Amazon River Blues: Love-Drunk Despair in the Mosquitos of Iquitos

Karma Café

IQUITOS, Peru 3° S, 73° W

Welcome to oblivion. At our toes is Río Amazonas, the largest flush of water in the world. At our backs is the jungle. The city of Iquitos, even in this latter century, is a frontier town of deregulated capitalism. Look no further than the floating markets of Belén where the variety of monkey flesh for sale would put the game-meat delicatessens of Wuhan to shame. Iquitos is a city of easy business, negocios fácil, as the pimps echo in the back alleys. If you are tired of walking, 24 soles ($6.64) will hire you a rickshaw-driver for the day. If you are tired of life, 40 soles ($11) will get you a gram of cocaine. If you are tired of your wife, hustlers prowling the riverfront for foreigners will offer everything from strong-tobacco mapacho cigarettes to a night of fornication with whatever the fuck your diseased-heart desires.

Karma Cafe

If you’ve journeyed to the far edges of the world before, you’re familiar with the four types of fellow traveler: sportsmen (big game hunter/fishermen), hippies (narco-tourists), perverts (sex-tourists) and/or professionals (journalists, scientists, photographers, oilmen, mercenaries, etc.). And they all congregate in the same bars, often owned by ex-pats who arrived as any of the above, married a few local girls and wound-up staying long past their visa expiration. One side-alley bar mostly relegated to narco-tourists is Karma Café; it is off the waterfront, but not far. Karma Café is a Euro-trash hippie joint with hypnotic cocktails, framed portraits of large-breasted mermaids with anaconda tails, a television airing delayed soccer matches, ceiling fans circulating the sweet scent of sweat-opium-patchouli and a food menu catering to those on the Ayahuasca diet (no fat, no salt, no sugar, no sex, etc.). Of their cocktails (far-removed from the Ayahuasca diet page), I recommend Peru’s national drink, the Pisco Sour.

The waterfront in Iquitos

“Love, mein freund, is chemical imbalance.” So says Doctor Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen. He’s the world’s pre-eminent “Scat Man”, who with a blindfolded sniff at a whiff of shit can accurately determine a species of feline. Doctor Wolf von-Ho is at the moment drunk, having followed me along my bar-hopping adventure with Doctor Theodore Bette. Dr. Bette is the fellow with the Middle-Earth eyebrows snoring on a beanbag chair in a corner of the café. “There is a difference, ja? Between lust and attraction. Lust being caused by testosterone secreted from your testes, okay?”

“In America, we say ‘balls’.” I tell the German, Doc Wolf von Ho. Mind: I’m a bit drunk too.  

Ja, testosterone secreted by…” pause as Doc Wolf von Ho gets his mouth around the word. “…balls. Attraction, inzwischen, being when the brain is releasing dopamine und there is increasing of the serotonin levels. Lust und attraction are not always simultaneous, ja? You lust for persons you are not attracted to, example: dancing ladies. You are attracted to persons you do not lust, example: a wife. Maybe sometimes there is lusting und attraction occurring gleichzeitig, ja? Maybe sometimes no. Then there is third something, okay? Attachment. Oxytocin, when created, it is bonding hormone you might have for ein Bruder oder eine Schwester, but most times not romantic.”

Most times?

“It is the mixing of this chemical cocktail you are finding many recipes of love: lust, attraction, attachment resulting from testosterone, serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin. Love is irrational, ja, but chemistry, the chemistry is quantifiable.”

Wolfgang and Victor

Irrational would define my present chemical cocktail, and not just for the amount of aguardiente ingested over the last few hours. I’ve found myself uncharacteristically besotted. Now, I am no stranger to besottment, but this particular case of smittenness is for a woman who thinks me a cocksure geek. And when Bridgette d’Juneau calls someone a “geek”, she is not referring to them as a nerdy wonk; she is using the archaic root of the term to define a person so ill-fitted within society they can only find employment at the carnival biting heads off of cockroaches. This is what she thinks of me and I cannot get her off of my mind. And she’s not even my type. Growing-up in the ass-end of the Cold War, my father ingrained in me distrust for blonde women with fair complexions and blue-eyes, as if Soviet honey-traps were everywhere and lived up to some Ian Fleming code of beauty. Bridgette, a Peace Corps volunteer from Alaska, while snow-white and glacier-eyed with hair the color of Ukrainian wheat, is no communist. She wouldn’t necessarily fit-in at a Romanov Tupperware party, but she certainly is no Bolshevik. And to be honest, she is as seductive as a frigid iceberg lurking in the dark. Perhaps this is why I never saw her coming…

