hops on and off planes like other kids do buses, and she is rarely, if ever, fazed by anything we put her through.

Once back in Bogotá, however, there was a big down after the highs, and an abrupt return to normality after all the attention and the spoiling. As usual I seem to take the brunt of her insults ("Daddy is rubbish, and we should throw him in the bin!"), although most of it is water off a duck's back now (Julie would probably take it much more personally, but Elena usually blames me even if it is Julie who tells her off). Julie is constantly amused by our constant antagonism and arguments but, while some of it at least is tongue in cheek on my part, I do also feel that someone has to make a stand, and not let her walk all over us. She has such a strong will that there seems little likelihood of my squashing her self-confidence (especially as she usually wins the arguments anyway - I do not have the same stamina or single-mindedness).

28 December 1998 Back to top

Christmas passed peacefully enough, especially when we think back to some of the sleepless noise-filled Christmases we spent in Caracas. Here they do not have the same odious habit throughout the month of December of letting off depth charges and calling then fireworks - there was a modest flurry of normal fireworks towards 12 o'clock on Christmas Eve, and really nothing more either before or after. We had a Scottish friend from Caracas staying with us over Christmas, and she helped keep Elena amused. Elena received an obscene amount of presents (we, as usual, were among the worst culprits), and although she started off unwrapping and playing dutifully with everything, towards the end she was reduced to a sort of manic ripping and stacking routine. To be fair, she did later find time to play with everything, but in many respects it was certainly a classic case of Christmas overkill, and the associated desensitization.

Photo: Embalse de Neusa, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Dec 98.
Embalse de Neusa, Cundinamarca, Colombia. Dec 98.
Jeanette seemed to quite enjoy her visit, short though it was, although the only trip out we made was to the Catedral de Sal at Zipaquirá, which we had visited previously a year before, and then on to some new ground to the beautiful reservoir at Neusa. We took the old dirt road out of Zipaquirá towards Neusa, through beautiful mountain countryside before arriving at the large lake surrounded by imposing forested mountains. Part of it has been fenced off as a nature reserve, and lightly developed for tourists, and, although we did not walk far because of Elena who had just woken up and was clearly in no mood for a long hike, we had a very pleasant stroll around in the cool mountain air, before the hour-and-a-half drive back into Bogotá.

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