Travel: Iquitos and the Amazon [Part One]

For a London girl, living and travelling in South America can sometimes be frustrating. Forget your expectations of service or efficiency. This is Peru and nothing works the way it should.

Packaged food is always a year out of date and that´s just the way it is. Order off a menu and the first five items will receive a response of ¨no tenemos¨. Also, those prices are from 2007. The bathroom is flooded in your hotel room? It´s a feature. Public transport never gets anywhere less than 3 hours late and don´t even bother asking anyone to explain why. Lots of things are just a little bit shit, so it´s best to just accept it.

But I didn´t come here for the table service. Spending four days camping in the middle of the Amazon rainforest was enough to snap me out of my spoilt city attitude.

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A streetview in the floating village of Belen

We started from Iquitos, the largest city in the world inaccessible by road, smack in the middle of the jungle. Iquitos is like every other Peruvian city; crowded, loud and suffocatingly polluted. In fact, because of its isolation, there are few cars on the road, but 25,000 mototaxis turn the streets into a demolition derby, with the fumes to match.

Ex-pats and locals live side by side; the former, pilgrims looking for a friendly city where life moves at half the pace; the latter, some Amazon Indians moved to the big smoke to sell handicrafts or tout tours, some refugees seeking shelter from their Andean or coastal cities wracked by terrorism in the 1990s.

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A family at home in Belen.

The rubber boom of the 1900s that put the former Jesuit mission of Iquitos on the world map is a mere spectre. Once the grande proof of the superlative wealth of the city, delapidated Portuguese-tiled manors now house government paper-pushers, and French mansions lie vacant next to shoe-shops. The ‘Casa de Fierro‘ (Iron House) built by Gustave Eiffel is now a pharmacy.

From the main square, you could be in any city in the Americas. But walk down an alley and you´re on the Amazon river. It´s all you can see to the horizon. Watching the sun setting over the floodlands, it´s impossible to give a monkey´s about the little irritations that sometimes make long-term travelling a chore. This is why I came to Peru.

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Potions for what ails you, in el Mercado de Belen

Before heading into the jungle, we spend a day exploring Iquitos’ Mercado de Belen and extending from it, the floating village of Belen. The market is a shaman’s supermarket and an animal rights activist’s nightmare. The Amazonian Diagon Alley that sells everything from potions to improve sexual virility, to dried boa skins for use in black magic rituals, ayahuasca (an hallucinogenic plant extract held sacred by brujas and Gringos on their gap-year), live monkeys, and illegally poached wild animal meat. We see turtles, snakes, capybara (a giant jungle rodent) and black caiman diced, sliced and ready for sale. None of the stall-owners seem to mind us taking pictures, which is surprising given their merch.

An enormous section of the market is essentially a slaughterhouse. Your everyday livestock is sold here; pigs, cows, poultry, plus fish and seafood. Every part of every animal is sold. Each stall has sections for every kind of inside bit: offal, testicles, eyes, skin, you name it, they’ve sliced it off. As we walk in, towards a loud crunching noise, we see a man with his meat cleaver stuck in the brow of a skinned bulls’s head.

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Waste not, want not, in el Mercado de Belen

Feeling slightly queasy, we’re lead by our guide through the meat section, to the dock to catch a boat to Belen village. Other than the fact that it’s a village under (or rather on top of) water for one half of the year, Belen functions like any other. Kids play in the street, women visit friends in the next house, young people return from work. Except they do it in canoes. The school, pub, petrol station, shops, church and houses all float, and people go about their business on the water. The kids are particularly adept at rowing.

Some houses are solid, with two floors above the water, electricity and lighting. Many houses lie empty, dilapidated and partially submerged. Our guide tells us some houses go up quick to accommodate people that travel from inside the jungle with a big load to sell. They sell and move on. The houses aren’t built to last. For others, maybe they start to make more money. They improve their houses and stay in Belen. It’s poor here, but many love it too much to leave.

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Se vende: Gasolina, en the floating village of Belen

From Iquitos, there is only one road out, which cuts through dense jungle to the small town of Nauta, the second largest settlement on the Amazon river. From there it´s an hour and 45 minutes by motor-canoe to the Amazon lodge, where we would spend our first night in the rainforest. Tiny hamlets of houses on stilts pepper the banks. This is flood season and we are in the lowlands. If you live here, your house is either on the water or under it.