Don’t let me mislead you, dear reader. Bridgette d’Juneau is attractive! In a schoolmarm lost in the jungle sort of way. Considering Doc Wolf von Ho’s chemical assessment, I must have belched-up a little dopamine the first time I saw Bridgette sipping a bottle of cola from the other side of the hotel lounge at Casa Morey wearing a dull-windbreaker and utilitarian-khakis which fit her figure like a cardboard box. Dopamine, sure, but I would count out the oxytocin. There would be no attachment between us. During our first night on the river, I was recounting my experience with crocodiles in Cuba to a group of Arkansas teachers over a dinner of river fish when, halfway through my dissertation, I noticed Bridgette’s eyes roll her out of the galley and below decks. Fine, I had thought. I am not for everyone. The village women who launder my clothes find me charming.

At some point there was a flint spark of lust. I can’t recall when, but I do remember looking at the schedule of field surveys and signing-up for the pre-dawn shift simply because she was on the list. NOTE: I am not a morning person. I’d like to say our fling was a spontaneous combustion caused by pheromones and over-heated loins, but I believe it was more of a gradual desire evolved over days spinning so near the earth’s equator and blood-loss courtesy of Amazonian mosquitos and nights backlit with the heat lightning of the rainforest and, perhaps, the sleepy look over her shoulder as we trekked through the jungle with the threat of stalking jaguars spiking our adrenaline and testosterone levels.

Somewhere in the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, with Julio bushwhacking up-front with a machete he named after his mother and the rest of the Northern Hemispherians following close behind, Bridgette and I hung back to ourselves. To the roar of howler monkeys, I crashed into the damn iceberg.

the Ayapua, Vic’s quarters were in the hull

Sum it up and I suppose the math makes sense. Our time together, whether in my room in the hull of the steam-ship, or back on land at the hotel Casa Morey, was short. It was secretive, hidden away from our fellow wandering scientists, as if we wanted no news of this to reach the academic journals above the equator. The union of Bridgette and Neverman was also awkward. We were jigsaw pieces to different puzzles. We crammed together, but without great results.

A romantic dinner on the floating island Al Frío y al Fuego fizzled through her thousand-yard stares and my hurried-drunkenness as she angrily picked at salad and I furiously devoured some river-animal which tasted porcine, maybe manatee.

The math should make sense. Once she was gone, flown off to northern climes, my hormones would find balance. After a very random love affair, I would be made right again and could return to Florida and the exotic-car saleswoman I had been seeing before I ran off to South America. Out-of-sight, out-of-mind, is the theory.

Fuck.

Casa Morey

When Bridgette d’Juneau left yesterday, insisting I see her off at the hotel room and not accompany her to the airport, my center collapsed. I watched her go from the bed of our room as the door closed.

Five minutes later I rented a rickshaw to race after her. I chose the wrong tuk-tuk. Her flight was halfway to Lima before I would arrive at the airport. I was nauseous and used the airport lavatory to shit. How could I let this happen?

“The devil the local villagers call Yacuruna can shapeshift into a river dolphin and when sensing a menstruating woman the demon uses his charms to lure the unexpected damsel into the river.” Doctor Theodore Bette, “Teddy Betty”, told me when we first arrived at Karma Café. He is an anthropologist with incredible furry eyebrows who studies puberty rituals around the world. Yeah, Teddy Betty might seem a little creepy, but he is a stand-up guy who passes-out after two scotches, despite the stories of past glories. Teddy Betty mentioned earlier in the night, “The empirical evidence I have gathered suggests ecdysiasts (or ‘striptease-dancers’) who rely on gratuity paid by gentlemen callers receive a significant increase in revenue on nights they are menstruating as if the male patrons of these establishments of ill-repute are subconsciously alerted to the dual facts of import regarding menstruation: firstly, this woman is fertile and, secondly, she is not seeded by a rival. Did you, Vic, in your transgressions perchance notice in Miss Bridgette…?”

Doctor Bette with Vic Neverman, aboard the Ayapua

Dude, no.

