Dry Land is Not a Myth!
As the tiny canoe that carried me and my heavy backpack skimmed quietly across the flooded streets of the floating city of Belen, I kept expecting Kevin Costner to jump out and yell "Dry land is not a myth, I have seen it with my own eyes! " But far from being a fictional place in the movie Waterworld, Belen is a real town of nearly 10,000 people that live and work so close to the Amazon river that for three or four months of the year when the river floods its banks, they actually live on it.
It was approaching midday as my guide, Fernando, paddled us back and forth through the winding canals of this very unusual town. As you would expect of any town this size, the "streets" were bustling with people going about their business, but instead of walking or driving from place to place, people here get around by paddling.
Belen is not anything like the glamorous Italian city of Venice, where people live in stone buildings far above the canals. Life here is like most villages along the Amazon. People live in thatch-roofed huts and cook over fires. For two-thirds of the year they can step out of their homes and walk across the street just like everyone else. However, in late January, as the snow begins to melt in the distant mountains to the southwest, the mighty Amazon swells to almost twice its normal volume, and Belen becomes a lake.
Except for large public buildings like churches and the high school which are made of concrete and permanently elevated above water level, buildings here are either built on wooden stilts or on top of rafts called "balsas" which float when the water comes in, and settle back into the earth when the river finally recedes in May or June.
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Although life does not seem to be easy for anyone in this part of the world, Belen is a unique place with a unique set of problems. The biggest problem people here face is the lack of any sort of plumbing or water purification. There is, of course, an abundant supply of water, but the since the people live right on top of it, the same water is used for drinking and sewage, hence deadly viruses and bacteria are rampant. Furthermore, this stagnant, polluted water is nearly devoid of fish, and since it is submerged so often there are no fruit trees, and agriculture is impossible. So those who live here do not have easy access to free, nutrient-rich food like everyone else who lives on the river.
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One might ask, if conditions are so bad, why does anyone live here? The answer is poverty. People come to the city of Iquitos from outside villages seeking a piece of the wealth brought in from the annual invasion of tourists, but living in Iquitos is expensive, whereas anyone who can afford a few pieces of wood can come to Belen and build themselves a raft. This desperate poverty can make Belen a very dangerous place, and I was warned on several occasions not to venture into its murky depths, but what can I do, I'm a curious guy?
When YOU Visit Belen
Someday hopefully you will get to visit this place. To help you plan ahead, here is what The Lonely Planet has to say about it:
"If you speak a few words of Spanish, you can find someone to paddle you around for a fee. The city market, within the city blocks in front of Belen, is the usual raucous, crowded affair to most Peruvian towns. All kinds of strange and exotic products are sold here...Look for the bark of the Chuchuhuasi tree that is soaked in rum for weeks and used as a tonic drink..., piles of dried frogs and fish, armadillo shells, piranha teeth and a great variety of tropical fruits... It makes for exciting shopping, but remember to watch your wallet."
- Peru: A Lonely Planet travel survival kit, Rob Rachowski, 1996, p.462.
My curiosity was well rewarded this time and I managed to make it through without being robbed or bothered at all. In fact, I found the people of Belen, like most of the people I have encountered in Peru, to be very friendly and warm. They seemed as curious as me, and I got the feeling that not many Gringos (people from the US) make into this part of town, because almost everyone that we passed simply stopped what they were doing to say "hola" or just unabashedly stare until we turned a corner out of site.
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