This is part one of two, to be continued…

Photos: Alan Chant // alanchant.com // @bonchant

Travel: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena at sunset, between Getsamani and the Old City. Image: Alan Chant

This 12-month Panamerican adventure has been full of surprises; birdwatching is now an active hobby (the birds of Central and South America are beguiling). I’ve learnt things about myself; I can actually survive without exfoliator but am unswervingly intolerant of certain nationals (can’t mention names, but they talk loudly about themselves when nobody has asked and are constantly planning their next interruption). That’s not one i’m particularly proud of, but I am afraid it is true.

My wilful exile has also brought me closer to my first love, London. I miss it so. We were having a bit of a lovers’ tiff before I left, but absence most certainly does make the heart grow fonder and I am smitten. I wish I could have been transported back a couple of weeks ago to play in the snow with you all and complain about trains. Oh it’s SO bloody HOT, here.

Me and the boyf are now nearly 4 months into our trip and PRAISE BE, we’re in Colombia.

Colombia – after the cultural and foodie vacuums of Gringoland (Costa Rica and Panama) – promised to take us back to the exultation of Mexico at the start of our trip; addictive and cheap street eats; fiery but friendly locals; safe cities with plenty to do and see; and richly diverse small towns and villages yet unmarked by the pocks of tourism and the footprints of flip-flopped holidayers stampeding to the beach. And by gum, it is not disappointing. If it wasn’t for the endless and repetitive Cumbia music I could stay here forever.

There is no official land border between Panama and Colombia and trekking through FARC territories is extremely unwise, so we flew from Panama City to Cartagena, terminating our bi-continental bus junket, which started in Nuevo Leon in Northern Mexico, at just short of 3000 miles.

A little Parisian heart

San Pedro Square. Image: Alan Chant

Cartagena should challenge Buenos Aires to a bloody fight for the title of the “Paris of South America”. I hereby dub thee the “Paris of the Caribbean”. It’s so much more than the setting of that shitty 80’s movie with Michael Douglas. Due to its walled defenses, built in the 16th century to keep out saucy pirates like Francis Drake (who sacked the city in 1586), it has managed to retain its original colonial beauty, while other Latin American cities rebuilt on top of ruins.

Cartagena’s attractions are its streets. We spent six blissful days just strolling the walkways and fortress walls, trying exotic new fruits like guayabana and caimito and sipping freshly crushed cane juice from the market stalls (amazingly refreshing with a squirt of lime). After dark, we sat amongst the costeños (Cartagenians) in the softly-lit plazas, with an arepa con queso and an ice-cold Club Colombia beer.

There are the tell-tale signs that Cartagena is a prominent stop on the cruise scene, but we found it easy enough to ignore. Each Bougainvillea-trailed street displays about five emerald shops and an abundance of boutique hotels and high-end restaurants. In narrow streets, imposing doors of thick mahogany, with heavy bronze knockers revealed grandiose, flowered courtyards. It will surely change very quickly as Colombia opens up to previously wary travellers, but tourism has yet to spoil Cartagena, unlike so many pretty colonial cities we visited in Central America.

Doing Cartagena cheap is still an option. We don’t have the Bens of your average Caribbean cruise passenger and we got by just fine without feeling like we missed out. Like the rest of Latin America, budget eating means dining with the locals. La Mulata was a favourite of ours; a smart little café with a choice of four set meals each day of Cartagena’s specialty; sea food. It was there that I discovered a dangerously addictive drink called Limonada de Coco, a Caribbean twist on classic Colombian limeade, native to the city. And when our budget ran tight, dinner was at an empanada stall in the Plaza San Diego, family-run for over 45 years and crowded with costeños.

Un corazón oscuro

Cartagena has a proudly mixed heritage. Its Caribbean spirit compliments its Latin in a rich and colourful marriage, from its dishes of coconut rice and fried fish, to the typical West Indian dress of the Afro-Caribbean woman fruit sellers.

But there is less to be proud of that the city can hide from most, but not from others. Just as Gabriel García Márquez envisioned love in a time of cholera, crimes of the body and soul are hidden by the modern passion of Cartagena. The scars of the colonies still ache in a city alive. Each day we would walk from our hostel in the ex-slave quarters of Getsemani, now a shabby but welcoming neighbourhood just outside the old city walls, through a shadowed and cool archway of El Plaza de la Paz, to Plaza de los Coches, a lively and brightly-coloured square where slaves were auctioned. A statue of Spanish Conqueror and Cartagena’s founder Pedro el Heredia stands there now, among the tables and chairs set out for travellers to spend a sticky evening drinking among the locals, deaf and blind to the sale of human bodies that once surrounded them.