Doctors Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen and Theodore Bette would have been less comfortable in the hippie confines of Karma Café had they not arrived already three sheets to the wind. Their preferred drinking holes are the ex-pat bars along the promenade full of civilized exiles: pedophiles, tax evaders, death fakers and sport fishermen. Karma Café is occupied by refugees of a more existential bend: narco-tourist philosophers soul-searching via the god-vine, Ayahuasca.

I am on my second Pisco Sour listening to Doc Wolf von Ho explain how to tell if scat belongs to puma or jaguar (puma do not eat river dolphin or caiman while a jaguar will pounce on any creature within striking distance, as can be divined through a thorough analysis of shit) when the ghost of Bridgette passes in the background. The translucent phantasm isn’t quite Bridgette, but perverted with piercings and clumped, unwashed hair and hollowed-eyes, mumbling to herself in a dialect out of the Rhine-Valley. Taken by this shimmering image, I am moved to speak. Fortunately, I am knowledgeable in the continental tongue. Guten tag freulein, I say to her. Unfortunately, she does not appear to register my words.

“Sloths live in trees”, Doc Wolf von Ho says, “but sloths must defecate on the ground and this is when they are most at risk for being eaten by the jaguar!” Am I a love-drunk sloth, slinking to the jungle floor, willing myself to be consumed by the next prowling predator? Was the best cure for the lovelorn to find another lover to trigger the dopamine dump of love? The Greek word, pharmakon, means both remedy and poison. Could the remedy to my love-sickness be another dose of poison? If I couldn’t be cured by the hair of the dog which bit me, could I find peace with the next dog to come along? It is an interesting hypothetical, but not to be tested with this Bridgette doppelgänger who dematerializes into the street, a vaporous thought unexpressed.

I contemplate another pisco sour, a frothy and tangy alternative to the jungle beers I spent the afternoon with. Years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the desert town of Pisco, Peru, where the grape brandy takes its name from. Pisco – the town – is a foul-scented hellscape thanks to the fertilizer industry mining guano and processing bird shit locally. Pisco – the brandy – has a bite, but unlike the town it shares a name with, it doesn’t burn off your nose hairs. I decide on another cocktail.

Uno mas, por favor!”

As the bartender toils with my drink, I seek bladder relief. I walk into the unisex bathroom to find it occupied; the door was left obliviously unlocked by its single inhabitant. I am surprised, I am abashed, I am apologetic, but the girl hovering over the hole of a third-world toilet displays nothing but Gallic indifference. I recognize her, not in her current genuflection, but I do remember her from customs in Lima inquiring if I had a match for her cigarette. She had a Canadian passport and a Canadien accent. Émilie stands, leaning her hand against the wall. I am strangely relieved when she pulls the drawstrings to tighten the loose pants around her waist. She may have arrived in Peru at the same time as me, but hers has been a different journey. Émilie appears to be fresh out of the jungle (was that a new mole on her neck or a leach?) with crusty signs of spiritual purging at the corners of her mouth. Her bare feet are dirtied with sores. There is a drip of snot looming in her western nostril. Yet, I find something stirring within me in the company of this Québécois. I am reminded of the words of Doctor Wolfgang von Hohenzollern-Hechingen, lust and attraction are two different things. Émilie smells of anise & wood rot & strangled skunk, but she is only a bath, a shampoo, a delousing, a few Listerine rinses and a week of hamburgers away from being attractive. In the meantime, her clogged nostrils are flaring with agitation and her dilated pupils are twin celestial bodies of intense density which catch my bell-rung testes as satellites in her orbit.

Bridgette is furthest from my mind as I extend a smile towards Émilie, this Ayahuasca acolyte. I speak the only relevant French I know, “Bonjour Mademoiselle!” For a moment, it appears Émilie is blowing me a kiss, but she is, in fact, only attempting to contain her stomach contents as they lurch from her pipes, spraying between her splayed fingers, splattering atop my flip-flops.

As I walk home along the promenade with my stumbling and esteemed colleague scientists there are fire-dancers, mimes, parkour tracers, pickpockets and shamans, all demonstrating along the midnight riverfront. And there is Doctor Wolf von Ho, saying, “Love…” as he shrugs his giant shoulders. “Love is not just chemical reaction. Chemical reactions can be simplified in two-dimensional cause & effect, but there is another dimension which is very much important: time. Time is very much an important dimension, ja? You may have the correct cause happening for desired effect, but the timing ist kaputt… love is subject to time, ja?”

Subject to time, yes. Love is also like time in there never seems enough to go around. And sometimes it just runs out.

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