Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Amazon slow boat

Fish for piranha, swim with dolphins and discover rainforest cuisine on a riverboat cruise

I am 3800 kilometres up the Amazon and still 2900 kilometres from its source, a glacier in southern Peru. I am nowhere, in the middle of emerald nowhere. This is what it takes to find a place that’s untrammeled, unplundered, unpolluted and unsullied by the wretched hand of humankind.

There are, in fact, six of us from Quebec and British Columbia and our crew of 15 Peruvians aboard the remarkable little riverboat Delfin. From certain angles, the three-storey-high, 32-metre-long craft resembles a top hat. It plies a 480-kilometre stretch of the Amazon in remote northeastern Peru — and sublimely.

This is the Amazon of explorers’ tales and Hollywood fantasia, not gritty documentaries chronicling the rape of the Amazon Basin. Alternately alien and enthralling, this Amazon weaves through the state of Loreto, 80 percent of which — a territory the size of California — is under water half the year. Rainforest, no. Welcome to the flood forest.

It seems an unlikely home for fair-haired, green-eyed Lissy Macchiavello, the Delfin owner who accompanies most voyages and treats guests as personal friends. She and her husband Aldo abandoned the high life in Lima’s upper-crust banking community for a future as alien to them as a flight around Jupiter.

The Macchiavellos invested everything in the Delfin, in the dream of creating a perfect adventure on the Peruvian Amazon. They sold off their Lima home, their beach house, two of their four cars and Lissy’s jewellery. They pulled their two daughters from expensive schools in London. It was all or nothing. They chose the wilderness.

Here on the headwaters of the Amazon, we’ll cruise the tributary Maranon, Ucayali and Yarapa Rivers in the leisurely, intimate style only a riverboat can. We’ll explore the Pacaya-Samirira National Reserve, two million hectares of rainforest and the largest protected flood forest on the planet. We’ll set foot in Eden.

We see so much that when our time on the Delfin ended, my wife quipped, “they should call this Eight Days, Four Nights on the Amazon.”


Monkeys, macaws and machetes

Our guide and mentor was Usiel Vasquez, maybe the only “cruise director” in the world who wears a machete. Guiding two expeditions a day — the Amazon safari — by skiff, he needs the blade to hack our way through tangled jungle channels.

Usiel is one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met. A descendent of Amazon tribesmen, he educated himself. He can identify every plant, fish and animal on the river. He kickstarted our sense of wonder every five minutes.

From the skiff, we learned to spot iridescent macaws, white-necked herons, green kingfishers, short-tailed parrots, black-collared hawks and a hundred other rainforest birds. Wood storks festooned a patch of greenery until it resembled a surrealistic Christmas tree. Jabirus fluttered over a jungle river like a snowstorm.

With Usiel’s unerring eye, we were able to detect squirrel monkeys travelling in clans 100 strong, saddle-backed tamarind monkeys, saki monkeys with bear faces and capuchin monkeys, the smartest of the lot.

Morpho butterflies flickered through the air like brilliant blue strobes for a lifetime of four weeks. A fallen branch revealed the eggs of a giant Amazon escargot.

“See there, a three-toed sloth,” said Usiel, pointing into the treetops. “In three or four days, he’ll come down for the weekly defecation.”

The wonky-faced sloth recalls a definition usually reserved for the gnu: “made up of spare parts and designed by committee.” It moves at a speedy 0.024 kilometres per hour, giving the escargot a run for its money. It walks, eats, gives birth and sleeps upside-down and rarely ventures further than the tree on which it was born.

One night, when a warm tropical rain was pelting down in gobs, we were out in the skiff, huddled in ponchos and hoods. We glided towards the shoreline. Usiel sprawled, belly-flat at the nose of the skiff. He reached into the blackness with both hands and came up with a baby caiman, an Amazon alligator about 60 centimetres long. We asked questions and took pictures. Then he released the reptile to join its relatives, who were no doubt coveting our flesh and glowering like Burt Lancaster among the reeds.

“How did you know it was there?” we asked.

“The eyes,” answered Usiel. “They glow in the dark.”