Cartagena is beautiful. But it is a former slave port, shipping in West Africans to be traded all over the Americas, as part of the ‘golden triangle’ of European slave trade. This haunts me. Maybe it is because my study of the slave trade opened my eyes to the depths of barbarism in the individual acts of slavery, but I think it should haunt you too. As hard as it may be, if you visit, try to take a moment to acknowledge the fear and bewilderment of an African stepping off the boat in shackles, taking in the first sight of land on a continent that will sell her/his body.

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Images: Alan Chant // alanchant.com

Arts & Culture: Downtown LA’s emerging art scene

LA LA Land, Tinseltown, The City of Angels. Whatever you want to call it, LA seems to provoke a love or hate reaction from most people.

On the one hand it’s got great weather, awesome burgers and hyper-attentive service (sometimes maybe too attentive). On the other, it can be rife with loud-talking studio execs, unnecessarily massive cars and traffic to make you weep (then scream, then kill).

flagyl dose

Change has been afoot, though. A creative and artistic scene has been bubbling under for some time now, not in Hollywood, but in LA’s once faded jewel – Downtown.

Downtown’s moment has been brewing for a while. After some pretty dark times, the area has been making a slow and steady comeback over the past 10 years, with the real renaissance happening in the last two years.

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Skid Row to art shows

“Right now in Downtown LA, is a moment in time that LA will reflect back upon as a period in time held in the same regard as Westwood in the 80’s and Hollywood in the 90’s”, says Joe Moller, Executive Director of public art phenomenon Downtown Art Walk and long-time LA resident.

An explosion of commercial growth in the 1920’s saw Downtown sparkle as the financial and cultural heart of Los Angeles. The post-war years weren’t kind, though and Downtown’s star began to fade. Over time the most affluent residents sought seclusion in the suburbs and eventually Downtown LA earned itself a reputation as a pretty dodgy and dangerous place to be – home to ‘skid row’ with a huge homeless population and rife with crime and drugs. “10 years ago, the location where our gallery is now was not a place where I would feel safe after sunset”, says Virginia Acre, Coordinator at the DAC Gallery.

A turning point in the fate of Downtown LA came when developer Tom Gilmore’s vision to restore and redevelop many of Downtown’s historic buildings became a reality. In 1999, after new legislation enabled the conversation of commercial properties into lofts and luxury apartments, Downtown commuters began slowly to move into the city centre, allowing a new community to take shape. Since then, many former industrial buildings and warehouses have been renovated and repurposed as art galleries, restaurants and performance venues.

Take a walk Downtown

If any evidence is needed of the burgeoning creative scene, Downtown Art Walk is real live proof. On the second Thursday of every month, the atmosphere of Downtown LA comes alive with art, music, street-food and performances. “Art Walk is a carnival of visual and audio flavours”, says Nathan Cartwright, Curator of The Hive Gallery in the thick of it on Spring Street.

Having launched in 2004 with a handful of people and around 20 galleries, the monthly showcase now attracts over 30,000 people from all over the US and abroad, playing host to more than 50 galleries offering anything from street art to sculpture, photography, culinary arts and mixology.

Young and emerging artists are also finding their voice Downtown. “Young people and those who are new to the art scene can get to know local artists and galleries, allowing them begin to feel comfortable within a gallery space and become engaged with fine art”, says Virginia from the DAC Gallery, which supports ‘outsider’ artists along with international and local emerging artists. Artists like Ty Pownall who works with materials found in demolition sites to recreate the textures, patterns, and expanse of the L.A. freeway system.

So, what can we expect next as Downtown charges full-steam ahead with its dazzling comeback? “The more pleasant and inviting the Downtown scene is, the more patrons it will attract, which in turn will create demand for more artistic and cultural activities,” says Todd Hatakeyama, photographer and founder of the Hatakeyama Gallery on South Hill Street.

Likewise it shows no sign of slowing down according to Joe: “Downtown is in the most fertile of it’s renaissance years and with each new business comes online in the community, the overall landscape of one of the most culturally vibrant communities in LA will continue to develop.”

The next Downtown Art Walk is on Thursday 12th July. Details at downtownartwalk.org

Images: Courtesy of Downtown Art Walk


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