I have two days to tour around before I begin my duty as a volunteer basketball coach in a city at the center of vast greenery and far from the facilities we are accustomed to. I am curious about what I will encounter here.
Shortly after passing over the grand Andes Mountains on the continent of South America, the endless viridity appeared beneath the wings of the aircraft. The Amazon basin is certainly as huge as described in books! As for my journey, I am traveling to the heart of the Amazon, the city of Leticia on the borders of Columbia, Peru, and Brazil.
As the plane begins to descend towards the thick trees that resemble a massive field of broccoli from the air, Leticia gradually begins to appear. The city center comprises a port set on the main river, a few integrated streets beside it, and a Columbian town with a population of 42,000 formed by the villages within the surrounding foliage.
After disembarking, I set out to reach a village connected to Leticia in one of the rare tiny airport taxis. Volunteers that come from different parts of the world provide education support to the children who live in these forest villages and are unable to receive an adequate education. I am in Leticia as a volunteer basketball coach. Although the heavy rainfall before I arrived caused floods, the main road is open so we are able to reach the village easily where the volunteers stay.
This is a forest village on the most southern border of Columbia, connected to Leticia in the heart of the Amazon. Volunteer teachers live under one roof, sleeping in hammocks lined up under mosquito nets. Due to the continuing hot weather, there is no glass in the windows, and hammocks are used instead of beds in most of the houses. They solve problems here using practical methods; for example, a roof made for protection from the rain can be turned into a home. The market is always full and extremely generous. While fish from the river or fruits that grow on trees in the forest meet most of the needs in the kitchen, the water comes from an exhaustless source -the rain. As life in the Amazon is very simple, the people do not have great financial needs; nobody here has a passion for money or is in a hurry. The people are very friendly. When they offer to take me on a night walk, without hesitation I accept and we set out into the forest. The high-pitched sound of thousands of birds and animals, which we are unable to see, is proof that there is a lively nightlife.
When Adriana, who is assisting me during my stay, had to go to the city the next morning, I decide to join her, and while she is sorting out her business I will wander around the city. After walking through a few streets in the center of Leticia, I find myself in the city bazaar, Plaza de Mercado. The fish displayed on the stands is quite different to the fish I am accustomed to. Fishmongers that caught a pirarucu, the largest freshwater fish at almost 2 meters long, cut the huge fish into pieces like butchers with large knives, preparing it to be sold. In another part of the bazaar, stands are lined up with tropical fruits, including papayas, passion fruit, and mangos. The green-skinned, considerably large type of banana called platano hangs in huge bunches and is a main food source here. This variety of banana is not sweet like the ones we are used to and is grilled like bread and consumed alongside meals. The cheerful Amazonian locals on the stands compete with one another for me to taste their fruits. Their hospitality and friendliness makes me conclude my Sunday trip even happier.
In Leticia’s small port, or the small inlet on the main branch of the river, various sized boats fitted with motors are rocking gently. The fishermen’s long wooden kayaks and passenger boats capable of carrying 15-20 people are out on the river. Venturous tourists are setting out into the Amazon on boats looking forward to seeing the pink dolphins and anacondas on the edge of the water. As I stand watching the port, the huts on the opposite side of the inlet catch my eye. Although these are on a 10-meter-high hillside, they are built on stilts for protection against the Amazon River that rises significantly during heavy rainfall. The Peruvian flag is flying on the island on the other side of the main river. Leticia, situated in a region called “Tres Fronteras,” or Three Frontiers, is located exactly where the Columbian, Peruvian, and Brazilian borders meet, and visitors can reach the island in a kayak in 10 minutes. Brazil is even closer -all you have to do is travel a few streets. Because Leticia is immediately beside the Brazilian border town Tabatinga, by simply walking through a few streets the country, language, and even the time zone changes.
As Adriana has finished her business here, we head back to the village. I fall asleep in my mosquito net hammock accompanied by the sounds of insects, and wake up to the sound of singing birds. The other teachers from the foundation have also arrived. During breakfast consisting mainly of fruit, we decide to tour the area. Touring to explore the area for two days before lessons start sounds like a good idea.
We spend the first day fishing. We are traveling to the town center to catch piranha accompanied by a local fisherman. After sailing out into the lake in a traditional, single-paddle, wooden kayak we reach the fisherman’s floating house. As the water rises significantly here, rather than building stationary houses, the people in the region build their homes on huge stilts. They live in floating homes, change their location according to the level of the water, and are not affected by floods. When we reach the fisherman’s home, he hands us our fishing rods made of branches with one end of the two-meter-long fishing line tied to the branch and fishing hooks tied on the other end. The technique is simple. As soon as we sense movement on the end of the line we have to pull the rod! Although we feel the rod moving immediately after casting the line into the river from the side of the floating home, our first attempts are unsuccessful -the fish managed to catch the bait but the fishing line was empty. Eventually, with a little experience and help from the fisherman, the Amazon’s famous piranha fish catch on to the fishing hook. However, as the teeth of these fish are as sharp as a saw, the fisherman takes on the duty of removing them from the hook. When we catch enough fish for dinner, we return, and the fire is ready, waiting to cook the fish. Our feast continues to midnight.
On the second day, we go for a walk in the forest and after meeting the monkeys, the colorful parrots, and other creatures we had never seen before, we visit several tribes and Diablo, one of the region’s most important shamans.
As he entertains us in his huge hut in the heart of the forest called Maloka, he explains the influence the shamans have on the local communities. Shamans are respected as a part of the ancient traditions in the Amazon and play a role in solving minor disputes among the community and families, providing spiritual support to members of the community, and treating minor illnesses using herbal remedies. While he is speaking to us, Diablo does not neglect to give advice to people that came to consult him from the Ticuna, his tribe. Diablo gives me his last piece of advice for the day: eat plenty of fruit from the forest -you will be able to jump higher when you’re playing basketball.