A Slow Boat to Eden

One dusk, we were playing Huck Finn, moored in a lagoon to fish for piranhas. We had fishing poles. The bait was beef tenderloin. My wife pulled in half a dozen, the rest of us, one apiece. We saved them for the crew, who knew their way around the minefields of nasty little bones. Returning to the Delfin, we watched a crimson sunset fill an IMAX sky, reflections seeping across the mirrored water like arms of blood.

Another sunset faded into darkness as we navigated a maze of sacritas, narrow jungle channels that provide short cuts. Southern stars were beaming overhead, but, more magically, glowworms, like millions of tiny torchbearers, were lighting our path in the water.

At Yana Yacu, or Black Water Lake, we were invited to swim with pink and gray river dolphins — they decided how close to come to us. Smartly, they chose to keep their distance but water-danced as if they were in showbiz.

These dolphins entered the Amazon from the ocean as early as five million years ago. With brains 40 percent larger than our own, they’re the most intelligent of five species of freshwater dolphins. Amazon peoples have both revered and feared them as supernatural beings.

Yet in recent years, the spoiling of the Amazon Basin and mindless destruction of the rainforest habitat has landed them on the endangered list. Blessedly, the unexploited upper Amazon offers a measure of protection. In the Yarapa River alone, reports say dolphin numbers have increased five-fold from eight to about 40.

There is rot in Eden to be sure — poachers have murdered rangers for fish and turtle eggs in the past — but the region has so far avoided pollution. This comes up at lunch one day as we tuck into doncella, tiger shovelnose, a succulent Amazon catfish. “You can’t eat it downriver in Brazil,” we were told, “because of the gold mining — the mercury poisoning.”

The juicy catfish fillets come grilled just-so and sauced in black beans, crisp ham, rosemary and fresh, wild, rainforest coriander. Its flesh was as sweet as salmon or tuna. As if environmental enthrallment weren’t enough, this riverboat wants to be known for its jungle cuisine.


Rainforest Gourmet

Peru has never been a slouch in the global kitchen. Historically, this fabulous terrain of ocean, Amazon and Andes has given us those titans of world cuisine: the tomato, potato and chili pepper. Not to mention popcorn, which has been found in Inca tombs.

The pocket-sized kitchen under chef Isaac Saavedra (who happens to be Usiel’s cousin) rocks and roars at a time when New Peruvian cuisine is sweeping the country. It’s new but not nouvelle — this is cuisine à la full plate — modern, light, fetchingly plated and loaded with explosive flavours.

“We want you to taste things you’ve never tasted before,” said Lissy. Step right up and meet camu-camu, an Amazon fruit that’s watermelon-pink, more tart than sweet and contains 40 times the vitamin C of a kiwi. Araca is creamy little yellow fruit with huge citrus notes. Another Amazon fruit, cocana, lowers cholesterol. Chonta, a palm whose heart shows the consistency of spun silk, comes raw as a salad.

“I’m from the big city,” said Lissy, “And I’m allergic to mosquitoes. But now I eat aguaje, a palm fruit that keeps mosquitoes away.”

And on we go: locro is a little tower of potato drizzled with a herbed squash purée, garnished with wild coriander, corn, peas and ham. My favourite, batarashca, sees the juicy catfish wrapped in a leaf with onions, tomatoes and the seething little Amazon chili called charapilla. The fish is enough to make the eyes water with joy. The jaded palate, like the jaded soul, finds renewal on the river.

Lissy supports a different kind of renewal here. “We receive so much from the jungle. We should also give,” she explained. “We try to help communities along the river. We bring passengers to the villages and encourage the sale of handicrafts. We also try to help villagers choose crafts that sell well and to develop a pride in whatever they do.

“In two communities, we bring medicines needed for children, pregnant adolescents — girls normally give birth at 14 or 15 — mothers and adults, especially vitamins and calcium for women and children. I work with a doctor in Lima on applications and doses. I can’t do as much as I’d like.

“My friends in Lima still don’t understand why we came here. When I invite them, they won’t come even to see. But my life is here now. I can’t go back.”

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